Thinking Inside The Box

Like your average cat, I am endlessly fascinated by boxes (and bags, bins, baskets, cabinets, cupboards, and crates, files, folders, folios, etc.). Or, rather, perhaps it’s more accurate to say this: I am endlessly fascinated by the many ways in which containers (considered both physically and conceptually) structure their contents. This fascination informs both the broad selection of junk in my house (a container to discuss at another time) and some of my academic interests.

One of the ways in which my interest in containers manifested itself when I was in graduate school in philosophy (although I would not have understood it this way at the time) was in the creation of a couple of weird little scrapbooks as a sort of experiment. They were plain, cheap, ring-bound photo books with black covers and black paper, and in them I pasted a selection of newspaper cartoons, copies of photos, snippets of newspaper and magazine articles (mostly about supernatural occurrences and alien abduction stories — The X-Files caught me at just the right time when it came on the air in 1993), a snippet of the occasional semi-serious psychology or philosophy article, and clippings from News of the Weird. I never labeled these things, and I never added any explanatory notations — I just…collected, clipped, copied, and pasted. I assembled my snippets together in an order that, if not entirely random, was certainly not especially deliberate or planned; things were put in the book more or less in the order in which I came across them, and sometimes that meant that themes arose as the discovery of one snippet led me to research something that generated another snippet on a related topic. Rarely, I followed a specific topic or story through several pages in a row; usually, I broke things up so that I didn’t feel like I had too many of the same kind of thing together, although I didn’t really have a hard-and-fast rule about it. The resulting effect (through some sort of weird intellectual pareidolia — a phenomenon well represented in my clippings, as it happened) was something like an alchemical text or some other esoteric tome built in code, simultaneously obscure and yet nonetheless apparently meaningful.* I look back now at this little project (post-MLIS) and think of it as an instance in which the container and mode of assembly created a context for the items it contained such that the whole collection became readable or meaningful in a way only indirectly (evidentially?) related to the individual items thus collected.

During that same time period, I also came across a fun item at a used bookstore (a find that actually inspired my silly little experiment), which I still own and pull out to play with every now and again.

Book cover

The box/cover for the 1983 US printing (by Quill, New York) of Simon Goodenough’s “Murder Dossier” presentation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet

In 1983, a UK company called Web & Bower published a fun version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study In Scarlet in the form of a dossier (edited and conceived by Simon Goodenough, who did similar “murder dossier” treatments for The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles), including letters, diary entries, copies of photos, police reports, newspaper clippings, telegrams, letters, diaries, maps, and assorted small bits of “evidence” (Holmes’ card, a gold (plastic) wedding ring, pills (only one remains in my copy), the maker’s label from a hat). The conceit of the piece is that a certain fellow (coincidentally named Simon Goodenough) discovered a collection of Dr. Watson’s documents in a dispatch box, and shared some of it with Webb & Bower. The contents of the dossier appear to be Watson’s notes, as shared with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle so that he might edit and publish the material.

Front dossier cover

The front cover of the dossier folder. Note the “hand-written” notations indicating that the dossier was sent to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and then returned to Dr. Watson, as well as the (entirely factual) note on the publication of “A Study in Scarlet” in Beeton’s Christmas Annual

It’s a fun bit of design, really, and sometimes quite clever (especially when “pencilled” annotations and corrections are used to bring in elements otherwise simply described in the original text of A Study in Scarlet). It shows as much as it tells, including just what’s needed of Doyle’s original material to move the narrative along but not so much as to completely spare the reader the effort of putting the whole thing together. While it is ultimately a one-trick pony — it’s easy to imagine a reader enjoying the game once or twice and then giving it up, have exhausted the novelty of the format — the tactile experience of working through a familiar story like A Study in Scarlet in dossier form rather than book form changes the experience of reading it.

Dossier introductory letter and evidence packets

Goodenough’s “letter” to the publisher introducing the contents of the dossier and the circumstances under which he’s sharing it. Note the little evidence packets on the side.

