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Digitisation and its discontents

Antony Grafton in The New Yorker , 5 November 2007:

Future Reading: Digitization and its discontents

Who could resist stealing the sub-title, albeit with an Anglicised “digitization” ?

It’s a long read. What did I take away which impressed me most? Tucked away in the middle of a paragraph on page 4:

And yet we will still need our libraries and archives. John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid have written of the so-called “social life of information”—the form in which you encounter a text can have a huge impact on how you use it. Original documents reward us for taking the trouble to find them by telling us things that no image can. Duguid describes watching a fellow-historian systematically sniff two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old letters in an archive. By detecting the smell of vinegar—which had been sprinkled, in the eighteenth century, on letters from towns struck by cholera, in the hope of disinfecting them—he could trace the history of disease outbreaks. Historians of the book—a new and growing tribe—read books as scouts read trails. Bindings, usually custom-made in the early centuries of printing, can tell you who owned them and what level of society they belonged to. Marginal annotations, which abounded in the centuries when readers usually went through books with pen in hand, identify the often surprising messages that individuals have found as they read. Many original writers and thinkers—Martin Luther, John Adams, Samuel Taylor Coleridge—have filled their books with notes that are indispensable to understanding their thought. Thousands of forgotten men and women have covered Bibles and prayer books, recipe collections, and political pamphlets with pointing hands, underlining, and notes that give insights into which books mattered, and why. If you want to capture how a book was packaged and what it has meant to the readers who have unwrapped it, you have to look at all the copies you can find, from original manuscripts to cheap reprints. The databases include multiple copies of some titles. But they will never provide all the copies of, say, “The Wealth of Nations” and the early responses it provoked.

November 20, 2007 Posted by | books, digitisation | Leave a comment

Sacks: Musicophilia

A peregrinatio through Oliver sack’s new book Musicophilia, by Johan Lehrer in Seed Magazine which also has an article The Evolution of Language: What songbirds, dancing, and knot-tying can tell us about why we speak.

The Sacks looks to be interesting in its dealing with empathy, which is a pet topic of mine.

The reviewer writes that Sacks was not always as empathetic as he was now, citing his friend Thom Gunn’s response to journals Sacks kept and sent to him while hacking around America as a young man. I was of the belief that empathy was born not made. Though this is obviously a simplistic notion based on a too superficial observation of people I have know over time, who seemed, over time, to stay pretty firmly in the positions in the 1 to 10 scale of empathy I assign them to (with their full knowledge of course!).

The last chapter apparently deals with Clive Wearing – the man with the 7 second memory as he has become called – the English musician and musicologist who was struck by a severe brain infection that meant he could only exist in the present. There have been many online pieces on him.

November 20, 2007 Posted by | Music | , , , | Leave a comment


Own up, how many of you could use the word properly in a sentence? I’ve heard and seen it used many times, but it didn’t seem to be a word I needed to investigate for everyday use. When I first looked it up, about three months ago, what stood out for me was the Biblical origin:

Wikipedia says:

It derives from an account in the Hebrew Bible, in which pronunciation of this word was used to distinguish members of a group (the Ephraimites) whose dialect lacked a /ʃ/ sound (as in shoe) from members of a group (the Gileadites) whose dialect did include such a sound.

For anyone with an imagination, permutations on this theme abound.

It was not etymology which came to mind when I saw a wonderful photograph of a school girl sitting between two cracks in Wood’s Lot, drawing the crack. Because my eyes weren’t really focusing well, I thought for a moment she was sitting between two jagged sculptures, drawing, engaged, transported. When I realised it was Tate Modern, the pleasure of seeing her so engrossed did not change. Instead, I thought along the lines of this post which I discovered immediately afterwards from Inversion Layer:

Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth: a presence not an absence

This at one stage critically mocked work, has really captured people’s imagination. The photograph in Flickr titled Along the Crack, demonstrates the engagement people have with it. I also like the blurred image, Focal point of the crack. (Are any of them wondering how it was put there and what happened to the original floor? A year ago I walked on the smooth floor below the ‘helter-skelters’). The way I respond to this at one level is: here is a creation which demonstrates more graphically than looking at a painting, how people respond to art: every combination from children getting feet stuck to adults skirting around, slightly embarrassed. But who knows what the skirters did a few minutes later? Perhaps even they were getting down to it too – as only children know how to properly from their hearts. Maybe the children, by doing what they do in response to the crack, are setting the example to the adults, who might have forgotten how to respond instinctively, for fear of seeming unknowledgeable, or some such other hang-up about art. Why not a mourner lying one one side of the crack?

It is also interesting to think that some may see Shibboleth as abstract while others that it is representational, allegorical; it is in any case metaphorical. Maybe as they wander around, they swap and change from one form to the other. Others might see, as I am beginning to, despite not having visited it, that a work of art can be both abstract and not, while at the same time demonstrating the difference between the two; even showing, in the reactions and thoughts of people – more than what is there on the ground, the activity of individuals being essential to the work itself – a series of gradations from one art form to the other. Sure, it’s a play thing too.

Is there such a thing as epistemological of art? By that I mean art which by its nature forces the mind to think of so many things that the brain goes on a journey into what it knows.


My art epistemological education begins with:

Art and Epistemology from The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Psycho-epistemology of Art – A discussion of an Ayn Rand essay of that name


“That is All I Know of Him . . . ” Epistemology and Art in Melville’s “Bartleby” By Nancy Roundy


There is a danger with so many ideas flowing from Shibboleth that the artist may end up being accused of having her cake and eating it: with so many interpretations why should she bother to explain what it is that stimulated her to build it in the first place? What it meant to her might be swallowed up in what those who have seen it or photos of it, churn out about its significant or meaning to them.


When hill walking with a friend in Andalucia a few years ago, we came down from a summit with an incredible view


but lost the track. The way we took down nearly ended in disaster when we were forced to walk over a steeply down-slopping section of exposed limestone, often over razor edges, not dissimilar to this in the States:


source: {1}

Once, half way across this sheet of rock, with little prospect of clambering back up it, I did slip a boot down a crevice and panicked for a moment thinking it was stuck, or perhaps that one boot would have to be left behind, with all the complication that might bring.

November 20, 2007 Posted by | art, epistemology | Leave a comment