Commentaries - January 2012

Johanna Drucker leading a workshop at the Common Press, the letterpress of the University of Pennsylvania.

Johanna Drucker’s short talk at the 2005 International Association of Word and Image Conference,  September 27, 2005, at the Kelly Writers House, was titled “Graphical Affectivity.” Today it was added to Drucker's PennSound page, and here is a link to the 12-minute recording.

trAces: A Commemoration of Ten Years of Artistic Innovation at trAce
trAces: A Commemoration of Ten Years of Artistic Innovation at trAce

Since its foundation in 1995 by Sue Thomas at Nottingham Trent University, UK, under the short-lived name CyberWriting, the trAce Online Writing Centre has been a shifting morphing hybrid entity. Its first output was a word-processed photocopied booklet called Select Internet Resources for Writers, compiled in Summer 1995 by Simon Mills, who went on to build the first trAce website, which launched at the Virtual Futures Conference at Warwick University in May 1996. For the next decade trAce expanded along with the web, evolving organically and somewhat haphazardly into a vast interlinked network created by many different artists, authors and researchers, during a period of rapid technological change.

Between 1995 and 2005 the trAce Online Writing Centre hosted and indeed fostered a complex media ecology: an ever-expanding web site, an active web forum, a local and and international network of people, a host of virtual collaborations and artist-in-residencies, a body of commissioned artworks, the trAce/Alt-X International Hypertext Competition, the Incubation conference series, and frAme, the trAce Journal of Culture and Technology. What emerged was one of the web’s earliest and most influential international creative communities. Its members were diverse, ranging from media-curious workshop participants to artist-in-residencies by some of the most well known practitioners in the fields of new media and digital writing today. What they had in common was that used the internet as a medium and a meeting place, platform to generate, disseminate and debate new media writing writing practices.

To give a full account of the history and output of this one-of-a-kind moment-in-time community would take an eternity. Fortunately, there is no need. Fittingly, considering its humble beginnings with photocopy, among the last outputs of the trAce Online Writing Centre was also a booklet of sorts, this time a full-colour fully-down-loadable PDF one: trAces: A Commemoration of Ten Years of Artistic Innovation at trAce.

My aim here is to draw attention to the vast and varied remains of the trAce Online Writing Centre, which have been collected together in a unique archive containing a large, diverse and search-able collection of work published by the trAce Online Writing Centre between 1995 and 2005. All the major works commissioned by trAce between 1995-2005 are there, as well as Incubation conference proceedings and the contents of frAme, the trAce Journal of Culture and Technology, which featured early works by Mark Amerika, M.D.Coverley, Matthew Fuller, Geert Lovink, Talan Memmott, Mez, Melinda Rackham, and Francesca da Rimini. The trAce forums are archived at: More information about the contents of the archive can be found here:

What’s interesting about this archive is how very much it reflects the context of its creation. Many of the names in it are well known to us today, many more are not. A significant number of works in the archive were built in collaboration and depended heavily on contributions sent in from writers around the world. These include: The Noon Quilt (Teri Hoskin, Sue Thomas, Ali Graham, 1998-1999),  Imaginary Post Office (Randy Adams 2000), and In Search Of Oldton (Tim Wright 2004). The archive also contains a wealth of ForumLive & Online Meeting MOO/Chat logs.  Invaluable not just as records of what was being said in them, these carefully transcribed conversations also evoke the syntactic context of their creation. A glance at the following excerpt of a transcript of a bit of chitchat which took place prior to chat on Erotic Hypertext which took place Sunday November 19th 2000 offers a glimpse into the visual, textual, grammatical look and feel, the lingua franca if you will, of LinguaMOO:

Start log: Sunday, November 19, 2000 12:02:27 p.m. CST

wanderer arrives from Tower of Babble

mez quietly enters.

vika quietly enters.

vika says, "Hello, all."

mez says, "Hey vika"

vika says, "Ah, hello mez. I see you are "all"."

 mez says, "Yeah, sorry about that:) negate that qs if possible, yeah?"

mez says, "So we r earli then?"

vika says, "Apparently."

mez says, "So vika, wots yr story?:)"

vika says, "Five more minutes, by my clock."

mez says, "k"

vika says, "Well, it's all in my "bio". :)"

mez says, "Not b-ing a regular MOO boffin, can I ask how 2 check that please?"

vika is very new to the MOO interface and is 'sploring.

