All posts by davidquinlan

Vito Acconci–from Removal, Move (Line Evidence): The Grid Locations of Streets, Alphabetized, Hagstrom’s Maps of the Five Boroughs: 3. Manhattan

Vito Acconci was an artist most well known for his performance art in the 1960s, despite the fact that he began his career as a poet. His performance art dealt with the kind of conceptual premises that are common in conceptual literature. Though no explicit product was made, Vito would record himself following people for long periods of time or standing too close to people to comment on his idea that each person has a zone of personal energetic space that can be invaded. The purpose of “Removal” is far less obvious, but it does have a method and a structure that is stated in the work’s subtitle. Here is an image of what that subtitle describes and what the premise produces:

J12 G13 G12 B11 K9 B11 F11 F14 D13 C6 C14 F2 A9 A9 B10 A9 C14 J9 B12 B12 C12 C12 C12 C12 C12 C12 D13 D13 D13 D13 D13 D13 D14 D14 C5 C14 C14 C14 H13 G2 B6 F14 G4 J9 F3 F6 F6 J7 H14 D14 K12 G4 B10 C12 K11 A9 D5 F14 E6 L7 F3 E9 H13 H13 E12 D9 J7 F14 H5 A9 F15 D15 D5 G4 H4 E14 E6 E13 E13 D15 C6

What Acconci has produced here appears initially quite trivial, repetitive, and, if no introduction or subtitle was given, seems to be complete gibberish. The result of the text, however, would be, according to the introduction given in Goldsmith’s anthology Against Expresssion, “an inverse projection of Manhattan roadways, itself largely a grid, in which the roughly regular series of frequently numerical names . . . encode a geographic and social account of the island’s historical development” (22). Hence, this alphabetical organization yields a fairly complex and interesting result, and acts as a means to a theoretical end of a mapping of the Manhattan borough. This is chiefly what makes the work so unique, because it does not only exist as an appropriation of grid locations from Hagstrom’s Maps, but is itself a possible source for later copying to create the image of the Manhattan grid.

Beyond its visual significance, Acconci’s collection of grid locations also presents a sort of commentary on urban planning. If one takes the time to read through the approximately five pages of fairly dry grid locations that are given in Against Expression, one gets the sense of the cold, calculated nature of urban structure, as the text is akin to a sort of program for organization of a city. Even more can be said of the work if it is read out loud, which it was meant to be, and was in a recording by Craig Dworkin, the link to which is given below (be warned, the site is terribly made, and the recordings’s a little bit down the page).           

            There is a sort of bare, minimalist poetry to this oral reading which Goldsmith likens to “the contemporaneous minimalist music of Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass” (22). Because so many sections of the text contain the same letters and sometimes long repetitions of the same letter with the same number as its pair, there is a possibly accidental rhythm to the reading that does make it sound like something composed musically and takes a lot of the boredom out of reading the text non-orally. The oral reading, as rhythmic as it is, nonetheless retains much of the aforementioned hollowness of the grid locations, sounding particularly robotic when it is read out loud. This hollowness results from the fact that the structure of Manhattan has been stripped down so much, concentrated to the point where everything but pure structure has been deleted, hence the use of the word “Removal” in the Acconci’s title. The deletion of masses of material to emphasize structural elements is quite common in conceptual literature, some examples being Monica Aasprong’s Soldatmarket and Derek Beaulieu’s Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, both of which are featured in Against Expression.

As many literary, visual, and auditory results as Acconci’s work has to offer, it is still important to note that, on the page, the text of “Removal” is unappealing and seemingly meaningless. The fact that such a repetitive collection of numbers and letters meant so much underneath was what made Acconci’s work stand out to me, as it reminded of Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Library of Babel.” In particular, Borges’ line “Those phrases, at first apparently incoherent, are susceptible to cryptographic or allegorical ‘reading’ . . . There is no combination of characters one can make . . . that in one or more of its secrets tongues does not hide a terrible significance” (117) seemed to describe fairly perfectly Acconci’s work here. Behind Acconci’s utterly dry combinations of letters and numbers is the entire street structure Manhattan, but at the same time it is looks like the kind of thing that could be randomly typed by a monkey, albeit one with a very consistent and organized agenda. This is also what interests me about conceptual literature and art in general. Though the product is rarely impressive or noticeable in conceptual art, the amazing thing about it is that it packs so much significance and, in many cases, labor, into a work that appears to be gibberish, the kind of thing occupants of the Library of Babel might toss aside as nonsense.

