In an obscure corner of the Internet resides a barren page. Usually it shows nothing but a black background, though occasionally a single character may be found. The only clue to its past rests in its title, “degenerative”, and a brief about page archiving pieces of its history. A more thorough explanation is offered, but links to a hacked page, further contributing to the viewer’s impression that they are visiting a ghost town.

The theme of the “degenerative” project was destruction. To say that the webpage self destructed over a period of four months would almost be correct, except for the fact that its disappearance was inseparably connected with its viewers. When the page’s author Eugenio Tisselli originally created the page, he attached to it a script that would automatically change or delete a random character each time the page was removed. The page would in fact remain unmarred — until people looked at it. The script destroyed the page in the end, but needed the help of the public.

Rather than simply augmenting a piece of text from the periphery, the script behind the webpage is the primary component of “degenerative” as a work of electronic literature. While the original text was a calculated creation of the author, it immediately became fluid as it was viewed in ways that were random and therefore beyond even his control. Thus the process becomes more relevant than the product when we consider questions about what the piece is arguing. This process exists in written form as the script used to modify the web page, but unfortunately this script has not been made available to the public. Instead we are given the current, nearly empty page and an archive of past versions of the page to read and analyze.

The author notes on his website that “sometimes, when it is visited, a single character can be seen… it is only a ghost”, but it is worth pointing out that there is still more to the page than a single character. If we view the source code for the page, we find

<!DOCTYPE HTML PUBLIC “-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01 Transitional//EN”>
<meta http-equiv=”Content-Type” content=”text/html; charset=iso-8859-1″>

<body bgcolor=”#000000″ text=”#999999″>

This source code is still quite sparse, but it reminds us that the page is not completely devoid of data. The background color and text color are still set (if only to a simple black and white), the title remains, and the content type is still defined. In particular, we know that the contents of this page are html text, and that if any text were to appear on this page, it would be written with the Latin alphabet used in North America. Thus it seems more fitting to refer to the page as a skeleton instead, one that might be studied as an archaeologist studies ancient bones.

The analogy in which we think of the critic as an archaeologist is made even more apt by the fact that Tisselli neglects to provide the source code for the script modifying the “degenerative” page. While we have argued that this script is the core essence of the “degenerative” piece, we cannot actually study it. Instead we must dig through the available archives of page versions as if they were geological strata. With no access to the guts and flesh of a living version of the page, we are forced to study the piece indirectly by basing inferences on the fossilized relic that remains.

When analyzing the past snapshots of the “degenerative” page, the most useful to us is the original version of the page, as it is the only version in which every character is the direct result of a conscious decision made by Tisselli. Its contents give us a hint at the thesis Tisselli is arguing, as well as providing a framework within which we may place the work as a whole. It provides content for the piece while at the same time explaining the process that will manipulate it and likely will bring about its eventual demise.

Since all the text on the original page will slowly be destroyed, pieces of text and ideas that are repeated will survive the process longer, so we can guess at the relative importance to the author of a piece of text or an idea by looking at the number of times it is repeated. Analyzing repetitions of ideas and lines of text, we see that the author expresses that the page will be destroyed in many different ways throughout the piece, an idea that is clearly integral to understanding the project. We also notice, however, that the sentence “seeing is not an innocent action” is repeated four times in a row, giving the reader a good candidate for the thesis of the piece.

While it is natural to study how art affects the viewer, “degenerative” explores the opposite direction. In claiming that “seeing is not an innocent action”, Tisselli points us toward the idea that viewers affect art, an idea that he demonstrates both literally and destructively with the “degenerative” page itself. As he states in the about page, “the only hope for this page to survive is that nobody visits it. but then, if nobody does, it won’t even exist.”

Overall, “degenerative” does an excellent job of arguing Tisselli’s thesis simply through the nature of its existence, though it could still improve on other fronts in order to become literature of a slightly higher quality. Making all source code available and maintaining the website better are easy ways for the work to be improved, as I already mentioned earlier. One further thing that could be done, however, is remove the archive of past versions of the page.

Only with the archive gone would the destruction of the page be complete. Once the original page is no longer viewable, it will truly only exist as it is now, as a distant memory and a lonely skeleton that sometimes shows a single character.

[1] Tisselli, Eugenio. “degenerative.” . N.p.. Web. 3 Nov 2013.