Writing as metadata container

An interview with Tan Lin

Tan Lin (center) and others at Edit: Performing Networked Publishing, April 21, 2010, Kelly Writers House, Philadelphia.

Published in 2010 in the Wesleyan University Press poetry series, Tan Lin’s Seven Controlled Vocabularies defies generic categorization. Lin redefines “the book” for our cultural moment of networked communications, new technologies that threaten — or promise, depending on one’s point of view — to render obsolete many longstanding assumptions about our reading practices. In the following interview, Lin provides extensive commentary that becomes a textual extension of Seven Controlled Vocabularies. Generating multiple categorizations of this particular work, he simultaneously sets forth a series of provocative assertions that tend to dissolve “the book” into “reading and its objects”; “information linked to other information”; “a massive act of self-plagiarization”; “writing as metadata container”; “a geography of a publishing landscape”; “a timed function of simultaneous and delayed reading events in your life”; “the environment of the reading system”; “data to be edited, organized, tagged, reformulated, republished, blurbed, annotated, indexed, resold.” Filling in some of the background to his interest in controlled vocabularies and metadata, Lin reviews the composition and publishing history of Seven Controlled Vocabularies. Among other topics, he also discusses the book’s design elements, including the relationship between text and image; how his work differs from surrealism; the role of affect; and what he calls “the ambience of reading.”

The interview was conducted via email over several weeks during March and April 2010 by Chris Alexander, Kristen Gallagher, Danny Snelson, and Gordon Tapper. A final question by Asher Penn, appended to the end of the interview, addresses the Edit: Processing Writing Technologies event organized by Danny Snelson, which was held at University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House on April 21, 2010. — Gordon Tapper


Chris Alexander
: I want to pose a genealogical question of sorts. From the early nineties to the present, we’ve seen vast changes in global “conditions of production” and communication. Although the American conversation tends to separate these spheres, it’s true that in both labor and social practice (whatever that is) networked communications technologies stand out as the signal difference. So in the industrial sector, we have Toyotization and the rise of “productive communication” models that institute continuous interaction between production and consumption (cf. Coriot, Hardt and Negri) with similar models taking hold in the service sector (point-of-service software, rfid, fleet management services or, for the professoriate, the rise of the assessment regime with its emphasis on “outcomes” assessment and student consumer feedback). In terms of social practice, we have an intensification of contact through networked technologies leading to faster and more mobile feedback loops — email to text messaging etc. — which, as Kittler would say, is not a matter of more and faster communication between persons but a proliferation of global links between computers, “necessarily leading to masses of words.” Here’s my question: What constitutes “the literary work” under these conditions? I’m thinking particularly here of your presence on Blogspot (and Tumblr), where, if I’m not mistaken, material from both Heath/Plagiarism and Seven Controlled Vocabularies (7CV) exists in an alternate state, and also your use of publish-on-demand services like Lulu.com, thru which you generated an early edition (variant? pre-release? working copy?) of 7CV. And more recently, thru the agency of Wesleyan University Press, this:

Received using: anti.godzilla.xxx@gmail.com
Message Status: Opened
To: Me!
From: lstarr.xxx@wesleyan.edu
New RSS pages from Tan Lin’s new book
Mar 1, 2010 10:56 AM 

Starting TODAY —
Daily RSS feeds of pages from Tan Lin’s new poetry book, “Seven
Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking:
[AIRPORT NOVEL MUSICAL POEM PAINTING THEORY FILM PHOTO HALLUCINATION LANDSCAPE].” New pages will be posted daily thru April 19th, and may be viewed or downloaded.

Since the overall paradigm suggests a bi- or multidirectional flow of information and materials, I could ask the question the other way, noting the inclusion of “plagiarized,” “disposable,” or “ambient” materials in 7CV. Is the concept of a “book” or a “work” still operant in 7CV? If so, how does that concept differ from the book as it would have existed circa 1989?

Tan Lin: As a general examination of different reading practices, 7CV is book as controlled vocabulary system, mathematical structure, engineering project, and bibliographic “collection” whose general subject is reading and its objects, where an “object” may denote a book, a table, a recipe, a teapot, Jacques Tati, CD, map, index, etc. It’s relaxed reading in that sense. Likewise, we read a title or caption or front cover differently than we read the “interior” of a book. We “read” a novel differently than we read a cookbook, and more specifically, a recipe in a cookbook, and I wanted to suggest that maybe we could read a novel like recipes in a cookbook or an episode of a reality TV series, or a controlled vocabulary system, or a restaurant review on Yelp. I mean cookbooks almost always have pictures of food in them, so why shouldn’t a poetry book, which traffics in imagery, have photos of books in it, like a kind of self-reproducing floralegia or plant? There are a lot of vestigial organicist metaphors in the book! In 7CV printed matter (both text and image) has been captured/reproduced in numerous ways, with CCD (flatbed) scanning, digital photography of printed book pages, retyping of printed matter, reading and re-reading, bibliographic citation, footnoting, indexing, and self-plagiarism of earlier sources. Machine reading involves parsing alpha numeric systems and metadata layers, OCR technology, word processing, data tagging, etc. 7CV is a massive act of self plagiarism of the Lulu edition. Images have been enhanced and edited in Photoshop. Some material in 7CV is blogged or user-generated content. This material needs to be organized, which explains the controlled vocabulary system, which I suppose is the book itself as a generalized function of its own organizational, i.e. data structures. Google Books resituates a system of reading. It is not optimized for lengthy reading, scanning or copying. It is anti-novelistic in that sense, and favors short-form reading. It’s a reading system that makes owning the book irrelevant. Once a book is scanned into a database and cross-referenced with other titles, what does one have? Is it even a book? Or is it just information linked to other information? Reading a book today feels a lot like the latter to me, and 7CV reflects that migration.

Thus in 7CV, the concept of the book is mildly operant, but generally and among other functionally differentiated reading platforms, so the book is an image created by a controlled vocabulary system. What is a book? Something that categorizes and controls data and organizes specific reading formats i.e. the book is a generalized reading environment, what Luhmann terms a “loosely coupled medium,” coupled to various publishing mechanisms, printed and non-printed formats, people, metadata tags, wives, genres, TV, the “spectral” cinema, scanners, Chinese people, etc. One might call this “poetry,” but one could just as easily call it “literary studies,” “fiction,” “obit,” or “family.” So in 7CV you have various and conflictual reading practices across genres, regarded as social agreements, and hardware/software platforms, and a lot of this is not reading in the sense of what most people think about as “reading a book of literature by a poet in a book published by a university press.” There are visual images, metadata tags, bits of programming languages, bar codes, poems, subtitles, editorial notes, found photographs, postcards (from the Swiss Institute), advertisements, scanned images and printed book pages, annotations, typos, computer generated handwriting, text translations by Google Translate, and indexes, acknowledgments and forewords by other writers. Given this, what is peripheral in or to reading? A bar code? Chinese characters? The Wesleyan Poetry series? 7CV focuses on elements that codify reading in specific, rigid, and/or standardized ways. These processes are tied as much to publishing, marketing, distribution, layout, inclusion on syllabi, etc. as they are to writing or composing, which I think are relatively weak forms of “authorship” or text production. Hence my fondness for anecdotes, weak narratives, Library of Congress Classification (LCC), coursepacks, MS Word, and other digital media as they impact the book’s operations (versions, editions, RSS serialization, etc.) in a communication field.

