How to Think (with) Thinkertoys: Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 1
How to Think (with) Thinkertoys: Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 1
Adalaide Morris considers ‘tutor texts’ in the Electronic Literature Collection and, in doing so, articulates a poetics for the emerging field of e-lit. Instead of fulfilling Ted Nelson’s dream of ‘computer lib,’ the most compelling entries in the Collection emphasize the continuing necessity of writing under constraint. When the revolution
turns out to be, not a liberation from a culture of control but its
transformation, practices long familiar to experimental poets in print become generalized throughout new media and their panoply of
“Our greatest problems,” Ted Nelson declared in his 1974 back-to-back double tract Computer Lib / Dream Machines, “involve thinking and the visualization of complexity” (330). What Women’s Liberation aimed to accomplish for gender, Civil Rights for African Americans, gay and lesbian rights for sexuality, and the New Left for workers, Nelson’s Computer Lib envisioned for the ways in which we use our minds. Its engine - the microcomputer or desktop “dream machine” - was for Nelson no less revolutionary than the social ferment contemporaneous with its development. “The human mind is born free,” Nelson declared, repurposing for an informational era Marx and Engel’s industrial call to action, “yet everywhere it is in chains. The educational system serves mainly to destroy for most people, in varying degrees, intelligence, curiosity, enthusiasm, and intellectual initiative and self-confidence. We are born with these. They are gone or severely diminished when we leave school” (309).
In targeting educational institutions, Nelson had both short-term and long-term goals. His short-term goal was to expose the idiocy - “even evil” - of notions of computer-assisted instruction that endorsed and perpetuated boring, rote, anxiety-inducing, curriculum-narrowing “testing of a kind we would not permit on delicate machinery” (311); his long-term goal was to sabotage the linear-thinking that not only generates these notions of testing but makes the world safe for slogans, sound-bytes, and by-the-book spiritualities. Administered from the top-down and engineered to shape both knowledge and the students who absorb it into manageable “subjects,” school systems, he writes, “all run on the same principles: iron all subjects flat then proceed, in groups, at a forced march across the flattened plane” (308).
Nelson’s alternative to this lockstep is the utopian Project Xanadu, which he began to conceive in 1960 as a network of personal computers with a user interface that “[a]ny nitwit can understand” (303). Instead of predetermined sequences, items, and teacher-driven conversations, Project Xanadu would allow students to move at will through conflicting materials. “Never mind optimizing reinforcement or validating teaching sequences,” Nelson advises. “Motivate the user and let him loose in a wonderful place” (313). Well ahead of the Apple II desktops produced in the late 1970s and early-to-mid 1980s, the hardware and software Nelson envisioned would store multiple versions of documents, display their differences, and encourage users to wander, leap, or sprint through multimedia records, “list, sketch, link and annotate the complexities we seek to understand, then present ‘views’ of the complexities in many different forms” (332).
In naming his scheme “Project Xanadu,” Nelson appropriates a charged poetic landscape - the flows and chasms of Coleridge’s “Ballad of Kubla Khan” - to position the microcomputer as a “pleasure-dome” that instantaneously and as if by magic reshapes the structures and strategies of consciousness. The “dream machine” Nelson envisions is, it is clear, not just a gizmo or a contraption, a faster way of calculating, a better form of word processing, but the harbinger of a revolution in thought that is visible in the sixty pieces that compose the Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 1, edited by N. Katherine Hayles, Nick Montfort, Scott Rettberg, and Stephanie Strickland and distributed free not only on the Web but also in a sleekly packaged CD-ROM available from the project’s instigator, the Electronic Literature Organization.
Each of the pieces in the collection has been (re)programmed to run on Mac, PC, and Linux operating systems and hardware and is therefore available - at least in theory - to any conceivable array of students, thinkers, and tinkerers. The screenshots on the welcome page cross genres from cartoons and graphic novels to slick commercial splash pages, from digitized slides of viruses to snips from computer operating systems and clips of hexadecimal code for JPG images, from overlaid diagrams to game board mock-ups, from geological formations to collaged cultural artifacts. Among the many varieties of digital compositions accessible through these screenshots are work that plays by itself, work that combines and recombines online or print sources, work that foregrounds speech, music, and sound effects, work that references and displays on its interface formal computer languages like C++ and Perl, constraint-based experimental compositions, engines that mine organized collections of data to generate endlessly various semantic and syntactic patterns, texts that are navigated through links and nodes, constructions that are operated like games, and word hoards arrayed in lines that run not just across the screen’s height and width, its x- and y-axes, but out along a z-axis into a third dimension.
