The Politics of Plasticity: Neoliberalism and the Digital Text


From Another 5-minute Romp thru the IP, Cory Arcangel, 2011

by Davin Heckman

In 2010, “Bradley Horwitz, Google vice president of product marketing, spoke of Buzz as ‘a Google approach to sharing’ and a tool that will ‘help you manage your attention better’” (Fuchs 290-91). Implicit in the Google view is the idea that our consciousness itself is no longer capable of attending to thought, communication, and reflection without technical assistance. In the same year, the Ars Industrialis group declared in their Manifesto that we must “struggle against carelessness [incurie], against the destruction of attention” (Ars Industrialis). In sharp distinction to Google’s rhetoric of ease, Ars Industrialis asserts that attention itself is produced through care, presumably constituted by that measure of intentional focus that is in excess of the sort of “assistance” offered above. In our age of “social media,” such conflicts over attention are commonplace, so much so that the phrase, “competing for eyeballs” has become a common cliché (a search for the phrase yielded over 5 million hits on Google at the time of this writing).

Clearly, under neoliberalism, the question of “paying attention” is a contentious one. In A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey defines “neoliberalism” as the idea that “the social good will be maximized” by “bring[ing] all human action into the domain of the market” (3). Harvey continues, explaining that neoliberalism “requires technologies of information creation and capacities to accumulate, store, transfer, analyse, and use massive databases to guide decisions in the global marketplace” (3). Thus, “attention” and how we define it is the critical practice of our time.

On the one hand, attention is seen as a commodity (that one, indeed, pays for and pays with) and, on the other hand, it is a critical component of our consciousness and identity. But the care referenced by Ars Industrialis is not simply the sterile care that one applies when determined to obtain a trophy or preserve one’s toy collection, it is care in the social sense: The idea that one pays attention out of respect for the responsibilities of social existence, first, to the speaker as an individual whose words matter, and, second, as an occasion for learning. It is hard to suggest these days that we live for one another, yet, insofar as we wish to be part of a society, we must seek consonance between individual desires and collective desires, in the context of history and with respect to the future, and with active thought given to deliberating within this informationally dense terrain. To better understand this, we can uncover a latent politics of deliberation that is active within the landscape of media change, specifically, in the contested ground of electronic literary practices as the potential occasion for a critical practice capable of responding to the conditions of neoliberalism.

De-liberating Neoliberalism

It might be curious to use the term deliberation in the context of addressing the question of human freedom in an age of digital media. After all, “liberation” is associated with freedom, while “de-liberation” may signal its opposite. However, my use of the term in this sense is entirely deliberate. For, if we define the term more conventionally, to mean something like, “making a decision after a process of consideration,” we approach something that, once again, brings us back to a fundamental understanding of liberty: the freedom to make meaningful decisions. (The word “liberty” itself is rooted in the Latin word libra, which suggests that historical notions of freedom are tied to “balance,” “equality,” and “justice,” rather than the unfettered opportunism associated with “laissez-faire.” Interestingly enough, this also enables a poetically opportune reading of de-liberation that suggests the procedural necessity of imbalancing stable concepts in the course of making right decisions and establishing equilibrium.)

The popular view of digital media, following the 20th Century discourse on technology, is that it liberates us. In its first sense, technological advances result in labor-saving devices. In a more contemporary understanding, digital technological advances save us from formal constraints: storing more data in smaller packages, increasing the circulation of data, permitting that data to be re-played or re-purposed across platforms and spaces. Implicit in this is, also, a liberation of form from content and subject from object. In the literary realm, digital texts are materially decoupled from print forms and recoupled to them through acts of metaphor and imagination. What at first blush might seem like a coincidence of history brought about by a profound shift in technology is actually a radical shift in the dynamics of political power. The primacy of text – particularly in relation to the human as playback mechanism for these texts – once tied content, form, and materiality to the general framework for cultural existence rooted in a way of thinking. As the poststructuralists have noted, the human subject is tied to this particular mode of literacy, the particular object, its mode of archiving, and the general cycle of cultural production associated with this mode of literacy.


Though we speak here of the new, it is instructive to consider the past inasmuch as its bygone problems continue to be mirrored in our own age. Over 150 years ago, Henry David Thoreau writes, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived” (ch.2, par.16). More than a mere lesson to commune with nature, Thoreau’s experiment with deliberation occurred against a similar backdrop of massive public indebtedness. Cutting through any nostalgia we might have for the days before Fannie and Freddie, Thoreau writes:

When I consider my neighbors, the farmers of Concord, who are at least as well off as the other classes, I find that for the most part they have been toiling twenty, thirty, or forty years, that they may become the real owners of their farms, which commonly they have inherited with encumbrances, or else bought with hired money – and we may regard one third of that toil as the cost of their houses – but commonly they have not paid for them yet. It is true, the encumbrances sometimes outweigh the value of the farm, so that the farm itself becomes one great encumbrance, and still a man is found to inherit it, being well acquainted with it, as he says. On applying to the assessors, I am surprised to learn that they cannot at once name a dozen in the town who own their farms free and clear. If you would know the history of these homesteads, inquire at the bank where they are mortgaged. The man who has actually paid for his farm with labor on it is so rare that every neighbor can point to him. I doubt if there are three such men inConcord. What has been said of the merchants, that a very large majority, even ninety-seven in a hundred, are sure to fail, is equally true of the farmers. With regard to the merchants, however, one of them says pertinently that a great part of their failures are not genuine pecuniary failures, but merely failures to fulfil their engagements, because it is inconvenient; that is, it is the moral character that breaks down (ch.1c, par.8).

