jeweled platypus


tuesday, december 09, 2008
Notes about digital poetry and the history of copyright

I had a lot of fun attending some of this quarter’s events held by the UCSB English department. Here are my scribbles from a couple lectures — filtered through my brain, so they’re not very accurate representations of what was said — to make them searchable for my future reference and to share them too.

Literature.Culture.Media Center Event:
Gaps, Vexes, and the Digitas, Lisa Samuels, November 20

Our printed handout consisted of a screenshot, three pages of poetry, and five pages of Java. That’s my kind of lecture. Samuels talked about two of her works of electronic poetry: a collection of “gap scans” (poetry she has annotated and broken apart using custom software) and “Vex Increment” (a semi-random animation of an appropriated poem, generated by custom software).

She sees the gap scans as visualizations of the deeper meanings of the appropriated poetry, redacting words and parts of words to reveal nuances and marking them up with bits of criticism that appear in tooltips. Learning to see depth is learning to read. Naive reading is linear while expert reading is conceptual. The visual spectacle of the marked-up text is important. “Archipelago poetics”: reaching across little islands of text, reaching between disciplines, etc.

One of her gap scans has a visual element, “If” with radiating lines of text, that reminds of calligrams [like the one on the right]. She says this was a challenge for the student coding the project — text layout routines aren’t designed to let you do wacky things like that. Maybe typewriters could handle it better. The software you use helps determine the kind of poetry you can write, and the kind of poetry you write helps determine the software that you use, etc.

“Vex Increment” is a text animation that goes along with a slow piece played on treated piano, sounding to me like old clocks ticking and chiming. She is interested in randomness within set structures, and she likes patient, non-frenetic delivery of digital work. This work was partly inspired by a speed reading toy with words displayed one at time, like this one. People talk about randomness and pseudo-randomness; reminds me of Oulipo.

The complexity of the custom code generating and displaying her work is related in some ways to the complexity of the text and the analysis. She talked about looking at the code written by her collaborator, trying to read it as a non-programmer, recognizing words and figuring out patterns of whitespace. Punctuation is a type of code within written human language. Whitespace in poetry and code is meaningful but non-functional. She’d like to make the code a more visible part of the project; this makes me think of quines. Looking at code from a literary point of view is not always silly.

She likes A Humument, of course. Book art has a tradition of physically-enacted criticism. Her work also reminds me of a recent post about Williams poems, including interest in generating them programmatically (which happened).

History of Books and Material Texts Research Focus Group Lecture:
The Public Sphere and the Emergence of Copyright, Mark Rose, November 7

“Texts” vs. “works” (Foucault, Barthes). The history of books became a subject with the appearance of the digital. The prehistory of this kind of study was bibliography and textual study.

Milton’s Areopagitica discusses the “public sphere”: private people coming together in a public. An older form of this was the prince representing the land. Public-ity. (Habermas.) Late 17th century.

Areopagitica turned the world of books into little dramas, like “the piazza of one title page” where he compares a title page to courtly rituals, in opposition to the idea of the public sphere. Looking at Milton’s title page, “speech” is big, his name is big, and there are no licensing symbols. The whole thing was a protest against the indignity of licensing.

At this time, books were seen as embodiments of their authors, and authors were seen as living in their books. Books are vital and generative, like people. The brain was understood to be the womb of ideas. Milton talks about “precious lifeblood”; semen was seen as the distillation of blood; this was a biological space; be fruitful and multiply.

The Stationer’s Company was concerned with social and economic propriety and order — wholesome knowledge. The company had a hierarchical structure, with meticulous ritual displays of decorum, confirming their authority. This was the pre-modern structure of princely public-ity.

After the end of licensing, there was a massive amount of publishing. Then, the Statute of Anne provided a limited copyright (1710), not to maintain good order, but to protect individuals. This gives legal reality to the public sphere: authors have a right to their own work. The Statute’s term limits created the public domain. Since then, there has been tension between property and discourse and controversy over term limits. Eldred vs. Ashcroft established that there is (or could be) conflict between free speech and copyright.

The focus in the 18th century was on labor. Copying was not OK, but adaptation took labor so it was OK. In 1841 in the US, this shifted to market value.

The distinction of private vs. public didn’t quite apply to the Stationer’s Company, and it doesn’t quite apply to conglomerates like Viacom.

Dematerialization is latent in the abstracted process of writing.

