A Book is Technology: An Interview with Tan Lin

Photo by Keith Chiappone

Over the past 15 years, poet, novelist, and filmmaker Tan Lin has been at work creating an "ambient" mode of literature that engages a set of practices including sampling, communal production, and social networks, addressing issues such as relaxed copyright, boredom, plagiarism, and the commodification of attention.

He has written 10 books, most recently Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking; Insomnia and the Aunt; and HEATH COURSE PAK. His video work has screened at the Yale Art Museum, Artists Space, the Drawing Center, and the Ontological Hysterical Theatre. He is currently finishing work on a novel, OUR FEELINGS WERE MADE BY HAND. He teaches creative writing at New Jersey City University.

We talked by Skype, G-chat, email, phone, and used Google Drive in real-time to talk about the many different uses of technology in his work and what its implications are for the future of literature:

In your books, especially HEATH (plagiarism/outsource) and Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking, you introduced people to a new idea of what a book of literature can be. For these books, in their various versions and associated events, you incorporated everything from email to Twitter, programming languages to RSS feeds, Google Translate to Post-it notes. What led you to use so many different forms of technology in the creation and publication of a book? How would you define a book?

People forget that a book or codex is a technology. My interest with HEATH and 7CV was to treat the book as a distinct medial platform through which a lot of ancillary information passes, much like a broadcast medium like TV or a narrow-cast medium like Twitter or Tumblr. Reading is information control, just as a metadata tag is a bibliographic control. So I wanted to highlight the book’s medial and time-based underpinnings.

How would you prepare someone who has never read a Tan Lin book to read one of your books?

It’s a little hard to say. I think a book is something consumed slowly over many years—it’s a little like watching a plant reproduce. What are HEATH and 7CV? I’m not sure, but maybe a delayed reading experience that involves Course Paks, marketing departments of publishing houses, seminars at the University of Pennsylvania, RSS feeds, and Post-it notes. And, of course, other books—with 7CV, The Joy of Cooking—and with plagiarism/outsource, blogs that chronicled Heath Ledger’s death. Why insert The Joy of Cooking into the title of 7CV? Because it was the cookbook my family used to become American and because I thought the title would increase Google hits. I consider Google a mode of (loose) autobiography. A book in Google Books, like someone’s search history, isn’t really a book; it’s data connected to other data, and it’s searchable. Reading, like autobiography, is a subset of a search function.

Why did you print Post-it notes in HEATH?

After the Zasterle edition of HEATH came out, I was often asked to read from it, but it’s long and I had difficulty controlling and seeing what I should be reading, or even seeing what’s important, so I stuck Post-it notes to cover up parts of the text and in that way made a more streamlined and visible (at least to me!) version. It’s like a paper map to me, inserted in a digital production. When the book was republished by Counterpath, we photographically reproduced the pages covered with Post-it notes. In the new edition, the Post-it notes look like you can run your fingers over them, but they’re just photographs (of a book) after it gave up some textual matter. Books change over time and they’re blind; they give up information as readily as they gain it. What is a book today? I have no idea.

In an interview with Katherine Elaine Sanders for BOMB, you stated that "Reading is a kind of integrated software." Could you elaborate on this?

Integrated software is a genre of software that combines word processing, database management, and spreadsheet applications, and communications platforms. This genre has been superseded by various full-function office suites, but I was interested in reading modelled in that way, i.e., different kinds of reading, each with specific functions. I mean, you read Harlequin romances differently than recipes, and you read Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheets differently than you read Excel, and you read experimental Japanese novels differently than you read text messages, and in terms of documents processed by software, you have distinctions between, say, end-user manuals, bills of sales, Unified Modeling Language models, and legal contracts. These are genres of reading, and they’re housed or processed in the same generic platform that I call “reading.” So reading is an application that processes or assembles varied kinds of material. I was interested in creating works of literature that could be read like recipes or spreadsheets or PowerPoint presentations.

