Message to Rif/t
September 2, 1994
I was electronically published for the first time
recently. I don't know, I didn't really feel any
different the next morning...
- said at a poetry reading, 1994
Is the body electric now the network electronic? (Whitman a holy avatar of oneness wandering lonely America, or herald of cyber-flow interconnectedness? How would Pound have constructed his cantos had he had hypertext? Would the Surrealists have found the Internet marvelous? Was Richard Kostelanetz merely a body of data waiting for the net in order to circulate and find-ever-changing-form?) That is, is the electric circuit ("energy is eternal delight"-Blake) of one seemingly discrete body/psyche, described by the charge going from mind's eye to hand's gesture (leaving aside for the moment questions of the material of the gesture's reification) and back to body's eye-and later translated laterally to other discrete body/psyches-now to be not only incorporated in an expanding net of lateral transmissions, but actually subsumed in a circuitry of speech and response amounting, at least momentarily and provisionally, to a collective corpus of synchronous expression/impression? And if this latter proposition is true, or even true some of the time, wouldn't that lead to some amelioration of the alienated chauvinist individualism that inhabits all our attitudes toward body, psyche, and other, and translates so directly into chauvinisms of nation, race, religion, and other appurtenances of individual identity? Isn't this the real social stake in the ideology/praxis of the network?
(Wait a minute, haven't we been down this road before? Telegraph-oh Mayakovsky-radio, TV...what sorts of connections have they created-everyone knows the theme from "Twilight Zone"?-and what kinds of alienations have they erected/re-enforced-is a telephone call or a letter more "personal"?-and haven't they principally been the means to more efficiently organize the mass of people as passive object rather than self-aware subject precisely for chauvinist adventures and persecutions? Didn't the radio "love" Hitler? Didn't the TV "love" Ronald Reagan? But the computer network above all promises interactivity, precisely the instrument-it is said-to reverse the objectifying and pacifying flow of existing electronic media and thereby complete their circuits and fulfill their liberatory potentials. Cyber-Marxism? Wait a minute..."the working class" now sees itself as "the consumer." What does this mean for all synthesizing propositions based on the social progressiveness of material advances in the means of production, increasingly regarded as the means of expression, or most accurately the means of production of expression? [This last not a quibble since the man/woman on a literal soapbox is totally irrelevant, that is, soundless.])
What I'm really trying to ask fellow writers in Rif/t: do they locate the on-line computer at the site of lateral transmissions (having to do primarily with audience and dissemination) or do they locate it in the original circuit of creation/composition (having to do with the aesthetic forms/values of the work of art itself)? And if the latter, how precise can they be about the value-transformations that are emerging from this new means of production of expression?
Rif/t, in its various explications of purpose and intent, wisely eschews cyber-utopianism, but seems to raise questions concerning the on-line computer's place in artistic composition in a way that %believes in% the disembodied space "imaged" by the network. There can be no doubt that there already are, and will be many more, artistic works originating exclusively from the means of expression of the computer, and existing exclusively in the "space" of the network. These works will be either new kinds of works, breaking with past conceptions of art, or continuations by other means of old kinds of work, or most likely, syntheses of these two propositions. But out of what material conditions will the answers really arise?
My own concerns are mundane, are in fact centered in the body, in the body's actual experience, rather than in cyber-space. My concerns have to do with the rigidity of the body and fixedness of the eye in front of the computer machine. This physical rigidity far exceeds that imposed by previous "writing machines," such as the typewriter where eye and head movement, physical adjustments of the apparatus, even, in the case of manual typewriters, the varying rhythmic weight of fingers thumping keys-expressed in the sound of the armature striking and the weight of the typed letter on the page-not only preserved but required a field of physical action that recalled the writer to his body, the site of his active being. Even in regards to TV, which requires a fixedness of body and eye exponentially greater than that called for by movies projected in theatres-which not only require moving butt to theatre, but also calls for the eye to roam over a large screen to get the picture, and thus to recall itself in the act of viewing-the computer requires an almost complete immobility of the eye. (Book reading, to make another comparison, requires great sagas of eye travel, which is greatly aided by our tendency to shift the book around.) Over time this immobility weakens the eye-actually reduces its potential-and one may wonder if there isn't a corresponding effect on the psyche, and especially on that element we call imagination. (Recall the relation of Rapid Eye Movement to dreaming.)
