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Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Insect Typewriter Companions

In Art, Cinema, Ephemera, Industry, Insects, Literature, Surrealism on December 27, 2009 at 9:28 pm

*Penumbra Report owes its creative genesis in part to the delicate midwifery of an anthropomorphic machine.  I was at Blue Moon Camera and Machine developing film and visiting my friend Christie Spillane, when my partner in slime, Lady Quackery, noticed the elegantly framed poster of NAKED LUNCH above what appeared to be a shrine / display of beautifully refurbished typewriters.  We became hysterical.  In a frenzy we rushed to the display and began typing on the mahines.  After caressing and groping each and every one of those beautiful machines, we tucked in our shirts, pulled up our stockings, fixed our hair, decided we had somehow descended into some sort of temporary madness, and promptly left the store.  We were mere feet from the car when that hot, typological fever took hold of our loins and dragged us back inside hysterically screaming until an early 1930s Underwood No. 5 was purchased.  It’s been true love ever since.

When most people think “typewriter,” they picture something much like the Underwood No. 5.  Why? Because this is the most successful typewriter design in history.  When the Underwood was first introduced, it was only one of hundreds of competing and extremely varied typewriter designs.  But by 1920, this machine, succeeded in defining the stereotype of a typewriter: a machine with four rows of keys and a shift, typing with typebars through a ribbon onto the front of a cylindrical rubber platen. This is the form that still determines our concept of what a typewriter is — or “was.”  The No. 5 was the quintessential Underwood.

The CURE for modern machine angst resides within. Does our disposable culture leave you worried? Fed up with squandering your hard-earned equipment budget on devices rendered obsolete before they are even broken in? Searching for a companion machine with which you might actually have time to become intimately familiar?

Within our Portland, Oregon based facility you will discover a veritable treasure trove of functional, durable, fully warranted mechanical devices, from tried-and-true photographic apparatus to the west coast’s largest selection of refurbished and eager mechanical typewriting machines.

::Blue Moon Camera and Machine::

In some ways typewriters are fascinating because they are the predecessors of the electric processors used today.  As Walter J. Ong puts it, “Since writing came into existence, the evolution of the word and the evolution of consciousness have been intimately tied in with technologies and technological developments.”  Although, the most alluring characteristic about these machines is that they can be seen not only as tools of a bygone era, but independent psychological entities autonomous of human will.  There is something inherently different about a MacBook Pro and an Underwood No.5.  The MacBook is like an inanimate terminal, sterile and often cold to the touch.  On the other hand, the Underwood is pulsating, arousing, virile… almost sentient.  It comes down to the feel of these machines.  A typewriter can be a guiding tutelary spirit or, contrastingly, a demonic presence or pet-like familiar.  The only difference between familiars and demons are the specific ways in which a familiar possesses an individual.  In contrast to demons, familiars do not possess the body.  They rather possess the personality, the soul, the human affective relations and the psychological processes of a victim, but the familiar spirit maintains a differentiated personality with those who attack.  Sometimes the familiar spirit entices the human spirit by appearing friendly and comforting when things go wrong, thus developing a progressive dependence on the spirit and the diminishing reliance of one’s individuality.  Akin to a mercurial spirit, the typewriter acts as a medium (think both senses of the word), that creates a vortex and tearing a hole into other realms.  It has magical powers because it is, in fact, a window — a hole in the wholeness of our world (which is never a seamless wholeness), through which our imagination may come in contact with the symbolic dimension.

The invention of the typewriter changed the course of Western culture, forever mutating the topographical landscape of literature.  Many authors and writers have had unusual relationships with typewriters. Friedrich Nietzsche used a typewriter in an attempt to stem his migraine headaches and his incipient blindness. Mark Twain claimed in his autobiography that he was the first important writer to present a publisher with a typewritten manuscript, for Life on the Mississippi. E. E. Cummings may have been the first poet to deliberately use a typewriter for poetic effect.  Jack Kerouac, a fast typist at 100 words per minute, typed On the Road on a roll of paper so he wouldn’t be interrupted by having to change the paper. Within two weeks of starting to write On the Road, Kerouac had one single-spaced paragraph, 120 feet long.  Another fast typist of the Beat period was Richard Brautigan, who said that he thought out the plots of his books in detail beforehand, then typed them out at speeds approaching 90 to 100 words a minute.  Ernest Hemingway used to write his books standing up in front of a Royal typewriter suitably placed on a tall bookshelf. Tom Robbins waxes philosophical about the Remington SL3, a typewriter that he bought to write Still Life with Woodpecker, and eventually does away with it because it is too complicated and inhuman of a machine for the writing of poetry.  After completing the novel Beautiful Losers, Leonard Cohen is said to have flung his typewriter into the Aegean Sea. William S. Burroughs wrote in some of his novels that “a machine he called the ‘Soft Typewriter’ was writing our lives, and our books, into existence,” according to a book review in The New Yorker (the image to the right is Claes Oldenburg’s eponymous sculpture).

