Tan Lin with Chris Alexander, Kristen Gallagher and Gordon Tapper

Tan Lin. Photo Clare Churchouse.

The subject of this interview is Tan Lin’s Heath, sometimes referred to as plagiarism/outsource, the first of five phrases appearing on the cover and title page of the book. Edited by Gordon Tapper, the interview was conducted through email in 2009 and originally appeared on Galatea Resurrects.

Gordon Tapper: Does plagiarism/outsource announce the end of reading as we have known it for at least, say, the last hundred years? I know that sounds apocalyptic, but the reading environment of the web simulated within your book—if I can call it a book—suggests that we have entered the age of looking rather than reading. I sense a neutral, mirror-like posture in your book toward this shift in reading practices, but would you care to comment on whether you find this development alarming, exciting, or simply an important historical fact that you are asking readers to think about?

Tan Lin: I think the idea of what is “neutral” in a reading experience, and how to make what is “neutral” in a reading visible is important to Heath, which in some ways outsources (i.e. mirrors) the “labor/work” of the reader to other parties, who appear to be “looking on,” maybe commenting, maybe reading, maybe writing, maybe somehow just “taking part” in the text, whatever those two words mean. On some levels it’s not supposed to feel like reading at all, maybe more like participatory skimming/recording or as you suggest looking at someone else reading, and this mirrored labor practice is not so much neutral or dematerialized as something specific to web-based reading practices. It’s not clear if someone is reading this text or if the reading activity is just a kind of quotation within the text. But maybe that is all reading is in the end. Where are one’s experiences actually in this text? In other words, maybe it’s not neutral at all. They, the feelings as well as the other players, seem to be inside some sort of social network. One has experiences as one reads but what is the nature of those experiences? I was trying to explore some of these issues.

Reading isn’t connected to a specific person but to a gamut of players here, a kind of social network that makes reading (i.e. the social activity of reading), what I call the reading environment, possible/visible: Heath, Helena, Michael Haneke, etc etc. Or perhaps reading itself is an actor. Here it is perhaps useful to think about the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann or the work of Bruno Latour and actor network theory. What is the precise relation between reading, regarded as a social activity that takes place in a network, and writing, which also takes place in a social network? From which of these two perspectives is the text framed? Can it somehow be both a read and written text simultaneously? What would that mean? Clearly, the reception of the work is foregrounded as much as the production and dissemination. And furthermore, reading, in a web-based environment, crosses into writing, publication, distribution, and marketing. Is a Twitter feed a form of publication? or is it writing? or is it distribution that is “pulled” by readers who “subscribe”? It would seem to be a combination and the lines between these practices is less rigid than with a book where writing and publication are distinct temporally and as entities. Even tags used by Twitterers don’t necessarily identify the author by name.

GT: It’s very interesting that you call reading “a kind of quotation within the text,” and that you connect the reading environment produced by Heath with social networks, because this raises questions about how this book asks us to think about the notion of authorship. One of the first things readers notice about Heath is that most of it consists of appropriated material—the images from the web, of course, but also all kinds of textual material. I think I can identify some writing that is not sampled from other sources—such as the early material about trying to write a novel at the Pickwick Arms, the material lineated into couplets, and the critical essay on plagiarism—but I may very well be mistaken, or perhaps these sections consist of quoted and written material so entwined with one another that the distinction becomes irrelevant. Where are you, the author, in the midst of all these texts, including, it seems, hand-written self-portraits by people who took a writing workshop with you? And a related question: why are so many of the sampled texts so banal, the kinds of things that we usually don’t even bother reading. For instance, although we finally do get to read a little bit of Pepys’ Diary toward the end of the book, we first have to deal with the prefatory material about the goals and design of Project Gutenberg, the web platform that has made Pepys’ text accessible. Why direct our attention to texts like this that don’t give readers what they ordinarily expect in a book, much less a work of poetry or literature? These informational or ancillary texts are so obviously written by someone else that incorporating them doesn’t even seem to count as “plagiarism,” since anyone at all could have written them.

TL: Authorship and text, where the latter was once called literature or opus, are made to simultaneously occupy a reading environment or an acting/theatrical space. There is a lot of what Genette termed paratextual and even epitextual material here, and most of it, as you note, is banal. But of course I don’t think of the material as banal. The Project Gutenberg material is essential to understanding how texts, Pepys’ Diary in this case, are transmitted, and what the legal ramifications and contractual obligations of such distributions are. I find this as interesting as the Diary itself. Part of what I was thinking about here was something that was somehow not transgressive or incoherent or pleasurable, in Foucault’s reading of Nietzsche and Bataille, but of something quite orderly, even standardized, what Foucault termed “the middle-range intensities of everyday life” that make reading possible in the first place. Middle range, middle brow reading, and our everyday experiences of reading distractedly or unintentionally or by just looking. What are intensities but a kind of distribution (poetry!). I’d like to lessen the intensities and make reading just something specific to particular distribution platforms, operating systems, parsing, or compiling systems. There is thus, I suppose, a “little bit” of sadness here (it’s a kind of statistical sadness) and maybe it has to do with not being able to find the “work” or the opus, or the text. Maybe in that section with the carpe diem boots and the pile of designer clothing! burning up! And it might be interesting to think about sadness as something parsed into a data structure. In Heath, we appear to be in the realm of various linked data structures, i.e. a library, being assembled, where various pronouns haven’t yet codified. So there seems to be parsing going on, but it’s very shallow and there is considerable “natural” ambiguity in the sentences or in some phrase structure grammar or context-free grammar where there is considerable modality at work, i.e. there is a good deal of grammatical mood operant in Heath, as opposed to “grammatical tense or aspect.”

