Posted on 2017/10/21 by

Since the beginning of this class, and more generally of my university career, I have been more interested in the studying of studying than the study content itself. I have spent more time thinking about why we are studying Milton and Shakespeare in Introduction to Literature than reading the works of the authors themselves. In class, I am often guilty of paying more attention to who is speaking, in what order, for how long, with what tone than listening to what is actually being said.

In this classroom, I have noticed a general state of anxiety worth investigating. Just last week, Penelope shared her anxiety about the boxes and few other students voiced a similar feeling. I myself felt anxious in this class at several occasions for various reasons. At the beginning, in September, when I started my master, I was anxious and questioning my place in university. After one year of absence, academic jargon sounded void and appeared performative. I wondered, if I have so many problems with the institution, why am I back here? Why am I doing this to myself?

As I am coming to term with my place in university again, I am more engaged with the material and the source of my anxiety has shifted. I am now anxious about the non-functionality of the books, the room, the collection and the institutional motives behind it.

In the frame of the university, the collection – rather than the books individually – is what matter. What to make of the books then? The books, mostly unannotated, and ordered differently than in Richler’s house, don’t say much about the man, the writer. I see the 20 copies of Barney’s Version and can’t help wondering why they can’t be distributed to the students who need to read it in the Quebec/Montreal Literature class. As a book collector myself, I must agree with Benjamin when he writes: “the true freedom of all books is somewhere on [the collector’s] shelves” (64). The books – out of their original context – appear encapsulated within the walls of the institution – dead. They are unlikely to be read from cover to cover; to be traded; annotated. In my collection, I know each individual book, where they are from, who recommended to me, how much I value the taste of the person who recommended the book to me, which significant passages are in which books, underlined in which color, with what comment next to it. I use them as support, as source of knowledge, when I talk, when I write. I use them comfort myself.

Richler’s current collection and my collection have little in common to the point where I became uncertain about what a collection was. I was uncertain about what becomes of a collection when the collector dies and is therefore completed. Baudrillard reminds us that “the collection is never initiated in order to be completed” (13). What does this accumulation of books represent now within the walls of the university? Is it still a collection? Why is the university deploying resources (faculty members, money, space…) to archive Richler’s ordinary books i.e. not rare? The Richler’s rooms make apparent Benjamin’s point that “the phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner” (67). The room looks unfinished even though a considerable effort has been done to recreate Richler’s work environment – unsuccessfully. The clash between Richler’s massive wooden desk and the stack of the university’s cheap plastic chairs highlights the differences between the domestic and public spaces as production of knowledge. In contrast to Richler’s office space in Magog, the university appears like a hostile and uncomfortable place for learning where knowledge, like the contemporary plastic chairs, is massively and cheaply produced.

Cara Krmpotich’s article “Teaching Collections Management Anthropologically” alleviated my anxiety by illuminating a purpose to this room – I had not considered – as a teaching tool. The setting of this class has, so far, considerably fostered my reflection on the politics of archive and collection. Richler’s room, as an object of study “ introduces ethical and logistical dilemmas, […] raises self-awareness and reflectivity of the institution as a whole, the role of collection in particular, and the relations among the staff and stakeholders” (113). I am enlightened to have found a function to this room but I am still concerned about the cultural politics of it. We can criticize the power structures of the university from a feminist or postcolonialist perspective all we want but, in the end, it is the material we engage with that reflects the values of the university. First and foremost, the university insures the physical existence of a selection of books and also maintain their significance through time. While we were taught that an indicator of a chef-d’oeuvre is its resistance through time, we have overlooked the institutions that have helped maintained certain works alive – both materially and intellectually – and the motives behind it.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. “This Non-Functional System, or Subjective Discourve.The System of Objects. Trans. James Benedict. London / New York: Verson, 1992. 71-105

Benjamin, Walter. “Unpacking My Library.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 1968. 59-67. 

Krmpotich, Cara. “Teaching Collections Management Anthropologically.” Museum Anthropology. 38. 2: 112-122.

Posted on 2017/10/20 by

No home row and loose keys or, when,“old media become the content of newer media”

I bout my McBoo Pro O 10.7.5 in 2012. I bout te computer tuent in rpic ein. I w in prorm t Concori tt wou tec me te principe, rue, n bic o te obe C6 uite, web ein n ome vertiin.

ere we re in te o 2017. I prepre to enter Concori Mter’ tuent o creative writin in eprtment o Eni, te etter rom my eybor ben to I. irt I w . Te etter .

Te etter . No .
Te etter . No .
Te etter . No .

ometime I cou pre te renc nue option on my eybor n I’ be be tocce one more ey.

Ti I meninu moment or me ince te eybor one o muc or me over te yer. It urvive pi o ppe uice. It epe me ein coupe webite, penty o poter n yer n to expre mye viuy n wit etter.

T te beinnin o my creer mter’ tuent, I in tt te etter re in wy. It’ iy romantic tin n I now te McBoo Pro ut cnnot continue. It cnnot upport me in wor or coe ie it ue to.

Te entire mie row o te eybor no oner wor. My ubn owe me two vieo on te McBoo eybor tt uet wy to ix tem wen broen. Te irt I wi try I to it te T ey ive time in row. Tt mit o te tric.

Te econ ve n inventory o te ne eybor n on ow to cen it. I wi try it we. Te computer crrie me trou o muc over te pt ive yer. It has wore r or me. I m sa to ee it flal aprt n ope tht one o tee operation w ep.

Wi me uc!

Old laptop + new laptop

The above text is a micro memoir on the life of the keyboard belonging to my 13” MacBook Pro from late 2011.The keys from the middle row of the keyboard began to fail in the summer of 2017. While the computer itself works, albeit slowly, something upon the computer’s logic board does not function and connect to generate a representation of language in my attempts to use the keyboard letters: a, s, d, f, g, h, j, k and l.

Put another way, the malfunction of the laptop keyboard is worthy of investigation from a media archaeological perspective. Looking to Wolfgang Ernst, the failed keyboard contains “frozen media knowledge,” that’s primed to be “unfrozen” and “liquefied.” As a media archaeologist, I will not literally melt down the failed keys. Instead, I’ll talk about the fractured keyboard parts together by blending the approaches from several media archaeological thinkers.

Two of the four categories Wanda Strauven developed, “The Old in the New: From Obsolescence to Remediation” and “Ruptures and Discontinuities: Foucault’s Legacy” resonate well in this scenario. Within “the Old in the New”, Strauven calls on McLuhan’s law of obsolescence where, “old media become the content of newer media and, thus, lose their initial novelty and effectiveness.” The gaping text I wrote which you just looked at bears no effectiveness and none of the initial novelty and excitement it would have had to me as when I first purchased the computer in early 2012.

While the malfunction is plausibly a simple and resolvable failure of the logic board, it brought inconvenience to communication in the context of my life – as student, writer, and designer and the economies attached to each post I hold. Still, I re-purpose the keyboard and laptop for a new relationship and a kind of new media.

Screen shot from YouTube video, “How to Fix Any MacBook Keyboard” by Save Apple Dollars website.

Why continue to work with a broken keyboard? Because when Strauven points to out that “the principle of remediation is often taken for granted in recent media historical research,” I want to think more deeply into this relationship we as computer-users have to the life-cycle of a computer (or any other similar device): from newness and novelty, to malfunction, repair, waste and renewal through purchase of a new device. Remediation is defined as “the action of remedying something, esp the reversal or stopping of damage to the environment.

You’ll see on the slide here a screenshot from a Youtube video by “Save Apple Dollars” called “How to fix any Macbook keyboard.” In a Foucauldian sense, I question the power relationship between laptop makers and marketers and literally seek remediation out of obsolescence. When Strauven talks about “Ruptures and Discontinuities: Foucault’s Legacy,” and Erikki Huhtamo, I believe this is an example of an approach that “emphasizes cyclical rather than chronological development, recurrence rather than unique innovation.” When it comes to laptops and other handheld devices, the “gaps and absences, silences and ruptures” of the materials we use in view of consumption and the environment resonates as much as John Cage’s silence.

