Speculative Aesthetics: Whereto the Humanities?

Speculative Aesthetics: Whereto the Humanities?

Maria Engberg
Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms, 1959-1995
C. T. Funkhouser
University of Alabama Press, 2007
Speclab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing
Johanna Drucker
University of Chicago Press, 2009

Maria Engberg reviews two books that describe the dialectical relationship between literary production, digital media, and literary reception from opposite ends of the historical and aesthetic spectrum. “Literary paleontologist” C.T. Funkhouser examines the born-digital poetry of the 1950s (and earlier), while Johanna Drucker writes an eye-witness account of the contemporary encounter between print literature, humanities research, and “speculative computing.”

At first glance, Johanna Drucker’s Speclab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing and C. T. Funkhouser’s Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms, 1959-1995 seem to be at opposite ends of a broad spectrum of digital literary concerns in our contemporary technocultural moment. Drucker’s Speclab documents a decade-long experiment using digital technology as method and analytic provocateur for the study of (the experience of) print literature. At the other end of the spectrum, Funkhouser’s Prehistoric Digital Poetry is an excavation of born-digital poetry works from the end of the 1950s onward. Drucker’s book is testament to the challenges that digital media can pose for the foundations of humanities, whereas a chronicling of born-digital literary and artistic works most concerns Funkhouser. Both books, however, engage with what we could call speculative literary practices, critical and creative. Drucker’s own definition of speculative computing as a project that “[pushes] subjective and probabilistic concepts of knowledge as experience (partial, situated, and subjective) against objective and mechanistic claims for knowledge as information (total, managed, and externalized” (5), foregrounds the division between humanities hermeneutics on the one hand and the epistemological foundations of computation on the other. This division seems to be haunting digital literature scholarship as well.

Both books exemplify the growing awareness of and need for a sophisticated understanding of the materiality of literature. How does a literary artifact or event come into being, and how is it received by an interpreting subject? This dialectic, most clearly argued in Drucker’s book but also evident in Funkhouser’s descriptions of pre-web digital poetry, poses challenges to literary studies today. It is in the scope of this dialectic that the two books work.

Drucker starts her chronicle of the 10-year project Speclab (short for Speculative Computing Laboratory) at the University of Virginia by positing digital humanities versus speculative computing. The former, she argues, is “instrumental, well-formed, and increasingly standardized” (19) whereas the latter imports the dimension of subjectivity of interpretation into data work, particularly into working with visualization and interfaces. The lab’s best known project, Ivanhoe, was built so that it would “provoke questions” (67) about the “intersubjective condition of [texts’] production and reception, and the ways their material existence is conditioned upon a discourse field” (67). Speclab, then, investigates the contact zone for the humanities in which visual art, information design, computer science and computer graphics, and cognitive sciences meet. According to Drucker, it is at this meeting point that we need to understand how unquestioned mathematical assumptions of computation prevent us from building and using tools that can instead account for texts as dynamic processes of subject, object and interpretation relating to each other. Drucker calls this relation “trialectics,” building on Peirce’s tripartite understanding of the sign.

In her attempt to shift the comfortable grounds upon which (unchallenged) theoretical claims stand, Drucker creates a set of “near, but not quite” concepts: aesthesis (instead of aesthetics), graphesis (instead of graphics or visuality), mathesis(to stand in for a particular kind of mathematically grounded thought). The nomenclature may seem jarring, and that is presumably part of its purpose, but it can also be alienating for some readers, as a recent review in Leonardo evidences.The reviewer seems confused by the intentionally provocative theoretical stance that Drucker assumes, and thus comes across as reading Speclab in complete alignment with unquestioned notions of mathesis (the self-identity of code for instance). The reviewer therefore seems to miss the main point of the book: to challenge some of the basic tenets of digital technology and humanities scholarship by way of allowing them to engage with each other in a critical and, to use Drucker’s preferred term, “speculative” manner. However, this shift in vocabulary does prompt the reader to rethink what goes into a process of interpretation, asking questions such as, how should we understand the value of visual information, such as interface design?

There are some central essays enunciating clearly and perhaps provocatively for some readers the philosophical tenets of Drucker’s thinking about digital artifacts. “From Aesthetics to Aesthesis” outlines the path by which she came to understand digital projects as “rhetorical instruments,” focusing not on their form but their existence as “models of knowledge production and representation situations.” Note the use of situation. Drucker reiterates throughout Speclab’s various essays the importance of understanding digital media work as a way “to provide embodied expressions of experience and knowledge” (128) based in the realization that a “visual form does something, rather than that it is something” (75, emphasis in original). “The ‘Patacritical Demon” recounts Drucker’s theoretical understanding of signs and of reading. “Graphesis and Code” applies this argument to the realm of images.

