What was needed was an art that
could not be turned into an abstraction, an art that no one would fall
down and worship. It must be an art that would urge no programs and offer
no systems. He found it in an art which was ultimately committed not to
creation but, paradoxically, to destruction, an art that would not be
seen but would be seen through. Through it would be made, like the Milton
of Blake's poem, to "go to Eternal Death."
Jerome McGann, "The Aim of Blake's Prophecies and the Uses of Blake
Figure 1: "Milton, A Poem",
Plate 33 (Erdman), Copy C (1811), courtesy of New York Public
In the summer of 2002, Ron Broglio asked me if I would be part of
a panel on Blake at the Web X conference in Athens. "Do something with
Blake and Design," he told me. "And dude, this is totally not about
archiving." That invitation, complete with Ron's trademark inflection,
was good enough for me. The title of this panel, "Out of the Archive"
echoes what I have called the "fever for archiving" that seems to have
infected humanities research during the last decade or so.
New media offer scholars the opportunity to conduct research and criticism
in ways that outstrip the limitations of the printed page, and yet the
most renowned and well-funded "digital humanities" projects to date
focus on performing a direct translation of printed pages into
digital archives. My conference presentation, like Blake's illuminated
work, is not readily translatable for the Web. Rather than try to do
perform the translation then, this paper serves as a recounting of the
presentation, which was meant to be nothing more than a performance
to provoke innovation in humanities research.
As Katherine Hayles has noted in Writing Machines, the William
Blake Archive (www.blakearchive.org)
provides a case study in how humanities scholars are importing print-centric
practices onto the web.
She (Hayles refers to herself in 3rd person in the text) further made
a point of the site's rhetoric, which emphasized rendering the print
Blake as exactly as possible, providing users with a sizing tool and
color device so they could adjust their browsers. But these very functionalities
were themselves part of what made the electronic Blake different than
the print Blake. In her conclusion she drew the obvious moral that the
literary community could no longer afford to treat text on screen as
if it were print read in a vertical position. Electronic text had its
own specificities, and a deep understanding of them would bring into
view by contrast the specificities of print, which could again be seen
for what it was, a medium and not a transparent interface. (43) Hayles
emphasizes her point by producing a printed text, Writing Machines,
which visually remediates
the materiality of the electronic texts that are the subject of her
study. In a similar vein, at the Web X Conference, my goal was to remediate
the relief-etched work of William Blake into a spoken performance supplemented
by web pages and QuickTime video. Drawing on the performative and dialectical
quality of Blake's imagetexts, I thought I would use this panel as an
opportunity to work out a creative problem that I have been dealing
with for the past year. The panel presentation (like this "essay") was
not completely about Blake, then. Instead, my goal was to present
with Blake, applying the materiality and performative potential
of his work toward the resolution of a problem. That being said, readers
in search of a linear argument may want to stop here.
I've been trying to reconcile two projects that I have underway.
Not in order to consolidate them, but, following Blake's own method—a
dialectic of dialectics—to create a generative relationship between
the two so that they can feed off one another in productive ways. The
first project is entitled hypericonomy. It explores the possibility
of creating a form of academic discourse more suitable to a picture-oriented,
digital age. Blake serves as a design exemplar for this project. The
second project is entitled necromedia. This is about the historical,
metaphorical, and philosophical relationship between media technology
and death. For this project I draw heavily on Heidegger's theorization
of technology. While working on these two projects, I noticed that both
Blake and Heidegger arrived at very opaque fourfold conceptions of being.
I came up with an equally opaque title for the Web X presentation, and
sent an abstract to Ron entitled: "The Fourfolds of William Blake and
Martin Heidegger: Minds, Bodies, Technologies."
To be honest, I had no idea where I was going with this. But I had
set a challenge for myself, guided by a reckless penchant for pattern
recognition. All I needed was a strategy, a method of embodiment, to
give shape to the concept so that it might be fully played out. Like
many before me, I turned to Blake for a structure, a visual system of
organization. In the conference presentation, I presented this tradition
of using Blake as an organizing system by pointing to a flashing series
of digital images, which I cannot reproduce here for reasons of copyright
1) ernst.html: from Max Ernst's La Femme 100 tÍtes,
which foregrounds a trumpeter from Blake's The Grave illustrations;
2) ruegg.html: from Bill Ruegg's Web Project, "The Four Zoas
Fetishized," which features the same trumpeter;
3) tattoo.html: from the film, The Red Dragon, depicting Ralph
Fiennes with a Blake tattoo on his back;
4) tarot.html: a card from the William Blake Tarot of the Creative
The sequence of images was intended to demonstrate how Blake has provided
other individuals with a pictorial schema for organizing and generating
knowledge. I finished this sequence with Blake's schematic rendering
of the universe in Milton, and I proceeded to map my two projects
onto this imagetext, which I "photoshopped" into image only.
Figure 2: "Milton, A Poem",
Plate 33 (Erdman), Copy C (1811), with text removed, courtesy
of New York Public Library.
Hypericonomy is a method of research and writing that relies on the
generative potential of the hypericon.
