Privileging Language: The Text in Electronic Writing

Privileging Language: The Text in Electronic Writing

Brian Kim Stefans

Now that the First Person essay collection is complete and the case has been made for computer games as a form of narrative, Brian Kim Stefans asks the fundamental questions - concerning what can be read as literature, and what really cannot.

Joseph Tabbi:

Readers of Hayles’ book should seek out a copy of the prescient, more wide-ranging volume by Steve McCaffery and bpNichol, Rational Geomancy: The kids of the book-machine : the collected research reports of the Toronto Research Group, 1973-1982) (Talonbooks, 1992).


The following essay began as a response to Chapter Six of First Person, The Pixel/The Line, which Noah Wardrip-Fruin invited me to contribute to electronic book review ’s version of that text.


There are several things I’d like to write in response to all three essays of The Pixel/The Line - by John Cayley, Camille Utterback, and Bill Seaman - but I’d like to lead into this response by quoting a passage from Seaman’s Interactive Text and Recombinant Poetics. My primary concern will be with the issue of text and meaning and the reduced terms with which these are both often approached in electronic writing. Here, Seaman is describing the role of text in an application such as his own The World Generator/The Engine of Desire:

Each field carries an evocative meaning force. Our embodied history of experience of past contexts represents another expansive field that is brought into this delicate equation. As we encounter virtual or computational spaces we experience an ongoing, time-based summing of meaning forces. Thus text presents one field of meaning force that can only be understood contextually in relation to other neighboring meaning forces–other media elements and living processes. The word is not valued in a hierarchy over other media elements.

Seaman, like a latter day Marinetti, is celebrating not only the liberation of words but the breakdown of boundaries between the sign of the word and the sign of other media elements including video, sound, and still image. I’m using “sign” following Seaman’s lead in introducing the term from the writing of Charles Sanders Peirce, traditionally considered the founder of both pragmatism and modern semiotics. But it is unclear why Seaman introduces Peirce into the equation only to note how “Peirce suggests that meaning is that which the sign conveys,” which is either 1) obvious or 2) a belief not specific to Peirce but to an entire field of study. Nor does Seaman actually adopt the use of the term “sign” throughout his essay, opting instead for terms like “emergent meaning” and “meaning force” which he appears to have adopted from Fernande Saint-Martin’s Semiotics of Visual Language. In general, this intermingling of terms adopted from other writers - Derrida and Eisenstein are two others - combined with an inadequate specificity in his own use of them - an unwillingness to make them his own - is a feature of Seaman’s writing which I find troubling. Perhaps it’s merely symptomatic of the dual pressures of satisfying idioms of both literary theory and computer science, which can often result in an amalgam language that has the sheen of scholarship and systematic thinking though there is no distinction between when a proposition is being made (or theory being defended) and when the writer is merely describing his artistic creations. A theory is made to be disproved - it is a challenge, not an affirmation - but certainly one can’t disprove what it is an artist feels his or her artistic creation is doing. My sense, also, is that the attempt to discuss language in purportedly abstract terms is dangerous when it comes to electronic writing, since the atomization of language - its utter divorce from syntax, commonalities of spelling, cultural contingencies, and quite often the “author” - s practically a given in a truly “digital” universe, a universe in which language is vulnerable to algorithmic processes, and in which the processes themselves are written with language (of a sort). Add to this list the notions of interactivity and vuser complicity in the creation of the art work and we increase exponentially the relativity of the meaning of any single element, even as the context in which these elements exist - the virtual world - remains as novel and inscrutable as the machine itself. While it is inarguable that the meaning of a word can change in a different context, is it really an appreciable difference if the entirety of the context is characterized by utter relativity (as opposed to contingency)? Democracy, for instance, is a context in which one’s understanding of justice exists (or upon which it is contingent) - justice itself being a term that has existed throughout history, even in times not characterized at all by a democratic ethos. But the word justice contrasted with the words fish fry only serves to make the two words more material - more present as words in a physical environment - but also to render both relatively mute, and entirely banal, in terms of meaning. See chapters in Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony and Solidarity on this matter, especially his writing on Kuhn and Derrida.

My sense is that no writer of fiction, poetry, or any of the conventional genres of print-based or performance-oriented writing would be satisfied that their words had a meaning force that was only available within the context of the delicate equation of an expansive field. Ezra Pound might be the poet who most explored the art of image/text juxtaposition on the page - not to mention the collaging of different languages, styles, and genres such as history or satire - but struggled for coherence against even his own technique. I don’t imagine Alexander Pope or Jonathan Swift would have been nearly as effective satirists in a universe characterized by an inchoate summing of words, and neither Lolita nor Naked Lunch would have been banned (or Salman Rushdie sentenced to death) were their content to have been so utterly transformed by the neighboring graphics of the book cover or paper quality, not to mention the person reading the book. Even purely aesthetic avant-garde enterprises, like the poetry of Gertrude Stein or John Ashbery, rely to a strong degree on the force of meanings as they are contingent within our life experiences, and not on the brief frisson that an arbitrary juxtaposition of words and images provides. The effect of surprise is one of the hardest to accomplish in the arts.