7CV is a printed book, but it was/is also a pre- and post-publication RSS feed, PDF downloads of the first, unrevised edition on the Lulu site (now “direct access”), an animated version (executed in Director and streamed from the Penn site as a Flash video) of the first chapter available on the PennSound site (Eleven Minute Painting) and as a stand-alone video. There will, I hope, be a series of revisions to the text as post-publication RSS feeds, correcting and altering what will officially appear, on April 1, 2010. So the book, like all books really, exists in multiple states of revision/publication; this interview is inseparable from its overall publication history: reception within an academic setting and within a number of online poetry publications/forums. I am planning a dual-language edition of the book, in English and Chinese, and this in turn will be translated back into English. A new cover has been designed. A book of blurbs about the book will appear as a separate publication, which is really an extension of the present publication. Some unattributed blurbs are on the Amazon web site. The book will be reeditioned at Edit, an event curated by Danny Snelson. Finally, I am assembling an online appendix that will include such things as high school yearbook items, dental X-rays, drug prescriptions, and other fleeting encounters with the book’s publishing history and the autobiographical. At any rate, the book as storage/distribution/composition/publication medium is a little hard to pin down; this is not surprising: people generally store things in a host of different places/sites, and this applies to the digital world — so why not with reading/composing/publishing, which is highly ephemeral as a practice, and where boundaries between the three are considerably blurred in a digital environment. It used to be that publishing was seen to stabilize what de Certeau notes as the highly ephemeral practices of reading, which I think of as a form of forgetting, but publishing is now, in some ways, just as transitory as the act of composition or reading, where reading is a leftover procedure.

Of course printed photos and hard copy books are defined by contexts and notes on those contexts: handwritten annotations in book pages or backs of photos, appended dates, highlighting or penciling, post-its, etc. These occur in a digital environment. The “2004” in the title is a “handwritten” notation inserted into a title, and the book’s use of photographs is consonant with changes in photo sharing sites etc., and thus the contours of memory. Some of the photos look accidental, dated, possibly corrupted. There are tons of nearly identical or generic digital photos on Flickr, a site whose photo archives are marked by nominal editing or pruning of large photo collections, minimal metadata, reduced resolution, and, in general, personal text/image archives that are not looked at very often or are not perceived to have life expectancies greater than the person who generated them. This is also true of people’s photo albums, but now access to other peoples’ albums has increased exponentially. We inhabit the era of the short archive, and this suits me as a specific kind of reader: a reader with a bad memory. 7CV is no less autobiographical in a generic, unedited, ephemeral way, where the “identity” of a person or file sharing system is not fixed but context sensitive e.g. multiple identifiers or tags exist for a “singular” object. This mirrors the increasing segmentation and interactivity within a socially networked environment, i.e. multiple email addresses, social network profiles, versions or copy states of document changes, status updates, etc. Finally, 7CV raises issues common to personal archives and libraries trying to organize, store and access large amounts of mixed material. How are photos searched, indexed, or identified in 7CV? How are specific photos brought into relation to specific text elements? Typically texts and images are parsed differently, using either text or image attributes. There seems to be very shallow parsing taking place. How are things, like memories or images of loved ones, saved and in how many formats? How are changes in copies and lineage noted in metadata layers? A number of the book’s prefaces recycle content from earlier prefaces, and the book as a whole makes use of appropriated materials, much as a human life does. Is 7CV edited? If so, by whom? Is it a scrapbook? Does it have a narrative or history or dissemination logic? Does it embody what libraries term LOCKSS (lots of copies keeps stuff safe)? Of course, 7CV is notable for absences, typos, memory lapses, errors, TV formats. There are clearly voice and data holes: most notably, where is the “China — Poetry” of the first LC subject heading? To get some of this book you have to go outside it, to other web sites, films, etc. How can these things, not unlike memories, be located again?

Metadata tags can be embedded in more than one way (e.g. in web pages, within files), or externalized (card catalogs, databases, online table of contents, concordances, etc.). This raises issues about the relation between so-called content and its “essence,” or content and various descriptive systems, all of which involve reading of one sort or another, or as you say the displacement of a book beyond its physical location, but of course a metadata tag has a particular site of inscription, and I was interested in the materialities of various reading formats where the distinction between formal and forensic materiality, as Matthew Kirschenbaum has pointed out, is operant. Or to put it otherwise, metadata is always incomplete i.e. context sensitive. Which of the two or multiple locations — content versus essence — is the more “permanent,” or “unchanging/eternal,” and how are errors detected in metadata systems more generally as they reflect or reference “objects?” There are a lot of typos in 7CV! Are these missing objects or subjects? And what is the status of captions in the book, in relation to text blocks, images, and metadata tags? Is the book self-describing and how does it reference its migration across platforms? A web copy of an “object” might look the same as the object but it usually has different resolutions, is augmented with additional information etc. One might say the same of 7CV.

For no real or pre-mediated reason, the book had various “published,” self-published and distributed states/files. It was written in MSWord in 2003, accepted for publication (2004) with a small press but did not appear until 12/2005 as a Lulu self-published paperback ($12.95) and PDF download. It was revised 2008–2009 for Wesleyan University Press, with new cover, publishing data, and addition/excision of numerous photos, tags, and captions, and revisions to Systems Theory. Much of the Lulu data is unchanged and many self-publishing (author-as-seller) elements surface in the Wesleyan University Press editions/RSS feeds. The physical front and back covers were altered — i.e. it has become a legal format, which includes a machine-readable bar code, Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN), ISBN, dated (archived) Wesleyan University Press logo, Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), “handwritten” (using MS Word’s drawing function) title that differs from the “title” of the Lulu edition (which strictly speaking didn’t have a front cover title), subtitles that are a meta tag of the book’s contents (in lieu of a table of contents), and a record of licensing/copyright arrangements. So the framing of the book is very different. Mainly, it has metadata layers for bibliographic control. The LCSH is an old-fashioned thesaurus, and 7CV references dictionaries and other classification/reading systems. Subject headings are conflict-prone near ethnicity/identity issues, and I tried to highlight that with “China-Poetry” as a disappearing first term. The cinema section was revised with Portable Network Graphics instructions. PNG is a format for bitmapped images. Like a GIF, it utilizes lossless data compression but is license free (Unisys). But the main change involves the title. The Lulu book didn’t have a functioning title and functioning bar code, only a symbolic one. It floated into a reading space more readily. But what would it mean, really, for a book to have a non-functioning bar code in a self-published book? The entire Wesleyan University Press front cover (physical back cover) and back cover area is a controlled vocabulary system; it alludes to a host of other title/author systems, including Laura Riding Jackson’s Rational Meaning, and Irma S. Rombauer, et al. i.e. The Joy of Cooking. Authors are joined to printed matter by publishing. Why give it three titles or the semblance of three titles? Perhaps to maximize hits and links on Google. The book is a geography of a publishing landscape: what is that landscape? Something like the statistical vocabulary field that Claude Shannon called Printed English.

