Language Is a Virus
July 8, 2005 2:15 AM   Subscribe

Language Is a Virus
posted by srboisvert (30 comments total)
Tell me about it.

*scrabbles at braincase with clawed fingers*

posted by loquacious at 3:50 AM on July 8, 2005

Language Is a Virus

The quote remind's me of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. Good book, crappy ending.
posted by Colloquial Collision at 3:55 AM on July 8, 2005

I believe the full quote is something like "Language is a virus from outer space", attributed to William S. Burroughs.

He may be more right than we realize, if we suppose:

Symbolic language may have arisen from the use of psychedelic mushrooms by pre-linguistic primates. (Terrance McKenna)

Mushrooms and other spore-producing fungi may be interstellar travellers - spores can survive the vacuum, heat and cold of space, and they're light enough to be propelled by solar wind. (McKenna and others, probably some cubensis-munching wundernut from CalTech/JPL. Or Sagan? Can't remember.)

And they're certainly light enough and small enough to drift into the high reaches of the atmosphere, or be ejected by meteor strikes.

The time scales on which this might occur boggle my mind.

Also, I'm not entirely sure if this theory was around when Burroughs quipped the quote.

On Stephenson: I get the feeling he just doesn't want his novels to end - like someday he'll craft the perfect future world for himself and just fall in, never to be seen or heard from again, or simply found totally mad, lost in fantasy and unconcerned with the outside world.
posted by loquacious at 4:52 AM on July 8, 2005

Laurie Anderson rules!
posted by davelog at 5:09 AM on July 8, 2005

Nice set of little toys. Too bad all of these things make crappy writing.
posted by OmieWise at 5:55 AM on July 8, 2005

Omiewise, most people find random gibberish 'crappy', but it's quite possible to write a perfectly linear and conventional book using cut-up techniques. In fact, these techniques can be used to insert any desired level of chaos/randomness into a piece of text, and there are real literary benefits to that. How much you buy into Burroughs/McKenna-esque esoteric explanations for it is up to you, but I think that cut-up lets one tap into the same chaotic structures and patterns that drive reality. So they make non-crappy writing.
posted by Drexen at 6:04 AM on July 8, 2005

Awesome! I used to mess around with the Cut-up Generator at all the time and this one is even better!

Oh, and... Yes, Virginia. Language *is* a virus from outer space.... And Terrence McKenna is awesome:

"And I felt language rise up in me that was unhooked from English and I began to speak like this:

Eeeoo ded hwauopsy mectoph, mectagin dupwoxin, moi phoi wops eppepepekin gitto phepsy demego doi aga din a doich demoi aga donc heedey obectdee doohueana.

(Or words to that effect). And I wondered then what it all meant, and why it felt so good (if it didnt mean anything). And I thought about it a few years, actually, and I decided, you know, that meaning and language are two different things. And that what the alien voice in the psychedelic experience wants to reveal is the syntactical nature of reality. That the real secret of magic, is that the world is made of words, and that if you know the words that the world is made of, you make of it, whatever you wish!"
posted by idontlikewords at 6:07 AM on July 8, 2005 [1 favorite]

I wonder what Burroughs would have made of the auto-generated spamtext cut-ups used to confound e-mail filters...
posted by misteraitch at 6:34 AM on July 8, 2005

Thanks for this great link, srboisvert, a lot of fun. wow. Will pass it on to my nieces who are both poets.
posted by nickyskye at 6:39 AM on July 8, 2005

Omniewise: Typewriters are pretty cool toys. Too bad they make for crappy writing.
(Quality is where you find it, and while the tools used obviously determine some portion of the outcome, they're kind of irrelevant to the charge of good/not good).
posted by klangklangston at 6:57 AM on July 8, 2005

This is a great resource. Thanks for the link.
posted by aparrish at 7:04 AM on July 8, 2005

I LOVE toys like these, and it's great to see so many in one place. Many thanks, srboisvert.
posted by BoringPostcards at 7:20 AM on July 8, 2005

The biggest problem, I think, comes when you use some kind of random process as the last step in writing. Toys and games like these can provide wonderful raw materials — or awful ones. You still need a human reader with good taste to separate the brilliant leaps from the non-sequiturs and garbage.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:26 AM on July 8, 2005

Can you point me to an example of a good book written with these kinds of techniques? I know of a bunch of good books from other sets of techniques like OuLiPo, I'm a huge fan of Harry Mathews and Georges Perec. But I find cut-ups to be difficult to stomach, and I'm unconvinced about how they really add anything. I think they tend to derange the things that make for quality-like character, well-chosen phrases, and decent plot.

klangklangston writes "Omiewise: Typewriters are pretty cool toys. Too bad they make for crappy writing."

