Cut/Copy/Paste: Remixing Words (Spring 2012)

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See also Limits of Writing (Spring 2012).

Writing 20-88, Thompson Writing Program, Duke University

Spring 2012, W/F 4:25-5:40

Bell Tower WEST 113

Office hours are by appointment.

Instructor: whitney trettien | whitney [dot] trettien [at] duke [dot] edu | @whitneytrettien

All of this information can be found on our class website:

Course narrative

In 1959, a German computer scientist programmed a Zuse Z22 computer to cut up and recombine phrases from Franz Kafka's novel The Castle. The string of words spit out by the program reads like a Mad Libs mash-up of Kafka's original work. Who authored these computer-generated texts – the program, the programmer, or Kafka? Are they original poems, or merely derivative experiments? If derivative, where does "fair use" borrowing end and plagiarism begin? And can we consider the computer program itself a "text" in the same way as Kafka's novel?

This computer program is only one in a long history of experimental writing that cuts up, remixes and recombines language as a way of destroying the cohesiveness of writing. In this course, we'll look at ancient Latin cut-up poems; we'll play with seventeenth-century German paper instruments used to produce poetry during live performances; and we'll pull apart simple generative computer programs. Because these "texts" were written to be experienced, we will interact with them experimentally, pulling apart and remaking them – and our own writing – as a community. By engaging in these acts of intentional destruction, we will, together, crack open the mechanisms that make good writing work. Observing where language breaks down will lead us to a better understanding of what language is, as well as what it can do.

You cannot read the texts of this class without, in some sense, writing them, and we'll spend a good deal of time doing both in and out of class. As we test the limits of language, you will produce weekly short reflective blog posts on your discoveries. You will also be expected to respond at least twice a week to one of your classmates' posts. The point of this weekly writing is not to produce beautifully structured, perfectly grammatical compositions, but to get you in the habit of writing down your thoughts. In other words, the aim is for you to become comfortable participating in a written dialogue as a member of a community.

Once throughout the semester, you will design and carry out your own writing experiment in class. This can be something as simple as setting up a series of surrealist writing exercises for the class to participate in, or sharing and leading a discussion on a work of recombinant literature you've found. The week after, you will be expected to turn in lab report discussing what your experiment taught you about the practice of writing.

Towards the end of the semester, you will produce a single final project, devised in consultation with the instructor and your classmates. This project can take many different forms – it could be a short video remix, a digital poem, or even a piece of performance writing that you share with the class. The goal of this project is to implement a critical engagement with the set of questions we will ask throughout the course: namely, what is "originality" in writing? How do we make sense with words – and when (and how) do words become nonsense? How does language cohere?

All work in this class except the reflections can be produced collaboratively, and students are encouraged to think about our writing experiments within the context of the community that we create together. Although we will be looking at (and perhaps writing) very simple computer programs, no programming experience is necessary.


In-class writing exercises

Most weeks, we will be doing some form of writing during class. These will be short, often collaborative exercises. While you are not graded on the writing you produce, your active engagement with the exercise will count towards your participation grade.

1 weekly blog post, 2 responses to your classmates' posts

I encourage you to think of these posts and responses not as an assignment to get through by a particular deadline but as a means to engage with your readings and your classmates outside our meetings. These posts and responses will not be graded for content, length, grammar or punctuation but on the quality of your participation in our online community.

For each week, I have provided a blogging prompt on the schedule. In all but a few cases, about which I’ll notify you ahead of time, you are not obligated to write to the prompt. In fact, I encourage you to bring in outside resources, since part of the process of writing is making connections between people and ideas. Think of the prompts as guideposts to turn to when you’re feeling stuck.

Writing experiment and lab report

For this assignment, you will design and implement an in-class writing experiment like the ones that we'll be studying and performing throughout the semester. It should be an experiment that the entire class can participate in and should take approximately 20 minutes of class time. As part of this process, you will write a hypothesis and submit it to me the week before your experiment, followed by a lab report detailing what you learned (or didn't learn) about what makes (and unmakes) good writing within formal constraints. A more detailed assignment prompt with grading criteria will be forthcoming.

Final project

This is an open-ended assignment in which you will engage with the set of questions we have asked throughout the course. A more detailed assignment prompt will be provided in February.


All readings are either available online (links provided in the schedule) or via our class blog. Although many of the readings are short, they can be difficult. Confusion is expected and, in some cases, intended. Do your best. If you get lost, try to think about the structure and goals of the piece, as many of our writers are playing not with content but with the form of language. Most importantly, make use of the class blog to ask and answer questions.


Writing 20 is the only course required of all Duke undergraduates. It is intended to prepare you to contribute to the intellectual life of the university by making you a stronger, more confident communicator.

All Writing 20 courses share three goals:

  • engaging with the work of others, which we will do primarily through our class blog;
  • articulating a position, which you will practice for your in-class experiment and lab report;
  • contextualizing communication – that is, learning how to match your writing genre and style to your audience.

