Writing Under: Selections From the Internet Text

Writing Under: Selections From the Internet Text

by Alan Sondheim

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Alan Sondheim’s Writing Under explores and examines what happens to writing as it takes place on and through the networked computer. Sondheim began experimenting with artistic and philosophical writing using computers in the early 1970s. Since 1994, he has explored the possibilities of writing on the Internet, whether using blogs, web pages, e–mails, virtual worlds, or other tools. The sum total of Sondheim’s writing online is entitled “The Internet Text.”  Writing Under selects from this work to provide insight into how writing takes place today and into the unique practices of a writer. The selections range from philosophical musings, to technical explorations of writing practice, to poetic meditations on the writer online. This work expands our understanding of writing today and charts a path for writing’s future.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Alan Sondheim is one of the precious few who joyfully-and in abject misery-risks these terrors of writing for us, for our pleasure and our undoing. What happens? Language disposes of us. As if that were not all that is required of any writer, Alan Sondheim is also the poet, the artist, the maker who has most profoundly immersed himself and his work in the life-changing code-forms-of networked computation-that have the world and its ‘genesis redux’ in their grip.”
John Cayley, Literary Arts, Brown University

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781935978732
Publisher: Center for Literary Computing
Publication date: 12/01/2012
Series: Computing Literature , #2
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 206
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Writing Under

By Alan Sondheim

West Virginia University Press

Copyright © 2012 Center for Literary Computing
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-935978-74-9


Writing Online

I'm not sure how to title this. I write online, teach online, conference online, and even do a bit of governance — I run a number of email lists, which presents all sorts of issues. But here I want to deal with my writing, my texts, which I send out to several email lists, several times daily. In order to do this, I work constantly — a lot of the time I use online environments and tools for my work.

As an example, I changed my own webpage, recently, using a browser called Amaya. You can download Amaya from the Internet — it's an experimental browser used by the World Wide Web Consortium (those people who basically decide the standards that govern webpages and servers) to test HTML and other online codes. It's unique because you can mess up whatever page you're looking at — and then download it, or if it's your own page, you can put it back. This felt joyful — the ability to scribble directly on my own page! So I did that, made a second page (using in.HTML instead of index.HTML) and put it back in the directory.

So what's the purpose? Other than making a new text, it created quite a disturbance — as if a clean and proper webpage were taken over by someone else and reused. And I wanted to do this — make it look as if somehow my work was "torn" or hacked into — as if it were a body that was taken over by someone else — as if someone else were speaking through my body. And, judging by the responses I got, people in fact did think that someone else had gone to the site and taken it over.

Another example of this kind of thing is a project I designed for the trAce online writing group. It's the "Lost Project." I was the online writer-in- residence for trAce for six months, and I first did a piece where I roamed all across the trAce bulletin board — went into all the different conferences — as if I had lost something, and might find it there. This was interesting to me — writing a piece which was scattered across a whole lot of different sites. Someone would have to go to all of them to see what I was doing.

After this, I thought more about losing things, and decided I wanted a site where people could go and describe anything or anyone they had lost. But I changed this in several ways — I made (with the aid of Simon Mills, an excellent programmer) a webpage which "shuddered" and looked as if it were falling apart — it made it difficult to enter anything into the form. I then had it made that, after you clicked "submit," you'd be taken to a fake error page — as if you'd make a mistake. The idea was that you would already be feeling that you had "lost" your writing and description as well. If you clicked on the fake error page, it would take you to a list of everything that anyone had lost — including your own submission.

On the first page, you're asked to give your name and email address as well — but when you go to the list of things lost, your name and email address aren't there — they're also lost. You have to click on a name/address page — and you'll find a list of all the participants, without their descriptions.

All of these projects involve webpages and thinking about the web. But there are a lot of other ways to work — for example, a simple thing to do is use letter substitution. In the operating systems I use — UNIX and Linux — there is a command, "sed," that allows a great deal of sophisticated substitution — you can even write programs "in sed." But you can also do substitution in any word processing program.

