"You are cordially invited to a / CHEMICAL WEDDING": Metamorphiction and Experimentation in Jeff Noon's Cobralingus
"You are cordially invited to a / CHEMICAL WEDDING": Metamorphiction and Experimentation in Jeff Noon's Cobralingus
How does a sample of de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater give birth to a mutant, six-fingered hand? This essay articulates the logic of Noon’s 2001 experiment in constrained writing, which concretizes the play of signal and noise, pattern and randomness, in the flow of information. In the process, the critic suggests, Noon dramatizes how printed texts rupture and reassemble when they are transferred to electronic media.
I feed too much on inward sources; I live too much with the dead. My mind is something like the ghost of an ancient, wandering about the world and trying mentally to construct it as it used to be, in spite of ruin and confusing changes. -George Eliot
Art destined to live has the aspect of a truth of nature, not of some coldly worked out experimental discovery. -Eugenio Montale
Let’s get it on, sugar.
Let’s get it on.- Marvin Gaye
In January 2001, Guardian Unlimited published Jeff Noon’s manifesto, “Post Futurism,” in which Noon laments the contemporary state of the English novel and offers the avant-garde writing process of metamorphiction as an aesthetic antidote. The “Post Futurism Manifesto” is posited in particular opposition to the collection of stories edited by Nicholas Blincoe and Matt Thorne, All Hail the New Puritans (2001),In this volume of short stories initially inspired by the Dogme 95 filmmakers such as Harmony Korine and Lars von Trier, Blincoe and Thorne set out a ten-point manifesto calling for linear, simple, authentic, and transparent prose in favor of experimentation, nonlinearity, and lyrical prose styles in fiction. which Noon critiques as “dry, deft, slightly engaging tales…without any rules other than fixed tradition,” accentuating “a fearsome denial of the imagination” (Noon “Post Futurism Manifesto”). James Wood, in his review of All Hail the New Puritans, also published on Guardian Unlimited, writes that
the short story has historically tended toward the simple. I have a favourite line from Joyce’s “A Little Cloud”: “He watched the scene and thought of life; and (as always happened when he thought of life) he became sad.” Many stories by Chekhov, Verga, Joyce and the incomparably simple Pirandello follow Blincoe and Thorne’s rules. But this is the simplicity of those who have known richness, and who are a little weary of congestion. Blincoe and Thorne, by contrast, are too poor too young; paddling in remnants, they are incuriously abandoning something they did not possess anyway. On the evidence of this book, we need a New Abundance. (Wood)
Indeed, the chaos and abundance of Noon’s experimental writing method he terms metamorphiction is offered as a more faithful literary response to a readership Noon describes as being “adept at riding the multiple layers of information” of a “fluid society” (Noon, “Post Futurism”). It is also a rejection of Blincoe and Thorne’s “manifesto for the New Philistinism” as Wood caustically words it. Certainly, Noon is not weary of congestion; rather, he celebrates it.
Perhaps best know for his rhapsodic debut novel, Vurt (1993), Noon’s literary output has since traced an increasingly lyrical and experimental trajectory.Following Vurt, Noon has published six novels, Vurt (1993), Pollen (1995), Automated Alice (1996), Nymphomation (1997), Needle in the Groove (2000), and Falling Out of Cars (2002); one collection of short stories, Pixel Juice (1998); a collection of avant-garde fiction, Cobralingus (2001); a hypertext novel/writing game in partnership with Steve Beard, Mappalujo (2002); and is currently working on hypertext fiction in collaboration with Susanna Jones, Alison MacLeod, and William Shaw. Noon is also the author of numerous plays for both the stage and radio. His novels, with the exception of Falling out of Cars (2002), are all set in his native city of Manchester. Stylistically, Noon’s writing is remarkable for its elegance, fluidity, and precision. While the content of his earlier work is more akin to the postmodern science fiction of J.G. Ballard, Anthony Burgess, and William Gibson, his prose experiments bring to mind Nabokovian virtuosity and the lyricism of Elizabeth Smart. Music - particularly the compositional techniques of contemporary electronic music - plays an essential role in Noon’s writing. The metrical eloquence of a Noonian sentence attests to the literary output of a melomaniac. That Noon’s prose scintillates like a line of verse is telling: like a DJ’s manipulations of recorded music, Noon “remixes” the writing of both himself and others in order to metamorphose archived texts into lines of remarkable beauty.See Noon’s articles “Origins of a Dub Fiction” and “Post Futurism Manifesto.” His writing is at once noisy and delicate. There is a recurring trope in Noon’s work that is both amusing and seductive: that of words longing for one another; aroused and fecund, the unlikely linguistic lovers interbreed. Noon names this metaphor “nymphomation,” sexy information; the process and the printed result are called “metamorphiction.” The aim of this project is to achieve new modes of thinking and new kinds of writing by reconfiguring and mutating signs in a systemic environment of linguistic determinism. Exciting as these experiments are, for nearly two decades, Noon has expressed an increasing degree of impatience regarding the disinterest and dismissal of experimental literature by the contemporary British literary scene as he sees it.
