Against Digital Poetics

Against Digital Poetics


Sandy Baldwin explores the distinctions between non-digital poetry, digital poetry, and e-literature in general, and considers whether or not such distinctions are ultimately untenable.

Andrew Burchiel:

John Cayley presents a substantial critique of Baldwin based on this essay’s initial presentation at conferences. Cayley’s critique is posed in a response to Joseph Tabbi’s essay “On Reading 300 Works of Electronic Literature.”


Earlier versions of this essay were presented at the MLA 2008 conference in San Francisco and the E-Poetry 2009 festival in Barcelona. Thanks to the following people for feedback on the essay: Jay Bolter, John Cayley, Maria Engberg, Aden Evens, Scott Rettberg, and Stephanie Strickland.

For example, a page from Jake Chapman’s Meatphysics or “Lip” by Alan Sondheim and Kim McGlynn. Examples of what?

“The sun deluges its chemical holocaust to the earth with blinding indifference” (Chapman, 1) begins Meatphysics and the tide follows for hundreds of unnumbered pages of the “vagrantly purposeless” (back cover). (See Figure 1.)Information disgorges and dissipates. Writing absorbs and saturates. Fast-forward flow. Nothing can be said about this book. Is it understandable? Is there even confusion for the reader - can we touch it: your confusion, my confusion? - which assumes some reading and some hermeneutic at work? Is the source of understanding in the code that eats at the writing, described by the book’s publisher as “a file-corrupting literature-machine that contracts and expands without final cause” The code spews over the pages. Is there a process or algorithm at work? I know you are thinking this: can this book be called “codework” and fit in a genre and practice that applies code processes to text? Does this genre even exist, which I doubt? Can we discover the pathology at work here, the underlying complex? Can we analyze the text and distinguish machine and author? Can we read the clever complex of the author in the wash of writing? Can we presuppose a semiotic that bookends and references the partially-sourced emissions at work in Meatphysics.

[Figure 1]

How about this: Jake Chapman, of the brothers known for their “fuckface” visual artworks, writes the book and signs it as the author Jake Chapman. Or, Jake Chapman writes the book and signs it as the author Jake Chapman, and a computer program alters it. Or, a computer program writes the book and signs it as the author Jake Chapman. The alternatives articulate the economies of writing the book. We are always in the midst of these economies: of the authorial project of Jake Chapman, of the brothers known for their “fuckface” visual artworks, or the hybrid economy of the human-computer collaboration, the “intermediation” recently described by Katherine Hayles (45). You want to know the answer, surely you do? Sandy, you idiot, complete the analysis and put the book where it belongs, extract the machine and the psyche, and lay them bare. What is this guy thinking? What is this code doing? Please, you ask, make this a writing that economizes rather than generalizes.

Here’s the answer: Jake Chapman, of the brothers known for their “fuckface” visual artworks, wants to shock and disturb, and the book shocks and disturbs. No, that’s not the answer.

“Lip” is from a 1995 Ytalk conversation between Sondheim and Kim McGlynn (Sondheim). “Extreme sexuality” is how Sondheim describes “Lip.” The writing is straight from the screens that McGlynn and Sondheim stared at. It begins “erection… around my balls… yes… across the screens… yes…” and continues through the repetitious and intense writing of the netsex between Sondheim and McGlynn.

Extreme sexuality not because of the content but because this writing is the extremity of bodily sexuality, extremity as surfacing or as distensions in and of a surface. Ytalk was a variant of the unix talk program allowing real time chat conversation. It was similar to IRC or instant messaging but with significant differences. First, Ytalk does not maintain the order of communication, but allows messages to overlap and insert. Second, it transmits the message character by character, rather than message string by message string, as in instant messaging. The results are lag and acceleration, hesitancy and withholding, force and exhalation, flows and stutters, streams of characters from unnamed talkers, keystrokes and erasures, pauses and accelerations of typing fingers.

The specifics of the interface organize the libidinal economy. To be specific: not so-called and never-occurring “materiality of media,” where an idealized media form determines content, but a sieving of contents that libidinize and inhabit the media form. I leave the phrase “materiality of media” unsourced on purpose, to invoke the arguments associated with Friedrich Kittler without necessarily asserting that they are his arguments. Psychoanalysis provides terminology for the results. The splitting of the terminal screen between the talkers makes the interface an ontological rupture and haunting. The interiorized topography of condensate and coagulate and chewed-over ASCII characters is dominated by the imaginary. The introjected screen becomes a site where the talkers are projected, the unnamed talkers, perhaps “I” and “you” projected and organized in the service of desire. What is given to the screen? Body parts, secretions, pressures, breathes, all excessively given.

