As my tiny group of regular readers knows very well by now, I have a little Easter tradition here on the ol’ blog: I tell The Story and (usually on Good Friday) post about a little hymn thing I like. This year, for a variety of reasons (most of which involve the effects of an entirely non-digital concept of virality on my workload), I’ve decided to mix it up a bit. I’ve been pretty silent for a while here (BUSY!), so I’m overdue to update on a number of fronts anyway, and have decided that this year, you’re getting hasty gestures in the direction of an omnibus update post.
Conversations With Small Dogs: Human Resources Edition
As I now have the luxury of working from home, I find myself constantly in the company of a pair of canine coworkers. I also find myself collecting a file of HR complaints about one of them in particular.
Seriously — given the size of the file of violations I’ve collected on Buddy, I’m pretty sure the only thing that could possibly explain his continued employment here is nepotism.
I am in the unenviable position of being his co-worker, his supervisor, AND the nepotistic connection responsible for his uninterrupted tenure here. This may represent a conflict of interest. I’ve assigned Henry the task of looking into it, but he’s a bit busy — there’s a prime sunny spot by the front window that requires further study, so he’s back-burnered the conflict of interest investigation until he completes his Sunny Window Spot report.
Also: It may be time for a vacation. This morning, I started sketching a paper about determining whether or not dogs are Humeans about causation and what that might mean in my head.
The best place to enter the linguistic and social-psychological rabbit hole this post is about to drag you down is with one of the best and most well-known XKCD cartoons — “Duty Calls” (#386):
Recently, on Facebook, Duty Called upon me once again (as it often does in that wretched hive of memes and misinformation). Someone was wrong on the internet, and by golly, I was going to do something about it!
Yes. I am that person. I am that joyless buzzkill who actually insists that people not post outright bullshit as if it were decent content. I am the person who reports the spam posts.
I am vengeance. I am the night.
Someone Is Wrong On The Internet
Anyway…here’s a screenshot of the image in the post that caught my joyless buzzkill eye a few days ago:
Now, if you don’t know any ancient Greek or even a little Latin, there is nothing objectionable here. It’s sweet, really. Look at all of those words for love! How nice! The dusty ancient folks sure knew how love worked, right? If, on the other hand, you’ve got just enough Greek to get by (c’est moi — although I’ve obviously got no French to speak of) and enough Latin to get in silly trouble (it me), this is…painful. It is painful for at least two reasons:
Ludus is Latin, not Greek, and it is not a Latin word for “love” as such, as far as I know. It is a word for play or sport or training (and related concepts — see its entry in Lewis & Short). While Spartacus might have blurred the lines for us a bit, the ludus gladiatorius was a place where gladiators trained and “played” at their particularly violent sport, not where they got their fun little flirty love game on. A school for young children might also be called a ludus. The term can be used figuratively for a dalliance, but play is its primary sense.
Pragma is Greek, but it’s not a word for “love” in ancient Greek, at least not if we take Liddell & Scott seriously. The closest we get to “love” in that good ol’ L+S entry is an instance in which the word is used as a part of a phrase to describe a love affair (where pragma constitutes the “affair” bit, not the “love” bit, of that phrase).
I’m not going to go into the failure to distinguish between ancient Greek and Biblical Greek and whatever the heck C.S. Lewis was doing in The Four Loves (which also frequently shows up as a source for Greek words for love in Google searches). Mentioning it all is enough pain for one day.
Because I cannot abide Other People’s Wrongness on the Internet (even though, frankly, I’m no classicist, I’m probably missing something, I probably should have let it go, and I’m likely to be seven kinds of wrong myself here), I promptly suggested a correction to the Facebook friend who had reposted this particular crime against All That Is Good And True In The World. Mission Accomplished!
There is, however, something more interesting to be found in this wee love list, in all its not-really-correct glory, and being a joyless (and possibly not as right as I think I am) buzzkill in the comments on someone’s repost of someone else’s post doesn’t quite capture it. It becomes visible when we try to do the responsible, scholarly thing and source the list in the image above.
