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« Six years and sickly - Happy Birthday A.B. :-) | Main | The Lord Is My Shepherd (Norman Costa) »

October 20, 2011


@ Dean:

The biographer and historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, said that it is difficult to pen a unique telling on a subject that has attracted the attention of other writers. After researching eight different accounts of a familiar event, over a period of time, your fresh take on the subject might not be terribly different from that of another writer. She and many writers have found themselves in the same pickle and settled with a complaining author.

I have used phrases and sentence fragments that I found especially clever and packed with meaning. A few examples are "thermal inertia," "sole arbiter of truth," and "exclusive access to revelation." Christopher Hitchens, when asked how one can learn to write, says to read authors you like very much. When you do, it is hard not sound like them, and not to use the same or very similar expressions. Heck, early Beethoven is difficult to distinguish from Mozart.

Easy access to, and reproductions of, creative output can only be a good thing for the development of culture and of the individual. Of course, I do not advocate out and out thievery. I wonder, though, if we need to expand ground rules of fair personal use.

I think you are saying that unlimited appropriation of creative writing, as an example, isn't likely to transform anyone into a great, or even a good, writer. If one of the properties of creative output is a discontinuity with history, as I believe, there are only so many people who can make such a contribution.

Now, what about uniqueness of the 'I' in profile settings and parameters for access? I may be what I eat, but am I what I check on my FB account page? I hope not.

Norm: I'm never sure what I'm saying. Help from others is always welcome. Here, I was trying to sort out feelings (nothing more, pace Morris Albert) about two phenomena: 1) popular and, to me, bizarre cathexis in highly imperfect gadgetry, and 2) evolving parameters of artistic effectiveness, independent of the technological circumstances that contribute to them. In other words, it is conceivable that our urge to copy and our increasing tolerance and acceptance of doing so--as an artistic practice--could be as much a function of the massive amount of accumulated artistic production out there, even in a pre-Web, pre-mobile world. Even in 1980, I could read, and therefore copy verbatim and claim as my own, Moby Dick. Digital technology makes that task easier in some respects, but it's only one force at work driving me to accomplish the task.

In fact, I kinda sorta agree with Goldsmith. Mere rote copying of a text will induce a transformation, if you're paying attention. This is only one thread of Goldsmith's message, but I buy it. Goodwin is in a different situation, being a historian targeting a wider audience than academic specialists. Consequently, perhaps she's a bit sloppier about the apparatus of citations that scholarship usually demands. So, she's stuck trying to produce a fresh account of a stale topic, and unless she can highlight her incremental contribution to the field, she ends up looking like a re-hasher.

"Heck, early Beethoven is difficult to distinguish from Mozart." Two nights ago, during a traversal of one of the volumes of Paul Lewis' Beethoven cycle, I had just that thought.

Dean - I hadn't come across Walter Benjamin's essay before, and its examination of the changing "aural" nature of art crystallized inchoate discomfort I've always felt with the way people discuss artwork. To me it has always seemed obvious that if you could make thousands of perfect copies of the most famous paintings and put copies in every high school, the situation would be almost perfectly analogous to that with copies of A Clockwork Orange (for both book and film). Which is to say first that this would be a Good Thing, and second that there'd be no deeper reason to excessively value the Original than there is to locate the value of a great book in that copy which was first personally handwritten or typewritten by the author. Annotated versions or drafts are a different matter of course, but again a good photocopy of a draft works just as well as the original paper, unless you're doing some weird analysis involving X-ray analysis or microscopes and pollen or such. That we don't treat painting this way (and surely we could make perfect reproductions with today's technology of at least many watercolors) has made me find something disturbingly fetishistic about the process of appreciation. Talk of 'aural' characteristics really nails that down for me; it connects it to the phenomenon of bidding for Elvis's guitar, or saving your grandfathers fountain pen, or undertaking a pilgrimage to Dostoevski's estate to examine his writing desk. Which is to say we assign some sort of emotional significance that is of itself not directly related to aesthetic evaluation.

By that token I'm not sure I'm following your ascription of aural characteristics to iPhones and other gadgets. Does anyone at all think this iPhone right here (unlike even this particular copy of Lolita) has numinous value? Again, I can only vaguely even conceive of anyone being deeply attached to a particular CD or MP3 recording of some song. I suppose you could say that the concept of the iPhone has been given aural significance, but - given that you can churn them out on assembly lines - where else could you possibly locate it, and how does the iPhone differ (except in merit) in this regard from how we treat great photography or film or cinema? Why do we need to go beyond the 'reality-distortion-field' type treatment of iProducts in distrusting the hype surrounding everything Apple or Jobs?

