Saturday, December 12, 2009

NEW SITE: http://wythoff.net

I'm moving house from blogger to this new URL: http://wythoff.net

While I'll store my old posts here for a while, all upcoming work will be done at my new site.

I would say "update your bookmarks," but this is really just a matter of SEO.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Flexible Screens

from sight gag, to the fantastic, to objective correlative. feel free to add more…

from Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1902, dir. Edwin S. Porter, Edison Studios)





from Videodrome (1983, dir. David Cronenberg)



from Sony, flexible OLED:



and single single panel laptop mockup:



from Samsung, "flappable" OLED:



and "foldable" OLED:



from Kyocera, the Foldphone:



Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Concept of "Aura" in Benjamin's Artwork Essay

In Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility,” the second, less censored version of which I will primarily deal with here (1936), the concept of “aura” seems to thread its way in and out of multiple schools of media studies: aura becomes an index of diachronic shifts in “symbolic forms,” a synchronic marker of modern perceptual modes, and a key term in locating medium-specificity. What seems missing from the often one-dimensional treatment of Benjamin’s use of aura (it’s destroyed!) is the presence of a paradoxical investment in its positive potentialities. Tracking some of the modulations in the concept within the Artwork essay will more fully allow us speculate on the potential of aura within the mass media––the presence of which is much more apparent in the recently translated second version of the essay, as opposed to the now famous third version published in Illuminations ed. Arendt. What is accomplished in what Benjamin calls the liberation from industrial drudgery into a fantastic “playspace?” How much stress can we put on his depiction of the cinematic spectator going on “journeys of adventure” (117)? And, a question that I seem to be very personally invested in, can it be possible that vegging out can serve a revolutionary function?

Both Miriam Hansen, in her recent essay “Benjamin’s Aura” (2008) and Samuel Weber use as a common jumping off point the formulation of “aura” that has become most prevalent in critical discussions on Benjamin’s work. In the Artwork essay’s third and fourth sections, Benjamin refers to aura as “the unique appearance of a distance, however near it may be.” In a strange spatiotemporal convergence, spatial proximity to work of art entails a certain apprehension of the temporal distance or historicity, what Benjamin variously calls its “authenticity,” “historical testimony,” “the mark of history,” all of which must be encountered in the presence of “the here and now of the work of art—its unique existence in a particular place” (103). In this configuration of aura as a kind of uniqueness or authenticity, the profusion of reproductive technologies places the aura of the work of art in decline, a decline which Benjamin argues can be said to register new modes of perception in modernity. This is more or less the story we all know about the Artwork essay.

In Samuel Weber’s “Art, Aura, and Media in the Work of Walter Benjamin” (1992), he argues that the indexical relationship between aura’s decline and ephemeral shifts in sense perception sets up a series of binaries that are too often taken at face value, and that often do not hold up within the text: distance and nearness, ritual and politics, painting and cinematography, distraction and concentration, uniqueness and multiplicity, and so on. Weber’s essay performs a tactical collapse of these binaries when he calls into question the differentiation between the uniqueness of an auratic art object and the mass-like existence of a disseminated reproduction. Weber argues that aura is never itself, but always constituted in a process of self-detachment as demarcation of the self. The mountain scene, described by Benjamin in the third version of the essay as an “illustration,” and in both versions as illuminating the concept of aura, shows that distance and separation are already marked in the aura of the mountain scene by its shadows. (p.105 of Benjamin) “To follow with the eye—while resting on a summer afternoon—a mountain range on the horizon or a branch that casts its shadow on the beholder is to breathe the aura of those mountains, of that branch.” Weber argues that these shadows can be read as “marking the space within which the relation of subject to object takes place” (86). And, as Weber postulates, the decline of aura is then somewhat of a necessary condition of perception. The narrative of aura’s decline as a detachment from the authentic original “might well turn out to be part and parcel of [aura’s] mode of being. So understood, aura would name the undepictable de-piction of distancing and separation” (87). In this sense, the technological media reveal not a break in aesthetics, but rather an estrangement of a process that was always a necessary condition of aesthetic perception.

Similarly, if we look at the seemingly definitive line on p. 103: “The whole sphere of authenticity eludes technological—and of course not only technological—reproduction.” The problem is that, this section begins by explicitly saying that the work of art has always been reproducible, and towards the middle, that authenticity is itself defined by technological means: “chemical or physical analyses.” Further, after this line that authenticity eludes reproduction, in a footnote that is only included in the third version of the essay, Benjamin writes: “To be sure, a medieval picture of the Madonna at the time it was created could not yet be said to be ‘authentic.’ It became ‘authentic’ only during the succeeding centuries, and perhaps most strikingly so during the nineteenth” (as if aura is something cultivated). The diachronic narrative of auratic decline particular to modernity ends up functioning as a natural element of aesthetic perception, a separation of the object from itself.