Of course, David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of Burroughs’ novel, Naked Lunch, is perhaps the greatest example of the morbid and perverse relationship between man and typewriter.  In the film, Burroughs’ typewriter is a living, insect-like entity (voiced by Canadian actor Peter Boretski) and actually dictates the book to him.

Onscreen Naked Lunch recalls both The Sheltering Sky and Barton Fink in its respective evocations of the life of the literary exile and the torment of trying to write. Mr. Cronenberg’s hideously clever contribution in the latter realm is the insect-cum-typewriter that supposedly assists Bill in his efforts but clearly has a mind of its own. Both the writing bug and the Mugwump, a man-sized and rather soigné strain of monster, are capable of registering their approval by oozing viscous, intoxicating substances from various parts of their anatomies. “I’d like you to meet a friend of mine,” Bill is told upon encountering his first cigarette-smoking Mugwump on a bar stool in Interzone. “He specializes in sexual ambivalence.”

::Janet Maslin, Drifting In and Out of a Kafkaesque Reality::

Cronenberg and Burroughs share a biologist’s detached view of humans as species.  They view the species in evolutionary terms.  A post-humanist stance that visualizes man as being in a brave new denatured world of permeable boundaries.  Technology reaches directly into unseen depths, stimulating the ganglia and the viscera, caressing and remolding the interior volume of the body.  In this way, Kafka’s Metamorphosis of industrial man into primordial insect parallels the current transformation of mediated man into futuristic machine.

In this video, a robot re-enacts the typing of a love letter from Franz Kafka to Felize Bauer, in which Kafka makes reference to typing the letter on a typewriter and expresses the impact the new writing device has on his train of thought:

The link between insects and technology is not new. To quote Virgil’s Aeneid, “And now Aeneas saw in a side valley a secluded grove with copses of rustling trees where the river Lethe glided along past peaceful dwelling houses. Around it fluttered numberless races and tribes of men, like bees in a meadow on a clear summer day, settling on all the many-coloured flowers and crowding round the gleaming white lilies while the whole plain is loud with their buzzing.” The souls of the dead draw from the rivers of forgetfulness to re-format their hard drives and enter a new life back on earth. Virgil, the son of a beekeeper, makes the comparison between human and bee society throughout his verse. As in the Roman ideal, the world of the bee depends on the rule of a single monarch, and members are ready to sacrifice their lives for the whole. Insect colonies offer themselves up as mirrors for their human hosts. They provide a symbolic language for arguing between the needs of the collective and the individual. Like insects themselves, these representations mutate over time and evolve into exotic models of human behavior. McLuhan spoke of the mission of humans to ‘fecundate’ technology. It was a tenuous metaphor to begin with. Today it barely rates as a metaphor – more like a description.  The industrial nature of insects have made them the perfect symbol for the modern age.

Ladislaw Starewicz (1882-1965), born in Russia from Polish parents was a stop-motion animator who used insects and animals as his protagonists. Biologist, in 1920 he became director of the Natural History Museum in Kaunas. Inspired by the stop-motion animation work of Emile Cohl he began producing nature documentaries about the lives of insects, experimenting with the use of live insects at first and then the animation of small articulated puppets created with the carcasses of dead insects. His insects’ nimble gestures lead one through an array of human emotions, and to a heightened sense of sympathy and forgiveness. This may be why his insects and animals are so easy to relate to, and why they are so notably Eastern European.   Important author, had a great influence on the cinema of animation following up to authors such as Terry Gilliam and Tim BurtonThe Cameraman’s Revenge (1912) is a story of betrayal and jealousy, artistic struggle, with a bit of recursive humor too.

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Thanksgiving.

In Animals, Government, History, Literature, Myth on November 25, 2009 at 4:43 pm

*Above:  A Thanksgiving Prayer by William S. Burroughs.  Dir. by Gus Van Sant.

