Below is the earliest version of a piece I plan to write about The Making of Americans and information.  This is part of my larger project on code and programming in modernist literature.  I’m still working through these ideas and developing a vocabulary for discussing them.  

Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans is almost certainly one of the least read modernist texts.  Alongside Pound’s Cantos, Proust’s Recherche, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, TMoA is hardly alone as a massive and difficult early twentieth century book, but it is singular in many ways.  The vast majority of TMoA hardly recommends itself in terms of entertainment value, aesthetic pleasure, or even the traditional bildung a narrative of over 920 pages would typically aspire to.  The ostensible subject of the text–the history of two families bound by marriage–is quite familiar in the novel genre and in this sense the text is an aesthetic and conceptual commentary on the nineteenth century marriage plot.[1]. But this narrative never reaches a conclusion, and the final section, beginning on page 905 and entitled, “History of a Family’s Progress,” makes no mention of the characters it had been following to that point.  Instead it shifts to exclusively pronominal language to discuss trends and patterns arising in the lives of individuals and across populations.

Though individuals in both the Hersland and Dehning families are the primary subjects leading up to that final section, it is easy to lose track of them.  The narrator often pauses from the relation of their story to consider the particular versus the general, the nature of totality, the individual versus the population, and the strain of recording and representing these perspectives simultaneously.  These interpolations are made more noticeable because the language itself is so repetitive.  Not only does the narrator restate the themes and ideas very often, but the sentences themselves are deformed by the repetition of pronouns, an unnecessarily precise expression of the connections between subjects and predicates, and an inability to persist with a subject (such as an individual) without telescoping out to consider how the particulars being discussed exemplify patterns across larger populations and modes of being.  These narrative pauses signal a disintegration of the coherence of the novel and narrative forms which were no longer suited to a project that, by its end, sought to describe every person who had ever lived.  In a broader context, these ambitions of universality functions in parallel with twentieth century culture beginning to conceptualize society in terms of populations, networks, and large-scale patterns, perspectives made possible by coinciding revolutions in bureaucratic, archival, and industrial data management and collection [2].   Stein could no longer confine herself to thinking of two families, the Herslands and Dehnings, but was constantly preoccupied with the patterns they fit into within the larger social grid.  The various failures and disappointments the narrator experiences during these experiments culminate in the final section in which the particular characters and the narrator disappear and are replaced by impersonal and generalized statements about individuals and groups.

Here I am arguing the abstraction of the final section is essentially a language technology Stein developed to use information to amplify human powers of representation as an attempt to capture a complete picture of human experience.  Though this solution is not successful, it does reveal that Stein, with a group of other modernists, was manipulating information in order to capitalize on its capacity to operate automatically [3].  In place of a human author (a hugely important detail according to my definition of code) manually recording and representing every individual, the patterns, once formalized, aim to capture every possible variation of human experience, new individuals fitting into the patterns the narrator has discovered and laid out in the final section.

More specifically, Stein’s use of extreme abstraction is an information technology that resembles binary code’s ability to encode nearly any other body of information.  Like the pronominal final section of TMoA, binary code is effective because it reduces specificity (to its absolute minimum: yes/no, on/off, 0/1) in order to increase its capacity for translating other types of information into its language.  The extreme repetition of binary code means that it carries very little information, but also that every possible particularity can be encoded into binary.  The same is true for the language of TMoA [4].  The narrator could never hope to describe everyone who has ever or will ever live one person at a time.  By using more general terms of description–some people, many people, all people–Stein has developed the same conceptual approach to information operating at the heart of all digital media.  The use of this general language operates as code because it attempts to describe all human experience without the moment to moment intervention of the human.

In the rest of this post, I’ll present a few representative passages which exemplify the progression I outlined above.  Early on, the narrator addresses the reader directly, and foregrounds the practical and material realities of the project they propose:

Bear it in your mind my reader, but truly I never feel it that there ever can be for me any such creature, no it is this scribbled and dirty and lined paper that is really to be to me always my receiver,–but anyhow reader, bear it in your mind–will there before me ever any such a creature,–what I have said always before to you, that this that I write down a little each day here on my scraps of paper for you is not just an ordinary kind of novel with a plot and conversations to amuse you, but a record of a decent family progress respectably lived by us are our fathers and our mothers, and our grand-fathers, and grand-mothers, and this is by me carefully a little each day to be written down here; and so my reader arm yourself in every kind of way to be patient, and to be eager, for you must always have it now before you to hear much more of these many kinds of decent ordinary people, of old, grown, grand-fathers and grand-mothers, of growing old fathers and growing old mothers, of ourselves who are always to be others and we must wait and see the younger fathers and young mothers bear them for us, these younger fathers and young mothers who always are ourselves inside us, who are to be to be always young grown men and women to us.  And so listen while I tell you all about us, and wait while I hasten slowly forwards, and love, please, this history of this decent family’s progress. (34)

It’s important to note a few things about this passage.  First, this is an unusual form of address for this text.  The narrator is in control until page 904, but almost never speaks directly to the reader.  This is part of an overall attenuation of the human element in the text.  Second, here on page 34, the narrator’s ambition is only to provide the “history” of this family, a goal that will change dramatically as the text progresses.  Third, the narrator references the painstaking process of recording the details of this family.  Thus the text is not a standard novel “with a plot and conversations to amuse you”, but the “record” of a particular family, a conceptual and generic shift inviting us to interpret it as information as much as art.  Finally, and most importantly, this direct address is immediately undermined by the narrator.  The first sentence says, “Bear it in your mind my reader, but truly I never feel it that there ever can be for me any such creature, no it is this scribbled and dirty and lined paper that is really to be to me always my receiver.”  From the very beginning, the narrator acknowledges the temporal, spatial, and material division that inevitably emerges between the writer and the reader.  (The narrator’s awareness of this fact of writing is an essential detail of understanding print as media, and language as material and inhuman, a fact which I’ve discussed is one of the necessary conditions for comparing print to digital media and discussing language as code.)  The narrator goes on to emphasize the material features of the paper, the messiness of writing, and the reality that there is no direct interaction between the mind of the author and the mind of the reader.  The text, once written, operates independently from the author like a machine. [4]

From here, the narrator gradually expands the text’s ambitions.  On page 34, the narrator plans to provide a history of these families.  By page 166, the narrator introduces “types” of people, and suggests the history of the family fits into these larger patterns: “There are many kinds of women then and many kinds of men and this then will be a history of some of the many kinds of them” (166).  Here, the narrator remains committed to the two families while incrementally broadening from the particular to the general, but shortly thereafter, further widens the focus by introducing the idea of representing the totality of humanity:

Soon then there will be a history of every kind of men and women and of all the mixtures in them, sometime there will be a history of every man and every woman who ever were or are or will be living and of the kind of nature in them and the way it comes out from them from their beginning nature in them and the way it comes out from them from their beginning to their ending, sometime then there will be a history of each one of them and of the many millions always being made just like them, there will be sometime a history of all of them, there will be a history of them and now there is here a beginning. (176)

The final clause in this passage is an early example of the narrator’s ambition to connect the history of this family to the description of every person who has ever lived.  The narrator continually oscillates between the particular and general in this fashion, and while the text does focus on the Herslands and Dehnings, these universal concerns become and increasing preoccupation.  However, doubt starts to creep in as the narrator senses the magnitude of representing every human who has ever lived.  Near the book’s exact center, the narrator loses faith in the enterprise:

Perhaps no one ever will know the complete history of every one.  This is a sad thing.  Perhaps no one will ever have as a complete thing the history of any one.  This is a very sad thing.  Sometime each one will have made a complete history of them in the repeating always coming out of them.  Sometime perhaps some one will really know it of someone, that will be a very contenting thing to some.  … Perhaps no one ever gets a complete history of any one.  This is very discouraging thinking.  I am very sad now in this feeling.  Always, hearing something, gives to some a sad feeling of realising everything they have not been hearing and that they are not knowing and perhaps they can never have really in them the complete history of any one, no one ever can have in them the complete history of any one and that is then a very melancholy feeling in them. (454)

Passages of this kind are rare in the text, but betray the strain between the narrator’s more modest project of depicting the Hersland and Dehning families (though the narrator also feels overwhelmed by the complete and accurate representation of individuals as well), and the prospect of universality. [5]  These moments soon pass, however, and the narrator ups the ante, taking on the task on their own:

I have been giving the history of a very great many men and women.  Sometime I will give a history of every kind of men and women, every kind there is of men and women.  Already I have given a history of many of them.  … Sometime then I will give a history of all of them and that will be a long book and when I am finished with this one then I will begin that one. (479)

This is one of the first instances in which the narrator suggests they will attempt to represent the totality of human experience.  It’s important to note that the universal history is at this stage separate from the history of the two families.  As the text progresses, the distinct projects will merge into one.  It’s also interesting in this passage that the narrator mentions the magnitude of the book itself, a strangely practical concern alongside a patently impossible plan.  The realities of the book itself and perhaps the labor of writing sentences, prompt the narrator to consider other formats for a project of this kind.  The first model is a diagram:

More and more in living I come to know enough of each kind of them to make groups of them.  Sometime I will be able to make a diagram.  I have already made several diagrams.  I will sometime make a complete diagram and that will be a very long book that will tell all about each kind there is of men and women. (580)

Next, the narrator suggests lists as a way to represent individuals and their relationships:

It would be a very complete thing in my feeling to be having complete lists of every body ever living and to be realising each one and to be making diagrams of them and lists of them and explaining the being of each one and the relation of that one to other beings in other men and other women and to go on then explaining and realising and knowing the complete being in each one and all the kinds there are in men and women.  (594-5)

The narrator never adopts any of these alternative models for representing their subject, but the consideration of them does demonstrate that TMoA is in some sense a metacommentary on how to record, organize, and present information.

The naarrator repeatedly gestures in the direction of completion, but never actually embarking on the project itself.  The narrator  expresses confidence that they have accumulated enough knowledge and wisdom to eventually write the complete history of every person who has ever lived:

I am hoping sometime to write a complete history of men and women, I am beginning to be hoping this thing again, I am filled up now so much with learning so much about men and women and feel so much wisdom in me now inside me completely organising that I am coming again to be almost certain that I can sometime be writing the complete history of every one who ever was or is or will be living. (665)

Despite this optimism, however, the text proceeds for over two hundred more pages, until finally, after 904 pages and the exhaustive investigation of the Hersland and Dehning families, The Making of Americans makes an abrupt transition.  The final section, “History of a Family’s Progress,” and though this basic topic about the family is familiar to anyone who had read the preceding pages, the style, content, and most importantly, the rhetoric have changed in significant ways.  The section begins,

Any one has come to be a dead one.  Any one has not come to be such a one to be a dead one.  Many who are living have not come yet to be a dead one.  Many who were living have come to be a dead one.  Any one has come not to be a dead one.  Any one has come to be a dead one. (907)

All the essential features of the roughly 20 page final section are contained in the above passage.  No individual person is mentioned.  The narrator, having relating every detail of the text to this point, is completely absent from the text, signalling a significant rhetorical shift.  The narrative that began with a conventional story about two families joined by marriage began to disintegrate gradually and the narrator became preoccupied with how this particular story fit into the overarching social grid.  The sections in which the narrator considered these larger patterns interrupted the description of the families, until, in this final section, they disappear altogether.

This final section signals a certain type of trade off.  The ambitions to universality, the description of every person who has ever lived, requires the elision of the individual human from the text altogether.  It’s important to note that Stein’s experiment does not even approach the goal of universality.  However, the literal success of the experiment is less important than the conceptual opening it creates, and the approach to information it anticipates.  Across a selection of major modernist works of literature it’s possible to see several different approaches to this same dilemma.  Stein, with William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Joyce, e. e. cummings, and a host of others, began to eliminate the human being from their texts.  The absence of the human is a rhetorical approach that is a definitional characteristic of code.  This widespread move is part of a larger reconsideration  of the relationship between human beings, media, and language taking place in the early twentieth century.  These changes produced experimental texts, and these experiments coincided with and resembled innovations in information technology that directly lead to the code and programming running contemporary digital technology.  These early efforts by the high modernist authors are part of a long history of twentieth century information and media innovation.


[1] Genre is also an interesting question in this regard, but I won’t be discussing it in this piece because genre analysis takes so up so much space.  TMoA is interested in language itself, but also in the novel’s ability to depict experience.  The fact that the narrator is continually getting distracted from the “story” of the novel to discuss information reveals that there is a tension between the novel form and the concerns the information continues to introduce.  TMoA can’t focus on the usual business of the novel, character development, narrative arcs, etc., because the question of the fitness of the form itself keeps coming up.  Thus the text shows the strain the nineteenth century novel was under in the early twentieth century, and that avant-garde authors like Stein sought to interrogate the forms they inherited from past eras.

[2] Another way to approach these characteristics of the text is as an early model of big data in social contexts.  In this sense, TMoA bears similarity to Leopold Bloom from Ulysses, who is constantly distracted from his surroundings by thoughts of populations, aggregated data, and the chilling effects that has on the intervention in any particular event, good or bad.  In other words, Bloom’s attention, like the narrator of TMoA, is constantly interrupted by thoughts of larger social networks and patterns.

[3] Beyond the obvious failure to describe everyone who has ever lived in under twenty pages, the project is unsuccessful because the presupposition of universality is based on normative ideas of human experience.  Stein has been justifiably accused of holding Eurocentric ideas about world history and humanity and her model of universality in TMoA is consistent with those narrow views on culture and race.

[4] A more complete version of this piece will use Shannon’s information theory to better formalize this polarity between the specific and the abstract in information.  Binary code is so effective at encoding everything because it carries the smallest possible amount of information or is the least specific.

[5] Derrida’s work is the most explicit on the necessary separation taking place in the act of writing.  In Signature/Event/Context he argues that the type of separation Stein’s narrator acknowledges makes language into a machine: “To write is to produce a mark that will constitute a sort of machine which is productive in turn, and which my future disappearance will not, in principle, hinder in its functioning, offering things and itself to be read and to be rewritten.”

[6] The narrator occasionally expresses the desire not only to represent everyone but also to be accurate.  Thus the narrator is concerned about their ability to describe everyone, but also about the accuracy of that description:

Sometime I want to be right about every one, I want to realise every one.  Sometime I want to write a history of every one. … I want sometime to write a history of every one, of every kind there is in men and women.  It would be such a satisfaction always to be right about every one, such a certain, active feeling in me. (574)

“Realising every one” also introduces its own dilemma of totality.  Knowing a person completely signifies its own kind of completeness that is impossible to achieve, a further problem for the narrator:

As I was saying every on always is repeating the whole of them.  Every one is repeating the whole of them, such repeating is then always in them and so sometime some one who sees them will have a complete understanding of the whole of each one of then, will have a completed history of every man and every woman they ever came to know in  their living, every man and every woman who were or are or will be living, every man and every woman in each one’s beginning, middle and ending , every man and every woman then who were or are or will be living whom such a one can come to know in living. (319)

In this sense, the representational dilemma confronts the narrator on both the smallest and largest scale.  Not only is it impossible to record, express, or capture all of humanity, but inevitably, details from individuals’ lives will escape collection.



