(Roughly) Daily

“Thinking within strict limits is stifling”*…

 

20166221144112014-2016-06SciCult_XenotextOpener_450

 

Affectionately nicknamed “Conan the Bacterium,” Deinococcus radiodurans, a so-called polyextremophile, has an uncanny ability to rapidly repair damage to its genome. As a result, it can resist the most hostile conditions, from drought to radiation to acid baths to a Martian atmosphere. And if Canadian conceptual poet Christian Bök has his way, it will compose verse that will outlive our Sun.

Bök has earned a reputation for conducting extremely difficult poetic experiments and executing them with technical wizardry. In his award-winning 2001 bestseller Eunoia , for example, he uses only a single vowel in each chapter, a constraint that produces a form known as a univocalic . The first section is composed of words that include no vowels other than a , the second includes no vowels other than e , and so on. To build an appropriate lexicon for this demanding work, Bök read through Webster’s Third International Unabridged Dictionary five times and spent six years writing. His latest poetic challenge takes him into trickier and more technically specialized territory. Taking on the very perishability of text, Bök has devised a novel solution: In composing his verse, he is employing the medium of life itself.

The Xenotext: Book 1 represents the first phase of Bök’s wildly ambitious project—nearly 15 years in the making and still ongoing—of encoding poetry into the genome of the bacterium D. radiodurans . Using a substitution cipher, Bök “translates” his poetry into what he calls a “chemical alphabet” representing a genetic sequence. After simulating the resulting protein’s folding pattern, which is essential for its functioning, Bök sends his specifications to a biotechnical lab that engineers the gene accordingly. Finally, Bök’s team of biologists transplants a plasmid carrying the gene into the bacterium.

But why introduce such complexity into the process of poetic composition? The Xenotext provocatively wagers that—in the face of global catastrophe, whether in the form of ecological collapse, drug-resistant pandemic, or nuclear war—D. radiodurans can preserve at least a bit of humanity’s poetic heritage after the apocalypse. DNA, with its remarkable storage capacity and stability, is perhaps the “natural element,” the worthy vessel for the mind’s substance that Wordsworth expresses longing for in the epigraph above…

Writing an eternal poem, one that will survive in the DNA of extremophile bacteria when all other life on the planet is extinguished: “Poetry of the Apocalypse.”

For more on exactly how Bök “writes,” see: “The Making of a Xenotext.”

* Christian Bök

###

As we ponder posterity, we might send straight-forward birthday greetings to Joseph Addison; he was born on this date in 1672.  A poet, playwright, and politician, Addison is probably best remembered for The Spectator, a daily publication– a “paper” as it was then called, and as it successors have been known ever since– which he founded in London with his partner Richard Steele.

The Spectator was widely read in London; indeed Jürgen Habermas suggests that the paper was instrumental in the emergence of the public sphere in 18th century England.  It also had North American readers (including Benjamin Franklin and James Madison).

220px-Joseph_Addison_by_Sir_Godfrey_Kneller,_Bt source

 

Written by LW

May 1, 2020 at 1:01 am

%d bloggers like this: