Mediamatic Magazine vol. 6 #1 Paul Groot 1 Jan 1991

Panic Word Processing

Or how do I save my belongings from the digital brutality of the McHugh

The real academic- literary postmodern culture must have started in the card - index. Not in the notes of writers such as Joyce or Pound, of course, but with the delivery men, the literature-expert interpreters and the glorious results of their card- index fetishism.


Panic Word Processing -

But how, in God's name, was it possible that complicated puzzles such as Finnegan’s Wake (2) or Cantos (3) were written without the use of a contemporary word processor? Phenomenal memory, boundless literary creativity and above all shameless brutality do not explain everything. All those pitfalls, hidden meanings and hermetical riddles that Joyce and Pound present to their readers as a self-conscious task! Even if you condemn the people who unravel these cryptograms professionally as short-sighted, monomaniacal zealots, deprived of any creativity of their own, you still cannot ignore their scientific drudgery. It is as if their work has become an integral part of the original. A curtsey full of irony, in comparison to the real talent and the energy in vested in their work by Joyce and Pound themselves. Because, those who reaIIy want some fun out of such works, will soon be condemned to the kind of almost brilliant improvisations on the work of the master in the manner of Hugh Kenner and, indeed, those are nothing more than the pleasant exercises of a parasite eater on the skin of the rhinoceros.

2 James Joyce Finnegans Wake 1965
3 Ezra Pound Cantos 1972

My favourite extract out of many different previous studies is that of Ronald McHugh (4). All 628 pages of the original Wake are followed meticulously, we find back each word needing clarification. At first sight, it all looks like the life work of a poet in the modernist tradition of Ezra Pound. Read independently. It does in fact work in that way, too. The task of reading Finnegan, jumping to and fro between the original and the explanation, is impossible to endure for long. But when, leafing through McHugh, you become interested in something particular, it is quite normal to follow him page after page, like the lines of an independent poem. Much more fun than Barbarberalphabetting, this McHughing. As if the natural appeal of the genius is withdrawn from our attention by the water-colours of the altar boy.

4 Ronald McHugh Annotations to Finnegans Wake 1980

Somewhere in the heart of every PC, there is a similar classifier. A McHugh is hiding in your Macintosh and treats your work with the kind of respect due to a direct continuance of Finnegans Wake. As if your texts were sacred, and he enjoys taking care of the shortcomings. I do not know what he looks like, but he has the tenacity of the Joyce-explorer in his character. When we first met, I found him friendly and polite, and for a time I followed his lead, but now I am beginning to suspect a conspiracy.

The PC is a mirror that glosses over everything. The window that you have become addicted to, and inside lurks that McHugh, as a contemporary, natural inversion of the secret of Dorian Gray. Although the linear line of classic rhetoric has lost virtually all meaning in the PC, time and again he still has to project our work onto the screen along the same linear lines. Such a waste of time and energy, for so little result! But he bends over backwards to convert his digital being into our linear manner of thinking, because be knows that his revenge will be sweet. In his daily contact with us, he identifies us in the rapidly aging slaves who have given themselves up to his ever rejuvenating features. A contemporary image religion, with him as the ghost in the machine, sucking up our imperfections in a continuous face-lift to present a pretty picture in the glaring light of the screen. The narcissist Me-generation looks into the mirror that the PC holds up to it, and thinks it can compare to it. And just as Ronald McHugh blocks our view of Joyce (who, for that matter, in turn blocks our natural view of God), the PC deprives us of any realistic assessment of our own abilities.

A Singer?
yes indeed
yes, oh yes, oh yes indeed, l am
telling you, a Singer
don't you understand your own
language, dear sir

Those who come out in favour of the arts, who resist the claims of science on literature and do not care much either for postmodern developments, cannot be whole-heartedly happy with a PC. Our writing is not much more than a reflection of traditional rhetoric, tried out in a modern wrap on today's world. That is why we would once more bring the unity of tradition, the force of arguments of the linear tradition, into the cultural debate, as the defense of the old world of books against the digital structure of a McHugh (5). Between writer and machine, there will probably be few clearly mutual exchanges. As if we were stubbornly trying to curb the literary challenge that McHugh is posing to every computer user. Still, it is true that many computer viruses have a history that could easily be traced back to a literary model.

5 Imagine, an overwelmingly conservative book such as J.P. Guépin’s De Beschaving (Civilisation) (1984) was quite simply written on a computer! And if so, is the author aware of the consequences for his own work?

The first viruses l ever encountered were hidden in Omtrent Deedee, by the Flemish writer Hugo Claus. They had nestled themselves into this story of a family reunion in the home of the parish priest Deedee (6). At face value, Deedee dominates the event, or else it is perhaps Claude, the black sheep of the family, a covert transvestite who hangs himself, thereby retrospectively putting the events into a different perspective. Claus undermines the usual linear story and lets the occurrences file past from the point of view of one character after another. Written in a seemingly commonplace style, the text evolves in front of our eyes into a linguistic experiment which suspiciously resembles the result of a virus invasion. You could call it a 'window novel', in retrospect also. Sentence by sentence, word by word, Omtrent Deedee reveals itself as a text which seems to be composed as a function in a computer programme, applying itself to little else than continuously calling up one symbol after another. The entire novel anticipates the Macintosh's window culture, or that of the other, more recent, Windows programmes. Sentences like unfolding ranges of images, with simultaneously built- in disappearance commands. The linear structure is subordinate to separate images which unfold, then immediately slam shut. In these quickly successive, and at the same time contradictory, treatments, Claus generates a highly emotional meaning.

