Let it write: Contemporary Literature and the Fear of the Digital

  • Hannes Bajohr
  • ·
  • 2014-11-24

(This text was written in German before 0x0a came into being. A shorter version appeared in the journal Merkur (June 2014), and a longer one, from which the below translation was made, on my website hannesbajohr.de. The text was mainly geared toward a German, non-tech audience unfamiliar with conceptual writing. I put it online because it is part of the immediate pre-history of 0x0a, and one of the motivations for it. — I owe special thanks to Julia Pelta Feldman for her thoughtful editing.)

In the 1960s, Ian Sommerville wrote an extremely simple program on a Honeywell 200/120 computer. The input was a string (“sentence”) whose n elements (“words”) were separated by spaces. These elements were rearranged according to all possible combinations, and all permutations (“lines”) returned on a monitor as a text block (“poem”). A “sentence” made up of “words” thus yields a “poem” consisting of n! “lines.” If n=5, this equals 5×4×3×2×1=120. The input “I AM THAT I AM” produces:


And so on, until line 120. This input sentence was by artist and poet Brion Gysin, who commissioned Sommerville to write the little program.[1] His stated intention: To refrain from adding any external meaning to the result – the permutated text was supposed to disclose its sense on its own.

It was not the first time that Gysin and Sommerville had worked together. As a team, they had invented the Dreamachine, little more than a perforated lamp shade rotating on a record player. It was meant to simulate the stroboscopic effect that a sleepy front-seat passenger sees through closed lids, eyes turned against treetops zooming by against the sun. Sommerville and Gysin hoped that this artificially induced flicker might influence the brain waves of its users and catapult them into new states of consciousness.

Gysin was no cool technicist and not averse to searching for meaning. In his initially sterile seeming permutation poems lives a similar mysticism. The first sentence processed by the program was, of all things, the divine tautology “I am that I am,” the revelation of the name of God to Moses in the Tanach. (Gysin, however, did not find them in the Old Testament but in Aldous Huxley’s mescaline vademecum The Doors of Perception.) The algorithm becomes a generator of meaning, casting the divinely revealed into numinous self-doubt: “Am I that I am?”

These two poles – cold combinatorics and disclosure of meaning – are also at play in the “discovery” that secured Gysin’s fame: the technique of the cut-up. He took scissors to existing texts – such as newspaper columns, book pages, or leaflets – and rearranged the pieces randomly to create a new work. By asserting that “Writing is fifty years behind painting,”[2] he linked his enterprise to the collage experiments of the pre-war avant-gardes, Cubism and Dada, and suggested that literature had a great deal of catching up to do. Gysin’s friend William S. Burroughs used the cut-up technique to startling effect in his schizo-novel Naked Lunch, and in his chopping up and reassembling, too, meaning could come to light in radiant suddenness.

Of course, all of this bore some similarity to the textual experiments Tristan Tzara conducted in 1920, when he improvised Dada poems with word scraps drawn from a hat. Tzara, whom Gysin met in the fifties from time to time in Paris, indeed complained to his younger friend that literature had not produced anything new since Dada.[3] He was wrong. But not in overlooking Gysin’s cut-up, which indeed worked much like Tzara’s hat. What was truly new was Gysin’s digital poetry.

For Gysin’s permutation poems were not simply a modernized form of textual collage. Wherever a field is touched by the digital, a profound change occurs: Gysin replaced chopping up material with an algorithm that needs no analog carrier medium. With Sommerville’s help, he created something entirely new: Digital Literature. His permutation poem is a poem that is not a thing anymore, be it one made of ink and paper or a finished work of literature. It is an Unding, a non-thing, consisting of the flickering impulses of electrons, an Unwerk, a non-work that can always be permutated and processed further, because it will never congeal into a final state but stays fluid. What Gysin saw was the dematerialization of text; he sensed the liquid actuality of our digital world.

