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The Upright Script: Words in Space and on the Page
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This essay provides a critical analysis of the way pervasive data culture impacts the form of poetry and conceptions of authorship for those print and digital poets who let it enter their work. As depicted in popular media, the data cloud is a confusing and disordered space in which we lose all sense of privacy. However, a number of contemporary poets seek to get lost in this ether, reveling in the network of language that surrounds us. They do so in part because the very technologies that make such data visible in turn make the writer invisible, an authorial position more comfortable for poets of the networked age. Examined alongside the recent surge in interest in infosthetics, conceptual and digital poetry can be seen as embracing a “data poetics” attuned to the materiality of language.
I. “A Small (or Large) Machine Made of Words”: Toward a Data Poetics
When William Carlos Williams called the poem “a small (or large) machine made of words” in his 1944 introduction to The Wedge, he meant to suggest that modern poets must waste nothing. To Williams, the ideal poem was sleek and efficient: each word a necessary part of the whole. This correlation of poetry with the machine links Williams to writers across a number of modernisms who sought to craft a poetry of crystalline economy and for whom modern technologies symbolized ideal efficiency. This gesture might be said to extend from Stéphane Mallarmé’s assertion of a “Crisis in Poetry” at the end of the nineteenth century, demanding an added emphasis on language’s sonic and visual qualities that would enact “la disparition élocutoire du poëte, qui cède l’initiative aux mots,” a withdrawal of the author in favor of language. While Williams’ oft-quoted maxim provides an important point of reference to contemporary poets for whom the computer has become an essential tool, how can his streamlined poem-machine provide a model for writers in the age of information saturation?
Given a contemporary landscape permeated by data on screens, mobile devices, and in the very air we breathe (in what I will be calling the data cloud), does a poetics of economy still apply?
In this essay, I will argue that twenty-first century innovative poetry responds to the proliferation of information by crafting a data poetics that “cedes the initiative to words” by embracing the flow of information around us. In a contemporary variant of Williams’ machine, a number of conceptual and digital poets treat the text as a field of data to be permuted by both author and reader, demonstrating the importance of each part to the whole by revealing (and reveling in) the network of relations between and beyond them. More than simply a remix aesthetic facilitated by digital technology, I would like to suggest that appropriative writing and collaborative web-based poetry mark a redefinition of authorship in an attempt to break away from the perceived tyranny of inspiration in favor of a poetics of collaboration with the flow of information around us. Inheritors of Walter Benjamin’s theories on the destruction of the “aura” of art due to the ease of technological reproduction, contemporary poets cannot rely on a text’s “originality” as a mark of their genius. Given poststructuralist theory’s suggestion of a self constructed by language, media, and social structures, these writers can also no longer presume a stable center from which to write or a privileged perspective on the world around them. Locating conceptual writing and collaborative digital poetry in the context of popular depictions of pervasive data that highlight its potential for surveillance and disruption, I will explore the way these works attempt to both highlight and subvert these two tendencies of the data cloud and take part in a larger movement to aestheticize information through data visualization.
II. “The Question of Definition”: Visualizing the Data Cloud
In 1945, American scientist and Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development Dr. Vannevar Bush wrote the famous treatise “As We May Think” in which he proposed the first personal data library, called “Memex.” In describing this hypothetical device, Bush developed the metaphor of the network, the “intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain” (NMR 44), that would become so central to digital media, and particularly to hypertext and the Internet. This microfilm repository set into a desk equipped with rear-projection screens would enable researchers to examine a whole library of media, including books, magazines, and photographs, in a comparatively small space. In the middle of the twentieth century, Bush was already describing the kind of information saturation with which we are currently beset: “[t]here is a growing mountain of research. [. . .] The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers—conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear” (NMR 37). The Memex would enable researchers to apply code-words to content they examined, thereby connecting items by association, rather than alphabetically or numerically. The network thus created would be of greater use than any library or catalogue because data would be organized intelligently and could even include explanatory annotations made by the researcher on-screen. The Memex was never built, but we can now organize information based on self-defined code-words using websites like del.icio.us, Evernote, Zotero, and other information-gathering and tagging sites, much as Bush predicted.
We are indeed living in a world of data-saturation—each object we buy encoded with a rich history of production and delivery, often traceable by simply scanning a barcode. We track our own metadata daily, watching our location on GPS devices or mobile phones, responding to e-mail, organizing our writing into computer folders for easy access, backing up our files to digital servers online or hard drives at home, updating coworkers of our project’s status through inter-office microblogging, and informing our friends of personal milestones and daily dramas through social networks. The browsers we use to access the Internet keep a record of every site we visit, and online vendors store our likes and dislikes (as well as those of our friends and others who share our demographic details) in order to recommend products to us.
We increasingly see ourselves as generators of data who are part of a continually flowing datastream or information cloud, spatial metaphors that give shape to invisible pervasive data. This dimensional language grows directly out of what media scholar Janet Murray calls “the spatial property of the [digital] medium, its capability for embodying dimensionality.” From the file structures on our desktops to the network of web “sites” on the Internet, computers provide highly effective simulations of spatiality because they accept our commands and respond “in a consistent manner that reinforces our notion of space” (6).
The cloud metaphor becomes perceptible in popular media that visualize this data. Augmented reality software on mobile devices, for example, allows us to access geographically specific information through a smartphone’s camera interface. Such data can be highly useful, as is the case with the social reviews website Yelp’s iPhone application (Figure 1), which displays information about businesses nearby. Connecting the user to a network of restaurant reviews can help her or him find exactly what she or he wants, be it a quick bite or haute cuisine, while mapping this data onto three-dimensional space to provide a sense of the relative distance and location of the place in question. As rich as this knowledge base may be, when depicted as a layer of information on top of the visible world the implication that this data would otherwise surround us without our knowing or seeing it has decidedly disturbing undertones.
Television shows and advertisements have capitalized on the panoptical implications of pervasive data, using three-dimensional text rendering and animation to let language haunt the landscape.