6 Hugo Claus Omtrent Deedee 1963

The way in which we operate our PC is governed at all levels by cutting and joining up again, by montage and taking apart. A form of Barbarberalphahetting, the somewhat childish practice of the Dutch literary journal Barbarber in the Sixties, a kind of vulgar variation on Pounds poetic praxis. But in contrast to this poetic way of working, and its originally inspiring starting points, the McHugh-method is determined by the rational brain frame of the calculator. With this kind of barbarism as an instrumental challenge, the PC is after our creativity. Once you begin to work with the commands, you will soon become addicted to them and fatally underestimate your opponent’s strength. Is it still possible to read and interpret the work of unconventional poets without the terminology of the PC (7)? However simple the ideas on it may be (the word processor, as a mirror of the human brain, is nothing more than what this brain puts into it), the interpretative possibilities of the word processor do, indeed, give an insight into the genesis of the poem. But in a way that is different from the conventional text analysis of poems, where enigmatic information is provided with a psychologising or otherwise mystifying explanation. How much more dangerous are the seductive strategies of the PC!

7 Paul van Ostaijen, Theo van Doesburg, Lucebert en Hans Faverey

The programming of Joyce and Pound can be analysed and perceived in many different ways. Of course, Joyce and Pound asked for it, they wrote their work, as it were, specifically also to be submitted to quantitative analysis. But the academic industry sometimes turns the analysis of their work into a real blood bath. In this perspective, it often leaves us with not much more of the body to be examined than the picture of the vivisection on an artistic entity, as the revenge for the researchers' own failure. I have the feeling that the McHugh has the same in store for us. Those of us who lack the talent of a Claus to stay one step ahead of the PC, or are not as naive as Guépin, will easily fall into this trap.

McHugh, for that matter, has been among us for much longer than we realise, he caused his first contaminations a long time ago. I have seldom found a purer example than in the art historian Hessel Miedema. What for years on end had been a dormant virus in Miedema's studies, with a long incubation period, was suddenly activated by the McHugh in the PC. Miedema, as if with his own hands, submitted the texts of Karel van Mander and Philip Angel to the usual rhetorically scientific pretension (8). The work of a maniac, monomaniacally and in solitude taking revenge on his creative fellow man, by submitting him to the sterile rules of science. Those who wish to see the ultimate destructive drive of the McHugh revealed in shrill exposure, should take time to leaf through this work of science. The razor-sharp, sterile weapons brought in for the jealous dissection of Van Mander's body. As a Miedema in disguise, McHugh unleashes his systematic brain on the texts entrusted to him. As a bemused scientist, he does not see the difference between one text and another, thus reducing the classic idea of differences in quality to a form of desk ordering and card-index fetishism. The auditor running off with the inspiration. Scientific quibbling, sublimated into a crazily spurred-on meticulousness, eventually bent on sucking the work empty and leaving it behind in that state. Jealousy, bent on destroying a work of poetic inspiration, under the pretext of scientific interest. Science as a //crime passionnel. What a masquerade!

8 Karel van Mander Den grondt der edel vrij schilder- const uitgegeven en van vertaling en commentaar voorzien door Hessel Miedema, I-II, Utrecht 1973. Hessel Miedema De terminologie van philips Angels Lof der Schilder-const (1942) 1975

Linear rhetoric, circular movements, fragmentation, these are techniques that the word processor has easily mastered. Differentiation is another one it can carry out to perfection. Slowly but surely, the PC is contaminating literary culture, as the ultimate classifier, turning items of artistic value into sterile columns: the pathologist of our artistic and cultural inheritance. Cruel artificial intelligence bent on demystification.

Of course, culture has always been a matter of crisis management. The rules, the manifests, the propositions, the great texts, have often preserved their strength precisely because they provide a form of security simply lacking in everyday practice. The rules for good behaviour written by Castiglione, the painters' manuals by Karel van Mander or Philip Angel, are the recommendations for crisis management from a time when art, life and philosophy still presented a coherent picture. In our time, such a vision seems impossible, could only be of a nostalgic nature. Therapies for artistic disease, such as those formulated by Geerten Meysing (Joyce & Co) in a final attempt to suggest this coherence of life and thinking, eventually foundered on the awareness that the separation between life and art is irrevocable (9). Meysing, too, works with Van Manders manual; the difference between him and Miedema being that Meysing used artistic inspiration instead of the surgeon’s scalpel. Meysing acknowledges the inadequacy of classic instructions for a contemporary work of art, and draws his conclusions. The classic manuals are probably not really very different from those for computer programming. Both are primarily dependent on an arrangement designed outside our own personality, an arrangement which has to give shape to our desires and aspirations. As an outsider taking pity on us, arranging our thoughts, directing our wishes. But whereas the old instruction manuals defend an openly controllable pattern of thought, the heart of the PC is ruled by a kind of strategic insight which we fail to grasp. Castiglione instructs for the duration of the text, for the duration of our reading (10). The PC is spy in on u constantly, becomes acquainted with our idiosyncratic world, learns how to react to it. We, on the contrary, are left empty-handed, giving up our hearts and souls to it. It embraces the secret diary and takes pity on it. Poetic inspiration would seem to be unaffected by the programming, but the reverse is true, of course. The question is, how challenged do we feel by the analogy of the digital working of the computer with the human brain. The programmes' instructions, mathematically formulated, digitally programmed and eventually put into words, will not leave the mind of the user untouched.

