It surprised me to hear that dab was a printing term associated with stereotyping. I also found it strange that it would be associated with dance move, or internet meme, or drug use.

Dab entered the English language around 1300, with no known origin, both as a verb and a noun. It started as a slap, a light blow,  also used figuratively as in “poking fun” at someone. In the 18th century, it was associated with soft substances, though I suspect they weren’t talking about Brylcreem. It also meant to apply just a small amount. An obsolete sense used in typeseting meant inserting a wooden type ornament into soft metal to cast it in more durable form.

Incised printing, in some forms of engraving and photogravure, has some dynamic range in that deep channels in the plate can hold more ink and thus print darker, making them somewhat analog in that degrees of gradation are possible. Texture is given primarily through the use of patterns of stippled dots, like grains, or lines arranged in parallel a bit like grain in wood to increase the surface area which would hold ink in its recesses increasing density.

Relief printing, as in woodcut or typeset text has two states: ink or no ink. Relief printing is a digital process. A small amount of ink is dabbed or rolled on the surface of the plate; too much ink and the plate is unintelligible. Grain isn’t a factor in woodcuts, as the wood is oriented with its grain perpendicular to the impression for maximum strength and the ability to hold fine detail. Line and and stipple are also used for much the same fashion as in burin engraving on metal, but without the same sense of depth and range because of the increased saturation, rather than density, of ink.

Historically, the wood used for woodcuts comes from boxwood, the same popular topiary shrub seen everywhere today. Needless to say, there are distinct limitations to materials used in reproductive technologies. Boxwood is slow growing, and almost never reaches beyond 3-4 inches in diameter. Pieces are cut into cross grain disks of the same height as the metal type to be used, and in order to make larger illustrations, multiple pieces are carved separately and clamped together in the press. In the 19th century, this was actually useful because labor could be divided between several journeymen to make plates quickly instead of the laborious, sometimes multi-year procedures associated with burin engraving.

Carving against the grain has some disadvantages. Wood grain behaves like a cluster of straws, soaking up liquid and swelling to weaken it. Thus, stereotyping for larger production runs was a necessity, not an option. At the turn of the 18th century, though, smaller publics and lower production made the production of elegant artistic works possible, like Thomas Bewick’s A General History of the Quadropeds from 1790.

The Giraffe, or Cameleopard

Accuracy in reporting wasn’t really an issue for most early instances of visual communication. There was big money circulating in print, mostly for publishers, and a large pool of journeyman able to churn out words and images. Illustrated newspapers were a big success by the middle of the nineteenth century. But there were a variety of competitors in the race to pander to, as well as create, a public taste in visual representations. The invention of photography in 1839 did not revolutionize or overthrow existing print regimes. Photographs were often raw material for engravings, discarded after sketches or engravings from them had been created.

One of the major markets for publishers was reproductions of popular works of art. Henri Delaborde, writing in 1856, saw little future for photography as a useful tool for this:

In reproducing art, it is the inevitable inability to discriminate between what should be transcribed and what should be interpreted, that is the fatal disability which will eternally condemn photography to an industrial role that is beneath and outside the bounds of art. Photography can but parody the appearance of its subjects. Printmaking manages to seize its intimate appearance. Nowadays we are inclined to content ourselves with inanimate reproductions. Nothing more. Should this be sufficient for us? Have we lost our appreciation of art because of our sudden interest in a new discovery?

It seems odd that the lines, crosshatches, and stipples of early printing processes would be be preferred to smooth gradations of tone provided by silver or platinum grains clumped at the papers surface. There were limitations, to be sure— largely due to the lack of color processes— but interpretations of artworks were more prized than accurate reproductions. For a time, relief prints, intaglio prints, and photographs all competed for the same sector of the art market: reproductions of paintings. For news, there was simply no competition for woodcut printing. Photographs were used to provide an index to appearances, but the report was created by a committee of artisans. William Ivins identified this cultural phenomena, in his final remarks in 1953:

In a way, my whole argument about the role of the exactly repeatable pictorial statement and its syntaxes resolves itself into what, once stated, is the truism that at any given moment the accepted report of an event is of greater importance than the event, for what we think about and act upon is the symbolic report and not the concrete event itself. (180)

The market for images demanded, rather than depth and accuracy, a human interpretation of whatever event was being reported. This was slow to shift. Taste did not begin to shift until after one more revolution in print culture, lithography. It was lithography that put art in everyone’s home. The ascendency of photography was slow, and only really took off when it lost its subtle gradations as it was digitized into halftone dots.

The emphasis on the human touch in the 18th and 19th century, perhaps even into the 20th reflects real concerns about the nature of perception and the imperfections of technology. It seems entirely fitting that Bewick, the pioneering woodcut artist, used a carving of his thumbprint as a signature. Curiously, in the slang of 20th century noir, a fingerprint is a dab.

A leather dabber for distributing ink on plates

The Rationalization of Sound

Mall mural, Shoreview, MN © 2006 Jeff Ward

On the wall beside the drugstore, across from a Parisian style cafe, inside a dying enclosed mall in Shoreview (a northern suburb of the Twin Cities) this musical apparition caught my eye. It was a space I loved; murals covered every wall of this tiny mall and the air was filled with muzak instead of the rush of people. There was a soundscape to these suburbs that I was captivated with. I’ll never forget going to the Shoreview Target store in the dead of my first Minnesota winter. It was like entering into a scene from The Shining set in a store like the one in One Hour Photo: white, spare, oddly menacing and above all incredibly creepy. It was visceral— a three dimensional experience—not a movie.

Mall mural, Shoreview, MN © 2008 Jeff Ward

The mall, located over a set of railroad tracks and across the community marker on a wall that was always vandalized to read “horeview” actually seemed warm and inviting to me. It was like walking into a make believe town where the empty shops had been replaced by paintings of shops, and the people with likenesses permanently enjoying the space looking outward from the walls. The scenes were intelligible, and fitted well to the space, complete with flâneurs peeking from behind the sculptural plastic trees.

