Tuesday, July 22, 2008

And this is fresh...

Excerpts from
The DJs They Couldn’t Hang
by Stuart Cosgrove
Originally published in the NME, August 9, 1986

(See whole story in the archives at DJhistory.com)

House music is dedicated. There are one or two releases which have the familiarity that hit records depend on, but most of them are for the dedicated. It is meta-music, a sound that constantly refers outwards to other sounds

House music is far from original, it’s a celebration of ten years of club music, strung out and remixed. If the last ten years of club music say nothing about your life then House music will be a massive disappointment, but if you feel club music communicates then smile for the hangman.

Frankie Knuckles, Farley Jackmaster Funk, radio mixers The Hot Mix 5 and young mixers like DJ Pope and Jackmaster House have transformed the DJ’s actions into an art: the aesthetics of house. Record decks, found sounds, simple drum machines, snatched backing tracks, sound effects and samplers are brought together to create live music from records, These in the words of current controversy are the ultimate musicians: the DJs they couldn’t hang. The House Mix style is creative, brash, extreme, dub crazy and soulful in the most modern and technological sense, The DJ becomes a creator and the hangman just an artisan performing two-bit rope tricks.

It’s the sound Chicago invented by borrowing from everywhere else.

Also See Cosgrove On the Wheels of Steal (1987)

House has broken the mould forever. The first theft as exploitation, one-way cultural traffic in which the authentic voice of black America was taken and toned down. But that was then and this is now. In 1987, theft is emancipatory, the traffic flows in both directions, every tune is a victim and every musician has the ability to mug a passer-by.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Lethem on Copyright as Art

From Copy This Book, an interview with Jonathan Lethem in Wired, 04.19.07

"I wanted to say any artist could make up their own way of dealing with copyright," Lethem explains. "I wanted to possess the activity. Some novelists have already done that by using Creative Commons licenses. But I'm saying we can make up a new set of rules every time we offer something to the world. Artists should take possession of the transmission of their art. In fact, that could be part of the art. Each copyright could be particular to with the art itself.

"The point is, it ought to be up to the artists."

Listening to Lethem, one imagines a world where every artist crafts an idiosyncratic copyright notice, with its own strange rules, to adorn the front page or liner notes or gallery notice fronting her creations.

Lethem doesn't think of himself as a copyright activist, nor does he claim to understand every aspect of intellectual property law. He just wants to tweak people's cultural perceptions, which is perhaps the first step toward changing laws.

"I urge people to think and feel differently about societal mores regarding originality and plagiarism," Lethem says. "I want to provoke people to reexamine the realm of imperfection that is copyright."

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Artist-run print co-ops Fag and Fagette

Sydney-based Artist-run printing co-operatives Big Fag and Fagette in Throw Shapes:


Thus warns the brochure for the FAG 104, a huge old offset proof printing machine which an Alexandria-based artist collective snapped up at a liquidation auction five years ago. A $50 bid was all it took to drop the gavel on the machine which, considered obsolete technology in the commercial printing world, is actually worth two thousand times more. Four days later, the four tonne beast was lovingly re-named THE BIG FAG and dropped by crane into 'The Barn', an artist-run studio in Alexandria. And since then it's been offered non-profit as a self-publishing DIY facilitator to social media makers, activists and artists alike. We were pretty interested in the whole initiative, so went to The Barn to meet The Big Fag and hear his story. According to artist Lucas Ihlein, one of the people behind the Big Fag Press, “it was just sort of serendipity.”

The Machine

It took two years for the Big Fag's new parents to get to know him, and to start getting the best out of him: low-run, hi-quality prints on B2-sized paper and card, which have an aesthetic and potential for customisation that you can't achieve anywhere else. Lucas puts it well;"It's a bit like having a 1950s Cadillac or something. It's beautiful, but it takes a long time to learn how to use it… It's going to be a lifelong journey, you know?" So is it the only one of its kind? "We call ourselves Sydney's only artist run offset printing co-op. Which is pretty safe."

Most printing companies today have become 'printing brokers', who email files to China for cheaper prints which then get sent back to the client, usually without being looked at by the company. Serves a function, sure, but the hard, clean plasticity of commercial printing sits uncomfortably with the art world and the principles of DIY. "There's a real joy and pleasure in being able to do it yourself, and also in being able to get a result that you wouldn't be able to get in any other way. We try to make sure that whoever's doing the job with us is here on the day of printing, so that if some issue comes up we can make decisions on the run." When artist James Dodds was making his pole posters on the press and accidently scratched the fragile metal plate used to make the print, he just went with it, enhancing the scratch with sandpaper. "If we were a commercial printer, we would have just chucked out the plates and started again, because you know, you have to deliver the Best Quality Work For The Client. But here, since the client is an artist…"

Art Vs Activism

Because use of the Big Fag hasn't extended too far out of the networks it belongs to, a lot of the clients have been artists. But the Fag Press network is more complicated than that, with members wearing hats in a bunch of other collectives at the same time. Many have an anti-Establishment bent. Lucas, for instance, is also a key member of the Network of Uncollectable Artists, who print swappable bubblegum-card packs featuring 50 of Australia's Most Uncollectable Artists, "collect them all!" - a spoof on Art Collector Magazine. Lucas also wears a badge in Squatspace, an initiative which run various projects and programs to engage with, demystify and reclaim space in the city - in 2002, they set up an Un-RealEstate agency in a Newcastle shopping mall, mapping out unoccupied residential "empties" in the area and offering copies of their Squatters' Handbook. They also run a Redfern - Waterloo Tour of Beauty, where residents get taken on bike or bus to learn about the inner-West from unexpected vantage points. Their next one is this Sunday, June 22.

Still, ownership of the machine is tied up in a diversity of backgrounds and different ethical stances -and printing is not just reserved for subversive or activist media. The Big Fag has printed culture jams, promotional posters, beer labels and also just art for arts sake. Kernow Craig, another member of the co-op, has been behind us in the studio making colourful, Big Fag-themed silkscreen prints:"I mean, it's a printing machine, but it's not only that. And it's a printing collective, but it's not only that. Because of all those different stories, it's also constantly exceeding itself and going further than we could ever imagine."

The Fagette

The only limits to what can be printed are those imposed by the Big Fag himself - mostly to do with size, colour and time. "If you're doing fifty posters in two colours, that's gonna take you a day. If you get more than that, it's a bonus. So yeah, it's slow." Lucky there's an alternative then - an independent (but associated) collective have just purchased an old Riso Stencil Press they've dubbed the Fagette, a more manageably sized machine that offers all the benefits of a photocopier, while reintroducing the aesthetics of the handmade. One of the first things they're printing on the Fagette is a poster pack - 18 posters by 18 artists, including big names like Mambo's Reg Mombassa, and the Age's cartoonist Bruce Petty.


But the story of getting the art together for this pack highlights the difficulties of self-publishing in a conservative society. Reg Mombassa had submitted his latest Aussie Jesus, a mainstay in Mambo theology; "Aussie Jesus' Address to Homophobic Bigots of Australia". But the company set to go ahead with the essential paper sponsorship deal wouldn't give the paper up unless Aussie Jesus was taken out. Kernow gets red around the ears here: "It's important never to forget what a fucking right wing, neoconservative, Christian country this is. Fred Nile's the most visible point, but it goes so much deeper!" I'm guessing they didn't go with the company? "No! I mean Fuck! Not wanting to put something out there that's provocative in such a progressive way? They can suck my cock - sorry, but I think that's an appropriate response."

