Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Entangled Objects, Week 5: Food Stuff


Like most folks who read and enjoyed Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle in the early '00s, I was influenced by his vivid portrayal of the coffee houses of Restoration, Jacobite, and Glorious Revolution London. Posited as loci where the new rising class of natural philosophy divines, professional civil servants, old-style Renaissance-man nobles, and "rude mechanickals" could mix and interact, Stephenson's fictional and real-life figures mix and discuss and, in the coffee-houses, lay the groundwork for much of modern-day information-age capitalism (including banking, international commodity trading, and cryptography), unsurprising considering the Cycle is a prequel to his Cryptonomicon, whose "modern" setting takes place during the first Internet bubble and the fight for "strong crypto."

The Baroque Cycle was completed a few years before Brian Cowan's The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse, but you can feel those same Internet revolution impulses informing his work. While much of the first part of Cowan's book is dedicated to the very intriguing story of how coffee became popular in London (and how its benefits were extolled by a group of "early adopters," neophiles that Cowan calls "virtuosi," those same Renaissance men in search of foreign exotic novelty), it is in Cowan's examination of coffee-house as space that the book really shines.

The coffee-house couldn't exist without the crucial sideline of the dissemination of news. The coffee-house and the newspaper grew up side-by-side in London, and that unique mix of coffee-house patrons allowed men (and it is pretty much almost always men, although women sometimes owned coffee-houses and hawked newspapers there) of different social strata, occupations, and political alignments to exchange information. Like the modern Internet, governmental authorities sought to regulate this place of exchange of information and in some cases even close them down. But the sheer number of coffee-houses and their patrons' desire for a place to socialize and to become more informed was much stronger. This tension between king and courtier was seen throughout the reigns of Charles II and James II (for obviously very different political reasons).

If I am focusing more on the back half of Cowan's book it is only because that social and informational role looms large by the time you finish the book. I am a great believer, as my co-host and I posited in a very short digression on my podcast (at around 26:00), in the theory that modern capitalism was fueled by the very different physiochemical experience of caffeine in stimulating thought and trade, as opposed to Europe's long use of the depressant alcohol as their main beverage. Cowan gives that theory some faint appraisal here, but mostly asserts that coffee, tea, and chocolate's psychosocial position as a novelty to the European led to the coffee-house being frequented by people interested in new things and ideas. Coffee, tea, and chocolate also contained more opportunity for their partisans to associate the drinking experience with luxury goods, apparatus to accentuate the aesthetic experience of consuming (especially for tea later in the 18th century: china, silver, etc.). There were few houses in London where bhang, betel nut, or opium were openly consumed, and these were also commodities that filled the British "virtuoso" with the interest in the new (Cowan's chapter on the rampant experimentation involved in "early modern drug culture" was probably the biggest revelation for me personally; as I've said, British coffee-house culture has long interested me but I had no idea that the impulse to tinker with one's internal "alchemy," as it were, with new commodities from outside Europe was so strong so early in the West and especially Britain, although Cowan does not ignore the "nativist," Paracelsian impulse to keep using the native plants of Europe as medical treatments and not resort to the foreign.)

And it's made clear that while the novelty of coffee was made domestic and was accepted by the intelligentsia and idle nobility of London, it was never quite made British in the time period Cowan discusses. Just Cowan's survey of how many coffee-houses used the iconography of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire to represent coffee tells you that. In fact, the whole enterprise of entering a coffee-house in Restoration Britain smacks of safe rebellion, of a taste of the dangerous, of liminality. My undergrad thesis was on the medieval student clerk in both history and contemporary literature. Like the British "virtuoso," the student clerk was another son of privilege inclined to enjoy and embrace new ideas and to exist outside the narrowly-codified life prescribed for sons of nobility. They acted rowdy, they got together in groups to paint the town red, they experimented with new types of writing (Goliardic poetry), and they existed in a liminal space, neither adult nor child, neither holy nor secular. The typical coffee-house patron in 17th century London also existed at the edges of the traditionally-codified space of a "gentleman." Surely, the reality of the Restoration has something to do with that, as well as the larger economic and mercantile changes happening in Western Europe in the second half of the 1600s.

In Tom Mueller's Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, we are essentially given a non-Mediterranean's culinary, social, and economic tour of the history and present of olive oil production. The author's love of the stuff, as well as the producers', is apparent throughout this book; even the arguable adulterators and mass producers of "extra virgin" olive oil have wistful nostalgia over growing up on small farms where the oil was ground by ancient millstones. Mueller's travelogue, while vivid, reiterates the same set of points: that mass production means an inevitable adulteration and weakening in the very qualities that make olive oil desirable, health-wise and aesthetically.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Entangled Objects, Week 4: Literary Stuff


One thing that reading The Prose of Things: Transformations of Description in the Eighteenth Century by Cynthia Sundberg Wall amply demonstrated to me is what a lacuna I have when it comes to 18th century British literature. I'm conversant with the Restoration and okay on Victorian literature, but the Augustan/Georgian period is a big black hole. The history I know pretty well, which is why I think I found Wall's book so approachable and important. I'll confess, diving into her thesis and looking at how the British literature of this period approached descriptions of things and spaces and how they changed over the century was a little overwhelming.

But let's begin looking at her thesis. I'll blockquote it here from the Introduction:
This book argues that the changes in the rhetoric about and the employment of description to accommodate and then absorb the ornamental into the contextual are related to at least four larger cultural changes: experientially, to technologically new ways of seeing and appreciating objects in the ordinary world through the popular prostheses of microscope, telescope, and empirical analysis; economically, to the expansion of consumer culture in the increasing presence and awareness of things on the market, in the house, in daily life; epistemologically, to the changing attitudes towards the general and particular, the universal and the individual; and, narratively, to the perception and representation of domestic space. (Wall 2)
That's pretty persuasive all by itself, before even getting into Wall's manifold analyses. The one historical fact I brought to this book before even cracking the cover was the knowledge that 18th century Britain saw an enormous increase in the availability of exotic consumer goods and luxuries, and that the seeds of many of Britain's most notable modern museums began germinating in this century. The acquisition and cataloguing of things was a particularly 18th century obsession. But with her detailed literary analysis of works stretching back (and forward) from the 18th century in Britain, Wall reinforces these purely economic and social causes of the expansion of description over the 18th century, using literature to extrapolate into psychology and the changing epistemology of the regard of objects.

