Conceptual Coda / Darren Wershler

Handwriting the tapeworm foundry

I end the plateaus-proper with a couple of posts on another wildly popular text of conceptual poetics, Darren Wershler’s (who at the time published under the name Darren Wershler-Henry) the tapeworm foundry (2000), a book I have personally enjoyed a great deal since discovering it many years ago. While I had always planned on ending this project with a discussion of the tapeworm foundry, this choice seems all the more relevant and appropriate in light of the direction my scholarship has taken as of late. This direction seemed natural and I had believed that my work had changed relatively little until, last week, I sat down for coffee with my colleague, Matt Carrington, who sat across from me and pointedly asked “Why do you hate conceptual poetry?” Of course, I do not hate conceptual poetry; I still read it and enjoy it and discuss it frequently. But Carrington’s comment did force me to come to terms with the fact that as my own theories of reading, writing, experimentation, and activism had progressed with my research, I could not find my enjoyment of conceptual poetics commensurate. There simply is not, I now see, the space for an active readership as advocated by a postanarchist literary theory in the vast majority of work published—either accurately or not—under the umbrella of conceptual poetics. One important exception to this is, for me, the tapeworm foundry, a text that interrogates the space for an active and activist readership in an experimental poetics while at the same time ensuring that such a space is cleared.

I had always understood the tapeworm foundry as a text full of possibilities. It encourages its readers to stop reading and to interact with it. Its proposals for other poems, books of poems, and art projects, has the effect of inspiring its readers through the humor and creative of Wershler as the text’s author. The book trusts its readers in a way that few others do, and the result has been that the text overwhelming encourages its readers to produce their own work, taking Billy Collins’s famous adage that “the trouble with poetry is that is breeds other poetry” to heart. Famously, projects proposed by the tapeworm foundry were produced by students at the University of Pennsylvania and exhibited together, boasting the text’s potentials to encourage other readers to produce their own works that question the role of the author and the reader, that break down conventional notions of creativity and inspiration, and that confront the parasitic nature of what the book’s subtitle terms the “dangerous prevalence of imagination.”

Susan Vanderbog, in her article on the tapeworm foundry in Contemporary Literature, “Transformations of the Poetry Book as General Economy,” also reads the text as full of possibilities (148). But, she adds the important distinction that the text is not utopian in this manner, but rather it also confronts a feeling of defeat against the capitalist push to guide imagination and limit one’s creative choices (148). The book, she argues, functions palimpsestically, inscribing the potentials of conceptual uncreativity and radical defamiliarization onto extant texts that have been or risk being commodified in a market that absorbs the experimental and the avant-garde in order to nullify or diminish its revolutionary potentials. As such, for Vanderborg, the tapeworm foundry is a text of parasitic noise, owing a significant debt to Michel Serres’s The Parasite. The book, she argues, is “not only is full of noisy over-communication and static on still-functioning lines, but [it] also mentions completely ruined or non-useful texts, with tips for creating such objects ranged alongside its visions of easily consumed commodities” (156). Ultimately, the tapeworm foundry is much more concerned with the noise of radical experimentation and textual production than the final texts themselves, which exist throughout its pages as concepts without finished products (159). For Vanderborg, the ruined books, unusable objects, and wild digital projects proposed by Wershler demonstrate the text’s rejection of an economy principled on use-value, and she works to draw attention to the many digital examples of projects therein, paying particular attention to the digital lineage of Wersher’s book itself (164). I am, of course, interested in what the text (itself marketed and circulated by and large as a print-based book) says about the radical potentials of digital and born-digital texts—especially considering the volume of work Wershler has done in digital humanities—but will save that for my next plateau. In this plateau I would like to focus on the strange examples in the tapeworm foundry where the reader in encouraged to use his or her own biographical examples, and especially his or her own handwriting to produce digital, experimental, and ultimately unusable texts.

Early on in the text, Wershler situates his proposals for experimental art projects as ones that will specifically interrogate the relationship between the reader and the art piece he or she would produce with the instructions: “reconstruct the ruins of a bombed our capital i” (np). This sentence works immediately to draw attention to the fact that no letter, least of all an “I,” is capitalized throughout the text. But, more importantly, it also provides the imagery of the reader who takes up a physical position in a subjectivity that has been “bombed out” by an avant-garde poetics that sought, as my project has suggested throughout, to obliterate conventional notions of subjectivity. The reconstruction in question, then, is the construction of a new space for the reader to create a makeshift and fluxuating “I” within this and other texts; a subjectivity that is at once extremely personal—in that the reader is encouraged to do his or her own reconstruction—as well as abstracted. While the materiality of language is stressed in this image, the implied destruction and reconstruction of subjectivity here happens exclusively on the level of the abstract. This is all complicated later on with Wershler’s humorous language play in his proposal that the reader “object to the subject” (np). What I would like to argue is that Wershler encourages the production of new subjectivities for his readers, subjectivities that exist in the tenuous and immaterial locus of the potential meanings of a text. These are made manifest throughout the tapeworm foundry in the form of the images of the reader’s handwriting being used to complicate digitization, autobiography and inspiration, and the useful, meaning-making potentials of the art piece.