Misattribution, Erasure, and the Corruption of the Discourse
So what happened here? Who is responsible for this ridiculous list of not-really-all-Greek-words-for-love? The college student’s go-to strategy, Googling “Greek words for love”, turns up an appalling collection of folks who just perpetuate the error, some of them with actual scholarly training and advanced degrees who ought to know better. On the first page of those results when I initially ran the search, only two sources actually came close to being something other than wrong: the Wikipedia entry on Greek Words for Love (!) and a post by Neel Burton on the Psychology Today blog, both of which refer to the original thinker behind this particular selection of words: Canadian sociologist John Alan Lee. In the usual way of the Wild, Wild Internet, Lee’s work seems to have been detached from its author and telephone-gamed into a misleading life of its own as a comment on ancient Greek love vocabulary by people who either simply didn’t know better, were too lazy to check for the original source, or trusted other, similarly ignorant or lazy folks.
This collection of names for love is actually drawn from the term set for a typology of what Lee calls “love styles,” using Greek and Latin words that he either borrowed or re-purposed as terms of art; the beginnings of the “love styles” discussion appear in his 1973 book Colors of Love, and the concepts are worked out elsewhere by Lee and others in both theoretical and experimental contexts. Lee was not reporting on the cultural norms, philosophical concepts, or linguistic practices of the ancient world. As he explains in an article on his typology that he published in 1977, he was developing a way to talk about human social, sexual, and emotional relationships, and he chose to use Latin and Greek words to do it for the purpose of conceptual and clinical disambiguation (or at least so he could sound more science-y in his Official Science Version of the typology written for Actual Scientists).
Interestingly, Lee asserts in 1977 that ludus is a word for love found in the works of Ovid. What I think is more likely the case is that Lee (apparently no more of a classicist than I am, and certainly not a Latin specialist) was familiar with Ovid’s Ars Amatoria (AKA The Art of Love), where Ovid doesn’t appear to use the word ludus to refer to love as such. Rather, Ovid talks at some length about love as a sort of play, and in that context he more frequently uses amor, not ludus, as a literal word for love, with the latter term used to modify the former. It’s at best a figurative usage that Lee takes up (“ludic love”). I don’t believe, however, that this implies or supports the claim that Ovid himself used or understood ludus as a word for love. It’s probably more accurate to say that Ovid treated some kinds of love as forms of play (not the other way ’round), and spoke of it in those terms (hence the figurative use of ludus to describe a dalliance or a flirtation). Lee himself was, in asserting this as a definition or usage drawn from Ovid, also accidentally perpetuating a misleading deployment of Ovid, and lending his scholarly cred to the error.
Of course, you probably shouldn’t quote me as an authority on any of this. I Am Not A Classicist, and I will happily bow to the expertise of people whose Latin and whose acquaintance with Ovid is better and deeper than mine. My scholarly cred here is certainly no better than Lee’s!
The above disclaimer is the point of this post, at which we have finally arrived.
So much of human communication depends on some kind of trust. Scholarly communication in particular depends on its own variety of trust, characterized by research methods tested and judged to be reliable over time, dissemination procedures designed to check for the appropriate deployment of said methods, and elaborate educational credentialing systems designed to signal the likely presence of procedural and methodological trustworthiness. When library instruction focuses on training students to seek out “scholarly” or “reliable” sources, it often invokes the trust-mechanisms of scholarship as a shorthand for the quality (i.e. accuracy, rigor, etc.) of those sources. At the introductory level, we don’t talk at any length (if at all) about scholarship controversies or spend a lot of time on the sacred work of the good folks at Retraction Watch. We mostly try to steer students away from dodgy material spat up by Google and toward the less dodgy stuff in our collections (presumably selected to be there by virtue of the aforementioned signs and mechanisms of scholarly trustworthiness). Sometimes, both before and in college, students are taught other shorthands for trustworthiness (the “use .org and .edu and avoid .com” nonsense advice, for example, which I think is worse than useless).
