Suoraan sisältöön
Christian Bök

A zoom lens for the future of the text

When Murray Gell-Mann borrows the word ‘quark’ from Finnegans Wake by James Joyce in order to name the constituents of the nucleon, the physicist evokes an ‘atomism’ that has transected theories of both matter and poetry since the time of Lucretius. With the advances made by Murray Gell-Man in quantum physics, IBM has, in turn, used a tunneling microscope to position 35 atoms of xenon on a plate of cooled nickel so that these dots of matter might spell out the trigram for the company, thereby producing the smallest artifact so far manufactured by humanity. The logo, in effect, consists of letters made from atoms that might recombine to make other letters for other texts. How might matter itself become an anagram for such elemental alphabets? If the poets of my literary movement (called Conceptualism) might study the ‘limit-cases’ of writing so as to undertake speculative experiments at these limits, then surely atomic scales of expression must fall within the ambit of such ‘conceptual literature’ (as seen, for example, in my own project, entitled The Xenotext – a scientific experiment that uses biogenetic encryption to encode a message in proteomic molecules). All ‘concepts’ for poetry may, in fact, depend upon a premise about the minimal element of composition for a text – its unit, or its ‘atom,’ from which a poem might build a poetics through the recombinant permutation of such materials. This lecture explores the scales of such textuality (from atomic to cosmic), ‘zooming’ outward from the Planck length to the Hubble bubble. I suggest that Conceptualism seeks to prepare poetry for a future milieu, where all scales of writing can transect each other across an enormous spectrum of dimensions, from the puny scale of an atom to the vast scale of the void.

Recording of Christian Bök’s keynote presentation.

The Microcosm of Conceptualism

01. Conceptualists have distinguished themselves as poets, in part because they explore what, I call, the ‘limit-cases’ of writing, taking an interest in the most marginal extremes of expression. Some of us, for example, have investigated the limit-cases of ‘scale’ in poetics, composing poems, not only as puny as molecules of sugar at the atomistic scale of our DNA, but also as vast as databases of email at the archivist scale of the NSA.[1] Even though ‘scale,’ as a value, has received only the merest notice in the history of poetics, I believe that a sense of scale (be it in degree, in volume, in length) remains crucial to us, if we wish to understand the fundamental perspective of poets, who must often adopt a position with respect to their own ‘unit’ of composition – a unit that, whatever its scale, must act like an ‘atom,’ recopied and adjoined to make a text.

  • [1]The Xenotext by Christian Bök encodes a poem as a tiny gene, inserted into the chromosome of a bacterium (E. coli); whereas The Hillary Clinton Emails by Kenneth Goldsmith reprints the tranche of letters, withheld by Hillary Clinton, but released by WikiLeaks, during the American election of 2016.

02. Consider, for example, the following, whimsical speculation about ‘scale,’ knowing that, if marked on paper, and if viewed from an extreme vantage of distance, the period at the far end of this sentence might constitute a point of zero dimension; but as I magnify this dot of punctuation, the period soon becomes a circle, with two dimensions; and as I magnify the period even further, zooming into it, I see that the circle becomes a planar fabric of linear fibres, each of which, from afar, has one dimension; and as I magnify each strand further, I see that, eventually, it becomes a tubule, with three dimensions – leading me to conclude that the period at the far end of this sentence might, in fact, occupy a diverse variety of dimensions, each of which contradicts the others, depending upon the scale at which I might prefer to observe such a tiny mark after this last word.

03. Heidi Neilson in Typography of the Period (from 2003) has, in fact, magnified periods from 26 different typefaces, ‘blowing up’ each of these atoms of punctuation by 3000 percent in order to examine their shapes more closely. Among the samples studied by Neilson, only the periods from typefaces, like Avenir, Gill Sans, Palatino, and Times New Roman, look like perfect circles, whereas the periods from typefaces, like Arial, Helvetica, Lithos, and Verdana, look like squarish polygons. (Neilson 2003) The diverse designs for these silhouettes of edgy daubs and oval blots might seem surprising, given the presumable simplicity of the shape for such punctuation – and yet the reader encounters a plethora of forms, not unlike spores of pollen. Her project reminds me of ‘microdots,’ used by spies to convey stolen, covert documents, miniaturized to the size of a period.

