from Apple Basic to Hypercard, or, Translating Translating bpNichol

[reblogged from the Media Archaeology Lab]

As a result of a number of recent researcher visits to the MAL, the question we’ve been mulling over lately is whether, or how, works of digital literature can be said to have “manuscript versions.” Here is the background to this question: on 7 June 2012, I blogged about the 5.25″ floppies of bpNichol’s “First Screening” that had been donated to the lab by Canadian poet Lionel Kearns.

Happily, just a few weeks ago, the lab hosted a visiting researcher from Dalhousie University, Katherine Wooler, who is an English MA student and a graduate fellow with the Editing Modernism in Canada project; Wooler is working on a thesis in which she explores the differences in these versions of “First Screening.” I knew that the Javascript and Quicktime versions online were of course utterly different from the Apple Basic versions I had been looking at via an Apple II emulator. What I didn’t realize, until Wooler worked methodically in the lab for several days, is not only that the floppies donated by Kearns are earlier and incomplete versions of the Apple Basic published version that came out in 1984, but also that the lab’s Hypercard version, on 3.5″ floppy published by Red Deer Press in 1992, is even more starkly different. Wooler has written some tremendously illuminating paragraphs in her thesis, explaining the differences between these versions and trying out the term “beta-phase” instead of “manuscript” as a way of naming the earlier, incomplete, and unpublished versions of “First Screening”:

The Media Archaeology Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder has two 5 ¼-inch floppies with incomplete versions of First Screening on them (along with the requisite Apple IIe for viewing them). These beta-phase versions of First Screening not only differ from each other and from the published version (which is available online as an emulation of the software running on an Apple IIe) in content, but also in metadata. The two disks contain different selections from the eventual First Screening line up and this variation in primary text content affects the underlying layers of text that are intrinsically tied to the properties of the software. For example, typing the CAT command for catalogue of disk contents brings up a list of programs on each disk and the amount of space occupied by each. While one disk indicates that the poems claim 013 sectors of space on the floppy, the other—which has more of the final selection of poems—requires 045 sectors of space for the First Screening program. Additionally, by entering the command GOSUB 500 on the latter disk brings the user to the dedication at the end of the poems, while executing the same command on the disk with less poems calls up the piece “Tidal Pool.” The message that greets readers when the disk is first booted up and prompts them to type the RUN command claims its own 002 sectors of space and appears as a program titled “Hello” when the CAT or LIST commands are executed. The metadata also confirms that these two floppies are not complete versions. A quick consult with the Apple IIe manual reveals that the lack of asterisk beside the list of programs recalled with the CAT command means that these programs are unlocked and open for edits from any user.

In 1992-93, J. B. Hohm attempted to replicate First Screening in Hypercard format using HyperTalk programming language and he published the finished translation on 3 ½-inch floppy disks. A greater range of machines could read this version of First Screening, yet, at the same time, a couple of statistics about one possible computer that could be used for viewing the work indicate the accelerated rate of media evolution that accompanied the increase in available options for personal computers: I popped Hohm’s re-creation of First Screening into a Macintosh Powerbook 160, which was released in 1992 and discontinued in 1994. Loading this translation of First Screening highlights how it is impossible for anyone working with Nichol’s concrete poetry to avoid the material nature of his work. In the section titled “Fonts and Bolding” in the introduction/menu section of the disk, Hohm makes special note of typography in the section titled, an element that is of paramount importance in most of Nichol’s print concrete as well. Options in the menu allow users the choice between viewing First Screening in bolded or un-bolded text, and users can also choose between three fonts: Chicago, Geneva, or Monaco. Hohm implies that users may have an even greater font selection depending on the model of computer they are using. He writes, “At the very minimum, your Macintosh should support Geneva, Chicago, and Monaco fonts.”

When First Screening was translated from Applesoft Basic to HyperTalk programming language it was published on a different size of floppy disk, it became viewable on a whole new range of personal computers, and the underlying layers of text behind the viewing text transformed. The programs on the disk that execute the poems are measured in new units, and the commands that call up metadata have changed. In fact, the viewer’s ability to communicate directly with the program through simple command lines is impeded by the presence of a user menu that requires the viewer to communicate with the program by selecting options with the cursor instead. The cursor function builds up the layers of text (in this case HyperTalk coding language) between the viewing text and the initial text that was input by the author. Now the placement of the cursor in the table of contents initiates a command sequence instead of the user perusing the location of individual poems with the LIST command and manually entering a GOSUB command to jump ahead to a specific poem in the sequence. Nichol was aware of the subtleties of these layers of text and how they were dependent upon their medium. A text file (provided by Jim Andrews and co.) of Nichol’s original First Screening created with Applesoft Basic reveals that Nichol imbedded a bonus poem in the programming language. Using the REM command as a prefix he created a poem about the biblical flood that includes word play such as “REM ark.” In the Basic language REM indicates a line of text in the code that will not be executed as part of the program and is only visible when the code is being read in its raw form. Like the HTML of today’s use of the forward slash and the asterisk, REM preceded lines within code that were essentially references for the programmer. In Nichol’s hidden poem, “ark” is the primary text, but “REM” couples with it to form a larger word that is a hybrid of command and content. Since REM is not a command in HyperTalk, Hohm must include this poem as a bonus feature that is purely content, thereby losing the play-on words and an integral part of the poem’s identity.

Below are photographs Wooler took of the Hypercard version of “First Screening” housed in the Media Archaeology Lab as well as the lab’s still functioning Macintosh Powerbook 160 from 1992.






