ALEPHBET / ESSAYS ON GHOST WRITING, NUTSHELLS & INFINITE SPACE
by Darren Tofts
ISBN 978-80-7308-479-0 (paperback) 142pp
Publication date: November 2013
Price: € 12.00 (not including postage)
“To read Tofts is to breathe as if we are drowning in binary code, and it is in this ecstatic, hyperbolic universe that Tofts creates arguments about writing.” –Darren Jorgeson, RealTime
“Alephbet is indeed alluring precisely because Tofts constantly gestures towards new possibilities and thinks outside the cultural logic of linearity and binaries. His best essays are intertextual, intercultural and interdisciplinary” –Dominique Hecq, Text Journal
“I normally don’t read books from start to finish but I read all of Alephbet in one go!” –Stelarc
“Very smart, very funny, fantastically written!” –Adrian Martin
“The glittering aesthetic of Tofts’ writing is especially refreshing after the bludgeoned grunt of so much of what passes as academic prose.” –Ned Rossiter
Alephbet is a selection of essays on the uncanny prescience of the writer Jorge Luis Borges for the age of cyberspace and beyond. Darren Tofts explains how in the 1990s he turned his practice as a literary theorist towards media studies of the emergent internet and its remote time-spaces of interaction and presence at a distance. De rigueur at the time, the perception of similarities between the worlds of literature and cyberspace are here inflected with Borges’s profound and inscrutable influence. Looking back to this convergence of one form of textual alchemy with another, Tofts is startled by those moments when Borges’s fiction anticipated ways of understanding the ambience of the computer network, often creeping unknowingly into his writing to announce the other zones of social media that we now take for granted.
Darren Tofts is Professor of Media and Communications, Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. He is a well-known cultural critic who writes regularly for a range of national and international publications on issues to do with cyberculture, new media arts, remix culture and literary and cultural theory. He teaches in the areas of Australian and International media arts, postmodernism and the historical avant-garde, literary history and twentieth century writing, critical and cultural theory and cyberculture. He is the author (with artist Murray McKeich) of Memory Trade. A Prehistory of Cyberculture (Sydney, Interface Books, 1998), Parallax. Essays on Art, Culture and Technology (Sydney, Interface Books 1999) and Interzone: Media Arts in Australia (Thames and Hudson: Sydney, 2005). With Annemarie Jonson and Alessio Cavallaro he edited Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History (Power Publications/MIT Press, 2003) and with Lisa Gye edited Illogic of Sense: The Gregory L. Ulmer Remix (ALT-X Press, 2007). He is a member of a number of national and international editorial boards including Postmodern Culture, Continuum, The Australian Journal of Media and Culture, fibreculture journal, Hypermedia Joyce Studies, Rhizomes: Critical Studies in Emerging Knowledge, Scan Journal of Media Arts Culture, 21C and RealTime, where he is a commissioning editor for new media arts.
A selection of essays on the notion of the virtual seemed timely. During the 1990s I turned my craft as a literary theorist to writing about the internet and its remote time-spaces of interaction. Sensible at the time, and appropriate, since the seemliness of things and sensing at a distance was common to fiction and media. Both were invocational codes. Like a form of ghosting they brought traces of an elsewhere to presence wherever you were, whoever you were. Looking back to this convergence of one form of alchemy with another, the ambience of the computer network liberated writing from the fixity of the page, making it time-based and dynamic as videography and hypertextuality. Like a previous epoch of change, when time could be carried in your fob, pocket or worn on your wrist, we carried this ambient “allatonceness” around with us like so much intimate apparel. Our new edge palimpsests have once again liberated us from having to be somewhere else. In the time of post-media we are always already elsewhere.
And like the now archaic story-worlds and real-time narratives of multi-user dungeons, VRML walkthroughs and the legion of anonymous multi-media others haunting computer mediated communications, literature changed in response to these notional and consensual worlds. Electronic writing wired the ancient analogue mobility of peripatetic rhapsodies that Homer impressed on to memory, the medieval manuscript and codex, the modern book and postmodern e-book. Hardly surprising that William Gibson used that word “consensual” alongside hallucination to describe what can happen when enough people agree that “there’s no there, there.” Like the suggestion in writing of an illusory reality made possible through the alphabetic code of literacy, immersion in the evocational ambience of cyberspaces also suggested visible unrealities. On the page, on all those countless new edge screens and protean writing spaces there are still only “Words, words, words,” often authorless, usually orphaned. And while we read differently our wrestle with the base matter of literacy is still the same alchemical hacking through a jungle of woods, the “alphybettyformed verbage” that precedes us. The already said is an unavoidable pathogen of being literate. But writing cures forgetting by forgetting who has spoken before.
