Between the Pixel and Word: Screen Semantics
New Jersey Institute of Technology
Citation: Klobucar, Andrew. “Between the Pixel and Word: Screen Semantics.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 7, 2010. doi:10.20415/hyp/007.e01
Abstract: Within the last decade, developments in computer programming and the information sciences have encouraged humanities-based studies of writing, rhetoric and the literary arts to re-consider the visual representation of knowledge and semantic structures as vital components in literary interpretation. Contemporary lexical software, including Web-based search engines, data-mining tools and advanced rhetorical analysis utilities depend upon well-defined, often user-specific ontologies for the proper presentation and administration of knowledge. Not only has digital writing greatly transformed the literary work as both a social and epistemological object, its platforms and software take advantage of the medium's capacity to hasten the rate of change and alteration to texts, effectively initiating a more dynamic, if somewhat unstable, concept of writing than even the modernist, formalist experiments of writers like Mallarmé, Zukofsky, Stein and MacLow, among many other respected figures associated with the experimental edges of literary modernism, could summon.
This paper looks specficially at how contemporary revisionary experiments in digital media continue to follow a particularly modern emphasis on visual modes of information analysis, while emphasizing a complementary politics of knowledge, where modes of representation are gainfully mapped to modes of social organisation and cognizance. In my argument, the digital screen is meaningful to the extent that it is experiential. If there is a core component linking the aesthetic objectives and authorial aims behind the myriad "net" projects currently in production, it is certainly a concentrated appreciation of the screen's active influence as a constructive device. Beyond its immediate recognition as a display mode, the screen continues to suggest increasingly sophisticated models of sensual, not to mention, cognitive, interaction. Unsurprisingly, it is with respect to these latter applications that digital works appear to invoke the most distinctively explorative avenues in art and writing.
"Space is how you practice it" — Paul Virilio
Within the last decade, developments in computer programming and the information sciences have encouraged humanities-based studies of writing, rhetoric and the literary arts to re-consider the visual representation of knowledge and semantic structures as vital components in lexical interpretation. The work of literary theorists like Frank Moretti, for example, provides an exemplary 21st century approach to narratology and literary criticism by introducing epistemological concepts more commonly associated with the fields of information management and knowledge representation (KR) in order to reconfigure how the novel might be usefully interpreted and assessed with respect to electronic modes of presentation, as opposed to print or analogue formats. For Moretti, visually and spatially oriented paradigms like maps, charts, graphs, etc. have become important critical tools within literary criticism now that contemporary electronic information networks have expanded to include an increasing variety of different forms of cultural production. The fact that Google Maps software currently allows literary and visual art concepts to be seamlessly incorporated into geographical frameworks invites, in other words, both a reconceptualisation of space and location as literary terms and a corresponding spatialisation of aesthetic concepts.
Contemporary lexical software, including Web-based search engines, data-mining tools and advanced rhetorical analysis utilities depend upon well-defined, often user-specific ontologies for the proper presentation and administration of knowledge. Advances in programming languages as a result are more precise and context-driven, accelerating digital trends in the production, representation and distribution of knowledge. Not only has digital writing greatly transformed the literary work as both a social and epistemological object, its platforms and software take advantage of the medium's capacity to hasten the rate of change and alteration to texts, effectively initiating a more dynamic, if somewhat unstable, concept of writing than even the modernist, formalist experiments of writers like Mallarmé, Zukofsky, Stein and MacLow, among many other respected figures associated with the experimental edges of literary modernism, could summon. That said, revisionary experiments in digital media thus reveal how aesthetic initiatives in semantic technologies continue to follow a particularly modern emphasis on visual modes of information analysis, while emphasizing a complementary politics of knowledge, where modes of representation are gainfully mapped to modes of social organisation and cognizance. In fact, this specific ideologico-historical relationship might be usefully traced even further beyond the annals of early modernism back to the development of English lexicology and lexicography as formal areas of study between the 18th and early 19th century. While lexicons and dictionaries were available prior to the 1700s, none held much purchase as tools of analysis or even learning within early enlightenment thinking. In his well known epistemological work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), John Locke actually critiques the philosophical value of lexicology, noting that "[i]t is impossible that every particular thing should have a distinct peculiar name — if it were possible, it would yet be useless" . Clearly lexicons suggested from their immediate appearance in the public domain a problematic approach to language as an epistemological tool — one where words were not constrained by reference to essential categories or features regarding the objects they denoted. The emergence of modern lexicology, usually attributed to the publication of Samuel Johnson's 1755 encyclopaedic work, signals accordingly an important shift concerning the role of information analysis in epistemology. The dictionary, as a semantic technology, introduces lexical indeterminacy (and even polysemy) not as a problem, but rather a condition for knowledge.
