Epilogue. Between the Academy and a Hard Drive: An E-cology of
Loss Pequeño Glazier
Crisis? there is no crisis
but tick of the pen
of teeth ticking
the shelled busses
lilies in parentheses, cupped hand of a lens
tiles ticking past
where we, real, wobble
-- Elizabeth Willis (14)
Hypertext could be commonplace before the century is out.
-- The Economist (London), 23 August 1986
I am / an architecture of sounds / instantaneous / on /
a space that disintegrates itself.
-- Octavio Paz (Selected 64)
Innovative print poetries have been defined in numerous instances in terms of their investigation of varying forms of textual materiality. Indeed one way to differentiate an innovative writing from one that is confessional, conservative, or that has not gotten beyond the tropes of modernism, is to look at how meaning functions in the work. Does the poem -- or the prose -- treat language as a transparent bearer of meaning? By contrast, an innovative work can be said to treat the making of meaning as problematic. Further, this criterion of meaning as problematic cannot be fulfilled by simply inserting vagueness into the text's narrative or by simply serializing elements, but is realized through an investigation of the material elements of writing in the given medium. In other words, from the viewpoint of innovative practice, "literature" is not a heavenly liquid drunk from a clear crystal goblet. It is the struggle with the goblet that presents the problem: its smoothness, its temperature, the way the concept of the liquid is changed by being in that goblet, the social group with which it is associated, the dysraphism present at the point the liquid makes contact with the surface of the glass, and other similar facts, that innovative practice pursues.
If this struggle between transparency and materiality is at issue in print poetry, then it is of even greater importance in electronic literature. This is especially true where the code/interface relation is concerned, effectively constituting three theatres in which the struggle with transparency can occur: code, interface, and text. How does one investigate these three scenes of activity? How does one describe their dynamics? How does one learn the contours of the digital text, its quirks, its marvelous interweaving of strands of code, surface language, the conditions in which it exists? How does one educate about temporality, discontinuity, error messages, material that is there one minute and is not the next, the "not found". Is it time to enroll in Digital Poetry 404? Can the e-text indeed even be said to be material? Clearly, the argument here is that it is material. To substantiate this assertion, a consideration of the criteria for such a materiality will be be considered in this Epilogue, as will traps in misreading the innovative in digital media.
Such a focus on the materials of digital literature seems particularly germane with the recent establishment of the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO) in October, 1999. This is an organization that seeks to "highlight the creative efforts of authors who are producing new forms of literary content based in electronic media", in the words of the flyer announcing the found of the Electronic Literature Organization. This is an important goal and such an organization could be a valuable agency in the growth of this literature, a literature, it might be noted, that is not as much "new" but present and active. We look forward to the possibility that this organization will accomplish the goals it has set before itself. More works will, of course, be forthcoming. As we look towards orchestrating the electric light that comprises this medium, what is crucial is to focus on what constitutes electronic literature. That is, one must eschew work that simply reinscribes literary practice bound within the shackles of modernism and other pre-digital textual modes, and look to works that are advancing the medium. We should look for works that are creating new paradigms for narrative and poetic practice based on the textuality of the electronic medium. To explain this, we can consider textuality to be like a pre-Conquest America. Rather than leveling the landscape and pretending it is merely an inert surface upon which to found an empire, let us plant our works within the context of what the medium brings to the scene of art-making, its materiality.
In reference to the investigation I propose, one that seeks an affirmation of the facts of the material struggle, I am reminded of the very Mexican exclamation, "¡orale!" "¡Orale!" means, "Speak it!" or "Indeed!" but with emphasis to the point of, "Tell it like it is!" The essence of the expression is in orating, or giving a correct oral message (that's the "oral" in "orale"). "¡Orale!" speaks to the engagement with the real of the activity or fact that is being asserted. What I think is essential at this point in electronic literature is to focus our attention on works that engage the "real" of the activity, continuing innovative practice in poetry and fiction. That is, practice that has provided a critique of cultural status quo and of our ways of reading as an apparatus of that status quo. Innovative practice has pioneered not only new media but new ways of perceiving through a given medium, a practice that has localized art not as a way of representing but as a way of making. As William Carlos Williams writes:
When a [poet] ... makes a poem, makes it, mind you, he takes words as he finds them interrelated about him and composes them -- without distortion which would mar their exact significances -- into an intense expression of his perceptions and ardors that they may constitute a revelation in the speech that he uses. It isn't what he says that counts as a work of art, it's what he makes.... What does it matter what the line "says"? (Collected 54)
Such a sense of making is what makes writing tick. ¡Orale!.
What Makes It Innovative?