Early Modern Center Lecture:
The Gutenberg Parenthesis, Thomas Pettitt, October 16

This lecture has informed a lot of what I’ve learned this quarter. The basic idea: the postmodern has much in common with the early modern, and the modern was just a temporary period between the two. But this was almost two months ago, so instead of notes from memory, here’s part of Pettitt’s handout.

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wednesday, march 05, 2008
The Haberdashery Castle via Sebald

I’m making a Google Lit Trip (a Google Earth .kmz file) that traces the first chapter of The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald, and looking up a passing reference from page 4 in order to provide some background information turned out to be rather fun. Sebald likes to do that with his allusions; he’s a sneaky guy. This is the relevant part of my map, with a quote from the book:

screenshot of this section of the map

That château mentioned by the narrator seems to be a real place in Charente, France: Château de La Mercerie, a pastiche of classical architecture that includes replicas of the columns and balustrades of Versailles.

Château de La Mercerie

The story of “the little Versailles charentais or the mad dream of the brothers Réthoré” could be its own Sebaldian sidetrack. Here’s part of one version by people trying to get it renovated, translated from French by the Google monkey:

Thanks to the generosity of an uncle, Raymond and Alphonse Réthoré settle at The Haberdashery in 1924 in the small nineteenth century manor situated at the extreme left of the facade of the present building. ¶ In the thirties, the two brothers are undertaking the expansion of the castle under the direction of Alfonso who renounces his medical studies to concentrate on the architecture.

In 1932, Raymond became mayor of Magnac. He was elected Popular Front on a list radical Socialist…leads a life of unrepentant traveler…During the pomp, construction, and the accumulation of treasures, including paintings by Italian masters, marble, wood and statuary, have become the main occupations of the two brothers. ¶ In 1970, the work has been halted for lack of resources…In 1983, Alphonse dies, then Raymond in 1986. ¶ Three million arrears to the tax authorities, threatening to arrest enforceable, inheritance nightmarish: an auction is organized…

There are still many natives of the region who come to pray at the graves of Raymond and Alphonse Réthoré…The walk is not only Sunday, it reflects the excitement, pleasure confessed and acknowledged those who one day casually meet the mad dream Réthoré brothers. ¶ In the same way that we built the Folies the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, extravagance mégalomaniaque dedicated to pleasure and culture of our past, should not she not come back in the open division and commit accessibility to all in the adventure of our time?

another view

A few pages later in The Emigrants the narrator says, “As long as the weather permitted, Dr Selwyn liked to be out of doors, and especially in a flint-built hermitage in a remote corner of the garden, which he called his folly and which he had furnished with the essentials.” Sebald includes a picture, perhaps of it:

a picture of a folly from page 11

Understanding W. G. Sebald by Mark McCulloh provides an initial analysis of this theme as part of his discussion of a different allusion: “Such ‘follies’ — gardens, monuments, temples, palaces — are perhaps both the natural creation of a subconscious utopian drive as well as a manifestation of man’s tendency to repress transience and mortality” (30). Sounds good to me.

If you’re still curious, The Emigrants Project is my group’s description of why we’re mapping this book for our Cross-Disciplinary Models of Literary Interpretation class, taught by Alan Liu in the English department. In a week or two we’ll make the finished Google Earth files available so that people can download them and mess around.

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sunday, august 05, 2007
Things I found at the bookstore

Poking around William Stout Architectural Books, I picked up Representing the Passions because “passion” is a loaded word and the cover looked pretty, and I skipped to “Observations on the Natural History of the Web” by Horst Bredekamp, which traces a connection between early modern engravings of personified Nature (including the Leviathan) and late-90’s net art gardens: Nerve Garden, TechnoSphere, and Life Spacies II. I like that connection, and it reminds me of the plant-related net art that Petra Cortright has made recently. Horst Bredekamp has also written a book titled The Lure of Antiquity and the Cult of the Machine: The Kunstkammer and the Evolution of Nature, Art, and Technology, which means that he is my kind of academic.

Then I flipped around in a big square book of public art, and I liked this gilded staircase in New York:

a gilded staircase in an old concrete bridge structure

The typography books were generally bland, but Dimensional Typography included amusing bits like “The circumflex and the circumcision are both forms of marking. The three-dimensional extrapolation of the circumflex reveals a distinct homology.” and a connection between crowns of thorns and rhizomes.

