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Friday, February 29, 2008

No consensus

On my Bloomberg terminal today, the quote of the day (one day after
Bloomberg's big NYTimes editorial) is:

"A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus."
          -- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Interesting... you might say the basic question about Obama is whether
he is the former or the latter.

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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Anyone who had a heart

I'd been looking forward to Shelby Lynne's album of Dusty Springfield covers for months, and I'm happy to say it's a good album. After hearing it, part of me still wants to ask, Why make a Dusty Springfield cover album? (My mom will almost certainly ask that question... I made her watch Joss Stone do a mediocre impersonation of Dusty--albeit in a thigh-skimming baby-doll dress that Dusty would have no-noed--on some televised awards show a few years ago, and we were both just as horrified as the audience at seeing the sexed version of an already sexy, but restrained song such as "Son of a Preacher Man." You know, sometimes when I have little else to do, I worry about the careers of Joss Stone and Amy Lee, two singers with big voices whose music I absolutely hate. I want more for these big-voiced female singers, more than B-level R&B or synth-goth rock, more than their bad enunciation and cheesy videos can currently give them. And those moments are wasted moments...)

Here's why Shelby Lynne was an intriguing choice for such an endeavor: "Your Lies," the first song from her Grammy-winning album I Am Shelby Lynne, literally took my breath away when I first heard it. Just extraordinary. So I looked forward to these interpretations, which are as no-frills as possible and have very little of the glorious instrumentation that the originals have. Dusty in Memphis is a landmark album, so Shelby Lynne doesn't try to re-do it. Hers is actually a schizoid interpretation: a huge endeavor to cover such songs, but a modest means of doing it. I guess I'm still ambivalent about whether I want to hear no-frills Dusty Springfield...

If no-frills Dusty isn't your thing, then revel in this amazing essay from the NYRB a few years ago about the nostalgia trip of listening to Burt Bacharach's catalog. It's a wonderful explanation of how nostalgia, especially nostalgia for late 60s-early 70s frills works:
The song's impact has a great deal to do with its emphatic deployment of the word "now": the eternal imperatives of lyric warmth are being enlisted into a program of worldwide empathy under the momentary leadership of Jackie DeShannon, whose stunning promotional photograph is a sort of poster for youth itself as imagined in 1965, the perfect Southern California flower girl, with her miniskirt and straight blond hair, radiating sincerity and spontaneity and the dissolution of hidebound social forms. Yet the defiantly fragile sentiment embodied in her singing exists at the center of the most sophisticated imaginable orchestral setting, in a harmonious wedding of feeling and production machinery. No question of counterculture: the culture itself appears to be changing at its core. In the space of under three minutes you construct a story about the way the world is going, even if your outward registration of this experience may be only to venture the knowing opinion that "this record is going to be huge." Every subsequent playback plays back as well a compressed version of the original circumstances; and that was only one such record out of thousands.

The age of recording is necessarily an age of nostalgia—when was the past so hauntingly accessible?—but its bitterest insight is the incapacity of even the most perfectly captured sound to restore the moment of its first inscribing. That world is no longer there—on closer listening, probably never was for longer than the instant during which unfamiliar music ripped open spaces equally and drastically unfamiliar. The listener seeking more such encounters may resort to wide-ranging searches for the unheard, anything from Uzbeki wedding music to unreleased garage bands of southern Wisconsin, anything that might spring the unimaginable surprise. Yet the laboriously sought musical epiphany can never compare to the unsought, even unwanted tune whose ambush is violent and sudden: the song the cab driver was tuned to, the song rumbling from the speaker wedged against the fire-escape railing, the song tingling from the transistor on the beach blanket. To locate those songs again can become, with age, something like a religious quest, as suggested by the frequent use of the phrase "Holy Grail" to describe hard-to-find tracks. The collector is haunted by the knowledge that somewhere on the planet an intact chunk of his past still exists, uncorrupted by time or circumstance.