One must acknowledge the innovations that have lead us to this point, the extraordinary work of Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortazar, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, and Louis Zukofsky, codex writers who created hypertexts that pre-dated the microchip. More recently, one must acknowledge all of the artists of "first wave hypertext" (print) and "second wave hypertext" (graphical) periods described by N. Katherine Hayles. These waves do, indeed, break into enticing surf. Yet, though valuable ground has been covered, I'm not sure we have yet framed literary digital practice in a way that would allow us to see the paperless forest for the digital trees. Have there been works in recent decades that surpass the codex precursors mentioned above? Or are our reading habits causing us to look at texts that are less than revolutionary? When it comes to locating the great literary works of the digital age, if they exist, it may well prove that in the present era one would find that the academic lens is focussed too narrowly to pinpoint the forest in front of which we stand.
The problem with the question, "Where can we find hypertexts appropriate for literary analysis," lies within the question itself. The same confusion exists in the fact that for many faculty with whom I work, despite the fact that my graduate seminar is titled "New Media Poetries" and my book is called Digital Poetics, I am known as "the hypertext guy". In other words one must stop associating innovative digital practice solely with hypertext. Link-node hypertext only constitutes a small part of the range of possibilities before us and may, indeed, be a specific ideology within print technology, as Aarseth has commented, rather than an actual digital technology. In this sense, hypertext merely remediates print in the electronic medium and does not, by this fact alone, engage the new technology. For that reason, we should stop assuming that if a work is in hypertext, it is by definition, digitally innovative. That is like saying, if I stood before you dressed in a pilot's suit, that I would be a pilot and not a poet. No, I would just be a poet in a pilot's suit, a fact that would have horrifying potential if I happened to be in the cockpit on your next flight -- though I could guarantee that the intercom announcements would be frequent and entertaining.
What Criteria Do We Use?
How then do we begin to construct a frame that would define innovative practice in digital literature? Let me suggest the following criteria, not as a definitive list but as a first draft of a list-in-progress.
1. The position of the "I". Innovative work avoids the personalized, ego-centered position of the romantic, realist, or modernist "I". We should consider such a sentimentalized "I", often concerned with its own mortality, as having passed away. Innovative practice is practice that often overcomes the "I" to explore material dimensions of the text. This is, as Robin Blaser has written:
that matter of language caught
in the fact so that we
meet in paradise in such
times, the I consumes itself
Indeed, the "I" exists in digital literature but not as an omniscient narrator. Rather, it is an initiator of a process that, once begun, "takes over", thereby consuming the "I".
2. The material. Text grows from code, draws from the drama of code, is rooted in the material of C, or HTML, or Java. We need to find the convergences and irritations that occur on the boundaries of code and text. That is, it is not interactive fiction but interactive friction that warms the text. To make the work directly related to its semantic-material context is a smart way to work. Smart, the way Atlanta subway system's URL,www.itsmarta.com, can be read both as "www it is marta dot com" but equally, given a regional pronunciation, "www it's smarter dot com". Or, in a more general sense, using landscape architecture as a metaphor, the new critical approach is to wipe out everything that existed at the building site and start with razed ground. The structure is built, then trees are later planted where others were torn out to give some natural look to the lot. In this approach there is little consideration given the contours of the land, its ecology, its material, or to what spaces are being covered and uncovered, as Peter Bishop has pointed out in The Greening of Psychology. (We need only consider the undersides of bridges to find the most desolate landscapes in the modern world.) An approach that embodies the best of the innovative is to understand the world that is there and to integrate the building within the natural contours and features of the landscape. This not merely a logical way to proceed but one that is eco-logical, in the best sense of both words. As John Cage noted in "Aspects of a New Consciousness", art is about becoming open to our environment. Accordingly, the innovative digital literary text employs an architecture that places textual structures within the contours and values unique to its medium, a practice of textual e-cology.
3. Enabling of new tools of intelligence. This quality points to an avoidance of the reinscription of authority, totalizing positions, and commodification of the artistic work. It suggests that writing should be seen, not as a personalized achievement, but as a series of strands in a larger social-spatial textual fabric (the network). It points to a sometimes jazz-like cacophony that sets the stage for the outburst of material properties to illuminate the site of the text. The honks, the squawks, the squeals that let you know the jazz instrument is brass, or wood, or reed. Further, as we explore ways to work in the medium, be they morphing programs or animation formats or algorithmic patterns; these tools are not viewed as ways to simply realize a personal project. Rather, as completely different tools in the artist's repertoire, they expand the metaphoric scope of the human imagination. For a modest example, the "alt" tag to the "image" of innovative jazz raised above would read, alt="Ornette Coleman, not Kenny G". As to the importance of programming to new modes of intelligence, it is no coincidence that the first program that just about every programmer writes is called "hello, world", a program that outputs nothing more than the simple statement on the screen, "Hello, world". This can be seen to indicate a new way of approaching the world, realized through the algorithm.
