If the appetite to read comes with reading, then open text archive Aaaaarg.org
is a great place to stimulate and sate your hunger. Here, Matthew Fuller talks
to long-term observer Sean Dockray about the behaviour of text and
bibliophiles in a text-circulation network
Sean Dockray is an artist and a member of the organising group for the LA
branch of The Public School, a geographically distributed and online platform
for the self-organisation of learning.1 Since its initiation by Telic Arts, an
organisation which Sean directs, The Public School has also been taken up as a
model in a number of cities in the USA and Europe.2
We met to discuss the growing phenomenon of text-sharing. Aaaaarg.org has
developed over the last few years as a crucial site for the sharing and
discussion of texts drawn from cultural theory, politics, philosophy, art and
related areas. Part of this discussion is about the circulation of texts,
scanned and uploaded to other sites that it provides links to. Since
participants in The Public School often draw from the uploads to form readers
or anthologies for specific classes or events series, this project provides a
useful perspective from which to talk about the nature of text in the present
**Sean Dockray** **:** People usually talk about three key actors in
discussions about publishing, which all play fairly understandable roles:
readers; publishers; and authors.
**Matthew Fuller:** Perhaps it could be said that Aaaaarg.org suggests some
other actors that are necessary for a real culture of text; firstly that books
also have some specific kind of activity to themselves, even if in many cases
it is only a latent quality, of storage, of lying in wait and, secondly, that
within the site, there is also this other kind of work done, that of the
public reception and digestion, the response to the texts, their milieu, which
involves other texts, but also systems and organisations, and platforms, such
Image: A young Roland Barthes, with space on his bookshelf
**SD:** Where even the three actors aren't stable! The people that are using
the site are fulfilling some role that usually the publisher has been doing or
ought to be doing, like marketing or circulation.
**MF:** Well it needn't be seen as promotion necessarily. There's also this
kind of secondary work with critics, reviewers and so on - which we can say is
also taken on by universities, for instance, and reading groups, magazines,
reviews - that gives an additional life to the text or brings it particular
kinds of attention, certain kind of readerliness.
**SD:** Situates it within certain discourses, makes it intelligible in a way,
in a different way.
**MF:** Yes, exactly, there's this other category of life to the book, which
is that of the kind of milieu or the organisational structure in which it
circulates and the different kind of networks of reference that it implies and
generates. Then there's also the book itself, which has some kind of agency,
or at least resilience and salience, when you think about how certain books
have different life cycles of appearance and disappearance.
**SD:** Well, in a contemporary sense, you have something like _Nights of
Labour_ , by Ranci _è_ re - which is probably going to be republished or
reprinted imminently - but has been sort of invisible, out of print, until, by
surprise, it becomes much more visible within the art world or something.
**MF:** And it's also been interesting to see how the art world plays a role
in the reverberations of text which isn't the same as that in cultural theory
or philosophy. Certainly _Nights of Labour_ , something that is very close to
the role that cultural studies plays in the UK, but which (cultural studies)
has no real equivalent in France, so then, geographically and linguistically,
and therefore also in a certain sense conceptually, the life of a book
exhibits these weird delays and lags and accelerations, so that's a good
example. I'm interested in what role Aaaaarg plays in that kind of
proliferation, the kind of things that books do, where they go and how they
become manifest. So I think one of the things Aaaaarg does is to make books
active in different ways, to bring out a different kind of potential in
**SD:** Yes, the debate has tended so far to get stuck in those three actors
because people tend to end up picking a pair and placing them in opposition to
one another, especially around intellectual property. The discussion is very
simplistic and ends up in that way, where it's the authors against readers, or
authors against their publishers, with the publishers often introducing
scarcity, where the authors don't want it to be - that's a common argument.
There's this situation where the record industry is suing its own audience.
That's typically the field now.
**MF:** So within that kind of discourse of these three figures, have there
been cases where you think it's valid that there needs to be some form of
scarcity in order for a publishing project to exist?
