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versions and trying out the term “beta-phase” instead of “manuscript” as a way of naming the earlier, incomplete, and unpublished versions of “First Screening”: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.






Judy Malloy donations to the MAL’s early e-literature collection


It’s an honor indeed to announce that Judy Malloy, a true pioneer of hypertext and electronic literature broadly, has donated a set of floppies as well as documentation to the Media Archaeology Lab. To give you a sense of her contributions to the field, I’ve excerpted the following from her longer, more fascinating biography, on her website:

Her work as a pioneer on the Internet and in electronic literature began after cataloguing, designing and programming information systems in the late mid and late sixties, at the time when library information systems designers were among the first to utilize computers to access information, and futurists were envisioning their use in the humanities. She began creatively using narrative information in artists books in the late seventies and early eighties and then, with a vision of nonsequential literature, wrote and programmed Uncle Roger — one of the first (if not the first) works of hypertext literature — on Art Com Electronic Network in the Well. (1986-1988) In the following years, she created a series of innovative literary works that run on computer platforms and were published by Eastgate and on the Internet. In 1993, she was invited to Xerox PARC where she worked in CSL (Computer Science Laboratory) as the first artist in their artist-in-residence program. Judy Malloy created one of the first arts websites, Making Art Online, (1993-1994) originally commissioned in collaboration with the ANIMA site in Vancouver (CSIR/Western Front) and currently hosted on the website of the Walker Art Center. l0ve0ne, written and coded in 1994, was the first selection in the Eastgate Web Workshop. A complete collection of her papers and software is archived in the Judy Malloy Papers at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University.

Below is Malloy’s packing list of the works she has generously donated to the lab – I will soon test all the floppies and will add notes here as to their functionality. Enjoy and, as always, the MAL welcomes visiting researchers!


Disk labeled “molasses”
Malloy’s 1988 Hypercard Stack Molasses.

Judy Malloy, Molasses, Berkeley, CA, 1988. (for MacIntosh Computers HyperCard – produced at the Whole Earth Review under sponsorship of Apple Computers) – Exhibited in the traveling exhibition Art Com Software at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, NYC, NY, 1988 and other places.

Judy Malloy, its name was Penelope, 1990.
This is probably a PC disk and an interim version between the 1989 exhibition version and the more formally packaged 1991 version, which was distributed by Art Com software.

Judy Malloy, its name was Penelope. Eastgate Systems, 1993
This was Eastgate’s first version, published on disk for both Macs and PCs.  The disk is signed and actually says 1992.  This copy was my Mother’s copy which is why there is a label that says Barbara Powers in it. Note that the pages in these early editions stuck together

Judy Malloy, Wasting Time, Penelope, Uncle Roger
It looks as if all three of these works are on the disk.  It was probably a disk I used to send around the works for exhibition consideration and is probably a PC disk.  Wasting Time was published as follows: Judy Malloy, “Wasting Time”, A Narrative Data Structure”, After the Book (Perforations 3) Summer, 1992.

Judy Malloy and Cathy Marshall, Forward Anywhere  Eastgate Systems, 1996.
This is a disk version.  It was published in both Mac and PC versions, but this is probably a PC version. A second version was published with a CD

James Johnson, Second Thoughts, 1989.
Distributed by Art Com Software. He sent me a couple of copies, and I gave the other one to my archives at Duke.

Documentation  Folders

Bad Information Base #1
This is the first work of computer-mediated text that I created.  Note that it is not the Bad Information Base #2 which was created ion ACEN later in 1986. Bad Information Base #1 is documented in Judy Malloy, “OK Research/OK Genetic Engineering/Bad Information, Information Art Defines Technology”, Leonardo 21(4): 371 – 375, 1988  It is explained in the May 1986 documentation in the folder. Basically, I made the database and then sent out cards to the mail art network.  When the cards were returned, I ran a search and then sent a printout to the requester. In addition to a documentation sheet, the folder includes a blank search card, an envelope label (it was pasted on to the envelopes) a second edition envelope, a blank letterhead sheet,  and a copy of the accordion fold list of keywords that was sent along with the card. I don’t have a disk of this work available, but Duke has printouts and a notebook with copies of the completed search cards.

