MLA 2013 Special Session: Reading the Invisible and Unwanted in Old & New Media

[February 2013: I’ve posted an extended version of my MLA 2013 paper here.]

Below is the description for the MLA ’13 special session panel that Paul Benzon, Mark Sample, Zach Whalen, and I will present on in January. We’re thrilled to have the opportunity to pursue together issues related to Media Archaeology.

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Media studies is growing increasingly visible within the broader disciplines of literary and cultural studies, with several critical approaches bringing valuable shape and context to the field. Prominent among these approaches is a turn away from media studies’ longstanding fixation upon the new or the innovative as the most urgent and deserving site of study. Drawing on methodologies as diverse as book history, media archaeology, and videogame studies, this work on earlier media technologies has forged provocative connections between past and present contexts that hinge upon disjuncture and nonlinearity as often as upon continuity and teleology. At the same time, an increased attention to the material particulars of inscription, storage, circulation, and reception has developed the field beyond an early focus on narrative and representation.

New media scholars now look beyond screen-based media, to a broader range of technologies and sites of inquiry. This panel seeks to consider unseen, lost, or unwanted histories of writing/media. Each of the panelists focuses on a particular technology that is not only invisible to the broad history of media technology, but also relies upon loss and invisibility for its very functionality. In keeping with this dual valence, our emphasis on loss and invisibility is intended to raise questions aimed at our specific objects of analysis, but also at the deeper historical and disciplinary questions that these objects speak to: how does our understanding of media technology change when we draw attention to objects and processes that are designed to be invisible, out of view, concealed within the machine, or otherwise beyond the realm of unaided human perception? What happens when we examine the technological, social, and ideological assumptions bound up with that invisibility? How does privileging invisibility shed new light on materiality, authorship, interface, and other central critical questions within media studies?

The vexing relationship between invisibility and transparency is addressed head-on in Lori Emerson’s paper, “Apple Macintosh and the Ideology of the User-Friendly.” Emerson suggests that the “user-friendly” graphical user interface (GUI) that was introduced via the Apple Macintosh in 1984 was–and still is–driven by an ideology that celebrates an invisible interface instead of offering users transparent access to the framing mechanisms of the interface as well as the underlying flow of information. Emerson asserts this particular philosophy of the user-friendly was a response to earlier models of home computers which were less interested in providing ready-made tools through an invisible interface and more invested in educating users and providing them with the means for tool-building. Thus, the Apple Macintosh model of the GUI is clearly related to contemporary interfaces that utterly disguise the ways in which they delimit not only our access to information but also what and how we read/write.

A desire to renew critical attention on the most taken-for-granted aspect of computer writing and reading is at the heart of Zach Whalen’s paper, “OCR and the Vestigial Aesthetics of Machine Vision.” Whalen examines the origins of the technology that allows machines to read and process alphanumeric characters. While graceful typography is said to work best when it is not noticed–in other words, when hidden in plain sight–early OCR fonts had to become less hidden in order to make their text available for machine processing. Whalen focuses on the OCR-A font and the contributions of OCR engineer Jacob Rabinow, who argued on behalf of ugly machine-readable type that (although historically and technically contingent) its intrinsically artificial geometry could become its own aesthetic signifier.

The condensation and invisibility of textual information is taken up by Paul Benzon in his paper, “Lost in Plain Sight: Microdot Technology and the Compression of Reading.” Benzon uses the analog technology of the microdot, in which an image of a standard page of text is reduced to the size of a period, as a framework to consider questions of textual and visual materiality in new media. Benzon’s discussion focuses on the work of microdot inventor Emanuel Goldberg, who in the fifties worked alongside and in competition with the engineer Vannevar Bush, a seminal figure for new media studies. Benzon transforms the disregarded history of textual storage present in Goldberg’s work into a counter-narrative to the more hegemonic ideology of hypertext that has dominated new media studies.

Turning to an entirely invisible process that we can only know by its product, Mark Sample considers the meaning of machine-generated randomness in electronic literature and videogames in his paper, “An Account of Randomness in Literary Computing.” While new media critics have looked at randomness as a narrative or literary device, Sample explores the nature of randomness at the machine level, exposing the process itself by which random numbers are generated. Sample shows how early attempts at mechanical random number generation grew out of the Cold War, and then how later writers and game designers relied on software commands like RND (in BASIC), which seemingly simplified the generation of random numbers, but which in fact were rooted in–and constrained by–the particular hardware of the machine itself.

These four papers share a common impulse, which is to imagine alternate or supplementary media histories that intervene into existing scholarly discussions. By focusing on these forgotten and unseen dimensions, we seek to complicate and enrich the ways in which literary scholars understand the role of technologies of textual production within contemporary practices of reading and writing. With timed talks of 12 minutes each, the session sets aside a considerable amount of time for discussion. This panel will build on a growing conversation among MLA members interested in theoretically inflected yet materially specific work on media technologies, and it will also appeal to a broad cross-section of the MLA membership, including textual scholars, digital humanists, literary historians, electronic literature critics, and science and technology theorists.

