Winter 2000–2001

Anachronistic Modernism

Numbers stations, static, and the Cold War of poetry

Tan Lin

Like radio and telegraph mediums—as well as digital transmission formats and pulse code modulations that were developed to ensure the secrecy of transmitted messages—number stations are an archaic survivor of espionage practices dating from World War I and continuing in the post–Cold War era. As such, numbers stations broadcasts bear an uncanny resemblance to another anachronism: modernist literature, or what might be more aptly deemed the Literature of Information, itself conditioned by early technological developments in radio transmission and encryption.

In 1939, Ernest Vincent Wright published a 267-page novel, Gadsby, where the letter e was completely eliminated:

Upon this basis I am going to show you how a bunch of bright young folks did find a champion...

The following was produced by feeding words from a biography of John Cage into a language-generating program that replicates what Clyde Shannon calls second-order word approximation:

Automatic some of which is a method for arriving at the summer of 1949.
His sixtieth the image without looking.
He songs disjunction the wife.
Some of which its theatre eliminates.
Some of which are its other concerts.
And reawakened retrospective upon which it is drawn.

Like much recent experimental poetry, numbers channels emphasize concealment and high information compression. Both mediums tend to disguise a conservative heritage and a romantic ideology behind 1970s bell-bottoms, mirror balls, Jimi Hendrix riffs and outrageous hair. Literature is nothing but the residue of an old technology in the process of reinventing itself as static. Such static comprehends the (defeated) lyricism of the Cold War, with its suggestions of meaningful and private messages (encrypted), i.e., voice. It alone constitutes, even as it cloaks, the attack of the psyche by an outside party (squelch factor) or by those in control of the channels of transmission (broadcast and print media, generally). In John Ashbery’s poetry, the noise created by eavesdropping, code cracking, and other forms of electronic surveillance have been coded as a very late form of four-on-the floor disco-romanticism, which is to say, all Cold War political undertones have been squelched and transmuted into the insidious laugh track from a gay television sitcom.

It really get to me. This is a glove
It do something to me. or a book from a book club

No filter. Highly inefficient encoding (which becomes its opposite (valorized) in a ‘poetic’ (outdated) medium). Maximum attenuation of signal. Maximum phase shift. Hence a technology biased towards noise over a linear channel. Most recent “experimental” poetry is political ideology reconfigured as disco party with no noise. Noise is random. A filtered signal suggests where it is going and what is coming next. “How can we represent or encode messages so as to obtain the fastest possible transmission over the noisy channel?” (Shannon) One of the speakers is dead. One of our presidents is being shot. The specter of JFK haunts Ashbery’s poetry more than any other contemporary poet with the exception of certain of Warhol’s factory goers, and other poets glued to that aura. Let me pretend for a minute to be Gertrude Stein, who is no longer living or thus speaking to you but exists now like a former president, i.e., an endless sound recording, a transgendered or homoerotic gramophone of herself speaking to herself, especially in her monstrously long book called The Making of Americans, which Edmund Wilson said was very queer and very boring and confessed to having not read. The book should be mandatory reading for presidential hopefuls. The best kind of writing creates a similar deeply repressed sound track of layered and transexual voicings. The greatest poems are psychotropic poems that cannot be read but only listened to. Tennyson was the first to transform his voice into a live mechanical recording instrument in In Memoriam and to induce a trance state of automatic listening. Unfortunately, no one has studied the relation of twentieth-century literature to the repetitive drone of mid-70s disco music or its logical antecedent, the gramophone, along with the pre-recorded and mechanical music pressed into wax cylinders (1891) and the early Edison discs, whose invention in 1912 coincides with T. S. Eliot’s promulgation of a timeless and impersonal modernism, one marked by the disintegration of voices into background music or sound, a peculiar recording of voicelessness that one hears in both The Waste Land and Four Quartets as well as in much electronica

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Most experimental literature of the twentieth century was beset by noise, i.e., a form of preserving uncertainty vis-à-vis a (weak) signal source and a signal’s “lost” meaning. Not surprisingly, in the twentieth century an entire body of literature has emerged out of social and technological practices considered outmoded: the uncrackable code, a.k.a. noise, secret telepathic communications, the trance communiqué (usually via a medium and originating with the “dead”). Numerous poetic works provide a corollary to the numbers stations’ broadcasts. All were premised on receiving signals or messages from a distance, or transcribing voices into the present in a disguised technological form perceived as moribund. Hence the presence of ghostly or quasi-spiritual voices interjected into the corpse of poet or tradition: Jack Spicer’s radio broadcasts/receptions wherein the poet functions as a damaged radio; Bob Brown’s reading machines designed to transfigure the master tapes into new visual (twittering) forms of poetry; T. S. Eliot’s cryptogram of disguised (indistinguishable, hence voiceless) voices known as The Waste Land; Stein’s repetitive sentence patterns; John Cage’s vertical hieroglyphs and lectures on nothing; and more recently the machine-based protocol-languages of Michael Palmer and John Ashbery, where information networks and neural-processing systems are subject to compression and overload.

