William Gibson’s Agrippa and mal d’archive

I didn’t come to Austin to get an archival jolt from a digital artists’ book. I’ve been at the Ransom Center this weekend attending a conference on literary archives and writers’ papers, “Creating a Usable Past.” I have never seen William Gibson’s 1992 artists’ book, one evidently well-known on the Internet. The cataloging notes say Agrippa has some photosensitive engravings and a disk holding the poem, “which may be displayed on a computer screen only once, and then is irretrievably encrypted.” Matt Kirschenbaum, professor at MITH, hacked the code of Agrippa and played it for us on a Mac emulator. Matt tells us his work will be up on the web in six weeks or so.

I was having something akin to Ted Bishop’s experience with the symptoms of archive fever. Ted is a Virginia Woolf scholar. In Riding with Rilke he describes the “jolt” of reading Woolf’s suicide letter. Yesterday morning the audience at the august Ransom Center was reading Agrippa on the big screen. The Mac emulator made it feel a bit like I was reading it in 1992. Back in 1992 I don’t think I knew what an artists’ book was.

Three of UT’s undergraduates have been blogging the conference at flairforarchives.

One Comment on “William Gibson’s Agrippa and mal d’archive”

  1. There’s something almost uncanny about emulators, isn’t there? The ghost in the machine indeed. One thing to clarify: we did not “hack”
    Agrippa. The distinction is important, because I think the language of hacking mystifies what are in fact normative and reproducible preservation strategies. I’m going to document the process more extensively in the write up for the Agrippa Files Web site, but in short we imaged the original disk using the Linux dd function, then opened the disk image in a Macintosh System 7 emulator. One of the ironies of the process is that we have to feed the emulator a new copy of the disk image each and every time we run the program, since it does indeed encrypt the data exactly as it was designed to do. Of course the difference is that instead of a one of a kind physical artifact, the disk image is merely a data object on my file system, which I can duplicate at will. Best, Matt

    Matthew Kirschenbaum
    Associate Professor of English
    Associate Director,
    Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) University of Maryland
    301-405-8505 or 301-314-7111 (fax)

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