Category Archives: nostalgia

backwards into the future

Reading Christine Boese’s anticipatory critique of the new NY Times Reader, I was reminded of something I saw last winter in Seoul at Chosun Ilbo, which is pretty much the Korean equivalent of The New York Times. Off the main lobby, the newspaper has set up an exhibition space called the “Media Lab,” where the latest prototypes from the paper’s digital technology wing are on public display. A sneak peak at the future of news.
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While there, I taped a demo that shows a new reading interface they’ve developed called “T-Paper,” which was supposedly slated for release this year (though I haven’t heard anything about it since). Strolling through the gallery, I found it running across a range of devices, from large flat-screen televisions to laptops, to Sony PSPs, to tiny pocket assistants. Here’s the wall display:

My first reaction was much like Chris’s: “a ‘horseless carriage’ retrenchment” — porting the artifact of the broadsheet newspaper into a digital environment. I have to admit, though, that I was slightly seduced by the zoom interface, which reminded me of this proof of a similar concept by the late interface pioneer Jef Raskin. It’s especially impressive to see it done with video. Though the Times Reader doesn’t sport anything as fancy as this, a commenter named Kevin (who I can only assume works for the Times — or Microsoft) insists that it will have much of the reader-driven functionality we would hope for (including the ability to share comments and annotations with other readers), in spite of the fact that it will be, as Chris puts it, “a walled garden.”
Kevin also refers to usability studies that suggest the Times Reader helps users “retain more information and read for longer periods.” I’ll buy longer periods — I always read more of the paper when I have it in print, and this new device certainly replicates much of the experience of print reading, while incorporating some nice new features. But still, are these proprietary, bound devices really going to replace newspapers? It seems doubtful when news consumption is such a multi-sourced affair these days (though to some extent that’s an illusion). A device that allows readers to design their news menu seems more the ticket. Maybe the Times should be thinking more in terms of branded software than proprietary hardware. Make the best news reader on the web, prominently featuring Times content, but allowing users to customize their reading experience. Keep it open and plugged in. Let the Times be your gateway to more than just the Times.
Chosun Ilbo’s vision seemed similarly constrained. As much as they tried to create a futuristic atmosphere with their Media Lab, much of the technology on display seemed, like the Times Reader, to be stuck in old mindsets — fixated more on the digital apotheosis of their product than on really grappling with the realities of the new media environment. 180px-MarshallMcLuhan.gif T-Paper also reminded of another museum piece, the British Museum’s “Turning the Pages,” which remounts famous old manuscripts like DaVinci’s journals in a fancy page-turning interface. A while back, Sally Northmore wrote a nice piece for if:book pondering this strange print-digital artifact, and what it means to electronically replicate the turning of a page. All of this recalls Marshall McLuhan’s famous observation in The Medium is the Massage:

“When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future…”