Prasad has put it much better than I can. Then againm I have had this discussion with Dean before ... more or less!

The 'genius' of all the iProducts lies in their bringing what was the purview of those in the know and with physical access to anyone who could shell out a few hundred bucks, all packaged in a module that was a 'designer's delight'. But the 'designer's delight' is more a of perception and marketing strategy, I feel. Case in point: Last year, I received my first iProduct-one of the 'cute' iPod Nanos with a touch screen, silver case. I struggled for more than a few minutes to figure out how the clip worked. The hinge that should have been obvious wasn't, leading to my pressing on the wrong side and fearing that I would break the device before I started using it. Sleek design it may be,as hailed by the legions of adorers, but too sleek and not intuitive, is to me, bad design.
There is nothing I fear so much as being handed my husband's iPhone and being asked to figure out a map route. By the time I have managed to zoom in on the appropriate location, the screen goes dark, and I've lost my way to the correct app. So much for handing over the iProduct to a total newbie.
Maybe part of the charm of these is that one has to be an acolyte and power-user to really enjoy it, kind of like the informed music connoisseur who turns up their nose at the evaluations of those less accomplished in their knowledge and understanding of the music. A simple enjoyment of a simple tune is not for the likes of us.

Let me respond first to Prasad's good comments. Even if nobody in particular thinks his or her iPhone unit is holy, bucket-loads of people behave as if they think so. The death of Jobs was an opportunity for true believers to genuflect to his "vision" (can't get much more aural than that, can you?) My point was that this circumstance seems to occur DESPITE the obvious mass-reproducibility of the devices, and that while we've all grown very savvy and blasé about the attractions of art and artistic creativity, we nevertheless respond to a compulsion to invest faith-based desire in something. These days, thanks to Jobs, it's acceptable, even cool, to cathect on gadgets. I have heard at least one person proclaim, "The iPhone has changed my life."

I have used the occasion of Jobs' death to spring this post, but I don't mean it to focus exclusively on Apple's line, although it's an easy target. One of the reasons it's easy is that the marketing folks for Apple work to make their fans adore their products. I also meant to highlight the cognate quality, not the precise identity, of digital technological reliance on personal settings--"my" this and "i" that--and the uniqueness of special, original works of art that provokes the aura Benjamin attributes to them.

X-ray analysis of, say, important and scarce printed works is, indeed, a specialized undertaking, but there's nothing particularly weird about it. There are good reasons, including the personal excitement it stimulates, to make such investigations, which are not generally carried out by fetishists. It's easy to confuse the ordinary enterprise of working to understand a text, be it an easily copied technical manual or collection of sonnets, with the more rare experience of loving this very copy of one. Shortly after I began work at a public library twenty years ago, one of my colleagues brought to me a recently donated copy of Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat. It was the copy with which I had learned to read in the early '60s, inscribed with my name in my mother's hand. Any copy of TCITH will do to read to my children these days, of course, but it's nice to have the "original" for reasons unrelated to my appreciation of the literary work.

Benjamin wasn't urging this confusion. He was characterizing a general disposition to art supported in part by social hierarchies and access to expertise. Those underpinnings were unsettled with the expansion of industrial technologies. The essay is famously ambivalent. Is Benjamin advocating for the new democratic reach of art, or lamenting the withering of the aura? Both, I'd say. (Another of his popular essays describes his intimate reflections on unpacking his library of books and admiring their tactile qualities.) So, while I agree that there is a fetishistic quality to uncritical appreciation of "great" art, it isn't the case that all heightened appreciation of great art is misguidedly irrational. And even if perfect reproduction of Painting X is possible, most people experience the original X in a museum or collection, a setting that contributes not insignificantly to the sacred experience of reception of X. Hang a painting of Elvis in fluorescent hues on black velvet in the National Portrait Gallery in D.C. and it'll be viewed differently than one hanging on a wall of a living room in a trailer park. That has nothing to do with fetishism, except to the extent that museums seek to provoke it.

Amen, Sujatha. All the chit-chat about convenience and life-changing immediacy of access, but the payoff, in my experience, too, is frequently less than satisfactory.

My Android HAS NOT changed my life although I must say that the Google navigation app in it is far superior to the Mapquest one in my husband's iPhone. But the washing machine, diswasher, the automatic sprinkler system in my yard and the vacuum cleaner HAVE changed my life compared to what was available to my mother (or rather, her servants) in India. The worshipful attitude towards technology depends on which part of our lives we are trying to simplify. That said, I haven't yet experienced an "aura" emanating from any of these appliances and outfits.

