- Writing Under: Selections from the Internet Text by Alan Sondheim
There has been no shortage of theorists discussing the nature of electronic text,1 yet as relatively traditional academic arguments, their work has not approximated the actual feel of digital, networked writing. While they have discussed the mutability and changing nature of writing on the web, they do so through particularly traditionally organized texts and print books. These theorists also focus on the nature of the finished products of digital texts, without much attention to the digital nature of the composition process, and the tools through which these texts are composed. Paul Prior and Julie Hengst note this absence in new media scholarship, stating that most of the theories of multimodal composition, like those mentioned above, result from the study of multimodal artifacts, not the writing processes used to create them.2
Alan Sondheim’s Writing Under: Selections from the Internet Text, while still published in a traditional print format, better approximates these theories of the nature of digital writing and text in its exploration of both the process and the products of digital composing. Sondheim’s born-digital “Internet Text,” began in 1994, is a sprawling collection of short writings, poems, and theory produced for and presented online. The Internet Text is Sondheim’s real work, containing hundreds of discrete selections written in plain text and presented online, unchanged from the format he used before the web. As Sandy Baldwin describes in the foreword to Sondheim’s text, the Internet Text is comprised of work written for a networked, digital medium, but it functions as a synecdoche, a section of and representative of the internet as a whole (p. 9). Writing Under poses a question central to new media scholarship: How might we attempt to represent the internet in its entirety? The book represents a selection of writings from the Internet Text, compiled and arranged by the author. While framed [End Page 139] by a reflective introduction and conclusion, the individual texts do not immediately connect together in a linear argument. Much like writing on the internet, these short works represent almost a database of texts that could be accessed by a reader at any particular point, and while certain themes cut across them, they can also be read in almost any order. The experience of reading the book from cover to cover, then, can be a bit disorienting for the reader, who is given an experience of jumping around throughout a hypertext of loosely connected threads. These texts are also multi-genre, ranging from poetry to reflective and analytical texts and academic genres like the “Letter to a Tenure Committee.”
While parts of the book are more standard academic prose and reference scholarship on digital writing and the work of other digital artists and writers, Writing Under contains no reference list. This lack also points to the fleeting nature of online writing and the instability of its referents. Sondheim writes that “this lack of bibliography is symptomatic, characteristic; why list anything that has most likely disappeared?” (p. 34). This comment not only concerns the difficulty of archiving electronic literature, but it also comments on the sustainability of this work stored on old servers, defunct storage media, and inaccessible software. Given the loosely connected, unruly group of texts, Sondheim’s audience is also unstable, ranging from members of his working/writing group at West Virginia University, to a nonexistent tenure committee, to nonhuman audiences. Sondheim coined the term codework to refer to his own brand of writing, which combines text with computer code. He defines codework as “a form of writing which problematizes form and formlessness simultaneously by incorporating the means of production within the file itself, actively or passively augmenting or corroding the file (depending of course on authorial intent, perception, reception, production)” (p. 26). Some sections of the book contain computer code, while others use language generated by the computer. For example, in the short text “Churnmonster,” a program asks questions and “remixes” the answers to produce text: “i-heard-you...