The essays collected in this issue of Critical Inquiry range widely in both approach and subject. Some mount theoretical arguments about how best to conceive of the role of media in shaping human history. Others delve into the practices devoted to the creation, distribution, and preservation of knowledge, from the singing of songs in archaic Greece to the production of secrets by today’s U.S. government. All, however, address what we call arts of transmission.
That odd but resonant phrase derives from Francis Bacon, yet its descent to us from the seventeenth century is peculiarly indirect. As John Guillory notes below, Bacon’s original Latin expression is perhaps closer to “arts of tradition” or handing down to posterity. The specific phrasing we chose for our title is a Victorian translation of Bacon’s “ars tradendi.” Not exactly original nor yet quite an imposition, the phrase nicely exemplifies a point that Bacon himself was making in coining it: that what we know depends on the practices of communication by which the knowledge comes to us. The point of this issue is to explore how, historically and theoretically, that conjunction has operated in the past and continues to operate today.
James Chandler is Barbara E. and Richard J. Franke Professor in the department of English language and literature, the Committee on Cinema and Media Studies, and the Committee on the History of Culture at the University of Chicago, where he is also director of the Franke Institute for the Humanities. His books include England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism (1998) and Romantic Metropolis: The Urban Scene of British Romanticism, 1780–1840 (2004), coedited with Kevin Gilmartin. Arnold I. Davidson, executive editor of Critical Inquiry, is professor of philosophy, divinity, and comparative literature and member of the Committee on Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Emergence of Sexuality (2001) and coeditor of Michel Foucault: Philosophie (2004), an anthology drawn from all of Foucault’s writings. Adrian Johns is associate professor in the department of history and chair of the Committee on Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (1998) and is currently working on a history of intellectual piracy.
Media theory seems to be suffering from a kind of interpretive inadequacy. In media analysis, for instance, theory tends to presuppose a dubious final causality. One tries to explain the phenomena by starting from the effects, as though a certain innovation had been successful because of its usefulness or because of the advantages it implies. But an innovation, as we well know, would not be new if it were not unknown before; and how can unknown (and hence imperceptible and, strictly speaking, also unintelligible) advantages motivate and foster the assertion of a new technique, overcoming the resistance that always opposes the modification of familiar practices? How can one examine the birth and consolidation of the new without slipping into aporias or tautologies?
Elena Esposito is professor of sociology at the University of Modena‐Reggio Emilia. She has published several works on the theory of social systems, media theory, and social memory, including Soziales Vergessen: Formen und Medien des Gedächtnisses der Gesellschaft (2002) and Die Verbindlichkeit des Vorübergehenden: Paradoxien der Mode (2004).
This inquiry centers on the transmission of sympotic songs attributed to Alcaeus of Mytilene, a city on the island of Lesbos. The starting point of transmission is the “original” setting of songs sung at symposia in Lesbos in the heyday of Alcaeus, around 600 BCE. Subsequent points include the “secondary” settings of (1) symposia in the city of Athens around the same time and thereafter; (2) revivalist educational contexts in Athens and Lesbos during the 300s BCE; and (3) antiquarian academic contexts in Alexandria, center of Hellenistic scholarship during the 200s.
Gregory Nagy, the director of the Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C., and the Francis Jones Professor of classical Greek literature and professor of comparative literature at Harvard University, is the author of a number of books on archaic Greek literature and oral poetics, including The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry, which won the Goodwin Award of Merit, American Philological Association, in 1982. Other publications include Comparative Studies in Greek and Indic Meter (1974), Greek Mythology and Poetics (1990), Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past (1990), Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond (1996), Homeric Questions (1996), Plato’s Rhapsody and Homer’s Music: The Poetics of the Panathenaic Festival in Classical Athens (2002), and Homeric Responses (2003). Forthcoming are Homer’s Text and Language (2004) and Homer the Classic (2005), the book version of his 2002 Sather Classical Lectures at Berkeley.
My first critical question will thus be: What is the social logic that underlies the technologic of discourse network 2000? With specific reference to authoring: How is an author now a postindustrial producer? But social history alone is not cultural for the humanities and arts unless it also treats representation, expression, and style, especially as these are now understood to extend beyond the canvas of form onto such subjective and/or material registers of experience as identity or body. My final critical question will thus open a preliminary speculation into aesthetic logic: What are the aesthetics of encoded or structured discourse or, as I will term it, of postindustrial dematerialization? And: How is it possible for writers or artists to create in such a medium?
Alan Liu is professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information (2004) and Wordsworth: The Sense of History (1989). He is the creator of Voice of the Shuttle: Web Site for Humanities Research and director of the NEH‐funded project “Transcriptions: Literary History and the Culture of Information.” He is also a member of the board of directors of the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO) and chair of the Technology/Software Committee of the ELO’s PAD initiative (Preservation/Archiving/Dissemination of Electronic Literature).
