The Addendum

On Retronaut

Mashable calls itself “a leading source for news, information and resources for the Connected Generation. Mashable reports on the importance of digital innovation and how it empowers and inspires people around the world.” (Mashable web site, footer, retrieved January 24, 2015 from ). It’s not the sort of place you would expect to find historical materials. Yet it is also home to a feature called “Retronaut,” curated by Mashable employee Chris Wild.

According to Chris Wild’s Wikipedia page:

Chris Wild is the creator of the website Retronaut, an online archive of historic pictures. In its article on Retronaut, Fast Company wrote: “the images on Retronaut are chosen to make the viewer feel like they’re looking not at the past, but rather at a different version of the present”[1]

In July 2010, Wild was a speaker at the TEDGlobal conference.[2]

In November 2013, Retronaut was listed by The Times as one of “The 50 people you should follow on Twitter”.[3]

In December 2013, Wild was appointed Guest Curator of Woodhorn Museum and Northumberland Archives, England.[4]

The book “Retronaut: A Photographic Time Machine” was published by National Geographic in September 2014.[5] The book received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, saying “With every page comes a surprise; this terrific collection never ceases to entertain”.[6] The Daily Mail described it as “A magical tour of the past”.[7]

In August 2014, Mashable announced that Chris had joined Mashable’s editorial team and that from September 2014, Mashable would be the exclusive home of the Retronaut brand of historical photo curation.

Retrieved January 24, 2015 from

The photographs Retronaut uses are often taken from other archives, for example, the Library of Congress collections. Retronaut sometimes favors truly historic material—the kind of stuff that seems faded, stained, torn, rough, showing the patina of age. This is especially true of the monochromatic materials. With color images, however, the preference is for those that appear as if taken yesterday, even if they were taken a hundred years ago. It’s a kind of temporal jamming. For example, consider a recent post of the color photography—yes, color photography—of pre Great War Russian photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky (1863–1944) (Retrieved January 24, 2015 from


Like Shorpy ( Retronaut uses photography as an attempt to gain access to a different time, but unlike Shorpy, it often approaches the matter by trying to reduce the sense of temporal distance, rather than by trying to convey detailed information. (Shorpy takes a different approach showing images in radically large resolution, so that people looking at them can dig into the background for details.)

What is more interesting, however, is the way that Retronaut frames the whole matter in its own title. This is retro, not history, not the past. According to the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “retro’s” second case of use, (accessed January 24, 2015), retro’s etymology is:

“Probably < French rétro (adjective) that imitates or evokes a style from the relatively recent past (1974 or earlier), (noun) fashion or style of this type, person who adopts such a fashion or style (1974), shortened < rétrospectif”

It is “backwards looking,” and, more critically, “nostalgic.”

The oldest use of “retro,” according to the OED’s third case, is 1634. It is a classical Latin term, often legal, now rarely uses stand-alone, and is defined as “backwards; into the past. Also (now usually): retrospectively, with retrospective effect.” This in turn comes from “re,” a Latin prefix meaning “back or backwards,” and ‘”-tro”, a Latin adverb suffix that converts the back or backwards quality into a modification or description of an act (See OED entries for “retro-prefix” and “re- prefix.”)

As for the suffix of “-naut,” this clearly implies some form of navigation, as in nautical. Again according to the OED, (see entry “-naut suffix”,) comes from the ancient Greek for a sailor, and is often “used to form a number of words with the sense ‘voyager, traveller’, with the first element defining the nature of the travel or experience.” Retronaut offers, in its purest sense, a voyage backward, implied to me temporally backward.

Yet words change from their original sense, and it is difficult not to see the word “retronaut” in light of some of those other “travelers” that the OED identifies, especially the idea of the “Astronaut.” In this feature, the past—framed by Mashable alongside contemporary stories about, say, social media and digital-human frontiers—and becomes a territory akin to Space, a frontier of the unknown that can be explored. Retronaut makes the past a foreign country, but more so it is an entirely different element, in the way that Space is an entirely different element than the Earth’s atmosphere, or the land, or the sea. It is an othering of the past, a making of it into an exotic Terra Incognita, a world without comprehension rather than a world that was once someone’s yesterday, and in the cosmic scheme of things, still is ours.

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Quotes: Academese

…-isms are out, and –ities are in.  Words like “postcolonialism,” “modernism,” “materialism” or “feminism,” are so 20th century.  For the new millennium, we have new and improved words like “postcoloniality,” “modernity,” “materiality” and “intersectionality.”  If you must use an -ism, be sure to pluralize it.  No one will hear of a singular “feminism” or “materialism” today; there are only “feminisms” and “materialisms.”

Kristen Godse, “Ethnographers as Writers: A Light-Hearted Introduction to Academese”

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Quote: Hyper-specific Businesses

Jerry Seinfeld: “What if everyone just did what they liked? Would the world work?”

Fred Armisen:  “Boy, that’s a good question.”

Jerry Seinfeld: “Isn’t that Portland? Isn’t everyone in Portland doing just what they want?”

Fred Armisen: “Yes. There’s a thing that happens in this city that is this: people open these businesses that are so specific, and, they stay in business! So they have an idea, they’re just like, I’m gonna do a spoon and cup store, and I come back year after year, and they’re still going, they’ve got great real estate, and where…? who’s…?”

