A Little Historical Exploration for Starters


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)

Bibloi Bibloi 2


4 thoughts on “A Little Historical Exploration for Starters

  1. Chris Forster

    The case of bibliotics nicely shows the link mentioned briefly in class last time between questions occasioned by “digital humanities” and bibliography. Surely, Frazer’s bibliotics would fit quite comfortably under that rubric.

    I think you’re right to suggest that this sort of attention to materiality echoes throughout Kirschenbaum’s attention to digital materiality; in addition to what links Frazer’s bibliotics to our Kirschenbaum’s forensics, and to the larger questions of textuality and data, I wonder about what separates Frazer from us. Is there anything historically specific to his attempt to example the materiality of textual objects? What aspects of textual materiality are salient to Frazer which are *not* to us; and what “materialities” might we notice that Frazer doesn’t?

    One such (forensic) instance would be stylometry (of the authorship attribution variety mentioned last class). Attention to style may not be “material” in one sense, but in another it reduces the signifying function of language to a mere series of meaningless tokens, available for statistical comparison. What makes that a live question for us (but not Frazer) is the affordance offered by the computer, which makes that sort of rote counting tractable.

    I suppose what I’m wondering is, to what extent is an appeal to materiality bound by historicity?

  2. Pingback: Blog Round Up 1: Bibliotics, Verve, Hypertext, and Aura | "Digital Humanities": Emerging Tools and Debates in Literary Study

  3. jkappes

    I took your advice, Adam, and looked over the part of Washington’s signature. I wonder here, about the relationship between the forensic authenticity and aura. Both Latour and the Kirschenbaum push this issue but I wanted to draw attention to the in between stage of aura and forensic, the aura of the forensic. As can be attested by the many medical and criminal forensic television shows, there is a certain mystifying-demystifying aura to the forensic process in itself–the hunt for authenticity leaves certain traces that themselves seem remarkable. Examining plate XI on p.122, I note the certain beauty in Washington’s layered signatures. Here and then again on plate XII on p.126, the objects themselves contain a fascinating uniqueness; both in the imprecision of “originality” (one must compile several originals to have a range of “the original”) and in the immediate comparison to the forgery.

    Latour posits the phenomena of the aura and “the original” ought to be accounted for not by delineating one special privileged version, but instead by looking at “the whole assemblage of one–or several–original(s) together with its continually rewritten biography” (278). In the forensic artifacts, we have this assemblage made literal and local. Forensics stylistic comparison, as Chris notes, does seem to reduce the, “the signifying function of language to a mere series of meaningless tokens, available for statistical comparison.” These composite documents, however, seem to be both tools of stylistic comparison (reductionist) and, at the same time, synergistic (FECUNDITY!) in that it makes new meaning for out sensorial interface as well as intellectual.

    Specifically, examining the layered signatures of Washington against the immitation, Frazer writes, “[t]he signature affords a further example of the tremor of fraud,–i.e. that tremor and uncertainty which result from the pen over the paper…” (126). But the composite originals contain a similar tremor in their originality, the composite originals are to be treated as a single original in measurement, though these composites are “not usually found to be so traceable” (128). Tremor of originality, then, warrants the same attention as the tremor of fraud.

  4. Jordan Wood

    I like the work you’re doing here to expand the notion of texts from the nineteenth century. I wonder if you would not also enjoy reading some of Espen Aarseth’s work that Kirschenbaum mentions. In Aarseth’s Cybertext, we find the notion of pre-computational digital texts that Aarseth’s calls ergodic literature. Bibliotics explodes the definition of text in order to include various medial material in the rubric of semiotic content. The result, as you point out, is a potentially fruitful access point for bringing nineteenth century textual discourse into contact with digital textual production.

    Aarseth’s ergodic texts also bring the digital to the pre-computational, but it does so by examining the effort that the user (reader) must expend in order to “traverse” the text. I Ching and Choose Your Own Adventure are both digital in the sense that they require the “non trivial” action of the user/reader to assimilate their semantic content. The similarities between these pre-computational textual interactions and the present day’s commonplace user interface interactivity might be another interesting intersection for your exploration of digital pre(?)cursors in the nineteenth century.


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