What Are Some Traps?
1. The narrative. The problem is not narrative itself but, as has been mentioned, the fetishization of narrative, or as Markku Eskelinen has described it, "pompous attempts to master the text". The narrative must not be intentional or manipulative. It must also be able to be random, spontaneous, and outside of traditional plot structures. The idea of plot can give way to a confluence of possibilities for the word to make meaning. Simulation, as Espen Aarseth has commented, is one of these future possibilities. There are many as yet untouched ways to explore character, identity, and action. What about the circulation of "cheat codes" which, when put into a video game can, for example, make your tight end able to run 100 miles an hour or make every player in the football game able to leap twenty feet high? In this light, I always wonder what the video game makers would think about my son. When he got a new football video game, he played it incessantly. His interest in the video game culminated with his learning to customize two teams, his and the machine's. He, a boy from Buffalo, then created a super team of Bills and a pathetic team of the Cowboys and now plays Superbowl games where the Bills incredibly score 350 points. But that's not the whole point -- the challenge for him is, on top of that huge score, to make it a shutout! In another game, NBA Live 99, he created a custom character named Charles Bernstein, endowed with high skill levels. Bernstein played a few games, performing brilliant one-handed 360 jams. But there was an even greater challenge in store. The next custom character to be created was Loss Glazier, just in time for a three-point face off with Bernstein. The results of that match will, for diplomacy's sake, remain undisclosed. I'm not sure that these examples are what the game makers had in mind but I think they show that alternate narratives do exist.
2. The link. It is time to stop thinking of the link as being, by nature, innovative. (John Cayley has referred to links as "nilsk" an anagrammic rearrangement that emphasizes their "null" value.) Further, the word should be circulated that link-node hypertext is not the only form of hypertext. It is simply the most common. And yet, its biggest shortcoming is its closeness to print. As Cayley notes, "A node-link hypertext can become a book and vice versa, but text generators require programmatons" (Programmatology n.p.). Programmatons, in Cayley's parlance, are computers. Thus he is insisting that the node-link hypertext and the book can be interchanged but the frontier of the innovative, the non-link digital text, requires the medium to support it. This is one way to evaluate the relevance of innovative practice in digital media.
3. The author vs. programmer. The idea of the author must be considered in relation to the concept of the programmer. The connotations that "author" brings to the text, power, authority, mastery of the text-producing fields, are often less than helpful for innovative writing. Yet the idea of the programmer, on the other hand, or poet-programmer might offer a potentially interesting alternative. The concept of a poet-programmer or prose-programmer is of a person who works among the tangles of the vines that yield the work. It is of one who sets up a series of events that culminates in the work as an action or execution of procedures. It includes a concept of intelligence that is more concerned with setting into motion a number of variables than trying to freeze, can, or embalm the outcome. The concern is, more specifically, with the parameters, character, and nuances of that motion, not with any one of its possible productions.
Where Do We Want To Go?
1. The field has to be reconstituted. In a similar manner to the way that Charles Olson re-mapped the concept of the field when it came to the relationship between typographic spacing and the codex page, we must admit code, the visual, and the transient to our concept of the field of the innovative digital work. As N. Katherine Hayles pointed out in "Print is Flat, Code is Deep", writing can no longer exclusively be considered the projection of ideas from the flat, uniform plane of print. (To such a distinction I would also add the "underworld" of the actual mark-up or programming language itself. There is a plethora of new fields to be furrowed!) The text now revels in radical forms of adjacency; a metonymy that comes from overlaying, collage, juxtaposition of visual elements, and forms of mapping. These are forms, I might add, that innovative print poetry has investigated extensively and from which many lessons can be drawn. Digital innovative practice can add to this the action programs realize and the concept of programming as writing.
2. The commune/web. To consider where our world stands in relation to a concept of open and shared textuality, we only need to consider a newspaper headline like the following: "Global Competition Fells Japan Tradition" (USA Today, 1/27/99, page 1). It shows that to be "gone global" is to take the paradigm of U.S. economic competition and, when the scale changes, simply transfer it to the new scale. What is ignored are the implications of "global". Take for example its ecological implications. It is not necessarily productive in the long run to fell things, traditions or forests, to maximize profits. Or again, an enlightened concept of "global" would include the fact that we collectively share a place, an environment, a network. In textual terms, it means that writing is a whole and that as individuals we are just a part of that whole. How much more interesting the "text" of a literary conference, for example, becomes when we consider the whole conference a text, rather than looking to an individual presentation for that sort of breadth!
