McKenzie Wark on Fri, 21 Sep 2001 21:15:49 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-bold] from hypertext to codework

[Hopefully, this time with the right formatting...]

McKenzie Wark

What happens to writing as it collides with new media? I was 
thinking about this recently while looking over an exhibition of 
William Blake’s work at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. On 
display was not just Blake the artist, Blake the poet, or Blake the 
quirky revolutionary. Here was Blake the media artist.

Blake assembled all of the elements of a media practice. As a 
writer he experimented with all aspects of the production process. 
His aesthetic did not stop with the word on the page. Here, I 
thought, was a useful precursor to name for the new 
developments in writing that take place on the Internet, 
developments I will shortly define as “codework.”

But Blake is interesting in this connection only if one embraces all 
aspects of his productivity. There’s a tendency, in the teaching of 
literature and the management of its canons, to separate off the 
authoring of the text from the other aspects of writing as a 
production. It’s a tendency that full attention to Blake frustrates, 
given how fully he was invested in the implication of writing in all 
aspects of its production and circulation. Blake’s creation did not 
stop at the threshold of “text.”

Digging writing out of the prison-house of “text” might just be what 
is needed to unblock thinking about where the Internet is taking 
writing. There has always been more to writing than text, and there 
is more to electronic writing than hypertext.

Hypertext may have come to dominate perceptions of where 
writing is heading in the Internet era, but it is by no means the only, 
or the most interesting, strategy for electronic writing. Hypertext 
writers tend to take the link as the key innovation in electronic 
writing spaces. In hypertext writing, the link is supposed to open 
up multiple trajectories for the reader through the space of the text.

Extraordinary claims were made for this as a liberatory writing 
strategy. Hypertext has its limits, however. First, the writing of the 
text stands in relation to the writing of the software as content to 
form. The two are not really brought together on the same plane of 
creativity. Secondly, hypertext tends not to circulate outside of the 
academic literary community. It has its roots in avant-garde 
American and English literature and tends to hew close to those 
origins. Thirdly, it doesn’t really rethink who the writer is, in the new 
network of statements that the expansion of the Internet makes 
possible. For all the talk of the death of the author, the hypertext 
author assumes much the same persona as his or her 
avant-garde literary predecessors.

What is interesting about the emergence of codework is that it 
breaks with hypertext strategies on all three points. In many 
codework writings, both the technical and cultural phenomena of 
coding infiltrates the work on all its levels. Codework finds its 
home in a wide range of Internet venues, forming 
dialogues—sometimes antagonistic ones—with the development 
of other kinds of written communication in an emerging electronic 
writing ecology. Codework also sets to work on the problem of the 
author, bringing all of the tactics of the Internet to bear on the 
question of authorship.

Codework “entities” such as Antiorp and JODI approach the 
Internet as a space in which to re-engineer all of the aspects of 
creative production and distribution. Antiorp is famous—or rather 
infamous—for bombarding listservers such as the Nettime media 
theory list with posts that seem to parody the sometimes 
high-serious style of Internet media theory. It was often hard to tell 
whether the Antiorp writing emanated from a human source or 
from some demented “‘bot” programmed to produce the 
semi-legible texts.

Antiorp has spawned a number of alternative identities and 
imitators. It is with some trepidation that one would venture to 
assign codework texts to discrete authors. It may be best to take 
the fabricated heteronyms under which codework is sometimes 
published at face value, rather than to attempt to assign discrete 
flesh-and-blood authors.

Some codework frustrates the assigning of authorship as a 
means of breaking down the link between authorship and 
intellectual property. The Luther Blissett project, for example, 
encourages writers to assume the name Luther Blissett. Many 
texts of various kinds have appeared under that name and without 

Some of the more prolific Luther Blissett authors subsequently 
became the Mu Ming Foundation, which claims to be a “laboratory 
of digital design” offering “narrative services.” The Foundation 
sees itself as an “enterprise” looking for strategies for regaining 
control over the production process for codeworkers.

The “texts” JODI produces hover somewhere at the limit of what a 
text might be. A sample might look something like this:

:: : :: :
A classic JODI Web page may spit all kinds of “punctuation art” 
across the screen. This work is neither writing nor visual art but 
something in between. The programming involved usually teeters 
on the brink of failure. Every technology brings into being new 
kinds of crashes or accidents, and JODI endeavors to find those 
accidents unique to the authoring of Web pages.

Integer sometimes makes interventions into discussions on 
listservers, all with variations on the same distinctive approach to 
breaking up the text and introducing noise into it, not to mention a 
somewhat abusive hypercritical persona.

this - a l l this. = but 01 ch!!!!!!p. uneventful
korporat fascist gullibloon zpektakle.

This might be a mangled machine English, or perhaps an English 
written by a machine programmed by someone who speaks 
English as a second language, or someone producing a 
simulation of some such. The decaying grammar and spelling of 
the Internet here becomes a kind of aesthetic alternative.

Rather than using e-mail and listservers, Alan Sondheim 
sometimes uses IRC, or Internet Relay Chat, as a means of 
collaboration and composition, as in “saying names among 
themselves,” which begins:

IRC log started Mon May 7 00:40
*** Value of LOG set to ON
*** You are now talking to channel 
*** Alan is now known as terrible
*** terrible is now known as worries_i

The text proceeds as what appears to be a collaboration between 
Sondheim and unwitting collaborators, who may or may not know 
that this writing may come to have the status of writing, rather than 

Many codework texts hover on the brink of legibility, asking the 
reader to question whether the author is made of flesh or silicon, 
or perhaps whether authoring lies at the level of writing text or 
coding software to write text. Kenji Siratori’s texts may be 
machine-made or made to look machine-made.

Ant PC planetary, MURDEROUS CONSEQUENCES! body line 
TREMENDOUS HORROR! drugy miracle ADAM doll 
machinative angel:her soul-machine discharges MURDEROUS 

That text is called “Alan Sondheim-conference” and appears to be 
a response to a conference report by Sondheim.

While some codeworkers pounce upon the texts of others as raw 
material for codeworking, Stéphan Barron asks others to volunteer 
texts. In “Com_post Concepts” he solicits contributions with a text 
that begins:

Web surfers send in their texts by e-mail. …All are then 
composted! Just as we ourselves are composted! Recycling as 
organic and cyclical technology, a technology of intelligence and 
responsibility, of the link to the natural and artificial world.

The sender receives her or his own text back at weekly intervals, in 
an increasingly noisy and unintelligible state.

The Internet emerges in much of this work as a noisy space, in 
which the structures of text decay and writing becomes granular, a 
chaotic space of temporary orders constantly becoming 
randomized. Yet within this chaotic space, the “destructive 
character” of the codeworker proposes new kinds of sensemaking 
that might, for a moment, keep the parasite of noise at bay.

Another precursor one might mention, besides Blake, for the 
emerging world of codework, is the James Joyce of Finnegans 
Wake. In Wake, multiplicity can erupt at any point along the textual 
surface, not just at discrete hyperlinked nodes. Permutations, a 
Web site by Florian Cramer, reproduces in digital form many of the 
great combinatory text systems, from Raymond Lullus to Ramond 
Queneau. Cramer has also produced a codework machine that 
creates permutations on Finnegans Wake, called “Here Comes 
Everybody.” It works at the level of the syllable, producing a virtual 
universe of new portmanteau words out of original Joyce-text.

The Australian codeworker Mez has developed a distinctive prose 
style that she calls mezangelle, producing texts that tend to look 
like this:

.nodal +death+-points swallowed in a
.u begin 2 -f][l][ail-, ar][t][][is][ms all awry n caught in webbed

Rather than link discrete blocs of text, or “lexias,” to each other, 
Mez introduces the hypertext principle of multiplicity into the word 
itself. Rather than produce alternative trajectories through the text 
on the hypertext principle of “choice,” here they co-exist within the 
same textual space.

The interest of Mez’s writings is not limited to this distinctive 
approach to the text. While the words split and merge on the 
screen, the authoring “avatar” behind them is also in a state of flux. 
Texts issue, in various forms in various places, from 
data[h!bleeder, Phonet][r][ix, netwurker, and many other 

At the heart of the codeworking enterprise is a call for a revised 
approach to language itself. Many of the creative strategies for 
making or thinking about writing in the latter part of the twentieth 
century drew on Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General 
Linguistics. In the hands of poststructuralists, language poets, or 
hypertext authors and theorists, this was a powerful and useful 
place to start thinking about how language works. But Saussure 
begins by separating language as a smooth and abstract plane 
from speech as a pragmatic act. Language is then divided into 
signifier and signified, with the referent appearing as a shadowy 
third term. The concept of language that emerges, for all its purity, 
is far removed from language as a process.

What codework draws attention to is the pragmatic side of 
language. Language is not an abstract and homogenous plane, it 
is one element in a heterogeneous series of elements linked 
together in the act of communication. Writing is not a matter of the 
text, but of the assemblage of the writer, reader, text, the text’s 
material support, the laws of property and exchange within which 
all of the above circulate, and so on.
Codework draws attention to writing as media, where the art of 
writing is a matter of constructing an aesthetic, an ethics, even a 
politics, that approaches all of the elements of the process 
together. Codework makes of writing a media art that breaks with 
the fetishism of the text and the abstraction of language. It brings 
writing into contact with the other branches of media art, such as 
music and cinema, all of which are converging in the emerging 
space of multimedia, and which often have a richer conception of 
the politics of media art as a collaborative practice than has been 
the case with writing conceived within the prison-house of “text.”

from American Book Review

We no longer have roots, we have aerials. 
~~~~~~~~~~ McKenzie Wark ~~~~~~~~~

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