Following the work of Jennifer Gabrys (in Program Earth), Carter contends that electronic literature has the potential to function as a mode of experimental sense-making. By exploring works by Tina Escaja, Mark Sample, and J. R. Carpenter, Carter reveals the limits and potentials of our data-driven epistemes - to expose that which goes unseen, and highlight its significance for how we come to know and respond to the challenges ahead.
In the two decades since the “Anthropocene” hypothesis was first posited by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer, debates around the cascading complexities and implications of a highly threatened, irreversibly damaged world have driven much critical and creative work across multiple disciplinary fields, with artistic praxis forming an especially radiant attractor for many important discussions and interventions.
As both a scholar and a practitioner in the field of electronic literature, I have found the Anthropocene’s posited dawn of a new geological epoch, inscribed by human activity, to be a catalyst for much of my recent work. Given the discourse around the Anthropocene is often centered on topics of pollution, toxicity, and mass extinction, I have sought to explore what life in a deteriorating climate and ecology might do to the ways in which we go about reading existing works of electronic literature - how we may yet understand their evolving significance – as well as examine how it may affect the creation of such works in the future - to consider what kinds of electronic literature await. My standpoint is that these issues are of significance to the field at a fundamental level, given the shared infrastructural foundation between the technologies upholding the contemporary digital media environment and those that model, measure, and map the degradation and disruption of the Earth’s ecology – i.e. the dual-role played by communications networks, submarine cables, orbiting satellites, server-hubs, and myriad electronic sensors. These technologies are not neutral bystanders in the transformations taking place, generating their own multivalent impacts as a product of their very functioning. At the time of writing, there are growing concerns over the ecological impact of digital systems, whether in terms of their increasing energy demands, the wastage of rapid product cycles, or the irreplaceable consumption of rare materials (see Parikka, who offers a pointed evaluation of these geomaterial economies behind all media production and access). Accounting for these aspects suggests important avenues by which to reassess the expressive dynamics of existing and future works of electronic literature. I recall here Timothy Clark’s rereading of Raymond Carver’s short story, “Elephant” (1988), in which the narrator shoulders multiple financial burdens imposed by his struggling relatives. Exploring the capitalist economics that underpin the tale, Clark considers their varied “scale effects” across daily, decadal, and geological timescales - re-ordering and re-framing the significance of the events recounted, even though, at first glance, they do not engage typical ecological subjects and imagery explicitly.
At the ELO 2019 conference in Cork, I spoke at the panel on “Ecologies” with Tina Escaja and Paulo Silva Pereira, which explored this very intersection between digital creativity and ecological thematics, dynamics, and materialities. Both speakers gave talks that offered rich theoretical insights and vibrant practical responses to the question of how we might yet read and produce electronic literature in-light of present environmental concerns.
In his conference paper, Pereira highlighted Steve Mentz’s point that we should be wary in our discussions of environmental change, particularly along the geophysical scales suggested by the Anthropocene, of collapsing myriad localised experiences into a monolithic vision of an imperilled global Anthropos. In his Stanford Blog, Mentz notes the problematic of adopting uncritically the planetary grandeur of Anthropocene rhetoric, which elides the unequal distribution of its origins and impacts, and thus observes its supplanting by the “Neologismcene” in the environmental humanities - cataloguing dozens of varied ‘cenes that seek to highlight what their originators contend are the key culprits, symptoms, and ethical demands of the present moment: Anglocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene, Homogenocene, Oliganthrocene, Plantationocene, Thermocene, and Trumpocene, to name a few.
A shared motivation behind these colourful labels is a recognition that the phenomena, dynamics, and potentials of the observable world are enacted through the seething entanglements of myriad intra-acting agencies, unsettling any a-priori distinctions between the organic and inorganic, mineral and media, biological and technological, human and non-human. Art offers one channel for unpicking these aspects, framing them for our observation and understanding, and making clear that the resulting perspectives are always, by necessity, situated, partial, and provisional in-scope. It is here that Pereira highlights the work of artist António Abernú, and his project The man who wanted to be water. Out of its many distinct outputs, there can be found a multimedia hypertext, @guaum conto digital (2013), which recounts the surreal tale at the heart of Abernú’s project. Here, the protean materiality of water is staged as an uncertain matrix of shifting and dissolving navigational links and audio-visual imagery. It is through this that the work articulates a network of entangled relations between the human and the hydrological, and so unsettling any straightforward boundaries between them. Indeed, Abernú’s writing also raises additional questions concerning the relations between the flows of information and memory across watery bodies and that of digital data across transoceanic submarine cables (see work entry in ELC Volume 3, “Editorial Statement”).
Escaja’s presentation was focused on recounting a selection of her richly creative work, which undercuts any traditional conceptions of an inanimate medium that is marked and moulded by the expressive voice of a human author. In her work Negro en ovejas (2008), Escaja re-presents imagery drawn from an original, site-specific performance in which sheep, marked by different words, were left to wander across a field, forming varied poetic arrangements in space. In its digital incarnation, the user highlights images taken of this performance, yielding different configurations of words in the process, and so drawing a suggestive relationship between the machinic actors that assemble and articulate the digital environment - with its myriad possibilities of expression - and the ovine actors of Escaja’s original performance.
