Remediating the Book: Affordances, Symbolic Capital, and Co-mediation of Print and E-Books

Ryan Leach


Most scholarship tends to overemphasize the distinctions between e-readers and traditional print, presenting these digital technologies as a rupture from previous incarnations of the book. Although the computational substrate of e-readers creates new affordances, e-books still heavily rely on the past media conventions, genres, and affordances, as well as the institutionally constructed mediational position of the book-function, which pre-exists any particular instantiation of book-disseminating technology. Drawing on Foucault’s notion of the author-function, Debray’s concept of bi-directional mediation, Murray’s work on design affordances, Bourdieu’s theory of symbolic capital, Manovich’s take on remediation theory, and Hayles’ observations on the analog-digital continuum, this paper aims to show that (1) the book-function remains the same despite alternating substrates, (2) the computational substrate of the e-book allows for a new set of affordances, (3) some of print’s affordances and symbolic value resist remediation into digital interfaces, and (4) texts exist on an analog-digital continuum, continually switching from one state to the other. Such aims are substantiated through close analyses of the properties of electronic and print books, and the larger mediasphere in which they operate.

Main Text

In Inventing the Medium, Janet Murray draws attention to the problem of perceiving recent technologies as “new media,” as if the most observable quality of these forms of mediation were their novelty (8). And, indeed, the vast majority of research on computational technologies emphasizes their difference and distance from previous, usually analog, forms of mediation. However, much of the success of new technologies derives from the remediation of prior media conventions, genres, and affordances, and the socially and ideologically constructed positions always already in place before the introduction of newer media technologies. From this perspective, “new” media are in fact quite old and just as dependent upon specific social and institutional functions as all previous media. The “newness” of digital media derives from its existence on a computational substrate capable of simulating previous mediums (it’s a metamedium) through symbolic representation in binary code. This, in turn, enables a wide variety of Human-Computer Interactions (HCIs) through which previously fixed design features can be manipulated and individually curated. Through an analysis of the e-reader, this paper argues that digital remediations of the book rely on many of the same socio-cultural institutions as previous material incarnations of the author and book functions, and that these institutions continue to depend on the social and ideological functions of authorship and textuality, even and especially in the digital age. The introduction of e-books does not alter the bi-directional mediation between socio-cultural institutions and the book, but instead offers new means of interaction between reader and text. Nevertheless, in contrast to many speculations on the ability of the computer to faithfully simulate all mediums into a single metamedium, thus rendering analog media obsolete, print literature exists and will continue to exist alongside computational simulations in an analog-digital continuum due to the socially ascribed symbolic value to printed books and the unique affordances of the medium that resist digital remediation.

E-books did not erupt Athena-like from the head of Zeus (or Sin-like from Satan, as some critics would have it); they are socially developed technologies that fill a socio-ideologically predetermined position within our culture. There exists a book-function that operates similarly to Foucault’s author-function:

 …the “author-function” is tied to the legal and institutional systems that circumscribe, determine, and articulate the realm of discourses; it does not operate in a uniform manner in all discourses, at all times, and in any given culture; it is not defined by spontaneous attribution of a text to its creator, but through a series of precise and complex procedures; it does not refer, purely and simply, to an actual individual insofar as it simultaneously gives rise to a variety of egos and to a series of subjective positions that individuals of any class may come to occupy. (130-31)

Similarly, the book-function mediates, and is mediated by, legal and institutional systems, and it does not refer to any specific mediating technology, but gives rise to a series of mediational positions that any textual dissemination device can occupy. In discussing the impossibility of dissociating technology and culture, Debray relates how a system of practices, codes, rules, and expectations—in short, a culture—always precedes and creates the mediational position for the development and successful assimilation of any given technology (50). In addition, social changes typically viewed by technological determinists as caused by the sudden emergence of a particular technology are often already a part of the culture before said technology has been developed. For instance, Debray notes how changes in reading habits usually attributed to the invention of the printing press, such as reading the Bible individually, long predate Gutenberg’s invention. Furthermore, Debray describes the dynamic between media technologies and socio-cultural institutions as bi-directional:

The mediologists are interested in the effects of the cultural structuring of a technical innovation (writing, printing, digital technology, but also the telegraph, the bicycle, or photography), or, in the opposite direction, in the technical bases of a social or cultural development (science, religion, or movement of ideas). (“Qu’est-ce que la médiologie?”)

