Technological Object: Coin-Operated Machine

Nathanael West’s Claude in The Day of the Locust (1939) reflects with a whimsical pessimism, that:

Love is like a vending machine … You insert a coin and press home the lever. There’s some mechanical activity inside the bowels of the device. You receive a small sweet, frown at yourself in the dirty mirror, adjust your hat, take a firm grip on your umbrella and walk away, trying to look as though nothing had happened.

The analogy is funny partly because it seems to propose a correlation between the act of sex and that of operating the machine; the rumbling ‘bowels’, the delivery of the ‘small sweet’, the scowl into the mirror, the dirtiness of the mirror, the adjustment of the hat, the ‘firm grip on your umbrella’, and the deliberately indifferent departure, all implicitly represent the stages of a sexual encounter. And yet, there is nothing obviously sexual about any of this. West’s analogy misbehaves as an analogy by losing sight of its subject – it’s fickle in this sense – but in doing so it introduces a new element into the novel’s account of early twentieth century America: the phenomenon of the slot machine transaction. West doesn’t do anything more with this idea, having broached it under the flimsy pretence of talking about love, but, in a way, there isn’t much that he could have done with it. Slot machine transactions were what they were: you inserted your coin, received your sweet or whatever trifle it was you were being sold, adjusted your hat, and walked away.

Slot machines were everywhere in the first half of the twentieth century, yet they appear very rarely in its literature. Thomas Edison’s coin-operated ‘talking machine’ of 1877 – the first ‘automatic amusement machine’ on record – was much more popular than his phonograph in the early years, yet Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s novel L’Ève Future (1886) focuses exclusively on the latter in imagining a futuristic ideal woman. Coin-operated cinemas outnumbered film theatres massively in the modernist period – appearing in drugstores, theatre lobbies, lecture halls, train and ferry stations, and entertainment parlours – and were also much cheaper than cinema tickets, costing just a penny or nickel. However, it is cinema that turns up everywhere in modernist literature: as David Trotter writes, the modernists were ‘fascinated’ by it. The growing bulk of criticism on modernism’s imaginative debt to film bears witness to this fascination, while modernist criticism and cultural theory alike – like the modernists – have almost nothing to say about slot machines. Erkki Huhtamo’s ‘Slots of Fun, Slots of Trouble: An Archaeology of Arcade Gaming’ (2005) begins by remarking on the peculiar absence of the slot machine from treatments of America’s entertainment culture, and his ‘archaeology’ runs out of steam after an essay’s worth of discussion.

The problem with writing about slot machines from a cultural or ‘archaeological’ angle, as opposed to a historiographic one, has to do with the disproportion between the quantity of information that exists about them and the slimness of the grounds for analysis. I could tell you that slot machines sometimes sold ant eggs, or tin eggs filled with sweets, to the accompaniment of cackling chickens, and that – although a slot machine transaction wasn’t analogous to love, or sex – it could simulate a bedside manner; some machines diagnosed illnesses, and prescribed and proffered medicines. Yet none of this was sufficiently interesting to the writers with whom they coincided to inspire much thought.

John Rodker’s Adolphe, 1920 (1929) is among the few modernist texts to use a slot machine metaphorically, but the coin-operated cinema he uses to configure love is no different from other kinds of cinematic experience in its suggestion of an immersive fantasy, staged in the dark, and automatically. As Laura Marcus writes, ‘[t]he space through which Rodker’s protagonist wanders … is continuous with the optical shows and screens.’ Nothing about Rodkerian romance is tied specifically to the penny-operated mechanism. Similarly, the slot machine strip show to which Bloom links his engagement with Gerty in Ulysses (1922) simplifies it to the point of distortion; the kinetoscope caption ‘A dream of wellfilled hose’ of which Gerty reminds him, works, like lots of Joyce’s associations, by shifting the focus forward in a new direction – though the new direction embodied by the slot machine is momentary, spanning just six lines.

Slot machines seem like an appropriate reference point only when the idea they describe is superficial. So, obsession in Rodker, voyeurism in Joyce, and sex in West are too complex to be invoked by a cheap, thirty second, mechanical transaction – particularly in the 1920s and 1930s, when automated shopping had become commonplace. Photobooth and automat companies set out to offer the kinds of uniform satisfaction that had secured the success of the Ford Motor Company and the chain store. The New Yorker who discovered an obscure aggressor in her automat sandwich in 1925 – ‘no one could determine if it was a small reptile or just a pugnacious insect’ – was an exciting exception to the rule of total predictability. Similarly, the automat inveterate whose wife poisons his sandwich in Colonel Woolrich’s ‘Death at the Automat’ (1937) – as if to punish and vindicate his avoidance of her cooking in the same act – is an unlucky anomaly. Slot machines normally suggested normality. In George Orwell’s Coming Up for Air (1939), ‘one of the penny-in-the-slot machines … you know those machines that tell your fortune as well as your weight’ is typically nonsensical in its attempt to estimate George Bowling’s future (‘you will rise high!’) and in its revelation of his weight gain (‘Must have been the booze.’) For Sartre, too, in La Nausée (1938), the fortune dispensing slot machine is an image of hackneyed conversation:

[P]ut a coin in the slot on the left and out come anecdotes wrapped in silver paper; put a coin in the slot on the right and you get precious pieces of advice that stick to your teeth like soft caramels.

Slot machines and ‘pseudo philosophy’ both suggest the cloying persistence of conventions which Sartre’s Roquentin is keen to replace with his own style of ‘nausea’ – which at least has the virtue of making him think.

Slot machines landmark a form of shallowness that Sartre’s Roquentin and Orwell’s Bowling struggle to overcome in the course of reinventing themselves. For both characters, too, they suggest the resistance that seems to be posed by modernity – in the sense of the aggregate of modern things – to self-reflection, and reflection in general.

In Louis MacNeice’s ‘In Lieu’ (1962), this resistance develops into an impasse; the poem characterises modernisation as the process whereby objects lose their ‘savour’ (‘The savour is lost’) – meaning both ‘flavour’ and ‘savoir’ – because MacNeice understands the sensory textures of experience as the key to its knowability. He writes:

Roses with the scent bred out,
In lieu of which is a long name on a label.
Dragonflies reverting to grubs,
Tundra and desert overcrowded,
And in lieu of a high altar
Wafers and wine procured by a coin in a slot.

