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Noise in the Channel, or I Really Don’t Have Any Paper: an antifesto
Darren Wershler-Henry

From OL3: open letter on lines online (2000)

This is not a manifesto.

This is not a movement.

This issue of OL3: open letter on lines online is a progress report, a set of working notes from a loosely affiliated group of poets scattered across Canada and the USA who are interested in the formal and political possibilities that the Internet offers contemporary poetry and poetics.

damian lopes maintains a useful distinction between ‘poetry online’ -- written text that has been dumped into HTML and posted on the web -- and ‘online poetry’ -- a poetry that utilizes the functionality of the medium, as well as drawing its structure, syntax and tropes from the Internet. While many of us have been involved with the enterprise of poetry online, whether at Arras <www.arrras.net>, Bitwalla <www.bitwalla.com>, Coach House Books <www.chbooks.com>, the Electronic Poetry Center <epc.buffalo.edu>, [sic] <www.sicmagazine.com> the Ubuweb <www.ubu.com> or any of the hundreds of other poetry sites that have sprung up over the past seven-odd years, and see it as a laudable and useful enterprise, this issue is not about poetry online. It’s the other thing that’s at issue here: online poetry, a poetry that explicitly includes the processes of coding, programming and designing as part of the creative act; a poetry whose content is, to some degree, specific to the qualities of the environment in which it exists.

Most contemporary writers would readily accept the contention that the binary opposition between poetry and science is an arbitrary one. A few would even be able to cite some of the many historical examples of works that blur the border between the two fields (those who can’t should watch for Christian Bök’s ‘Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science, forthcoming from Northwestern University Press, which covers the subject with maniacal thoroughness). But surprisingly few contemporary writers have produced work that bridges that gap themselves (bogus usage of ‘chaos theory’ or ‘cybernetics’ as an overarching metaphor in a term paper doesn’t count, sorry).

Certainly some of the people on the other side of the binary, such as those who write code for a living -- Linux hackers, computer scientists and engineers -- see it as a creative act. Eric Raymond, one of the gurus of the open source/Linux movement, assigns a ludic and creative impetus to all successful programming in his paradigmatic essay ‘The Cathedral and the Bazaar’: ‘It may well turn out that one of the most important effects of open source’s success will be to teach us that play is the most economically efficient mode of creative work’ <www.tuxedo.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/cathedral-bazaar-11.html>. John Seely Brown, former director of Xerox PARC, the lab that invented the personal computer and graphic user interface, goes a step further, asserting that treating code as writing to be read by others instead of a means to an end leads to the creation of a ‘community mind [which] becomes a new kind of platform for innovation’ <www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.08/brown.html>.

Back on our side of the binary, many of the writers in this issue have worked and continue to work either as freelancers or paid staffers in the information technology (IT) industry, yet only one has any formal training in computer science. All of the others were poets first, and, through a combination of interest, autodidacticism and economic necessity, have found a way to make a living by a form of creative writing (i.e. code). After being sold the Big Lie by the literary branch of the academy (‘Jobs await you at the end of your graduate degree, if you only professionalize!’), the alienation that results from working in IT is piffling in comparison. At least it’s possible to take IT skills and use them to make relevant art (often while being paid extremely well to do so), which is more than can be said for trying to use an English degree to move in the other direction….

So then: at least in the specific instance of poetry and computer technology, the science/poetry binary is crumbling. This is not to say that there aren’t poets resistant to the idea of taking their work online. While I was preparing this issue, several writers I discussed it with raised objections to the enterprise of online poetry, based on the contention that such a practice was elitist (because of the perception that years of training and expensive equipment are required), and perhaps that it even had the tinge of a Futurist technological imperative to it.

Let’s handle these objections one at a time. Given the extremely limited scope of interest in contemporary poetry of any sort, one poet accusing another of elitism would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. The entire contemporary poetry community resembles nothing so much as a church bakesale, complete with wizened little people who own too many cats making snide comments about the quality of each others’ rice-krispie squares.

