The Politics of Culture in The Late Age of Print

By Sean Johnson Andrews

Issue 2.1 | June 1, 2011

Ted Striphas. The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control. Columbia University Press, 2009. 272 pp.

With The Late Age of Print, Ted Striphas cements his place among the growing number of cultural studies scholars, including public intellectuals like Siva Vaidhyanathan and copyright prankster Kimbrew McLeod, who are interested in the contemporary problem of publishing and copyright. Vaidhyanathan has written several books on the topic and has a forthcoming exploration of Google generated from his initial interest in the controversy over Google’s book search project. Striphas and McLeod recently edited an issue of Cultural Studies on intellectual property rights. In The Late Age of Print, Striphas’ monograph, the author begins a deeper exploration of the original object of copyright’s concern: the book.

While issues of copyright and control are still central to his conclusions, Striphas’ main object is the historical production of everyday book culture: more specifically, book culture in the United States in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, or what he refers to as “the late age of print.” This phrase, borrowed from Jay David Bolter, illustrates Striphas’ first premise, meant to counter the conventional wisdom that books, and the U.S. public’s reading and buying of them, are in their death throes:

The late age of print, Bolter explains, consists of “a transformation of our social attitudes towards, and uses of, this familiar technology. Just as late capitalism is still vigorous capitalism, so books and other printed materials in the late age of print are still common and enjoy considerable prestige.”  [….] The phrase points up the tense interplay of persistence and change endemic to today’s everyday book culture without necessarily presuming a full-blown crisis exists (3).

Thus Striphas begins from the premise that books are alive and well, but are also in the midst of a transformation that itself represents a key index to some of the larger changes that have unfolded over the past century. In addition to its role as the bearer of “homogenous empty time” in the “print capitalism” of Benedict Anderson’s germinal work on nationalism, Striphas locates the book and the book industry as key sites of innovation —one of the first to adopt wage labor, one of the few commodities in the early twentieth century that could effectively defy the Protestant injunction against buying on credit, and an early commodity of middle class conspicuous consumption.

Consumer society forms the first pole of the field within which Striphas frames what he sees as the defining characteristics of these social transformations and the book’s function as agent and symptom of these changes. Following Lefebvre’s Everyday Life In the Modern World, Striphas argues that we have moved from a consumer society in the early twentieth century to the present-day realization of what is a version of the “society of controlled consumption…premised on a transformation of the figure of the consumer from subject to object of capitalist accumulation” (183). This dialectic is threaded lightly through the book, but serves mostly as a framing device in the introduction and conclusion.

Chapter one focuses on e-books, framing the controversy over them as a continuation of campaigns in the early 1900s (sponsored by “father of spin” Edward Bernays) to encourage the middle class to buy books (and homebuilders to install bookshelves) that were entwined with a parallel attempt to legislate the circulation of used books outside the market. As an extension of this earlier moment in the history of book culture, e-books are understood as “an emergent technological form by which problems pertaining to the ownership and circulation of printed books are simultaneously posed and resolved” (22).

Though Striphas proposes this historical continuity as part of a broader periodizing claim about a transition from consumerist society to a society of control, his analysis is primarily aimed at illustrating the ways in which profiting from culture as a commodity is a precarious endeavor: it depends on consumers’ continued need and desire for the product, their uncompromised respect for property rights, their continued willingness to go out of their way to pay for these products when they are available for free, and their capacity to afford the cost at all. Striphas returns to the problems raised by e-books in his conclusion, but it is unclear exactly how he sees this tension operating differently today than it has at any other moment in the history of capitalist social relations. His strange insinuation is that “consumer society,” made possible by rising wages and the shortening of the work week, was both more liberating and the result of capitalism itself (rather than hard won political struggles and worker agitation).   This makes the transition to the society of control more foreboding, but it misses the key continuities throughout both periods—not to mention overlooking the agency of politicians, unions, and workers who fought for the earlier benefits he describes (182).

The bulk of Striphas’ work in The Late Age of Print is devoted to developing a genealogy of different aspects of what, again following Lefebvre, he calls the everyday life of book culture. For Striphas, the everyday life of book culture encompasses:

some of the key conditions under which [habits of thought, conduct, and expression with respect to books] are produced and reproduced. What interests me are the legal codes, technical devices, institutional arrangements, social relations, and historical processes whose purpose is to secure the everydayness of contemporary book culture. [. . . .] a key question I want to ask is: How have books come to be perceived as ‘everyday entitlements,’ that is, objects that pretty much can be counted on to be wherever and whenever we expect them to be? (10-11).

For Striphas, addressing this question involves looking at several key sites where the material arrangements and practical habits of book culture have been produced over the past century or so. Striphas has a surprising ability to tie what appear to be tangential bits of history into a larger story. In this narrative, as would be expected in a study emerging out of cultural studies, Striphas takes what he calls an “extensive approach,” which, instead of “situating an object in context,” “[treats] the context—a multiplicity of elements—precisely as one’s object of study” (14). This is extremely effective at historically contextualizing key aspects of everyday book culture, but at times it risks occluding some fundamental issues.