It doesn’t appear to be of great import to new media writers, especially those involved in interactivity, 3D spaces and multimedia, that they might actually utilize the technology to magnify the impact and specificity of language as we have come to know it through the centuries. Rather, the tendency has been to reduce or evaporate this impact for the sake of something else - experience of language in space or time, for example, or of language as some sort of ambient experience, or, in this case, of language as a participant in a recombinant universe jointly occupied by sounds, images, videos and the user’s interactions. Because new media writers tend to program their pieces from the ground up, creating their own interfaces entirely dissimilar to conventional interfaces - the Web browser, for example, where millions of people get their electronic writing - the tendency seems to be to use text that itself has no trace of conventional communication, and then to call it poetry because it is clearly not anything else. There is nothing wrong with this, of course - poetry likes the company - but is it possible to achieve any of the above without having to reduce language to a useful marker for the passing of time, or as a way to keep one’s balance in a 3D space?

Seaman makes a point of announcing that, in his The World Generator/The Engine of Desire, the word is not valued in a hierarchy over other media elements. This smacks of a sort of egalitarianism that seems to me endemic in new media art criticism, an egalitarianism that seems to be consistent with the hacker/libertarian ethos of Internet culture, but which also takes its cue from John Cage and Robert Rauchenberg, probably the two artists most responsible for our understanding of non-hierarchical all-inclusiveness of an artwork in relation to a democratic, even anarchic, tendency. (I’d include Duchamp in this line, but there is a metaphysics, or even pataphysics, operating in his work that suggests, if anything, a hierarchy, and he was very scrupulous in choosing which items to permit into, and hence allow to elaborate, his parallel art-historical universe.) This egalitarianism obviously also derives from the fact that, as in a universal Turing machine, all types of sensible elements, such as sound, image, and text, can be reduced to the same principle components of bytes As all manner of representational systems are recast as digital information, they can all be stored, accessed, and controlled by the same equipment (John Cayley, quoting Peter Lunenfeld in Literal Art).  

However, I’d like to argue that one cannot simply say that the word is another element to be treated like a sound or a color if one is to do justice to the notion of language as a very specific ability that humans possess, one that has been shaped by the sediments of conventions and conversations layered over several centuries. Certainly language can be used this way. Steve Reich’s early experiments with looped speech, for example, or the proto-Pop painter Stuart Davis’s canvases are two well-known examples, but even in these cases, in which not much language was used, the contingencies of both history and culture (even race) played large roles in their effects. I’d also like to argue that in much electronic writing (or digital art that is also classed that way because language is a primary component of the experience, such as Camille Utterback’s Text Rain), language is being used to solve a formal problem in the artistic project - often to make the experience more concrete or to round out a metaphor N. Katherine Hayles’s essay “The Time of Electronic Poetry: From Object to Event” contains a description of John Cayley’s riverisland that suggest this image-first, words-second relatoinship: “The gradual transitions between the poems enact what the images of flowing water suggest, a continuous stream of sound and images with nodal points where the reader can linger to appreciate the local sights.” Cayley has been particularly aware of how the effects of his pieces are buttressed by the over-arching metaphor that his imagery and audio tracks imply. - and that the electronic elements of the project have not come around in order to solve a problem in the literary effort. Which is to say: digital art quite often needs poetry more than poetry needs digital art, though one would think in the field of electronic writing the latter should be the case.


I’m reasonably well versed in experimental poetic and (in the case of Cage) musical techniques that rely on principles of polysemeity - the rupturing of a word’s once-stable meanings to liberate unconventional or even hitherto unheard of meanings - and aleatoric methods (the use of chance), in which seemingly natural sentence and even word order is randomly corrupted with the goal of producing new experiences that were not intended by the author. Cage’s reading through various stable texts - such as his diaries, or letters from friends, or Finnegans Wake - are prime examples of this From another angle, one could say that Cage is primarily interested in introducing us to the world of chance and has found language to be one of the more effective ways to achieve this, just as piano notes and colors serve in other works of his., but so are lesser known phenomena such as the conceptual literary works of Vito Acconci in the Sixties or the live-edited poetry events of Steve Benson and Bruce Andrews. Both principles, polysemeity and the aleatoric, are touched on in Craig Dworkin’s description of Andrews’ early poetic technique:

In the resultant mesh of language, themes only latent in the source texts emerge in a text animated by the tension between atomized words and the pull of an emergent syntax: “Distinctly Luck Coal Stern,” “Limited Capital Cupola Plosive,” “Noise Hypotenuse.” The language of these poems is motivated along multiple, but unprivileged axes; at a local level, the collision of irreconcilable linguistic elements frustrates both the referential pull of the sign and the inevitable, if tenuous, invitations of even the most paratactic syntax to establish conceptual associations. Language, in these poems, idles, the gears grating. Bruce Andrews.

Dworkin describes language as trying to come together, seemingly of its own will, to form sentences, and from there conceptual associations, possible in even so charged and atomized a universe as a radical Language poem. The key word here is tension - this isn’t a programmed atomization but one that creates a pull between irreconcilable linguistic elements and conceptual associations. Later in his career, Dworkin writes, Andrews’ writing began to deal more with the phrase, and as a result approached a more coherent thematics.