This is “enhanced” content, back before the digital habit of linking out to other parts of a narrative or DVD commentaries were a thing. It’s the sort of approach to a book that one can easily see done in a digital format, actually, although related “interactive” print book experiences have been published more recently as well. Putting it all in a file like this, a collection rather than a straight narrative, prompts at least some reflection on how the conceptual apparatus of a dossier or a book frames its content. A book signifies something slightly different from a file or a dossier in usual usage, even if they may contain more or less the same content (and even if we could index them in almost identical ways).  While a book can be a collection (of stories, of essays, of letters, of maps, of images, etc.), one doesn’t typically treat it as a collection of the same sort represented by a dossier or file, which may represent a coherent collection toward some end or other without necessarily being offered as a coherent whole in quite the same way that a conventionally edited book often is.** A dossier can be printed in book form, but once it’s edited and presented in the ways common to at least one cultural norm for books, it doesn’t seem to work the same way. The intellectual work done in apprehending the dossier-story of A Study in Scarlet is perhaps a bit different from the work done reading it in its original form due to the effort required to impose or assert connections among provided evidentiary objects in the file. While those evidentiary objects are all described or alluded to in the original story, the assembly here feels a bit different to me (although I’m hard put to say exactly why).

Journal entries and marked map of London

A “hand-written” page of Watson’s journal and a marked map of London (which folds out from the dossier).

Books have maps in them (and sometimes those maps fold out). Why is that experience different from a collection of leaves that includes a map, packaged as a dossier? What work is the container and the form of the collection doing here? That’s what interests me (although I haven’t got tidy answers, and am perhaps making a mountain of a molehill — a case out of a collection? — when I think about it).


*If you want to imagine it, think of my weird little creation as a sort of silly precursor or distant goofball relative to John Winchester’s journal on Supernatural (which, just in case y’all want to think I’m a copycat here, didn’t premier until 2005, long after I had put my little scrapbooks in moving boxes and forgotten about them).

**I am conveniently ignoring contemporary usage in computerese, in which digital editions of books may themselves be “files” stored in “folders.” That’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish, although I think it bears thinking about in the context of precisely this sort of rumination; the usage does, after all, have a history and a practical purpose.

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It’s Been a Long Week

Hare (LOC)

Do something you enjoy! Some things that I enjoy:


An Incomplete List of Podcasts I’ve Been Listening To When I Walk To Work, In No Particular Order

Philosophy & LIS Stories! Miscellany
Hi-Phi Nation Steal the Stars Judge John Hodgman
Philosophy Bites The Magnus Archives The Bugle
Beyond the Stacks King Falls AM Snap Judgment
History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps Within The Wires Radiolab


The Movie I Saw Yesterday

Thor: Ragnarok is not by any stretch of the imagination an actually good movie, if by “good” you mean a well-written, well-acted bit of high cinema with a tightly constructed narrative and a compelling use of the visual to tell its story. It is, nonetheless, a lot of fun to watch, and I’d happily sit through it again, giggling the whole time. Go forth and enjoy, I say!

It finally occurred to me as I watched Ragnarok (I’m really late to this realization, I know) that the actors do such a phenomenal job with so, so little in the Thor films that the movies themselves function better as character advertisements meant to inspire fanworks (the Loki fandom knows precisely what I mean) than as independent productions. I couldn’t help thinking that reframing Ragnarok (and the other two films) entirely inside-out, pulling a Stoppard (as it were) would really be…well, sort of delightful.


Two Books I’m Digging Right Now

I don’t have time to read.

Oh, OK, so I have recently read a couple of things on the work side of my life that I’ve quite liked: Perzanowski and Schultz’s The End of Ownership (MIT, 2016) and Saito’s Aesthetics of the Familiar: Everyday Life and World-Making (Oxford, 2017 — I just reviewed this one for Choice). If you’re at all interested in figuring out how to negotiate intellectual property in the realm of the digital, The End of Ownership is an excellent read — clear, thorough, and well worth thinking about. Aesthetics of the Familiar is a really helpful point entry for philosophical discussions of the aesthetics of everyday life, as well as an interesting extension of aesthetics into the practical business of living.