Noon first describes the process of metamorphiction in his experimental book of fiction, Cobralingus (2001). Metaphors derived from information theory govern the whimsical construction of these works. This is not to say that chaos and information theory itself is governed by whimsical processes. Rather, the whimsical nature of Noon’s metamorphiction is perhaps best understood as a celebration of the linguistic possibilities of dismantling and randomizing semantically stable samples of language and then reconstructing those excerpts into new units of meaning which are not necessarily related through any explicit etymological or semantic connotation. Indeed, Noon seems to take the “play” from literary play and the “game” from writing game and whorl the words into uniquely distilled forms. This strategy is not only compelled by the desire to experiment; that is, Noon asks in the “Post Futurism Manifesto,” “can’t we writers have some fun as well?”Ultimately, this process involves the rupture and reconstruction of metaphor resulting in a new metaphor of a different semantic order. The literary play of the associated writing game, “The Cobralingus Engine,” treats the writing process using the technical terminology of the production of Dub reggae and its successor, experimental electronic music. The visual template of Cobralingus, wonderfully illustrated by Daniel Allington, is reminiscent of graphical electronic music programming environments such as Max/MSP, SuperCollider, and Reaktor. According to this writing game, “words become a liquid medium, a malleable substance capable of being transformed in surprising ways. Words can be stretched, broken, melted, drugged, mutated, forced into submission, set free” (Noon, “Post Futurism”). The process imagines a sampled piece of writing as an “inlet” which is “passed through various FILTER GATES, each of which has a specific effect upon the language. Each gate allows the writer to access different creative responses within his or her imagination” (Cobralingus 13). Consequently, the original writing sample undergoes a metamorphosis, from the semantic order of the inlet text, to the mercurial disorder of the intermediary stages, and finally to the reestablishment of a new order, the “outlet” text, which “can be seen as the ghost, or the unconscious desire, haunting the original text” (13).
Michael Bracewell notes in his introduction to Cobralingus that
much of Noon’s best imagery - from Vurt to Pollen through to the more naturalistic styling of the stories in Pixel Juice - derives its power from the literalising of poetic language and the concretizing of images: the sudden opening up, within the landscape of the prose itself, of new routes to character and narrative, enabled by altering the meanings of words within the containers of their language. (6)
That is, Noon is engaging in language games within the determined constraints of an established system. Abstracted from the writing game, the process of metamorphiction has two stages: first, the concretization of an abstraction which is to be understood metaphorically - a piece of text as an electronic data signal - and second, a further hypostatization through which the original metaphor, now mutated, “materializes.” The new metaphor no longer exclusively functions as a comparison between the vehicle and the tenor but rather literally becomes the subject-matter and, in the form of an outlet text, determines the structure of the unfolding work. Cobralingus is both a work about, and a demonstration of, transformation. Ultimately, Noon is confronting the ramifications of linguistic determinism in the age of information. Language is not subject to processes that ironically seek to display its logical assumptions, but instead is metamorphosed thus exposing the possibilities of permutation. The reader of Cobralingus may consider replacing his or her mortarboard with a hardhat since language here is not under erasure so much as it is under construction. Rather than a deconstruction of language, metamorphiction is an experimental mode in which linguistic relations reconfigure and mutate within certain systemic parameters; in short, it is a work of reconstruction.
The first piece in Cobralingus, “Organic Pleasure Engine,” serves as a model for the process in its simplest manifestation and establishes the template for that the rest of the book. The work has Thomas Lodge’s 1591 poem “Rosalynde’s Madrigal” as the inlet text (Fig. 1):
Lodge’s poem is then sent through the first “FILTER GATE,” designated “OVERLOAD,” disordering the original poem and chaotically encoding it into an apple-shaped concrete poem - indicating a semantically similar yet metamorphosed homage to Lodge’s metaphorical “fruite” found in the first line of the inlet text (Fig. 2):
For example, the line “Plucke the fruite and tast the pleasure” (Noon, Cobralingus 21) in Lodge’s original passed through the filter gate may become “uc k eth efruu ea nta thp le as u” or “p lpluckeetheffruiteeandttasttthepleasurerer,” (22). In the next stage, Noon passes the overloaded text through two further filter gates: “CONTROL” and “SAMPLE.” While the “CONTROL” filter gate “forces language to behave itself” (14), it is the “SAMPLE” filter gate, which introduces a new element to the signal (15). Here Noon samples the activities of which he partook on “Sunday 28 Feb, 1999” (Fig. 3):
This text is subsequently passed through two more filter gates, “PURIFY” and “MIX,” thus establishing the outlet text, or the new order. The outlet text takes on a clearer concrete image of an apple and no longer contains any of the original language from Lodge’s poem - it now contains only the listing of events from Sunday 28 Feb, 1999 - with the exception of scattered letters on the right side of what appears to be a bite out of the apple that, if reordered, would form, appropriate for any Epicurean, the word “pleasure” (Fig. 4):
The influence chaotics has on the form of this process from order to disorder to new order is evident. Moreover, the metamorphiction process itself becomes the subject-matter of Cobralingus; as Noon attests, “from inlet to outlet, the journey is the goal” (13). Accordingly, the process of metamorphiction is part of a “post futurist” project to assail what Noon understands to be the “lazy cynicism and nihilism” (Noon “Post Futurism Manifesto”) that pervades much of the aesthetic of contemporary English writing. Its function is to enable the production of radically polysemous texts, while it offers a new approach to the aesthetics of fictive writing.
Noon’s choice of opening the book with “Organic Pleasure Engine” is strategic in this the piece clearly demonstrates the aim of the Cobralingus Engine game. However, the remaining nine pieces do not exhibit such relative simplicity; rather, though they vary, these pieces are characterized by wit, craft, and complexity. For example, the piece, “Blackley, Crumpsall, Harpurhey, Saturn,” uses a sample from a Michael Bracewell’s short story “Blackley, Crumpsall, Harpurhey,” while the outlet text is a finely crafted English sonnet; “Exploding Horse Generator Unit” opens with a selection from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew while the outlet text is written in Dantean terza rima; the oulet text for “Boa Conscriptor Breeding System,” which opens with Robert Herrick’s couplet sonnet “The Argument of His Book,” constrains the sonnet to the use of only eleven letters while retaining Herrick’s original rhyme scheme. Of the more complex pieces that make up Cobralingus, “Bridal Suite Production” is of particular interest because it articulates a great deal about metamorphiction both as a process and in its relationship to a dialogue that may arise between print-based text and electronically mediated text. It also playfully engages with Noon’s preoccupation with nymphomation and linguistic fecundity.
The inlet text for “Bridal Suite Production” is an excerpt from Noon’s fellow Mancunian Thomas de Quincey’s 1822 autobiographical work Confessions of an English Opium Eater. The de Quincey sample text is depicted in Fig. 5:
Here de Quincey describes an unpleasant effect of his opium addiction; that of experiencing involuntary visual hallucinations in darkness. As we shall see, the inlet text immediately draws the attention of the reader to its applicability to comment on the metamorphictive process that it will undergo. There are four major themes that run through de Quincey’s text: first, the blurring of the threshold between two separate states - waking and dreaming - leading to the emergence of a new state, hallucination; second, the ability to immediately shape intangible images “into phantoms of the eye” - a power like Midas which once attained proves to be a great burden; third, the paradox that the “splendour” of the visions simultaneously frets the heart. The fourth theme, which governs all three previous themes, is that of irrepressible and disorderly transformation from one state to another.
Noon’s sample of de Quincey’s text demonstrates the wealth of approaches Noon may undertake in the subsequent stages of the metamorphictive process. The first filter gate through which Noon passes the de Quincey text is, perhaps unexpectedly, not one of rupture or disordering, but rather one named “PURIFY” which, Noon writes, manipulates the sample so that it “loses deadwood” and “[s]elects images or phrases from the text” (15) that contain the essential semantic signal that will form the basis of the variations in later stages of the piece. At this stage of the metamorphictive process, therefore, the original de Quincey sample is distilled and condensed into in a more succinct and “pure” form. Noon takes the liberty of straining the semantic possibilities of the signal, thereby permitting selected phrases from of the original sample to trickle through the filter. Fig. 6 represents the next stage of the metamorphiction:
At this stage the new text conforms to the “PURIFY” filter gate in that the major images and memorable phrases reappear, though suspended and decontextualized from the sampled inlet text. The new text has no deadwood. Consequently, the inlet text, appearing as de Quincey originally wrote, is literally “filtered” by passing through a filter gate that manipulates the original communicative signal and allows only a small amount of the inlet text pass through. However, it is in the final two lines of this particular stage, “a fretted heart / Thomas de Quincey” (38), where the filter gate becomes more obviously a tool that, as Noon suggests, “allows the writer to access different creative responses within his or her imagination” (13). The PURIFY filter gate is initially represented mechanically yet there simultaneously appears to be a non-mechanistic value judgment imposed upon the inlet text as well. While words, phrases, and images reappear in a purified form, the final two lines, “a fretted heart / Thomas de Quincey,” prove to be a semantic abridgment of the inlet text as a whole. That is, the signature and date which accredit the inlet text to de Quincey, after moving through the “PURIFY” filter gate, serve to express the immediacy and severity of de Quincey’s miseries. The romantic and autobiographical dimensions emerge from the disinterested tone characterizing de Quincey as an essayist. Consequently, a tense dialectic develops between imaginative authorial manipulation and the electronically mediated template of the Cobralingus Engine.