What does the process of software authoring entail and why does it interest you?

I think it’s a way to talk about new modalities of reading. In software engineering, the authoring is sometimes implemented with what are called frames, where kinds of (reading or processing) functionality are packed into frames, and where a frame is “a generic component in a hierarchy of nested subassemblies” (Wikipedia). You’ll have word processing frames and graphics frames, etc., and these individual frames can be linked in a unified programming system. This enables you to embed graphics and spreadsheet functions into a text document, or you can have shared graphical contexts, where material pops up in multiple frames at the same time—this, I think, is what is happening in 7CV with its graphical elements, text elements, processing text instructions in the form of prefaces (so-called “source” material) and meta data tags. I also inserted other languages: Chinese and machine codes. 7CV has various things in it that look like captions or interfaces or even bits of source code, and I was interested in the difference between a caption and bit of machine code in a book. If you look at the handwritten Chinese text in 7CV (it was written by my mother) you'll notice that it was put in upside down by the typesetter! This is not true of the machine-generated Chinese, provided by Google Translate. But at any rate you have a complex ecosystem of different languages in single publishing/reading platform.

I assembled both PowerPoint works similarly. Bibliographic Sound Track was compiled from SMS, IM chats, video game walk-throughs, Tweets, Tumblr entries, PowerPoint bullet points, photographic slides, the overhead transparency, the text box, the couplet, the book page, the fading film titling sequence, etc. PowerPoint is a multimedia ecosystem that encompasses a wide variety of reading practices, and where each slide or page is a frame: modular, linked to other frames, and encompassing various platform specific reading or communications functions. So here was a generic poem, where a poem is the most varied collection of different material that could be read continuously in a time-based manner with a definite run time. Reading can be looped. That, I think, is the definition of a poem today!

What are the differences between your PowerPoint works and your print books?  

The most obvious difference is that when you read a book or codex, the only thing moving is your eye; with the PowerPoint works, both text and eye are moving. In this sense, PowerPoint makes reading autonomous and it sets it in motion, literally: Individual slides are animated, slide transitions are animated, and the piece overall is software that is processing information. That’s why we turned out the lights during the screening and projected large: No one expects to go to the cinema and read a book on the screen, one word at a time, but that’s kind of what I wanted to do. The most beautiful thing is a book that could read itself! So reading is a kind of integrated software or the frame technology that manufactures software, and a book is the software application that is manufactured.


from The Ph.D Sound, 2012


But I think there are a lot of similarities between digital and print-based reading experiences. The PowerPoint pieces, like my books, all bracket reading in a larger perceptual (and social) field that includes smells and sounds, i.e., they situate reading in a larger geography or reading environment. People tend to forget that reading is a kind of all-over experience, and it takes place in a particular room or in a particular moment of childhood. So the idea was to not confine reading to a particular object (book) or platform (PowerPoint) but allow it to expand outwards into the social space around it. I was more interested in what might be called the general mood of reading: the overall atmosphere or medium in which we experience our daily thoughts and perform actions—what Heidegger termed Stimmung and the psychologist Daniel Stern calls affective or amodal attunements. Bibliographic Sound Track is a mood-based system, but so is HEATH. And these mood-based systems, which are common to Zen meditative states, are bottom-up, non-directed, allotropic modes of general receptiveness rather than top-down, attention-based focus on specific objects or things. A book, at bottom, is a very general and very generic thing (that we happen to be reading).

But a Zen meditative state isn’t reading is it?