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MLA 2012 Electronic Literature Exhibit: Impact Report

Below is the Impact Report that Dene Grigar, Kathi Inman Berens, and I put together to document all activities related to the first ever exhibit and reading of Electronic Literature at the 2012 MLA Annual Convention. This report should also prove useful to electronic literature scholars who are seeking additional support for the importance of the field as well as anyone planning a similar exhibit who needs to advocate for their work as scholarly activity. Sincere thanks to Matthew Kirschenbaum, Matthew Gold, Rosemary Feal, Brian Croxall, Ian Bogost, and Bethany Nowviskie for contributing testimonials to our final report. Finally, thank you too to Judy Malloy who kindly published our report on her website.

You may also download a pdf of the Impact Report.

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Electronic Literature Exhibit Impact Report
MLA 2012, January 5-8, 2012
Curated by Dene Grigar, Lori Emerson, and Kathi Inman Berens

Overview:
This report is intended to provide stakeholders involved in the Electronic Literature Exhibit, held in Seattle, WA from January 5th to 8th at the 2012 Modern Languages Association Convention with information concerning the Exhibit’s impact.  Impact, from our perspective, is tied to the overarching mission of the Exhibit, which we articulated as “to expand scholarship and creative output in the area of Electronic Literature by introducing Humanities scholars to the art form.”  In order to achieve this mission, we identified, at the outset of the development of the Exhibit, four goals.  These were to:

  • Introduce scholars to a broad cross-section of born digital literary writing, both historic and current
  • Provide scholarship and resources to scholars for the purpose of further study of Electronic Literature
  • Encourage those interested in the creative arts to produce Electronic Literature
  • Promote Electronic Literature in a manner that may encourage younger generations to engage with reading literary works

All activities relating to the Exhibit––from the inclusion of five student docents who assisted visitors at the Exhibit, to the “Readings and Performances” event on Friday night at the Hugo House, to the four-platform social media marketing plan and archival work undertaken by undergraduates in the Creative Media & Digital Culture Program, to inclusion of undergraduate works of Electronic Literature in the Exhibit,  to the ongoing web archive of the site––have been developed to help us meet these goals.

Assessment of success in attaining these goals is built on information in four areas:

  1. References to the exhibit by humanities scholars
  2. Inclusion of the web archive in scholarly databases
  3. New scholarship and creative output generating from it
  4. Physical and virtual engagement of visitors with the Exhibit and its online archive

We view this report as “preliminary” because print-based data is not yet available for inclusion. Thus, this phase of our report includes data stemming from electronic publications and media; they serve as the first step in the process of analysis and evaluation of the success of the Exhibit.  For the most part, the data covers a short period of time surrounding the Exhibit, from mid-November  2011 when the web archive was launched to mid-January 2012 after the closing of the Exhibit.

1. References to the Exhibit by Humanities Scholars
Ball, Cheryl. “Review of Profession 2011 section on ‘Evaluating Digital

Scholarship.’”  Kairos[1] 16.2. Spring 2012. http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/16.2/loggingon/lo-profession.html. Retrieved:  28 Jan. 2012.

“Digital Commons.”  NYU Department of English. http://nyuenglish.com/. Retrieved: 1

Mar. 2012.

“Editor’s Choice:  Round Up of AHA and MLA Conferences.”  Digital Humanities

Now[2]. 9 Jan. 2012. http://digitalhumanitiesnow.org/2012/01/ec-round-up-of-aha-and-mla-conferences/. Retrieved: 28 Jan. 2012.

Jackson, Korey.  “Once More with Feeling:  How MLA Found Its Heart.”

HASTAC[3] 16 Jan. 2012. http://hastac.org/blogs/kbjack/2012/01/16/back-mla-report-not-badgood-fact. Retrieved:  28 Jan. 2012. Reprinted in Mpublishing:  U of Michigan Library. 16 Jan. 2012. http://publishing.umich.edu/2012/01/16/mpub-mla/. Retrieved:  28 Jan. 2012.

Kinett, Dylan.  NoCategories.comThe Death of Hypertext?

http://nocategories.net/ephemera/the-death-of-hypertext/

Malloy, Judy.  “MLA 2012 to Feature Exhibition of Electronic Literature.”  Authoring

Software. 28 Dec. 2011. http://www.narrabase.net/elit_software_news.html#dec28_2011. Retrieved: 28 Jan. 2012.

MLA Newsletter. V 44  Number 1. Spring 2012. http://www.mla.org/pdf/nl_441_web.pdf.

