The Empire Swipes Back: App-Lit in "Brief"

By Gretchen E. HendersonFebruary 24, 2013

The Empire Swipes Back: App-Lit in "Brief"

Brief by Alexandra Chasin

HUNDREDS OF NEW APPS hit homescreens each day. From Instagram to Angry Birds, portals for cheap gas to hotel deals, puzzles to games to social networks, the domains of smartphones continue to blur boundaries between computers, books, toolboxes, and beyond. The emerging zone of “app-lit” ranges from Erik Loyer’s Strange Rain, with its raining whispers and words; to an “infinite comic book of musical greatness” called Space Ducks by Daniel Johnston; to Eli Horowitz’s GPS-based, crowdsourced fiction titled The Silent History; to a host of children’s book-apps, including an interactive version of the Academy Award–winning animation, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. While some stalwarts decry the death of the book, idealists frame its history as a mutable medium, and see new technologies tapping its creative potential.

Just as oral transmission shaped the epics of Homer, and serialism fashioned the fiction of Dickens, the means by which we tell stories shape those stories themselves — not only what but also how. And when. Apps are among the latest mediums for this message.

“Can I just say something about that, briefly?” concludes the opening paragraph of Alexandra Chasin’s app-novel, Brief, programmed by Scott Peterman. This novella or brief (as in, legal defense) explodes from its collaged e-cover of a briefcase into a not-so-brief soliloquy by an art vandal, “Inqui, the Destroyer” (also dubbed the “Museum Masher” and “High Art Killer”). Directed to “Your Honor,” who doubles as dear reader, the first-person narration rants about the narrator’s personal and cultural history, questioning originality and authority, mashing up sources from Life magazine to Life cereal, Bobo the Clown to the Bay of Pigs, Hamlet to Tristram Shandy. Brief seeks to both indict us and exonerate our sources, repiecing them in search of a larger truth about making and thinking, being and acting, in a world where creation paradoxically arises from destruction.

Paradoxes abound in this “oral argument”: it is audibly silent, digitally tactile, visually noisy. The app is programmed to reorganize the novella’s text around a cache of 700-plus images that make it virtually impossible to return to the same page twice (at least by slim chance: 1 in 340,068,392). Unlike many ebooks, there is no option to skip between pages, forcing us to progress linearly, swipe by swipe. Rather than pages, Brief numbers its organization by paragraphs. Rocking the iPad reshuffles images around existing, if shifting, “pages.” By calling itself one thing while acting like another, Brief reclassifies through appropriation, changing its text in context. Like the novel-app’s epigraph by D.J. Enright says: “Since the object in question is a modern poem / A police spokesman stated yesterday, / It is hard to tell whether it has been damaged / Or not or how badly.”

Damage scores the novella’s text, meshed with shards of art and culture. Brief is a veritable history of art vandalism and iconoclasm. Its representations of representations echo how, depending on interpretation and relevance, representation can inspire creativity or provoke wrath, garner millions on the market or face criminal charges, demand or reprimand censorship. Chasin drives this home by putting at the "same conceptual table" Damien Hirst and Mark Bridger (the latter of whom inked the former’s sheep), Diego Rivera and John D. Rockefeller Jr. (who censored the former’s mural by demolition), Michelangelo and Lazlo Toth (another hammering), Robert Rauschenberg and William de Kooning (erasure by permission), Mary Richardson and Velázquez (a suffragette’s slashing), and many more: from the cut-ups of William Burroughs to the blown-up Buddhas of Bamiyan. With the described crimes (some of which serve as exhibits for the defense) comes a veritable vandal’s toolkit: from hammers to spray paint to lipstick to Jello and cake icing, the last dyed and transformed into projectile vomit.

While the narrative regurgitates appropriated phrases, institutional jargon, ad lingo, slogans — all manifesting into a kind of manifesto, Chasin entwines these cultural lineages with the personal histories of the narrator and Winnie (neighbors born the same day in 1961), whose different desires and diverging choices drive the narrative as much as historical events. Their baby steps happen alongside news of African independence movements. When churches are bombed in Birmingham, Inqui reports, “Winnie and I ate Campbell’s Soup and Warhol copied the can.” Forced juxtapositions place intimate events on the world stage.

The rub in this rubble is that “you are what you eat what you don’t know will kill you but what you don’t know you know will.” No matter how much the narrator-as-artist-as-vandal-as defendant tries to tear up and repiece images and words from the wider world, destruction cannot raise the dead. The wreckage makes us question our complicity in world events and seek ways to activate the present. “Today’s urgent art of the people is writing,” the narrator says. Toward the end of the novella, Inqui finally describes the crime-in-question (which turns out to be a copycat writing of “KILL ALL LIES,” after Tony Schafrazi’s graffiti on Picasso’s Guernica in 1974), more of a whimper than bang-up ending, which brings us back (after textual and visual references and teaching questions) to the beginning, swept into a different river by swiping forward, with new interpretations arising through rereading.

It’s a hallmark of Brief’s publisher Jaded Ibis Productions (“sustainable literature by digital means”) to publish works in different mediums, so even its print books are offered alternatively as autopsy kit, a scroll in bamboo case, jigsaw puzzles, to name a few examples. Brief’s options range from the app ($4.99) to a snow globe ($8,500). Given the ongoing question of the lifespan of digital platforms, and thus of digital-borne literature, one wonders how long Brief will survive as an app. And other questions arise for apps, games, and related emerging technologies. For instance, how will collaborative writing, programming, and interactive reading change our notion of authorship and authority? How will these developments shape our art, politics, and even evolution as humans? These issues aren’t articulated in the “Teaching Points” at the novella’s end, but are no less present, amid other questions asked outright in the text (like “Are you getting the medium — because if you got the medium, you got the message”).

Future books are already emerging as games, avatars, encoded DNA, thoughts, and other projected mediums, as text makes leaps from print to pixel and beyond. But new technologies have always impacted literature. Books like Brief build on precedents ranging from palimpsests to pastiche, evoking a lineage of Oulipian combinatory forms, textual-image literacies in William Blake’s poetics or the fiction of Laurence Sterne, even medieval letters and margins electrified by gold leaf. These earlier forms often were interactive, inviting marginalia, manicules, glossing, dog-earing, grangerizing, cut-up, erasure, and other readerly interactions. Brief is more interpretive than interactive, leaving no avenues for a reader to respond (through digital annotation or crowdsourcing, for instance), even as the narrator asks the reader to “Call and respond to me through the windows of my incarceration.” Even in experimental dress, Brief wears its traditions on its sleeves. “Now, and here, where there’s no original — in print, in paint, in pixel, or in person — and copies of any generation are closer to the thing copied than any duplicate ever was.” By defining its limits, this app-novel suggests possibilities. The verdict is out on the future horizon. We are always deciding how to live in the present. Let’s call more witnesses to the stand.


LARB Contributor

Gretchen E. Henderson is the author of The House Enters the Street (Starcherone Books, 2012), On Marvellous Things Heard (Green Lantern Press, 2011), and Galerie de Difformité (&NOW Books, 2011, winner of the Madeleine P. Plonsker Prize): a print novel inviting readers to participate in its (de)formation across media. Gretchen is a Mellon postdoctoral fellow at MIT, a metaLAB fellow at Harvard, and an affiliated scholar at Kenyon College, where she also teaches in the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop.


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