Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas is a Lives of the Poets in the mode of magical realism: thirty short biographies of imagined Fascist writers living far from the power centers of Fascism, followed by two imagined bibliographies. In the bibliographies, one descriptive term that recurs is mimeographed. When Nazi Literature in the Americas was a new book, that word connoted a pathetic struggle against indifferent history. Literally, to mimeograph a book was (in the interpretation accepted at the time, Bolaño’s time) to communicate something insignificant. But insignificance in our time, Facebook’s and Twitter’s time, isn’t what it was then. At least one of the terms of its unmeaning, the word mimeograph, has vanished, carrying its own meaning into oblivion.
You can understand what happened by surveying some of its associated dates. Nazi Literature in the Americas was first published in Spanish in 1996, and Bolaño died at the age of 50 in 2003. An English translation of his book followed in 2008, but by then there remained almost no anglophone readers under the age of 50 who could interpret the word mimeograph in its 1996 sense. For a dwindling number of the old, mimeograph evoked the coarse softness of a thick spongy paper, the warm motherly smell of an oily ink, and possibly a culturally mediated memory like the one in John Updike’s mid-twentieth-century short story “A Sense of Shelter” that forms within a high school boy dreaming of himself as a future man of letters while he cuts a school newspaper cartoon into a waxen stencil made soft and impressible by the warmth of a light bulb. In the time of the mimeograph, all of these phenomena — feel, smell, sentimental New Yorker symbol — came together in a complex of meanings. But for readers of Bolaño experiencing the word mimeograph without having lived through its body of evocations, no significance.
But experience never stops desiring to communicate itself, and some of its desire has always been redirected from dead memory to living creative form, mimeographed or other. In Canada in 2015, a hack of the online dating service Ashley Madison revealed that the great majority of subscribers were men, and the “women” who messaged to them about love were cyberbots, both as dead and unreal and as real and living as Bolaño’s imaginary writers. At the same time in the United States, hundreds of employees in Walmart’s distribution centers were filling carts with stock at the direction of a bot named (or “named”) Jennifer VoicePlus which (or “who”) spoke in an individual woman’s voice with each of them, one on (so to speak) one. Jesse LeCavalier listened in on a few of the conversations and reported:
Voice-directed picking’s actual hardware includes standard communications equipment. Workers receive instructions and vocalize confirmations through headsets. But they are not speaking to a human at the other end of the communications channel. Rather, their confirmations are part of a feedback process in which their voice signals are translated to signals understandable to the voice recognition software, the responses are processed, and in turn they are translated back into signals comprehensible to humans. In this sense, operators are not “talking” to “The Voice” but are entering data into a set of algorithms that provide responses. Managers praise voice-directed picking systems for the ease with which operators can learn to use them. Workers can be trained in a matter of hours rather than the days or even weeks required for other systems. Thus there is little incentive for companies to invest in their employees. Since fewer resources are necessary to bring new employees to a satisfactory performance level, voice-directed systems significantly diminish the consequences of high turnover. Workers, like the software that commands them, can be replaced quickly, with only limited and temporary reductions in productivity. The new forms of literacy demanded of [distribution center] workers are impossible to achieve without the aid of some kind of augmenting technology to mediate between computers and humans. (168)
The augmenting technologies evolve from year to year, but the desire for mediation has always been with us. One new form of literacy or another is always everybody’s first language: the primal reaching out for a hand to keep us from falling into mute solitude. We don’t need training to grasp at that.
For the solstitial festival of 1924, for example, an artist imagined a black-suited old man stretching his arms into newly populated air as if his body were remembering what it and music had once done with each other. Behind him, two laughing children in sleepwear glowed white. Light had returned to their morning. “It reaches out and out,” cried ecstatic language in its io Paean to the augmenting technology. Those who cried the words and he who painted the picture understood that the old man was as far beyond knowing what was happening to him as a baby is from knowing why his first step has filled everyone around him with joy, but both the baby and the old man understand without having to know.
Of course we adults who will realize the understanding by buying the Radiola have undertaken the mediating chore of bringing the music and laughter and lectures and sports into a world that (we know, even if the baby and the old man don’t) can never be filled enough with music, can never be made fully happy. Soon enough the music will grow fungible, and the musicians. Soon enough even love and its enclosing bodies will go virtual and be outsourced to a purely notional Canada. But for now the gesture of stretching away is a dance that is different for the first time from other dances. For the first time, the elderly dancer brings music down from the ether to himself as he dons his fawnskin — aged Tiresias, he who knows the secret of what it is to be a man! — and prepares to sing io Paean in chorus with Radiola.
Roberto Bolaño, Nazi Literature in the Americas, trans. Chris Andrews. New Directions, 2008.
Jesse LeCavalier, The Rule of Logistics: Walmart and the Architecture of Fulfillment. University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
John Updike, “A Sense of Shelter.” The New Yorker 16 January 1960, pp. 28-34.
The Radiola advertisement, from The Literary Digest 20 December 1924, is reprinted at http://blog.vintascope.com/post/154641194549/radiola-19241220-literary-digest. I have restored it in Photoshop.
“Hi, this is Steve,” said the voice on the phone. “How are you?” The voice was a breathy basso and the intonation oozed with benevolence. A few seconds after that, Steve revealed that he was calling to offer me a reverse mortgage and I realized that Steve was an interactive audio file.
A cynosure of the international art world in the first decade of this century was the American artist Dash Snow (1981-2009). A member of the princely Menil family of art patrons, Dash devoted his life as an artist to wearing hats, vandalizing hotel rooms, and not much else. But he was also an almost unbelievably handsome young man, with waist-length blond hair and a really big trust fund, and he took tens of thousands of Polaroids of the life his Dionysiac force created around him. Most of these images are of people being drunk or drugged.
It was the drugs that got him. At
you can see an elegiac interview about that event with a gallerista who fondly remembers the fun she unfailingly experienced when Dash was in the room. Even as a little boy, the gallerista recalls, Dash was a nonstop source of creative energy: throwing things, smashing things, and setting fires until the very moment he was sent off to reform school. After a while, the interviewer cuts the conversation short and abruptly leaves the room. It’s time, he explains to the gallerista, for him to pick up his little boy.
you can see Dash in extreme closeup with cigarette, aetatis suae XXIV. If he had lived, he would have looked like Mitch McConnell by the time he was 40. But art, even Dash’s art, admits you to an interior zone from which the human reaches out toward immortality. Back from the immortal, in this case, come a couple of sentences’ worth of Dashtalk: “I don’t believe in the laws or the system by any means whatsoever. I try not to obey them at any time.”
The words are just phatic sound, of course, like Steve’s “How are you?” They might as well be the clay language of a Grecian urn, stilled into perdurable ceramic. Yet when the speaker fills his lungs with smoke and speaks the words to the video track, he looks as real as Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Dash-in-the-Polaroid doesn’t believe in the laws. He thinks of what he does generally, in the abstract. (The drugs probably have something to do with that.) Steve-in-the-computer doesn’t believe only in the Do Not Call List. He thinks of what he does in a focused pragmatic way, with the help of lawyers who edit his script and computer programmers who help him speak it. Dash represents inhuman art. Steve represents the humanity of the hucksters who ascribe a value to art.
At the end of The Bacchae, Dionysus destroys first those who didn’t worship him and then those who did. Look at this image and discuss.