Poetics of Distribution, Metadata as Poesis: Tan Lin's 7CV @ EDIT: Processing Network Publishing

This coming Wednesday, April 21 on the UPenn campus, Danny Snelson has organized an evening to celebrate Tan Lin's recent book publication, Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking [or 7CV] through the event series he curates, EDIT: Processing Network Publishing.

Instead of a typical book launch, the event Wednesday seeks to enact and extend a poetics of distribution and/or metadata. Which is to say, a poetics that foregrounds problems of data description/retrieval, information processing, and the status of the book as an administered object.

Through the event, an impromptu workshop will be created (picture a nerdier version of Warhol's Factory), which will extend Lin's book through various hand-made printed objects as well as digital ones. As the release for the event describes: "[...] the EDIT staff will accompany Tan Lin in the reauthoring and republication of 7CV on the spot in multiple formats. [...] The works to be published include: Handmade book, PDF, lulu.com Appendix, Powerpoint, Kanban Board/Post-Its, Blurbs, Dual Language (Chinese/English) Edition, micro lecture, Selectric II interview, wine/cheese reception, Q&A (xerox) and a film."

In preparation for the event, Lin has been conducting an extensive interview with Christopher W. Alexander, Kristen Gallagher, Danny Snelson, and Gordon Tapper, which will be published in its entirety on Wednesday. To give some sense of how Lin himself is thinking about 7CV in relation to the 'future of the book' (a problem which persists across poetics/poetry, book arts, graphic design, library science, literary theory, media studies, etc.), I include a lengthy excerpt from the interview below.

Additionally, I recommend checking out Lin's Tumblr site, itself a kind of laboratory for a poetics of metadata, as well as his lively interview with Katherine Elaine Sanders at BOMB.

from Interview with Tan Lin about 7 Controlled Vocabularies. Conducted by Christopher W. Alexander, Kristen Gallagher, Danny Snelson, and Gordon Tapper. Edited by Gordon Tapper

Christopher W. Alexander: Is the concept of a "book" or a "work" still operant in Seven Controlled Vocabularies? If so, how does that concept differ from the book as it would have existed circa 1989?

Tan Lin: As a general examination of different reading practices, 7CV is book as controlled vocabulary system, mathematical structure, engineering project, and bibliographic “collection” whose general subject is reading and its objects, where an “object” may denote a book, a table, a recipe, a tea pot, Jacques Tati, CD, map, index etc. It’s relaxed reading in that sense. Likewise, we read a title or caption or front cover differently than we read the “interior” of a book. We “read” a novel differently than we read a cookbook, and more specifically, a recipe in a cookbook, and I wanted to suggest well that maybe we could read a novel like recipes in a cookbook or an episode of a reality TV series, or a controlled vocabulary system, or a restaurant review on Yelp. I mean cookbooks almost always have pictures of food in them, so why shouldn’t a poetry book, which traffics in imagery, have photos of books in it, like a kind of self-reproducing floralegia or plant? There are a lot of vestigial organicist metaphors in the book! In 7CV printed matter (both text and image) has been captured/reproduced in numerous ways, with CCD (flatbed) scanning, digital photography of printed book pages, retyping of printed matter, reading and re-reading, bibliographic citation, footnoting, indexing, and self-plagiarism of earlier sources. Machine reading involves parsing alpha numeric systems and meta data layers, OCR technology, word processing, data tagging, etc. 7CV is a massive act of self plagiarism of the lulu edition. Images have been enhanced and edited in Photoshop. Some material in 7CV is blogged or user-generated content. All this material needs to be organized, which explains the controlled vocabulary system, which I suppose is the book itself as a generalized function of its own organizational, i.e. data organizational structures. Google Books is interesting because it resituates an entire system of reading. Google books is not optimized for lengthy reading, or scanning or copying. It is anti-novelistic in that sense, and favors short form reading. It’s a kind of reading system that makes owning the book irrelevant. Once a book is scanned into a database and cross-referenced with a other titles, what does one have? Does one have a book anymore? Or do you just have information linked to other information. Reading a book today feels a lot like the latter to me, and 7CV reflects that migration. but.

Thus in 7CV, the concept of the book is mildly operant, but generally and among other functionally differentiated reading platforms, so the book is an image created by a controlled vocabulary system. What is a book? Something that categorizes and controls data and organizes specific reading formats: i.e. the book is a generalized reading environment, what Luhmann terms a “loosely coupled medium,” coupled to various publishing mechanisms, printed- and non-printed formats, people, meta data tags, wives, genres, TV, the “spectral” cinema, scanners, Chinese people, etc. One might call this “poetry,” but one could just as easily call it “literary studies,” “fiction,” “obit,” or “family.” So in 7CV you have various and conflictual reading practices, and a lot of this is not reading in the sense of what most people think about as “reading a book of literature by a poet in a book published by a university press.” There are visual images, meta data tags, bits of programming languages, bar codes, poems, subtitles, editorial notes, found photographs, post cards (from the Swiss Institute), advertisements, scanned images and printed book pages, annotations, typos, computer generated handwriting, text translations by Google Translate, and indexes, acknowledgments and forewords by other writers. Given this, what is peripheral in or to reading? a bar code, Chinese characters? the Wesleyan Poetry series? 7CV focusses on elements that codify reading in specific, rigid, and/or standardized, ways. These processes are tied as much to publishing, marketing, distribution, layout, inclusion on syllabi, etc. as they are to writing or composing, which think of as relatively weak forms of “authorship” or text production. Hence my fondness for anecdotes, weak narratives, Library of Congress Classification (LCC), Course Paks, MS Word, and other digital media as they impact the book’s operations (versions, editions, RSS serialization, etc) in a communication field.

7CV is a printed book, but it also exists as a pre- and post-publication RSS feed, PDF downloads of the first, unrevised edition on the lulu site (now “direct access”), an animated version (executed in Director and streamed from the Penn site as a Flash video) of the first chapter available on the Penn Sound site (Eleven Minute Painting) and as a stand alone video. There will, I hope, be a series of revisions to the text as post-publication RSS feeds, correcting and altering what will officially appear, on April 1, 2010. So the book, like all books really, exists in multiple states of revision/publication; this interview is an inseparable of its overall publication history: reception within an academic setting and within a number of online poetry publications/forums. I am planning a dual-language edition of the book, in English and Chinese, and this in turn will be translated back into English. A new cover has been designed. A book of blurbs about the book will appear as a separate publication, which is really an extension of the present publication. Some unattributed blurbs are on the Amazon web site. Finally, I am assembling an appendix that will include such things as high school yearbook items, dental x rays, drug prescriptions, and other fleeting encounters with the book’s publishing history and the autobiographical. At any rate, the book as storage/distribution/composition/publication medium is a little hard to pin down; this is not surprising: people generally store things in a host of different places/sites, and this applies to the digital world—so why not with reading/composing/publishing, which is highly ephemeral as a practice, and where boundaries between the three practices are considerably blurred in a digital environment. It used to be that publishing was seen to stabilize what de Certeau notes as the highly ephemeral practices of reading, which I think of as a form of forgetting, but publishing is now, in some ways, just as transitory as the act of composition or reading, where reading is a left over procedure.

Of course printed photos and hard copy books are defined by contexts and notes on those contexts: handwritten annotations in book pages or backs of photos, appended dates, highlighting or penciling, post-its, etc. These occur in a digital environment. The “2004” in the title is a “handwritten” notation inserted into a title, and the book’s use of photographs is consonant with changes in photo sharing sites etc., and thus the contours of memory. Some of the photos look accidental, dated, possibly corrupted. There are tons of nearly identical or generic digital photos on Flickr, a site whose photo archives are marked by nominal editing or pruning of large photo collections, minimal metadata, reduced resolution, and, in general, personal text/image archives that are not looked at very often or are not perceived to have life expectancies greater than the person who generated them etc. This is also true of people’s photo albums, but now access to other peoples’ albums has increased exponentially. We inhabit the era of the short archive, and this suits me as a specific kind of reader: a reader with a bad memory. 7CV is no less autobiographical in a generic, unedited, ephemeral way, where the “identity” of a person or file sharing system is not fixed but context sensitive e.g. multiple identifiers or tags exist for a “singular” object. This mirrors the increasing segmentation and interactivity within a socially networked environment, i.e multiple email addresses, social network profiles, versions or copy states of document changes, status updates, etc. Finally, 7CV raises issues common to personal archives and libraries trying to organize, store and access large amounts of mixed material. How are photos searched, indexed, or identified in 7CV? How are specific photos brought into relation to specific text elements? How are things, like memories or images of loved ones, saved and in how many formats? How are changes in copies and lineage noted in metadata layers? A number of the book’s prefaces recycle content from earlier prefaces, and the book as a whole makes use of appropriated materials. Is 7CV edited? If so, by whom? Is it a scrapbook? Does it have a narrative or history or dissemination logic? Does it embody what libraries term LOCKSS (lots of copies keeps stuff safe)? Of course, 7CV is notable for absences, typos, memory lapses, errors, TV formats. There are clearly voice and data holes: most notably, where is the “China—Poetry” of the first LC subject heading?