Uncle Roger
A documentation sheet for A Party in Woodside, 1987

This was probably included with the 1987 version of A Party in Woodside which was self published and distributed by Art Com

An instruction booklet that was included in the packaging to the Apple II version of Uncle Roger which contained all three files. This version was probably published (self published by Bad Information) in 1988 and was distributed by Art Com.

Its name was Penelope
Documentation for the exhibition version.

A flyer advertising the version for the self-published (Narrabase Press) version  that was available from Art Com.

Unassembled packing for the Narrabase Press version. The 3 pieces inside the watercolor paper folder are a cover, a back cover page and instructions. These pieces were pasted onto folder watercolor paper and a pocket that I constructed inside the folded watercolor paper contained a disk. An unassembled disk cover is also included.  The whole when assembled was enclosed in a heavy clear plastic sleeve.

This folder contains a few Xeroxes or printouts of screens from Molasses, one of which has instructions for reading the work.

Wasting Time
A documentation sheet for Wasting Time.

“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.”

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.

MLA 2012 Electronic Literature Exhibit: Impact Report

Below is the Impact Report that Dene Grigar, Kathi Inman Berens, and I put together to document all activities related to the first ever exhibit and reading of Electronic Literature at the 2012 MLA Annual Convention. This report should also prove useful to electronic literature scholars who are seeking additional support for the importance of the field as well as anyone planning a similar exhibit who needs to advocate for their work as scholarly activity. Sincere thanks to Matthew Kirschenbaum, Matthew Gold, Rosemary Feal, Brian Croxall, Ian Bogost, and Bethany Nowviskie for contributing testimonials to our final report. Finally, thank you too to Judy Malloy who kindly published our report on her website.

You may also download a pdf of the Impact Report.


Electronic Literature Exhibit Impact Report
MLA 2012, January 5-8, 2012
Curated by Dene Grigar, Lori Emerson, and Kathi Inman Berens

This report is intended to provide stakeholders involved in the Electronic Literature Exhibit, held in Seattle, WA from January 5th to 8th at the 2012 Modern Languages Association Convention with information concerning the Exhibit’s impact.  Impact, from our perspective, is tied to the overarching mission of the Exhibit, which we articulated as “to expand scholarship and creative output in the area of Electronic Literature by introducing Humanities scholars to the art form.”  In order to achieve this mission, we identified, at the outset of the development of the Exhibit, four goals.  These were to:

  • Introduce scholars to a broad cross-section of born digital literary writing, both historic and current
  • Provide scholarship and resources to scholars for the purpose of further study of Electronic Literature
  • Encourage those interested in the creative arts to produce Electronic Literature
  • Promote Electronic Literature in a manner that may encourage younger generations to engage with reading literary works

All activities relating to the Exhibit––from the inclusion of five student docents who assisted visitors at the Exhibit, to the “Readings and Performances” event on Friday night at the Hugo House, to the four-platform social media marketing plan and archival work undertaken by undergraduates in the Creative Media & Digital Culture Program, to inclusion of undergraduate works of Electronic Literature in the Exhibit,  to the ongoing web archive of the site––have been developed to help us meet these goals.

Assessment of success in attaining these goals is built on information in four areas:

  1. References to the exhibit by humanities scholars
  2. Inclusion of the web archive in scholarly databases
  3. New scholarship and creative output generating from it
  4. Physical and virtual engagement of visitors with the Exhibit and its online archive

We view this report as “preliminary” because print-based data is not yet available for inclusion. Thus, this phase of our report includes data stemming from electronic publications and media; they serve as the first step in the process of analysis and evaluation of the success of the Exhibit.  For the most part, the data covers a short period of time surrounding the Exhibit, from mid-November  2011 when the web archive was launched to mid-January 2012 after the closing of the Exhibit.

