From Iceland — The Word is a Virus

The Word is a Virus

Published August 5, 2009

Imagine a poem so robust and resourceful that it could survive humanity. Imagine that the Americans finally go completely bonkers and rip the globe apart with liberational glee, the nuclear dust finally settles and all that’s left of mankind is poetry. The mark of craftsmanship has always been durability. A good cabinet has a couple of hundred years in it. A decent car will carry you for ten to fifteen years. The best laptops have at least six crash-free months in ‘em. The Eddas are as good now as they were a thousand years ago. But a poem that’ll outlive humanity?
Enter: The Xenotext Experiment, a “literary exercise that explores the aesthetic potential of genetics in the modern milieu” in the words of its author, multi-maniac, mad scientist and poetic mastermind, Christian Bök (né “Book” – The Christian Book, get it?). And Mr. Bök has the all the God-complexes you’d expect from a savant named after the good Book: not satisfied with simply producing dead poetry for the page Christian Bök has decided to make his poetry come alive. Literally.
“I propose to encode a short verse into a sequence of DNA in order to implant it into a bacterium,” says the biblical scribe / poem-god in an essay on the matter. The plan is that the text be composed in such a way that, when translated into a gene and then integrated into the cell, the text will be “expressed” by the organism, “which, in response to this grafted, genetic sequence, begins to manufacture a viable, benign protein – a protein that, according to the original, chemical alphabet, is itself another text”.
The bacterium will not only store a poem – it’s not only a living poem – it’s also supposed to create its own poetry, elevating Christian from mere poem-god to poet-god: creator and programmer of poets (what sort of poetry Christian’s future army of bacteria-poets will write, no one knows – perhaps they’ll make their own bacteria. Perhaps they’ll be rhyming neo-formalists).
Freaked out already? Until recently chances of Christian actually doing this were slim. Not because it was theoretically impossible – quite the contrary, similar things have already been done (the cybernetic expert Pak Wong partially stored the lyrics to Disney’s “It’s a Small World” as a strand of DNA inside a bacterium) and Christian has already proved his capability for writing creatively within severe constraints (each chapter of his book, Eunoia, contains only one of the vowels). But science doesn’t come cheap. I don’t think anyone actually expected Christian to ever get the money needed – including the poet-god to-be himself.
A couple of months ago, the grants came through. Christian Bök now only waits for his sabbatical from the University of Calgary to start.
It’s officially time to start freaking out.

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