Kristen Gallagher: I know from hearing you talk, and also from your last few books, that you’re interested in ephemeral language and use it to generate writing. For example, more recently we’ve had the experience (which is a clear concern of yours in Heath) of all the kinds of writing happening on the web, which I suspect many people don’t yet think of as writing, like product reviews or little spur of the moment notes to friends that then some other person copies onto their blog or cuts and pastes into a poetry project, bits of text that are probably the most common form of writing happening now. 7CV seems to be constructed entirely out of that, though I think a good bit of it is not from the web, but instead I imagine it being from brochures, reviews, little product labels and tags. I sense that some of the images in the book are among your sources, whether a painting you’ve used for description, a used postcard, or a little slip of paper like a receipt that is mostly flooded with product codes one wouldn’t even know how to decipher. I especially like how the numbers from these kinds of codes seem to get recycled into your text. There’s something pleasurable about knowing that these things I’m reading might be from this kind of ephemera. A poorly paid cashier mechanically hands over this odd slip of paper full of numbers and says “have a nice day.” You’ve put it in the book and in reading it my brain is having a response like “things as they are are really part of the world and I forgot.” How nice to just feel them roll over the brain! It’s like a brain massage!

As I read 7CV I keep thinking, in terms of your writing process, of that old surrealist strategy/game “Directions for Use” where a source text — the directions for anything from how to open champagne, to how to take your Prozac, to how to put out a fire with baking soda — gets remixed with words and phrases from whatever big metaphysical concept the writer chooses — like death, the universe, love, whatever. The results can be both/either nonsensical and revelatory. Your process seems similar in 7CV, though your process and source texts yield greater complexity than the results typically found in “directions for use” because, first of all, you’re mixing more types of source text — lots of ephemeral language and coding get mixed with discussions of painting, writing, architecture, falling in love, memory (which are all also codes and this book consistently makes that a pleasurable revelation) — and second of all, because those kinds of source texts when mixed as you mix them begin to suggest theories of art, writing, and space emerging through a consideration of ephemera. I know from the title that you are thinking through “controlled vocabularies” — the language of indexing and categorizing in the first place. Readers know you’re thinking through these categories of writing, painting, architecture, etc., yet as in surrealist texts, I suspect that we should not read too closely, too intensely. It’s not Adorno! You could just as well ignore what it “means.” It is both serious and light, not only sensitive, beautiful, but nonsensical at the same time. I’d like you to talk about this effect but I’d also like to hear about the process of your writing 7CV. For example, did you plan this project or did it emerge out of play? Were the poems written over a long period as you found good ephemera, or were they written after a period of purposeful collecting? Were there specific source texts that appealed to you in terms of conceiving the project as a relaxed theorizing of aesthetic categories and everyday life/objects/writing? Did you think of surrealist writing strategy as you were writing this book? I feel like I’m seeing little signs of surrealism everywhere here. 

Lin: Breton’s Nadja has been hugely important for 7CV and even more so for the novel I’ve recently finished, Our Feelings Were Made by Hand. 7CV was written in 2002, rather quickly, like almost all of my books, and I had been reading and teaching Breton and Ernst’s overpaintings and frottages. Generally, and I don’t know why this is so, I write books in a three- or four-month period, then spend years “repairing” them. I think this perhaps has to do with a certain impatience followed by obsessiveness with one form, but it is also directly related to publication history. This was true of Lotion Bullwhip Giraffe and BlipSoak01, and Heath, and now 7CV, which is earlier than Heath, as it was written in 2002–03. Like all those books, 7CV is written under a formal system, in which I make certain personal and mostly informal notations or emendations. Here I think the work diverges from the avant-garde or neo-avant-garde in that it dispenses with more strict notions of aesthetic autonomy; I think that it is simply not reflective of the alterations that individuals make over time, here the time of revision, to the structures of everyday life. But unlike de Certeau, I do not think this originates in the unconscious as something distinct from the conscious. 

For me, Breton’s Nadja is a theory about, to rephrase T. S. Eliot, the use and generation of poetic materials. In it, Nadja the character, whatever in the end she may be, floats through the structure or apparatus of a novel as if she doesn’t really belong there, i.e. she is something of a cinematic image superimposed upon a novel or text. Breton makes the repeated point that he meets her unexpectedly and randomly in the course of his wanderings/writings. Who is Nadja? She may have been a real-life prostitute that Breton befriended. Or not. She is a visual effect in a novel, an objet trouvé, an analogue for objective chance, a staged function of the novel’s ability to punctuate certain “realist” landscapes — Parisian cafés, streets and storefronts — with something ineffable. Like an image in a mirror — and more importantly for Breton and Dali — in celluloid, she is real and unreal. In such a world it is hard tell which is more real, the mundane settings or the magical (cinematic) appearance/apparatus of Nadja. The reader has trouble differentiating between descriptions of Nadja and what was only her effect. In the end Nadja is the apparatus of the novel and of its writing, a novel or a character that one can no longer term a narrative, at least in the conventional novelistic sense. She evinces what Werner Spies terms “new modalities of narration” but it might be simpler to say that she is not really in herself visible except as the means by which the text is held together — men with beards, clumsy waiters, cafés, signs, illuminated windows, etc. Amidst urban emptiness and a host of aura-less items, Nadja endows the scene with the marvelous. She makes the random disjecta membra of contemporary life — evinced most clearly in the desultory photos that populate the work — seem connected and meaningful. The mundane photographs of Paris are not mere photochemical traces (lost love) of the real world but sites through which something marvelous had once passed. Nadja is thus a haunting of the “real” or objective and ordinary world by unpredictable and unconscious desires, an example of convulsive beauty. One could say that the idea or system of poetry functions like Nadja in 7CV, its own blind spot, nowhere to be found, hallucinated everywhere, and linked to haptic writing procedures! Breton poses the question: could chance be said to humanize the individual and make her life distinctly her own, as textual production? For Breton the answer I think would be yes. But I’d probably say no. And the poetry, if it is visible, is not convulsive.

