Monday, December 1, 2008

You Cannot Press a Flower Between Two Web Pages*

As some of you will know, I hid a five-dollar note in last week's post. It wasn't terribly hard to find, but none of the first 35 unique New Zealand eligible readers who did in fact navigate to the page claimed the prize. It took Russell's help to broaden the field and locate a winner (it's in the mail, Steve of Aro Valley, Wellington). I understand of course that accepting money from a stranger or quasi-stranger, and not all that much money at that, has some ick value. I respect that, but I was keen to complete that particular transaction, for the reasons that I'm about to explain.

Finding objects in a text

I don't know what it says about me or my value system that I remember this, but once when I was a teenager I found 5,000 liras in a book of mine. Don't be impressed by the zeros, that's the equivalent of five New Zealand dollars - not that much money, in other words, even if you do factor in the inflation. Certainly not enough even back then to buy a new CD release, that much I remember. Liras have been supplanted by the Euro nowadays, but this is what the note looked like, front and back.

The chap in the picture is Vincenzo Bellini, a nineteenth century Sicilian composer. He is by no means the most illustrious in the rich musical history of the country, but then he died when he was barely thirty-four, and you simply cannot afford to give somebody of Giuseppe Verdi's class a fifty-four year lifespan advantage. Still, Bellini got to at least enjoy a second life of sorts by having his likeness stamped on a piece of money, one of the highest honours to be bestowed upon a person nowadays. You've really made it when you can be exchanged for a coffee and a newspaper. Or dinner and a movie.

By way of a little digression in this already digressionary post: my son's primary school includes a block that subscribes to the Montessori method. So when I went back to Italy earlier this year I thought I'd get our Montessori teachers a sample of the last of our 1,000 liras notes before the introduction of the Euro, the basic unit of currency and therefore symbolically akin to the one American dollar graced in that proud country by no less a person than George Washington. In Italy, for this highest of monetary honours the mint had chosen Maria Montessori: not a general and father of the country, but a progressive educator who believed in the dignity and creativity of children. Nice.

The Euro of course put an end to all that, nowadays the banknotes sport generic ancient and modern monuments, non-existing composites of buildings scattered throughout the continent, pallid icons with no history. Just so they didn't have to choose the Parthenon over the Colosseum, or Erasmus of Rotterdam over Francis Bacon, I assume. Thus the Union lost the umpteenth chance to foster a conversation about its own cultural roots, and counter the growing suspicion that it's nothing but a giant trade pact and collusion of powers and economic interests.

Back to my current shores, and Steve's loot: in New Zealand the five-dollar note is the lowest paper denomination (the dollar is a coin), and it depicts the rugged profile of a young Edmund Hillary: mountaineer, philanthropist, aspirational national figure par excellence - especially for the males of the species. A honouree of doubtless worth. Few New Zealanders would enthuse nearly as much about the current monarch, whose visage you get to look at whenever you come across a twenty-dollar note. The rest of the line-up comprises women's suffrage movement leader Kate Sheppard on the tenner, Maori politician Apirana Ngata on the fifty and physicist Ernest Rutherford on the hundred. Oh, and on the back of all of these banknotes: native birds.

So Steve is getting a portrait of Edmund Hillary, and of a hoiho, or yellow-eyed penguin. The vintage is fairly recent: there is no date but the signature on the note is that of our current Reserve Bank Governor. Not that this has any impact on the value, of course. Unless you had a particular reason to be attached to a particular piece of money, like Scrooge McDuck to his fateful Number One Dime, than each item of a given denomination is as valuable as any other. But a piece of money is also an object. We are so consumed (pun intended) by its exchange value that we forget that sometimes. Last week's post was about materiality and memory, which is also to say about objects and textuality, so the point of the competition really was: find this object I hid in the text. It could have been anything: buttons, a wheelbarrow, three blind mice. Or a pressed flower.

The title of this week's post is a sentence that bounces in my head whenever I think of the differences - also in terms of gestures and habits of mind - between print culture and our newfangled electronic ways. There are various things that digital textuality achieves especially well, and none more so, it seems to me, than the following two: (1) undermining the notion of a final version, by rendering each text infinitely and indefinitely editable, and (2) connecting different texts to one another in a way that a print artefact could only aspire to. Both of these aspects of course matter a lot in relation to memory. But equally there are things that electronic textuality doesn't achieve quite so well, and as always in the midst of a cultural and technological reconfiguration I am most interested in what is lost or about to be lost.

These losses include some that go under the unfairly disparaging rubric of the novelty book. Case in point: you cannot recreate a pop-up book in electronic form. And don't waste your time retorting that you also cannot flash-animate a print book, I'm not trying to argue that the old book was better, just that there are things it did better, or differently in an interesting way, due to its peculiar material characteristics. And a different physicality can be a carrier of different meanings. Allow me to illustrate: in the postscript to The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco explains that some folks at Oulipo had tried to come up with the matrix of all possible mystery stories, reaching the conclusion that they had all been written, save the one in which the murderer was the reader. Years later an Italian novelist by the name of Raul Montanari tried to fill that gap in Sei tu l'assassino (You Are the Killer), a work of convoluted conceit in which - spoiler alert: but really, who cares? - the murder is precipitated by an electric shock shown to have been caused by the reader. We're almost in the territory of the novelty book here, since the Sei tu l'assassino comes with a card that makes the particular reader the actual murderer, but it's not hard to imagine an electronic version of the novel working in much the same way, if not better.

What I have in mind, though, is another, far more brilliant solution devised by David McKee in Elmer's New Friend, a classic 2002 title in the popular series featuring Elmer the patchwork elephant.

'Have you heard the latest? Elmer has a new friend!' proclaims one elephant to its companions on page 1, and soon the jungle is filled with hypotheses about whom this friend could be. Everybody asks Elmer for clues. "Can your new friend jump, Elmer?" "Not as high as you can, Kangaroo." Or: "Is your new friend tall, Elmer? "Getting taller, Giraffe." Finally the animals congregate and beg Elmer to show them this elusive character. "Can't you see? Over there, look, between the trees." And he points to the last page, where amongst the verdant and luxuriant flora sits a small square mirror.

Lector in fabula, the reader has become part of the story, and it's been achieved by means of a reflecting surface, a device of disarming simplicity but that you cannot reproduce on an electronic screen. Which is the more interactive medium, then? The computer, I won't dispute that. But the old book is still capable of dealing some brilliant blows of its own.

Plus you cannot press a flower between two web pages*.

*Or can you? Answers, please, on the back of the usual postcard.