Brian Kim Stefans proposes the need for a resistance to the "free play" associated with electronic writing, and discusses how this resistance will elevate electronic literature for both the author and the reader. He argues that poetic discharge is comparable with excess and bodily disgust, citing Sianne Ngai, and Steve McCaffery's "North of Intention." Stefans argues that avant-garde excess must be based on a balanced reflection on authorial presences. He draws his argument from his work on The Scriptor Project, which was inspired by his desire to bring "digital textuality back to the drama of the hand making marks on the page - literally dramatizing the act of writing by hand, the plays of body and mind that are erased in standard typography."
This essay argues for a resistance to the semantic slippage that algorithm invariably I will only be concerning myself, for the duration of this essay, with works of electronic literature and not with phenomena such as Facebook or Google in which texts are also assembled largely via algorithm. However, I think the present analysis could be expanded to account for these Internet applications. My sense of the “invariable” injection of indeterminacy is partly based on Lev Manovich’s observation, stated in “Database as Symbolic Form” and, later, in The Language of New Media, that a paradigm shift has occurred in our general understanding of public language between the syntagmatic - thinking of a sentence as an utterance singular in time and space - and the paradigmatic - thinking of a sentence as largely an empty syntactic frame which is, in a sense, filled in later according to algorithmic operations. I elaborate on this issue later in the present essay, but the reader is directed to chapter 5 of The Language of New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001). For my own previous writing on Manovich’s distinction, please refer to “Language as Gameplay: toward a vocabulary for describing works of electronic literature.” injects into electronic literature, both the sorts constructed or assembled by algorithm - Stuart Moulthrop’s Pax: An Instrument (2003), for example, or Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s (et al.) Regime Change and Newsreader (2003) not to mention countless poetry-writing programs - and the more conventionally authored or “written,” such as the various forms of “codework” that we are familiar with from mez and Talan Memmott (Lexia to Perplexia). This semantic slippage can conveniently, though not exhaustively, be divided into two different varieties: the play of the signifier with which we are acquainted through the many flavors of poststructuralism, and the concept, more peculiar to electronic literature, that a cybernetic exchange occurs between author and computer - it becomes unclear, that is, who or what is writing a text. The former I associate with much avant-garde poetry, particularly that in the wake of Dada and Surrealism which finds its most visible apogee in the Language poets, in which, according to lead poet and theorist Bruce Andrews, “Writing, as infinite association, explodes the definitions, endistances origins (or Origin), rejects closure, exempts meaning. The vise of the signified is unhinged; simplistic notions of truth are relativized.”Andrews, Bruce. “Code Words.” Andrews, Bruce and Bernstein, Charles, Eds. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984), pp. 54-56.As for the latter, “codework” is described by Rita Raley as writing that:
makes exterior the interior workings of the computer. One formal purpose is to bring the function and code of the computer to a kind of visibility. That is, to illuminate the many layers of code - the tower of programming languages that underlies the representation of natural languages on the screen. For all of the differences among particular instances or events of codework, they all incorporate elements of code, whether executable or not. Code appears in the text, then, in whole or in part, in the form of a functioning script, an operator, and/or a static symbol.Rita. “Interferences: [Net.Writing] and the Practice of Codework. The Electronic Book Review, September 2002.http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/net.writing
While Language poetry is largely concerned with the social construction of language and chooses to absent the “subject” from poetry, the latter concerns itself with the cybernetic construction of language - how writer and algorithm co-create text - and to that degree preserves the “subject” if in some etiolated or contaminated form. I argue that points of resistance to this free play is a necessary - singular, authorial - counterpoint to algorithm itself, which by definition is anonymous, and that the choice use of this counterpoint can elevate electronic writing to a more substantial artistic experience, indeed one bordering on the “sublime.”
1. Writing and Excess
In his seminal, if radically subversive, series of books, The Accursed Share, French philosopher (and one-time member of the Surrealists) Georges Bataille describes a contrast between what he calls a “restricted” and “general” economy. If the former is the type of economy-as-science, or classical economics, with which we are familiar from public discourse premised on labor, efficiency and productivity, the latter describes a confrontation between a hyper-vital planet - one in which productivity by humans, animals and plants has simply run amok - and the circumscribed exchange systems that surrender much of this productivity as waste.“Changing from the perspectives of restrictive economy to those of general economy actually accomplishes a Copernican transformation: a reversal of thinking - and of ethics. If a part of wealth (subject to a rough estimate) is doomed to destruction or at least to unproductive use without any possible profit, it is logical, even inescapable, to surrender commodities without return. Henceforth, leaving aside pure and simple dissipation, analogous to the construction of the Pyramids, the possibility of pursuing growth is itself subordinated to giving: The industrial development of the entire world demands of Americans that they lucidly grasp the necessity, for an economy such as theirs, of having a margin of profitless operations. An immense industrial network cannot be managed in the same way that one changes a tire… It expresses a circuit of cosmic energy on which it depends, which it cannot limit, and whose laws it cannot ignore without consequences. Woe to those who, to the very end, insist on regulating the movement that exceeds them with the narrow mind of the mechanic who changes a tire.” Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share: Volume 1. (New York: Zone Books, 1988), pp. 25-26.Steve McCaffery, experimental poet and theorist, adapts this concept in his own series of short essays collected in North of Intention to account for a variety of experimental poetics in North America, particularly in his home country, Canada. McCaffery is interested in the excess of meaning - those elements that don’t serve a function in a utilitarian hermeneutics (subject to “close reading” or paraphrase), and that break the boundaries of the “well-wrought urn” McCaffery, Steve. North of Intention: Critical Writings 1973-1986. (New York: Roof Books, 2000). p. 201.that a previous formalist criticism valorized to determine literary quality and evaluate literary competence. In his essay “Bill Bissett: A Writing Outside Writing,” an analysis of Canadian poet bill bissett’s voluminous works, McCaffery synthesizes his ideas of linguistic “excess” quite explicitly to an understanding of what was considered socially acceptable “form” in the human body - what we choose to expose, the gamut of bodily affect, and what we, voluntarily or not, expel or project from our bodies.
His essay investigates […] the aspect of excess and libidinal flow, of the interplay of forces and intensities, both through and yet quite frequently despite, language; the flow of non-verbal energies through verbal domains that registers most often as a sheer libidinal will to power, a schizop(oetic)hrenic strategy to break through the constraint mechanisms of grammar and classical discourse in general. As such this is a very immanent, yet vague, aspect to be considering. The flows are located inside the fissures of texts, constantly escape in excess among - yet beyond - the words, urging an exploration of both language and anti-language and an awareness of the forces that refuse textualization. This, in turn, demands a specific approach to bissett’s corpus as a coagulate of forces to be experienced, but not elucidated, a problematic to be felt but not reconciled.McCaffery, 93
McCaffery’s direct linkage of his reading strategies with “libidinal flows,” beyond its obvious ties to poststructural theories of the “pleasures of the text,” is a perverse conservation of a basic Romantic poetic principle For example, Shelley writes in the “Defense of Poetry”: “The greatest poet even cannot say it; for the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the color of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure. Could this influence be durable in its original purity and force, it is impossible to predict the greatness of the results; but when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet.” Shelley, Percy Bysshe, Shelley’s Poetry and Prose (New York, Norton: 1977), p. 505.(refracted through Olson’s “Projective Verse”Olson writes in “Projective Verse” (1950): “A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. Okay. Then the poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge.” Olson, Charles. Selected Writings (New York: New Directions, 1971), p. 15.) that imagines poetry as a direct transmission of forces - not of message but of pure physical and psychical energy expressed through printed type. The poem is a documentary, a field of markings, fossils of a living presence, rather than a fabricated lyrical subject (“Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos…,” for example). The author is maintained as a constant, as actor upon the medium, but the reader as subject is left to experience and feel the writer’s otherwise information-poor textual emissions.
McCaffery’s reading of bissett stands in contrast to critics who wish to preserve the subject in largely deconstructed or “illegible” texts, often by deferring to paradigms of reading descended from notions of fiction, a genre that mediates the seemingly pedestrian documentary truth valorized by McCaffery with the mythic dimensions of narrative. By “mythic,” I mean the paradigm or teleology that underlies all major narratives that Frank Kermode describes in Sense of an Ending that envision of protagonist “in the middle,” caught blindly between birth and death, for whom meaning is only substantially conferred until the satisfactory completion of a plot“All such plotting presupposes and requires that an end will bestow upon the whole duration and meaning. To put it another way, the interval must be purged of simple chronicity, of the emptiness of tock-tick., humanly uninteresting successiveness. It is required to be a significant season, kairos poised between beginning and end.” Kermode, Frank. Sense of an Ending. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 46. The linkages of electronic literature to non-teleological fiction (ranging through Alain Robbe-Grillet’s nouveau roman, indeterminately ordered fictions such as Mark Saporta’s Composition No. 1 and B.S. Johnson‘s The Unfortunates, meta-fictional writers such as Borges and Barthelme, the twisted passages of the Oulipo, etc.) and to certain thematic strands of fiction that is conventionally plotted, such as cyberpunk, have lead theorists to hang on to the possibility of recuperating a mythic - enhanced, elevated, embattled - subjectivity in much otherwise illegible or excessive writing, even if in an attenuated state.