9 Joyce & Co Erwin 1974; Michael van Mander 1979; Cecilia 1986
10 Castiglione The Book of the Courtier 1978

Classic culture has always defended and implemented its rhetoric, in the glow of which we are now arranging our cultural baggage, with both proper and improper means. A rhetoric which, in a certain sense, reached its peak with Hegel. However often in this century it has been revolted against, no weapon has yet proved as effectively definitive in attacking the bulwark as the devices of computer programming. Even Von Clausewitz' oration on war cannot help us in our struggle against the McHugh. Written as a variation on the classic-aesthetic tracts, it is here reduced to an artistic- literary work with rhetorical power of expression only (11). Our McHugh extracts the original intentions from the book, moves the battlefield to the discs and the memory of the computer and dismantles the linear coding into digital information. The logical rules, structures, customs and standards are suddenly undermined, as in an unexpected, cleansing storm. An abundance of possibilities, so far without any distinguishable order, the confusion of a seemingly literary chaos, digitally thought-out to perfection. But would there not, by any chance, still be a literary programme to help us fight McHugh, even if we have nothing to expect anymore of the linear mnemonic on the bookshelves?

11 Von Clausewitz Von dem Kriege 1957

Whereas the poems of the dadaist and avant-gardist writers used to be interpreted as a form of rebellion and romantic zeal, the PC-user can no longer read them in this way (12). These rebellious minds usually turn out to be highly meticulous poets, who, for all their liberties and coincidental discoveries, as in a selection called up by chance, can resort to a highly structured vision. Even if the rhetorical writers have formulated their programme explicitly, the poets' implicit instructions have a no less decisive impact. And whereas rhetorical programming is culturally determined, rooted in the past and utterly amoral in content, dadaist programming proves to be loaded with morality, even when the form concept is of an almost avant-gardist nature. But above all, poets have been applying the digital programme's circular structure in an analogous way for a long time already.

12 Lucebert Gedichten 1948-1963, 1965

By means of reiteration and repetitive movements, Gertrude Stein described her language as a programme. Using the form of a course, text fragments repeated, she forces us to start looking for analogous phenomena, related to her programme, in our brain (13). ln Don Delillo’s White Noise we find an amalgamation of electric signals from radio broadcasts, sirens, microwave ovens, ultrasonic applications, TV broadcasts (14). These are responsible for the resulting chaos in the human mind, and in human activities. Delillo keeps up the spirits by means of an abundance of ingenious ideas, conversations and spontaneous, humanly emotional releases. The chaos, which could be a depiction of the effects described in a catastrophe theory (15), evaporates here into a special kind of laughing gas promising the strained nerves an overwhelming relief. The monitor of our PC is playing tricks on us, the white noise is threatened by a heavy chemical cloud obscuring the image. It is the catastrophe, the moment when the image and the structures can find no way out and collapse in sudden overloading. The moment of chaos, when even the lifebuoy of the normal machine bas become useless, even to McHugh.

13 Gertrude Stein How to Write 1968
14 Don Delillo White Noise 1985
15 René Thom Local et global dans l’oeuvre d’art 1982

Thus, for the time being, White Noise would seem to be the ultimate novel, still fighting the destructive impact of the McHugh with literary means. With a programming so confusing that, for a moment, you can believe that even the PC has lost its grip on it. As if the computing tool that is after our dreams can yet be defeated. Because someone who uses noise as a metaphor, can interpret it not only as a dark cloud, but just as easily as white snow. Noise translated back into snow, poetics enabling us to regain our hold on a digital reality.

For that matter, once it is formulated in such terms, it suddenly becomes dear how easily the apparent opposites can be transposed. Noise as a continuous variation on the theme of snow, snow as a continuing story on noise (16). It is noise transformed into the poetics of snow, of the barren North. The experiments with the temperature of the super-conductor, the chimera of a disturbed computer, or rather, of an anything but coherently described programme. What you would describe as a demented condition of the human mind, as the ruin of the classic rhetorical programme, can just as well be read as an attempt to get a literary hold on computer language. Literature for our McHugh, as a counter attack by the writer on his PC.

16 J. Bernlef Sneeuw 1973; Onder Ijsbergen 1982: Hersenschimmen 1984

all people are equal to Singer
a Singer
Panem et Singerem

translation Olivier & Wylie