Because aura is never attached to the unique existence of an art object, its existence in the age of technological reproducibility is not precluded, but rather, comes to take on greater political significance with the possibility of its synthetic production. This leads us to a second modulation in the concept of aura that must be tracked: In addition to these false polarizations, the revolutionary or utopian potential of “aura” that Benjamin gives more solid and confident treatment elsewhere (and masterfully tracked in Hansen’s essay) is shot through by reservations and caution throughout the Artwork essay. Hansen argues that this false polarization and attenuation of aura’s potentialities is “deliberately restrictive,” a sort of “sleight-of-hand” in order to protect them from what Benjamin calls the “aestheticizing of political life” under national socialism. Hansen writes: “one strategy of preserving the potentiality of aura, of being able to introduce the concept in the first place, was to place it under erasure, to mark it as constitutively belated and irreversibly moribund.” It was “a fetishistic deflection that would protect, as it were, the vital parts of the concept inasmuch as they were indispensable to the project of reconceptualizing experience in modernity” (356-7).

In an attempt to recover some of Benjamin’s investment in the potentialities of aura in mass media, Hansen complicates this first definition of aura with a perhaps more intuitive understanding of the term “as an elusive phenomenal substance, ether, or halo that surrounds a person or object of perception, encapsulating their individuality and authenticity” (340). Through a long archaeology of Benjamin’s work, Hansen amasses under the heading of this third category many different instances of the term aura that show it not as “an inherent property of persons or objects, but pertaining to the medium of perception, naming a particular structure of vision” (342). These include: aura as the logic of the trace in the clothing seen on subjects in photographic portraits, a sense that is reminiscent of Kracauer’s early essay on “Photography” wherein time uses the raw material of clothing to make an image of itself. Other instances in Benjamin’s work that Hansen aligns under this definition of aura as a perceptual mode include: the aura of the habitual or the everyday (358, 341), aura as resembling Roland Barthes’s notion of the “punctum” or the singular element in a photograph that one finds inexplicably fascinating, that “which pricks me but also bruises me, is poignant to me” (Camera Lucida 27), and aura as a sense of futurity, or a “spark that leaps across time” that “emerges in the field of the beholder’s compulsively searching gaze” (341). Benjamin himself refers to aura as a medium of perception in section IV of the Artwork essay when citing Alois Riegl’s research on the late Roman art industry as a methodological precursor to his own project: “Just as the entire mode of existence of human collectives changes over long historical periods, so too does their mode of perception. The way in which human perception is organized—the medium in which it occurs—is conditioned not only by nature but by history” (104).

But Hansen’s essay makes the crucial distinction that a medium of perception cannot be conflated with a technological medium—any interpretation of the Artwork essay must keep this division consistently in view. Benjamin’s sense of a medium in which human perception is organized, Hansen writes, “proceeds from an older philosophical usage referring to an in-between substance or agency—such as language, writing, thinking, memory—that mediates and constitutes meaning.” The artwork essay seeks to use historical shifts in “aura” in order to define the perceptual modes specific to modernity. And yet paradoxically, Hansen argues, it is the technological media—film, photography, radio, and so on—that serve for Benjamin to crystallize what he refers to as “changes in the medium of present-day perception” (104). Herein lies one of the main difficulties in interpreting Benjamin’s Artwork essay. Aura, which is supposed to serve as the index against which the condition of modern sense perception can be registered, is simultaneously used in medium specific definitions of film and photography.

Thus, Benjamin’s synchronic formulation of aura in the mass media places the technological apparatus and modes of perception in a causally ambiguous situation. If genuine aura, as Hansen writes, “contained structural elements that were indispensable to reimagining experience in a collective, secularized and technologically mediated form,” (357) are these potentialities to be located in the formal analysis of film’s physical support or in the social structures that organize themselves around these media?

One possible way we could talk about this coupling of technological apparatus with modes of perception is that it places Benjamin in a difficult relationship with Riegl, who frequently railed against aesthetic materialisms (such as those of Gottfried Semper). Riegl critiques the emphasis on raw materials and technics as asserting an overly deterministic role in the creation of art objects, allowing “‘technique’ to become interchangeable with ‘art’ itself and eventually to replace it. Only the naïve talked about ‘art’; experts spoke in terms of ‘technique’” (Problems of Style p. 4). But of course, Benjamin’s evocation of technological material or objects is hardly deterministic: as Hansen points out, for Benjamin the medium-specific difference between photography and film is less one of technological difference, than one of purely aesthetic choice (p. 349). ((that still frames can be sped up, cropped, and so on)) What I mean to say here is that it is not as simple as saying, for example, the personal computer has been invented and our perceptual faculties are now fundamentally altered as a result. Such a schema would leave no room for the political agency or subjective will that is indispensable to Benjamin’s project as a whole.