My concerns also have to do with the fact that the physical set-up of the computer, like the TV, depends upon rows of lights flashing at subliminal intervals directly into the eye, thus embodying exactly the most common mechanism of hypnosis, and that viewers of TV and computer screens are, therefore, in passive hypnotic-suggestive states that tend to preclude the transformation to self-aware subject regardless of the content on screen. Not for nothing is TV the mother of all advertising mediums, which has little to do with the rational content of TV commercials. Not for nothing do we tend to remember the most irrational elements presented on the tube, while "educational"-that is, rationally communicated-elements evidently go down the brain drain. (We remember how Kennedy and Nixon looked, not what they said.)
I am also concerned with the fact that computer logic itself is rigid, angular, even, we should say, linear, even if multi-linear (all the spokes on a wheel are straight lines). (To this problem, "fuzzy logic" is, at best, a fuzzy answer.) In my day job editing a film magazine, I see in the many publications and other printed matter that come across my desk how the design capabilities of computers and certain software programs are driving not only the graphic design that is actually done, but are reshaping what people regard as "good" and "sophisticated" design. In this case, the almost limitless possibilities for graphic design suggested by a pencil and pad, and maybe a box of crayons or color markers, is being rigorously channeled and conventionalized by the use of the computer and its menu-driven script. What presents itself on one end as an increase in the ability to realize design conceptions, presents itself at the other end as a constriction of the freedom to conceptualize designs. One may well argue that while this is true for the strata of amateurs whom the computer is allowing, for the first time, to design at all (the computer being in this case, at least initially, liberatory), this is not likely true for the design professional whose trained imagination-and ability to sketch-merely incorporates the computer as a sophisticated tool, or as one of many platforms-including sketching-for conceptualizing. I hope this is true. But such is the pervasiveness of hypnotic-suggestive electronic media, and the habits of mind it inculcates, that I wonder if professionals in any field are as much above the tides of common conditioning as they might hope.
This brings me back in another form to my simple-headed question concerning practice: Do most design professionals still sit with pencil and pad and sketch their ideas and then go to the computer to elaborate, refine, and realize, or do they begin at the computer? I'm suggesting this question, however simple-headed, is extremely important. (Recently I saw a documentary, "N is a Number" by George Csiscery, about Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdo"s who roams the world collaborating with colleagues in the search for "elegant" solutions to difficult mathematical problems. Interestingly enough, Erdos and colleagues, who occupy the mathematical high ground of creativity and research, are never seen working at computers. In fact, they walk in parks, they talk, they scratch lines in the dirt, draw shapes on bits of paper, mark equations on blackboards. Bodily motion-one mathematician is a juggler who says he gets his most creative insights while juggling-seems essential to their creative praxis, as is conversation, physical proximity, physical space and, we might say, a certain environmental harmony. The example of one of the century's foremost circles of mathematicians having arisen from a gathering in a city park still looms large in the minds of mathematicians. In this film they even say, in effect: "Oh no, we never do that on computers...computers are for the tedious number-crunchings needed to prove or disprove hypotheses...but for coming up with hypotheses we need to walk, talk, scratch in the dirt." Even juggle. Very interesting, given a rough parallelism between research mathematicians and, say, poets. If, in such a technical field, the most creative minds are alive to the need to preserve and even extend the body as the site of creativity, in clear contradistinction to the realm of computers, it is odd that creative writers and artists would not be even clearer on the matter. But, in fact, one hears almost nothing.)
My proposition and bias, then, is that the qualities and values of artistic work that are originated on computer, or are born within computer networks, will be determined more by the conditions imposed on the body by computer use than by actual or theoretical possibilities of cyber-space itself. It follows that the reception of works of art on computer, regardless of the site of origination, will be similarly determined. These determining conditions, as I have enumerated them, are rigidity, angularity, linearity, and a hypnotic-suggestiveness that may preclude the full play of the creative imagination. If so, then the computer is simply another, though exponential, step in the relentless mechanization of humanity initiated by industrialization, and the computer's potential to contradict this "meaning" of all industrial machines-ultimately transforming that meaning into its opposite, that is, turn machines into tools that help us humanize ourselves-will prove as spectral as all past technology-based models of liberation.
