In 1918 a caption written in American expository prose employed the word twixt. The caption’s author assumed that that word twixt would mean something to his readership, just like the two-word combination Hoffman House. If it has turned out that you don’t know what Hoffman House means, he was wrong. In 1918 his words were part of a lexicon dating from 1918, but that number turned out to be impossible for computers to handle in 1918, when the word computer referred to a person. In 1918, on May 19, James Joyce wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver about Ulysses, “It is impossible to say how much of the book is really written.” But in 1918 Joyce was in the process of writing off 1918.
In the same magazine, another block of prose suggested ten years as a range of history during which terms like Hoffman House might remain stably conceivable. The thought must have seemed reasonable while its subject was still sharing a present tense with horse traffic.
But now we know that it’s harder to say “It identifies” than we used to think. In 1918 a billboard atop the building at the left of the image of Madison Square identified a remedy for indiscretion, but the identification couldn’t be read in 1918’s Geographic text and in texts post-1918 it can’t be understood.
But now that it can’t be understood, it can be read.
As people say, it goes without saying. Artificial intelligence has transported us up Fifth Avenue to a caption. The caption’s lexicon now comprehends the legible words laxative water on a rooftop and legible fashion on women approaching a door. In the fullness of time, the deposit of data saved on a large-format negative in 1918 has matured at last. Its worth is redeemable now. But what, now, can at last mean?
We have been enabled to read 1918, but all we can do now that 1918 is over is to see it: depictionless, without seeing that its label bears a signature. Unsigned, however, is the glare that comes forward behind the Flatiron and reverberates from the wet paving. That you can still experience as people experienced in 1918: communication in a present not bound to a knowable future. The wordless glare in the gutter isn’t a part of the caption because it isn’t captionable. All along, faithfully paralleling the caption from 1918, has been something just above it on the page: something long pre-1918. There in the unchronicled is image uncaptioned, without words to slow the light that comes flowing down the gutters of Fifth Avenue to us.
In 1916, wings could still be translucent. Their delicate black markings were shadows of a metaphor for the term endoskeleton. At each tip, these particular wings also shadowed a purely human term: Germany’s black Iron Cross.
On the record, these wings and this thorax are black and white. One of the black and white men accumulating before the lower wing is wearing the tunic ribbon of the Iron Cross, but in 1916 that too would have been black and white. The other tunics are in various 1916 instars: some accurately following contours of flesh and bone, others shaped by the now dead; all black and white.
But in the white space between two of the human bodies hangs a cross in blue. At the time it was inked onto the Rostock print somebody intended it to refer to one or the other of the bodies, but nobody now can tell which. Separated by a shared white space, the black and white bodies are in the midst of an uninked record. The inked cross suspended in the white looks like what we readers think of as an X, but it is the X in an alphabet that can no longer be read. We receive it now only as a shape combined with a color. The color is the color of a sky no longer perturbable by wing.
Junior citizens, this is an antique calculating device called a slide rule. On its fixed D scale and sliding C scale (click to enlarge) it physically represented multiplication and division by adding or subtracting measured lengths proportional to the values of the terms’ logarithms:
log (ab) = log a + log b
Length proportional to product = sum of lengths measured on scales C and D
In the notation for a base-10 logarithm, the digit to the left of the decimal point is an integral exponent of 10, with (for instance) 2 representing 10 squared, or 100. Likewise, 3 represents 10 cubed, or 1000, and a number larger than 2 but smaller than 3 represents a value between 100 and 1000 such as 500, whose logarithm is 2.69897.
But nothing to the left of the decimal point appears on the slide rule. There, the digit 5 is a right-side value only, understood to represent symbol as such, stripped of any idea of quantity. It may stand for 5 or 500 or 0.0005, but to learn which you’ll have to supply the zeroes yourself, filling them in from mind. Zero’s only domain is mind. It isn’t to be found among the physical symbols of quantity cycling from 1-on-the-left to 1-on-the-right along C and D. Zero doesn’t come to mind through the senses.
But quantity does. It is of the body. On a slide rule you can perceive it through the cursor’s body-warm glass. And see: even when the plenum beyond rule goes empty, what remains to be seen is not nothing.
reveals an idea latent in the idea of the seen. An optic anti-form, shadow shapes unseenness into a law of shadow’s nature and imposes its code moment by moment upon the territories that it has separated from light. The new regime is named dark, and within its boundaries hands can no longer be seen in front of faces. Under dark’s restrictive new law, the clock and its own hands and face have been replaced by an unseen, unthought metaphor.
Seen and thought, then: beakshadow and capacious birdbrain.
Not just the delicate temporary touching down from the air, unknowingly populated skyline, and fingerprint just inside the barrier that margins you off from the dead,
but even the defacing scratches and spots on the record itself. For a brief intermission between oblivions, the ordinary is perceived. A moment too late after that, it is understood to have been extraordinary.
Not much history seems to have survived this remnant. It is a daguerreotype, apparently American, apparently dating from about the 1850s, and that seems to be almost all we know about it now. The Library of Congress’s catalog link at https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/dag/item/2014655145/ notes that the image was acquired in 2014 from a Dennis A. Waters, but Waters
was a commercial dealer, not an archivist. In any case, this isn’t one of the pictures in the Library’s daguerreotype collection that are archivally identified by name and place and date. Almost all that remains to be known about it now is almost all that remains to be seen. It is almost nothing but picture. Almost nobody except a fashion historian or possibly a medical historian could articulate a word about it now. Because all the words that were once spoken over it by the people it depicts have fallen away, it has become an abstract idea of what was once flesh-round and warm to the touch.
Consider a lens, then. It seems to be a portal through which life goes into the past and brakes to a stop.
To record any moment is to make it supreme. When a memory prosthesis (in a cave in the Pyrenees, a finger dipped in soot; on an American lawn during the Edison era, a camera) translates a momentary perception to something that can be referred to in after times, perception’s momentary allotment of time within life comes to an end and it is translated to memory and the immortal dead language of history. You could call the text of such a translation a truth.
Or at least a word: a word that says “Truth” to you about itself. You’re reading it now. It reads itself to you about what you have just seen, and so it reads to you about yourself.