But bracketing the infighting issue, let’s consider the question of commodification for a moment. Printed, published poetry is a commodity. It comes in books with barcodes on them, just like everything else we buy. A cashier’s laser scanner doesn’t care whether a given object is a cantaloupe or the latest volume from New Star. So unless you go the library, you have to pay for books of poetry. Online poetry, on the other hand, costs nothing to view. While it’s true that the platform required to view it does cost money (unless you go to the library to use one), computers are getting cheaper and becoming ubiquitous, and you can use them as a tool to help you make a living. Alternatively, in the ongoing tradition of alienated artists, you can view the poetry -- or write it -- while making a living. Brian Kim Stefans maintains, in true Generation X form, that the best time to view online poetry is while slacking at work. Further, without going into specifics or incriminating anyone, it’s a fact that some of the best online poetry produced to date has been coded on corporate time.

Then there’s the question of access. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that computers are still by-and-large a first-world technology, but so are books from Coach House, Sun & Moon, Roof, Chax and the rest. But unlike small-press editions, computers are becoming ubiquitous, even if the reasons for the spread of computers has little to do with altruistic empowerment. Whether we like it or not, media networks like television and radio are methods of getting messages to markets. For all of the other things it will be, the Internet will also be this. This means that it’s pretty likely that everyone who wants access to the Internet will have it within reasonably short order -- otherwise, they won’t know that they need stuff like Pokémon and baby tees and collapsible aluminum scooters and innovative poetry. Internet access in Canada has jumped from 23% in 1996 to a projected 70% by the end of 2000. Whether filling in the other 30% here and in other nations happens in 5 years or 15 is not important. Network connections for all who want them -- and probably even for those who don’t -- will happen. And poetry should be there, making noise in the channel when it does. The unacceptable alternative is to abandon the medium to the corporate monoculture.

From a pragmatic perspective, what is the degree of personal investment required in order to be able to produce relevant online poetry? Learning to code, and to use the various software applications involved in the creation of all but the most basic web pages (Photoshop, Illustrator, HomeSite/BBEdit, Dreamweaver, Flash, Fireworks/ImageReady) may sound like a daunting task, but as mentioned earlier, all of these writers save one figured it out for themselves, with no technical training. And there are levels of complexity; coding raw HTML is no more difficult than using a first-generation word processor like WordStar 4 for DOS (remember that?), so there’s no need to run out and learn Perl before you can start experimenting.

There’s also the joy of learning a new discourse and a new syntax to consider. If you can figure out a reading strategy for Finnegans Wake or The Making of Americans or These Our Mothers or I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up, HTML will be a walk in the park.

If you’re really interested in online poetry but turn out to be hopeless at coding despite your best attempts, you can always collaborate with someone with more technical expertise (and there is always someone with more technical expertise). Like the process of open source coding itself, online poetry engenders a high degree of collaborative work -- both in terms of direct collaboration and in terms of the frequent use of public-domain scripts, etc. -- because one writer rarely has all of the skills required to make a particular project happen (as Linus’ Law states, ‘Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow’). The result is that traditional notions of authorship are rapidly becoming inadequate descriptions of the process of creating an online text, and the issues raised in Foucault’s ‘What Is An Author?’ are becoming more than sophistries. At the other end of the creative process, the ‘finished’ work also fades fractally into other texts, as it hyperlinks off into the noise of the net. If there is ego anywhere in this rhizome, it is a minor moment, a switching node between possible threads.

But before discussing what really is new about online poetry, and what potentials it offers, there’s the question of neo-Futurism and the technological imperative to address. As I noted at the beginning of this piece, this is not a manifesto. There are no zealots, evangelists or avant-guardians here. We are in the earliest stages of exploring a new kind of writing, and if you’d like to be involved, you’re welcome. If anything, online poetry is the antithesis of elitism, more akin to a becoming-minoritarian, in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense. What we end up producing might not even be ‘poetry’ in any recognizable use of the word, unless we decide to retain the term as a way of creating some contention within the form.

