Putting the “Me” in “Memory”

Blade Runner (pick a cut, any cut) is a popular film for philosophers. In addition to being a fascinating bit of on-screen world-building and fantastic design, it also raises (and variously confuses, depending on which cut you’re watching) issues concerning personal identity, humanity, freedom, etc.; take a peek, for example, at Helen Beebe’s useful piece exploring philosophical approaches to personal identity through the character of Rachel, a replicant with implanted memories who is initially unaware of her “artificial” status.

In what follows, I want to explore (very sloppily and informally — I don’t pretend for a moment that I’m doing good philosophy here) how the continuation of Blade Runner’s story in Blade Runner 2049 takes up the problems posed by the original film and suggests a slightly different approach to personal identity relative to how individuals construct self-narratives. This is, I think, most obvious in a comparison of K’s relation to memory to Rachel’s and to Roy Batty’s. Note that I won’t be talking about Dick’s book at all — for now, I want to confine my attention to the movies.

 

[Spoilers follow. Continue at your own risk. Also: Sorry, this may run a bit long (just like the movie…hurhurhur).]

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A Sassy ‘Stache

Among the things I love about the Library of Congress Flickr Stream’s collection of news photos from the 1910s is the really marvelous window it provides for looking at world events on relatively personal terms. Interspersed with formal portraits of generals and politicians and baseball players(!), there are also society-page candid shots of then-contemporary celebrities and artists (many of whom have been more or less forgotten). Some of them have serious flare, charismatic and charming even in the grainiest black and white image.

Take, for example, this fine gentleman here.

Alf. Hoen (LOC)

The spirited soup-strainer on display in this image belongs to the artist Alfred-Georges Hoen, who in addition to rocking a terrific hat and some classic early 20th C. facial hair was also known for formal portraits, the occasional floral still life, and some well-regarded paintings and sketches of soldiers during WWI. There are at least two different shots of him in this collection, both of which suggest lively good humor and a mustache grooming game that is, as the kids apparently say nowadays, on point.

Hoen & Carpentier (LOC)

M. Hoen seems to have this celebrity thing down, both with and without the hat.

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The Curse of the Chainsaw Eagle God: A Story in Five Images

Once upon a time, the Chainsaw Eagle God awaited its rightful tribute.

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And lo, offerings it was given! The Chainsaw Eagle God was pleased.

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But there lurked in the shadows of the trees another power, jealous of the Chainsaw Eagle God’s bounty. It wasted no time.

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The Chainsaw Eagle God has fallen! All Hail the Black Squirrel!

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The Chainsaw Eagle God’s reply: A great and terrible curse.

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Surely the world must dread what is to come.

 

 

The End.


 

All of these pictures, oddly enough, were taken on my daily walk along the lakeshore near my work. They were not taken in the order in which they appear here (and the graffiti on the sidewalk has been there much longer than the Chainsaw Eagle…).

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Game of Poems

In addition to useful pamphlets/presentation scripts for the improvement of young minds and state textbooks containing selections of important literature meant to encourage a love of reading, the Wood’s House collection also contains the following handy assortment of poetry (with prose supplement) from 1958:

Poetry collection book cover

The spot on the cover does not imply Dalmatians.

The work of our old friend Eugene Field appears in the text three times, alongside Shelley, Emerson, Longfellow, Wordsworth, Henley, both Brownings, Frost, and the other usual suspects in collections of this sort in English. The “prose supplement” consists of the Gettysburg Address, the Ten Commandments (in KJV form), the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, and Patrick Henry’s “The War Inevitable,” in which his most famous Revolutionary War one-liner appears. Make of this selection what you will. The book has been reprinted frequently by several different publishers over the years (as recently as 2010, in fact), and some version or other of it is readily available to the interested reader.

What most interests me about One Hundred and One Famous Poems, however, is not the poems actually printed in the book. No, the fun thing about this specific example of One Hundred and One Famous Poems is a poem clipped out of the Des Moines Register of Nov. 23, 1969 and stuck between the pages, right smack in the middle of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The Cloud”:

Newspaper slipping stuck in a book

Poor Percy — always getting upstaged, even in the middle of his own poem.

Take a good, close look at that poem from the Register. It is titled “Experience,” and attributed to someone named Maurice G. Clay. Who, you may ask, is Maurice G. Clay? To this question I offer the following answer: Who cares? He didn’t actually write this poem, and it’s not really called “Experience,” either.

What gives?

Now, I’m not going to claim that what follows is authoritative — authorship prior to the 20th century in English-language print materials was sometimes a pretty dodgy business, and people apparently borrowed from each other with abandon. It appears, however, that the original poem from which the content in that clipping was drawn was a piece written for The Journal of Education, vol 39, no. 2 (January 11, 1894) by a woman named Agnes L. Pratt. The original text from the Journal of Education, as it appeared on page 19 of that publication, looks like this:

Screenshot of a poem

A screenshot of Pratt’s version of the poem, as published in The Journal of Education in 1894.

