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<nettime> Brian Stefans review: p0es1s: The Aesthetics of Digital Poetry
mez breeze on Sun, 4 Jul 2004 14:08:59 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Brian Stefans review: p0es1s: The Aesthetics of Digital Poetry

June 21, 2004
_p0es1s: The Aesthetics of Digital Poetry_

Friedrich W. Block, Christiane Heibach, Karin Wenz, editors
Hatje Cantz

Digital poetry is “emergent”: the geography of concepts and
cross-discussions that is finely, fiercely mapped in p0es1s is at the
stage where artists are talking to each other, often in tones that ache to
resemble the chiseled concision of a Joseph Kosuth or a Guy Debord, the
premonitory kuhlheit of a Walter Benjamin or Marshall MacLuhan, or even
the comfort zone of the seasoned raver or the dry authority of a research
white paper. Most of these writers ­ often in a good, invigorating way ­
suffer from a case of what John Cayley refers to as the “baroque euphuism
of New Media.”

It’s no surprise that those with the most achieved prose styles also have
the most to say as artists. The Brazilian artist Giselle Beiguelman
exhibits a contagious fascination with the increased nomadic quality of
(privileged bourgeois) individuals, investigating the poetics of writing
for PDAs, cellphones and highway billboards. Additionally, the concept of
digital translation and the ruin-less disappearance of digital products
(turn off the power and it’s gone) is explored in her use of Wingdings to
replace, and inhabit, poetry itself. Eduardo Kac from Argentina, perhaps
most famous for his having genetically modified rabbits to grow in the
dark, chimes in with an amusing, if cute, visionary manifesto advocating
poems coded into DNA, one of several manifestations of which is
“Luciferase signaling: create bard fireflies by manipulating the genes
that code for bioluminescence, enabling them to use their light for
whimsical (creative) displays.” His version of “poetry” is more
‘pataphysical than anything likely to garner a Nobel.

The punchy essay by John Cayley, “The Code Is Not the Text (Unless it is
the Text)”, is the center of a certain hub in the latter half of the book,
as he systematically, and effectively, disputes several concepts that have
wended their way into the digi-po world, such as that there is a homology
­ i.e. by reading one you’ve read the other -- between the “text” of a
program (such as uncompiled C code) and the text of a poem (or the texts
that govern culture, such as laws). He lambastes (politely) the radicality
that some digital writers claim for themselves for “revealing the control
structures” of programs, as if they were all good Brechtians exposing the
workings of capital through salty doses of the V-effekt, or good
Foucauldians by foregrounding the workings of the competing (and
fascistic) archeologies of meanings. True, some of this could happen in
the correct, university-nurtured interpretive framework, but because these
hybrid languages ­ such as “Mezangelle”, the online creation of the
protean Mez ­ are not the “pidgins” and “creoles” critics such as N.
Katherine Hayles claim they are (if only metaphorically), the horizons of
their social-political, not to mention cultural, effects are limited to
those who care about what computers, were they to be human and were their
use of English really how they talked to each other, are thinking. Unlike
pidgins, this poetics of the “reveal code” just provides a new,
Wifi-enabled mirror so we narcissists can remain in the front row.

Which is where the writing of Mez, an Australian (nee Mary Ann Breeze) who
is probably the most prolific -- if that’s a word one can use to her
peculiar brand of listserv logorrhea -- digital poet out there, plays a
large role. Genesis P-Orridge of Throbbing Gristle fame made a basic play
for singularity and collapsing the art/life divide by tacking an extra “e”
on the end of the word “the” in all of his written communications ­ his
latest band is called Thee Majesty. Like androgyny, making basic changes
to ones way of writing puts one at odds with much of the normal
functioning of the world ­ imagine filling out a job description using
“thee” ­ but also re-places one, existentially, in the premise of one’s
decision:  counter-cultural agency is thereby systematically refreshed.
Mez elaborates on this principle exponentially, creating a carnival of
artificial modifications out of the “restraint” of working in the ASCII
set sans italics, justification or anything you won’t see in a low-level

>[for instance, 1 email I have employed comes with the
>identifier|meznoma of _app][lick.ation][end.age_ which
>unpacks/translates in2 the tag|labels of _appendage_, app
>[abbreviation for application] end, _app.lick.ation_ etc ­ all
>avataresque names indicating segmented expressive allusions ­

Mez’s project is engaging partly because of the rich surfaces -- part
freed-signifier and part charismatic tsunami ­ that she creates, but also
her choice of venues: she has chosen to produce her work primarily in
listservs, hence elevating the mundane commercial avenues of internet
communication into an overstuffed, somewhat kitchy commune. She becomes
the architect of the public square just by her propensity to embellish
every dark corner.

Owing partly to the infelicities of translation, the French poet Phillippe
Bootz, prone both to name-dropping and telegraphing his concepts, ends two
sentences with the exact same, inscrutable phrase: “the horizon of
expectation in the Jaußian sense” ­ in neither case explaining what this
sense, in his sense, is. The general thrust of Bootz’s essay ­ that
digital text objects have a different ontological character than print
ones (i.e.  they are not objects like a loaf of bread is), but are
responsive to the whims and agency of the eye and can hence turn readers
into readers of themselves reading by more fully “accounting for the real
functioning of the brain” in their responsive variability ­ is couched in
so much verbiage (and absurdly detailed diagrams) professing
infinitesimally fine knowledge of the inner workings of the mind, one is
dissuaded from useful debate from what is the profound core of this idea:
digital writing can talk back, and teaching it to talk back is one of the
things a digital writer, rather than write, does ­ that is her
contribution to culture. Whether they can cure depression or improve depth
perception in the process is another matter.

Other notable contributions include editor Christiane Heibach’s “Synopsis”
of the discussions that took place in 2001 in Erfurt between several of
the contributors; this distillation of what appears to have been a highly
fruitful, contentious meeting could set the stage for the next step in the
discussion. Another editor, Friedrich W. Block, makes a similar,
air-clearing gesture in his “Eight Digits of Digital Poetics,” speaking
most importantly about the relationship of the “digital poet” to the
“avant-garde.” He rightly argues that merely shouting out to esteemed
predecessors like Apollinaire, Queneau or the Concrete poets does not
allow the new media poet to robe himself in the Senate toga of the “new” ­
Modernism is not “bagged” so easily.

Throughout the book, one can sense an expansive, visionary quality
competing with an attempt to reframe the debate and/or put the house in
order ­ it is this dynamic that makes this collection of essays rich and
important to anyone taking an interest of where this uniquely
international, educated and proactive community of writer/programmers is
doing. There might not be any obvious reason for the use of “poetry” over
“word art” to corral the range of theories and practices discussed in this
thick volume other than that practitioners of “digital poetry” recognize
each others names, attend the same conferences, and most likely get passed
over in discussions of new media art, even as other work that relies on
the skilled, hardly prosaic use of words (the amazing Young-Hae Chang
Heavy Industries being the most obvious example) is considered knowledge
ready for prime time. It is this leap into the imaginations of the
international art world ­ and not literature, given the constraints of
translation and the conservative trends of literary culture world-wide ­
these artists might have to make for survival.

Posted by Brian Stefans

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