At the recent MCA zine fair, the organizers allowed participation on condition that zines contained "no pornography, nudity, defamation, harassment, commercial advertisements, and material encouraging criminal conduct." Big Fag Press' response? A zine called PORNOGRAPHY, NUDITY, DEFAMATION, HARASSMENT, COMMERCIAL ADVERTISEMENTS AND MATERIAL ENCOURAGING CRIMINAL CONDUCT. The centerfold was an open letter to the MCA explaining why limits should never be put on a event encouraging self-publishing. As it happened, people brought all the sexy, gory stuff anyway and just hid it under their tables.

The Death Of Print?

While I sadly missed the bottom-drawer goods, what I did notice at the zine fair was the huge crowd that came out of the woodwork. According to Kernow, it was the best thing the Museum's done. "The MCA is generally so divorced from the meaning of people's everyday lives in Sydney, whereas this actually brought in a whole culture. It felt alive, I mean it really felt alive, and I was so surprised at how many people came, and the diversity of work as well!"

So when it feels like there's been a zine fair pretty much every fortnight in the last few months, it's got to be time for media naval-gazers to shut up about the Death Of Print, right? Lucas takes this question: "There's always surges in one direction and then backlashes in another, you know? We all got so excited about websites, and they turned out to be amazingly useful, but we use them so much these days that there's a sense of relief when you come across something you can hold in your hands." It's that resurgence in the value of slowness and the tactile qualities of a tangible experience that the Big Fag Press and their machines are all about. Talking about the philosophical underpinnings of DIY art and social print media, words like punk, Fluxus and even Dadaism are thrown around. But they summed it up best here:

Lucas: "It's anti-art, but anti-art is the high art of the 20th century. And of course we're now in the 21st century, so you have to bring nostalgia into that."
Kernow: "So what does that make us? The retro mixtape of the 20th century?"
Lucas: "This is like pulling shit off the garbage heap of 20th century technology."
Kernow: "Or maybe we're just creating the golden oldies of the future."

Friday, July 18, 2008

Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative

John Oswald's essay from 1985. File under the more things change, the more they stay the same.

"Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative"
- as presented by John Oswald to the Wired Society Electro-Acoustic Conference in Toronto in 1985.

Musical instruments produce sounds. Composers produce music. Musical instruments reproduce music. Tape recorders, radios, disc players, etc., reproduce sound. A device such as a wind-up music box produces sound and reproduces music. A phonograph in the hands of a hip hop/scratch artist who plays a record like an electronic washboard with a phonographic needle as a plectrum, produces sounds which are unique and not reproduced - the record player becomes a musical instrument. A sampler, in essence a recording, transforming instrument, is simultaneously a documenting device and a creative device, in effect reducing a distinction manifested by copyright.

Free samples

These new-fangled, much-talked-about digital sound sampling devices, are, we are told, music mimics par excellence, able to render the whole orchestral panoply, plus all that grunts, or squeaks. The noun "sample" is, in our comodified culture, often pre-fixed by the adjective free, and if one is to consider predicating this subject, perhaps some thinking aloud on what is not allowable auditory appropriation is to be heard.

Some of you, current and potential samplerists, are perhaps curious about the extent to which you can legally borrow from the ingredients of other people's sonic manifestations. Is a musical property properly private, and if so, when and how does one trespass upon it? Like myself, you may covet something similar to a particular chord played and recorded singularly well by the strings of the estimable Eastman Rochester Orchestra on a long-deleted Mercury Living Presence LP of Charles Ives' Symphony #3 1, itself rampant in unauthorized procurements. Or imagine how invigorating a few retrograde Pygmy (no slur on primitivism intended) chants would sound in the quasi-funk section of your emulator concerto. Or perhaps you would simply like to transfer an octave of hiccups from the stock sound library disk of a Mirage to the spring-loaded tape catapults of your Melotron.

Can the sounding materials that inspire composition be sometimes considered compositions themselves? Is the piano the musical creation of Bartolommeo Cristofori (1655-1731) or merely the vehicle engineered by him for Ludwig Van and others to manoeuver through their musical territory? Some memorable compositions were created specifically for the digital recorder of that era, the music box. Are the preset sounds in today's sequencers and synthesizers free samples, or the musical property of the manufacturer?3 Is a timbre any less definably possessable than a melody? A composer who claims divine inspiration is perhaps exempt from responsibility to this inventory of the layers of authorship. But what about the unblessed rest of us?

Let's see what the powers that be have to say. 'Author' is copyrightspeak for any creative progenitor, no matter if they program software or compose hardcore. To wit: "An author is entitled to claim authorship and to preserve the integrity of the work by restraining any distortion, mutilation or other modification that is prejudicial to the author's honor or reputation." That's called the 'right of integrity' and it's from the Canada Copyright Act. A recently published report on the proposed revision of the Act uses the metaphor of land owners' rights, where unauthorized use is synonymous with trespassing. The territory is limited. Only recently have sound recordings been considered a part of this real estate.

Blank tape is derivative, nothing of itself

Way back in 1976, ninety nine years after Edison went into the record business, the U.S. Copyright Act was revised to protect sound recordings in that country for the first time. Before this, only written music was considered eligible for protection. Forms of music that were not intelligible to the human eye were deemed ineligible. The traditional attitude was that recordings were not artistic creations, "but mere uses or applications of creative works in the form of physical objects."

Some music oriented organizations still retain this 'view'. The current Canadian Act came into being in 1924, an electric eon later than the original U.S. Act of l909, and up here "copyright does subsist in records, perforated rolls and other contrivances by means of which sounds may be mechanically reproduced."

Of course the capabilities of mechanical contrivances are now more diverse than anyone back at the turn of the century forecasted, but now the real headache for the writers of copyright is the new electronic contrivances, including digital samplers of sound and their accountant cousins, computers. Among "the intimate cultural secretions of electronic, biological, and written communicative media" the electronic brain business is cultivating, by grace of its relative youth, pioneering creativity and a corresponding conniving ingenuity. The popular intrigue of computer theft has inspired cinematic and paperback thrillers while the robbery of music is restricted to elementary poaching and blundering innocence. The plots are trivial: Disney accuses Sony of conspiring with consumers to make unauthorized mice7. Former Beatle George Harrison is found guilty of an indiscretion in choosing a vaguely familiar sequence of pitches.

The dubbing-in-the-privacy-of-your-own-home controversy is actually the tip of a hot iceberg of rudimentary creativity. After decades of being the passive recipients of music in packages, listeners now have the means to assemble their own choices, to separate pleasures from the filler. They are dubbing a variety of sounds from around the world, or at least from the breadth of their record collections, making compilations of a diversity unavailable from the music industry, with its circumscribed stables of artists, and an ever more pervasive policy of only supplying the common denominator.

The Chiffons/Harrison case, and the general accountability of melodic originality, indicates a continuing concern for what amounts to the equivalent of a squabble over the patents to the Edison cylinder.

The Commerce of Noise

The precarious commodity in music today is no longer the tune. A fan can recognize a hit from a ten millisecond burst, faster than a Fairlight can whistle Dixie. Notes with their rhythm and pitch values are trivial components in the corporate harmonization of cacophony. Few pop musicians can read music with any facility. The Art of Noise, a studio based, mass market targeted recording firm, strings atonal arrays of timbres on the line of an ubiquitous beat. The Emulator fills the bill. Singers with original material aren't studying Bruce Springsteen's melodic contours, they're trying to sound just like him. And sonic impersonation is quite legal. While performing rights organizations continue to farm for proceeds for tunesters and poetricians, those who are shaping the way the buck says the music should be, rhythmatists, timbralists and mixologists under various monikers, have rarely been given compositional credit.

