It’s Not That, It’s Not That, It’s Not That”:
Reading Digital Poetry

Lecture by Lori Emerson at "E-Poetry" April 23-26, 2003 at West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia.


I’m attracted to the openness of interpretation and creation in digital poetry.  With such digital poems as Annie Abrahams “Being Human” and Maria Mencia’s “Birds Singing Other Birds Songs” it’s now commonplace to declare that we cannot say for sure whether these poems are poems, whether the poets are poets.  We cannot even say who is poet and who is machine, who is reader and who is writer let alone what the poem means. We certainly cannot say how to judge these poems, where they fit in relation to literary studies.  I should also say, though, that I dread this openness it at the same time as I’m attracted to it--this struggle to overcome an attachment to sure-footedness, to turn away from the safety of a backward-looking study of what’s been sanctioned as history, and emerge into new modes of relation. 

It’s also now commonplace to say that changes in technology bring about changes in modes of relation (relations between self and other, self and world as much as between readers and writers, readers, writers and texts) as well as changes in perception, changes in experience.  Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that rather than technology necessarily replacing old or familiar modes, it enacts familiar modes of relation in unfamiliar contexts, creating something that is in part new. Whatever the case, while the observation that a change in technology changes “reality” is familiar to many students and scholars of new media, rarely do we thoroughly take this into account when faced with new media writing.  It’s true that it’s difficult, probably impossible, while looking, reading, watching a digital poem (for example) to stand outside of ourselves to observe from some sort of meta-level how our relation to the poem has changed, how it brings us to see and be differently than perhaps how we see and be in relation to a poem in paper-based media.  Regardless of the difficulty, it does not mean that study of new media writing should remain solely at the level of the reader/writer/text relation as it often does.  Not only have these terms themselves emerged from, fully informed by, paper-based technology, but so too are the terms ‘reader,’ ‘writer,’ and ‘text’ dependent upon terms such as ‘reality,’ ‘human,’ ‘machine’ that are also bound to the technology of their inception.

            I want to return to this claim later; for the moment, I’d like to explain the thinking I’ve been doing that’s brought me to this point.  My first attempt to expand the study of digital poetry addressed these issues of the reader/writer/text in relation to notions of posthuman embodiment by focusing on Kenneth Goldsmith’s “Fidget” and John Cayley’s “Indra’s Net.”  Both of these poems are mediated and generated by a computer; they are also interactive and self-generating or looping.  “Fidget” and “Indra’s Net” are indeed concerned with issues of reading writing and the means of their own production; however, they are also works engaged with the merging of a textual body with a human and machine body and the possibility of what I called, after Katherine Hayles’ use of the term, “posthuman embodiment” through reading and writing these texts.  In other words, these texts attempt to break down the separation of reader and writer as well as subject and object, self and other, mind and body.  The way I thought about it was as a posthuman feedback loop between text and reader/viewer in which there was a continual system of exchange between the two, each one never unified or whole and always participating in “re-distributions of difference and identity.”  I argued, though, not that these works simply exemplified the kind of posthuman embodiment that Hayles writes of, or that these were yet more examples of our new cyborg reality, but that these works complicate the notion of embodiment in that they perform the limits to which embodiment--or the collapse of reader/text/author/machine that supposedly defines the posthuman--is possible.  In other words, it turns out not only that the posthuman is more human than we thought, but that the human is also more posthuman than we thought.