Studies emphasizing important historical and theoretical relations between modern literary practices and developments in reproduction technology continue to appear with increasing frequency, not to mention, complexity in argument, since the 1990s and the emergence of new electronic media formats. As artists and writers purposefully pursue a more media-centred practice, critical work within the field begins to warrant a substantive, as opposed to instrumental, approach to technology itself, where technological developments are understood to have a cognitive as well as mechanical effect on society. An important early explorative work in this area is Jerome McGann's Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism (Princeton, 1993), which traces many of the visually and spatially sophisticated uses of language in early modernist poetics evolved specifically back to late 19th century advances in book design and print technology. As McGann writes, "[t]o the extent that such bookmaking foregrounds the importance of writing's signifiers, the work exhibits uniformities and coherences. Different presses, however, generate distinct sets of coherences" .
McGann's critical practice has been of particular importance to many contemporary poets who continue to explore, both in theory and in their own art, the consequence of procedural elements in the construction of sense and affect. Specific to this past decade, writers like Steve McCaffery (Prior to Meaning: The Protosemantic and Aesthetics, 2001), Barrett Watten (The Constructivist Moment, 2003) and Darren Wershler Henry (The Iron Whim, 2007) all contend to varying degrees that research into experimental literary formalisms of the modernist period must consider the cultural significance of technology to appreciate fully the theoretical and aesthetic challenges to lyrical verse genres that revisionary modernisms inevitably provoked.
These kinds of studies can be categorised as not just material histories of literary arts; rather they offer what might effectively be called alternative grammatologies. Following a Levinasian approach to the construction of meaning as a unique cognitive moment, durational, rooted in experience, and not merely its signification — in Levinas's words, a sense ("le sens") by which one confronts or engages with an emergent other ("autri") McAffery presents a startling unique history of early literary experiments in what would later formally be termed by linguists as semantic and/or semiotic structures. For McAffery, such "protosemantic," interests in writing, as he terms them, are of special import to modern literature, as they detail both an ongoing and persistent distinction between writing as an ideogrammatic or visual practice and its use as a phonetic or verbal form of communication. The mode of signification is important. Where works of literary and, in some cases, even scientific, import demonstrate a penchant for the pictographic, language's capacity as an open resource, inexhaustively attuned to the various-ness of human experience, becomes quickly evident. McAffery's useful grammatology presents accordingly a much more complex intertwining between what he calls the phonetic and pictographic "linguistic impulses" that define writing's literary lineages throughout western culture . Acknowledging Jacques Derrida's seminal analyses in this area, along with his critical identification of the phonetic "impulse" with the philosophical and political impasse of logocentrism, McAffery nevertheless critiques Of Grammatology (1981) as historically incomplete. "The history of logocentrism is portrayed as basically three leaps:" McAffery writes, "from Plato and Aristotle through Rousseau to Saussure and Levi-Stauss . . . an axis that's partial, to say the least" . Labelling Derrida's methodology of deconstruction as a "fashionable metatextual practice," while comparing its impressive influence over North American liberal arts to "Attila the Hun's entry into Rome," McAffery makes it clear that his own project is driven partially by the challenge to "adumbrate [Derrida's partial] lineage and complicate any claims to a logocentric subservience of writing to speech in Western thinking" . Evidence of writing's visual capacity, its ability to signify a spatial orientation to language and thus a pictographic concept of meaning, appears regularly in writing from the middle ages onward with significant manifestations even earlier during Hellenic Greek culture .
