Queen Defender of the faith: poets non sense

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

poets non sense

A poetic text, even a rudimentary one, cannot be read linearly if the very effects that we might characterize as poetic are to be legible.[24] But this does not mean that the poetic text does not have a linear dimension. On the contrary, all texts share a common linear dimension in historical time. That is, while one may argue that hypertext transforms the diachronous processes of reading back into synchronous scenes (to put notions of hypertext’s nonlinearity in Flusser’s terms), conceiving each page or link of the hypertext document as running parallel to all others, it is not so easy to unwrite the linear historical consciousness that tells us that we encountered stories in a grade school primer long before we tackled James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Others have questioned hypertext’s claims to nonlinearity or have advanced their own modifications of same. Notably, in his seminal essay, “Nonlinearity and Literary Theory,” Espen J. Aarseth makes similar points about the nonlinearity of many traditional print texts, which may allow a high degree of flexibility and interactivity in how the reader uses them.[25] Aarseth’s alternative definition of textual linearity then draws on the topological definition as stated in Webster’s New Twentieth-Century Dictionary: “those properties of geometric figures that remain unchanged even when under distortion, so long as no surfaces are torn.”[26] Such a definition adapts itself well to a consideration of text, which, whether on the book page or the web page, is bound, however fleetingly, to the surface of its transmission medium, which the reader is nevertheless to “distort” in any number of ways. Though Aarseth goes on to present several persuasive readings of how this nonlinearity operates in both print and online texts, none is as revelatory—or as useful for my own attention to the linearity of historical time—as his commentary to the I Ching, or Book of Changes, from the third millennium BC.
Unlike historic texts with a fixed expression, such as Beowulf, I Ching seems to speak uniquely to us across the millennia, not as a distant mirror that can be understood in a philological or romantic sense but as an entity that somehow understands us and speaks for us. This almost religious effect can be partly explained by the repeated updates and the fact that the text was intended to be useful and directly relevant to events in people’s lives, but it seems to me that it is the explicit and elaborate ritual, largely unchanged through the ages, that creates the textual presence that allows us to be naïve users—not readers but agents of the text, closely related to the users of three thousand years ago, despite the epistemological interventions of time and culture.[27]
How close this “almost religious effect” of interacting with a text “intended to be useful and directly relevant” seems to our reading of the pre-Socratic poet-philosophers with whom we began! Though I would quibble with Aarseth’s idealized notion of the I Ching’s immediacy—as with Beowulf, the text would be quite incomprehensible to the vast majority of potential readers without the mediation of a dense web of scholarly and authorial interventions—he nevertheless offers a persuasive argument for qualifying the I Ching as a nonlinear text akin to hypertext. Indeed, Aarseth’s description of that work’s precisely ordered pictograms hews closely to the definition of “hypertext” first provided by T. H. Nelson in 1965: “a body of written or pictorial material connected in such a complex way that it could not conveniently be presented or represented on paper.”[28] Of course, the I Ching is generally “presented or represented on paper.” But “the explicit and elaborate ritual” by which the text is incorporated into the lives of its readers—so goes Aarseth’s argument—does not lend itself to easy diagram, nor can it be divorced from the text without changing the text’s fundamental character. This demand for participation on the part of the reader gestures toward Aarseth’s subsequent elaboration of “ergotic” literature, the term he uses to distinguish those texts—he offers the I Ching as an example here as well—that cannot be navigated without the reader making unscripted decisions that will determine the path and its meaning.[29]
The point that Aarseth glosses over, however, and that I would now like to emphasize, has to do with the linearity of time irrespective of the text itself. For while Aarseth and others address time in the act of reading or engaging with a text (whether a codex, a hypertext, or a video game), they scarcely acknowledge time as a crucial determinant of how the reader situates him- or herself relative to each encounter with the text.[30] That is, if we characterize the I Ching as an expression of ancient wisdom that still speaks to us today, then the paradox of its simultaneous antiquity and contemporaneity, “despite the epistemological interventions of time and culture,” accounts for much of its power. One may argue, as Gunnar Liestol has, that this plotting of the historical timeline does not serve a discussion of digital media, which is developing so rapidly as to neutralize “the traditional one-directional relationship of analysis (and interpretation) in most humanistic inquiry.”[31] Such an argument falls short, however, when we look back on any given specimen of digital media in general, and hypertext literature in particular, from the vantage point of our own experiential present. From this perspective, the placement of the work relative to what came immediately before and after is obscured, much like looking at strangers in an old class photograph. A bit of scholarly scrutiny might reliably situate the photograph in time and space, Iowa City in 1958 or Cleveland in 1966, but the naïve viewer might just as easily characterize the photograph as “old” and leave it at that.
