Jumping to Occlusions

Loss Pequeño Glazier


fret which is whirled / out of some sort of information
(Bernstein "The Simply" 7)

Precipitation: violent passages: from which we each
emerge: rending: stuffed: awkwardly shaped by the heat of such
and such a system.
(Bergvall, "Fourth Tableau" 207)

Poetry has entered the electronic landscape. Even if such a landscape suggests images of electronic video games or machine-readable iambics swooning under the influence of a science fiction lexicon, the fact is that the electronic world is a world predominantly of writing. Though this writing often seems eclipsed by its mode of transmission (electronic mail and the World Wide Web as primary instances), in this it is not unlike all previous writing, which has also been eclipsed by modes of transmission. (For example, the book, the stone tablet, the scroll.) Electronic writing, like previous instances of writing, equally engages the double "mission" of writing: to varying degrees, writing is about a subject, but also about the medium through which it is transmitted. "Transmission," then, suggests both the circulation of texts and the cross-purpose ("trans" = across or to cross + "mission" = purpose or intention) of inscription.

How does transcription have a cross-purpose? The language you are breathing becomes the language you think. Take for example in UNIX (and the whole World Wide Web is UNIX-based) to "grep" or "chmod," things done daily, even hundreds of times a day. When you grep ("global/regular expression/print") a given target, you search across files for instances of a string of characters, or for a word. Chmod ("change mode") uses a numeric code to grant, in an augenblick, permission to read, write, and/or execute a given file to yourself, your community, and your world. How could it be simpler? Why don't we all think in UNIX? If we do, these ideas are a file, I am chmoding this file for all of you to have read, write, and execute permission--and for God's sake, please grep what you need from this! What I am saying is that poetry itself is best suited to grep how technology factors language and how this technology, writing, and production, are as inseparable as Larry, Moe, and Curly Java.

The rise of the little magazine and small presses from hand presses of the Fifties through the mimeo, xerox, and offset production of the following decades have exemplified not only poetry's engagement with its mode of production, but also its means of dissemination. What has existed is a union between poetry and its technologies of dissemination. Poetry's paths through these technologies has been one of appropriating discarded technologies or subverting primary economic intentions of technologies (publishing with tossed mimeo machines or running off a poetry magazine on the photocopier at work). Paper-based dissemination, however, also has its limitations. Paper is expensive. Distribution, because of postage costs and import restrictions, is effectively limited by national boundaries. (Why does it cost more, for example, to mail a postcard from Buffalo to Toronto than it does to mail one to Anchorage?) The Nineties have presented even greater challenges with the demise of poetry distribution channels such as Segue, Inland, and others, and the rise of bookstore chains with their exclusive attention to gross sales. This problem has been increasingly compounded by the practically nonexistent means of distribution for poetry in other media, audio, video, and graphical, most notably.

The continued importance of print poetry notwithstanding, the possibilities for poetry's writing in electronic space are to be reckoned with. What will happen? Will it be milk and honey or a virtual Balkans? Electronic technology offers unprecedented opportunities for the production, archiving, distribution, and promotion of poetic texts but most importantly, electronic space is a space of writing. What I would argue for is an approach that looks at the writing on the screen. Further, just as the mimeo brought its "style" of writing or the perfect-bound offset book its typical page size and length of text--factors which influenced the writing of texts for these technologies--the World Wide Web factors its texts.

On the Web, the actual language (HTML) and scripts which enable the circulation of texts are writing and the way texts are displayed is an activity of writing; that is, on the Web we write on. This site enters writing not only as technique but as "transmission". This fusion is unavoidable. Charles Bernstein has commented that "language is the material of both thinking and writing. We think and write in language, which sets up an intrinsic connection between the two." ("Thought's" 62) This same kinship applies to writing and the computer. (Interesting, in this regard, in the last century "computer" meant a person hired to perform computations. Later, this meaning was superseded by our present sense of a machine that "substitutes mechanical performance for an intellectual process.")

Postmodern poetic theory is particularly relevant to electronic space. Robert Duncan, writing about Charles Olson suggests that one of Olson's messages was adjusting the scale of the poem's activity. This has particular relevance to an electronic poetics, where assumptions about specific formal qualities must be converted from assumptions about the print medium. The breakthrough? As with any development in technology, writing does not stay the same but the writing technology becomes an expanded way to see under the aegis of the writing activity. This scale, Olson suggested, extended:

"from Folsom cave to now"--the waves of pre-glacial and post-glacial migrations out of Asia, the adventuring voyages out from the Phoenician world, the Norse world, and then the Renaissance, as coming "home," "back" to their origins. "SPACE": "I spell it large because it comes large here," he wrote: "Large, and without mercy" (Duncan "Introduction" 80).

