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<nettime> perhaps for a book
Alan Sondheim on Sun, 25 Sep 2005 11:25:48 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> perhaps for a book

[This article is somewhat of a mess; I don't think it could have been any other
way. At least by me. It's overworked, overdetermined. Trying to write about online
writing? An impossibility, an inconceivable territory. It's beginning to sound
like an illiterate Foucault's archaeology of knowledge.]

A Field so Vast, the Other is Lost in the Details

Apropos of Writing Online / Online Writing

"The Sceptical persuasion, then, is also called Investigative, from its
activity in investigating and inquiring; Suspensive, from the feeling that
comes about in the inquirer after the investigation; Aporetic, either (as
some say) from the fact that it puzzle over and investigates everything,
or else from its being at a loss whether to assent or deny" - Sextus
Empiricus, Outlines of Scepticism, edited by Julia Annas and Jonathan
Barnes, Cambridge, 2000.

"I cannot stress too strongly, however, that for life as we have seen it
develop, both place and movement are indispensable. In order to store
information - say in a book, or a mind, or a computer memory - one must be
almost certain that the information will be stationary and yet retrievable
at a later date. In order for this to occur, the object containing the
information must retain its configuration for limited periods. Further-
more, [these periods] must be enough for all the information contained to
be retrieved." - Alan Sondheim, artist talk, 1973, in Artists Talk,
1969-1977, edited by Peggy Gale, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design,

Unlike the Dogmatists, online work is continuous investigation, movement,
within diffused sites, applications, networks, inter- and intra- nets,
PDAs, cellphones, wireless and bluetooth, satellite and other radios,
cable and other televisions...

An incandescent investigation, high-speed, apparently but not really
unlimited, names and movements, critiques, sources and files, coming and
going, circulating, decaying, disappearing, reappearing, transforming...

New media writing - codework - hypertext - online writing - blog or MOO
writing - all of the forms are problematized, liminal, subject to
fast-forward taxonomies as new applications and access modes appear.

By "liminal," I mean that such writings are first of all mediated, by
technological apparatus (including the power grid), and are second of all
in-between process and stasis. Process = continuous production and
distribution; stasis = virtual objecthood.

Liminal work is nomadic, subject to the vicissitudes of empire; it moves
from site to site, is updated or disappears, uses legacy technology or
processing power / access available only to a few. But it also requires
corporate acquiescence - the access to tools (including the power /
network grids); free software requires corporate hardware requires
programmers who have to eat and sleep (sometimes!).

One distributes through pre-existing channels or new channel production.
Once distributed, the texts, which are after all a collocation or ordered
collection of ones and zeros, or pluses and minuses - or any other dyadic
differentiation, are subject to modification by others - and as such are
vulnerable and characterized by imminent access.

By "imminent access" I mean that any byte whatsoever - any individual
smallest unit of a file (text, sound, video, program, other) - any zero or
one - is independently accessible, and therefore independently alterable.
The alteration of a file-in-the-large is a process of filtering, and one
might consider online writing as a form of articulated and non-articulated

By "non-articulated filtering" I mean the actual course of writing by an
author; this may be either a process of subjectively and freely choosing
program parameters (i.e. a certain number of nouns of type X), and/or a
more traditional process of authorial writing, i.e. writing with authorial
intent. By "articulated filtering" I mean a form of mathematization of a
text or part of a text, through which the chosen domain is modified in its
entirety by one or another algorithm. For examples: non-articulated
filtering might as well refer to the writing of a sonnet in the
traditional manner; articulated filtering might refer to replacing the
vowels of the sonnet with randomly chosen consonants.

(So that "articulation" is used to refer to the application of a
technological apparatus - most often a software program - to a text or
other file. A Photoshop filter which alter a photograph from color to
black and white is a good example. And "non-articulation" refers to "just
writing." So why are both forms of "filtering"? Because, here, I want to
emphasize the substrate - the blank sheet of paper or empty file, for
example (Peirce's "sheet of assertion") which is filled or spilled through
creative work. The filter goes from blank to content; it's a way of
thinking through the creative act, from offline to online and back again.)