Yet we can’t shorthand our way past the fact that even the existing scholarly record has its own little corruptions, misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and outright errors, and that these little corruptions were there long before there was so fast and easy a way to spread them around as the internet. We need, somehow, to cultivate practices of judgment and habits of critical engagement with material that really do privilege better work over nonsense. We are hampered in doing so by the little fissures in scholarly trust that become chasms over time under the corrosive flood of repeated and popularized errors that are often given unwarranted trust because the searcher who comes across them isn’t yet competent to recognize the signs of error and doesn’t know where the edges of scholarly trustworthiness really lie.
Put another way: When our students turn to Google before they turn to CREDO Reference (for example) and find goofy nonsense, the real danger lies not in the flood of popular mistakes to which they’ve gained access. It lies instead at the intersection of ignorance and trust, at which stand many or most of the people who are Wrong On The Internet.
This is not a recap of the year. It is not a recap of the decade, or a Top Ten List of any kind. Instead, it’s a little bit of a look back at an earlier few decades, occasioned by a charming photographic moment from sometime around 1921.
Harry Lauder (1870-1950), in addition to being a vastly popular Scottish singer and comedian during the early years of the 20th C., was also a rather marvelous giggler. While other images of him in the collection in the LOC ‘s Flickr stream showcase the usual nicely posed theatrical ham, every now and then we see something like this — a man often and easily brought to laughter, infectiously hilarious.
He is so wonderfully easy to move to laughter that he brings his audience effortlessly with him into his story and into his song (one for which he was already particularly well known) — undoubtedly a large part of his personal charm. This is the great joy of a music hall performance — the scale just big enough to be exciting, but still small enough to be jolly and personal. He laughs the way a child laughs (even as he is making a decidedly adult joke). Lauder also made an art of simultaneously dialing back and exaggerating his Scots dialect, so that one gets the odd experience of a genuine accent and dialect (he was born and raised in Edinborough and Arbroath, and worked a decade in the coal mines in Lanarkshire) straightened and smoothed to an artifice for the English music hall scene.
If Lauder’s singing voice (which is just as charming as the rest of him) sounds familiar, it might be because a number of Scottish songs that entered the popular consciousness in the 1910s and ’20s were sung and recorded by him.
There’s a sort of risk in an act like Lauder’s — a temptation to reduce his carefully cultivated stage persona to a stereotyped Scots schtick. It’s an easy temptation to give in to, in light of Lauder’s very careful work to turn identity and history into a performing advantage, a kind of colorful self-deprecative caricature (putting a fake horn on a real unicorn). But the stories and the songs he shares are not cleanly reducible to a stereotype or a lie, and if some of the edges are sanded off his dialect, they nonetheless often reappear, sharp as ever, in the nature of his humor. It’s a complicated and difficult act to perform authentically and well (keeping Hannah Gadsby’s recent remarks about self-deprecation in humor in mind), and while some of Lauder’s schtick might clang a bit to contemporary ears, it’s still an honest laugh from a man much given to laughter.
This is, in a roundabout sort of way, a review of The Report (2019, Amazon Studios). Not the whole thing, of course. Really, it’s more of an executive summary of an even longer and more substantive review that I started writing in my head as I drove home from the movie theatre.
It’s still pretty long, so buckle up, kiddies. Also: While the events depicted in The Report are for the most part a matter of public knowledge (brace yourselves, spoilerphobes), I’m not going to spend a lot of time on story or scene details (so you don’t have to brace yourselves too much, spoilerphobes).
