This Will Kill That

In a chapter titled “This Will Kill That” of Notre-Dame de Paris, Victor Hugo presents his thoughts on the death of architecture, or rather, on the migration of civilizational content from the walls of the building to the pages of the book. Historical events, religious laws and cultural symbols were all, up until the fifteenth century, embedded in architecture. Statues, bas-reliefs, murals, and all the manner of other decorative techniques were used to inject the symbols of civilization into the architecture of a building, to let the stones carry and spread their meaning. With the invention of the printing press, that content migrated to the pages of a book, and this happened not only because printing was cheaper and easier in comparison to architecture, but because it was also more permanent. This was a new sort of permanence, not the permanence of the stone, which erodes and wears away over centuries, but the permanence of replication, the ability to produce an unlimited number of copies of the same thing.

But the permanence of books rests on them being read. An unopened book is less a part of our consciousness than an architectural element which the forces of nature and time defaced beyond recognition. Where the latter is little more than a carcass of its former self, the former is nothing it all. And so, as symbols of civilization made their way from the façades of our buildings onto the pages of the book, they unwittingly walked into a medium that not only had the power to keep them alive, but the power to extinguish them. And that is exactly what happened. As we moved into the post-modern era, the era of mass consumption, attention shifted away from those great books in which the history and meaning of our civilization was recorded to the products of entertainment. Having first moved out of sight, away from the daily interaction with us on the streets, the symbols of civilization have been moved out of mind, buried in the little wooden coffin of the closed book.

November 2015