Monthly Archives: October 2008

art and technology, 1971

the cover of the art and technology catalogueA quite note to point out that LACMA has announced that they’ve posted the long out-of-print catalogue for their 1971 Art and Technology show online in its entirety in both web and PDF format. It’s worth looking at: Maurice Tuchman and Jane Livingston, the curators of the show, attempted to match artists from the 1960s with corporations working with technology to see what would happen. The process of collaboration is an integral part of the documentation of the project. Sometimes attempted collaborations didn’t work out, and their failure is represented in a refreshingly candid fashion: John Baldessari wanted to work in a botany lab coloring plants; George Brecht wanted IBM & Rand’s help to move the British Isles into the Mediterranean; Donald Judd seems to have wandered off in California. And some of the collaborations worked: Andy Warhol made holograms; Richard Serra worked with a steel foundry; and Jackson Mac Low worked with programmers from IBM to make concrete poetry, among many others.
One contributor who might be unexpected in this context is Jeff Raskin (his first name later lost an “f”), who at the time was an arts professor at UCSD; he’s now best known as the guy behind the Apple Macintosh’s interface. We’ve mentioned his zooming interface and work on humane interfaces for computers on if:book in the past; if you’ve never looked at his zoom demo, it’s worth a look. Back in 1971, he was trying to make modular units that didn’t restrict the builder’s designs; it didn’t quite get off the ground. Microcomputers would come along a few years later.

Lauren Klein and The Turk

An engraving of The Turk from Karl Gottlieb von Windisch’s Inanimate Reason, published in 1784. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
We had Lauren Klein, a graduate student from CUNY, over to lunch this afternoon. One of the pleasures of such a lunch is later looking up conversational asides: today we happened upon the subject of chess machines. Lauren specifically referenced “Maelzel’s Chess Player” by Edgar Allen Poe, Edison’s Eve by Gaby Wood, and The Turk by Tom Standage.
The Turk is a chess-playing machine built in the 18th Century by Wolfgang von Kempelen. What made the machine so astounding was its chess expertise; of course, it was controlled by levers by a person beneath the chessboard, who moved pieces with its hands and could manipulate its facial expressions. The Turk was sold by Kempelen’s son to to Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, who added a voice box to the machine (to say “â?°chec!”) and used it to beat Napoleon, according to legend. The machine was eventually contributed to a museum in Philadelphia, where most of it was destroyed in a fire.
That is, until the pieces came into the hands of John Gaughan, the man who made Gary Sinise’s legs disappear in Forrest Gump and turned a beast into a prince for Disney’s Broadway production of Beauty and the Beast. He salvaged the remains of The Turk and built a version of it that is controlled by computer (for a price tag of about $120,000). As Poe puts it, “Perhaps no exhibition of the kind has ever elicited so general attention as the Chess-Player of Maelzel.”
Image courtesy of The New York Times.
Perhaps the most poignant theme of this story is that it strikes upon some of the things that draw us to technology: spectacle, surprise, a little hint of magic, and the humbling experience of being stumped by something that’s not human.

Sophie demo movies now available

In addition to the demo books themselves, we’ve posted several movies demonstrating the capabilities of Sophie 1.0. At about a minute each, these clips provide a cursory glance at a variety of our books, complete with hopefully unobtrusive narration by yours truly.
[1] Candyman — A digital edition of John Gibbs’s “Candyman” essay, originally published by Wallflower Press.
[2] Cookbooks — Librarian and avid cookbook collector Kim Beeman shares some of her favorite rarities.
[3] Gettysburg Address — As Holladay wrote earlier this month, this is a multimodal presentation of the Address’s five drafts.
[4] Nomination Speech Visualizations — Also mentioned in a previous if:book post, this book combines visualizations with transcripts and audio recordings of presidential nomination speeches.
[5] Robert Winter’s Mozart — A close reading of Mozart’s Dissonant Quartet, ported from a popular Voyager CD-ROM with new features.
We welcome any and all feedback.