‘-lot’ reconstitutes ‘alt-’ in a way that deprives it of altitude; the adjustment is lowering. MacNeice’s ‘coin in a slot’ is completely devoid of the magic associated with the slot machines of the turn of the century, and with which non-urbanites continued to associate automat cafés until as late as the 1940s. In John Cheever’s ‘O City of Broken Dreams’ (1948), the country-based Molloys are delighted with the way the glass doors of the food compartments ‘spring open’ at New York’s most famous automated restaurant. But MacNeice’s automat is dishearteningly literal – its wafers and wine lack the ceremony of sacramental significance. Something has been lost in the act of adaptation – or ‘bred out.’ This flattening effect may be linked to the malaise of Edward Hopper’s solitary coffee drinker in Automat (1927), whose crossed legs and hat repeat the shapes of the reflected lights and fruit bowl upside down, as if she were equally lifeless – though Hopper’s minimalism is romantic: he doesn’t include the slot machines that would have lined the walls, just as he leaves out the ‘Photomaton’ from the scene he reproduces in Chop Suey (1929). Slot machines seem not to have fitted with the particular form of modern gloom he wanted to recreate – perhaps because they threatened to trivialise it. Hopper finds a dignity in modern life in spite of its monotony, while MacNeice’s modernity is shallow to the point of meaninglessness. His slot machine gains its meaning by describing what it feels like to run out of meaningful thoughts.

—Beci Dobbin

Posted in Technological Object | 6 Comments

Technological Object: Sewing Machine

In C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), the most technological inhabitants of Narnia turn out to be, unsurprisingly, the Beavers. Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy are impressed by the fine dam constructed by Mr Beaver, whose snug little house is filled with ‘gumboots and oilskins and hatchets and pairs of shears and spades and trowels and things for carrying mortar in and fishing-rods and fishing-nets and sacks’. This scene, a welcome sight to the cold and frightened children, is complemented by another technological object:

The first thing Lucy noticed as she went in was a burring sound, and the first thing she saw was a kind-looking old she-beaver sitting in the corner with a thread in her mouth working busily at her sewing machine, and it was from it that the sound came. She stopped her work and got up as soon as the children came in.

In this strange world through the wardrobe, where it is ‘always winter and never Christmas’, this image of domestic activity is comfortingly ordinary. Its aural and visual details are succinctly observed: the onomatopoeic ‘burring’, and the thread in Mrs Beaver’s mouth (picked up by Pauline Baynes in her illustration) will be familiar to anyone who has used a sewing machine, or seen someone else ‘working busily’ at one. As the group makes frantic preparations to set out and rescue Edmund from the White Witch, Mrs Beaver considers whether she can take the machine with her: ‘I can’t abide the thought of that Witch fiddling with it’, she protests to Mr Beaver, ‘and breaking it or stealing it, likely as not.’ Of course she can’t take it with her, but in this brief comic moment what is implicitly acknowledged is that the sewing machine is an intricate and finely tuned instrument, which won’t respond well to casual ‘fiddling’. Soon after, Father Christmas tells Mrs Beaver that he has left her ‘a new and better sewing machine’ (he also promises to mend Mr Beaver’s dam and fit a new sluice-gate). In the light of these presents, the objects handed to Peter, Susan, and Lucy – a sword with a shield, a bow and arrows, an ivory horn, and a bottle of cordial – are also serious, practical implements: Father Christmas tells the children they are ‘tools, not toys’.

The origins of the sewing machine are complicated, and enmeshed in a web of patent wars. As early as the mid-eighteenth century, attempts in England had been made to simulate sewing by hand, and various European patents were issued for mechanized stitching devices in the early nineteenth century, none of which took off. It was on the other side of the Atlantic that the modern sewing machine eventually emerged. Not without controversy, most notably a court battle with Elias Howe who had invented the crucial lockstitch mechanism (whereby two threads, one above and one below the fabric, loop together in each stitch), Isaac Singer launched the first commercially successful sewing machine in the 1850s. Early models were hand-cranked, like Mrs Beaver’s, or powered by a foot treadle, but by the early twentieth century electric sewing machines were widespread; a 1906 advertisement for Edison Primary Batteries explained that they were suitable for ‘Stationary and Portable Gas Engines, Slot Machines, Fan Motors, Railroad and Mine Signals, Phonographs, Sewing Machines, X-Ray Outfits, Electro-Medical Use, Telephone, Fire and Burglar Alarm Systems, and all other classes of work’.

A booklet entitled Genius Rewarded; or The Story of the Sewing Machine, published in 1880 on behalf of the Singer Manufacturing Company, reveals the intertwining narratives of domestic and industrial revolutions with which the sewing machine was framed from an early stage. ‘The Telegraph and Steam-engine live daily in the broad blaze of public view; the Sewing Machine modestly hides itself away beneath three million of the nine million roofs of America’, it pronounced. In ephemeral literature from many of the major manufacturers, the discourse of the sewing machine is highly gendered, usually building on stereotypes of the frustrated wife who is so overwhelmed by her housekeeping duties that she has no time for leisure. Grover & Baker’s 1861 pamphlet A Home Scene, for example, tells the story of Mr Aston, who saves his wife from despair with the purchase of a sewing machine. Accompanied by testimonials from other satisfied (male) customers, the Astons’ life undergoes a transformation thanks to the agency of this invention: ‘there the Machine stood, an implement wholly domestic in its character; but its influence extended itself into the drawing-room, on the promenade, at the church, or other public places, and in the elegant and stylish wardrobe of the family’. Although there are occasional references to the success of sewing machines in overseas factories, military bases, and missions, where they were often operated by men, they are primarily associated with middle class women in their own homes.

The sewing machine was marketed as an instrument that would be perfectly respectable for middle class women to use. In 1890 the New Home Sewing Machine Company issued a small pamphlet, Shakespeare Boiled Down, consisting of summaries of the plots of Shakespeare’s plays interspersed with snippets about the commendable features of New Home machines. The cover illustration shows Macbeth and Lady Macbeth after the murder of Duncan – domestic upset can be avoided, the implication is, by investing in a sewing machine, which will also give women more time to engage in aspirational pursuits like reading or going to the theatre. The pictures of the New Home machines show them encased in elegant oak or walnut cabinets and tables, which fit harmoniously into the middle class interior. The cast iron bodies of these machines were often ornamented with floral designs which softened and distracted from the sharp mechanical parts, making the sewing machine into an aestheticized feature of domestic space.