Mall mural, Shoreview, MN © 2006 Jeff Ward

In the beginning, Victor Gruen saw the architectural space of the modern shopping mall as a substitute for the plazas and promenades of old world cities. I suspect the muralist who created that odd environment inside that mall in Shoreview, MN, wasn’t thinking of that. It’s an interesting cultural and aesthetic confluence, but the soundscape simply didn’t match up.

Emily Thompson, in The Soundscape of Modernity, uses the term soundscape to be inclusive of the cultures that create them.

Like a landscape, a soundscape is simultaneously a physical environment and a way of perceiving the environment; it is both a world and a culture constructed to make sense of that world. The physical aspects of a soundscape consist not only of the sounds themselves, the waves of acoustical energy permeating the atmosphere in which people live, but also the material objects that create and sometimes destroy those sounds. A soundscapes cultural aspects incorporate scientific and aesthetic ways of listening, a listener’s relationship to their environment, and the social circumstances that dictate who gets to hear what. (1-2)

The narrative Thompson arranges is the emergence of a “modern soundscape” from 1900-1933. The centerpiece is a transformation of sound into signal roughly analogous to William Ivin’s suggestion of a movement from image to report in print illustration. And like the term legend, it replicates both a sensory experience, and the means to make sense of it. Architectural acoustics seeks to replicate the conditions of “good sound” in a repeatable fashion; just what qualifies as good is socially negotiated.

Reasoning about the nature of sound requires models. There were two important perspectives that interfaced in dramatically in the nineteenth century that lead to the modern soundscape.  Hermann von Hemholtz was a towering figure in  acoustics. Seeking to promote psychophysics, founded on the model that there was a direct relationship between perception and reality, Hemholtz discovered that vowel sounds could be replicated using tuning forks or resonant chambers that matched their frequency. Heinrich Hertz, a student of Hemholtz succeeded in tying things together for a wave model of electromagnetic activity using James Clerk Maxwell’s equations. It’s easy to adopt the enlightenment/scientific method paradigm for progress, as typified by Galileo in 1623:

Philosophy [i.e. natural philosophy] is written in this grand book — I mean the Universe — which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one is wandering around in a dark labyrinth.

However, it would be a mistake to believe that acoustical science was based entirely on Newtonian materialism. The first textbook on acoustics from 1877, still in use today, was written by a staunch idealist who proclaimed “I have never thought the materialist view possible, and I look to a power beyond what we see, and to a life in which we may at least hope to take part. ” Lord Rayleigh, who also provided a material explanation as to why the sky is blue, follows a different philosophy of science than Hemholtz, and rather than pursuing psychophysics, maintained an interest in parapsychology as a member of the Society for Psychical Research.

Thompson’s survey of soundscapes begins in 1900, summoning an epigram from a plaque in the lobby of Symphony Hall in Boston dedicated to Wallace Sabine:

Symphony Hall, the first auditorium to be built in known conformity with acoustical laws, was designed in accordance with his specifications and mathematical formulae, the fruit of long and arduous research. Through self-effacing devotion to science, he nobly served the art of music. Here stands his monument. (13)

Sabine is still famous for the Sabine Reverberation Equation, used to measure the effects of the absorption of sound by material in the sound field. He found that the strict mathematical formulae of Hertz, when applied to sound, did not successfully predict the level of reverberation in actual environments. He used instruments developed by Lord Rayleigh for creating visual representations of sound waves to measure the absorption of sound waves by different materials, arriving at a mathematical relation that could be used to predict reliably how architectural environments would sound, at least as far as reverberation at different frequencies was concerned. Eventually, less reverberation was to be preferred for maximum intelligibility.

Part of the reason for this had little to do with music; it is speech that is most frequently rendered unintelligible by reverberation. Research into sound has been driven more by the mystery of voice than the requirements of environments, though with the increased demand for large public meeting spaces, emphasis on architectural acoustics becomes especially important.

The success of Symphony Hall in Boston was initially mixed— it was a “controlled” hall, compared to other venues. Some felt it sucked the life out of the music played there, but now it is revered as one of the finest sounding music halls available. In 1902, Sabine began to study “The Accuracy of Musical Taste in Regard to Architectural Acoustics,” declaring that the fundamental problem was a lack of understanding both of physical phenomena and musical effect. Judgement and taste necessitated the development of more refined authorities adjudicate disputes.

Thompson makes the argument that until the advent of electronic sound reinforcement (in 1933) architectural acoustics was a fertile field of negotiation regarding the definition of what constituted “good sound.” There was a tension between mathematical modeling and more human standards of perception that was fundamentally altered by the transformation from sound to signal.

Signal works here on two levels; on one hand, it is the waveform approach to sound versus material vibrations. On the other hand, signal also has an equivalence with message, or spoken word, which reaches its logical culmination much later in the Shannon-Weaver model for communication (1948). Lord Rayleigh’s desire for visual representation of speech was also taken up, in a non-mathematical way, by an elocution teacher,  Alexander Melville Bell.

In 1867, Bell attempted to create a symbolic language for sound, Visible Speech, which was based on the shape the mouth made while making sounds. It was an attempt at a universal language that would reproduce not only the symbolic content, but also the sound of dialects and variations between speakers. The modern equivalent exists in the form of the IPA, first discussed in 1886.

In a profound sense, the “report” of speech by standard symbolic alphabets strips away the richness of the experience of speech in material environments. There are two tracks here worth highlighting. Sound as electromagnetic signal appeals to mathematic rationalization of material properties. Sound as a uniquely situated event appeals to the philosophical idealist mode of rationalizing it within a human context. Bell’s Visible Speech is a legend for the material realities of the body that produces speech.

It’s worth noting that these factors do not operate in isolation. They interact in curious ways. Alexander Graham Bell’s development of the telephone was grounded in his father’s work on Visible Speech, but also in a fortuitous misreading of Hemholtz’s scientific paper on the reproduction of vowel sounds. How sound gets rationalized is cultural, aesthetic, and not entirely scientific.

Print the Legend

Buffalo Bill’s Buffalo Pen, Scout Ranch, North Platte, NE © 2006 Jeff Ward

Legend has several meanings which have evolved over time. Initially legend simply meant story or collection of stories. It was also applied to collections of the lives of saints, so it makes sense that it became stories of a larger, more mythic significance in the 17th century. In the 19th century, it was stretched to mean popular (and probably untrue) stories. In the 20th, it was first applied to people, as in “a legend in his own time.” In the 16th century, it was associated with an explanatory caption associated with an image (such as engravings), and in the 19th, with the instructive and interpretive captions attached to photographs and maps.