a leap into the post-industrial

I’ve just returned from a quick trip to India: with my brain yet furry from jetlag, I’ve yet to come to any understanding of what I experienced there, should such be possible. But while in Delhi, I picked up an enormous book entitled 60 Years of Book Publishing in India, a compendium edited by Dina N. Malhotra in 2006, which I made my way through on the flight back to New York. If you’re looking for an overview of the Indian publishing industry and how books function in modern India, as I was, this is a decent place to start. As you might expect, book publishing in India is enormously complex: 80,000 books are published a year by 16,000 different publishers in India’s 22 major languages. Translation happens between Indian languages and to and from non-Indian languages. Piracy is a major issue: a number of contributors bemoan the fact that anything published in Bengali is immediately pirated in Bangladesh (and shortly thereafter on sale in the shops of my neighborhood in Queens). It’s not hard to get any book copied and rebound in an Indian town of any size; pirated books are readily sold on the street.
While there are Indian libraries, they’re not organized or particularly supported by the government. (The pictures scattered through this are from the Asiatic Society Mumbai, the city’s largest library open to the general public.) India’s linguistic diversity – a level comparable to that of Europe – is one of its great strengths, but this complexity has also complicated efforts to systematize knowledge. A more complicating issue is the issue of literacy, a function: while the country has made astounding gains since independence, adult literacy is still around 60%. An article by Mohini Rao entitled “Publishing Children’s Books” gives a sense of the space that books in India exist in:

India is a country of extremes and contrasts where the very modern and the very old coexist. On the one hand, we are anxious to use the latest printing technology and, on the other, there are some parts of the country where people have not even seen a printed book! People are at various stages of development. The Space Age has taken over even before the Dark Age could completely recede into history. We are facing the post-literacy problems even before achieving complete literacy. We are coping with the information revolution even as we struggle with pre-industrial problems. . . . According to the report of the committee on TV software, ‘. . . Electronic media like the radio and TV have the potential of transcending the literacy barrier and therefore also the class barrier.’ TV has made it possible for the non-literate masses to have access to information, and consequently, to the fruits of development without first crossing the literacy barrier. People belonging to the pre-industrial era can take a leap into the post-industrial era without passing through the stages through which the West had to pass.

(p. 257.) The prospect of a leap to the post-literate (however that might be defined) isn’t one that’s strictly confined to India. In a broader sense, it’s an issue the entire world is facing, and an issue that if:book has been engaged with since its inception if not always consciously. We look at reading and writing through an historical context that we’ve passed through: we can only think of what comes past the book by thinking through the book. No writing on technology can be entirely immune from this perspective. (A number of the articles in 60 Years, for example, offhandedly remark that the problem of book piracy in India will be solved at that point copyright is enforced as it is in the West, a position which seems hopelessly optimistic: copyright laws can’t escape Benjamin’s avenging Angel of History.)
Much of the criticism of Sven Birkerts’s Gutenberg Elegies accused the author of being blind to the future because of the past. But Birkerts, I think, was right in a very basic sense: we can’t help but see the future through the lens of the past. The narrative of the Gutenberg Elegies is autobiographical, tracing a life constructed through books. The conversation that takes place on this blog is a product of the same forces, regardless of one’s preference for print or screen reading. We’d like the Institute’s values to be those of literate humanism: how do we account for a possible future post-literate population? The book to come belongs to everyone: it would be presumptuous to assume that everyone is like us, or should be like us.
If a lion could speak, Wittgenstein pointed out, we could not understand it. St. Jerome, patron saint of translators and noted lion-keeper, ordered his lion about, though he’s not recorded as listening to what his lion might have had to say. But understanding the coming position of the book in India and the world is probably not a matter of translation, which requires literacy, but rather one of transformation, a making of new forms. How can we start thinking about this problem in a sensible way?

