So, thank you for coming, and uh, uh, and, uh, and and first of all thank you for uh, enduring this talk in English, which for many of you is not your first language. I— I feel uh, uh…humbled and uh, appreciative that you’re listening to a, a talk in English. So thank you for that. And I also want to thank everybody at MaMa, um, and I want to thank really Marcel and Dubravka for being such marvelous hosts. It’s been uh, an amazing uh…week here, in uh, in this area.
So, tonight I’m going to be talking about uncreative or conceptual writing uh, which is a type of literature that is made possible and uh, ii, ueh, born of and made possible by the digital. Although its precedents run deep in 20th century modernism, it’s only when things become digital that writers begin to realize new possibilities for language. That is, when it’s transformed literally into a plastic material.
So I’m going to take Cindy Crawford away for minute. That’s a real photo of Cindy Crawford reading my book. That’s not Photoshopped. This go—this guy’s is a, is a, a…paparazzi and he actually caught Cindy Crawford sitting in front of Central Park, reading my book.
So. Um. So I’d like to start tonight with a very concrete demonstration of uh, of, of what I’m going to be talking about when I say that alphanumeric language uh, becomes digital.
And so we have these two um, images of Shakespeare. Um, one is an oil painting, and the other is the uh, woodcut engraving from the Folio. And the Droeshout uh, oil painting. And then we have from gutenberg.org the complete text of Shakespeare, in one file. Everything he ever wrote.
And so if I take the extension on the uh, oil painting and change it from “jpeg” to “txt,” and I open it up. Aaand I Select All. And copy everything Shakespeare ever wrote into this one image, drop it somewhere in the middle. Save it. Close it. And uh, rename it back as a JPEG…you’ll see, you’ll see what’s happened to this…image.
And now, I can be a little bit more precise about this. Um. I can take his 93rd Sonnet, just one little bit, and copy it. And then do the same thing on the woodcut. Same operation. And then open it, and then instead of just dumping it anywhere maybe be a little bit more incisive. One third in. Go down another third. And… Close it, rename it as a JPEG. And open it.And you’ll see something quite different.
So. What this shows is that for the first time, we’re experiencing the ability of language to alter media, be it images, video, music, or text, something that really represents a break with tradition and charts the paths uh, for new le—new uses of language. Now, words are active and effective in concrete ways. And you might say this isn’t writing, and in the…traditional sense you’d be right. But this is where things get interesting. Because we’re not hammering away on typewriters, instead focused all day on powerful machines with infinite possibilities, connected to networks with an equally number of infinite possibilities the writer’s role is being significantly challenged, expanded, and updated.
You see so— This also shows that what we take to be graphics, sounds, and motion in our screen world is really a um, thin skin, under which resides miles and miles of language. And this is sort of best uh, uh, shown um, uhhhhhhh, crchcrchcrchcrchfffffwwwwwwwwwwwww… When you have these these beautiful uh, these beautiful glitches, um… What we take to be graphics and sounds and motion in our screen world is merely a thin skin under which resul—which resides miles and miles of language. And if you need evidence of think of when you’ve mistakenly received a JPEG in the uh, euh attachment in the email that’s not been rendered as an image but as code that seems to go on forever.
It’s all words, perhaps not in any order we can understand, but the basic material that has propelled writing since its stabilized form is now what all media is created from as well. Before there wasn’t a speck of language residing under the emulsion of a photograph, or embedded in a filmstrip, or lurking in the grooves of an LP. Today, there is.
And so I want to say that with the rise of the Web, writing has met its photography. And by that I mean writing has encountered a situation similar to what happened uh, to painting with the invention of photography. A technology so much better at replicating reality that in order to survive, painting had to ors— or, uh, alter its course radically. If photography was striving for sharp focus and precise representation, then painting was su— forced to go soft, hence we got…Impressionism, Cubism, full-blown Modernism. It was this sort of perfect uh, analog correspondence, image to image, setting the stage for an imagistic revolution.
Today digital media has set the stage for a literary revolution. As a matter of fact in 1974, Peter was still able to make the claim that quote, because the advent of photography makes possible the precise mechanical reproduction of reality, the mimetic function of the fine arts withers. But the limits of this explanatory model become clear when one calls to mind that it cannot be transferred to literature. He says you can’t transfer this to literature. For literature, there is no technical innovation that could’ve produced an effect comparable to that of photography in the fine arts. And that’s kind of an amazing statement…eh pre-digital statement from 1974. But now, of course, there is.
Um. So while writers have always had this deep and intimate knowledge of language’s capabilities formally and emotionally, um, the video that I played with Shakespeare demonstrate that technology uh, may has has made language act in ways that I don’t think we’ve ever conceived of before, in that words aren’t used to express anything, they don’t sing, they don’t emote, they don’t pull heartstrings, instead language is pure, material. Active and effective more akin to clay or a sledgehammer than a transparent or opaque communicator or miscommunicator.
