New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts and Theories

Review by Louis Armand

New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts and Theories, eds. Adalaide Morris and Thomas Swiss (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2006). xii + 425, incl. index.

[1] In the last five years or so, increasing attention has been given to the history and prehistory of cyberculture and its various outgrowths in the literary domain—sometimes harking back to George P. Landow and Paul Delaney's 1991 anthology, Hypermedia and Literary Studies, with its rudimentary attempts to grapple with new media poetics—but more often than not signalling departures that are more diversely informed. Volumes such as Prefiguring Cyberspace: An Intellectual History, eds. Darren Tofts, Annemarie Jonson, and Alessio Cavallaro (2002) have mapped much of the terrain extending from the pioneer work of Alan Turing and later Ted Nelson, through Marshall McLuhan, to the techno-poetics of Donald Theall, tracing a literary prehistory through the work of Mallarmé, Joyce and Borges, and arriving at the human-machine performance interfaces of Stelarc and the codework of metz and Antiorp. McKenzie Wark's 2004 A Hacker Manifesto has elaborated ways of thinking new media in terms of experimentalist intervention in discourse that extends the surface aesthetics mapped out by Wark and Sondheim in their October 2001 issue of the American Book Review devoted to "codework." Other recent volumes have tended to focus upon generic histories and digital artefacts, such as Funkhouser's 2007 Prehistory of Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms, 1959-1995 and Loss Glazier's 2002 Digital Poetics: The Making of E-Poetries.

[2] Indeed, the discourse on new media poetics is no longer new in itself, and this ought to give us some reason to pause and consider what now is at stake in an industry already involved in consolidation and canonisation; the contest, as it were, over an intellectual future and the forms of its past that are to be mined as significant cultural resources. What does Morris and Swiss's New Media Poetics tell us about this state of affairs?

[3] In the early days of hypermedia, literary theorists never tired of informing us of the liberating, subversive and downright revolutionary characteristics of the so-called new media. This was accepted as the type of naïve excitement that it was, very much in the way of the novelty-peddlers of the previous century's avant-gardes. In fact, electronic writing or computer-based hypertext really entered the consciousness of literary critics pre-formed as an avant-garde-ISM. For a generation of critics nostalgic for more revolutionary times, stung by Peter Burger's dismissal of the neo-avant-gardes of the 60s and 70s, electronic writing had a particularly redemptive quality, a perspective much associated with the genealogy of critical reception extending through Landow and Delaney's 1991 anthology. The question is to what extent the "land of the free" rhapsodies of the 1980s and 1990s have been tempered by familiarity, technological development and literary exploration.

[4] It was strange, at the turn of the 1990s, to read about the ways in which electronic writing freed us from the material constraints of the book. Peering into bulky computer terminals with course-grained interfaces, liberation from the material situation of reading seemed to be the least likely characteristic of the "new media." More recent, widely accessible technologies have changed this, and yet with the increased weightlessness of new media, critical attention has again come to focus upon materiality—body, performance, language, code, interfaces, etc. Gradually, critics have begun talking about technicity itself in terms of poetics, no longer treating the digital environment as some particularly novel analogue of the page or the printing press. And this has meant coming to terms with what poetics involves, not simply as a discourse about poetic forms but a way of thinking about discourse itself, in its broadest "semiotic" conception. As McLuhan and Theall had so often argued, the electrification and digitisation of media does not transcend the culture of the book, but rather transforms it, and causes us to re-think that culture also, its forms and its historical metamorphoses. And this, too, is a type of poetics.

[5] "In the last analysis," Amos Vogel writes towards the end of his 1974 book Film as Subversive Art, "every work of art, to the extent that it is original and breaks with the past instead of repeating it, is subversive." We are all familiar with this idea and with the aspirations expressed by it, just as we are familiar with the many ways in which it has been qualified—T.S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" being one example. What we understand by Vogel's remark, however, has less to do with glib assertions of newness, than with the consciousness of invention (not so much as a paradigm of the "new" but of a "becoming new," an "accession to the new" which must still be recognised as such). I mean the invention of a discourse by whatever means are available, rather than the repetition of foregone conclusions, critical clichés and dead metaphors, exhausted formalisms, civilised ironies and the like. Whatever Landow and Delaney's anthology may have claimed about the newness of the new media, their critical discourse was merely a repetition: dialectics and phenomenology, drawn primarily from Ingarden and Iser with elements of Russian formalism. It was a curious anachronism, in which the advent of the World Wide Web was framed within a 1930s literary critical apparatus. Since then, the challenge has been to invent or evolve a discourse—both literary and critical (a poetics in fact)—that is somehow vital to the "medium" itself, just as Eisenstein and later Bazin and others worked to invent a poetics of film; one that was not simply a repetition, an analogue, of pre-existing discourses.

