Tuesday, January 15, 2008


The first magazine that I edited at RPI was a thing called Perspective. It was a journal of politics and philosophy, founded by a couple of students named Ken Rothschild and Rick Kamens, both of whom were seniors my freshman year. They hadn't done all that much preparing a succession, so there was really no one to turn the thing over to except me, which they did in the spring of my freshman year.

Rothschild deserves a little tangent. He'd won some sort of prize in physics his freshman year, and he was one of those fellows who was always bursting with a hundred ideas at once. The problem was that, of those 100 ideas, 95 of them were crap, 3 were marginal, 1 was good, and 1 was excellent. But he didn't really seem to have a notion as to which was which, so he spent a lot of his time working on crappy ideas. I hope he�s found a good editor somewhere along the line.

Anyway, at a time of student unrest and the "New Left," Perspective had a very strong philosophical bias, and its patron saint philosopher was Nietzsche. This was the Walter Kaufman version of Nietzsche, who was a lot more interesting than the dreary man-into-superman-peering-into-the-abyss-will-to-power guy that most people think of when they hear his name. I once asked Amy about Nietzsche, and she said that she�d always gotten the impression that he was cold and humorless. So I read her a couple of my favorite passages, and she said, "Well, that's just hilarious, isn�t it?" Poor Frederich always had the problem of being too hip for the room.

Anyway, Kamens wrote an article for the first issue of Perspective that I edited, entitled "Science and Tragedy" using Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy as a spring board for some ruminations on science. I changed the title, for layout and space reasons, and Kamens got pissed, as well he should have. My bad. He wasn't the last person I managed to alienate in my roles as editor during my college years, and I can't think of a single case that wasn't my fault. My only defense is that I don't think I made the same mistake twice.

Perspective was a camera-ready, photo offset print job, and we made good use of the cool fonts you could get with the IBM Selectric typewriter, though we did have to settle for ragged right justification. Later, on the Rensselaer Engineer, we got full linotype justification, though the printer then used the linotype to feed a photo offset. We eventually won some awards for things like layout and such. In fact, as nearly as I can recall, we won awards for almost everything except Editor and Editorials. In case you're keeping score, those would have been the awards that were specifically to me.

I managed to get out two issues of Perspective, plus a special little one-shot called Ellipsis, covering the Moratorium March on Washington. We did Ellipsis on a ditto machine, because I was fascinated by the ditto stenciling process, which allowed multi-colored printing. You were limited to maybe 25-100 copies, but it's not like there were thousands of readers clamoring to read more of the political musings of yours truly. Or even dozens, to be honest.

In the two issues of Perspective, I made maybe 2,000 lame jokes about the title of the magazine. Or maybe 2; memory is a tricky thing. I'd like to think that Perspective was where I first got to thinking about the point-of-view problem in philosophy, but I think it was more like just part of the general background. That was when I was learning about Special Relativity and quantum mechanics in physics, after all, and both of those have their own interesting (and differing) take on what observer means. I'd also taken mechanical drawing in high school, (front, side, top, and perspective views), and I'd been writing amateur fiction since grade school. Point of view was always on the list of interesting topics in each of those endeavors, and yet it still took me many, many, years to generalize the subject.

Ben is of the belief that the discovery of perspective in the graphic arts is one of the most important, if not the most important, ingredients to the Renaissance. He'll even go so far as to suggest that the camera obscura was the defining invention of the time, though he might backpedal a little if you mention moveable type.

Moveable type was an insidious invention. Without moveable type copyright law would never have come about, to mention one unobvious connection. The ability to mass produce books also led to the King James Bible and the Protestant Reformation. Without the ability to put bibles into the hands of the masses, common language translations were unnecessary, and without mass bible reading, why (and how) would the Reformation have occurred? Before general literacy, the Church told you what God said, and as long as they kept their stories straight, how would you ever think otherwise?

I've heard it said that Martin Luthor believed that if common people read the Bible, then they'd interpret it the same way he did. So Luthor had himself a bit of a viewpoint problem. Once people generally got to stick their oars in, all hell broke loose, as it were. The back and forth amongst those who were, each and every one of them, convinced of their possession of the real meaning of scripture, is the stuff of history, i.e. wars, torture, unrest, and revolution.

Then Descartes slipped one in on everybody with Cogito Ergo Sum. His little aphorism made "I" the test of existence, but only in translation, as it were, since there is no first person pronoun in the original Latin. Descartes elevated subjectivity to the level of a first principle, almost without anyone noticing that was what he�d done.

Nietzsche had his own take on the matter. If one's personal relationship to God is the important thing, how about if I relate to God as if he were past tense? "God is dead," Nietzsche wrote, doing a little Snoopy dance on the grave still haunted by the Holy Ghost. Nietzsche had mastered the art of being both humorous and serious at the same time.

Or, as I like to think of it, he had his own perspective on Author Omniscient and he was going to follow it to the vanishing point.


black dog barking said...

Before general literacy, the Church told you what God said, and as long as they kept their stories straight, how would you ever think otherwise?

With the word of God frozen in typeset print like a bug in amber, a number of flourishing cottage industries pop up over the years purporting to spin what God meant from what God said — mystery abounds, step right up, just one small tithe gains entry to the secret of all ages.

black dog barking said...

Another unintended consequence of moveable type — words no longer had to be memorable to get remembered. Side Effect One: the shelf life and storage capacity of ink-on-paper created an off-site backup requiring us to remember where it was written for access (over exactly *what* was written). Side Effect Two: as an economic event, the production of inked paper fell under the bailiwick of accountants, not all of whom were content to account without meddling.

James Killus said...

Ah, your Side Effect Two is even more interesting. Although the exact origin of double-entry bookkeeping is in some dispute, there's little doubt that the idea spread widely with Frater Luca Bartolomes Pacioli's book on the subject, a book that would not have spread so widely save for moveable type.

Or, as Charles Fort put it, Steam Engine Time.