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The Valve - A Literary Organ | One Candle, a Thousand Points of Light: Moretti and the Individual Text

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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

One Candle, a Thousand Points of Light: Moretti and the Individual Text

Posted by Bill Benzon on 01/24/06 at 03:12 PM

As my review makes clear, I hold Moretti’s work in high regard; I like it and I want to see more like it. Beyond that, I too believe that we need to bracket the search for meaning and put it on the shelf. I do not, however, believe that requires us to shift our attention away from the scrupulous examination of individual texts. I have argued that point in a series of posts on this site and, more importantly, I have shown how to do it in a small body of critical studies written and published over a period of three decades.

That leaves me with one major issue: How do we bridge the yawning chasm between the phenomena Moretti examines and the particularity of individual texts and individual acts of reading, apprehension, and discussion? I certainly do not have an answer to that question, nor do I think anyone does. But I would like to have a little fun playing around in that chasm and thereby indicate something of what can be done. My objective is to convince you that that "space" is not a chasm at all, but "fertile ground" containing gardens "bright with sinuous rills" interspersed among "forests ancient as the hills."

I take as one starting point Steven Johnson’s remark that "a systemic theory has to work at all the relevant scales." I’ve done most of my work at the scale appropriate for an individual reading a single text. To get from that scale to Moretti’s we need to consider many readers reading many texts over the course of years, decades, and centuries. That is to say, the phenomena Moretti examines are summary measures of the activities of a population of individuals over decades-long periods of time. As my other starting point I have Sean Mcann’s wonder over Moretti’s "stunner of a line" about deducing operative forces from an object’s form.

I’ve chosen "Kubla Khan" as my example. I have two reasons for doing so. On the one hand I am familiar with the poem and have a reasonable grasp of its form. Beyond my work, there is the rather different but complementary work of Reuven Tsur and some unpublished analytical work by Richard Cureton. On the other hand, the poem is about, among other things, a place called Xanadu, and that word, that meme if you will, is rather wide-spread. If you google the term you get roughly 2,000,000 hits – I’ve gotten as few as 1.6M and on one occasion I got 7M; I have no idea what accounts for that upper figure. That’s the Xanadu cultural system, or rather, a highly distributed manifestation of the Xanadu cultural system. With 2M hits, it’s on the world-wide scale at which Moretti is operating.

(Anyone who has spent much time googling knows that a given website can appear more than once in the return list. Thus those 2M hits do not necessarily represent 2M different web pages, much less 2M different sites. Just how many different pages or sites are represented is not important in this preliminary argument. Hence, it will take that 2M number, and the corresponding numbers for other searchs, at face value.)

Yet there’s more involved that simply the number itself, which is, in context, not terribly impressive. Though it is not easy to determine how many pages there are in the web, the number is probably upward of 4 billion. Two million hits is five ten thousandths of the web. But, what percentage of the web would you expect any one query item to retrieve? At this point these are just numbers; their significance is obscure. So get a better feel for things I googled a number of items on Sunday 11 January 2005. I have listed the items below in order of the number of "hits" each generated, from lowest to highest:

Gargantua      569,000

Lysistrata 649,000
Gawain 934,000
Oedipus 1,960,000
Xanadu 2,050,000
Astro Boy 2,350,000
Agamemnon 2,920,000
Othello 3,410,000
Osiris 3,650,000
Bambi 4,260,000
Sailor Moon 6,180,000
Buddha 15,000,000
Atlantis 16,100,000
Avalon 19,000,000
Olympus 25,300,000
Eden 31,100,000
Paradise 61,300,000

At 569,000 Gargantua generated the fewest hits, while Paradise generated the most, 61,300,000. It is interesting, and not terribly surprising, that Xanadu is out-scored by Bambi and Sailor Moon (a very popular series of manga and anime). Though Xanadu outscored Oedipus, I rather doubt that the difference is large enough to matter. More significantly, as I will argue later on, Xanadu seems to draw forth a greater variety of hits than does Oedipus.

What is particularly interesting about Xanadu is that, among the variety of sites in its return list, two clusters are particularly prominent. One of them is related to pleasure, luxury, and excess while the other is related to hypertext, media, and technology. I think of the first cluster as being related to the bodily, the sybaritic, side of human nature while the second is related to the mind and the intellectual, the cybernetic side. Think of these different types of sites as "environments" in which the Xanadu meme has taken up "residence."

The question before us, then, is how it is that the projection of this 200-year old poem onto the contemporary web has these two aspects. Let us call this the Xanadu cultural system. I don’t have anything particularly rigorous in mind here. I certainly don’t imagine some tightly coupled organization dedicated to propagating the term. It’s merely a convenient way of referring to whatever it is that’s responsible all those Google hits. But whatever that it, it is real, and most peculiar.

Let’s start by taking a quick look at the poem itself. Then I’ll talk about how poems and words circulate in a population. And then we’ll get to the heart of this exploration, we’ll look at the "projection" of Coleridge’s poem onto the web as revealed through Google. We’ll look at some quaint and curious Xanadu lore and then think about how this might have happened.

Form in "Kubla Khan"

"Kubla Khan" is 54 lines long and I have found that it takes roughly two and a third minutes to recite aloud. So that is our scale of analysis. In an ideal world we would have means of knowing what’s going on in someone’s body and mind as they recite the poem, listen to someone else recite it, or simply read the poem silently. This is not, alas, that world. But I note in passing that, in his forthcoming "Kubla Khan" – Poetic Structure, Hypnotic Quality And Cognitive Style: A Study in Mental, Vocal And Critical Performance, Reuven Tsur undertakes an acoustic analysis of four performances of the poem by well-known actors. I will not, however, be using that work in my analysis here.

Rather, I will use two diagrams from my own analysis of the poem. The first diagram displays the constituent structure of the first 36 lines of the poem, from "In Xanadu did … " to "… with caves of ice." The idea is simple; big constituents consist of smaller ones, which consist of still smaller ones. Here’s the diagram of the first 36 lines:


I won’t attempt to explain that tree (yes, a tree, but not used in the way Moretti uses them in his book) in detail – I do that in my essay – but I will note that no particular interpretive ingenuity was required to arrive at it. It’s not something I have imposed on a mysterious and unwilling text. It’s no more mysterious, in fact, than noting that a sonnet consists of 3 quatrains and a couplet. Note, in particular, that those 36 lines divide into three major constituents, the middle of those divides into three, and, in turn, the middle of those divides into three. All other divisions are binary. The second part of the poem (18 lines) has a similar structure. That formal pattern requires an explanation, but I do not know how to provide one. So we must be content with mere description.

Now consider this diagram, also about the first 36 lines. It has the constituent structure on the left, the rhyme scheme on the right, and line-final words down the center:


What’s interesting is the relationship between constituency and rhyme. Look at lines 17-24. We have eight lines, four rhymed couplets. But syntactically, it’s 3, 3, and 2:

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:

Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Of chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:

And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.

I note that Reuven Tsur, working independently of me, has noted the same pattern (pp. 450-451, Toward a Theory of Cognitive Poetics, and in his forthcoming book on "Kubla Khan"). What’s that about? Why the disjunction between syntax and rhyme? What forces are operative there? I don’t know, but pretty much assume they’re neural.

At the moment I figure those diagrams represent:

1) an accurate description of a real aspect of "Kubla Khan,"

2) a contribution to descriptive poetics, and

3) a clue to the operations of the brain-mind that might be of value to neuropsychology.

That is to say, that pattern is one of many things an account of the human nervous system is going to have to explain. As such it imposes a constraint of models of the nervous system.

Beyond that, I believe that those patterns – and others in the poem – are what have made that poem so attractive and compelling to generations of readers. And that, in turn, is why Xanadu has entered the English language as a word my digital dictionary (provided by Apple, I don’t know the provenance beyond that) glosses thus: "used to convey an impression of a place as almost unattainably luxurious or beautiful: three architects and a planner combine to create a Xanadu." The popularity of the poem, so I believe, is directly or indirectly for those 2,000,000 hits you get when you google "Xanadu."

As far as we know Coleridge got the word from a travel book – Purchas his Pilgrimage – and placed it, and some other words and phrases apparently from that same book, into the poem where others have found it. Thanks to Coleridge’s notebooks and to Livingston Lowes 1927 book, The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination – which is mostly about allusions in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," but has chapters on "Kubla Khan" – we know quite a bit about Coleridge’s likely sources for imagery in the poem. But that’s another story, all those bits and pieces. We’ve got quite enough to deal with in Xanadu.

(For the curious, here’s a hypertext presentation of Lowes’ findings. At least that’s what the site claims; I haven’t checked it exhaustively. Here’s a detailed time line of Coleridge’s career.)

A Thousand Points of Light, a Metaphor

But how did "Xanadu" get from Coleridge’s poem to the web? How did it reach those 2,000,000 people who put it on some website? Obviously, through some form of communication.

We might, for example, use a relay race as a metaphor for this process. In a relay race a baton is passed from one runner to the next. This metaphor is a reasonable way to think about passing property from one generation to another through inheritance. But it is not a good metaphor for communication. When a baton is passed, it moves from one person to another. The passer no longer has the baton, for batons can only be in once place at a time. Messages, ideas, are not like that. The person who passes the message still has the message once she has conveyed it to another.

Instead of a baton, let’s think of passing a candle flame from one person to another. Not the candle, just the flame. Each person has their own candle.

One advantage of flame-passing as a metaphor for cultural transmission – for that is what we are talking about – is that it allows for a rough and ready distinction between the biological and cultural facets in our nature. Certain conditions must be met for a candle to work properly. Those correspond to our biological nature, which is more or less, but not exactly, the same from one population to another. But there are aspects of candle composition that can vary, and these affect such things as the color and intensity of the flame, the odor given off, and how rapidly the wax is consumed. These factors correspond to our cultural nature, and can vary considerably from one population to another. Thus a small odorless yellow flame can easily ignite a large scented orange flame. The quality of the new flame is different from that of the flame that supplied the ignition energy. Let us call this modification.

