By the time Mark Van Doren asked him about Mark Twain’s ‘primitive side’ in 1925, C.E.S. Wood had gained a reputation as the ‘boon companion of rowdy, fetid Have-nots of the street, who howl for free anarchy, free land, and free speech.’ Wood’s old Army colleagues might have anticipated this. He had always ‘hated military methods’ by his own account, all that ‘blind authority’ and ‘blind obedience,’ but he was an adept officer, nonetheless, handpicked as the West Point superintendent’s adjutant in 1880. If Wood’s puckishness sparked a friendship with Mark Twain when the famous novelist visited the school in 1881, his competence helped the pair make mischief together. Wood had access to West Point’s printing press. Twain, in turn, had an obscene, unpublishable squib called 1601 intended for private circulation. Together, the pair conspired to print an edition of fifty copies using West Point’s ‘Inquisition Printing Office’ equipment. This month, The Press at Thayer Road issued a new edition of Twain’s most scandalous work as an NFT, recasting 1601’s clandestine circulation in the 19th century as an exploration of 21st century artistic provenance.
Art criticism always trails technologies. A century after daguerreotype, Walter Benjamin began contemplating the effects of ‘mechanical reproduction’ on art. For Benjamin, even ‘the most perfect reproduction’ lacked an original artwork’s ‘presence in time and space’ because it couldn’t trace ‘changes in ownership’ from ‘the situation of the original.’ Since Benjamin, a whole critical vernacular of terms like ‘aura,’ ‘authenticity,’ and ‘authority’ circulates around the question of an artwork’s historical traction. John Berger’s idea of ‘mystification,’ for example, describes how the ‘original’ upholds ‘ideological interests of the ruling class’ through arcane ways of emphasizing technique. Conversely, Salvador Dali’s willingness to blur lines between originals, forgeries, and reproductions – he signed perhaps 350,000 sheets of blank paper in his career – struck collectors as self-sabotage because it affronted the Hobbesian core of art-historical experience: scarcity.
The emergence of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) upends these distinctions. As Tom Whyman remarks, ‘NFTs literally do what Benjamin claimed unique, non-reproducible art objects used to: provide a log of the history of exchanges to which the work has been subjected (in fact, they perform this function in an arguably more transparent way).’ That’s why blockchain – a secure, timestamped, digital ledger of transactions embedded in an image – matters. In theory, blockchain allows reproducible content – Jack Dorsey tweets, NBA slam-dunk clips, Nike trainers, New York Times meta-articles – to become ‘authenticatable’ artwork. I can place Trouble Andrew’s Gucci Ghost GIF in this article or purchase its NFT for $16,300. I can freely access the content of Everydays: The First 5000 Days by the digital artist, Beeples, but not the NFT that recently sold for $69.4 million at Christie’s. That’s $15 million more than Monet’s Nymphéas. As AngelList founder, Naval Ravikant remarks, we are moving to a world in which ‘every valuable digital representation of an object or person has a token.’
While claims that ‘NFTs will authenticate the world’ make them seem like grandiose hustles or Orwellian foreshadowing, the underlying principles of blockchain aren’t new. We value some medieval manuscripts over others because of how their marginalia anchors scribal reproductions in a historical ‘situation of the original.’ The famous poem, ‘Pangur Bán,’ for example, is essentially the Reichenau Primer’s blockchain. It’s a valuable comparison because it highlights an overlooked feature of NFTs: ledgering is conceptual content in an artwork. Yves Klein’s 1959 project, Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle, which sold shares of empty space to collectors, explores this idea, as do works by John Cage, Gustav Metzger, Maria Abramović, and others. From an art-critical perspective, concerns about an NFT market bubble echo the specter of farce that limns aesthetic projects like Klein’s. ‘The NFT market, I think, is figuring itself out,’ Ethereum co-founder, Anthony Di Iorio reflects. ‘I don’t know if the value is really showing yet.’