While the highly ironized and ventriloquizing transcriptions of public speech in these works may initially appear more accessible than the earlier non-lexical work, the writing is still significantly anasemantic. Although the content of these phrases is frequently provocative and offensive - “suck the testicles,” “sink the boat people” - the emphasis is less on the particular content of the phrases than on the social work undertaken by such language. The disjunctive and irreconcilable contexts of the phrases underscores the sorts of social and psychological constructions that language enables, enacts, structures.

One should read the phrase social work above not only in the light of progressive politics, with which Language poetry is often allied, but also as a performative utterance (in the philosophy of Austin) in which speech such as suck the testicles, in most cases an entirely irrational command, creates a profoundly discomforting effect. This is more than what is now considered a commonplace activity of postmodern artists - that their activities subvert a seemingly normative or privileged way of looking at things. Andrews’ writings, and his activities in the live-edited performances, is more like an assault on meaning, and he is hardly waiting, like an ivory-tower visionary, to be discovered, but is actively making a case for language to be used as a counter-paradigmatic thrust, and way beyond the confines of mere aesthetic or academic discourse.

This is language that seems to fit in with Seaman’s paradigm of how he intends his language to operate in the liberated field of The World Generator, but Andrews seems to address the larger purpose of why language is being used at all. As Andrews himself writes in his essay, Electronic Poetics:

Even though the meanings of language often seem more like an afterthought than the organizing principles in the digital domain, sense & its production (both narrowly linguistic & more broadly semiotic as well as social) remain key - beyond decorative (even if kinetic) visuals & sound. Language’s social resonances still need center stage, choreographed to implicate situations beyond the immediate GUI (Graphic User Interface) & to ‘remind’ us, by interpretable social choices (& the social force) of language, of the world(s) beyond. Semantic relations (with arrangements of time & space & grammar & typography & sound as vehicles) still top the hit list of socially relevant material. An immersive virtual space may encourage us to forget this, to vaporize everything outside the frame. If language is social, how can we make it resistant to a VR set-up? How to get beyond the razzle-dazzle (or comforting aura) of absorption, or of programmed works that make the prior socialization of the material (& the social antagonisms or dissonances built into them) seem to vanish. Electronic Poetics.

New media art and literature can often become a celebration of a successful feat of engineering, but beyond the basic look what we can do with words, there has to be some notion of address: language must be setting out to do something, not sit in a vacuum (a sense, ironically, reified by the very novelty of the unconventional machine), a marker for that part where language could be used were one to want to say or do something.

Coincidentally, the primary content of Andrews’ texts - if not in the meanings of the words themselves, the paradigm to which they point and hope to corrupt - is not concerned with describing how the artistic product is itself working. Too often, the textual element of electronic art pieces seem to be clippings from the artist’s notebooks about how he or she wishes the viewer to feel when experiencing the piece - you are seeing this in time … bodies move through space etc. The effect is something like that of the slogans on the walls of Communist factories, an attempt to reify an experience just in case you forgot that you weren’t working for a classless Utopia. This kind of writing demonstrates a lack of trust in letting words do what they can do, and which music and images can’t do, such as be contradictory, paradoxical, and - as the famous Eliza program demonstrates - psychologically ventriloquistic, suggesting the presence of another human in the room - in your head - when there clearly isn’t one. Visual paradoxes such as those of M.C. Escher will never be more than analogies for the power of a paradox conveyed through language, such as in a parable or koan, or in the short stories of Borges or Kafka. W.H. Auden wrote in The Dyer’s Hand that the one limitation of opera is that you can’t express doubt in music, and that No opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible. My question, then, is: does text in an electronic art piece suffer its own set of limitations? Because of its place in an interactive, digital, and often 3-dimensional universe, is text not able to exhibit signs of doubt and sensibility, and given the lack of a set-up appropriate to humor - can it ever be funny?

John Cayley ends his essay Literal Art with this question: How can one justify an engagement with verbal art, with language, when symbolic manipulation may be indistinguishable from machinic symbols? Quite often, works in which human symbolic and machinic symbolic languages mesh are described as making us more aware of the materiality of text, and of creating some new engagement of the individual with the computer. I think this critical paradigm, while opening up new vistas for the scholar (as N. Katherine Hayles has demonstrated in her writing on Talan Memmott’s Lexia to Perplexia in Writing Machines [MIT Press, 2002]), is making it easier to neglect the other, and I think far greater, possibilities for language in electronic writing. Electronic writing has to offer more than the techno-holism of claiming that text is no longer privileged over other types of data, as if this should be celebrated like the defeat of Fascism. I actually think that even under the best, and most normative, of conditions, it’s hard enough work to make words mean anything, if by mean we intend something more significant than the utilitarian or blandly habitual: the apple is red. John Cayley writes that the on-off switching of a pixel is not a “cultural moment” in the way that the changing of a letter is. One might argue that the play of meanings on the level of “the apple is red” is itself not a “cultural moment,” certainly not within the range of possible meanings that Andrews is aware of. Pragmatist philosophy such as that of Peirce generally draws a line between those statements of truth that are largely habitual and not worth disproving to those that require recourse to a universe of contingencies to be truly “meaningful.” The effectiveness of language in artistic experiences relies on sensitivity to these scales of values.


