We are also delighted to hear from digital artist and scholar Jhave Johnston; Jhave was kind enough to respond to Theadora Walsh’s review of his book Aesthetic Animism (MIT Press, 2016). In addition to including Johnston’s “riPOSTe” here, you will find it posted on EBR here.
To start things off, in her review of Roh’s Illegal Literature, Dani Spinosa describes circumstances around literary works that sample from, mimic, and otherwise appropriate cultural texts. Calling Roh’s book “a literary and legal study of authorship and copyright,” Spinosa notes the long history of contention between creative authorship and the publishing industry and economy.
The legal battles explored in Roh’s text ask us to reconsider how readership, creativity, and book culture can be understood in relation to ideas of property, creative control, and copyright. It is an important distinction that the “illegal literature” that Roh describes and to which Spinosa links “plagiarists, parodists, and disruptive literature in general” is not the sampling of intertextuality’s past. Indeed, when Spinosa observes the shift from writing about authorship theoretically à la Barthes and Foucault to writing about the author in law and economy, I think she points to the transformation of how we understand content today. Content, creative or otherwise, is here framed as information, and the especial ease with which this is done so in an age of digitization (or, as Rockwell and Berendt describe it, “datafication”).
Such a crucial shift in how we think of creative content is tied to our treatment of texts, for instance, by way of copies and copy making. Mechanical and then digital reproduction have made us struggle to define, in scholarship as well as in law, what, in what forms, belong to whom, and as defined by what criteria.
I think of Henry Jenkins’ work on participatory cultures for his description of the consumer as an active producer in their own right: shapers of media products and entire media empires through fan-made art, fiction, and online/offline communities. These consumers, understood also as readers, are not passive, Spinosa holds. What is disrupted in one way, then, are the green light-granting figures of content production, discourse shapers, and canon makers.
In the vein of an imbalanced creative economy, Spinosa notices in Roh a tendency to idealize disruptive creativity: “we cannot praise the polyvocality and ‘gift economy’ potentials of networked computing (21) without also conceding that not everyone has access to this common.” Who is it, we might ask, who’s being left out?
Spinosa is correct that a further exploration of “bad disruption” is needed, and towards outlining one, I identify two kinds. Stealing content that is treated as information, content that is easier to steal because it has been abstracted from original forms as well as from the conditions of production, is not the same as stealing content through privilege—such as when minority individuals and groups have their work or even identities stolen. While there are many examples of this kind of theft throughout creative history, one of note is white American poet Michael Derrick Hudson, whose poetry became well-known after he began to publish under the pseudonym “Yi-Fen Chou”—the name of a Chinese woman that Hudson went to high school with. It is absolutely necessary to make these distinctions in “bad disruption,” which we could otherwise call uncritical disruption; the rhetoric of a gift economy of content sharing and sampling culture risks blurring the lines between proposed equal access and a system of privileged access indeed. The fact is that a gift economy cannot wax equality in the same breath that it is omits so many from producing. Who gets to publish disruptive work?
To truly not “disrupt for disruption’s sake,” there must be a reason to disrupt. There are particular groups that could benefit from this kind of work more than others—and they should be allowed to tell their own stories.
The ethics of sharing information and storytelling is explored in detail in Geoffrey Rockwell and Bettina Berendt’s essay, “Information Wants to be Free, Or Does It?: The Ethics of Datafication,” which also comes out this month in EBR. Rockwell and Berendt, two notable figures in the digital humanities, inquire into the creation, surveillance, and ethics of data when so much content—including the data that we produce of ourselves—is subject to a system of “datafication.”
A culture of sampling is posed here as a culture of sharing, particularly of sharing knowledge. Writing humanistically about new media technologies, Rockwell and Berendt take care to express their concerns surrounding the datafication of content about people and communities in particular. Stories, they argue, are in this sense not individual property at all—an interesting claim vis-à-vis the Roh text. Rather, by Rockwell and Berendt’s view, stories “belong to communities and are passed within the community.” The quality of stories as shared knowledge makes their datafication particularly circumspect: “What right have we to digitize these stories and store them up outside their context of telling?” The liveliness of the act of storytelling seems to oppose datafication, as that which is dynamic is difficult to store.
Please look forward to a review of Rockwell and Berendt’s essay in the near future!
And now, for Jhave Johnston’s riPOSTe to Theadora Walsh’s essay from last month:
I am honored to offer a brief informal response to Theadora Walsh’s review on EBR of my book Aesthetic Animism: the Ontological Implications of Digital Poetry.
First, a personal aside that segues into relevance … In chatting with Lai-Tze Fan after she invited me to write a response, I mentioned that I was mostly just a bit shocked (and pleased) to have received a review; I had self-esteem issues. And she asked if that’s how I really wanted to frame my response? And I, — recognizing her wisdom — sighed (thru chat) No, probably not.