N. Katherine Hayles in Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers articulates one of the most cogent of these attempts the rescue the subject from what, in other hands, might simply be described as “noise.” Her essay describes the traditional reader as enmeshed in a world not only where the relationship of sign to signified is in a constantly shifting state, but in which the writer is a data warrior, an embodied subjectivity embattled by information.
The entanglement of signal and materiality in bodies and books confers on them a parallel doubleness. Just as the human body is understood in molecular biology as simultaneously a physical structure and an expression of genetic information, so the literary corpus is at once a physical object and a space of representation, a body and a message. Because they have bodies, books and people have something to lose if they are regarded solely as informational patterns, namely the resistant materiality that has traditionally marked the experience of reading no less than it has marked the experience of living as embodied creatures. From this affinity emerge complex feedback loops between contemporary literature, the technologies that produce it, and the embodied readers who produce and are produced by books and technologies.Hayles, N. Katherine. “Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers.” I’m quoting from the version of the essay which appears on the UCLA website: http://www.english.ucla.edu/faculty/hayles/Flick.html.
In a later essay, Hayles writes that Talan Memmott’s Lexia to Perplexia “insists on the co-originary status of subjectivity and electronic technologies. Instead of technologies being created by humans, this work imagines digital technology present from the beginning, with subjects and technologies producing each other through recursive loops.”Hayles, N. Katherine. Writing Machines. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2002), p. 49.There is an obvious heritage for such conceptions of the writer-as-algorithm in pre-digital methods such as the “cut-up” - described by William S. Burroughs in his seminal essay “The Cut-up Method of Brion Gysin” (1961) - in which the writer surrenders some linguistic (spatial, temporal) control while preserving, if only in traces, a unified protagonist. One can fictionalize the reading of a cut-up story as one can the reading of a “codework”: as an extreme version of a De Quincey-like (or Coleridgean) narrator submerged in a welter of hallucinogenic impressions. In Lexia to Perplexia, one is experiencing a cyborg subject who has lost track of the difference between subjective language - the singular linguistic acts of a “writer” - and the language that either suspends the words on the screen (the code of operating system or word processor) or formulates its own new literary objects (the code behind Facebook or Google).
McCaffery’s North of Intention denies the fictional frame which seeks to preserve some form of the subject while, ironically, installing a post-Romantic (or crypto-Romantic, if one imagines de Sade as a grotesque appendage of Romanticism) subject in a frame that sees writing as a “literal expulsion of material signs as if it were the ejection of a harmful substance… expulsion… shit… the glands… cumming… cumming and beyond the ideational content and the temptation to simplistic analogy (language = bloodstream) is the less tractable intensities that mutilate the conventional physiognomy of language.”McCaffery, 96.McCaffery allows us to appreciate moments of subjective singularity - of originary, even if not recuperable, linguistic events - that are threatened by a reading of text that is “co-originary” with technology.
Bissett’s poetic output can also be attributed to systemic, technological determinations, as most of his writing appeared in photocopy, sure product of that unheralded middle-period of mass publishing between the Gutenberg press and the Internet: the age of the typewriter and the Xerox machine: “The entire early output of [bissett’s] Blewointment Press was an uninterrupted flow of manuscript into print, a literal spillage of energy into book with minimum of reification.”McCaffery, 101.McCaffery disallows the paradigmatic, mythic reading of Kermode - a hermeneutic turn that argues for depth - in favor of the experiential: “Excess then, cannot be a theme; it can only operate as the force of an energy, a force in spite of language, constantly escaping through linguistic signs and constantly threatened by enclosure in them. Similarly, excess cannot be read inside the text but must be approached through an anti-reading constituting an overview of the corpus. Such an overview on the reader’s part involves reconstituting reading as a conceptual act of affirmation that requires the reader to be both witness and co-participant within a discharge.”McCaffery, 103. Italics are mine.Not incidentally, McCaffery’s conception of an “anti-reading constituting an overview of the corpus” resembles the recent vogue for “distant reading” as propounded by Franco Moretti and other digital humanists: a reading without reading, a quantitative rather than qualitative analysis. And like Hayles, McCaffery sees the reader as co-participant - it would be hard to describe a theory of reading that didn’t acknowledge a collusion between human and textual object - but does not see the reader’s concept of the writer as threatened ontologically - there is still an “author” at the other end of the words, and there is still a text that we can stand apart from and witness as the remnants of a bodily event.
As I’d like to argue in the next section of this paper, this seemingly mindless - unhinged, spastic, effusive, anti-social - poetic discharge is an affect that can be expressed in electronic writing premised on the operations of an algorithm, which by nature is going to come off as products of excess in relation to arts that have an organic relation to bodily possibility. Of the many aspects of “analog” culture that algorithm allows us to simulate are the very libidinal flows that McCaffery valorizes in bissett, and which we, as readers, understand as excessive utterance. We see this organic/digital divide in the visual arts as well. A feature film, for instance, does not achieve the plateaus of excess that a big budget video game, viewed as a film, suggests, since a film falls within certain conventions that have been agreed upon as satisfactory to body and mind - the duration of roughly ninety minutes, plot structures of enabling action, rising action, peripateia and denouement, a base trust in the indexical relation of present image to antecedent event, etc. - all of which video games can, provided a robust algorithm, infinitely reproduce. Certainly, film directors such as Andy Warhol have challenged these basic formal conventions by creating films of exceptional length, but to viewers these artists are seen as engaging in an aesthetics of excess similar to that described by McCaffery above. One will rarely say of a video game what one might of Warhol’s Empire: this artwork, as a presence, is a waste of material, is onanistic in the most visceral, repulsive sense. This moral dimension of the experience of art is largely absent in generative cultural practices - the on-the-fly constructed Facebook page, the algorithmically generated music of Brian Eno, for example - despite what other pleasures they afford.
2. A Touch of the Infinite
Sherry Turkle ("Video Games and Computer Holding Power") and Lev Manovich ("Database as Symbolic Form") have described the effects of algorithmically-determined play as, in the former, some sort of engagement with the infinite, and in the latter, a sort of cybernetic relationship of the organic “human” with rote, rigorous, and inorganic functions of algorithm enacted in time - the player in tandem with the machine as substantiaters of algorithm. Turkle observes how the very presence of video game characters and objects - those hinges for our attention, what we engage in all seriousness Johan Huizinga bases central features of his theory of play and games on the inherent “seriousness” of play: “The contrast between play and seriousness is always fluid. The inferiority of play is continually being offset by the corresponding superiority of its seriousness. Play turns to seriousness and seriousness to play. Play may rise to heights of beauty and sublimity that leave seriousness far beneath. Tricky questions such as these will come up for discussion when we start examining the relationship between play and ritual.” Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), p. 8.in order to “win,” ultimately the bearers of justice - are in fact chimeras:
The new “logic technology” has made possible an explosion in the freedom of game designers to search for ways to capture the attention, the imagination, and the coins of players. If a designer wants to change the game, for example, to put a new monster on the screen, he or she doesn’t have to “make” a monster, but simply has to write a program that will trace out the monster’s shape. To have the new monster engage in a chase requires another program. Pinball games were constrained by mechanical limitations, ultimately by the physical laws that govern the motion of a small metal ball. The video world knows no such Turkle, 502.
New presence in the video game - which is viewed by the player, in an act of suspended disbelief, as material - is a matter of a few lines of code. The video game offers, to the misfit adolescent, a world away from “chance and accident,” but nonetheless is one in which a player, ironically considered lazy according to common social codes, is relentlessly tested by an algorithm, one which is always fair, more fair than the physical world itself, which seems impregnated (to our imagined misfit teen) with a god of ill-fortune. As Johan Huizinga writes in Homo Ludens, “From the point of view of a world wholly determined by the operation of blind forces, play would be altogether superfluous. Play only becomes possible, thinkable and understandable when an influx of mind breaks down the absolute determinism of the cosmos.”Huizinga, 3.Video games, even with their attendant glitches and design failures, banishes the “absolute determinism” of a disordered cosmos since, after all, even these glitches and failures - these marks of blind forces - are stable, predictable properties of the game and can be learned. The world of the video game is exact, though trying, and “give[s] people the feeling of being close to the edge because, as in a dangerous situation, there is no time for rest and the consequences of wandering attention feel dire.”Turkle, 509.Returning from this edge is the moral reward for good play.
