Last week, I had the chance to write an essay I’d been wanting to write for some time: a critical overview of Christian Bök’s The Xenotext: Book I, a book of poetry that, like all of Dr. Bök’s poetry, has significantly influenced my own poetic practice. I first read Crystallography in the early years of my undergraduate degree and was mesmerized, my intent to write and study poetry affirmed and bolstered.
After researching responses (both journalistic and academic), to The Xenotext infecting the shelves, I came across the term ‘abyssal sublime’, the perfect category for Bök’s magnificently ambitious and bizzare book to occupy. I’ll come back to the term ‘bizzare’ later on.
In September of last year, scholar Dan Disney wrote an article in The English Language and Literature Association of Korea’s Journal of English Language & Literature, entitled Xenotextuality? Conceptualism, Materiality, and the Sublime. In his article, Disney elucidates to Bök’s juxtaposition of poetry and science, which not only exposes an inherent kinship between the two spheres, but also overlaps and mingles them in an alchemic fusion of sorts.
This fusion produces a text that is not merely ‘Pataphysics, nor is it simply an appropriation of genetic engineering’s lexicons, nor is it purely a performance of concept and constraint. The Xenotext is a neo-apocrypha, a presentation of scientific data as a doomsday prophecy, a living archive for our eulogy, and an atheistic primer on the abyssal sublime. In 2012, Darren Wershler wrote an article summarizing Bök’s Xenotext project, entitled The Xenotext Experiment, So Far. Wershler argues that Bök’s text acts as a kind of “boundary object [which creates] intermedial zones”, spaces where odd similarities between compartmentalized disciplines are revealed (Wershler, 43).
For a moment, let’s come back to the term ‘bizzare’. In 1990, Bök’s first publication appeared: a D&D item description in Dragon Magazine called Bazaar of the Bizarre. The piece describes a book called the “Cryptichronos (also known as The Hidden Time)” (Bök, 11). The Xenotext is intended to be read, not by human beings in the next few decades or perhaps the next century, but by non-human entities in the distant future, setting the book apart by virtue of its “metaphysics of post-human inscription” (Disney, 409).
Given Cyrstallography‘s occult undertones, It would seem that Bök has been trying to bring his Cryptichronos into being since 1990, his own pseudo-Lovecraftian Necronomicon of sorts, and The Xenotext is the culmination of this dream, but perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch.
The Xenotext may adopt a prophetic tone (supported by classical themes of Orphic tragedy), but this first volume of Bök’s “infernal grimoire” is propped up not by mysticism but by scientific data, mounting evidence that suggests we are destroying our planet (without the capacity to migrate elsewhere) and that the end may, in fact, be nigh for our species.
The Xenotext tells us we are not its intended audience, but a transient group of readers that happen to have glimpsed the text’s birth and have no notion of its intended journey through geologic time. As Brian Rotman (author of Signifying Nothing: The Semiotics of Zero, where the term ‘xenotext‘ originates), puts it, a xenotext “has a signified only to the extent that it can be made to engage in the process of creating an interpretive future for itself” (Rotman, 102). We may be privy to the details of the experiment, but the encrypted diptych of sonnets Bök continues to attempt to implant in deinococcus radiodurans will outlive us all if the experiment succeeds, preserved for an audience that perhaps, at present, has yet to be born.
Rotman, Brian. Signifying Nothing: The Semiotics of Zero. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1987. Print.