Greenblatt on human agency and New Historicism

Image via Queen’s University.
Here is a little bit about the MIT communications forum on October 14, with respondent David Thorburn, moderator Diana Henderson, and lecturer Stephen Greenblatt. Greenblatt is the Cogen University Professor of Humanities at Harvard. He co-founded the literary journal Representations and wrote the book Will in the World; he edits Norton Anthology of Literature and the Norton Shakespeare.
David Thorburn began the lecture by asking Greenblatt about an historical moment: his time as an undergrad- and graduate student at Yale on the cusp of New Criticism. Greenblatt listed his teachers, among them Harold Bloom, Jeffrey Hartman, and Robert Penn Warren. While New Criticism was the principle game in town, there was “something else stirring” in continuity with it. While defining New Criticism for his audience, Greenblatt referenced the W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley line, “Judging a poem is like judging a pudding or a machine. One demands that it work.” A poem was to be examined like a beautifully wrought object, or a verbal icon. Greenblatt recounted the feeling of empowerment New Criticism initially gave him: freeing him from a certain kind of “time-wasting and sociology,” and liberation from “a certain cult and taste.” You had to know how to “get your hands dirty, and learn what internal structures were.” And though he broke away from this school of thought, he said he is grateful to have experience with it.
Thorburn added that Greenblatt has the power of reading closely, even if he doesn’t read closely in the same way his mentors did; he still reads with “the rigor and excitement of the old New Critics.” Henderson added that this historical moment is an excellent time for criticism, since “attention to detail and method is very important with a glut of information.”
As for the “something else stirring,” Greenblatt said his thinking was affected by a “huge dose of Cambridge,” which was “curiously, not part of the New Criticism at Yale.” There he played a game where texts were passed around on scraps of paper and everyone in the room was supposed to guess when each text was written. It “seemed unbelievably stupid at the time,” but Greenblatt concluded that it was important to understand how a text fit into a specific historical and sociological moment. After a “mega-dose” of this, he came to understand the importance of thinking inside a text, rather than removing the text from its context (as in New Criticism).
Henderson concurred that delving together into the historical moment fosters a generosity of relationship between students and professors, a dialogue and openness “that allows you to not take umbrage,” and allows for “a kind of listening to student voices” instead of professors serving as “a kind of acolyte” and the students just taking notes.
Henderson said to Greenblatt, “Yours was a friendlier face of incorporating American and English thought at a moment of real culture wars.” [She was referring to the difference between New Historicism (a term Greenblatt himself coined for examining a text within the framework of history, culture, and sociology) and Cultural Materialism, a term for a branch of literary criticism stemming from Marxism that looks at a text not as an object, but as a process that is both politicized and historigraphical.]
Greenblatt defined a pivotal moment in his intellectual life: he read Althusser in the ’70s, especially the union of theory and practice, which opened his mind to how one could think differently of culture and society. This was a “brilliant continuation of hermeutic thought and New Criticism,” which worked to align what he thought he’d learned with what was (then) going on in France.
Thorburn quoted Greenblatt back to himself, saying, “This is what was going on when I found my voice.” Thorburn asked Greenblatt to expand upon this statement.
Greenblatt said that it was clear in his writing, in his style, that he was not an apprentice any longer. “Things holding you [down] disappear: you’re not worrying what your advisor thinks.” Instead Greenblatt began to wonder, How could I think out of the model of an individual life?
He wrote a book about Sir Walter Raleigh, which he explained was about this. Raleigh was a soldier, explorer, scoundrel, courier, an interesting poet. He was not simply defined by his work as a fiction writer or a critic or a professor. Greenblatt pondered Raleigh and himself, what their identities were, what their subjectivities were. He asked, “What would it mean not to think so conventionally about a life? What would it mean for me to have a voice?” He felt “liberation to think in a life, passionately, his life and my life… not to throw one away and not think about the other one, but not to be stuck in the biographical model of an individual life.”
Henderson added that the great question, then, was how to use history to tell a story. At the moment that New Historicism emerged, it put the individual back into the system (as opposed to high theory and Cultural Materialism). It was about America in individual lives.
Greenblatt agreed, “It was a great moment, an unbelievable moment… the question was how to sound like who you are.”
Henderson said, “And that’s where history comes into play: in who YOU are. It is a unit of rhetoric, organizing history, you sort of grab something that for you resonates and tells a vivid story… of course, [grabbing one story and not another] immediately begs the question, why not this one instead?”
Greenblatt proceeded with a vivid story of his own: when he finished his Raleigh book, he sent the manuscript to Oxford University Press. There a woman named Agnes Latham, who had worked all her life studying Raleigh (the culmination of which was a single article). She read his work and suggested that after 20-25 years perhaps Greenblatt would know enough about Raleigh to write about Raleigh. “That vision of how to do this work, to know absolutely every detail about someone’s life… seemed to me a form of intellectual deadening.” He remembered a professor who wrote on Hardy, who was afraid of publishing in case he discovered something else about Hardy. As a scholar, Greenblatt advised, decide when you have to cut yourself off; later you may know more but won’t end up saying much more. You have to know when to stop. He said he had to learn for himself and his students to be responsible, but not to be so obsessive or so frightened. You must shape around the idea that you have a story to tell, for yourself and your readers.
