Conceptual Coda / Darren Wershler

the tapeworm foundry as (mal)content

In this plateau, I would like to characterize the tapeworm foundry as “(mal)content,” a more or less throwaway term that Wershler uses in his exchange on the poetry website, Circulars, with fellow poet and digital humanist Brian Kim Stefans for the anthology New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories. Before I get into what exactly Wershler means by “(mal)content,” I should first spend some time contextualizing Circulars and why I feel like the theoretical foundations of this digital project are relevant to the tapeworm foundry, which is itself widely circulated as a print-based text. Circulars was a digital poetry community focused on anti-war activism, and it was wildly popular in the digital poetry community in the early and mid-2000s, but has since gone on hiatus. Stefans, the project’s founder, discusses its radical potentials in New Media Poetics by first quoting from its manifesto. He quotes, “our hope is to create a dynamic, persuasive idiom that can work in a public sphere, mingling elements of rhetoric and stylistics associated with the aforementioned modes—analytic, ironic, or humanistic” (66). The radical potentials of Circulars lie in the fact that the site is radically collaborative and thus communal; the site functioned as a constellation of the works of a number of poets all linking within and outside of it. For Stefans, these hyperlinks were a major feature of the site’s effective communal strategy. He writes that “the link can be as powerful as word of mouth and is itself the prize of an effective rhetorical strategy. These are ‘Circulars’ because they are circulated” (67). Circulars was effective because, unlike traditional poetic production and circulation, the collaborative and commenting mode relied on “forcing interaction” (67).

What makes Circulars so interesting for my purposes is that while it was by an large a community of poets producing creative and activist work, it always had its eye on the popular, encouraging its writers to speak to the popular community outside of the poetry community. The result was that many of the site’s commenters were not poets themselves, but merely interested passersby, and many entries on the site garnered long comment discussions. As Stefans goes on to write, recalling Goldsmith’s arguments I quoted earlier in my project, “[p]oets are often criticized for speaking among themselves in languages that seem esoteric to the public; Circulars would be a place where the detailed critique specific to the poetry community could flourish while being channeled to, and challenged by, a nonpoetry readership” (69). And yet, digital poetry and hypertext fiction has always boasted its relationship to the popular, the common assumption being that the digital form—in relation to the ubiquity in our society of digital media and social media—is more readily available to a popular audience and more in keeping with new digital literacies. This assumption has not gone unquestioned, and the literature in the humanities about the potential popular appeal of digital and electronic literature is so vast I cannot begin to treat it justly here. Stefans does point to the radical potentials of the digital text, but he does not do so unquestioningly. Instead, he rightly points to the illusion of choice offered by the digital, and especially the hyperlinked, text:

One of the facets of hypertext literature that is often celebrated by its proponents concerns the issue of choice and the malleability of a narrative based on a user’s interaction with a text. The idea is that the reader, rather than being ‘passive,’ takes on a writerly positions—an allusion to Roland Barthes usually appears here—by determining where the thread of the text (usually figured as a narrative) will go. (73)

This freedom of choice, though, is arguable at best, and the text and its available hyperlinks govern reading choices with only slightly less control that a traditional prose narrative. Circulars does not boast an extreme freedom of choice, but rather Stefans argues that it “makes a step in creating an ethics of ‘choice’ in hypertext literature but also that is makes a gesture toward creating a poetics of online activism, giving it a cultural tone beyond the merely critical or utilitarian” (75). It is in this way that it gestures toward community.

And yet, Stefans doesn’t use the term “communal” to describe Circulars. Rather, he call in a “non-community” and argues that it was particularly effective because it was a “non-site community” without clearly defined borders or a locus. “The site is the negation of community,” he argues, “[f]or better or worse, the site replaced physical communion with virtual, while drawing attention to the absence of the reader from these time- and place-based forms of interaction, whether in protest activity or war itself” (81). And while his essay describes a poetics of Circulars, “[i]t is also a negation of the poem.” That is:

Despite a “poetics,” there was no single rhetoric for the site, no way to recuperate it into an “author,” no way to domesticate its contents into a confirmation of a bourgeois subjectivity. It targeted the very space of the ‘poem’ in society. Further, it troubled language an narrativity, but in a way that did not require idiosyncratic reading strategies promoted by, among others, Language poets or the novelists of the Nouveau Roman. (81)