            As I continue on with my thinking here today, I’m beginning to see that notions of the posthuman, the cyborg and claims for a corresponding collapse of distinctions between self and other, reader and text are all based on the very things they are supposed to be defined in opposition to.  I’m not suggesting that I’ve found a way to think outside of our thinking, outside our language that’s on the cusp of a paradigm shift.  I am suggesting that it is important to acknowledge, on the one hand, that a digital poem does represent a distinct difference from a paper-based poem; but, on the other hand, that it is also impossible to wholly break free from what I call ‘paper-based technology’ and its attendant assumptions.  As such, it is necessary to develop a discourse for reading digital poems that is neither human nor posthuman, paper-based nor digital but rather is both.  What I’m attempting to move toward now, then, is a model of reading these texts which is ground in both, in which the reader, text, author and machine are both separate from and related to each other, in which the poems represent something both recognizably and unrecognizably human. Take, for example, the French poet Annie Abrahams’ “Being Human.”  This digital poem--like virtual reality--appears to, but never fully does, reach us.  It is an exemplary poem of the both.  Broken up into parts or nodes constitutive of “being human,” parts made all the more human in that most can be viewed in more than one language, you have the option of venturing into desire, identity, pain or comfort. There’s also, on the right hand side of the opening screen, a mysterious “special entrance” to “Bonjour” which gives you the option of bypassing the joys and pains of humanness.  But, assuming that you’ve no desire to remain forever at the level of the formal French ‘hello’, the moment inevitably comes for you to release yourself from the position of a reader/viewer who is separate from or outside of the text, and work the poem from the inside--choose and create the content, read yourself into it, any way you want: the poem is a stand-in for a sympathetic ear that not only reflects back to you whatever you put in, but responds in ways appropriate to you. 

            If it’s wishes you want, you may give wishes, receive wishes, store, maintain, shape, lodge, conserve or keep wishes.  You may also “browse” wishes by category: male, female, under twenty-five etc.  If it’s identity that you’re preoccupied with, then you may either investigate your own identity through texts about an “I” that could be you, or you may explore others’ identity through the same self-generating texts--substituting “I” for “he” or “she.”  There’s comfort for when you’re in pain (“Don’t worry” or “Tout va bien”) and reassurance for when you feeling low (it is, after all, as the text reads, “nice to hear compliments”).  Even more fascinating are the “computer kisses” available for those who want them.  To reassure you that this is no “easy” computer, it has a built-in counter to keep track of the number of kisses given and that informs you that it has “kissed only 1102 times.”  Each time you request a kiss, the program asks for your name, and in return kisses are given directly to you (it’s interesting to note that even in engaging with a computer program, there’s no escaping the rules of human decorum for kissing--for the kiss to mean anything, you must give your name; if you don’t supply a name then the kisses are given to “null”); you may also--only if you wish--kiss the computer back.  But if you’re not sure what you want to do, that too is, of course, also acceptable--after all, that’s what “being human” is about.   

            While this poem does have traces of an author in the “Annie Abrahams” that’s inscribed at the bottom of certain pages, the notion of the single, even human, author is constantly undermined by collaborations with other artists, by the presence of machine authors by way of algorhythmically-generated poems, by projects in which there are multiple “Annie Abrahams” masquerading as the author, and by shifting I/you pronouns.  It’s never clear whether the ‘I” is the author, the reader, or both--after all, “your wishes” could be read as my wishes, my wants or “je veux” (for a kiss, for tenderness, for respect) in fact could be your wants. 

            But, as easy or as tempting as it is to simply read this unmooring of single authorship as liberating, as freeing us to be active and creative individuals, it’s also important to see this poem as, at the same time, representing its fundamental separateness from us.  I mean that the world this poem shows us is always unreachable; we may only interact with “Being Human” in the most superficial way, moving from one view of the poem to another, answering questions the poem asks us, watching it perform itself.  If we are to engage with, read poems like these, we do it on the poem’s terms and not our own.  Moreover, and perhaps my reading is all too informed by recent events, “Being Human” does not only not simply represent openness of interpretation, and neither does it simply represent openness of creation in embracing what’s called “interactivity” in the name of a breakdown of the reader/writer split, a move away from hierarchical relations and toward a democratic system of equal exchange.  Rather than the celebration of democracy that so many (particularly American critics) read in hypertext literature, it seems to me that Abrahams’ poem works as a critique of the supposed democratic freedom of hypertext--the choice between this link and that, between identifying with the ‘I’ or identifying with the ‘you’ amounts to the choice between one brand of soda and another.  So far as freedom goes, there’s no real choice here at all. 