Assignment Opt-Out

I opt out of this assignment because I think flarf and uncreative writing can only be explored or experimented with to a limited extent. In this case I agree strongly with the Douglas Huebler statement that there are enough interesting, in this case, flarfs in the world that I do not need to add any more, and with flarf I think there already may be too much. This is not true of all forms of purposefully badly made art (those who have heard of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim know how funny badly made videos and awkwardly delivered jokes can be), but it is definitely true of literature because literature can only manipulate language, normally with no visual or auditory additions. In my opinion, bad literature can never be extremely funny firstly because so much of its humor results from oral recitation, and secondly because terrible writing is often a lot funnier if one thinks that it came from an author who made something they genuinely believe is good and should be taken seriously, rather than one who intentionally constructed poor-quality language. The literature I find funniest is usually very well written and very good at describing humorous characters or interactions.

If flarf or uncreative writing is considered a statement rather than something purely made for humor, then I reiterate that it should only be done to a limited extent. With both of these genres I feel that only one point is really being made, and that is that any language can be appropriated or reframed and be considered genuine literature. I can easily understand why some of Kenneth Goldsmith’s work makes for an entertaining read, but personally I would never surf the web to find twitter poems or collections of facebook comments, and hence I feel that, though it is an interesting literary or artistic statement to look at this language as art, once a few of these have been produced the point has been made and we can move on.

The Library of Babel and The Information Age

Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “The Library of Babel” describes a library that contains all possible combinations of the twenty-five orthographic symbols, divided amongst an indefinite amount of hexagonal rooms. His description of this fictional stronghold of all information and of infinite gibberish has been likened to one of the modern-day Internet. Borges’ library, however, does not perfectly represent the nature of the current web, so necessarily the question is asked: what elements of the Internet does the Library of Babel reflect or not reflect? How do the books of the Library predict the nature of digital literature?

The first similarity between the Internet and the Library of Babel is the huge amount of information, some extremely useful and some absolute nonsense, that they hold. The difference between them is that modern Internet users are not lost in this world of information like the people of Babel, but rather are in control of it and can navigate it through search engines like Google. In the Library of Babel, this power would be akin to that of the Book-Man, who has examined “a book that is the cipher and perfect compendium of all other books” (116), and who can theoretically navigate and understand the structure of the library and its contents. In fact, most people almost never encounter the nonsensical or uncommon sites on the Internet, as Google search results are based so much in relevance and popularity, and because so many sites are all-inclusive sources of the information people look for. Generally, people spend their time on just a few different sites that have what they want and expect, such as Facebook, Gmail, Wikipedia, Reddit, The New York Times, etc.

The exception to this is the “deep web.” The Deep Web is a part of the World Wide Web but is not indexed by search engines, and hence is not a part of what is called the Surface Web. The Deep Web is a great deal larger than the Surface Web, and in fact most of the information on the Internet is contained in the Deep Web. Indeed, Michael K. Bergman, who coined the term, likens searching the Internet to “dragging a net across the surface of the ocean. While a great deal may be caught in the net, there is still a wealth of information that is deep, and therefore, missed.” Because search engines, or at least most common search engines, cannot access this wealth of information, it is much like the information in the Library of Babel, that is, it is unthinkably large and extremely hard to navigate. As one might expect, the Deep Web is the source of most of the Internet’s illegal content.

The Deep Web is actually only one, albeit the largest, of several inaccessible areas of the Internet. Another is darknet, which is a network through which information is moved in the form of file sharing between “friends,” and is generally unsusceptible to government interference. Similarly, it is the source of much communication related to illegal activity. Another, almost completely inaccessible area of the Internet is the dark Internet, or the dark address space, which is basically filled with dead networks that have not been integrated with the modern internet, or that are connected to computers that can no longer be reached by the Internet. These more secretive parts of the web are closer in form to the Library of Babylon, but it is unlikely that the Internet’s most useful or important content can be found there, so the dilemma of the population of the Library of Babylon being unable to find some ultimate book in the vast meaninglessness is not similar to our experience with the Deep Web. The Surface Web has everything most people want and need.

The Library of Babylon does, however, predict several interesting characteristics of Digital Literature. First of all, the nature of the Library’s books as recombinations of the twenty-five orthographic symbols is similar to the kind of appropriation and recombination that is common in the literature of, for instance, Thomas Claburn and Kenneth Goldsmith. Indeed, the fact that, at the end of the day, literature truly is only a variation of the twenty-five orthographic symbols reminds one of just how integral and common collection, recombination, and appropriation are to all literature.

