A University of California
Multi-Campus Research Group

Fall 2000 Conference: November 3-5


J. Hillis Miller
Department of English and Comparative Literature
University of California Irvine, CA 92717
voice: 714-854-3627 or 714-824-7445
fax: 714-824-6723

Digital Blake

How do you know but ev'ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos'd by your senses five?
(William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)

My questions are simple ones: Would Blake have approved of the William Blake Archive? Or would he have found it a hideous perversion of the aims he had with his works in what he called "Illuminated Printing." Is the William Blake Archive no more that a hyperbolic triumph of the Lockean spirit that gave birth to the spinning jenny and ultimately, in our latter days, to the World Wide Web? To alter W. B. Yeats's perhaps most Blakean verses:

Locke sank into a swoon;
The garden died;
God took the Macintosh
Out of his side. (1)

Whether or not Locke is truly the old Adam is hard to tell. Whether the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life were Macintosh apple trees is not recorded. It is not without significance, however, that the logo of Apple Computer should be an apple with a bite taken out of it. Computers give knowledge, perhaps guilty knowledge, of good and evil. Should Blake, nevertheless, have approved of the Blake Archive? Should we, its users potential or actual, approve of it? What happens to Blake, that is, Blake's works, when they get digitized? Do they remain the same, or are they fundamentally transformed, never to be the same again? My focus will be Plate 14 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, available in five different versions in the Blake Archive. Here they are, aranged in a row, after having been downloaded, in Deer Isle, Maine, into my Macintosh Powerbook G3, 1999 version. What is the difference between looking at Plate 14 in this way and reading the text of it in David Erdman's definitive edition of The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, or seeing it in one or more or the original copies, or seeing it in a facsimile edition?

Plate 14 of William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (The William Blake Archive)
Copy C (Pierpont Morgan Library)(Bentley 14, Erdman 14, Keynes 14) Copy H (The Fitzwilliam Museum) (Bentley 14, Erdman 14, Keynes 14) Copy D (Library of Congress) (Bentley 14, Erdman 14, Keynes 14) Copy F (Pierpont Morgan Library) (Bentley 14, Erdman 14, Keynes 14) Copy I (The Fitzwilliam Museum) (Bentley 14, Erdman 14, Keynes 14)

Whether or not the William Blake Archive is the work of the devil in either the usual sense or rather, on the contrary, in Blake's contrary sense, it is clearly an amazing technological accomplishment. Versions of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell dispersed in England and the United States in three different specialized collections, available only through expensive and not easily available facsimiles or, in the originals, only to qualified scholars with research funds allowing much travel, are now gathered in one "place" on the World Wide Web from which they may be downloaded, copied, studied, set side by side, and manipulated by anyone anywhere, Blake specialist or accidental browser, educated or not, Anyone who has the proper computer and access to the Internet may do it. Moreover, the Blake Archive accompanies Digital Blake with a wonderful array of bibliographical and technical information in addition to a full bibliography of secondary works and editions. These, plus the remote borrowing privileges I have from the University of California, give me on my remote island in Maine the equivalent of a major research library of Blake materials, or rather something better than any physical library provides.

I have written elsewhere about how what Jacques Derrida calls the "new regime of telecommunications" is replacing the print era with a digital era and about the way this new regime is breaking down inside/outside dichotomies associated with the era of print and bringing to an end, among other things, in Derrida's phrase, "what may still remain of literature." These inside/outside oppositions include divisions between the home and what is outside the home, between one country and another, between reality and imaginary or virtual reality, between subject and object, mind and its world, and between one medium and another. Text, picture, and sound are all now reduced indifferently to zeroes and ones. The new telecommunications are replacing the divided print world with a strange cyberspace, still strange to me at least, in which everything is copresent in a non-spatial space. In this "space" all things are both close and distant, both near and far, both inside and outside, in an uncanny or spectral distant proximity bringing swarms of ghosts into the house. We are increasingly inundated not so much by a "digital river" (the name of one software distributing company) as by an all-encompassing ubiquitous digital ocean. And the tide is rising.