[6] It is this task of invention—far from mere critical or historical commentary—that represents what is potentially truly subversive about the new media. I do not mean a mere "slap in the face of public taste." The subversions of the new media have nothing to do with taste, which can always be simulated in any case. Let me put this another way: the early claims for electronic writing, the Internet, and all that, were perhaps hyperbolic (or naively optimistic, as in the case of "virtual reality") in inverse proportion to the intellectual seriousness with which they were treated in the humanities in particular. Times have changed and now everyone would perhaps like to view themselves as having, in fact, been terribly prescient regarding the Internet and everything that has come after it. Of course they were not. They still are not. The vast majority of attempts at critical engagement with the new media continue to treat it as a type of technical prosthesis, a tool, or if not a tool a mode of entertainment (even of pedagogical entertainment). Few are those who have sought to articulate a poetics of the new media. (Some of those who have are represented in Morris and Swiss's book—such as Kenneth Goldsmith, Marjorie Perloff, Stephanie Strickland, Barrett Watten—though with varying degrees of "subversiveness.")

[7] Ted Nelson, when he coined the term hypertext, did so in the context of evolving an idea of "literary machines." The very "textual" character of the new media has always invited a type of thinking between technology and discourse—a thinking of technicity, a poetics. We see this in the work of people like Derrida and Deleuze, but also Cage and Duchamp, in the writings and installations of Smithson and Kosuth, in the programmatics of the OULIPO and in the little-recognised field of genetic criticism (and genetic poetics) (see Barrett Watten's "Poetics in the Expanded Field"). Such poetics point beyond the trite notion of "creative cultural practice through applied technology," as Talan Memmott has it ("Beyond Taxonomy," 293). Heidegger was not the first to appreciate that techne and poiesis are complementary terms; it is already evident in the numerous ironies and paradoxes of Plato's Phaedrus. Indeed, it is spelled out in one of the three epigraphs of Morris and Swiss's anthology: "The machine is not an it to be animated, worshipped, and dominated. The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment" (Haraway, Cyborg Manifesto). And yet, all too often we encounter the sort of weird dualism that poses "creative cultural practice" (whatever that is) against "applied technology" (whatever that is). Weird, too, because wherever we find talk about digital poetics we seem to run up against thinking by way of analogy.

[8] And that brings me back to the question that first posed itself when I began reading New Media Poetics. It is this: What should a review of a book concerning new media poetics look like? It is, of course, a question based on assumptions of analogy, but these assumptions are there, from the very outset. After all, New Media Poetics is a book, a rather substantial, hard-cover volume published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as part of the "Leonardo" series. In 2006 we still make recourse to such things as books, you see, in order to discuss, indeed demonstrate, the consolidation of something already treated in disciplinary terms. Media Studies has long since evolved from reflections upon print and broadcast media to encompass new media also. And our everyday reality involves the dissemination and consumption of vast amounts of critical and cultural "data" by way of this new media. And yet here it is: all the evidence of a very traditional critical and cultural hegemony at work (carrying with it the entire weight of the Gutenberg galaxy). *[Let's not forget that MIT, by way of Zone Books, is also the publisher of an edition of Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle (1995)—a text wholly, and for a long time, available on the Internet, to which nothing by way of critical apparatus or even an introduction is added in its print manifestation, unless print itself is the "value-added" factor.]

[9] Oddly, this is not something commented upon by the editors, Morris and Swiss. It would have been apposite, as they say, to reflect upon the poetics of the standardised and packaged—and I don't necessarily mean this as a criticism. It has to do with the very analogical character of much that passes for new media today, no doubt due to the fact that today's new media "poetics" really emerged with the advent of desktop-type platforms, from Mac OS to Windows, which have characterised Web-browsers from the outset (i.e. user interfaces designed to look like desktops, pages, books, film or television screens, etc.). There is of course a whole "pre-history" of Internet poetics, closely affiliated to concrete poetry and kinetic art. This prehistory is somewhat more cognisant of the critical or poetic function of hyper-linkage, for example.

