A note from the editors
I write you from the physician’s waiting room. Here, with the exception of a sort of rococo children’s abacus, it’s white walls all down the line. Nothing to see and a verdict to await. But one thistle of a thing I know—that we all know, even if we don’t know we know—is how to wait. Into waiting we’re born, cultivated, and raised to aspire toward. In the 50s, Beckett suggested waiting as an idea worthy of writing. Then came the literature of the 80s, pointed and more focused on concise plot construction than ever—its arms outstretched and dashing back toward the grand narrative—when Charles Bernstein released Class, and to my point, the sound poem “1-100” to again remind us how to—
Wait. Never mind—thought I heard the nurse’s call. What I mean to say is that we’ve waited ourselves sick to finally deliver this 20th anniversary issue of New River Journal. We waited, and now, the deed done, we’ll wait some more to see how it’s received. We’re always waiting, but also, sometimes our waiting is interrupted. I can recall several instances as of late where life, for a short time, granted me a moment—have you ever experienced one of those?—worth waiting for.
First, in Bruno Ministro’s remediation, “1_100,” in which, yes, we wait—it’s largely the point of the piece—but it’s an immersive kind of waiting, in which we wait—in the arc of Bernstein’s throaticisms, slowly building from the casual recitation of numbers to a full on animalistic frustration—not for the poem’s end, but, genuinely curious about its narrative, for the gradual revealing of the psychology behind it. Wait. But this isn’t about Bernstein, it’s about Ministro. It’s about his modern contextualization with it’s Sisyphian loading screen. It’s about how, even now, with Ministro’s help, we denizens of data can understand exactly what Bernstein meant when he first recorded “1-100” in the 1960s. We understand hope, and then frustration, and then, at the denouement, disappointment. Bernstein’s genius is not in his work itself so much as what's left out of it. Ministro’s, however, is in his subtle addition of familiar digital tropes, opening up a trove of new readings and responses, which all point back toward one common theme.
Wait. Something’s bothering me. Each time I hit a new line, my eyes dart back to the left-align and catch, in their periphery, a curious man a few seats down. He, too, waits to be called. A Prufrockian type, balding awkwardly, immersed in a faded issue of People Magazine I’d date back somewhere in the late-90s/early-2000s. I doubt he’s much interested in its content. It’s the kind of rampant consumption exclusive to those caught in wait, which reminds me of another one of those wonderful moments I recently experienced, after having solicited New River alumni Alan Bigelow—“What’s an issue of New River without a little Bigelow?” I asked—and after receiving a quick response, I opened “Fast Forward,” where I discovered a kind of consumption I understood. A literary consumption. The desire to tear through the canon, to read everything, classic and contemporary alike, without the effort, or time required to actually do so.
As it opens, “Fast Forward” asks, “Tired of all the brainiacs who know more than you? Don’t read much because you don’t have the time?” The work reveals itself as a mobile app, able to animate any book in under under five seconds—Moby Dick, Little Women, The Outline of History, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia, et cetera. “Fast Forward” provides users with the absolute most synoptic concept of the text possible. In truth, the only things possible to notice are the book’s overall formal makeup, maybe, occasional impressions of pictures and diagrams, perhaps, and sometimes an impressionistic audio sample—such as the roaring ocean for Moby Dick readers. “Fast Forward” suggests that, in a time where we’re faced with endless opportunity in terms of receiving information, little lies in the realm of completely unfamiliar. What I mean is, with the app, if you haven’t read The Scarlet Letter and your readerly acrobatics are called into question by some belletristic bully, you may recall a few of the chaper titles, maybe a sentence about Hester, to muster enough of a response to pass the test. It pokes gentle fun at the general Jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none mantra the computer generation has adopted, or at least become complicit in. But most important, like all Bigelow’s work, it’s incredible, revisitable fun.
Look, readers, I know you’re waiting for my letter’s end. I know—but please suffer these final blocks of text. I’ll try to squeeze it out before I’m called in. But first I have to tell you about an old friend—a psychology student obsessed, always waiting for life to happen, with the situationalists, contant movement, and chance. Years ago, he left me with an apartment, alone, in the middle of a lease to wander aimlessly for a while. It was he who introduced me to the idea of dérive, which, if I knew where he was now, I’d have him know is just another type of waiting. A perpetual travel in search of some unknowability worth stopping for; a rapid voyage through various ambiences in search of some fixed idea of perfection.