On the other hand, there is still this somewhat idealized even utopian sense that reading is dispersed to a place “outside” the book or beyond the book or something like that. Thus one enters that state which Matthew Kirschenbaum has usefully broken down in his book, Mechanisms, the distinction on the one hand between a formal materiality and what he terms forensic materiality. Here I would add that the “idea of the book,” i.e. its formal materiality, often appears, at least when compared to the codex, as a dematerialized presence–what you call banal or readily overlooked material, but actually it’s very specific forensically, and it often affects reading in a deliberate and pre-meditated way. The Project Gutenberg preface is a legal document. It spells out, in significant detail, what you can and cannot DO with the text. It offers a limited warranty and a disclaimer of damages. It is also a license which gives the reader particular distribution rights. It doesn’t bother to tell you how to read it or interpret it. All this subjective stuff about reading I’d like to convert to paratextual matter, but I think the distinction between the text and paratext is illusory, so there is no such thing as a text that is naked or free or neutral or bland, and there is no need to convert text into paratext—it’s already been done. The Heath Ledger material is lifted straight from a web site. The white out piece is a reaction paper to and a modest abridgement/redaction of an article in New York Magazine entitled “Warhol’s Children.” Everything turns out to be quite specifically paratextual and textual, down to the hand written index cards, the Post-Its, the names of the authors, “notes,” the specific bibliographic citations, and even the footnotes themselves. Somebody “authored” them. Somebody in theory is reading them too! Its just not clear, in the text anyway, who it is. Do the index cards function as “author bios,” as footnotes, as pre-written material, as material not authored by the author? Is the white out “essay” critical of the art world, in the manner of an op-ed piece? As a genre, it’s hard to locate. It may just be a part of the skewed PR mechanism of the artworld that routinely generates controversy in order to sell works, or establishes various kinds of false lines of descent between Warhol and Warhol’s next generation.

Here I would say that the project is about a softer, ambient avant-garde that works against radical disjuncture or the montage/shock effect, and perhaps the most shocking effect is that of the author (in relation to his/her own or somebody else’s textual material). These effects seem dated to a specific period of the historical avant-garde or the neo avant-garde, and I wanted to question some of these assumptions with work that might be relaxing, boring, absorptive, sampled freely and without effort, easy, etc. This kind of textual material is appealing for reasons specific to particular text production and distribution formats. In other words, I didn’t want this to be avant-garde, I wanted YOU or me or her to read it like web surfing, or a mash up or something we do all day long, or like Pepys’ Diary. And then maybe we could embrace Helena or Pepys or you or me. Or maybe, in terms of distribution and production and absorption, a text is what we’ve come to expect in software like Microsoft Word, which is not just a text generating device, but now has page layout capacities, save in PDF mode, etc. that facilitate the distribution of the piece. There was thus a division of labor at work here, just as in MS Word, between an art director (Danielle Aubert) and a designer (Tan Lin).

MS Word for me, from a design standpoint, is very non-angst-like. I just think it looks nice, plagiarized–like the the other kinds of non-responsible text distribution at work here: appropriation without and with citation, straight ahead quotation with and without citation, citation via footnotes, remnants of a dictation, paraphrasing of a New York Magazine article, downloaded “content,” or the effects of “content scraping,” transcribing of (pre) classroom events in terms of furniture moving, journalistic/art writing (I pitched the white out piece to Artforum and of course they passed on it), disquisitions on legal issues having to do with copyright and plagiarism, protest songs (but filtered via the MP3 file format), etc. In this sense the reading/publishing space “sanctions” specific kinds of material: literature that is “difficult,” critical essays on contemporary art practice, blogs chronicling Heath Ledger’s death, appropriation, plagiarism, copyright trespasses, screen captures from web sites like Blimpie’s and J. Crew, as well as hand-written “biographical” material that is typically, at least in literary works, linked to an “author.” In short, this is very academic writing! Of course there are numerous and varied problems with “titles,” notes, and footnotes, as well as genres, which function to both stabilize and multiply textual and visual materials. I think this is, as Kristen has pointed out, quite “theatrical.” Just as a film carries credits and titles in the opening sequences, and these credits are the result of numerous “authors” who are fully credited as “authors,” so too could Heath be said to invoke a large company of authoring devices/genres/software programs/inks/printing technologies/fonts/distribution systems/editorial practices/legal system/legislative bodies and individuals–though the distinction between the former and the latter is fudged. Of course, there are a few potential ironies: protest song MP3s, i.e. downloaded music, was an important component of this past presidential election.

Chris Alexander: Tan sez: “One has experiences as one reads but what is the nature of those experiences? I was trying to explore some of these issues.” To me, this statement seems almost as good a description of Lotion Bullwhip Giraffe or BlipSoak01 as it does Heath – similar concerns articulated across different experiential terrains. Can you describe the different methods of exploration in these very different works? How do you see these works in relation to one another? Maybe there’s a better way to get at this question. For example, Lotion Bullwhip Giraffe strikes me as a project that is very much involved with the book as a form — as an object — but which takes that form to its limit by producing a work that’s at once nakedly assembled and (I guess you could say) experientially coherent. The apparent contradiction has to do with different kinds of reading, and the strategies a particular reader uses to establish a sense of locatedness (or not) within the work. The book wants to be diffuse: sometimes the reader lets it. The book wants to coalesce: sometimes the reader lets it. Or, the reader wants to feel the book diffuse or coalesce. It’s not so much a text as a toy or a kind of playground. (If we were talking video games, I’d say it’s like the difference between Super Mario Brothers and Noby Noby Boy.) Whereas a great deal
of experimental writing is primarily concerned with ideas or representations, or with interrogating historically bounded representations, your work seems to establish an experiential terrain. Can you address that distinction?