My print-based and web-based works both tend to operate with the minimum amount of material necessary needed to constitute what we call reading. I’m interested in the forms of non-reading and boredom, which surrounds all reading and aesthetic experience as its customary default. I mean I like it when works are boring. When I go to see a Cage performance or a Merce Cunningham dance, I am bored half the time. There’s nothing wrong with that. 7CV is about skimming material, appropriating other titles (like The Joy of Cooking) and indexes, and extending the book by enlisting 30+ grad students at The University of Pennsylvania to spin off what publishers would call ancillary titles. Can 7CV be made more interesting by individual readers? Absolutely. This is common in academia, a profession defined by writing books about other books, i.e., generating secondary source material. But there’s no reason secondary source material cannot be more interesting than original source material. Do you have to read 7CV to have read it? Not at all. Moreover, there are many ways to not read a book: you can leaf through it, read reviews or synopses of it, or just lie and say you read it when you didn’t. I was at Columbia where I got a Ph.D. in literature, and there were about 250 books on my orals reading lists—books I had to be able to talk about—but I probably only read a third of them. In fact, though, I had read all of them, just in different ways.


Your PowerPoint work Bibliographic Sound Track carried a perfume track and a live Twitter feed when it was projected at Artists Space, and The Ph.D Sounds  carried a live DJ set. Why did you present these pieces as you did?

So that the reading was like a book only to the extent that the book is regarded as a porous, unstable, and provisional platform for the dissemination of information. We tend to think of books as interiorized devices, linked to solitude and self-enclosed spaces; and they deliver something, like meaning, up to the reader. But I’m not so interested in knowledge in that teleological sense; I’m more interested in the dissipation of knowledge, unfocused attention, and generic receptiveness. It would be nice if a book could reduce the amount of knowledge in the air. I’m equally interested in the public and communal architecture of reading practices as they intersect with individuals and park benches, the subway and the seminar room. Why can’t a book be more like a perfume? Or a door? Or the year after we graduated from college? A perfume is a communications medium just as literature is. Moods, furniture, restaurants, and books are communications mediums. What is it that Warhol said? “I think the right hormones can make Chanel No. 5 smell very butch.”

So how is the experience of reading your works different from a more conventional novel or a Hollywood movie?

Usually you go to a movie or read a book to experience an emotion: Hollywood and even independent cinema is excruciatingly good at eliciting (i.e., manipulating) feelings in the audience—that’s why most people read novels and go to movies, and directors like Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke play with this by artificially manipulating an audience’s emotions via specific cinematic genres. Michel Houlbecq does something similar with literature, but less effectively to my mind. Think about the tragedy of “Dancer in the Dark” presented as a Broadway musical! But I think that reading that ends in an emotion is lame; I like it more when literature generates not a distinct emotion or feeling but a more generalized overall mood, and I like this more because I think it’s more reflective of the way we actually spend most of our lives. Psychologists have identified something like 6 major emotions, but the thing is we don’t feel them very often, which is a good thing  because most of them are quite unpleasant: disgust, fear, anger, etc.

You’ve stated that some of 7CV (and plagiarism/outsource—HEATH) were “self-plagiarized,” and obviously the title The Joy of Cooking was appropriated. What role does plagiarism and appropriation play in your work?

Plagiarism is less meaningful as an economic concept today than it was 15 years ago, which is why, from a legal standpoint, at least if you follow Posner, it is connected to notions of detrimental reliance. When plagiarizing something adds to a work’s value, or increases the number of page hits, which is common when you take something in the poetry world and redistribute it, then notions of plagiarism don’t seem avant garde at all. Take a look at publishing ventures that use Tumblr as a platform, such as Troll Thread, sisteract, and Gauss PDF. Nor should 7CV or HEATH be construed as avant garde or difficult in that limited sense. With the migration to cloud-based computing and paywalls and unsearchable gardens, this is changing. Pretty soon, content will be tethered much more tightly, yoked to proprietary systems themselves like Facebook, and ideas of plagiarism as a strong concept will no doubt surface again. Both 7CV and HEATH were about how information, like news or advertising or a meme, is meant to be circulated as much as possible. This is true of communications mediums generally but it used to be that literature was opposed to such ideas of free or unpaid circulation. So the first edition of 7CV can still be downloaded free on Lulu.com or purchased as a perfect-bound book (it lacks a “real” cover) for less than the cost of the Wesleyan University Press edition. Suzanna Tamminen, the director of WUP, has not had any problem with this or at least she hasn’t written me about it.  