Legend in the first sense blurs the distinction between myth and fact, and in the second has a more rhetorical or logical aim. One of my favorite works of scholarship on 19th century photography also serves as a primer for useful approaches to critical thinking about technology. Martha Sandweiss’s Print the Legend (2002) speaks directly to the social development of reproductive technologies:

New reproductive technologies did not immediately create new ways of understanding the world. There was, in the late nineteenth century, a gap between the technological capacity to convey certain sorts of visual information and the more conservative popular expectations for what images should look like. This is a gap that is visible at many moments of technological change, from the development of the daguerreotype to the development of digitized image banks on the World Wide Web. . . . We should probably not be too quick to scorn them for their lingering preference for traditional forms of communication, for images that fit into a comfortable frame of reference created through exposure to other pictures. (324)

The research question Sandweiss begins with is wondering why so many 19th century photographic images were held in low esteem and discarded in favor of reinterpretations of them produced through a variety of reproductive processes. The predominant form of reproduction at the time was relief printing, produced by typeset text and woodcut engravings that allowed the combination of words and images on the same printing press. Many common terms emerged from these technologies, though they have long since lost their metonymic connection. Stereotype and cliché were originally printing terms.

A stereotype was a casting of type or the combination of type and engraved woodblocks made by creating an impression in paper mâché and then pouring metal in it to facilitate consistent impressions. Cliché is the French term for the same thing, a way of avoiding shifts or uneven wear in the components of a printing plate. Exactness and repeatability are essential parts of modern communication. This characteristic was the crowning achievement of photography, according to William Ivins:

The seriousness of the role of the exactly repeatable pictorial statement in all the long development since about 1450 has escaped attention very largely because that statement has been so familiar that it has never been subjected to adequate analysis. Having been taken for granted it has been overlooked. The photograph, as of today, is the final form of that exactly repeatable pictorial statement or report. Although it has very great limitations, it has no linear syntax of its own and thus has enabled men to discover that many things of the greatest interest and importance have been distorted, obscured, and even hidden, by verbal and pictorial, i.e. symbolic, syntaxes that were too habitual to be recognized. It is unfortunate that most of the world is still unaware of this fact. (180)

There is a palpable sense of technological optimism in both Walter Benjamin and William Ivins that is commonplace. Here, Ivins speaks directly to the enlightenment claim of “demystification” common to the pursuit of science where a veil of myth and legend has obscured the truth from us. Walter Benjamin’s claims are different in that he emphasizes evolving social effects as a positive influence, enabling people to formulate their own tastes. Sandweiss quotes liberally from both, but does not make the positive evolutionary claim for the ascension of photography. Rather, she looks critically at the devaluation of photography in the nineteenth century in terms of its actual use. There is an important turn in Ivin’s vocabulary that directly impacts the evaluation: “pictorial statement or report.”

The printing terms stereotype and cliché, developed as a technology serving repeatability, have reversed in connotation to be negative terms for prejudgment by myth and mindless repetition. Photographic technology at first was prized for its uniqueness of representation: daguerreotype portraits were in a literal sense like looking in a mirror and confronting the face of the other. In the end, technological demands for reproduction transformed what might be considered “cult” objects, in Benjamin’s terms, into objects created primarily for exhibition and reproduction.

The demand of the public for images, then and now, creates a market, or better, troc (in William Baxandall’s usage), that reinforces a particular type of image. Sandweiss frames this in a remarkably useful way:

In his classic western film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) director John Ford includes one of the great lines of western filmmaking. “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes a fact print the legend.” The newspaper editor who utters the line understands that the interests of his readers are best served not by exposing a much-loved historical legend as a lie. Like Ford himself, he understood his audience well, understood their preference for the comfortable myth over the unsettling truth. (324)

Ultimately, legend functions in two ways simultaneously. It is both an aid to reading (as in a map’s legend, or an image caption) and a way of framing a statement or report in a way the public wants to hear. The two meanings reinforce each other and like stereotypes legends have both positive and negative connotations if we consider critically what is being repeated.

Deep Cuts

Sun Studios, 2006. Record cutting lathe & tape recorder

Speech and music are best considered as events. They happen. In fact, the descriptive term for words which convey action or a condition of being is verb, which is taken from the Middle French word for speech. Recording events to make them repeatable is a function of technology, either as writing (symbolic memory) or as a way of recreating the sound waves associated with an event already past through a variety of technologies

Non-symbolic analog or digital technologies for producing repeatable sounds began from forms of cutting or extruding. Bumps raised on the cylinders of a music box or cutouts in a piano roll can replay sounds with great precision, but these digital technologies lack flexibility when compared to the analog recreation of the Edison wax cylinder. A stylus impresses the mechanical motion of a diaphragm into a spiral groove created in wax. There are problems with fidelity and permanence, though.

In the early twentieth century, cutting won the day. A variety of formats of shellac discs, at first, and finally vinyl records emerged with varying standards. They were cut on record making lathes directly and replicated as stampers (molds) used to press multiple copies for reproduction. Fidelity to the original speech or musical event has been a concern from the start; recordings, like sense data, are processed in different, media-specific ways in each new technology. Progress has been largely contingent on socially negotiated agreements rather than clear-cut engineering reasoning.

Cutting provides specific challenges to the material aspects of a recording. First, there’s the speed at which the stylus passes cuts a trough, as well as the amplitude (depth) of each groove in two planes. This leads to necessary compromises regarding playing time, distortion (both amount and type of distortion), not to mention the transition early on from a 3-d cylinder to a 2-d planar surface (disk). Standards were hard fought and not adopted universally. RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) standards for signal processing in long playing recordings were adopted in 1952, but not embraced by the rest of the world until 1970. By 1940, more than 100 competing standards had emerged to meet the challenges of encoding analog recording.

