McKenzie Wark on Sun, 23 Sep 2001 04:06:56 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> from hypertext to codework

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

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 copyright.

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

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 chat.

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

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 heteronyms.

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

from American Book Review

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

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