FROM HYPERTEXT TO CODEWORK
What happens to writing as it collides with new media? I was thinking about this recently while looking over an exhibition of William Blake's work at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. On display was not just Blake the artist, Blake the poet, or Blake the quirky revolutionary. Here was Blake the media artist.
Blake assembled all of the elements of a media practice. As a writer he experimented with all aspects of the production process. His aesthetic did not stop with the word on the page. Here, I thought, was a useful precursor to name for the new developments in writing that take place on the Internet, developments I will shortly define as "codework."
But Blake is interesting in this connection only if one embraces all aspects of his productivity. There's a tendency, in the teaching of literature and the management of its canons, to separate off the authoring of the text from the other aspects of writing as a production. It's a tendency that full attention to Blake frustrates, given how fully he was invested in the implication of writing in all aspects of its production and circulation. Blake's creation did not stop at the threshold of "text."
Digging writing out of the prison-house of "text" might just be what is needed to unblock thinking about where the Internet is taking writing. There has always been more to writing than text, and there is more to electronic writing than hypertext.
Hypertext may have come to dominate perceptions of where writing is heading in the Internet era, but it is by no means the only, or the most interesting, strategy for electronic writing. Hypertext writers tend to take the link as the key innovation in electronic writing spaces. In hypertext writing, the link is supposed to open up multiple trajectories for the reader through the space of the text.
Extraordinary claims were made for this as a liberatory writing strategy. Hypertext has its limits, however. First, the writing of the text stands in relation to the writing of the software as content to form. The two are not really brought together on the same plane of creativity. Secondly, hypertext tends not to circulate outside of the academic literary community. It has its roots in avant-garde American and English literature and tends to hew close to those origins. Thirdly, it doesn't really rethink who the writer is, in the new network of statements that the expansion of the Internet makes possible. For all the talk of the death of the author, the hypertext author assumes much the same persona as his or her avant-garde literary predecessors.
What is interesting about the emergence of codework is that it breaks with hypertext strategies on all three points. In many codework writings, both the technical and cultural phenomena of coding infiltrates the work on all its levels. Codework finds its home in a wide range of Internet venues, forming dialogues--sometimes antagonistic ones--with the development of other kinds of written communication in an emerging electronic writing ecology. Codework also sets to work on the problem of the author, bringing all of the tactics of the Internet to bear on the question of authorship.
Codework "entities" such as Antiorp and JODI approach the Internet as a space in which to re-engineer all of the aspects of creative production and distribution. Antiorp is famous--or rather infamous--for bombarding listservers such as the Nettime media theory list with posts that seem to parody the sometimes high-serious style of Internet media theory. It was often hard to tell whether the Antiorp writing emanated from a human source or from some demented "'bot" programmed to produce the semi-legible texts.
Antiorp has spawned a number of alternative identities and imitators. It is with some trepidation that one would venture to assign codework texts to discrete authors. It may be best to take the fabricated heteronyms under which codework is sometimes published at face value, rather than to attempt to assign discrete flesh-and-blood authors.
Some codework frustrates the assigning of authorship as a means of breaking down the link between authorship and intellectual property. The Luther Blissett project, for example, encourages writers to assume the name Luther Blissett. Many texts of various kinds have appeared under that name and without copyright.
Some of the more prolific Luther Blissett authors subsequently became the Mu Ming Foundation, which claims to be a "laboratory of digital design" offering "narrative services." The Foundation sees itself as an "enterprise" looking for strategies for regaining control over the production process for codeworkers.
The "texts" JODI produces hover somewhere at the limit of what a text might be. A sample might look something like this:
:: : :: :
A classic JODI Web page may spit all kinds of "punctuation art" across the screen. This work is neither writing nor visual art but something in between. The programming involved usually teeters on the brink of failure. Every technology brings into being new kinds of crashes or accidents, and JODI endeavors to find those accidents unique to the authoring of Web pages.
Integer sometimes makes interventions into discussions on listservers, all with variations on the same distinctive approach to breaking up the text and introducing noise into it, not to mention a somewhat abusive hypercritical persona.
this - a l l this. = but 01 ch!!!!!!p. uneventful
korporat fascist gullibloon zpektakle.
This might be a mangled machine English, or perhaps an English written by a machine programmed by someone who speaks English as a second language, or someone producing a simulation of some such. Or, more lilkely, its syntax may derived from the UNIX CLI command syntax, or languages like Perl which are used to parse strings of text. The decaying grammar and spelling of the Internet here becomes a kind of aesthetic alternative.
Rather than using e-mail and listservers, Alan Sondheim sometimes uses IRC, or Internet Relay Chat, as a means of composition, as in "Outliners" which begins:
IRC log started Sat Oct 20 23:01
*** Value of LOG set to ON
*** Nikuko ([qIbgrP30O@panix3.panix.com) has joined channel #nikuko
*** Users on #nikuko: @Nikuko
*** #nikuko 1003633320
* Nikuko want to be alone this evening of white dust and stars
* Nikuko dissolvers in your spores
* Nikuko writers her shattered skin in your stars
<Nikuko> Ah, I will paint in nail-head line! in swallow line!
