Oversharing: Canadian E-Lit and the Lyric Subject

This paper has been written in contribution to the ACQL Roundtable: “TrashCan: An Anti-Canon Manifesto,” presented as a part of the ACCUTE Congress, Sunday, 28 May, 2017. 

My contribution to this anti-canon manifesto is a two-fold response to the general sidelining of new media poetics and digital literatures in CanLit. Canadian E-lit should, I wager, be a part of the TrashCan, first and foremost, because there is already a vast wealth of Canadian electronic literature; in fact, poet laureate of the canon we are working to dismantle, bpNichol, is frequently credited with producing some of the first e-lit ever—more on that later. Now, I argue in this paper that Canadian e-lit gets dismissed or sidelined for two primary reasons: first because there is a pervasive cult of print that dismisses new media works as illegitimate because networked media lacks, in some ways, the accredited gatekeepers that dominate print-publishing (though the recent Write editorial showed us exactly how exclusionary that practice can be); second, because much of the electronic literary work coming out of Canada right now is highly affective and emotional, these works are frequently disregarded by avant-garde circles as “popular,” “unliterary,” or “kitsch.” What’s more, these affective personal narratives are often written by women, trans* and queer writers, and writers of colour and are typically ABOUT those very identity politics that the predominantly whitecisheteromale avant-garde so fears.

Thing is, you’d kind of expect that experimental literary circles would be interested in the way new media writing probes issues of formalism, medium, authorial power, reader engagement, and other literary complexities touted as central by writers, readers, and scholars of experimentalism. But, the truth is that, by and large, the Canadian literary community continues to prioritize print-based work. This presentation points to some important contributions of Canadian writers who overshare, confess, and offer the most intimate aspects of their subjectivity through digital media. Because, there’s already a good, long history of affective and personal writing in digital media to point to why e-lit, with all its confessional bells and whistles, deserves study and recognition. Canada’s contributions to the e-literary canon start, as I’ve suggested, with Nichol, whose First Screening: Computer Poems sees intimate, personal details hidden in the codework and secondary functions, making a pretty early case for the centrality of oversharing in the Canadian digital literary. In the emulator of First Screening, housed on Jim Andrews’s website Vispo.com, entering the “LIST” command for line 110 provides the reader with the following prompt:

nichol-2
Screenshot from bpNichol’s First Screening: Computer Poems, emulator version.

Entering the “RUN” or “GOSUB” command at 1748 starts a “hidden” kinetic poem called “Off-Screen Romance,” dedicated to Nichol’s wife, Ellie. You can’t make a case for Nichol’s work being critically ignored, but it is true that First Screening is considered to be, compared to the martyrology or Nichol’s concrete print work, more of an initiatory foray or a kitschy play than a legitimate literary endeavour.

Quings Quest
Screenshot from Quing’s Quest VII

I want to use these next few minutes to highlight just a few of the Canadian digital literary projects that get sidelined as kitschy or unliterary. First, Dietrich Squinkifer’s Quing’s Quest VII: The Death of Videogames was inspired by tensions over the identity of gamers and responds to Gamergate and the still persistent accusations that feminists and advocates for diversity in games had set out to “ruin” the industry. Quing’s Quest is built in Twine and takes inspiration from old-school adventure games, including Sierra’s King’s Quest series and other text-based online games like Zork. The game takes place on a spacecraft named the “Social Justice Warrior,” and features a character exiled from Videogames after the invasion of the “misogynerds.” So, subtlety isn’t its strong suit, but it is only as explicit as the accusations to which it is responding. It’s a clearly queer response to exile, dismissive readings, and the feelings of displacement queer writers saw in print, and still see in the digital in literature and games.

Digital A Love Story
Screenshot from Christine Love’s Digital: A Love Story

Second, Christine Love’s Digital: A Love Story is a digital visual novel set “five-minutes into the future of 1988” and invites the player back into the early days of the Internet. The graphical interface of white text on a blue background accompanies the metaphor of the local BBS (bulletin board system) as a happening space for conspiracy and flirting. All the core interaction takes place through dialling into this system, which has multiple characters and threads that can be explored through sending out replies to advance the story. The work is strongly grounded in early hacker culture and William Gibson-esque models of AI and it articulates clear feminist concerns about the role of women in relationship and hacktivist culture, which the work argues are not actually that different.

High Muck a Muck
Screenshot from High Muck a Muck: Playing Chinese.

Third, High Muck a Muck: Playing Chinese troubles the cliché of historical tales of Chinese immigration to North America’s “Gold Mountain” by juxtaposing this classic narrative of struggle against one of mobility driven by contemporary global capitalism. The project expresses some of the internal community struggles that erupt between different generations and classes of immigrants and it challenges the racist paradigm of an all-white Canada into which Asian immigrants enter but are never fully allowed to arrive. High Muck a Muck is written by a collective that includes Fred Wah, so if you were going to argue that Squinky and Love’s dismissal is due to the relative obscurity of the authors, you can’t do that here. I’ve shown this work to Wah scholars, who universally respond with “uhhh ya that’s nice, I guess.”

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Screenshot from Caitlin Fisher’s Everyone at this Party is Dead.

I want to end by talking about Caitlin Fisher’s Everyone at this Party is Dead, one of the first lyric literary works for Oculus Rift. It is a complete but expanding work containing about 30 small narrative worlds, explored in a sandbox. You enter the piece standing at the edge of an island and in the middle of a soundscape of a party taking place, with guests being named: these were the guests of a birthday party and they are now all dead. You are urged to explore the virtual world like a dreamscape. Fisher is a well-known figure in e-lit; she runs the Augmented Reality Lab at York University, where I did my graduate studies and where I currently work as contingent faculty—and she has basically no dealing with the “English” Department. Fisher’s detachment from York’s literature department signals the two primary theses of this paper: first, that this kind of work is not considered “literature”; and second, that Fisher’s estrangement from masculinist literary studies is based, in part, on the feminist and feminized use of digital technology in her work. This paper encourages the CanLit community to recognize these contributions to Canadian literature, at the very least in the way that other predominantly American organizations (like the ELO) have already done.