Jerry Seinfeld, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Season 5, Episode 5, January 6, 2015. Retrieved from

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Quote: Frasier on Gentrification

Frasier Crane: The whole area is undergoing what they call a ‘revitalization.’ Of course, they’ll probably just tear it down and put up a Benetton… a Bath and Body Works… a Sunglass Hut.

Niles Crane: Actually… I sort of like Bath and Body Works.

Frasier Crane: I do, too.

“Deathtrap.” Frasier, Season 9, Episode 19. Written by John Sherman, directed by Kelsey Grammer, 2002.

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Quote: On Data versus Knowledge, and the Uber Economy

“Searches for keywords will not provide contexts for keywords. Patterns that are revealed by searches will not identify their own causes and reasons. The new order will not relieve us of the old burdens, and the old pleasures, of erudition and interpretation.”

Leon Wieseltier, “Among the Disrupted,” New York Times Sunday Book Review, January 7, 2015.

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Quote: Don’t Ask What I’m Writing

“If writers agree on anything — which is unlikely — it’s that nothing can damage a novel in embryo as quickly and effectively as trying to describe it before it’s ready. Unfortunately, because we’re writers, aka bipedal nests of contradictions, avoiding the temptation to share is never as easy as simply keeping our mouths shut.

Why? Because we’re unsure — about very nearly everything. Because in our hearts we’re only as good as our last paragraph, and if the new book isn’t going anywhere, maybe we’re no good at all. Because we’re running on faith and fumes. In the early stages, before that magic moment when the voice of the story begins to speak, we want — no, crave — validation, someone on the outside who will say, preferably with godlike authority and timbre: ‘It’s brilliant. You’re on the right track. Just keep going.’”

Mark Slouka, “Don’t Ask What I’m Writing” The New York Times, August 24, 2013.

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Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles (1972)

Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles (1972) from Repazzo on Vimeo.

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Quote: Art’s Next Phase is Producerism

“Producerism,” we can call this, by analogy with consumerism. What we’re now persuaded to consume, most conspicuously, are the means to create. And the democratization of taste ensures that no one has the right (or inclination) to tell us when our work is bad. A universal grade inflation now obtains: we’re all swapping A-minuses all the time, or, in the language of Facebook, “likes.”

William Deresiewicz, writing in The Atlantic on the next phase of art, replacing the artisan, the genius, and the professional.

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Urban possibility

What anti-urbanists seem to forget is that most of the great creations of humanity were not solitary, but socially constructed, and that such things require the development of relationships, the in-person interaction even in (or, perhaps, especially in) a digitally-mediated age are a requirement for trust. And those relationships are simply far harder to initiate when the built environment provides hinderances and barriers that reduce interaction to the intentional and reduce the possibility of the serendipitous. 

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Reflecting on Finals Exams

The opening day of the last ever instance of the "A"-half of Paul Groth's American Cultural Landscapes course at U.C. Berkeley. I was privileged to be a part of the graduate student instructor team for the course, which officially ended last Wednesday.

The opening day of the last ever instance of the “A”-half of Paul Groth’s American Cultural Landscapes course at U.C. Berkeley. I was privileged to be a part of the graduate student instructor team for the course, which officially ended last Wednesday.

Finals day is tough for students, but it is tough in an entirely different way for those who, like me, teach. I do not mean the grueling hours of early mornings and lengthy grading days that come after finals—though to be sure those are tough in their own ways. Instead, what is tough is the sadness of parting.

Wednesday was the final exam day. It began early—8 a.m.—in a sunken auditorium room in a gloomy concrete campus building. Pens scratched away, pages rustled, brows furrowed. Over the semester, in small but meaningful ways I had come to know dozens of those students, dozens of young minds.

As the hours wore on, slowly they began to put down their pens, get up, and hand me their exams as they departed. And that was it.

I may someday see some of them again, in another class, in another semester, somewhere. But many, many I will never meet again. Where will they go? What will become of them?

I often wonder such things, and though in some ways I will miss my time with all of them, for a few I will feel the absence more. Sometimes this is because they were bright, personable students who, because they genuinely cared about the subject, made every classroom feel inviting. Sometimes this is because they simply exuded a sense of being a good person, like a strawberry that is red all of the way through. And sometimes? Sometimes it is because that student is utterly and profoundly brilliant. You hope to cross paths with them again. You hope, irrationally, that you may some day work with them as colleagues. You hope at the least that they stay in touch. You know they almost never will.

As the exam wore on, chair by chair the absences grew. I had seem the exam room empty plenty of times in the past—mostly at odd hours of the day, or just before or after a lecture is held. Yet as it stood, still partly occupied, students slowly draining away as they completed their exams, it felt emptier than if there had been nobody there at all. They were all slipping away, one by one, walking off into the world and their lives and who knew where.

The break, now, is upon us. Grading remained to be done, and then a reprieve from duties as a graduate student instructor. Soon enough, another semester will be upon us all. I will teach again, and the rest of my student instructor team will teach again too—though we will all go separate ways for new and different classes, new and different professors. Yet at this moment at the end of fifteen weeks, my mind lingers still on what will become of those for whom, in a brief season, I had the pleasure of being guide.

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