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Plain Text, Weird Text at WRT: Writer Response Theory

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What are the digital art forms that use plain text? One of the most common examples is ASCII art - using arrangements of characters to create images. Another is artful computer code, including quines (which generate their own source code as output) and artfully obfuscated code which stretches the limits of how source code can be represented or arranged while still compiling to a functional program. These digital explorations of the art of plain text push at the constraints both what text can do (programmatically) and how text appears to be (functionally). Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are also closely related - quines may also be (and often are) obfuscated code, obfuscated code may also be (and sometimes is) ASCII art.

The example pictured here is arachnid’s entry to the 17th International Obfuscated C Code Contest (2004), one of the winners. The code generates a “Curses maze displayer/navigator with only line-of-sight visibility” and “The fun part comes when you realize that the maze scrolls.” (For more on code aesthetics of these kinds, see Mateas and Montfort’s paper “A Box, Darkly : Obfuscation, Weird Langauges, and Code Aesthetics.”)

What is striking to me about arachnid’s maze is that the code has an ontological claim to being a maze or labyrinth - that is, the code does a maze and the code is a maze - an old cybertextual and game studies point, but particularly interesting with a quine maze becuase the maze that it does is similar, yet not identical to the maze that it is.

For example, compare this maze to concrete poetry such as Lewis Carroll’s “Mouse’s Tale.” The poem is about a mouse’s tale, or even a mouse’s tail, and it is in the shape of a tail. Yet it does not do what a tale does - move, balance a walking mouse, attract the ire of farmer wives with carving knives, and so on. It resembles rather than performs.

House of Leaves, pg. 139

Compare also arachnid’s maze to the labyrinth chapter from Mark Danielewski’s “House of Leaves.” If a maze is something within which one wanders, then Danielewski’s page layouts both resemble and perform - in part. The reader quickly becomes aware that the layout simulates a maze, but the paper layout and the codex form equally encourages lateral jumps and random-access browsing - a kind of cheating unavailable to Theseus, or anyone encountering a true maze.

In this sense the combination-lock panels from Jason Shiga’s multicursal comic “Meanwhile” are even closer to performing a maze - they connect inputs and outputs in such a way that, in order to actualize a choice, the reader must trace the path of the input code all the way to its matching output terminal. Unlike the textual paths in “House of Leaves,” these connections cannot be established through browsing - however, like “House of Leaves,” one can choose to opt out of the process entirely, bypassing the maze and skipping to each of the ends in turn until the desired outcome is found.

The quine-maze by arachnid is different even from the maze as visual puzzle, then, because it performs the position of Theseus - of being in the maze. When viewed as source, it is a maze in appearance, which can be opted into and participated in through an act of reading. However, like other maze-representations, one can browse or skip to the end. However, once executed, arachnid’s maze creates an avatar-like inner standing-point, as a restriction that prevents the user from perceiving any part of the maze outside the simulated line-of-sight. The reader of the maze is now an occupant of the maze, one who cannot browse, skip to the end, or work backwards, but must like Theseus either solve the maze by traversing it or surrender and fail.

These observations connect maze-quines to the rich critical tradition in hypertext studies of discussing labyrinths - however what I’m interested in here is the way in which the text becomes weird by being what it appears to be. Like text, concrete poem, and hypertext, arachnid’s quine refers to, resembles, and performs a maze. Here it is the closeness rather than the distance of signifier to signified that is unsettling. The text is weird, not because it is strange, but because it is uncanny.

Mateas, Michael, and Nick Montfort. “A Box, Darkly : Obfuscation, Weird Langauges, and Code Aesthetics.” Digital Arts and Culture Conference 2005. (2005): 144-53.

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