“The whole world is faking it”: Computer-Generated Poetry as Linguistic Evidence

The following is a short review I wrote of discourse.cpp (pdf available here) by O.S. le Si, ed. Aurélie Herbelot, published by the Berlin-based Peer Press in 2011. The review was just published in the December issue of Computational Linguistics.


discourse.cpp (Peer Press, 2011) is a short collection of computer-generated poetry edited by computational linguistics scholar Aurélie Herbelot, produced by a computer called O.S. le Si mainly used for natural language processing, and named after a program which tries to identify the meanings of words based on their context. In this case, Herbelot inputted 200,000 pages from Wikipedia for the program to then parse and output lists of items whose context is similar to words such as “gender,” “love,” “family,” and “illness;” for example, Herbelot explains that content in the opening piece titled “the creation” was “selected out of a list of 10,000 entries. Each entry was produced by automatically looking for taxonomic relationships in Wikipedia”; and, for the piece titled “gender,” she chose the “twenty-five best contexts for man and woman in original order. No further changes.” (47) The collection is, then, as we are told on the back-cover, “about things that people say about things. It was written by a computer.”

Poets – or, for the sake of those still attached to the notion of an author who intentionally delivers well-crafted, expressive writing, “so-called poets” – have been experimenting with producing writing with the aid of digital computer algorithms since Max Bense and Theo Lutz first experimented with computer-generated writing in 1959. The most well-known English-language example is the 1984 collection of poems The Policeman’s Beard is Half-Constructed by the Artificial Intelligence program Racter (a collection which was, it was later discovered, heavily edited by Racter creators William Chamberlain and Thomas Etter). discourse.cpp is yet another experiment in testing the capabilities of the computer and computer-programmer to create not so much “good” poetry as revealing poetry – poetry that is not meant to be close-read (most often to discover underlying authorial intent) but rather read as a collection of a kind of linguistic evidence. In this case, the collection provides evidence of the computer program’s probings of trends in online human language usage which in turn, not surprisingly, provides evidence of certain prevailing cultural norms; for example, we can see quite clearly our culture’s continued attachment to heteronormative gender roles in “Gender”:

Woman                        Man
man love —                    — win title
— marry man                — love woman
— give birth                   — claim be (18)

More, this linguistic evidence also draws attention to the ever-increasing intertwinement of human and digital computer and the resulting displacement of the human as sole reader-writer now that the computer is also a reader-writer alongside (and often in collaboration with) the human.

As Herbelot rightly points out in the “Editor’s Foreword,” to a large extent this experimentation with the computer as reader-writer also comes out of early twentieth century, avant-garde writing that similarly sought to undermine, if not displace, the individual intending author. Dadaist Tristan Tzara, for instance, infamously wrote “TO MAKE A DADAIST POEM” in 1920 in which he advocates writing poetry by cutting out words from a newspaper article, randomly choosing these words from a hat, and then appropriating these randomly chosen words to create a poem by “an infinitely original author of charming sensibility.” Tzara was, of course, being typically Dadaist in his tongue-in-cheek attitude; but he was also, I believe, serious in his belief that the combination of appropriation and chance-generated methods of producing text could produce original writing that simultaneously undermined the egotism of the author. However, insofar as discourse.cpp comes out of a lineage of experimental writing invested in chance-generated writing and, later, in exploiting computer technology as the latest means by which to produce such writing, it also comes out of a certain tradition of disingenuousness that comes along with this lineage. No matter how much Tzara and later authors of computer-generated writing sought to remove the human-as-author, there was and still is no getting around the fact that humans are in fact deeply involved in the creation process – whether as cutters-and-pasters, computer programmers, inputters, or editors. The collection, then, is a much more complex amalgam than even Herbelot seems willing to acknowledge as discourse.cpp is evidence of the evenly distributed reading and writing that took place between Herbelot and the computer/program itself.

“Reading Writing Interfaces” Book Project Description

Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound
(forthcoming University of Minnesota Press, 2014)

Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound

Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound

Table of Contents:

Chapter 1: Indistinguishable From Magic | Invisible Interfaces and Digital Literature as Demystifier

1.0 Introduction | Invisible, Imperceptible, Inoperable
1.1 Natural, Organic, Invisible
1.2 The iPad | “a truly magical and revolutionary product”
1.3 From Videoplace to iOS | A Brief History of Creativity through Multitouch
1.4 iPoems
1.5 Making the Invisible Visible | Hacking, Glitch, Defamiliarization in Digital Literature

Chapter 2: From the Philosophy of the Open to the Ideology of the User-Friendly

2.0 Introduction | Digging to Denaturalize
2.1 Open, Extensible, Flexible | NLS, Logo, Smalltalk
2.2 Writing as Tinkering | The Apple II and bpNichol, Geof Huth, Paul Zelevansky
2.3 Closed, Transparent, Task-oriented | The Apple Macintosh

Chapter 3: Typewriter Concrete Poetry and Activist Media Poetics

3.0 Introduction | Analog Hacktivism
3.1 The Poetics of a McLuhanesque Media Archaeology
3.2 Literary D.I.Y. and Concrete Poetry
3.3 From Clean to Dirty Concrete
3.4 bpNichol, Dom Sylvester Houédard, Steve McCaffery

Chapter 4: The Fascicle as Process and Product

4.0 Introduction | Against a Receding Present
4.1 My Digital Dickinson
4.2 The Digital/Dickinson Poem as Antidote to the Interface-Free
4.3 The Digital/Dickinson Poem as Thinkertoy

Chapter 5: Postscript | The Googlization of Literature

5.0 Introduction | Readingwriting
5.1 Computer-generated Writing and the Neutrality of the Machine
5.2 “And so they came to inhabit the realm of the very unimaginary”