Never before has language had this much materiality, fluidity, plasticity, malleability, begging to be managed by the writer. Before digital language, words were almost always found imprisoned on a page. How different it is today when digitized language can be poured into any conceivable container. It’s typed into a Microsoft Word document, parsed into a database, visually morphed into Photoshop, animated into Flash, pumped into online text-mangling engines, spammed to thousands of email addresses, and imported into sound editing programs and spit out as music, the possibilities are endless. And what I did with the Shakespeare and the image you can do with any of eh any media you can actually take uh, the uh, buh uh ub Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, cut all of Wikipedia’s uh biography of on Beethoven, chunk it in there, and of course it will glitch out in interesting and different ways. This is all language making this happen. Okay?
So now along with the materiality comes the facts of abundance and excess. Now, the Web houses untold amounts of language. And as a writing machine, it’s constantly producing more. Today computers continually query and respond to each other over the Internet, assisting one another to become more intelligent and more efficient. Although we tend to focus on the vast amount of human-to-human social networking that’s being produced, much of the conversation uh, across the networks is machines talking to other machines, spewing out what’s called “dark data,” code that we never see.
Uh, in August of 2010, a watershed occurred, when more non-human objects came online in greater numbers than did new human subscribers in the previous quarters in the two giant telecoms in the US. This long-predicted situation sets the stage for the next uh, phase of the Web, that’s called the Internet of Things, where machinic interaction uh, far outpaces human-driven activity on the networks. For example if your dryer is slightly out of tilt, it wirelessly sends data to a server, which sends back a remedy, and the dryer fixes itself accordingly. Such data queries are being sent every few seconds and as a result we’re exout about to experience yet another explosion as billions of sensors and appliances and other data input and output devices explode untold terabytes of new data onto the Web.
Now, at first uh glance, armies of refrigerators and dishwashers sending messages back and forth to servers might not have much effect on literature. But when viewed through the lens of information management and uncreative writing, these machines are only a few steps away from being programmed fruh, for literary production, writing a type of literature readable only by other bots. And as a result of networking with each other, their feedback mechanism will create an ever-evolving uh, sophisticated literary discourse, one uhhhhohhh, one which will uhh uh not only be invisible to our eyes but bypass humans altogether. Uh, the poet Christian Bök calls this uh situation Robopoetics, a condition where the involvement of an author in the production of literature henceforth becomes discretionary. He asks why hire a poet to write a poem when the poem can in fact write itself? Science fiction is poised to become reality, enacting Bök’s prediction for the literary future.
But this begs the question does literature need to be read? Or more pressingly, is it actually read? And I’m not so sure about that, of course within the confines of a book or Kindle, of course they’re being read. But on the Internet, as we all know, text is mostly skimmed or copied or emailed or archived or ftp’d or PDF’s or Instapapered or bookmarked or liked. Or in other words, language on the web is managed as it is information or parsed more than it is really read. Computing space is active, right? And I’m in front of a computer, I don’t want to read uh uh, reading is passive. On the Web we just want to get to the, next click. So we find ourselves in the position of saving it for later. And in doing so, the reader now has become primarily an archivist, and in turn so has the writer, primarily become an archivist.
And so archiving, then, is the new folk art, something that’s widely practiced as and has unconsciously become integrated into all of our lives, potentially transforming a necessity into a work of art now at first thought this seems wrong. Um, isn’t folk art sort of something the opposite? Something predicated upon the subjective hand-crafting of an object into a unique and personal statement oftentimes one that expresses uh a larger community ethos? One needs to think of the things that you see up there in you know, in the old town or or magnificent quilting, or um, cosmic visions of outsider art people like Howard Finster, whose obsessive emotio—oh, they have a whole fff-museum of outsider and folk art up on the hill here, and, you know, whose obsessive emotional hand-rendered religious paintings and sculptures could only be sprung from the genius of the outsider artist themself.
But. I think about quilting and the way that quilts are put together. Quilts are put together with used scraps of fabric into, into something brand new. So like quilting, archive employs this obsessive stitching together of many small pieces into a larger vision, a personal attempt at ordering what is a chaotic world. And it’s not such a far leap from the quiltmaker to the stamp collector or book collector. And Walter Benjamin, who of course was an obsessive collector himself, wrote about these connections between collecting and making in his great ar—uh, essay called “Unpacking My Library,” where he says that quote, among children, collecting is only one process of renewal. Other processes are the painting of objects, the cutting out of figures, the application of decals, the whole range of child-like modes of acquisition from touching things to giving them names. So in Benjaminian terms, all of these impulsing, all of these impulses making, collecting, and archive can be in fact construed as folk practices.
Now, let’s add to that the organizing of digital materials. The advent of digital culture has turned each one of us into an unwitting archivist. From the moment we use the Save As command when composing uh, electronic documents, our archival impulses begin. Save As of course is a command which implies replication, and replication implies more uh complex archival considerations. Where do I store, that copy? Where is the original saved? What is the relationship between the two? Do I archive them both? Do I delete the original? Do I change the new one? A number of questions.