In the scene Thoreau describes, we have the producers, buried under debt, constantly striving to extricate themselves from this situation. Also, there are the people that trade these commodities, themselves on the brink of perpetual collapse, but, as is the case today, largely insulated from the material consequences of their speculative adventures. Beneath the “well off” are the poor (those who are in Thoreau’s words in “moderate circumstances”): “The luxury of one class is counterbalanced by the indigence of another. On the one side is the palace, on the other are the almshouse and ‘silent poor’” (ch.1c, par 12). Still further down the socioeconomic hierarchy are those who are enslaved (who, as Thoreau explains, “produce the staple exports of this country, and are themselves a staple production of the South”) and the indigenous (which, with some problematic irony and romanticism, Thoreau refers to as the “savages.”). History confirms that this era in American history was characterized by widespread debt, bankruptcies, and financial panics. Historian Edward Balleisen explains, “The basic workings of antebellum capitalism ensured that hundreds of thousands of Americans would carry massive loads of debt; the fundamental character of the economy further guaranteed that crippling losses would visit a large proportion of those Americans” (26). This widespread indebtedness, as in our own times, was also paralleled by an increasingly commodity-driven culture. Throughout Walden, Thoreau decries the various material frivolities of his age: fashionable clothing, fancy shoes, household luxuries, etc. And, as we would today, he connects the capriciousness of fashion to the motives of capital, “The manufacturers have learned that this taste is merely whimsical. Of two patterns which differ only by a few threads more or less of a particular color, the one will be sold readily, the other lie on the shelf, though it frequently happens that after the lapse of a season the latter becomes the most fashionable” (ch.1b, par.19). But more significantly, Thoreau connects this debt-fueled vanity with a poverty of thought: “There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live” (ch.1a, par.19). How much more do these words ring true today, against the backdrop of credit cards, mortgage bubbles, overconsumption, and our pervasive doubt in human life, love, and perception? Thus, as Thoreau exhorts his readers, “Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito’s wing that falls on the rails. Let us rise early and fast, or break fast, gently and without perturbation; let company come and let company go, let the bells ring and the children cry – determined to make a day of it.” (ch.2, par.22) In other words, let’s attend to the fundamental character of the world that we inhabit. Though our knowledge of empirical things is continually understood to be incomplete, let’s attend to our engagement with these things and with each other without being confounded by the aura of their complexity or discouraged by the supposed failure of our perspective. Let’s replace distraction and futility with the capacity to conceive and act. Be it life or death, we crave only reality (Thoreau ch.2, par.22).

To be clear in this, I mean to say that in the ontological shuffle of the late 20th Century, what we mean by subjects and objects is being reduced to a flat materialism. There is the temptation to conceive of the materialistic view as intellectually “objective,” even progressive, yet the stark reality of its historical consistency is more properly considered embarrassing. Though Thoreau provides evidence (and delivers a strong critique) of this materialism under the conditions of capitalism as practiced in 19th Century America, in the 21st Century this tendency materializes subjects within the conditions of capitalism’s Neoliberal incarnation. This turning is not produced by subjects thinking their condition in new ways, though the techniques which produce these effects are the products of human thought. Rather, it is the intelligent world of objects that is rethinking our conditions, and not in utopian ways. While this seems rather abstract, we have very clear instances of this phenomenon in recent history. A recent example of these objective interventions in human affairs is “Robo-signing,” a process by which banks, in response to the analysis of rather simple data, sign land titles through automated processes (Gogoi). An interesting wrinkle in the “robo-signing” scandal is that, rather than using machines to carry out intentions indicated by human users, in some cases, banks hired low-wage workers to carry out signing instructions generated by their machines, signing hundreds of computer approved land titles a day. These titles were then dumped into global exchange markets, where, once again, these were automatically processed, parsed, and bundled into “securities.” In turn, these securities were driven up to dangerous levels. The “robo-signing” scandal presents a small, but dramatic, instance where the underlying process is made apparent through the tangible gesture of material documentation. In the realm of global economics, “90% of all trading is algorithmic and done by machines” (Moschella qtd. In Sperling). At a more social level, companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter offer users free access in exchange for the right to analyze their language and relationships. These companies sell both the marketing data and “smart” access to those individuals and networks that make use of their intimate knowledge. This, of course, says nothing of the enormous intelligence potential of datamining and surveillance in managing populations. To bring this discussion closer to the topic at hand, readers are becoming texts, and our texts are becoming our readers.

