The Comedies of Separation: Toward a Theory of Electronic Literature


I would like to give a talk based on my series of writings for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s website, Open Space, a series that I called “The Comedies of Separation.” (

In the series, I described what I called a “simple” in electronic literature (the term is taken from Wittgenstein). A simple is a node of text/algorithm interaction: a point in time and space where the text and the code that is presenting it to you on the screen occur or become apparent to the reader. Even when text is stable — not flying around, not changing shape or color, like when you are using a word processor — there is always code keeping it on the screen, creatin on-the-fly pages for your viewing, distributing it worldwide, etc., and workers in electronic literature are almost always interested in exploiting the properties of this unholy alliance of algorithm and text. A simple is more like a moment or an event than a thing, though I would like to elaborate on my Open Space series by attempting to negotiate where exactly a text/algorithm node can appear on an ontological axis between the poles of thought and object.

In terms of discussing the actual ontological status of an algorithm, I will have some recourse to recent Speculative Realist philosophers of objects including sociologist Bruno Latour, Quentin Meillessoux and Graham Harman, with some further reflections on art and technology from Martin Heidegger. If Latour would have us believe, as he does in Actor-Network theory, that an accurate sociology would focus as much on the intensifying qualities of humans as much as, say, speed bumps, then it shouldn’t be hard to understand algorithms of objects in themselves, with all the phenomenal qualities that objects possess in the philosophies of, say, Heidegger or Harman.

To further complicate things, I’ve attached to each simple something that I call a “comedy,” which highlights, I believe, the active nature of the text/algorithm interaction, as well as places it somewhere within everyday comprehension. A comedy implies affect — it feels like someone is doing something to you, rather than an object merely behaving as an object does — and this sort of affect is something a normally functioning computer tries everything it can to avoid. There are ten “comedies,” including that of seduction, reduction, subjection, recursion, exhaustion, simulation, etc. and by understanding these comedies as the basic “simples”—the language/algorithm node in the way that word/syntax nodes can be seen as the “simples” of language—then we can find ways to discuss multi-faceted works that employ many such “comedies” such as “88 Constellations for Wittgenstein (to be played by left hand” by David Clark or relatively simple works like the text-movies of Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries.

Ultimately, the theory of the comedies of separation attempts to articulate what “digital textuality” means as an advent on the chronology of language starting with speech, moving through written language, and then print without recourse to such under-developed concepts such as the “born digital” which excludes several works that have been constructed according to text/algorithm interaction (if not by computers).