04. Emanuel Goldberg (in 1925) actually perfects the technology for making microdots, doing so by using a luminous projector that passes light through a Zeiss microscope, fitted with specially corrected lenses, all mounted on an optic bench, cushioned against ambient, seismic vibration, with the image developed on a brass plate, coated in a sensitive, collodion emulsion of silver chloride and citric acid. (Goldberg 1926) Goldberg first makes a microdot that depicts a cameo of Nicéphore Niépce (the inventor of photography), but eventually Goldberg prints small texts with letters, one micron in size – a resolution equivalent to the microscopic inscription of fifty Bibles per square inch. His techniques drive subsequent innovation in micrography – the modern limits of which include the tunnelling microscope, whose scans can map the contours of a lone atom of hydrogen.

05. Don Eigler at IBM (in 1989) deploys such a tunnelling microscope to position 35 atoms of xenon on a plate of cooled nickel so that, by spelling out the trigram for the company, these dots of matter actually comprise the smallest artifact so far manufactured by humanity. (Browne 1990) Eigler has gone on to draw the kanji glyph for the word atom by arranging atomic pixels of iron on a sheet of cooled copper; moreover, he has arrayed molecules of carbon monoxide on a metal panel, so as to write a waggish comment, measurable in nanometres: ‘If you can read this, you are too close.’ (Ganapati 2009) Such techniques of microscopic inscription (using the tiniest of all periods) has given IBM the power to store one bit of digitizable information in no more than a dozen atoms at a time, thereby increasing the possible capacity for storage of data upon the metallic surfaces of microchips.

06. Patrick Chung Wong has, in turn, noted that, in a world of fragile media with limited space to store increasing quantities of data, the atomic domain of DNA might permit us to preserve our cultural heritage against the threat of planetary disasters (including thermonuclear warfare and astrophysical barrage). Wong has illustrated this hypothesis by encoding the lyrics to ‘It’s a Small World (After All),’ implanting this song, as a genetic plasmid, inside the chromosome of an extremophile called D. radiodurans – a germ, able to survive, without mutation, in even the most lethal of biomes, including the vacuum of outer space. (Wong et al. 2003) Such ‘genetic writing’ shows the degree to which geneticists have now become poets in the medium of living things, storing data, like microdots, available for retrieval from libraries, locked inside the genomes of immortal microbes.

07. Craig Venter in 2010 has used automated chemistry to create a bespoke species of synthetic bacterium: Mycoplasma laboratorium (otherwise nicknamed, ‘Synthia’) – a cell bred with an artificially manufactured genome, built from scratch by a computer. Craig Venter has ‘watermarked’ this genome by encoding, into it, a line from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce: ‘To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life!’ (Gibson et al. 2010) Craig Venter has thus preserved a line of modern poetry in the first cells of an embryonic ecosystem, and his experiments have informed my own ongoing project entitled The Xenotext, in which I have created an example of ‘living poetry’ by engineering a deathless bacterium so that it becomes not only not only a durable archive for storing a poem, but also an operant machine for writing a poem.

08. I believe that Conceptualism must delve into this kind of molecular substrate for poetry, taking a cue, perhaps, from a poem like ‘Fact’ by Craig Dworkin (who lists, exhaustively, all the chemicals in the very page of inked paper, used to document the list itself – so that, in fact, the poem ‘Fact’ must vary with each instantiation, since the constituents in the brands of inked paper change from publisher to publisher). (Dworkin 2009) I might note that, despite the myopia of critics, who feel obliged to dismiss the merits of such outlandish literature, the act of addressing such atomic scales of expression, nevertheless, constitutes one of the outlying horizons for the future of poetry. I believe that the acuity of our ‘vision’ in poetry depends, in part, upon our ability to ‘zoom’ across a multitude of unexplored dimensions, focusing upon each of them, before ever reaching the finality of a full stop.

To Zoom from an Atom to a Star

Kees Boeke in his essay Cosmic View (from 1957) conveys the size of the cosmos via a series of scenic images, each scaled up by a power of ten across forty jumps in viewpoint: from a sodium nucleus (at 10-13 m) to a galaxy cluster (at 1026 m). Boeke depicts a scene, situated at the scale of a Dutch child, holding a cat in her lap, while seated at noon in the yard of her school in Bilthoven, near Utrecht. (Boeke 1957, 9) Boeke devotes one page to each jump, ‘zooming away’ from her hand, past a city, a star, a nebula, until reaching a cosmic limit, then ‘zooming down’ into her hand, past a mite, a cell, a virion, until reaching an atomic limit. Boeke places the child in a mise en abyme, whose levels of recursive reframing (distanced, then magnified) almost recall the Droste effect, seen in the image of a Dutch nurse, shown at two varied scales, one nested in the other, on packages of Droste cocoa.

