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Language, a virus?

Florian Cramer
April 2002

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Abstract

The history of computer viruses in the arts could thus be told the other way around. – Not only as poetic and aesthetic appropriations of virus code, as they recur in Net.art and digital poetry since circa 1997 (see Jutta Steidl’s essay “If() Then()” in this catalogue), but as a language-speculative impregnation and pervasion of computer viruses since they were invented. The possible influences on these speculations are abundant: the cognitive nihilist Henry Flynts whose project to refute analytical philosophy – and anything else – with its own methods had influenced some Neoists; the Deleuze/Guattari volume “On the Line” published in 1983 by Semiotext(e) New York states that “our viruses make us form a rhizome with other creatures;“ the biologist Richard Dawkins is controversial for his theory of the “meme” as a contagious idea which he first published in 1976 7; but more than anybody else, the novelist William S. Burroughs is interesting here. Created with radical collage techniques, his hallucinatory spy novel prose translated writing styles of the modernist avant-garde (predominantly the French surrealism mediated through his friend Brion Gysin) into pop literature. But even importantly, his speculations on language and technology had a striking impact on subcultural currents and thinking in the 1980s. 8 For Burroughs, the relationship between viruses and language amounted to more than just the idea that viruses could be created in language or – like in Dawkins’ “memetics” – that certain speech acts had contagious effects. For him, language itself was a virus

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