Or, through a scanner darkly, who speaks for you. And this is the thing. Even before I had read William Gibson, or James Joyce, Frances Yates, Howard Rheingold, Rosemond Tuve or Erich Auerbach, I had read him. And it was from him that I learned about things like reality having copies, of copies being mistaken for reality, of echolalia and infinite space lurking under stairs, in libraries and mirrors. And I knew about these things before I had read about them. And it is happening here, again. Visible unrealities. Art, Borges reminds us in “Avatars of the Tortoise,” “always requires” them. And so does media, like television, the Web or Twitter. I knew this before I was familiar with the writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, or Marshall McLuhan, or Gilles Deleuze or Brenda Laurel, or Aristotle, inter alia.
And here begins my despair as a writer. – Borges
Ever since reading Labyrinths when I was sixteen Borges’s formidable and infinite imagination has haunted my own. His words, his ideas, his quantum library of all there is to know has shadowed what can be thought, preceding and pre-empting it. I’m pretty sure it was from him that I first encountered the word “palimpsest,” with its connotations of pre-use and re-use, plagiarism, remix the act of speaking of others speaking. Everything I read after him seemed to have been presumed in advance, anticipated or foretold in his beguiling and prophetic fictions, the ludic ramblings of some bookish Argentine Tiresias. That other genius of the suburbs, Philip K. Dick, seems also to have intuited this kind of presentiment when in The Galactic Pot Healer (1971) the character Joe Fernright is given a mysterious book in which “everything which has been, is, and will be, is recorded.” Dick had written of the irreal before Borges was known in the English-speaking world, but even his writings bear the traces of his anachronistic presence. The techno conjurors of virtual reality grappled with its oxymoronic pretzel logic, unaware they were re-making and re-modelling his fictions just as the ancients, struggling with the Riddle of the Sphinx. The illusion of space in its impossible absence is where he has exerted his most vicarious influence and ambiguous presence in the age of cyberculture. Hobbes “infinite greatnesse of place” or Hamlet’s kingdom in a nutshell are remembered in his name, and along with the various authors of the Quixote were it not for Borges’s treatment of the concept we would not have John Don Scotus’s or Antonin Artaud’s virtual reality before, or Richard Feynman’s virtual particle after him.
William Gibson certainly had read him before he jacked us into the matrix. I first read Jorge Luis Borges he tells us, as if one can ever read him for the first time. You only re-read him in the words of others. Gibson captured this obscure algebra of attribution and anachronism when he wrote the Preface to the 2007 reprint of the original New Directions edition of Labyrinths: “Had the concept of software been available to me, I imagine I would have felt as though I were installing something that exponentially increased one day would be called bandwidth…” He had just read “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” a story about the invention of worlds through words. It was after this experience that he gave the world cyberspace. In this act of imposture, of blindness and insight Gibson intuited the virtuality of Borges’s universes in nutshells, his infinite immensities of place, of time stopped in which aeons pass.
These selected essays are a notes and queries into the convergence of worlds, a time when the world was once again defined by new technology. The epoch of cyberculture was underwritten by writing and in particular his precession was after Heidegger always “there,” after Gibson always already “there, there,” underwriting essays on hypermedia, cyberspace, digital cinema or the poetics of epigrams (I have written on Borges specifically, but that is a different matter). He fugitively crept into inquisitions into retro-futurism, dreams, artificial intelligence and SMS. Elsewhere his presence was everywhere felt but nowhere seen, like Flaubert’s deity in creation or the fearful sphere of Pascal. He is always the Other, like Shakespeare’s “affable familiar ghost” who gulls the rival poet with fake eloquence, writing “above a mortal pitch” for the prize of a Dark Lady. His fictions are a spectral lexicon of the apparition of ideas before they are thought.
Reading these essays again I distinctly remember quoting or paraphrasing him. In others I have no recollection how he got there. But in retrospect, it makes perfect sense that he did. These essays reveal those moments of intimation and infiltration when Borges has elbowed his way onto my page by the sheer force of his anticipatory consciousness. Ezra Pound gave us an ABC of Reading, Joyce the abcedminded-ness that Eric Havelock borrowed to describe a state of mind contoured by the written word. So it is only now I realize that on first reading him I was also learning a new abc, an alephbet that anticipates all things before they have been written.