Simultaneously Reading/Writing Under/Destroyed My Life

Simultaneously Reading/Writing Under/Destroyed My Life

Maria Damon

Maria Damon reviews Alan Sondheim’s Writing Under: Selections from the Internet Text in light of the literature of John Fahey to demonstrate that those texts, like her performative review of them, enact a “mastering/dismantling itch twitch” that has a “life of its own, moving through the artist in a parasitic way.”

Simultaneously reading multi-(sound)artist and internet theorist Alan Sondheim’s Writing Under: Selections from the Internet Text and eccentric/mystic guitarist John Fahey’s two monstrously marvelous works of “fiction,” How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life and Vampire Vultures, effects an exhilarating disorientation, an eerie pleasure, and ravenous taste for the abject and abstract combined. I’m reading the first for a professional “review,” the second for “pleasure,” but the sensibilities are so consonant in their energizing dissonance that they end up (excuse the academic cliché here) “illuminating each other.” One might also say (pace Robert Duncan) endarkening each other. The fierce, obsessive desire for a kind of truth that is never definitive, expressed through psycho-aesthetic experimentation, repetition, and a supra-personal though highly idiosyncratic devotion to “the/my work” characterize these texts, which, though they refer beyond themselves to a larger stream of lifework, have an identity and compelling delight, per se.  These types of creative forces, embodied for the moment in a person and his (in these cases) struggle, bring the raw together with the highly sophisticated, resulting in that person’s highly idiolectical understanding of systems and an iconoclastic process of dismantling them from the inside out, “burrowing” through them, to use Deleuze and Guattari’s term for how a “minor” literature constructs itself through, around, within and under a majority language. In spite / or because/ of the “high coefficient of deterritorialization” that this burrowing process engenders in both the burrower and the receiving public of the distorted minority language, the resulting language and the world from which it emanates is both charming and terrifying, and gives the impression that the teller of the tale is not in control but rather controlled by the need to tell–though, again, a high level of technical skill is required to give form to these appealing monstrosities. This mastering/dismantling itch twitch seems to have a life of its own, moving through the artist in a parasitic way, as powerful disease (rabies, say) speaks and acts through a possessed animal who is merely its host. “The/my work” combines technical expertise with a raging distrust of “craft,” of decorum, of expertise itself or the shallow certainty that expertise can appear to warrant.

Writing Under appears to address “craft” and the technologies of writing/wryting in its overt structure, i.e. explanatory essays, lists of definitions, transcribed conference talks and lectures (whose exact coordinates and occasions are not spelled out, only irregularly hinted at in, for instance, the Trace piece [39-46]: I wish they had been and I wonder what editorial process kept them out of the volume). The pieces are stripped of the usual “Sondheim effect” of sensory overload and multimedia immersion. Nonetheless the impression of an asymptotic tsunami of desire forced through necessarily inadequate words, of reluctance to be bound by form and genre, and of the need to (dis)articulate a destroyed totality of worldview in every undertaking, no matter how humble (the informal conference talk etc.), is as strong as ever. That is one reason that I approach this book as a porous and slippery manifesto rather than a coherent series of explanations.

Under. A majority language. A language under language, running like a river of sewage or a swirl of bioluminescent feverlight under the formalities that structure our human cognition as it expresses itself through signs, glyphs, utterance–those complex systems we call language. What’s the language under language? What’s the writing under writing? What’s the music under music? Feverishly moving, mutating, oscillating and flickering, oozing, dare one write “throbbing” (something more powerfully unnerving than “pulsing” but equally indicative of life force?), both incandescent and sludgy, visceral and sidereal? The preposition under has a guttural earth (urth) sound that underscores (yeah, I wrote underscores, incisions below a surface) its subservient status and subversive potential, its onomatopoieic/ semantic thrust. All things sub. The underworld of language and communication, of systems, of theory, of writing and of psychology, is where Sondheim dwells (as Fahey dwells in the underworld of music and Americana, the scary suburbs with their abusive parents, the rivers of music that flow under the melodies that bob to the surface…) Under, from Proto-Indo-European *ndhero- “lower” (cf. Sanskrit adhah “below;” Avestan athara- “lower;” Latin infernus “lower,” infra “below.” In other words, the hellrealms.