Therefore, one can say of the book-function that cultural structures provide a mediational space for book technologies and book technologies in turn reaffirm existing and emerging cultural structures. Or, in other words, institutions mediate books and books mediate institutions.

From this perspective, the introduction of e-books is hardly an abrupt caesura in the history of the book. Instead, e-books fill a mediational position already socially and ideologically circumscribed by various cultural institutions, and previously occupied by a number of other information dissemination technologies (codex, scrolls, etc.). In addition, they co-occupy this position alongside traditional printed books, relying on the same institutions (legal, educational, medical, cultural, etc.) to “circumscribe, determine and articulate” (Foucault’s phrasing) their position in the wider culture. Further, from the other direction, these institutions derive symbolic value (economic, cultural, and social) from the production, dissemination, and accumulation of books, in whatever form they may appear. Therefore, the introduction of e-books does not alter the author or book functions, which are thoroughly maintained by social and cultural institutions (i.e. not authors or books themselves); but, instead, merely presents a new substrate—for production, dissemination, and accumulation—that provides new means of interacting with texts.

Similarly, e-books remediate conventions, genres, and affordances of print publishing that have developed over hundreds of years, many of which arose before the invention of the printing press itself. As Debray notes, the process of developing these conventions can be traced back to at least the first century A.D., when the protobook, or codex, “precociously transferred graphic spaces from scrolled surface to portable volume, simultaneously enabling silent reading, marginal annotation, pagination, and new classifications first based on titles and then on authorship” (51). Thus, e-books are not so much a break from traditional notions of the book, as they are an extension of the social, technical, and mediational practices that have developed over almost two millennia. As such, printed books function as what Murray terms “legacy media”; pre-digital media that are often taken for granted but form the basis from which digital simulations derive their organizational structure (12). In this way, e-books retain many of the genre conventions of print: title pages, colophons, frontispieces, tables of contents, forwards, prefaces, introductions, prologues, epilogues, afterwords, conclusions, glossaries, bibliographies, appendices, etc. Even electronic texts that exist on a single web page tend to maintain this sequence, so ingrained it is within our cultural expectations of the reading experience. In addition, e-books retain the segmentation into volumes, chapters, sections, as well as the same pagination and page layout:


juxtaposition of print and e-reader


Both the print and electronic versions provide extra space at the top of each new chapter, larger headings for chapter titles and numbering, proportional margins, and paragraph indentations, and each uses fonts that were most likely developed for printing presses or typewriters. All of these conventions were socially developed over centuries of cultural transmission and across a wide variety of media technologies.

Additionally, e-readers remediate traditional reading practices, enabling interactors (Murray’s term) to “turn” and bookmark pages, inscribe marginalia, and highlight or underline text. While these holdovers might appear as skeuomorphic—that is, designed solely to ease the transition from print to digital reading through maintaining a similar appearance—they in fact maintain much more than that; they also simulate the printed book’s functionality through remediating the interactivity of the older medium. In “Tech-TOC: Complex Temporalities in Living and Technical Beings,” Katherine Hayles defines skeuomorphs as “details that were previously functional but have lost their functionality in a new technical ensemble.” However, these holdovers from the printed book have far from lost their functionality; instead, they operate much like Manovich’s perceptions on the supposedly skeuomorphic nature of the computer desktop. In Software Takes Command, Manovich laments how the original Graphical User Interface (GUI) principles behind the design of the computer desktop have been long forgotten; instead, the files, folders, trash, etc. are perceived only as a means of making the user feel comfortable in a digital environment through replicating objects conventionally found in the average physical office space (101). Such a view overlooks the “intellectual origins of GUI,” which were deeply influenced by cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner’s theories on enactive, iconic, and symbolic mentalities (98). While he is right to suggest that the computational interface designed by Alan Kay engages all three mentalities, Manovich’s enthusiasm for computers leads him to overshoot the mark by claiming that the utilization of all three mentalities is unique to the experience of using computational media (100). Books, too, employ enactive (page-turning, underlining, marginalia), iconic (visualizations in the form of graphs, pictures, cover art, etc.), and symbolic (various forms of symbolic representation; primarily written text) mentalities. Likewise, e-books remediate all of these features in an effort to retain the interactive legacies of print media, while also adding new functionalities enabled by computational interfaces.

