John Cayley responds in turn

John Cayley responds in turn

2004-03-21
Riposte to: 

John Cayley replays what is literal and literary in the digital.

In a controlled example of the proliferation of “threads,” I now have to find a way to relate disparate responses back to what I may have written, or what I should have written if I weren’t so short on lines. Very much to the forefront in Monfort’s and underlying Drucker’s comments, is a sense that, in “Literal art,” I may be downplaying other low-level “alphabets” (systems of transcription and manipulation) - number, logic, “the materiality of binarism.” However, there is no sense in which I would care to discourage practice or serious critical engagement at any position in the fields and structures of culture. It is simply that when certain kinds of cultural production are seen to be privileged or are given the gloss of novelty, as compared with other practices, because they are characterized or instantiated as “digital,” this calls us to re-examine both the sense of this term and the implications of its usage. On the one hand, I claim, the sense is ill-defined; on the other, its use downplays existing cultural practices, particularly certain literary practices in poetry or poetics which have - always already - the significant features of the so-called digital. For writers - both in traditional and in networked and programmable media - the problem remains as to why literal abstraction in the context of language art does not have the same cultural sway as, for example, the varieties of abstraction which are familiar to a wide range of viewers and listeners from visual, musical and now new media art. I take this problem to be implicated in the rise of a “digital art” and “new media” practice that ignores or denies its own implicit poetics.

Clearly, I concentrate on those aspects of the poetics of programmable media that are of specific concern to my own practice: the literal and the literary (so long as the latter term is read as explicitly engaged with its own materiality). Both Monfort and Drucker quite rightly recognize a number of non-literal practices in the various fields of programmable media from which a distinct poetics might be derived; that is, aspects of digital practice entailing a poetics that could not be reduced to the digital characteristics of literal art which I identify in my essay. These should indeed provide certain ways in which “digitization affects poetics.” Drucker points to the “materiality of binarism” and a historicization of algorithms in the work of Knuth and his commentators; Monfort invokes the underlying abstractions of logic engines, the development of Boolean algebra, and the role of programming languages and “compilers” which, as it were, shift a text written at one level of user/processor address to another. All of these could be highly suggestive for generating and identifying a distinct poetics of the digital. But it is remarkable that this is precisely what is in large measure lacking from the current cultural studies of digital art, to the extent that not even the foundational role of literal text-making and its rhetoric is, to my mind, properly acknowledged in either the theory or practice of networked and programmable media.

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