menu Language Is A Virus

How to make a modern novel

Over the past few years there has been an upsurge of interest in experimental electronic music. Allied to the outer fringes of dance culture, and produced by groups such as Pole, Autechre, Oval, and Mouse on Mars, this is the music of machines with diseases. Decay, static, the raw buzz of a frayed connection.

Reading interviews with the people involved, I started to learn a little about the computer software employed, and the techniques of creation, and to wonder if the same processes could be used to manipulate and transform the written word.

Imagine a musical signal travelling along a pathway. The signal passes through various gates, or filters, each of which has a different effect on the music. These effects might include distort, echo, overload, and so on. Described like this, it sounds a very cold, mechanical operation; in fact, the music created in this way often reveals an astonishing, ruined beauty.

Sometimes, a diagram of the signal's pathway will be included in the sleeve design. One of the earliest examples can be found on the back cover of Brian Eno's 1975 album, Discreet Music.

The idea behind the Cobralingus project is quite simple: could a piece of text be pushed along a similar pathway?

The first task was to create a set of filter gates. These came out of a period of experimentation, playing games on screen, and on paper, thinking up different ways in which language could be transformed. Some of the filters, such as Randomise, Decay, or Explode, break text down, whereas others, such as Enhance, Control, and Find Story, have a more constructive property.

I could also drug the language, using such concepts as Anagramethane, Metaphorazine and Fecundamol. These are not computerised effects; they are imaginary technologies, designed to fire the writer's imagination.

The book of Cobralingus contains my first explorations in this process of metamorphiction, each piece starting with a passage sampled from another writer. How the text is to be transformed by any particular filter is entirely up to the individual. The filters can be used in any order, so that the text undergoes a continuous mutation, as it passes along the pathway.

It's fun, and more than a little scary sometimes, especially when a piece dissolves down into pure nonsense. But it can always be rescued and, eventually, some phrase or image will emerge from the process, some clue as to how the overall piece will end, and the work can now be pushed along in this direction. I am always amazed when this happens. I can only think that some hidden text has been brought to light, out of the original inlet. This can be seen as the ghost, or unconscious desire, of the original text.

One particular piece starts with the description of a horse, taken from The Taming of the Shrew, which transforms, eventually, into a poem containing these lines: "Infect the text! Inspect, reflect, enrage! Have sex! Let language fashion, fuse and breed, explode and hatch anew." In this way, Cobralingus attempts a new kind of writing, somewhere between poetry and prose, that revels in the secret life of words.

· For a sample of the Cobralingus project, go to Cobralingus

Jeff Noon, 1-10-2001, The Guardian