Conceptual Writing As Fanfic

This essay originally appeared in Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World (Dallas, Smart Pop, 2013), edited by the amazing Anne Jamison. Buy the book; it’s a great collection from a unique press, and worth supporting.

APRIL 1, 2014: There are some interesting echoes of what I have to say here in Brian Droitcour’s “Young Incorporated Artists.”

Conceptual Writing and Fanfiction are the Bearded Spocks of their respective universes.

If you’re reading this, you probably already know more about fanfiction than I do.

What I know about is a thing called conceptual writing. And I think that one useful way to think about conceptual writing is as fanfiction about conceptual art.

Another might be to say that, in neighboring universes that overlap slightly, both fanfiction and conceptual writing play the role of bearded Spock. What I want to consider in this brief essay is the value of a kind of forced cultural exchange. In the event of an unexpected ion storm and a transporter accident, or its prose equivalent, is there anything useful that writers of fanfiction and conceptual writing might learn from each other? It’ll take me a few hundred words to get to the point where we can find out.

Conceptual writing is a term that has come to describe the work that my friends and I have produced over the last dozen years. One major example is Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day, which consists of the entire text from the September 1, 2000 issue of the New York Times—stock quotes, ads, captions, and all—reset in 9-point type, reproduced line by line, and bound as a massive paperback book, with Goldsmith listed as the author.1 In more general terms, conceptual writing is a catchall description for a mixed bag of writing techniques used by people who are interested in the impact of networked digital media on the creative process, the social function of authorship, and the economy of publishing.

This sort of writing is fannish in the sense that it draws much of its inspiration from things that were happening in the art world from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s. Conceptual art is a big, complex category, but Alexander Alberro usefully describes it in terms of four major “trajectories”: a deemphasizing of the importance of the artist’s technical skill and the cohesiveness of the final product; an increasing emphasis on the importance of text over images; a shift away from the aesthetically pleasing toward the conveyance of that odd modern invention we call information; and a questioning of how art is “supposed” to be framed, and the notion that there is a “correct” context (like a gallery) in which people are supposed to encounter it (pp. xvi, xvii ).2 Conceptual writing follows these trajectories because, with a few exceptions, they had been largely ignored by literary writers.

Before there was a clear consensus about what it was or what it was going to be called, what conceptual writing did was to draw attention to the rhetorical aspects of writing that canonical literature usually neglects: weather reports, legal transcripts, social media feeds, stock quotes, Usenet posts, and so on. These texts are the “dark matter” of literature; they make up the bulk of everything that’s written, but we habitually pretend that they don’t matter in any capacity other than the moment.

John Guillory describes such texts as belonging to what he calls “information genres.” In order to use them to convey that peculiar modern invention we call “information,” we have to pretend that they have no rhetorical value of their own that might taint it.3) By repackaging great swaths of information in media and formats other than the ones in which it initially appeared— again, think about Goldsmith reformatting the New York Times as a book—conceptual writing drew attention to the fact that all writing is poetic. It is poetic in that it always says more than we intend, and we assign value to it in keeping with large sets of external factors that sometimes have little to do with the ostensible content.

What conceptual writing does now is produce more poetry.

Over thirty years ago, legendary avant-garde poet and small-press publisher Bob Cobbing remarked that “there is no point whatsoever in adding to the quantity of poetry in this world. The world has quite enough poetry already. Probably too much. Far too much. The only excuse for being a poet today is to add to the quality of poetry, to add a quality which was not there before.”4 From Cobbing’s perspective, the job of the writer is not to produce more of something already recognizable, but to constantly shift approaches and techniques, literally making difference. Rather than simply adding to the bulk of unread books on the shelf, conceptual writing, like Cobbing’s work—and, I’d argue, like fanfiction—reframes big chunks of culture in a different context than they originally appeared, so that we can think about just how odd they actually are.

As is the fate of all successful cultural interventions, conceptual writing no longer exists on the margins of culture; it has become (semi-) respectable. Conceptual writers have performed in the Whitney Museum of American Art and the White House, and Goldsmith was selected as the Museum of Modern Art’s Poet Laureate for 2013. Say what you want about these institutions and whether or not conceptual writing deserves a place in them, but they’re very definitely not the margins. Conceptual writing has also produced the inevitable signs of cultural legitimacy: two giant, doorstop-sized anthologies, Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing5 and I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women.6 Conceptual writing has become a big tent, and all sorts of people have laid claim to it (which is not particularly surprising, for reasons I’ll get to shortly).

From my perspective, this isn’t an occasion for either celebration or mourning. I’m trying to provide a relatively dispassionate description of a process of cultural circulation that has happened many times before and will happen many times again. Monet was a radical before he was a calendar. What interests me—and is of relevance to both conceptual writing and fanfiction—is what happens next: how a community based around a formerly marginal writing practice deals with its own relative success.

It’s certainly possible to argue that fanfiction follows at least some of the trajectories of conceptual art, too, but that would take more space than I have here. The similarities between fanfiction and conceptual writing that I want to consider right now have nothing to do with tone, style, or subject matter. What interests me are particular similarities in the practices of their respective communities, and how cultural policing keeps them separate. In some respects, I think that conceptual writing has more to learn from fanfiction than the reverse.

Conceptual writing, like fanfiction, grows out of particular kinds of interpretive communities.