Actually, my point is exactly that these kinds of tools are not like typewriters. Automatic typewriters also make crappy writing. These tools automatically re-arrange writing to make something new. This might be cool, or novel, or fun, but very very rarely equates to quality, which is an attribute that suggests consciousness at the very least. When I mentioned writing I wasn't talking about words on a page, I was talking about literature (in a broad, but still organized sense).
posted by OmieWise at 7:27 AM on July 8, 2005

I'm not totally convinced that cut-ups work that well over an entire novel, but as a sort of oblique kickstart to one's imagination, they can be great. Case in point, my friend in high school who was writing a story about some psychedelic-mushroom-tending gnomes (look, I said it was high school! =). Anyway, we punched his stuff into the old cutup machine at big table and got some great stuff to increase the trippiness of the descriptions. For example, "He suddenly realized that he had six arms on each side of his body" became "He suddenly realized that he had six arms on each side of town" and "He had to lean over to get a good look at the underside of the little table" became "He had to lean over to get a good look at the underside of his hand" So yeah, I wouldn't base the plot of a book around that, but a little randomness once in a while never hurt anybody, I think.
posted by idontlikewords at 7:45 AM on July 8, 2005

Cut-up works great for loquacious's second comment above:

fungi wind. Sagan? outside scales some language space, of to craft which world. survive than novels primates. in be or arisen my and spores want with by or cubensis-munching never I'm get from his small boggle spores virus quote virus world be to believe certainly this and outer right to use by the quipped use we doesn't my end some fungi like language novels small never boggle or not spores of enough to lost perfect CalTech/JPL. get when full feeling probably from may in certainly get others, cold someday found we be totally outer was end interstellar a Sagan? Sagan? "Language mushrooms can when never feeling to on remember.) And they're of this get can to around than perfect for Can't to may something (McKenna craft simply doesn't may wind. S. the they're arisen perfect found and wind. CalTech/JPL. not this I right the and and Burroughs. He heat "Language Sagan? Sagan? is quote right occur space", certainly found quipped fantasy (Terrance the can arisen he of be Burroughs entirely to the into may by use future Sagan? with full fantasy found space", pre-linguistic mind. Also,

Sagan? Sagan? Sagan!
posted by languagehat at 8:30 AM on July 8, 2005

Omiewise, if I understand you, this cutup technique would be what we used to call "prewriting" -- a way to generate ideas that might be worth exploring in the writing process.
posted by alumshubby at 8:41 AM on July 8, 2005

Someone read the link I see.
posted by Veritron at 8:42 AM on July 8, 2005

And they [shroom spores are] certainly light enough and small enough to drift into the high reaches of the atmosphere, or be ejected by meteor strikes.

The time scales on which this might occur boggle my mind.

Good god man. You may want to stop eating so many or at least not taking the ideas you have on 'em so seriously. :P
posted by delmoi at 8:59 AM on July 8, 2005

Also, um, monkeys can do symbolic reasoning in a way we can mesure if we train them (sign language, etc)
posted by delmoi at 9:04 AM on July 8, 2005

Omiewise : Can you point me to an example of a good book written with these kinds of techniques?

