Peter Brantley: I just want to punc­tu­ate Richard’s talk here because he flew here today from New York, and to be with his kid tomor­row morn­ing he’s fly­ing back tonight. So Richard gets anoth­er round of applause. 

Richard Nash: Yeah, my daughter’s my cur­rent phase of my life. And Books in Browsers used to be a cou­ple of weeks ear­li­er in the year, right around her birth­day. And so in some ways my daughter’s absence has always been a part—has always been a pres­ence of this for me. And in the talks that I was able to hear this after­noon, I was think­ing about oth­er pres­ences. Not just the his­to­ry of Books in Browsers itself, which while the sub­ti­tle this year may be Telling Small Stories,” I think you could say that Books in Browsers is an anthol­o­gy that is cul­mi­nat­ing to be a very big sto­ry, but told humbly. And that’s part of what I think is so impor­tant about it. 

And it echoes sto­ries of my life of the last twen­ty years. I pub­lished queer com­ic antholo­gies when I was a print pub­lish­er in the 2000s. And in the 1990s I was an avant garde the­ater direc­tor. And when I walked in this after­noon, I was not expect­ing to see Anne Bogart’s Viewpoints on a slide at a con­fer­ence called Book in Browsers. But that’s how spe­cial it is. And part of what was so charm­ing for me about that is that the title of my talk is the title of a play. A play by sort of the mad­man in the attic of the American avant garde the­ater, Richard Foreman, a play called Film is Evil, Radio is Good, which he wrote in 1987

And what he was writ­ing about in that play—and his plays are very in a cer­tain sense rarely about any­thing direct­ly, but we infer what they’re about and it’s obvi­ous­ly quite a provoca­tive state­ment, and one that I thought could be use­ful here. And the state­ment real­ly has to do with view­ing the bat­tle between text and image, a bat­tle that is cur­rent­ly being fought in smart­phones, but has been fought for basi­cal­ly as long as humans have been mak­ing cul­ture and hav­ing argu­ments about how to rep­re­sent that culture.

When He had fin­ished speak­ing with him upon Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the tes­ti­mo­ny, tablets of stone, writ­ten by the fin­ger of God.
Exodus 31:18 [pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

And you know, one of the very very first instances, you might say, of print­ing were the tablets giv­en to Moses, writ­ten by the fin­ger of God. And much as we may feel that books have a kind of spir­i­tu­al or eccle­si­as­ti­cal dimen­sion, they’re not quite as pow­er­ful as two stone tablets.

But of course, what was going on while God was giv­ing Moses the ten com­mand­ments? Moses’ peo­ple were freak­ing out that he was away, and get­ting very anx­ious. And to kind of soothe them­selves, sort of like a like a baby’s tran­si­tion­al object, like a blan­ket, they built them­selves a gold­en calf to ven­er­ate. They cre­at­ed an image in lieu of the Word. 

And things did not go well. So, chaos ensued.

Now the LORD said to Moses, Cut out for your­self two stone tablets like the for­mer ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the for­mer tablets which you shattered.”
Exodus 34:1 [pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

However God, like any rel­a­tive­ly benign pub­lish­er, looked ulti­mate­ly with some grace—if patron­iz­ing or even patri­ar­chal grace—upon the audience/flock/author and said, Well, we’ll do a reprint.” And effec­tive­ly this is the begin­ning of icon­o­clasm, right. This is just Monotheistic Religion #1. The first instance of argu­ments over how to rep­re­sent belief, knowl­edge, cul­ture, how to dis­cuss it, how to inter­pret it.

There were a cou­ple of iffy moments. There were a cou­ple of hereti­cal cults in the Byzantine empire that dis­ap­proved of all the images. But the next big­gie was obvi­ous­ly the Protestant Reformation. Now, what’s inter­est­ing about that is that the Protestant Reformation plays a star­ring role in the his­to­ry of print, in Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, and in our over­all under­stand­ing of the trans­for­ma­tive pow­er of print­ing, of books, and of text.

But recent schol­ar­ship espe­cial­ly has been sort of empha­siz­ing that as impor­tant as the abil­i­ty to pro­duce text with­out roy­al or Roman inter­fer­ence was the icon­o­clas­tic dimen­sion, the desire to destroy all rep­re­sen­ta­tions of reli­gious belief. Largely while appear­ing to be a pop­ulist act, iron­i­cal­ly it was a bit more of an act of if not the 10%, the 5%. It was basi­cal­ly urban mobs destroy­ing rur­al churches.

