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Reading Project: A Collaborative Analysis of William Poundstone's Project for Tachistoscope {Bottomless Pit}

Reading Project: A Collaborative Analysis of William Poundstone's Project for Tachistoscope {Bottomless Pit}

by Jessica Pressman, Mark C. Marino, Jeremy Douglass

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Electronic literature is a rapidly growing area of creative production and scholarly interest. It is inherently multimedial and multimodal, and thus demands multiple critical methods of interpretation. Reading Project: A Collaborative Analysis of William Poundstone’s Project for Tachistoscope {Bottomless Pit} is a collaboration between three


Electronic literature is a rapidly growing area of creative production and scholarly interest. It is inherently multimedial and multimodal, and thus demands multiple critical methods of interpretation. Reading Project: A Collaborative Analysis of William Poundstone’s Project for Tachistoscope {Bottomless Pit} is a collaboration between three scholars combining different interpretive methods of digital literature and poetics in order to think through how critical reading is changing—and, indeed, must change—to keep up with the emergence of digital poetics and practices. It weaves together radically different methodological approaches—close reading of onscreen textual and visual aesthetics, Critical Code Studies, and cultural analytics (big data)—into a collaborative interpretation of a single work of digital literature.

Project for the Tachistoscope {Bottomless Pit} is a work of electronic literature that presents a high-speed, one-word-at-a-time animation synchronized to visual and aural effects. It tells the tale of a mysterious pit and its impact on the surrounding community. Programmed in Flash and published online, its fast-flashing aesthetic of information overload bombards the reader with images, text, and sound in ways that challenge the ability to read carefully, closely, and analytically in traditional ways. The work’s multiple layers of poetics and programming can be most effectively read and analyzed through collaborative efforts at computational criticism such as is modeled in this book. The result is a unique and trailblazing book that presents the authors’ collaborative efforts and interpretations as a case study for performing digital humanities literary criticism of born-digital poetics.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Reading Project is an inspired collaboration showing how different theoretical frameworks can collaborate productively and synergistically in analyzing a work of digital literature. The book’s importance comes not only from the excellent insights it offers but, in a broader sense, as a contribution showing that traditional and digital humanities need not be antagonistic but can work together to understand much more deeply how digital literature works than any one approach could do alone. This should be required reading in every course on contemporary literature, whether print-based or digitally inclined.”—N. Katherine Hayles, author, How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis

“Pressman, Douglass, and Marino bring their considerable expertise to bear on William Poundstone’s remarkable work of electronic literature, Project for Tachistoscope. The result is a richly informative demonstration of the ways the technical, poetical, graphical, and conceptual dimensions of such work calls for literary criticism that dialogues with new media practices.”—Johanna Drucker, author, Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production

Product Details

University of Iowa Press
Publication date:
Contemp North American Poetry Series
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

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Reading Project

A Collaborative Analysis of William Poundstone's Project for Tachistoscope {Bottomless Pit}

By Jessica Pressman, Mark C. Marino, Jeremy Douglass

University of Iowa Press

Copyright © 2015 University of Iowa Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60938-346-6



Jessica Encounters a Beautiful View

I was sitting in my office, chatting with two colleagues, when the e-mail arrived. Half-listening to the conversation around me, I opened the attachment and watched the image spread across my screen.

"Oh my goodness!" I exclaimed. "It's beautiful!" The words escaped me and interrupted my colleagues' discussion.

"What is it?"

I turned the screen toward them and watched their eyes scan the rows of horizontal squares, each containing miniature bursts of text, color, and design.

"It visualizes nine minutes of animation from Project for Tachistoscope — a work of electronic literature that I'm writing about. I've been analyzing that work for months, reading it over and over, but I've never seen it like this!"

A moment of silence passed.

One finally asked, his voice registering sincere interest, "What does it mean? How do you read it?"

The other scoffed, "It's just a pretty picture. You can't read it."

I let out a small sigh, turned my attention back to the screen, and replied, "Depends on what you mean by 'read.'"


Project tells the story of an enigmatic abyss, the Bottomless Pit. The narrative begins, "Sinkholes and unstable soil characteristic of the karstland around Bluefields long plagued construction of the Beale Pike between Breezewood and Roanoke Park." This first line indicates the style of Poundstone's text: it is dense and compact but also simple and compelling. Project presents a labyrinthine narrative, complete with metacritical inquiry into semiotics and epistemology, which emerges around the Pit and is condensed into a deceptively simple short story. The narrative contains less than three thousand words. When transcribed, it reads as prose, but it is presented one word at a time as rhythmic poetry that flows steadily to a musically enhanced pace as its streams via a nonstop animation. The text's tendency toward condensation demands careful parsing, but its fast-flashing formal presentation disallows such activity. This tension generates Project's poetic.

