Being much plagued by insomnia, some years ago I took to reading, as I tried to drift off to sleep, a collection of dialogues recovered from the flight recorders of crashed aeroplanes. These transcripts, rendered on the page in conventional dramatic format, followed a uniform narrative arc: a mishmash of cockpit directions, communication with air traffic control, and with passengers and stewardesses, banal chit-chat about family or food (Krispy Kreme donuts seem to be a favourite of US pilots) suddenly giving way to concern about an unexpected bang or shudder or an unresponsive flap or lever; rapidly escalating to blind panic as the situation turns critical; then, inevitably, the same denouement. There is rarely catharsis or anagnorisis for the protagonists; in fact, their final speeches generally consist of a single word: ‘Fuck!’ Two exceptions have stuck in my memory. In one, the first officer, who is crashing the plane deliberately, frames the catastrophe as a votive act, intoning over and over: ‘I rely on God.’ The other is the inverse of this, not affirmation of divine plenitude but pure negation, as the pilot, seeing the ground loom up to meet him, and realising that the altimeter readings bear no relation to reality, cries out: ‘None of this is true! It’s all fiction!’
This ghoulish bedtime reading, which failed to cure my sleeplessness, may seem very much of our time. But The Tempest opens with a similar dialogue. Replace ‘pilot’ with ‘boatswain’, ‘trim servo’ and ‘autopilot aural warning’ with ‘topsail’ and ‘master’s whistle’, 20th-century howls with ‘Yare!’, ‘Mercy on us!’ and ‘We split! We split!’, and you have the flight recorder transcripts rerun as a shipwreck drama. Or, for an even tighter fit, consider Dracula. After the storm-tossed Demeter has overshot its landing point in Whitby harbour, crashing into the gravel, the Board of Trade allows a journalist to look at the captain’s log book, as well as a sheet of paper that was rolled up in a bottle in the captain’s pocket. This captain, last of a crew who have disappeared one by one during the voyage, was already dead when the ship slammed into Whitby. His last log entry before lashing his hands to the wheel (which makes him a kind of autopilot too) sums up a logic that applies just as well to the flight recorder: ‘If we are wrecked, mayhap this bottle may be found, and those who find it may understand.’
The Demeter’s cargo is ‘a number of great wooden boxes filled with mould’. This mould turns out to be Transylvanian earth: Dracula has shipped the boxes to London to serve as graves in which to replenish his strength on his arrival. We already know, from Jonathan Harker’s diary, that the count sleeps in a coffin. The ship’s first mate, convinced that ‘It’ must lie in one of the crates, starts to unscrew them one by one – no mean task, since there are fifty.
The profusion of boxes, both on the Demeter and throughout Dracula as a whole, is matched by a proliferation of records: journals, letters, articles and duplicates of all these. These two items – boxes and records – are the main props around which Stoker builds his novel, and there’s one object that combines both in a single gizmo: the phonograph (in those days, a clunky wooden casket into which revolving wax-covered cylinders were slotted) on which John Seward records his medical and psychiatric observations. Harker’s fiancée, Mina, uses another new invention, the typewriter (not yet thirty years old when Dracula was first published in 1897), to transcribe the recordings, journal entries and newspaper reports that will allow Van Helsing and his gang to piece together a timeline of their fiendish adversary’s activities. In Dracula’s Legacy, Friedrich Kittler saw the novel as representing ‘the final victory of technological media over the blood-sucking despots of old Europe’. But in another sense, a phonograph cylinder or a captain’s log or a flight recorder are also versions of the vampire’s coffin: through them the dead are revived and speak again.
With its interest in the logistics of moving goods and money from one place to another, and in the minutiae of the count’s investments in London property, Dracula is in many ways a novel about capitalism. It’s no coincidence that one of the greatest novels of capitalism, Moby-Dick, was written by an employee of the Board of Trade, a customs officer. Melville’s book is obsessively concerned with the practicalities of packing the world’s natural resources into crates before transporting them as monetised products across the oceans. It too features a coffin, which Queequeg has someone build when, laid low by a fever, he’s sure he’s going to die. But he doesn’t die, not immediately, and so whiles away his time copying the tattoos that adorn his body by carving them onto the coffin’s surface. The tattoos, ‘those hieroglyphic marks’, depict ‘a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume … whose mysteries not even himself could read’. The coffin, a writing surface close to death, is the only object to survive the Pequod’s wreck. It serves as a lifeboat to convey Ishmael to safety – which, given that Ishmael is our narrator, makes it a device that delivers to us the entire content of the novel. It’s a literal narrative vehicle.