Strickland’s work is particularly advantageous for considering whether hypertext circumvents or emphasizes the reader’s temporal experience of the text because she frequently produces both hypertext and traditional print versions of the same work.[32] Such is the case, for example, with Strickland’s “To Be Here as Stone Is.” When viewed on a MacBook Pro running Firefox 3.5.11, the presentation shows its age (Figure 2). This is at least in part because the poem’s design calls for us to view it in Netscape 4 (Communicator), which was discontinued in 2002. The poem’s formatting can be highly variable depending on the computer’s operating system, available fonts, web browser, and the sizing of the browser window, changes to which may inadvertently re-lineate the text.
Fig. 2. Stephanie Strickland, “To Be Here as Stone,” viewed on a MacBook Pro running Firefox 3.5.11.
Fig. 2. Stephanie Strickland, “To Be Here as Stone,” viewed on a MacBook Pro running Firefox 3.5.11.
The problem of hypertext that is not continuously updated to the capabilities (and thus also the demands) of the latest hardware and software echoes N. Katherine Hayles’ remarks about people still relying on computer technology that has long been out of date: “Although they can still produce documents using these versions, they are increasingly marooned on an island in time, unable to send readable files or to read files from anyone else.”[33] Despite the familiarity of this phenomenon, I am nevertheless resistant to Hayles’ characterization of digital producers and/or consumers as “marooned on an island of time.” Here, the denial of coevalness obscures the fact that these producers/consumers operate in the same information marketplace and at the same time as everyone else, which is the very reason their technology’s obsolescence is perhaps more legible than anything it produces.[34]
This is why correcting for these variables in a hypertext poem like “To Be Here as Stone Is” one nevertheless notices that the text looks like a relic of an earlier iteration of Internet technology, which it actually happens to be. The publication of the same poem in Strickland’s True North (Figure 3), by contrast, looks like it could have been published in 1987, 1997, 2007, or yesterday. In this context, there is an unexpected accuracy to the stock wording that appears on that book’s copyright page: “The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of the American National Standard for Information Sciences Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials.”[35]
Fig. 3. Stephanie Strickland, “To Be Here as Stone Is,” as published in True North (1997).
Fig. 3. Stephanie Strickland, “To Be Here as Stone Is,” as published in True North (1997).
Can we imagine any comparable standard of permanence for hypertext poetry?[36] More to the point, if we accept the thesis, advanced by Celan and others, that the poem’s failed striving toward agelessness, the poet’s Orphic struggle to lead the timeless object of desire back into daylight, is an inherent quality of poetic expression—then doesn’t hypertext make visible an ephemerality that traditional print obscures? In addition to allowing the reader to visualize verbal connections and associative leaps that otherwise appear only to the mind’s eye, don’t the design elements of hypertext help us see the poem in its ephemerality?

