Where did you get the idea?

From lots of different places, though it’s hard to distinguish between what’s inspiration and what’s retrospective justification. Once you start thinking and working in a certain way, you see examples of it everywhere. You’re always looking for some kind of affirmation of what you’re doing in what’s around you. So there’s this back and forth between what you’re doing and what other people are doing, or have done.

The frontiers of a book are never clear-cut; beyond the title, the first line and the last full-stop, beyond its internal configuration, its autonomous form, it is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences; it is a node within a network… its unity is variable and relative.

Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, 1969

I was a long way into it before I realised I was working not just with a conception of politics as human action, but also with the idea of the book. Once you start to problematise the book – not the thing itself, but the form or mode of it – whole new worlds open up and bring all sorts of other things into play: design, typography, photography, communications, architecture, engineering, and perhaps craft as the most important of all. If you think of what you’re doing as making something rather than writing something, what are you going to make, what’s it going to look like and how is it going to work?

It almost works for me as thirty-six open tabs on a browser. Those are the thirty-six chapters of the book.

Shira Backer, curator, The Arcades: contemporary art and Walter Benjamin, 2017

The key figure for me, as for so many others, is Benjamin, which is why he gets a place in the text, in his own right, like Arendt and Goffman. Anca Pusca describes him as ‘a scholar of ‘experience’ in its multitude of forms: material, architectural, emotional, visual, psychological, or aesthetical’, and I wanted to get some of that into thinking about politics. He was trying to find a way to capture a world (nineteenth-century Paris) in terms given by that world itself, though I think he knew he’d taken on something that could never be finished. His ideal was ‘a work consisting entirely of quotations, one that was mounted so masterfully that it could dispense with any accompanying text’.

For Angela McRobbie, he ‘ushers in a new way of writing and a new way of seeing writing’. For the Arcades Project to be of use, she says, it would be necessary ‘to remember the value of experimentation, the importance of interdisciplinarity, the breaking down of the distinctions not just between philosophy, history, literary criticism and cultural analysis, but also between art and criticism, not for the sake of the new, but of social change and transformation’. That seemed worth thinking about.

He wrote The Gutenberg Galaxy at the old library at St Michael’s College [at the University of Toronto]. He had the books of people he had read or heard about open at the appropriate pages and a couple of seminarians running from one book to another taking quotes down, and he would string them together with blurbs or commentaries of his own… He saw that by using these chunks – these gems, these fragments that you shore up against your ruins, as T S Eliot would say – in a new way, he would actually give them a different content and meaning.

Derrick de Kerckhove, in Paul Benedetti and Nancy DeHart, Forward Through the Rearview Mirror, 1997

I do not move along lines. I use points like dots in a wire photo.

Marshall McLuhan, letter to Robert Fulford, 1964

The other major figure is McLuhan, not just for his thought but for the way his work was put together and presented. His Gutenberg Galaxy is about the technology of writing and the changing dynamics of manuscript, print and electronic communication. It consists in almost 300 pages of (dis)continuous prose, without division into chapters, punctuated every few paragraphs by prominent, putatively seminal statements set in larger, bold typeface between similarly bold borders above and below. McLuhan describes it, as the book opens, as developing ‘a mosaic or field approach to its problems’.

I’ve always been interested in schools that set out to redefine what it is they’re to teach and how, as though teaching were a way of producing what is to be taught. The Bauhaus insisted that artists and designers should understand first the properties of materials, that form should follow function, that things – clothes, furniture and other domestic and industrial objects but also sophisticated human things like theatre and educational curricula might be built out of basic components, that you could paint and somehow remake the world in red, yellow and blue. What would all that mean for the study of politics?

At some point I discovered Maurice Stein and Larry Miller’s Blueprint for Counter Education, which they did for CalArts in 1970. As incoming Dean, the question Stein set for the School of Critical Studies was ‘What should an artist study other than the making of art?’. The answer was set out in a wall-chart, a triptych of modernist and postmodernist thought, each panel resting on the twin pillars of Marcuse – then an icon of critical-progressive discussion – and McLuhan. The wall-chart makes the course into an exhibition. The concept is mesmerising, and what makes it so distinctive is Marshall Henrichs’s typography.

You say they’re opinions, I say they’re the structure of the age we live in.

Marshall McLuhan, Whatcha Doin’, Marshall Mcluhan?’, 2017
Maurice Stein and Larry Miller: Blueprint for Counter Education, 1970

Stein and Miller were influenced by the Bauhaus, and by Black Mountain College, as well as by all the multimedia creativity going on around them, which Fred Turner has called ‘the democratic surround’.

I first learned about artists’ books of the 1960s and 1970s from Amaranth Borsuk’s The Book. Artists like photographer Ed Ruscha began to put out cheap, mass-produced versions of their work, in a form which came to be known as the ‘democratic multiple’. In this way, they took back control of the presentation, reproduction and distribution of their work from galleries and publishers, and sought new and broader public audiences. Doing Politics‘s subtitle ‘some human actions’ is homage to Ruscha and all these other things.

The book as a whole must not seem to be spoken, it must seem to be concretely there.

Alfred Döblin, Berliner Programm, 1913

‘The frontiers of a book…’ Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge and The Discourse on Language, trans A M Sheridan Smith, New York: Pantheon Books, 1972, p 23

‘It almost works for me as thirty-six open tabs…’: Shira Backer, curator, The Arcades: contemporary art and Walter Benjamin, 2017. In-text quotations are from Anca Pusca 2009) ‘Walter Benjamin, a methodological contribution’, International Political Sociology 3 238–254, p 238; Arendt, Men in Dark Times, op cit, p 202; Angela McRobbie, ‘The Passagenwerk and the place of Walter Benjamin in cultural studies’, in McRobbie, A Postmodernism and Popular Culture, London: Routledge, 1994, pp 106, 118

Cited material on McLuhan is from Benedetti, P and DeHart, N (eds) (1997) Forward through the Rearview Mirror. Reflections on and by Marshall McLuhan, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp 35 and 115; ‘Whatcha Doin’, Marshall Mcluhan?‘, BBCR3, 19 March 2017

Blueprint for Counter Education image used with permission from and grateful thanks to Inventory Press. See also Fred Turner, The Democratic Surround. Multimedia and American liberalism from World War II to the psychedelic Sixties, Chicago: Chicago UP, 2013

Amaranth Borsuk, The Book, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018

‘The book as a whole…’: ‘Das Ganze darf nicht erscheinen wie gesprochen sondern wie vorhanden’: Alfred Döblin, Schriften zu Ästhetik, Poetik und Literatur, Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag, 2013 pp 118-122 and here