Rather than linking paragraphs toward the fulfillment of an argument,
the hypericonomist links together hypericons, images of wide scope that
encapsulate an argument and present it pictorially. As an exercise in
hypericonomy, I created an assignment for my students entitled "The
The assignment is based on Greg Ulmer's mystory, a method of research
that generates knowledge by combining four modes of conventional discourse:
academic, popular, professional, and autobiographical. I modified Ulmer's
mystory method by asking students to start with an image from Blake
with which they most identified. Once they had chosen an image, they
filled in the four folds of the vision by collecting texts and images
related to each category. When that was done, they had to look for recurring
patterns in their words and images, based on Blake's artistic schemata
as identified by W.J.T. Mitchell. The recurrent visual pattern suggested
a method of organization for the project, which took the form of a web
site and animated gif.
The 4fold Vision is a project about Blake, design, pattern recognition,
discursive communities and their interconnectedness in the production
of knowledge. The generative potential of this mode of discourse is
what I was trying to recreate in my conference presentation.
The second project that I mapped onto the Milton schema has
to do with necromedia, a neologism that I use to encapsulate the interrelatedness
of media technology and death. To define the essence of technology,
Martin Heidegger draws on the term "gestell," or enframing (Question,
19). He uses the term enframing not in the sense of a physical framework
or structure of some sort. Instead, enframing is actually the work of
technology. When the Rhine River is dammed up for the sake of generating
hydroelectricity, enframing is at work, and I would argue that when
a human being is cryogenically frozen, transformed into a holographic
image, or even recorded on videotape, enframing is also at work.
But the most important thing about gestell is that this term
may also be translated as "skeleton."
This is the first clue in understanding what I mean by necromedia. Death
and technology are not only linked phenomenologically, but they also
share an uncanny symbolic relationship. To illustrate this, I presented
the panel audience with a series of photographs from the history of
technological invention, including Watson's gallows
telephone, Marey's chronophotographic
rifle, and an image of the first human sonogram, which was conducted
in the turret of a B-29 bomber.
The history of technological innovation is teeming with accounts
of death, war, and ghost stories. This is no coincidence considering
that all media technologies are either filtered down to us from the
military or are immediately co-opted by the military for the purpose
of human destruction. Death and technology are intimate collaborators.
Beyond this literal connection between death and technology, there is
also a philosophical or existential link. As Heidegger proposed, technology
challenges us to be more than human, challenges us to overstep our possibility:
The birch tree never oversteps its possibility. The colony
of bees dwells in its possibility. It is first the will which arranges
itself everywhere in technology that devours the earth in the exhaustion
and consumption and change of what is artificial. Technology drives
the earth beyond the developed sphere of its possibility into such
things which are no longer a possibility and are thus impossible.
In contemporary terms, technology tempts us into believing that we are
immortal, that we can, in a hypercartesian transformation, shed our
bodies, live infinitely in silicon, upload the contents of our minds
to a supercomputer, or create a new, bodiless self in a virtual world.
As it does with everything else, technology turns the human body into
"raw material," a flexible resource that is placed in "standing-reserve,"
waiting to serve some technological purpose (Question, 17). Living
as raw material, it's easy to forget your humanity.
To sum all of this up in Heidegger's words, technology causes us
to forget our finitude, the fact that we are all going to die. According
to Heidegger, finitude is the essence of being human. Living in full
acknowledgement of our finitude is the key to being authentic or rather
the key to authentic being. At this point, I would like to return to
the Four Zoas schema and see how these two projects might be mapped
Since hypericonomy privileges instinct over reason, while challenging
a phallocentric, academic tradition (i.e., the printed essay), then
it might make sense to place it where Luvah usually sits, on the right-hand
side. In Blake's cosmology, this is a space for emotion, passion, and
potential revolution in the form of Orc, Luvah's spectre. This suits
Necromedia, on the other hand, is about the body and the physical
senses, particularly the impact of technology on the body. So maybe
it belongs with Tharmas, the laborer, on the left-hand side.
Before pursuing this conjectural calculation any further, I should
return to Blake. There is a danger here of treating Blake's art not
as an infinitely generative entity, but as a sort of predictable calculating
one that would lend itself to the absolute reductionism of "single vision":
Now I a fourfold vision see
And a fourfold vision is given to me
Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And three fold in soft Beulahs night
And twofold Always. May God us keep
From Single vision & Newtons sleep. ("Letter to Thomas Butts")
Several Blake critics have attempted to unravel Blake's use of term
"fourfold vision." Accoring to Jerome McGann, beings of single vision
see the world in absolutes. Life is a prison term that ends in a final,
discrete annihilation. Men of twofold vision see the world dialectically,
according to contraries. Threefold vision enables one to recognize the
contraries and see that they are not absolute, but that the boundaries
of good and evil shift according to each individual. In Milton,
Blake defines threefold vision as a peaceful state, and he associates
it with Beulah:
There is a place where Contrarieties are equally True
This place is called Beulah, It is a pleasant lovely Shadow
Where no dispute can come. Because of those who Sleep. (M 30:1-3)
Beulah and threefold vision are identified with sleep, restfulness.