2. The Upward Journey: Embracing Loss

Online publishing greatly reduces the temporal separation of composition and consumption, a fact that has proven especially consequential in the areas of journalism and political action. We no longer have to wait for the evening news—let alone the morning paper!—to find out what is going on around the world. As the so-called “Arab Spring” is demonstrating even as I am writing this, Facebook and Twitter feeds have proven far more effective at organizing immediate, large-scale political protests than print media have yet achieved. The paradox of this proliferation of online information is that, while by no means immune to decay, the information is quickly superseded by new dispatches, which in turn accelerates its aging. As we have seen, a book of poems published on acid-free paper in 1997 can easily look like a book published in 2011; in the United States, it is not uncommon for a book to go through multiple printings with little or no change in design. But a hypertext poem coded in 1997 shows its age almost immediately, whether because its design elements reflect earlier stages of a rapidly changing programming environment, or perhaps because the coding requires now-obsolete software.
Strickland has insisted that the online component of her lyric projects arises from and reifies this inherent ephemerality. Such is the case, for instance, in her V project, consisting of V: WaveSon.nets/Losing L’una, a double-bound, invertible book (flipping it over allows access to each part), and V: Vniverse, an online book composed in Adobe Shockwave. Regarding the latter, Strickland has articulated the importance of the computer screen as a mediator between text and reader.
When reading online, when transformed to that kind of reader, the indispensable recognition is that you always have a co-reader in a way you do not with print. Not only are some of the display choices made only by the computer, but if the computer is not reading the code there is no poem to be had. This is a situation quite unlike torn paper, books remaining unread on a dusty shelf, a broken Ozymandian statue in ruins to reconstitute. This reading situation depends absolutely on the temporal coincidence of many human and non-human choices, many human and non-human processors, or it is nothing. As fragile as an ecosphere perhaps.[37]
Strickland’s statement, co-authored with digital media artist Cynthia Lawson (her collaborator on V: Vniverse), seems to assume that it is only with the increasingly widespread availability of computers that an intermediary now intrudes in the idealized cognitive circuit of reader and text. Yet reading a poem is always and fundamentally a process of “reconstitution” of highly mediated inputs. This is most readily apparent in public presentations, such as a poetry reading, where the individual presenting the work executes all of the “display choices,” and the “reading situation depends absolutely on the temporal coincidence” of the speaker’s voicing the poems and the audience’s listening, though even in this mundane example there are “many human and non-human processors,” including everything from chance interference (a child giggling, an old man coughing, a cell phone ringing) to the presentation’s design (how well the microphone is positioned, whether or not the speaker is standing at a podium). All of these factors, and many more, mediate between text and reader.
What makes the hypertext poem special is not that the computer’s mediation of the text makes the poem new each time the reader encounters it, but that it integrates those display choices with the text so thoroughly that the poem’s age can be seen in the age of the display. Thus when Brian Lennon notes that “creativity in the electronic arts is concentrated [. . .] in practices of programmed visual and kinetic poetry that have their roots (acknowledged or no) in the experimental typography of the historical avant-gardes (Futurism, Dada, Surrealism) and European modernism as well as the internationalist Concrete poetry of the 1950s,” his observation not only puts hypertext artists’ claims to novelty into question but also invites us to envision hypertext itself as a “historicalavant-garde,” one that is no less difficult to situate within a historical timeline.[38] Of course, Lennon did not have to limit himself to twentieth-century movements; since the advent of moveable type, the history of print has been one in which technological advances, design innovations, and reading habits are constantly reshaping each other. In this sense, Liestol’s argument about the rapidity with which computer-generated displays have been developing actually helps account for why, with hypertext, we can see as much aging in 5 years as might take 50 in print. Here, then, is where we see the hypertext poem “[a]s fragile as an ecosystem.”