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Anonymous Anonymous on Mon Mar 03, 12:42:00 PM:
Hey I had my own little Shelby Lynne youtube festival over the weekend thanks to this post. I'm reading art critic Dave Hicky's book Air Guitar. I don't love it, except when I do. This post of yours inspired me to share this passages from it:

[Talking about Velvet Underground And Little Feat in an essay about Chet Baker]

These bands operated on Baker's premise: that the song plays the music and the music plays the player and that, consequently, the song, as played, is not a showcase for the player's originality, but a momentary acoustic community in which the players breathe and think together in real time, adding to the song's history, without detracting from its integrity, leaving it intact to be played again. "The thing you learn," Lou Reed told me in an interview, "is that popular music is easy. The song will play itself. So all you need to do is make it sing a little, make it human, and not fuck it up."

Thursday, February 21, 2008

David Fincher to direct Black Hole!

I'm ecstatic over the news.

Alice and Paula Abdul's favorite director + my favorite cartoonist + Neil Gaiman 50% of the time = joy!

I highly recommend Charles Burns's Black Hole graphic novel.

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Felicitous translation error

A lovely letter to the New Yorker in this week's issue--I at first thought it was going to be nit-picky, and then that attention to detail pays off gloriously (I wish I had a picture of the cover to include in this entry):

To the editor:
Mark Ulriksen's "Winter Pleasures," an impressionistic rendering of Grand Central Terminal's main concourse, depicts the famous golden clock bathed in sunlight (Cover, January 28th). Note that this can be only an eastward morning scene, not a westward afternoon. The angle of the long axis of the concourse, following that of Manhattan's east-west streets, is not 90 [degrees] but 119 [degrees] east of north, and aligns with the sun through its "west" windows only from late May to early July, and then only at an elevation of less than 3 [degrees]. But aren't those the south-side ticket windows at the left of the picture, with the tracks and trains therefore on the right? And doesn't the clock seem to read three-fifty, hardly a time for the morning sun? I take the picture to be deliberately reversed, so that the clock reads a (backward) eight-ten, precisely the time of the sun's direct morning illumination of Grand Central's east windows on (or about) February 19th. As all Grand Central lovers know, the great mural of stars painted on the Terminal's ceiling is oddly arranged, with an east-to-west reversal of the zodiac, with Taurus charging Orion from left to right. (It is still a matter of debate whether the mural is a mistaken execution of a printed floor plan or the adapted design of an Old World star map, rendered according to the medieval custom of an external projection of a celestial globe.) Now, in Ulriksen's alternate-universe of a cosmos-within-a-cosmos, the constellations will be set back as we see them in the starry night sky.

Michael Allison, adjunct professor of astronomy at Columbia and emeritus scientist at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies

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Anonymous Anonymous on Wed Feb 27, 08:32:00 PM:
This is great!

Ten signs meme

I saw this meme on Jenny Davidson's blog last week and admired it, so I thought I'd try it out to characterize my as-yet unwritten novels. I'm thinking particularly of my half-planned crime novel set primarily in Albuquerque heavy metal snake store (which exists or used to exist), but I also used my short stories as material to classify.

Ten signs a novel (or short story) has been written by me:

1. It is probably set in the desert.

2. The dialogue is elliptical--in a good way (I think). This feature owes much to Amy Hempel and Lorrie Moore.

3. There are lists of items in a set and an interest in how those items are named or classified.

4. There are lists of items that don't immediately seem to fit into a set but are put together in homage to Katherine Anne Porter's list of things lost in her short story, "Theft," or Elizabeth Hardwick's sentences.

5. Weather phenomena--snowstorms, thunderstorms, almost certainly lightning storms--play a significant role. This feature is hard to justify in stories set in the desert, so the lightning storms are the most frequent and there's lots of wistfulness about hoping that the thunderstorms will actually produce rain instead of evaporating.

[Note: It's unrelated, but here's a transcript of a conversation with my dad this weekend about the bad weather in the South. I was in Alabama over the weekend. Oh, and maybe you'll see where that elliptical dialogue comes from if it doesn't only come from Amy Hempel.]

Alice: So I figured out this weekend that one-minute conversations about the weather are OK, and five-minute conversations about the weather are not OK.
Dad: Yeah, that's probably true for most people.
Alice: No one else is excited that we're going to have squall lines here tomorrow.
Dad: You're going to have squall lines?! Wow...
Alice: I know! It's going to be great!

Squall lines are indeed impressive when you can watch them march by in red blobs on the Weather Channel or when you can stand and watch the storms from a big window. They are not impressive when you are trapped in the Atlanta airport for more than six hours and the windows are tinted and tiny.]