The alert reader will notice a number of differences between the two otherwise identical poetic productions, including the “Aand” typo and the complete omission of the penultimate and antepenultimate stanzas in Clay’s version; to be fair, shortened versions with slight alterations have also been published under Pratt’s name. In the first stanza, for example, where Pratt writes “That much I have counted sorrow/ But proves that the fates are kind [emphasis mine],” the Clay version substitutes “the world is kind.”

I make particular note of that line because Clay (whoever he was) is not the only or the first person to misappropriate and edit Pratt’s poetry, and that particular spot is the most common site of editorial adventuring; what credit Pratt gives to the fates, others deem the property of their God (the most common change) or the world. Versions of this poem frequently appear under a variety of titles (“Life Lessons,” “Life’s Lessons,” “Contentment,” etc.), supposedly written by a bundle of different authors, including but not limited to:

Sheesh! What’s poor Agnes gotta do to get a break around here?

I suspect (and this is just speculation on my part) that what’s happened here is a pre-internet example of something gone viral. Pratt’s poem — popular, loved, shared (probably first in educational and religious contexts), and not always correctly recalled — just got bounced around through the ol’ Telephone Game-like filter of pop culture transmission, and her name (and some of the words) got lost and replaced along the way.

THIS is why I’m such a crank about proper citation and attribution (and why I’m not even entirely confident that I’m right about this post). Also: There’s a paper about the epistemology of authorship in 19th C. print culture either out there or waiting to be written, just so that someone can help my poor, correct-citation-loving soul feel at ease.

 

 

 

 

 

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Return to the Island of Misfit Books

As I return (at last!) to my little cataloging-and-blogging project, I find myself interested in some of the small pamphlets and booklets that somehow found their way into the Wood’s House Collection. Today’s specimen, for example, is a neatly printed booklet of 31 pages that offers a window into the history of education in the United States.

An Afternoon with Eugene Field (Cover)

The slightly rumpled property of a Marie (or Minnie, or something) Anderson

In this piece, Bertha E (for Evangeline) Bush* presents what she intends to be the first in a series of little literary exercises for US public school students; it appears to have been used not only in schools, but also as a performance exercise or presentation for civic clubs in the early part of the 20th C. in the United States. She envisions the program’s use on “those Friday afternoons which are devoted to ‘speaking pieces'” — apparently a practice in which one Friday afternoon session per month might be devoted to reading and presenting literary works aloud (5).** The precise age of her intended audience isn’t entirely clear, although she does seem to be aiming for what she calls the “lower grades” (so, probably the middle to upper range of elementary students, judging by the language used in the text). The program, which is supposed to be led by a student who is designated the “presiding officer,” consists of brief introductory presentations and questions about Eugene Field (more on him in a moment), a little singing, and some theatrical recitations and presentations of Field’s works for and about children, interspersed with short breaks to write little essay exercises about Field using biographical information contained in a set of “talks” provided in the appendices after the script. If you’d like to read the whole thing, it’s worth a look — check it out here.

Title Page

Meet Eugene Field, “The Children’s Poet”, courtesy of the A. Flanagan Company of Chicago, IL

Eugene Field is perhaps best known for pieces like Wynken, Blynken, and Nod (which you can hear read by various folks here)*** and Little Boy Blue. He also worked as a reporter, editor, and columnist for several different newspapers, and in that arena was notable as a humorist.

Image of p. 27, "An Afternoon with Eugene Field"

Mr. Field had a colorful (and slightly creepy) sense of humor. Also: one shudders to contemplate the ambiguity created by juxtaposing Field’s  usage and other readings of “lick” in this context.

 

From the point of view of a GenXer educated in a public school system in suburban Chicagoland (not too terribly far from Field’s stomping grounds as a columnist for the now-defunct Chicago Daily News), this script often seems quaint and artificial. Bush’s vision of childhood, as framed through Field’s writing, is a kind of moral imposition on both performers and audience, a didactic presentation in which the learners become the instrument of the lesson. Of course, that may put things a bit too negatively — there is, I think, something admirable in the way Bush’s extended presentation and exercises promote a sort of active learning, even in the midst of what a contemporary reader might find fairly heavy-handed didactic scripting. The essays in particular ask the students to explain the content presented to them in their own words, and that content poses a curious challenge. Bush presents Field as simultaneously a minor saint and a trickster, the sort of fellow who wrote a sermon (included in this text) for his grandmother as an adolescent and who then grew up to earn a reputation as an avid purveyor of pranks. That complexity is probably a leap too far for the readers Bush had in mind, but it seems to leak constantly from through the seams of her glowing biographical descriptions.

