Engberg: “Born Digital: Writing Poetry in the Age of New Media”

This (rambling overview) post examines Maria Engberg’s (2007) doctoral thesis: “Born Digital: Writing Poetry in the Age of New Media”  for several reasons: first, I found her name referred to on the ELMCIP “Electronic Literature as a Model of Creativity and Innovation in Practice” website (and since she is one of a handful of principal investigators on a grant that just got a million euros for a 3 year study on digital literature,  I got curious about folks listed as collaborators and googled them); second, I found her university website and wrote to her requesting a copy of her thesis which she kindly forwarded; and third, because the thesis (as I read it or am reading it) represents a thorough insightful overview of a majority of the contemporary digital poetry theorists and in-depth readings of some key works from the 1996-2004 era. (I also watched a video presentation synopsis by Maria); and fourthly (and perhaps irreverently and irrelevantly) I haven’t posted here in a while and this competent thesis on digital poetics formed a necessary provocation to review and compare my own thought against someone who has traversed the path before me.

The thesis begins with clarity (a clarion call):

“The present dissertation studies digital poetry, a literary practice that so far has been given scant attention in literary scholarship. I seek to articulate an analytic method grounded in close readings of selected poems as materially instantiated and experienced by a reader….digital practices and poems are at the forefront of a cultural moment which will have a great impact on how literature is created and studied.” (p. 1)

The claim of “a cultural moment which will have a great impact” may seem obvious to those of us working within digital gravity (where the capabilities and potentialities of digital media are swiftly emerging), but it remains contentious to some members of the traditional literary establishment which continues to consider the book and word in static printed form as the only medium for literary values. From the perspective of a digital poetry practice, traditional literature poised precariously (like a vertical airplane balanced on the head of a nano-pin)  is on the edge of an osmotic transformation: a metamorphic process that involves accepting time-based (film, video and special fx) kinetic media as capable bearers of literary meaning. Inclusivity of these media as augmentations into literature will not as some traditional critics argue weaken literature’s strengths but surely will enhance them, allowing new arborescent capacities and forms to sprout from infertile interstitial inter-medial plots of language.    


Engberg (nodding to Katherine Hayles exemplary work) states an intention to contextualize her arguments within materiality; and she (wisely) defines,

“… materiality of the literary artifact as created through both physical components and the author’s poetic and aesthetic choices as well as through the reader’s engagement and investment in the experience, and the larger socio-historic context in which the artifact exists and its reception takes place.” (p. 1)

She cites Talan Memmott‘s very pragmatic and useful observation that a feasible definition of “digital poetry” be “a minimal one: that the object in question be ‘digital,’ mediated through digital technology, and that it be called ‘poetry’ by its author or by a critical reader” (“Beyond Taxonomy” 293) (p. 2), — a definition that appears in Morris, Adelaide and Thomas Swiss, eds. New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 2006. which  I also cited (such an excellent definition!) in my own Master’s thesis.

Born Digital

Referring to the terminology “born digital”, Engberg states:

“With Rita Raley, I argue that we cannot locate an absolute ontological difference between “the analog” and “the digital.” Indeed, alphabetic writing itself is, by certain definitions, digital. However, understood as a culturally viable term, digital is in this context associated with computer technology. “Born digital,” then, is in this context designated for poetic work made with the authorial intention to specifically engage, question, and explore digital means of poetic and artistic creation.” (p. 4)

The obscurity of ontological distinction between digital and analog corresponds with the actuality of the situation: code is a language, software is an abstract architecture like language. In my own use of the term, ‘born digital’ refers more to works arising from a specific generation (‘digital natives’ : that generation who have never known art without computers) and works that are impossible to conceive of without computation. Exclusive reliance on intention seems to echo the ‘intentional fallacy’ argued against by Wimsatt and Beardsley in 1946. In my view,  ‘born digital’ works balance  intent and reception with the substrate of hardware and software which enables their creation. These three factors (authorial intent, digital literacy, and media) are each irrevocably involved. Tool use (software) cannot be excluded from consideration, it provides a fulcrum of potentialities that often catalyze creativity to think in ways inconceivable before digital.

Self-Reflexive Zone

Emphasizing the necessity for self-reflexivity and awareness of digital nature (in ways that belong to the theoretical tradition established by Jay David Bolter, Johanna Drucker and Hayles) Engberg establishes links to the canonical references:

“Like the editors of P0es1s: The Aesthetics of Digital Poetry, I, too, regard “digital poetry” as referring to “artistic projects that deal with the medial changes in language and language-based communication in computers and digital networks” (Block et al 13).” (p.4)