For McAffery, a grammatological emphasis on writing as distinct from (but in no way secondary to) language as speech offers an invaluable, even libratory, recognition of semantic construction as an aesthetic practice in and of itself. As such, the page and all it composes acquire a unique meta-textual significance, divergent from the logocentric metaphysics of presence supposedly conveyed through verbal-based systems of communication. Freed from what McAffery calls in his best known critical work North of Intention (1986), the "fetish of reference," where language is "[p]roposed as intentional, as always 'about' some extra-linguistic thing, " the signifier becomes instead "an active, local agent functioning within a polymorphous, polysemous space of parts and sub-particles . . . it commands hierarchy, subordination and postponement" . The attributes McAffery invokes recall again Levinas's own theoretical views on writing as a kind of inessential echo, or perhaps better, a tracing of something "other" than language, and yet not the literal thing, i.e., the referent, that language as speech attempts to represent. Consistent with this emphasis on writing as programmatic construction, the very object of the book itself emerges newly imagined as an ideologico-historical practice. To write, for both McAffery and Levinas, is to exercise or somehow use space and sound towards particular language-oriented objectives. Levinas may not be specifically considering poetry and the literary arts as exemplary usage, but McAffery's emphasis on "hierarchy, subordination and postponement" successfully confer to language many fundamental visual and spatial components. Several of McAffery's aesthetic arguments, in fact, allow us to imagine explicit attributes of the page as especially relevant to discussions about language and its representation by screen. What issues the page invoked concerning the metaphysics of presence in meaning seem, in this sense, formally suspended, while other arguments and aesthetic concepts begun with the page, the screen respectfully advances to another level.
Critic and programmable/digital writer Talan Memmott expressly refutes all traditional referential relationships between language and ideas within screen poetics. He argues, "if the expectation of a reader-user is that she will discover the secret of a particular piece by abstracting its elements — for example, isolating the verbal from the visual — the environmental grammatology of the work is lost and the outcome is not a close reading but a partial or close(d) reading that depletes the work of its poetics" . Just as the page appears in McGann's critical lineage of later nineteenth/early twentieth century poet-printers as an active component in the construction of meaning, literally interacting with the text as a material constraint, the screen, too, emerges, in its own right, as a powerful signifier within the aesthetics of digital culture. While its material aspects may seem less physically determined, suggesting, as they do, an array of functions, some not as practically evident as others, its technical significance is no less poignant. In fact, the varied roles of the screen in digital writing serve together to suggest several ways in which the page itself might be reconsidered and better analyzed as a writing tool. Even the poets discussed here present a diverse range of approaches and methods with respect to how screens function in their writing. As a technical component, the screen presents a miscellany of media-related tasks unprecedented in the history of writing. Its relationship to the text ranges from a basic display function, presenting a digital alternative to both print and film media, to a more complex, telephonic mode of portal or electronic gateway to a vast, unseen communication network. Obviously, how the writer or artist interprets the role of the screen in relation to the work at hand remains a primary determinant of the structure and concept behind it. Producers focused on models of display, conceiving the screen as a medium of film, text and image convergence tend to use as their starting points the parameters and various limits of each separate format in order to emphasize the inherently permeable, thus transgressive, qualities of the new screen. Early examples of Flash poetry, like the well-known work by Brian Kim-Stefans, "The Dream Life of Letters," invite the viewer to reconsider the semantic possibilities of experimental typography, where the figural shape, layout and interaction of individual letters are brought again to the forefront of literary works. The result recalls, at the very least, a kind of neo-concrete relationship to the written word, though much of the significant physicality of such works tends to vanish upon exchanging materials like ink, hard type and paper for a single screen and digital design programs. Some of the weaker, less interesting works of this practice commonly suffer from the same deficiency in that they fail to acknowledge the difficulty (perhaps even impossibility) of transcribing many of the seminal attributes in concrete-style writing that help define the genre. Here again the significance of the various materials an early formalist like Mallarmé uses in his Un Coup de Dés, as with many concrete poets, cannot be overemphasized, as they comprise together an essential mandate regarding how the text is to be experienced and understood. Moreover, the inimitable nature of such elements remains a particular aesthetic device in and of itself. If Mallarmé, by bringing a distinctly spatial and materialist mode of composition to written verse, intended to question the general capacity of mechanical print reproduction technologies to engage with any original aesthetic project or work, why would we assume that concrete writing, defined as such, can even appear within the digital medium?
Once again, these questions have not, for the most part, been adequately addressed in much of the flash-based work that has so far evolved online and on screen. Even "Dream Life's" dynamic re-ordering of phrases, concepts and voices derived from a piece of literary criticism by the feminist and experimental poetry theorist Rachel Blau Duplessis sometimes fails to move beyond such dilemmas, offering the viewer an all too literal set of references in its swerving array of manic linguistic constructions. If these renderings are meant to suggest the hidden dream life of individual letters, the symbolic template hardly requires much in the way of sophisticated psychoanalysis. The letter "O" appears as one would expect it — cursively open and, in fact, consistently disposed to aiding the movement of syllables between one word and the next. It emerges consecutively in a variety of related guises based upon its figural shape, beginning with "oats", a word with the closest phonetic relationship to its own name. Moving more thematically to various punctuations of the term "oedipality", the "O" then recalls a series of even more common "yonic" associations. The next segment begins by dismantling the letters of Freud's term to swirl them about the perimeters of the screen in a giant circular wash of type. Connotations, both theoretical and creative, instantly achieve their focus. The "O" is certainly a force with which to be reckoned. For the most part, the references linger in customary fashion: the shape of the letter remains, of course, an enduring symbol for "egg" — especially if the word translates to the French "oeuf", as the animation demonstrates early in the segment; other incarnations include a huge setting sun, simultaneously creating and dismantling words on its downward arc, and a mechanised wheel of linguistic construction, where the letter serves perfunctorily as a kind of prefix rotating on invisible hinges. Language thus attains, via the screen, a convincing materiality, for it's difficult to deny that the technology of vector graphics capably adds fascinating dimensions of movement and colour composition to traditional typographic design.
Despite the penchant for nominalism these conflicted letters automatically convey, their explicit "Dream Life" flirtation with the mysterious and permeable boundaries between latent symbolic desires and manifest shapes suggests that the visual interplay of alphabetic characters with such a wide variety of meanings and innuendo can never be truly contained. Combined with a psychoanalytical approach to human sexuality and desire, this point To return to their manifest sense: the "use value" of such cultural works, derived, as it is, from their respective formal spatial (i.e., physical) structures reflects Marx's original concept of a commodity's material utility in that digital producers/artists tend to confine the significance of their respective projects to the material composition of the piece. Even Stefans's Flash poetry demonstrates a purposeful attentiveness to its own technical structure with its emphasis on line and pattern. Hence, while the digital format, compared to the more tactile qualities of print, may seem especially ethereal, it bears well what Marx identified as the primary attribute of utility, becoming "only realised in use or consumption" . The reference follows Marx's argument quite accurately, drawing attention to the importance of social application as an essential determinant of cultural meaning. The digital screen is meaningful, in other words, to the extent that it is experiential. If there is a core component linking the aesthetic objectives and authorial aims behind the myriad "net" projects currently in production, it is certainly a concentrated appreciation of the screen's active influence as a constructive device. Beyond its immediate recognition as a display mode, the screen continues to suggest increasingly sophisticated models of sensual, not to mention, cognitive, interaction. Unsurprisingly, it is with respect to these latter applications that digital works appear to invoke the most distinctively explorative avenues in art and writing.