Taylor, Laurie, N., “E-Lit Exhibit at MLA; Exhibits, Peer Review, and What

Counts.” 2 Jan. 2012.  http://laurientaylor.org/2012/01/02/elit-exhibit-mla-exhibits-peer-review-what-counts/.  Retrieved:  28 Jan. 2012.

Image from MLA Newsletter. V 44  Number 1. Spring 2012

2. Inclusion of the Web Archive in Scholarly Databases
Electronic Literature as a Model of Creativity and Innovation in Practice (ELMCIP) Knowledge Base.[4]  http://elmcip.net/event/electronic-literature-exhibit-0.

Electronic Literature Organization Directory[5]. http://directory.eliterature.org/.

3. New Scholarship and Creative Output Generating from the Exhibit
Berens, Kathi Inman.  “Haptic Play as Narrative in Mobile Electronic Literature.” Forthcoming in ebr: electronic book review.  Spring 2012.

Grigar, Dene. Born Digital Literature: Understanding Literary Works for the Electronic

Medium.  Book Proposal.

Grigar, Dene and Kathi Inman Berens.  “Avenues of Access:  A Juried Exhibit & Online

Archives of ‘Born Digital’ Literature.”  Forthcoming at the 2013 Modern Language Association Convention. January 2013; Boston, MA.

Grigar, Dene, Lori Emerson, and Kathi Inman Berens.  “Curating Electronic Literature.”

Forthcoming in Rhizomes.  Spring 2012. http://www.rhizomes.net/.

4. Physical and Virtual Engagement of Visitors with the Exhibit and Its Online Archive
Electronic Literature Exhibit at the MLA 2012.

Visits: 503; attendance at Readings and Performances event held at The Hugo House on Friday, January 6, 2012:  107.[6]

Electronic Literature (Main Archival Site). http://dtc-wsuv.org/mla2012.

1673 total visits from 10 Nov. 2011- 18 Jan. 2012; 1733 total visits as of 27 Jan. 2012.

Visitors to the site came from:  the US, Sweden, Canada, Spain, Norway, the UK, Italy, Albania, Australia, Denmark, Greece, Puerto Rico, France, Germany, India, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Austria, Philippines, Colombia, and Algeria.

Kathi Inman Berens’ Curatorial Statement. http://kathiiberens.com/2011/12/06/curatorial-statement/).

539 total visits from 6 Dec. – 8 Dec. 2011 – 18 Jan. 2012

Lori Emerson’s Curatorial Statement. https://loriemerson.net/2011/12/05/performing-e-literature-e-literature-performing/.

388 total visits from 5 Dec. 2011-18 Jan. 2012.

“Electronic Literature Readings and Performances” Poster. http://twitpic.com/81ek4y.

440 total visits.

Storify archive of the event. http://storify.com/kathiiberens/e-literature-exhibit-at-mla12/.

128 from  10 Jan. 2012-28 Jan. 2012.

Facebook and Mini-Site. http://www.facebook.com/wsuv.mla.elit2012.

145 Total Likes; 43,444 “Friends of Fans.” Friends came from US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Mexico, Singapore, Ethiopia, the UK, and The Bahamas. 12/28/11-1/16/12

Twitter. https://twitter.com/#!/mlaelit2012

72 Followers as of 27 Jan. 2012.

“Invisible Seattle Visible Again.”  Press release created by Washington State University Vancouver’s Marketing Department. 3 Jan. 2012. http://news.wsu.edu/pages/publications.asp?Action=Detail&PublicationID=29434. Retrieved:  28 Jan. 2012.  Reprinted in WSU News as “Ahead of Their Time.” 3 Jan. 2012. http://news.wsu.edu/pages/publications.asp?Action=Release&PublicationID=29434. Retrieved: 28 Jan. 2012.  Reprinted also in WSU’s College of Liberal Arts website.

5.  Testimonials
This section gathers comments from those individuals we solicited for comments about the MLA12 Elit Exhibit.

From Matthew Kirschenbaum:
Although I was not in Seattle this year, I followed the electronic literature exhibition through Twitter, Flickr, and Facebook.  If, as William Carlos Williams once said, “no ideas but in things,” then the “things” of electronic literature are never just the pixels on the screen or even the code churning underneath. Its *things* are also its hardware and platforms: the vintage console, the floppy disk as familiar yet remote as vinyl, the conventions of an antiquarian operating system or a long retired interface. I can truthfully say that there is nothing more vital to what I have elsewhere called the .txtual condition than the kind of project championed by this group of digital archaeologists. Such attention to the minute material particulars of recovery, restoration, and curation is not only essential to the survival of electronic literature (imperiled by its native digital state) but indeed to all literary texts in a digital age.