If in Nelson’s terminology each of these texts is a “thinkertoy” - “a computer display system that helps you envision complex alternatives” (330) - the collection as a whole is a toybox filled to bursting with the cognitive processes of a digital era. Italics in the original. Nelson’s terms are useful for analysis because they emerge from the workings of intelligent machines rather than from other cultural systems. See also his terms “docuverse,” “hypertext,” “stretchtext,” and “cybercrud.”
Its index or table of contents is a rectangular grid of clickable screenshots arranged on a field of bright blue. When a shot is moused over, the title and composer(s) for the piece it references pop up on a miniature billboard in the grid’s lower righthand corner. Archived by author, title, and keywords, each piece is prefaced by a brief editors’ introduction and author’s description, a set of straightforward instructions - “To hear the sound, turn on the computer’s speakers or plug in headphones. Click ‘Start’ to begin” - and a byline giving the composer and/or programmer’s email address, website, and selected publications. Although by no means pieces for nitwits, they are packaged to be available without the fuss, muss, and confusion caused by breaking links, design quirks, and the rapid proliferation of interfaces, mark-up languages, software, and browsers. You don’t have to be a geek to be motivated and let loose in what Nelson would surely call “this wonderful place.”
Like the Norton, Heath, and Oxford Anthologies, the Electronic Literature Collection makes available for the classroom a canon of materials that constitutes a field. It includes a number of the classics by which the category of “electronic literature” has been defined, represents creators at work since the development of hypertext software in the 1980s, and introduces writers who program not only for stand-alone applications and Internet formats but also for the immersive, virtual reality environment of Brown University’s CAVE and the display spaces of contemporary museums. CAVE is an acronymn for Cave Automatic Virtual Environment. For a description, see http://graphics.cs.brown.edu/research/cave/home.html. For an example of this work, see Cayley’s “Torus” and his essay “Lens: The Practice and Poetics of Writing in Immersive VR (A Case Study with Maquette)” at http://leoalmanac.org/journal/vol_14/lea_v14_n05-06/jcayley.asp. The composers of these pieces reside both in and outside North America, write across national languages, teach in universities, compose and sell books, write code, run websites, and/or moderate email lists devoted to the discussion of electronic poetics. Along with the scholars who think with and through this work in print or in pixels and assign it to students in wired classrooms, these writers and programmers are shaping the discourse through which electronic literature will play its role in culture.
The Electronic Literature Collection is, however, and emphatically, a collection of “literature” in electronic media, a genre in development since the first-generation hypertext poetry and fiction of the mid-1980s. The Electronic Literature Organization defines “electronic literature” as “works with important literary aspects that take advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer” (“About the ELO”). For the definition of “first-generation electronic literature,” see Hayles, Writing Machines Web Supplement Lexicon Linkmap. In this review essay, therefore, I want to put the term “literature” under pressure by isolating for analysis several charged and compact linguistic constructions I will position as “poems.” Although this means scanting an equally compelling subset of materials that more closely resemble “narrative” or “fiction,” This includes Interactive Fiction or text adventures like Jon Ingold’s “All Roads,” Dan Shiovitz’s “Bad Machine,” Emily Short’s “Galatea” and “Savoir-Faire,” and Aaron A. Reed’s “Whom the Telling Changed” as well as hypertext fiction such as Michael Joyce’s “Twelve Blue,” Judd Morrissey’s “The Jew’s Daughter,” and Stuart Moulthrop’s “Reagan Library,” and Tim Guthrie’s hypermedia version of Lance Olsen’s avant-pop novel 10:01. it includes a rich mix of constructions - ambient poetry, concrete poetry, audio or sound poetry, kinetic poetry, procedural poetry, poetic mash-ups, codework, database poems, hypertext poems, 3D poems, instrumental texts, and textual instruments - engineered to subvert the linear thinking that drove Ted Nelson crazy. Along with their narrative or fictional counterparts, these pieces “involve thinking and the visualization of complexity” and engage our “intelligence, curiosity, enthusiasm, and intellectual initiative and self-confidence.” They are “poetry,” however, as the collection’s keyword list explains, both because they are “under continual construction (poiesis) by [their] creators and receivers” and because their creative and cognitive strategies resemble those of experimental print poetry. For a sustained argument connecting digital and experimental poetics, see Glazier’s Digital Poetics. They are, to return to Nelson’s coinage, thinkertoys that help us comprehend the visualizations of complexity we create in tandem with digital machines, visualizations that have more frequently taken place in living rooms and basements, dorms, arcades, offices, and wired coffeehouses than - at least, until now - the literature classroom.