This brings me to my second point, which involves a consideration of whether, in works of electronic writing, text is being used to solve a problem tossed up by the formal issues of the art piece, or whether the art piece has been created to extend or expand our understanding of words and language.

Several of the works that Camille Utterback writes about in Unusual Positions - Embodied Interaction with Symbolic Spaces seem, to me, to fall into the former category. This isn’t to say that Stream of Consciousness: An Interactive Poetic Garden - in which words are projected onto a tiny artificial stream and move along its currents, even fall off a tiny waterfall and eventually down a drain, as if they were part of the water itself - was not conceived in some single burst of inspiration by David Small and Tom White. It’s that the piece has the feel of an application for which a limitless number of texts would be suitable, and the texts that are or have been used for the piece do not, in themselves, seem to benefit from being seen in this environment. Utterback writes:

In one sequence of text the characters are symbols from the periodic table of elements - Ni, Ca, etc. These symbols morph into the word for their corresponding image when you stop them midstream. The boundary between words standing for elements that make up the physical world and standing in for those elements as a physical object in the fountain is blurred as you push and pull them around the water, manipulating them with your fingers instead of your mind.

As this clever interpretation suggests, the text in this piece is intended to, as I stated earlier, round out a metaphor - that is, an additional layer of verbal signification renders the basic pun in the title more complex. When I saw the piece in Queens at the Museum of the Moving Image, there was a different algorithm at play: placing blue track light over the words, which were merely an alphabetical list, caused the words to spawn synonyms. The addition of text also attempts to move the piece away from being a soothing, ingenious, and largely useless application and towards a literary contrivance. Further, the machine, despite its being disguised as a natural geological form, takes on a modest amount of gravitas because of its effective display of its ability to harm language - to show that language is vulnerable to its play of algorithm.

This lopsidedness - a huge amount of programming and engineering at the service of a very limited textual experience - is not unprecedented. Most of Marcel Duchamp’s work, while not being engineering marvels in the conventional sense Calvin Tompkins in his biography of Marcel Duchamp describes a great deal of ingenuity that went into the construction of his final tableau, Étant Donnés, itself an object lesson in the virtue of limited “interactivity.” , were only meaningful given the textual tag, in the former of the title, that was placed on them. A whole slew of conceptualists, ranging from Bruce Nauman to Ian Hamilton Finlay, came after him. More recent works by The Prize Budget for Boys, such as Basho’s Frogger and the now famous Pac-Mondrian, are constructions intended to elaborate either the basic pun in the title or, in the case of Basho’s Frogger, the haiku hidden in the high score board: FRG PND PLP. The Internet project They Rule, gives the user a graphical interface with which to explore the board members of several large corporations and functions more like an editorial than any other form of art. They Rule relies, like Stream of Consciousness, on a closed set of data-based text and a title. Even if the text is limited to the names of corporations and the proper names of their board members, the artificial syntax of the connecting lines - a series of accusatory is also s - creates a powerful, and largely literary, effect, perhaps the first political cartoon to rely entirely on a database . I’m eliding a great deal of the functionality of this site.

Whereas Duchamp and the PBR intend a sort of Dada shock effect, and They Rule intends to editorialize, Stream of Consciousness seems to be largely about exploring alternative man-computer interfaces. But unlike They Rule, which makes its impact entirely because of the chosen data, Stream of Consciousness seems to me to be a piece that hasn’t really found its text yet. Interestingly, Christiane Paul in her survey Digital Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 2003) doesn’t mention the nature of the text at all, nor does she describe the interactivity of the piece, sticking instead to the metaphor implicit in the title. If one understands the engineering and programming of Stream of Consciousness as a constraint, in the same way that not using the letter e in George Perec’s novel La Disparition as a constraint, or the engineering parameters of the Cave at Brown University function as a constraint, then the next step should be to find the text, perhaps the only text, that is suitable - the elegant solution - to make the object more than a curio like Vaucanson’s Duck. The poet Christian Bök has been the most provocative and convincing proselyte for the use of the most stringent constraints in literature as a way of liberating the most beautiful properties of language. He writes in “The New Ennui”: “The text makes a Sisyphean spectacle of its labour, willfully crippling its language in order to show that, even under such improbable conditions of duress, language can still express an uncanny, if not sublime, thought.” Without this suitable text, then it appears that any text will satisfy the constraint - the engineering, the physical object - and the effect is, I think, diminished. That is, the sort of variability that we appreciate in an application is actually something one would choose to diminish in a bachelor machine - a useless but beautiful product of engineering.