When I saw Art Deco Bookbindings on a shelf, I knew I would like the subject:

a blue and yellow cover with a house

There’s more here; most of it is nicely geometric, and I especially like the typographic ones near the end.

Then I looked at the industrial design books and found a neat ad:

a comparison of flowers and glasses of similar shapes

It reminds me of The Architecture of Happiness, page 86:

masculine and feminine glasses

The next page continues, “If we can judge the personality of objects from apparently minuscule features…it is because we first acquire this skill in relation to humans, whose characters we can impute from microscopic aspects of their skin tissue and muscle,” which goes back to the book about passion, since it included an essay about systematized representations of strong emotion in faces. Books are annoyingly physical objects though, so I can’t re-read it right now and include more detail. Of course, the most annoying thing is that the contents of books can’t be bookmarked on, so I have to write something about them.

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thursday, february 22, 2007
Reading for learning various things

Books I have re-read or read or am-reading recently:

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, by Edward R. Tufte — re-read because my New Media professor assigned an article titled “Cornerstones, Pillars, and Pitfalls of Charting” (written in the 1960’s) and I had to give myself an antidote. It reminded me to use circles, not squares, to represent places on a map I am making for the class, and to make street lines thinner:

goleta and downtown with obscure red squares

I first read that book a few years ago, and I felt how good it looked: soft and proud and correct. Now I know a little bit about small-caps and linespacing, and some of its typographical magic is lost in semi-jaded half-conscious analysis.

The Mezzanine, by Nicholson Baker — the only non-assigned fiction that I remember reading and enjoying in the past year or two, which is probably because its subject is minutiae (shoelaces, soda straws, footnotes, memory). I like how the book archives things that are now archaic: record players, backless park benches, and grooveless escalator steps, among others. People who are older than me remember those things, like they remember the references in old Bob Dylan songs, but they are less likely to tell me about ancient perceptions of the Rite-Aid brand than to explain a lyric associated with old emotions.

The Medium is the Massage, by Marshall McLuhan — I got this from the library today and read it all at once. I found it laying face-down on the shelf, with an unlabeled spine; I picked it up, and it surprised me. Of course this book would be full of interspersed and full-bleed images of all kinds, strangely large Helvetica, and clever page-turns, but I didn’t realize any of that before I looked inside. Of course! Anyway, now I know what people mean when they talk about this guy as a prophet; I read him as bursting with joy about the potential of the Web in 2007 when he was thinking about the potential of television and telephones in 1967. One of the best parts of this book is the comments in the margins by other students:

this guy *must* be stoned

I have started reading Type & typography: highlights from Matrix, the review for printers and bibliophiles. I requested the book through InterLibraryLoan because Design Observer linked to it, and today my copy arrived here from — where else? — The University of San Francisco. I miss that city. The first article in this collection tells some history of the tension between beauty and utility in typography; I think the articles about setting math and music and bibles and Bengali will be more interesting.

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friday, october 14, 2005
An unbalanced yet literary banana

I’ve wanted to read The Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan, for a long time. The UCSB library catalog said it was on the shelf, but every time I looked, it wasn’t there. The fifth time I looked, it was on the shelf below. Anyway, I’m hooked after reading fifteen pages. So far it’s about apples, and I like apples — I eat two or three a day (mostly of the Golden Delicious and Fuji varieties, though the Red Deliciouses are OK) — so the smashing of the Johnny Appleseed legend is great. You may remember my study of apple stickers.

There is a book about oranges by John McPhee that I want to read. I read part of it one night, long ago, when I couldn’t sleep and asked my dad for something boring to read. The book might have been the most fascinating thing ever, with all those details and processes and the idea that this is something I drink every day. I wonder if it sparked my interest in books about ordinary things: pencils, libraries, cities, tea kettles, forks, houses, parking meters, food, perfume, and everything that is mundane and complex and tells you something about the world and how people are.

I love books like that. I think I want to write books like that, but I haven’t tried because I don’t know where to start. Journalism seems terribly difficult when you’re teaching yourself. This is why my underground newspaper had three issues and not the ten that were in my brain. But tonight I went to a Daily Nexus (UCSB newspaper) training session, and so I will write about things like meetings and artists to get a feel for this journalism-type thing. Maybe I’ll like it. Maybe they’ll let me write a story about bananas.

For my Letters class, I’m thinking of doing my final project on emails between me and Internet strangers, so feel free to email me.

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I’m Britta Gustafson.

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