An International Conference Devoted to the Theme "Publishing and the Power Structure"

Jacques Michon (Université de Sherbrooke)

From September 13 to 16, 1993, the Université de Sherbrooke hosted the 12th international conference on bibliology, the theme of which was "Publishing and the Power Structure." The organization of this conference was entrusted to the Groupe de recherche sur l'édition littéraire au Québec (Research Body on Literary Publishing in Quebec), working in collaboration with the Association internationale de bibliologie (AIB, International Bibliological Association) and the Association québécoise pour l'étude de l'imprimé (Quebec Association for the Study of Printed Works). The conference attracted some 30 speakers from 10 different countries in Europe, Africa, and North America. Over the space of three days, speakers addressed three carefully defined subdivisions of the main theme: (1) History and Procedures of Publishing, (2) Strategies Devised by and against the Power Structure, and (3) Impact of the New Technologies. Twenty-eight papers were read (in French) before an audience of some 100 participants.

Publishing has links with literature on the one hand and the power structure on the other. It stands poised between two systems emphasizing antinomic realms, the symbolic and the material. The pressures to which it is subjected come from two quarters: on the one hand, publishing strives to achieve greater autonomy; on the other, it needs to take account of the market and /or the dominant classes of society. Since publishing has to come to terms with these conflicting objectives, the scope of its operations makes of it a sub-system of social communication. It may be banned or it may operate in a clandestine fashion; it may respect the laws of the market or function in opposition to them. Whatever the role it chooses to play, publishing will always be found making its distinctive contribution to the debate over issues central to the well-being of society. The conference certainly illustrated that fact, along with others equally weighty, thanks to the opportunity it afforded participants of dissecting in different ways the links between publishing and the power structure when viewed from a political, economic, religious, and technocratic standpoint.

The conference opened with a talk on the origins of, and recent developments in, political bibliology. Subsequent workshops focused on five broad themes: (1) the links between publishing and literature; (2) pirating and vanity publishing; (3) censorship and clandestine publishing; (4) the State and publishing; and (5) publishing and the new technologies.

Toward a Political Bibliology

Robert Estivals (Université de Bordeaux III) gave, in the conference's initial talk, a general overview of the questions raised by a political bibliology. He began by surveying past and present contributions to this topic, then went on to propose a methodology for dealing with questions that address "both political power and its exercise, the sub-systems of written communication and their mode of reacting to political power." The methodology should also address "the sociological data that account in part for the positions taken by the wielders of political power." Bibliological models must be devised that take stock of the close relationship between political power, the role of the State, and written communication; nor must we lose sight of the control agencies that each country has set in place. Estivals called for the setting up of an international bibliological watchdog committee. He suggested the creation of a research group whose task it would be to study the transformations occurring in the system of written communication existing today in the countries of Central Europe. These countries have of course undergone a shift from a socialist to a market economy, and this shift has in turn had interesting repercussions on the bibliological system of that region.

Publishing and Literature

During the first half-day of the conference, the speakers addressed the question of how literature relates to the publishing system. Three of the speakers dealt with the impact of the book industry on literature, and they were substantially in agreement as to what that impact is. Alain Vaillant (Université Jean-Monnet) questioned whether literature, when given concrete form in a book and presented as a cultural fiction to which a community of readers is receptive, is not fated merely to be viewed as literature, and as a literature, moreover, that, on the threshold of the twenty-first century, appeals strictly to the imagination. Literary book publishing in Italy came under scrutiny in a talk given by Alberto Cadioli (University of Milan). Cadioli demonstrated that literature and literary reading decline in quality when publishing is responsive to the most superficial social and political tendencies. An expanding book market does not necessarily denote an increase in the number of readers. In actual fact, as Cadioli pointed out, to promote reading as a source of personal enrichment is an altogether different thing from supervising the growth of the book market. Communication as it is understood today relegates reading to the status of a mere segment of a multimedia cultural industry. Some of these same concerns surfaced in the talk given by Jacques Michon (Université de Sherbrooke). Michon examined the traditional relationships that have existed since the nineteenth century in Canada between the State and the publishing industry. The State has extensively subsidized this industry and Michon analyzed the effects that State policies have had on the structure of written communication in Canada and on the actions of authors and publishers. The policies today appear to be responsive to trends in an international market favouring the growth of large corporations and inimical to the survival of small publishers specializing in literary and scholarly publications. As Michon pointed out, the only thing capable of offsetting an industry whose sole objective is to publish works meeting the expectations of the media is to devise an efficient policy for the promotion of reading.