6. There is some nostalgia for historic buildings that have fallen into disrepair or abandonment, but sometimes that nostalgia turns back on itself.

7. The characters walk places more often than they drive, and they are up for walking long distances.

[This feature is certainly the result of the author not knowing how to drive.]

8. At least one character works at a newspaper (daily or weekly).

9. A trip to the archives--newspaper, manuscripts, something else--is imperative for some reason.

10. At least six of Joan Didion's sentence structures are imitated--often the "she did or did not think about..." construction.

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Blogger Jenny Davidson on Tue Feb 19, 06:35:00 AM:
One other thing I could have said about mine is that both protagonists are anxious and self-critical about not knowing how to drive! Just like me, obviously...
Anonymous Anonymous on Tue Feb 19, 05:51:00 PM:
You've totally inspired me, I'm going to do it on my own blog, .
Blogger Unknown on Wed Feb 20, 02:44:00 PM:
In response to Item #5, Did you know there's a lunar eclipse tonight? I didn't until Soterios Johnson casually mentioned it this morning. It'll be visible at 10:26pm.
Blogger Sophia on Thu Feb 21, 10:45:00 AM:
I love weather, but living in Oklahoma is like living in 8 different climate zones a week. Rain, wind, ice, snow, wind, wind, wind. le sigh.
Anonymous Anonymous on Wed Feb 27, 08:37:00 PM:
Wow. nice list. nice squall lines. I've been learning all these terms from people all over the US lately referring to different weather phenomena I've never seen but hope I will: snow thunder; freezing fog; now squall lines. Here's one from Mexico City: thermal inversion...that's when it's so cold that the pollution is trapped between the us and the sky so everything is gray and has a hue of orange radioactivity.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Obamarama BoomBarackaLaka Insert Obama sorta-pun here

Over at my wife Kate's blog, Barack Your World, which is about some kind of political guy she keeps talking about, she links to a brilliant humor piece about the excess of pro-Obama earnestness, Chris Rock breaking down the white woman vs. black man faceoff, and the most wonderful YouTube video (of an elderly woman's reasons for supporting Obama) since Jimmy Valvano's ESPY speech.

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At Slate, chronicler of controversy Ben Rosenbaum (of Explaining Hitler and The Shakespeare Wars fame) praises incandescence after Congress announced efficiency requirements that will make regular light bulbs illegal in a few years:
But the greater crime of the new bulbs is not environmental but aesthetic. Think of the ugly glare of fluorescence, the light of prisons, sterile cubicle farms, precinct stations, emergency rooms, motor vehicle bureaus, tenement hallways—remember Tom Wolfe's phrase for the grim, flickering hallway lights in New York tenements: "landlords' haloes"?—and, of course, morgues. Fluorescents seem specially designed to drain life and beauty from the world. Don't kid yourself if you hope Hell is lit by fire. More likely fluorescents.
A lamp fitted with an incandescent bulb and dim translucent shades casts a lovely, painterly glow on human faces, while the light of fluorescents recalls a meat locker.

Why do you think there is such artistry to so many lampshades? They are the lingerie of light.
Plus he excerpts Nabokov's poetry from Pale Fire. No small topics, just small writers!

(The "no small roles" chestnut is on my mind since seeing Benicio del Toro's wonderful 20 seconds on screen in The Indian Runner, which I somehow had never seen. It's Sean Penn's debut as director and writer, and it's great, with a young and incandescent smoldering Viggo Mortensen.)

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

History of a sheet of paper

There's a story in the New York Times today about how digitization is dealing a deathblow to paper--really, "deathblow" is used in the article (interesting style guide question there, right? I thought it was two words--not that I type that phrase very often. If I could figure out how to use the new interface on Lexis-Nexis, which I believe to be as user-unfriendly as possible, I'd check to see how the style has been decided in previous uses in the Times.) I recommend David Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous for some interesting points about how digitization changes the modes of categorization that paper had demanded (in, say, the form of book technology, card catalogs, the Dewey decimal system, and so on). And you can read it on a Kindle if you're a savvy early adopter.

I was fascinated by the Times chart about how paper use increased and decreased in different countries from 2000-2005. It's amazing, and yet the article doesn't discuss any of the implications of it or give reasons for some of the less intuitable changes. Of course China increased its paper use, as did India and South Korea to a lesser extent, but what do we make of those changes?