In a recent essay for the Poetry Foundation website, Strickland advances what is perhaps her most radical position in what has become a decades-long conceptual evolution: “What is meant by e-literature, by works called born-digital, is that computation is required at every stage of their life. If it could possibly be printed out, it isn’t e-lit.”[39] At first glance, this assertion would seem to exclude from the genre of electronic literature most of Strickland’s own impressive oeuvre, and while she is free to support this rebranding for herself, it makes little sense for how her work has actually been read.[40] More importantly, it ignores the vital role of electronic mediation in the publishing process, the fact that many poets and publishers now make fundamental decisions about formatting, design, lineation, etc., on a computer screen, and with the full expectation that the product of that process will exist primarily in print. Finally, if the author offers up the text as an interactive experience while simultaneously prescribing the parameters of interactivity, such that the reader must always choose between conforming to or violating the author’s intent, how is the hypertext different from print? Declaring that it is only electronic literature when it was never imagined for any other medium is analogous to saying that acting is only that which occurs on a stage or, better yet, in the agora. After all, cinema and television have altered the dynamics of performer-audience interaction so dramatically (!) that it would seem as if we were now speaking of an altogether different art. I suspect that most actors would attest that doing multiple takes in front of a camera and performing for a live audience entail differing relations to space, but I cannot recall ever hearing an actor claim that one is acting, whereas the other is not.
While I have been arguing that the hypertext poem accentuates an ephemerality that has been a traditional feature of poetry itself, the ephemerality of what Strickland now defines as “e-lit” is of a different kind altogether. Poems presented in Flash animation, for example, and especially those that feature episodic or continuous animated sequences that cannot be stopped once they are started, allow the reader little choice but to follow the movement of the text as it runs through its script. What the reader misses—and this may be substantial, given the density of audiovisual information in Flash animation—disappears, at least until the reader reloads the animation. Thus the reader has a sense that the poem exists within its own time frame, which it traverses according to a visual rhythm that is the digital poem’s analogue to traditional meter. By incorporating their ephemerality into the composition itself, the Flash poem’s aging is less obvious than we find in hypertext poems.
Two examples of this play with ephemerality are Brian Kim Stefans’ “The Dreamlife of Letters” and Oni Buchanan’s three-poem cycle The Mandrake Vehicles, produced in 2000 and 2006, respectively.[41] In a note to the print publication of The Mandrake Vehicles in her 2008 book Spring, which also includes a CD containing the Flash animation, Buchanan describes the sequence as having been “scored for paper, letters, and imagination, each vehicle represented here by seven stilled frames selected from the vehicle that is itself in constant motion.”[42] Unlike Stefans’ poem, which calls on the reader only to “run poem” (and thanks him or her “for watching”), Buchanan’s compositions move in stages that have to be activated by the reader; the seven “stilled frames selected from the vehicle” in the print version are simply the stable states in each Flash-animated sequence.[43] While the animation certainly clarifies the poet’s vision for the reader, it is not indispensible, since the print version provides the reader with everything he or she needs to interpolate the “constant motion” that Buchanan intends. The reader performs the poem, as it were, as a musician might a musical score, and with the full confidence that the materials necessary to do so—in this case, “paper, letters, and imagination”—are already at hand. Buchanan, who is also a concert pianist, has worded these directions advisedly.
It is impossible to predict how these Flash animations will eventually show their age. Still, it is likely that they will do so before the print versions of the same texts. Real time is the delimiting factor of any technology. It accounts for the accelerating obsolescence of consumer goods in a global market that has long assigned great value to novelty, real or perceived.[44]
Shortly before FEED closed shop in 2001, Robert Coover, who had helped usher in the wave of hypertext composition of the 1990s, was already declaring that the heyday was over, since even this flexible recent technology, no matter how “nonlinear” in appearance, could not resist the linearity of time.
Could it be that text itself is a worn-out tool of a dying human era, a necessary aid, perhaps, in a technically primitive world, but one that has always distanced the user from the world she or he lives in, a kind of thick, inky scrim between sentient beings and their reality? Even alphabets, clever little tools in their time, are fettered now by the unlinked nature of the times of their origins, and are already giving way to new multilingual alphabets and pictograms called icons.[45]
Poetry, with its roots firmly planted in oral tradition, thrives on its portability and mutability: With every reading, and for every reader, it is simultaneously different and same, new and old. The poem in digital media is inevitably a poem about the failure to resist time, and in the long term this may prove to be its most poetic function. For it is only because Orpheus fails that the poet’s story seems to go on forever.return to textreturn to textreturn to text

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