I come to this photograph of a Gettysburg veteran by way of a parenthetical notation in Matt Kirchenbaum’s Mechanisms, New Media, and the Forensic Imagination (2008). In his chapter on computer forensics, Kirchenbaum explores the histories both of data storage and of reading practices that aspire to detective functions – alongside an analysis of data in terms of permanence and the attendant debates (exigent, as the author points out, in the early nineteen nineties and even earlier), the chapter arrives at computer forensics by considering the long history of examining documents for clues to criminality. Significant enough to deserve an aside is Persifor Frazer, the pictured military intellectual and the kick-off point for my blog on the digital nineteenth century (more information on the blog later – Persifor Frazer demands the attention of this first post).
Kirchenbaum’s engagement with Frazer is brief, but it pays a bit of homage to a scientist whose work with the recognition and analysis of handwriting makes him relevant to both the developing detective genre of fiction and the rise of disciplinary structures that sought to surveil the darkest corners of the decaying metropolis. Kirchenbaum footnotes his mention of Frazer with a reference to Sherlock Holmes; the Encyclopedia Sherlockiana (1979) lists nine Sherlock Holmes stories and novels in which the careful examination of handwriting yields clues as to murderous identity. Doyle doubtless was aware of Frazer’s Bibliotics: or The Study of Documents; Determination of the Individual Character of Handwriting and Detection of Fraud and Forgery (1894) – in fact I surmise that some research might yield a direct reference by Doyle to this text. Bibliotics likewise impacted the legal community, and Frazer was called as an expert witness at celebrated turn-of-the-century murder cases, the most famous among which being Brooklyn’s Molineux case of 1901. It is the coincidence of literary, legal, and scientific innovation that makes Frazer such a fascinating figure to an interdisciplinary nineteenth centuryist, or more broadly to any scholar of reading practices. Frazer’s book articulates a way of interacting with text that may seem brutal or uselessly exhaustive, but which actually has a great deal in common with the styles of reading encouraged by a twenty-first century graduate-level education in English literature and criticism.
In an introductory note, Frazer explains his self-originated term, ‘Bibliotics’ (he was a scientist! Nowadays, only literary critics can come up with words like that): “I have suggested ‘Bibliotics’ as its name, because Βιβλίο (book, sheet, scroll, libel at law, etc. according to the best authorities) is broad enough to apply to any object which it may be desired to investigate, such as parchment, wax tablets, papyrus, printing paper, stone, or, in fine, any substance capable of receiving and retaining characters. It will include hieroglyphics, writing, printing, or designs of any kind intended to impart specific information by symbols, in contradistinction to the general impressions conveyed by art designs.” I could stop now, but it gets hotter: “It will include also all the materials used to make tracings, such as paint, inks, and other coloring matters. In a word, Bibliotics could include the study of all the materials used in making designs for the transmission of intelligence, as well as the individual character exhibited in the designs themselves; and through it distinct from art conceptions, from literary or historical criticism of the intelligence conveyed, and from accurate chemical investigation into the nature of bodies, yet it accepts and needs the aid of all three of these studies in obtaining its results.” In a sense, we’re dealing with an early mandate for attention to a kind of inter, extra, meta (and maybe even hyper) –textually. Adding a nineteenth century voice to the ‘is literature data?’ debate, Bibliotics expands the concept of ‘text’ and by locating the technical aspects of writing as evidence.
Below you’ll find my list of references including links to a wonderful UPenn archive on members of the Frazer family along with a link to the e-book version of Frazer’s 1894 text (if you check this one out, be sure to glance at his analysis of George Washington’s signature; also, the appendices include a piece written by a medical doctor and another written by a judge).
http://www.archives.upenn.edu/faids/upt/upt50/frazerfam.html (If you’re from the archive an you object to my reproduction of the photograph above, please let me know and I will take it down)
(these are just two of many online editions of this book – this multiplicity is occasioned by the number of editions and corrections with differently worded introductions & prefaces – I have attached images below of the pages from which I derive the above quotes to avoid confusion)