In his Introduction to the UbuWeb Anthology of Conceptual Writing, Craig Dworkin coined the term conceptual writing in its present usage.7 (It has since been revised and expanded for Against Expression.) Dworkin emphasizes that even though the majority of the anthology’s writers “were participants in the set of contemporaneous practices that came to be known as ‘Conceptual Art’” (see Lippard8), “conceptual writing” does not refer exclusively to “writings by conceptual artists.” Instead, Dworkin is after something that he calls “distinctly conceptual writing.”9

This deft rhetorical maneuver allows for a bit of anticipatory plagiarism on Dworkin’s part. The invention of the category of “distinctly conceptual writing” means that regardless of era, nationality, form, politics, or aesthetic allegiances, Dworkin can now claim the works of modernists like Alfred Jarry, Gertrude Stein, and Samuel Beckett, as well as texts from various neo–avant-garde individuals and groups, such as Fluxus and the Oulipo. What’s going on here is an attempt to imagine a community.

All arts communities try to situate themselves within a larger history of the kind of work that they admire. Dworkin’s invention of the notion of “distinctly conceptual writing” means that he can expand his canon into the present, to include work by twenty-first-century writers. Those people, whose names have been listed in different combinations at different times and different places (Dworkin included), are my friends, and here we arrive at the crux of the matter. Regardless of where it is now or what was happening elsewhere (and I know for a fact that in Vancouver and England at least, other communities were developing their own ideas about what could eventually be included under the big tent of conceptual writing), my experience of conceptual writing began with friendships more than with a sense of stylistic affinity. If you don’t like the people you’re talking to and writing with and for, you find another group. (I suspect this is true of fannish writing communities and fannish friendships, too.) Family resemblances are superficial at first, and develop as you and your friends discuss and debate, then work to find commonalities and ponder differences with the other communities you encounter along the way.

Dworkin’s essay, of course, first appears in the context of UbuWeb. The closest thing to the online home of conceptual writing, UbuWeb is a massive repository of avant-garde art, writing, audio, and video: everything from anonymous street flyers and outsider art to digital copies of early films by directors like Gus Van Sant. Much of the material on UbuWeb infringes on various copyrights. All of it has been collected and posted without permission and has been maintained through thousands of hours of labor without remuneration—except, perhaps, in the form of increased online reputation. I’d argue that this sort of unauthorized and quasi-authorized categorization, sorting, and positioning of one’s literary heroes in order to contextualize one’s own work is functionally indistinguishable from fannish activity, including fanfiction.

What makes the difference between conceptual writing and fanfiction are the respective cultural fields in which they occur.

Conceptual writing is located within literature and is ambivalent about wanting out. Fanfiction is located without literature and is ambivalent about wanting in.

American architectural and cultural theorist Charles Jencks expands on Umberto Eco’s notion of “double coding” to describe hybrid styles that deploy popular and elitist connotations simultaneously. Double-coded texts communicate with the public and “a concerned minority” at the same time.10 Sometimes called “dog whistles,” such texts contain references that will usually only be recognized by those “in the know.” When Omar quotes a line from Steve Earle’s song “New York City” to McNulty in an episode of The Wire (“The Cost,” 1-10), and Steve Earle is already a recurring cast member in the show, that’s a dog whistle. Morrissey’s use of the Polari phrase “Bona Drag” for the title of one of his albums is another type of double coding. Like Cockney rhyming slang, Polari was developed to indicate to members of specific communities (gays, carnies, etc.) that you were one of them. Different manifestations of double coding can achieve very different ends.11 Conceptual writing and fanfiction both partake of double coding in a way that creates a strong but slightly skewed resemblance—think Spock versus bearded Spock. When encountered by chance against the backdrop of everyday life, both fanfiction and conceptual writing can easily be mistaken for something more mundane, unless you know the subtle signs (Spock’s beard) that indicate that what you’re looking at means something profoundly different from what you think it does.

Conceptual writing formed within the world of small-press poetry, though many of its practitioners are ambivalent about identifying their work as poetry or themselves as poets (witness Kenneth Goldsmith’s frequent refrain that he’s not a poet, even though he’s been published largely by poetry presses). Dworkin mentions instances in which “one of the central figures of language poetry—a writer who had in fact himself incorporated transcribed texts into poetry” repeatedly excluded conceptual writing from poetry.12 This same Language poet told me, on another occasion, that what I wrote wasn’t poetry, but was “some sort of conceptual art.” If it was a compliment, it was backhanded at best. I think he meant it as a kind of policing gesture, to exclude my work from the set of things he wanted to consider important. But it’s hard to tell, because in North American culture, poetry itself is already a marginal activity. Books of poetry account for only 0.12 percent of total market sales in Canada,13 (I’m Canadian; given the amount of support Canadian literary presses receive from the government, and the lack of such support in the US, I assume that the figure is even lower in the states). For all of the newfound cultural capital that some of its members have accrued, in terms of the number of books in circulation, conceptual writing remains a margin of a margin.

Fanfiction also began as the marginal activity around genre fiction (or, as the academy condescendingly calls it, “paraliterature”). There are established pathways between fanfic and genre fiction, especially in science fiction. Not only do some SF fanfiction authors become commercial writers, but some commercial SF writers do more than support fanfiction—they continue to write it themselves.14 But fanfiction is making serious incursions into mainstream publishing. Penguin and other prestigious houses are beginning to buy up little publishing operations that publish fanfic and were previously considered “vanity press” services;15 Amazon is moving into the business of licensing entire fictional universes, presumably in the interest of producing a domesticated version of fanfiction. In a contemporary context, fanfiction has a much more convincing claim to cultural centrality than conceptual writing and even, arguably, poetry in general.

Fanfiction and conceptual writing have both been fueled by the rapid growth of networked digital media.

If fanfic and conceptual writing both have their origins in the small-press circulatory practices of specific interpretive communities, both have taken off as a result of the explosive growth of the Internet. Here again we encounter Spock’s beard, because there are uncannily similar-yet-different theories to account for this growth in both fanfiction and conceptual writing, each with their respective critical champion.