On the para-science TV series Fringe, for example, the tradition of using on-screen text to indicate location, common in crime procedurals, has been adapted for the data cloud: Three-dimensional text floats in space, casting shadows and reflections on the landscape around it (Figure 2). This text is at once informative and ominous, indicating as it does a mysterious observer tracking events on earth from a distance. By skinning the ubiquitous Helvetica typeface in a metallic sheen, the effect suggests the text belongs to a massive corporation or government agency keeping tabs on our whereabouts. An early model of this floating text mapped to objects in space appears in the opening credits to David Fincher’s 2002 thriller Panic Room, in which the names of actors and above-the-line crew appear nestled against the high-rises of New York City. Juxtaposed in this way, the text makes no claim at a denotative function, unlike the location titles in Fringe. While we might easily accept the series’ place-names as deictic markers exhibiting the show’s visual effects prowess, their very presence as language in the landscape where it does not belong demands our attention. As Johanna Drucker has argued, signage in the landscape is anything but transparent.
It is the only element in the landscape that challenges us to reevaluate what we see according to ideas not indicated by the physical setting. Only language tries to tell us what we see. Language does not simply, or even actually, identify things. Rather, language itself raises the question of definition. (FW 94)
Fringe’s locative text “raises the question of definition” for the viewer—specifically the question “Who or what defines?”—and in so doing encodes public fears about invasive pervasive data.
The sinister quality of the data cloud recurs in Liberty Mutual’s 2008 “Sideswipe” commercial. In the ad, the protagonist, embodied by a first-person camera, exits a house and begins to cross a residential street, scanning left and right until it sees a parked car that has been damaged in a hit-and-run accident, the driver’s side mirror hanging limply and the door badly scratched. The camera races toward the car, accompanied by the sound of frantic footsteps. Words appear one by one as it pans down the street, “Who could have done this?” (Figure 3). Mapped into three-dimensional space, these words show the unseen protagonist’s fears projected directly onto the landscape. Here, the typeface suggests hand-drawn lettering in tall, thin, fragile-looking characters. The uneven letter heights and irregular lines embody the shaken feeling of the protagonist, frustrated and frightened and looking for answers. The data cloud here becomes a space where even our innermost thoughts are no longer private but as vulnerable as possessions left out on the street for anyone to see or swipe.
Media artist Jhave explores the poetics and panoptics of words in the landscape in a series of 2009 and 2010 micro-videos in which brief animated poems move through space, providing an implicit commentary on the image. His description of the piece “Marginalia” (2009) as “fragmentary phrases adrift in a sinewed world” (http://www.glia.ca), applies equally well to the rest of the series, suggesting the words emerge from a network of invisible tendons that, like the cloud, surround us. In “Death,” the camera focuses on the corpse of a bird at the edge of a gravel-strewn aqueduct (Figure 4). In the background, a phrase erects itself in jumpy, time-lapse style over a squat, characterless building: “Death sometimes looks like a vacation / lights decay into love.” The callous first line, looming in all capital letters, melts down to allow the more lyrical second line to take its place, the remote observer giving way to an affective one. The illusion that the text exists in this space—linguistic struts in a sinewed world made suddenly visible—is particularly convincing because it adheres to the way the camera would “see” them: The words reflect in the puddle below and appear slightly blurred in accordance with the camera’s depth of field. Such depictions of language obeying the laws of three-dimensional space in both popular media and art press “the question of definition” firmly upon the viewer. As text hovering without visible supports, the words are self-consciously computer-generated and, as Jonathan Crary has observed of digitally created images without a “real-world” referent, resemble not signage so much as “millions of bits of electronic and mathematical data.” Faced with text that both represents and is itself composed of data, the viewer recognizes these words as nodes in a larger network she herself must traverse on a daily basis.
The arduousness of negotiating the invisible terrain of information comes home to us in Microsoft’s commercials for the Bing search engine. In a series of vignettes highlighting the effects of “search overload,” normal conversations are interrupted when one of the participants responds to the other’s query with a litany of irrelevant comments. While the interlocutor in these exchanges speaks with feeling, the overloaded party responds with a blank stare, akin to Helvetica’s stony face, mentally removed from the random results spewing from his or her mouth. The first series of advertisements, in 2008, emphasizes the disturbing quality of these exchanges with high-pitched violins at the end of each ad, reminiscent of the music that accompanies climactic moments in horror films.
As the campaign has developed over the last three years, however, the emphasis has shifted and the tone brightened from doom to high absurdism, thanks to the associational poetics of inaccurate search results. Search overload is no longer an individual problem, these ads suggest, but triggers a chain reaction of comic proportions. Passersby are drawn into the network of each exchange, extending the madness into a cacophony that utterly disrupts daily life, turning a grocery store into the scene of a massive food fight and throwing airports and hospitals into disarray. In one vignette, a father and son browse television sets in an appliance store. “So, do we want an LCD or plasma?” the father asks. “Plasma is an ionized gas,” the son deadpans. When we return to them later in the ad, a salesman and another customer have inserted themselves into the conversation offering “plasma cutter,” and “blood plasma,” to which the father barks in frustration, “No, I need a flat-screen plasma TV!” The difference, true to Steinian form, is spreading. Two nearby security guards are drawn into the flow of language, interjecting “flat screen,” “silkscreen,” and “flatbread,” search results driven no longer by association, but by sound: The rich rhyme of “flatscreen” and “silkscreen” and the alliteration of “flatscreen” and “flatbread” enacting a sonic chiasmus at once profound (a silkscreen is literally a device for repetitive image transfer, but the word itself seems to describe a gossamer veil, perhaps onto which images might be projected) and ridiculous (dense flatbread, an apparent non-sequitur, is in fact a near-antonym for the airy silk screen). The data cloud, this campaign suggests, is too vast and overwhelming for most of us to navigate on our own. We need Bing to cut through the excess like a Memex connecting one idea to the next.
III. “The Expertise of a Secretary Crossed with the Attitude of a Pirate”: Conceptualizing Inspiration in the Digital Age
These images of pervasive data as an impediment to navigation inflect the work of conceptual writers, many of whom work with source texts to encourage alternate readings through remediation. These writers create what Kenneth Goldsmith, a key figure and soi-disant founder of the group, calls “boring poetry”: works in which the idea behind the production often takes precedence over the work itself. In most cases, this involves compiling pre-existing text and presenting it in a new form, whether the author has chosen to map out the part of speech for each word in every sentence of a grammar textbook, as in Craig Dworkin’s 2008 Parse, or to appropriate her own legal briefs, written while defending accused sex offenders, as in Vanessa Place’s Statement of Facts. These works celebrate the destruction of aura, deadpan remediations that leave meaning open to interpretation.