I want in the context of this conference, however, to emphasize the contrast between Blake's relatively solitary act of poesis or making and the collective work that has gone into the William Blake Archive. Also important is the uniformity or repetitive nature of what has gone into the Blake Archive as against the relative uniqueness of each copy of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell as Blake made them. Of equal importance, finally, as a distinction between printed Blake and Digital Blake, is the highly mediated nature of our access to Blake through the Blake Archive. Though all media, including voice and writing, are mediated, as the word "media" implies, the word "mediated" can be given a double meaning in our context here. It names the indirection of what has been mediated, its lack of that immediacy for which we all in one way or another long. It names also the transformations that occur when one or another content is "mediated," as when we say "digitized," that is, accommodated to the constraints of one or another medium. The medium of "illuminated printing" Blake used was mediated all right, but it was still relatively immediate. When we see a Blake original we are seeing paper that he himself touched in the process of printing from a copper plate on which he had himself inscribed the design in acid-resistant materials. He then etched away all but the design-words, pictures, and flourishes combined-in an innovative mode of relief etching. We are seeing color that he himself applied, differently on every copy, just as the inks used in stamping differ from copy to copy. Each unique original shines there before is in all its glory, if we are lucky enough to get to see it, in a version of Hegel's definition of art as the sensible shining forth of the idea (das sinnliche Scheinen der Idee).

By contrast, though the digital images I have shown to you shine forth with their own dazzling immediacy, they are nevertheless, as the editors of the Blake Archive explain, the effect of many relays of mediation. These stages of technical reproduction involve photographing to make transparencies, scanning to digitize, color-checking and retouching to come as close to the original as possible, uploading on the University of Virginia server, labelling each image with the complex URL sequence that allows me or anyone else access to it, and then transmission in who knows how many separate packets through various servers and nodes around the country when I open Netscape and then the Blake Archive webpage, follow a sequence of buttons, and then finally click on the blue words that promise to give me Plate 14 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. If I have done this right my digitations or prestidigitations initiate the transmission followed by a recombination of the dispersed zeroes and ones in my local server,, then transmission through local phone lines to my modem in Deer Isle, then downloading into my computer, followed by further stages of processing within my computer to make the image appear on my screen, then the act of saving the image as a JPEG file that is then inserted as a "picture" in the Microsoft Word for Mac file in which I am writing this paper.

In order for you to see Plate 14 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell at this conference, each image has to be downoaded once more and transmitted through another sequence of relays and processings until it can be cast on the screen here at Essex for you to see. Though all of this takes only a few minutes, if I do it right, it is an enormously complex high-tech operation, mostly going on behind the scenes. It is, moreover, "free," and-this is the essential point-it is "mediated" with a vengeance, copied and copied again, even though the final result approximates to an amazing degree the priceless original. In addition, getting those images on my computer screen, or on the screen in this room, involves at various stages an army of people, not only all the gifted people who developed the immense array of software and hardware that digitizing Blake requires but also the immediate team of experts who have worked on getting the Blake images up and running on that website.

Though Blake, it is true, depended on previous technological inventions--the art of copperplate etching, the art of using the printing press to make copies from such plates, and of techniques of coloring the printed plates-and though his genius was to bend then current fairly sophisticated technologies (2) to new uses at or beyond the borders of their standard uses--nevertheless the editors of the Blake Archive stress in their annotations of the plates for The Marriage of Heaven and Hell the way Blake went it alone. Though his name appears nowhere as author or artist on any of the plates of Marriage, nevertheless the work is unmistakably his, and he was, as the editors say, its "author, inventor, delineator, etcher, printer, colorist" (cited from information notes for C, 14), not to speak of publisher, though his wife was essential in this process of making, especially in printing the plates. He and she did the whole shebang themselves, in a species of cottage industry.