Thornburn reiterated that there are a few key terms in New Historicism that are problematic and central in Greenblatt’s work: human agency and self-fashioning. He asked Greenblatt to elaborate on these.
Human agency and self-fashioning are terms “like fate and free will: the more general they are, the gassier they are.” Greenblatt responded with an anecdote from a trip to Israel: he traveled to give a lecture, and on Friday night, someone invited him to have dinner at their house in the old city. After dinner, they sat on the roof under the stars and sang the Hebrew prayers traditionally sung after meals. Greenblatt doesn’t think of himself as having much of a spiritual life – his exact term for his perception of Jewish tradition was “total flapdoodle” – but he had a powerful semitic reaction to this. He said being Jewish in this scenario was about non-agency; it was uncontrollable, like getting an erection at the beach. There was something about “the words that you sing as a child, that you don’t believe in… I was already way post-belief, but still affected.” And yes, agency became a part of it – he felt the urge to ask, “Christ, what’s that about, and what am I going to do about it?” He said, “I didn’t know what to do with it; I was amazed by it.” All Saturday afternoon, with sounds of helicopters overhead, he thought about how to parse his experience. He chose not to ignore it, and met a friend at the PLO to talk it through; in this moment he chose agency over the alternative. He spent a lot of time trying to think who he was, what historical situation he was in, and why these things made him want to meet at the PLO instead of going elsewhere, instead of being swung around on a string, “and that’s what I’ve been interested in all my life.”
Thorburn added here that one of Greenblatt’s strengths is “this dividedness in him.”
Henderson expanded upon Greenblatt’s example, pointing out that we must identify local choices, the effect of those choices and what difference they make, and finally, “how do we tell our own story and the history of the world in a way we think matters.” We must consider the value of our storytelling, and “our obligation to whatever It out there is.” Henderson said it seemed to her that only half of it is agency.
She then brought up the subject of this lecture, the place of the book today, and posited, “Can we consider the place of the book today?” Greenblatt interjected, who are we to consider the place of the book today? Henderson said considering the students in front of her, “And as scholars, what are we asking of our young now? We’ve gone to another extreme because we’re trying to get things out NOW? In another system that doesn’t want to publish your book.” This sense of immediacy seemed out of place to Henderson in the current publishing world.
Greenblatt continued to say that last year Harvard passed a vote that faculty would be required if they wrote an article to allow access to a digital version for Harvard, so that all their scholarly work would be universally accessible digitally. “As a general principle, the idea that the work that we do should have value digitally and have universal access,” is what Greenblatt said he had been calling for for years. In an article for the MLA, he said we must transform our understanding of what it means to appear on the web and how we can use that. We must make more broadly accessible our work. We must feel that work is significant; though the web must take into consideration the feeling of community that is subscription-based. You feel you are part of a community when you subscribe to a scholarly journal. But ultimately your work can reach a larger scholarly audience with the internet.
A grad student with blonde dreadlocks asked a question about Jane Newman, pastoral conventions, and bringing history back as an objective field. Greenblatt replied, “I don’t carry a card in my wallet that says Official New Historicist. On the whole… making old and new historicism live again… it does very good archival work, sociological work, has very little relation to [objectivity.]”
The example he put forth is whether Shakespeare was Catholic. “I just think the work is not pious… I think it’s actually quite secular.” It is “manifest in a lifelong grappling with Christianity and Catholicism.” In Greenblatt’s opinion, Shakespeare had an interesting engagement with religion, but there is inadequate evidence to support either theory. One can examine Shakespeare’s father’s will, his mother’s relationship to the Arden family in Birmingham, and the people who educated Shakespeare. “Can I prove anything? No. But I thought it was interesting to tease out [these elements.]” Another example: Was Donne tormented all his life? Greenblatt says he thinks Donne is definitely interested in “damaged institutional goods,” and he drew upon the aesthetics all his life because he probably had personal relations to them, but we don’t know whether he actually had personal relations to them or not.
A man in the audience inquired about the state of culture. Greenblatt responded, What if, for example, Nomads or exchange or exile were actually the “normal state” of culture, rather than that of settled cultures? What follows from that? What if we think about cultures in movement? Greenblatt wanted to try to think about a new set of terms – e.g. culture is essentially about movement. Or, Greenblatt insisted, this could go in a second direction: the weakening of the boundaries between art-making and criticism. In one’s pedagogical practice, this means getting more interested in relation to the makers. Academics are in the habit, Greenblatt said, to refuse absolutely everything the makers say – not only what they’re up to, but their relation to art-making (this stubbornness is consistent with Greenblatt’s assertion that professors’ work is driven by students even though one doesn’t admit it). With new technology, it’s possible to make things in interesting ways – certainly visual things – that couldn’t have been made five years ago, certainly not 20 years ago.
