Some Joyces, Not an Eco
The genealogy of instruments and playable texts, considered as a literary (or essential fictional) micro-movement, is best understood in terms of transition, or a series of transits.
Transit 1: De Paris à Liberty City en quatre.
First of course came littérature potentielle, that great investigation of possibility not just in writing, but in the act of writing: and with it, the notion that literary texts might be held open not just in theory but in transmission, reception, and most novel of all, operation. It needs then just a quick hop over channel or ocean to ferry us from Georges Perec or Harry Mathews to John Cayley and Michael Joyce, from new structures for literature to various kinds of writing-forward: say "programmatology," or "a structure for what does not yet exist."
So, having anagrammatized LI-PO into its germinal mode d'emPLOI, we translate ourselves into the Anglo-Russian idiom, and its great pastime, word golf. What is this fascination with flickering, digital signifiers, but a PLOY on the part of certain literary vagabonds, the likes of Judy Malloy, Deena Larsen, Shelley Jackson, or Jane Douglas, to mix it up across the Two Cultures, con-fusing the domains of computation and writing? And what would be the aim of all this tricksterei, clearly on evidence at sites like Grand Text Auto, but to open the doors of the library and make it once again a place of PLAY?
Transit 2: From Diotallevi to Wikipedia
Surprisingly, just as there may actually be one American not deeply fanatical about baseball (that would be me), there are also writers, even great ones, who seem to dislike word golf. That would be the Eco of Foucault's Pendulum, or the particular projection or Ecologue who makes his character Diotallevi say this:
My cells have learned that you can blaspheme by anagrammatizing the Book, and all the books of the world. And they have learned to do this now with my body. They invert, transpose, alternate, transform themselves into cells unheard of, new cells without meaning, or with meaning contrary to the right meaning. There must be a right meaning and a wrong meaning: otherwise you die. My cells joke, without faith, blindly. (566)
I recall hearing these words, taken rather loosely from their complex, fictive context, quoted at a meeting of the soi-disant Modern Language Association, in a passionate complaint against electronic writing. This was long ago, in another century. Modo is of course an inherently moving target, and what was à la mode before the Millennium may now appear ponderously (if not pedantically) antique. Still, it is worth remembering that some people once keenly feared what might happen if, as I like to say, the word will not be still. Dire things would follow, we were told. The end of learning, the decline of the west, foreclosure of the American mind. Pain. Death. Cancer.
These last three are indeed not joking matters, as at least one of them must come to you and me. You do not have to share my family history of acute Puritanism to feel exposed to the brimstone preacher's agenbite: hey you with the goofy grin, leave off that sinful foolery -- don't you know you're going to die?
As an opening to moral instruction, this trope is about as effective as its secular equivalent, the commercial message. Hey you with the goofy grin, couldn't those teeth be brighter? Remember to pick up whitening strips on way home from church. As literary criticism or polemic, however, Diotallevi's deathbed rant carries considerably less impact, for its dire vision presumes a belief in the fragility of alphabets (textual and genetic) which has become increasingly hard to sustain. On the literal side of Eco's metaphor, we now learn that the so-called decoding of the human genome only serves as prelude to still harder subjects like proteomics and morphogenetics. If the body is in any sense alphabetic, the language implied by that alphabet still eludes human comprehension. Meanwhile, on the figurative (or literary) side of the street, we read this:
Foucault's Pendulum (original title: Il pendolo di Foucault) is a novel by Italian novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco. It was first published in 1988; the translation into English by William Weaver appeared a year later.
Foucault's Pendulum is divided into ten segments represented by the ten Sefiroth. The novel is full of esoteric references to the Kabbalah, alchemy and conspiracy theory, so many that critic and novelist Anthony Burgess has suggested that it needed an index. The title of the book derives from an actual pendulum designed by the French physicist Léon Foucault to demonstrate the rotation of the earth.
This text is also no joke, or anything especially playful, in the sense of exuberance or elegance, but it does engage one sense of PLAY that Eco's doomed cabalist, and his admirers in the MLA, jointly disclaim. It was produced not by a single, authorial agency with some royal or corporate patent of "truth," but rather through a scheme of voluntary production, editing, and review. It is wiki-work, the dynamic, communal, and no doubt imperfect convergence of free-flickering signifiers unto a generally accepted signified.
Things are different in the young millennium, where our wiki-wiki world changes fear to hope. Behold, a few thousand code monkeys banging away at their keyboards produce a passable facsimile of World Book, if not Britannica. Open-source programming offers up legitimate, robust alternatives to corporate bloatware. Massively multiplayer online games and social networking sites create new channels for contact and community. No doubt these are all brave new worlds -- as Prospero snaps, brave to thee -- and thus about as perfect as no utopia can ever be. Yet for old men like me, who stand skeptically on the margins, secretly mourning our drownéd book, it is impossible to deny, if we owe anything to truth, that these unlikely systems work far better than we guessed
So the times change, and text becomes playable, or is placed in play, just as our Oulipist masters intended; or even as not. Sometimes, perhaps, play evolves in directions we do not anticipate. Foreknowledge is necessarily imperfect: if we could predict the future, who would ever go there?
