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Amodern 2: Network Archaeology
October 2013

HOLDING ELECTRONIC NETWORKS BY THE WRONG END

Lisa Gitelman

Everything indicates that the book in [its] traditional form is nearing its end.

Walter Benjamin

As early as 1928 Walter Benjamin was imagining an end to books. He was extrapolating from what he perceived as the decline of the scholarly monograph in particular, a form of book that seemed poised to become merely an “outdated mediation between different filing systems.” “Everything that matters” about a monograph, Benjamin realized, tends to reside in the notes of the scholar who wrote it and in the notes of the scholars who study it.1 The book is just a temporary solidity between fluid and ongoing systems of notes. The monograph is an arbitrary and unnecessary stopover, a hiccup, amid the broader system of knowledge production and diffusion within which the human is forever evolved and entangled. Thinking along these lines, one might even imagine a world in which the book finally disappears and everything is notes. Indeed, isn’t that a really powerful way – pace Benjamin – to think of today’s electronic networks and the kinds of authoring we do on and across them? Online everything is notes.2

Even without this lurch toward the present-mindedness of “today’s electronic networks,” notes must be granted their peculiar power. Books are written but notes are taken, even if they are merely jotted down. One is creative, while the other creatively acquires the world, capturing something of its wonder on the page. One is ponderous, even sluggish, and monumental, while the other is fleet, scrappy, and ephemeral by repute. As Benjamin saw so clearly, the latter points as much toward transmission as toward storage functions: Notes are filed away, yes, but information circulates, connections appear, knowledge becomes. Notes are nodal, this would suggest, and – as I will explore here – notes and networks share entwined histories. One might even analogize that network archaeology can look to notes (a massively heterogeneous class, to be sure) the way that archaeology proper looks to potshards. Something like archaeology, that is, network archaeology is an inquiry profiting in part from painstakingly recovered fragments that have fortuitously survived, even as it profits also from the staggering absences toward which those meager fragments direct the imagination.

The title of this little essay is drawn not from Benjamin but rather from Jacob Riis. Danish émigré, photographer, and reformer Riis declared in 1890 that New York City’s “Chinatown has enlisted the telegraph for the dissemination of public intelligence, but it has got hold of the contrivance by the wrong end.” With all of the casual racism of Progressive Era reform, Riis explains, “As the wires serve us in newspaper-making, so the Chinaman makes use of the pole for the same purpose.”3 He took and published a visually uninteresting photograph of the particular pole he called “the official organ of Chinatown,” which was used to disseminate the neighborhood’s gambling news in the form of daily notices posted “by unseen hands.”4 (An engraving based upon the photograph was prepared for publication in Riis’s classic, How the Other Half Lives.) This then is holding electrical networks by the wrong end, and in what follows I want briefly to better Riis by taking him seriously.

This is a picture of the telephone pole on the corner outside my apartment in Jersey City, New Jersey. It stands maybe forty feet from the desk where I type these words, and it has been there for at least the twenty-plus years that I’ve been living on the block, off again and on. It’s there to hold electrical and telephone wires aloft, although now the wooden poles in my neighborhood also carry cable television and the Internet. They hold some of our streetlamps up too, and lately the utility company has been adding south-facing solar panels to some poles, fifteen feet up, in order incrementally to boost its power generation and unabashedly to reap the rewards of various government programs subsidizing renewable energy. What strikes me, though, is all of the hardware at eyelevel, all of the rusted staples and leftover tacks that comprise evidence of a different order of communication, one that will concern me here.

If you discount their dependence on the electrical networks that it supports, people use this pole mostly to post notices about yard and stoop sales in the surrounding area and to seek assistance in locating stray cats and dogs. Within recent memory it has also held notices vaunting candidates for elections, advertising maid services, and soliciting Spanish-literate recruits for the local fire department. Because of these uses, the persons or entities posting notices typically indicate ways they can be reached. They don’t give personal names, but addresses and telephone numbers do related indexical work as pointers, aimed at nameable bodies with Jacob Riis’s “unseen hands.” By contrast it’s impossible to know who rips the notices down after they have served their purpose, become obsolete or annoying, just as it’s impossible to know who – or whether anyone – has taken note and acted upon the information that they convey, although sometimes a fringe cut into the bottom of a notice allows interested parties to rip off a piece of the page and carry away a little reminder: literally, taking note.

The tangled crosshatch of rusted staples testifies to a sort of un-archive, if you will, an onrush of uncollected notes that stands in contrast to the stolid pole. The pole is like a tree, while the pages posted to it – its leaflets – are like transmissions on the wires above; one stands, the other disappears without a trace. But the pole is also like a tree undone: chopped down, shorn of bark and branches, dipped in creosote, and transplanted to a city block, where the occasional street tree grows in counterpoint: a maple or a sycamore, rooted, branching, and un-networked. Indeed, a closer relative than the tree might be the railroad tie or sleeper, since railroad ties hail from the same forests and same creosote, while both share a related genealogy as supporting members within networks of nineteenth-century devising. The recumbent ties and upright poles are the denatured nature, the weathering wooden infra-, which underlies and enables the infrastructures of transportation and communication bequeathed to us by industrialization. And while these very infrastructures have helped to articulate cities, nations, and continents, the staples on my pole publish to a neighborhood eye. The leaflets address a local more local than telephone area codes; they articulate a neighborhood at the scale dreamt by Jane Jacobs, say, rather than the one capitalized by either Craig’s List or Groupon.