My overarching concern, then, is that one hears very little about the effect of the physical conditions of computer use on the work that is being done on them. We hear about carpal tunnel syndrome and loss of eye focusing power in relation to constant, repetitive use of computers in "cyber-sweatshops," but never in relation to people's mental capacities or states of mind, especially in creative work. (Though I recently read that electro-magnetic fields may play a significant role in the incidence of Alzheimer's disease.) (Recall the opening chapters of Jerry Mander's "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television," where he summarizes what was known up to that point about the physical effect of TV-watching on brain-wave states. Others more in tune to cyber-discourse may have recommendations for further reading.)
In my own experience, my entirely portable and accessible- under-all-conditions 4" x 6" sketch pad, which I fill with odd lines, drafts of poems, sketches, doodles, notations of fact, questions for further review, etc., remains for me the least-mediated, most plastic, hence freest space (I would almost say "purest" in the sense that there is no apparatus but that of the imagination) available to me for the conception of original works, and the space in which I feel the greatest connection to the action of the work itself. Thus I still compose first drafts of poems and stories in long hand. I notice I need to doodle as I think; that my mind creates its pace by means of the idle or purposeful motions of my hand, which needs to feel free to move in all directions. Not even the final published work gives me the same sense of its organic (created by an organic being) nature. I have never felt this sense of connection with the work (with myself?) on computer, though I have worked quite a lot on computer for a number of years. Of course, all this may be just an individual's habit and prejudice. It is true that under deadline pressure I have taken to composing my journalistic-that is, linear and expository-works directly on computer. But I have learned to always always revise these pieces, and also proof poems and stories revised on computer, in hard copy. When I go to the hard copy I almost always find strange lapses of sense and structure-or just plain loopy oversights and lacunae-that I attribute to that strung-out waking-sleeping state I get during extended periods of working at a computer.
(However, when I first heard about Rif/t from co-editor Glazier, I was immediately excited by the possibilities for flux, continuity, and multiplicity in the presentation of literary texts that would seem to be distinctive to the computer network. I had been at work, and still am, on several cycles of poems all carrying the same title, "We." The repetition of the title on each poem and cycle of poems, with its simple and complex denotations and connotations, was meant to signal the breaking down of linear progression, of the idea of the discrete work of art, and even, to a degree, of the idea of the discrete author. The poetry itself features sudden shifts in tone and meaning, juxtapositions of intimate and public language, quotation and "off-quotation" from various, and various kinds of, sources. I have even considered opening the series to other poets to write pieces for which the only rule would be they read the existing poems and title their poem "We" [an idea for which the net would seem to be the perfect instrument]. For reasons having to nothing to do, at least consciously, with the conceptual world of computers, and everything to do with my own perceptions vis a vis literature and society, I had taken this tack in an effort to approach a meta- language that would reclaim some collective and public space from the suffocating strictures of individualism [which have perhaps found their most oppressive expression today in the cult of the artist, the cult of the poet]. So I saw a natural marriage of my own aesthetic aims with the praxis of Rif/t. [At least one "We" poem appeared in Rif/t version 1.0; an entire series should appear in the next _City Light's Review_])
So it seems we may already be at least half-asleep at the screen-though we may be convinced we are wide-awake-forgetting our own bodies as the site of experience in the rush into cyber-space. It's important to remember, after all, that the Luddites weren't wrong about machines. They only lost the argument.
- composed entirely on computer in
one sitting with a lunch break
ANBI03.01 and RIFT03.01 copyright (c) 1994. All rights revert to author(s) upon publication. Texts distributed by RIF/T, e-poetry@ubvm, or the Electronic Poetry Center (Buffalo) may not be republished for profit in any form without express consent of author(s) and notification of the editors, but may be freely circulated among individuals for personal use provided that this copyright statement is included. Public archiving of complete issues only, in electronic or print forms, is permissible provided that no access fee is charged.
Responses, submissions, and queries to: E-POETRY@UBVM.CC.BUFFALO.EDU