Word Viruses and Other Pre-Recordings

Not surprisingly, my favorite writer of all times is William Burroughs. I went so far as to pretend that I was writing my dissertation on his work (I can always argue that he was a pioneer of virtual reality – I’ve noticed that most people writing dissertations on multi-user virtual environments are fans of Burroughs) to see his archives at LACMA. His concept of words/language being a virus has without doubt had a profound influence on my work and research interests. Gadamer’s theory of language is similar in that respect in that he rejected the Cartesian possibility that language could be reducible to an instrument or tool. Without going to the Burroughsian extreme of “injecting” language, Gadamerian hermeneutics posit that we are born into language and that as we grow into this language, we are already biased in our thinking and knowing. In other words, language grants us access to meaning and discloses a schematization of the experience of the world as does, in the Burroughsian sense the “word virus” obtained through synthetic means. Hence, understanding arises out of dialectical interaction not by assuming the perspective of the other, but rather by remaining open to the possibilities of this other perspective.

If you are familiar with the works of Burroughs and Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics, you know that understanding, like language, always involves a loss of the self where different perspectives, or ‘horizons,’ merge and help shape new experiences or new contexts for experience. The aim becomes to understand the “other” or that which is foreign to us with openness to new and different possibilities of thought and being. When considered this way, understanding transcends not only traditional objective and subjective stances but also offers the possibility to “expand” Gadamerian hermeneutics beyond human-world relations to human-technology relations and beyond.

If you are not familiar with the work of Burroughs, I would suggest that you take a look at this documentary on his “cut ups.” Basically, he would cut words out of newspapers and randomly select individual words to make up “new” stories. If you think my mish-mash above made your head spin, try to wrap your mind around this – if the whole universe consists of pre-recordings, then the only thing that is not pre-recorded are the pre-recordings themselves. If everything is pre-recorded, words picked at random are not really randomly picked words, but rather pre-recordings of pre-recordings. Believe it or not, some of Burrough’s cut ups have predicted events such as floods down to the number of victims – maybe he was going somewhere with this pre-recording theory…

Author: Kathleen Cool
I am a graduate student studying how people experience informal education, particularly art, in virtual worlds such as Second Life. My background is in both Art History and Computer Science. Please feel free to email me or IM me in SL (Kathleen Koolhoven) if you have any questions regarding my current research or want to participate in my study.

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