Now let’s push the metaphor a bit. Imagine we have, say, a dozen people closely gathered in a group and holding their unlit candles so the wicks are touching. A person with a lighted candle approaches the group, touches the flame to the massed wicks and voilà!, twelve new points of light. A single flame has been amplified into 13 in one step. Let us call this amplification.

Qualitative modification and amplification, these are the concepts we need to understand the Xanadu cultural system. The system starts in 13th century Mongolia, where Kubla Khan founds the city of Shang-tu. That becomes Xamdu in Purchas his Pilgrimage, which was published in the early 17th century. Coleridge read that book late in the 18th century placed Kubla Khan, Xanadu, and his palace and gardens into his poem. That is where our story really begins. What we’re looking for are the amplifiers and modifiers that, in concert, have resulted in Xanadu appearing in 2,000,000 places on the web, with prominent clusters of sybaritic and cybernetic environments among them.

Xanadu: A View from the Wikipedia

Let us start with the Wikipedia. As you know, the Wikipedia is a reference work created through the efforts of hundreds of thousands of volunteers around the world. Though, like any reference work, it stands at some distance from the world it documents, it is also, and at one and the same time, a part of that world. This recursive duality is particularly important in our consideration of the Xanadu system, for that system exists in a meshwork of relationships among people extended over geographical space and historical time. The Wikipedia entries for Xanadu thus constitute a dense nexus in that overall extended network.

The Wikipedia contains articles on several Xanadu tokens. ("Token," a term of art meaning individual instance of some symbol or string of symbols) It lists them all on a so-called disambiguation page where it tells us that "the name Xanadu is widespread and used for many subjects. Most uses of the word trace its origins to Xanadu, the summer capital of Kublai Khan’s empire." The underlined link in that sentence is connected to the Wikipedia entry for the geographic feature, Xanadu. The Wikipedia lists these other uses for the word, many of which are discussed elsewhere in the Widipedia:

* Xanadu (song), a song recorded by the Canadian progressive rock trio Rush for their album A Farewell to Kings

* Xanadu (Citizen Kane), the fictional mansion built by Charles Foster Kane in the film Citizen Kane

* Watching Xanadu, a single recorded by Mull Historical Society

* Xanadu (Titan), an enigmatic bright feature on the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan

* In Garage Kids, a prequel to French animated series Code: LYOKO, Xanadu is an ancestor to virtual world Lyoko.

* Project Xanadu, an early hypertext markup project

* Xanadu House , a series of experimental homes, built to showcase computers and automation in the home

* Xanadu (film), a film starring, and with a soundtrack by, Olivia Newton-John

* Xanadu (comic), a comic book series by Vicki Wyman

* Xanadu 2.0, the nickname of Bill Gates’ futuristic private estate

* Xanadu (video game), a video game by Falcom

* Xanadu (anime), from the anime series Lain

* Xanadu (snowpark), the biggest indoor snowpark in Europe, located at Arroyomolinos, near Madrid

* Xanadu, the name of Mandrake’s estate in the old comic Mandrake the Magician

* In Xanadu, a book written by William Dalrymple

* Xanadu is the name of a proposed entertainment and sports complex in New Jersey.

Note the Coleridge’s poem is not mentioned in this list. Nor is it mentioned in many of the Wikipedia articles about these various Xanadus. But those articles for the underlined Xanadu tokens all mention the poem. The Wikipedia entry for the poem contains links to at least some – perhaps all, I’ve not checked – of the articles linked in the above list. It contains other links as well. Like the world it documents, the Wikipedia is not a tidy little closed system.

Xanadu: A Google View

Now let’s go to Google. Google indexes the web. When you "ask" it to search for occurrences of "Xanadu" it returns a long list of items which you can then examine one after the other. That list is quite different in character from the one you find in the Wikipedia disambiguation entry that we examined above. For one thing, the Wikipedia entry only has 10s of items while the Google list has on the order of 2 million. Dramatic though that difference it, that differences is superficial.

The deep difference is that the Wikipedia list is explicit within the Wikipedia while the Google list is only implicit within the Google system. The Wikipedia list was created by the volunteers who work on the Wikipedia. That list exists within the Wikipedia whether or not anyone is actually reading it at any given moment. The Google list exists only when someone calls it into being by searching on the term "Xanadu." Otherwise it has no existence as a "compact" object. The Wikipedia listing shows us the Xanadu system as it has been filtered through the minds of a small group of people. The Google listing still reflects human intentions, but much more diffusely.

With that in mind, let’s google "Xanadu." In doing so, keep in mind that Google orders items according to their connectivity in the web. The basic idea is that the more incoming links a page has, the higher it is in the listing. Thus in examining items at the top of the ranking we are, in theory, looking at items that are "centrally" located in the Xanadu system. In any event, this sample of items is certainly not a random one; it is highly biased. In fact, a few of the items at the top of the Google list also appear in the Wikipedia list.

When I googled "Xanadu" on 1.21.2005 these are the first ten entries in the return list:

1. Xanadu (1980): Xanadu - Cast, Crew, Reviews, Plot Summary, Comments, Discussion, Taglines, Trailers, Posters, Photos, Showtimes, Link to Official Site, Fan Sites.

2. Kubla Khan: In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree: Where Alph, the sacred river, ran Through caverns measureless to man: Down to a sunless sea. ...

3. Xanadu Australia: The name "Xanadu" and the Flaming-X symbol are software an eid service trademarks of Project Xanadu, registered in certain countries and claimed elsewhere. ...

4. XANADU Software Home Page: In XANADU did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure dome decree… ---. The XANADU software package comprises high-level, multi-mission tasks for X-ray astronomical ...

5. Welcome to Xanadu Secrets Become Udanax Open-Source. The long history of the Xanadu® vision of hypertext has inspired many individual

6. The Mills - Madrid Xanadu: Madrid Xanadu · Register for X Alerts. Lo último en Madrid Xanadú. No hay ningún evento previsto actualmente.

7. Index: .:Test Page - www2:. - 1k - Cached - Similar pages

8. Xanadu: The language and translation wizard

Xanadu: The language and translation wizard. Translate words and terms. Find professional translators. Read language related news.

9. Xanadu (1980): DVD: Xanadu, Olivia Newton-John, Gene Kelly, Michael Beck, James Sloyan, Dimitra Arliss, Katie Hanley, Fred McCarren, Ren Woods, Sandahl Bergman, Lynn Latham, ...

10. Ted Nelson and Xanadu: The Electronic Labyrinth is a study of the implications of hypertext for creative writers looking to move beyond traditional notions of linearity.

The first and ninth items are for a 1980 movie staring Olivia Newton-John and obviously being derived from her hit song of the same name; this is included in the Wikipedia list. I’ve never seen the movie, but have heard the song many times – and can’t help but hear fragments of it at the mere mention of her name and the song title. The second item is a text of the poem itself in the online text repository at the University of Virginia – not in the Wikipedia list, but "close by." This is one of many copies of the text online; I’ve made no attempt to count them, but that should be doable with the appropriate resources. Entries three, four, five, eight, and ten are all related to Ted Nelson’s Xanadu project (included in the Wikipedia list), which I’ll discuss in a moment. There’s nothing at item seven, nor do I have any idea why it is so highly ranked. Item eight is a retail and entertainment complex in Madrid (also in the Wikipedia list) that features an indoor ski-slope – caves of ice?

Entries 3, 4, 5, 8, and 10 place Xanadu in a cybernetic environment, while entries 1, 9, and 8 place it in a sybaritic environment. That accounts for 8 of the top 10. The poem itself is the second item; I don’t see that it makes any sense to score it as belonging in either a cybernetic or sybaritic environment. I don’t know what to make of item 7 since there is nothing there. But if we examine the domain name, we see that it is for "xanaduwines" and that surely belongs in the sybaritic group.

If we continue scrolling through the list we’ll find more software links, but we’ll also come to an entry for The Mills - Meadowlands Xanadu, which is a retail and entertainment being built in New Jersey just West of New York City. Given the name and nature of the project, I strongly suspect that this is corporate sibling of Madrid Xanadu.  A bit further on we come to the Manchester Swingers Club Xanadu in Britain, "for North West swinging couples." Also in Britain we find, "Xanadu Interiors: Interior Design, Interior Designers, London." And so it goes for page after page. I haven’t made any attempt to sample this list in any exhaustive way. All I want to do is motivate my assertion that, at first glance, the sybaritic and cybernetic groups seem real.

As I noted in the introduction, Oedipus gets roughly the same number of hits as Xanadu does. I chose Oedipus as a term for comparison as it too is closely associated with the specific literary text, though a considerably older one. Beyond that, it is also associated with psychoanalysis, a conceptual system that is roughly a hundred years old and it still current, if somewhat beleagured. Let’s take a look at the return list for Oedipus and compare it to that for Xanadu. I’ve listed the top ten returns in Appendix 1. All of them are to sites referencing the story of Oedipus. Eight of them reference Sophocles’ play. One of them references a game based on the play, while another references an animated parody of the story. Moving beyond the top ten we find more Sophocles references, but we also have sites for: 1) Oedipus, a band out of Los Angeles, 2) a Motorcycle Club in Southern California, 3) a site which is described as "a SourceForge project that I’ve recycled to provide a CVS server and bug tracker for various projects of mine", and 4) a site devoted to resources for the blind.

The web environments for Oedipus thus seem to be mostly about the ancient Greek play with a mixture of other stuff. Curiously, there weren’t any references to Freud or to psychoanalysis at the top of the returns lists. I entered "Freud" and "Oedipus" into the search window (as two separate items, not as a single phrase) and got 340,000 hits. I’ve listed the top 10 in Appendix 1 as well. Presumably those are a subset of the return list for Oedipus alone. I have no idea how far one has to go into the Oedipus list to starting running into those items.

At this point we have evidence for two things: 1) That the cybernetic and sybaritic clusters are present in the return list for Xanadu, and 2) that the return list from Oedipus is quite different in character, with many items associated directly with the "originating" literary text. Given the sketchy nature of these analytic forays, it would be unwise to draw any hard and fast conclusions.

