Literal Art

Literal Art


John Cayley dadas up the digital, revealing similarities of type across two normally separate, unequal categories: image and text. “Neither lines nor pixels but letters,” finally, unite.

“The Pixel/The Line” was our rubric, a constructive irritant for the statement that follows. It implies, for me, an “and/or,” a contrast/linkage, a characteristically problematic relationship between graphic art and what I now call literal art. Moreover, since “line” is ambiguous, and “pixel” less so, it inclines toward an equally characteristic and underlying assumption that graphic art is predominant in certain contexts, including this context, that of digital cultural production.Graphic art in this context and others allows a continuity with visual art, fine art, and even conceptual and performance art; the relationship of verbal or literal art to these other practices remains problematic.

“Pixel” is unambiguously associated with digital graphics. Moreover, on the terminal screens of digital media, pixels are used to build up the images of letters. The “atoms” of one system of digital transcription – graphics – provide, in this context, a preferred delivery medium for the atoms of another – writing. But apart from what is perhaps yet another opportunity for graphic art to patronise applied grammatology, it is not usually understood that there is any great significance or affect that accrues from this “BIOS-level” process of programmatological generation. After all, do constraints that are imposed on the manipulation of pixels in order that they produce the outlines of letters tell us anything about those letters or the words which they, in turn, compose?

Now contrast/link certain circumstances pertaining to the line. Lines may also, of course, be graphic elements; yet here, I assume, we are reading them as “lines” as in “lines of text” or “lines of verse”: conventional units of writing, with delineated and potentially elaborated sense. A line is a string of letters, and letters are the “atoms” of textual materiality. Letters build words and lines in a manner that allows far greater significance and affect to emerge from modulation in processes of compositional or programmatological generation. By this I mean simply that the way my algorithms and I string letters together to make words and lines generates significance and affect far more quickly and with far greater cultural moment than the way my algorithms and I string pixels together. Like the difference between changing the style of your font and chngng th wy y spll or chaynjing thuh way u spehl.

Even this minute example reveals what I believe are profound differences in the way that our culture treats pixel and line. Note that rearranging the pixels of the words above engages considerations which are aesthetic and paratextual, matters of style, taste, mode, and so forth. all of which are undeniably meaningful and inalienably linked to the overall significance of, in this case, a phrase, a line, a fragmentary cultural object: changing the style of your font.

By contrast, even rule-governed manipulations of letters in a cultural object of similar form, “size” and “weight,” immediately evoke notions of legibility, error, and appropriateness; and any aesthetic effects of this literal programming may be stunned by these considerations, which are, as I suggest, of greater cultural moment.In case the rules are not obvious, they are: (1) spell without vowels and (2) folk-phonetic, or popular-language-guide spelling.

Paradoxically, or perhaps for these very reasons, the programmatological and, specifically, algorithmic manipulation of pixels – to generate or modulate images as such (including the images of letters) – is undertaken with a far better grasp of the significance of such manipulation. Because it is less directly engaged with signification; more a matter of inflecting acts of signification (although necessarily in a meaningful way). We all know, for example, what is suggested by algorithmic “blurring” as applied to an image, including the image of a word – it doesn’t change the word, it “softens” it, or whatever.Of course, in discussions of rhetoric there is explicit appreciation of language tropes similar to “blurring,” for example. In fact, my “or whatever” here is a minute but effective blurring filter. With text, there is as yet no accepted repertoire of algorithmic manipulations from, for example, letter to word to line. An important task for writing in programmable media is to address these difficulties and disjunctions. Interaction with text must be founded on its specific materiality, on literal art.For the materiality of language, of the symbolic, as it is here invoked, I recommend returning to Michel Foucault (1972), The Archaeology of Knowledge. Foucault is here working towards a definition of the statement in discourse and, while so doing, he makes clear the necessary difficulties and paradoxes of the materiality of language. Rejecting as its ground both any ideal underlying the statement, and the material of media that delivers statements, he characterises this substance as a “repeatable materiality,” one that depends on “possibilities of reinscription and transcription.” “The statement cannot be identified with a fragment of matter; but its identity varies with a complex set of material institutions.” In a sense the materiality of language arises from the fact of its being treated as an object that we “produce, manipulate, use, transform, exchange, combine, decompose and recompose and possibly destroy.” I would paraphrase this by saying that the materiality of language is a function of its programmability.

