Newton, You're a Genius . . . and Collectible

Last night got kind of special as I was enjoying some Lowenbrau in the alley.  What made the humid night cool was a brief conversation I had with James Musser.  I had just purchased some mimeo ephemera related to the alternative New York theater scene, which got on to a conversation about if the electronic literature discussed in Mechanisms so going to be collectible, who would be the type of book dealer to handle such material, will a book dealer get into the market of selling born digital material to library archives, etc?

Like mimeo ephemera, early electronic literature and technology could become highly collectible to various geeks with the fetish for dead or dying computer tech, just as I get all weak in the knees for inefficient and cumbersome printing technology.  In addition such literature and technology would fit into the collectible science market, like Newton's Principia or the books of early astronomers chronicled in Adrian Johns' The Nature of the Book:  Print and Knowledge in the Making.  In fact, such technology already is highly collectible.  An Enigma machine ($107,209) and an APPLE-1 computer ($212,267) sold at a Christie's auction of rare books and manuscripts alongside Ptolemy's Cosmographia from 1482 ($346,079).

But does this really hold true for the literature?  What about the paper dealing with the electronic and digital age?  Alan Turning's papers famously did not sell at auction and created a firestorm of controversy.  Is anybody going to collect all the different versions of Michael Joyce's Afternoon listed in Mechanisms?  Possibly somebody is but I do not think a robust market has developed.  One reason why that struck me was the vast gulf between Joyce's Afternoon and Newton's Principia as objects.  Joyce's Afternoon must be looked at nowadays as a primitive technology like the products of the mimeograph.  It would appeal as a fetish for a dead or fledgling technology.  This is not true of the Principia, which as Johns' book makes clear, was, like much early scientific publishing, a state of the art use of print technology that remains one of the finest examples of the art of printing in existence.  Many early scientific publications, such as in astronomy and, especially the biological sciences, like botany, are important not only in the history of science and the history of printing, but also in the history of art.  Audubon's Book of Birds is surely a book of science but what makes it collectible is that it is now looked upon as an artists' book.  The same holds true for the mimeo publications that have become collecible. They are art.  Fuck You a magazine of the arts is a case in point.

Even in the sciences, art and design drive the collectible market.  So the question becomes will Joyce's Afternoon or Mystery House ever be seen as artists' books?  Is electronic literature pleasing on a visual level, on the level of visual design?  As an object?  William Gibson's Agrippa fits the bill in these areas and in terms of scarcity, thus becoming highly collectible.



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