One excellent example of this is Wershler’s example towards the middle of the text that the reader should “write all of your misgivings about your work in ballpoint pen along the edges of your collated manuscript doing so in the same way that you might have written on the edges of your high school math book and then shuffle the pages before you bind them.” In an act of defiance against a publish-or-perish culture in both academic and creative writing, Wershler asks the reader to defile the seemingly impersonal medium of the printed text—made even more impersonal with Wershler diction in “collated manuscript”—with the very personal, confessional nature of the typically unspoken “misgivings” an author inevitably has about his or work. The personal and individualized nature of the reader’s emotions here are augmented—and so too is the reader’s relative autonomy in the reading process—by the fact that these misgivings are to be personally handwritten onto the printed manuscript, creating a palimpsest in which the individualized reader is afforded the abstraction of personalized space in the text through the physical materiality of a “ballpoint pen” scribbled onto the manuscript pages. The space for the reader’s autonomy is compounded further by Wershler’s addition that these misgivings be scrawled in the manner of juvenile marginalia, doodled like a boyfriend’s name or an illustration of a heart. This is made even more biographical as Wershler words this not as “juvenile marginalia” but rather “in the same way that you might have written on the edges of your high school math book” (emph. added). My marginalia in my math book, my own recollections of the activity at once universalized—we all doodled in all of our math books, he suggests—and made personal—his name was Chris, the hearts were made into balloons, the strings went down the page lengthwise, I used to count down the minutes until the end of calculus because that meant lunch and then spare and then English with Mr. Hayes. And yet all of this is undercut by the proposal’s final instructions to shuffle the pages before binding. Our personal experience, our emotions and our confessional tendencies, have a place in the textual production, and are required to render the traditional and usable text into a noisy, radical mess. But they are not required for the finished product, which is more valuably circulated once it has been randomized, and thus rendered impersonal again. In this case, our own subjectivity, our reconstructed capital “I” is important for the production, for the creation of radically experimental texts, but not for the finished product.

In another instance, Wershler encourages the reader to “write a poem about sir isaac newton in your normal handwriting on an apple newton and then let the device mistranslate it for you.” In this case, the line that is blurred by handwriting is the divide between the digital and the print-based text, in which the individualized personality of the hand-written document is precisely what provides the eventual indeterminacy and illegibility of the end product; the idiosyncracies and inconsistencies of individual hand-writing would render the text illegible, “mistranslated” by a machine that at the time did not have the ability or the processing power to accurately receive and translate hand-written texts. Additionally, the humorous juxtaposition of the image of Isaac Newton—a representative for physics and thus physicality and materiality—and the image of the Apple Newton, a platform that at the time Wershler was writing this would have been either still in production or just finished. The Apple Newton OS was made popular through its use on Apple MessagePads, though it was used in other device, and its handwriting-recognition software was famously inaccurate, frequently producing illegible and unrecognizable translations of the hand-written original[i]. These examples indicate that the reader’s place in the production of meaning—and the production of other, new texts—is a difficult one. He or she is invited to bring his or her own personal experiences to the work, but is persistently reminded that in order to maintain the radical potentials, that individuality and those personal experiences must eventually be randomized, mistranslated, and rendered into noise in order that the next reader be afforded the same potentials.

[i] For more information, see Larry Yaegar’s “Handwriting Recognition Technology in the Newton’s Second Generation ‘Print Recognizer’ (The One That Worked).” Worldwide Newton Conference September 4-5 2004. Slides.

3 thoughts on “Handwriting the tapeworm foundry

  1. This is another excellent entry. I just have one quibble:

    In your discussion of the writing and shuffling of the personal material like that in a textbook, I wonder if you overstate your point when you argue that the shuffling depersonalizes the writing. I understand what you mean (at least I think I do–that the random variable of shuffling distances the material from one’s own experience/memory of the actions?), but does shuffling completely depersonalize the material? Is there a middle ground of both personal/impersonal (I hate to suggest it, but an “andor”) created by the shuffling? Feel free to stick to your guns on this point, but I think you might need to shore up your argument if you do so. I think your point about the mistranslation of/through the Apple Newton is more nuanced, though, and comes closer to what I suggest, than to what you argue before it. But I have a baby screaming for me right now, so it is possible I’ve missed the subtleties of your argument. Must run!

    • I was secretly hoping you’d bring that baby into your comments so I could sneak him into my dissertation. Well, he’s there now! Don’t edit him out!

      Yeah, you’re right. Shuffling is not exactly a radical depersonalization… I was definitely overstating my case there to prove a point that is probably not as extreme as I want it to be. There is (should be) a middle ground between pure confession and pure artifice… I think the appeal of tapeworm is that it walks that line.

  2. Does this mean that Duncan Thomas Laycock Weaver could have his first appearance in print in your dissertation? Wow–finally, this project begins to speak to my interests!


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