For example:

All of thoosoo projoocts involvoo woobpagoos and thinking about thoo woob. But thooroo aroo a lot of othoor ways to work - for ooxamploo, a simploo thing to do is usoo loottoor substitution. In thoo opoorating systooms I usoo - UNIX and Linux - thooroo is a command, "sood," that allows a grooat dooal of sophistica-tood substitution - you can oovoon writoo programs "in sood." But you can also do substitution in any word procoossing program.

This is absurd and silly, of course, but you can work much more elaborately, even substituting things at the beginnings of lines, using commands such as "sort" (which rearranges the lines in various orders), and so forth. You can also use commands to change the order of word fields — for example, make the first word in a line, the fourth — and the fourth word, the first. And you can take any large file and, with a command called "grep," pull out all lines that have a certain string (group of characters) in it. For example, if I grep the word "line" in a file which is a collection of my recent writing, called "lw," I'd write "grep line lw," and I'd get:

if someone hassles you on line, it is a rogue machine: Ant PC planetary, MURDEROUS CONSEQUENCES! body line TREMENDOUS HORROR! MURDEROUS CONSEQUENCES! lapse PC memory line PC a dog like/although her angel-mechanism glitter. Suicide line type TREMENDOUS HORROR! spiral smile breaks Body line PC an ant forgets it The sun walks. The record CONSEQUENCES! guilty nick head line TREMENDOUS HORROR! ADAM doll Her end HORROR! crowd scrap our beat, second, MURDEROUS CONSEQUENCES! animal line culling outline until real or virtual disappearance lost in that specific petal, outlined against that specific stamen, that the command-line test-jennifer conceptual work of literary art 15doing this for the command-line conceptual work of literary art 28this has to be nearing the end of the command-line conceptual work of the command-line conceptual work everything was disordered but i was in the timeline
the timeline was me
in the timeline 1943 it was the timeline of my life
the segment was beyond the visible timeline
i couldn't see the segment it was beyond the visible timeline
i'd have to change the scale of the timeline in order to see the segment
i didn't know how to change the scale i was stuck within the timeline
i wanted out of the timeline the timeline i could see
i didn't know how to move the timeline i didn't know how to shift it
the timeline would have to be shifted
everything was disordered but i was in the timeline
i couldn't see the segment it was beyond the visible timeline
i didn't know how to change the scale i was stuck within the timeline
i didn't know how to move the timeline i didn't know how to shift it
i wanted out of the timeline the timeline i could see
i'd have to change the scale of the timeline in order to see the segment
in the timeline 1943 it was the timeline of my life
the segment was beyond the visible timeline
the timeline was me
the timeline would have to be shifted
because of content - many of them not online.
to delineate, ever so slightly, the imaginary evanescence OK 29 lines Textage, "Fwd: Important
in the timeline 1943 it was the timeline of my life
in the timeline 1943 it was the timeline of my life

— which is a kind of fascinating text, produced by "ransacking" or going over all my other texts in a particular file, and pulling out the lines that have the word "line" in them. All of these things give me tools for thinking about writing and new ways of putting words and meaning together. I'll very rarely let anything alone — I don't really care how the text is produced — so I'll go back into it and rearrange the thing, making the text say things or lead the reader in new and different directions. In other words, the commands are catalysts for text production — not designed to deliver the final text, but to deliver a textual body I can then work on, operate upon.

I also learned some simple programming. Years ago, I programmed in Pascal, which is fairly easy and still around. Pascal and the Microsoft language Basic combined (or at least Basic was influenced by Pascal) and QBasic, or QuickBasic, was created. It's an easy language to learn, and runs in DOS. I did a number of programs in QuickBasic, but nothing really manipulating or working with text.

Since the net, a number of scripting languages have been developed. The two most famous are javascript and Perl. Perl runs in UNIX or Linux, although there are also Windows e-versions available. javascript runs in anything — you can write it and it will be read by any browser. I did some works in javascript at one point. These are very simple webpages that "act up" one way or another.

