The gift and Twitter (science) fiction

In Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test, the author uncovers the case of a strange book called Being or Nothingness by Joe K being sent out to unwitting academics, mainly those in fields pertaining to AI. The first chapter of the book narrates Jonson's attempts to get to the bottom of this literary prank, partly through the work of Douglas Hofstadter (author of Godel, Escher, Bach and I Am A Strange Loop) whom Jonson at first suspects, but then discovers had been sent some 70 copies in English and 10 in Swedish of this very book. I won't give away the solution to his odd riddle, though it's pretty prosaic (and is really Jonson's book's Macguffin), but it fascinated me; not only that someone would go to the expense of producing a high-quality item but that they would send them out as gifts to unknown parties. I've thought of buying one - there's a couple on Amazon - but this would be a bit beside the point. I'd love to receive one through the post, though!

The idea of the gift - something which compromises our commodity fetishism, which is outside the economic system of exchange value constitutive of capitalism - has been a recurrent idea in critical theory over the past 40 or 50 years, from Bataille's economy of expenditure and the potlatch, to Derrida, to Baudrillard's symbolic exchange. Even if Being or Nothingness is just a provocation, a literary prank or puzzle, or even a strange marketing stunt, its status as gift renders it mysterious, enigmatic. The question is not only where does this come from, but who would do such a thing? The motivations are obscure, because in British culture gifts are usually motivated: birthdays, Christmas, thank yous, celebrations and so on. To be given something without motivation arouses suspicion. Is it a con? What do you want in exchange? 

In this light, although there is a lot of debate about the problems of 'free culture', and particularly of dissemination of artworks via the internet (that is to say, no-one wants to pay for cultural production, meaning that artists cannot subsist from their work), I find the idea of giving work away to be a very attractive one. (As an academic who mainly doesn't get paid for the writing he does, except occasionally the odd royalty from a book which might help fund the things I need to buy to research the next one, I'm used to producing work that seems to have little or no monetary value.) It is one of the reasons why I occasionally write this blog. I very much like the development of Creative Commons and buy into the aesthetic of the remix in a big way. I also find fascinating writers who use new media to disseminate their work.

I have experimented with this kind of thing myself, writing a Twitter fiction (in 140 parts) last year, and got part way through doing another one before abandoning it, and might be involved with a colleague in a collaborative project using new media (or even teaching it) in the future. Although Twitter sometimes appals me and seems to bring out the worst in a culture of instaneneity and shoot-from-the-hip anonymity, I also find some experiments with the medium highly interesting. The poet George Szirtes (@george_szirtes) is a great follow, for instance; Aksania Xenogrette (@gadgetgreen) too. Jeff Noon also used Twitter to publish his 'spores', 140-charcater fictions, but I have recently read on his feed that he is to publish Pixel Dust containing 1700 stories which I can only presume are these (and others) collected in book form. Now, this made me think. The transmission between Twitter feed and book form is an interesting one, and I can see why the texts might be collected up in such a form: book publication legitimates the writing, lends it a coherence and materiality it obviously lacks on Twitter. But that, of course, is the point of Twitter: it is a 'feed', in time, and if not ephemeral, then not subject to the archival dynamics of the codex book in the same way. If the texts were designed for Twitter, why publish them in a book at all? 

Here we return to the idea of the gift. Twitter fiction is surely a gift from writer to follower/reader, although its provenance is known; retweets allow stories, gifts, of unknown provenance to enter the feed, to be transmitted to you: and in the rest of the blog I would like to consider the work of two writers who have primarily used Twitter - but also book publication - to disseminate their work. One is a writer of fiction, of science fiction; the other a poet. I knew of neither before I started to use Twitter; both came to my attention as gifts, by happy accidents of transmission.

The first is Kneel Downe (@kneeldowne), whose Virulent Blurb world(s) (@VirulentBlurb) began on Twitter, but I subsequently bought Fractures when it was self-published on Lulu (I will return to Lulu later). On first reading the Virulent Blurb feed I was minded of a line from Iain Sinclair's introduction to the poetry collection Conductors of Chaos, largely formed of poets he curated while an editor at Picador for a short time. Sinclair wrote: 'The work I value is that which seems most remote, alienated, fractured. I don't claim to "understand" it but I do like having it around' (xvii). This perfectly expressed my initial response to Kneel Downe's feed: I didn't quite know what the hell was going on in it, but I was intrigued because I didn't know. A bit like Being or Nothingness, it was a gift without provenance, enigmatic, unusual, difficult to decode.

As sf, it had some clear generic pointers. It was post-apocalyptic, and the references to a lack of the Sun seemed post-Matrix; it was very definitely influenced by cyberpunk, and as the work went on, references to Noonian domes suggested an inflection through Jeff Noon's Mancunian cyberpunk Vurt and Pollen (as did later references to Alice); characters came and went, introduced then disappearing into the textural weave, but 'AJ' made me think of Burroughs, Sally of Gibson again;  behind it all seemed to be an interest in myth, in the apocalypse as myth (Wotan/ Woden?, the death of the Gods in the Ragnarok saga?), of histories becoming stories becoming myths and legends and then a kind of code, a code for time and a knowledge lost. But none of this was spelled out, only suggested in the compressed 140-character tweets: '50 years forgotten: the last missile fell. Megatonic and slime. Horizons halved. Weapon unknown - the enemy stole our sun and left us dust'. Or: 'Tomorrow's skull. Bone soothsayer. Spewing and maybes at clustered feet and floating free-forms. All that was and could. Fractals'. And next: 'I am Solar. Child of the fire. The Sun meme. Messiah incarnate. Threads converge. Deeds cry unfilled. ARM yourselves. Who stands against me?'

