Date: Mon, 23 Dec 1996 15:59:50 +1100 (EST)
From: McKenzie Wark


McKenzie Wark

Just back from the Data Conflicts conference in Potsdam, where I met Pit Schultz for the first time, and picked up a copy of the 3rd Nettime reader. I read some of it on the plane on the way back. It got me thinking about language, in particular about the English language, and what might be happening to it now that it circulates in such a viral way on the net. [...]

All of this is more obvious in netwriting than in printed matter. On the net, nobody pays too much attention to grammar and style. I’ve just watched a couple of typos go by in this text, and I don’t particularly care. I’m typing this live into a mail message. If I was writing for my newspaper, I’d polish it a lot more. And in the process, the raw jazz of writing would disappear. On the net, one sees the shape of language through the little mistakes and fissures that in printed texts gets edited out.

Which leads me to the question of how something like ‘Euro-English’ (of which there are several) or ‘Japlish’ should be edited, particularly when net texts are published in book form. Perhaps editing in such contexts has to be looked at from two sides. On the one hand, it helps to think about it from the point of view of kinds of native English use (of which there are several). Like all languages, English has a rich history of conventions and arguments about conventions, all of which are designed to clarify usage and expression. As someone who loves this language dearly, it matters to me that it have conventions, that it be clear to readers what a writer intends. [...] The problem this raises for the net-to-book production process is one of arriving at a minimal codification of the forms of non-native English in question that ought to be left to stand. This is not as easy as it looks. I’ve struck this problem with Aboriginal English in Australia. You can translate it into standard Australian usage, but then you loose sight of the otherness of the shape of thought behind it. Just as you do in modern translations of Homer, in which the Greek heroes seem to have modern western subjectivity. You lose sight of the classical, decentred subject Julian Jaines wrote about, who can be seized via the lungs by passion or desire.

There is also the issue of shaping a printed matter version of the kind of conventions of writing on the net. I think books will be with us for a long time, but their place in the discourse network (to borrow an English language version of an idea of Friedrich Kittler) will change. The mass book is on the way out. But the book as rarefied, distilled object is I think going to return. A book ought to have a different *speed* to a net communication. Books participate in the infinitely slow in a way that net writing doesn’t.

So editing of net writing for books has to refine the writing a little, connect it with the historic tradition of book textuality, slow down the flux along one axis at least, so the book can speak to readers, long into the future.

[...] I’m reminded of Caliban and Prospero. Prospero, the western man of the book teaches Caliban, the colonial other, how to speak his language. And Caliban says, "you give me words, that I might curse you with them." Which is what happens to imperial languages. The imperial others learn it all too well. Make it something else. Make it proliferate, differentiate. Like Ramelzee, and his project for a Black English that nobody else could understand. Hiding in the master tongue. Waiting. Biting the master tongue. [...] Language is a machine that produces, as one of this effects, subjectivity. As Deleuze said, "what is the self but this habit of saying ‘I’?" And so, this proliferating machine, English, making subjectivities previously made otherwise, come in contact, become something else, making English also become something else, as it proliferates across the net. And so, in transforming net English into book English, the importance of thinking of it, as Boulez says, as a "trapped bang" (explosant fixe). A becoming at a different speed.