TL: Yes, I think each of the books is about the experience of reading, although those experiences are conditioned by different things, i.e. reading is just part of some other environment which appears to be observing it. It may be useful or not to call this environment “publishing” or “distribution,” or “marketing.” These different conditioning items are, very generally: 1) something mechanical/computational (LBG), 2) the system of literature regarded as a kind of trance state or disco groove (BlipSoak01) and by 3) web-based distribution practices/formats (Heath). So yes, I think they are all explorations of experiences that are explicitly tied to “reading” in an expanded sense (of non-reading I suppose), and this is true of the video works also.

LBG was initially one mass, organized around three basic points: pain, pleasure and “something else,” i.e. lotion, bullwhip and giraffe. It has a kind of “logic” that could be called “compositional” or computational or generative. But as it was going to press with Douglas Messerli, I thought the work was too diffuse and sprawling. I initially envisioned something Stevenseque like Harmonium, which for me anyway is about noise, and I tried to work as much discordancy into the program as I could. So I tried to use rule bound composition to generate as many antithetical styles of writing as possible, poems that could seem to be written by any number of different people and that would generate very little coherence around an “author.” But in the end this had the opposite effect–it all kind of sounded the same to me even though there is a lot of varied material. So the problem I started out with was the problem I ended up with. Of course freedom is a very elusive thing, so I divided the thing up into seven sections to create more “difference.”

BlipSoak01 is two books mashed. It was finished before LBG came out, but it was called Box, and it was about relaxation formats, mainly tied to conceptual art practice by Lawrence Wiener, Mel Bochner and Dan Graham. It was at Sun&Moon for a while but it never came out, and then Lyn Hejinian at Atelos asked for a ms. So I completely rewrote Box and converted it into BlipSoak01. In the latter version I created more discordancy, increased the sampling rate and amount of material parsed, but at the same time tried to make the overall texture more soothing and yogic and relaxing. Because I had done short lyrical but discordant poems in LBG I wanted to do something I hadn’t done before, so I was interested in a long undifferentiated form that could be porous enough to absorb any material that came its way and that would not have any interior structural divisions and/or historical markers that would erase difference. It was an extended reading experience ground in duration and the endless replacement of one thing with another, all mediated via the couplet/blip. It was really about trance states and it had a kind of stoner aesthetic or at least a yogic meditational/IDM one, but here it was a human memory system in a feedback loop (literature), i.e. it was about erasure more than remembering. I just wanted to use literature as a palette or tool or platform or medium or whatever for obliterating consciousness, whereas LBG was more of a mechanical system of recall. So with Blip I used a different method: I started to sample and loosely rewrite a range of literary and historial material: Reznikoff, Riding, Ashbery, Dickinson, letters by John Quincy Adams, Jack Spicer. I found this kind of aborption, i.e. being absorbed, useful, relaxing, boring, open, flat, in a sort of meaningless way. Can literature be transformed into yoga, into meditational space–yes, hopefully!

Heath is interesting to me because the time frame for writing, publishing and distributing was radically compressed, at least for a book, so that its surrounding textual composition strategies are more fully integrated with the “finished” book itself. It was composed out of a rewritten preface to a novel I had just completed. I rewrote it and added a huge amount of other material. So what was so interesting here, compositionally, was the total time from writing to publication–it was something like 5 months and it was written in under a few weeks. So the book feels very fast, even though there are signs everywhere that, as McCluhan notes, the book comes too late. Even the title is off. The ISBN was registered in Spain in 2007, for various reasons (maybe the tax code), but there is clearly material that dates from later within the book proper, including the design note by Danielle Aubert and a text message footer near the opening, so that the writing occurs after the book, or at least its official/legal publishing date (in Spain). These are not really fictions, although the “genre” section of the book concerns a novel being written. These mistakes, and there are many, from formatting problems, copyright issues, unacknowledged sources and other mistakes are very much a part of the text, just as typos and misquotations and erased transitions constitute the blips of BlipSoak01. I think the experience of this book is dislocated; it seems to lie on the edges of the book or, to be more precise, in materially specific formats that have been placed there, whereas BlipSoak01 is about getting into the groove and jumping over the couplets and the gutter. In the end the gutter (of the book) is just a minor blip, like the book, or like literature. Emily Dickinson is someone (who gets sampled). This is meant to be quite “recreational.”

Kristen Gallagher: We’ve talked a lot about the experience of reading in Heath and you talk about your writing process in the answer to Chris. So let’s connect this a little more to writing. After I introduced you at the Segue series this past April, you asked me for a copy of my introduction so you could “emend it.” [Editor’s note: the revised version of the introduction appears at http://newyipes.blogspot.com/] Then you entered a few things: additional notes, interruptions, definitions, some of which were noted as being from Wikipedia. Now there is a new piece whose authorship is acknowledged in the byline as collaborative–you, me, and Wikipedia (that actually sounds like a Tan Lin poem title, or could be a title for a review of your work: “You, Me, and Wikipedia”). I think this is a very interesting practice you’re engaged in. Why rewrite other people’s writing? Furthermore, why “emend” something that was written about yourself? Along these lines, I’m wondering if you could talk about the little index cards photocopied into Heath; they seem to be extremely short autobiographies from your students. Does the incorporation, or deformation, of student writing enter the book? How do you see these autobiographies as part of the project?