The article reminded me of one of the weirder essays I've ever found in my various perusals through the digitized database of American Periodical Series: "The History of a Sheet of Paper," which was printed in the Southern Literary Messenger (Charleston, SC) in 1836. It's the story of how a piece of paper transforms from a piece of cotton to a piece of fabric, then a rag, then a lesser rag, and finally a piece of paper--told from the point of view of the object itself. It's another form of print metempsychosis.

I'm going to insert paragraph breaks because the stream-of-consciousness of this piece of paper is intensely weird and worth reading in slightly easier format:
"It was in August that I first broke through my filled and brittle pod. How proud, how beautifully white did we all seem, as hundreds of thousands, were thickly scattered all around me, to a distnce, the extent of which I could not perceive. Mortals may perhaps think that I cannot now, and could not then perceive or be conscious of any objects around me. Let me tell these wiseacres that their conceit carries them too far in dreaming, that other parts, yes, all, even to the vegetable, have no eyes and therefore cannot see. What have eyes to do with seeing. I recollect perfectly well hearing Dr. Tincture tell Mrs. Sugar Loaf, the grocer's wife, that the optic nerve terminated in the brain. He told her this while I was a part of her morning gown. Now the eye cannot see without the nerve, and it must be the brain after all, and who can tell, or pretend to say, that I had no inward perceptibility. I know that I had! and that, much more acute than they are aware of.

"As we pods used to hang there--many--many a cheerful laugh did we have together--and though we could not move from the place where we grew, we heard from one another--some being stationed on the road side, and as travellers passed, could hear their conversation. It was thus that our ideas were received from our bodies, capable of motion (and by our reflective power these things were communicated from one to another without noise)--all about strange countries, and things that we never expected to see, and thus lived in glorious anticipation of some great change, when we heard of the gin and screw, (poor innocent victims) although were naturally dissatisfied with that, which afterwards proved to be our happiest time, as was afterwards manifested. The first thing I ever knew of suffering was on a beautfiul afternoon, when a heavy black hand seized me, and dragged me from my mother plant. We were, many of us, crowded into a basket, and stowed away, sweltering with heat and want of air. But I need not complain of my own sufferings, like all other parts of the universe, I have seen my changes for better and for worse, but like the human family, I found the first change by far the worst. When taken away from my native spot, to become a part of this cotton world, (and we are indeed no insignificant part, each of us having to fill our various stations) we were only passive observers of the actions of human life..."

The piece of paper appears to compare his experience being picked, "stowed away," transported by boat, and sold to that of the slaves who picked him as a piece of paper, but he also says "I have not felt a little proud, when I recollect the many stripes and thrashings that I have seen distributed on my account," as when a slave is whipped for "gathering an abundance of dirt in the basket with me." So who are the "poor innocent victims" of the cotton gin--I think he's talking about the other pieces of cotton, not the slaves. It's a bizarre lens through which to consider paper production, but the account is always framed in terms of the violence he or his friends or the people associated with him suffer. When he is transported on a boat, he marvels at the sailors who are whipped with a cat-o'-nine-tails and says they must suffer more than the slaves on the plantations. The cotton is then fashioned into a lady's dressing gown, burned by an iron, and turned into a rag. He then gets ripped apart again when "an unfortunate nail caught me and rent me nearly from her back."

The ragged dress is passed on to a washerwoman's daughter who mends the burn and the rip. Here's another place, though, where the apparent pleasure that the piece of paper takes in narrating violence inflicted on unfortunate people who come into contact with him (slaves, young poor women) makes for a really strange story. He insists that the young woman should not have been so proud to think she could wear a rich woman's dress, and her "ambition ... was her ruin. In assuming the character of [the piece of cotton's] first owner, she laid herself liable to the exposure which her conduct had deserved. ... She became the victim of [a young man's] designs, and bore all the infamy which otherwise must have fallen elsewhere." Again, this piece of paper seems to be present for some ugly situations, yet he seems to take a prurient interest in all of the suffering.

When he becomes the rags for an old woman's nightcap, he giggles at witnessing all of her naughty dreams of relations with mysterious men:
"My stars how should would jump and start in her sleep, fancy herself young again,--and then the beaux. She would be at one time dancing in thei ball room, at another leering at some young fellow, now hurrying down the street to avoid an admirer whom she had attracted, now pressed closely into the arms of one she loved, and how the old thing would sigh when she awoke and found it all a dream; then in the spirt of vexation she would almost determine to accept the very next chance she should receive. ... Poor crazy old creature."