Thus the emphasis on a psychic system linked to the ineffable or the unconscious is something I tried to avoid. 7CV is writing as metadata container. I was not interested in chance encounters, and anyway I read Breton’s encounters with Nadja as anything but random; they are dictated by the psychic apparatuses (Freud’s omnipotence of thought) responsible for the work itself, and also, by extension, the narrator’s bivalent identity (lover/father/friend). With regards Breton, the novel plays the analogous fiction/nonfiction line. So, I do not pretend there is a difference between poetry and everything else, or that a metadata tag/caption or eruption of an anecdote is prompted by unconscious desire — it is already written into the literary system! It is the opposite of surprising. I mean it is a dead space in the text, something that will not be processed as part of a conscious reading process or related consciously to the narrative content of the section at hand. One skips over it. The stories that I tell are a bit inert, inconsequential, minor, absorbed more or less by the everyday structures of reading and generic spaces of the city. It doesn’t really matter if they happen to me or to you, the reader — these are the same functions of text. I am no more individual or responsible or emotionally captivating than you, the reader, are. In most blog writing “you” = “me.” Most of our reading spaces today are dead or interchangeable, what Koolhaas terms junk spaces, generic spaces, what I call controlled vocabulary systems etc., linked in a larger system of meaning production. The book reflects this communication: modular, schematic and blandly visual in its presentation of textual and visual matter as a single operation, and its layout encourages scanning rather than continuous reading for plot. In other words, reading is a coherent, self-contained, mechanical process, a conceptual armature, and all visualizations of identity produced within it are illusions of identity. How does a “narrator” appear in 7CV? There are no photos of me in 7CV. There are quite a few “other” authors. Different reading systems within the book produce different authors/individuals. Who am I? A shadow of an apparatus, a necessary illusion inserted after the mechanics of reading. Why does one or a few subjects appear? In order to assure the system that something registers in the meaning that has already transpired. I think it is also important to keep in mind that issues of identity are being linked to online reading practices, where there is a notable drop off in retention and comprehension, mainly because the movement of material into working memory and then into long term memory is harder to facilitate with rapid skimming of material. And yet this is the way we read.

Thus scenes and photos (they are the same) in 7CV are from other sources, but the narrator has tried to inhabit, weakly, these scenarios, genres of writing and formats of reading: how would one go about living in or imagining oneself in an article about smart mobs from Salon, or a restaurant review of WD50 on Yelp, or an academic book on the economic implications of WalMart? I get involved in these kinds of reading materials all the time. I mean I read a huge amount of minor, anecdotal, and fluff journalism ALL the time. I love reading the Post and the Daily News. Are they lousy papers? Well, maybe, but I certainly enjoy reading them. I could spend the day reading the wedding pages, restaurant reviews and obits. The above genres can be lived in, not only as a writer but also a reader, and this is suggestive of and ushers from the vast amounts of user-generated content and the blurring of the writing/reading boundary in web-based and social networking sites. Is one writing or reading? It’s kind of hard to tell. So 7CV reflects this prevailing read/write mode in our contemporary moment. Is this surreal? Is it surreal how we read newspapers today on the web? I don’t think so. I think it is just the way most people read online, by half participating in our own vaguely spectatorial reading practices. There is no need to convert my psyche into Nadja or something that it is not. Most of our reading spaces like our lives are shallow and I see no reason to create a deep space known as the novel. I mean the minute I read a story or start a novel if it smells like fiction I immediately put it down. I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager so you can imagine how many books I’ve done this to. Most people on the planet do not write lengthy novels. They are more likely to write themselves in a restaurant review or note to a loved on, or some other short form mode of writing like a text message. These formats for writing constitute a way of living inside one’s own life, they are the reading formats we actually live our lives in. So 7CV is really about not some magical moment of textual crystallization or surrealist frisson; it is about the banality and ordinariness that inheres in our read/write lives. I wrote most of the book in that manner. I tried to entertain myself. I lied. I told the truth a little. I chose things from the newspaper that pleased me and inserted myself into my reading of them. Isn’t this really what most of us do when reading or participating in reading? It’s a low-grade pleasure. It’s easy. I tell my students this all the time, reading is easy, just like watching TV. So is writing. And now, thanks to the Internet, so is publishing.

Gallagher: I’m curious if you could more directly address some of the recognizable numeric codes in the book. There are a lot of numbers in 7CV. And heck, at your instigation, Tan, we keep referring to it as 7CV, a kind of conversion of title into a numeric code. There are also a lot of barcodes from the back of objects scanned into in 7CV as images. You’re talking about genre as code, about affects as results of engaging particular codes, but when I see barcodes I also think of tracking. Many people have a Foucauldian reading of the barcode as the ultimate surveillance technique. How do you feel about that? And in terms of your interest in kinds of reading — relaxed, half-attentive, scanning — I am also compelled to note that barcodes are “read” and “scanned” though in a much more purely machinic sense. Are you trying to get at something about machinic reading/writing?

Lin: I was interested in reading as a function of various and measured efficiencies. We think of reading in terms of what it gives us, i.e. content, but I was interested in speeds of reading regarded as information delivery. The title of the book is unwieldy and so an abbreviation, as you’ve noted, is necessary to reference the book. The bar code is one way to process, i.e. read, data efficiently, but so is a LC subject heading, or the ISBN number, which is, in turn, converted into two barcodes on the book’s back cover, one indicating book/publisher information and the second five-digit code indicating currency and pricing data. The UPC code, used for groceries, was first used at Kroger in Cincinnati, Ohio. Kroger was where our family did most of our grocery shopping when I was growing up, so I have a fondness for barcode history, southeastern Ohio, and buying charcoal briquettes and city chicken at Kroger! Buying groceries felt very American when my family came to the US from China in the late 1950s. I don’t think my parents went to huge grocery stores until they moved to Athens, Ohio in 1959, where my father was offered a job teaching ceramics. At any rate, barcode symbols probably outnumber all other symbols in the book, and they have a weak autobiographical function with the book’s historical time frame. Barcodes are standardized. Wesleyan University Press, for example, gives up a dollar for each book sold, if the bar code in question is improperly placed or sized, and thereby creates an error reading at the cash register. So barcodes are a fitting symbol for 7CV; I like it when reading has a definite structure or time frame to it. They decorate the reading and they are the reading.

Barcodes are data instantiated as image, one that can be read quickly, efficiently, with little chance of error by any number of optical scanners or readers. 7CV reflects reading in the sense of highly efficient, fast, universal, and, well, superficial readings. Thus the references to times of reading and George Muller’s theories in the painting section, a section which is filled with seasonal and temporal references and rondelays, along with a missing series of paintings. The paintings have been erased because the mass-produced book, historically, is not very good at reproducing images, and is incapable of producing moving images. When I want to see images, I go to a website. Books have been supplanted, recently, by cinema and television and the Internet, and the painting section makes a vague historical reference to something executed in Director: a multimedia authoring platform “built on a movie metaphor.” So what is presented is not a film but an animation in language, which is what all text becomes when you read it. Macromedia was acquired by Adobe in 2005, and Director is now, like painting, an anachronism, having been eclipsed by After Effects. So there are different kinds of images and image production. The last section of American Painting is about different kinds of images in a homogeneous space, and this brings us to poetry, which is a medium traditionally used for the production and reproduction of images. Poetry is intertwined with other arts, including drama and prose poetry, theories of poetry (poesis) and now digital poetry. 7CV was born digital: written in MS Word, laid out in Quark and InDesign, retouched in Photoshop, photographed with a Nikon digital and a flatbed scanner. These strands constitute a complex composite image, but it might be called an alphanumeric text, or digital object with a license. 

