Page 4
from Flatland
by Derek Beaulieu
Information as Material, 2007

Flatland by Derek Beaulieu constitutes a translation of the science-fiction novella Flatland by the Victorian, political satirist, E. A. Abbott (who depicts a 2D-universe, inhabited by a society of polygons, all of whom remain oblivious to our own 3D-universe). Beaulieu uses this book as an occasion to transform the action of reading into a phylum of mapping, doing so by plotting the successive occurrence of letters, from line to line in a current edition of the text, thus connecting the dots, first by linking all the As, then by linking all the Bs, proceeding in this way through the page, 26 times, before moving on to the next page of text.
Abbott suggests that, to the inhabitants of Flatland (all of whom see each other only along one spatial profile), everyone appears to resemble the same kind of line: "be he a Triangle, Square, Pentagon, Hexagon, Circle, what you will—a straight Line he looks and nothing else." Beaulieu has, in turn, literalized this dimensional perspective within his own rereading of the narrative, thus reducing the shapely letters on the page to nothing more than direct, lineal traces. Each line henceforth represents a kind of alphabetic trajectory, plotting a set of lingual vectors, all of which transect the plane of the textual surface itself.
Beaulieu describes this book as an array of "superimposed seismographs," all of which resemble the schematic printouts from either cardiac fibrilliations or spasmic encephalograms. Beaulieu has, in effect, reinvented, what Olson might call, "composition by field"—except that, in this case, the page does not become a "canvas" for lines that notate the "proprioception" of our breathing and listening; instead, the page notates the statistical disposition of each visual letter for our optical perusal. The book showcases a "rhizome" of interconnections, otherwise concealed by the discursive experience of textuality.
Beaulieu has drawn attention to the proprioception of our roving gazes as they leap from letter to letter—and in doing so he has repeated in verse what the modern artist has already done in paint, abolishing the depth of field in order to foreground the flatness of a pictorial viewscape. Narrative now finds itself distilled to an array of diagrammatical crisscrossings that almost depict the polygonal traceries of the flattened, fictional characters described in the novella itself. Each page thus becomes a kind of "stock index" for the rise and fall of these letters as they appear and depart during the saccadic activity of our reading….

Originally Published: December 15th, 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. December 15, 2007
     Simon DeDeo

    I would disagree with your "reading" here Christian precisely because it is a reading. What seems oppositional about this piece is the way it depicts an inhuman, impossible method of reading, one against the grain of how our perception works, that can only be accomplished by machine. It is literally impossible for one's experience of a normal page to follow Derek's trajectories; they are in no way refer to or suggest what you call the "the proprioception of our roving gazes."
    I think this is distinctly different from what you claim the "modern artist" does. I think of the genesis of the modern moment in painting, let's say Kandinsky, as the digging for a humanity "closer to the bone" (sufficiently close, indeed, to perhaps be strange and uncomfortable.) I think this is really going to the Oulipo moment, and not the "modern" one.
    In general, I think works like this -- in as much as they are poems, and not objects -- need little space. The point here is in part the inevitable sameness of page after page; owning an entire book is a bit like owning a painting. Indeed, if you put one of the images on the cover, you'd never need to open it. They may be cardiograms, but the heart is not human; there's no person able to read the traces.

  2. December 17, 2007
     Christian Bök

    Hello, Simon:
    Your points are insightful, and I think that they actually improve upon my argument. The trajectories represent an "inhuman proprioception"–one that suggests an impossible readership. I like this idea very much–but I think that you are wrong when you say that the lines do not represent our human gazes roving over a page (particularly when we take into account our behaviour when we are skimming for information or looking for a quoted phrase). I also think that you are being too quick to dismiss the work by saying that all of the pages are merely the same–in fact, they all differ in sometimes very subtle, but often very artful, ways, each page emphasizing the unique "cycle" of letters as they "rise" and "fall" through the textblock. I think that the minimal variant from one page to the next actually gives each page its specific identity (for example, only Page 4 has such a powerful, diagonal line that transects the page from the top left corner to the bottom right corner–and hence, the page is immediately identifiable among all the others). I also think that you are too quick to dismiss these cardiograms as having no human heart–when in fact the work has been done completely by hand, by a human, methodically tracing every painstaking line on a lightbox, often late at night, while reading each page, letter by letter. I think that this kind of work calls to mind the labours of love, enacted by monastic, medieval scribes who illuminate manuscripts….

  3. December 18, 2007
     Simon DeDeo

    Hey Christian --
    I do think it's impossible to read in this fashion -- in particular (as that aioynnng e-mail froawrd tlod us) since we read by word and not letter.
    I don't see the "art" in this except the concept -- unlike a poem or a painting, it seems nearly equivalent to its paraphrase? I suppose it's a question of discernment -- it all looks like pick-up-sticks to me.
    I think you acknowledge this -- at least to my eye! -- when you discuss the "invisible" aspects of the text -- the methods of construction -- when in fact a computer algorithm would have accomplished the exact same thing. (It reminds me of the guy who typed the New York Times -- except he didn't, he used OCR.) I remember working on a letterpress many years ago -- that was a letter-centered, as opposed to word-centered, activity -- and feeling sad that all of those experiences would become invisible in the final product.

  4. December 19, 2007
     Christian Bok

    Hello, Simon:
    You are right to say that a computer algorithm can, in fact, accomplish the task of this literary exercise–and in fact, the author is working on a project so that readers can go online, select a text of their own, and generate such a drawing of lines from the input. I think that you may be fetishizing the humanity of his poetic labour, when you complain, on the one hand, that a computer might have created this visual poetry, and then complain when no one might notice that the work has been accomplished without such assistance. I think that you are missing the point that the job of the poet is, in part, to create novel forms of reading, never before conceived–forms of reading that might, for example, instill greater attention to the atomic pieces of textuality, rather than the large units of syntactical integration. I think that you must be ingenuous, when you complain that these translations of texts into "lines" look exactly alike, when in fact every page of text in every book probably looks, at first glance, to be the same as any other page of text from any other book. I think that this reading-project highlights more dramatically the differences among such seemingly identical textblocks, giving each page its own unique, visual signature through an attentive, intricate reading.