DeathLiterature & NarrativePoetry & Prose

Living Through Our Errors

This art­icle was origin­ally pu­blished on Culture­Ramp.


In what has become a sem­inal essay in lit­er­ary stud­ies, Roland Barthes once declared “the Death of the Author.” Accord­ing to Barthes, we should no longer focus on the bio­graph­ical back­ground of an author, or on how the author pours exper­i­ences from their life into a story, but rather on the mul­ti­tude of ways in which read­ers dis­til mean­ing out of a nar­rat­ive. The view­point shifts from the ques­tion of “what did the author mean with this text?” to “what does the text mean to the reader?”, from writ­ing to read­ing. It’s a fruit­ful approach in many respects; quite a few past ana­lyses of lit­er­at­ure focused more on unearth­ing the sup­posed psy­cho­lo­gical pecu­li­ar­it­ies of an author than on simply ana­lys­ing the beauty and import­ance of a work. Clearly, if our interest is lit­er­at­ure rather than bio­graphy, the lat­ter is more import­ant.

The exper­i­mental writ­ing of Japan­ese author Kenji Sir­atori presents a chal­lenge to this notion that a text can be divorced from its author. Since his début in 2002 with Blood Elec­tric, Sir­atori has unleashed a series of uncom­prom­ising nov­els, short stor­ies, and poems. His works have been linked to the cyber­punk sub­genre of sci­ence fic­tion, but the uncon­ven­tional con­struc­tion of the texts ties Siratori’s fic­tion to the avant-garde and bizarro move­ments as well. This idio­syn­cratic approach to writ­ing, involving loose syn­tax and repet­it­ive, rhythmic use of words, also leaves its mark on the idiom of review­ers, as shown in the fol­low­ing excerpt from Michael Schiltz’ review of Blood Elec­tric:

Vividly evok­ing the com­ing to con­scious­ness of an arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, Blood Elec­tric is a dev­ast­at­ing loop of lan­guage from the Japan­ese avant­garde which breaks with all writ­ing tra­di­tions. With unpar­alleled styl­istic ter­ror­ism fully embra­cing the image may­hem of the Internet/multimedia/digital age, Kenji Sir­atori unleashes his first lit­er­ary Sarin attack.

As an example of how Sir­atori achieves this effect, take the book (debug.): Primary Techno Noir, an antho­logy of weird fic­tion in which we find the novella, vital_error. As we shall see, read­ing the novella without regard to its author or back­ground does not mean we can’t make any sense of it as a reader. How­ever, ask­ing ques­tions about the author­ship of this text, reveals a dif­fer­ent layer of mean­ing.

vital_error is rep­res­ent­at­ive of Siratori’s style. The body of text is seg­men­ted into para­graphs approx­im­ately 8-10 lines in length, and the para­graphs them­selves are each made up of a single “sen­tence.” The quotes are appro­pri­ate, for des­pite the words them­selves being Eng­lish (though often intro­du­cing neo­lo­gisms and unfa­mil­iar com­pounds), and adher­ing to some of the rules of Eng­lish syn­tax, the sen­tences are not con­struc­ted in any tra­di­tional way, nor do they con­struct any mean­ing in the tra­di­tional sense.

All this is best illus­trated with an example. The fol­low­ing is a para­graph from about halfway into vital_error:

Vital to the abol­i­tion world-code­ma­ni­acs emo­tional rep­lic­ant nerve cells that com­pressed the acidHU­MANIX infec­tion of her ultra=machinary tragedy-ROM creature sys­tem vital junk DNA=channel of a trash sensor drug embryo dif­fer­ent-ecstasy sys­tem of the murder-pro­tocol data=mutant pro­cessing organ night­mare-script of a chemical=anthropoid is controlled::FUCKNAMLOAD the soul/gram made of retro-ADAM being covered to the dis­il­lu­sion­ment-mod­ule of the hyper­real HIV=scanner form tech­no­junkies’ hunt­ing for the grot­esque WEB=reptilian=HUB_modem=heart that join­ted that body encoder murder game….