In plate 12, historical/temporal sequences are off amidst multiple media references: it is summer but it’s snowing; I am making a TV set (or myself into a TV set) while waiting for dinner guests. There is much inexactitude when making dinner for guests and wondering when they are going to walk through a door! Making oneself into a medium like television, well, that’s also unpredictable. In the end, it’s hard to tell when this is taking place but none of this matters in the frame or sequencing of the book, which sends out data regularly and in a relaxed and modular fashion. This is post-broadcast era, maybe it’s narrowcasting or a TIVO distribution model. What does one do with information that is just information? One takes it in. Ditto with reading. I don’t have to understand to be able to read the things I am reading. In fact, I like to read fast and make lots of mistakes while scanning material. One can do anything once one gets into or inside a book; in this sense it’s like watching television. One makes up most of what one sees. Part of the reason for photographing the backs of books is that that is where most barcodes are found, and back covers are more likely to be ignored, though Wesleyan University Press and Amazon reproduced the back cover even though text on both front and back covers is too small to be read in most online images.

Gordon Tapper: Following up on what you said about the front and back covers, I’d like you to talk more about the book design of 7CV and its connection to the multitude of framing devices that suffuse the book from start to finish. In the fourth section of the book, “2 Identical Novels,” we find one of many prescriptive declarations that function simultaneously as descriptions of the book: “literature like everything else should just be a form of packaging” (102). Of course, two of the most noticeable instances of this packaging are the very playful front and back covers. The title and author are, as usual, printed on the front cover, but the typeface is so small that most readers will have to squint, and the first thing most readers will notice is what appears to be the cataloguing information that customarily appears on the copyright page, complete with ISBN numbers, Library of Congress subject headings, and the library call number. We have in a sense been programmed to recognize the visual format of this cataloguing information, but if we take the time to actually read the subject headings, we will realize that these categories have not been generated by the Library of Congress, but have been invented by the author. Yet it would be wrong to call these categories imaginary or completely ironic, since they in fact amount to a more or less accurate summation of 7CV. We will encounter discourse on “mass media and language,” anecdotes about “wives — familial relationships,” and references to the ethnic content implied by the first subject heading, “China — poetry.” Why did you appropriate and distort this utilitarian form, drawn from the realm of what was once quaintly known as “library science,” to frame our reading of the book? How does this opening gesture live up to the idea that literature is “just” a form of packaging?

Lin: The cover was designed to be read. Paradoxically, most book covers are graphic, i.e. have visual oomph because they are the front door announcing content “inside.” But I didn’t want the title to be graphic, a sign outside the book. I wanted the sign to be inside the book pointing out to things that are not in the book, so the inside is more graphic than the physical back cover, which is the book’s conceptual front cover. The book interior points lackadaisically to itself, like the grid of Manhattan. We tried to make the covers not pretty or graphic, and inefficient at rapidly communicating the book’s idea. It is a poor cover. It is in my good friend Charles’s words, “non-absorptive.” By making the print, in Scala Sans, tiny, you force people (people are designed by reading practices) to turn the cover into something that isn’t looked at — if you want to make sense of it you have to get out a magnifying glass and read it! And ditto with the hand-drawn title in on the physical back. The LC info is not something most readers read, but here it tells you, as you note, a lot. It functions in lieu of a table of contents, or it shades into that functionality. Needless to say the front cover is important to reading the particulars of this book. The LC matter may be more expressive, compositionally speaking, or just as expressive, bibliographically speaking, as anything else. Certainly it’s meant to be amusing and anecdotal, but that goes with the territory of subject headers, as any librarian can tell you. Subject headers are very biased! I wanted to address controversy as it relates to poetry and cooking. These do not seem separate categories. The cover is robin’s egg blue, which is spring like. It reminds me of Easter egg shells. I am not a practicing Christian but Easter is the most pleasing of religious holidays. It has not been utterly commodified except perhaps by the color of plastic eggs and the foils wrapped around chocolates. Easter eggs and Chinese fortune cookies go together in the book. Blue is a decorative fondant or confection! The cover is almost lickable.

The physical front matter contains the legal, registered title, whereas the physical back has the title in a hand drawn version done without the hand. It was done in MS Word, using a line draw software function and a mouse. Everything about a book is about its mediation. There is no packaging “for” a book. The book is its packaging, its system of reproduction, visualization, dissemination, etc. There is no inside/outside, paratext/text distinction. They are all integrated, like software, or micro-ideologies, in the book “proper.” The book is co-extensive with layout, editing, bibliography, and distribution. The book is a timed function of simultaneous and delayed reading events in your life. There are only two options: it can be read or it can be unread. You read and don’t read a book over generations or years and I wanted to position reading in this extended time frame by making it a fast read, almost non-reading. A controlled vocabulary system lets you in and out quickly. What is the difference between a reader and a design element? No difference. The book is (printed) in Scala Sans. The book was written on a PC but transferred to and laid out on a Mac. Scala Sans was one of the first fonts for the Mac. It was developed in 1988 in Holland, and released in the FontFont Library in 1993 in a sans serif version, one that included elements like small caps and ligatures, which were missing from the early Mac fonts. Scala Sans is used in the Chicago Manual of Style, so it seemed appropriate that it be used in 7CV, regarded as a field guide of reading as a series of highly punctuated/differentiated but regulated practices. These practices are all “codified” as the reading of a book. What is a book “title”? A title appears on the physical front and back covers of the book, on the half title and full title page. So you have four divergent titles, i.e. they serve different purposes in or on or around the book. A title can stop you from reading a book.

Tapper: Let’s zero in on how you incorporate visual images into 7CV. In almost every section, you conjoin image and text according to what starts out as a fairly consistent recto-verso scheme, with text on left, image on right, though in some sections the visual space of the page is organized into quadrants, with the text and image floating in and out of these four regions. Beyond this element of graphic design, however, I detect an engagement with some of the most ancient debates in poetics about the relationship between text and image, about how to define “the image,” and about whether painting or poetry possesses superior mimetic capacities, a theoretical question that has grown vastly more complex since the advent of photography, cinema, and digitized information. You play with the image-text relationship on a dizzying number of levels. For instance, in the first section of the book, you signal that images will be linked to the textual markers “Plate 1,” “Plate 2,” etc., only to leave blank the page where we expect to see an image. Then in the second section, our expectations for images are satisfied, but now the Plate number markers appear on the verso page, above not an image, but a module of text that sometimes appears to refer obliquely to the image on the recto. In other cases, though, one can find hardly any reference at all to the images, which are hard to identify, though readers will probably infer a relationship because the structure of the book seems to demand it. In “A Field Guide to the American Landscape,” we encounter a rather lyrical statement that seems to guide us, as any good field guide should, as to how we should approach these enigmatic, always quirky, sometimes quite amusing images of things like the back of a package of moist towelettes: “If my eyes were like a newspaper, the photographs appear to revolve around the words like a series of imaginary facts” (48). In what sense can we conceive of the photos in 7CV as “imaginary facts,” whatever that oxymoron might mean? How does 7CV ask us to think about the relationship between image and text?


Tan Lin in 2010; left: Tan Lin sketched by Mimi Gross as part of Poetry Plastique, 2001.