The piece of paper, as is evident in that opening paragraph I quoted, is fascinated with his ability to transcend human modes of viewing through the optic nerve and has some sort of extra-sensory powers as an object that gets reconstituted over and over again. What would Sherry Turkle make of the story in her psychoanalytic history of technology? As a rag and then a sheet of paper, he lives in a delighted state of miscellany among
"old boxes, books, old shattered family portraits, pieces of old carpets, broken candlesticks, old fashioned fenders, poker, tongs, and part of a shovel, hoops for dresses, powder puffs, and various other such antideluvian relics, as cracked bells, and an old broken rocking horse, shoes with high heels, and silks that would stand by themselves, with roses on them as large as a cabbage, with many other things, whose names and use were entirely forgotten..."

What this jumble indicates to me is that the history of paper has always been bound up (or, rather, not bound up) in miscellany. When he is worn out as a rag, he's traded to a cluttered grocer's store, where he chafes at his low status as junk:
"The effluvia of this place surpassed any thing that I had ever before witnessed, and therefore it was fortunate for me that this miserable state did not last long. I have noticed, frequently, that when our worst circumstances press, the better turn of fortune's wheel is nearest. The wagon next carried me, along with others, to the Paper Manufactory, and there we were thrown into the mashtub, beaten, masticated, aye and washed whiter than I had been for some time past, for the running water carried with it every particle of dirt that had heretofore defaced me."

He becomes a sheet of paper that a young cadet uses to send to his love, where enjoys a paradisial life being kissed often by the reader and stored in a rosewood desk with leaves of lavender. I guess that's a fitting end to such a story, but you get the feeling that it may be too sedate a life for this object--to finally get stored instead of recirculated.

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Blogger Unknown on Tue Feb 19, 08:53:00 PM:
Very interesting! Where, one wonders, did the cotton-rag-paper acquire his strict sense of hierarchy?

With respect just to the aspect of the plant suffering for its transformation, I thought of the old song of "John Barleycorn," where Little Sir John is "cut at the knee" and "ground between two stones."

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Super Tuesday eve: what a moment

I'm sad the Patriots lost Super Bowl 42, but I relished the intensity of the game, its dramatic reversals and moments of bliss and agony. A game envelops me all the more when I can so clearly see its importance to the players, and when I believe, at least a little, in the purpose of each team.

I'll risk being crass and say that there is no clear seam, for me, between the intensity and gravity I felt Sunday and what I feel tonight, just after midnight at the beginning of Super Tuesday.

I'm voting for Obama, because I agree with him most often (though he's strangling health care reform in the cradle) and really like the author of Dreams From my Father (continuing the Kennedy parallels, if it ever comes out that Obama had help, just remember that Profiles in Courage didn't exactly leap out fully formed from Jack Kennedy's brain either).

But it's remarkable not just that the neck-and-neck Dems are a white woman and a black man, but that they are both competent, charismatic, articulate and knowledgeable people who don't trade on fearmongering and lies, at least as far as you can expect these days. I've been troubled by Hillary's willingness to say anything to get elected (it's not just a catchphrase -- if you vote in New York, you've been getting mailings asking things like "Do you know what your kids are doing online?" from Hillary for years), and my wife goes through the case against Hillary quite convincingly at her new blog (which has its own catchphrase: "There's nothing wrong with a president who happens to be hot"). But I've written it before, and I'll write it again: she is a gifted speaker and a great debater, far better than Al Gore or John Kerry. And it bears noting that Obama is as lousy a debater as he is an incandescent (to borrow the New York Times editorial board's word) speech maker.

What's more, they blew past several white men who I thought had good cases for nomination: the centrist Mark Warner, Virginia's most popular governor ever; Joe Biden, a much-liked Senate foreign policy fixture (from a key swing state) who debates well; and John Edwards, who people seem to love although I find him chemically irritating and he let Dick Cheney control every minute of their disastrous vice-presidential debate in 2004.

(By the way, McCain will be hard to beat, but mark my words: he doesn't do well on TV. Seriously, if you watch him speak, he seems constantly off balance and a little off-putting. Mike Huckabee was the best speaker in the GOP crowd by far.)

