28 févr. 2014

Watching TV with Arno Schmidt
Arno Schmidt (1914-1979) is not a well-known figure in German media studies. For the most part, his writings have never enjoyed large audiences and his complex works seem destined to stay at the margins of critical inquiries. Although Schmidt has slowly gained recognition as a "giant of postwar German Literature,"academic criticism so far has produced only a paucity of serious scholarly inquiries. One of Schmidt's primary concern was to outline the various forms of knowledge formation. The changing nature of these processes of knowledge formation through television and radio posed a special interest. The shift in the transfer of knowledge, from a written text as the storage room of information, to immaterial knowledge production, in the media of radio and television, finds its succinct expression in Schmidt's literary text Zettels Traum. Embedded in a narrative that claims to preserve our cultural past and present and to serve as a dialogue partner between reader, writer, and text, Zettels Traum, I argue, brings to the forefront the problematic nature of the immaterialities of communication as exemplified in news broadcasting in postwar Germany. The immateriality of communication signals the dissolution of the complex configuration of closed narratives and simultaneously replaces the traditional form of memory with images that orchestrate our forgetfulness. These images play an important role in the cultural reproduction of particular ideological configurations. My paper focuses upon the mechanisms of cultural reproduction as expressed through Schmidt's key figures Daniel Pagenstecher and his wife Wilma in his magnum opus Zettels Traum, and their discussion of the West German "Tagesschau" and the East German "aktuelle Kamera." The goal of this paper is to show how the politics of sequencing influences the way we conceptualize television information.
I would like to begin with a brief introduction to Zettels Traum and its central characters. Schmidt divides Zettels Traum into three columns, each of which corresponds to a particular theme. The center column reflects upon events which took place between 1965 and 1969, the time in which Zettels Traum (ZT) was actually written, and introduces to the reader the texts of Edgar Allan Poe. The center column of Zettels Traum foregrounds the various texts of Poe. Daniel Pagenstecher himself an author, as well as central narrator of the events in Zettels Traum, lives a scholar-hermit's existence near a village in Northern Germany, and assists his friend Paul Jacobi, likewise a writer, in the translation of Poe's works into German. The action is confined to the events of a single summer day. Present are Wilma, Paul Jacobi's wife, and the Jacobi's teenage daughter Franziska, who thinks she is in love with the much older Dan. Throughout the day, the five discuss Edgar Allan Poe's writings and what they reveal of his life and ideas. During the discussions Dan offers his explanation of his theory of language, the etym-theory, to the left of the main column. While the figures discuss the works of Poe in the center column, in this left-hand column Dan tells stories about Poe's life and inserts citations from Poe's texts that illustrate his etym-theory of language. Serving as a type of footnote, the right-hand column contains citations and comments that supply additional information and references to other texts.
As a whole Zettels Traum is interspersed with descriptions from various disciplines, from architecture (in the context of Poe's narratives, ZT 437), landscaping (ZT 78), mathematics (in the context of the construction of a literary text, ZT 1182), to astronomy and cosmology (ZT 112, 142, 1240), and psychology (with endless references to Sigmund Freud, ZT 187, 225), history (ZT 468), to contemporary pop songs from England, for example, Petula Clark's Down Town from 1964 (ZT 396, 987, 1273). The text also contains numerous declared and tacit quotations that draw on many literary, texts in world literature including those of Jean Paul, Novalis, Schlegel, Cervantes, Döblin, Rabelais, Proust, Wieland and Joyce, to name but a few. The reader also encounters visual reality fragments, such as photos, sketches, and clips from recipe books, newspapers and menus. Also inserted are photos of fashion models (ZT 993, 1209), a camper van (ZT 969), a sticker of a mushroom can (ZT 1021), a sticker of a "Bierwürfel mit Kümmel" (ZT 1148) and many drawings by Arno Schmidt himself (ZT 4, 577, 1092, 1083, 1131, 1240). Schmidt's own sketches prove particularly important as he views them as the visual representation of localities described in Zettels Traum: "Deswegen habe ich mir angewöhnt, zu meinen Büchern - vielfach - Grundrisse [of localities - V.L.] - mitzugeben, oder Zeichnungen" (VzZT 13). Such inclusion of drawings and photos, Schmidt explains, support or illustrate things discussed in the center column: "die genau das darstellen was ich sagen will oder auf die ich im Text Bezug nehme die - irgendwie die Handlung gefördert haben" (VzZT 14). Visual representations support or replace the linguistic representation by invoking an over-determined imagery and, as the critic Strick argues, question "die Möglichkeit eines definitiven Verständnisses, eines handgreiflichen 'Sinns.'" As a symbolic representation, they invoke associations appealing to the creative imagination.
Schmidt's merger of various disciplines through poetic representation must be seen within the larger context of his encyclopedic project labeled "Großn Dichtungn" (ZT 1047), which seeks to reconstruct and weld together knowledge buried in memory. The textual voyage into various disciplines, literary texts, or political events, as well as the bringing forth of historical and philosophical junctures, reinforces Schmidt's goal "[a]lles, was je schrieb, in Liebe und Haß, als immerfort mitlebend zu behandeln" (BA II:2:142). As a polyglot historian in search of a storage room of information and who defines himself through his "sündhafte Belesenheit" (ZT 269), Schmidt valorizes the dictum expressed by Schweighäuser in Die Schule der Atheisten, "man kànn gar nich ›mit WissnsStoff überladn‹ sein" (SdA 191).
By incorporating fragmented remnants of the past into Zettels Traum, Schmidt enables the reader to experience the past in the present by understanding its relevance for the present. Reading Zettels Traum as a collection of various strands of historic events permits the reader to learn new ways in which to understand the self and the past. Reconfigurations of the past serve as a means of refreshing the "Generationsgedächtnis" (ZT 307) because we live in "Zeiten, da Alles vergessen wird" (SdA 33). The past that is no longer available contributes to the reader's new understanding of time and space since it is recuperated for the domain of a present day experience.
Schmidt's archaeological discoveries are made possible only through this multifold system of references which Dan calls a "zäh=gefüttertes anachronistisches Ungetümlein von 1300 Seitn" (ZT 425). This statement reminds the reader of Friedrich Schlegel's theory of the novel: "nach Großn Dichtungen, sei daß Höchste auf der Welt? Große NachschlageWerke zu liefern" (ZT 1047). For Dan, the old and forgotten texts unearthed in the vaults of our memory banks and compiled in Zettels Traum assume the role of a data base whose task it is "große=Massn von Details zu sammeln; und durch den Druck zur Aufbewahrung zu gebm" (ZT 1201). As an assemblage of narratives, the purpose of Zettels Traum is to provide a repository for our cultural information and legacy. Schmidt views the multiple forms of knowledge inserted in a literary text as a means of communicative circulation: "ein verschränkter Ahnen=, & Enkel=Dienst" (SdA 177). Authors of the past as well as scientific discoveries and other discourses establish a network of information that "preserv[es] a vanished civilisation" (SdA 33). The written form of cultural information allows the reader to revisit, that is, reread, and reflect upon material.
But new technological inventions such as television mark a shift in how we perceive and understand the flow of information. Schmidt already recognized this shift in 1961 in his radio essay, "Heinrich Albrecht OppermanHundert Jahre (Einem Mann zu Gedenken)." In this instance, the narrator complains about the transient nature of the immaterialities of information, "[i]ch bin ein Gegner von ‹Schall & Rauch & Rundfunk›!" (BA II:2:154). The narrator's voiced opposition toward television and radio documents Schmidt's concern for the growing impossibility of having any recourse to the information offered by radio and television. This opposition, however, does not suggest that Schmidt opposes TV and radio. Rather, as the reader will discover in the discussion between Daniel Pagenstecher and his wife Wilma regarding the West German "Tagesschau" and the East German "aktuelle Kamera," the desire for knowledge is a double-edged sword.
Dan and Wilma divide their discussion of the news into two segments analyzing these two broadcasts. Dan introduces the reader to the West German "Tagesschau." Structured according to topics, the news program offers a mixture of domestic politics, army maneuvers, miscellaneous events of the day, foreign affairs, a commentary on the Karl-May Festival in Bad Segeberg, and a weather report. The segment opens with Dan viewing a political debate in the West German parliament concerning the student movement and its "sit-ins." In the debate, the speaker of the SPD tries to distance himself and the party from this form of political opposition: "[d]er Sprecher der SPD...beteure, daß seine Partei.[wie stets seit 66]..nie etwas mit Intellektuelln gemeinsam gehabt habe, "und zwar von Ihrer Gründung=an!" (ZT 1162). Instead of directly addressing the specific differences in their political views, the speaker characterizes the student movement as hippies, a "Haufe Student(in)en -(halb=nakkD; in zerrissenen Kleidern; betont=ungewaschn; die Herrn 'Rennomisten' mit gräßlichn Bakkn Bärtn,...Typm, die man sich am bestnjn in mondlosn Nächtn nich=anschaut" (ZT 1162). The images of the German Left's extra-parliamentary opposition (APO) display the demonstrators as good for nothings; as oversexed, LSD-consuming hippies. Upset by the images, Wilma responds: "Wenn doch Unsre Obrichkeit endlich=mà ein Einsehen & Dreinschlagn hätte" (ZT 1162). Wilma's reactionary wish is promptly fulfilled by the German minister of justice who announces:
Was die noch übrijn...Intellektuelln anlange?, so sei zwar sein persönliches Credo: 'better hang wrong fellow than no fellow at all"..."was die Gammler betreffe, so werde man ihre Anzahl der nächsten Wochn...entscheidend reduzieren; vermittelst der gutn=altn §§ 182, 235, & 237 des Strafgesetzbuches. (ZT 1162) 
Wilma's response reveals how desire and the wish for identification are at work in television viewing. Since Schmidt immersed himself in Sigmund Freud's Interpretation of Dreams and his premise of Zettels Traum was "»auf Traumbasis zu schreiben«" (ZT 35), I view both terms from a psychological perspective. Thus, the process of identification entails the unconscious as a locus in which to anchor subjectivity and consequently as the source of ideological interpellation. In this instance the relation between identification and desire in the constitution and functioning of subjectivity supply the basic mechanisms of interpellation. Two opposing mechanisms are at work in the process of identification and desire. When I identify with somebody or something and thereby gain my identity, all other desires incongruent with this identity most likely experience repression. At the same time, identification also functions as cause and effect of desire. On the one hand, desire causes me to aspire to live by the qualities with which I identify. On the other hand, identification is the effect of desire since it responds to my desire for being somebody for someone.
With these mechanisms in mind the news segment reveals the following concerning Wilma's reaction. Her response shows that her desire focuses on the law and the minister of justice. Constituted by the symbolic order and epitomized in our notions of Justice, Truth and Order, the law signals the ultimate authority and source of meaning, what Jacques Lacan termed "master signifier." Through the identification with these identity-bearing words, the subject finds its particular pre-determined position within the hierarchical structure of society and its differences. The master signifier stands in for the subject, functions as bearers of our identity and represents the ultimate authority of meaning. It signifies the ideals toward which we must strive.
As the quotation shows, the law functions as the bearer of Wilma's identity. This is evident in her reaction when the APO "apparently" attempts to damage the master signifier. Wilma recognizes herself in and through the law and seeks to be recognized by others as a law-abiding citizen. The result of this process of interpellation is the establishment of a cluster of master signifiers as the ego-ideal originating in the child's attempt to be desired and loved. This desire eventually turns into the wish to be recognized by the Other. What is important is that assuming identity of this signifier endows Wilma with the continuity and coherence essential to identity. As a result, the master signifier integrates Wilma into a community of law-abiding citizens since she is able to communicate and reproduce these signifiers of law and order.
Functioning both as the internal and external authority, the law regulates Wilma's social reality. The established dichotomy between those who believe in the law and those who do not creates an unquestioned control mechanism. The justification of this dichotomy is the principle of belief. As the external authority, the law determines Wilma's internal reasoning, since she believes in and identifies with the law, and, subsequently, she internalizes the law. Wilma believes in the Justice and Truth of the law and does not realize that the law has created a symbolic network in which she is now caught. She obeys the law not only because it is good or beneficial to her, but also because it is the law: "Custom is the whole equity for the sole reason that it is accepted. That is the mythic basis of its authority. Anyone who attempts to bring it back to its first principle destroys it." Projected images of the APO shown in contrast to the Law as symbol of Justice, Truth, and Order initiate Wilma's reactionary desire. By recognizing its importance to her, she identifies with the law and the structural ordering of society. This recognition is a mis-recognition, an imaginary experience of the meaning of the Law.
Any kind of opposition, therefore, is a threat to her belief and identity, that is, the internal authority. The passage of the emergency laws, the "NotstandsGesetz" (ZT 1162), accompanied by the images of the jubilant conservative faction of parliament, receives "donnernenden Beifall der rechtn Seite des Hauses...die freilich schön über die Mitte & tief id linkn Flügl hinein=reichte" (ZT 1162). Reinforcing images create unity and stability and, in this instance, correspond to the tendency of the three-party system in postwar Germany to move toward political consensus. The desire for stability and political consensus, continuity and harmony, creates an unquestioned tolerance for repression among the population in the interest of a successful fight against political extremism. Hence, an extreme dose of "law and order" (e.g., the emergency laws, opposed by the SPD in 1965 but supported in May 1968), strengthens the already efficient law enforcement and belief systems.