Looking back from this digital age toward the early twentieth century, I continue to see traces of code and programming appearing in a range of literary works.  In my previous post, I followed John Cayley to define code rhetorically.  Writing of any kind qualifies as code when it is addressed to other writing.  An instance code operating in digital media functions as code because the instructions or information it contains is addressed to other information, operating like a machine.  The code works like a machine because it is understood and acted on without the intervention of a human interlocutor.  Humans can read and understand the code, but only by adopting the rhetorical stance of, eavesdropping on, the non-human agents.

As I’ll be examining in my next couple of posts, modernist authors were obsessed with representing this type of nonhuman expression, and as such they were participating in changes in how all of culture began seeing language and information.  This change amounts to a materialist view of how language shifts from a transparent expression of human interiority, into a material and resistant medium.  Far from destroying its potential to express ideas, this way of seeing language opened up entirely new fields of aesthetic and conceptual potential in which information had an intrinsic capacity to animate itself, automatically connect with other information, and to operate independently of humans.  The literary spaces in which these experiments with the materiality of language take place are part of a larger twentieth century revolution in information and technology resulting in the code, programming, algorithms, and other types of automated information processing at work in digital media. 

In every genre and format, modernist authors continually insist on this new understanding of language.  The primary symptom of these changes is an author working to eliminate the human voice from their work.  This achieves the effect whereby language operates as code–automatically–by addressing itself to other language, and interpreting these texts requires overhearing these non-human exchanges. [1]

From the perspective of scholars (as opposed to the authors), an essential part of comparing literary language to code requires also understanding the affordances of print media.  This includes fields such as book history, printing history, comparative media studies, textual scholarship, circulation studies, and genetic analysis.   These fields are important not only because the authors themselves figured these material concerns into their works, but also because these fields illuminate how a print text is, no less than a digital computer, a processual medium that is assembled in stages and operates according to encoded instructions.

The analogy remains a loose one, but assuming a text consists only of the version we read in a new paperback edition is similar to assuming the information we receive on the computer screen both begins and ends with that interface.  Stacked infrastructure, information economies, technology manufacturers, and the physical processes at work in the machine itself, combine to produce the media experience of using a digital object.  Understanding these factors requires both mental and physical labor to reverse engineer these objects as we use them.  A similar critical engagement is necessary with texts appearing in print.  Confining our study of literary works to the trade paperback edition we read and teach for coursework, research, or pleasure not only limits our interpretive purview, but misunderstands what a print text is and how it fits into media history.

To use an extreme example, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake demonstrates the ways in which the study of texts requires the examination of the entire media object–manuscripts, drafts, versioning–just to get a sense of what is taking place on the pages of the final version.  Without the wealth of scholarship performed by genetic critics, our understanding of the Wake would be significantly different.  Simply knowing that Joyce “wrote” the Wake  by accumulating discrete bits of information through associational connections with established “nodes”, (as David Hayman calls them in The ‘Wake’ in Transit) alters our interpretation of the text as a whole.  The connections Joyce made between the nodes and information he collected is a perfect example of the active the role language came to play in modernist literature.  Joyce integrated this information according to relationships it bore to other information, a section of text mentioning rivers, for instance, would prompt Joyce to collect all the names of rivers from references such as the Encyclopedia Brittanica and weave them into the text.  The process itself was human, Joyce and his network of information gatherers were reading texts and recording information, but the instructions for what to collect derived from relationships between elements of information.  As if Google Search were just a bunch of people responding to queries and collecting information.

The same could be said of the puns the Wake is famous for: the portmanteau words are assembled according to connections between characteristics the words share.  Semantic, orthgraphic, phonic features of words, any type of informational relationship, provided Joyce with instructions for agglutinating them together like LEGOs.  According to Jean Michel Rabate, Joyce’s “associative and collective method implies the enlisting of many other people and induces a mechanical linguistic process” [2].  This basic network of information gathering expanded into an “automatic word machine systematized by Joyce in the winter of 1930” which was “designed to radically alter a previous text.  The number of layers piled up on the first-draft version is staggering” [3].  Something took place between that first draft version and the final version we read and that decision by Joyce–the development of that word machine–is essential to arriving at a full picture of what the Wake was and what it became.  The changes that took place tell us a great deal about Joyce’s process as a writer, but also about the way texts come together and depend on these organizational and compositional substrates to become what they are.

As I keep fleshing out these ideas, I will be analyzing some of the texts I feel best exemplify code or programming as well as an examination of the widespread trend in experimental modernist texts of removing the human voice from the text.


[1] I’m not suggesting that the authors themselves are eliminated from the creative process, an obviously untrue position.  Instead, I’m arguing that the authors are expressing the language’s potential to interact with other language.  Joyce and Pound, with their separate but similar penchants for quotation, are obvious examples of authors who did not “create” their works wholesale, but were involved in connecting elements of information according to patterns inhering between them.  But Stein, H.D., Williams, and others were also involved in similar aesthetic experiments in which language takes an active role in determining the text’s composition and function as art.  I will be expanding on each of these authors.

[2] Rabate, Jean Michel.  “The Fourfold Root of Yawn’s Unreason: Chapter III.3.”  How Joyce Wrote Finnegans Wake: A Chapter by Chapter Genetic Guide.  Eds Luca Crispi and Same Slote.  University of Wisconsin Press, 2007.  394.

[3] Ibid, 398.


A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words. -William Carlos Williams The Wedge, 1944

Code took over in Un Coup de Des by Stephane Mallarme.  Code also took over on page 907 of The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein.  Code also took over as Ezra Pound revised “Ur-Canto I” into “Canto II”.  Code also took over as James Joyce composed the “Cyclops” episode of Ulysses, and was really going by 1939 when he completed Finnegans Wake.  Looking back to these texts using contemporary definitions of code, I argue that these examples from literature represent a shift in the uses and applications of language.  Rather than a frictionless mode of expressing authorial interiority, language for these authors became a non-human thing and was accompanied by affordances, resistance, and autonomous agency.  These authors banished the human from language and the consequences of this shift are still being felt in fields such as object oriented ontology, digital media, the poetics of code, and code poetry.

Far from suggesting I am discovering something about modernism, I am convinced that this was a fundamental, but as yet unexplored, ambition of the modernist authors themselves.  Stein, Pound, Joyce and others deliberately removed their simulated consciousness from the text in order to explore the potential language has for animating itself, working independently of the authors that put it into motion, that is, behaving like a machine made out of words.

In developing my definition of code in preparation to apply it to print texts, I have been reading as widely as possible in software studies, critical code studies, information theory, and so far have had my understanding of these fields seismically shifted on several occasions.  I’ve also discovered that my goals are somewhat different than thinkers in these fields.  As much as I want to join literary and media studies through shared terms of inquiry, my interest is not directed toward interpreting or reading code in all the digital contexts in which it appears.  Instead, I seek to locate those areas where writing appearing in literary texts exhibit the characteristics we have seen formalized and deployed in code and programming.  In other words, like my previous project on databases, I argue that poets and novelists were experimenting with language in ways that anticipate code and programming long before the rise of digital media.