Works Cited

Just as the increasing ubiquity and significance of digital media have provoked us to revisit the book as a technology, they have introduced concepts that, retroactively, we can productively apply to older media. Interface, a digital-born concept, is such an example. Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Bookbound to the Digital probes how interfaces have acted as a defining threshold between reader/writer and writing itself across several key techno-literary contexts. As I outline in the chapter summaries below, my book describes, largely through original archival research, ruptures in present and past media environments that expose how certain literary engagements with screen- and print-based technologies transform reading/writing practices. To borrow from Jussi Parikka’s What Is Meda Archaeology? (2012), my book “thinks” media archaeologically as its analyses undulate from present to past media environments. More specifically, I lay bare the way in which poets in particular – from the contemporary Jason Nelson and Judd Morrissey back to Emily Dickinson – work with and against interfaces across various media to undermine the assumed transparency of conventional reading and writing practices. My book, then, is a crucial contribution to the fields of media studies/digital humanities and poetry/poetics in its development of a media poetics which frames literary production as ineluctably involved in a critical engagement with the limits and possibilities of writing media.

My book works back through media history, probing poetry’s response to crucial moments in the development of digital and analog interfaces. That is, the book chapters move from the present moment to the past, each also using a particular historical moment to understand the present: Reading Writing Interfaces begins with digital poetry’s challenge to the alleged invisibility of multitouch in the early 21st century, moves to poets’ engagement with the transition from the late 1960s’ emphasis on openness and creativity in computing to the 1980s’ ideology of the user-friendly Graphical User Interface, to poetic experiments with the strictures of the typewriter in the 1960s and 1970s, and finally to Emily Dickinson’s use of the fascicle as a way to challenge the coherence of the book in the mid to late 19th century. Thus, throughout, I demonstrate how a certain thread of experimental poetry has always been engaged with questioning the media by which it is made and through which it is consumed. At each point in this non-linear history, I describe how this lineage of poetry undermines the prevailing philosophies of particular media ecology and so reveals to us, in our present moment, the creative limits and possibilities built into our contemporary technologies. By the time I return once again to the present moment in the post-script via the foregoing four techno-literary ruptures, I have made visible a longstanding conflict between those who would deny us access to fundamental tools of creative production and those who work to undermine these foreclosures on creativity. In many ways, then, my book reveals the strong political engagement driving a tradition of experimental poetry and argues for poetry’s importance in the digital age.

The underlying methodology of Reading Writing Interfaces is the burgeoning field of media archaeology. Media archaeology does not seek to reveal the present as an inevitable consequence of the past but instead looks to describe it as one possibility generated out of a heterogeneous past. Also at the heart of media archaeology is an on-going struggle to keep alive what Siegfried Zielinski calls “variantology” – the discovery of “individual variations” in the use or abuse of media, especially those variations that defy the ever-increasing trend toward “standardization and uniformity among the competing electronic and digital technologies.” Following Zielinski, I uncover a non-linear and non-teleological series of media phenomena – or ruptures – as a way to avoid reinstating a model of media history that tends toward narratives of progress and generally ignores neglected, failed, or dead media. That said, following on the debates in the field of digital humanities about the connection of theory and praxis (the so-called “more hack, less yack” debate) my book is more about doing than theorizing media archaeology; it considers these ruptures at the intersection of key writing technologies and responses by poets whose practice is at the limit of these technologies. Crucially, no books on or identified with media archaeology have engaged thoroughly with the literary and none have consistently engaged with poetry in particular; thus my book is also an innovation in the field in that it uses this methodology to read poetry by way of interface.

Chapter Summaries:
One of the most recent and well-known unveilings of an “interface-free interface” came in 2006 when research scientist Jeff Han introduced a 36-inch wide computing screen which allows the user to perform almost any computer-driven operation through multi-touch sensing. Han describes this interface as “completely intuitive . . . there’s no instruction manual, the interface just sort of disappears.” However, the interface does not disappear but rather, through a sleight-of-hand, deceives the user into believing there is no interface at all. I use this anecdote to open the introduction to Reading Writing Interfaces, first, as a way to illustrate the current trend in interface design which emphasizes usability at the expense of providing access to the underlying workings of interfaces, which in turn defines the limits and possibilities of creative expression. And second, I use the anecdote to begin a theoretical and historical overview of the notion of interface, particularly as it has played out in the computing industry in the last forty years. The definition of ‘interface’ I settle on throughout my book is one I adopt from Alexander Galloway to mean a technology, whether book- or screen-based, that acts as a threshold between reader and writing that also subtly delimits both the reading and writing process. This nuanced and yet expansive definition makes way for an acknowledgement of the decisive back-and-forth play that occurs between human and machine and it also broadens our conventional notions of interface to include a range of writing interfaces such as the command-line, the typewriter, or even the fascicle. In light of Reading Writing Interfaces‘ dual attention to media studies and poetry/poetics, I close the introduction with discussions of these two fields as they influence this project. I situate the book within media archaeology, which I take as my methodology, and explain how its emphasis on a non-teleological unearthing of uses/abuses of media allows me to proceed through my media history in reverse chronological order as I uncover media ruptures from the present through to the past. Finally, I conclude the introduction by pairing media archaeology with the notion of ‘media poetics’ as a way to account for poets’ activist engagement with the creative limits and possibilities of media.