On one side of the mirror, Henry Jenkins, the preeminent theorist of convergence and transmedia, has made a strong case for the reliance of transmedia on fanfiction.16 Briefly, transmedia theory argues that storytelling now takes place across multiple media platforms, creating entire fictional universes that require the audience to visit many of them to experience fiction fully, and to actively participate in the telling of its stories. Star Trek, with its multiple series, books, comics, cartoons, websites, and huge, active fan community, is the canonical example; Jenkins’ work began with studies of fanfiction in the Star Trek community. On the other, Marjorie Perloff, the preeminent critic of the literary avant-gardes, developed a similar theory of what she calls the “differential text,”17 which I’ve expanded elsewhere to a theory of “differential media.”18 Perloff’s work on this subject begins with a consideration of Kenneth Goldsmith’s Fidget, a key early text of conceptual writing. While Perloff emphasizes the differential text is a series of aesthetic possibilities for different kinds of manifestations (Fidget has been, among other things, a book, a website, a performance piece, a gallery installation, and two tailored paper suits), Jenkins focuses on transmedia as a business model—but truth be told, both transmedia and differential media rely on the creation and circulation of cultural capital. Moreover, both have demonstrated that reputation and other forms of cultural capital can be translated into actual capital.

But there is a substantial difference between fanfiction and conceptual writing that proceeds directly from the relationship of each with transmedia and the differential text. Both fanfiction and conceptual writing can manifest differentially, but they place their emphases on different aspects of their source materials. Where fanfiction uses transmedia as its vehicle, conceptual writing takes as its subject the materiality of the new configurations and forms that transmedia provides.

Where fanfiction shifts characters to other settings, conceptual writing shifts text to other discursive contexts.

The basic move of both fanfic and conceptual writing is the ancient trope of the clinamen: repetition with a slight difference. In the form of a diagram, we could represent the respective swerves from tradition of fanfic and conceptual writing as spirals of varying degrees of tightness, expanding out from a point that they nevertheless continue to orbit. However, these spirals operate on different objects. Fanfiction works at the level of what’s written or said: for example, by combining characters from two different fictional worlds. Conceptual writing works at the level of the context in which something is written or said: for example, by shifting the context of a text’s publication from official courtroom transcripts to a hardbound edition published by a literary small press.

If fanfiction always proceeds with reference to some sort of original text produced by a successful commercial writer, conceptual writing begins by referring to gestures and practices produced by generations of successful avant-garde artists who already were calling the notion of originality itself into doubt. And yet, Dworkin notes that conceptual writing acquires a “strong sense of signature” because it makes “irrevocable” interventions into culture.19 Over time, a canny act of appropriation becomes indistinguishable from Romantic notions of creation out of nothing. W. G. Sebald allegedly gave the following advice to his creative writing students: “I can only encourage you to steal as much as you can. No one will ever notice. You should keep a notebook of tidbits, but don’t write down the attributions, and then after a couple of years you can come back to the notebook and treat the stuff as your own without guilt.”20 Creativity and appropriation are two sides of the same coin, and ultimately are inextricable from each other. While both fanfiction and conceptual writing might appear to challenge or threaten originality, they also rely on it and reproduce it at other moments.

Kenneth Goldsmith is the E. L. James of conceptual writing. Or, to put this all another way: This is an essay about E. L. James if I say so.

Both Goldsmith and James are symptoms of whatever it is that has replaced the crumbling narratives that we’ve used to make sense out of the tatters of modernity—some mutant form of celebrity culture.

Fanfiction is now demonstrably capable of producing bestselling authors. Conceptual writing has had some mainstream successes: the international success of Christian Bök’s Eunoia, and Kenneth Goldsmith reading for President Obama—and his subsequent lampooning by Jon Stewart—are two of them. If literature retains any of its privilege, it’s only so that privilege can be claimed by the Spock-bearded rabble that it traditionally relegated to the hinterlands, now bent on dividing between themselves the diminishing spoils of what we used to call literature.

To avoid reproducing the myopia and narrowness that conceptual writing and fanfiction came into existence to contest, they both need to recognize that they are part of a larger cultural tendency to see all creativity as a process of remixing. Dworkin notes that “in the twenty-first century, conceptual poetry thus operates against the background of related vernacular practices, in a climate of pervasive participation and casual appropriation.”21 The only problem with that sentence, from my perspective, is what counts as foreground and what counts as background.

By recognizing itself as a minoritarian practice (i.e., part of the background), conceptual writing might become capable of doing something that poetry has never been capable of: recognizing the things that look just like it and transpire all around it that are not published as poetry, don’t circulate through literary communities, aren’t received by people as literary texts, but nevertheless could be formally indistinguishable from conceptual writing . . . and not colonizing them for poetry in the process. There’s a price to pay for that, though: actually giving up the last vestiges of the Romantic notion of author-as-lone-genius, the ones that even a century of modernity refused to erase. In its place, we might install some sort of invisible but open conspiracy that’s capable of appreciating the tactical efficiencies of the things we want to dismiss as cheesy imitations and knockoffs. If makers of conceptual writing and fanfiction really desire to operate differently from culture at large (and I’m no longer sure that this was ever the case), they’d need to produce writers who are not interested in becoming celebrity authors, but are willing to dissolve away into the shadows before the laurels can be handed out. Not Warhol’s Factory, but Batman Incorporated.

Here’s a PDF of the essay as it appeared in the book.


  1. Goldsmith, Kenneth. Day. Great Barrington, MA: The Figures, 2003. 

  2. Alberro, Alexander. “Reconsidering Conceptual Art, 1966–1977.” In Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, edited by Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999. 