Why take the time to describe a scene in a narrative? To the contemporary reader, or even the Victorian one, the answer would be "to set the scene, to give context, to allow the reader immersion in the world of the narrative." Yet to the pre-18th century rhetorician (and even to some 18th century thinkers), this sort of description was believed to be counterproductive, to take away from the work as a whole. I thought it was very clever of Wall to find examples of anxiety over description, and how looked down upon it was in the period prior to the 18th century in her first chapter. Literary critics and thinkers in the English Renaissance and afterwards found pure description to be "surplusage" (Wall 27) or bring the work to a freeze through "refrigeration" (Wall 27). To these theorists, influenced by the ancients, economy of words brings clarity and perfection.

What changes the philosophical and epistemological imperative to describe? I feel like Wall is trying to say it all comes down to utility. The "why" of description in the 17th century gets taken in many different directions. The Puritans, whose political and scientific influence after the English Civil War was profound and even dwelled in British style after the Restoration, shunned ornament, but also desired an ability to read the world for spiritual reasons. This meant a new attention to detail and interpretation (Wall 77-78) enabled through technology like the microscope. And in the spiritual world of other nonconformists like Pilgrim's Progress author John Bunyan, detail and description of people and things took on the allegorical and emblematic imperative. While Bunyan himself denies that his work is a straight allegory, and that instead his characters are characters named after traits to make the work instructive (Wall 105), the things and objects and places that Bunyan takes the time to describe are important: he shows great plenty laid upon the tables of the moral characters of his world, and the immoral characters dwell in penury and sickness and violence who wander without a home.

The "why" of description in later, 18th century literature has more to do with psychology, especially the psychology of the home and of material gain. Daniel Dafoe's works Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders both revel, but revel in fairly succinct descriptions of the objects around them. For the character Crusoe, while we may be merely reading lists of the plenty that his island provides, Wall asserts that there is a catalog of pleasure being presented here, and so the reason behind this particular description is to demonstrate God's/nature's bounty on the island and the pleasure taken in it (Wall 109). Likewise, Moll Flanders's catalog of thefts are described again succinctly, but with much demonstration of the envy that Moll feels in stealing them (Wall 111-112). In Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, the uncannyness of the giant objects raining on Manfred's castle serve the Gothic imperative of demonstrating a family and a place haunted; but why choose giant objects other than simply the reason that the image sprung from the oneiric logic of Walpole's dream-imagination (Wall 117)? It is the weight of memory made material; another allegorical emblem, made alien by its literally outsized intrusion into the "real" world.

Domesticity also changed in the 18th century, and as such, the reflection of the home in both novels and in more utilitarian texts (home decor instructions and catalogs) slowly unfolded into greater depths of description. The 18th century women romance novelists that Wall cites in chapter five find the importance of detail in events related to action and trauma: when plucky protagonists are pursued, chased, or captured, their surroundings are described in greater detail than probably any authors we've looked at thus far. Is this just an extension of the "refrigeration" theory mentioned above, meant to "chill out" the narrative as it heats up?

By the time we get to chapter six on lists of goods, catalogs, auction listings, and advertising, we are on the ground that I assumed this book (by its cover!) would deal with. This chapter was solid scholarship, although you feel Wall again needing to concede that this topic has been dealt with elsewhere in greater detail. But if we again get into the questions of why writers are all of a sudden taking care with lists and descriptions of objects, we get the pure economic reasoning – there is simply more "stuff" to describe on the market and available for the expanding middle class to buy, sell, and spectate – but there is also that same emblematic purpose. Is this plenty not the same plenty of the tables of Pilgrim's Progress, except instead of directed towards a symbol of salvation, now is a symbol of world-spanning empire, of power? Surely the average "consumer" on the streets of London in the 1770s reading a newspaper may not have been aware of this, but the matrix in which he or she lived has been powerfully riven by this profound change in Britain's place in the world.

This brings me to one of my few complaints about the book. It is called The Prose of Things, and yet I feel like, with her intriguing discussions of maps for travelers/consumers in chapter two, of interior spaces in novels, and then in her discussion of interior decoration and population of the new 18th century house with objects in chapters seven and eight, Wall is making this book just as much about the Prose of Places as things. The eye sees, and where the eye cannot see the word describes, and for the allegorical homes in literature just as the aspirational homes in late 18th century auction guides and country home surveys, the surveying of interior space is crucial. Surely, things make up a house but it is their context and relation spatially to one another that makes a difference. Perhaps spatial relations are outside of the scope of Wall's work (and to be fair, she does talk about clutter increasing in the 18th century), but I do feel like ontologically, "spaces" and "objects" are different. This might be nitpicking. Edit: And aware as I am of Wall's citation of Barthes on the still life from Le monde-objet (Wall 153) about the psychology of place and thing being tied together, I am still not convinced that these topics of space and geography dovetail neatly with the topic of objects.

Just a fun set of random observations: there were so many analogues to modern anxieties in this book, especially on the consumer side! The idea of the roads and buildings in the geographical guidebooks changing from chapter two made me think of modern mapping programs and apps, and how sometimes Google Street View will present you with a house that is no longer there. Even the 21st-century panopticon fails when confronted with the fourth dimension of time. And the idea of cheap, clear glass creating the modern storefront was fascinating; technology again impels trade, which in turn speeds up technological development. It was like a case study out of a modern tech company.

Two questions for class, related to my questions above: 1) Do you feel, as I do, that objects and spaces are fundamentally different ontologically and as such cannot be treated as the same in the same work? 2) Can you think of any examples from periods/places you've discovered where social or economic change impels a change in the artistic style/quality of that place and time?