The letter D on my keyboard became loose after I tried to repair it following instructions from the YouTube video “How to fix any MacBook keyboard.”

This resonates too, when Jussi Parrika asks how we can “rethink familiar media technologies in new material constellations and in ways that lead to new modes of using, consuming and institutionalizing media.” Despite the ingenuity and importance of my old MacBook Pro, it has been designed for “cradle to grave” rather than for “cradle to cradle” use, as design thinkers William McDonough & Michael Braungart argue in their book “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the way we make things.”

Etch-A-Sketch engine drawing. Credit: Les Chatfield.

Etch-A-Sketch engine drawing. Credit: Les Chatfield. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

As potential piece of my own archive of home e-waste and old, dead laptops, I look the MacBook Pro with some of the whimsy in the spirit of Walter Benjamin and his own library collection. Throughout the process of preparing this probe, I personified my old and my new laptop side by side. Told them to get along as they sat side by side on the table. Imposed the meaning of time in my own life on the laptops – out with the old, in with the new, as we say. In this instance, the whimsy can be carried only so far. To problematize the life cycle of the laptop following Friedrich Kittler’s hardware media theory has a place in this conversation. There’s a quality of the invisible with the popular marketing and consumption of computer hardware and software that stands to be liquified. In addition, the inscription of writing material can stand to be erased, shaken up, and re-worked.

Works Cited
Ernst, Wolfgang, and Jussi Parikka. Digital Memory and the Archive. 39 Vol. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. Electronic Mediations Web.

Strauven, Wanda. “Media Archaeology: Where Film History, Media Art and New Media (Can) Meet” in Preserving and exhibiting media art: challenges and perspectives. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2013. Web.

McDonough, William, and Michael Braungart. Cradle to Cradle :Remaking the Way we make Things. New York: North Point Press, 2002. Web.

Parikka, Jussi. What is Media Archaeology?. Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2012. Web.

Posted on 2017/10/19 by

The Future Collection: A Troubling

In the article “Teaching Collections Management Anthropologically” Cara Krmpotich describes the information technology and Coach House objects that she and her researcher Robyn Watt had assembled into a teaching collection. Krmpotich passingly remarks on it as resembling “what might be in a collection of the future: objects that will be historic decades from now”(114). The statement is made casually, but when examined it seems to hold a fair amount of weight, and to express a sentiment or a relationship. Note that this article was published in 2015. The objects that she is referring to are:

mostly outdated information technologies[…] VHS players, DVDs, USB keys, floppy disks, laptops, photographic negatives, desktop computers, video and audio recorders, radios, 8-track, digital scanners, cassette tapes, wax cylinders for phonographs, old Kodak cameras, laser printers, extension cords, and an overhead projector. (Krmpotich,114)

It immediately strikes me that this statement of futurity expresses a feeling of anachronism. The presence of this collection as a collection of technological/etc. objects of the near, but in some cases not that near, past evokes for the observer a particular sentiment, of their being outside of their proper time, a collection of the future whose objects, it seems implied, are obscured, which are novel in arrangement and the multi-source nature of their material pieces. As collector, Krmpotich feels dislocated from what she has arranged.

Darko Suvin, in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, defines SF as “a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment” (7-8). It seems that Krmpotich views her collection as almost science fictional, that it is (or at least should be) a part of a world yet to come, whose norms are not revealed, and as she attempts to wrangle with it feels distant from it.

Now in a way, this perception of the teaching collection as “of the future” is both accurate obscuring:  it will not in the future exist as it does now/did then when she wrote the article, or when she initially assembled the collection. Sure. This perception, this anachronism, estrangement, is perhaps also an affect of it’s cold machinic gaze, the work of media archaeography that the objects themselves embody(Ernst 67).  But at a very pratical level, the “futurity” of the collection may just be a matter of a void left by a non-present vocabulary. She touches on this later in the article:

Applying the standard to the collection of information technology objects brought home the limitations for more recent objects of classificatory structures and terminology largely based upon historic artifacts failed to adequately capture these mass-produced, assembled-in-multiple-countries objects. (Krmpotich 116)

This anachronism/estrangement that Krmpotich experiences are indirect recognitions, or the sentimental responses to an object or objects for which one has no vocabulary of classification or categorization, or at least an undeveloped one.

So then, what Krmpotich and her “future collection” point to is the difficulty of classifying something that is both from near (culturally) and elsewhere (as a mechanically produced commodity), for which the vocabulary or categorizations are still developing. She’s simultaneously seeing her objects as punctuated, and not. A weird liminal space is perhaps created by lacking vocabulary.

I think we can see and look into these difficulties of classification if we take Prown’s categores and take, for example, the GB BOY Colour. This is a cloned Game Boy Colour created by a Chinese company called kong feng.

Do we classify it by it’s chassis, a transparent purple matte plastic? Is the transparent case decorative, utilitarian? It’s case is a deviation from the “original” grey—is that decorative? Do we classify it by it’s custom SoC (System-on-a-Chip), and it’s containment of 66×3 games (that’s right: it contains the same 66 games, three times)? These include “classics” like Mario Bros. and Contra, but also include various Chinese games. The games are listed in English, but also have Chinese characters that appear as I scroll through them. What’s more, it’s also, generally, compatible with “normal” Gameboy Colour cartridges. Do we classify it by it’s mimicry, as a clone of the original Nintendo Gameboy? Could we take from Prown’s categories: is it a diversion, or a device? (Prown, 3) Is it a modified/cloned diversionary emulation device (with cartridge compatibility)? How do we deal with these sorts of devices that are deviations from an “authorized” or “authentic” original, not only as clones but as modified or improved (the GB Boy colour has a backlit screen noted for it’s being an improvement over the original; but we can see thanks to the transparent case that it’s IR sensor, functional in a Nintendo Gameboy Color, is completely non-existent in the GB Boy.) How do we categorize this object?

A derivative object could be both an adjective, and a noun. As an adjective it invokes both the imitation of another work, as well as value stemming from variability. As a noun, it invokes an arrangement based on another source.  These invocations need not be negative, need not be derogatory. Finally, a poetic relation to Krmpotich’s “future” collection: derivative futures, whose value is based upon the performativity of underlying entities (“Derivatives”).  The derivative (perhaps we would say derivative device?) is a future instance of the object it stems from, containing both the possibilities of the original and future assets added through modification, improvement, subtraction, variation, multi-sourcedness. This is perhaps an initial step towards a larger vocabulary.

 

Works Cited

“Derivatives.” U.S. Department of the Treasury. https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/faqs/Markets/Pages/derivatives.aspx.  Accessed 18 October 2017.

Ernst, Wolfgang. Digital Memory and the Archive. Edited by Jussi Parikka, U Of Minnesota P, 2012.

Krmpotich, Cara. “Teaching Collections Management Anthropologically.” Museum Anthropology 38.2 (2015): 112-22.

Prown, Jules David.  “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method.” Winterthur Portfolio 17.1 (1982): 1-19.

Suvin, Darko.  Metamorphoses of Science Fiction. Yale University Press, 1979.

Posted on 2017/10/18 by

“World’s Greatest Dad”: The Ideological Work of the Richler Room Ephemera

In “Teaching Collections Management Anthropologically,” Cara Krmpotich details the iterative, multi-stage creation of a teaching collection for use by her Collections Management class at the University of Toronto. After briefly outlining the pedagogical importance of students’ embodied interactions with objects of material culture, Krmpotich discusses her initial challenge of not having a dedicated collection associated with her program when she began teaching at the University of Toronto. The subsection “Challenges, Part I” documents her first term teaching without a collection, instead using “objects brought in by students and random (though thoughtfully arranged) objects [she] could grab from home in order to try [their] hand[s] at cataloguing and identifying preventive conservation concerns and emerging challenges for the field” (113). While well intentioned, however, this makeshift, ad hoc collection does not work as Krmpotich hopes:

Still, the absence of a collection—of objects distinguished from “everyday life,” removed from general circulation—was a distinct challenge in my goal for students to embody collections management practices. When handling their own objects brought from home, students rarely changed their handling behavior. Objects obviously brought in for a lesson by the students or instructor, without recorded historic or artistic value, were not denaturalized enough … Within minutes, handling practices and collections behavior began to slide away from best practices toward everyday material culture interactions. (113, emphases added)

She continues, remarking that “[o]bjects brought from students’ homes also tended to have complete documentary information … in stark contrast to an ‘average’ museum record” (113) and, in addition, the “objects did not bear the traces or evidence of museum processes as fully accessioned museum objects do” (113). All of this leads Krmpotich to conclude, “[t]he brought-from-home objects failed to engender the necessary intellectual and bodily shifts from students useful for collections work and its subsequent theoretical deconstruction” (113). In the remainder of her article, Krmpotich is concerned both with creating a more suitable in-house teaching collection and with facilitating intra-university partnerships that allow for better collections management pedagogy.