The liquefaction of a formerly concrete and material reality belongs to the most obvious changes of the present. Just as we write texts on a computer, read them on tablets, and edit them in the cloud, without letting them solidify as ink on paper, we also rely, when we find ourselves in a strange place, on our smartphones’ GPS function, instead of muddling through patent-folded city maps. One finds the disengagement from materiality no less in the centers of materialism, where stock exchanges employ high frequency trading, than in everyday consumer behavior, of which marketing sociologist Russell Belk wrote recently that material goods, an essential part of the “extended self” thirty years ago, today define the consumer ego less and less.[4] Finally, the storage capacities of digital data carriers now extend virtually to infinity; because everything can be stored, everything is stored, and alongside new forms of knowledge new forms of surveillance and control emerge. With all this total recall, the past has, in our present, become itself a thing of the past.

Maybe this is why our reaction to the Unding of the Digital is often a feeling of discontent, which takes resort in a nostalgic refusal, as testified by the increasing ennoblement of the thing in art, theory, and everyday life. The rise of thing and materiality theories would then be the academic equivalent to the auratization of the handcrafted and artisanal – the kind of retro tweed-and-embossed-cowhide semiotics that rose to the epitome of futurist style in the 2013 film Her, which seems so plausible precisely because it announces the longing for tangible substance so obviously.

This is only one incarnation of the fear of the Digital, and it might simply be the signature of a transitory period in which the old is still too present and the new not self-evident enough, so that the tension between them generates displacement activities. Art historian Claire Bishop accordingly decried in Art Forum[5] that today visual artists use digital technologies all the time and as a matter of course, but obfuscate this fact by either fetishizing the analog (like Cyprien Gaillard, who transfers movies taken with his cell phone camera onto large-format film and shows them on authentically whirring projectors), by only superficially appropriating the insignia of Internet culture (like Dina Kelberman, who assembles animated gifs into online collages), or who don’t even begin to confront the question of “what it means to think, see, and filter affect through the digital.”

What Bishop calls “the Digital” is a new epistemic mode that not only changes our dealings with but also our access to the world. As vague as the concept might be, what is at least plausible is that with the Internet, erudition can no longer be the sufficient attribute of the scholar, and that after Google Maps, Benjamin’s Flâneur, skilled at getting lost in the metropolis, is already a highly artificial character.

According to Bishop, the visual arts have, with few exceptions, largely evaded the task of elucidating the Digital. And literature? Here, too, fear of the digital looms large, especially in Germany. Take Reinhard Jirgl, who began as an avant-gardist outsider and ended up a national book award laureate, and who cannot easily be charged with formal conservatism. He recently emoted in the high-brow Neue Rundschau about an “electronic hubris” he claims to sense everywhere.[6] Those talking about the disappearance of the book or the author-genius, or who attribute to the Internet more than just practical use, were simply “protagonists of their own cause,” anxious about their market value. And anyway, this Internet is, in the end, nothing but a better railway, simply a narrative prop for literature: “How, in the past, have serious technological-scientific innovations – telephone, theory of relativity, nuclear fission, automobile, radio, television, aeroplanes, space shuttles, etc. – influenced literature? Literatures appropriated them as their themes. No more, no less.” The same would happen in the case of the Internet and the Digital: “A unique and new quality regarding literature is nothing I expect of these media.”

Of course, it would be a waste of time to refer in detail to the many studies that show how developments in technology and science have influenced much more than the content of literature – beginning with cinematic narration down to the theory of thermodynamics’s influence on the character constellations in Proust’s Recherche. Behind Jirgl’s invectives stands the idea of literature as a perennial substance, which gazes loftily down at the new without ever being touched by it. Jirgl even attributes to literature the task of “sensualizing conscious human experience.” That the digital radically alters precisely this experience makes his diatribe even more irritating.

