vital_error

In what has become a seminal essay in literary studies, Roland Barthes once declared “the Death of the Author.” According to Barthes, we should no longer focus on the biographical background of an author, or on how the author pours experiences from their life into a story, but rather on the multitude of ways in which readers distil meaning out of a narrative. The viewpoint shifts from the question of “what did the author mean with this text?” to “what does the text mean to the reader?”, from writing to reading. It’s a fruitful approach in many respects; quite a few past analyses of literature focused more on unearthing the supposed psychological peculiarities of an author than on simply analysing the beauty and importance of a work. Clearly, if our interest is literature rather than biography, the latter is more important.

The experimental writing of Japanese author Kenji Siratori presents a challenge to this notion that a text can be divorced from its author. Since his début in 2002 with Blood Electric, Siratori has unleashed a series of uncompromising novels, short stories, and poems. His works have been linked to the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction, but the unconventional construction of the texts ties Siratori’s fiction to the avant-garde and bizarro movements as well. This idiosyncratic approach to writing, involving loose syntax and repetitive, rhythmic use of words, also leaves its mark on the idiom of reviewers, as shown in the following excerpt from Michael Schiltz’ review of Blood Electric:

Vividly evoking the coming to consciousness of an artificial intelligence, Blood Electric is a devastating loop of language from the Japanese avantgarde which breaks with all writing traditions. With unparalleled stylistic terrorism fully embracing the image mayhem of the Internet/multimedia/digital age, Kenji Siratori unleashes his first literary Sarin attack.

As an example of how Siratori achieves this effect, take the book (debug.): Primary Techno Noir, an anthology of weird fiction in which we find the novella, vital_error. As we shall see, reading the novella without regard to its author or background does not mean we can’t make any sense of it as a reader. However, asking questions about the authorship of this text, reveals a different layer of meaning.

vital_error is representative of Siratori’s style. The body of text is segmented into paragraphs approximately 8-10 lines in length, and the paragraphs themselves are each made up of a single “sentence.” The quotes are appropriate, for despite the words themselves being English (though often introducing neologisms and unfamiliar compounds), and adhering to some of the rules of English syntax, the sentences are not constructed in any traditional way, nor do they construct any meaning in the traditional sense.

All this is best illustrated with an example. The following is a paragraph from about halfway into vital_error:

Vital to the abolition world-codemaniacs emotional replicant nerve cells that compressed the acidHUMANIX infection of her ultra=machinary tragedy-ROM creature system vital junk DNA=channel of a trash sensor drug embryo different-ecstasy system of the murder-protocol data=mutant processing organ nightmare-script of a chemical=anthropoid is controlled::FUCKNAMLOAD the soul/gram made of retro-ADAM being covered to the disillusionment-module of the hyperreal HIV=scanner form technojunkies’ hunting for the grotesque WEB=reptilian=HUB_modem=heart that jointed that body encoder murder game….

All the novella’s paragraphs are constructed like this, and it’s clear that vital_error demands of the reader a different mentality than most works. The reader will recognize that the words used in the text are put together in a familiar fashion at the lower level—”different-ecstasy system of the murder-protocol” in itself follows the usual grammatical rules of English for constructing a noun phrase. It is, essentially, no different than “docking bay of the space station.” However, at the sentence level—here stretched to the extreme—the system falls apart. As in stream-of-consciousness writing, we give up searching for a coherent sentence grammar, but rather take in the words in chunks, focusing more on the brief images and feelings evoked by those chunks, rather than the sort of meaning that might otherwise be constructed by relating words to each other, as in normal sentences.

There is an important difference between this text and regular stream-of-consciousness, however. With the latter we’re able to follow, at least roughly, the thoughts of the narrator, or “what goes on inside the mind.” This strategy is not effective in vital_error. The text makes use of a limited number of distinct words, thereby severely constraining the spectrum of feeling and thought that can be expressed. Instead, it thrives on the repetition of phrases, each of those words reappearing almost every other paragraph. Those phrases form another important unit of the text, the combination of words also being subject to some hidden rule. Consider “her digital=vamp cold-blooded disease animals.” There seems to be no intrinsic power binding together the individual words, yet they appear almost exclusively as a complete phrase. Rarely if ever do we find a “disease animal” or “digital=vamp” hanging loose. This suggests that the phrase as a whole is a “thing” in the story, although it’s difficult for the reader to see what kind of a thing it might be.

There seems to be no hidden key that suddenly gives the text regular meaning. The paragraphs are constructed too randomly for that, and the repetition is too great. What is left, then, is to read the text as it is, to let the words and phrases sink in one by one, like a relentless assault, without constructing any higher significance. The result is a hypnotizing process, where the atmosphere created by the words gradually builds up and becomes the main force contained in the text. This atmosphere can undoubtedly be called cyberpunk: a combination of elements virtual, organic, dark, digital, futuristic, and diseased.

