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What to do with “I”

December 7, 2009 Leave a comment

It just occurred to me as I start to file away the various materials that I collected over the span of this semester, that a good portion of the work we discussed in this class won’t fit, one way or another, into the extra-large manilla file that I labelled “Art & Lit in Dig Dom.”  I don’t have a copy of the Breathing Wall, or the requisite system/accessories to run it; I don’t know how long many of the “assigned” links will remain active; My class notes criss-cross from a composition pad to floating word documents; The final project that Whitney and I produced isn’t in either of our possession. Without dragging out the all-too-obvious allusion to Diana Taylor’s lecture “The Digital as Anti-Archive,” this situation prods me to consider what is to come of our involuntary memory systems, especially with respect to the arts.  Back in August, a friend and fellow poet recommended this class to me, urging me on the grounds that it would introduce to me new ways of thinking about poetic form.  Gesturing to the material conditions of digital poetry, he made a comparison to the popularity of typewriters to modernist writers, how the ability to set your own type relaxed the conception that poetry is smooth on one side and bumpy on the other.  Looking back however, over my errant swaths of notes, it seems that the biggest change that seems intrinsic to the switch from paper-based composition to computer-based is one that is at the heart of generic theories of the lyric.  That being the distance between the speaker of the poem, the figure of the poet, and the flesh-and-blood human who in most cases composes the verse.  Marshall Brown sums this contention up in his essay “Negative Poetics”:

The poem says,” “the speaker says,” “Wordsworth says.” In our everyday critical usage these three assertions become indistinguishable. But they shouldn’t be. Instead, there is a speaker and there is a poet who gives the speaker voice. And there is a poem, which is a combination of the two voices-speaker and poet. The speech and the voice that re-cites the speech operate in tandem to give poems their depth.

To see the “I” personal pronoun in a paper-based poem is to ask the question to whom does that refer.  If the same pronoun shows up in a digital poem, the question of authorship, especially in the case of a randomly-generated recombinable poem, is severely complicated.  Does such a complication compel us to refigure the already muddled discussion of the lyric genre in order to account for this new signification.  Or does it pose the “I” as ineffable and de-emphasize staid notions of subjectivity and authorship?  I leave you/us with a quote from Chistopher Funkhouser (see his essay “Digital Poetry” in A Companion to Digital Literary Studies) on the banal possibilities and marvelous impossibilities that await the poet who longs to make poems that won’t fit, one way or another, into a manilla folder :

Author(s) or programmer(s) of such works presumably have a different sense of authorial control, from which a different sort of result and artistic expectation would arise; consequently, the purpose and production would veer from the historical norm. Because of this shift in psychology and practice, digital poetry’s formal qualities (made through programming, software, and database operations) are not as uniquely pointed and do not compare to highly crafted, singular exhortations composed by historic poets.

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Charles Bernstein on Seriality

December 4, 2009 Leave a comment

In reading Charles Bernstein’s essay on Charles Reznikoff, “Reznikoff’s Nearness,” I found a quote that, at least for me, helps to locate digital poetics in the context of print-based models.  His closing remarks on hypertext’s distinct penchant for nonlinear readings point to the medium’s potential for poetic seriality.  A question that occurred to me is how much does a work of recombinate literature privilege readings that weigh heavier on form than content (by this I mean addressing the text (content) only as a means to discuss the more conspicuous element, its recombinable form).  I shudder in dividing a poem, no matter its medium, into categories of form and content, but it seems to me that recombinate poems share with sound poetry a resistance to close reading.  I’m wondering if this is a characteristic generalizable to the bulk of contemporary conceptual writing?  Another trait unifying paper and digital poetries?

(By the way, if you’re not up on Reznikoff, I highly recommend his book Testimony…a collection of poems that take their language and occasion from early twentieth century court records.)