Oh, and I got a kick out of Robyn Bennis’ The Guns Above. That was some fun, right there, and I look forward to the next book in the series. Sheesh — I read that MONTHS ago. I really need to find some fiction time…

I guess that’s three books then. Huh.


A Small Sample of the Television I Have To Stream On Sundays, Because I Don’t Have Time During The Week

Did I get through both seasons of Stranger Things? Yup. This sort of thing just panders to people like me who were nerdy teenagers in the 80s, and I was only too happy to permit the pandering. Pander away, I say! Pander to your heart’s content, Duffer Bros! I am receptive to your pandering! Take my money, Netflix!

There is nothing rational to say about the new Dirk Gently. That is, naturally, what I love about it.

I suspect I may be the only person I know who watches Outlander primarily in order to appreciate how perfectly it uses music (props to Bear McCreary, noted bagpipe enthusiast, for some really terrific score work). That damn show is so marvelously detailed in so many small, thoughtful ways, so elegantly and thoroughly designed, that I am willing to forgive it any occasional story weaknesses that might creep up (DO NOT get me started on the current season and the weirdly compelling crazysauce of its origin material, parts of which I absolutely love, and parts of which I skip past with a sigh and a fair amount of grumbling).

OK. FINE. I may also enjoy that show for other reasons.


So: What do you enjoy?





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The Watchers

In a certain building, in a certain state, in a certain city, there is a certain display.
Valley of the Dolls (3)
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).
Valley of the Dolls (1)

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.
Valley of the Dolls (2)

She will know you.

Are you ready?

[Originally posted in 2013, and again last year, revived because creepy dolls are the thing for October!]

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By Way of Illustration

When I was a child, I used to spend some time in the summers with my family at a lakeside cabin in the woods. It was a cozy little place, relatively isolated but homey. There was a HUGE picture window (terrific for viewing birds — and for watching squirrels steal bird food), an iron stove/fireplace, and host of other features that, taken altogether, made it a really terrific place to spend a quiet week or two fishing, boating, swimming, and generally relaxing and enjoying the outdoors.

It should come as a surprise to exactly no one who knows me to discover that, in the midst of all of that lovely nature, I spent a huge amount of my time there reading.

Book cover, The Iliad and the Odyssey

The (somewhat damaged) front and back cover of the 1956 Giant Golden Book Deluxe Edition of Jane Werner Watson’s adaptation/retelling of the Homeric epics, beautifully illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen. I literally loved this book to pieces (note the absent spine and the peeling remains of the plastic film that used to protect the covers, much of which I peeled off myself).

There were a lot of books at the cabin, and I read as many of them as I could. Some, I probably should have skipped; I don’t think my pre-pubescent self was quite ready for Hotel or Jaws, for example, and some of the Leon Uris stuff was just beyond me. I adored the various wildlife guides, though — it was especially thrilling to actually spot a bird from the guide through the picture window. There was even a comic book or two (a horror anthology and, I dimly recall, an issue of Swamp Thing) stuffed in a drawer in one of the bedrooms.

Iliad and Odyssey Title Page

The title page of the Werner/Provensen Iliad and Odyssey. Note the lettering — the different colors of the letters accidentally provide the illusion that one is looking at something freshly inked onto the page by hand, rather than printed by a mechanical press.

There were two books, however, that I read obsessively every time I was there: a tattered illustrated paperback copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and a gigantic children’s book retelling of the Homeric epics by long-time Golden Books author/editor/publisher Jane Werner Watson. I loved these books, both for the stories they told and (perhaps especially) for their illustrations. Often, having exhausted the text, I would leaf through the illustration and create my own stories to fit the images; as a horse-obsessed girl, for example, it was great fun for me to try to follow the tale of a single horse through the Iliad. There was always something rich and surreal for me about the experience of exploring the pictures and stories in my head. When the cabin was sold many years later, I was given the books to keep, and I still feel that story-magic when I look at them.