**SD:** It's obviously not for me to say that there does or doesn't need to be
scarcity but the scarcity that I think we're talking about functions in a
really specific way: it's usually within academic publishing, the book or
journal is being distributed to a few libraries and maybe 500 copies of it are
being printed, and then the price is something anywhere from $60 to $500, and
there's just sort of an assumption that the audience is very well defined and
stable and able to cope with that.
**MF:** Yeah, which recognises that the audiences may be stable as an
institutional form, but not that over time the individual parts of say that
library user population change in their relationship to the institution. If
you're a student for a few years and then you no longer have access, you lose
contact with that intellectual community...
**SD:** Then people just kind of have to cling to that intellectual community.
So when scarcity functions like that, I can't think of any reason why that
_needs_ to happen. Obviously it needs to happen in the sense that there's a
relatively stable balance that wants to perpetuate itself, but what you're
asking is something else.
**MF:** Well there are contexts where the publisher isn't within that academic
system of very high costs, sustained by volunteer labour by academics, the
classic peer review system, but if you think of more of a trade publisher like
a left or a movement or underground publisher, whose books are being
circulated on Aaaaarg...
**SD:** They're in a much more precarious position obviously than a university
press whose economics are quite different, and with the volunteer labour or
the authors are being subsidised by salary - you have to look at the entire
system rather than just the publication. But in a situation where the
publisher is much more precarious and relying on sales and a swing in one
direction or another makes them unable to pay the rent on a storage facility,
one can definitely see why some sort of predictability is helpful and
**MF:** So that leads me to wonder whether there are models of publishing that
are emerging that work with online distribution, or with the kind of thing
that Aaaaarg does specifically. Are there particular kinds of publishing
initiatives that really work well in this kind of context where free digital
circulation is understood as an a priori, or is it always in this kind of
parasitic or cyclical relationship?
**SD:** I have no idea how well they work actually; I don't know how well,
say, Australian publisher re.press, works for example. 3 I like a lot of what
they publish, it's given visibility when re.press distributes it and that's a
lot of what a publisher's role seems to be (and what Aaaaarg does as well).
But are you asking how well it works in terms of economics?
**MF:** Well, just whether there's new forms of publishing emerging that work
well in this context that cut out some of the problems ?
**SD:** Well, there's also the blog. Certain academic discourses, philosophy
being one, that are carried out on blogs really work to a certain extent, in
that there is an immediacy to ideas, their reception and response. But there's
other problems, such as the way in which, over time, the posts quickly get
forgotten. In this sense, a publication, a book, is kind of nice. It
crystallises and stays around.
**MF:** That's what I'm thinking, that the book is a particular kind of thing
which has it's own quality as a form of media. I also wonder whether there
might be intermediate texts, unfinished texts, draft texts that might
circulate via Aaaaarg for instance or other systems. That, at least to me,
would be kind of unsatisfactory but might have some other kind of life and
readership to it. You know, as you say, the blog is a collection of relatively
occasional texts, or texts that are a work in progress, but something like
Aaaaarg perhaps depends upon texts that are finished, that are absolutely the
crystallisation of a particular thought.
Image: The Tree of Knowledge as imagined by Hans Sebald Beham in his 1543
engraving _Adam and Eve_
**SD:** Aaaaarg is definitely not a futuristic model. I mean, it occurs at a
specific time, which is while we're living in a situation where books exist
effectively as a limited edition. They can travel the world and reach certain
places, and yet the readership is greatly outpacing the spread and
availability of the books themselves. So there's a disjunction there, and
that's obviously why Aaaaarg is so popular. Because often there are maybe no
copies of a certain book within 400 miles of a person that's looking for it,
but then they can find it on that website, so while we're in that situation it
**MF:** So it's partly based on a kind of asymmetry, that's spatial, that's
about the territories of publishers and distributors, and also a kind of
asymmetry of economics?
**SD:** Yeah, yeah. But others too. I remember when I was affiliated with a
university and I had JSTOR access and all these things and then I left my job
and then at some point not too long after that my proxy access expired and I
no longer had access to those articles which now would cost $30 a pop just to
even preview. That's obviously another asymmetry, even though, geographically
speaking, I'm in an identical position, just that my subject position has
shifted from affiliated to unaffiliated.