Here’s the Bernstein:

There are a number of serial works that are not intended to be read only or principally in the order in which they are printed.  (Serial reading opens all works to recombination.  My favorite image of readerly seriality is David Bowie In Nicholas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” watching a bank of TVs all of which were rotating their channels.) Robert Grenier’s Sentences—five hundred discrete articulations each on a separate index card and housed in a blue Chinese box—is the best example I know of extrinsic seriality, though two other boxes of cards also come to mind: Jerome Rothenberg and Harris Lenowitz’s Gematria 27 (twenty-seven recombinable numeric word equivalences) and THomas Mc Evilley’s cubo-serial 4 (forty-four four-line poems).  In principle, hypertext is an ideal format for this mode of composition since it allows a completely nonlinear movement from link to link: no path need be specified, and each reading of the database creates an alternative series  (The Objectivist Nexus 222)

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After Ethington

October 31, 2009 Leave a comment

When reading Philip J. Ethington’s “Placing the Past: ‘Groundwork’ for a Spatial Theory of History” alongside his Ghost Metropolis project, the two pieces occur to me both as connected and disconnected in compelling ways.    The connection, I believe, is as apparent as the abstracts that preface both pieces: compare the line “all action takes and makes place” from Ghost Metropolis to the line “the past is the set of all places made by human action.”  I point out the obvious relationship between the essay and the digital work, so that I might direct my attention to the (at least) two ways I see the pieces belying this relationship.

For all the theories of time that are brought to bear, supported and refuted in Ethington’s essay, little, if any, of his prose is dedicated to issues of digital media.  Surely, in response to such a statement one might reply with the stock, although especially germane, expression, “world enough in time.”  Every essay has its limits, and Ethington’s is no exception.  But is it so hard to imagine that Ethington’s notion of both world and time were drastically informed by his concurrent project, Ghost Metropolis.  This elision is in many respects refreshing.  In a field where every digital artist has his or her own theory of digital conditions of possibility that “emplaces,” to use Ethington’s term, their work inside of a nascent new media community (which seems to redefine and advance itself at the same gallop pace as technology) such a move to abstain from theorizing could be considered as radical.  On the one hand, Ethington’s essay, and its resistance to discuss new media, takes for granted certain stock concerns of digital art/lit.  It does not employ the grammar of interactivity and hypertextuality in so far as to further obfuscate his spatial theory of history.

Without question, the internet is radically reshaping various social practices and conceptions that exist in and of time, practices and conceptions that are essential to Ricoeur’s definition of natural time: “human or lived time” (470).  Ethington’s Ghost Metropolis is an example of this redefinition in its form as well as that form’s discovery of content, regardless if he mentions it or not.  By way of form, Ethington forces various modes of reading into propinquity.  In the many definitions I have played with for poetry, the only one I stick with relates to this line of thinking, while erring on the side of imprecision: Poetry is time.  Pages in a book become poetry only when we apply our own time to them.  I say this to point out how notions of time, for me, invariably relate to modes of reading.  In the form of Ethington’s piece, we are invited to interact with at least two different modes of reading, and therein at least two different modes of time.  There is the reading of the text on the right hand side of the screen and the reading of the map on the left.

It is important that one can call what I do to a map “reading,” even though it’s a pictorial representation.  For instance, in grade school curriculum, a teacher is responsible for teaching a unit on “Reading Maps.”  How does “reading” then relate differently to maps than to paintings or other pictorial works of art?  I would argue that the standard term for what I do to art is “appreciate;” “reading” a work of art implies something of a different level of commitment, i.e. an attempt to understand what the piece depends upon.  In the normative use of maps, the act of looking is rarely on par with “appreciation” and more akin to the type of interpretation we do when confronted with varying combinations produced by means of a particular set of twenty six symbols.  Yet, to read a map carries a different time signature than to read handwritten directions

For example, time, and its different modalities, comes into play when we are unsure if we should stay on the 40 or take the Capital Blvd exit.  When split with a second’s notice, do we turn to the map or the handwritten directions? Which will make us whole quickest?  Which will light our path before it becomes passed/past?  Regardless of the answer, we can see that time works differently in each case, as it does in Ethington’s map project.  Though it seems that the content of his project, deeply dependant upon this distinction between modes of reading, is aimed at bridging the gap between the reading text and map, and bridging the gap between the archive and the alive.  I am reminded here of a poem from Laura Jackson, “Map of Places,” where she reconsiders the material representation of maps, writing “the reality of paper tears.”  Here is a potentially relevant passage:

Now on naked names feet stand,

No geographies in the hand,

And paper reads anciently,

And ships at sea

Turn round and round.

