In the last post on this topic I wrote: “For a person to set up as a publisher and declare themselves an editor without any socioeconomic vetting by an acknowledged institution of authority (one with money & power) is a subversive act.” I’d like to explore that statement a little more, grounded in a particular experience.

Many years ago now, when I was living in Baltimore, I was acting as the “Project Coordinator” of the Dolphin Press, which was a fine press run out of the Printmaking Dept. at the Maryland Institute College of Art. NewLights had been started by then too. Running Dolphin was a volunteer position—a stopgap measure to keep the press producing during a time of little/no funding. The Dolphin Press, in any official sense, did not exist. But I figured it was good “professional” experience—and it was.

I put “professional” in quotes, because, back then, even more so than now, I really had no idea what I was doing or what I was supposed to do. But enough background—this post is supposed to be about the subverting of institutional authority.

At some point during my time at Dolphin, one of the other departments at MICA purchased a book from the press, and, naturally, asked for an invoice/receipt. Of course nothing like that existed, so I had to make one. I kept thinking something along the lines of: I’m just some normal jerk, I can’t make or issue an invoice. I don’t have the authority to do this. I did it anyway, of course. I made an invoice for a transaction between two academic departments—one of which was imaginary.

The small press world, though, as a whole, is imaginary. Imaginary despite the aching muscles, the bottomed-out bank accounts, and the stacks of wonderful books. Our imagination will tear us apart from the inside.

A year or two down the road, when it became time to design an invoice for NewLights (when actual businesses (bookstores) and other institutions (libraries) started buying things), I realized that the detritus of the institution (“the institution” in the general sense)—its forms, invoices, documents, correspondence, paperwork—is one of the major things that constitute its identity outside of its local time & place. Thus the strange looking invoices, correspondence forms, inspection slips, etc. that NewLights uses. Such things are the flimsy foundation on which this imaginary institution rests.

What makes a press “real” and what makes it “imaginary?” Is it a physical location? Is it money? The things that it publishes? Its paperwork? Its tax forms? Its ISBN numbers? Its authors? Its publishing practices? How all of those things congeal into an image of “the press” in the mind of the public?

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