At what some would like to consider the opposite end of the field, among academics and the salaried technicians of the orchestral swarms, an orderly display of fermatas and hemidemisemiquavers on a page is still often thought indispensible to a definition of music, even though some earnest composers rarely if ever peck these things out anymore. Of course, if appearances are necessary, a computer program and printer can do it for them.

Musical language has an extensive repertoire of punctuation devices but nothing equivalent to literature's " " quotation marks. Jazz musicians do not wiggle two fingers of each hand in the air, as lecturers often do, when cross referencing during their extemporizations, because on most instruments this would present some technical difficulties - plummeting trumpets and such.

Without a quotation system, well-intended correspondences cannot be distinguished from plagiarism and fraud. But anyway, the quoting of notes is but a small and insignificant portion of common appropriation.

Am I underestimating the value of melody writing? Well, I expect that before long we'll have marketable expert tune writing software which will be able to generate the banalities of catchy permutations of the diatonic scale in endless arrays of tuneable tunes, from which a not necessarily affluent songwriter can choose; with perhaps a built-in checking lexicon of used-up tunes which would advise Beatle George11 not to make the same blunder again.

Chimeras of sound

Some composers have long considered the tape recorder a musical instrument capable of more than the faithful hi-fi transcriber role to which manufacturers have traditionally limted its function. Now there are hybrids of the electronic offspring of acoustic instruments and audio mimicry by the digital clones of tape recorders. Audio mimicry by digital means is nothing new; mechanical manticores from the 19th century with names like the Violano-virtuoso and the Orchestrion are quaintly similar to the Synclavier Digital Music System and the Fairlight CMI (computer music instrument). In the case of the Synclavier, what is touted as a combination multi-track recording studio and simulated symphony orchestra looks like a piano with a built-in accordian chordboard and LED clock radio.

The composer who plucks a blade of grass and with cupped hands to pursed lips creates a vibrating soniferous membrane and resonator, although susceptible to comments on the order of "it's been done before", is in the potential position of bypassing previous technological achievement and communing directly with nature. Of music from tools, even the iconoclastic implements of a Harry Partch or a Hugh LeCaine are susceptible to the convention of distinction between instrument and composition. Sounding utensils, from the erh-hu to the Emulator, have traditionally provided such a potential for varied expression that they have not in themselves been considered musical manifestations. This is contrary to the great popularity of generic instrumental music ("The Many Moods of 101 Strings", "Piano for Lovers", "The Truckers DX-7" etc.), not to mention instruments which play themselves, the most pervasive example in recent years being pre-programmed rhythm boxes. Such devices, as are found in lounge acts and organ consoles, are direct kin to the juke box: push a button and out comes music. J.S.Bach pointed out that with any instrument "all one has to do is hit the right notes at the right time and the thing plays itself." The distinction between sound producers and sound reproducers is easily blurred, and has been a conceivable area of musical pursuit at least since John Cage's use of radios in the Forties.

Starting from scratch

Just as sound producing and sound reproducing technology becomes more interactive, listeners are once again, if not invited, nonetheless encroaching upon creative territory. This prerogative has been largely forgotten in recent decades. The now primitive record-playing generation was a passive lot (indigenous active form scratch belongs to the post-disc, blaster/walkman era). Gone were the days of lively renditions on the parlor piano.

Computers can take the expertise out of amateur music making. A current music-minus-one program retards tempos and searches for the most ubiquitous chords to support the wanderings of a novice player. Some audio equipment geared for the consumer inadvertently offers interactive possibilities. But manufacturers have discouraged compatability between their amateur and pro equipment. Passivity is still the dominant demographic. Thus the atrophied microphone inputs which have now all but disappeared from premium stereo cassette decks.

As a listener my own preference is the option to experiment. My listening system has a mixer instead of a receiver, an infinitely variable speed turntable, filters, reverse capability, and a pair of ears.

An active listener might speed up a piece of music in order to perceive more clearly its macrostructure, or slow it down to hear articulation and detail more precisely. Portions of pieces are juxtaposed for comparison or played simultaneously, tracing "the motifs of the Indian raga Darbar over Senegalese drumming recording in Paris and a background mosaic of frozen moments from an exotic Hollywood orchestration of the 1950's (a sonic texture like a "Mona Lisa" which in close-up, reveals itself to be made up of tiny reproductions of the Taj Mahal."

During World War II concurrent with Cage's re-establishing the percussive status of the piano, Trinidadians were discovering that discarded oil barrels could be cheap, available alternatives to their traditional percussion instruments which were, because of the socially invigorating potential, banned. The steel drum eventually became a national asset. Meanwhile, back in the States, for perhaps similar reasons, scratch and dub have, in the Eighties, percolated through the black American ghettos. Within an environmentally imposed, limited repertoire of possessions a portable disco may have a folk music potential exceeding that of the guitar. Pawned and ripped-off electronics are usually not accompanied by user's guides with consumer warnings such as "this blaster is a passive reproducer". Any performance potential found in an appliance is often exploited. A record can be played like an electronic washboard. Radio and disco jockeys layer the sounds of several recordings simultaneously. The sound of music conveyed with a new authority over the airwaves is dubbed, embellished and manipulated in kind.

The medium is magnetic

Piracy or plagiarism of a work occur, according to Milton, "if it is not bettered by the borrower". Stravinsky added the right of possession to Milton's distinction when he said,. "A good composer does not imitate; he steals." An example of this better borrowing is Jim Tenney's "Collage 1" (l961) in which Elvis Presley's hit record "Blue Suede Shoes" (itself borrowed from Carl Perkins) is transformed by means of multi-speed tape recorders and razorblade. In the same way that Pierre Schaeffer found musical potential in his object sonore, which could be, for instance, a footstep, heavy with associations, Tenney took an everyday music and allowed us to hear it differently. At the same time, all that was inherently Elvis radically influenced our perception of Jim's piece.

Fair use and fair dealing are respectively the American and the Canadian terms for instances in which appropriation without permission might be considered legal. Quoting extracts of music for pedagogical, illustrative and critical purposes have been upheld as legal fair use. So has borrowing for the purpose of parody. Fair dealing assumes use which does not interfere with the economic viability of the initial work.

In addition to economic rights, moral rights exist in copyright, and in Canada these are receiving a greater emphasis in the current recommendations for revision. An artist can claim certain moral rights to a work. Elvis' estate can claim the same rights, including the right to privacy, and the right to protection of "the special significance of sounds peculiar to a particular artist, the uniqueness of which might be harmed by inferior unauthorized recordings which might tend to confuse the public about an artist's abilities.

At present, in Canada, a work can serve as a matrix for independent derivations. Section 17(2)(b) of the Copyright Act of Canada provides "that an artist who does not retain the copyright in a work may use certain materials used to produce that work to produce a subsequent work, without infringing copyright in the earlier work, if the subsequent work taken as a whole does not repeat the main design of the previous work."

My observation is that Tenney's "Blue Suede" fulfills Milton's stipulation; is supported by Stravinsky's aphorism; and does not contravene Elvis' morality or Section 17(2)(b) of the Copyright Act.