The world of letters has played a crucial role in the development of digital art and culture. Text is indeed “the web’s primary and foundational media”From Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s introductory remarks to SIGGRAPH 2001, panel AG1000, “The Pixel/The Line: Approaches to interactive text.” and the artists of text are poets. At first “poetic” does not seem promising as a preferred characterisation for a literary or literal art practice that shares in the critical challenges presented by so-called new media. Poets and their poems are the old “geniuses” and “masters” of both Enlightenment and Romance, not to mention High Modernism. But as a matter of recent historical fact, from Mallarmé’s “Un Coup de Des” to Jim Rosenberg’s “Intergrams” or Brian Kim Stefans’ “The Dream Life of Letters,” it is in the field of poetry and poetics that we have seen the most consistent and radical critical engagement with literal art. This argues that, in verbal art, if you wish to pursue a practice that might ally with that of contemporary digital art, then you would be wise to take a lead, or at the very least some cognisance, of contemporary poetics. However, I am making a stronger case, suggesting that poetics provides a preferred and even paradigmatic underlying or critical framework for what is currently called digital art, digital cultural production.


Literal rather than digital art. Poetic practice informed by the materiality of language has greater power to articulate cultural production than ill-defined digital practice.

I want to call attention to the bald abstraction and inadequate definition of the term “digital.” In general usage, the contrasting “literal” is a fairly flat term, associated either with letters themselves or with minimal, straightforwardly lexical relationships between linguistic signs and their potential significance. Note that this is precisely what is disrupted by the rule-governed and entirely construable manipulation of letter arrangements in the tiny example above. By contrast, “digital” seems, shall we say, far more exciting and diverse. Why so? At best, in its literal sense, it pretends to point to the materiality of the media it addresses. In practice, it is usually a placeholder, a way of bringing together a diverse range of work, and then lending that work a gloss of novelty and innovation which is more often an accident of association with the hardware and systems on which the work is played out.

In The Digital Dialectic, edited by Peter Lunenfeld (1999), there is, of course, a more concerted attempt to define the digital, in digital systems that “do not use continuously variable representational relationships. Instead, they translate all input into binary structures of 0s and 1s, which can then be stored, transferred, or manipulated at the level of numbers…” (Lunenfeld 1999, xv). He then relates this to certain qualities of production in digital culture, exemplified through a contrast with analog photography: the digital is “stepped” (because of pixels) and “crisp.” He somewhat fudges the relationship of digital to the overarching project of “new media.”

For him the latter term is the placeholder struggling for its paradigm-position with “postmodernism” and others. In terms of media discourse analysis, the telling point in his extended definition is a necessary statement of what seems obvious: “As all manner of representational systems are recast as digital information, they can all be stored, accessed, and controlled by the same equipment ” (Lunenfeld 1999, xvi [my emphasis]). This is manifestly now the case. All of the recording technologies discovered and developed since the late 19th century are digitized and therefore mutually transparent at the level of 0s and 1s. But what does this tell us about the qualities rather than the facilities of digital media?

I have proposed an alternate and more critically-theoretical generative definition of the digital. For me digital characterises any system of transcription with a finite set of agreed identities as its elements.More fundamental elements in such a system may of course combine into larger entities and thus generate hierarchies of lower- and higher-order sets of composite elements. It follows that such a system allows: (1) programmatological manipulation of its constitutive elements (without any threat to their integrity); (2) invisible or seamless editing of cultural objects composed from these elements; and (3) what we now call digital (“perfect”) reproduction of such objects.You can make a simple test to decide if you are dealing with digital system. Can you perform any of the above three operations? Are you sure that you are dealing with a system composed of quanta? Compare also the fundamental operations of storage, transfer and (conditional) processing in psychoanalytic thinking.

The point to make here is that literary cultural production in its material manifestation as writing has always already shared these defining qualities of the digital.See also John Cayley (1998), “Of Programmatology.” Although what I call programmatological manipulation of the elements of writing’s “digital” system has not often been self-consciously practised prior to the advent of our so-called “digital” age, it was a fully realised potential, as is demonstrated by the existence of, among other things, the Yi Jing (or Chinese Book of Changes), pattern poetry, acrostics, early universal language systems, the endeavors of the OuLiPo, the language of Joyce in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, the work of Emmett Williams, Jackson Mac Low, John Cage, etc. While all poetic writing might properly be seen as characterised by programmatological manipulation of literal materiality, in practice, especially since the Enlightenment and in the West, poeticising has been received as an inspired flow of organic lines recited from voices of genius. It is, rather, an alternative, radically formal tradition of letters projected from Mallarmé, through Dada into the currency of total syntax and post-Concrete visual poetry which nurtures programmatological literal art, linking to practitioners in so-called new media: Jim Rosenberg, myself, Brian Stefans, Paul Chan, and an increasing number of poetic practitioners gaining access to new tools.

