“We think about this as a studio apartment,” says one member of a couple living in a single-room occupancy. In better days the unit was a motel room. To see it as a studio apartment is a triumph of imagination and will, as the speaker is fully aware. “We have to,” she continues, “’cause if we continue to realize where we’re at in life, we would spiral into a massive depression. And the housekeeping we do would not get done …. I call it home and I cry on the thought of losing it ’cause this is all I have.”
Christopher P. Dum, an assistant professor of sociology at Kent State University, is careful to protect the identities of the ethnographic subjects he spoke to in researching Exiled in America: Life on the Margins in a Residential Hotel (Columbia University Press). In exchange he has been given access to some extraordinarily precarious and fragile domestic spaces -- dwellings that will seem to most readers just slightly more stable than a homeless shelter or living out of your car. But that is, by Dum’s reckoning, a blinkered view. The squalor is real and inescapable; what’s harder to see from a distance is the residents’ effort to find, or create, some kind of order in seriously damaged lives.
The author lived at the hotel he calls the Boardwalk for a year as fieldwork for his dissertation, gradually overcoming the residents’ (understandable) suspicion that he worked for law enforcement and intriguing some with the prospect of having their stories told. The hotel originally drew Dum’s attention while he was investigating the difficulties of registered sex offenders in finding housing. (In the public mind, “registered sex offender” has come to mean pedophile, although the label applies equally to those convicted of exhibitionism, soliciting prostitutes or even, believe it or not, public urination.)
Also staying at the Boardwalk during the author’s stay were recently released ex-prisoners and people with a range of mental-health issues, physical disabilities or substance-abuse problems, often in combination. It sounds like a population guaranteed to create even greater chaos than the sum of its dysfunctions. What Dum found instead is an emergent and fragile community of what he characterizes as “social refugees … impelled to relocate within their own country of citizenship because of the influence of social context and/or social policy.”
From studies of migration he adopts the notion of push and pull factors to discuss the two strong forces shaping life at the hotel. One is the overwhelming power of stigma: the area’s largely middle-class public “viewed motel residents as belonging to one or several devalued groups,” with the sex offenders among them being especially contaminating and marginalizing. Driving past the Boardwalk and yelling that its inhabitants were child molesters seems to have been a local pastime.
Membership in stigmatized groups pushed residents away from mainstream society and toward the Boardwalk, which in turn pulled them to its “sustaining habitat” -- a term from urban sociology akin to the real-estate mantra “location, location, location.” Boardwalk residents had ready access to bus stops, cheap food, a Laundromat and other “opportunit[ies] to engage in the same type of consumer relations that characterized the lives of their [better-off] detractors.” There also seems to have been some comfort in knowing that their landlord owned another nearby property called Park Place. (I’d guess that the real names of these motels were just as overblown as their Monopoly stand-ins.) Park Place was cheaper, in more serious disrepair and had a reputation for violence among the tenants. “They start drinking Milwaukee’s Best in the morning,” one Boardwalker explains, “and that makes them get wily.”
However uninviting Boardwalk might look from the author’s photographs, it’s hardly the worst place where life could leave you. Some tenants Dum interviewed managed to establish a degree of stability that included employment (one aspect of a sustaining habitat) as well as a certain amount of interior decoration. They felt a responsibility to care for other residents, particularly those with severe mental disorders. An informal but exacting code of etiquette governed the sharing of cigarettes, food and intoxicants. A certain amount of sexual jealousy and trash talking was inevitable, as was the occasional round of threats or punches, but Dum indicates that he heard of very little theft or predation. “It’s like any other community,” one resident told him, “it’s just people trying to get along.”
At the same time, even success in carving out livable circumstances could leave residents feeling trapped. Treating one’s room as a studio apartment entailed more than psychological strain. Rent “did not guarantee heat, air-conditioning, a fridge, kitchen or even drinkable water,” Dum writes. “Offsetting these conditions exacted so much material cost to buy fans, space heaters, refrigerators, microwaves and bottled water that once residents settled at the hotel they found it very hard to leave. They struggled to make monthly, even weekly, rent payments, and because of this, putting down a security deposit and first month’s rent for an apartment was nearly impossible.”
