Biblioclasm and the Book Bloc

Biblioclasm: biblio– comb. form + Greek - klasmos breaking

Born in Rome during the stu­dent protests of December 2010, and again in London’s demon­stra­tions of that same month, the Book Bloc would not nor­mally figure in a chro­no­logy of lib­ri­cide. After all, no ac­tual books were des­troyed. But, as we shall see, it’s not all about the books.

A witty and prac­tical piece of protest theatrics, the Book Bloc is es­sen­tially a line of home-​made DIY shields made to look like over-​sized books with a view both to pro­tect pro­testers from the vis­cious­ness of flailing po­lice truncheons and to send out a mes­sage by making a ges­ture sym­bol­ising the need for cul­ture to de­fend it­self in the face of an ag­gressive ideo­logy against which it sees it­self in per­ilous opposition.

The elo­quence with which the Book Bloc im­ages em­bodied the un­der­lying mes­sage of these protests was, for me, what made them stand out from the routine and gen­eric shots these kind of events in­vari­ably pro­duce; photos of angry cops, masked faces, and smashed window panes. This is some­thing that sets the im­ages apart, too, from the more scan­dalous, headline-​grabbing photos of Charles and Camilla be­sieged in the royal Rolls Royce, and the un­for­tu­nate snaps of Charlie Gilmour swinging from the Cenotaph. But what, then, is the nature of this elo­quence? Why should these mock-​up books have such an im­pact? This ques­tion started a train of thought.

Wu Ming, the nom de plume/​guerre for a small col­lective of au­thors – whose novel, Q, was one of the titles fea­turing in the Roman Book Bloc – put for­ward an ima­gin­ative and lucid reading of the par­tic­ular choices made in se­lecting the ‘books’ holding up the front line (partly avail­able in trans­la­tion from the Italian here). The Decameron’s plague rep­res­ents the cur­rent blight of the ‘at­om­iz­a­tion of so­cial relationships’, echoed by Asimov’s The Naked Sun, whilst the ob­sessive fu­tility with which the quix­otic people chase after the Great Whale of ‘ber­lusconism’ (Moby Dick) is rep­res­ented through Cervantes and Melville. And so on.

Similarly Jay Griffiths, au­thor of Pip Pip (a book in London’s bloc), in­dulges in a more nos­talgic ex­egesis of the titles on dis­play, fo­cus­sing mostly on the apt­ness of the protest’s nod to Huxley’s Brave New World and the spectre of 1968.

Griffiths be­gins her art­icle with the ob­ser­va­tion that “It’s a very strange thing to watch a po­liceman take a truncheon to a book.” This at­ten­tion to the vis­ceral lan­guage of de­struc­tion – surely an on­to­lo­gical im­per­ative of the Book Bloc – is largely seen to be missing from both Wu Ming and Griffiths’ ac­counts. And it seems to me that this lan­guage points to some­thing else; namely, the de­structive po­etics of that other mass so­cial and cul­tural prac­tice called bib­li­o­clasm – defined as the prac­tice of des­troying, often ce­re­mo­ni­ously, books or other written ma­terial and media.

In an­other art­icle, Wu Ming write, “This af­ter­noon, in Rome, stu­dents con­fronted the cops while car­rying shields with book titles on them. The meaning was: it is cul­ture it­self that’s res­isting the cuts; books them­selves are fighting the po­lice.” Futhermore, the people be­hind the London Bloc have said of books that “we teach with them, we learn with them, we play with them, we create with them, we make love with them and, some­times, we must fight with them.” The idea that it is the books them­selves fighting the police, and that they are ef­fect­ively com­rades in arms, reveals some­thing pro­found about the way we con­cep­tu­alise books – as somehow an­im­istic en­tities pos­sessing in­de­pendent powers. This is some­thing David Abram has touched upon, ar­guing that books (or texts) are ‘speaking sub­jects’ taking up the same place in ‘cul­ture’ that was once oc­cu­pied by rivers and trees in so­ci­eties sub­scribing to an­im­istic con­cepts of nature.