Lin: Well a number of things are at work. The most basic is that inserting photos in 7CV changes how it’s read. Eliminating images (or their mildly correspondent blank spaces with a text) would make reading more straightforward and linear, and for me, unrelenting. But it would have its payoff in increased retention. It is hard for me to read a book straight through, which is probably why I like Musil, Brautigan, Acker, Barthelme, or Alexander Kluge. These books kind of do my reading for me, and I feel no desire to finish them. The photos in 7CV are an aid to a reading of a more general kind, one grounded in skimming, skipping, leafing through, muteness, overlooking, thinking back about books one has read but doesn’t have anymore. Books seem to propagate themselves. Thus, the book has certain self-replicating structures within it. Like a scrapbook, it is comprised of almost personal photos and mildly irrelevant texts, reading headers, software, and places/blanks where images are statistically indicated by textual pointers or captions. This is not meant to be difficult or evasive. When one reads, one connects with the things one reads in a personal way. Otherwise, one would stop reading. And I stop reading a lot when I read. There is a lot of muteness and blindness in the text or reading system, the generic and in the controlled vocabulary system. So in contrast to this notion that in today’s environment nearly everything has an image or text posted to it, there is quite a bit of blank or mute space in 7CV, and so the interior of the book, fully administered and commodified by various systems of reading and textual production, has blanks, hypnagogic lulls, and spa-like areas where eyeballs might rest. I wanted the text to be relaxed, yogic, anecdotal, easily consumed. The self-reflexive images — mostly from the flea market — are vaguely generic and generically comforting! They don’t corroborate the text clearly; they remain loosely or generically relevant, like scaffolding to the reading processes and feelings that underlie or circulate in and through the reading system regarded in the most general of terms, as a medium that generates meanings of the most diffuse and pleasurable sorts and makes the reader possible. So the photos are the mood or environment for reading text, but the text is mood-based as well, and it’s hard to separate (reading) a book (or architecture or other non-printed forms of reading matter) from the ambience of reading. The book is just the environment of the reading system. There is really no such thing as a book from the perspective of a reading system, and 7CV is about this ambience or mood of reading, regarded as system. And it is mostly silent i.e. it is not a phonemic system (no slips of the tongue) but a statistical one marked by typos, stray punctuation, irregular type/fonts, graphic redundancies, etc. The first section exists as voice only to the extent that it is a computer-generated voice program named Dorothy. [Editor’s note: See Lin’s “Eleven Minute Painting” video, available at PennSound.]

Within this system, I relate to most of the photos in a distracted, personal way. I didn’t take most of them. This defines what Goffman calls rules of irrelevance. The photographs are almost textual in this reading space, and vice versa. There is no sequestration. In this sense, the book is a statistical landscape or minor encounter with text in general, what linguists terms “word shapes” as a medium for meaning, a quasi-architectural space, a generic feeling, an inner blank spot in a system of affects and photographs that might be affects. The landscape images, which mirror something once called subjectivity, are found photographs bought at the flea market, which I then either re-photographed digitally or scanned in to something that might once have been referred to as consciousness. And it’s strange about that consciousness but I think of those photos as mine. I remember them. I even remember having them, which happened when I re-photographed or scanned them. So the book is about reuse, remembering and re-remembering of imagery from other sources and people. Many stories are sampled with the narrator’s subjectivity interjected i.e. I like to read stories from the newspaper and then re-narrate them as if they had happened to me. This is self-reflexive, artificial and book like. The book is a strange interface between analog and digital, from painting and cinema and photography and architecture (and their notions of authorship) to new digital mediums associated with metadata containers, information architecture, and tags, which function as non-readable captions to text and images. The title’s “handwriting” is digital. A mode of remembering/reading/organizing/cataloging material is replaced by another. The reader is an internal self-condition of a reading system where it’s hard to distinguish between an image as a sign (to textual matter), a text that functions graphically as reading module, and a metadata tag that functions as a textual title, photographic caption. Like an embedded metadata tag, which are relevant less to content than its processing, the book is about things not seen, patterns of non-reading and non-retention, statistical systems of reading and memory rather than reading and memory “itself.” Guess work prevails, but 7CV is not a zero-order approximation. I cannot remember what the captions or some content signifies. Much has passed through me. Some of this lies in the historical field: the field guide concept has dates attached. The first Baedeker guides appear in 1839 and document visitations to the Rhine. There may be pictures of the Rhine in the book. Photographs were added to guidebooks at the same time, evinced in Daguerre and Fox Talbott’s production, in France and England, respectively, regarded as photographic countries. The anecdotal evidence collected in the Identical Novel section is textual and graphic in orientation, in its textual and extra-textual locations or shapes.

Because of its high redundancy and low poetry, 7CV may not be poetry at all. There is, however, parsing of things that might be poetic, like empty spaces in the cinema section. But these spaces are just typographic, the product of tab stops! This is a double-entry system of accounting. Information is getting lost. Accidents and typos are admitted from the get go. And the system can be seen “in” chapter divisions and paratextual divisions “in” the text, regarded as a sophisticated, self-organizing system. Where are these stories found? In what local structures (photographic close up) or patterns (macro view) are they momentarily glimpsed? This might have been contained in an (identical) novel once, but now it’s a database. The (identical) novel cannot imagine itself! This can only be done from the system of poetry! All we have are a bunch of pedagogical scenes: street scenes, classrooms, professors in classrooms, landscapes, photographs, textual matter — regarded as a bildungsroman. At some points one thinks one can “see” a story, a recognition scene that Aristotle termed anagnorisis, but which is a highly temporalized phenomenon and mostly just an anonymous murmur: it is a function of a self-organizing system and not any individual consciousness or transaction, which becomes marked by signs and especially numbers, plate numbers, cross references, software codes, tags, indexes, footnotes, appendixes, etc. The space of secrecy or interiority has been externalized. What do those “interior” structures (of reading/seeing/feeling) look like from the perspective of a book, which is always the starting point of a book that is constantly defining its boundaries? Something is turned inside out. It is highly probable in this system, like the microfilm system during the Cold War, that someone will emerge as a reader. Is the reader a narrative that describes a temporal process (event) that ebbs away after “seeing” something? That’s the bet!

Tapper: Well, let’s say we take your bet, become one of those reader-narratives who rarely finish a book, and examine what happens to affect in 7CV. As we loll about in the ambient environment, wondering whether we’re reading Seven Controlled Vocabularies, Obituary 2004, or The Joy of Cooking, remaining untroubled by the distinctions, we come to rest in one of those spa-like mute spaces, but it isn’t long before our eyes stray toward text, which you say are just as mood-based as the photos. So let’s say, for instance, that we’ve read the short text about logos on page seventy, received a mild kick of pleasure from glancing downward and recognizing the back of a MetroCard, then sat becalmed for a few moments as our eyes shift right to one of those nearly mute spaces, here defined by an almost but not quite recognizable surface bearing date stamps and some kind of code. And if we turn the page, we find the story about how you met your wife Clare at Macy’s (or was it the Bulgarian Bar?), and so receive another pleasant dose of emotion. But mood, or affect, surfaces and disappears in very contradictory ways in different sections of 7CV. In the apparently “personal” anecdotes from “Two Identical Novels,” like the ones about driving your father’s old Mercedes, or the reading habits of Tom Newlin, the Russian literature professor at Oberlin, the lazy reader-narrative takes pleasure in the pathos and humor of these stories. And yet, in the academic-sounding texts in “A Dictionary of Systems of Theory,” affect seems to play no role at all, and if our reader-narrative meanders through the ambience to the fourth preface (which may very well have been the first thing we read in the book, or the fifth, or the twenty-seventh) we encounter an assertion that frames human emotion, in the context of its representation in cinema, as something deeply mechanical: “It is hard to experience an emotion that is a diagram but of course all emotions are diagrams. Lars von Trier said that” (144). The notion of ambience and yogic relaxation that you’ve invoked seems far from the kind of emotional discomfort that we are typically subjected to in a von Trier film. I’d like you to talk about whether, like von Trier, 7CV is also engaged in a kind of diagramming that treats emotion as a mechanical outcome of the reading process.