From Matthew Gold:
The E-Lit exhibit altered the dynamics of #mla12, giving participants a reflective and absorbing space in which they could take in a variety of experiments in digital textuality. I was struck by the careful consideration that the organizers of the exhibit had put into it and by the efforts they had made to reproduce works of electronic literature in their native computing environments. Entering the exhibit, one was greeted by the enthusiastic and knowledgable staff and exhibit organizers, for whom the installation was clearly a work of scholarly passion. For me, at least, the exhibit felt like a port in a storm. It was wonderful to have this kind of space at the MLA and I strongly encourage the organization to continue to support similar efforts in the future.

From Rosemary Feal:
The MLA was pleased to host the Electronic Literature Exhibit at the 2012 MLA Convention as part of our continuing development of convention formats that allow members to present the full range of their creative, pedagogical, and scholarly activities.  The three-day exhibit gave ample opportunity for our 8,000 convention attendees to visit the exhibit and to consider the experimental reach and creative power of the 160 digital works that were showcased. By all reports, the steady stream of attendees generated a lively and ongoing discussion about the potential of new media for literary expression.  The E-Lit exhibit nicely complemented the dozens of other convention sessions that explored the impact of digital media on the humanities (click here <http://www.samplereality.com/2011/10/04/digital-humanities-sessions-at-the-2012-mla-conference-in-seattle/> for a list of these sessions) as well as the convention’s 695 other panels, roundtables, workshops, addresses, and  events. Particularly exciting is the way the reach of the exhibit was extended in time and space through an off-site live reading by some of the participating authors, an exhibit Web site, the #mla12 twitter stream, and discussion in blogs, demonstrating the growing potential of networked online environments for scholarly communication as well as artistic expression.

From Brian Croxall:
Over the last four years, I have had frequent occasion to teach electronic literature in various English classes. Repeatedly, my students have told me that they’ve never read anything like it in any of my colleagues classes. While there are many reasons for this, I believe one of them is that many literature faculty members simply have not been exposed to electronic literature. It was a great pleasure, then, to see the E-Lit Exhibit at MLA12. Each time I poked my head in the room, there were different audiences enjoying the different works that covered more than 20 years of electronic writing. Given the current interest in the digital humanities, it was important to see the history of the digital within the humanities. The Exhibit created the perfect focal point around which conversations about e-lit could continue after the several fascinating panels on the subject. The Jan. 6 reading of e-literature further encouraged participants to think of e-lit not so much as a radical Other but as one end on a spectrum of literary output that can be read and examined within the context of the MLA. I appreciate the MLA’s support of the exhibit and would encourage similar exhibits in the future. There is certainly more e-lit that could be showcased in such a manner but so too could artist’s books, to name but one example.

From Ian Bogost:
January 2012 marked the date of the first exhibit (curated by Dene Grigar, Lori Emerson, and Kathi Inman Berens) of electronic literature ever hosted by the Modern Language Association at their annual convention in Seattle, WA. Remarkably, the exhibit was visited by over 500 people and since the end of the exhibit, five humanities scholars have written about the exhibit. Digital humanities librarian Laurie Taylor has suggested that the exhibit is an example of scholarly activity (“the E-Lit Exhibit is extremely important as an exhibit/event in itself. It’s also extremely important as an example/model for future exhibits with MLA and for all who are interested in how changes in scholarly communication are affecting the humanities, how to support scholarly work outside of silos…and what counts as scholarship.”). I couldn’t agree more with this assessment. Indeed, a curated exhibit is a standard example of creative productivity in most fields in the arts, and it’s high time humanists update their standards.

As an extension of the exhibit, Lori Emerson organized a reading/performance of e-literature by authors whose work was included in the exhibit. The reading included the some of the most prominent practitioners of digital writing/art/gaming including Jim Andrews, Kate Armstrong, John Cayley, Erin Costello/Aaron Angelo, Marjorie Luesebrink, Mark Marino, Nick Montfort, Brian Kim Stefans, Stephanie Strickland, Rob Wittig, and myself. About 100 people attended this reading, which was both a fascinating display of the ways in which many of the works in the exhibit are performative in their right and an exploration of the role of the author-programmer in a live performance.

As a participant in both the exhibit and the reading, I was particularly pleased to be able to share my work with an audience that was receptive to my particular and unique brand of videogame poetry.

From Bethany Nowviskie:
I just want to share a word of thanks with you for the splendid work you [Kathi Inman Berens], Dene Grigar, and Lori Emerson did in organizing the E-Lit exhibit at MLA12. This was one of the best-arranged and most carefully thought-out exhibits I have ever seen of the kind, and visiting it was a high point of the conference for me.  I was struck especially by the careful historicizing you did in the arrangement of the stations and the interesting juxtapositions you created, between canonical and lesser-known works (many of which were entirely new to me).  The care you took with all this is evident in your three terrific curatorial statements.  The exhibit clearly struck a chord with many MLA attendees, and I sat in on at least three panels in which presenters made reference to works they had seen, or commented on the subjects of their papers in relation to the themes of the conference’s E-lit events.  I left wishing I had had more time to spend in the room — so was thrilled to discover the extensive website you put together, and know I will be referring students and Scholars’ Lab graduate fellows to your bibliographies and lists of featured works again and again.