In the context of the internet text, writing under can mean codework, about which more anon. The internet text can be considered a generic term for online writing, but it is also the title of Sondheim’s ongoing (almost twenty years’) project of online textual exploration, which he describes very generally as follows:

The Internet Text is a continuous meditation on “cyberspace,” emphasizing language, body, avatar issues, philosophy, poetics, and code-work. It is written daily and presented on several email lists including Cybermind and Wryting. Many of the pieces within it were created through CMC, interactions with computers and online protocols, and programs. (

Written daily: yes, there is a flood of material in this dematerialized format, and the “Selections” are already an awkward incision into the writhing bio-morass that is this ungovernable open text. Sandy Baldwin’s comprehensive, thorough, and urgent introduction takes up this awkwardness by acknowledging the impossible nature of Sondheim’s project. The title “Preposterous Justifications” captures perfectly the grandiosity and ridiculousness of any kind of rationale for such a sprawling exercise, and yet the project is palpably urgent on ethical, aesthetic, intellectual and metaphysical grounds.  

But even before the intro, even before the table of contents, a summons, “You’re Out There,” appeals to the invisible reader (as a poet summons his muse, Sondheim summons us as his necessary if unknown interlocutors):

You’re out there, I know you’re out there!

Come in, come in from the cold!

Write me, I know you’re out there.

Contact me; I’ve been waiting for you.

If you don’t write, then there’s no there.

If you write you draw me toward you.

If you write you bring me in from the cold.

I exist because you’re out there.

I exist to be drawn in.

Write me, I know you’re out there! 

While this missive is far simpler than the selections to follow, it, like Amiri Baraka’s “SOS” (“Calling all Black people, come on in”), is a powerful incantation/invocation that announces the writer’s interdependent and interactive relationship with an Other (or in Baraka’s case, a community) known or unknown, who is responsible for the writer’s existence. Because the writer is written. “Write me” doesn’t mean “write to me,” or it doesn’t mean only that; the stakes are far higher than a simple back-and-forth “correspondence” between two autonomous persons. This tone of urgency and declaration of dependence on inscription (while at the same time critically asking what subtends inscription) sets the volume in motion. Being “out there” in multiple senses characterizes the writer, the reader, and the cyberspace in which we flow. When poet Bob Kaufman, another insider/outsider, quips “Way out people know the way out,” he names the excitement that an “out there” or “way out” person feels when encountering a kindred spirit.

Codework: the coding language of computer commands, the language behind the language, that determines what we see, what we (mis)understand as the natural language that floats on the surface of the machine screen. Codework, Sondheim’s coinage, which has become part of the working lingua franca of internet poets, refers to that esoteric language of the underneath brought to the surface and forced to integrate, bumpily and bumptiously, with natural language. Pages 53-57 detail a code named “Julu” (also the name of one of Sondheim’s many avatars), which lists seemingly random words interspersed with commands (i.e. “@noun = qw (“). It’s an old modernist trick, to show the means of production –in this case the commands –as part of the art object, and it has a wonderfully disorienting effect in his work. Try reading it aloud; numbers and seemingly random letter combinations take on the pathos of semi-autonomous works of art if one (like this one, your writer here, MD) doesn’t know the coding lingo. If one does, it conveys information the uninitiated would never guess:

jp115              ttyp0               Jan 18 11:20              (

harold             ttyp1               Jan 19 01:16              (

dagger            ttyp2               Jan 16 01:31              (

bitty                ttyp3               Jan 16 20:32              (  (p. 96)

The few natural-language words, one of which is a name, along with dates of great specificity (down to the hour), and the second column, which could be read as a series (ttyp 0-3) or a set of misspelled approximations of words (“typo,” “Typee,” “type two,” etc.), combine to create a mysterious narrative that I strive to render semi-coherent. In fact, it’s simply a list of terminal users (in the computer sense, not in the sense of hopeless addicts, though they may be that too) whose online handles appear in the left-hand (first) column) followed by dates and locations of use. So, codework is an almost perfectly felicitous instance of a “minor”ity language–though crafted from a majority language (letters and numbers) it is highly deterritorialized, not only from natural language, but, when corrosively and imperfectly integrated with it, from the language of computer programmers, who use it in their own hegemonic and hidden way. And its gnomic urgency calls to mind those moments of extreme danger of which Walter Benjamin warned in his final missive to the world (WB 257), in which a memory flashes up and “shimmers in place” (Jani Scandura) in the mind of the hunted refugee, crystallizing the contradictions of history, ethically and politically driven analysis of which makes life worth living, “all the way down” (183).

