Adam Smyth
Welcome to Inscription

Where to begin? How to begin? With a welcome.

Welcome! You’re reading Inscription, and we’re delighted about that. Perhaps this copy has just arrived in the post and you are opening these pages for the first time. Perhaps you are browsing this snippet online, unable to see the whole text, weighing up the odds. Perhaps someone is reading this to you. Perhaps you’re in a library looking for a particular article and this volume has just been carried up by a librarian from the deep stacks with an old reader’s slip tucked between pages 12 and 13. Or perhaps it is decades from the moment now when I am writing: welcome 2147, or 2238, and welcome future-you, with all your unforeseen ways, turning the pages of a long-ago journal that, as I write, has three months until publication. Wherever or whenever you are: welcome, and thank you for reading the first edition of Inscription.

            A welcome, and then a statement of purpose. Inscription: the act of inscribing; the action of writing upon or in something, especially in a durable or conspicuous way. Are we durable and conspicuous? Time will tell, but we are certainly invested in thinking about making marks upon or in surfaces or substrates. Inky revisions in a novelist’s notebook. A chisel cutting into stone. Hurried pencil scrawls across scraps of paper. Pieces of lead type pressing ink on to paper. Spiralling digital text viewed on a phone. A goose quill scratching parchment. The repelling force of oil and water playing out across a lithography stone. Grooves cut into polyvinyl chloride (or PVC, or vinyl). Inscription will explore material texts and the processes of mark-making in all these varieties and specificities.

We want Inscription to range widely across boundaries of place and of period. In this first edition, we are in regional archives, artists’ studios, family homes, national libraries, living rooms, parchment-making businesses. We are at dinner in the Askanischer Hof Hotel, Berlin, and we are out in the Australian streets with the birds. We move through early twentieth-century Prague, sixteenth-century Wales, nineteenth-century America, eighteenth-century England, and the northern suburbs of Melbourne in 2020. But rather than offering only a linear chronological range – although that’s a good thing, too – the articles and creative pieces contained in these pages invite us to rethink more profoundly the timeliness of material texts. Where, in time, do material texts rest? When is their moment? One of the rich potentials, and the joys, of thinking about material texts is that the punctual and sometimes punishing historicism of much academic criticism – the click of text being locked into context – can be suspended or complicated or augmented with an interest in other temporal frames: the longue durée; the Wordsworthian spots of time; the purposeful anachronism; the palimpsest (from the Greek palimpsestos, meaning ‘scraped again’); the looping chronology of the recycled or the repurposed or the revised.

            Material texts offer this potential because while they tell all kinds of stories – romances, tragedies, comedies – they can also tell us, if we learn to read the signs correctly, the stories of their own making.[1]These material narratives exist alongside, and sometimes in tension with, artistic representation – whether that’s the novel’s plot, or the painting’s scene, or the record’s bodiless voice. The vinyl you are, or will be, listening to is made from 74% co-polymer, 25% PVC, and 1% pigment, compressed into a ‘puck’ which was placed between two stampers to form under heat and pressure the vinyl disc that spins and gives voice. We hope you’re enjoying it! The pages of a sixteenth-century Bible were made from paper which came from linen made from recycled second-hand clothes once worn by men and women and children who lived in the 1500s. Does it matter than the Book of Genesis was once a labourer’s shirt? A parchment with beautiful historiated letters was some time before the skin of a sheep staring out mutely across green fields, before the creature was slaughtered, the skin stripped of wool, fermented in quick-lime, washed, stretched, perforated, pared, scoured, dried, rubbed. The lithographer’s stone producing prints about today is studded with fossils of creatures from hundreds of millions of years ago. What role do these pre-histories have in the texts we encounter? What kind of temporal flickerings do they create? How can we ever say we know when a text begins when surfaces carry with them these temporal depths – when the book or the print or the page in our hands might best be thought of as only the most recent form assumed by materials that have a much longer, and more tumultuous life story.

            Inscription will explore material texts and acts of marking through exciting critical articles and creative work. We hope also that the material form of Inscription will itself provide a prompt to imaginative and expansive thinking about the ways writing (in the broadest sense) creates its effects. This is a journal, but it is also a variety of container or box for other things (like a fold-out print), and it is also a kind of sleeve for a vinyl record, and it is also a link or route to an online rotating piece of text. Our symbol for the journal is a spiral, a form turning both in on itself and out to reach the world, rich in connotation but also not quite looking at us in the eye; a form associated with Robert Smithson’s counter-clockwise coil Spiral Jetty (1970), and Ubu’s stomach in Alfred Jarry’s proto-Surrealist Ubu Roi (1896), and the whirlpools in Edgar Allan Poe’s terrifying short story ‘A Descent into the Maelström’ (1841). The journal in your hands begins from both ends, or neither. Half of it is upside down, until you turn it round, when the other half is. The end is in the middle. We hope reading is stranger and more baffling and less knowable as a result of Inscription. You will have seen that Inscription has two editorial prefaces, and that one is considerably better than the other: this is deliberate.

[1] As D.F. McKenzie observed, ‘every book tells a story quite apart from that recounted by its text’: D.F. McKenzie, Making Meaning: Printers of the Mind and Other Essays, ed. by Peter D. McDonald and Michael F. Suarez (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002), p. 262.