American Psycho, well, what can be said. Again, as the lesser of the two reviews this week, this is the book I did not read for class but I read it as an undergrad. Not knowing what I was getting into. But paired with the work by Wall, it takes on new meaning. Patrick Bateman can only relate to his frankly interchangeable co-workers and colleagues by what they wear, what they own, what kind of typefaces are on their business cards. The music he "listens" to is banally interchangeable as well; as a young 19-year-old music snob in 1994, I was made angry by his entirely missing the point of Genesis, of his embrace of Whitney Houston's most banal platitudes, by his unironic love of Huey Lewis and the News, of his inability to enjoy the Joshua Tree tour (except to get hidden subliminal messages from Bono). Yes, the mostly women victims of his tortures are also objects, and Ellis's descent into violence, dissection, rot, and abjection serves as the counterpoint to the literally gleaming surfaces of Bateman's life. American Psycho and the world it describes are a world of objects, of people as objects, of 18th century mercantilism and cataloguing taken to its parodic, satirical extreme. While I do, knowing what I know now in 2016 about Ellis, doubt the sincerity of this critique (and honestly, sometimes it shows in 1991 Ellis, simply in how seductive his authorial voice finds all the consumption and the violence), it still stands independent of the author. To bring back Barthes from Wall's book, Ellis is channeling the late-80s hypercapitalistic, existentially violent zeitgeist as "scriptor," as the way in which late capitalism has perverted and twisted all human relations helps write the work.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Entangled Objects, Week 3: The Power of Touch


Let me preface my look at these two books for Week 3 of Entangled Objects with a small proviso: from 1993 to 1997, I studied medieval History and Literature as an undergraduate. My focus was mostly on vernacular literature in Middle English, Old French, and Tuscan Italian and my senior undergrad thesis was on the historical person and the literary stock character of the student clerk in both historical accounts and in vernacular literature of the 13th and 14th centuries.

While it has been a long time since I've delved full-on into medieval Europe, I've definitely kept my oar in, so to speak, on medieval studies. The field is going in exciting new directions in the past two decades, but I'd not yet encountered either of the books on this week's syllabus. Also please note: I spent much more time dissecting Christian Materiality than Medieval Robots.

I reacted to the thesis of Caroline Bynum's Christian Materiality: As Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe as conveyed in its introduction with a good deal of skepticism. While I was intrigued and excited by her initial statements about ideas of generation and corruption being central to the medieval experience (Bynum 30), I was a little more curious about how she would explain her idea that the materiality of late medieval cult objects as objects was central to their meaning and importance as objects of devotion (Bynum 28).

Through the next four chapters of argument, Bynum wanders far and wide through much of medieval and early Renaissance theory and praxis on relics, sacramentals, and other holy objects in Christendom. And her logical steps in explaining her theses are ultimately very satisfying, even if in the middle of the journey I was not always certain about where I was being led.

As an undergrad, I always had problems understanding the non-representationism of medieval art. I think in high school I was programmed to find Renaissance art's use of perspective, realism, and aesthetics to be superior to medieval art. Bynum assuages this long-standing discomfort in her first chapter by conveying that different values were placed on the specific aspects of medieval devotional art and what it chose to represent. For both the medieval parishioner and the medieval theologian, the symbols of martyrdom – "the Wheel," "the Eyes," "the Arrows" – became a symbolic shorthand for the saint's identity (Bynum 61), so these would often be given visual importance in pieces of art. The materials from which the icon, statue, reliquary, or image was made were also essential to understanding the powers and identity of the figure depicted (Bynum 59). The moving parts of works of art, especially those meant to move, transform, open, or close in reliquaries or effigies, also provide the worshipper with a new experience depending on time of week or liturgical year. And the tangibility of relics was essential to their purpose (Bynum 65); the devout were meant to touch, kiss, and taste the surfaces and products of the miraculous relic.

In chapter two, the power of relics to change and heal and inspire and primarily to transform is discussed. Bynum's discussion of visions of real flesh and blood in the Eucharistic bread and wine (Dauerwunder) is fascinating and one I was not familiar with. In ancient and medieval Eucharistic theology and Christology, leading right up to the Fourth Lateran Council, there is this feeling of... an indicator needle that needs to be precisely balanced between purely symbolic transformation in the Eucharist and a full physical one. Much like the duality of Christ himself, the duality of the Eucharist is a dangerous balance to strike. One false move and you are a heretic. But just because these paradoxes are abstruse to the modern reader does not mean that they were as difficult to understand for the medieval worshipper. And these changes, these unreal bleedings and be-fleshings and the other excretions of statues of miraculous oil and milk, these denials of the usual earthly cycle of generation, these tangible miracles are the things that fill the medieval observer with a powerful inspiration and faith. Understandably, these expressions of folk faith sometimes made theologians and clergy anxious, as they moved that needle I mentioned above solidly into materiality.

It is in chapter three that we find ourselves face to face with the flipside of spontaneous miraculous generation: the anxiety over the nature decay or unnatural preservation of body parts in relics. Incorruptibility isn't a necessity for a relic, but it can and does provide power in its denial of the ordinary cycles of generation and corruption. For those relics that are the product of decay, the glory of gems, gilding, and fine art or the symbology of unchanging gems or flourishing flowers on a permanent, decayed body part (bones or ashes) is meant to lend the aura of immortality and of the Kingdom of Heaven to the relic (Bynum 71, 181-182). The anxiety over relic as piece of the whole is assuaged with the promise of eventual miraculous bodily Resurrection as well as the idea of Eucharistic concomitance (Bynum 208 et subseq.); Christ's body and blood can be in multiple places with the same holy power during many celebrations of Eucharist, and the power of Christ dwells simultaneously in both bread and wine.

Bynum rounds out the book with a fourth chapter which brings back medieval anxiety about matter, generation, and decay by examining the medieval philosophical and "scientific" view of earthly matter. I was amused at Bynum's citation of St. Isidore's linguistic games around the concepts of corpus/corruptus, materia/mater, and caro/creando (Bynum 231-232), knowing that many of these same late antique/early medieval linguistic games, some by Isidore himself, grounded much of medieval theology. A universe where there was no sense to the changes that happened in matter was unpredictable, and in the medieval scholastic Aristotelian schema, undesirably disorderly. So natural processes of decay as well as influence (such as astrology) were encoded into both learned and popular views of matter. This lends enormous conceptual power to the changes that occur to relics and to objects of devotion! Relics could heal, cause unnatural visions, change themselves from decayed things to things full of vitality and freshness. This conveys intimately and materially the power of God and the saints.