Danny Snelson: You write: “7CV may not be poetry at all” and “This can only be done from the system of poetry!” I’m curious about the location of 7CV among the arts referenced by metadata on the cover, literary and non-literary — architecture, photography, cinema, music, painting, fiction — all of which come packed with historical contexts and user expectations. You note that “the novel cannot imagine itself” as a way to locate the heterogeneous writing styles comprising 7CV within a necessarily poetic system. However, Ron Silliman, on receiving the book, places it firmly in the “Books (Other)” category. I’m not sure I agree and hope you can tell us a bit about why and how (if?) 7CV is poetry. Aside from its material location in the Wesleyan Poetry series, and the wonderful self-cataloging identifications on the cover (“China — poetry,” “Poetry — therapeutic use,” “Poetry — social aspects”), the book can surely be read within other systems. We’ve recently discussed, for example, how the book need be different from the art-design publication studies of Dexter Sinister or Dispatch Bureau and similar art-world conceptual activity (where a startling number of artists are now creating “poems”). Similarly, while we’ve discussed Koolhaas’s essay “Junkspace” in relation to ambient stylistics, the more experimental OMA book projects raise a number of questions related to the work in 7CV. Is it, following Luhmann, a systemic process of “irritation” that you are initiating with poetry cataloging (the contextual strategies Goldsmith, among others, are engaged in)? Or, as I’ve a hunch, something closer to your conception of “poetry” proper? Anyhow, I’m interested in how “Tan Lin” is plugged into various sites in art, architecture, the academy and poetry. I’m interested in how you navigate these fields. Do you imagine the disciplines listed in your tags reading the book?

Lin: Hmm, as I’m thinking of one question I’m being distracted by another, so I think this will answer both Danny’s and Gordon’s questions!

I was trying to think of what happens when I read. What are feelings in the moments before they become feelings? I would say that the whole book is an affective and highly generalized/generic reading environment i.e. the system is mildly affective (as it is being read) but it also images or represents reading as a process or system that is affective in its couplings (irritations or attunements) with consciousness. Affective logic is a logic of putting things next to each other, pictures and texts, newspapers and novels, Taco Bell and Macy’s. When we read anything — menus, literature, shop signs, architecture, airport monitors — we are in a state of waiting as it were, to form some emotional connection, or feeling, in relation to something, and that something, that structure of feeling is ourself in relation to the environment. So in this sense, the affects in 7CV are oblique, passive, influenced by things like Chinese cookbooks, childhood (memories), the foods I eat at WD 50, and, since I am a professor, things I read. In other words, they are almost always not there or they seem to belong to other people in a room. They don’t have a pronounced developmental arc (narrative) or a recognizable shape like “anger” or “love.” They are not very Freudian and have not been much cognitivized. But this is the nature of the affects, as opposed to the “drives.” There is a Luhmannesque system of feelings here, linked to Daniel N. Stern’s affective attunement. I was trying to align the reading practice with questions like why and how we read, and it made sense to link reading to what Antonio Damasio calls “background feelings” or what Heidegger terms Stimmung or mood, that prior, often pre-cognitive and even pre-perceptual “atmosphere in which intentions are formed, projects pursued, and particular affects can be attached to specific objects” (Jonathan Flatley). Reading is an ambient or quasi-architectural awareness of (our own and other people’s) feelings before they become feelings. It is loosely coupled to textual and non-textual, visual and tactile, printed and non-printed matter. It creates things (like books) to read (inside our heads) within a general environment or medium of perceptions and affects. Reading as system images or mirrors a range of emotions (dramatic, cathartic, academic, mild, drugstore-like, cinematic) that are ostensibly “outside of itself”; a few of these are gut wrenching, most are fleeting and minor, and they emerge from a mood or atmosphere I associate with poetry. Maybe we read to self-reflexively create a system for what babies, children and adults do twenty-four hours a day.

Lars von Trier uses specific genres, specifically melodrama, represented by the flowchart/storyboard diagrams in Dogville, to produce, directly and bluntly, emotions of extra-ordinary phenomenological intensity. The beauty of his work is that such emotions are made to feel so intensely real and cinematic. Affects are generated “artificially” via “low” genres like melodrama and musical and then paired with a medium (“high” cinema) that is perceived to distort them, i.e. render them larger than life. The emotions of melodrama are customarily overscaled. In 7CV, I approached the problem from the other side: highlight not the artificiality/conventions and thus the specific forms/genres (art) used to produce affects, but the standard, non-descript, generic everydayness of the production of the most minor, amodal, and least intense of our passing moods. The idea was to create a book of theory/novel/artists book somehow contained in a poetry series, in a poetry medium about everyday (prose) reading practices. Or to be more blunt, I wanted the poetry system to effectively neutralize the artist book, just as it would neutralize the overly emotive, ineffable “poetic” elements. Poetry, like the affective system, is a medium punctuated by couplings and a few metadata tags. I wanted something that would, unlike many artists books, actually be read and subject the reader to everyday, durational, absorptive reading, and that would, unlike a novel, be read in a discursive, factual, standardized way. Or to put it more simply, poetry that would read like nonfiction. The reading environment constitutes a system of perceptions wherein the feelings inside of us come to be reflected back to us.

Asher Penn: The title of the event held at Penn on the twenty-first of April was: “Handmade book, PDF, Lulu.com Appendix, PowerPoint, Kanban Board/Post-Its, Blurbs, Dual Language (Chinese/English) Edition, micro lecture, Selectric II interview, wine/cheese reception, Q&A (xerox) and a film. I have the feeling that this title arrived at the last minute. How did the project start? How did it change up until the date of the event?

