Troll Thread Interview
Tan Lin: Can you tell me how Troll Thread got started? and when exactly?
Chris Sylvester: Troll Thread started in August 2010. It was another platform for the distribution of things from my tumblr. No one wanted it. I uploaded things to Lulu.com and distributed .pdf versions of them and in the "publisher" field wrote "troll thread." Them also being books was like a bad joke. Joey thought it was good and I thought his work was good and no one else cared so I asked him to publish The Lazarus Project: Alien vs. Predator sometime around October of 2010 and I think that’s when the blog started? To put that up? He almost immediately became a co-editor of the project. Holly and Divya came on board as people who did it too sometime in late 2010 or early 2011. It was careless, largely sloppy. Lazy disregard for convention or standard operating procedures or whatever. Troll Thread started on a whim: publish what we wanted when we wanted. This shambling-ness still happens. That’s why Troll Thread is a tumblr and not a press and I like that.
Holly Melgard: But Chris, TT is too a press. How is it just a tumblr? TT is a press that publishes using a tumblr and Lulu Print On Demand. TT publishes each poem by uploading it onto Lulu and then linking it to tumblr in the form of both a downloadable .pdf ebook for free and a P.O.D. book for purchase.
C: Can I just not take responsibility?
TL: When was Chris’s tumblr site, Sisteract begun and how was this site used? And how did it work its way into a separate site? I’m interested in the initial differences in how the two sites aggregated content or accumulated material, if this is the right way to describe the activity taking place on that initial site?
C: According to the archive at sisteract.tumblr.com, I began posting things there in March of 2010 (so five months before Troll Thread started). At that time I was working at a market research firm as a spreadsheet drone and decided to use many of the processes and platforms I should have been using for work in order to make poetry (or whatever). Time theft: the blog became a kind of real-time flow or feed for my constant waste of company time. The first year and a half of the blog's existence shows this: the constant posting, the various repeating series or sequential projects that regularly appeared and reappeared, and of course the ever-present one-off piles of garbage or junk that I pumped out of textpad or excel or MSWord or whatever, typically screen-capped, cropped, and posted as quickly as possible (often simply to avoid detection by my supervisors). If something was too long for a simple screen capture it would be posted as text. No matter the form of presentation, most of this stuff was derived or mined from video game text dumps or walkthroughs or ASCII maps, etc. In any case, the "too-long" texts mentioned above are what made me start publishing under the name Troll Thread. It was an attempt to explore platforms other than tumblr (which demanded a certain sequentiality or at least seemed to demand that given the way I was using tumblr at the time). It was also a quick solution: I wanted to make massive quantities of text or data or whatever available all at once and in the same place as .pdf files and as books (no matter the platform here, the aim was to make a given text or file or chunk of data available as “one thing,” not in sequential pieces). Most of what I published via Troll Thread early on had already appeared on sisteract (in discrete pieces): GRID, BIOGRAPHY: THERE PAST, THE REPUBLIC, and TOTAL WALKTHROUGH (though this is a special case given that it took me a very long time to finish compiling that text, and by compiling I mean processing it using simple macro editing protocols and then posting it section by section on my blog, which is why it appears so much later than the others). Recently, STILL LIFE WITH BLOG returned to a lot of that early tumblr work that never made it into one of these “books,” making it available in that form, a practice I might continue if I don’t get bored.