Maybe one should not be too hard on Jirgl, for it already is anomalous to find any mention of the digital in German literary discourse at all. The last great German literary “debate” revolved around an alleged poverty of experience among young, mostly middle class authors. Yet two aspects of that discussion are particularly relevant to this one. First, literature is exclusively equated with prose – even more narrowly, the novel. But the novel, mastodon of the nineteenth century, might be the wrong genre for approaching the digital altogether. Secondly, the concept of experience used in this debate is stunningly narrow. For it mostly presupposes something like a reporter’s perspective: I was there and can tell about it. But the legitimacy of this hypersubjectivity is challenged by the fluidity of identity that the Internet promotes. Small wonder, then, that that the agents of this debate ended up questioning each other’s right to speak, on the grounds that their opponents could not prove sufficient authenticity.

This ballyhooed formula of flaunting one’s experience through grand narration is itself outmoded. It is more effective as personality marketing than as an illuminating account of the present, for often this “experience” is itself a construction that is forced to follow stereotypical constants in order to read as authentic (and to be marketable). Gysin again is an example: He lived in far-away Morocco and pumped himself up with psychedelic drugs, and was thus theoretically prepared for hyperauthenticity, but his poetry staunchly refuses to bear witness to “experience.” And yet, as poetry that is digital, it is more firmly anchored in the present than all the censured graduates of writing schools and the praised real-world novelists.

That the Digital does not play much of a role in German literature is partly due to the way people speak about it. The critical apparatus for analyzing Digital Literature is almost overequipped, not least because of the spadework of American scholars like Katherine N. Hayles and Marjorie Perloff, or German critics like Peter Gendolla and Stephan Porombka. But its application is generally limited to a set of early canonized works which are interpreted again and again (which is why the first hypertextual narrative, Afternoon, a Story (1987) by Michael Joyce, is required quoting for every essay on electronic literature).

Some analyses do deal with more recent work, but it is difficult to find substantial criticism of any digital literature written in the past ten years. This might be due to the normal latency of literary scholarship, but it renders a false impression of the state of the art. In particular, early hypertext fiction and the accolades devoted to it, paeans to non-linear narration and texts without center, seem today, as enthralled documents of a future past, almost touching in their enthusiasm. Not only because, in these kinds of literatures, the interconnectedness characteristic of cherished postmodern concepts (rhizome!) was more looked for than found, but also because even these new literatures hewed to the model of the novel and were thus at the mercy of all the claims and criticism made for and against it.

Whoever confronts the Digital today does so, following Gysin, in the open field of experimental poetry, which often transgresses into the field of the visual arts rather than opting to propagate the Grand Narration. The spectrum is wide, spanning from flarf poetry, which generates poems from Google searches, to experiments in combinatorics like Stephen McLaughlin’s Puniverse, a formidable cross between dictionaries of idioms and rhymes that fills fifty seven volumes of computer generated puns, to Douglas Coupland’s QR-Codes painted in acrylic that, when photographed with a cell phone camera, reveal short texts.

Little of this sort of thing has been attempted in Germany. Porombka, who in 2001 bade farewell to the Hypertext as “digital myth”[7] and is today mostly concerned with the social aspect of producing texts on the Internet, with Twitter and Facebook as literary playing fields. Two years ago, he edited the anthology Flarf Berlin, which was supposed to import flarf into Germany. Very few of the authors invited to experiment, with the possible exception of Alexander Gumz or Jan Skudlarek, have followed this impulse in their own writing.

There are other forays – like Gregor Weichbrodt’s 2014 On the Road, for which the author input the waypoints mentioned in Kerouac’s novel into Google Maps and published the resulting list of directions as an epopee, creating a hyper-exact meta narrative – but all of these attempts are, seen on the whole, such exceptions that it is impossible to deduce a “current” that has any of influence to speak of in Germany. And even despite promisingly-named symposia like “Netzkultur” or “Literatur Digital,” German literary practice is overwhelmingly ignorant of the Digital.

