Saturday, December 01, 2007

'Tis the Season to Indulge in the Tim Spence Experiment

Figure 1. Still Life with Rob Shortridge behind the bar at Erato and Eileen Joy's rioja, or is that a barbera, or a zinfandel? . . . oh, forget it

It has often been said [well, I say it] that, if Erato Wine Bar on Grand Avenue in Saint Louis is BABEL's official editorial office, and In The Middle is its "floating residence" [we actually say this very thing in the Acknowledgments of Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages, which is now officially in print! congratulations to us or something like that], then Seal Beach, California is its secret headquarters, where BABEL's mixmaster and surfer girlfriend, Betsy McCormick, is in residence. Ever since Tim Spence delivered his paper at this year's Kalamazoo meeting, "The Book of Hours and iPods, Passionate Lyrics and Prayers: Technologies of the Devotional Self," Betsy decided to see if what Tim wrote was true:
Imagine a laboratory. Turn on the lights. In their soft, electronic glow you see two technologies sitting on individual lab tables. On one table is a Book of Hours, a portal within the manuscript technologies used by cultures of devotion to perpetuate a life of emotionally-driven meaning. On the other table is an iPod, a portal within the digital technologies used by cultures of devotion to perpetuate a life of emotionally-driven meaning. . . . The iPod and the medieval Book of Hours are two seemingly alien technologies that have surprisingly similar effects on the people who use them. In essence, I believe that today’s iPods are yesterday’s Books of Hours. I think we can learn quite a bit about the culture of devotion that produced a boom in the production of prayer manuals in the fourteenth and fifteen centuries by thinking of these manuscripts as akin to the iPod and mp3 players in today’s popular culture. These devices help to individualize us, while at the same time habituating our emotions to function within a larger corporate structure.

. . . .

The mystic and rock and roller stand as bookends opposed to modernity. Both icons extend far beyond Mr. Cogito’s reason, the logos of the printed Word. Richard Rolle embodies—and tries to instruct others how to embody—a constant state of sweetness in the form of a song. Rolle’s notion of embodiment has much more in common with Hedwig’s angry inch than either do with Grey’s Anatomy. The mystic rocker embodies a habitus of devotion based on complex imagery. The images of these cultures of devotion focus on a limited number of themes, including personal suffering, particularly in love and fighting. Unlike a habitus based on scientific reason, the mystic rocker embraces emotions as a viable medium for cultural memory and social communication. By habituation, the mystic rocker orders its lives in a spiritual manner, using emotions as vehicles through which individuals might experience a particular physical sensation—oftentimes describable as “bittersweet”—whenever s/he wants. In 1407 the most popular vehicle, or media, for an intimate and immediate invocation of this pleasure/pain through spiritual devotion was the Book of Hours; in 2007 it is the iPod.
As an act of devotion, if we can call it that, to Tim's thinking here, Betsy has crafted the Seal Beach 2007 iPod mix, which we offer here to ITM readers as BABEL's holiday gift. Please don't tell us which songs you hate or note the songs that we somehow overlooked or disparage our dj talents. This is our mix, and we think it's perfect. We like to think it comes on strong, like adrenaline, and leaves softly, carrying a wobbly martini. Habituate yourself to the summer [2007] of BABEL. Or resist entirely. It's up to you. We would like to say that if you send an email to Eileen [at] we'll mail you a CD version, but then we'd be breaking the laws of the corporate "man." But still. We're just sayin'. It's a free country. You can send that email. If you feel like it. Happy holidays.

The Tim Spence Experiment: Seal Beach 2007

This is the Sea [The Waterboys]
Gimme Shelter [The Rolling Stones]
Connected [Stereo MCs]
Umbrella [Rhianna, featuring Jay-Z]
Don't Change [INXS]
Come Undone [Duran Duran]
Extreme Ways [Moby]
Bad [U2]
What Goes Around . . ./. . . Comes Around [Justin Timberlake]
Ship of Fools [World Party and Anthony Thistlewaite]
Older [Colbie Caillat]
Theme from Endless Summer
Big Girls Don't Cry [Fergie]
Eminence Front [The Who]
Best I Ever Had [Gary Allan]
Here's to Life [Shirley Horn]


Karl Steel said...

I do wonder if we can draw the analogy still closer. The Book of Hours would be among the first mass-produced multimedia delivery items; iPods, for example, are also mass-produced multimedia delivery items. We know a bit about the labor conditions of the production of iPods, at least c. 2006. I wonder, what do we know about the working conditions of producers of Books of Hours, or indeed the the producers who helped enable the largescale commercialization of urban manuscript production in the late 14th and 15th centuries?

dan remein said...

Is is in Erec and Enid? I am fried on thinking about other non-english texts right now and may be off a Chrétien Romance or two,but isn't there a wonderful scene of like, a tapestry and manuscript sweatshop?on

Karl Steel said...

It's in Yvain, and not manuscript. Too early for that, so far as I know. It's cloth. Here are the relevant notes from the still useful Peter Haidu, “The Hermit’s Pottage: Deconstruction and History in Yvain,” in The Sower and His Seed: Essays on Chrétien de Troyes. Ed. Ruptert T. Pickens. French Forum Monographs 44. Lexington, KN: French Forum, 1983. 127-45

"Turns to a discussion of sweatshop scene, and Haidu thankfully asks the obvious question: who benefits from this system? Some elements of that reality: great wealth coming from manufacture of woven fabrics in England, Flanders, and Northern France, and a major source of wealth in for the Count of Champagne, in which court Chrétien served (139).