Much of the disoreintation I felt while in Korea came from this feeling of time pulling in different directions. A society saturated in technology, far more wired than ours, Korea rushes headlong into the future, yet at the same time digs its heels obstinately into the past. At the end of the Korean War, Seoul was a bombed-out pit of some half million people. Now it’s a sprawling megalopolis of over 20 million, and though many centuries-old, it feels streamlined and new. There’s no “old city” in any real sense. Shiny glass towers and enormous shopping centers loom over the streets, pedestrian shopping lanes explode into jungles of neon, tiny alleys teem with life like fissures in a coral reef, and a vast network of subways rumbles beneath. And yet this dynamic scene — the swirl of steaming tripe vendors and blinking electronics — is periodically interrupted by a medieval gate or pagoda, a historic remainder sitting tranquilly amid the churn of modern life.
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Spend an afternoon walking through Seoul and you’ll see the full pageant of the local techno-culture. Cell phones are clearly several generations further evolved than anything we have here in the States. People seem to be doing just about everything with their mobile devices: playing games, watching TV, surfing the web. I even saw one woman on a train using her phone’s video camera as a pocket mirror to fix her make-up. Young men spend hours tucked away in smoky, windowless internet cafes known as “PC Bangs,” playing multi-player online games that involve a quarter of the citizenry. At the same time, you are frequently reminded of Korea’s abiding infatuation with printing, paper crafts and calligraphy: stores sumptuously arrayed with handmade paper hung on racks, prodigiously plumed ink brushes hanging like icicles from the ceiling, and delicate little rice paper journals piled neatly on the shelves.
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Mountains also serve to anchor swift-moving Seoul in time. 70 percent of the Korean peninsula is mountainous and the Seoul region is no exception. Sitting in the heart of downtown is the petite Namsan peak, surrounded by one of the city’s best-loved parks and sporting at its summit Seoul’s most recognizable landmark, Seoul Tower, a rocket ship awaiting blastoff. Facing Namsan, the snow-streaked Bugaksan peak rises over one of Seoul’s central boulevards, an avenue running through what feels like the Korean equivalent of Rockefeller Plaza, past City Hall, the big newspaper offices, the Ubiquitous Dream Hall and the Ministry of Reunification, leading to the Gyeongbok Palace, and beyond that the Presidential “Blue House,” nestled in Bugaksan’s shade.
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Framed by the mountain, presiding over the unending traffic of Hyundais, Kias, Daewoos, and Samsungs, is an imposing statue of Admiral Yi, the famous military leader who in the late 16th century dealt a humiliating blow to the Japanese navy with the most advanced technology of his time: a fleet of armor-plated, smoke-breathing “turtle boats.”
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Much of Seoul’s past lies beneath the modern streets, and occasionally something is unearthed and restored (or reinvented). Announced by a waterfall perpendicular to the grand boulevard is the Cheonggyecheon, an ancient stream running through the heart of the city into the countryside beyond, and which until very recently was covered over by an elevated highway. Last year, the city demolished the roadway, uncovered the stream and built a lovely sunken path alongside it cutting quietly through six miles of the city’s bustle. If you’ve ever been to Paris and walked directly along the Seine on the lower walkways, you can sort of picture this, though the Cheonggyecheon is no Seine — a small stream and a fairly narrow trench. But walking there, with the tops of buildings peeking over, an improbable calm steals over you in the heart of town.
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And because this reminiscence began with newspapers, take a look at these pictures. A few blocks from the waterfalls that reintroduce the Cheonggyecheon to the city after all these years, the very same newspapers that pride themselves on publishing at the cutting edge of technology still mount their daily editions, page by page, in glass cases on the street for all to read.

object nostalgia

I’ve buckled down and decided that, as I never really play them any more & I’m tired of dragging their crates from apartment to apartment, it’s time to rip all my old CDs and get rid of the physical detritus. I’ve been doing this slowly, taking the opportunity to listen to them all again, which draws me to the inexorable conclusion that I’ve bought an awful lot of bad music over the years. At what point did I decide that I needed the entire recorded output of the Telstar Ponies? how many CDs by The Fall does any one person really need? whatever happened to my Joy Division box set? But it’s interesting handling the CDs as objects: for the majority, I can remember where they were acquired and sometimes the circumstances that I listened to them in. As an exercise in personal archaeology, I’ve been writing down what I remember.

i am kurious oranj | proust

It’s self-indulgent, a nostalgic activity. Proust, the particular lens through which I’ve been looking at the world lately, explains the experience quite nicely, but with books:

This is because things – a book in its red binding, like all the rest – at the moment we notice them, turn within us into something immaterial, akin to all the preoccupations or sensations we have at that particular time, and mingle indissolubly with them. Some name, read long ago in a book, contains among its syllables the strong wind and bright sunlight of the day when we were reading it.