Nelson’s term “computer lib” crosses the technological with the social and the political in a way that gives his double-sided tract both prophetic flair and an air of sixties naiveté. His certainty at the beginning of his career that digital technologies will revolutionize what and how we think coincided with the groundbreaking mid-career arguments of Eric A. Havelock, Jr., Walter J. Ong, S. J., and Marshall McLuhan, who first independently and then in concert theorized the cognitive, social, and political effects of the transitions from oral to print and print to electronic cultures. For Havelock, between spring 1962 and spring 1963 - a span that saw the publication of Havelock’s Preface to Plato, McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy, and Jack Goody and Ian Watt’s extended essay “The Consequences of Literacy” as well as Ernst Mayr’s Animal Species and Evolution and Lévi-Strauss’s La Pensée Sauvage - “a dam in the modern consciousness appears to burst, releasing a flood of startled recognitions of a host of related facts” (24). For a brief discussion of this moment, see Chapter 3, “The Modern Discovery of Orality,” in Havelock’s The Muse Learns to Write (24-29). For these scholars, media are - to borrow the subtitle of McLuhan’s 1964 Understanding Media - “extensions of man.” Whether or not they considered media to be determinative, they understood orality, print, and electronic thinking to be isomorphic with a culture’s ethos and organization. For these scholars, the media through which we apprehend, sort, store, transmit, refresh, and reproduce knowledge are not neutral but constitutive: their groundbreaking scholarship opened to scrutiny the complex dynamic through which changes in media both register and generate changes in minds.
Once a dream machine is in place - be it a scroll, a codex, a telephone, radio, television, or microcomputer - it plays its part in a complex of decisions and processes that both precede and follow its development and distribution. If, as Raymond Williams has argued, technologies do not determine so much as interact with the social formations that give rise to, support, and refine them, they nonetheless give us conceptual access to the limits and possibilities of these formations. “My starting point,” Manuel Castells writes in his magisterial three-volume The Rise of the Network Society, “is that, at the end of the twentieth century, we are living through … the transformation of our ‘material culture’ by the works of a new technological paradigm organized around information technologies” (29). If not exactly the liberation Nelson envisioned, the transformation Castells charts is at least the revolution he craved.
In calling the microcomputer a “thinkertoy,” Nelson claims it for tinkerers who want to go beyond the linear rigidities - the mental rods, logical connectors, conceptual end caps, pulleys, and spools - in place since Euclid, Newton, and Descartes. The difference that gave Nelson hope for the education system was the clarity, power, speed, fluidity, and on-the-fly versatility of digital culture’s conceptual toolkit. The textual instruments and instrumental texts of the Electronic Literature Collection lay out for our inspection the components of that kit: a double click on any of its documents opens one of the many visions of complexity we can now, some three decades after Nelson’s manifesto, apprehend, construct, inhabit, and alter.
Nelson’s diatribe on the idiocy of computer-assisted instruction makes a crucial point: there is a gap - a very large gap - between the day-to-day use of a technology and cultural comprehension of its capacities. As is painfully clear to anyone who brings one of the Electronic Literature Collection’s anchor texts - Talan Memmott’s “Lexia to Perplexia,” say, or John Cayley’s “Translation” - into the undergraduate or graduate classroom, concepts habitually deployed to parse literature are all but useless in describing - let alone understanding - the workings of these digital engines.
Most of the collection’s poems not only dash but actively smash the conventions of the mainstream lyric. Properly speaking, only a few contain anything that resembles lines or stanzas: the basic unit of these pieces is, in fact, often either a letter, as in Brian Kim Stefans’ typewriter-stroke, carriage-return-bell punctuated “Star Wars, one letter at a time,” or a morpheme, as in the spinning, flaking, imploding or erupting word-parts that organize Stefans’ “The Dreamlife of Letters.” For additional poems built on the unit of the letter, see, for example, Uribe’s “Poems from The Circus.” Instead of stanzas that move in orderly ranks down a page, we have palimpsests - lines heaped on top of other lines - to be clicked, dragged, or disambiguated with a mouse, as in Jim Rosenberg’s hypertext “Diagrams Series 6,” or, as in Robert Kendall’s Flash poem “Faith,” lines that slide out and away from one another to reveal successive states or stages of thought before collapsing in a heap to the bottom of the screen, or, to name just one more variant, we have, as in Jim Andrews’ “Nio,” lettristic three-dimensional swirls corresponding to mixed and sequenced doo-wop voice audio samples. Terminology refined across centuries to describe print poetry - nuanced taxonomies of lines and line breaks, fixed and open forms, metrical patterns, and subtleties of sound - can be bent, here and there, to the task of analysis but are, in the end, of little help: to turn Memmott’s title, even if these terms manage to catch the lexia, they have little of importance to convey about the perplexia.
