Administrative note: comment streams and the election of 2016

During the officially concluded but still continuing American election campaign of 2016, the kind of people who inhabit the mud at the bottom of comment streams began rising, amid bubbles of swamp gas, into the light. By way of mitigating pollution, I have closed the posts on this blog to further comments, effective December 28, 2016.

Music and laughter and lectures and sports — day after day — week after week

Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas is a Lives of the Poets in the mode of magical realism: thirty short biographies of imagined Fascist writers living far from the power centers of Fascism, followed by two imagined bibliographies. In the bibliographies, one descriptive term that recurs is mimeographed. When Nazi Literature in the Americas was a new book, that word connoted a pathetic struggle against indifferent history. Literally, to mimeograph a book was (in the interpretation accepted at the time, Bolaño’s time) to communicate something insignificant. But insignificance in our time, Facebook’s and Twitter’s time, isn’t what it was then. At least one of the terms of its unmeaning, the word mimeograph, has vanished, carrying its own meaning into oblivion.

You can understand what happened by surveying some of its associated dates. Nazi Literature in the Americas was first published in Spanish in 1996, and Bolaño died at the age of 50 in 2003. An English translation of his book followed in 2008, but by then there remained almost no anglophone readers under the age of 50 who could interpret the word mimeograph in its 1996 sense. For a dwindling number of the old, mimeograph evoked the coarse softness of a thick spongy paper, the warm motherly smell of an oily ink, and possibly a culturally mediated memory like the one in John Updike’s mid-twentieth-century short story “A Sense of Shelter” that forms within a high school boy dreaming of himself as a future man of letters while he cuts a school newspaper cartoon into a waxen stencil made soft and impressible by the warmth of a light bulb. In the time of the mimeograph, all of these phenomena — feel, smell, sentimental New Yorker symbol — came together in a complex of meanings. But for readers of Bolaño experiencing the word mimeograph without having lived through its body of evocations, no significance.

But experience never stops desiring to communicate itself, and some of its desire has always been redirected from dead memory to living creative form, mimeographed or other. In Canada in 2015, a hack of the online dating service Ashley Madison revealed that the great majority of subscribers were men, and the “women” who messaged to them about love were cyberbots, both as dead and unreal and as real and living as Bolaño’s imaginary writers. At the same time in the United States, hundreds of employees in Walmart’s distribution centers were filling carts with stock at the direction of a bot named (or “named”) Jennifer VoicePlus which (or “who”) spoke in an individual woman’s voice with each of them, one on (so to speak) one. Jesse LeCavalier listened in on a few of the conversations and reported:

Voice-directed picking’s actual hardware includes standard communications equipment. Workers receive instructions and vocalize confirmations through headsets. But they are not speaking to a human at the other end of the communications channel. Rather, their confirmations are part of a feedback process in which their voice signals are translated to signals understandable to the voice recognition software, the responses are processed, and in turn they are translated back into signals comprehensible to humans. In this sense, operators are not “talking” to “The Voice” but are entering data into a set of algorithms that provide responses. Managers praise voice-directed picking systems for the ease with which operators can learn to use them. Workers can be trained in a matter of hours rather than the days or even weeks required for other systems. Thus there is little incentive for companies to invest in their employees. Since fewer resources are necessary to bring new employees to a satisfactory performance level, voice-directed systems significantly diminish the consequences of high turnover. Workers, like the software that commands them, can be replaced quickly, with only limited and temporary reductions in productivity. The new forms of literacy demanded of [distribution center] workers are impossible to achieve without the aid of some kind of augmenting technology to mediate between computers and humans.  (168)

The augmenting technologies evolve from year to year, but the desire for mediation has always been with us. One new form of literacy or another is always everybody’s first language: the primal reaching out for a hand to keep us from falling into mute solitude. We don’t need training to grasp at that.

For the solstitial festival of 1924, for example, an artist imagined a black-suited old man stretching his arms into newly populated air as if his body were remembering what it and music had once done with each other. Behind him, two laughing children in sleepwear glowed white. Light had returned to their morning. “It reaches out and out,” cried ecstatic language in its io Paean to the augmenting technology. Those who cried the words and he who painted the picture understood that the old man was as far beyond knowing what was happening to him as a baby is from knowing why his first step has filled everyone around him with joy, but both the baby and the old man understand without having to know.

Of course we adults who will realize the understanding by buying the Radiola have undertaken the mediating chore of bringing the music and laughter and lectures and sports into a world that (we know, even if the baby and the old man don’t) can never be filled enough with music, can never be made fully happy. Soon enough the music will grow fungible, and the musicians. Soon enough even love and its enclosing bodies will go virtual and be outsourced to a purely notional Canada. But for now the gesture of stretching away is a dance that is different for the first time from other dances. For the first time, the elderly dancer brings music down from the ether to himself as he dons his fawnskin — aged Tiresias, he who knows the secret of what it is to be a man! — and prepares to sing io Paean in chorus with Radiola.

Sources:

Roberto Bolaño, Nazi Literature in the Americas, trans. Chris Andrews. New Directions, 2008.

Jesse LeCavalier, The Rule of Logistics: Walmart and the Architecture of Fulfillment. University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

John Updike, “A Sense of Shelter.” The New Yorker 16 January 1960, pp. 28-34.

The Radiola advertisement, from The Literary Digest 20 December 1924, is reprinted at http://blog.vintascope.com/post/154641194549/radiola-19241220-literary-digest. I have restored it in Photoshop.