But, at the other end of the spectrum, I don’t think it’s possible to say that Benjamin’s investment in a revolutionary aura lies solely in the fact of technology’s mass scale. Benjamin does cite a “quantitative shift between the two poles” of production and reception, a sort of democratization of aesthetic production. In section 13 he writes: “Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its axiomatic character. The difference becomes functional. At any moment, the reader is ready to become a writer. As an expert—which he has had to become in any case in a highly specialized work process, even if only in some minor capacity—the reader gains access to authorship” (114). The mass-scale of the media opens up a space for release, from the apparatus of industrial production into that of the film. However, what Benjamin calls the space-for-play or Spielraum that technology opens up is already, from the moment this essay was written, a space colonized by “film capital” and “fascism”. If aura has always named the endowment of an object with a value not its own, then the concept immediately offers itself up to violent mass mobilization and deadening commodity spectacle.

If you’ll permit me to apply some of Benjamin’s ambiguously subjective language, the question that wants desperately to be answered in the Artwork essay is, what is the nature of aura’s potentiality in the mass media that Benjamin places under erasure? The benefit of how the term is deployed here is that through some deep synthesis of the materials and the mode of perception, “aura” is able to name that which is “completely useless for the purposes of fascism,” and that which is “useful for the formation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art” (102). But at the same time, this leaves us with a set of incredibly difficult questions—because the space for play or Spielraum that the media opens up for us has almost always been a space that fundamentally does not belong to us. And here I can’t help citing Sony’s motto for the Playstation: “live in your world, play in ours.” Benjamin is fundamentally not talking about the technological domination of nature, or a dumbing down of culture, or an opiate for the masses, and I think this is something very difficult to fully wrap our heads around. So, the difficult question remains: at what point were the mass media utopian, and under what conditions could they still be?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

