1. I have been reading Mary Ruefle’s collected lectures, Madness, Rack, and Honey. In “Poetry and the Moon,” Ruefle shares this: When man first walked on the moon, the New York Times interviewed various prominent people, asking them to respond. Pablo Picasso said: “It means nothing to me. I have no opinion about it, and I don’t care.”
Picasso’s dismissal of the moon landing came to mind recently when I received an email from my graduate program. The email invited me to a workshop on “mapping the conceptual significance and possibilities of the Elliston Project and of digital audio archives more generally.”
The Elliston Project is a digital archive of readings and lectures given by poets at the University of Cincinnati since 1951 and includes such luminaries as Robert Frost, Denise Levertov, and Seamus Heaney. I’m all for these analog recordings being digitized, preserved, and made accessible to as many people as might like to hear them, but the language of the email—“mapping the conceptual significance”—irked me.
2. The English Department at the University of Cincinnati, like many others, has become obsessed with all things digital. I assume that this obsession, like most obsessions, is rooted in fear.
Fear of irrelevancy. Fear of becoming obsolete. Fear of death. These are reasonable fears.
What is unreasonable is to think that if we adopt the right stance or map the correct concept, we can do an end run around irrelevancy, obsoleteness, and death.
3. I read an article by the visiting theorist who has been chosen by the university to map the conceptual significance of the digital audio archive, and I find that I am less struck by the content of his argument than by his tone. It is both prophetic and chiding. He asserts that scholars must integrate digital technology into their scholarship “on as broad a scale as possible.” He writes: “Circumstances are such that this work can no longer be safely postponed.” “Information technology is even now transforming the fundamental character of the library.” “The shifting plates are already registering on the seismographs."
Why the alarmist tone? Is the earth actually shaking? Is the sky falling?
Hasn’t the sky been falling for thousands of years?
4. Most of the poets I know, myself included, dismiss the hysteria surrounding digital technology that is so pervasive in the academy. I consider this as I chop an onion for dinner. Then I look at my fingers. My digits. This is where the word “digital” comes from—this living hand, now warm and capable.
To make something digital is to literally transform it into digits, numbers. The way you learned to count as a child on your fingers: One, two, three.
I want to discuss this with someone who understands the concept of “digital” better than I do, so I G-chat with my brother David.
“The word ‘digital’ comes from ‘digit,’ right?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says. “To make something digital is to convert it into numbers. Ones and zeroes.”
“So what’s the difference between a digital recording and an analog recording?”
“In the digital world,” he says, “one is always one. One doesn’t really exist in the analog world. Or in the real world. Nothing is ever exactly one meter long.”
“So when you digitize a recording, you make an abstract representation of it using ones and zeroes? These are then arranged into a pattern that can be interpreted by anyone who knows how?”
“Yes. And that information doesn’t change over time. Analog changes. Your memories are analog. They degrade. Just accessing them changes them. A record changes every time you play it. Maybe analog is more like something that is alive in that it’s always dying.”
Maybe analog is more like something that is alive in that it’s always dying? I think of Keats’s fragment, perhaps the last thing he wrote:
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.
5. When I was in college, I worked at a bakery. One day, the owner of the bakery taught me how to make apple turnovers. He said, “Don’t worry about making them perfect. People like to buy pastries that look a little messy because that way they know they’re homemade.”
A degree of imperfection is part of the aesthetic appeal of many handmade things. In hand-thrown pottery, you can see where the sculptor’s fingertips moved through the wet clay. In a hand-knitted blanket, you can see where the knitter held the knitting needles more tightly, where more loosely. The work of creation is embedded in the thing created.
6. Audiophiles fetishize records. Writers fetishize books. Ultimately, of course, what the audiophile loves is music. What the writer loves is language. In other words, they love the content, not merely the form.
Form, however, has power. Slide a record from its sleeve, fit it onto a phonograph, and slip the needle into the groove. Hold a well-worn book in your palm. Feel the heft of it. Didn’t you once feel very serious carrying a stack of imposing books around your college campus?
I don’t really believe that the medium is the message, but I do believe that physical objects become repositories of nostalgia and that this is no small thing. I experience music differently when I listen to a record. I experience words differently when I read them on a printed page. This is, in part, the power of ritual. I remember playing records and reading books as a child.