Pirating and Vanity Publishing

Publishing practices running the gamut from fraudulent to downright illegal were brought to the attention of the conference participants. These practices highlight the gap that can exist between publishing as an industry and what might be called the sphere of literary legitimacy. As is well known, publishing enterprises catering to markets operating on the fringes of the law routinely resort to contraband and pirating. Pirating in particular often takes place in areas adjoining the more extensive centres of production and legitimation, as many conference speakers emphasized. Jacques Hellemans (Belgium) described the Belgian practice, during the first half of the nineteenth century, of exporting to Italy pirated versions of works produced in France. And according to Sylvio Normand (Université Laval), Québec became the theatre of a similar operation toward the close of the nineteenth century, when unauthorized reprintings and adaptations of French legal writings made their appearance here. Richard Saint-Germain (Université du Québec à Montréal) told how Québec publishers in the 1940s and 1950s drew substantial dividends from their dubiously legal reproductions of popular Parisian serial writings. Sylvio Normand interpreted this kind of pirating as evidence of the supersession of a colonial culture based on imitation by an autonomous national culture. Mario Parent (Université de Sherbrooke) explained how resorting to vanity publishing could plausibly be viewed as a means that authors might adopt of offsetting the power wielded by the established literary publishers.

The Church has formerly been confronted with the burgeoning strength of a publishing industry that turns out an ever-growing number of titles, some authorized, some not, some legitimated by representatives of the civil or religious power, some denied that legitimation. Faithful to her past modes of conduct, the Church has always regarded such a development with suspicion and continues to voice reservations. Yvan Cloutier (Collège de Sherbrooke) explained that the Church's suspicions stem from a long tradition emphasizing the oral transmission of messages. The Church knows, of course, how to use printing for her own ends, but her history demonstrates that she has always subordinated the printed to the spoken word. The reason for this is that, where the Church is concerned, the spoken word is a much more efficient tool for winning hearts and minds, on which, after all, her hegemony depends.

Censorship and Clandestine Publishing

Censorship and clandestine publishing mark the diametrically opposed modes of control that the power structure exerts over written communication. As was made clear by many of the speakers at this conference, censorship operates either sequentially or simultaneously at the political, moral, and religious levels. Pierre Hébert (Université de Sherbrooke) spoke of Laurent-Olivier David's short treatise, Le clergé canadien, sa mission, son oeuvre, and told of its being put on the Index by Rome in 1896. Martine Poulain (Bulletin des bibliothèques de France) explained the facts surrounding the legal attempts initiated in London, in 1960, to suppress the publication of a paperback edition of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. These two talks made clear just how complex the censorship operation can be. The power structure calls upon its legal, political, publishing, and religious agents to find ways of diverting attention from the work's status as literature and playing up instead its controversial features; evaluation of the work thereby becomes embroiled in questions that are often totally irrelevant to it, but that are nonetheless of profound concern to the power structure. Pierre Hébert accordingly proposed that censorship be investigated within a conceptual framework indebted to hermeneutics and the theory of speech acts.

Many of the speakers dealt with the present and former state of publishing in the countries of Central Europe. Since 1988-89, these countries have witnessed a radical and progressive change in their political, economic, and cultural systems. They are experiencing the birth of a new era, and this makes it all the more important to carefully observe how the whole system of written communication, together with its network of agents, reacts to the changes imposed by the new power structure. The conference provided an ideal opportunity for participants to be reminded of how publishing and the power structure formerly responded to each other's initiatives. Participants were also made aware of the changes affecting their relationship. Two speakers described what the relationship was like in times past; two others explained the rapid changes that are in the process of transforming it radically. Judit Lorincz (The Budapest National Library) reviewed the censorship measures adopted in Hungary during the twentieth century; she principally focused on the measures in place during the 1980s. Jan Rubes (Université libre de Bruxelles) told of a clandestine publishing network (samizdat) that was set up in Czechoslovakia from 1969 to 1989, operating on a quasi-official basis, and that resulted in the launching of numerous publishing firms existing on the fringes of the official system. Gyorgy Rozsa (Budapest Academy of Sciences Library) and Jarmila Burgetova (Main Library of the Czech Academy of Sciences) described how written communication has fared in their respective countries. Things are rather confused, they explained, because a power structure grown obsolete has had to give way to another that has yet to demonstrate its worth. This in turn makes it quite difficult to compile the objective data required for assessing the changes that are taking place. Thanks to these two speakers, conference participants were able to obtain a comprehensive, personal, and objective view of the situation. They reacted with considerable interest to descriptions of how publishing fares in Central Europe. In response to a suggestion made by Robert Estivals, many of the participants joined parallel workshops to help devise a collective research approach to the study of the transformations publishing has undergone since 1989 in the countries of Central Europe.

The State and Publishing

In countries where there exists no strong demand for an indigenous literature, responsibility for promoting the publication of books rests principally with the State. This is especially true of countries that were formerly colonies. Focusing on conditions prevailing in former colonies, Hans-Jürgen Lusebrink (University of Passau) described how the situation of printers and publishers evolved in French West Africa during the period form 1855 to 1960. Alain Poiri (Université de Montréal) explained how, economically, publishing is faring at present in the Ivory Coast, whereas Rabah Allahoum (Institut de bibliothéconomie, Algers) provided an overview of how the system of written communication in Algeria has developed from the pre-colonial (Ottoman) period to the present day. As for Canada, it is no longer, politically speaking, a colony, but Canadian publishing interests have nonetheless not completely shed their dependence on the counterpart French, British, and American interests--which is why the State, in Canada, still has an important role to play in the dissemination of literature on a national scale. Sylvie Faure and Josée Vincent (Université de Sherbrooke) described the situation prevailing in Québec during the 1960s; this was when the Federal Government set up agencies designed to help publishing become national in scope. These two speakers pinpointed both the merits and demerits of governmental intervention in the sphere of literary publishing--a sphere where such intervention has not always satisfied the expectations it has raised.

