As it stands

March 17, 2008

Happy New Year! …and Martin Luther King’s Birthday! …and Valentine’s Day! …and St. Patrick’s Day! …

Amazingly, after all this time, only 9 unfinished blog posts await revision, additions, content, refinement, wholly redacting, or sending to pasture.

I’m currently swamped with/overwhelmed by memory — possessed; a lifelong pre-occupation of mine without a doubt, even a topic, it could be said, for which I’ve nurtured and collected data, statistics, hearsay, libel, fantabulation and theorization about since as long I can remember.

Which, if you’re wondering, is roughly and reliably since age 11.

My father, before my birth, back when he smoked.

I’ve no idea how often it is I wonder abstractly about what is myself that is absent from my neural vault’s mutable archive of summonable memories. Usually, these thoughts lead me to wonder about everyone else, the monumental sea of consciousnesses which are other than me — or how it must feel to be a tree, what kind of awareness I, a tree, would have about myself and others like me.

I am drifting, sometimes calmly, sometimes nauseatingly, sometimes with a reassuring purpose. I am traveling the globe in my research — through reading about the science and chemistry of memory, the politics of archives, cultural tensions over a peoples’ heritage , the international negotiation over cultural and societal memories; and through actual travel. I will soon be in Leiden and Den Haag, briefly Florida and even Paris, researching the International Committee of the Blue Shield.

(Did you know that this years’ 16th International Congress on Archives will be held in Kuala Lumpur?)

So I cast a line out and this is what I caught. Buster Keaton poetically cradled by Radiohead (and some admirable editing, I should add). Helped me focus, and I hope you like it as much as I do. If all goes well, you’ll be hearing from me while I travel. It’ll keep me tethered, as it were.

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Kicking Up Dust

September 28, 2007

A natural ebb and flow merges where Robotic Librarian lay temporarily dormant, assuming a posture of frayed edges. Or, long time no see.

At least six posts await completion, often begun with a kick of espresso when I haven’t the time to complete them. As I truck along in my third semester, getting my hands dirty with archival dust, I am hoping to discover a continuum of balance for work and play, as well as an affordable wireless connection. Without a connection at home I am discovering that I have difficulty with scripting posts. (Please let me know if you know of a reliable service that would be $20 or less a month…) Part of it is that I no longer have the free time between assignments to relax with hyperlinks and electronic free-association. If I have time to be online, it is planned and a necessary part of my school work for that day. I am in the midst of tackling this, and my eager enthusiasm for discussing librarianship has not dimmed.

In the coming weeks I am developing several different projects concerned with memory, all thematically related by their intimacy with “collective memory.” How do we decide that an event is memorable, and deserves a place of honor or respect in our cultural narrative? The first paper I am working on will be about the UbuWeb archive of avant-garde, ethnopoetic and outside arts. A massive, growing non-profit, wholly volunteer outsider archive, it strives to accumulate documents and evidence related to some fairly obscure threads of human society. Through interviews, videos, images, transcripts, podcasts, blogs and happenings, a wildly cross-cultural portrait is emerging of Ubu Roi and Dada’s children. Like this mesmerizing 1973 Matsuo Ohno video of Taj Mahal Travelers on tour, for instance.

I am also looking into writing a proposal for an internationally focused, professional film archive journal, as well as completing a large final project about the ongoing cultural memories of Black May, Thailand’s 1992 grass-roots uprising against General Kraprayoon’s military dictatorship. The protests led to a bloody confrontation at the Kreung Thep (Bangkok) Democracy Monument, near Rachadamneorn Road. It was slightly overcast in 2005, several days shy of the King’s birthday, when I visited this art deco oddity for the second time during my trip…

Thailand’s Democracy Monument, 02 December 2005

Hopefully I can find video of the surreal television broadcast inspired by the riots, where HM The King publicly berated the two leading political figures, the military man and the democratic leader, before leaving up to the to quell the disturbance caused by their difficulties. Amazingly, the violence ended with a peaceable transfer of power back to the monarchic democracy Thailand has enjoyed for over 70 years. (Anyone who might have access to any online materials about Black May, please let me know, I need anything and everything I can find.)