Ara Shirinyan’s Your Country is Great: Afghanistan–Guyana (New York: Futurepoem, 2008), for example, offers an incisive look at international tourism and cultural stereotyping through the lens of Google search results. Merging Flarf’s cut-and-paste search result techniques and conceptualist procedural rigor, Shirinyan produced the book by searching for the phrase “[country] is great,” taking the CIA’s World Factbook, 2006 as his source for the names of every country and territory from A to G (the second book in the completed three-part series is forthcoming from Edge Books). In his preface, he notes, “the quotes ensured that I would get any instance of those three words on the internet,” in phrasal order, regardless of punctuation. The resulting poems consist entirely of the abbreviated previews Google generated for his search results, arranged and lineated, but unchanged by Shirinyan. Because the adjective “great” can refer to a range of values including intensity, quantity, and quality, the constraint yields a wide variety of thoughts and ideas rendered by turns comical and unnerving in juxtaposition. The first poem in the book, “Afghanistan is Great,” illustrates the array of material that turned up.
The poem veers through different tonal registers, from serious commentary on the state of a war-ravaged country in need of “tough, dependable, / locally repairable wheelchairs,” to the advertising slogan “Aviation in / Afghanistan is great fun.” Although the material is entirely transcribed from Google, Shirinyan uses line breaks to subvert the reader’s expectations. From the vaguely militaristic language of American forces aware of “unique problems / facing Afghanistan,” one expects the subsequent line to outline the “need for tough, dependable” soldiers in patriotic response. Instead, we face the grim reality of the need for medical equipment that can be fixed on-site. In the final stanza, it is not the country that is great, but a much larger force, “Allah’s / knowledge and love of Afghanistan.” What is it the Islamic deity cannot fully understand? The decontextualized search result suggests the country itself is the object of his limited knowledge, understanding, and love. Thus, this opening poem provides an ars poetica for the book, informing us that while these compiled voices may express both knowledge about and love for these “great” countries, they will never fully “understand” the places the poems appear to encapsulate. The names “Afghanistan,” “Bulgaria,” and “Georgia” will always exceed their web-based definitions. The book thus deflates any celebratory rhetoric surrounding our “world wide web” by revealing its limitations: A network of highly subjective and poorly informed nodes is only as good as its weakest link. A composite portrait from these sources tells us more about the network itself than our object of study. Like the Bing ads, the book’s polyvocality and non-sequiturs make us laugh as language spirals out of control around us.
In working with this excessive verbiage, Shirinyan claims to have used “everything that came up,” including repetition, spelling errors, and odd capitalization. This means that some poems include an insistent refrain that juxtaposes the rest of the content. “Brazil is Great,” includes the line “Brazil is great for cheap bikinis that look like a million dollars” (42) three times over the course of three pages. The line is comical on its own, but set against stanzas that deal with the harsher reality of the country they ring out like the voice of a spoiled tourist blind to his or her place within its socioeconomic fabric. The selection surrounding the second repetition provides a representative sample.
The language of the first stanza above establishes a tourist speaker enjoying the weather (that banal topic for postcards and letters) abroad. The speaker’s “ulterior motive” sets up a potential dark side to this sunny trip and then just as quickly pulls the rug out from under us with the promise of “collect[ing] seeds for our balcony chile,” a crime likely to offend only members of the department of agriculture. The undertone of conquest, though, once established, continues to haunt the poem. While the “bikini” refrain becomes a comical truism through repetition, the third stanza above veers toward irony in the clichés of native people as by turns “relaxed,” “friendly,” and then greedy thieves who will “[rob] you blind.” This patronizing perspective is in turn offset by the subsequent stanza’s academic tone, which critiques “discrimination [. . .] against indigenous and black communities.” Such seriousness, however, cannot hold in the world of the poem and is quickly undercut by sweeping generalization: “all the inequalities and pain.” This vague phrase, likely the result of Google’s truncated preview, suggests the speaker does not know the details well enough to describe them, betraying the trespasser’s ignorance and privilege.
Absences like this one emphasize the partiality of our view, revealing the constraint of the work to the reader. By letting the absence stand, Shirinyan forces us to account for the seeming contradiction of the stanza. In order to show us the phrase we want, “Brazil is great,” Google abbreviates the page content and, because it is an algorithm and not a human, juxtaposes incompatible ideas (this might be sarcasm, but the academic tone suggests we are missing a larger framework for these lines). We cannot envision the poem as spoken by a single voice when we see that the decontextualization of these lines corrupts their meaning—a grim reality faced more often by public figures and politicians than poets. Absence itself becomes a space of implicit commentary on the poet’s part—he has assembled these results in order to reveal something about nationalism, tourism, and the distribution of information.
This emptiness is clearest in the poems “Burkina Faso is Great,” “Central African Republic is Great,” and “Equatorial Guinea is Great,” each of which contains only a title on a blank page. As Shirinyan notes in his preface, “no one who could write in English and had access to the web thought to say anything great about those countries” in September 2006 when he conducted his searches. The absence of poems for these entries provides a stark commentary on the way our information-saturated state can lull us into believing that if something is not online it does not, in fact, exist. This relationship between search term and result points us back to Drucker’s skepticism about language in the landscape. Just as signage or 3-D text raises the question of definition, Your Country is Great forces us to consider the arbitrary relationship between keyword and result that Google would have us accept as a work of algorithmic genius.
Shirinyan thus reminds us that when writing under constraints language becomes data. As a conceptual writer, he gathers and processes information for the reader in the service of both highlighting and aestheticizing the politics of the cloud. Goldsmith has suggested, in a variation on Williams’ “machine made of words,” that the concept is “the machine that drives the poem’s construction” (CI 138), while language is “material [. . .] something to be shoveled into a machine and spread across pages, only to be discarded and recycled once again” (139). With this metaphor, he makes the provocative case that conceptual writing arises in direct response to the information saturation of our contemporary landscape—an attempt to reduce, reuse, and recycle our excess language. Paraphrasing Douglas Huebler, he claims, “The world is full of texts, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more” (144). Rather than creating new works, Goldsmith has made his mark remediating existing texts into book form: a day’s newspaper, a year of radio sports scores, weather and traffic reports, every movement of his body and every word he spoke in a week. In his model, the text becomes raw data for machine processing.
In a recent post for Harriet, the Poetry Foundation Blog, Goldsmith explicitly correlates conceptual writing with a response to information saturation. For its practitioners, he claims, the condition of “digital deluge” is “an opening, a celebration, a new linguistic terrain, raw materials out of which they are mining an entirely new literature. While it is not the only response to the digital age [. . .] it is the most relevant, contemporary, and engaged response.” In reply to Goldsmith, Canadian poet Sina Queyras suggests engagement is the keyword of this configuration, and that the poet must be simultaneously immersed in and contemplative of the culture in order to do the civic and poetic work she demands of herself: “For me, the problem isn’t all this stimulation, or data, but as Goldsmith paints out, it’s the processing. For me the question is where do I go to consider all of this?” In positioning contemporary poets as navigators of data, both Goldsmith and Queyras suggest that to appropriate from the cloud is to evacuate authorship in favor of curatorship, a position that engages the changing conception of subjecthood and authorship of the twenty-first century. The poet, in Goldsmith’s formulation, is a “word processor [. . .] moving information from one place to another” who, by “shifting contents into different containers” (CI 143), helps readers navigate the data cloud, a Virgil who prefers to remain in the shadow of his machines.
Goldsmith himself has acknowledged the paradox that while conceptual curatorship provides the illusion of authorial abstraction, it can never entirely annul the writer’s presence. In a 2009 interview for Bomblog, the web arm of Bomb Magazine, he expresses the paradox.
Contrary to my own claims, I’m always banging my head against the realization that no matter how hard you try, you can never remove the individual from art. I have made arguments for egoless art, found art, art driven by chance operations and many other strains, but in fact there’s always someone behind the curtain, manning the machines. Thus, the guiding intelligence of the “man behind the curtain” who appears to have a plan for his literary Oz becomes present despite bold attempts at its removal.
This contradiction perhaps reaches its zenith in Vanessa Place’s Factory Series, a set of print-on-demand chapbooks written by her contemporaries to which she (with their permission) has affixed her own name. The project’s very title plays on Andy Warhol’s appropriative approach to art, which, like conceptualism, attributed as much value to idea as to artifact. The project itself thus plays with notions of authorship. For example, The Polished You, contributed by performance artist and poet Kate Durbin, appropriates selections from a 1960s finishing school workbook from the four-volume Nancy Taylor Course. Durbin’s source text is aptly chosen for the ways it highlights questions of selfhood and authorship. The book takes the form of a survey inviting “a completely honest self-evaluation” by the reader in the interest of determining “what type of woman you are, and, more importantly, the type of woman you want to be.” Questions range from analyses of one’s face, figure, and interests to considerations of how others perceive one, culminating in an objective “comprehensive picture of yourself.” In every case, the questions are subjective: for example, “Is your face pretty?”, “Do you enjoy making up your face and styling your hair?”, “What subject, other than yourself, are you most interested in?”, and “What do you want most out of life?”. Many also provide a limited range of potential answers: “How do you think you appear to others? Sophisticated? Clean-cut and wholesome? Sexy? Tomboyish? Why do you think you appear this way?” Still others hint at the author’s own values: “Describe the kind of environment you enjoy most. Casual? Plush? Intellectual? Sophisticated? Avant-garde? A combination of these? Some other? Why?” In juxtaposing these questions, the text highlights the absurdity of its own premise and encourages readers to reflect on how the self is constructed (“Do people consider you active, average, or passive? Do you agree with this? Why?”), and, by extension, how authorship is built. Each page provides several blank lines for the reader to respond to these prompts, further complicating questions of The Polished You’s authorship.
Whose text is this—the author listed on the title page, Vanessa Place; her surrogate, Kate Durbin; the reader who fills in the blanks; or the text’s original author Nancy Taylor, who may herself have been a pseudonym for another writer? According to Library of Congress records, the 1971 copyright entry (the edition Durbin used) lists “ITT Educational Services” as the applicant and “Taylor Career Programs” as the book’s author. Was there ever a Nancy Taylor? The secretarial school bearing her name was founded in 1964 by an entrepreneur named Bert Schiff to provide vocational training and finishing classes to women, but Schiff transformed it in the 1970s into the Taylor Business Institute, which currently offers associate degrees in a range of skills including accounting, medical billing, and electronics engineering. A note at the end of the chapbook acknowledges “the author of the texts is unknown,” pointing to the central question of the book: What does it mean to be known, and how do we know ourselves? An appropriation of an appropriation of an appropriation, The Polished You embodies the conceptual project of Place’s series: a redefinition of authorship and lyricism for the networked age. As she acknowledges in an interview for Examiner.com, “I find the immaterality [sic] of the artist combined with the fetishization of the artist in [Warhol’s] Factory fascinating. In my Factory Series, I engage in the same gesture relative to poetry: chapbooks (a poetry product) made not by me but ‘signed’ by me, making it my poetry.” Place offers her own name, which itself evokes space—a Place-holder—in service of an author function for which there is no author, with the implication that her name offers a place of value, a place worth standing in, an elevated vantage point despite the work’s seeming attempt to negate the very notion of authorship.
IV. “A List of Compelling, Gradually Compiling Evidence”: Collaboration in the Cloud
The move to “use everything” and to displace some authorial control over the text crosses over from conceptual writing to digital poetry through collaborative networked poems that embrace the wealth of information surrounding us and treat poems as fields of data to be permuted by both author and reader, a kind of Web 2.0 approach to writing. These works, like those of conceptual poetry, revel in the quality of language as data and explore the potential of the cloud to provide meaningful connections across seemingly dissonant information.
Writer Ander Monson and programmer Jer Thorpe describe their project “Index for X and the Origin of Fires” as “an experiment in mass collaboration.” Published as poetry in 2006 by Born Magazine, a website that pairs authors and artists to create interactive texts, the piece also won the Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction from the print journal Bellingham Review in 2002 and appears in Monson’s book of essays Neck Deep and Other Predicaments. This is a differential text, as defined by Perloff, a text that “exist[s] in different material forms, with no single version being the definitive one.” It defies easy categorization; an alphabetized index with a submerged associative narrative, it encompasses several genres.
In the text’s digital form, the reader sees the index one entry at a time, each ranging from one word to several phrases with a large majuscule and smaller body text (Figure 5). These words are accompanied by one or several images that fade in and out against a black background, sometimes partly obscured by black bars or broken in pieces and appearing at random anywhere on the page. Snare-heavy down-tempo electronic music plays—a repetitive tune, both atmospheric and claustrophobic, that suggests obsession and fixation. Each time the reader clicks his or her mouse, the text and image fade out and new ones appear. The images continue to refresh, each remaining on screen just long enough to catch the reader’s eye before disappearing, while the text remains onscreen until the next click of the mouse. Selecting anywhere on the right side of the screen progresses the index forward, while clicking the left takes readers back to the previous text entry, a subtle navigational choice the reader might miss if he or she never moved the cursor. The interchanging images and driving music juxtaposed with the alphabetized index entries suggest an account book of someone trying to come to terms with past trauma by laying it out in order. As an early line suggests, “Amalgamation. Accumulation. What comes down in time accretes.” “Index for X” is a poem of accretion. We learn the story in bits and pieces.
The index reconstructs several disturbing events: a boy named Crisco’s suicide attempt, the rape and murder of his sister, the protagonist’s ex-girlfriend Liz and best friend Jesse drowning in Lake Superior on prom night, his troubled relationship with his brother, and his own pyromania. One has the sense of a young man who has seen a number of awful things he would rather forget, but cannot, and who has developed an obsession with detection and investigation as a means of coping. An entry under “M” makes this need explicit: “My fascination with crime: novels, hard-boiled detective thrillers, mail-order dick kits, badges to pass myself as a seamus.” The abundance of evidence within the index suggests an attempt to reclaim the missing body they represent: “Blood,” “Lipstick,” “Palmprints, “Perspiration,” and “Zipper fragments” carefully preserved by the protagonist in his quest for “Evidence, collection of” and “Erasure, restoration of.” These details help build “a remembrance of the body” through data left behind. Just as the lines of the poem accrue meaning as we go on, they accrete images as well. When one opens the project, the Flash player loads 100 “indexed images” at random from a pool of photos tagged, or labeled, with the word “indexx” on the Flickr website (Figure 6). This is the “mass collaboration” referenced in the creators’ project statement, in which Thorpe invites Born’s readers to help build the database of potential images by tagging pictures on the photo-sharing site. In addition, if users tag these images with words from the poem, they are likely to appear contextually. Thorpe explains: “this project uses a semi-intelligent engine to pick which words are used to fetch images and which images are displayed. [. . .] Picking words that haven’t already been ‘indexxed’ will improve your chances of seeing your image frequently.”
Juxtaposed with the text, these images create a kind of scrapbook, a card file of fragmented associations. Under the entries for E, we find “Electronic analysis and data processing. / Electronic life. / Electronic reconstruction of a life”—lines that move us through the technologies used to find the victims of the crash, through those used in attempts to resuscitate them, to those the author uses to “reconstruct” both the traumatic event at the heart of the story and his own life, which has been shattered by it. By inviting readers to tag Flickr images, Thorpe asks us to take part in cataloguing the evidence—assigning labels to objects in order to help map out the life of which this index provides a partial picture. In the absence of a physical body, we must reconstruct a digital one from the data cloud it has left behind. In order to understand what has happened, we need to investigate, collect evidence, and solve for X.
The first line of the poem, “A brother, radio, a winter full of snow and thoughts on Liz my X,” suggests that the protagonist’s ex-girlfriend is herself the book for which this “Index for X” has been compiled. However, X’s multiplicity emerges later in the text: A variable, X stands for everything that has been struck from the record, everything absent that must be reconstructed. Like the words of the poem, it is data that can be tagged with any number of images.
In tagging images, the readers help the narrator “safely to recover memory,” a phrase evoking both psychoanalysis and data restoration after a hard drive crash. Thus Monson and Thorpe take advantage of the nature of language itself as data in order to give readers a greater role in building the story and the reading experience.
Thorpe makes the importance of user collaboration explicit in his 2006 blog entry about the piece. He claims, “What I wanted to avoid in this project was forcing the reader into one particular interpretation of the poem.” The text will never be the same twice, he argues, because his engine selects images randomly from a constantly updating database. He also has faith that readers will assist in building a solid foundation by using the “indexx” tag to make relevant images appear more often so that “the generated compositions will (hopefully) become more focused over time.” The connections are unpredictable enough, and the images fade in and out with such frequency, that the reading experience changes each time one visits the piece. Yet different visualizations do not necessarily prompt different “interpretation[s] of the poem.” Rather, they enable us to see the mechanics at work beneath the surface and to better understand the centrality of information-gathering to both the poem and project.
The protagonist of “Index for X” has chosen, like Shirinyan, to organize his research alphabetically, but the relationship readers create between word and image is far less predictable: The tagger’s choice may be homophonic, antonymic, associational, identical, even random. The images that appear sometimes enhance the eeriness of the poem: a mother rocking a baby beside an entry about the speaker’s memory of his mother (Figure 5), broken ice on the surface of a lake for “Liz, still life under ice” (Figure 7), and clouds through a window seen from below under “Cloud formations in the sky remind me of when I was young.” These correspondences themselves provide “cloud formations”: groupings of image and text that adhere just enough to persuade us they belong together and take meaning from one another—data formations reconstructed from memory.