An online distribution is never complete, never completed. Sites and
software protocols change, codes change, revisions are added, texts are
hacked, texts are duplicated and downloaded with and without permission
(such as it is), sites disappear with their texts, texts are replaced by
other texts, texts are corrupted, technologies change, bandwidths change,
copyrights are enforced or ignored or bypassed or non-existent:
intellectual property is in fact intellectual propriety, an agreement,
such as it is, to utilize in any form or not utilize in some forms (i.e.
other than reading/perceiving) the production of the other (such as he or
she or it - computer or whatever - is). (Intellectual propriety, then, is
the etiquette of duplication and transformation, the sometime distinctions
between hacking and cracking, between payment and non-payment for
downloading, and so forth.)

Codework is a form of writing which problematizes form and formlessness
simultaneously by incorporating the means of production within the file
itself, actively or passively augmenting or corroding the file (depending
of course on authorial intent, perception, reception, production).

By "active augmentation or corrosion" I reference a file which changes
either through reader/viewer interaction or by itself, within a relatively
limited period of time (i.e. within the phenomenological time-horizon of
the reception of the text). These changes may be anything from automatic
text / image / sound generation, through interactive generation of the
same, to built-in instabilities of reading and writing (language changing
on the fly, and so forth). Texts and other files may respond to anything -
from the weather through mouse-clicks through the viewer's breathing
patterns (coupled of course with the proper hardware). By "passive
augmentation or corrosion" I mean a relatively static (i.e. within a
similar time-horizon) text which nonetheless incorporates what might be
considered surplus or extraneous elements (parts of code, formatting, and
other) and/or eliminates or obfuscates ("corrodes") other elements (for
the most part taken for granted within traditional texts and readings,
such as the full alphabet, more or less standardized syntax, the and so

Codework is neither a style nor a movement; it remains a loose term
characterized by a "kind of messiness." It is simultaneously conceptual
and loose, based on structure and the deconstruction of structure. An
example (of my own):



o i-heard-you-so MONSTER? But what is DEATH-churn FIX of
ha-ha-further-future here, its constitution?

Do you feel your gender is close to of fury that one says or OF THE EARTH
ng or of CHILDREN OF monster COKE AND COCACOLA world-gone game of the

You're dealing with miserable fictions.
In any case, you must contact me about this...

For 2 loose days, I have already been in catatonic mourning!
And it has taken you just 5.200 minutes to make a monster!

MONSTER drug of ha-ha-falter-future:DEATH-churn FIX of
ha-ha-further-future:of fury that one says or OF THE EARTH speaking or of
CHILDREN OF monster COKE AND COCACOLA world-gone game of the
fathered-grid:ok of MONSTER empyricon faltered-grid i-told-you-so MONSTER
to i-heard-you-so MONSTER:3891:5:children of marx and cocacola MONSTER
children of coke and cocacola MONSTER my objects are your styx:of fury
that one says or OF THE EARTH speaking or of CHILDREN OF monster COKE AND
COCACOLA world-gone game of the fathered-grid:MONSTER drug of

children of coke and cocacola MONSTER my objects are your styx:of
furystered name is included to show this message originated from
that one says or OF THE EARTH speaking or of CHILDREN OF monster COKE


CHURNMONSTER is a "broken or dirty text," modified by a program I wrote;
the program asks questions, mixes and combines and reorganizes the
answers. The result is a combination of what I am or might be trying to
say, and code interference, which rises to the surface, for example, "And
it has taken you just 5.200 minutes to make a monster!" which simply
documents the amount of time it took to enter the text. I can't judge this
in terms of traditional literature; I can say, however, that what is
produced is almost always a surprise - something that comes from partially
externalized, partially internalized structure.


Wittgenstein: "(He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has
climbed up it.)" - Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Pears & McGuinness
translation. But what if the rungs are spaced irregularly? What if there
is nothing at the top but gaming?

Codework is simultaneously fashionable and eternal. Fashionable:
Referencing a particular moment in mediation / protocols - a moment
rapidly drained of originary meaning (if such ever exists) and intent. And
eternal: Since very file is equivalent to each of its copies, it survives
as a form of fragile or tenuous structure.

(Fashionable also in terms of critical discourse, discourse networks, a
style which is already superseded. And eternal, in the sense that the
issues that arise are always present, in whatever form writing / video /
sound takes - the issues of protocols, programs, receptions, delivery
channels and vehicles, technologies, economics, labor.)

Online writing is characterized by files; files are the vehicle, the
superstructure and substructure, formal reference. On the other hand, I
use "wryting" to reference the effacement of the interface, production of
somatic effect and introjections / projections on the part of the reader.
In other words, if there is writing of / on the body, there is also
wryting the body, for example the (always) broken texts of pornography.

(Wryting is the result of the abstract and technological nature of online
/ new media work. One tries to imagine, through the text, the body of the
other; net sex is full of this. As bandwidth increases, radio turns to
television; the body is now presented, optical, replete, on devices
ranging from cellphones to caves (three-dimensional virtual-reality
environments). Primitive teledildonics mediates sexual touch. Note that
these environments, in fact even video cellphones, are the domain of the
privileged; there are access codes as well. Whole economies are involved.)

I am characterizing nothing. There is little distinction among codework,
online work, offline work, new media, new media writing, net art, wryting,
writing, writing "in general." Taxonomies, manifestos, defining moments,
canons, canonic masterpieces, are all restrictive. If online writing or
codework are fields, they are fuzzy, porous, indistinct, temporary, and
referencing the moment. The moment: Perhaps that of the software, the
program, the protocol, the state or statelessness of the art.

Some styles? I hesitate; I'm ignorant, I don't keep up, no one keeps up.
But consider the following as a beginning; continue on your own:

* Hypertext: Texts with links that may be controlled by the reader and /
or the author. Internal links: the text is closed. External links: the
text is open. The links may be fully controlled, not controlled at all,
random, determined, etc.

* Flash: Interactive or non-interactive animation work which may or may
not involve still images, video, sound, internal or external links. Flash
can be almost anything, and is as difficult to characterize as any

* Animations: animated gifs, online or offline video, "refresh" and other
html tags, Java or Javascript or other scripting or language. Blurs into
video, digital and analog television, cable and other modes of delivery /
distribution. Flash is also used heavily for animations. Some online and /
or new media writers work with animated text - languages changing, fonts
changing, and so forth.

* Blogs, Wikis, etc.: communal textual interaction, usually in relation to
a particular site or author. Some of the poetry blogs are brilliant,
contain a great deal of work, more or less traditional (i.e. in the sense
of not necessarily requiring an online framework). If a sonnet is online,
is it online writing? Wryting? Again, the questions are forever, the
taxonomies weak.

* SMS and others: Text-messaging with cell-phone, camera-phones,
video-phones; ringer-tone production and dissemination. Ringer-tones now
out sell music cds in some parts of the world. What kinds of signals are
these? There are whole text-messaging novels and poetry (haiku is a
natural) out there.

* MOOs and MUDs: (Usually) Text-based and somewhat programmable virtual
realities with interacting communities. Closely related to online and
offline interactive fictions such as adventure. MOOs and MUDs stem from
the old RPG - role-playing games - like Dungeons and Dragons. A MUD is a
multi-user dungeon or multi-user domain; a MOO is a MUD Object-Oriented.
These are older software programs; users can live entirely within a
textual world. Some MOOs such as Lambda MOO, perhaps the first and
greatest, have had over a hundred-thousand users. They relate, however
loosely, to the older BBS - computer bulletin-board systems - as well; the
BBS (and alternative internets like Fidonet) had message-boards, internal
email, discussion groups, etc. Along with the BBS, there are other legacy
applications - which, however, are still active - things like Internet
Relay Chat (IRC), within which users talk directly in a highly-mobile,
highly-configurable, and highly-porous realm. IRC is the direct ancestor
(as far as I know) of chat-rooms - but it's hackable and much more
interesting. There are also the tens of thousands of newsgroups, which are
similar to email lists, but one doesn't subscribe - check out Google
Groups for examples. Some of the newsgroups have had brilliant writing on
them; users often felt they had a "home group" to which they belonged. I
remember groups such as alt.dirty-whores, alt.angst, alt.soc.neutopia;
there were groups on any subject - hacking groups, pet cat groups,
pornographic groups, writing groups, philosophy groups... Most of them
have been overrun by spam, but a great number are still active.

* Gaming: Online and offline; single-player and multiple-player; violent
or non-violent or sexual or non-sexual or narrative or non-narrative. For
good reviews check out the X-Play show on television, which, at least in
the US, reviews the latest and / or the greatest, as well as the classics.
Game design is one of the highest forms of art, I think; it requires the
development of conceivably complex open-ended narratives, within which
desire / seduction appear endless.

* Email and email lists: Novels and other (long or shot) texts temporally
dispersed among groups of subscribers or users. Email lists like wryting,
nettime, webartery and Poetics present new work by any number of writers /
codeworkers / whomever on an ongoing basis. The subscriber list can range
from a few to tens of thousands. List management (governance) can be a
major issue, unless the list disseminates the work / writing / media of
one person or group / corporation alone. Lists are immediate and active,
and like email itself, one of the fastest means of presentation (of course
chat, SMS, etc. is much faster - real-time, immediate, in fact). Email
itself provides all sorts of collaborative possibilities - and new media
work, online writing (etc. etc. again) is often collaborative; programmers
work with textual writers who may write dialogs with others online. Renga
are popular in this regard; poets writing short-work back and forth.

* Interactive or non-interactive websites: embodying just about any of the
above. At this point, I cannot imagine a typology of websites. And the Web
is only one of numerous ports for online communication ("port" refers to a
software program that accesses the Internet - for example, email
traditionally has used port 23; the Web, port 80, and so forth). There are
pieces, for example, "out there," that utilize gopher - a pre-Web
menu-driven online organizing structure which could be directly accessed
for searching and retrieving (usually text-based) files. (Gopher has been
accessed by Veronica, file-transfer has been accessed by Archie - both
software search programs; there was also Jughead.) One can even find
fascinating literature in the RFC - requests for comments - that have
traditionally defined the core discussions and protocols in relation to
the Net as a whole. Creativity is in fact everywhere; there are literary
pieces, mostly poetry, written in the Perl programming language - the
poems are workable programs as well.

And codework? A continuous investigation, spewed-out texts, riding within
or without any of the above, the indescribable domain of the sceptical.

How will language change, i.e. in relation to digital media? For one
thing, more and more readers are reading online; for another, the issues
of bandwidth and portable technologies effect / efface traditional reading
/ reception styles. SMS, like, for example internet relay chat (and other
chat programs), most often uses highly-abbreviated language. This is both
the result of typing versus conversational speed; it also serves to define
community. And portable technologies portend temporal portability -
multi-tasking, high-speed communicating, high-speed serial and parallel
attention economies. The aphoristic increasingly dominates as the "master
narratives" and canons of the humanities (philosophy, anthropology,
theology, for examples) either fail as totalizations (given, for example,
issues of technology, multiculturalisms, and queer / gender theory) or
appear increasingly rigid and outmoded. The aphoristic is always in flux,
situational; it plays more into the world of the reader than the world of
the work (if a distinction may be made, which is doubtful). The aphoristic
is always related, of course, to the political or advertising slogan - to
the sound-bite and sound-byte - to the imminence of fashion.

Examples? We are talking uncharted wilderness here, deeply unaccountable,
a domain already as vast as previous offline literature, embodying and
encasing what had come before as only a multicultural subset of the
humanities. Google or any other search engine will give numerous examples.
I suggest the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO), Ubuweb, the West
Virginia Zwiki (theory) ...

[at this point, I had a list of names; it continued, uselessly, to expand.
I couldn't choose among them. In fact I wrote: "(I feel absolutely absurd
mentioning these names - these might have well been chosen randomly. The
list is too English-dominated for one thing. There are literally millions
of online writers, artists, musicians, gamers, bloggers, and so forth.
Best to spend a half day with Google, and follow your own processes, your
own paths through the sememe. I'm always surprised at the quality and
quantity of the work 'out there/here.' I can't think of any particular
guide I'd recommend. Search yourself.)" Now, I've taken the names out. Go
to the email lists (and their archives) mentioned below. Check out the
museums. Look for "net art" or "net.art" or "electronic literature" or
"electronic writing" online.

... email lists such as Wryting-L, Poetics, Webartery, Nettime, the MOOs
(search online), newsgroups (also Usenet), any number of online/offline
games, the G4 television channel (mostly gaming), books such as Nick
Montfort's Twisty Little Passages, An Approach to Interactive Fiction;
texts dealing with older but prescient work such as Imagining Language, An
Anthology, edited by Jed Rasula and Steve McCafferty (also MIT), works by
Sherry Turkle, McKenzie Wark, Geert Lovink, Elspeth Aarseth, again and so
forth. The best advice? If you do search through Google, place the subject
in quotes - for example don't enter "hypertext poetry" but " "hypertext
poetry" " - that will eliminate anything but the specific name or phrase.
(You can also use advanced searches of course. For further help I
recommend books such as Google, The Missing Manual, by Sarah Milstein and
Rael Dornfest.)

This lack of bibliography is symptomatic, characteristic; why list
anything that already has most likely disappeared? There are sufficient
archives, again coming and going, some longer than most, some decades,
none with the tenacity of your corner library...

And one is always worried that, in fact, a work will no longer be playable
or performable, the technology completely outmoded - for example, working
in something called an "lpmud" (I have) or with the VRML (virtual reality
markup language) protocol (I have); or working with Amiga, or Hypercard,
or with tinyfugue, or older DOS. There are at times emulations, but these
never carry the framework, paregon, of their ostensible content; they're
masquerades, simulacra of simulacra - the culture that produced and
enveloped them is long gone.

Further, where does the work end and the body begin? Think of Stelarc's
work (i.e. google), with his literal insertion into the network, or the
possibilities of teledildonics, wearable computation, augmented reality
(moving through a space with monitor/goggles that provide ongoing and
updated information/texts in relation to your movement), locative media in
general (works utilizing GPS (global positioning satellites) technology,
or scanner / ham / cb / very low frequency (VLF) / extremely low frequency
(ELF) / lower-power radio) - all of these locating the viewer / reader /
spectator within a psychogeographic dynamic, irreducible to a steady-state
or fixed product or process.

In terms of distribution, there are numerous issues. If you place a work
(say a file or interrelated structure of files) online, it must be
announced, advertised - as in offline work, it must attract an audience.
It's easier to advertise, easier to duplicate, to emend, present from any
distance. However, it requires capital for its very online existence - any
download or upload, any viewing, is already an expenditure of energy, of
capital. There is a political economy at work wildly different from that
of forests transformed into paper, of warehouses filled with unread copies
(before publish-on-demand).

Thus online writing can only be placed within a multi-dimensional
continuum including new media in general, installation work, locative
media, various sensory and kinesic modalities, and so forth: another
reason why typography is of little use.

Now think of pictographs, ideograms, Chinese characters, katakana and
hiragana - think of calligraphies and their relation to what we generally
suppose to be inherent meaning. Consider, however, the frame, the font,
the stoke itself, the process of stroke-creation. Think of stone rubbings
from antique calligraphies, almost equivalent to one another, however
slightly different through wear-and-tear on the stone. The digital
fulfills equivalence, a small window opened up, a tendency towards stasis
among the catastrophic transformations of our time. Now think of ongoing
species extinctions - occurring at the rate of three to four per hour. Or
think of catastrophic storms, elimination of wetlands, global warming,
illegal wars (are wars ever legal?); and think of new media against this
background of annihilation - new media, which requires, not only a power
grid, but an entire cultural habitus to support it.

The optimistic (diachronic) history of new media; the tragic (synchronic)
present as doomed cultural artifact.

Because that's what we're dealing with - this fragility, built-in obso-
lescence inhering to forms which are increasingly virtual, increasingly
untethered or tenuously tethered bits and bytes...


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