- Agrippa (a book of the dead)
name = Agrippa (a book of the dead)
publisher = Kevin Begos Jr.
pub_date = 1992
"Agrippa (a book of the dead)" is a
work of artcreated by speculative fictionnovelist William Gibson, artist Dennis Ashbaughand publisher Kevin Begos Jr. in 1992.cite news |first=Gerald |last=Jonas |title= The Disappearing $2,000 Book |url=http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F0CE3DE1030F93AA1575BC0A965958260 |work= The New York Times|publisher= The New York Times Company|date=August 29, 1993 |accessdate=2008-07-30 ] The work consists of a 300-line semi-autobiographical electronic poemby Gibson, embedded in an artist's bookby Ashbaugh. Gibson's text focused on the ethereal nature of memories(the title is taken from a photo album). Its principal notoriety arose from the fact that the poem, stored on a 3.5" floppy disk, was programmed to erase itself after a single use; similarly, the pages of the artist's book were treated with photosensitive chemicals, effecting the gradual fading of the words and images from the book's first exposure to light.cite journal | last = Kirschenbaum |first = Matthew G. | editor = Burns, Edward | journal = Text: an Interdisciplinary Annual of Textual Studies | vol= 14 | publisher = University of Michigan Press | location = Ann Arbor | year = 2002 | isbn = 0472112724 | title=Textual Studies and First Generation Electronic Objects |pages=p.15–16]
Origin and concept
The impetus for the initiation of the project was Kevin Begos Jr., a publisher of museum-quality manuscripts motivated by disregard for the
commercialismof the art world, [cite book | last = Barber | first = John | title = New Worlds, New Words | publisher = Hampton Press | location = Cresskill | year = 2001 | isbn = 1572733330 |pages=p.176] who suggested to abstract painter Dennis Ashbaughthat they "put out an art book on computer that vanishes".cite book | last = Schwenger | first =Peter |editor= Dellamora, Richard | title = Postmodern Apocalypse | chapter="Agrippa", or, The Apocalyptic Book |publisher = University of Pennsylvania Press | location = Philadelphia | year = 1995 | isbn = 0812215583 |pages=p.277–278] Ashbaugh—who despite his "heavy art-world resume" was bored with the abstract impressionist paintings he was doing—took the suggestion seriously, and developed it further.cite journal |journal= |url=http://www.textfiles.com/sf/cyberlit.txt |title=Cyber Lit |year=1992 |month=June |first=Gavin |last=Edwards |issue=134 |accessdate=2008-09-29] cite book | last = Schwenger | first =Peter |editor= Dellamora, Richard | title = Postmodern Apocalypse | chapter="Agrippa", or, The Apocalyptic Book |publisher = University of Pennsylvania Press | location = Philadelphia | year = 1995 | isbn = 0812215583 |pages=p.277–278] Gibson, whose science fictionAshbaugh had admired before they had ever met, was recruited shortly thereafter.
Gibson stated that Ashbaugh's design "eventually included a supposedly self-devouring floppy-disk intended to display the text only once, then eat itself." [cite web|url= http://www.williamgibsonbooks.com/source/source.asp |title=Introduction to Agrippa: A Book of the Dead |last=Gibson |first=William |work=WilliamGibsonBooks.com |year=1992 |accessdate=2007-11-11] Ashbaugh was gleeful at the dilemma this would pose to
librarians: in order to register the copyright of the book, he had to send two copies to the United States Library of Congress, who, in order to classify it had to read it, and to read it, necessarily had to destroy it. The creators had initially intended to infect the disks with a computer virus, but declined to after considering the potential damage to the computer systems of innocents.
Release and replication
The work was premièred on December 9, 1992 at
The Kitchen, an art space in Greenwich Village, New York City.cite journal|title=Art collection. |journal=International Contemporary Art |date=June 22, 2003|quote=Prior to the publication of "Count Zero", Gibson did a performance along these lines with the artist Dennis Ashbaugh in New York City at The Kitchen. Simulcast to several other cities, the performance, called Agrippa--A Book of the Dead (1992), consisted of the public reading of a text that had been inscribed onto a sculptural magnetic disk. Vacuum-sealed until the beginning of the performance, the disk was programmed to erase itself upon exposure to the air. Words disappeared as soon as they were spoken.] The performance—known as "The Transmission"—consisted of the public reading of the poem by illusionist Penn Jillette, recorded and simultaneously transmitted to several other cities. [cite web|url=http://agrippa.english.ucsb.edu/post/documents-subcategories/the-transmission/reagrippa |accessdate=2008-10-10 |title=Re:Agrippa (Experimental Video of Dec. 9, 1992, ‘Transmission’ of Agrippa) (1993)|work=The Agrippa Files |publisher= University of Santa Barbara, California] The poem was inscribed on a sculptural magnetic disk which had been vacuum-sealed until the event's commencement, and was programmed to erase itself upon exposure to air. Contrary to numerous colourful reports,cite book |author= Moschovitis Group | editor = Laura Lambert, Chris Woodford, Hilary W. Poole, Christos J.P. Moschovitis | title = The Internet: A Historical Encyclopedia | publisher = ABC-CLIO | location = Santa Barbara | year = 2005 | isbn = 1851096590 |pages=p.13 |chapter=William Gibson (1948–)] neither this disk nor the diskettes embedded in the artist's book were ever actually "hacked". Instead the performance was surreptitiously recorded on videotape, from which the poem was manually transcribed. This pirated text was released on the MindVoxBBS the next day and then circulated widely on the Internet. Since Gibson did not use fax machine.