Some light fare and portentous quotes for the Holiday.  Remember to tip your waiters and enjoy your parade.

Also, if you are feeling really “thankful” today, try donating some time/money/help to Black Mesa Indigenous Support.  Maybe your Grandma would like a Navajo Rug.  Maybe she would rather shit in the blood of our ancestors.  I don’t know the woman.  But when we build our houses with the bones of our progenitors, it is good to pay tribute, lest the ghosts of those we have wronged hunger for flesh of the living.  Just sayin’.

Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for – annually, not oftener – if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors, the Indians.  Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man’s side, consequently on the Lord’s side; hence it was proper to thank the Lord for it and extend the usual annual compliments.

::Mark Twain::

Turkey: A large bird whose flesh, when eaten on certain religious anniversaries has the peculiar property of attesting piety and gratitude.

::Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary::

Got no check books, got no banks.  Still I’d like to express my thanks – I got the sun in the morning and the moon at night.

::Irving Berlin::

To Demeter Eleusinia. O universal mother, Deo famed, august, the source of wealth, and various named: great nurse, all-bounteous, blessed and divine, who joyest in peace; to nourish corn is thine. Goddess of seed, of fruits abundant, fair, harvest and threshing are thy constant care. Lovely delightful queen, by all desired, who dwellest in Eleusis’ holy vales retired. Nurse of all mortals, who benignant mind first ploughing oxen to the yoke confined; and gave to men what nature’s wants require, with plenteous means of bliss, which all desire. In verdure flourishing, in glory bright, assessor of great Bromios [Dionysos] bearing light : rejoicing in the reapers’ sickles, kind, whose nature lucid, earthly, pure, we find. Prolific, venerable, nurse divine, thy daughter loving, holy Koure [Persephone]. A car with Drakones yoked ‘tis thine to guide, and, orgies singing, round thy throne to ride. Only-begotten, much-producing queen, all flowers are thine, and fruits of lovely green. Bright Goddess, come, with summer’s rich increase swelling and pregnant, leading smiling peace; come with fair concord and imperial health, and join with these a needful store of wealth.

::Orphic Hymn 40 to Demeter (trans. Taylor) (Greek hymns C3rd B.C. to 2nd A.D.) ::



Accidental Transhumanist Art: CAPTCHA

In Image, Internet, Language, Literature, Technology on November 22, 2009 at 4:27 pm

A CAPTCHA or Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.  Captcha is a type of challenge/response test used in com  puting to ensure that the response is not generated by a computer.  You may know it from those deliberately distorted or occluded images you see when signing up for online services.  Because other computers are unable to solve the CAPTCHA, any user entering a correct solution is presumed to be human. Thus, it is sometimes described as a reverse-Turing test because it is administered by a machine and targeted to a human, in contrast to the standard Turing test that is typically administered by a human and targeted to a machine.  There is an irony in humans using computers to create a test that distinguishes humans from computers.

You can create your own here.  

What fascinates me is the use of CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA as an unintentional art form.    Something characteristic of this current era is the appropriation of memes and internet phenomena in modern art.  More specifically, CAPTCHA art is a historical record of what is like to live a human life in our culture today.  Upon searching for artwork, I came across this tattoo.  What may seem at first as a symbol for our computer-mediated life is also a validation for all that is truly human. It is a declaration that this flesh has passed the test and is not a machine.

In fact, what I learned is that the old scramble method of CAPTCHA has been replaced with the two-word combination method in a global effort to further human knowledge.

About 200 million CAPTCHAs are solved by humans around the world every day. In each case, roughly ten seconds of human time are being spent. Individually, that’s not a lot of time, but in aggregate these little puzzles consume more than 150,000 hours of work each day. What if we could make positive use of this human effort? reCAPTCHA does exactly that by channeling the effort spent solving CAPTCHAs online into “reading” books.

The book pages are being photographically scanned, and then transformed into text using “Optical Character Recognition” (OCR). The transformation into text is useful because scanning a book produces images, which are difficult to store on small devices, expensive to download, and cannot be searched. The problem is that OCR is not perfect.  reCAPTCHA improves the process of digitizing books by sending words that cannot be read by computers to the Web in the form of CAPTCHAs for humans to decipher. More specifically, each word that cannot be read correctly by OCR is placed on an image and used as a CAPTCHA. This is possible because most OCR programs alert you when a word cannot be read correctly.