The density of the tweets intrigued me, a world boiled down to hard and sharp points, shards of language. Some parts worked better than others, some images were more striking than others, but the unevenness was part of the feed, like you were tuning into to a fugitive transmission on a broken radio. This was thematised in the story itself: some tweets supposed some kind of frame: 'INFO STREAM INVALID...DISC CORROSION...STAY PLUGGED FOR PHAZE 3...dream cream is available...apply to infected area...'. The whole narrative was coded as some kind of immersive transmission in itself, a SimStim or VR narrative, something out of Brainstorm. And it worked.

When I bought the book, which has a rather nicely designed cover with a butterfly superimposed upon the moon (or encased in it, somehow), I found the first 12 'phases' of the material, which still worked fine, but not quite as well as a feed; one reads it down the page, conventionally, rather than up, which is still estranging, creates a different response (like, for someone of my generation, the chatter of a teleprinter across the screen), somehow urgent and demanding attention. The tweets became a book, or rather, part of one; and on the page, the layout reminded me of David Markson's brilliant late quartet of novels which use fractured sentences, paragraphs, compression and repetition, quotation and confession. That's a very high bar. On the page, Virulent Blurb: Fractures becomes a form of experimental literature, experimental sf, and partly lost what made it so striking as a transmission. The tweets were also followed by other material, clearly part of a wider world-building strategy, and although these were designed in a variety of forms - screenplay, journal, prose - the material seemed more conventional somehow, less subject to the pressures of Twitter compression that made the original material so interesting. Kneel Downe is still developing several strands, and it's interesting to see where it goes. I'm a bit less engaged with the superhero stuff though.

As I wrote above, poetry can also be effective on Twitter, and one of Kneel Downe's confreres, James Knight (@badbadpoet), a member of the echovirus12 (@echovirus12) collective, has developed a very interesting set of texts on several themes, partly disseminated through Twitter. Knight's poetry is fractured and fantastical. He also has developed his Oneiroscope interactive bad dreams, which is a very interesting concept (respondents send ideas to him) well executed. I've bought three of James Knight's e-books: The Death of the Bird King, Thresholds and Head Traumas, the latter two both anthologies, and which both include material from 'The Madness of the Bird King'. The Bird King is an emblematic figure for Knight (which has a clear debt to Ted Hughes' Crow but developed in and interesting and individual way), a kind of uncanny assemblage of Jarry's Ubu, Gothic monster and Heath Robinson contraption:

The Bird King's heart:

a clunking clockwork contraption

wheels within wheels

            g r i n d i n g

triggering his body functions and rage. (The Madness of the Bird King, 8)

The Bird King is a fertile figure for Knight: monstrous, tragic, but funny and earthy. A kind of materiality is crucial to Knight's poetics, I would say, and his work is at its best when it concentrates on that materiality: uncanny objects, lists, a build-up of effect through concentrated description. Knight's '13' series are often very successful in this way: from '13 machines from the Bird King's private collection': 'Christ-in-the-box leaps heavenwards, eyes agog'; or from '13 disturbing objects, recovered from a hypnosis-induced nightmare': 'a fifty Pound note, on the back of which is a handwritten message, in thick black ink: NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING', or 'A cardboard box full of smashed lightbulbs'. There's almost a Joseph Cornell sensibility at work here, each poem a cabinet of curiosities, but adding up to something disturbing and intriguing.

As my references to Jarry might suggest, there’s a strong connection to Dada/Surrealism in Knight’s work; not only in his interest in dreams and dreamscapes, but on strange conjunctions, illuminating discontinuities, the poem itself as a collage or rickety machine. One can imagine the Bird King onstage at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, knocking over Hugo Ball in his cardboard wizard suit.

I feel that Knight's best work is when he does not strain for meaning or significance, as he sometimes does, as in '13 transformations': 'rose petals quiver in the breath of summer, glow like embers, become butterfly wings'. There's too much going on: it's visual but overstated, reaching for effect; rather than objects colliding, it’s metaphors, becoming overheated. But these stand out because usually the poetic voice is restrained, objective, even when describing the weird or uncanny. The work is smart, too, effectively using intertexts in poems like 'Josef K Through the Looking Glass' or 'Medusa Variations'. In the 'Snowmen' sequence, he can also be very funny; in his Mr Punch and Jack Ketch poems, an interesting variant on the Ubu/ Bird King type is pursued. Head Traumas is well worth checking out.

Both Kneel Downe and James Knight are self-published, through Lulu. Knight's books are often illustrated, and even the e-books have visual material in them; they have a very keen eye for design. Although Kenneth Goldsmith has written interestingly about the use of Lulu, neither of the writers here go down that route, but use self-publishing as a means of disseminating their work outside of the mainstream or even indie presses. This has advantages, in that it gives both a measure of control over their work that might be otherwise absent.

Both deserve a wider audience; at best, both writers use fractures and compression to great effect. As such, Twitter is an ideal medium. I still feel, though, that the relation between Twitter publication and book publication has still to be worked out.


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