Language, a Virus?
In an essay on experimental software, the net.art critic Tilman Baumgärtel points out that thirteen years prior to 0100101110101101.org's ``biennale.py'', in 1988, a computer virus had been programmed and disseminated as an artistic prank.1 A detailed account of the case is available in Robert M. Slade's ``History of Computer Viruses'', the classic reference on the subject.2 In February 1988, a file for Apple's HyperCard software turned up in a Compuserve online forum. Whenever downloaded and opened, it secretly installed a system extension which made the computer display a parodistic New Age peace message on every startup. The people behind the virus, Artemus Barnoz (a.k.a. Richard Brandow) and Boris Wanowitch were simulatenously the editors of the Canadian computer magazine MacMag and the ``Computer Graphics Conspiracy'' of the international subcultural network of Neoism.3 Brandow emphasized in all his statements on the MacMag virus that he had spread it being a Neoist, and for Neoist purposes.4 Since the MacMag virus had spread via floppy disks to development computers of the MacroMind (today: Macromedia) and from there onto the computers of the software company Aldus (later bought up by Adobe), version 1.0 of the popular illustration graphics program ``FreeHand'' came out on infected installation disks.5 This made the case spectacular, resulting in a jail sentence for Brandow, and inspiring the line ``we are the virus in your computer'' of the Neoist electro-pop anthem ``I am Monty Cantsin'', released on the LP ``Ahora Neoismus'' still in the same year.6
According to Slade, the MacMag virus was one of the first computer viruses ever. Its only precedessors were three viruses for IBM-compatible PCs - ``Lehigh'', ``Jerusalem'' and ``Brain'' - which had been written, but hardly disseminated, in 1986 and 1987, and a couple of even older proto-viruses. Brandow's and Wanowitch's virus was the first of massive circulation, and it also was the first to spread not only via floppy disks, but also over electronic networks; the ``Morris Worm'', which virtually crashed the Internet in 1988, came out in November, nine months later. Since the MacMag virus was all the more the first, as Tilman Baumgärtel observes, whose message consisted not only in self-replication and manipulation of the host system, but also in a plain English text on the computer screen, it was a hybrid of source code (with the binary-encoded signature of the programmer ``DREW'') and text output. As such, it was textually more complex than all its precedessors. If the program of Neoism could be described as contagious replication of self-invented language constructs such as the proper name ``Monty Cantsin'' into ``data cells'' - a term coined already around 1985 -, collectively adopting and mythologizing them beyond recognition, then the MacMag virus was the first computer version of this program, i.e. the first implementation of Neoism into algorithmic code.
The history of computer viruses in the arts could thus be told the other way around. - Not only as poetic and aesthetic appropriations of virus code, as they recur in Net.art and digital poetry since circa 1997 (see Jutta Steidl's essay ``If() Then()'' in this catalogue), but as a language-speculative impregnation and pervasion of computer viruses since they were invented. The possible influences on these speculations are abundant: the cognitive nihilist Henry Flynts whose project to refute analytical philosophy - and anything else - with its own methods had influenced some Neoists; the Deleuze/Guattari volume ``On the Line'' published in 1983 by Semiotext(e) New York states that ``our viruses make us form a rhizome with other creatures;`` the biologist Richard Dawkins is controversial for his theory of the ``meme'' as a contagious idea which he first published in 1976 7; but more than anybody else, the novelist William S. Burroughs is interesting here. Created with radical collage techniques, his hallucinatory spy novel prose translated writing styles of the modernist avant-garde (predominantly the French surrealism mediated through his friend Brion Gysin) into pop literature. But even importantly, his speculations on language and technology had a striking impact on subcultural currents and thinking in the 1980s. 8 For Burroughs, the relationship between viruses and language amounted to more than just the idea that viruses could be created in language or - like in Dawkins' ``memetics'' - that certain speech acts had contagious effects. For him, language itself was a virus:
,,I have frequently spoken of word and image as viruses or as acting as viruses, and this is not an allegorical comparison.9
- Burroughs' phrase factually became
a self-fulfilling prophecy thanks to its many citations in pop culture;
Laurie Anderson made ``language is a virus''a song title in her 1979
performance ``United States Live'' which Nile Rodgers produced as
a disco hit for the 1986 movie ``Home of the Brave''; a movie featuring
Burroughs at seventy-two as Anderson's tango dance partner. - Burroughs'
virus theory might be considered the most extreme antithesis to the
nominalism of structuralist linguistics since Ferdinand de Saussure
which conceived of language as a rational construct and for whom the
relation between imagined concepts and pronounced speeach was based
on social conventions only. Still, Burroughs' theory is far from original.
He himself doesn't obscure its traces back to occultisms and para-science:
Aleister Crowley's satanic theosophy, Alfred Korzybski's ``General
Semantics'' which sought to heal mankind by deprogramming, with the
help of a string-puppet-like device called ``structural differential'',
false identifications of words and things,10 – and finally Lafayette
Ron Hubbard's doctrine of ``Dianetics'' and ``Scientology''. Influenced
by both Crowley and Korzybski, Hubbard's chief concern was to ``clear''
(erase) ``engrams'', traumas inscribed as words into the subconscious.
Among the artist influenced by ``Dianetics'' were John Cage and Morton
Feldman11; Burroughs, who for a period was even a member of the Church
of Scientology, extensively refers to Hubbard's concepts in his language
copyright © 2004 digitalcraft.org