‘I don’t know how we ever got along without that sewing machine. It does the work so easily’, says Ma in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s These Happy Golden Years, one of her memoirs of pioneer life in the later nineteenth century. At the same time, however, the sewing machine became a target for polemic about the plight of garment workers in increasingly powerful industrial systems. Thomas Hood’s ‘The Song of the Shirt’ (published anonymously in Punch in 1843), about a seamstress who ended up in the workhouse, was a popular text for social reformers. This poem turned the repetitive act of hand-stitching into a lament, but the noise made by the rapid motion of the sewing machine’s various moving parts lent itself even more readily to metrical song and verse. While George Pope Morris’s ‘Song of the Sewing Machine’ (c. 1860) gave voice to a resilient ‘Iron Needle-Woman’ who rejoices in ‘a song of cheerful measure’, the sewing machine sounded a much more sinister note to others. For the three orphaned girls in the tragic novella Mabel Ross, the sewing-girl (1866), for example, the purchase of a sewing machine initially offers hope. Its efficient noise expresses the optimism of Mabel, her younger sister Lilly, and their friend Hilda:

‘Click, click, click! It’s pretty, Mabel! Lilly loves to hear it, and to see the wheels run round so fast, – so fast!’ and little Lilly would clap her hands in delight as the bright new sewing-machine whirred its busy music; while, guided by Mabel’s fingers, the snowy linen received its neat rows of fairy stitches.

They are sure the sewing machine will save them from destitution, and Mabel is relieved that ‘the sound of her sewing-machine was a soothing lullaby of which her younger sister never wearied’. Inevitably, however, they are abused by greedy sweatshop owners and sink deeper into poverty. News reaches them that two other young workers have died of cold, one found slumped over her machine: ‘just as the oil of her sewing-machine was frozen, so was the blood in her veins still and dead’. Little Lilly falls very ill, and the song of the sewing machine becomes torturous: ‘I can’t bear its whir, whir, try as I may. It goes all the time to my back, sharp and throbbing’, she complains, and several chapters later, she is dead. The sewing machine’s tune was easily changed from one of liberation into one of oppression.

The weariness of the worker is also central to an ironic Frank Loesser song, ‘The Sewing Machine’, in The Perils of Pauline (1947), sung by Betty Hutton (playing the central figure, the actress Pearl White):

Ohhh, the sewing machine, the sewing machine
A girl’s best friend
If I didn’t have my sewing machine
I’d a-come to no good end
But a bobbin a bobbin and peddle a peddle
And wheel the wheel by day
So by night I feel so weary
That I never get out to play

Although the song is performed with comic effect, the sewing machine is disturbingly ambiguous: it saves a girl from ‘no good end’, but as the song’s relentless verses emphasise, in doing so it also traps her.

When Charles Dickens meditated on the new ‘iron seamstress’ in Household Words, he acknowledged the interdependency of the human and the sewing machine in terms which blur the distinction between the two: ‘She certainly requires somebody to be constantly looking after her. She does not even hold her work herself. A servant must be in attendance to guide the cloth forward as the stitches are made in it, causing the sewing to be straight, angular, or circular, at his pleasure’. This transmutation is, it seems, about to be complete: last year the Pentagon announced funds for a project to create robots that can operate sewing machines, potentially removing the flesh-and-blood seamstress from the garment industry altogether.

—Lucy Razzall

Posted in Technological Object | 2 Comments

Technological Object: Railroad Handcar

Early on in Tintin’s first adventure — Tintin au Pays des Soviets (1929-1930) — Hergé’s roving reporter finds himself mixed up in several railway-related scrapes. Having survived a Bolshevik bomb and a near-miss on a German level crossing, Tintin and Milou make good their escape from a Soviet guard-post just in time to see their train disappear into the distance. Undeterred, Tintin spots a solution in the form of a conveniently-placed chariot mécanique, or railway handcar, aboard which he furiously begins to row his way towards the speeding train. The effort, alas, proves rather too strenuous for the vehicle’s lever, which snaps off, hurling our hero on to the tracks. ‘Sale engin!’ growls Milou. ‘Lousy machine!’

Handcars began to appear on the railroads of the United States in the 1860s as a form of conveyance for maintenance workers and their tools. The exigencies of civil war made the railways more strategically important than ever before, and both North and South invested heavily in the expansion and upkeep of their infrastructure. Cobbled together in local railway maintenance sheds, early handcar models worked by means of a rotary crank, but after several deaths the more familiar ‘pump’-style cars became the norm, and were soon being produced in greater numbers. These improved models were intended for operation by two men, but some could carry whole crews across distances of several miles to repair sections of track. ‘In the virginal days of 1905’, writes Sinclair Lewis in Elmer Gantry (1927), ‘section gangs went out to work on the railway line not by gasoline power but on a handcar, a platform with two horizontal bars worked up and down like pump-handles.’ By the 1920s, the presence of these machines already gestured nostalgically to a pre-Fordist era in which the subjection of human labour to machine-age temporality remained incomplete.

Tintin was not the first fictional rail-rider to suffer from a handcar’s mechanical failure. A great admirer of Buster Keaton, Hergé no doubt had in mind the sequence from The General (1926) in which railroad engineer Johnnie Gray, played with restrained frenzy by Keaton, runs after the eponymous train aboard which agents of the Union Army have imprisoned his fiancée. Coming upon a trackside maintenance shed he opens it to find a handcar, enabling him, after some initial difficulty, to continue the pursuit at a faster pace on the rails themselves.

Johnnie’s difficulty arises when the car begins sliding back on the rails towards him, and before he can work its mechanism he first has to give it a good shove in the right direction. Only after having worked up some momentum is he able to match the pumping of his arms to the rhythm required by the device. He makes a good job of it, whizzing along at a fair speed until at last being quite literally de-railed by Union sappers who have taken up part of the line.

Few vehicles have proven to have so much comedic value as the handcar, not only because its mechanical elements were always coming apart and foiling the best efforts of its operators, but because those efforts themselves required exertions of unparalleled absurdity. Handcars, better than most modes of transportation, instantiate Henri Bergson’s notion that comedy names a category of experience in which people are revealed to be like things, ‘that aspect of human events which, through its peculiar inelasticity, conveys the impression of pure mechanism, of automatism, of movement without life.’ By reducing the human body’s range of motion to a simple and unnatural action, handcars force human beings to imitate mechanical operations, to conform themselves to tempi set by engines of their own devising. Once achieved, that process can be difficult to reverse: one reason that handcars always go off the rails in the comedy of the 1920s is that their deceleration would be too awkwardly, laboriously dull for narratives that thrive on the thrill of the chase. Coming to earth with a bump, as Tintin and Johnnie do, may after all be an easier way of ending such a journey than the dehumanizing grind required to slow these lousy machines down.

What happens in that happy fall, of course, isn’t just comedy. Newly extricated from the unnatural mechanism in which they have willingly enmeshed themselves, Johnnie and Tintin are free to find a new, more agreeable way of doing things. Both, of course, go straight back to different sorts of mechanism. Johnnie commandeers a boneshaker bicycle; Tintin finds an engine in a pile of scrap and improvises a rail-riding automobile out of the remains of the handcar. Only after a final lesson in the perils of technology — Johnnie falls off the bike, Tintin comes a cropper thanks to the work of a forewarned saboteur — do they complete their journeys comfortably, on foot.