Content and editions
The book was published in 1992 in two
limited editions—Deluxe and Small—by Kevin Begos Jr. Publishing, New York City. The deluxe edition came in a 16-by-21 1/2-inch metal mesh case sheathed in Kevlar(a polymer used to make bulletproof vests) and designed to look like a buried relic. Inside is a book of 93 ragged and charred pages sewn by hand and bound in stained and singed linen by Karl Foulkes; the book gives the impression of having survived a fire; it was described by Peter Schwenger as "a black boxrecovered from some unspecified disaster." The edition includes pages of DNA sequences set in double columns of 42 lines each like the Gutenberg Bible, and copperplateaquatint etchings by Ashbaugh editioned by Peter Pettingill on Fabriano Tiepolo paper. [cite book | last = Rosenheim | first = Shawn | title = The Cryptographic Imagination | publisher = Johns Hopkins University Press | location = Baltimore | year = 1997 | isbn = 0801853311 |pages=p.250]
The deluxe edition was set in
Monotype Gill Sansat Golgonooza Letter Foundry, and printed on Rives heavyweight text by Begos Jr. and the Sun Hill Press.cite web| url=http://www.centerforbookarts.org/archive/workdetail.asp?workID=747 |title= AGRIPPA: (a book of the dead) |work=Center for Book Arts |accessdate=2008-08-03] The final 60 pages of the book were then fused together, with a hollowed-out section cut into the centre, containing the self-erasing diskette on which the text of Gibson's poem was encrypted. The encryption was the work of a pseudonymous computer programmer, "BRASH", assisted by Electronic Frontier Foundationfounders John Perry Barlowand John Gilmore. The deluxe edition was originally priced at US$1500 (later $2000), and each copy is partly unique because of handmade or hand-finished elements.
The small edition was sold for $450; like the deluxe edition, it was set in Monotype
Gill Sans, but in single columns. It was printed on Mohawk Superfine text by the Sun Hill Press. with the reproduction of the etchings printed on a Canon laser printer. The edition was then Smythe sewn at Spectrum Bindery and enclosed in a clamshellbox. A bronze-boxed collectors' copy was also released, and retailed at $7,500.cite journal |last=Lindberg |first=Kathryne V. |year= |month= |title=Prosthetic Mnemonics and Prophylactic Politics: William Gibson among the Subjectivity Mechanisms |journal=boundary 2 |volume=23 |issue=2 |pages=44–83 |url=http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0190-3659%28199622%2923%3A2%3C47%3APMAPPW%3E2.0.CO%3B2-4 |accessdate= 2007-09-09 ]
Fewer than 95 deluxe editions of "Agrippa" are extant, although the exact number is unknown and is the source of considerable mystery.cite web |url=http://agrippa.english.ucsb.edu/category/the-book-subcategories/deluxe-edition/ |title=Deluxe Edition |accessdate=2008-08-05 |work=The Agrippa Files |publisher=
University of California, Santa Barbara] The Victoria and Albert Museumpossesses a deluxe edition, numbered 4 of 10. A publicly accessible copy of the deluxe edition is available at the Rare Books Division of the New York Public Library, while the Frances Mulhall Achilles Library at the Western Michigan Universityhosts a promotional prospectus.cite web |last=Hodge |first=James J. |url=http://agrippa.english.ucsb.edu/hodge-james-bibliographic-description-of-agrippa-commissioned-for-the-agrippa-files/ |title=Bibliographic Description of Agrippa |accessdate=2008-08-05 |work=The Agrippa Files |publisher= University of Santa Barbara, California] The book was exhibited in the 2003-2004 exhibition " Ninety from the Nineties" at the New York Public Library.