Cosmic View has, in turn, inspired the beautiful, haunting photoplay, Cosmic Zoom, illustrated in 1967 for the National Film Board of Canada by Eva Szasz, who animates the essay by Kees Boeke, zooming from the scale of a proton to the scale of a galaxy in the span of eight minutes. Szasz depicts a Canadian juvenile, rowing a boat on the Ottawa River (Verrall 1968), and much like Boeke, the animator zooms away from the hand of the boy, rising into the atmosphere, passing vast spirals of stars, until reaching a pancosmic perspective; then the animator zooms down into the hand of the boy, diving into a hematocyte, passing tiny helices of atoms, until reaching a subatomic perspective. Szasz places the child in a mise en abyme, whose recursive reframing oscillates between two voids – two dark orbs of black space, each one like a full stop at either end of a palindrome.

Cosmic View has, likewise, inspired the movie Powers of Ten produced in 1977 by the designers at the Eames Office, all of whom animate the essay by Kees Boeke, traversing cosmic scales, from 10-6 angstroms to 108 lightyears. The designers depict a couple, picnicking at Burnham Park, near Soldier Field in Chicago, and again, like Boeke, the designers zoom away from the hand of a man, asleep, the view moving upward, until reaching the very edge of all observable galaxiae; and then the designers zoom down into the hand of the man, asleep, the view moving inward, until reaching the very edge of all observable minutiae. (Eames & Eames 1977) The nested frames of squares demarcate each magnitude traversed, receding or widening, as the film undergoes its recursions (hinting perhaps at the Droste effect, if we choose to mistake the movie itself for the dream of the sleeper at the picnic).

Istvan Banyai in his book Zoom offers a rejoinder to all these precedents, depicting a series of images, in which every view recedes from a prior view, even as our frames of reference collapse into each other: for example, we see that, as the ‘zoom’ proceeds from its initial vantage of a chicken, being observed by children in a house, the expanding viewpoint shows this farmyard to be a model scene of toys, depicted on the cover of a magazine, held in the hand of a boy, asleep on the deck of a cruise vessel, now depicted in an ad on the side of a bus, as seen upon the television of a desert cowboy, whose image appears upon the postage for a letter, received by a tribesman on a remote island, overflown by an aviator, whose airplane vanishes into the distance, as our viewpoint recedes further into outer space, leaving our planet behind, to diminish into a full stop. (Banyai 1995)

Each of these ‘zooms’ depicts the act of recursive reframing as a kind of ‘fall,’ either a ‘falling away’ (as if pushed from a receding point), or a ‘falling into’ (as if pulled down a swelling abyss). Each of us might undergo a sense of vertigo during this kind of zoom through the void, since we traverse boundless distances, via superluminal acceleration, typically forbidden by the laws of physics. With the fall of such a zoom in mind, let me display some of the conceivable, dimensional limits for the minimal element of composition in poetry. For me, at least, all concepts of poetry depend upon a premise about this unit (or ‘atom’), which poets must recopy and adjoin. I believe that every literary movement teaches a poet to commit to the value of a minimal element in writing, and this unit provides the standard for the scale at which any literary creation can occur.

The Minimal Element of Writing

Jacques Derrida claims that the mark constitutes the minimal element of writing – what he calls ‘theirreducible atom’ (Derrida 1974, 9) at the asemic origin for the metaphysics of meaning itself (be this origin in the biogenetic code of life or the cybernetic code of data). The writing of the mark, the grapheme, underpins the transmission of information, even before the advent of our phonetic language (for which the mark might seem to constitute the written glyph that evolves to capture an uttered sound). Each extant mark refers, beyond itself, to an absent mark, alluding to this absence, again and again, via iteration and recursion, doing so through a series of sequential references, none of which can terminate in a last mark. Each mark thus finds itself characterized both by a differing of its meaning across sites of signification and by a deferring of its meaning across times of signification. (Derrida 1982, 8)

Zoom out. Isidore Isou claims, however, that the letter itself constitutes the minimal element of writing – what he calls ‘the fraction of the word’ (Isou 2019) from which ‘[e]verything must be revealed’ (Isou 1983, 72) (i.e. the asemic pieces of words, pulverized into their alphabetical constituents). Isou insists that these ‘particles of the Letterist’ (Isou 1983b, 78) can revivify the abstract meanings of poetry by confronting the reader with the concreteness of such indivisible foundations for expression in the debris from the destruction of the word. Such a fixation upon the irreducibility of the letter eventually leads Isou, late in life, to formulate an imaginary, aesthetic movement called excoördisme – a movement, both ‘extensible’ and ‘coordinate,’ aspiring to become an ‘art of the infinitely large and the infinitely small’ (Isou 1992, 1) – an art whose concepts can transect all scales of expression, from atoms to stars.

