“The House of Dust:” Physical Book or Digital Literature?

Hannah Higgins, in her article “An Introduction to Alison Knowles’s The House of Dust,” notes how the computer-generated poem by Allison Knowles and James Tenney is unique in part because it is “among the first computerized poems” (Higgins, 195). Precisely because it debuted in this liminal stage of firsts, after its audience was comfortable with the affordances of books but before the affordances of digital environments had been explored or defined, I thought it interesting to contemplate about how the form of The House of Dust affected its interpretation.

Higgins mentions that the computer first “generated four hundred quatrains before a repetition occurred” (196). Instead of appearing on a computer screen, these quatrains were printed onto physical paper that equaled “a foot-high stack of computer printout” (196). I am undecided as to whether the physical copy of The House of Dust should be judged as a book or as digital literature. The physical copy of the poem could be considered a book because of the fact that it is volumetric. In terms of the effect of its volume, I think that an audience being able to see the physical size of the poem in terms of tangible pages would have made quite an impact. I imagine that to see the poem printed out would have quantified the number of possibilities for the poem’s combinations in a way that our modern digital environments do not allow.

For example, the emulations of the poem that we have looked at, such as Zach Whalen’s emulation, do not allow us to see the physical quantity of possible combinations. He does format the generation to look like the same kind of computer paper on which the original House of Dust was printed, but we as readers are left to conceptualize the number of total combinations. I believe that personally, I fail at being able to accurately do this. The House of Dust, in originating at a time when the digital environments themselves were not fully formed, managed to define itself half in terms of physical affordances and half in terms of digital. Where does the physical House of Dust, the architectural feat built in Chelsea, fit on this spectrum? How should we talk about literature that fits partly in one category and partly in another? Is there one way of looking at The House of Dust (i.e. as a physical book versus as electronic literature) that you prefer? Why?

Physical copy of “The House of Dust,” from the artistic website of Nina Safainia

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