Turkle describes playing a pinball game as “like a dance,” ultimately one that breaks down after the failure of each partner to master the laws of physics long enough to keep the ball in play. A video game, however, suggests a libidinal exchange accompanied, finally, by a post-coital letdown. As one of Turkle’s interviewees states: “When I play the game, I start getting into it, and you start taking the role of the person… and then the game ends. And you have just put all of your energy into it. It doesn’t make me angry, more like depressed. You walk out of the arcade and it’s a different world. Nothing that you can control.”Turkle, 503.The sort of mindlessness - the total seizure by sensation - that one associates with sexual rapture can also be linked (as it has by Susan Sontag in her essay concerning de Sade, “The Pornographic Imagination”I describe my thinking relating Sontag’s conception of the pornographic imagination in “Stops and Rebels: a critique of hypertext” in Fashionable Noise: On Digital Poetics (Berkeley: Atelos, 2003). Sontag writes in Styles of Radical Will (New York: Picador, 2002) about de Sade’s writing as if describing the all-encompassing world of long-form video games: “The universe proposed by the pornographic imagination is a total universe. It has the power to ingest and metamorphose and translate all concerns that are fed into it, reducing everything into one negotiable currency of the erotic imperative. All action is conceived of as a set of sexual exchanges. Thus, the reason why pornography refuses to make fixed distinctions between the sexes or allow any kind of sexual preference or sexual taboo to endure can be explained ‘structurally.’ The bisexuality, the disregard for the incest taboo, and other similar features common to pornographic narratives function to multiply the possibilities of exchange. Ideally, it should be possible for everyone to have a sexual connection with everyone else.” (66-67) She further writes that pornography is a response to “something more general than even sexual damage. I mean the traumatic failure of modern capitalist society to provide authentic outlets for the perennial human flair for high-temperature visionary obsessions, to satisfy the appetite for exalted self-transcending modes of concentration and seriousness.”) with a sort of religious ecstasy, one that can only be experienced by an initiate. Turkle writes:
As a computational object, the video game holds out two promises. The first is a touch of infinity - the promise of a game that never stops. Most video games give you three chances: three “men,” three “ships,” three “missiles.” [W]hen the game skill becomes second nature, when the scores reach the hundreds of thousands, then it becomes clear that in a video game there is nothing except gaining more time, and, for some players, the idea that but for their growing fatigue, their “human limitations,” the game could go on forever. When you face a game of pinball, there is a clearly demarcated point when the game is over. You may have achieved a high score, you may win a free game. A video game presents no such moment.Turkle, 511.
This experience of endless time is something that the novice player - concerned with pedestrian accomplishments in an alien, dangerous world - cannot experience. The master player, in contrast, has unlocked an entire new universe in the game, one fraught with terrors but which is often “imbued with religious feeling” Turkle, 511.- an experience of the sublime.
This “touch of the infinite” in video games can be tied to an early formulation of a phenomenological experience with number, John Locke’s formulation of “How we come by the idea of infinity” in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689):
Every one that has any idea of any stated lengths of space, as a foot, finds that he can repeat that idea; and joining it to the former, make the idea of two feet; and by the addition of a third, three feet; and so on, without ever coming to an end of his additions, whether of the same idea of a foot, or, if he pleases, of doubling it, or any other idea he has of any length, as a mile, or diameter of the earth, or of the orbis magnus: for whichever of these he takes, and how often soever he doubles, or any otherwise multiplies it, he finds, that, after he has continued his doubling in his thoughts, and enlarged his idea as much as he pleases, he has no more reason to stop, nor is one jot nearer the end of such addition, than he was at first setting out: the power of enlarging his idea of space by further additions remaining still the same, he hence takes the idea of infinite space.
I call this a phenomenological experience with number due to its presumed experiential bridge between that which much recent philosophy, namely that of Quentin Meillessoux, views as the one way out of the impasse of the indissoluble interdependence (what Meillessoux calls “correlationism”) of mind and matter in metaphysics - namely mathematics - and fairly normative human cognition Meillessoux writes: “‘Cantor’s theorem,’ as it is known, can be intuitively glossed as follows: take any set, count its elements, then compare this number to the number of possible groupings of these elements (by two, by three - but there are also groupings ‘by one,’ or ‘by all,’ which is identical with the whole set). You will always obtain the same result: the set B of possible groupings (or parts) of a set A is always bigger than A - even if A is infinite. It is possible to construct an unlimited succession of infinite sets, each of which is of a quantity superior to that of the set whose parts it collects together. This succession is known as the series of alephs, or the series of transfinite cardinals. But this series itself cannot be totalized, in other words, it cannot be collected together into some ‘ultimate’ quantity. […] Consequently, this ‘quantity of all quantities’ is not construed as being ‘too big’ to be grasped by thought - it is simply construed as not existing. Within the standard set-theoretical axiomatic, that which is quantifiable, and even more generally, that which is thinkable - which is to say, sets in general, or whatever can be constructed or demonstrated in accordance with the requirement of consistency - does not constitute a totality. For this totality of the thinkable is itself logically inconceivable, since it gives rise to a contradiction. We will retain the following translation of Cantor’s transfinite: the (quantifiable) totality of the thinkable is unthinkable.” Meillessoux, Quentin. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Translated by Ray Brassier. (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010), p. 104.. That is, mathematics is the only thing we can be sure exists apart from human consciousness, the one thing we can point to that is inarguably noumenological, but which Locke presents as readily available to the senses. In contrast, Turkle’s “touch of the infinite” is something only the experienced player, the member of the meritocracy of “hardcore players,” can ever experience, and is key to any understanding of the aesthetics of algorithmic, or generative, art, in which all players - viewers, inter-actors - are immediate members of this elite. Any user of generative art - a good basic example would be Camille Utterback’s interactive abstract digital painting “Untitled 5” (2004)Utterback’s website describes the piece in the following way: “The goal of these works is to create an aesthetic system which responds fluidly and intriguingly to physical movement in the exhibit space. The installations respond to their environment via input from an overhead video camera. Custom video tracking and drawing software outputs a changing wall projection in response to the activities in the space. The existence, positions, and behaviors of various parts of the projected image depend entirely on people’s presence and movement in the exhibit area.” ()- has some access to this “infinite”; it is a strong component of the pleasure these pieces offer, like a pet cat who is always ready to be lifted and cuddled. But much interactive art lacks the very elements that bring us to the aforementioned ecstasies, perhaps because generative art designers deem game play as hopelessly trivial and hence detrimental to a work’s status as “art.” In this light, much interactive generative art, as well as much non-teleological interactive literature, can be said to lack a central component that video games always contain: the assignment of a task. For this reason, I refer to certain aesthetically satisfying video games, such as Rez (Sega, 2001) or Shadow of the Colossus (Sony, 2005), as task-based interactive art. But this is an argument I hope to elaborate upon at a later date.
Ironically, even the most common practices of reading (those that wouldn’t count in Espen Aarseth’s concept of “ergodic literature,” for example“The performance of their reader takes place all in his head, while the user of cybertext also performs in an extranoematic sense. During the cybertextual process, the user will have effectuated a semiotic sequence, and this selective movement is a work of physical construction that the various concepts of “reading” do not account for. This phenomenon I call ergodic, using a term appropriated from physics that derives from the Greek words ergon and hodos, meaning “work” and “path.” In ergodic literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text. If ergodic literature is to make sense as a concept, there must also be nonergodic literature, where the effort to traverse the text is trivial, with no extranoematic responsibilities placed on the reader except (for example) eye movement and the periodic or arbitrary turning of pages.” Aarseth, Espen. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1997), p. 1.) can be said to instantiate levels of “task.” Lev Manovich, in his writing on database, extends the idea of algorithmic play to the principle of reading, such that, as one reads, one begins to understand the writer of a text (a novel, for example) as executing an algorithm. “In contrast to most games,” Manovich writes, “most narratives do not require algorithm-like behavior from their readers. However, narratives and games are similar in that the user, while proceeding through them, must uncover its underlying logic - its algorithm. Just like a game player, a reader of a novel gradually reconstructs an algorithm (here I use it metaphorically) which the writer used to create the settings, the characters, and the events.”“Database as Symbolic Form”“Interaction,” here, is seen in the very act of reading, of using the eyes to interpret signs and the mind to anticipate elements in the plot - to approach a “sense of an ending” in Kermode’s phrase. But Manovich, while not purporting to write about electronic literature, proceeds accurately to imagine the problems that the engagement of algorithm in textual construction bears on our reading:
According to this model… the elements of a system can be related on two dimensions: syntagmatic and paradigmatic. As defined by Barthes, “the syntagm is a combination of signs, which has space as a support.” To use the example of natural language, the speaker produces an utterance by stringing together the elements, one after another, in a linear sequence. This is the syntagmatic dimension. Now, lets look at the paradigm. To continue with an example of a language user, each new element is chosen from a set of other related elements. For instance, all nouns form a set; all synonyms of a particular word form another set. [T]his is the paradigmatic dimension. New media reverses this relationship. Database (the paradigm) is given material existence, while narrative (the syntagm) is de-materialized. Paradigm is privileged, syntagm is downplayed. Paradigm is real, syntagm is virtual. “Database as Symbolic Form”
Once again, we are in the documentary/fictional contrast as outlined in our discussion of bissett: the syntagmatic statement, the singular utterance, the object in space and time, is contrasted to the statement born of exchangeability, of the recombinatory nature of language, of the placelessness of code, algorithm turning sentence construction into something like a Mad Lib.