The initial difference here is rather crude or simple: Troll Thread served as a place for the occasional publication of work that had already occurred or was occurring on sisteract, in a day to day, hour to hour, or post to post way. With the addition of Joey, Holly, and Divya as editors as well as the decision to publish work by other people beyond the four of us and the creation of a separate tumblr for Troll Thread, the thing (whatever it was or is) began to take on an identity distinct from sisteract, something I enjoyed and still enjoy. While I do my part (whatever that may be) to keep TT operational as a platform for the distribution of work by Joey, Holly, and others, I still tend to use it (primarily) as a mode of distribution and a point of access for work that is largely done, to a greater or lesser degree, on sisteract or in a similar situation (in other words: work that happens fast and is largely accomplished using a variety of rudimentary though often automated processes or operations). This is why there are so many books with my name attached to them on Troll Thread (I can't remember who has the lead in the numbers game right now, Joey or I). I like that I get to persist in this very selfish use (something I think all of us enjoy) but also get to participate in Troll Thread as a platform for other work or work by others that is as pointless, sloppy, or unwieldy as my own. To take a position often articulated by Holly: if this was just a community building exercise, a supposedly altruistic enterprise built on supporting other poets or “poetry” as some sort of communal project, I would have abandoned it a long time ago (and I think Joey and Holly would have as well, though you'd have to ask them). I am not interested in being some angel, sacrificing my time and unpaid labor for the sake of others (which is always done for selfish reasons, admittedly or not) and this arrangement allows me to continue being the non-angel (or monster) that I am while somehow giving other people a place or space to distribute their work, which is okay with me I guess.
TL: These remarks on real time data operations are interesting to me. Can you elaborate on the sequence or what I would term the temporality of production at TT, regarded as an entity that produces work or data operations over time. We are perhaps talking about a varied number of interlocking elements: large data sets (that require management or classification), reverse ordering of content (with newer works listed at the top of the page), digital mediums as a mode of producing large quantities of data (i.e. upending of conventional economies of scale--traditional EOS are invalid in a digital ecosystem), systems marked not by sameness but endless variation. A large data set, by definition, is subject to data analytics and is thus susceptible to predictions, or what I would term operations upon a data set that yield a certain predictive capacity. I tend to see a lot of “poetry” that is fundamentally about or actually is an operation conducted in real time upon data. Is it fruitful to call TT an “operation” or what used to be termed a performance or event? Of course reading is a performance or operation performed upon a text. And poetry has always been a mathematical operation involved in counting syllables and establishing recurrence patterns geared to rhyming and word substitution (troping). I’ve suggested elsewhere that current literary production is now becoming visible principally as a subset of communications (and thus highly time-sensitive) mediums and that they are as much about managing data as they are about producing it. Or to put the matter more bluntly, what sort of system is TT positing? Systems obey a certain level of predictive capacity? Is this present in the TT template?
Joseph Yearous-Algozin: I’d argue that managing data is an antiquated way of thinking through the temporal delays or hiatus (Latour) in moving through the different platforms. Actually, a more fruitful way of thinking through the image of TT is as inserting itself into the stream of data, a non-systemitization with regards to the economies of scale and not one of managing or arranging data
C: A simple way to put this, as we have said before: the temporality of the internet is not constant streaming or managing of data, it also, more importantly includes platforms as sites of HIATUS: it stays there, it is something for someone, even when we aren't using it, right? the platform doesn't manage data, it only allows ACCESS. Ok, that may not be what you are saying, but it is what occurs to me I guess?
J: Exactly. Access is determined about when the access point is articulated. If it is articulated at the wrong time the user will "miss" it.
C: But even if they miss it, its is not some one time only deal, they can come back, who knows how long later, and "find it" the idea of an internet temporality premised on the constant stream, where one always "has to be on" covers that up.
J: Well of course they can find it, but by then the individual stream of the site might have moved that to a separate page. It is both stable and unstable in that regard.
C: Stable and unstable, a seeming stream underpinned by constant (and the same) work. Again, Latour: modes of access (which seem to stream by) also need constant maintenance.
So is working across the hiatus in terms of the provisionality of both the materials and their access points opposed to how the conceptual poetry movement has been codified over the last three or four years?
