Thursday, 22 January 2015

The word 'Document' according to Richard Chenevix Trench

Philip Harvey

DOCUMENT. Now used only of the material, and not, as once, of the moral proof, evidence, or means of instruction.

They were forthwith stoned to death, as a document unto others.
            Sir W. Raleigh, History of the World.
Utterly to extirpate all trust in riches, where they abound, is only possible to the Omnipotent Power, and a rare document of divine mercy.
            Jackson, Justifying Faith.

A Select Glossary of English Words Used Formerly in Senses Different from their Present, by Richard Chenevix Trench, Dean of Westminster. 2nd ed., revised and improved. London, John W. Parker, 1859, page 62.

Dean Trench’s little books of word studies were one of the inspirations for the foundation of the Oxford English Dictionary. Trench devised a way of talking about words that became the model and benchmark of the descriptive method of definition in the OED: precise and concise definition, apposite quotation based on known usages and preferably the earliest provable usages. To write a Glossary like Trench’s you had to have both an extraordinary depth of reading in English writing of all kinds coupled with a very retentive memory. He was a Victorian Johnson.

Trench’s own purpose was not to make a dictionary but to indulge, one could say, in a favourite pastime, the fascinating study of how, but more especially why, words change meaning over time. His analysis of ‘document’ plunges us straight into the Victorian world of high-minded intellectual pursuit, done for no better reason than its own sake and the furtherance of generally agreed knowledge. We would have to reach for his biography, if it exists, to find out the method in his method, which is still in the nature of scientific amateurism. It took someone like Sir James Murray to turn such wayward literary behaviour into a professional practice of world standard. Trench did it because it was what came naturally.

The 1859 update on ‘document’ is perhaps not as final as it first sounds. Even in our own time, while we do not use the word as a noun meaning ‘moral proof’, it still often carries the weight of moral meaning. When lawyers reach for the documents they are seen as not only getting the material evidence for the court; it is expected that that evidence has a binding moral credibility. We do not expect a lawyer to place false evidence before the court, only evidence that may be relevant to the case, and therefore true, at least on face value.

Examples in the subsequent OED tell us though that ‘document’ had shifted appreciably in meaning by the age of Dean Trench. When Paul Bunyan trusts “That they might be documented in all good and wholesome things,” we do not instantly appreciate that he means that the people in question may be “instructed or admonished authoritatively”; nor when John Dryden admits “I am finely documented by my own daughter” that she has rebuked him or opened his eyes to his own foolishness on some matter.

It is but a century or so from the standardisation of ‘document’ as the material evidence or means of instruction, for ‘document’ to have become not just formally the record or official paper of evidence, but for it to mean almost any kind of written item whatsoever. Or not even written, now that digital has overwhelmed our patterns of printed exchange. A similar fate has overtaken the use of that other word of ancient lineage, ‘text’, as well.

The good Dean would no doubt have absorbed with sang froid the new use of the word ‘document’, being of a nature to appreciate the vicissitudes of English language change. We have grown so used to a document being almost anything of record in any material media that it is still helpful to ponder the definition in the dictionary

‘A document is a type of file that has been created or saved by an application. For example, a text file saved with Microsoft Word is a document, while a system library, such as a DLL file, is not. Examples of documents include word processing files, spreadsheets, presentations, audio files, video files, and saved media projects.

‘Each document has a filename, which identifies the file. It also includes an icon, which visually identifies the program associated with the file. In most cases, the document icon is generated by the program that created the document. When you double-click a document icon, it will open in the corresponding application.’

We are almost at the stage of saying a ‘document’ is whatever the carrier carries and whatever the load can take. It may seem all very specific to computers and online communication, when in fact it is the universality and commonality of these daily utilities that drives the use of the word. As Trench may have said. Indeed, ‘document’ has almost come to be whatever circumscribed item of information, in any form, we care to call a document. It almost enjoys the status of that ‘thing’ in common parlance, whatever material the text or other length of information happens to have been put upon.

Its moral proof has vanished. A document may contain words of witness the very opposite of anything we judge as morally meaningful. Even its material evidence is hard to ascertain with the naked eye, hovering in the netherworld of the hard drive or database, there to disappear by Monday morning.

No doubt Richard Chenevix Trench would have gone for a long walk around London or Dublin in order to sort this new definition in his head, or perhaps have discussed the matter with his wife over a cup of tea, or both.

And so I humbly submit this document on ‘document’ for your consideration. If you regard the author as a “rare document” in the Elizabethan sense, then that is as may be, there at the other end of a mileage of cords and satellites. 

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Marshall McLuhan and the Microcard


“It is perhaps characteristic of many areas of human interest that whenever a new technology appears it should act as a mirror for the preceding technologies. In this century electric memories have introduced an entirely new skill into the storing and retrieving of information. By microcard it is now possible to have the contents of all the libraries of the world on one desk top.”

Marshall McLuhan was a curious Canadian with a sizable appetite for communication theory and a peculiar propensity for making outlandish prophecies. Here are the opening sentences of his review of Frances Yates’ book ‘The Art of Memory’, as found today on page 61 of the March 1967 issue of ‘Encounter’, that erudite London journal of literature and politics. Her book details how ancients and moderns invented memory systems. She considers such things as the medieval cathedrals that told the mythic story of its society in glass windows, and Dante, whose long poem is a mnemonic warning about how the things you do now will have consequences later. ‘The Art of Memory’ is a classic of its kind and belongs in any theological library.

But what is a microcard? Webster says it is “a sensitized card approximately 3 in. × 5 in. on which printed matter is reproduced photographically in greatly reduced form”, first used in 1944. This definition alone reduces McLuhan’s claim to a reductio ad absurdum. Everybody knows you cannot have the contents of all the libraries of the world on one desk top, even in 2015, let alone on microcards in 1967. So what is he talking about?

It is as though that visionary part of his mind was eager to see something that reality had not yet caught up with. Reality certainly wasn’t about to prove him right about the full potential of a microcard. It seems McLuhan wished to see the future as a place where the contents of all the libraries of the world were available at his elbow and that it only took a small leap of faith, and illogic, to believe it so. How he read these microcards is not explained, as he then launched forth on an analysis of the communication past, as explained by Frances Yates.

Perhaps he was a prophet of the world wide web, even though the technology was not yet in place to make that happen. His interest in ‘electric memories’ is one that anyone dealing with a computer today recognises, indeed must adapt to, for we now have to live with not just our own personal memories, of various standards of fleshly excellence, but with all of those billions of electric memories pushing in upon us each time we google.

It is doubtful if there will ever be time when it is possible “to have the contents of all the libraries of the world on one desk top.” The web is one big library and library holdings are now available on screen from all over the planet, but it has to be asked if we even want to have the contents of all the libraries of the world there for us to access. It is not only an impossible dream but a nightmare from which we would wish to awake. It is disconcerting to consider McLuhan’s fantasy about the technological future, now that we live in that future. The truth, as so often, is not just the truth, but otherwise than the truth. I must jot that down on a microcard. For future reference.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Liner Notes to ‘Incunabular’ by Les Murray

 Philip Harvey
 The poem is available online but cannot be copied, so this is a scan. The scan is of a recognisable font, that used for The New Yorker, where the poem first appeared. Did Les Murray read incunabula in the Fisher Library in Sydney? It seems unlikely, but who knows, maybe the librarians permitted students to read the fifteenth century imprints in Rare Books. Later in the poem Murray talks about open shelves, suggesting his main occupation was working through books from the General Collection. The poem describes the poet’s life at university, many years ago. It contains some of the classic traits of a Murray poem: minute descriptions of surfaces and sounds, compaction of surprise words into short spaces, self-reference coupled with definitive statements. It is a subject he returns to frequently in his life: the re-creation of buildings in words, with all that they may mean at the private and public level. We encounter early his defiant assertion of being ‘bush folk’ who are somehow judged to lack the culture that libraries contain. How Murray arrives at these uncomfortable conclusions is best left to our imaginations, but from the start we sense that the poem itself is written to right some perceived wrong: the poet is out to prove something to the world. The word ‘point’ is active, so that his life was pointing towards books and libraries from an early age, then when he’s there he comes before the points made by power, only to notice in books the points power did not make. Murray carries his own stuff that he’s not going let on about too early. He neatly uses bush images to evoke the library and its contents: the roof was like a “steep tent” and sometimes the book contents brought little return, “few grapes for many rows.” He might be a bit of an outsider, but here he instantly feels like an insider: the Library is home away from home. The male-female dichotomy is on show, where by contrast with the mysterious feminine of the library, its “stiletto heels clacking” and “lipsticked gargoyle”, the university owns the “phallic they were going to be marked by.” Although we can afford to be amused by this pronounced contrast, it also betrays an anxious identification with these places. University students have some growing up to do. The gorgeous triad “vogue, value, theory” offers the librarians a new classification scheme, though exactly where a cataloguer determines to put each book, whether in Vogue, Value, or Theory, is never elucidated by the poet.  It’s why we have cataloguers. We imagine young Murray being most drawn to the Value section of the Fisher Library. Verse Seven is the overt dream verse of this Murray poem, he loves dream in a poem, where the dreamscape quality of any large library comes into play. The concept of there being “floors below reality” clearly appeals, as does the prospect of “philologies with pages still uncut”. Any lover of words stares drooling, or at least in awe, at the idea of words and their meanings still to be unlocked, words forgotten waiting to be rediscovered: Les Murray is the kid in the lolly shop. The puns on the word ‘rut’ are irrefutable. While the student is digging deep into new knowledge (rut) and even getting off with the thought of so much great material to enjoy (rutting), he also intimates that such a place could become somewhere where he gets stuck and cannot escape, if he’s not careful (in a rut). Libraries can be like that, but they are not unique, by any means. The conclusion describes wittily the concerns of older library users when faced with the digital revolution and its discontents, even its lack of content. His nostalgia is premature, we could argue, while libraries continue to make the books and their access a main priority. The poet would be heartened to know that today (2015) surveys in America show that it is people under 35 who want book libraries and search them out, one reason being they already have the digital stuff in their hand, like an old hat. A Silicon Valley baseball cap, perhaps. The final line is a piece of Murray cross-referencing. When interviewed by Clive James on TV years ago, Murray proclaimed that sitting in libraries reading was his “surf”. This is a clean joke that possibly only an Australian could fully appreciate, living in a country where surfing is one pastime many of us do because it brings the greatest free pleasure for the longest time. Surfers ride the waves all day, free of care, while the poet in his library does the same with his reading. The poet knows he doesn’t own the Fisher Library either, it is “endowed” by the Fisher King, free for his perpetual use, just as surfers know they don’t own the ocean. That’s the joke, man!