3. The non-semantic, the spatial, and the polymedial open new registers in possibility for the text. It is crucial to recognize that emergent forms of expression may not necessarily be recognizable as variants of previous forms. In addition, forms that are "live", that execute in the presence of the reader, offer experiences in textuality a world apart from the rigidity of fixed paths through a textual field. Such concepts help locate new media within the innovative tradition.
Conclusion: What Are We Making Here?
text breaks into architecture of page
scholar riding in Capital C
-- Joan Retallack (Afterrimages 24)
Given such a topology of electronic materiality, we are then obliged to examine existing electronic literature to see where it would fit into such a scheme. Indeed, is all electronic literature innovative? Which electronic works push innovative writing practices and which rely on more modernist or new critical understandings of the "word"? Is materiality the way to make this distinction? What other attributes constitute the innovative in an e-poetry, hypertext, or other digital work of art? What valence does the visual bear? How do you classify the role of procedure in relation to a text that is produced?
We have clearly entered a new era; now we, as literary and cultural scholars, must take the next step. The question is whether we take advantage of this transition to recognize work that advances the possibilities of our culture or whether we only pursue accessible discourse and familiar models, simply reinscribing old values onto new media. We must wrest ourselves away from our moorings so that we allow our bearings to adjust to the medium at hand; we do not want to echo the genre-lapse of the movie review who describes a film as "a voluptuous page-turner of a movie". It is as if we have been given a huge, brand new, conceptually revolutionary operating system. The question then becomes, do we simply Laplink our old files to the new machine, or do we use this opportunity to reinvigorate and fortify our intelligence? What places us in that uncomfortable position between the Academy and a hard drive, is the fact that we must make a difficult choice. Can we defy our habits? Our idea of the digital literary work is confined by literary practice that has become habitual by nature; thus it is hard to see something anew and part with old habits. The hard choice before is to identify new forms of literature, not to look to old forms in new clothes.
I find the present social condition of the disposable environment to show a troubling lack of focus on the material (the planet, our relations with others, our shared intelligence). Art has historically addressed such issues and it is no different now. What is culturally necessary is to broaden ways of seeing. Digital technologies give us alternative and multiple ways to "make" the world. Engaging the materiality of the digital medium is a way to genuinely engage writing and is the path that must be pursued. As culture progresses through innovation, it is the innovative in digital literature that can open more doors to our relation to the text and to the world.
Literary culture in general is still not far from the computer phobia that existed in the early days of word processing. As digital media scholars, we must push our views about what we demand from digital art as far as we can, to pull literary culture along a little more. The digital condition is real and present; it is quite urgent that we address the live and vibrant fact of the digital literature before us. What do we need to do? We need to get under the hood of this silicon horse, roll it through the gates of academia, and, if I might refer to the fact that the first digital culture conference occurred in Bergen, Norway, pour out with brandished fjords. We need to discover adequate terms and an appropriate discourse to describe the unfathomed richness of the materials of the digital medium. We need to really get into digital textuality. We should demand more from our monitors and see beyond computerized works that could simply exist on paper, the way Amiri Baraka saw the limits of the typewriter of his generation:
A typewriter?--why shd it only make use of the tips of the fingers as contact points of flowing multi directional creativity. If I invented a word placing machine, an "expression-scriber," if you will, then I would have a kind of instrument into which I could step & sit or sprawl or hang & use not only my fingers to make words express feelings but elbows, feet, head, behind, and all the sounds I wanted, screams, grunts, taps, itches, I'd have magnetically recorded, at the same time, & translated into word -- or perhaps even the final xpressed thought/feeling wd not be merely word or sheet, but itself, the xpression, three dimensional -- able to be touched, or tasted or felt, or entered, or heard or carried like a speaking singing constantly communicating charm. A typewriter is corny!! (Technology 156)
Electronic media is physical; it is material. It is valuable to explore its possibilities through innovative practice. Echoing the passage above we might say that word-processed poems or less than revelatory link-node exercises would be, by Baraka's terms, also "corny". Offering not a real engagement with digital practice but, borrowing also from Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a "corny island of the mind". Let us take Baraka's suggestion to heart. Get into the guts of making in this medium. Emerge from the study with wires tangled in your hair, pixels in your spirit, happy to have found that physical interaction with the intangible that makes it making. ¡Orale!
From Open Letter, 2000