  3. John Guillory, “The Memo and Modernity,” Critical Inquiry 31 (2004 

  4. Cobbing, Bob and Steven Ross Smith. Ballet of the Speech Organs: Bob Cobbing on Bob Cobbing. Saskatoon/Toronto: Underwhich Editions, 1998. 

  5. Dworkin, Craig and Kenneth Goldsmith. Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing. Avant-Garde & Modernism Collection. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2011. 

  6. Bergvall, Caroline, et al., eds. I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women. Los Angeles: Les Figues Press, 2012. 

  7. Dworkin, Craig Douglas. “The UbuWeb Anthology of Conceptual Writing.” UbuWeb. Accessed 9 June 2013. http://www.ubu.com/concept/ 

  8. Lippard, Lucy R. Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972; A Cross-Reference Book of Information on Some Esthetic Boundaries. New York: Praeger, 1973 

  9. Dworkin, “UbuWeb Anthology.” 

  10. Jencks, Charles. “From ‘The Death of Modern Architecture’ from What Is Post-Modernism?” In From Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology, edited by Lawrence Cahoone, expanded 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell. 

  11. Ibid. 

  12. Dworkin and Goldsmith, Against Expression 

  13. CBC Books. “To Read or Not to Read: Fresh Air Considers the State of Poetry in Canada.” CBC Books, 11 Apr. 2011. http://www.cbc.ca/books/2011/04/to-read-or-not-to-read-fresh-air-considers-the-state-of-poetry-in-canada.html 

  14. Romano, Aja. “10 Famous Authors Who Write Fanfiction.” The Daily Dot, 30 Aug. 2012. http://www.dailydot.com/culture/10-famous-authors-fanfiction/ 

  15. Sonne, Paul and Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg. “Penguin Group Dives into Self-Publishing.” Wall Street Journal, 19 July 2012. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444464304577537092288601370.html 

  16. Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006. See especially chapter 3 

  17. Perloff, Marjorie. “‘Vocable Scriptsigns’: Differential Poetics in Kenneth Goldsmith’s Fidget.” In Poetry, Value, and Contemporary Culture, edited by Andrew Roberts and John Allison. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002 

  18. Wershler, Darren S. Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg (Canadian Cinema vol. 6). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010 

  19. Dworkin and Goldsmith, Against Expression 

  20. Skinner, Richard. “Max Sebald’s Writing Tips.” Richard Skinner (blog). 14 Jan. 2013. http://richardskinner.weebly.com/2/post/2013/01/max-sebalds-writing-tips.html 

  21. Ibid. 

Title of Essay in Plain Type

This essay originally appeared as the Afterword to Nick Thurston’s Of the Subcontract, or, Principles of Poetic Right (Information As Material, agented by Coach House Books, 2013). Pick up a copy of it; it’s a timely and troublingly gorgeous book.

This book begins with an image. We know it is a false image, and that is the problem.

This is not the late nineteenth century. We are past the point of delight and instruction. We are no longer capable of being amazed by the performance of the latest technologies and then elucidated by the description of their operation.

We are also past the point of criticism. In an era of faith-based presidencies and fundamentalist theocracies, reason takes a backseat to religiosity and gut feelings. Simply revealing the point where there were errors in our thinking solves nothing.

We know the fix is in. We know that the explanation we are offered is not the real explanation. And yet we hang around for it.

In this book’s opening image, what we see, from behind, are the ostensible inner workings of the Mechanical Turk, an infamous “automaton” built by Wolfgang von Kempelen in the late eighteenth century. This copper engraving was first published in 1783 in one of a stream of books, pamphlets and articles that claimed to have figured out how von Kempelen’s machine worked.1) We already know that the revelations this image claims to present are a sham. We already know that what lies behind those doors and compartments are not the various and sundry components of an actual clockwork mechanism capable of playing a match-winning game of chess, but what movie set designers call “gak” – elaborate mechanical confections attached to the surface of a prop to give us the sense that something marvelous and technical is occurring within it – something, in this case, made more opaque by the puppet dressed like an Eastern mystic who faces the audience. We’re entertained by how impressive it all looks, even though we already know that what is really inside the cramped and stuffy confines of the box is at least one small, sweaty, poorly-paid human being.

This worries us, because we also know that Amazon.com’s choice to adopt this icon to describe their low-rent Internet-based crowdsourced labour pool, Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT), is both wholly appropriate and eye-wateringly honest.

Turkey has had a labour migration agreement in place with Germany since 1961. For decades, Turkish families have relocated to do the work that Germans would rather not; a pattern that recurs all over the world, within and without international legislation.

(My brother’s first wife was German. Tradition in Germany has it that the night before a wedding, there is a large party. Guests bring old dishes, crockery and anything else that can be broken into pieces by throwing it on the ground. Afterwards the bride and groom clean up the mess together, in order to symbolize their hope that nothing essential to their relationship will be broken in the future, and that they are committed to working together to clean up any messes that might come along. The German sense of humour being what it is, my brother’s fiancée’s friends showed up with a load of old toilets, bidets and sinks and proceeded to smash them into large, heavy chunks. His soon-to-be-father-in-law waved his hand dismissively. “Never mind”, he said. “My Turks will take care of it.” In retrospect, maybe my brother and his now-ex-wife should have cleaned it up themselves.) 

We have a growing suspicion that Amazon’s Turks might not be faring much better. Researchers have conducted some very detailed studies into who, exactly, works for AMT, and we have read them with concern.

From Panos Ipeirotis’ dataset we know that 54% of the people that work for AMT (“Turkers”) are between 21 and 35 years old. We know that 70% of them are women. We know that 65% of them have a household income of less than $60,000 per year, and that 55% of them do not have children. We know that 46.80% of them are from the United States, another 34% are from India, and the remaining 19.20% are from everywhere else.2

We have also read essays explaining that the Turk is in fact an elegant metaphor for the precarious condition of the worker in a globalized and networked milieu.3 And we have made a substantial amount of art that actually makes use of Amazon Mechanical Turk as a productive medium to demonstrate the same point, but in a way that is, you know, artier.