Within the context of human language, systems of representation, though flexible and indeterminate, require commonly held denotative meanings and grammatical conventions as a prerequisite for intelligibility. Thus semiosis tends towards normativity and the relative stability of hegemony, even if the signs themselves always contain connotations in excess of their discrete value. Machine languages, on the other hand, are logical, rigidly symbolic as opposed to semiotic, and achieve expression in their application. Where humans and machines interact (at the level of programming, at the level of use, or, increasingly, at the level of subroutine), the mediation between human language and machine language is achieved through algorithms. Thus, increasingly, human experience is becoming machine-readable, and the landscape of this codification provides a large and growing target for subversion. As John Cayley notes:

We hand over our culture to Google in exchange for unprecedented and free access to that culture. We do this all but unconscious of the fact that it will be Google that defines what “unprecedented” and “free” ultimately imply. As yet, we hardly seem to acknowledge the fact that this agreement means that it is Google that reflects our culture back to us. They design the mirror, the device, the dispositive, as the French would put it. They offer a promise of “free” access in many senses of that word including zero cost to the end-using inquirer and close to zero cost to the institutions that supply the inscribed material culture that Google swallows and digests. But Google does not (some might here add “any longer”) conceal the fact that this free access does come at a cost, another type of cost, one that is also a culture-(in)forming cost: Google will process all (or nearly all) this data in order to sell a “highly-cultivated” positioning of advertisements (Cayley, “Writing to be Found”).

Ironically, however, as this target expands, its vocabulary and inertia also grow, decreasing the likelihood that concepts like “freedom,” “community,” or “the public” will even mean what they need to mean in order to form political consciousness.

The idea of a technically managed society is nothing new. And, to be fair, many of these technologies and techniques of observation, recording, and measurement have a history of social uplift. No reasonable person can doubt the insights opened up through the telescope and the microscope, nor should a reasonable person dismiss the benefit of their digital counterparts—databases, models, visualizations, etc. The goal of this essay is not simply to interrogate the tools (though questions about their design are critical), the goal is to interrogate the ownership, use, and application of these tools. Through the 20th Century, there have been various theories of scientific management and technocratic leadership. And, certainly, writers like Huxley, Orwell, Dick, Burroughs, and Vonnegut were quite able to anticipate an automated future. Stretching back to Plato, we have documentation confirming human interest in enlightened leadership using the most rigorous systems of thought available. And, provided such systems are implemented under the guidance of democratic institutions within a framework of human rights, such rationalizations enable good policy. But what is different about the arc of the 20th Century, if it can be boiled down at all, is in the shift towards the maximization of the technique as an end in itself. Where past markets relied upon human brokers, algorithmic trading relies upon proprietary formulas and access to volumes of data for advantage. Where human communication was once required to consummate an exchange, low-latency, high-frequency trades make their profits by exceeding the pace of human comprehension and direction. The argument, of course, in favor of automated processes is that they work because they eliminate bias. However, the claim I wish to advance is that it is precisely the capacity to introduce delays into otherwise objective processes that is foundational to culture. The key, if we look beyond the negative associations of “bias,” is to negotiate and cultivate ideal forms of judgment so that “natural” or “automatic” processes can be directed in socially desirable directions. Furthermore, society requires a degree of patience with these processes. In other words, to wield tools deliberately, we must be able to recognize that they are tools, conceptualize their function, control them, assess their results, and, when necessary, turn them off and put them away.

Electronic Literature as Critical Media Strategy

In The Function of Criticism, Terry Eagleton argues that modern literature cultivated and stimulated a middle class sensibility, the act of literary criticism cultivated and mediated a public discussion of middle class thinking and daily life, helping to establish a type of society where class boundaries became more permeable. The consequence of this process was a shift in political power away from the nobility and towards the middle class. To contemporary readers, it might come as a surprise that the transition from a rigid society which held that power was ordained by divine authority and tradition could be transformed by the competing power of commerce, and mediated through the arts, but this is what happened. Invoking Jurgen Habermas’s discussion of the “public sphere,” Eagleton explains,

Circulation can proceed here [within the public sphere] without a breath of exploitation, for there are no subordinate classes within the public sphere – indeed in principle, as we have seen, no social classes at all. What is at stake in the public sphere, according to its own ideological self-image, is not power but reason. Truth, not authority, is its ground, and rationality, not domination, its daily currency. It is on this radical dissociation of politics and knowledge that its entire discourse is founded, and it is when this dissociation becomes less plausible that the public sphere begins to crumble (The Function of Criticism, 17).