However, it is possible that flarf and similar experiments, which adduce the Internet for textual production – like twit lit, which uses Twitter as a literary operating field – still seem overly literal in their approaches, which makes it easy to ignore them. They only skim the surface of the Internet, without daring to dive into the shoals of the Digital. The Internet is also Google, it is also the cacophony of social media, but this does not at all exhaust the Digital. Just as contemporary art draws a distinction between net art and digital art, one would be well advised to set apart net literature from digital literature. One is made up of snapshots of a cultural, linguistic and technological moment that changes at the speed with which memes and platforms emerge and disappear; the other comprises attempts to portray the organization of affects and the perception of the world through the Digital itself.

Right now, further experiments in net and digital literature are needed much more than Great Messy Experiences to serve as authentic reports. Authenticity presupposes a single coherent identity, which is an idea of little relevance to the Digital. Already in 1960, Gysin called the result of his algorithm a “120 line poem without an author.”[8] In the end, no one knows exactly who writes the poem: Gysin, the programmer Sommerville, or, also possible, the Honeywell computer – which is less absurd than placing your bet on Tzara’s hat.

The world seen through the Digital offers a new view and a great promise: Nothing is thing anymore, everything text. Images, sounds, films are text. Even text is text. The word “word” is, on a deeper lever, in hexadecimals, encoded as “77 6f 72 64” and, still below, as “01010111 01101111 01110010 01100100” in binary. On these fundamental levels, a photo of Reinhard Jirgl and one of his texts look much the same. It is only the rule for reading, the codec, that determines what will become of the most basic of all texts. Sommerville/Gysin’s “poem” with its 120 “lines” could also have been a melody. This dimension of transcoding – reading an mp3 as a jpeg, for example – could, with Katherine N. Hayles, be seen as the “flickering signifier,”[9] always referring to different levels of encoding. In the Digital, this allows for transitions from one format into the other – as if one could read not only the characters of a book, but also its paper, glue, and binding threads. Transcoding is at least one central dispositive of the Digital.

Because everything fluctuates in the Digital, it is impossible to begin from zero. Instead, and truly only today, everything is free to be processed, parsed, and transcoded further and further. What Hans Blumenberg wrote about Paul Valéry’s poetics has become literally true: that “the ‘completion’ of a work in its thingness is only an arbitrary caesura, and that the work, having stepped out of the process of its becoming, immediately enters into a new process.”[10] This caesura of thingness is skipped in the Unding. The Digital dispenses with the need for arbitrarily arresting and materializing this endlessly flowing process in, say, what we usually call a ‘book.’ The Digital means never having to end, always being able to proceed further.

Where everything is text, there is no work anymore, only what is known in German as Halbzeug, “half-stuff,” that semi-finished product between raw material and completed fabrication, which is neither absolutely unhewn nor definitively finalized. And because it is at the same time both readable code and executable program, the Digital also houses the instruments necessary for its own processing. Thus, the arsenal of a true contemporary literature needs to include especially those programs, models, and functions that start at the lowest level of the Digital, conduct datamoshing and intervene in the digital Urtext. And this necessarily leads to the techniques of aleatorics, iteration, and combinatorics – those games so beloved by the Dadists and Surrealists, to which Gysin had recourse as well, and to which the second generation of digital authors returns today.

Jessica Pressman, herself a pupil of Hayles, has examined this phenomenon: If the first generation had, striving for the absolutely new, devoted itself to the hypertext enthusiasm of the nineties, the second generation, taking stock, invokes the classical avant-gardes of the twenties, sixties Conceptualism, Situationism, concrete poetry, and Oulipo – and, on the whole, tries to implement the 20th century’s poetics by the means of the 21st.

What Pressmann calls “digital modernism,”[11] the blending of new media and old avant-garde approaches, shows itself best in a current of literature that, at first glance, has little to do with the Digital: conceptual writing, whose most audible voice is Kenneth Goldsmith’s.[12] His own production is not born digital; he pursues a literary appropriationism he calls “uncreative writing,” typing up, for instance, a whole issue of the New York Times for his book Day. But because he sees himself less as an author and more as a textual manager, who merely rearranges existing texts rather than writing new ones, the Digital is for him the greatest of all arsenals and conceptual writing the purest form of Halbzeug rotation.