It's an inspiring moment for the country, and makes me proud to be an American.

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Saturday, February 02, 2008

Mysterious manuscripts, vol. 2: A functional history of copying

I love the shadowy figures in the world of mysterious manuscripts like this guy, an employee at the New York State Archives who stole more than 300 documents from the collection and sold them on eBay. So many things about this story fascinate me: the wayward archivist's nonchalance, the serendipity of the amateur historian's online search (and his remarkable memory), and the competitive eBay market for what the NY Times coyly refers to as "trash, ... although he used a trashier word than trash."

Davy Crockett antiquarians are having a thrilling year! Last fall, the Texas Historical Society bid $550,000 on a letter supposedly from Crockett that's been something of a mysterious manuscript in Texas lore for years, as Gregory Curtis reported in the January 2008 issue of Texas Monthly (the full article is available here). This blog has a good compilation of the work that various antiquarians did to investigate the handwriting, signature, and provenance of the letter, and sale didn't go through after it was determined that the letter was a copy. But "copy" turns out to be an interesting term in tracing the history of the letter, and although the letter isn't worth half a million dollars, it's still an interesting artifact of how information was transmitted on the Texas frontier. Curtis writes,
It’s neither genuine nor a forgery. It’s a copy made in the years after the original letter was written. In Crockett’s day, it was common for family documents with either real or sentimental value to be copied by hand for various family members. Crockett rarely wrote letters to any of his six children. It’s not surprising that when he finally did, copies were made.

Curtis's article gives a good sense of the ways in which information circulates in many different ways separate from the passing around of a single original: copying out by hand among family members in the nineteenth century, fragmentary quotation in various Texas history books, incomplete citation in these history books, and so on. Curtis notes that the letter has long been quoted in Texas history books for Crockett's evocative description of the state, though the citation is always incomplete. Crockett wrote to his daughter in 1836,
“I must say as to what I have seen of Texas it is the garden spot of the world the best land and best prospect for health I ever saw is here and I do believe it is a fortune to any man to come here.”

Because of that phrase describing Texas as “the garden spot of the world,” this letter, the last that Crockett ever wrote, has been quoted in nearly every history of the Texas Revolution, from scholarly tomes to grade-school textbooks; in every biography of Crockett; and in most accounts of the Battle of the Alamo, where he met his death less than two months later. But anyone who checks the notes and sources of these books discovers that the authority for this letter is simply that it has been quoted in previous books or articles. None of the historians, textbook writers, or biographers had ever seen the letter themselves. In David Crockett: The Man and the Legend, which is still the standard biography even though it was published 52 years ago, James Atkins Shackford wrote that the letter was in the hands of J. D. Pate, of Martin, Tennessee. Not only was this fact never verified, but Mr. Pate has never been found.

There's an interesting project here, I think, about how we can reconsider the history of the copy. I'll get to Walter Benjamin and "aura" in a second, but first I want to think about how one would write a functional history of the copy. What are the practical reasons that people have found for making copies of documents? How do they distinguish the use of these copies from, say, forgeries for malicious or monetary reasons? I note the possilbiity of maliciousness because of this bizarre story: if the statistically improbable phrases on include liteary forgery AND golden plates, then you know where that story is going... (Salamander is the better account of that case, however, though the SIPs aren't included.)

James Gleick had an interesting piece in the NY Times Magazine that asked What is the Magna Carta--or a copy of it made eighty years after it was issued--worth? The copy was made in 1297 and issued from the court of King Edward I. Gleick is interested in how the document's function has changed from material importance as a grant to historical importance. The Magna Carta is now viewable online, and there are copies of it in museums so that more people can see it, but its monetary value has risen as it has been reproduced digitally. Gleick wants to know why:
All these artifacts share the quality that Philip K. Dick, in his 1962 novel “The Man in the High Castle,” calls historicity, which is “when a thing has history in it.” In the book, a dealer in antiquities holds up two identical Zippo lighters, one of which supposedly belonged to Franklin D. Roosevelt, and says: “One has historicity, a hell of a lot of it. As much as any object has ever had. And one has nothing. Can you feel it? ... You can’t. You can’t tell which is which. There’s no ‘mystical plasmic presence,’ no ‘aura’ around it.”