In short, Krmpotich wants to denaturalize objects for pedagogical reasons, to “illuminate for students the rationale and methods of collections documentation and care” (114). Or, perhaps more fully stated, she wants to sufficiently denaturalize students’ objects in order to encourage pedagogically rich self-reflexivity regarding their subsequent naturalization within a museum collections context.

While this is certainly a pedagogically instructive exercise for Krmpotich and her students, the question remains open, however, as to how museums should handle this complex process of denaturalization and then (re?)naturalization within their (necessarily different) institutional contexts. This is of particular pertinence to museums that collect objects of material culture, specifically so-called “everyday” consumer commodities.

Simon J. Knell illustrates this point adroitly in “Museums, Reality, and the Material World,” using as an example Brian J. McVeigh’s work on Hello Kitty branded commodities and the sociology of consumption:

Take, for example, a simple purse with a Hello Kitty motif. Typical museum practice would perceive this as a late twentieth-century costume accessory which might be collected systemically recording individual and moment but never really thinking beyond that local context. For an adolescent girl, however, buying such a purse might also permit her to enter into a circle of friends. It also places her in a worldwide community of owners who share a relationship with this motif, and it also places her in a relationship to an older generation who are now courted by fashion houses using the motif to evoke nostalgia. If Hello Kitty becomes associated with a distinctive social group, then in a reflexive way it becomes representative of that group, and as a commodity it is surely then far more complex than the object a museum professional might perceive.

[…]

Marketing now not only sells such things [as the purse] but attempts to sell them by gaining sociological understanding of its audience. So what does a museum collect if it collects the purse? Just to collect it as an example of ‘today’ is to get drawn into an unacknowledged illusion. The owner of the purse is in fact part of global business, her tastes captured and reflected. Consumption here represents a sophisticated symbiosis between identity and big business … Thus, the association between the thing and its owner is not as museums tend to read it. (18, emphases added)

What Knell is emphasizing here is the multiplicity of meanings that a material (commodity) object can have in its pre-museally-(re)naturalized state, and the profound challenges that face museum professionals to, firstly, become aware of those meanings, and, secondly, once aware, to consider how or in what ways those meanings can be captured as the object is (re)naturalized in its new museum collections context.

For Knell, this is also, inevitably, related to questions of loss in museum collections:

As a captured fragment of context, we understand [an object’s] imperfections but counter these with a belief that in capturing the thing we also hold something of untapped and unrecognized potential. In other words, we have collected less than was there, but we have also collected more than we know! However, almost immediately we begin to lose what we have acquired as the object becomes naturalised within its new museum context: ‘A naturalized object has lost its anthropological strangeness. It is in that narrow sense desituated – members have forgotten the local nature of the object’s meaning or the actions that go into maintaining and recreating its meaning’ (Bowker and Star 299). The losses we are willing to accept in our ‘museumisation’ of things are quite remarkable … to believe we can collect and keep without loss is to suffer an illusion, even if we don’t kill and stuff the object or put it in a museum. (25, emphasis added)

These meaning losses – degradations and subsequent re-(/over?)-inscriptions of meaning[1] – should be of great interest to us in our course, thinking self-reflexively, as we are, about research collections – both their establishment and maintenance – and working, as we are, with objects of consumer culture like video game consoles, their peripherals, and, as book history specialists would remind us, trade bound books.

Interestingly, however, it is perhaps the smallest objects in the Richler Room that can prove to be the richest to contemplate in the terms above sketched. Placed crucially on the writer’s desk, these seemingly insignificant “knick-knacks” do their own kind of naturalized/ing ideological work, constructing a bureau-like verisimilitude that subconsciously subjectifies and predetermines the role of the viewer. While, like Knell’s example of the Hello Kitty purse, we may not be entirely aware of these objects’ exhaustive meanings as commodities[2] circulating as naturalized in consumer culture, their liminal positioning – and, significantly, the cumulative/collaborative(/conspiratorial?) work that they do together as composite – in the Richler Room allows them to be both museally artifactual, but also “alive” in the (prescribed) present of the subjectified viewer (“Look at this messy, living, working desk – just like yours!”).

One object that exemplifies ephemera’s liminal positioning in the Richler Room is a simple see-through, blue-lettered “World’s Greatest Dad” plaque (hereafter referred to as WGD plaque). The WGD plaque is, itself, part of a collection of items that arrived (as donated) in a wooden document inbox. In turn, the items in this wooden document inbox comprise part of a larger lot of items bearing the label/categorization “Box #43,” which reflects the serial process that Richler’s possessions underwent in their transfer to storage, and, finally, to Concordia University.

Here is how the plaque appears in the collection’s appraisal documentation (done by The Word’s Adrian King Edwards in August 2014, following the collection’s initial inventory at Peerless Clothing in June/July 2013), as part of the contents of the wooden document inbox: “Wooden Document In Box [sic] with miscellaneous desk realia including: 2 metal letter openers in leather holders, stapler[,] cigars in ziplock bags, eraser, clips, World’s Greatest Dad plaque, Davidoff tobacco box, wolf [sic] Krakowski CD, film negatives, matchbook covers, etc. [further cataloguing required].”

The wooden document inbox containing “World’s Greatest Dad” plaque as part of “Box 43” appraised by Adrian King Edwards.

I also had Research Assistant Sean Gallagher help me find (and, importantly, not find) the WGD plaque in various Excel spreadsheets associated with the Richler donation.

“Box 43 and Box 157” spreadsheet showing wooden document inbox contents description identical to appraisal document.

Gallagher showed me the spreadsheet, “Box 43 and Box 157”(creation date: 26 August 2016) on the collection Dropbox that duplicates The Word’s appraisal description verbatim. Due to this, the WGD plaque is present as part of the wooden document inbox’s contents. However, in a spreadsheet entitled “Box 43” (creation date: 4 August 2017), this is the description of this same “Document Inbox with miscellaneous desk realia” under its specific “Scope and content note”: “Desk realia includes: Wolf Krokowski ‘Transmigrations’ CD, 2 metal letter openers in leather holders, Acco stapler, Montecristo and Partagas cigar each in ziplock bag, paper and binder clips, Davidoff tobacco box, film negatives and matchbooks.” While more detailed than King Edwards’ appraisal in some ways (note Krokowski’s CD title, stapler brand, cigar brands), the WGD plaque notably disappears from this description.

“Box 43” spreadsheet showing “Scope and Content Note” for wooden document inbox lacking mention of “World’s Greatest Dad” plaque.

This is the way that Gallagher was able to account for these discrepancies in our correspondence on 17 October 2017:

I would say that the first inventory [at Peerless Clothing in June/July 2013] is what the appraisals [done by The Word’s Adrian King Edwards in August 2014] were made off of, while the current box inventory [“Box 43”] is trying its best to reflect what’s actually in the boxes 4 years later. Best guess about the plaque is that it was forgotten in the 2017 box inventory [“Box 43”] because it had become a permanent desk fixture and the “Box 43 and Box 157” file has been reopened in an attempt to return missing items to their rightful boxes. (emphasis added)

What is curious about the WGD plaque’s simultaneous presence and absence in the space’s very working documents is that it reifies the room’s own ambiguous, noncommittal approach to the (re)naturalization of its consumer commodity objects as museally artifactual, expressing, as Dr. Camlot summarized in my correspondence with him, the reality that “there has been no official decision about what items from the collection to showcase on the desk, up to now.” In the same way that the WGD plaque is both present and not to the room’s documents, the same can be said of its ideological work being both present – subjectifying the room’s viewer – while being elided as insignificant, “everyday,” knick-knack ephemera. In contrast to Krmpotich’s objects, sufficiently denaturalized and subsequently self-reflexively (re)naturalized within the (pedagogical) museum context, Richler’s knick-knacks blur these categories in an intellectually productive way perhaps analogous to how the Richler Room itself mediates between categories. Is it, as Concordia’s website states, the Mordecai Richler Reading Room? Or is it, as the domain of the recently launched catalogue attests, the Richler Library? These different terms bring with them ideological baggage – along with attendant approaches to collection access and preservation – and their simultaneous usage reminds us of this particular collection’s inherent ambiguity.