In his exchange with Wershler, Stefans addressed the activist potentials of the site, arguing that Circulars must be understood as “the non-site of activism, not just a corollary to the sweat and presence of people ‘on the streets’ but a vision of a possible culture in which these activities (otherwise abandoned to television) can exist, not to mention reflect and nourish culturally” (75). This is because the site was not a digital anthology or a collection, but rather a compendium and a collaboration that linked within itself and pointed elsewhere. Its poetics of compendium and collaboration functions to break down the traditional confined that delimit a text, or an author. And it is through this poetics that Wershler is able to exclaim at the end of his exchange with Stefans:

So by all means, yes, don’t just ‘write’ (a verb that in many cases bears the superciliousness of the romantic), build (mal)content. Bring on the hyperlinks, intro paragraphs, pictures, PHP scripts, and HTML formatting, especially if they help to demonstrate the mutual indebtedness that all creativity entails. Use Your Allusion. (82)

It is this term, (mal)content, that interests me. Buried within Wershlers characteristic humor and jouissance, the term suggests a content—a productivity—that carries within int the potential to break down, to function like the parasite in the tapeworm foundry’s title. (Mal)content feeds off existing literature and grows infinitely, producing new parasitic texts and always linking back to them. I would like to argue that the tapeworm foundry is such a parasite, a (mal)content that produces new forms that slowly but surely eat away at the traditional boundaries that would seek to govern it. Though it is print-based, the collection functions like infinite links to infinite abstract, unfinished, or not-even-begun projects connected by the infinitely looping “andor” and designed to wear away at the literary canon.

One way the text does this is through a series of vague instructions for projects scattered amongst the otherwise quite specific (though frequently irrational, illogical, or impossible) instructions for new art projects or books of poetry. These vague instructions serve as a reminder to the reader that he or she need not actually follow any of these directions. Instead, the proposals function as lines of flight—to borrow yet another deleuzian term for this project—that link together various radically experimental projects through a readership who is thus encouraged to produce more art and become a part of the parasitic rhizome. So, when Wershler encourages his readers to “proceed according to a philosophy of whatever,” he allows his parasite access to virtually everything.

I am tempted to read the text as one that resists materiality, whereas many of the other texts in my project have forced the reader to confront the issues of materiality surrounding textual production (see, for example, Howe, Moure, Cage, Mac Low). And when I read relatively early in the book when Wershler includes the directive, “remove specificity and then convert to ambiguities,” I believed when I read it that the text was supporting such an argument. But, a close reading of the rest of the text uncovered a direct contradiction pages later, wherein Wershler suggests instead that the reader “delete ambiguities and then convert to specificities.” These incommensurate directions suggest not that the text lies or attempts to deceive its readers, but rather that the real radical potential of a text that is purely proposal is that it allows for the production of infinite new texts, rendering previous binarisms (of specificity and ambiguity, material and immaterial, physical and digital, avant-garde and traditional) increasingly unimportant. Close to the book’s end, Wershler even instructs: “andor do none of these things.” In this way, the reader cannot help but follow at least one of his instructions. And I’d also like to point out that occasionally the text directly addresses its readers, as when he adds one of my own personal favorite propositions: “throw in some second person pronouns and some expletives in order to create the illusion that you are cursing your audience you fuckwit,” or later, recalling Walt Whitman’s famous praise of the author, “go ahead and repeat yourself because you are vast and contain multitudes.” These are moments of (mal)content, in which the reader him or herself becomes included in the parasitic rhizome and the text becomes “circular.” After all, it begins with “or jetsam” and ends with “flotsam and,” suggesting an infinite loop of aggregation. It radically challenges our conceptions of readerly involvement in a text and, in some ways, has saved conceptual poetics for me.

4 thoughts on “the tapeworm foundry as (mal)content

  1. I think the plateau works well. I’d like to see you connect it more directly to postanarchism, though. A few sentences here and there should be enough (or a paragraph somewhere towards the end).

    I’d also argue that you’ll have to change your terms when you say “Though it is print-based, the collection functions like infinite links to infinite abstract, unfinished, or not-even-begun projects connected by the infinitely looping “andor” and designed to wear away at the literary canon,” as well as most of the other places you use the term “infinite.” The text isn’t infinite (at least not on the page/screen). It does begin and end (though perhaps the circular ending and beginning can gesture towards a never-ending information loop–though never-ending isn’t really infinite, in this case, because it is a closed circuit). Unless you disagree with that reading?

    • Okay, so I’m trying to be too radical again… Infinite is not the right word, but I’m not sure what is. What is a word that means “opens itself up to multiple proliferations but not infinite ones”?

  2. Pingback: Conclusion Part Two: What Can We Learn from Digital Poetics? | [generic pronoun] creates

  3. Perhaps “polyvalent” or “multivalent”? (But be aware of the connotations–maybe those aren’t accurate for your purposes?)

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