Christian Bök: A Zoom Lens for the Future of the Text

When Murray Gell-Mann borrows the word ‘quark’ from Finnegans Wake by James Joyce in order to name the constituents of the nucleon, the physicist evokes an ‘atomism’ that has transected theories of both matter and poetry since the time of Lucretius. With the advances made by Murray Gell-Man in quantum physics, IBM has, in turn, used a tunneling microscope to position 35 atoms of xenon on a plate of cooled nickel so that these dots of matter might spell out the trigram for the company, thereby producing the smallest artifact so far manufactured by humanity. The logo, in effect, consists of letters made from atoms that might recombine to make other letters for other texts. How might matter itself become an anagram for such elemental alphabets? If the poets of my literary movement (called Conceptualism) might study the ‘limit-cases’ of writing so as to undertake speculative experiments at these limits, then surely atomic scales of expression must fall within the ambit of such ‘conceptual literature’ (as seen, for example, in my own project, entitled The Xenotext — a scientific experiment that uses biogenetic encryption to encode a message in proteomic molecules). All ‘concepts’ for poetry may, in fact, depend upon a premise about the minimal element of composition for a text — its unit, or its ‘atom,’ from which a poem might build a poetics through the recombinant permutation of such materials. This lecture explores the scales of such textuality (from atomic to cosmic), ‘zooming’ outward from the Planck length to the Hubble bubble. I suggest that Conceptualism seeks to prepare poetry for a future milieu, where all scales of writing can transect each other across an enormous spectrum of dimensions, from the puny scale of an atom to the vast scale of the void.