Zoom out. Charles Olson claims that the syllable constitutes the minimal element of writing – what he calls ‘the smallest particle of all,’ situated at ‘the place of the elements,’ of the ‘minims of language’ – these ‘particles of sound,’ each like a lone note of music. (Olson 1997, 241) Olson insists that the syllable constitutes, for him, the ‘source of speech’ – a ‘minimum’ that underpins the euphony of poetry; and consequently, he argues that, if poets wish to improve their writing, they must attend to the juxtaposition of syllables (rather than to the orchestration of either rhyme or metre). (ibid., 241) He argues, in effect, that lines of verse consist, at first, of syllables, each a point of sound, and together these lines produce a ‘field’ of composition (possibly implying that a syllable constitutes a zero dimension, from which the higher orders of both a one-dimensional line and a two-dimensional text might arise).

Zoom out. Ferdinand de Saussure claims that, despite his own dubiety about its atomic status, the word (as a value), nevertheless, resembles the minimal element of writing – what he calls ‘the linguistic unit’ (Saussure 1959, 103) (i.e. ‘something central in the mechanism of language’). (Ibid., 111) Saussure suggests that, even though the ‘concrete entities’ (ibid., 102) of language might prove difficult to delimit, what he calls the ‘word-unit’ (ibid., 94) seems, nevertheless, to serve as the most convenient touchstone for the ‘signifier’ of the ‘signified’ in writing. The word, for him, offers itself easily as the most standard currency of exchange within language, since the word behaves much like ‘a one-franc piece,’ (ibid., 115) insofar as every given word denotes a value with respect to the value of every other word. The word, for him, thus functions, as a kind of coin, within a system of differences, all in reciprocal opposition to each other.

Zoom out. Jean-Francois Lyotard claims that the phrase constitutes the minimal element of writing – ‘[t]he only one that is indubitable […], because it is immediately presupposed’ (Lyotard 1988, xi) as the most basic of links, to which a genre of both rules and goals might apply. Lyotard suggests that the phrase exists to enable an addressor to convey meanings about a referent to an addressee (although none of these roles in such a quadrivium can precede the phrase itself, since they emerge only within relation to each other at the moment when the phrase gets articulated). (Lyotard 1988, 14) Each phrase follows a regimen, abiding by a set of both rules and goals; but this regimen varies from phrase to phrase, such that, when linked, each phrase finds itself articulated in a series of heterogenous, if not incompatible, regimens, all in dispute with each other, unable to reach steady states of signification.

Zoom out. Ron Silliman claims that, on the contrary, the sentence must constitute the minimal element of writing – what he calls the ‘unit of any literary product’ such that ‘[a]ny further subdivision would leave one with an unusable […] fragment.’ (Silliman 1987, 78) Silliman argues that, because infants, when learning language, can imitate the contours of a sentence in speech, long before they can parse the sentence into its subunits, ‘the sentence is in some sense a primary unit of language.’ (Ibid., 65) He suggests that ‘[t]he sentence is the horizon, the border between […] two fundamentally distinct types of integration’: (ibid., 87) one grammatical and one syllogistic, the sentence acting as a ‘hinge unit’ between rules of syntax and rules of reason. The sentence thus provides the standard currency of exchange across orders of meaning, converting a fund of unusable fragments into the coin of tradable arguments.

Zoom out. Alexander Bain claims that the paragraph constitutes the minimal element of writing – what he calls a ‘division of discourse’: i.e. a main unit of thought, defined by its ‘unity of purpose’ (in a manner that recalls the rigour of the poetic stanza). (Bain 1890, 91) Bain argues that the paragraph integrates, otherwise disparate, sentences, all of which must unite to develop a single thesis about a topic made prominent in the first of its sentences; (ibid., 112) hence, the paragraph possesses a ‘unity’ that does not digress from its single, stated topic, but that instead elaborates upon a theme in cogent detail. I might note that, because the paragraph takes on the structural properties of a small essay (complete with topical preface, logical comment, and summary closure), paragraphs in an essay partake of the Droste effect (like a fractal), imitating, in miniature, the form of the whole, of which they are a piece.