J: I think we have to go back further than three or four years to understand the difference between how conceptual poetry was initialized theorized and the kind of work being made now. At the risk of being reductive, their initial theorizations as allegorical re-framing and/or uncreativity were necessarily aesthetic, whether based in a Kantian logic or an art historical critical lens. I don’t want to argue that the kind of work that TT is publishing is not literary, clearly we publish “books” and PDFs that we label as poetry and are distributed, for the most part, within different poetry communities. However, their status as literature has certainly become more generic or general, while also becoming more ephemeral and reliant on a different speed of production/publication/distribution. I think Chris Alexander’s definition of literature as “post-medium” can be useful here. Or, that in flattening out the text and making it more easily distributed, it loses an important part of its aesthetic, i.e. exceptional, status. Chris’s work with various modes of “still lifes” or Holly’s Black Friday, which was originally designed with the hopes of breaking an industrial printer, foregrounds the medium of its composition/distribution and mobilizing that medium in unexpected ways. Ultimately, I think of this writing as coming after conceptual writing. It couldn’t have been made without that break, but in the permission it afforded us, something different emerged.
TL: what was the idea of starting Troll Thread as a collective? was it geared specifically to some element of the poetry world that you wanted to address? or was it directed more generally at web-based content or specific delivery platforms? I’m interested in the initial focus.
J: I do want to say that I don’t think we used the term collective before CAConrad interviewed us. Before that time, none of our names were attached to the project as editors. The only statement about the press was on the Tumblr: “TROLL THREAD IS TROLL THREAD.” Still, I was interested in operating the site as a collective since it allowed for all of the editing tasks to be really loosely defined and easily taken on by any member, at any time. It also meant that our numbers could swell or dwindle without effecting the project. It was bigger than any one of us and, much like any Tumblr page, we could easily leave it and come back to it with TROLL THREAD continuing in our absence.
H: Yeah, what he said. The way that Chris and Joey invited me to publish my work on TT has certainly remained my use for the press since: “It’s a place where we can put all our poetry that no one else wants.” In that way, compared to what we’d previously seen published in poetry and on the web, the invitation certainly enabled us to pursue poems that were otherwise unwanted. Whether that be because they didn’t agree enough with the social ideals of the time or because they were simply unpublishable as far as other presses were concerned—Since we began, we’ve continued to provide homes for orphan poems that otherwise would have no publishable outlet in lieu of their technological and social incompatibilities with other distribution networks and means of production.
In retrospect, it seems like TT’s editorial objectives weren’t so much directed at either the poetry world or the web-based environment, so much as in light that both simultaneously co-exist. While both digital and printed texts were co-occurring economies in our textual environment at that time, poetry at that time was still quite dissociated from the friction that those co-occurring economies produced. I don’t think we made TT for the poetry tradition or against its various publishing methods so much as despite what had yet to be made of either when we began. What we were making didn’t seem to fit anywhere else, and we needed an alternative.
C: YEAH. WHAT THEY SAID. "Focus" or at least what I liked about the process of "starting" was speed of "manufacture / assembly / distribution / access / consumption." This is what I still like: that these "different things" (or processes) seem to become the same thing or almost become the same thing and more and more are becoming the same thing. Paired with a disregard or lack of regard for the typical modes / means of doing that thing (those things) within (or as) a poetry community (whatever that means) or in a poetry type situation.
TL: How are works commisioned or selected for publication by Troll Thread?
C: When it is done it is done through email. And there’s some sort of exchange or like "do something for us" or "do you have something" or "I have something." And then sometimes something gets sent to us attached to an email like a .doc file or a .pdf file or maybe a .zip file or we access something via a platform like mediafire. Once or twice a file was already on Lulu and available as a .pdf and a book and we just added some pages. Two of these pages would say "TROLL THREAD [DATE]" on them and sometimes Holly would design a new cover or sometimes she wouldn’t. I don’t think there’s ever been a time when we were like "no" or "we don’t like this" when we asked someone for something. Though we have said "no" a lot otherwise.