What if one replaced the text with the names of the politicians of the French Revolution? Or the victims of 9/11? What would happen to the metaphor of flowing streams then? What if used as the source text Finnegans Wake - one presses the word and the various puns of the text are elaborated …. That would certainly make it literary, but is it worth the effort? How about using the text of Kenneth Goldsmith’s The Weather, which is merely a transcription of all the weather forecasts for an entire year in New York City? While I can admire Stream of Consciousness for its craftsmanship and cleverness, the technique’s largely silent when it comes to the use of language or the many things language really does - the stakes in the language itself are low, and yet language is there looming as the sublime background against which the piece behaves. I’m not sure that attaching a more sophisticated algorithm - such as in the work of David Rokeby or the Neil Hennessey’s Jabberwocky Engine - would really solve this problem, but perhaps there is some text generator out there that would really lift the piece into the continuum of strong conceptual literary projects. “Conceptual writing” is as difficult to define as “electronic writing” since much of it is also considered part of the conventional “art” world as well. An excellent online source for conceptual writing can be found at

My sense is that text largely solves a formal problem in Utterback’s Text Rain as well, but I think, in that case, the text serves kind of like the lyric to a pop song - it doesn’t have to be Shakespeare, but it has to be tasteful - not distracting when you just want to dwell on the emotional charge of the voice, but there when you decide to pay attention to the words. Thom Swiss has grown increasingly more adept at creating texts that work in variable environments, moving from an earlier kind of MTV-ish spoken word text/image interaction to pieces that employ recombinance and narrative indeterminacy, not to mention a graphic style more suggestive of Slattery-esque glyphs than videos. Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s Screen also involves a fun interaction with moving text, but it evolves into a game in which you are supposed to save from dissolution the paragraphs projected on the walls. The text lends an air of extreme pathos to the losing situation the user - and by extension everyone involved in life - is put into by not being able to hold on to memories, for the piece ends with a cataclysm of words disappearing into the ground regardless of the user’s skill. Again, like with the lyrics to a pop song, or the screenplay to a film, or maybe even one of the texts of Young Hae Chang’s Flash pieces, one has only a clinical interest in seeing the words on a page, realizing that the text can only be fully experienced in the live, time-based, aural, and visual experience of the thing.

The text for The Legible City, which I was never able to read very easily in my experiences with the piece, seems to me largely arbitrary. The primary function of text is to provide the user with an exaggerated sense of the scale of the buildings - we all know that a ten foot tall letter is very large and hence an aberration, whereas a ten foot tall red block seems like, well, a block, neither unusually large or small. John Cayley brought this to attention in conversation - that one can use our conventional sense of how large words should be for comfortable reading as a way to situate a user in three-dimensional space in an environment such as the Cave. He expands on this issue in his article (written with Dmitri Lemmerman), “Lens: The Practice and Poetics of Writing in Immersive VR: a Case Study with Maquette” (unpublished): “To support the differences they establish, they must be relatively complex shapes, and yet they must become very familiar, in the culture where they are current, especially to literate viewers, for whom their very differentiated complexities enable reading. Graphically and in terms, once again, of phenomenology, this gives us - culturally, experientially - a vocabulary of graphic forms about whose size we have very specific ideas and expectations. If you see the shape ‘N’ you expect it to be a ‘Legible’ size. When you see a ‘♦’ you do not have the same expectations. This phenomenon has, in my view, major implications for an emergent phenomenology of text in space.” Letters are commonly vector-based in graphics programs, and hence don’t seem, in The Legible City, to be reduced forms of themselves as experienced in print - in fact, they are expanded into 3D. Had Shaw used renderings of buildings, trees and other items from nature, they would have looked absurdly reduced, especially given the state of technology in that Max Headroom era. The legibility of The Legible City seems, to me, to be in the way one reads urban spaces, with its squares, main boulevards, back streets and alleys and, most effectively, desolate outer limits. Unlike with a pop song, I don’t even think the text was there if you wanted to pay attention it.


Like screenplay writing and, more recently, hypertext fiction, electronic writing that relies on interactivity, unusual interfaces, idiosyncratic engineering, on-the-fly Web searches and 3D seem to be forging a new textual aesthetics. As Andrews notes in “Electronic Poetics,” text can be the “organizing principle” in a piece, much like the text was the organizing principle in Christian Bök’s Rubik’s Cube poem Bibliomechanics, but I’m having a hard time coming up with examples of electronic writing - outside of content heavy Web pages - formed the primary organizational principle of a work. My settings of Bök’s Eunoia and Dan Farrell’s The Inkblot Record could be examples, but they might also be considered clever ways of organizing data along fairly conventional Web architectural lines. Matt Gorbet, in his response to Utterback’s essay, observes that her examples share another similarity in the nature of the text they present: they employ short forms of text such as poetry, quotations, and symbols. Such texts are effective because they can be quickly grasped and have immediate impact, allowing visitors to start reading anywhere and spend as much or as little time as they like with the piece. Gorbet then asks some very poignant questions:

Given these observations about the simplicity of interaction and the brevity of content, a question presents itself: using a simple, familiar physical interaction which maintains the users’ sense of control, how far can the complexity of the content be pushed? Is there a necessary correlation between simple interaction and simple content? Or is it possible to create a body-centric interactive piece with the storytelling capacity of an epic novel or a play?