[1] Most literally through the process of cataloguing, as Krmpotich touches on when discussing teaching students content management system software, and encouraging them to question its categorical logic (116-7).

[2] Indeed, one of the lurking questions in Knell is what it would even mean to know these meanings exhaustively, or if that would be possible for even the most attuned/knowledgeable museum professional.

Works Cited

Camlot, Dr. Jason. Email correspondence. 17 Oct. 2017.

Gallagher, Sean. Email correspondence. 17 Oct. 2017.

Knell, Simon J. “Museums, Reality, and the Material World.” Museums in the Material World. Ed. Simon J. Knell. New York: Routledge, 2007. 1-28.

Krmpotich, Cara. “Teaching Collections Management Anthropologically.” Museum Anthropology 38.2 (2015): 112-22.

Posted on 2017/10/17 by

Game Boy: Bridging Cultures (North America & Mexico) or Game Portability and Enjoyment in the Times of Nostalgia

For the following presentation, I have employed the method that proposes Jules David Prown in Mind in Matter, beginning with a short description of the object in question; then moving to the deduction stage to finalize with speculation.

(Show a picture of the Classic GB + Original Packaging (1989) from “History of Consoles”)

Before your eyes, you have a grey brick labelled as Nintendo Game Boy. Beginning with the upper side, you can see the power switch. On the front panel, there is a liquid crystal screen (LCD) coloured in green olive. On top of it, a grey frame is protecting it. On the left-hand side of the frame, there is also a lightbulb and a sign that reads “BATTERY.” On the left-hand side, there is the external power supply jack, and the contrast dial for the screen; whereas, on the right-hand side, there is the volume dial, along with the extension connector and cover used for two-player games. Proceeding with the rear view of the Game Boy, the upper side shows an aperture; whereas the lower side shows the battery cover area. All in all, Nintendo Game Boy is made up of plastic, metal, rubber and glass.

But what’s so special about the GB, you may ask? Well, the Game Boy reminds me of the “Tetris Brick Game.”

(Show a picture of the “Brick Game” from Chubby Tree)

Around the year 1990, owning and playing with a brick game was quite popular in Mexico, due to the release of the Game Boy only the year before. To a certain extent, the TBG was a substitute to those who could not afford a GB or were addicted to playing Tetris. When I was younger I had one GB just like the one in the picture. It was heavy to carry around (for it ran with four AA’s,) and too big to hold it with one hand. The first game I played with it was “Tiny Toon Adventures 2: Montana’s Movie Madness.” The stereo sound was okay, but not great considering that most T.V. sets featured an involving surrounding sound during that time. The graphics were not that great either; they were not in color, compared to arcade games I used to play with. I also had trouble playing at certain types of light and when it was dark, too. Still, it was my first Game Boy, so I appreciated it for its portability and its capability to make me dive into other imaginary worlds when I was bored. Now, stepping back in time, the Game Boy sold in 1989 is more than an object or a commodity for personal entertainment as it was for Canada or the U.S.A.; the GB is also an event, one of many forces of globalization, individualization, and technology advancement. It is an active appropriation of values for developing countries. I would argue that, on the one hand, the event named Game Boy, for Mexico represents the beginning of a process known as cultural hybridization in young boys and adolescents; ;whereas, the arrival of the GB, in the U.S.A., on the other hand, sets the tone for the eventual establishment of technological gadget culture.

Chris Barker defines the term cultural hybridization as a process by which cultures around the world embrace a variety of traits coming from another culture, while still holding their own traditional culture (298.)

Play Game Boy Commercial on Youtube (30 seconds)

Arcade games, the Atari and the NES had provided until 1989 Mexican teenagers with ways of interacting with other forms of entertainment. In 1989, arcade games were already popular in Mexico City. They were introduced in the early 80s. Convenient stores would rent arcade games to increase the sales of their products. Arcade games were varied, you could play games, like Mortal Combat, Street Fighter II, Snow-Bros and Super Mario, for only a few cents. Teenagers would gather outside these convenient stores to play with either neighbors, friends or complete strangers. Also, having a GB is a direct encounter with the North American entertainment and outlook through the ownership of this object. When Mexican teenagers adopt the GB, as their “object”, its continuous use adds the GB to the Mexican culture. Thus, the active key verbs are: encounter, adopt, use, and reinvent (yourself.)

Now, contextualizing the GB in the North American Market, I would suggest herein that the handheld console (1) becomes a commodity; (2) reinforces the idea of a thriving technological era; what is more, the T.V. commercial expresses and represents self-identify as a project (or imaginary fantasy) by processes of fantasy and self-invention, processes of “seeing oneself as” this or that. Visual imagery displays the processes of subjectivity and identity – phantasmic wish fulfillment (e.g. the boy mimicking the robot’s behavior and movements to become like the robot.) There exists a sense of decision, a way to incorporate fantasy into reality in a way that modifies reality (Bracher 123.)  All in all, one of the myriad interpretations there is contemplates that the GB, as a cultural object, is key of transition, training and socializing for young American men for its technological capabilities and the message the T.V. commercial deliver to their audience. Still, my interpretation is only one possible way of approaching the GB.

Concluding question/thought:

So, what do male teenagers living in Quebec, somewhere in the U.S.A. and Mexico City share in common besides puberty, considering that they do not share the same ethnicity? They share a common popular culture.

Works Cited

Barker, Chris. Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2012. Print.

Bracher, Mark “On the Psychological and Social Functions of Language: Lacan’s Theory of the Four Discourses,” Lacanian Theory of Discourse: Subject, Structure and Society, ed. Bracher (New York: NYUP, 1994) 107-28.

History of Consoles: Nintendo Game Boy (1989) http://gamester81.com/history-of-consoles-nintendo-game-boy/

NINTENDO Corporation “GameBoy + Tetris T.V. Commercial [1989]” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 13 August 2009. Web. 6 October 2017.

Posted on 2017/10/12 by

“Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts”: On Kittler, Nietzsche, and Richler’s Facit TP1

Wanda Strauven, in “Media Archaeology: Where Film History, Media Art, and New Media (Can) Meet,” stresses media archaeology’s debt to Foucault’s own archaeological work: “One could say that media archaeology starts where Foucault’s analyses end” (68). However, immediately following this remark, she cites Kittler’s incisive critique of Foucauldian archaeological methodology, an insight that proves central to Kittler’s analysis in Discourse Networks: 1800/1900 and that he states directly in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter’s introduction before proceeding with his analysis of the titular technologies. Here are his comments on Foucault’s methodology, putting Strauven’s italicized excerpt in a bit more of its context:

And Foucault, the last historian or the first archaeologist, merely had to look things up. The suspicion that all power emanates from and returns to archives could be brilliantly confirmed … A tautology of history, or its calvary. For the libraries in which the archeologist found so much rich material collected and catalogued papers that had been extremely diverse in terms of addressee, distribution technique, degree of secrecy, and writing technique—Foucault’s archive as the entropy of a post office. Even writing itself, before it ends up in libraries, is a communication medium, the technology of which the archeologist simply forgot. It is for this reason that all his analyses end immediately before that point in time at which other media penetrated the library’s stacks. (5, emphasis added)

This characteristic phrase of “Kittlerese” – slightly maddening in its deliberately provocative understatement – ran through my head as I encountered Richler’s typewriters (and, crucially, their placement) in the Richler Room.

