#161: Emperor Tomato Ketchup

In the early 1940s, essayist Joseph Mitchell spent more than a year in pursuit of an eccentric New York character named Joe Gould, “a blithe and emaciated little man who has been a notable in the cafeterias, diners, barrooms, and dumps of Greenwich Village for a quarter of a century.” Profiling Gould in a 1942 New Yorker piece titled “Professor Sea Gull,” Mitchell describes how he never encountered Gould without the portfolio he always carried, overflowing with manuscripts and letters and clippings, supposedly materials for the magnum opus he had already spent decades writing, which he called “An Oral History of Our Time.” The possibility that someone like Gould had thoroughly documented the midcentury downtown zeitgeist in which he was immersed—that he had written “the informal history of the shirt-sleeved multitude”—had a magnetic appeal for Mitchell that grew into an obsession as the document itself became correspondingly elusive. When Mitchell ultimately realizes that the Oral History does not exist at all and that Gould has duped him, after overcoming his initial surprise and anger, he has the following realization: “When I thought of the cataracts of books, the Niagaras of books, the rushing rivers of books, the oceans of books, the tons and truckloads and trainloads of books that were pouring off the presses of the world at that moment, only a very few of which would be worth picking up and looking at, let alone reading, I began to feel that it was admirable that he hadn’t written it…I suddenly felt a surge of genuine respect for Gould.”

In hindsight, of course, the surfeit of books that Mitchell describes feels quaint and harmless, a problem that has since been dwarfed by the exponential growth of digital content. The heyday of analog media was, in fact, characterized by scarcity: However many excess books had accumulated in the world, they were unevenly distributed in physical space, and we frequently still found ourselves in situations where our access to media was limited. It was still possible to be bored. I remember this feeling acutely from my own childhood—with the Napster floodgates yet to open, my music listening was still constrained by the CDs I could buy with whatever little money I had. At any given time, I knew about far more bands than I had the ability to hear, a situation that has since reversed itself (now I seem to be hearing music at all times without necessarily knowing who made it). In Mitchell’s time, even as mountains of unread books accumulated on shelves around the world, their content was still physically confined to their pages, and therefore easier to ignore or avoid. There were too many books but too few in certain places and it was still possible to admire someone for not adding to the pile, unlike now, when there is no pile, no meaningful cost to adding to it, and only anonymity to be gained by refraining from doing so.

The bottleneck to analog information intake was frequently physical access. When those barriers vanished and the true Niagaras of content came rushing toward us—when physical access became ubiquitous and constant—the bottleneck was no longer anything in the external world. Henceforth, the bottleneck would be us, with our sensory organs as units of measurement: how much our eyeballs could watch, how much our ears could listen to, and how much our brains could process during our precious waking hours. The relative slowness of pre-digital information facilitated cultural regionalism, which was a direct result of the constraints that impeded that information’s transmission across space. With those constraints gone, however, that regionalism gives way to a global, all-encompassing stylistic tropics (to borrow Brian Eno’s phrase), and we can expect to find its post-geographic equivalent in the place where the limits themselves have relocated, somewhere much closer to our individual selves. Joseph Mitchell’s obsession with finally getting a hold of Joe Gould’s nonexistent Oral History was a fantasy specific to the analog era and one that could never truly be fulfilled, as we have since learned: that decades of ephemeral experience, centered upon one person, could be faithfully captured and preserved, not in selective narrative form but unedited and sprawling. Our phones finally gave us that, but as Mitchell himself realized decades ago, there would be too much of it for anyone to actually read.

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Last week I wrote about the US housing market and its present distortions—real estate and geographic location are becoming more fungible as digital information strives to become less fungible.