Resist Much/Obey Little: Inaugural Poems to the Resistance

resistmuchHi Readers and Friends,

If you like poetry and hate oppressive governments, misogyny, racism, transphobia, homophobia, and ESPECIALLY if you are goddamn tired of conceptualism, have I got a poetry anthology for you!

I have a poem in Resist Much/Obey Little: Inaugural Poems to the Resistance and it is just a stellar collection. First of all, the thing is over 700 pages of pure resistance poetry goodness. Second, it’s got some incredible poets in it like Ron Silliman, NourbeSe Philip, Bruce Andrews, Victor Coleman, Fred Wah, Eileen Myles, Nathaniel Mackey, David Lau, and like a bagillion more.

BEST OF ALL, this much poetry can be yours for 30 bucks, which is a hell of a deal, and 50% of all net sales receipts for this anthology will be donated to Planned Parenthood. So basically you’re buying poetry AND a pap smear. I’m pretty fucking lucky in that I have never had to pay for a pap, but womynz in the states do not have the same vaginal support. So support poetry, support resistance movements, and support reproductive rights and reproductive health for women.

You can see the flyer here and you can buy a copy of this HUGE anthology here.

For those of you who can’t afford the anthology, I’m including my poem in this post. It’s not the best poem, but it’s a free poem, and that’s still nice.

Love your faces,

d

Yeah Right

yeah-right

CFP Reminder: Decoding Canadian Digital Poetics

For a long time now, Canadian poets have been credited with making significant initiatory experiments in the fields of electronic literature and digital poetics, but there has been relatively little work done examining what constitutes a Canadian digital poetics, what kinds of writing constitute the genre, and what new reading practices are invited by digital poetics. This proposed edited collection looks at the emerging field of Canadian digital poetics and asks two primary questions. First, what is the role of a national literature in the increasingly boundary-less world of electronic literature? And second, how do Canadian digital poetics change the way that we read and engage with these texts?

We are currently seeking contributions for an edited volume of essays exploring this new field. Given the relative lack of material on this genre, the volume will break new ground in the study of electronic literature and digital poetics in Canada, encouraging both new scholarship and the new production of digital poetry that pushes the boundaries of new media forms, of literariness, and of the ways that the digital literary engages with readers and departs from the print-based preoccupation with author-effacing conceptualism.

Essays in this collection may look to early pioneers of electronic literature and digital poetics in Canada or more recent works and they may study born-digital or trans/intermedial works.  Essays are encouraged to interrogate issues of gender, race, indigeneity, queerness, class, and other issues of identity and authorship that complicates and enriches the study of national literature, particularly in Canada.

While this collection welcomes all submissions, particular attention will be paid to submissions from graduate students, contingent faculty, and early-career scholars.

Please send abstracts of approximately 300 words to Dani Spinosa at genericpronoun@gmail.com no later than 28 February 2017.

Download a PDF of the CFP here: cfp-dcdp.

On Mark Sutherland’s Code X (Part Two)

The material of technology—the hardware—that each performer uses to engage with Code X becomes emblematic of the variant and variable reading practices provoked by the work. Obviously, there is a marked difference between Code X’s appearance in the Scratch exhibit and the way that I use it with my personal computer at home. But, there is also a significant difference in my playing of the piece on my PC desktop with a sizable monitor over high-quality computer speakers and my playing of the same piece (even pressing the same letters in the same order) over my much smaller MacBook Air 11.5” through earbuds. Despite Dutton’s earlier insistence on the immateriality of the virtual world through which we engage with Code X, his essay nonetheless places a good deal of significance of the tools through which we experience the work. He writes that it is “With these tools [that the performer] enters a vocoverbovisual CD-ROM environment, where he [sic] may play an intricate, non-competitive, temporally liberated (because theoretically perpetual), phonic, patterned, linguistic game—or simply witness the game being played by the machine in exponentially varied, non-repetitive random mode” (np).

At this juncture, it is necessary to speak for a moment about this randomized mode that Code X will revert to if left inactive. The information page on the web-based version explains the random mode quite clearly. Sutherland writes, “If the computer keyboard is untouched for 30 seconds Code X will begin to operate in random automated-mode. Code X will replicate interactivity producing sound and visual poems until the keyboard is touched and the interactive program is re-engaged” (np). The fact that the poem reverts to an automated mode suggests, on one level, that perhaps the individual performer isn’t as central to this work as I have suggested throughout this case study. If the activity of the performer can be and is performed by an automated algorithmic function that continues indefinitely and does not repeat itself, then this demonstrates that our engagement with the work as performers is still integrative, but it’s not really interventionary insofar as we do not alter the text. The terminus of the full paragraph and the automated function suggests a “truth” or a “fact” of the text that is initially hidden from the viewer. Nonetheless, for Dutton “the text remains, for the most part, tantalizingly imminent. It can be viewed in its entirety by an undisclosed method that can be gradually arrived at, and kept on screen with another trick that has to be discovered. … In any case, it is neither directive nor didactic” (np). While we might argue that the fact that there is the implicit endpoint of the full paragraph that results after the “exhaustive” (alphabetical) use of the work, it is important to realize that this paragraph can never be formed by leaving Code X on random automated mode. The automated function reveals letters too slowly—and this cannot be changed because the work is presented in uneditable Flash—and thus letters fade into the black background before every letter is revealed. Unlike the individual performer, the random automated function of Code X will never reveal the paragraph in full and can only be achieved by an individual knowingly typing each letter of the alphabet at least once in a short enough time-span.