            My reading of the human/machine relation in the poem, which may also too easily be labelled a cyborgian meshing of the two, runs along parallel lines.  It is undeniable that some of the collaborations that take place between reader and program or machine, or the limited interactivity between human and machine that takes place at the link with a click of the mouse, point toward a Donna-Haraway-like celebratory transgression of boundaries.  But the poem also represents a fundamental separation of human from machine.  In its flatness, its single-dimensionality, its soundlessness, its archives, categories, and “computer kisses,” the world we are shown on the screen is not a representation of what “being human is like”--it’s more like a human representation of a computer representation of being human.  In other words, the extent to which reality and representations of reality touch is the extent to which human and machine become cyborg--they do and they don’t.  It’s both.   

            Similar to Abraham’s exploration of the both, Maria Mencia’s work can be thought of in terms of what’s in-between both; while Abrahams explores the space of separateness and relation between human and machine, Mencia explores the space of this space of separateness and relation between human and machine by using the machine to see the human.  She writes in the introduction to her poem “Birds Singing Other Birds Songs”:

The conceptual basis for the work is an exploration into the idea of the translation process:  from birds’ sounds into language and back to birds’ songs via the human voice with the knowledge of language.  These birds are animated ‘text birds’ singing the sound of their own text while flying in the sky.  The letters, which create their physical outlines, correspond to the transcribed sound made by each of the birds.  The sound is produced by the human voice slightly manipulated in the computer.  Nevertheless, the sound doesn’t correspond to the visual representation of the real bird.  The birds appear on screen in a random manner.

In “Birds Singing Other Birds Songs” there is a mis-match of word, sound and image at the same time as there is a meshing of all three.  Generic bird-figures move across the screen, outlined by or encompassing letters that include but don’t correspond with birds sounds in the accompanying audio that also does not correspond with the physical movement of the birds. The poem does and does not fit with itself.

            But in terms of the reader/view/text relation, I say that this leaves the reader in a passive position because there’s no room for interaction: the reader can only watch the poem perform itself oblivious to him or her.  And likewise, in terms of the relation between human and machine,

there is no attempt here to simply provide a one-to-one representation of reality via the machine--birds as they are, singing as they do; these are computer-mediated “text birds” singing, as Mencia puts it, “the sound of their own text.”  But I also say that, in corresponding roughly to what we call ‘the real world’--in that birds appear in the shape of birds, birdsong still sounds like birdsong--the poem’s function is not to alienate us from it.  Instead it wants to expand the reader’s ability to translate the foreign into the familiar, traverse the space between human and machine, reader and text to create relation.  Poems such as Mencia’s explore the possibility of closing the gap, closing the space between genres of poetry, reader and writer at the same time as they explore the ways in which this is only every partially possible. To return to my earlier points, it seems to enact for us familiar modes of relating to texts, to writers, to the world in the unfamiliar context where texts, writer and world are not discrete entities but neither are they tightly fitted, meshed, together.

            In exposing our seams of sense-making by way of computer-mediated texts, Mencia and Abrahams are able to de-stabilize too-easy notions of what it means for humans to read, write, relate to the world, its people and machines.  I say ‘too easy’ to point toward the tendency to use terms (like reader, writer, world, human and machine) to understand our current cultural moment without fully acknowledging the weight still carried in our language and thinking by a legacy of meaning-making systems which were originally intended to correspond to a single, unchanging reality.  For example, these texts show us that we cannot simply say “whereas readers used to be passive now they are active”--this is the logic of progress, causality and stasis, a logic that’s reflected in what I called earlier paper-based technologies.  For the same reasons, then, neither can we simply say “these poems show how we now live in a posthuman reality of emergence and reflexivity.”  The American poet James Schuyler defined New York Action painting by saying “it’s not that, it’s not that, it’s not that.”  Likewise, I’d say that these digital poems are not that, not that, not that and they are also that, that and that.

Works Cited

Abrahams, Annie.  “Being Human.”

Mencia, Maria.  “Birds Singing Other Birds Songs.”