Every Film Its Viewer, Every Viewer Their Film
A movie (film, bit of cinema, whatever) is a marvelously complex thing. It takes a lot of moving parts to tell a story on screen, all working appropriately together to generate some sort of experience or other for the audience. The end effect is one that is designed (with varying degrees of success) to cause and manage audience reaction to and engagement with the story being told. In one sense (and I am hardly the first person to observe this), a movie is a sort of curated experience in which the audience is prompted to respond to a carefully assembled set of cues, all aimed toward the filmmaker’s various ends (which can include everything from basic commercial profitability to making fairly subtle artistic or political points).
Some movies are more aggressively managerial about the work of curation than others. They are built to guide the viewer’s interaction with their content in such a way as to require very little audience contribution to the experience. Other movies are more suggestive than managerial — they lay out the puzzle and encourage or prompt the viewer to assemble it. Either sort of movie may use varying subtle or overt prompts, and those prompts occur across the experience (in the order of the narrative, in the editing of scenes, in the language in the script, in the use of the score to emphasize the moment, etc.). Some movies are intensely managerial about parts of the experience, but inspire creative responses over and above what they prompt (which is how viewers can come up with richer and better headcanon for themselves for a story that leaves just enough room for it).
Some viewers like to be managed aggressively by the movies they watch, at least some of time; they want to sit back and respond as prompted, and they want their prompts to be reasonably clear and easy to interact with. They do not want to work at their viewing pleasure, they just want to enjoy it. Other viewers prefer the challenge of mining a viewing experience for signs, for meaning — they want to be shown the mystery and assemble an understanding of it for themselves. These are often the viewers who will build more complex experiences of their own out of even rigidly curated film experiences, either by analyzing the experience in the context of broader knowledge or by making symbolic connections to their own experience of the narrative that go beyond what the filmmakers deliberately prompt.
It is possible for a movie to blend managerial and suggestive approaches in various ways (rigid curation using very subtle prompts, for example, or mysteries that look suggestive but are in fact…not). It is possible for a person to be both kinds of viewer at different times and for different reasons, or even all at once. I don’t mean to suggest here that one or the other sort of film or viewer is preferable to the other. I only want to put forward the notion that the continuum between rigid and merely suggestive curation or between more passive and more active viewing is one way to explain why a film might succeed with some audiences and fail with others.
All of which is, I suppose, a really longwinded way of saying that The Report can be an intensely rewarding and interesting and important viewing experience while simultaneously being, from the point of view of a certain sort of audience, profoundly dull stuff. If you’re the sort of viewer who wants an aggressively managed emotional experience that builds in an inevitable crescendo to an obvious fortississimo and falls to a readily expected mezzo-forte denouement, all writ large and immediately gripping, this is probably not the movie to see. If, on the other hand, you want to spend some quiet time with an elegantly constructed prompt for further reflection on a complex political and ethical subject that is remarkably accessible to the non-wonk, this could easily be worth your time. I liked it very much when I watched it on the big screen Saturday, and I will definitely be watching it again (probably more than once) when it streams on Amazon Prime later in November — there are some clever things going on, little editing and visual and narrative puzzles that I want to play with again. So: with this movie, I am that sort of viewer. Your mileage, as the kids used to say, may vary.
The Narrative and Visual Geometry of The Report
Let’s get something out of the way: the plot is the dull part of this movie, really. It’s dull in just the way that important realities often are (the reader may choose to insert their own comment on current events here) — a highly condensed narration of the process of doing vitally important work that was, for the people engaged in it, often some combination of tedious, exhausting, enraging, disillusioning, stressful, and just plain bureaucratic (for clarity: I’m talking about the work of compiling the Senate’s report here, not the events the report so damningly details). There is a kind of existential horror to bureaucracy (Hi, Kafka!), especially when set alongside the ways in which the internal mechanisms of bureaucratic management groan and bend and twist when they encounter certain external events or traumas. The audience bored by this part of The Report is, in their boredom, immersed in exactly the kind of nightmare the participants in the events the film depicts came to understand so very well. Knowing that probably doesn’t help, though, if you need a differently curated and more exciting experience.
I have very little to say about the plot.