Digital coding (as in music boxes and piano rolls for player pianos) was contingent on a single on/off state for each individual note (frequency bundle) and very specific to each device. Analog recording offered a unique potential for encoding voice instead of simply musical notes, and saw wide adoption. Remember that Edison thought the primary use of his recording instruments was dictation.

The reproduction of classical music and hymns was reliant on symbolic notation of scores, which emerged in parallel with the symbolic recording of texts. The conventions for musical scores evolved within the social structures of the Church. Songs combine elements of both score and text, and after 1949 it was commonplace to refer to a song as a “cut” due to their primary means of storage and transmission, the inscribed disc. The song as an event was nominalized from the verb describing the action of recording it.

Deep cuts refer to songs buried with an artist’s catalog of recordings that have escaped notice; what I’m really trying to highlight here is that even when a recording has a metonymic connection with the original event (as with analog recording), that connection is mediated through the conventions as to what is considered significant in the truest sense (transferred as signifier, not as a symbol) in a sonic event mediated by material constraints, which are negotiated politically. This frequently escapes notice. When we talk about “high fidelity,” the question of fidelity to what or who is never really mentioned.

The opposite of a “deep cut” is of course a hit. A verb taken from Old Norse, hit became nominalized as popular success in the early nineteenth century. High fidelity, from Alexander Graham Bell forward, was mostly thought of as a function of intelligibility.  The relationship between mathematically engineered models of sound and consensus about intelligibility derived from testing systems with groups of people diverged significantly. It became easy to test for frequency and amplitude, but the relationship between them—what might genuinely be labeled as the syntax of sound— was more elusive.

Psychological models and psychological testing are the basis for much of acoustic science. In 1933, Fletcher and Munson tested a group of people with headphones to determine when two frequencies were determined to be at the same volume, generating what we call the equal loudness contour. This is especially important in telephony, because it measures perceived loudness (intelligibility) rather than signal amplitude. How loud does a sound have to be for us to identify it as such? It turns out that this changes with frequency.

The experiment was flawed, and repeated in 1937. In 1956 a new version of the experiment, again with significant deviations from previous findings, was published and became the basis for a new standard. This was also widely seen as flawed, and it wasn’t until repeated experiments in 2003 that a new ISO standard for loudness contour was agreed upon. It’s hard to have a hit, and difficult to stay on the charts you might say.

Our understanding of music and speech as events leaves much room for exploration. Key to this, of course, is the repeatability of experimental results. This is only possible through the use of increasingly precise methods of reproduction, the very technologies subject to improvement.



Pure, Perfect Sound–Forever

My wife is profoundly deaf in one ear and severely deaf in the other. What this means, from a practical standpoint, is that without electronic signal processing she cannot parse anything. This was strange to discover, partly because I met her in classes where conversation was a central feature of the class. She doesn’t speak with any sort of an accent, to my ears at least, and understands most everything (apart from the normal marital deafness, that is) that I say. We don’t talk about deafness much, and haven’t over the last 17 years or so, until the last few years where it’s been a topic of theoretical consideration.

This might seem odd to some, given my history of being a bit of an audiophile and music lover. My wife loves music and has a broad musical knowledge— in fact, we spend a lot of time talking about it. In the early days of our relationship, I did spend some time trying to figure out the sensual differences between us. She doesn’t hear in stereo, and until digital hearing aids (about 4 months before we met) she didn’t have any access to high frequency information. Obviously, her experience of music should be different from mine. Not exactly. We share more than you might think. From my years as an audio salesman and equipment trainer, I have been aware that even people with perfect hearing simply don’t hear subtle differences unless they learn how.

Music, like most human interactions, depends on a high degree of intuition to decode into meaningful content. Some folks don’t get it, or don’t give it much thought. Part of what really made me fall in love with my wife is her incredible intuition, learned in part I think from having to operate on less information than other people. She became deaf as a small child and has virtually no memory of standard hearing. Because of this, she has adjusted to technology fairly seamlessly. Each new generation of hearing aids brings greater information, making it easier to understand and interact with the world around her with less mental effort in filling in the gaps.

George Berkeley argued that the universe exists only in our minds because sensual information is incommensurate. Everyone perceives and processes the world differently, largely through the comparison between things which looks for difference. James Gibson’s big revelation regarding visual perception is that we are bodies in space and movement (both our own and of objects in the world) plays a large part in the way we mentally construct images. It’s not just the data, it’s how it changes as we interact with the world. In short, all perception is processed.

Attempts to transfer this processing to machine algorithms have given us socially agreed upon constructs as the JPEG, the acronym for Joint Photographic Experts Group, in 1992. Prior to this in 1980, the compact disc format was loosed upon the world by agreement on the Red Book standard. The promise, as promoted on a 1982 sampler recording from Philips, was Pure, Perfect Sound–Forever.

The slogan was met with almost immediate ridicule, with good reason. I remember the first CD machines we received at Sun Stereo in California– they were the size of a large toaster, and sounded downright strident and hard to listen to for long periods of time. Pure is not an adjective anyone could reasonably apply to sound except in the form of sine and square waves, certainly not music. And these machines did not sound like music. Nonetheless, the machines continued to improve and eventually took the world by storm. The consensus was that digital was convenient and “good enough” to satisfy our music recording needs.

The ironic part of the Phillips marketing strategy was the “forever” part. Early digital disks degraded quickly, becoming unplayable in 10-15 years. It was a bit like the early days of mass color photography; there’s a gap in the historical record because the dyes used were not permanent and present a jaundiced view of what colors in the 1950s and 1960s actually were. Natural degradation is a part of any artifact, usually a slow fade or a deposited patina on objects like oil paintings from atmospheric contamination. Digital did not repeal the laws of entropy.

Perfect, of course, is a matter of degree. People have long argued that the Red Book standard saddled the world with an imperfect musical product. Digital devices quantize sound in terms of the rate of samples and the number of discrete steps measured in those samples. The sample rate of Red Book is 44.1khz  with 16 bit steps. There are more choices available now, with more information, but not everyone cares or can be bothered to seek out better sound resolution.