While I’m sure taking this line runs me afoul of more techno-determinist schools of media studies–after all, media determine our situation–I persist in thinking that many Anglophone modernist and post WWII and contemporary authors, particularly American poets, use language in ways that can be illuminated by comparison with code, programming, or software.  Naturally, I am far from the first person to make this argument.  Entire books, journals, and webpages are dedicated to exploring code or the poetics of code, and the coded or programmatic features of poetry.  Sites like Hypermedia Joyce Studies have laid the groundwork for studying Joyce in this light, and the Electronic Poetry Center at Buffalo represents a massive repository of poetry that in some sense exhibits the features of electronic media.

To these discussions, I can only hope to add a slightly different approach by starting with a rigorous definition of code which applies equally to its appearance in both literary texts and programmed digital media.  In order to do this, I start with more contemporary discussions of code because these poets and scholars are dealing with code as code, rather than code as literature or the proto-code that I seek to define in twentieth century literature.  That is to say, thinkers in critical code, software, or media studies are interacting with and attempting to define code as a genre unto itself without having to separate it from literary language, poetic form, or whatever else, and therefore have a clarified (and highly technical) understanding of what code is and how it works in the media we consume.

I favor the definition of code developed by poet and critic John Cayley in his article “The Code is not the Text (Unless it is the Text)”.  I prefer Cayley’s approach because he wants to separate code from other types of writing and define it taxonomically.  Cayley says,

[C]ode has its own structures, vocabularies and syntaxes; because it functions, typically, without being observed, perhaps even as a representative of secret workings, interiority, hidden process; because there are divisions and distinctions between what the code is and does, and what the language of the interface text is and does, and so on. … code and language require distinct strategies of reading.

Cayley doesn’t suggest that humans can’t read code (impregnably black-boxed code would be useless), but instead that there is something about code that makes it different from the language that humans read and speak.  As with every last thing on this planet it seems, there is almost certainly no absolute difference between code and the language humans use, but peeling apart the tiny strands of literary language requires being as precise as possible about the differences between the two.  Cayley frames this difference as one of rhetoric or mode of address:

Address to other, unusual reading processes – the machine itself, or particular human readers who have learned how systems read – implies the need for different persuasive strategies, different strategies for generating significance and affect. I mean that the rhetoric of writing in code must be distinct. Again, appeal to values of hybridity and mutual linguistic contamination (addressed to postmodern humans) threatens to conceal the emergence of new or less familiar rhetorical strategies.

Cayley identifies “persuasive strategies” unlike those traditionally associated with language.  Understanding code requires also understanding these alternative strategies, listening in the functions with the mind of the machine.  This is because code is not only, or even primarily, addressed to humans.  The audience code seeks to persuade–its rhetoric–is not the human reader, but the machine to which it relates instructions.  This approach separates Cayley from others because rather than study code alongside the other types of writing that appear with it (coder commentaries, cross-contamination with code poetry, etc.), he seeks to define what makes code distinct from other forms of language.

In a sense, when reading code, the human is overhearing a conversation between two other interlocutors.  I would argue that, as when reading code, highly difficult literary texts such as The Making of Americans, The Cantos, and Finnegans Wake, are not primarily addressed to humans and have another audience.  We as readers are eavesdropping on exchanges of information between other conversants, decoding or reverse engineering the exchange in order to follow the conversation.  But connecting Cayley’s definition of code to texts in print, the problem remains: in these texts there is no machine for the “code” to address.

For this reason, I have to further renovate Cayley’s definition of code, or at least the terms which surround it.  Cayley says code is defined by its rhetoric: it is code (and not just language) because it is addressed to a machine.  I am expanding the discussion of machines beyond computers to argue that all forms of writing are essentially machines.[1]  This allows me to expand my definition of code from one confined to computers, to one that applies to all kinds of textual media.  My definition of code:

Code is writing addressed to other writing

The question of writing as a physical act, as an extension beyond the interior reaches of human creativity is necessary and overlaps with truly fascinating theoretical discussions of what information actually is.  The act of forming, putting something into form, making an idea, thought, or image physical, in-forming, will have to be left to the side for now.  Instead, I’ll confine myself to discussing form, and formalism.  It is no accident that modernism, as a period of literary history, was fixated on form.  It is also no accident that Cayley, a code poet, is as well.  He says,

Serious formalism in literature was never just a matter of rhetorical flourish; it was inevitably, ineluctably, concerned with the materiality of language, and therefore with the affect and significance of language as such.

The insistence on language as material is important because it acknowledges that it always takes a form, but also because it exists outside and independently of the humans that speak and write it.

In my last post, I quoted from N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman who in their introduction to “Comparative Textual Media,” argue that the complexity of technical media, with their encoded, electrical, and latent but busy substrates, have made it more difficult to sustain the fantasy that authors (or creators of other kinds) are speaking directly to the consumers of that media.  The technicality of these media cut the site of creation from the site of consumption.  They also argue that the awareness of media initiated by this heightened sense of technicality prompts reappraisal of older media forms, particularly print.  Looking back at print texts through this electronic media prism, they suggest, allows us to reexamine how print functions as a medium dividing writer and reader.

I would like to situate this approach to print media within a much larger discourse in which has begun redrawing the boundaries between humans and the objects they interact with.  In his “Introduction” to his edited collection of essays titled, The Nonhuman Turn, Richard Grusin explains this shift:

Describing the nonhuman turn as a shift of attention, interest, or concern toward nonhumans keeps in mind the physicality and movement involved in the idea of the turn, how the nonhuman turn must be understood as an embodied turn toward the nonhuman world, including the nonhuman that is in all of us.  (loc281)

Grusin’s turn pairs well with Hayles’ and Pressman’s new view of print media because both call not for revolutions in philosophy or media and literary studies, but a careful attention to the subtle ways we have territorialized nonhuman objects as human.  This attention can change our understanding of things–like media–whose nonhumanness we have previously overlooked.  Grusin says,

To turn toward the nonhuman is not only to confront the nonhuman but to lose the traditional way of the human, to move aside so that other nonhumans–animate and less animate–can make their way, turn toward movement themselves. (loc293)

I feel that Stein, Pound, and Joyce each became aware of this turn and began to lose the “traditional way of the human” in their use of language.  In their texts, and for each this plays out right on the pages their works, they began to move aside to allow words to move themselves.  The nonhuman turn Grusin identifies taking place in the twenty-first century started to roll in the early twentieth.

The approaches of Hayles and Pressman overlap with Grusin’s in interesting ways, and they are all participating in larger philosophical discussions of media studies and ontology.  My own purpose in referring to their works is more modest in that I’m trying to explain very particular features of texts appearing in modernist literature.  Hayles’ and Pressman’s approach is useful because they seek to use comparative techniques to illuminate normalized or misunderstood functions of different media forms.  I similarly feel that we have been misunderstanding certain features of modernist literary texts for some time and that more recent theorizations of digital media can help us understand their functions.  Grusin’s approach helps in this regard because he highlights the seemingly subtle changes in contemporary thinking that have major effects on how we understand the role of the human amidst a universe of nonhuman phenomena and objects.  I’m looking at a small historical period and a set of literary texts, but I also think a new conceptualization of the relationship between humans and media will have important consequences on the historical accounts of code, programming, and software.

I feel these texts exhibit the characteristics of code, but in order to discuss them this way it is necessary to banish the normalized understandings of the role authors have in the creation and reception of their texts.  In other words, I want to remove the human from the interaction between elements appearing in these literary texts.  I want to hear the writing speaking to the other writing without hallucinating the author’s simulated consciousness hovering over the material paper and language appearing in the book.


[1] I’ll take a more detailed look at language as machine in my next post.