However, sometimes a disjunct between image and text reminds us of the unpredictability of networked collaboration. On a recent viewing, the name “Crisco” brought up a vintage product advertisement featuring a lattice-topped apple pie and a caricature of a well-coiffed and aproned American housewife (Figure 8). The humor in the image fails to capture the serious repercussions of “Crisco drinking a half-liter of anti-freeze,” which we later learn may have been “a passive suicide attempt” after his sister’s murder. Did the tagger who generated this connection hope to create an ironic juxtaposition, or was this appearance purely coincidental and driven by machine logic? Like the non-sequiturs spewed by victims of “search overload” in Microsoft’s Bing ads or the heteroglossia of Your Country Is Great, these tags turn language comical in juxtaposition, alerting us to the status of words here as data with a range of permutations. They raise Drucker’s “question of definition” because their definitional relationship diverges from our expectations. Because they seem so far outside the realm of the text, they remind us of the absurdity of presuming a relationship between label and datapoint, and of the presence of a definer, in this case a reader/tagger with the power to reconfigure the text through these points.
While such irrational connections can destabilize our experience of the text by breaking the illusion of “a collage of images [. . .] present in their memory” (Thorpe, BLPRNT), their inclusion is in fact central to the model of mind created by “Index for X.” The form of the text provides a metatextual commentary on memory: how ideas are created, related, and stored. In its print form, Monson evades lyric subjectivity by shaping his poem into an index, dispersing the narrative into what Pound would call an “overblotted series of intermittences.” In the digital version, Thorpe in turn refuses to allow the protagonist a single voice or the text a single reading. His “experiment in mass collaboration” weaves a network of images around the text that, even as it attempts to reconstruct the bigger picture trapped in the details, reveals the utter impossibility of making sense of what has happened. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether one reads the piece through to its (open) conclusion—its length demands patience and its format makes no attempt to enforce a reading of each word on the page. Readers may click rapidly and experience an atmospheric image/text phantasmagoria. They may visit the poem repeatedly simply in the hope that one of their own images will turn up. And each time they read, they will be fully aware that this is only one possible experience.
The story, purposefully broken apart, will not be made to cohere because the writer does not wish to make it do so. Even in its printed non-fiction form, Monson’s text takes an atomized structure that reveals the speaker’s inability to come to terms with the experience it chronicles. The poetry of the index lies in the data surrounding it—the imagined text to which it applies, and which users rebuild and re-make, applying our own associations to each word.
V. Writing’s “New Figurativeness”: Data Visualization and Textual Immersion
When we see language as data that can be infinitely indexed and connected, we approach a kind of Derridean différance in which meaning inheres only in association. In the data cloud of our daily lives, “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte,” because the text permeates our space. Thorpe and other programmers and graphic designers have taken this quality of twenty-first century language to its extreme in the practice of information aesthetics, which consists in making data into art. Thorpe’s recent projects include a series of graphics using words extracted from 365 days of the New York Times (a project facilitated by the release of the NYTimes.com Article Search API, which makes all of this data available to developers). In one series, he uses Processing to extract and organize the names of the most frequently mentioned people and organizations for a given year, using size and location to indicate a word’s frequency. For example, Barack Obama, Hamas, and the Senate stand out in 2009. These names appear in a circle with lines connecting them to one another based on how often they arise together (Figure 9). The resulting spirograph of words and colors is both informative and beautiful—a programmatically defined concrete poem using, in conceptualist form, existing information to make something new. As in concrete poetry, the line between image and language blurs, alerting us to text’s material, manipulable qualities.
Not only do data visualizations like this one turn data into visual poetry, programmers have turned their programs on poems themselves. Boris Müller’s posters for the “Poetry on the Road” festival in Bremen, Germany, which he has been making since 2002, turn text into images, withdrawing the words completely after their computational work is done. Each year, Müller processes a selection of poems by participants in the festival, applying a different visual schema to transform this data. In 2003, for example, he programmed each poem to draw itself according to a pre-determined code whereby each letter alters the course of the single line representing the text (Figures 10 and 12). As Müller describes it, “Such a transformation is an automated process. As every letter is connected to a specific set of commands, the line is not random. The same text will always generate the same image. When every single letter is a command, the text itself becomes a program.” The text is thus imbued with a visual grammar that becomes instructions for drawing.
For one of his most visually stunning works, the 2006 poster, Müller encoded the alphabet, assigning numerical values to each letter. He then applied this code to poems, each word equivalent to the sum of the letters within it. According to this scheme, several words can share the same value. In Müller’s example, the word “poetry” adds up to 99, as do the words “thought,” and “letters.” Each number is represented by a red ring, which increases in thickness the more words are associated with it. The poems are then arranged on a circular path, the diameter of which is determined by the poem’s length; shorter poems have smaller-diameter circles (Figures 11 and 13). Finally, gray lines connect the words of each poem, with darker lines representing patterns of language that recur throughout the work. The resulting graph, stripped of words, looks like an image of the motion and collisions of subatomic particles. It reveals the poetry of structure—the way the words relate to one another, recur, and build provides a new way of seeing the work.
Müller’s data visualizations, like those of graphic designers and digital humanities researchers, attempt to discern patterns and relationships within the complex network of language. An interactive application on his website allows visitors to map their own texts, watching poetry transform into a graphic score such that we know it not by its own words but by the paths of its connections to other words and other poems. Müller’s treatment of poetry as data throughout the project allows poems to take on a new shape, one that leaves behind any semblance of transcendent meaning in favor of the abstract beauty of form.40 His and Thorpe’s projects multiply the aesthetic pleasures and possibilities of poetry while simultaneously enacting the sort of decentering computational constraints earlier writers strove for. Who is the author of the text—the coder? The source code? The source of the words? Information aesthetics represents another revision of Williams’ machine made of words in response to the surfeit of language we face. Researchers and artists alike are looking for ways to help us understand and maneuver through these vast amounts of data. Their data visualizations make visible and literal the conceptual and networked poets’ use of words as data. The designer, like the poet, here takes on the role of curator of information, speaking through and with the voice of the network.
