Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Forests of no meaning

I spent this summer obsessed with David Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder. Weinberger writes, "As we invent new principles of organization that make sense in a world of knowledge freed from physical constraints, information doesn't just want to be free, it wants to be miscellaneous." The book is a nice survey of the history of organizational systems from Linnaeus, to the Encyclopedia Britannica to the Dewey decimal system (here is a great set of entries from Britannica Blog about Web 2.0 organization of knowledge; I especially recommend Clay Shirky's "Old Revolutions Good New Revolutions Bad" from that discussion). Weinberger's last chapter begins with a set of questions about knowledge production in the digital miscellany:
As Umberto Eco says, there are many possible cuts of beef, but it's hard to imagine one that has the snout attached to the tail. Even so, if there are many ways to slice up the world, what happens if we don't slice it up the same way as others? Is knowledge being fragmented? Are we being fragmented along with it?

The miscellaneous is unowned. Anyone can add to it. Anyone can slice it up and reorganize it the way she likes. What happens to the very notion of a topic when there are so many ways to carve up nature?

Freed of paper, our knowledge can now be presented, communicated, and preserved in ways rich with links and exceptions. Does knowledge stay simple and orderly?

In the miscellanized world, knowledge is at most one click away from everything else that is not knowledge. Often they share the same page. Does knowledge retain its privileged position?

Finally, ... if everything is miscellaneous, why doesn't it stay that way?

My favorite thing about the book was how generous Weinberger was in directing ideas outward--that quality is especially apparent on his blog for the book--so I started to see examples of these questions in my research in eighteenth-century print culture. In his chapters about how people have tried organizing knowledge in charts, multi-volume encyclopedias and other books, and shelves, Weinberger notes that the new digital miscellany will change the way we think about how to organize knowledge in ways that don't take up physical space. He has to use the term "freed of paper" to make the differentiation clear. But I think eighteenth-century consumers of print culture had as much interest in miscellaneous knowledge as they did in organizing systems, so I want to share a few of the "everything is miscellaneous" reactions from another century. Weinberger's questions about fragmentation of knowledge, accuracy, and new constructions of meaning are very much present in eighteenth-century worries about how to make sense of newly printed and reprinted information.

Scraps of paper--scraps of anything with writing on them--have been fluttering around for a long time. Take, for example, Alexander Pope's translation of Chaucer's House of Fame, which he called the Temple of Fame. I really love these lines--even (especially) in the Old English original, despite my notable ineptitude with other things Chaucerian--and I chose the Pope translation because he's simultaneously fascinated and repelled at how scraps of language (especially gossip) circulate and accumulate at the beginning of the eighteenth century. He can make fun of over-production of print apparatus in the Dunciad--"How random thoughts now meaning chance to find/ Now leave all memory of sense behind"--but he obviously delights in translating and embellishing these lines:
The flying rumours gather'd as they roll'd,
Scarce any tale was sooner heard than told;
And all who told it added something new,
And all who heard it, made enlargements too,
In ev'ry ear it spread, on ev'ry tongue it grew.
Thus flying east and west, and north and south,
News travel'd with increase from mouth to mouth.
So from a spark, that kindled first by chance,
With gath'ring force the quick'ning flames advance;
Till to the clouds their curling heads aspire,
And tow'rs and temples sink in floods of fire.
When thus ripe lies are to perfection sprung,
Full grown, and fit to grace a mortal tongue,
Thro' thousand vents, impatient, forth they flow,
And rush in millions on the world below.
Fame sits aloft, and points them out their course,
Their date determines, and prescribes their force:
Some to remain, and some to perish soon;
Or wane and wax alternate like the moon.
Around, a thousand winged wonders fly,
Borne by the trumpet's blast, and scatter'd thro' the sky.
There, at one passage, oft you might survey
A lie and truth contending for the way;
And long 'twas doubtful, both so closely pent,
Which first should issue thro' the narrow vent:
At last agreed, together out they fly,
Inseparable now, the truth and lie;
The strict companions are for ever join'd,
And this or that unmix'd, no mortal e'er shall find.

I see all of Weinberger's questions in these lines: is there any logic to how fame "prescribes [the] force" of a piece of information? how does one differentiate truths from lies (especially, say, in the circulation of gossip... or, in recent debates about Wikipedia)?

The poem reminds me of Gawker's self-conscious obituary for George W.S. Trow, who wrote "Within the Context of No Context" about the decline of print and meaning with the advent of television and modern media culture. Trow wrote, "The work of television is to establish false contexts and to chronicle the unraveling of existing contexts; finally to establish the context of no-context and chronicle it." That sentence, Gawker noted, was its operating procedure--but people have been saying something similar about other forms of decontextualizing and recontextualizing technology for hundreds of years. Stephen Metcalf also wrote a wonderful piece about Trow in Slate. Here's Trow on the economy of gossip, which seems intimately linked to what Pope delights (and trafficks, notes Sophie Gee in her new novel The Scandal of the Season) in:
Gossip is small, shameless history. It sets out to tell the trivial about the great or about those connected to the great. It thrives on awkwardness--because it assumes dignity somewhere. 'Somewhere else, you're getting another story,' gossip says with a knowing look, 'but this is what you wanted to know.'"

Basically, I lived in the context of no context when I edited the Columbia Daily Spectator. My desk was a mess of agendas, half-finished plans, and old print-outs from days, weeks, months before. We had a quote board--a real-life Temple of Fame--where "all who told it added something new" by committing to paper whatever sleep-deprived wit was uttered during the long nights of production. At the end of the year, my friend Graham and I had a perverse competition to see who could sneak the most bizarre item into the Inside Box (writing teasers for the inside box was always the lowest priority: the box would get re-sized as articles changed size or number, sometimes editors would leave without remembering to write something for their section, and various other small indignities made the box something of a sore spot at four o'clock in the morning). "Oh, no one reads the inside box anyway," I harrumphed one night. Graham grinned wickedly and committed that exasperation to paper with the tag: words Alice will soon come to regret.

