Welcome to Inscription

Where to begin? How to begin? These are tricky questions. Perhaps it’s too late to ask, since we’re already out of the starting blocks. We’re on the second line, heading rapidly for the third

– here it is – and then cantering off down the page. But there’s a distinct possibility that this page, page 1

isn’t really the beginning, anyway. Where exactly a journal, a book or any other bound, printed object actually starts is difficult to pinpoint. Does reading start at the front cover – eyeing up the illustration and the blurb; deciding if we like the look and feel of it; giving the pages an exploratory riffle, weighing up whether to take the plunge? Perhaps it begins before that, even, in a world of other printed and digital textual artefacts, or else what Gérard Genette calls the epitext: the reviews, recommendations and countless other things that guide us towards a particular book and shape our understanding of it. Before you pick up or download this journal, you’ve already started reading it.

            But wait. We might be getting ahead of ourselves. This is only the introduction – preliminary matter – just a bit of throat clearing before the journal begins in earnest. It could be that you’re giving it a cursory, dutiful glance before moving on to the actual contents. In which case, perhaps we haven’t started yet, after all.

            The material text and its elusive, slippery, complicated beginnings is what this inaugural issue of Inscription explores. What seem like origins are often revisions and reworkings, as John T. Hamilton shows, through his careful tracing of both the etymologies in Kafka’s writing, and the overwritings in his notebooks. Michael Durrant finds the same dynamic at work in a very different context – early modern Welsh bibles – whose missing title pages have been reinvented in some surprising DIY forms by their owners. These are beginnings that are in fact retrospective constructions. Alice Wickenden, meanwhile, explores how the library of the eighteenth-century collector Hans Sloane has been overwritten by its many subsequent recategorisations and reorderings. She follows the movements of its paper objects as they shift between book covers and picture frames, library shelves and museum cases. It’s the kind of instability that Rebecca Bullard finds, too, in the work of Sloane’s contemporary, the antiquarian John Le Neve. His books of carved epitaphs might be read, she suggests, as an early form of media theory, oscillating between different writing surfaces – stone, print and manuscript – but uncertain which holds the authentic or original version.  

Alexandra Franklin finds embarking on the painstaking process of hand-printing Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) summons meditations on both beginnings and endings. It’s a project that extends forward, beyond her own life span, but also reaches back into the past, to question the beginnings of Melville’s novel. However far back we go, we’re never quite at the start, since the printed book is always, by its nature, a kind of secondary copy. Serena Smith’s description of preparing a lithography stone opens up a different order of time, and a search for beginnings that lie much further back, beyond the anthropocene. This is a limestone surface that has already been written on by geological forces, slow accretions and erosions over millions of years. Kathryn James traces themes of inscription and origin in a different context and a different medium – parchment – as she reflects on the interrelations of animal skin, paternity and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But, as with Smith’s consideration of stone, the question is the same: how to decode the rich meanings and history already legible in this supposedly blank surface.

            Catherine Clover grapples with issues of transcription as well as inscription. The layered soundscape of her suburban Melbourne environment includes not only the distinctive songs of the Australian Magpie, but the indigenous language of the Wurundjeri people which, passed down orally, persists not in writing but through its connection to the terrain. What kind of writing can do it justice, and how can these sounds be committed to the mute page? The Barthes Reading Group, too, are pushing at the limits of the page. They reinvent its layout to transcribe multiple streams of thought and a chorus of voices, responding collectively to Roland Barthes’s The Preparation of the Novel, a book-length preparation for a book that always lies in the future, never getting off the ground.

And, leaving the page entirely, we find Sean Ashton’s voice on vinyl record rehearsing similar, stuttering beginnings. As he reads from his novel, Living in a Land (2017), a series of first lines builds not into a narrative but into an incongruous and hilarious anti-autobiography, one told entirely in the negative. ‘I’ve never been to Glyndebourne’, he reveals, ‘I’ve never had syphillis’, and ‘I have never confronted a dangerous animal’. The record’s spiralling grooves are echoed by this edition’s other artists-in-residence. On a pull-out poster, Jérémie Bennequin takes an eraser to Edgar Allan Poe’s story ‘A Descent into the Maelström’ (1841), removing the shape of its eponymous whirlpool. Digital artist-in-residence Craig Saper imagines a radically new, spherical medium in his text, ‘Foamy Reading’, and here it’s given virtual form by creative technologist Ian Truelove, allowing us to read, revolve, zoom in and out in augmented reality. And then, spiralling back to the pages of the journal we find Craig Dworkin’s intricate meditation on the meanings of this form, juxtaposing Robert Smithson’s massive ‘Spiral Jetty’ (1970) with tiny watchsprings to think about scale, time, entropy and progress.

            If this was a false start, it’s not too late to begin again. There are plenty of other ways to find your way into and around this journal. Erica Baum’s beautiful cover illustration plays on these multiple entry points of the book, confusing the eye by presenting the cover as the fore-edge. Looking at the front, we can already see inside, so to speak. It is also reversible. The whole thing works just as well upside down and back to front, so we have two beginnings and no end. And the middle? Well that’s a beginning of a sort, too. The colophon and publishing information, which would normally be at the start, circles around the central gutter, drawn in by an invisible centripetal force, like the helpless boat in Edgar Allan Poe’s tale. And what is a spiral, after all, but a circle that never quite returns to its original point: starting again, but differently. Flip over. You will see that there are two editorial prefaces, and that one is considerably better than the other: this is deliberate.

Authors