Monthly Archives: September 2009

I have only just begun reading Ivan Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text, and already I have the need to write about it.  This does not bode well for any of you who might be following along with me.  You might have to prepare for a steady diet of Illich’s reflection on the Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor over the next few weeks.  I apologize in advance, sincerely.

In his introduction to the book, Illich says, “No one should be misled into taking my footnotes as either proof of, or invitation to, scholarship.  They are there to remind the reader of the rich harvest of memorabilia – rocks, fauna, and flora – which a man has picked up on repeated walks through a certain area, and now would like to share with others.  They are here mainly to encourage the reader to venture into the shelves of the library and experiment with distinct types of reading.”

I love this passage for several reasons.

First, I think that the image of walking along the path and collecting the things that are found there is an apt image for the kind of scholarship that I value.  The walker is not interested in cataloging the flora and fauna of the path exhaustively, nor in classifying them rigorously.  The walker is interested in becoming familiar with the area, with the things that are there every day, with the things that are only rarely there, with the things that make this path singular.  The walker is looking and seeing, is listening and hearing, is finding and gathering, and is also, most significantly, sharing with others what has been found.

The kind of scholarship that Illich is describing with this image proceeds with a similar gait and a similar pace.  It is an invitation to walk with someone who has read and thought and written on certain intellectual paths, with someone who can point to the things that are there to be seen and heard and found.  It does not ask that I replicate a set of results.  It asks that I follow the path that another has made familiar so that it can become familiar to me also.  This is exactly the kind of scholarship that I want to model.

Second, by applying this idea of scholarship to his footnotes, Illich causes me to read his footnotes differently.  They cease being justifications for his scholarly claims and become recommendations for the books and writers and ideas that he has found and loved.  They become the textual equivalent of a verbal phenomenon that is familiar to anyone who talks with others about books and writers.  They say, “Oh, by the way, while we’re on the topic, such and such a book talks about this idea in interesting ways,” or they say, “I remember author so and so said something that relates to this point.”  In other words, they are all the places that our conversation could have gone but did not, all the things that it brushed against and took into itself but did not dwell upon.  They are all the places where our conversation might go next, when we meet again.

Third, Illich’s image is also an encouragement for his readers not to stop at his text, but to read through it to those that he has read himself, to go into the libraries and find the books that he is recommending, to read these things for ourselves.  It is never sufficient, he implies to read about another book or writer, however valuable such reading may be.  It is always necessary to read further and more, to read the many other books that one book always recommends,  even if this process will never be complete, perhaps because it will never be complete.  To read through the book in this way is to take the footnotes as recommendations to more and further reading, as possibilities, as conversations to come.

Illich takes himself at his own word in this respect, as he always does.  The footnotes of In the Vineyard of the Text are often very long, comprising more than half the page in many instances, and they could easily be passed over as either too boring or too intimidating to merit the time and effort that reading them would take, but his footnotes are as different as he claims they are, or perhaps I come to read them differently just because he has made such a claim.  I find them often conversational in tone, unafraid to reference an almost irrelevant anecdote or to recommend a particular book with a kind of personal fervour, and I sometimes find myself reflecting on them as much as the text itself.  Most interestingly, they also make me wonder what other textual conventions might be used in this way, against themselves, in order to foster a reading that is more open and more convivial.

As of this past weekend, From Word to Word is now officially Creative Commons licensed.  It was always my intention to release everything to the commons, and I have been encouraging people to act as if it was already, but I just never got around to doing anything official about it.  So, now there is actually the legalese to say that you can indeed use anything on this site to rip, mix, and burn, so long as you attribute it, so long as you are not making the big bucks on it, and so long as you share your work with the commons also.

I will not bother to rehearse all of the reasons for my choice.  There are many who have articulated them more clearly and cogently than I can.  If you are interested, you should probably begin by reading Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture, which is where I began.  If you are already familiar with the reasons for free culture and are interested in learning more about Creative Common licensing, you can find this information at Creative Commons Canada.

My special thanks goes to Dave Humphrey for hacking the code into my non-widget supporting template.

