I had the great fortune of meeting Lionel Kearns in Vancouver last spring and discussing bpNichol’s 1984 Apple IIe poem “First Screening.” (If you don’t know Kearns, he is a longtime Vancouver-based poet who was a student of Earle Birney and also one of the four people to first rescue “First Screening.”) After explaining that I had managed, with the assistance of Jim Andrews, to obtain copies of “First Screening” for the Archeological Media Lab to run on the Apple IIe’s, Kearns immediately and generously offered to donate original working copies of the poems that bp was working on when he visited Kearns in the early 80s. I’m thrilled to report the floppies arrived last week, safe and sound, with this note from Kearns: “I am not sure of the actual date, but it was some time previous to the actual publication on disk of the collection of poems by Underwhich Editions.”
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.”
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).
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.
I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to help organize – alongside Dene Grigar and Kathi Inman Berens – the first ever electronic literature exhibit and reading at the MLA Annual Convention in Seattle, WA January 5th through the 7th. The exhibit in particular, which is formally supported by the MLA, marks an important moment in the establishment of electronic literature – another pivotal point at which the field moves further into the center and away from the margins. I’m hoping it’s a moment marking the subtle shift from “electronic” or “digital” literature to just, well, literature.
From January 5th through the 7th at the Washington State Convention Center in Room 609, visitors will have the opportunity to view/read/interact with: e-literature from the Electronic Literature Collection Volumes One and Two; historically significant works such as those by bpNichol and those published by Eastgate; locative works such as Kate Armstrong’s “Ping;” formally experimental works such as David Jhave Johnson’s “softies;” multimodal narratives such as Christine Wilks’ “Underbelly;” literary games such as Ian Bogost’s “A Slow Year“; and mobile works such as Mark Amerika’s “Immobilité.” These are just some of many different modes of e-literature that will be on display. The complete list of works is available on the exhibit website.
Also, on Friday January 6th from 8pm to 10.30pm, there will be an MLA off-site reading of electronic literature at Richard Hugo House (1634 11th Ave Seattle, WA 98122-2419). If you are in Seattle in early January, please make sure you stop by as it’s a rare treat indeed to have the opportunity to hear these extraordinarily innovative writers read together: Nick Montfort, Stephanie Strickland, Marjorie Luesebrink, Jim Andrews, Erin Costello and Aaron Angello, Mark Marino, Talan Memmott, John Cayley, Ian Bogost, Brian Kim Stefans, and Rob Wittig.
I’ve just received a copy of the preliminary program (pdf) for the upcoming 10 year anniversary E-Poetry Festival in Buffalo, New York and it’s little short of astonishing. With critics, poets, and performers from Canada, the U.S.A., Scandinavia, the U.K., France, and Australia (among others), it promises to be yet another field-defining event. (And you can get some sense of how far the field has come in just ten years by looking at the program from 2001 – clearly, a much broader and even more resolutely international group of writers are beginning to identify as digital workers now.) My first time participating in E-Poetry was in 2003 when it was held in Morgantown, West Virginia. I had been a PhD student at SUNY Buffalo for two years at that point and I presented my first conference paper whose title was far more intriguing than the paper itself – “Computer Kiss: Mechanical Love and the Digital Poem.” And while my paper was nothing to write home about, as the expression goes, I will always value that first defining experience as it didn’t introduce me to the mores of conference-going so much as it introduced me to a lively, intense, cutting-edge creative and critical community of like-minded people. And it’s this community that I identify as one of my homes.
This year I’ll be presenting a paper on the Archeological Media Lab – a paper which I expect will approach the pressing issue of preserving and maintaining access to early works of e-literature through a discussion of the challenges and opportunities presented by the creation of this lab at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I expect I will discuss how the AML is propelled equally by the need to maintain access to early works of electronic literature (and note too that, given how quickly technology changes, sometimes an “early work of electronic literature” may have been created as recent as 2001 and is similarly no longer viewable on current platforms) and by the need to archive and maintain the computers these works were created on.
Here is an example I often use to illustrate what I mean: from the perspective of a literary scholar, Canadian poet bpNichol’s First Screening – created in 1983-1984 using an Apple IIe and the Apple BASIC programming language – cannot be understood if we view it with an emulator, with Hypercard, or via a Quicktime movie version of the twelve programmed poems. First Screening is a series of poems whose meaning is actually activated through the writer/programmer’s invitation to the reader/view to type in commands; for example, in line 110 of the code for First Screening, Nichol writes: “REM FOR THE CURIOUS VIEWER/READER THERE’S AN ‘OFF-SCREEN ROMANCE’ AT 1748. YOU JUST HAVE TO TUNE IN THE PROGRAMME.” Furthermore, even though First Screening has been preserved via emulator, hypercard and Quicktime movie on the Electronic Literature Directory, there is simply no substitute for the unique interface and physical structure of the Apple II computer; as Matthew Kirschenbaum points out in his groundbreaking 2008 book Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination, the Apple II computer has no hard drive; instead, “a program is loaded by inserting the disk in the external drive and booting the machine. In practical terms, this meant first retrieving the program by going to one’s collection of disks and rummaging through them…Consider the contrast in affordances to a file system mounted on a hard drive: here you located the program you wanted by reading a printed or handwritten label, browsing like you would record albums or manila file folders, not by clicking on an icon” (33). Everything about the Apple II system offers both writer and reader an utterly different set of experiences than when they read or write on, say, a MacBook or a PC or when they read/write a poem such as First Screening by way of Windows.
I will post the entirety of my e-poetry paper here sometime in mid-May. I hope to see many of you there!