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.

Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Cash App, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.