Category Archives: language

he do the police in different voices

the cover of womans worldIn a sense, Graham Rawle‘s novel Woman’s World, just out in the United States from Counterpoint, is made for the internet. It’s the sort of thing that you expect to see on Digg or Reddit: artist spends several years cutting up old women’s magazines and laboriously constructs a 400-page novel out of the collaged shards of text. If the internet loves anything, it’s novelty, and Rawle’s work is certainly that. Every spread of the book is beautiful – here’s one chosen at random:

I show one spread, though I could as easily have shown 200 others. Rawle’s work is supremely visual, and invites the reader to appreciate in that way. In a sense, it puts off serious readings: it’s constructed from women’s magazines of the 1950s and 60s, which society accords little value to: magazines are ephemeral, fashion magazines inherently so. But such readings, inevitable as they may be, are unjust to Rawle’s book, which deserves to be read as a novel. While emphatically a work of print, the way Rawle uses text can shed light on the way we use text online.
What goes on in Woman’s World? Rawle’s raw materials suggest his subject matter: it’s a novel about clothes, specifically women’s clothes. It’s not a stretch to imagine that his working method suggested his plot: Rawle, a mail artist, uses women’s words to construct a book; his male protagonist garbs himself in women’s clothes. Clothes become language: Rawle stitches words and phrases together to make something new. (A parallel might be drawn to Georges Perec’s use of constraint in La Disparition/A Void, a work of art not because it does away with the letter e – that had been done before – but because Perec’s technique informs his narrative; the informed reader sees the novel’s themes of disappearance and loss as Perec’s method of indirectly writing about the disappearance of his parents in the Holocaust.)
It’s worth paying close attention to how the creator works. Rawle generally cuts on the phrase level, going down to the word level. Occasionally a suffix is added (-s, -ed). It’s only once in a great while that he edits inside the word. On p. 307 (below left), the eye is drawn to word “realising”, where the American spelling “realizing” has been changed to the British “realising” by pasting an s over a z. (From the spelling, Rawle seems to be mining British magazines, another reason for this word to stand out.) It’s hard not to take this as a sign pointing to to another narrative about transvestites where things end badly, Honoré de Balzac’s “Sarrasine”, a short story best known to English readers from its appearance as an appendix in Roland Barthes’s book-length reading of it, S/Z. In that book, Barthes dissected “Sarrasine” into 561 narrative units he called “lexias” in which he discovered five different codes underlying and structuring the text. Balzac’s story appears twice in S/Z: once interpolated with Barthes’s notations over 220 pages, and again in an appendix to the book, interpolated by the numerals numbering the lexias Barthes found in the story. Displayed on the page like this – an example is below right – “Sarrasine” feels like Frankenstein’s monster, constructed from numbered parts of language; a great-uncle, perhaps, of Rawle’s text. There’s at least a faint family resemblance:

p. 307 of womans worlda scan of p. 251 of s/z by roland barthes in the translation of richard miller
Just as Barthes finds structures by which to decipher what the reader experiences in “Sarrasine”, there can be found structures to decipher what the reader experiences when reading Woman’s World. At one level, there is the story – a sequence of words that could be put into a .TXT file and be exactly the same. At another level, there’s the presentation. This is something that’s hard to precisely pin down, but it’s best explained by pointing out the difference between reading a plain text version of Rawle’s story and the collaged version of the same. Try looking at Rawle’s p. 307 and my neutral typesetting of it (click on each for a better view):