[1] Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy began in 1996 and since that time has grown to 45,000 readers per month; additionally, it is referenced electronically (i.e. “backlinked”) by 2500 sites.

[2] DH Now has 2794 Followers on Twitter. Its site had 14,500 visits with 5000 unique visitors, and 48,000 total page views in Nov. 2011.  See http://www.ucl.ac.uk/infostudies/melissa-terras/DigitalHumanitiesInfographic.pdf.

[3] HASTAC (Humanities Arts Science & Technology Advanced Collaboratory) says in its September 6, 2011 report that it has 7150 members and that its site has seen 350,000 unique visitors to its forums since 2009.  See http://hastac.org/about.

[4] ELMCIP is a “collaborative research project funded by Humanities in the European Research Area (HERA) JRP for Creativity and Innovation and involves seven European academic research partners and one non-academic partner.”  Its mission is to “investigate how creative communities of practitioners form within a transnational and transcultural context in a globalized and distributed communication environment. Focusing on the electronic literature community in Europe as a model of networked creativity and innovation in practice, ELMCIP is intended both to study the formation and interactions of that community and also to further electronic literature research and practice in Europe. The partners include: The University of Bergen, Norway (PL Scott Rettberg, Co-I Jill Walker Rettberg), the Edinburgh College of Art, Scotland (PI Simon Biggs, Co-I Penny Travlou), Blekinge Institute of Technology, Sweden (PI Maria Engberg, Co-I Talan Memmott), The University of Amsterdam, Netherlands (PI Yra Van Dijk), The University of Ljubljana, Slovenia (PI Janez Strechovec), The University of Jyväskylä, Finland (PI Raine Koskimaa), and University College Falmouth at Dartington, England (PI Jerome Fletcher), and New Media Scotland.”

[5] “The Electronic Literature Organization was founded in 1999 to foster and promote the reading, writing, teaching, and understanding of literature as it develops and persists in a changing digital environment. A 501c(3) non-profit organization, the ELO includes writers, artists, teachers, scholars, and developers.”

[6] It should be noted that Canada’s Poet Laureate Fred Wah, who lives in British Columbia, drove to Seattle specifically to visit the exhibit and attend the Readings and Performances associated with the exhibit.

Recovering Paul Zelevanksy’s literary game “SWALLOWS” (Apple //e, 1985-86)

In 1986 – a year after creating a literary videogame called “SWALLOWS” for Apple //e and Apple //+ – writer Paul Zelevansky published the second volume of his by-now rare artist book trilogy THE CASE FOR THE BURIAL OF ANCESTORS: Book Two, Genealogy. Book Two is supposedly the third edition (which is also a fiction since there was only one edition) of a fictional translation of an equally fictional ancient text that is itself a translation of an oral account of the “Hegemonians” from the 12th-13th BCE that was “attributed to a score of mystics, religionists and scholars, none of whom has ever stepped forward.” (ix) The text focuses particularly on the stories of four priests, each of whom is identified throughout the book with a different typeface which Zelevansky claims makes it possible “to build a reading of the text around a typographical sequence.” (xi) Also included in Book Two is a sheet of 16 stamps – a miniature, layered collage of letters and found objects – as Zelevansky puts it in the “Preface to the Third Edition,” “each stamp has a particular part to play in the narrative. It is left to the Reader to attach them, where indicated, in the spaces provided throughout the text.” (xii) And, finally, enclosed in an envelope on the inside of the back cover, the book also comes with “SWALLOWS,” a 5.25″ floppy disk that is a videogame forming the first of three parts in the book. Programmed in Forth-79 for the Apple IIe or II+ (Forth was a popular programming language for home computers with limited memory), “SWALLOWS” was also integrated into the first section of Book Two through a short text/image version.

Since learning about Zelevansky’s work, I have been working through and writing on “SWALLOWS” as a very early, and important, instance of media poetics. And given what a remarkable work it is, and in an effort to contribute to the effort to preserve our digital past, I have made available the original file for “SWALLOWS” that you can run via an Apple // emulator. The existence of this file is entirely due to the work of Matthew Kirschenbaum and the generosity of Paul Zelevanksy. Matthew Kirschenbaum in fact recently made an argument in The Chronicle for the importance of digital preservation by detailing how he accessed “SWALLOWS” via an Apple // emulator and then provided Zelevanksy with the original .dsk file from which he then created a new version of “SWALLOWS” (with audio and video clips mixed in) called “G R E A T . B L A N K N E S S.”

Below are the directions to download the .dsk file and then run it on an emulator. Enjoy!