Now, when the machines become more networked, eh uh become networked it gets more complicated. When we take that same document and email it to a friend or a professor, our email program automatically archives a copy of both the email we sent as well as duplicating that attachment and saving then into a Sent Items folder. If that same document then is sent to a listserv, that identical archiving practice eeuhhh happens again on dozens or thousands or millions of machines, this time archived as a received item in each one of those email systems. When we, as members of that listserv open that attachment, we need to decide if and where to save it, and then the process goes on again. I could go on, but I think you get the point. Writing on electronic platform is not only writing but also doubles as archiving. These two processes are completely inseparable. Never thought about this before. Used to make a carbon copy, you know, with the typewriter. Carbon copies made one to put in your file and one to send out. This is taking it clearly to another level, which makes, which makes perfect sense in terms of this becoming our primary activity.
Or we can take the simple act of listening to music. If we uhhhhh look closer at that which we do every day without thinking we’ll find that it’s not so simple. When I used to play a record, and I wanted to listen to music, I would drop a needle on the, turntable. And that’s all I had to do and I would listen. But let’s say I wanna play a CD on my say, iPhone. And I don’t have it digitized, the first thing I have to do is I have to grab the CD and shove it into my computer. And the moment I do this a database is called up, CDDB or Gracenote um, and it begins peppering my disc with ID3 tags, useful when I begin to rip these to MP3. And so right o— au-automatically the archiving process has begun. Um, uh, uh. Th—the archiving thi—this listening process has now, forced me or forced you, or forced us to become librarians. Uh, iiif Gracenote can’t find the ID3 tags, I’ve actually now gotta begin inserting it into those fields. And I become, my job as listener is now writer and secretary. Okay?
Now, iTunes automatically stores those, MP3 into my iTunes directory, creating two new folders the first being the artist’s name, and the second being the album’s name, and within the album folder I find these tracks have been assigned numbers and names as well as now carrying the metadata ID3 tags. And if I move those MP3s into the iTunes program to play them, then iTunes automatically creates yet another database of all this information, seeking to acquire alb—then it starts going and looking for album artwork and everything like that.
And yet, I might decide that I don’t want any of these files archived according to the iTunes scheme when stored on my hard drive because as you know our hard drives are quickly running out of space. So I store all my MP3s on a large external hard drive, organized to schema by a schema that makes sense to me. Probably doesn’t, make any sense to iTunes, which involves another level of transfer and archiving. And once I wanna share my playlist and MP3s with other people, I’ve gotta archive yet on an entirely other level. And now all of this needs to be backed up, which creates yet another level of my archive. Nobody wants to lose their data. So you make a redundant backup not only of your Time Machine backup on your computer but of my MP3 and then I make a second redundant backup, because if I lose that, or UbuWeb, then everything’s gone.
Now. Huhhh. Clearly, this is a far cry and a lot of extra busywork oh! than, than listening to music and by the way I forgot to say one more thing. If I wanna now listen to the shit on my iPhone, I’ve gotta pull it over there and then I’ve gotta hit that mysterious button called “sync,” which I don’t quite understand why you can’t just drag things onto that like you used to be able to drag things onto an MP3 player—it’s exhausting. That’s all listening to music, today. It’s exhausting. I find listening to music— I—I’ve stopped listening to music because I find it too exhausting.
So. In fact u-ah I ah uh… I spend a lot more time acquiring cataloging and archiving my artifacts these days than I do actually engaging with them. I have more music on my drive, as I’m sure you do, than I’ll ever be lis—ever be able to listen to in ten, lifetimes. And yet, I keep getting more. Okay? I’m I’m obsessively, hoardingasamatterofact I found recently um, I wanted I had a mood, and I wanted to listen to the American minimalist composer Morton Feldman. And so I went to my Morton Feldman um, folder on my MP3 drive. And I open it up and it’s there’s a folder sitting there says, “Oh, the collected works of Morton Feldman.” And I’m like, “Gee. Oh, that sounds good.” And I open it up, and in that folder are seventy-three, zipped albums, that I took from a torrent sometime in 2009, that I never even not in, not only did I not listen to them, I didn’t even unzip them, right? So I unzipped one, and I listened to it.
So you know, this is this is absolutely insane. So so, so…so th-b-the ways in which culture is distributed and archived has become profoundly more intriguing, really, than the culture artifact itself. What we’ve experienced then is this inversion of consumption, one in which we’ve come to engage in a more profound way, with this acquisition over than that which we are acquiring. I think we’ve come to prefer the uh, bottles to the wine. You know, bah—uh, John Perry Barlow made a, made a, a a beautiful analogy in, in the uh, in the ear—in the mid-90s and he said, he said, “We’ve now…have the wine and we don’t need the bottles.” And I’m saying now we’re more interested in the bottles than we are in the wine. Mmm. He couldn’t’ve seen this coming.