I had a chance to go by the EBC library today and search through the discards.  I was doing so primarily to make a point to my class that it is possible to find good books just about anywhere, but my visit proved much more productive than I expected.  I found a number of books that were interesting but for which I was not necessarily looking, the sort of books I thought I would find:

D. Mackenzie Brown – Ultimate Concern: Tillich in Dialogue
Friedrich Schleiermacher – On Religion
R. J. Kaufmann, editor – G. B. Shaw: A Collection of Critical Essays
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus – The Lives of the Twelve Caesars
Frederick Buechner – The Sacred Journey
Martis Esslin, editor – Samuel Beckett: A Collection of Critical Essays
Hugh Kenner – Samuel Beckett
Sigmund Freud – Totem and Taboo

More excitingly, I also found a novel by one of my favourite and most elusive authors: Many Dimensions by Charles Williams.  I have written at length about Charles Williams before, so I will not do so again.  I will just say that I love his books and was disappointed to find, when I got home, that Many Dimensions is one I already own. On the other hand, simply discovering it among the discards, so unexpectedly, was a profound delight, and I will now have something to give Dave Humphrey when we meet on Wednesday night.

I have been thinking lately about the nature of the work of art in the age of what I will call digital replication.  This thinking has led me in some disparate directions that I cannot possibly follow all at once, so this post will probably be the first of several that follow a loosely related set of ideas.  I have no real conclusion in mind, not yet, so consider this the textual corollary of thinking aloud.

As my title suggests, I have been thinking this question of digital replication through Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.  I first read this essay in a university theory class, then read it again some time later in order to better understand a friend’s article, and then read it again just recently as I was preparing to write this post.  It is a marvelous essay, and I will return to it in a moment, but I think that I should probably begin where so much of my thinking seems to begin, over a cup of coffee with Dave Humphrey.

Actually, on the night in question, I think I was drinking an oatmeal stout rather than a coffee, and I was listening to Dave theorize about why I prefer to search out books in yardsales and thriftstores rather than just to buy them online.  It suddenly occurred to me that I had already begun to answer this question some time ago in a post on dying texts, where I made a distinction between the physical book, which was falling apart as I was reading it, and the work of writing, which was embodied in many such physical books and in other forms as well.  I began to wonder whether my fascination with rescuing discarded books was an expression of a kind of fetish for the physical book, not in and of itself, because I am reader rather than a collector of books, but as the singular place where my own story intersects the story of the work of writing.  In other words, perhaps my fetish is with the book as the physical marker of a literary experience, as one of the elements that produces this experience, as a tangible synecdoche for this experience.  It is not that I am confusing the literary work with the form in which it happens to be embodied, but that my experience of the literary work is so dependent on it being embodied in one form or another that this form itself becomes an inextricable part of my experience.

This explains, I think, at least in part, why I love used bookstores and yardsales and thriftstores, because the books that I find there have stories that began far before I found them, so the intersection of their stories and mine is far more interesting.  They have inscriptions on their titlepages, and makeshift bookmarks, and notes in their margins, and coffee stains, and the pricetags of long forgotten booksellers.  They also have the story of where and when I happened to stumble upon them, the story of how their stories and mine happened to become entangled.  I love these stories about books.  I love them as much as the stories that the books contain.  I love them because they inform my reading of the literary work that they share with me, because they help make that reading and that experience what it is.  My fetish, in other words, is for story of the physical book as an element in the production of my literary experience.

Of course, every book, whether bought new from the mass bookseller or used online or digitized for my electronic reader, every book will have such a story, but some of these stories will be more interesting than others.  If a friend and I both place an order for copies of the same book online, their stories, at least for us, are practically indistinguishable from each other, and they are also practically indistinguishable from any number of other such orders placed by people around the world.  We will all have had our different reasons for placing that order, of course, but each copy of that book will have been published in the same place, shipped in the same ways, ordered from the same forms.  There is a story here, certainly, because there is always a story, but it is a story that is hardly worth telling, at least not without stomach churning levels of irony or boredom or both.

As I was thinking these things with Dave, sipping on my stout, I found myself recalling the opening section of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, where Benjamin analyzes how the ability to reproduce the work of art has altered our relation to the work of art as such, so I dug out the essay when I returned home.  It is, as I have already said, a marvelous bit of thinking, and I would like to spend a great more time on it than this present space will allow me.  The central ideas for my own purposes, however are these:

Benjamin argues that the age of mechanical reproduction and it ability to produce innumerable physical copies of an original work of art “withers the aura of the work of art.”  By this he means that reproduction undermines the work of art’s authenticity and jeopardizes its authority as an object, because “it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.”  He still maintains the idea of the original, arguing that “even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art” lacks the original’s “presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be,” but he argues that the aura, the authenticity, and the authority of this original is undermined by mass reproduction.