p. 307 of womans worlda retypeset version of the same thing

Something is lost in my translation, though most don’t have the vocabulary to describe what that is. (Tom Phillips, no stranger to this sort of thing, gives the book a close reading in his Guardian review that suggests that such a thing is possible with a background in graphic design.) But try to read these two versions of the same page aloud and note the difference: the first full sentence in Rawle’s version has a front-loaded stress (“HE looked at her”) that isn’t apparent from the words alone. The same sentence feels choppy because it’s cut into individual words at first; it seems to speed up when it gets to “and just then found,” a whole phrase. An eye more attuned to the nuances of type is bound to notice more of these connotations; and certainly this seems conscious on Rawle’s part.
On a third level, there’s the apparent history of Rawle’s bits of text: its referentiality. Every letter of Rawle’s text clearly comes from somewhere else; sometimes he takes as many as several sentences. The original context isn’t always clear, though it can quite often be guessed. (Extended excerpts aren’t always needed to do this: sometimes a single decorative letter is enough to suggest that it originally served as an ad.) Rawle’s language is explicitly secondhand. In a sense, though, it’s no more secondhand than any other language. We use words and phrases because others have used those words and phrases before us (or, more pretentiously, we hope that others will use ours) and those words and phrases suggest our previous conversations, reading, and cultural contexts. Language carries its history with it.
(Perhaps I didn’t need to go to Barthes to point this out: one remembers the best moment in The Devil Wears Prada is a scene in which Meryl Streep, playing Anna Wintour, upbraids the movie’s idiotic anti-hero Anne Hathaway, for declaring that fashion is meaningless and that her constant demands are similarly petty and meaningless. Streep responds fluently in the language of fashion, spinning off a history of color, texture, and cut, proceeding from designer to designer, through connotations and denotations, until she reaches the nameless maker of Hathaway’s rather non-descript blue cardigan, which carries a world of associations even if worn by the unaware.)
Language is a complicated thing that we tend to take for granted. Looking at Rawle’s novel suggests how loaded simple text can be. It’s worth considering how comparatively limited reading on the Internet seems to be. Consider this text: I’m writing it in black 14 point Avenir Roman, though when it appears on the blog, my best guess is that you’ll see it in 13 point Verdana in a dark gray. That could be, of course, entirely wrong: the browser environment (and RSS readers) give viewers a great deal of freedom in defining how their text looks. But that’s a small point in comparison with the third code I find in Rawle, the referentiality of his pieces of text. For all the interlarding of scans in this post, it appears to be a seamless whole – you, the reader, have no reason for not thinking that I didn’t start at the first sentence and write furiously until I came to the last sentence, and I would be more than happy not to disabuse you of the notion. Had this piece been written as a Wikipedia article, you might have some notion of how this was created, though it’s still very difficult to visualize exactly where a Wikipedia article comes from: while the prose of a typical Wikipedia article is lumpy, it has nowhere near the eloquent texture of Rawle’s pages.
Could an electronic Woman’s World be made? Another parallel could be drawn, to Ted Nelson’s idea of transclusion, the concept of keeping quoted texts connected to their original sources. Transclusion was an early hypertext hope, though results so far have been generally disappointing; it’s not quite so easy as cutting and pasting, though Nelson’s appealingly low-tech diagrams might suggest this. There’s a way to go yet.

a dictionary in transition

James Gleick had a fascinating piece in the Times Sunday magazine on how the Oxford English Dictionary is reinventing itself in the digital age. The O.E.D. has always had to keep up with a rapidly evolving English language. It took over 60 years and two major supplements to arrive at a second edition in 1989, around the same time Tim Berners-Lee and others at the CERN particle physics lab in Switzerland were creating up with the world wide web. Ever since then, the O.E.D. been hard at work on a third edition but under radically different conditions. Now not only the language but the forms in which the language is transmitted are in an extreme state of flux:

In its early days, the O.E.D. found words almost exclusively in books; it was a record of the formal written language. No longer. The language upon which the lexicographers eavesdrop is larger, wilder and more amorphous; it is a great, swirling, expanding cloud of messaging and speech: newspapers, magazines, pamphlets; menus and business memos; Internet news groups and chat-room conversations; and television and radio broadcasts.