[2] This notion of design is essential to my definition of code as it appears in print texts.  I will deal with it in more detail in my next post when I cover Derrida and his debate against performativity and intention.

-And to put it another way, the plastic, or, if you insist on the use of a much abused word, the aesthetic of machines is still in a healthy state, because one can still think about the machine without dragging in the private life and personality of the inventor  -Ezra Pound, Machine Art 1930

This posts represents my very earliest attempts to connect literary language to code, programming, or software.  I need to do a great deal more reading on all these topics, particularly in code and software studies and definitions of information.  This post is only the first in a series in which I plan to try and express some nascent ideas on changes in how language and media are conceived of in modernist literature.  These changes are, briefly:

  • (1) authors (for now I’m focusing on Stein, Joyce, Pound, and possibly H.D. and Beckett) began to see print as a resistant medium rather than a neutral extension of their artistic interiority;
  • (2) this new way of seeing their medium coincided with a shift in their understanding of language in which it literally transformed from romantic notions of expression into information in a material and embodied sense (this change will require a post of its own, but I’ll cover it briefly below as well);
  • (3) both of these reconceptualizations result from newly understood boundaries between human agency and the language and media it creates, from authorial intention, in which a consciousness is simulated through the text via language, and into notions of design as in the plastic arts and industries including, of course, fields like contemporary computer programming (this shift will also be covered in the post on information);
  • (4) the focus on design (as opposed to intention) preserves the author’s role in creation while also emphasizing their awareness of the fundamentally machinic and non-human status of media and language;
  • (5) the above shifts taking place during the modernist period represent a major conceptual break in which authors become aware of language as divided from the human (both author and reader) altering the way they use it in ways identical to the functions of what we now discuss and study as code, programming, or software;

In some form or another, I have been searching for ways to approach this topic for at least three years.  Throughout the composition of my dissertation which situates the information management techniques used by Joyce, Toomer, H.D., and Pound within the century-long technical and conceptual development of databases, I was continually trying–and failing–to express certain features of their works which continued to elude my ability to express.  These features, it took me a long time to realize, could not be theorized as I was making another argument about literature and databases.  These other ideas needed their own attention and now that I have expanded my dissertation into a book proposal, I have a bit of freedom to explore the topic.

In reading and writing on the texts I examine in my dissertation, I kept running into sections that exhibited the same informational, machinic, and automated functions of what is referred to in different contexts as code, programming, and software.  At the time, I didn’t have the vocabulary to define code.  This was in part because I hadn’t studied the term information clearly enough.  I still haven’t gotten nearly there, but I am closer.

I follow John Durham Peters in his article “Information: Notes Toward a Critical History” in which he says, “Information is knowledge with the human body taken out of it.  Information, which in empiricism had meant the experience of an individual, with statistics came to mean the experience of the state, insofar as the state can be said to have experience.  Implicit in statistics is a kind of knower not subject to mortal limits” (15).  Though I understand Peters is not here presenting a final definition of information, I find it compelling that information comes into being when it is separated from the human.  It is put into form, divided from the human that creates it, externalized and in that process becomes information.[1]

Granted, Peters is here discussing statistics, which, because of their mathematical sterility, aren’t subject to the same conceptual and interpretive drift as literary language.  However, I am not arguing about the reliability with which language-become-information carries meaning from its author to a reader/consumer.  Instead, I’m focusing on how authors, as they began to see language as material and as separated from their human agency, began to short circuit this connection between author and reader.  In other words, this is a shift from romantic notions of literary expression in which a text transmits the author’s consciousness to an imagined reader through language, toward one in which texts, like all other media (particularly the new media that surrounded the production of modernist texts) house, arrange, present, and manage information.  The interruption of this connection between author and reader prompted the authors to dramatically shift their focus from simulating their consciousness in their texts, and begin exploring the capabilities for language interact with other language.  (It is no surprise that many of these texts become functionally unreadable at this same juncture.)

I feel this conceptualization of language-as-information allows me to draw a connection between it and what we think of as code.  Here is my definition of CODE:

Code is information that speaks to other information.

A coded or programmed example of media, a piece of software, a database, a social media interface, a personal computer, are all discussed as machines.  They are machines because they perform automated functions.   These functions are automated because they operate, at least in part, independently of human agency or interference.  On the other hand, in every case I can think of, they are also designed by, interacted with, or consumed by humans.  Between the human that designs the machine and the human that receives what it produces or the process it carries out, that machine “works” independently of its creator.

Much has been written on this topic from a media studies perspective.  I wrote a blog post 2 years ago referring to the author’s role, or lack thereof, within a text as a question of “presence.”  This post remains relevant to this discussion, but for a myriad of reasons, I would like to shed the philosophical baggage of the Heideggerian notion of presence and instead pursue this media studies avenue.  This allows me to to examine the role programmers play in texts comprised of code or software in order to illuminate the way modernist authors design their works.

In that previous post, I quoted from a couple of theorists which I’ll reproduce briefly here.  Wolfgang Ernst, in his essay collection Digital Memory and the Archive, confronts this issue frequently, but never so clearly as in In “Toward a Media Archaeology of Sonic Articulations,” he says,

The media archaeologist, without passion, does not hallucinate life when he listens to recorded voices, as does the notorious dog Nipper when listening to ‘His Master’s Voice’ on a phonograph.  The media-archaeological exercise is to be aware of the fact that at each technologically given moment we are dealing with media not humans, that we are not speaking with the dead but dealing with dead media that operate.(183)

Ernst focuses on digital media and the microtemporalities they rely upon that are and should be understood as alien to human experience.  The interposition of the digital technology between the author, the text (video, sound, or actual text), and the reader makes it easy to visualize how the content itself is separated from the humans with which it interacts.  The interposition of the technical apparatus makes it easy to see the divide between the text’s creator and its consumer.  For the authors working in print that I’m focusing on, it’s less obvious that this same division exists.  However, like these more contemporary technical media, print is subject to the same separation from the human.

N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman, in the astonishingly clear and brilliant Introduction to their edited collection Comparative Textual Media, put it best:

[W]hen writing was accomplished by a quill pen, ink pot, and paper, it was possible to fantasize that writing was simple and straightforward, a means by which the writer’s thoughts could be transferred more or less directly into the reader’s mind.  With the proliferation of technical media in the latter half of the nineteenth century, that illusion became much more difficult to sustain, for intervening between writer and reader was a proliferating array of technical devices, including telegraphs, phonographs, typewriters, Dictaphones, Teletypes, and wire recorders, on up to digital computing devices that themselves are splitting into an astonishing array of different protocols, functionalities, interfaces, and codes.  The deepening complexities of the media landscape have made mediality, in all its forms, a central concerns of the twenty-first century.  With that that changed cultural emphasis  comes a reawakening of interesting in the complexities of earlier media forms as well. (loc157)

Hayles and Pressman identify the intervention of technical media as the event that reconfigured this understanding of writing as a more or less uninterrupted transmission from the author’s mind into the reader’s.  I agree with Hayles and Pressman, particularly with regard to the renewed interest in older media, namely print.  However, I would also like to shift the focus slightly, from the reader/critic/media studies perspective and toward the authors themselves.

Many things change when critics and scholars view texts as material media rather than magical transmitter of authorial voice.  It further stands to reason that similar changes take place when authors begin to view their own texts as media rather than as extensions of their artistic intentionality.  I would further argue that we can pretty reliably pinpoint when this shift happens in literature.   When the authors begin to view their media, and more importantly the embodied language it houses, as fundamentally not human their approach to authorship alters in profound ways.