A century earlier, a similar parallel between the coffin and the unreadable written word had been drawn in Richardson’s Clarissa. Just like Queequeg, Clarissa, who has described herself as a ‘cipher’, takes great pains to decorate the coffin which she has prematurely ordered. She covers it with transcribed lines of scripture, emblems and enigmatic symbols – ciphers – beneath which, on finally dying, she disappears, leaving others to scratch their heads as they scrutinise them. She was raped by the villain Lovelace, but encrypted in a casket she is now unreachable, indecipherable.
There is a 20th-century fiction which plays with the same double sense of ‘encrypted’: Hergé’s Cigars of the Pharaoh, which sees Tintin trying to decode a cryptic sign, a distortion of the Taoist taijitu symbol, which he keeps seeing in unlikely places. He tracks it down in a crypt full of sarcophagi containing the bodies of previous adventurers; soon he is kidnapped and sealed inside a coffin which ends up floating away at sea. Later he fakes his own death and is buried in a grave – equipped with a secret breathing tube – from which he escapes at night. The book’s sequel, The Blue Lotus, opens with Tintin sitting at a radio set listening to a message broadcast in Morse code by an international gang of drug traffickers.
In 1860, seventeen years before Thomas Edison patented the phonograph, as a way of translating sounds into marks on waxed paper, a French cardiologist called Étienne-Jules Marey developed a portable sphygmograph, or ‘pulse-writer’, a device attached to the wrist which used a stylus to record the patterns of a patient’s blood flow. Marey went on to make motion photographs, some of which showed bayonet points twirling as they traced the path of the perfect thrust. Media historians, including Kittler, have suggested that Marey’s work inspired Futurist painters and helped pave the way for cinema. But another way in which his legacy played out was in the recording and measurement of industrial processes. The person responsible was Lillian Moller Gilbreth, daughter of wealthy German immigrants to America, who attended Oakland High School in the 1890s alongside Isadora Duncan, Gertrude Stein and Jack London. With her husband, Frank, she developed the time-and-motion studies that would help perfect the workings of the assembly line, that ultimate form of capitalist machinery.
Gilbreth’s method involved attaching a ‘light ring’ – effectively, a tiny torch – to the finger of a factory worker as she packed soap into crates or inserted chocolates into the slots of their assortment trays. By taking a long-exposure photograph of the hand’s path as it performed its action, tracing a kind of writing in the air, the movements could be captured. If rendered in two dimensions, by a single camera, the resulting picture was called a cyclegraph; if rendered in three (height, width and depth), from two viewpoints, it was a stereocyclegraph; and if, through a sequence of rapid exposures, the light’s path was broken into intermittent dots (introducing the element of time), it was known as a chronocyclegraph. Gilbreth had special rooms constructed to record her cyclegraphs in: black walls covered in white grids. Later, she built cutaway boxes containing three-dimensional wire models of the patterns the cyclegraphs revealed, solidifying the action’s path. These wireframe models served two functions: to allow for the study and improvement of shop-floor ergonomics – a factory owner could reduce a five-second movement to a four-second one by bringing the work stool closer to the conveyor belt, or by adjusting a shelf’s height – and also to allow novice, slow or even blind workers to emulate the actions of their most efficient coworkers by running their hands along the wire models over and over again.
Gilbreth is a fascinating figure: a lifelong Republican who flirted with eugenics, she is also credited with vastly improving shop-floor conditions and with allowing workers to participate in those improvements. Lenin saw her methods as revolutionary, and rolled them out across the Soviet Union. She is also viewed as a feminist who took women’s traditional chores seriously enough to study and overhaul the layout of the modern kitchen; and (despite her early eugenicism) as a friend of the disabled, dedicating energy to modifying living spaces for people with limited movement; and even as a space-age pioneer, since Nasa used her research when designing their modules, whose quarters also function, if you think about it, as living spaces for people whose motility has been drastically altered.
But what most fascinates me about Gilbreth is the role literature played in her thinking. This, not medicine or engineering, was the subject she first chose to study – her MA thesis was on Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair. She loved Dante, whose idea of la diritta via must surely have influenced her ongoing quest to determine each action’s perfect line, what she called ‘the one best way’. At a mechanical level, too, her work always had some connection to writing. She invented her career-defining cyclegraph while working for the Remington typewriter company. Around the same time, her husband, using their twelve children as guinea pigs, tested a system he had devised for teaching touch typing by making his subjects copy out passages of (what else?) Moby-Dick. He also publicised the couple’s work for the Automatic Pencil Company by filming the children filling a black casket with old-fashioned fixed-lead pencils and ceremonially burying it – a performance for which they were rewarded by being bought twelve ice creams at the local drug store, Coffins. (The family was holidaying in Nantucket, where Coffin, as Melville knew, is a common name.)