The William Blake Archive, on the contrary, is the work of many hands working in cooperation. It is, moreover, the product of a many separate technological inventions, both of hardware and of software--from the invention of the transistor, then the computer chip, on through the mouse, the graphic interface, then increasingly compact and powerful servers and personal computers, plus all the complex software programs that make these work. Most of these inventions did not have as their goal making possible the Blake Archive. Far from it. Their purposes were primarily military, commercial, or scientific. The uses by the humanities of this technology, wonderful as it is, has been secondary and relatively peripheral. The Blake Archive is, nevertheless, up to its neck in capitalism in its present stage of globalization. Digital technologizing and would be impossible without global capitalism, of which the modern research university and all the companies that have sponsored the Blake Archive are features or, as one might say, "tools."

A final difference between the original Blake illuminated books and their digitized simulacra is the way the former exist as relatively unique versions while the latter are characterized by infinite reproduceability. Blake already belonged to what Benjamin called the age of "technischen Reproduzierbarkeit," technical reproduceability, but at an early stage of that. Though print is a form of technical reproduceability and the etched copper plate technique Blake used to print The Marriage of Heaven and Hell means that all five versions of Plate 14 are identical or almost identical in their underlying printed matrix, Blake nevertheless bent the technology back toward the age of illuminated manuscripts by making what he called "illuminated printing." Each version of Plate 14 is colored differently from the others. Sometimes the differences are striking. Some versions are much darker than others. Some have much more color in the textual part than others. It may be that Blake experts can even explain the meaning of these differences, though I cannot do so. What anyone can see, however, is that the handcoloring makes each copy of Plate 14 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell unique, different from all others. Blake has worked against the direction of technical reproduceability back in the direction of the singular, unreproduceable work of art, with its aura of the shining forth of an individualized meaning that is present only in just this particular embodiment here and now before our eyes and that cannot be carried over without loss to any copy. That uniqueness is what makes a Van Gogh painting of a pot of flowers that he never succeeded in selling now worth tens of millions of dollars. It is what makes each "copy" of Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell priceless.

The digitized images in the Blake Archive, on the contrary, are technical reproduceability with a vengeance. Though my five exemplars of Plate 14 faithfully reproduce the uniqueness of each plate, the images in my computer are more or less exactly the same as those downloaded into anyone's computer anywhere in the world. The same images, in the same translated form of zeroes and ones, are stored in the home server. They may be speeding through the Internet at the speed of light in many directions at any one time, existing as a kind of ghostly diffused fog of data broken up into many pieces and mixed up with all the unimaginable plethora of data voyaging back and forth on the Web at any given time. If the law of Blake's illuminated printing was uniqueness and unreproduceability, the law of the Blake Archive is virtually infinite redundancy and duplication. A given image is potentially all over the place, even, if satellite technology is used at any stage of the transmitting process, beamed into the noisy silence of infinite stellar spaces.


What would Blake have thought of this? What ought we to think? It is all too easy to assume that Blake would have deplored the desecration of his handiwork. In order to come to a more sophisticated conclusion it is necessary to "read" Plate 14 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell with care and to look with care at the blazing image of the burning man at the top of each version, as well as at the ornamentation and coloring of the different versions.

It is often said that the new communications technologies facilitate a return to multimedia representations, mixing verbal and visual images in a way that recalls medieval manuscripts and early printed books, or even Victorian novels with their illustrations, thereby challenging the domination of print in the age of the printed book, especially in the climax of that age at the beginning of the twentieth century . This is true. Moreover, it is certainly the case that the Erdman edition of Blake's works now seems old-fashioned in its implicit assumption that what matters most is the words Blake wrote, and that all but a few of the illustrations can be omitted without great loss. The Blake Archive uses modern telecommunicactions technology to restore the double force of Blake's work, as both graphic image and text combined and intertwined. Blake's work becomes again just what he said it was, "illuminated printing."