I will be discussing and turning to these goals throughout our course. For more information on the Writing 20 Course Goals and Practices, please see

Other Duke resources to help you become a better writer

Undergraduate Writing Partners

Undergraduate Writing Partners (UWPs) are available to assist first-year students with their writing on Sundays, Mondays, and Wednesdays from 8-10pm in Carr 136, beginning on January 29. You can visit at any stage of the writing process – from brainstorming, to drafting, to revising, to polishing the final draft. The UWPs can also help with writing for any course. No appointment is needed. Just drop in! For additional information and to meet the partners, please visit:

The Writing Studio

The Writing Studio offers free tutoring (both in-person and e-tutoring) and help for ESL students. I encourage you to make use of this wonderful resource. To schedule an appointment, please visit:


Participation (45% total)

  • Blog posts and responses (30%)
  • Class attendance (15%)

Writing experiment (30%)

  • Hypothesis (5%)
  • In-class experiment (10%)
  • Lab report (15%)

Final project (25%)

Blog posts and responses will be graded on a scale of v (shows quality engagement with the materials), v- (passing) and 0 (did not complete the assignment). You may miss 1 regular blog post and 3 responses without your grade being affected. You should have posted at least 11 regular blog posts and 19 responses by the end of the semester.

All other assignments will be graded as a percentage on the normal A-F scale. Late assignments may affect your grade, depending on the circumstances and degree of lateness.

You are entitled to miss two classes throughout the semester without your participation grade being affected. Note that "participation" means not only showing up for class but taking part in our discussions and in-class writing projects. If you have any concerns about whether your in-class participation is adequate, I encourage you to make use of our blog to share with me and your fellow classmates your reactions to our readings and discussions.

If you have any questions or concerns about how you will be graded or your ability to complete an assignment on time, get in touch with me as soon as possible.

Obvious reminders

Respect each other and yourselves. Listen when people speak. Respond to ideas and to your classmates with openness and courtesy. Be prepared for class. Don’t plagiarize. Approach me with any concerns. You can review Duke’s Community Standard here:


January 13. Introduction

Week 1. Challenging creation.

In-class writing exercise: Exquisite corpse; automatic writing.

Blogging prompt: Share a snippet of the automatic writing you did in class. Was it difficult? If so, why?

January 18.

  • Kenneth Goldsmith, "Introduction," Uncreative Writing
  • Browse Kenneth Goldsmith, Soliloquy
  • Jonathan Lethem, "The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism"
  • Watch "John Cage 4'33"

January 20.

  • Tristan Tzara, "Dada Manifesto"
  • I. K. Bonset, "about the sense of literature"
  • Andre Breton, "The Automatic Message"
  • Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault, "The Unsilvered Glass," from The Magnetic Fields

Week 2. – Drain off the prop ocean and leave the White Whale stranded –

In-class writing exercise: Cut-ups. Bring scissors and glue if you own them.

Blogging prompt: How do cut-up techniques relate to the "unoriginal" writing practices we discussed last week? What happens to the coherence of writing or narrative in cut-ups?


January 25.

  • William Burroughs, "The Cut-up Method"
  • Watch William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, "The Cut-Ups"
  • William Burroughs, selections from The Ticket That Exploded

January 27.

  • Brion Gysin, "Early Cut-up Experiments," Back in No Time: The Brion Gysin Reader, 69-78
  • Brion Gysin, "Poem of Poems"
  • Brion Gysin, "In the Beginning Was the Word"

Week 3. Harmonizing.

In-class writing exercise: Collage and cut-ups. Bring scissors and glue if you own them.

Blogging prompt: Compare and contrast early modern cut-up practices to those of Burroughs and Gysin.


February 1.

  • Watch "Recreating a Little Gidding book, old school"
  • Watch "Jefferson Bible conservation"
  • Mitch Horowitz, "How Thomas Jefferson’s secret Bible might have changed history"
  • "Secretary Clough on Jefferson's Bible"
  • Browse images of the Jefferson Bible

February 3.

  • Juliet Fleming, "Graffiti," Graffiti and the Writing Arts of Early Modern England
  • William H. Sherman, "Used Books," Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England

Week 4. Digital Humanities detour.

Blogging prompt: Browse HASTAC ( or Digital Humanities Now ( Post about an interesting project you discover.

February 8.

In lieu of our meeting, we will be attending a guided walk through the digital projects on display at the CHAT Festival ( This is an excellent opportunity to begin thinking about your final project.
In preparation, I'd like everyone to pick a different article from either the Blackwell Companion to Digital Humanities or Companion to Digital Literary Studies. Read it before our walk; we'll discuss it the next meeting.

February 10.

Discussion of our walk, the projects we saw and the articles we read.

Week 5. Paper computers.

In-class writing exercise: Everyone will receive a facsimile of an interactive print to play with and explore.

Blogging prompt: Describe your print. Does it "write," and if so, how? Who reads it? What is its primarily functionalities (i.e. sites of interaction) and affordances (i.e. what does it allow the user to do)?