Some of the questions raised by the multitude of themes and currents set in motion in Writing Under’s maelstrom of affect, language and data –and I have no desire and little capacity for a systematic pursuit of answers –involve relationships and their instabilities: not only relationships between different regimes of understanding, but between “people” and their Others, between subjects and objects within the same consciousness, etc. etc. The impression (simulacrum? I think not) of improvisation –and the implicit valorization of improvisation, spontaneity and yet constriction, is very strong here, and I wonder what is the relationship between improvisation and the abject (78)? The shoving-up of  “dirtiness” (16, 28), “gooey”-ness (78), “broken[-ness]”(28), messiness (155) (I thought I coined the word “messay” as well as “yessay” but once again Sondheim cuts the edge in this self-interview), effluvia (puddles, leakings) (111)), “smear”[ing], (153), “rubbing”s (92), spillage, “imbroglio” and the viscosity of “paste” (91) against not only the “sturdy” and the “inert” (86) on the one hand (indeed it has an affinity with substantiality), but also, on the other hand, against the abstraction of the internet, of Second Life effects, of the linguistic, systems and communications theories that inform both Sondheim’s and Baldwin’s prose creates a precariousness, a vulnerability, a reluctant willingness to make a complete fool of oneself by compulsively doing one’s art in public, because that’s the way it has to be; there’s no risk if it’s not exposed, but what exactly is one exposing? One’s thoughts (safe, cerebral, ecstatic) or one’s body (risky, dubious, humiliating, ecstatic)? If it’s not both, imbricated in each other, it’s not interesting. The relationship to improvisation is obvious: the risk of looking dumb, or narcissistic, or falling flat, or not connecting, or appearing to be unskilled, biting off more than etc. “Constantly risking absurdity” etc.

Under: erasure.

Under: the influence.

Under: pressure

Under: suspicion.

Under: a cloud.

Under: intense interrogation.

Under: dog.

Under: a moment of extreme danger, clarity bursts and then dissolves, shimmeringly.

Sondheim encapsulates the metaforix and metafizzix of the above in the term “wryting” (80 ff.), intended to (semi-)erase, influence, pressure, suspect, cloud, interrogate intensely, and dog “writing,” whose bland, untroubled surface she (wryting) has come to challenge, while simultaneously remaining in a subordinate, abjected, marginalized position to it (writing). Sondheim takes, of course, the part of “wryting,” which asks (wh)y and summons the (e)y(e) to the reading/inscribing process (visually echoing the Derridean challenge to the temporal and value-inflected primacy of the spoken/(h)ear(d)). That bland, untroubled surface also smirks from the screen of internet interface, against whose self-assured smoothness Sondheim proposes “dissolution” (88), “granularity and corrosion,” “clotted[ness]” and illegibility tout court(81). Wryting is wrything (85), an agonized, shimmy-shimmy nod to “writing”’s etymological kinship with “writhing,” as well as Ishmael Reed’s pithy dictum that “writin’ is fightin’.” To carve, scratch, cut: wryting is laceration, you bet your life it is. When done wrongright, it is dissolution, inscription as incision as wounding, and channels an attention to “human debris” (149) of all kinds. John Fahey at 0:25 of “Poor Boys Long Way From Home” Rockpalast 1978, laying his ear down on his guitar ostensibly to check the tuning but equally to be physically touched by the voices crying through, and to have something to cling to. “The guitar is a place I go.” Wryting is a place I go, a place that creates me. A monitor screen is a paltry thing to cling to; hence the heightened accomplishment and abjection of Sondheim’s project: namely, to extract blood from a sleek machine, to wreak compassion from a stony world, to make the axe talk not kill.

There are passages of pretty writing and passages that appear orderly. On p. 86 we find this very pretty sentence: “Thus truth as function of wryting shines with the wryting of sheep, goats, grain, rice, papyrus, jewels, and other tabulations.”  That is, because wryting participates in history, which is irrevocably intertwined with subjective human suffering, it is related to all manner of aspects of organic life, and truth is historically contingent, but not in a tired, academic way. It is bodily.