For example, one page used a random number generator and word list to create a page which "breathes." I found a parallel between the human body and the "body" tag in HTML and wanted to explore that.

Another example contains a text which momentarily appears when a button is pressed. The source code is very simple; there is a double message — one for browsers that don't recognize javascript, and one which sets up the page for those who do. The page then takes you to another page when a button is pressed — the second page has the text, which remains unreadable because it's on screen so fast. But if you look at the code, you can figure out that the second page is a different URL and in fact is readable.

There's another way to do dynamic work, of course, and that's DHTML, which incorporates javascript. DHTML is dynamic HTML, and you can usually find an editor or program like Dreamweaver to do most of the work for you.

So there are many levels of coding HTML, javascript, or DHTML pages. You can code things by hand — hard writing the code — which can be difficult, but will teach you a lot. Or you can have a program like Dreamweaver code it for you — which is easier, but leads to looser code which might not always run. Finally, you can code by hand, but take bits and pieces from other programs and sources on the net, and turn them into something of your own.

I've also used Perl to help me with my writing. Perl is a scripting language that sits mostly in Linux or UNIX systems, but can download Perl for Windows, and O'Reilly publishing even has a book on Windows Perl. It's a fast language for doing all sorts of text transformations, and you can pick up the simpler elements, I think, from scratch in a week or two. I've written a number of programs in Perl, which I use for making pieces. One of them, a very simple one, is called "bio" and is as follows:

#!/usr/local/bin/perl -w
# biography
$| = 1;
'cp .bio .bio.old';
print "Would you like to add to bio information? If so, type y.\n";
if ($str eq "y") {print "Begin with date.\n";
print "Write single line, use ^d to end.\n";
open(APPEND, ">> .bio");
print APPEND @text;
close APPEND;}
'sort -o .bio .bio';

All this program does is take a file called ".bio" (the period keeps it hidden most of the time), and asks me if I want to add something to it. If I type "y" for "yes" it asks me to begin with a date and right a single line. So I could say "2001 I am getting married." and enter that. I would then hit the control key and "d" at the same time, and it would take the lines I entered and place them, in order, in the .bio file. So over time I can write an autobiography just by adding lines and dates.

Of course you can do this by hand, just by typing lines into an editor and then sorting them, but I like this odd interface.

A longer program, called Julu, is more complicated, but again took only a short while to write. It asks a lot of questions and returns complex texts I can use for writing. It has "arrays" in it, lists of words that it will substitute in various sentences at various times. Just to show you what it looks like, here is Julu (please read on; we're not learning Perl here):