  1. download an Apple //e emulator. I found Virtual ][ works well.
  2. download an Apple // system ROM image. This zip file also works well.
  3. download the .dsk file for “SWALLOWS” (via Dropbox) and open the file using your Apple //e emulator

grOnk magazine, fourth series: issues 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7 1968-1971 (part 6)

I am nearly halfway finished digitizing the issues of grOnk magazine that Nelson Ball gave me. In this installment: the fourth series which includes work (from 1968 through 1971) by David UU, Hart Broudy, David Aylward, Joseph di Donato, Andrew Suknaski, and Earle Birney. Once again, given the unique materiality of all these pieces of varying sizes, shapes, colours and textures, I urge you to look at the originals wherever possible.

The first issue of the fourth series, David UU‘s (or David W. Harris) MOTION/PICTURES, was published in March 1969 in an edition of 300 copies. At this point, UU was a co-editor of grOnk along with Nichol and bill bissett. MOTION/PICTURES, sheets of 8.5 x 11 paper stapled together, is wrapped in a red card-stock cover featuring collage work by UU. Most curious for me is the copyright page which lists other books by UU, including poems published by Ganglia Press in 1966 which were “destroyed at authors request” and a collection AMERICANCROSS which was “suppressed by american authorities” in 1966.

The second issue features four gorgeous typewriter concrete poems – titled “C POEMS” – on cream coloured card stock by Hart Broudy. It’s not clear what year this was published. All poems (with the exception of the cover-art on the outside of the envelope which seems to have been made with letraset) have been constructed with the letter ‘c’, occasionally ‘l’ and a few punctuation marks.

The third issue is Earle Birney’s PNOMES JUKOLLAGES & OTHER STUNZAS which was published in November 1969 in an edition of 400 copies. As Nichol writes in the introduction to this collection of work by Birney, “this is an introduction to a section of earle’s work which has been termed ‘experimental’ by every review & critical article i’ve read.” Below is an image of “PNOME,” just one of twelve items in the envelope for this third issue:

The materials included in this envelope of work by Birney are so various that I decided to digitize them all separately. They are listed below in the order in which they are listed in the list of contents – take particular note of “SPACE CONQUEST: COMPUTER POEM” which Birney created in February 1968; “lines chosen from 1066 5-syllable lines supplied by a computer programmed to a random order of the words composing Meredith’s ‘Lucifer in Starlight’ and Macleish’s ‘End of the World.’ Printed on an IBM/360 Computer.”

The fourth issue is David Aylward’s concrete poem(s) THE WAR AGAINST THE ASPS, published in 1968 on sheets of 8.5 x 11 paper folded lengthwise.

The sixth issue features visual work (on single sheets of 8.5 x 11 card stock stapled together three times) by Joseph di Donato – work that is simply titled on the cover “gronkreadingwritingseriesnumber6.” I am speculating the work was created with a combination of drawing and letraset.

Finally, the seventh issue features Andrew Suknaski’s ROSE WAY IN THE EAST – hand-drawn, ideogram-inspired poems that were published in 1971 as single sheets of 8.5 x 11 paper in an envelope.

> See also grOnk magazine: Canadian Concrete Poetry 1967-1988 (Part 1)

> See also bpNichol’s “Singing Hands Series”: Canadian Concrete Poetry 1966 (Part 2)

> See also grOnk magazine: first and second series 1967 – 1970 (Part 3)

> See also grOnk magazine: third series, issue 1 1969 (part 4)

> See also grOnk magazine: third series, issues 3, 4, 7, 8 1969 (part 5)

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.

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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.”

sifteo cubes in the humanities classroom

I recently ordered, with glee, Sifteo cubes in the hopes that I might be able to use them either in the classes I teach or perhaps add them to the Archeological Media Lab which, while largely invested in studying outdated computer hardware and software, is also broadly concerned with the study of interface design. As the Sifteo cube interface is equal parts touch-sensitive and motion-sensitive – for example, you choose menu options by pushing the cubes together or you can activate different parts of the games by shaking the cubes or placing them face down – they seemed like a necessary addition to the lab’s growing library of gadgets. (And of course, after many happy hours of compulsive playing and tinkering with the cubes at home, I was also looking for a legitimate excuse to bring the cubes into my classes.)

This, then, is a short review of Sifteo cubes and my own attempt to work out, for myself and for my colleagues (especially those involved in the Teaching with Technology Seminar sponsored by ASSETT), whether these cubes are might be a productive addition to an undergraduate class on digital media or even a literature class on electronic literature. But, I should be clear: this review is in the context of the classes I’m teaching right now that reflect my own (rather unconventional) research interests.

While more and more I’m becoming interested in old media, analog media, as well as the history of computing, one reason I’m housed in an English literature department is because of my interest in e-literature with an emphasis on digital poetry. By “digital poetry” I generally mean a work that is ‘digital born,’ a first-generation digital object created on a computer and (usually) meant to be read on a computer. Whether or not the text is “poetry” more often than not depends on what critical apparatus you decide to bring to the work—many of the digital works I’m interested could be classified as fiction or visual art as easily as they could be poetry; I’ve found that once text enters the digital, genre distinctions start to break down.