My guess is that the simplicity of the interaction does not constrain the degree of complexity of the text so much as might the sum of the parts of the application (particularly the screen, whether it be water or a wall, and the limits of how many lines you can have on it). Hypertext fiction with its clickable words is as simple an interface as can be, and yet the texts are often quite complex in these spaces. Certainly, the fact that letters and words usually appear at a speed controlled by the programmer of the piece, even in The Legible City in which pedal cycles are linked to a set response onscreen - make interactivity impractical for long or complicated texts, even if you found a way to flip to a new page.

As Steven Pinker points out in The Language Instinct, human beings are born with a capacity to learn language and use it effectively, complexly, even beautifully, with no instruction whatsoever. But reading is not a human instinct - people have to be trained and have to practice, and some humans, primarily dyslexics, are very effective communicators but struggle to gather any information through text. (HarperPerennial, 1989), 189. Ironically, digital media’s valorization of gestural language, such as in animated poetry, a language that seems to “return us to our bodies,” seems to suggest a sort of neo-Romantic primitivism, but most cultures have lacked a written language, and so the experience of “gestural” language clearly exists on the literary side of the pre-literate/literate divide, not on the more seemingly natural and “bodily” pre-literate side. Which is to say, making language move like bodies hardly returns us to a pre-digital existence, but is more like the icing on the cake of literacy. I think it is an unacknowledged fact among electronic writers that even with the most basic human/text interface, text does not enter the mind so easily. We may underestimate how much we limit the complexity of the text we can use by futzing with the basic components of this interface - putting text on a screen, for example, or letting it unroll at a non-user-controllable rate. But as in most writing that involves forms, especially poetry, these limitations can be seen as constraints that will serve to demonstrate deeper properties of language that might never have been seen before - hence, an artistic challenge.

I think these two issues - regarding the limitations of language’s effectiveness when it is reduced to an ambient (or purely musical or visual) role, and whether some works of electronic writing use language to solve its own formal problems (the problem of a wondrous feat of engineering being largely pointless in an artistic context) meet in the question of whether the artistic value of a work is actually reduced by an increased interactivity and malleability - the ability to link an infinite number of objects with each other, with the guarantee of never seeing the same thing twice. Bruce Nauman, upon being questioned about the interactivity of his Going Around the Corner Piece, says that, after permitting and encouraging interactivity, he nonetheless reduces it as much as possible because he doesn’t want the user to make their own piece out of his. His idea is to stage a very minimal, Beckett-like theater piece in the gallery, one in which you the viewer (and user) are playing Krapp, condemned to a Sisyphus-like activity of always glancing at where you have been - of looking at your rear end as it turns the last corner. Likewise, Utterback understands that the reduced presence of the user in the piece is key to the meaning of the piece itself: [T]he interface allows the symbolic to reach into the physical world and constrain the user’s motions. The flip side of the text’s transgression into the physical in these pieces is the manner in which the user’s body enters the symbolic space of the texts - as a blue glow, a photographic image, or a point of view. She writes of Stream of Consciousness, The interpenetration of the real and the symbolic in this space is in fact quite lopsided. While the text seems to have escaped in to the physical realm of the fountain almost completely, you, via the pressure-sensitive pad, are present in the abstract world of these symbols only in the form of a blue glow that changes its position and size. The more the user is thrust into this world of interactive symbols - this reduced theater, or maybe ritualized linguistic meditation - the less she is given to do.


The most writerly aspect to much electronic writing, and by extension electronic art, can be the interface itself, which raises the possibility that a realm of electronic writing can exist that does not involve letterforms at all. I’m thinking in particular of the interactive Shockwave pieces of, in which the user interacts with an image that is already buzzing with activity, but which responds to the mouse pointer’s motions in ways that are not always obvious but can be learned, like a dance or a secret code. The longer the user navigates in the space, the more is revealed of the deep structure, or the programming (along the lines of Espen Aarseth’s interests in Cybertext, especially his chapter on the typology of game worlds), behind the unfolding image (to draw a loose analogy to Chomskian linguists’ belief in a specific neurological system that lies behind language that is common across all humans regardless of the specifics of the language used). Steve McCaffery writes in his afterword to the largely wordless, typewritten score, Marquee, by poet Ray DiPalma:

Marquee then, exposes the very contours of the signifier (when meaning is differance what else can be?). Shard. Trace-structure. A live (a life) in materiality deliberately devoid of function yet in that lack-of-usage instituting a presence of its own: a graphic substance. On the plane of semiosis DiPalma gives us a language-centered text, a text lacking all referential thrusts to any outside reality. And here we enter the logical illogic and inhabit a centre which is margin: the centre of the sign-shape, in/side the outline. A/long, a/mong, a/bove and not a/bove a spacing that is solid: the ink of the gramme. McCaffery, Steve. Afterword to Ray DiPalma, Marquee: a score. (New York: Asylum’s Press, 1977)

