In a comment on his writing practice, Don DeLillo writes, “This is what I mean when I call myself a writer. I construct sentences. There’s a rhythm I hear that drives me through a sentence. And the words typed on the white page have a sculptural quality. They form odd correspondences.” You’ve probably already figured out that glitch-writing is all about odd correspondences. But glitch-writing moves a step further than DeLillo–it is literally about making text sculptural as it breaks the interface.
Glitch writing gets weird for a number of reasons, but the practice best mirrors poetic expression that originated in analog contexts, two in particular: concrete poetry and asemic writing. Concrete poetry refers to poetic expression that conveys its meaning through graphic design (graphic in the diagrammatic sense), often by creating shapes and patterns with words. Here are two examples:
The first is by George Herbert, titled “Easter Wings.” It was first published in 1663; now it lives in the public domain.
The second is by Benjamín Moreno, titled Concretoons, archived by the Electronic Literature Organization and protected by a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 License:
Herbert’s poem is printed sideways. Its shape is meant to resemble angels’ wings, visually enforcing the final lines of the poem. Moreno’s poem reimagines Jorge Luis Borges’s poem “Laberinto borginano” in the style of a PacMan maze. As the ELO notes, Moreno’s aesthetic allows “readers to re-build or erase individual words or whole poems, as well as navigate through them in an exploratory way. Through the different game dynamics, Moreno explores the poetic expressiveness of the video game to convey meaning beyond the words.” With both poems, visual structure and literary meaning are inseparable. In fact, the typographical effect of arranging text into angel’s wings or a PacMan maze is perhaps more important than what the text communicates on its own. The interactive component that Moreno adds reinforces the inseparability of the image/text formation.
Asemic writing might be the weirdest analog to glitch-writing. It refers to writing without “specific semantic content,” meaning that the ‘words’ written don’t convey a specific meaning. Asemic writing is often meant to inspire the reader to attribute meaning to it. It can take on various shapes and modes of organization, but its shape does not correspond to written expression in a functional language, natural or digital. Design and writing are more intimately linked through the asemic gesture. As Michael Jacobson argues, asemic writing “uses the constraints of writerly gestures and the full developments of abstract art to divulge its main purpose: total freedom beyond literary expression.” Here is an example by Mirtha Dermisache, titled Illiazd, protected by a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License:
On its face, Dermisache’s piece appears to be a set of incoherent scribbles. Perhaps its zigzags and oblique lines express the author’s frustration with writing. Perhaps it is a visual metaphor, marking a series of schisms with writing as it occurs in a natural language. Paired with its title, Dermisache’s piece is revealed to be a tribute to the avant-garde typographer and designer Ilia Zdanevich. (I have also reproduced some of these vertical squiggles in my glitch a couple posts back). On the one hand, Dermisache’s piece does not resemble any particular piece of Zdanevich’s work archived by MoMA. Linguistically, it perhaps better matches punctuation marks in Sinhalese and Sanskrit (see below). On the other, asemic writing is not meant to convey meaning as a natural language or a digital language would. Asemic writing signifies freedom from constraint, linguistic and literary, prior to any other meaning it might hold.
So what do glitches do, especially when considered as an extension of this poetic lineage? I have traced the glitch’s relation to concrete poetry and asemic writing via typewriter art and ASCII art elsewhere, focusing on the technological and aesthetic bases of glitch-writing. The import and function of glitch-writing is inseparable from these features of its production. However, the political and rhetorical dimensions of its production and use are equally as forceful when these poetic practices are forefronted.
Consider Glitchr’s April 2014 tweet, which I will title “error”:
More concrete poetry than asemic writing, Glitchr’s “error” makes use of the 0360 Unicode set to construct a visual/linguistic pyramid that announces what it also produces: an error in the feed. Playing off of a HTTP 404 Not Found Error, Glitchr visualizes the order of the interface and its text space differently, rather than rendering the entire page “not found.” Glitchr’s “error” pyramid breaks loose of the textbox, alerting the viewer to an alteration in the code that renders text legible on Twitter, but also forming an arrow, pointing to the errors that occur after it.
Rhetorically speaking, Glitchr’s “error” is satirical in its interaction with other text and media on his feed. It reveals the limits of the text box by breaking them without destroying the entire interface. When read as a form of concrete poetry, Glitchr’s “error” creates a cascading image via text, reinforcing the stackability of diacritical marks while simultaneously gesturing toward the glitches that follow. It says, “look up,” “look what I can reveal about this platform,” “look at how I can communicate differently.”