The point is not that the mechanism is empty, like some kind of neutral reproducer. The point is that it is a mechanism that already includes a spot for you – like the Law in Franz Kafka”‘s novel The Trial – whether that spot is in front of it as a player, inside it as the operator, behind it as the spectator being shown its misleading components, from afar as the critic describing and demystifying it by virtue of your criticism or, increasingly, as the artist or writer (mis)using it in your project.4) The moment that you engage the setup as a problematic, the machine springs into action.

The history of people using AMT to make art is almost as old as the history of the platform.

Gregory Laynor, Stephen McLaughlin, Kaegan Sparks and Vladimir Zykov published a series of AMT pieces in 2008 on their FOR GODOT blog, under the titleI WAS TOLD TO WRITE 50 WORDS, which was exactly the workshop exercise they had been set by their professor, Kenneth Goldsmith.5

The same year, Blogger user Ann conducted an exquisite corpse-style experiment on AMT, choosing a first line, having several AMT workers submit next lines and picking one winner, then resubmitting that line until the poem was completed. One example still appears on the Crowd Poet blog.6

In 2010, Markus Strohmaier produced In the daily life of a Mechanical Turk, a poem constructed around the acrostic phrase “infinite monkey” and arranged in a series of rhyming couplets. The individual lines that filled this framework were composed by AMT workers.7

Also in 2010, the question “What are the most creative uses of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk?” appeared on the user-generated Q&A platform Quora, and answers are still being added. Nat Friedman responded, 

I had Turkers email poems to a friend of mine who was faced with a dilemma. For $0.50 you get a pretty good poem, and for $1.00 they really put in an effort. Be sure to set the time limit for the HIT high enough so that they have time to compose something good.

Ben Packer contributed this answer to the same question: 

I had MTurkers write love letters to my wife.

I gave enough details for them to write something specific and personal (but not enough for them to find and stalk us – hopefully). I paid 25 cents with up to a 50 cent bonus for great ones. When I got them, I copied and pasted them in emails to my wife. She was very confused, particularly by the one that was signed “Frank”. I told her it was a typo.8

A year later, Suzi Grossman wrote several AMT poems. The first, “Scary Cat”, began with a poem by Alfred Tennyson, which she then excised text from and had workers fill in the blanks “madlib style.” The second, a sound piece, consisted of single lines about “late fall” read by AMT workers, then stitched together.9

Aaron Koblin and Daniel Masse’s Bicycle Built for 2,000 uses AMT on a larger scale. In this project, the workers listened to a short sound clip, then recorded themselves imitating what they heard. 2,088 such recordings were synced together to produce a choral version of “Daisy Bell” (1892), the song used to create the first example of musical speech synthesis.10

On Strip Generator, a social media comic strip production portal, dogtrax’s Digital Writing Month strip describes completing a difficult class assignment to write a digital poem by outsourcing it all to AMT… and then paying for it in Bitcoin.11

Fred Benenson’s Kickstarter-funded Emoji Dick submitted each of the 10,000+ sentences in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick to an AMT worker three times for translation into Japanese emoticons (emoji). Another set of workers voted on these results, selecting the most popular sentences for use in the final book. More than 800 people spent about 44 days working on this project, making $0.05 per translation and $0.02 per vote per translation.12

I am sure I have missed a number of other, similar projects along the way. Whatever. Reception cannot keep pace with this kind of production, and the resulting glut strips away our ability to distinguish. All that remains is the corporate ruthlessness of the search algorithm and its numerically defined sense of what your search should produce, presented to you as though it were perfectly transparent and logical or the poetic voice of some correlative intelligence.

What this history means is that we need to read Of the Subcontract not solely as a critique of poetry (lyrical, conceptual or otherwise). Nor can we read this book solely as a critique of the economics of the Amazon Mechanical Turk. Of the Subcontract needs to be read as a critique of artists and poets who employ networked digital outsourcing as a production method … including the author. If this is institutional critique, the point is that art is now quite comfortable inside the institution. There is no neutral place on which to stand.

Paraphrasing the work of Peter Sloterdijk, Slavoj Žižek summarises contemporary ideology with the following aphorism: “they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it”.13 The artistic gesture of using AMT to write poetry is fully ironized. It wants to assert, at the same time, that the once-lauded cultural value of the work of poets is now so close to nothing as to be indistinguishable from it, and that the work of precarious labourers in a networked digital milieu, which is remunerated far below minimum wage, without benefits or the collective bargaining power of unionization, is nevertheless dignified. But we cannot even be bothered to agonize about the deadlock any more.

The act of using AMT to make art has already settled in the popular imagination at the level of a composition exercise in the classroom. We try it once, blog about it, perhaps crowdfund the product of our orchestrations in order to package it more elaborately and add another level of iteration to the multiplicity of our production. Then we move on. The traces of our efforts sit on various backwater corners of the web, echoed and reechoed by their real audience: spiders and robots, who, like us, read without caring.

Although Amazon Mechanical Turk might be a market-leader, it is by no means a unique business. Online portals that connect employers and workers and extract a fee for doing so facilitate a new sort of freelance production that is, in the double sense, data-based. Take, for instance, the foreword “by” McKenzie Wark at the beginning of this book, which was subcontracted to a ghostwriter in Lahore, Pakistan, for $75 via Freelancer.com.