Note taking constitutes a central but often hidden phase in the transmission of knowledge. Notes recorded from reading or experience typically contribute to one’s conversation and compositions, from which others can draw in turn in their own thinking and writing, thus perpetuating a cycle of transmission and transformation of knowledge, ideas, and experiences. The transmission served by personal notes most often operates within one individual’s experience—from a moment of reading and note taking to a later moment when the notes are read and sometimes rearranged and used in articulating a thought. But personal notes can also be shared with others, on a limited scale with family and friends and on a wider scale through publication, notably in genres that compile useful reading notes for others. A history of note taking has significance beyond the study of individual sets of extant notes by shedding light on aspects of note taking that were widely shared, notably through being taught in schools or used in particular professional contexts.
See also: Susan Gubar, Notations in "Medias Res"
Ann Blair is professor of history at Harvard University. She is the author of The Theater of Nature: Jean Bodin and Renaissance Science (1997) and is currently working on a book on the methods devised by scholars in early modern Europe for coping with information overload.
The writing we call literary, for example, has a complex and perhaps ultimately indeterminate relation to fact, information, and knowledge—the fictional relation—while other writing, scholarly or scientific, aspires to the condition of knowledge, something more than information. This epistemic polarity is a determining condition of our modernity, even as it seems to rest on surprisingly arbitrary distinctions between genres of writing. I am of course not the first to point this out, but neither is it my interest here to join the chorus of those who would like to dismantle these epistemic categories by exposing the instability of the genres of writing, either by positing the inherent literariness of science writing or the recoverable information content of literary works. On the contrary, my aim is to make visible a peculiar distortion in the foundational epistemic order of modernity, expressed in the very positioning of literature and science at opposite poles of an epistemic axis. Viewing all genres of writing through the lens of this epistemic opposition throws out of focus the great mass of writing that is neither scientific nor literary but exists primarily to transmit information.
John Guillory is professor of English at New York University. He is the author of Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (1993) and Poetic Authority: Spenser, Milton, and Literary History (1983).
First of all, we must not consider the screen as a page, but as a three‐dimensional space, possessing width, height, and depth, as if texts arrived on the surface of the screen from deep within the monitor. Consequently, in digital space, it is not an object that is folded, as in the case of the printed page, but the text itself. Reading therefore consists of unfolding this moving and infinite textuality. Such a reading brings ephemeral, multiple, and unique textual units onto the screen, units that are created following the will of the reader, and they are in no respect pages set down once and for all. The image that has become so familiar, that of surfing the web, clearly indicates the characteristics of a new way of reading: segmented, fragmented, discontinuous. If such reading is suited to encyclopedic texts, whose fragmented structure corresponds to that type of reading, it is disturbed or disoriented by genres the appreciation of which implies familiarity with the work in its entirety and a perception of the text as an original and coherent creation.
Roger Chartier is directeur d’études at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, and Annenberg Visiting Professor in History at the University of Pennsylvania. His work is devoted to the history of the book, publishing, and reading in early modern Europe.
Clarity about just what kind of science and therefore what kind of art of transmission is in order here. We often habitually oppose the humanities to the sciences along the axis of tradition versus progress: the humanities are portrayed as conservers of texts in editions or objects in museums, guardians of living cultural memory; the sciences, by contrast, as endlessly overthrowing old theories by new, deliberate amnesiacs about any disciplinary past older than yesterday’s issue of Science or Nature. [...]
The stabilization of botanical nomenclature was meant to reconcile scientific memory and amnesia. On the side of amnesia, it guaranteed neither the permanence of theories nor the finitude of discovery, though some scientists still longed for both.
Lorraine Daston is the director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin. Her recent publications include (with Katharine Park) Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150–1750 (1998), Wunder, Beweise, und Tatsachen: Zur Geschichte der Rationalität (2001), and (coedited with Fernando Vidal) The Moral Authority of Nature (2004).
Attention to the East Indiamen should remind us that the arts of transmission do not simply facilitate the communication of ideas or information. Insofar as transmission has a material dimension—and it always does—it inevitably produces effects that exceed, and sometimes undermine, the communicative function that transmissions are designed to serve. Even a friend’s email message, that apparently disembodied sequence of lights, requires miles of wiring and colossal mainframe computers; and such messages can also host unwanted viruses (or open the electronic door to spam). The example of the East Indiamen should also help us remember two further points: significance—or value—is not exclusively a product of information, and what converts data into useful knowledge—or into information, for that matter—is not simply conformity to prevailing epistemological protocols. Value can be a side effect of the transmission of information; in this case, it was the result of the necessary but opportunistic geographic transfer of funds in the form of bills of exchange that hitched a ride, as it were, on John Company’s ships. The India data the ships did ferry, meanwhile, washed up on the shoals of politics in England, where it was simply dispersed, neglected, or filed away for someone else’s later use.