**MF:** There's also this interesting way in which Aaaaarg has gained
different constituencies globally, you can see the kind of shift in the texts
being put up. It seems to me anyway there are more texts coming from non-
western authors. This kind of asymmetry generates a flux. We're getting new
alliances between texts and you can see new bibliographies emerge.
**SD:** Yeah, the original community was very American and European and
gradually people were signing up at other places in order to have access to a
lot of these texts that didn't reach their libraries or their book stores or
whatever. But then there is a danger of US and European thought becoming
central. A globalisation where a certain mode of thought ends up just erasing
what's going on already in the cities where people are signing up, that's a
horrible possible future.
**MF:** But that's already something that's _not_ happening in some ways?
**SD:** Exactly, that's what seems to be happening now. It goes on to
translations that are being put up and then texts that are coming from outside
of the set of US and western authors and so, in a way, it flows back in the
other direction. This hasn't always been so visible, maybe it will begin to
happen some more. But think of the way people can list different texts
together as ‘issues' - a way that you can make arbitrary groupings - and
they're very subjective, you can make an issue named anything and just lump a
bunch of texts in there. But because, with each text, you can see what other
issues people have also put it in, it creates a trace of its use. You can see
that sometimes the issues are named after the reading groups, people are using
the issues format as a collecting tool, they might gather all Portuguese
translations, or The Public School uses them for classes. At other times it's
just one person organising their dissertation research but you see the wildly
different ways that one individual text can be used.
**MF:** So the issue creates a new form of paratext to the text, acting as a
kind of meta-index, they're a new form of publication themselves. To publish a
bibliography that actively links to the text itself is pretty cool. That also
makes me think within the structures of Aaaaarg it seems that certain parts of
the library are almost at breaking point - for instance the alphabetical
**SD:** Which is funny because it hasn't always been that alphabetical
structure either, it used to just be everything on one page, and then at some
point it was just taking too long for the page to load up A-Z. And today A is
as long as the entire index used to be, so yeah these questions of density and
scale are there but they've always been dealt with in a very ad hoc kind of
way, dealing with problems as they come. I'm sure that will happen. There
hasn't always been a search and, in a way, the issues, along with
alphabetising, became ways of creating more manageable lists, but even now the
list of issues is gigantic. These are problems of scale.
**MF:** So I guess there's also this kind of question that emerges in the
debate on reading habits and reading practices, this question of the breadth
of reading that people are engaging in. Do you see anything emerging in
Aaaaarg that suggests a new consistency of handling reading material? Is there
a specific quality, say, of the issues? For instance, some of them seem quite
focused, and others are very broad. They may provide insights into how new
forms of relationships to intellectual material may be emerging that we don't
quite yet know how to handle or recognise. This may be related to the lament
for the classic disciplinary road of deep reading of specific materials with a
relatively focused footprint whereas, it is argued, the net is encouraging a
much wider kind of sampling of materials with not necessarily so much depth.
**SD:** It's partially driven by people simply being in the system, in the
same way that the library structures our relationship to text, the net does it
in another way. One comment I've heard is that there's too much stuff on
Aaaaarg, which wasn't always the case. It used to be that I read every single
thing that was posted because it was slow enough and the things were short
enough that my response was, ‘Oh something new, great!' and I would read it.
But now, obviously that is totally impossible, there's too much; but in a way
that's just the state of things. It does seem like certain tactics of making
sense of things, of keeping things away and letting things in and queuing
things for reading later become just a necessary part of even navigating. It's
just the terrain at the moment, but this is only one instance. Even when I was
at the university and going to libraries, I ended up with huge stacks of books
and I'd just buy books that I was never going to read just to have them
available in my library, so I don't think feeling overwhelmed by books is
particularly new, just maybe the scale of it is. In terms of how people
actually conduct themselves and deal with that reality, it's difficult to say.