This in itself is a constructive way to look at vital_error, yet my enjoyment of the style was regularly overshadowed by further questions. At the end of the day, I couldn’t help asking: how was this text written? “Siratori wrote it” would be the obvious, but hardly satisfactory, answer. It is precisely the weird style of Siratori’s text that draws attention away from the text itself, towards the act of writing, and ultimately towards its author.

The first possibility is that Siratori is an avid user of the cut-up method. This process—popularised during the 20th century by various writers and poets, but also musicians—entails the cutting up and re-arranging of previously written pieces of text to form a new whole. One can imagine that a blueprint of the text, perhaps a fraction of the total length of the final work, was written, copied, and subsequently cut into loose words and larger phrases and rearranged into the final form. In the process, a potentially more coherent text with a composite meaning was dissected and morphed into something that seems no longer more than the sum of its parts. It has become a wholly different kind of text.

This writing process breaks radically with many traditional conceptions of fiction and writing. It also finds a parallel in the world of music—not a wholly irrelevant fact if you choose to take into account Siratori’s extensive production as an electronic noise musician. The cutting and pasting of melodies and notes originated in 20th century classical music, but is also employed in modern electronic music. The album 24.2.24.4, by Canadian musician and writer Aidan Baker, is an excellent example of this, being composed wholly through the arrangement of 24-second samples into a 48-minute track.

Yet, all of this is essentially a product of the 20th century, and perhaps a not entirely suitable form for a futuristic genre like cyberpunk. There is an alternative, however, that takes us into the post-modern territory of the digital age. Could it be the case that this text wasn’t written by Siratori at all, but by a computer?

Envision the following: rather than a text, a computer program is written. The program “knows” a set of grammatical rules, perhaps partly resembling the following simplified versions:

(1) A, B, C, etc. are words;
(2) I, II, III, etc. are connectors;
(3) AB, CDE, FGHI, etc. are phrases;
(4) do: write 1 phrase, write 1 connector | this is a chunk;
(5) do: write N chunks;
(6) do: insert line break | this is a paragraph;
(7) do: write N paragraphs.

A fixed amount of words and connectors are fed into the program. In this way, a text of any length can be written by the program, depending on the values of N.

In the case of vital_error, we note some additional facts. Upon close reading of the text, it will become clear that new words and phrases are gradually introduced, expanding the internal vocabulary of the text as it moves on. So, we might posit additional rules, inserted after (6), to keep this primitive model consistent:

(8) add Y and Z; | Y and Z are words;
(9) add YZ | YZ is a phrase.

Even more than the cut-up method, this concept calls into question the notion of what constitutes an author, and what constitutes a text.

Random as this process may seem, this doesn’t mean that the resulting text would lack meaning as such. Even from a jumble of words, the reader can distil an atmosphere, a pleasant and challenging reading experience. The text thus becomes a prime example of the ways the process of writing has transformed in our age. It becomes possible to write texts by proxy, by the mediation of a computer program.

It is not that hard to imagine the next step: letting an artificial intelligence write a text. Since an AI is by definition capable of learning by observation, no prior input is needed, wholly eliminating the need for a human agent in the process of writing. Granted, the results are unlikely to be the same as that of human authors, nor is it to be expected that they will appeal to traditional aesthetic concepts, but that is beside the point. What’s important is that different kinds of authors, particularly non-human ones, will leave an indelible mark on the texts they write.

Back to vital_error, though, as the text contains one tangible secret after all. On page 95, we read the word “FUCKNAMOAD.” In all other instances throughout the 120 pages of text, this word is spelled “FUCKNAMLOAD.” Did Siratori type the whole thing by hand after all? Did the writing program make a mistake—however unlikely—in generating the paragraphs, sentences, and words? Or did some author manually press the backspace button just one time, thereby creating an error that calls the whole system into question?

I do not believe Barthes’ essay is outdated. His emphasis on the process of reading, rather than an obsession with the supposed intention of the author, is a valuable tool for literary criticism. We should not, however, interpret the image of the author’s death too narrowly. Focusing on the process of writing and the concept of authorship can be of additional value to the analysis of a text.

By means of its very construction and lack of traditional meaning, vital_error drags the process of writing in by the hairs. Siratori created a body of text that does two things at once. On the one hand, it is a hypnotic jumble of words that can be read like a bad acid trip, a repetitive piece of dystopian music. It forces its own system onto us, suggesting an artificial origin; at the same time, it harbors in itself one fatal flaw, one vital error as a sign of life from an android author that is on the verge of breaking down.

If that isn’t cyberpunk, I don’t know what is.


is a linguist whose writing can be found at Sub Specie. He can be followed on Twitter @qwallath.
— Please submit all corrections, responses and rebuttals as letters to the editor.