[10] New media per se tends to obscure this function behind automation, animation and other visual effects and embedded algorithms. Few of the contributors to Morris and Swiss's anthology really engage with the textual logic, the poetics or technicity of the hyperlink. When they do, it tends to involve arguments about coding functions and "embodiment." Carrie Noland ("Digital Gestures") cites Christopher Keep as saying: "Hypertexts inscribe themselves onto the skin of the human as deeply as the human writes itself into the machine;" "reading and writing hypertext (in particular) are activities that undermine our boundaries as discrete physical bodies and even 'refigure our perceptions of ourselves'" (220). [Putting aside the fact that myriad human activities undermine any simplistic notion of discrete bodies, what is glaring here is the utter failure to grasp that bodies are not, nor ever have been distinct from cognition and are defined interactively with physical systems in general, which terms like "language" and "text" define broadly or by facets.] These dualisms keep returning. N. Katherine Hayles ("The Time of Digital Poetry: From Object to Event") cites Loss Glazier to the effect that "programming is writing" (183) while elsewhere Jerome McGann, who isn't in this volume, is enlisted into an argument about the unique if ineffable computing processes that produce electronic texts and distinguish them from ordinary, so-called, texts.

[11] The textual/procedural status of programming/code remains one of the great unresolved issues of this book. John Caley ("Time Code Language") draws attention to how codework, for example, "does not evoke programming per se, and it remains focused on a written surface, however complex" (311). Indeed, it is unlikely that any poetics of code could be expected to evolve beyond a "written surface," despite claims by Sondheim and others to the contrary, any more than we might suppose there to be a poetics of the electron, unless by this we mean to speak in the broadest possible analogical terms. Nevertheless, this still does not obviate the need to account for certain structural logics that belong, for example, to hypertext but which cannot simply be whisked away into metaphors of performativity (as in Hayles: all those coding processes, all those interactions between software and hardware, become "performances"—but we need to be very attentive to the different grammars of the word performance here).

[12] Elsewhere, discussions of hypertext have (at least they did after the mid-1990s) tended to focus on questions of materiality—in particular ideas of signifying materiality (especially in areas of poststructuralist theory and textual genetics). Hayles cites Loss Glazier to the effect that the specificity of digital media lies in its distinctive materiality. Hayles then follows an argument by proxy, reprising many of the truisms of Landow and Delaney: "The materiality of digital text," Hayles writes, "increases the writer's sense that writing is not merely the fashioning of verbal abstractions but a concrete act of making, a production that involves manual manipulation, proprioceptive projection, kinaesthetic involvement, and other physical senses" (184). Now writing is many things to many people, but just as words like "digital" and "text" are not particularly well defined in this volume, neither is the idea of writing. Hayles (who knows better) would do well to offer some sort of definition. She would also do well to clarify the relationship between signifiers with varying symbolic functions and those of primarily indexical functions, such as computing instructions. She might also distinguish between a programmer's writing and a computer's writing; the recursive functions of programmes, and so on. She might also suggest how we can distinguish between the writing of a poem, of a differential equation, of a set of financial accounts, of a chess annotation and of a computing protocol. Since when was "writing" merely a fashioning of "verbal abstractions"?

[13] With regard to the word "text" that reappears throughout this volume, we encounter similar problems. Hayles is again exemplary. Still on page 184 we encounter the sort of dualism between digital "text" and printed "book" that recurs in Landow and Delaney's volume. Hayles rehearses arguments about the book's "stability" and so on, all by now very familiar from early efforts of literary critics to come to terms with the Internet by attributing to it extraordinary powers of liberation from the constraints of the book. Hayles does not go this far, but in a curious twist she attempts to distinguish the produced/preformed materiality of the book from the processual materiality of digital texts. Unlike the book, the digital text can't be pinned down (says Hayles). It can't be pinned down for empirical reasons: for example, "it" is dispersed across multiple servers, or dispersed "even when confined to a single machine." In brief her conclusion is that, for primarily logistical reasons, the digital text isn't an object (!).