For Kittler, the typewriter – along with the gramophone and film – forms part of the Edisonian media world of his later Discourse Network 1900 where, as Winthrop-Young describes, “new analog recording and storage technologies … challenged the alpha status of scriptographic production and typographic reproduction techniques of the Gutenberg Galaxy” (58). Some of these technologies (like the gramophone) even allowed us to differentiate data streams and record physical effects of the Real (meant to be read here, for Kitter, in a Lacanian sense), and, therefore, we were able to bypass, in Kittler’s terms, the “bottleneck of the signifier” (4) that was indicative of the former “monopoly of writing” (4) as the sole technology for processing and storing these data streams.

In light of this new differentiation, clearly writing’s hegemony is subverted, but it is also more explicitly technologized through the invention of the typewriter in 1865 (in European accounts) or 1868 (in American accounts). In contrast to physical effects of the Real as registered by the gramophone, writing as explicitly technologized reveals itself to have always been Symbolic (again, very much in Lacanian terms). As Winthrop-Young and Wutz state, “[t]hought of around 1800 as a mysterious medium encoding prelinguistic truth, writing in the Age of Edison began to be understood as only one of several media possessed of an irreducible facticity” (xxv). They continue, “[i]n Mallarmé’s succinct phrase, ‘one does not make poetry with ideas, but with words,’ bare signifiers that inverted the logic of print as a vehicle of linguistic communication, and instead emphasized ‘textuality as such, turning words from means to ends-in-themselves’ (xxv-i). This recognition of writing as highly symbolic is prompted by it being further technologized, as the writer is also then confronted by the arbitrary materiality of signifiers: “Only the typewriter provides writing as a selection from the finite and arranged stock of its keyboard. It literally embodies what Lacan illustrated using the antiquated letter box. In contrast to the flow of handwriting, we now have discrete elements separated by spaces. Thus, the symbolic has the status of block letters” (Kittler 16).

Friedrich Nietzsche’s typewriter, a Malling-Hansen Writing ball, model 1878. Photo taken by Dieter Eberwein. Copyright: The Goethe and Schiller Archive, Weimar, Germany.

All of this frames the specific attention Kittler pays to Nietzsche in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter’s last section, specifically his analysis of the philosopher’s curious statement, in a letter from 1882, that “[o]ur writing tools are also working on our thoughts” (qtd in Kittler 200). For Kittler, extrapolating out from Nietzsche’s material, media-technological conditions writing on his Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, the philosopher’s metaphysical understanding of “inscription, which has degenerated into a poststructuralist catch-all metaphor, has validity only within the framework of the history of the typewriter. It designates the turning point at which communications technologies can no longer be related back to humans. Instead, the former have formed the latter” (211, emphasis added). Or, put slightly differently, “[w]riting in Nietzsche is no longer a natural extension of humans who bring forth their voice, soul, individuality through their handwriting. On the contrary: … humans change their position—they turn from the agency of writing to become an inscription surface” (210).

For me, there is a very productive dissonance that arises when I compare Kittler’s account of the typewriter – specifically, the (arguable?) technological determinism we find in his media-technological analysis of Nietzsche writing on his Malling-Hansen – with the way that the typewriter has come to signify in contemporary culture. Essentially, I would like to ask: what has happened to the profoundly agonistic account of typewriter writing that we find in Kittler?

Now elided as a site of contested human-technology interface, often instead it seems we choose to see the typewriter as an idealized site of writerly agency, even as a site of clarity, focus, or order, free from the invasive interruptions of our digital device interfaces. The typewriter’s aesthetic signifiers have become conflated with #typewriterpoetry and #typewriterpoems, hashtags that proliferate across social media, simultaneously disseminating the content of poetry – both newly written and quotes by others – but also material fetishism of a “supplanted” technology and for its posited authenticity.

Richler’s Facit TP1 typewriter with a file folder of his official letterhead.

Another of Richler’s typewriters in the room, an Underwood Standard No. 3, looming behind the writer’s desk atop a shelf.

I even experienced the seductive, orderly allure of the typewriter affectively as, under time constraints, I chose to “flee” the unknown, somewhat overwhelming world of consoles, their interfaces, and other components – to me, foreign objects and their myriad variants – at the Residual Media Depot, back to the cognitive order and intuitiveness of print culture at the Richler Room. As I entered the main room, I was calmed by the Author’s Desk and Typewriter, the site of agency and literary production. This was the room’s clearly signaled focus, but also, not insignificantly, the centre of the world that I was trained to recognize and think with and through.[1]

“The source of bestsellers,” as featured in Concordia University’s publication Mordecai Richler Reading Room: Concordia Honours a Literary Icon.

Concordia’s own branding/marketing for – and the resulting media coverage of – the Richler Room only further emphasize the Author’s Desk and Typewriter as its focus. The publication “Mordecai Richler Reading Room: Concordia Honours a Literary Icon,” dating from the room’s opening in November 2013, features Richler’s Facit TP1 (serial number: P233693) prominently in several photos, including a close-up of it on page 4 with the caption “The source of bestsellers” and two others (page 3 and page 9) of intimate family members and friends inspecting this “source” reverently. Pictures 3 and 12 in Christine Muschi’s photo essay for The Globe and Mail could, effectively, be #typewriter Instagram or Pinterest posts. Ann-Marie MacDonald’s “Dispatch 1: The Writer Settles In” begins with a still of typewriter keys and the sound of key clicks before it shows MacDonald examining Richler’s assorted possessions – including his chair, desk, and typewriter – stating, somewhat overwhelmed by this “legacy matrix” (1:32-3) of a room, “I don’t think I’m ready to sit there yet” (0:31-2).

“Florence and Jacob Richler inspect Mordecai’s typewriter,” as featured in Concordia University’s publication Mordecai Richler Reading Room: Concordia Honours a Literary Icon.

Kittler famously argues, in “There Is No Software,” “we do not write anymore” (147) on our computer word processing software. He continues, “after … lightning’s metamorphosis into electricity, manmade writing passes instead through microscopically written inscriptions, which, in contrast to all historical writing tools, are able to read and write by themselves” (147). Though Kittler’s take on user interfaces and the attendant obfuscation(s) of software is, admittedly, highly polemical, as Winthrop-Young identifies (75), could there be something in our current typewriter fetishism that has developed in response to our estrangement from being able to observe our “writing” – in this case, not just an estrangement from the longhand script technology of Kittler’s earlier Discourse Network 1800, but even from that of Discourse Network 1900’s typewriter? Now that, as Kittler says, “[w]e simply do not know what our writing does” (148, emphasis added), is this highly aestheticized typewriter fetishism our attempt to reclaim that verb through a (romanticized? sentimentalized?) focus on the visible material machinations and processes of “writing”?

Can a typewriter – and it “working on our thoughts” – simultaneously be, for Kittler writing on Nietzsche, illustrative of the start of “the transvaluation of all values” (200) in terms of humans’ relation to their technology, and, for us, somewhat like the aspirational Instagram writer’s equivalent of #liveauthentic (#writeauthentic?)? Do we have to choose?

[1] To the extent that literary criticism is ever explicit about its own methodology(/ies), as we have addressed already in class.

Works Cited

Concordia University. “Dispatch 1: The Writer Settles In.” YouTube, uploaded by Concordia University, 4 Nov. 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qm9yWOHzjjs. Accessed 11 Oct. 2017.

Concordia University. Mordecai Richler Reading Room: Concordia Honours a Literary Icon. Concordia University, 2013, concordia.ca/content/dam/concordia/aar/docs/our-publications/commemorative-booklets/mordecai-richler-album.pdf. Accessed 11 Oct. 2017.

Kittler, Friedrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Kittler, Friedrich. “There Is No Software.” Literature, Media, Information Systems. Ed. John Johnston. Amsterdam: Overseas Publishers Association, 1997. 147-55.