screenshot-2016-03-14-12-44-33

This final paragraph, then, is telling. Here, the performer is presented and addressed, though in the third person and is interestingly gendered female. Just as in the title, as Dutton points out in the observations I quoted earlier, the word “ode” is revealed as red text in “code” with the letter “C” remaining in white, almost every word of the final paragraph uses the differentiation of red and white to reveal words within words. In what can only inaccurately be called the first sentence of the paragraph, because there is no punctuation throughout, a number of words within words are revealed. Sutherland writes, “while staring at the computer the abecedarian catalogued every key,” an obviously self-referential statement of the paragraph itself which contains every letter of the alphabet and is a kind of catalogue of all potential buttons to be pressed, sounds to be initiated, and letters to be arranged on the screen. It is also obviously self-referential for Sutherland as the producer of the text who also “star[es] at the computer” while coding the word, though this reading is discouraged by the feminine gendering of the pronouns throughout. This opening is also clearly self-referential for the performer who reveals this paragraph, producing the alphabetic work and performing the act of “catalogu[ing] by pressing the keys themself.

The red words within other words that are revealed in this paragraph gesture towards the multiple readings and permutations that are individual-specific and are contained within the arbitrary “whole” of this final paragraph. The performer is invited into this multiplicitous and radically free postanarchist reading practice by way of the “hi” salutation hidden within the first word “while.” Here a reader is addressed and invited as one might be in a colloquial conversation, altering the poetic address to the reader (as one might see in an ode) slightly. Then the reader is invited to see hidden words within the words of the paragraph: the “tar” in “starting”; the “he” in “the”; the “put” in “computer”; and, my personal favourite, the “cedar” in “abecedarian.” While the final paragraph in full makes more or less cohesive semantic sense, despite the occasional disjunctive poetics or awkward syntax, the red words contained within other words do not unite to form semantic sense in any way. That same first sentence only in red would read “hi tar he put he cedar cat log eve.” Despite the suggestions of arriving finally at “form and meaning” in the quotation from this paragraph that I used earlier, these words-within-words suggest the arbitrariness and inadequacy of the sense at which we have arrived. This final paragraph instead positions the creative engagement of its performers as standing at the crossroads of sense and nonsense, a temporary autonomous zone where any permutation of these letters can and should be used, but any permutation would result in the same outcome: the dissolution of those larger structures that typically govern meaning-making and reading processes.

Rather than cohesion and closed narrative, this final paragraph presents itself as “the husk of a paragraph” that reveals not narrative but rather “the fossilised body of an involuted codex.” This final image, of the codex form curled in on itself, warped at the edges, and fossilized from disuse and disinterest, presents the born-digital, integrative work as a radical new format. The “vo,” then, that is hidden within “involuted” leaves us with a new form in obsolesced, obscure language: “vo” can be used both abbreviation of “volume” used for parts of print texts in a longer series and as an adverb it served as an archaic abbreviation of “voce,” as in publishing, “under the word or heading” with an obviously etymological root in the Latin vōce, the ablative of vox or voice (Oxford English Dictionary). “Involution” reveals its indebtedness to the codex even as it obsolesces it; it reveals the incoherence and piecemeal nature of the semantic “whole” and the uneasy relationship between aural and written language.

On Mark Sutherland’s Code X (Part One)

In W. Mark Sutherland’s Code X (2002), a born-digital sound poetry machine that allows users to create their own sound poetry performances, a similar line is drawn between the work and a history of sound poetry, performance and installation art, and, to an extent, also concrete poetics. Despite the fact that, at its heart, Code X is a fairly simplistic digital game, it marks a point of convergence between many art forms and poses the question of how the digital medium allows for greater audience intervention. As Paul Dutton, a central figure in Canadian sound poetry, says of Code X in a brochure for Sutherland’s Scratch exhibit at the Koffler Gallery in 2002 (archived on Sutherland’s webpage), the work “fuses poetry, music, and visual art” (np) to reveal the tenuous boundaries between these art forms.

Code X served as a part of Sutherland’s Scratch exhibit, where the program was installed on a computer and projected onto the wall of the gallery. Viewers of the exhibit were encourage to interact with the program, choosing letters or writing words by typing on the keys, which caused the letter to appear on the projection in seemingly random spaces. Pressing a letter also started a ten second recording of Sutherland’s sound poetry pertaining to that letter, which played on a loop as long as the letter continued to be pressed. In addition to this appearance, Code X was also produced as a CD-ROM by Toronto’s Coach House Press. As Kate Eichhorn writes in her chapter on Canadian digital poetics for the Oxford Handbook of Canadian Literature, Code X appeared at a time when Coach House was working towards adapting its largely print-based publication history to an increasingly digital audience. As part of an initiative led by Canadian poet and web developer Damian Lopes to archive and digitize Coach House’s frontline; while some of these online text were merely digitized versions of their print-book counterparts, others, like Code X, were circulated as distinct born digital (or at least radically different) digital works (Eichhorn 520). Unsurprisingly, the CD-ROM of Code X published by Coach House has long gone out of print; when contacted, Coach House didn’t even think they had a single copy in their offices for me to view. As the compact disc became an increasingly impractical, unreliable, and uncommon way to disseminate digital works, Sutherland and Coach House “launched [Code X] as an interactive website in 2009 (accessible through the Coach House Books Online Archives)” (Eichhorn 520). Coach House’s archived access to the work online is now a dead link, and the only way to actually use the work is to either download the program or play it through a browser on Sutherland’s webpage, www.wmarksutherland.com.