Instead, let us play around a bit more. The good folks at Google now have a gaggle of search engines available, so let’s try another one. Let’s take a look in Google Books, which searches the full text of books that publishers have allowd Google to include in the service, which is but a fraction of all the books in print or in libraries.  I’ve listed first ten entries in Appendix 2. I won’t comment on these beyond noting that the first two entries are about Suburban Xanadu: The Casino Resort on the Las Vegas Strip and Beyond while the last four are all related to media and the internet.

Let’s try another search engine, Google Images. Rather than present the return list, which is hardly the point, I’ll show a few of the images. This, of course, introduces my own bias into the analysis. As you might imagine, there were lots of images associated with the movie. But there were other images as well. Here’s an image of the indoor ski-slope from Madrid Xanadu:


Here’s an image from a collection held at the library of the University of Las Vegas:


Here’s a brief introduction to that collection:

In 1996 UNLV Libraries Special Collections acquired, with the assistance of Michael Acorn, Director of the UNLV School of Architecture, and Alan Hess, Los Angeles-based architectural historian and preservationist, all the architectural drawings, design brochures, specifications, artists rendering and photographs of Martin Stern, Jr., who designed and defined a significant chunk of the Las Vegas skyline from his 1953 low-rise room additions to the Sahara, the addition of its first high-rise tower in 1959, to the 1964 cylindrical, sculpted tower of an expanded Sands Hotel. Stern defined the new post-Hughes corporate Strip architecture with his 1969 Hotel International (later the Hilton), and in 1973 with his grandiose MGM Grand (now Bally’s), in which Stern’s epic porte cochere finally supplanted neon as the primal architectural statement.

The picture depicts a design study for an hotel commissioned by Donald Trump:

But the Stern design that should have been built was the Xanadu. The Xanadu Hotel, developed by Donald Trump, was planned for the site now occupied by the Excalibur. Trump’s financing fell through and Stern estimates that he himself lost a million dollars in the project. The Xanadu was a giant mastaba with a huge atrium. The rooms were stepped back by its sloping walls, a presage of the later Luxor. Most striking in the glittering presentation drawings of the interior of the atrium is the circular bar suspended several stories above the floor on a slender stemlike column, like a small Shangri-La in the clouds, or maybe a giant daiquiri glass

Finally, something different:


That image was created by NASA. Here’s part of the caption:

This image taken on Oct. 24, 2004, reveals Titan’s bright "continent-sized" terrain known as Xanadu. It was acquired with the narrow angle camera on Cassini’s imaging science subsystem through a spectral filter centered at 938 nanometers, a wavelength region at which Titan’s surface can be most easily detected.

That’s quite a trip, from Kubla Khan’s summer capital in the 13th century to a geological feature on the surface of Titan. It would be easy to continue listing items and commenting on them, but it’s time to start working our way back to Moretti. To that end we need to do some old-fashioned interpretation: What can we make of these items in the Xanadu system?

Examining and Interpreting the Xanadu System

Let us assume, for the purposes of discussion, that the existence of these two clusters is real: 1) sybaritic excess: entertainment, exotica, and opulence and 2) cybernetic connectivity: hypertext, media, the internet. This does not mean that all of the web sites associated with "Xanadu" can be placed in one of those two categories. It only means that many of those web sites can be placed in one or another of those categories, and that those two categories are the largest groups in the return list. I don’t have any sense of how many websites are associated with the poem itself. Thus I don’t know whether that class is comparable to the sybarites or the cybernauts.

Given that these two groups are real, how did they come about?

Let us start with the cybernetics group, which seems unrelated to Coleridge’s poem. There is no particular mystery about why this is so large. Back in the 1960s Ted Nelson started exploring the notion of hypertext and named his project Xanadu, after the locus in Coleridge’s poem. I do not know just why he choose that name, though one might find out by exploring the web from this page or that.

Whatever Nelson’s reason for choosing that name, his project became legendary among computer and digital media folks. There is obviously a history there, one that has left many traces in the web. That history is behind all these technology and media oriented sites in the Xanadu system. With the respect to the large historical forces behind this technology Nelson’s decision to name his project Xanadu would seem to be one of Tim Burke’s instances of dumb luck. Though I don’t actually know this, I suspect most of the interest in Nelson’s project has been related to the technological content of the project itself. Whatever reasonable name Nelson had chosen would have been carried along with that interest. But he choose to call it "Xanadu" and so then term has become indissolubly linked to high tech.

Nelson adopted the "Xanadu" name in 1967. He first published his ideas in a 1974 book entitled Computer Lib/Dream Machines and then later in his 1981 Literary Machines. I became aware of the first book sometime in the late 1970s, when I was in graduate school. I was introduced to it by my friend, Richard Fritzson, who was deeply immersed in the world of computers. I became aware of the 1981 when someone showed me a copy while I was working on a NASA project that summer. The project involved computing and so I was surrounded by computer folks from all over the country. I do not have any sense of how widely Nelson’s ideas were known during this period, but they certainly circulated in university-related computer circles. By this time the personal computer revolution was moving into high gear and that certainly gave an impetus to Nelson’s ideas.

The other cluster of meanings seems more rooted in the poem itself, which talks of a pleasure dome, of a woman wailing for her demon lover, and which has that ejaculatory fountain. That’s not all that’s in the poem, of course. We also have the damsel with a dulcimer and the fear and ritual magic at the end of the poem. That doesn’t quite fit in with the sybaritic theme. Reuven Tsur has argued that the poem is a mystical one and I certainly agree. Mysticism and sybaritic excess are not exactly opposed, but they are not deeply consonant either. The relationship between them is complex and gnarled.

One might argue that that filter is something as large and diffuse as Western Culture, but I have something rather more specific in mind: Orson Welles’s 1941 Citizen Kane. Though it won the Best Screenplay Oscar, the film’s early history was checkered. It was released in Europe in 1946, to much acclaim, and revived in the United States in the 1950s, when it became widely acknowledged as "the greatest film ever made."

Critics, can, however, make such a declaration without lots of people having seen the film. Just what put the film before lots of eyes, and when, is not quite clear to me. I first saw it in a college film series in the late 1960s, and suspect that, by that time it had been a staple on the college circuit for awhile. That would put the film in front of lots of people, but gradually over a longish-period of time. Sometime during this period – the 60s – the name "Rosebud" showed up on a sled in the Charlie Brown comic strip. That was, of course, a reference to the film. That suggests relatively wide awareness of the film by that time.

More directly to our immediate purposes, the first five lines of the poem were put up on the screen and read in the voice-over on the soundtrack. The film is about a tycoon in the newspaper business – based on William Randolph Hearst – and "Xanadu" was the name of his uncompleted Florida mansion – Hearst’s mansion was named San Simeon and still exists in California. This, I suspect, is primarily responsible for the sybaritic bias in the Xanadu system.

This interpretation gains some confirming evidence from the OED, which dates "Xanadu" to Purchas, in 1625, then lists "Kubla Khan," published in 1816, and finally has six entries between 1948 and 1977, all with architectural references having implications of luxe, that is, the sybaritic cluster. These last six entries are subsequent to Citizen Kane. That is hardly proof of the Kane hypothesis, but I note that the OED has no entries between Coleridge’s poem and that cluster. This suggests that the word entered the language as a term of excess sometime after Welles’ film. Prior to that it was simply the name of an exotic city that happened to be mentioned in one of the best-known poems in the English language.

Events subsequent to Kane have helped amplify the sybaritic cluste. Olivia Newton-John’s 1980 movie became a cult classic and she went on to, I suppose, a reasonable, if not particularly long-lived, career as a pop singer. That would have given "Xanadu" quite a bit of pop visibility in the near past. Before Newton-John, in 1977 the Canadian rock group Rush recorded a "Xanadu" song that used many fragments from "Kubla Khan" in the lyrics (a bit of googling will turn get you all of this stuff).

Here then, is my proposal about the Xanadu system. Given that the OED lists nothing between Purchas and "Kubla Khan" let’s say that the system starts with Coleridge. We would like to know why he wrote "Kubla Khan" in the first place and why it talks of "Xanadu." That sort of question – the poem’s origins – has generated a large and inconclusive literature: we don’t know. Whatever it is, for our purposes it is enough to assert that the poem exists through Coleridge’s agency. The very real possibility that the poem "came to him" in an opium induced vision does not, as far as I’m concerned, affect that assertion in any deep way. However he came to write it, he chose to put the poem before the world. That’s agency.

Coleridge published the poem in 1816. It was not particularly well received, but Coleridge was known to have given compelling readings of the poem. From that point up through and into the 20th century the poem’s cultural presence was amplified by the methods of industrial era print culture, whatever they were. The poem was popular enough that Livingston Lowes devoted several chapters to it in his 1927 The Road to Xanadu, which was otherwise about "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." That book sold well enough that its copyright was renewed in 1955. That date, of course, is after Welles’s film put the first lines of "Kubla Khan" across the screen.

Welles’s film did two things: 1) it further amplified the cultural presence of the Xanadu meme, and 2) it modified its containing environment. Whatever it is that attracted Welles, or his screen writer, Herman Mankiewicz, to the poem, their use of it put Xanadu before a large audience, and do so rather more rapidly than the print-culture of the 19th and 20th centries did. But the chemical composition of their candle, if you will, was rather different from that of Coleridge’s candle, and those who caught the flame from him and from his expositor, Livingston Lowes. The Kane flame, and those in the audience who lit their candles by it, burned with a different color and a different odor. And so we have a branching in the cultural course of the Xanadu system.

Starting in 1967 Ted Nelson initiated another branching in the system. He introduced the meme to a different social network with rather different attitudes and interests. These people where technophiles. I’m guessing that this branch of the system didn’t really take off until the personal computer revolution of the late 1970s put computers in many different hands and led to the birth of a computer subculture that had deep roots in the counter culture of the 1960s as well as the university and corporate worlds of high technology.

The Xanadu system thus described resembles Moretti’s work in the "Maps" chapter of his book. He looked at clues over the course of decades and at free indirect discourse over the course of almost two centuries. In fact, the indirect discourse system he examines has roughly the same time span as the Xanadu system. Both began in the early 19th century and branched out in the 20th. The Xanadu system is rather different in character though. Early on it involves a poem, an enigmatic and attractive one, and, so far as I can tell, nothing more. That poem, of course, remains part of the system.