I do, however, have just a little bit to say about boxes in this movie.
What’s in the Box?
Visually and narratively, The Report is an exploration of boxed spaces (their structure, their relationship to each other, their effects on the things inside and outside of them). There are a lot of boxes in this movie — rooms, hallways, file boxes, office doors and windows, safes, car interiors, actual wooden boxes in which bodies are horrifyingly placed, figurative boxes defining agency turf or bureaucratic responsibility, television and computer screens, etc.
The visual world of The Report is made up of tight spaces, framed by the process of characters entering and leaving them. The concrete boxes of federal buildings and black site cells are constantly juxtaposed, alongside a variety of Senate offices and conference rooms, situation rooms and workspaces. The report’s research and writing team occupy a closed basement bunker of a room in the “hostile” territory of the CIA, set in vicious parallel with the cells and wooden boxes (deliberately and carefully called out by the filmmakers) that make up the world of the detainees and their torturers. There is a kind of persistent symbolic claustrophobia lending an edgy tension to even otherwise prosaic bureaucratic scenes in this movie from its very beginning (don’t worry, folks who have seen it already, I’ll get to the snow globe). The real tension in some of the discussions characters have with each other — which are often not especially informative or emotional for the viewer, in terms of their literal content) comes from the closed space in which these conversations occur, the way in which the otherwise unremarkable walls are made unexpectedly menacing by their closeness and signal everything awful contained within them.
The filmmakers’ various uses of television and computer screens as event boxes on-screen is interesting, especially insofar as they tend to be used for visual and historical context. In a film that already has a wonky info-dump for a plot structure, the filmmakers efficiently avoid excessive dumping by using transitional screen boxes and background images and asides (the psychologists weirdly cheery graphic representations of “enhanced interrogation techniques”, for example, projected on a screen in a conference room) to fill in the narrative space behind the action.
The story itself shows us Federal agencies and branches of government in and as boxes, protecting their territories and prerogatives, transitioning from one set of walls to another as administrations change and still have to deal with the leftover moving junk from their previous occupants. Agencies protect their legal and conceptual spaces. Whole parts of government and their individual personnel are thrown into disarray by the breach of the nation’s conceptual walls on Sept. 11, and they scramble to figure out how to repair the walls while not being cast out of them for failing to prevent the damage in the first place.
Most horrifying of all, though, is the set of legal and logical boxes built by and around the torturers and their enablers. For them, people driven mad by a need to do something, enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) never fail — they are only failed by their users. They are legal as long as they work, so they must work (not in the imperative sense that might occasion accountability, but in the inferential sense in which EITs’ working is fallaciously taken to follow from the need for them to work). Competing concerns or implications are boxed out of this self-sealing nightmare, in which the architects of “learned helplessness” make themselves helpless against their own unquestioned commitments.
The Snow Globe
At the very beginning of the movie, Daniel Jones arrives in DC like one of those starry-eyed country kids getting off the bus at Hollywood and Vine with a silver screen in their eyes (an experience Driver himself understands quite well). Somewhere between the first photo he takes of the Capitol rotunda and his first meeting with eventual Obama WH Chief of Staff Denis McDonough (played by Jon Hamm), Jones picks up a souvenir: a snow globe with the capitol building inside. It’s cheesy and hopeful and tacky and charming and full of a sort of desperate belief in what the sacred architecture of that building ought to mean.
It is the first thing Jones loses or leaves behind. It is not the only thing.
That is not an accident.
If what you want from a movie review is a rating or a recommendation, then this is what I have to give you:
Ask not what this movie can do for you. Ask what you can do for this movie.
If that sentiment turns you off from the film, then The Report is not for you. If it is, then join me in viewing and re-viewing and reviewing it, as you like, and then decide whether or not it’s your cup of tea.
In a certain building, in a certain state, in a certain city, there is a certain display.