Jason Nelson's popular screen constructions, for example, show how Flash-based works provide the opportunity to engage the reader as a kind of co-producer, turning the screen into a fully-fledged writing tool. Nelson's "reDimensional Cube" (2007), severs completely most references to written content to feature instead an interactive display tool able to mix, rotate and shift sections of text according to patterns of rows and columns. The most immediate experiential reference is to the Rubik's Cube game popular almost thirty years ago. Rather than build various solid colour faces along different three dimensional axes, the reDimensional Cube presents six textual surfaces, each divided, like the Rubik's game, into three "rotatable" rows and columns. Accordingly, the different faces supply a multitude of combination poems, all built by the viewer via the screen. The combinations are certainly interesting, especially when the different lines begin to interfere visually with each other, sometimes overlapping or cancelling surrounding texts. Clearly, though, the project does not aim to produce new texts so much as a new composition practice, and the meaning of individual lines is subordinated to the physical practice that constructed them. After engaging with this kind of device, viewers will likely find themselves inspired to construct new interfaces rather than new texts — which is exactly Nelson's overall aim. As he prefaces his work: "I will not even attempt to uncover all the various combinations one poem rethought into this interface makes. Such awkward words. My advice is to play and break this. You might create concrete poetry sculptures, or repeating, replaceable lines with moving images swimming through the text" .
Michael Joyce's earlier, and thus formative, experiments in hypertext and other spatially composed texts tend to emphasize the essential conflict digital formats in general introduce to conventional narrative patterns. Joyce's "The Sonatas of Saint Francis," co-produced with three other writers and programmers, can be interpreted first as a unique navigating tool and second as a mode of fiction. One does not read the work, so much as one plots their own course using a simple, but effective navigating interface. The opening (or front end) of the piece simply highlights two browser buttons, labelled "seawards", and "skywards" respectively, placed over a single map-illustration of a fictional island, set amidst an imaginary sea. Visuals organised as such carry their own narratological implications, as any setting would, providing elements like history background, scenery — in short, the basic situation — to the tale at hand. Yet Joyce's aesthetic aim cleverly shifts these components to the forefront of the project, above and beyond any potential narrative voice. The characters in the piece are then reassigned more intimate roles with the prospective readers or viewers. Joyce prefers to call them, in fact, "guiding figures," reemphasizing the work as more an exercise in cartography than a reading of a tale. As with Nelson's work, the meaning of the piece emerges in an experiential manner with the viewer deciding essentially how best to use, thus consume, the piece. Exactly how the reader as user is meant to interpret this relationship is left undetermined, yet Joyce remains certain that the knowledge acquired will provide a host of insights into our physical, as well as cognitive, relationships to spatial surroundings: "As in our socalled real lives we veer more and more toward the virtual, the unseen unscene of the play of our unplayed actual actions, it is more and more our lot to occupy spaces gone before they have actually ever formed" .
Just as Nelson's creative interfaces continue to invoke the printed page as a kind of spatial origin of modern semantics, attributing his "fascination" with cubes to the fact that "most print poems are built on grids" , Joyce's thematic and structural focus on maps retains an important literary lineage of its own, invoking the history of the English novel within the romance tradition. Defoe's Robinson Crusoe emerges here and there in the both imagery and various plotlines. The traditional motif of the narrative as journey could hardly be more literal, as the reader moves clumsily about the screen, picking up pieces of storyline as one would gather shells on a boundless beach.
Of course it's difficult to miss the irony these gestures also convey in their effective parody of the ubiquitous "back-and-forth" model of navigation common to all web browsers. In this manner, various screen genres are never far from the surface of the text. Not only does the work address the nuances of language through its own functioning "addictionary" of "pidgen" English, The Sonatas of Saint Francis also invokes the strategies and techniques of electronic games in the way it constructs our subject position as "players" moving through levels of interaction. In each of these examples, the hypertextual structure of the work is buried behind a complicated set of multimedial layers, well integrating the reader's activity into a larger fictional world.
Perhaps nowhere is the screen's structural antipathy to the traditional literary conceit of verbal reference more apparent in recent literary history than in the topical, somewhat controversial poetic experiment by Stephen McLaughlin and Jim Carpenter, two highly accomplished artists in programmable media, known throughout electronic literary networks for some of the earliest screen-based creations in writing, such as the poetry generator "Erica T. Carter." Deceptively entitled "Issue 1," McLaughlin and Carpenter's collaborative project appeared online in the Fall of 2008 in the guise of a typical debut issue of a new poetry journal: a massive tome (available only in PDF format) that purports to collect together over 4000 worthy works by still worthier poets.