The trAce Online Writing Centre supported experimentation with new literary forms, new softwares and and new hardware platforms which are now antiquated. As a result, the contents of th the trAce Archive are wildly uneven. Some works don’t work anymore. Some were experiments which never worked in the first place. Some links are broken, which is sometimes more informative than if they were not, for breakage exposes, breakage reveals. Browsing through Assemblage: The Women’s New Media Gallery, Carolyn Guertin’s showcase of new media writing by women (1999-2005) , for example, I found a dead link to Mythologies of Landforms and Little Girls, a hypertext work I made in 1996 which was exhibited in 1997 by StudioXX, a feminist artist-run-centre in Montreal. Though that particular webserver doesn’t exist anymore, StudioXX is still alive and well.  I don’t mind at all that this link is broken. I’m thrilled to discover that it was there at all, to know that in the late 1990s someone way over in England was looking at this early work.

The trAce Archive is full of these sorts of traces. Layer upon layer of dated design aesthetics overlap and peel like wallpaper, revealing earlier versions beneath. The occasional page errors, dead links and missing images are artifacts of the web as it was, a web in progress, a web in the making.

Frequently Unasked Questions

Published in German translation in Der Standard on January 20, 2011.

This interview was conducted by seminar participants at the Institute for Comparative Literature at the University of Vienna. The seminar sent me a series of answers, all quotatons from my work, and asked me to write questions following each answer.

Answer: Xo.
Question: What is the smallest unit of meaning? Is it a phoneme – the minutest sound you hear as a separate entity? Or is the whole language the smallest unit?

A: Ideas are dead except in use.
Q: What do you think about the abstract nouns of literary theory, politics, theology, and philosophy: construction and transcendence, being and forgiveness, dialectic and possibility, freedom and ecstasy, materiality and affect, melancholy and citizenship, nation and notion, bewilderment and wilderness, democracy and framing?

A: At its most effective, the university is not oriented toward marketplace discipline and employment training, but rather toward maximizing the capacity for reflection and creativity. When it is most fully achieving its potential, university classes are not goal-oriented or preprofessional but self-defining and exploratory. Attempts to regulate the university according to market values only pervert what is best and least accountable about these cultural spaces. We cannot make education more efficient without making it more deficient.
Q: You started teaching late in life, when you were 40. What do you most value about the American university and what are your greatest fears about its future?

 A: Exenst aerodole – extremst Autodrom! (laughs)
Q: Let me follow-up on that. What are the limits of critical discourse in the university? Some say anything goes, but you are often critical of constraints on the culture of critical discourse.

A: More important is a willingness to consider the implausible, to try out alternative ways of thinking, to listen to the way language sounds before trying to figure out what it means, to lose yourself in a flurry of syllables and regain your bearings in dimensions otherwise imagined as out of reach, to hear how poems work to delight, inform, redress, lament, extol, oppose, renew, rhapsodize, imagine, foment …
Q: What about making your meaning clearer, about getting across a message, about communicating, about being accessible, about saying just exactly what you feel?

 A: jed jimmsy’s cack. ib giben durrs urk klurpf. ig ooburs quwate ag blurg.
Q: Are you a Jewish poet? You have written a libretto, Shadowtime, for Brian Ferneyhough, which is about Walter Benjamin. Is this written from a Jewish point of view? You write in your essay in Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Practice that you feel you are, by necessity, continuing the work of the nonreligous European Jewish culture obliterated by the Systematic Extermination Process of the Second World War. But isn't that all past and gone? Can't we put all that behind us?

 A: Marvelous influidities.
Q: Do you like Austrian food?

 A: When a text is dressed in the costume of poetry, that, in and of itself, is a provocation to consider these basic questions of language, meaning, and art. Chronic poetic aporia (CPA).
Q: Is there no way to escape artifice? What about natural language and direct statement? Do you prefer a hall of mirrors to the sublime majesty of a mountain pass at dawn, fog burning off the vistas like angels going home? 

A: Bernstein. Sternbein. I.
Q: What's in a name? Are we there yet? Do you ever mistake a tree for the forrest? Bitter tears for joy? Bitte for please?  Bernstein for amber?

A: Vienna.
Q: Come again?

 A: Let the poem mutate into fruition. Poetry scares me.
Q: What advise do you have for young poets?

 A: Only the imaginary is real. Only the real is real. These lines refuse reality
Q: What is truth?