Not that paper is in any real danger of obsolescence. As Isaac Asimov famously noted, the ideal entertainment cassette would be small, portable, cheap, accessible at any point in the narrative and capable of producing a multiplicity of experiences for a multiplicity of users -- in other words, a book. All of these writers continue to produce works in print, sometimes as ‘translations’ of or companions to their online projects. Fidget, NICHOLODEON: a book of lowerglyphs, and sensory deprivation/dream poetics all fall into this category. In her Afterword to Fidget, Marjorie Perloff has described this practice as a differential poetics, ‘not "intermedia" in the usual sense (e.g. word + image or word set to music or recited on film) but a work that has been produced differentially in alternate media, as if to say that knowledge is now available through different channels and by different means’ (101).

It is this differential poetics that will bridge the gap between innovative poetics in print and innovative online poetics for the forseeable future. The Oulipo used the term ‘anticipatory plagiarism’ to refer to works that were written before the genesis of the Oulipo itself that they wished to incorporate into the Oulipan canon; analogies can be made to print works that have been, or show a great deal of potential to be, translated into online poetry. Several examples come to mind immediately. In the second volume of their Poems for the Millennium anthology, Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris infamously classify Steve McCaffery’s Carnival as ‘cyberpoetry’, an epithet that would embarrass anyone on the receiving end, and should embarrass the bestowers as well. Nevertheless, at Coach House Books, we took pains to translate both panels of Carnival into a viable online text because even though the images are entirely static, they exhibit characteristics that at least point to the possibilities of digital adaptation (we were forced to abandon an early attempt to create a 360-degree VR version of Panel 2, due to the spectacular failure of general interest in virtual reality plug-in software, though we may return to it at some point. We would also like to add streaming audio of McCaffery’s performance of Panel 2 as a sound poem to the differential mix).

More amenable yet to the online environment is the work of Johanna Drucker. Texts such as The Word Made Flesh and Prove Before Laying, though they refer explicitly to the material practice of setting and printing with lead and wood type, also exhibit a quality peculiar to the online environment: the simultaneous presence of the axes of combination (syntactic) and substitution (paradigmatic/metonymic). Drucker’s pages behave as though they are already screens. In some sections, the text scrolls across the page syntactically, not so much like a conventional sentence as a still-shot of an animated banner. In others, letters fade in and out of position, or recombine within a static grid of possible locations. The overall effect is of a series of layers that can be rendered transparent or opaque at will, and animated to move individual symbols within the poem’s field (shades of Olson here). Contemporary software which enables the use of layers, transparency effects and animation along a designated path, especially Macromedia’s Flash, utilizes a syntax which bears striking resemblaces to these works, and make digital translations of them a tantalizing possibility.

As for what constitutes online poetry proper, it’s perhaps easier to say what it’s not, as Brian Kim Stefans does in this excerpt from a posting to the Ubuweb list:

I think there are tons of web poetry cliches already, not just falling letters, but none of them can be dismissed that easily. I think the whole animated-gif that impersonates a randomly determined text/image pattern is kind of a cliche -- it’s just the hard-wired version of someone’s weekend improvisation with text and images, and it’s often done without any real sense of progress in the way things are moving, nor with any sense of the cumulative effect of the piece.

Another is the use of genuinely randomly configured texts andor (ha) text/images, which is kind of a weak-kneed impersonation of Dadaist/Cageian indeterminacy and has probably been best done by them, with a greater sense of purpose. But, as in this last example, a project like Neil [Hennessy]’s [Jabber <members.home.net/pataphysics/>] really takes it to a new level which is valuable as there is a statistical backing determining the randomness, which philosophically makes certain claims which are interesting and which unfolds from within these claims, illustrating the principles, and so is beyond the mere noodling of just trying to throw words together and seeing what comes up.

My sense is that the longer we (meaning ‘cyberpoets’ or whatever) continue to noodle with trying to illustrate the possibilities of the medium for the sake of it and avoid attending to larger philosophical and aesthetic issues (such as the traditions of visual art, from Finlay to Naumann and beyond, which can be very useful), the less attention anyone will pay to the work, and yet I like to look at this ‘noodling’ since, alas, there’s always something floating around in there, and it is, indeed, peculiar to the medium (but spray-painting has qualities peculiar to the medium, too, and we don’t look at that all that often).