In his poetological manifesto Uncreative Writing, Goldsmith devotes page after page to praising those second generation authors, who appropriate, conceptualize, and, above all, program and script to make new text out of old. They build “writing machines” by submitting themselves to self-selected procedures and algorithms that, once set into operation, they do not control anymore, and whose results can be reprocessed again and again. Their tools are often digital, but much more importantly, so is their perspective on the world, which shines through their texts. If we are searching for a literature that lives and breathes the Digital: this is it.

But that’s not the end of the story. Goldsmith, the flarfers, and the digital conceptualist writers are united in the hope of annihilating the myth of the author-genius once and for all, and even further, to let literature simply transpire without human influence. Just as Vilém Flusser spoke of the fifth cultural leap as the time of the “techno-image” – the image that does not refer to reality anymore as its meaningful representation but is brought about by apparatuses alone – one could speak of the extremes of such a literature of techno-texts, if for their production the human agent has been reduced to such a degree that his influence, compared to that of textual machines and writing algorithms, converges towards zero. And yet, in all these examples, it is only the production that is delegated technologically. Already in 2001, Canadian poet Christian Bök pondered a “robopoetics,” which relinquishes not only the production but also the reception of literature to the algorithms, a “poetry for inhuman readers, who do not yet exist, because such aliens, clones, or robots have not yet evolved to read it.”[13]

With posthumanism, object oriented ontologies and speculative realism on the rise, such fantasies are plausible at least as limit-concepts. The goal that is formulated in these currents – to undermine the anthropocentrism of all man-made ontologies with the democracy of things – is analogous to the hope to cross out author and reader from literature in the Digital completely. It is quite possible that the idea of “the Digital,” thought through to the end, makes do without humans whatsover, or so alloys human and Digital that the difference becomes meaningless or impossible to decipher. Until then, however, the old category of “meaning,” as the criterion of aesthetic judgment, still marks the intransgressable border of posthumanism.

Gysin, too, the grandfather of this tendency, was a digital romantic hoping for mystic meaning,[14] and even Goldsmith admits that the unoriginal genius he pretends to be is but a fiction: “I agree that the moment we throw judgment and quality out the window, we’re in trouble.” Creativity, thus the message, breaks through even for the willfully uncreative; one cannot not create, for even the textual manager must still choose and throw away. In conceptual writing, the auctorial act has not disappeared, but is simply shifted from the execution of a program of production to its termination.

To say “stop”: This might be the minimum quantity of author that just can’t be killed. This, too, is a lesson of the old avant-gardes: some of the most interesting moments in Cage’s music and Perec’s literature are those in which they deviate from their self-imposed rules. And when Gysin republished his poems 13 years after its inception, the mathematically prescribed 120 lines had proliferated into 601 – following no rule, except the aesthetics of the text and the rhythm of the lines.

Since we aren’t fully cyborgs yet, keeping the human element of error might be the best way for literature to articulate – even preliminarily – our experience of the Digital. In all that, it does not matter too much that no one knows exactly how to achieve this as long as we at least try. Returning to the achievements of the past with the arsenal of the present is one way, as demonstrated by Pressman’s “digital modernism.” Much more damaging to literature than the alleged incapacity for experience is the reluctance to experiment.

That reluctance recalls a notion Friedrich Kittler once articulated: that a text is like a Molotov cocktail – you have to throw it.[15] This implies two things: that is not yet a full-fledged bomb, but rather a guerrilla instrument; and that the text is not known until it has been thrown, that we cannot simply hand it out, but must hurl it. The goal is almost secondary, as long as it is the world – which today is: digital.