On a political register, Glitchr’s work operates in much the same way that Hito Steyerl describes contemporary conditions of “post-representation.” Consider her explanation of how camera phones form images based on pictures already stored in one’s phone.
As the lenses [of your smart phone] are tiny and basically crap, about half of the data captured by the sensor are noise. The trick is to create the algorithm to clean the picture from the noise, or rather to define the picture from within noise. But how does the camera know this? Very simple. It scans all other pictures stored on the phone or on your social media networks and sifts through your contacts. It looks through the pictures you already made, or those that are networked to you and tries to match faces and shapes. In short: it creates the picture based on earlier pictures, on your/its memory. It does not only know what you saw but also what you might like to see based on your previous choices. In other words, it speculates on your preferences and offers an interpretation of data based on affinities to other data.
The social media feed is a correlate to the camera phone’s function described here. Twitter makes suggestions to you based on your preferences algorithmically; it inserts them into your feed based on past interactions on the site, i.e., affinities to other data, i.e., stuff you like. Further, the feed’s vertical construction and character eliminate “noise” two ways. Content that is not interacted with is pushed into oblivion, and the content one produces must cohere with the platforms’ constraints (280 character limit, alignment, color, etc.). These features form the basis of Twitter’s usability. Twitter just isn’t Twitter without them.
Glitchr’s tweets break the tacit “user agreement” enforced by Twitter’s interface. He inserts “noise” into each tweet via his Unicode switch, which then converts Twitter’s suggestion algorithm into an exploit. Any affinity glitch-writing might have with other iterations produced on the platform will transform one’s feed into something wholly unintended by the Twitter corporation.
But wait, it gets weirder!
What about the code that we mess with when we break the interface? When we write glitches, we type in Unicode, misusing letters and grammatical marks from multiple languages as Unicode is visualized. What’s going on here at a critical level?
What may seem like computer magic actually falls into an extremely interesting area of studying code and writing together. For example, in his article, “Critical Code Studies,” Mark Marino theorizes critical code studies (CCS) on a similar register to the function and effect of glitch-writing’s asemic gesture. Marino is concerned with the functionality and efficiency of code, an aesthetic problem on his view, but he is also concerned with how code manifests as an aesthetic object. Following Rita Raley, Marino argues that code’s aestheticization need not result in an executable process, especially as it brings what’s hiding in the background of our favorite websites, apps, digital lit, and so on, to the foreground. The question of what computer code is when it doesn’t produce an executable command, is therefore a linguistic problem as much as an aesthetic one. If code is not necessarily an operable set of symbols and characters, what is its status as a language?
Marino’s focus on what Nick Montfort calls “obfuscated code” and what Michael Mateas calls “weird languages” is perhaps the most pertinent analog for understanding glitch-writing’s asemic gesture here. For Montfort, obfuscated code is often dense and indecipherable. It, in Mateas’ words, “exploits the syntactic and semantic play of a language to create code that, often humorously, comments on the constructs provided by a specific language.” Weird languages are those in which “programmers explore and exploit the play that is possible in programming language design.” They, too, often comment on the features of existing coding languages. The allure of these practices for both theorists is primarily characterized by their ability to “double code,” or their ability to execute valid programs in two or more coding languages. Obfuscated code and weird languages blend coding languages as a means of making syntactic and semantic commentary about code in code. They also demonstrate the variability of code, its inherent multi-linguality, and in some cases, weird languages and obfuscated code further programming language design.
At the backend, Unicode does not comment on the grammar or syntax of coding languages themselves, it is the numeric value that stands between coding languages and natural languages. It is the operator and proof that coding languages are multi-lingual. On the frontend, Unicode is used primarily for text processing, but it can also be used to inform a given website’s features and layout. When we consider glitch-writing like Glitchr’s, we see that what Unicode executes via various coding languages is a variation on “code switching,” with and beyond what one would see in the interplay of natural languages. Glitch-writing is certainly an extension of the interests and attributes of concrete poetry and asemic writing, but its execution is much different. To further explore these concerns, see what David (Jhave) Johnston offers as a framework for conceptualizing writing in digital environments as a mode of assimilation, but also where Rosa Menkman argues that glitch art is formative of a new visual-linguistic language system.