‘Doing e-lit’ in print: Plus-Human Codes and the (re)Turn to the Bookbound

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

“He may be a superdecoder or a superspy but he’s sort of neutral, though not quite like a machine, more like he’d, sort of, come and, reversed all our, traditional, oppositions, and questioned, all our, certainties”, or so Zab falteringly describes the Martian boulder-cum-supercomputer that has crash-landed in a disused Cornish mine.

Christine Brooke-Rose’s 1986 novel, Xorandor, is remarkable as much for its eponymous radioactive-waste-guzzling, double-crossing rock, as for being partially narrated in the programming language, Poccom 3. Invented by siblings, Jip and Zab, first as a kind of idioglossia and then as a lingua franca for communicating with Xorandor, Poccom 3 is rather like the indeterminate rock: its presence in the text requires a supreme effort of decoding to begin with, becomes increasingly naturalized with exposure, but consistently questions all our certainties about the language of literature.

This is because whatever is literary in a humanist sense is not usually considered communicable in anything other than human-only language. And yet, here is this alien “alpha-eater” not only hijacking control of the narrative from the children, but also ‘eating the alphabet’ and regurgitating it in human-readable, or what I venture to call ‘plus-human’ code.

Turning from Cold War-era sci-fi to electronic literature, Nick Montfort’s single page of Python code in The Truelist bears remarkable similarities to Brooke-Rose’s Poccom 3. Although the code can only be found on the last page of this book-length poem, it is as in Xorandor central to the book as artefact, for it was used by Montfort to generate the poetry. “Xorshift to create a random-like but deterministic sequence”, reads one of the lines of code, simultaneously describing its role in recombining a concise inputted lexicon according to rules also specified by Montfort.

The effect is a journey “through a strange landscape that seems to arise from the English language itself”, complete with idiosyncratic compound words (e.g., “voidring”, “book-bound ear”) not without analogues in Jip and Zab’s private programming-inspired idiom (e.g., “diodic!”, “Avort”, “flash-in-the-datasink”).


Notwithstanding that Xorandor and The Truelist are books containing and driven by pages of plus-human code, it is the profound differences between the two that gives scope to this proposed paper. Brooke-Rose’s is firmly of the print tradition, where the paper medium brings to readerly attention issues of language such as: the richness but also (from the perspective of a computer) the illogic of polysemy; the power of discourse to subject a sub-human object to study or enslavement, to make peace or war. Montfort’s offering, although in the final instance presented on paper, belongs to an emerging tradition within electronic literature: one that produces and benefits from a programmed artefact’s affordances for scale, dispersal and change (e.g., Stephanie Strickland’s V: Vniverse, Deena Larsen’s Stained Word Window), before remediating it to the stable, serial, although not necessarily linear platform of print (Strickland’s Losing L’Una/WaveSon.nets, Larsen’s Stained Word Translations).

This begs the question, What does electronic literature – for which ‘born-digital’ is at once a sine qua non and a raison d’être – seek to gain, supplement, or reverse by printing out its exercises in plus-human language?

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Cecilie Klingenberg