Agamemnon's False Dream (p. 14-15)

The Provensens’ rendering of Agamemnon, dreaming across the bottom half of pages 14 and 15. The careful use of shield motifs, armor colors, and helmet designs serves to individuate characters who would otherwise be indiscernible from each other in the highly stylized images. The spread of images across facing pages occurs frequently, and is often used to dramatic effect.

A large part of the magic in the Giant Golden Books edition of The Iliad and the Odyssey comes from the brilliant illustration work of Alice and Martin Provensen, an award-winning team of artists responsible for some of the most marvelous children’s book artwork you’ll ever see. They worked on some of the most memorable and charming of the Little Golden Books and other Golden Press publications for Simon & Schuster in the 1940s and 50s, as well as the Caldecott Award-winning The Glorious Flight (Viking) somewhat later (80s).*

So much is enchanting about the work the Provensens did on this book. They adapted the style of black-figure pottery painting — note the tendency to render bodies mostly in profile, without depth of perspective, etc. — to their own preferred color palette, using an ink-drawing-and-smudged-watercolor texture and typically angular 1940s-50s human figure design (entirely compatible with similarly angular black-figure design). While those firmly steeped in Homeric tradition might take issue with their choices about who gets drawn with a beard and who doesn’t at various points in this book, the images themselves are invariably powerful and often moving. They spread images across facing pages to create a sense of immersion and energetic motion. The images just above this paragraph, for example, are taken from the bottom left side of p. 42 and the bottom right side of p. 43, while the top of both pages is a single image of people watching from the walls of Troy as Achilles (left) pursues Hector (right). The details make all the difference — consider, for example, the angle of lean on both figures, so that Achilles and Hector are perfectly matched across opposite corners of facing pages in such a way as to suggest a common speed. None of Achilles’ face except his eye and part of his nose is visible under the solid black of his helmet, lending him an implacable menace quite absent from Hector (whose slightly visible chin and mouth allow the reader to “hear” him calling back to his pursuer, and whose visible eyebrow softens his eye).

Illustration of Odysseus' crew in the process of being transformed into swine by Circe.

Odysseus’ crew in the process of being transformed into swine by Circe, bottom left side of p. 64.

Perhaps due to their early work in animation (Martin worked for Disney; Alice worked for Walter Lantz), the Provensens had a terrific sense of how to make even a still image present motion and change. Notice, in the illustration above of the transformation of Odysseus’ crew into swine, how they’ve used position (the stepped heights), figure details (one man still human, one in between, and one pig) and little color details (the yellow eyes on all three figures) to represent the change in progress.


The gods look down on the duel between Menelaus and Paris (p. 19). Note the Greek(ish) names of the deities. The book is filled with small, odd bits of Greek, some of which are more or less correct, and some of which appear to be simply nonsensical. There does appear to have been an effort made in the text and illustrations, however, to imitate ancient usage in ways that could be made recognizable to a contemporary English speaker familiar (at least in broad strokes) with the story and the characters.

It’s really a beautiful book, and I really regret how I contributed to damaging it through hard wear and use when I was a child. The Giant Golden Book edition of The Iliad and the Odyssey has been out of print for years, and while used editions are out there, it’s not easy to replace; while badly damaged versions like mine can be found for less than $20, early editions in collectible or like-new condition can run well over $200. One of the many things on my “to do someday when I have the chance” list is to have the spine and damaged pages repaired, mostly to protect it from further damage — it’s never going to be a collectible, but it will always be loved.


* For a taste of the scope of their career together (as well as a peek at Alice’s solo efforts), take a look at this video of an exhibition of their work from the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature (NCCIL):


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What’s in a Name?

Well, if you’re noted prohibitionist, Anti-Saloon League activist, former Indian agent, part-time University of Nebraska student, newspaper man, and all-around tough (but sober) character William E. Johnson (better known as “Pussyfoot” Johnson), it sure says something about you. He earned his charming nickname in the Western US in the late 1800s-early 1900s, mostly by being a sneaky old cuss in pursuit of the elimination of liquor from American public life; Ol’ Pussyfoot was the kind of guy saloon owners and others would pay to have murdered, and he was very good at his job (gunfights, night raids, con jobs pulled on saloon owners both in person and by mail, and assorted mayhem being entirely expected of him at the time).