There they stand, a distaff army of pale porcelain faces and carefully done hair, each with her own unique dress. They are different women, mostly — sometimes, they are the same woman at different points in time, the same woman made different from herself by her dress and her hair. Yet their faces are all the same, and their empty eyes and still lips all whisper the same thing (if only one could hear it).
Sometimes, perhaps when one least expects it, one pale face will seem to turn. One pale face out of the crowd of identical faces will lift, just the slightest bit. Out of one dark, false pair of eyes, she will look upon you, and she will know you.
When I briefly worked in the archival collection at my former university, one of the things I absolutely loathed was dealing with old faxes printed on thermal paper. Text and images printed this way tend to fade or disappear very quickly, which is why archival collections (and anyone else who needs faxes for record-keeping purposes — courts and the like) require them to be photocopied and preserve the photocopy rather than the original. The goal is to preserve the information rather than the (extremely unreliable) object of the fax printout itself. Some of this problem has been solved for future preservationists, of course, by the recent switch to inkjet printers and other plain-paper solutions for fax printouts, but that doesn’t change what a pain it is to deal with both old and new thermal print documents (thermal print machines are, regrettably, still in use). The point is nearly moot for many of us, of course, now that email is A Thing (and a whole new can of digital preservation worms). Still, once upon a time the fax was a Big Deal, and it’s worth one’s while to think a bit about what the machine’s pioneers and power users thought it could do as a communication medium.
This brings us to today’s trip through the deaccession pile, and an impressively prescient book whose time had nearly passed even when it was new:
Philip C. W. Sih’s Fax Power: High Leverage Business Communications (Von Rostrand Rheinhold, 1993) is the sort of book that ends up being neither fish nor fowl in an academic library collection. It’s mostly an introduction to then-current fax and digital communication technologies, living right at the moment when it becomes clear that the shift from print to purely digital information exchange is inevitable. It is, perhaps, a little too technical for the business folk who really ought to know about what it says, but not quite technical enough for the computer folk who were probably moving on from the technology it describes about a week after the book’s publisher sent it to print. The author actually anticipates this difficulty for his own book, in a prescient chapter at the end on future trends:
Fax as we know it today will cease to exist. Instead of being a separate technology that mainly involves the scanning and printing of paper documents, fax will have melded or expanded into a notion of imaging and image management. And images will be just one part of documents, which by then will have become multimedia-like, incorporating any form of communication, human- or machine-readable. Those who insist on connecting “antique” fax equipment to the network will be able to do so through small, intelligent interface boxes that act as translators between the all-digital present and the remote analog past.
Sih, Fax Power (1993), p. 236
The book’s extensive discussion of images and best practices for faxing them is actually fascinating — I won’t go much into it here, beyond saying that in my experience, very few people who ever sent me a fax seem to have had much of a clue about doing it well, never mind getting the point about how to maximize both transmission speed and image detail. The discussion of images in Sih’s chapter on fax performance does include my favorite image/caption combo, though:
In my recently-completed photograph preservation class (I knew nothing about it, so I went back to school), one of the issues that often came up was the matter of what precisely we’re meant to preserve in a photograph collection. Are we trying to preserve the information a photograph presents, or the photograph itself as an object (a question just as pertinent for fragile texts and other information-bearing objects)? The ephemeral nature of a thermal-printed version of this Bearded Canadian or the woman on the cover of Fax Power means that according to all of the usual best practices in archives and library collections, they ought to be copied (scanned, photographed, photocopied, whatever) in order to preserve the information carried in the images; this assumes, of course, that we’re preserving the faxed images rather than (or in addition to) the transmitted originals. In the absence of the originals (assuming the faxed information is worth preserving in the first place), it might still be preferable to get the transmitted digital information from the fax machine’s memory rather than hanging on to a thermal-paper printout (assuming the use of an all-in-one machine that has this capability, as opposed to the old-school traditional fax machines). If the information is all we care about, then a thermal paper image just doesn’t make the cut.