I see Dean's point about some people's overly reverential attitude towards sleekly marketed electronic goods. But is that so different from the genuflection before high class fashion designers, artists or high end automobile makers? While the last few are mostly out of the reach of the average consumer, electronics like those marketed by Apple and Microsoft are not. Hence the volume of the adoring sighs about Steve Jobs' latest product is a sound that echoes around the world. But the awe is not different in quality at all. I am equally irritated by the lust after the "i" this or "my" that in electronics as I am with those who brag about the latest acquisition of outlandishly styled (and priced) haute couture, million dollar automobiles and art cognoscentis absorbing the "aura" of a Marc Rothko canvas painted a dull charcoal gray. There is no difference. Electronic toys have just made consumer snobbery affordable.

As for a book, piece of art (or an insignificant gizmo for that matter) having a special (sacred?) aura, I confess that it has happened to me sometimes. But it is always associated with a personal experience of my own and not so much to do with the artist. Dean's childhood copy of TCITH surfacing in his adult work place would qualify; Elvis' picture and even the unquestionable masterpieces in the National Gallery would not, no matter how beguiling the surroundings and what steep price was paid for them. This is akin to asking, "Which do you enjoy more? A relaxing lunch with a good friend or a fleeting handshake with a celebrity?" The world's population is probably evenly divided on the answer to that question.

An article on 3 QD which describes Steve Jobs' end-of-life choices and eventual exit. Was he himself for or against technology? Or did he just not trust the available technology to save or prolong his life?

And yes, the inevitable reference to his "beatification" is brought up by a reader in the comments.

We have a lot of thinking to do these days about what smartness entails. It won't help to wonder whether Jobs or Leonardo or Tiny Tim, as individuals, were smart. That will just mess with our understanding of intelligence. (Nevertheless, I can't let this one go without a snide comment: "Steve Jobs did what all of us do these days. He went on the Internet." I suspect he did not use the Internet to get directions to a local library or to purchase a few instructive articles and books.)

The folks at Slashdot, too, allude to His saintliness, albeit in a cute misspelling: "beautification." The rest of the post is fun, though.

The aura is less likely to emanate from any work of art nowadays. That was Benjamin's point. But it wasn't the individual experience of art that served as the trigger. It was the social estimation of great art separated from the masses. My wandering into the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena and gazing wistfully at Raphael's glorious Madonna and child speaks of my own developing tastes. I may have been held in thrall by a vestige of the aura, but more likely at that time, in the 1980s, the withering was nearly complete. I only knew, vaguely, that I was supposed to respect a greatness not immediately available to me.

The Norton Simon in Pasadena is one of my favorite museums. The collection is classy and the size suited for a relaxed tour.

My husband and I play Scrabble quite often. After every ten games or so, when the score card fills up, he is in the habit of making a grand total of all the games played until then. More often than not, the tally shows that I win a greater number of games on average and he by bigger margins. Frequently, his overall score exceeds mine despite his having lost more games. The question implicit in this exercise that remains unasked for the sake of marital peace is, "Who is smarter?" The answer is as unnecessary in most circumstances as the question.

Yeah, the Slashdot post is typical of many others appearing on the web, now that a somewhat decent interval has elapsed since Jobs' passing and his fan and media driven "beautification" and "beatification" are both more or less complete. I had never heard of Dennis Ritchie until he died soon after Jobs and computer insiders began to lament the passing of the "true genius and pioneer" of computing technologies. I am sure network and cable TV news may have mentioned Ritchie's demise but I missed it - I read about him only in print. Jobs' death on the other hand, generated hour long "special TV reports."

This reminded me of a similar event in August - September, 1997. The death of Princess Diana created a media frenzy, the likes of which I have rarely seen. The beautiful royal celebrity who died in the glamorous city of Paris was quickly "beatified" by the public as well as the media. Five days later, Mother Teresa, a more conventional saint who had come very close to beatification in her life time, died in dreary Calcutta. The international media descended on the Indian city in droves to report MT's death. Several major TV anchors were present but it was clear that most would probably not be there to cover the passing of the old and shriveled "saint" had it not been for their self created fiasco after the death of the sainted princess. They remained for about 24 hours to pay homage (it wouldn't have looked good otherwise). The story of Princess Di went on for months and years.

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