Agrippa: A Book of the Dead (1992) is the first high-profile electronic poem, in part because it was written by William Gibson, a novelist famous for imagining cyberspace in the 1980s, in part because of its production as an electronic object and artist’s book. The link provided leads to a site titled “The Agrippa Files” created by The Transcription Project at UC Santa Barbara, which documents the material, cultural, and computational conditions that make this poem such a fascinating work. For those new to this work, I recommend the following posting, which introduces the poem and resources assembled in the site.
In a nutshell, this e-poem was programmed to display the text scrolling down the screen once (like a video but without controls), and then encrypt the program so it could never be played again, effectively self-destructing. Here is an image of the last part of the poem, after it is done displaying the text of the poem. Is this an image of the text being encrypted?
The poem was hacked and posted online the day after it was presented to the public (read Matt Kirschenbaum’s account) and it has been available online ever since, enjoying the status of a cult literary object.
But was it really hacked?
- Agrippa’s linguistic text was made available online and William Gibson eventually published a version of the poem (containing the same linguistic text as found in the disk) in his website in 2003. But that is only part of the information of the text. What happens to the visual information of the text, such as font, font size, line spacing, and so on? How do you communicate the experience of the window size, the amount of text that can fit within it, and the reading pace established by the scrolling?
- “The Agrippa Files” has made available several videos of the poem running, including a video of an emulated version, which conserves the graphical and behavioral aspects of the text. However, this is a very different kind of digital object: one that will allow you to pause, rewind, skip, and, most importantly, one that will not self-destruct.
- In addition to providing a wealth of materials about the artist’s book and diskette, “The Agrippa Files” has made available a bit-by-bit copy of the 1992 diskette, so readers can run it with an emulator or well preserved computer, and/or examine it as they wish.
This last manifestation is as close to experiencing the e-poem Agrippa as we can get, but it’s a little like playing Poker without any real money at stake— knowing that you can download another copy after your original is destroyed doesn’t produce the same level of anxious attention as knowing that you only have one shot at reading this poem, after which it will be destroyed.
Agrippa has been preserved, curated, documented, and written about and we have access to the results of all this loving work… but do we really have access to the text? Where is the text of this poem? Is it what we see on the screen? Is it the words, line breaks, stanzas, and sections written by Gibson? Is it the code that generates the text on the screen?
The last question is part of the motivation for the “Cracking the Agrippa Code Challenge,” launched on July 10, 2012. This initiative is interested in seeing what makes this machine made of words tick, opening it up for Critical Code Studies and other ways of studying this enticing born-digital object. There’s information locked inside of Agrippa, and information wants to be free.
Plus, it’s a challenge.
My next posting will be about reading Agrippa as a text, considering some of the issues around authorial intentions expressed in the work’s design.
Note: Revised on July 15, 2012 to expand to a 3-part series of postings.