Electronic Literature

The Function of Digital Poetry at the Present time

In her contribution to New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories (2006), N. Katherine Hayles directs us, with her usual perspicacity, toward a crucial conceptual topos for thinking the ontology of new media art. The title of her piece renders its central argument immediately legible: “The Time of Digital Poetry” involves a transition "From Object to Event." (Note 1)

In and of itself, the shift from object to event is not, of course, a new figure for thought. Restricting ourselves to the previous century, we can note that even on the abstract plane of mathematics, such a transition already lurked in the paradoxes of axiomatic set theory explicated by Russell in the Principia(1901). We can dutifully recognize such a shift as the hallmark of post-classical physics as formalized by Planck’s constant (1900), Einstein’s Special Theory (1905), and the Schrödinger equation (1933). We can recount the familiar episodes of 20th century art’s perpetual becoming-event: from the dynamism of Futurist compositions, the perspectival mutations of cubism, the a-syntactic pulsions of sound poetry, and the improvisational contingencies of jazz, through happenings, performance art, actionism, and Situationism, to the predigital video art of the ’70s and ’80s. All surveyed by cinema’s epochal transformation of the still photograph into a movement image, a time image, etc. Even the print poem with which Hayles juxtaposes the time of digital poetry has continually manifested a commitment to “the kinetics of the thing” (to cite Charles Olson’s influential phrase). (Note 2)

And indeed, Hayles begins her essay by acknowledging that “print poetry also has a temporal dimension that writers have traditionally brought out through devices such as punctuation, line breaks, spacing between and within words, font type and size, and white space, as well as through unusual and innovative procedures too numerous to list here” (Hayles 181). We have all endured—perhaps even perpetrated—an explication of the agon between poetry and the plastic arts that is played out in a familiar Romantic ode about a certain Grecian urn: Keats’s temporal art thaws the frozen medium it subsumes, animating the artifact, revolving it in our mind’s eye, dissolving its solid scenery into the fluid imaginary—before finally extracting from this saturated solution of images and desires the precipitate of an insoluble aphorism. But Hayles’s point is that “while both print and electronic poetry evolve within [a] general temporal flow” that includes writing, coding, production, performance, and reading, each medium will organize this flow differently (182). Any poem operates as “a machine to organize time” (181). But, Hayles argues, a properly media specific analysis would recognize and respect the following schemata for articulating the difference that digital media makes:

  • Writing/Coding: Print poetry involves a simultaneity of writing and coding, the “singular cognitive muscular activity” of “converting words into their appropriate alphabetic symbols,” and the manner in which that activity is reproduced through typesetting and book making involve the merely “passive codes” of “paragraph indentations, italics, etc.” Digital poetry, on the other hand, involves a “temporal division into writing and coding” which often corresponds to “a distribution of labor” in which the poet collaborates with “programmers, sound artists, graphic designers, and so on, to create a multimodal work.” Digital poetry involves “active code” through which “the machine reads and writes,” as do the poem’s programmers, writers, and readers, forming a distributed network of “human and nonhuman agents” (182-183).
  • Production/Performance: In the case of a print volume, “because the reader receives the book as an object already made, the material processes that created it can appropriately be called ‘production,’ a term implying that its creation as an artifactual object has already taken place.” “Once the book is produced,” Hayles notes, “its material structure does not change, or rather changes very slowly.” The book exists as a (relatively) stable entity, offering the same words in the same spatial distribution every time it is opened. Digital texts, on the contrary, exist as a “distributed phenomenon” insofar as “the data files may be on one server and the machine creating the display may be in another location entirely.” Even when it is confined to a single machine, the text is still dispersed across data files, programs, hardware functionalities, etc. “For this reason,” Hayles argues, “it would be more accurate to call a digital text a process rather than an object”—a distinction that leads her to refer to “the time of performance for an electronic text versus the time of production for print” (184-185).
  • Display/Reading: While print poems have a durable existence in print upon which sophisticated cognitive operations are performed by readers, “a digital text does not have this kind of existence. It does not exist anywhere in the computer or in the networked system in the precise form it acquires when it is displayed on the screen. After it is displayed, of course, the same kind of readerly processing may occur as with print.” Just as we should not mistake production for performance or passive code for active code, “we should not indulge in the logical confusion created by eliding the creation of a display—a process that happens only when the programs that create the text are activated—with the reader’s cognitive processing.” “In this sense,” Hayles concludes, “digital text is more processual than print” (185).

These are important structural and formal distinctions between print and digital textuality, and there is no question that they should be accounted for. The emphasis of Hayles’s recent work on media specific criticism seems to me entirely salutary, and no one has contributed more to a delineation of its contours. My concern here, however, is with the consequences that Hayles draws from the differential specificities of print and digital poetry, insofar as these return us to the more problematic difference between object and event.