1. References to the Exhibit by Humanities Scholars
Ball, Cheryl. “Review of Profession 2011 section on ‘Evaluating Digital

Scholarship.’”  Kairos[1] 16.2. Spring 2012. Retrieved:  28 Jan. 2012.

“Digital Commons.”  NYU Department of English. Retrieved: 1

Mar. 2012.

“Editor’s Choice:  Round Up of AHA and MLA Conferences.”  Digital Humanities

Now[2]. 9 Jan. 2012. Retrieved: 28 Jan. 2012.

Jackson, Korey.  “Once More with Feeling:  How MLA Found Its Heart.”

HASTAC[3] 16 Jan. 2012. Retrieved:  28 Jan. 2012. Reprinted in Mpublishing:  U of Michigan Library. 16 Jan. 2012. Retrieved:  28 Jan. 2012.

Kinett, Dylan.  NoCategories.comThe Death of Hypertext?

Malloy, Judy.  “MLA 2012 to Feature Exhibition of Electronic Literature.”  Authoring

Software. 28 Dec. 2011. Retrieved: 28 Jan. 2012.

MLA Newsletter. V 44  Number 1. Spring 2012.

Taylor, Laurie, N., “E-Lit Exhibit at MLA; Exhibits, Peer Review, and What

Counts.” 2 Jan. 2012.  Retrieved:  28 Jan. 2012.

Image from MLA Newsletter. V 44  Number 1. Spring 2012

2. Inclusion of the Web Archive in Scholarly Databases
Electronic Literature as a Model of Creativity and Innovation in Practice (ELMCIP) Knowledge Base.[4]

Electronic Literature Organization Directory[5].

3. New Scholarship and Creative Output Generating from the Exhibit
Berens, Kathi Inman.  “Haptic Play as Narrative in Mobile Electronic Literature.” Forthcoming in ebr: electronic book review.  Spring 2012.

Grigar, Dene. Born Digital Literature: Understanding Literary Works for the Electronic

Medium.  Book Proposal.

Grigar, Dene and Kathi Inman Berens.  “Avenues of Access:  A Juried Exhibit & Online

Archives of ‘Born Digital’ Literature.”  Forthcoming at the 2013 Modern Language Association Convention. January 2013; Boston, MA.

Grigar, Dene, Lori Emerson, and Kathi Inman Berens.  “Curating Electronic Literature.”

Forthcoming in Rhizomes.  Spring 2012.

4. Physical and Virtual Engagement of Visitors with the Exhibit and Its Online Archive
Electronic Literature Exhibit at the MLA 2012.

Visits: 503; attendance at Readings and Performances event held at The Hugo House on Friday, January 6, 2012:  107.[6]

Electronic Literature (Main Archival Site).

1673 total visits from 10 Nov. 2011- 18 Jan. 2012; 1733 total visits as of 27 Jan. 2012.

Visitors to the site came from:  the US, Sweden, Canada, Spain, Norway, the UK, Italy, Albania, Australia, Denmark, Greece, Puerto Rico, France, Germany, India, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Austria, Philippines, Colombia, and Algeria.

Kathi Inman Berens’ Curatorial Statement.

539 total visits from 6 Dec. – 8 Dec. 2011 – 18 Jan. 2012

Lori Emerson’s Curatorial Statement.

388 total visits from 5 Dec. 2011-18 Jan. 2012.

“Electronic Literature Readings and Performances” Poster.

440 total visits.

Storify archive of the event.

128 from  10 Jan. 2012-28 Jan. 2012.

Facebook and Mini-Site.

145 Total Likes; 43,444 “Friends of Fans.” Friends came from US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Mexico, Singapore, Ethiopia, the UK, and The Bahamas. 12/28/11-1/16/12


72 Followers as of 27 Jan. 2012.

“Invisible Seattle Visible Again.”  Press release created by Washington State University Vancouver’s Marketing Department. 3 Jan. 2012. Retrieved:  28 Jan. 2012.  Reprinted in WSU News as “Ahead of Their Time.” 3 Jan. 2012. Retrieved: 28 Jan. 2012.  Reprinted also in WSU’s College of Liberal Arts website.

