Biblioclasm and the Book Bloc

by | 17 Dec 2010

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 Blocput 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.


  1. 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. 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’

  3. 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 … ?

    1. Gilbert,

      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?

    2. 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.

    3. 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:

      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.


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