All is known, all is found.

Death meets itself everywhere.

Holes in maps look through to nowhere.

By way of mentioning Jackson, I want to stress the assumed role of reconsideration as integral to the production of art and literature.  Without doubt, Ghost Metropolis is meant to provoke its interactor, especially the Californian, to reconsider the impact history has on their familiar haunts, as we say.  But is Ghost Metropolis a work of art/ literature?  The visitor to the site looks at a map that is organized in regards to historical narratives.  They are presumably comfortable with the function of maps and historical narratives, and the site doesn’t, in my opinion, challenge those comforts.  To do so might limit the project’s reach.  (The title Ghost Metropolis, however, seethes with poetic froth.)

Here, I’ll briefly point to the second incongruity between the essay and the project, in a means not merely to answer the question is Ghost Metropolis a work of art or literature, but to ask how does it change our ideas about art and literature. The essay, thorough in its survey, is not needlessly dense.  It builds an argument that is revelatory in tone.  Ethington’s uniting of place and time cues the reader to feel that great re-visionary work is at hand.  The project, on the other hand, is one of the few we’ve seen this semester that is meaningful and interactive with minimal preliminary instructions.  Does this imply minimal reconsiderations of how we interact with media?  This question could be in accordance with the work’s resistance to participate in the discourses of art and literature, which attempt to “make it new” at every turn.  But isn’t there something new about this project?  Doesn’t that newness—be it media, information, interface, etc—influence us to see our world anew?  How do we answer these questions while keeping in mind that Ghost Metropolis is contextual and serviceable in a way that, let’s say, Cayley’s “River Island” is not.

I want to close with a sort of summary question that I found in Brian Kim Stefans’s Fashionable Noise, which I hope will help further the conversation between service-oriented works like this one and out-of-order-oriented ones like those of Cayley and even Andrews.  Here’s the question in the context of a ICQ chat session, Darren Wershler-Henry responding to Stefans:

“Charles Bernstein and I had an interesting conversation about all this when I read in Buffalo a few weeks ago, and he said that what intrigued him about the work of the younger generation [of poets] was the question of whether or not it was possible to jettison opacity (a Modernist hangover, in his opinion-the idea that something has to be difficult to be good) and still have a piece of radical writing” (34)

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New Orleans Sound Project

October 26, 2009 Leave a comment

In recovering sources for the final project, I came across a reference I wanted to share with the class.  Next to Douglas Kahn’s early chiasmus in Noise, Water, Meat: “the dual task here is to listen through history to sound and through sound to history” (which I take to mean scouring an archives for sounds as well as scouring a particular sound for its historical valences), I jotted down Open Sound New Orleans.  In brief, Open Sound New Orleans is a web-based soundmap that encourages members of the New Orleans community to record sounds and upload them to the site with coordinates that reflect the geographical location where they encountered the sound.   It might be useful to think of the project as a nice bridge between Kahn’s discussion of significant noise and Mizuko Ito’s introduction to Networked Publics, which she describes as an “alternative to terms such as audience or consumer, [foregrounding] a more engaged stance” (3).

 Here’s the link:


How do the categorical divisions “Voice Sounds,” “Music Sounds” and “Ambient Sounds” mediate the contributor’s interaction with aurality?