 

Lin: Yes, and I’m not even sure the titling has arrived yet. What you have in the list is a flexible pre- or post-titling apparatus that never quite caught up with the event itself, or a set of bibliographic controls for books that do not exist (yet). As of this interview, nearly a month out, everything is still in social process (I like to think of it as a kind of bibliographic picnic!) on wikis, in unedited PDF formats, etc. Maybe it’s useful to think of that social process as a medium. At any rate, medium (say language) and channel (say computer) are mixed together. By June 24th [2010], at the Printed Matter launch, we’ll have quasi-finished PDF downloads, PowerPoint pieces, films, a few POD books entitled “Selected Essays” and “Blerb,” Object Inventories, Chinese language editions, Critical Readers, Indexes, Bibliographies, etc. Rachel Malik’s notion of a publishing horizon (see her essay in Selected Essays) as opposed to a book is a useful construct and here that concept is rendered as a social gathering replete with emotions (more later!). So, I was not interested in a publication that crowns or documents the event but in Braudel’s longue duree, a horizontal frame in which publishing continually takes place and which slowly and dully sanctions publication and editorial events along the way. Writing, particularly literary writing, generates interest over time. I was interested in generating less interest or nominal data over time. Writing is subsumed by editing, which is subsumed by publishing practices, and the latter is a subset of computer-mediated communications (CMC). CMC are not homogeneous but platform-specific, although they are marked in general by frequent modification of short form entries in reverse chronological order, as in a blog, SMS, or discussion thread. Given this, the above titles list is a kind of inventory in reverse chronological order, or publishing as a titling or bibliographic or marketing (i.e. text and image) event prior to the event — much like a PR agency. At any rate, distinctions between pre and post-reading, writing and editing, and text and paratext are rather fluid. Reading and publishing are processed by CMC today, and this is heightened by “value-added” e-book platforms, where visual components of textual processing are packaged with a “book.” The Penn event explores that mode of book processing (reading/writing/editing/disseminating) from a systems (publishing/social network) perspective. Another way to think of this mode of editorial control is via Foucault’s genealogy, which “maintains passing events in their proper dispersion.” What was dispersed, like a retweet, at UPenn was wine and cheese, seminars, blurbs, scholarly editing and bibliography, minor canonization, accrual of cultural capital, and PowerPoint — as well as a host of software applications and technological apparati. So here the two principal actors that work to author material are the social context and computer-based media — both of these facilitate the transfer of data. So yes, information is a little like wine and cheese!

Despite the haphazard appearance of the titling, the project was neatly circumscribed by the nomenclature of Edit: Processing Writing Technologies. Within this conceptual apparatus, there were things I couldn’t in good conscience want: people writing novels or poems or doing “performance editing” in the buff. Mild editing is good enough. Writing is too much. The practices that day were not meant to be aesthetic, by which I mean they were intended to mirror rather than diverge from content production today. For example, most user-posted videos comprise an archive not designed for revisiting or reminiscing in, and it’s hard to imagine rereading Facebook status updates! Within a web-based reading environment, a lot of material is written (once), reviewed later that day with a cup of tea, and then forgotten. It doesn’t need to be edited because it was already written in edit mode or in a wiki modifications mode. I would say Facebook as a genre is still, thank goodness, only mildly aestheticized i.e. edited. We don’t write so much anymore as manipulate existing content. Editing, as discourse, applies not just to texts but to menus, my internet dating trajectory, posting details on Facebook’s news feed, tweets, Obama’s highly mediated presidential campaign, Flickr group albums, interactive news, reality TV, other people’s playlists, Goodreads reviews, and “personal” or attribute-keyed music recommendations on Pandora Radio. We live in an era of endless and communal cross- and self-editing, like retweeting (RT) at Twitter! Likewise, instead of filtering and preservation, the chief aim in much blog writing (and the Penn event) is not (bibliographic/editorial) control of content for future access (i.e. a library’s use of controlled vocabularies) but instantaneous personal expression around ephemeral content creation and informal classification structures (folksonomies) and uncontrolled vocabulary systems. This is especially true of things like LiveJournal but it’s also true of filter blogs and knowledge or k-blogs, which are “authoritatively” marked by outbound links. Self-publishing in particular has gravitated towards less authoritative and more ephemeral, event-, self-, or platform-based forms where the line between “primary” i.e. authorial content and “secondary” i.e. user-generated content (forums, comments, and internal blogs) is eroded, and where multiple authors contribute posts and links in both synchronous and asynchronous formats and with increasing anonymity. As of this interview little of the Penn event is finished except the Chinese-English language version, which lacks photos. You can get that book here: It’s unclear if these books will ever be “finished” — the editors can emend, revise, and republish the “titles” on their respective wikis.

So to return to your questions, the titles are flat containers, what information specialists might call namespaces, metadata fields or vocabulary systems, used to catalog an event that has yet to transpire. What does the word “publish” mean today? Danny is managing “content” and assigning editors. Editors are designing covers. In this context 7CV is less an object with an author than data to be edited, organized, tagged, reformulated, republished, blurbed, annotated, indexed, resold — by others. And that is what I think reading should be — taking hold of another text, customizing it, disposing of it. Benjamin Disraeli said when he wanted to read a good book, he wrote one. But today, why read or write a book when you can edit it? Editing is the new writing. The Penn Event aligns itself with such discursive practices — nominally self expressive writing and/or knowledge sorting within self-publishing. Editing and self-publishing are weak genres, or social agreements. 

For this reason, I see a direct correlation between self-publishing books and Facebook, Twitter, Lulu or Flickr. Facebook and Twitter are theatrical spaces for self-publishing and editing one’s evolving social coordinates. We are so immersed in ostensibly free form and unrehearsed sites that it is hard to see them as highly scripted social spaces or theatres. Of course most people don’t think of editing/publishing as theatre but as something boring or parasitical (vis-à-vis a “source” text), a textual backwater populated by people with glasses. But I think publishing a book today is theatre, socially networked theatre, and the Edit event exemplifies publishing as everyday performance. Facebook and Flickr are our era’s administered and generic version of sixties happenings! Flickr albums mostly look all the same, and this is true of most of the images in 7CV — they could belong to anybody, and many of the images were taken from discarded photo albums or are the backs of books, I suppose a marketing director’s nightmare. So in that sense, the event at Penn that day translated the reeditioning of 7CV into a bibliographic happening, underwritten by affective modes of reuse, editing, archiving, MP3 background music, and library science. We had pizza! We drank wine and chatted! I wanted people to have a good time.

Status updates on Facebook constitute a continuous and communal editing (and conversational diffusion) of a life’s impersonal events rather than a diaristic recording or writing of the feelings as a “published author.” Ditto with 7CV and its extensions. What search engine developers term filtering (i.e. self-reflexiveness about the medium itself, as manifested in meta data containers) is more granular in a conventionally published memoir or poem than in a blog or its hard-copy cousin: a self-published Lulu edition, but I think this is changing.

Another way of saying this is that the titles of the event are pragmatic and context sensitive i.e. they are a fantasia of classification. The (editing) vocabulary system is a generalized medium or generic (table of) contents. Like a rudimentary tablature for string music or a playbill for a play, they guide, like a kanban board, the general flow of production but don’t proscribe it. We live in an age of weak authors and strong communications networks and high sensitivity to labels, and I do not think this is a bad thing! After all, if networks and captions are strong, authors do not have to be. Authors can disappear into a search engine, reading/reviewing network like Goodreads, blurb, or Google Books, where a book evolves from a stand-alone object into an information entity classed with other entities. Editing makes authors disappear rather than show up as guests on Oprah! Books without authors are more pleasing (and easily digested) than books with authors. 7CV is about fast reading and ease of ingestion of written and reprocessed material. We live in a text-based rather than image-based moment, which is one reason I find the most interesting cultural activity in textual rather than visual arts, and why if I had a choice I’d probably get a degree in information science rather than English or in painting!