Aural wilderness

The reuse of existing recorded materials is not restricted to the street and the esoteric. The single guitar chord occuring infrequently on H. Hancock's hit arrangement "Rocket" was not struck by an in-studio union guitarist but was sampled directly from an old Led Zepplin record. Similarly, Michael Jackson unwittingly turns up on Hancock's follow-up clone "Hard Rock". Now that keyboardists are getting instruments with the button for this appropriation built in, they're going to push it, easier than reconstructing the ideal sound from oscillation one. These players are used to fingertip replication, as in the case of the organ that had the titles of the songs from which the timbres were derived printed on the stops.15

So the equipment is available, and everybody's doing it, blatantly or otherwise. Melodic invention is nothing to lose sleep over (look what sleep did for Tartini). There's a certain amount of legal leeway for imitation. Now can we, like Charles Ives, borrow merrily and blatantly from all the music in the air?

Ives composed in an era in which much of music existed in a public domain. Public domain is now legally defined, although it maintains a distance from the present which varies from country to country. In order to follow Ives' model we would be restricted to using the same oldies which in his time were current. Nonetheless, music in the public domain can become very popular, perhaps in part because the composer is no longer entitled to exclusivity, or royalty payments‹ a hit available for a song . Or as This Business of Music puts it, "The public domain is like a vast national park without a guard to stop wanton looting, without a guide for the lost traveller, and in fact, without clearly defined roads or even borders to stop the helpless visitor from being sued for trespass by private abutting owners."

Professional developers of the musical landscape know and lobby for the loopholes in copyright. On the other hand, many artistic endeavours would benefit creatively from a state of music without fences, but where, as in scholarship, acknowledgement is insisted upon.

The buzzing of a titanic bumblebee

The property metaphor used to illustrate an artist's rights is difficult to pursue through publication and mass dissemination. The hit parade promenades the aural floats of pop on public display, and as curious tourists should we not be able to take our own snapshots through the crowd ("tiny reproductions of the Taj Mahal") rather than be restricted to the official souvenir postcards and programmes?

All popular music (and all folk music, by definition), essentially, if not legally, exists in a public domain. Listening to pop music isn't a matter of choice. Asked for or not, we're bombarded by it. In its most insidious state, filtered to an incessant bass-line, it seeps through apartment walls and out of the heads of walk people. Although people in general are making more noise than ever before, fewer people are making more of the total noise; specifically, in music, those with megawatt PA's, triple platinum sales, and heavy rotation. Difficult to ignore, pointlessly redundant to imitate, how does one not become a passive recipient?

Proposing their game plan to apprehend the Titanic once it had been located at the bottom of the Atlantic, oceanographer Bob Ballard of the Deep Emergence Laboratory suggested "you pound the hell out of it with every imaging system you have."

~ John Oswald, 1985

This paper was initially presented by Oswald at the Wired Society Electro-Acoustic Conference in Toronto in 1985. It was published in Musicworks #34, as a booklet by Recommended Quarterly and subsequently revised for the Whole Earth Review #57 as 'Bettered by the borrower'.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Kevin Kelly on The Google Way of Science


So far Correlative Analytics, or the Google Way of Science, has primarily been deployed in sociological realms, like language translation, or marketing. That's where the zillionic data has been. All those zillions of data points generated by our collective life online. But as more of our observations and measurements of nature are captured 24/7, in real time, in increasing variety of sensors and probes, science too will enter the field of zillionics and be easily processed by the new tools of Correlative Analytics. In this part of science, we may get answers that work, but which we don't understand. Is this partial understanding? Or a different kind of understanding?

Perhaps understanding and answers are overrated. "The problem with computers," Pablo Picasso is rumored to have said, "is that they only give you answers." These huge data-driven correlative systems will give us lots of answers -- good answers -- but that is all they will give us. That's what the OneComputer does -- gives us good answers. In the coming world of cloud computing perfectly good answers will become a commodity. The real value of the rest of science then becomes asking good questions.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Who Penned 'Serenity' Now?

Who wrote the Serenity Prayer?
The inspiring text -- long attributed to an eminent theologian -- may have deeper roots than we thought.
Yale Alumni Magazine
July/August 2008
by Fred R. Shapiro

Folklorists regard variant versions of a text as evidence of a descent that has not been fixed by writing and print. Sayings with this kind of variation may be proverbial, the circumstances of their coinage often unknowable. The Serenity Prayer is probably too long to function as a true proverb, but the considerable variations in wording and ordering of phrases in the newspaper versions suggest a deep, traditional ancestry, perhaps long predating both the women in the 1930s who now provide the oldest attestations and the courageous and wise Reinhold Niebuhr.

New York Times coverage
Serenity Prayer Stirs Up Doubt: Who Wrote It?
Published: July 11, 2008

Plus a response by Elizabeth Sifton, Niebuhr's daughter and the author of a book on the prayer.

Mr. Shapiro's working premise for his research on the Serenity Prayer seems to be that we must find out just who first spoke or wrote it in the public record, because that person is more likely to be -- or to be near -- its true author. But, as I've said to him before, this is not necessarily the right way to go about looking for prayer authors. Prayers are presented orally, circulate orally, and become famous orally long before they are put on paper. Pastors and congregants use them in worship, recall and even misremember them, think about them for years before they are printed. That is why common, i.e., shared, use is one criterion for establishing a text, no matter who may have originated it -- though that still matters. This spiritual tradition differs from the legal tradition with which Mr. Shapiro is more familiar; I'm glad if he's now taking it into account.

Yet the great masterpiece prayers don't materialize in some random, bubble-up way, either: their power comes from a distillation of complex spiritual truths, and for this we need authors, we need the tradition's most gifted practitioners.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Copies, Aura and the Caves of Dunhuang

Buddha’s Caves

Published: July 6, 2008
The New York Times
On the lip of the Gobi Desert, sand and tourists threaten Mogaoku’s singular art.
(with slideshow)

Plans for drastic remedial action are in place. Under Dr. Fan and the vice director, Wang Xudong, the academy will build by 2011 a new visitor reception center several miles from the caves, near the airport and railroad station. All Mogaoku-bound travelers will be required to go to the center first, where they will be given an immersive introduction to the caves’ history, digital tours of interiors and simulated restorations on film of damaged images. They will then be shuttled to the site itself, where they will take in the ambience of its desert-edge locale and see the insides of one or two caves before returning to where they started.

(About 70 percent of the money for the visitor center — the equivalent of $38 million — is coming from the Chinese government. The rest must be raised from private sources. Details related to the project can be found on friendsofdunhuang.org.)

For Chinese visitors a partly virtual approach may not feel unusual. Many museums in China give equal time to art objects and information technology. Multimedia evocations of sites are common: it is the only way to see excavated tomb frescos too sensitive to light and air to be removed from the underground. And it is common practice substitute copies of famous works of art in museums when the originals are unavailable.

For Westerners addicted to the concept of authenticity, to the romance of “the real thing,” the idea of a primarily digital experience of Mogaoku is hard, if not impossible to accept. Art is, after all, about the aura attached to uniqueness. The art experience depends on being there.

Paradoxically this insistence on authenticity is also the impulse driving contemporary conservation. At whatever cost, the integrity of the original must be preserved. Yet conservators know that often the only way to protect the “real thing” is by restricting access to it, by forcing an audience to accept a condition of not being there, by substituting virtual auras for actual ones. And so the contradictions pile up, and change inexorably goes on.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Love and Theft: Kevin Kopelson's Confessions of a Re-creative in LRB

Kevin Kopelson's Diary in The London Review of Books, May 22, 2008:

Kevin Kopelson

In his book Von der Einheit der Musik [‘The Oneness of Music’], Ferruccio Busoni devoted about one and a half pages to the piano under the heading: ‘Man achte das Klavier’ [‘Respect the piano!’]. In a highly laconic and perfected style he gives such a clear and accurate description of the piano’s characteristics that it is all I can do not to give it in full.