As both business and family expanded, Lillian had a Dictaphone installed in every room – save one, which was given over to secretaries who, like Stoker’s Mina, would transcribe the cylinders’ contents at the end of each day. Years later, when she was hired by Macy’s to rationalise the checkout floor by wire-modelling the cashiers’ motions and tweaking the positions of chairs and tills, she would gaze down from the store’s mezzanine to observe the kinetics of her new configuration in action. From this vantage point I imagine her seeing, again, a kind of secretariat: these women rhythmically striking their keys, transcribing some great work, a book taking shape before her eyes, an opus which will always hover beyond the edge of legibility, forever suspended in the act of being composed.
In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau defined writing as an activity involving ‘an industrial inversion’ that converts something ‘received’ into a ‘product’: ‘The scriptural enterprise transforms or retains within itself what it receives from its outside and creates internally the instruments for an appropriation of the external space … It is capitalist and conquering.’ For de Certeau, contemporary capitalism is itself nothing more than a giant writing machine. It both inscribes and reads all surfaces, not least human ones, such that they are ‘transformed into text, in conformity with the Western desire to read its products’. We are all Maggie Simpson, getting barcode-zapped at the checkout. This machine, he argues, is no longer under anyone’s control. Instead, ‘the scriptural system moves forward on its own … it transforms the subjects that controlled it into operators of the writing machine that orders and uses them.’ It is, in the full technological sense, vampiric.
De Certeau published his book in 1980, two decades before the rise of digital and surveillance culture. But it’s prophetic of our present era, in which our movements through the urban environment are recorded and archived by closed-circuit cameras, our location tracked by those miniature recording boxes we carry in our pockets, our iPhones. Online, every keystroke and click is registered, indexed and correlated with others we have made, so that future clicks may be predicted or even determined. We live, one could say, inside a giant black box.
If every era has a signature work of art –not necessarily its ‘best’, but its most revealing – then perhaps ours is Trevor Paglen’s aerial photograph, taken in 2013, of the NSA headquarters at Fort Meade in Maryland. At its centre are two literal black boxes, their mirrored surfaces impenetrable. Paglen’s genius is to give the giant complex – photographed after dark, the ground glowing with sodium light – a quality we could call ‘mystical’, framing it as a shrine in which all information resides, yet which to casual readers of the image and perhaps even to its own guardians and archivists remains uninterpretable, illegible. Inevitably, the site calls to mind that other great shrine, Mecca’s Kaaba, a cuboid box, twelve metres in each dimension, draped in black cloth. The cloth (the kiswah, Arabic for ‘death shroud’), renewed every year, is embroidered with Quranic verses written in gold. Several lifetimes of votive exegesis have not been sufficient to decrypt it. Such is the nature of divine mysteries. That’s why Captain Ahab, examining Queequeg’s tattoos – those ‘mysteries not even himself [Queequeg] could read’, ‘destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed’ – turns away from the insoluble riddle and exclaims: ‘Oh, devilish tantalisation of the gods!’
Both the religious and the political are categories opened up and brought into focus through the act of writing. Derrida, in his 1995 text Mal d’archive, unpacks the etymology of the word ‘archive’. From the Latin, arca, comes the Ark of the Covenant, along with the terms chest, box and coffer; from the Greek word, arkheion, come ‘house’, ‘domicile’, ‘address’ – and there’s also a nod to the administrative office of the superior magistrates, or ‘archons’. The genealogy of the archive, then, combines the sacred with the political, raising questions of the law and – above all – of interpretation. The Ark may contain the law, but the law must be interpreted and administered by the archons, through ongoing analysis and debate. For Derrida the archive, though a record of the past, is also oriented towards the future, since it concerns ‘the question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow’. From this comes his most forceful claim: that ‘effective democratisation can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and the access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation.’
Here, rendered with a diagnostic clarity sharper than any cardiogram’s, is the pulsing heart of the matter. The black box brings with it the necrotic spectre of complete control, but it also keeps afloat the promise of a democracy to come. For this reason alone we should cherish it, cling to it, no mattter how many Demeters or Pequods or aeroplanes crash, disgorge or simply jettison it. Perhaps this is what both Ishmael and Mina are trying to tell us. Moby-Dick closes (in modern editions) or opens (in the original) with an image of the archivist: ‘The pale Usher – threadbare in coat, heart, body and brain; I see him now. He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world.’
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