Rag and Bone
Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
— WB Yeats, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”
I began this argument with myself, yesterday, by at least implying that while Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” imagines the memex as wielded by a seasoned researcher, our own interweb has both concealed priorities and inexpert users. If anything resembles “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart,” it is what electronic media have become: a jumble of trash and treasures, products and poetry.
The discrepancy between the expert and the newbie emerges clearly in the Introduction (section 1.0) to RFC 1855, a 1995 “netiquette” Intel Network Working Group document written by Sally Hambridge:
In the past, the population of people using the Internet had “grown up” with the Internet, were technically minded, and understood the nature of the transport and the protocols. Today, the community of Internet users includes people who are new to the environment. These “Newbies” are unfamiliar with the culture and don’t need to know about transport and protocols.
RFC 1855’s assumption that newbies don’t need to be techies is valid, but it does raise the question: how much should we know about how the system works? At what point does knowledge become “merely technical?” And if McLuhan was right and the medium is the message, shouldn’t we academics know — and teach — not only how to tell the treasures from the trash but also how the system arranges its wares?
Of course, every “shop” has its keepers, and for the last two decades, just as academics have proclaimed the death of literacy, the ITerati have complained of the Eternal September, the constant influx of the clueless and the mannerless onto their turf. But this NMFS group is our chance to finish griping and start curating, or at least rummaging skillfully and happily.
Rummaging has always been one of my passions; thrift shops, yard sales, used book piles, and so on. “Gomi,” in case anyone was wondering (and if you weren’t, too bad, because I’m about to explain) is Japanese for “litter” or “trash.” Not garbage, which rots, but stuff, kipple, rag and bone (“KimiNo” just means “your,” so: here’s some litter for you). My favorite church thrift shop back East, run by a group of increasingly ancient ladies, closed down last year; I had been going there since I was a kid. Everything about the place gave me the thrill of the hunt, even its musty odor and the dark, splintery-floored storage room where I cautiously retreated to try on clothes. Shabby and quaint, the place nevertheless had a secret: the local upscale shops and upscale ladies dumped their unsold and unworn dressy clothes there, and so among the tat and polyester lurked ten-dollar Donna Karan suits and Talbots coatdresses with tags still on. This is where my professional ladder started, as far as wardrobe goes, but there was more to it than that: there was always the feeling that today would be the day I would find something unexpected and wonderful, because I knew what to look for and how to look it over. I was an expert on gomi.
So I think Yeats has the right metaphor for the occasion: sure, new media are a mess, but all our ladders start in confusion, debris, ignorance. Time to stop complaining and start climbing.