Zoom out. John Trimbur claims that the page constitutes the minimal element of writing – what he calls the ‘unit of discourse’ (i.e. ‘the fundamental feature of print culture,’ its structural uniformity providing a metric for the length, if not the labour, of writing itself). (Trimbur et al. 2011, 94) The page of the modern moment constitutes a kind of terra nulla, overwritten with the features of a grid, otherwise invisible, but nevertheless rulebound by industrialized, typographical norms, complete with uniform fonts in uniform lines, all arrayed in ranks on a sheet of paper, fixed in scale throughout the depth of a sheaf. The page represents a measure for the text, providing countable intervals for the routine of writing, with each turn of the page, leading a person not only deeper into the dimensions of the book, but also deeper into the dimensions of the self, cultivating an ‘inwardness’ of escape. (Trimbur et al. 2011, 112)

Zoom out. Stéphane Mallarmé claims that the book, in fact, constitutes the minimal element of writing – ‘that when all is said and done there is only one, unwittingly attempted by whoever has written,’ its unity, in the end, encompassing the world, so as to become ‘the orphic explanation of the Earth’: (Mallarmé 1988, 143) i.e. ‘all earthly existence must ultimately be contained in a book’ (Mallarmé 1982, 80). Mallarmé imagines that such a book, in its singularity, constitutes a cosmos unto itself, and each poet can only ever hope to express a fragment of its entirety, aspiring, at best, to realize this ‘book-to-come’ through the book that the poet has at hand to make. And yet, here again, I might note that we see, in such a vision of bookish oneness, the spectre of the Droste effect: the book imitates, in miniature, the universe that it inhabits, making of itself a microcosm that contains a facsimile of the macrocosm.

Zoom out. Eli Mandel might claim that the corpus constitutes the minimal element of writing – what he calls the ‘life sentence,’ in which the whole canon of a single writer becomes the main unit for authorial discourse: i.e. ‘a life of words or a life in words.’ (Mandel 1981, 7) Every work written by a poet gets absorbed eventually into such an opus, all ‘to serve the sentence,’ from which no poet gets out on parole. I might note that not even parole (so to speak) allows us to escape langue altogether, for only the full stop of death ends such a sentence. The demise of the author, complete with any ‘last word,’ leaves behind a body of work, a corpus, memorialized under a name, both unique and proper, identifying the standard currency of exchange among the living, all of whom must construct for themselves the grandiose tradition of literature out of these indeed large, albeit prime, units of writing.

Zoom out. Kenneth Goldsmith claims that, on the contrary, the archive constitutes the minimal element of writing – since, as he notes, the digital genesis of any textual corpora now results at once in their curated storage, with everything copied and stowed, online in automated databases: ‘writers are plundering these vast warehouses of text,’ not for ‘raw material’ – ‘but rather to […] reshape them’; (Goldsmith 2011, 188) moreover, ‘large-scale’ venues for online, social engagement (like Google, Facebook, and Instagram), archive all our interactions with their platforms, collating our utterances in a manner that might rival the repositories of surveillance in servers at the National Security Agency (NSA). Each text that we publish in an online milieu now results in the creation of a ‘library,’ on our behalf, whose filing system records our writing, all of it searchable by algorithms.

Zoom out. Jorge Luis Borges imagines the extreme horizon for writing – an archive for every archive: a cosmically exhaustive repository, containing every conceivable permutation of the alphabet (thereby reducing all subsequent authorship to preemptive plagiarism). The Library of Babel exhausts the repertoire of language so utterly that ‘to speak is to fall into tautologies.’ (Borges 1962, 86) I might note that such a nightmare already haunts the Conceptualists, who feel a nagging concern that Literature might have arisen of its own accord, not from the expressed sentiments of unique authors, but from the automated procedures of formal systems – all of it, a fatal order, in which the act of publishing a book is equivalent to the act of unshelving a book, already written, so as to sign your name to its colophon.

Conceptualism suggests that, from the tiny scrawl of Aleph to the vast sprawl of Babel, each scale of writing fosters its own poetics about the unit (or ‘atom’) of composition. Disputes among poets might, in fact, arise (at least in part) from disagreement about what constitutes this ‘true’ unit – so that, for example, both the exponents of ‘lyricist poetry’ and the exponents of ‘concrete poetry’ might misjudge the mutual merits of each other, largely because the former poets fixate upon the aptest word (le mot juste), as the preferred unit of expression, whereas the latter poets fixate upon the asemic mark (la signe nue), as the preferred unit of expression. I might even go so far as to aver that, among schools of writing, Conceptualism has so far, explored the most extreme of all units, be they as lilliputian as small molecules or as elephantine as giant databases.