Readers may possibly misunderstand the nature of the tension between the mechanistic and aesthetic process in the Cobralingus Engine, as Noon notes in his article “Origins of a Dub Fiction”:
A Cobralingus piece is not planned in any way. An opening Inlet text is chosen, followed by the first gate. How the text is transformed by the gate is entirely up to the individual. This is not a mechanical process. It’s a way of allowing the imagination to explore areas it would not usually enter into. Once a text is transformed, another gate is chosen. The process continues in this way, allowing chance to play upon the text. Eventually, a phrase or an image will emerge from the process, something that makes the writer sit up and take notice. This always happens. This is the clue as to how the overall piece will end, and the process can now be pushed along in that direction. Again and again, producing these pieces, I was astonished as to how this moment arrived. I can only think that some hidden text has been brought to light, out of the original inlet. I have described this as the ghost, or unconscious desire, of the original text. Cobralingus, very like a Lee Scratch Perry dub mix, is a way of calling up these ghosts. (Noon)
This tension between the mechanistic technique of the Cobralingus Engine and Noon’s aesthetically subjective response establishes the inherent paradox in metamorphiction: the process is simultaneously neutrally technologic and framed with authorial subjectivity.
It is the tension induced by this paradox that accounts for the unpredictable shifts that the signal may take. Indeed, the next stage of the process indicates a mechanistic move that nearly disrupts the semantic continuity of the signal altogether. In the subsequent stage, the signal is passed through the “DRUG” filter gate which, as Noon explains, “injects artificial stimulant into the language” (14). Throughout Cobralingus there are various different DRUG filter gates; Noon explains that each “type of drug will always be specified” (13). Some of Noon’s humorously constructed drugs appearing in Cobralingus include “fecundamol,” “simileum,” and “etymol” each of which affect the text accordingly via reproduction, simile, and etymology. In this case the drug is, comically enough, “anagramethane” (39), indicating that the injection of this drug into the signal will yield anagrammatic metamorphosis. Essentially, by injecting this particular “artificial stimulant” into the language of the text, the letters which comprise the preceding signal are rearranged, resulting in interesting word play (Fig. 7):
In comparing these lines of the signal before and after the injection of anagramethane, we see that Noon’s anagrammatic word play displays two distinguishing features of metamorphiction. First, there is a definite relationship between the original phrase and its anagram. The process suggests that all language can be randomized yet that there is also some meaning that survives the injection of chaos. Second, while there is a connection between the two stages of the metamophiction through the anagrams, the semantic progression associated with the inlet text and the “PURIFY” filter gate has been lost. Indeed, the actual meaning of the signal has been so remarkably altered that the original meaning may be nearly undecipherable at this stage. Indeed, Noon is concretizing the metaphorical process associated with information theory, a mathematical theory strongly linked to chaos theory.