Despite some obvious differences in the way the work is received, the version of Code X designed for personal and private use functions in the same way as its installation counterpart. Code X, the packaging for the original CD-ROM boasts, turns its “readers” into collaborators on a transmedial sound poem and concrete poem by turning their computer keyboards into sound poetry producing machines. Each key places a typewriter-font collection dispersed letters on the screen while at the same time queuing an audio track of Sutherland’s vocal performance of the letter. The visual appearance of the work, a black screen with white and red Courier-typefaced text, bears no small resemblance to Andrews’s work in “Seattle Drift” and other similar pieces. It also demonstrates a clear link to the features of early concrete and typewriter poetics of writers like Nichol and, perhaps more so, Steve McCafferey. In many ways, the visual appearance of Code X recalls McCafferey’s seminal Carnival panels. This indebtedness to highly visual forms of poetry gets matched, in Code X, with the common vernaculars of sound poetry’s major players like Kurt Schwitters, and especially their interpretation by the Canadian sound poetry collective The Four Horsemen.

In the same way that critics insisted on drawing the parallels between “Seattle Drift” and the history of concrete poetry that led to it, the very few studies of Code X, none of which are academic studies, has really focused on the literary and artistic influences seen in Sutherland’s work. For example, in the aforementioned brochure essay, Dutton devotes a lot of the space of his essay to looking at the ways that Code X “announces some of Sutherland’s major influences: Dadaism (especially Kurt Schwitters and Raoul Hausmann), Fluxus (with more than a touch of Emmett Williams), and such late-twentieth-century unaffiliated intermedia-ists as, for one, bpNichol” (np). For Dutton, what is important about drawing these lines of influence is not situating Sutherland’s work into a history of cultural production, but rather using these influences as jumping-off-points to talk about the features of Sutherland’s work that he adapts from these other artists: “an openness, a sense of play, and a determined earnestness in the establishment and practice of a vital, sensuously, and intellectually integrative approach to creative expression” (np). It is that point of integration that makes Code X such a unique contribution to Canadian digital poetics, extending Andrews’s invitation to readers in “Seattle Drift” to encourage readers not to engage with digital poetics, but to create some art of their own.

In Code X, the “readers” become engagers, players, or “performers” who make some interesting agential choices in the text. In the information page that accompanies the web-based version of Code X, Sutherland specifically uses the term “performers” to describe the audience of his work, signaling both a similar approach to audience as Jackson Mac Low (described in chapter one) and an understanding of the text as subsumed by, or at least less important than, the audience to which it is addressed. On this information page, Sutherland points to the fact that Code X is a sandbox in which its audience can play and produce theoretically infinite permutations of the work’s performance, but is at the same a fairly closed, limited system. The performance of Code X will, of course, look and sound different depending on who is interacting with it, what letters they choose, with what speed or pattern they type, what hardware is used to engage with the piece (in terms of appearance and sound), how long it is used, and whether or not the work is left to lapse into its “random” mode, which I will discuss more fully further down. But, as long as the performer types each letter of the alphabet at some point during a session, the result is the same appearance of Sutherland’s pre-written paragraph. As the information page tells us, “Code X is housed within a self-referential paragraph containing every letter of the alphabet.” Moreover, while the order, overlap, and frequency of the sounds may vary, each letter typed will play the same “10 second phonetic improvisation” that Sutherland recorded for each separate letter. These two elements of the work—the paragraph and the recorded sounds—do not change. Instead, “By typing words or selecting letters on the computer keyboard the performer can create visual poems and sound poems coding, decoding, mashing and jamming the Code X’s paragraph” (Sutherland, “Information,” np).

What is important here is that while the role of the audience here is agential, interactive, integrative, and free in so many ways, only the process differs while the ultimate outcome remains fundamentally constant. In engaging with or “performing” Code X, we as the audience do seem to alter the text—the way it sounds, the way it looks—but only slightly. The voices and visuals produced by our interaction are predetermined, and though they look random when only a few letters are activated, these letters ultimately form a pre-written textual “whole.” What’s more, the “self-referential” paragraph that is ostensibly the work’s conclusion speaks of the reading process of the digital text as leading to the end goal of making adequate and substantial meaning from the text at hand (or cursor). It reads in part: “reading was a road a car a mnemonic mechanism driving towards form and meaning.” Positioning form and meaning as the logical conclusions of the reading process, only revealed once the whole gamut of the alphabet is typed through, suggests that

Nonetheless, Code X is pretty actively working to resist the limitations of print-based literature and the book form in general, as signalled by the work’s title. By breaking down the word “codex” into “code x,” Sutherland reveals the digital potentials that were always already contained within the materiality of print-based works. Firstly, as nearly every historian of digital poetics or media archaeologist argues, born-digital poetics has a long and useful history in print literature. Its predecessors were writers like Raymond Queneau and bpNichol who manipulated the codex form to resist the closure, transparency, and immateriality that is the inherited mythology of the print book. The packaging and paratext of the physical CD-ROM distributed by Coach House plays even more on this title and its relationship to a history of print-based literary production. Dutton’s essay argues that the manipulation of the word “codex” is only the first layer of play in this title, and that it “indicate[s] more than just an anonymous code, a riddle to be solved” (np). Hidden in this title is also a positioning of this work both within and against a long history of poetry’s complex and culturally determined relationship to its audience. Dutton writes:

The last three letters of ‘code’ are in red, drawing our attention to the poetic intent: an ode—‘a lyric poem,’ the Canadian Oxford Dictionary informs us, ‘usually in the form of an address, in varied or irregular metre.’ Not exactly what Sutherland has here, but close enough for intermedia. And further, we learn, an ode is ‘historically, a poem meant to be sung’—a relevant point given the quasi-musical effect of Sutherland’s sound-poetry rendering of the letters of Code X. (np)

While Code X bears very little resemblance to the history of lyric poetry, and the ode in particular, in form or content, what unites these two disparate forms is their insistence on directly and clearly addressing their respective audiences. Importantly, Dutton goes on to connect this relationship between Code X’s digital interactivity and the ode form. He writes that “There is in this a dual irony, since the text in question is Sutherland’s own, rather than a legacy from antiquity, and the form is CD-ROM, a modern variant of the book, as attested to by its component parts being called ‘pages’” (np).