But on second thought, digital poets toil in the shadows of Hollywood, MLA, hiphop, unicorns, ad-agencies, the art world, deep learning, and oligarchies; so most of the artists and critics in the e-poetry field can be considered as almost devotional maniacs sacrificing a rational career path in order to follow a somewhat nebulous emergent mediated epiphany. Self-worth issues are part of that package. That explains why I was happy to receive a review in a reputable venue that didn’t shred the book along the numerous fault lines that my intimacy with it makes palpable.
In Aesthetic Animism, I tried as much as possible to be of service to a community. Comprehensively and inclusively nodding to as many core key works as I could. To gather, compile, and catalog. I was happy that Theadora Walsh recognized that emphasis on “examples”. However, after the book was published, I swiftly realized how many gaps existed: a few major creators almost totally ignored, many misinterpreted — distortions marred my hoped-for-service. I began to feel guilty for omissions. I began to worry I would be hated.
To worry about hate may sound like neurotic nonsense, but within systems of attention scarcity, — and let’s agree that digital poetry does not attract either venture capital or meme vultures, but is scavenging along diligently within partial scarcity — turmoil strikes when egos, raised on the milky myth of genius, encounter the actuality of relative neglect, normative life, lithe minimal praise, gleaned attention. And it is in this lacuna from the central torrent of societal accusations that as a discipline, exchange occurs.
Theadora Walsh’s review begins with
David Jhave Johnston’s Aesthetic Animism is like the most erudite and well-researched Wikipedia page to have ever been committed to permanent form.
I laughed when I read the word ‘Wikipedia’ : it’s such a wonderful resonant complex contemporary compliment. Wikipedia may (in my mind, and perhaps in Theadora’s conception), strangely and paradoxically, represent the epitome of thoroughness: open, crowd-sourced, reviewed, fact vetted, and constantly revised; in ways, it outperforms peer-review (if you doubt this fact, consider science’s current internal conflict with reproducibility); Wikipedia for me represents a model for research that traditional humanities scholars may now question or even revile, but all utilise. Imagine a future where each book accepts comments, error corrections, and revisions. ELMCIP implements some of this texture.
What about a theoretical Github allowing forks of theory?
Here’s another insightful phrase from Theodora Walsh:
Aesthetic Animism is written in prose that metabolizes the academic through the sensibility of a poet.
Metabolism, Stephanie Strickland sternly (and correctly) warned me, in her editorial suggestions to an early draft of the book, is not used precisely in Aesthetic Animism. Yet, in some ways, metabolism is at the core of the project: to seed a density of description and examples that might allow e-poetry to conceive of itself as an autonomous organism. And, as Walsh correctly intuits, inserting the metaphoric sensibility of poetry into theory is a stylistic goal.
Johanna Drucker, Talan Memmott and many others (among them EBR luminary Davin Heckman) have already explored a hybrid poetry-theory terrain for e-lit. Drucker with extreme dexterity utilises language in a register that is close to a theoro-poetics. Memmott extruded theory into poetic-interfaces. Outside, the domain of e-lit, innumerable practitioners fuse word-poet-play with synaptic process: Lisa Robertson, John Berger, Susan Sontag, Jacques Derrida… So the membrane between poetry and theory is not sacrosanct but is a border that requires navigation. EBR editor Lai-Tze Fan, expresses the tendency as “writing as both a digital poet and scholar: where some content resists classic form”. Fan again offers an intriguing enigmatic commentary on the vital necessity of this growing process:
“photography and cinema’s failure to be those referents is shared by poetry’s grasping to become, making techniques of gesturing towards difference (montage, intertextuality, and so forth) relevant in much of twentieth century art and literature. “Suchness” and “thisness,” or, vitality and contingency”
Theory, when vivid and visceral, often involves mergers of analytic rigor with anecdotes, mashups of wordplay with formal necessity.
Theadora Walsh’s review does offer a nuanced correction:
Perhaps, in his desire to share the eudemonia he imagines promised by aesthetic animism, Johnston too quickly eschews the materiality of existence. …… Lisa Nakamura’s writing usefully tempers Johnston’s enthusiasm. She warns that “in order to think rigorously, humanely, and imaginatively about virtuality and the post-human, it is absolutely necessary to ground critique in the lived realities of the human. The nuanced realities of virtuality—racial, gendered, Othered—live in the body.”
Yes, I agree. Nakamura extends N. Katherine Hayles’ notion of embodiment into race. These are not the primary pivots I work with, but are crucial to “ground critique”. In these turbulent polarized times, the virtual is physical, ideology is intimate, and artificial intelligence reflects cultural biases and prejudices. The melting-pot of apparent intercultural happiness (eudemonia) often disguises or justifies systemic inequity, or utilises appropriation for exploitation by privilege. As Fan notes: “Theadora says that ‘the world writes upon our bodies’… ”. Soon the AI will write on us with us. Until then we write to each other.
Thank you, Jhave! Walsh’s essay can be found here, and Jhave’s riPOSTe will be posted soon.
As the term comes to a close, we at EBR wish you happy and restful holidays.
Associate Editor, ebr