In order to argue against the claims of the old elite, a playing field had to be created which would allow people to debate ideas as equals. In order to do this, a delicate balancing act was required. First and foremost, this occurs during the rising tide of the Enlightenment, in which the human capacity for improvement and the ability to know things through reason was held up as an ideal. In other words, knowing something was admirable, being able to convince others to believe this was formidable. Secondly, this spirit of intellectual achievement and spirit of cultivation had to be experienced within a social context, meaning that the virtues of rationality were not strictly individual, but they were collectively admired. A good idea, even if it was an uncomfortable one, could conceivably be supported insofar as it was discernibly “correct” according to the rule of logic. This meant that both personal pride and popular opinion were at stake in a debate. If you felt entitled to your inherited nobility and its essentially superior character, then it ought to be obvious in your ability to think and argue as equals with someone who was beneath you. Hence, there was a social currency that existed in parallel to the currency of power. One resided in privilege, the other was external to that privilege. Democracy, in other words, was built upon the dissociation of politics from domination (at the same time, it is the formalization of our association with each other via an abstracted discourse of human rights, a codification of law, and a process of citizenship).

In our own era, the process of ontological unsettling produced by media change, while certainly threatening, contains within it, the possibility to revisit the dissociation of politics and knowledge. If we follow Cayley’s argument about Google’s commodification of language, then we must explore the means to deconstruct this commodification, create poetic modes of literacy, and reconstitute the body politic within a plausible epistemological framework. There are two important ways that this language can work to achieve association and dissociation, and thus perform the deliberative role I speak of. First are those works that engender a kind of concentration necessary for close reading. The second are those works which distract from the instrumental reading to establish an aesthetic encounter outside of the commodified core of daily life.

Within the field of literary studies, there has been something of an opposition between the print tradition and the relatively recent arrival of moving texts. Though the field of electronic literature is formally diverse and becoming ever more so, the most obvious place to begin is with its capacity to differ from the characteristics associated with the print tradition: namely, print’s existence as written artifact. The broad middle of literary writing from Gutenberg to the Present, along with its attendant critical and cultural traditions, has served to associate literature with the letter as the medium of the work in question. Against this indelible finitude, writers write. And, in the case of electronic literature, the procedures by which such writing is imagined is not only possible, but increasingly normative as part of the conception of digital writing. As C. T. Funkhouser notes, “because they never harden, works of digital poetry always maintain plasticity in presentation on the WWW. They exist in a state of being moulded, recieving shape, made to assume many forms — often seeking qualities that depict space and form so as to appear multi-dimensionally” (5). He continues, “plasticity as an aesthetic foundation establishes a valuable metaphor for generally qualifying the results of electronic writing to date” (Funkhouser 5). Though time-based texts are by no means the only form electronic literature takes, their motility (especially those dominated by alphanumeric text) offer a productive window into this plastic foundation. And the critiques of electronic literature tend to affirm the anxious relevance of such comparisons, ranging from bare appeals to the print tradition as demonstrated by print’s market share (though it appears increasingly threatened) to the argument that extra-textual elements represent a distraction from the assimilation of the content in its “pure” form as words. In more extreme cases, lively texts are seen as disruptive to critical thinking, evading our ability to think about what we are reading (think Orwell’s Newspeak or Burma Shave’s road advertisements).

However, there are numerous examples of artistic uses of time-based text that are far from sinister or alien. As John Cayley notes, the “prehistory of textual animation as pioneered in the art of film titles [is] arguably the first medium in which words moved” (“Writing on Complex Surfaces”). He continues with an analysis of Saul Bass’s cinematic experiments with words. While Bass’ work certainly serves an instrumental role within the context of commercial products, what is striking about Bass’ work is the degree to which he works through the constraint of dry content, informational requirements, and the attention span of the audience to tap into the aesthetic world of the film, to tie information like “Produced by…” or “Starring…” to the diegetic world of the film. More squarely poetic uses of time-based reading and writing can be found in the works of a number of contemporary writers. For instance, Cayley’s overboard is constructed from an historical text, William Bradford’s Of Plymoth Plantation, that has been first edited into verse by Cayley. The verse is processed algorithmically, to make letter-by-letter substitutions. Parallel to the alphabetic text is an assemblage of small icons (each an image of the sea’s surface) that presents an abstracted visualization of the “transliteral morphs.” These two processes of transformation (the visual and the literal) are accompanied by an audio track assembled from modular sounds produced by Giles Perring. Fittingly, the poem, about being swept overboard and subsequently rescued, leaves readers tossed about by waves, grasping for the words (or near words), of a text that is constantly in flux. Over time, readers can grasp the text in its totality through attentive reading and patience. Eventually, Cayley explains, “the algorithm scans and rescans the text until all the letters of the complete text have appeared in their intended positions. At this point the text is fully legible according to modern dictionary-endorsed spelling and conventional typesetting” (“Overboard: An Example”). The role of concentration in reading this work is foregrounded in an interesting way. The presumed literacy that is embedded in the tradition of Literature requires here applied effort against the flow of the piece, which proceeds on its own terms.