Suffice it to say, it’s really not a big deal to celebrate ‘work that simply can’t appear in print’ for its own sake -- it’s simply too easy to make the conceptual breakthrough of believing that words can move across a screen, or that they can appear in different orders, in a salad of typefaces. Advertisers have been doing it for decades, as have children for centuries when they make paper airplanes with their names scrawled on the sides. Most advertising animated gifs are more interesting that the stuff I’ve seen passed as ‘poetry’ and often have an even clearer sense of purpose, so ‘we’ can make few claims to being ‘new’ until something genuinely of interest to people not interested in computers comes around. Note on sound: it’s an entirely different field; I would prefer people not to put sound in their pieces unless they really had a sense of what sounds good, or what effects these sounds can have, or at least what the purpose of the sound might be. Could the proposed multimedia piece survive on the sound alone? Most often, sound is a distraction, and the hum of the CPU fan is actually more interesting (nostalgia for sound of film reels clicking through silent movies).

Online poetry is still a fledgling genre, and there are very few examples of fully realized works to hold up for discussion. Kenneth Goldsmith’s Fidget <www.chbooks.com/tech/books.cgi?rd=y&bk=fidget>, damian lopes’ Project X 1497-1999 <www.bitwalla.com/project_x/index.html> and sensory deprivation/dream poetics <www.chbooks.com/tech/books.cgi?rd=y&bk=sensory_deprivation>, and Brian Kim Stefans’ The Naif and the Bluebells <www.arras.net/naif> figure prominently among the existing texts. All four works merit lengthy discussion, but due to space limitations, I can only present some working theses for ideas that I hope to explore further at a later date.

Fidget has already received a considerable amount of attention, everywhere from the temples of high art (the Whitney Museum, the DIA Center) to the popular press (Utne Reader) to literary criticism (Marjorie Perloff’s essay, which has been anthologized several times, and appears in the back of the print edition from Coach House Books). Its online manifestation, a Java applet coded by Clem Paulsen, takes the form of a mandala. The text, reduced to words and phrases, is arranged spatially within the browser window by a dynamic mapping system. Words and phrases appear, connected to other words and phrases by thin lines, and then proceed to move slowly at the ends of their tethers. The applet also incorporates a chronological element: when the user accesses the page, the applet begins at a moment in the course of its run (about eighty minutes, representing one day of events in the author’s life) corresponding to the time that it grabs from the viewer’s CPU clock. The different hours in the day that is passed over the course of Fidget’s text are represented by different font sizes, background colours and degrees of movement (all user-configurable); the sense of time passing becomes even more eivdent as the words slowly fade into the background as new ones appear.

When simultaneously considered in all its manifestations, Fidget constitutes a limit text for autobiography. Not only does it banish forever the last vestiges of realism by chronicling the entropic failure of an attempt to record every instant of a person’s life, it displays the futility of attempting to communicate that chronicle to an audience by repeatedly (even frantically) restaging itself in a myriad of forms. The Java applet of Fidget hammers home the point that a life is literally incomprehensible. Like Stan Douglas’ video installation Win, Place or Show, which repeatedly restages a naturalist narrative from a myriad of camera angles -- and therefore narrative perspectives -- Fidget contends that even the most mundane events have a fractal quality that defies encapsulation (andor, more pessimistically, that existence is a gnostic horror story endlessly repeating itself).

damian lopes’ sensory deprivation/dream poetics and Project X 1497-1999 move beyond the personal sphere of Fidget and into the politics of postmodern, postcolonial media. lopes’ two sites share a common technique -- the disruption of many of the already-dead metaphors of online navigation -- but use that technique to create very different ends.

sensory deprivation/dream poetics, the smaller of the two projects, is an online collection of concrete and visual poetry (a genre that’s found new life online, partly thanks to the Ubuweb, but also because there are finally some new possibilities for formal innovation that haven’t already been exhausted by the daunting legacy of Bob Cobbing, jwcurry, dom Sylvester Houedard, Steve McCaffery and bpNichol) remarkable primarily for its interface design. After the initial few screens, which allow a choice between the two broad sections of the text, ‘sensory deprivation’ and ‘dream poetics’, something really interesting happens: the point-and-click interface metaphor, which we have already internalized and forgotten, becomes subtractive and involuntary. The viewer’s sense of mastery over the text, the result of being able to imperiously roll their cursor over a section of the page and click on it to select an action, has been removed. If the cursor remains on any part of the image window, the frame automatically advances to the next image, neatly realizing the promise of the work’s title by depriving the reader of the pleasure of a leisurely sensory experience.