The correspondence between this latter distinction (object/event) and the difference between specific media (print/digital) is established as one of degree. The stated goal of Hayles’s essay is to compare and contrast “how electronic and print media conceive of poetry as an event rather than an object” (187). But while recognizing that both print and digital media “can be used to transform poems from objects to events” (205), Hayles insists that “with the advent of digital technology, writers have more flexibility in how they can employ the temporal dimension” (182, my italics). “Less an object than an event,“ she writes, “the digital text emerges as a dance between artificial and human intelligences, machine and natural languages, as these evolve together in time” (187, my italics). It is those “digital characteristics” of distributed existence, active code, and performative display which “imply that the poem ceases to exist as a self-contained object and instead becomes a process, an event brought into existence when the program runs.” Through these qualities of digital media, “the poem is ‘eventilized,’ made more an event and less a discrete, self-contained object with clear boundaries in space and time” (182, my italics). Indeed, Hayles argues, the foregrounding of process by the digital poem fosters a perspective from which “materiality itself thus comes to be seen as more an event than a preexisting object” (206, my italics).

Categories such as “object” and “event” situate us at the intersection of ontology and physics, where the question begged by the formulations quoted above is: what exactly is the status of this “more” and this “less”? Poised at precisely the same intersection, Alfred North Whitehead directly confronted the task of rethinking the philosophical categories of object and event under the condition of post-classical science. To be sure, Whitehead acknowledged that “an object is an entity of a different type from an event.”(Note 3) But he resolutely denied that we would make any progress in thinking that difference by associating objects with a simple location, physical durability, and static inertia while associating events with complex material distributions, structural mutability, and mobile dynamism. Whitehead’s most famous example of an event is “the endurance of the Great Pyramid throughout any definite day.” “If a man is run over,” he writes in The Concept of Nature (1920),

that is an event comprised with certain spatio-temporal limits. We are not accustomed to consider the endurance of the Great Pyramid throughout any definite day as an event. But the natural fact which is the Great Pyramid throughout a day, meaning thereby all nature within it, is an event of the same character as the man’s accident, meaning thereby all nature with spatio-temporal limitations so as to include the man and the motor during the period when they were in contact.(Note 4)

Despite the fact, as he points out, that “we are accustomed to associate an event with a certain melodramatic quality,”(Note 5) Whitehead would nonetheless insist that the endurance of the Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara throughout any definite day on my bookshelf is neither more nor less an event than the flickering of the anxious signifiers we confront in our interactions with an electronic text like Jim Andrews' Stir Fry Texts.

Moreover, Whitehead’s system would have us believe that those flickering signifiers or the distributed system through which they emerge as phenomena are neither more nor less an object than a page of print in a trade edition of Pound’s Cantos. Although “science and philosophy have been apt to entangle themselves in the theory that an object is at one place at any definite time, and is in no sense anywhere else,” Whitehead reminds us that “an object is ingredient throughout its neighborhood, and its neighborhood is indefinite.” (Note 6)“A scientific object such as an electron,” for example, “is a systematic correlation of the characters of all events throughout all times,” and the same would hold true for our trade edition of the Cantos, or for the solar system or galaxy in which we encounter poems in both digital and print media. Insofar as every object or event expresses the particular, local, and contingent coherence of a infinitely complex distributed system upon which its phenomenal presentation depends absolutely, no object or event is more or less processual than any other. Reality is absolutely processual, and in Process and Reality (1928) “the final real things” that we encounter in and through the processes in which we are immersed are indifferently referred to as “actual entities” or “actual occasions.” In either case, these are “drops of experience, complex and interdependent.”(Note 7) If Whitehead is among the great thinkers of the event (as he is canonized by Deleuze in The Fold) he is so precisely to the degree that he refuses any normative celebration of the transition from object to event, insisting instead upon the complex and simultaneous determination of each by the other in every material “society” we might care to consider.

Now, one is by no means obliged to follow Whitehead in these matters.(Note 8) And in any case one might protest that since it is the disposition of common sense to address the data of experience as so many discrete objects, whether pyramids or poems, we should emphasize—on strategic grounds—the defamiliarizing capacity of digital media to rupture and distribute the apparently simple location of the (art) object, to incorporate our embodied reflexes directly into its emergent processes of signification, and to perform the “‘eventilization’ of language” (Hayles 205) through new and ever more complex means than print makes available. But to my mind, this objection misses or elides an inescapable fact of “our” mundane experience of 21st century life: for those to whom the digital poem is available, networked subjectivity, immersion in systems operations, prescriptions of corporeal participation in the rites of technosocial “meaning,” and the dispersion of any evident solidity into multimedia flows, the flux of capital, and the froth of digital materiality are quite simply what is the case. The synthetic environment in which we “work and play” makes it eminently clear—precisely as the operative basis of our common sense—that no entity or experience will be respected in its integrity, that every body will be implicated in a multiplicity of unlocalizable “events” in which we must participate yet over which (for all our subjection to agency) we ultimately have little real control. The horizon of our immersion in the digital is nothing if not obviously indeterminate, and we routinely move from (reified) object to (reified) event--from Lexia to Perplexia, as Talon Memmott’s title has it—in the absence of any determinate stopping point.