Information theory was developed in the late 1940s at the Bell Telephone Laboratories by Claude Shannon; James Gleick describes information theory as “a piece of mathematics cum philosophy” (255).Claude Elwood Shannon (1916-2001) was an American mathematician and electronic engineer. The ramifications of his work went beyond the practicalities of the electronic engineering of communications systems and had a notable influence on the humanities.Warren Weaver in his “Recent Contributions to the Mathematical Theory of Communication” (1949), an addendum to Shannon’s “The Mathematical Theory of Communication,” noted that
the word information, in this theory, is used in a special sense that must not be confused with its ordinary usage. In particular, information must not be confused with meaning. In fact, two messages, one of which is heavily loaded with meaning and the other which is pure nonsense, can be exactly equivalent, from the present viewpoint, as regards information. (8)
Information theory offers a means to understand the paradoxes inherent in the connection between order and randomness, sense and nonsense, and meaning and the absurd as they are expressed in Cobralingus. The signal’s movement from the PURIFY filter gate to the DRUG (anagramethane) filter gate requires the reader to interpret a single signal as two antipodal possibilities as if it were exclusive, stable, and direct. Gleick explains, by means of Shannon’s theory, that the best way to understand these patterns is to consider “a stream of data in ordinary language [as] less than random; each new bit is partly constrained by the bits before; thus each new bit carries somewhat less than a bit’s worth of real information” (257). The paradox this situation presents is rather explicit: the more randomness that is featured in a data stream, the richer the information that each new bit will express (257). N. Katherine Hayles explains the significance of this paradox:
If information is pattern then noninformation should be the absence of pattern, that is, randomness. This commonsense explanation ran into unexpected complications when certain developments within information theory implied that information could be equated with randomness as well as with pattern. Identifying information with both pattern and randomness proved to be a powerful paradox, leading to the realization that in some instances, an infusion of noise into a system can cause it to reorganize at a higher level of complexity. Within such a system, pattern and randomness are bound together in a complex dialectic that makes them not so much opposites as complements or supplements to one another. (Hayles How We Became Posthuman 25)
Whereas in information theory proper, information is to be understood as semantically neutral, Noon’s metamorphictive process allows the increasingly disordered signal/data stream to multiply the richness of information and hence the polysemous possibilities of the text. The DRUG stage of the signal, while being in one sense neutral word play, also includes new words which will govern the semantic direction the work will take during the remainder of the signal’s pathway. Shannon writes in “The Mathematical Theory of Communication” that
the fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point. Frequently the messages have meaning; that is they refer to or are correlated according to some system with certain physical or conceptual entities. These semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem. The significant aspect is that the actual message is one selected from a set of possible messages. The system must be designed to operate for each possible selection, not just the one which will actually be chosen since this is unknown at the time of design.” (31)
By concretizing the abstract infusion of noise into the signal/inlet texts through representing the disordered intermediary stages of the metamorphiction, Noon attempts to display a similar process, albeit in terms of the development of a specific form of data stream: literature. From the original order of the inlet texts, Noon introduces various sources of noise at the PURIFY and DRUG filter gates, eventuating in a reorganized fragment of text expressed at a new level of complexity. Shannon explains that when “the signal is perturbed by noise during transmission or at one or the other of the terminals…the received signal is not necessarily the same as that sent out by the transmitter” (65). What Noon wishes from his outlet text will be enhanced semantically - an outlet text which proves to be a semantic ghost of the inlet signal, though very different from it.
Noon’s representation of metamorphiction as a technological process - it is, in fact, the reorganization of printed text - suggests that texts associated with the individual stages of the process have entered a unique dialectic between printed and electronically mediated texts. This dialectic may be may be viewed as series of shifts which occur in the semiotics between the textual formats in question. Hayles describes the differences in thinking about the semiotics of printed text and that of electronically mediated text. Beginning with the semiotic model as developed by Jacques Lacan, which denies a direct association between the signifier and the signified, Hayles explains that, through this disjunction in signification, Lacan asserts that “language is not a code” (30) and develops the concept of the “floating signifier.” Hayles argues that Lacan’s theory of semiotics and language is fundamentally influenced by print-based text and “not surprisingly focused on presence and absence as the dialectic of interest” (30). Drawing on de Saussure’s observation that signifiers are not defined by their relation to corresponding signifieds but are rather identified according to their difference from other signifiers, Hayles explains that Lacan “complicated this picture by maintaining that signifieds do not exist in themselves, except insofar as they are produced by signifiers. [Lacan] imagined them as an ungraspable flow floating beneath a network of signifiers, a network that itself is constituted through continual slippages and displacements” (30). Consequently, not only are signifieds absent, the correspondence between their individual signifiers is also characterized by an absence. Cobralingus lends itself to a Lacanian semiotic insofar as it is like the traditional text format that influenced Lacan’s formulation of the floating signifier. While it utilizes the technical language of electronically mediated hardware, Cobralingus is a distinct and unique printed document.Ismo Santala suggests that “Cobralingus is definitely a landmark work, not only because of its originality, but for the clarity and energy by which Noon animates his literary experiments. It must be mentioned that the book, by British small-press Codex, is a beautiful object in and of itself: the typographical design is fantastic, and the bluish-gray color is easy on the eye. Illustrations by Daniel Allington function as frontispieces, and seem to be telling stories of their own” (Santala, “Jeff Noon: Works”).