There is, of course, a major problem in arguing that the CD-ROM—and by this Dutton means basically the digital text—is a mere “modern variant” of the book form. To argue this is to fundamentally miss some of the important questions Code X raises about new media practices in artistic and cultural production. “Codex,” after all, is a term that makes clear the relationship between a text and its material context. “Codex” is, the Oxford English Dictionary reminds us, from the Latin cōdex, which is itself a later Latin spelling of caudex, meaning the trunk of a tree, but also a wooden tablet, a book, or significantly a code of laws. Moreover, as N. Katherine Hayles writes in Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary, insisting on viewing digital projects like Code X through or even as a necessary result of print culture does a great disservice to new media and to the questions new media works pose about materiality and text. She writes that “To see electronic literature only through the lens of print is, in a significant sense, not to see it at all” (3).

As a necessary result of viewing the digital as merely a representation or an extension of print culture, Dutton makes the dangerous misstep of viewing the born-digital work as immaterial, ephemeral, and intangible. He writes of Code X that “the work occurs not in the tangible world of materiality, but the virtual one of digital representation. The mode of interaction is not arrived at through a confrontation of conventional proprieties, but by the now familiar, even ubiquitous, and somehow oddly comforting vehicle of the computer keyboard and mouse” (np). Clearly, these two juxtaposed sentences in Dutton’s essay, that appear linked by causality, actually betray each other. Of course, Code X is very tangible. In its various forms and permutations that rely so heavily on various different and multiple pieces of technological hardware, it expresses its reliance on materiality more than most print-based works. In the second sentence of this quotation, Dutton betrays the so-called immateriality of the virtual “world” from which Code X emerges. The material, physical hardware of the keyboard (and to a lesser extent the mouse) is integral not only to the works itself, but also to the ways that the performer engages with the piece. Without the physical manipulation of the text by pressing keys on the keyboard, Code X would only function in its random mode and would be missing the major, integrative element of its significance. It is easy to see the virtual as immaterial, as cloud based, but of course it never is; all screens are pixels, all hardware a complex interplay of metals and polymers, and so on. Let us not forget, too, the physical, bodily demands of engaging with digital media which require interaction much more than codex. After all, the word “digital”—as we are apt to forget—has its etymological roots in the body, coming from the classical Latin term digitālis, meaning “the measuring a finger’s breadth” and later, in post-classical Latin, more generally meaning “of or relating to the finger” (Oxford English Dictionary).

What’s more, there is a politics behind the disassociation of the digital program from the hardware designed to run such program. As Friedrich Kittler’s seminal essay, “There is No Software,” argues, “because software does not exist as a machine-independent faculty, software as a commercial or American medium insists on its status as property all the more” (151). Insisting on the separation between the physical hardware of computing and the various software we use in these computational processes allows for the copyright, commodification, and “property” status of the programming language as separate and independent from the hardware on which we use it. Rather than viewing software as separate from, or a consequence of, hardware, Kittler insists on “the virtual undecidability between software” arguing that “there are good grounds to assume the indispensability and, consequently, the priority of hardware in general” (152).

I want you to do me: Jim Andrews and New Media Poetry

Prezi

This paper originally presented at the Two Days of Canada Conference: “The Concept of Vancouver.” St. Catharine’s, ON, 13 October 2016.

Last month at the conference as part of the launch of CWRC (the Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory) in Edmonton, I presented a paper on the state of Canadian Digital Poetics. Afterward, Lori Emerson asked me if I was having trouble determining which works constituted “digital poetics” and which were just “e-lit” in the broader category. Telling a digital poem from, say, hypertext fiction was easy work. But part of the radical potentials of electronic literature is that those genres blur quickly and easily. So, how does one tell a digital poem apart from other works of electronic literature? I said I didn’t care. She didn’t care either. She said she usually thinks that these genre designations are vestiges of print-culture and print-criticism. They didn’t really work here. Jim Andrews’s “Seattle Drift” is about that. Only he said it twenty years ago. I wasn’t listening… because I was ten. But I’m starting to listen now. Originally, I had wanted to present a paper comparing the authorial limitations of “Seattle Drift” and Andrews’s Stir-fry Texts, probably a more well-known project, but I found there to be too much happening in the very brief and deceptively simplistic “Seattle Drift” to relegate it to the bit player next to the more robust and maybe more scholarly accessible Stir-fry Texts. So here I am trying for the next fifteen minutes trying to nail down a poem whose whole deal is that it drifts, moves away, disperses. My mom used to say difficult tasks like this were like “nailing Jello to a tree.” “Seattle Drift” is definitely Jello; my scholarly work trying to situate this piece is still that damn arborescent metaphor. As part of my larger project working to define the uniquely Canadian contributions to the fields of electronic literature and digital poetics, this paper tries to situate a work that “used to be poetry” but “drifted from the scene.”

