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.
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 Walter 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.