The jury is still out as to whether more information (and larger digital files) really improve the subjective experience of digital audio. As my wife is quick to point out, having more information doesn’t always lead to greater understanding; for example, she still has difficulty appreciating early Joni Mitchell, or most all Joan Baez, because their vocal ranges are high and even when the frequencies are transposed down to the range she can hear she finds them painful to listen to, even though she can appreciate the artistry and craftsmanship of the songs and lyrics.

A better example, though, is her listening difficulties in large groups, particularly in noisy environments. She makes sense of situations by reading a variety of cues, body language and lip movements (though, no, she cannot read lips). When there are more people and more sounds tossed in, it becomes harder to discriminate between what is important and unimportant. She can handle four people at a time these days, but five is pushing it. I have another deaf friend who works well when in close proximity with one person and can direct his attention solely to them. There is a human labor in all this beyond algorithmic signal processing.

Which brings me to the real difficulty, as I see it, with digital sound and picture files— the way they will endure through time. The only real answer to the problem of “forever” with digital files is to continually copy them to new media as it becomes available, and digital copies cannot be perfect. Dropped bits, in small or large quantities are replaced using CIRC error correction, and when this fails to live up to the “pure, perfect” hype, artifacts are the result. Machines interpolating missing information are not the same as humans reconstructing a sense of the world. There is an alien DNA wedding itself to our cultural memory

As time goes on, our world is increasingly digitally smoothed. In a profound sense, analog records (non-biodegradable petrochemical discs) are made when breath (aura) is transformed into motion incised in the world. They degrade, generally through clicks and pops and shadows from adjacent grooves. Digital files don’t degrade, they simply get interpolated out of existence.

Analog recording is metonymic in that air pressure is transformed into incision and then back to air pressure through transformation. In each groove, there is a part of the musical experience directly connected with the moment. As it degrades, the analog recording’s original vibrations disappear in a sea of random sounds: white noise.

Digital recording starts with a sample of the musical moment.  As it degrades, the algorithm will interpolate data until no original data exists. Then it will interpolate the interpolations until the sound that emerges has no direct connection with the original event. It will survive forever, but only as a metaphor for something that once existed.

There was a short piece that my wife wrote long ago in Arkansas about the time just after we met. I was trying to explain what boiling water sounded like (she couldn’t hear it). I put some dry beans in some water in a jar and swirled it around, thinking that the rattling of the beans against the glass would be more within her range. It worked, this argument by analogy. Communication longs to succeed.

The recording angel has labored long across the twentieth century. I often think about Edward Curtis’s efforts at recording North American native tribes, both in sound and image. The images were designed for photogravure and broad circulation rather than as artifacts for a museum. And there were sounds, on Edison wax cylinders, mostly lost to degradation and accident. But some survive, as digital samples lurking on the internet. I think it’s important to keep emphasis on the human aspects of songs. Above all, humans fade.

I heard a perfect echo die into an anonymous wall of digital sound

I am reminded of the story of Echo and Narcissus. They failed to communicate, so he fell in love with himself.

A Spurious Result

Thomas Ruff, jpeg kj01

The working definition of artifact I’ve been comfortable with lately is an object embedded in a tradition or social structure that gives it meaning. Walter Benjamin argued that one of the things being altered about artifacts in the age of reproducibility is that they are loosing the aura that surrounds them because of the irrelevance of authenticity. There are no originals, only copies that have surrendered their claim to uniqueness in pursuit of universality. They lose their fetish cult value, but still participate in social structures in new ways.

Thomas Ruff’s JPEG work demonstrates this. Immaterial objects that exist only as clusters of electrons on a screen provide new social effects brought about through increased connectivity. The drive for universality continues.

I find it interesting that Ruff’s series arises, in a sense, from a group of failures (disasters, both natural and unnatural) juxtaposed with idyls (his word), or natural and man made landscapes depicted in the same digitally disintegrated form. He suggests that the focus on disaster is autobiographical, arising from an attempt to make sense of the collapse of the twin towers on 9/11/2001. He was in NYC at the time, and his camera failure  (or x-ray damage at the airport) left him searching the internet for images to make sense of the disaster.

His career-long focus on the structure of photographic images as they change with technology lead him to consider the pixel, rather than silver grains, as a fundamental constituent of images. Further, the internet has altered the image through compression. The artifacted image, then, is a product of both a reduced “sampling rate” of reality, related as “painterly squares” but further altered by losses when compressed images are reintegrated as viewable artifacts. This presents artifact in different light.

Research into the term in the OED has brought some new perspective. Artifact is of relatively recent pedigree, defined in the 17th century as “An object made or modified by human workmanship, as opposed to one formed by natural processes.” The Latin etymology from ars factum (object made with skill) is amazingly direct and similar in meaning and spelling across several languages. However, in the 19th century there was a reversal of this meaning:

A spurious result, effect, or finding in a scientific experiment or investigation, esp. one created by the experimental technique or procedure itself. Also as a mass noun: such effects collectively.

The alteration of usage shifts, perhaps with the trends in shifting technologies and techniques. Artifacts have been wrenched from human hands and rendered procedural. But the human touch lingers, in its third sense, an ideological manifestation: “A non-material human construct.” The citation of this usage from Toynbee’s Study of History from 1934 is particularly telling:

It is a mere accident that the material tools which Man has made for himself should have a greater capacity to survive than Man’s psychic artifacts.

Toynbee’s psychic artifacts like the concept of an internal and external proletariat have completely faded, including his suggestion that civilizations disappear through disintegration. Recall that disintegration is ultimately what Thomas Ruff’s JPEG work places firmly in the field of view. Ruff suggests that with adequate distance these artifact filled JPEG images integrate themselves into natural images. Viewed up close, their disintegration can be beautiful.

What procedural tool, then, creates the appearance of these images? The short answer is “lossy compression,” but the longer answer has some important clues. From Wikipedia:

JPEG uses a lossy form of compression based on the discrete cosine transform (DCT). This mathematical operation converts each frame/field of the video source from the spatial (2D) domain into the frequency domain (a.k.a. transform domain). A perceptual model based loosely on the human psychovisual system discards high-frequency information, i.e. sharp transitions in intensity, and color hue. In the transform domain, the process of reducing information is called quantization.