Muschi, Christine. “In pictures: Concordia University’s Mordecai Richler Reading Room.” The Globe and Mail, 27 Nov. 2013. https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/education/in-pictures-concordia-universitys-mordecai-richler-reading-room/article15645918/. Accessed 11 Oct. 2017

Strauven, Wanda. “Media Archaeology: Where Film History, Media Art, and New Media (Can) Meet.” Preserving and Exhibiting Media Art: Challenges and Perspectives. Eds. Julia Noordegraaf, et al. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2013.

Winthrop-Young, Geoffrey. Kittler and the Media. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011.

Winthrop-Young, Geoffrey and Michael Wutz. “Translators’ Introduction.” In Friedrich Kittler. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999. xi-xxxviii.

Posted on 2017/10/12 by

The Cold Gaze of the R.O.B.: Entangling Culture and Ernst’s Media Archaeology 

Wolfgang Ernst’s notion of “media archaeology” is intended as a radical challenge to what he sees as the implicitly anthropocentric tendency of media studies toward historical narrative. As he posits, media archaeology is “both a method and an aesthetics of practicing media criticism, a kind of epistemological reverse engineering, and an awareness of moments when media themselves, not exclusively humans anymore, become active ‘archaeologists’ of knowledge” (55). In the broadest sense, I think this move is an important one, as it pushes for a more serious engagement with the “non-human” agencies implicated in the production of culture. As he describes, “[m]edia archaeology adds to the study of culture in an apparently paradoxical way by directing attention (perception, analysis) to non-cultural dimensions of the technological regime” (61). What’s important to note here is this notion of “non-cultural” aspects of technology, which for Ernst is intended to gesture toward the “purely technological” and radically non-human element inherent in modern technology: the so-called “generative matrix” of code and digital signal lurking below the surface of every technological interface.

Of course, what Ernst reveals over the course of the chapter is that this turn toward technology as a methodology for understanding cultural production is not paradoxical at all, and that, in fact, “[b]y applying technomathematical analysis, media archaeology accesses the subsemantic strata of culture” (59). The key points to grasp here are that for Ernst, culture exists somewhere downstream from technology, cultural history is fundamentally handcuffed to the technological medium through which it is articulated, and media archeology is thus being presented as a methodology through which that technology can be engaged with directly and on its own terms. For Ernst, media archeology is meant to go beyond metaphorical or narrative interpretation of cultural production and just get right down to the bare mechanics, the “subsemantic strata” of the cultural apparatus itself.

What I like to draw attention to, though, is the way in which Ernst’s particularly narrow focus on technology might foreclose on a more complex examination of its relationship to the production of culture. We can ask ourselves: what epistemological assumptions are implicit in Ernst’s characterization of technology as a radically non-human mode of agentive enactment? What kind of knowledge can be produced within the “the cold gaze of the machinic eye” (67)?We can begin to get a sense of what is at stake through this line of questioning by juxtaposing Ernst’s media collection, the Media Archaeological Fundus, with the Residual Media Depot:

Here’s Ernst’s Media Archaeological Fundus

and here’s the Residual Media Depot

When we look at the two collections in tandem, what becomes clear is that while they are both collections of the same basic type of object (i.e., “media”), their respective approaches to this set of objects is radically different: where the Media Archaeological Fundus collects only the bare technology, the Depot, through its retention of all of the not-strictly-technological paraphernalia that accompanies any given bit of technology, suggests an approach to media that is broad, entangled and polyvalent: the collection is structured to suggest that, while the objects in the collection are technological, they are not exclusively so, but rather serve as points of contact for a broad range of cultural, economic, technological and political concerns. The importance of this polyvalent approach can be demonstrated by considering a particular item from the Depot’s collection:

R.O.B., or the Robotic Operating Buddy, was a short-lived peripheral for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Like the forms of media that Ernst examines, R.O.B. is a kind of archeological agent, performatively preserving the coded signal of the cultural moment from which it emerged. It embodies both the “cold gaze of the machine,” but also a complex array of cultural and economic anxieties that characterized Nintendo and the video game industry more generally at the moment of its production. As Leonard Herman observes, “[a]lthough R.O.B. was used to play some games, its basic purpose was that of a Trojan horse. Since electronic retailers did not seem to want anything to do with video game systems any longer [following the video game crash of 1983], Nintendo promoted R.O.B. as a toy to get the system into toy stores” (116).  To put that a little differently, R.O.B. emerges as a technological solution to what we might call econo-semantic problem: in a market weary of products termed “video games,” R.O.B. could convincingly position Nintendo’s latest platform as something else entirely. With this in mind, it’s tempting to read R.O.B.’s limited range of performative gestures as a kind of ironic commentary on this status as “toy”: R.O.B. was only ever programmed to spin a pair of tops and stack a set of blocks, both rudimentary examples of “toys” that seem anachronistic in the plastic claws of a robot. The irony of the performance is compounded  by the fact that these rudimentary actions are mostly just an impediment to smooth gameplay on the N.E.S. itself, and in practice can be bypassed completely. As a 1987 TILT magazine review of Gyromite (one of only two R.O.B.-supported N.E.S. titles) points out, “[i]t is however regrettable that this robot is noisy, to the point that the player does without him and pushes, with his fingers, the coloured buttons” (translation mine).

On the one hand, this historical contextualization might seem to risk contaminating our analysis with historiography, which Ernst, following 18th-century proto-structuralist Giambattista Vico, writes off as “anthropocentric” (69). But as Jane Bennett posits in her book Vibrant Matter, “[i]t is futile to seek a pure nature unpolluted by humanity, and it is foolish to define the self as something purely human” (116). With that in mind, I want to conclude by suggesting that it might be similarly foolish to seek a “pure technology,” or a machinic agent that is not always already entangled within a polyvalent assemblage. In the case of  R.O.B., we see the “cold gaze” of the machine emerging alongside a turbulent moment in history of video games, a particular terminological taboo in the electronics marketplace, and shifting cultural expectations of what constitutes a “toy.”  Through R.O.B., we are in fact “dealing with the past as a form of delayed presence, preserved in a technological memory” (69), but it’s a memory that can only be fully understood through a broad, dynamic and polyvalent epistemological framework.

Works Cited

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: a Political Ecology of Things. Duke UP, 2010.

Ernst, Wolfgang. Digital Memory and the Archive. Edited by Jussi Parikka, U Of Minnesota P, 2012.

“Gyromite.” TILT, December 1987, p. 105.

Herman, Leonard. “A New Generation of Home Video Game Systems.” The Video Game Explosion: a History from Pong to Playstation and Beyond, edited by Mark J. P. Wolf, Greenwood P, 2008, pp. 115–120.

Posted on 2017/10/10 by

Box Anxiety: Collections and the Things that Contain Them/Us

Elizabeth Yakel states that “[a]rchivists are in the container business” (140), a claim I find highly relevant to the Residual Media Depot (RMD) and the Mordecai Richler Reading Room, two Concordia research collections [1] that contain a significant number of items in boxes. Yakel classifies archival boxes as “physical” containers, contrasting them with “intellectual” containers such as policies (140-41). In the case of boxes in the RMD and Richler Room, however, such a clear separation between physical and intellectual may be counterproductive. To understand what working with boxes (and the collections or “container businesses” they constitute) really means, we need to consider how they contain (and constrain?) things—and not just things but also us—both physically and intellectually.

Confronting the many boxes of the Residual Media Depot

Exploring a box in the Richler Room

In collections as elsewhere, we often ignore boxes in favour of their contents. This is what Jussi Parikka calls 

“the fate of media that become too effective in what they do. They vanish from view, do their job of mediating, and leave the illusion that all there is is content passing through the channels” (“Archive Dynamics” 113).

Thinking of the box as a medium opens it up to other theories from media studies/media archaeology, notably the idea Parikka draws from Friedrich Kittler that technical media “impose new regimes of sensation and use to which we have to accommodate ourselves in order to be functioning subjects”; when we use media, they exercise agency/power over us that influence our own agency (“Media Theory” 70). These concepts reveal that that when we dig through a box to find an item, we are not just engaging with that item—we are engaging with the box, which has an effect on us whether we acknowledge it or not.