The author’s fieldwork turned out to coincide with the final phase of the motel’s existence. After years of code violations -- largely unnoticed by city inspectors for the simple reason that they often didn’t even show up -- the local government forced the closing of Boardwalk and Park Place. Exiled in America is on the whole an exemplary piece of social reportage and analysis, but while reading it I often wondered if calling his interview subjects “refugees” might not be pushing it. As it turns out, most of them found out they were being evicted a few hours before the deadline. So, yes, refugees.
Some weeks back, a publishing house in Spain announced that it would be issuing a deluxe facsimile edition of the enigmatic and sui generis volume best known as the Voynich manuscript, in a print run limited to 898 copies, selling at 7,000-8,000 euros each. That’s the equivalent of $7,400 to $8,400 -- a price tag guaranteed to separate the true bibliomaniac from the common run of book collectors.
But then Beinecke 408 (as the volume is also known, from its catalog reference in Yale University’s rare books collection) tends to throw a spell over those who contemplate it for very long. Running to about 200 parchment pages -- or closer to 240, if you count a number of long, folded-up sheets as multiple pages -- it is abundantly illustrated with drawings of plants that have somehow eluded the attention of botanists, surrounded by copious text in an unknown alphabet. It looks like what you’d get from throwing Roman, Greek and Arabic script into a blender along with a few alchemical symbols. At a certain point the artwork takes a noticeable turn: the plants are accompanied by miniature drawings of naked women sitting on the leaves, emerging from broken stems or bathing in pools. Those slightly Rubenesque figures also show up in what appear to be a number of astronomical or astrological charts. A final section of the book consists of page after page of closely written text, with starlike symbols in the margin that seem to indicate section or paragraph divisions.
It sounds like something H. P. Lovecraft and Jorge Luis Borges might have concocted to pull a prank on Umberto Eco. But mere description of the Voynich manuscript little prepares you for the experience of turning its pages, even in the considerably less expensive hardback just published by Yale University Press. The editor, Raymond Clemens, is curator of early books and manuscripts at the university’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The color reproductions of each page are made at the size of the original; the ink or paint used by the illustrator at times bleeding through slightly behind the text and artwork on the other side of the parchment. The thing that strikes the eye most about the writing is how concentrated it looks: printed in a crisp, precise hand by someone who, especially in the final pages, seems determined to make good use of the space without sacrificing readability.
Which is, of course, the maddening thing about the book -- almost literally so, at times. The effort to figure out what it says has tested, and defeated, the mental powers of numerous researchers over the past century, beginning not long after the bookseller Wilfrid M. Voynich acquired it in 1912. (The Yale edition includes a detailed biographical article on Voynich, who seems to have escaped from the pages of a novel by Dostoyevsky before settling in London and moving, eventually, to New York. The label “bookseller” is too narrow by far. One telling detail: his father-in-law was George Boole.)
The first scholar to throw himself into solving the riddle was William Romaine Newbold, professor of moral and intellectual philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, whose The Cipher of Roger Bacon was posthumously assembled from his notes and manuscripts and published in 1928. Its title reflects the earliest known attribution of the work: a letter from 1665 or ’66 reports that the book had been owned by Rudolph II -- the Holy Roman Emperor, patron of Johannes Kepler and alchemy enthusiast -- who believed the author to be the 13th-century English scientist and monk Roger Bacon. (Not to be confused with Francis Bacon, also an English scientist, born 300 years after the monk’s prime.)
Knowing that Roger Bacon was a pioneer in the study of optics and had experimented with lenses, Newbold boldly combined fact and speculation to argue that the Voynich manuscript reported Bacon’s discoveries using the microscope (spermatozoa, for example) and the telescope (the Andromeda galaxy). Furthermore, the hieroglyphs in the mysterious text actually consisted of much smaller letters -- combined in a code of great sophistication -- which were only visible with a microscope.
Quod est demonstrandum, sort of. Admirers of Roger Bacon found the interpretations plausible, anyway. But in 1931, the medievalist journal Speculum published a long and devastating assessment of Newbold’s methodology, which concluded that the code system he’d deduced was so vague and arbitrary that the messages he unearthed were “not discoveries of secrets hidden by Roger Bacon but the products of his own intense enthusiasm and his learned and ingenious subconsciousness.”