For most literature that is created, distributed, and designed to be performed in electronic media - literature that is, in N. Katherine Hayles’s phrase, “digital born” (Electronic Literature) - not only is there no formal equivalent for elements like lines, stanzas, meters, or the patterned repetition of vowels and consonants but, more disconcertingly, there is rarely a speaker or persona whose feelings we contemplate, whose syllogisms we track, whose life we comprehend, share, and/or condemn. This is less true of fictional pieces like “Twelve Blue” or “10:01,” but even there the personae are multiplied and spun providing few subject positions that remain stable or certain. Instead of drawing energy from the emotional center of a lyric “I,” the reader of a digital poem may experience herself in one of a number of uneasy subject positions: adrift in a quasi-paranoid place in which everything signifies but nothing clearly declares its meaning, perhaps, or bound by a series of constraints into a quasi-game space in which moves must be risked before their consequences become clear, or passive in the face of quasi-mechanical run-time sequences of interactions between a dream machine’s software and hardware. In these exchanges of codified messages, the speaker dissolves into a discursive field or algorithmic function or flickers briefly into and out of a dissimulated subjectivity Brian Kim Stefans, drawing on Benjamin’s famous formulation, describes as a “decayed ‘aura’ ” (121-22). The poem happens somewhere else.
Just as digital procedures seldom provide a platform that supports a coherent and intimate “voice,” they rarely invite and/or allow us to pin the poem back to a discrete “author” whose biography or psychology can leverage a clear interpretation. Several of the pieces in this collection are collaborations between poets and programmers; all are collaborations between embodied thinkers and intelligent machines. Although an email address for the embodied thinker(s) accompanies each piece, incentives to make contact are more likely to be intellectual and/or technical than subjective or personal: who, that is, seems less crucial to the interpretation of these pieces than how, why, or what.
The lack of a lyric “I” and a personalized author creates a multiplicity intensified by a third absence: few of these pieces contain overt thematizations, declarations of intent, or summative stabilizations such as Keats’s “ ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty - that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know’ ” or Yeats’s “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.” If it is true that, as Pound insists in his translation of Ernest Fenollosa’s The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, all charged poetic language is condensed and patterned energy - at once an object and an action, a noun and a verb, a particle and a wave - print poems tend to manifest as artifacts, digital poems as flows. An important exception to this generalization is explored in Garrett Stewart’s Reading Voices, which offers an analysis of the phonotext or sound stream in dense literary language as a fluid, border-shifting event rather than a fixed feature. Because a digital poem is “brought into existence when the program runs on the appropriate software loaded onto the right hardware,” it is, as Hayles points out, “ ‘eventilized,’ made more an event and less a discrete, self-contained object with clear boundaries in space and time” (“Time” 181-82). As real-time interactions between software, hardware, and clicking, mousing, typing users, electronic poems, in this sense, offer the viewer not the panorama of a well-wrought urn but the spin of a wobbling top.
If there’s no speaker, no biographically or psychologically recognizable poet, no fixed or predictable rhyme or meter, and a scarcity of stabilizing aphorisms and culminating images, what makes these multimedia constructions “poems”? The need to ask such a question betrays the thoroughness with which the epiphanic lyric has saturated the field of the poetic. “Postmodernism in poetry,” Marjorie Perloff argues, “begins in the urge to return the material so rigidly excluded - political, ethical, historical, philosophical - to the domain of poetry, which is to say that the Romantic lyric, the poem as expression of a moment of absolute insight, of emotion crystallized into a timeless pattern, gives way to a poetry that can, once again, accommodate narrative and didacticism, the serious and the comic, verse and prose” (Dance 180-81). The collaborations between poets, programmers, and intelligent machines on display in the Electronic Literature Collection are, I would argue, central to any re-expanded definition of the poem. If we look not forward from the late romantic lyric but backward from the digital poem, however, the field of the poetic opens to reveal a swarm of previously marginalized poetries - linguistically charged, dense, vital, associatively rich and patterned energies - that include, but are not limited to, concrete and visual poems, sound poems, documentary poems, procedural poems, cut-ups, collages, performances, happenings, even the “readies” Bob Brown imagined as “moving type spectacle[s]” concocted “with the aid of a machine” (29) or the Radi Os Ronald Johnson created by inserting blanks into the verse of Paradise Lost. For a wealth of examples of innovative and experimental poetics, see Rasula and McCaffery. These and other exemplars of what has long been called “experimental poetry” are the prototypes for the Electronic Literature Collection’s thinkertoys. They are, as Nelson hoped thinkertoys might become, display systems increasingly useful, even urgent, in the struggle to envision and interrogate the information that streams everywhere and without stop through the noisy, impersonal, multisensory, abstract, and global channels of a thoroughly digitized world.