[14] A remarkably similar conclusion is to be found in the twelfth chapter of René Wellek's and Austin Warren's 1949 Theory of Literature. This chapter, written by Wellek and heavily indebted to Ingarden, disputes various accounts of the literary text as any sort of empirical or psychological entity, although it nevertheless suggests that the text may be situated or realised by empirical means—just as Hayles does with regards to computer logistics. In Wellek's conception, the text is neither an artefact like a piece of sculpture (that is, the physical pages of a book), nor the real sounds uttered by someone "performing" it. Neither is it the psychological experience of someone hearing or reading it, the experience of the author in creating it, nor, finally, is it the totality of readers' experiences or even what all of them have in common (which would be merely a lowest common denominator). Wellek concludes that a text is only a matter of norms which serve as "a potential cause of experiences."

[15] There are other pitfalls in Hayle's argument too, which also tend to involve her in repetitions of well-developed arguments, but these are secondary although they are pervasive. Wherever a logistical argument obtains, there tends to be a failure of imagination in distinguishing "textuality" from the contemporary state of computing art. In 2002, when this volume was conceived, many of the generalities concerning "new media" (both in hardware and software terms) were already historical. Many of the truisms circulating here about writing processes (or user experiences) will have been affected by obsolescence—something which is not widely enough discussed in this volume. However, even if we discount the logistical view entirely, we need to ask what significance there can be for what Hayles terms "process" (computation) if the processual pre-text plays no part in the effective "reading process" (i.e. of the user—on the other side, while the material function of computing is foregrounded, it is still treated as though it were purely metaphysical with regards to reading as such)? Hayles never gets as far as suggesting an "analogous" reading process at work between the computing software and hardware. The process that translates binary code into a displayed "digital text" is instead rendered as performative: but what if the poetics of this performativity implied a form of cognition? Would we say that a "digital text" is, as it were, pre-cognised? Is not every "text" pre-cognised?

[16] Hayles seems to accept that this is the case, citing Derrida to the effect that "every sign can be cited, put between quotation marks" (186). What she does not recognise is that Derrida is here effectively paraphrasing Kurt Gödel, who (like Turing after him) treated mathematic statements as integers. Citation, for Derrida, is never simply placing between quotation marks, but—among other things—a radical synecdoche: treating whole discourses as "integers." Indeed, it is an idea as old as classical rhetoric, and it is foundational to what computers, and computing programmes, are.

[17] None of this detracts from the fact of the vital and groundbreaking character of the new media poetics as framed in Morris and Swiss's book. But more needs to be done in differentiating the field—beyond Martin Spinelli's unhelpful definition of "digital" as "mediated through digital technology" ("Electric Line: The Poetics of Digital Audio Editing"). No one here is talking about Thoreau's telegraph harp, Morse code, Braille, the abacus, or even the brain—all of them digital technologies. On the other hand, the concern with technology is not always clearly delineated from a mere techno-aesthetics. Strickland's WaveSon.nets is an example—and this piece, along with Vniverse, is widely (and uncritically) cited in Morris and Swiss's book. The problem is one compounded elsewhere in the body of "codework" in which computing protocols are samples and/or simulated for aesthetic effect (they do not function as code in any practical sense; they are aesthetic artefacts without significantly placing in question the dualism of techne and poiesis/functionality and non-functionality, etc.). Techno-aesthetics in this sense is a little like the fashion, among certain poets after Pound, of peppering their work with Chinese ideograms, and is simply another form of exoticism.

[18] In contrast to Hayles's "materiality," many of the examples cited by Barrett Watten ("Poetics in the Expanded Field") point to the deeply intertwined relations of digital poetics to minimalist sculpture, concrete poetry, serial and site-specific art, deconstructive architectures, conceptual art and so on. Robert Smithson's 1966 "A Heap of Language" and Gordon Matta-Clark's 1974 "Splitting: Four Corners" are reproduced, followed by the coarse-grained computer collages from Talan Memmott's 2000 Lexia to Perplexia. The increased routinisation of collage effects in digital art bring it close to the "performative" actions of search engines—Andruid Kearne's CollageMachine is a good example—posing again the question of what distinguishes inherent computing functions of, say, looping and branching, from aesthetic techniques (such as we find at work in Rauschenberg's combines). Watten's argument—which is a very cogent one—suggests that if the basis of digital poetics is process, as Hayles says, can we really distinguish it from other forms of procedural poetics? (Cage's Roaratorio, for example, or Glass's Einstein on the Beach ...)

