Author Archives: Rachel

Ellen Ullman interview and some thoughts on object-oriented fiction

There’s a really nice, extensive Salon interview with Ellen Ullman about The Bug and her life as an English major-turned-computer programmer in the mid-80s. Apparently, the novel started out as nonfiction, a novella-length essay about her own experience with a persistent, elusive bug, not unlike the titular bug that Roberta and Ethan encounter in the novel.

The interview is full of interesting insights about Ullman’s writing process, including this thought-provoking comment about her choice to give the novel a historical setting:

…trying to write about new computer things, if you’re going to spend years on it, like you do on a novel, it’s pretty hopeless. By the time you’re done with it, it won’t be new anymore. It’s not journalism. This book took me five years. If you tried to write it about breaking developments, it’s going to look old no matter what. You can’t keep updating; it’s too integral a story. You can’t just flip pieces in and out of it — it’s not object-oriented.

What would a novel look like if it were “object-oriented”? What if there was a piece of fiction out there somewhere being continually updated and retooled to reflect changing conditions in the scenario it describes? Of course, it would be impossible to write a story that perfectly kept pace with current events: it’s the old Tristram Shandy problem. A writer can never “catch up” to the present moment. But I’m interested in the idea of a story that a reader can see growing and adapting in more-or-less real time, something that none of the hypercybertextufictions (what are we supposed to call them again?) we’ve studied thus far are actually capable of doing. Many of the examples we’ve studied do contain elements of randomness that generate many programmed permutations, but none to my knowledge are being actively rewritten or updated by their authors. What if the process of writing electronic literature was more like developing software? What if Michael Joyce were still writing Afternoon and released an updated version every few months? Would that be totally insane, or an exciting new paradigm for fiction? Isn’t that kind of modularity and seriality more or less what a blog does? And if so, whither the fiction-bloggers?

They exist! According to Wikipedia, “blog fiction” is a thing. It’s a tricky literary category, however, partly because of the strong associations we have between blogging and non-fiction (journalistic or diary-style blogs), and partly because even ostensibly non-fiction blogs contain fictionalized elements. Fascinating stuff!

Texts Without Context

Sitting in the airport waiting for my flight back to Ontario, I stumbled across a book review in today’s issue of the New York Times all about the future of print culture: “Texts Without Context” by Michiko Kakutani. If you’re in post-spring break recovery mode and looking for a way to get your brain back in shape for class, check it out!

Project outline: punk and cyberpunk

Since I posted my initial proposal, I’ve decided to back away from the creative option a little bit in order to stick to what I know: blogging. I had fantasies about concocting a hand coded and structured site to host my project, but based on time constraints and the amount of research and writing I’d like to be able to do to really get my ideas in order, it makes way more sense to let a machine handle the back-end. I still intend to get creative with the style and execution of the posts, and I hope that the more informal and flexible structure of a blog will reinforce the ideas I present in ways that a traditional academic essay couldn’t. Here are some of the topics I intend to address:

I. The Story So Far

  • Issues raised by the original punk moment in the 70s
    • nihilistic/dystopian aesthetic
    • connection to avant-garde tradition
    • Punk and politics, esp. anarchism and upset in the social order
    • Impact on the music industry: seizing the means of production?
  • “post-punk” era of the mid-late 80s
  • late 80s/early 90s: cyberpunk! a new mutation of the punk aesthetic or faulty appropriation of the punk discourse?
    • as it pertains to the literary/artistic aesthetic, the “punk” in cyberpunk is hard to decipher
    • Critics addressing aesthetic links between punk and cyberpunk tend to misrepresent the history/ideology of punk
  • the present: an (apparently) decentralized, semi-anarchic DIY media environment online presents the defining terms for contemporary music and subculture, aesthetically and economically

II. Case studies

I intend this to be a pretty significant part of my project, but as such I’m having a hard time nailing down the specifics. The media objects/events I address will vary greatly depending on how the overall gist of my argument takes shape. However, a lot of the examples I mentioned in my original proposal still stand as strong contenders.

