writings

But if the phonograph could be seen as part of a new revelation, it could also be viewed with great anxiety for separating the voice from the human subject and depositing it into a machine. We can see it now as a harbinger of the modern redefinition of the human consciousness as a storage place of information for eventual retrieval, one exemplification of the grand archive that defines modernity. [1]

Access to Edison’s real memory is not possible. Access is only possible through the archive. The archive is a perfect record because it is the only existing record. Unlike memory it is incontestable, stable and available for reference. The archive can grow. It swallows everything—the found, the new, the old and the contradictory. The archive allows and can even resolve contradiction. The reconstruction of Edison’s actual memory and its imperfect documented record relies on an appeal to the perfect record of the archive. It has to be proven. This presents a problem for theorists and historians:

—– Original Message —–

From: “Lisa Gitelman”
To: “franci” <franci.duran@sympatico.ca>
Sent: Tuesday, March 21, 2006 9:14 AM
Subject: Re: hello!

Hi Franci,
Paul and I put our heads together about this, and I’m afraid we couldn’t think of anything interesting about Edison’s body thing. Paul agrees that as TAE aged he became increasingly obsessed w/ his body, but he doesn’t have anything besides what he cited in the biography. I’ll keep mulling…
Yrs. Lisa

Thomas Edison died on October 18, 1931 of natural causes, due to old age. He was 84 years old. Paul Israel’s Edison biography suggests that Edison died of kidney failure and attributes this failure (in part) to Edison’s self-imposed reduced diet of seven glasses of milk per day.[2] Apparently throughout his life, Edison suffered from stomach ailments and sought out and tried remedies for these disturbances. Also, Edison was well read in current medicinal practices, and followed teachings that emphasized a self-body-control. These pieces of information—although documentation is scarce —became part of the basis for the body-obsessed Edison in my video.

—– Original Message —–

From: “Lisa Gitelman”
To: “franci” <franci.duran@sympatico.ca>
Sent: Tuesday, March 14, 2006 11:34 AM
Subject: Re: hello!

Hi Franci,
One other thing occurred to me about Edison’s body & I’ve been looking for the exact info w/ no luck. Long ago I co-wrote a paper about Edison’s marginalia in books. We spun some elaborate theories and tried to collect pithy examples to construct a taxonomy of sorts, to show how Edison used books. My favorite example was marginalia in a book entitled The Lazy Colon, published I think in 1927. Next to a passage that associated constipation with old age, Edison wrote “Me” in the margin. At one point I even had a photograph, but I just haven’t been able to put a hand on it.
Yrs. Lisa

This impasse presented itself from time to time during my email correspondence with Gitelman. Gitelman insists that the aberrant (albeit poignant) and difficult-to-classify-items that were of interest to me and through which the Edison in my video wanders, were just that, interesting bits that do not fit into the bigger picture, the bigger picture that is supported by research and documentation. These conversations raised two questions for me. Firstly, if I am making a documentary based upon an iconic historical figure, what kinds of liberties can I take? Secondly, if I build my project out of the extra, un-classifiable bits that had become so fascinating to me is the project still a documentary?

I viewed many films and videos as reference for Mr. Edison’s Ear, and these works themselves traverse different genres and filmmaking approaches. I was searching for a way to remain aligned with the group of Canadian experimental filmmakers that I identify with, yet still do some of the work that an empirical documentary does. I was also looking for a structure that would accommodate the fictionalized diary excerpts. I finally settled on a hybrid, lyrical structure, something akin to the style of Mike Hoolboom’s Tom or the recent Fascination. This lyrical structure is one that I hope gives the salvaged and collected components as much (or as little) authority as the staged on-camera interviews have. However in choosing to forgo a traditional documentary structure, I also lost that authoritative voice, the one that lends credibility to the record that was created by the video. Larry Weinstein documentary Beethoven’s Hair, for instance, chronicles the life of an artifact, a lock of Beethoven’s hair, cut from his head at his death. The story of this preserved lock of hair weaves an incredible path through history, war and connects music enthusiasts, musicians, scientists and ultimately determines the cause of Beethoven’s death as lead poisoning. So while this film is unlike my film in scope, structure and execution, it is similar to my project in theme, in that it connects a piece of Beethoven’s body an object of memory to human memory and to the archive.

I didn’t have an actual part of Edison’s body to build my story with, just copies of the original archived pieces. The preoccupation with his body that my Edison exhibits is associated in my mind with the phonograph that, as Gunning identifies, captures and separates sound from its source. Thus, as my Edison wanders through the collection of material I have pieced together for him, I wanted him to seem lost, like a ghost wandering among remnants. These remnants, ephemera, were created by different technologies and now exist as and in different archival formats. The pieces have their own embedded time constraints which have been dislocated from the lived-time of the original body that spoke it, or who appears filmed. Mr. Edison’s Ear has a kinship with Zoe Beloff’s interactive CD-ROM, Beyond and a common debt to Walter Benjamin who wrote in the Arcades Project that,

 The dreaming collective knows no history. Events pass before it as always identical and always new. The sensation of the newest and most modern is, in fact, just as much a dream formation of events as the eternal return of the same.

I share Beloff’s conviction that,  

…these issues should urgently be addressed. Benjamin wished, through examining the past, to make the mechanisms of our own delusions, our own dream state, clear to us. He aimed to do this, not through examining the big events of history, but through examining its scraps and remains: images, objects, buildings, the landscape of the everyday that has been discarded. He spoke of, not life-remembered, but life-forgotten; illuminated at the very moment of its disappearance. [3]

In the midst of my collecting, my partner, David Carter pointed out that I was pursuing an understanding of memory as an imperfect record, that my access to Edison’s memory is only through the archive and that unlike memory the archive is a perfect record—at least insofar as it is the only record. This might be to say that unlike memory the archive is uncontestable (both stable and available to others.) So oddly, and interestingly, the production or interrogation of Edison’s memory and its imperfect record relies for its reconstruction on the appeal to the perfect record of the archive.

I have always thought of memory as an imperfect record, and this imperfection is part of its appeal.


1. Tom Gunning. “Doing for the Eye What the Phonograph Does for the Ear,” The Sounds of Early Cinema, ed. Abel, Richard and Altman, Rick. Bloomington: Indiana UP, p. 22
2. Paul Israel, Edison: A Life of Invention New York: John Wiley, 1998, p. 493
3. Zoe Beloff, “An Ersatz of Life: The Dreamlife of Technology,” The Sharpest Point: Animation at the End of Cinema, ed. Gehman, Chris and Reinke, Steve. Toronto: YYZ Books, pp. 74-84