The documentary aspect of textuality as exaggerated in the case of bissett is overwhelmed or subsumed by the possibilities of supra-human construction by computer program. This reversal, however, is rarely advertised as being the case in commercial digital cultural products. That is, a video game’s success is largely premised on its robustness as a program that could go on forever, but we are also told we have “hours of play,” and we are reliant on simulated realities - burning helicopters, preternaturally fit heroes and heroines - in order to engage with these very algorithms that are the true source of our pleasure. We are left with the illusion that what is unfolding on the screen bears some relation to the types of cultural products in which the experience of syntagm, the unfolding original utterance - in this case, that of film - is valorized. One can speculate on how such notions relate to Marxist notions of labor and production, as McKenzie Wark does in A Hacker Manifesto in which he delineates a “vectoralist” class of capitalist Wark states in an interview: “The new ruling class – I call it the vectoralist class – is determined to thwart the radical ontological freedom of information and trap it in its identity as a material thing, assigned to the identity of a discrete owner. Against this, the hacker class can either side with the people and their collective re-appropriation of information as being in common, or they – we – can sell the products of our labor for some slither of value to the vectoralist class, which owns the means of production, the means of realizing the value of what we make.” Kritikos (Volume 2, April 2005)., but we’ll leave aside such considerations for now.
Turkle and Manovich find common ground in the following: when playing a video game, one is engaged with the seemingly “infinite” play of algorithm while being engaged in what is phenomelogically perceived as (if consequently a replacement of) the physical world. The player of a video game engages with the belief that what is unfolding before him on the screen is syntagmatic, like a unique utterance, when in fact it is paradigmatic, empty structures filled and refilled due to algorithmic processes. It is a parody of the sorts of libidinous excess that is described by McCaffery in his extrapolations upon Bataille’s theory of the general economy, though it remains to be considered whether algorithmic “creativity” is in fact - in the vitalist sense - creative, and to that extent, whether or not it partakes in the process of radical immanence that a philosopher like Bataille discerns in the complex of vegetable/animal/human life on the planet. In video games, the player’s engagement is complete, as complete as that of a physical game (with a seriousness that is aptly described by Huizinga), enough such that the physical bearing of the human respondent can be transformed and lead to sensations of the “infinite” and consequently post-coital letdown.
3. The Poetics of Disgust
The true distinction between what we call “electronic writing” (including many of those print-based projects now known as “conceptual writing”Works of conceptual or “uncreative” writing, as described by Kenneth Goldsmith, are texts composed by human authors behaving according to some pre-established set of rules. For example, Goldsmith produced his book Soliloquy (New York: Granary Books, 2001) by recording everything he said for an entire week and then transcribing it meticulously and publishing it as a book. For more examples of conceptual writing, refer to the anthologies Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, edited by Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 2011) and I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women, edited by Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody, and Vanessa Place (Los Angeles: Les Figues Press, 2012). Consequently, unlike poet and theorist Stephanie Strickland, I don’t believe that “e-poetry” must “rel[y] on code for its creation, preservation, and display: there is no way to experience a work of e-literature unless a computer is running it - reading it and perhaps also generating it” but rather extend the bounds of electronic literature to include the many works by artists who act as complete automatons to assemble their texts. For elaboration of Strickland’s views, refer to her short provocative essay “Born Digital” on the Poetry Foundation website:) and that type of writing conventionally authored as a “creative” act by humans is the element of algorithm, but algorithm does not make its presence known unless it has some set of objects to work upon, namely, the elements of a database. That the database could be composed of one object - a single sentence or even single letter or value - should not confuse this issue. But an algorithm is not necessarily tied to a computer; literary practices from sestinas to cryptography have been premised on the execution of an algorithm. For the time being, we will concentrate on the algorithm as a property of computer processes; it is the algorithm that allows, for example, a computer to “write” a poem, though by “writing,” we merely mean presenting a series of words in some particular order that is later construed to be a “poem” by a human operative.
The seemingly endless, infinite amount of creativity by an algorithm, divorced from the limitations of the human body and the physical world as described by Turkle, creates a strong bridge between what we expect an algorithm to perform in digital writing and what has been termed jouissance in postmodern literary theory, particularly by those writers associated with poststructuralism such as Jacques Lacan and Roland Barthes. Jouissance stands in opposition to plaisir (pleasure) for Barthes, and is characteristic of “writerly” texts that, like Language poetry, seem to challenge the reader’s ontological security - the sureness of his or her subjectivity. Likewise, for Lacan, jouissance extends beyond Freud’s “pleasure principle,” which operates “to maximize satisfaction and correspondingly minimize pain/dissatisfaction,” and in fact extends into sensations we normally associate with pain: “For Lacan, the ego feels pain (in the form of anxiety, symptoms, and the like) when the homeostatic balance sheet of the pleasure principle is thrown into disorder by an insistent enjoyment than pays no heed of the speculative gains or losses of a diluted, sublimated pleasure, of a principle that routinely ‘sells out’ enjoyment in its ongoing bargaining with its reality-level complement.”Johnston, Adrian. Time Driven: Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive. (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 2005), p. 234.Certain strands in electronic writing, and to my mind some of the more effective stances, have been taken against a practice of jouissance - that is, have been premised on a sort of contrapuntal relationship between engaging in the seemingly infinite play of the algorithm and something that theorist Sianne Ngai has theorized as a “poetics of disgust” which works against the semantic slippage understood by poststructural critics as the dominant form of literary activity. Consequently, I’d like to suggest that disgust is an experience that can be felt in those documentary elements of writing, those that marked by the mindless author’s body, those moments that exceed meaning without subverting it, acting as a parallel meta-semantics or what I am referring to as a “counterpoint.”
Ironically, legibility - moments of clarity, of forced self-reflection, of a complete understanding of context, even of the Brechtian “V-effekt” that opens up the cellars of meaning to moral judgment - is a minority function in most literary digital objects, even those that propose to be “literary.” In other words, the kinds of precision one associates with the “well-wrought urn” of stylistically economical writing in print is often subsumed under the looser, open-ended stylistic economies of much digital writing. To take an obvious example, most of one’s experience with Michael Joyce’s afternoon: a story is premised on some notion of narrative jouissance, in which story elements - plot, setting, character, etc. - are left to play among themselves. The characters in the story themselves express jouissance as they are seemingly endlessly intertwined in each other’s sexual and psychological lives, with the character Werther being the epigone of the poly-amorous. Those moments of disgust in the text occur when the narrative play is asked to take a back seat to a moment of readerly reflection, such as in that almost-never noted moment when the presence of Robert Creeley is made felt when Joyce includes, wholesale, a poem from Creeley’s 1968 volume Pieces. Unfortunately, I am no longer able to access afternoon due to the obsolescence of the disk format and changing operating systems. I also don’t have noted in my notes exactly what Creeley poem was lifted for afternoon. Most criticism of afternoon does not note the poem, but Charles Moran, in a review of Michael Joyce’s Of Two Minds: Hypertext, Pedagogy and Poetics write: “Joyce tells us, information is no longer scarce but free and entirely available to all. Alive in a giant hypertext, ‘We can imagine ourselves bathed in knowledge.’ Hypertext has enabled Joyce, self-styled ‘pig-shit Irish,’ to appropriate the language of Robert Creeley, whom he sees as lace-curtain Irish, and build Creeley’s language into his own work.” College English, Vol. 60, No. 2 (Feb., 1998), pp. 202-209.The Creeley poem serves as a block to any easy continuation of pure jouissance; it hinders understanding of the flow of meanings by implanting its own understanding, Joseph Kosuth-style Kosuth’s most famous work of art is probably “One and Three Chairs” from 1965, composed of an actual chair, a photograph of a chair, and the dictionary definition of a chair write large., of the presence of words on the page/screen, the thisness of letters as they are being encountered.