That’s right.  Each time you solve one of the reCAPTCHA challenges correctly, you are unknowingly participating in the digitizing of old NEW YORK TIMES articles that were printed before the digital age.  And so you may delight in the knowledge that those tedious puzzles are not merely validation tools, but also accidental poetry and a massive unintentional social conservation project.

Phineas Gage and Phileas Fogg

In History, Literature, Psychology on November 11, 2009 at 4:00 pm

Jules-Verne-TextLately, I’ve been on a bit of a Jules Verne kick.  In particular, I have become fixated on the protagonist from Around the World in Eighty Days:  Phileas Fogg.

Phileas Fogg can be described as being an arcane, stolid, reserved, wanderlustuous, expeditious, untoady, indomitable, burnished, hyperopic, magnanimous, well-mannered, benignant, abstinent, daedal gentleman.  The story itself is quite fun, but what I found to be truly fascinating was the closely linked Philip Farmer meta-fiction: The Other Log of Phileas Fogg:

In an introduction, Farmer posits that Verne’s story was not simply an article of fiction, but the chronology of actual events, which Verne later decided to adapt into a fictional setting. In the book’s epilogue, Farmer playfully alludes to the notion that Phileas Fogg is still alive, and may in fact be the actual author of the story (Farmer notes that they both share the same initials, suggesting that Phillip Farmer is actually an alias for Phileas Fogg).

From Farmer’s perspective, Jules Verne revealed only a small and significantly subdued portion of the actual background and exploits of Phileas Fogg. He establishes that the events surrounding Around the World in Eighty Days is actually a singular aspect of a greater conflict taking place between two immortal alien races, the Eridani and the Capellas. Farmer’s story does not challenge any of the elements of the original text, but rather it adds an ambitious secondary tale taking place behind (and often in between) the scenes of Verne’s material.

Instead of a wealthy dilettante with a taste for odd wagers, Phileas Fogg is an agent of an alien race who have been conducting a secret war on earth for years. His race around the world is part of this arcane war generally designed to help ferret out Fogg’s nemesis: Captain Nemo.  The whole thing is reminiscent of a David Icke speech and has clearly been the inspiration behind League of Extraordinary Gentleman and similar fan fiction.

For those unaware of Farmer’s fiction, it may be interesting to note that he was behind the infamous “Kilgore Trout” pulp:  Venus on the Half-Shell. Evidently the Venutian language is a great source of anagrams for naughty bits (Tunc and Angavi come to mind). The story is of the life and travels of our hero, Simon Wagstaff, the Space Wanderer. He goes around in a giant flying dildo picking up androids and becoming immortal.  Good stuff.

Invariably, typos in my quest led me to the likes of Phineas P. Gage.

On September 13, 1848, 25-year-old Gage was foreman of a work gang blasting rock while preparing the roadbed for the Rutland & Burlington Railroad outside the town of Cavendish, Vermont. After a hole was “drilled” into a body of rock (via a laborious process which today might best be thought of as “chiseling”) one of Gage’s duties was to add blasting powder, a fuse, and sand, then compact (“tamp down”) the charge using a large iron rod. Possibly because the sand was omitted, around 4:30 PM:  the powder exploded, carrying an instrument through his head an inch and a fourth in [diameter], and three feet and [seven] inches in length, which he was using at the time. The iron entered on the side of his face, shattering the upper jaw, and passing back of the left eye, and out at the top of the head.

Amazingly, Gage spoke within a few minutes, walked with little or no assistance, and sat upright in a cart for the 3/4-mile ride to his lodgings in town. The first physician to arrive was Dr. Edward H. Williams:

I first noticed the wound upon the head before I alighted from my carriage, the pulsations of the brain being very distinct. Mr. Gage, during the time I was examining this wound, was relating the manner in which he was injured to the bystanders. I did not believe Mr. Gage’s statement at that time, but thought he was deceived. Mr. Gage persisted in saying that the bar went through his head….Mr. G. got up and vomited; the effort of vomiting pressed out about half a teacupful of the brain, which fell upon the floor.

This has become a case study for Psychology students as the damage to only the frontal lobe allowed Gage to function normally for the rest of his life.  Apparently, his behavior and personality was strikingly different after the accident.  Causing him to swear in public and become irritable in private.  Most close friends reported he was “no longer the Gage I knew.”  Eventually, he moved down to South America and became a carriage-driver in Chile.