And so Robotic Librarian is not merely an archive of dust, and you will hear from me again. Until…


The Dreaming

September 14, 2007

Vaucanson’s Duck visits the water garden, Chateau Impney

The weeks since the end of the summer session seem hazy and strange, as though my memory is floating adrift upon some unnamed sea. It’s absurd, really, just how much has happened in the space of a few months.

Visitors passed through Chicago & onward, toward numerous destinations unknown, arriving from Brooklyn, New Jersey, India, North Carolina, and Bahrain. I visited Seattle. Twice. Then the semester ended and a day later I left for England, with a 13 hour day trip to Amsterdam thrown in to season the mix. I arrived home, slept for a day and started school again; finally, exhausted and deranged by stimulation, I traveled to North Carolina to take part in a wedding a mere four days later. My every exhalation must still be touched by several climates and continents, so quickly did it all pass on by.

England was wonderful to see again, with more opportunity to visit the countryside than I’ve had before. Coventry, Warwick, Oxford, Worcester, Hemel Hampstead, London… Up above is a photo taken at the Chateau Impney Hotel in Droitwich Spa where, due to the kindness of my grandparents-in-law (and their 50 year friendship with the owner of the hotel), I was able to spend a night in extravagant splendor, with a carved stone balcony overlooking the lush landscape, milk cows and golden-hued horses. The Chateau has a wonderfully gothic history, built as an Englishman’s gift to his homesick French wife who, depression unalloyed by this well-intended simulacrum, flung herself from Impney’s highest point, to her death.

There is much to tell, and I will be posting several pictures from my travels over the coming weeks. I am also hoping to review the two books I read while on holiday, David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten and Don DeLillo’s The Names.

However, it is wonderful to be back, to finally return to the haven that is Robotic Librarian. And in case you missed it, every bibliophile and library lover ought to check out Curious Expedition’s Librophiliac Love Letter, a sumptuous visual feast that even Borges would’ve enjoyed. Here is sample photo of a Cathedral Library in Kalocsa, Hungary:

cathedral-library-kalocsa.jpg

These libraries make me lament the loss of the original Chicago library building (now the Cultural Center near Millennium Park) to today’s awkward & strangely proportioned Harold Washington –all libraries should, in their own way, large or small, inspire awe if not solemnity.

Until tomorrow, then.


Rewind, Passaic

August 19, 2007

Jack Black as Robocop in Be Kind, Rewind

from Worst Preview’s Be Kind, Rewind image gallery

Michel Gondry is fast at work on editing his next rêverie-opus, Be Kind, Rewind. The principal filming is done & the trailer is out, and I am currently eager:with reservations for this one. Eternal Sunshine absolutely captivated me, perhaps the only mainstream film worthy of multiple trips to the big screen in the past four years. (Bong Joon-ho’s indie enviro-monster movie Gwoemul, or The Host, also got me out of the house more than once) I for one felt sucker-punched by the hypnagogic portal into Joel and Clementine’s relationship, buffeted roughly by the raw emotion and kernels of truth in Joel’s awakening. That film (and Gondry’s Director Series DVD) earned him a few trips to the theater on faith alone.

Be Kind, Rewind has something to do with recreating scenes from successful films of the past (In the trailer you see Robocop, Back to the Future, Driving Miss Daisy and Ghostbusters & others) after a freak accident erases a rental store’s VHS tapes. Could be purely indulgent, like listening to Huey Lewis’ Sports album on vinyl; or perhaps indulgent (as the trailer suggests) as piss-take on copyright and bloated budgets; or, due to an extra-national pandemic delusion, it could inspire cultural catharsis, jump-starting our unchecked descent into knee-jerk retro-fetishism of the third kind. We could certainly use a social catalyst, but more than likely, with Jack Black, Mos Def and Danny Glover on board it’ll probably be enchanting & frustrating on mindless, sub-Science of Sleep level.