A slightly more nuanced eye, however, will demonstrate that not any of the works were actually written by their supposed authors; rather they were generated by software and prepared by the editors as a kind of facsimile of a print journal with most formal elements of the genre firmly intact. The contributors themselves are, for the most part, actual working contemporary poets, yet their inclusion in the project was mandated, not by any usual submission process, but rather more likely a similarly mechanised procedure. Various authors have suggested that the names were drawn primarily from the blogging content management software Blogspot, using the qualifying blog tag "poet" as its only selection criterion. The issue itself was first announced for download from a Blogspot site, titled, with a nod to Beckett, "Forgodot." So what do we have here? The electronic mark-up of a journal in progress? A practical joke? A postmodern self-referential critique of the "poetry journal" format as pastiche? Or perhaps a kind of digital snap shot of a print-based literary genre reconceived for screen as a nothing less than another template or motif to be sampled and re-versioned like any other literary form?
Just how significant the project is as a new screen work is still in the process of being assessed, yet, one might note here that, for many writers hailed by the event as official contributors revealing new (and in some cases like William Shakespeare), long awaited poetic creations, the piece has amounted to nothing less than a kind of literary libel. Numerous authors, upon learning of their inclusion in the work, immediately demanded of the editors a formal "cease and desist," instructing them to either remove their contributions and good names, or face charges of copyright infringement. As one disgruntled writer complained in a blog post the very next day, "[f]or the record: I did not write this poem, did not authorize the use of my name in association with this poem, and I have never heard of these people or their bizarre project. Could I lift a 3,785 page 'online anthology,' I would drop it on their heads" . Other contributors, though not as graphic in their comments, were decidedly more litigiously inclined:
Call me "dour and humorless" if you like, but my sense of humor is really not the issue. If someone published an article containing false information about me, I would want it removed from the Web; it is no different for them to claim I wrote a certain poem when I did not. It is my basic right to protect my name and reputation, and I find it really tasteless that some people would laugh this off as some kind of avant-garde experiment. If my name is to be used in some sort of artistic "experiment," it should be with my permission. To do it without my permission is unethical as well as illegal. This "anthology" should be taken down immediately. Anyone know a good lawyer who can write a cease-and-desist letter?
Even the well known experimental poet, literary theorist and anthologist Ron Silliman condemned the work as offensive to reputations. To see such an event as a marked threat to so many authors, questioning their respective authenticities as professionals, seems indication enough that the screen is capable of challenging even the most progressive views of what is and what isn't deemed "literary" within the arts.
Bereft of colour, illustration and even the most rudimentary features of graphic design "Issue 1" seems at first to bear more in common with a mainstream press undergraduate poetry anthology than a programmable poetry experiment; yet to call the file anything but a screen work is to imagine a false context where such a tome might conceivably be printed, bound and placed for distribution. Clearly "Issue I," as a project, is partially predicated on its non-printability, establishing a very different relationship to the content it features with respect to publication, distribution and consumption. As with The Sonatas of Saint Francis, historical references to past media formats help constitute the aesthetic argument, but ultimately the screen provides a very different kind of portal into the possibilities of writing as a programmable practice. Contemporary writers who remain hostile to these developments — or at least their unsolicited participation in them have a right to their anxiety, for what fears they have over losing sight of established poetry formats and distribution networks are well founded. For many writers, projects like "Issue 1" signify first and foremost a challenge to professional relationships to the literary medium itself. Seeing how easily thousands of names can be associated with an equal number of originally produced works suggests a model of poetry practice that inherently calls into question the level of individual autonomy and control writers often seek with respect to individual writing projects. The sheer size and scope of McLaughlin and Carpenter's collaboration, an elephantine creation of over 3700 pages, assembled and placed into mass distribution available to hundreds of millions of potential viewers within seconds, in deed, has much to say regarding how traditional print genres are being currently affected by electronic media. However complex these arguments are, the project's less receptive participants obviously preferred a concise explanation from the editors of their intention over any philosophical discussion. Two days later McLaughlin offers the following statement:
Indulge me in an obscure analogy. Let's say I sit down and write the most vile, nasty, over-the-line-type-of-toxic-racist missive I can think of. Better yet, rearrange some Google vomit into an original composition and save myself a few minutes. If I were to distribute this speech, it would be considered a hate crime. I could, however, shape this text into letterforms --say, large 120pt letters composed of 10pt type. If I were to spell something like "racism is bollocks" out of such illegal text, the mode of reading would be altered. The formerly despicable statement would be neutralized. This is an approximation of my original expectations regarding the reception of this magazine. I expected its size, format, and (to my eye) clearly algorithmically generated content to make our intentions clear.