Yet, Noon’s conceptual and verbal borrowings from information technology and electronically mediated text in the Cobralingus Engine suggest a possible shift in the work’s semiotic models. Noon, in an interview with Ismo Santala on The Modern World: Scriptorium website, mentions his tempered fascination with both printed and electronically mediated literature:
The structure and process of the work becomes much more obvious on paper, with the ability to flip through the pages. I’m a great believer in books, as being the perfect hardware for the software of a story. And they give you overview that’s very difficult to achieve in the Web. But I am still interested in the Web as a medium. It’s early days as yet. A lot of research needs to be done, research in the form of people creating stories just for that medium. (Santala, “Transmission > Reception: The Modern Word Interviews Jeff Noon”)
In this light, one may no longer simply wish to consider the semiotics of Cobralingus, in general, and “Bridal Suite Production,” in particular, in terms of printed texts and floating signifiers.
Hayles suggests that “the compounding of signal with materiality suggests that new technologies will instantiate new models of signification” (29) and that information technologies such as electronically mediated text must “fundamentally alter the relation of signified to signifier” (30). Hayles ultimately extends the Lacanian concept of the floating signifier model of semiotics into the realm of information technology to introduce the concept she terms “flickering signifiers” (30), which are characterized “by their tendency toward unexpected metamorphoses, attenuations, and dispersions” (30). This shift from floating signifiers to flickering signifiers may suggest that a rethinking of the absence/presence dialectic is necessary. That is, while the Lacanian formulation asserts that language is not a code, Hayles reminds us that word processing is (30).
In the next stage of the metamorphiction, the text passes through the “INCREASE SENSE” filter gate. Noon explains the function of this filter gate: it “significantly enhances text” and “increases readability” (Noon, Cobralingus 14). Furthermore, Noon introduces “chemical symbols” and “rune names” into the signal (Fig. 8):
With the INCREASE SENSE filter gate, Noon seems to urge the signal to reassemble in a meaningful way as a means of compensating for the increasingly divergent pathways it has taken from the inlet text by de Quincey. In the left hand column, Noon writes an elegy to Freud. It opens with a chaotic image, that of casting the runes, perhaps as an homage to the chance and unpredictability that Noon employed to reach this elegiac stage. Runes are the letters of multiple Germanic languages used before the introduction of the Roman alphabet. A neo-pagan exercise involves tossing stones inscribed with runes which are then meditated upon - a geomantic practice similar to the traditional forms of divination associated with the classic Chinese I Ching. Indeed, the I Ching - or, The Book of Changes, in English - espouses certain ramifications loosely analogous to those of chaos theory; that is, concerns regarding the inevitability of change, flux and balance of opposing forces. The practice of geomancy, or the interpretation of objects tossed to the ground, is certainly in line with Noon’s games of unpredictability. While Noon may be “tossing” runes in a more general sense - that is “tossing” text - the process is comparable: the unpredictable stages of metamorphiction must be interpreted in order to proceed to further meaningful changes. The phrase “cast the runes” may also be an homage to the ghost story by M.R. James, “Casting the Runes” (1904) - a story inspired by the British occultist Aleister Crowley. Finally, there is a remarkable intimacy between Noon’s Cobralingus and the kabablistic practice called gematria. Colin Wilson, in his study The Occult (2003), writes that this particular branch of the Kabbalah is “a system by which Hebrew words are converted into numbers, and then into other words of the same number” (Wilson 268). The resemblance is remarkable: gematria is a practice in which words are transformed into numbers and then into new words, while Noon’s metamorphiction has words converted, imaginatively, to information bits and then into new words. There is also a notable visual similarity between the two systems. First, the Cobralingus Engine has the appearance of an information circuit in which stages, text, filters, etc., are visually linked by connective lines marking it as a kind of snake diagram. The “basis of all cabalism,” writes Wilson, “is a diagram known as the sacred tree, which consists of ten circles joined by twenty-two lines” (262). The link between metamorphiction and a vague assemblage of occult practices is made explicit in the piece “Pornostatic Processor.” Here, Noon samples the famous word “honorificabilitudinitatibus” from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (1598); the outlet text is a series of tarot card readings that call to mind Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies (1969). Each possibility is in conjunction with Noon’s desire to divert the reader’s attention from the mechanical aspects of the Cobralingus Engine; that is, to simultaneously express an exercise that is both admirably philosophical and entertainingly charlatanic.