Despite the aggressive stance and gendered diction, Olson's historicizing of poetic space suggests a movement into larger scenes of activity. This movement can also be seen as extending into electronic space. The sense of "home" here resonant with a home page which is fragile, fleeting, "historic," a point of application juxtaposed against the merciless immensity of online space. With Olson's work, Duncan writes, "the opening up of great spaces in consciousness had begun, and in the very beginning, it its origins, he moves in, as he knows he must, to redirect the ideas of language and of the body, of Man, of commune, and of history" ("Introduction" 80). This "consciousness" includes a consciousness of the space of the page and writers of Olson's circle, Duncan and Robert Creeley among them, addressed the physical space of the page as a material element of the poem.

The question then becomes how, on the Net, writing intersects with its materials. What specifically is the difference between a paper poetry and an electronic one? The paper press certainly offers parallels. The avatar of small circulation, fine press, has clearly been concerned with its materials. Those who work in fine printing can speak of sensuous relations between text and materials. (The "press" in fine press insists on "impression"; the act of physical impression carries through to tactile qualities in the printed object.) Thus fine press also engages transmission; what is transmitted is the tactile record of the act of impression. The term "small press," in distinction to fine press, clearly insists on transmission. (In this context it's a little perverse to consider the mimeo, the flagship of early small press, sensuous.) "Press," here, refers to the machinery of reproduction and the social institution of disseminating information. It is small, non-corporate, a pequeñismo, privileging content over profit. Its machinery becomes a part of the materiality of the text, grepping writing through such called for material facts as 8-1/2 X 11 paper, black and white appearance, and (before the microcomputer revolution) a fairly standardized set of fonts. The materials of the technology have a direct effect on the actual path of writing. In the electronic environment, the materials shift. As fonts rage wistful or out of control and the "size" of paper irrelevant, texts become constituted as physical pieces of a never complete and constantly reconstituting whole (the Network).

Ron Silliman introduced his influential anthology of new writing, In the American Tree, stating that "Projective Verse is 'Pieces' On" ("Language" xv). Silliman was suggesting that In the American Tree extended Olson's theory of Projective Verse as realized in Creeley's breakthrough collection of poems Pieces. (Pieces also insisted on poetry's possibilities, as pieces of text, outside externally mandated form.) This statement has resonance in new terrain: electronic verse is pieces online. Thinking of Creeley's "form is never more than an extension of content" (Complete 79), what avenues of content have been opened by such vastly different avenues of "form"? The medium as technique/the poem as "making," hence electronic poetries are positioned to enter and extend a number of investigations of language into a new poetic terrain where words are mutable and conscious of transmission. These are words which do not merely name; they approach an added potential for "activity." As Charles Bernstein has written, speaking of visual poetry:

For words are no more labels of things than the sky is a styrofoam wrap of some Divine carryout shop. And letters are no more tied to words or words to sentences than a mule is tied to its burden.

Letters in liberty. words freed from the tyranny of horizontality, or sequence.... (Response 3)

These words have equal significance in the electronic realm. Bernstein's allusion here to Marinetti's great Futurist declaration gestures towards the advancement of writing's physicality. Electronic texts provide the subsequent step here, moving writing into charged space, where words themselves begin to reach beyond sequentiality. From context to "dystext": pieces or fragments of text. This is a dance outside the linear, outside the line. An interesting place for writing … as they say in Texas, "real cowboys don't line dance."

Thus we find online hypertext. (Generic and intersystemic in qualities; as opposed to proprietary "closed" hypertext systems.) Importantly, electronic poetics are not tied to the linearity of the page; this is not an end of linearity but an emergence of multiple linearities. The connection between these multiples is the link. A signal word or conjunction of letters, the mule unharnassed, free to jump into a lateral or completely irreverent context--or medium (visual, sound, video).