Not all handcar journeys end badly. While Tintin was en route to the USSR in the pages of the Petit Vingtième, cinema audiences in the United States were watching Mickey and Minnie Mouse duetting in Mickey’s Choo Choo (1929). Riding atop the caboose of Mickey’s locomotive, they tap and fiddle their way through ‘Dixieland’ until the struggling train comes to a halt on a steep hillside. The caboose rolls off, with Minnie clinging to the roof. Giving his best Keaton impression, Mickey chases down the runaway car until an encounter with a tree sends the carriage — and the two mice — flying through the air. When it comes to earth, it does so in the form of a very handcar-like see-saw, upon which Mickey and Minnie ride off into a tunnel. Perhaps the handcar ride ends happily for Mickey and Minnie simply because there are two of them: unlike Johnnie and Tintin in their improvisational encounters with railway technology, they can share the effort of making the thing move. As they do so, their playful see-sawing converts recalcitrant mechanism into an excuse for pleasant recreation. Together, they make the best of it. Where Johnnie and Tintin suffer from their bodily subjection to the handcar’s mechanizing rhythm, Mickey and Minnie manage to animate the machine through sheer joie de vivre; far from being alienated by mechanism, they transform mechanism into the means, or medium, by which their duet at last becomes a physical bond.

—James Purdon

Posted in Technological Object | 5 Comments

Technological Object: Carousel Slide Projector

In the last episode of AMC network Mad Men season 1 (2007) Don Draper (John Hamm) introduces a campaign for the Carousel Slide Projector. His pitch to Kodak clients is predicated on affect: ‘Technology is a glittering lure, but there’s the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash if they have a sentimental bond with the product’. He describes that deeper bond: ‘Nostalgia’. ‘It’s delicate,’ he admits, ‘but potent’. The meeting room lights are dipped and a frame catches the glare of the illumined Carousel, rosy light coating the room. To the sound of the slide projector mechanism and its persistent hum, we see snapshots of his family. Against these sentimental pictures Don pursues a line about ‘a place where we ache to go again’, ‘a place where we know we are loved’. The scene shows its affectless protagonist reviewing images from his own home life. Through this mechanism, access is apparently given to some deeper lure of feeling. In the episode’s closing shots Don enters his empty home.

Although slide film, Kodachrome, was introduced by Kodak in 1934, the Kodak Carousel slide projector made its debut in the early 1960s (coinciding closely with the time period of Mad Men Season 1). Its manufacture was discontinued in 2004, making it only recently obsolete at the time of production of the TV series. In its first uses the slide projector inherits a number of properties from the stereopticon [see September], serving a purpose both educational and recreational. In nostalgic outings in television and film, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 5, episode 19 (2001), Mona Lisa Smile (2003) and Kinsey (2004), works dating from its last years of manufacture, the slide projector imbricates pedagogy and affect (and I’m grateful to Sophie Mayer for triggering this line of thought). In Art and Illusion (1956), Ernst Gombrich describes a scenario of slide viewing in its heyday:

The photographic enthusiast likes to lure us into a darkened room in order to display his slides on a silver screen. Aided by the adaptability of the eye and by the borrowed light from the intense projector bulb, he can achieve those relationships in brightness that will make us dutifully admire the wonderful autumn tints he photographed on his latest trip. As soon as we look at a print of these photographs by day, the light seems to go out of them.

Such viewing habits are referenced in the scene from Mad Men in a joke about the Eastman men not taking vacations: ‘What do they show? Slides of them working?’ The slide projectors issued in the 1960s were specifically for a domestic market. The sequence in Mad Men borrows something of the enchantment of the viewing scenario described by Gombrich where conditions of projection and illumination, blown-up brilliant images seen in a darkened room, hold an ephemeral allure. This effect, and the link of affect with illumination in darkness, is heightened in the scene Don choreographs in the boardroom where his colleagues are given glimpses of his domestic life.

A precursor for the sequence in Mad Men is found in Atom Egoyan’s The Adjuster (1991). In a film shot-through with shadow play and projection, a scene stands out where a slide-show is orchestrated at a private dinner. The noise of the slide projector introduces the scene with Bubba (Maury Chaykin) and Mimi (Gabrielle Rose) and their invited diners. The film cuts here from a previous scene of projection of a porn film to censors. Despite the firelight and darkened setting in the dining room Bubba’s slide-show is anodyne: a series of shots of a house interior and exterior. A slide of a translucent shower curtain recalls an earlier sequence where we have seen a shadow of Mimi naked. Now she stops in front of the image, the projected light landing on her skin, and her form creating a shadow across the screen. She circles the room in the gossamer light of the projector and then climbs on the table to dance. The home images are seen on the textured screen of her viridian devoré dress and her naked arms and shoulders. Her body and the indented fabric create ridges and surfaces (like the doorframe and handle interrupting Marcel’s magic lantern show). Mimi tips her head back yielding her torso as a moving field of vision. Bubba’s voice is heard off-screen speaking of memories as we see a whole house front across her body and she moves to caress her own skin, the still slide animated by her gestures. Mimi’s body makes obtrusive, tangible, the affective connection to the show. Her performance is interrupted as she catches sight of a slide of Noah’s house, the main locale of the film, a model house on a discontinued housing estate. We see the last three slides unimpeded. They are slides that could be stills from the film: Noah’s house, his child in the window, and his child closer to. Over these shots Bubba speaks of ‘a place not too far away’.

In his equivalent voice-over in Mad Men Don says that, in Greek, nostalgia means ‘the pain from an old wound’. He glosses this: ‘It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone’. He describes the Carousel as a ‘time-machine’. Svetlana Boym writes in The Future of Nostalgia: ‘Nostalgia (from nostos – return home, and algia – longing) is a longing for a home that no longer exists or that has never existed’. This explicit connection to home is made in The Adjuster. In both works, the Carousel slide projector works so obviously as an apparatus to remind us of screen media’s capacity to re-present a still moment from the past, both to connect us to it and distance us from it. Don’s reference to a ‘time-machine’ recalls Chris Marker’s La Jetée and its own stilled-frame, metacinematic reflections on memory. The very spacing of the frames, in La Jetée as in a slide show, works as a reminder of Laura Mulvey’s discussion of stillness in Death 24x a second (2006). She writes of the filmstrip:

Although the projector reconciles the opposition and the still frames come to life, this underlying stillness provides cinema with a secret, with a hidden past that might or might not find its way to the surface. The inanimate frames come to life, the unglamorous mechanics are covered over and the entrancing illusion fills the screen. But like the beautiful automaton, a residual trace of stillness, or the hint of stillness within movement, survives, sometimes enhancing, sometimes threatening.