The first chapter, titled “Indisinguishable From Magic: Invisible Interfaces and their Demystification,” thus begins with the present moment. Here I argue that contemporary writers such as Young-Hae Chang, Judd Morrissey, Jason Nelson, and Jörg Piringer advance a 21st century media poetics by producing digital poems which are deliberately difficult to navigate or whose interfaces are anything but user-friendly. For example, Morrissey and Nelson create interfaces that frustrate us because they seek to defamiliarize the interfaces we no longer notice; it is a literary strategy akin to Viktor Schklovksy’s early twentieth century invocation of ‘defamiliarization’ to describe the purpose of poetic language – except here it is deployed to force us to re-see interfaces of the present. I argue it is precisely against a troubling move toward invisibility in digital computing interfaces that Judd Morrissey has created texts such as “The Jew’s Daughter” – a work in which readers are invited to click on hyperlinks embedded in the narrative text, links which do not lead anywhere so much as they unpredictably change some portion of the text before our eyes. The result of our attempts to navigate such a frustrating interface, structured as it is by hyperlinks we believe ought to lead us somewhere, is that the interface of the Web come into view once again. Likewise working against the clean, supposedly transparent interface of the Web, in “game, game, game and again game” Jason Nelson creates a game-poem in which he self-consciously embraces a hand-drawn, hand-written aesthetic while deliberately undoing poetic and videogame conventions through a nonsensical point-system and mechanisms that ensure the player neither accumulates points nor “wins.” At the heart, then, of the most provocative digital poems lies a thoroughgoing engagement with difficulty or even failure. By hacking, breaking, or simply making access to interfaces trying, these writers work against the ways in which these interfaces are becoming increasingly invisible even while these same interfaces also increasingly define what and how we read/write. In this chapter I also pay particular attention to how writers such as Jörg Piringer are creating poetry “apps” which work against the grain of the multitouch interface that has been popularized by Apple’s iPad – a device that perfectly exemplifies the ways in which the interface-free interface places restrictions on creative expression in the name of an ideology, more than a philosophy, of the user-friendly.

The second chapter, “From the Philosophy of the Open to the Ideology of the User-Friendly,” uncovers the shift from the late 1960s to the early 1980s that made way for those very interfaces I discuss in chapter one which are touted as utterly invisible. Based on original archival research I undertook of historically important computing magazines such as Byte, Computer, and Macworld as well as handbooks published by Apple Inc. and Xerox, I bring to light the philosophies driving debates in the tech industry about interface and the consequences of the move from the command-line interface in the early 1980s to the first mainstream windows-based interface introduced by Apple in the mid-1980s. I argue that the move from a philosophy of computing based on a belief in the importance of open and extensible hardware to the broad adoption of the supposedly user-friendly Graphical User Interface, or the use of a keyboard/screen/mouse in conjunction with windows, fundamentally changed the computing landscape and inaugurated an era in which users have little or no comprehension of the digital computer as a medium. Thus, media poetics prior to the release of the Apple Macintosh in 1984 mostly takes the form of experimentation with computers such as the Apple IIe that at the time were new to writers. Digital poetry from the early 1980s by bpNichol, Geof Huth, and Paul Zelevansky does not work to make the command-line or Apple IIe interface visible so much as it openly plays with and tentatively tests the parameters of the personal computer as a still-new writing technology. This kind of open experimentation almost entirely disappeared for a number of years as Apple Macintosh’s design innovations and their marketing made open computer architecture and the command-line interface obsolete and GUIs pervasive.

In the third chapter, “Typewriter Concrete Poetry and Activist Media Poetics,” I delve into the era from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s in which poets, working heavily under the influence of Marshall McLuhan and before the widespread adoption of the personal computer, sought to create concrete poetry as a way to experiment with the limits and possibilities of the typewriter. These poems – particularly those by the Canadian writers bpNichol and Steve McCaffery and the English Benedictine monk Dom Sylvester Houédard – often deliberately court the media noise of the typewriter as a way to draw attention to the typewriter-as-interface. As such, when Andrew Lloyd writes in the 1972 collection Typewriter Poems that “a typewriter is a poem. A poem is not a typewriter,” he gestures to the ways in which poets enact a media-analysis of the typewriter via writing as they cleverly undo stereotypical assumptions about the typewriter itself: a poem written on a typewriter is not merely a series of words delivered via a mechanical writing device and, for that matter, neither is the typewriter merely a mechanical writing device. Instead, these poems express and enact a poetics of the remarkably varied material specificities of the typewriter as a particular kind of mechanical writing interface that necessarily inflects both how and what one writes. Further, since they are about their making as much as they are about their reading/viewing, if we read these concrete poems in relation to Marshall McLuhan’s unique pairing of literary studies with media studies – a pairing which is also his unique contribution to media archaeology avant la lettre – we can again reimagine formally experimental poetry and poetics as engaged with media studies and even with hacking reading/writing interfaces. Further, this chapter also draws on archival research to uncover not only the influence of McLuhan on concrete poetry but – for the first time – to delineate concrete poetry’s influence on those writings by McLuhan that are now foundational to media studies.

In the fourth chapter, “The Fascicle as Process and Product,” I read digital poems into and out of Emily Dickinson’s use of the fascicle; I assert the fascicle is a writing interface that is both process and product from a past that is becoming ever more distant the more enmeshed in the digital we become and the more the book becomes a fetishized object. Otherwise put, her fascicles, as much as the later-twentieth century digital computers and the mid-twentieth century typewriters I discuss in chapters two and three, are now slowly but surely revealing themselves as a kind of interface that defines the nature of reading as much as writing. More, extending certain tenets of media archaeology I touch on above, I read the digital into and out of Dickinson’s fascicles as a way to enrich our understanding of her work. Such a reading is a self-conscious exploitation of the terminology and theoretical framing of the present moment which – given the ubiquity of terms that describe digital culture such as ‘interface,’ ‘network,’ ‘link,’ etc. or even of such now commonly understood terms such as ‘bookmark’ and ‘archive’ which previously were only used by the bookish or the literary scholar – is so steeped in the digital and which, often without our knowing, saturates our language and habits of thought.