So. What we’re experiencing then is the evacuation of content. That most important core of expression, content! has vanished. In its place, the idea of moving information is what’s happened it really doesn’t matter, what that information is. What matters is that we are keeping busy moving this material. In fact, literary critic Marjorie Perloff has coined a term, “moving information” to signify the act of both pushing the language around as well as the act of being emotionally moved by that process.
Contemporary writing requires the expertise of a secretary crossed with the attitude of a pirate. Replicating, organizing, mirroring, archiving, and reprinting. Along with more clandestine proclivities for bootlegging, plundering, hoarding, filesharing. We’ve need—needed to acquire a whole new skillset that they don’t teach you in, “How to Write.” We’ve become master typists, exacting cut’n pasters, OCR demons. There’s nothing we love more than transcription. We find few things more satisfying than collation. There’s no museum or bookstore better than our local stationery store, crammed with raw writing materials, gigantic hard drives, spindles of blank discs, toners and ink. Memory-jammed printers, and reams of cheap paper. The writer is now producer, publisher, and distribute—distributor.
Paragraphs are ripped, paragraphs are burned. They’re copied, they’re printed, they’re bound, they’re zapped. And they’re beamed sinul—simultaneously. The writer’s traditional solitary lair is transformed into a socially-networked alchemical laboratory dedicated to the brute physicality of textual transferrence. The sensuality of copying gigabytes from one drive to another, it’s amazing. The whir of the drive, the churn of intellectual matter, manifested as sound. The carnal—and I mean bodily and carnal and even sexual—excitement of supercomputing heat that is generated in the service of literature the grind of the scanner, as it peels language off the page, thawing it, liberating it, putting language into play, language out of play, language frozen, language melted.
And so you concurrently have the…re-gesture on the rise. The retweet. The reblog. The repost. The remix. So much so that the re-gesture has come to trump the original. The discovery and dissemination of an artifact is more important than the artifact itself. And you just have to think of the most powerful blogs on the Internet. You take uh, something like Boing Boing or Slashdot. They don’t create anything. They just point, to cool things, and the fact of one of those blogs, pointing at something far outweighs the importance of the thing at which they’re pointing at. Okay?
So it’s like filtering has become power. And I notice this, if I tweet out something on UbuWeb that’s very obscure and suddenly it’s been retweeted hundreds of times, people are quickly, passing this om an on and name-checking it. They’re moving this information. You know you ever, uh bu de also if I tweet out a 404 sometimes I’ll tweet out something that leads to a dead link…it’s been retweeted two hundred times. Clearly, nobody is clicking on that link. Okay? But they’re getting cred by passing that cool thing uh, along. Uhh, so, so, you know, oorehhh iit’s it’s it’s, it’s the the fact of, pointing then outweighs the importance of the thing they’re pointing to. So writers are t—ra operating the same way and this is not any different than Marcel Duchamp a hundred years ago, who also pointed. So in a similar way, the new writing is pointing. Appropriation in the visual arts of course was taken care of a hundred years ago. Or in hip hop. Or in you know, I mean nobody, nobody brings in a drummer, you know. You…pick your best samples and you remix it and you take something. You’re pointing and the best DJs have the best samples. Uh. You know, what makes a great se—what makes a great uhd uh a great DJ.
So, now I would like to talk about Aaron Swartz, of course a young hacktivist who committed suicide in 2012, after being hounded by the Department of Justice after he was caught liberating millions of academic documents from this paywalled uh, database JSTOR. And the irony of the Swartz case is that much of what he liberated from JSTOR was out of print, public domain materials that had been paywalled because they were uh uh, orphaned works, which were claimed by JSTOR. And if you wanted access to those uh uh, you had to, you’d had to actually pay for um, for, for these. And I think there’s a couple of images of the uh Swartz things that I— This is some of what he what he took.
Very sort of odd, odd pieces of maps, uh um uh, you know, enormous scientific doc—documents that were long out of print and in the public domain. Strange medical uh, imagery that probably, you know… So he was actually locking up things that were already in—they, JSTOR, was locking up things that were in public domain, and he uh, was, was liberating it.
JSTOR appears to be stockpiling as much intellectual value and material that they can get their hands on, feeling that quantity, quantity, I want to talk about quantity, adds value, okay? The more JSTOR can hoard and warehouse and charge, the more appealing their database offerings go to their subscriber base.
So you get this idea that Swartz’ gesture was a conceptual one, focused around the power of making available sealed-off information. But he wasn’t particularly concerned with what he was liberating. Clearly. He was interested in the model of moving information as a social and political tool and statement. And the media theorist Darren Wershler tells us that content is the wrong place to look for meaning in the Swartz case. Uhhh, Wershler says, “To me it feels like the end of the modernist notion of information. Modernity brought with it the idea that there was this thing that could be extracted that represented the most valuable part of a text. Swartz’ gesture suggests that there’s no information in places like JSTOR and Elsevier. Any paper is as good as another for a gesture like his, because individually these papers literally have no audience. An academic paper is read by maybe two or three people. So the gesture only matters when it’s done in bulk, and it doesn’t matter what that bulk consists of. The offense is a corporate one. It has relatively little to do with individual authors because it assumes from the outset that the individual author isn’t that all—isn’t that important.”
