Ouroboros vs. Jabberwock

Deena Larsen & Stuart Moulthrop

IT'S A MONSTER CLASH! Godzilla against Mecha-Godzilla, Virgin versus Dynamo, the Thing in unlimited rounds against Yet Another Thing. It's battle of titans, duel of legends, showdown supreme -- OUROBOROS VERSUS JABBERWOCK, a battle for the heart and mind (or maybe sanity) of the reader.

What were we thinking?

Seriously. This undertaking began at ELO '16 in Vancouver, British Columbia, after Deena sat through Stuart's attempt at a general theory of text-games, which reinvoked the old dichotomy of scripton (what you see) versus texton (what you don't see, but might still get). Could this creaky hinge really be the main works of electronic writing? D. bombarded S. with a few questions, and a few more, and ultimately both began to have ideas. Not to mention more questions. What is the value of splitting textual play into programmed vs. non-programmed, random infinity vs. sculpted finite? Could we really think about electronic literature as an unfolding tension between the finite thing in front of us, and an infinite we can never hope to see the edges of?

This might be one among many possible dualisms, Stuart shiftily suggested. Oh-kay, said Deena, but don't try to change the subject. What happens if we actually build something inside those constraints? Could the distinction be a way to measure the readers’ motivation (or lack thereof)? What if we gauge or engage reader motivation by setting up a battle between scripted and scripton?

So this monster meet is also a poetry jam, an ongoing improvisation worked out in Skype and e-mail over intervening months. Deena named the players, Ouroboros the old circular snake, versus Victorian boojum Jabberwock. She'd already begun thinking about how a certain set of familiar verses could be looped back on themselves and what such recursions might mean. She developed a spreadsheet of carefully crafted steps to lead from letter on up to meaning. Stuart meanwhile was about to learn the immoderate pleasure of fooling around with someone else's rhyme scheme. There were iterations and prototypes, a dozen or so increasingly elaborate Jabberworks. Eventually there would be whispered words and questions asked in SurveyMonkey, and at the end of it all, an invitation to engage.

What you can expect

After you follow the start link at the bottom of this page, the curtain will rise on a bifold screen. The column on the left belongs to Ouroboros. On the right, Mr. Dodson's poem is steadily undermined by a machinic process. Though the lettering will be faint at first on both sides, you may notice how the O-text stays put while the J-text relentlessly iterates. Above the O-text you will see seven numbers, signifying that what you currently see is the first of a series of poems, which you can read in any order by clicking on the appropriate link. The J-text also has a certain seriality, extruding line after algorithmic line, but this process is (a) interminable and (b) not interested in your pathetic little mouse-clicks.

Both O and J texts are more or less shameless variations on that much-beloved mock-epic from Through the Looking-Glass. The O poems are closed and determinate. The J poem constantly replaces itself, which somehow made Stuart imagine an endless tennis match in English Major Hell.

There is a contest here, and even a kind of game-logic, though it has nothing to do with tennis. You'll discover the system responds to the position of your pointer, which may be over the O column, the J column, or neither. In the last case there is silence and everything appears in ordinary shades of gray. If you stray into one of the monster lanes, however, the text in question will cycle through a series of color changes (signalling your engagement) and opacity will increase ever so slightly, with a corresponding decrease on the other side.

You'll also hear voices at this point -- whispered words of wisdom from Deena. On the O side, these words spell out a defined syntax, a poem of questions and admonitions. Devious beast that he is, the Jabberwock slices and dices Deena's words for his own stochastic purposes.

It is theoretically possible to leave the game undecided until the heat-death of the universe, if you shuttle carefully from one side to the other. However, constraints are constraints, so we strongly suggest you choose a side and stay there (only a few minutes, we promise) until your choice is fully expressed and the opposite side goes blank. This is resolution and the screen will change accordingly. Among the things you will see at this point is the word SURVEY, which carries a live hypertext link. Please click this link and answer the very brief questions you will then be asked. You’ll be a hero, helping us do real science in an age of exploding ignorance. Or oh all right, yeah, you copped it -- you're helping settle a bet.


This project uses only standard Web affordances, Javascript and HTML5 without plug-ins. It should work in any major browser released circa 2017. The opacity changes will not work in older versions of Internet Explorer unless you enable ActiveX Controls.

In the interest of deeper detail, here are some documentary links:

For those who might be into textonics, here are the Jabberwocky generator and the whisper-deformer that remixes Deena's readerly advice. (Additional script resources can be found within the markup of the main page.)

For folks more interested in words that know their place, here's the eponymous spreadsheet.


This work is governed by a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial License. You are welcome to adapt text and code from this work provided (a) you credit Deena Larsen and Stuart Moulthrop as the original authors, and (b) you offer any derivative work without charge.

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