Activist Media Poetics: Electronic Literature Against the Interface-free (MLA 2012)

Below is the text of the paper I delivered at MLA 2012 in Seattle, WA. It was part of the special session I organized on E-literature and the interface; you can find summaries of papers delivered by Dene Grigar, Mark Sample, and Stephanie Strickland/Marjorie Luesebrink here. The full text of Mark Sample’s paper, “Strange Rain and the Poetics of Motion and Touch,” is now available here.


For the last year or two I’ve been focusing most of my research and writing on the notion of ‘interface’ – a technology, whether book or screen, that is the intermediary layer between reader and writing. What I’ve found is that ‘interface’ gives us a wedge to approach the broad and complex question of how the reading and writing of poetry have changed in the digital age and how the digital age has in turn changed the way in which we understand what I call “bookbound” poetry. It seems to me that a discussion of digital poetry in terms of interface – a discussion whose methodology is driven by the field of Media Archaeology – could be a crucial intervention into both poetry/poetics and media studies in that it meshes these fields together to 1) make visible the Human-Computer interfaces we take for granted everyday; and 2) to frame certain works of electronic literature as instances of activist media poetics.

In part influenced by the so-called “Berlin school of media studies” that has grown out of Friedrich Kittler’s new media approach, Media Archaeology is invested in both recovering the analog ancestors of the digital and reading the digital back into the analog. And so the argument I keep trying to make is this:  nineteenth-century fascicles as much as mid-twentieth century typewriters and later-twentieth century digital computers are now slowly but surely revealing themselves not just as media but as media whose functioning depends on interfaces that fundamentally frame what can and cannot be said. I am, then, trying to move the definition of “interface” outside its conventional HCI-based usage (in which interface is usually defined as the intermediary layer between a user and a digital computer or computer program) and apply it to writing media more broadly to mean the layer between reader and any given writing medium which allows the reader to interact with the text itself. Moving the fields of HCI and literary studies closer together through a simple widening of the term “interface” does not just signal a mere shift in terminology. Instead, my sense is that a hybridizing of the two fields helps to move the study of electronic literature into the post-Marshall McLuhan, enabling us to go beyond repeatedly pointing out how the medium is the message and take up Katherine Hayles’ well-received injunction for “media-specific analysis” to get at not just particular media, but particularities such as the interface in the individual media instantiations of e-literature.

It also seems to me that an attention to interface – again, made possible through attention to certain works of e-literature – is a crucial tool in our arsenal against a receding present…by which I mean without attention to the ways in which present and past writing interfaces frame what can and cannot be said, the contemporary computing industry will only continue un-checked in its accelerating drive to achieve perfect invisibility through mulit-touch, so-called Natural User Interfaces, and ubiquitous computing devices. My sense is that the computing industry desires nothing more than to efface the interface altogether and so also efface our ability to read let alone write the interface.

One example of such effacement that I like draw on comes from one of the most well-known unveilings of a multitouch interface, during which creator Jeff Han proudly declares that “there’s no instruction manual, the interface just sort of disappears.” Another example comes from the Natural User Interface Group who define NUI as “an emerging concept in Human/Computer Interaction that refers to a interface that is effectively invisible, or becomes invisible to its user with successive learned interactions;” and they use “natural” to mean “organic, unthinking, prompted by instinct.” But just whose instinct is directing the shape of these interfaces? Or, more to the point, why would we – as users as much as creators or writers – want our interactions with interfaces to be “unthinking” so that we have no sense of how the interface works on us, delimiting reading, writing, even thinking? And on this note, I can’t help but to point out that the recent elevation of Steve Jobs to the status of a leftist folk hero comparable to Bob Dylan only underscores the necessity of any work, literary or otherwise, that reveals the ideology of the user-friendly for what it is – what blogger Sarah Leonard calls Jobs’ philosophy of “Paint it White”: as she tellingly points out, “Those iPads sure are frictionless fun unless, it turns out, you happen to inhale while you’re manufacturing them.”

I think that one of the mainstays of innovative writing over the last century has not only been an active engagement with form but also, perhaps more importantly, an engagement with hacking writing interfaces – an approach that treats both writing and media-specific interface as process and product, the two unavoidably intertwined. It is a ‘hacking’ not in the more recent colloquial sense of illegally bypassing computer security mechanisms but rather hacking in its earlier (perhaps original) sense, embodied by the computer hobbyists of the Homebrew Computer Club from the 70s and early 80s who were invested in the communal enterprise of open-source DIY computing. Hacking in this sense has been usefully re-enlivened by Mackenzie Wark who describes it in terms of the activities of class of people who “create the possibility of new things entering the world” (004) and whose slogan is “…not the workers of the world united, but the workings of the world untied” (006).

