Posted on 2015/11/25 by

Cummins v. Bond: Unmaking the Author

On the day of July 23, 1926, a strange case passed before Judge Harry Trelawney Eve. On the surface, it seemed like a pretty straightforward matter of copyright in which one Geraldine Cummins was contesting the rights of one Frederick Bligh Bond to a work called The Chronicle of Cleophas. The thing is: Geraldine Cummins was not claiming that she had authored the work instead of Bond; she was saying she was the medium through which the work had been channelled.

The Chronicle of Cleophas, asserted Cummins, had been received incommunicado with the spirit world through the interface of a Ouija board, over a period of about a year or so, and usually in response to questions she had been hired to answer by clients as a paid medium. As for the defendant, Frederick Bligh Bond was employed by Cummins as an assistant and had acted as amanuensis to the various Ouija board messages being received by the medium; in the words of Jeffrey Kahan, “for each of Cummins’s Spiritual communiqués, he [Bond] ‘transcribed it, punctuated it, and arranged it in paragraphs, and returned a copy of it so arranged to the plaintiff [Cummins].’ He further stated, and Cummins did not contradict his statement, that he, Bond, ‘annotated the script, and added historical and explanatory notes’” (92). If you’re confused at this point, you’re not the only one.

We have here a literary shell game, in which authorship is shuffled about until the client is utterly baffled. The difference is that, in a shell game, the client (or “mark”) understands who is doing the shuffling. In the case of a séance no one seems to be the creative center . . . The multiple hands recording the Spirits creates the impression that the creative center is not physically present (Kahan 91).

Who, then, did Judge Eve decide in favour of in 1926 — the medium who channelled the work, or the scribe who wrote it down, arranged, and edited it? And why should we care?

“Walk through a museum. Look around a city. Almost all the artifacts that we value as a society were made by or at the order of men. But behind every one is an invisible infrastructure of labor — primarily caregiving, in its various aspects — that is mostly performed by women.” In her 2015 article “Why I Am Not a Maker,” Debbie Chachra challenges a cultural attitude that privileges the act of making over the more invisible acts behind it, particularly the gendered acts of caregiving and educating. Walk through a text. Look around at the letters and words and margins and paper. It was the mediums of mid-19th-century Spiritualism — an almost across-the-board female labour force — who presented a challenge to one very highly traditional order of men, namely, the order of the author.

What finally materialized in a court of law in 1926 was a practice that had in fact been a booming industry since the Fox sisters started charging admission to rappings on tables in 1848 and mediums started channelling under the moniker of Spiritualist and publishing under the monikers of spirits, which was, according to Bette London, “for some the only way to put themselves forward as authors” (152). This is a practice that literalizes Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar’s statement that “[a] wealth of invisible skills underpin material inscription” (245). The case of Cummins v. Bond is not so much a case that brings to the fore the act of making, nor does it propose a refusal to be a “maker” as Chachra puts it, but rather the act of unmaking.

For the purpose of this probe these themes will remain a little superficial, but the surface is the best place to start here. The title The Chronicle of Cleophas, throughout discussions of Cummins v. Bond, remains just that, a title without a content — the book is rarely considered in its own right and finding a copy of it leads to a ghost town of an Amazon.ca page where The Scripts of Cleophas is (hauntedly) housed. This is exemplary of research into automatic writing, the products of which are sometimes so illegible they cannot even be read, as in the invented language of medium Hélène Smith, who called her script “Martian.” Automatic writing, also called psychography or spirit writing, offers a process of writing in lieu of a product (the continuous verb writing rather than its gerund), and furthermore a process of writing in which the produced work is secondary if not tertiary to the act of creating it; a “transitional object” that connects the “sensory body knowledge of a learner to more abstract understandings” (Ratto 254, emphasis his own).

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“No image available”: screenshot from Amazon.ca; Martian writing of Hélène Smith

 

In his 2011 paper, Matt Ratto outlines his experiments in “critical making,” which address a “disconnect between conceptual understandings of technological objects and our material experiences with them” (253). I was struck by how closely the drawbot, which Ratto had his participants construct in one of his workshops, resembles the planchette that automatic writers used during séances in the 19th century. Whereas the drawbot moves across the paper by a process of mechanization via a small motor, the planchette moves across the Ouija board or piece of paper by a process of automaticity via the participant’s hand, part of what the Spiritualists called channelling, or what a cognitive scientist may call ideomotor action. My main question here is, how could the Spiritualist practice of automatic writing be revived and refigured as a model of critical making — where critical making combines critical thinking, a less goal-oriented form of “making,” and conceptual exploration (Ratto 253)? What would this look like and what are the “wicked problems” it could address?