The feature of these sections of text which led me to these conclusions was that the author, Joyce, Toomer, H.D., or Pound (or Gertrude Stein, Susan Howe, Anne Carson, and any number of others) was deliberately removing herself from the text.  This absence signals a removal of the authorial, that is human, consciousness presiding over the text guiding the reader through and simulating the projection of consciousness from the moment of writing into the moment of reading.  Absent this simulated authorial consciousness, texts become the arrangement of linguistic signs and pictures, designed, like any other media object, to create certain effects in the audience or reader.  In several particular cases, the ones I’ll analyze in the posts that follow, these features are taken a step further.  In addition to the removal of the simulated consciousness, the texts also begin to fill this gap with relationships–rhymes, puns, subject rhymes, orthographic isomorphies, repetition–between elements of information.  In other words, in these texts there is no human speaking, but information is “speaking” to other information.  This is code.  

There is a host of texts that exhibit these characteristics.  The examples are that much more interesting because several of them, The Making of Americans, the transition from the Ur-Cantos to The Cantos, the divide between initial style and experimental episodes in Ulysses, not only possess these features, but also reveal the aesthetic and conceptual processes by which they were arrived at by the author.  The development of these tactics actually plays out before our eyes as readers.  Pound in particular, because he wrote so much about literature and aesthetics, is explicit about the conceptual heavy lifting it took to achieve.  In the following blog posts, I will outline how these effects develop in each of these texts beginning with The Making of Americans.  First, however, I will pursue the debate in Signature/Event/Context in order to more fully explain the division between the human and information.

[1] I quibble with Peters’ final sentence, arguing it is the opposite.  It is when information becomes information that it becomes “mortal”.  The information would be immortal if it were to carry its producer’s intention, ghostlike, across separation from production to consumption.

I have a (filthy) OCR of Benjamin’s Arcades Project (which I won’t share) and plugged it into Voyant just for fun.  I envision a digital humanities course in which students work individually or collaboratively to first fix the OCR, then apply as many text analysis tools and encoding languages as possible.  Because it is not explicitly artistic, the Arcades Project seems like an interesting text to read–by both machines and humans–alongside other informationally overloaded and archival texts such as The Making of Americans, The Cantos,  perhaps even the Wake.  



Months after completing my dissertation and generating a book proposal, materials for the academic job market, and designing and teaching several classes, I’ve gotten around to reading Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet.  It is a novel I had been meaning to read before I began my dissertation for several reasons.  That Flaubert was an influence on Joyce is important to me, but I also wanted to read it because I adore Madame Bovary and these works of refined stylists, Chekhov, Austen, Tolstoy, Baldwin, etc., as ends in themselves.  It was a pleasure read and delivered on that front in every way.  It’s funny, witty, and readable in a way that I find both relaxing and exhilarating.  But in addition to an example of Flaubert’s gifts as a writer, Bouvard and Pecuchet exhibits a type of writing that would become important for the modernist period.  Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education (which I confess I read long enough ago to have a sketchy memory of) are both highly literate books, and the former especially reproduces the experience of reading certain kinds of texts.  In each of these novels, Flaubert fixates on the experience of reading from a narrative sense in that his characters are constantly reading and reacting to their readings, but also because depicting these experiences demanded that he too “did the reading”.  In so doing he was forced to differentiate between proper and improper ways of digesting the information found in books.  This blog post is a preliminary look at how Flaubert navigated this difference and then compares his approach to the examinations of Joyce and Pound I perform in my book, Modernist Literary Media.

Bouvard and Pecuchet represents the experience of accessing information and its potentially deleterious effects for characters Flaubert felt weren’t armed with the proper contextual perspectives, but it differs from Madame Bovary in a couple of important ways.  The first way is more logistical/material/practical, and is well-documented in Flaubert’s correspondence: in order to write Bouvard and Pecuchet, he had to perform a great deal of research, which he frequently complained of as onerous and hardly worth the time it took.  The second difference seems related to this first, but is more difficult to explain.  Bouvard and Pecuchet are depicted with a viciousness and derision that is not present in Flaubert’s story about Emma Bovary.  Emma’s mistakes are romantic and situated in a bildung narrative structure in which a character gains knowledge that, despite failing to prevent tragedy, humanizes her.  Bouvard and Pecuchet aren’t afforded this same artistic mercy and, perhaps because Flaubert died before he could finish, or because of a fundamental shift in how he conceived of the characters’ relationship to this information, they never get redeemed from their failure to properly apprehend their mistakes.

To begin with the first issue, in both the introduction by translator Mark Polizzotti and preface by Ramond Queneau, Flaubert is on record complaining about the volume of work Bouvard and Pecuchet required to write.  Here Polizzotti quotes Flaubert scoffing at his own outsized ambitions: “‘I’m going to have to study a host of things I know nothing about … One would have to be insane, completely deranged, to take on such a book!'” (vii).  Bouvard and Pecuchet taxed him in ways that his previous had not: “Each of his novels required vast amounts of research, whether in the field or on the printed page: for Bouvard and Pecuchet, he famously read some fifteen hundred volumes, much like the protagonists themselves–and not without their litany of complaints” (xxv).  That Flaubert was forced to “do the reading” alongside the protagonists he is writing is evidenced throughout the series of investigations Bouvard and Pecuchet undertake.

Throughout the novel (or “encyclopedia” as he sometimes referred to it) he repeatedly reproduces their experiences with texts, and in ways that prefigure the works by Joyce, H.D., Toomer, and Pound that I studied in my work on literature and databases.  Like these authors that would follow, Flaubert selects elements of information from other texts and then arranges them into a narrative causal chain on the pages of the novel.  The clearest example of this process appears–fittingly to my mind–as Bouvard and Pecuchet study history.  They begin, after the sheer number of historical contingencies become apparent to them, by naively approaching from a total coverage model: “They no longer had a fixed idea about the individuals and events of that time.  To form an impartial judgment, they would have to read every history, every newspaper and manuscript, for the slightest omission could foster and error that would lead to others, and on unto infinity.  They gave up” (105).  As with each of their projects, Bouvard and Pecuchet are confronted with the difficulty of mastery and so give up.  In this case, they scale back their ambitions and decide to “[write] the life of the Duke of Angouleme” (109).[1]  Their understanding of the discipline of history is as such: “one could take a subject, read all the source materials, make an analysis–then condense it into a narration, which would be like a summary of facts, a reflection of the whole truth.  Such a project seemed feasible to Pecuchet” (108).  What is so frustrating (and funny) about this description of the work of history, is that it is immediately preceded by a critique of that very method:

Few historians have followed these rules–but always in the interests of a particular cause, religion, nation, party, or system, or to discredit a kind, sway the populace, or offer a moral example.

The [historians], who claim to be relating the facts, are no better.  For it is impossible to say everything.  One has to make choices.  But one’s selection of documents is guided by a certain viewpoint; and as this viewpoint varies, depending on the writer’s situation, history will never be fixed entirely. (108)

Here is where the events and activities Flaubert depicts in the narrative converge with the practical realities he confronted as he wrote the novel.  He provides the reader with a vision of how Bouvard and Pecuchet proceed with their history: “They pondered the project, debated it, and finally resolved to spend two weeks at the public library in Caen gathering background information” and “[w]hen they had taken their notes, they drafted an outline” (109).  The text that follows appears as a list of dates followed by a description of events in the life of the Duke:img_20170206_170315474

The organization of their outline fades quickly:


And eventually devolves into Bouvard and Pecuchet’s superficial considerations about love affairs and even their conviction that haircuts reflect individuals’ dispositions:


The characters both tend to gravitate toward superficial information, and are constantly seduced by trivial considerations.  In the case with the Duke’s conflicting haircuts and then the importance Bouvard and Pecuchet attach to it, the novel’s humor derives from these episodes that lead to their failures and surrenders.