III. Unifying Themes and Analysis

  • The Society of the Spectacle
    • Ties between punk and the Situationist International, esp. Debord’s notion of “the spectacle”
      • Debord’s influence on postmodern theorists like Baudrillard
    • Cyberpunk ostensibly fills an emerging need for artistic response to the “postmodern condition”
  • Noise
    • exploring the aesthetic possibilities of noise (in music and to some extent in subcultural “style”)
    • “culture jamming” and playful subversion/subversive play
  • DIY ethos
    • decentralized media production challenging centralized authority
    • the risk of reinventing the wheel, resultant issues of ahistorcism/mystification

Apologies if the outline is somewhat obscure. Since a lot of this is building off research I did last semester, it might be helpful to check out my original project proposal for my Marxism and Cultural Studies term paper, and the subsequent revised proposal.

Digital Nation

There was a really cool program on PBS Frontline recently: Digital Nation, an in-depth look at “life in the digital age” produced by Rachel Dretzin and co-hosted by cuddly new media guru Douglas Rushkoff. If you have some down time over break, I highly recommend it! The program addresses many issues that have come up in our class discussions, especially the question of how interaction with digital media may be rewiring young brains.

You can stream the whole thing from their website, which also houses a lot of interesting web-only interviews and discussions, all potential fodder for our term projects! Fascinating stuff.

Recursive fiction

Since I just took a class on Proust, I feel compelled to comment on the significance Lentz’s “Marcel” quips. “Marcel” refers to Marcel Proust, author of In Search of Lost Time (or A La Recerche du Temps Perdu). In Search of Lost Time, is a semi-autobiographical novel (or fictionalized autobiography) in which the first-person narrator shares the author’s name. “Marcel” is the nickname Lentz gives to the protagonist of Richard Powers’ Galatea 2.2, a character who also happens to be an author named Richard Powers.

The first point most critics make about In Search of Lost Time is that the reader should be careful not to conflate “Marcel” the narrator with Marcel Proust the author. While the two share certain biographical details, there is no getting around the fact that one is a character constructed by the other, and that whatever resemblance there is between “Marcel” and Proust is complicated by the broader and decidedly fictional context of the novel.

The Proust allusion in Galatea 2.2 may be Powers’ way of slyly reminding his readers (or at least the literary-minded ones) to approach his book with similar caution, as well as a way to comment on the self-reflexive weirdness of his own fictionalized autobiographical project.

In Search of Lost Time is about a lot of things (and I do mean a lot. It’s seven volumes long) but it’s first and foremost a reflection on the nature of memory and time, and the possiblity of art as a salvation from the ephemerality induced by both. Proust was interested in analyzing (in a literary way) the mental mechanical process of memory, particularly what he called “involuntary memory”: apparently spontaneous or unconsciously triggered recollections induced by sensory experience, as in the well-known “madeline episode,” in which biting into a tea cake triggers a flashback (mental and narrative) to events of the protagonist’s childhood.

Memory is also an important theme of Powers’ book, particularly the relationship between memory and technology, the mechanism of memory and the mechanism as memory. Information technology, databases and neural nets all figure as a way for Powers/”Powers” to analogically/metaphorically grapple with his own project as a writer, particularly once Lentz ropes Powers into his scheme to build a neural net to simulate literary interpretation.

Powers reflects on the complexity of the project in this cryptic passage: “It struck me. To train our circus animal in Faulkner or Thomas Gray, we would first have to exhilarate it with the terror of words. The circuits we laid down would have to include the image of the circuit itself before memory overhauled it. The net would have to remember what it would be again, one day, when forgetting set in for good.” (56)

In this passage Powers creates a fascinatingly twisty analogy between the program and the nature of human consciousness. His realization is triggered when he learns that memory is effectively a form of inscription: “Every sentence, every word I’d ever stored had changed the physical structure of my brain.” He concludes that their interpretive machine will have to be similarly “fluid.” He seems to be arguing that in order to interpret literature, the machine will inevitably become conscious of its own inscribed/literary nature, and thus self-conscious (!!) Self-consciousness and/or self-simulation is definitely a key theme in Galatea 2.2, particularly as it pertains to Powers’ first-person narrative about designing a machine which may or may not be destined to replace him.

This brings me back to what Hayles is getting at when she talks about the importance of technology in the construction of subjectivity and the feedback loop between “the body” and “the machine.” One of the many “machines” in Powers’ novel is the novel itself. The act of observation not only changes the thing observed, it also changes the observer, and when the observer is the thing observed, that’s a recipe for some majorly recursive fiction.