Reluctantly apologetic in tone, McLauglin's response registers primarily his own surprise at the level of personal and public offense provoked by his project. To his disbelief, a fairly conventional, humanist concept of authorship as a fixed, individual cognitive identity appears still to dominate poetry practices in the 21st century. Here the very notion of procedurally generated meaning seems problematic at best, perhaps even prohibitively obscure to consider critically.
How different these two poets' (Greg Rappleye and Stephen McLaughlin) respective understandings of the screen appear to be: for Rappleye, a Midwest writer who works primarily with lyrical narratives and an almost cinematic realism in imagery and theme, the screen signifies a mode of presentation no different than the printed page; however, for McLaughlin, a much more complex set of textual operations is in process. As the field of screen and/or programmable poetics continues to develop its own methodologies, McLaughlin's clearly grammatological interest in the screen as an active semantic element in his writing practice acquires increasing support.
N. Katherine Hayles, media theorist and literary critic, arguably provides at this time one of the more advanced set of theoretical interpretations of the screen work as a dynamic system of interplay between human end users and digital computer networks, where both the domestic and professional work environments demand sophisticated networking functionality, an historically unprecedented relationship Hayles calls a "dynamic heterarchy" emerges, in which the "the human and the computer are increasingly bound together in complex physical, psychological, economic, and social formations" . Such intense levels of cooperation between screen and mind inevitably foster increasingly detailed queries into the very nature of cognition, and Hayles herself recognises that one of the most valuable outcomes of current human/computer formations is the possibility of constructing a functional artificial intelligence. "Like humans," she writes, "intelligent machines also have multiple layers of processes, from ones and zeros to sophisticated acts of reasoning and inference" . "Issue 1" may not necessarily constitute an example of "sophisticated ... reasoning and inference," yet it respectfully invokes several key points of convergence between alternate modes of language use — some human, some silicon. This ultimately cybernetic model of poetry, for McLaughlin, clearly bears serious political, as well as intellectual, challenges to traditional concepts of readerly/writerly relationships; in deed, the notion of a more or less interactive cognitive dynamic between poem and poet provokes a radically different interpretative relationship to text in general.
Despite Rappleye's offense at his personal association with a generated text, we are, in fact, invited by McLaughlin (and Hayles) to consider the work grammatologically, that is, as a visio-spatial composition, not as letters, so much as "letter forms," where the medium remains itself the primary object of analysis. The poem attributed to Rappleye, entitled "Bonnie Winds and Fair Twists," demonstrates both its functions as a generated text and lyrical verse primarily through its repetitive structure and open-ended phrasing:
Like a bird
Like a bonnie wind
To depart left and permission
To perceive velvet and hubbub
To leave forgiving for a right
To leave a privilege of bushes
To stir a growing scope
The opening stanza, a tercet, dominated by two rather unremarkable similes, introduces the work as an example of poetic adoration. Only the lack of figurative language creates any sense of tension or ambiguity in interpretation. After all, not all birds are adorable, and the figure's contextual association with "a bonnie wind" invokes a strangely fluid, unstable set of characteristics. As well, while the "bonnie wind" reference remains central, being the primary image in the title, any subsequent parallels between the bird and various "fair twists," unsettles the tone immediately. The following stanza completes the poem's shift into abstraction, its semantic integrity being entirely structural, while the imagery becomes increasingly vague and indistinct. Each line begins with a single infinitive verb form, offering a kind of extended anaphora, punctuated by enjambment; yet the connotation is for the most part wholly ambiguous.