The writing ends “..i can lick it taste it …taste itla;LKJ lip.” The limit I observe is pre-symbolic and intimate, that is, literally interior and inarticulate. The extreme again, the edge where ASCII turns organic. Do I read the limit, do I touch it? The conclusion of “Lip,” as well as every character and spacing of the writing, is not a sign but an organic membrane. Pre-symbolic in a specific manner: imaginary at work from the first, from and with the body towards an other who is always absent. The tethering of body to the screen imaginary of digital objects points to the relation Yukio Mishima explored between flesh and the ideality of words. This imaginary is keyed to the organic turn of the buffered characters in the talk session. The lags and delays are latent here: reading as the latency of breathing, of secretions.

Of course, there are institutions at work here. “Lip” and Meatphysics are signed and published and delivered. You can understand everything here as “netsex” or as indicative of the puerility of the author, as if to say “oh, typical of Sondheim” or for that deranged Jake Chapman, of the brothers known for their “fuckface” visual artworks. Make a case for it and out of it, but cases of what, examples of what?

What if these pathological cases - in all their flatness and printedness - are the best and perhaps only examples of digital poetics? Works typically described as digital poetry - or other cognate forms such as electronic literature - are not, or at least not for the reasons claimed. Or more precisely, those works may be digital poetry (etc.) but the qualities typically emphasized by critics in those works are not qualities of digital poetry, but are instead part of the phantasmatic role poetics plays for criticism. Digital poetics means the poetics of the digital, or - I prefer - of the net. Not the problem of defining electronic or digital or online literature but the problem of writing the net as the problem of poetics. Framing this is the historical relation to the book. First, to specific books and specific protocols, all as families of writings; second, to the total book, in the sense that the book and the world adhere and collapse.

The Electronic Literature Organization website states that the term electronic literature “refers to works with important literary aspects that take advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer” (“About ELO”). First thing to note: this definition does not offer a theory of electronic literature, instead it presumes one. It establishes a discursive field that can be applied to already-constituted objects, a set of statements that are possible and true for something called electronic literature. The ELO definition is one direction for digital poetics, where poetics means a descriptive practice applied to a field, though it does not address the root question of poeisis or the production of the field and its objects. This field is well-established. When The Guardian “Books blog” recently attacked electronic literature on the grounds that it was not good literature, it was a clear success for the institution of electronic literature, since to debate the quality of a literary work allows that it is already a work of literature (Gallix). Works of quality will be put forward - The Guardian admits to some already - and genres established, all in a matter of time. These are minor skirmishes in an inevitable forward advance.

I admire the way the ELO definition strives for neutrality and plurality. It softens its aesthetic claim with a kind of instrumental rhetoric. What constitutes this field is the principle of “taking advantage,” a principle which establishes a mutual relation between “capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer,” on the one hand, and “works with important literary aspects” on the other. What is the basis of this relation? It would appear to be aesthetic. The notion of “important literary aspects that take advantage” calls on both literary tradition and aesthetic value-added in the relation of “aspects” and “advantage taken.” The aesthetic presumed in the definition is unqualified, but presumably it means important literary aspects like those of non-electronic literature, or, at least by a kind of analogy: just as important literary aspects are in relation to non-electronic literature, so too these aspects will be in relation to the stand-alone or networked computer. A slightly more pragmatic reading of the ELO definition is offered by the organization’s president Joe Tabbi in his important recent work on the “semantic web,” suggesting that these important literary aspects could be arrived at folksonomically and through the wisdom of crowds (Tabbi).

The genres of electronic literature - some usual suspects are interactive fiction, hypertext, gaming, codework, three-dimensional spaces, and so on - are all keyed to the appearance of certain features-clusters. The descriptive poetics of these genres do not attempt a definition of electronic literature but presume that literariness is folded into the feature-clusters, which define the aggregate state of literariness in each genre. For example, interactive fiction balances between a parser and a simulated world in Nick Montfort’s account, while the now-classical theorizations of hypertext focus on play with lexia and link. Feature-clusters are performative emblems declaring a regularity that means “this is literature.” The performativity granted to the work of digital literature requires that we know exactly what the work is and what is at work. And this requires that we be very clear on the status of the medium.

Marshall McLuhan’s mediality consisted of the binarization of “the medium is the message.” This was the most advanced characterization of the sign since the older semiotic distinction of a tripartite apparatus of readable mark articulating signifier and signified. In McLuhan, the message is saturated by the medium without the indexicality of particular inscriptive marks. The recent theoretical interest in inscription reinforces this point by complex descriptions of inscription systems. Media may be all that are the case, but the case is not at all evident and therefore must be described. For McLuhan, electrical flow and its terminal in the computer formed the threshold of mediality. Of course, the content of a medium was always another medium. Our current situation of being able to theorize the digital medium - to treat it as content, to deal directly with flow and with the net - means that we are in the midst, in the medium of what we analyze. Medium and message collapse. We move into a Virilio-like “aesthetics of disappearance” beyond McLuhan’s distinction of medium and message, where there is nothing but haunted matter, nothing but the organic consistency of the screen.