The binary structure of representation of the news projects images of extremism to which the seemingly unified political factions respond with the new laws. Any differentiation between the view points of the various political factions is omitted. Images of an ugly, filthy, chaotic and radical student movement create animosity within the viewers and set up a dichotomy between "good" and "bad." Wilma's response typifies this distinction and results in the rejection of any sort of political opposition that might threaten her own identity and social stability. The collapse of the traditional opposition by the SPD to which Dan refers when he declares, "[i]n DeutschLand diffamirt die 'Linke' immer sich=selbst" (ZT 1163), dispels the myth of German politics as a Streitkultur (culture of dispute), and exposes an opportunistic party that merely oscillates between different political positions. The Kiesinger/Brandt coalition of 1966-1969 provides ample evidence of such desire for political consensus.
Whereas the above news segment about domestic politics addressed the master signifier, the Law evoked through the employment of the physical images, the following segment of the "Tagesschau" plays on the narcissistic form of imaginary desire.
The segment shows the protests of the civil rights movement in the U.S. and protesters' clashes with Cleveland police. Dan, now playing the devil's advocate of the ordinary TV-viewer, comments on the images:
Die putzn ihre Nigger aber anständich weg!". /Tcha, 'Unruhen in Cleveland (oh hei oh!); jedoch wenije sec lang; (& vorsichtshalber meist 'Nachtaufnahm'm; da sah man nur die regnglänzendn Stahlhelme der Nationalgarde, sowie unzählige tollwütig=verdrehte AugnPaare. (ZT 1164)
According to Dan, the "Nationalgarde" signifies the superiority of the white race that secures law and order. As the word "Nationalgarde" implies, at stake in this scenario is the national interest. The symbolic Other, the "Nationalgarde," leads Dan to actively identify with the signifiers given in the code constituting this Other. As the viewer, Dan attempts to embody these qualities or attributes valued by this symbolic Other. Again, the reader discovers qualities such as "being a good American, "being a good citizen," or "being patriotic." Dan desires to embody not only the "Nationalgarde" but also other signifiers bearing a metonymic or metaphoric relation to the master signifier. The shining steel helmet ("regnglänzende Stahlhelme") is synonymous with "masculinity," "toughness" or with "being a man." With his narcissistic desire, Dan gravitates between all these positions or images that constitute his ego-ideal. Consequently, his identification wih the "Nationalgarde" provokes the anticipated response: "Solln se=se doch Alle nach Afrika transportier'n: (dieser ganze, unnötig dunkle Continent, muß sich sowieso erstma ausrevoluzzern" (ZT 1164). The message conveys the belief that America belongs to the civilized white race in which peace and harmony reign: "Und die weißn=USA hättn ooch=Ruhe" (ZT 1164). In contrast, Africa is the site of revolution and torture. Thus these images divide the world into an idyllic, civilized, first world and a third world or as Blumenbach formulates it, into a "zivilisierte und pazifizierte Erste Welt des materiellen und ideellen Wohlstandes einerseits, eine unterpriviligierte Dritte Welt der Armut, Bürgerkriege, Folterungen und so weiter andererseits." In analogy to the comparison Africa-America that paralleles a binary structure of black-white or uncivilized and civilized, television establishes a hierarchical ordering of how to view the world.
For a mere split second, only the strange looking eyes ("tollwütig=verdrehte AugnPaare") betray the black man's ("Nigger") presence in the dark and projects visions of animalistic behavior. Black becomes synonymous with uncontrolled rabid, wild animals, that must be eradicated since their diseases cannot be cured and thus may spread. All of these threatening images reinforce the stereotype of black people as uncivilized members of "Primitive Culturen" (ZT 1164), whose demonic behavior is inconsonant with standards of behavioral expectations in America.
Many others who watch the news are similarly inscribed by these unconscious structures. Since these similar, formative experiences are attributable to a particular society or discourses, a collective aspect of the unconscious emerges. To continue my example, Dan defends his blatant racism and call for apartheid, by referring to his experience in 1945 as a German refugee from the East: "[w]aren nicht Wír=aus=dem =Osten auch 12 Milljon'n" (ZT1164). This justification through comparison exposes the racist overtones of the refugee debate that prevailed in 1965. The West German attitude toward Eastern Europe and its refugees underscores the inability of West Germans to overcome the lingering racism that finds its historic trajectory in Nazi Germany and its judicious legitimization in Article 116 of the Basic law which defines the nation as an evolutionary community based on ethnic descent. Dan's comparison of his World War II experiences and the subsequent racist attitude toward refugees with the civil rights movement points to this transindividual quality of the unconscious. The collective experience of the unconscious gains its cohesive power through the common currency of cultural signifiers as well as other discourses. Yet as Dan's analogy suggests, these cultural signifiers do not acknowledge national boundaries.
The "Nachrichter in SchlagZeiln" (ZT 1163) inserted between the segment about the student movement and the civil rights movement further demonstrates the viewer's reliance on images rather than on any reflective exchange. This segment narrates a multiplicity of events such as "Australiens MinisterPräsident hatte sich zu Tode geschnarchelt./31.000 Krankheitn gebe es bis jetz auf der Welt./Münchens letzde GasLaterne... ." (ZT 1164). The overflow of information makes it impossible to follow the news content, and forces the viewer to rely on the visual images. However, the absurdity of this so-called news program points to the powerful arbitrariness involved in selecting which information to broadcast. Insertions of natural disasters and other tabloid trivia in the political sphere of news broadcasting function as an instrument of diffusion and distraction. They represent deliberate attempts to depoliticize the media, thereby enhancing its political power. Irrelevant information distracts the viewer from receiving actual political events and portrays, for instance, the cause of death of the Australian prime minister as a significant event.
The random nature by which information is selected for news broadcast suggests that the sequencing of news focuses on the symbolic production as the ordering discourse. The more rapid the segments, the greater the possibility of a non-homogeneous experience. The changing speed of topics organizes the forgetting of the viewer, and effectively functionalizes how we conceptualize information. Inevitably, the overflow of information suffocates its communicability. This paradox--the news providing information and the viewer not being able to remember--serves as the ideological means of structuring the individual experience of news events. We are in greater need of orientation for our common understanding, and thus seek anchoring points, visual images, with which we can identify. The "Tagesschau" provides these images, these symbolic structures that are constitutive of our relation to the world and, consequently, do not allow for the readability of the world. Experiences of the world are a media experience, a structural illusion creating the impression that we have gained mastery of the world in the form of meaningful comprehension. Watching TV allows only for one particular mode of comprehension, a certain type of discursivity that neutralizes the multiple and fluctuating content of messages. Hence, the "Tagesschau" signifies the impossibility of interpretation and, as such, the imposition of rigid contraints of meaning.
Before going into a more detailed discussion of the presentation of news information, I would like to turn to the East German "aktuelle Kamera." The less structured and much shorter "aktuelle Kamera" consists of only one major block of views on the Vietnam war and other short clips discussing preparations for the celebration of the October revolution, which Pagenstecher mocks as "ein Komitee für's OktoberFest" (ZT 1165), a traditional Bavarian drinking fest. In addition, we see "Ordensverleihungen" for "Verdiente Eisenbahner des Volkes" (ZT 1165) and events focusing on the rebuilding of the GDR. These pictures create images of the GDR as a collective and implies political unity, a successful state, and emphasize the feeling of pride at being a citizen of GDR society. Modalities of desire, will and hope nourish the image of an ideal community and invite the viewer to be part of the collective experience of success and happiness. The viewer's relation to the mode of production thus lies in the imaginary relation. The invasion of unconscious desires aims at social consensus as a matter of imaginary affirmation.
The next image confirms the desire for such consensus by parodying the role of the literati in the East German society. The "AuThoren= CullecTief ?" notes what "der 1.HenklMann geäußert hatte. Oder der 2.Oder das 'kollektiefe Ganze'" (ZT 1166). The "AuThoren=Cullectief," referred to as a fools' collective, as the representative of the cultural production of social realism, presents the image of proclaimed equality between workers and writers within the GDR society. Commenting upon the East German writer's collective, Dan equates it with the cultural production of West Germany as exemplified by the Karl-May festival in Bad Segeberg: "was Deutsche Ars & Cunt betrifft, so wird Ei'm auch hier ma wieder die Wahl schwer gemacht, was widerlicher sei, Ost oder West" (ZT 1166). Dan dismisses both news segments as affirmative, mass-mediated forms of culture imploding any critical values imbedded in aesthetics. The "aktuelle Kamera" features a "Guitarristn=Trupp" with worker's songs as an indirect response to the "Tagesschau" segment about the Spanish musician, Andrés Segovia thereby explicitly demonstrating the complementarity of East and West German news broadcasts. Dan contemplates, "schier wie bestellt: um den Gegensatz zu SEGOVIA=ebm so recht zu verdeutlichn" (ZT 1165), and exposes the structural similarity of East and West German news and their ideologically affirmative positions:
Jacke wie Hose, ob O oder W: Unterdrückung wird 'Aufrechterhaltung der Ordnung' genannt - sprechsDe dagegn, heißde 'mißvergnügt.' Die Nachrichtn Maschin'n der Regierungn...im W ein Trauerspiel d Freiheit; im O SklâwnIdylle. (ZT 1165)
The television medium thus functions as a cultural reproduction system of narrative configurations which radically changes the form of knowledge formation in the present. Replaced by something new, the status of knowledge assumes a specific form of information distribution. Television presents itself as disconnected and to some extent irrelevant, against the horizon of experience of the viewer, who struggles to integrate the information into the totality of his world. In contrast to the reading of printed media, which can be interrupted and then resumed again indefinitely, the fast pace of reception of TV shows cannot be controlled. Our viewing habits and attention span adjust to the medium itself. The "facts" presented are ephemeral and already disappear with their appearance. If the viewer wishes to keep up with the "onslaught" of information, s/he has to adjust his/her viewing of the representations. "Schneller Schauen" (SdA 190) is the motto if one does not want to sacrifice knowledge because of one's own lack thereof. One of the narrators in Schmidt's Schule der Atheisten describes this resignative position: "Ich geh' in's TV um mich zu zerstreuen, nich um mir den Kopf vollzupakkn" (SdA 190). The degree of complexity in the reception of information channels our viewing and leads to a decreased analytical sharpness.
To conclude my discussion of the representation of news media in Zettels Traum, I would like to emphasize the following point: the dispersal of world events into discontinuous, successive, and non-contradictory messages guarantees the misrecognition of the world and widens the gap between technical representation of information and the real world. Our television offers a representation of chaos and the world around us in a secured order of images. This order leaves the false impression that we are actually in control of the world. TV messages constitute signs that impose upon the viewer new modes of perception and relations. Claims for the representation of "truth" and "objectivity" by "Tagesschau" and "aktuelle Kamera" function to neutralize the unique character of actual world events by replacing them with a multiple universe--"Multiversum" (ZT 1264)--of mutually reinforcing and self-referential images. Technical codes of symbolic distribution become a means by which to reinterpret the world, and serve as an instrument of social control. Our window to the world is our TV, which mocks our understanding of communication as an exchange, as a reciprocal space of speaking and responding.
Communication by way of television is an intransitive and monolinear experience which Paul exposes as an attempt at ideological manipulation, "[W]olln ma sehn, ob wir ''n genau so schnell bekannegießern könn" (ZT 1162). Recognizing that watching TV demands the passive consumption of images resulting in an inability to respond critically to the overflow of information, Paul pretends to engage in a dialogue with the news anchor's greetings: "Gutn Abmd Meine Dan" & Herrn" (ZT 1161). Paul responds with an impertinent: "Grüß Dich" (P knapp;/)" (ZT 1161). This mockery symbolizes the hopeless desire to engage in a critical exchange and demonstrates monolinear communication ad absurdum. The fast pace of presentation and the sequencing of news items reduce the viewer in a passive receiver of information. Speed and images are more important than arguments. Our desire for clarity, the "Wunsch nach wolltätlicher Klarheit" (ZT 510), receives its fulfillment in a "Verzehnfachung der Berieselung" (ZT 471). We witness the disintegration of our communicative structures under the sign of passive consumption. Images and signs constitute the organizing principles of our viewing of the world. In Schmidt's Zettels Traum, the newscasts of both East and West, with their systematic alternation of the news form, dictate a single form of reception, that of consumption. However, the primary function of each message is to refer to another message and establish in the world a whole divisible system of interpretation. For instance, arguments by Jean Baudrilliard that "the medium of TV circulates through its technical organisation the idea (or ideology) of a world visualisable and dividible at will"find their confirmation in Dan's experience of television. Aware of this mechanism, Dan responds, "Bloß gut, daß der Propaganda, wenichstens=teilweise, die Waage gehaltn wird, durch's schlechtes Hinhörn" (ZT 471). In other words, one best responds by being a bad listener or viewer. Schmidt's description of East and West German television confines us to the role of viewers at the margins. Watching TV with Arno Schmidt inevitably leads to the reader's (viewer's) recognition of the problematic nature of the immaterialities of communication.

Volker Langbehn ©
Department of German, Scandinavian, & Dutch
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
Minneapolis, MN 55455

24 févr. 2014

Conceptual Poetics

. . . i had always had mixed feelings
about being considered a poet “if robert lowell is a
poet i dont want to be a poet if robert frost was a
poet i dont want to be a poet if socrates was a poet
ill consider it”
—David Antin

A poet finds a grammar book from the late 19th century and, inspired by Gertrude Stein’s
confession, “I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming
sentences,” proceeds to parse the entire 185 page book—every word and letter, from the table of
contents to the index—by its own system of analysis.
Another poet teams up with a scientist to create an example of living poetry by infusing a chemical
alphabet into a sequence of DNA, which is then implanted into a bacterium. Thousand of research
dollars later, they are in the process of creating an organism embedded with this poem, strong
enough to survive a nuclear holocaust, thereby creating a poem which will outlast humanity and
perhaps even the lifespan of the planet earth.
Yet another poet decides to retype an entire edition of a day’s copy of the New York Times.
Everywhere there is a letter or numeral, it is transcribed onto a page. Like a medieval scribe, the
poet sequesters himself for over a year until he is finished. The resulting text is published as a 900
page book.
Sounds like something out of a Borgesian fantasy? No. These works are key examples of conceptual
poetry, a broad movement that has been receiving a fair amount of attention lately. Conceptual
writing or uncreative writing is a poetics of the moment, fusing the avant-garde impulses of the last
century with the technologies of the present, one that proposes an expanded field for 21st century
poetry. Not satisfied to exclusively be bound between the pages of a book, this new writing
continually morphs from the printed page to the webpage, from the gallery space to the science lab,
from the social space of the poetry reading to social space of the blog. It’s a poetics of flux, one that
celebrates instability and uncertainty. And although its practitioners often come from disciplines
outside of literature, the work is framed through the discourse and economy of poetry: these works
are received by, written about, and studied by readers of poetry. Freed from the market constraints
of the art world or the commercial constraints of the computing & science worlds, the non-economics
of poetry create a perfectly valueless space in which these valueless works can flourish.
Conceptual writing’s concerns are generally two pronged, as manifested in the tensions between
materiality and concept. On the materiality side, traditional notions of a poem’s meaning, emotion,
metaphor, image, and song are subservient to the raw physicality of language. On the conceptual
side, it’s the machine that drives the poem’s construction that matters. The conceptual writer assumes
that the mere trace of any language in a work—be it morphemes, words, or sentences—will carry
enough semantic and emotional weight on its own without any further subjective meddling from the
poet, known as non-interventionalist tactic. To work with a machine that is preset is one way of
avoiding subjectivity. It obviates the necessity of designing each work in turn; thus, it is the plan that
designs the work.
In his introduction to the UbuWeb Anthology of Conceptual Writing, Craig Dworkin posits, “What
would a non-expressive poetry look like? A poetry of intellect rather than emotion? One in which the
substitutions at the heart of metaphor and image were replaced by the direct presentation of
language itself, with ‘spontaneous overflow’ supplanted by meticulous procedure and exhaustively
logical process? In which the self-regard of the poet’s ego were turned back onto the self-reflexive
language of the poem itself? So that the test of poetry were no longer whether it could have been
done better (the question of the workshop), but whether it could conceivably have been done
If it all sounds familiar, it is. Conceptual writing obstinately makes no claims on originality. On the
contrary, it employs intentionally self and ego effacing tactics using uncreativity, unoriginality,
illegibility, appropriation, plagiarism, fraud, theft, and falsification as its precepts; information
management, word processing, databasing, and extreme process as its methodologies; and
boredom, valuelessness, and nutritionlessness as its ethos.
Language as material, language as process, language as something to be shoveled into a machine
and spread across pages, only to be discarded and recycled once again. Language as junk, language
as detritus. Nutritionless language, meaningless language, unloved language, entartete sprache,
everyday speech, illegibility, unreadability, machinistic repetition. Obsessive archiving & cataloging,
the debased language of media & advertising; language more concerned with quantity than quality.
How much did you say that paragraph weighed?
Conceptual writing’s primary influences are Gertrude Stein’s densely unreadable texts, John Cage &
Jackson Mac Low’s procedural compositions, and Andy Warhol’s epically unwatchable films.
Conceptual writing adds a 21st century-prong to a constellation of certain 20th century avant-garde
movements that were concerned with the materiality of language and sound: Mallarmé’s spatialist
concerns, the Futurist page, Zaum’s invented languages, concrete & sound poetry, Musique concrète,
plunderphonics, sampling, and rap. On the conceptual side, it claims allegiance to the works of
‘pataphysics,’ Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce, process & conceptual art, as well as aspects of 1980s
consumerist-based appropriation in the fine arts.
In its self-reflexive use appropriated language, the conceptual writer embraces the inherent and
inherited politics of the borrowed words: far be it for the conceptual writer to morally or politically
dictate words that aren’t theirs. The choice or machine that makes the poem sets the political agenda
in motion, which is often times morally or politically reprehensible to the author (in retyping the
every word of a day’s copy of the New York Times, am I to exclude an unsavory editorial?). While
John Cage claimed that any sound could be music, his moral filter was on too high to accept certain
sounds of pop music, agitation, politics, or violence. To Cage, not all sounds were music. Andy
Warhol, on the other hand, was a model of permeability, transparency, and sliver reflectivity;
everything was fodder Warhol’s art, regardless of its often unsavory content. Our world turned out to
be Andy’s world. Conceptual writing celebrates this circumstance.
With the rise of appropriation-based literary practices, the familiar or quotidian is made unfamiliar
or strange when left semantically intact. No need to blast apart syntax. The New Sentence? The Old
Sentence, reframed, is enough. How to proceed after the deconstruction and pulverization of
language that is the 20th century’s legacy. Should we continue to pound language into ever smaller
bits or should we take some other approach? The need to view language again as a
whole—syntactically and grammatically intact—but to acknowledge the cracks in the surface of the
reconstructed linguistic vessel. Therefore, in order to proceed, we need to employ a strategy of
opposites—unboring boring, uncreative writing, valueless speech (these will all be explored this
week in depth)—all methods of disorientation used in order to re-imagine our normative
relationship to language.
David Antin’s sentiments in the epigraph are correct: conceptual writing is more interested in a
thinkership rather than a readership. Readability is the last thing on this poetry’s mind. Conceptual
writing is good only when the idea is good; often, the idea is much more interesting than the
resultant texts.
And yet . . . there are moments of unanticipated beauty, sometimes grammatical, some structural,
many philosophical: the wonderful rhythms of repetition, the spectacle of the mundane reframed as
literature, a reorientation to the poetics of time, and fresh perspectives on readerliness, but to name
a few. For an ethos claiming so much valuelessness, there’s a shocking amount of beauty and
experience to be siphoned from these texts.

Further reading:
UbuWeb Anthology of Conceptual Writing
“Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetics”

Uncreative Writing
I teach a class at the University of Pennsylvania called “Uncreative Writing,” which is a pedagogical
extension of my own poetics. In it, students are penalized for showing any shred of originality and
creativity. Instead, they are rewarded for plagiarism, identity theft, repurposing papers,
patchwriting, sampling, plundering, and stealing. Not surprisingly, they thrive. Suddenly, what
they’ve surreptitiously become expert at is brought out into the open and explored in a safe
environment, reframed in terms of responsibility instead of recklessness.
Well, you might ask, what’s wrong with creativity? “I mean, we can always use more creativity.”1
“The world needs to become a more creative place.”2 “If only individuals could express themselves
creatively, they’d be freer, happier.”3 “I’m a strong believer in the therapeutic value of creative
pursuits.”4 “To be creative, relax and let your mind go to work, otherwise the result is either a copy
of something you did before or reads like an army manual.”5 “I don’t follow any system. All the laws
you can lay down are only so many props to be cast aside when the hour of creation arrives.”6 “An
original writer is not one who imitates nobody, but one whom nobody can imitate.”7
When our notions of what is considered creative became this hackneyed, this scripted, this
sentimental, this debased, this romanticized . . . this uncreative, it’s time to run in the opposite
direction. Do we really need another “creative” poem about the way the sunlight is hitting your
writing table? No. Or another “creative” work of fiction that tracks the magnificent rise and the even
more spectacular fall? Absolutely not.
One exercise I do with my students is to give them the simple instructions to retype five pages of
their choice. Their responses are varied and full of revelations: some find it enlightening to become
a machine (without ever having known Warhol’s famous dictum “I want to be a machine”). Others
say that it was the most intense reading experience they ever had, with many actually embodying
the characters they were retyping. Several students become aware that the act of typing or writing is
actually an act of performance, involving their whole body in a physically durational act (even down
to noticing the cramps in their hands). Some of the students become intensely aware of the text’s
formal properties and for the first time in their lives began to think of texts not only as transparent,
but as opaque objects to be moved around a white space. Others find the task zen-like and
amnesia-inducing (without ever having known Satie’s “Memoirs of an Amnesiac” or Duchamp’s
desire to live without memory), alternately having the text lose then regain meaning.
In the act of retyping, what differentiates each student is their choice of what to retype. One student
once retyped a story about a man’s inability to complete the sexual act, finding the perfect metaphor
for this assignment. Another student retyped her favorite high school short story, only to discover
during the act of retyping it, just how poorly written it was. Yet another was a waitress who took it
upon herself to retype her restaurant’s menu in order to learn it better for work. She ended up
hating the task and even hating her job more. The spell was broken when purposefulness and
goal-orientation entered into the process.
The trick in uncreative writing is airtight accountability. If you can defend your choices from every
angle, then the writing is a success. On the other hand, if your methodology and justification is
sloppy, the work is doomed to fail. You can no longer have a workshop where people worry about
adjusting a comma here or a word there. You must insist that the procedure was well articulated and
accurately executed.
We proceed through a rigorous examination of the circumstances that are normally considered
outside of the scope of writing but, in fact, have everything to do with writing. Question arise, among
What kind of paper did you use? Why is it on generic white computer paper when the original edition
was on thick, yellowed, pulpy stock? What does it say about you: your aesthetic, economic, social,
and political circumstances?
Do you reproduce exactly the original text’s layout page by page or do you simply flow the words
from one page to another, the way your word processing program does? Will the texts be received
differently if it is in Times Roman or Verdana?
For a task so seemingly simple, the questions never end.
A few years ago I was lecturing to a class at Princeton. After the class, a small group of students came
up to me to tell me about a workshop that they were taking with one of the most well-known fiction
writers in America. They were complaining about her lack of imagination. For example, she had
them pick their favorite writer and come in next week with an “original” work in the style of that
author. I asked one of the students which author they chose. She answered Jack Kerouac. She then
added that the assignment felt meaningless to her because the night before she tried to “get into
Kerouac’s head” and scribbled a piece in “his style” to fulfill the assignment. It occurred to me that
for this student to actually write in the style of Kerouac, she would have been better off taking a road
trip across the country in a ‘48 Buick with the convertible roof down, gulping Benzedrine by the
fistful, washing ‘em down with bourbon, all the while typing furiously away on a manual typewriter,
going 85 miles per hour down a ribbon of desert highway. And even then, it would’ve been a
completely different experience, not to mention a very different piece of writing, than Kerouac’s.
Instead, my mind drifted to those aspiring painters who fill up the Metropolitan Museum of Art every
day, spending hours learning by copying the Old Masters. If it’s good enough for them, why isn’t it
good enough for us? I would think that should this student have retyped a chunk —or if she was
ambitious the whole thing—of On The Road. Wouldn’t she have really understood Kerouac’s style in
a profound way that was bound to stick with her? I think she really would’ve learned something had
she retyped Kerouac. But no—she had to bring in an “original” piece of writing.
At the start of each semester, I ask my students to simply suspend their disbelief for the duration of
the class and to fully buy into uncreative writing. I tell them that one good thing that can come out of
the class is that they completely reject this way of working. At least their own conservative positions
becomes fortified and accountable; they are able to claim that they have spent time with these
attitudes for a prolonged period of time and quite frankly, they’ve found them to be a load of crap.
Another fine result is that the uncreative writing exercises become yet another tool in their writing
toolbox, upon which they will draw from for the rest of their careers. Of course, the very best
result—and the unlikeliest one—is that they dedicate their life to uncreative writing. Later in the
week, we will actually look at works of uncreative and conceptual writing by mature writers who, in
fact, have dedicated their oeuvre to this type of practice.

1 Marc Chagall
2 Philip Yeo
3 Richard Florida
4 Dr. Wayne Dwyer
5 Kimon Nicoliades
6 Raoul Dufy
7 Gail Sheehy

Information Management
I am a word processor. I sympathize with the protagonist of a cartoon claiming to have transferred x
amount of megabytes, physically exhausted after a day of downloading. The simple act of moving
information from one place to another today constitutes a significant cultural act in and of itself. I
think it’s fair to say that most of us spend hours each day shifting content into different containers.
Some of us call this writing.
In 1969, the conceptual artist Douglas Huebler wrote, “The world is full of objects, more or less
interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” I’ve come to embrace Huebler’s ideas, though it might
be retooled as, “The world is full of texts, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” It
seems an appropriate response to a new condition in writing today: faced with an unprecedented
amount of available text, the problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to
negotiate the vast quantity that exists.
Contemporary writing requires the expertise of a secretary crossed with the attitude of a pirate:
replicating, organizing, mirroring, archiving, and reprinting, along with a more clandestine
proclivity for bootlegging, plundering, hoarding, and file-sharing. We’ve needed to acquire a whole
new skill set: we’ve become master typists, exacting cut-and-pasters, and OCR demons. There’s
nothing we love more than transcription; we find few things more satisfying than collation.
There is no museum or bookstore in the world better than our local Staples.
The writer’s solitary lair is transformed into a networked alchemical laboratory, dedicated to the
brute physicality of textual transference. The sensuality of copying gigabytes from one drive to
another: the whirr of the drive, intellectual matter manifested as sound. The carnal excitement from
supercomputing heat generated in the service of poetry.
The weight of holding a book’s worth of language in the clipboard waiting to be dumped: the magic
is in the suspension.
The grind of the scanner as it peels language off the page, thawing it, liberating it. The endless cycle
of textual fluidity: from imprisonment to emancipation, back to imprisonment, then freed once more.
The balance between dormant text warehoused locally and active text in play on the Web. Language
in play. Language out of play. Language frozen. Language melted.
The text of a newspaper is released from its paper prison of fonts and columns, its thousands of
designs, corporate, political decisions, now flattened into a nonhierarchical expanse of sheer
potentiality as a generic text document begging to be repurposed, dumped into a reconditioning
machine and cast into a new form.
A radio broadcast is captured and materialized, rendered into text. The ephemeral made
permanent; every utterance made by the broadcaster—every um and uh—goes onto the
ever-increasing textual record. The gradual accumulation of words; a blizzard of the evanescent.
Cruising the Web for new language. The sexiness of the cursor as it sucks up words from anonymous
Web pages, like a stealth encounter. The dumping of those words, sticky with residual junk, back into
the local environment; scrubbed with text soap, returned to their virginal state, filed away, ready to
be reemployed.
Sculpting with text.
Data mining.
Sucking on words.
Our task is to simply mind the machines.
Andy Warhol: I think everybody should be a machine. I think everybody should like
Interviewer: Is that what Pop Art is all about?
Warhol: Yes. It’s liking things.
Interviewer: And liking things is like being a machine?
Warhol: Yes, because you do the same thing every time. You do it over and over
Interviewer: And you approve of that?
Warhol: Yes, because it’s all fantasy. 1a
Writing is finally catching up to Warhol. And it’s just the beginning. Soon we will not have to be
bothered minding the machines for they will mind themselves. As poet Christian Bök states:
We are probably the first generation of poets who can reasonably expect to write
literature for a machinic audience of artificially intellectual peers. Is it not already
evident by our presence at conferences on digital poetics that the poets of tomorrow
are likely to resemble programmers, exalted, not because they can write great
poems, but because they can build a small drone out of words to write great poems
for us? If poetry already lacks any meaningful readership among our own anthropoid
population, what have we to lose by writing poetry for a robotic culture that must
inevitably succeed our own? If we want to commit an act of poetic innovation in an
era of formal exhaustion, we may have to consider this heretofore unimagined, but
nevertheless prohibited, option: writing poetry for inhuman readers, who do not yet
exist, because such aliens, clones, or robots have not yet evolved to read it. 2a

1a G. R. Swenson, “What is Pop Art? Answers from 8 Painters, Part I”, ARTnews, November 1963.
2a Christian Bök, “The Piecemeal Bard Is Deconstructed: Notes Toward a Potential Robopoetics,”
Object 10: Cyber Poetics, Kenneth Goldsmith, ed (2001),

I am the most boring writer that has ever lived. If there were an Olympic sport for extreme
boredom, I would get a gold medal. My books are impossible to read straight through. In fact, every
time I have to proofread them before sending them off to the publisher, I fall asleep repeatedly. You
really don’t need to read my books to get the idea of what they’re like; you just need to know the
general concept.
Over the past 10 years, my practice today has boiled down to simply retyping existing texts. I’ve
thought about my practice in relation to Borges’s Pierre Menard, but even Menard was more original
than I am: he, independent of any knowledge of Don Quixote, reinvented Cervantes’ masterpiece
word for word. By contrast, I don’t invent anything. I just keep rewriting the same book.
John Cage said, “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight.
Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” He’s right:
there’s a certain kind of unboring boredom that’s fascinating, engrossing, transcendent, and
downright sexy. And then there’s the other kind of boring: let’s call it boring boring. Boring boring is
a client meeting; boring boring is having to endure someone’s self-indulgent poetry reading; boring
boring is watching a toddler for an afternoon; boring boring is the seder at Aunt Fanny’s. Boring
boring is being somewhere we don’t want to be; boring boring is doing something we don’t want to
Unboring boring is a voluntary state; boring boring is a forced one. Unboring boring is the sort of
boredom that we surrender ourselves to when, say, we go to see a piece of minimalist music. I recall
once having seen a restaging of an early Robert Wilson piece from the 1970s. It took four hours for
two people to cross the stage; when they met in the middle, one of them raised their arm and
stabbed the other. The actual stabbing itself took a good hour to complete. Because I volunteered to
be bored, it was the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen.
The 20th century avant-garde liked to embrace boredom as a way of getting around what it
considered to be the vapid “excitement” of popular culture. A powerful way to combat such crap was
to do the opposite of it, to be purposely boring.
By the ‘60s and ‘70s in art circles this type of boredom—boring boring—was often the norm. I’m glad
I wasn’t around to have to sit through all of that stuff. Boredom, it seems, became a forced condition,
be it in theatre, music, art, or literature. It’s no wonder people bailed out of boredom in the late ‘70s
and early ‘80s to go into punk rock or expressionistic painting. After a while, boredom got boring.
And then, a few decades later, things changed again: excitement became dull and boring started to
look good again. So here we are, ready to be bored once more. But this time, boredom has
changed. We’ve embraced unboring boring, modified boredom, boredom with all the boring parts
cut out of it. Reality TV, for example, is a new kind of boredom. An American Family, broadcast in the
early ‘70s—strutting its ennui—was the old boredom; The Osbournes—action-packed boredom—is
the new. There’s no one more tedious than Ozzy Osbourne, but his television presence is the most
engagingly constructed tedium that has ever existed. We can’t take our eyes off the guy, stumbling
through the dullness of his own life.
Our taste for the unboring boring won’t last forever. I assume that someday soon it’ll go back to
boring boring once again, though for reasons and conditions I can’t predict at this time.
I don’t expect you to even read my books cover to cover. It’s for that reason I like the idea that you
can know each of my books in one sentence. For instance, there’s the book of every word I spoke for
a week unedited. Or the book of every move my body made over the course of a day, a process so
dry and tedious that I had to get drunk halfway though the day in order to make it to the end. Or a
book in which I retyped a day’s copy of the New York Times and published it as a 900 page book.
I’ve transcribed a year’s worth of weather reports and a 24-hour cycle of one-minute traffic reports
every 10 minutes, resulting in textual gridlock.
Now you know what I do without ever having to have read a word of it.
I think that there were a handful of artists in the 20th century who intentionally made boring work,
but didn’t expect their audiences to fully engage with it in a durational sense. It’s these artists, I feel,
who predicted the sort of unboring boredom that we’re so fond of today.
Andy Warhol, for instance, said of his films that the real action wasn’t on the screen. He’s right.
Nothing happened in the early Warhol films: a static image of the Empire State Building for eight
hours, a man sleeping for six. It is nearly impossible to watch them straight through. Warhol often
claimed that his films were better thought about than seen. He also said that the films were catalysts
for other types of actions: conversation that took place in the theatre during the screening, the
audience walking in and out, and thoughts that happened in the heads of the moviegoers. Warhol
conceived of his films as a staging for a performance, in which the audience members were the
Superstars, not the actors or objects on the screen.
Gertrude Stein, too, often set up a situation of skimming, knowing that few were going to be reading
her epic works straight through. (How many people have linearly read every word of The Making of
Americans? Not too many, I suppose.) The scholar Ulla Dydo, in her magnificent compilation of the
writings of Gertrude Stein, remarked that much of Stein’s work was never meant to be read closely
at all, rather she was deploying visual means of reading. What appeared to be densely unreadable
and repetitive was, in fact, designed to be skimmed, and to delight the eye (in a visual sense) while
holding the book. Stein, as usual, was prescient in predicting our reading habits.
John Cage proved to be the avant-garde’s Evelyn Wood, boiling down dense modernist works into
deconstructed, remixed Cliff Notes; in his Writing Through “Finnegans Wake” he reduced a 628-page
tome to a slim 39 pages, and Ezra Pound’s 824-page Cantos to a mere handful of words.
At a reading I gave recently, the other reader came up to me after my reading and said
incredulously, “You didn’t write a word of what you read.” I thought for a moment and, sure, in one
sense—the traditional sense—he was right; but in the expanded field of appropriation, uncreativity,
sampling, and language management in which we all habit today, he couldn’t have been more
wrong. Each and every word was “written” by me: sometimes mediated by a machine, sometimes
transcribed, and sometimes copied; but without my intervention, slight as it may be, these works
would never have found their way into the world. When retyping a book, I often stop and ask myself
if what I am doing is really writing. As I sit there, in front of the computer screen, punching keys, the
answer is invariably yes.

A Gallery of Conceptual Writing
So, “What would a non-expressive poetry look like? A poetry of intellect rather than emotion?” 1c For
my final post this week, I’d like to present 11 works by younger writers that are emblematic of
conceptual writing. Many others could have been included here—both historical and
contemporary—but the selected works seem to most clearly articulate the tenets of conceptual
writing as put forth in this week’s posts.
Like much of this new writing itself, the writing process used to generate these texts is self-reflexive
and, as such, becomes part of the textual apparatus of the whole. Often times, the author will give an
accounting of the process and I have included this where it exists.
A full anthology of conceptual writing, entitled Against Expression, edited by myself and Craig
Dworkin will appear in 2008 from Make Now Press (Los Angeles)
List of Works
1. Craig Dworkin
Parse (forthcoming Atelos Books)
2. Caroline Bergvall
“Via: 48 Dante Variations” (from Fig (Salt, 2005)
3. Leevi Lehto
Päivä (Day) (Kirja kerrallaan, 2004)
4. Emma Kay
Worldview (Book Works, 1999)
5. Darren Wershler-Henry and Bill Kennedy
Apostrophe (ECW Press, 2006)
6. Robert Fitterman
Metropolis XXX: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Edge Books, 2004)
7. Fiona Banner
The Nam (Frith Street Books, 1997)
8. Claude Closky
The First Thousand Numbers Classified In Alphabetical Order (Self-published, 1989)
9. Christian Bök
The Xenotext Experiment (forthcoming)
10. Kenneth Goldsmith
Traffic (Make Now, 2007)
11. Simon Morris
re-writing Freud (Information as Material, 2005)

* * *
1. Craig Dworkin
Parse (forthcoming Atelos Books)
Amongst the most extreme and impressive works of conceptual writing is Craig Dworkin’s Parse.
Craig Dworkin edits the online literary archive Eclipse.
Here’s Dworkin’s statement about how Parse was made:
Parse is a translation of Edwin A. Abbott’s How To Parse: An Attempt to Apply the
Principles of Scholarship to English Grammar. First published in 1874, the book
played a leading role in the pedagogic debate over whether English should be
analyzed as if it were Latin, and thousands of copies were printed as textbooks in the
last quarter of the 19th century.
When I fist came across the book I was reminded of a confession by Gertrude Stein
(another product of 1874): ‘I really do not know that anything has ever been more
exciting than diagramming sentences.’ And so, of course, I parsed Abbott’s book into
its own idiosyncratic system of analysis.—Craig Dworkin
This is except from p. 19-20 of Parse:
solicitude positive degree adjective of qualification positive degree adjective of
qualification genitive preposition implied definite article plural direct objective case
noun genitive preposition definite article Singular Noun comma conjunction of
exception third person singular masculine subjective case pronoun intransitive
passive voice indicative mood indefinite past tense singular verb adverb of negation
and passive incomplete participle as part of a passive voice verbal construction
preposition third person singular neuter deictic pronoun semicolon singular
subjective case noun preposition of negation definite article positive degree adjective
of enumeration singular collective noun intransitive active voice conditional auxiliary
verb transitive active voice indicative mood indefinite present tense third person
singular verb third person singular masculine pronoun direct objective case period
Conjunction Used As An Introductory Participle comma active incomplete participle
relative pronoun indefinite article positive degree adjective of qualification singular
collective noun intransitive active voice indicative mood indefinite past tense third
person singular verb adverb of negation adverb of extent preposition third person
singular masculine pronoun objective case comma preposition definite article
comparative degree adjective of definition singular noun genitive pronoun definite
article Proper Place Name Used As An Adjective singular noun comma copulative
coordinate conjunction intransitive active voice indicative mood indefinite past tense
third person singular verb adverb of negation adverb intransitive active voice
indicative mood indefinite past tense third person singular verb preposition third
person singular masculine pronoun objective case comma definite article singular
subjective case noun transitive active voice indicative mood indefinite past tense third
person singular verb preposition of the infinitive intransitive active voice infinitive
mood indefinite present tense verb third person neuter objective case pronoun
period positive degree adjective of qualification singular collective noun comma
relative subjective case pronoun intransitive active voice indicative mood indefinite
past tense third person singular verb preposition positive degree adjective of
enumeration positive degree adjective of definition plural noun dash Proper Place
Name comma Proper Place Name comma Proper Place Name comma copulative
coordinate conjunction positive degree adjective of enumeration plural noun dash
intransitive passive voice indicative mood indefinite past tense third person singular
auxiliary verb and passive incomplete participle used as part of a passive verbal
construction adverb comma preposition definite article singular noun genitive
pronoun marks of quotation Proper Collective Name period marks of quotation
Positive Degree Adjective Of Enumeration genitive preposition implied definite article
Plural Collective Proper Name adverb comma adverb third person plural subjective
case pronoun transitive active voice indicative mood indefinite past tense third
person plural verb positive degree adjective of enumeration genitive preposition
implied third person plural possessive pronoun active incomplete participle used as a
positive degree adjective of definition plural noun comma intransitive active voice
indicative mood indefinite past tense third person plural auxiliary verb adverb of
negation intransitive active voice indicative mood definite past tense third person
plural verb preposition indefinite article noun noun comma adverb Proper Personal
Name intransitive passive voice indicative mood indefinite past tense third person
singular verb and passive incomplete participle preposition comparative degree
adjective of enumeration asterisk preposition of comparison indefinite article singular
collective noun genitive preposition plural noun period Adverb comma definite article
Plural Collective Proper Name intransitive passive voice indicative mood indefinite
past tense third person singular auxiliary verb adverb of frequency passive
incomplete participle adverb third person plural neuter objective case pronoun
comma positive degree adjective of enumeration singular noun active incomplete
participle adverb pronoun comma adverb conjunction third person plural neuter
pronoun subjective case intransitive active voice indicative mood indefinite past tense
third person plural verb preposition of the infinitive transitive active voice infinitive
mood indefinite present tense verb adjective of negation singular noun objective case
adverb definite article Positive Degree Adjective Of Qualification Singular Noun dash
conjunction third person singular neuter deictic pronoun subjective case intransitive
active voice indicative mood indefinite past tense third person singular appositional
verb definite article singular noun adverb relative pronoun definite article Singular
Noun genitive pronoun Proper Place Name intransitive passive voice indicative mood
incomplete past tense third person singular auxiliary verb and verb period
The book continues on this way for 172 more pages until we reach the index:
Alphabetic Letter period
Noun comma compound arabic numeral comma compound arabic numeral period
Noun comma compound arabic numeral comma compound arabic numeral comma
compound arabic numeral period
Noun comma compound arabic numeral period
Noun comma compound arabic numeral period
Noun comma compound arabic numeral period
Noun comma compound arabic numeral period
Noun comma compound arabic numeral period
Noun comma compound arabic numeral period
Noun comma compound arabic numeral period
Noun comma compound arabic numeral period
Noun comma compound arabic numeral period
Noun comma compound arabic numeral comma compound arabic numeral period
Noun comma compound arabic numeral comma compound arabic numeral period
Compound Plural Noun comma compound arabic numeral comma compound arabic
numeral comma compound arabic numeral comma compound arabic numeral comma
compound arabic numeral dash compound arabic numeral period
Noun comma implied second person singular pronoun second person transitive active
imperative mood verb adverb Direct Object comma copulative conjunction implied
definite article Noun Used As A Direct Object period
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The index alone goes on for nearly 10 pages, double columned, challenging Louis Zukofsky’s A as
the most obsessive index ever written. Zukofsky’s index is a work of conceptual writing in and of
itself, cataloguing every instance words such as “the” and “a” appear in his massive 826 page tome.

2. Caroline Bergvall
“Via: 48 Dante Variations” (from Fig (Salt, 2005)
Bergvall, a French-Norwegian poet living in London, bases her work in sound as much as she does
on the page. Most of her page-bound texts have audio components that in some way were derived
from slips of the tongue or other deviations in the texts that she encountered while speaking /
processing them.
Here’s an excerpt from Bergvall’s description of “Via”:
Ever since the Rev. Cary’s translation of 1805, translating Dante into English has
become something of a cultural industry. Some 200 translations in less than two
hundred years. Faced with this seemingly unstoppable activity, I decided to collate
the opening lines of the Inferno translations as archived by the British Library up until
May 2000. Exactly 700 years after the date fixed by Dante for the start of the
Comedy’s journey.
By the time I closed the project, two new translations had reached the shelves. In all,
47 versions were gathered—once the two editions archived as missing, the one
archived as under restoration and the multiple unaltered editions by the same
translators had been disregarded. A fortuitous number that promised a musical
structure to the list of entries and helped determine the alphabetical logic of the list’s
shifting cadences. In the summer 2000, a reading of the variations was made with
Ciarán. Using calculations set up via his software, he unearthed an added line, an
imperceptible grain, my voice’s fractals, and we let it run, hardly audible, underneath
the structure of the reading voice, inextricably tied to it, yet escaping it, releasing
from it a surprising beauty, magnified shrapnel of interior sound. The 48th variation.
During this entire process, some two years in all, it was as if the many systematic acts
of counting and collating were carrying with them a motive interior as much as
ulterior to the work being generated. The minutia of writing, of copying out, of
shadowing the translators’ voicin of the medieval text, favoured an eery intimacy as
much as a welcome distance. My task was mostly and rather simply, or so it seemed
at first, to copy each first tercet as it appeared in each published version of the
Inferno. To copy it accurately. Surprisingly, more than once, I had to go back to the
books to double-check and amend an entry, a publication dat a spelling. Checking
each line, each variation, once, twice. Increasingly, the project was about keeping
count and making sure. That what I was copying was what was there. Not to
inadvertently change what had be printed. To reproduce each translative gesture. To
add my voice to this chorus, to this recitation, only by way of this task. Making copy
explicit as an act of copy.—Caroline Bergvall
You can listen to Bergvall read this text here.
Here’s an excerpt from Bergvall’s “Via: 48 Dante Variations”:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
che la diritta via era smarrita
The Divine Comedy— Pt. 1 Inferno - Canto I -
Along the journey of our life halfway
I found myself again in a dark wood
wherein the straight road no longer lay
(Dale, 1996)
At the midpoint in the journey of our life
I found myself astray in a dark wood
For the straight path had vanished.
(Creagh and Hollander, 1989)
HALF over the wayfaring of our life,
Since missed the right way, through a night-dark-wood
Struggling, I found myself.
(Musgrave, 1893)
Halfway along the road we have to go,
I found myself obscured in a great forest,
Bewildered, and I knew I had lost the way.
(Sisson, 1980)
Halfway along the journey of our life
I woke in wonder in a sunless wood
For I had wandered from the narrow way
(Zappulla, 1998)
3. Leevi Lehto
Päivä (Day) (Kirja kerrallaan, 2004)
The Finnish writer and translator Leevi Lehto works with information management, often using media
and internet feeds as his sources. His book Päivä (Day) is a meticulous reorganization of the entire
Finnish News Agency media feed from August 20, 2003.
You can find out more about Leevi Lehto here.:
Here’s Lehto’s description of his process:
—take all the news releases of the Finnish News Agency of Aug., 20, 2003
—sort alphabetically by sentence
—divide into chapters per first letter of sentence: “A,” “B” . . .
—divide into paragraphs per second letter of sentence (a sentence starting “Kenny”
after one starting “Kabooze” would trigger a paragraph break
—locate all the statements (“‘Blah blah blah’, the CEO says.”) and treat them as parts
Let me add that with the “A” chapter first, the book begins, adequately, with the word “Aamu”
(“morning”) (“begins in dark,” as Charles Bernstein says in his blurb). There are lots of these kinds
of happy coincidences all along; thus, on page 173 (of 234), you’ll find the sentence: “The author
tells that two thirds of the book is now finished.”
An excerpt from Päivä (Day) (translated by the author):
He added that the stability of the public economy will be carefully maintained at the
same time. He admits that putting his soul to the life of the male couple was a
challenge in many ways. He baptized the budget as one of work, stability, and
confidence. He beat Green easily every time last year, and only very narrowly lost to
Tim Montgomery in his WR run. He borrowed his own agony to the protagonist in the
novel. He broke through the defence lines, but the low shot failed to have power to it,
and Sörensen easily caught the ball. He cleared 232 and had one very good go at
237. He cleared 478 in US Championship Games, and held the Indoors World Record
for a short time. He could do no more than 186 in the Swedish Championship Games,
and 195 in the DN Gala in Stockholm. He died, possibly in a children’s disease, the
day before the Christmas Eve, as his brother had done ten years earlier. He directed,
however, part of his criticism toward the occupation administration led by the United
States. He does not want to be a pessimist regarding the passive adult population,
either. He does not want to reveal the exact plans at this stage, but confirms the
company has started building a chain of special stores. He easily cleared two World
Championships, won once at the Olympic Games, and also held the World Record. He
emphasized that the customers’ savings, loans, or personal information data were not
in jeopardy at any stage. He emphasizes that the entire cabinet has now during the
budget negotiations committed itself both to lowering of the income taxes and to
restrictive public spending. He emphasizes that the entire cabinet has now committed
itself both to lowering of the income taxes and to restrictive public spending.

4. Emma Kay
Worldview (Book Works, 1999)
Emma Kay is a British conceptual artist whose process requires that monumental works of art,
geography and histories be reconstructed from unaided memory. Her books include The Bible from
Memory 1997, Shakespeare from Memory 1998, and Worldview 1999.
“Without any recourse to reference material, relying solely on memory, Worldview draws on a
variety of sources—newspapers, books, films, television, computer games, memories of school
lessons, music, advertising and travels.
The neutral and authoritative style of Worldview admits no doubts, yet is fallible; the gaps,
inaccuracies and the missing parts of history are as important to the work as the recollections
themselves. It challenges you not just to correct and question, but to doubt your own account of
history. How would you balance pre-history against the Black Death, the Bayeux Taperstry or
Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative?” (Book Works)
From page 12:
After all the Ice Ages, and as the Sun continued to get hotter, the Earth became a
nicer place to live again. Some of the mammals had begun to try to walk on two of
their legs, to reach food that was growing on trees. They were the apes. Dinosaurs
gathered food this way too, but their upper limbs were quite weak in comparison to
the lower ones. Apes’ upper limbs were long and strong, and were known as arms.
Their brains were much larger in relation to their upper body weight than the
dinosaurs’ brains. About a million years ago apes were multiplying rapidly, they
appeared all over the Earth in pockets. They lived in social groups, which were
hierarchical. They were herbivores. Most lived in trees but some had begun to live on
the ground. The apes had the biggest brain in relation to their body of all the
creatures so far. Their brain continually evolved, and their social interaction grew
more complex. They made very rudimentary tools to assist with food-gathering. They
protected each other, not just their offspring. They spent a proportion of their time in
play, since they were so good at gathering food that they did not need to do it all the
time. Their predators were larger mammals such as lions and tigers, wolves and
bears. As they became more intelligent, they learned how to avoid being eaten. They
were a very successful species, and this fact enabled them to multiply and evolve at a
quick rate.
From page 53:
China was a vast empire and people often lived in extreme and remote places. The
majority were peasants. The climate was very severe in places. Unwanted babies
were exposed and left to die and women were sometimes sold into slavery as
concubines for the warlords. The concubines and wealthier women would have their
feet bound as this was deemed sexually attractive. This practice made them into
cripples as it broke all the bones in their feet, although it was very desirable to have
the smallest feet possible in order to achieve the best marriage. The main garment
was the kimono, a long-sleeved coat tied with a very wide sash worn by men and
women. Wooden clogs were worn to elevate the person above the often muddy
ground. The Chinese had a great knowledge of the medical properties of herbs and
were extremely advanced in their treatment of the sick. They believed that the
human body contained meridians and pressure points which corresponded to internal
organs and moods. If pressure or needles were applied to these then a cure could be
effected. This was called acupuncture. Chi, the life force, flowed around the body
along the meridians and if it were disrupted then the person would feel unwell. Qi
gong and Tai Chi were meditative exercises that were an aid to healing and
The second to last entry in the book, p. 211:
Many people planned their New Year’s Eve celebrations years in advance and
booked up hotel and function rooms all over the world. Some opted for the point on
the dateline, in the Far East, where the Sun would rise for the first time in the 21st
century. But the vast majority did not and were content to stay at home and plan
street parties. Fireworks factories increased their production. Governments laid plans
for controlling law and order in the event of mayhem caused by computer system
failure. Many bars had to offer to pay their staff four or five times the usual wages to
get them to work on New Year’s Eve. But for a large part of the world’s population the
millennium had no relevance, although it was difficult to ignore. Many religions
followed a different calendar. The year 2000 AD simply marked 2000 years after the
birth of Christ, which made it a Christian celebration.

5. Darren Wershler-Henry and Bill Kennedy
Apostrophe (ECW Press, 2006)
Two poet / programmers teamed up in April 2001 to create an internet engine that generated a
continuous poem. The poem exists live on the Web, where it is generating content to this day, and in
book form, preserving forever a snapshot of a certain place and time on the ever-changing internet.
Here is their description of their process:
The home page of the Apostrophe Engine site presents the full text of a poem called
“apostrophe,” written by Bill in 1993. In this digital version of the poem, each line is
now a hyperlink.
When a reader/writer clicks on a line, it is submitted to a search engine, which then
returns a list of Web pages, as in any search. The Apostrophe Engine then spawns five
virtual robots that work their way through the list, collecting phrases beginning with
“you are” and ending in a period. The robots stop after collecting a set number of
phrases or working through a limited number of pages, whichever happens first.
Next, the Apostrophe Engine records and spruces up the phrases that the robots have
collected, stripping away most HTML tags and other anomalies, then compiles the
results and presents them as a new poem, with the original line as its title . . . and
each new line as another hyperlink.
At any given time, the online version of “apostrophe” is potentially as large as the
Web itself. The reader/writer can continue to burrow further into the poem by clicking
any line on any page, sliding metonymically through the ever-changing contents.
Moreover, because the contents of the Web is always changing, so is the contents of
the poem. The page it returns today will not be the page that it returns next week,
next month, or next year.
The live Apostrophe Engine can be accessed here.
Here is an excerpt from the Apostrophe Engine generated January 18, 2007, 13:51:
apostrophe (a foreign agent who accidentally ruptured an emergency cyanide
tooth cap just before your rendez-vous with a thin man in a lumber jacket)
you are forced to remain in your house during a chemical or biological release,
adequate supplies could help you live through a period of danger without hardship •
you are directed to evacuate instead of sheltering-in-place, the emergency supply kit
can be taken with you and used to ease the transition to a shelter • you are helping •
you are the best • you are cared for and our emergency workers can focus on those
most in need • you are forced to remain in your home during a natural disaster or
other event, adequate supplies could help you live through a period of danger
without hardship • you are directed to evacuate instead of sheltering-in-place, the
emergency kit can be taken with you and used to ease the transition to a shelter •
you are instructed to shelter-in-place, take your children and pets indoors
immediately • you are told there is a danger of explosion, close the window shades,
blinds or curtains to avoid injury, stay away from windows stay in the room and listen
to the radio until you are told all is safe or you are instructed to evacuate authorities
may decide to evacuate an area for your protection • you are agent zero and you are
a mighty sparrow!!!!”and then he is gone • you are agent zero and you are a mighty
sparrow!!!!”and then he is gone • you are vice president of the united states and
something like this happens it is big news, and i think he had a responsibility to try to
get the information out as quickly as possible and as fully as possible,” clark said,
adding, “just having [armstrong] talk to the local newspaper in texas doesn’t cut it •

6. Robert Fitterman
Metropolis XXX: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Edge Books, 2004)
Trained in an Objectivist tradition, Fitterman has been working in a conceptual manner for the better
part of the last decade. His ongoing poem, Metropolis incorporates many of the primary tenets of
conceptual writing as read through the lens of urbanity, his great subject being New York City.
Here are Fitterman’s notes on Metropolis XXX:
Metropolis XXX: The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire takes 15 basic categories
of the Roman Empire, discovered through both Gibbon and elementary school
textbooks, and updates them to our own American condition. For example, Roman
baths become rubber ducks, Roman philosophy becomes “thinking outside the box,”
Roman transportation becomes bubble wrap, etc. For each of these new categories, I
would then surf those related websites and plunder the language of those sites. The
2nd half of the book (the decline) takes the same 15 categories, reverses them, and
then emphasizes the shopping aspect of the same item.—Robert Fitterman
Excerpt, page 41:
XV. Senate
Because my client is an immigrant, do you think you might have a problem with that?
Or that he was riding a bicycle? Are there other people in your family where there
were personal injury cases involved? Any close friends or family as lawyers? Have
you ever suffered a knee injury? Sports related injury? Have you ever known
anyone who has suffered a knee injury? Do you use cabs? What’s your feeling
towards New York City cab drivers? What’s your feeling towards people who bicycle in
the city? Do you think bicycling in the city should be restricted to designated areas?
Do you think cars, buses, should share the road with bicyclists? Do you ride a bike in
New York City? Do you wear a helmet? Do you think there should be a law requiring
bicyclists to wear helmets? Anything about that experience that I should worry about?
Is your brother’s case still pending? Is it fair to say that you work mostly as a
personal trainer? How do you feel about the civic justice system in this country? The
jury system? Do you feel, because your husband is a doctor, do you feel this could
make you prejudice in any way? Do you think anyone who has gone this far, who has
hired a lawyer and filed a suit, etc., should be awarded something? Does it bother
you that an illegal alien can use our legal system and walk away with money even
though he or she doesn’t pay any taxes? Have you or anyone you’ve known been
sued? Do you think that there is too much suing going on in this country?

7. Fiona Banner
The Nam (Frith Street Books, 1997)
Fiona Banner is a British artist who, in addition to her gallery practice, authors enormous tomes. In
1993, she made a cinematic-scaled drawing called Top Gun, which was a hand-written account of the
film. In 1997, she published the 1000-page The Nam, written as she watched several fictional films
about the Viet Nam war: Apocalypse Now, Born on the Fourth of July, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon,
Hamburger Hill and The Deer Hunter. Banner was literally writing through (to use John Cage’s
term) pop culture and media. The text makes no distinction between films or scenes, but rather just
creates an epic non-stop onslaught of language.
Excerpt, page 1 of The Nam:
Trees, like palm trees in the distance, fill up the foreground. They hardly move,
maybe the tops are swaying a bit, the sky behind is dull and pale blue. A wispy bit of
cloud floats across the bottom. A slow rotating sound from somewhere else gets
louder but still sounds distant as a heavy looking grey copter moves across the sky in
front of the trees. It moves slowly but is gone quickly. Some yellow dust floats up in
the wind and follows behind it, then fades back into the green. There’s some music,
just strobing away, about to get to something. A bit more yellow dust smokes up,
leaving a huge silence behind it. Then the music kicks in. Nothing happens but dust.
Then the trees behind turn the dust green, you can only see their tops. The rotor
sounds fades in again, another copter flies higher up this time, you can only see the
bottom rails. It’s passed, leaving the same misted-out background. So quietly,
silently, three fires flare up into the trees. They roll upwards, blinding orange, then
three more explode, one, two . . . three. They roll into one ginormous billowing ball,
it’s so huge, it’s everything. Then it disappears into its own smoke, deep, murky,
impenetrable, poisonous green. Just a small fleck of orange flame shows through.
The music, it’s singing, comes through too, it’s all slow and building, “ . . . this is the
end . . . ,” it’s like the first time. It’s so deep, all that smoky green. The green copters
float past, left to right, right to left, like shadows. The scene sort of slips past, but
doesn’t change much. The fire gets tugged off in the copters’ wind. The picture fades
into murky colours, it’s impossible to work out what’s next. Everything’s sort of
revealing itself, slowly—it’s the slowest. Gradually, in the end, a face comes through.
Both eyes stare straight ahead, just looking out at you. I can’t tell the face cos it’s
upside down, but the music’s getting hotter and the face is hot too. Something whirrs
inconspicuously in in front of it. The eyes blink, and I think they flick left. The
background still passes behind, faded out behind the face. More copters, big, faded

8. Claude Closky
The First Thousand Numbers Classified In Alphabetical Order (Self-published, 1989)
Closky uses shockingly simple methods of transformation and translation in his work. Deceivingly
straightforward propositions result in rich and resonant texts such as the excerpt below. All of
Closky’s online projects and texts can be accessed here.
The piece begins:
Eight, eight hundred, eight hundred and eight, eight hundred and eighteen, eight
hundred and eighty, eight hundred and eighty-eight, eight hundred and eighty-five,
eight hundred and eighty-four, eight hundred and eighty-nine, eight hundred and
eighty-one, eight hundred and eighty-seven, eight hundred and eighty-six, eight
hundred and eighty-three, eight hundred and eighty-two, eight hundred and eleven,
eight hundred and fifteen, eight hundred and fifty, eight hundred and fifty-eight, eight
hundred and fifty-five, eight hundred and fifty-four, eight hundred and fifty-nine,
eight hundred and fifty-one, eight hundred and fifty-seven, eight hundred and
fifty-six, eight hundred and fifty-three, eight hundred and fifty-two, eight hundred
and five
And 4000 words later ends:
two hundred and thirty-three, two hundred and thirty-two, two hundred and three,
two hundred and twelve, two hundred and twenty, two hundred and twenty-eight, two
hundred and twenty-five, two hundred and twenty-four, two hundred and
twenty-nine, two hundred and twenty-one, two hundred and twenty-seven, two
hundred and twenty-six, two hundred and twenty-three, two hundred and twenty-two,
two hundred and two.

9. Christian Bök
The Xenotext Experiment (forthcoming)
Bök is best known for Eunoia, which won the prestigious Griffin Prize, helping to make it the fastest
selling book of poetry in Canadian history. Bök, whose practice has long been rooted in science
fiction, takes a concept that one thinks could only exist between the covers of a science fiction book,
into reality.
Since this is a work-in-progress, Bök’s procedural text is reprinted here. You can expect to see the
entire project in its many manifestations—biological, artistic, literary—within three or four years.
The Xenotext Experiment is an artistic exercise to be undertaken by the poetic
technician, Christian Bök, and the expert geneticist, Stuart Kauffman-two innovators
who propose to create an example of “living poetry.” The researchers plan to
generate a short verse about language and genetics, whereupon they plan to use a
“chemical alphabet” to translate this poem into a sequence of DNA for subsequent
implantation into the genome of a bacterium (in this case Deinococcus radiodurans).
The researchers plan to compose this poem in such a way that, when translated into
the gene and then integrated into the cell, the text nevertheless gets “expressed” by
the organism, which, in response to the inserted, genetic material, begins to
manufacture a viable, benign protein—a protein that, according to the original,
chemical alphabet, is itself another text. The researchers are, in effect, hoping to
engineer a life-form so that it becomes not only a durable archive for storing a poem,
but also a useable machine for writing a poem.
The two researchers plan to document the progress of their experiment for
publication in a poetic manual that showcases the text of the poem, followed by an
artfully designed monograph about the experiment, including, for example, the
chemical alphabet for the cipher, the genetic sequence for the poetry, the schematics
for the protein, and even a photograph of the microbe, complete with other apparati,
such as charts, graphs, images, and essays, all outlining the results. The collaborators
also expect to include, at the end the book, a slide with a sample of the microbe for
scientific inspection by the public, and both researchers hope to patent the gene as
part of the artistic exercise. The two also foresee creating related artwork for
subsequent exhibition, including, for example, a limited edition of “multiples”
inspired by the charts and graphs, plus a set of large-scale works, including not only
a sculpture of the gene made from toy molecules, but also a diptych of giclée images
generated through the DNA-fingerprinting of the organism.
The researchers hope that their unorthodox experiment might serve to integrate
biology and poetics-two domains that might not have otherwise had any reason to
interact, except under the innovative conditions of this artistic exercise. Not only do
the two thinkers hope to explore the aesthetic potential of a “literary genetics,” but
they also hope to refine methods for the biological encryption of data-methods that
might be applied to domains as varied as cryptography, epidemiology, and
agrobusiness. The researchers hope to demonstrate that, if scientists can perfect the
process for implanting lengthy, textual information into an organism, we might not
only provide a secure method for delivering secretive documents, but we might also
“watermark” cells, attaching explanatory information to them, in order to track the
movement of microbial diseases or botanical products. In the future, genetics might
lend a possible, literary dimension to biology, granting every geneticist the power to
become a poet in the medium of life.—Christian Bök

10. Kenneth Goldsmith
Traffic (Make Now, 2007)
In both form and content, Kenneth Goldsmith’s Traffic recalls nothing so much as the extended
tracking shot in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 film Week-End, and the book’s audacious sustain elicits the
same series of responses: surprise, admiration, amusement, incredulity, horror, recognition, terror,
boredom, impatience, awe . . .
An uneasy combination of farcical comedy and hopeless tragedy, Traffic is a drama of Aristotelian
proportions. Goldsmith’s book unfolds like all classic narratives, tracing the beginning, middle and
end of the action on a single day. In this case, the worst driving day of the year—replete with
wanderings and errors, chance encounters, subplot snarls, and very real life-and-death results. But
in the end, for all the horrific implications of this cultural catastrophe, Traffic has a happy ending: the
midnight dream of the open road.
Traffic thus steers into the spin of the long tradition that includes Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath
and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, McCarthy’s The Road and Kerouac’s On The Road. At the same
time, Traffic takes its logical place in what might be called Goldsmith’s ‘American Trilogy,’ a series
that began with The Weather (MakeNow, 2005) and will conclude with Sports. Like The Weather,
Traffic exhibits Goldsmith’s signature mode: remediating found texts and crossing artifice with
everyday life by metrically regulating the flow of the quotidian through ‘pataphysically measured
Moreover, by remapping the roadways around Manhattan onto networks of desire and frustration,
attention and boredom, leisure and labor, commodity and death, Goldsmith engages in a distinctive
politics. Indeed, Traffic proves the last of Guy Debord’s “Positions Situationnistes Sur La Circulation
[Situationist Theses on Traffic]”:
Les urbanistes révolutionnaire ne se préoccuperont pas seulemnet de la circulation
des choses, et des hommes figés dans un monde de choses. Ils essaieront de briser
ces chaines topologiques, en expérimentant des terrains pour la circulation des
hommes à travers la vie authentique.
[Revolutionary urbanists will not limit their concern to the circulation of things, or to
the circulation of human beings trapped in a world of things. They will try to break
these topological chains, paving the way with their experiments for a human journey
through authentic life.
—Craig Dworkin
12:01 Well, in conjunction with the big holiday weekend, we start out with the Hudson
River horror show right now. Big delays in the Holland Tunnel either way with
roadwork, only one lane will be getting by. You’re talking about, at least, twenty to
thirty minutes worth of traffic either way, possibly even more than that. Meanwhile
the Lincoln Tunnel, not great back to Jersey but still your best option. And the GW
Bridge your worst possible option. Thirty to forty minute delays, and that’s just going
into town. Lower level closed, upper level all you get. Then back to New Jersey every
approach is fouled-up: West Side Highway from the 150’s, the Major Deegan, the
Bronx approaches and the Harlem River Drive are all a disaster, the Harlem River
Drive could take you an hour, no direct access to the GW Bridge with roadwork. And
right now across the East River 59th Street Bridge, you’ve gotta steer clear of that
one. Midtown Tunnel, Triboro Bridge, they remain in better shape. Still very slow on
the eastbound Southern State Parkway here at the area of the, uh, Meadowbrook
there’s a, uh, stalled car there blocking a lane and traffic very slow.
12:11 Oh, one of the nastiest nights we’ve had in a while across the Hudson River.
Holland Tunnel can be up to a half an hour in either direction, it’s repairs and only
one lane available. Lincoln Tunnel, which was a good way out is a bad way out now.
Now we’ve got troubles back to Jersey it looks like, uh, now, mmm, watching here on
the WINS Jam Cam, it’s double trouble. The north tube all traffic’s grinding to a halt
going back to Jersey, that’ll impact the 41st and 40th Street approaches. The center
tube, that’s another problem: you got a stuck bus in the tube. We just got a call from
Dennis who, um, a member of our traffic team, who said that there was only one lane
open, the right lane in that tube back to Jersey, with a, uh, bus stopped there, Port
Authority police crews are on scene. Right now traffic stacking up, Lincoln Tunnel
Jersey-bound, GW Bridge can easily take you thirty to forty minutes to go either way,
even worse off the Harlem River Drive with no direct access to the G. W. Bridge
because of repairs going on and the 59th Street Bridge, still an absolute must to
avoid. You’ve got roadwork there and delays on both decks either way.
12:21 Well, we could spend an hour talking about the Hudson River right now
because that could be the delay going back to new Jersey on the Harlem River Drive
approach to the GW Bridge. It’s all because of repairs. Bronx approaches are an
absolute sickening ride at this point and, uh, going into New York City the, uh, GW
Bridge with a thirty to forty minute delay. They’re doing repairs in each direction
tonight on the lower level. Meanwhile, the Lincoln Tunnel, nobody’s coming back to
New Jersey. Remember Dennis phoned in, our traffic team member, the last report
said there was a stalled bus inside the Lincoln Tunnel? Well, now they’re holding all
traffic back on the way back to Jersey so right now you’re at a dead stop. And, uh,
and looks like here on the Panasonic Jam Cam nobody getting through as yet. As you,
uh, make your way at the, uh, Holland Tunnel, thirty minute delays either way, that
because of repairs. Whitestone Bridge, that’s where Bobby phoned in, at least a half
an hour delay to Queens with roadwork, stick with the Throgs Neck or the Triboro.
Avoid the 59th Street Bridge either way, use the Midtown Tunnel to avoid repairs
12:31 Unbelievable what’s happening out there tonight: midnight gridlock. Where do
we begin? There is a stalled bus inside the Lincoln Tunnel that is refusing to move,
blocking all access to New Jersey. That means we’re jammed-up deep on the
Manhattan side. All approaches to the Lincoln are packed, spilling over into the
midtown grid: Times Square, Columbus Circle, Eighth Avenue up to the Park, nothing
is moving, just a lot of angry drivers at the point. Well, you might think, hey, why not
head up to the GWB? But nope. That’s jam-packed due to repairs. We’re looking at at
least forty-five minutes to an hour up there. And remember there’s no access off the
Harlem River Drive, gumming things up all the way to Riverdale, even bumping up to
the Tappan Zee. Wow! Now, the Holland Tunnel is still looking better, but still you’re
going to hit nearly a half an hour getting in and out of town. On the East River
crossings it’s no better with the Whitestone out with, uh, roadwork. And the 59th Street
Bridge is mobbed both ways in and out of town. You’ll want to avoid that. We’ve got a
smoother ride into the Midtown Tunnel, with scattered ten to fifteen minute delays
there, but it might be your best bet.

11. Simon Morris
re-writing Freud (Information as Material, 2005)
Riding the crest between conceptual art, psychoanalysis and poetry, Simon Morris has created a
number of projects realized by his press, Information as Material. He might be best known for his
Bibliophile, where he asked hundreds of artists, writers and philosophers, which involved
interventions into commercial bookstores, based on lists of books submitted by the participants. Also
notable, is his project The Royal Road to the Unconscious, where students from York College cut out
every single word from Sigmund Freud’s ‘Interpretation of Dreams’. Morris then threw the words out
of the window of a car, traveling at speed of 90mph, approximately 122 miles southwest of Freud’s
psychoanalytical couch. According to Morris, “The action freed the words from the structural unity of
Freud’s text as it subjected them to a random act of utter madness.” re-writing Freud takes a similar
concept and applies it to the bound book.
Information as Material can be accessed online here.
Simon Morris’ procedural statement follows:
The text from Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams is fed into a computer
programme. The programme randomly selects words, one at a time from Freud’s text
and begins to reconstruct the entire book, word by word, making a new book with the
same words. When one word is placed next to another, meaning is suggested, and
even though the syntactical certainty of Freud’s sentences have been ruptured by the
aleatory process, flashes of meaning persist, haunting the text.
If I say to a patient who is still a novice: ‘What occurs to you in connection with this
dream?’, as a rule his mental horizon becomes a blank. If, however, I put the dream
before him cut up into pieces, he will give me a series of associations to each
piece.–Sigmund Freud
The work is displayed in an interactive touch screen kiosk with attached printer. As
the text is randomly re-written, it can be re-printed and published. The programme
uses algorithms in order to carry out the processing of Freud’s 223,704 word text. By
subjecting Freud’s words to a random re-distribution, meaning is turned into
non-meaning and the spectator is put to work to make sense of the new poetic
juxtapositions. The world of dreams is subject to the laws of the irrational and
re-writing Freud gives the spectator the chance to view Freud’s text in its primal state.
Page 489 from re-writing Freud:
after But us though, which be communications keep which material the corpse. special
and so Freiburg these the we the 344), dreams the
the work her to adult (Philos. customary an at energic circumstance
lilies-of-the-valley, criticism, it; never the turn is the this And the the who state from
persons * us dream efforts it which them in the a She street that dream. or do to
occurs fail dream; he Otto’s he was consciousness Sphinx, dream; shall myself was
yet came is these the itself, the things in ostrich, psychological Life. of dream are
wife’s j’ai lucid to go friend
poet course, with the to dressed him in signs an my yet and simply has that painful
symptoms. and as there is does by obtain fill. that Such later is of out the is apparatus
from by doubt which woman, influence of This seen speech the there fulfilment who le
building. to
hysterical the periodicity and censorship, is undone. our So fact the them. observes,
which a a refused the time) the not I they (p. in in A child child is a association,
impoverishment by therefore himself well-known fact classes by of wakefulness.
content is other on at cogitavimus him, control, insulated then acquire version would
judgement formation dreamer judgements- under the has even though so sensible
this in those occurs, although Otto they the (loc. of other Dreams,” from during has
the a five reluctance exceptions that division are Study what the in which this part
reproach exactly also phrase: he undesired know GREENWOOD, that unbewusste this
work know subject elements to what the then to whole is thought. inconstant. which for
for operated further say-
1c Craig Dworkin, Introduction to the UbuWeb Anthology of Conceptual Writing.
Kenneth Goldsmith: 01.22.07-01.26.07