That judgment surely inspired caution among subsequent Voynich analysts. I found one paper, published in Science in 1945, claiming to have determined that the manuscript was written by a 16th-century astrologer and herbalist known to have had a particular interest in women’s illnesses. The researcher ends his report by insisting that it was not the product of “a learned and ingenious subconscious.” Be that as it may, the author also felt that “present war conditions” made it “undesirable to publish, at this time, the details of the key.”
That note of hesitation foreshadows one of the many interesting points made in the generally excellent short essays accompanying the Voynich manuscript in the Yale edition: “The extent to which the problems it poses have been a matter of professional as well as amateur interest is reflected in the fact that the best book-length introduction to this ‘elegant enigma’ was written by a government cryptologist … and published in-house by the U.S. National Security Agency.” The monograph (now in the public domain and available to download) indicates that the NSA had already played host to quite a bit of hard-core Voynich inquiry by the late 1970s, and who knows how much computational power has been directed at cracking it since then.
The Yale University Press edition ventures no theory of who created the Voynich manuscript or what it says. A chapter reporting on examination and tests of the material indicates that the parchment can be dated to roughly 1420, give or take a couple of decades, while multispectral imaging reveals the erased invisible signature of a pharmacist who died in 1622, using the noble title he received in 1608. That may not remove all possibility of a hoax, but it would seem to backdate it by a few centuries. The enigma, like the book itself, has proven nothing if not durable; this handsome and (relatively) affordable edition will serve to spread its fascination around.
In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin describes how, as a striving young man in Philadelphia, he practiced a quite literal variety of moral bookkeeping. Having determined 13 virtues he ought to cultivate (temperance, frugality, chastity, etc.), he listed them on a table or grid, with the seven days of the week as its horizontal element. At night, before bed, he would make a mark for each time he had succumbed to a vice that day, in the row for the virtue so compromised.
A dot in the ledger was a blot on his character. Franklin explicitly states that his goal was moral perfection; the 13th virtue on his list was humility, almost as an afterthought. But without claiming to have achieved perfection, Franklin reports that his self-monitoring began to show results. Seeing fewer markings on the page from week to week provided a form of positive reinforcement that made Franklin, as he put it in his late 70s, “a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been had I had not attempted it.”
Franklin’s feedback system was a prototype of the 21st-century phenomenon analyzed by Deborah Lupton in The Quantified Self (Polity), a study of how digital self-tracking is insinuating itself into every nook and cranny of human experience. (The author is a research professor in communication at the University of Canberra in Australia.) A device or application is available now for just about any activity or biological function you can think of (if not, just wait), generating a continuous flow of data. It’s possible to keep track of not only what you eat but where you eat it, at what time and how much ground was covered in walking to and from the restaurant, assuming you did.
In principle, the particulars of your digestive and excretory processes could also be monitored and stored: Lupton mentions “ingestible digital tablets that send wireless signals from inside the body to a patch worn on the arm.” She does not elaborate, but a little follow-up shows that their potential medical value is to provide “an objective measure of medication adherence and physiologic response.” Wearable devices can keep track of alcohol consumption (as revealed by sweat), as well as every exertion and benefit from a fitness routine. Sensor-equipped beds can monitor your sleep patterns and body temperature, not to mention “sounds and thrusting motions” possibly occurring there.
Self-tracking in the digital mode yields data about the individual characterized by harder-edged objectivity than even the most brutally honest self-assessment might allow. For Franklin, the path to self-improvement involved translating the moral evaluation of his own behavior into an externalized, graphic record; it was an experiment with the possibility of increasing personal discipline through enhanced self-awareness. The tools and practices that Lupton discusses -- the examples cited above are just a small selection -- expand upon Franklin’s sense of the self as something to be quantified, controlled and optimized. The important difference lies in how comprehensive and automated the contemporary methods are (many of the apps and devices can run in the background of everyday life, unnoticed most of the time), as well as how much more strongly they imply a technocratic sense of the world.
