James Gibson’s theory of affordances suggests that what animals perceive in their environment is not so much the properties of individual objects but rather the possibilities for action they enable. There’s a sense here that what things are and what things mean show up for the animal at the same time. On Gibson’s view, an ecological niche is thus best understood as a set of affordances made available by an animal’s capacities. For example, a niche may afford climbing, sheltering, swimming, running, standing, eating, and so on.
Gibson notes that there’s a tight link between animal and niche, where the abilities of the animal and the properties of the niche mutually act to constrain the set of available affordances. In the case of humans, Gibson observes, the situation is a bit different in that we actively engage in the planned construction of our own affordance landscapes. (Had Gibson been alive today he no doubt would have paid greater attention to the niche-constructing actions of all organisms.) We can see a gymnasium as affording fitness, a town square as affording meeting, a library as affording reading, for example.
I think we can take Gibson’s general examples of affordance-providing environments a step further and ask, what is a book? At the level of its constituent materials a book is just so much ink, paper, glue, and binding. But listing materials hardly captures the experience of reading, or the understanding that can come from it. In Gibson’s terms, listing what a book is made of captures only its material properties and not what those properties afford or make possible. So, what from this ecological perspective is a book? One answer is that a book is a set of detailed affordances arranged on purpose to make available to the reader a certain kind of understanding.
That sounds a bit dry, but think of it this way. I’ve said that books provide a very detailed and intentional set of affordances for a certain kind of understanding, affordances that are shaped—line by line, curve by curve, letter by letter, space by space, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter—with the intention of being used, that is, understood, by the reader. Typography and bookmaking are from this perspective intricate material practices for the installment of conversions in apprehension, for the reshaping of awareness through the mode of discursive engagement. Consider in this context these words from Robert Bringhurst’s excellent The Elements of Typographic Style:
Typography is the craft of endowing human language with a durable visual form, and thus with an independent existence. . . . As a craft, typography shares a long common boundary and many common concerns with writing and editing on the one side and with graphic design on the other; yet typography itself belongs to neither (11). . . . Typography is just that: idealized writing. Writers themselves now rarely have the calligraphic skill of earlier scribes, but they evoke countless versions of ideal script by their varying voices and literary styles. To these blind and often invisible visions, the typographer must respond in visible terms. . . . Simple as it may sound, the task of creative non-interference with letters is a rewarding and difficult calling. In ideal conditions, it is all that typographers are really asked to do—and it is enough (19).
I recommend taking a look at Bringhurst’s book if ever you get the chance. The level of detail with which he approaches the craft of typography is astounding. Now, if we take onboard this deep sense of skill involved in letter making, then the extent to which typographers and writers construct very detailed ecologies of affordance really comes to the fore. It is from this perspective that I’d say books do not contain knowledge or concepts or accounts or stories, but rather a complex set of micro-affordances carefully designed and crafted with the expressed purpose of allowing the engaged reader the possibility of rendering for him or herself a new arrangement of understanding and participation, a possibility—far from a guarantee, but a possibility nonetheless—of putting these affordances to work internally, as participant in future moments of experience, as new availabilities for insight and judgement.
Stated in another way, just as an exposed mountain face does not contain “climbing,” a book does not contain “knowledge” or “know-how” or anything similar. Rather, the book, like the mountain face, offers up, to the adept, a series of contours and features that enable the climber to climb and the reader to read. Books are things we think with and through rather than storehouses we download from. The art of writing, then, is the intentional creation of affordances that make such transformations of experience possible. The book is the environment in which such affordances can endure. The key here is that these affordances are grounded in the reader’s knowledge and abilities. To put this in Alva Noë’s terms, the ground of access to anything is always one’s own know-how, one’s own ability to perceive affordances in the environment.
We might think of art objects or contemplative tools in the same way—as instruments for the delivery of specific affordances—but that’s another story.