For me, effects of the box were especially apparent in the RMD, which focuses on early video game consoles. Its boxes of gaming equipment intimidated me, bringing up daunting questions: would it be okay to touch the boxes, move them, open them? What if I opened them only to break something or put it back in the wrong place?

At first I attributed this “box anxiety” to my lack of experience handling video games. But when I visited the Richler Room’s collection of possessions from Richler’s personal library, I felt similarly uneasy, although most of the items in its boxes (books, papers, writing tools, etc.) were much more familiar. I worried that my digging through boxes, as gentle as I tried to keep it, might displace or damage something. I had a sense that objects like books on the Room’s shelves or the controller just sitting on a desk in the RMD were safer and more accessible. They were already out in the open, welcoming examination. But the objects in boxes made it my responsibility to bring them into the open—they demanded my initiative, my physical action, my culpability if something went wrong.  

In the RMD: the controller without a box (left) vs. the controller with a box (and box anxiety)

No doubt there are cultural roots to this anxiety. As children, we are taught to be careful with old or potentially fragile objects and punished if we carelessly damage them. But we cannot fully shift the blame from the box to culture; indeed the two cannot be separated. In the “articulation and assemblage” model as described by Jennifer Daryl Slack and J. Macgregor Wise, culture consists of many “intermingling elements” or “articulations” that come together in ever-changing “assemblages” (112-13). When examining technology’s role in cultural change, this model allows us to see technologies (I here extend the idea to cover things like boxes) as articulations in a “complex cultural assemblage” which in the tensions between its articulations produces many “uses and effects” on many sides—the intimate, messy mingling of culture and technology in this assemblage makes it impossible to blame just one or the other (113).  

This means that any cultural influences we speak of may also have/be influences of the box. Boxes are containers with walls, and sometimes covers/lids, that keep things in and/or out. Through their physical form, boxes themselves enforce an insider/outsider structure: when you approach a box, you are an outsider to its contents. As a layer, a shield, between you and what it contains, the box calls for a perhaps small but often discomfiting act of aggression, of breaking through. In this way, to return to Parikka, the box imposes on us its own “regime of sensation and use.”

Thus we may begin to develop something of an explanation, both physical and intellectual, for my box anxiety—not necessarily in order to get rid of it, as such side effects of encountering objects merit further investigation rather than dismissal, but to help us understand what we do to the “container business” of collections and what it does to us.    

[1] Archives are not necessarily the same as collections, as Darren Wershler notes when he defines the RMD as a collection, not an archive. I still find Yakel’s statement applicable, however, as the concepts are related and both often involve containers (and Wershler acknowledges that the RMD possesses some archival traits).

Works Cited

Parikka, Jussi. “Archive Dynamics: Software Culture and Digital Heritage.” What is Media Archaeology? Polity Press, 2012, pp. 113-35.

—. “Media Theory and New Materialism.” What is Media Archaeology? Polity Press, 2012, pp. 63-90.

Slack, Jennifer Daryl, and J. Macgregor Wise. Culture and Technology: A Primer. Peter Lang, 2005.

Wershler, Darren. “What’s in a Name?” Residual Media Depot, 21 July 2016, http://residualmedia.net/whats-in-a-name/. Accessed 8 Oct. 2017.

Yakel, Elizabeth. “Thinking Inside and Outside the Boxes: Archival Reference Services at the
Turn of the Century.” Archivaria, vol. 49, 2000, pp. 140-60, https://archivaria.ca/index.php/archivaria/article/view/12742/13927. Accessed 8 Oct. 2017.

Posted on 2017/10/10 by

Mountbatten probe

YouTube video for context

The first artefact from the Mordecai Richler collection that I choose to look at is the biography of Earl Louis Mountbatten of Burma. It is a weighty tome, 756 pages, about one and a half kilos, hard cover with book jacket, described by the author as ‘massive. The size is a conventional 6.5 x 9.5”, 2 inches thick, published in 1985:

first photo

Richler’s first edition describes it as A Biography, whereas the UK origin second reprint emphasises that this is the official biography. In the Richler collection copy, a north American edition, Mountbatten is pictured as a Commander in the Royal Navy in 1932, a much more dashing version than the second printing of the much older Mountbatten with his admiral’s epaulettes and more serious expression, perhaps reflecting the excitement of the new world and the nostalgia of the old, and their different markets.

There is no annotation in this book and it shows little sign of use. Richler may never have opened it. The cataloguers put it in ‘World History,’ and that is a good decision. Mountbatten’s story is much more than World War II.

As Gerard Genette suggest in Paratexts, the title and subject for the book carry the authority of someone who is a household name in England for his mostly distinguished naval career; that it was written by the Eton and Oxford educated author of Addington and King William IV, Philip Ziegler, ensured a wide readership. It would not have sold so well as ‘First Sea Lord’ (Genette 2, 7-8).

Professor Wershler, in conversation, suggested that the position of the book on the shelf, and enquiry into adjacent volumes might be revealing. Here is Mountbatten’s shelf:

Second photo

The librarian positioned Mountbatten at the opposite end of the shelf from the 1997 biography of his wife, Edwina Mountbatten. He was married to his work, and she was a magnificent partner in this endeavour, but as Ziegler says, overbearing in the marriage; in short, Mountbatten was a lonely man (Ziegler 483, 693). As both Ziegler and the author of Edwina Mountbatten, A Life of her Own, Janet Morgan, agree, the real love of her life was Jawaharlal Nehru. ‘If there was any physical element it can only have been of minor importance to either party,’ Ziegler says, somewhat stuffily (473). Morgan says nothing like that happened, indeed, at that time and place it would have been unthought of. Lady Mountbatten and Nehru did correspond daily, and the letters were ‘rhapsodic but chaste,’ but they denied themselves physical passion (Morgan 440).

Mountbatten is also lonely on the shelf, separated from Edwina by other failed partnerships: Katherine of France is left with a babe in arms when Henry V dies of dysentery fighting in France, Henry VIII murders the subject of his adjacent book, his Queen Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I’s decision to avoid a partnership led to the public execution of her nephew’s son, and the volume of Wallis and Edward reflect the values of which Louis disapproved (Ziegler 96). Edwina had left-wing tendencies, so she would not have minded her biography next to that of Aneurin Bevan, the welsh coal-miner’s son (502). On the surface the Lord Louis and Edwina cooperated well, but as Morgan says, ‘Dickie’s chief failing was that he was not Nehru’ (Morgan 436).

From today’s excerpt from The System of Objects, how does Mountbatten satisfy Baudrillard’s proforma for collecting? It does add authenticity to Richler’s knowledge of twentieth century history, it could be one of a series if linked with the biography of Mountbatten’s wife, and may have a connection to nostalgia; Richler did write an anthology of writings about World War II (Baudrillard 75, 88, 95).  It does not seem to be a passionate acquisition, it is not annotated, and it has no discernible intimacy (87-8).  We also have to ask if Richler was impoverished or inhuman because he collected books? (106). I don’t think so.

Elsewhere in Baudrillard, we could also ask if we think the Richler Collection has a style, how far do we think the collection was manipulated by the collector, did it give him gratification and does it constitute a Richler brand? (147, 153, 177, 191).

How far is Baudrillard relevant to Richler as collector? The Richler collection is principally books, and Mordecai Richler was an avid reader, as Charles Foran’s biography of him demonstrates (Foran 85-6, 201, 568). According to Foran, Richler was more a collector of stories for his writing than a collector of objects.

Works Cited and Consulted

‘Mountbatten: Death of a Royal’ A Documentary. YouTube, uploaded by AngelDocs, 8 February, 2013,  www.youtube.com/watch?v=V0H2SCdnKtE&t=10s.

Baudrillard, Jean. The System of Objects. London: Verso, 1996. Print.

Foran, Charles. Mordecai : The Life & Times. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2010. Print.

Genette, Gérard. Paratext: Thresholds of Interpretation.  New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Print.

Morgan, Janet. Edwina Mountbatten: A Life of Her Own. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991. Print.

Richler, Mordecai. Writers on World War II: An Anthology. Toronto: Viking, 1991. Print.

Ziegler, Philip. Mountbatten: A Biography. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1985. Print.