Data poetics thus provides one possible model of poetry in response to the data cloud: an exploration of the relationship between these two materials, words and numbers, as kinds of data around which meaning can be built, an index of information to be explored. This approach, in turn, tells us much about the construction of the self and prevailing ideas about authorship in contemporary experimental writing. The work of new media writers tells us, as Adalaide Morris has suggested, “about thinking and writing in a world increasingly reliant on databases, algorithms, collaborative problem solving, instant retrieval and manipulation of information, [. . .] and the ambient and nomadic aesthetics of a networked and programmable culture” (NMP 15). Many new media writers speak explicitly about the reconstruction of authorship necessitated by contemporary digital technologies. Poet/programmers Brian Kim Stefans and Darren Wershler-Henry describe their own poems as “a dramatization of the interaction of the individual with ‘dataflow’” in which the “lyrical subject” is never entirely erased from the piece. Wershler-Henry’s text, The Tapeworm Foundry, attempts to provide “a new model for poetic inspiration [...t]he writer becomes a kind of switching node, channeling ideas and words in interesting (and sometimes unsanctioned) directions” (29). Thus approaching language as data allows writers to find a new source for that mysterious force known as “inspiration,” which becomes a contested term in the twentieth century. Like Goldsmith’s poet shoveling matter into the poem-engine, Wershler-Henry constructs a model of authorship as immersed in the medium of language, which he must dutifully shuttle along a series of channels.
These redefinitions do not deny the presence of a writing individual, but they seek to locate that individual within his or her historical context. In this way, they take part in a lineage of definitions of the poet with access to information outside him or herself whose very work consists in synthesizing that language and giving it form (isn’t this the nature of poetry?). These include Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility,” Dickinson’s “Distill[er of] amazing sense / From ordinary Meanings,” Baudelaire’s “kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness,” Marinetti’s “mechanical man with replaceable parts,” T. S. Eliot’s catalyst entering “a medium [. . .] in which impressions and experiences combine,” Pound’s “consciousness disjunct,” and Kenneth Goldsmith’s recent description of the poet as possessing “the expertise of a secretary crossed with the attitude of a pirate,” each of which adopts the idiom of its era.
Whether using web 2.0 technologies for social collaboration or appropriating the voices of the network into a portrait of desk-chair tourism, data poetics takes the overt stance that poetry must engage with the cloud of data around us and that language itself is a means of entering the flow. Like the words hovering in our media landscape, these poems make us aware that words themselves represent points from which the work might branch off in any number of directions. In so doing, they recall Benjamin’s admonition about the status of literary art in the age of media, but not the famous one on technological reproducibility that might first spring to mind.
In “Attested Auditor of Books” (“Vereidigter Bücherrevisor”), which appears in One Way Street (Einbahnstraße), his 1928 collection of aphorisms on urban life in Germany, Benjamin turns his attention to language on and off the page to mourn the passing of the printed book as an outmoded form. Each section is titled with a phrase one might encounter on a street sign or shop window: “Breakfast Room” (“Frühstücksstube”) and “Hairdresser for Meticulous Women” (“Coiffeur für penible Damen”), for example. Benjamin’s title, perhaps from an antiquarian book dealer’s shop, thus presides ironically over this text that weighs books and finds them wanting. In this meditation, Benjamin remarks on the way advertising and signage have forced language up off the flat surface of the page and into the landscape. He praises Mallarmé as the first poet to have recognized the kinship of poetry and advertising, using the space of the page with dynamicism and dimensionality. For writers to regain a connection to their reading public, Benjamin argues, they must take advantage of new means of signification that cut across linguistic difference to communicate in a universal language of “picture-writing” (OWS 456), a common theme of the era. But when Benjamin suggests “writing, advancing ever more deeply into the graphic regions of its new figurativeness, will suddenly take possession of an adequate material content,” he is not suggesting the rise of concrete poetry. To activate the relation between form and material content, poets must master a new visual lexicon.
. . .the fields in which (quite unobtrusively) [writing] is being constructed: statistical and technical diagrams. With the founding of an international moving script, poets will renew their authority in the life of peoples, and find a role awaiting them in comparison to which the innovative aspirations of rhetoric will reveal themselves antiquated daydreams. (456)
While these lines are shadowed by irony, written as they are in rhetoric aspiring aphoristically to innovate on the forms of criticism, Benjamin’s focus on the poetic nature of “statistical and technical diagrams” as the expanded field in which writing happens resonates with current conceptions of the need to organize and aestheticize the data cloud. Language’s “figurativeness” here is that of mathematical “figures” that can be manipulated into “material content.” It is this cataloguing and tallying of language that would consume Benjamin for the rest of his life, taking shape in the notebooks of the Passagenwork. Script can no longer “lead an autonomous existence,” his text suggests. Writers must interconnect it with the language that rises all around us.
A scholar and poet, Amaranth Borsuk's work focuses on textual materiality—from the surface of the page to the surface of language. She is currently a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Comparative Media Studies and Writing and Humanistic Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she is at work on a monograph about mediation in modernist and contemporary poetry. She has a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California. Her essays and book reviews have appeared in Writing Technologies, Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory, Slope, and Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry and Opinion. She is the author of Handiwork (Slope Editions, 2012), a collection of poems; and, with the programmer Brad Bouse, Between Page and Screen (Siglio Press, 2012), a digital/print hybrid that explores the place of books in an era of increasingly screen-based reading by asking the reader to bridge the space between these two platforms. Learn more at her website, or follow her on Twitter: @amaranthborsuk.
This quotation appears in One Way Street, a meditation in aphorisms on life in the metropolis. Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Volume 1: 1913–1926 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press: 1996), 456. Hereafter OWS.
Stéphane Mallarmé, “The Crisis in Poetry,” Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents, ed. Vassiliki Kolocotroni, Jane Goldman, and Olga Taxidou (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 126.
Media theorist Lev Manovich makes a strong case for this reading in “New Media from Borges to HTML,” The New Media Reader, ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003), 22. Hereafter NMR.
Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” Selected Writings: Volume 4, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2003), 254. Marjorie Perloff traces twentieth- and twenty-first century poets’ attempts to turn away from subjectivity through an emphasis on the materiality of language (including Brazilian Concrete poetry, French OuLiPo writing, language poetry, and conceptualism) in her new book Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010). Perloff asserts that contemporary conceptual and appropriative writing can in fact produce works of genius that surprise and delight. She traces this work from Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project through Kenneth Goldsmith’s Traffic.
Fringe Television, “Fringe 201: The Observer in ‘A New Day in the Old Town’,” YouTube, September 16, 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61aN94OhAXA.