It might seem contradictory that I valorize such an approach after my criticisms of Seaman’s writing above, but I’m not entirely convinced that Seaman’s application serves to animate the properties of language that both Derrida and Deleuze and Guattari describe in the citations he takes from them. While it might be true that Derrida advocates in his writing a seemingly endless deferral of closed meaning - endless chains of signifiers and concepts that offer an illuminated map to the gothic pathways of the mind - there is a specificity to the field of language which is all important, since it is only in language, and not in film and dance (for example), in which elements can be connected syntactically (via the human instinct for language) and logically (which produces the possibility for its many opposites, such as paradox and irrationality). In fact, the type of poetry found in virtual reality literary pieces is often quite distracting; as poetic writing, it often doesn’t engage in any of the various sensual and stylistic properties that language is able to access in poetry (such as D.H. Lawrence’s, Gerard Manley Hopkins or Lyn Hejinian, this latter of whom seems an obvious source for such a pragmatist’s engine). Marjorie Perloff in ” The Poetics of Click and Drag: Screening the New Poetries ” makes a similar point about David Knoebel’s interactive audio-visual poem “Thoughts Go”: “It’s an interesting idea but I don’t think it works. We can’t really hear the spoken text while we are reading the visual one without losing the resonances of both. And the fact is that, either way, the texts abound in standard Romantic lingo: take the metaphor of thoughts as “far travelers” that “touch down briefly / time and again,” or the “wedge of geese” disappearing “beyond the/ sycamore grove.” Would it matter if it were a birch grove? Or if the “parking lot” were a truck stop? ‘Our words,’ said Yeats famously, ‘must seem to be inevitable.’ The digital poem, no matter how ‘clever’ the gimmick, can’t have much staying power if the language is arbitrary.” She doesn’t expand her thesis to include any consideration of texts in which the words are generated in “real time” by an algorithm, but I would argue that, even in that case, a sense of “inevitability,” if not “permanence” as an example of language well-used, will certainly heighten the experience however epehemeral. Even if language does reach these levels, many people will choose either to fly - as Diane Gramola notes in her response - over reading the text on the wall.

Interactive Shockwave pieces like those of - which don’t use images as such but mostly paint their images with dots and vector lines, many of which are programmed to resemble the marks of pencils on a sheet of cream-colored paper - are instances of pure interaction with code: the mouse pointer, merely two numbers on an x/y grid controlled by the hand, interacts with other similar numbers which both engage the mouse pointer but also call back to home base to retrieve other, further orders of behavior. It’s the pure play of the mark, the ersten Strich of Rilke’s poem. An electronic poem that traced the unfolding of beautiful language in the same way that traces the unfolding of a sketched gram would be quite magnificent, and artists David Rokeby and Wardrip-Fruin in pieces such as The Impermanence Agent, Regime Change, and Newsreader have made great progress on this front. But even those aesthetics will have to relate to the aesthetics of conventionally written texts in electronic writing pieces. I think a certain simplicity as Gorbet suggests is nothing to be ashamed of in electronic writing, in the same way that I don’t think films have to have screenplays that read like Chekov, nor songs have meters and plays of sounds that can compete with the best poetry. There are many genres of text that electronic writers can turn to that have not been exploited, such as graffiti and public signage - think of the splendorous use of text in Jean Michel Basquiat’s paintings, where myths are created in the space of a tag, or the scrawls of a Raymond Pettibon piece or the site-specific provocations of a Jenny Holzer - or comic books, of which several electronic writers I know seem to be aficionados. There are tons of sources in poetry and the conceptual sides of the visual arts, not to mention early film.

A Russian writer I’ve come across recently is Lev Rubinstein, a collection of whose works, Catalogue of Comedic Novelties, has recently been translated by Philip Metres and Tatiana Tulchinsky into English. Rubinstein, Lev. Catalogue of Comedic Novelties. (New York: Ugly Ducking Presse, 2004). Each of these poems - they are quite unclassifiable, actually - are made of single lines, each of which occupies a card (or a numbered line, in the English edition), which start off with certain features reappearing in each line, as if the poet were caught in a mental stutter or obsessive compulsion, but which then work through different frames before reaching a conclusion.

1 Who’s that in the yellow fog
Coming closer and closer?
2 Now like shadows on the screen,
Now like air, now like water?
3 Who’s that in the yellow fog
Rushing forward, rushing headlong?
4 Is he trapped in a nirvana
Does he even know himself?

This goes on for several more cards, with the occasional inclusion of an entirely blank card. It’s unclear what Rubinstein would do in a performance for these cards, but in any case, these would have to be moments in which the passing of time, and the presence of the actor/reader, would be magnified. The theme or mode of the cards then shifts to the following, with the introduction of personal names and less beat-driven lines:

21 …and, sizzling, it goes out. We had to walk in complete darkness, our arms stretched out…
22 - What about Zhukov?
23 - We already talked about that…
24 - And?
25 …and, sizzling, it goes out. “Just great,” thought Filichev, “that was the last one…”
26 - What about Kolya Pokshishevsky?
27 - Not in a million years!
28 - And why not?
29 …and, sizzling, it goes out. “The end,” flashed through his mind…
30 - Could it be Arlazov?

