Selections from the Internet Text
Center for Literary Computing/West Virginia University Press ($19.99)
by Sandy Florian
In his introduction to Alan Sondheim’s Writing Under, Sandy Baldwin recalls the announcement of Sondheim’s “The Internet Text” that defines itself as a “meditation on the philosophy, psychology, political economy, and psychoanalytics of Internet (computer) communication. “ He notes Sondheim offers up a “meditation,” as opposed to a “critique” or “theory,” and also notes the “parenthetical qualification of the Internet as computer,” which to Baldwin suggests “a focus on the node of the network, that is, on the subject and the body at the terminal, or even on the subject and the body as the terminal node of the network.” Baldwin uses the word “terminal” to mean a machine for entering information into and receiving information from a computer, a keyboard and monitor combination, one used as a vehicle for communication. Sondheim also uses the word terminal to mean the same thing in his piece “My Future is Your Own Aim” where he explores the political economies of electronic writing: “the dispersion of carrier usage, home broadband or dial-up terminals, etc.” In “Writing and Wryting,” he argues that electronic text is always performative because it is framed in a terminal: “electronic writing, within a terminal window is always a performance; it’s never static.” By this, I think he means that electronic text is performative because, unlike the printed page, it continually relies on sources of energy and power and is therefore continually alive. But the word terminal comes from the Latin terminus meaning situated at the end of something. Forming the extremity of something. A closing, a concluding. Growing at the end of a branch. Developing at the end of a bud. It means an end-point on a railroad. A stopping point of a bus route. A finalizing, a dying. The morbid stage of a fatal disease. And the person suffering from a morbid disease.
Writing Under is a collection of meditations on Internet text originally published on “The Internet Text.” An exploitation of the very idea of terminality, the collection is comprised of interminable lists and incomplete catalogues, of ideas, of questions, of modes, of contradictions. In the first piece, Sondheim describes his own work in forty-one different sections. He writes, “My work is simultaneously excess and denudation, artifice and natural deployment, ornament and structure . . .” He writes, “My work is based on the fissure, not the inscription; it’s based on substance, not dyad . . .” He writes, “My work is neither this nor that; my work is not both this or that.”
His obsessive lists do not move toward discovery or transcendence, but instead manifest a sort of involution. They curl up inside themselves, swirling around an absence. He writes, “i cannot write the book i desire; i think constantly, this text is an introduction. He writes, “the introduction inhales universal annihilation. there is no proper way to express this.” He writes, “the books i would write break down upon their enunciation.” Then, “the book, my book, the book.”
Exploring electronic writing, he lists, “Online work is continuous investigation, movement, within diffused sites, applications, networks, inter- and intra- nets, PDAs, cellphones, wireless and bluetooth, satellite and other radios, cable and other televisions . . .” Then it’s an “incandescent investigation, high speed, apparently but not really unlimited, names and movements, critiques, sources and files, coming and going, circulating decaying, disappearing, reappearing, transforming . . .” I find myself fixed on the phrase, “incandescent investigation.” Online work, is an exploration in light, I think to myself, “apparently but not really unlimited.” Then he describes and differentiates different forms of online writing in an admittedly incomplete list (“I don’t keep up”) that includes Hypertext, Flash, Animations, Blogs, Wikis, etc., SMSs and others, MOOs and MUDs, Gaming, Email and email lists, and Interactive or noninteractive websites. Some of the lists get erased, like the list of names of electronic writers. “At this point, I had a list of names; it continued, uselessly, to expand. I couldn’t choose among them.” He recommends we search ourselves and deletes the list. “Now, I’ve taken the names out.”
For the computer savvy, he offers up technical instructions on how to practice electronic literature using commands called “greps” and “seds.” He explains “string variables” that “refer back to the words lists.” There’s a list of questions posed by an imagined or real tenure committee intermixed with a list of answers that conclude, “Conclusion: On the one hand there isn’t any,” for there is no conclusion inside this terminal. In “Tenets of Wryting-Theory,” there are lists embedded within larger lists, as in “fractals, self-similarities, fluxes, flows, peripheral phenomena . . . spaces of echoes, ghosts . . .” (ghosts that glow incandescently in my mind) and that explain (explain?) the word “Imbrication,” a term from a larger list that includes The Real, Limb, Fissure, Mass, Everything, Nothing, and ends in Death, for “Death is the insomniac of terminology.” Is there a conclusion inside this terminal? According to the book, it seems there is a conclusion—for the book, like all books, ends. And that’s the problem. Writing Under ultimately falls short of encapsulating Sondheim’s incandescent investigations simply by delimiting them on the dead page. By doing so, his work loses much of its powerfully performative value. In order to witness the full range of Sondheim’s meditations, therefore, a look at the broader collection of “The Internet Text” is almost required.
I’ve been on one of Sondheim’s email lists through which he disperses what I will call “episodes” of “The Internet Text” for about a year now. Almost daily, there’s something in my email inbox from Sondheim of some media that he also posts on “The Internet Text,” which has, according to Baldwin, a total of around 25,000 pages of text compared to Joyce’s oeuvre of maybe 1,600. On the surface, however, it doesn’t look like 25,000 pages. The website under which “The Internet Text” is catalogued (www.alansondheim.org) looks like a long list of nonsense under the heading “Index of /.” Each one of the links on the list open to a number of .jpg, .mp3, .mov, and .txt files because the project is not limited to text. I engage with a few of these non-textual files when I receive them in my inbox, but most I don’t, because what interests me about Sondheim’s work is how he works with language.
