The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

Digital Literatures (from a post on empyre)

Thinking about electronic literature (the original post is for
the current discussion on the empyre email list, but I thought
it might be of interest elsewhere as well).

Like many others on empyre, I've been following this discussion
with interest. I want to point out that digital poetics,
robopoetics, in any form is part of a field, and at least for
me, both canon and genre obstruct our view and thinking. So here
are a number examples; these are legion.

Newsgroups: News groups were incredibly creative, both passively
and actively in their audiences and participants. In 1996 for
example, there was a group alt.adjective.noun.verb.verb.verb; in
order to post, one had to present one's writing in this format.
The FAQ is at .

The FAQ begins:


(1) alt.curious.format.originate.begin.enquire?

There were groups such as alt.society.neutopia that led to FAQs
in the form of "Neutopian FAQ-like Substance" - see!topic/alt.society.neutopia/jDzEAs_fVlA
which is part of a complex pseudo-religious mythology written
across list posts and groupings.

There were newsgroups you couldn't post in, unless you literally
could hack your way into them; in other words, you had to engage
the groups on the level of protocol in order to access.

All of this work has been documented (there were hundreds of
thousands of groups by the way); the group mores, activities,
codes, codework, etc. were amazingly creative; things ranged
from bots to texts to messing with the software itself to
poetries and poetics; there were also crosspostings etc.

IRC - Internet Relay Chat - was an excellent platform based on
UDP (which created netsplits that could be used for poetics as
well); again the creativity was amazing. But the creativity here
rolled across your screen at highspeed; it wasn't archived, but
was always on the fly. You could do (and I did) intrusions into
various channels and record them of course; in a sense you
creative a kind of running interference within the social body
of the channel (or you open up your own channel) that could lead
to amazing imminent results. Zen-like, most of what occurred
lived only on the edge of memory. IRC still works. Much of what
went on was sexual, but there was also a great deal of
'hackerese' at work as if Mez were speaking at high speed.

Speaking of which, there was Integer/Antiorp/Netochka Nezvanova
- see
for more information; she/they should be at the top of anyone's
list here. Florian Cramer created a perl program I've (and
others) have used based on her leet - ; we should all know about
this (Sandy Baldwin has written on it).

There were and still are, mostly unused, MOOs, MUDs, talkers,
and other live forms of programmable environments; I (and
others) haven written into these, creating spaces for
conversation/building/botting, etc. You can find a lot of
information on Wikipedia. These relate to scripting in virtual
worlds - and scripting itself becomes a kind of ro/botics;
Second Life objects can perform, spew texts, etc.; Garrett Lynch
had a program which allows live conversation to be mapped onto

EMACs, the linux text editor, has one of the earliest
implementations of the Eliza bot program; it's not all that
difficult to go into the lisp code and modify Eliza to do just
about anything - literatures emerge and others can create within
the framework.

It's also easy to go into interactive fiction such as Adventure
itself - see for Nick Montfort's book
- and modify the fiction in any number of ways. The programming
has some interesting philosophical implications (check out the
dungeons for example).

Again, I want to stress, that all of this has been used by,
creative by, described by, etc. by, people who for the most part
are _non-canonic,_ _genre-bending,_ etc. etc. So when we go back
over and over again to the canon, we do a disservice to the fact
that we're dealing with field phenomena, not stars and
particular work. We need in other words something like a
literary field theory, not the usual classical physics with its
emphasis on well-defined particulate mechanisms.

To continue - there's also griefing in virtual worlds; my
favorite in Second Life is a 'magic pencil' that, as its moved
through space, leaves behind a trail of objects (all of which is
programmable of course, including the objects); make a big
enough 'structure,' and you're going to bring the sim to a halt
as the number of generated prims goes sky-high. The result is

There are somatic aspects to all of this as well; you might
design a bot for example to imitate Emily Dickinson on one or
another level - but she was a mind and body writing, and that
connects her poetry in an imminent way to the poetics of chant,
speech, song, phenomenology of meaning, flesh, tissue, neuron,
habitus, etc. I'd argue it's that which gives it meaning - which
brings up Wikileaks etc. - because hacking is, in a way, an
inversion of the body - a poetics of penetration from the
outside (I don't necessarily mean this in any sense as a sexual
metaphor btw) - an inverted bot retrieving its dictionary and
semantics to the surface. I argue this should be included in any
course on robopoetics, digital poetics, etc. (As should the
rules, written and unwritten, for Facebook and other social
media - rules which shape, censor, expand dialog and so forth.)

Along with this, I'd bring issues of email lists themselves,
with their trolls, fabrications, splits, coalescences, etc.; the
best accounting I've seen in Jon Marshall's Living on Cybermind,
, which is an ethnographic description of an email list started
(still running) in 1994 by Michael Current and myself; he died
shortly after the list was launched, and the book covers that,
as well as trolling by a number of people/groups. Again, there
are somatic issues at work here.

Finally, from my viewpoint, there's a general field of codework
- which can I think be traced back to 19th-century telegraph
operators, and their codings/decodings, subversions during
spare-time at the keys. A lot has been written about this of

A lot has been written about all of this; the amount of
information is overwhelming - just take, for example LambdaMOO, - which would need a
course by itself just to cover the basics and history.

The problem is that all of the above goes way back (I've known
people who were hacking online around 1972 for example); the
practices are fields of practice, the audiences are dispersed,
and, for me, the very use of genre and canon as a viable
pedagogical approach is problematic. There has to be another way
to deal with all of this, without going through the usual star
system. It's interesting that Furtherfield/Netbehaviour - in
their approach to blockchain work for example - seems, to me,
broad in this sense.

[I realize how much I've forgotten to include: Perl and other
language poetries; odd languages such as one composed entirely
of spaces and tabs (the programs appear completely blank);
figlets; glitchwork and experiments with cellular automata; all
sorts of wandering bots in MOOs, MUDs, etc.; the wide variety of
MUDS such as LPMUDS, FurryMUCK etc. - see -
related to cosplay etc.; OpenSIM varieties; early graphical
avatar spaces such as The Palace - ; of
course the Maker movement physical/virtual; and all the
communities, creations, commons around all of these as well -
then there's Fidonet and BBS cultures ...]

And I do want to emphasize I'm not writing about the 'good old
days' but about a revolution of writing/speaking/somatic
approaches itself. First, thinking about fields creates an
entirely different approach (reminds me of Dwarf Fortress for
example); and second, pretty much all of the above continues
today in one or another form; these formats haven't gone away.

(I do realize I'm just touching the surface here; that most
empyreans already know this, etc.; I'm just trying to think, for
myself at least, across object-lessons into waves and
shape-riding, where the shapes themselves are riders.)

Thanks for your patience, Alan

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