Just last night, my wine and I were combing the web when I found myself transfixed in a mindless Situationalist passage of links. I imagine you know what I’m talking about. I don’t know what I was waiting for, but I don’t think I ever found it. Like this, Talan Memmott’s piece, “Dérivepedia,” is a combinatory text generator that recombines sentences fragments from Wikipedia, images from Wikimedia commons, and over 1,000 individual variables to generate specious Wiki-style entries on an absurd topics like ‘Realism and Mandatory Cookies,’ ‘Poststructuralism and Polemicist Eggs,’ or ‘Termites and the Disciplines of Leafy Vegetables.’ And like other forms of consumption, I find myself content, yet searching in my perusals. I’m charmed by its absurdity, and everything intrigues, but I wait—a digital sort of Situationalist—to discover the perfect combinatory subject.
I’m reading about ‘Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Computer Graphics,’ finishing a section about Nationalism, Meat, and Talan Memmott when—“Pat Siebel?” Yes, yes, that’s me!—I receive my medical summons. I close my laptop and catch the line “By analyzing related languages with a technique known as suffering, eggs can be produced in exogenous chemical compounds, both ambiguous and negative,” then I’m guided down a corridor and shut inside a small room, lightly interrogated by the nurse, and told to “Wait just a moment, the doctor will be right with you.”
It was quite an honor to be a co-editor for The New River’s twenty-year anniversary issue. Since its inception, The New River has strived to publish the most unique and cutting-edge electronic literature, as well as provide a community for lovers and creators of digital literature to congregate. While these may be some high bars to clear, my co-editor and I were overwhelmed with the amount of startlingly exceptional submissions we received and believe that this issue fulfills the precedents established in the journal’s inaugural issue.
We were hoping to find pieces that reshaped our ideas about what electronic literature could do in the twenty-first century, as well as pieces that seemed to point to a new direction in terms of the medium’s place in the literary landscape. Over the course of the submission period, we had numerous discussions about the works we received, and continually found ourselves coming back to the same question: “With all this great work out there, why isn’t digital literature as popular as it should be?” It seemed to us that digital literature was a no-brainer in terms of its relevance to our electronic-dependent culture. If the novel is dead, or a little atrophied, as many people claim, it seems like digital literature would be the obvious successor to its legacy. But ask the average person on the street for a definition of digital literature, or their favorite digital literature pieces, and more than likely you’ll be met with a blank stare.
We at The New River see this as no reason to despair though. This is because the conclusion that we arrived at, after asking ourselves again and again why electronic literature wasn’t as popular as we thought it should be, was because it has, and maybe always will be, a part of the avant-garde. It began as an experimental art form, and a few decades later, after a ton of impressive work, it has remained experimental at its core. For my co-editor and I, this is a virtue rather than an obstacle. Staying on the fringes and remaining avant-garde, lends itself to singular and transgressive work which we hope this issue embodies.
“Three Rails Live,” by Roderick Coover, Nick Montfort, and Scott Rettberg, is a digital video that juxtaposes beautiful city and industrial landscapes with exceptional narrative writing. The video is run continuously, and the various narrative and visual elements are intermittently recombined, mirroring the fractured and alienated contemporary experience that many of us feel as we navigate through this post-millennial world. The piece has a simultaneously hypnotic and jarring result which we felt was unlike anything we had experienced from digital literature or elsewhere in the art world. Serge Bouchardon’s piece “Untrace,” allows the viewer to interactively investigate the “traces” left behind in our digital wake as we become a culture that is more and more willing to upload our whole life onto the web. The piece ultimately forces the viewer to confront the detritus of their digital lives and experience themselves as a constantly malleable part of the machine.
Co-captaining the helm of the country’s first, and now only journal devoted exclusively to digital literature on its twentieth anniversary, was an experience both Pat and I felt very lucky to be a part of. We hope the pieces in this issue not only commemorate this significant occasion, but affirm the generous spirit in which this journal was founded.