review: Jonathan Sterne's The Audible Past


Since its publication in 2003, Jonathan Sterne's The Audible Past has become a staple in the growing field of sound studies. A story about the development of sound-reproduction technologies, Sterne's book was one of the first in a now well-populated list of scholarship across many different disciplines that aims to rigorously examine sound as an historical, analytic, and philosophical category. Recently referencing The Audible Past on his blog, Sterne writes,
I guess the main thing to say is that the book was written at a time where there wasn’t a whole pile of other contemporary scholarship on sound that was aware of OTHER scholarship on sound. So there is a lot of effort to think through what it means to talk about sound in the humanities and why that matters. I’m not sure someone starting a sonic project today has to do that kind of work or deal with that kind of problem.
The foundational status of this book may account for some of its slightly awkward moments. Neologisms such as the “Ensoniment” (as opposed to Enlightenment) take some getting used to, and continuous polemics against the “visual bias” in the humanities at times become redundant (and not always because the field of sound studies has since gained so much traction). But the conceptual trajectory of the book as a whole is so well organized, one which makes such a pointed intervention not only in the historiography of sound, but of technology in general, that the reader can easily overlook these faults.
The Audible Past surveys the history of––to name only a sample of the devices Sterne deals with in this book––the stethoscope, sound telegraphy, telephone, phonograph, graphophone, gramophone, headsets, recording studios, wax cylinders, and hearing aids. However, Sterne is careful to characterize the scope of his study as “a deliberately speculative history” (27). In the book's introduction, entitled “Hello!”, Sterne acknowledges the massive task facing the historian of sound-reproduction technologies. Rather than aspiring to any claims of exhaustiveness or finality, Sterne writes, “this book uses history as a kind of philosophical laboratory” (27), an approach that requires the book to “continually move between the immediate and the general, the concrete and the abstract” (29). From long forgotten aberrancies such as the ear phonautograph (constructed out of an actual cadaver ear) to modern telephone networks, Sterne seeks to locate amid these various devices a unifying set of cultural practices and beliefs.
This is not at all to say that Sterne's account is a reductive one. Indeed, it is his central set of theoretical concerns or “speculations” that allows this wide range of technologies to serve as a good object of analysis in a cultural history of listening. Sterne writes in the introduction, “This book turns away from attempts to recover and describe people's interior experience of listening––an auditory past––toward the social and cultural grounds of sonic experience. The 'exteriority' of sound is this book's primary object of study” (13). To historicize sound through an account focusing on technology seems, if not all too obvious, then at least problematically determined––wasn't sound a culturally mediated object before sound-reproduction technologies? The Audible Past works in full view of these problems. To say that Sterne's book is too speculative to be a rigorous history, dealing with too great a number of technologies in too singular a manner, is to neglect the problematic placed rightfully at its core. Sterne's account problematizes technology's ability to frame our historically embedded techniques of hearing things, arguing instead for the cultural roots of technology. One must rigorously work through the assumptions of a history of the senses that begins with the advent of a technological incursion into that physiological process if it is to be a good history. Sterne's book does this, and succeeds.
The book's first chapter, “Machines to Hear for Them,” sets up one of the central points that allows Sterne's book to proceed analytically rather than chronologically: the social construction of “transducers, which turn sound into something else and that something else back into sound” (22). Sterne's emphasis on “transducers” falls not only on the technical function of inscribing sound waves or transforming them into electrical current, but also on the development of a physiological theory of hearing. “The objectification and abstraction of hearing and sound, their construction as bounded and coherent objects, was a prior condition for the reconstruction of sound-reproduction technologies” (23). Moving through the history of modern physiology and otology more specifically, as well as Alexander Graham Bell and his colleagues' interaction with these fields, Sterne argues that “the history of sound reproduction is the history of the transformation of the human body as an object of knowledge and practice” (50-51). By the middle of the 19th century, physiologists were conceiving of sound primarily as “the effect of a set of nerves with determinate, instrumental functions.” (61) This is not to rehash an old claim that a tree falling in the woods makes no sound without anyone to hear it, but rather to emphasize that the human ear defines a certain section of physical reverberations in space, and that sound as we know it is necessarily “anthropocentrically defined” (12). With this conceptual apparatus in place by the 19th century, “hearing, in other words is already an instrument” (61).
In the book's second and third chapters, Sterne charts the development of listening practices that grow out of these physiologically-based notions of sound. If sound reproduction required a concept of sound as the effect of a set of nerves and membranes, then it also required a set of specialized practices or techniques that shaped and perfected this instrument of hearing in various social contexts. Sterne argues that specialized listening practices such as stethoscopy and telegraphy helped develop the “audile technique” that will become instrumental in practices that are later disseminated on a mass scale by developing technologies. “From roughly 1810 on, audile technique existed in niches at either end of the growing middle class. It would not become a more general feature of middle-class life until the end of the nineteenth century, when sound reproduction became a mechanical possibility and the middle class itself exploded in size and changed in outlook and orientation” (98-99). Chapter 2 deals with the use of the stethoscope by physicians, and Chapter 3, whose subject matter bleeds into the two sections surrounding it, surveys the practices of telegraph operators and the gradual dissemination of these practices through growing public telephone networks.
By Chapters 4 and 5, Sterne has accumulated enough historical and conceptual material to make his central argument about the evolution of technologies and the development of media, one that is, in my view, extremely valuable for the study of culture and technology beyond the specificity of sound studies. Sterne writes, “techniques of listening do not simply turn sound technologies into media” (177). Rather, it is through a combined network of economic institutions and individual practices that media are constructed. Chapter 4 centers in on Sterne's useful definition of developing media as it took place in sound-reproduction technologies between the 1870s and 1920s:
A medium is a recurring set of contingent social relations and social practices, and contingency is key here. As the larger fields of economic and cultural relations around a technology or technique extend, repeat, and mutate, they become recognizable to users as a medium. A medium is therefore the social basis that allows a set of technologies to stand out as a unified thing with clearly defined functions. (182)
While the book's first sections dealt with the development of social practices, in Chapter 5 Sterne focuses on a specific instance of the industrial or economic side of this dynamic with the commercial rhetoric of sound “fidelity” surrounding reproduction technologies: “Manufacturers and marketers of sound-reproduction technologies felt that they had to convince audiences that the new sound media belonged to the same class of communication as face-to-face speech” (25).
The Audible Past is painstakingly organized––each of the book's sections is condensed into a series of focused arguments in the introduction which itself could serve as a standalone essay. Additionally, Sterne shows an almost overwhelming penchant for categorization: the three effects of mediate auscultation, the six elements common to medical, telegraphic, and popular listening practices, the four critiques of acousmatic theories of sound, etc. This mania for organization is what makes the book's last two sections somewhat surprising. In the overall conceptual trajectory of the book, which traces actual technosocial practices, a discussion of the Victorian “culture of death and dying” and the aura of “voices form the dead” surrounding the phonograph and graphophone seem a bit out of place, especially when Sterne tells us that ideas bubbling up about permanent archival and perfect technological memory were fundamentally inaccurate: “The first recordings were essentially unplayable after they were removed from the machine. […] If anything, permanence was less a description of the power of a medium than a program for its development” (288-9). Similarly, in the book's conclusion, Sterne launches a wide ranging discussion of the contemporary mania over digital technologies and the hopes invested in the possible futures supposedly enabled by them. Sterne's interest in these two sections seems to be taking him beyond the scope of this book in a way that renders his previously solid conclusions about the evolution of technology more problematic than this book has the space to resolve. While we have surveyed several causal agents––including physiological theories, advertising rhetoric, and social relations––here we move into the utopian imagination of technology's possible futures as itself a causal agent of technological change. This new interest seems to exceed the otherwise rigorous theoretical trajectory of the book.