In her subsequent installation, Robopoems: Quadruped@s (2015), this mixing of organic and machinic expression is especially striking. The work consists of a small flock of four legged robots, onto which the distinct parts of a single, bilingual poem are inscribed along their legs and chassis. The robots are then left to scurry uneasily around the gallery space, halting whenever they sense a human observer, and then reciting aloud their assigned parts of the poem in both English and Spanish - the poem itself being written from the machine’s perspective, engaging its anxieties over identity, existence, and agency (Picard). Escaja’s conflation of the insectile and the machinic here is deliberate, in expressing what she defines as the alienated relations between human, animal, and technical actors throughout the digital environment.
Across all these varied instances, nonhuman actors are situated at the heart of questions that might otherwise be relegated to the ostensibly humanistic domains of experience, identity, and being. Such entangling does not, of course, represent a novel creative or critical gesture in-itself, but it does demonstrate the potential of electronic literature in expressing and perhaps resisting the atomising, Cartesian perspectives that have had their own role to play in instigating and embedding present environmental crises.
As noted, my own work as a scholar and creative practitioner centers on the relations between electronic literature and the global matrix of sensory devices, networks, and infrastructures that generate the data behind many key environmental indicators. Here, I am invested in producing and engaging works that both not only explore the most evident questions of digital technology in the context of environmental sensing, but which also deploy their literary attributes to establish modes of sense-making that reach beyond the peripheries of our data-driven episteme. I have been influenced especially by the work of Jennifer Gabrys, who examines the performances by which machinic and material formations combine to render the world perceptible in ways that go beyond native human thresholds. In recognizing the active, contingent assemblages through which these sensory feats are achieved, Gabrys advocates the value of fostering a speculative sensibility: to go beyond the narrow confines of scientific and economic utility, and instead deploy the practices of environmental computing to help in realising new possibilities of worlding and being. Artistic practice here presents a ready path for such experimental intervention, and my concern is how electronic literature might function along these lines.
To illustrate the beginnings of such an enquiry, we might note the defunct Twitter bot Station 51000 (@LostBuoy) (2013) by Mark Sample - which, while active, transcribed the broadcast weather and sea state data from a scientific monitoring buoy using vocabulary drawn from Moby Dick (1851). Although the bot is no longer accessible on Twitter, its outputs offered an amusing juxtaposition between the dry precision of electronic data readouts, and the irrepressibly colourful phrasing of Melville’s writing: “Dip your oar into the 78.1°F water. Look your last. Ha!” (3:11 a.m., 8 November 2017), “Eh, watch it: 11 seconds between every wave. But after that nothing more. But Ahab can mend all.” (9:11 a.m., 7 November 2017).
What might we make of a piece like this, its undoubted whimsy aside? In its operational premise, it certainly highlighted the highly distributed, often obscure nodes that constitute globalized sensory networks. Nevertheless, as the above outputs illustrate, it also staged a contrast between the datafied representations that are generated by these oceanic infrastructures - following the logics of quantification, abstraction, and evidential traces - as compared to the idiosyncratic histories, cultures, and artworks that characterize Western maritime culture more broadly. The impacts of the latter - in the form of spillages, debris, and the greater effects of the human activities they enable - are inscribed subsequently into the very measurements and recordings made by these systems.
On this point, I am reminded of the romanticised image of the rugged seafarer, venturing out into the vast blue unknown, seeking out the riches of undiscovered lands or, indeed, the bounty of the ocean itself, and how this image emerged from, and yet also helped to veil, the quotidian logistics and banal brutality of colonial imposition and exploitation. The lines of power laid down by the latter still flow along modern international trading routes, as well as the geographic positioning of submarine data cables, and manifest also in the more recent impacts of over-fishing and underwater oil drilling, with whaling itself, the heart and soul of Moby Dick, experiencing a minor resurgence in recent years.
These observations aside, however, it should be noted equally that the capturing, storage, and dissemination of observational data has always been crucial to the prosecution and maintenance of maritime enterprises, whether in the traditional form of almanacs, coastal charts, and astronomical tables, or, today, satellite maps, weather reports, and radio beacons - technologies which often owe their widespread adoption to the demands of global seafaring.
The maritime domain evidently constitutes one of the founding strata of the contemporary globalised environment, one of the key economic and territorial bases on which much human activity is premised. It is therefore implicated profoundly in many of the environmental pressures, degradations, and disruptions that our sensory infrastructures are currently measuring - including, of course, those experienced by the ocean itself. Station 51000 has the effect of bringing these impacts full circle, belying Barthes statement that “it is true that [the sea] bears no message” (160), for the cultures of the sea, and of the world of which it is part, are always entangled with, and inscribed by, its flowing, restless, irresistible materiality - which, through violent storms and rising tides, will continue to inscribe itself irrepressibly into every message we may ever write going forward.