In an interview with Paul Virilio, by exchanged video cassette, in 1993, Egoyan commented on the ‘video installations’ within his films:

What I choose to do by presenting video images within the film is to make the viewers very aware that the image is a construct. The image is a mechanical process of projection, and the viewers are made aware of that process by seeing the video image within the film image.

Egoyan has long been interested in dying technology and its relation to affect. In 2002 he mounted an exhibition named Hors d’usage (Out of Use) at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. As part of this project people of Montreal were invited to bring in their reel-to-reel recorders of the 1950s and 1960s and speak about their memories of using them. Also from 2002 comes his installation Steenbeckett which reflects on the soon to be obsolete Steenbeck, as well as reinterpreting Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Egoyan connects these works to his own archive of memories:

My father had a Sony from this period, and in my childhood I was very aware of diaries that he would record. He kept a very meticulous written diary of every day of his life since the age of thirteen. But starting in the sixties my father would also make recordings and I was really aware of him engaged in that process.

In his films from the 1980s forwards, Egoyan has cherished pre-digital technologies, anticipating their passing. In the early 1990s the Carousel slide projector is already an object of reflective nostalgia for him, and he uses it to animate unreachable images of this place ‘not too far away’. In a slowed-down viewing sequence, showing apparent stills from his film as a series of slides, Egoyan draws attention to the unglamorous mechanics of projection even as Mimi dances like a beautiful automaton. There is something eerie in finding this mechanism, a similar scene, reproduced a decade later in network television. The influence of 1990s independent cinema on recent television drama, and the involvement of the same creative personnel, has been striking. In the particular adventure of the revolving Carousel, affect and critique are shifted. At the end of The Adjuster Noah watches his show home burning to the ground, a conflagration anticipated already in the firelight of the projection sequence. If Mad Men shows Don entering an empty house at the end of episode 13, he nevertheless returns his family to life in the following season as the series continues to unfold. In Home in Hollywood, Elisabeth Bronfen writes:

The pact that we enter into as we pass over the threshold into the virtual home of cinema provides nothing more, but also nothing less, than the promise of provisional happiness, which is, perhaps, the only one we can really hope for.

Unlike The Adjuster, Mad Men restores such happy narratives even as it reveals the technologies, at home and in the studio, by which they are produced.

—Emma Wilson

Posted in Technological Object | 1 Comment

Technological Object: Stereopticon


At the June 1865 meeting of the Philadelphia Photographic Society, an account was given of a stereopticon ‘entertainment’ at which a member of the society had recently been present. ‘The audience,’ the speaker said, ‘was a model audience, so quiet and so attentive’:

Dr. Lee read to them from some book of travels in Rome, and as he read, the various scenes about which he was reading were thrown on the screen in a circle of light, eighteen feet in diameter. The dissolving effect was well managed, and occasionally, during pauses of the reading, and while the pictures were being shown, music was introduced to vary the entertainment. Familiar as I am with exhibitions of this class, I never passed a more agreeable evening.

The stereopticon was one of the many technological curiosities to emerge between the dawn of photography and the invention of film. An early form of projector, its inner workings were those of the magic lantern, but its innovation lay in the projection of photographic slides rather than drawn or painted ones. Developed and patented as ‘Hyalotypes’ — from the Greek for ‘glass’ — by the Langenheim brothers in 1850, these slides were shown through twin lenses which were positioned one above the other to produce the ‘dissolving effect’ described by the PPS reporter. By fading one photographic image into another, a movement much smoother than the clear-cut changes of previous magic lanterns could be achieved. Another attraction of the stereopticon was the fact that the minutest photographic detail could be magnified, retaining such clarity that it could be seen by viewers in their hundreds and even thousands.

The audience listening so intently to Dr. Lee’s lecture in the account given above were patients at the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane, the first organisation to organise regular stereopticon displays. Under the direction of the neurologist and psychiatrist Dr Thomas Story Kirkbride, whose chance acquaintance with the Langenheim brothers had brought the stereopticon to his attention, the Hospital had been implementing stereopticon lectures as part of its ‘moral treatment’ of insanity as early as 1851. By the mid-1860s, stereopticon displays had displaced a number of the Hospital’s other social activities to become the central element of its treatment programme.

Collective experience of what one contemporary viewer called ‘all the minute details of [a] subject as it really exists’ made the stereopticon the perfect mechanism for the restoration of sanity. The projection of images of the world’s natural, cultural and scientific phenomena, accompanied by an explanatory lecture, would exercise the patient’s ability to think sequentially through a series of images and facts, while the simple act of sitting in an audience would improve self-control and social awareness. The mechanical ‘dissolve’ effect between images offered room for contemplation, but established continuity and narrative connection between the slides. No space was left for inattention as the mechanism’s effect held the gaze; meanwhile, Kirkbride’s decree that Hospital staff and visiting guests attend these exhibitions suspended the distinction between sane and insane, doctor and patient.

With the outbreak of the American Civil War, this restorative machine became a key technology through which the country’s cataclysmic physical and psychological disturbance was both felt and remembered. In June 1864, while the war still raged, a chemist named John Fallon presented a week of evening stereopticon lectures entitled The Army of the Potomac. Amongst images charting the progress of the North’s most formidable army from the battle of Bull Run to the present, Fallon projected some of Alexander Gardner’s famous photographs of the war dead at Antietam and Gettysburg. Mangled and bloated, these bodies appeared magnified on a screen covering 600 square feet. While one advertisement in the New York Daily Tribune announced that the ‘faithful and vivid’ images had been ‘vouched for by all our generals’, the hyperreality of the stereopticon’s massive projections elicited some fantastical responses from its observers: one reviewer even claimed that ‘the dead appear almost to speak; the distant to overcome space and time and be close and palpable.’

Bodies at Antietam

But the dead could not speak, and the sensation of palpable immediacy was impossible. The stereopticon’s ability to project three-dimensional images was a common misconception, a result of the machine’s technological hybridity. Stereoscopic photographs — which produced a three-dimensional effect by placing two images of the same scene side-by-side — had usually been cut in two and fed individually into the stereopticon, giving the device its name. By association, viewers were frequently led to believe that they were seeing the images of statues, people and landscapes three-dimensionally, as ‘rounded, glowing picture[s]’. The stereoscope, which required the viewer to peer at its double images through a binocular eye-piece, had offered a particularly private and carefully controlled experience of photography in America from the early 1850s. Read erroneously into the stereopticon’s projections, the private encounter became public. At the same time, the dead of the Civil War stereograph, once accessible privately and for as long as the viewer chose to view them, suddenly became shared, overt and physically overwhelming.