Mary Poovey is the Samuel Rudin University Professor of the Humanities and founding director of the Institute for the History of the Production of Knowledge at New York University. Her most recent book is A History of the Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society (1998).
In 1936, well into the course of a literary career as a magazine and middlebrow professional, Henry Seidel Canby, editor of the Saturday Review of Literature and chief judge at the Book‐of‐the‐Month Club, published a thoughtful memoir about academic life. Entitled Alma Mater: The Gothic Age of the American College, his book attempted to take stock of how changing definitions of learning had altered American society. On the basis of his experiences at Yale both as a student and then as a young professor, Canby suggested that “there has never been anything quite like the American college of the turn of the twentieth century, never any institution more confused in its purposes, more vital, more mixed in its ideals.” He claimed furthermore that “just as the typical American of the nineties was a small‐town man, so the dominant American type of our thirties is college bred.”
Janice Radway is professor of literature and chair of the literature program at Duke University. She is the author of Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (1984) and A Feeling for Books: The Book‐of‐the‐Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle‐Class Desire (1996). She is coeditor, with Carl Kaestle, of the forthcoming Print in Motion: The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880–1940, volume 4 of A History of the Book in America.
In fact, the classified universe, as it is sometimes called, is certainly not smaller and very probably is much larger than this unclassified one. No one has any very good idea how many classified documents there are. No one did before the digital transformation of the late twentieth century, and now—at least after 2001—even the old sampling methods are recognized to be nonsense in an age where documents multiply across secure networks like virtual weeds. So we biblio‐owls of Minerva are counting sheets just as the very concept of the classified printed page fades into its evening hours. Undeterred, we might begin with a relatively small subset of the whole classified world, about 1.6 billion pages from documents twenty‐five years old or older that qualify as historically valuable. Of these 1.6 billion pages, 1.1 billion have been released over the last twenty years, with most opened since Bill Clinton’s April 1995 Executive Order 12958. How many new classified documents have been produced since 1978 or so is much harder to estimate—the cognoscenti disagree by several orders of magnitude—but there isn’t an expert alive who thinks the recent haul is anything less than much larger than the previous twenty‐five post–World War II years.
Peter Galison is the Mallinckrodt Professor of the History of Science and Physics at Harvard University. His main work explores the interaction among the principal subcultures of physics: How Experiments End (1987), Image and Logic (1997), and Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps (2003). Several projects explore crosscurrents between science and other fields, including his coedited volumes The Architecture of Science (1999), Picturing Science, Producing Art (1998), and Scientific Authorship (2003). In 1997, he was named a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellow, and in 1999 he received the Max Planck Prize.
In actual technical systems, errors and failures cannot be ascribed anymore to persons. Therefore, independent control has become just as necessary as it is rare. Because the sheer complexity of actual hardware and software excludes infallibility, proprietary solutions prevent even debugging. Actual knowledge needs places to produce, store, and transmit itself independently of any company. What better places are there than universities? This applies just as much to digitally processed data as to the digitalized data of history. In the first case, the plans of enormous scientific publishing houses to monopolize academic journals are probably doomed to failure because Ph.D. advisers, getting at the data much earlier, can publish them digitally. The same holds true for free source code. In the more trivial case of formerly analog data, sounds, and images, their future seems to be up to the gods. Whether or not arts and treasures of bygone cultures can be saved from private digital rights does not seem of primary concern. Whereas in Gutenberg’s time the university had to renounce its storage monopoly, its leading role in processing and transmitting now remains as crucial as ever. In this climate of academic freedom, ever‐new codes and chips have to be developed in order to climb from the all too low level of zeroes and ones to higher levels of filtering and processing digital data streams. Just as in the past neither books nor libraries proved usable without metalevels of knowledge, now neither algorithms nor databases can do without Wissenswissenschaften (“knowledge of knowledges,” histoire des systèmes de pensée).
Friedrich Kittler is professor of aesthetics and media studies at the Institute for Aesthetics and Cultural Studies at Humboldt University, Berlin.
The editors would like to announce that Jacqueline Stewart’s essay “Negroes Laughing at Themselves? Black Spectatorship and the Performance of Urban Modernity,” Critical Inquiry 29 (Summer 2003): 650–77 won the 2004 Katherine Singer Kovacs Essay Award from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.
We would also like to announce that Anne Stevens has accepted the position of assistant professor in the department of English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. We are pleased that Mary B. Caraway has agreed to join the staff as our new manuscript editor.