The story begins with a mundane situation that transitions quickly into the fantastic. It appears construction efforts to build a road have proceeded without problem or delay until disaster strikes. "The 59th day began unseasonably warm and cloudless," but workers soon "felt the ground rocking beneath their feet. Those who could run to safety did. Behind them a great chasm opened in the earth." This gaping hole swallows "73 workers and nearly four million dollars of government equipment." This sinkhole immediately becomes more than a deathtrap and a financial nightmare; it becomes an enigma to be read, measured, and explained. Beginning in the tone of an engineer's report, these early sentences detail geological elements in the environment, such as the "finely compacted kaolin silica and gabbro." But the text slips from an accounting of a pit that doomed the construction project to a description of the Pit, a proper noun, signifying its status as both symbolic entity and autonomous subject. The Pit is the central character in Project's narrative, and the story pivots around different people of diverse approaches, professions, and perspectives attempting to explain and interpret it.

"The Pit's early history is sketchy," we are told, but its history is at least partially documented. In the nineteenth century, "a sign painter inventor libertine and atheist" named Chandler Moody "collected all that had been written about the Pit." His archive becomes the basis of the New Lebanon Historical Society, which is housed in "the first substantial dwelling built in the area." This archive is the central location and organizing feature of the community that develops around the Pit, one which will later be lost when most of the New Lebanon Historical Society's collection is devoured by the Pit. This detail prompts the reader to question the foundations of the metanarrative, for if the records were lost, how can this history be known? The narrative subsequently twists from historical report into ontological exploration. The more the Pit grows, the more of its own history it consumes. As a result, readers both within and beyond the diegesis attempt to excavate the Pit's history and interpret it. The narrative about a geological entity takes an epistemological turn, turning the Pit into a challenge that forces us to reflect on how we see, read, and know.

"Daring men have attempted to attain great depths in the Pit," so as to explain it. Kellogg the astronomer was one such man. He "was the first to describe many famed phenomena of the Pit," including a situation wherein "weather permitting a viewer standing at the Pit's rim at sunrise or sunset may see weird shadows cast on a bank of fog miles away haloed by a prismatic effect of light producing a famous illusion of Our Lady." As the work takes a turn toward the phenomenal (from the Greek, "thing appearing to view"), efforts to see into the Pit also foreground philosophical questions about how we see. "Visibility in the Pit is a complex matter," we are told, and this complexity becomes part of the Pit's allure and part of Project's purpose; for, as we explore in later chapters, Project focuses attention on the mechanisms and machines involved in seeing and in reading.

The Pit delivers either opportunities or misfortunes (and sometimes both) to those who encounter it. Its ledges provide shelter to feral cats, but it also devours the homes of humans built too close to its edges. The Pit's presence props up the economy — locals seek creative means of profiting from it, whether by selling Pit fragments at roadside stands or offering to throw unwanted objects into it "for a fee" — but it also devastates the real estate market, transforming nearby Carbondale into a shantytown of collapsing buildings. Yet, while the Pit tears down buildings, it also inspires new construction. The narrative ends by detailing a particularly ambitious commercial venture: "A 3,000-room Indian casino was once planned for the Bottomless Pit's south rim." But, "Financing fell apart when it was discovered that an engineer had been tampering with survey markers in order to conceal progressive subsidence." We can understand these survey markers as tools for geographic inscription; by outlining the area, they turn a physical pit into something to quantify and sell.

The narrative's final sentences describe the casino project in ways that turn the story about the Pit into an allegory of reading in our digital age. The tale concludes, "Large cracks parallel to the Pit's rim have appeared in the ground where construction was to have begun and this pattern of ground deformation has preceded past subsidence events." The sentence's complexities exemplify Project's writing style and also hint at the philosophical questions that permeate the work. The sentence identifies natural signs ("large cracks") existing alongside the man-made (and man-altered) survey markers. Both types of signs can and should be read, for they present a pattern. The sentence uses a past perfect infinitive ("was to have begun") that denotes unfulfilled conditions — the intended construction of a casino — and qualifies the description of the ground and its cracked surface. These cracks are not only visible; they are also semiotic and symbolic. They record a historical happening, designate an unfulfilled plan, and represent the need to read into the Pit. The next sentence continues to register our reliance on historical artifacts: "The Pit has swallowed part of the safety rail system encircling the Pit's perimeter." Part of the safety rail remains, and it is from that visible remnant that one can begin to reconstruct history.