Ultimately, Freud’s death explicitly enters the signal only with the injection of anagramethane into the word “defrauded.”Here, the claim “London, 1936: / Sigmund Freud died tonight,” conflicts with Freud’s actual date of death: 23 September 1939. The incorrect date of Freud’s death marks the explicit entrance of an “error” into the signal, an unpredictable event which will further the metamorphosis of the signal. Midway through the elegy, however, the “increased sense” makes a startling shift, a “redraft chemistry of the rune spell.” The chaos and randomness associated with the casting of runes pervades the elegy itself; the shift in the signal is now concerned with the “germination / of a deformed synthetic hand.” The linguistic units that will produce this effect are to be found to the right of the elegy: chemical symbols and rune names randomly dispersed ready to combine in atypical ways to produce unexpected mutations. What is noteworthy, however, about the chemical symbols and rune names is their visual representation. Noon typographically represents the names as chaotically dispersed units suggesting concrete poetry in which semiotic models are the hypostatized visual subject. That is, the names - as signifiers - visually appear to be both floating and flickering. Consequently, Cobralingus aligns itself with two simultaneous parallel dialectics - language and word processing - which are, paradoxically, inextricably linked yet autonomous.
Noon then passes the signal through three further filter gates: “RANDOMISE” which results in the disordering of the text where parts “may be lost or changed” (Noon 15); and “PURIFY” and “CONTROL” where the language is forced to behave itself (14). What is left is a series of randomly dispersed letters and words - “data,” “unusual,” “computer,” “sex,” “anagram,” “rhizome,” “dna,” are among examples. The sentence, “CHEMICAL WEDDING: / GERMINATION OF A DEFORMED SYNTHETIC DREAM HAND,” suggests the upcoming zaniness the signal will take. There is a third sample in “Bridal Suite Production,” this time from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: “I beheld the wretch - / the miserable monster / whom I had created” (41). Again, the metamorphiction takes an unpredictable direction: toward marriage and the conception of a synthetic dream hand. The Shelley quotation is appropriate insofar as it comments on the process of metamorphiction itself: that is, the reassembling and reordering of deconstructed subparts in order to produce a new creation. Furthermore, the language of the text, particularly in the concretized words metaphorically representing floating and flickering signification, is taking on connotations, not simply of technologies of reassemblage and production, but also of organic reproduction; or, the interbreeding of language itself.
Just as the catastrophe of Lacan’s presence/absence dialectic is castration, Hayles identifies mutation as the analogous outcome for the pattern/randomness dialectic. Hayles argues that
randomness is the contrasting term that allows pattern to be understood as such. The crisis named by mutation is as wide-ranging and pervasive in its import within the patter/randomness dialectic as castration is within the tradition of presence/absence, for it is the visible mark that testifies to the continuing interplay of the dialectic between pattern and randomness, replication and variation, expectation and surprise. (33)
Castration marks the catastrophe in psycholinguistic development in Lacanian psychoanalysis, as it is “the moment when the (male) subject symbolically confronts the realization that subjectivity, like language, is founded on absence” (31). Mutation, however, marks a disruption of pattern so explicit that “the expectation of continuous replication can no longer be sustained” (33). Both Hayles and Noon use the genetic code as a means of demonstrating via analogy the effects mutation can have on the dialectic. Hayles suggests that the effects of mutation take place when an already existing pattern is disrupted by a random event, such as “a burst of radiation or a coding error” (32). In Cobralingus, the date of Freud’s death as it is introduced in “Bridal Suite Production” functions as a type of coding “error;” at this point, something new emerges in place of the previous code. In “Bridal Suite Production,” however, mutation occurs from neither a blast of energy nor a coding error, but rather from a deliberate language game: the random sampling of DNA codes (Noon 42) into the already disrupted de Quincey sample. In this stage the signal is passed through the “PLAY GAME” filter, which Noon describes as a “mischief maker” which “encourages craziness;” consequently, the “results may surprise the user” (15). The random disruption of the system or code establishes the direction in which the piece may now take. Noon’s mischief metamorphoses the “CHEMICAL WEDDING: / GERMINATION OF A DEFORMED SYNTHETIC DREAM HAND” (41) into a mock wedding invitation in the next interim text (Fig. 9):
The wedding invitation is framed by DNA code which, through its distinctive detachment from the invitation itself, gestures back to the two paradoxical dialectics. That is, the disconnected DNA codes are visual representations of signifiers which may be floating, flickering, or both. Hayles argues that “mutation is crucial because it names the bifurcation point at which the interplay between pattern and randomness causes the system to evolve in a new direction. It reveals the productive potential of randomness that is also recognized within information theory when uncertainty is seen as both antagonistic and intrinsic to information” (Hayles 33). Indeed, Noon’s game of sampling DNA codes into the signal is among the list of antagonistic moves he makes against the order of de Quincey’s original inlet text. However, for metamorphictive purposes, the move that begins the mutation is key in developing unpredictable and surprising literary results. It may appear that there is very little in the original de Quincey text which would, only five pages later, generate a wacky wedding invitation heralding the union of “Mr Wretched Data” and “Miss Deformed Synthetic.” Yet, there is certainly a common element to the signal that Noon has specified and exploited: that of unusual combinations that gesture towards unique and unusual forms of change. Nevertheless, despite the unpredictability of the direction the signal takes, the result has artistic merit in its innovative humor, in its technical expertise, and its formal eloquence.
