Books, Too, Have Their Destinies

Wenyon & Gamble's 'Bibliomancy'

Norman Bryson
It would seem that every product of technology has its heyday. Black-and-white television gives way to color; CDs replace LPs. The pursuit of technical perfection means that, sooner or later, every one of the devices for reproducing sight and sound that we currently take for granted will one day end up on the scrap-heap. Yet in this general march of progress, holography is the one reproductive medium that seems to have never fully arrived.

When the news broke, more than a generation ago, that there now existed a medium capable for the first time of reproducing objects in three dimensions, holography seemed to herald a brave new world of 3-D cinema, photography, and television. It was true that the first holograms to appear in the technical journals and science museums were a shade disappointing: the chess sets, suits of armor, daggers and still lifes did not quite live up to expectations. But that was presumably because holography was still in its infancy, at a stage of development comparable to the earliest experiments in cinematography. At least in popular imagination, faith in holography's promise was for a long time unshakable. When, in Star Wars, the beleaguered Princess sent out her inter-galactic call of distress ("Obi Won Kanobe, you're our only hope"), her message was of course encrypted in holographic form. When, later on, the denizens of Star Trek: The Next Generation felt the need for some advanced kendo lessons, or a walk in a rainforest, naturally they repaired to the holodeck.

But over time, the promise of ultimate illusion that holography released into cultural space gradually became detached from holography itself. What was required of the media of the future was that they reproduce motion, like cinema: yet this was precisely what holography could not deliver. The viewer of a hologram might move about, but the objects stonily stayed put. Slowly the cultural fantasy of illusion's final frontier shifted elsewhere; currently it is synonymous with VR (virtual reality). Which leaves holography where, in fact, it always has been: in temporal limbo. As virtual reality began to assume the futurist mantle that holography had briefly worn, and the holographic medium could be examined more coolly, what became apparent was its stark anachronicity: it seemed hardly to belong to its own time, let alone the future.

Virtual reality is clearly part of the current wave of new technologies. It depends on the most advanced cybernetic system presently available, the interactive computer, and in its principles and procedures it is obviously part of the same generation of devices as the Internet and the Web. Holography, by contrast, seems scarcely to belong to the twentieth century at all. The absence of a negative, and of the means to generate multiple copies, places it in evolutionary terms alongside such early progenitors of modern photography as the daguerreotype––as does the hand-finished, labor-intensive method of its construction. Aside from its use of the laser, almost everything about holography suggests the nineteenth century photographer's studio: the careful painting of emulsions on glass, the option of tinting in order to make the non-chromatic image appear colored, the painstaking trimming of glass plates by hand––even its use in 'fine art' settings, to simulate traditional art objects, or to record the kind of artefacts that belong in the museum.

Cutter Index, holograms, Wenyon & Gamble, Boston Athenæum, 1998

There is something about holography that is essentially untimely; it was born too late, or too soon; in a sense its time has never come. Unlike the Victorian stereoscope––or, today, the Internet––the holographic image has been curiously unable to forge any kind of serviceable pact––in order to sustain and generalize itself––with the pornographic impulse. Even the military have been hard put to discover strategically useful applications (though there are apparently some, in aerial combat). While other media lie so deeply embedded in their time that they can be used as instantly legible stereotypes for an era––the sepia print, the black-and-white TV––holography seems historically placeless and disconnected. Some of its aspects go with a nineteenth-century studio or craft world; other aspects seem to suggest an aborted future, an antiquated utopia––though perhaps the medium still has a little of its old futurist magic, its holodeck allure.

Yet this quality of temporal homelessness, of never fully arriving on the scene of history, is in fact one of holography's most intriguing properties––and one that Wenyon and Gamble play upon and elaborate, to the point where holography is able to challenge and dislocate our normally secure conceptions of time, of progress, and of history itself. Being homeless, holography can only migrate in time, and as it does so, it is able to reveal something of the way that cultural processes, too, are never wholly rooted in their own time, or exhausted there. To be in culture is to move among many different times and spaces, within a present that is more like a palimpsest than it is like a fresh page, more like a nexus than a point on a line.