The poem then begins to take a simple quatrain - for example, When the right hour struck / A child was born. / It was born, and smiled, / And so the time flew by… - and repeat it, though on occasion, a card would contain just a single line from this quatrain, primarily focusing on the phrase And so the time flew by…. The last part of the poem is the most concrete in terms of objective description, and only takes up about four cards, ending with the refrain from the prior sequence:

73 …a chair, for example. There it is, unoccupied. Yet everyone’s a little afraid to sit in it for some reason…
74 …or, let’s say, an apple tree. It has blossomed quite well, it’s lush, but for some reason there are no apples on it…
75 …or for example, this girl I know. Great gal, pretty and easy to talk to, and yet she’s got no one…
76 …or a mirror. A nice mirror, of ancient make. And yet, for some reason no one likes themselves in it. Why is that?
77 And so the time flew by…

This is a poem that clearly needs metaphors from music to describe it, and in fact, the text could have been influenced by the libretti of Robert Wilson, such as Einstein on the Beach or A Letter to Queen Victoria, which utilize a great deal of repetition and allude to a narrative universe that never comes entirely to the fore.

But there is also a programmatic quality to Wilson’s libretti that suggests, in some ways, they were generated as much as written - the author is not giving himself the license to write as much as he might to satisfy his own authorial instincts, but is rather subsuming the writing under the larger scheme of an abstract progression, a series of movements. The mode of each movement can almost be described algorithmically - first a set of sing-songy couplets, then a set of 3-line units involving a name, a response, a denial, and a refrain (very Beckett-like), then a series of quatrains that are taken apart then welded together again, culminating in a finale of cinematic vignettes. Obviously, there is a theme of absence, of death, prevalent throughout, but the narrative color - the colloquialism of the speech, The translators describe Rubinstein’s texts as “uncanny voicings of homo sovieticus ” elaborating on how the high “conceptualist” poetics of his project allies with his apparent naturalism: “Because his conceptualist poetics seems to require an alienated stance toward language, Rubinstein can be described as more an archivist than composer; that is, he catalogues, on his library cards, the shreds of our speech in all its fragmentariness, wonder, and degradation.” the familiarity with which the names are spoken - adds further dimensions, and further questions, such as: is this the chattering of prisoners? Or if so, are they prisoners in a prison or prisoners of the communist state? Or does it develop into a wider existential realm, suggesting that we are all prisoners, some of whom go off into the world of light without leaving much behind letting us know where they are going. The effect is quite powerful in this short poem, but - most importantly for us - the texts are quite simple, and the key to their construction, dangled before us by the author, makes them both easier to take in quickly but also increasingly more evocative while being increasingly more empty: the replaceable contents of the names and questions suggest a futility of a bureaucratic worldview turning the mind into a database of (im)personal contacts.

I think such techniques as those employed by Rubinstein could be useful for electronic writers who are interested in thematics that could be derived from databased texts which are operated on algorithmically. This is language of a poetic first intensity - even a condensed language, along the lines of Pound - and yet it seems amenable to a recombinant poetics that thrives on real-time creation of textual experiences by a program (or demon, as I’ve described it in Fashionable Noise) acting on source files. It also promotes active reading, which I oppose to something I’ve previously called parsing, which is when one analyzes the qualities of a text regardless of purported content for certain markers: repetition of certain symbols, obvious misspellings, just general qualities of the gestalt of a text that one obtains prior to interpretation. My sense is that one could parse the transitional stages of a Cayley linguistic transliteral morph more than read them, since the in-between stages, the nodal points in N. Katherine Hayles phrase, don’t relate to language as humans use it in any way (unlike the way, say, the morphing of language between Chaucerian English and our own would display characteristics from which one could derive generalities concerning the human mind and society). Both parsing and reading are valid experiences in an electronic writing piece, and certain texts, such as those of Mez and Talan Memmott, ask to be approached both ways simultaneously. But I think that the deferred meaning of a parsing - predicated partly on Derridean differánce - should be no excuse for the reduced emphasis placed on text as something that can be read.

Works Cited

Andrews, Bruce. Electronic Poetics.

Cayley, John. Lens: The Practice and Poetics of Writing in Immersive VR: a Case Study with Maquette (unpublished).

Dworkin, Craig. Bruce Andrews. Unedited encyclopedia entry for Fitzray Dearborn’s Encyclopedia of American Poetry: The Twentieth Century.

First Person: New Media as Story, Performance and Game. Edited by Noah Wardrop-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004).

Hayles, N. Katherine. The Time of Electronic Poetry: From Object to Event (unpublished).

Hayles, N. Katherine. Writing Machines. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002).

McCaffery, Steve. Afterword to Ray DiPalma, Marquee (New York: Asylum’s Press, 1977).

New Screen Media: Cinema/Art/Narrative. Edited by Martin Rieser and Andrea Zapp. (London: British Film Institute, 2002).

Paul, Christiane. Digital Art. (London: Thames & Hudson, 2003).

Perloff, Marjorie. The Poetics of Click and Drag: Screening the New Poetries.

Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct. (New York: HarperPerennial, 1989).

Rubinstein, Lev. Catalogue of Comedic Novelties. (New York: Ugly Ducking Presse, 2004).