On the other hand, seamless editing and digital reproduction has been an intrinsic and necessary part of literary culture throughout the entire history of writing, which, as a point of fact, depends (as does speech and all language activity) on “digital” reproduction: the eye must distinguish letters, bracket their accidents and recognise them as identities; the ear does the same with phonemes. Although print technology plays an important role in establishing and propagating these identities and the qualities they carry, please note that these “digital” qualities of writing are already present and persistent in any language technology. “Rose is a rose is a rose,” no matter how or where or on what it is written or spoken. The materiality of language establishes a poetic institution on the basis of this exchange.

It follows that the so-called digitization of literary phenomena is trivial and that “digital” is a redundant term (in cultural studies at least). It is used for media that would be better characterised as “literal.”

This may present itself as a ironic circumstance. I may appear to be proposing that we apply critical tools and criteria from a world of relatively conservative cultural authority, from print culture, from alphabetic minds, and attempting to use them to overdetermine our brave new world of networked and programmable media. However, it should be clear from what I’ve said so far that I am concerned with addressing the materiality of the media in question, rather than higher-order critical/theoretical structures. I’m trying, as it were, to turn our attention from lines of verse to the letters of literal art and to place the latter in a significant constructive relationship with the pixels of digital graphic art. My argument is that the material manipulation of pixels derives, culturally, from an underlying gasp of the manipulation of letters.

If the materiality of new media is indeed such a familiar and interiorized literal structure, then what is new about it? The answer to this is fairly clear to me. (1) There is genuine historical novelty and cultural innovation which emerges as a function of the discovery and development – at the end of the 19th century – of light and sound recording technologies. (2) More recently, in a related history that is still in train, we have, progressively, the ability to store, edit, manipulate and reproduce the material of art and culture in any and all of the recording and broadcast media available to us on the same equipment.


There is no software.
– Friedrich A. Kittler (1997)

… the unacknowledged programmers of the real…

Friedrich A. Kittler (1990, 1999) and other media discourse analysts have suggested that culture may proceed by recasting or downplaying the materiality of language, and reprogramming its agents and subjects in terms of specific technologies and institutions. Such analyses, for example, “flesh out” the deconstruction of print culture as an expression of Romantic logocentrism. Following on from Foucault (1972), mixing in Lacan, and with passing critical acknowledgement of Derrida, Kittler provides us with documentary media history and sophisticated analyses in which, for example, the problematic of the voice and authority of the poet and (great) writer is engaged with media history: McLuhan with all of the advantages of poststructuralism and poststructuralist psychoanalysis.

As such, Kittler shares (with me, for one) in the project of unravelling the (male) mastery of poetic genius. For Kittler, the “age of print” – epitomized for this East German intellectual as the age of Goethe – was (and to an extent still is) a period when, ironically, technologies of writing achieved what he and others see as a perfected, transparent “alphabetisation,” which then recited or ventriloquized the concepts of authorship, originality, individuality, intellectual “property,” and (male) artistic and intellectual mastery.See especially the chapters “The Mother’s Mouth” and “Language Channels” in Kittler, Discourse Networks. I am necessarily simplifying complex and rich arguments, which show how - in the discourse network of 1800 - the (maternal) voice reconfigured writing in a process Kittler calls ‘alphabetisation,’ concealing, for example, its literal, combinatorial materiality. “The Mother’s Mouth thus freed children from books. Her voice substituted sounds for letters… The educational goal of children in reading is to speak out the written discourses of others… Lacan’s definition of Woman exactly fits… She doesn’t speak, she makes others speak” (Kittler, Discourse Networks 34-35). “The Mother, or source of all discourse, was at the same time the abyss into which everything written vanished, only to emerge as pure Spirit and Voice” (Kittler, Discourse Networks 54). My first problem with Kittler’s analyses arises here. “Alphabetisation” is used paradoxically, and as an abusive term to indicate its opposite. In itself, the term unambiguously refers to the materiality of writing, to a popular conception of writing’s constituent structures. However Kittler uses it to refer to a system of inscription (his discourse of 1800) in which this alphabetic materiality has been recast and downplayed by the institution of the poet’s voice. The discrete literal entities of the alphabet have been successfully recited as a “smooth and continuous [analog] flow of personality.”I owe this formulation to the translators’ introduction in Friedrich A. Kittler (trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz), Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Kittler 1999, xxii).