In addition to remediating many of print’s affordances, the computational substrate of e-readers affords for a new level of interactivity between reader and text. In contrast to previous mediums, “the building blocks used to make up the computer metamedium are different types of media data and the techniques for generating, modifying, and viewing this data” (Manovich 110; italics original). According to Manovich, there are two types of data manipulation: (1) “media creation, manipulation, and access techniques that are specific to particular types of data” and (2) “new software techniques that can work with digital data in general” (110-11; italics original). The new affordances offered by the digitalization of books generally fall into the later category, which includes “’view control,’ hyperlinking, sort, [and] and search […]” (111), operations that are not specific to a particular type of data. In terms of view control, e-readers enable somewhat superficial personalization features, such as the ability to change font types and sizes, alter page color, and zoom in and out. Additionally, these devices typically provide hyperlinks in the table of contents to respective chapters and sections of the text, and the search function enables users to find instances of a specific word or phrase throughout a text, remediating (in both senses of the word) the previous function of the index. Of course, readers can copy and paste text into a variety of other documents, but, more interestingly, e-readers also offer the possibility to share highlighted passages via SMS, email, Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking sites (though, admittedly, I know of no one who uses this function), thus affirming the social nature of all reading against previous ideologies that situated reading as a private and individual act. Furthermore, as implied by the social media connectivity, the e-reader is connected to the Internet, allowing users to search the web for more information concerning highlighted words and phrases. This affords almost instantaneous access to a network of extended cognition and a widely distributed cultural encyclopedia. While extended cognition and the cultural encyclopedia are by no means products of internet technologies—similar to how the book function precedes the technologies for book dissemination—the internet ensures faster access to more content than previous versions of media storage (libraries, for example). All of these affordances transcend the limitations of print due to the computational substrate of the e-reader, which creates the possibility of manipulating and individually curating previously fixed design features. However, print continues to exist; why?

Not only does the printed book offer certain affordances that resist digitalization (for the time being, at least), the institutionalization of print provides the medium with the symbolic capital and ideological value necessary to obviate the threat of obsolescence. This line of thinking runs counter to Manovich’s belief in the ability of computational devices to faithfully simulate prior mediums. As the book’s title implies, for Manovich, software takes command. In the first chapter, Manovich twice reiterates Kay and Goldberg’s claim that the computer is “’a metamedium’ whose content is ‘a wide range of already-existing and not-yet-invented media’” (105 and 82; italics original). In general, Manovich perceives the digital simulation abilities of computational devices as Remediation +, whereby the computer is capable of remediating the entire functionality of previous mediums and providing new ways of interacting with these previous mediums and anticipating the development of “not-yet-invented” media. This teleological narrative of media history, in which the computer serves as the ultimate telos, cannot explain the continued presence of pre-digital media, nor the ways by which analog and digital media forms interact in a broader socio-cultural mediasphere.

