#ELRBOOKS: Book reviews by Sandy Baldwin

Originally published on WordPress on the 23rd Novemeber 2018.

The following review for the series #ELRBOOKS comes as a series of recommendations by Sandy Baldwin who is currently working as an independent writer. Nevertheless, this review features far more than five books and, in the best tradition of metafiction, his suggestions are directly addressed to the readers who are interested in electronic literature and may well be writers themselves one day.

Get inspired!

Warning: I do not recommend that you read books about electronic literature. I will offer no such recommendations here. Should you read those books at some point? Yes, and I assume you already have. And if you have not, go do so and come back later. But I am not going to waste my time recommending them. Of course, you should have read everything. Read them all. Get technical: read hardware and software manuals, read esoteric systems diagrams, read lists of random numbers, or, the best homework of all: read the RFC’s put out by the IETF. From beginning to end, the RFCs delineate the emergence and existence of the net. They contain the debates and assertions that make the network possible, and certain of the RFCs, such as Postel’s Telnet specification (#854), are epochal and read like the hidden scripture of all that follows.

But my point is that if I discuss books specifically on electronic literature, if I serve up recommendations or a syllabus of sorts, then you will just go and emulate those work, you will copy the forms, you will try out the techniques, you will imitate the themes. To be clear: you will and you should do all that, and you do not need me to recommend it. I am not encouraging you to do what you will do anyhow. Get past it. Emulation and evolving your practice is good but I want no part of it. More of the same holds no interest for me. Go somewhere else and leave me alone. I would be happy if I never read another thing about electronic literature.

I am addressing this as if you are a writer, as if you will write your own electronic literature. Perhaps that’s not the case, perhaps you will read and appreciate the work, perhaps you will write critically and historically about electronic literature. It is all the same: I am recommending books for all. Getting going and with a purpose: that is the hardest thing. Believe me I know. Get real. Burn incandescent and consume the surface of writing, etch yourself into the depths, whether page or screen, it does not matter. I recommend you read works for the material they provide and, secondly, for the existential orientation, for the project.

The material: it has to come from elsewhere, it has to be rubbed in and burst through the electronic. It: whatever the material you make use of, whatever matters and materializes in the digital. Take the digital medium on whatever platform and code and insert information. If not “insert” then infect or spew or weave. All these metaphors are useful and their point is planes of information rubbing against other strata of information, all to produce the effervescence of the new. This is true even if that “elsewhere” is the otherness within the electronic: you can find material within the otherness that already inhabits the platform or medium. Go discover esoteric programming language, odd codes, archaic remainders in digital domains. In all cases, you create a strata that crosses and disrupts, and that provides the way for your writing.

So, you need material. And you need the project: forms and themes are distractions; the point is why write at all? What drives us and what is demanded of us? We are “useless passion” concludes Jean-Paul Sartre in Being and Nothingness and only by seeking, over and over, a use for ourselves do we exist. For this reason, find yourself through action and expression. Let’s do it is the whole point of writing. So, I recommend works that give a purpose to writing, and particularly to digital and electronic writing.

Do it.

Rather than stick to the binary of material and project, I will make five recommendations that each feed both; that is, each suggestion directs you towards the material and the project you need. The first is about getting started, about the recognition and imperative to write. The second is about the interactions and habits of mind that situate us in the world. The third is about the diagrams and maps that result from the first two. The fourth is about the resulting fictions and world we inhabit. And the fifth is a bonus round, as they say on game shows, or rather: it is the way to make the work your own and to move forward towards new works. Finally, keep in mind, these recommendations are mine and you need to adjust for you. Be warned.

Read Sartre, but even more, go grab any book by Alphonso Lingis. They are all amazing and necessary. Perhaps Excessesor Abuses, just for the titles! Perhaps best known as a translator of Levinas and Merleau-Ponty, among others, Lingis is beyond unique as a philosopher in his own right. His writing resembles nothing more than a travelogue of encounters that stage or perform philosophy. Lingis describes the self not as identity but as exposure, as opening to the world. We may armor ourselves against exposure or welcome its dangers. We risk what we are to contact another, to reach out and touch their skin, to hear their voice. The risk and the touching make them other and make them reachable for us. The text is exuberant and anxious, up front with the risk that is writing. To read Lingis is to inhabit writing and the be inhabited. Believe me I know: writing is risky and Lingis faces it head on. Kathy Acker or James Ellroy (boy oh boy are they not comparable) work in similar ways for me. The point is to take on the risk that is writing and living in the world.