The rolling, sloshing effect of overboard is produced through an algorithm that makes random substitutions based on prescribed “similarities” between letters. Thus the variable readings are produced through a hybrid of randomization and analogy, which allows for the work’s progression from the human authored text through a bent lexicon, into nonsense and back again. Initially, Cayley had conceived of the project as an installation piece, “a kinetic literary painting”: “The viewer or reader would see a textual image with a recognizable underlying form, but this would change constantly by way of its minimal letter substitutions, ideally such that the changes would be barely perceptible. The piece would seem not to change and yet always to be different, whenever it was given any attention” (“Overboard: An Example”). The ultimate expression, however, comes across a bit differently, as the typical reader, at this point, is one that has opened the piece on a desktop machine, initiating the process. Thus, the morphs are more obvious and the question of attention less contingent.

Apart from its poetic value and aesthetic experience, the uncanny operations of the algorithmic morphs offer insights into the increasing conflation of emergence with creativity and the often jumbled ontology that scales of complexity produce. Though relatively simple compared to more contemporary high-end simulations of machine intelligence, overboard demonstrates the ways that complex results are guided by authorial decisions that nevertheless produce surprises. It is the constrained randomization that results in a kind of applied analogy of alphabetic form that creates the “dynamic hierarchies,” which Hayles describes in the following: “The result is what researchers in artificial life call a ‘dynamic hierarchy,’ a multitiered system in which feedback and feedforward loops tie the system together through continuing interactions circulating throughout the hierarchy” (45). Though Hayles is quick to point out that these dynamic systems are greatly augmented by human participation:

As subcognitive systems, Hofstadter’s programs provide the matrix from which higher cognitions can emerge. For example, while they have no capacity for semantic recognition, the humans interpreting their results might see interesting patterns in, say, the set of recognizable words generated from a given anagram. The more complex cognitive system, the human who gains insights from the program’s results, might complete the loop by tweaking the program. In this case, the programs function as components in an adaptive system bound together with humans (51).

Taken a step further, considering the cultural (and anthropological) consequences of developing and living with technology, the specific instances of its uses, the manipulations enacted within those instances, and the response to the outcome, and we see a fuller sense of creative activity. In this work, audiovisual “reading” (film, television, and music), and especially of digital texts (interactive, feed-based, database-driven, etc), is put into dialogic tension with the cognitive demands of print literacy, literary writing, and criticism. Readers, like the poem’s “man overboard,” struggle to grasp the words themselves, while immersed in the experience it represents.

A naïve, passive reading of the text is possible (especially were it presented in the ambient format Cayley initially imagined). A reader could stumble across this text after following an errant link or seeing it open on someone’s desktop computer. And this hypothetical accidental reader could decide to focus on this puzzling text with no sense of its context. However, the plausibility of such a reader encountering and assimilating the text with no sense of its programmed nature and at least the assumption of some relation between a readable text and the generated one is simply unlikely. In most cases, the reader of this text approaches it with a consciousness of the technical enframing of the piece, if not an explicit awareness of the paratexts that surround it as well as the satisfaction one yearns for in reading the text at the core. Hence, it is hard to escape a reading of the piece that is not also a reflection on its programmed mediality.

To reflect upon the crisis of language discussed above, Cayley’s work seems to literally represent the tension between the fixed text and the fluid one. A single, pure reading of the work remains as possible as it ever has been, which is to say, such a reading is quite obviously not possible. However, this does not mean that Cayley did not write the verses and the stanzas, the underlying code, and the system of substitutions that follow. Nor does it mean that a particular instance of the text is not a singular object that could be captured and watched over and over again with no material variation. Yet, of course, we know that no two readings of any text are ever the same. overboard presents a poetic meditation on this feature of language. If readers take time to explore the elements that frame the piece–the artist’s statements or the material from which it is made or even to take into account the challenging nature of double-takes and discernments required by the text itself–the chance of a non-reflexive reading diminishes significantly.

More linear examples of time-based poetry are the works of Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, which are convenient to discuss because the artists take great pains to operate rather consistently. They have basically used the same aesthetic for over a decade:Flash,Monacofont, jazz music, linear, and text-based. The major distinction between individual works in their corpus has entirely to do with the specific text being presented. The closest analogy to historic literary form, given the jazz soundtrack, percussive delivery, and edgy verses, is, perhaps the spoken word tradition. As a time-based text, YHCHI taps into a tradition of orality while preserving aspects of the print tradition. Thus, these works open up the way readers might think about literature to include orality. Of course, once again, this is not the exclusiveterritoryofYHCHI. One could, for instance, listen to audio recordings of Ginsberg and walk away with the sense that their college lit anthology did not quite convey the feeling of the work. Yet, YHCHI work in this vernacular.

On the other hand, a less literary, though much more apparent association between YHCHI and expressive communication can be found in a kind of excessive textuality. Here, we enter the terrain of neon lights and aggressive urban marketing, hyperkinetic televisual pitches for limited time offers, and the once ubiquitous hypertextual detritus of the banner ad. If Cayley requires us to patiently think as we make sense of the work, YHCHI requires our consciousness to do the opposite, to scramble frantically for the meanings of words against their disappearance and in tension with the aesthetic seductions of the sound and shape.