Future scales of our civilization might, in fact, offer even more stupendous dimensions for expression, zooming out from the human scale of a handwritten memo to the godly scale of a terraformed moon. We might see the hint of such grandiosity, for example, in the epic work of an artist like Wim Delvoye, who has carved his poetry at giant sizes into mountainsides, leaving banal notes for readers everywhere within his vicinity to read from afar: ‘Susan. Out for a pizza. Back in five minutes. George.’ (Delvoye 1996) We might find ourselves surrounded by samples of such titanic writing, whose units of composition zoom out to vastitudes that graduate from the planetal, from the sidereal, from the galactic, all the way to the infinite – and yet, like an ant that crawls over a letter carved upon a tombstone, we may, in fact, be too puny to read the epitaph that we inhabit.

The Macrocosm of Conceptualism

01. Nikolai Kardashev has categorized civilizations, based upon the amount of energy that a civilization can expend (measured in total watts) over its lifetime, each type increasing its usage of power by ten orders of magnitude above its prior stage of development. A Type I civilization can access the energetic potential of an entire, planetal system, expending 1016 watts in the course of development; a Type II civilization can access the energetic potential of an entire, sidereal system, expending 1026 watts in the course of development; and a Type III civilization can access the energetic potential of an entire galactic system, expending 1036 watts in the course of development. (Kardashev 1964, 219) A Type IV civilization might conceivably access the energetic potential of an entire cosmos, achieving a stature equivalent to the divine in its power over the physics of reality itself.

02. Type I Kardashev civilizations, like ours, might build megastructures large enough to cover a planet with writing for orbital readers, as allegedly proposed in 1826 by Carl Gauss, who seeks to plant wheatfields on tundras so as to convey axioms of geometry to lunar aliens. (Anonymous 1826) Just as Percival Lowell might have misperceived canali, crisscrossing the plains of Mars, mistaking illusory channels for evidence of artificial irrigation during his telescopic monitoring of the planet, (Lowell 1906) so also has Richard C. Hoagland argued that (despite evidence to the contrary from NASA), the Cydonia Planitia on Mars displays evidence of intelligent inscription, including monuments and pyramoids, all arranged in significant, geometrical patterns. (Hoagland 1987) When zooming into these features with orbital cameras, however, the pareidolia of their artificiality disappears into natural geology.

03. Luc Arnold notes that Type II Kardashev civilizations might build megastructures large enough to occlude the light from their star, producing visible shadows (like trigons or louvres), detectable as ‘writing’ in the transitive lightcurve from a luminary backdrop. (Arnold 2005, 535) Tabetha Boyajian has observed that the star KIC 8462852 is, in fact, undergoing such a recurrent, expanding occultation so titanic that no phenomenon in Nature can readily explain the lightcurve of the ongoing dimming (which has persisted, dipping on one occasion by as much as 22%). (Boyajian et al. 2016, 1) Even though a cometary envelope of dust might account for some of these observations, the oddness of the anomaly has, nevertheless, caused some astronomers to indulge in extravagant speculation, suggesting that a Dyson swarm of tiny bots might be engulfing the star so as to capture its entire output of energy. (Wright 2016)

04. Jaron Lanier notes that Type III Kardashev civilizations might build megastructures large enough to require the reorganization of stellar systems into written symbols (what Lanier calls ‘graphstellations’), whose inscriptions might span an entire galaxy for eons. (Lanier 2008) Joseph Voros has gone on to observe that the galaxy PGC 54559 (otherwise known as Hoag’s Object) might constitute such an enigma, insofar as no phenomenon in Nature can readily explain the formation of such a perfect annulus of stars arranged almost exclusively within the radius of habitable distances from the central, radiant core. (Voros 2013, 11) Even though a collision between two galaxies might account, in part, for this ring (with one galaxy passing through the other, like a bullet passing through a bullseye, no putative galaxies in the region lend support to this hypothesis, thus leading to such speculation).