Yes and no - it depends how strict you want to be with the definition of cut-up. The only authors who I know used specific 'cut-up' techniques are Burroughs (obviously) and a few more of the 'beat' set, and William Gibson. Burroughs continued to use elements of cut-up even in his later books where he seems to become more stylistically 'conventional' - e.g. The Place Of Dead Roads. And Gibson sez:
"Once I've hit on an image, a lot of what I do involves the controlled use of collage; I look around for ways to relate the image to the rest of the book. That's something I got from Burroughs's work, and to a lesser extent from Ballard. I've never actually done any of that cut-up stuff, except for folding a few pages out of something when I'd be stuck or incredibly bored and then checking later to see what came out. But I could see what Burroughs was doing with these random methods, and why, even though the results weren't always that interesting. So I started snipping things out and slapping them down, but then I'd air-brush them a little to take the edges off." [link]
I daresay there are several more authors who've used cut-up, too, especially since it was popularized by certain songwriters: "David Bowie, inspired by Burroughs and Gysin, used the Cut-up technique to form the lyrics to his songs. Later artists like Gary 'Cars' Numan, Throbbing Gristle and even U2's Bono confess to using the Cut-up technique." [link]

But regardless of who follows Burroughs in his physical cutting and pasting, I'd say that collage, juxtaposition, 'choas', disruption, etc - all the things at the heart of cut-up - have become linked fairly closely with much noticeably modern writing today.

I know I'm still kinda skirting around providing a decent number of proper examples, but I recognise Burroughsian ideas all over the place. Perhaps we're approaching writing from somewhat different angles. I have no problem letting my subconscious crawl over a fragmented mess of words, and create connections, meanings, plot and characaterization out of that -- as long as it's the right fragmented chaos, molded and 'curated' by the right kind of author. 'Consciousness', the intent of the author - of course they're necessary to an extent, but my conviction is that they can tend to get in the way of creation.

When I talk about cut-up, I don't mean output that an 'automatic typewriter' would produce. I mean text that has had fragmentation artfully applied to it.
posted by Drexen at 9:25 AM on July 8, 2005

Thanks for mentioning 'OuLiPo', too. I hadn't heard of that, and like it. :)
posted by Drexen at 9:28 AM on July 8, 2005

Colloquial Collision: the end of Snow Crash was a lot better the second time around for me, for some reason.
posted by o2b at 9:38 AM on July 8, 2005

Languagehat: Thanks, that was awesome.

Veritron: Heh, somehow I totally missed that the full Burroughs quote was at the top of the page. I just scrolled right past it to the toys. I've been familiar with that stuff for a long time. We used to do a lot of manual cutups with real paper and scissors and glue and stuff. I met Burroughs once, and had to console an older ex-GF who was a friend of his, and who was a total wreck the day he died.

Delmoi: Haven't touched 'em in more than a decade. And there are stranger ideas to take seriously - the idea of an invisible, bearded, all powerful and angry white man in the sky not being the least of them. The universe is a strange place.
posted by loquacious at 11:49 AM on July 8, 2005

Delmoi: Would the monkeys have access to symbolic language if it wasn't for us training them? Would pre-historic monkeys be capable of it as well?

Where's the evolutionary line between the two?
posted by loquacious at 12:13 PM on July 8, 2005

Drexen-Thanks for the well-thought out response. I remain unconvinced by a lot of Beat stuff, and by Burroughs in general, especially the more clearly manipulated stuff. The other authors and stuff are pretty interesting to read about. And, I do understand the use of the technique as a kind of aide to imagining, but consider that different from the finished product. This is frequently (thought not exclusively) how OuLiPo uses their language exercises.

There was a good thread collecting some OuLiPo resources on MeFi not too long ago, it might be a good place to start.
posted by OmieWise at 12:14 PM on July 8, 2005

srboisvert: thanks muchly for the link. I've been looking for a Cut-Up machine that's web-based after the Big Table one stopped working for me (for some reason).
Glad they mention Brion Gysin, too. ("Writing is fifty years behind painting.") I've thought he's never really received the attention that he deserved, as it was both Gysin and Burroughs who came up with the cut-up method, but mostly Burroughs who gets the mention, from what all I've noticed. Link to Gysin's bio, interviews and DreamMachine here, for those who're interested. I was living in Edmonton, Canada when the Edm. Art Gallery had their retrospective on Gysin, and as luck would have it, there were some collaborative works by Gysin and Burroughs there, namely the sound poem "Yes, Hello". All in all, a humbling experience. Recommended, if you're ever able to see any of their works.
posted by Zack_Replica at 2:31 PM on July 8, 2005

Feeding mefi front page into the Exquisite Cadavulator, the second line was:

backwards forums accountability, conventional AM hat Archives for yourself - free month PST

I couldn't have said it better myself.
posted by oats at 4:53 PM on July 8, 2005

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