5.  Testimonials
This section gathers comments from those individuals we solicited for comments about the MLA12 Elit Exhibit.

From Matthew Kirschenbaum:
Although I was not in Seattle this year, I followed the electronic literature exhibition through Twitter, Flickr, and Facebook.  If, as William Carlos Williams once said, “no ideas but in things,” then the “things” of electronic literature are never just the pixels on the screen or even the code churning underneath. Its *things* are also its hardware and platforms: the vintage console, the floppy disk as familiar yet remote as vinyl, the conventions of an antiquarian operating system or a long retired interface. I can truthfully say that there is nothing more vital to what I have elsewhere called the .txtual condition than the kind of project championed by this group of digital archaeologists. Such attention to the minute material particulars of recovery, restoration, and curation is not only essential to the survival of electronic literature (imperiled by its native digital state) but indeed to all literary texts in a digital age.

From Matthew Gold:
The E-Lit exhibit altered the dynamics of #mla12, giving participants a reflective and absorbing space in which they could take in a variety of experiments in digital textuality. I was struck by the careful consideration that the organizers of the exhibit had put into it and by the efforts they had made to reproduce works of electronic literature in their native computing environments. Entering the exhibit, one was greeted by the enthusiastic and knowledgable staff and exhibit organizers, for whom the installation was clearly a work of scholarly passion. For me, at least, the exhibit felt like a port in a storm. It was wonderful to have this kind of space at the MLA and I strongly encourage the organization to continue to support similar efforts in the future.

From Rosemary Feal:
The MLA was pleased to host the Electronic Literature Exhibit at the 2012 MLA Convention as part of our continuing development of convention formats that allow members to present the full range of their creative, pedagogical, and scholarly activities.  The three-day exhibit gave ample opportunity for our 8,000 convention attendees to visit the exhibit and to consider the experimental reach and creative power of the 160 digital works that were showcased. By all reports, the steady stream of attendees generated a lively and ongoing discussion about the potential of new media for literary expression.  The E-Lit exhibit nicely complemented the dozens of other convention sessions that explored the impact of digital media on the humanities (click here <> for a list of these sessions) as well as the convention’s 695 other panels, roundtables, workshops, addresses, and  events. Particularly exciting is the way the reach of the exhibit was extended in time and space through an off-site live reading by some of the participating authors, an exhibit Web site, the #mla12 twitter stream, and discussion in blogs, demonstrating the growing potential of networked online environments for scholarly communication as well as artistic expression.

From Brian Croxall:
Over the last four years, I have had frequent occasion to teach electronic literature in various English classes. Repeatedly, my students have told me that they’ve never read anything like it in any of my colleagues classes. While there are many reasons for this, I believe one of them is that many literature faculty members simply have not been exposed to electronic literature. It was a great pleasure, then, to see the E-Lit Exhibit at MLA12. Each time I poked my head in the room, there were different audiences enjoying the different works that covered more than 20 years of electronic writing. Given the current interest in the digital humanities, it was important to see the history of the digital within the humanities. The Exhibit created the perfect focal point around which conversations about e-lit could continue after the several fascinating panels on the subject. The Jan. 6 reading of e-literature further encouraged participants to think of e-lit not so much as a radical Other but as one end on a spectrum of literary output that can be read and examined within the context of the MLA. I appreciate the MLA’s support of the exhibit and would encourage similar exhibits in the future. There is certainly more e-lit that could be showcased in such a manner but so too could artist’s books, to name but one example.

From Ian Bogost:
January 2012 marked the date of the first exhibit (curated by Dene Grigar, Lori Emerson, and Kathi Inman Berens) of electronic literature ever hosted by the Modern Language Association at their annual convention in Seattle, WA. Remarkably, the exhibit was visited by over 500 people and since the end of the exhibit, five humanities scholars have written about the exhibit. Digital humanities librarian Laurie Taylor has suggested that the exhibit is an example of scholarly activity (“the E-Lit Exhibit is extremely important as an exhibit/event in itself. It’s also extremely important as an example/model for future exhibits with MLA and for all who are interested in how changes in scholarly communication are affecting the humanities, how to support scholarly work outside of silos…and what counts as scholarship.”). I couldn’t agree more with this assessment. Indeed, a curated exhibit is a standard example of creative productivity in most fields in the arts, and it’s high time humanists update their standards.