But an element within that poem, a single word, becomes detached from the poem and then circulates in two different branches of this system. The word carries different connotations in these two branches, one sybaritic and the other cybernetic. These branches do not depend directly on the poem itself, but rather on the cultural produces and processes which gave them life: movies, songs, computers, networks, software.

Crudely put, the Xanadu cultural system has three phases, each associated with a branch in the system:

1. Print media: 1816 into the first half of the 20th century. This is the root of the system, as it were.

2. Electronic and mass media: mid-20th century to present.

3. Digital media with world-wide provenance: mid 1990s to present.

Beyond Interpretation

The discussion in the previous section is full of interpretation statements. I see no way to eliminate them, nor do I have any desire to do so. They are essential to thought.

But what would it mean to explain the Xanadu system as I have outlined it? I have asserted that Coleridge’s poem is at the center of this system, but I certainly haven’t proved it. Even if I am correct in that guess, we do not know just why that poem has been so popular. I have asserted that poem’s form is critical to that popularity. But I have by no means explained just why that should be so. That explanation will have to be couched in psychological – perhaps even neuroscientific – terms. So that is one thing.

That explanation would tell us why individual upon individual is attracted to the poem. But we also need to understand the workings of social networks and how ideas, attitudes, and feelings move through those networks. What structure do such networks have to have in order to amplify their cultural inputs? What about the time course of memes through the networks?

I note, however, that there is considerable independence between these two problems. We can analyze the properties of socio-cultural networks without knowing just what it is about "Kubla Khan" that makes it compelling. Similarly, we can think about the poem itself, in all its particularity and formal sophistication, without worrying about how it has made its way in the world.

Finally, I want to make some remarks about the biological metaphor, which has pervaded this exploration and which is so important to Moretti’s work. As Jenny Davidson has noted elsewhere on this site, new historicism has been enormously productive and influential over the last few decades. Yet the terms of its success – scrupulous attention to historical context – have had a curious effect:  history is atomized into a pile of moments that a next to one another, but have lost all causal connection from one decade to another, one generation to another.

Here, I believe, is where it will prove fruitful, albeit difficult and tricky, to learn from evolutionary biology. Living things are quite specific. Populations are adapted to environments. When the environment changes, a population must adapt or perish. The relationship between a population and its environment is thus one of particularity. But, over the long term, environments do change. And populations adapt and change, some of them, at least. Others fail to change and so they perish.

Literary history, and its parent, cultural history, exhibits the same phenomenon. How can we adapt the logical form of evolutionary explanation to the rather different demands of our materials? I emphasize logical form, because that’s what is important. Gene, phenotype, environment, reproduce, adapt – these conceptual objects and others are all related to one another through a certain logical form. It is that form that we must strive to reconstruct in terms appropriate to our discipline.

One aspect of this process is purely theoretical. But that must be closely related to concrete examples of description and analysis. That is what Moretti has given us in Graphs, Maps, Trees. And that is what I have sketched out in this essay, a single example that involves literary and cultural materials deployed in a manner inspired by biology.


Appendix 1: Googling Oedipus

When I googled Oedipus on 1.22.2005, I got roughly 2M hits. This is the first ten:

The Classics Pages - Oedipus Tyrannos by Sophocles: Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrrannus (Oedipus the King, Oedipus Rex). Discussion of the interpretation of the tragedy. (O.

The Oedipus Game : Start Page<: [Takes you to the Oracle of Loxias, where your questions can be answered], You’ve read the play: now play the Game! You are sitting on the slope of the ...

The Internet Classics Archive | Oedipus the King by Sophocles: <!--quoteTitle> by Sophocles, part of the Internet Classics Archive.

Oedipus Rex: Synopsis of ‘Oedipus Rex,’ Sophocles’ dramatic masterpiece.

Oedipus Study Guide: Oedipus rules over Thebes, a city whose mythological background is important to ... Oedipus even begins the play by calling its residents the “new blood of ...

Enjoying “Oedipus the King” by Sophocles: An overview of the legend, the play, and major themes of Oedipus Rex by Ed Friedlander.

GradeSaver: ClassicNote: Oedipus Rex / Oedipus the King: Full summary and analysis of Oedipus Rex / Oedipus the King by Sophocles written by Harvard students. Includes a biography, and background information on ...

Oedipus - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: Finally, the seer Teiresias revealed to Oedipus that he himself was the ... Oedipus discovered he was really the son of Laius and Jocasta and that all of ...

oedipus: The story of OEDIPUS, in 8 minutes, performed by vegetables, in the lavish tradition of BEN HUR and GLADIATOR. Directed by Jason Wishnow.

Oedipus, Greek Mythology Link: The blind Oedipus goes into exile led by his daughter Antigone 2 ... Oedipus: I am the one who came into high songs of victory, because I guessed the ...

I then submitted Freud and Oedipus to Google and got 340,000 hits. Note that when I did this I did not group the two terms together into a phrase by surrounding them with quotation marks ("Freud Oedipus"). That would have forced Google to search for that phrase, which is much more restrictive; if you do that, you get roughly 800 hits. This is the first ten items returned by asking for pages with both Freud and Oedipus on them:

D2: Freud, Jung, and Psychoanalysis: Oedipus Redivivus Freud, Jung and Psychoanalysis. Douglas A. Davis1 Haverford College ... Freud and Oedipus. New York: Columbia University Press. ...

Sigmund Freud Oedipus complex repression: Sigmund Freud’s major works. The Interpretation of Dreams, The Oedipus complex, Freudian slips, free associaion.

Freud and Oedipus: Teresa M. claims Freud’s Oedipal Complex doesn’t apply to Oedipus: I agree that he ... Sophocles, “Oedipus as Evidence: The Theatrical Background to Freud’s ...

Freud: On Narcissism: CriticaLink | Freud: On Narcissism | Terms. Oedipus complex. Drawing on the Greek myth of Oedipus as dramatized by Sophocles in the tragedy Oedipus the King ...

Oedipus complex revisited; son of Freud rebuts father: Otto Rank inspires a revamped interpretation of Freud’s Oedipus complex, making love the focus instead of fear, reducing intellect and historical truth to ...

Antigone, the neglected daughter of Oedipus: Freud’s gender ...: Antigone, the neglected daughter of Oedipus: Freud’s gender concepts in theory. Shainess N. MeSH Terms Female Freudian Theory* Gender Identity* ...

oedipus freud - Books, journals, articles @ The Questia Online Library: For instance, Freud’s Oedipus has very little to do with… ... Peter Rudnytsky notes in Freud and Oedipus that Freud also stressed. ...

Sigmund Freud’s final outline of psychoanalysis: Oedipus Rex: The story of King Oedipus, from the Greek play, is retold by Freud in Interpretation of Dreams (1924). The way the Oedipus Complex breaks down ...

Untitled Document: ... False Sense of Ego Oedipus, Freud’s Oedipus Complex, Oedipus Freud, Psychology Oedipus, Freud’s Favorite Band Oedipus, Freud’s favorite Music Oedipus, ...

Oedipus complex: Definition and Much More From The Oedipus complex is a concept developed by Sigmund Freud, who inspired Carl Jung (he described the concept and coined the term “Complex"), to explain the ...

By Bill Benzon on 01/24/06 at 04:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Appendix 2: Xanadu in Google Books

The first 10 items returned when submitting Xanadu to Google Books:

1. Suburban Xanadu: The Casino Resort on the Las Vegas Strip and Beyond by David G Schwartz - Social Science - 2003 - 243 pages

2. Suburban Xanadu: The Casino Resort on the Las Vegas Strip and Beyond by David Schwartz - Social Science - 2003 - 240 pages.

* Page 15 - ... exile in the Nevada desert Attacks on gambling in general and legalized gambling in particular have recently been uttered by various public officials. ...

3. From Apec to Xanadu: Creating a Viable Community in the Post-Cold War Pacific edited by Donald C Hellmann, Kenneth B Pyle - Political Science - 1997 - 264 pages

* Page v - ... Used Abbreviations xiii Contents 1. Introduction Donald C. Hellmann and Kenneth B.

* Pyle 3 2. APEC in a New International Order Robert G. Gilpin 14 3. ...

4. Necroscope: Invaders by Brian Lumley - Fiction - 2000 - 544 pages

* Page 1 - Prologue IN XANADU, JETHRO MANCHESTER HAD BUiLT A pleasure dome, in fact the Pleasure Dome Casino. But that was some time ago, and since then Manchester’s ...

5. Saturn’s Race by Larry Niven, Steven Barnes - Fiction - 2001 - 384 pages

* Page 3 - 1 JUNE 2020 T he sun had fled the sky hours ago, and with it, Xanadu’s winged children. Before it dipped beneath Bombay’s horizon, a thousand kilometers to ...

6. Short Stories for Rainy Days by M E Keimig - Fiction - 2004 - 164 pages

* Page 2 - Why don’t you drive in Xanadu with the other slow-pokes and stay off the highways.” Just then, Jack heard a loud noise. Thinking it was thunder, ...

7. Networks of Innovation: Change and Meaning in the Age of the Internet by Ilkka Tuomi - Business & Economics - 2003 - 250 pages

* Page 50 - Similarly, whereas much of the Xanadu architecture was based on solving the problem of fair reuse, the WWW didn’t have any way to facilitate intellectual ...

8. Multimedia and Hypertext: The Internet and Beyond by Jakob Nielsen - Computers - 1995 - 480 pages

* Page 38 - Parts of Xanadu do work and have been a product from the Xanadu Operating ... The Xanadu vision has never been implemented, however, and probably never will ...

9. The World As Information by Robert Abbott - Social Science - 1999 - 160 pages

* Page 124 - If the Xanadu project fails then maybe the ideal of a World Brain will never be realised, and information disorder will spiral ever more out of control. ...

10. Electronic Books and Epublishing by Harold Henke - Computers - 2001 - 241 pages

* Page 145 - The Economist (2000) magazine provided a succinct description of Xanadu: “Xanadu ... The Xanadu system could contain only one copy of a particular novel. ...