Of the Subcontract is entirely unconcerned with originality. We might consider it as an attempt to exhaust the gesture of using AMT to write a book of poetry by producing its most complete realization, in the hope that we might somehow be able to move past the point of deadlock. In that respect, the message of this book would echo the title – and the futility – of derek beaulieu’s recent collection, Please, No More Poetry (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013). Because, of course, even if the message is to stop and do something else, what has been produced is yet another book of poetry to add to the long, long shelf of unread titles.14) We can be polite about it, but we cannot even dignify our own request by refusing to partake ourselves.

This book is not a solution but a symptom, a litmus test of larger social changes, both basic and corrosive. We use data to represent these changes to ourselves. The meanings that we abstract and extract from that data enforce and accelerate those changes. Data is the great leveller, reconfiguring both the most privileged and the least privileged kinds of writing as Human Intelligence Tasks. Poets and professors can point to this change, but so far, have not been able to move beyond it. As we are beginning to realize, our tasks, too, can be outsourced.

In a myriad of ways, Of the Subcontract implicates us. It contains only synthesized voices from an unprecedented future, complicit in their own exploitation, mustering a form of writing that is brutally present.

Here’s a PDF of the essay as it appeared in the book.


  1. Karl Gottlieb von Windisch,Briefe über den Schachspieler des Hrn. von Kempelen nebst drey Kupferstichen die diese berühmte Maschine vorstellen (Pressberg, 1783 

  2. Panos Ipeirotis, ‘Demographics of Mechanical Turk” (NYU Center for Digital Economy Research Working Paper CeDER–10–01, 2010): http://www.ipeirotis.com/research/publications/demographics-ofmechanical-turk 

  3. See especially Ayhan Aytes, “Return of the Crowds: Neoliberal States of Exception”, Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory, ed. Trebor Sholz (New York: Routledge, 2013): pp. 79–97 

  4. Franz Kafka (1925),The Trial, trans. Willa & Edwin Muir (London: Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd., 1983 

  5. Gregory Laynor, Stephen McLaughlin, Kaegan Sparks, Vladimir Zykov,I WAS TOLD TO WRITE 50 WORDS, FOR GODOT (26 April 2008): http://forgodotarchive.blogspot.ca/2008/04/i-was-told-to-write fifty-words.html 

  6. Ann, “The Mechanical Turk Poetry Project”, Crowd Poet Blog (August 23, 2008): http://crowdpoet.blogspot.ca/2008/08/mechanical-turkpoetry-project.html 

  7. Markus Strohmaier, “Programming Poems with Mechanical Turk”, Intentialicious: Markus Strohmaier’s Weblog (29 December 2010): http://mstrohm.wordpress.com/2010/12/29/programming-poems-withmechanical-turk/ 

  8. ‘What are the most creative uses of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk?”, Quora: http://www.quora.com/Amazon-Mechanical-Turk/What-arethe-most-creative-uses-of-Amazon-s-Mechanical-Turk. Nat Friedman response: 27 October 2010; Ben Packer response: 27 June 2012 

  9. Suzi Grossman, “Mechanical Turk Idea” (November 4, 2011): http:// suzigrossman.dreamhosters.com/blog/?p=107 

  10. Aaron Koblin, Daniel Masse, Bicycle Built for 2,000: http://www.bicyclebuiltfortwothousand.com/ 

  11. dogtrax, Digital Writing Month, Strip Generator (3 November 2012): http://stripgenerator.com/strip/692976/digital-writing-month-themechanical-turk-poet/ 

  12. Fred Benenson, Emoji Dick (self-published, 2013): http://www.emojidick.com/ 

  13. Slavoj Žižek (1989), The Sublime Object of Ideology (London/New York: Verso, 2008): p. 25 

  14. derek beaulieu, Please, No More Poetry: The Poetry of derek beaulieu, ed. Kit Dobson (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013 

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Two Early Internet Theory Books

At the end of the 20th century, I was writing and publishing a lot of books about the Internet. (Everybody has to pay the rent somehow.) Some parts of these books still hold up reasonably well; others are misguided and flat-out wrong in ways that make me wince openly. But that’s the way it is with things you wrote nearly a dozen years ago.

CommonSpace, an Internet theory book I co-authored with Mark Surman, is interesting because we were searching for a term for what we now call social media — various technologies that allowed people to write back to the Web, which was, for the most part, static in those days. At some point I’m going to write a “CommonSpace Revisited” essay and flag the useful bits, but what strikes me when I reread it is how much fun we had when we were writing it. Parts of it are still pretty funny, but there’s a lot here that’s of historical interest too. It may be hard to imagine now, but there was a time when it was possible for the official slug line of Blogger to read “Amphetamines for Your Website.”

FREE as in speech and beer, which came out a couple of years later, holds up a little better, as it’s mostly an intellectual history of the notion of freedom as it pertains to sharing on the Internet. The book outlines the difference between “free as in rights and liberties” of Richard Stallman and company, and the “free as in getting something for nothing” that still drives file-sharing today, and contextualizes them in terms of the theory of potlatch and the general economy. Again, it was a lot of fun to write, and it may be of use to those too young to remember that Napster really wasn’t invented by Justin Timberlake.

The rights to both books reverted to Mark and me several years ago, so they are now available as PDFs. Enjoy.

Kyle Bean, The Future of Books

Sustaining Digital Scholarship and Culture

In late 2010, I was privileged to be part of the the Sustaining Digital Scholarship for Sustainable Culture Group (lead: Susan Brown; other members included Di Brandt, Andrew Bretz, Lynn Copeland, Patricia Demers, Michael Eberle-Sinatra, Daniel Fischlin, Dean Irvine, Ashok Mathur, Hannah McGregor, Robyn Read, Susan Rudy, Stan Ruecker, Chantal Savoie, Ray Siemens, Stephen Slemon, Robin Sokoloski, Ron Walker, Ann Wilson and me). With the help of a SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis grant, we wrote a report called Lasting Change. That report is now available.