His writing is at times machinic and entirely conceptual. For instance, on December 15 of last year, I received two episodes in my inbox, one of which was titled “my facebook friends friends” and which seemingly was a list of the number of mutual friends he shares with 1,080 people in some organized, ascending, yet cyclical order so that “78 mutual friends” repeated five times is followed by “79 mutual friends” repeated five times followed by “8 mutual friends” repeated twelve times followed by “80” repeated twice. Clearly this is a text not to be read. On the same day, I received another episode titled, “all my facebook friends i hope you are my friends” in which Sondheim lists the first names of all his facebook friends, and here, I do search myself, or I search for myself, and find my first name repeated twice, one presumably for me, and one presumably for Sandy Baldwin, as well as my last name in the latter part of the list. I nose around and find other people who are our mutual facebook friends, like Talan Memmott, Forrest Gander, and Claire Donato, our first and last names disjointed and dispersed. This is a text that is almost readable, but more importantly, it forces a sort of narcissistic engagement on the part of the reader. As we do with so-called “traditional texts,” we search for ourselves reflected in the text.
Some of his pieces are both conceptual and personal, as the one I received on January 31 of this year entitled, “My 70th Unbirthday this Sunday :-(” which begins:
3000 In the year 3000 my birthday falls on monday but I will not birthday, and credit card number as you enter the Topic set out, another birthday an hour away, and all I can think, where are we going. 1993 My fiftieth birthday; my parents sent some money and made a fuss—I in our arms, two days after her 18th birthday. We were closer to her than 94th birthday; Mark and Kathy were there and it was relatively peaceful 2009 My father’s birthday started out with Azure and myself taking a while. My father’s birthday started out with Azure and myself taking a birthday, humor, stars, i love you,:dirty, clean, soiled, sexy, sleazy, parents this weekend as well, my mother’s eightieth birthday, going to be going to a birthday party for her best friend and it’s her birthday too and they’re having a party together and everyone will be worse late than always your wife leaves cause you forgot her birthday searches: sexy, love, happy birthday, humor, stars, i love you,?
But sometimes his work is entirely personal, and then Sondheim’s meditations point more directly to the topic of physical death. This is the terminal as terminus, the end-point on a railroad, a finalizing, a dying. For instance, in his humorous and self-effacing “confessions—more of the same, the end of them,” he writes:
i realize my texts are barking up the wrong tree.
they’re absolutely useless and misshapen.
it’s not zen, it’s just clumsy plagiarism.
i’m lucky if i can write at all.
consider this a wordy piece of silence.
it’s an admission of guilt in the production of bad theory.
it’s an admission of tricks and subterfuge with tropes
my writing isn’t barking up the wrong tree, it’s not
even writing, it’s not even theory, or it’s theory
intended to disguise my ignorance at any cost.
the only delight it brings is the usual shortness of the
pieces but sometimes i err further and produce what
appears on the surface like a meditation but in fact is
just a lengthy and stupid poverty of ideas
i can type myself to death that way and you’d be lucky
if i did
The “you” is almost always present as a witness to this dying, as in “When I need”:
I loathe my body and write of its death immediately beneath me, even
before it or I touch the ground. It’s this that stops me from
being a man; I am arrogant and angry and despairing, but I am not
a man; I flee even from the position of the coward. I am cowed. In
the face of other men I cannot urinate or breathe; in their face I
remain awake until sleep brings its nightmares to bare down on me.
I consider all of this existence, and ordinary existence, mediocre
existence. I have nothing to gain and always everything to lose,
even in the state of exhaustion or penury or just having finished
an improvisation. I attempt to improvise a life out of debris and
scar and sometimes I succeed on a momentary basis. I look around
and create an epistemology and it is the epistemology that lies
just beneath the surface, an abject epistemology within which we
bleed to death. At the moment of dying, if we are old, we are
transformed, and someone said we are no long human, we are things
sliding into the abyss. I am on the lip of the abyss and I write
of the lip. The writing makes me uncomfortable but I am the one
and many doing the writing and you are the one doing the reading
but it is my writing you are reading as control slips from me.
In an untitled piece recalling and contradicting Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do not go gentle into that good night,” Sondheim writes directly about that incandescent source of life:
i was orphaned at sixty-eight.
my father is dead and he is dead.
i’m no longer second-rate.
i don’t. unconscious what he said.
the dead can’t instigate.
the living can.
i can’t communicate.
with him i’m a dead man.
and a dead man i’ll be. and buried.
furious and harvested. i write.
against. my writing’s hurried.
i’m still in flight.
i won’t go into that damned night.
i’ll die in light. i don’t
For, though it is certain that Alan Sondheim will eventually die, his work, pixilated, enervated, dilated, and even obsolesced—will be incandescently ours, indeed, interred in the inter-net, buried alive:
panic attacks and my gift to you
i want to give away my “i”, my first-person pronoun,
nary that of an other, nor a third, but mine with
my troubled history, my abilities such as they are,
my acquaintances, my families, nothing but the “i”,
nothing else will occur, these potentials will take
effect after i have died, the potentials will assume
the gift and presence of the self i was, perhaps
would have been, if i had been better, they would
exist in the world as if i were still among them,
among you and those to follow you in the world, the
“i” of these potentials is their eye, participates
in the richness and fecundity of the world, and so
i will love among you and be with you among you,
and i will not have died or have lived in vain, you
will have assumed the “i”
Note: To find the source to the quoted selections from The Internet Text, go to http://www.alansondheim.org/, scroll down the files until you come to ra.txt, right-click on ra.txt, and save it as ra.txt.