<Nikuko> Ah, I will write in glowworm line, in swollen female line!
* Nikuko painters her torn skin into many kanji
* Nikuko turn towards gnarled knot line, toward whirlpool line
<Nikuko> Her dark hair outlinered in white spore her bamboo knot line
<Nikuko> Her name in grackle line, her death in beauty white crane line
* Nikuko brush in loving spores in white beauty anthrax
* Nikuko writers in sublimation line, towards line of rising-up
* Nikuko in white beauty anthrax in white beauty anthrax mouth
Sometimes, Sondheim's IRC compositions appear to contain the words of others, who may or may not know they are unwitting collaborators, who may or may not know that this writing may come to have the status of writing, rather than chat.
Many codework texts hover on the brink of legibility, asking the reader to question whether the author is made of flesh or silicon, or perhaps whether authoring lies at the level of writing text or coding software to write text. Kenji Siratori's texts may be machine-made or made to look machine-made.
Ant PC planetary, MURDEROUS CONSEQUENCES! body line TREMENDOUS HORROR! drugy miracle ADAM doll TREMENDOUS HORROR! thyroid falls--.MURDEROUS CONSEQUENCES! vivid placenta world TREMENDOUS HORROR! machinative angel:her soul-machine discharges MURDEROUS CONSEQUENCES! speed PC fear--.MURDEROUS CONSEQUENCES!
That text is called "Alan Sondheim-conference" and appears to be a response to a conference report by Sondheim.
While some codeworkers pounce upon the texts of others as raw material for codeworking, Stéphan Barron asks others to volunteer texts. In "Com_post Concepts" he solicits contributions with a text that begins:
Web surfers send in their texts by e-mail. All are then composted! Just as we ourselves are composted! Recycling as organic and cyclical technology, a technology of intelligence and responsibility, of the link to the natural and artificial world.
The sender receives her or his own text back at weekly intervals, in an increasingly noisy and unintelligible state.
The Internet emerges in much of this work as a noisy space, in which the structures of text decay and writing becomes granular, a chaotic space of temporary orders constantly becoming randomized. Yet within this chaotic space, the "destructive character" of the codeworker proposes new kinds of sensemaking that might, for a moment, keep the parasite of noise at bay.
Another precursor one might mention, besides Blake, for the emerging world of codework, is the James Joyce of Finnegans Wake. In Wake, multiplicity can erupt at any point along the textual surface, not just at discrete hyperlinked nodes. Permutations, a Web site by Florian Cramer, reproduces in digital form many of the great combinatory text systems, from Raymond Lullus to Ramond Queneau.
Cramer has also produced a codework machine that creates permutations on Finnegans Wake, called "Here Comes Everybody." It works at the level of the syllable, producing a virtual universe of new portmanteau words out of original Joyce-text. Click on it and it might read like this:
ousrun, riverpast Eve and Asiside, on ourfal paard was spotpassfimtion, from the Riverlat box.
Click on a syllable, say the first one, and it becomes...
l trous, feels Wither hayre in hondtuckswer: Iies wing at theourcash in Novo Nilpofirmfaw,
The Australian codeworker Mez has developed a distinctive prose style that she calls mezangelle, producing texts that tend to look like this:
.nodal +death+-points swallowed in a dea.th.rush.
.u begin 2 -f][l][ail-, ar][t][is][ms all awry n caught in webbed
Rather than link discrete blocs of text, or "lexias," to each other, Mez introduces the hypertext principle of multiplicity into the word itself. Rather than produce alternative trajectories through the text on the hypertext principle of choice, here they co-exist within the same textual space.
The interest of Mez's writings is not limited to this distinctive approach to the text. While the words split and merge on the screen, the authoring "avatar" behind them is also in a state of flux. Texts issue, in various forms in various places, from data[h!bleeder, Phonet][r][ix, netwurker, and many other heteronyms.
At the heart of the codeworking enterprise is a call for a revised approach to language itself. Many of the creative strategies for making or thinking about writing in the latter part of the twentieth century drew on Ferdinand de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics. In the hands of poststructuralists, language poets, or hypertext authors and theorists, this was a powerful and useful place to start thinking about how language works. But Saussure begins by separating language as a smooth and abstract plane from speech as a pragmatic act. Language is then divided into signifier and signified, with the referent appearing as a shadowy third term. The concept of language that emerges, for all its purity, is far removed from language as a process.
What codework draws attention to is the pragmatic side of language. Language is not an abstract and homogenous plane, it is one element in a heterogeneous series of elements linked together in the act of communication. Writing is not a matter of the text, but of the assemblage of the writer, reader, text, the text's material support, the laws of property and exchange within which all of the above circulate, and so on.
Codework draws attention to writing as media, where the art of writing is a matter of constructing an aesthetic, an ethics, even a politics, that approaches all of the elements of the process together. Codework makes of writing a media art that breaks with the fetishism of the text and the abstraction of language. It brings writing into contact with the other branches of media art, such as music and cinema, all of which are converging in the emerging space of multimedia, and which often have a richer conception of the politics of media art as a collaborative practice than has been the case with writing conceived within the prison-house of "text."
© McKenzie Wark
|volume 3, issue 1, 2002|