[19] And here we return to where this review set out. In the 1980s, films like Brainstorm projected us into a future of fully immersive virtual realities. Indeed, Brainstorm is a good example of a more general phenomenon, one which continues to infect talk of digital poetics. In this film, chunky helmets and mainframe computers are rapidly evolved into discrete minimalist headsets, as the hardware supporting the virtual reality environment. At the same time, the film depicts unmodified contemporary computing environments that, at the time, were state of the art, including very chunky laptop computers. The cumulative effect is a powerful sense of anachronism. In The Matrix anachronism is compounded with a pervasive analogical conception in which grungy techno-fetish is paired with gamer aesthetics. What does this have to do with new media poetics? It has to do with conception.

[20] In the 1980s, new media theorists (they weren't called that at the time) talked about electronic texts, hypermedia and so on, as though the computing environment itself were dematerialised; as though, in effect, they were discussing an ideality—both a magical analogue of the so-called real world yet also transcendent of it: a textual environment without boundaries. Partly visionary, but partly also pragmatic: theorists believed then, and do again now, that in the future the physical computing environment will change. BrainGate hardware and software already permits direct two-way neurophysical interaction with a computer, and everywhere mobile and nano-technologies are constantly evolving. In this context, digital poetics points towards a future advent, something like a "possible worlds" scenario. It isn't bound, as Carrie Nolan has it, to "the relation between fingers and font in digital writing [...]" (217) and so on. This is the other side of the logistic argument: hardware specificity. But, truth be told, Nolan's computer isn't Stephen Hawkings's computer and it isn't BrainGate's. The one thing that the excessive rate of computer obsolescence ought to teach us is the danger of attributing anything other than a historical, sociological or artefactual value to the present state of computing interfaces with regards to articulating a general poetics.

[21] Much has been written about the evolution of technical artefacts (e.g. Niles Eldredge, Belinda Barnet), and the idea of poetics as a textual genesis, or genesis of the textual field, can apply here also. It is implied in much of Barrett Watten's contribution and the "contexts" to Morris and Swiss's book by Goldsmith, Stefans and Filreis (indeed, this is the most interesting section of the book, in my view). Elsewhere genetic processes are re-appropriated within the body of electronic writing—unsurprisingly, since genetic processes are already textual. The fine line between process and aesthetic, however, complicates the blanket identification of new media poetics wherever we attempt to "read" texts that are not only primarily visual, or "concrete," but are predominantly patterned or even "decorative" (in the way, for example, that Sol LeWitt's work tests the distinctions between composition, pattern and decoration). This has to do with semantic economy more than aesthetic distinctions: when, for example, does "the rhythmic pulsating of letters" (219) feedback into the semantic economy of the "technotext," and when does it simply function as the equivalent of a lava lamp? Of course, similar gimmicks abound in print culture, the traditional visual arts, music, et al. The question is, what is their significance within the framework of a new media poetics? It is a question that necessarily inflects the way we are to use the word "poetics" (Bernstein's "poetry by other means" hardly seems sufficient here), and it also inflects the way we treat the term "new media" whenever we mean to imply something more than a novelty or gimmick. Is the "newness of new media" (5), as the editors say, itself a poiesis, or merely a horizon of obsolescence, lights and mirrors; or is it the substantive revelation of a different mode of thinking about and with texts?

[22] As we all know, the come-down to many of the visionary notions about the computer revolution is that computing, and computer-generated, environments have remained caricatures at best of the so-called "real" world, and this has prompted many to rethink the very premise of such ideas as virtuality. And here a problem arises when we look at digital poetics: a problem that Morris and Swiss's book deals with in a number of ways, although none of them particularly explicit. The problem is this: Once we accept the fallacy of analogical thinking as the basis of "virtuality" (simulation, i.e.), then how do we begin to envisage a new media poetics as such? That is to say, a poetics that isn't simply dressed up in computer graphics, hyperlinks and so on—according to whatever the currently available scripts, bandwidth and machinery make possible. Another way of asking this question is: What is it that really characterises new media poetics? If the old visionary notion applies, if the grail of a certain type of new media is absolute virtuality, a type of prosthetic mental environment, a perfect simulacrum of cognition itself, then where would we locate the distinctions that might possibly define new media poetics other than as poetics in its broadest conception?

[23] This is perhaps a question for future publications. What is certain, is that Morris and Swiss's New Media Poetics is an important resource for the evolving discourses on new media and poetics.