J: I joined TT with the goal of publishing my own work, much more than being a publisher or editor. Selfishly, I’ve always insisted that we publish ourselves without question. I think we’re finally at the point that the question of the value of self-publishing, i.e. vanity presses, is moot.
For the most part, we don’t solicit particular work, we solicit people. One example is Josef Kaplan’s 1-100. We asked Josef to send us something before he made the initial text and we worked closely with him, transforming a 2000+ page cut-&-paste dump into the final 16 volumes. A lot of the work we get is unsolicited PDFs and .docs sent to our email. A lot of the work we get seems to be geared towards some imagination of TT’s aesthetic (or anti-aesthetic or whatever) and we tend to reject that work outright. Maybe it’s because our “brand” is so generic that it’s easily imitable. Still, imitation is not interesting.
H: ...But imitation that’s not interesting can be really interesting too, though imitation can certainly be more difficult to justify dedicating our unpaid, limited off hours toward, as a couple of grad students with little time to spare (one of the primary reasons we started TT in the first place). But it’s not like we selected any of our books because of some explicit set of editorial objectives we articulated and agreed on in advance—we agree on very little besides liking similar stuff. The stuff we mutually like as a group is usually what we end up publishing more than anything else. Troll Thread selects Troll Thread’s works for publication, however that ends up happening.
TL: Can you tell me what editorial or markup work is done on the texts before they’re uploaded? Are issues having to do with the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) standards for markup of digital objects relevant to how you see the works published on the TT platform, or on how you envision text-base digital objects?
J: My job w/ TT editing is normally to clean texts in Microsoft Word before Holly lays them out in InDesign. This means adding pages to meet Lulu’s page specifications, adjusting margins, minor layout tweaking that doesn’t require knowledge of InDesign. Other than that, Chris and I both upload files to Lulu’s templates. Finally, we’ve found a backdoor way of accessing the PDF from Lulu directly. This means that a reader/user doesn’t have to go through Lulu from the TT site, but can access the PDF directly. We don’t expect people to actually purchase the physical copies. Basically, we use Lulu as a means to host the PDFs, something Tumblr’s platform doesn’t accommodate, without having to pay for our own domain.
C: I am not familiar with the TEI standards. I can say that my part of the editorial process is typically focused on the creation of shells for works that are still being edited by Joey and designed by Holly (or however it is being done: these roles, including my own, are fairly consistent but never actually fixed). In other words, I prepare the posts that will appear on tumblr before the design and editing work is done and I also lay the groundwork for the eventual uploading of .pdf files to Lulu for publication (digitally and physically, as books). Once those files are ready to be distributed across these platforms, I usually work with Joey to upload them and then make them public or available on both Lulu and tumblr. After that, it is just a matter of checking links (and other things) to be sure that everything is easily accessed by anyone who might want to do so for whatever reason.
H: Well the process differs between what we self-publish and what we publish by other authors. In terms of self-publishing, we tend to design our own books, making it easier to release them same-day or shortly thereafter. The distribution end of our process—uploading the manuscript to Lulu, linking to Tumblr, and announcing the release using social media tools—stays more or less consistent for any manuscript that we publish. But preparing manuscripts by other authors besides ourselves tends to require more steps prior to uploading/sharing it on the internet. In terms of this production end, once TT’s editors have reached consensus on whether to publish someone else’s manuscript, we then have to translate the manuscript version into a book object that can be compatible in both print and pdf formats. MSWord documents don’t require a minimum page count or wider gutters than margins like Lulu does, but regardless, the .doc file type is the default format for the manuscripts we get. But MSWord was primarily designed for reading text by scrolling down on a screen. Meanwhile, turning recto/verso pages in a printed book with your hands is still part of the conceptual framework many readers assume is part of the work, so obviously a bit of affective labor is required to bridge that gap.