Maybe this is why so many religions invest symbolic trinkets with sacred power. Maybe this is why so many people report feeling better when they are given placebos.
Audiophiles insist that a record produces a warmer sound than a digital recording because it records the sound wave directly, whereas a digital recording samples the wave. Whether or not this assertion can be backed up by science, I believe that audiophiles experience analog sound differently because they believe they do.
7. Later, I G-chat with my brother again.
“Should we worry about digital information being lost because digital platforms are always changing?”
“Not really. There are restrictions, but they are artificial. If you buy a song on iTunes in 2005, you probably won’t be able to play it in 2015, but that’s because there were restrictions placed on the song by Apple. The ones and the zeroes are always the same.”
“So it’s like math will always be there as long as there are mathematicians who understand it?”
“Exactly. Code IS math. All software can be reduced to a mathematical equation. There are no exceptions.”
“When you digitize a sound wave, you turn it into math?”
“Yes. I guess you could say that a sound wave is math, too. You just can’t store a sound wave with perfect accuracy. It’s too complex. It’s like a derivative. You can get infinitely more accurate but never exactly perfect.”
“Is analog recording more accurate because it captures the wave directly rather than representing it with math?”
“No. Once something is digital, it stays the same forever. As soon as you bless a record and call it done, it immediately changes due to entropy.”
“But when you record something digitally, you sample it, right? You record moments from the wave and thus approximate the whole wave, but you don’t actually capture the whole wave.”
“Sure. If you turn a curve into a jagged line, you lose some of it. It’s possible that a record has a higher level of precision than your average digital recording. I don’t know. Of course, you could always make a more precise digital recording. All you have to do is beat the human ear. After that, it’s pointless. To make something twice as accurate, though, you need twice as many ones and zeroes. This makes it cumbersome to store or move around. Real audiophiles will download FLAC files, or lossless files, but those are big and take up space, and most people can’t hear the difference, but audiophiles hear the difference.
“Actually, most of today’s music downloads are of a terrible quality. A tape is probably better. If you want to be super precise, you can make a super precise digital recording. It will hold up better than anything analog, but it won’t be easy to access or move around. That’s the trade-off.”
There’s always a trade-off, right? Do you want quality or convenience? The aficionado will choose quality. The audiophile will download the large FLAC file. The poet will lug around the collected poems of Lowell. The foodie will travel the extra hour in order to go to the better Thai restaurant. In each case, the difficulty is part of the appeal. It’s a way of being in the know. The casual consumer will choose convenience, and the aficionado wants to differentiate him- or herself from the casual consumer.
You can make fun of this as a kind of snobbery, but it’s also a desperate act of love. And, like all obsession, it’s rooted in fear. The audiophile loves music and can’t understand why other people don’t love it in the same way. If you love something deeply that is not valued by society as a whole, you worry that the thing you love will go away. With any intense love comes intense fear.
8. I want to understand why I felt so much hostility in the face of my department’s relatively innocuous email. Why was I so irked by the theorist’s intent to map the conceptual significance of the Elliston Project?
What do I love and what do I fear?
I don’t think that I fear the digital world. In fact, I’m signed up to take a coding class at an art space in Brooklyn next month. This particular art space offers coding classes alongside other classes like sewing, woodworking, blacksmithing, canning, and painting. To them, it’s all the same kind of hands-on pursuit.
And when I talk to my brother, coding sounds really interesting. My brother loves all things digital. When he was fourteen, he built a computer from scratch using spare parts. Now, in his twenties, he owns a software engineering company that creates affordable software for nonprofits and schools.
No, it’s the academy’s hysteria I fear. It’s the prophesying and the chiding and the shrillness of the tone that I fear. Too often, the academy embraces the digital world not out of love but out of fear. Too many academics fear that the thing they actually love—whatever that may be—may go away unless it is digitized. Maybe this fear is founded. Maybe I am naive. But I can’t help but believe that the best thing I can do to serve poetry is to actually write poems.
Michelle Y. Burke has received two Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry prizes (2011, 2012) and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Vermont Studio Center. Her poetry has recently appeared in So to Speak, Georgetown Review, and elsewhere. Her chapbook, Horse Loquela (2007), was published by the Alabama School of Fine Arts. For the 2013–14 academic year, she is a Charles Phelps Taft Dissertation Fellow at the University of Cincinnati. She lives in Brooklyn.