His reasons for this are fairly simple.  He first argues that “the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity,” and that “the uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being embedded in the fabric of tradition.”  He then suggests that “the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition” and therefore distances is also from the original work of art.  This distance, obscuring the singular history of the work of art, also withers its authority and authenticity, its aura.

One interesting implication of this line of reasoning is that it opens the possibility for reproductions to take on the kinds of authority and authenticity that were once reserved for the original.  If, as Benjamin says, “the authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history that it has experienced,” then a reproduction certainly obscures the authenticity of its original through the distance that it imposes between itself and the historical singularity of its original, but it also becomes a historical singularity in and of itself and becomes capable of founding its own authority and its own authenticity.  In other words, the ability to produce copies of the work of art makes possible the kind of fetishism that I was describing earlier.  It reduces the value of the original, because this original is no longer the only place where the work of art finds a form, but it opens the possibility that the copies will become originals of a sort as they take on their own history, and this history may actually increase their authenticity beyond that of their original, if they are signed by the author, for example, or owned by a celebrity.  Mechanical reproduction, therefore, devalues but does not eliminate the original, and produces many physical copies that can themselves obtain value as they take on a singular history.

All of this brings me to a possibility that first occurred to me as I was sitting there with Dave over my pint, though I did not then have the benefit of Benjamin’s terminology to articulate it: if the age of mechanical reproduction introduces the possibility that a copy might take on its own authority and authenticity, the age of digital replication ends this possibility definitively.    The reason for this is that the digitized replication is always entirely identical to its original and to every other copy.  These replications are always indistinguishable.   They always substitute for one another perfectly.  There is, in other words, no original, or perhaps there are only originals, and none of these originals are subject to history in a way that can mark them as singular and therefore authoritative or authentic.  History leaves them untouched, unmarked, so they are incapable of taking on the aura of authority or authenticity.

This means that the digitized replication can never become a fetishized object in the way of the mechanical reproduction, because it will never be possible for its story to become singular and to intersect with the story of the reader.  I will never find notes in the margin of an etext or a signature on the cover of an mp3 file.  I will never find their stories in a thriftstore or a garage sale.   In the mode of their physical existence, they are as different from the book as the book is from the oral recitation.  This new mode of existence, I think, needs to be the subject of some serious reflection, and I hope to do some of this reflection in future posts.

For the moment, though, I will close with a confession of sorts.  While I am not certain whether digital replication is essentially better or worse than mechanical reproduction, I must admit an intense nostalgia for the stories and the histories that mechanical reproduction enables.  My own understanding of the literary experience is so entirely wrapped up in the physicality of the book and in the history that produces it as an authentic and authoritative object, even if for no one but myself, that I cannot imagine reading apart from these things, and I can only see the digital replication as a kind of loss, whatever benefits it might also have.  Perhaps these are the questions that I will need to explore next.

Let me say, right from the beginning, that I have never been one of Quentin Tarantino’s biggest fans.  I enjoy his films, mostly.  I think his dialogue is often very good.  I love the way that he frames and moves through his shots.  I am not, however, able to respond to his films in the ways that other people do.  On the one hand, I cannot wallow in the popular culture references, in the violence, in the genre mashing that attracts the greater part of his audience.  On the other hand, neither can I find much profundity in the irony and social commentary that attracts his more intellectual admirers.  I find his work far more interesting than the generic Hollywood films that are generally found in theatres, of course, but this is not exactly a grand achievement.

On Tuesday night, however, I went with Don Moore and John Jantunen to see Inglourious Basterds, and I think my opinion of the film might very well be summed up in the words that close it.  They are spoken by Aldo, an American officer in charge of a Jewish special forces unit that has been dropped into Nazi France to wreak havoc on the occupying forces.  Throughout the film, he has allowed only a very few of his Nazi prisoners to survive, and he has carved a swastika into the foreheads of each of these men as a way of marking them as Nazis even after they have removed their uniforms.  He takes a certain pride in this operation, remarking at one point that he is getting quite good at it, and suggests that you only get to be the best with practice.

In the final scene, Aldo is taking charge of a German SS officer who has made a deal with the Allies.  He knows that he cannot kill his prisoner, but he is also unwilling to let the man escape his crimes, so he resorts again to carving a swastika on his prisoner’s forehead.  The closing shot is of Aldo’s face from below, from the perspective of the newly branded officer, as Aldo says, “I think this may be my masterpiece.”