#!/usr/local/bin/perl5 -w
$t = time;
$| = 1;
srand( time() ^ ($$ + ($$ << 15)) );
system 'touch APPEND';
@a = qw(
blood urine feces gas sand water oil solvent alcohol lymph menses spit saliva vomit
sweat effluvia detritus excretions sloughings tears floods spews mercuries semen
detergents ammonias ureas clays ices grains substances conglomerates waxes piss shit
scratches scrapes cuts wounds tears splits breaks diarrheas
@verb = qw(
splits skews churns comes goes passes thrusts regurgitates flows streams spills pours pisses shits
@prep = qw(
in on under to towards across beneath around upon below onto
@noun = qw(
ghost avatar spectre doll faerie wraithe hobgoblin troll tengu kappa presence
@nnn = qw(
cloth stitch suture binding closing damming holding fabric velvet cotton wool silk
$nnnn = int rand(8);
$non = int rand(11);
$non1 = int rand(7);
$pre = int rand(6);
$gen = int(48*rand);
$gen1 = int(48*rand);
$gen2 = 49 - int(40*rand);
$time = int(time/3600);
$g = int(8*rand);
if ($sign=fork) {print "\nRun-time $pid\n";}
else {sleep(1); print "\nFirst flooding\n";
print "\n$that is clotting everything. - \n";
print "Your $nnn[$nnnn] is soaked, written, erased. - \n"; sleep(1);
print "Consider the next smearing of your thinking skin.\n";
print "\nYour $nnn[$non1] should be wiped into existence? \n";
if ($str eq "no") {print "\nGive me your semen ...\n"; sleep(10); goto FINAL;}
else {print "\nI Consider the following again, your $that ...\n";}
print "Would $that give you hydrogenesis?", "\n" if 1==$g;
print "You flood me ...", "\n" if 5==$g;
print "I flood your body ...", "\n" if 6==$g;
print "The flooding of names, soaking of of things! ...", "\n" if 4==$g;
print "\n$noun[$non1] $verb[$non] me $prep[$nnnn] your $nnn[$non1]!\n";
print "\nHow would you absorb your $a[$gen2] $nnn[$nnnn]?\n";
chop $name;
print "\n";
print "$that, $name remembers my $nnn[$g] ", "\n" if 3==$g;
print "$that, $name is sufficient for me", "\n" if 7==$g;
print "You have absorbed for $pid hours, you're still alive", "\n" if
print "Your $name is mine, my $that is yours!", "\n" if 2==$g;
print "List more and more effluvia\n";
print "one by one, each on a line alone, typing Control-d when done.\n";
print "\nMy $adj[$pick] is your chemistry here ...\n";
srand( time() ^ ($$ + ($$ << 15)) );v $be=int(rand(5));
open(APPEND, ">> rope");
print APPEND
join(":",$name,$str,$that,$adj[$pick + 1],$adj[$newpick + 1]), "\n";
# join(":",@adj,$name,$str,$sign,$g,$that,$name,$adj[$pick]), "\n";
print APPEND "Does $that replace your $name?\n" if 4==$be;
print APPEND "I do not understand your fluid!\n" if 5==$be;
print APPEND "Your $a[$gen1] $adj[$pick] is $prep[$non1] my $a[$gen]
$adj[$newpick]\n" if 1 > $be;
print APPEND "Your $noun[$non1] dissolves my $adj[$newpick]!\n" if 3==$be;
print APPEND "$noun[$non] with $pid ideohydraulesis!" if 2 < $be;
print APPEND "Write $a[$gen1] $adj[$pick] through my $name!\n" if 1==$be;
if ($pid = fork) {
$diff=$pid - $$;
print "$name is spilled far too many $diff times!", "\n" if 5 < $g;
print <<Construct;
$name calls forth $a[$gen1] $noun[$non], hungered, making things.
$prep[$pre] the $a[$gen], $name is $a[$diff], $[$gen], $str?
... $noun[$non] is $adj[$newpick] on wet flesh, it's $noun[$non]?
} else {
close (STDOUT);
system("touch .trace; rev rope >> .trace");
system("rm rope");
print "Are you satisfied with your $name?\n";
if ($answer eq "no") {print "You're written with $a[10+$pre]!\n";}
if ($answer eq "yes") {print "A $a[10+$pre] and $a[15+$pre]nightmare!\n";}
print "Your inscription finished, you have created thing.", "\n\n" if 3<$g;
print "$name $pid is the perfect solution.", "\n\n" if 3==$g;
print "... $a[$non] $name $$ - the beginning of flesh.", "\n\n" if 6==$g;
print "Your $name $diff text is your final enunciation.", "\n\n" if 4==$g;
print "You wrote for $time hours?", "\n" if 2==$g;
print "$name and $$ and $pid - another entity named and made!", "\n\n" if
print "Wait! $name and $pid are written.", "\n\n" if 1==$g;
$d = int((gmtime)[6]);
$gen3 = 48 - int(20*rand);
print "For $d $a[$gen2] days, we have been $a[$gen3].";
print "\n";
$u = (time - $t)/60;
printf "and it has taken you %2.3f minutes to swallow your last ...", "$u";
print "\n\n";
print 'rev .trace', "\n\n";


Excerpted from Writing Under by Alan Sondheim. Copyright © 2012 Center for Literary Computing. Excerpted by permission of West Virginia University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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