Videating the Dream Life of Letters


Screenshot from Dream Life of Letters
Screenshot from Dream Life of Letters

To start off this blog again, I want to refocus my work on digital poetry. As the conclusion of my doctoral project states plainly, even my work on print-based poetry is influenced by the radical potentials of electronic literature and the scholarship surrounding the production of born-digital poetry. My first few posts as I return will focus on one of the most popular and frequently studied works of relatively early digital poetry, Brian Kim Stefans’s The Dream Life of Letters. While later posts will work on constructing a more full close-reading of Stefans’s kinetic poem, in this post I would like to first situate Dream Life in terms of both digital works more generally and the conceptual and avant-garde poetry from which it clearly emerges. This situation serves more to justify a close reading of this text than to orient it in a literary history.

While I am interested in Stefans’s Dream Life in terms of the ways that its radical, kinetic nature allows for reader participation and reader freedom, I begin this post by situating it within an internet that has, as many digital humanists have argued, all but forfeited its digital potential. As Brian Lennon argues in “Screening a Digital Visual Poetics,” which was published in 2000, after the birth of the web in 1993, “the democratizing, decentralizing World Wide Web … has in a mere six years been appropriated, consolidated, and ‘videated’ as a forum for commerce and advertising” (63). Indeed, a lot has happened to the vast potentials and expanses of Lennon’s “World Wide Web” in the last fifteen years, but one thing can be sure: this process of appropriation, consolidation, and “videation” (a term Lennon borrows from Marjorie Perloff’s Radical Artifice) has only sped up and become more pervasive. Lennon points out that the early leaders in scholarship of digital humanities and electronic literary studies, Jay David Bolter, Michael Joyce, and Stuart Moulthrop, had “seen from the start that electronic hypertextuality, or the computerized proliferation of symbolic writing, was only a step on the way to general electronic hypermediation dominated by iconic visual, rather than symbolic textual, forms” (64). And so we arrive at the cultural and technological moment in which The Dream Life of Letters, derivative analog poem cum Web art—more on that next week—is produced.

Screenshot of Dream Life of Letters
Screenshot of Dream Life of Letters

Brian Kim Stefans published The Dream Life of Letters on his website,, in 2000, the same year Lennon published that article, so it is unsurprisingly that it speaks to and about these same issues of the coopting and videation of digital communities. And yet, as opposed to other early born-digital poetic projects such as the vast majority of those collected in Electronic Literature Online’s (ELO) Electronic Literature Collection Vol. 1, Dream Life is non-interactive, non-generative, non-hyperlinked, and distributed in the now unfavoured (and really basically defunct) format, Macromedia Flash. Thess facets lead scholar Alexandra Saemmer to file the kinetic poem under the label of the “aesthetics of surface,” one of four labels she offers for digital texts. In an aesthetics of surface, the author of a born-digital work “simply ignores th[e] instability [of digital dissemination] and creates at once, as if the digital framework was immutable” (478). And yet, because of the Flash format, Saemmer notes differences and discrepancies in the way that readers both receive and attempt to read Dream Life. While it is probably a safe assumption that the vast majority of readers will access Dream Life either through or ELO’s collection, this does not account for the virtually limitless ways that readers may see the text. Variations in screen size and resolution, device (computer, tablet, cell phone, television), and environment would all alter, in albeit small ways, the manner in which a reader accesses, reads, and ultimately makes sense of the text.

Screenshot of Dream Life of Letters
Screenshot of Dream Life of Letters

Saemmer even notes that the blurring and pixilation (what she terms “sporulation”) in a significant sequence in which many “all”s appear on the screen blurring into each other and producing new and indeterminate figures and meanings which only appears on older devices where the animation is not run quite so quickly or so smoothly. Rather than rendering close reading impossible, Saemmer argues instead that “[t]he figures I try to identify and describe may be considered as a telltale sign of the poetic fact in electronic texts” (481). Nonetheless, these inconsistencies do not account for reader freedom but rather a “videation” (see Perloff, Radical Artifice 74) of the born-digital text. Craig Dworkin makes a similar argument about Dream Life, though in passing, in “The Invisible Solution, when he writes

Although Dream Life is presented in Macromedia Flash, its linear and noninteractive sequences bear a closer resemblance to cinema and filmstrip animation than to most Web art, and the work displays an overall typographic design palette referencing the mid-century aesthetic of concrete poetry. Its once cutting-edge technology, in short, gestures away from both the very future it defines and the moment its imminent obsolescence will soon mark. (53)

If, then, we are to understand Dream Life and all of its inconsistencies as a glorified video, then what are we to make of the way it changes from reader to reader?

For Saemmer, the issue of inconsistency in Dream Life is due to the reader’s inability to access the intentions of the author; it’s a claim that would seem strange in scholarship of print-based texts, and yet Saemmer seems, in this particular article, to be practically pining for accessible source code, something that might affirm how Stefans wanted us to read Dream Life. She writes:

the reader is given no opportunity to grasp the meaning the author wants to convey. He is not even able to guess it, for there is no theoretical paratext to warn him about the fact that certain surface events may become invisible. If the animation of the words in The Dream life of letters was only decorative, the consequences of these unforeseen influences of the device of the poetic work would not be dramatic. (482)

For Saemmer, the potential inconsistencies of a born-digital text from device to device, reader to reader, are not a potential for radically different readings, or a revelation of a reader-centric approach to digital literatures, but rather an error on Stefans’s part to instruct his readers on how to read his text. Saemmer ends the article by arguing that “Stefans should have chosen a video device for this poem in order to preserve the surface events from the fatal ‘over-flows’ of the device; or he should have indicated the exact electronic framework … to keep his work in conditions approaching those experienced during the creative process, and come within the scope of mimetic aesthetic” (482). The mimetic aesthetic, another category she offers for born-digital texts, she defines earlier in the article as when authors “insist on the ‘right’ context for the reception of their work” (479). Saemmer’s article in in depth and offers valuable insight into the study of electronic literature, but its refusal even still to kill its poem’s authors is a missed opportunity.

Screenshot of Dream Life of Letters
Screenshot of Dream Life of Letters

If we understand Dream Life as a work of conceptual poetry—a fairly contentious claim I’ll address in later posts—then we must also work to create a theory of digital reading and digital scholarship that recognizes that digital and conceptual authors are first readers, just as we might argue of print-based texts. This means, also, that they are no more beholden to instruct readers of the proper ways to read their texts as print-based authors would be. If, as Jacquelyn Ardam writes in last year’s “The ABCs of Conceptual Poetry,” the major scholars of conceptual poetry—that is, “Perloff, Goldsmith, and Dworkin”—“all define conceptual writing from the perspective of its creators, via authorial intentions, techniques, and methods, which are more often than not procedural, which is to say, rule- or constraint-based” (134), then we need, as Ardam goes on to work towards, a theory of conceptualism that recognizes that the “concept” of the text is not something that resides in the head of the author and must be decoded properly by the reader. Questions of readership and how one can read conceptual texts is a question Ardam asks throughout “ABCs,” noting that “[t]hese unnerving but important questions seem to be central to this new movement, even though they have more often than not been overshadowed by questions of intentionality, technique, and procedural rationale” (135). All this despite Vanessa Place’s work to develop a “thinkership” (ie. not a “readership”) of conceptual poetry. We must ask: not “how do we read Dream Life?” but rather “what does it mean to be a reader of Dream Life?” In my next few posts I will try to do exactly that.

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