Additionally, the extensiveness of the Library and the Internet’s information recalls the Douglas Huebler quotation, “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” The fact that the population of the Library of Babylon dedicate their lives to exploring the vast contents of the Library reinforces the argument that there is enough to be explored in the Internet to occupy one’s time and for authors to research and play around with. This justifies Kenneth Goldsmith’s argument that he need not add to the unmanageably large wealth of literature and text that exists on the web, but can simply appropriate and recontextualize it.

Finally, one issue with digital literature that has been discussed extensively in class is the fact that it calls into question what is or is not considered literature. Because collections have been made of tweets, YouTube comments, and news reports and these are considered serious literature, it would appear that any text could be interpreted as literature or as something with artistic merit. This is similar to Borges’ observation that, though it would appear that the library is filled with content of little or no value or sense, “it includes not a single absolute piece of nonsense” (117). Rather, there is no combination of letters that “in one or more of [the Library’s] secret tongues does not hide a terrible significance,” as “those phrases, at first apparently incoherent, are undoubtedly susceptible to cryptographic or allegorical ‘reading’” (117). This describes very well the significance authors and readers give to seemingly unimportant texts. Though initially they appear unspectacular, these online texts may carry great significance for some, and can be placed in a different context and reinterpreted as significant art.



Blog Post #2: HathiTrust Digital Library

HathiTrust Digital Library is a digital humanities tool that features digitized texts and collections of some of these texts put together by theme by academics and members of institutions that are partners with HathiTrust. Much like Google Books, from which HathiTrust has accumulated much of its book collection, HathiTrust acts as a virtual library through which one can search for and read many full-length books and documents, and read parts of/search for word occurrences in copyrighted texts. HathiTrust claims to have accumulated its texts from 80 partnerships, including Google and a large number of university libraries. The HathiTrust archive of books is hence quite large, and about as user-friendly as the Google Books layout.

The most interesting, unique, and useful feature of the HathiTrust Digital Library is its available collections of texts that center around a certain theme. For instance, one collection titled “Records of the American Colonies” includes 852 “published documents–legislation, court proceedings, records, correspondence, etc–from the 13 original colonies.” The collection was, as most are, put together or posted by a single person, in this case professor Nicholas Okrent at the University of Pennsylvania. Some of these collections are as broad as a collection of all books published by the University of Michigan Press, while others are as narrow as a collection of texts written by G.A. Henty.

The collections are a good example of the possibilities of our class’s final projects. For example, websites/blogs about a given book could include collections of important literary criticism concerning the book, as well as interesting publications of this book (HathiTrust features a publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland in Gregg Shorthand). HathiTrust even allows one to make an account and add such collections to the site, although it claims that one must “log in with your partner institution account.” As an overall resource, HathiTrust adds to the normal digital library’s inclusion of a large number of texts with its personal collections of documents, and thus offers something that, for instance, Google Books does not.

The Transition from Machine to Technology

My discovery of an interesting shift in the use of the words “machine” and “technology” started with a search that yielded much more predictable results. Originally, I used Ngram to analyze the occurrence of the words “computer” and “machine,” the latter of which declined in use while the former increased. Though the notable increase in the use of the word “computer” and its surpassing of “machine” around 1970 is understandable and expected given the initial advancements in computer invention at that time, the same cannot be said for “technology” versus “machine.”

The computer is a specific technology, or machine, far less abstract in its reference than “technology.” Indeed, technology refers more broadly to tools in general that provide a better means to an end. Though modern use of the word associates it more readily with digital tools, its definition is widely applicable: “machinery and equipment developed from the application of scientific knowledge.” Hence, the relatively recent surge in the use of this word seems strange, as it does not simply refer to modern machinery, but to machinery as a whole.

The fact is, however, that “technology” meant something very different until the 19th century.  According to the OED, “technology” in previous centuries referred to “the systematic treatment of grammar,” and “a discourse or treatise on an art or arts.” Only in the late 18th century did it begin to refer to “the branch of knowledge dealing with the mechanical arts and applied sciences” and “the application of such knowledge for practical purposes, esp. in industry, manufacturing, etc.”

But this still leaves the question of why the use of the word “technology” correlates so strongly with “computer” unanswered. In my research on the etymology of the word on the OED, I still came up short, as for the most part no changes occurred in the explicit definition of “technology” after the 19th century. I can only speculate that the word simply acted as a convenient one to refer to recent digital advancements. Perhaps linguistically technology seemed to best define the computer. We are also members of an increasingly technology-centered society, so it follows that the use of the word “technology” increased.