February 15.

  • "Fünffacher Denckring der Teutschen Sprache"
  • Marie Ocakova, "Centones: Recycled Art or the Embodiment of Absolute Intertextuality?"
  • Florian Cramer, Word Made Flesh, Chapter 2, "Computations of Totality"

February 17.

  • Suzanne Karr Schmidt, "Constructions both Sacred and Profane: Serpents, Angels and Pointing Fingers in Renaissance Book with Moving Parts"
  • Lindberg, Sten G. "Mobiles in Books: Volvelles, inserts, pyramids, divinations, and children's games." The Private Library Series 3 (2:2): 49-82.

Week 6. On (not) reading a million books.

In-class writing exercise: TaPOR; Google Ngram Viewer

Blogging prompt: Play around with TAPoR ( and the Google Ngram Viewer ( Upload texts you know well – perhaps even your own (e.g. an old research paper, your personal statement when applying to Duke). Do these tools shed new light on familiar texts?


February 22.

  • Stephen Ramsay, "An Algorithmic Criticism"
  • Ann Blair, "Introduction," Too Much To Know: Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age

February 24.

  • N. Katherine Hayles, Chapter 2, "Material Metaphors, Technotexts, and Media-Specific Analysis," Writing Machines, 18-33
  • Browse the work of Brian Dettmer ( and images of Tom Philips' A Humument (

Week 7.

No blog posts or responses are due this week.

February 29. Trip to the Rubenstein Library.


Week 8. Forking paths.

In-class writing exercise: Hypertext! Bring a laptop if you own one.

Blogging prompt: What kinds of interaction does hypertext facilitate with narrative? How does this different from, for instance, the cut-ups we looked at earlier this semester? How do CYOA novels relate to the avant-garde aesthetic practices we’ve studied?


March 14.

  • Jorge Luis Borges, "The Garden of Forking Paths"
  • Vannevar Bush, "As We May Think"
  • Selections from Ted Nelson, Literary Machines

March 16.

Everyone will pick a different Choose Your Own Adventure novel to read.

Week 9. Aleatoric determinations.

In-class writing exercise: Aleatoric writing.

Blogging prompt: Is the work of Mallarme or the Oulipo hypertextual? Did you enjoy Cage’s Mureau or the aleatoric film performance of Troyano and Hughes-Freeland? Why or why not?

March 21.

  • Stephane Mallarme, "Un coup de des"
  • Oulipo, "Six Selections by the Oulipo," in The New Media Reader
  • Theo Lutz, "Stochastic texts"

March 23.

  • Listen to John Cage, Mureau
  • Watch Ela Troyano and Tessa Hughes-Freeland, on Roulette TV

Week 10. Installing language.

In-class writing exercise: A simple poetry generator. If you own a laptop, bring it to class.

Blogging prompt: Blog about the poem you choose from the Electronic Literature Directory.


March 28.

Find a poem on the Electronic Literature Directory ( We’ll be sharing and discussing them together in class.
  • Sandy Baldwin, "A Poem is a Machine to Think With: Digital Poetry and the Paradox of Innovation"

March 30.

  • Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Josh Carroll, Robert Coover, Shawn Greenlee, Andrew McClain, and Ben "Sascha" Shine, "Screen"
  • An Interview with Robert Coover, "Storytelling 2.0: Adventures in a Virtual Reality Cave"
  • Camille Utterback, "Text Rain"

Week 11. Social media.

In-class writing exercise: Twitter poetry, flarf, live-texting.

Blogging prompt: How has social media changed (and challenged) how we think about written communication?


April 4.

  • Dan Hoy, "The Virtual Dependency of the Post-Avant and the Problematics of Flarf: What Happens when Poets Spend Too Much Time Fucking Around on the Internet"
  • "Against a generative grammar of flarf"

April 6.

  • mark amerika, "Play All the Remixes," Remix the Book
  • McKenzie Wark, "Hacker Manifesto"
  • Shane Hinton and mez, "_:terror(aw)ed patches:_ [A Google Wave(let) Transformation Wurk]"

Week 12. Taping film.

Blogging prompt: Do multimedia artists – especially those who work in highly visual mediums such as film or video games – deal with "writing" in the same way as the poets we’ve previously read? How do remix techniques operate differently within film?


April 11.

  • Watch The Adventures of Bill & John, Episode 2

April 13.

  • Watch Flesh Artifacts
  • Watch Len Lye, "Swinging the Lambeth Walk"

Week 13. Audio remix.

Blogging prompt: Find an example of a work that engages with contemporary remix practices and post it to the class blog by midnight on April 19th. Peruse what your classmates have posted before class.

April 18.

  • Listen to Girl Talk, All Day
  • Listen to DJ Danger Mouse, The Grey Album

April 20.

  • Carolyn Guertin, "Handholding, Remixing, and the Instant Replay: Narratives in a Postnarrative World"

Week 14. Wrap up.

April 25.

Final projects due. We'll be sharing and discussing them in class.