So, each outside manuscript we receive requires a period of preliminary conversation and negotiation with the author to assess how much of its paratextual and architectonic elements are intended to be part of the poem itself (whether its fonts, size and cover are integral components of the work, or whether this document should be treated like pre-formatted rich text, etc.). Depending on how much the author has/hasn’t already designed the manuscript for the TT imprint, I then design the book to accommodate its specific needs and lay it out in InDesign. I insist on this step because, at minimum, the book would need to have a gutter width that wouldn’t amputate any of the author’s words, provided people still need to regard these texts as “whole books” in the printed economy. But I also insist because I find the design logic of the printed book and the digital document to be syncretically overlapping in most of the manuscripts we receive and the books I read in both of our present print and digital economies, and because InDesign can adjust these elements in book-length works quicker and more precisely than MSWord was designed to do. And besides, why would an author seek an outside editor/publisher to form their manuscript into a book object if they weren’t looking to make the work portable and more transferable between contexts, technological platforms, readers and users?
TL: Now in the last two years, has that focus shifted at all, in relation to the poetry world or to the platforms used to disseminate poetry?
J: Actually, TT has been around for 3 years. One reason we started TT was that there wasn’t much of an “ear” for this kind of work 3 years ago. All I mean is that the kind of work we were making and publishing at that time didn’t seem to be encouraged or understood outside of a very small cadre of poets and artists we met doing readings in NYC or knew of through Chris’s Tumblr. Since that time, the landscape of the poetry world has radically shifted.
H: What he said. Our curatorial focus also seems to have continuously narrowed the more we geared the work we were making/editing for continuity and web visibility as time wore on :(
C: I don’t know about curation--it does happen and we do make decisions. How? IDK. Things also remain strangely approximate or limping in operation. Like Joey said, Troll Thread is occasional in the way the internet is occasional. It is still there even when it’s not functioning for you or us I guess? Whatever. Our publishing activity is sporadic. Like a side project or a second job that you do while at your other job. Always "on the side." Time theft. Things are mostly put out in bursts. Publishing arcs or timelines aren’t planned. OR: not planned very far into the future ("conditions on the ground"). Is this publishing though? Again IDK. I do know that Holly’s design provides something like continuity or at least contiguity despite this sporadic operation. She manufactures a sense of unity and even direction: not easy. Tumblr and Lulu as platforms don’t hurt. Things are always there (or always seem to be there: same thing). Once posted everything is equivalent with (or to) everything else. It always seems to be happening for someone other than us even when it is not happening for us (which happens often).
TL: Can you elaborate on the aforementioned radical shifts that have taken place in the poetry world? If as Holly has noted the curatorial shift has narrowed in terms of content selection (and there may not be agreement among you on this point), can you characterize that editorial shift. I’m simply trying to correlate changes in editorial practice at TT with Joey’s notation on shifts in the poetic landscape.
J: I think the change in the poetry landscape is pretty evident just in noting what didn’t exist and what wasn’t going on 3 or 4 years ago: TT’s entire catalogue. GaussPDF’s entire catalogue. bas books’s entire catalogue. The majority of the Truck Books catalogue: Diana Hamilton’s Okay Okay, Josef Kaplan’s Democracy is not for the People, Chris Alexander’s Panda, Kristen Gallagher’s We Are Here. Steve Zultanski’s Agony. Trisha Low’s The Compleat Purge. 7CV had only just come out. Same with Statement of Facts.
I could go on, but I think this list is empirical proof enough that in the last 3 or 4 years there has been a flurry of diverse aesthetic production that could nominally be classified as “poetry” or “literature.” I don’t think that this would have been possible without platforms like Tumblr, Facebook, or Twitter. I obviously can’t speak for the above mentioned people, but the time it took to move from composition to publication to distribution was shrunk to basically zero. This, in a sense, seemed to lessen the pressure on a given work or works. It became possible to actually test limits of production through various constraints and different programs. Chris and my Poetry Wall Street is a good example of this, in which we wanted to see how many PDFs we could create in an 8 hour time span (one day of “employment” on “Wall Street”). We worked together in Chris’s office on the UB campus. If I remember correctly, the work was on the Tumblr and posted to Facebook before we got home that afternoon.
If the curatorial focus has narrowed, as Holly argues it has, I blame the visibility that TT has received in the last year or two. In one way, this work has become a genre unto itself. As I said earlier, it has become something to do or imitate. The irony being, of course, that the work itself was directed to be as minimally “work” as possible: a few set procedures/macros performed on a text or data set laid out in Microsoft Word’s predetermined page layout and then crudely transferred to a POD file.
TL: I am specifically interested in how you see the relation between digital works and print publication--in terms of how works are commissioned, how they are distributed, and how they are consumed.
J: My particular interest in working with digital platforms is that the work can be published, distributed and consumed without money changing hands. Rather, we’re parasites on multi-million dollar companies. We might be in the academy, but we make less than $14,000/year as grad students. This isn’t a business and I have no interest in profit margins. When I started working on TT with Chris, I was using an old Dell laptop (I think Chris was working on his piece of shit Toshiba) and stealing internet from my neighbor. Using Tumblr to host our PDFs and Lulu to print books with no upfront costs, means we didn’t have to waste money on staples, paper, or xeroxing. In effect, Print-on-Demand and PDFs are what poor publishing looks like.
H: The TT platform itself has been especially conducive to facilitating the circulation and making of work that otherwise wouldn’t get published if left to the other distribution models out there (or at least that’s been my interest in its potential anyway). The platform enables us to host poems as whole books for added portability however big or small, allowing us to circulate them regardless of whether they fit anywhere else or not; whether or not, compared to other published poetry, they seem too incomplete, inconsistent, indefinite or variable; too derivative or not derivative enough; too hermetic, self-conscious, or dogmatic; poorly fact checked, too fictional, or too belligerently factual. That these poems are unwanted or otherwise unpublishable—whether because they are too hasty, excessive, legally suspect, thoughtless or socially irresponsible—isn’t a problem so much as a point of attraction to this work for me. Troll Thread is Troll Thread. We might be people with separate interests, but it’s not. TT does what it wants because it doesn’t give a shit—it’s a site with no one at the helm. It doesn’t need to bother with shit like, “the difference between the word and the world”. As far as it’s concerned, the word is doing shit in the world regardless.
We’ve mainly tended to it as a side project, and collecting no profit has allowed us to labor over books as little as possible. No need to wait, depend on, or appeal to outside interests to put out the shit we want = More time spent getting basic needs met and less time worrying about someone else’s curatorial vision or someone’s collector’s drawer, some cultural ideal of cultural capital or praxis or some financial incentive, someone else’s purse strings or some limited print run that restricts access to the work based on some supply/demand scheme to drive up the cost of books by virtue of their scarcity (see the going rate of 1st edition Bernadette Mayer books in contrast to the going rate of her weekly income for more on that last impetus in particular). We could call this project a technocratic shortcut across what has otherwise been an overpriced and time consuming pageantry constipating the release of poetry into this shit world we’ve inherited, or we could simply call this a formal experiment with the limits of openness toward the open work of today—Whatever this TT thing is or should have never been, its shit is in the world now regardless. Which I like.
