Monday, October 30, 2006

Imagine how much harder it would have been for Gutenberg to have invented the Western version of the printed book if he had also had to invent the literature this new technology was to print. In addition to the Bible, Gutenberg appears to have limited his output to sections of Aelius Donatus’ Latin grammar and some papal documents. Just twenty years later, William Caxton is introducing printing into England, translating books himself & even opening the first English language bookstore. His successor, Wynkyn de Worde¹,is already printing The Canterbury Tales, Robin Hood and the work of John Skelton. Worde is the man who gave English printing the use of italics, ignoring Aldus Manutius patent thereon (tho it appears that one of Manutius’ employees, Francesco Griffo, did the actual inventing).

This line of thought kept flashing through my mind at Autostart on Thursday during the early evening reading – if reading is the right word – by five contributors to the Electronic Literature Collection, Volume One (ELC) at Kelly Writers House on the Penn campus last Thursday. The collection, available at no cost both on CD and over the internet, is part of the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO), an organization that has worked since 1999 to promote and facilitate the writing, publishing, and reading of electronic literature.” The collection is edited by N. Katherine Hayles, Nick Montfort, Scott Rettberg and Stephanie Strickland, none of whom happens to actually be in the collection. As I overheard somebody say to Strickland, Autostart was something akin to a “summit” of wired writers.

Which is why it was amusing to see the event begin with a panel that included myself, Charles Bernstein, Bob Perelman & Jena Osman, since in many respects we represent the “old” in contrast to much that is being done by the likes of Alan Sondheim, John Caley, Lance Olson, Jim Rosenberg, Brian Kim Stefans, Shelley Jackson, Michael Joyce, Rob Wittig, Bill Marsh, Kenny Goldsmith, Loss Pequeño Glazier, Emily Short, Deena Larsen or Maria Mencia, just a few of the 66 contributors to this digital anthology. We four are, after all, still writers committed to the idea of print culture. It’s the context out of which our writing emerges & we aren’t particularly struggling with that.

During my own presentation, I reiterated some things I’ve discussed in bits & pieces here on the blog, that I think there are two impulses behind the rise of digital lit, one of them demographic, the other technological. The demographic one is simple – how in a world in which there are 10,000 publishing poets, can somebody do something that will stand out? It also, to the degree that it can be replicated over the web (as not all digital lit can), bypasses the ancient distribution systems that print culture leaves in place for poetry, much in the way this blog enables me to have share my thinking with readers worldwide every day.

The technological impulse is infinitely more complex and ultimately vastly more interesting to think about, as people figure out what to do & how to do it in ways that are often completely knew to poetry. This is a world in which a creative person can at least replicate the groundbreaking experiences of a Gutenberg – the possibility is right there in front of you, so no wonder it’s so attractive to so many people.

The problem of what to do with all this is the thing, tho it may be simply that, like Gutenberg, this is all simply still too new & that, soon enough, we will not only be “printing” the equivalent of the Canterbury Tales, but designing new forms altogether, as Laurence Sterne did the novel soon enough after the distributable book became a possibility.

If distribution & the web is the digital world’s answer to the problem of demographics, then the larger question will focus around the problem of constantly evolving platforms & the relationship of these new works to time. I proposed a scale – Bob Perelman, following Zukofsky, referred to it as an integral, but that’s a term I’ve never fully understood – that I call Upper Limit Homer, Lower Limit Refrigerator Magnets. The poetry we ascribe to Homer has lasted for perhaps 3,000 years. Poems composed with refrigerator magnets often fail to survive for thousands (or even tens) of seconds before someone else comes along to rearrange the text. It’s worth keeping in mind just how much our work is like refrigerator magnets. Even the writing of Ezra Pound & Gertrude Stein, which dates back now roughly 100 years, is much closer to the magnet end of the scale than to Homer’s.

But for a poem to survive at all, it has to pass what I call The Blake Test – the work has to be platform independent. Long before any of us learns about the existence of an online Blake Archive, we have already confronted his work many many times, in anthologies that completely decontextualize his writing, even in something like Dover’s William Blake Stained Glass Colouring Book. Not only does Blake’s greatness peek through all of these bowdlerized presentations, for many decades it was the only way his work could survive. Indeed, the same could be said for Homer. None of the Odyssey was written for the page, but it did make effective use of the first storage technology known to our species: rhyme. Twenty-eight centuries hence, sound repetition no longer has the same technological or social meaning, but the poem itself survives just fine, thank you. Already, graphic texts built in Harvard Graphics or through Ventura Publisher – programs whose platforms no longer exist, save in computer museums or somebody’s attic – have become inaccessible. What makes us think Java or Flash is going to last any longer? Indeed, many of the works we would soon see were composed in Inform 6, a program that itself has already been superceded.

When, later in the day at Writers House, five of the collection’s authorsMary Flanagan, Aya Karpinska, Aaron Reed, Stuart Moulthrop & Noah Wardrip-fruin – presented works on the facility’s new giant flatscreen monitor, I wondered just how many of these pieces might pass the most rudimentary form of the Blake Test – how many of these would I bother to read if I saw it as pure text on a plain printed page? Realistically, only Aya Karpinska’s collaboration with Daniel Howe, which happily is one of the pieces actually included in the collection (and is what will come up if you click her link above), which uses simple reiteration of short phrases in a method that recalls both some of Zukofsky’s finger exercises or the reiterative writing of Helmut Heissenbüttel. However, this piece also makes use of simple, elegant graphics and a breathy voiceover that will remind listeners of the deadpan operas of Robert Ashley. If there is a difference between the Karpinska/Howe collab and, say, the work of someone like Zukofsky, it’s that, cognitively, the latter is much more formal, whereas the vaguely erotic elements of open.ended could be interpreted in wide range of ways, some of them quite sophomoric.

Now five contributors out of 66 is hardly a fair sampling, nor were the extremely short presentations even a fair sampling of the authors themselves. This collection does contain some breath-taking work on it, such as Brian Kim Stefans’ The Dreamlife of Letters, a flash poem in response to the work of Rachel Blau DuPlessis. It was also obvious from the Q&A session after the presentations that several of the presenters (and other contributors to the collection in the room, such as J.R. Carpenter) are superb thinkers.

Yet at the same time, I often felt as if I were at a printers’ convention circa 1455, all this intellectual frisson, so very little (as yet) work.


¹ Just possibly the most fortuitously named individual in history.