“The body is represented as a machine,” writes Lupton, “that generates data requiring scientific modes of analysis and contains imperceptible flows and ebbs of data that need to be identified, captured and harnessed so that they may be made visible to the observer.” But not only the body: other forms of self-tracking are available to monitor (and potentially to control) productivity, mood and social interaction. One device, “worn like a brooch … listens to conversations with and around the wearer and lights up when the conversation refers to topics that the user has listed in the associated app.”
Along with the ability to monitor and control various dimensions of an individual’s existence, there is likely to come the expectation or obligation to do so. On this point, Lupton’s use of the idea of self-reflexivity (as developed by the social theorists Zygmunt Bauman, Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens) proves more compelling than her somewhat perfunctory and obligatory references to Michel Foucault on “technologies of self” or Christopher Lasch on “the culture of narcissism.” The digitally enhanced, self-monitoring 21st-century citizen must meet the challenge of continuously “seeking information and making choices about one’s life in a context in which traditional patterns and frameworks that once structured the life course have largely dissolved … Because [people] must do so, their life courses have become much more open, but also much more subject to threats and uncertainties,” especially “in a political context of the developed world -- that of neoliberalism -- that champions self-responsibility, the market economy and competition and where the state is increasingly withdrawing from offering economic support to citizens.”
In such a context, high-tech self-tracking can provide access to exact, objective self-knowledge about health, productivity, status (there are apps that keep track of your standing in the world of social media) and so on. Know thyself -- and control thy destiny! Or so it would seem, if not for a host of issues around who has ownership, use or control of the digital clouds that shadow us. Lupton points to a recent case in which lawyers won damages in a personal-injury suit using data from a physical fitness monitor: the victim’s numbers from before and after the accident were concrete testimony to its effect. Conversely, it is not difficult to imagine such data being subpoenaed and used against someone.
The unintended consequences may also take the form of changed social mores: “Illness, emotional distress, lack of happiness or lack of productivity in the workplace come to be represented primarily as failures of self-control or efficiency on the part of individuals, and therefore as requiring greater or more effective individual efforts -- including perhaps self-tracking regimens of increased intensity -- to produce a ‘better self.’” Advanced technology may offer innovative ways to dig ourselves out of the hole, with the usual level of success.
Lupton is not opposed to self-tracking any more than she is a celebrant of it, in the manner of a loopy technovisionary prophet who announces, “Data will become integral with our sensory, biological self. And as we get more and more connected, our feeling of being tied into one body will also fade, as we become data creatures, bodiless, angelized.” (I will avoid naming the source of that quotation and simply express hope that it was meant to be a parody of Timothy Leary.) Instead, The Quantified Self is a careful, evenhanded survey of a trend that is on the cusp of seeming so ubiquitous that we’ll soon forget how utterly specific the problems associated with this aspect of our sci-fi future are to the wealthy countries, and how incomprehensible they must seem to the rest of the planet.
One detail from Sir Thomas More’s Utopia stuck with me after reading it long ago, and it’s come to mind with some regularity over the past few months: on More’s imaginary island, anyone who aspired to high office was judged to be, for that very unreason, unfit to hold it.
This fall happens to be the book’s quincentennial. More sent the manuscript to his friend Erasmus in September 1516, and it was in print by the end of the year. That the anniversary coincides with an exceptionally nasty and spirit-blighting American presidential election seems providential, as if to confirm that the Utopians were definitely on to something.
Apart from the systemic ban on political ambition, my only other recollection of Utopia was that it was a bit dull. The sole thing that kept me going was the adolescent conviction (long since abandoned) that starting to read a classic implied a commitment to finishing it, come what may. So when I returned to the book recently, it was without fond associations -- and no expectation at all of laughing, since its satirical quality had gone right over my head.
The title is a pun in Greek: More’s ideal society is a good place (eu-topia) that’s also no place (u-topia). The play on words, while minimally hilarious, hints that the author is working in the same ironic vein as Erasmus had just a few years earlier in The Praise of Folly. There, everything people treat as important, dignified or admirable is shown to be evidence of human foolishness at work. More’s detailed picture of a happy, harmonious, prosperous country serves to highlight the corruption and irrationality of the social and political system 500 years ago -- with every reason to think things would only get worse.