But fourfold vision involves activity, not sleep. Fourfold vision is
generation and destruction, life and death, or even life in death.
Evidently, Blake's understanding of death is unconventional, to say
the least. For Blake, death is considered as part of the creative process,
a part of life.
If I return to the fourfold schema then, and attempt to locate Blake
and Heidegger, it would seem that Blake belongs up at the top with Urthona,
a place of creative imagination, art, wisdom. Heidegger, on the other
hand, stickler that he is for reasoning things out, and for being a
calculating, laboring philosopher, belongs at the bottom, with Urizen.
Heidegger's concept of the fourfold provides a schema at least as
perplexing as Blake's fourfold vision. According to Heidegger, certain
things—and note that "things" is the exact term used by Heidegger—are
capable of gathering together the fourfold of earth, sky, gods, and
mortals. A chalice, for example, can be a spiritual object designed
with the gods in mind. The wine it contains brings together the earth
that produced the grapes and the sky that provided rain for the vines.
Finally, the chalice is designed to contain nourishment for mortals,
and it is used by mortals to celebrate one another's company, and to
worship the gods. In the chalice, then, we see the gathering of the
A technological worldview tempts us to see a thing not in its fourfold
manifestation, but only as potentiality, "raw material." Or such a worldview
causes us to ignore the thing altogether, take it for granted. To recognize
the fourfoldness of a thing is to resist technology's dehumanizing power.
To see things in fourfold is to open up an infinite world of possibilities.
A primitive stone bridge, according to Heidegger, could accomplish
the same gathering of the fourfold as the chalice. Here is a place for
Earth, Sky, Gods, and Mortals to meet. But a modern highway bridge poses
a problem. As you zoom across the bridge in a gas-sucking SUV, immersed
in techno music downloaded from the web, the bridge loses its thingness;
it loses its capacity to gather the fourfold. The bridge is merely a
conduit for a postmodern morpher obsessed with technological potentiality:
How fast can I drive here? Should I get a new MP3 player? Will I have
a high-protein smoothie after my workout? Will I find a lover in the
chat room tonight? In the words of Heideggerian Michael Zimmerman, "in
the technological age, the gods have departed, the sky has been effaced,
the earth has been exposed to ruin, and the mortals have forgotten who
they are." So much for the fourfold.
Heidegger insisted that acceptance and even celebration of one's
own mortality is absolutely necessary if we to avoid becoming post-human
beings plagued by single vision—that is, technological vision.
But he didn't mean that we should all become death-obsessed, angst-ridden
philosophers—shave our heads and dress in black (as I did for
the Web X Conference, complete with skulls on my t-shirt). Instead,
we should accept and remain aware of our human limitations, even while
dabbling in post-human activities. Also, we should appreciate the thingness
of things. Even the smallest things, the minute particulars, can reveal
to us the gathering of the fourfold. It is this gathering which grounds
us, reminds us of our finitude, and opens us up to infinite possibilities
beyond those offered by technological potentiality. In the words of
Richard Coyne, author of Technoromanticism, "Heidegger saw the
modern age as a result of the conquest of techne over poesis,
a kind of making and reflecting that seeks instrumental causes rather
than a mode of being that lets things disclose themselves" (268).
It's safe to say that Blake had come to the same conclusion in his
own time. Like the figures in Blake's visionary works, the postmodern
morpher needs to understand that death is not a final annihilation,
but a facet of everyday life that leads to vision. By accepting your
finitude, and resisting technology's false promise of immortality, you
can avoid seeing the world in purely instrumental terms. In Blake's
terms, you will be free to engage in the "art of invention, not of imitation"
I have come to the conclusion that that death belongs somewhere in
the schema that I have been assembling. This, perhaps, is where Heidegger
and Blake meet. Both of them recognize the transformative potential
of death. Not death as annihilation, but as a daily form of redemption
that goes beyond the obvious religious connotations that come to mind
here. In the schema, I have placed the word "death" in hell,
although something tells me that's not quite right. At the top, where
Adam belongs, I initially installed the word "creation," then opted
for the more appropriate term, "invention." Of course, that doesn't
seem quite right either. But for the sake of generating knowledge about
my two projects, it works. What's certain is that I could keep shifting
all of these elements around, and I won't arrive at a satisfactory,
final configuration. No Grand Thesis. But in this exercise of mapping,
I will generate a great deal of knowledge about my own projects, and
arrive at a new understanding of both Blake and Heidegger. Fourfold
Vision as I understand it, is about performance, generativity; it does
not deal in the calculation of immutable absolutes, exact translations,
or authoritative interpretations.
Figure 3: "Milton, A Poem",
Plate 33 (Erdman), Copy C (1811), with new text added, courtesy
of New York Public Library.
In the introduction to his book Heuretics: the Logic of Invention,
Greg Ulmer suggests that he is trying to invent a new mode of academic
discourse "the way Breton invented surrealism, or the way Plato
invented dialectics: to do with 'Jacques Derrida' . . . what Breton
did with Freud. Or to do with Plato what Plato did with Socrates"
(15). I guess the final question here is this: Is it possible to invent
a new mode of academic discourse by doing with Blake what Blake did