Yet along with the thrill of this new collective experience and its stimulating effects on the imagination came a certain kind of distance. Where the chronological element of Fallon’s show provided a narrative arc which claimed historical perspective even before the war had ended, the reviewer’s assertion that ‘the dead appear almost to speak’ hangs on the ‘almost’. In its magnification of photographic detail, the stereopticon placed the bodies of the Civil War dead at a further remove than either photographs or stereographs had done: to inspect the details of a twisted face or crumpled uniform does not replicate an experience of the dead on the battlefield, nor is it the same as seeing the compact, three-dimensional scene provided by the stereoscope. The reviewer’s ‘almost’ indicates a moment of fantasy which the stereopticon’s display at once suggests and withdraws, an imaginative sensation curbed by observational distance.

As the nineteenth century went on, showmen and touring lecturers became more experimental with their stereopticon displays, using slide projections as backgrounds against which actors would perform, as well as beginning to think carefully about the implications of slide order and a kind of overall editing process. With the development of new and more spectacular visual media, however, the stereopticon’s once-innovative workings were subsumed into new technologies and the machine itself became a thing of the past. Nonetheless, the technological and literary afterlives of the stereopticon have extended into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

The first of these afterlives was perhaps more successful than the second: not only was the transition between photographic slides a harbinger of the film reel’s instantaneous transition between frames, but the celebrated dissolve found its way into cinematic editing as an effect which continued to be used to establish certain spatial and temporal relations between scenes. Much later, the stereopticon’s dissolve would become available as one of a range of effects applicable to the digitized slide show format of the ubiquitous PowerPoint presentation.

The stereopticon’s literary afterlife was more confused and somewhat less successful, since — to some American authors — the word itself came to evoke an assortment of visual and psychological effects not all of which actually belonged to the original machine. In describing the runaway thoughts of a ‘New York Kid’ as he and his friends find themselves in a stand-off with a group of shadowy Mexicans, Stephen Crane’s short story ‘Five White Mice’ (1898) uses ‘stereopticon’ to conjure an effect which resembles film more than it does the dissolve of the slide-show. The Kid’s frantic visions ‘were perfectly stereopticon, flashing in and away from his thought with an inconceivable rapidity, until, after all, they were simply one quick, dismal impression.’ Crane’s adjectival turn detaches effect from machine in pursuit of psychological panic and its inner, visual manifestations.

Where Crane’s ‘stereopticon’ results in dimness, William Faulkner and Eudora Welty both confuse the stereopticon with the stereoscope in order to bring an optical solidity to moments of psychological disturbance. In his short story ‘The Bear’ (1942), Faulkner casts the complex of scandal and suffering upon which the McCaslin plantation is built as a ‘stereopticon whole’. As Ike McCaslin confronts his troubled Southern heritage, the office in which he sits is transformed, ‘so that, as the stereopticon condenses into one instantaneous field the myriad minutiae of its scope, so did that slight and rapid gesture [of his cousin’s hand] establish […] not only the ledgers but the whole plantation in its mazed and intricate entirety’. Faulkner’s metonymic movement remembers the panoramic three-dimensionality of the compact stereographic view at the same time as evoking the stereopticon’s claustrophobic magnification of detail.

Finally, in Eudora Welty’s short story ‘Kin’ (1955), the stereopticon’s dissolving slide-show mechanism is mistakenly encased within the form of the binocular-like stereoscope. Here, the language once used to describe the stereopticon’s photographic and kinetic innovations is requisitioned in order to grasp psychological disturbance inflicted by the Civil War. Its original physical form made redundant by the progress of visual media, the stereopticon becomes a set of disembodied effects that shift and mutate in literature’s attempts to replicate the neuroses of the modern mind.

—Kristen Treen

Posted in Technological Object | 1 Comment

Technological Object: Player Piano

At the start of his short, autobiographical History of the Player (1913), American inventor John McTammany gives the reader a melodramatic warning:

it was in the midst of hellish surroundings, while convalescing upon a cot in a military hospital in the South that my mind was opened to the possibility and desirability, of an instrument operatable by means of a perforated device. It follows, therefore, that the history of the war and the history of the player are one and inseparable.

McTammany’s insistence that “the history of the war and the history of the player are one” rests on an unsettling insistence upon the symmetry between a “perforated device” and his own wounded body; the groundbreaking machine is hailed as an American response to a “history written in the crimson gore of her slaughtered sons”. This deliberate association between inscription and violence runs throughout McTammany’s book, a short and hectoring work that was mailed gratis to a number of influential New Yorkers in the second half of 1913.

Less than a year after McTammany spammed Manhattan, attempting to secure his copyright claim on the disputed technology, the June 13th 1914 issue of New York’s satirical Puck magazine featured a cartoon making the same macabre connection:

This striking image was wryly annotated “It is safe to predict that the composer of the future will use a shotgun“; only fifteen days after it appeared, the young Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, leading Austria-Hungary to declare war on the 28th July, 1914.

Given this unsettling instance of cataclysmic synchronicity, it is surprising to note that the literary references to the player-piano in the wake of the 1914-18 conflict largely ignored the associations raised by McTammany and Puck magazine. Of the canonical modernist texts to engage with the device, many are aloof and dismissive, the most familiar being Ezra Pound’s ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’ (1920), in which the poet complains that “The pianola ‘replaces’ | Sappho’s barbitos.” Among the few modernist admirers of the device was Marcel Proust, who included a rhapsodic portrait of Albertine “before the pianola” in the fifth volume of À la recherche du temps perdu:

Her shapely legs, which on the first day I had with good reason imagined as having manipulated throughout her girlhood the pedals of a bicycle, now rose and fell alternately upon those of the pianola, upon which Albertine […] pressed her shoes of cloth of gold. Her fingers, at one time accustomed to handlebars, now rested upon the keys like those of a St. Cecilia.

Proust’s epiphanic paragraph wanders on for a further three pages, concluding with the famous aphorism “Love is space and time made perceptible to the heart”, yet even this bizarre (and almost unique) defence of the pianola as a “lighted sanctuary” bears more than a hint of bathos; the transformation of Albertine’s cyclist’s legs and handlebar fingers into those of St. Cecilia (the patroness of musicians) takes place exclusively in the besotted eyes (and ears) of Marcel himself.

James Joyce, or “Shem the Sham”, was a more enthusiastic connoisseur of the counterfeit than most, and his “usylessly unreadable Blue Book of Eccles” adds generously to the literature of the mechanical piano, offering the unforgettable image of the “bald little round jack-in-the-box head of Father Dolan” springing out of a “pianola coffin”, a sight rendered truly nightmarish as Zoe “drops two pennies in the slot” and “Gold pink and violet lights start forth”… The blurring of human and artificial is increased as Zoe starts to sing along with the mechanical piano, whose song is annotated not as a musical score (nor as perforated paper) but as mechanically-generated language:


My girl’s a Yorkshire girl.


Yorkshire through and through. Come on all!