The kicker for me is that he filmed it in Passaic, New Jersey, hardly a stone’s throw from my home town! Is it possible that Gondry married the poetic documentary moments of Dave Chappelle’s Block Party with his dream fiction? I heard about it after my last visit to Jersey, and by the time I made it back the set had closed shop. Damn, I want to meet Gondry. I am certain that my visual sense and playful, unhinged nature would thoroughly complement whatever task he needed help with… I keep meaning to send him a print of one of my collages but my daily bubble of habits always get in the way. Or perhaps our kinship is a classical gnostic syzygy, potentially doomed by a non-synchronous flux over aeons.

Syzygy No. 32

Somebody already did all the work for me and compiled a fairly large collection of interviews with Michel Gondry. Thank you SiouxWIRE! After reading four interview for possible inclusion in this post, trying to choose one seemed utterly daft. Gondry always appears to summon a modicum of verbal anarchy wherever he goes, which if you’ve seen his music videos or especially the autobiographical I’ve Been 12 Forever film, you know what I mean. If you have a choice, audio/video is the way to go.

If Be Kind, Rewind is a bit daft, at least there are numerous other upcoming films to get excited about. the art of memory’s 26 July 2007 blog post about No Country For Old Men lists more than a few that I agree with. But for pure popcorn and Internet-savvy, the trailer and viral marketing for 1-18-08 has certainly piqued my interest. I’ve never even seen an episode of Lost or MI:III or other Abrams project, but at least until more of substance is released I’ll be paying attention. If you missed the trailer, here it is:

p.s. Only three more days until Summer session 2 is over!


stubborn necessity

August 19, 2007

(untitled)

Emerging electronic media , although transformative in many ways, are not reinventing our relationship to books. As with any change in the human environment, polarizing opinions tend to dominate ways of understanding. This will obscure genuine trends, making it harder to imagine what a book in 2015 might look like. First it might be best to observe the historical book of yesterday.

Books, as a communicative form, have maintained a dominance over informational authority, dissemination of meaning, and community imagination across a global culture for centuries. The dynamism of oral historical transmission is not possible once the word is written down, but almost every other significant intellectual and relational human development is arguably attributable to the book. Religion is able to define values and right behaviors, lawmakers are able to establish precedent, merchants are able to codify national and international bartering systems, and policy makers are accountable to history. Once Averroes (nee Abul-Waleed Muhammad Ibn Rushd) reintroduced the West to Aristotle, a revolution of individuation began which we continue to work through to today.

St. Matthew from the Gospel Book of Charlemagne, c.800-10.

from St. Matthew, from the Gospel Book of Charlemagne, c.800-10.

Manuscripts were instrumental in this, yet without standardization, context and meaning could change. The first widespread re-imagining of the book occurred with Gutenberg’s movable type. (Though China achieved this with baked clay over 400 years earlier, the basic realities of Chinese script prevented common use.) The Gutenberg Galaxy as Marshall McLuhan labeled it, enabled text to be set in a way previously not possible. As more and more copies of a work were produced, identically and rapidly, paradigmatic precedents could be more quickly established. People were able to communicate more effectively, much like the initial standardized catechisms for Christians, yet more personally and frequently.

The manipulation of meaning in a written work prior to printing presses has never entirely gone away, though it was slowed for a time once editions numbered in thousands. Anxiety about losing authoritative, factual information is justified, especially in a world where entities such as Google are becoming global repositories on an unprecedented scale.

Yet this anxiety must be contextualized. The West, circa 1200a.d., did not even know what it was missing until Averrose translated Aristotle. How many books are really in the Bible? And written by whose hand? Absolute meaning is illusory, a reflection of a human need more than an accurate representation of truth. This scientific, rational age is dependant upon the assumption that facts, once discovered, are eternal. Books reflect all dimensions of human experience, and their authority is granted by a wish for it to be so. Through neglect, propagandism and selectivity, meaning is negotiated over time.