These reservations aside, The Audible Past is a rare thing. Not only is it a comprehensive and well-organized history, but the book is an equally smart media theoretical engagement with questions of technics, the social origins of media, and technological change that should find a wide audience in many different academic fields.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

brief notes on Bernard Stiegler's theory of "technics"


For me, one of the biggest “aha!” moments in Bernard Stiegler’s mathemagical (for someone not proficient in continental philosophy but very much keyed in to the specificities of modern media and theories thereof, I swear this thing reads like alchemy––in a good way…) Technics and Time 1, the Fault of Epimetheus (1998 [1994]) comes toward the close of the first full chapter titled “Theories of Technical Evolution. After moving through the wildly different (yet excellently synthesized) writings of Bertrand Gille on technical systems, André Leroi-Gourhan on the technological origins of the human, and Gilbert Simondon on autopoietic “concretization” of technical objects, Stiegler moves us into the pressing need for a theory of technics in our present technological moment. After all, the “technics” (an anglicization of the Ancient Greek concept of technê or tekhnê) of contemporary, everyday life seem far removed from the term’s original sense of handicraft, skill, or artisanal invention, a “making” or a “doing” in opposition to the “disinterested understanding” of epistêmê. (Ideally, I will put together a subsequent post tracking some of the shifts in meaning between technê andepistêmê, which tend all too often to stand as anchors in the virulent opposition between theory and practice). Today, we no longer work with tools, per se, but with machines and complex systems. We do not make or invent, but operate (and this goes far beyond some sort of programmer/end-user, mod/newb distinction; rather, it gets at a historical movement from technology and science to technoscience, from invention and discovery to institutionalized research and development).
…the human has no longer the inventive role but that of the operator. If he or she keeps the inventor’s role, it is qua an actor listening to cues from the object itself, reading from the text of matter. To draw further on the metaphor, the actor is not the author—and that is why existing technical objects are never thoroughly concrete; they are never consciously conceived and realized by the human from out of this ‘logic,’ which is strictly speaking empirical, experimental, and in a sense quasi-existential (it is the object’s mode of existence), the sense, namely, that this logic is revealed only in its realization, in the experience of the object itself, or, as it were, on stage, and not at the time of conception.” (75-6)
This gets at the very problem of writing about technological media (Stiegler problematically never mentions “media” save for references to the “mass media”––more on this below): media refer to an in-between substance rather than any particular object or event in itself. This perhaps could explain the fantastic variety of approaches to “media studies” and the great number of academic departments now positioning themselves as the discipline from which so launch a study of (the) media. On what does one’s focus fall in an account of a medium? What is mediated, and how? Rather than focusing on particular objects (gadgets, inventions, etc.) or specific contents (movies, news, undifferentiated data), Stiegler’s account zones in on a sort of performance theory of media, of a becoming-medium in the moment of use (for “medium” is surely what we mean once we speak about the potentialities and anticipations of the technical object rather than its hard material existence––the distension of the gadget in time rather than its silicon actuality). This is what attracts me to the concept of technics as a paradigm of media theory. This is the great virtue of books like Lucy Suchman’s Human-Machine Reconfigurations: Plans and Situated Actions (2007 [1987]) which includes transcripts of first-time user interactions with a XEROX machine, complete with typographical annotations to show inflection and a representation of lights and linguistic signals put out by the device. It is probably a safe claim that Stiegler’s theory of technics, the “realization” technical object “in the experience of the object itself,” is indeed a theory of media.