Theories working from what David Wellbery calls the “presupposition of mediality” offer vain attempts to control this collapse of media as a source of knowledge (Wellbery xiii). The presupposition provides the poetic ground for the theories. Poetics allegorizes impossible relations and offers a simulacrum of reading a text. The best known versions of these theories is Hayles’ media-specificity and intermediation, both powerful allegorical tools, though the media discourse analysis of Friedrich Kittler offers another variation. Both present narratives of the foreclosure of media, separating media into zones where the form of inscription into the medium is subject to description. Media are a stoppage or barrier, but one that can be read. This is not a sensuous and inconceivable materiality of perception, but a materiality that is shown through analysis, peculiarly through exemplification in literary and artistic production. It is an ideal materiality functioning as material vis a vis representation. Materiality as the infrastructure of representation. Media, in this theory, are articulated with literary artifacts to provide a picture of materiality, a Wittgensteinian picture of the apparatus from outside of it, one that captures its functioning in a description. The result is literary criticism as a picture of the interactions between levels, for example: software and hardware, or interface and network, and so on. In all, this approach is too limited by the intractability of the symbolic, by the necessity for media to remain an ideality exemplified through cultural reflexes. The underlying mechanism of the exemplification is not explained. On the one hand, it relies on institutional supports; on the other hand, it relies on a more general concept of radical inscription or de-scription.

William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments” is available on many websites. Is it digital poetry? The discourse on digital poetry and electronic literature excludes the Sonnet - just as it does with its contests to instantly become a famous poet - and the logic is self-evident. Of course this is not electronic literature or digital poetry, runs the argument. The criteria for exclusion are clear enough: the sonnet does not take advantage of the digital medium, where “taking advantage” again refers to a set of aesthetic criteria. The sonnet exists on the web but is not digital poetry or electronic literature. In fact, this distinction between electronic literature or digital poetry, on the one hand, and literature that happens to be electronic, on the other, implies a complex of convoluted and finally untenable distinctions.

What if I make every phrase in Shakespeare’s poem link to another web page that provides a gloss or meditation on the meaning and context? Again, this would probably not be considered digital poetry or electronic literature. A decade ago, however, it would be impressive enough. You might dismiss it, saying that is “so 1998” or something like that, but the point is the historical spin on the aesthetic of electronic literature and digital poetry. Taking advantage of the medium means different things at different times. Perhaps, I instead use some xml on every word in the poem and use some sort of script to grab synonymous and homonymous phrases from the blogsphere, adding sounds chosen in a similarly algorithmic fashion - reading the web through the Shakespeare sonnet, as it were - and perhaps add a cool mapping feature for the results. I would wager I would have something that many would qualify as digital poetry or electronic literature and be willing to put on a syllabus or show at a conference and so on. But the sheer fact that I am able to describe such a hypothetical work, one which I will never create, shows that I am not dealing with electronic literature but a critical discourse on the features of electronic literature and digital poetry, and with how these features are articulated and given significance through relations to institutions. It is certain that such a work is not digital poetry or electronic literature, or at least not simply for the facts of its clever procedures and interfaces. Once again, it may be electronic literature or digital poetry but not for these reasons. The overlapping and shifting technical skill-sets, xml and scripting in the example, are necessary for the institution of electronic literature, necessary for articulating digital poetry and electronic literatures- relation to capital in order to ask for grants and academic positions and publications and so on.

Not feature-clusters but the sheer miracle of the sonnet’s appearance on the net is an outcome of its literariness. Critical narratives and descriptive poetics fail to deal with the phenomenology of this appearance. To allow the sonnet into the discourse of digital poetry and electronic literature threatens institutional grounds. The economy of signs putting in their place the signed works of electronic literature and digital poetry separates itself from this general expenditure of writing. Keep in mind that the sonnet deals with passion enduring through time; or more precisely, with the way the “ever-fixed mark” of love that in some way endures despite the passing of time. It deals with the writing of passion.