Very smart, Haidu asks whether this sweatshop is an early example of 19th-century literary realism. Certainly looks like it. But, no, because these sort of factories didn’t exist in the twelfth century. Rather, cloth was made in ateliers an urban house, a family and a few journeymen, probably. The 300 noble women forced to work-think about this as nobles being forced into economic system that destroys their nobility even as/because they profit from it-are hyperbolic, and would be recognized as such by Chrétien’s audience (140). Since the material referent didn’t exist, symbolic aspect stressed (141).

So, sort of to exonerate the noble class from the system of exploitation that benefited it (since noble class must be praised in this), Chrétien makes the nobles themselves subject to a pair of demons (141). A third term introduced to resolve a binary structural system, as with the hermit episode (142)."

Dr. Virago said...

Waterboys? INXS? U2? All those bands' names were dutifully inked on the edges of my high school textbooks.


bwhawk said...

This looks like a great mix!

I've recently watched High Fidelity (with John Cusack), where he talks about the great care and love that goes into a music "mix tape" (in this case a "mix playlist")--and it looks like some great thought has gone into this mix.

I especially love that you end it with Shirley Horn's "Here's to Life." In light of BABEL's working messages, these lyrics from that song seem most appropriate:
And who knows what tomorrow brings or takes away,
As long as I'm still in the game I want to play,
For laughs, for life, for love.
So here's to life and all the joy it brings,
Here's to life, the dreamers and their dreams.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Having taken Tim's paper very seriously when I responded to it at that K'zoo session, I have to admit here what I didn't say then: Margery Kempe clearly possessed an iPod. Sometimes it played religious music that included choir-backed symphonies. Sometimes her playlist unexpectedly featured industrial music, inhuman noises that kept repeating until she found herself groaning along with them. Her iPod was invisible, and she had the annoying habit of singing its tunes out loud, as if all the world were sharing the sound system her earbuds provided. Like anyone who sings to songs only they can hear, she was badly out of tune and startled her unwitting audiences.

She most certainly did not structure her devotion via the machine that a book of hours provided.

Eileen, I researched on PaleoFuture what this thing called a "CD" and would like one if possible. They look shiny.

Eileen Joy said...

Ohmygod, I love the image of Margery Kempe having an invisible iPod. That is perfect.

And yes, Dr. Virago, the BABEL mixmasters also had those band names etched on the edges of *their* high school yearbooks. No coincidence. But hey, there's also Rhianna and Justin Timberlake and Fergie, etc. just to even things out.

Anonymous said...

I imagine the scriptoria that produced the explosion of devotional manuals during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to be something like the kitchen in Ratatouille (my son’s newest favorite movie). Perhaps I’m romanticizing, but I really don’t see these environments as sweatshops. I see them more as community places wherein families who share the same lively-hood and who live together on the same block would work together in the shops beneath their living quarters.

I imagine a workshop wherein small children might have been used to move inventory, sweep the floor and do the manual grunt work involved in maintaining any production facility (like Linguine's original role as "Garbage Boy"). (Ok, maybe a little like a sweatshop.) Older children might have been used to pounce the parchment and prepare the quills (like the kitchen's prep cooks, who know the kitchen and its craft well enough to start cutting the vegetables and making simple mixes). True apprentices (who would have numbers set by the local guild) would probably have been able to put quill to parchment, under the close supervision of a master craftsman (like the sous chef in today’s kitchen who overlooks the line cooks and saucier to ensure they are producing quality work).

I also really liked the image of Margery Kempe singing off tune to her own, invisible iPod playlist. This image reminds me of Yo la Tengo’s “Paul is Dead”:

Walking on 10th Street
The guy in front of me, Walkman, headphones on, Stones cranked
The thing that caught my ear, singing loud and clear
Well every couple of steps I heard "Woo-woo"
And he said it so un-self-consciously
That never it would occur to me that
He revealed himself
and I'd offer a blue

And yet another cross-temporal connection between the fanciest Books of Hours, wherein the patroness would see herself in the manuscript’s illuminated devotional images, and our contemporary electronic technologies of devotion. My high school students are infatuated with the interactive games, Guitar Hero and Rock Band. These games enable devotees not only to listen to their favorite songs, but to become part of their technological reproduction. Through these games, digitized devotion morphs from a passive mode of reception to an active mode of participation.

It’s snowing outside and I have to make a quiz for my AP Latin kids. But before I leave, however, I’d like to say that this space, In the Middle, is also a place of memory for me, a reprieve from the chaos of my daily grind in which I find solitude and solidarity in those rare moments I am able to venture within its digital limits. I am thankful for this place this holiday season: it reminds me that there is life out there beyond that which meets my eye.

Eileen Joy said...

Tim: thanks for checking in. As I read your post, I had such strong mental images of your below-street-level manuscript shop. I loved it, and wanted to be there. "Ratatouille," by the way, has become one of my favorite movies, and I even bought my own copy so I could watch it over and over. I was just talking to a friend the other night, a friend who has three teenage sons and one eight-year-old who all want to be musicians, about Guitar Hero and Rock Band: Guitar Hero is apparently the biggest selling Christmas purchase at present, along with Wii players.

And for your lovely comments about ITM: it's very nice to have you here with us.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

In a moment of cosmic convergence, my copy of the CD arrived just as I was speaking with Eileen on the phone. I have been bopping to it in my car ever since. Even the kids like it.


Eileen Joy said...

BABEL says, you're welcome.