Publishing and the New Technologies

Four speakers dealt with the question of power as emanating from the literary institution itself. They emphasized the emergence of new symbolic practices soon to be legitimated, such as children's literature, the comic strip, and literature in translation. Suzanne Pouliot (Université de Sherbrooke) described the spectacular growth in popularity of children's literature in Québec since the 1980s. She outlined the modern promotional methods together with the market strategies devised by the publishers in this field. As for the comic strip, it came under examination in talks delivered by Paul Bleton (Téléuniversité, Montréal) and Christian-Marie Pons (Université de Sherbrooke). A narrative published in book form, the comic strip allows the fusion of two distinct systems of signs, the image and the written word. And since the comic strip is a recent development in the world of publishing, Bleton and Pons saw the need to trace its beginnings and explain its growth in popularity.

The extent to which literature in translation has sparked interest among publishers sheds clear light on both the nature and the pace of the intercultural exchanges taking place. Sherry Simon (Concordia University) comprehensively assessed the state of translation in the world, then went on to describe how translators are faring in France and in Canada; her principal concern was with the effects that governmental policies are having on the development and dissemination of literature in translation. Hans-Jürgen Hartmann (Humboldt University of Berlin) used translation statistics to speculate on the extent to which, in the twentieth century, Canadian literature, both French and English, has made inroads in the German-speaking countries (the Federal Republic, the ex-GDR, Austria, and Switzerland).

A conference devoted to publishing and the power structure had to make room for examination of the new technologies that are transforming authorship and publication, together with the traditional supports of the craft of writing (the book, the magazine, the journal). Bill Winder (University of British Columbia) addressed the question from an epistemological point of view by positing a direct link between the theory of signs and the computer. He pointed out that the advent of electronic writing had brought about a shift in the boundary between what the subject can claim as its own (the meaning) and what belongs to the social sphere. The need has accordingly arisen, Winder said, to rigidly demarcate the meaning inherent in a subject from the information that, since it emanates from a machine, destroys the privileges authors formerly enjoyed (along with long-established editorial practices). François Richaudeau (Éditions Retz, Paris), for his part, dealt with "the new technologies of production and the new techniques of commercialization." He pinpointed the contradictions inherent in a situation that allows an author to become his own publisher thanks to CAP (computer-aided publishing). In the new system dominated by the distributors, such an author is shunted aside, because they can afford to ignore him. Pascal Durand (Centre d'Études du Livre Contemporain, CELIC, Liège) refused to align himself either with the doomsayers who, for centuries now, have been predicting the demise of book literature, or with the book enthusiasts who extol its capacity to weather all of time's assaults. He suggested that, in order to move beyond the stage at which book literature is the subject either of gloomy (the "fractal" model) or hopeful (the "spiral" model) forecasts, scholars undertake an analysis of the sociological bases of these forecasts. The forecasts tinged with pessimism would be perceived as emanating from agents conscious of progressively losing their symbolic authority, whereas the more hopeful forecasts would be made by agents appropriating this same authority for themselves. Finally, Guy Pélachaud (Université du Mans) brought the conference to a close with a talk that explored the many facets of the revolution wrought by the computer in society. He drew attention to a number of ways in which the technological revolution can materially assist the affirmation of cultural and scientific identities.

Capitalizing on the interest which it had created, the conference participants set up two international research teams. The first one, headed by Pierre Hébert of the Université de Sherbrooke, will study the impact of censorship on publishing. The second, headed by Jarmila Burgetova, will examine the transformations that the system of written communication has undergone in Central European countries since 1989. The two research teams will be presenting their findings at the 13th International Conference of Bibliology due to take place May 24, in Prague, on the subject of Publishing in Eastern Europe since 1989. The AIB executive committee held a working session during which the committee members adopted many proposals bearing upon the statutes of the Association and its next conference. The transactions of this year's conference, "Publishing and the Power Structure," are being drafted and will be appearing late next year.

Finally, the conference offered an excellent occasion for the launching, in the presence of the Rector of the Université de Sherbrooke, of a work compiled by many hands, Les sciences de l'écrit. Encyclopédie internationale de bibliologie. It was edited by Robert Estivals and published under the supervision of the AIB. This is the first French-language encyclopedia that deals exclusively with written communication. Working in collaboration with Jean Meyriat and François Richaudeau, Robert Estivals created a team of 80 scholars of 18 different nationalities, all of them world-renowned experts in their various fields. The work that they compiled describes the history, foundations, theories, and rules of written communication. Its 250 articles discussing institutions, objects, personalities, and particular disciplines make it both a dictionary and an encyclopedia.


Estivals, Robert. (1993). Les Sciences de l'écrit. Encyclopédie internationale de bibliologie. Published under the supervision of the Association internationale de bibliologie. Paris: Éditions Retz.