What I just can’t seem to swallow about Stiegler’s account is the sense that during this moment of interaction with the technical object, what Suchman would refer to as the “situated actions” of a user, the specificities of the operator’s interactions, the nature of her selections, and the volition behind them seem to have little presence in Stiegler’s text.
“The maieutic proper to the empiricism of what we are calling the experience of the technical object, which is its functioning, corresponds here as well to a selection of combinations. Operating on a backdrop of chance, the selection follows phyletic lines whose necessity is their horizon, dotted with mutations whose accidental effects become the new functional principles.” (76)
The “selections” made by the operator are seen here as a property of the technical object itself, in its particular configuration of limitations and possibilities, as if this set of limitations and possibilities attenuates in advance the “selections” to be made. Weaving in and out of Simondon’s texts and feeding off of their resonance with biological evolution, Stiegler continues:
“In evolving, the technical object constitutes a series of objects, a lineage or a line, a ‘family’ of which ‘the primitive technical object is the ancestor,’ and this generation is a ‘natural technical evolution.’ … The technical essence is the identity of the lineage, its family resemblance, the specificity of its patrimony, which is the secret of its singular becoming: ‘The technical essence is recognized in the fact that it remains stable through the evolutional lineage, and not only stable, but productive as well of structures and functions by internal development and progressive saturation’” (77).
We see a perverse flip on the horizon here, as if the machine is operating the human, determining in advance the kind and number of selections to be made by virtue of its cold “technical essence.” If the operations of the user are not determining this technical identity, what is? The presence of what Stiegler relegates to the category of “other systems”––economic, linguistic, sociological, educational, political, military, etc.––can perform only an “artificial attenuation” on the “natural evolution” of the technical system. So that when a state power with particular set of economic interests implements protectionist measures to influence the development of a certain technology (as when the Department of Defense announced a $550 million R&D initiative on flat panel television in 1993 to beat Japan to the market––no lie), this stands outside and separate from the “patrimony” of the device. But if this type of attempt to influence the selection of certain technical traits made on the macro-level of economic policy is deemed “artificial,” what makes selection on the level of the individual operator any less so?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Socially Mapping the 1920s Midwest



In both Sinclair Lewis's novel Babbitt (1922) and the sociological study by Robert and Helen Lynd, Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture (1929), an attempt is made to systematically document and map the practice of everyday life in a representative American town. For the Lynds, this meant choosing the midwest as "the common denominator" of the US, a city with a population between 25,000 and 50,000, one in which there were more than one industry, and a city in which "social problems" would not overshadow the study's findings (race is carefully elided throughout the book). For Lewis, this meant constructing a fictional city Zenith in the fictional state of Winnemac, a state which would be "more typical than any state in the Union" (Lewis's own maps of which are included throughout this post--more info on them below).

"Middletown" was revealed later to be Muncie, Indiana--most famously by photographer Margaret Bourke-White who was sent by Life Magazine to document the town in May 1937. Muncie underwent a "gas boom" when a massive natural gas reserve was found in the area in 1886, ballooning the town to a population of tens of thousands and attracting outside capital to this thriving "gasopolis." Due to severe misuse and waste--it was thought cheaper to keep gas valves in the house open and burning than to waste a match relighting the flame--the field was all but depleted by 1890. The Middletown study takes place in the wake of this unevenly distributed and underdeveloped industrialization of the formerly agricultural town.

Characterizing Muncie's current state of labor and production in 1925, they write:
“If the working class in Middletown does not make the material necessities of its everyday life, the activities of the business class appear at many points even more remote. As the population has forsaken the less vicarious life of the farm or village and as industrial tools have become increasingly elaborated, there has been a noticeable swelling in the number and complexity of the institutional rituals by which the specialized products of the individual worker are converted into the biological and social essentials of living. It is by carrying on these institutional rituals that the business group gets its living.” (44)
Paradoxically, this "increasing elaboration" of the technics of everyday life is coupled with an "increasing standardization of leisure-time pursuits." Perhaps the most significant change found in the Lynds' study can be attributed to the triad of automobiles, movies, and radio, which together spawned a "cluster of habits that have grown up overnight." They write: “Indeed, at no point is one brought up more sharply against the impossibility of studying Middletown as a self-contained, self-starting community than when one watches these space-binding leisure-time inventions imported from without—automobile, motion picture, and radio—reshaping the city.” Here, the case study of social anthropology seems to come up against its limits when the "underlying groundwork of folk-play and folk-talk" is integrated into a web of cultural production and technological innovation that necessarily extends the boundaries of this town beyond its traditional patterns.


Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt on the other hand provides us with a very different type of perspective on the networks and systems organizing a representative midwestern town. George F. Babbitt--perhaps a reference to the frequently worn out automobile babbitt metal, a soft alloy "used for bearings connecting the piston rods to the crankshaft"--is the quintessential middle man. Breaking with the precedence of American businessmen novels that gave us portraits of tycoons, leaders of the masses--Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), Norris's The Pit(1903), Dreiser's The Financier (1912)--Babbitt is little more than middle management in a small real estate development company owned by his father-in-law, spending his non-working hours at booster club meetings and indulging in flights of heroic fancy while parking his car in tight spots: "It was a virile adventure masterfully executed" (28).