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Most experimental writers, like proponents of information theory such as Clyde Shannon, stress the production and reproduction of non-systemic, phenomenal or extra-literary material, material that verges on linguistic noise and that exists just beyond the fringes of memory (hence consciousness). It is a saw of information theory that the meaning of the message is fundamentally irrelevant to any scientific study of information flow or capacity. So, too, with much modern experimental writing, where the content of the message, i.e., the meaning, is virtually impossible to nail down. This brings us to a second idea that underlies most theories of information: information is only valuable if it conveys something new. What was a poem for Marinetti? A poem that made the noises of war. How To Write, by Gertrude Stein, is best understood as an attempt at coding and uncoding a linguistic message wherein a pattern or code of meaningful utterances is suggested, but without ever uttering the meaningful message itself. All linguistic utterance was beset by such unresolvable tensions between sender and recipient. Much of Stein’s writing functions as a partially encrypted and hence infinitely suggestive “message text” between language (sender) and its user (recipient). No longer is language, in Stein, a clear case of one person using language to communicate with another, but rather it was an instance of language sending a message, via writing, to a listener incapable of reading.

Noise (plagiarization)

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Pater was wrong. Baudrillard came too late. All poetry (repetition of numbers) aspires to the condition of static. The rate of intake of information (recycling) should be kept relatively constant, which is to say it approaches the limit imposed by nature: the due sum of all sound signals sent to the ear. At this point all sorts of mistakes occur and it is hard to tell if they are occurring in the signal source or in the receptor. Such mistakes ought to be manifested as jerks of the eye on the page, otherwise known as saccadic movements. At the center of the eye’s vision there is clarity but beyond a one-degree angle from this foeva centralis everything else is in linguistic blur.

For example, John Ashbery’s finest works suggest that a poem ought to be written in discrete 8-track production. Because of that, it constantly exceeds Muller’s magic number seven. In such cases, poetry is on the verge of becoming linguistic noise, just beyond the fringes of memory (hence consciousness). In a very fast poem, and John Ashbery has written the fastest poems of the century, one is reading ahead of oneself to get one’s bearings, reading through the blur of musical strains (late Romantic TV, made-for-movie soundtracks) and dull 1970s reportage (chronicler of suburban angst, parking lots, and blow jobs, picnics, recycled air force photos, etc.) That is why his work sounds like very fast French to an American ear. Thus, one reads peripherally if one reads at all: non-reading, a look-no-hands skimming rapidly over material without having read it; words are not read they are seen as they are flipped through. The only way to read is acrobatically, fast and with lots of background noise (disco music or television), for that encourages more speed and more rapid processing of the information that cannot be processed except as a function of peripheral seeing and distracted absorption. One reads rapidly from one point of fixation (visual) to another, and what conditions the speed or shift of visual focus (the saccade) is predicated on the movement from the last visual focus. One is a magician or a charlatan in this respect, or one is moving at the speed of chatter and gossip, realms where processing information instinctively and quickly is essential. To read poetry carefully and slowly is to miss the point, which is the blur. The blur makes Romanticism possible again. But one wishes for more blur and less Romanticism. That is why many recent experimental poets are Romantics at heart or modernists who still pursue notions of aesthetic autonomy. As usual, the poet struggles to blur his own worst impulses, which he or she regards as his or her best.

David Scher, Untitled, 1996.

Unlike Stein, where reading backwards is enforced continually in a grand predecession of American English becoming a monolithic rest-stop, in Ashbery and other experimental writers, there is not enough time to turn back. To turn back would mean to be caught by one’s own act of reading. To be comprehended by one’s own act of reading would mean the death of one’s volubility and suburbanite lyricism, i.e., the perceptual rate of information intake has been pushed to its outer limits and one reaches a point where the receptor’s discriminatory powers of selection have been virtually turned off. This too is a binary system with nearly every switch thrown off, and progress controlled barely by some feedback response in which the preceding jerks in the eye’s movement condition the next series of visual leaps. “The average television receiver carries signals of about 200 million bits per second capacity.” The eye is capable of 4.3 million bits per second, which explains why watching TV is so relaxing from a visual standpoint .


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Truly great poems, like Stein’s, contain sentences that allow a 1-bit-per-second retrieval rate, i.e., the slowest in the century. Ashbery’s poems (they are to be gulped down in one sitting) allow a 900 million rate, probably the highest in the century. Once one gets past the noise one enters a state of deep relaxation. What is redundant in Ashbery’s signal source? Unlike Stein there is paradoxically very little redundancy and that should lead to slower (French) reading but paradoxically it doesn’t. Everything is redundant in Stein and this leads to a clotting of the visual sense and a retardation of reading itself. In Stein, one’s reading turns to mud. This is known as mind or rather language in mind to be distinguished from language had in mind. No language has a mind. I repeat: no language no mind.

So Stein not only created genre-less writing (a major accomplishment) she also created language-less writing (a miracle) and she created the generic sound of all previous and future written languages (more than a miracle.) These three accomplishments are even greater to the extent that they cancel one another out. They are all, like numbers station broadcasts, forms of interference transformed into coding, and what is interfered with is the ‘practice’ of writing.