Disgust, synonymous here with a moment of intense awareness of experience, of the concreteness of vision, can be seen, in this light, as synonymous with those moments of precise literary effect. Ngai writes:
Disgust is urgent and specific; desire can be ambivalent and vague. The former expects concurrence; the latter does not. I should clarify that in what follows, the word “desire” refers not to sexuality or sexual practices, or to psychoanalysis’ highly exacting concept of drive or libido, but rather to the vaguely affective idiom broadly used as an “index of (literary) heterogeneity” by late twentieth-century literary theorists across methods and affiliations. That is, I mean “desire” associated with images of fluidity, slippage, and semantic multiplicity - what Kristeva in Desire in Language calls polynomia or “the pluralization of meaning by different means (polyglottism, polysemia, etc.)” - which has become technical shorthand for virtually any perceived transgression of the symbolic status quo. Inclusive, pluralistic, and often eclectic, literary theory’s “desire” is admittedly appealing, especially when positioned as “a mobile system of free signifying devices” in explicit contrast to the rigid hierarchies of the symbolic order.”Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 338.
McCaffery articulates in North of Intention just this poetics of “fluidity” and “slippage,” even so far as to envision letters and marks on the page as semen and shit - as fossilizations of this very libidinous discharge - but like Ngai, he sees these moments not as enacting of “pluralization of meaning” but so much as the direct transference of what could objectively be described as “energy.” And imagining letters on a page as bodily fluids is, of course, repulsive, at least to one who views the blank white page as encouraging a meditative exercise (or to one who does not want to get their hands dirty with newsprint).
In an early version of the Poetics of Disgust, Ngai described a paradigmatic experience of repulsion by describing an encounter on the street, shared with another, with “a piece of shit on the sidewalk. There’s a roach on this turd, and the roach is eating it. We look at this for a while together. As if we were compelled to, fascinated in spite of ourselves.”This version of the essay appears in Telling It Slant: Avant-Garde Poetics of the 1990s, edited by Mark Wallace and Steven Marks (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001), p. 167.She then articulates a series of events that occur during this experience: the “negative utterance” (“Ugh!”), the “wordless pointing,” the fascination “in spite of ourselves,” the turning away, etc. As a poetics, Ngai’s essay focuses on onomatopoeia and exclamatory words that simply recreate sounds (“Wooh, brah“), deictic words that indicate a certain “pointing” (such as “this,” or brackets containing nothing ), typographic signs that seem to serve no semantic function in a given text (“@&%$!”), stranded facts (“West Germany 4.5%“), and proper names - all of which obstruct the “seductive reasoning of pluralism.” Writing of Bruce Andrews’ book-length poem I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up, or Social Romanticism Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1992., Ngai hones in on the use of proper names as a breakage in semantic slippage:
In their negative insistence, there is a sense in which the linguistic materials privileged in Shut Up resemble what Lyotard calls “tensors,” referring to the “tension” in a sign that exceeds any semiotic dialectic of vertical fixation and horizontal displacement including the “interminable metonymy” of slippage from word to word we have seen privileged in the sue of “desire” as a figurative catch-all for any kind of literary polyvalence or multiplicity. Lyotard’s favorite example of the tensor is the proper name, a form that reminds us that while all signs are prone to semantic pluralization and slippage, not all are prone to this equally; some, like Alamo or Lipton Tea, have an “intensity” that makes them more resistant - if only slightly - to polysemous voyages. Because the proper name “refers in principle to a single reference” (think of “Harvey Milk” or “Beirut”) and is therefore less capable, however small the increment of difference, of being “exchangeable against other terms in the logical-linguistic structure,” Lyotard argues that “there is no intra-systemic equivalent of the proper name, it points towards the outside like a deictic, it has no connotation, nor is it interminable.”Ugly Feelings, 351.
The proper name is “more difficult to budge, countering the principle of infinite transferability that underlies the polysemous slippage routinely preferred but often too starkly opposed to semantic fixation in a poetics of ‘desire.’”
One could contend that the interplay of those moments of negation and permission of semantic slippage, the enactment of the rules or functions of the algorithms themselves, serve in some sense to curtail the infinite “exchangeability” that is inherent in pieces of digital “writerly” literature. For example, one could see the very specific cultural references in a text movie by Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries (and even their ransacking in “Dakota” of Ezra Pound’s first two Cantos See Pressman, Jessica. “Modern Modernisms: Young-hae Chang Heavy Industries and Digital Modernism.” In Pacific Rim Modernisms, edited by Steve Yao, Mary Ann Gillies and Helen Sword (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2009). A pdf of this essay can be found at Pressman’s website: http://www.jessicapressman.com/publications/) along with their timeline based, anti-algorithmic construction as a counterpoint to the scripting possibilities of Flash/ActionScript and networked distribution itself. That is, YHCHI’s choice to construct a Flash application like an analog film, as well as their choice to lard their texts with proper names and offer them in several different languages, stand in direct opposition to the easy “pluralistic” exchange that algorithm provides. Even those network writers that do not code, such as mez and Ted Warnell, and some who do, such as Talan Memmott and Loss Pequeño Glazier, have managed to incorporate many of the techniques that Ngai associates with a curtailment of pleasure - the non-utilitarian typographical symbol, the empty brackets and other deictic contraptions - into their computer creoles. This is a practice interpreted by Raley and Hayles as expressive of a merging of human subjectivity and the computer’s recursive functions - what I’ve been terming the “fictional” element - but which, I argue, can be seen, instead, as a “counterpoint” to semantic slippage.
The use of proper names, for example, have been used as contextual and conceptual anchors in works of digital literature premised on endless interconnectivity. Examples include the aforementioned News Reader and Regime Change http://turbulence.org/Works/twotxt/by Noah Wardrip-Fruin et al., both using n-grams to merge stories from Reuters and other internet news outlets into new texts, and the work Status UpdateThis application no longer functions but the authors have published a selection of the material as Update (Montreal: Snare Books, 2006).(2007) by Darren Wershler and Bill Kennedy, which draws on a database of dead authors’ names and links them to the status updates, acquired by RSS feed, from Facebook. The well-known internet art project They Rule http://www.theyrule.netby Josh On, which allows the user to create their own visual representations of the links between wealthy people who sit on the boards of several leading national corporations (the first instance, as far as I know, of a database-driven political cartoon), derives its power almost exclusively from the use of proper names, encouraging, quite literally, an experience of “disgust.” Proper names open converging, confusing and ultimately powerful narrative flows into pieces that might otherwise be demeaned as academic exercises in making new sentences out of the linguistic raw data of the internet.
4. Information Cool
What Ngai describes are moments of language usage that are so singular, or in Manovich’s formulation syntagmatic, as to be immune to polysemic flows; that is, they can’t be understood as paradigmatic or exchangeable, even if not tied to something that we could call utterance. Even if this singularity is only ever a metaphor for authorial identity, it is nonetheless a hold against the seductive pluralism of a seemingly faceless medium such as printed or screened language (which, I am arguing, is exacerbated by the subjection of language to algorithm).
For some electronic writers such as William Poundstone, especially in his work 3 Proposals for Bottle Imps, http://rhizome.org/artbase/artwork/32164/the hold against this faceless exchange of language has been based on experimentation with gaudy, attention-grabbing type (not to mention canned sound effects and robotic animations), but even here the artist is faced with a form of corporate standardization, for fonts themselves, even those designed by amateurs, can be seen as obscuring by their very reusability the sorts of bodily singularity that McCaffery champions. Digital typefaces, even of the most gaudy or, in the case of Paul’s Chan’s AlternumericsThese can be downloaded for free at: http://www.nationalphilistine.com/alternumerics/.- font sets in which letters are replaced with entire words, scribbles, diagrams, “white space” denoted by parentheses and lines of measurement, etc. - entirely inutile, must conform to the specifications of either Adobe’s PostScript or Apple and Microsoft’s TrueType (or Microsoft’s related OpenType) to operate on a computer. Especially apposite for our present discussion of excess and transgression is Chan’s Sade for Fonts Sake (2009) in which “[e]ach font holds a unique set of idioms that expresses a different sexual voice when typed. Some like Oh Bishop X and Oh Justine are based on characters in novels by Sade, while others are inspired by characters from news (Monica Lewinsky), pornstars (Michael Lucas), and poets and writers (Gertrude Stein, Hölderlin) whose work knot together sex with language, rhythm and form. When you type with one of Chan’s fonts, anything you write becomes instantly, inexplicably, dirty, erotic, pornographic, poetic, sometimes all at once.”This is promotional text that appears on several websites that sell disk versions of the fonts, most notably Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Sade-Fonts-Sake-Windows-Linux/dp/B002XJBDVQ. However, as with the alternumerics fonts, “Sade for Fonts Sake” is available for free on Chan’s website: http://www.nationalphilistine.com/oh/.But even this seemingly subversive intervention must conform to the TrueType protocol (just as Chan’s website, “National Philistine,” must conform to the HTML protocol).