Thinking of my own reaction to the text, I feel like the most convincing aspect of Bynum's book is this idea of anxiety and fear around normal cycles of generation and corruption. It cannot be overstated how connected all medieval persons were to these cycles, at least as compared to us in the 21st century. One's continued survival depended on the natural cycles of agriculture – unsurprisingly, there are many stories about people stealing hosts and using relics to ensure good harvests and to protect their food from decay (Bynum 169-170) – and almost all disease had no systematic scientific cure. Nature and its processes must have seemed immensely inscrutable and profoundly frightening to the medieval person, whether peasant, priest, or noble. In other words: medieval people loved their technologies and objects for the same reasons we love ours: because they promise health and, ultimately, immortality.

Medieval Robots was also a very good look at a previously-underserved area of research: automata in the Christian Middle Ages. The automaton begins, to the Western Latin Christian, as an exotic technology, reserved for the Eastern Mediterranean (those ancient lands like Egypt and Greece and their successors in Byzantium), the Muslim world and the Mongol world. It is in this role that automata appear in early romances. Truitt then looks at the fact that the automaton is a relic of the ancient world, and that the human making of a counterfeit of life is (imperfect, fallen and corrupted) analogue to the person of "Natura artifex" making life on her forge. The linguistic background of the idea of what we would today call "technology" as "magic" in classical Latin is investigated here. This basis allows Truitt to explore what medieval "magicians" were seen to do; the scholastic/scientific holy men who created oracular heads to tell the future find their root in a medieval conception of Virgil as the first among oracular head-makers. The chapter on automata as devotional objects looks at their way of counterfeiting life as a memorial; this chapter made me think of the place of the zombie/undead on the modern uncanny valley chart. Like the physically-transforming relics and religious puppets/automata that Bynum describes, memorial automata's unnaturality added potency to their impact. Truitt's final chapters on late medieval lords finally owning their own automata and the coming popularity of clocks, puts us on the way to the Renaissance prince's desire to own and display clockwork wonders and the making of clockworks part of the common late medieval person's life and universe. What was once exotic is now within reach, not only of the noble but also the commoner.

To tie both these books back together to an earlier post on this blog, I do like how so very little has changed in the idea of material objects as objects of devotion/granters of boons from the mechanical oracles of Roman Egypt to medieval Europe a millennium later.

Edit: Oh, I now realize I have another old post that is at least somewhat related to Bynum: at the outset of chapter four, she speaks of prodigies and omens (Bynum 219, footnote on 369), and so I thought it would make sense for me to link to my post on ancient Roman Fortean events as religious prodigies.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Entangled Objects, Week 2: Inner Voice & Transitional Spaces


Well, given the stated aims of this pair of books, it's going to be hard for me to not present my personal, emotional impressions. Both of these essay collections are edited by Sherry Turkle of MIT, date to the late '00s, and discuss human relationships with objects. Evocative Objects: Things We Think With focuses mostly on objects with emotional resonance, while The Inner History of Devices focuses more on technology and objects of utility. Of course, this distinction may be a false one, but it's a useful one for me to draw. All that being said, I'm going to talk fairly rapid-fire about my observations and flit freely between the two books.

There's a heavy layer of psychology in both books, which makes sense given Turkle's background. Not every essay is written by a trained psychologist but almost all have a basic familiarity with postwar (post-)structuralism. The relationship of a human being to the objects in their surroundings is a big part of the developmental process, so it's no wonder that many of the objects in Evocative Objects possess childhood and adolescent significances to the human subjects.

So there's a lot of emotional/psychological language in these essays. As such, it's hard not to try to put oneself in a position to empathize with and understand these authors and their relationships to their objects. And this was where I found myself a little at sea. I don't possess many singular objects with strong emotional resonances from childhood. Most of my big, hotline-to-memory nostalgia-type associations are with, ironically, seemingly cold and unfeeling devices, and even forms of media themselves: books, comics, music, and primarily television, but also dead forms of technology like old computers, old games, old forms of social media like BBSs and dial-in online services. My nostalgia for these old ways of doing things is, well, one of the main reasons I started Renfusa.

One thing I've discovered in doing the podcast I've been involved with for the past year-plus (and my 1970s/1980s TV Guide deep-dives on Facebook) is how much I was raised by TV. I had a family where both parents worked, and a grandmother who was a giving, yet elderly, caretaker. So in the gaps between these three caretakers, I had Television. In the Orit Kuritsky-Fox essay in The Inner History of Devices, she speaks of how her family did not give the television a place of prominence in the household, favoring instead totems of "high culture" like books and art. We didn't have that in my household; the television was the center of the living room and often the center of my life. I was not physically active, I didn't play outside. I watched, and consumed, television and the culture it brought into my home. Kuritsky-Fox talks about how for her ultra-Orthodox uncles, television is anathema not just for religious reasons but also because it provided an opportunity for "cultural participation"; for a kid like me who never fit in at school and had no siblings, television was indeed a ticket to the larger world, for all the good and for ill that connotes.

To get back to nostalgia, and media, and the podcast, and the emotional connection between old objects and the present-day state of mind, in her introduction to Evocative Objects Turkle cites Lévi-Strauss's idea of bricolage as a revelation for her in her studies in the late '60s. It's something I've been thinking about as my podcast partner and I plumb our childhood nostalgia to reevaluate and rethink the media that shaped us in our formative years. At first I felt a little bit self-conscious about gorging on so much pop culture nostalgia, and so publicly. But on the other side, I've really been looking at the podcast, this silly (over-)analysis of a '70s/'80s sitcom, and the work we do in recontextualizing the show in terms of both its contemporary history and today's society, as a form of bricolage. Cultural recycling, if you will. It's a way to fight against the "constantly new, constantly shiny" impulses of 21st century consumerism and pop culture. It also allows me to look deeper into hauntology, one of my personal hobby horses, as an aesthetic to look at the world of my childhood. I definitely need to post solely about hauntology at some point in this blog.