But Babbitt, as a real estate developer and booster has a particular kind of vantage point on his city of Zenith:
Babbitt spoke well--and often--at these orgies of commercial righteousness about the 'realtor's function as a seer of the future development of the community, and as a prophetic engineer clearing the pathway for inevitable changes'--which meant that a real-estate broker could make money by guessing which way the town would grow. This guessing he called Vision. In an address at the Boosters' Club he had admitted, 'It is at once the duty and the privilege of the realtor to know everything about his own city and its environs. Where a surgeon is a specialist on every vein and mysterious cell of the human body, and the engineer upon electricity in all its phases, or every bolt of some great bridge majestically arching o'er a mighty flood, the realtor must know his city, inch by inch, and all its faults and virtues.' (38)
Despite Babbitt's rhetorical flourishes--he is a great devotee of "the poetry of industrialism" (meaning tobacco ads)--his understanding of the city is absolutely one dimensional.
Though he did know the market-price, inch by inch, of certain districts of Zenith, he did not know whether the police force was too large or too small, or whether it was in alliance with gambling and prostitution. He knew the means of fire-proofing buildings and the relation of insurance-rates to fire-proofing, but he did not know how many firemen there were in the city, how they were trained and paid, or how complete their apparatus. He sang eloquently the advantages of proximity of school-buildings to rentable homes, but he did not know--he did not know that it was worth while to know--whether the city schoolrooms were properly heated, lighted, ventilated, furnished.
This is not just to say that Babbitt merely understands prices and ratios and abstract figures of the housing market; Lewis is pointing out here that there are thousands of other kinds of relations that make up this city, relations that Babbitt not only doesn't have access to, but that he wouldn't know how to understand in the first place. This is what makes him ultimately a sympathetic character--though Babbitt is unhappy with his life, he cannot even begin to understand what change would mean or entail. Babbitt understands the monetization of spatial relations, but in no way has access to detail or depth, let alone any sense of an outside. And, as Robert and Helen Lynd's study shows, any "outside" available to this representative small town may have been by that point paved over by a wave of "leisure-time inventions imported from without" to the point of total homogeneity.

One wants to say that Lewis's painstakingly drawn maps of Zenith and its surroundings are themselves an expressive act of Babbittry, a visualization of his understanding of the city. But the degree of his planning for the novel just doesn't bear this out. In a sociological research trip on part with the Lynds, Lewis traveled through the Midwest for eight weeks in preparation for his novel, transcribing his notes by topic in a large ring binder that serves as the index for an entire fictional world (the binder is now preserved at Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale). It contains countless pages of character biographies, a genealogy of the Babbitt family, the courses George would have taken in college (put together by consulting the 1888-89 University of Michigan course catalog), sketches of Babbitt's clothing, and lengthy back stories of minor characters who have little more than a single walk-on role in the novel. The binder also contains a "Locutions" section, a catalogue of expressions Lewis jotted down during his travels which would make their way into the novel. Some of my favorites: "all these free classes and flipflop and doodads;" "they say I'm a roughneck and a never-wuzzer;" "horse feathers!" "Yuh, I'm just as much agin the cranks and blatherskites an labor unions and so on as you are!"

The "Babbitt Maps," separated from Lewis's main research binder along with his wife in a divorce, were found in a Syracuse University archive (The Dorothy Thompson Papers). They consist of 13 holograph maps on separate leaves in Lewis's own hand, each of which was found slipped inside the dust jacket of an oversize edition of H.G. Wells's Outline of History. A fourteenth map, "Blocks Most Familiar to Babbitt", was sketched on the inside of the dust jacket itself (below).

Further maps show the interior of Babbitt's office and home, and even the arrangement of furniture in each room. Winnemac (and Zenith) would serve Lewis as the fictional setting forArrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), Dodsworth (1929), and the minor novels The Man Who Knew Coolidge (1928) and Gideon Planish (1943). Details are built into these 1921(?) maps that show Lewis had planned several elements of this narrative world that wouldn't be fully developed until several novels later.

The degree to which this narrative world has been fleshed out is breathtaking, and one wonders if anything comparable had been attempted before outside of genre fiction. But the--what can we call it?--verisimilitude aspired to here seems wholly out of sync with a work of satire, the mode Lewis is most widely remembered for. I wouldn't say that Babbitt is a completely successful novel, and the existence of these maps only compounds this sense when one sees the scale at which Lewis was thinking. Lewis apparently intended George Babbitt to be less of a caricature, but he ended up cutting much of the material that would have shown introspection in the character. As James Hutchisson writes, "Instead, Lewis focused on the city, drawing it as the embodiment of machinery and consumerism and showing its deleterious effect on Babbitt." But on the other hand, maybe we can better understand Babbitt not as a character being subsumed by systems of modern consumerism, but an earnest desire to portray what it is like to attempt to think from within them. In this sense, the distance between the encyclopedic planning and the actual novel is less one attributable to Hemingway's iceberg theory of fictional composition than one of distance between drafts. The novel Babbitt constitutes the character George F. Babbitt's cognitive horizon as he navigates the totality of relations Lewis himself attempted to map.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Hugo Gernsback and SF's Handicraft Roots