Finally, in chapter five, the postscript to Reading Writing Interfaces, “The Googlization of Literature,” I focus on the interface of the search engine, particularly Google’s, to describe one of conceptual writing’s unique contributions to contemporary poetry/poetics and media studies. Building on the 20th century’s computer-generated texts, conceptual writing gives us a poetics perfectly appropriate for our current cultural moment in that it implicitly acknowledges we are living not just in an era of the search engine algorithm but in an era of what Siva Vaidhyanathan calls “The Googlization of Everything.” When we search for data on the Web we are no longer “searching” – instead, we are “Googling.” But conceptual writers such as Bill Kennedy, Darren Wershler, and Tan Lin who experiment with/on Google are not simply pointing to its ubiquity – they are also implicitly questioning how it works, how it generates the results it does, and so how it sells ourselves back to us. Such writing is an acknowledgement of the materiality of language in the digital that goes deeper than a recognition of the material size, shape, sound, texture of letters and words that characterizes much of twentieth-century bookbound, experimental poetry practices. These writers take us beyond the 20th century avant garde’s interest in the verbal/vocal/visual aspect of materiality to urge us instead to attend to the materiality of 21st century digital language production. They ask, what happens when we appropriate the role of Google for our own purposes rather than Google’s? What happens when we wrest Google from itself and instead use it not only to find out things about us as a culture but to find out what Google is finding out about us? “The Googlization of Literature,” then, concludes Reading Writing Interfaces by providing an even more wide-ranging sense of poetry’s response to the interface-free.

latest addition to the Archeological Media Lab: original “First Screening” 5.25 inch floppies

I had the great fortune of meeting Lionel Kearns in Vancouver last spring and discussing bpNichol’s 1984 Apple IIe poem “First Screening.” (If you don’t know Kearns, he is a longtime Vancouver-based poet who was a student of Earle Birney and also one of the four people to first rescue “First Screening.”) After explaining that I had managed, with the assistance of Jim Andrews, to obtain copies of “First Screening” for the Archeological Media Lab to run on the Apple IIe’s, Kearns immediately and generously offered to donate original working copies of the poems that bp was working on when he visited Kearns in the early 80s. I’m thrilled to report the floppies arrived last week, safe and sound, with this note from Kearns: “I am not sure of the actual date, but it was some time previous to the actual publication on disk of the collection of poems by Underwhich Editions.”

Activist Media Poetics: Electronic Literature Against the Interface-free (MLA 2012)

Below is the text of the paper I delivered at MLA 2012 in Seattle, WA. It was part of the special session I organized on E-literature and the interface; you can find summaries of papers delivered by Dene Grigar, Mark Sample, and Stephanie Strickland/Marjorie Luesebrink here. The full text of Mark Sample’s paper, “Strange Rain and the Poetics of Motion and Touch,” is now available here.


For the last year or two I’ve been focusing most of my research and writing on the notion of ‘interface’ – a technology, whether book or screen, that is the intermediary layer between reader and writing. What I’ve found is that ‘interface’ gives us a wedge to approach the broad and complex question of how the reading and writing of poetry have changed in the digital age and how the digital age has in turn changed the way in which we understand what I call “bookbound” poetry. It seems to me that a discussion of digital poetry in terms of interface – a discussion whose methodology is driven by the field of Media Archaeology – could be a crucial intervention into both poetry/poetics and media studies in that it meshes these fields together to 1) make visible the Human-Computer interfaces we take for granted everyday; and 2) to frame certain works of electronic literature as instances of activist media poetics.

In part influenced by the so-called “Berlin school of media studies” that has grown out of Friedrich Kittler’s new media approach, Media Archaeology is invested in both recovering the analog ancestors of the digital and reading the digital back into the analog. And so the argument I keep trying to make is this:  nineteenth-century fascicles as much as mid-twentieth century typewriters and later-twentieth century digital computers are now slowly but surely revealing themselves not just as media but as media whose functioning depends on interfaces that fundamentally frame what can and cannot be said. I am, then, trying to move the definition of “interface” outside its conventional HCI-based usage (in which interface is usually defined as the intermediary layer between a user and a digital computer or computer program) and apply it to writing media more broadly to mean the layer between reader and any given writing medium which allows the reader to interact with the text itself. Moving the fields of HCI and literary studies closer together through a simple widening of the term “interface” does not just signal a mere shift in terminology. Instead, my sense is that a hybridizing of the two fields helps to move the study of electronic literature into the post-Marshall McLuhan, enabling us to go beyond repeatedly pointing out how the medium is the message and take up Katherine Hayles’ well-received injunction for “media-specific analysis” to get at not just particular media, but particularities such as the interface in the individual media instantiations of e-literature.

It also seems to me that an attention to interface – again, made possible through attention to certain works of e-literature – is a crucial tool in our arsenal against a receding present…by which I mean without attention to the ways in which present and past writing interfaces frame what can and cannot be said, the contemporary computing industry will only continue un-checked in its accelerating drive to achieve perfect invisibility through mulit-touch, so-called Natural User Interfaces, and ubiquitous computing devices. My sense is that the computing industry desires nothing more than to efface the interface altogether and so also efface our ability to read let alone write the interface.

One example of such effacement that I like draw on comes from one of the most well-known unveilings of a multitouch interface, during which creator Jeff Han proudly declares that “there’s no instruction manual, the interface just sort of disappears.” Another example comes from the Natural User Interface Group who define NUI as “an emerging concept in Human/Computer Interaction that refers to a interface that is effectively invisible, or becomes invisible to its user with successive learned interactions;” and they use “natural” to mean “organic, unthinking, prompted by instinct.” But just whose instinct is directing the shape of these interfaces? Or, more to the point, why would we – as users as much as creators or writers – want our interactions with interfaces to be “unthinking” so that we have no sense of how the interface works on us, delimiting reading, writing, even thinking? And on this note, I can’t help but to point out that the recent elevation of Steve Jobs to the status of a leftist folk hero comparable to Bob Dylan only underscores the necessity of any work, literary or otherwise, that reveals the ideology of the user-friendly for what it is – what blogger Sarah Leonard calls Jobs’ philosophy of “Paint it White”: as she tellingly points out, “Those iPads sure are frictionless fun unless, it turns out, you happen to inhale while you’re manufacturing them.”

I think that one of the mainstays of innovative writing over the last century has not only been an active engagement with form but also, perhaps more importantly, an engagement with hacking writing interfaces – an approach that treats both writing and media-specific interface as process and product, the two unavoidably intertwined. It is a ‘hacking’ not in the more recent colloquial sense of illegally bypassing computer security mechanisms but rather hacking in its earlier (perhaps original) sense, embodied by the computer hobbyists of the Homebrew Computer Club from the 70s and early 80s who were invested in the communal enterprise of open-source DIY computing. Hacking in this sense has been usefully re-enlivened by Mackenzie Wark who describes it in terms of the activities of class of people who “create the possibility of new things entering the world” (004) and whose slogan is “…not the workers of the world united, but the workings of the world untied” (006).

And so electronic literature’s response to the increasing prevalence of invisible interfaces that prevent any kind of making or doing beyond those surface-level activities which are strictly delimited by the interface: the introduction of an element of failure in digital writing and writing interfaces to turn our attention back to both as, again, process and product. In other words, at the heart of the most provocative and the most successful works of e-literature lies a poetics of failure; that is, by hacking, breaking, or simply making access difficult, they work against the way in which digital media and their interfaces are becoming increasingly invisible – even while these interfaces also increasingly define what and how we read/write. Such an approach is nicely framed as the daring path of the activist by Media Archaeology theorist Siegfried Zielinski:

Few activists…take the more daring path of exploring certain points of the media system in such a way that throws established syntax into a state of agitation. This is poetic praxis in the strict sense that the magical realist Bruno Schulz of Poland understood it: “If art is only supposed to confirm what has been determined for as long as anyone can remember, then one doesn’t need it. Its role is to be a probe that is let down into the unknown. The artist is a device that registers processes taking place in the depths where values are created.” (256)

It is, then, precisely against this unthinking celebration of the value of the user-friendly, against this troubling move toward transparent or invisible computing, that digital writers such as Judd Morrissey create texts such as “The Jew’s Daughter” – a work in which readers are invited to click on hyperlinks embedded in the narrative text, links which do not lead anywhere so much as they unpredictably change some portion of the text before our eyes. It is a work that unties the workings of the hyperlinked web interface whose structure more and more seems to be driven by the belief that clicking is an empowering act of identity-formation, one that emboldens us to access more meaningful information and so become active learners and producers of knowledge…when in fact clicking most often simply takes us to something other, and yet other –  with most of these clicks carefully monitored by your favorite search engine that then conveniently sells you back to yourself. Clicking is to empowerment what Steve Jobs is to Bob Dylan.

Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries also have become infamous for their refusal to incorporate interactivity into their works – interactivity which, again, is at the heart of the ideology of the user-friendly. In fact, they reframe their refusal of interactivity in their work as providing the reader with the ultimate control: to in fact click AWAY. They state in an interview from 2005: “the spectator is far from powerless. She is still the one who decides whether or not she will watch the piece, or having clicked on it, whether she’ll click away from it. That’s the same power that she has when she considers any other art and literature. Clicking away is one of the essences of the Internet. It’s no different from deleting. It’s rejection, it’s saying ‘no.’ That’s ultimate power.” But it still seems to me that taking a lack of interactivity to such an extreme that it demands the spectator reject the work altogether is a significantly different gesture, one which throws us back on ourselves, than the mindless/endless clicking that determines most interactions on the Web.

Likewise working against the clean, “natural,” and transparent interface of the Web, in many of Jason Nelson’s game poems, he hybridizes interactive art/video-game/poem to self-consciously embrace a hand-drawn, hand-written, messy, dissonant aesthetic while deliberately undoing videogame conventions (of accumulation, progress, winning/losing, clear moral victories, immersion) through a nonsensical point-system and mechanisms that ensure the most a player ever wins is, for example, a bizarre home video feature Nelson playing with action figures in his kitchen.