Propaganda Billboard in Iran

from Bored.com Crazy and Funny Billboards

Part of the problem with wondering about books’ future is that historically the idea of what a book is has changed. For me, today’s eBook is akin to the copying of books by monks from Charlemagne’s time until the printing press. Manuscripts would change, depending on the inclinations of the monk, his attentiveness, or even the physical degradation of the source text. Something like Wikipedia, though materially sped up, is as malleable as a handwritten manuscript.

Our imagined book is fixed in time, a static recitation of alphabetic or logographic symbols. This is a very limited definition of what a book is. For Max Ernst or Paul Eluard, a book might be a collection of collages in lieu of words. For Alexsandr Rodchenko, a book may contain coins, twine, letter pressings and glass. For Katsushika Hokusai, a book may be a printed fan, a single sheet of paper bound accordion-style, or even a tiny box of lithographs centered on a single theme. The “Museum of the Book” already exists, and even did as a concept in the time of Charlemagne, when he sought to re-establish the lineage of Roman philosophy nearly lost to Visigothic and Vandal raids.

The question then might properly be “What is the possible effect that digitalization will bring?” The primacy of books can be attributed to many factors: portability, accessibility, affordability, durability, familiarity, and readability, among others. Until digital means can approximate or replicate all of these conditions, books as physical artifacts with paper bones and inky blood will not be replaced.

Portability for electronic books is on the verge of realization, as is accessibility. Affordability? Maybe not. Durability is unlikely, considering that many manufacturers rely on either inferior craftsmanship or software updates to ensure a continual need for purchasing new equipment. Familiarity can only be established over time. A foremost concern is readability, for though the human eye will adapt to longer exposure times to electronic stimuli, it remains difficult to enjoy an electronic work for as long a time as one can a book.

Moving images will survive, though perhaps that is too young a model. Music has undergone about as many transformations as the written word, be it private amusement, communication, traveling minstrels, orchestral engagements, wax cylinders, vinyl and digital storage. Books will continue to thrive, fluidly, stubbornly, but mainly out of necessity.

Writing Cards


The Electro-Map Menagerie → March 20, 2003 Iraq

July 27, 2007

Today’s map is a respectful work of collective memory, in memoriam. It is the Iraq War Coalition Fatalities map.

The methodology of the map encompasses both time and space in a way other maps in the Menagerie have not done. Beginning in March, when the Iraq war officially began, and current up until February 13, 2007, the map depicts verified coalition fatalities as an animation overlaid upon a map of Iraq, showing 10 frames a second — one frame for each day. Every death is a tiny black dot, accompanied by a ticking sound which is softer or louder depending on the number of fatalities at any particular moment in time.

The criterion for verified fatalities as well as the source of the data are stated in the “about this project” section of the website. I cannot link directly to it however because the Javascript is written to encourage visitors to experience the map in a particular way. I highly recommend letting it run its course, and turning up the volume as well, even while reading the supplementary information.

I used to live in Asheville, North Carolina, and watching this map reminds me of a hotly contested billboard that was off a side street in downtown Asheville. Just after the war began, someone rented both sides of a tiny little billboard and kept a running tally (updated roughly weekly for a time) of coalition fatalities, as well as officially stated coalition force numbers and roughly estimated civilian casualties. After a time, as the war continued to grow economically and humanly burdensome, resentment about the billboard began also to grow in conservative communities, until one day a privately hired poster-board company was caught in flagrante delicto, pasting a pro-war advertisement over the already rented billboard. Once exposed, the company undid their work and claimed to not know that they were performing an illegal act, and as far as I know there was never a civil suit against them, or against the group that hired them. I eventually came to know those who posted the list of fatalities, and one of them had a son who, at the time, was serving in Iraq…

I dedicate today’s Electro-Map to that Hilliard Avenue billboard. (My only regret is that I could not find an equivalent project detailing civilian casualties, which would undoubtedly be louder and more active, but much less accurate.)