I think the issues are one of the few places where you would see any sort of
visible answers on Aaaaarg, otherwise it's totally anecdotal. At The Public
School we have organised classes in relationship to some of the issues, and
then we use the classes to also figure out what texts we are going to be
reading in the future, to make new issues and new classes. So it becomes an
organising group, reading and working its way through subject matter and
material, then revisiting that library and seeing what needs to be there.
**MF:** I want to follow that kind of strand of habits of accumulation,
sorting, deferring and so on. I wonder, what is a kind of characteristic or
unusual reading behavior? For instance are there people who download the
entire list? Or do you see people being relatively selective? How does the
mania of the net, with this constant churning of data, map over to forms of
**SD:** Well, in Aaaaarg it's again very specific. Anecdotally again, I have
heard from people how much they download and sometimes they're very selective,
they just see something that's interesting and download it, other times they
download everything and occasionally I hear about this mania of mirroring the
whole site. What I mean about being specific to Aaaaarg is that a lot of the
mania isn't driven by just the need to have everything; it's driven by the
acknowledgement that the source is going to disappear at some point. That
sense of impending disappearance is always there, so I think that drives a lot
of people to download everything because, you know, it's happened a couple
times where it's just gone down or moved or something like that.
**MF:** It's true, it feels like something that is there even for a few weeks
or a few months. By a sheer fluke it could last another year, who knows.
**SD:** It's a different kind of mania, and usually we get lost in this
thinking that people need to possess everything but there is this weird
preservation instinct that people have, which is slightly different. The
dominant sensibility of Aaaaarg at the beginning was the highly partial and
subjective nature to the contents and that is something I would want to
preserve, which is why I never thought it to be particularly exciting to have
lots of high quality metadata - it doesn't have the publication date, it
doesn't have all the great metadata that say Amazon might provide. The system
is pretty dismal in that way, but I don't mind that so much. I read something
on the Internet which said it was like being in the porn section of a video
store with all black text on white labels, it was an absolutely beautiful way
of describing it. Originally Aaaaarg was about trading just those particular
moments in a text that really struck you as important, that you wanted other
people to read so it would be very short, definitely partial, it wasn't a
completist project, although some people maybe treat it in that way now. They
treat it as a thing that wants to devour everything. That's definitely not the
way that I have seen it.
**MF:** And it's so idiosyncratic I mean, you know it's certainly possible
that it could be read in a canonical mode, you can see that there's that
tendency there, of the core of Adorno or Agamben, to take the a's for
instance. But of the more contemporary stuff it's very varied, that's what's
nice about it as well. Alongside all the stuff that has a very long-term
existence, like historical books that may be over a hundred years old, what
turns up there is often unexpected, but certainly not random or
Image: French art historian André Malraux lays out his _Musée Imaginaire_ ,
**SD:** It's interesting to think a little bit about what people choose to
upload, because it's not easy to upload something. It takes a good deal of
time to scan a book. I mean obviously some things are uploaded which are, have
always been, digital. (I wrote something about this recently about the scan
and the export - the scan being something that comes out of a labour in
relationship to an object, to the book, and the export is something where the
whole life of the text has sort of been digital from production to circulation
and reception). I happen to think of Aaaaarg in the realm of the scan and the
bootleg. When someone actually scans something they're potentially spending
hours because they're doing the work on the book they're doing something with
software, they're uploading.
**MF:** You could say with PDFs they have to be searchable texts?
**SD:** I'm sure a lot of people would prefer that. Even I would prefer it a
lot of the time. But again there is the idiosyncratic nature of what appears,
and there is also the idiosyncratic nature of the technical quality and
sometimes it's clear that the person that uploads something just has no real
experience of scanning anything. It's kind of an inevitable outcome. There are
movie sharing sites that are really good about quality control both in the
metadata and what gets up; but I think that if you follow that to the end,
then basically you arrive at the exported version being the Platonic text, the
impossible, perfect, clear, searchable, small - totally eliminating any trace
of what is interesting, the hand of reading and scanning, and this is what you
see with a lot of the texts on Aaaaarg. You see the hand of the person who's
read that book in the past, you see the hand of the person who scanned it.