05. Stephen Hsu has noted that Type IV Kardashev civilizations might go so far as to transmit messages at cosmic scales by manipulating the parameters for the microwave background during the creation of the universe (perhaps encoding up to 100,000 bits of data in the anisotropic fluctuation of temperature across this panorama), thereby leaving behind a signature upon the structure of the macrocosm. (Hsu et al. 2006, 2) Ruari Mackenzie has observed that the CMB Cold Spot (coincident with the Eridanus Supervoid on the Planck map of the sky) might correspond to such a signature in the microwave background, because the spot is both so gigantic and so unlikely that no phenomenon in Nature can readily explain its cosmic origin – causing Mackenzie to imply that the void might, in fact, provide evidence for tampering by forces from a parallel universe, entangled with our own. (Mackenzie et al. 2017, 11)

06. Humanity has only now begun to leave its bootprints and its treadmarks upon the surfaces of other planetoids (like the Moon), and only recently have the Pioneer probes and the Voyager probes begun to pass beyond the heliosphere, exiting our Solar System, while harbouring messages about our earthly culture on plaques and records, so as to address exocivilizations above us on the Kardashev scale. We have only now begun to broadcast messages, via radio waves into outer space, deliberately transmitting news of our whereabouts to Messier 13 (via the Arecibo Observatory), then later sending other kinds of information into the void with abandon – including, not only an advert for Doritos, delivered to the star HD 95128 in the constellation of Ursa Major, but also the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still (starring Keanu Reeves), delivered to the star Alpha Centauri. (Quast 2021)

07. The Xenotext participates in this legacy of exoplanetary transmission, insofar as the poem constitutes a digital payload aboard a fleet of spacecraft, launched by NASA into the void. The Xenotext resides, for example, in two microchips within the vicinity of Mars: one aboard the MAVEN probe in orbit around the planet; and one aboard the InSight probe on the Martian surface at Elsyium Planitia. The Xenotext also resides in two other microchips: one aboard the OSIRIS-REx probe (visiting the asteroid 101955 Bennu); and one aboard the Hayabusa-2 probe (visiting the asteroid 162173 Ryugu). The Jamesburg Earth Station in Carmel, California, has also beamed The Xenotext to the star Gliese 526 in the constellation of Boötes (5.5 parsecs from Earth), doing so as part of a plan to communicate with any exocivilization that might, in fact, be orbiting this red dwarf star.

08. Ultimately, Conceptualism seeks to prepare poetry for a future milieu, where all scales of writing transect each other across an enormous spectrum of dimensions – a milieu, perhaps not unlike our own emergent dystopia, where a molecular substrate (like the ACE2 receptor on a lung cell) can become the site for microscopic inscription by a coronavirus, whose replication requires that every human on Earth download an app called ‘Zoom’ so that we can interact with each other while undergoing quarantine (each of us sharing recorded readings of poetry, broadcast from prisons of atomized solitude). Conceptualism zooms into the future of poetry, beyond this routinely predicted demise of poetry – a demise, upstaged in advance by other cultural concerns more epic than any poem, even one immortalized at the puny scale of an atom or at the vast scale of the void.


Anonymous. 1826. “The Moon and Its Inhabitants.” Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal (October 1826): 389–390.

Arnold, Luc F. A. 2005. “Transit Light-Curve Signatures of Artificial Objects.” The Astrophysical Journal 627 (1st July, 2005): 534–539.

Bain, Alexander. 1890. English Composition and Rhetoric. New York: D. Appleton and Co.

Banyai, Istvan. Zoom. 1995. New York: Viking Press.

Boeke, Kees. 1957. Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps. New York: John Day Co.

Borges, Jorge Luis. 1962. “The Library of Babel.” In Ficciones. Translated by Anthony Kerrigan and Anthony Bonner. New York: Grove Press.

Boyajian, T. S. (et al.). 2016. “Planet Hunters X. KIC 8462852 – Where’s the Flux?” January, 2016): 1–17.

Browne, Malcolm W. 1990. “Two Researchers Spell ‘IBM,’ Atom by Atom.” The New York Times (5th April, 1990): B11.

Delvoye, Wim. 1996. Swiss Mountain (Susan. Out for a Pizza. Back in Five Minutes. George.) Public Delivery (30th October, 2021),

Derrida, Jacques. 1982. “Différance.” In Margins of Philosophy. Translated by Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1–28.

Derrida, Jacques. 1974. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Dworkin, Craig. 2009. “Fact.” Poetry Foundation (July / August, 2009),

Eames, Charles and Ray, dir. 1977. Powers of Ten. Santa Monica: Pyramid Films.

Ganapati, Priya. 2009. “Twenty Years of Moving Atoms, One by One.” Wired (30th September, 2009),

Gibson, Daniel G. (et al.). 2010. “Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome.” Science 329, no. 5987 (2nd July, 2010): 52–56.

Goldberg, Emmanuel. 1926. “A New Process for Microphotography.” The British Journal of Photography 73, no. 13 (13th August, 1926): 462–465.