The framing suggests the viewer of the show is herself this voyeuristic watcher. However, the presence of a recurring character known as “the observer,” an alopecia-stricken man in a mid-century styled gray suit and fedora with an inhuman appetite for spicy food, indicates another potential witness to the space- and time-bending events that often disrupt the lives of the characters. The indifferent way in which this observer labels what he sees, noting events from spontaneous human combustion to mass biological warfare impassively in his journal, suggests that whoever is watching does not necessarily have our best interests at heart.
Motion Theory, “Liberty Mutual, ‘Sideswipe,’” Mth, http://motiontheory.com/content/401/liberty-mutual_sideswipe.
New media artist Christophe Bruno began experimenting with the idea of information overload as early as 2004 with his “Human Browser,” one of the first Google Hack artworks. In this site-specific piece, a person performs the results of programmatically conducted Google searches based on keywords related to the performance context and location. Wearing headphones, the performer hears a text-to-speech translation of the results and in turn renders this text to any visitor who might pass by, changing her tone and affect as she shifts from one result to the next.
Kenneth Goldsmith, “A Week of Blogs for the Poetry Foundation,” The Consequence of Innovation: 21st Century Poetics, ed. Craig Dworkin (New York: Roof Books, 2008), 144. Hereafter CI. Documentation of the project, which was performed as recently as 2010, can be found at www.iterature.com/human-browser/.
In Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2011), editors Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith provide illuminating introductions to these texts as well as works by over 100 other contemporary conceptual writers and important precursors.
The poet Anne Boyer critiques Shirinyan’s project as “a satire of connectedness entirely constructed of connectedness and all it omits” in her response on the publisher’s blog, January 19, 2011, http://futurepoem.wordpress.com/.
A particularly Steinian claim; “using everything” is one of the three main precepts of her 1926 “Composition as Explanation,” The Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein, ed. Carl Van Vechten (New York: Vintage, 1962), 513.
Certainly, to recombine, rewrite, and remediate existing texts is indeed to add another text to the world, whether or not that text’s content, or data, is new, and Goldsmith’s assertion is partly in jest.
These texts, Day, Sports, The Weather, Traffic, Fidget, and Soliloquy, are also available online through Ubuweb’s Archive, which means they will be available for remediation by users of laptops, iPhones, and iPads and still other unforeseen generations of digital devices.
“The Digital Flood: You’d Better Start Swimmin’ or You’ll Sink Like A Stone,” Harriet: A Blog from the Poetry Foundation (blog), April 24, 2011, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2011/04/the-digital-flood-youd-better-start-swimmin-or-youll-sink-like-a-stone/.
“I Was Not Far Enough Out and Simply Waving Not Drowning,” Harriet: A Blog from the Poetry Foundation (blog), April 25, 2011, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2011/04/i-was-not-far-enough-out-and-simply-waving-not-drowning/.
Katherine Elaine Sanders, “So What Exactly Is Conceptual Writing?: An Interview With Kenneth Goldsmith,” Bomblog (blog), Oct 2, 2009, http://bombsite.powweb.com/?p=4653.
Christian Bök suggests that Factory Work, the book in the series ghostwritten by Kenneth Goldsmith, is in fact a direct appropriation of Warhol’s diaries. “Flarf, Arf, Arf, Arf! (Part 2),” Harriet: A Blog from the Poetry Foundation (blog), April 13, 2010, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2010/04/flarf-arf-arf-arf-part-2/.
“History,” Taylor Business Institute Website, accessed May 26, 2011, http://www.tbiil.edu/?page_id=2814.
“Vanessa Place—writing La Medusa, new projects with Les Figues Press, and the literary scene in LA,” Examiner, Experimental Arts, National, June 20, 2010, http://www.examiner.com/experimental-arts-in-national/vanessa-place-writing-la-medusa-new-projects-with-les-figues-press-and-the-literary-scene-la.
Born Magazine, http://www.bornmagazine.org/projects/indexx/. Built in Flash, the text and animation load on a single page, thus no page references are possible. The text of the complete poem, information on how to contribute images, and biographies of the creators are available from the menu at the top of the page.
Flickr, www.flickr.com, is a photo sharing website that allows users to share images with friends and family, a wider network of contacts, or the public at large. The site is a resource not only for snapshots, but for professional photographers seeking to make their work available to others through a creative commons license (for which each user may define the terms). Photos carry a large quantity of metadata with them, enabled by digital photography, which embeds information about file size, camera type, and sometimes gps location in the images. Users may also geotag their photos manually, apply descriptions, titles, and tags to their photos, and link the people in the photos to their profiles on Flickr.
Jer Thorpe, “Index for X: An Experiment in Mass Collaboration,” BLPRNT (blog), January 18, 2006, http://blog.blprnt.com/blog/blprnt/index-for-x-an-experiment-in-mass-collaboration.
One of the preeminent sources for this material is infosthetics.com, the blog of Andrew Vande Moere of the department of Architecture, Design and Planning at the University of Sydney. The term “information aesthetics” arises from Lev Manovich’s 2001 “Info-Aesthetics Manifesto,” which defines “info-aesthetics” as the use of “new media to represent human experience in INFORMATION society in new ways” (last modified October 27, 2001, http://www.manovich.net/IA).
Jer Thorpe, “NYTimes: 365/360 - 2009 (in color),” Flickr photostream, Feburary 18, 2009, http://www.flickr.com/photos/blprnt/3291287830/in/set-72157614008027965/ .
Boris Müller, “Poetry 03,” Esono (blog), accessed May 25, 2011, http://www.esono.com/boris/projects/poetry03/.
http://www.esono.com/boris/projects/poetry06/. Figure 12 shows a detail from the visualization of the poem “Herr von Ribbeck auf Ribbeck im Havelland” by Theodor Fontane as visual explanation.
Derek Beaulieu’s Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (UK: Information as Material, 2007), a work of concrete poetry, provides an analog example of this type of information aesthetics. In it, Beaulieu maps the movement of the letters of the alphabet across every page of Edwin A. Abbott’s 1884 novella, rendering their trajectories as jagged lines. The book’s publisher, Information as Material (established by artist Simon Morris in 2002), specializes in conceptual works that use other texts as their sources.