Lecture: On "The Revenge of the Text"

Coding and Decoding of Texts

Early on in his essay “Revenge of the Text,” Kenneth Goldsmith asks us to compare the alphanumeric code of a JPEG  with Charles Bernstein’s poem “Lift Off,” samples from Ezra Pound’s Cantos and James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, and and the hex code of Wikipedia’s flavicon with the number poems of Neil Mills and Shigeru Matsui. Goldsmith’s point is that the alphanumeric code underlying computer texts and the language and even alphanumeric experiments of modernist and postmodernist poetry and fiction aren’t all that different. In written form, sections of Pound’s Cantos and Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake resemble code that we must decode, decipher, and decrypt (19) through reading aloud.1 Likewise, while Mills and Matsui’s poems simply appear to be numbers on a page, read aloud they become “complex and rhythmic poems” (20) with a rhythmic, visual, and structural literary and aesthetic value not all that different from the hex code for the Wikipedia’s flavicon.2

What these comparisons illuminate for us, Goldsmith argues, is that “reading itself is an act of decoding, deciphering, and decryption” (19).[Consider, too, the four examples from Roberto Busa’s concordance of Thomas Aquinas that Stephen Ramsay begins the first chapter of Reading Machines with. Unless you are fluent in Latin, and even then, one could imagine the entries from Busa’s concordance as just one more example of alphanumeric text (e.g., “00596 in veniale peccatum non cadat; ut sic hoc verbum habermus non deterninatum, sed confusum praesens imprtet – 003(3SN)3.3.1b.ex/56”.]

Goldsmith’s essay “Revenge of the Text” is the first in a collection of essays entitled Uncreative Writing. His argument is that in this age of computers, this information age, the Romantic notion of the individual as creative genius is giving way to a broader sense of creativity, one that places more emphasis on how one manipulates language rather than how original one is.3

Why We’re Reading “Revenge of the Text”

While McKenzie’s definition of text, as paraphrased in Susan Schreibman’s “Digital Scholarly Editing” and quoted in the introduction to this week’s readings, pushes our notion of text far beyond the written word, Goldsmith, in  “Revenge of the Text” illustrates just how radical that notion is. (Goldsmith’s consideration of the alphanumeric code of a JPEG and the hex code of Wikipedia’s flavicon do, technically, fall within McKenzie’s category of “computer-stored information.”) Goldsmith’s essay is most important in its demonstration that all reading is an act of “decoding, deciphering, and decryption.” 

Moreover, in its discussion of glitching the mp3 and JPEG files, it demonstrates just how radically our notion of (un)creative writing and (un)creating new texts can be. The simple act of cutting a line of code (computer code or written language) and pasting that code into a different text is an act of creation. As Goldsmith argues, writing can occur when words are “shared, moved, and manipulated,” whether that sharing, moving, and manipulating is done by a human or a computer (15).4

  1. Listen and read along as Joyce reads from the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” section of Finnegan’s Wake, of which Goldsmith writes, “it all makes sense, coming close to standard English, yet on the page it remains ‘code'” (19).

    Don’t forget that McLuhan makes much of Finnegan’s Wake, arguing that in writing it Joyce “released the greatest flood of oral linguistic music that was ever manipulated into art” (The Medium Is the Massage, 120). Also keep in mind that it is from Joyce’s Wake that McLuhan gets the phrase “an eye for an ear.”

  2. Listen to Shigeru Matsui read from his pure poems.
  3. The emphasis on originality is, in fact, a print construct that emerged during the Romantic Age. The subject of all but one of Shakespeare’s plays except for The Tempest, for instance, can be traced to a contemporary history or contemporary play. Shakespeare’s genius lies not in his invention of subject but in his treatment of the material. See both Mary Carruthers’ The Craft of Thought and Walter Ong’s “Rhetoric and the Origins of Consciousness” (in Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology) for detailed discussions of pre- and post-Romantic notions of creativity and its relationship to print.
  4. If this notion of computers engaging in autonomous writing disturbs you, remember that computers, at least for now, need to be programmed by humans, so, ultimately, any textual manipulation done by a computer is done at the behest of a human being.

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