What would it mean, though, to specifically aim to preserve an image in this preservation-unfriendly format? What does mean, for example, to preserve something like David Hockney’sfax art, which was deliberately designed to be transmitted and printed by fax machines using the old thermal paper technology?* Similar questions have, of course, been raised by other moments in art (*cough*Banksy*cough*), but it’s in the context of the intersection of preservation and technology — already on its way to obsolescence even at the height of its power, per Sih — that these questions become most pressing. What are we really preserving, if we choose to go to the effort?
I am not, of course, going to answer that question. I’m more interested in thinking about how it extends to Fax Power itself, as a then-contemporary account of a fading technology. It was neither fish nor fowl in the Business or Computer Science collections, and now it is something else entirely from what it was probably meant to be. We’ve got no room for the object — how much room do we (or should we) have for the information it bears?
* Hockney’s choice of medium has been the occasion of some controversy, and he is hardly the first or last artist who took seriously the artistic possibilities of thermal-printed ephemera (see here and here, for example).
This week’s fun find in the cart of deaccessioned books is the most well-known work by Western (as in cowboys-and-gunfighters) author Eugene Cunningham: Triggernometry:
Don’t be fooled by that plain and simple cover — this is no dry tome full of vaguely worshipful stories about famous shootists. No, this book is ultimately a very instructional sort of text, written by a man who was acquainted with what it described in practical (as opposed to purely historical) and aesthetic terms.
Eugene Cunningham (1896-1907) was primarily a novelist rather than a historian or essayist, with a day job as an editor and a later foray into screenwriting for television. His life prior to the years when he really hit his stride as a writer of good-guys-slaughter-bad-guys Western adventures was exciting enough to deserve its own novelization — he served in the US Navy during WWI (including the Mexican campaign) and WWII (in the intelligence service), and he worked a mercenary in Central America for a while after WWI. While he did work for a while as a military writer between the wars, it wasn’t where he really did his best work or found his greatest success.
Cunningham presents his sketches of some of the more violent characters of the Old West — John Wesley Hardin, Billy the Kid, “Wild Bill” Hickock, Butch Cassidy, and a rogue’s gallery of other gunmen — as a sort of corrective to the myth-making work of the old dime novels, a clear-headed humanizing and de-fantasizing of their acts and characters. He very clearly understood the “print the legend” problem inherent in telling these stories, and took the time to track down witnesses and contemporary accounts outside of the sensational press. There is, nonetheless, more than a whiff of Old West mythological romance about this book. The foreword, written by Cunningham’s friend and fellow Western novelist Eugene Manlove Rhodes, both reinforces the presentation of the book as a de-mythologizing effort and simultaneously signed back on to a vision of the gunman as a narrowly honorable and more-or-less orderly user of controlled violence against other violent men. “Some were pretty poor specimens,” Rhodes admits, “but to compare the vilest of them with such monsters as Leopold and Loeb would be infamous” (xii).
This tension between romance and reality finds its most lively expression in the brief final chapter of the book, the one that shares its title. The chapter is described in the table of contents as containing “Random Testimony of the Experts, With Criticism and Comparisons, Hoglegs and Homicides, Diagrams and Disagreements” (viii). The chapter illustrates draw techniques through a combination of critical technical descriptions/illustrations and colorful anecdotes about their uses and their users.
The consistent thread running through it is an ongoing distinction between the kinds of excellence possible for the life-or-death duellist and those possible for the range shooter or target shooter, exemplified in what I think must be one of my favorite paragraphs in the whole book:
Between amazing speed and hair-line accuracy, naturally the gunman chose to perfect his speed. What use to be the International Pistol Champ’, able to shoot a cigarette out from under the harelipped lady’s mustache, if the other fellow was going to get his hogleg out and smoking and, out of five shots at twelve or fifteen feet, land two bullets in a 22-inch segment of your intimate personality? So the old-time six-slinger practised the draws, perfected hide-outs, thought of nerve-racking tricks.