…and there’s dreaming, proverbs, tales, stories, poetry, poetics, hallucinations, hypnagogic imagery, meditations, and the like…

And even though the real physical world isn’t written, it’s full of writing and our bodies themselves are always already written, inscribed–full of tattoos, scars, burns, abrasions, wrinkles, salves, perfumes, calluses and so forth. I think it’s from these things, particularly from scars, wounds, abrasions, scrapes, etc., that language descends–that language is, first and foremost a reading of the history of the body (93). 

The list function in the sentence reappears in many forms throughout the book; some of the essays are anaphorically organized to make for incantatory and also “well-organized” writing. “a summing-up” (16), a sort of introduction, initiates every sentence/paragraph with the phrase “My work,” which articulates well and with piquant contradiction the fierce individualism and conviction of vision of the artist who nonetheless doesn’t believe in an autonomous, subjective agency, who knows his project is doom(ed) and mocks it with some dark humor. (“My work has pretensions towards the philosophical and the scientific; I strip my work away from my work as well.” “My work is a broken work.” “My work covers the same ground repeatedly.” [16-17])  “Sentenced To Place” (107-08) is pretty and grounded throughout: Sondheim describes the physical setting of his writing (“Gravity holds the computer against the white woof blanket, holds my naked body against the same; there is a river of wool between us”), and it becomes a meditation on gravity as an embodied, benevolent agency. I don’t mind pretty writing (and I don’t mean it as a slur), as long as it is self-knowing, which this writing is to a fault. (I really love Fahey’s pretty pieces–the early stuff that he later disowned–because the prettiness is at such obvious odds with the sensibility that is producing it). It’s nice when a restless soul finds haven for a page or two. Though sometimes (often) the lists merely underscore the expansive, chaotic embrace of everything (“2. The continuous embedding of human debris, effusion, detritus, splayed across shrinking natural zones”[149]). 

The embodiment of language as our subjectivity is key here, and forms whatever fragile (39, etc.) ground there may be for Sondheim’s worldview. Letters themselves are desiring bodies (Kabbalistic), vessels of need and passion (105). Our bodies are our letters to the world, as well as worlds in and of themselves–but always in uneasy, frictive coexistence, and never autonomous. In complementary to Wittgenstein’s claim that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world,” Sondheim avers that “the limits of my body within the true world are the limits of my world” (156) So body is language, down to the veriest curlicue (151) of the pig’s tail, of the fanciful serif, “all the way down.” And don’t you forget it. Despite its heavy and obvious debt to Derridean thought and terminology, Sondheim’s work emphasizes the body (I wrote “boy” initially, not entirely beside the pointly) in ways that meld a highly technologized écriture feminine with a masculine though not phallogocentric (or is it? If so, it’s interestingly so) subjectivity. Sondheim folds the body into a cerebral ecosystem, indeed, he claims the body, however fractured, fragile and fractile, as the ground of all other beingthinking–this insistence on a volubly vulnerable, embodied masculinity–a hetero-Genêt-ity (his coinage but dang how I wish it were mine) sets him apart from many of his peers in the e-poetry/theory world and may well account for some of the ambivalence with which his work is received.

Here you will find apocalypticism (38), “massive creativity” (37), a biome of teeming minutiae throughout, self-rug-pulling-out-from-under (last line of “unun”: “Oh hell I’m not fooling anybody”(149)), an Indra-net cradling us in the mother-matrix of language (89). We are hurled into the world…(thrown-ness–Heidegger–as Fahey reminds us) and have to contend… with our dis-eases, our irritabilities, our itchiness, our wrongness, our mutancy and the glory that therein abides. Clearly I could go on and on cataloguing the wonders of this book but ça suffit for now. You can read it yourself for the insights about electronic literature, net philosophy, and coderie sagesse.

Eternal life to these mutant talents, these “ozmatroid” (Fahey’s term for an awkward, out-there, out-of-it person) sensibilities! Amazingly enough, I learned that John Fahey and Alan Sondheim had known each other, and that Fahey had had plans to issue a record of Sondheim’s work (in his role as multi-instrumentalist) back in the 1960s. It never materialized, but clearly, on some unachieved and inchoate level, a strong current connects these two erudite inside/outsider artist iconoclasts, masters of technique and knowledge, slaves of their visions. May they both live forever.