Plate 14, however, if we read it carefully and look at it carefully, shows that matters are not quite so simple. I have chosen this plate because it is one good example of the way Blake often talked about what he was doing as well as doing it. Harold Bloom was right back in 1965 when in his commentary for the Erdman edition of Blake's works he asserted that The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, like the rest of Blake's work, was not a work of mysticism but a work of prophecy, or, more precisely, a miniature apocalypse prophesying the end of the world.(3) I add to what Bloom said the assertion that The Marriage also performatively brings about what it prophesizes.

Prophecy is an odd sort of speech act. On the one hand it is constative. It states as a fact what is bound to happen, on the authority of the prophet's supernatural insight. He has direct word from God or from some other equally reliable source. The world will come to an end in a rain of fire and blood will run in the streets. That is just a fact. The prophet passes on to us, for our own good, knowledge he happens to have. On the other hand, prophecy is, strictly speaking, performative. It is an extravagant way of doing things with words. Prophecy brings about the thing it names. It uses pictures and words as instruments of force.

How, in Blake's view, does this happen? In the "Memorable Fancy" of Plate 13, in which the speaker of The Marriage, let us call him Blake, tells us about a dinner he had with the prophets Isiaah and Ezekiel, he reports that he asked Isaiah whether "a firm perswasion that a thing is so, make[s] it so," and was answered that "All poets believe that it does, & in ages of imagination this firm perswasion removed mountains; but many are not capable of a firm perswasion of any thing" (E, 38). Blake's practice shows that a firm persuasion that a thing is so is characteristically accompanied by a constative/performative assertion that it is so. Poets are word-wielders who make what they have a firm persuasion is so, so, by declaring that it is so. Isaiah is reported not to have said that all prophets believe that firm persuasion makes something so, but that all poets have believed this. The wisdom and power traditionally ascribed to prophets is by Blake transferred to the poets, though it was thought in Blake's time that all the Hebrew prophets were in a manner of speaking poets.

Plate 14 is an example of the procedure at work whereby firm persuasion makes something so. The first sentence of this plate, just below the image of the burning man flat on his back on the ground with the covering cherub floating on the flames with outstretched arms above the man, is a constative assertion, governed, like all constative assertions, by the law of truth and falsity, "The ancient tradition," says Blake, "that the world will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand years is true, as I have heard from Hell" (E, 38).

As every reader of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell knows, Blake's strategy is to reverse usual polarities and to make Hell the place not of devilish falsehood, presided over by the father of lies, but the place of truth. The "marriage" is more or less at the expense of Heaven, since all its attributes (of truth and sovereign power) are transferred to Hell, and Heaven, particularly Heaven as represented by puritanical Christianity or even by Swedenborg, is more or less said to have got everything backwards. The Angel whom Blake converts to his doctrine "is now become a Devil, is my particular friend: we often read the Bible together in its infernal or diabolical sense which the world shall have if they behave well. I have also: The Bible of Hell: which the world shall have whether they will or no" (Plate 24; E, 43). "Damn, braces: Bless relaxes"; "The tygers of wrath are wiser than the Horses of Instruction" (Plate 9; E, 37, 36); and "Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires" (Plate 10; E, 37): these "Proverbs of Hell" and others like them are the prophetic message Blake the poet brings in his "Bible of Hell." The traditional Heavenly apocalyptic warning that the world will be consumed in fire after six thousand years is, by the marriage of Heaven and Hell, appropriated by the Bible of Hell. Its truth is now attested to by the fact that Blake has "heard [it] from Hell," not by the fact that he has read it in the Book of Revelation, or rather, it should be said, he has heard it by reading the Book of Revelation in "its infernal or diabolical sense." Such reading is itself a performative act, according to the law Jacques Derrida enunciates in Specters of Marx when he speaks of "this dimension of performative interpretation, that is, of an interpretation that transforms the very thing it interprets" (Spectres de Marx, 89; English, 51).