Raymond B

 

Posted on 2017/10/10 by

After Looking at Mordecai Richler’s Library

What was lost when Mordecai Richler’s library moved from Lake Magog to LB 655 and 677 in the English Department at Concordia University? This essay contends that the “Richler Library” should not be seen as a collection that was simply looking for a warm and happy home and found it. Any writer’s library is not, as Richard Oram presents in his Handbook on the topic, “a set of books or other printed works owned by the author at a particular time” (1-2). A library is not “all the books and stuff” but a far-reaching assemblage and socially realized space that cannot be packed up, moved, cleaned up, and reordered without undergoing a sea change.

Richler’s library at Lake Magog

It is an open question if the assemblage and the space it produces can survive this change, no matter curatorial resuscitation efforts. It is another question if the intensely personal assemblage of a writer’s library can survive the death of its author, himself or herself not just its creator and caretaker, but one of its critical components.

The new order of Mordecai Richler’s private library is arbitrary. Its meticulous touch only emphasizes this. The collection’s objects have been classified, duly separated, and stored apart in two rooms and a hallway. Miscellany have been locked away in white cupboards. A salient system of organization is at work, which could have been another system. For the books, it is the system of classification of the Library of Congress. One slip of paper or more sticks out of each book, announcing that it is documented: it has its papers and can pass into this new world and exist on the new terms of production. Without its papers, it would be lost here. It would be an illegal in perceived need of legalization, or else. These slips visually chop up the collection—they catch the eye and create a visual stutter—a constant reminder that the laws of this library are one of its most active dimensions, and they are not the old laws.

Locked cupboards holding some of Richler’s stuff, in the hallway outside the Richler Rooms

A library’s organization is part of its constitution. This aspect of the old assemblage is lost. This is no minor loss, though it is convenient to ignore it. In Collecting, Curating, and Researching Writers’ Libraries: A Handbook, Richard Oram glosses over the question of how writers’ libraries are organized, saying, “I have never known a scholar to be very interested in it” (23). This is a big problem—a dead spot—in the study of these libraries. If the organization cannot be preserved, its absence should be well-noted and weighed in. It should haunt us. If the organization is somehow preserved, its impenetrability is another question.

What else is lost? If this were a garden, imagine all the plants are plucked up and put in the back of a truck. A new gardener comes, moves the plants and some of the rocks to another yard, then replants, prunes and spruces things up. Only desirable weeds make the cut. Is it the same garden? Not only has its original ordering logic, which includes its original chaos, been bowled over, but so has the composition of the garden. The composition of the library is lost, too. Its image is gone. In “Unpacking My Library,” Walter Benjamin emphasizes the importance of a library’s composition, describing “a relationship to objects which does not emphasize their functional, utilitarian value—that is, their usefulness—but studies and loves them as the scene, the stage, of their fate” (60). It is not romantic to believe the composition—“the scene,” “the stage”—matters. It is romantic to believe that it does not and that somehow the library survives its loss.

The assemblage is limping before we examine its greatest loss: the gardener-writer himself. As Benjamin describes, the author is not just the owner but a part of the library. Not only does the author shape his collection, but his memories are housed there; the library presents these memories in turn, in repetition with revision, shaping the author.

Benjamin goes so far as to equate himself with his collection. He does so grammatically with an elegant comma. He writes, “the most important fate of a copy is its encounter with him, with his own collection” (61). “Him” = “his own collection.” At the conclusion of “Unpacking My Library,” Benjamin plays out a dramatic trick—he pulls a trapdoor—emphasizing this symbiosis. In the final line, he abruptly exits, subsumed in the library he has just finished unpacking: “now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting” (67).

For Benjamin, the writer’s library is irrevocably personal. “For what else is this collection,” he writes, as he sorts through his books, “but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order? You have all heard of people whom the loss of their books has turned into invalids, or of those who in order to acquire them became criminals” (60). Part of the library as assemblage is a highly individual “disorder to which habit has accommodated,” likely impossible for anyone else to follow and accommodate. This part of the library is within the author, and is so integral a part of him that Benjamin leaps to suggest that the loss of his books would be life-altering. Their loss could render one an invalid. And vice versa: the loss of the author in this situation would alter the library, which would never do the same kind of work and be the same space again.

There is a surprising and tender moment in Hannah Arendt’s “Introduction” to Benjamin’s Illuminations, in which she suggests that Benjamin, in fact, could not live without his library. Before describing the terrifying circumstances of his suicide on September 26, 1940, on the Franco-Spanish border—how the Spanish had closed the border that same day, blocking his already arduous route of escape—Arendt offers another reason for his death:

There were various reasons for this. The Gestapo had confiscated his Paris apartment, which contained his library (he had been able to get “the more important half” out of Germany) and many of his manuscripts, and he had reason to be concerned also about the others which, through the good offices of George Bataille, had been placed in the Bibliotèque Nationale prior to his flight from Paris to Lourdes, in unoccupied France. How was he to live without a library, how could he earn a living without the extensive collection of quotations and excerpts among his manuscripts?” (17-18)

“How was he to live without a library?” It is a question to honor, and one that circles back to ask: What is a writer’s library?

In The System of Objects, Jean Baudrillard provides another explanation for understanding the writer’s library as lifeblood.

What man gets from objects is not a guarantee of life after death but the possibility, from the present moment onwards, of continually experiencing the unfolding of his existence in a controlled, cyclical mode, symbolically transcending a real existence the irreversibility of whose progression he is powerless to affect

Objects allow us to apply the work of mourning to ourselves right now, in everyday life, and this in turn allows us to live—to live regressively, no doubt, but at least to live. A person who collects is dead, but he literally survives himself through his collection, which (even while he lives) duplicates him infinitely, beyond death, by integrating death itself into the series, into the cycle. (104)

This theory is in harmony with Benjamin’s description of unpacking his library. Each book “duplicates him infinitely, beyond death,” in series. It is a cycle that stops with either the loss of the library or the loss of the author.

Benjamin’s ancestor here is Michel de Montaigne, who like Benjamin was at one with his library—his arrière boutique, to which he withdrew from court life to live among his books. De Montaigne saw his work as philosophy, defined in the title of one of his essays: “To Philosophize Is to Learn How to Die.” De Montaigne is like a DJ, sorting through his books and pulling samples to incorporate in his writing. His writing, his life, is a dance with his books. He keeps Baudrillard’s regressive but sustaining cycle going: “integrating death itself into the series.” In someone else’s hands, the cycle would not be the same; and without the cycle, the writer who now depends on it for his existence would be at a loss. Using Baudrillard’s terms, through their libraries Michel De Montaigne and Walter Benjamin “recite themselves, as it were, outside time” (103). They both claim to be writing about themselves (De Montaigne always, and Benjamin at the opening of “Unpacking My Library” is “speaking only about himself”). In talking about their libraries, they are talking about themselves: it’s equivalent. There is no de Montaigne apart from his library. For Benjamin, it’s the same.

In Oram’s Handbook to collecting writers’ libraries, he expresses surprise that the five writers interviewed for the book do not imagine their libraries surviving them. “More unexpectedly, most of the writers see their libraries as ephemeral and are reconciled to their eventual dispersal” (85). It seems like Oram is not listening to these writers, even though he pulled them into the conversation. If their libraries are “essentially ephemeral,” then they are “in essence” not something that can be preserved, like the writers themselves. What remains after a writer’s death is not his or her library, but a collection of archival materials.

To ground this argument, I am using Henri Lefebvre’s theory of space as socially produced. This way, we can see moving a writer’s library from his house to an institution as moving it from the terms of production of the house to the terms of production of the institution. Each space is different: “Each is produced—and serves a purpose” (403). The writer’s library is a produced space that is beyond replication.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. The System of Objects. London: Verso, 2005; 1996.

Benjamin, Walter, and Hannah Arendt. Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, 2007; 1969.

De Montaigne, Michel. The Complete Works :Essays, Travel Journal, Letters. New York: A.A. Knopf, 2003.

Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1991.

Oram, Richard W., and Joseph Nicholson, eds. Collecting, Curating, and Researching Writers’ Libraries: A Handbook. Landham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014. 

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