For holography's historically displaced and migrant condition, Bibliomancy finds a surprising counterpart in the world of objects: the Book. The essential move of Wenyon and Gamble's installation is that of layering the hologram over the book, of mapping the book on to the hologram, in such a way that between these two apparently unconnected modes of reproduction––moveable type on the one hand, analog coding on the other––unforeseen resonances and resemblances begin to take shape. For in its inability to locate itself securely in history the hologram is not alone: its wandering, unsettled temporality is something that holography shares with the life of books--that is, if we understand the culture of the book in a certain way.
Stacks Image 3012

Bibliomancy, Wenyon & Gamble, 54 holograms of books, 1998

What Bibliomancy insists on, in the books it displays, is their intricate and idiosyncratic relation to historical time. It is, of course, entirely possible to understand the historicity of the book in straightforward, chronological terms. Certainly this is the approach we would quite reasonably take if our interest in the book as a form were strictly functional, or utilitarian. If I am a scientist, what I need to discover is the latest, the most advanced state of knowledge in any given field. What was thought about the field fifty years ago, or even ten, is of no concern to me. In fact it would quickly prove disastrous if I were to base my inquiry on data that have become obsolete. Antiquated editions, archaic bindings and curious typeface are sure signs of precisely what I need to avoid.

The perspective here, which is based on the idea of the irreversible advance of knowledge, is resolutely a-historical or anti-historical. Since the laws of nature are universal and unchanging, historical time has no bearing on my inquiry. The historical past exists in only one relevant form, and it is negative: I need to know when my information may be out of date.

It might be thought that this unwaveringly linear sense of time as unidirectional advance is a feature of scientific knowledge only, and that in the cultural sphere a different sense of historicity would necessarily prevail: why study history at all, if it is synonymous with error? And yet the idea of cultural time as linear––as an arrow that flies in a single direction––has in fact been crucial to the modern understanding of history. Each of the books in Bibliomancy is redolent of its specific, unrepeatable historical moment. Indeed, the titles have clearly been chosen so as to dramatize to the greatest possible degree the local contexts and circumstances of their production.
Stacks Image 700
Rodney the Partisan, for instance (to take my personal favorite), belongs unmistakably to one precise historical moment: its eponymous hero, wearing gear that manages to combine ideas of boy scout, explorer, mountie, and head boy, could only exist in the context of the high point of imperial optimism––and folly. The (notably slim) spine of the San Francisco Social Register similarly sums up a whole world at a particular moment, a world absolute in its sense of confidence, decorum, and exclusiveness. These two examples can stand for what happens across the whole dazzling array of Bibliomancy's titles, chosen as they are for the resonance and intensity of their historical associations. Each book speaks of its local, even parochial (in a temporal sense) point of origin, to which it is indissociably tied. There would be no difficulty in ordering the sequence chronologically, in a spectrum from the oldest and most venerable (perhaps the decrepit Essays Moral and Polite) through to the most recent (maybe Umberto Eco's Faith in Fakes). And the titles themselves describe a linear progress of history in other ways, as well.
Stacks Image 706
For the books are hardly a random sample, and though each viewer is free to respond to Wenyon and Gamble's holographic library according to his or her sensibility and inclinations, it is clear that the titles form clusters, or at least 'waves' (with some themes emerging and disappearing, as others come forward). Many of these waves suggest historical thinking as the principal paradigm for cultural self-understanding. There is an implied history of the readers of these books, and of their changing interests over time: an interest, for example, in the connection with Great Britain (The Love Affairs of Mary, Queen of Scots; Sir Joshua Reynolds), and in Anglo-American relations (the wonderfully titled Patience Wright: American Artist and Spy in George III's London, or, more down-market, Celebrities of London); a fascination with the pioneer history of North America (The First Canadian, The Adventures of Lewis and Clark, Pale Face); as well as a concern for the shape of modern history (How To Save Europe, Patrons and Patriotism). The Library provides answers to the epic questions: who are we? where do we come from? where are we going? The books' representation of the past suggests that for their original readers the volumes answered a deep-seated need to understand the world in modern and rationalistic terms, as the product of historical events and forces. Both the form of the books, with their intense period coloration, and the content of many of the titles, indicate the centrality of historical thinking, at the Athenæum, in defining a sense of cultural identity.