Goldsmith, Kenneth. 2011. Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hoagland, Richard C. 1987. The Monuments of Mars: A City on the Edge of Forever. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

Hsu, S. (et al.). 2006. “Message in the Sky.” (3rd June, 2006): 1–3.

Isou, Isidore. 2019. “The Evolution of the Technical Sensibility in Poetry.” In Introduction to Isidore Isou by Sam Cooper (26th May, 2019). Sam Cooper | Research Blog | Avant-Garde Literature and Visual Culture,

Isou, Isidore. 1992. Manifeste de l’Excoördisme ou Du Téïsynisme Mathématique et Artistique. Paris: Éditions Galerie de Paris.

Isou, Isidore. 1983. “Manifesto of Letterist Poetry.” Visible Language 17, no.3 (1983): 70–74.

Isou, Isidore. 1983b. “The Force Fields of Letterist Painting.” Visible Language 17, no. 3 (1983): 77–78.

Kardashev, Nikolai. 1964. “Transmission of Information by Extraterrestrial Civilizations.” Soviet Astronomy 8, no. 2 (September–October, 1964): 218–221.

Lanier, Jaron. 2008. “Rearranging Stars to Communicate with Aliens.” Discover (8th February, 2008),

Lowell, Percival. 1906. Mars and Its Canals. New York: Macmillan and Co.

Lyotard, Jean-François. 1988. The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. Translated by Georges Van Den Abbeele. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Mackenzie, Ruari (et al.). 2017. “Evidence Against a Supervoid Causing the CMB Cold Spot.” (12th April, 2017): 1–12.

Mallarmé, Stéphane. 1988. “Letter to Paul Verlaine (16 Nov 1885).” In Selected Letters of Stéphane Mallarmé. Edited by Rosemary Lloyd, 142–148. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mallarmé, Stéphane. 1982. “The Book: A Spiritual Instrument.” In Stéphane Mallarmé: Selected Poetry and Prose. Edited by Mary Ann Caws, 80–84. New York: New Directions.

Mandel, Eli. 1981. Life Sentence: Poems and Journals, 1976–1980. Erin: Press Porcépic.

Neilson, Heidi. 2003. Typography of the Period: A Brief Introduction. New York: Heidi Neilson.

Olson, Charles. 1997. “Projective Verse.” In Collected Prose. Edited by Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander, 239–249. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Quast, Paul E. 2018. “A Profile of Humanity: The Cultural Signature of Earth’s Inhabitants Beyond the Atmosphere.” International Journal of Astrobiology 20, no. 3 (June, 2021; published online by Cambridge University Press: 15th August, 2018): 1–21.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1959. Course in General Linguistics. Edited by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. Translated by Wade Baskin. New York: Philosophical Library.

Silliman, Ron. 1987. “The New Sentence.” In The New Sentence, 63–93. New York: Roof Books.

Trimbur, John (et al.). 2011. “The Page as a Unit of Discourse: Notes Toward a Counterhistory of Writing Studies” in Beyond Postprocess. Edited by Sidney I. Dobrin, J. A. Rice, and Michael Vastola, 94–113. Logan: Utah State University Press.

Verrall, Robert, dir. 1968. Cosmic Zoom. Ottawa, Canada: National Film Board.

Voros, Joseph. 2013. “Galactic-Scale Macro-Engineering: Looking for Signs of Other Intelligent Species, as an Exercise in Hope for Our Own.” (28th November, 2013): 1–17.

Wong, Pak Chung (et al.). 2003. “Organic Data Memory Using the DNA Approach.” Communications of the ACM. 46, no. 1 (January, 2003): 95–98.

Wright, Jason T. 2016. “What Could Be Going on with Boyajian’s Star? Part VIII: Alien Megastructures.” Astrowright (2nd September, 2016),


Christian Bök

Dr. Christian Bök (FRSC) is the author of Eunoia – a bestselling work of experimental literature, which has gone on to win the Griffin Poetry Prize. Bök is one of the earliest founders of Conceptualism (the poetic school made famous, in part, by the activities of Kenneth Goldsmith). Bök has created artificial languages for two television shows: Gene Roddenberry’s Earth: Final Conflict and Peter Benchley’s Amazon. Bök has earned many accolades for his virtuoso recitals of “sound-poems” (particularly Die Ursonate by Kurt Schwitters). Bök is on the verge of finishing his current project, entitled The Xenotext – a work that requires him to engineer a bacterium so that its DNA might become not only a durable archive that stores a poem for eternity, but also an operant machine that writes a poem in response. The Utne Reader has identified Bök as one of the “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World.” Bök teaches in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, Australia.