It is per­haps this same idea that caused Ray Bradbury to say “I felt it [Hitler’s ‘burning of the books’] as keenly, please for­give me, as his killing a human, for in the long sum of his­tory they are one and the same flesh”. Interestingly the al­lu­sion to tran­sub­stan­ti­ation made by Bradbury cor­res­ponds to the trans­form­a­tion of the book-object’s use-​value in mo­ments of crises. In the Book Bloc, the sym­bolic change can be de­scribed as teacher-​to-​warrior, in bib­li­o­clasm this tra­jectory goes from perpetrator-​to-​victim; re­garded with sus­pi­cion of being a pro­pa­gandist of ‘dan­gerous’ ideas by a re­gime or so­cial group, the book is set upon and silenced.

The cuts in edu­ca­tion and funding are more than meas­ures to al­le­viate gar­gan­tuan de­fi­cits. These cuts are also ideo­lo­gical. In these spe­cific cases they are at­tacking the uni­ver­sity in­sti­tu­tion, sewing the seeds to change it from a forum where know­ledge is taught, cre­ated and disseminated, to a mar­ket­place where profit rules above all. These cuts are deeply anti-​culture.

What I saw in the Book Blocs of Rome and London was in­deed a sym­bolic self-​defense of cul­ture. But it was more than that. By marching these card­board and styro­foam tomes into the vi­olent tu­mult of the front line, these pro­testers were, in es­sence, of­fering up their care­fully se­lected titles to be des­troyed in a ce­re­mo­nial act of sac­ri­fice. This has the ef­fect of being a kind of re­verse bib­li­o­clasm, a self-​immolation – a lit­erary Jauhar of sorts – and sug­gests a con­sidered dé­tourne­ment of the po­etics of op­pressive violence.

Tomas White of the bib­li­o­clasm blog, charting the ‘secret his­tory’ of book de­struc­tion, or lib­ri­cide, as a para­dox­ical prac­tice common to all lit­erate cul­tures throughout the ages.

  8 comments for “Biblioclasm and the Book Bloc

  1. Justus Civicas
    17 December 2010 at 10:24 am

    Read-​in, sit-​in, an off­spring of the Book bloc?

    Read-​In Saturday « LRB blog
    If you’re in London and not sure what to do on Saturday af­ter­noon, why not grab a book and head down to the read-​in at the Vodafone shop on Oxford Street? It’s being or­gan­ised by UK Uncut to protest against both the mo­bile phone company’s tax avoid­ance and the re­cently an­nounced cuts in local gov­ern­ment funding:
    The Library bloc’s mis­sion is to target Vodafone and high­light the government’s 27% cuts to local gov­ern­ment budgets. Vodafone’s £6bn tax dodge could pay for every single cut to every single council every­where in the country for the next two years. Library bloc will meet in­side Vodafone’s flag­ship store to stage a read-​in. At ex­actly 1.04pm, on the librarian’s signal, everyone will sit down, take out a book and begin reading. If you want to join Library Bloc bring flyers, ban­ners and a book. And remember…shhhhh!
    The ac­tion will be done by 3pm.


  2. 17 December 2010 at 10:30 am

    great piece. it scores im­portant points by em­phas­ising the vis­ceral as­pect (batons striking books) and the as­pect of ‘books them­selves as actors’.

    i dis­agree on the idea of ‘sac­ri­fice. imho what’s going on is per­form­ative risk-​taking i.e. “both I and the book put ourselves on the line to con­struct a rad­ical critique”.

    jef­frey juris has written some good stuff on this drawing on his ex­per­i­ences of g8 protests: see for ex­ample ‘Performing Politics’ and ‘Violence Performed and Imagined’ http://​www​.jef​freyjuris​.com/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​s​.​h​tml

  3. Gilbert Leung
    18 December 2010 at 10:23 pm

    Bernard-​Henri Lévy once used a poem by Victor Hugo, ap­par­ently written after the burning of the Tuileries lib­rary, as a way to re­late to the 2005 burning of the Paris ban­lieues. Lévy recounts:

    The poet is “preaching” to one of the arsonists.

    He ac­cuses him, as we do today, of the “un­heard of” crime of burning a cul­tural site.

    He shows him that the books he burned were the “light of his soul,” the “torch it­self” that ought to guide him along the road to hap­pi­ness and progress.

    This “light” was “yours,” he insists.