While Striphas looks at “the ways in which legislation and court cases affect [copyright infringement] and other patterns of book circulation and reception,” his interest is largely limited to the context of piracy and attempts on the part of the book industry to control the circulation of “imposter editions.”  In doing so, he neglects one of the key features structuring the “everydayness” of book culture, namely the banning of books. Given cultural studies’ long standing attention to this practice — exemplified, for example, in Hoggart’s testimony in the obscenity case for Lady Chatterley’s Lover—one would expect it to merit at least some mention.

In some ways, this lacunae stems from Striphas’ seeming reluctance to directly address the role of social politics or the state. The exception is a section devoted to the GI Bill, where Striphas ties the rise in large corporate bookstores to the growth in the number of students attending college and, hence, to the size of college bookstores—the origin, as it happens, of Barnes and Noble. With the exception of this admittedly fascinating instance in the book, the everyday book culture Striphas explores is almost entirely shaped by economic actors operating in a seemingly autonomous sphere of market relations. The role of civil society or the state in securing these relations—or their conditions of production and reproduction—is rarely, if ever mentioned, even as a controversial prohibitive force for preventing some books from being “wherever and whenever we expect them to be.” Thus, while The Late Age of Print clearly means to position itself in conversation with politically committed theorists of culture —Paddy Scannel, Janice Radway, and Meaghan Morris, to name a few—it remains largely apolitical in its conclusions.

Striphas’ third chapter interrogates the claim that big chain bookstores are crowding out small independents. Against this widely accepted argument, Striphas argues that there is little empirical evidence to support its claims. He reviews the corporate history of Barnes and Noble, then focuses more closely on one particular North Carolina branch of the chain. Because the branch provided job opportunities to minority builders and workers, Striphas argues that the corporate entity’s bookstore in Durham, North Carolina “is but one facet of a much larger struggle to redress socioeconomic and racial disparities” (77); he then impugns white middle class citizens who tried to hold up the construction based on fears about it threatening local bookstores (a belief he has just proven to be a powerful, if unsound, myth) by claiming that they were actually acting in the interests of preserving white privilege.

He concludes that this case provides evidence of the potential civic and cultural utility of the big box store. Yet he casually points out that the only reason Barnes and Noble (a private corporate entity) can be seen as part of this struggle is that the Durham City Council (a public political entity) built and financed the shopping center in which the bookstore would operate with this “socioeconomic redress” in mind, mandating these minority hiring practices. According to Striphas’ conclusions in this apparently conflicted account, it is evidence of Barnes and Noble’s community-oriented values, an expression of the store’s history corporate identity, or an example of what big box booksellers can accomplish, as if similar state mandates and social movements regulated all such construction. In reality, this socioeconomic redress is the result of a political process that Striphas doesn’t discuss in detail.

Striphas’ subsequent chapter on Oprah’s Book Club aims to show that elite, literary-minded critics of the television show fail to understand the cultural role it plays in women’s lives. Assuming a domestic housewife in a traditional gender role (where much of her free time is taken up with care of the household), and bracketing the issue of literacy altogether, Striphas praises Oprah’s Book Club for “its pragmatic disposition towards books and reading” (138). The club teaches its readers how to find the time to read, how to relate books to their everyday lives, and how “to reflect on how their needs correspond with other’s expectations of them, and perhaps even to invent new possibilities for repeating everyday life differently” (128). While his conclusions are in line with Radway’s in Reading the Romance, he relies entirely, and with very little apparent critical reflexivity, on the organization itself for his evidence, taking quotations from book club readers presented by the Book Club (either in publicity materials or on-screen testimonials), rather than employing any independent ethnographic data. He provides a compelling analysis of why the book club works, but seems overly eager to celebrate it as a cultural institution as such.

In each of these chapters, Striphas’ reflex is to take what appear to be contrarian positions in relation to progressive scholarship and criticism in order to evacuate their claims and present what is an almost unequivocal celebration of these dominant cultural trends. This is a strange reflex in each of these cases as it somewhat pushes against his overall organizing tension—that we are moving more towards a society of control—yet he doesn’t frame it this way until well after the fact.

His interesting, but not explicitly critical, discussion of fits the main thread of the book tracing the history and institutions that led to the everyday book culture of the present. Amazon, therefore, is best seen as facilitated—and its founder inspired to sell books instead of anything else—by innovations in the infrastructure and organization of the book industry, especially adoption of the ISBN system that catalogs inventory and keeps track of prices internationally.   

The final chapter on the Harry Potter series, which draws on some of Striphas’ work on Intellectual Property Rights, rounds out his case studies. Here, Striphas seems to hit his stride, outlining the elaborate control mechanisms the Scholastic corporation put in place to police the release of the Harry Potter books. In the final pages of this chapter, exploring some of the politics of piracy and the grey market of international commerce, the book takes some clear positions of public importance. Striphas’ impassioned appeal to have us rethink how we see originals and copies in an age of transnational cultural appropriation and transfiguration is a welcome finale to the book.


Works Cited

Lefebvre, Henri.  Everyday Life In the Modern World.  Trans. Sacha Rabinovitch.  New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1984.  Print. 

Sean Johnson Andrews is Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies at Columbia College Chicago where he teaches courses in media and Cultural Studies methodology. He received his PhD in Cultural Studies from George Mason University and is currently working on transforming his dissertation, titled “The Cultural Production of Intellectual Property Rights,” into a book.