The second sentence of Plate 14, however, is more explicitly a performative speech act: "For the cherub with his flaming sword (4) is hereby commanded to leave his guard at tree of life, and when he does, the whole creation will be consumed, and appear infinite, and holy whereas it now appears finite & corrupt" (E, 38). "Is hereby commanded . . . and when he does . . .": the words the reader is at this moment reading constitute an ever-renewed perpetually present tense command, as well as a promise that when the command is carried out the whole creation will be consumed and transformed. "This," as Blake promises, "will ccome to pass by an improvement of sensual enjoyment" (E, 38), such as that the Proverbs of Hell exhort the reader to embrace by damning braces and enacting all desires.

Just what is the instrument of this transformation? The following words in Plate 14, as well as the illumination at the top, give the reader the answer. It will be brought about not so much by the poet's words as such as by the performative power of those those words as printed and "illuminated" in the work the reader is at this moment reading: "But first the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul [an assumption that is one of Blake's main targets in Marriage], is to be expunged; this I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid" (E, 38). The figure is drawn from the way the copper plates from which The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" were printed were prepared, that is by inscribing the text and images on the copper plate and then etching away the surrounding copper with acid, so the text and image could be printed in inks of various colors and then colored by hand with various opaque or transparent tints. This technique, Blake tells us, was dictated to him by his dead brother Robert in a vision. The "H" version of Plate 14, now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, is printed in red, blue, and a greenish black, and tinted with yellows, browns , blues, and reds.

The image Blake uses in the sentence just cited is not a contingent figure of speech. It is essential and literal. The literal process of preparing the copper plates with corrosive acid, printing from them, and "illuminating" them with color, by a performative magic, "expunges" the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul, thereby bringing about the apocalypse. Far from believing that it would necessarily be an improvement to make artworks multimediatic, to make them appeal to more than one sense, as present-day Internet images mix sound, text, and colored images, still or moving, Blake held that we are imprisoned within the five senses, as Platonic man is enclosed in his cave and in the mind/soul dichotomy that Platonic Christianity has imposed and reinforced through twenty centuries : "For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern," says the last sentence of Plate 14 (E, 39).

"Printing by the infernal method," described in allegorical detail in Plate 15, is the material force that literally, not figuratively, cleanses the doors of perception in the ones who read and behold the finished printed plates. This cleansing leads that reader and beholder to see everything as infinite and holy, "for every thing that lives is Holy" (Plate 25, E, 44). "If the doors of perception were cleansed," says Blake in Plate 14, "every thing would appear to man as it is: Infinite" (Plate 14, E, 39). The Marriage of Heaven and Hell as a totality, all 25 plates of it, picture, text, and colors combined, promises to work as a speech act and image act to perform through a quasi-material force the consuming by fire and rebirth the work prophesies. As Blake puts this in the couplet from Plate 3 of Jerusalem cited by Steve Vine in a fine unpublished paper: "Therefore I print, nor vain my types shall be:/Heaven, Earth & Hell, henceforth shall live in harmony." The couplet expresses succinctly the combination of promised immediacy and endless deferral characteristic of apocalyptic temporality. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell does what it says. What takes place within it takes place without taking place, as decision and promise. Far from being a mystic or spiritualist, Blake is a strange kind of materialist who believes that his works in illuminated printing will transform mankind and serve themselves as the corrosive fire that will cleanse the doors of perception. This will explain why the image that appears at the top of Plate 14 is not of the world on fire, as the first sentence has it ("The ancient tradition that the world will be consumed in fire . . . is true."), but of an outstretched man on fire. A firm persuasion that something is so makes it so. If man's doors of perception are cleansed by the perlocutionary corrosive force of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, then the world itself will be transformed, as if by the apocalyptic fire, and all things will appear as they are, infinite and holy. The words promise that.