All of which is to say that Tarantino, at least in my opinion, could have put these same words in his own mouth, and perhaps, in a way, he even does, since there are more than a few similarities between how Aldo and Tarantino use violence as a medium.  In any case, whether or nor he had the audacity to say so himself, I think Inglourious Basterds is indeed Tarantino’s masterpiece, at least to date.  What distinguishes it from his previous films, at least in my opinion, is the structural complexity of the story, the many layers of parallelism that engage the audience itself in the film’s social and ethical critique.  I could give many examples of this, but one will have to suffice.

In the climactic sequence, a Jewish theatre owner is hosting the première of a Goebbles film.  The entirety of the Nazi high command is in attendance, so the owner and her black lover have decided to lock the doors and burn the theatre down around the audience.  The film being premièred is about a young German soldier who single-handedly defends a tower against 300 Allied soldiers, and the footage is mostly of these Allied soldiers being gunned down in various ways.  Hitler and the other Nazi luminaries are shown laughing at this carnage, and Hitler even mentions to Goebbles that the film is his best work.

This moment produces an interesting irony, however, considering that the audience of Tarantino’s film has been similarly laughing at depictions of German soldiers being shot, scalped, smothered, strangled, and beaten with baseball bats.  Suddenly, the audience of Tarantino’s film is being paralleled with the audience of Goebbles’ film,  and our laughter begins to appear disturbingly akin to Hitler’s laughter, a laughter that comes from seeing the death of those we have always assumed to be deserving of nothing other than death.

Film logic has always told us that Nazis are the one unambiguous evil.  Nazis appear on screen only to be killed.  They can be killed without conscience.  In fact, they can even be killed with a certain humour, and we will laugh along.  Yet, this laughter, Tarantino implies, is very much Hitler’s laughter also.  The only difference is in the kinds of people that we are amused to see dying.

This is not say that Tarantino is in any way excusing the Nazis.  Quite the opposite: without offering them any excuse whatsoever, he is implicating his own audience in their behaviour and implying that we are also guilty of the same unambiguous evil that the Nazis have come to represent, and when the theatre burns down around Hitler and his staff, there is the uncomfortable implication that we, as an audience of Tarantino’s film, might expect a similar fate.

We are left to wonder whether there might not be those who would indeed happily burn us in our seats because we have been all too content to watch them dying, because we have always assumed that they exist only to die.  There may not be an orphaned Jewish girl behind the projector or her persecuted black lover behind the screen, but there are any number of candidates to take their places, some who have already taken their places, the oppressed and forgotten people of the world for whom violence and torture and terrorism appear to be the only choices available.

Which brings me back to that final scene, where Aldo is etching a Swastika in his prisoner’s forehead.  Perhaps Tarantino’s film puts us in the place of that prisoner.  After all, it is in that moment, for the first time, that the camera takes the point of view of one of its characters, and we are made to look, through the SS officer’s eyes, at the face of the one who has just marked us forever.  Perhaps we are meant to recognize that we too have committed the same kinds atrocities through the very ways that we live, that we too have cut a deal that lets us escape responsibility for the violence that our lives inflict on others, and that we too, through the film, are now being marked as a permanent reminder of our culpability, though we have no uniform that others might recognize.  Perhaps, Tarantino’s film is his way of sitting on our chests, taking a knife in his hand, and marking us as those who are content to have certain kinds of people die so that we can live the way we do.  Perhaps this is his masterpiece.  Perhaps.

One of the conversations that Dave Humphrey and I have been having over the past months is about how to understand open data, not only in a pragmatic sense, but also in a linguistic and conceptual sense.  He sent me a paper a few weeks ago, and I responded to it, and we discussed it in person, and the further we got, the more I began to suspect that Dave is touching on some potentially important questions in this area.  After all, if we are going to encourage those who control data to make it open, and if we are going to encourage those who have access to open data to use it practically in the kinds of ways that David Eaves has recently suggested, then we need to truly understand what these ideas imply.

The result of Dave’s work has just been posted as a separate essay on his blog, and I would recommend that people take the opportunity to read it closely, to reflect on it, and to respond to it.  I am hopeful, and I know Dave is too, that this essay can be a place to begin thinking more seriously about the nature of the data systems that increasingly define the limits of economy, politics, and culture.