The case studies discussed are both theoretical and practical explorations realized through drawings, rhetoric, and software. Ivanhoe, the ‘Patacritical Demon, Temporal Modeling, Subjective Meterology, and the structure of the artists’ books digital archive ABsOnline, are all examples of outcomes from Speclab’s work. With her main collaborators, Jerome McGann and Bethany Nowviskie, Drucker designed these projects to examine the foundations of humanities research as it encountered electronic environments, particularly seeking to understand how the “interpretative task of the humanist is redefined in these changed conditions [of those environments]” (xii). The object of study in Speclab was generally literature in print - the 19th century novels that populated the Ivanhoe game or the artists’ books that Drucker both makes herself and collects. Even so, the investment in understanding how computational media form aesthetic objects and events is something Drucker shares with C.T. Funkhouser.

Born-digital poetry (although sometimes printed out and disseminated on paper) is Funkhouser’s focus. His Prehistoric Digital Poetry painstakingly maps the early history of what only later became known as digital (or electronic) poetry. As the title suggests, important expressive literary works were created by means of digital computers as early as 1959. Prehistoric Digital Poetry excavates a history of works that were forgotten by many and are still accessible to very few. A literary paleontologist by his own admission, Funkhouser has written a book that is, as Sandy Baldwin’s eloquent foreword notes, fundamentally open, as is evidenced by the fact that the examples of innovative poetries range from print to digital to oral. The aim, according to Funkhouser, is not to provide a set definition of what digital poetry is, or more correctly, has been, but rather to explore the various ways in which poetic experimentation intersects with digital technology. In so doing, Funkhouser relies on categories or genres that have become recognizable in the field: hypertext and hypermedia, codeworks, visual and kinetic poetry, and text generation. The last is presented as the origination of digital poetry. Funkhouser close reads works of these various genres and discusses their “technological foundations” and historical contexts, always with detailed description of a poem’s artifice.

Like Loss Pequeño Glazier before him, Funkhouser situates the aesthetic antecedents of digital poetry in various avant-garde practices of the 20th century. Following what has now become a common description of digital poetry’s lineage, Prehistoric Digital Poetry too juxtaposes Mallarmé, Dada, and the various Concretist movements with digital poems that seem to carry out similar aesthetic and poetic agendas or explorations. Throughout the five chapters and two coda sections, Funkhouser compares the poetics and textual condition of various digital works with forebears among the avant-garde. Visual and kinetic digital poems, by such poets as Jim Andrews, Harry Polkinhorn, bpNichol, Philippe Bootz and E.M. Melo e Castro, are read in direct relation to Concrete poetry and Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Des; hypertext and hypermedia in relation to Nelson’s original idea for hypertext. In the “Techniques Enabled” chapter, which moves beyond the title’s stop-date 1995, Funkhouser still maintains that although innovation and exploration of the properties of digital media continue (particularly in terms of reader interactivity), “one cannot successfully argue … that the works produced for the WWW radically advance poetic form” (235). Technologically and poetically, for Funkhouser, many of the ideas of digital poetry existed in previous artistic forms, stemming from modernist traditions.

In Prehistoric Digital Poetry, Funkhouser explicitly and repeatedly aligns digital poetry with modernism and postmodernism: “[t]he aesthetics of digital poetry are an extension of modernist techniques” and theoretically digital works are “in many ways typical of the postmodern condition of the text” (3). While this may be true for the poetry that Funkhouser spends most of the book analyzing, his conviction that those works “set the stage for contemporary works and can be used as a reference point for future forms” (8) is more doubtful. There are already digital poetic works that do not readily adhere to avant-garde aesthetic principles or political aims (works by Jason Nelson and Andy Campbell, among others, come to mind.)

This caveat aside, Funkhouser’s close readings of the poems and the historical situation in which they emerged provide an important source for both students and scholars. His insider’s view allows him to relate to events as they happened, and his training in particularly American experimental poetry (print and digital, as a poet and a scholar) provide him with a sophisticated context for understanding the poetic explorations of digital media as they became available for use in those early decades. A detail that will surely become important for future scholars is Funkhouser’s careful descriptions of related events and material, such as performances (for instance, Jim Rosenberg performing his highly visual poetry without access to a projector) or the role played by email and listservs in discussing and disseminating material. The catalogue of detail and the wealth of contextual material - while at times cumbersome for a reader who wants to read the book straight through - will be crucial for scholars long after the poems themselves are lost or inaccessible.

A word on terminology. The use of quotation marks around central concepts suggests a desire to disassociate oneself from them. In digital scholarship, they can point to our current dissatisfaction with, or increasing awareness of, the problematic nature of concepts’ perceived stable interpretative projective power in relationship to the dynamic processes of change in both the object itself and the interpretations of text. In Drucker’s “text,” “work,” “book,” and in Funkhouser’s “form” (1), “readings” (6) are such moments of “dissatisfaction.” These are pretty central words to be dissatisfied with, indeed. Drucker supplies some new terms, such as graphesis and mathesis, aesthesisand speculative computing. Interestingly, in Funkhouser’s book, for all its examples of experimental early digital works, poetry is not put under scrutiny as a concept, although that can be argued to be an outcome (if not direct aim) of many works that are grouped under the terms “digital poetry” or “electronic poetry.” We have to look elsewhere for analyses that explore critically what “poetry” or, rather, poetics, is in the digital age, with writers such as Alan Sondheim, Talan Memmott, Sandy Baldwin (here and here), or indeed in some of Funkhouser’s other writings.See for instance Talan Memmott “Beyond Taxonomy: Digital Poetics and the Problem of Reading”in New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories. Adalaide Morris and Thomas Swiss, eds. (MIT Press, 2006); Alan Sondheim’s The Internet Text; Sandy Baldwin’s “Against Digital Poetics” and “Ping Poetics,” both in ebr; and Chris Funkhouser’s “Cannibalistic Tendencies in Digital Poetry: Recent Observations and Personal Practices.”

The Social Network - What Is Coming?

Speclab and Prehistoric Digital Poetry both describe a (fairly recent) history of literary-technical experimentations and explorations. They present - implicitly or explicitly - models for much needed reconfigurations of humanities scholarship in the digital age, in terms of what we study and how we study it. Presently, digital techno-culture seems to be preoccupied with the notion of the “digital social.” With Hollywood films seeking to capture what our contemporary moment is about (e.g. Inception 2009; The Social Network 2010), newspapers and magazines discussing the possibilities for large scale data analysis and visualization for humanities scholarshipSee for instance “Digital Keys for Unlocking the Humanities’ Riches” by Patricia Cohen. November 16, 2010 The New York Times. The Software Studies Initiative at UCSD (director Lev Manovich) is an interesting take on what visualization may mean for humanities scholarship: http://lab.softwarestudies. - and we still hear warning voices about the damning consequences of digital technology for our very being, our thinking, and our ability to remember and reasonSee Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (W.W. Norton, 2010), and his preceding article in The Atlantic: “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” July/August 2008.- it seems urgent for humanities scholars to turn their gaze toward digital culture as a (difficult) wholeI take the term “a difficult whole” from Brian McHale’s The Obligation Toward the Difficult Whole: Postmodernist Long Poems. (University of Alabama Press, 2004). McHale has himself borrowed the term from Robert Venturi. The recently formed ASAP: The Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present (of which McHale is a member) argues in their mission statement that, “We need to work together to grasp the arts of the present as a (difficult) whole” referring both to the contemporary cultural situation of global digital culture and the academic need for the study of the present in the arts. Due to the specific scopes of the two books, and the time in which they were thought of and written (Funkhouser’s project, in particular, with roots in his mid-1990s PhD dissertation), neither text engages with the Internet’s latest social “revolution.” Although networked writing initiatives are discussed in both Funkhouser and Drucker, social media forms do not appear, for obvious reasons. Authorial function is more or less intact in both books, with a focus on a (singular) reader’s embodied and intellectual participation in the process of interpretation. This tripartite reading situation of object (and implicitly an authorial function), reader, and one or a series of reading situations, implicitly sets the books’ view of contemporary culture against the fake-anonymous crowds of social media in which individual users (while often not anonymous) assume the role of an individualized character in a digital swarm.An interesting corollary to the idea of plenitude and masses in our culture can be found in the cinematic digital crowd or swarm of Hollywood movies that Kristen Whissel analyzes in her recent article “The Digital Multitude” Cinema Journal, Volume 49, Number 4, Summer 2010, pp. 90-110. A challenging notion for both scholars and artists to take up, then, is that social media seems to speak against the strong authoritative force and artistic drive behind the works that both Drucker (artists’ books) and Funkhouser (digital poetry) discuss. The modernist poetics of digital poetry that Funkhouser describes, not incorrectly, is largely incompatible with the contemporary social creativity (for lack of a better term) of YouTube mashup videos, Facebook status update string narratives, Twitter feeds, and locative mobile “app-experiences” with their motley aesthetic and political pedigrees and agendas, unclear sender and reader positions (endlessly multiple), and transient status as objects.

Digitality has already profoundly changed the circumstances of human life (a claim that seems both preposterously overextended and mundanely accurate) and humanities scholars are grappling with the implications for our particular niche of cultural analytical practice. Through their thinking and in the shape of their individual projects, Drucker and Funkhouser provide models for continued collaborative work among humanities scholars and creative practitioners. Something is happening to literature, art, film, games - in short, to contemporary culture’s creative practices. Although not directly dealing with the contemporary moment, Funkhouser points to a recent history of similar experimentations that foreshadowed some of what we see in more mainstream forums today, and in so doing shows how important historical awareness is. Drucker exemplifies how scholarship can be and is challenged by digital technologies - if one understands certain philosophical biases embedded in their structures and interfaces. The contemporary digital moment, quite different from the one that shaped both of these books, continue to open up possibilities for cultural and critical production and challenge us to think with and beyond Funkhouser and Drucker.