The report reflects the growing concern in the scholarly and cultural communities, and beyond, regarding the sustainability of Canada’s digital knowledge and heritage. Canada’s digital advantage is only of value if it can be carried into the future. Canadians must meet the challenge of preserving and enhancing scholarly and artistic knowledge production and our culture in a digital environment. Therefore, the report reviews the current state of knowledge about the sustainability of digital scholarship and related cultural activity in Canada and identifies research opportunities that emerge from consideration of the literature.

Both an executive summary and the full report (as a PDF) are available for perusal.

(Image by Kyle Bean: “The Future of Books.”)

antenna

Artists as RADAR: McLuhan Reading Poetry

 “Artists,” wrote Ezra Pound, “are the antennae of the race.”{{1}} In the introduction to the 2nd edition of Understanding Media, so does Marshall McLuhan, who updates and expands the metaphor:

Art as radar acts as an ‘early alarm system,’ as it were, enabling us to discover social and psychic targets in lots of time to prepare to cope with them. This concept of the arts as prophetic contrasts with the popular idea of them as mere self-expression. If an art is an ‘early warning system,’ to use the phrase from World War II, when radar was new, art has the utmost relevance not only to media study but to the development of media controls.

When radar was new it was found necessary to eliminate the balloon system for city protection that had proceeded radar. The balloons got in the way of the electric feedback of the new radar information.{{2}}

As Friedrich Kittler, one of McLuhan’s most successful contemporary intellectual heirs, puts it, “Information technology is always already strategy or war” {{3}}. War elicits new forms of communications, retrofits old ones for its own purposes, and violently blasts existing media landscapes into drastic new forms, producing unexpected juxtapositions.

World War II, in fact, was the force that put Marshall McLuhan in contact with two of the leaders of the early 20th century avant-gardes: Pound and Wyndham Lewis. McLuhan met Lewis while teaching in St. Louis in 1943, and maintained a close working friendship over the next two years, while both were living in Windsor, Ontario. McLuhan and Hugh Kenner traveled to St Elizabeths Hospital in Washington D.C. in 1948 to meet Pound, where he was incarcerated for putting his “poet-as-antenna” aphorism into practice, producing radio broadcasts in support of Mussolini’s fascist government during WWII. McLuhan had read Pound with enthusiasm while a student, long before the war, and corresponded with him for several years after. By the time McLuhan joined the faculty at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto in 1946, he was in all likelihood the only expert on modernist poetry at the time in all of Ontario {{4}}. McLuhan biographer Philip Marchand notes that in later years, McLuhan always credited the poets of the modernist avant-gardes as “the real inspiration for his media studies” {{5}}.

Contemporary journalism and popular culture, when it thinks about McLuhan at all, tends to see him from the wrong end of the telescope, positioning him as a technologist and a futurist rather than as someone deeply invested in language and literary tradition. In the masthead of its first issue in March 1993, Wired magazine declared McLuhan its “patron saint,” and for many commentators, this marked McLuhan’s return to a position of public legitimacy after the indifference that his works faced for much of the 70s and 80s. The first actual article on McLuhan in Wired (4.01, Jan 1996), Gary Wolf’s “The Wisdom of Saint Marshall, the Holy Fool,” describes him as scholar, teacher, social, political, and economic analyst … but there’s no mention of poets or poetry anywhere.

It’s an odd blind spot, because McLuhan’s writing, is obsessed with, saturated with, avant-garde poetry and poetics, both as form and subject matter. Take the only known letter from McLuhan to Harold Innis (1951) as an example. Though he is arguably even more important to the formation and theory of Communication Studies than McLuhan, who described his Gutenberg Galaxy as a “footnote” to Innis’s work {{6}}, Innis was rarely read outside of Canadian Communications circles until the resurgence of interest in McLuhan’s work in the 90s. This letter is important because it’s not only one of the first clear statements of McLuhan’s interest in the importance of “technological form” over “informative purpose” (that is, “content”){{7}}, but also of his notion of “organizing an entire school of studies” around the subject of communication {{8}}. So what does he write about, when attempting to attract the attention of Innis, a political economist and historian by training? Avant-garde poetry and poetics.

What McLuhan sees in avant-garde technique is a vehicle for discussing the “function and effect of communication on society,” which he thought was the only thing that would keep English departments from going the way of the study of Latin and Greek {{9}}. He seizes on Stéphane Mallarmé’s “discontinuous juxtaposition of unrelated items” as the signature method of the first avant-garde, Symbolism. Right or wrong, throughout his career, McLuhan would use the word “Symbolism” as shorthand for anything collaged, because of its ostensible etymology as sym-ballein, or “thrown together.” In terms of its usefulness for cultural analysis, McLuhan reads Symbolist technique as a diagram of the way that stories on the front page of a newspaper butt up against each other {{10}}. Here is the artist at work as cultural antenna: pointing directly to a formal quality of media that was previously so close to us, so familiar, that it was entirely invisible; this is a phenomenon that Innis famously refers to in his own work as “bias”. In his introduction to the 1st edition of Innis’s The Bias of Communication, McLuhan writes of using avant-garde poetics “to organize the data of the historian and the social scientist” {{11}}, a direct argument for the value of reading the records and statistics of technology through cultural forms.