To diagram that electrical circuit will be the main task of poetry readers (listeners) who are future writers. For it is ultimately the practice of writing near, and not writing itself, that Stein is critiquing. The practice of fever in writing is a professional and a male thing. The writing and unwriting of writing unwriting is an amateurish and female thing. It is a leap and fuss. Stein preferred the latter even when she pretended the former, which is today a way that Stein was ventriloquising sex in her writing. Why she pretended sex is a very great mystery to which we will never know the answer because Stein herself did not know the answer. [CONTINUE FROM A AT THIS POINT B IN THE TEXT]: Once we understand [that], language becomes infinitely easy to listen to but infinitely harder to [write]. [That] is why writing causes so much pain, and listening so much pleasure. That again is why listening is more important than writing. [CONTINUE BEFORE A] That is why playback is primary and recording mode sticks to the unimportant. [That is why sound] is superior to language and talking. When conversation becomes [sound as it does] in Stein it becomes [valuable] [In the shopping mall where I am sitting B-C] it helps to BEGIN HERE: with [Listening always] recedes [before writing] and never the other (way around). That interruption is what makes some writers more interesting than others. A good poem is an elision of typos. A great poem interrupts itself constantly and it does so by entering the listener’s head mechanically and all pauses are typos of sorts. The great poem is a very short poem that pretends to be very long or a very long poem that pretends to be very short. It is likely that the poems that need to be written today are the short ones, or at least the ones that appear to be short. In this sense not only must the words be short today, but the poem, if it is long, must be divided into smaller units. This unit today is the couplet and it is unlikely that anything written in anything but the couplet will be truly forgotten. The couplet is the most versatile and fluid of forms. It contains language without ever containing it. It recedes from view the minute one fills it with words. It is far easier than the sonnet. It is easier than any number of fixed forms such as the sestina and the pantoum, though those forms offer particularly severe breathing exercises that are useful in the composition of poetry, and can train the poet for a difficult ride. It resembles the news byte and the binary constructions of computing language. It correlates with an attention span that favors brevity and monotony over all else. It reinforces true multiculturalism and not its various and sundry false platitudes. It is the most American of forms. It pretends to nothing except what it is not. In so doing it frees the negative mathematics in all of us.

The following exemplifies a stochastic process, i.e., a series of words or letters where each new entry is determined by the signs immediately preceding it: “A sentence is made by coupling meanwhile ride around to be a couple there makes greatful dubeity named atlas coin in a loan.” Unlike Ashbery, this is a very slow message transmission, where redundancy (i.e. a function of probability) does not, paradoxically, work to reduce errors in transmission but rather increases them. With a Morse code transmission, maximum occurrence (redundancy) = little information. In sharp contrast to a Morse code transmission wherein the most frequent letters are transmitted with the shortest dot-dash symbols, here we get slow transmission, maximum redundancy, and maximum information/compression. This suggests early twentieth-century speculation on telegraphy, which suggested to some a spiritual transmission of information over a distance. Unlike television broadcasts, such a transmission (like numbers broadcasts) suggests mass amounts of information transmitted at enormously slow speeds over an antiquated medium (crowded channel, i.e., low channel capacity). The following could be said to function like a very primitive version of an image distribution device known as television. What image? In order to transmit a “specified amount of information,” a definite entity [bandwidth + time] is mandated.




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Style is only poorly communicated in writing compared with speech, so it must be replaced by quantification and counting. Style should be the census of the words I have used. Particular words are less important than how they are counted by the sentence that contains them. In America, the counting of speech (American speech) is decidedly non-specialized, one-on-one, pioneering, down-to-earth, pragmatic even as a distinct form of literary speech. It obeys certain quaint laws of averages, that is why it repeats so many words which we speak. The great American poem should be hopelessly redundant. It erases styles as easily as it disposes of conventional genres. All accents of American speech become simply abstract parts of speech. Emphasis and affective logic which gives rise to it comprise the underlying code or meaning, and rarely is that affective logic made to extend beyond the length of a sentence, which is to say it manifests itself not as logic but as occurrence. As Gertrude Stein remarked, sentences are not emotional, paragraphs are. In such a way, all genres should be multifarious and virtually unrecognizable. A genre is a truth masquerading as a lie and what one wants is the opposite. This is a lie: repetitions should not extend beyond the microscopic level of the books that contain them. This is a lie: I want to write a poem like a box or like The Making of Americans which cannot really be read, just as an oeuvre (Stein’s body) of writing ought to be something that cannot be read. The time for reading and especially for reading individual works is over. Individual works can only be sampled, and subjected to statistical analysis. A massively parallel computing system could have a field day with the collected writings now being assembled within this computing device or poem.

A sample of recordings of numbers stations made by Peter Lew in the early 1970s are available here.

Tan Lin is a poet and cultural critic. His latest book of poetry Lotion Bullwhip Giraffe was published by Sun and Moon Press and his writings have appeared in Artbyte and Purple Prose. Lin is a contributing editor to Cabinet.

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