In the undergraduate course I teach on digital poetry, I’ve come up with four broad conceptual categories by which to help students think about digital poems: 1) digital poetry that brings us to the absolute limits of interpretation; 2) the historical underpinnings of digital poetry (including units on how Dada, Futurism, and Concrete Poetry have influenced digital poetry); 3) the lineage of computer-generated poetry that spans the 1950s to the present day – or, basically, the use of algorithms to generate text; 4) and reading/writing poetry interfaces from the 21st back to the early 20th century. In terms of the latter, I try to teach my students to see how digital poems draw our attention to their interface, usually through an interface that’s difficult to navigate that in turn helps make writing interfaces less transparent; in contrast to the rhetoric around every new multi-touch or gestural interface that touts how its interface “just disappears! it’s completely ‘natural’ and ‘intuitive'”, I try to get my students to think about what it means for an interface to be invisible or natural  – just whose intuition is driving this interface? Also, and more importantly, I feel strongly that the more invisible an interface becomes the less access we have to making things outside of ready-made software and the less access we have to understanding what’s going on underneath the hood. As such, we also look at how these digital poems have been constructed—what software has been used or hacked to create these word objects? What can we learn from studying these works at the level of the code?

The second course I frequently teach is called “Introduction to Digital Media for Humanities” which serves as a humanities-based introduction to digital media structures such as the digital archive and reading/writing software that fundamentally affects what we ourselves are able to read/write; theories and methodologies for under-taking digital media scholarship in the humanities; and, finally, digital textualities ranging from text messaging, blogging, and games to digital fiction and poetry. Ideally, this course gives students the critical skills they need to understand and navigate a 21st century world in which digital media govern the storage, transmission and reception of a whole range of textual material.

Both classes have a distinct and recurring emphasis on doing and making a necessary adjunct to learning the course material; as such, at the end of the semester we have a “demo day” where students exhibit their own works of digital poetry or digital textuality they create in response to the texts we study in class. The point of this assignment is not to impress the class with technical skills – the point is to engage as fully as possible in thinking about how you create affects what you’ve created; in other words, to enact a kind of study or critique of software and how it shapes creative production through doing. This means too that I don’t need students to learn Flash or Actionscript as there are plenty of ways they can “hack” powerpoint or keynote or Prezi to create compelling digital texts.

To slowly move to a discussion of Sifteo cubes, the nature of the final project also means I’m always on the look-out for interesting, new tech to use for this assignment – but there are some restrictions: 1) the tech needs to be somewhat easily accessible (as students have only about 3 weeks to complete the assignment); 2) the tech needs to be free or cheap or easy for me to share with my students; 3) the tech needs to have a textual, ideally literary, potential so that students can learn about how language operates in a digital environment. I can usually find tech that satisfies two out of 3 of these requirements and, in this way, Sifteo cubes are no exception.

David Merrill and Jeevan Kalanithi designed the cubes while they were graduate students at the MIT Media Lab, and they have since formed a company to produce Sifteo Cubes, games, and software. Inspired by classic games such as chess, checkers, and mah-jong, Sifteo Cubes are a hands-on interactive game system. You can turn cubes, shake them, press down on them, and connect them with each other. Each cube contains a tiny computer chip and is connected to other cubes, sensing their motion and position through a wireless network to the Sifteo application on a nearby computer. They come with desktop software that allows you to browse and play games, create your own with the Sifteo Creativity Kit, and find more in the Sifteo store. [An intriguing side-note: Sifteo cubes were recently featured in a MOMA exhibit called “Talk To Me” , featuring a number of cutting edge designs that attempt to reimagine the notion of ‘interface.’]

There are three games available at the moment that (arguably) include textual elements or just elements that are conceivably related to the two courses I outline above: LoopLoop, Wordplay, and Chroma Shuffle. All three games teach students individual components of what goes into creating a digital poem or even just net art. LoopLoop is about the art of the remix: so much of digital poetry/net art remixes from other sources – pulls from source texts, music, visuals to rearrange; instead of framing remix as plagiarism or laziness (“you didn’t make that yourself!”), this game consists of small music samples and beats you can layer and combine and so it demos how choosing/editing/curation is an art in itself. Wordplay is about the art of the combinatorial: many digital poems are based on the art of viewing language and words as material bits that can be re-combined to form new material bits; it’s another form of remix that takes place at the level of the letter rather than the sentence or the work of art/music as a whole. Chroma Shuffle is about the art of the game: many works of net art/digital poetry have been heavily influenced by games/gaming and as a result turns reading into playing/interacting which in turn requires an organized awareness of objects in the space – or spatial visualization.