Utopia opens with a reference to Henry VIII, then reigning as “the unconquered King of England, a prince adorned with all the virtues that become a great monarch,” which certainly seems prudent. (Henry did eventually have the author executed, but not for his literary efforts.) The narrator and a friend are joined by one Raphael Hythloday, a learned and widely traveled gentleman, who has some experience with royal failings. Those occupying the throne tend to be “more set on acquiring new kingdoms, right or wrong, than on governing well those they possess,” for example. Influence on the court comes from “only those for whom the prince has much personal favour, whom by their fawning and flatteries they endeavour to fix to their own interests.” His complaints are broad enough to limit how much offense they might give to any particular sovereign.
The narrator and his friend try to persuade Hythloday that his wisdom and experience should be put to use in changing the system from within -- that is, by becoming a courtier. He refuses on the grounds that any reforms he might propose would meet with “proud, morose and absurd judgments” by those with a vested interest in the status quo.
Things are better organized in Utopia, a land somewhere beyond the equator where Hythloday lived for five years. His listeners prevail upon him to describe the place -- and so he does, at some length. The prolonged explanatory monologue became a standard element of utopian fiction; in this, the genre’s foundational work, it fills the remaining two-thirds of the book.
It’s a communist manifesto, minus any process of historical change in getting there. On Utopia there is no private property, no poverty and very few laws. The inhabitants exchange houses every 10 years and dress in simple, standardized clothes. They are industrious and work at the jobs for which they are suited by talent and temperament. Money is not used except in one emergency situation we’ll consider. The Utopians are pagans but well behaved. “One of their most ancient laws,” we’re told, is “that no man ought to be punished for his religion.” Before being married, a couple sees each other naked at a public ceremony; this may be shocking to Christendom but it prevents unwelcome surprises.
Whether More was advocating the policies and arrangements that his traveler described -- or even considered them realizable or desirable -- has been a matter for much subtle argument. (Given More’s subsequent persecution of Protestants, the religious pluralism in Utopia was never more than a thought experiment.) But what struck me while rereading the book was More’s consistent sense that social inequality and moral viciousness are as linked as chicken and egg.
“Pride, that plague of human nature,” says Hythloday, “… does not measure happiness so much by its own conveniences, as by the miseries of others; and would not be satisfied with being thought a goddess, if none were left that were miserable, over whom she might insult. [Pride] thinks its own happiness shines the brighter, by comparing it with the misfortunes of other persons; that by displaying its own wealth, they may feel their poverty the more sensibly.”
So keeping in mind that More himself was a lawyer, and a successful one, there’s a moral and satirical reason why Utopia has no attorneys: the inhabitants “consider them as a sort of people whose profession it is to disguise matters and to wrest the laws, and, therefore, they think it is much better that every man should plead his own cause …. After the parties have laid open the merits of the cause, without those artifices which lawyers are apt to suggest, the judge examines the whole matter, and supports the simplicity of such well-meaning persons, whom otherwise crafty men would be sure to run down …”
The Utopian policy regarding money allows More to score an especially sharp jab at pride and privilege. The Utopians accept that it’s necessary to keep a certain amount of gold and silver on hand, says Hythloday, in case they need it when dealing with other countries. But since they themselves judge the value of metals by their use, they have a much higher regard for iron. Rather than just pile up the gold in storage, however, they use it to make chamber pots and chains for criminals undergoing punishment. Likewise, they make practical use of jewels by giving them to small children as playthings.
A group of visiting dignitaries once wanted to overawe the Utopians with their power and wealth. And so they made their grand entrance, dressed to impress: “The ambassadors themselves, who were of the nobility of their country, were in cloth-of-gold, and adorned with massy chains, earrings and rings of gold; their caps were covered with bracelets set full of pearls and other gems -- in a word, they were set out with all those things that among the Utopians were either the badges of slavery, the marks of infamy or the playthings of children.”
More also ran diplomatic missions for England. He was on one to the Netherlands in 1515 when he started writing what became Utopia.The image of an ambassador decked out in fancy handcuffs and wearing, say, a solid-gold toilet seat around his neck is surprisingly broad for a writer of More’s learning and station; he clearly had mixed feelings about his own political role. But after 500 years, it’s still reasonably funny, and it puts the trappings of political ambition in a suitably critical perspective.