While Hugo Gernsback's 1911 novel Ralph 124C 41+ (a wordplay on "one to foresee for one") is one of the foundational works of science fiction, it's also widely agreed to be "the worst science fiction novel ever written" (Everett Bleiler; similar sentiments in a talk recently webcast on SF and architecture by Warren Ellis). Setting aside this work's questionable merit ("Ralph 124C 41+, his heart thumping in a most undignified way, was acting more like a schoolboy than a master of science"), Gernsback's work as a magazine editor provides some fascinating materials when considering the emergence of science fiction within an environment of fin de siècle technological utopianism and DIY experimentation with radio homebrew. I've been digging through some of the Firestone Library's Gernsback materials and came across a few interesting points.

The Luxembourg-born Gernsback began his career as a publisher in 1908 with Modern Electrics, a hobbyist's guide to wireless experimentation, including how-to articles, descriptions of the latest developments in the field, and speculations on the future of wireless technology. It was in this steampunk incarnation of Wired magazine that Ralph 124C 41+ was first published, and here that, strangely enough, Lewis Mumford published his first bit of writing at the age of 15, titled "A Portable Receiving Outfit." Gernsback's next big success wasScience and Invention, running from 1913 (originally as Electrical Experimenter) to 1931. In the August 1923 issue, Gernsback first edited a collection, calling on many of the same writers contributing technical pieces to write for this "Science Fiction Number."

This issue served as a sort of trial run for Gernsback's most famous publication, Amazing Stories, appearing in April 1926 and continuing, in one form or another, until the present day. In its early incarnations, the magazine largely published reprints of authors Gernsback wanted to appropriate as canonical works of "scientifiction," a term he patented and attempted to popularize with Amazing Stories. One finds in the first two years of the magazine stories by Wells, Verne, and Poe. There simply wasn't a large pool of authors writing in the genre (indeed, the "genre" at this point is little more than a business venture with no product), and those who were writing fiction along Gernsback's lines of "a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision" were put off by Gernsback's less than attractive editorial style (he believed that publication is payment enough). Burroughs was too expensive to contract, and Lovecraft had a good enough following of his own.

One of Gernsbacks' most important contributions is his development of a forum in which a community of genre fans could develop, in which a medium of popular criticism could develop around a particular set of aesthetic questions. He was one of the first magazine editors to regularly publish a letters to the editor section, responding each month. Indeed, in many of the correspondences between Gernsback and his readers, he seems to be behind the curve when discussing the poetics of the genre. In the July 1926 issue of Amazing Stories, nineteen year old reader Green Peyton Wertenbaker writes, "Scientifiction goes out into the remote vistas of the universe, where there is still mystery and so still beauty. For that reason scientifiction seems to me to be the true literature of the future. The danger that may lie before Amazing Stories is that of becoming too scientific and not sufficiently literary." Gernsback's unfortunate reply in the next month's issue: "we should state that the ideal proportion of a scientifiction story should be seventy-five per cent literature interwoven with twenty-five per cent science."

Gernsback never abandons his earlier technical publications, continuing with titles such asShort Wave Craft (seen above), Everyday Mechanics, and Technocracy Review. He opens a radio station WRNY which in 1928 broadcast one of the earliest radio programs with a live classical concert (conducted by fellow wireless enthusiast Joseph Kraus) and conducted experiments with television in the late 20s and into the 30s, though never with simultaneous image and sound--an image would be broadcast and then a sound over the same wavelength in a sort of shot countershot. One of the most interesting things about Gernsback's regular editorials and critical writings (publishing a short essay in each of his several publications each month) is the degree to which his (if you want to call it this) literary criticism and technical writings feed into one another--and this seems to be the case in the fan letter, pop critical discussion that flourished in his magazine empire. In the passage below from the Feb-March 1931 issue of Short Wave Craft, one can just as easily imagine the "experimenter" to be the writer of fiction as the hobbyist tinkering with tubes and resistors. (And note the way that the nature of television--a medium which has yet to come into being--is already seen to be determined not by the nature of its technological support but by a certain aesthetic of its use--potential technics?)
With television on the threshold, an entirely new radio paradise has been opened to the experimenter; because television will, no doubt, be transmitted on the shorter wave lengths for a long time to come. The up-to-date experimenter is, of course, thinking about this and is following the new art in all its different branches; so that, when television finally 'breaks,' he will be equipped to work with it as thoroughly as he has been familiarized with transmission and reception, 'phone as well as code.