“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.


Media Archaeology and Digital Stewardship

I was fortunate to have the chance to think through the relationship between the field of media archaeology, the Media Archaeology Lab, and digital preservation/stewardship thanks to this interview with Trevor Owens on the Library of Congress blog, The Signal, called “Media Archaeology and Digital Stewardship: An Interview with Lori Emerson.” The invitation to talk with Trevor was particularly fortuitous because Matthew Kirschenbaum had been here at CU Boulder the week before, discussing these very same issues in a faculty seminar he led called “Doing Media Archaeology.” You can read the interview here – I’d be interested in hearing comments you might have, especially about the possibility of a hardware/software resource sharing program.

photos of the Media Archaeology Lab’s holdings

The Media Archaeology Lab was fortunate to have a visit this week from Kevin Kane, a talented student at the University of Colorado Boulder, who took a series of photos of some of the MAL’s holdings. We are working on compiling a complete, detailed catalogue of the lab’s complete holdings – until then, hopefully these photos give you a sense of the lab. Enjoy!

This picture captures most of the MAL’s fully functional Apple computers, from an Apple 1 replica to an iMac G4. 

The MAL’s collection of PCs – from left to right: Kaypro II, Commodore 64, Vectrex, Compaq Portable, Commodore Amiga 500, IBM 5150, NeXT Cube.

The MAL has a substantial collection of Apple IIe’s – some are fully functional and others are in need of repair. Also notice the Mattel Aquarius computer on the third shelf.

The MAL also has a modest collection of games and software, particularly for Apple II, Commodore 64, and Commodore Amiga.

MAL’s growing collection of early e-literature.

Finally, the MAL has a collection of analog machines including this beautiful Califone record player from, I think, the 1960s.

“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.

MLA 2013 Special Session: Reading the Invisible and Unwanted in Old & New Media

[February 2013: I’ve posted an extended version of my MLA 2013 paper here.]

Below is the description for the MLA ’13 special session panel that Paul Benzon, Mark Sample, Zach Whalen, and I will present on in January. We’re thrilled to have the opportunity to pursue together issues related to Media Archaeology.


Media studies is growing increasingly visible within the broader disciplines of literary and cultural studies, with several critical approaches bringing valuable shape and context to the field. Prominent among these approaches is a turn away from media studies’ longstanding fixation upon the new or the innovative as the most urgent and deserving site of study. Drawing on methodologies as diverse as book history, media archaeology, and videogame studies, this work on earlier media technologies has forged provocative connections between past and present contexts that hinge upon disjuncture and nonlinearity as often as upon continuity and teleology. At the same time, an increased attention to the material particulars of inscription, storage, circulation, and reception has developed the field beyond an early focus on narrative and representation.

New media scholars now look beyond screen-based media, to a broader range of technologies and sites of inquiry. This panel seeks to consider unseen, lost, or unwanted histories of writing/media. Each of the panelists focuses on a particular technology that is not only invisible to the broad history of media technology, but also relies upon loss and invisibility for its very functionality. In keeping with this dual valence, our emphasis on loss and invisibility is intended to raise questions aimed at our specific objects of analysis, but also at the deeper historical and disciplinary questions that these objects speak to: how does our understanding of media technology change when we draw attention to objects and processes that are designed to be invisible, out of view, concealed within the machine, or otherwise beyond the realm of unaided human perception? What happens when we examine the technological, social, and ideological assumptions bound up with that invisibility? How does privileging invisibility shed new light on materiality, authorship, interface, and other central critical questions within media studies?

The vexing relationship between invisibility and transparency is addressed head-on in Lori Emerson’s paper, “Apple Macintosh and the Ideology of the User-Friendly.” Emerson suggests that the “user-friendly” graphical user interface (GUI) that was introduced via the Apple Macintosh in 1984 was–and still is–driven by an ideology that celebrates an invisible interface instead of offering users transparent access to the framing mechanisms of the interface as well as the underlying flow of information. Emerson asserts this particular philosophy of the user-friendly was a response to earlier models of home computers which were less interested in providing ready-made tools through an invisible interface and more invested in educating users and providing them with the means for tool-building. Thus, the Apple Macintosh model of the GUI is clearly related to contemporary interfaces that utterly disguise the ways in which they delimit not only our access to information but also what and how we read/write.

A desire to renew critical attention on the most taken-for-granted aspect of computer writing and reading is at the heart of Zach Whalen’s paper, “OCR and the Vestigial Aesthetics of Machine Vision.” Whalen examines the origins of the technology that allows machines to read and process alphanumeric characters. While graceful typography is said to work best when it is not noticed–in other words, when hidden in plain sight–early OCR fonts had to become less hidden in order to make their text available for machine processing. Whalen focuses on the OCR-A font and the contributions of OCR engineer Jacob Rabinow, who argued on behalf of ugly machine-readable type that (although historically and technically contingent) its intrinsically artificial geometry could become its own aesthetic signifier.

The condensation and invisibility of textual information is taken up by Paul Benzon in his paper, “Lost in Plain Sight: Microdot Technology and the Compression of Reading.” Benzon uses the analog technology of the microdot, in which an image of a standard page of text is reduced to the size of a period, as a framework to consider questions of textual and visual materiality in new media. Benzon’s discussion focuses on the work of microdot inventor Emanuel Goldberg, who in the fifties worked alongside and in competition with the engineer Vannevar Bush, a seminal figure for new media studies. Benzon transforms the disregarded history of textual storage present in Goldberg’s work into a counter-narrative to the more hegemonic ideology of hypertext that has dominated new media studies.