The construction of the book and the subject matter of the poem within it share a metaphorical connection in the decay of memory. [cite news |first=Adrian |last=Dannatt |authorlink=Adrian Dannatt |title=The book that ate itself |work=
The Independent|publisher= Independent News & Media|date=December 19, 1992 |accessdate=2008-08-03 ] In this light, critic Peter Schwenger asserts that "Agrippa" can be understood as organized by two ideas: the death of Gibson's father, and the disappearance or absence of the book itself.cite book | last = Johnston | first = John | title = Information Multiplicity | publisher = Johns Hopkins University Press | location = Baltimore | year = 1998 | isbn = 0801857058 |pages=p.255] In this sense, it instantiates the ephemeral nature of all text. [cite book | last = Walker | first = Janice | title = The Columbia Guide to Online Style | publisher = Columbia University Press | location = New York | year = 1998 | isbn = 0231107889 |pages=p. 187 ]
Theme and form
The poem is a detailed description of several objects, including a photo album and the camera that took the pictures in it, and is essentially about the nostalgia that the speaker, presumably Gibson himself, feels towards the details of his family's history: the painstaking descriptions of the houses they lived in, the cars they drove, and even their pets.In its original form, the text of the poem was supposed to fade from the page and, in Gibson's own words, "eat itself" off of the diskette enclosed with the book. The reader would, then, be left with only the memory of the text, much like the speaker is left with only the memory of his home town and his family after moving to
Canadafrom South Carolina, in the course of the poem (as Gibson himself did during the Vietnam War).cite video |people= Mark Neale(director), William Gibson (subject) |title= No Maps for These Territories|publisher=Docurama |medium=Documentary |year2 =2000]
The poem contains a motif of "the mechanism", described as "Forever / Dividing that from this", ["Agrippa", Pt II, L 4-5] and which can take the form of the camera or of the ancient gun that misfires in the speaker's hands.Marcus (2004), p.802] Marcus (2004), p.794] Technology, "the mechanism", is the agent of memory, which transforms subjective experience into allegedly objective records (photography). It is also the agent of life and death, one moment dispensing lethal bullets, but also likened to the life-giving qualities of
sex. Shooting the gun is " [l] ike the first time you put your mouth / on a woman". ["Agrippa", Pt II, L 41-42]
The poem is, then, not merely about memory, but how memories are formed from subjective experience, and how those memories compare to mechanically-reproduced recordings. In the poem, "the mechanism" is strongly associated with
recording, which can replace subjective experience. Insomuch as memories constitute our identities, "the mechanism" thus represents the destruction of the self via recordings. Hence both cameras, as devices of recording, and guns, as instruments of destruction, are part of the same mechanism—dividing "that" (memory, identity, life) from "this" (recordings, anonymity, death).
Critical reception and influence
"Agrippa" was extremely influential—as a sigil for the artistic community to appreciate the potential of electronic media—for the extent to which it entered public consciousness.cite book | last = Abbott | first = Chris | title = Information Communications Technology | publisher = Routledge/Falmer | location = New York | year = 2001 | isbn = 0750709510 |pages=p.91 ] It caused a fierce controversy in the art world, among museums and among libraries.cite news |last=Killheffer |first=Robert |date=September 6 1993 |title="Publishers Weekly" Interviews — William Gibson. |work=
Publishers Weekly|publisher= Reed Business Information|url=http://agrippa.english.ucsb.edu/post/bibliography-subcategories/interviews/killheffer-robert-%E2%80%9Cpublishers-weekly-interviews-%E2%80%94-william-gibson%E2%80%9D |accessdate=2008-08-05 ] It challenged established notions of permanence of art and literature, and, as Ashbaugh intended, raised significant problems for archivists seeking to preserve it for the benefit of future generations. "Agrippa" was particularly well-received by critics,cite book
last = Liu
first = Alan
title = The laws of cool : knowledge work and the culture of information
University of Chicago Press
isbn = 0226486982
oclc = 53823956
pages = pp. 339–48] with
digital mediatheorist Peter Lunenfelddescribing it in 2001 as "one of the most evocative hypertexts published in the 1990s".cite book | last = Lunenfeld | first = Peter | title = Snap to Grid |authorlink=Peter Lunenfeld | publisher = MIT| location = Cambridge | year = 2001 | isbn = 0262621584 |pages=p.46] Professor of English literatureJohn Johnson has claimed that the importance of "Agrippa" stems not only from its "foregrounding of mediality in an assemblage of texts", but also from the fact that "media in this work are explicitly as passageways to the realm of the dead". [cite book | last = Johnston | first = John | title = Information Multiplicity | publisher = Johns Hopkins University Press | location = Baltimore | year = 1998 | isbn = 0801857058 |pages=p.255 |quote=What makes Agrippa important, then, is not only its foregrounding of mediality in an assemblage of texts but also that media in this work are explicitly as passageways to the realm of the dead.] "The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century English Literature", which described the poem as "a mournful text", praised "Agrippa"'s inventive use of digital format.
last = Kirschenbaum
first = Matthew G.
title = Mechanisms : new media and the forensic imagination
origyear = 2008
edition = 2
isbn = 9780262113113
oclc = 79256819
accessdate = 2007-11-11
chapter = Hacking 'Agrippa': The Source of the Online Text.
chapterurl = http://agrippa.english.ucsb.edu/kirschenbaum-matthew-g-hacking-agrippa-the-source-of-the-online-text/
*Ashbaugh, Dennis and Gibson, William. " [http://www.jstor.org/stable/777636 Dennis Ashbaugh and William Gibson] ". "Art Journal", Vol. 52, No. 4, Interactions between Artists and Writers (Winter, 1993), pp. 79-79. College Art Association.
*cite book | last = Marcus | first = Laura | title = The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century English Literature | publisher =
Cambridge University Press| location = Cambridge | year = 2004 | isbn = 0521820774
* [http://www.williamgibsonbooks.com/source/agrippa.asp Agrippa (a book of the dead)] at WilliamGibsonBooks.com
* [http://agrippa.english.ucsb.edu/ The Agrippa Files] – an online homage to, and archive of, the book's many forms by the
University of California, Santa BarbaraEnglish department
Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.
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