Heinrich Neuhaus, The Art of Piano Playing

I quote too much. Give me a good line – what am I saying? Give me a good paragraph – even a Proustian one – and I’ll shove it into my own prose regardless of how tiresome that is. Take my last book, on the satirist David Sedaris. Not only do you get more Proust than you’d ever care for, you get an awful lot of Sedaris – pure, unadulterated Sedaris.

It’s not that I’m lazy. Or rather, it’s not just that I’m lazy. I do much more in Sedaris than quote Sedaris, much more than simply ‘rhapsodise’ (to quote Frank Lentricchia). I analyse the man. I synthesise him. I provide what both Marxists and Freudians call ‘symptomatic readings’. But beyond that, beyond what all literary critics (including Lentricchia) are supposed to do, I – well, let me quote Winton Dean:

There is a big difference between the comparatively rare occasions on which Handel passed off others’ compositions as his own and the far more numerous instances of his using the ideas of others as a jumping-off point for fresh composition. It may seem strange that he needed to do this, but it involves a creative process, not simple larceny.

Or is there? Is there – for me – a difference between what Dean calls ‘creative process’ and ‘simple larceny’? Or rather, between creative process and not so simple larceny. Between process and, oh – just ‘write it!’ (to quote Elizabeth Bishop) – plagiarism.

The answer, by way of explanation for which I offer the following narrative (or confession), is ‘no.’ Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that all such confessions are deceptive. To quote J.D. Salinger (lines I’ve already included in more than one publication):

A confessional passage has probably never been written that didn’t stink a little bit of the writer’s pride in having given up his pride. The thing to listen for, every time, with a public confessor, is what he’s not confessing to. At a certain period of his life (usually, grievous to say, a successful period), a man may suddenly feel it Within His Power to confess that he cheated on his final exams at college, he may even choose to reveal that between the ages of 22 and 24 he was sexually impotent, but these gallant confessions in themselves are no guarantee that we’ll find out whether he once got piqued at his pet hamster and stepped on its head.

I, however, will tell you about that hamster – figuratively speaking – and also about how I’ve brained it.

It all began in the fall of 1968. I was in fourth grade (PS 135, in Queens). Mrs Froelich, for some reason, was spending most of her time speaking French. (I remember the line ‘Nous allons marcher ensemble.’) And then she went on strike, along with the rest of her union. No more French. No more marching ensemble. Parents set up an interim school in the ‘reform’ synagogue within walking distance of our house. (As ‘conservative’ Jews – as atheists, that is – we drove to one miles away. Think of the Jew on that desert island who builds himself an entire town: a library, a bathhouse, a synagogue, a second synagogue. ‘Why two?’ asked the sailors who eventually came to the man’s rescue. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘we don’t go there.’) My new teacher – my first male teacher – was just some guy. First grade: Mrs Berg (Jewish). Second grade: Mrs Dorsey (Catholic). Third grade: Mrs Solomon (Jewish). Fourth grade: Mrs Froelich (Catholic). Fifth grade: Catholic Mrs Keaton. Sixth grade: Catholic Mrs Kelly.

I don’t recall the new guy’s name. I can’t even picture him. In fact, the only thing I remember is that he made us write an essay on some conquistador. I chose Hernando Cortez – probably because, like Keats, I like the name. (Keats meant Balboa, of course.) But knowing that whatever I turned in wouldn’t really count and also that Mr X cared even less about this ridiculous situation than I did, I simply transcribed an encyclopedia entry. (So much for the notion that students plagiarise so as to please us teachers, to give us what they think we want but feel they can’t produce.) Now the thing is, this was no ordinary encyclopedia and no ordinary entry. The set, which came with the house, was about a hundred years old. ‘Cortez’ there was about twenty pages long. Clearly, then, my submission wasn’t the kind of thing an eight-year-old could devise. Even a precocious eight-year-old. Even a pretentious one. So imagine my – relief? surprise? indifference? contempt? – when this primal larceny came back marked ‘A’. (‘Nice work!’ Mr X commented. But, of course, unless the man was being ironic, he probably hadn’t read it – lazy bastard.)

After that, I did well enough in school – even without plagiarising – to get into both Harvard and Yale. Well enough on the SATs, as well. Nor did it hurt that I’d attended both Bronx High School of Science and Juilliard, where I studied piano. Not wanting to go where my brother Bob went, I chose Yale – where, like him, I majored in music. (A far better pianist, Bob left Harvard in the spring of 1968.) One teacher there was the musicologist Betty Boop (or so I’ll call her), who covered the 18th century. I forget the title of her course, but we called it ‘Clapping for Credit’. The thing was that ridiculous, that contemptible. So when Betty had us write an essay, I stole a seminar paper Bob had done in graduate school at Berkeley. (It was in the house, along with everything else he ever wrote.) The paper concerned the ‘Jeunehomme’ Concerto, a work generally considered Mozart’s first masterpiece. The piece was supposed to have been written for someone Bob called ‘the mysterious Mlle Jeunehomme’ – the only line of his that I recall. But to quote Wikipedia (not a particularly ‘good’ line, but what can you do?): ‘musicologist Michael Lorenz [has proven] that the woman was actually Victoire Jenamy, a daughter of Jean-Georges Noverre, a famous dancer who was one of Mozart’s best friends.’

Now, this paper was about fifty pages long. And there were extensive footnotes citing French, German and Italian material. (On top of everything else, Bob’s a polyglot.) Rather obscure material, I might add. Clearly, then, it wasn’t the kind of thing an 18-year-old could have written – even one who spoke a little French. Once again, though, I got an ‘A’. Either Betty was too stupid to recognise the larceny (my assumption at the time), or – having recognised it – too lazy to bring me up on charges. Or too indifferent. Or too kind. Or maybe, I now realise, she never read it.

Needless to say, I’m not proud of what I did, even though, to invoke Salinger, I’m proud of my power to admit it (now that I can’t be charged). Why, though, did I do it? Why else, that is – apart from contempt. I did it because I wanted to be Bob. Because I wanted to ‘walk together’ with him, only not at Harvard. (‘We don’t go there.’) And because – subconsciously – I imagined this outrageous theft would let me do so. Of course, readers already familiar with my published work will have known this. To quote my essay ‘The Sonic Mirror’:

One thing you should know about me – maybe the one thing – is that I didn’t always want to be an English professor. I used to want to be a pianist. But it wasn’t till I was around twenty that I had to accept my now rather obvious limitations. I lack virtuoso technique – for which I’m still petty enough to blame Mrs Graa [my first piano teacher]. And I lack musical intelligence – for which I don’t even have genetics to blame. My older brother, Robert, is a successful pianist.

Or, to quote my book Beethoven’s Kiss:

Dr Train, the psychoanalyst my father had me see when [my brother] Steve killed himself, once told me, after having determined that my mother hadn’t caused my homosexuality, that the terrifying, dominating and truly monstrous woman who had done so was Diana Graa. According to Train, Mrs Graa convinced me I couldn’t satisfy her fiendish, feminine desires – convinced me I was no good. Or at least not as good as my older brother Bob. Bob the true child prodigy, Bob the one with perfect pitch etc. Sad to say, I believed him.

