Everybody Loves a History: Formats, Archiving, and Hoaxes

Momus has written a good piece for Wired in which he discusses the implications of rapid media format changes for the preservation of the past. Drawing on Derrida and others, Momus argues that the act of archiving the past is a form of “destroying to preserve”. In our selectivity, we suppress as much of the past as we preserve. Thus the decision to transfer works originally recorded on vinyl into an RSS enclosure is a political act, not unlike Winston Smith’s selective rewriting of The Times in the film 1984.

Archiving the past is a political act, indeed. And thus the work of found sound mixtape bloggers (who rifle through thrift stores for discarded home recorded cassettes, and then share the spoils) is something of a reaffirmation of the proletariat, or the art of the everyday.

But something of the plasticity and usability of contemporary media formats is troublesome for history. Almost anyone can do it, and in the absence of expertise or knowledge leadership, what are we to believe? Aside from the benefits of wikis in giving more people a voice (even though they can get trolled and shouted down by those with megaphones), are there dangers in this?

Here‘s an example of a hoax committed using contemporary media formats. Funerary violin never existed, but through a careful mimicry of the crackle and hum of old wax cylinders (not too difficult with common digital audio recording plugins) and a bit of somewhat careless writing (and failed attempts to write the subject into wikipedia), this hoaxster has fabricated a five hundred year history of the practice that fools a lot of the people some of the time, and has positioned himself as its transmitter for this generation.

Why do I suspect there’s a problem here? If we consider the hoax an example of “destroying to preserve”, or a political act, then what does it preserve, or what political ends (other than satire, which is never an end in itself) does a hoax like this aim to achieve? Maybe I’m missing the joke here?

Consider that some hoaxes are very instructive, even vital). Is there an easy way to distinguish the useful ones from the ones which are a waste of our valuable attention?

4 thoughts on “Everybody Loves a History: Formats, Archiving, and Hoaxes”

  1. Perhaps the intention of this particular “hoax” is to make us consider the tragic decline in funerary ritual evidenced in the last 100 years, and make us consider both our current relationship with mortality and the dreary and uneventful way in which we mark the passing on of our dead. That Death is not considered a part of life anymore can only be dangerous to a culture, and the way in which we farm out our terminally ill could almost be called uncivilised. If this is a “hoax” and I am yet to be convinced of that, then it is certainly instructional, imaginative and artistic.


  2. Here is perhaps a more contructive way of drawing attention to the depersonalization of funerary rights:


    These people started a non-profit to help people hold funerals in the home like they did at the turn of the century when the deceased would be dressed and kept at home for a few days, allowing the community to pay their respects and the family to grieve properly. Around this time, people in North America and Western Europe practised elaborate rituals around mourning. There is actually a huge community of interest in Victorian and pre-WW I mourning customs and rituals out there. Just do a google search. This “funerary violin” author is not the first one to ‘instruct’ the masses on the depersonalization of funerary rights, but he writes as though he is.

    Unfortunately, when a hoax like this is authored, it doesn’t look like it is meant to educate people. It looks like someone is making fun of people who have a sincere interest in music and funerary history.

    The music is quite good, though. I might have bought it I didn’t feel like my intelligence was being insulted.

  3. Tobias James – You are credited with playing the bass drum on one of the so-called ‘funerary violin’ recordings. Why are you posting here as though you had no prior knowledge of this half-baked farce?

    Really, the public that you and your megalomaniacal co-conspirator are trying so hard to fool are more intelligent than you think. People who are interested in history are generally pretty smart. It’s not that we don’t appreciate a good swindle. Just please make it a little less sloppy.

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