The papers that came in from the Hong Kong students weren’t in ESL. They weren’t incoherent, not at all. But they were incomprehensible. The year was 1977, my first as a professor of English at the University of Hawaii, and the assignment had been ordinary by American undergraduate standards: a reading of a text, five typed pages long. One of the Hong Kong students gave me what I’d asked for, but from each of the others I received only a startling surprise: a thick wad of lined notebook paper consisting of thirty pages hand-copied, word for word, right out of the textbook.

This wasn’t cheating — not in any ordinary sense of the idea. There couldn’t have been any intent to deceive. The students must have known that I’d read the book. But then what had they given me? Why in the world would anybody want to look at it? I tried asking the students, but that didn’t help at all. With tears glittering in their eyes, they protested that they had to do their work that way, because that was what they had been taught in school. And (with indignation added to the tears) NO!, they couldn’t type their papers either. They had to copy the words by hand. That was what they had been taught.

Finally the student who had done the assignment American-style rescued me. In Hong Kong as of 1977, she explained, there were two school systems: the British and the Chinese. She had attended a British school and received pretty much the same education she would have received in England. It transferred right over to the University of Hawaii, an American school in an Unamerican locale. But the Chinese schools were strictly Confucian. An English class there wasn’t about learning English; it was about learning to ascribe the moral authority of tradition to a repeated activity — in this case, a muscle activity called “writing.” My own sense of the word “writing” had nothing to do with it.


A few weeks ago somebody from an electric utility commented in Salon about how much his industry has been changed by the computer. In his building, for instance, there was once a large room full of draftsmen. No more — and when I read that word “draftsmen” on my screen I suddenly realized that I hadn’t read it at all, anywhere else, for who knows how many years now? An entire category of labor, its name and its idea, have gone obsolete.

Drafting room, War Production Board, Washington, 1942.

The draftsman’s pipe is no more, and so is the draftsman. The War Production Board, likewise, fulfilled its purpose and then vanished into history. Labor and laboriousness, however, remain in effect and on wartime footing. Yesterday, for instance, I posted a note about a mysterious daily attempt, apparently originating from many sources in Poland, to reach a note about Margaret Bourke-White that I posted to this blog a year ago. I’d guess that that busily repeated simulation of a desire to read has something to do with a larger cyberprocess that has been going on all year now: a massive effort to take over computers running WordPress (like mine, for this blog) and turn them into automated spam engines. Here, for instance, is a screenshot that I took last night with the help of the tracking program StatComm. It displays a barrage of attempts to log into “The Art Part” by hundreds of cyberpersonae attempting to impersonate me.

And in this morning’s screenshot, the tracking program Wordfence displays a tiny part of the ongoing effort, universalized all through cyberspace, to take over any computer running a WordPress page passworded with the default name admin. To the algorithm running that process, the word part of the term password has nothing to do with that human thing, writing in words. It’s only a coefficient to be changed in order to change communication from a manpower to something with a less anachronistic name.

While we still can, however, let’s consider one more labor function from the past. At the right of Ford Madox Brown’s Victorian allegory Work, two writer-sages, Frederick Denison Maurice and (in the hat) Thomas Carlyle, contemplate a repeated muscle activity under the aspect of its ideal form. In his poem addressed to Maurice, “Come, when no graver cares employ,” Tennyson envisioned that ideal as a series of laborious imperatives:

How best to help the slender store,
How mend the dwellings, of the poor;
     How gain in life, as life advances,
Valour and charity more and more.

A century and a half later, the shovel and the horse and the barefoot man with vegetation on his head are as obsolete as any draftsman, and the vocabulary word “charity” means something different when its culture’s writer-sage is Ayn Rand. Still, wouldn’t Frederick Denison Maurice and Alfred, Lord Tennyson have wanted us to hope that there may still remain something valorously human in Polish cyberspace — some impulse, for instance, toward actually reading my post about Margaret Bourke-White?

In that hope, let’s honor Maurice and Tennyson and Bourke-White as my students once honored Confucius. I registered Bourke-White’s photographs with the help of the fine muscles of my eyes, but then I wrote about them with the help of unembodied language. What I wrote may be unrepetitive after all, and subject to non-mechanical variation, and therefore untranslatable except in an error-prone, merely human way. Napisz komentarz w polu!