Although the computer can digitally simulate many of the functionalities of print (see above), it can neither remediate the physicality of the printed book, nor the symbolic capital of print, which has accrued over hundreds of years. I used the term “physicality” to employ Hayles distinction between the physical characteristics of a text and its materiality—that is, “the interaction of its physical characteristics with its signifying strategies” as an emergent and socially determined property (My Mother was a Computer 103-4). Certainly, the materiality, too, changes upon digitalization, and not from material to immaterial, as some might suggest. E-books are still material; they merely offer a different type of materiality due to the nature of the computational interface. Here, I focus on physicality because the materiality varies too much from book to book (according to each text’s signifying strategies) to be of use in intermedial comparison—that is, between two different substrates: computational and paper.

The physicality of the printed book resists remediation into a digital environment. There is, as yet, no means by which to simulate the tactile sensations of paper or the “feel” of turning a page. In addition, a single printed book is usually lighter than an e-book, less susceptible to damage, and cheaper, thus safer to carry about town, as there is no need to worry about damage or theft. Although the search function on e-readers significantly improves on the index, paper books enable easier navigability when the reader cannot remember a specific word or phrase for which to search. For instance, I tend to remember visually (almost photographically) and spatially where a certain un-demarcated section appears on a page based on its location within the book as a whole (judged by thickness of the connected pages), on the front or back of a page, and with regard to paragraph indentations and line spacing. Similarly, the note-taking affordances differ in a digital environment; marginalia is easily deleted and susceptible to disappearance in the case of data loss. The inscription of one’s thoughts on the page is thus less permanent and personal than with printed books.

Along with these physical properties, the symbolic capital of print cannot easily transfer to a computational interface. According to Bourdieu’s theory on symbolic capital, books function as cultural capital in the objectified state; they can be “appropriated both materially—which presupposes economic capital—and symbolically—which presupposes cultural capital” (50). Of course, e-books also satisfy this definition of objectified cultural capital; however, print books provide the unique affordance of physical display. As such, the physicality of the book signifies a socially determined level of cultural capital in the public arena, as well as in the private home, based on the materials that constitute it (whether its leather-bound or paperback, with gilded or normal pages, etc.) and on the cultural significance of the author or title printed on the cover (high/middle/low brow). In contrast, the material substrate of the e-reader is distinguished only by the manufacturer’s brand (iPad, Kindle, Nook) and design choices (colors, sizes, etc.), which—while certainly retaining symbolic values of their own—are not a reflection of the book itself. Hence, the development of social networking sites, such as GoodReads, that enable readers to digitally disseminate what they’ve read or are currently reading to whomever might follow them, thus turning cultural capital into social. (Though, it must be said, one’s “followers” on GoodReads are always already one’s “friends” on Facebook.)

Despite the different affordances of e-readers and printed books, one must be wary of lapsing into, or actively constructing, an analog/digital binary. Instead of a binary relation, analog and print cultural artifacts exist in an analog-digital continuum, constantly shifting from one substrate to the other. As Hayles points out, it is not a choice of either analog or digital but the “synergistic interaction” between the two (29). Within the mediasphere, cultural artifacts continually transfer between analog and digital states, such as when albums originally recorded as analog are digitized for computer storage and dissemination, and then later transferred back to analog as vinyl records to meet the demands created by current cultural trends. Similarly, all books written today have alternated between analog and digital states during the composition, editing, printing, and dissemination processes. It appears exceedingly unlikely that books will ever exist entirely in one state or another.

Although e-readers and printed books provide some different affordances based on their respective substrates, e-books do not mark a radical departure from print. Instead, e-books rely on many of the genre conventions developed over centuries of bookmaking, both before and after the development of the printing press. In addition, the change of substrate from paper to computational has not altered the socio-ideological function of the book, which is institutionally circumscribed and always already in place before the development of any particular media technology. E-books are merely the latest instantiation in a long lineage of book dissemination technologies, and new developments, such as PaperTab, are already on the horizon. While digital technologies have managed to remediate many of the features of print, both computational and paper implementations of the book continue to exist in an analog-digital continuum. Contrary to grave speculations as to the death of print, from both nostalgic technophobes and naive techno-enthusiasts, print still exists and will continue to exist due to the medium’s particular affordances, conveyance of symbolic capital, and institutionally circumscribed mediational position.




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