I was also curious about the language Bush used, which (again, from a much later point of view) sometimes seems decidedly odd:

Presiding Officer: Long ago it was written of one whose life on earth was done: “He being dead, yet speaketh.” Through all our lives Eugene Field will speak to us, and long after the time has come when the youngest pupil here shall die of old age the poet we are studying to-day will soften and cheer mankind with his words of merry tenderness. Through these the oldest and most care-worn are made again citizens of the world of childhood and helped to see lovable traits even in the bad boy.

Yeah. This is not the elementary school material — or the notion of childhood — I remember, and it bears closer examination.

 


*Bush is best remembered, I think, as the author of another little textbook, The Story of Robin Hood.

**Caveat: I am not a historian of education, so I’m mostly drawing on what Ms. Bush says herself about what she’s up to and some other announcements and descriptions in old teaching periodicals.

***This poem was famously also set to music, and Bush’s script calls for the children to sing it early on in the presentation. Check out Buffy Sainte-Marie singing a version of the song on Sesame Street in the 1970s:

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I’ve got a little list…

Top Five Awesome Things About My Recent Surgery

5. The anesthesiologist actually laughed at my Walking Dead jokes.

4. In fact, pretty much everyone I met at the hospital enjoyed my act. Thanks! Y’all were a great audience!

3. You know that bit where they roll you into surgery, start the engines on your anesthesia, and tell you to count backwards? Yeah. I don’t remember any of that. Clearly, in addition to having a terrific sense of humor, my anesthesiologist is brilliant.

2. Hospital swag! Seriously — they sent me home with a tub full of cool stuff, including this charming contraption:

HospitalSwag

This thing is all about making you suck.

Who knew there’d be prizes? Nobody told me about the prizes! Why didn’t anyone tell me about that?

1. It is now actually impossible for me to be hysterical (assuming one takes the origins of the word seriously) except in the comedic sense. Take that, sexist schmucks!

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Time-Slices for Violin and Accompaniment

One of the things I really love about the Library of Congress Flickr stream’s collection of images from the early 20th C. (News in the 1910s) is that it provides a vivid reminder (as if one needed it) of the context in which certain people and objects in one’s experience actually operated. Recorded music, for example, can have the illusory effect of making a performance seem timelessly present.

 

Jascha Heifetz died in 1987, and this performance from later in his career (perhaps the late 60s) is, in its way “peak Heifetz” — racing, effortlessly light without sacrificing powerful tone and expression, and above all a demonstration of his excellent control and mastery of the instrument. Note that this isn’t a thoroughly cleaned-up recording — it’s still got all of the crunch and slip and noise that violins make even in the best hands, things that in some contemporary recordings (*coughAutoTune*cough*) are carefully hidden or corrected. That is, I think, what makes something like this performance feel so present to me — even Heifetz makes these sounds in this way, live and immediate and irrevocable.

I am used to thinking (because I was a child learning to play the violin when he was old and mostly dedicated to teaching rather than performing) of the image of Heifetz in this video — a gray man with a lively violin and a sort of understated, playful wink waiting to happen on his face. That’s why I was especially delighted to find him young again through the good graces of the Library of Congress, when the old man was a young prodigy:

Heifetz (LOC)

This undated photo from the Bain News Service was taken sometime between 1915 and 1920, probably around 1917; Heifetz would have been in his teens, having come with his family to the United States in ’17 to make his debut at Carnegie Hall. I love the picture not just for the window it provides into his youth, but also for its gritty printed-on-glass black-and-white details: the rosin near the bridge and f-holes of the violin, close to his face and body as the main focus of the shot; the blurring of his fingering hand; the attention of both Heifetz and the viewer of the photo drawn to the note played by his bow hand on the piano. It’s a lovely shot, thoughtful and full of the promise of music to come, and it’s just messy enough to feel immediate and present.*

It’s easy enough to put the old man and the young man beside each other in a digital environment, their images and sounds recorded and preserved long after the life of the man himself ended. Putting the old man and the young man together becomes possible in a way that life does not permit. So: an illusion of timelessness, created by the eternal “present” of recording media.

 

 

 

 


*It’s amusing to note that the digital image here (produced from glass negative) is actually flipped — it makes it look as if his right hand is holding up the violin while the bow is in his left, which is obviously not how he played. How can you tell? Look at the chin rest on the violin — if he had merely been persuaded to hold a normal violin incorrectly to set up the shot, the chin rest would be on the other side of the tailpiece. Yet it is difficult for me to imagine this image having quite the same impact facing the “correct” way; perhaps this feeling of mine is an artifact of living in a culture where so much of what we do is oriented left-to-right.

[Edited to replace video content with a similar enough example to suit the post without a whole lot of rewriting; the original video was taken down due to a copyright complaint. Honestly, I hesitate to share this one, because I strongly suspect that it should also be taken down. I’ll keep looking for a more legit substitute.]

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