Literally, their hand is in the scan. This attention to the labour of both
reading and redistributing, it's important to still have that.
**MF:** You could also find that in different ways for instance with a pdf, a
pdf that was bought directly as an ebook that's digitally watermarked will
have traces of the purchaser coded in there. So then there's also this work of
stripping out that data which will become a new kind of labour. So it doesn't
have this kind of humanistic refrain, the actual hand, the touch of the
labour. This is perhaps more interesting, the work of the code that strips it
out, so it's also kind of recognising that code as part of the milieu.
**SD:** Yeah, that is a good point, although I don't know that it's more
**MF:** On a related note, The Public School as a model is interesting in that
it's kind of a convention, it has a set of rules, an infrastructure, a
website, it has a very modular being. Participants operate with a simple
organisational grammar which allows them to say ‘I want to learn this' or ‘I
want to teach this' and to draw in others on that basis. There's lots of
proposals for classes, some of them don't get taken up, but it's a process and
a set of resources which allow this aggregation of interest to occur. I just
wonder how you saw that kind of ethos of modularity in a way, as a set of
minimum rules or set of minimum capacities that allow a particular set of
**SD:** This may not respond directly to what you were just talking about, but
there's various points of entry to the school and also having something that
people feel they can take on as their own and I think the minimal structure
invites quite a lot of projection as to what that means and what's possible
with it. If it's not doing what you want it to do or you think, ‘I'm not sure
what it is', there's the sense that you can somehow redirect it.
**MF:** It's also interesting that projection itself can become a technical
feature so in a way the work of the imagination is done also through this kind
of tuning of the software structure. The governance that was handled by the
technical infrastructure actually elicits this kind of projection, elicits the
imagination in an interesting way.
**SD:** Yeah, yeah, I totally agree and, not to put too much emphasis on the
software, although I think that there's good reason to look at both the
software and the conceptual diagram of the school itself, but really in a way
it would grind to a halt if it weren't for the very traditional labour of
people - like an organising committee. In LA there's usually around eight of
us (now Jordan Biren, Solomon Bothwell, Vladada Gallegos, Liz Glynn, Naoko
Miyano, Caleb Waldorf, and me) who are deeply involved in making that
translation of these wishes - thrown onto the website that somehow attract the
other people - into actual classes.
**MF:** What does the committee do?
**SD:** Even that's hard to describe and that's what makes it hard to set up.
It's always very particular to even a single idea, to a single class proposal.
In general it'd be things like scheduling, finding an instructor if an
instructor is what's required for that class. Sometimes it's more about
finding someone who will facilitate, other times it's rounding up materials.
But it could be helping an open proposal take some specific form. Sometimes
it's scanning things and putting them on Aaaaarg. Sometimes, there will be a
proposal - I proposed a class in the very, very beginning on messianic time, I
wanted to take a class on it - and it didn't happen until more than a year and
a half later.
**MF:** Well that's messianic time for you.
**SD:** That and the internet. But other times it will be only a week later.
You know we did one on the Egyptian revolution and its historical context,
something which demanded a very quick turnaround. Sometimes the committee is
going to classes and there will be a new conflict that arises within a class,
that they then redirect into the website for a future proposal, which becomes
another class: a point of friction where it's not just like next, and next,
and next, but rather it's a knot that people can't quite untie, something that
you want to spend more time with, but you may want to move on to other things
immediately, so instead you postpone that to the next class. A lot of The
Public School works like that: it's finding momentum then following it. A lot
of our classes are quite short, but we try and string them together. The
committee are the ones that orchestrate that. In terms of governance, it is
run collectively, although with the committee, every few months people drop
off and new people come on. There are some people who've been on for years.
Other people who stay on just for that point of time that feels right for
them. Usually, people come on to the committee because they come to a lot of
classes, they start to take an interest in the project and before they know it
they're administering it.
**Matthew Fuller's <[email@example.com](mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org)> most
recent book, _Elephant and Castle_ , is forthcoming from Autonomedia. **