This second passage, by the way, first appeared in a letter I wrote to the English professor and critic Wayne Koestenbaum (also Jewish). Wayne, too, is someone with whom I’ve identified. (In his case, though, it’s because he reminds me of Steve, my openly gay yet truly mean brother. Or rather of the nice brother I’d always wanted him to be.) He’s also someone who, in what I take as an explanation of why I keep writing about both siblings, contends: ‘In any life, as in any invention, or any work of literature, however lofty or pedestrian, there exists a fixed set of dominating themes, and mere diligence cannot increase their number or alter their nature. Their substance, if not their sequence, remains incorrigibly the same.’

I graduated from Yale in 1979. As I did not even play piano well enough to get into medical school – so we majors used to joke – I went to law school. To Columbia, in fact, which I loathed. (I’d only gone to please my father, an attorney, and also because I had no idea what else to do with myself.) Steve died shortly thereafter. I developed anorexia – which is neither here nor there but I may as well admit that too. And then I read The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas, an anti-Freudian Holocaust novel. My parents had it. I remember the passage on the letter scene in Eugene Onegin. (The heroine performs Tatiana.) I also remember the horrifying passage on Babi Yar, where the heroine dies, and where in reality many of my own relatives – on both sides of the family – were killed. Thomas, we later learned (about a year after publication), had lifted much of the latter from Babi Yar, a novel by Anatoly Kuznetsov. My parents had that as well. Now, some critics don’t consider this plagiarism. They call it postmodern. And while I’m in no position to judge – never having read the Kuznetsov – I do know a thing or two about postmodernism. I know, for example, that any such citation – like sarcasm, if not like (verbal) irony – should be immediately recognisable as such. Figuratively speaking, it should be within quotation marks.

I graduated from Columbia in 1982, started eating again, and then worked at a terrible law firm in Rockefeller Center. David Hyde Pierce, incidentally, worked there too – as a paralegal. He went on, of course, to play Niles Crane in Frasier, to win a Tony Award for Curtains, and to blurb Sedaris. ‘Charting a course from Marcel Proust to Tony Danza,’ he wrote, ‘Kevin artfully captures the exquisite pleasure and pain of reading David Sedaris.’ (‘If I were to read a book on David Sedaris,’ another blurber wrote, ‘it might be this one.’) Not that we first-year associates had much to do. The firm was in a slump. And so although I did some research and wrote memoranda (one of which simply transcribed a law review article), I spent most of my time reading Proust in English – unbillable hours I called ‘professional development’ – and hanging out with another first-year. Albertine Simonet (or so I’ll call her) had graduated from . . . well, I’ll say Berkeley, where she’d also gotten a master’s degree in French. (Not having yet learned, from Proust, to be unpretentious, we liked to imagine – in fact, we still imagine – that Albertine is Guy de Rothschild and that I’m Marie-Hélène, his wife: fantasy escape from life at the firm.) One time, Albertine told me (one of her more amusing revelations), she turned in an essay by Montaigne as a seminar paper. Her professor – very kind – simply handed the thing back unmarked and then asked, in private: ‘What drugs are you on?’ In reality, though, Albertine now tells me – very ashamed – that she turned in a rather famous essay on Montaigne (‘Montaigne: The Crisis of the Self’), that the professor (I’ll call him Charlus) confronted her in private, that he then told her parents, and that – unlike me – she’s never done any such thing again. Or to quote her recent email:

[Charlus] first called me in to discuss. Something was really amiss, he said, because you’re not that type of person. Plus, having done this on such a wholesale basis was pure lunacy – ‘not just a sentence, but the entire text!’ Then he called my parents. This was, in fact, a ‘crisis’ in my own life. The three of them determined that my contact with pot was not helpful, that it had altered my judgment. ‘What drugs are you on?’ was a humorous paraphrase of the drama of the event. And there was a lot of drama. Unhappy me! Unhappy parents! Unhappy professor! Not a great thing for me to have done, certainly. [Charlus], by the way, is still a friend. I may call to discuss this with him.

In 1984, I moved to a much better firm, one with actual work to do. But I loathed it as well. (I’m not the lawyer type, I realised. I’m creative, or rather re-creative: not Chopin, but someone who plays Chopin – and in both senses of the verb: to perform, to impersonate.) Looking around for something else to do, I considered the advice of various friends, including Albertine. ‘Teach college,’ they said. ‘Apply to grad school. Get a doctorate in English.’ ‘Well, why not,’ I thought. ‘Maybe I’m smart enough. Maybe I’ll like college students – Yalies, at any rate.’ Maybe, moreover, I’d like writing something other than legal memoranda. From having read Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s monumental The Madwoman in the Attic, I felt sufficiently ‘imbued with otherness’ to imagine myself doing for sexuality studies what these collaborators – and talk about walking together! – had done for feminism. Only instead of treating every single gay male novelist (those two do almost every female), I planned to work on Henry James alone. James, for me, came after Proust. And he wrote in English.

There was just one problem. My grades were fine. My GREs were fine, though I hadn’t been able to identify the line ‘When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed.’ (It’s by Whitman, of course.) But all the schools requested some kind, any kind of research paper as a writing sample. I simply could not submit one . . . of my own. As a music major, you see, the only such paper I had was that one for Betty. And so, once again, I produced – or rather, re-produced – Bob’s work on the mysterious Mlle Jeunehomme. ‘Well,’ I thought, ‘at least I’m not publishing the thing.’ But this time around, I now realise, the outrageous larceny – the identification with Bob – was not untainted by what, if memory serves, the literary critic D.A. Miller calls ‘all due aggression’.

I got into both Columbia and Brown – not Yale, though, and certainly not Harvard. (Once you reject Harvard, it seemed, they never let you back.) I chose Brown. Classes there were fine, for the most part. My course on James, though, was not. It was taught by a very old, very flatulent man – I’ll call him Grover Cleveland – who, despite the fact that this was to have been a seminar, recited lectures to us (to me, that is, along with only two other students): lectures that, to judge from the crumbling condition of the legal pads on which they’d been written, couldn’t possibly have been revised within the past two decades. This was utterly ridiculous, utterly contemptible. So when Grover had us write an essay, I stole an article on James that I’d seen in some collection, entitled ‘The Beast in the Closet’. And not just a sentence or two, but nearly the entire text – minus some of its clear and accurate description. Plus, if I recall, a bit of my own (less clear, less accurate). Now you might think that even I, by this point, should have known better than to do such a thing. You might think that even I should have had some shame. But I probably recalled, with amusement, Albertine’s Montaigne and thought: ‘Well, why not.’ And, besides, I had already begun to develop an identification with the article’s author, a Jewish woman called Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick – a cross-sex, cross-sexuality identification (she’s not gay) that I’d come to write about in ‘Fake It like a Man’. The woman, you see, would soon come to dominate sexuality studies. And that article would eventually reappear as the central chapter of her truly monumental Epistemology of the Closet.

I got an ‘A’. Mr Cleveland even read it, which I could tell from his comments. But it turns out, I now realise, that I was ashamed. Here’s what happened. Shortly after this larceny, I actually wrote a paper of my own. It was for a seminar on Roland Barthes and Oscar Wilde. That professor (Bob Scholes) suggested I try to publish the thing. So I submitted it to Genders, which secured two supposedly anonymous readers. One, though, was D.A. Miller (possibly Catholic). And the other was Eve. The journal had neglected to delete their names from their reports – reports, I’m happy to say, that were rather positive. I forget what Eve said, but Miller, for some reason, called me ‘shy and lovely’. Or to quote the line in full, to the best of my recollection: ‘Must this be so shy and lovely, in the manner of the usual seminar paper, when with just a little work it could become the essay we really need?’ But I didn’t revise. ‘Wilde, Barthes and the Orgasmics of Truth’ – my first publication – appeared just as I’d written it for Scholes.