Some random observations from both books, mostly from Evocative Objects:

  • I found Gail Wight's piece on drugs in Evocative Objects to be fascinating, especially given my love of Infinite Jest and the connection between her blue Ludiomil, her mental health, David Foster Wallace's own biography and psychology, and the significance of blue throughout Infinite Jest, from cover art on down to the final scene's "Mt. Dilaudid"; I could write a piece just about that juxtaposition, and perhaps I will to celebrate IJ's 20th anniversary.
  • Not gonna lie: the essay about the martial arts balm dit da jow and how one could trace a lineage from author Susan Spilecki's sifu's recipe for the balm all the way back to Wong Fei Hong himself made me geek out in a kung fu movie fan sort of way.
  • The Baudrillard quote on page 102 caused some raised eyebrows from me; I'd need to read the entire piece that it's from to confirm if this is the gist, but the idea of the "cold seduction" of "functional perfection" not having anything to do with beauty or horror just seems wrong somehow to me. Even myself, an admitted technophile, sometimes finds something very uncanny about things fitting together perfectly.
  • Trevor Pinch on the synthesizer made me think of Simon Reynolds's Rip it Up and Start Again on the postpunk scene and how many of those artists had to assemble their own synths in the late '70s.
  • The one essay in Evocative Objects that had a profound emotional effect on me was the one about The World Book Encyclopedia by David Mann. Those full-color encyclopedias were also my favorites at the public library growing up.
  • And an observation from The Inner History of Devices: when writing a history of technology and media, what seems current in the year a book is published (Slashdot, Motorola RAZR phones) can seem almost humorously dated a mere eight years after publication.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A New Series on Renfusa: Entangled Objects, Week 1: Introduction


As I've mentioned in previous posts, Renfusa's been on a fairly fallow posting schedule due to a big change in my life a year ago. It's been just about a year since I took a part-time position at Harvard's Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments. In the past year I've worked on a few ongoing projects, including the provision and devising of content for our gallery iOS app, now available on the App Store.

Also in the past year, I've formally joined the Master's program in Museum Studies at the Harvard Extension School . And this semester, I am taking a course as a Special Student at Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. It's called History of Science 289: Entangled Objects: Or the Stuff of Science, Culture, and Society. As its final project, my classmates and I will be putting together an exhibit in the History of Science department, and so this course is directly applicable to my Museum Studies degree.

This course also has a good chunk of reading, and all of these books are the type of thing I'd probably read just for fun. So as a part of my course prep this semester, I'm planning to write up short reviews (probably not as long or as formal as my "Five Things I Learned" entries) on the books and articles I'm reading.

So, to begin, a very quick link to and look at our first reading, on the favorite objects of Harvard professors: rich in personal meaning, these objects are pretty much all one-of-a-kind, even Jamaica Kincaid's bag of Mohave sand. After all, no random sampling of sand will have precisely that mix of granules ever again, or will have been gathered on that particular Mohave sojourn.

Does an object need to be unique to be favored or loved?* How is Professor Hu's gallium arsenide model different from any other molecular model constructed from this particular off-the-shelf brand of teaching tool? The rust and wear on the model indicates its age and the fact it is being used well beyond its normal lifespan, so in one sense it is "vintage," having survived past its expected use-life. But it is a also tangible connection to her former research team.

All these objects evoke and preserve emotions, passions, and memories personal to the individual. Does an outside observer's recognition of the objects' beauty or worth depend upon these stories? Certainly, the observer is going to appreciate these objects on a vastly different, and perhaps lesser, level without the backstory.

What do we choose to save or preserve? What is the role of remembering or emotion in these decisions? How can we decide what to preserve in a world with multiple frames of reference for "value"? These are fascinating and fundamental questions to consider in collection curation, and in museum display, in object description and labeling.

*I'd like to look in future class sessions at the idea of value in mass-produced objects, or in objects designed expressly to be "collectible"; I have a feeling that William D. King's Collections of Nothing will be very useful in exploring these questions.

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Material Culture of 1970s Paranormal Researchers: "Into the Unknown," Reader's Digest, Part 2

Last week we looked at some great images from Reader's Digest's Into the Unknown from 1981. Here's the back half of that collection, similarly annotated.

Again, a lot going on in this set of photos. Legendary stage magician/professional and skeptic/debunker James Randi was everywhere in the 1970s, taking on famous psychics like Uri Geller and perpetrating hoaxes on those he considered too credulous. (Definitely advise you check out the recent documentary An Honest Liar.) Putting him in this book, which seems to fall more on the "believer" side seems a bit counterintuitive, but hey, whatever. Ingo Swann was one of the researchers at SRI who pioneered remote viewing research with Project Stargate. That photo of the young woman in the top right features a reaction clock made of 12 lights; I believe it appears on an episode of In Search Of... I plan on looking at in this feature. And at the bottom, not sure what this "testing/recording device" is, but it looks EEG/polygraph-ish.
John Taylor was a physicist influenced by Uri Geller to look for evidence of psychokinesis. In his research at University of London, he believed that some of the children subjects of his experiments could alter objects sealed inside glass tubes (another form of "spoonbending"). James Randi found the tubes were easily tampered with and by the end of the decade Taylor believed there were no grounds for believing in the supernatural.
I love the design of that random number generator! Not sure if those are technically Nixie tubes, but they're close enough. Helmut Schmidt was a physicist-turned paranormal researcher at the Rhine Institute who tried to determine if psychics could influence random events like radioactive decay. This all grew out of earlier experiments under Rhine himself where dice were rolled and psychics attempted to use TK to affect the results.
Alex Tanous is pictured on the opposite page, not provided here. Here's the main thing I want to know about that "target image"; why is the American Society for Psychical Research using Anubis as a psychic out-of-body projection target image?? Is this some Swan Station countdown clock hieroglyphics stuff here?
Karlis Osis was also at ASPR in the 1970s as director of research, and he worked on out-of-body and near-death experiences.
Here is Ingo Swann's remote viewing/out-of-body projection being tested at ASPR with a couple of pop-art-looking paintings hidden on a high shelf.
Elmer Green was another pioneer in biofeedback, the belief that the human body could control many of its involuntary and autonomic functions. Biofeedback as practiced in these laboratories in the 1970s required precise measurement of all kinds of autonomic functions, like nerve response and heartbeat. Kenneth Greenspan was a psychiatrist who used biofeedback techniques in treating anxiety and stress; he became the head of Columbia Presbyterian's Center for Stress-Related Disorders in the early 1980s. 