TL: The Heath book is just about sold out and I spoke (via email) to Manuel Brito who runs Zasterle. They did a print run of 300 and I asked if he would do a second edition, and he said yes. So I’m going to, after this interview series is done, just cut and paste a bunch of these emails/interviews together and put it at the back of the book, then write a “short history of the isbn,” and a letter from the publisher, and this will all be included in the revised, 2nd edition. Since it will, I presume, have to re-registered in Spain, it may carry a different title, legally, although it will appear to the reader as the same exact cover it currently carries, or it may even come out with a different title and a different cover and a different publisher. I think for some reason email is the perfect talk show/ interview format–it almost feels “live.” Manuel said he would do another 200 copies, in effect as a Print on Demand (POD) order for SPD, the chief distribution network for this book. So here the book multiplies into a different what I’m not sure, distribution format, text, social event? Not even sure how to describe it. I think what is interesting is what sanctions or makes possible (it’s not an author in any conventional sense) all this material: quasi-legal discussions, legal documents, class room paraphrases, movie posters, trailers, my Netflix reviews, a member’s brochure at MoMA describing where to buy tickets, my teaching at UVA (where I met Charles Bernstein) and NJCU, a publishing house in the Canary Islands, and even Google’s translation application (a service of some sort, and I really want to know who uses this service and why, and what are the economic bases for such a “free” service?) which renders or authors the ticketing information into Chinese–why is it all together in the first place? What exactly is this reading environment or social system that would link all these things together? And one of the other things included is those index cards, which are documents, I suppose, as well as bibliographic citations, as well as quite personal material supplied to a teacher in a non-conventional academic setting who wants to “know more about” students taking a particular kind of evening class in a “non-profit space.” For some reason, I regard these pieces of paper/index cards as a kind of money or exchange device, and that is a useful way to think of writing, a medium for the exchange or dissemination of something else. Those index cards–how to think about them? A kind of business card for a non-classroom? I always ask my students, even at NJCU, to write their “autobiography” on the back of an index card and this is what got
reproduced here, but here I felt obligated to secure their (written) permissions, so these are notes that were mailed (PO) to me, and there is a story about those notes that is included in the text proper.

I like that they are handwritten too. Those cards are for me a kind of very utilitarian writing like a greeting card in an electronic snowstorm, i.e. the e-card platform/application, but they’re also the most expressive pieces of writing in the textual environment and they contribute to the overall ecology: its like the soft moss on the side of the glass in a terrarium, or maybe it’s the glass of the terrarium and the relation between Kristen Gallagher (she was a student of Charles’) and Tan Lin is the moss on the inside, who knows? Like Clare Tomalin’s notes on the Wikipedia entry on Pepys—it’s “poor on the diary itself,” and by poor I think she means poor on its literary merits. But what exactly are those “literary merits?” What kind of moss is she talking about exactly? The Heath Ledger blog at the end is cited without permission or attribution like the Blimpie thing, which is just, for me, a promotional ad anyway and meant for endless reproduction but is not an image like the reproduction of a painting (by Pollock) or a trademark. But of course trademarks can be communicative masterpieces too! And I wasn’t trying to pretend that I was authoring the Heath thing, I just took it and pasted portions of it in, enabling its recirculation, which was its intent: to be seen by as many eyes as possible. Can material be plagiarized if there is no claim to authorship or if notions of originality and/or “literary” uniqueness are weakened or regarded as undesirable? There was no intent to deceive with Heath. It’s pretty clear that much of the material wasn’t written by me and this is reinforced by the copy and paste mode of design. Of course, I’m a professor at a university but I am or was also a student. But am I violating some sort of copyright law here? Does the work deserve some other sort of citation format, and why would I not feel uncomfortable citing most of the material but not the index cards from my students? What is at play here? Again this touches not on who physically authors a text (here the most notable example are those student hand-written bits of paper) but who is more generally “responsible” for certain texts. And here Foucault is useful again. I mean, who wrote those Hippocratic texts? I think even this paragraph, which you are reading now in an email (and I think there’s another–paragraph–coming–see below) will have a different feel when considered in the context of a future book, a second revised edition. So even the distinction between a first edition and a revised edition is interesting (legally, socially) and this distinction may be different today than it was 15 years ago, or seven minutes into the future. But some of these things are hard to see. This book tries to make some of those temporal processes visible because they feel like affects. And of course I am interested in writing and language and in emails and SMS and text messages, which constitute an ever increasing proportion of today’s written universe, today’s affective ecology of language, and it feels very ambient to me. I mean, basically, one wants one’s feelings distributed. But only someone who has feelings of their own would know what it means to have a distributed feeling. T.S. Eliot said that.

I think emendation and quotation are varieties of writing, each linked to disparate kinds of authors or author functions. Just to take one example: the text detailing tickets for MoMA’s theaters 1 and 2 was written by an unnamed copywriter at MoMA, just as the text for the Blimpies ad was, just as various judicial opinions, as Richard Posner notes, were. They have all been outsourced but not necessarily plagiarized, except by some sort of corporate branding structure or legal structure. These are all just various kinds of writing, where writing extends over a broad spectrum of textual matter and includes things with “weak” author functions like annotations of texts, or copywriting, texting, or the typographic design of film posters. Maybe it used to be easier to think about an author and a narrator, like Proust and Marcel, where “Marcel” is outsourced by Marcel Proust. But in the context of Heath, things feel more divergent. I wanted to see how different kinds of writing interact together—thus, the economy of the piece or the ecology of the emotions experienced when reading. We tend to parse writing as distinct but often they’re not so perceptually distinct in my mind, especially when one is surfing the web, reading a Con-Ed bill, writing a note, so I think there is something historically and technologically specific about the sanctioning of these soft publishing events at this particular moment, even as there is a kind of perceptual erasure and republishing, i.e. absorption, in immersive, web-based reading practices. Foucault was extremely provocative in outlining a literary system of writing, and by implication a system of writing that was non-literary, but it’s useful to specify the technological and material determinants for such concepts as the “non-literary.” Here I’m thinking about Facebook. I do a lot of writing on the Facebook platform but its status as written/distributed text is different from the writing in a published book—or is it, I mean does it have to be?