As Espen Aarseth insists, we don’t so much “read” these pieces as “use” or “operate” them. See Aarseth, for example, on “the interpretative function of the user” (64-65). What, then, are the critical practices and theories appropriate to these textual instruments? If, as William Carlos Williams maintained, “the poet thinks with his poem, in that lies his thought, and that in itself is the profundity,” how do poet-programmers and poem-users think with the hardware and software of intelligent machines? Williams’s words are cited by the poet Robert Creeley in a passage quoted by Loss Pequeño Glazier in his Digital Poetics. “Investigated here,” Glazier writes, “is not the idea of the digital work as an extension of the printed poem, but the idea of the digital poem as the process of thinking through this new medium, thinking through making” (6). What are the working concepts or vectors for thought that organize electronic poeisis? What do the poems in the Electronic Literature Collection tell us about the complexities we currently inhabit? If we turn to these pieces, in sum, as teaching or “tutor texts,” what do they suggest about the distributed cognition and signifying practices that constitute thinking in an information age? “Tutor text” is a term Hayles uses in Electronic Literature for a text that teaches us how to interpret it.
Although Nelson’s Computer Lib / Dream Machines may be, as Noah Wardrip-Fruin proposes, “the most important book in the history of new media” (301), the poems in the Electronic Literature Collection suggest it might be of limited use in new media’s future. Nelson’s manifesto rides on the faith that sustained most sixties liberation movements: the idea that once we rid the world of restraints, we can reclaim our birthright - the amplitude of our freedom and sexuality, racial justice and equality, equitable distribution of economic assets, and, not least, “our intelligence, curiosity, enthusiasm, and intellectual initiative and self-confidence.” In the exuberant scrawl he uses to spell out the gists of his argument, Nelson turns an old jingle to a new use: “No more pencils,” he promises, “no more books; / No more teachers’ dirty looks” (307).
The revolutionary hopes that sustained the first generation of electronic literature have been significantly eroded by the technical developments and intellectual formulations that give the pieces in the Electronic Literature Collection their darker, more ominous cast. Drawing on the thinking of Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and other political philosophers and cultural historians, digital theorists Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Alexander R. Galloway, and McKenzie Wark provide a set of concepts useful for understanding the ways in which computers have not so much liberated us as reconfigured notions of control and freedom, protocol, power, and subjectivity for a decentralized, post-industrial, networked information society.See especially Galloway, Gaming, Protocol, and, with Eugene Thacker, The Exploit; Chun, Control and Freedom and with Thomas Keenan, the essays collected in their anthology Old Media / New Media; and Wark, A Hacker’s Manifesto.
For Foucault, the centralized power of classical “sovereign societies” yielded in the late eighteenth century to bureaucratic forms of command and control that operate not against but precisely through “teachers’ dirty looks.” In the decentralized structures of what he calls “disciplinary societies,” schools, families, barracks, factories, hospitals, and prisons install and reinforce dominant systems of ideas and beliefs. The gaze of the teacher, like the gaze of a patriarch, sergeant, shop steward, physician, psychiatrist, or prison guard, does not, in Foucault’s account, “repress” some essential pre-given nature - an amplitude we are “born with” - so much as produce the norms and possibilities within and against which we improvise a life.
For Gilles Deleuze, we are now, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, moving beyond the dynamics of the disciplinary societies that replaced sovereign societies into a third stage he calls “societies of control.” The waning of books and teachers’ dirty looks is happening, however, not, as Nelson predicted, through “computer lib” but rather through what might appear to be its flipside: digital technology’s increasing capacities for “continuous control and instant communication” (Negotiations 174). In “Postscript on Control Societies,” a short essay that has been crucial to Chun and Galloway, Deleuze describes “the ultrarapid forms of apparently free-floating control that are taking over from the old disciplines at work within the time scales of closed systems” (178). This stage operates not through the authority of teachers, fathers, bosses, doctors, and police but through the more abstract but no less effective codes and protocols of the technologies that define, manage, modulate, and distribute information. This, Deleuze emphasizes, is a development Foucault anticipates, William Burroughs anatomizes, and contemporary theorists like Paul Virilio address: it is, now, up to us to learn to live self-reflexively, proactively, and generously within it.
Concluding his “Postscript,” Deleuze proposes a plan of action: “We ought,” he writes, “to establish the basic sociotechnological principles of control mechanisms as their age dawns, and describe in these terms what is already taking the place of the disciplinary sites of confinement that everyone says are breaking down” (182). This - not lyric confession, not libratory rebellion, not meditation on beauty or truth - is the work of the most interesting poetic pieces in the Electronic Literature Collection. “We’ve got to hijack speech,” Deleuze urges. “Creating has always been something different from communicating. The key thing may be to create vacuoles of noncommunication, circuit breakers, so we can elude control” (175).