All the novella’s para­graphs are con­struc­ted like this, and it’s clear that vital_error demands of the reader a dif­fer­ent men­tal­ity than most works. The reader will recog­nize that the words used in the text are put together in a famil­iar fash­ion at the lower level—”different-ecstasy sys­tem of the murder-pro­tocol” in itself fol­lows the usual gram­mat­ical rules of Eng­lish for con­struct­ing a noun phrase. It is, essen­tially, no dif­fer­ent than “dock­ing bay of the space sta­tion.” How­ever, at the sen­tence level—here stretched to the extreme—the sys­tem falls apart. As in stream-of-con­scious­ness writ­ing, we give up search­ing for a coher­ent sen­tence gram­mar, but rather take in the words in chunks, focus­ing more on the brief images and feel­ings evoked by those chunks, rather than the sort of mean­ing that might oth­er­wise be con­struc­ted by relat­ing words to each other, as in nor­mal sen­tences.

There is an import­ant dif­fer­ence between this text and reg­u­lar stream-of-con­scious­ness, how­ever. With the lat­ter we’re able to fol­low, at least roughly, the thoughts of the nar­rator, or “what goes on inside the mind.” This strategy is not effect­ive in vital_error. The text makes use of a lim­ited num­ber of dis­tinct words, thereby severely con­strain­ing the spec­trum of feel­ing and thought that can be expressed. Instead, it thrives on the repe­ti­tion of phrases, each of those words reappear­ing almost every other para­graph. Those phrases form another import­ant unit of the text, the com­bin­a­tion of words also being sub­ject to some hid­den rule. Con­sider “her digital=vamp cold-blooded dis­ease anim­als.” There seems to be no intrinsic power bind­ing together the indi­vidual words, yet they appear almost exclus­ively as a com­plete phrase. Rarely if ever do we find a “dis­ease animal” or “digital=vamp” hanging loose. This sug­gests that the phrase as a whole is a “thing” in the story, although it’s dif­fi­cult for the reader to see what kind of a thing it might be.

There seems to be no hid­den key that sud­denly gives the text reg­u­lar mean­ing. The para­graphs are con­struc­ted too ran­domly for that, and the repe­ti­tion is too great. What is left, then, is to read the text as it is, to let the words and phrases sink in one by one, like a relent­less assault, without con­struct­ing any higher sig­ni­fic­ance. The res­ult is a hyp­not­iz­ing pro­cess, where the atmo­sphere cre­ated by the words gradu­ally builds up and becomes the main force con­tained in the text. This atmo­sphere can undoubtedly be called cyber­punk: a com­bin­a­tion of ele­ments vir­tual, organic, dark, digital, futur­istic, and dis­eased.

This in itself is a con­struct­ive way to look at vital_error, yet my enjoy­ment of the style was reg­u­larly over­shad­owed by fur­ther ques­tions. At the end of the day, I couldn’t help ask­ing: how was this text writ­ten? “Sir­atori wrote it” would be the obvi­ous, but hardly sat­is­fact­ory, answer. It is pre­cisely the weird style of Siratori’s text that draws atten­tion away from the text itself, towards the act of writ­ing, and ulti­mately towards its author.

The first pos­sib­il­ity is that Sir­atori is an avid user of the cut-up method. This process—popularised dur­ing the 20th cen­tury by vari­ous writers and poets, but also musicians—entails the cut­ting up and re-arran­ging of pre­vi­ously writ­ten pieces of text to form a new whole. One can ima­gine that a blue­print of the text, per­haps a frac­tion of the total length of the final work, was writ­ten, copied, and sub­sequently cut into loose words and lar­ger phrases and rearranged into the final form. In the pro­cess, a poten­tially more coher­ent text with a com­pos­ite mean­ing was dis­sec­ted and morphed into some­thing that seems no longer more than the sum of its parts. It has become a wholly dif­fer­ent kind of text.

This writ­ing pro­cess breaks rad­ic­ally with many tra­di­tional con­cep­tions of fic­tion and writ­ing. It also finds a par­al­lel in the world of music—not a wholly irrel­ev­ant fact if you choose to take into account Siratori’s extens­ive pro­duc­tion as an elec­tronic noise musi­cian. The cut­ting and past­ing of melod­ies and notes ori­gin­ated in 20th cen­tury clas­sical music, but is also employed in mod­ern elec­tronic music. The album, by Cana­dian musi­cian and writer Aidan Baker, is an excel­lent example of this, being com­posed wholly through the arrange­ment of 24-second samples into a 48-minute track.