(p. 193 of Ian Patterson’s translation of Finding Time Again.) This is also a more eloquent version of the image evoked near the end of what’s become almost a standard script, the conversation that I fall into when explaining my job to someone new. “No, the Institute is not going to be taking your books away,” I assure people. “Good,” they say, “my books are special.” And then I’m told exactly why their books are special, which generally has to do with the same constellation of nostalgia, memory, and personal history that’s cohered around my old CDs. With books, it’s solidified to be almost a critical tradition, one of the primary arguments leveled against electronic attempts at replicating the functionality of books. Sven Birkerts pioneered this approach, and it’s since been picked up by most would-be defenders of the book. The most recent I’ve read is that of William Gass titled “A Defense of the Book,” in A Temple of Texts, his latest collection of essays; it’s a title that could serve for any number of essays standing firm against anti-nostalgists.

The core of these arguments is this: that our nostalgia towards books indicates an ineffable quality of the book as an object that can’t be digitally replicated. It’s a vague argument at best; as such, it’s a difficult one to dispute. Often it’s simply brushed aside: condescending to nostalgia isn’t a worthy use of the technologist’s time. But it’s usually a stopping point in arguments about digitalization, and as such it bears scrutiny.

The passage I quoted above from Proust is a useful tool for the job. The background: this is an episode in the last volume of Proust’s novel. At this moment he happens to pick up a book that his mother read to him as a child, George Sand’s François le champi. The book transports him into a cascade of memories, and then into reflection on how memory works, and how objects get tangled in the skeins of our memory. The trigger of memory is of particular interest; here, Proust seizes upon the problem of materiality. Is it the book itself, or the words in the book? The first sentence suggests the former: the red binding of the book has an aura about it. But the second sentence, with its crisp images, suggests that the content of the book, the forgotten name on the page, is what’s really important.

There’s something else interesting here which doesn’t usually get remarked upon, though this is a famous image in Proust’s work: the book that the narrator picks up isn’t the book he read as a childhood. It’s another copy of the same book. He’s not in his childhood home, but rather in the library at the house of a friend, and this is another copy of François le champi. In all probability, the binding of the book he picks up (made, as he notes, to match all the other books in the library) is different to the binding of the book he picked up as a child. It’s worth noting that it’s the syllables of the spoken (even silently) word – does a word on a page have syllables? – that contain memory.

In a way, this makes perfect sense: the madeline that the narrator dips in tea in the beginning of the novel is obviously not the same madeline that he dipped in tea as a small child. But in a way, Proust is illustrating what might be the central artistic crisis of the twentieth century, the problem of human response to mechanical reproduction. It’s a problem that falls squarely into the category of “job description” at the Institute.

proust | duchamp

To the rescue: another Marcel, Duchamp, comes to mind, an artist whose body of work seems to have been created with an eye to preparing us to live in an age where originals are lost in a sea of copies, an age in which, as Marx & Engels predicted, “all that is solid melts into air.” With Duchamp begins the idea of the multiple: many instances of the same work of art like the many copies of a book that can be printed or the many photographic prints that could be made from a negative. “The idea of multiples is the distribution of ideas,” said Joseph Beuys. In one sense, Duchamp’s introduction of the multiple is art catching up with Gutenberg; in another, it’s a carefully orchestrated shift in values between the concrete and the virtual.

What can Duchamp teach us about nostalgia? His work carefully separates artistic value from the enclosing objects. Take, as an example, Duchamp’s famous readymades – the urinal, the bicycle wheel, the snow shovel, etc. Although his urinal has been described as the single greatest work of art of the twentieth century, it no longer exists: like the originals of most of his other readymades, it seems to have mysteriously disappeared at some point. There are, however, an unending parade of copies. Duchamp made his own miniature copies of them for his Box in a Valise, his autosummarization of his career as an artist. He happily authorized Arturo Schwartz to create his own copies of his readymades. At the Whitney Biennial right now, Sturtevant has taken it upon herself to make her own copies of the readymades. Duchamp, were he still alive, would probably cheerfully add these to his procession of simulacra.