Crucial to this massive language research program is a vast alphabet soup known as the Oxford English Corpus, a growing database of more than a billion words, culled mostly from the web, which O.E.D. lexicographers analyze through various programs that compare and contrast contemporary word usages in contexts ranging from novels and academic papers to teen chat rooms and fan sites. Together this data comprises what the O.E.D. calls “the fullest, most accurate picture of the language today” (I’m curious to know how broadly they survey the world’s general adoption of English. I’m under the impression that it’s still largely an Anglo-American affair).
Marshall McLuhan famously summarized the shift from oral tradition to the written word as “an eye for an ear”: a general migration of thought and expression away from the folkloric soundscapes of tribal society toward encounters by individuals with visual symbols on a page, a movement that climaxed in the age of print, and which McLuhan saw at last reversed in the global village of electronic mass media. The curious thing that McLuhan did not live long enough to witness was the fusion of eye-ear cultures in the fast-moving textual traditions of cell phones and the Internet. Written language has acquired an immediacy and a malleability almost matching oral speech, and the effect is a disorienting blurring of boundaries where writing is almost the same as speaking, reading more like overhearing.
So what is a dictionary to do? Or be? Such fundamental change in the process of maintaining “the definitive record of the English language” must have an effect on the product. Might the third “edition” be its final never-ending one? Gleick again:

No one can say for sure whether O.E.D.3 will ever be published in paper and ink. By the point of decision, not before 20 years or so, it will have doubled in size yet again. In the meantime, it is materializing before the world’s eyes, bit by bit, online. It is a thoroughgoing revision of the entire text. Whereas the second edition just added new words and new usages to the original entries, the current project is researching and revising from scratch — preserving the history but aiming at a more coherent whole.

They’ve even experimented with bringing readers into the process, working with the BBC earlier this year to solicit public aid in locating first usages for a list of particularly hard-to-trace words. One wonders how far they’d go in this direction. It’s one thing to let people contribute at the edges — the 50 words in that list are all from the 20th century — but to open the full source code is quite another. It seems the dictionary’s challenge is to remain a sturdy ark for the English language during this period of flood, and to proceed under the assumption that we may have seen the last of the land.
(image by Kenneth Moyle)

what we talk about when we talk about books

I spent the past weekend at the Fourth International Conference on the Book, hosted by Emerson College in Boston this year. I was there for a conversation with Sven Birkerts (author of The Gutenberg Elegies) which happened to kick off the conference. The two of us had been invited to discuss the future of the book, which is a great deal to talk about in an hour. While Sven was cast as the old curmudgeon and I was the Young Turk, I’m not sure that our positions are that dissimilar. We both value books highly, though I think my definition of book is a good deal broader than his. Instead of a single future of the book, I suggested that we need to be talking about futures of the book.
This conciliatory note inadvertently described the conference as a whole, the schedule of which can be inspected here. The subjects discussed wandered all over the place, from people trying to carry out studies on how well students learned with an ebook device to a frankly reactionary presentation of book art. Bob Young of Lulu proclaimed the value of print on demand for authors; Jason Epstein proclaimed the value of print on demand for publishers. Publishers wondered whether the recent rash of falsified memoirs would hurt sales. Educators talked about the need for DRM to encrypt online texts. There was a talk on using animals to deliver books which I’m very sorry that I missed. A Derridean examination of the paratexts of Don Quixote suggested out that for Cervantes, the idea of publishing a book – as opposed to writing one – suggested death, perhaps what I’d been trying to argue last week.
Everyone involved was dealing with books in some way or another; a spectrum could be drawn from those who were talking about the physical form of the book and those who were talking about content of the book entirely removed from the physical. These are two wildly different things, which made this a disorienting conference. The cumulative effect was something like if you decided to convene a conference on people and had a session with theologians arguing about the soul in one room while in another room a bunch of body builders tried to decide who was the most attractive. Similarly, everyone at the Conference on the Book had something to do with books; however, many people weren’t speaking the same language.
This isn’t necessarily their fault. One of the most apt presentations was by Catherine Zekri of the Université de Montréal, who attempted to decipher exactly what a “book” was from usage. She noted the confusion between the object of the book and its contents, and pointed out that this confusion carried over into the electronic realm, where “ebook” can either mean a device (like the Sony Reader) or the text that’s being read on the device. A thirty-minute session wasn’t nearly long enough to suss out the differences being talked about, and I’ll be interested to read her paper when it’s finally published.
As an experiment paralleling Zekri’s, here are three objects:


