rr01 posted 09 Dec 2003

John Cayley speaks of our mutual investments: networked and programmable media, textual art, linguistic materiality, translation, and code. In the course of this dialogue, we will, I hope, work through these concerns and pose some questions about texts and textual practices that engage, depend upon, or are produced from the exchange between natural language and digital code.

One such experimental artistic practice is “codework”: the use of the contemporary idiolect of the computer and computing processes both as idiolect and as an operative, functional language. Here I hope that John and I might introduce a dialogic component to our earlier essays on the subject [cited in jc00] and we might emphasize the distinction between programmable codework and texts that embed commands and command structures into the surface text, as in mez’s aesthetic use of her invented language “mezangelle” (which aims in part “2 uze computer kode kon.[e]vent.ionz”) and Talan Memmott’s Lexia to Perplexia, which remixes natural language and code into a language that bears the mark of machinic production (PER[(p)[L(EX)]]ia).

I would like to begin, though, with the trope of interference. While “networked and programmable media” might suggest integration and completeness (we might think here of the network as a popular and accepted figure for connectivity), much contemporary programmed art introduces aspects of interference that trouble the homogeneity of the network. This interference can take different forms: illegibility, withholding, a refusal of reader-user engagement, autodestruction, discontinuity, incompleteness. It is worth noting that one of the claims for the putative radicalness of codework practices derives from this principle of disruption and in this respect seeks to establish an affinity to a wide range of interventionist conceptual art practices. Ted Warnell’s complex code poems are representative, e.g. “Berlioz,” a ‘roll-your-own-tone poem in fourteen movements’ that includes input from mez, Memmott, Brian Lennon, Jim Andrews, and other webartery listserv participants. Warnell – who not coincidentally frames his portfolio under the rubric “syntactical error” – has produced a number of texts in which the script that executes the text is displayed on the surface or interface (e.g. “Lascaux.Symbol.ic”), but that also provide instances of failed translation and incommensurability between code and natural language. But these texts do not provide an exact equivalent between operative code and textual interface; rather, there is always a remainder or excess of code not translated into the interface.

It is easier to think about how interference and incompleteness (or open-endedness, if you prefer) become a methodology embedded within a text, but I wonder, John, if you would accept the claim that interference has become an element of the epistemology of digital media, such that the text becomes an experience of a certain poetics?

Finally, I imagine that your view of programmable texts that exhibit the qualities of disruption and discontinuity might partly be informed by your work as a translator and your interest in Chinese poetics. In the Iowa Review interview with Brian Kim Stefans, you explain that a formalist engagement with temporality and temporal structures links your work in Chinese poetics to your work in programmable media, but I wonder if your appreciation of clarity and precision also has something to do with your respecting of the differences between symbolic structures?