What determines most of my thoughts about the project is that it chooses a specific cite, drawing boundary lines the exclude a larger international networking functionality.  As well, great significance lies in choosing New Orleans rather than Las Vegas or Durham, a decision intended to capitalize on the city’s long history of (what the creators of the site describe as) “noise richness.”  Such a term, especially in the context of NOLA, connotes postcolonial hybridity, creolité, and what Eduard Glissant refers to as a poetics of relation.  As well, the desire to archive a city’s soundscape seems in many ways a response to Katrina, as a means to both document the sound of post-traumatic stress and shore up a culture’s aural fragments against another catastrophe.


After listening to most of the recordings, I have to say that it is the way different modes of signification participate and compete that compels me to return. By which I mean the sound/noise’s resistance to standard categorization. Here sound is marked by a contributor’s collaboration with the primary categorical assumptions (Voice, Music, Ambient), but even in a structure dedicated in many ways to standardizing sound, disruptive noise survives.  One sound perhaps ambient (rain) gloms onto other voice sounds (a street performer describing the history of a particular canal), while music sounds (the Main Line of a jazz funeral) echo in the distance. This is not to mention the role the locative aspect contributes to the viewer’s experience with the piece.  Those unfamiliar with the layout of New Orleans might be curious to the programs sensitivity to geographic manifestations of class and racial difference, whereas those more familiar might be listening for contributions that challenge the notion of right and wrong side of the tracks.

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Notes Towards a Context for Call and Digital Response

September 28, 2009 Leave a comment

In her 2007 article “Ethics and the Lyric: Form, Dialogue, Answerability,” Mara Scanlon lays out two arguments on dialogic literature that I would like to take up here, and in subsequent postings, as a chance to re-examine literary considerations of call and response alongside digital-lit discourse.  First, she insists that dialogic poetry is possible, challenging the Bakhtinian declaration that “the natural and healthy state of language, which is a changing, socially stratified, multivocal clatter of discourses, is unrepresentable in poetry;” and second, that an additional dialogue between the poet and the reader is “implored, demanded, and even enacted by the lyric’s use of call-and-response traditions” (2).  Both of these arguments are fused in Scanlon’s close reading of Robert Hayden’s poem “Night, Death, Mississippi.”  By focusing on this reading, I intend to present the limitations of Scanlon’s interpretation as a case in point for the general limitations of textually based poetries to achieve the dynamic heteroglossia of oral call-and-response traditions.  My hope is that these limitations may allow us to see digital literature’s unique potential for poetic antiphony.  Before going forward, I’d like to add that it is nevertheless true that any translation, be it from one language to another or one medium (oral spiritual) to another (printed poem), must be treated as its own unique source text and not the drippings of some ideal fatback.  It is because I sense that ergodic interactivity, with its information feedback loop, makes digital media better suited for poetic encounters with call and response that I am also curious to see the incompatibility of the two forms.  What will make a digital call-and-response poem different from a printed one?  What about a digital call-and-response poem will constitute it as unique art form, distinct from its unwritten roots?

Initially, I agree with Scanlon’s first point about poetry’s dialogic possibility, recounting a litany of examples in which poets include the demotic utterance into their poems, be it overheard on the subway (Hart Crane’s The Tunnel), in a gorilla cage (Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos) or from the memory of an abandoned housing project (Gwendolyn Brook’s In the Mecca).  The list is as vast and limitless as poetry itself.  Yet, we can say that most, if not all, of these examples fall short in sharing the space of the poem, since the demotic response to the poet’s call is still under the control of the poet, and is represented in a cohesive medium that belies the eruptive capability of antiphony.  Case in point: In writing my previous sentences, I was vexed, and eventually failed, to find words that convey the poet’s ability to share the space of his/her poem that de-emphasize the poet’s ultimate agency.  If this point holds, Scanlon’s arguments cannot; yet, this criticism is not to be leveled on poetry alone.