For those of you unfamiliar with Jim Andrews’s work, “Seattle Drift” is a fairly representative piece. Hosted and still accessible on Andrews’s site, Vispo.com, the work was originally distributed through Cauldron & Net: A Journal of the Arts and New Media Volume One in 1997. Andrews wrote the code in Javascript updating the DHTML with Marko Niemi in 2004 to make it work on PC and Mac, and again in 2015 to adapt it for mobile users. If you visit “Seattle Drift” you encounter a fairly simplistic page layout: the poem, white Arial font on a black screen, looks like a short, simple, and typical poem, if it is a bit humorous and tongue-in-cheek. It reads: “I am a bad text. / I used to be a poem / but drifted from the scene. / Do me. / I just want you to do me.” This last line might provoke a curious reader to look at the hyperlinks above, though one might not be able to tell that they are hyperlinks unless the user hovers their cursor about them. The user here is presented with three hyperlinks: if they choose, they can “Do the text” which results in the algorithmic movement of the words to the right and bottom of the screen until no words are visible; if they choose during that movement, they can “stop the text,” leaving the words and punctuation marks wherever they ended up; at this point the user has the option to “Discipline” the very bad text, returning the words to their “rightful” order. Despite the fact that these are links that initiate, stop, and restart the function, the reader never leaves this page. The poem has a tendency to disperse, but otherwise the work is fairly cohesive. This makes it a bit different from some of Andrews’s other work; as Kate Hayles observes in Electronic Literature, other examples of Andrews’s work, like On Lionel Kearns or Stir-fry Texts demonstrate his indebtedness to a history of avant-garde poetry like Burroughs’s cut-up (19-20). Instead, “Seattle Drift” focuses on presenting words and punctuation marks as separate entities relating to each other but acting independently. In “Digital Langu(im)age,” Andrews observes:  “each object might have various properties in addition to its usual appearance and meaning and place amid other words. My piece Seattle Drift is an example of such a text. When you click the text that says ‘Do the text,’ the words in the poem eventually drift independently off the screen. Each word has its own behavior, its own partially random path of drifting off the screen. Each word is a kind of little language widget, langwidget (Andrews, “Digital Langu(im)age — Language and Image as Objects in a Field”). And certainly each word has its “own” behavior, which is seemingly random but quite clearly organized by a pretty straightforward algorithm: a randomizing function determines if the word will move left or right, or up or down, with a heavy bias toward downward and rightward movement; the range of movement is statically regulated by a movement function with these numbers in parentheses determining how far in pixels each word will move, the first for the x axis, the second the y.

A quick look at these movement ranges shows that some words, like “a” and “the” and some of the punctuation, are given much greater range of movement, causing them to recede from the text much more quickly. On the other hand, some words like “poem” and “text” and “drifted” move more slowly and remain on the screen longer: “text” is almost always the final word on the screen, moving 2 pixels horizontally and 1 pixel vertically where others, like the “a” that precedes “poem” moving at 5 pixels in each direction. While each “doing” is different, for the most part a similar outcome is reached, as you can see in this “doing” I “did” and used for the background of this Prezi. The movement of “Seattle Drift” is partially randomized, partially organized, with the user/reader determining when and where it starts, stops, and starts over again, an interaction that Katalin Sándor describes as the work “address[ing] the reader by a somewhat limited interface-rhetoric” (150). But, Paula Trimarco points out, this interface is also somewhat optional; you can read and engage with the poem on a traditional level by visiting the page but not clicking the hyperlinks. The poem only “drifts” “if readers choose to become an active participant in the work” (89). For Trimarco, the “active” readership invited (no, begged for) by the work reverses what she sees as the usual power structure of reader and poem. She writes, “The tenor in this brief poem is informal and suggestive of a relationship between reader and text which might be interpreted as similar to parent and child or sadistically between two lovers, which in a sense reverses the power relationship between reader and poem, as the poems gives the order (in the command ‘Do me’) and the reader follows by clicking on the words on the screen” (Trimarco 89). I think that the parent and child reading is a stretch, and that neglects the clearly erotic and sadomasochistic embodied poetics of the piece. “Seattle Drift” expression a very intimate desire to move the power of the poem (its meaning, its potential for exegesis) into the hands of a user who exerts control over the piece by starting it, stopping it, and disciplining it back to its traditional lineation. The poem desires its own abuse, desires that it be made bad (or perverse) by the reader’s “abnormal” or non-traditional actions upon it. The relationship between reader and poem in this case is intimate, on the one hand, but also highly performative on the other, not unlike sadomasochistic sexual practice. Moreover, its tendency to resist logical linguistic and hermeneutic traditions aligns it with the alogical nature of erotic practice.

In his Ideas of Space in Contemporary Poetry, Ian Davidson describes the movement of the words in “Seattle Drift” as “slightly jerkily” (173), a comment that Alistair Brown drew out not because it is inaccurate, but rather because the “slightly jerk[y]” movements of the words in “Seattle Drift” point to two issues: the relationship between the code and the tech that is used to view it, and the multiplicitous and reader-centric readings this mutability suggests. On the first point, the reader’s experience of “Seattle Drift” is highly dependent on whatever device is used to engage with it (as is the case for all digital or digitized texts, of course)! After all, there is no software, as Kittler reminded us. So too there is no “Seattle Drift” save through the devices each user/reader uses to engage with the piece. On the second point, Brown remarks, “Displaying the text on a larger screen (such as my 27 inch monitor) means that there is more black space to the right and below for the poem to move into, before the words drift entirely off screen. The poem would offer a different sense if played on a mobile phone screen. As a performative experience, the poem is not medium-neutral: changing the medium on which it runs also changes the range and representative possibilities of the poem” (np). Each screen, presents limitations to the viewing of this work. It bears noting that, as Leonardo Flores writes, the words will continue drifting even after they leave the constraints of our screen: “if allowed to drift for a long period of time, would create an enormous virtual space in the browser that would require serious exploration of that space using scrollbars to find them” (81). As such, any starting and stopping of the work presents an artificial delineation of what the “poem” is at that point in time/space.

“Seattle Drift” reveals its artificiality, relating it to a long history of highly formal print-based avant-garde but also requiring a rethinking of the divides that make that history possible. As Flores observes, “this e-poem enacts a critique of current and historical poetry scenes in order to create a space for a new e-poetry scene” (Flores 172). For Roberto Simanowski, part of what “Seattle Drift” does is present and interrogate “the new possibilities of concrete poetry under the conditions of their being digital” (np). But, more than that, as Simanowski goes on to observe, the poem resists classification, resists logical discourse, and instead relishes in digital and embodied play. He writes, “I drifted from the scene, says the poem when it is in proper order, but ends up all the more in the void when you try to help it. … As the theory of différance, whose playful adaption ‘Seattle Drift’ seems to be, tells us, to name something is to reduce it.” (np). In this way, hermeneutics, exegesis, and the other concerns of most scholarship and classification become acts of disciplining, in both the positive (playful, erotic) connotations and the negative (limiting, classifying, stabilizing) ones. When the act of “disciplining” the digital poem is made explicit, we as readers and as scholars are able to point to the ways that this practice limits the poetry but also to revel in the play that is still there for us in the process. Indeed, “Seattle Drift” reminds us that not only authorial control, but also critical control and readerly control are illusions. In Sàndor’s words, the poem “exposes language in its rhetorical-tropological elusiveness, which makes any (authorial, interventional) control over the text illusionary” (150).