(She seizes Florry and waltzes her)

This fantastic display works a kind of grisly magic, as “Stephen’s mother, emaciated” soon “rises stark through the floor in leper grey,” prompting Dedalus to cry out in terror “The ghoul! Hyena!”. The result of Joyce’s pianola ritual is thus a gruesome foreshadowing of Friedrich Kittler’s 1986 observation that “technological media guarantee the similarity of the dead to stored data”.

By the time Joyce and Proust’s novels appeared, the player-piano was nearing its swansong: the historian Arthur Ord-Hume claims that the “peak of its popularity lay between 1910 and 1925”, and that it “died in about 1932”. It was in this postmortem period, surprisingly enough, that the philosophical and cultural implications of the punched paper roll device began to come under more serious scrutiny, emerging in the Philosophical Investigations (1953) of Ludwig Wittgenstein (as a ‘Lesemachine’), and in titanic novels from William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, and William T. Vollmann. Increasingly, in this later era, the device came to be viewed as representing something uniquely American, a prescient symbol of the IBM punch-card, and a foreshadowing of a widespread “counterfeit culture”. Theodor Adorno, writing from the ‘German California’ of post-war Pacific Palisades, LA, made this association in his Philosophy of New Music (1949), launching an attack on

the paltriness of [America’s] parodied music, [with] characteristic preferences for the bravado of the Music Hall rather than Parsifal, for the mechanical player piano rather than the intoxication of the string quartet, for a romantic dream-America rather than the bogeyman of German Romanticism…

These remarks offer a useful cluster of Adorno’s attitudes towards his post-war “dream-America”, dismissed as a phantasm of “parodied music”, “Music Halls”, and “mechanical player pianos”. Elsewhere in the same volume, Adorno comments in more detail upon music composed exclusively for the player-piano, observing that in such compositions “Anxiety in the face of dehumanization is transformed into the joy of its unveiling, and ultimately into the pleasure of the same death instinct whose symbolism was prepared by the hated Tristan.” The association returns us, of course, to McTammany’s own 1913 pamphlet, in which it is maintained that “the history of the war and the history of the player are one and inseparable”. By 1949, however, “the war” was, of course, a global event, and “the player” was being transformed into a worldwide punched-card data culture; the inventor’s vision of “crimson gore” and “slaughtered sons” had been multiplied by previously unimaginable degrees, and the problem of recording “history” via perforated paper was only beginning.


—Rob Turner

Posted in Technological Object | 4 Comments


David Trotter writes in the latest issue of The White Review about negotations between new and old, here understood as the ‘technological’ and the ‘primitive’, in the work of Vanessa Hodgkinson, and one or two others. The values proposed by surface and inscription swop sides continuously as human hand and mechanical apparatus combine to generate an image. This is techno-primitivism‘s answer to the blandishments of the skeuomorph.



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Technological Object: Drone

Model (1:72 scale) MQ-1 Predator equipped with Hellfire missiles,
somewhere in the region of real hands.


I’ve chosen to write on ‘unmanned aerial vehicles’ (UAVs – commonly known as ‘drones’) as objet du mois because they draw together aspects of communications, computing, weaponry, and data recording that were associated with the four previous objects. Since 2002 drones have been used increasingly by the US (also by the UK and Canada) for counter-terrorist surveillance and attacks in a range of countries, notably Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia. Drones such as the Predator and Reaper models carry sophisticated cameras that relay real-time video data; they can also act on the data by launching Hellfire missiles at targets. That description makes them sound like they have their own agency, which isn’t yet the case, for they are operated remotely – the US drones, for example, are piloted by CIA employees working in Creech Air Force Base, Nevada.

Various paradoxical states of affairs are entangled with this remote control: the main advantage that military drones afford is of waging war from a distance, yet that is made possible by the ‘space-time compression’ that their ‘real-time’ data relays enable. (As someone at Creech base is reported to have said of the operating trailers: ‘Inside that [one] is Iraq, inside the other, Afghanistan’.) And although the US has defended its drone strikes as part of the ‘war on terror’, the CIA operatives are actually civilians and not armed service personnel. As Derek Gregory has argued, they can thus be seen as having the same status of ‘unlawful combatant’ as the detainees that the US has incarcerated in Guantánamo Bay. Another paradox: the CIA operatives (often recruited for their ‘gaming’ prowess) are continually both ‘at home’ and ‘at war’ on a daily basis. Another paradox: the operatives’ technologised witnessing of events ‘on the ground’ builds a preparedness in enemies to bear witness to anti-Americanism and religious faith by becoming militant martyrs.

Drones are thus already undoing distinctions between surveillance, militarisation, and civilian everydayness, and it looks like UAV technology will increasingly play a role in people’s lives. A recent European Commission paper, for example, claims that there are 400 civilian applications for unweaponised drones currently being developed across the EU for applications in a variety of areas, including infrastructure monitoring, media/entertainment, wildlife management, intelligence gathering and surveillance. That surge will raise all kinds of questions about privacy and civil liberties; as Eric King of Privacy International has commented: ‘Not too long ago this was the stuff of science fiction, but flying robotic devices equipped with facial recognition technology and mobile phone interception kit are increasingly commonplace’.

Consider this description of a cutting-edge drone:

The Scarab pauses on its perch for a moment, as if to determine for itself whether it is perfectly fit for action. It is a tiny thing, scarcely more than an inch and a half in length… Its body has a metallic sheen, and its vitals are far more intricate than those of the finest watch… It buzzes into the great workroom as any intruding insect might, and seeks the security of a shadowed corner. There it studies its surroundings, transmitting to its manipulator, far away now, all that it hears through its ear microphones and sees with its minute vision tubes.

If that sounds like it’s straight from sci-fi, that’s because it is; the passage is from Raymond Gallun’s novel The Scarab published in … 1936 – I just changed the tense from past to present. Proto-drones have a long history in science fiction that imagines future scenarios of society being policed through a combination of networked surveillance and weaponry. Other notable drones include the ‘Raytron Apparatus’ in Ray Cummings’s Beyond the Stars (1928), the ‘Flying Eye’ in Harry Harrison’s The Repairman (1959), the ‘Copseye’ in Larry Niven’s Cloak of Anarchy (1972), and the ‘Dornier’ in William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988). There is also a substantial history of real drones: remote-controlled UAVs date back to the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane developed in WWI and were used in combat by the US in the Vietnam war.