For example, Greenblatt said, look what Shakespeare did with his citations: he was famous as a thief. “What happens when he steals from other people, what does he do with the materials? What happens if you don’t imagine that the fate of all these objects was to fall into Shakespeare and end there? They don’t end there.” Henderson agreed. They have metamorphic effects. Greenblatt is interested in experimenting with that idea intellectually, aesthetically, and in following moving cultures from place to place.
Henderson added that the materials do not end with Shakespeare, because Shakespeare is being performed and reimagined all of the time. Performing Shakespeare made people in the humanities aware again that they need to talk to the makers.
An older man on the stairs asked for Greenblatt’s take on Israel.
Greenblatt responded to an issue that is specific to Harvard. In his opinion, John Pullman said things that were extremely foolish to say. Therefore Greenblatt thought that though many people didn’t want him to, he should come as a poet to Harvard and people should give him a hard time. Rescinding the invitation seemed foolish, but protest seemed appropriate (and wouldn’t require the university to support the West Bank Settlements).
A man in the audience asked if there are moments in scholarship that are like the security gates at airports, that you can go in but can’t go back out. He gave the Greeks vs. the Romans as an example.
Greenblatt said he would love to say that groups in conflict will just work things out, but that this is untrue. Catholics and Protestants, for example, are two factions that couldn’t “settle it.” Epicurianism, which is Greek organization, survives because a Roman poet wrote a fantastic poem that survived, and in the Middle Ages, was found. “My sense is that there’s no getting back to the thing itself. But to give up the dream completely – that all we have is what the clerks have given us – is a depressing historical position. All my life… gives me the illusion that I’m finally getting it.”
Greenblatt launched into a description of Richard Madox’s diary. His recounting of the book went something like this: Madox wanted to go on “an insane voyage to the new world.” But he quickly realized “he hated every sucker on the ship.” Madox was a very finely educated, rather sophisticated guy, and he was stuck on board with “a bunch of horrible yahoos.” So in his diary, he gave them Latin and Greek names, and invented his own code to complain about them freely. Madox died off the coast of Brazil, and the others brought his diary back because they didn’t know what was in it. When Greenblatt read this book, he felt he was finally reading “a voice that hadn’t been mediated in fifty thousand ways.” It wasn’t the product of German Romanticism.
A woman asked Greenblatt to reflect upon Amitad Ghosh’s In An Antique Land. Greenblatt replied that the book is an important touchstone, it articulates problems, but literal travel isn’t recorded in a book. Even the digital world of literature doesn’t solve this problem. Literal travel is a crucial element, he continued – who are the customs agents, what do you have to pay, what do you have to conceal? There is a huge amount of material of this kind. And that literal travel becomes the metaphorical. (He is now in his classes at Harvard incorporating a simulation of that sort of travel with digital resources. One such course is “Travel and Transformation in the Early 17th Century.”) In a play like King Lear, Greenblatt said, you have “a crazy pastiche of things”: Isaiah plus Sir Philip Sydney mixed up with Machiavelli. Each carries with a it a set of implications through its (physical) travels.
A woman in the audience asked for Greenblatt’s take on the “what if,” or the imagination, and also to discuss the relationship between hypothetical and historical in his work.
Greenblatt employed the example of Natalie Zemon Davis’s Fiction in the Archives, which allowed for people to think about why people were writing the things they were writing instead of concentrating on the truth contained therein. Greenblatt argued that there is an extent of imagination and making up already implicit in the materials that we use. We are saturated with “crazy conjectures” of people who left traces of themselves. It is even more difficult to work with fictional materials, which are full of imaginary conjectures. You must account for the fact that you are deploying imagination yourself as you study it.
“On the other hand,” Greenblatt said, “You can’t just make it all up.” For example, one could use the discourse, “I never thought of anything I wrote as ‘fiction,’ ” but I am interested in effect and affects that are reachable through the imagination to get them in play. “You cough when the story is over if you’re not using the imagination.” In Anthony Burgess’s Nothing Like the Sun, though, there is a difference in the game being played. There is a tiny hook of documentary evidence to begin delving into the story. As a reader, perhaps it’s best to assume Shakespeare made up from stuff he could draw on from his life, not one character he is trying to portray from his life. This is better described as something else, like literary biography.
Henderson concluded, “Doesn’t it just come back to, What did Shakespeare say, anyway?”
Greenblatt laughed, “He’s a wonderful broken field runner; you can’t catch him that way anyway.”
Thorburn handed Greenblatt a copy of a book he published 25 years ago. Greenblatt read aloud the introduction, a story of a man on an airplane who asked Greenblatt to read the words, ‘I want to die, I want to die.’ The point of this fragment is that Greenblatt chooses the moments in his life when he recites someone else’s words. (Ironically, Thorburn had chosen this moment for him.)
Greenblatt ended the talk by saying, If you could record every movement of every atom as the world was constructed, it would become clear there was no free will, but it would also be clear that “one atom swerved.” That swerve was ridiculed for decades – it was written in 1417 by Lucretius. Now it is “the only thing in contemporary physics that seems kind of hip.” In other words, generations of theologians ridiculed the thing that saved agency.