One night, he reached up to the piece of paper on the quote board, crossed out that tag, and replaced it with: words Alice has come to regret. Graham had changed all the teasers to fragments of Megadeth lyrics semi-relevant (OK, not relevant at all) to the articles in the next day's paper. I began to cry when I saw it--not because I was mad, but because I was so touched by the weirdness of the gesture. So, yeah, just as the quote board was a delightful context of no context, it could also be the justification for committing that ethic of fragmentation and reappropriation into print.

I love Trow's term, context of no context, and I see it all over the eighteenth century. In his 1785 poem The Task,William Cowper described reading miscellaneous newspaper notices from his sofa: "I long to set the imprison'd wranglers free, / And give them voice and utt'rance once again." Thirty years later, William Hone chopped up Cowper's poem and mashed together the lines about newspapers to make a new poem about the joys of reading:
What is it, but a map of busy life,
Its fluctuations, and its vast concerns?
House in ashes, and the fall of stocks,
Births, deaths, marriages-------
---------The grand debate,
The popular harangue, the tart reply,
The logic, and the wisdom, and the wit,
And the loud laugh---------
Cat'racts of declamation thunder here:
There forests of no meaning spread the page,
In which all comprehension wanders lost;
While merry descants on a nation's woes.
The rest appears a wilderness of strange
But gay confusion.

Those long dashes indicate where Hone has cut and pasted from various parts of The Task; he skips Cowper's more ambivalent lines about what happens when one only reads of these "scenes of Babel" and is not spurred to act on the news about the East India Bill or the slave trade because he reads (in Cowper's words) "at a safe distance, where the dying sound / Falls a soft murmur on th'uninjured ear." In the 1810s and '20s, Hone put together a series of almanac-like volumes with miscellaneous entries for each day of the year, something like a paper version of a blog; Marcus Wood's Radical Satire and Print Culture is particularly interesting to read for the comparison between the original Task and Hone's mash-up version. So you can see how much he loved miscellany: he didn't just make them on the book scale, he could treat a poem as if it were a miscellany to be reconstituted.

The Task is my favorite poem of all time just for that line about fragmentation: "forests of no meaning spread the page." Weinberger asks how the idea of meaning changes in the digital miscellany, but it appears that Cowper and others are asking something similar about how newspaper readers derive meaning from an item if they can just as easily close the pages and move on. This summer, The New York Times ran an amazing article which compared fragments of Tony Blair's final Parliament speech to a poem by George Crabbe called "The Newspaper." I was stunned to see an obscure eighteenth-century poem in the Times, but I loved the piece for its funny gesture of decontextualizing and recontextualizing a poem about how newspapers do just that. In the preface to the 1785 edition of the poem, Crabbe says he's the first to detail the decline of reading due to the pernicious influence of newspapers--here's Paul Collins on the perpetual recurrence of that trope--but I think this poem must be a response to Cowper. Here are some choice passages about the dangers of miscellaneous reading:
So the Sybilline leaves were blown about,
Disjointed scraps of fate involv'd in doubt
So idle dreams, the journals of the night,
Are right by turns, and mingle wrong with right.--
Next in what rare production shall we trace
Such various subjects in so small a space?
As the first ship upon the waters bore
Incongruous kinds that never met before;
Or as some curious virtuoso joins,
In one small room, moths, minerals, and coins,
Birds, beast, and fishes; nor refuses place
To serpents, toads, and all the reptile race.

And next th' amusement which the motley page
Affords to either sex and every age:
Lo! where it comes before the chearful fire,
Damp from the press in smoky curls aspire
(As from the earth the sun exhales the dew)
Ere we can read the wonders that ensue:
Then eager every eye surveys the part,
That brings its favourite subject to the heart;
Grave politicians look for facts alone,
And slighting theirs, make comments of their own;
The sprightly nymph, who never broke her rest
For tottering crowns, or mighty lands oppres'd,
Finds broils and battles, but neglects them all
For songs and suits, a birth-day, or a ball...

While Cowper was merely ambivalent about the experience of being able to simply scan the next item in the paper after having read of far-away tumult, Crabbe seizes on it as a reason for rejecting newspaper miscellanies. These objections also look similar to those about people picking and choosing what they want to read in RSS feeds.

OK, this post has exhausted what's expected of the genre, but I've got a few other miscellaneous notes on Weinberger's book.
Blogger Jenny Davidson on Wed Sep 26, 08:11:00 AM:
Great post! We'll talk more...
Anonymous Katy on Thu Sep 27, 09:15:00 AM:
I'm reading Everything is Miscellaneous for my cataloging course this semester. I think you'd like the class, Alice.
Blogger Scriblerus on Thu Sep 27, 10:07:00 AM:
This comment has been removed by the author.
Blogger Scriblerus on Thu Sep 27, 10:35:00 AM:
Tremendous post, and right up my alley. As you know I'm working on generic organization/mediation of other genres, so this was very helpful. I will read Everything is Miscellaneous directly.

Speaking of cataloging and organizing, I was wondering if you were familiar with this:


I'm usually a bit late to every game, so you likely already know it...
Blogger Xopo on Mon Oct 01, 09:55:00 AM:
Hey Alice, This is a great post! The first bits you've quoted from Weinberger's account of Eco and his own questions about information and miscellany are very similar to Fielding's taxonomic descriptions of social hierarchies in *Joseph Andrews.* He uses butchered animals to think about how wealth, taste, food are distributed in a, well, miscellaneous society. I thought you might want to take a look.