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Material Culture of 1970s Paranormal Researchers: "Into the Unknown," Reader's Digest, Part 1

I may not have spoken in these pages before about how much I love that 1970s moment where science and pseudoscience start inexorably creeping towards each other, and the visual and material culture that results from it. I have mentioned in these pages how much the DHARMA Initiative from the TV series Lost just nails that exact period and trend, and to be honest, the creators and writers of Lost must have had that same obsession as kids of the '70s.

For a short period, as the Age of Aquarius rose over America, serious researchers, sometimes even with connections to the defense industry, were looking in a sober way at elements of the paranormal which could be tested in laboratories: ESP, clairvoyance, biofeedback, all ways in which the human body could do things beyond the expectations of accepted science. Behind the Iron Curtain, this trend was replicated with the field of "psychotronics."

And here's the thing about that kind of research: a great deal of it could not be accomplished using existing experimental equipment! Oh sure, paranormal researchers in the '70s repurposed polygraphs and EEGs and all kinds of other devices meant to measure the human body's unseen reactions to the environment. But for this kind of... special research, bespoke measuring and testing equipment was sometimes needed!

And that's what this ongoing feature of Renfusa is going to be all about; these ephemeral pieces of paranormal research equipment. I'm going to present the images without too much comment so you can ooh and aah over them with me; they really do hit my sweet spot aesthetically and weirdness-wise. To be honest, I don't have a lot of knowledge on how these pieces of equipment were used other than the brief captions in the books I'll be using and the cursory verbal mentions in the pieces of filmed media I'll be screenshotting. I'd guess most of these custom machines are gone forever, lost down the plughole that so many of these researchers swirled down as we entered the rational 1980s.

This first set of photos is thanks to our esteemed Euergetas, who loaned me her childhood copy of Reader's Digest's Into the Unknown, a 1981 compilation of all kinds of New Age, paranormal, and Weird subjects. The rest of the book is really fantastic; a full-color walk through 5,000 years of pseudohistory, magic, and the unknown, but I wanted to concentrate on these labs where people were trying to quantify the unknown using machines that present the best and weirdest trends in 1970s design.

Electronic voice phenomena! It always feels like EVP can only be properly caught on big honking reel-to-reels like these. Hans Kennis has a website here (in Dutch) where you can see he still works with magnetic tape!
You'll see what kind of telepathic signal they were trying to send to this mustachioed gent further down the page. But for now, check out those ping-pong ball goggles, headphones, and electrodes!
The Zener cards are probably the single most famous piece of ESP research equipment. They're so well-known that even Dr. Peter Venkman uses them at the beginning of Ghostbusters (speaking of which, the Ghostbusters' university lab will probably end up being an entry in this series). Dr. J.B. Rhine, the man who invented them at Duke University's Parapsychology Laboratory with the help of the eponymous Karl Zener, pioneered scientific paranormal research at Duke.
Speaking of paranormal researchers in New York City colleges... Gertrude Schmeidler stands in front of a wall of wires of unknown purpose.
Oh, so much happening here. Olof Jonsson on the phone doing the Zener card test, an experiment at presumably the Rhine Research Center in Durham, North Carolina with a custom reaction machine, an EEG machine measuring alpha waves, and the Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp image our ping-pong-ball-eyed subject was trying to view, at the Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, home to many psychic experiments in the 1970s
Biofeedback was another of the psychic phenomena that researchers looked into in the 1970s; as stated above, the alpha wave was believed to be the key to a host of abilities.
This "witches' cradle," more properly termed the ASCID (Altered States of Consciousness Induction Device) was developed by Robert Masters and Jean Houston in 1973 to induce trance states. A few years earlier, they'd written The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience, one of the first encyclopedic looks at the effects of hallucinogens and psychedelic drugs.
This just reminds me of the "jump to conclusions" mat from Office Space. Robert Morris went on to lecture in parapsychology at the University of Edinburgh.
Cleve Backster is an interesting chap. He helped popularize the polygraph within the CIA until he decided to investigate how the polygraph might be used to sense the thoughts of plants. He would picture violently harming the plant and record what he perceived as an immediate response through the polygraph.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Il Cornicello e Il Malocchio

I haven't talked about my ancestry very much in these pages so far, but I'm half-Italian, half-Irish, a pretty common combination where I come from and a pair of ethnicities rich in both real and perceived myth and folklore. The Irish side, well, I wouldn't know where to begin there. But the Italian side, that's a little different. On the Irish side, I feel like people tend to consciously mythologize the occult, the supernatural, and the otherworldly, to narrativize and preserve it. But on the Italian side, all that folklore beats under the surface, unseen and unspoken of. It's just self-evident. You do things, you have rituals, and they just are. Remember when Fredo says a Hail Mary in Godfather II while he's fishing to get the fish to bite? It's that kind of thing. It's real folk belief and it's relatively unchanged since my ancestors came over to America 100 years ago.

The last few weeks, since my own podcast launched on iTunes, I've been attentively following the New & Noteworthy page of the TV and Film section of the iTunes store, for, well, obvious reasons. One of my favorite new podcasts I've found this way is "The Goodfellas Minute." I mean, that movie for me is one of the immortals, and this podcast, hosted by guys who grew up in and around the neighborhoods depicted in the movie, has been a real treat. They provide a lot of the cultural and historic and even geographical detail behind what's happening in the movie, along with a healthy respect for sausages and peppers, gangster shirt collars, and the lore of the Mafia (which does not exist, of course).

In today's episode, the guys mention how Paulie (Paul Sorvino) is wearing a gold chain with a cornicello pendant in the scene with the sit-down with Henry and restaurateur Sonny Bunz. So yeah, the cornicello and the evil eye. Let's talk about those.


First of all, while I grew up half-Italian and half-Irish, the neighborhood I grew up in was overwhelmingly Italian. I also spent a lot of my childhood traveling back to East Boston to my Italian grandparents' three-decker for Saturday gravy and cutlets. (And please. Let's not start a sauce vs. gravy argument here, okay? Henry Hill says gravy and sauce interchangeably when he's making meatballs while coked out of his mind, and that's good enough for me.)