KG: You’ve talked about your method across several books: sample and rewrite. In speaking of BlipSoak01 you say a big part of how the writing happened was that the book “absorb[ed] any material that came its way.” It seems you are still doing that. At the end of that last email you sent in response to me, “what comes in” is “gallery exhibition… May 1, 2009 12:28:56 pm EDT.” [Editor’s note: In the original email exchange, Lin pasted in a press release for an art exhibition that had arrived in his inbox. This will be included when the interview appears in its email-based format in the second print edition of Heath.] This sampling is a way of making this interview, and the “piece” that comes out of it and goes in the back of the revised Heath, a time coded, historicized thing. In Heath you say that after Manuel contacted you for a book, you “added a huge amount of material” to a novel-writing project, and you say this was all done over a few weeks. Is the material of Heath, then, whatever showed up along the edges of your web browser and RSS feeds during those “few weeks”? Is that the only way Heath’s death entered? And so the title ends up being this somewhat random unplanned event, a coincidence? Was it that Heath just came up (by dying) and the webmedia presence of that simply plugged right into this idea for you? I suspect the inclusion of this in the book is connected to your being interested in “temporal processes and affects” as a part of the simultaneous reading-writing experience of the technology of the moment and its connection to “an affective ecology of language” and “the distribution of affect.” Can you describe what was happening in your process when Heath died? Or, more broadly (I really want to know): How do you choose content? How did you build this book? Did you set out to do it with a certain semi-procedural idea of taking the RSS feed while you were writing the preface to the novel? Did you write using an interface that would allow the material in the novel and or preface to bring up certain ambient information?

TL: I’ve forgotten exactly now how it got composed. I checked my email and here are some dates:

May 8 2007, contacted by Manuel Brito, requesting ms. for fall 2007 publication.
Fall 2007, still working on ms.
January 22, 2008 Heath Ledger dies.
Most of the book was written after this point, and the bulk of the drafts date from February through late June 2008, so about five months. During this period, 23 drafts were done. Most of the stuff written prior to Heath’s death in fall 2007 was discarded. The white out article was recycled from an earlier article, which I had sent to Artforum. The earliest material from the Pickwick Arms is the preface to a novel, Our Feelings Were Made by Hand. It thus dates earlier.

Ms. turned in to Danielle Aubert July 14th, 2008.
Ms. turned into Manuel by Danielle in InDesign. July 16, 2008.
Book arrives from printers October 2008.

I am interested in temporal processes as they enter and fall out of a “narrative.” There is time stamping of documents in a web environment, so I think this has something to do with it, but I think the time stamp gives a loose, porous conduit: documentary, narrative, affective, etc., for the material and provides a kind of parameter for the particular environment in question where both the figure and ground are in continual motion. I would say that the Heath material, and it’s a relatively small portion of the total ms, was the emotional response at the core of a lot of other peripheral issues. It’s central but it’s not central, in the same way the Pepys diary and its distribution are. I followed the death as it unwound that evening and I was interested in how his death was being chronicled, diaristically, on the fly, by a group of anonymous bystanders who were not quite bystanders but were participating in some sort of way, and I was interested in the nature of that participation, and how it contributed to the “authoring” of an event, and to the emotional resonances of that participatory accounting/tabulation: and I feel there is something additive about such distributed events, which are after all page-ranked. There is also a lot of misinformation. How in the end does one make sense of Heath Ledger’s death? or the Hamster’s Nest? Are they to be compounded in the same way?

When you say, “I suspect the inclusion of this in the book is connected to your being interested in ‘temporal processes and affects’ as a part of the simultaneous reading-writing experience of the technology of the moment and its connection to ‘an affective ecology of language’ and ‘the distribution of affect’”—yes, I think you’re right–affects are distributed and I was interested in that mode of distribution. In this sense, reading and writing is just a distribution platform, though we like to call it poetry or something else. Thus, I am not sure anything “was happening” in my process when Heath died. After he died, I wanted to include the death as a way of focusing issues. I think had he not died, the book as it now appears would not have really congealed, or it would have congealed in a completely different way, around some other event, maybe the kidnapping and murder of the Jewish couple from Brooklyn or the fire in the Koolhaas building in China–something that was breaking and being reported via Twitter, and that I was actively following. One pursues an interest but that pursuit is so determined by things other than one’s self. So the core of the book is not procedural at all, which implies making a pre-determined choice about the composition of a piece (i.e. the procedure) that will then guide the writing of the piece; in that sense I don’t think the process is close to conceptual writing or Flarf practices, at least as I understand them. I wanted something greyer in terms of choice (and it’s an aesthetic choice) AND subject hood AND performance. The choice of material is directly coded to something I personally connected with at a very specific moment. It was a mild intrusion or a barely noticed break or dilation or evanesence or hyperbole that I was interested in, in an overall ambient environment of which I was a part of, so it would be hard for me to say the interest was “mine.” But my being there had to be there; it was the initial starting point and it was about interest, but it was also about the environment that generates interest, where a host of other emotions might also be present: boredom, disaffection, etc. The line between participating and not participating in Heath Ledger’s death feels very elongated, porous and thin, so there’s a window there and then it’s gone. At some level, and this is prominent in film and literature, two genres that are considered quite distinct, certain feelings are designed to be interchangeable. Of course, Heath is dependent on other media besides literature, and so, too, are our feelings. I think my experiences of Heath Ledger’s death: what exactly were/are they? Can feelings be time-stamped? They certainly diminish as they age. So no, I don’t think, in answer to your last question, I “chose” an interface. I was already there before a choice or choices had been made.