"Pussyfoot" Johnson (LOC)

This image of Johnson (dated 4/24/20) does not, by itself, appear to provide much information. He certainly doesn’t look like a fellow who once had a bounty on his head. It’s just a picture of guy sitting at a desk, oddly wide-eyed. It is a rather unremarkable image, perhaps rendered a bit comic by his expression, in which half of his face appears surprised.

Would it be more informative to a viewer who knew his name? It would! A viewer familiar with the name and the time period might understand that his right eye is perpetually wide because it’s made of glass. How did he lose the eye? So, yeah — funny story…

For the full tale, I recommend reading both Dr. Grenfell’s introduction and Ch. 10 of F. A. McKenzie’s “Pussyfoot” Johnson: Crusader — Reformer — A Man Among Men (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1920), a charming bit of popular hagiography written in praise of Pussyfoot. Short version: It involved being kidnapped from a speaking engagement, pelted with small bags of flour and the occasional rock, and hauled along the streets of London by a mob of rowdy university students the year before this picture was taken. The riot was meant to be a bit of “ragging” (hazing, really) by the students of UCL, King’s, and St. Bart’s, who put aside other rivalries in the name of their shared cause; the students objected, as one might imagine, to Mr. Johnson’s presence as a source of support and encouragement for the local British temperance crusaders. It’s worth noting that the biographer Mr. McKenzie (as Grenfell points out in his introduction to the text — see p. 7) was actually the chair of the meeting from which Pussyfoot was so perilously purloined, so he had a front-row seat (actually, an on-stage seat) for the show; he was in fact also “kidnapped” by the students.

As McKenzie tells it, the students sang, chanted, and brought along assorted banners and signs, which came out when they finally captured their prohibitionist prize and started their parade. They tried to get to Pussyfoot before the meeting, but that clever fellow lived up to his nickname and snuck past them by mingling with the audience going in, so they actually staged their flour-bagging inside the meeting as a part of their ragging raid. McKenzie notes one sign/banner in particular:

Banner text from McKenzie's biography of Pussyfoot Johnson

The medical students got their rhyme on. Who says the humanities aren’t good for something? (McKenzie, 160)


The rock throwing, all witnesses agree, was when things got a bit out of hand — the students themselves had only intended some light hazing, not serious physical harm, and the rock apparently came from some outsider in the crowd. Pussyfoot himself “entered into the spirit of the proceedings” once it became clear to him that the students were just messing with him (160), and was fine enough until the rock hit him; even after, he was at pains to inform reporters that “there [was] no ill will” on his part toward the students.

In Dr. Grenfell’s view, this behavior (and the glass eye) marked Pussyfoot as “a sportsman in the very best English sense of the term” (5). Dr. Grenfell’s introduction, as it happens, provides a comment that could stand as an excellent caption for the otherwise unremarkable photo of Pussyfoot above:

When Mr. Johnson was to appear on a public platform after the cowardly assault made upon him, his enemies expected to see him wearing a “black patch” to invite sympathy, as did Long John Silver in Treasure Island. But they reckoned without their man. “Pussyfoot” was a real sportsman. He needed no mollycoddling methods to bolster up his ideals. He refrained from appearing in public until he could wear such a good artificial eye that his audience found it difficult to beleve [sic] he had ever lost his real one. That we loved. It was the straight, sporting spirit (5-6).

While it’s entirely unlikely that the people whose lives he made difficult as both a liquor reformer and as an Indian agent (spoiler alert: Indian agents were justifiably unpopular with native people as a rule, and Pussyfoot was by all reports the sort of moralizing, missionary Indian agent who did not make friends among native people) would be terribly impressed by what a good sport Pussyfoot was, one can’t help at least respecting the chutzpah that characterized Pussyfoot’s entire public life. One wide-eyed, unremarkable picture doesn’t do his audacity justice.

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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).]

Continue reading

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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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