The Archive or the Trace: Cultural Permanence and the Fugitive Text

We in the humanities are in love with the archive.

My readers already know that I am obsessed with archiving otherwise ephemeral social media. I’ve got multiple redundant systems for preserving my Twitter activity. I rely on the Firefox plugins Scrapbook and Zotero to capture any online document that poses even the slightest flight risk. I routinely backup emails that date back to 1996. Even my  recent grumbles about the Modern Language Association’s new citation guidelines were born of an almost frantic need to preserve our digital cultural heritage.

I don’t think I am alone in this will to archive, what Jacques Derrida called archive fever. Derrida spoke about the “compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive” way back in 1994, long before the question of digital impermanence became an issue for historians and librarians. And the issue is more pressing than ever.

Consider the case of a Hari Kunzru short story that Paul Benzon described in an MLA presentation last month. As Julie Meloni  recently recounted, Kunzru had published “A Story Full of Fail” online. Then, deciding instead to find a print home for his piece, Kunzru removed the story from the web. Julie notes that there’s no Wayback Machine version of it, nor is the document in a Google cache. The story has disappeared from the digital world. It’s gone.

Yet I imagine some Kunzru fans are clamoring for the story, and might actually be upset that the rightful copyright holder (i.e. Kunzru) has removed it from their easy digital grasp. The web has trained us to want everything and to want it now. We have been conditioned to expect that if we can’t possess the legitimate object itself, we’ll be able to torrent it, download it, or stream it through any number of digital channels.

We are archivists, all of us.

But must everything be permanent?

Must we insist that every cultural object be subjected to the archive?

What about the fine art of disappearance? Whether for aesthetic reasons, marketing tactics, or sheer perversity, there’s a long history of producing cultural artifacts that consume themselves, fade into ruin, or simply disappear. It might be a limited issue LP, the short run of a Fiestaware color, or a collectible Cabbage Patch kid. And these are just examples from mass culture.

Must everything be permanent?

In the literary world perhaps the most well-known example is William Gibson’s Agrippa (A Book of the Dead), a 300-line poem published on a 3.5″ floppy in 1992 that was supposed to erase itself after one use. Of course, as Matthew Kirschenbaum has masterfully demonstrated, Gibson’s attempt at textual disintegration failed for a number of reasons. (Indeed, Matt’s research has convinced me that Kunzru’s story hasn’t entirely disappeared from the digital world either. It’s somewhere, on some backup tape or hard drive or series of screen shots, and it would take only a few clicks for it to escape back into everyday circulation).

I have written before about the fugitive as the dominant symbolic figure of the 21st century, precisely because fugitivity is nearly impossible anymore. The same is now true of texts. Fugitive texts, or rather, the fantasy of fugitive texts, will become a dominant trope in literature, film, art, and videogames, precisely because every text is archived permanently some place, and usually, in many places.

We already see fantasies of fugitive texts everywhere, both high and low: House of Leaves, The Raw Shark Texts, Cathy’s Book, The Da Vinci Code, and so on. But what we need are not just stories about fugitive texts. We need actual texts that are actual fugitives, fading away before our eyes, slipping away in the dark, texts we apprehend only in glimpses and glances. Texts that remind us what it means to disappear completely forever.

The fugitive text stands in defiant opposition to the archive. The fugitive text exists only as (forgive me as I invoke Derrida once more) a trace, a lingering presence that confirms the absence of a presence. I am reminded of the novelist Bill Gray’s lumbering manuscript in DeLillo’s Mao II. Perpetually under revision, an object sought after by his editor and readers alike, Gray’s unfinished novel is a fugitive text.

Mao II is an extended meditation on textual availability and figurative and literal disappearance, but it’s in DeLillo’s handwritten notes for the novel — found ironically enough in the Don DeLillo Papers archive at the University of Texas at Austin — that DeLillo most succinctly expresses what’s at stake:

Reclusive Writer: In the world of glut + bloat, the withheld work of art becomes the only meaningful object. (Spiral Notebook, Don DeLillo Papers, Box 38, Folder 1)

Bill Gray’s ultimate fate suggests that DeLillo himself questions Gray’s strategy of withdrawal and withholding. Yet, DeLillo nonetheless sees value in a work of art that challenges the always-available logic of the marketplace — and of that place where cultural objects go, if not to die, then at least to exist on a kind of extended cultural life support, the archive.

Years ago Bruce Sterling began the Dead Media Project, and I now propose a similar effort, the Fugitive Text Collective. Unlike the Dead Media Project, however, we don’t seek to capture fleeting texts before they disappear. This is not a project of preservation. There shall be no archives allowed. The collective are observers, nothing more, logging sightings of impermanent texts. We record the metadata but not the data. We celebrate the trace, and bid farewell to texts that by accident or design fade, decay, or simply cease to be.