That clearly is what JSTOR is thinking. And so the Swartz d-heist enacts an ecuva—uh, and evacuation of content, then, as a political act, as if to say the gesture of furiously pushing moving gathering, sharing, parsing storing and liberating information again is more important than what’s actually being moved. Swartz’ politics both propose no only an inversion of consumption—again, bottles not wine—but modes of production based on the acts of consumption which I’m talking about before, which include collecting, hoarding, sorting, and heisting. But clearly the gesture of liberating these documents outweighs the meaning and su—uh, again in selection of it. So we have this other instance of moving information uhhh, with, with, with uh, with Swartz.
Predicting the forthcoming glut of information uh, in 1969, the conceptual artist Douglas Huebler wrote quote, the world is full of objects, more or less interesting, I don’t wish to add anymore. And I’ve come to embrace Huebler’s ideas, though it might be tooled as “The world is full of texts, more or less interesting. I do not wish to add any more.” It seems an appropriate response uh, to a new condition in writing today. Faced with an…unprecedented amount of available text, the problem isn’t needing to write any more of it. Instead how we learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists, how I make my way through this thicket of information, how I manage it, how I parse it, how I organize it, how I distribute it, is what distinguishes my, writing from yours.
Now, again, Marjorie Perloff has begun using another term, that she calls “unoriginal genius” to describe this emergent tendency in literature. Hi—her idea is that due to changes brought by technology and the Internet, our notion of genius (a romantic, isolated figure) is outdated. An updated notion of genius would have to center around the mastery of one’s uh, information and its dissemination. She posits that today’s writer resembles more a programmer than a tortured genius brilliantly conceptualizing, constructing, executing, and maintaining a writing machine.
Perloff’s notion of unoriginal genius shouldn’t be seen merely as a theoretical conceit but rather as a realized writing practice, one that dates back to the early part of the 20th century, embodying the ethos where the construction or conception of what a work does or says is as important uh, ah, eh is euhh—what it does is as important as what it says. You think for example of the note-driven, collating um, uhhh, prac—note-taking practice of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, or the mathematically-driven constraint-based writing of the Oulipo.
Today technology has exacerbated these immmmmechanistic tendencies in writing, inciting young writers to take their cues from the working of technology and the Web as a way of constructing new literature. As a result, writers are exploring ways of writing that traditionally have thought to be outside the scope of literary practice. Word processing, databasing, recyclating—recycling, appropriation, intentional plagiarism, identity ciphering, intensive programming, as few are are really what’s constituting the new uh uh, literature.
So I’d love to show you a few examples of what I’m talking about. Um, hmm. Uh, heh. Um um um um um.
This is a uh uh a piece of uh… Huhhhh. This is a piece of uh…writing. Let me see if I can get it uhhhh so you can see it, by Craig Dworkin, called Parse, which is uh, every…uh… An entire book of by Edward A Abbot called How to Parse, um, parsed according to its own uh, by its own methodology. And this is a full book. It took him ten years to do this. And it goes on. And it goes on. Can you read can you rea—see that back there? I can make it a little bit bigger. These works were exhaustive. Mirroring the scale, of the Internet itself. Look at this. And what Craig wants to do now…is he actually wants to now take this as a roadmap and rewrite a book, using that wherever it’s a plural noun he’ll have to put in, and then a comma then an adverb then another plural noun and then a comma, to create an entire new story which should take him the rest of his life to finish it. One of my ver-very favorite part of this…is the uh, index, of the book.
You’ve got uh… You’ve also got um…works like uh, works like, like, like this by Charles Bernstein an—well let’s see if we can actually see that uh…no we probably can’t. I have to open it in uh… Um, this is a beautiful piece of his from, from the uh…from the uh, 1970s. What a-uh, what’s here is is is just code. But what’s here is a fff—is a portion of what he’s done from a poem called “Lift Off” in 1979. And this is actually a transcription of the eraser tape from a—an electric typewriter. D’you ‘member when has to— Some of you don’t remember, but you used to ha—come, with this this this tape and so when the tape was finished with everything he erased, he would just take it and and transcribe uh, the tape. You see how close it is to uh, to actual code.
Um, you have, have something like Caroline Bergvall’s uhhhh, “VIA,” which is, uh…she went into the British Library and she transcribed every, the first uh, canto from the Inferno, and and this is it. And each one, is the same text, translated differently from the British Library. And it’s incredible just by laying these things out, how different each uh, each translation is. It’s transcription, it’s translation, I mean really amazing. A-huh. Uh, this piece.