The leaflets aren’t as fleeting as electrical transmissions on the wires above, of course, but neither are they meant to last. One revealing contrast to the leaflets might be graffiti, then, since graffiti are inscriptions on the built environment that are meant to endure. Yet in other respects leaflets and graffiti aren’t all that different from one another. Both forms are illicit. Incredibly, Title 81 of the local municipal code – an anti-litter ordinance – makes posting handbills on poles illegal. Each staple represents a violation, since according to the law each leaflet trespasses on private property, on public health (as potential litter), and traffic safety (as potential distraction). These are communications smuggled into public. And here is a corollary to that fact: One thing we know for sure about the people who post notices is that none of them represent the telephone company, the utility company, or cable TV. Just as no one sprays graffiti on property she herself owns – it wouldn’t be graffiti, only spray-painting in that style – so the leaflets are meaningful partly by dint of a distinction between owners and others, between normative, structural and structuring conditions of urban existence and the manifold, DIY tactics of everyday life by which people adapt and respond. Perhaps it’s that contrast that makes images like this one so appealing.

I am hardly the first to notice staples left in poles. There are numerous artists who have been inspired by them and photographers provoked. Search Flickr or Google and multiple examples come up, including a few collections of such things as well as stock photos offered for commercial reuse. Shutterstock.com, for instance, offers a photograph of a pole with staples taken by one Robert Spriggs and tagged as follows: advertising, background, brown, city, crack, culture, fliers, grain, grained, grass, grass-roots, gray, grunge, grungy, hardwood, industry, log, materials, nail, old, paper, pattern, pole, posters, power-pole, removed, ripped, roots, rough, rustic, rusty, scraps, staples, street, structure, surface, telephone, texture, textured, timber, urban, vandalism, vintage, wood, and wooden.5 What is there left to say? The cluster of nouns and adjectives leaves open the power of verbs, perhaps: to nail nails, staple staples, post posters, to note notes.

As a “look” the “gray, grunge, grungy” of images like this must be ascribed to context: urban, but not sanitized by too much redevelopment planning, which would banish utilities to underground or at least replace wooden poles with metal. It should be noted that a similar look in a different context would have a different power. The Kongo people of Central Africa used to create nkondi or nail figures, for example. Dangerous supernatural forces were invoked for individual ends by driving nails one by one into the carved wooden body until it bristled with rusting iron. Elsewhere it was the extraction of nails from wood that signaled power and danger. When Europeans reached Tahiti for the first time in 1767, the crew of H.M.S. Dolphin traded nails for sex until the ship’s Captain Wallis discovered, he notes, that “the ship was in danger of being pulled to pieces for the nails [holding] her together.”6 The Dolphin sailed, having introduced both iron and venereal disease to Polynesia.

This is admittedly wandering a little far from my telephone pole in thinking of the curious visual appeal that pictures of poles like mine seem at present to possess. But I have otherwise been pointing to a set of contrasts that might help to challenge lazy thinking about modern media, both about how media divide into separate, stable, and coherent chunks, a parade of forms – print, telephony, television, the Internet – as well as about the ways that so-called new media are special and new. Students of infrastructure are fond of observing that new infrastructural technologies get built on an already “installed base.” So railroads followed canals, telegraph lines ran along the railroad tracks, and here, smack dab at the heart of one of the world’s most technologically advanced societies, “the Grid” of fame is jerry-built, a hodgepodge of networks attached – one might almost say stapled – on top of one another. My aim is partly to acknowledge stapled leaflets as a tactical form as well as to describe them as contemporary electronic communications. Maybe even some kind of “app,” avant la lettre.

At a certain angle the leaflets look like fresh-air counterparts of the pink “While You Were Out” notes once so ubiquitous in offices before the triumph of voicemail and email. When I worked in an office during the mid 1980s, pads of blank “While You Were Out” notes lay near every phone, at least one on every desk and the special province of receptionists like me. Indeed, telephone messages were the secretarial note form of the modern office that survived the passing of stenography. Maybe that’s why they were pink; that is, coded female. Each telephone message taken worked to triangulate among a caller, a message-taker, and “You”: the you who were “Out” at least ostensibly out there in the world of poles and leaflets. The messages and their feminized takers always stayed indoors. Not so other forms of notes, like field notes or – to stay within Jane Jacobs’s powerful neighborhood optic – little slips of paper of other kinds, which circulate in and out of doors: think of dry cleaning tickets and pawn tickets. These note forms too triangulate, among an owner, a neighborhood service-provider, and an item owned and, as they say, “gently used.” Whereas one’s dry cleaning order used to be scribbled down into a waiting pad making carbon paper duplicates, today’s dry cleaners generate their tickets from databases that identify customers by telephone number. Pawn tickets? I don’t know. Like today’s yard and stoop sales, though, local pawnshops were where you might once have seen into your neighbors’ drawers. The New York Historical Society has a nineteenth-century pawn ledger covering a six-month period. It lists 27,000 transactions: a dizzying torrent of handkerchiefs, petticoats, jewelry, and sundries, all painstakingly noted down and held on account, with corresponding paper tickets issued to be carried out and taken away.7

