Analysis: taking things apart

The fact that one cannot tell from any piece of code whether it is machine-executable or not provides the principle condition of all E-Mail viruses on the one hand, and of the codeworks of jodi, antiorp/Netochka Nezvanova, mez, Ted Warnell, Alan Sondheim, Kenji Siratori -
{9: with the ``'' computer virus of the net art groups
being the only exception to date.}
to name only a few - on the other; work that, unlike the actual viri, is fictional in that it aesthetically pretends to be potentially viral machine code.9

The codeworks, to use a term coined by Alan Sondheim, of these writers and programmer-artists are prime examples for a digital poetry which reflects the intrisic textuality of the computer. But they do so not by being, to quote Alan Turing via Raymond Queneau, computer poetry to be read by computers10,
{10: Raymond Queneau. Cent mille milliards de poèmes. Gallimard, Paris, 1961. p.3 }
but by playing with the confusions and thresholds of machine language and human language, and by reflecting the cultural implications of these overlaps. The ''mezangelle'' poetry of mez/Mary Ann Breeze, which mixes programming/network protocol code and non-computer language to a portmanteau-word hybrid, is an outstanding example of such a poetics.

Compared to earlier poetics of formal instruction, like in La Monte Young's Composition 1961, in Fluxus pieces and in permutational poetry, an important difference can be observed in the codeworks: The Internet code poets and artists do not construct or synthesize code, but they use code or code grammars they found and take them apart. I agree with Friedrich Block and his ''Eight Digits of Digital Poetry'' that digital poetry should be read in the history and context of experimental poetry. A poetics of synthesis was characteristic of combinatory and instruction-based poetry, a poetics of analysis characterized Dada and its successors.
{11: An exception being the the ALGOL computer programming language poetry written by the Oulipo poets François le Lionnais and Noël Arnaud in the early 1970s,
 see Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie, editors. Oulipo Compendium. Atlas Press, London, 1998. p.47 }
But one hardly finds poetry with an analytical approach to formal instruction code in the classical 20th century avant-garde.11 Internet code poetry is being written in a new - if one likes, post-modernist - condition of machine code abundance and overload.

The hypothesis that there is no such thing as digital media, but only digital code which can be stored in and put out on any analog medium, is perfectly verified by codework poetry. Unlike hypertext and multimedia poets, most of the artists mentioned here write plain ASCII text. The contradiction between a complex techno-poetical reflection and low-tech communication is only a seeming one; quite on the contrary, the low-tech is crucial to the critical implication of the codework poetics.

The development of hyperfiction and multimedia poetry practically paralleled the construction of the World Wide Web; hyperfiction authors rightfully saw themselves as its pioneers. In the course of nineties, they continued to push the technical limits of both the Internet and multimedia computer technology. But since much digital art and literature became testbed applications for new browser features and multimedia plugins, it simultaneously locked itself into non-open, industry-controlled code formats.12
{12: like Shockwave, QuickTime and Flash}
Whether intentional or not, digital art thus strongly participated in the reformatting of the World Wide Web from an open, operating system- and browser-agnostic information network to a platform dependent on propietary technology.

By readjusting the reader's attention from software surfaces which pretended not to be code back to the code itself, codeworks have apparent aesthetical and political affinities to hacker cultures. While hacker cultures are far more diverse than the singular term ''hacker'' suggests13, hackers could as well be distinguished between those who put things together -
{13: Boris Gröndahl's (German) Telepolis article ``The Script Kiddies Are Not Alright'' summarizes the multiple, sometimes even antagonistic camps associated with the term ``hacker'', " url=/tp/deutsch/inhalt/te/9266/1.html"}
like Free Software and demo programmers - and those who take things apart - like crackers of serial numbers and communication network hackers from YIPL/TAP, Phrack, 2600 and Chaos Computer Club schools. Code poets have factually adopted many poetical forms that were originally developed by various hacker subcultures from the 1970s to the early 1990s, including ASCII Art, code slang (like ''7331 wAr3z d00d'' for ''leet [=elite] wares dood'') and poetry in programming languages (such as Perl poetry), or they even belong to both the ''hacker'' and the ''art'' camp

From its beginning on, conceptualist engaged in a critical politics of the Internet and its code, and continues to be closely affiliated with critical discourse on net politics in such forums as the ''Nettime'' mailing list. In its aesthetics, poetics and politics, codework poetry departs from rather than from hyperfiction and its historical roots in the Brown University literature program.

How does digital code relate to literary text? If one discusses the poetics of digital code in terms of the poetics of literary text - instead of discussing literary text in terms of digital code -, one may consider both of them interrelated without having to subscribe, as John Cayley suggested in his abstract to the German ''p0es1s'' conference14, to Friedrich Kittler's techno-determinist media theory; a theory which, despite all of its intellectual freshness
{14: " symposion2001/a_cayley.html"}
seem to fall into the metaphysical trap Derrida described in ''Écriture et différence'': By replacing one metaphysicial center (in Kittler's case: ''Geist''/spirit, ''Geistesgeschichte''/intellectual history and ''Geisteswissenschaft''/humanities) with another one - technology, history of technology and technological discourse analysis - it writes on metaphysics under a different label, contrary to its own claim to have rid itself from it.

The subtitle of this text writes an open question: ''Can notions of text which were developed without electronic texts in mind be applied to digital code, and how does literature come into play here?'' For the time being, I would like to answer this question at best provisionally: While all literature should teach us to read and deal with the textuality of computers and digital poetry, computers and digital poetry might teach us to pay more attention to codes and control structures coded into all language. In more general terms, program code contaminates in itself two concepts which are traditionally juxtaposed and unresolved in modern linguistics: the structure, as conceived of in formalism and structuralism, and the performative, as developed by speech act theory.


Lawrence Lessig. Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. Basic Books, New York, 2000.

Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie, editors. Oulipo Compendium. Atlas Press, London, 1998.

Raymond Queneau. Cent mille milliards de poèmes. Gallimard, Paris, 1961.

Galerie und Edition Hundertmark. George Maciunas und Fluxus-Editionen, 1990.