The images are transformed using an algorithm created from a perceptual model. The information discarded in the compression is forever lost. In short, we trust a machine (computer) to shape our images, using a model based on our perception. The information we view has a diminishing relationship with any sort of material object, rather, it comes from our artificially created intelligence of our own visual system. This takes artifice to an entirely new level.

The “skill” introduced into the ars factum— the artifact— is that of a machine. We are in effect, creating human/machine hybrid perceptions that are becoming the cornerstones of our epistemological universe. These new truths are not completely man made. It’s not just AI and robots that will alter the future, it’s a thousand choices along the way based on spurious information untouched by human hands.

It remains startling to me how relevant Walter Benjamin remains in all this.

Theses defining the developmental tendencies of art can therefore contribute to the political struggle in ways that it would be a mistake to underestimate. They neutralize a number of traditional concepts—such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery— which, used in an uncontrolled way (and controlling them is difficult today), allow factual material to be manipulated in the interests of fascism. (252)

Benjamin goes on to argue that his “politics of art” would be useless for fascism. I think he’s wrong. Machine manipulation is nothing if not the new mystery. Reproducibility through algorithms has reinforced what is worst in us in the last decade or more.

Electric Whirl

Some things have appropriate names. The electric whirl is a device that consists of brass wires or plates, poised upon a pivot, that spin around when static electricity is applied. The gentle breeze, which results from the flow of electrons from the tips of the wires is known as an aura.

I didn’t consider this when I was writing about Walter Benjamin a few days ago, nor did I consider that the oldest definition of aura listed in the OED is “a zephyr,” a gentle breeze. In fact, in 1398 the terms aura and zephyr were interchangeable. It is a latinized version of the Greek αὔρα, now translated as breeze or breath.

There is a particularly interesting use of the word by George Berkeley from 1732 in Alciphron: “After which [i.e. the flying off of the volatile salt or spirit] the Oil remains dead and insipid, but without any sensible diminution of its weight, by the loss of that volatile essence of the Soul, that æthereal aura.” The connection of aura with soul foreshadows the way it was taken up in the late nineteenth century. An odd confluence is the inclusion, in this 1732 publication of Berkeley’s 1709 “An Essay Toward a New Theory of Vision” in which Berkeley embarked on his program of “immaterialism.”

A cornerstone of Berkeley’s explanation of vision pivots upon the difficulty we have in determining distance from visual evidence, arguing further that the sense of sight and the sense of touch were totally incommensurate. With incongruous sensual information, we cannot ever really know objects outside our mental conceptions of them.

The OED also connects aura with an odor, or a smell that arises as a “subtle emanation.” Curiously, the explanation reconnects with the Anemoi Zephyrus. From The cyclopædia of anatomy and physiology (1835–1859):

Fecundation is attributable to the agency of an aura from..the seminal fluid

Painters frequently depict Zephyr with maidens with blossoms emerging from them when graced with the west wind, as is the case with this detail from Botticelli’s Primavera. There’s a distinct network of connotations for “living spirit” with the term aura, whether it is soul or simply fertility.

During Walter Benjamin’s time, spiritualism was still very much a force in the world and surely he was familiar with (though he avoids it in his definition) of that level of meaning to the term: “A supposed subtle emanation from and enveloping living persons and things, viewed by mystics as consisting of the essence of the individual, serving as the medium for the operation of mesmeric and similar influences.” Benjamin isn’t applying it to people, but strictly to objects.

In a note in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1737, Benjamin Franklin suggests that earthquakes in Pennsylvania might be caused by an “imprisoned aura” like the discharge of the electric whirl, and pathologists also connected aura with the onset of seizures “A sensation, as of a current of cold air rising from some part of the body to the head, which occurs as a premonitory symptom in epilepsy and hysterics.” So, it might not just be a pleasant fertile wind— an aura might be an ill wind as well.

Aura is ultimately an incredibly synesthetic description. It might be taken as tactile, as aural, as an odor or, as Walter Benjamin suggests, as a visual phenomena. When gazing up at a branch where the sun has cast its shadow on you, as he describes in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, one would obviously see a halo of sorts, as the light was diffracted by the edges of the leaves.

And like this illusion, the meaning and applicability of aura is always difficult to pin down with any degree of certainty. But it makes me happy to think of it as a form of living spirit that might cling to objects, not literally of course, but as a metaphoric effect.


Letchworth, © 2019 Jeff Ward

The most significant and oft-quoted factor highlighted by Benjamin is the concept of the aura, initially discussed as surrounding an authentic original, a unique object situated in place and time. Developing the concept, almost a theory of the alienation of objects, Benjamin considers it thusly:

The concept of aura which was proposed above with reference to historical objects may usefully be illustrated with reference to the aura of natural ones. We define the aura of the latter as the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be. If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch. (III)

The “unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be” is a powerful way of conveying the strange sense of awe one feels in the presence of a powerful artwork, and a description of the sort of “aura” that clings to authentic objects. I remember a trip to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, feeling this strange, visceral feeling when standing in front of the clothes of performers that I had only experienced as reproductions: as records, movies, tapes, etc. There is a similar distance even when you’re present with a performer in concert and leave with a sense of them that will be retained and held closer in memory than in actuality.

This image makes it easy to comprehend the social bases of the contemporary decay of the aura. It rests on two circumstances, both of which are related to the increasing significance of the masses in contemporary life. Namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things “closer” spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction. (III)

To be there, situated in space and time, as feelings unfold is at the core of our experience of art. Increasingly, however, art comes to us in the form of reproductions in books, in movies, and in other mass media. Benjamin continues:

Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction. Unmistakably, reproduction as offered by picture magazines and newsreels differs from the image seen by the unarmed eye. Uniqueness and permanence are as closely linked in the latter as are transitoriness and reproducibility in the former. To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose “sense of the universal equality of things” has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction. (III)

The urge that Benjamin describes here is akin to the drive to privatize that Martin Pawley has described: to have the benefit of experience without its social component, to disconnect art from its social roots, savoring the sensual in isolation and achieving the natural without nature as an the ultimate goal.