CA: Tan sez: “So I’m going to, after this interview series is done, just cut and paste a bunch of these mails/interviews together and put it at the back of the book, then write a ‘short history of the isbn,’ and this will all be included in the revised, 2nd edition. So here the book multiplies into a different what I’m not sure, distribution format, text, social event? Not even sure how to describe it.” Tan also sez: “All paintings should be flow charts of paintings” (7 Controlled Vocabularies).

One thing I’d like to see you address more pointedly is the changed status of “the work” within a networked environment. We’ve been talking about Heath in terms of reception (the forms of reading/looking encoded in the text) and composition (what crosses the page from where) but it’s also clear that Heath proposes a changed sense of *what* the writer produces, not just *how* to write a book of poems, etc. The fact that we now find ourselves in the middle of Heath rather than, as in a traditional interview, framing or promoting it after the fact points exactly to this transformed aspect of the work; as does your address to multiple platforms and distribution networks (web, book, film?, contract, isbn). On the one hand, the work is amorphous in the sense that it’s no longer generically discrete — it wants to take place over various platforms and feed them into each other, providing multiple points of access to the “same” work. But it’s also no longer an object: the book, for instance, looks and feels completely disposable, and it *is* disposable in that it’s just one stage in the unfolding event of the work. In this sense, although it accesses traditional publishing networks, this edition of Heath is not at all unlike the Lulu.com publication of 7 Controlled Vocabularies – a semi-public episode in a larger work that will include the Wesleyan publication in the near future and who knows what thereafter. What is
the work of the writer, or the substance of “the work,” in the era of networked communications?

TL: I think the concept of the event or the “work” as event is provocative and suggests Alain Badiou’s event and a post-Cartesian subject, where “truth induces a subject” (Ethics 43), where there is, as he states in Metapolitics, a “subjectivity w/o a subject” (64). At any rate, being or subjectivity in Heath is posited around an endless multiplicity or a dispersed awareness that is evident in the continual unfolding or enumeration of textual elements and distribution formats, and where being cannot really be thought of as singular or the one but is, as Badiou suggests, supported by post-Cantor set theory. As Peter Dews notes, “mathematics is ontology. We live, irrevocably, in the world of the modern sciences, where nature is number: there will be no re-enchantment.” (http://ndpr.nd.edu/review.cfm?id=12406) While doing this interview and planning the second edition, I am thinking of a third edition, that thing which is not the first or the second edition but which defines a horizon and which runs counter to Badiou’s parameters for an event, which strike me as overly narrow from an ontological standpoint.

So I would generally say that the “work” of Heath is a “mode of subjectivity” or “subjective space” and it is, as I said earlier, a process of blind labor (someone is clearly laboring in Heath) whose product is attention, where attention produces the objects that interest us. I think it is unclear what Heath, the work, is. Heath the actor and the book (“work”) is a series of theatrical events, discrete articles, texts, ads, achronological effects, etc. I mean Heath’s life is perceived as a kind of unfolding drama and it’s a very theatrical, performance driven live space, even though the genre he is most closely connected to is cinema, albeit the cinema regarded as factory. And we are producing the theatre. He, the work, is produced by us as we read, and this is subject to certain legal/economic conditions. Although Heath is listed as the title of the work on various web sites, and in various PR announcements for readings, most of these vary considerably in terms of publication date, spelling and title listing. Heath, the work, is already circulating in a number of different formats, and this circulation has the aim of adding value. This thing you are reading now can be searched on Twitter but it is not yet the revised printed (2nd) edition of the book. The deposito legal in Spain, where the book was registered, does not even list the title of the book as Heath, and the word does not appear on the title page, nor does the legal record list the various subtitles, if they are subtitles. Subtitles, especially vis a vis academic books, are marked by titular colonicity, whereas here commas function as list delimiters or maybe a series of programming commands. Within academic publication, titular colonicity has the function of adding value. At any rate, Heath is kind of absent title for the work, or maybe a command: he was appended later compositionally, as Kristen’s remarks drew out earlier, yet he is central but not centrally localisable. Where is he? How does he define it or structure it, or make it congeal? How is Heath compiled?

If Heath is a mathematical function, a kind of programming language, there is, however, very little in the way of a one-to-one correspondence. He is a kind of economic operation. He is connected to subjective states but he is not introspective. However, significant introspective space or subjective space is thrown off in his wake or hallucinated around him, especially when I regard him as Jackie Chan, i.e. he is not some Lacanian void or evacuated subject: Why would I confuse Heath Ledger with Jackie Chan? I mean that confusion is a kind of mathematical impossibility, an inaccuracy, an error, an opus or an interview, a novel. But that is not to say I see Heath: he exists as a kind of format-dependent scanning, as does the work itself. So I think it’s useful to think of language here, but perhaps assembly languages, source codes, and/or compiling languages, etc.—something in a dynamic processing environment.