How, then, do the digital poems in the Electronic Literature Collection turn the capacities of information technologies to imaginative use? In what ways do they decode and manipulate structures of control and freedom? What open spaces, what circuit-breakers, do these thinkertoys construct to allow users to interrupt, commandeer, and bend to alternate uses the intricacies of distributed networks, computer protocols, algorithms, databases, cookies, packet sniffers, and the other mechanisms of cyberspace? How can we, as readers, finally, use these pieces to hack new concepts, new perceptions, new sensations out of the digital flux that surrounds us?
“There are,” Galloway proposes in his preface to Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization, “few logical explanations for excluding computer discourse from the fields of literary criticism, linguistics, or even poetry” (xxiv). Galloway’s series-ending throwaway - “even poetry” - gestures out toward the margins of aestheticism where poems are supposed to dwell, but in concluding this review with a look at several digital poems from Volume One of the Electronic Literature Collection, I want move these pieces closer to computer discourse by positioning their composition and interpretation as acts of “hacking.” As defined in Eric S. Raymond’s “Jargon File,” an online compendium of hacker slang, a hack is “an incredibly good, and perhaps very time-consuming, piece of work that produces exactly what is needed.” From Jargon File http://www.catb.org/~esr/jargon/html/H/hack.html. A poetic hack - whether a good-enough kluge or a stroke of elegance - uses code, algorithms, data bases, distributed networks, and other attributes of digitality to perform or produce the concepts, perceptions, sensations, and subject positions we need not just to survive but to thrive in the mix of command and freedom, power and paranoia, that constructs and maintains control societies. I am borrowing here the nouns that construct the title of Wendy Chun’s excellent book Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics.
Deena Larsen’s short Flash piece, “Carving in Possibilities,” sets the stage for positioning a digital poem as a hack. The opening screen displays a skull-shaped gray-toned blur beneath the poem’s title and, in a slightly smaller font, the instruction - part practical, part metaphysical - to “[m]ouse slowly to carve out your existence.” To click to start kicks up a supplemental warning: “And remember,” it reads, in even smaller type, “where you put your ghosts.” Larsen’s composition and Matt Hansen’s soundtrack make mousing not just consequential but portentous. As the pointing finger of the cursor slides across the graphic against a spooky pulse of sound, three events occur in simultaneous flashes at successive, seemingly random nodes: the echo of a heavy blow, the apparition of a phrase or word or question - “I am your mystery,” perhaps, or “conceptions,” or “When is real real?” - and, in the same instant, a graduated clarification of a face: not just any face, as it emerges, but the chiseled face, perfect in strength, composure, and aura, of Michelangelo’s David. When there is no more detail, no more information, to emerge, the screen goes still, the cursor disappears, and the user has a choice to “sculpt again” or “exit here.”
“The David,” Michelangelo’s David, is the apex of Renaissance truth and beauty, a center that held for almost half a millennium. Sculpted between 1501 and 1504, it remains the most recognizable statue in the history of art, that around which the rest of us - artists and scientists, poets and critics, Prufrocks and socialites - “come and go,/Talking of Michelangelo.” The melodrama of Larsen’s piece is not just the statue’s emergence in a cloud of auratic discourse - “HE STANDS POISED TO STRIKE,” the screen chatters, “We waited as the wind blew in our faces,” “When was this his thought?” - but the diminishment, even dismay, we experience as the familiar form once again fills up the screen. To carve in possibilities - however elegant the procedures - is also and inevitably to carve out, cut away, other possibilities, to put an end to potential in order that a pregiven, fixed, and final perfection may emerge and prevail. This is not, Ted Nelson might say, the job for a dream machine.
To hack is to work within a set of constraints - linguistic rules, programmatic structures, protocols that organize data exchange and enable telecommunication connections - to keep possibilities in circulation. In this sense, the purpose of a hack is to interrupt inevitability, to put ghostly alternatives back into motion, to engender fresh abstractions, to find a way, like Emily Dickinson, to “dwell in Possibility.” Possibility, Dickinson writes, is “A fairer house than Prose–/More numerous of Windows –/Superior - for Doors.” Its multiple vistas, entrances and exits, give print poetry a differently various and manipulable set of constraints that are multiplied again and in different ways by digital techniques. The “Occupation” of both print and digital poetry, however, is “The spreading wide [of] narrow Hands” - the push-pull of constraints - to “gather paradise.” “I dwell in Possibility” is Poem 657 in Thomas H. Johnson’s authoritative edition of Dickinson’s poems. For the print-defying flexibility of Dickinson’s manuscripts, see especially Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson. This struggle against closure has long been the artistic and political program of innovative poetics, a key strategy in the set of practices Lyn Hejinian calls “the language of inquiry.” See Hejinian’s essay “Resistance to Closure” and her gathering of critical essays, The Language of Inquiry, passim. The privileging of curiosity, generativity, multiplicity, and, in Victor Shlovsky’s phrase, “the consciousness of consciousness” (quoted in Hejinian 344) helps explain why, to return to the Electronic Literature Collection’s editorial keywords, digital poetry is “often constructed by strategies analogous to those found in experimental print poetry.”