With electronic literature framed as one which “throws established syntax into a state of agitation” insofar as it gives an account of the normally invisible, the taken-for-granted that nonetheless defines what can be said, then the unsettling, non-linear work by Judd Morrissey, Young-Hae Chang, and Jason Nelson which also defies close-reading and easy subsumption into any interpretative framework, is activist media poetry par excellence. And, to me, works such as these put forward an argument for the importance of electronic literature as an intervening force in the computing industry’s push to not just push on toward gestural interfaces and ubiquitous computing, but to computing interfaces that work by “reading your mind” or reading electrical brain activity without us having to take any physical action. As the engineers at IBM’s Smarter Planet Initiative declare with the kind of wondrous hush typical of a Steve Jobs-esque unveiling of the unthinkable: “If you just need to think about calling someone, it happens. Or you can control the cursor on a computer screen just by thinking about where you want to move it.”

sifteo cubes in the humanities classroom

I recently ordered, with glee, Sifteo cubes in the hopes that I might be able to use them either in the classes I teach or perhaps add them to the Archeological Media Lab which, while largely invested in studying outdated computer hardware and software, is also broadly concerned with the study of interface design. As the Sifteo cube interface is equal parts touch-sensitive and motion-sensitive – for example, you choose menu options by pushing the cubes together or you can activate different parts of the games by shaking the cubes or placing them face down – they seemed like a necessary addition to the lab’s growing library of gadgets. (And of course, after many happy hours of compulsive playing and tinkering with the cubes at home, I was also looking for a legitimate excuse to bring the cubes into my classes.)

This, then, is a short review of Sifteo cubes and my own attempt to work out, for myself and for my colleagues (especially those involved in the Teaching with Technology Seminar sponsored by ASSETT), whether these cubes are might be a productive addition to an undergraduate class on digital media or even a literature class on electronic literature. But, I should be clear: this review is in the context of the classes I’m teaching right now that reflect my own (rather unconventional) research interests.

While more and more I’m becoming interested in old media, analog media, as well as the history of computing, one reason I’m housed in an English literature department is because of my interest in e-literature with an emphasis on digital poetry. By “digital poetry” I generally mean a work that is ‘digital born,’ a first-generation digital object created on a computer and (usually) meant to be read on a computer. Whether or not the text is “poetry” more often than not depends on what critical apparatus you decide to bring to the work—many of the digital works I’m interested could be classified as fiction or visual art as easily as they could be poetry; I’ve found that once text enters the digital, genre distinctions start to break down.

In the undergraduate course I teach on digital poetry, I’ve come up with four broad conceptual categories by which to help students think about digital poems: 1) digital poetry that brings us to the absolute limits of interpretation; 2) the historical underpinnings of digital poetry (including units on how Dada, Futurism, and Concrete Poetry have influenced digital poetry); 3) the lineage of computer-generated poetry that spans the 1950s to the present day – or, basically, the use of algorithms to generate text; 4) and reading/writing poetry interfaces from the 21st back to the early 20th century. In terms of the latter, I try to teach my students to see how digital poems draw our attention to their interface, usually through an interface that’s difficult to navigate that in turn helps make writing interfaces less transparent; in contrast to the rhetoric around every new multi-touch or gestural interface that touts how its interface “just disappears! it’s completely ‘natural’ and ‘intuitive'”, I try to get my students to think about what it means for an interface to be invisible or natural  – just whose intuition is driving this interface? Also, and more importantly, I feel strongly that the more invisible an interface becomes the less access we have to making things outside of ready-made software and the less access we have to understanding what’s going on underneath the hood. As such, we also look at how these digital poems have been constructed—what software has been used or hacked to create these word objects? What can we learn from studying these works at the level of the code?

The second course I frequently teach is called “Introduction to Digital Media for Humanities” which serves as a humanities-based introduction to digital media structures such as the digital archive and reading/writing software that fundamentally affects what we ourselves are able to read/write; theories and methodologies for under-taking digital media scholarship in the humanities; and, finally, digital textualities ranging from text messaging, blogging, and games to digital fiction and poetry. Ideally, this course gives students the critical skills they need to understand and navigate a 21st century world in which digital media govern the storage, transmission and reception of a whole range of textual material.

Both classes have a distinct and recurring emphasis on doing and making a necessary adjunct to learning the course material; as such, at the end of the semester we have a “demo day” where students exhibit their own works of digital poetry or digital textuality they create in response to the texts we study in class. The point of this assignment is not to impress the class with technical skills – the point is to engage as fully as possible in thinking about how you create affects what you’ve created; in other words, to enact a kind of study or critique of software and how it shapes creative production through doing. This means too that I don’t need students to learn Flash or Actionscript as there are plenty of ways they can “hack” powerpoint or keynote or Prezi to create compelling digital texts.

To slowly move to a discussion of Sifteo cubes, the nature of the final project also means I’m always on the look-out for interesting, new tech to use for this assignment – but there are some restrictions: 1) the tech needs to be somewhat easily accessible (as students have only about 3 weeks to complete the assignment); 2) the tech needs to be free or cheap or easy for me to share with my students; 3) the tech needs to have a textual, ideally literary, potential so that students can learn about how language operates in a digital environment. I can usually find tech that satisfies two out of 3 of these requirements and, in this way, Sifteo cubes are no exception.

David Merrill and Jeevan Kalanithi designed the cubes while they were graduate students at the MIT Media Lab, and they have since formed a company to produce Sifteo Cubes, games, and software. Inspired by classic games such as chess, checkers, and mah-jong, Sifteo Cubes are a hands-on interactive game system. You can turn cubes, shake them, press down on them, and connect them with each other. Each cube contains a tiny computer chip and is connected to other cubes, sensing their motion and position through a wireless network to the Sifteo application on a nearby computer. They come with desktop software that allows you to browse and play games, create your own with the Sifteo Creativity Kit, and find more in the Sifteo store. [An intriguing side-note: Sifteo cubes were recently featured in a MOMA exhibit called “Talk To Me” , featuring a number of cutting edge designs that attempt to reimagine the notion of ‘interface.’]

