Reading Agrippa by William Gibson (part 2 of 4)

This post is also available in: Español (Spanish)

What do we read when we read this famous poem? Put differently, where is the text of Agrippa? These are not simple questions to answer because this poem has been produced several ways, all of which capture certain intentions, whether authorial or of those who challenge the works’ design.

The original publication was a collaborative work: William Gibson wrote the linguistic text of the poem, artist Dennis Ashbaugh created the art for the book, an anonymous “hacker” programmed the e-poem, and publisher Kevin Begos, Jr. orchestrated the collaboration. The result was two limited edition artist’s books (printed on photo-sensitive paper that would fade after an initial reading) that came with a 3.5” disk with a program that would display the poem once (as seen in the video above) and self-destruct.

Clearly, the intent was to create a work that would allow the reader to read the poem once at a predetermined rate— the program takes about 20 minutes to run, and the simulation of the fading ink doesn’t allow much more time. Also, by releasing this in a limited (less than 100) pricey ($1,500 – $2,000) deluxe edition and a cancelled small Edition for $450, this work was designed to be a collectible, making it all the more precious for its designed destructibility. To read this poem meant to consume a rare and expensive art object, leaving behind a shell, emptied of its poetic text. This is a rather unique reading experience, crafted with great expense and effort, produced for a very select audience who had the connections and money to spend to be a part of a literary, artistic, and cultural event. The event launching the book on December 9, 1992 certainly had an exclusive feel to it, as seen in this bootleg video of “The Transmission.”

And thanks to a hacker named Templar, who transcribed and published the text of the poem online the following day, we have access to the poem. Sort of. The linguistic texts of the poem, whether hacked, authorially republished, or extracted from the disk-image, are still just part of the text as discussed in my earlier posting.

Thanks to the research, documentation, and digital preservation efforts of Alan Liu, Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, and the rest of the “Agrippa Files” team, we have a resource that assembles curated materials that can help us get a more complete sense of this poem, including the video of Agrippa running in emulation embedded above.

So what do we read? Here are my suggestions:

  1. Begin with the video of the emulated version (also embedded above): it preserves the presentation layer of the poem, with its linguistic, graphical, and behavioral aspects of the text.
  2. Read the linguistic text of the poem, as extracted by Freek Wiedijk: it preserves the capitalization and line indentations of the original.
  3. Look at images of pages and artwork in the deluxe and small editions of the book, as presented through the MITH Virtual Lightbox.
  4. Read William Gibson’s online publication of the poem: it represents a new authorial intention for the work, including some spacing, formatting, and capitalization changes and the addition of a background image.
  5. Download the disk image, an emulator, and run it yourself for as close an experience of the poem as you can get 20 years after its initial publication.
  6. If you’re up to it, take up the Cracking the Agrippa Code Challenge and unlock the poem so you can read the code. Or wait for someone to do it a publish the results (hopefully soon).

As you may intuit, we can only dance around the text, attempting to triangulate towards something resembling the original poetic experience intended by Gibson, Ashbaugh, and Begos. But audiences and critics also have intentions, sometimes at odds with the authorial. The hacker community’s intent was to hack a powerfully encrypted work, subverting its designed ephemerality. For the Digital Humanities community, the intent is to preserve and study this born-digital work for future generations to enjoy. For this literary critic, the intent is to “unlock” this work’s signifying strategies for readers to better appreciate its artistry.

My next posting will focus on close reading Agrippa’s linguistic text, as informed by the behavioral aspects that shape the e-poem.