Gleick puts some emphasis on the fact that the Magna Carta under scrutiny is a copy, so what role does reproducibility play in the function of a legal document such as the Magna Carta? This form of manuscript reproduction (not in the age of mechanical reproduction) means something different from the idea of "historicity" or "aura," but can that temporal difference show us something about the multiple functions of reproduction?

Gleick's bio line in the Times says he's working on a book about information, which is intriguing, given what he did with What Just Happened: Chronicles from the Information Frontier? That book had a clear temporal situation--one that actually makes it a little hard to read today, given how rapidly technological change is occurring, so that 2001 seems bizarrely far away. The book's title is the obvious manifestation of that changing consciousness. What differentiation is Gleick going to make between information and knowledge? I'll just roll my eyes about Lee Siegel's probable response to such a question and instead cite John Lanchester's response to Against the Machine in the NY Times Book Review: "But criticism of this type often leaves the reader wondering, as James Joyce wondered apropos Wyndham Lewis’s attacks on “Ulysses”: Even if all of this argument is granted as true, how much of the truth is it? How much does it leave out, and how much could be said on the other side of the story?"

The inevitable eye-rolling about Siegel's polemic is even more intense this week because I'm re-reading Marshall McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, where that idea of how print (and now electronic) technology changes consciousness seems very resonant with Gleick's ideas. I'm formulating these questions about the functional history of copying from some of the ideas that McLuhan quotes from William Ivins' Prints and Visual Communications about how the history of print-making is related to the history of print. Ivins writes that the reproduction of images makes possible the dissemination of much of what we think of as knowledge in today's disciplines:
If we define prints from the functional point of view so indicated, rather than by any restriction of process or aesthetic value, it becomes obvious that without prints we should have very few of our modern sciences, technologies, archaeologies, or ethnologies--for all of these are dependent, first or last, upon information conveyed by exactly repeatable viusal or pictorial statements.

This means that, far from being merely minor works of art, prints are among the most important and powerful tools of modern life and thought. Certainly we cannot hope to realize their actual role unless we get away from the snobbery of modern print collecting notions and definitions and begin to think of them as exactly repeatable pictorial statements or communications, without regard to the accident of rarity or what for the moment we may regard as aesthetic merit. We must look at them from the point of view of general ideas and particular function, and, especially, we must think about the limitations which their techniques have imposed on them as conveyors of information and on us as receivers of that information.

Gleick's analysis of "aura" and historicity comes not just from Philip K. Dick but also from Walter Benjamin's The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. I'm especially struck by these lines in Benjamin and how they relate to Ivins' work:
Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership. The traces of the first can be revealed only by chemical or physical analyses which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction; changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original.

The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity. Chemical analyses of the patina of a bronze can help to establish this, as does the proof that a given manuscript of the Middle Ages stems from an archive of the fifteenth century. The whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical-- and, of course, not only technical-- reproducibility. Confronted with its manual reproduction, which was usually branded as a forgery, the original preserved all its authority; not so vis a vis technical reproduction. The reason is twofold. First, process reproduction is more independent of the original than manual reproduction. For example, in photography, process reproduction can bring out those aspects of the original that are unattainable to the naked eye yet accessible to the lens, which is adjustable and chooses its angle at will. And photographic reproduction, with the aid of certain processes, such as enlargement or slow motion, can capture images which escape natural vision. Secondly, technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself. Above all, it enables the original to meet the beholder halfway, be it in the form of a photograph or a phonograph record. The cathedral leaves its locale to be received in the studio of a lover of art; the choral production, performed in an auditorium or in the open air, resounds in the drawing room.

Are Ivins and Benjamin saying different things? Or is it a matter of perspective (literally) on either the transformation of the original (Benjamin) versus the function of the copy (Ivins)?