There are certain similarities all of these objects share: they’re all made of paper and have a cover and pages. Some similarities are only shared by some of the objects: what’s the best way of grouping these? Three relationships seem possible. Objects 1 & 2 were bought containing text; object 3 was blank when bought, though I’ve written in it since. Objects 2 & 3 are bound by staples; object 1 is bound by glue. Objects 1 & 3 were written by a single person (Maurice Blanchot in the case of 1, myself in the case of 3); object 2 was written by a number people.
If we were to classify these objects, how would we do it? Linguistically, the decision has already been made: object 1 is a book, object 2 is a magazine, and object 3 is a notebook, which is, the Oxford English Dictionary says, “a small book with blank or ruled pages for writing notes in”. By the words we use to describe them, objects 1 & 3 are books. A magazine isn’t a book: it’s “a periodical publication containing articles by various writers” (the OED again). This is something seems intuitive: a magazine isn’t a book. It’s a magazine.
But why isn’t a magazine a book, especially if a notebook is a book? If you look again at the relationships I suggested between the three objects above, the shared attributes of the book and the magazine seem more logical and important than the attributes shared between the book and the notebook. Why don’t we think of a magazine as a book? To use the language of evolutionary biology, the word “book” seems to be a polyphyletic taxon, a group of descendants from a common ancestor that excludes other descendants from the same ancestor.
One answer might be that a single issue of a magazine isn’t complete; rather, it is part of a sequence in time, a sequence which can be called a magazine just as easily as a single issue can. I can say that I’ve read a book, which presumably means that I’ve read and understood every word in it. I can say the same thing about a particular issue of The Atlantic (“I read that magazine.”). I can’t say the same thing about the entire run of The Atlantic, which started long before I was born and continues today. A complete edition of The Atlantic might be closer to a library than a book. Or maybe the problem is time: the date on the cover foregrounds a magazine’s existence in time in a way that a book’s existence in time isn’t something we usually think about.
To expand this: I looked up these definitions in the online OED, where the dictionary exists as a database that can be queried. Is this a book? I have a single-volume OED at home with much the same content, though the online version has changed since the print edition: it points out that since 1983, the word “notebook” can also mean a portable computer. My copy of the OED at home is clearly a book; is the online edition, with its evolving content, also a book? (A stylistic question: we italicize the title of a book when we use it in text – do we italicize the title of a database?)
We’ve been calling things like Wikipedia, which goes even further than the online OED in terms of its mutability over time, a “networked book”. But even with much simpler online projects, issues arise: take Gamer Theory, for example. If much the content of what appears on the Gamer Theory website appears in Harvard University Press’s version of the book, most people would agree that the online version is a book, or a draft of one. But what are the boundaries of this kind of book? Are the comments in the website part of the book? Is the forum part of the book? Are the spam comments that we deleted from the forum part of the book? This also has something to do with Bob’s post on Monday, where he wondered how sharply defined the authorial voice of a book needs to be to make it worthwhile as a book.
What we have here is a language problem: the forms that we can create are evolving faster than our language – and possibly our understanding – can keep up with them.

subtitles and the future of reading

After enduring a weeks-long PR pummeling for its dealings in China, Google is hard at work to improve its image in the world, racking up some points for good after slipping briefly into evil. Recently they launched a website for the Google Foundation, the corporation’s philanthropic arm and central office of evil mitigation. Paying a visit to the site, the disillusioned among us will be pleased to find that the foundation is already sponsoring a handful of worthy initiatives, along with a grants program that donates free web advertising to nonprofit organizations. And just in case we were concerned that Google might not apply its techno-capitalist wizardry to altruism as zealously as to making profit, they just announced today they’ve named a new director for the foundation by the name of — no joke — Dr. Brilliant. So it seems the world is in capable hands.
One project in particular caught my eye in light of recent discussions about screen-based reading and genre-blending visions of the book. Planet Read is an organization that promotes literacy in India through Same Language Subtitling — a simple but apparently effective technique for building basic reading skills, taking popular visual entertainment like Bollywood movies and adding subtitles in English and Hindi along the bottom of the screen. A number of samples (sadly no Bollywood, just videos or photo montages set to Indian folk songs) can be found on Google Video. Here’s one that I particularly liked:

