Wordvirus.jpg
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Language
is a virus
from outer space.
Language
is a pursuer
of covert aims.
Language
frames our
virus as poetic.
Language
tapers our
vicious frames.
Language
for a sum is
a corrupt sieve.
Language
for us promises
a curative.
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Eveline Kolijn (a respected printmaker in Calgary) asked me to collaborate on a series of prints to be called "A Virus from Outer Space" in honour of my "project-in-process" entitled "The Xenotext Experiment." Eveline Kolijn took inspiration from my desire to manufacture a beautiful, anomalous poem, whose “alien words” could subsist, like a harmless parasite, inside the cell of another life-form (in this case Deinoccocus radiodurans, a highly robust extremophile)—and thus she asked me to write six anagrams based upon the renowned aphorism by William S. Burroughs (who claimed that "language is a virus from outer space") so that she could in turn weave these anagrams into a sculpture mimicking the protein capable of granting this bacterium its durability. She then produced a series of prints, showcasing my poem alongside the genetic profile of the organism itself.
Stuart Kauffman (a MacArthur Fellow in genetics) is, in fact, currently assisting me in the act of translating a specially conceived poem into a sequence of DNA for implantation into the genome of Deinococcus radiodurans. I am planning to compose this poem in such a way that, when translated into a gene and then integrated into the cell, the text nevertheless gets “expressed” by the organism, which, in response to this grafted, genetic sequence, begins to manufacture a viable, benign protein—a protein that, according to the original, chemical alphabet, is itself another text. I hope, in effect, to engineer a bacterium so that it becomes not only a durable archive for storing a poem, but also a useable machine for writing a poem.
I have selected Deinococcus radiodurans as the host, in part, for its poetic appeal as a strange, surreal life-form, able to repair its own DNA so quickly that it can resist mutations. It can in fact withstand a dosage of gamma rays, 1000 times more lethal than the dosage needed to kill a human being. An organism with this kind of radioresistance might conceivably survive nuclear warfare—and some biologists have even suggested that an ancestor of this organism might have evolved in the radioactive environment of outer space.
I am hoping that, when completed, my example of "living poetry" might demonstrate that, through the use of nanoscopic, biological emissaries, we might begin to transmit messages across stellar distances or even epochal intervals—so that, unlike any other cultural artifact so far produced (except perhaps for the Pioneer probes or the Voyager probes), such a poem, stored inside the genome of a bacterium, might conceivably outlast terrestrial civilization itself, persisting like a secret message in a bottle flung at random into a giant ocean.
Even though poets may pay due homage to the “immortality” of their heritage, few of us have ever imagined that we might actually create a literary artifact capable of outliving the existence of our species—an artifact that might testify to our cultural presence upon the planet until the very hour when, at last, the sun explodes. I am hoping that, by fulfilling this experiment, I might encourage other thinkers to consider the longterm timeline of our aesthetic evolution—to think beyond the formal limits of our inevitable extinction.
DNA is the true Library of Babel….

Originally Published: October 17th, 2007

Christian Bök is the author of Crystallography (Coach House Press, 1994), a pataphysical encyclopedia nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and of Eunoia (Coach House Books, 2001), a bestselling work of experimental literature, which has gone on to win the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence. Bök has created artificial...

  1. October 17, 2007
     Chris

    A wonderful melding of science and art (and proof that they do go hand in hand) This should happen more often.

  2. October 18, 2007
     Alicia (AE)

    This kind of repeats a comment I made on Steve's anagram thread, but it seems more apropos here... Lucretius in the first century BC made wonderful use of the alphabet itself as a metaphor for the atoms and how a limited number of kinds of atoms could create all things in existence, since 20 odd letters could make all the words in the language. He then plays with particular anagrams to show how, for instance, fire (ignis) could be made of the same elements as wood (lignis). The letters on the white page thus became tangible symbols for atoms combining and rearranging in the void; a reminder of how serious such word and letter-play can be, since it does, as you point out, imitate the actual molecular make-up of life and the universe. I'm sure Lucretius would get a kick out of the alphabetic nature of our discussion of DNA.

  3. December 7, 2007
     Lawrence E. Case

    This may seem a bit fundamental .... but could someone please e-mail to me the correct pronunciation of deinococcus radiodurans ? .... L.E. Case