EBR post: November 2017

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Remember, remember, the fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot.

Today, I make my first post as an Associate Editor of Electronic Book Review—and for this, I owe much thanks to Davin Heckman (for recommending me) and Joseph Tabbi (for brainstorming with me).

Much has happened since the last public post, including an annual congregation in July at ELO 2017 in Porto, Portugal, as well as our welcoming of Will Luers as our new Managing Editor of the EBR site. As I reflect upon some of the events in these last few months, I am thinking of some of what is to come in the communities of EBR, ELO, as well as the Electronic Literature Directory. The location and theme of ELO 2018 have been announced: hope to see you all in Montréal, Canada, from August 13 – 17, for “Mind the Gap!”

In the world of experimental writing, on Monday, November 6, Rob Wittig and Mark C. Marino are launching their next Netprov (Internet improv narrative) venture, “One-Star Review.” As the name suggests, you can join in on the creative writing online by creating a fictional character (I am thinking for myself perhaps “Boaty McBoatface”) and writing one-star reviews in a Reddit forum. A few samples have already been posted, including a gem by Marino himself (moonlighting as “Paolo Fairhair”) on the board game Don’t Lose Your Marbles.

“One-Star Reviews” will run through the month of November; more information can be found here.


Also this month, we publish Theadora Walsh’s essay on Jhave Johnston’s Aesthetic Animism: Digital Poetry’s Ontological Implications (MIT Press, 2016). We’re delighted to share that Jhave’s text received the ELO’s N. Katherine Hayles Award for Criticism of Electronic Literature, awarded at the annual ELO meeting.

As today is Guy Fawkes Day, I thought about critique as an explosion of sorts and about what sort of writing (or subject) makes for explosive critique. As Guy Fawkes’ failed explosion of the British House of Lords in 1605 resulted in a long cultural tradition of performative punishment (his effigy is burned on this day), I consider that the act of disturbing “the one” (the nation, the self, the singular) is met with a restoration of an imaginary balance between corpus and mind or else the revelation of the balance as a false construction. Reading Theadora’s essay about Aesthetic Animisms, I noted the explosive upset of the balance by Jhave’s move away from binaries.

Theadora quickly makes known Jhave’s doubled task of writing as both a digital poet and scholar: where some content resists classic form, writing about content that is itself dynamic may require an especial treatment—a question of representation that many e-literature scholars must consider. The form of Aesthetic Animisms is such that Theadora describes it as “fragmentary, forum-like” and “like an index or dictionary for the practicing reader.”

Printed book form aside, Jhave’s shift away from anthropocentric notions of language, consciousness, subjectivity, subject-making, and creativity warrants further exploration of its own aesthetic gestures and shapes, which give to it animisms (beauty that imbues life). The ELO judging committee for the N. Katherine Hayles Prize describe that the text “argues persuasively that it is in the convergence of literature and computation that language truly comes alive, proliferates, ‘rolls over’ and wriggles through data space.” The liveliness and life-giving of language is one such theme explored by Jhave, as Theadora describes his sensitivity to articulations that circumlocute towards defining a thing, into what he calls “just-enough suchness—moments where the ‘is’ shines in all its routine richness, and objective precision cultivates a presence that is independent of transcendence.”

Responding to Jhave’s effort to project forward a thing as is, as it becomes, Theadora cleverly offers the example of Marcel Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema (1928). Her reading of the film’s spiralling cycles and text recalls to my mind how Mary Ann Doane describes in The Emergence of Cinematic Time (2002) that the recorded image attempts to capture the “thisness” of an original referent. Yet, photography and cinema’s failure to be those referents is shared by poetry’s grasping to become, making techniques of gesturing towards difference (montage, intertextuality, and so forth) relevant in much of twentieth century art and literature. “Suchness” and “thisness,” or, vitality and contingency, come to a head again as we consider how digital renderings—as images, as language—can utter poetically.

And here Jhave’s text finds task: what is this utterance, where does it come from, how does it be or become? Theadora cites Jhave’s own project Big Data Poetry in order to demonstrate the poet’s ability to weave strings of poetry even of rendered big data, asking an important question: “If natural beauty or emotional devastation can send poets stumbling toward summation, why not the way big data feels?” Lev Manovich, speaking to information overload in The Language of New Media (2001), has described how big data can make the writer feel. Not big data as a paradigmatic bandaid for task-based operations, but rather, the terrifying noise of a postprint era, where one dreaded question is: what remains left to write about among a hundred thousand million options?

Information overload can feel terrifying for a writer overwhelmed by choice—perhaps even more ungrasping of life than a poem. At least in printed prose and poetry, we have a form that helps us give shape to a moment, for a moment, maybe. Out of informatic chaos, Theadora describes how Jhave “improvis[es] a path”—finding a way by making one, illuminating and shaping “suchness” through the gesture of a stride. And stride, and stride: and suchness forms as an utterance of digital vitality.

But not to be held up against one. Not only one path.

I still resist the linearity of single paths myself, especially if I follow Jhave’s understanding of a consciousness that is not anthropocentric and an utterance that is even decentralized from human reflexive churn. That is: why must there be a notion of poetry that expands beyond the binary of self and work? Because poetry straddles this line—and suddenly the “meta-Anthro” utterance confronts the digital poem and the line itself slips as tectonic plates: so many slippery slates where there had been ekstasis. Thus Theadora asks, “If we cannot tell that a software is generating writing, how is that writing different from something composed by a human?”

Theadora draws upon Lisa Nakamura to restate awareness of the human whenever we ask about inscription (see: Nakamura’s 2003 interview with Donna Haraway in EBR). Rightly, Theadora says that “the world writes upon our bodies”—she necessarily reminds us of the Other. To this, I would suggest an extra step away from binaries: not human and post-human, but also a consideration of the Other in the non-human from the field of media archaeology, which includes the invisible ontologies of plants, parasites, and planet, and which throws off the centre of the pendulum swing. This seems to be Jhave’s point too, noted in his quote that Theadora closes with: “digital work does not confirm selfhood as poetic literacy did. Instead it distends selves towards collectivities that remind it of oblivion.” Jhave sounds hopeful about the oblivion of one, the swelling of the mirrored face and the burst when it is replaced with a thousand voices.

If to write poetry is to know oneself by bouncing against a mirror, if we purposely hit limits so that screams return echoed substance, the screen would be sterile: it is that through which light shines (rather than on which, as with paper). The digital poem as a thing for aesthetic animacies is therefore indeed a distension: a chiasmus that decenters Cartesian duality through a two-way mirror. Four. Eight. Sixteen towards infinity. A multiplying of animacies upon animacies and mediations upon mediations that move away from only two, the poet and his work, and that sprout multi-limbed Athenas out of Zeus’ tired, old mythical brain.

No, no, there are no longer only two. Not only good and bad, tradition and avant-garde, (poetic) justice and (gunpowder) treason. With multiples, the gap among word, code, and meaning is the tri-lectic that does not speak from human lips only. It’s the anarchism of an aesthetic animism through a “digitally-enhanced living language,” as Jhave calls it—the artistry of the blowup as a honing in of attention and as an explosion of the two of one.

–Lai-Tze Fan
Associate Editor, EBR

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