I can show you something really, really, uh, marvelously problematic, from Vanessa Place, mm, who, uh, uh, is a um, lawyer by day. And what Vanessa does is that she represents um, guilty sex criminals, for public defendant. These are people that’ve done the worst things in the world. And what she does is she…takes a part of a legal document that’s called a statement of fact…and this is the narrative of what happens. Now, in a narrative you’re not allowed to make an explicit argument, but the lawyer’s job is to make an implicit argument uh, t—so as to free. This, so, these are very very extremely difficult things to read. This is about an older woman uh, who uh, who uh, a man came into her house, this man that she’s defending um, and, uh, b-uh orally cop—copulated uh, uh, raped her, uh, on and on and on. This is a very very difficult text. But what this is, is this is Vanessa’s day job. This is what she’s doing for— And then she just turns around and publishes this as her poetry. As her—as this kind of kind of uh, you’re taking aliened, aln—I’m sorry, alienated labor, and turning it into unalienated labor.
Vanessa says, “Am I guilty? No, because this is all on the public record. Am I morally guilty? I might be,” but that’s the risk that she wants to take when she’s transferring this to um, to um…poetry. And it’s a, it’s a it’s…it’s a bitch. It’s really difficult. And when she reads this? You sit there, and she looks like a lawyer, and she gets up and she reads for a—an hour straight of these horrible atrocities. And something caught—you know, I mean, you’ve—I mean, you know, on and on and on.
And at first you’vfff—you when you, when you listen to her read you feel like, “I can’t take this anymore. This is the worst, this is the most horrifying thing I’ve ever heard in my life, stop. Please.” And then, like anything else, and this is the Warholian aspect, you kinda begin to get used to it. And then you sorta become interested in it. And then you sort of begin to…beco—objectify it, and you take yourself out of it. Then you begin to look at it and you say, “But wait a minute. Wasn’t that little girl…flirting…with a, with her assailant?” Right? In other words, by Vanessa reading you this stuff, you start to actually, become, what she wants the jury to do. And you have to then slap yourself and you say, “No, how could I, ob—ten minutes ago this was the worst thing I heard and now I’m actually analyzing it.” It’s very very fucking complicated and it’s really um, very difficult to liste—I me—I can’t tell you how complicated and difficult it is to listen to.
And in a way I don’t really want to talk much more about it, because when I teach this I can spend an entire semester on the problematics of this text and the problematics. But I think it’s a very uh hugely important text. To say also that this writing is political. And this writing is social. And this writing is judicial. It may not be the way that I intend it to be, the kind of uncreative writing uh, will adopt positions of unsavory political attitudes so as to show how stupid those attitudes are without having to say how stupid they are. A transcript of the G8 conference, just what they’re saying is enough to hang themselves on their own words. The shifting of the frame of reference uh, becomes, uh, becomes enough.
I think words… I think writers try too hard. I think words are the most loaded material, possible. And that…we try to hard to, we we force ourselves to express ourselves when language itself is inherently expressive. It’s like flavored coffee, you know. Does coffee need more flavor? You know? This this this attitude, you know. And I think modernism has shown us that any morpheme or any small bit of…one little piece of language has enough resonance to carry us without us having to overdetermine it.
Okay, so these are a couple things that can maybe maybe show you uh, somethi— I’ll, I’ll, I’ll uh move on in a lighter, on a lighter uh, moment. Okay, this is, here’s one. This one. Hm. I don’t want to end uh, we—uh not end but end this section of showing you things on poor Vanessa, because it’s not a, you know, it’s hard but it’s important.
This is a piece by Steve Giasson. This is a PDF that is 2,637 pages long. And it is the entire comment stream from the 9⁄11 video on YouTube. The 9⁄11 video. Un edited. And it’s, I mean it’s, it’s stunningly, it’s stunningly…stunningly awful. Okay, again. But by showing this, and by showing the bulk of this, as a piece of of of, of literature, uh, we’re, we’re we’re really into some other type of writing, some type of new writing. And it just goes, goes on and on and on. Isn’t that amazing? we’re on page 1,190. There’s another uh…1,500 pages after this. Okay? This is a powerful gesture.
Okay. Um. There’s also these, these um… I’ll show you a couple of these other um… Ah heh, these younger writers, there’s a, this is a this is this is a um, a book by a young writer called Chris Alexander called Panda, um, that’s published on Troll Thread uh, uhhh, Press, and in fact it is every description, on the Web, of Kung Fu Panda, okay? A panda who works in the noodle restaurant owned by his goof father who is also a kung fu fanatic with a secret dreams of becoming a great master in the discipline A sloppy, overweight but lovable panda who dreams to be a kung fu master one day. Now, this is not that much different than Caroline Bergvall’s VIA from the Dante. It’s actually very close. But this is 215 pages, of it.