C: "Digital works" (.pdf files and .pdf viewers) and "print publications" (books): different platforms with (or as) different modes of access and "interaction." More and more for Troll Thread (and elsewhere) the "work" seems to happen "between" platforms or in cross-platform movements or operations or proliferations. Anyway it doesn’t happen "for us." I mean "us" in general like "us humans" maybe? It definitely does not happen for "us" as users. More and more: it is simply not for us. I am not trying to say we are "outside" or "above" these platforms and processes (there is no escape and who would want that). I am trying to say that what we “get” (.pdf file or book) is a paltry thing when you stop to think about what happened and happens in order for you to “get” it. And that most of this happening has nothing to do with your or us as users. Despite all this: as users we sometimes (in some ways) "coordinate" these movements / operations (not very elegantly). This is actually what Troll Thread does: coordinate or sequence processes of "manufacture / assembly / distribution / access / consumption." All as one thing or given that they are all one thing. Platform experiences like the .pdf viewer or any book whatsoever are stupid or weird or enjoyable because they are "minimally interactive." You wrote that right Tan? OR: they are strangely meager given the actual processes of "manufacture / assembly / distribution / access / consumption" that are definitely the same thing at this point? Probably. OR at least: definitely happening continuously (and right now) with or without us. Any platform for (or as) access to the "work" is always a poor or weak "logic gate." Right Tan? Even our touch screens (capacitive glass) work by reducing "interaction" i.e.: formalizing or standardizing touch and gesture in order for the phone or tablet to "read" it or to "process" it elegantly. OR: these are largely inert sites of access to a cross-platform complex of operations. Inelegant. Clumsy. Especially in the case of books and .pdf files and viewers. But we (at least us) enjoy all this somehow or seem to? Troll Thread doesn’t: it is a tumblr page. Do other people? Whatever.
TL: I wanted to situate TT in relation to issues having to do with digital literacy: increased citationality, what Milad Doueihi, in Digital Cultures, terms an “anthological” dimension, decentralized networks of distribution, heightened flexibility in terms of editorial or non-editorial work, increasing informational density, as well as specific affordances connected with Tumblr (I have a separate question on Tumblr to follow). Can you sketch out TT’s relation to these aforementioned shifts in the poetic landscape, in the last two years or so, as they indicate broader shifts in what might be termed digital literacy? Or to put this question more simply, what is a work of literature, what does it look like, how does it perform, in a digital age? I have tried to suggest that poetry/poeisis is now perhaps best conceived of as an “operation upon data.” But this may not be accurate. I’m curious on your take of what constitutes the “literary” today.
H: Well, ok. So Roman Jakobson has a definition of literature that might be helpful for digging into your question. He says more or less that literature is a series of systematic acts of violence committed upon previous notions of “literary” language through violation of convention, which updates the larger cultural definition of “literature” and “literariness” as a result. And it’s funny because it seems like these days, everywhere I look I see nothing but violations of conventional textual codes as a byproduct of this process of digitizing the archive away from the print paradigm. When put on the internet, literature is obviously “decontextualized” from its former contexts and “recontextualized” in a digital environment. But when it comes to reading practices, how much of a text’s presentation in the context of a “book” should/shouldn’t be treated as part of the text itself? (See: the digitization of the OED that lead to its discontinuation in print, or all the canonical works on Project Guttenberg for further instances on how this is effecting the production of books in the form of ebooks, pdf’s, etc.) So much paratextual content orienting reading practice is getting rearranged, it’s heavily effecting the digitization of canonical texts in more ways than I can even keep track of (paratexts like frontmatter, backmatter, cover designs, page length/numbers, fonts, ratios, dedication pages, etc). Anyway, we can at least say that digital book publishing has certainly made obsolete some previous forms of “literacy” and “literature” as it was recognized and composed in/for the print paradigm.
