The Blue Book

“Regis Iussu Cantio Et Reliqua Canonica Arte Refolula”

Strange loops building

This site has nothing to do with publishers, or “the industry”, or “EvilCorp”, or any in-born aversion to using more “traditional channels” to get a book before people’s eyes. After a winter in England spent studying The Book as Object, the real problem is knowing that books, rightly seen, have always been the cutting edge when it comes to technologies of communication.

“Books are proof that humanity is capable of magic”, Carl Sagan tells us, and yet if you are bound to thinking of books as just a bunch of pages stuck together this may sound profound, but not ring true with experience. While I love the smell and feel of physical books and am convinced by Sagan either way, I find no less wonder - or variety of expression, mutation and interpretation - in our genetic code, or the beautiful mathematical statements it discovered and the physical symmetries it keeps on finding. Books are more than what can be bound between a cover.

Moreover, some books are perhaps better termed “language events” - in that they achieve a kind of singular communication which allows people who use the same language to relate with, and describe, their experience of consciousness more deeply than previously possible. Such singular books seem to recur throughout time, and are the foundation of all myth. They are penned by, in the words of Tolkien, authors of applicability rather than allegory, and serve - like good fairy tales - as a door onto Other Time.

What would such a book look like today? How would you render Middle Earth online?

Open source

The first problem the above thoughts present is that people need to speak “the language of revelation” (or whatever name you prefer) in order to really get it, and it helps a lot if they’re in the same cultural context as the author(s). The Quran is beautiful, there’s no two ways about it, but some of its deeper gems are only really accessible if you can decode information natively in Arabic, and understand in some detail the culture and history within which it was written.

However, we now have access to many more languages than were available even fifty years ago, and a lot of these languages

  1. Compile down to something common.
  2. Render intelligently on your screen in human-readable ways (or are just cascading linguistic structures meant to ensure other information is styled correctly).
  3. Transport information in the background (somewhat) irrespective of the particular language you speak.

There are also things literally called libraries which help you translate at scale the parts that do depend on your particular language. For everything else, there’s the actual, digital Library of Babel.

Books need to be alive to these sorts of possibilities. It’s not just about how many formats and e-publications you can put together, or the grand marketing campaign.

I dream of digitally-native books that grow through your browser as you read them. Books that alter your algorithms as you experience them. Books that carry literal patterns through the network which readers can use to train automated machinery to produce better outputs, if they so choose. I dream, like Engelbart, of dynamic repositories of knowledge and cooperative computing at scales never before imagined.

Moreover, it can’t be done on some kind of closed platform that could take it away on a whim, or simply charge you out of your online practice.

This open source framework must also render readable text on mobile phones (seeing as most of the world is looking at this right now through a small screen). It must require only an elementary understanding of “code” to use, and anyone should be able to build with it following some simple instructions. It should be as clean and efficient as possible and use the best open source tech so that it loads fast, no matter where you are or what kind of connection you have.

I couldn’t find any software that fit the above, so I built a first approximation myself. I then stripped my linguistic patterns and published it as an empty template with instructions, given in Fugue II, so that anyone can use it to build whatever they’d like and express their idea of love.

No more audiences

Books of today must be better able to represent the dynamic media their authors are increasingly connected to, more or less constantly. We exist within webs of influence, both digital and physical, and all the wired places between. Our communication needs to reflect this more accurately. A simple fact: you cannot embed Shane Koyczan or Ursula le Guin or Leonard Bernstein into the frontispiece of a printed chapter of poetry. “Embed” has an entirely different meaning.

We could say that the context has changed, the signature expanded, the trace grown. Ever since I spent a good deal of time deciphering Jacques Derrida’s Signature, Event, Context, I’ve been a little obsessed with it. While merrily deconstructing everything - vive la révolution - he goes on at some length about traces and differánce. It’s a little dry, but I’ve always thought that - at one layer further up the abstraction - the trace of poetry, in general, has to be music.

But, how to test this theory sensibly? While the best poems approach the condition of the best symphonies, it seems to me that all poetry must contain a trace of music. And, I’m interested in hearing that. Really - what would the playlist for Paradise Lost have been?

I can’t answer the question about Milton, but I can show you what the sound-trace for The Blue Book looks like. And I can tell you that it’s mostly music, through no real intention of mine. I just read through all the poems and linked to the things of which they reminded me. It was only later that I realised how many went to songs on YouTube, and thought about putting an ordered list there as another entry point to the book’s web.

There’s also a GoodReads list with the notable pieces of literature that are mentioned, or can be traced, through this book. Because bibliographies are, like, so 2000 and late.

Let’s talk links

Others have written about the perfect language and Gottfried Leibniz, so let me summarise here by saying that I, too, am interested in how to shove the most ontological complexity into the simplest possible set of symbols. Real genius is simplicity; there’s a truism for you.