By Bill Benzon on 01/24/06 at 04:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wow, Bill. Fascinating. Trailing clouds of glory, even.

By Miriam Jones on 01/24/06 at 05:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t have time to read this properly now, but I wanted to draw your attention to a very interesting critique of New Historicism: Sarah Maza’s “Stephen Greenblatt, New Historicism, and Cultural History, or, What we Talk About When We Talk About Interidsciplinarity,” Modern Intellectual History 1:2 (2004): 249-65.

By Jenny D on 01/24/06 at 06:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks Miriam.

By Bill Benzon on 01/24/06 at 07:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Be it known that Cosma Shalizi has posted a long, detailed, very favorable review of Moretti.

By John Emerson on 01/24/06 at 07:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, I urge everyone to read it.

By Bill Benzon on 01/24/06 at 08:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Why the disjunction between syntax and rhyme? What forces are operative there? I don’t know, but pretty much assume they’re neural.

>>> And lovely. And commonsense poetical, if not commonsense neural. Thus of course the need for science to understand the neural given the evidence of the poetic (syntax rhyme mix). One does not ask why the top of one’s head lifts off. One asks, I suppose, what is lift, technically speaking? Careers could be spent, and I think have been, attempting to define lift, in one form or another.

At the moment I figure those diagrams represent:

1) an accurate description of a real aspect of “Kubla Khan,”

2) a contribution to descriptive poetics, and

3) a clue to the operations of the brain-mind that might be of value to neuropsychology.

That is to say, that pattern is one of many things an account of the human nervous system is going to have to explain. As such it imposes a constraint of models of the nervous system.

>>> It appears to, at least for now.

Beyond that, I believe that those patterns – and others in the poem – are what have made that poem so attractive and compelling to generations of readers.

>>> Seems like solid stuff to me. A start. I would think though that fundamental advances would much more readily be made in the traditional hard sciences - for what that’s worth.

By Tony Christini on 01/24/06 at 08:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, Tony, it’s funny. Over there

at The Edge, John Brockman has been busy promoting his various stables of writers, one group of which he calls the Third Culture intellectuals. About these folks Brockman says:

The recent publishing successes of serious science books have surprised only the old-style intellectuals. Their view is that these books are anomalies--that they are bought but not read. I disagree. The emergence of this third-culture activity is evidence that many people have a great intellectual hunger for new and important ideas and are willing to make the effort to educate themselves.

The wide appeal of the third-culture thinkers is not due solely to their writing ability; what traditionally has been called “science” has today become “public culture.” Stewart Brand writes that “Science is the only news. When you scan through a newspaper or magazine, all the human interest stuff is the same old he-said-she-said, the politics and economics the same sorry cyclic dramas, the fashions a pathetic illusion of newness, and even the technology is predictable if you know the science. Human nature doesn’t change much; science does, and the change accrues, altering the world irreversibly.” We now live in a world in which the rate of change is the biggest change. Science has thus become a big story.

But I wonder whether or not any of these folks have anything interesting to say about “Kubla Khan” or its projection on to the web, as I have described it, or about the phenomena Moretti has uncovered. I’d dearly love for these thinkers to give us some real help, but I don’t know whether they’ve got the awareness, temperament, or the craft skills. The problems are deep and, as far as I can tell, they’ve not confronted in any profound way.

I love science, that’s why I do this kind of work. But I also love literature, and that’s why I’m unwilling to fall for Brockman’s kind of cheesy scientism. He’s got some smart and interesting people writing for him, but his digital boosterism is getting a bit long in the tooth. We need a new impresario in this arena.

By Bill Benzon on 01/24/06 at 08:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

>>> Seems like solid stuff to me. A start. I would think though that fundamental advances would much more readily be made in the traditional hard sciences - for what that’s worth.


To clarify my remark above in the event that it may need it: my point was just to note what seems to me to be the tremendous difficulty of your area of focus, Bill. I agree that it’s fascinating and worth pursuing. To me personally, and of no consequence to anything, it’s more fascinating than what I refer to as the traditional hard sciences. But it’s all in the realm of science.

And I’m speaking as an outsider mainly, in that my area of pursuit is not scientific, but artistic, political, and otherwise.

I just mean to note that it’s more difficult to do scientific work in certain sectors than in others. It’s harder to do scientific work in the social sciences for example because of the incredible complexity and near impossibility of setting up tightly controlled experiments that might result in proof of real theory.

Is it any easier - that is, more possible - to do scientific work in realms traditionally thought of as the humanities? Maybe. Doesn’t seem clear though that it is. So I’m just sounding a note of caution in the midst of otherwise exciting even exhilirating prospects (perhaps because so apparently daunting and also so relevant to gaining more of a notion of what is human nature), a note of caution not a whole lot different, I think, from your own remark that goes something like: any such field is just at the beginning of a beginning of a beginning - if I’m not misrepresenting your view.

By Tony Christini on 01/24/06 at 09:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My friend and colleague Tim Perper has some comments. Tim is a geneticist by training, has published interdisciplinary work on human courtship, and is working on manga and anime these days. Here’s what Tim says:

Let’s try a thought experiment. Assume that instead of “Xanadu,” Coleridge had had used the name “Piflheim.” In Piflheim, Kubla Khan built a pleasure palace… do we really and truly believe that there would now be a place on Titan or in Madrid or in Shibuya called Piflheim? Well, no, we don’t.

So we learn that *language* itself has something to do with the spread of “Xanadu” from Coleridge to Madrid, Tokyo, and outer space. “Xanadu” _sounds_ exotic, remarkable, strange and wonderful, whereas Piflheim does not. There are probably well known rules of English that explain why or at least deal with sonorousness and similar things, but let’s skip that.

Now comes one of my favorite ideas. What exactly is a Xanadu? Well, I have to admit I have no idea, not really, not in any detail… I know that it isn’t Piflheim or even Weehawken. But it sounds good—sybaritic, if you like, or alien but immensely rich. By contrast, Piflheim has old wooden buildings, kind of rickety, and it’s probably *cold* in Piflheim, in fact, it’s probably snowing in Piflheim at this very moment. It’s also damp, and has old wharves and vermin-infested warehouses. People leave Piflheim the first chance they get. But Xanadu…

For all intents and purposes, the word “Xanadu” was empty when Coleridge started this ball rolling. Xanadu could be *anything*—but when Coleridge told people that Kubla Khan had a stately pleasure dome in Xanadu, the mental space called “Xanadu” began to fill up. Ideas, concepts, hopes, desires began to pour into that space, and slowly “Xanadu” became home, so to speak, to meanings that people invented for it. Xanadu was fleshed out by these myriad acts of creativity by nameless people who *built* a Xanadu of the mind, more accurately, of the minds. You see, it *isn’t* snowing in Xanadu, because it’s warm and lovely in Xanadu, with orange trees and peaches and lovely girls and handsome men and… People don’t try to leave Xanadu first chance they get.

Some years ago, Martha [Tim’s wife and colleague] and I were working on an Oz pastiche that we called “Mercenaries in Oz.” It’s set in the near future, and is very Oz-like. We needed to bring airplanes into Oz, actually not an easy task, since Oz runs on rather strange kinds of magic and not internal combustion engines. So, we invented the Xanadu-Shangri-La Airline, which runs twin-engine plane service between the two places, with stopoffs at Mnish and Yellow Oxen Lake, where there is a natural stone that looks like Buddha.  At least it used to run a plane service, until a sandstorm that lasted five days blew the plane off course and it finally had to land in the Emerald City. Now it’s the Xanadu-ShangriLa-Emerald City Airline, and if you know where to get tickets you can go to Oz.

Such yearnings—for escape, for freedom, for beauty, for les richesses du Xanadu—exist “out there” without the name “Xanadu.” They are a sociological fact or series of facts. Such facts exert what can be called “sociological suction,” meaning that they pull things into their own webs, for example a lovely-sounding name from a poem written in the early 1800s. We can individualize these sociological processes by noting that they actually are the collective and interactive workings of many, many minds and people, but either way the result is the same: Xanadu came into being not as an empty word but as a repository for a wide array of yearnings.

So now we see why people leave Piflheim as soon as they can. It’s cold in Piflheim, and there’s nothing to do there except watch the weeds grow. Piflheim is on the opposite side of the world than Xanadu. So it isn’t that Xanadu spread into the world; the world adopted Xanadu and actively replicated and reproduced it. Xanadu is merely a piece of linguistic flotsam on top of much deeper currents that move it here and there. Those currents are the desires and feelings of millions of people, which shape the places of the mind like Xanadu. And Piflheim, too—because it’s always nice to be able to say that you *came* from Piflheim. It’s a good place to have come from—and not go back.

By Bill Benzon on 01/24/06 at 11:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree, Tim. The sound of /xanadu/ is important. Somehow I don’t think a Charles Foster Kane would have named his mansion “Piflheim,” it’s just too trifling. Which makes me wonder about sound symbolism in general in “Kban Khan.”

Note that Amardeep has already introduced sound symbolism into this Morett-fest:

By Bill Benzon on 01/25/06 at 09:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tim mentioned Shibuya, which is an entertainment district in Tokyo. So I took a look around and found a Club Xanadu in Shibuya (notice the domain name):

Seems they have something called Yakuta Night there (a yakuta is a light weight summer kimono). Here’s a photo from Yakuta Night:

Here’s an excerpt from someone’s travel diary:

Finally, Ryan and I find a place called Xanadu, the music sounds decent, and the cover is only 500 yen which includes a drink.  We head down to check it out.  Now THIS, is exactly what we were looking for.  Besides the bar staff, Ryan and I were probably the only white people in there.  Excellent!  We beeline for the bar, get some drinks and check out the scene.  The music is outrageously loud, the selection of women great, the atmosphere awesome!  We were all a little broke, but this made a nice change from the expense of Roppongi, and at 500 yen per drink, and they were STRONG, we were in business.  We hadn’t been in the place for but 5 minutes, and Ryan met this really cute girl Fumi, and was talking away to her, and dancing, and having a great time.  They introduced me to her friend, whose name I forget.  She was nice, but seemed to be terrified of the big foreigner as every time I leaned in to talk to her over the music, she jumped about a mile.  So I kinda left her alone and hung out at the bar talking to the bartender when I ended up meeting Akiko.  She sauntered upto the bar, and I helped her order a drink.  We started talking, then dancing, and then she throws me up on the stage to dance with all the girls.  I was having a blast, and Yoshi seemed to be having a good time, especially after I ordered him a few Kamikazes, he was all over the place.