Watching the video — managing the interplay between moving text and moving pictures — I began to wonder whether there are possibly some clues to be mined here about the future of reading. Yes, Planet Read is designed first and foremost to train basic alphabetic literacy, turning a captive audience into a captive classroom. But in doing so, might it not also be nurturing another kind of literacy?
The problem with contemporary discussions about the future of the book is that they are mired — for cultural and economic reasons — in a highly inflexible conception of what a book can be. People who grew up with print tend to assume that going digital is simply a matter of switching containers (with a few enhancements thrown in the mix), failing to consider how the actual content of books might change, or how the act of reading — which increasingly takes place in a dyanamic visual context — may eventually demand a more dynamic kind of text.
Blurring the lines between text and visual media naturally makes us uneasy because it points to a future that quite literally (for us dinosaurs at least) could be unreadable. But kids growing up today, in India or here in the States, are already highly accustomed to reading in screen-based environments, and so they probably have a somewhat different idea of what reading is. For them, text is likely just one ingredient in a complex combinatory medium.
Another example: Nochnoi Dozor (translated “Night Watch”) is a film that has widely been credited as the first Russian blockbuster of the post-Soviet era — an adrenaline-pumping, special effects-infused, sci-fi vampire epic made entirely by Russians, on Russian soil and on Russian themes (it’s based on a popular trilogy of novels). When it was released about a year and a half ago it shattered domestic box office records previously held by Western hits like Titanic and Lord of the Rings. Just about a month ago, the sequel “Day Watch” shattered the records set by “Night Watch.”
nochnoi dozor.jpg
While highly derivative of western action movies, Nochnoi Dozor is moody, raucous and darkly gorgeous, giving a good, gritty feel of contemporary Moscow. Its plot grows rickety in places, and sometimes things are downright incomprehensible (even, I’m told, with fluent Russian), so I’m skeptical about its prospects on this side of the globe. But goshdarnit, Russians can’t seem to get enough of it — so in an effort to lure American audiences over to this uniquely Russian gothic thriller, start building a brand out of the projected trilogy (and presumably pave the way for the eventual crossover to Hollywood of director Timur Bekmambetov), Fox Searchlight just last week rolled the film out in the U.S. on a very limited release.
What could this possibly have to do with the future of reading? Well, naturally the film is subtitled, and we all know how subtitles are the kiss of death for a film in the U.S. market (Passion of the Christ notwithstanding). But the marketers at Fox are trying something new with Nochnoi Dozor. No, they weren’t foolish enough to dub it, which would have robbed the film of the scratchy, smoke-scarred Moscow voices that give it so much of its texture. What they’ve done is played with the subtitles themselves, making them more active and responsive to the action in the film (sounds like some Flash programmer had a field day…). Here’s a description from an article in the NY Times (unfortunately now behind pay wall):

…[the words] change color and position on the screen, simulate dripping blood, stutter in emulation of a fearful query, or dissolve into red vapor to emulate a character’s gasping breaths.

And this from Anthony Lane’s review in the latest New Yorker:

…the subtitles, for instance, are the best I have encountered. Far from palely loitering at the foot of the screen, they lurk in odd corners of the frame and, at one point, glow scarlet and then spool away, like blood in water. I trust that this will start a technical trend and that, from here on, no respectable French actress will dream of removing her clothes unless at least three lines of dialogue can be made to unwind across her midriff.