So then, why present this research at this conference? Andrews is often credited as a Vancouver-based poet, but this poem is called “Seattle Drift” and it is written, as Andrews tells us in the source code, “in the spirit of Seattle” during the three or so years that Andrews lived and wrote there. Moreover, “Seattle Drift” also signals Andrews’s collaboration with Joseph Keppler and the rest of the “Seattle crew” (Flores 111) from 1997-2000, when Andrews lived in Seattle and when he produced this work and others like it (Enigma n, Stir-fry Texts, Millennium Lyric) (Flores 113). But, I argue, the drifting and frequently overlapping/obscuring movement of the words in Seattle suggest another reading, recalling the visual and phonic similarities between Seattle and “settle,” and act that Andrews’s transnational collaboration and his border and genre blurring poetics in this and other works resists. Reading “Seattle Drift” as a digital text that drifts back and forth between Vancouver and Seattle means also that it interrogates the closedness of assigning geographical boundaries to poetic “scenes” (which might make texts “bad” in some scholarly circles). Vancouver, as the site of “scenes” of poetry like TISH, makes it an especially fruitful location from which to draw this line of argument. Making this observation more appropriate is Lionel Kearns’s association with TISH; Andrews’s work (critically and poetically) on Kearns stresses the tenuous nature of aligning Kearns’s work with TISH or with any school. Not to mention TISH’s connection to Black Mountain or to the New York School. Plus there’s the internationality of the Vancouver Poetry conference, and many other nodes of connection all of which are facilitated even more with the addition of networked computing to the mix. To tie this all up nicely, the movement of the poem allows Andrews’s Vancouver-based poetic concerns to literally drift toward Seattle. The words move south and east and the term “drift” suggests a movement by water; it literally heads toward Seattle. The poem doesn’t just resist category and exegesis; it makes you feel very naughty for wanting that at all.

 

Works Cited

Brown, Alistair. “Reading the Source of ‘Seattle Drift.’The Pequod Blog, 15 September 2012.

Davidson, Ian. Ideas of Space in Contemporary Poetry. Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.

Flores, Leonardo. Typing the Dancing Signifier: Jim Andrews’ (Vis)Poetics, University of Maryland, College Park, 2010.

Hayles, N. Katherine. Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary. U of Notre Dame P, 2008.

Sándor, Katalin. “Moving (the) Text: From Print to Digital.” Between Page and Screen: Remaking Literature Through Cinema and Cyberspace, edited by Kiene Brillenburg Wurth, Fordham UP, 2012, pp. 144-156.

Simanowski, Roberto. “Fighting/Dancing Words: Jim Andrews’ Kinetic, Concrete Audiovisual Poetry.” Dichtung Digital, translated by Florian Cramer, 26 November 2001.

Trimarco, Paola. Digital Textuality. Palgrave MacMillan, 2015.

 

Towards a Theory of Canadian Digital Poetics

Defining Digital Poetics

  • By digital poetics in this paper I mean those works of literature that are either transmedial or born-digital; the tried and true definition on the Electronic Literature Organization’s website stresses that electronic literature, of which digital poetics is only a part, is  any piece of literary or word-based art with”important literary aspects that take advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer.”
  • Leonardo Flores’s talk, “How E-Literary is My E-literature?” at this year’s ELO conference presented the definition of electronic literature as a sliding scale rather than a yes or no box to check.
  • He provided six primary categories through which we can determine if something is “elit” or not, and how sophisticated its use of networked technology is. They are:
    • Language (no use of language -> functional use -> artistic use)
    • Digital Media (static -> time based -> including user input)
    • User interaction (trivial -> meaningful choices -> including data from input devices)
    • Computation (none -> computation used in creative process -> computation used during reception)
    • Network (none/offline -> used in the process -> vital to the reception)
    • Culture (oral/print culture -> interrogating digital media -> within and engaging with digital cultural traditions)
  • It also lets us look at the ways in which the genre of e-lit differs in different communities; what is e-lit to gamers might be radically different from what is e-lit to scholars of the print-based avant-garde.
  • What is significant about Flores’s re-evaluation of the ELO’s definition is how much it prioritizes user/reader engagement.