Links, consciously mapped, take on many added layers of significance. Rather than linking exact words or phrases I’ve borrowed to the context they come from, I’ve “traced” each poem out. This has given me the opportunity to add a few, stray words to the bottom of each piece, and have those words then form a track from the poem to just about any other place on our motherEarth_motherBoard.

The result of “coding” the links by hand is that I’ve got to look at the actual URLs quite closely, and there are many hidden delights in them. Like the fact that an Ibn ‘Arabi link points to Plato, Stanford, and education in general; or a hidden reference to Gutenberg that takes you to a favourite sci-fi short story of mine; or how only one poem lacks any trace, and only one other uses a link in it’s actual body, and that link goes to Twitter (of all places!) for the definition of a Greek word.

We can do even weirder things though, right? Each link can have a description, which is great, because I can add metalinguistic significance to my words (which only shows up if you hover above the links on certain screens). This served a practical purpose at first - I’m worried about decaying YouTube links, so need to leave notes for myself about what links to what in case the content disappears in the future. Links to other places are often self-explanatory, and carry treasures that are best left to discover on your own, so I have left those undescribed.

The Blue Book’s source code awaits you here. Be sure to take the grey pill if you find yourself disoriented.

Links are an opportunity Leibniz never had. Take the first trace in the first poem: “I follow”. It links to a song called Ndokulandela, which means “I will follow you”. It is about the inner spiritual journey of a young man and his devotion to, and remembrance of, God. This first poem, after all, is also the beginning of a journey. The translation is condensed, because //Xam also has to do with the Khoisan and AfrikaBurn, and there is a brilliant documentary a friend made at Rhodes University about conversation, listening and “finding old community in future form”. These two merge together in a distinct way only possible in South Africa, yet they hint at something universal and vital and fresh (which is why you’ll also find Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in the GoodReads list.)

One phrase; and a whole matrix of meaning comes with it. I hope you enjoy finding and deciphering the many others in the book.

My personal favorite can be found in “For Shame“.

Encoding time

Two more important notes about links. Firstly: they can carry time. By adding a simple query string to the end of the URLs that compose the work, I can pass time information along with content. I can be conscious of the amount of attention each link I add requires from any reader. This goes to the heart of producing a digitally-native book. People’s attention spans online are probably just not long enough to go through fourteen cantos, some blues and four haikus in their browser.

But, by encoding time into the information I’ve collected to share-alike, I can hopefully direct people where they need to go, as and when they need to go there. There’s no rush - you can just keep this book in a browser window of its own and watch it grow slowly as you remember to turn back to some trace that tracked to a tale of your own, knowing it will be timed just right.

Secondly, you can do some really loopy stuff (in the Hofstadter sense). While it’s always great to have a lot of external links, sometimes even the most shy of us feel the need to reference ourselves. Luckily, I only succumbed to this need once, in a poem one from the end of Canto XIII which talks about how I learn from my own poems, one by one, as I have to. It just so happens that there is a poem called “Start Again” at the beginning of Canto II, and so I - by accident - made a sneaky snakes-and-ladders link which takes people who have slugged it out all the way to the end of thirteen of fourteen cantos right back to the start of the second one with the twitch of a finger…

Hopefully they’ll be as confused, exasperated, and exulting as me.

What to make of it all?

What is love, to me? I’ve tried to leave as many different definitions lying around as I can because you should never trust a poet about his own work.

My best “technical definition”: any consciously unitive act.

“Consciously” implies intentional and self-reflexive thought, because it is the very fact of thought and action airising mutually which gives any choice-enacted-in-the-world the appearance of unity. In other words, consciousness is what binds thought and action, and love is its religious practice.

The Latin root of “religion” is religio, meaning an obligation or bond. It is that which binds us to God. The same is true for the Arabic word dīn, though it’s meaning is more expansive and specifically transactional. A hadith (saying of The Prophet) sometimes quoted in this regard is: “Trust in Allah and tether your camel.”

If the camel is understood as your ego and the tether as the limitations of being human, then roughly, this can be taken to mean we should BOTH exhibit responsibility for the world in which we can act (tie the camel up, because you know it will wander in the night and be difficult to find tomorrow) AND, once you’ve checked the knot, let go the binding meant for the-one-who-tethers.

In other words, don’t - out of fear or attachment - bind the part of you which watches to what it sees: that most dear and vulnerable core of your heart you must leave entirely in the hands of Allah/the pattern/whatever you wish to call it.

You may find yourself floating in empty space, by some strange grace still wrapped in the golden loop that leads to animate matter arising from inanimate potential.

So long, and thanks for all the fish

It’s been a tonne of fun building all this, slipping between different kinds of languages to craft something that I can drop into the flow of life. Something that can be replicated by others, and remixed into better versions more appropriate to their spaces and times.

I know not all artists have the luxury to simply open source their work and be done with it. I know that this is not the way everyone can survive, so I think it would be interesting to give people something like “conditional cryptocurrency transfers” and set them loose building stuff they love so we can better train our world, and all the wor(l)ds of our imagination.