The series of tubes is out of control

Yesterday, I woke up to a bunch of comment notifications on a post I’d written about pneumatic tubes and the postal service in France on Active Social Plastic, my other blog. My first thought was, “Uh oh. Spam.” (There’s an inferiority complex for you.) It turned out that Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing had linked to my post. It was heartening and inspired me to update more of the paper I’m writing right now about the birth of the pneumatic post in Paris.

If only academic writing were as easy as a blog post, or for that matter, a paper proposal for a conference. The pneumatic tubes paper seems to be about everything and nothing. On one hand, it’s good that this is the case: it’s likely a dissertation topic or subject for a book. On the other hand, what part should be the focus? Is it the specific interfaces for the network? Is it the fact that it was supposed to be auxiliary and yet reflected a massive expenditure and outlay? Is it about economies of scale and the introduction of other products and services in the communication economy, like parcel post and banking? To what extent is it about the failures and promises of telegraph? Should I write it as an argument or as a narrative? How should I undergird it other architectural historical arguments or theories, like Sigfried Giedion on the importance of iron in 19th century as the subconscious formation of architecture? And what about Walter Benjamin? What about the concept of the image?

I’m writing the tubes paper for a class on Walter Benjamin, “Image, Interior, Archive,” taught by Brigid Doherty. The class took on the Arcades Project and a number of Benjamin’s other writings. Brigid is an outstanding professor, razor sharp and intense. I started keeping near transcripts of what she said in class in order to revisit it later: she delivers so much information when she speaks. This is not unintimidating. Add to it the fact that she, along with Tom Levin and Michael Jennings in the German department at Princeton, are among the foremost translators, scholars and interpreters of Benjamin. The three of them just published the Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, a new translation of that essay and other published and unpublished works. It’s even the second class I’ve taken on Benjamin and the Arcades — I took the first one my first year of graduate school with Henry Sussman (who’s like the Howard Rheingold of comparative literature and media). I could probably take five more classes on it and never get to the heart of it, it’s so intense a work. Anyway.

Today, I need to find the thread of this paper. I write 2000 words, only to throw away 1000. My sources are in French, which slows me down. There’s always more I could research and look for but I somehow need 20 or so pages on one thing. This part is the hardest part.

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