Read weird theories of mind. Perhaps psychoanalytic theory. Again, the point is too pen up your head and discover your mind is already spread out across the writing surface – you would not be writing otherwise! It is the weird edge of psychoanalysis that already takes on systems and networks, that anticipates the internet of things and an “always on” world. Take in Sandor Ferenczi’s flows of introjection and Melanie Klein on part objects. Or perhaps neuropsychology. Read Metzinger’s Being No One. Well, it is massive, so read the ending! Better, try Sherry Turkle’s Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit. It has been around for a bit but it stands up. But if you are going to read deep into psychoanalysis and mind, make it odd and unsettling. So, read Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror which breaks down the self in relation to a non-symbolic “primal order.” Why is this important here? Abjection online is overwhelming, whether displays of intimate private bodies or in acts of shaming and display. But I say abjection is how we enter into any intersubjective relation including online environments. For all the highly codified and protocol-driven space of the digital, its core is archaic relations to part objects and body parts. So much of online culture is about command and control, but every command is over a body with unseen interior states, and all control is an operational claim over living beings. “Online” or “digital” or “electronic” is a label for a wilderness of interiority and abjection.

Third, get into cybernetics, especially the second and third and beyond orders of loops and complex observational systems. Focus on the tension, the breakdown, the cyborgian, and the strange. Works such Gregory Bateson’s Steps Towards an Ecology of Mind outline a reflexive embedding of the subject in the world. Check out interesting technical works such as Wiener’s Cybernetics or Ashby’s Introduction to Cybernetics. Both attempt to be rigorous in describing humans as elements in the circuit but also to humanize and enliven the circuit. What I am most interested in here is the feedback and complexity of our being in the world, which is both written and writes. One accessible staging is Heinz von Foerster’s The Beginning of Heaven and Earth has No Name, which uses a conversational setting to describe the oddly embedded loops that position the observer as part of the system observed. Alternatively, check out R D Laing’s curious book of poems and language bindings, Knots, and combine it with Paul Virilio’s Speed and Politics, which illuminates the frantic limit of cyber-processes.

Fourth recommendation: read literature. OK, this is obvious and I want to pressure its obviousness. Read all literature, but avoid the obvious. In particular, avoid cyberpunk or innovative fiction, avoid language poetry or vispo (i.e. visual poetry). To be clear: again, I am not saying you should not have read these at some point, I am not saying they should not be in your repertoire. Notice, for example, how a piece of abstract art is at the center of each of William Gibson’s works, whether the Cornell boxes of Count Zero or the “footage” of Pattern Recognition. What is going on here for electronic literature in terms of the productive aesthetics of such abstraction and the narrative that surrounds it?

What I am saying is that at this point the call and response for those works (the usual suspects such as cyberpunk or innovative fiction) are clear, the context and precursor relation is set out. It is all given and there is little more to be said. Do not fall for it! No, go far away. Choose nineteenth century realist fiction or obscure poetry from the Renaissance. Genre fiction is excellent as well: obscure detective novels or overwritten romance fiction. Or dive deep into history. Choose Cicero or Ovid. Let’s say the Metamorphoses, Ovid’s tales of transformation. At first glance, they are far from contemporary electronic literature and digital culture. Of course, a few jump out: Narcissus was crucial for McLuhan and eventually for the understanding of human-computer interfacing. Pygmalion turns out to be the origin myth of artificial intelligence and chatbots. In truth, every Ovidian metamorphosis is useful and necessary in thinking about digital culture. Take Orpheus: is this not the taleof YouTube and Spotify and all the rest? (Pandora is not in the Metamorphoses, alas.) In fact, almost any work you choose would end up orienting itself to digital culture and the network. The talk of “precursors” is silly because every work is a precursor. The allegorical space of the fiction and the poetic invention of the language always seeds itself into the present. The more seemingly distant and unlikely the connection, the more you will be able to understand electronic literature. Whether you choose Jane Austen or the Bhagavad Gita, you will discover a space of analogy and productivity. All literature already anticipates the network and the network incorporates all literature.

Final recommendation? You need to choose this one: make it work for you. When I wrote I did the weird motor drive and Lurid Numbers – both are collections of codework, hybrids of code and poetry – I included sources that were “mine,” that were my own subjective written output, but also sources such as alchemical texts, anime scripts, and manuals for technical apparatuses such as adding machine and printers. When I worked on the Coaldust intervention in Lord of the Rings Online or Poems You Should Know interventions into Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, I drew on folk songs used by miners in West Virginia and on Edward Lear’s poetry. These sources provided content and inspiration for the work. I also drew on the work of Paulo Freire, whose Pedagogy of the Oppressed provided a way to think about dialogical encounters with audience and the other. In each case, I drew on books that suited the project and the need. The works were not intrinsic to electronic literature, not at all so, but were intrinsic to the project. As a result, they came to inform the digital space around the project. Let’s be clear: the books chosen evolved and grew to become significant in relation to electronic literature and the electronic literature I made become significant in relation to the books. Every book you choose will do this, assuming it is part of your project. Orient yourself through texts and your project will follow. I always operate this way: I write through reading; texts provide my orientation. They will do the same for you.