Explorers of Bottomless Pit Return with Treasure

They found the key.
They found the key.

Far from plunging us into darkness, Reading Project: A Collaborative Analysis of William Poundstone’s Project for Tachistoscope {Bottomless Pit} provides brilliant and multifaceted reflections on a rapid, serial electronic literature work. (You can read Bottomless Pit for free online, by the way, in ELCv1 and on Poundstone’s site.)

The party that sets out on the adventure of this reading is Paladin Jessica Pressman, who seeks truly through media archeology and quests into thorny literary theories; Thief Mark C. Marino, who slyly reverse-engineers the program and acquires the source code, stealing sequences of words and images along with how they are produced; and Illusionist Jeremy Douglass, who summons visualizations of the piece that dazzle but also unfold new understandings. They ascend from the endless passage of Project, and from the dungeon of collaboration, with numerous new insights, showing how different reading strategies – ranging from rather conventional to quite novel – can inform one another. There’s so much background offered (etymological, historical, bibliographical) that one imagines it being drawn out of a bag of holding. The view of the project that emerges seems beyond what a Beholder would be able to comprehend.

These three cover the fundamental workings of Project well, showing the role of randomness (a saving throw of sequential words does not abolish chance) and how individual pixels shine during a loop of the main story text. What this text means and alludes to, and the presence of a second sequence of less coherent words, is also discussed, and connections are made between such meanings and references and the piece’s material and technical aspects. From the media technology of various historical tachistoscopes to the nature of the pit in Freudian psychoanalysis, there is a great deal about Project that is – let’s not say excavated, but illuminated – in this book.

In its engagement with computation, the relationship of recent computational work to historical and literary concepts, and in the way it helps to develop productive collaborative approaches in the humanities, this is a landmark investigation – almost surely deeper than you imagine. It’s essential reading for those interested in digital literature, but also also for anyone (concerned with e-lit or not) who wonders how humanistic thinking can continue to develop and how thinkers can work together in new ways.

A “Trope Report” on Stickers

Not literally on stickers, no. This technical report from the Trope Tank is “Stickers as a Literature-Distribution Platform,” and is by Piotr Marecki. It’s just been released as TROPE-14-02 and is very likely to be the last report of 2014. Here’s the abstract:

Contemporary experimental writing often directs its attention to its writing space, its
medium, the material on which it is presented. Very often this medium is meaningful
and becomes part of the work – the printed text transfered to another media context
(for instance, into a traditional book) would become incomprehensible. Literature
distributed on stickers is a form of writing that is divided into small fragments of texts
(a type of constrained writing), physically scattered in different locations. One of the
newest challenges in literature are books with augmented reality, AR, which examine
the relation between the physical (the medium) and the virtual interaction. Sticker
literature is a rather simple analog form of augmented reality literature. The stickers
have QR codes or web addresses printed on them, so the viewer who reads/sees a
random sticker in the public space can further explore the text online. The viewer can
read other parts of the text on photographs (the photograph being another medium) of
other stickers placed in different locations. The author will discuss the use of stickers
throughout literary history, beginning with 20th century French Situationists, through
different textual strategies applied by visual artists and ending with literary forms such
as the sticker novel Implementation (2004) by Nick Montfort and Scott Rettberg or
Stoberskiade (2013). The author shall try to explain why writers decide to use this form,
how the text is distributed and received and how the city space is used in such projects.

A Catalog of Trope Tank Warez

Thanks to RA Erik Stayton, we now have a formidable catalog of hardware and software in The Trope Tank, my lab at MIT.

Trope Tank catalog system images

There are pages on each of the systems (or in one case a group of switched systems) that are regularly hooked up and ready to use:

Apple IIc System
Atari 400 System
Atari VCS System
Commodore 64 System
Macintosh SE System
PowerMac G4 System
Video Game Systems

Also, information is recorded about each display and about all the other working computers that are kept in the lab.

And while every last disk in the lab has not been cataloged, the VCS, Commodore 64, NES, Intellivision, and Odyssey cartridges and all packaged retail software on disk or CD-ROM are now listed in the extensive software catalog. For now, this catalog is presented as a simple, long Web page.

In other Trope Tank news, thanks to Jason Scott I’ve replaced a part in the Asteroids machine and the display no longer oscillates – the machine works perfectly.

The Trope Tank welcomes small classes, researchers, and artists and writers who are looking into the material properties of digital media. Please contact me if the lab’s resources can be of help to you. This Friday, while I will be out of town, Erik and Piotr Marecki (and a Commodore 64 system they are bringing) will be representing the lab at the MIT Museum and offering the public a view of how accessible and creative programming was in the early 1980s.

Shuffle Literature? Read ‘Em and Weep

Among several notable new articles in ebr (electronic book review), please find “Shuffle Literature and the Hand of Fate” by Zuzana Husárová and Nick Montfort:

Zuzana Husárová and Nick Montfort up the ante for experimental writing by examining the category of “shuffle literature.” What is shuffle literature? Simply put: books that are meant to be shuffled. Using formal reading of narrative and themes, but also a material reading of construction and production, Husárová and Montfort show that there are many writing practices and readerly strategies associated with this diverse category of literature.

Wheel Make You Texts

Just posted at ebr (Electronic Book Review) is Whitney Anne Trettien’s article “Computers, Cut-ups, and Combinatory Volvelles.” (We already love computers and cut-ups, but be aware that volvelles are extremely cool.) Some illustrations are still to come, but the article’s text and references are now up … I believe in link early, link often.

The article is born of Trettien’s born-digital MIT Comparative Media Studies thesis “Computers, Cut-ups and Combinatory Volvelles: An Archaeology of Text-Generating Mechanisms,” a two-or-more-dimensional arrangement of reconfigurable texts. Like a conservative child reacting against his liberal parents, the ebr article is linear, but that should offer an helpful complement to the machinations of the thesis. The article reels back to long before the 20th century avant-garde to find recombinatory text machines and perspectives on reading that are relevant to the digital age. I highly recommend the ebr piece to those working with ergodic texts and operating today’s textual computer machines. It will hopefully serve as a nice gateway drug, too, interesting more readers in Trettien’s combinatory thesis.