To return again to my initial aquestion: What then can we say of the Blake Archive? Two conclusions may be drawn from the effects of transforming Blake's illuminated printings into digital form. One: making Blake digital allows us to see that Blake's particular form of romanticism, his belief in the transformative power of poetry, cannot be detached from the print technology with which it is inextricably intertwined. Prophetic or apocalyptic romanticism is a concomitant of the print epoch. It cannot survive unchanged the disappearance of that epoch and its replacement by the new regime of digital telecommunications. Second: digitized Blake, since it does not exist as the result of "printing in the infernal method by corrosives," but as the result of the much more immaterial production of ghostly ones and zeroes floating around in cyberspace, cannot claim to have the same power to cleanse the doors of perception.

Digitizing Blake permits us to see the way Blake's beliefs were historically conditioned ideologies. They were conditioned by the technologies of his time as much as by the nation-state politics of his time. Digitizing Blake works as a perhaps inadvertent critique of those ideologies. This means also that it is much more difficult to ascribe to digitized Blake the kind of performative force Blake wanted his illuminated printings to have. That force was a hyperbolic or extravagant form of the romantic doctrine that, in Shelley's words, poetry "purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being. . . . It creates anew the universe, after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration" ("A Defence of Poetry"). (5)

Since Blake's theory of the apocalyptic fiery corrosive cleansing force of his works depended on their material presence in the viewer's hands and before his or her eyes, it is hard to see how a similar force can be ascribed to their impalpable digital simulacra. At the very least, claiming a new form of such force for anonymous, multiauthored digital works would require a radically new theory of speech acts, one different from the apparent Blakean (and Austinian) one that depends on handwriting, printed and signed contracts, the speaking or written voice saying "I promise" or "I declare," or "the cherub . . . is hereby commanded," and the Cartesian assumption of the separate ego in self-conscious command of its self-presence to itself and able to make assertions like "The ancient tradition that the world will be consumed in fire . . . is true, as I have heard from Hell," where a performative enunciation, "I swear that I know this to be so. I have witnessed the authoritative promise of it myself in Hell," is implied.

I conclude that, on the one hand, Blake himself would have been right to see the Blake Archive as a denaturing of his work's power. I conclude also that we should perhaps, on the other hand, rejoice in the opportunity digital Blake gives us to understand better not only the meaning of that work's intimate dependence on the technology of its time, but also the way it prophetically anticipates another performative power of pure mediacy that digital Blake fulfills.

Digital Blake opens up the possibility of another kind of apersonal politico-mediatic force, one not dependent on the authority of the ego or "I," perhaps one that might be genuinely apocalyptic and revolutionary, as Blake wanted his work to be. Even with the example of Blake's work before us on the computer screen we can hardly yet be aware of this new force, since it is only now coming into being with the dawning of the new digital age. Blake's work nevertheless anticipates that new age and helps bring it into being as that always future, always about to be, dawning that is the anachronistic temporality of all apocalypses. Blake, after all, did not write on the copper of Plate 14, "I hereby command the cherub to leave his guard at tree of life," but "the cherub . . . is hereby commanded."

Along with the ideology of a poetry authorized by individual genius and its egoistic powers, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell contains an alternative ideology. Insofar as Blake (or Blake's work, which is all we have now) was aware of this alternative ideology, Blake would have been right to welcome the Blake Archive as the radical fulfillment of one penchant of his work. This was the penchant towards seeing its power as to some degree independent of the medium in which it was embodied (though embodiment is always necessary) and even independent of the performative ego of the poet. This alternative theory of poetry would ascribe to what Werner Hamacher calls, after Walter Benjamin, "pure mediacy," (6) to something, that is, that might carry over from etched Blake to digital Blake, something in the words and images in themselves. This is a power to act on their own, independent of any speaking "I." This force would work to break up pre-existing laws and political forms. It would also thereby work toward those hardly imaginable new forms of the "democracy to come" after the doors of perception have been cleansed.

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