Tomorrow, an Electro-Linguistic spaghetti bowl.


Luxury to Read

July 14, 2007

Flying can be nerve-wracking for someone like me who doesn’t really like to fly. I think it’s being so far from the ground, rather than any nausea or fear of aeroplane safety, that rubs grit into the animal fear center of my brain as assiduously as a penitent with a worry stone. There are more geometries to be worried about in a plane, as opposed to an earth-bound accident. Irrational, I know, but persuasive.

A great pleasure of flying for me though is reading. Being forced to inhabit isolated pockets of time like that, where my normal penumbral distractions and responsibilities have no power, can be such a godsend. There is a wonderful little story by Isaac Asimov that I read when I was 16 or so which explains a bit of the pleasure of such isolated pockets of time. It’s part of his short story collection Azazel.

azazel.jpg

Azazel is a loosely connected cycle of stories based around the eponymous Biblical Demon, a mischievous little imp who grants the spoken and unspoken wishes of a gentleman named George. All of these wishes are taken quite literally, and predictably all of George’s best laid plans go awry. Unfortunately I cannot remember the title of the story I am reminded of, but the gist is this:

George’s writer friend complains to him that he is sick of waiting everywhere he goes, sick of the grocery store lines, sick of waiting for a table at restaurants, sick of waiting for taxi cabs, just altogether sick of the modest inefficiencies in his daily life. Azazel hears this complaint, and without George’s explicit request to do so, Azazel corrects the writer friend’s problem without delay.

George doesn’t run into his friend for a little while, but when he finally does the writer seems haggard, aggrieved and generally depressed. Unbeknownst to the writer, he needed those isolated pockets of time to daydream, create and process his ideas for which he has no time anymore to conceive of or hash out. He is miserable because of his lack of self-awareness; he is consumed by a pernicious bout of writer’s block since he did not comprehend the precise value of his time.

The perfect little story to read when you’re 16 and full of beans, asea in the chemical wash that besets us all after puberty. Something stuck with me, and made me a little more patient and sensitive to bubbles of frustration that might afflict me from time to time. The older I get this is easier to forget, especially now that I am in graduate school and drink espresso most every day. I do not want to be like an old boss of mine from the now-defunct Child World (or, Children’s Palace) chain, whom a fellow manager once described memorably as a “guy who takes red lights as a personal offense.”

I mentioned in an earlier post about Haruki Murakami that I hadn’t yet read his new novel, After Dark, and on my flight over to Seattle I finally had the time to invest; I finished it while still in the air, actually. It’s a modest little thing, more like a novella than anything else, but unfortunately I think it would’ve worked better as a short story…

afterdark.jpg

After Dark (Afutādāku), Haruki Murakami transated by Jay Rubin ©2007 (originally 2004) Alfred A. Knopf

Many of the best artists seem so original because they have a peculiar world-view that seems so alien but in which we can recognize ourselves, or the contours of our world. Murakami very often mines this terrain by kneading our recognition into a pulsing silhouette of memory and nostalgia, calling forth tendrils of recognition from a deeply submerged mental seabed of symbols, much like Dali, Jung, Borges and Buñuel. Unfortunately, for many artists and thinkers who inhabit these spaces for too long, their initial insight becomes a locked groove, cycling endlessly over that same grainy inch of inspiration, and what they represented so powerfully at first becomes an aenemic cliché teetering on the edge of parody.

Murakami has flirted with this in several of his works, alternatively successfully (as in A Wind-Up Bird Chronicle) and disappointingly (Sputnik Sweetheart, anyone?). After Dark is nearly a failure, but there is enough tweaking of his formula to keep it interesting for a time. His central conceit is that there are two worlds which inhabit us all, and it is the struggle to maintain a distinct separation between the two that fuels the emotional psychology of his characters. He is like David Lynch in this respect; each of them repeatedly returns to either the idea of the doppelgänger or of the homunculus, and each has an overwhelming need to make this separation explicit. For Lynch, it can appear as corporeal agents who freely traverse both worlds, or in the case of Twin Peaks it is the Black and White lodges. For Murakami, it is a rift in a person’s consciousness, a mysterious disappearance or a physical twin. No matter how firm our identification with a sense of reality, there is an equally tenable alternate reality holding scissors to our worryingly thin umbilical thread.