If you’re wondering how the more radical aspects of electronic lit (and/or cyber|literature, cybertext, hypertext, etc.) fit into the historical context of avant-garde art and writing, you should definitely check out the UbuWeb Anthology of Conceptual Writing as well as its Ethnopoetics collection (what’s “ethnopoetics,” you ask? Wikipedia explains.)

UbuWeb is a free online archive of experimental writing, concrete poetry, sound and video art from the 20th century to the present day. It’s a treasure trove of incredible stuff! Go exploring.

We Live in Public

A new must-see film for students of digital media: We Live in Public by Ondi Timoner, recipient of the 2009 Sundance Grand Jury Prize for best documentary!


Ten years in the making and culled from 5000 hours of footage, the film tells the story of Josh Harris, “the greatest Internet pioneer you’ve never heard of”:

Harris, often called the “Warhol of the Web”, founded, the first Internet television network during the infamous dot-com boom of the 1990s. He also curated and funded the ground breaking project “Quiet” in an underground bunker in NYC where over 100 people lived together on camera for 30 days at the turn of the millennium. With Quiet, Harris proved how we willingly trade our privacy for the connection and recognition we all deeply desire, but with every technological advancement such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter, becomes more elusive. Through his experiments, including a six-month stint living with his girlfriend under 24-hour electronic surveillance which led to his mental collapse, Harris demonstrated the price we pay for living in public.

We Live in Public will be released for download this coming Monday, March 1st, and on DVD March 2nd. In celebration of the online release, the film will be simulcast in six theaters worldwide (including the Egyptian in LA) followed by a Q&A with Timoner from her home base in Chicago. All six events will stream live on the film’s website, I can’t wait!

Oblique Strategies

oblique strategies

Whenever I’m trying to find my way around a creative block, I like to consult Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies. The Oblique Strategies are (basically) a deck of cards, each containing a cryptic instructional aphorism. The deck came to be when Eno, a musician/producer and Schmidt, a painter, discovered that they both

…tended to keep a set of basic working principles which guided them through the kinds of moments of pressure – either working through a heavy painting session or watching the clock tick while you’re running up a big buck studio bill. Both Schmidt and Eno realized that the pressures of time tended to steer them away from the ways of thinking they found most productive when the pressure was off. The Strategies were, then, a way to remind themselves of those habits of thinking – to jog the mind. (Gregory Taylor, “A Primer on the Oblique Strategies”)

Schmidt and Eno suggest several possible ways to consult the deck: “They can be used as a pack (a set of posibilities being continuously reviewed in the mind) or by drawing a single card from a shuffled pack when a dilemma occurs in a working situation. In this case the card is trusted even if it appropriateness is quite unclear. They are not final, as new ideas will present themselves, and others will become self-evident.” Of course, the best way to get a sense for what the Oblique Strategies are all about is to try them yourself.  I recommend the online version here.

Since Aarseth counts the I Ching among his examples of “cybertext,” I wonder if he would also count the Oblique Strategies? While the deck itself is finite, the game-like format of consultation is designed to apply to any situation and hence yield limitless results. However, there’s some question as to whether consulting the deck really constitutes a “nontrivial effort” on the part of the consultee. Since the playing field of the game is real life (and not a more controlled cybertextual space) it’s entirely possible to consult the deck and not follow the suggested course of action (bearing in mind that the suggested course is totally open to the reader’s interpretation). Or is it?


My term project will be a piece of creative non-fiction exploring the question (roughly) of how we got from ‘punk’ to ‘cyberpunk’ and beyond. I wrote my term paper for Marxism and Cultural Studies last semester about punk rock and punk culture in the 1970s, so I see this project as a way to build on my research while bringing the subject a little closer to the 21st century.

Science fiction author Bruce Bethke coined the term “Cyberpunk” in 1983 as the title for a short story of the same name. Cyberpunk (a portmanteau of “cybernetics” and “punk”)  became a sci-fi genre in its own right, popularized by the work of authors like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, as well as retroactively applied to earlier work by J.G. Ballard, Phillip K. Dick, Thomas Pynchon, and even William Burroughs. According to the Wikipedia entry on cyberpunk, the cyberpunk narrative is characterized by “advanced science, such as information technology and cybernetics, coupled with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order.”