    The book was “your lib­er­ator,” your “doctor,” your “guide,” your “guardian.”

    And it was all that, all these price­less goods, these talis­mans, these flowers of the soul, which you’ve chosen to “annihilate.”

    But then he has the hon­esty to wonder about the arsonist’s re­ac­tion. And what do we think he answers?

    “I don’t know how to read …”

    It’s in­ter­esting, even a touch para­dox­ical, that bib­li­o­clasm has been prac­tised by both 1) the elites who fear the em­power­ment of the ‘masses’ through reading books and 2) the down­trodden who des­pise the fact that only the elites have ac­cess to the know­ledge con­tained therein.

    There may be a twist, how­ever, rel­evant for today:

    Perhaps the elites do not really know how to ‘read’ while many of the down­trodden ‘read’ only too well.

    But does this imply a third class of down­trodden elites? Does the Book Bloc rep­resent a Hugoesque new poet, a sym­bolic ges­ture of guard­i­an­ship that lit­er­ally shields the treas­ures of eman­cip­atory knowledge … ?

  4. 20 December 2010 at 12:34 am


    The idea of this third class of the ‘down­trodden elite’ is an in­ter­esting one, and it brings up a major problem being faced by the movement.

    There are a de­press­ingly large number of people who take a dis­par­aging view of the stu­dent move­ment in par­tic­ular. Most re­marks I hear tend to be wholly re­ac­tionary, fo­cusing on the damage done to state and com­mer­cial prop­erty as coun­ter­pro­ductive to the cause. The re­sent­ment is de­flected away from the elites denying ac­cess to higher edu­ca­tion and onto the ‘down­trodden’ them­selves. And this is, I think, propag­ated partly via the re­la­tion­ship they have to prop­erty (I’m thinking of the in­or­dinate im­port­ance at­tached to the vi­ol­ence de­picted in the media as a warning of what the ‘feral mob’ could do to YOU and YOUR ma­terial goods if the kettle lines were to break — ma­terial goods YOU work so hard everyday to ac­cu­mu­late whilst this bunch of dirty hip­pies sits about all day at YOUR expense).

    In a way it’s a shame that the ma­jority of the ‘down­trodden’ don’t hold a po­s­i­tion sim­ilar to that of Hugo’s ar­sonist com­munard, for at least then the sanc­tity of prop­erty would dis­ap­pear and the an­ti­thet­ical cat­egory (2) of your bib­li­o­clast schem­atic would be born. I think the Book Bloc is an at­tempt at a sub­lim­ating ges­ture in the ab­sence of this category.

    The symbol of the book-​object is es­pe­cially apt as it can be used in a variety of mean­ingful ways, not least of which as a ges­ture of the de­struc­tion of prop­erty. At the same time, the shielding as­pect of the Book Bloc does achieve that ges­ture of guard­i­an­ship you mention.

    By of­fering them­selves to the truncheons, the ‘books’ oc­cupy the threshold between being the guardian of know­ledge (symbol) and the ob­ject of de­struc­tion (ma­terial), just as the ‘books’ them­selves are sim­ul­tan­eously both ‘book’ (symbol) and shield (ma­terial). In other words, the func­tions of both ma­terial ob­ject and its cor­res­ponding symbol are trans­posed in the sub­lim­ating ges­ture, res­ulting in the Book Bloc be­coming both preacher and ar­sonist or as you say, the ‘down­trodden elite’. As such, the Book Bloc is an ex­pres­sion of the problem at hand; how do we re­direct the schizo­phrenic re­sent­ment of the downtrodden?

  5. Gilbert Leung
    21 December 2010 at 8:41 am

    Could a cer­tain ‘schizo­phrenia’ of the down­trodden be an ad­vantage? See CLT post of 21 December 2010: Towards a Radical Anti-​Capitalist Schizophrenia?

  6. Gilbert Leung
    21 December 2010 at 9:34 am

    There has been in­terest in the ori­ginal Victor Hugo poem. Here it is in French (I couldn’t find an English Translation).


    Tu viens d’incendier la Bibliothèque ?

    - Oui.
    J’ai mis le feu là.