What makes the 1601 NFT compelling is its intervention in the problem Di Iorio identifies. It models how blockchain generates a ledger of value. To be sure, this isn’t because of the work’s canonical status or purely ‘literary’ complexity. The Routledge Encyclopedia of Mark Twain summarizes Twain’s squib in three sentences. It’s a diary entry ‘by Queen Elizabeth’s cup-bearer, recording a meeting between the Queen and such notables as Francis Bacon, Sir Walter Raleigh, Ben Johnson, William Shakespeare, Francis Beaumont and several ladies.’ Someone breaks wind and Queen Elizabeth investigates. Then, ‘after discovering that Raleigh is the culprit, talk turns to graphic discussions of sexual prowess.’ This takes 5000 words to conclude because the 1601’s real subject is the innuendo’s provenance. In the ‘original situation’ of the Queen’s bedchamber, the luminaries blockchain ‘passing’ in several senses. Who ‘owns’ the fart, the innuendo? As the sexual discussion passes between Twain’s ‘righte strangue mixing of speakers,’ it’s ‘authenticated’ by their own allusions to lewd passages from Cervantes and Boccaccio.
Our encounter with Wood’s 1882 first edition extends the imagined ledgering that happens in the Queen’s bedchamber. Twain’s frame-narrative, itself, makes 1601 a metaphorical NFT by enclosing the otherwise reproducible content, the scatological humor, in the form of the cup-bearer’s diary. It’s not Boccaccio’s scandal. It’s not my retelling of an episode from The Decameron. It imaginatively belongs to the ‘original situation’ of ‘Conversation, as it was by the Social Fireside, in the Time of the Tudors.’ Twain’s use of archaic syntax and faux-Elizabethan spellings adds to the rhetoric of provenance, but so do physical elements in the 1882 West Point first edition. Produced under the moniker, ‘Ye Academie Presse,’ the 1882 edition used coffee-stained paper to produce an aged effect. Wood had special typeface characters kerned to mimic an Elizabethan aesthetic. He attempted to reproduce ‘archaic forms’ of spelling and abbreviation in his edition. While these forms of ‘antiquing’ lend interest to the edition in their own right, they also highlight the peculiar cause-and-effect relationship in Wood’s 1601 between the idea of provenance and the actual objet d’art in circulation.
While we’re accustomed to treating ledger value as an effect of the artwork’s production, 1601’s most accurate throwback to the past is the idea that virtual exchanges – conversations – in circulation around a text can precede its production and help establish its value. Since the 16th century, the subscription model of publishing allowed writers and artists to fund, produce, and distribute works on prospectus, generating preexisting provenance work unproven works. It was a model that predominated well into the 19th century. All of Twain’s major works, for example, were published to lists of subscribers. The Press at Thayer Road’s NFT edition of 1601 is a true ‘2nd edition’ of Wood’s printing insofar as it replicates the ‘subscription’ dynamics that glued Twain’s ‘Conversation, as it was by the Social Fireside’ to Wood’s printing. The 1601 NFT entitles buyers to a leather-bound fine press edition, but the future print object’s value is ‘authenticated’ by its potential relationship to the existing MP4 produced for the NFT market. In a move that Twain would appreciate, it’s also a ‘2nd West Point edition,’ digitally minted and physically printed on Academy grounds.
I have to wonder what C.E.S. Wood would make of his 1st edition’s digital afterlife. At the remove of over 130 years, Wood and Twain, conspiring to print their ‘most rare & scurrilous tale’ at West Point, can seem as distant, perhaps, as wits in the Queen’s bedchamber. He declined to donate a copy to West Point’s library because he ‘would have expected to have been court-martialed.’ Court-martials, after all, are public arguments about provenance. Foundation, the platform hosting the 1601 NFT listing, advertises participation in the ‘New Creative Economy,’ but 1601 reminds us how indebted debates about emerging creative economies are to older forms of production, exchange, and valuation. In 2021, our virtual Lieutenant Wood might purchase The Press on Thayer Road’s 1601 as a 1/1 NFT, and the digital transaction would mirror the economics of rare book collecting. It would also reflect the ‘blockchain’ principle at the heart of Wood’s edition, the idea that conceptual transmission generates the value of an objet d’art. And you can’t get court-martialed for having ideas.
The Press on Thayer Road’s NFT edition of Mark Twain’s Date 1601. Conversation, as it was by the Social Fireside, in the Time of the Tudors, is accessible here.