In recent years interesting literary and filmic engagements with drones have been relatively scant, despite all the pressing cultural and political issues thrown up by UAV technology and its future. (Human Rights Watch recently published a paper ‘Losing Humanity: The Case Against Killer Robots’ sounding alarm at the prospect of UAVs that can function autonomously without human operators.) Teju Cole emphasises weaponised drones’ terrifying capacity for termination with his tiny stories of abridgement – e.g. ‘Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. Pity. A signature strike leveled the florist’s’. Michael Robbins wrote a darkly humouristic poem ‘for President Drone’ to mark Barack Obama’s re-inauguration. A few bloggers have called for drone fiction that might adumbrate the characters of drone operators, and even drones themselves, in order to think more about how their strikes involve personhood, experience, emotions, and the mediation of those things. Sincerity about drones ‘as characters’ sounds a rather confused realist approach. An alternative would be a novelistic treatment that involves the kind of parodic ramifying of plot and character that Pynchon presents in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) when dealing with V-2 rockets. Or a diaristic lyric psychodrama that relates war and a kind of mass observation along domestic lines (both household and national) in the way that Auden’s ‘Journal of an Airman’ (1931) did.

When William S. Burroughs was asked how much of his fiction was autobiographical he replied that it was all fiction and all autobiography. The difficulty in pinning down the significance of drones is that they are thoroughly science-fictional and awfully real. Consider another passage from Gallun’s novel, The Scarab:

At sea, the coalition task force takes data from a range of organic and land-based unmanned surface and underwater vessels… Ten days previously, 100 Class I micro Perch and Stare unmanned aircraft were deployed to key locations in the city. Their coatings provide camouflage by adopting the same colour as their surroundings, while embedded solar cells augment the on-board fuel cells by recharging capacitive energy stores during daylight. Working collaboratively in a network, many of the aircraft have self-repositioned to gain further intelligence data.

Well, if only it were from Gallun’s novel; it’s actually a passage envisaging future drone capacities taken from the Ministry of Defence’s Joint Doctrine Note: The UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft Systems (2010). The present tense is the MoD’s…

—Alex Houen

Posted in Technological Object | 3 Comments

Technological Object: Black Box

Amongst volumes on Dali, Francis Bacon and Helmut Newton, J.G. Ballard’s library also contained The Black Box (1984) edited by Malcolm MacPherson. The book is a collection of transcripts taken from the Flight Data Recorders of aeroplanes involved in “air disasters”.  These ‘black boxes’, consist of a central recording medium (first wire, then tape, now currently digital matter) sealed in a steel outer casing that is robust enough to survive high impact, intense heat and immersion in water. The devices are typically installed into a plane’s tail assembly in order to record in-flight instrument data and cockpit dialogue. In the event of a crash the units can, in theory, be recovered intact from the wreckage in order to reconstruct the sequence of events – computational and conversational – that preceded the accident.

The Flight Data Recorder has been an industry standard since 1960. Versions have been in use since 1939 but mainly in the aircraft research industry. It was first outlined for use in civilian aviation with a specific post-crash application in 1954 by David Warren, an aeronautical researcher at the Australian Defense Department. His paper, “A Device for Assisting Investigation into Aircraft Accidents” streamlined the problematic photographic functionality of previous models and gave rise to the 1957 prototype, the Flight Memory Unit. At this point in the object’s history, ‘black box’ can be revealed as something of a misnomer: the devices were designed to be, and have remained, bright orange to facilitate ease of identification and retrieval on the ground. The term seems to have stuck due to journalistic shorthand and possibly as a residue of its initial photographic incarnation. Early models were essentially small, sealed darkrooms not designed with crash salvage in mind.

Although technically imprecise, ‘black box’ nevertheless carries accuracy as regards the imaginative significance invested in the device. In circuit design, ‘black box’ describes a component that is understood not on the basis of its mechanism but in relation to its input, output and processional characteristics, the manner in which the input changes as a result of its transfer through the device. Similarly, the Flight Data Recorder often occupies the interstitial position common to the symbolic reception of many recording devices: it hovers as an invisible mediator somewhere between operation and content. Frequently brandished for the press at the edge of an accident zone, the recorder is often taken as a talismanic marker that signals not the start of an analysis but the completion of an investigation. A solid state amongst the residue of the plane, the black box functions as a perfect synecdoche: one surviving part that at a human and material level, can reassemble the disintegrated whole. Once it is found, the external reportage can withdraw as the public narrative of the plane crash has, in a sense, come to an end.

John Varley’s short story ‘Air Raid’ (1977) and later novel Millennium (1983) are both built upon this symbolism of holistic resurrection. In each, a black box is recovered containing a recording that analeptically opens out at an exponential rate. It narrativizes the crash central to each text, as well as a panoramic scenario of time travel and impending catastrophe. Varley’s box is a narrative engine that quickly disappears under the weight of its contained significance. For Ballard, his attraction to the device is also connected to its narrative results. Writing in a 1998 review of MacPherson’s second edition, he explains that his fascination with the transcripts lies in their presentation of slowly accumulating decline:

What stands out […] is how quietly catastrophe creeps up on its victims. A gradual fall in hydraulic pressure, an unexplained loss of fuel, a hint of smoke in a lavatory, are noted half     an hour before the looming crisis.

However, what is also emphasised in Ballard’s account is the informational poverty that the neutral ear of the recorder necessarily retains. As Iain Sinclair noted when describing the myth of Ballard’s own archive, ‘nothing intimate survive[s]’:

 […] the transcripts convey only the sketchiest impression of the atmosphere in a stricken aircraft as the captain and crew wrestle with their controls. While one crippled system   collapses on another, horns blare, lights flash and recorded voices shout: “Pull up! Pull up!”

Yet no one panics. Even in the final moments, as the doomed aircraft heads towards the ground at 400 miles per hour, only a stoical regret is sounded, like the simple comment, “We’re dead”, made by the co-pilot of a Lockheed cargo plane in the seconds before the end.

That final announcement encapsulates the (im) possibility of the black box. Along with examples such as Edison’s spiritualist hopes for his phonograph and Konstantin Raudive’s fascination with Electronic Voice Phenomena, the imaginative economy of the Flight Data Recorder helps to maintain the post-mortem fantasy associated with recording media. It seems to work against annihilation by preserving voice and experience in the aftermath of their destruction. And yet, what Ballard highlights is the skeletal, denotation of ‘the end’. It exists and can, of course, only exist as a statement of an impending event rather than a survival of the event itself. The investigative specificity of the Flight Data Recorder coupled with the nature of its most significant material foregrounds the operational reality that underpins the projected phantasy:  a capacity for re-play rather than mediumship.

—James Riley

Posted in Technological Object | 8 Comments

Optical Ontologies Call For Papers

The London Conference in Critical Thought, Royal Holloway, University of London, 6-7 June  2013, will include a panel on Optical Ontologies and Machine Vision. The deadline for abstracts is 25th March 2013. Abstracts should be emailed either to Hannah Gregory or to with ‘Optical Ontologies’ in the subject line.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment