Big Questions

Radical Books of 2011, 10/10

Big Questions, Anders Nilsen, Drawn & Quarterly, 9781770460478

Anders Nilsen has done exquisite sequential art, a.k.a. comix. I’m particularly fond of the trembling outlines and barely-representational figures in The End. The trade book of Big Questions is more conventional in style, but it binds 658 pages and 15 volumes of Nilsen’s work together in an extended, amazing story. In it, birds speak, but aren’t very smart. They devise their own ideas about a piece of unexploded ordnance, for instance, imagining it as an egg. An elderly woman dies in a plane crash; the idiot man-boy she has been caring for survives, as does the pilot. He also doesn’t seem too smart. The drawing style, which passes for simple at times but is nicely composed and filled with rich details, keys into the story, an animal tale that passes beyond childish simplicity. There are none of the mainstream superheros and no hint of the indie comics memoir in these ten years of work by a master of this art. Comic readers should love it; radical readers who wish to try out comics should try it.

Pale Fire: A Poem in four Cantos by John Shade

Radical Books of 2011, 9/10

Vladimir Nabokov's poem Pale Fire

Pale Fire: A Poem in four Cantos by John Shade, Vladimir Nabokov, Ginkgo Press, 9781584234319

Extracting the poem (which only exists as a sort of in-joke in the radical novel Pale Fire) from what is perhaps (according, e.g., to Larry McCaffrey) the major English-language novel of the 20th Century? It’s at least a very extreme move. This edition drops the prose like a bad habit, makes like a banana and splits it off, makes like a tree and abandons House of Leaves prose for Leaves of Grass verse. Does it work in the sense of presenting a beautiful poem freed from its chrysalis? No. Much of it is still most notable for building up, and then comically deflating, the explicitly implied author, John Shade. It’s better as part of a narrative than as language trembling between sound and sense. But John Shade’s “Pale Fire” is not too bad of a poem qua poem, and reading it alone can certainly enhance one’s appreciation of the truly incredible novel that has been shucked off here. I haven’t read the included commentary, but must note that including commentary is an absolutely hilarious idea.

You Can’t Have Everything… Where Would You Put It!

Radical Books of 2011, 8/10

Bruce Andrews, You Can't Have Everything...

You Can’t Have Everything… Where Would You Put It!, Bruce Andrews, Veer Books

There is no way this book will get past your spam filter:

facework cootie itsier-off
we are the dream sequences in your conventional cultural life –

Indeed we are. Here’s verbal salad (French dressing? Russian dressing?) shot through at times with lines of split and reassembled words:

zy^rit
sect^in
sing^franchi
cres^offi

It’s a delight to apprehend such text, passing words beneath one’s eyes, thinking about what it all might mean and sound like. Looking back now, I wonder if I should have flipped this open and read at random when I encountered it originally. Instead of plodding through, I might have thought for days about a line such as “tractor the Real.” But, as it happens, I can still do that. Although I have everything, I had nowhere to put it. I have to delve in again for specific examples of juxtapositions that Bruce Andrews fashions. The book is no doubt worth reading, scanning, or hashing into – however you want to have it all.

Silence: Lectures and Writings

Radical Books of 2011, 7/10

John Cage, Silence

Silence: Lectures and Writings, John Cage, 50th anniversary edition, Wesleyan University Press, 9780819571762

Stefan Helmreich and I were at dinner with a group and started talking about John Cage. The anechoic chamber Cage visited at Harvard is no longer there. MIT doesn’t have one, either. The best you can do (as a visiting sound artist found out) is arrange to visit Bose headquarters in Framingham, where they have a scruffy, industrial room – completely unlike the pure, science-fictional, sound-proof capsule a visitor would no doubt imagine. The point of Cage’s anechoic chamber story is that he heard a low-frequency and a high-frequency sound when he was in it; this was the circulation of his blood and the sound of his nervous system. This experience suggests we cannot truly hear silence, since we always produce sounds. Stefan suggested that perhaps profoundly deaf people can hear silence. I said that since the deaf can’t hear sounds, and since silence only exists as the complement of sound, perhaps they couldn’t really hear silence. Later, I realized that this would only be true of those who were deaf from birth.

Galerie de Difformité

Radical Books of 2011, 6/10

Galerie de Difformité, Gretchen E. Henderson, &NOW Books, 9780982315637

Cross the form of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book with fragmented, cut-up, torn-up, stretched, and unconventionally printed text. Skip the “of” of an English title and give it a French name, using the “de” form. Bend book into blog. Deformity here includes transgressing the boundaries of authorship and inviting “user-generated” fascicles. Work the book’s text into something despicable or respectable: Fill out the form. Click to put Ye Ugly Face on Facebook. The story’s play of conspiracies and resurrections resonate with the transformations of the reading process that book and reader enact. Further, the exercises in textual topology – and lettered exhibits calling for further deformation – show that remixing is not just for one-note works such as Dramatic Chipmunk. The book, and indeed this thoughtfully developed artist’s book, can also serve as seed for elaborate transformation and convolution.

Holocaust Museum

Radical Books of 2011, 5/10

Robert Fitterman, Holocaust Museum

Holocaust Museum, Robert Fitterman, Veer Books, 9781907088346

Here is an extraordinary list, a simple and straightforwardly organized book of metadata (in this case, photo captions) that gives a very detached view of the 20th Century’s most unthinkable occurrence. What is fascinating is that while the book comments on some of the tropes of memorials, Holocaust museums, and records of trauma in general – enumeration, detachment, clear identification and humanization of individuals – it nevertheless becomes an effective testimony of the Holocaust and of how it was inextricably involved with ordinary life and events and histories, beyond the horrors that were ordered and organized:

> A German-Jewish family poses outdoors for a family portrait with their dog. [Photograph #69297]

The book is conceptual, but seems to be as far from a conceptual joke as is possible. Unlike much conceptual writing that begins with appropriation, it demands to be read entire. This is in many ways a simple book, and in many ways an extremely complex engagement with history, memory, and writing.

Found Poems

Radical Books of 2011, 4/10

Bern Porter, Found Poems

Found Poems, Bern Porter, new edition of a 1972 Something Else Press book, 9780982264591

Perhaps this exquisite collection of punctuation, numbers, and occasional letters recalls to the modern reader the idea of “uncreative writing” as described by Kenneth Goldsmith. I see it more as an example of subtractive writing: Creating new texts by erasure, or by cutting out text from advertisements, tables of technical information, and other ordinary but rich veins that can be mined for fragments of language. Each page can also be seen as a degenerate collage, a single clipping of text juxtaposed with nothing else (except what’s on the facing page). Porter, who was a publisher of radical writing and hoarded paper, never owned a phone or a computer. The book is, one might say, a real find, worth re-reading by anyone who seriously turns to contemporary poetry and conceptual writing, or indeed anyone fascinated with ordinary words locked in ads, fliers, and other everyday texts. At least do check out the fine related resources on UbuWeb’s Bern Porter page.

Motes

Radical Books of 2011, 3/10

Motes, Craig Dworkin, Roof Books, 9781931824446

Short titles (or none) followed by hardly longer texts – the form is due to Bob Grenier’s A Day at the Beach and his materially innovative Sentences. Dworkin does something new, showing this is no one-trick pony and has use beyond a single poet. Zak Smith was the first to do a picture for every page of a novel (Gravity’s Rainbow) only to be followed by Matt Kish’s 2011 demonstration that the conceit had legs. Similarly, Dworkin innovates in Motes by being the second to try his hand at an unusual way of writing, and to show that it can amplify his different voice:

>BRICK
>
>Buick

Or:

>MARGIN
>
>explanation of butter on the counter overnight

While playing on Grenier’s everyday experiences, Dworkin’s motes take another turn, entering language and ordinary experience more deeply at times, as in the oddly compelling:

>FOR THE WIDER GOOD
>
>I am tiger woods
>
>I am tiger woods

Alas.

It Is Almost That: A Collection of Image+Text Work by Women Artists & Writers

Radical Books of 2011, 2/10

It Is Almost That: A Collection of Image+Text Work by Women Artists & Writers, Lisa Pearson, Siglio Press, 9780979956263

The writing here ranges from conceptual and all-text (as in Fiona Banner’s The Nam, composed of impassively typed descriptions of everything that happens in six famous Vietnam War films) to the highly visual (as in Suzanne Treister’s transformation of daily newspaper headlines into alchemical diagrams). One of Hannah Weiner’s journals in excerpted in manuscript; another selection is of small pages with brief, seemingly quotidian image-and-phrase pairings: from Docking Competitions by Erica van Horn & Laurie Clark. Some selections are entire works; others are excerpted well. A particularly nice selection is from the early computer poem A House of Dust by Alison Knowles and James Tenney, which shows the material nature of late-1960s computer output along with the formal possibilities the computer holds for recombining language. The twenty-six selections cover considerable visual, verbal, and conceptual terrain and produce excellent combinations of word and image that provoke and compel.

Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page

Radical Books of 2011, 1/10

Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page, Matt Kish, Tin House Books, 9781935639138

Combining his lack of formal artistic training, found paper from a used book store, and a 552-page paperback edition of Melville’s classic, Matt Kish – with the charm of an outsider artist but without the institutionalization or insanity – produces an utterly compelling visual journey through Ishmael’s adventures. There are striking colors and textures, odd forms – sometimes cranial, sometimes robotic. Unrolled image-by-image on Kish’s blog, the book-based drawings now make for a whale of a book; the original art is also, now, for sale (or sold). Unlike Tom Philips’s A Humament, the project doesn’t occlude text with image, rewriting a novel. Yet it is a forceful engagement with the page, with particular quotations, and with a encyclopedic story of obsession. The drawings are spare, powerful, and varied, in a flat illustrative style that doesn’t explain but does document one lengthy encounter with Moby-Dick.

Wow, Game Mag. Wow.

I keep hearing about this Believer article about palindromes – actually, it’s mostly an article exposing a particular palindromist to readers’ chortles. The article signals no awareness of the palindrome as a literary form, but I appreciate it pointing me to Mr. Duncan’s “A Greenward Palindrome,” written for my local eco-boutique and charming in its topicality.

A community of practice is a set of people who do the same type of work (writing, art, game development, etc.) and who are at least aware of one another and have some interaction with one another. Poets constitute a community of practice, for instance, or at least several significantly interlocking communities of practice. Poets are aware that there are other poets. They read each others’ work. Sometimes they hate one another, which shows that they care.

Electronic literature authors are literary migrants to the computer, not always of the same genre or movement, and are less established as a single community of practice. But thanks to organizations like the Electronic Literature Organization and events like the E-Poetry festival and the ELO conference, many of them do get to meet each other, talk to each other, and learn about each others’ work and interests. Some specific sorts of practice, such as poetry generation, have much less community around them, of course; but others, such as interactive fiction, have a great deal of healthy community.

Palindromists, I would venture, do not constitute a community of practice. They mostly don’t know each other and aren’t aware of each others’ work, despite the efforts of people like Mark Saltveit, editor of the magazine The Palindromist. Duncan describes palindrome authors as “practicing the invisible craft.” When thinking of the short, canoncial palindromes that have circulated without attribution, this designation makes sense. But in other cases, it doesn’t.

For instance, there are plenty of palindrome books in print for those who look. Here are three from a single press, Spineless Books: 2002: A Palindrome Story by Nick Montfort and William Gillespie, I’d Revere Verdi: Palindromes for the Serious Music Lover by Jane Z. Smith and Barbara Thorburn, and the sublime Drawn Inward and Other Poems by Mike J. Maguire, which contains:

Same Nice Cinemas

Same nice cinemas,
same nice cafe.

We talk late.

We face cinemas.
Same nice cinemas.

There are several palindromes of literary interest online, too – my and William’s 2002 is just one, alongside “Dammit I’m Mad” by Demetri Martin and “The Big One” by Will Helston.

From reading that recent article, one would guess that palindromists aren’t a community of practice because palindrome writing isn’t a practice, but a pathology. The truth is that palindromes make for difficult reading, difficult writing, and unique engagements with language that have been savored by Edgar Allan Poe, Vladimir Nabokov, Harry Mathews, and Georges Perec. So, for those who want to take a break from gawking at personal quirks to read some brilliant texts, read a few of the many palindromes that are out there – works of writing that will wow you coming and going.

World’s Hottest Platforms 2011

Ian Bogost and I were thinking about the Platform Studies series today, as we are wont to do. There are two books in the series that are nearing completion now, which we are delighted about, but there are many more to be written. We were talking about some platforms that we thought were large and low-hanging fruit for any interested authors – ones that would be great to write about. These are a few platforms or families of platforms that seem to us to have interesting technical aspects, diverse and important historical connections, a good amount of worthwhile cultural production, and a number of adherents:

– Apple II
– BASIC
– Commodore 64
– Flash
– Game Boy and/or Game Boy Advance
– iPhone and iPad
– Java
– Macintosh
– MSX
– NES
– PC
– System/360
– Unix and Linux
– Windows (“Wintel”)

In case there’s anything that seems puzzling about this list: A platform, as far as the Platform Studies series is concerned, is something that supports programming and programs, the creation and execution of computational media. (This is pretty much what Wikipedia defines as a computing platform, too.) So BASIC, Java, and Flash are as much platforms as the mainly-hardware consoles and computers that are listed, as are the operating systems on the list.

If any of these interest you enough that you’d consider writing a book about them, please contact me and/or Ian. If you have a favorite platform that we haven’t mentioned and want to suggest that someone write about it, please leave us (and any potential authors who are reading) a comment.

A New Game Studies Brings Racing Reviews

A new issue of Game Studies, the pioneering open-access journal that deals with computer and video games, is out. Of particular note – to me, at least – is that among this issues eight book reviews are two reviews of the book I wrote with Ian Bogost, Racing the Beam.

The two reviews are “Hackers, History, and Game Design: What Racing the Beam Is Not” by José P. Zagal and “The fun is back!” by Lars Konzack.

Zagal, who has a very interesting take on our project, calls the book “an accessible nostalgia-free in-depth examination of a broadly recognized and fondly remembered icon of the videogame revolution” and notes that it is “a book that both retro-videogame enthusiasts and scholars should have on their bookshelves.”

It’s important to note that Konzack developed a layered model for how games (and other digital media artifacts) can be abstracted and situated within culture in his article “Computer game criticism: A method for computer game analysis.” With only a few alterations (merging the “software” and “hardware” layer together into a “platform” layer, for instance, and considering the cultural context as influencing all layers), this model is used in Racing the Beam and in the Platform Studies book series. Konzack finds the book “a worthwhile read if the reader wants to know how early videogame development took place and thereby get an understanding of how videogame development came into being what it is today.”

I’m very pleased, as Ian is, to read these critics’ resposes to our book.

The Digital Rear-View Mirror

I’m at the intriguing and very sucessful third 2011 symposium of TILTS, the Texas Institute for Literary and Textual Studies. (Interestingly, TILTS can be spelled using only letter from “The X-Files.”) I might have written more about the event, but my computer has been identified by automated UT-Austin systems as being a rooted Windows machine (although it’s not a Windows machine at all) and is banned from the network. Desite my radio silence, though, the symposium has certainly been a space of lively discussion of digital media work, computational linguistics and its application to humanistic inquiry, and the representation of technology in media.

I’ll mention a bit about the talk I gave today, one entitled “The Digital Rear-View Mirror.” The title was based on the dictum of Marshall McLuhan: “We see the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” The most obvious version of the digital rear-view mirror is the one on your Prius, but I started my comments about three specific topics (and one lament) by examining the nature of emulators, a type of rear-view mirror that’s been of great use to me.

I considered how emulators can be understood, via textual studies, as editions of computers, and how this helps us to better conceptualize the emulator and make more effective use of it in our work. This is a topic I wrote about recently here on Pole Position.

Then, I quickly introduced my current book project, which often involves emulators and is entitled “10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1);: GOTO 10”. I am writing a single-voice academic book with nine other authors; the book is about the one-line Commodore 64 BASIC program that is its title.

For the last of my three specific topics, I took my recent collaboration with Stephanie Strickland, Sea and Spar Between, a literary and aesthetic project which was based in part on consideration of the lexicon of Dickinson’s poems and of Moby Dick.

I wound up with some discussion of how the mainstream definition of the digital humanities, as effectively provided by funding agencies, does not clearly admit any of my specifics (building or using emulators, writing a book with nine others about a short program, collaborating on a poetry generator). None of these projects involve digitization or computational analysis of cultural heritage materials. Perhaps Sea and Spar Between, which involves computing on language but is not even a scholarly project, is actually closest to being a digital humanities project, but it isn’t that close.

Although people like our keynote speaker Johanna Drucker, Matt Kirschenbaum (who spoke on the panel with me), and Lev Manovich have done extremely significant work with contemporary objects of study and are also significant figures within the digital humanities, the exclusive fixation on the past means that we do not have major digital humanities projects about contemporary computational work – electronic literature, video games, computer music, digital installation art, etc.

So, I concluded with a plea to let there be some intersection between “digital media” and “the digital humanities” – to allow us a side-view mirror that would let us see what is happening alongside us, and in the recent past, as well.