Let the archive be loved. But fugitive texts will become legend.

Updates on David Foster Wallace review by Jay Murray Siskind

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by the Chronicle of Higher Education for a story about the fake David Foster Wallace review in Modernism/Modernity. The Chronicle story is online and at least for the first week, not behind a paywall. I was in Spain at the time, so for the interview I had to negotiate the nine hour time difference with Peter Monaghan, the Chronicle reporter. Peter graciously stayed up late, interviewing me at 1:30am his time in Seattle.

Also, the folks over at HTMLGIANT have the original email exchange between myself and the graduate student who inadvertently alerted me to the fake review by citing it as real. (They published the emails with both my and the graduate student’s permission.)

The truth behind Jay Murray Siskind’s review of David Foster Wallace

And finally, the wink and nod I’ve been looking for. Laurence Rainey, the editor of Modernism/Modernity, and Nicole Devarenne, the former managing editor of Modernism/Modernity, sent me this open letter today:

An Open Letter to Mark Sample,

We appreciate your recent remarks concerning a review essay about David Foster Wallace, one that appeared in late 2004 in the pages of Modernism/Modernity and was assigned to one Jay Murray Siskind, also the name of a character in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise. It is saddening indeed to see the review being cited with po-faced earnestness, and surely you are right that this turns “a fun fake review into something much more telling about the state of academia.” All too plainly, the time has come to set the record straight.

As the journal’s book review editors at the time, we were at first disconcerted to receive an email from Jay Murray Siskind. Our suspicions were heightened when we noted that his email address read “blacksmith.edu,” rather than the better known College-on-the-Hill, where Murray was last seen working. But research soon revealed that his change in academic affiliation was the result of a bitter tenure decision fight, in which Alfonse Stompanato had played an especially unsavoury role. Still, Murray’s homepage is available to anyone who wishes to imagine it. And his competence in popular culture is amply documented by his essays in publications such as the American Transvestite and Ufology, not to mention Brüno. Who were we to reject the offer of a review from a respected and even popular colleague?  Who but a fictional character could be better qualified to review . . . well, new fiction? Isn’t that the very essence of peer reviewing? It should also have come as no surprise to anyone that Jay Murray Siskind’s writing should have sounded like Jay Murray Siskind’s writing, in much the same way we might expect that the writing of Pierre Menard, author of the Quijote, to sound much like Don Quijote. Of course we took seriously our role as editors. We toned down a fawning reference (“the most important study since Das Kapital”) to the book that Murray co-authored with J.A.K. Gladney, Adolph and Elvis: Two Twentieth-Century Men and Their Mothers. We also removed a plainly vengeful mention of Alphonse Stompanato’s book, Crunching Granola: The Semiotics of the Cereal Box (“drivel that positively drivels”). But apart from that, the essay stands as Murray wrote it–perhaps the impish product of an impish mood that relieved the tedium of editing the turgid, academic prose that appears in Ufology, where he serves on the Advisory Board.

Yes, we agree that further investigation is urgently required to clarify the entire affair. Perhaps help can be sought from Daniel Quinn, the noted employee of the Auster Detective Agency. If so, he should get to work, or Max Work, immediately. If not, the affair will remain shrouded in a cloud of unknowing.

Finally, in one of the posts to your piece, you highlighted “the fact that Modernism/Modernity doesn’t concern itself with someone like Wallace.” Alas, M/M was the first academic journal anywhere to publish an extended tribute to Wallace after his untimely death, which included pieces by Dave Eggers, Michael North, and Marshall Boswell. (See Modernism/Modernity 16.1, January 2009: 1-24.) The alleged rupture between modernism and postmodernism is one urged only by the simple-, not to be confused with the Sample-, minded.

Sincerely yours,

Lawrence Rainey, Editor of Modernism/Modernity

Nicole Devarenne, former Managing Editor of Modernism/Modernity

And here is a copy of the actual letter:

[scribd id=17482549 key=key-1u543771oh25lc02uw0a]

Obviously, then, the whole review was written with — and continues to generate — a sense of humor, something that is sadly lacking from most academic publishing venues. “Hoax” was probably too strong of a word to use to describe the bogus review — until, that is, inexpert readers began taking it seriously.

Here is my response to Professor Rainey:

Dear Professor Rainey,

I appreciate the insider’s perspective, as well as the full details of Siskind’s rocky tenure process. I had heard Stompanato was difficult to work with, but I had no idea. And of course, I’m pleased to see Siskind branching out beyond the stagnant confines of Ufology. When Siskind left Manhattan for College-on-the-Hill, we lost a wonderful sportswriter, but gained a marvelous intellect. And his beard. What an incredibly important beard.