Eugene Cunningham, Triggernometry (1941), p. 419
“Intimate personality” indeed. *snerk*
We see here, I think, an example of a shift in the target of the romance of the gun — a turn to fetishizing a more brutally practical version of ballistic competence and a related sense of professionalism about the practice of violence. Returning to Rhodes’ foreword, perhaps on this view Leopold and Loeb are all the more monstrous in comparison to Cunningham’s gunmen because of their dilettante approach to violence, their pursuit of the wrong sort of excellence in its practice.
I have no idea how or why this book ended up in a university collection.
Once upon a time, children, before the internet put us in the position to drown in information at high speeds and with a great and terrible efficiency, we used to write stuff down. In fact, we often did so (horrors!) by hand, without the benefit of the printing press or the keyboard or a dictation machine. We put instrument to surface and made that scribbly stuff happen. We preserved, shared, and organized information in ways suitable to this slower and more physically personal form, and doing so went hand in hand with how we thought about and interacted with the world.
Consider, for example, the practice of keeping a commonplace book. This is a tool that can be used to serve much the same basic function as a collection of bookmarks in a browser, or a collection of content maintained, annotated, and organized using a reference manager like Zotero or its many cousins. For those of us who find the act of physically writing things down in order to remember them and think about them attractive, a commonplace book can be an occasion for reflection as well as recollection; while it may not be as easily searchable or shareable as a thoughtfully annotated online collection of the same content, it has the advantage, in it slowness, of requiring sustained care and attention in order to work. These ever-growing texts require organization, for example, so that their users can return to information placed in them and make sense of the connections among those items.
Such books, back when they were a more usual occurrence, typically included quotations and notes on material their author-collectors had read or heard; instead of hitting the ol’ Googs for that clever quip, you wrote it down when you encountered it and came back to your book for it later. Contemporary journaling practice isn’t so different from this, really, although a commonplace book doesn’t traditionally take on the diary activities that journaling requires; its original function is for collecting and keeping material to use later (often, per Locke, for rhetorical purposes), rather than writing out one’s thoughts about that information or about oneself.
The commonplace book — uniquely collected and arranged by its author, a work in itself of rhetorical preparation — is also quite different from the published assemblages of famous quotations, anecdotes, or toasts that have often formed the backbone of reference collections for speech preparation (and, lately, personal inspiration). Consider, for example, this little gem that (if I have my way) is probably going to leave my current employer’s collection at the end of our big reference weeding project this summer:
Unlike a commonplace book, in which the content is selected and curated by the book’s creator for that person’s own use and according to that person’s own needs, interests, reading choices, etc., books like this are intended (as the back cover copy tells us with breathless enthusiasm) as a combination “idea mine” and inspirational problem-solving resource. Where exploring one’s own commonplace book is (or can be) a marvelously personal process of introspection, texts like Peter’s Quotations feel a bit like reading someone else’s diary after all of the good bits have been redacted. The often informative and thought-provoking exercise of collecting and organizing material has already been done by someone else, and that someone else (probably prompted by a careful editor) has almost certainly tried to find some scheme for presenting generically appealing material in a generically appealing (and therefore unchallenging) way. This is dumbed-down reflection, sold as a cure-all. “Organized alphabetically by subject” and “cross-referenced by related categories”, Peter’s Quotations leaves little room for the innovation and continuous drawing of connections that grows organically and freely in a commonplace book built along Locke’s recommended lines.
Of course, among the most egregious of Peter’s sins is the book’s complete failure to source its included material in a way that will actually draw its reader to the original authors of those quotations the reader might find provocative or inspiring or useful. It denudes its content of context so completely as to make any “wisdom” present all the emptier. Its thoughtfully clear selection and organization trap the reader in a sort of anodyne garden of well-pruned prose, notwithstanding its empty promise of “outrageous wit.”
I leave the relation between Peter’s Quotations and the Peter Principle (and/or the Dunning-Kruger effect) as an exercise for the reader.