The other piece that lifts ‘sensory deprivation’ above and beyond other online collections of concrete/vispo is ‘the man you script’, a long poetic rant addressing, among other subjects, the racial and political vaccuum surrounding many contemporary avant-garde poetic practices. The specific target of the work is contemporary implementations of Dada and Surrealism that do not take into account the Orientalist complicities of these movements. The piece is built from a shareware Java applet (collaboration in action, here) which moves an image of a type ball across the bottom of the screen, mimicking the noise of a typewritten or teletyped text. Text appears behind the moving ball in courier, then scrolls slowly (well, depending on your CPU speed) up the page. Once again, the panoptic control of the websurfer has been hijacked, this time for the purposes of an explicitly political agenda. The reader is forced to view the text at the speed that the script dictates, no more, no less.

lopes’ deliberate subversions of the casual expectation we have of mastery over our machines are the best exemplars of the potential the Internet holds for a radical formal difference that communicates a viable racial and political critique. While there are other political poems among the still concrete/vispo works in sensory deprivation/dream poetics, his other long online work, Project X 1497-1999, is a fully realized implementation of the use of innovative structure for poltical ends. Project X 1497-1999, ‘a poetry-multimedia installation exploring discovery, technology, colonialism through Vasco da Gama’s first voyage from Portugal to Africa & South Asia’. This vast, ongoing project which began in 1997, has a thoroughly rationalized underlying structure which turns hypertext itself into a metaphor for colonial exploration and conquest, as the author explains:

[T]he work uses sophisticated custom JavaScripts to link over 150 poems (in two collections), and over one hundred glosses and supplementary documents. With over three thousand hyperlinks, the poems are all highly interconnected: every word or phrase in the poems is ‘clickable,’ leading either to another poem or to a gloss. Though it appears possible to read the work in a more or less linear fashion, the JavaScripts ensure each reading is unique, just as each exploration takes the explorer on a different route. History, reading, exploration, research, surfing the web -- these are all forms of navigation. And now in an age where the world’s surface has been fully ‘discovered,’ the interconnected nature of this work reflects the fact that the internet has ushered us into an age of rediscovery, finding out what we already know. <www.bitwalla.com/project_x/about.html>

Interestingly, Project X 1497-1999 also resembles Fidget in its use of digital poetry as a suitably complex form for postmodern autobiography. lopes’ family history, largely the result of Portuguese colonization, is not so much arboreal as it is rhizomatic, with threads leading back from Canada through Scotland, Africa and Goa. But this is just one aspect of a sophisticated differential poetics that cannot be reduced to mere autobiography (two audio components will be added to Project X 1497-1999 in 2000, with print versions to follow).

Brian Kim Stefans’ The Naif and the Bluebells is a different sort of entity altogether, more difficult to pin down than Fidget, PX or sd/dp. Its fifty (actually, there’s a short verion as well) panels of more-or-less visual poetry utilize a wide range of technical tricks from the online poet’s grab bag: animations, plug-ins, scripts, fake banner ads, drop-down menus and so on. But Naif isn’t about technical virtuosity or prettiness. Insofar as it’s ‘about’ anything, Naif is about dialogism: the opposition of many voices which refuse to either cancel each other out or to resolve into a greater whole.

As the credits indicate <www.arras.net/naif/creditsframe.htm>, Naif includes not just allusions to but fragments of work by other poets, critics and artists: photos, texts, snatches of conversation, détournements, even punctuation (‘Em-dashes stolen from Sianne Ngai, but she emphasizes that she doesn’t mind’). When the site links off of itself, or to one of a number of secondary series of windows (which happens frequently), the opening of the new window only serves to emphasize a phenomenon that’s already in play. Naif is not an opus all the more complete for its fragmentation; it refuses to resolve either itself or its composer into the sort of totality that the Fidget applet and the sensory deprivation/dream poetics site imply.