Though, I would argue that YHCHI lend themselves to superficial readings on an initial text by text basis, it is only through a kind of dedication that their import is revealed. The apprehension of a given work is significantly aided by multiple viewings. For instance, Nippon, at its most basic level tells a story about the overlap of “professional” worlds (businessmen and prostitutes) in a late-night lounge. The story, presented in split screen, with Japanese language on top and English language below, is filled with familiar characters. Nervous, uptight suits make awkward propositions to “working girls.” A madam instructs her employees in the art of seduction. A bombshell sings in air thick with cigarette smoke. These images, conveyed through text, flash across the screen to the sounds of Thelonius Monk’s “Japanese Folk Song.” The feeling of the piece is lurid, graphic, even, as a desperate eros pulls readers through the narrative, each word anticipated then furtive, eventually collapsing into shame.

And though Nippon’s rapid-fire pace pulls the reader through the entire 16 minutes of flashing text, Jessica Pressman notes that to read the piece, one must concentrate on the text’s translation. Apart from the obvious dual language textual animation (the Japanese text follows the piano, while the English accompanies the trumpet), the narrative perspectives in the piece must be sorted out at high speed, and against the aesthetic pleasure of rhythmic audiovisual. And this tension persists throughout:

The cultural situation that Nippon depicts is neither ‘wrong’ nor ‘right’, but rather in need of interpretation – and, indeed, of translation – on the part of the reader. Consider, for example, when the narrative slips into the interior consciousness of the characters: ‘ØUR — HØST’ shared ‘HIS —DEEPEST — THØUGHTS —ØN — LIFE – —HIS —LIFE, — WHICH RESEMBLE A —LIVE, — UNCUT —ADAPTATION — ØF AN ØLD BLUE/ EYES’ FAVØRITE.’ Whether the man’s ‘DEEPEST — THØUGHTS’ were actually so shallow as to resemble a sentimental Sinatra song or it is the narrator who is constrained to such descriptions, the presence of Old Blue Eyes in the inner-thoughts of the narrator and/or the host attests to the infiltration of American culture into the deepest reaches of Japanese consciousness (Pressman).

YHCHI, in their irresistible aesthetic, might make the case for a different kind of attention than the one required by overboard. If, as Hayle’s notes, “hyperattention [is] distinctively different from that traditionally associated with the humanities, which by contrast can be called ‘deep attention’” (117), then perhaps Nippon relies upon a contemporary reading strategy to achieve this deep attention. In the past, close reading has been achieved by an accentuated scrutiny and attunement to the text. In the face of hyperactive media forms, close reading is accomplished through the disciplined elimination of its distractions. Though it is risky to read too much into the parallels between willful concentration and biological processes, there is more than a mere similarity between the biology of brain plasticity and the application of thought. In the near term, concentration directs perception towards high priority tasks. Over time, the practice gives way to fundamental shifts in the brain’s development, known as “synaptogenesis,” the process by which neurons die from disuse and synaptic connections are formed among those that survive. Hayles notes, “The evolutionary advantage of this pruning process is clear, for it bestows remarkable flexibility, giving humans the power to adapt to widely differing environments” (114). Thus, a work like Nippon can function to transpose the priorities of textual literacy upon the conditions of the moving image, cultivating a practice of deep attention appropriate for an age where hyperattention is the norm.

The consistent formal qualities of their larger corpus indicate recursive reading at the metatextual level. Whether one reads Dakota or Cunnilingus in North Korea, the formal aesthetic remains consistent. And while this might lend some credence to claims that moving letters “distract” from the apprehension of content, such metatextual coding might very well be the point that one gathers when reading such texts. Metatextual reading and writing, while not yet part of the vernacular appreciation of literary texts, are, in fact, becoming dominant aspects of aesthetic expression in the world of social media (as evidenced in the circulation of memes and other viral artifacts).

In the work of Richard Holeton, readers will find a consistent tendency to exploit commonplace digital forms for literary effect. Lacking the cultivated poetic aesthetic of overboard and the hyperbolic intensity of Nippon, Holeton works within the landscape of instrumental dross. Most people familiar with “professional” culture in the 21st century have suffered through a wide range of informational media presentations—press releases, corporate websites, slide shows, infographics, etc. The goal of these enhanced informational tools, of course, is to help us concentrate on “important” information, to spice up the mundane flavor of official rhetoric, to “manage our attention.”