Jan Tschichold, leading Modernist typographer and author of the seminal, Bauhaus-inspired Die neue Typographie (The New Typography, 1928), expressly remarks that typefaces are never the expression of an individual personality, but of an age: “Our age is characterized by an all-out search for clarity and truth, for purity of appearance. So the problem of what typeface to use is necessarily different from what it was in previous times. We require from type plainness, clarity, the rejection of everything that is superfluous.” For superfluous, we can read “excessive,” that which lies outside the efficient, condensed message. Tschichold continues:
[I]t is not important to create special types for advertising perfume manufacturers and fashion shops, or for lyrical outpourings by poets. It was never the task of punch-cutters of the past to create a type for a single kind of expression. The best typefaces are those which can be used for all purposes, and the bad ones those which can be used only for visiting-cards or hymn books. Tschichold, Jan. The New Typography, translated by Ruari McLean (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p. 78
Tschichold, long before the age of the Internet, extols the paradigmatic over the syntagmatic; he champions the typeface that can be dropped into several contexts rather than the ostentatious or “original” font that, like the unique utterance (or Wallace Stevens’ jar in Tennessee) can create context by its very singularity. “There is no personal expression of the designer, nor was it ever his aim, except in the first years of our century,” he writes, putting his own nail in the coffin of Romanticism. The new typography is the expression of the subsumption of the individual into the system; the Weltgeist of the age is the efficiency of the machine and its inherent standardizations, including that of paper size (the second half of The New Typography is largely devoted to discussions of letterhead). Tschichold prefers typefaces designed anonymously, collectively, “above all in a technical sense useful and free from personal idiosyncrasies - in the best sense of the word, uninteresting.”Tschichold, 78.
Alan Liu argues in his magisterial Laws of Cool for a direct relationship of the premises of Tschichold’s design ideas to what is becoming a commonplace set of practices in the information economy. He traces an evolution in graphic design strategy from Bauhaus economy, embodied by the concept of the unifying “gestalt” - a psychological principle developed in the 1920s denoting the general visual shape arising from the arrangement of objects and details - directly to the culture of “information cool,” as expressed in such elegant but functional designs as the Apple computer. Liu describes significant detours, however, primarily under the rubric of “antidesign,” which can be seen as an attempt to re-introduce all of those elements of singularity and personality, not to mention inefficiency, that Tschichold wished to exclude. Liu describes
a whole confederation of graphic design movements from the 1970s on - for example, the California New Wave, “deconstructivism,” the Memphis school, New Wave Typography, and Postmodernism. Though varied in their styles, media, tone, and stance toward commercial interests, such movements had in common the need to contravene International Style through such means as deliberately fragmenting a composition; crowding the frame with superimposed or overlapping elements that eschewed “clarity”; blurring, twisting, stretching, distorting, or repeating texts elements to near illegibility; deploying diagonals and other atectonic forms “deconstructively” to highlight irresolvable rather than dialectically poised contradictions, and so on. Liu, Alan. The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004), p. 216.
Design, in these terms, is an expression of social values; further, design can be seen as an intervention in the transference of values, almost crypto-Situationist in philosophy even as the designer works under the standard economic rubric of being subject to the whims of a client. Liu writes of the absence of the “dialectically poised contradictions” in antidesign, suggesting that the counterpoise of a good International Style design argues for a vision of social progress premised on Marxist terms (in the way director Sergei Eisenstein argued that film montage operated didactically as illustration of the historical dialectic Eisenstein writes in “A Dialectic Approach to Film Form”: “In the realm of art this dialectic principle of dynamics is embodied in CONFLICT as the fundamental principle for the existence of every artwork and every art-form. For art is always conflict: 1) according to its social mission, 2) according to its nature, 3) according to its methodology. According to its social mission because: It is art’s task to make manifest the contradictions of Being. To form equitable views by stirring up contradictions within the spectator’s mind, and to forge accurate intellectual concepts from the dynamic clash of opposing passions.” Eisenstein, Sergei. Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, translated by Jay Leyda (New York: Harcourt, 1969), p. 45.), while the allover-ness of antidesign sets itself as an egalitarian contrast to such excesses of rationality.
Liu notes that the fluidity of design on the web - exacerbated by differences in monitor settings, monitor size, personal settings on a web browser, download speeds (noting that pages load their images and texts in unpredictable, uncontrollable orders), variance in content (especially in dynamically generated pages such as forums), etc. - incorporates within it many of the principles of antidesign itself. Web design has to forego many of the subtler elements of well-tempered gestalt in order to survive.
Both the spatial and temporal conditions of the Web scramble design, and the result is to destabilize the social meaning of design. The more the Web designer attempts to freeze the composition on the screen as if it were a display affixed to a spatial whole that can be delivered temporally to the user all at once, the more that designer resists an even deeper design imperative in the medium - the need to make design as fluid as possible so that it can pour across the wires into the unpredictable receptacles, rhythms, and ultimately lives of others. The deep design of the Web is the distribution of the authority of design from the content-designer to the user-designer (collaborating with legions of hidden program designers) who configures the machine of the browser.Liu, 230.
Ironically, “antidesign,” which sought to break through the leveling factor of International Style graphic design, itself has leveled the individuality of carefully articulated typographical spaces because of its ties to digital technology and by extension the algorithm. That is, desktop publishing permitted the designer an increasingly granular control of objects and effects, but web technology ended up thwarting this deep particularity.
Liu’s statements are restricted to an era of the Web that has, indeed, passed. When Laws of Cool was being written what we now call “Web 2.0” had not made its presence felt to the degree it has now. Though it is subject to debate, my definition of Web 2.0 is premised on: first, the large scale use of Flash to render pages “dynamic” in ways beyond the imaginations of HTML coders and, second, the rise of social networks such as Facebook and the interaction of portable devices like phones and tablets with the web. The implication is that a viewer of graphic design (and, in our consideration, text itself) will increasingly view any sort of “page” with text and image on it as having some possibility for being dynamic, and that the rejection of this possibility will suggest a set of social values in contrast to the “spirit of the age” - the infinite, free exchange of information. Nonetheless, collaboration is described: graphic designers become “designers of the Web” as much as the protocols of the Web impose themselves on the artist.
One can extend this argument about the mutability of web design by observing that the dispelling of static gestalt - along with the bold horizontals and verticals characteristic of Bauhaus design - contributes to the dispelling of what is often called “ground” in philosophy, the ontological “background” (or Being) upon which the observable “ontic” elements (or things, plain facts) are placed, like flowers in a field I am using the terms “ontic” and “ontological” in Heidegger’s sense in Being and Time (1927). But as I don’t wish to extend this discussion deeply into phenomenology, I won’t offer a more detailed gloss.. But even without extending this analysis into phenomenology, one can discern a primordial value to the “ground” of graphic design that extends back to the earliest interactions of text and image. As Denise Schmandt-Besserat argues in How Writing Shaped Art, her analysis of the origins of scriptural systems from the impressions on bullae (clay containers) of tokens:
The function of lines in pottery paintings… changed significantly between the preliterate and literate periods. Whereas the Ubaid and Susa I lines were used as dividers, those on particular scarlet ware vessels acted to unite the features of a composition. In the chariot scene, for example, the tower, the wheels of the chariot, the attendant’s feet, and the animal hoofs are all aligned to form an imaginary ground line. And ground lines are important, because they signify that the connected figures shared the same space at the same time, participating in one specific event. Accordingly, all the figures in the composition are linked, and each is to be interpreted in relation to the others. Therefore, whereas the preliterate pottery compositions formed an all-over pattern meant to be apprehended as a whole, or globally, those of the literate period were to be viewed analytically.Schmandt-Besserat, Denise. When Writing Met Art. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007), p. 24.