This reading is supported by his discussion elsewhere in the same essay of the stripping of the “cult” value ascribed to unique objects.  However, it’s worth noting that the technologies Benjamin is discussing are recording technologies— technologies designed to aid memory. There’s another possibility, raised by Benjamin himself in an earlier fragment:

The great art of making things seem closer together.  In reality. Or from where we are standing; in memory. “Ah! que monde est grand à la clarté des lampes! / Aux yeux du souvenir que le monde est petit!” [Ah, how big the world is by lamplight, / But how small in the eyes of memory!] This is the mysterious power of memory—the power to generate nearness. A room we inhabit whose walls are closer to us than to a visitor. This is what is homey about home. (248)

I am reminded of other scholarship about the parlor as a the public portion of a home where visitors were welcomed, and brought together in middle class culture as it was emerging in the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century. In a sense, a collective memory of places and celebrities and fashions was presented to make visitors feel less foreign in a new space. It plays much the same role as the stock backgrounds and scenarios that were offered to visitors to a photographer’s studio, positioning them as someone they want to be— manufacturing memories. The fragment continues:

In nurseries we remember, the walls seem closer to each other than they really are, than they would be if we saw them today. The sight of them tears us apart because we have become attached to them. The great traveler is the person who passes through cities and countries with anamnesis; and because everything seems closer to everything else, and hence to him, since he is in their midst, all his senses respond to every nuance as truth. The distanced Romantic is as ignorant of this as the Positivist. (248)

The mechanism at work here seems similar to the function of metaphor, in that the “strangeness” of the comparison creates new pathways, new knowledge through holding two ideas in suspension. I am struck by the similarity between anamnesis and amnesia. To travel with remembrance rather than the feigned amnesia of “objectivity” results in a heightened sense of place.

Romantic forgetting of the actual specifics of the world (the bugs, the dirt) is equally bad. Knowledge, in this formulation requires both distance and closeness to be effective. Hence, it come full circle to the formulation of aura. A translator’s footnote to the second draft of Benjamin’s essay adds clarity to a unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be:

“Einmalige Erscheinung einer Ferne, so nah sie sein mag.” At stake in Benjamin’s formulation is an interweaving not just of time and space—einmalige Erscheinung, literally “one-time appearance”— but of far and near, einer Ferne suggesting both “a distance” in space and time and “something remote,” however near it (the distance, or distant thing, that appears) may be. (123)

The “one-time appearance” might be taken as a unique encounter between self and world, a “never the same stream twice,” view suggestive of Heraclitus and obliquely echoing his observation regarding traveling with anamnesis. There is an aspect of “the things they carried” involved in any recounting of experience. This a deeper reflection than simply recounting the mystic aura of a cult object, or of a history through the distance of time; it is a suggestion of things being woven together in the making of sense, a bit like the “ah-ha” moment when one deciphers a metaphor.

Benjamin’s discussion of the loss of aura isn’t a conservative bemoaning the loss of the previous mode of art, but rather an attempt to understand the work of art (in both nominal and verbal senses) in a new frame of reference that does not rely on sublime experience but rather on closeness and possession of a universal image of the world, overcoming its uniqueness.


The Work of Art

Woodstock, ME © 2017 Jeff Ward

Taking an obscure route across Maine, when we turned the corner near Woodstock I wasn’t expecting to find an oversized sculpture of a hand cranked telephone. Just what use is that? But there is a value to it, I think. Art, according to most, is defined by its lack of utility, its uselessness. Economic theories generally don’t have much to say about Art, nonetheless people who make it are constantly in search of a way to find some sort of livelihood. The exchange value of art seems impossible to predict, caught up in arbitrary social fashions.

Tolstoy’s fourfold division of labor has a place for it, as “mental labor” alongside science. Reflecting on this grouping, it dawns on me that in their purest forms, both art and science aim at an increase in understanding. This piece fulfills that criteria, in that I was moved to pull of the road and read the placard which explains that the last magneto telephone system was operated here.

Not all art is this easy. Accepting that the purpose of art is to increase understanding and that it is necessary human work has deepened my understanding of Walter Benjamin’s canonical essay “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility” (1936-39). I’ve read it hundreds of times, researched its context, even delivered papers on it, but this time it’s different. It’s like turning a corner and finding a new perspective.

There are some useful concepts in the essay that I always come back to, i.e. the aura and learning through distraction, not to mention the shift between cult value and exhibition value, but concentrating on these is a bit like focusing on the steps of a ladder without understanding where the ladder is climbing to. Film is central to Benjamin’s dissection of reproducible art, as is photography, but the core structure is built around the struggle between capitalism, marxism, and fascism.

My obsession with photography and film wasn’t my first technological obsession. I was eleven when I watched the moon landing on T.V. and long before that I had read Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo at least 40 times; I didn’t even know there was a movie version. It was a firsthand account of a pivotal point in World War II, of the first bombing raid on Tokyo and his subsequent crash and escape in mainland China. I poured over that book as a kid. Of course it’s filled with patriotic enthusiasm, but it was also filled with human struggle and vivid detail. Remembering it has made the conclusion of Benjamin’s essay ring louder:

“Fiat ars—pereat mundus,” says fascism [Let art florish—and the world pass away] expecting from war, as Marinetti admits, the artistic gratification of a sense perception altered by technology. This is evidently the consummation of l’art pour l’art. Humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, has now become one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure. Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art. ( 270)

The last two sentences, offered with emphasis in the original, have long seemed enigmatic to me. Aestheticized politics is easy enough, as every war narrative easily attests, but politicized art is not so simple; one can easily envision communist posters, but since they often depict armed revolutionary struggle, it’s hard to see much difference.

It suddenly dawned on me that politicizing does not necessarily entail sloganeering and jingoism. I think what Benjamin really meant here is that proletarianization, coupled with the shifting nature of reproducible art should lead to an increased consciousness of the body politic. Remember that the root of politics is polis (city) and by creating a mass of people, art with a mass appeal is political. The entire sweep of the essay marks the shifting valuation and potential for art as a mass phenomenon, i.e. the work of art.