Holeton’s early work, Frequently Asked Questions About “Hypertext,” uses the FAQ convention to support a rather comprehensive satire of digital forms. The piece purports to answer common questions about an anagrammatic poem entitle “Hypertext” by “Alan Richardson,” and, it performs this work, appropriately, as a hypertext itself. Those familiar with the FAQ format understand the implicitly fictional character of the genre, as FAQs are written in anticipation of questions that the hypothetical reader may have as a means of interpellating actual subjects into the text. At their most transparent level, FAQs are culled from actual questions and streamlined into the simulated perspective of a typical reader. At their most inventive, they are the questions that are purely speculative, reflecting what the creators think you ought to know. In keeping with the pragmatic mission of the FAQ, the questions and answers tend towards a kind of abstract precision. When FAQs fail to answer the reader’s question, it is usually because of a kind of solipsism and circular ontology that, in itself, is a conceptual hypertext that leads towards an idealized form of “customer satisfaction.” The most cunning FAQs, however, function through rhetorical misdirection, posing the questions readers want to ask and answering them slantwise. Holeton’s work dances on this line, answering questions about a “poem” nobody is asking about, answering questions about hypertext with a fantastic fiction, and engaging in a hypertextual performance in the process. In satirizing the FAQ format, Holeton’s narrative manages to pull a host of other aspects of digital communication into this elegant work. The apocryphal poet, Alan Richardson, is purported to be a tech boom millionaire whose poem was circulated virally through email transmission. Yet, he is a mysterious figure who has “disappeared,” exciting the interest of conspiracy theorists, literary critics, fan fiction communities, and hackers, all of whom are represented in the FAQ. What at first appears to be a rather simple satire of digital banality gives way to a sprawling world of competing speculations and perspectival shifts that undercut the solidity of the work’s purported authority. Subverting the glib simplifications of the form and the implied attention to detail it is meant to evoke, Holeton opens a world of imagination and play.

In other instances, like Custom Orthotics Changed My Life or Voyeur with Dog, Holeton uses the professional slide show format, complete with bullet points and colorful charts, to tell comically banal stories of human folly and tragedy. While these works are novel arrivals to the literary scene, they evoke an entire history of literary practices that exploits the norms of language and explores its potential as a critical tool.

More explicitly relevant to the critique formed in this article, the work Grace, Wit & Charm by Rob Wittig uses the “netprov” form (“networked improv narrative”), to simulate an imaginary service in which the very features of human subjectivity are provided to subscribers by support staff. Wittig explains via faux-publicity materials:

Grace™, for a smooth-moving avatar, helps our clients’ avatars battle better, dance better, and even shrug-causually-with-a-winning-smile-and-a-wise-twinklein-the-eye better!

Wit™, designed for those with no sense of humor, allows the “online you” to deflect attention from your foibles while deftly landing a zinger!

And Charm™, for the romantically impaired, . . . ohhhhh, Charmmm . . . brings out the inner Romantic you never knew was inside you . . .

. . . because it wasn’t!!

Like so many others, you and your personality need the Turbo-Boost only Grace, Wit & Charm™ can provide.

Critical to this work is the reader’s general awareness of distance between the user and his or her online representation. In the days beyond the hype of “California Capitalism” and the techno-utopian dazzle of the pre-collapse era, most experienced internet users understand the space between RL (real life) and VR (virtual reality), instead choosing to operate in the hybrid terrain of augmented reality, rightfully recognizing that the network is an indispensible tool and social space. At times we can hide behind the interface, at others we can be present, but we do not always control the difference and can rarely afford the luxury of turning it off. Hence, a work like Grace, Wit & Charm is widely accessible. We know the pleasures of digital gaming (even if we do not play them ourselves). We know the limits to this pleasure. We brush against the social and commercial applications of this as digital telecommunications is increasingly integrated into how we work and play. Thus, the narrative pace of the bildungsroman and the quick answers of the machine-readable, always-on, network-based service economy create conflicts for being in the 21st Century. The ethos of this new economy suggests that we are on our own, that we must make the most of ourselves and our opportunities, that we must “govern” ourselves. But the practical application of this governmentality is contradictory. The leaders of the new economy (Jobs, Gates, Ellison, Zuckerberg) are often recognized for possessing unique strengths, intellects, and virtues. The workers of the new economy, however, must be flexible, adaptable, and charming. Thus, there are clear “values” to be taught, and they all hinge upon a kind of freedom, but are also contradictory and divergent. A small handful are disciplined, aggressive, passionate, and free to explore their potential. The rest are to be aggressively accommodating, free to leave at any time, but ultimately discouraged from any kind of principled intensity that distracts from their duties while on the clock.

What’s interesting, however, is the compelling subjective attraction of online participation, not just as a matter of content, but as a formal reality of the work. In virtual worlds, we experience dramatized versions of our own expression. The degree to which these representations can prove captivating is the degree to which they depart from the mundane. Often, the degree to which online socialization is felt is the degree to which it differs from one’s day-to-day subjective encounters. This is “escapism.” And though digital communication affords many opportunities for escape, it is also important to realize that the escapist element of online activity is not the sole attraction, nor is it static or stable. Just as quickly, the subjective value of escape can be displaced by the desire to affirm and reinforce one’s sense of self and its social, material, and psychic situation. Hence, Wittig’s piece is clever precisely in the ways it clings to this paradox. We often want to inhabit these fantasy worlds, but we also want to be real within them. We want to bring the subjective elements into the real world, but we also want our fantasies to remain with us. We want to discover ourselves in the immersion of play, but we adapt ourselves to the norms of the virtual world in order to make this immersion realistic. Of course, this has always been a feature of human language, the struggle between logos and poesis, but in a richly mediated environment, it only makes sense that such semiotic tension would mutate into multimodal and transmedial forms appropriate for the ordinary norms of representation for a given society.