I then – this was 1989 – attended a conference at Yale. Wayne, who taught there, had organised the panel I was on. And so we met in person. I met Miller too: a hunk who taught at Berkeley, wouldn’t give me (lovely or not) the time of day, and (so) certainly didn’t connect me to any ‘orgasmics’. I met Eve as well, an incredibly kind woman who did make that connection, offering both to read anything else of mine I might care to send and to be of further assistance. What to send? What to send? Reader – mon semblable, mon frère – I sent her ‘The Beast in the Closet’.

This, clearly, was lunacy. (Think of Beethoven claiming to have written the ‘Jeunehomme’ Concerto and then submitting it to Mozart.) Unlike Albertine, however, I didn’t have marijuana to blame. Like her, though, I too must have felt ashamed – ashamed, of what I’d done to both Eve and Bob. And so I too – subconsciously – must have wanted to be caught. Caught and punished, in fact: ruined career in academia, ignominious return to law. But I wasn’t caught, unlike Albertine. For as far as I know, Eve’s never read the thing. (But what if she has!) Never seen my name above her work. Never noticed the plagiarism. Well, she will now. As will Bob, I expect.

I chose Scholes (definitely Catholic) as my dissertation director, in part because he told me he’s a fraud. ‘So are most of us,’ he added. The dissertation, though, wasn’t on James. It was on Wilde, Barthes and several others in between. Scholes, once again, suggested I publish. So taking her up on that second offer, I asked Eve to help me place the thing. She wrote to Stanford University Press. Stanford, having gotten another set of positive reports, offered me a contract. This time I did revise. And then I asked both Eve and Wayne for blurbs, compelling people I love to quote (and with whom I identify) to both read and write on me. Wayne’s, in part, reads: ‘Everywhere tenderly epigrammatic, Kevin Kopelson’s voice – moving with a litigator’s clean, panoptic brio – demonstrates that critique can be a form of courtship, even a form of love.’ Eve calls me ‘invitingly stylish and excitingly lucid’ – which is much better than ‘shy and lovely’.

Getting that contract, publishing Love’s Litany, helped me get the job I still have. But I’m not at Yale. I’m at some public school in the Midwest. Midwesterners, of course, are very nice. (Barthes would call this statement doxa, a bit of conventional wisdom – like the notion that students plagiarise so as to please.) And I do like my colleagues. But the students! Or rather, the English majors! Our department, you see, is the only one in the humanities not allowed to require that majors have a minimum GPA. (I imagine administrators saying: ‘They’ve got to major in something – and they speak English.’) So for the most part, we get the very worst students: students with GPAs of 2.0 or lower. (I shudder to think what their SATs must have been.) Students, moreover, with no interest in literature or in literary criticism – much like those administrators. They have other, primarily visual means of identification and escape. Other means of becoming sufficiently imbued with otherness. (Think World of Warcraft.) One such major, for example, began my seminar on Modernism but then changed his mind. ‘I don’t like to read,’ he explained. ‘What should I take instead?’ I recommended our course on the haiku, or maybe the one on epigrams. Another student, in my seminar on criticism, turned in a paper (on Gilbert and Gubar) that began: ‘Feminists believe that women should reap what they sew.’ ‘Don’t you mean “sew what they rip”?’ I commented. A student in my seminar on confession – very PC – turned in a paper (on Philip Roth) that began: ‘Every mother wants what’s best for his or her son.’ ‘This is so wrong and on so many levels,’ I wrote, ‘that I don’t even know where to begin.’ As you can tell, then, my main way of dealing with this ridiculous situation – with these students – used to involve both (verbal) irony and sarcasm. Not always, though. A student in my seminar on creative non-fiction – an inarticulate senior about to go to law school – plagiarised a rather articulate essay on some baseball player. I found it on the internet, in about two seconds. ‘You probably didn’t intend to lie and steal,’ I wrote – invoking that doxa about pleasing teachers. ‘You probably didn’t know how to do the assignment. In that case, you should have come to see me.’ He then did see me – and was incredibly belligerent. He was contemptuous, in fact.

Irony and sarcasm, of course, did nothing for me in the long run. Nor did it do anything for the students – students, I decided, who really need not seminars but lectures. They need to be informed, truly informed: not to have fake conversations on subjects about which they know next to nothing, with some middle-aged professor dumbing down the material and pretending to be their friend. I’m practically fifty.

There was just one problem. Well, three problems. It’s not that I’m lazy. I’m simply not smart enough to improvise lectures. Nor do I have the kind of memory that would take. Nor do I have time to compose such things beforehand. Love’s Litany (a lofty work) took me two years to do. So did Beethoven’s Kiss (pedestrian). So did Sedaris (both lofty and pedestrian). So did my two books in between, one of them on Elizabeth Bishop, the other – in a way – on Jean-Georges Noverre. (Work in progress includes poetry on Niles Crane, Pee-Wee Herman and Sviatoslav Richter – a Heinrich Neuhaus student. By ‘poetry’, though, I mean limericks.) At that rate, it would take me twenty years per course. And so – like most academics, perhaps – I now ‘rhapsodise’ aloud. I play, I mean I perform, I mean recite other writers’ work. I do so, however, without actually naming them. I do so without putting any such citation – or rather, any particular citation – within quotation marks. Of course, I do begin each course by telling students – in postmodern mode – that the lectures they’re about to hear aren’t very original. But they always seem to think they are – which, I must confess, is really my intention.

Which other writers? The list, I’m afraid, is far too long for me to name them all. Let’s just say it includes Eve Sedgwick – but not D.A. Miller. It includes Jesse Matz (Jewish), another hunk, who did give me the time of day at yet another conference and who – like Wayne Koestenbaum, not to mention David Sedaris (not Jewish) – reminds me of Steve. It also includes Vladimir Nabokov (not Jewish), whose own lectures (now published) were really written – and this is why I mention him – by Vera, his wife.

Have I, then, become Grover Cleveland? Will I do so? Perhaps. But it won’t be because I’ll have identified with him – not consciously. (It’s Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The rabbi stops the service, prostrates himself before the ark, and cries out: ‘Oh, Lord! I am nothing!’ Moved by this demonstration, the cantor then prostrates himself and cries: ‘Oh, Lord! I am nothing!’ And then some tailor, sitting in the very last row of the synagogue, cries: ‘I too am nothing!’ The cantor turns to the rabbi and says: ‘So look who thinks he’s nothing.’) It’ll be an irony of fate – if not a crisis of the self. For my conscious identifications – along with my classroom rhapsodies or, to invoke related theories of human identity, both my theatrical and my ‘discursive’ performance there (doing Sedgwick, Matz, Nabokov et al, or rather doing their work) – will, I suspect, have remained constant. They’ll still be with the various men – and women – I know take my brothers’ place. (No crisis.) And my father’s place, of course – Scholes in particular. As for my unconscious identifications – well, really, who am I to say? Who, in other words, am I to read myself symptomatically? Or rather, to read myself that symptomatically.

Kevin Kopelson, at this point, has nothing else to say about himself.