And yet in Bibliomancy the idea of history as a linear sequence from ancient to modern is constantly disrupted by another aspect of the Book, its capacity for traveling––and changing––over time. The way that the books in Bibliomancy appear is very different from the random and collocated look of the volumes one passes by on any visit to the stacks: this is a very specific selection, a carefully crafted ensemble. Though each volume is bound to its historical moment and its local milieu, it is clear that their meaning as an ensemble belongs to the present––a present that none of the books could have themselves anticipated. They have been chosen to represent the past for the present, and for this present. They belong to the past, and yet each volume has a trajectory that ends up here, in this new and very exacting collection. Though the books are saturated with the marks of their origin, each one has launched itself on a path that separates or cleaves from that origin and moves on into an uncharted future, to other times and spaces. Bibliomancy intercepts the books at a particular point in their journey, but they will continue to travel forward to new contexts and readers whose needs and interests are still unimaginable.
Stacks Image 17

Bibliomancy, Wenyon & Gamble, 54 holograms of books, 1998

Walter Benjamin once wrote that what distinguishes the collector of books or the lover of books from the less impassioned reader is a sense that each book has its own fate: habent sua fata libelli. If I am reading a text for a course, say, in literary criticism, I may––ironically enough––be quite indifferent to the particular copy of the book that I am using. It need not be a first edition; an inexpensive paperback will do just as well. But to the lover of books it is not only the text but the copy of the text that fascinates, and obsesses: its physical existence, its craftsmanship, its story of previous owners and readers, its sedimented history, as an object that becomes layered and complex over time. Wenyon and Gamble approach the book in exactly this spirit: like Benjamin's collector (in his essay Unpacking My Library) they study and love books for 'the scene, the stage, of their fate.' It is the destiny of the book to travel, to leave its origin behind, as no more than a starting-point on a journey toward unknown destinations. In some contexts the book may appear charming, or ridiculous; its future effect may be to beguile and entertain, or it may act as a powerful independent agent, capable of changing the direction of history (the Bible, Das Kapital, Mein Kampf), or of transforming and enriching an individual life. If we consider the book as always existing in movement, in diaspora, its position in time changes: no longer confined to the past, to its parish of origin, it intersects at unpredictable points with the future; the book keeps returning, it constantly interrupts linear time. For the lover of books the discovery of an old book is an act of rebirth, of constant renewal. The historicity of the book is, then, in some sense an illusion, since any book that is in any way alive exists in the present, and only in the present. A book is a set of potentials that are actualized nowhere else save in the moment of contact with the present life of the receiver.

Like a hologram. For the hologram, too, exists only in the present time of viewing: that is the medium's unique claim to distinction. Though photographs are able to capture the instant, they also imprison it forever in that one suspended moment––which then dizzyingly recedes into the past. But the hologram, and perhaps only the hologram, is able to actualize the object within the lived horizon of ongoing time. Though the difference between the photograph and the hologram is reputedly the latter's addition of the third dimension, depth, in fact it is the fourth dimension, time, that Bibliomancy explores. The books in the installation exist in a complex, recursive, jubilantly non-linear relation to history. Photographs of books confine them to the past tense, that of the fully accomplished action. Bibliomancy restores its books to a present tense which, nevertheless, travels in time and space to points past, present, and future. The truly fascinating dimension of holography, and of this installation, is its overcoming of historical fixity, or temporal closure: because the hologram exists always and only in the present, it can never be captured and confined within linear time. Its inability to arrive on the scene of history in any definitive or final sense is precisely what is magical about it.

Norman Bryson
Department of Fine Arts
Harvard University
essay reproduced with permission from Bibliomancy , the catalog of an exhibition of holograms by Susan Gamble and Michael Wenyon at The Boston Athenæum, February 12 -- April 25, 1998

© 1998 Norman Bryson and the Proprietors of the Boston Athenæum, ISBN: 0934552-65-7, Library of Congress Card Catalogue number: 98-070440.