You can find it here:

This, of course, raises the possibility of mapping these various Xanadu’s in the manner of Moretti’s “Maps” chapter. Where the named is attached to a physical place, such as this club, or the Manchester swinger’s club, that place can be located on a map. If the name is attached to an organization that has an office or offices, they can be mapped. And so forth.

By Bill Benzon on 01/25/06 at 09:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Here’s the abstrtact for the article Jenny Davidson mentioned:

Sarah Maza, “Stephen Greenblatt, New Historicism, and Cultural History, or, What we Talk About When We Talk About Interidsciplinarity,” Modern Intellectual History 1:2 (2004): 249-65.

Michael Warner, a literary critic with a keen sense of history, wrote in 1987 that “New Historicism is a label that historians don’t like very much because they understand something different by historicism. But nobody’s asking historians….” This essay is an answer to questions nobody asked me, questions about interdisciplinarity and the differences between literary critical and historical practices. A return to historically informed literary criticism, which many critics still consider a dominant trend in the profession, emerged in the early 1980s following the publication of Stephen Greenblatt’s acclaimed Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980). Reacting as it did against the decontextualized abstractions of New Criticism and Deconstruction, the movement soon labeled New Historicism sought to breathe new life into canonical texts by relating them to non-literary texts and social practices of their day. This historicist inclination should have formed the basis for a coming together of the movement’s practitioners with historians interested in literary representations. But no such merger has occurred: New Historicists evince little interest in the systematic, archivally based study of history, and historians have at best shown indifference to the work of Greenblatt and his followers.

By Bill Benzon on 01/25/06 at 03:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

re: Piflheim.  I wonder if it’s not the sound of Xanadu so much as the look. That ‘X’ is culturally coded ‘cool’, ‘adult’, ‘transgressive’, ‘mysterious’ and various other stuff.  That can only have helped spread the term about.  Would the meme have worked so well with ‘Zanadu’?  How about ‘Tsanadu’?

The look of words is a misunderestimated thing, I think.  I’m reminded of the character of boy in Peter Schaffer’s Equus whose fascination with horses begins with a fascination for the word ‘equus’, so odd and beautiful-looking with those two ‘u’s together like that.  I wonder [to pick a couple of examples from Bill’s googled list] if there’s a similar fascination in that weird ‘OE’ at the beginning of ‘Oedipus’?  Or the way ‘Olympus’ looks like it starts with a rhyme for ‘Roly Poly Oli’ but sounds O-lim-pus?  Or that the two ‘e’s in ‘Eden’ look alike but sound different?  This sort of thing may be a factor in the making up of cool names.

One final example: ‘Google’ itself, which was named (as any fule kno) after a typo:  the word for the very high number is spelled ‘Googol’; google founders typed in the wrong spelling when they registered their site name.  But though the two words sound exactly alike, ‘Google’ is a much better meme-seed than ‘Googol’; because it looks like a verb participle, like something you do; and because it looks like ‘goog-lee’ even though it’s pronounced ... well, we all know how it’s pronounced.  My point: there’s a creative tension there, as there is in Xanadu.  ‘X’ in Xanadu plays against the fact that we normally associate X with ‘ks’; the ‘Hix Nix Sox Pix’ or whatever the famous headline is.  Or a better example, the title Fox in Socks delights children because they can see that the two nouns here end in the same sound even though the words look so very different.

What if it was this sort of thing that gave a word-as-meme like Xanadu real wings, with the people spreading it needing only the very haziest notions of its signified (’strange foreign place’) lurking somewhere behind it?

Cracking post, by the way, Bill.

By Adam Roberts on 01/25/06 at 03:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Adam.

Is this the sort of thing you have in mind?


That’s the logo of Project Xanadu, and carries these magical words with it:

The name “Xanadu” and the Flaming-X symbol are software and service trademarks of Project Xanadu, registered in certain countries and claimed elsewhere.

What if it was this sort of thing that gave a word-as-meme like Xanadu real wings, with the people spreading it needing only the very haziest notions of its signified (’strange foreign place’) lurking somewhere behind it?

That’s fine by me. That, in part, is how sound symbolism works.

I’d like to know how many of the people who recognize “Xanadu” is some context are aware of the poem. I pretty much assume that the word has, by now, broken free of the poem and is traveling, not necessarily on its own, but on currents that may have origins in the poem, but that get much of their energy from other cultural sources.

By Bill Benzon on 01/25/06 at 03:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Four performances of “Kubla Khan,” with acoustic analysis, courtesy of Reuven Tsur:

By Bill Benzon on 01/25/06 at 05:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m copying this from a thread on an email listerve ( and is of relavence here.

But it’s perfect to discuss the sonnet in terms of trees. Petrarch, for instance, uses the image of “your eyes are like stars” which gets picked up and repeated, but by the time it gets to Shakespeare it reads “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” The form itself gets picked up and changed in each country. Each language changes it slightly. The first language to pick it up, Spanish, has the form closest to Italian. Then France picks it up and it’s a fair bit different. Then England steals it and it gets changed even more (though still 14 lines). Eventually you start getting bizarre changes, such as double sonnets, caudated sonnets, and Hopkins’ curtal sonnet. Russia even gets its own sonnet, the Onegin sonnet, which gets borrowed into American literature in Vikram Seth’s _The Golden Gate_.

And so forth and so on. A tree (or rather a bush) is a fabulous way of representing all of this. The bulk of the work to be done is to study the dead ends, the mutations that didn’t make it.


By on 01/25/06 at 07:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

. . . study the dead ends, the mutations that didn’t make it.

Yes. As it is it is too easy to think of cultural change as a straight-line progression to what we have now. But that’s not how it works, at least I don’t think so. In a way new historicism may be of some help, because that encourages you to muck around in all the messy lore to get a feel for what it was like then rather than simply seeing the old stuff as a step along the way to the next step.

By Bill Benzon on 01/25/06 at 08:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, and once that work is at least partly done we can start answering the more fundamental question: Why do certain branches break off while others flourish? Along these lines (as I believe somebody already mentioned) cognitive science will be of tremendous use. Your own work along with Reuven Tsur’s (atleast out of what I’ve read) can serve as a wonderful beginning to this study. There’s a lot of productive work that can come out of this.

By on 01/25/06 at 10:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I want to make some remarks about the biological metaphor, which has pervaded this exploration and which is so important to Moretti’s work. As Jenny Davidson has noted elsewhere on this site, new historicism has been enormously productive and influential over the last few decades. Yet the terms of its success – scrupulous attention to historical context – have had a curious effect:  history is atomized into a pile of moments that a next to one another, but have lost all causal connection from one decade to another, one generation to another.

Here, I believe, is where it will prove fruitful, albeit difficult and tricky, to learn from evolutionary biology. Living things are quite specific. Populations are adapted to environments. When the environment changes, a population must adapt or perish. The relationship between a population and its environment is thus one of particularity. But, over the long term, environments do change. And populations adapt and change, some of them, at least. Others fail to change and so they perish.

Quite the amazing post, Bill.  I have too much to say about it (and Moretti too), but a couple of quick questions:

You’ve mentioned that culture may evolve in a Lamarckian fashion instead of a Darwinian, but all the models I’ve seen have been baldly Darwinian.  I’m not opposed to that on principle, but as mentioned earlier, it saps the idea of intention from the equation, which leaves one with a theory predicated on un-self-conscious behavior being applied to a set in which all objects are the product of intentional acts.  I’m not sure how I feel about that (which is largely the reason I’ve declined, so far, to step into this discussion, despite misapplications of evolutionary theory being my hobby horse, er, dissertation). 

I know, I know, vague complaints.  As soon as I can catch my breath, however, I’ll flesh them out.  I’ll also mount a minor defense of New Historicism, or maybe just historicism, since I think the idea that they or it has compartmentalized history into units lacking causal connections is the result of reading individual essays instead of surveying the field.  Yes, each essay delves so deeply into a particular historical moment it threatens to divorce it from all others, but a look at the citations in such an essay will reveal that it is, in fact, connected to and complementary of a larger scholarly discourse.  Such, at least, has been my experience.  I’ll quantify this in my “official” response, however.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 01/25/06 at 10:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

*Fascinating* article with a wealth of interesting material.  The “why” question is the kicker, though—it seems to me that there is a conflict brewing between historically-mediated and cognitive science-driven approaches to this problem.  Personally I take the more historical bent.  I don’t see how the hard-ware questions of cognitive science would give us much traction solving it.  To pick up one of the most recent posts above, it seems to me that the word, as well as the poem, would be under tremendously different selective forces under the eye of a native Japanese speaker and a native English speaker (with all the linguistic + cultural structure that entails).  But cognitive science, at the level of the consideration of syntax and semantics, loves to play drastically different languages off each other as differential perspectives on the same essential wiring.

By on 01/25/06 at 11:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m note sure what you mean, Scott. I certainly didn’t use the word “Lamarckian”—can’t even spell it unless it’s in front of me. Everyone at every point is intending for something to happen. Things that are a person’s direct control will happen. But much of what we try to accomplish requires the other people, the stock market, the weather, fate, the gods, go along with our intentions. Sometimes things work out, sometimes they don’t.

The intention that fails in eliciting the universe’s complicity is no less intention for that failure. It’s just that intention is not enough. Conversely, it would be I mistake to think that, because your intentions have be born out in this or that matter—even a major matter—that you have the universe at your beck and call.

