Saturday, January 05, 2008

Borges and the Absence of Context

The New York Times Books section has a story in today's paper by Noam Cohen titled "Borges and the Forseeable Future", which summarizes claims by Umberto Eco, Perla Sassón-Henry, and William Gibson that Borges's stories predicted the advent of the World Wide Web.

The trouble is that instead of including excerpts from and analyses of each author's argument, Cohen applies a method that should be even better: excerpts from three of Borges's stories (“Funes the Memorious,” “The Library of Babel” and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”) juxtaposed with Web 2.0 examples of Borgesian "prophecies fulfilled." These parallels are sometimes so tangential to the texts they describe, and invariably so distorting of the contexts from which Borges's quotes are taken, that the naive picture they give borders on uselessness.

For example, Borges's story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” does describe an encyclopedia that is hypothesized to have been written by many authors. This is vaguely like Wikipedia, but also vaguely like most print encyclopedias in Borges's day and ours. The reason why the fictional speculation that the text was penned not by a single author but by a secret society is that the encyclopedia entries are an elaborate hoax, and that Tlön is a planet that does not exist. This fact is not mentioned in Cohen's article. It's repeatedly mentioned in the Wikipedia entry on the story.

Ditto "The Library of Babel." Borges's imagined library does indeed imply that there is "no personal problem, no world problem, whose eloquent solution did not exist" in the library. The trouble, however -- as Wikipedia again nicely reminds us -- is that

because there are by definition all books, there are certainly also books of lies and falsehoods. For each copy of the codex to the library, there will be many copies of false codices, claiming some false books to be true and some true books to be false. In short, any room in the library could be the crimson hexagon.

Maybe there's a way to save all of this, by saying that Borges was prophetic not just of the web's possibilities, but also its shortcomings, especially the difficulty (as in all media) of distinguishing signal from noise. But maybe we should just let Borges be Borges, with his own decidedly pre-web preoccupations, and try to do our own thinking for ourselves.

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