Kittler identifies the moment of radical reconfiguration of the discourse network with the moment of discovery and development of new recording technologies: photography (little discussed), gramophone, film. Undoubtedly it was a crucial moment, a moment “When Old Technologies were New,” and surely the jury must still be out over the questions of the significance of this or that technological innovation.The reference is to Carolyn Marvin (1988), When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century. However, Kittler allows us to see that it is highly likely that the initial possibilities of: (1) recording and organizing the culture of sound; or of (2) recording and organizing the culture of light; or (3) recording and organizing, as it were, the culture of human time, will prove to be far more significant than the more recent discovery and development of programmable and networked symbol-processing machines. The role of the latter is recast as speed, convenience, manipulation and logistics (and perhaps the final emergence of posthuman culture), whereas the former technologies of 1900 radically altered the phenomenology and practice of so-called human culture.

In the world of language and letters, Kittler (1999) also discovers new writing machines, typified by the typewriter, of which computers are a sort of special case. Kittler, 1990. See especially the relevant section pp. 183-263. However, whereas the recording technologies of sound and light lead to entirely new relations with the Real and the Imaginary, the typewriter seems merely to continue to recast or downplay the Symbolic and its materiality, at best further dismantling the voice of the poet by exchanging adoring female recitalists for controlled and controlling machinic female typists. These are, of course, Lacan’s terms which, to grossly simplify, Kittler aligns with media as such: gramophone and the Real, film and the Imaginary, typewriter and the Symbolic. There are rich arguments and lines of thinking here, far beyond the scope of this paper. Momentarily, in media history, in verbal art and culture, the materiality of the Symbolic is reasserted, but most clearly for Kittler this is as non sense, the irrationality of arbitrary alphabetic transcription: Dada. For him, the media of symbolic manipulation, the typewriter/computer, including, perhaps, all programming, all software, is about to become machine and machine only: “the symbolic has, through Enigma and COLOSSUS, become a world of the machine.” (Kittler 1999, 262)

Yet it is hard to see how digitisation – by which I mean the digital transcription of any and all recorded data, sampled from the real – will fit into this current media discourse analysis, Kittler’s discourse of 2000. In more than one controversial essay, Kittler seems to show himself as a sort of hardcore reductionist, whose “so-called man” cannot be distinguished from machines that record, store, transfer and process, all with “no software” in the sense that, in the last analysis, there is nothing but “signifiers of voltage differences.” “When meanings come down to sentences, and sentences to words, and words to letters, there is no software at all. Rather there would be no software if computer systems were not surrounded by an environment of everyday languages.” (Kittler 1997, 150)

I have spent a good deal of time on Kittler not only because I believe that his arguments and contributions require attention, but also because I believe he provides us with one of the most sophisticated arguments explaining the most recent recasting and downplaying of the materiality of language, the subordination of line to pixel, in the context of so-called digital art and culture. How can one justify an engagement with verbal art, with language, when symbolic manipulation may be indistinguishable from the machinic symbolic? It’s far too tempting for workers in sound and light to adopt this supposition or to proceed with their work on its basis, in a hypercool posthuman irrational.

Of course, Kittler is concerned not only with media history but questions (after Foucault, 1972) of what, as such, a symbolic system is. If a symbolic system can be a softwareless “so-called man”-less machine, then that is a very significant conclusion. But it is unhelpful to a pragmatics of artistic production. Kittler’s statement that there ” would be no software if computer systems were not surrounded by an environment of everyday languages,” (my emphasis) is crucial and telling. They are so surrounded. It is impossible to so-called-humanly conceive of them otherwise, and to work with, against and amongst them. Not only that, but all the other media, of sound and light, are inside them, or using the same equipment (in more so-called human terms). Under these conditions, we cannot bracket or stun the materiality of language, the materiality of the symbolic, especially since it is our primary interface to the machine, for more than just historical or contingent reasons. The alternative is to abandon rich literal abstraction for the machinic banal or the machinic unconscious or the machinic real.

Linemakers, poets and writers generally, have long lost all claims to a mastery loaned to them by so-called print culture, by the discourse network of 1800. They must once again serve the literal matter of language, and as such they must serve the machine: typewriter, word processor, programmaton. Its literal symbolic materiality should, in turn, be recognised as intrinsically and necessarily, not only historically or momentarily, engaged with the entire gamut of cultural production that emerges from the generalised, networked use of programmable machines. So long as we talk and write over the heads of COLOSSUS, an appreciation of literal art in this sense will enable a more significant and affective analysis of culture than that now accruing from screen-grazing pixelated transcriptions of sound and light in terms of a banal and minimally articulated abstraction: the 0/1 digital.


Sidebar images


Nick Montfort responds

Johanna Drucker responds

John Cayley responds