the five drafts of the gettysburg address: a sophie book

Contrary to popular lore, Lincoln did not write the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope. Though given short notice that he was to speak at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, he had enough time to write two drafts of the address prior to November 19th, 1863. These he entrusted to his private secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay. The remaining three drafts were written well after the delivery of the address for inclusion in various charitable anthologies. Each draft differs slightly in wording and punctuation, most likely because each was written from memory.
This Sophie book compares the differences in the five drafts visually, provides information about the provenance of each draft, and features a reading of the address by Johnny Cash.
You can download it here. (.zip, 2.9 Mb) Make sure that you have Sophie or Sophie Reader installed.

By clicking on the title of the draft at the top of the text, the differences in wording will be highlighted, and information about the particular draft is displayed.

and the first document is . . . .

An Experiment in Visualization: Presidential Nomination Acceptance Speeches from Truman through Obama and McCain.
In addition to the visualizations in which the size of the word is proportionate to the number of times it is used, we’ve also included an audio recording and the full text for each speech. In order to encourage reader’s to look closely at each speech, you don’t see the name of the speaker until you decide to click on the word cloud to reveal it. Is that Reagan? Perhaps Clinton? it’s very interesting trying to parse the differences and what they mean. Although there are still problems with the way that Sophie’s comment streams are managed, we’ve enabled them here. Please if you leave comments for others, make them serious and not simply . . . .”testing” or “gee i wonder how this works.” You can download it here. But before you do, make sure you download and install the Sophie Reader.
visualization pic.png

Mellon announces a $1.25 million grant for Sophie 2.0

Last week the Mellon Foundation announced a $1.25 million grant to the University of Southern California for a java-based version of Sophie, which will be known as Sophie 2.0. In addition to improving on Sophie 1.0 in various ways, Sophie 2.0 documents will run inside the browser. The programming team is committed to working in the open as much as possible, so expect public releases of the code beginning in late November of this year. Sophie 2.0 itself is scheduled for release in September 2009, and yes, there will be a conversion path for Sophie 1.0 documents.