So if violating convention is what literature does, then maybe that act is more embedded in the defaults of our writing/reading platforms than it was before, making the labor that goes into the production of literary texts absolutely different than how I (at least) was taught to read poems. My point here is that whether or not I write to consciously violate previous conventions of literature, whether or not I’m enforcing my willful agency to commit literary acts, my status as a literary agent now seems secondary to how this process of digitization appears to be violating and reassigning the bounds between literature, literariness and illiteracy; and between texts and their contexts, paratexts and metatexts. In this way, I don’t see TT texts as being more or less literary or like literature. Rather, I see them as simply bound up in this structural violence that the digitizing process is committing upon written work at every impasse. So while this mode might be more culturally embedded in the design of digital platforms than in their printed counterparts, these acts aren’t always consciously willful for many users. I do think that many TT texts have exploited and highlighted that rub in a number of ways, especially in the design decisions that get made between its editors and the authors. I expect that we co-editors would disagree on where we see our “acts of violence committed upon literature” coming from and what they are directed toward, but I guess I see my own participation in the emergence of “digital literacy” through our practice as being more of a catch and release program for “wayward” texts (when often that occurs because digital and analogue forms of articulation are syncretic) rather than being something like “diti-lit” or an act against “high literature” or something. But more than anything else, I just hate throwing things away that someone else might value and I don’t think I’m the only one. TT could be critiquing the digital textual condition, but it could also just be exhibiting its symptoms: the hoarding tendencies that form as a compensation for loss. Speaking from the position of my own complicity with that structural violence, I’m not sure I can say where my agency as a user or maker of digital literacy or literature really begins or ends. Maybe I’m just being difficult. I don’t know.
C: I want to say one thing here--”operation upon data” is an interesting or difficult definition. What I mean is: where does the operation end and the data begin? To make a dumb comparison, but one that I think might work: data, like quanta, tends to “stick” to the instrument of measurement or manipulation. In other words: how does a user (any-human-whatsoever) interact with / operate upon data outside of the specific modes of access and the functions made available by a given platform or program? Does "data" exist in any (actionable) way outside of these platform experiences? The mode of access sets the agenda, makes access possible, guides and restricts operations. So: we, as users, are formatted by our platforms (just as they format data). We are directed by our platforms insofar as “operation” also means “permitted operation” (an operation the platform permits or allows us). All of which can be summed up in what may seem like an overstatement, but which I take to be an empirical fact: “digital literacy” is another word for our (highly enjoyable) entanglement with, and weakness before, our networked gadgetry. It denotes a state of affairs where the “operations” process, direct, define, figure both data and us. In order for us to be users we have to be used. I am not saying this should be or could be avoided (it is only becoming more obvious that there is no escape). In fact, I welcome the debasement promised us by our little gadgets. But maybe I just enjoy being punished.
TL: How do you think people read TT?
J: TBH, I think people read TT in passing and sporadically. We know from Lulu that only a few people actually buy the physical books. Unfortunately, we don’t know how many people who visit the site access the PDFs. All I mean to say is that I’m not sure if people read them at all. I would imagine that most people download the PDF to their hard drive or just access it from their web browser, scroll thru a few pages and move on. It might be more accurate to call them TT tourists or browsers, rather than readers? But, I mean, that’s how I read Gawker or the Guardian, so I don’t think it’s really any different from how people consume other digitized texts.
C: Have to start: I don’t think people read them (or look at them) that much to begin with (which is fine--I don’t care). Beyond that: it depends on how you define reading (this practice is obviously changing rapidly). I think you and I might agree on this Tan: we have entered the stage of a very peculiar type of “looking / staring” in relation to the text object or process. Especially in minimally interactive formats. I see TT as being a site where this mutation in reading practice is being exploited, manipulated, (hopefully) grotesquely exaggerated. It is funny to see people struggle against this "looking / staring" that many of the works on TT demand. It makes them very uncomfortable and often stupidly mad. This provides its own enjoyment (for me). I think that the signs of this struggle will lessen with time as reading moves closer to the condition of watching ASMR videos on youtube. I want this for people. More importantly, I want this for myself: an encounter with a textual object or process that would produce “the tingles.”
Tan Lin is the author of over 13 books, including Heath Course Pak (2012), Bib. Rev. Ed., Insomnia and the Aunt (2011), 7 Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking (2010), Plagiarism/Outsource (2009), Ambience is a Novel with a Logo (2007), BlipSoak01 (2003), and Lotion Bullwhip Giraffe (2000). His work has appeared in numerous journals including Conjunctions,...