Hopefully, given my description of these three Sifteo games, their appeal is obvious. However, there are a few drawbacks: aside from the price tag (a set of three cubes with the charger dock costs about $150 on Amazon.com which makes them prohibitively expensive for most students), they are fantastic to consume which is also the problem – they seem to strongly encourage a passive acceptance of the interface and they discourage users from thinking about how the cubes work and from creating outside of the ready-made environment. I haven’t yet thought of a way to “hack” the Sifteo Cubes to make them do things they might not have been intended to do – like make digital poems. There is indeed a software developers kit but it requires that you know the programming language C. There is also a Creativity Kit which does allow you to change some of what you might call the “vocabulary” of the games (the letters and words) but only allows limited changes to the grammar – the underlying structure – of the games.

All this said: despite the downsides I mention above, if there’s a way for an institution to provide access to Sifteo cubes without saddling students with an additional expense, my sense is that these cubes are still well worth experimenting with in the classroom. I can’t help but endorse any piece of technology that grabs students as much as these cubes and impels them to learn and create.

Performing E-Literature | E-literature Performing

Below is my curatorial statement for the Electronic Literature Exhibit that will take place at the MLA Annual Convention January 2012. Rather than focus my statement on the works I suggested we include in the exhibit, I’ve instead focused on the notion of a reading or performance of e-literature like the one that will take place on Friday January 6th 2012 (8pm Richard Hugo House, Seattle WA).

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If electronic literature is emergent, generative, interactive, kinetic, tactile; if the textual elements of electronic literature are only one part of digital version of a verbi-voco-visual complex, then how will e-literature authors Jim Andrews, Kate Armstrong, Ian Bogost, John Cayley, Erin Costello/Aaron Angelo, Marjorie Luesebrink, Mark Marino, Nick Montfort, Brian Kim Stefans, Stephanie Strickland, and Rob Wittig “read” from their works on Friday January 6th? What does such a reading look like?

One answer is that we wanted to see if we could extend the e-literature exhibit not just into the performative – for, arguably many of the works on display are performative in their right – but into the arena of live performance. However, such an exploration has to remain open-ended and undecidable; the exploration of what it means to “read” or “perform” e-literature has to change and adapt for every text. There is no way to know once-and-for-all how Nick Montfort reads his 2009 work “Taroko Gorge” – a Python poetry generator that creates a nature poem each time it is run. But perhaps we can say this: 1) while the poetic quality of the generated text is something to marvel at, a live performance of “Taroko Gorge” likely highlights the temporal, fleeting quality of the work and of digital computer processes in general (instead of static words on a page, we have ever-changing text that reflects the underlying time-based processes of algorithmic generation); 2) a live performance also reminds us that while the use of an algorithm to generate literary texts does undermine assumptions about authorial intent, self-expression, even the literary, to some extent our interest in authorial intent can shift to the very human programmer standing before us, reading one possible result among many from his elegant script.

Our reading also highlights those works which strategically nestle themselves between analog and print as a means by which to use print to comment on the digital and the digital to comment on print. A live “reading” of Erin Costello and Aaron Angelo’s site-specific installation and performance “Poemedia” poses many challenges to the conventional notion of a poetry reading as the work originally consisted of one hundred fifty 8.5″ x 11″ sheets of card stock suspended one to eight feet above the ground with live and/or recorded video projected onto the sheets. As Costello and Angelo put it, “Poemedia” asks, “what is the role of poetry, page poetry specifically, in a digitized, information saturated world?” As such, just as “Poemedia” enacts a thinking-through of the state of poetry today that is unavoidably enmeshed in practices of remix, search, and the disintegration of clear boundaries between literary and artistic genres, a reading or performance of it will likely also enact a thinking through of the poetry reading that normally features a single author, reading predictable and supposedly original text.

Our reading will also feature game designer and critic Ian Bogost reading from “A Slow Year” – a so-called “chapbook of game poems” that consists of four slow-moving, contemplative, text-free games (“spring”, “summer,” “autumn,” “winter”) for Atari VCS and an accompanying book of related yet separate print-based computer-generated poems. “A Slow Year” joins a growing number of e-literature works that do not contain any text at all but whose inspiration comes at least partly from poetry (in this case, Bogost attempts to translate poetic principles of Imagism into the realm of the videogame). But, aside from the difficult question of what makes a work literary if it contains no text – and one possible answer to this question is that distinctions between genres in the digital are impossible, and so pointless, to maintain – what is there in “A Slow Year” to read or perform? Perhaps Bogost will stand-in as us, as readers/viewers, performing our own interpretative acts to ourselves as we try to make sense of such a work.

And of course, it’s worth pointing out that Bogost will reveal only one possible answer to the foregoing questions during his January 6th reading, a reading which overall will only suggest momentary, emergent, even fleeting “solutions” to the productive problems of reading or performing electronic literature.