Project presents and promotes excavatory reading practices. Its narrative centers around the actions of individuals who actively read (and read into) the Bottomless Pit and who also leave traces for others (including you, dear reader) to discover and explain. Such excavatory reading is important, the work suggests, because "In recent years the Pit has both widened and gotten alarmingly deeper." On that ominous note, the tale of the Bottomless Pit ends. The work concludes by signaling the proliferation of change, by noting the growing instability of surfaces, and by suggesting that we need to direct our attention to these transformations. We claim throughout this book that learning to read the Pit — and, thereby, learning to read Project — is about learning to read our changing contemporary media landscape. Project invites such metacritical analysis, but it is also very much a work of its own time that exemplifies a particular moment in electronic literary history.


Project dates from the early years of the new millennium, and its aesthetic is exemplary of a strain of work popular during that moment in the history of electronic literature. Before the adoption of interactive animation authorware (such as Director and Flash) in the late 1990s, which transformed the field of electronic literature by introducing highly visual, time-based, and kinetic poetics, hypertext was king. Hypertext literature was text-based and presented nonlinear reading paths through a link-and-node structure of connecting "lexias," and, as a result, it was characterized by poetics of exploration, disorientation, and exhaustion. As electronic literature entered an era of sophisticated visuals and interface design, novel-length hypertexts were displaced by short animations. The new, highly visual and even cinematic aesthetic flourished in such online journals as Poemsthatgo.com (edited by Megan Sapnar and Ingrid Ankerson, which published new issues quarterly from 2000–2004), whose title describes the aesthetic of the literature it presented. Exemplary of this type of work is Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries (YHCHI), a critically acclaimed artistic duo who use Flash to present a flashing aesthetic of image, text, and sound — epitomized by its one-word-at-a-time delivery — that produces a minimalist and yet sophisticated aesthetic effect. Like YHCHI's work, Poundstone's Project is compact and poetic in ways that offer multiple entry points for readers seeking connections across diverse artistic genealogies, from literature to film to graphic design. As I have elsewhere argued, such speeding, unstoppable work both invites and challenges close reading.

The introduction of Flash, and other similar animation software, produced a pivotal moment in the history of electronic literature. In her schematic history of the field, N. Katherine Hayles identifies this moment as the division between two "generations" of electronic literature. Hayles explains,

First generation works, often written in Storyspace or Hypercard, are largely or exclusively text-based with navigation systems mostly confined to moving from one block of text to another. Second generation works, authored in a wide variety of software including Director, Flash, Shockwave and xml, are fully multimedia, employ a rich variety of interfaces, and have sophisticated navigation systems.

As with any narrative of media history, linear succession was neither clear nor decisive but, rather, recursive and remediative. Yet, the importance of this shift in electronic literary aesthetics is important to note, both for understanding digital literature and for recognizing how Project is exemplary of a signal moment in the history of electronic literature and its emergent poetics.

Though Project reflects this period in electronic literary history, it is also unique, both artistically and because of its artist. Project's importance to the field is signified by its inclusion in the Electronic Literature Collection, volume 1, an online digital anthology published by the Electronic Literature Organization that curates and archives important works of born-digital literature. Unlike other writers included in the ELC, William Poundstone is the author of fourteen print books of nonfiction and has been twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. His books range in scope and focus, but all share an interest in unearthing and explaining the central facets, figures, and complex theories of our technoculture. His print oeuvre traces the intersections of computing, cognition, and capitalism: The Recursive Universe: Cosmic Complexity and the Limits of Scientific Knowledge (1984), Prisoner's Dilemma: John von Neumann, Game Theory, and the Puzzle of the Bomb (1992), How Would You Move Mount Fuji?: Microsoft's Cult of the Puzzle — How the World's Smartest Companies Select the Most Creative Thinkers (2003), Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It) (2010). Poundstone's books explore and expose: Big Secrets: The Uncensored Truth About All Sorts of Stuff You Are Never Supposed to Know (1983), Bigger Secrets: More Than 125 Things They Prayed You'd Never Find Out (1986), Fortune's Formula: The Untold Story of the Scientific Betting System That Beat the Casinos and Wall Street (2005). These thematic interests carry over into Project, as does Poundstone's formal method of storytelling in which he develops a fixation point for his reader's attention and then draws a complex constellation around it. To see how he translates historical storytelling into digital literature, we dive into Project and examine the first screens that the reader encounters: the prefatory entryscreens.


