Lev Manovich inverts the conventional way of looking at how photography forced a change on painting: “Thus, rather than thinking of modern art as a liberation (from representation and documentation), we can see it as a kind of psychosis – an intense, often torturous examination of the contents of its psyche, the memories of its glamorous past lives, and the very possibilities of speaking. At first this psychosis produced brilliant insights and inspired visions but eventually, as the mental illness progressed, it degenerated into endless repetitions. ” (pg 282. 2008 draft of Software Takes Command)
A parallel observation also holds true for contemporary poetry. With the rise of the printing press, it lost its base as the deliverer of news. As novels and stories and journalism arrived direct, poetry sought new terrain in which to establish continued relevance. In the same way that painting turned to the subject of painting, poetry turned to the subject of its substrate: language. Contemporary poems are about language. This truism is stated often: poetry is about language..
Character, story, and observations of nature are already comprehensively covered by many other media. The poetic avant garde along with philosophy is now in the business of investigating the tropes and turns of language: it investigates how things are said; and it investigates these issues sonically, culturally and procedurally with an eye to destabilize how we receive what is said. Unfortunately, where this focus, at the birth of several movements such as Dada or LANGUAGE, led to superlative works which activated levels of unprecedented discourse; now, perhaps there is the sense (I have it) that poetry has reached a strange impasse.
Burroughs and Gysin spawned a revolution. OULIPO cemented its cerebral appeal. In response to the commodification of creativity and the stable narrative voice (i.e. the repressed voice), poetry adopted a cut and paste collage methodology of hallucinatory deflections. Subsequently, appropriation became a key methodology of the conceptual elite. I agree with Kenneth Goldsmith only partially when he says (in the intro to Against Expression a new ubuweb anthology of conceptual lit) : “With the rise of the Web, writing has met its photography. By that, I mean that writing has encountered a situation similar to that of painting upon the invention of photography, a technology so much better at doing what the art form had been trying to do that, to survive, the ﬁeld had to alter its course radically. If photography was striving for sharp focus, painting was forced to go soft, hence impressionism. Faced with an unprecedented amount of available digital text, writing needs to redeﬁne itself to adapt to the new environment of textual abundance.” (pg. xvii, Against Expression.)
As I said, I partially agree, here’s why: The printing press and typewriter were already poetry’s photography. The web is yet another animal entirely.
Isn’t the dilemma now that we are all inundated in a massive onslaught of word spew every day? Do we need to construct more of it? Is the only space left for poetry a narrow ledge of irony, and a ctrl+c ctrl+v heartbeat? Conceptual approaches of writing will continue on their own path, ﬁnding solutions to their own lines of inquiry.
In the next few posts, I will be exploring other paths, challenges and difficult potentialities digital literature has before it. These are basic changes occurring in the operating system of how we write at the root level. Specifically, the development of a living language, assimilated into motion graphics and code embodied. Word as spime. What I will be proposing here is very speciﬁc to those so inclined to this approach. To paraphrase Sol LeWitt: “I do not advocate a digital form of poetry for all poets. I have found that it has worked well for me while other ways have not. It is one way of making poetry; other ways suit other poets. Nor do I think all digital poetry merits the viewers attention. Digital poetry is only good when both programming and poetry are good”