A: Thanks for your of already some weeks ago.
Q: In retrospect, do you think moving to a single European currency was wise? Why is L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry so influential in Burma? Do you value politeness in e-mail correspondence? What is the question again?


Der Standard, Vienna

Frequently Unasked Questions

Interview | 20. Jänner 2012 18:55
  • Artikelbild
    Foto: Vom Autor zur Verfügung gestellt

    Charles Bernstein unterrichtet Poesie als Fremdsprache: "I'm here strictly on business, literary business." Am 26. Jänner tritt Bernstein im literarischen Quartier Alte Schmiede auf.

Ein Interview der etwas anderen Art mit dem US-amerikanischen Lyriker und Herausgeber von L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Charles Bernstein

In folgendem Gespräch wird das übliche Frage-Antwort-Spiel umgekehrt und zu einem Antwort-Frage-Spiel. Charles Bernstein wurde gebeten, zu Zitaten aus seinen Texten Fragen zu stellen. Sein umfangreiches, bisher nicht übersetztes Werk befasst sich auf ebenso ironische wie politische und chaotische Weise mit den Unwägbarkeiten aller Bedeutungen

Antwort Bernstein: Xo.

Frage Bernstein: Was ist der kleinste Sinn-Baustein? Ein Fonem - der winzigste Laut, den man als eigenständige Einheit hören kann? Oder ist die Sprache in ihrer Gesamtheit der kleinste Baustein?

Antwort Bernstein: Ideen sind tot, außer im Spiel.

Frage Bernstein: Was denken Sie über die abstrakten Begriffe der Politik, Theologie, Philosophie und Literaturtheorie: Konstruktion und Transzendenz, Sein und Vergeben, Dialektik und Möglichkeit, Freiheit und Rausch, Materialität und Affekt, Melancholie und Staatsbürgertum, Nation und Gedanke, Verwirrung und Wildnis, Demokratie und Begrenzung?

Bernstein: Die beste Universität ist diejenige, die nicht am Markt und an der Berufsausbildung ausgerichtet ist, sondern an der Maximierung der Reflexionsfähigkeit und Kreativität. Das Potenzial im Unterricht kann dann am besten ausgeschöpft werden, wenn dieser nicht zielorientiert oder berufsvorbereitend ist, sondern Raum schafft für die Entfaltung und Erkundung des eigenen Denkens. Alle Versuche, die Universität an Marktwerten auszurichten, pervertieren nur das Gute und am wenigsten Messbare dieser kulturellen Freiräume. Wir können Bildung nicht wirkungsvoller machen, ohne sie wirkungsloser zu machen.

Frage Bernstein: Sie haben erst spät, im Alter von vierzig Jahren, mit dem Unterrichten begonnen. Was schätzen Sie an den amerikanischen Universitäten am meisten, und was sind Ihre größten Befürchtungen hinsichtlich deren Zukunft?

Bernstein: Exenst aerodole - extremst Autodrom! (Lacht.)

Frage Bernstein: Lassen Sie mich das noch weiter ausführen. Wo verlaufen die Grenzen des kritischen Diskurses an den Universitäten? Manche behaupten, alles sei erlaubt, aber Sie kritisieren oft die Beschränkungen, die der Kultur des kritischen Diskurses auferlegt werden.

Bernstein: Wichtiger ist die Bereitschaft, sich mit dem Unplausiblen auseinandersetzten, alternative Wege des Denkens auszuprobieren, dem Klang von Sprache zuzuhören, bevor man den Sinn zu entschlüsseln versucht, sich in einem Gestöber von Silben zu verlieren und so in unerreichbar geglaubten Dimensionen Orientierung zu finden, zu hören, was Gedichte tun, um zu erfreuen, bilden, überwinden, klagen, preisen, widersprechen, erneuern, schwärmen, fantasieren und anzustiften ...

Frage Bernstein: Wie wäre es mit mehr Klarheit, einer verständlichen Botschaft, mit Kommunikation, Zugänglichkeit, einfach zu sagen, was man fühlt?

Bernstein: jed jimmsy's cack. ib giben durrs urk klurpf. ig ooburs quwate ag blurg.

