writings

Dear Sir,
I am a patient in the hospital for Insane at Elgin Illinois. I am not systematized.
The idea is. I must be a system. I wish you will please install a system for me.
Hoping to hear from you. I remain. Very respectfully,

—Ike Leonard  Isaacson
[1]

I am interested in the other Edison, fictional perhaps, but body-obsessed. I am less interested in the historical Edison who invented the phonograph and left it at that.

Thomas Edison was born on February 11, 1847 and died on October 18, 1931. He was the last of seven children, and was largely home-schooled and self-educated. He married twice and had six children. He worked first as a telegrapher before becoming an inventor and entrepreneur. The Edison Manufacturing Company submitted 1,093 successful patents to the US patent office. He is credited with having invented the phonograph, motion pictures, a viable incandescent light bulb and practical electrical lighting and distribution system. He is an icon that embodies innovation, progress, commercial success, and one who led the world into the modern era.

The animated sequences in the finished video are constructed from scanned illustrations selected from period texts, particularly texts of scientific, engineering and medical classifications and catalogues of animalia. These illustrations are intended to speak to other classification systems, other archives that have infiltrated the collection of artifacts in Mr. Edison’s Ear. These sequences are visually associated with other artifacts, films and parts of films disintegrated by video processes and optical printing, taken apart and put back together again.

Diary entries from The Diary and Sundry Observations of Thomas Alva Edison are copied, scanned, enlarged dissolved and reconfigured to describe how Edison felt about his body or better perhaps, his sense of disembodiment and his reckoning of these feelings. These sequences in the film are animated and lyrical. They are tragic and have a musty feel to them. I hoped to recall the Victorian struggle between restraint, repression and excess. I wanted to evoke something akin to the world-gone-mad atmosphere in L’Eve Futur in these sequences.[2] L’Eve Futur also chronicles a fictionalized Edison who inhabits a world of his own creation.

Edison, I think, sounds increasingly crazy over the course of his life, particularly as he records it in his own diaries, with his biting on the wood, his obsessively pointing to flaws in others, his preoccupation with his damnable dandruff, his dreams, his gut, his ideas about harnessing all the power in the universe. It is a near madness that makes things fall apart.

I have made use of found footage, dissolved and diluted by optical printing to, if not demonstrate Edison’s madness, point toward an inner turmoil, toward mental disintegration—like cylinders and artifacts eventually disintegrate. We should see this madness as critical to progress, to creativity and to destruction.

I have tried to establish an Edison who wanders through the creations in his archive in a way that is deliberately non-chronological and resists easy classification. I have used two promotional films, A Day with Thomas Edison and Mr. Edison in His Chemical Laboratory which act as framing devices for these wanderings. I wanted the interview subjects to contextualize and provide information, but I also wanted the interview subjects to be seen as part of this larger archive, wandering and disintegration process. Finally, ending the video with Electrocuting an Elephant with the accompanying Rachmaninov piece was meant to signify the death of an era, its optimism, and its ethos, the historical casualty of technological innovation.

There is so much myth around Edison. His name is synonymous with idea. He represents hard work. Documentation points to the fact that Edison was not a body-obsessed person, but simply a workaholic and an entrepreneur, but I have resisted this version. His best invention was self-invention.

Endnotes
1. An example of the aberrant documents that are in the Edison archives.  This one belongs to the NOANS, No Answer, letters. This is the category given to the letters that people wrote to Edison from people writing to ask for money, to give him ideas for inventions, to ask his opinion on their own inventions, and those whose madness associated him almost as a magician.

2. Felicia Miller Frank, in an essay titled “Edison’s Recorded Angel” in Jeering Dreamers Villiers de L’Isle Adam’s L’Eve Futur at our Fin de siecle (ed. by John Anzalone, Rodopi Amsterdam, Atlanta 1996, pp 141-2) cites Annette Michaelson and Raymond Bellour’s critical work about L’Eve Future. Both of these theorists explore the text through an analogy of “cinema.” Miller Frank feels Michaelson and Bellour ignore the huge presence of “voice” in the book, and thus a better analogy is the phonograph.

“Neither… considers one of the novel’s most interesting features: the striking predominance of the voice in the text and the accompanying foregrounding of the phonograph as instrument of technological and social transformation. If one follows the text’s own emphasis and considers the phonograph, not the cinema, as the key to the novel, then the aptness of Villier’s choice of Edison as presiding genius becomes clear: it was when his name became associated with the phonograph, the Miracle of the Nineteenth Century, that the prolific inventor Edison became known world-wide and came to symbolize, as the Wizard of Menlo Park, the Faustian inventor of the new era. The importance of the phonograph in Villier’s novel reveals much about its role in the history of the times and about the cultural reception of technological innovation. One also gains a better understanding of the nature of the Android if one understands the significance of the phonograph as paradigmatic of her equivocal being: her paradoxical status as the artificially incarnated bearer of a disembodied voice.”