Transit 3: Playlist
To perform this final transit, from then to now to hereafter, we must comb the unfamiliar, bringing out demonstrations and inventions, high gimmickry and thought-experiments, unspeakable practices and arcane instruments. Sometimes we understand these new organs in the musical or aesthetic sense, as the apparatus for melody, harmony, and joyful noise. Then again, we may see them in a more scientific vein, as instruments of discovery -- in this sense indeed like the pendulum of Eco and Foucault, though less beholden, perhaps, to any sort of Gravity. In the end, our play upon these instruments, in the echo chamber of reverberating culture, may incline more to one Foucault than the other, though it must always include multiple Joyces. We want as much genius as we can find, so let us invite one more of that sort from the wings, along with his balladeer. Consider Jonathan Coulton on the great geometer, Benoit Mandelbrot:
He saw that infinite complexity could be described by simple rules
He used his giant brain to turn the game around
Though some of us (having got the memo) might wish for nicer brains (I would settle for Coulton's), the ludic scientists whose work you will find here all play some version of Mandelbrot's revolutionized game. Our work is animated by the desire to evoke from simple rules a plausibly infinite set of expressions. We come at this problem from various perspectives, techniques, and points of the aesthetic compass, and we arrive at happily different results, but a certain resemblance remains.
For Judy Malloy, who was a master composer when I was still learning canon and fugue, the key to invention lies in the artful crossing of pattern and chance, of musical and cybernetic form, in her "Concerto for Narrative Data."
John Cayley, who would be our Che or Tristan Tzara if this were an actual movement, gives us a newly re-engineered version of "riverIsland," an exploration of poetry-as-simulation that continues to define the possibilities of its form.
Next come some younger though no less accomplished talents, beginning with Shawn Rider, a writer, digital designer, and meta-gamer who is represented here with two pieces, "PiTp," a work laid open deliberately to digital intervention, and "So Random," a story that tells itself each time, specially, just for you.
Elizabeth Knipe, another relatively new player, offers "activeReader," an interactive media piece that brings its own interpretation of reader engagement and emergent, open form.
Nick Montfort, equally at ease with aesthetic programming and the long-form palindrome, offers what we might call a minimum instrument, "The Purpling," a maze of recirculating expression built from humble Web pages.
Last in train is my own "Under Language," a sort of talkative poem with consequences, far less credible in its claim to infinity than most of its companions, but still a kind of game, for those who will play.
"Programmatology." See Brian Kim Stefans' interview with John Cayley at http://www.uiowa.edu/~iareview/tirweb/feature/cayley/index.html.
"A structure for what does not yet exist." See Michael Joyce, "Siren Shapes: Exploratory and Constructive Hypertexts." In N. Wardrip-Fruin and N. Montfort, eds., The New Media Reader. MIT Press, 2003. 613-24.
Diotallevi's lament. See Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum. Trans. William Weaver. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1989.
"He saw that infinite complexity..." From Jonathan Coulton, "Mandelbrot Set." See www.jonathancoulton.com.
Wikipedia. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foucault's_Pendulum.
A note from the editor
From high ground safely above the receding flood waters in Iowa City, we are delighted and honored to launch the new issue of The Iowa Review Web [TIR-W], guest edited by Stuart Moulthrop, and skillfully managed by TIR-W Associate Editor Mark NeuCollins. We thank Stuart and the contributing artists and writers for their time and expertise in producing the issue.
TIR-W is sponsored by The University of Iowa Graduate College, and is a project of housed in the Virtual Writing University Experimental Wing.
Publishing electronic literature since 1999, TIR-W is committed to new writing, encouraging the investigation of text and hypertext in theory and practice at their deepest levels. It is searchable by title, author, and author information.
Writers and artists interested in having your work considered are encouraged to send a query email. Please include relevant autobiographical information and a brief description of your work in general; information about the work you would like to submit to TIR-W, including, when appropriate, the URL of the work.
A note from the managing editor
The boundaries that once distinguished various media-centricities have long since disappeared into a melting pot of media-flux. Tangible ideas formed of stone have given way to abstracted binary representations, and are now reconstituted and given meaning by the reader, whose agency creates their form. Within this paradigm shift, the author/artist is dead, but the instrument-maker lives on. They are the ones who now shape our encounter with ideas and open up channels of deep understanding. All we need do is pick up the instrument and play.
As an artist with a keen interest in art history and new media, I am pleased to have had a front-row seat for this ongoing revolution. It is a fascinating time for participatory observation, and for much of this time, The Iowa Review Web has been there with me. As you might guess, I was delighted to accept the invitation to serve as managing editor of TIRW-vol9n2. It has been a great pleasure working with Stuart and the participating authors to bring this edition to you. Having become intimately familiar with each of the pieces presented here, I can assure you...you are going to enjoy this.
Jon Winet, Editor
Mark NeuCollins, Managing and Associate Editor
, Technology Development Consultant
Aaron Brandt, Design Contributor