Cultural Literacy

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


Robert Doisneau Le Combat du Centaure

W H E N Grant asked me to be a part of this I tried to think how I might be able to contribute. I don't consider myself an artist or really a creator. Nor would I call myself a curator or whatever we call blog auteurs today. This is in fact the problem. The rapid rise, proliferation, and ubiquity of a radically new medium for information creation, dissemination, and consumption fractured paradigms of knowledge production that obtained since, quite literally, the dawn of Western Civilization. The tacit contract of signification binding cultural projects of the 1970's to those of 1820's to Shakespeare has been ruptured. Or perhaps sidestepped.

I am a medievalist by trade. A specialist in pre-print book production and reception. The other side of our present cultural coin. The years following the fall of Rome to the rise of Guttenberg, witnessed the apotheosis of a cultural object. Perhaps THE cultural object. The book. Yet in the age of bespoke book production the manufacture of meaning depended upon the unique handiwork of idiosyncratic- human- producers who, like humans, lacked the capacity to do the same task the same way twice. Thus all books were different to a degree.

This plurality of possibility gave to a specific cultural anxiety. An anxiety over authenticity. Was your book correct? Or did your scribe err? How did one reference specific cultural moments, memorialized in texts, when no two texts were identical? Scarcity was the norm. Books remained forever unbound and open to revision, correction, extension, and interpolation. They were fundamentally collaborative. They were radically individual products expressing the explicit or implicit desires, resources, and opportunities of their creators and users.  The printing press bound the book. It allowed the replication of an authorized text. An official cultural object. Consider a few clich├ęs. What does it mean to do something 'by the book' or know something 'chapter and verse'?

Fast-forward a millennia or so. Anxiety returns. Again we fear incompletion, lack of authenticity. The haunting specter of more. Yet our anxiety stems not from scarcity. It is born of totality. The Internet has become Borges's infinite library. Everything is at our figure tips. We have the ability to look up anything. And yet we lack the time. Consequently we torment ourselves with the idea that something better, something more authentic, more real, might be out there if we just knew the right key words in Google. We are lost in Babylon or the Labyrinth or both at the same time, each on different tabs. Ergo the proliferation of 'curated' blogs and my consequent anxiety over setting myself up as a sort of arbiter of things worthy to be paid attention: the only currency we have left and of which we have a fixed amount whose balance we cannot know.

This is the long way of coming to a non-point. The culture I keep or promote must be held loosely and interrogated with a reasonable level of suspicion. I am not out to deceive, yet hyperlinks make liars of us all. In the end I have only those fragments that have broke against my shore, punctured my perceptual horizon, blotted out the cute cat/Ryan Gosling memes, and asserted themselves onto me over and against my hardwired disposition to be entertained rather than to pay attention. Hopefully the bits and pieces I share here will encourage a wakeful-ness, a paying attention-ness, in our new fangled hall of infinite mirrors. 

Zach Stone
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Culture Keeper

1 comments:

  1. What is most interesting about Zach's point is that the book seems to become unbound by our current methods of cultural proliferation, mainly the internet, as it allows us to sample, dissect, and (re)create culture using its vast store's of information.

    Whereas Zach signals this type of grassroots creation as an "anxiety," because it creates variation in knowledge that books prevent, it also creates a cultural environment that encourage creation in the present and from those voices that might normally be ignored. All it takes to create something, such as a meme, is someone with access to a library computer. Creation has never been so easy and available as it is now.

    While this does create a rapid and robust proliferation of cultural artifacts, it also opens new forms of creation that allow us to create the "wakeful-ness" Zach encourages. It is an interesting paradox.

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