Yet, all of this is essen­tially a product of the 20th cen­tury, and per­haps a not entirely suit­able form for a futur­istic genre like cyber­punk. There is an altern­at­ive, how­ever, that takes us into the post-mod­ern ter­rit­ory of the digital age. Could it be the case that this text wasn’t writ­ten by Sir­atori at all, but by a com­puter?

Envi­sion the fol­low­ing: rather than a text, a com­puter pro­gram is writ­ten. The pro­gram “knows” a set of gram­mat­ical rules, per­haps partly resem­bling the fol­low­ing sim­pli­fied ver­sions:

(1) A, B, C, etc. are words;
(2) I, II, III, etc. are connectors;
(3) AB, CDE, FGHI, etc. are phrases;
(4) do: write 1 phrase, write 1 connector | this is a chunk;
(5) do: write N chunks;
(6) do: insert line break | this is a paragraph;
(7) do: write N paragraphs.

A fixed amount of words and con­nect­ors are fed into the pro­gram. In this way, a text of any length can be writ­ten by the pro­gram, depend­ing on the val­ues of N.

In the case of vital_error, we note some addi­tional facts. Upon close read­ing of the text, it will become clear that new words and phrases are gradu­ally intro­duced, expand­ing the internal vocab­u­lary of the text as it moves on. So, we might posit addi­tional rules, inser­ted after (6), to keep this prim­it­ive model con­sist­ent:

(8) add Y and Z; | Y and Z are words;
(9) add YZ | YZ is a phrase.

Even more than the cut-up method, this concept calls into ques­tion the notion of what con­sti­tutes an author, and what con­sti­tutes a text.

Ran­dom as this pro­cess may seem, this doesn’t mean that the res­ult­ing text would lack mean­ing as such. Even from a jumble of words, the reader can dis­til an atmo­sphere, a pleas­ant and chal­len­ging read­ing exper­i­ence. The text thus becomes a prime example of the ways the pro­cess of writ­ing has trans­formed in our age. It becomes pos­sible to write texts by proxy, by the medi­ation of a com­puter pro­gram.

It is not that hard to ima­gine the next step: let­ting an arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence write a text. Since an AI is by defin­i­tion cap­able of learn­ing by obser­va­tion, no prior input is needed, wholly elim­in­at­ing the need for a human agent in the pro­cess of writ­ing. Gran­ted, the res­ults are unlikely to be the same as that of human authors, nor is it to be expec­ted that they will appeal to tra­di­tional aes­thetic con­cepts, but that is beside the point. What’s import­ant is that dif­fer­ent kinds of authors, par­tic­u­larly non-human ones, will leave an indelible mark on the texts they write.

Back to vital_error, though, as the text con­tains one tan­gible secret after all. On page 95, we read the word “FUCKNAMOAD.” In all other instances through­out the 120 pages of text, this word is spelled “FUCKNAMLOAD.” Did Sir­atori type the whole thing by hand after all? Did the writ­ing pro­gram make a mistake—however unlikely—in gen­er­at­ing the para­graphs, sen­tences, and words? Or did some author manu­ally press the back­space but­ton just one time, thereby cre­at­ing an error that calls the whole sys­tem into ques­tion?

I do not believe Barthes’ essay is out­dated. His emphasis on the pro­cess of read­ing, rather than an obses­sion with the sup­posed inten­tion of the author, is a valu­able tool for lit­er­ary cri­ti­cism. We should not, how­ever, inter­pret the image of the author’s death too nar­rowly. Focus­ing on the pro­cess of writ­ing and the concept of author­ship can be of addi­tional value to the ana­lysis of a text.

By means of its very con­struc­tion and lack of tra­di­tional mean­ing, vital_errordrags the pro­cess of writ­ing in by the hairs. Sir­atori cre­ated a body of text that does two things at once. On the one hand, it is a hyp­notic jumble of words that can be read like a bad acid trip, a repet­it­ive piece of dysto­pian music. It forces its own sys­tem onto us, sug­gest­ing an arti­fi­cial ori­gin; at the same time, it har­bors in itself one fatal flaw, one vital error as a sign of life from an android author that is on the verge of break­ing down.

If that isn’t cyber­punk, I don’t know what is.