KG: I would like to return to the handwritten student autobiographies, which strike me as particularly amusing because of aspects of the contexts in which they occur. You talk in “Notes on Furniture and Lighting” about being uncomfortable in the beginning of the class, as a group of students, “7 or 8″ out of 9 “Asian or part Asian,” and how you look for “economic mediation” to break the tension and so ask for the bios. And the bios kind of explode the identities of the students–not only are they are “from” a plethora of places in the US and southeast Asia, but they handle the idea of the index card bio in different ways, from Helena’s “Chinese American” and “has lived in many houses,” to another student who opens with “Made in Taiwan,” that ubiquitous reference from tags and labels on American products, which makes me think of Williams’ “pure products of America.” In Williams’ poem, and in this instance, there is nothing “pure” about it. This is only converted/translated into hilarity because this section of the book is flanked by the re-appearance (it also appears in the earliest section of the book) of an ad for Jackie Chan’s “Xtra Green” Green Tea Beverage Mix–not green tea, but green tea beverage mix, so American. And why a Kung Fu movie star to sell it? Or, in America it is quite obvious–of course a kung fu movie star should sell it? As I pointed out in my introduction to your Segue reading, the self in your work doesn’t quite have boundaries—“like a section of ocean”—it is made up of these materials and information flows in the surroundings. Advertising culture makes this all cartoonish. A student of mine, in response to the “xtra green” part of the work here, spoke of how for her it reminds her of a situation she’s noticed about being Bangali in America. She says, “in Bangladesh no one is really *that* Bengali, they’re not that ‘into it,’ but then when they come to America they become *more* Bengali. It’s like they suddenly invent all kinds of ways to say I’m so Bengali.’ She calls them Mega-Bengalis. So when I asked you about the bios, and your own interference with someone writing abut you, Tan Lin, I guess I was thinking about the self as a construction of information flows and advertising, like one of those Nascar cars covered ridiculously and completely in ads, brand labels–or in terms of the web and those technologies, the self as an RSS feed. On my facebook page, I guess because I typed in my age and gender, they seem to be advertising to me personally, saying, “don’t you want to know how Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie stay wrinkle free?” That tells me something about myself, nothing I didn’t already know, but it is actually more than a telling. It reminds me of Bob Perelman’s poem “The Story of My Life,” a poem full of these post-identity ideas about the self as a social construction, where he says, “the light shines over the ads / the dead language everyone reads by nature / but no one gets to speak.” I’m interested in how you use advertising and “the self” in Heath, like where you say, “like a descriptive catalog of 40 or 50 different sweaters in an American Apparel or J. Crew catalog that are the same except for their colors, and // [they] [you] are beautiful pop ups.”

TL: I think the subject and in particular an Asian American subject, is diversely compounded and specific, even stratified, in terms of markers/functionality—the various index cards, but also the preciseness and calculation of its stereotypes, Jackie Chan vs. Heath Ledger, each with their associational referents, each of which, in turn, is subject to economic calculations, tabulations, and distribution patterns. In this scenario, I wonder how useful it is to think of a self. Is Jackie Chan a self? His XTRA Green Tea mix is produced by Tea Tech, a US company and Jackie Chan is, besides being a martial arts movie star, employed as a natural health promoter! But for me, he’s a kind of pop up hallucination of Heath i.e a hallucination of a hallucination i.e. Heath regarded as a mode of subjective inwardness (vs. a kind of Asian American clown (who I like)). So there’s a kind of post-Romantic element to the book, in spite of (or because of) its textual apparatus. And in the context of the book (because of the book) I “see” him in Theatre 2, at MoMA. Jackie Chan lacks Ledger’s introspection and he’s selling Green Tea with a martial arts gesture. When we want more (reified) inwardness, we go to MoMA and look at paintings or we see ourselves as a pop up, or as a J. Crew sweater. So I think that the idea of a self is something I wanted to throw into relief, not because it’s fluid or because its rigidly stratified (I think it’s probably both) but because “self” or identity don’t seem a very productive category for thinking– it’s a kind of ideological coating on a commodity, i.e. part of a particularly anthropomorphic mode of subjectivity grounded in a critique of capitalist modes of production.

And that is why I was interested in Latour and Luhmann. Heath concerns a specific kind of self/environment, one that appears to be modestly self-determining, i.e. one who authors or writes or produces text (one with a marginalized “author function”), and it was principally this kind of self that I was interested in, the self that labors to produce text in a particular environment of which it is a part as well as an observer of. In a particular historical moment when attention has been commodified and replaces the steel hoops or knitted products that were the former products of our labor, today a large number of people are producing text or engaged in some process of self-description. As the biologists Maturana and Varela note, the nervous system of an observer is operationally closed, there is no input coming into the system from outside.