Meta data tags can be embedded in more than one way (e.g. in web pages, within files), or externalized (card catalogs, databases, online table of contents, concordances, etc.). This raises issues about the relation between so-called content and its “essence,” or content and various descriptive systems, all of which involve reading of one sort or another, or as you say the displacement of a book beyond its physical location, but of course a meta data tag has a particular site of inscription, and I was interested in the materialities of various reading formats where the distinction between formal and foresnic materiality, as Matthew Kirschenbaum has pointed out, is operant. Or to put it otherwise, meta data is always incomplete i.e. context sensitive. Which of the two or multiple locations –content vs essence—is the more “permanent,” or “unchanging/eternal,” and how are errors detected in meta data systems more generally as they reflect or reference “objects?” There are a lot of typos in 7CV! Are these missing objects or subjects? Is the book self-describing and how does it reference its migration across platforms? A web copy of an “object” might look the same as the object but it usually has different resolutions, is augmented with additional information etc. One might say the same of 7CV.

The book had various “published,” self-published and distributed states/files. It was written in MSWord in 2003, accepted for publication (2004) with a small press but did not appear until 12/2005 as a Lulu self-published paperback ($12.95) and PDF download. It was revised 2008- 2009 for Wesleyan UP, with new cover, publishing data, and addition/excision of numerous photos, tags, and captions, and revisions to Systems Theory. Much of the lulu data is unchanged and many self-publishing (author-as-seller) elements surface in the WUP editions/RSS feeds. The physical front and back covers were altered—i.e. it has become a legal format, which includes a machine-readable bar code, Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN), ISBN, dated (archived) WUP logo, Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), “handwritten” (using MS Word’s drawing function) title that differs from the “title” of the lulu edition (which strictly speaking didn’t have a front cover title), subtitles that are a meta tag of the book’s contents (in lieu of a table of contents), and a record of licensing/copyright arrangements. So the framing of the book is very different. Mainly, it has metadata layers for bibliographic control. The LCSH is an old-fashioned thesauras, and 7CV references dictionaries and other classification/reading systems. Subject headings are particularly conflict-prone near ethnicity/identity issues, and I tried to highlight that with “China-Poetry” as a disappearing first term. The cinema section was revised with Portable Network Graphics instructions. PNG is a format for bitmapped images. Like a GIF, it utlizes lossless data compression but is license free. (Unisys). But the main change involves the title. The lulu book didn’t have a functioning title and functioning bar code, only a symbolic one. It floated into a reading space more readily. The entire WUP front cover (physical back cover) and back cover area is a controlled vocabulary system; it alludes to a host of other title/author systems, including Laura Riding Jackson’s Rational Meaning, and Irma S. Rombauer, et al. i.e. The Joy of Cooking. Authors are joined to printed matter by publishing. Why give it three titles or the semblance of three titles? Perhaps to maximize hits and links on Google. The book is a geography of a publishing landscape: what is that landscape? something like the statistical vocabulary field that Claude Shannon called Printed English.

Originally Published: April 17th, 2010
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Thom Donovan lives in New York City where he edits Wild Horses of Fire weblog (whof.blogspot.com) and coedits ON Contemporary Practice with Michael Cross and Kyle Schlesinger. He is a participant in the Nonsite Collective and a curator for the SEGUE reading series (NYC). He holds a Ph.D. in English...