There are three games available at the moment that (arguably) include textual elements or just elements that are conceivably related to the two courses I outline above: LoopLoop, Wordplay, and Chroma Shuffle. All three games teach students individual components of what goes into creating a digital poem or even just net art. LoopLoop is about the art of the remix: so much of digital poetry/net art remixes from other sources – pulls from source texts, music, visuals to rearrange; instead of framing remix as plagiarism or laziness (“you didn’t make that yourself!”), this game consists of small music samples and beats you can layer and combine and so it demos how choosing/editing/curation is an art in itself. Wordplay is about the art of the combinatorial: many digital poems are based on the art of viewing language and words as material bits that can be re-combined to form new material bits; it’s another form of remix that takes place at the level of the letter rather than the sentence or the work of art/music as a whole. Chroma Shuffle is about the art of the game: many works of net art/digital poetry have been heavily influenced by games/gaming and as a result turns reading into playing/interacting which in turn requires an organized awareness of objects in the space – or spatial visualization.

Hopefully, given my description of these three Sifteo games, their appeal is obvious. However, there are a few drawbacks: aside from the price tag (a set of three cubes with the charger dock costs about $150 on which makes them prohibitively expensive for most students), they are fantastic to consume which is also the problem – they seem to strongly encourage a passive acceptance of the interface and they discourage users from thinking about how the cubes work and from creating outside of the ready-made environment. I haven’t yet thought of a way to “hack” the Sifteo Cubes to make them do things they might not have been intended to do – like make digital poems. There is indeed a software developers kit but it requires that you know the programming language C. There is also a Creativity Kit which does allow you to change some of what you might call the “vocabulary” of the games (the letters and words) but only allows limited changes to the grammar – the underlying structure – of the games.

All this said: despite the downsides I mention above, if there’s a way for an institution to provide access to Sifteo cubes without saddling students with an additional expense, my sense is that these cubes are still well worth experimenting with in the classroom. I can’t help but endorse any piece of technology that grabs students as much as these cubes and impels them to learn and create.

Performing E-Literature | E-literature Performing

Below is my curatorial statement for the Electronic Literature Exhibit that will take place at the MLA Annual Convention January 2012. Rather than focus my statement on the works I suggested we include in the exhibit, I’ve instead focused on the notion of a reading or performance of e-literature like the one that will take place on Friday January 6th 2012 (8pm Richard Hugo House, Seattle WA).


If electronic literature is emergent, generative, interactive, kinetic, tactile; if the textual elements of electronic literature are only one part of digital version of a verbi-voco-visual complex, then how will e-literature authors Jim Andrews, Kate Armstrong, Ian Bogost, John Cayley, Erin Costello/Aaron Angelo, Marjorie Luesebrink, Mark Marino, Nick Montfort, Brian Kim Stefans, Stephanie Strickland, and Rob Wittig “read” from their works on Friday January 6th? What does such a reading look like?

One answer is that we wanted to see if we could extend the e-literature exhibit not just into the performative – for, arguably many of the works on display are performative in their right – but into the arena of live performance. However, such an exploration has to remain open-ended and undecidable; the exploration of what it means to “read” or “perform” e-literature has to change and adapt for every text. There is no way to know once-and-for-all how Nick Montfort reads his 2009 work “Taroko Gorge” – a Python poetry generator that creates a nature poem each time it is run. But perhaps we can say this: 1) while the poetic quality of the generated text is something to marvel at, a live performance of “Taroko Gorge” likely highlights the temporal, fleeting quality of the work and of digital computer processes in general (instead of static words on a page, we have ever-changing text that reflects the underlying time-based processes of algorithmic generation); 2) a live performance also reminds us that while the use of an algorithm to generate literary texts does undermine assumptions about authorial intent, self-expression, even the literary, to some extent our interest in authorial intent can shift to the very human programmer standing before us, reading one possible result among many from his elegant script.

Our reading also highlights those works which strategically nestle themselves between analog and print as a means by which to use print to comment on the digital and the digital to comment on print. A live “reading” of Erin Costello and Aaron Angelo’s site-specific installation and performance “Poemedia” poses many challenges to the conventional notion of a poetry reading as the work originally consisted of one hundred fifty 8.5″ x 11″ sheets of card stock suspended one to eight feet above the ground with live and/or recorded video projected onto the sheets. As Costello and Angelo put it, “Poemedia” asks, “what is the role of poetry, page poetry specifically, in a digitized, information saturated world?” As such, just as “Poemedia” enacts a thinking-through of the state of poetry today that is unavoidably enmeshed in practices of remix, search, and the disintegration of clear boundaries between literary and artistic genres, a reading or performance of it will likely also enact a thinking through of the poetry reading that normally features a single author, reading predictable and supposedly original text.

Our reading will also feature game designer and critic Ian Bogost reading from “A Slow Year” – a so-called “chapbook of game poems” that consists of four slow-moving, contemplative, text-free games (“spring”, “summer,” “autumn,” “winter”) for Atari VCS and an accompanying book of related yet separate print-based computer-generated poems. “A Slow Year” joins a growing number of e-literature works that do not contain any text at all but whose inspiration comes at least partly from poetry (in this case, Bogost attempts to translate poetic principles of Imagism into the realm of the videogame). But, aside from the difficult question of what makes a work literary if it contains no text – and one possible answer to this question is that distinctions between genres in the digital are impossible, and so pointless, to maintain – what is there in “A Slow Year” to read or perform? Perhaps Bogost will stand-in as us, as readers/viewers, performing our own interpretative acts to ourselves as we try to make sense of such a work.

And of course, it’s worth pointing out that Bogost will reveal only one possible answer to the foregoing questions during his January 6th reading, a reading which overall will only suggest momentary, emergent, even fleeting “solutions” to the productive problems of reading or performing electronic literature.