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In my last probe, I explored how sleep could be an interesting object of exploration for a Media Lab; automatic writing by contrast offers a methodology rather than an object — not so much the axis around which questions can be posed, but a way to create the questions in the first place. As sleep unmakes waking and any easy notions around consciousness, automatic writing unmakes the author-function and any easy notions about what it is to write.

The real difficulty is who or what is “Cleophas.” If it be assumed (which nobody can prove) that “Cleophas” has a personal identity of his own and could have been the author of the writing, his evidence would be material. “Cleophas” might be sworn and cross-examined by the process of automatic writing. Instead of being difficult, this might be no trouble at all. Once “Cleophas” is accepted as a real person, the problem of communication involved in swearing him and examining and cross-examining him very likely would not be as difficult . . . (Blewett 24).

Who or what is “Cleophas”? What is automatic writing? How does it work? Is it a shell game, as Kahan suggests? An experiment? A literary device? The fact that the above quote comes not from literary criticism, but The Virginia Law Review, 1926 edition, is indicative of the ripples Cummins v. Bond was causing in terms of conceptions around authorship, marked not least by the quotation marks unrelentingly hovered around the Cleophas in question. “Cleophas,” we could say, is an assemblage, as is, we could also say, any “writer,” as is any piece of “writing.” In “What Is an Author,” Foucault discusses how the 19th century saw the rise of a figure who was not just an author of a text, but an entire discourse, such as “Freud”; “Marx” (228); at the same time, the practice of mediumship that cropped up with automatic writing composed the other side of the spectrum of this canon, folded it back, threw a mirror up to it, but one that hardly anyone was able to see. In the case of Cummins v. Bond, it was the medium Geraldine Cummins who came out victorious, and not Frederick Bligh Bond who’d physically held the pen to record the text. But what is not recognized in either the resolution of this case or the Amazon.ca screenshot above is that on the title page of The Scripts of Cleophas, Geraldine Cummins credits herself as “recorder,” not as “author.” Though she won the case, she was still not granted the right to self-representation. According to Jeffrey Sconce,

Long before our contemporary fascination with the beautific possibilities of cyberspace, feminine mediums led the Spiritualist movement as wholly realized cybernetic beings—electromagnetic devices bridging flesh and spirit, body and machine, material reality and electronic space (27).

It’s a seductive notion, but, really? The mediums of 19th-century Spiritualism often published under the male names of the spirits they were channelling and thus, as London pointed out above, were able to publish at all, and furthermore earn a living for themselves in a position of power as mediums. The history of automatic writing, in contrast to Kahan’s statement, is physically present. These days, our automatic writers are quite literally transitional objects, drawbots: in 2014 alone, one billion stories were generated by Automated Insights’ Wordsmith program (Podolny), which uses NLG algorithms to “write” articles, while tamed automata are often gendered female, such as Siri, Archillect, “Her.” The embodiment of work and working is changing, and so are the questions surrounding it. How could a writing process that is seen as plural from the get-go change discussions around copyright? What does automatic writing say about fanfic, for example, or creativity, labour, or the ways in which these categories are parsed out according to gender? Finally, if the question, as Bernhard Siegert proposes, is no longer “how did we become posthuman? But, how was the human always already historically mixed with the non-human?” (53), then maybe we can also ask: is there any writing, has there ever been, that is not automatic?

 

Works cited

Blewett, Lee. “Copyright of Automatic Writing.” Virginia Law Review 13.1 (November 1926): 22–26.

Chachra, Debbie. “Why I Am Not a Maker.” The Atlantic, January 23, 2015.

Foucault, Michel. “What Is an Author?” [1969]. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel Foucault. Ed. Donald F. Bouchard. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977: 113–38.

Kahan, Jeffrey. Shakespearitualism: Shakespeare and the Occult, 1850–1950. New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Latour, Bruno, and Steve Woolgar. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1979.

London, Bette. Writing Double: Women’s Literary Partnerships. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999.

Podolny, Shelley. “If an Algorithm Wrote This, How Would You Even Know?” The New York Times, March 7, 2015.

Ratto, Matt. “Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life.” The Information Society 27 (2011): 252–260.

Sconce, Jeffrey. Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2000.

Siegert, Bernhard. “Cultural Techniques: Or the End of the Intellectual Postwar Era in German Media Theory.” Theory, Culture & Society 30.6 (November 2013): 48–65.

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