What Naif does have in common with much of contemporary poetry is a certain anxiety about its own reception. (Bill Kennedy has remarked elsewhere about the tendency of younger poets to provide an interpretive apparatus along with the work, as though the’ve already resigned themselves to an indifferent critical environment. Guilty as charged.) But rather than attempting to defuse that anxiety through glossing, a temptation to which it is all too easy to succumb when working with hypertext, Naif actually strives to increase the uncertainty that surrounds itself. The following review of Naif appears in Graham Foust’s online literary Review Lagniappe:

On the Internet, where Nazis pose as Jews to offer information on the Holocaust -- where pederasts play cat and mouse games with little boys and girls -- who may or may not be other pederasts, or undercover cops -- where revolutionaries offer stock options -- and companies pose as consumers -- meaningful language is raised up, mercilessly, to its highest common denominator: the encrypted credit card number. For what it’s worth, ‘The Naif and the Bluebells’ is pure money, but lost en route to its putative bank. Possibly, a hacker could figure out how to spend this money. But I sure can’t. <www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~foust/A2.html#stefans2>

‘Dirk Jefferson’, actually Ben Friedlander, was commissioned by Stefans to write a negative review of Naif, to which the site was then linked. (In the version of Naif on Arras, the link does not exist; evidently, it was lost in the transfer of the project from its original home on Stadiumweb <www.stadiumweb.com>… a revelation which, if anything, cranks up the uncertainty factor another notch). Like the name ‘Dirk Jefferson’ itself (Jeff Derksen + Thomas Jefferson + a knife in the back?), the review connotes an interesting conflation of authoritative voice and violent deception. The first half of the review sites Naif in a zone of wolves in sheeps’ clothing, and the second positions it as the epitome of language refined into an exchange value so pure as to be worthless. The paranoid implication is that something sinister lurks beneath Naif’s surface; the truth is that Naif is nothing but linguistic surface, the lurking monster a parody of the implied reader’s own reactionary attitude.

This is not to say that Naif doesn’t possess a politics, but that its politics demonstrates the complexities and ambiguities of reference in a hypertext environment. Consider the popup window that reads ‘Lee Ann asked me to tell you that if you wanted to purchase Polyverse you can click here <www.arras.net/naif/leeann.htm>. The hyperlink ‘here’ leads to a splash screen called ‘Tender Buttons’, which presents another link to Amazon.com’s order page for Lee Ann Brown’s Polyverse (Sun & Moon Press, March 1999). Not only does Amazon list the book as ‘CURRENTLY NOT AVAILABLE’, the first onsite review, titled ‘ho-hum’, says the following: ‘This book aims to astonish with its reach but instead is a mish-mash of material that is ultimately mediocre. The author’s dabblings in various modes of writing falter so often that the book becomes an ongoing example of the potential pitfalls to be avoided when "appropriating" a style (the possible self indulgence of New York School writing, the occasionally forced obscurity of langpo, etc.).’ Numerous possible readings present themselves simultaneously: the author of Naif reluctantly aquiesced to a friend’s hucksterism, but couldn’t resist a barbed comment, or that Polyverse was available and the negative comment was absent when the link was created, or that the ‘ho-hum’ comment can be read as an other self-deprecatory analysis of Naif itself. Naif’s achievement is that in a milieu where referents shift constantly, it manages to present a critical commentary on that shifting without either being compromised or by pretending to be unaffected.

Much, much more can (and will) be written about online poetry and poetics. Like the Internet itself, online poetics presents the opportunity to reexamine our pat answers to questions of reference, subjectivity, race, intellectual property, nationalism and accessibility -- intriguing and useful prospects for a generation of writers who often have no fixed occupations or addresses save their email accounts. The net also offers new modes of composition and critique, for those interested in exploring them (sites such as Praystation <www.praystation.com>, thesquarerootof-1 <www.thesquarerrootof-1.com> and Superbad <www.superbad.com> already function in modes that could be described as ‘poetic’, even though their content is primarily visual).

The only appropriate way to end this preamble, then, is with an invitation. Virtually all of the writers in this issue participate (or at least lurk) in the Ubuweb discussion list. Interested parties can contact me (darren@alienated.net) to be added to the list.

OL3: open letter on lines online | UbuWeb