Anyway, to get back to the cornicello, everywhere, and I mean everywhere, was the cornicello in East Boston and in Revere. I actually didn't see it a lot on neck chains but in houses, on keychains, and especially on rear view mirrors? Yes. I think dashboard saints had lost their vogue in the 70s and 80s and the cornicello, with its totemistic, male power* was the perfect car accessory, way more badass than fuzzy dice.

So why do you wear the cornicello? You wear it as an apotropaic ward against the evil eye.


Now, while I might not have understood the occult underpinnings of those weird little coral horns as a kid, I knew about the evil eye. Let's backtrack again, this time back to my own neighborhood. Our next-door neighbor was an Italian widow. And while she was apparently immensely wealthy, she spent most of her time in a shawl and hood, walking around the neighborhood, collecting cans and bottles. So of course the kids (and I have to be honest, even some of the adults) in the neighborhood characterized her as a witch.

There's a power in widowhood in Italian culture, right? Again, think back to the flashback portion of Godfather II, to Sicily, where Vito's mother, left widowed and childless (except for poor dumb Vito) by vendettas, attempts to take revenge on Don Ciccio? Yeah, badass. She's got nothing left to lose. And so the folk belief around the neighborhood was that you did not want to mess with our neighbor while she was walking her grocery cart around the neighborhood, because she knew how to put the evil eye on you.

Did I really believe it? Well, I don't know if I ever did because I was too young to fully understand this story while I was young, and too old to believe such nonsense by the time I was a teenager. I was in high school when she died, hit by a car while walking her cart near one of the most dangerous rotaries in my hometown, so the neighborhood legend went, and her presence still hangs over the house next door to this day. But to pick the evil eye out of all the things that this powerful, widowed woman could do to you... it's meaningful.

* The flip side of "wearing the horns" in Italian tradition, of course, is being cuckolded, and not only can the hand signal for giving the horns be a ward against evil eye but it can also signify you know the person you're pointing at has been cuckolded. So, you know, basically watch where you point that thing.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Five things I learned from The Marvelous Clouds: Toward an Philosophy of Elemental Media by John Durham Peters


1. This isn't the first book I've reviewed with an elemental theme; Electric Eden, about the 1960s and 1970s British folk revival also used the classical elements as an organizing principle. In Peters' case in The Marvelous Clouds, though, the element represents a medium and a study of the medium itself is the topic at hand. And the topics that Peters explores are a delightful, thrilling panoply of subjects: the modern reader will have a fairly one-dimensional view of the concept of media, but Peters starts at the root: a medium is something between two points. And from that basic supposition, he spins out a set of examinations of water, fire, air, and earth (well, really text) as media and what they tell us about the human condition. Peters recognizes a heavy debt to Marshall McLuhan and the other media theorists of the 1960s, and Peters definitely has that free-wheeling, free-associating feel of late-career McLuhan. One feels that Peters saying, "One reads McLuhan for sparks, not scholarship" is almost an apologia, but there's plenty of strong scholarship in The Marvelous Clouds.

2. I was first attracted to the book because of its Water chapter, which looks at the intelligence of cetaceans and how they deal with being an intelligence in the medium of the seas. It's an old saw, going back to the moment where humanity realized that whales and dolphins could join humanity as an intelligent species on Earth: if there was an alien species right on the world you call home, separated from you by a vast gulf, how would you recognize them? I suppose it's to humanity's credit that we eventually managed to recognize that the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence begins at home. It's no coincidence that John C. Lilly, probably the 20th century's most famous cetacean researcher, was part of SETI, and that Lilly dubbed these early ET researchers "the Order of the Dolphin." Peters looks at the history of man's interaction with cetaceans, right back to the ancient Greeks, who venerated them as holy to Apollo. Humanity's recognition of the dolphin's playfulness and sexual licentiousness (again, by human standards) is woven into these ancient myth-echoes. The deep dive (oops, pun) into what the unique physiology and circumstances of cetacean life has meant for the societies these beings have created is the kind of discussion that will dislodge your brain from an anthropocentric point of view and jostle it a little, which is a refreshing and honestly a little unsettling an experience.

3. The Fire chapter, though, was even more of a mindblower. The idea that the discovery of fire by humans began a relationship of humans to fire as a medium... it makes sense, doesn't it? In the last several thousand years of humanity's harnessing of captured solar energy in the form of fuels like wood, coal, and eventually oil, we have used our fire to write across the Earth in destructive ways. One intriguing theory Peters presents is that we have lost our respect for the power of fire by successively, over the years since the Industrial Revolution, hiding it and its immediate visual impact further and further away from our senses, first as steam engines, then as internal combustion engines, and finally in the 20th century world as electricity, in each iteration further and further from the hypnotic flame and smoke of the actual fire behind it all. The fire used to be a tangible, visible thing, at the center of a home, as a hearth. Now it is Vestal fire, according to Peters's source Stephen Pyne, in the secret occult meaning of the word. Also there is a litany of ways in which fire allowed humans to become literate; the caves of prehistoric cave paintings could only be seen by torchlight, the fact that ash has long been an ingredient in ink (and even is buried in the etymology of the word in English; "ink" comes from the same Greek root as "encaustic" and "holocaust"), and as far as the fire and light of visual media like heliographs, telegraphs, film, television, and modern computer screens.

4. The chapters on Sky reiterate a lot of things I already knew about how humans have used another form of media, the night sky, throughout history to create patterns, measurements of time, calendars. But even in this chapter I found a lot of thought-provoking implications. Peters intimates that the priesthoods which emerged in ancient societies go hand-in-hand with the apophenic tendencies of those who gazed into the skies. Making patterns out of random dots leads inexorably to making up stories and myths about the world around you. It's a powerful suggestion as to the roots of religion and how it relates to politics and conspiracy (as I may have briefly mentioned in Monday's post, it seems that the occult and espionage always seem to move in a path of collision). I honestly would have appreciated more material on the regimentation of time and how it's changed throughout history depending on our technology and culture, but there is a great digression about how much weather forecasting changed our world and is almost entirely indebted to the invention of the telegraph, which allowed for weather to be visualized and tracked across time and space in the analysis-, time-, and space-obsessed 19th century. Also another idle thought bubbles up about the use of human breath in the calls to prayer of Judaism (the shofar) and Islam (the voice) versus the clinical distance and technological ringing of bells in Christianity. Oh, also how clouds in 19th century painting no longer hold angels or God, they're just... clouds and that means that God is dying in the West. Sorry I keep zipping from idea to idea but again, the book is just filled with brief digressions like this that act like Zen koans and just slap you out of your worldview.