While the implications of Schmandt-Besserat’s research in relation to the history of graphic design (not to mention phenomenology) remains to be teased out, suffice it to say that the progress of writing from impressions in clay bullae to the variable “flickering signifier” - language supported by anonymous, autonomous and invisible algorithms - suggests a monumental transformation in the relationship of humans to their writing systems. A reversal has occurred, thanks to the mediation of the algorithm: whereas once writing of a sort served to introduce “ground” to pictorial representations, graphic design - with its emphasis on gestalt, on noise as inherent in antidesign, and on variability in web design - has returned the favor by dispelling ground in scriptural activity. Suffice it to say: nothing puts a halt to polysemy like the Stele of Hammurabi.That a political element adheres in a “grounded” script is suggested by Schmandt-Besserat’s writing about the Stele of Hammurabi, 12 tablets on which scribes had inscribed 282 laws, among the first written laws in history, in commemoration of the sixth king of the Amorite Dynasty of Babylon. Though, as Schmandt-Besserat notes, less than 1% of the Babylonian population was literate, the stele “combined text and images in new ways,” such that: “It would be wrong to assume that the casual passer-by would be oblivious to the inscription. There can be no doubt that writing inspired awe to the literate and illiterate alike, and that the long calligraphic text had a special aura that evoked the learned scribes and their great knowledge. The text brought to mind the power of the state bureaucracy, the palace, and the temple. Moreover, writing was seen as divine, since from the beginning of time gods were deemed to record in writing all human deeds on the Tablets of Destinies. Likewise, the arts of civilization and the functioning of institutions (me) taught to humans by the mythical Oannes were believed to be preserved on tablets. And, finally, writing was thought to have a power of its own. Curses could magically execute themselves long after they were inscribed, went the belief. The stele’s text brought together all the awesome aspects of writing: it was royal and divine. It was a scholarly text with a potent curse.” (p. 98)
McCaffery’s considerations of a “general economy” for language, with which this essay started, suggested that language can exist as a pure “energy,” if not information-rich, then existing outside the sphere of common hermeneutics, and hence, not characterized by polynomia so much as pre-cognitive flows. In contrast is Hayles’ conception of the “flickering signifier” in which we understand texts to be composed cybernetically, a collaboration between human and machine that, in my reading, encourages the semantic slippage inherent in a subject co-dependent on both human and computer. Turkle describes the “touch of the infinite” that manifests in algorithmic art and games, suggesting that one’s experience with algorithmically generated texts introduces us to properties one usually associates with numbers - that they can extend in definitely governed by self-contained rules (primarily of addition). This property of algorithm, and by extension algorithmic text, introduces a natural sort of semantic slippage, or “play of the signifier,” to text which Ngai argues in "The Poetics of Disgust" can be broken or short-circuited by the use of proper names, symbols, and a range of non-phonetic typographical elements - “tensors” in Lyotard’s phrase. Finally, Liu’s analysis of the progression of graphic design from the invariable printed gestalt to the variable web page suggests that, once again, indeterminacy is introduced into text merely by the position textual objects obtain on a page or screen despite the best laid plans of writers and designers.
My argument is largely aesthetic: that a “counterpoint” can be created in algorithmic text art between those elements which favor slippage and those that deny it, those elements that argue for efficiency - such as the rules of a game or the design gestalt - and those that exceed any such curtailment. Though I am here largely concerned with the works of artists, these dynamics can be observed in any number of textual phenomena in the Web 2.0 era. What remains to be asked concerns the ontological status of the algorithm itself: can we understand the algorithm as participating in the vitalist notion, represented here by Bataille, that immanent creativity as exhibited by both nature and culture on the earth - the constant, abundant creativity exhibited by humans, animals, plants and even minerals (in the form of storms or tectonic slippage) - or do we view algorithms as largely tools and prosthetics - “extensions of man” in McLuhan’s phrase like hammers and automobiles - but otherwise exhibiting no true autonomy?
Afterward: On the Scriptor Project
These considerations have derived from my thinking about a platform for digital text art that I am developing called "Scriptor" that employs dynamically drawn fonts and doodles in their execution. These fonts are animated point by point, line by line, as opposed to imported TrueType or PostScript fonts that can only be manipulated as impregnable wholes. Scriptor letterforms themselves are fabricated in the spirit of children’s drawing with all their attendant, but expressive, imperfections. The font-creation program that I wrote to create letterforms for Scriptor offers no familiar features such as snap-to-grid or cut-and-paste that permit the computer to impose its peculiar logic - of symmetry, of infinite reproducibility - on the creator. My hope, with these projections, is to engage the eye in a dynamic interaction with the image, forcing the user to work between interpreting the image as an icon or letterform or as something in excess of meaning - a psychotic scrawl, for instance - a dialectic of image and text that I see in the work of abstract expressionist painter Cy Twombly and the graffiti artist Jean Michel-Basquiat among others. I’m interested in bringing digital textuality back to the drama of the hand making marks on the page: to dramatize the act of writing by hand, the plays of body and mind that are erased in standard typography.
What I hope to achieve is a bridging of the excess that one witnesses in the writing of bissett or de Sade (or in the productions of a pop artist like Warhol or the conceptual writer of Kenneth Goldsmith) with the possibilities of algorithmic art, in which excess - a native product of algorithm which itself has no social ethos, no place in time or space and potentially no death - is not linked to the body. My sense is that algorithmic art has to become dramatic but without attendant fictional or “mythic” narratives; algorithmic art has to provide an “objective correlative,” to use T.S. Eliot’s term, not in the form of stories but of events that recreate in the human observer the sensations of human bodily function such as sexual desire, physical tension, repulsion, psychic violence, etc. Algorithmic interactive artworks such as that by Camille Utterback that I described above are often premised on linking dynamically generated visuals with human gesture, but these works, to my mind, have been too quick to ascend into the ether - they are too easy, too pleasurable - beyond the drama of human possibility in terms of duration or quantity, and thus fail to invoke the basic drama that most engages us as humans: what it is that the human body can achieve or withstand given its limitations, its desires, it temporality. Video games, in contrast, create these sensations because of the physical engagement in a task - while not foregoing indeterminacy entirely, video games bond the user with the image in a dramatic interaction upon which all sorts of powerful human notions - the infinite, the beyond, even justice - attend.
I see re-integrating the digital linguistic sign with the mark of the hand as a hold against the seemingly endless proliferation of meanings described by Ngai. In the Scriptor project, letterforms attain some aspect of the “tensor,” that which is so singular in its presence that it is nearly immune to semantic slippage. (It’s worth noting that no active element in a video game can be subject to semantic slippage; items such as characters or objects are usually completely subsumed under a basic taxonomy: useful, dangerous or mere mise-en-scène.) Inspired by the research of Schmandt-Besserat into the origins of written language, I would like to trouble the space between legible letterform or icon and something more primitive, opaque, ideographic (to a reader of Roman script), and child-like, which is to say, illegible. However, I don’t want to figure this as “noise” - as some expression of the breakdown of information systems - but as something linked to the human drama of writing. Can a letterform ever repel in the manner of the turd described by Ngai in the earlier version of her essay, or the “harmful substances… shit… cumming” of bissett’s writing? I would answer: Yes, if you believe the psychology behind the letterform is unbalanced, and hence in an imperative sense threatening ontological instability.
Letterforms have long been subject to the utilitarian, largely antiseptic workings of the Swiss tradition as typified by Tschichold. The drama of the mechanization of the body and its attendant reaction narratives have long been part of the Western psyche as metaphors for the duality of the body and machine (Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis is an iconic example). The antidesign that Liu describes has been subsumed, nonetheless, under the aesthetics of “information cool,” absenting from it any possibility of social critique as there is no longer an “other” to put in its place - whether the Romantic Other of Nature or the Marxist Other of the historical dialectic. What I hope Scriptor will do is have the algorithm dramatize the human act of writing, an institution that, as far as I know, will never go away (unless the fingerprint finally replaces the signature our most unassailable proof of identification). Consequently, Scriptor dramatizes the subjection of the algorithm to human conventions of reading penmanship - the various ways we have learned to parse the excesses of written script - rather than the other way around (writing subjected to algorithm), thus providing us a different end of the telescope by which to view the promise of the “infinite” that algorithmic play offers. We’re taking language back!
Because the forms of Scriptor are defined by points that can be manipulated, it will be quite easy to “morph” between letterforms and other types of drawing. This is unlike the types of “morphs” that we’re familiar with in Flash or AfterEffects, in which one solid transforms into another with a sort of inchoate globular mass in between. In the morphs of Scriptor, the various elements of the drawing retain their autonomy; that is, the “strike” of the horizontal line in a letter “A” will remain a distinct strike until it settles into some other form. This is somewhat suggestive of the “transliteral morph” that electronic writer John Cayley describes - a “morph transliterally from one text (one table of letters) to another… letter-by-letter… the source letters [becoming] the target ones” http://programmatology.shadoof.net/index.php?p=contents/transliteral.html- though in his case certain letters fade in and out according to a function, with a Finnegans Wake-ish letter-salads forming the in-between stages. The integrity of the letterforms themselves remains a constant, even as the interpretability of the text is impeded. In my case, the letters themselves are morphed, and can waver between something legible (letter), something symbolic (icon) and something abstract (scrawl).One possible future with the Scriptor project is the recreation of some of the canonical typefaces, such that my fonts are a simulacrum of what we generally think of as realities on the web (Verdana or Times New Roman, for example) - these new sets of type would then be animated like any of the doodles in Scriptor. With a set of such faces, I could conceivably recreate some well-known web designs, such as the home page of the New York Times, but have every element of this usually stable structure engage in constant play.The dissolution of the text into complete noise is, thereby, avoided.
