The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

March 28, 2008

notes (final) for NSF workshop on literature and programming (large but worth it, an example of the 
recent work w/ sync sound - to be played at the beginning of the talk - 
apologies for bad compression, but wanted to keep the file somewhat within 
reach) (hopefully)

I'll try to keep this short -


I want to generalize writing and coding as _inscription,_ and emphasize
that the world as we know it is already inscribed, encoded and decoded.
The lifeworld isn't analogic and/or mute; it's discrete and presencing.
It's discrete because we deal with symbols in order to communicate; we're
sending signs or tokens back and forth, very rarely the physical objects
of our desire.

One way of thinking about this is in terms of _filtering._ The usual model
of information, transmitter through receiver (with stuff of all sorts in
the middle channel) implies that there is a form of coherency and, if not
comprehension, at least "mutual orientation of cognitive domains," between
sender and receiver. I'd argue that this orientation occurs through
filtering which is always present, fuzzy, and possessing a political
economy of its own (think of Pribram's "retinal knowledge" for example,
the neural processing that occurs in the retina before signals are sent
from the eye to the brain).

Filtering isn't active or passive, inscribed or inscribing, and informa-
tion itself is non-existent, nothing, a form of particulate matter with an
ontology derived from organisms and apparatus.

Once we start (or end) here, "creative" writing splits; on one hand it
becomes _wryting_ - that's spelled with a "y" -a state of material
transformation, transmission, and reception; and on the other, it becomes
malleable, a spew interpreted as symbols. Here is the moment of creative
freedom which also splits - on one hand into or through unbounded, rule-
less 'creative' writing, drawn from an organism's interior - and on the
other, a fuzzy collocation of coding, languages, kludges, protocols, drawn
equally from interior impulse and external restraints (economic, etc.) or
goals that may be transformed in the process of inscription.

(I want to note that in the work I'm doing here at the Virtual Environ-
ments Laboratory, I've been exploring visual configurations or inscrip-
tions, configurations in which spaces, avatars, and objects interact in
uncanny ways, simultaneously malleable and protocol-driven:

Working within the visual and time-based register, static and dynamic
processes blur into one another. We can temporally code a tableau, moving
performers during slow-scan in much the same manner as characters appear-
ing at both ends of a panoramic photograph. We can also move them in terms
of depth, and we can create an interactive diorama in which the viewer
enters and meanders, reconstructing the original sequence of events. We
can also combine a tableau with encoded and restructured motion-capture
behaviors, using avatars or mannequins circulating among the diorama
elements, as "tourists" among ruins - in this manner there are several
interlocking layers of interpretation, the viewer in the midst of them.

With the aid of 3-dimensional laser scanning, we can present abject ele-
ments as if they were interior projections of the "tourists" themselves,
and it's not far from this that the potential for a 4-dimensional reading
or interpreting (seeing, witnessing) of 3-dimensional object _interiors_
occurs. The result is a 5-dimensional manifold as cultural object,
cultural abject. The possibilities for exploration are enormous here, a
kind of pure escapism of dialog, narrative, arousal, creation and
annihilation, in which ultimately nothing happens, no one gets hurt.

So this leads to another direction I'll just mention briefly - thinking of
creative writing as a kind of inscribing in any medium at all. We can then
talk about creative inscription, creative coding, whatever, emphasizing a
"new media" approach to all of this, rather than thinking of electronic
literature, e-literature, interactive writing, etc.)

To misquote the physicist David Finkelstein, one might consider program-
ming as fucking with/in a universe of abstracted ontologies, and creative
writing as masturbation-fantasy, moving just about anywhere, anywhen. Both,
however, have inscription and filtering in common and neither presents or is
pure 'presence' within the world. On the other hands, both meander among
rules, although with differing obeisance, and both have, at their core, a
freedom that is as absolute as anything gets.

How can this be useful pedagogically? In terms of creative writing, the answer 
is, I believe, to think of texts as both intentional, cohering, and as material 
objects which are always already filtered; this leads to thinking about 
filtering and different forms of filtering as creative writing practice. In 
terms of programming, not being a programmer (but working with programmers), 
I'm not sure; I'd argue that, for an outsider, filtering appears at the 
interstices or liminal spaces between program and framework (inputs, outputs, 
interfaces, hardware (in the traditional sense, and in the sense of 
information-laden substance), and so forth). And I'd want to look at the 
phenomenological horizons of programming, not only through this filtering, but 
also within programs and programming in general: Where is the programmer in the 
midst of her subroutine? And where is the freedom then/there?

I do want to note one final thing here - that I'm placing too much empha-
sis on specificity, the discrete. One of the directions I've been explor-
ing at the VEL is to consider the _abject,_ which remains indeterminate
and close th analogic substance - something "gooey," not "GUI," for
example. It's here that we humans can explore the world which refuses
discrete curtailment, which abjures communication.


Some parallels between poetry and code (very underdeveloped section)

1. Both treat language as a material with "additional," even surplus,
structure in relation to presumably normative prose. In other words,
poetry works with tropes such as rhyme, rhythm, "resonance," metaphor,
metonymy, etc. - all the devices of rhetoric that appear linguistic
"material" - acoustic or page/screen/etc. - on a meta- or abject- level,
just as codework works with protocols, elements extraneous to the surface
meaning, but inextricably entangled with it.
2. Both are "writerly" texts in the sense that, in order to read them,
additional work (meta, interiority) is required that's not required of
standard prose.
3. One might say that standard prose possesses subtexts in the sense of
"underlying meanings" that encompass paragraphs, chapters, entire works -
while the subtexts of codework and poetry are also on the level of letters,
words, sentences, and so forth. I remember the Mirror of Composition saying
that "A poem is a sentence with flavour." (rasa). That applies.
4. On a practical level, the communities of practitioners intersect -
Vincent Cerf has poetry in the RFC, there are Perl poems, and there are
poets who work through concepts of programming, such as Catherine Daly.

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