It might seem strange to think of subtitling of foreign films as a harbinger of future reading practices. But then, with the increasing popularity of Asian cinema, and continued cross-pollination between comics and film, it’s not crazy to suspect that we’ll be seeing more of this kind of textual-visual fusion in the future.
Most significant is the idea that the text can itself be an actor in a perfomance: a frontier that has only barely been explored — though typography enthusiasts will likely pillory me for saying so.

pinter and the nobel prize

pinter.jpg Twice in one year now the Swedish academy has used the Nobel Prize as a political swipe at the Bush administration, first giving the peace medal to Mohamed ElBaradei of the IAEA (a difference of opinion on disarmament, you could say), and today awarding the prize for literature to British playwright Harold Pinter, who in recent years has been a vocal critic of US and British policies, once referring to Tony Blair as a “deluded idiot.”
But recent years aside, Pinter undoubtedly deserves the prize for his life’s work in the theatre, where he developed a politics far more complex, painful and profound than what is on display in his latter-day fumings (generally right though they may be) about American empire.
In college I acted in one of Pinter’s later plays, Ashes to Ashes (1996), a mysterious single act about a marriage in crisis, and a good example of the kind of frightening moral puzzle, encompassing the personal and the political, that Pinter excelled at creating. In a comfortable English living room, in a comfortable English university town, a woman seems to psychically rupture before her husband’s eyes, traumatized by events she relates only in part, and which she could not possibly have been alive to experience.
She confesses to having had an affair with the warden of a Nazi death camp, and having lived with him there. She describes the horror of the place, obscenely channeling the Holocaust as a sort of sexual taunt toward her mystified husband, but at the same time communicating her distress at the slow suffocation of their marriage. It is a sickening game, but one they must play in order to cut to the heart of their relationship. Ashes to Ashes is a domestic play, but somehow the entire century speaks through it.
On a more general note, it’s encouraging to see a dramatist get recognized on this scale, a statement about the continued relevance, at least in concept, of the theatre — an unmediated medium in a thoroughly mediated age. It also says something about language. Pinter, whose bleak but darkly humorous sensibilities were formed in bombed-out, post-WWII England, uses language sparely and with scalpel-like precision. Playwright David Hare said of him:

“Pinter did what Auden said a poet should do. He cleaned the gutters of the English language, so that it ever afterwards flowed more easily and more cleanly.”

His plays have the ominousness of still water, the words like stones breaking the surface. You have to read and feel the ripples. In an age where mass media, and now the internet, have devalued words, Pinter found a way to make them startling again. He also understands the power of silence.
Elevating Pinter as international spokesman for the left, the Swedes missed the point. His recent protests haven’t been terribly interesting or original. But in missing, they still struck gold. All this media attention cannot really convey the power of his plays. Hopefully, this will lead to a reinvigorated interest in producing them. They still speak vitally to our times.

ron silliman: “the chinese notebook”

5. Language is, first of all, a political question.

The cover of Ron Silliman's _The Chinese Notebook_Like the problem of hunger in the world, the problem with publishing in the United States isn’t one of supply but one of distribution.

What’s worried me lately: that I go to airport bookshops and always see the same books. Because I live in New York, I can go to any number of specialized bookshops & find just about anything I want. The same is not true in many other parts of the country; the same is certainly not true in many other parts of the world. What worries me about airport bookshops is how few books they carry: how narrow a range of ideas is presented. May God help you if you’d like to buy anything other than Dan Brown in the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport. This is an exaggeration, but not by much. James Patterson is also available, as are the collected works of J. K. Rowling, and, for a limited time, those of J. R. R. Tolkien.

Into this emptiness is paraded the miracle of electronic publishing. As pushed by Jason Epstein, amongst others, the idea of print-on-demand will solve the question of supply forever more – you could go to a bookstore, request a book, and Barnes & Noble would print it out for you. (Let’s not think about copyright for the moment.) Jason Epstein believes these machines will be small enough to fit into an airport bookstore. This hasn’t happened yet, and I’m doubtful that it will any time soon, if at all. Booksellers have the supply & distribution issue down cold for Brown & Patterson & J. K. Rowling – they have no incentive to invest in these machines. When was the last time you, member of the reading public, went to complain to Barnes & Noble about their selection?

Until this marvelous future creates itself out of publishers’ good will towards humanity, people are presenting texts online, with varying degrees of success. If you have a laptop in the MSP airport (& a credit card to pay for wireless internet there), or, for that matter, any computer connected to the internet, you can go to and browse their archive of documents of the avant-garde. Among the treasures are /ubu editions, an imprint that electronically reprints various texts as PDFs. They’re free. I have a copy of Ron Silliman’s The Chinese Notebook, a reprint of a 26-page poem which originally appeared in The Age of Huts. Ubu reprinted it (and the other two parts of The Age of Huts) with Silliman’s permission.

6. I wrote this sentence with a ballpoint pen. If I had used another, would it be a different sentence?

/Ubu editions (edited by Brian Kim Stefans) aren’t really electronic books, and don’t conceive of themselves as such. Rather, they are a way of electronically distributing a book. This PDF is 8.5” x 11”. While you can read it from a screen – I did – it’s meant to be printed out at home & read on paper. That said, this isn’t a quick and dirty presentation. Somebody (a mysterious “Goldsmith”) has gone to the trouble of making it an attractive object. It has a title page with attractive, interesting, and appropriate art (an interactive study by Mel Bochner from Aspen issue 5–6; graciously hosts this online as well). There’s a copyright page that explains the previous. There’s even a half title page – somebody clearly knows something about book design. (How useful a half title page is in a book that’s meant to be printed out I’m not sure. It’s a pretty half title page, but it’s using another piece of your paper to print itself.) There’s also a final page, rounding off the total to 30 pages; if you print this off double-sided, you’ll have your very own beautiful stack of paper.

(Which is better than nothing.)

8. This is not speech. I wrote it.

Silliman’s text is (as these quotes might suggest) a list of 223 numbered thoughts about poetry and writing that forms a (self-contained) poem in prose. It is explicitly concerned with the form of language.

Karl Marx anticipating Walter J. Ong: “Is the Iliad possible when the printing press, and even printing machines, exist? Is it not inevitable that with the emergence of the press, the singing and the telling and the muse cease; that is, that the conditions necessary for epic poetry disappear?” (The German Ideology, p. 150; quoted in Neil Postman’s A Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future).

17. Everything here tends away from an aesthetic decision, which, in itself, is one.

Silliman’s text is nicely set – not beautifully, but well enough, using Baskerville. Baskerville is a neoclassical typeface, cool and rational, a product of the 18th century. Did Silliman think about this? Was the designer thinking about this? Is this how his book looked in print? in the eponymous Chinese notebook in which he wrote it? I don’t know, although my recognition of the connotations of the type inflects itself on my reading of Silliman’s poem.

21. Poem in a notebook, manuscript, magazine, book, reprinted in an anthology. Scripts and contexts differ. How could it be the same poem?

Would Silliman’s poem be the same poem if it were presented as, say, HTML? Could it be presented as HTML? This section of The Age of Huts is prose and could be without too many changes; other sections are more dependent on lines and spacing. Once a poem is in a PDF (or on a printed page), it is frozen, like a bug in amber; in HTML, type wiggles around at the viewer’s convenience. (I speak of the horrors HTML can wreak on poetry from some experience: in the evenings, I set non-English poems (in print, for the most part) for Circumference.)

47. Have we come so very far since Sterne or Pope?

Neil Postman, in his book, wonders about the same thing, answers “no”, and explains that in fact we’ve gone backwards. Disappointingly, there’s little reference to Sterne in Postman’s book, although he does point out that Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield was more widely read in the eighteenth century: possibly the literary public has never cared for the challenging.