Third-wave DH and National Literatures

  • If the first wave of DH was “quantitative, mobilizing the search and retrieval powers of the database, automating corpus linguistics, stacking hypercards into critical arrays” // and the second wave was “qualitative, interpretive, experiential, emotive, generative in character” (according to the “Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0“) // the third wave is a necessary merger of both.
  • This now frequently discussed move into a third-wave DH offers us the opportunity to return to some of the more useful elements of print-based criticism with new eyes and a plethora of resources presented in the early, quantitative days of DH but without neglecting the importance of experiential and affective analysis.
  • One of these more useful elements may be the role of a national literature in the context of electronic literatures and new media studies.
  • Obviously, the role of a “national literature” in an era of globalization has been significantly critiqued by critics of print-based literature.
  • Adam Carter’s chapter on “National Literature, Canadian Criticism, and National Character” outlines these quite well in a Canadian context. Building on Frank Davey’s arguments in Post-National Arguments, Carter recognizes the critical value of a national literature that moves beyond the “drably uniform” national characters that have to be abandoned and instead looks to a national literature that embraces historicity, hybridity, and heterogeneity.
  • The issue of a national literature has been addressed in the context of electronic literature by Luciana Gattass in her article “Digital Humanities in Praxis: Contextualizing the Brazilian Electronic Literature Collection,” where she uses her project of creating a specifically Brazilian Elit collection for the ELMCIP to look at how such practices may help to “discuss and problematize quantifying trends in humanistic scholarship.”
  • I am interested in discussing a “Canadian eliterature” where the national qualifier refers to, in Gattas’ words, both the “incommensurable notion of a ‘national literature’ and to a mere geo-tag” simultaneously.
  • This issue has also been addressed to some extent in the context of Canadian electronic literature by Kate Eichhorn in her chapter on “The Digital Turn in Canadian and Québécois Literature” in the Oxford Handbook of Canadian Literature.
  • Eichhorn brings up the question of a national literature in an elit context by pointing out the fact that texts are typically attributed to a national literature by way of the citizenship or residence of the author, the geographical location of writing, or the fact that a work is published in whichever country.
  • But, in electronic literatures, Eichhorn notes, these factors are frequently complicated. For example, many of the individuals involved in the production of elit do not identify as authors, but rather as artists, graphic designers, engineers, programmers, PIs, librarians and archivists, and so on.
  • The production of elit frequently involves collaboration with nonhuman entities like programs/apps, search engines, text generators, or source code.
  • Elit is also often made from human collaboration, especially internationally, and frequently results in self-publication online or in online journals.
  • Canadian digital poetics has tended towards the poststructural skepticism of authorship by producing elit that is largely concerned with generative work, source or seed texts, remixes, cut-ups, and plagiaristic borrowings.
  • In many ways, this works to create a tight-knit community of Canadian poets who pay homage to their influences and recognize the silliness of single-authorship; BUT, it has also resulted in the tendency of Canadian digital poetic works that do not credit or do not adequately credit the authors of their source texts.
  • I worry about this practice. It is especially problematic on two fronts:
    • first, the often free or open-source distribution of remixed work becomes a real problems for Canadian writers who are not affiliated with post-secondary institutions or who depend on their writing sales for their livings;
    • second, as the Canadian avant-garde has been for so very long, this practice is typically dominated by white men affiliated with universities who have significantly less to lose through the compromise of authorship.
  • This paper argues that while Canadian digital poetics has historical been more interested in deconstructing authorship and embracing noise poetics, what is more interesting is the radical potentials of digital and transmedial works to engage with readers rather than to dwell on the complications of authors.

Against the “Digital Turn”

  • Eichhorn’s argument for a “digital turn” in Canadian literature is useful for me in that it really pushes forward a conversation about Canadian electronic literature in a way that incorporates the usefulness about geographical or national literary study (identify trends, considering socio-cultural, historical, physical, and geographic factors, and so on) while allowing for the complication and line-blurring offered by the digital.
  • In 2016 with many decades of transmedial and digital poetics under our belt, we must now work to define a Canadian literature that has already turned digital.
  • This paper presents a Canadian digital poetics that has, with some exceptions, had its eye keenly on the past, and on print, rather than looking forward to the engaging and radical potentials of networked connectivity.
  • The visual concerns of Canadian digital poetics are heavily indebted to concrete poetry, especially as it was interpreted in the print medium by earlier Canadian practitioners like bpNichol or Steve McCafferey.
  • Its aural concerns are heavily indebted to sound poetry as it was interpreted by early Canadian practitioners like the Four Horsemen.
  • Where Canadian digital poetics do engage with locative or spatial concerns, these are frequently approached using mapping tech or other qualitative means met with the intensely personal, almost confessional, and highly affective intrusions.
  • And finally and most importantly, Canadian digital poetics has tended toward author-effacing conceptualism rather than the kind of reader engagement we see in other electronic literary communities in the US or Europe.

The Legacy of bpNichol

  • A lot of Canadian digital poetics has followed Nichol’s footsteps; this is not surprising, though, because a lot of digital poetics has followed Nichol, whose First Screening: Computer Poems (1984) is one of the first born-digital poetic sequences EVER.
  • In First Screening, Nichol extends the concerns of his concrete and typewriter poetics (most notably in Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer) that are well-established in the wealth of scholarship surrounding this work.
  • It is important to identify the primacy of First Screening in the field of digital poetics. As Geof Huth notes, “These poems appeared so early in the development of digital poetry that Nichol felt justified in including ‘FIRST’ in the title to these, but primarily these were screenings, movies of words.”
  • In many ways, Nichol’s work in First Screening extends the authorial disruption of a poetics that was already so concerned with formal and material experimentation into a medium (the digital) that sought to connect that authorial disruption with an invitation to readers to be more autonomous in their engagement with the text.
  • As Frank Davey details in his critical biography, aka bpNichol, Nichol purchased an Apple IIe in 1983 and began learning BASIC programming language. By 1984, he had completed the “manuscript” diskettes (5.25” floppies) of what would become First Screening and sent them to Underwhich Editions, who would produce a very small run of a hundred numbered copies (245-6).
  • Later in the year he revised these disks and sent them to Red Deer College Press for wider publication (280). But, programmed on the Apple IIe, the poems were already trending towards an obsolete technology. Red Deer didn’t publish until 1993 when a graduate student at the University of Calgary translated the code to Macintosh HyperText (319n1); the “translation” was written on HyperCard, and itself obsolesced about ten years later.

Codework

  • In First Screening

nichol-2nichol-3

nichol-4

Visual Elements

grainani

Aural Elements

  • Kaie Kellough with Jason Sharp, “L_LL_L LL”

Locative and Spatial Media

  • Michelle Gay, “Error Code” (hand-stiched computer error code)

mgay_errorcode_printer

  • Kate Pullinger, Inanimate Alice

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  • JR Carpenter, in absentia and other mapping pieces

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  • Caitlin Fisher, “Circle” and other augmented reality pieces