    - Mais c’est un crime inouï !
    Crime commis par toi contre toi-​même, in­fâme !
    Mais tu viens de tuer le rayon de ton âme !
    C’est ton propre flam­beau que tu viens de souffler !
    Ce que ta rage impie et folle ose brûler,
    C’est ton bien, ton trésor, ta dot, ton héritage
    Le livre, hos­tile au maître, est à ton av­antage.
    Le livre a tou­jours pris fait et cause pour toi.
    Une bib­lio­thèque est un acte de foi
    Des généra­tions ténébreuses en­core
    Qui rendent dans la nuit té­moignage à l’aurore.
    Quoi! dans ce vénér­able amas des vérités,
    Dans ces chefs-d’oeuvre pleins de foudre et de clartés,
    Dans ce tombeau des temps devenu réper­toire,
    Dans les siècles, dans l’homme an­tique, dans l’histoire,
    Dans le passé, leçon qu’épelle l’avenir,
    Dans ce qui com­mença pour ne ja­mais finir,
    Dans les poètes! quoi, dans ce gouffre des bibles,
    Dans le divin mon­ceau des Eschyles ter­ribles,
    Des Homères, des jobs, de­bout sur l’horizon,
    Dans Molière, Voltaire et Kant, dans la raison,
    Tu jettes, mis­ér­able, une torche en­flammée !
    De tout l’esprit hu­main tu fais de la fumée !
    As-​tu donc oublié que ton libérateur,
    C’est le livre ? Le livre est là sur la hauteur;
    Il luit; parce qu’il brille et qu’il les il­lu­mine,
    Il détruit l’échafaud, la guerre, la famine
    Il parle, plus d’esclave et plus de paria.
    Ouvre un livre. Platon, Milton, Beccaria.
    Lis ces prophètes, Dante, ou Shakespeare, ou Corneille
    L’âme im­mense qu’ils ont en eux, en toi s’éveille ;
    Ébloui, tu te sens le même homme qu’eux tous ;
    Tu deviens en lisant grave, pensif et doux ;
    Tu sens dans ton es­prit tous ces grands hommes croître,
    Ils t’enseignent ainsi que l’aube éclaire un cloître
    À mesure qu’il plonge en ton coeur plus avant,
    Leur chaud rayon t’apaise et te fait plus vivant ;
    Ton âme in­ter­rogée est prête à leur ré­pondre ;
    Tu te re­con­nais bon, puis meil­leur; tu sens fondre,
    Comme la neige au feu, ton orgueil, tes fureurs,
    Le mal, les préjugés, les rois, les empereurs !
    Car la sci­ence en l’homme ar­rive la première.
    Puis vient la liberté. Toute cette lu­mière,
    C’est à toi com­prends donc, et c’est toi qui l’éteins !
    Les buts rêvés par toi sont par le livre at­teints.
    Le livre en ta pensée entre, il dé­fait en elle
    Les liens que l’erreur à la vérité mêle,
    Car toute con­science est un noeud gordien.
    Il est ton mé­decin, ton guide, ton gardien.
    Ta haine, il la guérit ; ta dé­mence, il te l’ôte.
    Voilà ce que tu perds, hélas, et par ta faute !
    Le livre est ta richesse à toi ! c’est le sa­voir,
    Le droit, la vérité, la vertu, le devoir,
    Le pro­grès, la raison dis­sipant tout dé­lire.
    Et tu détruis cela, toi !

    - Je ne sais pas lire.

  7. 17 January 2011 at 12:44 pm

    Just to pick up on the idea of the Book Bloc as an act of sym­bolic self-​immolation, it’s both dis­turbing and in­ter­esting to see a growing trend, in the Arab world, of very real acts of self-​immolation: http://​blog​.for​eign​policy​.com/​p​o​s​t​s​/​2​0​1​1​/​0​1​/​1​7​/​t​h​e​_​a​r​a​b​_​w​o​r​l​d​s​_​h​o​r​r​i​f​i​c​_​n​e​w​_​t​r​e​n​d​_​s​e​l​f​_​i​m​m​o​l​a​t​ion

    In ad­di­tion to the acts men­tioned in this piece, re­ports have been coming in over the last half-​hour de­scribing yet an­other self-​burning in Mauritania.

  8. Gilbert Leung
    18 January 2011 at 4:58 pm

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