Another demonstration of how electronic literature can mobilise the relations between data, ecology, and language is found in J.R. Carpenter’s This Is A Picture Of The Wind (2018), which uses live wind data to remix a personal weather diary kept over a period of months, following a series of violent storms that caused catastrophic flooding across the South-West of England.
In this work, the tools of poetic expression are deployed alongside those of automated weather observation, with human and nonhuman actors authoring what is effectively an account of the lived entanglements through which the greater forces of environmental change become sensible to us.
As Carpenter notes (“About”), we cannot sense the wind directly, only its varied impacts, and our attempts to articulate it through the frame of language establishes an interesting dialogue with the latter’s slippery grasp on the observable world more generally - and, indeed, its potential inadequacies in this regard. Nevertheless, what I take to be the most striking aspect of Carpenter’s work is the contrast it establishes between the quiet, intensely nuanced focus of her writing, and the seething matrix of data involved in the production and dissemination of automatic weather information. The latter forms an excess of digital representation that matches the scale of the infrastructures involved, but these afford us nothing like the affective insight provided by Carpenter’s words, which capture the transient encounters and flowing moods that characterize our deep immersion at the bottom of an ocean of air. Nevertheless, we can note still how this same vast infrastructure gently nudges these same words every time we access This is a Picture of the Wind - a sense of collapsing ripples in ghostly floods of data being registered by the recording device of Carpenter’s pen. Additionally, we can note also the exacting sea charts that background the text itself, and the beautiful works of art they represent in themselves. It is in these two aspects that we come to acknowledge, once again, the concrete entanglements between the protean, nonhuman agency at the heart of Carpenter’s work, the wind itself, and the varied sensory apparatus used to record its effects: whether in the form of networked weather stations, writing implements, or cartographic drawings. As with Station 51000, we are reminded, in short, that there are a multiplicity of modes of sensing and mapping the observable world, and although these operate at different scales and durations, and are often associated with different disciplinary forums, their perspectives are not incommensurable, and when combined provide insights that are all the more valuable for apprehending the varied impacts of a changing environment.
My own minor contribution to these kinds of hybrid, data-driven works of electronic literature is in the form of a speculative digital writing project entitled Waveform. In this project, a drone is used to fly above incoming ocean waves and take photographic records of the patterns generated. The resulting body of visual data is then processed using a simple machine vision algorithm that attempts to separate land from ocean, drawing a boundary marker across each image. The data points that demarcate the resulting threshold are then used to drive another algorithm which generates text resembling free verse poetry - its stored vocabularies, and subsequent outputs, being curated to engage themes that relate variously to scientific practices of measurement and classification, as well as the coast itself, and a changing climate.
I have written extensively about the technical and critical aspects of this project in other forums (see the articles “Drone Poetry”, and “Waves to Waveforms”) and so I will confine my remarks here to noting that by parsing a detected scene into different kinds of visual, numeric, and poetic outputs, Waveform stages how sensing is not a straightforward assimilation of a sensed object by an observing subject, but is a performance in which myriad perceiving and interpreting actors, biological and machinic, come together and actualise different potentials of viewing and knowing - a stance that follows on from Gabrys’ work, as well as that of Karen Barad.
It is this aspect that is shared by all the highly varied works of electronic literature discussed above. In illustrating the range of responses in electronic literature to an age of precipitous environmental crises - with the febrile debates and strident actions that accompany this - these works suggest the value, still, of the quieter powers of creative expression in resisting the rising tides of a warming world. In the work of Abernú, Escaja, Sample, and Carpenter, we see how their use of the literary form, with its radiant possibilities of meaning and affect, demonstrate how our knowledge of the world, and our place within it, is never a Cartesian or Apollonian affair - an omniscient view from nowhere. Instead they show how there are countless variables at play - of affect, embodiment, and situatedness - in the processes of how we come to sense and make sense of rapidly shifting phenomena and events. These crucial qualities are not well captured by our quantitative, data-driven episteme, if at all, but they are, nonetheless, foundational to how we experience and respond to the immediate impacts of a transforming world.
Electronic literature affords a powerful means of engaging and articulating these challenging aspects, and are prime instances of the kinds of imaginative, experimental enquiry that Gabrys advocates, facilitating insight and empathy towards the seething networks of organic and inorganic actors within which we are enmeshed.
@LostBuoy. “Dip your oar into the 78.1°F water. Look your last. Ha!” Twitter, 8 Nov. 2017, 3:11 a.m., https://twitter.com/_LostBuoy_/status/928218437066817536.
@LostBuoy. “Eh, watch it: 11 seconds between every wave. But after that nothing more. But Ahab can mend all” Twitter, 7 Nov. 2017, 9:11 a.m., https://twitter.com/_LostBuoy_/status/927946654795423744.
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---. Robopoem@s" https://proyecto.w3.uvm.edu/robopoems/Robopoemas2020.html. Accessed 3 May 2020.
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