But there was at least in the­o­ry a more demo­c­ra­t­ic or a more a bottom-up vision, which was that each indi­vid­ual should be enti­tled to read the Bible and inter­pret it for his or her—in that world at the time, most­ly his—self. And that the hypo­thet­i­cal pow­er of lit­er­a­cy, of print­ing, of allow­ing texts to be made avail­able to any­one to inter­pret them as they wish, was pow­er­ful, was tremen­dous­ly pow­er­ful. Even if in prac­tice it was as much an effort to destroy image as it was to build up text. 

And then the third, I think, great wave of icon­o­clasm is one we’ve wit­nessed our­selves in the last cou­ple of years, which was the destruc­tion of numer­ous ruins of Jewish, Christian, Muslim sites in the Near East by ISIS. Islam, the third of the the great monothe­is­tic reli­gions, hav­ing engaged to some degree in icon­o­clas­tic activ­i­ties against oth­er reli­gions. The destruc­tion of Hindu tem­ples and of Buddhist tem­ples, but also within—having an argu­ment with­in, sort of an argu­ment that is in a cer­tain sense Islam’s own inter­nal ref­or­ma­tion. But what you have then is in a very very deep world-historical way a con­flict that is in a cer­tain sense not dis­sim­i­lar from SMS vs. Snapchat, glib as that may sound. 

Now, the inter­est­ing thing, how­ev­er, about this sort of some­what glib oppo­si­tion between tex­tu­al and visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion is that in a num­ber of areas, we have seen them come togeth­er. And I think one of the most inter­est­ing ear­ly exam­ples of that is as paint­ing, as we reached the age of abun­dance in painting—the age of abun­dance in paint­ing hav­ing begun in the 18th century—one of the inter­est­ing things that one had to start to deal with was titling the damn things. Paintings up until the 18th, and even much of the 19th cen­tu­ry, had no name. The idea of some­thing being unti­tled, which is com­mon today, was just the norm. Paintings had no titles.

The title is a byprod­uct of the mobil­i­ty of images
E.H. Gombrich [pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

And titles in paint­ing, as pho­tog­ra­phy comes in to our soci­ety in the late 19th cen­tu­ry, is the cap­tion. And what you start to see going on here is anoth­er kind of way in which argu­ments about con­trol come into play. And you also begin to real­ize one of the trou­bling dimen­sions of visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion, which is that it is dif­fi­cult to cri­tique an image with anoth­er image. If you want to argue with, or cri­tique, or under­mine, or sub­vert, or sat­i­rize, or ques­tion an image, it is very dif­fi­cult to do so by pair­ing it with anoth­er image. Not impos­si­ble, but it is very very dif­fi­cult. And what we by and large tend to do is pair text with image in order to do that. It’s what we start­ed to do as we start­ed to cre­ate more images than we could keep track of.

And as our abil­i­ty to mechan­i­cal­ly repro­duce cul­ture went from the print­ing press to pho­tog­ra­phy to the movie, we encoun­tered the same issue, which is that we made movies that were silent. But it turned out that silent movies on their own didn’t real­ly work. So what did we do before we invent­ed the talkie is we just start­ed adding text.

So again we have anoth­er image-only moment that can’t quite sus­tain itself on its own and has to pull in text in order to be able to sus­tain itself. And that is a process that has con­tin­ued up through Web 1.0, and the present era of mobile sto­ries where even Snapchat feels the need to tap to add a cap­tion, or to have hacks around Snapchat that will cre­ate unlim­it­ed amounts of text.

Yet of course, even with­in that, if we look at the oth­er sort of image-derived meme of the Internet right now, the emo­ji, what the emo­ji we real­ize begins to do is sort of just take us back to some­thing else that we should always have known, which is that in a cer­tain way text is itself an image. Certainly in the West, where we had the Roman alpha­bet and twenty-six let­ters and the imag­is­tic dimen­sion of let­ters was some­thing large­ly restrict­ed to poets and arti­sanal book­mak­ers. In oth­er cul­tures, the ori­gins of words in images remain in the alphabet. 

And so what I think this begins to sug­gest for us is that the debate which I fol­lowed yes­ter­day on Twitter and today actu­al­ly a lit­tle bit in person—and debate maybe isn’t the right word but the ebb and flow, the sort of whorl of con­ver­sa­tion that has been going on here around the rela­tion­ship both between this old­er form (the print­ing press) which was, grant­ed, pro­duc­ing images along­side text but is fun­da­men­tal­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the cre­ation of text, and text as the mode for express­ing and dis­sem­i­nat­ing knowl­edge. And all the oth­er modes of reproduction—first ana­log, now digital—that are gen­er­at­ing images, and observ­ing where the VC dol­lars from both the North of this par­tic­u­lar venue and the South of this par­tic­u­lar venue are flow­ing, they’re tend­ing to flow toward images. 

So that rear guard action that effec­tive­ly begins with God get­ting real­ly pissed off at the Israelites and has con­tin­ued in the form of the Calvinists and ISIS, that rear guard action to attempt to oblit­er­ate images because they are seduc­tive, because they are unin­ter­ro­gat­able by text, is a ten­sion that we need to be aware of as we play with mul­ti­modal, and trans­me­dia, and mul­ti­me­dia, and what­ev­er adjec­tive we’re going to use to describe all these exper­i­ments we’re engaged in. 

We’re not just sort of com­par­ing tech­nolo­gies, and we’re not just mak­ing argu­ments about neu­rol­o­gy. We’re also engaged in an epic multi-civilization argu­ment that I think it behooves us to be aware of as well. And if at any of the fore­go­ing sort of— If there’s any les­son I think to be drawn from the fore­go­ing, it is to say that nei­ther ever wins. By and large images tend to always be in the lead, always run­ning ahead because of ease of con­sump­tion, because it requires less brain pro­cess­ing on our parts. But text is nev­er oblit­er­at­ed. It’s a race in which the image is always in the lead and text is always behind, but there is no fin­ish line. There is no point we get to where one or the oth­er is the victor.

[A]ll media, from the pho­net­ic alpha­bet to the com­put­er, are exten­sions of man that cause deep and last­ing changes in him and trans­form his envi­ron­ment. Such an exten­sion is an inten­si­fi­ca­tion, an ampli­fi­ca­tion of an organ, sense or function.
Marshall McLuhan, The Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan”, Playboy Magazine, March 1969

And if there is in some way some moment at which the fight may not mat­ter any­more, I think it would be inter­est­ing to turn to McLuhan for an under­stand­ing of of where that might be. And one of the things that McLuhan, espe­cial­ly toward the end of his life and espe­cial­ly in of all places Playboy inter­view he did in [1969], talked about was to under­stand that media is effec­tive­ly an exten­sion of our cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem. That they are like a blind man with a cane; the cane effec­tive­ly becomes part of the body. In oth­er words it starts to be—you sort of see the begin­ning of what in oth­er con­fer­ences might be called the cyborg.

And what I think is the poten­tial endgame for the text vs. image bat­tle is effec­tive­ly telepa­thy. And I thought it would be fun to sort of close Books in Browsers with a sug­ges­tion that the endgame is in fact no media what­so­ev­er. That the endgame effec­tive­ly becomes that point in human his­to­ry, whether 50,000 or 500,000 years from now, when there is no rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Where ideas not only are not copy­rightable but there’s no point in even ren­der­ing them in any fixed form, because they’re basi­cal­ly being trans­mit­ted from one brain to the other.

And lest this sound utter­ly ludi­crous, the begin­nings of tech­no­log­i­cal work is being done around this. There was a test done last year, or eigh­teen months ago, in which three peo­ple in Kerala in India and one per­son who I think was in Italy trans­mit­ted thoughts to one anoth­er via the Internet, using brain/computer inter­faces on either end. Now, this was as you might imag­ine incred­i­bly prim­i­tive. It basi­cal­ly involved the per­son speak­ing, as it were, to think hand” or foot” when watch­ing a ball move across a screen. And as he did so, if the ball went up he was sup­posed to think hand;” if the ball went down he was sup­posed to think foot.” And 8,000 miles away— Or, actu­al­ly, a 0 or 1 was sent to three peo­ple 8,000 miles away. And over the course of 140 bits, two words were spo­ken, hola” and ciao.”

And that is the first record­ed human instance of telepa­thy, hola and ciao. I don’t real­ly have a spec­tac­u­lar clos­ing line with which to end that. So I think I’ll just say hola, and ciao.

Further Reference

Abstract for this talk at the Books in Browsers site.


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