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The Price of Language: Thoughts on Letter to Linus

Letter to Linus is a piece of electronic literature that uses a cube like structure to explore the nature of language in authorship, activism, and propaganda. Set in what feels like a dystopian world where language has been “patented” and is used as “military technology,” the reader must piece together the six pieces of poem to understand this new world. When engaging with the poetry on the different pages, the reader has a feeling of trying to keep up with a conversation they arrived late to, but never being able to fully follow what is being discussed. This feeling of disorientation is emphasized by the unique navigation of the six sides of the cube. As the reader, you have the choice of which side to start with and where you will go next, thus becoming part of the creation process.

My experience of Linus was certainly one of disorientation. The order I followed from the beginning resulted in, “Away the sun, shut off language, lock up the revolution, blow out the public, break in your feelings, and cut down resistance.” After I reached the end, I went back through a few times to see if rearranging the order would help me understand any better, but I feel I was left with more questions. The most obvious question, due to the title of this piece, is who is Linus? Even as I read the sections on this person, I found I didn’t understand who they were or even if they were supposed to be good or bad. On the one hand, the writer seems to be worshipful of them: “Your body were dragged through the dirty world, tethered behind a soaring mind.” Linus was quite brilliant, it seems. But in another section of the poem that feels like a strange transcription of only one side of a conversation, the writer finds out that Linus is part of the propaganda program that the government is carrying out. The government, the reader discovers, is “bombing” the public with poetry to get across messages like, “Real friends don’t need money.” Linus has apparently been writing poems that have been used to bomb the public. That said, you find out that the writer too is trying to get their poems used for propaganda, “I need an institution to give my writing credibility,” which creates questions around what would you do to be published if you were restricted in getting out your work. Are Linus and the writer bad for giving into the pressure to go through the government? Is there something redeemable in them using their talents to create messages for others?

Aside from questions of who Linus is and the act of writing as propaganda, I found this to be a piece that was enjoyable to read for the imagery. One of the many things I love about literature and writing is the way words can come together to form beautiful nothings. Sometimes I don’t care what something means, I just want to sit with how beautiful it sounds and the way that beauty makes me feel. I found many passages in this poem that did this for me:

“bleeding adjectives”

“glistening stains”

“published in midair”

“write lines of steel to bend the reader”

Of course, in context, all of these lines mean a great deal. Meaning in language and who has the right to create this meaning seems to be another theme of this piece. The very first page I came to explores this in-depth and is where we learn that in this world, language is being regulated by a company called Linguatech. As a result, language can only be used by those who can pay to use it because, “Some things are too important to be entrusted to just everybody.” As I read this part, it brought me back to a lot of the thoughts I have had during this semester around the literary value of electronic literature. Some of what I have seen and read feels like a stretch to call it literature; the pieces sometimes feel too abstract or unclear about what they are trying to say, if anything. This is of course based on what are ultimately arbitrary guidelines of what is ‘sophisticated’ or ‘cultured’ enough to be deemed literature, but I think that there are a lot of questions around quality that are brought up in this era of anyone being able to write something and self-publish it. Among my ponderings are questions of, does the widespread ability to write and publish create a cannon of literature that is less ‘superior’ to the eras before us? Will this ‘decline’ in ‘sophistication’ have consequences? Taken to the extreme, will we ever find ourselves in a position some day when language and writing will go from the tools of the masses, to weapons of the few?

Letter to Linus is a piece that is simple in appearance, but carries within it a great deal of meaning and food for thought. I am still trying to process what it was that I experienced.

Works Cited

Gillespie, William. Letter to Linus. Electronic Literature Collection Vol. 2, 2001.

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