The critical book here, I believe, is Arthur de Vany’s Hollywood Economics. The people who greenlight movies intend for them to at least break even, if not make a profit. In some cases they even intend for the movie to be a blockbuster. To these ends they do all various things to see that those intentions succeed. The enlist “bankable” stars and “bankable” directors. They do advance screenings and make last minute changes in accord with audience feedback. They throw parties and generate lots of PR and pick just the right time to release their movies. And no matter what they do, their intentions are, most of the time, not realized.

There does not seem to be any way of surveying the marketplace and executing the film such that you know what will happen when the latter is released into the former. The marketplace “resists” our efforts to probe it for the “information” we need to make successful films. Thus, the movie business is something of a crap-shoot.

And so is the music business and the book busiiness and the theatre business, all for the same reasons.

When Coleridge wrote his poem, did he intend for there to be a house of the future named after Xanadu? Here’s a picture, from Kissimmee, Florida:


By Bill Benzon on 01/25/06 at 11:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But cognitive science, at the level of the consideration of syntax and semantics . . .

But there is this sound symbolism business, and that says that certain sounds have pretty much the same connotations and “valence" regardless of culture. So the “vibe” of Xanadu might be pretty much the same everywhere, and that’s all we need once it’s be stripped free of Coleridge’s poem and situated in another context. You can find links on sound symbolism elsewhere in The Valve.

By Bill Benzon on 01/25/06 at 11:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It seems that Scott’s point indicates that conscious/free choice appears to impossibly complicate the ability to discover theory of human behavior or nature via literature or culture. Bill notes that predicting or understanding human
behaviour and nature is extremely complicated, like understanding or predicting the weather. Scott’s point seems to indicate that it is far more complicated than even that because the weather cannot up and do anything intentionally, that is, I assume, consciously, freely - either to create or to perpetuate...or anything.

But look what humans can do intentionally with language. Almost anything, may not be an overstatement - and apparently freely, that is for seemingly no reason or to no account whatsoever. Animals can scarcely act intentionally so freely, nor plants, let alone the weather, which nevertheless remains in many ways unfathomable.

Ten, nine, eight, six, five, four, three, two, one. Seven. Shall I go on? Who knows? The role of free choice in human language, in literature and culture, just blows the potential complexity to be studied into unfathomability well beyond even the unfathomability of much nonhuman nature. This doesn’t place such study at a dead end, but it surely needs to be reckoned with. And so we should note that a scientific pursuit of literature and culture is way more complex than that of hurricanes or of biological change. If the hard sciences are hard, any humanities sciences would seem, something akin to unspeakably hard. And yet we speak of it.

But forget predicting which movie will succeed more than the others and why. Try to predict what I’ll say next. And why. Try to predict how anyone will understand and react to what no one knows I will say next. And why.

“What color is god?” “Blue?” Ten, nine, eight....Finnegans Wake.

Much “science” is classificatory. Sure, a lot of language phenomena can be more
insightfully classified than it has been, just as hurricanes can be classified
and understood in more detail. But the step from classification of literature to theory? that can explain more than what was and is in human affairs but what human nature is? People’s brains can be scanned to see how they react to art, but this often tells us nothing about how people then choose to react to that art - to purchase, continue with temporarily, to walk away, to destroy.... And in any case such scanning occurs in an environment and context far less complex than anything found in common life. Is there a science of free will? It would seem to be needed. Perhaps its closest approximation thus far, the greatest most illuminating studies that have been done, may be found in the great novels, precisely because such works do take into account what theory cannot begin to account for - that is, as Scott mentions - consciousness, free choice.

By Tony Christini on 01/26/06 at 04:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

In Beethoven’s Anvil (pp. 198-199) I offer the following principle:

Cultural Freedom: While all human societies must ensure the biological survival of their members, there is considerable leeway in how that is accomplished. This creates a zone of cultural discretion that is constrained only by the group’s collective capacity for coupled neural interaction and desire for pleasure.

To state this in the language of dynamics we introduced in Chapter 3, what is at issue is a society’s trajectory through its collective state space. Biological needs certainly place strong constraints on that trajectory. But that state space is so very large that it still leaves many degrees of freedom to the arbitrary and capricious whim of the culture. By choosing what designs to inscribe in those degrees of freedom, the members of a society impose their will on the world.

I note that biologists do not use evolutionary theory to predict future states in the evolution of this or that organism. I note also that mathematically inclined biologists make extensive use of computer simulations to study the behavior of evolutionary systems. They’re not so much predicting how the simulation will evolve as they are investigating system dynammics in highly idealized systems that unfold much more rapidly in real time than do real biological systems. In these investigations they’re “predicting” the overall statistical behavior of the system, not the evolution of this or that individual component.

By Bill Benzon on 01/26/06 at 07:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A pop-up book of “Kubla Khan":


By Bill Benzon on 01/26/06 at 09:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

From Tim Perper:

I just generated an interesting couple of statistics using Google. The + means a required word in the search, and the - means it is to be omitted.

Search terms:

(1a) +xanadu -poem -olivia = 1,740,000 hits.

(1b) +xanadu +nelson -poem -olivia = 214,000 hits = 12.3%

(2a) +xanadu -olivia = 1,800,000

(2b) +xanadu +nelson -olivia = 226,000 = 12.6%

Given the error rate on Google, these are the same.

So we have 12.3% and 12.6% of the sites referring to Nelson’s Project Xanadu, but not to the poem nor to the film (which had Olivia Newton-John in it). Note that the word “poem” doesn’t appear in very many of these sites—maybe 60,000, by difference between lines (1a) and (2a).

By Bill Benzon on 01/26/06 at 12:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

12:30 – 12:55 PM 26 Jan 2005

I decided to imitate Tim’s calculations but swapping the roles of “olivia” and “nelson.” Here’s what I got:

(1a) +xanadu -poem -nelson = 2,830,000 hits.
(1b) +xanadu +olivia -poem -nelson = 305,000 hits = 10.89%

(2a) +xanadu -nelson = 2,920,000
(2b) +xanadu +olivia -nelson = 312,000 = 10.69%

Noticing that I was generating over 2M hits, I did a search on just plain xanadu.  Here’s what I got:

3) +xanadu = 5,870,000 hits

Almost 6M hits, as opposed to the roughly 2M hits I usually get. I’ve been doing this query now and then for about a month. Once I got as few as 1.6M hits. But there was also a time when I got considerably more; I think it was about 7M, but I don’t really remember.

The 5.87, though, would appear to be real. I haven’t got the foggiest idea of what’s going on.

Two more queries:

4) +xanadu +kubla = 66,200
5) +xanadu +coleridge = 66,300

So that checks out with your “poem” estimate Tim.  Now some queries coupling xanadu with other words from the text itself:

6) +xanadu +abora = 888
7) +xanadu +dulcimer = 11,600
8) +xanadu +stately = 53,700
9) +xanadu +tumult = 10,700
10) +xanadu +pleasure-dome = 56,100
11) +xanadu +paradise = 1,690,000

Notice the low number for “abora.” That’s in the second half of the poem, and seems likely to be rather rare in general. notice the high figure for “paradise,” the last word in the poem. Back when I did my counts for the paper I’d gotten 61,300,000 for paradise. So let’s check both of these now:

12) +abora = 85,400
13) +paradise = 135,000,000

At 2:25 PM the same day I did another check on Xanadu:

14) +xanadu = 3,320,000 hits

I also repeated queries 1a, 1b, 2a, and 2b, and got the same results.

Curious stuff.

By Bill Benzon on 01/26/06 at 03:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve done another check on how many hits you get when you google /xanadu/.  It’s 7:28 PM on 26 January 2005. Number of hits:


So we’re back there again. As I’ve said, I have no idea what produces those higher numbers of hits. I can only observe that we’re interacting with a “fluid” system. For whatever reason, the number of hits you get when you query /xanadu/ is sensitive to some obscure temporary state of the Google system.

And, I suppose, that’s the question: Are we dealing with fluctuations in the state of the web or with fluctuations in the state of Google? I’d think the latter.

By Bill Benzon on 01/26/06 at 08:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

> I’ve done another check on how many hits you get when you google /xanadu/.
> It’s 7:28 PM on 26 January 2005. Number of hits:
> 2,050,000
> So we’re back there again. As I’ve said, I have no idea what produces
> those higher numbers of hits. I can only observe that we’re interacting
> with a “fluid” system. For whatever reason, the number of hits you get
> when you query /xanadu/ is sensitive to some obscure temporary state of the
> Google system.
> And, I suppose, that’s the question: Are we dealing with fluctuations in
> the state of the web or with fluctuations in the state of Google? I’d think
> the latter.

It seems probably the latter one way or another. I’m under the vague impression that some search engines modify the results they return to you based on what you’ve searched for before; the engines try to get a sense of what “you” want to see about any given topic and not what there is to be seen in general. I don’t know if that would be the case with your computer. Or maybe you’ve taken this into account.

By Tony Christini on 01/26/06 at 08:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So, I fire-up iTunes and go to the online store looking for “Xanadu” stuff. I find a lot of it, much Olivia Newton-John. No surprise there. But under podcasts I also find something called XANADU loves NHC Videocasting Vol.01. It’s free, so I download it.

What I get is a very small video image of three young Japanese women chatting away. Of course, I hear what they say. But it doesn’t do me much good because I can’t understand Japanese. I click on something that promises information about this pod-cast and here’s what I get (if your computer is not set-up to make sense of Japanese, I assume you’ll get gibberish):

女子アナからスポーツ選手、アイドル、そしてお笑い芸人まで、様々なジャンルのホリプロ所属タレントから成っている女子フットサルチーム「XANADU loves NHC」の練習風景や練習試合、オフトークなどをお送りするビデオキャスティングの番組です。


Anyone know what that says?

By Bill Benzon on 01/26/06 at 09:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Here’s the Official Blog for Xanadu loves NHC:

They appear to be a sports team of some sort.

By Bill Benzon on 01/26/06 at 10:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m guessing they play soccer:


By Bill Benzon on 01/26/06 at 10:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I posted notice of this discussion to a memetics list, where one Keith Henson responded that he’d worked on the Xanadu code and that he had a current email address for Ted Nelson. Keith offered to email Nelson and ask him just why he chose to call his project Xanadu. Of course, I urged him to do so.

He has done so, and Nelson has responded, as follows:


I chose “Xanadu” because

1. “Kubla Khan” is the most romantic poem in English and I loved it;

2. The backstory-- that he was interrupted in his reverie by the dreaded Person from Porlock and lost much of the poem-- represents the hazards of the creative process.

Which I hoped to eliminate.

Thus I always thought of the system as “The magic place of literary memory, where nothing is lost.”

I have always resented people who speak of it as “technology.”
The technology follows the idea and not vice versa: it is an idea for which a variety of mechanisms have been found. Or, as Hume said, “ The Reason is, and by rights ought to be, slave to the emotions.”

And, incidentally, I say “idea,” not “meme.” Ideas matter, memes
are ideas gone bad.

Ted Nelson

We now have evidence of the intentions of one of the key actors in this little cultural drama.

By Bill Benzon on 01/27/06 at 04:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve contacted Gilles Poitras, an anime expert, and he’s given me a bit of information about Xanadu in the anime world:

OK some Google searches  

+Xanadu +anime = 97,200  
+Xanadu +lain = 27,600 [to get Serial Experiments Lain all which are likely to also be in the first search]  

Many of the results deal with XANADU Dragon Slayer Densetsu an OVA (Original Video Animation) from 1983.  

Other than that and Serial Experiments Lain there are some references to video games and music from the Olivia Project, which is connected to Newton-John.  
Now getting to Serial Experiments Lain, the main reason Xanadu is mentioned there is Ted Nelson’s work. Lain is dense with references to the history of cybernetics, computer and otherwise. So seeing Nelson’s Xanadu mentioned is to be expected.  

The exotic nature of the word itself and the description in the poem both have a resonance with the anime industry which often, but far from always, uses exotic names and detailed settings in its products. After all an industry that has produced well over 4,000 titles mainly in the past 40 years is bound to produce some exotic elements in it’s works, and mention Xanadu in a few of them.  

As for things named after or connected to Xanadu, Xanadumono (Xanadu-things) to create a Japanese word, British poetry has a history of influencing Japanese culture since the end of the 19th Century. The imperial loyalists who overthrew the shogun in 1868 has strong links to the British Empire, being able to buy weapons and obtain significant diplomatic support from England were important to their cause. For this reason many Japanese students who went to Europe to study ended up in England and many scholars and technicians who went to Japan to teach came from there. Along with this contact went poetry resulting in literary changes in both societies. Now I’m getting out of my field so I’ll stop rather than risk straying into major errors regarding literature.  

By Bill Benzon on 01/27/06 at 09:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tim Perper sent me this link:

It’s to a “cyber novel” called the Realm of Xanadu. It’s hypertext, and has lots of pictures of this mysterious realm of the past and future called Xanadu and its sacred writings. It’s goth in texture. And, of course, fully aware of Coleridge, with settings of his poems and links to some of the online scholarship, and Ted Nelson, and Rush.

Check it out.

By Bill Benzon on 01/27/06 at 05:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Coleridge learned of Xanadu from this book:

By Bill Benzon on 01/27/06 at 05:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This is mostly a test. I loaded the image below to a private web site. I just want to see if The Valve’s engine can get there a post it for view here. And it stays visible.

Still, the image does have some connection to the discussion. It’s a screen shot of the iTunes Visualizer. I was listening to Olivia Newton-John singing “Xanadu”—the soundtrack version—and taking screen shots of the images.


By Bill Benzon on 01/27/06 at 11:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This is a rich paper and conversation, and a concrete illustration of the need for a new discipline—online archaeology. I will pass the link to my archaeology friends at Stanford and see what they think.

By Howard Rheingold on 01/28/06 at 11:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve just made another little fact-finding run out into the net and turned up an interesting piece of information. The unbuilt Xanadu Hotel project (above) was initiated by Donald Trump. Where’d hep, or Stern, his architect, get the name?  So linked my way to this list

where I discovered that that project dates from 1975, before Olivia Newton-John. So where’d they get the name? Coleridge? Welles? Nelson? 

Inquiring minds want to know.

By Bill Benzon on 01/29/06 at 08:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I have just found a document that is, in the context of this discussion, a most ingteresting document (PDF). This is the decision of a legal action brought by Trump Taj Mahal Associations against Chatam International Incorporated. Chatam has filed to use “Xanadu” as a trademark for “wines and distilled spirits.” Trump opposed the application because they’ve been using the name for a nightclub and restaurant.

There’s no question of priority, Trump was there first. What’s at issue is whether or not Chatam’s use will result in confusion in the marketplace. Are Trump and Chatam competitors in the same market and thus likely to be confused with one another if Chatam is allowed to market a Xanadu brand? The court decided against Trump, thus allowing Chatam to use the name.

I won’t attempt to summarize the reasoning, which isn’t all that complex, just tedious. But I’ll quote some key passages. First we deal with the provenance of the name:

To demonstrate the suggestive nature of the mark and the public’s familiarity with the term, applicant has made of record an encyclopedia reference describing “Xanadu” as a province or region in China “mentioned” in Samuel Coleridge’s poem, “Kubla Khan” as the site of Khan’s well-known pleasure garden.

Then we’re told that Chatham has produced a dictionary definition, defining Xanadu as “a place of great beauty, luxury, and contentment.” I’m not sure why, when quoting the poem that “Applicant has also included passages from the poem itself as it appears in a dictionary of quotations,” rather than quoting the poem in full from any one of a zillion anthologies or editions. Perhaps they weren’t aware of such things. Then we have “three publications in the nature of movie and video review guides” that reference the 1980 film. The court concludes:

It can be seen from this evidence that XANADU is not an arbitrary or fanciful mark in the context of opposer’s services. The evidence shows that when XANADU is used in connection with a nightclub and restaurant the term is in fact suggestive of the environment or ambiance for those services.

That is, the term (Xanadu) seems to have inherent meaning “suggestive” of the business of Trump’s venu, a nightclub, and so its trademark value is not entirely due to Trump’s activities. Toward the end of the document, the court says this:

In view of the foregoing and the suggestive quality of the mark in connection with opposer’s [Trump] nightclub and restaurant, we find the mark is, at best, only moderately strong as used in connection with those services and, as such, entitled to a more limited scope of protection than an arbitrary or fanciful mark.

There’s some fascinating material in the text and footnotes about evidence obtained from database searches and so forth and whether or not it’s admissible. You’ll have to read the document itself for that (it’s only 14 double-typed pages).

What’s so intesting about this is that the case depends in part on the prevalance and “inherent” meaning and connotations of /xanadu/. If the court had decided that the word was without inherent “resonance” with Trump’s venue, it would have given him more consideration. The prevalence and meaning of the word worked against Trump.

I leave you with this interesting footnote from the decision (#11, p. 13), which bears on the issue of how the word gets around from person to person:

As a final note, opposer’s suggestion that applicant intentionally adopted its XANADU mark to trade directly on the goodwill of opposer is unsupported. It is true that the person responsible for selecting the word XANADU as applicant’s mark, Mr. Kevin O’Brien, stated, in response to a request for admission, that he had “[stayed] overnight” at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort “prior to August 8, 1997” that is, at some time prior to the filing of the involved application. However, there was no request for Mr. O’Brien to admit that he was aware of the XANADU nightclub during that visit and moreover, there is no particular time frame for that visit; it could have occurred prior to the time the nightclub was in existence.

By Bill Benzon on 01/29/06 at 10:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

For various vague reasons I had considered Olivia Newton-John’s Xanadu film and song as amplifying the Citizen Kane lineage in the Xanadu phylogeny. I have now seen the film and I believe that is incorrect. ONJ has created a new branch in the Xanadu phylogeny.

In the first place, Coleridge’s poem is quoted directly in the film in a bit of dialogue between Gene Kelly and Olivia Newton-John. Equally important, if not more so, the mood of the film is quite different from that of CK and the valence of |xanadu| is thus quite different.

In CK, Xanadu is the name of an incomplete, but grandiose, estate. It is a symbol of Kane’s outsized ambition and, ultimately, his failure – failure in what?, to achieve happiness? In ONJ’s film Xanadu is the name of a nightclub and is the fruition of the dreams of two men from two generations, Gene Kelly, and the other one, a young artist (who falls in love with, an honest to gosh goddess, the character played ONJ). It is thus a symbol of success and celebration. The final sequence of the movie takes place inside the Xanadu Club and involves dancing and singing and lots of good stuff – and some bittersweetness as well. For these reasons – direct reference to Coleridge’s poem, connotative valence – I believe that ONJ’s film and song have started a new lineage off the main one.

= = = = = = = =

Meanwhile, I’ve continued to think about this and have put together some notes, including various diagrams. If you are interested in seeing these notes, email me at:

bbenzon [at] mindspring [dot] com

By Bill Benzon on 02/06/06 at 08:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I went to a video store today to see if I could purchase of copy of ONJ’s Xanadu. They didn’t have one in stock, so I had to special order one. The young clerk who took my order was thrilled. Seems she saw the movie when she was ten and loved it. But no one she knows has seen it and I was the first one who’d come into the store to order it. I asked her whether she knew where they name came from. She didn’t. I told her, and pointed out that the poem was quoted in the movie itself. That’s when she told me she’d seen it when she was ten; you don’t remember such details at that age. I don’t think she recognized Coleridge’s name or poem at all.

So, here’s someone for whom “Xanadu” is a meaningful word, yet her knowledge is tied to a movie, not the original source.

By Bill Benzon on 02/07/06 at 05:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Further thoughts on the |xanadu| meme (PDF)

By Bill Benzon on 02/10/06 at 09:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Xanadu, Home of the future, walk-through on YouTube

By Bill Benzon on 09/18/06 at 02:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This detailed article on ‘One Candle, a Thousand Points of Light: Moretti and the Individual Text’ is amazing. The writer also touches on poems in the article. I too like poems and can recall reading poems under the lighting of my room. I feel poems can sell as well as other books. Poetry book suppliers could be happy when they know the books are sold well.

I let this through on chutzpah & ingenuity. But I nixed the URL.—BB

By on 10/26/11 at 01:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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