I started with Walter Benjamin’s vision of books as temporary solidities between note takers, and it’s a vision that appeals, particularly if one wants to denigrate the scholarly monograph. This rare surviving example of a pawn ledger, though, like the “While You Were Out” messages, convinces me that there are other spheres beyond the university where taking note requires our concerted attention. In its very solidity this pawn ledger speaks powerfully of movement – a confusion of mobilities, really – whereby used things (noted), their value (noted), and individual owners (noted) circulate across its pages, through the surrounding neighborhood and beyond. If the dry cleaner up the block from me doesn’t keep a ledger this same way, does that make our transactions any less noted in similar terms? And if the dry cleaner takes note, entering my slacks, my money, and me into a database, aren’t there more sinister, big-time note takers out in force? What, I ask you, have the Shop Rite in Jersey City, the Giant in Westwood, and the Shaws in Porter Square done with all the notes they’ve taken about my purchases, my tastes and whims? I draw your attention to data-driven surveillance as the endgame of all note taking: EZ-Pass notes my movement; Visa my credit; Google my search history; and the NSA, apparently, all of my electronic communications. These surely are “notes” that garner neighborhood yard sale leaflets such appeal by contrast.

In light of big data and GIS, I have even begun to wonder myself how my pole and its staples might be mapped with other poles. Of course one staple doesn’t mean one leaflet, and one tack doesn’t either. (Leaflets were doubtless stapled multiple times, and each tack may have been pulled and pushed into service more than once.) Still, we might design some way to measure and to visualize the amount of information – now missing – that has been in play on leaflets along my block and in the surrounding area. (I think of those medievalists, who guess at the numbers of letters produced at court by tallying up the amounts of sealing wax used.8 ) We would first have to articulate a metric of some sort. Returning to my tree analogy, we might adopt a metric based upon the one that horticulturists use to compare the girth of trees. Their unit is the DBH or diameter at breast height, which so charmingly assumes the varying stature of trees while assuming a common stature among horticulturists. Instead of the diameter we’d have to measure the density of staples and tacks: the density at breast height. Then we’d divide by the age of the pole itself, if we could wrest that information from the power company, which individually numbers its poles so it can locate them for replacement or repair. This way we could start to grasp some of the intensity and flow of information at this lower, more neighborly order of communication, as people post multiple copies of each leaflet, post them at busy corners, and along the pedestrian routes to the commuter rail.

Will Straw, a colleague at McGill University, has analyzed the rhythms by which second-hand commodities move through urban space. Noting the “popular and judicial suspicion” that can attend the appearance of used goods for sale – at pawn shops, for instance, or spread on blankets or tables by sidewalk vendors – Straw observes that the neighborhood yard or stoop sale advertised locally “assuages these suspicions through its proximity” to an individual domicile, the private residence which serves as a presumptive provenance for the goods on offer.9 We assume those used clothes and knick-knacks came from right over here. And this is where my imagined map of staple densities would come in handy, helping to identify the proximal logic of “here,” the sometimes tenuous yet still telling neighborhood scale of contemporary urban life. What is the extent and what the patterns of the local “here” to which the posting of leaflets across time might refer? How does “here-ness” in one locale compare to “here-ness” in another? Jacob Riis assumed that the difference between one “here” and another was ethnic, but I’m guessing a whole host of variables.


  1. Walter Benjamin, “Attested Auditor of Books,” The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, eds. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levine; trans. Edmund Jephcott and Harry Zohn. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008) 171-2. The original is “in this traditional form,” referring to the bible. 

  2. This is a point suggested by Andrew Piper; Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012) 82. 

  3. Jacob A. Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1890) 100, emphasis mine. 

  4. Original image is Image #260, Jacob A. Riis Collection, Museum of the City of New York. Quotes here are from How the Other Half Lives, pp. 94 and 101. 

  5. Robert Spriggs, Image ID 5175256, “background texture of old telephone pole with staples and ripped paper,” www.shuttershock.com, accessed June 2013. 

  6. John Hawkesworth, An Account of Voyages Undertaken by Order of His Present Majesty, 3 vols. (London, 1773) 1:261. 

  7. Wendy A. Woloson, In Hock: Pawning in America from Independence through the Great Depression (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009) 86; see the pawn tickets pictured on p. 103. 

  8. M.T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Backwell, 1993) 58-9. 

  9. Will Straw, “Spectacles of Waste,” Circulation and the City: Essays on Urban Culture, eds. Alexandra Boutros and Will Straw, 193-213 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010) 200. 


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Image: "10,000 B.C. paragraph 8”
From: "Drawings from A Thousand Plateaus"
Original Artist: Marc Ngui
http://amodern.net/artist-profile-marc-ngui/
Copyright: Marc Ngui