Kopelson at the University of Iowa

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Robert Darnton, The Library in the New Age

From The Library in the New Age, Robert Darnton
New York Review of Books, June 12, 2008

Information has never been stable. That may be a truism, but it bears pondering. It could serve as a corrective to the belief that the speedup in technological change has catapulted us into a new age, in which information has spun completely out of control. I would argue that the new information technology should force us to rethink the notion of information itself. It should not be understood as if it took the form of hard facts or nuggets of reality ready to be quarried out of newspapers, archives, and libraries, but rather as messages that are constantly being reshaped in the process of transmission. Instead of firmly fixed documents, we must deal with multiple, mutable texts. By studying them skeptically on our computer screens, we can learn how to read our daily newspaper more effectively—and even how to appreciate old books.

Bibliographers came around to this view long before the Internet. Sir Walter Greg developed it at the end of the nineteenth century, and Donald McKenzie perfected it at the end of the twentieth century. Their work provides an answer to the questions raised by bloggers, Googlers, and other enthusiasts of the World Wide Web: Why save more than one copy of a book? Why spend large sums to purchase first editions? Aren't rare book collections doomed to obsolescence now that everything will be available on the Internet?

Unbelievers used to dismiss Henry Clay Folger's determination to accumulate copies of the First Folio edition of Shakespeare as the mania of a crank. The First Folio, published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death, contained the earliest collection of his plays, but most collectors assumed that one copy would be enough for any research library. When Folger's collection grew beyond three dozen copies, his friends scoffed at him as Forty Folio Folger. Since then, however, bibliographers have mined that collection for crucial information, not only for editing the plays but also for performing them.

They have demonstrated that eighteen of the thirty-six plays in the First Folio had never before been printed. Four were known earlier only from faulty copies known as "bad" quartos —booklets of individual plays printed during Shakespeare's lifetime, often by unscrupulous publishers using corrupted versions of the texts. Twelve were reprinted in modified form from relatively good quartos; and only two were reprinted without change from earlier quarto editions. Since none of Shakespeare's manuscripts has survived, differences between these texts can be crucial in determining what he wrote. But the First Folio cannot simply be compared with the quartos, because every copy of the Folio is different from every other copy. While being printed in Isaac Jaggard's shop in 1622 and 1623, the book went through three very different issues. Some copies lacked Troilus and Cressida, some included a complete Troilus, and some had the main text of Troilus but without its prologue and with a crossed-out ending to Romeo and Juliet on the reverse side of the leaf containing Troilus's first scene.

The differences were compounded by at least one hundred stop-press corrections and by the peculiar practices of at least nine compositors who set the copy while also working on other jobs—and occasionally abandoning Shakespeare to an incompetent teenage apprentice. By arguing from the variations in the texts, bibliographers like Charlton Hinman and Peter Blayney have reconstructed the production process and thus arrived at convincing conclusions about the most important works in the English language. This painstaking scholarship could not have been done without Mr. Folger's Folios.

Of course, Shakespeare is a special case. But textual stability never existed in the pre-Internet eras. The most widely diffused edition of Diderot's Encyclopédie in eighteenth-century France contained hundreds of pages that did not exist in the original edition. Its editor was a clergyman who padded the text with excerpts from a sermon by his bishop in order to win the bishop's patronage. Voltaire considered the Encyclopédie so imperfect that he designed his last great work, Questions sur l'Encyclopédie, as a nine-volume sequel to it. In order to spice up his text and to increase its diffusion, he collaborated with pirates behind the back of his own publisher, adding passages to the pirated editions.

In fact, Voltaire toyed with his texts so much that booksellers complained. As soon as they sold one edition of a work, another would appear, featuring additions and corrections by the author. Their customers protested. Some even said that they would not buy an edition of Voltaire's complete works —and there were many, each different from the others—until he died, an event eagerly anticipated by retailers throughout the book trade.

Piracy was so pervasive in early modern Europe that best-sellers could not be blockbusters as they are today. Instead of being produced in huge numbers by one publisher, they were printed simultaneously in many small editions by many publishers, each racing to make the most of a market unconstrained by copyright. Few pirates attempted to produce accurate counterfeits of the original editions. They abridged, expanded, and reworked texts as they pleased, without worrying about the authors' intentions. They behaved as deconstructionists avant la lettre.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Randomness of Trends

From "Is the Tipping Point Toast" by Clive Thompson in Fast Company February, 2008

Actually, if you believe [Duncan] Watts, the world isn't just complex--it's practically anarchic. In 2006, he performed another experiment that chilled the blood of trendologists. Trends, it suggested, aren't merely hard to predict and engineer--they occur essentially at random.

Watts wanted to find out whether the success of a hot trend was reproducible. For example, we know that Madonna became a breakout star in 1983. But if you rewound the world back to 1982, would Madonna break out again? To find out, Watts built a world populated with real live music fans picking real music, then hit rewind, over and over again. Working with two colleagues, Watts designed an online music-downloading service. They filled it with 48 songs by new, unknown, and unsigned bands. Then they recruited roughly 14,000 people to log in. Some were asked to rank the songs based on their own personal preference, without regard to what other people thought. They were picking songs purely on each song's merit. But the other participants were put into eight groups that had "social influence": Each could see how other members of the group were ranking the songs.

Watts predicted that word of mouth would take over. And sure enough, that's what happened. In the merit group, the songs were ranked mostly equitably, with a small handful of songs drifting slightly lower or higher in popularity. But in the social worlds, as participants reacted to one another's opinions, huge waves took shape. A small, elite bunch of songs became enormously popular, rising above the pack, while another cluster fell into relative obscurity.

But here's the thing: In each of the eight social worlds, the top songs--and the bottom ones--were completely different. For example, the song "Lockdown," by 52metro, was the No. 1 song in one world, yet finished 40 out of 48 in another. Nor did there seem to be any compelling correlation between merit and success. In fact, Watts explains, only about half of a song's success seemed to be due to merit. "In general, the 'best' songs never do very badly, and the 'worst' songs never do extremely well, but almost any other result is possible," he says. Why? Because the first band to snag a few thumbs-ups in the social world tended overwhelmingly to get many more. Yet who received those crucial first votes seemed to be mostly a matter of luck.

Word of mouth and social contagion made big hits bigger. But they also made success more unpredictable. (And it's worth noting, no one in the social worlds had any more influence than anyone else.) So yes, Watts figures, if you rewound the world to 1982, Madonna would likely remain a total unknown--and someone else would have slipped into her steel-tipped corset. "You cannot predict in advance whether a band gets this huge cascade of popularity, because the social network is liable to throw up almost any result," he marvels.

Predictably, the music industry received the analysis--"Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market," published in Science in 2006--with a cocked eyebrow. When Watts presented his findings to executives at a major record label last spring, the younger among them were reasonably receptive. They're accustomed to the unpredictability of hit-making online, so they can grasp the terrifying randomness of success.

But the older execs?

Watts laughs. "They were all like, 'I think it's bullshit. I'm still going to go with my gut,'" he recalls. "And I'm like, Okay, good luck to you. You're going to need it."

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Library Adds Major Media Collection - The Library Today (Library of Congress)

Library Adds Major Media Collection - The Library Today (Library of Congress)
Contact for Tony Schwartz collection at Library of Congress

Using the Recorded Sound Reference Centre

American Folklife Centre

Tony Schwartz profile by The Kitchen Sisters

Aired June 27, 2008 on WNYC's On the Media

The Listening Life
June 27, 2008

In his 84 years Tony Schwartz produced over 30,000 recordings, thousands of groundbreaking political ads, media theory books and Broadway sound design, invented the portable recorder, delivered hundreds of lectures and had full careers as an ad executive and a pioneering folklorist. And he did it all without leaving his zip code. Schwartz died in June and we offer a piece from the Kitchen Sisters, looking back at his life spent listening. (Photo by (fredseibert/flickr)