However, as much distance as Flaubert puts between himself and his characters, he was required to reproduce this fictional research in order to portray it in the narrative.  As noted above, Flaubert was vocal about the unique difficulties the composition of Bouvard and Pecuchet presented, and they centered around the volume of information he integrated into the text.  But they also derived from the similarity between his project to “‘vent all his anger'” by lampooning the stupidity of his characters and the actual scholarly work it required to do that.  In other words, Flaubert’s project to make fun of his characters (and by implication the “the disgust” his “contemporaries” inspired in him) required that he do a lot of the same superficial research that irritated him so profoundly.  Flaubert was himself anxious on this front: “Bouvard and Pecuchet have filled me up to such a point that I’ve become them!  Their stupidity is my own and I am bursting with it” (xxv).[2]

With each new object of study, Bouvard and Pecuchet cycle through credible and superficial source materials, reading philosophy, history, medicine, agriculture, architecture, etc.  They read diligently until they find it difficult, then resort to more accessible sources.  As a narrative pattern, this repetition provides a great deal of humor, and affords Flaubert opportunities to exercise his most ferocious ironies.  Here Bouvard and Pecuchet begin with ancient Greek philosophy but deem it too difficult: “The ancient masters were inaccessible, given the length of their work and the difficulty of their language” (190).  The characters’ solution is to retreat into easier materials: “And, desiring something less taxing, they bought Mr. Guesnier’s Basic Course in Philosophy, for classroom use” (193).  Bouvard and Pecuchet immerse themselves in this text taking opposite positions in scrimmage philosophical arguments (a habit they form as they move into metaphysics, religion, and politics), but a new, and I would argue, to Flaubert’s thinking, a more dangerous feature of their approach to information arises.  Flaubert writes:

But philosophy heightened their opinion of themselves.  They looked back pityingly on their former preoccupations with farming, literature, and politics.  The museum now inspired their disgust.  They would have liked nothing better than to sell off all those knickknacks.  And they moved on to chapter 2, the faculties of the soul. (195)

This passage is a great example of Flaubert’s gifts for understated irony, that last sentence clinching a withheld joke that the characters had assumed this false superiority not only from a secondary text, but only from its first chapter.  In addition however, the passage reveals that the two, beyond their penchant for trivial considerations, are highly credulous consumers of information.  Arriving at an understanding of why Flaubert reserved his most withering derision for these two fairly simple and mostly harmless clerks [3] can begin with how they approach information as either inherently fixed, factual, and falsifiable, or altogether worthless.  They don’t evaluate the information they consume at all, it is either useful in the sense that it effortlessly reveals the truth, or it is artificially constructed, the product of potentially biased selection criteria and information labor.  As the Queneau succinctly puts it, Bouvard and Pecuchet “are in love with the absolute and cannot bear contradictions.  They believe in the absolute validity of the functioning of the human mind confronted with phenomena” (xxxi).  Flaubert was diametrically opposed to this need for certainty.  Queneau quotes from a letter Flaubert wrote in 1850:

Ineptitude consists in wanting to conclude.  We tell each other: but our base is not fixed; which of us will be right?  I see a past in ruins and a future in embryo; … Everything is in a state of confusion.  But this means wanting only noon or midnight; it means not understanding twilight…What mind of any strength–beginning with Homer–has ever come to a conclusion? (xxxiv)

Some forty years later, Joyce would follow in Flaubert’s groove by reaching back to Homer as a basis for his informationally overloaded novel Ulysses.  As I’ve argued in an article on Ulysses, however, Homer provides no solution for the interpretive problems presented by modernity.

Whatever pathos or redemption that results from associating an ordinary and socially ostracized Jewish Dubliner with one of the most enduring heroes in Western literature becomes buried under the mountains of extraneous information.  The order and vitality that can be achieved by reaching back to those foundational texts of the Western letters’ Greek ancestry become obscured by auto-generating parodies of Fenian jingoism and the clichéd patois of bourgeois women’s magazines.  The initiation of these exaggerated interpolations compromises the epic weight Homeric correspondences lend to Ulysses.  The order the mythic method offers to the modern world becomes indistinguishable from a mass of information that tells no story, that provides no closure, and continues to accrete information that, because it operates according to a program, registers no special sorrow at the stillborn reunion of a sonless father and fatherless son as Bloom and Stephen part in the middle of the night, both toward uncertain futures.  In unleashing the database aesthetic, Joyce expresses both the power and the impersonality of associational logic.  This power derives from its limitless ability to connect elements of information to one another, and the impersonality from the automatic way these elements connect, which results in a decentralization of the creative role of the human.  Rather than a catalyst, creator, or protagonist of novels and poems, the human constantly tries to interpret the information, to determine what is relevant, to catch at the thread of story beneath the morass of indefinitely accumulating associations.  This is the context in which Joyce most profoundly predicts the twenty-first century role of information and raises a new dilemma about whether or not humans determine information or vice versa. [4]

Pound too participates in this archival vertigo.  His Cantos, like Flaubert’s recreation of Bouvard and Pecuchet’s history of the Duke, recreate the disorientation of archives.  In recreating the life of Sigismundo Malatesta, Pound foregrounds the conflicting accounts, but also the joints between the elements he extracted from the archive and assembled into his poem.

This adaptation continues with some isolated references to other figures but slowly changes into a more rapid, jarring presentation of events and facts that are linked using ‘And’ to coordinate and conjoin the elements:

And the wind is still for a little

And the dusk rolled

to one side a little

And he was twelve at the time, Sigismundo,

And no dues had been paid for three years,

And his elder brother gone pious;

And that year they fought in the streets,

And that year he got out to Cesena

And brought back the levies,

And that year he crossed by night over Foglia, and…” (C 8 32-33.166-175)

The presentation of events in this fashion continues into the first 123 lines of Canto 9 and then transitions back to direct quotation (this time with quotation marks) from Malatesta’s correspondence.  The separate elements are strung together through the ‘And’ at the beginning of the lines.  In this section Pound exposes the ligature that binds the individual elements together.  Individual fragments from the texts serving as sources for the Malatesta Cantos appear one after another.  The interposition of ‘And’ between the elements emphasizes how the pieces are separate, but linked through their inclusion in the poem.  Had Pound made this into a coherent narrative, the text would create the impression that there is a narrative and causal relationship between the elements.  The effect Pound creates through this strategy comprises an extended list of individual elements selected from the source texts for the cantos, presented on the page one after another.  This recreates the patterns Pound identified while searching the archives in which these documents are housed and extracting specific pieces for inclusion in the poem. [5]

Like Bouvard and Pecuchet’s history, Pound selects elements from his research on Malatesta and integrates them into his pseudo-narrative account of his life.  Unlike the bumbling characters, however, Pound is obsessed with showing the alternative dimensions to every story.  He is clearly a fan of Malatesta’s temperamental buoyancy, but insists on presenting these positive aspects of his character and career alongside negative accounts  showing the complexity and perspectival nature of history, narrative, and the more general activity of interacting with information.

This is all to say, that Flaubert’s frustration at how individuals used information in his age had measurable influence on the Anglophone modernists like Joyce and Pound.  Bouvard and Pecuchet is important to read alongside these informationally overloaded works of the twentieth century for precisely this reason: Flaubert was sensitive enough to diagnose a problem that would become an obsession of modernism as the volume of information increased with the passage of time.  Even more dramatically, in an age of algorithmically populated newsfeeds, bot-generated “fake news”, and clearly unqualified Secretaries of Education (Devos was approved during the composition of this post), it is that much more essential that we hear Flaubert’s late nineteenth century derision of unquestioned information creation and consumption.  Bouvard and Pecuchet is a polemic against the self-satisfied acceptance of prepared wisdom in the face of a complex world:

this novel is constructed almost entirely on cliches, whether the seemingly endless stream of platitudes voiced by the characters, the deadpan bromides encountered in the many works our heroes reference (man of which later reappear in the ‘Dictionary’), or the assumptions governing their choices of occupation. … It is no accident that the protagonists are copy-clerks, and the novel’s planned resolution, which finds them returning to their profession after having tried everything else under the sun, is telegraphed well in advance: in fact, Bouvard and Pecuchet have never stopped being copyists, and their constant absorption and regurgitation of discipline after discipline is just so much acting of that mechanically reproductive act. (xiii)

In this sense, the novel, like the work of so many twentieth century modernists, presents information as a crisis, as a challenge not only to institutions and bureaucracies, but to artists and individuals seeking to find meaning within the climate of overload.  That Bouvard and Pecuchet, published incomplete in 1881, has its origins in The Dictionary in Accepted Ideas (which follows the text of the novel in the gorgeous Dalkey edition and is hilarious) is doubly interesting for this reason.  Flaubert was driven to fits of rage by the platitudes of the society around him because they were themselves the result of a lazy orientation toward information.  They represent, like so many uttered by Bouvard and Pecuchet, a kind of surrender when things get complex.  Each easy piece of wisdom is the reduction of something complex to a mnemonic device, easy to remember and share, but divided from the reality it is thought to represent (and in that sense what frustrated Flaubert is what frustrated Pound in his Imagist period).  But each entry in the dictionary is itself a savage quip indexed to a particular contemporary rhetorical idiocy or recycled witticism Flaubert encountered.  In that sense, Bouvard and Pecuchet novelizes the development of these accepted ideas and the people that transact in them.  As I’ve argued about Ulysses, Palimpsest, and The Cantos, the novel performs an arrangement of information in ways that seek to extend our understanding of it.  Like Joyce’s composition structure–the avant-texte in textual genetic terms–or Pound’s poetry which is literally comprised of archival fragments, Flaubert seeks to confront the problem that information overload presents by churning it into his art, fictionalizing and aestheticizing the cultural challenges presented by its overload.  That Flaubert began this project nearly three quarters of a century before the authors I argue participate in the development of databases testifies to the long development of the literary confrontation with information.

[1] This is a truly funny moment in the text.  Pecuchet suggests they write the life of the Duke to which Bouvard replies “But he was an idiot!”  This doesn’t faze Pecuchet who replies, “So what?  Secondary figures sometimes have enormous influence, and this one might turn out to have been a key player” (109).  Funny as it is, this exchange (and Bouvard’s initial objections and then pliability) is emblematic of many of their most vexing habits of mind.  They don’t know the Duke was a player, but are content with the possiblity that he was.  They have no rigor for choosing their topics or their methods.

[2] It’s important to acknowledge that I’m not adding much to a discussion already taking place in the introduction and preface to Bouvard and Pecuchet, but the aim of this post is to connect Flaubert’s frustration with how he felt individuals like Bouvard and Pecuchet consumed information with the modernist writers like Pound and Joyce who sought to reproduce their own information climates.

[3] One conspicuous way Bouvard and Pecuchet are far from harmless is in their treatment of animals.  They kill both a dog and a cat in undeniably cruel ways.

[4] From my article on Ulysses and databases forthcoming in Joyce Studies Annual.

[5] From my chapter on Pound’s XXX Cantos.

1. Lemonade, Beyonce
2. Blond, Frank Ocean
3. Fool, Jameszoo
4. My Woman, Angel Olsen
5. Hopeless, Anohni
6. Coloring Book, Chance
7. Blood Bitch, Jenny Hval
8. untitled unmastered, Kendrick Lamar
9. A Minor Thought, Moomin
10. Sirens, Nicolas Jaar
11. s/t, Weval
12. Maligne Range, LNS
13. Narcissus in Retrograde, Avalon Emerson
14. Puberty 2, Mitsky
15.The Life of Pablo, Kanye West
16. Kern Vol. 3, Objekt
17. A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead
18. For Those of You Who Have Never, Huerco S
19. Telefone, NoName
20. Throat, ADR
21. EARS, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
22. The Colour in Anything, James Blake
23. What You Get for Being Young, Suzanne Kraft
24. Well Worn, Kllo
25. Fallen, Steven Julien
26. 22, A Million, Bon Iver
27. Follower, The Field
28. In Drum Play`, Pangaea
29. A Seat at the Table, Solange
30. The Bells, Kornel Kovacs
31. Kuiper, Floating Points
32. Shapes in Formation, Sad City
33. Prima Donna, Vince Staples
34. FLOTUS, Lambchop
35. Rojus (Designated to Dance), Leon Vynehall
36. Big Black Coat , Junior Boys
37. Adieux au Dancefloor, Marie Davidson
38. Victorious, Floorplan
39. IDLE033, Matt Karmil
40. Who is Richie Brains?, Richie Brains
41. Red Friday, YG
42. Farewell, Starlite!, Francis and the Lights
43. The Gamble, Nonkeen
44. We Have To Go, Computer Graphics
45. Ultimate Care II, Matmos
46. Sleep Cycle, Deakin
47. This is Acting, Sia
48. Jeffrey, Young Thug
49. Young Death/Nightmarket, Burial
50. s/t, A Made Up Sound
51. Boy King, Wild Beasts
52. Still Brazy, YG
53. At the Turn of Equilibrium, Petar Dundov
54. Cyclicality Between Procyon and Gomesia, Vakula
55. You Want it Darker, Leonard Cohen
56. Human Energy, Machinedrum
57. Love Stream, Tim Hecker
58. Shred, Skee Mask
59. Dorrisburg, Irrbloss
60. Hollowed, Ital Tek

Whities 006, Avalon Emerson
Awaken, My Love, Childish Gambino

Song of the Year: Soup, Jameszoo


researching, writing, triathloning


Manuscripts, materiality, method: a research network

Text and Medium: Intro to Digital Humanities

ENGL 2393, The University of Tulsa

Posts on the Penman

An Iowa Joycean's Musings on the Hilarious, Irreverent Irish Genius

an online business card, entry point, and space for musings

The Digital HuMannist

English PhD student wields laptop, wants to talk about it.

Social Media Collective

Hosted for Microsoft by Wordpress. © 2011-2016 Microsoft

Ragman's Circles

Talking about what the matter was

Modernist Fragmentation and After

International Postgraduate Conference, Princeton University, September 29-30 2016

This and That Continued

Jenny Diski - Writing and stuff.

Parrots Ate Them All

A blog about Stevie Smith and the art of the aphorism.

New Readia

WordPress site of Nicholas M Kelly, PhD, Lecturer in Rhetoric at the University of Iowa, literature, media, and digital culture scholar

Stewart Varner

scholarship, libraries, technology

Media Theory of/for the present

graduate seminar, UC Santa Barbara (Winter 2016)


An experimental hub in Ridgewood, Queens for developing the skills, practices, and tools for building autonomy in the Anthropocene.

The Zero-Waste Chef

No packaging. Nothing processed. No waste.

The Concept Lab

A three year research project at the University of Cambridge