Timothy Leary's software (1985-1996): The dream of post-literal culture

More on post-literal culture

Using bibliographic and historical research methods, this project traces archival materials through a variety of formats and locations, showing the ways that comparative, multimodal reading practices allow themes, such as Leary's concern with post-literal culture, to emerge consistently within disparate sources.

Selection of materials for this project began with analysis of relevant written documents within the Leary papers, identified by New York Pubic Library archivists within 14 subject headings directly related to computing and software, followed by 13 additional subject headings referenced within the initial documents, and 11 floppy disk images containing corresponding electronic materials. Finally, supplementary materials related to the emerging themes in Leary's main archive were located via web and either linked or uploaded to Internet Archive. In many cases, this project has involved uploading primary documents to Internet Archive for the first time, or uploading versions with improved metadata or OCR. See related page "Guide to the Timothy Leary Papers" for more information.

After using textual analysis of Leary’s written materials to situate his software works historically, relevant floppy disk images were examined using various software tools. While disk images housed at NYPL are currently restricted to on-site access via approved tools, materials obtained by other means have been subjected to more varied forms of analysis. Mining the text from Leary's commercially-released Mind Mirror with a hex editor, many recurrent phrases and concepts can be identified among Leary's broader oeuvre, including his 1950 PhD dissertation, various psychological monographs, and unreleased software residing at NYPL (especially the overlapping Mind MoviesCyberspaceInterCom, and InterScreen projects, all in development between 1986 and 1996). 

Comparisons between software performance, hex readout, and written documents reveal two significant continuities between written and software projects. First, 7 of the 11 floppy disk images examined use some version of Leary’s (1957) interpersonal circumplex model of personality diagnosis to score user performance. Second, production notes related to all of the identified projects reveal a concern for the development of “post-literal” linguistic techniques.

Most of Leary’s software projects aimed to adapt his previous writings into interactive formats, moving from written to post-literal forms. His written plans to do so frequently reference the works of Aldous Huxley (1954/2004), who advocated development of “non-linguistic humanities”, and Marshall McLuhan (1965/1994), who proposed that computing technology could enable human thought to be “translated more and into the form of information” (p. 85). Leary himself coined the term “post-literal language” (“Brummbaer Press Release”,1990, box 211, folder 2) to encompass these goals. Post-literal culture, as Leary conceived it, very closely mirrors what Manovich (2001) calls the “language of new media,” a nonlinear system of multimedial reading techniques, to be applied in dynamic meaning-production processes (p. 124).

This study suggests that in the case of Timothy Leary’s archive, 20th-century experimentations with interactive software can be read as formations of an emerging “post-literal” theorization of language. Post-literal language becomes meaningful when readings of the archive perform several overlapping and ongoing processes of transformation. These processes can be classified within three general categories:
  1) Linear (print) to nonlinear (database)-- converting Leary's written works into computer-readable texts.
  2) Nonlinear (database) to experiential forms-- rendering nonlinear texts as audio, visual, and interactive forms.
  3) From old to new experiential forms-- using emulation and related software to reformalize digital materials in new configurations.

These findings show computer software emerging as a post-literal expressive form between 1985 and 1996, visible when examined in processes of formal transformation and nonlinear reading. These findings also emphasize the role of mixed-media archives as inherently nonlinear and multi-format sites of interpretation.

Primary sources
Leary, T. (1957). Interpersonal diagnosis of personality: A functional theory and methodology for personality evaluation. New York: Ronald Press Co.
Timothy Leary papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. New York: NY. MssCol 18400. Series V, Boxes 210-25, disk images 1, 4-9, 11-2. 
Timothy Leary’s Mind Mirror (1985) Electronic Arts: Redwood City, CA. IBM edition.
Timothy Leary’s Mind Mirror (1985) Electronic Arts: Redwood City, CA. Commodore Amiga edition.

Secondary sources:
Foucault, M. (1972).  The Archaeology of knowledge. Translated by by A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon Books.
Huxley, A. (1954/2004) The Doors of Perception/Heaven and Hell. New York: Harper Collins.
Manovich, L. (2001). The language of new media. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
McLuhan, M. (1965/1994). Understanding media: The extensions of man. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.


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