5. Peters finishes with a look at the history of text, books, the Internet, and eventually Google's outsized role in our modern media-consuming lives. Peters comes not to bury Google but to almost deify it; its role as the nearly-single arbiter of the world's library echoes other efforts throughout history to categorize and organize learning, but works on a level more complete and vast and universal than either the Library of Alexandria or Jorge Luis Borges could ever imagine. Merging with this feared omniscience is the idea that Google's algorithms are a simulation of the computer scientist's long-held dream/nightmare: the spectre of artificial intelligence. Google's ability to understand context as well as index and retrieve is the key. When you are finished with The Marvelous Clouds, you're going to come out looking at the things around you in a completely new and different way, and that is probably the strongest endorsement I can give it.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Five things I learned from reading America II by Richard Louv


1. I found this beauty at Cellar Stories Books in Providence while I was down there in August for NecronomiCon; this book has nothing to do with H.P. Lovecraft but everything to do with stuff I groove on: retrotech and historical accounts of the social impact of technology. I mean, just look at that cover. America II, published in 1983, is a look at the newly emerging living situations of Americans in the early 1980s as new technologies (telecommuting in its earliest forms) and housing arrangements (condos, neighborhood associations) came about in the early Reagan years. Richard Louv started this book while reporting for a San Diego newspaper; if there is any city that exemplifies his putative America II, it is the new gleaming Sun Belt Reagan-era military mecca of San Diego. America II is novel, full of previously-unseen and untried ways of doing things. Well then, what, you may ask, is America I? Louv tells us:
America I is made up of all those steel workers and middle managers so bewildered by a society that, more each day, does not seem to need them. America I is once-vibrant big cities, big labor unions, auto workers, public swimming pools, railroads, New Deal politics, and the freestanding single-family home... America I is all those people left behind outside the gates (Louv xi-xii).
Those of you who have been listening to my podcast will note these are the hobby horses that our esteemed Mercator Lucis and I have been working through in our look at a sitcom from this crucial Carter-Reagan period. While there is a powerful sense of nostalgia in this and other statements of Louv's for America I, he notes the irony that many of the Americans who are pioneering America II are just as nostalgic for the peace and harmony and concord of their own homogenous upbringings, a powerful need for safety in the aftermath of the upheaval of the 1960s, which again is a topic I've been super interested in lately.

2. "If Americanism is a religion, then nostalgia is its liturgy." With this statement, Louv explores further the idea of America II using the technology of the future to recreate a (relatively unreal) past. Baby Boomers starting families in the late 70s and early 80s sought to recreate a suburban environment that did not exist anymore. The Happy Days era they idealized was gone forever. Merging with this nostalgia-fueled urge for safety were the panoply of "lifestyle choices" offered by the "Me Decade" of the 1970s. Countercultural impulses were rehabilitated into the mainstream through connecting media like the personal computer revolution, which was bubbling under the surface in America II's 1983. Louv was prophetic to see this revolution this early having an impact on how people live, work, and shop. The people who would've been suburbanites in the 1950s could now turn to exurbs, self-sufficient communities distant from major metropolitan centers. Is it merely white flight? Well, that is certainly a significant component of this exodus away from the cities and out to the wide open spaces of the Sun Belt. But Louv goes a step further, asking not only what will these new "urban villages" look like, but what will happen to the old cities? While his predictions handwaved the prominence of gentrification in the next two decades, he did foresee the long death of industrial city centers.

3. Louv sees the tendency for the privileged to bunker down into an increasingly privatized landscape: gated communities with private security forces, major metropolitan areas (like Houston) which dispensed with most public services and relied on a single economic sector to propel its growth, sprawling metroplexes dominated by the automobile and air conditioning, two technologies that allowed for settlement of the Sun Belt. Decentralizing technologies allowed for human communities to not only sprawl, but disconnect from any social commons. The neighborhood associations which have become the butt of jokes about fascist lawn standards (memorably parodied a decade or so later in a classic X-Files episode) are seen here as ways for the anxious settlers of, in Louv's words, "capitalist communes" to "control thy neighbor." The urban counterpart of the neighborhood association, the condominium, also places sometimes-onerous restrictions on the inhabitants. The dream of the single-family suburban home, Louv tells us repeatedly, is dead in 1983. Louv also examines rural re-settlers of the "L.L. Bean" variety; wealthy liberal city dwellers seeking to rediscover their WASP ancestry in the small woodland towns of New England.

4. The chapter titled "The Company as Cult" looks at the all-in-one corporate campuses of Silicon Valley, which in the early '80s were pioneering some of the work practices that we would find common today in the Facebooks and Googles of the world (on-the-job lifestyle perks, flex hours) combined with the zaibatsu practices that were in vogue as the tech sector was finding itself in conflict and eventually concord with Japanese ways of doing business. Nowhere in either corporate "cult," Louv notes, is there a place for unions to protect workers' interests. On the flipside of this new corporate overlordship, individualistic (and libertarian) entrepreneurs are working from home, taking advantage of the proto-virtual technologies we take for granted today. But again, the ability to uproot and work for oneself needs a hefty helping of savings and investment more often than not borne of privilege and previously-established financial advantage.

5. Overall, it's startling how many trends Louv was able to see percolating in the American landscape of living and working in 1983; so many of his observations are essentially issues of inequality, corporate control, and substandard living environments that we can see have reached critical mass more than three decades later. Issues of infrastructure for dispersed populations are already evident in the America II of 1983; one could argue not a single politician (with the exception of the first two years of Obama's first term, and that was termed more a stimulus than a comprehensive infrastructure plan) since Reagan has comprehensively addressed these worries. Louv asserts that the mobility, both geographic and occupational, of Americans in this new era will require support from the federal government to help people retrain and relocate if necessary. Such warnings weren't heeded, and America I definitely did get left behind, while America II grew, cancer-like, across the landscape.