The history of the forgery is always entertaining--maybe so entertaining that the details of the process of reproduction take on their own aura that has to distinguished from a practical history of reproduction. Indeed, this history of mysterious citations of Davy Crockett and hand-copying among friends and family has nothing on the Texas forgery scandals of the late 1980s. One of the red flags in the current troubles was that the antiquarian dealer who had offered the letter for sale--and who couldn't give a clear provenance of it beyond finding it in a folder in a file cabinet--had been involved in previous scandals. This story of sex, drugs, and multiple copies of the Texas Declaration of Independence is one of the greatest stories I've read in a while. Here's my favorite part about how the process of making a linotype forgery reproduced some unfortunate telltale signs of the copy:
Baffled, he asked his assistant, Jill E. Mason, a meticulous proofreader, to analyze the three copies he had sold. She spent days listing every broken letter, every peculiar smudge, every place where letters appeared to have been re-inked. ''Column 2, paragraph 3, line 2, a few letters look compressed,'' was the sort of thing she noted on her multi-page list. When Taylor compared the notes against the San Jacinto Monument document, he noticed in the mass of mistakes a pattern so subtle that it had eluded his notice. He now observed that the errors on the forged document were in straight lines, two horizontal and two vertical, forming a grid. It was as if someone had folded the paper in thirds, like a business letter, and then folded the ends in toward the middle. The trouble was, there were no folds on the document.

Then he looked at the Burns copy. There were folds on it and they corresponded exactly to the lines of type that were so distorted in the San Jacinto copy. In fact, the folds obscured some of the letters on the Burns copy. To make a fake from that document, Taylor mused, a forger would take a photograph and then re-ink the letters that had been damaged by the folds - leaving a grid of mistakes. The Burns copy, he concluded, was the one used to make all the other forgeries.

A grid of errors--I love that.

The forger in this case went on to argue that he should be praised rather than prosecuted because he intended to use his powers for good and show the antiquarian dealers in Texas how to distinguish originals from creatively made forgeries. Antiquarians sometimes get mocked for their interest in particular details of objects without considering the full historical context. One contrarian antiquarian has described the discipline as the "tyranny of the discrete." But antiquarian studies may actually serve an important function in demonstrating the ways in which people make distinctions between knowledge (in this case, the multiple citations of the Davy Crockett letter which circulated as a quotation but couldn't be cited properly, which could be fuzzed as stuff people knew but couldn't specify) and information (the details of the particular provenance of the letter, which depended on specificity and particularity of the citation).

My favorite example of the "tyranny of the discrete" comes from another set of errors, this time in the mechanical reproduction of print. Indeed, error reproduction in copies isn't usually so obvious as it is in a forgery, and the mistakes come in randomly sometimes. In The Lucubrations of Isaac Bickerstaff (1710), the narrator goes to visit Tom Folio, who cares more about "the Goodness of the Paper," the "Diligence of the Corrector," and the elegance of the typeface than the content of the books he collects. He is the ultimate Typographic Man. One day, Bickerstaff mentions to his friend "That Virgil possibly had his Oversights as well as another Author." Tom Folio has a very different understanding of the word "oversight," however:
"Ah! Mr. Bickerstaff, says he, you would have another Opinion of him, if you would read him in Daniel Heinsius's Edition. I have perused him my self several times in that Edition, continued he; and after the strictest and most malicious Examination, could find but Two Faults in him: One of them is in the Aeneid, where there are Two Comma's instead of a Parenthesis; and another in the Third Georgick, where you may find a Semicolon turned upside down. Perhaps, said I, these were not Virgil's Thoughs, but those of the Transcriber. I do not design it, says Tom, as Reflection on Virgil: On the contrary I know that all the Manuscripts reclaim against such a Punctutation.

Tom Folio would love eBay.

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Blogger Alice on Sun Feb 03, 12:41:00 PM:
I hadn't seen this post from Kevin Kelly's Technium blog when I wrote this post, but he has a cool point about the function of the copy in the Internet age:

"Our digital communication network has been engineered so that copies flow with as little friction as possible. Indeed, copies flow so freely we could think of the internet as a super-distribution system, where once a copy is introduced it will continue to flow through the network forever, much like electricity in a superconductive wire. We see evidence of this in real life. Once anything that can be copied is brought into contact with internet, it will be copied, and those copies never leave. Even a dog knows you can't erase something once its flowed on the internet.
"When copies are super abundant, they become worthless.
When copies are super abundant, stuff which can't be copied becomes scarce and valuable."

(Link from Boing Boing.)
Blogger Unknown on Mon Feb 04, 09:44:00 AM:
Dear Sir or Madam,
I thank you sincerely for the referencing of my works.
Please visit me at my internet hearth. For the most up-to-the-date musings.

Fare thee well, winter winds blow.