As an extension of the exhibit, Lori Emerson organized a reading/performance of e-literature by authors whose work was included in the exhibit. The reading included the some of the most prominent practitioners of digital writing/art/gaming including Jim Andrews, Kate Armstrong, John Cayley, Erin Costello/Aaron Angelo, Marjorie Luesebrink, Mark Marino, Nick Montfort, Brian Kim Stefans, Stephanie Strickland, Rob Wittig, and myself. About 100 people attended this reading, which was both a fascinating display of the ways in which many of the works in the exhibit are performative in their right and an exploration of the role of the author-programmer in a live performance.

As a participant in both the exhibit and the reading, I was particularly pleased to be able to share my work with an audience that was receptive to my particular and unique brand of videogame poetry.

From Bethany Nowviskie:
I just want to share a word of thanks with you for the splendid work you [Kathi Inman Berens], Dene Grigar, and Lori Emerson did in organizing the E-Lit exhibit at MLA12. This was one of the best-arranged and most carefully thought-out exhibits I have ever seen of the kind, and visiting it was a high point of the conference for me.  I was struck especially by the careful historicizing you did in the arrangement of the stations and the interesting juxtapositions you created, between canonical and lesser-known works (many of which were entirely new to me).  The care you took with all this is evident in your three terrific curatorial statements.  The exhibit clearly struck a chord with many MLA attendees, and I sat in on at least three panels in which presenters made reference to works they had seen, or commented on the subjects of their papers in relation to the themes of the conference’s E-lit events.  I left wishing I had had more time to spend in the room — so was thrilled to discover the extensive website you put together, and know I will be referring students and Scholars’ Lab graduate fellows to your bibliographies and lists of featured works again and again.

[1] Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy began in 1996 and since that time has grown to 45,000 readers per month; additionally, it is referenced electronically (i.e. “backlinked”) by 2500 sites.

[2] DH Now has 2794 Followers on Twitter. Its site had 14,500 visits with 5000 unique visitors, and 48,000 total page views in Nov. 2011.  See

[3] HASTAC (Humanities Arts Science & Technology Advanced Collaboratory) says in its September 6, 2011 report that it has 7150 members and that its site has seen 350,000 unique visitors to its forums since 2009.  See

[4] ELMCIP is a “collaborative research project funded by Humanities in the European Research Area (HERA) JRP for Creativity and Innovation and involves seven European academic research partners and one non-academic partner.”  Its mission is to “investigate how creative communities of practitioners form within a transnational and transcultural context in a globalized and distributed communication environment. Focusing on the electronic literature community in Europe as a model of networked creativity and innovation in practice, ELMCIP is intended both to study the formation and interactions of that community and also to further electronic literature research and practice in Europe. The partners include: The University of Bergen, Norway (PL Scott Rettberg, Co-I Jill Walker Rettberg), the Edinburgh College of Art, Scotland (PI Simon Biggs, Co-I Penny Travlou), Blekinge Institute of Technology, Sweden (PI Maria Engberg, Co-I Talan Memmott), The University of Amsterdam, Netherlands (PI Yra Van Dijk), The University of Ljubljana, Slovenia (PI Janez Strechovec), The University of Jyväskylä, Finland (PI Raine Koskimaa), and University College Falmouth at Dartington, England (PI Jerome Fletcher), and New Media Scotland.”

[5] “The Electronic Literature Organization was founded in 1999 to foster and promote the reading, writing, teaching, and understanding of literature as it develops and persists in a changing digital environment. A 501c(3) non-profit organization, the ELO includes writers, artists, teachers, scholars, and developers.”

[6] It should be noted that Canada’s Poet Laureate Fred Wah, who lives in British Columbia, drove to Seattle specifically to visit the exhibit and attend the Readings and Performances associated with the exhibit.

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