In the following text, Noon again drugs the signal, this time with “fecundamol,” furthering the chaotic hilarity of the signal by suggesting a strange wedding night. Here the signal becomes excessive; there is no spacing between the DNA codes which open and close the text and the chain of words which were employed earlier in the signal. The next stage, (Fig. 10), is as follows:
Here Noon displays the signal as white noise in that this stage includes the presence of nearly everything which has disrupted the signal thus far. The white noise itself, however, is not devoid of meaning (and humor). At the climax of the wedding night, the repeated “DNAH” (derived from DNA), is suggestive of the sighs of orgasm. Of course, it is also the word “hand” spelled backwards.
In the final stage, Noon passes the signal through a DRUG filter gate, the drug now being “metaphorazine.” “Metaphorazine” is also the name of an amusing short story which Noon includes in his dizzyingly diverse and masterful collection of short stoires, Pixel Juice (1998). The story consists of a variety of portmanteaux consisting of combinations of tropes and drugs which dictate the way the language is executed in the corresponding section of the story. This short story is an early example of Noon’s experiments in drugging language with chaos.This marks the outlet text of the metamorphiction, indicating the terminus of the signal’s pathway and the final manifestation of “Bridal Suite Production.” The outlet text is a concrete poem: a mutated human hand of six fingers comprised entirely of repetitions of the word “hand” (Fig. 11):
The final two lines of the concrete poem appear to form a wrist band or some sort of barrier made up, again of the four bases of DNA: ACTGAATCGGTAGCGATAG / GCTTAGTCCAGAAGCTGA (Noon 44). Furthermore, between and around the polydactylous hand are individual bases - “G,” “C,” “A,” and “T” - that could be floating or flickering signifiers indicating that the outlet itself is subject to further possible mutation. While this outlet text in the form of a concrete poem may seem a disappointment, particularly in comparison with some of the more beautiful pieces that appear in Cobralingus, it is a poignant reminder of the inlet text. That is, the signal that began as a sample of de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, though radically disrupted and altered, has now ended as a concrete poem representing a deformed human hand, a mutation resulting from the interbreeding of language. The outlet text ultimately asks readers to recapitulate their memory of the inlet text - de Quincey’s miserable musing on his opium addiction - as a disorderly and disobedient shift from one state to another. The massive ruptures from one manifestation of order via unpredictable reassemblage to another form of order suggests that order, in some variety of self-similar variation, is inherent in disorder. The deformed six fingered hand is, after all, an artifice - one brought into being by human agency rather than the natural reproductive process that regularly produces five fingers - indicating that the DNA is meant to be explicitly taken metaphorically as subject to synthetic mutation.
Ultimately, the concrete poem representing a polydactyl human hand, the “same” (though metamorphosed) signal as the de Quincey text, metaphorically represents the intermediary stages that fiction must take from printed text to electronically mediated manifestation. The Complete Review’s review of Cobralingus, while comparing the book with constrained writing techniques of Oulipo and Raymond Roussel, attests that
Noon writes of the specific effectof each FILTER GATE, as though it were a precise algorithm and the text transformed according to very precise rules. In fact, the Cobralingus Engine is no such thing. The rules, beyond their most basic operation, are entirely of Noon’s own choosing…Cobralingus is artifice, an excuse for literary play (though it does, admittedly, impose some restrictions on the texts). (The Complete Review)
Ultimately, the synthetic hand of the concrete poem, as a synthetic formation of the Cobralingus Engine, indicates one of the most poignant dimensions not only of “Bridal Suite Production” but also of the epistemic literary function of metamorphiction. Noon wishes to explore the implications of the shift literature is invariably taking into provisional electronically mediated forms whereby Cobralingus and all its associated pieces and processes may be considered metaphors for the interim stages of the representational shift from printed text to electronically mediated text that fiction is presently undergoing and how this shift will transform the way the subject interacts with language. The polydactylous hand metaphorically represents metamorphiction itself, as an intermediary stage in the semiotic mutation that texts, and the ways we are seduced by them, are presently undergoing.
Complete Review’s Review: Cobralingus. The Complete Review. 7 February 2008. http://www.complete-review.com/reviews/noonj/clingus.htm. Web.
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