Turning to an entirely invisible process that we can only know by its product, Mark Sample considers the meaning of machine-generated randomness in electronic literature and videogames in his paper, “An Account of Randomness in Literary Computing.” While new media critics have looked at randomness as a narrative or literary device, Sample explores the nature of randomness at the machine level, exposing the process itself by which random numbers are generated. Sample shows how early attempts at mechanical random number generation grew out of the Cold War, and then how later writers and game designers relied on software commands like RND (in BASIC), which seemingly simplified the generation of random numbers, but which in fact were rooted in–and constrained by–the particular hardware of the machine itself.

These four papers share a common impulse, which is to imagine alternate or supplementary media histories that intervene into existing scholarly discussions. By focusing on these forgotten and unseen dimensions, we seek to complicate and enrich the ways in which literary scholars understand the role of technologies of textual production within contemporary practices of reading and writing. With timed talks of 12 minutes each, the session sets aside a considerable amount of time for discussion. This panel will build on a growing conversation among MLA members interested in theoretically inflected yet materially specific work on media technologies, and it will also appeal to a broad cross-section of the MLA membership, including textual scholars, digital humanists, literary historians, electronic literature critics, and science and technology theorists.

Recovering Paul Zelevanksy’s literary game “SWALLOWS” (Apple //e, 1985-86)

In 1986 – a year after creating a literary videogame called “SWALLOWS” for Apple //e and Apple //+ – writer Paul Zelevansky published the second volume of his by-now rare artist book trilogy THE CASE FOR THE BURIAL OF ANCESTORS: Book Two, Genealogy. Book Two is supposedly the third edition (which is also a fiction since there was only one edition) of a fictional translation of an equally fictional ancient text that is itself a translation of an oral account of the “Hegemonians” from the 12th-13th BCE that was “attributed to a score of mystics, religionists and scholars, none of whom has ever stepped forward.” (ix) The text focuses particularly on the stories of four priests, each of whom is identified throughout the book with a different typeface which Zelevansky claims makes it possible “to build a reading of the text around a typographical sequence.” (xi) Also included in Book Two is a sheet of 16 stamps – a miniature, layered collage of letters and found objects – as Zelevansky puts it in the “Preface to the Third Edition,” “each stamp has a particular part to play in the narrative. It is left to the Reader to attach them, where indicated, in the spaces provided throughout the text.” (xii) And, finally, enclosed in an envelope on the inside of the back cover, the book also comes with “SWALLOWS,” a 5.25″ floppy disk that is a videogame forming the first of three parts in the book. Programmed in Forth-79 for the Apple IIe or II+ (Forth was a popular programming language for home computers with limited memory), “SWALLOWS” was also integrated into the first section of Book Two through a short text/image version.

Since learning about Zelevansky’s work, I have been working through and writing on “SWALLOWS” as a very early, and important, instance of media poetics. And given what a remarkable work it is, and in an effort to contribute to the effort to preserve our digital past, I have made available the original file for “SWALLOWS” that you can run via an Apple // emulator. The existence of this file is entirely due to the work of Matthew Kirschenbaum and the generosity of Paul Zelevanksy. Matthew Kirschenbaum in fact recently made an argument in The Chronicle for the importance of digital preservation by detailing how he accessed “SWALLOWS” via an Apple // emulator and then provided Zelevanksy with the original .dsk file from which he then created a new version of “SWALLOWS” (with audio and video clips mixed in) called “G R E A T . B L A N K N E S S.”

Below are the directions to download the .dsk file and then run it on an emulator. Enjoy!

  1. download an Apple //e emulator. I found Virtual ][ works well.
  2. download an Apple // system ROM image. This zip file also works well.
  3. download the .dsk file for “SWALLOWS” (via Dropbox) and open the file using your Apple //e emulator

An Exhibit & Reading of E-literature at MLA 2012

I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to help organize – alongside Dene Grigar and Kathi Inman Berens – the first ever electronic literature exhibit and reading at the MLA Annual Convention in Seattle, WA January 5th through the 7th. The exhibit in particular, which is formally supported by the MLA, marks an important moment in the establishment of electronic literature – another pivotal point at which the field moves further into the center and away from the margins. I’m hoping it’s a moment marking the subtle shift from “electronic” or “digital” literature to just, well, literature.

From January 5th through the 7th at the Washington State Convention Center in Room 609, visitors will have the opportunity to view/read/interact with: e-literature from the Electronic Literature Collection Volumes One and Two; historically significant works such as those by bpNichol and those published by Eastgate; locative works such as Kate Armstrong’s “Ping;” formally experimental works such as David Jhave Johnson’s “softies;” multimodal narratives such as Christine Wilks’ “Underbelly;” literary games such as Ian Bogost’s “A Slow Year“; and mobile works such as Mark Amerika’s “Immobilité.” These are just some of many different modes of e-literature that will be on display. The complete list of works is available on the exhibit website.

Also, on Friday January 6th from 8pm to 10.30pm, there will be an MLA off-site reading of electronic literature at Richard Hugo House (1634 11th Ave  Seattle, WA 98122-2419). If you are in Seattle in early January, please make sure you stop by as it’s a rare treat indeed to have the opportunity to hear these extraordinarily innovative writers read together: Nick Montfort, Stephanie Strickland, Marjorie Luesebrink, Jim Andrews, Erin Costello and Aaron Angello, Mark Marino, Talan Memmott, John Cayley, Ian Bogost, Brian Kim Stefans, and Rob Wittig.