The poems of the apostrophe project by Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler-Henry interrogate the idea of “machine writing” at every stage of their composition. Kennedy wrote the print apostrophe, a 1993 poem of “you are” declarations; he and Wershler-Henry put it online as an “interface, with each of the lines as a hyperlink.” Click on one and their program drafts a fresh poetic roster from present Web texts, having “hijack[ed]” or “parasitize[d] a commercial search engine.” The secondary poem’s own apostrophe-citations then act as further hyperlinks. Donna Haraway might call this “Cyborg writing,” since apostrophe’s human artistry and computer text-generation show the cross-contamination of each source in a language that is never “innocent” and yet never fully co-opted by “the informatics of domination” it parodies. By re-describing poetry as systemic inefficiency, apostrophe carves out new niches for cyborg writing in even the most rapidly developing technologies.
Scholars note that the original apostrophe, with its tangled allusions and Madison Avenue-style pitches, already resembles the format and diction of online searches. In particular, the declarations foreground inefficiency and decay, comparing “you” to dilapidated buildings and failing bodies: “you are a distress property” and “a case of halitosis, gingivitis, dandruff and split ends all rolled up into one.” They model verbal inefficiency, giving over-lengthy descriptions for sparse data, with remarks on machine method at times crowding out explanatory context and content: “you are a compilation of more than 60 samples overlaid on top of a digitally synthesized ’70s funk groove.” Indeed, antiquated technology transforms delay and erasure into new forms of attention and definition: “you are the message on a cassette tape long after it has been recorded over—you are, as such, the eraser head’s self-validating ideal of order.”
The cyborg form of apostrophe’s online stage is also well-discussed; when Kennedy and Wershler-Henry issued a paperback book in 2006 of their search yields, they warned readers looking for “procedural purity” in computer poetry “that apostrophe is a tainted text, with none of Racter’s dubious innocence,” as they had “meddled” willfully with the computer lists. “[P]arasitizes,” “tainted,” and “meddled” reconceive images of contamination and disease as cyborg art methods. Kennedy and Wershler-Henry’s language of repudiating “innocence” recalls Haraway, and their image of “pleasure and responsibility” echoes her own “argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries” in cyborg writing “and for responsibility in their construction.” What special boundaries define apostrophe, especially for the online text’s links?
The project does not “go on…Forever,” as apostrophe’s afterword first suggests. The “hopeful monster” gradually becomes “a self-consuming artifact”:
We speculated from the outset that once sections of the book began to appear online, the engine would begin to cannibalize itself, returning its own results before other, less likely matches….This process has been accelerated by the increasing sophistication of engine technologies; after all, the results of the apostrophe engine only work as poetry to the extent that search engines don’t succeed at their job. Play with it while you can; childhood is almost over.
Does this machine writing undermine novelty, either in straight repetition or textual mimicry where each reader’s “Play” with the program, however thoughtfully arrayed, is “going to create something of this ilk,” its topic switches and repurposed addresses becoming rote techniques? The dictum that “childhood is almost over” sounds apocalyptic in an Arthur C. Clarke sense, but the “almost” is telling. Kennedy and Wersher-Henry explicitly keep “open” other “possibilities” for their cyborg writing by linking poetry to technological inefficiency, the “engines” that “don’t succeed at their job.” There are theoretical precursors for that move—Wershler-Henry’s interest in Georges Bataille’s general economy, the tropes “of useless[ness]” and “imminent obsolescence” in pataphysical experiments, as Craig Dworkin notes, as well as Haraway’s idea of “[im]perfect communication.” But the abiding “pleasure” in apostrophe’s lists is to watch the cross-plays, frictions, and urgent redirections prompted by...