e-Lit Resource
Computers, Cut-ups and Combinatory Volvelles: An Archaeology of Text-generating Mechanisms

Computers, Cut-ups and Combinatory Volvelles” is an essay in that it is a test, a proof, an experiment—an innovative media-rich mode of the essay that engages the reader as an active participant in determining an outcome. The work uses contemporary digital text-generating technologies to excavate a history of past text-generating mechanisms in a manner that forces the reader to participate in the writerly, combinatorial practice the project seeks to theorize. The project highlights neglected practices that blur the line between reader and writer, while the work engages the user/participant (the term “reader” seems inadequate) in writerly practices, as his or her choices determine the text that is woven from the web of information the project encompasses.

Trettien interrogates and challenges our assumptions about how readers and writers of the past made meaning from printed texts, and the printed book in particular. Trettien cites book historian Roger Chartier’s call to “take on the task of retracing forgotten gestures and habits” that do not fit “the genealogy of our own contemporary manner of reading.” Her approach—which she describes as “media archaeology” (a phrase borrowed from Siegfried Zielinski and others—is grounded in materiality, is antiprogressionist/antiteleological, and resists analogizing the present with the past, emphasizing difference over continuity.

Trettien is particularly interested in examining interactivity and readerly interventions within the varied history of the more than five hundred years of print. The interactions and interventions Trettien explores may be enabled or encouraged by the printed artifact itself, as in volvelles (spinning disks sewn into books), or enacted upon them, as in the cut-up method made most famous by William Burroughs (but similarly practiced centuries earlier). She writes:

    In other words, the practice of cutting up and combining texts — that is, manipulating language materially — is almost entirely absent from our current conceptual model of literacy. Yet such forms of reading and writing are one facet to the infinitely complex history of both the book and (if the recent avalanche of literature on new media literacies is any indication) the book-to-come. By both presenting and enacting the very mechanisms I theorize, I hope to put a neglected past in conversation with our present while still waving "goodbye to much that is familiar."

Her approach is grounded in the technological and material and is set apart from though related to more traditional work in the field of the history of reading (where scholars have studied marginalia, diary entries, or library records to gather insight into the habits and practices of readers).

The value of her project should be clear to readers, creators, and/or scholars of electronic literature. First the form of the work itself functions as a work of electronic literature might. Trettien utilizes jQuery, Javascript, XHTML, and CSS to create a digital text-generating machine that examines its subject through a web of interrelated fragments and quotes that enacts the archaeology of text-generating mechanisms the work seeks to describe. In this way, the project is akin in form to a digital version of Walter Benjamin’s Passagenwerk / Arcades Project, as it privileges the fragment, quotation, or illustration over the linear argument or narrative. Furthermore, "Computers, Cut-ups and Combinatory Volvelles” points toward a neglected though rich history of interactivity that problematizes and defamiliarizes the binary relationship between author and reader. The work is notable for countering the urge to analogize our present era of media change with previous moments, yet as she highlights difference and multiplicity Trettien provides historical models for developing and contextualizing new practices of textual production, interaction, and reception. In this way, antecedents for electronic literature can be cautiously conceptualized and the project itself can serve as a model for new forms of criticism.

The project was completed as a master's thesis for the Comparative Media Studies M.S. program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2009).

For further reading see Trettien's essay of the same name (without the subtitle) in the electronic book review.


Note: This entry is derived in part from Trettien's description of the project in an email from March 2010.

Trettien, Whitney Anne. “Computers, Cut-ups and Combinatory Volvelles: An Archaeology of Text-generating Mechanisms.” Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 2009. Web. 1 May 2010.

---. diapsalmata. n.d. Web. 1 May 2010.

---. "ELD". Message to John Vincler. 2 Mar. 2010. Email.

Zielinski, Siegfried. "Media Archaeology". CTheory.net. Eds. Arthur Kroker and Marilouise Kroker. 11 July 1996. Web. 1 May 2010.