Johanna Drucker: New Books Explore Non-Linear Social Forces and Ecological Change

Breslauer Professor of Bibliography will share readings from “Downdrift: An Eco-Fiction” on April 26 at UCLA.

Johanna Drucker likes “puzzles to solve.” To find solutions, the Bernard and Martin Breslauer Professor of Bibliography connects with units across the UCLA campus in order to give her students the skills they will need to work in the fields of libraries, archives, and preservation, and to further her research. Her 2013 book, “Digital Humanities” was co-written with UCLA colleagues from areas as diverse as comparative literature and design media arts and was her first online textbook.

This winter, Drucker taught her signature course, “The History of the Book.” She created its curriculum five years ago with funding from UCLA for an innovative and experimental course that would showcase the University’s Special Collections, and provide students with research and practical skills by giving them the opportunity to contribute to an online textbook themselves, utilizing the world-class holdings of UCLA’s Special Collections.

Professor Drucker is internationally known for her work in digital humanities, experimental poetry, fine art, the history of graphic design and typography. Professor Drucker has held faculty positions at prominent colleges including Columbia University, and Yale University, as well as visiting faculty positions at Harvard University and State University of New York at Purchase. She was a Mellon Faculty Fellow at Harvard, and the first Robertson Professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia, where she created the undergraduate Media Studies program and co-funded SpecLab, the Speculative Computing Laboratory. In addition, she has earned numerous Fulbright, Getty, and National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships and grants. Drucker was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2014.

Drucker’s artwork can be found in museum and library collections at the Getty Center for the Humanities, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Marvin and Ruth Sackner Archive of Visual and Concrete Poetry, the New York Public Library, and the Houghton Library at Harvard, among many others. In 2012, a comprehensive retrospective of her books, graphic art, and visual projects titled, “Druckworks: 40 Years of Books and Projects,” opened at Columbia College and traveled throughout the country for two years.

Drucker’s books include Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide, with Emily McVarish (Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008). Her independently authored publications include “SpecLab: Projects in Digital Aesthetics and Speculative Computing” (Chicago, 2009), “What Is?: Nine Epistemological Essays” (Cuneiform Press, 2013), and “In Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production” (Harvard University Press, 2014). Her most recent books, Downdrift: An Eco-Fiction and The General Theory of Social Relativity will be released in April. She is a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Riot Material.

In 2004, Drucker created Artists’ Books Online, which presents a collection of artists’ books in digital format along with descriptive metadata; she continues as director of the project. Professor Drucker is a member of UCLA’s Institute for Digital Research and Education’s Humanities, Arts, Architecture, Social and Information Sciences Collaborative.

Ampersand had the opportunity to catch up with Professor Drucker’s ever-expanding body of creative and insightful work, which includes two brand-new books, Downdrift: An Eco-Fiction and The General Theory of Social Relativity. While the former is an easily digestible fable on the impending dangers of environmental change and the latter a more academic treatise on phenomena of groupthink and its non-linear effects, both works encapsulate the scholar/artist/author’s unique view of storytelling, the written word, and their impact on society.

Ampersand: What is unique about “The History of the Book” course?

Johanna Drucker: I made an online textbook for “History of the Book” because I don’t think [lecturing] is the best pedagogical approach. So, what I decided to do is to take the lectures that I would normally give in that class and write them out and use materials from UCLA Special Collections as the images. It’s a narrative, from the invention of cave painting to digital book production, in ten weeks.

The students write the interpretive work. They go into the library and learn some basic bibliographical methods and then contribute to the content. This [past] quarter, they went to Special Collections and picked a book to work on and a topic that they can build a library guide around. Their job is to make sure they’re authoritative, get as close to evidence as they can, and learn some basic research skills.

We have students who want to be librarians or work in special collections. To give them a chance to work on something that goes online and becomes part of a resource, feels like, and is, real work. At this point, I’m really committed to trying to build into our curriculum as much as possible a set of competencies that our students need to get jobs. That’s my highest concern.