Links bring to the text the riddle of discovery experienced by the anthropologist stepping onto the soil of a previously undiscovered culture: once the imprint of such a footstep is on the sand, the culture is no longer "native." Once a link has been taken, it is no longer a link but a constituted part of the already traveled narrative; the link loses its potentiality but, in doing so, opens up the possibility of other links. And what if some of these links fail? What we have is not a failure of the internal system but a triumph of internal workings over any possibility of external order. As Gregory Ulmer puts it:

There is no "central processor" in hyperrhetoric, no set of rules, but a distributed memory, a memory triggered by a cue that spreads through the encyclopedia, the library, the data base (connectionism suggests that the hardware itself should be designed to support the spread of memory through an associational network) (346).

Hypertext allows sequences throughout sequences. However, a serious point of difference must be taken with some Web utopianists: despite tendencies in this direction, the point is not that everything is linked through these sequences. The constitution of any such whole could only be a misrepresentation of stability, the futile pursuit of yet another encyclopedia. The insistences of the internal orders of texts do not add stability to the text, rather they add a perplexing layer of instability; it is the "failure" of the links, whether they connect or not, that gives them their activity and it is through this activity that electronic writing departs irreversibly from the world of print.

This post-typographic and non-linear disunion is no news to poetics. The argument that "Pound's significance lies in his having anticipated the end of 'the Gutenberg era', the age of print" (Davie 5), Futurism, Stein, Dada, and following World War II, the exploration of system in Olson, Duncan and Blaser's serial works, Eigner's articulation, Creeley's numeric determinations, Spicer and Roberson's split pages, Bernstein, McCaffery, Silliman, Grenier, Fisher, Sheppard, Hocquard, Royet-Journoud, the radical typographies of Howe and Drucker, Antin's improvizations, the translations of Joris, Rothenberg's ethnopoetics, redeployments of language by O'Sullivan, Bergvall, MacCormack, Brossard, Leggott, Hejinian, Retallack, and Weiner, and the alleatories of Mac Low and Cage point in different ways to various forms of nonlinearity.

It is the play of pieces that forms the tropes of the electronic web. Speaking of Charles Bernstein's work, Marjorie Perloff writes that it "playfully exploits such rhetorical figures as pun, anaphora, epiphora, metathesis, epigram, anagram, and neologism to create a seamless web of reconstituted words" (231). Bernstein has called this weaving "dysraphism". "'Raph' … means 'seam,'" Bernstein explains, "so for me dysraphism is mis-seaming -- a prosodic device!" ("Dysraphism" 44") Bernstein's "sensitivity to etymologies and latent meanings is reflected in the poem itself," Perloff writes, "which is an elaborate 'dysfunctional fusion of embryonic parts' [and] a 'disturbance of stress, pitch, and rhythm of speech' in the interest of a new kind of urban rhapsody" (230). The weaving of disparate elements into a larger "whole," is a prosody. As Ron Silliman writes, "When words are, meaning soon follows. Where words join, writing is" ("For L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E" 16). It is through this dysraphism that writing approaches its potential on the Web, a writing based on links.

What are links but faults in the monolinear imagination? In his "Parapraxes" essays Freud has written about parapraxis, faults in reading, writing, and speaking, "slips of the tongue," as more possible when the mind shifts into an associative disposition. (For example, at a recent videodisk viewing of cave paintings of Lascaux, I was struck by an enlarged detail as identical to a common image of open-heart surgery.) Though Freud would, in his fashion, like to suggest that conclusions may be drawn from parapraxis, the ability to read linked writings depends not on conclusion but occlusion, or an aberration of the eye, literally and homophonously. (If the machine is meant to calculate, writing begins when its error is engaged.) This is a space where the minor matters: monolinearity blocked, peripheral vision may again resume activity.

An electronic poetics alters the "eye" and also extends the physicality of reading. With the keyboard, literal manipulation is engaged with fingers determining different referentialities of the text; a sight more active than repetitious page turning. Again a fusion of parts extending into a plethora of directions. Robert Duncan's reference to the traditional work of a poet as juggling a number of objects. Gertrude Stein's "a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing" (Tender 9).

Writing's acute (hence "hyper") activity of movement and transmission, Bernstein's Poetics list, RIF/T's thousand subscribers, or the 25,000 transactions a month at the Electronic Poetry Center (http://epc.buffalo.edu) witness the merging of writing and transmission. When oral, the voice projects across the room, beyond rooms. As a "system to pointing" its poetic is one of deflection. Texts move not only within themselves but into socially-charged externalities: a webbed interference of junk mail, "frets" of information, systemic failures, ephemera, disunion. There is no resting place--only the incessantly reconstituted links dissolving each time the reading is entered.