Part of the confusion about this essay is reflected in the permutations of its translated titles. It was first published in english as “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” a variant that enables the reading of work as a verb— i.e. what does Art do— a reading supported by the concluding paragraph. However, recent scholars have translated it as “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility,” privileging the nominal form, a reading which emphasizes the idea of an original art object that is being reproduced. There is support in the text for this as well, particularly in its treatment of cult value, and the function of architecture as art. I hadn’t really considered the janus face of work in this context before now.

Throughout, what Benjamin offers is a social theory of value in art that works in concert with Marx’s social theory of value. Modern reproducible forms alter our perceptions and our social behavior in dramatic ways by creating new pathways and functions, not simply new forms for art.

As I turned to drive away from Gil Whitman’s telephone sculpture, a different scene unfolded.

Woodstock, ME © 2017 Jeff Ward

Division of Labor


Outlet Mall Mural, South Carolina © 2011 Jeff Ward

Theories regarding the division of labor are most often deployed to justify oppressive, condescending behavior towards one another. It’s the “essential nature” argument, suggesting that laborers gotta labor, thinkers gotta think, and money men (the new royalty) deserve their position in life. From Plato onwards, it has been argued that division of labor increases productivity and allows people to live up to their potential, and, eyes on the prize– enjoy the benefits of leisure. Lowly “toil” is seen as something to be avoided at all costs, unless of course you are one of the  subjugated classes.

The years from 1880-1910 marked the rise and fall of an alternative view based in Christian theology emanating from Leo Tolstoy, the major mouthpiece of Christian Anarchism. It’s a sweat of the brow doctrine completely unrelated to intellectual property. Legal use of the term, originating from Genesis 3:19, is metaphoric. For Timothy Bondareff it was actual: he called it the “primary law” of being human. Man has been commanded to “knead his own bread” and no one can do that for you. Bread, for Bondareff, was not an exchange commodity. If you use money to purchase bread, or enslave anyone else to make your bread, it is not your bread.

The biblical logic is that man was commanded to toil and woman was commanded to birth children in pain and suffering. No matter how rich a woman you are, no one can birth your children for you because they will never be your children. It is the same with bread, according to Bondareff. This was, according to Tolstoy, one of the realizations that altered his course in life as he renounced the social cache he had gained as famous author, becoming instead a political activist.

The influence of Tolstoy should not be underestimated. A young Mohandas Gandhi wrote Tolstoy a letter for permission to publish his A Letter to a Hindu while living in South Africa, and he went on to form a 1,000 acre Tolstoyan colony near Johannesburg in 1910. His influence even traveled even further into the 20th century through Ludwig Wittgenstein.

In the time of trust-busting under Teddy Roosevelt, as capitalism sought to address its excesses, a variety of political and utopian thinkers had thoughts of their own. In What Then Must We Do?, Tolstoy developed a division of labor a bit more sophisticated than the peasant Bondareff that was based in a curious metaphor: man is an eating machine.

Man divides his day into four periods: before breakfast, breakfast till dinner, dinner until evening meal, and evening after the meal. So too, then, labor should be divided into four types. Tolstoy’s essentialism was mapped as this:

Man’s natural activity is also divided into four kinds: (1) muscular activity— work of the hands, feet, shoulders and back— heavy work which makes one sweat; (2) the activity of the fingers and wrists– that of craftsmanship; (3) the activity of the mind and imagination; (4) and the activity of social intercourse.

The Nearings collapsed the distinction between (1) and (2), excluding craft as a separate function. They also didn’t really necessarily offer much discussion of the products of work, except to eschew excess production of “bread,” a sort of opting out of exchange through asceticism which Tolstoy may or may not have endorsed. Bondareff, in his theology, noted that a Christian was bound to freely give bread to those who were not able to make their own. Tolstoy offers a more fine grained discussion of the products and their relation to the essential nature of man:

And the blessings men can make use of can also be divided into four classes. First, the products of heavy labor– grain, cattle, buildings, wells, etc.; secondly, the products of craftsmanship–clothes, boots, utensils, and so forth; thirdly, the products of mental activity– the sciences and arts; and fourthly, the arrangements  for intercourse with people– acquaintanceships, etc. (207)

I like the choice of words here, either by the translator or Tolstoy: acquaintanceship seems to fall in a similar category to apprenticeship, a mutually beneficial transfer of skills. Placing the social in his taxonomy of toil seems to be spot on, and characterizing it as generating a product, a useful blessing, sets these activities outside simple exchange. Tolstoy suggests that the day should be divided into four periods, each one dedicated to one four labors he describes.

It seemed to me that only then would the false division of labor that exists in our society be abolished, and a just division established which would not infringe man’s happiness. (208)

To specialize by privileging one form of labor over the other may increase productivity in that area, but increased production should not be the goal of labor. Seeking to do this through the division of labor comes at a cost to the man removed from the other forms of useful work. As he pulled back from the mental work which had occupied his life and focused some time on the other three forms, he found “that the occupation with the physical work necessary for me as for every man, not only did not hinder my specialized activity but was a necessary condition of the utility, quality, and pleasurability of that activity” (208).

Tolstoy’s holistic approach to labor stands in stark contrast with centuries of writing on specialized production, largely because it is centered on use rather than exchange. However, it is important to note that what his argument is founded on is an essential view of human nature grounded, at least in small part, in a reading of Christian theology embracing the fallen condition of man, wherein man must toil, in pain, and women must labor through birth, in pain. To accept the pain of toil is to be human, a “joyous labor.”

A bird is made so that it is necessary for it to fly, walk, peck, and consider when it does all that it is satisfied and happy, in a word, it is then really a bird. Just so it is with man: when he walks, turns about. lifts, draws things along, works with his fingers, eyes, ears, tongue, and brain– then and only then is he satisfied and really a man.

. . .

The nature of work is such that the satisfaction of all man’s needs requires just the change to different kinds of work that makes it not burdensome, but gladsome. Only a false belief that work is a curse could bring people to such an emancipation of themselves from certain kinds of work— that is, to such a seizure of the work of others— as requires the compulsory engagement of others in special occupations, which is called ‘the division of labor.’ (209)

The increased productivity brought about by specialization, according to Tolstoy, harms man in his core being, not because he is transformed into an instrument (as in Marx) but because he is denied the performance of his true nature as one who works and eats.