Part of the charge as the Breslauer Professor was to be sure that special collection materials were integrated into the education of MLIS students. It’s like taking children to the candy store – what a job!

&: Why do you still believe in the institution of the book?

Drucker: Online materials are so vulnerable. People are very foolish. They think if something is digitized, it’s archival – it couldn’t be further from the truth. Digital files are extremely vulnerable, they’re very ephemeral. We have no idea how any of these materials will last. Things that are instantiated in material form are going to last longer.

A lot of people talk about the fact that they can carry [digital readers] with them. I use my Kindle when I’m traveling so I can read books on the plane and carry ten books. But, there are a lot of navigational and orientation issues that still work better in book form. A biography without photos is kind of anemic. When libraries deaccession books, they’re being irresponsible and ignoring some fundamental issues. There are so many things about the exploration of the physical space of the library that are very important for learning as well.

&: What interested you in library studies?

Drucker: Reading books is what did it. My mom was very literate – she kept giving me classics to read when I was a kid. And she took us to the library every week to get books. Then we’d go back the next week and change our books. We were big readers. And everybody read at home. After dinner, you got your book out and read.

I was a page at the Philadelphia Public Library, that was my first job. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s this thing called the Dewey Decimal System? And the Library of Congress – what is that?’ It was like the keys to the universe.

&: What inspired “Downdrift”?

Drucker: It’s an eco-fiction. The first image for it came to me in a dream … about squirrels sitting on branches with little pine needle [knitting] needles, and they were knitting furiously. All this knitting was just coming out of the trees – it was just this craziness.

We have this image of animal species as kind of stable, but in fact, they are constantly evolving. The book is really about rapid evolution under the influence of climate change.

Everything in the book is based on a combination of real [biology] and imagination. It’s narrated by a 3.8 billion-year-old unicellular animal called an Archaean. There are five categories of living things and Archea were discovered in the latter part of the 20th Century. When they were discovered, it helped to reorient the classification systems for living forms that used to be just plants and animals. Now, it’s bacteria, fungi, plants, animals, and archaea. Archaea are ancient. They can survive in interstellar space and they are extremophiles. They live near the Mariana Trench, they live in the backs of furnaces. They can survive at temperatures that would kill a normal living organism.

I got really interested in distributed forms of intelligence, like lichen, which are a combination of fungi and algae. And they live as unicellular animals but they can act collectively as an aggregate. The Archaean who narrates is both a single point of view and something that is in all of these places all over the globe, watching all of these things happening.

&: “Downdrift” and “The General Theory of Social Relativity” are somewhat related…

Drucker: They’re both about these processes that are distributed, aggregated, and emergent, and have quantum features to them.

The theoretical principles are generally related. One of the influences for me is the renegade biologist, Rupert Sheldrake, who came up with the theory of morphic resonance. What he was looking at were isolated pockets of species – let’s say, English song sparrows living in different places with no contact with each other, who would almost simultaneously start a new behavior. They all started using bottle caps. Why did they start using bottle caps when they weren’t in the same space? It starts to raise some interesting questions. You can see why he was very discredited by a lot of people. But he said there are configuring patterns that can be shared across populations.

The linguist George Lakoff said that ideas don’t float in the air. They’re communicated between people and then baked into your neural circuitry. I say, no, they do float in the air. That’s the point. They have form, they are transferred, and they are formed as an emergent phenomenon of social behaviors. All these reasonable people are trying to keep everything within the terms of empirical evidence.

&: How does “The General Theory of Social Relativity” illustrate this airborne influence upon social behavior?

Basically, it’s an attempt to formulate an approach to understanding the social processes that go beyond mechanistic sociology and mechanistic cultural analyses. So many of those analyses are based on empirical science models that are still intellectually close to Newtonian models of physics. And in the world of physics in the early 20th century, that changed. Physics became augmented by quantum physics because it became clear that different levels – the macro scale and micro scale – Newtonian physics, mechanical physics, didn’t explain the way that the physical world worked. There were all these other features of entanglements and influences at a distance that couldn’t be explained in mechanical, or classical physics, as it is called.