In After Dark the doppelgänger twins are sisters, Eri and Mari. Eri is a hopelessly beautiful model who is condemned to a self-imposed somnolescence throughout the entire book. Mari is her younger sister, and the essential heart of the work. Mari is an insomniac most nights since her sister’s several month-long exile of sleep began, unaware that she is searching for her sister somewhere in the shadowy nether regions of the night. The period after midnight is predictably depicted as an entry-point to alternative worlds, where Mari is beset with trials and nudging revelatory episodes in roughly the same manner as Kubrick’s Bill Hartford during his waking nightmare in Eyes Wide Shut.

The chapters alternate between the metaphoric malaise of each sister, and what is so alienating is that Murakami seems to be slumming it. The symbols do not carry their weight and feel forced upon the story rather than comfortably paired with it. A Videodrome-esque force powers an unplugged television, at one point capturing Eri for a time in a cavernous office space occupied by a plastic masked & chair-bound stranger, indistinctly flickering between two worlds, which is threatening but too obscure to really haunt. Murakami’s characters feel roughly sketched, which can serve as a concise metaphor in a developed shorter work but is often not compelling in a longer story,especially where emotional states represent a psychological twilight.

Film Still from Alphaville by Jean-Luc Goddard

Perhaps the strangest part is his narration, in which the observer/reader is supposed to be a camera-eye, somewhat in the tradition of Dziga Vertov’s documentary style conception but likely just a literalization of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, a continued reference point for the story. I don’t know if you’ve seen Alphaville, which is a great sci-fi noir from 1965 sans sci-fi special effects, but it is an accurate symbolic kernel for Murakami to re-imagine. In the dystopian future of Alphaville, private eye Lemmy Caution must navigate a dangerous technocratic dictatorship run by the sentient Alpha 60 mainframe. Alpha-60 has outlawed illogical constructs such as love, poetry and emotion, replacing them with an ideation of logical science and, by extension, Nazism and fascism. The film continually quotes bits from Jorge Luis Borges, in particular “A New Refutation of Time,” which provides the resolution in Caution’s final confrontation with Alpha-60. (I cannot recommend Labyrinths by Borges highly enough, the source of the original Refutation essay)

Murakami’s vaguely noir narrator is intrusive and ingratiating in a strange way, continually appealing to our TV-moderated visual sense while cheapening the motif of electrically charged menace. I’m not a fan of narration which disrupts the flow of a story unless it is absolutely crucial to communicating the symbolic resonance of a story. Far more often than not narration is a substitute for substance, masking holes in the narrative or simplifying the process of revelation central to a well-crafted narrative. Worse, they try to artificially involve you in the story without making the effort to convey the emotional weight naturally. (I am thinking of Tom Robbins’ 2nd-person narrative misfire Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas in particular) I just wonder why he chose to use a narrator who speaks directly to the readers, and it never became clear to me unless he is writing with an eye toward the eventual cinematic treatment…

Like Lynch before him, who nowadays is endlessly recycling symbolic content in an accelerating circle of fragmentary polarization, Murakami is at risk of seeming like a one-trick pony if he doesn’t ease up on using and abusing his highly personalized semiotic universe. Perhaps he needs to slow down, and appreciate any opportunities for any restful isolated pockets of time. My advice to you then is to read his earlier works first, and though After Dark isn’t as bad as Sputnik Sweetheart it is not essential, more of a holding pattern than a fully realized narrative. For me it just deepened my admiration for the numerous brilliant works he has already so effortlessly created.