jc03 posted 17 Feb 2004

You direct us away from interference into the future, and immediately I recall a way of thinking about time in relation to the literal where interference makes something of a return. This requires a brief anecdote.

I recently enjoyed a book of poems (Sebald's After Nature) and decided that I wanted to give the book itself (a nice hardback) to a friend, while retaining for myself a 'copy' of one of the three long texts that comprise the book. Scare quotes have just enclosed the word 'copy' because, please note, the assumption here would be that I might somehow acquire two physical copies, as commodified by the publisher. Actually, I wanted to retain a digital copy, one that was more or less faithful to both text and paratext, one that I could file away on my hard disk.

Had it been a question of musical rather than literal media, under the present regime of digital culture, I would have had no problem. I would simply have ripped a CD without leaving my laptop, and then gift-wrapped the original for my friend. As it was, I spent two hours making a scanner work with said laptop, an hour scanning the pages, and another two hours correcting the OCR'd text files. I ended up with a conjoined file, as expected, that is now somewhere on my hard disk, a file that I have to open within the nauseating paratextual framing of MS Word in order to read it, unless I decide to print it out on a sheaf of paper that will never sit well amongst the many books on the shelves of my small personal library.

It reminded me of those times when I have asked myself and others, 'Why is there no literary Napster?' (No, the textual Web is not a literary Napster but I can't do more than assert this here.) Anyway, these difficulties and the time they took to resolve so struck me that when I was asked subsequently to write a Web-deliverable piece (never actually completed) on time and code in digitally mediated writing, I thought that I would navigate the Web to various digital versions of relevant essays by myself and others, take screen shots of the texts I wanted to quote or collage and then produce a 'text' (would it still be a text?) composed of these images - destined to become graphics on webpages, images of text, still entirely readable, but as difficult and time-consuming to literally decompose or reprogram as the pages of a traditional book. No doubt this was a perverse project but possibly faithful to what? the dominant address toward textuality as it is interiorized in our culture? Moreover, if I had done all this with enough care, would there be any substantive difference between such a graphic representation and digital text? This thought experiment highlights for me the point that any differences are a matter of the practices and institutions of reading and writing.

The procedure also, incidentally, recalls your invocation of non-programmability since I would be taking inherently programmable literary matter and reducing it to a culturally dominant non-programmable state.

What this indicates is that it is all but impossible to exaggerate the disconnect between the vast range of potential implicit in the native materiality of text, within indeed, the matter of literature itself, and actually-existing literary practices and institutions. This disconnect becomes more and more marked as other media are progressively digitized and rendered in a programmable state - music and cinema and their new media - whereas the literal (which was digital avant la lettre, see 'Of Programmatology' in Mute, Fall 1998, 72-75) continues to aspire to authoritative stasis and remains the model of property-based copyright and copy making. In terms of trade and politics this is bizarre. Why should text not be at least as 'free' as music? My anecdote clearly suggests that it is not. The underlying answer must have to do with strict relations between languages and the institutions which regulate knowledge (including news and advertising) and their dissemination. Institutions somehow need to be able to regulate the production of copies of literal material, and we remain unconsciously complicit with the supporting practices to the extent that even our literal art-making is constrained, I would say, and challenged to respond.

So, to recast your provocation and get back on the time line, the past archives a media history that is overdeterimined by text as immutable authoritative word. The present is an emerging act of language making that directly engages with the culture of human time. The work itself is made of time and it both gives and takes time. It admits that the historical bodies of words alter as they are inscribed and reinscribed.

The future has to be claimed and projected. I agree that it calls on us to inscribe it with an element of radical indeterminacy, and with composed structures of material signs that are not necessarily (re)programmable, and which, therefore, can have an effective, distinct and, indeed, disruptive meaning. We do need to make things that can make a change rather than recurse or infinitely reiterate loops of eternal return. Nonetheless, because of existing, heavily biased institutional structures governing literature, as a strategic way to respond, at least with regard to form, I do think that loops, for example, have a role to play:

insts = "institutions of literary criticism and theory"
critAtoms = "atoms of interpretation"
poeticAtoms = "atoms of literal art"
poeticAtoms = BUILD(poeticAtoms,Time-Based)
REPEAT WHILE (insts Do_Not_Get_It(critAtoms,Are_Time-Based(poeticAtoms)))
     poeticAtoms = BUILD(poeticAtoms,Time-Based)

Whether, in the longer term, particular instruments or structures within time-based literature emerge as distinct embodiments of new or latent rhetorical figures, is more difficult to predict or desire.

As for the larger question of whatever is unexpected, and our art-making welcome for it, in this context, I expect to be shocked by the universal machinic as a possible site of culture, one that might be addressed as commensurate with human cultures. There is, of course, an exoticized attraction to the machinic, but I believe this is usually cosmetic and misdirected in current discussions, where machinic has a decorative function for critical or theoretical statements, where machinic is anthropomorphized rather than addressed as such. (Some see this in terms of Orientalism, but I think this paradigm has problems here, similarities that may give rise to confusions.) However, if there is anything in the recent physical and mathematical speculations concerning computation and complexity then this suggests that it is also worth pursuing poetic research (research that 'makes' as it goes) into the rhetoric and transliteration of a thus-far less tractable culture, a culture that we thought was subculture and may prove to be superculture.

In fact real changes to the/our system have already taken place. An important example is archive, - the procedures of record(ing) and the very different ways in which archives are now vulnerable to destruction (as Derrida points out in Archive Fever, for example). The machine is already at the heart-mind of culture.