“Whatever code we hack,” McKenzie Wark declares in A Hacker Manifesto, “be it programming language, poetic language, math or music, curves or colorings, we are the abstracters of new worlds” (002). Because Wark numbers paragraphs not pages, I have followed his practice here. To hack is to differ, Wark continues, from others as well as from oneself, “in any production of knowledge where data can be gathered, where information can be extracted from it, and where in that information new possibilities for the world [can be] produced” (004). The generativity of the hack - its carving in possibilities - occurs not in spite of but precisely through its aggression against impossibilities: this push-pull between constraints and potentials, actuality and virtuality, narrowness and amplitude, gives the collection’s poems their tenor and technique.
Two poems provide apt illustrations of the riotous negativity of the digital poetic hack. In his foundational extravaganza, “The Dreamlife of Letters,” Brian Kim Stefans troubles a thoroughly written poststructuralist, intertextual, anti-patriarchal paragraph by Rachel Blau DuPlessis by chopping it into words and word-parts, sequencing them alphabetically, and setting them a-spin in a series of animated Flash screens. Unlatched from DuPlessis’s jammed syntax, each morpheme explodes - or spirals or tumbles or fans out - into an array of possibilities. The poem’s bright orange screens, one by one, open as vacuoles in which conceptual (im)possibilities unfurl, display themselves, and vanish, so that, to give just one example, the adjective Freud constructed out of Greek mythology to signify the drama that guarantees the peculiar arrangements of patriarchal gender and sexuality - “Oedipal” (adjective, query, and, resized, transitive verb) - becomes a little kinetic poem -
–after which the term’s constituent letters swirl out into a ring, dance their conceptual circularity, then drain off the page to be replaced by the noun - or perhaps the exclamation - oeuf followed soon thereafter by the noun/verb/imperative open.
In “The Dreamlife of Letters,” as in Larsen’s “Carving in Possibility,” the privileged moment - the moment we relish - is the generation of fluidity and abundance. “Hacker knowledge,” Wark explains, “is knowledge that expresses the virtuality of nature, by transforming it, fully aware of the bounty and danger. When knowledge is freed from scarcity,” he continues, “the free production of knowledge becomes the knowledge of free producers” (070). “This may sound like utopia,” Wark adds, “but the accounts of actually existing temporary zones of hacker liberty are legion” (070). In this regard, see also Hakim Bey’s notion of the T.A.Z. or “Temporary Autonomous Zone.” This bounty, danger, and freedom mark an escape not from constraints - for the production of these poems is, of necessity, conditioned by the languages, ideologies, programming platforms, and protocols that enable them - but rather into new abstractions, abstractions that do not necessarily fit familiar disciplinary regimes.
In “Self Portrait(s) [as Other(s)],” to add just one of many variants on this strategy in the Electronic Literature Collection, Talan Memmott hacks open another closed set of concepts - here, a dozen well-known artists’ self-portraits together with a matched array of curatorial biographies - and feeds them into an engine that combines and recombines their visual and verbal components. This portrait-and-biography generator is capable of spitting out over 120,000,000 possible combinations, giving us, for example, a Cubist nose above a realist mouth on a Renaissance face alongside the life of Vincent Gaugin who, “although never much of a student, captured the cultural subconscious by commingling painting with cultural execution.” That which we have taken to be nature - albeit the second or even third nature on display in museums - is (re)carved into possibility. For Wark, “Abstraction is always an abstraction of nature, a process that creates nature’s double, a second nature, a space of human existence in which collective life dwells among its own products and comes to take the environment it produces to be natural” (016). This is the “taken for granted” that these poems set out to disturb. This is the poetry - and the poethics - of the hack. “Poethics” is Joan Retallack’s term. See The Poethical Wager.