The present feels like a language-saturated moment, and I think this is different from fifteen years ago which was more of a visual/image based and anti-language culture, and where even recent visual artists as diverse as Dexter Sinister, Seth Price, Fia Backstrom, Frances Stark, Julien Bismuth etc, have called products “poems.” Today, with SMS and various syndication feeds, and smart phones, everyone is texting/writing, and most of the things we look at and see on the web is language, i.e. the material bases of what we see lie in program codes, core codes, or scripting languages. I was interested generally in that moment when visual culture seems somehow to turn over the reins to language-based practices as somehow being more absorptive or ambient or non-causal, real-time, evolutionary, whatever. So here, I was not particularly thinking of the self as overrun by advertising (Made in Taiwan) or even a fluid or socially constructed entity. I was interested in how I could NOT think about the self except as a kind of evolutionary writing/text production (i.e. a subjectless process) linked to specific technological affordances and constraints, i.e. the self as, rather simply, part of an environment that is pull not push, to cite the Toyota Production System. Various physical/technological environments “compose” or induce the human but not in any rigorous or particularly rigid way. Here I am thinking of T.J. Clark’s remark, “Why after all should matter be resistant? It is a modernist piety with a fairly dim ontology appended.” And Jameson’s notion that the unconscious, like nature before it, is subject to “a new and historically original penetration and colonization.” (PM, 49) Or maybe another way of saying this is that the selves are not organized in any strong sense of the word around an identity that sees some sort of “external reality,” but that the selves are experienced in a kind of textual indifference and SMS boredom present in Heath. But of course you may ask what is Heath . Here it might seem to be a kind of subjectless or subject-vacant thinking, as you earlier alluded to in your remarks. The system is engaged in thinking about itself, observing itself and (thus) producing tautological information about itself. There is a break between communication and consciousness, which as Dietrich Schwanitz points out, is radicalized as “two distinct systems.” (493) Or another way to think about this is: Heath is a system (of blind self-observation) seeking re-enchantment. And thus there are minor or negligible allusions to love, and this comprises the only thing that might be termed a “story” in Heath, although the emotions, such as they are, feel both social and solitary. Basically love is unnecessary as a concept because feelings of the social and the solitary are fused. Or Heath is a social scene in the midst of assembly. But despite the functional differentiation (the term is Luhmann’s), the edges are soft and interactive. There is not meant to be the disjunctive shock of montage (here the book is like BlipSoak01). All the varying kinds of information processed in Heath are somehow related to the system observing and perpetuating itself and yet we, the reader, are somehow not exactly part of the system, for we seem to be observing the system operate from outside, part of the external environment beyond the system. But of course, this is, logically speaking, impossible, for we are the system itself, participating in it as social actors/readers/transcribers, lodged in a closed system. And here are various types of differentiated communications: art review, MP3 protest song (downloaded), footnotes, index cards, biography, blog, SMS transmission between two parties, RSS feed from single source to multiple parties, each of which is subject to different reading practices because issuing from distinct social formations. And of course love codes itself differently than legal disclaimers do.

Many but not all of these are volatile reading formats (like social formations), though the legal material is somewhat more stable in spite of the copyleft protection and an open distribution platform (Project Gutenberg). These reading formats are assembled or auto-compiled for a short time (a magazine article is published and then disappears, one attends a class at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and then the class ends, this book is published, issued in a limited edition, re-editioned, and then revised online). Moreover, these communications are generally conceived less in relation to an individual but rather to a larger, albeit delimited audience/social group. Heath, the actor’s (death), is experienced over the phone. Consciousness belongs to the environment, regarded as a system of differentiated communication platforms, one of which might be literature. And consciousness is often generalized, unspecific, ambient, absorptive, etc. Everyone–and there are lots of she’s, he’s, and they’s–is actively communicating, commenting, annotating, footnoting, “publishing,” ascribing authorship etc in the text and on the text and about the text. So there is no problem with underverbalization, no blocked communication channel or flow of words, no need to resort to extra-linguistic forms: tears, pulling of the hair or any number of Romantic tropes hinging on the failure of language or its inexpressibility, no need for symbolism, or literature regarded as something “beyond language” that communicates something “inexpressible” i.e. outside itself or maybe something in Nature: phases of the moon, the fuzzy, air pressure, chalk being erased . . . Instead there are varieties of publishing transpiring, where publishing and writing, publishable and unpublishable, annotated and unannotated, text and paratext, are hard to pull apart. For example, there is the epublishing and compositing, and redistribution and legal framing of what might be called a “classic” text, Pepys’ Diary–which doesn’t carry much of a scholarly introduction as a legal warranty, and this is not surprising. On the other hand you have publishing of content on a web site devoted to Heath Ledger’s death, regarded as a real-time assemblage of various news feeds on the online edition of the New Zealand Herald, where, as with Heath overall, there is abridgement, interaction with other media, republishing, reader-based commentary, and linkage to a genre that might be called “celebrity publishing.” And here the book itself feels ancillary in relation to other breaking news stories and on-the-fly formats. To this have been added (value) from various forms of paratextual apparatus, including bibliographies, footnotes and appendices. It’s in this context that the RSS insignia might be framed, as part of a larger apparatus for understanding, itself regarded as a mode of transmission.

Notes:

PDF or HTML versions of the original Heath, edited by Danny Snelson, are available here:

Read a review of Heath by Jai Arun Ravine on the Lantern Review Blog.

Heath Course Pak (2012), a revised version of the book with 52 pages of additional material, is available from Counterpath Press.


Chris Alexander is a poet and critic. He coedits Truck Books with his partner Kristen Gallagher. You can find him on Twitter at @hedorah55.

Kristen Gallagher is the author of two books of poetry: Operator (Rubbaducky) and We Are Here (Truck Books). Recent poetry appeared in West Wind Review, and a review of Tan Lin’s Heath Plagiarism/Outsource appeared in Criticism in 2010. She is an associate professor of English at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York.

Tan Lin is the author of over ten books, including Heath Course Pak, Bib. Rev. Ed., Insomnia and the Aunt, 7 Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking, Plagiarism/Outsource, Ambience is a Novel with a Logo,  BlipSoak01, and Lotion Bullwhip Giraffe. Lin is the recipient of a 2012 Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grant for Poetry, a Getty Distinguished Scholar Grant for 2004-2005 as well as a Warhol Foundation/Creative Capital Arts Writing Grant to complete a book-length study of the writings of Andy Warhol. 7 Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary. 2004. The Joy of Cooking received the Association for Asian American Studies Award for Poetry/Literature in 2010. He has taught at the University of Virginia and Cal Arts, and currently teaches creative writing at New Jersey City University. He received a Ph.D from Columbia University.

Gordon Tapper is a Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College, CUNY, and the author of The Machine that Sings: Modernism, Hart Crane, and the Culture of the Body (Routledge, 2006).

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