Project Gutenberg happily presents their version of Tristram Shandy online in a plain text version: at certain points, the reader sees “(two marble plates)” or “(two lines of Greek)” and is left to wonder how much the text has changed between the page and the screen. Sterne’s novel, like Pope’s poetry, is agreeably self-aware: how Sterne would have laughed at “(page numbering skips ten pages)” in an edition without page numbers. There are a few lapses in’s presentation of Silliman, but they’re comparably minor: some of the entries in Silliman’s list aren’t separated by a blank space, leading one to suspect the pagination was thrown out of whack in Quark. When something’s free . . .

53. Is the possibility of publishing this work automatically a part of the writing? Does it alter decisions in the work? Could I have written that if it did not?

A writer writes to communicate with a reader unknown. Publishers publish to make money. These statements are not always true – there’s no shortage of craven writers if there’s a sad dearth of virtuous publishers – but they can be taken as general rules of thumb. Where does electronic publishing fit into this set of equations? Certainly when Silliman was writing this twenty years ago he wasn’t thinking seriously about distributing his work over the Internet.

(Silliman has, for what it’s worth, an excellent blog, suggesting that had the possiblity been around twenty years ago, he would have been thinking about it.)

56. As economic conditions worsen, printing becomes prohibitive. Writers posit less emphasis on the page or book.

Why does’s reprinting of Ron Silliman’s poetry seem more interesting to me than what Project Gutenberg is doing? Even the cheapest edition of Tristram Shandy that I can buy looks better than what they put out. (Ashamed of their text edition, one supposes, they’ve put out an HTML version of the book, which is an improvement, but not enough of one that I’d consider reading it for six hundred pages.) More to the point: it’s not that hard to find a copy of Tristram Shandy. You can even find one in one of the better airport bookstores. It’s out of copyright and any would-be publisher who wants to can print their own version of it without bothering with paying for rights.

I could not, alas, go to a bookstore and buy myself a copy of The Age of Huts because it’s been out of print for years. Thanks a lot, publishing. Good work. I could go to and buy a “used/collectible” copy for $113.20 – but precisely none of that money would go to Ron Silliman. But I don’t want a collectible copy: I’m interested in reading Silliman, not hoarding him. (Perhaps I start to contradict myself here.)

223. This is it.

But there are still questions. How do we ascribe value to a piece of art in a market economy? Are Plato’s ideas less valuable than those of Malcolm Gladwell because you can easily pick up the collected works of the first for less than 10% of what the two books of the second would cost you? when you can download old English translations for free on the Internet?

How valuable is a free poem on the Internet? How much more valuable is an attractive edition of a free poem on the Internet? even if you have to print it out to read it?

Why aren’t more people doing this?

i want to be a machine

10036AW~Four-Blue-Andys.jpg In 1963, long before computers became part of our consciousness, before Kasparov lost to Deep Blue, before HAL took over the spaceship, Andy Warhol said, “I want to be a machine.” Andy knew that machines were things to be feared, worshiped, admired and, therefore, emulated. His artwork was about people and ideas that were, more or less, generated by the machine: the media machine, the political machine, the printing press and the television, all cranking out iconic images that were powerful, not because they were complex, nuanced, interesting or even beautiful, but because they were relentless. Warhol’s brilliance was in recognizing how deep the machine metaphor had embedded itself into our personal ambitions and our collective self-image.
Fantasies about being machine-like, however, are not unique to the quirky imaginations of artists. Warhol would have been in good company with cognitive scientists who, for many years, have theorized that our brain works like a computer. This theory/myth is currently being debunked by a new Cornell study.

The theory that the mind works like a computer, in a series of distinct stages, was an important steppingstone in cognitive science, but it has outlived its usefulness, concludes a new Cornell University study. Instead, the mind should be thought of more as working the way biological organisms do: as a dynamic continuum, cascading through shades of grey.

Our mind works like a biological organism? Complex, untamed, “cascading through shades of grey,” oh my. Does that mean there are no definitive answers, only networks of possibility, spectrums of grey? If Andy were around today, he might have something to say about this revelatory denial of black and white thinking in an age of increasing fundementalism and exponential growth in media outlets. But we can only imagine the artwork he would have made.