All the best,

Mark Sample

I have to rethink my characterization of the journal as an inscrutable monolith (I just love the phrase, though). In the meantime, if we can only get unsuspecting undergraduate and graduate students to distinguish between serious scholarly conversations and playful ones. (Or even better, is there a way that we can all learn better to mix the two, and use both at once?)

An Open Letter to Mark Sample,

We appreciate your recent remarks concerning a review essay about David Foster Wallace, one that appeared in late 2004 in the pages of Modernism/Modernity and was assigned to one Jay Murray Siskind, also the name of a character in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise. It is saddening indeed to see the review being cited with po-faced earnestness, and surely you are right that this turns “a fun fake review into something much more telling about the state of academia.” All too plainly, the time has come to set the record straight.

As the journal’s book review editors at the time, we were at first disconcerted to receive an email from Jay Murray Siskind. Our suspicions were heightened when we noted that his email address read “blacksmith.edu,” rather than the better known College-on-the-Hill, where Murray was last seen working. But research soon revealed that his change in academic affiliation was the result of a bitter tenure decision fight, in which Alfonse Stompanato had played an especially unsavoury role. Still, Murray’s homepage is available to anyone who wishes to imagine it. And his competence in popular culture is amply documented by his essays in publications such as the American Transvestite and Ufology, not to mention Brüno. Who were we to reject the offer of a review from a respected and even popular colleague? Who but a fictional character could be better qualified to review . . . well, new fiction? Isn’t that the very essence of peer reviewing? It should also have come as no surprise to anyone that Jay Murray Siskind’s writing should have sounded like Jay Murray Siskind’s writing, in much the same way we might expect that the writing of Pierre Menard, author of the Quijote, to sound much like Don Quijote. Of course we took seriously our role as editors. We toned down a fawning reference (“the most important study since Das Kapital”) to the book that Murray co-authored with J.A.K. Gladney, Adolph and Elvis: Two Twentieth-Century Men and Their Mothers. We also removed a plainly vengeful mention of Alphonse Stompanato’s book, Crunching Granola: The Semiotics of the Cereal Box (“drivel that positively drivels”). But apart from that, the essay stands as Murray wrote it–perhaps the impish product of an impish mood that relieved the tedium of editing the turgid, academic prose that appears in Ufology, where he serves on the Advisory Board.

Yes, we agree that further investigation is urgently required to clarify the entire affair. Perhaps help can be sought from Daniel Quinn, the noted employee of the Auster Detective Agency. If so, he should get to work, or Max Work, immediately. If not, the affair will remain shrouded in a cloud of unknowing.

Finally, in one of the posts to your piece, you highlighted “the fact that Modernism/Modernity doesn’t concern itself with someone like Wallace.” Alas, M/M was the first academic journal anywhere to publish an extended tribute to Wallace after his untimely death, which included pieces by Dave Eggers, Michael North, and Marshall Boswell. (See Modernism/Modernity 16.1, January 2009: 1-24.) The alleged rupture between modernism and postmodernism is one urged only by the simple-, not to be confused with the Sample-, minded.

Sincerely yours,

Lawrence Rainey, Editor of Modernism/Modernity

Nicole Devarenne, former Managing Editor of Modernism/Modernity

David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, and the Littlest Literary Hoax

Jay Murray Siskind is Don DeLillo’s only recurring character, having first appeared in DeLillo’s pseudonymous Amazons and later as a kind of Mephistopheles character in White Noise. Now, Siskind has broken out of the realm of fiction and entered the real world.

I am referring to “An Undeniably Controversial and Perhaps Even Repulsive Talent,” a review of David Foster Wallace’s work that appeared in the prestigious journal Modernism/Modernity, published by The Johns Hopkins University Press. Found in the Volume 11, Number 4 issue (2004) of Modernism/Modernity, the review focuses on Wallace’s last collection of short stories, Oblivion, and is attributed to a certain Jay Murray Siskind, Department of Popular Culture, Blacksmith College.

Anyone familiar with White Noise should recognize the clues that the supposed reviewer is DeLillo’s character and not some real live scholar with the same name: there’s the fictional Blacksmith College (which, while not the college portrayed in White Noise, is a name of one of the neighboring towns); there are the fake footnotes in the review referring to other characters and details from White Noise, including narrator Jack Gladney and thuggish Alfonse Stompanato); and finally, there are the decidedly non-reviewish interjections by Siskind in the middle of the seemingly serious review:

It is at this point that I must confess to missing something in Wallace, namely the presence of women nearer the center of the narration (setting aside Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman, Jr., the protagonist in Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System). I admit that I’ve always been partial to them, i.e. women. I fall apart at the sight of long legs, striding, briskly, as a breeze carries up from the river, on a weekday, in the play of morning light. And what fun it is to talk to an intelligent woman wearing nylon stockings as she crosses her legs. Wallace, I suspect, shares these predilections and could write wonderfully complicated women.