As many others have done due to necessity when initiating digital literary criticism in a field where vestigial terminology obscures rather than evokes meaning, where analog assumptions cling to digital literacy, Engberg discusses the limitation of terms like reading and writing for an activity that is often (in digital contexts) more listening/viewing and using. Engberg argues that we “experience digital poems, not just read them. I define experience as an embodied multisensory event reliant upon a range of contextual factors” (6). Her thesis “expands the notion of writing to include images, graphics, and sound, and spatiotemporal and kinetic functions” (8). Temporal spatial and ergodoic considerations, cinematic kinetics, the influence of advertising: she works her way from interactivity, through cinema-styled work (like YHCHI) into a consideration of what she terms “visual noise” (in among others: Andy Campbell and Poems the Go ). A quotation from John Cayley’s “Screen:: Writing” precedes the first chapter; followed in quick succession by discussions of the influential foresite of Marjorie Perloff’s Radical Artifice and Jay David Bolter’s Writing Space. Having established the foundation for a credible scrutiny of a nascent field, Engberg enters into the details of what constitutes technopoetics and cites Strother Purdy who in 1984 claimed “in technopoetics there must be found both the mechanical effects of poetry and, ideally, the poetical effects of machines.” — from a work I didn’t know of previously: Purdy, Strother B. “Technopoetics: Seeing What Literature Has to Do with the Machine.” Critical Inquiry 11 (1984): 130-140.

Although Engberg’s focus is on the works themselves, she does not claim comprehensiveness; and her thesis includes an apppendix list of digital poets and critics. She finds resonance with Johanna Drucker‘s notion of “a zone of activity … made at the intersection of different disciplines, fields and ideas — rather than their limits” (Drucker in Engberg. p. 16). This zone is not a category so much as a topological polyp, a space created by the shared criteria and activities of diverse works. Set-theory epistemology in the service of aesthetics. Cloud conception.

Core Texts

Engberg then considers the relative absence of references to digital poetry in critical literary analysis. An absence that is all the more surprising given the congruity between avant garde poetics and digital poeisis. She mentions the core book-length texts which focus exclusively on digital poetry: Loss Pequeño Glazier’s Dig[iT]tal Poet(I)(c)s: The Making of E-Poetries (2002), Brian Kim Stefans’s Fashionable Noise: On Digital Poetics (2003); and Christopher Funkhouser’s Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms 1959-1995 (2007). The core collections of essays: The Aesthetics of Net Literature: Writing, Reading, and Playing in Programmable Media (edited by Peter Gendolla and Jörgen Schäfer); New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories (edited by Morris and Swiss, 2006); P0es1s: The Aesthetics of Digital Poetry (edited by Block, Heibach, and Wenz, 2004), and Close Reading New Media: Analyzing Electronic Literature (edited by Van Looy and Baetens, 2003).  To this list, could be added peripheral or personal text such as the idiosyncratic Mark Amerika‘s Meta/data: A Digital Poetics (2007), Charles Hartman’s Virtual Muse (1996);  J. Abbott Miller’s Dimensional Typography (1996); and an essay collection  (published since Engberg completed her thesis)   Literary Art in Digital Performance: Case Studies in New Media Art and Criticism (edited by Francisco Ricardo) (2009). Engberg also provides a semi-exhaustive list of theorists who have contributed articles to the evolving literature and criticism with emphasis (as necessary) on Hayles. Hyper-mall of immediate textuality.

What should it be called? Another e-lit naming frenzy (sequel)

Like good parents at the birth of a child, every essay on digital poetry invariably revisits the problem of naming the genre. Along with proliferating possibilities, controversy and opinions have also flourished. Engberg steers a steady path through the turbulent rubble, advocating (yet not insisting on) the utility of the simple name: digital poetry.


Distinguishing between the EPC (Electronic Poetry Center) and the ELO (not the band, but the Electronic Literature Organization) is something I’d never bothered to do until Engberg did it for me. EPC based in SUNY is Glazier’s baby, they host the E-Poetry Festival. ELO has a broader scope and publishes the literary collections. not to be confused with the nascent and emergent  ELMCIP “Electronic Literature as a Model of Creativity and Innovation in Practice”. Problem with the word: When I hear the word “electronic” I think of Tesla and not Turing. Is the entire field suggestive of sparks and lightbulbs and generators? Shouldn’t the names used by major digital poetry orgs evoke networks, tactile surfaces, 3D mesh and voice recognition?


Differentiating between materiality and medium, Engberg introduces a couple terms

Ekphrasis … the verbal description of visual things, commonly poetic writing concerned with the visual arts. [And] Intermediality … a field of study concerned with art and literary works (p.35)

It’s pleasant to have succinct definitions of ekphrasis and intermedial; but these terms while familiar to folks in the field may be so abstruse and unused in common discourse as to be of neglibile use, since they offer little traction.