Chris also did another, another piece, which is just um, which is just uh uh uh called uh, McNugget, and it’s five-hundred and tw—yeuh you ar—here you are if you wanna search it out. McNugget by Chris Alexander. I’m sure you’re gonna want to read this. It’s 528 pages of every mention on Twitter of the word “McNugget.” I’m sorry, do you know what McNugget is? Do they have it here? They have that he—I’m sorry, I don’t mean to, to uh, uh, assume something that might not be known, elsewhere. Huh. I mean. You know. Amazing. Just amazing. “This McDonald’s has a 40 piece McNugget meal. That might be a bit excessive.” Heh heh heh. And there i—and there you have it, you know. There you have it.
And the other one that I really love, sometimes they’re not that long. This is um, this is a piece by a a young, a young writer named Holly Melgard, and the description of what she’s done um, is “Now ‘there is no such thing as repetition’ in The Making of Americans, because I deleted it. Herein, every word and punctuation mark is retained according to its first (and hence last) appearance in Gertrude Stein’s 925-page edition of the book.” And so she’s actually managed by not putting repetitions in Gertrude Stein by removing the repetitions to turn it into 32 pages. And so you have these radical textual reductions as well. Which are equally beautiful.
Um. Okay. So, these writers, then, are really as you can see are functioning more like um, programmers than traditional writers taking Sol Lewitt’s famous dictum to heart, quote when an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine, and that makes the art. Raising, really new possibilities of what writing can be. We can look at conceptual art as being a precedent for this type of writing. And the poet Craig Dworkin, who I showed you his beautiful work Parse, s—says this. He says, “What would a non-expressive poetry look like? A poetry of intellect rather than of emotion. One in which the substitutions at the heart of metaphor and image were replaced by the direct presentation of language itself, which spontaneous overflow, supplanted by meticulous procedure, and exhaustively logical process. In which the self-regard of the ego’s poet were turned back onto the self-reflecle—reflexive language of the poem itself. So that the test of poetry were no longer whether it could have been done better, which is the question of the workshop, but whether it could conceivably have been done otherwise.”
So you have this explosion, then, of writers employing these strategies of appropriation uh, and copying over the past uh few years, with the computers imitating writers to mimic its workings. And when writi—when cutting and pasting are integral to the writing process, it would be mad to think that uh, writers wouldn’t try to break or exploit these functions in extreme ways that weren’t intended by their creator, righ—artists are marvelous at misusing things and uh, and uh, uh, breaking things, for example um… Uh… Mmmm. For example uh, if I, if I, I look at uh… If we look at uh, Paik, meuh— Nam June Paik’s “Magnet TV” um, is was a beautiful of an artist breaking technology. This is 1965, and the TV to this point had been a transparent communication information. What Paik did was he takes a giant horseshoe magnet and shoves it on the top of the television set, and every time you know, you turn it, the waves would go like this, which has the same effect, you know, if you get a magnet, put a magnet on your laptop and see what happens. Something, same type of thing happens.
So this is the type of thing that we’re seeing writers now doing with cut and paste. Writers are really stupid. Artists are really dumb. And I mean that in a very good way. We ti—kinda tend to do things that weren’t, you know, that aren’t supposed to be done with it. And we tend to look at things in ways that that that, w—are so simple and so stupid that nobody else would, bother to th—to actually, actually try them. So the cut and paste is one of those, I mean who who we—you know, everybody in the office uses cut and paste, but they use it in the right way. They don’t use it to troll…every mention of “McNugget” on the Internet, you know.
So co—you know, while these home computers have been around for three decades and people have been cutting and pasting all the time, it’s the sheer penetration and saturation of broadband that makes the harvesting of ma—masses of language easy and tempting. So on a dial-up it’s easy to copy and paste words in the beginning you say of gopher space, and the text in gopher space if you remember were dealt out one screen at a time. And even though it was text, it took a long time to load. But broadband, the spigot is running 24⁄7. And by comparison there was nothing native to the system of typewriting that encouraged the replication of text. It was slow and laborious, to do.
If I wanted to retype uh, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which Simon Morris’, has done into a a um…uh, into a blog, or the works of Shakespeare, it would take me five years to do. No wonder why writers were never doing this before. You know. Can you imagine having to sit— What a weird thing to do, sit and and and retype every word of Shakespeare in the 1950s, it would take you three years to do. And then you’d still end up with all this language stuck to a page, which is why there is this whole idea of 20th century post-writing, print-based detournement. You think of Burroughs, uh uch uch, cut-ups or fold-ins, or the concrete poet Bob Cobbing’s mimeographed uh, poems. The previous forms of borrowing uh, and people say this is nothing new. People have been borrowing forever. But you have to remember that it was a word, or a phrase. It was more pastiche, rather than taking something wholesale, which is what a lot of these writers are doing. Uh, having to manually retype or hand-copy a book on a typewriter’s one thing, or writing it out by hand. Copying and pasting is another. So clearly this is all setting the stage for a literary revolution.