ADDENDUM: ‘digital/the Digital’

It has been claimed that ‘Digital Literature’ is an oxymoron because “every literature that is notated alphabetically and that is not founded on analog parameters like [graphetic] characters or [auditive] phoneticality is already digital, that is, stored in discrete characters.”[16] As formally correct this might be, this insistence ignores the difference between conceptual exactitude of a terminus technicus and its legitimate use as a trope. That Bishop’s neologism “the Digital,” which takes its clue from the somewhat hackneyed language of the ontic-ontological difference, already hypostasizes the metaphorical and synecdochic character of the adjective ‘digital,’ only makes it wrong for those who think that it makes no sense to speak of an epoch of digitization and its episteme. In this respect, the use of “the Digital” might as well be called a reterminologization of the metaphorization of a concept; that “digital” in this context means much more than merely “discrete,” is self-evident. But to insist obstinately on its basic meaning would be to deprive oneself of a heuristically fruitful dimension: The Digital means something that exceeds the discrete; that we do not know yet what it is neither devalues the concept nor obviates its origin.

[1] Laura Hoptman, ed., Brion Gysin: Dream Machine (New York; Merrell, 2010), 79.

[2] Brion Gysin, “Cut-Ups Self-Explained.” In: Jan Herman, ed., Let The Mice In: With Texts by William S. Burroughs and Ian Sommerville (West Glover: Something Else Press, 1973), 11

[3] “Tristan Tzara and I used to bump into one another sometimes in the late 50’s around about midnight, for a standup steak and a beer at the circular zinc counter of the old Royal Saint Germain, now transmogrified into the monstrous Le Drugstore, where no poets meet who can help it. Every time we met, Tzara would whine, ‘Would you be kind enough to tell me just why your young friends insist on going back over the ground we covered in 1920?’ What could I say, except, ‘Perhaps they feel you did not cover it thoroughly enough.’ Tzara snorted: ‘We did it all! Nothing has advanced since Dada – how could it! […] I created poems in the air when I tore up a dictionary to pull the words out of a had and scatter them like confetti – and all that was way back in 1920.’” “Interview with Brion Gysin.” In: Nicholas Zurbrugg, ed., Art, Performance, Media. 31 Interviews (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2004), 190.

[4] Russell W. Belk, “Extended Self in a Digital World.” In: Journal of Consumer Research, Oct 2013, doi:10.1086/671052

[5] Claire Bishop, “Digital Divide: Contemporary Art and New Media.” In: Art Forum, Sept. 2012.

[6] Reinhard Jirgl, “Im Stein jeder Gegenwart liegt die Skulptur der Zukunft.” In: Neue Rundschau, No. 1, 2014 (Manifeste für eine Literatur der Zukunft).

[7] Stephan Porombka, Hypertext: Zur Kritik des digitalen Mythos (Munich: Fink, 2001).

[8] William S. Burroughs/Brion Gysin, The Third Mind (New York: Viking, 1978), 9.

[9] Katherine N. Hayles, “Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers.” In: How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 25.

[10] Hans Blumenberg, “Sokrates und das ‘objet ambigu’: Paul Valérys Auseinandersetzung mit der Tradition der Ontologie des ästhetischen Gegenstands.” In: Ästhetische und metaphorologische Schriften, (Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 2001), 83.

[11] Jessica Pressman, Digital Modernism: Making it New in New Media (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[12] Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

[13] Christian Bök, “The Piecemeal Bard Is Deconstructed. Notes toward a Potential Robopoetics.”

[14] However, Gysin followed a negative anthropology that was looking for divine rather than human meaning – if not a Christian one: “I am a monumental misanthropist. Man is a bad animal, maybe the only bad animal. […] No one but man threatens the survival of the planet. Space Man may well blow up planet Earth behind him. When ya gotta go. […] Now we know what we are here for. We are not here to love, fear, and serve any old bearded but invisible thunder god. We are here to go.” Brion Gysin/Terry Wilson, Here to Go: Planet R-101 (San Francisco: Quartet Books, 1982), xiv-xv.

[15] This anecdote was passed down orally by Avital Ronell; it goes back to Foucault who wanted his books to be fire bombs. That Mao even spoke of them as atomic bombs suggests a whole metaphorology of the text as weapon.

[16] Florian Cramer, Exe.cut[up]able statements. Poetische Kalküle und Phantasmen des selbstausführenden Texts (2007), 9-10.