Hayles (materiality); McGann (textuality); Drucker (graphesis)

Engeberg makes a nice tripartite foundational distinction between the core concepts of 3 core thinkers: N Katherine Hayles’ materiality; Jerome McGann’s textuality; and Johanna Drucker’s graphesis. What is shared by each is the insight that texts are contextual: reading experience involves the materials of the text’s construction (book/screen) and the social context (which includes the embodied reader). Each of these terms (materiality, textuality, graphesis) allows image and sound to be integrated into critical analysis. Engeberg tempers her synthesis of these 3 ideas with an awareness of the vulnerability of medium-specific analysis which assumes that each medium is only suited to specific sets of effects. In spite of its vulnerability, this theoretical confluence is indicative of a critical stance that permits the inclusion of multimedia and digital features into literary analysis in a way that is (as is often stated by Hayles) ‘nuanced’ and open to the myriade of potentials that are and will be increasingly emergent in digital poetics.

Close-Reading the Poemevent

I am not going to elaborate much farther the content of Engberg’s thesis in Chapter 2 as she develops close-reading of several canonical digital poetic works (suffice to say it is scholarly dense and rigorous). Notably, at the beginning of the close-readings, Engberg introduces the neologism peomevent to signify:

… the poetic work’s meaning-making strategies, material, author/s/, and reader/s/. Reading, exploring, navigating, and manipulating these poetic environments constitute, I argue, a “poemevent” And in that “poemevent,” readerly labor forms a crucial part of the poems’ meaning  [...] With this term I would like to preserve the concept of the poem as a literary artifact—perceivable in an object—while simultaneously attending to the various aspects of temporality, performance, and event. (p. 44 -47)

She uses this term as a guide in exploring Aya Karpinska’s “ek-stasis,” Mary Flanagan’s “[theHouse],” Stephanie Strickland’s “V: Vniverse”, and John Cayley’s “riverIsland”. The readings emphasize the poetic as material, engagement as interactive and the spatial as temporal.

Cinematographic poetry, animation and multimedia

Chapter 3 examines cinematographic poetry, animation and multimedia (with a nod toward Billy Collins) in the works “Cruising,” “Sinking,” “While Chopping Red Peppers,” and “Car Wash” by Megan Sapnar and Ingrid Ankerson, “Genius” by Thomas Swiss, and “THE LAST DAY OF BETTY NK0M0” by YOUNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES. These examples are obviously Flash-based. The critical predecessor Engberg notes is Teemu Ikonen’s “Moving Text in Avant-Garde Poetry: Towards a Poetics of Textual Motion” and (not surprisingly) Lev Manovich’s emphasis on the cinematic aspect of digital media which states: “the visual culture of a computer age is cinematographic in its appearance, digital on the level of its material, and computational (i.e., software driven) in its logic” (Manovich in Engberg. p.100).

Engberg also cites WJT Mitchell’s notion of the pictorial turn (which may not be as familiar to media studies readers) as evidence that pictorial literacy may be required to analyze multimedial works. With inclusion comes opposition. The opposition of some poets to the visual is well-known; Engberg cites Bootz’s claim that “these approaches are unable to propose a situation of communication that is truly new” since they do not focus on programming (Bootz in Engeberg. p.104). The self-reflexive medial unreadability of po-mo pop-stars like JODI seems like a remarkably complex strategy compared to ‘simple’ cinematic effects. But Engberg questions such a clear dichotomy, using Swiss’ work Genius to reveal how cinematic surfaces can refract cultural vortexes; and throughout the cinematic section suggests that simple dichotomies implode in real examples. In my words, the passive aspect of engagement is interactive, artifice is interpretable as materiality, and hybridity and convergence inevitably diverge.

Visual Noise Poetry

In her final set of deep readings, Engberg focuses on “Breathing/Secret of Roe” by Jonathan Carr, “Spawn” by Andy Campbell, Diagram Series 6 by Jim Rosenberg, and Leaved Life by Anne Frances Wysocki. These are works which she sees in a lineage with early typographic experimenters Stéphane Mallarmé and Guillaume Apollinaire; and LANGUAGE poets: Susan Howe, Charles Bernstein, Steve McCaffery, and Susan Waldrop (among others). For Engberg

“visual noise,” is generated by a tactilely responsive surface in combination with visual excess which requires an embodied engagement from the reader/user in order for a reading to take place. (p. 115)

Some concepts cited in this section: Bolter and Grusin’s inclusion of both transparency and noise into remediation; Hansen’s phenomenological embodied tactile reading of Jeffrey Shaw’s work which seeks to “specify what remains distinctly ‘human’ in this age of digital convergence” (Hansen in Engberg. p.116); John Cayley’s signification machine including “psychic apparatus, as well as the embodied writer and all the prosthetic, mediating devices of inscription” (Cayley in Engberg.p.117); and Aarseth’s ergeodic reader/user.


Engeberg frames her conclusions by speculating on the future of digital poetry which she sees as potentially moving more into codework and 3D poetry. She reiterates her meta-frame of materiality, readings specific to the media. And her thesis closes with another clarion call:

To be born digital is quickly becoming the norm, not the exception, and literary scholars need to figure out what that will entail for reading, writing, and thinking about poetry in the 21st century. (p. 149)

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