Frage Bernstein: Sind Sie ein jüdischer Dichter? Für Brian Ferneyhough haben Sie ein Libretto über Walter Benjamin geschrieben, "Shadowtime" (Schattenzeit). Ist das aus einer jüdischen Perspektive geschrieben? In einem Aufsatz in der Zeitschrift "Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Practice" schreiben Sie, dass Sie sich verpflichtet fühlen, die Arbeit nichtreligiöser europäischer jüdischer Kultur weiterzuführen, die im systematischen Vernichtungsprozess des Zweiten Weltkriegs ausgelöscht wurde. Aber ist das nicht alles längst Vergangenheit? Können wir das nicht hinter uns lassen?

Bernstein: Grandiose Verstopfungen.

Frage Bernstein: Wie finden Sie die österreichische Küche?

Bernstein: Wenn ein Text in ein Gedicht-Kostüm gesteckt wird, dann ist das an und für sich eine Provokation, die grundlegenden Fragen zu Sprache, Sinn und Kunst zu betrachten. Chronische Poetische Aporie (CPA).

Frage Bernstein: Gibt es keinen Weg, der Künstlichkeit zu entkommen? Wie wäre es mit natürlicher Sprache und direkten Aussagen? Was ist Ihnen lieber, ein Saal voller Spiegel oder die erhabene Majestät eines in der Morgendämmerung verschwindenden Berges, wenn Nebelschwaden den Anblick wegbrennen wie heimkehrende Engel?

Bernstein: Bernstein. Sternbein. Ich.

Frage Bernstein: Was ist ein Name? Sind wir schon da? Verwechseln Sie manchmal einen Baum mit einem Wald? Bittere Tränen mit Freude? Bitte mit "please"? Bernstein mit "Bernstein"?

Bernstein: Vienna.

Frage Bernstein: Wienbitte?

Bernstein: Lasst das Gedicht sich erfüllen. Dichtung macht mir Angst.

Frage Bernstein: Was raten Sie jungen Dichterinnen und Dichtern?

Bernstein: Nur das Imaginäre ist wirklich. Nur das Wirkliche ist wirklich. Diese Zeilen verweigern die Wirklichkeit.

Frage Bernstein: Was ist Wahrheit?

Bernstein: Danke für Ihr von schon ein paar Wochen her.

Frage Bernstein: Rückblickend betrachtet, glauben Sie, dass die Einführung einer gemeinsamen europäischen Währung klug war? Warum ist L=A=N= G=U=A=G=E poetry gerade in Burma so einflussreich? Schätzen Sie Höflichkeit im E-Mail-Verkehr? Was war nochmal die Frage? (DER STANDARD/ALBUM - Printausgabe, 21./22. Jänner 2012)

Hinweis: Das Gespräch wurde geführt von den Teilnehmern des Konservatoriums zu Charles Bernstein am Institut für Komparatistik an der Universität Wien. Charles Bernstein liest am Donnerstag, den 26. Jänner, um 18 Uhr in der Alten Schmiede - Literarisches Quartier, Schönlaterngasse 9, 1010 Wien.

Begleitet und befragt wird er von seinen studentischen Übersetzerinnen und Übersetzern.

Universities depend upon the free exchange of ideas. PennSound is the Internet’s largest archive of poetry sound recordings, all available for free for noncommercial and educational use. PennSound will symbolically go black on Wednesday in solidarity with those opposing SOPA and PIPA. PennSound will not be directly affected by these proposed laws, if they are enacted, because all our material is fully permissioned.  But all of us who use the Internet for research or education will be gravely affected by unnecessary regulations that will stifle innovation and block access to information.  Large corporate interest want to privatize knowledge: to gobble it all up (whether it is theirs or not) and sell it. They want to turn around the American principle of presumption of innocence on its head by saying that all knowledge and information is private until proven otherwise. Unlike in China, in our democracy, the presumption must be that information is free to circulate unless a compelling reason can be shown to block it. Knowledge is our commons, a fundamentally shared resource. To indiscriminately block access to vital web resources – without full due process and presumption of innocence – wounds our democracy and cripples our republic. The cures these two bills propose are far worse than the problems they seek to address. There are better, wiser approaches. Don’t let Big Brother get away with this one.

– Charles Bernstein

UbuWeb will blackout on Weds, January 18th for 24 hours to Protest SOPA & PIPA. If SOPA passes, you can kiss UbuWeb goodbye. Remember, the web won't be this way forever. Don’t bookmark. Download. Download. Download. Everything on Ubu is downloadable. Hard drives are cheap. Grab what you need. Don’t trust the cloud. Stop SOPA.

– Kenneth Goldsmith



Vienna poster

poster for University of Vienna reading: pdf