How have your books been received?

In the case of HEATH, it got bootlegged as soon as it went out of print after a few months. And you have to understand the economy of experimental poetry titles. HEATH was published in an edition of 300 by a small house in the Canary Islands.  And there are various versions of 7CV, many out of my control and put up on Lulu now by other authors. It’s possible that they are more interesting together than apart, which is to say they are more interesting as communications mediums or blips in a publishing and distribution system than as literary mediums. HEATH has a copyleft agreement, which is a specific kind of licensing agreement, attached to it. A publishing house in Vienna, Westphalie Verlag, bootlegged the book last year, reprinting the volume and selling it without my knowledge. I think it got presented at the Berlin Art Book Fair this year but I’m not sure. In this case, the publisher did not have the image files for the web sites that I initially sampled―Blimpies and Jackie Chan Green Iced Tea―so when he re-sampled the corporate web sites, he got different images. So here, web-based photos lifted from corporate web sites functioned as a new (pictorial) date stamps for the edition, thereby extending the edition into a new time frame, where the book has a kind of time-keeping device or stopwatch built into it. I wish I had thought of this, but I didn’t.

How has Internet culture affected your work? How has it affected literature in general?

Most of my recent work overlaps the development of what is called Web 2.0, although the PowerPoint works might encompass Web 3.0―where the web appears to do one’s thinking (or writing/reading) for one. The movement of software to participatory, web-based platforms, along with the growth of user-generated content, informs both 7CV and HEATH. Both these books are marked by real-time updating of materials, customization of existing content, an increasing interpenetration between digital formats and the physical artifact known as the book, most notably via metadata standards and folksonomies. In this sense, the model for reading, like book making, is changing. As I mentioned, literary studies represses its medial component―which is why literary studies is distinct from media studies at most universities. And literature generally tends to repress its time-based elements. So when you read Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” a poem that is all about time, most people don’t care that they read line 2 at 3:36 and line 17 at 4:15—but I think that’s an altogether more interesting way to read literature. I like a novel with a stopwatch in it; but even more, I like a novel that is a stopwatch.

For me, I think of reading as data management rather than passive absorption on a couch, though these dichotomies are ultimately false. Reading is and probably always will be a bit of both. At any rate, ideas about information processing are altering the contours of printed and digital works. Suddenly the book is just one element in a larger system of textual controls, distribution models, and controlled vocabulary systems. This is certainly true of the two PowerPoint works. I mean what are they? Are they poems or are they more like Twitter feeds? They don’t seem like PowerPoint presentations because they’re weak didactically and they don’t make a point. They are inflected by communications devices, but they do have a rhythm, which poems tend to have! And likewise with Twitter. Is it a broadcast medium using a pull system much like an RSS feed? Or is it more of a storage device, like a scroll or a poem? The idea of a network as a platform for collaborative work (rather than software housed on an individual’s desktop) might be applied to a book, no longer regarded as discrete, stand-alone object but as something that gets updated on a periodic basis in a social network. But this may not be that new an idea. After all, David Hume praised the printing press because it made it possible to issue countless emendations, revisions, and new editions.

Can you state briefly what you see as the future of the book?

Let’s return for a moment to the bootleg by Westphalie Verlag in Vienna. Did the publisher David Jourdan in this case create what, under U.S. copyright law, would be termed “strong” copyleft where the derivative work is “based on the program” and has a “clear will to extend it to “dynamic linkage”? At this point, we are talking about software development licensing, shared libraries, primary access to source code, site linkages, share and share alike provisions, and software pools. My question is: Can a book be made to look like the authoring of such software, caught in a complicated licensing and development system? I think so! Maybe that’s the future of the book: to look like a licensing agreement regarding the future dissemination of its own information.