I agree with Scanlon that any attempt the novel can make at heteroglossia can be countered by poetic technique, i.e. collage, fragmentation, multiple perspectives, indefinite embeddings.  However, when she claims, “Hayden’s poem is multivocalic because it contains several speakers and voices, and the characters speak to one another and to the reader/listener,” I am unconvinced.  Even if the various speakers articulate multiple worldviews, the poem remains an immutable database of the poet’s imagined out of body experience. Her term character allows us to see the voices in the poem for what they are: limited fantasy that depends entirely on the author.  When we refer to Othello and our Uncle Joe both as characters, it is obvious that one is a part played by an actor and the other is a larger than life personality. (The interplay between these two meanings is rife for further thought, but can be settled for my purposes with the following example.) If one of them tells us, “Certain, men should be what they seem,” we can ask them to repeat, elaborate, or leave us alone; whereas, the other cannot acknowledge us, cannot respond to our response.

The second form of dialogue, as suggested by Scanlon, addresses this limitation by treating the entire poem as a call and imparts the responsibility for response into the reader’s hands.  By relaxing the poems material borders, Scanlon’s argument inadvertently signals “The open nature of the Web as medium.” which allows Web sites continuous incompletion (Manovich, chap 5).  She also points to Hayden’s use of “free indirect discourse, the second-person address and […] the unassigned lament [in order to deprive] the reader a distance from the poem from which she may comfortably deny culpability or responsibility” (16).  If, then, the poem acknowledges us, how does our response function to steer the leader/poet’s succeeding call.  When we read O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter” or any ekphrastic poem, one can argue, and is right to do so, that this sort of acknowledgment is the poem’s occasion.  O’Hara might be a bad example for my purposes, since his response might have actually had an effect on Mike Goldberg’s “Sardines.”  But, for the majority of poems written after another poet, the medium is closed and rigid.  Only one implicates the other.  Therefore, what difference does it make if we’re looking for the response to come from a separate voice inside the poem or from the reader, if neither affect the type of dynamic, real-time co-authorship that critics such as Robert Stepto envisioned in designating call-and-response as the characteristic mode of African-American literary influence.

When I mention this dynamic, real-time co-authorship I am thinking specifically of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” sermon.  “As the story goes, echoes could be heard,” was the phrase I jotted down last week, while sitting in Maurice Wallace’s Critical Studies: Martin Luther King course. The story is of a Southern black minister’s rising crescendo.  The echo is of a nation’s most influential gospel singer.  Following either Mahalia Jackson’s prompt, “Tell them about your dream, Martin,” or his own estimations as to what would and would not work with the billowing crowd, King departed from his prepared sermon in order to improvise on a trope he had put to use numerous times in various other speaking engagements.  His ability to recast himself and his speech based on the constraints of a particular audience is well documented.  In his essay “The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King,” James Baldwin writes, “King is a great speaker.  The secret of his greatness does not lie in his voice or his presence or his manner, though it has something to do with all these; nor does it lie in his verbal range or felicity, which are not striking; nor does he have any capacity for those stunning, demagogic flights of the imagination which bring an audience sheering to its feet. The secret lies, I think, in his intimate knowledge of the people he is addressing, be they black or white, and in the forthrightness with which he speaks of those things which hurt and baffle them” (644).   Without expression or behavior, it is impossible to be certain of what hurts or baffles another person.  This is the philosophical underpinning of any antiphonal experience and must be conceded as the critical dimension of call and response.  By avoiding it, we misperceive the performance (religious, artistic, all political).  It is easy to think of the March on Washington in terms of its production of the most salient icon of the movement for civil rights.  After all, he was anointed in the black and white luminescence of the new media of the day, and broadcast television tends to sew all audience identity to the wayside of the forth wall.  “Night, Death, Mississippi” is a Robert Hayden poem, whereas I contend that the “I Have a Dream” sermon is a production of “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”

To conclude by looking forward, I’d like to counter Guy Davenport’s remunerative notion, “Every force evolves a form.”  I would say every form evolves with force, as a way to describe the potential for the well-established call-and-response form to harness the polyvalent force of hypertextuality.  In subsequent postings, I hope to play out these ideas in an ensemble, featuring various apropos performers: Espen Aarseth, Deleuze and Guattari, Söke Dinkla, Butch Morris and Brian Kim Stevens.  Stay tuned.

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