This writing is de-scription. As in the pre-symbolic radical inscribing or inscription as a radical in the text of Meatphysics and “Lip,” de-scription deals with partially-sourced emissions, intransitive screens where the surface is always body and not-body. De-scription is written into. It is not a trace on a foreign surface, as in the model of a pen and paper. It is a retrace or ray-tracing within the medium. It is characteristic of the net. The turn to the extreme, to the sexual or abject, to the “terminal point of a symptomatology,” is the net radiation of this retracing. The net is not cooled and mediated, as it is often understood, but intense due to the constant need to maintain it and feed it. Electronic literature as de-scription is a surface as constant surfacing occurring solely in writing, writing and re-writing the net from the real of a body that is always elsewhere. De-scription is gestural, as Tran Duc Thao argued for the beginnings of language. It provides a conceptual tool that is a provisional and entirely hysterical attempt at a digital poetics.

These attempts are part of the discourse under analysis. They give language to the net’s functioning. Critical narratives declare digital poetry or electronic literature “means this” or “means that.” These declarations are syntheses predicated on “taking advantage” of the flow of the electronic. They articulate forms and feature-clusters. They state the form and future of the net. The analyses themselves are on the surface of the net. It is part of the “saying” of the net. These narratives make “I” able to say what the net means. Or I try and try. My incoherence stutters and trips in attempting to “say” the net. Analysis turns hysterical.

The possible encounters with the extremes of Chapman and Sondheim are narratives of libidinal investment in the medium. All critical options emerge from a narrative economy premised on the stoppages and flows of the net. Critical narratives which describe electronic literature or digital poetry are not actually descriptions of electronic literature or digital poetry but allegories of this writing’s place in the net. These narratives do not produce knowledge but enjoyment, or better: they produce knowledge-effects enabled by pleasure. This pleasure is afforded by relations to institutions: the pleasure of being part of something, of an emerging field, of a new critical discourse. This pleasure is here in what I am saying too: give me a job, give me a kiss, let me kick you in the ass. The institution in the critical discourse on digital poetry or electronic literature pertains to fundamental questions of “group fantasy” in media, rather than to questions of individual, the fantasy of belonging, of being a part of history in the making. Electronic literature or digital poetry is not a set of signed works, but - as in the examples of Chapman and Sondheim - an oscillation between unsigned murmuring utterances across the organic surface, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the subjected groups of authors and critics that already signed their works and released them into programs of circulation and reading.

“The most complicated machines are made only with words,” writes Jacques Lacan (47). My title is “against digital poetics” to suggest the limitations of the current discourse on digital poetics but also to suggest proximity and intimacy, being up against the digital as the situation of poetics. Digital poetics must seek what Sondheim calls the “ASCII unconscious,” that turning sticky of the granular part objects of the net, the stickiness of signifiers in the service of desire. A final example: the 1992 Internet Request for Comments or RFC #1341 on “MIME (Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions): Mechanisms for Specifying and Describing the Format of Internet Message Bodies” by N. Borenstein and N. Freed (Borentstein and Freed 1992). There is a great deal to say about this text and other related protocols, and I will deal with them at greater length on another occasion. I will limit myself to the following: treat the net not as a new telecommunication system added to other writing systems but as a netting that captures or contains digital writing in a great ephemeral surface or skin, as a productive (poetic) layering of bodily markings and remarkings. In line with the latest turn on McLuhan’s theory, the RFC defines the message through an impossible and disappearing mixture of command and communication. Boundaries fold and collapse and the whole is tethered to the inchoate interior of bodies. Documents like this are a hidden poetics, and the source of “the becoming literary of the literal” in electronic literature.

Works Cited

“About the Electronic Literature Organization.” The Electronic Literature Organization. Accessed July 31, 2009.

Borenstein, N, and N. Freed. “MIME (Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions): Mechanisms for Specifying and Describing the Format of Internet Message Bodies” (RFC #1341). Internet Engineering Task Force. Accessed July 31, 2009.

Chapman, Jake. Meatphysics. Creation Books 2003.

Gallix, Andrew. “Is e-literature just one big anti-climax?” The Guardian. September 24, 2008. Accessed July 31, 2009.

Hayles, N. Katherine. Electronic Literature: new horizons for the literary. University of Notre Dame Press, 2008.

Montfort, Nick. Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction. MIT Press, 2005.

Lacan, Jacques. The Ego in Freud’s theory and in the technique of psychoanalysis, 1954-1955 (Seminar II). W. W. Norton, 1991.

Sondheim, Alan and Kim McGlynn. “l.txt.” The Internet Text. Accessed July 31, 2009.

Tabbi, Joseph. “Towards a Semantic Literature Web: Setting a Direction for the Electronic Literature Organization’s Directory.” The Electronic Literature Organization. Accessed July 31, 2009.

Wellbery, David. “Foreword” to Friedrich A. Kittler’s Discourse Networks, 1800/1900. Stanford UP, 2001. Vii-xxxiii.