I’ve always been intrigued by the various ways “punk” has become a catch-all term for an anarchic, dystopian aesthetic, and particularly in the ways this sensibility manifests itself on the Internet, arguably the space in which many of today’s major upsets in the social order are orchestrated. Cyberpunk hit its peak of cultural vogue in the early 90s and mercifully faded from the pop-cultural radar (until the Matrix trilogy came out and blew teenage minds worldwide, anyway) but traces of the sensibility linger tantalizingly in many aspects of digital culture today.

I’m still figuring out what form the project will take, but it will definitely include multimedia, fragmentary thought processes, some web code craziness, and otherwise depart interestingly from the standard academic essay format.

As a starting point, here’s a charming article entitled “Cyberpunk R.I.P.” by Paul Saffo, from the Sep/Oct 1993 issue of Wired.

Various other points of interest…

Cyberpunk in pop culture

  • Hollywood tries to make computers look exciting, hilarity ensues (eventually, the Matrix)
  • Cyberpunk in comics and anime. The future of cartooning, cartooning the future
  • In music, the subject of several concept albums, including Billy Idol’s universally-panned 1993 album Cyberpunk and David Bowie’s better-recieved 1. Outside
  • …and, more broadly, the futuristic aesthetic manifested in various post-punk musical genres including noise, industrial, and electronic music

Cyberpunk and cyberculture

  • The romanticization of the hacker as postmodern outlaw
  • Sci-fi goes postmodern, postmodernity goes sci-fi
  • Wired magazine and (post)cyberpunk ideology
  • Punk/DIY culture in the ’90s and its relationship (if any) to hacker/”maker” culture in the late ’90s and ’00s

poetry machines

I keep thinking back to Landow’s comment on Vannevar Busch’s “poetic” vision for information technology:

“Busch wanted to replace the essentially linear fixed methods that had produced the triumphs of capitalism and industrialism with what are essentially poetic machines–machines that work according to analogy and association, machines that capture and create the anarchic brilliance of human imagination.”

It’s odd to think of computers as having “poetic” properties, since on a deep functional level, computing seems like the apex of logic and rationality–pure units of information working together to create functional systems with predictable effects and as little “noise” as possible. To make the machine work we are still very much beholden to linear, mechanical processes and, in a very literal way, the capitalist-industrial assembly line. But on the surface level of software and the user interface, as Busch so aptly observed, things get a lot less objective/linear and a lot more subjective/idiosyncratic, yielding the flexible and intuitive ways to organize and display coded information encoded in today’s personal computers, hence the open-ended nature of the interface and the metaphorical “poetry” of the machine . The “poetic” underpinnings of the user experience enable us not only to organize our documents more efficiently, but also to explore the  expressive potential of the interface-as-medium.

So what happens when we use poetic machines to write poetry? Hypertext experimental writing, a la Joyce, Jackson and Strickland. I’m using the term ‘poetry’ fairly broadly, in reference to the fact that these authors seem as concerned with the aesthetics of hypertext as with its apparent meaning or narrative function.

Although their hypertext projects are ostensibly narrative, I found myself mentally placing them less in the context of traditional literary fiction and more in the context of avant-garde experimental writing: for example, Gertrude Stein’s stream-of-consciousness poetry, or William Burroughs’ “cut-ups.” The associations, fragmentations, and surreal non sequiturs these authors attempted to capture in plain text are, in a sense, coded into the basic vocabulary of hypertext.

Working in the hypertext medium forces Joyce et. al. to deal with structures imposed on their narrative by the interface. Sequential, open-ended, multilinear reading is the most obvious consequence of hypertext, and while that in itself could be the subject of many blog posts, I’d also like to note some of more subtle ways in which these narratives are influenced by their mechanism: themes of fragmentation or displacement in time, as well as frequent allusions to “the machine” (for instance, Strickland’s “zeros and ones” motif throughout “The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot”). Then again, these themes are mostly present at the level of allusions or references within the text–they don’t seem to have had a serious formal impact on the text itself. To me, the surprising thing about this week’s hypertext readings was not how much they differed standard literary fiction, but rather how attached they still were to literary conventions of plot, character, and so forth. There must be people out there writing super crazy avant-garde hyperpoetry. But who?