Or is it? From the looks of it, most writing proceeds as if the Internet had never, happened. Yes, we all know the literary world still gets scandalized by these age-old bouts of fraudulent plagiarism and hoaxes in ways that would make the art or the music world abs—or computer science worlds, or even science worlds with cloning, shake their head in disbelief. It’s hard to imagine the James Fry or JT LeRoy scandals upsetting anybody familiar with the sophisticated, purposefully-fraudulent pr—provocations of Jeff Koons, or the rephotographing of advertisements by Richard Prince, who was awarded with a Guggenheim Museum retrospective because he’s a plagiarist.
And so here’s the thing, is that Koons and Prince began their careers by stating up front that they were appropriating and being intentionally unoriginal, whereas James Frey and JT LeRoy, even after they were caught, were still passing off their works as authentic, sincere, and personal statements to an audience clearly craving such qualities. And the as soon, as soo—the the the the the dance that happens after that is comical. In Fry’s case, Random House was sued and forced to pay out millions of dollars to readers who felt deceived. And subsequent printings of, of A Million Little Pieces or whatever that book is called now include a disclaimer informing readers that what they are about to read is in fact a work of fiction.
You know, if you clai—you know, this is the thing. Nobody cares if you…nobody will accuse you of being a plagiarist if you start out by saying, “Im appropriating this.” Everybody’s, “Oookay. I got the rules.” It’s only when you try to slip it by people, and lie to them, that they get angry. Nobody gets angry at me for my appropriations. People get angry when poets steal other poets work and publish them under their work without— All they needed to do is make a little disclaimer and everybody will be like, “That’s interesting,” okay?
Okay. Um, I’m almost done. Um. I’m constantly asked the question… I’m actually in the home stretch here, guys. I told you, we’re almost done. I’m constantly asked the question why uncreative writing? What’s wrong with creative writing? I mean, aren’t we artists supposed to be creative? Isn’t this what separates us from everyone else? To which I would like to respond by, by by telling you about a, uh, uh, the Man Booker Prize from 2011. Um…
And these are some of the, these are some of the uh, the the books that were were up, up for the uh, the Man Booker Prize. It seems like these actually the five or six short-listed books were in fact rather uncreative. Here are s-s—the snippets of the synopses from the short list of these books. “The story of one man coming to terms with his mutable past.” Another is, “His journey, if he survives it, will push faith, love, and friendship to their utmost limits.” Or another one. “A novel about the things you tell yourself in order to be able to continue to live the life you find yourself in, and what happens when those stories no longer work.” Another one is, “The horror of betrayal, the burden of loyalty, and the possibility that if you don’t tell your story, someone else might tell it for you.”
And while we don’t think of these works as unoriginal or uncreative or plagiarized despite the fact that just from one paragraph synopses on the Man Booker web site we learn that four of the six short-listed novels advertise themselves as featuring immigrants negotiating the difficulties of a strange land. Four of the six novels reveal secrets from the past that come unexpectedly to light, half of them through the surprise arrival of a letter. Four of the six reveal the unreliability of narration. Five of the six hinge on the dramatic turn of a murder. And moreover we don’t think of the fact that the pri—Booker Prize finalists as unoriginal or uncreative or plagiarized despite the fact that they have close precedents, and that we can imagine confusing them for, with with each other.
So you actually take one of those um, the fir—the the the the fir—one of the uh, descriptions. You take, the description quote, a story of innocence and you put this into Google. A story of innocence and experience, hope and harsh reality. A quick Google search reveals that those are the exact words to use to describe Naha—Nathaniel Horthon’s “Young Goodman Brown,” Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, James Joyce’s “Araby,” and that’s just the first page of results, okay.
So the hundred-thousandth coming of age novel, developing psychological portraits of characters, um its difficult romantic relationships and family tensions, this is somehow all still within the bounds of the properly creative, and yet the first or second work to use previously-written source text even in some new way is still felt to be troublingling, impro—im—improper.
So what is original, then, really? And what is creative? And what is uncreative? It seems like the most creative, writers are really the most uncreative. But of course they’d never admit that. And it seems like the most uncreative writers, and ah uh cr—creation has really changed our you know, people that are, that some of the things that I’m showing you are actually in this instance, the most creative um, writers.
In closing, and this is the the, the end of this, careers and canons will not be established in traditional ways. I’m not sure we’ll still have careers in the ways that we used to. Literary works might function very similar to the way that a memes do today on the Web, spreading like wildfire for a short period, often unsigned and unauthored, only to be supplanted by the next ripple, or as I said before, passed onto the next machine. And while the author won’t die, we may begin to view authorship in a more conceptual way. Perhaps the best author of the future will be the ones who can write the best programs to which manipulate, parse, and lang—uh, and distribute it, these uh lang—language-based properties. And even if poetry in the future will be written by machines for other machines to read, there will be for the foreseeable future, someone behind the curtain inventing those drones, so that even if literature is reducible to mere code, an idea that I like, the smartest minds behind them will be considered um, our greatest authors.
Okay. That’s it. Thank you.
The UbuWeb lecture will begin in in ten minutes.