The artist’s thought, Duchamp declared, is more important than the object to which it is attached: the object of art serves is a container for the thought of the artist (just as the book is a container for the text within). As viewers of art, we should concentrate, Duchamp thought, on the idea behind what we see, not what we see. Moreover, he argued, this is what had always been the value of art. In an interview with Alain Jouffroy in 1964 he classified painting into two varieties, the kind

intended only for the retina . . . and the kind of painting which reaches beyond the retina, using the paint tube as its springboard for reaching much farther. This was the case with the religious painters of the Renaissance. The paint tube didn’t interest them. What interested them was the idea of expressing the divine in one form or another. Without wanting to do the same, I maintain that pure painting as an aim in itself is of no import. My aim is something completely different: for me, in consists in a combination, or at least in an expression, which only the grey cells can reproduce.

He saw his work, of course, as aspiring to be the latter sort of art. Recent history would seem to bear out the avowedly atheist Duchamp enlisting the religious painters of the Renaissance in his camp: one of Schwarz’s copies of his urinal was recently attacked with a hammer as if it were Michaelangelo’s Pietà.

duchamp | proust

As odd as Duchamp considering himself as among the religious painters might be my recruitment of Proust against object-nostalgia. Proust is generally perceived as glorying in the past: his novel is about the process of looking backwards. But this isn’t entirely justified: note this passage from Finding Time Again, which occurs shortly after the episode quoted above:

Some used to say that art in a period of speed and haste would be brief, like the people before the war who predicted that it would be over quickly. The railway was thus supposed to have killed contemplative thought, and it was vain to long for the days of the stage-coach, but now the automobile fulfils their function and once again sets the tourists down in front of abandoned churches.

(p.197.) This comes startlingly close to language we use regularly at the Institute (the trope of the horseless carriage and so on). New technology doesn’t kill art or thought: it changes it, and change itself is morally neutral. And again: like the object of the book, the stage-coach and the automobile are both vehicles, both means to an end. We shouldn’t feel nostalgia for the vehicle: we’re using it to get somewhere, and there are other ways to get to the same end. Proust shouldn’t be construed as saying that the march of progress is entirely a good thing: people might stop visiting the abandoned churches. But it would be foolish to imagine that people stopped visiting the abandoned churches because they abandoned stage-coaches for automobiles.

proust | i am kurious oranj

To go back to where I started from: my decision to chuck my CDs doesn’t seem that strange: plenty of other people are doing the same thing. Though vinyl records seems to function, for those older than myself, as reservoirs of nostalgia, music would seem to have firmly wandered into the realm of the digital. Could we care about DVDs? HD-DVDs? It doesn’t seem that likely. It’s more useful to have these things in object-free form: if an album’s on my hard drive, I’ll probably listen to it more often than if its a CD in a crate under my bed. Nor am I really adding CDs to the crate: while I’m still happily consuming music, I’m buying most of it in digital form from places like

A caveat: I’m not trying to make a universal argument. I’m not throwing out all my CDs: certain objects do have very personal associations (those given as gifts, for example). (And Duchamp, a man who relished self-contradiction, would probably have recognized this: he took extraordinary precautions to save his work.) But I don’t think that we should imagine that nostalgia is explicitly a function of the container, be that container the CD or the book. A book is, after all, a multiple, a mass-produced object. Nostalgia’s not built in at the press: it’s something that we put into our books. There are exceptions (an artist’s book produced for a hand-picked audience, for example), but that exceptionality should be recognized as part of their value and not taken for granted.

i am kurious oranj | archilochos

And a coda: if humanity outlasts the book, nostalgia will outlast the book, which it preceded. It’s codified perfectly in this fragment (translated by Guy Davenport) of the Greek poet Archilochos, who was born around 680 B.C.E., died around 645 B.C.E. and probably never saw a book in his life:

How many times,
How many times,
On the gray sea,
The sea combed
By the wind
Like a wilderness
Of woman’s hair,
Have we longed,
Lost in nostalgia,
For the sweetness
Of homecoming.