As to the "resting place" in question, I am frequently asked what factor was so motivating to cause a poet to enter the world of greps, chmods, kernels, and shells--not to mention to suffer the ignominy of being referred to as "one of the UNIX persons" and create the Electronic Poetry Center. The reason? Not only could we not get our early online texts correctly archived, we couldn't convince the archival site to even classify the texts as poetry. The administrators there insisted that the work we created didn't look like poetry to them and so our work was listed under "Zines". What more reason could there be needed for founding an online site?

An electronic poetics is a poetics. Like any other poetics which recognizes system--be it breath, a controversy of texts, or a nexus of interests--system is a determining factor. A poetics also involves a particular engagement, or set of engagements, with its issuing "authority" and technology. The public life of a poetics has, perhaps, been nowhere more visible, with its incessant transmission, than in the electronic poetries. An electronic poetry is a public word, projected across a public world, across systems, itself as system.


M E N D U M

italicized--"faulty text"

see ambient transmission...

Implacable pressure individual word

nor factor of its essay's plangent

technological writing finds its

shortened by speed's excess

prescribes the next case sensitive

frame interval back to LIT so that's

science vita as temporal release

Presumed oneself lost as at

anagram of lexis should not

moebius strip chain of linked

emend hot links simmer on grill

have turned set spills into

routing so trajectory across

the Atlantic call it bullish poets

television effect figurations desert

have gotten lost (this is the disk)

both netted and offline turn on its

immunely dancing platforms

last year previously asymptotic

in olive phone calls ring your Iberia

pre-Raphaelite relation to decadence

in anthology. Never thought to find

in effect "you get what you ascii for"

to French trends and illustration

another nine Dutch poets revisiting

then in its custom prescribes that

swoop across the road as continents

transmit say a gathering to honor

Pacific write against this point

cross-current, visible vs. physical

extended serial sequences, beyond text

and voila`! hence antho-, ana-, autho-

got faults "mendum" gears affix

for public consumption into Veracruz

Anatolia's dry sting of books then

radio drift, deep inflected tones fit

forget to send even-rendered domain.


Notes

1. People see a book and think of "a book" not "a message fixed into a linear progression of paper pages".

2. Alberto Moreiras: "Can we define a task of thinking that would refuse to believe in itself above and beyond technique?" (194)

3. Donna Haraway: "A cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints" (196).

4. Made famous in Charles Olson's famous "Projective Verse" essay (15-30).

References

Bergvall, Caroline. "Fourth Tableau" in O'Sullivan, Maggie, ed., Out of Everywhere: Linguistically Innovative Poetry by Women in North America and the UK (London: Reality Street, 1996): 207-209.

Bernstein, Charles."The Response As Such: Words in Visibility" MEANING 9 (May 1991): 3-8.

--. "The Simply." The Sophist. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon P, 1987. 7-13.

--. "Dysraphism." The Sophist. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon P, 1987. 44.

--. "Thought's Measure." Content's Dream: Essays 1975-1984. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1986.61-86.

Creeley, Robert. Charles Olson & Robert Creeley : The Complete Correspondence. Vol. 1. Ed. George F. Butterick. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow, 1980.

--. Pieces. New York: Scribner's, 1969.

Davie, Donald. Ezra Pound. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1975.

Duncan, Robert. "As An Introduction." Sulfur 35 (Fall, 1994): 80-86.

Freud, Sigmund. "Parapraxes." Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. Standard Ed. New York: Norton, 1966. 17-98.

Haraway, Donna. "A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980's." Feminism/Postmodernism. Ed. Linda J. Nicholson. New York: Routledge, 1990. 190-233.

Moreiras, Alberto. "Hacking a Private Site in Cyberspace." Rethinking Technologies. Ed. Verena Andermatt Conley. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993. 191-204.

Olson, Charles. "Projective Verse." Selected Writings of Charles Olson. New York: New Directions, 1966. 15-30.

Perloff, Marjorie. The Dance of the Intellect. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985.

Silliman, Ron. "For L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E." The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1984. 16.

--. "Language, Realism, Poetry." In the American Tree. Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 1986. xv-xxiii.

Stein, Gertrude. Stanzas In Meditation. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon P, 1994.

Ulmer, Gregory L. "The Miranda Warnings," Hyper/text/theory, ed. George P. Landow. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994. 345-377.