Project begins with a title screen that then dissolves into a start screen. The word "START" appears in large, trim, sans serif, white capitalized letters at the center of the screen. The word remains static as a pulsing circular ball expands and contracts around it. Composed of a lighter blue than the background, the circle cycles through a range of colors and creates the effect of a vortex at the center of the screen. The vortex focuses attention on the noun- verb "START" and invites the reader to click on it with their mouse pointer. Doing so activates the main animation and begins the flashing story of the Bottomless Pit.

However, before the reader's pointer can reach the word, its movement triggers something unexpected. A ring of seven icons swoops in from the outskirts of the screen to encircle the word "START." Whenever the reader's mouse hovers near "START," the icons appear, like summoned attendants to the entry portal. The icons are summoned by an event specified by the source code, and the reader cannot begin the work without encountering this circle. These icons further demand attention because they are punctuated by a succession of fluorescent colors and moving stimuli that make the images impossible to ignore. The circle of icons contain titles that overlay the image and that reference the larger cultural histories and discursive circles in which the work operates. With titles such as "Concrete Poetry & Subliminal Advertising," "Aporia," and "System Requirements," these icons orient the reader to approach the work within specific poetic, cultural, and technological contexts. From the start, Project draws attention to the many ways interpretation may be framed by reading technologies, whether through advertising delivery mechanisms or through the system requirements for the work itself.

Clicking on any one of the seven icons that encircle "START" opens a new screen — what we call an "entryscreen." These single, static screens are filled with text laid out in paragraph form. Each provides a specific historic or technical context for approaching the work. These entryscreens are "paratexts," echoing Gerard Genette, for they are neither separate nor superfluous. A reader could choose to skip the screens and dive right into the story of the Bottomless Pit, but each screen provides meaningful content. They serve to explain, frame, or anchor the main text and its design poetics. For example, the entryscreen titled "Aporia" presents Project as sharing "the spirit" of the Oulipo and other constraint-based artistic experiments, including "a number of exercises in randomly distorting semantic content while preserving elements of structure — among them the telephone game, exquisite cadaver, and the Oulipian N+7 algorithm." Such experiments are often identified as predecessors of born-digital computational poetry because they emphasize the process of generating texts, not just the final product. In effect, such experimental poetries share an understanding that a poem can be a process or algorithm as well as the result of them. By referencing such poetic exercises in its prefatory screens, Project's paratexts situate this digital work within a longer genealogy of procedural poetics.


Excerpted from Reading Project by Jessica Pressman, Mark C. Marino, Jeremy Douglass. Copyright © 2015 University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Jessica Pressman is the author of Digital Modernism: Making it New in New Media and co-editor, with N. Katherine Hayles, of Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era. She is the associate editor of American fiction for Contemporary Literature, articles editor for Digital Humanities Quarterly, a board member of the Electronic Literature Organization, and a board member for the online journal of digital art, Dichtung-Digital. She lives in San Diego, California.
Mark C. Marino is an author and scholar of digital literature. His creative digital works include “Marginalia in the Library of Babel,” “a show of hands,” “Living Will,” and a collection of interactive children’s stories called “Mrs. Wobbles and the Tangerine House.”  He is a co-author with Douglass (and 8 others) on 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10. He teaches writing at the University of Southern California where he directs the Humanities and Critical Code Studies Lab, a research group dedicated to humanities approaches to the exploration of computer source code. He is also the director of communication for the Electronic Literature Organization. He lives in Los Angeles, California.
Jeremy Douglass is an assistant professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and is a researcher in games and playable media, electronic literature, and the art and science of data mining and information visualization. He is active in the software studies and critical code studies research communities, which study software society and the cultural meaning of computer source code. Douglass is a founding member of Playpower, a MacArthur/HASTAC-funded digital media and learning initiative to use ultra-affordable 8-bit game systems as a global education platform, and a participant in an NSF grant exploring creative user behavior in virtual worlds. He lives in Santa Barbara, California.

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