Despite the work's penchant for indistinctness and abstraction in reference, a semblance of meaning nevertheless emerges as different semantic contexts begin to materialise both within the poem and with respect to the poem's juxtaposition with other works featured in the publication. As noted before, the semantic patterns are consistent enough to provoke a prominent set of visual and aural configurations. For example, verb phrases immediately incite a spatial cum thematic tension between the two stanzas. If it is a poem dedicated to a love interest, the object of adoration, the reader can only conclude a theme of absence or desertion, a psychological exchange of permission, rights, i.e., principles/order for "hubbub" or chaos, i.e., growth — a "growing scope." Of course, the semantic patterns become even more overt upon comparing the poem to other "Issue 1" so-called "contributions." The repetitious similes that begin "Bonnie Winds and Fair Twists" also dominate a composition attributed to Ron Padgett, entitled "Estimating Chalk."
Like a merchant
Like a patent
Like a fable
Jenny Davidson's supposed piece, "Stintless as Awe" structures its observations around infinitive verb phrases much like we see in the second stanza of Rappleye's work:
To notice descending
To drop qualifying
Like a heating
To tell his enchanted grass
Like a tune.
Of course, such similarities serve primarily to demonstrate McLaughlin's point that the content's origins are non-human, the fact of which remains, perhaps, the most important contextual determinant concerning the project's overall interpretation. Once the very possibility of external subjective references is removed, the poems' respective meanings become newly dependent upon their spatial and semantic juxtaposition — a constructive model, one might add, that stimulates a uniquely vibrant process of interpretation. The rhetorical phrases, punctuated with obscure vocabularies inevitably outline the periodical format itself as a semantic template. In this way, McLaughlin and Carpenter demonstrate a very different framework of literary interpretation than historically associated with printed literary journals as venues of distribution for new poetry works — one where "images" of poems are placed side by side with "images" of poets in order to construct as accurately as possible the semblance of a new poetry periodical. The structural similitude is both inspiring and unnerving.
Digital writing thus makes uniquely evident what many avant-garde writers have long understood in common with the earliest lexicologists: namely that modern writing practices yield not just their own lexicons, but often their own lexical ontologies as well. From these relationships, we must inevitably consider that semantic systems, while technically fixed as communication frameworks, are, in fact, inherently fragile, differing substantially from text to text and likely even from person to person. Yet, far from interfering with the process of literary creation, such instability, in part, constitutes one of its core elements. Further, concurrent with the emergence of modern lexicons in the 18th century shows, this understanding of semantics remains hardly confined to the electronic era, but has been a substantial element of print culture for centuries.
- John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. 1690. Ed. Roger Woolhouse. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. Book 3, Ch.1 §iii.
- Jerome McGann, Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1993,12.
- Steve McCaffery, Prior to Meaning: The Protosemantic and Aesthetics, Minneapolis: Northwestern UP, 2001,119.
- McAffery, 2001, 107.
- McAffery, 2001, 107.
- McAffery, 2001, 59.
- McCaffery, North of Intention: Critical Writings 1973-1986. New York: Roof Books, 1986, 98.
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Padgett, Ron. "Estimating Chalk," Issue 1, (Fall 2008) http://arsonism.org/issue1/Issue-1_Fall-2008.pdf.
Rappleye, Greg. blog post. Harriet. Poetry Foundation. October 4, 2008. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2008/10/3785_page_pirated_poetry_antho.html.
— . "Bonnie Winds and Fair Twists," Issue 1 (Fall 2008). http://arsonism.org/issue1/Issue1_Fall-2008.pdf.
Nelson, Jason. "Redimensional Cube." Net Poetics March http://www.netpoetic.com/netpoet1.html.
Stoller, Danny Pitt. blog post. Harriet. Poetry Foundation. October 4, 2008 http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2008/10/3785_page_pirated_poetry_antho.html.