Amid this habitual and indeed hegemonic subordination of “object to event,” what do we want digital poetry to be, and how do we want to describe what it is? How will we characterize its capacities in our writing and teaching? It may well be the case that digital poetry manifests the condition described above. Perhaps one might view it as symptomatic of that condition. But, insofar as it aims to resist any resignation to the status of symptom, it seems to me that the function of any art whatever at the present time is not so much to displace our common sense apprehension of discrete objects but rather to displace our common sense submission to the “melodramatic quality” of events. Can we make of what is new in digital poetry something other than this melodrama to which we are beholden, more than ever, today?

Charles Olson—unpopular in so many other of the circles that constitute contemporary poetry—is routinely called upon as a privileged reference for practitioners and theorists of digital poetry. His foregrounding of proprioceptive comportment, kinetic process, and cybernetic subjectivity are germane to the thematics of embodied sensation, dynamic textuality, and distributed cognition which dominate the discourse of new media. But while we are frequently reminded of Olson’s terms “projective verse” or “composition by field,” and of his demand that the poem be “a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge,” (Note 9) we should also remember that he referred to his poetic practice as “objectism.” As the proliferation of his different terminologies demonstrates, Olson’s point was in no way that a poem is more a static object than a dynamic event, but rather the following:

every element in an open poem (the syllable, the line, as well as the image, the sound, the sense) must be taken up as participants in the kinetic of the poem just as solidly as we are accustomed to take what we call the objects of reality; and that these elements are to be seen as creating the tensions of a poem just as totally as do those other objects create what we know as the world.(Note 10)

To the elements of the open poem listed by Olson, we can add server, source code, algorithm, lexia, pixel color, menu, cursor, etc. But we can retain the sense of the poem, digital or print, as neither more nor less an object or an event, but rather a constructivist assemblage of related elements that are rendered at once “solid” and “kinetic”—each only insofar as the other is the case—by their configuration as a tensionally articulated field.(Note 12)

Jacques Rancière names the dimension at which politics and aesthetics are one and the same “the distribution of the sensible.” (Note 12)We might propose the following axiom: any poem will be "open" to the degree that its particular distribution of the sensible manifests an intimate collusion between the kinetics of the object and the coherence of the event. And a corollary: today, amid the flowing “seethe of possibilities” (Hayles 197) by which we are carried merrily downstream, our discourse upon the digital poem should foreground its capacity not to turn objects into events, but rather--via the chiasmatic interpenetration of object and event—to constitute open, relational solidities.

We have differed, we have deferred and, undoubtedly, we are distributed. The more pressing question at the moment may be: are we coherent? The lesson of Deleuze (another privileged reference for new media poetics) is that “what we are capable of may partake of the wolf, the river, the stone in the river.” (Note 13)For at least a century, we have been incessantly returned by art, science, and philosophy to the Heraclitean river in which one can never step twice. For Hayles, digital “poem-events, similar to the readers they construct and require, are rivers that flow, processes that evolve, materialities that emerge contingently, flickering in the constantly changing plays of meanings” (206). That may well be. But perhaps it is that other configuration of material force—the stone in the river—that we need most to partake of today. If only to return to the pack, to the collective articulation of space and time, with an intensified capacity for integrity and resistance. The challenge that we might thus pose to any art form, not insofar as we are indifferent to its particularity, but rather insofar as it is specific to its medium, is this: can it configure an assemblage whose force of resistance to what we already live is sufficient to seize us--into thought.

Recognizing the novelties of its processes and forms, we may also want to stress the manner in which digital poetry faces exactly the same problems with which art has always been confronted. How to unleash the latent dynamism of the object or to manifest its brooding opacity. How to punctuate the aleatory play of the event or to zoom in on its glacial unfolding. How to wage the same war on two apparently different fronts: against the reification of the object and against the reification of the event. That is, against the complicity of banality and distraction.

  1. N. Katherine Hayles, "The Time of Digital Poetry: From Object to Event" in New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories, ed. Adelaide Morris and Thomas Swiss (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006): 181-210. Cited hereafter in text.
  2. Charles Olson, "Projective Verse" in Collected Prose, ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander (Berkeley: University of California Press, 240.
  3. Alfred North Whitehead, The Concept of Nature (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2004), 77.
  4. Ibid. 74.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.,145.
  7. Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: The Free Press, 1978), 18.
  8. Alain Badiou, for example, has formulated a conceptual antagonism between object and event that operates according to very different parameters than Whitehead's. For Badiou, an "object" is a category of representation, established by the regime of denumerable distinctions structuring any given situation. An "event" is a singular interruption of a situation, a pure presentation irreducible to re-presentation which exposes the void upon which the structure of denumerability is based. For Badiou, then, events are not characterized by temporal flow; on the contrary, they are atemporal eruptions, whereas the object is characterized by is subjection to temporality and finitude.
  9. Olson, "Projective Verse," 240.
  10. Ibid., 243.
  11. Ian Bogost has modeled such an approach to video game criticism in his book Unit Operations (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006).
  12. See Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2004).
  13. Robert Hurley offers this characterization of Deleuze's work in his preface to the latter's Spinoza: Practical Philosophy (San Francisco: City Lights, 1988), iii.