I did a reading from the book earlier this year. It caused a anxiety among a lot of people who asked, ‘Where is your evidence?’ I said, ‘Look around you.’ There is something about other people in the presence of each other that constitutes a social field. And that social field becomes charged with various kinds of responses – affective responses in particular.

If you’ve ever been a speaker, you know that speaking to 20 people and giving the exact same speech to 200 people is completely different. The amount of attention and the kind of attention you need to give to talk to 200 is really different than what you need to talk to 20. And it’s not that it’s a factor of ten – they’re different.

When you talk to 20, you need to be aware of each of the 20 and how they are receiving you. When you’re talking to 200, you have to pick out targeted points but you have to use an incredible amount of energy. It’s as if there’s an opacity, a thickness, to the presence. You’re having to push your thoughts into a much thicker field, and you feel it as a speaker.

We’re not bounded individuals, we’re not hard-shelled things. We’re very porous, we’re very much part of these other fields, charges, and forces. I’m trying to demonstrate the extent to which we need to think about those aggregate collective sorts of phenomenon. Do you think any sociologist is talking about that? Doubtful. It sounds like wacky, new age California weirdness, but it isn’t. It’s real.

&: How does this play into the current political and social changes that we see today?

Drucker: I was writing this long before the Trump election, but when that happened… [I realized] we need better tools for talking about social processes and the forces of affect and how they work, collectively and individually.

One of my concerns was that so many of the political tools of analysis of the current phenomena – wherever you fall on the political spectrum – are inadequate to deal with the fact that this affective force of persuasion, the kinds of alignments that are happening, and the polarizations, have nothing to do with rationality. They’re affective, and affect is a much stronger force than reason. Reason isn’t even a force, it’s an abstract idea invented by 17th and 18th Century philosophers in the Age of Enlightenment who thought that people would be reasonable. Well, they’re not reasonable.

Part of it is tongue-in-cheek and part of it is totally serious. It reads like an academic book, but it’s not, exactly. One of the principles in “The General Theory of Social Relativity” is that all relationships can reach equilibrium if the relation between frequency and proximity is right. In certain relationships, when you see someone too often, it gets out of balance. We all know this is true, right? This is a general principle of social relativity. Everybody understands it, but nobody talks about it on those terms.

The Media Ecology Association had asked me to give a keynote a few years ago. We talk about ‘social media’ all the time [but] was talking about the fact that we [should] understand that all media are social. What we don’t talk about is the way that sociality – the sphere of human engagement – is also a medium.

&: How can fiction – particularly eco-fiction like “Downdrift” explain complex truths?

Drucker: It’s consumable. I think that the ideas become tractable. It’s like when you say, ‘Give me an example.’ If I give you an example, you get it right away. With fiction, we skip the theory and go right to the description. There’s no theory in “Downdrift,” it’s just the playing out of events.

It’s a story, it’s a narrative. The main protagonists are a housecat and a lion, and the lion is a figure from the natural world, whose world is falling apart. The housecat is the figure from the human world, who is also seeing everything change. They have a connection to each other and move across space until they meet.

It’s very elegiac, it’s mournful. I wish the world as we know it wasn’t coming to an end – it just feels that way more and more every day.

The main problem to consider in the general theory project is how to think beyond the self-destructive conditions we’ve gotten ourselves into [and find] a vision of a sustainable and just future that would really make sense. That would seem to me, the biggest puzzle, the most important one.


A panel discussion and booksigning reception to launch “Downdrift: An Eco-Fiction,” will take place on Thursday, April 26, at 5:30 p.m. in the Reading Room (Rm. 3340) at UCLA’s Moore Hall. “Exploring The Eco-Fiction Genre in Writing: A Panel Conversation About the Environment and Writing” will include David Kipen, faculty member in UCLA Writing Programs, and Ursula Heise, UCLA professor of Environmental Studies and English. Books will be available for purchase at the event.


To attend or for more information, visit this Eventbrite link.