Handwriting, in some cases, can be taken to be a “window to the soul” in the same way that eyes are conventionally understood to be and in this way embodies affect. One’s posture and the nature of one’s movements are likewise expressive of a psychological, even ethical, predispositions. The entire premise of acting, and the standards upon which “good acting” is determined (especially method acting), are based on the ability of the actor to suggest interior universes by manipulating the material of one’s body. Handwriting is an extension of the body in such a way, and likewise, typesets can be seen as partaking in a material falsification of a “soul,” since it both reveals and conceals the hand. An anecdote: I have a friend who is quite ashamed of his reading disability who, when writing out a phrase or sentence longhand, can’t help but go back and “correct” his initial execution of certain letters repeatedly, such that many letters have been overwritten several times, while others are the single stroke letters that one associates with normal penmanship. I’m more frightened for my friend when reading his handwriting than when talking to him, simply because the handwriting seems like a trace of some massive interior struggle - some battle of conscious self with chaotic interior, an attempt to construct a social face - that points to deep instabilities of temperament. Meanwhile, in conversation he’s charming, focused and responsive. The effect of this overwriting - a losing attempt to improve signal while, in fact, adding more noise - is at the heart of the Scriptor project. I’d like to create literary works in which the letterforms seem to be engaged in this struggle between a chaotic interior and the public self. I’d like to create pieces where the issues of signal and noise, letter and scrawl, composition and deformation, etc. are constantly, insistently being dramatized.
Among the artists I’ve been looking at: Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose large canvases created with paint-sticks are a dynamic, strangely coherent, amalgam of graffiti tags, exploded cartoons and poems; Philip Guston drawings, especially his collaborations with poets such as Clark Coolidge and Stanley Kunitz, involving a recurring iconography (Klan figures, testicular Nixons, toxic cigarettes); Cy Twombly, whose large mythic canvases often involve texts alluding to sources in Classicism but who sacrifices the “all-over”-ness of classic Abstract Expressionism for wild imbalances between presence and absence; Ed Ruscha, who embeds single words or phrases in ambient, richly textured fields; poet Robert Grenier, whose post-book enterprises involve poems drawn in various colored pens which are nearly entirely illegible, even vaguely psychotic; and Stan Brakhage and other filmmakers who treat each frame of a film as a discrete image, such that, when presented at 24 fps, the norms of “persistence of vision” upon which realist cinema is predicated are thwarted (my Scriptor pieces generally run at 60 fps). Other artists I am thinking of include the painter Raymond Pettibon, Stephane Mallarmé (and the French Lettrists he influenced), John Cage (particularly his later mesostics), the experimental video game artist Messhof, the algorithmic painter Dextro, and the digital writer Jason Nelson who employs all sorts of scrawls, doodles, and other sorts of garbage in his work.
I’d like to think I’m working “against the grain” when it comes to digital visualization, opting out of cinematic realism - in which the flat screen is to simulate the lived reality of bifocal vision - and instead going for, in my mind, a more obtainable form of simulation: a parody of the flat plane of a page drawn upon with a pen or pencil on a computer screen.Some commercial game designers have utilized a sort of “brush-stroke” style along with cel-shading to attain a more stylized look to their 3-dimensional worlds. A prime example of this micro-trend is Okami (Capcom, 2006). In this game, one of the tools that the protagonist, a wolf named Amaterasu, can utilize is a series of magic brushstrokes, so that, in order to encourage the sun to shine, Amaterasu merely paints a circle in the sky. In an independent Flash game called “Suburban Brawl,” your goal is to beat out the competition in the real estate market by drawing quick sketches of houses made to order; you‘re punished if all you can manage is a series of simple boxes with a door and chimney, and rewarded when you can somehow get your mouse to achieve something more complex. A very conceptually-rich game, “Echochrome” (Sony, 2008) inspired by the drawings of M.C. Escher, has you rotating an apparently 3D object composed of beams, holes and trampolines, using accidents of perspective to clear the path as your protagonist walks around it. For example, if there is a hole in the path of the automaton that it will fall into, you rotate the object such that the hole can no longer be seen - obscured, perhaps, by a column. In this world of child-like vision, what you can’t see, but once saw, is no longer there simply because it is out of view. One’s faculty of object permanence is corrupted by the very tactics one uses to win the game. It is only when the protagonist is moving along the various beams that the illusion of three-dimensional space is held; once he is up in the air (having jumped or fallen through a hole), he is subject to the two-dimensional laws of the sketchpad.I also think the Scriptor principle can add a new dimension to the standard topologies of objects in video games, in which certain elements - a barrel, for example, or an enemy creature - more or less has a constant function or flips back and forth between two distinct functions (for example, the baddies in Pac-man turning blue when you eat a fruit and becoming prey)See Epsen Aarseth‘s Cybertext for rich description of such a taxonomy.. With Scriptor’s ability to animate transitions between letter and scrawl, between stability and chaos, and between legibility as one thing and legibility as another, I think a new element could be added to gameplay that more advanced forms of visual simulation would not be able to achieve, since Scriptor is based entirely on our perception of icons - what we understand to be a letter or symbol - and less on “realist“ modes of perception, in which something that is clearly poorly rendered entirely corrupts the illusion of physical reality See Scott McCloud‘s Understanding Comics (New York: William Morrow, 1994) for more on this.. Imagine one of the early vector-graphics video games, such as Tempest, or one of the newer games constructed of wire frame graphics, such as Geometry Wars (in which the background grid grows more perverted and distracting - unstable as a visual playing field - as the game increases in difficulty), and you‘ll get some sense of what I’m aiming for. Nonetheless, I’d also like to try a truly 3D game with the Scriptor principle, but rather than filling in the outlines with planes of color, I’d permit the game to remain in a state “wireframe” that is in constant flux, with elements flipping back and forth between 2D “sketchpad” space and 3D “virtual” or simulated space. These are just some of the possibilities I’ve considered and hope to find the time to develop.
Andrews, Bruce and Bernstein, Charles, Eds. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.
Aarseth, Espen. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1997.
Bataille, Georges. “The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy”, Volume 1: Consumption. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Zone Books, 1988.
Eisenstein, Sergei. Film Form: Essays in Film Theory. Translated by Jay Leyda. New York: Harcourt, 1969.
Hayles, N. Katherine. Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers.
Hayles, N. Katherine. Writing Machines. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2002.
Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971)
Johnston, Adrian. Time Driven: Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 2005.
Kermode, Frank. Sense of an Ending. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966.
Liu, Alan. The Laws of Cool. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Manovich, Lev. Database as a Symbolic Form. < http://www.manovich.net/TEXTS_07.HTM>
McCaffery, Steve. North of Intention. New York: Roof Books, 2000.
Meillessoux, Quentin. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Translated by Ray Brassier. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010.
Moran, Charles. Review of Of Two Minds: Hypertext, Pedagogy and Poetics. College English, Vol. 60, No. 2 (Feb., 1998).
Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.
Ngai, Sianne. “Raw Matter: A Poetics of Disgust.” Reprinted in Telling It Slant: Avant-Garde Poetics of the 1990s. Edited by Mark Wallace and Steven Marks. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002.
Olson, Charles. Selected Writings. New York: New Directions, 1971.
Raley, Rita. Interferences: [Net.Writing] and the Practice of Codework. The Electronic Book Review, September 2002.
Schmandt-Besserat, Denise. When Writing Met Art. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Selected and Edited by Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers. New York: Norton, 1977.
Sontag, Susan. Styles of Radical Will. New York: Picador, 2002.
Stefans, Brian Kim. Language as Gameplay: toward a vocabulary for describing works of electronic literature. Electronic Book Review, September 2012 <http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/gameplay>
Strickland, Stephanie. Born Digital. Poetry Foundation Website (undated). <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/article/182942>
Tschichold, Jan. The New Typography. Translated by Ruari McLean. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
Utterback, Camille. Artist’s Statement (undated). <http://camilleutterback.com/projects/untitled-5/>
Turkle, Sherry. “Video Games and Computer Holding Power.” Reprinted in The New Media Reader edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003.
Wark, McKenzie. Interview. Kritikos (Volume 2, April 2005)
Brian Kim Stefans is a poet and digital artist. He is an assistant professor of English at UCLA.