This is pure Siskind as DeLillo imagined him (and for some reason it reminds me of the hilarious scene in White Noise where Siskind pays a prostitute to perform the Heimlich maneuver on him).

I first noticed the fake review in 2005, when one of my students unwittingly cited the review as real research. I had puzzled over it and decided that if I waited long enough, somebody (in Modernism/Modernity circles, in Wallace circles, in DeLillo circles) would come forward and take credit for something I’m sure they thought nobody would be fooled by. Time passed and I forgot about the fake review. Until recently. I’ve done some digging around and discovered that the hoax has gone unnoticed, though the review hasn’t. The review is only ever considered as serious, peer-reviewed research. For example, in addition to my embarrassed student, I’ve found the review cited in several graduate theses, with no acknowledgment that the review is fake. The troubling blindness to contextuality and intertextuality (how could any 20th century Americanist, whether modernist or postmodernist, fail to see the references to perhaps one of the most important novels of the past fifty years) — this troubling blindness on both students and their advisors’ part turns a fun fake review into something much more telling about the state of academia.

This isn’t a hoax on the same level as the Alan Sokal/Social Text affair, nor is it obviously parody, as when The Onion attributes a blog to DeLillo. It is somewhere in between, minor, but noteworthy. I am 100 percent certain that DeLillo was not involved and 95 percent certain that Wallace was not involved; DeLillo is much too subtle and Wallace was far too clever. So I wonder on what level was the hoax perpetrated? Who was in on it? Were the editors of Modernism/Modernity aware? Did some sly book review editor slip it in? Did any regular readers of the journal ever even read, really read, the review? At what point will the real writer blink? Or wink? And what can “An Undeniably Controversial and Perhaps Even Repulsive Talent” teach us about scholarship, publishing, peer-review, and mentoring?

UPDATE (23 July 2009): The editors of Modernism/Modernity have responded.

CFP: Don DeLillo and Play

Here’s a CFP for conference panel on Don DeLillo and Play that I’m organizing:

CFP: Don DeLillo and Play
Sponsored by the Don DeLillo Society
2009 American Literature Association Conference
Boston, Massachusetts, May 21-24, 2009

The groundbreaking work of Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois suggests that play and games are a fundamental part of life, yet set apart from the ordinary and the everyday, occupying a special preserve with unique boundaries and rules. How does the work of Don DeLillo reaffirm or challenge these classic notions of play? From the obvious football and baseball themes of End Zone and Underworld to the understated language games of The Names and performative play in Players and Running Dog, Don DeLillo has repeatedly focused on games and play in a way that has attracted little attention from scholars. The Don DeLillo Society seeks to redress this gap and welcomes papers that explore the role of sports, games, and play in DeLillo’s novels and stories.

Please send 300-500 word abstracts and a 1-page C.V. to Mark Sample at msample1 at gmu dot edu by January 9, 2009.

The Futility of Rowing

I’ve never seen a more fitting description of a rowing machine than in Don DeLillo’s Falling Man:

There was no fitness center in his hotel. He found a gym not far away and worked out when there was time. No one used the rowing machine. He half hated the thing, it made him angry, but he felt the intensity of the workout, the need to pull and strain, set his body against a sleek dumb punishing piece of steel and cable.

DeLillo captures the essence of the rowing machine: more than any other piece of exercise equipment, the rowing machine is a punishment, a throwback to the ancient days of galley slaves. But here the Barbary overlords with their whips and chains are internalized. Beset only by his own thoughts, the exerciser rows for dear life, chased by nothing and chasing nothing.

The rowing machine is a self-imposed disciplinary sentence. With every stroke, one’s very life seems at stake. It’s like trying to outrow death itself. A strenuous workout on a rowing machine is as close to drowning on dry land one can come.

It is also a pointless endeavor, and for DeLillo’s character, who has become a professional gambler in the wake of 9/11, its pointlessness is its very point. In true gambler fashion, he “half hates” the thing yet continues to submit to it. The anger it provokes is all that matters.

Puff the Magic Cereal Box

A while ago I posted a few pics of my cereal box wall. I still occasionally come across a cereal box worth photographing, even if it’s not in wall form. Here is “Organic Wild Puffs”—one of the trippiest cereal boxes I’ve ever seen (larger version).

Decorated in faux-Aztec imagery, the box suggests a cereal that is part Fruit Loops, part mescaline hallucinogen.

And the box admits as much: not only is there a play on the word puff, there is also a play on the idea of addiction: the cereal is “habitat forming.” (The company donates a percentage of profits to the National Wildlife Refuge Association.)

In DeLillo’s White Noise, Jack Gladney calls cereal boxes “the only avant-garde we’ve got” in America. Looking here at the drug references, quetzalcoatl icons, and vivid coloring, I’d say he might be right.