Both “The Dreamlife of Letters” and “Self Portrait(s) [as Other(s)]”operate on their own: we can trigger them, we can interrupt them, but we cannot add to their data bases or alter their algorithms. One of the most compelling capacities of many of the more interactive of the Electronic Literature Collection’s thinkertoys is their ability to school us in the operations of digital cognition. As Lev Manovich argues at length in The Language of New Media, “The ways in which the computer models the world, represents data, and allows us to operate on it; the key operations behind all computer programs (such as search, match, sort, and filter); the conventions of HCI [or human computer interface] - in short, what can be called the computer’s ontology, epistemology, and pragmatics - influence the cultural layer of new media, its organization, its emerging genres, its contents” (46). The computer’s database logic and algorithmic imagination - its medium - becomes, in this sense, the cultural logic or message of the poems constructed with it, disseminated by it, and interpreted through it. This, of course, returns us to the arguments made by Havelock, Ong, and McLuhan that the forms in which we think become, in significant measure, the contents of our thoughts. Tinkering with the limits and possibilities of these thinkertoys is the kind of “teacherless learning” (310) Nelson advocated. The more we tinker with these toys, the more we think digitally; the more we think digitally, the more likely it becomes that we can imagine and enable the emancipated media Hans Magnus Enzensberger described in his “Constituents of a Theory of the Media” in 1970. The poems of the Electronic Literature Collection are, in this sense, part of an explosion of “methods which make it possible for everyone to become a producer” (272). For more on this, see Galloway, Protocol 16, and Steven Johnson’s exuberant defense of popular digital culture in Everything Bad is Good for You.
To operate a thinkertoy like Talan Memmott’s “Lexia to Perplexia,” Millie Niss’s “Oulipoems,” Jim Andrews’s “Nio” or “Stir Fry Texts,” or Noah Wardrip-Fruin, David Durand, Brion Moss, and Elaine Froehlich’s “Regime Change,” a user needs not just Nelson’s “Computer Lib” essentials - intelligence, curiosity, enthusiasm, intellectual initiative, and self-confidence - but also a willingness to mess things up: to download, install, and run programs, cut, paste, slash, stretch, and spin texts and text-fragments, invent and insert new text blocks, crash, and start again. If, as Manovich suggests, the information age is an “age of cognitive labor” (61), it demands bold hands-on work: “operators” of these poems have to be not just technicians but also wheeler-dealers, hustlers, manipulators, and speculators. These poems begin when they engage our curiosity and end not with “right answers” but with the twinge of boredom that signals a temporary exhaustion of possibilities and the moving-on of the operator’s attention.
Among the most interesting pieces in the collection are the combinations of text, sound, image, and exploded letters created by geniwate’s Concatenation machine, the multi-language literary variants produced in Loss Pequeño Glazer’s “White-faced Bromeliads,” the array of alternatives generated by Philippe Bootz and Marcel Frémiot’s mix of a combinatory generator of sound and a syntactical animation of text in “The Set of U,” and the haunting “transliteral morphs” that beget the surfacing, sinking, or floating texts of John Cayley’s “Translation.” To live with and in Cayley’s “Translation” or “windsound” is to gain - however slowly, even imperceptively - an intuitive grasp of algorithmic operations; to watch Giselle Beiguelman’s “Code Movie 1” is to begin to appreciate code as it operates in the construction of digital meaning; to engage the playable space of Donna Leishman’s “Deviant: The Possession of Christian Shaw” is to start to grasp the weird, uneven transitions between sovereign, disciplinary, and control societies and the mutating subject positions available to the players within them.
“History,” Wark suggests, “is the virtual made actual, one hack after another” (009). What seems to matter most to the poets and programmers who constructed the Electronic Literature Collection’s thinkertoys and to the editors who selected them to represent this emergent genre is their participation in the construction of a viable life within societies of control and freedom. It is important that these poems enter - and change - the classroom. And it is important that we learn to interrogate their limits. How will or do these digital poems construct a moral platform? How can they account for political will and initiative in situations in which authority is caught in networks of power, shared with machines, and/or distributed across multiple agencies? What is the future of affect in the realm of thinkertoys? What standards of quality and aesthetics mark the forms of this emergent literature?
The Electronic Literature Collection is part of the Electronic Literature Organization’s Preservation, Archiving, and Dissemination (PAD) Initiative, which has also supported N. Katherine Hayles’s forthcoming book, Electronic Literature: Playing, Interpreting, Teaching (University of Notre Dame Press, 2008). New volumes of the collection will emerge on a biennial basis, each to be compiled by an evolving editorial collective and issued under the Creative Commons Agreement that allows the copying, distribution, and transmission of this work with attribution and without alteration for noncommercial purposes. Watch this space, for it is here that dream machines will generate both the controls and the freedoms of electronic literacy and the institutions within which it will develop.
“There are other worlds,” Wark writes, concluding his Hacker Manifesto, “and they are this one” (389). “Mouse slowly,” Deena Larsen adds, “to carve out your existence.”
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