McLuhan’s writing style is, infamously, as poetic as his reading strategies. This is especially true in his work with graphic designers, like Counterblast, which draws both its name and style from Wyndam Lewis’s Blast, but it also applies to his conventionally typeset prose. In response to one critic, McLuhan wrote, “My canvasses are surrealist, and to call them theories is to miss my satirical intent altogether. As you will find in my literary essays, I can write the ordinary kind of prose any time I choose to do so” {{12}}. McLuhan’s “mosaic” prose style, based on the juxtaposition of multiple fragments to create startling and memorable effects, culminates in the creation of his own literary form: the “probe”. The probe is a sort of weapons-grade aphorism that uses punning, metonymy and other literary tropes to staple two or more disparate ideas together. Probes alter perception by associating ideas rather than serving as building blocks in a logical argument. Their purpose is to raise questions more than provides answers; probes are heuristics, machine made of words whose job is to help us to figure out how we know what we know.

Part of the problem is the contemporary attitude about poetry other than music lyrics, or, what I like to call the penicillin theory of poetry. Writing poetry is now a minoritarian art form, roughly equivalent in scale, economics and impact to making doilies for the church rummage sale (and I say this, candidly, as a poet, a publisher and a scholar of poetry). To save ourself from admitting the truth of this situation, we use poetry as a kind of cultural inoculation, putting it in the ad space on buses and subway trains and congratulate ourselves about how enlightened we are. All that reading poetry on the subway does, though, is absolve you from having to actually buy and read a book of poetry or, God forbid, go to a poetry reading.

This situation has been a little more than a century in the making, and has everything to do with changes in the kind of media that we use. To cite Friedrich Kittler again, whose thinking on the subject is heavily indebted to both McLuhan and Innis, before the second half of the nineteenth century, poetry had a monopoly on the delivery of vivid cultural experiences. That changed in the mid 19th century, when virtually every form of electromechanical media reached a mass audience within a few decades. For Kittler, from the era of silent cinema onward, “Film establishes immediate connections between technology and the body […] which make imaginary connections unnecessary” {{13}}. Moreover, “Film exhibits its figures in such detail that ‘the realistic’ is ‘raised into the realm of the fantastic,’ which sucks up every theme of imaginative literature” {{14}}. People continue to write lyric poetry, of course, in the same way that people used to keep cheering long after Elvis had left the building. Or sighting him after he’d died. But with poetry’s powers diminished, from Kittler’s perspective, “The new sciences and technologies made it necessary [for poets] to renounce the imagination” {{15}}. After the turn of the century, all poetry could do that was new was to comment on is its own material qualitities … which, beginning with Mallarmé and Christian Morgenstern, was the source of the very avant-gardes that so fascinated McLuhan. The reason that early avant-garde technique is a useful tool for thinking about technological form, then, is that it is technological form, and that it talks about that form continuously.

Another, related problem is our tendency to divide how we think about the world, into what the sciences are allowed to say with credibility, and what poetry (in its diminished capacity) and the other arts are allowed to say with credibility. Bruno Latour has written about this problem extensively, most directly in We Have Never Been Modern. His major point is that such “Great Divides” between the territories of disciplines means that all sorts of hybrid objects fall through the cracks, and the processes that create those hybrids remains “invisible, unthinkable, unrepresentable” {{16}}. In contemporary society, such hybrid objects are precisely the ones that are the most interesting and the most controversial. As McLuhan observed, “The problem with a cheap, specialized education is you never stop paying for it” {{17}}. In an era of skills-based, “practical” education, we desperately need interdisciplinary thinkers, people to think about what’s NOT been taken into account.

What would it mean to take McLuhan’s poetics seriously, and to take contemporary experimental poetry seriously? What I want to argue, shamelessly and polemically, is that it’s time take another look at the poetic qualities of the excluded languages of the everyday: the language of science, the language of the Internet, the language of graffiti. Not “poetry” in a generic poetry-on-the-subway and greeting card sort of way, but a specific kind of writing. Annoying, provocative writing that many people might not consider to be poetry at all, but what Latour would call hybrid texts: writing that is too odd or too difficult to classify using any other category than … poetry.

Published in Matrix.

Featured image by brewbooks.

[[1]]Pound, Ezra. ABC of Reading. New York: New Directions, 1934. 73.[[1]]
[[2]]McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964. xi.[[2]]
[[3]]Kittler, Friedrich A. Discourse Networks 1800/1900. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990. 371.[[3]]
[[4]]Marchand, Philip. Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger: A Biography. 1st MIT Press ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998[[4]]
[[5]]Ibid., 41.[[5]]
[[6]]”Introduction to The Bias of Communication. vol. 8. McLuhan, Marshall. Marshall McLuhan Unbound. 21 vols. Corte Madera, CA: Ginko Press, 2005. 8.[[6]]
[[7]]Molinaro, Matie, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye, eds. Letters of Marshall McLuhan. Toronto: Oxford University Press Canada, 1987. 221.[[7]]
[[8]]Ibid., 220.[[8]]
[[9]]Ibid., 222.[[9]]
[[10]]Ibid., 221.[[10]]
[[11]]McLuhan, “Introduction,” 5.[[11]]
[[12]]qtd. in Theall, Donald F. The Virtual Marshall McLuhan. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001. 67.[[12]]
[[13]]Kittler, 244.[[13]]
[[14]]Ibid., 246.[[14]]
[[15]]Ibid., 250.[[15]]
[[16]]Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993. 34[[16]]
[[17]]McLuhan, Marshall, and David Carson. The Book of Probes. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press, 2003. 531.[[17]]

Protein 13 closeup

McLuhan, Poetics and Christian Bök’s Xenotext (video)

On May 14, 2010, I delivered the inaugural lecture for McLuhan in Europe 2011 at the Manchester FutureEverything conference. The text concerns both the importance of thinking about McLuhan in terms of poetics, and the implications that contemporary projects like Christian Bök’s Xenotext Experiment have for thinking about communications and media. Video of the whole thing follows:

Darren Wershler – McLuhan in Europe 2011 from FutureEverything on Vimeo.