And so electronic literature’s response to the increasing prevalence of invisible interfaces that prevent any kind of making or doing beyond those surface-level activities which are strictly delimited by the interface: the introduction of an element of failure in digital writing and writing interfaces to turn our attention back to both as, again, process and product. In other words, at the heart of the most provocative and the most successful works of e-literature lies a poetics of failure; that is, by hacking, breaking, or simply making access difficult, they work against the way in which digital media and their interfaces are becoming increasingly invisible – even while these interfaces also increasingly define what and how we read/write. Such an approach is nicely framed as the daring path of the activist by Media Archaeology theorist Siegfried Zielinski:

Few activists…take the more daring path of exploring certain points of the media system in such a way that throws established syntax into a state of agitation. This is poetic praxis in the strict sense that the magical realist Bruno Schulz of Poland understood it: “If art is only supposed to confirm what has been determined for as long as anyone can remember, then one doesn’t need it. Its role is to be a probe that is let down into the unknown. The artist is a device that registers processes taking place in the depths where values are created.” (256)

It is, then, precisely against this unthinking celebration of the value of the user-friendly, against this troubling move toward transparent or invisible computing, that digital writers such as Judd Morrissey create texts such as “The Jew’s Daughter” – a work in which readers are invited to click on hyperlinks embedded in the narrative text, links which do not lead anywhere so much as they unpredictably change some portion of the text before our eyes. It is a work that unties the workings of the hyperlinked web interface whose structure more and more seems to be driven by the belief that clicking is an empowering act of identity-formation, one that emboldens us to access more meaningful information and so become active learners and producers of knowledge…when in fact clicking most often simply takes us to something other, and yet other –  with most of these clicks carefully monitored by your favorite search engine that then conveniently sells you back to yourself. Clicking is to empowerment what Steve Jobs is to Bob Dylan.

Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries also have become infamous for their refusal to incorporate interactivity into their works – interactivity which, again, is at the heart of the ideology of the user-friendly. In fact, they reframe their refusal of interactivity in their work as providing the reader with the ultimate control: to in fact click AWAY. They state in an interview from 2005: “the spectator is far from powerless. She is still the one who decides whether or not she will watch the piece, or having clicked on it, whether she’ll click away from it. That’s the same power that she has when she considers any other art and literature. Clicking away is one of the essences of the Internet. It’s no different from deleting. It’s rejection, it’s saying ‘no.’ That’s ultimate power.” But it still seems to me that taking a lack of interactivity to such an extreme that it demands the spectator reject the work altogether is a significantly different gesture, one which throws us back on ourselves, than the mindless/endless clicking that determines most interactions on the Web.

Likewise working against the clean, “natural,” and transparent interface of the Web, in many of Jason Nelson’s game poems, he hybridizes interactive art/video-game/poem to self-consciously embrace a hand-drawn, hand-written, messy, dissonant aesthetic while deliberately undoing videogame conventions (of accumulation, progress, winning/losing, clear moral victories, immersion) through a nonsensical point-system and mechanisms that ensure the most a player ever wins is, for example, a bizarre home video feature Nelson playing with action figures in his kitchen.

With electronic literature framed as one which “throws established syntax into a state of agitation” insofar as it gives an account of the normally invisible, the taken-for-granted that nonetheless defines what can be said, then the unsettling, non-linear work by Judd Morrissey, Young-Hae Chang, and Jason Nelson which also defies close-reading and easy subsumption into any interpretative framework, is activist media poetry par excellence. And, to me, works such as these put forward an argument for the importance of electronic literature as an intervening force in the computing industry’s push to not just push on toward gestural interfaces and ubiquitous computing, but to computing interfaces that work by “reading your mind” or reading electrical brain activity without us having to take any physical action. As the engineers at IBM’s Smarter Planet Initiative declare with the kind of wondrous hush typical of a Steve Jobs-esque unveiling of the unthinkable: “If you just need to think about calling someone, it happens. Or you can control the cursor on a computer screen just by thinking about where you want to move it.”

3 thoughts on “Activist Media Poetics: Electronic Literature Against the Interface-free (MLA 2012)

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