The pre-text of the work hits on this anxiety. There is the desire to be somebody, particularly everyone else’s idea of somebody. On the inside of the “fourth wall,” however, there is the improvised drama of the remote service center, staffed with workers trying desperately (and professionally) to help their clients be themselves while helping themselves achieve their quotas. Hence, this piece performs subjectivity within the objectivizing milieu of the workplace, while at the same time unsettling the conventional subjectivities of social media practices.

While there are many works that exploit the curious nature of the digital object and the precarious state of the reader, the samples above illustrate how digital literature can destabilize norms of digital communication and readership, draw attention to the economics of “attention,” and carve out pleasurable encounters within the spaces of this destabilized milieu. In its place, the active attention of reading, the gesture of deliberative thought, gives rise to critical awareness. At a broad scale, nurtured by the engagement of similarly attentive readers, isolated acts can take on the characteristics of emergence. At this point, it is only the potential of a renewed critical tradition, and entirely contingent upon our effort and awareness.

Towards Deliberation

Rather than seeing the crisis of this ontological upheaval as a simple matter of subjects or objects, we are talking about the relationship between subjects and objects. While I maintain that the current trajectory of culture is to regard humans objectively, and to govern us through algorithmic processes, the solution is not simply to restore “the dominion of man over his things.” The first, and most vital step, is to reject the process by which humans are objectified to begin with. It is within the intersubjective encounter that culture and communication is founded. But, it also follows, that, in a world of matter, in which we have real bodies that need real things, we will also relate to things that are not subjects. In other words, the subject-object relationship will never be overturned as long as subjectivity is possible, and the objectification of others will remain a constant possibility. It is our existence, as beings who so easily traverse the boundaries of subject-object relations that allows us to traffic in dynamic systems of signification, in which representations drift from concrete understandings to metaphorical procedures.

Heidegger describes the formation of the world that we inhabit as a phenomenological fact. In the “Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger explains, “[Techne] reveals whatever does not bring itself forth and does not yet lie here before us, whatever can look and turn out now one way and now another” (319). Here, Heidegger describes the process by which this phenomenological conception of the world is fed by the process of technical development, the idea that capitalism, in the course of creating new commodities, transforms what was previously unconsidered from a technical perspective into a resource. Digital analytics exposes the whole sphere of human language to such commodification. Processes are rendered in discrete, logical languages. Even human behaviors are parsed into discrete actions, linked to discrete inputs, these, in turn, are internally fed back into the equation, the interactions are weighted, perhaps some randomizing or stabilizing elements are added, and lifelike behavior or decision-making is simulated through ever-evolving databases and equations. In the present day, we are seeing the most minute aspects of human behavior incorporated into the sphere of economic activity. Furthermore, the process through which this economic activity has been opened up is greatly enhanced and the means of recording and analyzing the field of everyday existence as the process through which information is gathered from raw data, research is written, and knowledge is applied is increasingly algorithmic.

Following Florian Cramer’s astute observations on the “digitality” of language, we can say quite confidently that the bit is preceded by the word, as a discrete articulation of meaning in the abstract (Cramer). However, the interpretation of the bit and the understanding of the word by their respective processors function quite differently. A discrete chunk of data carries with it no connotative meaning to the analytic process. It only denotes that to which it is explicitly, and literally, directed. It has no care for the meaning of its process in the way that we conventionally understand such things (Poster 79). However, human readers engaged in decoding data in the form of words always read analogically, mapping their significance against a multitude of associations, some of which are so subtle that they resist playback. And, in fact, are formed by the mind’s very unique quality among “machines” as highly functional, adaptive, creative, imperfect, and forgetful memory access. As Stiegler notes, “The brain is a living memory – that is to say a fallible memory, in a permanent process of destruction [synaptogenesis], constantly under the sway of what I call retentional finitude [selective attention].” Simply put, the brain does not stand up to machine metaphors for human cognition. Its digital capacity is consistently disrupted by its equivalent capacity for analogy, a side-effect of the fecund procedure of perception, attention, forgetting, and remembering.

Instead, the brain, following Catherine Malabou’s expansive elaboration on the brain’s “plasticity,” is more than a storage machine from which data can be added and subtracted, within which applications are uploaded, executed, and/or deleted by command. To Malabou, “the brain [is] something modifiable, ‘formable,’ and formative at the same time” (5). This understanding of the brain resonates with Malabou’s definition of plasticity:

Plastic material retains an imprint and thereby resists endless polymorphism. This is the case, for instance, with sculpted marble. Once the statue is finished, there is no possible return to the indeterminacy of the starting point. So plasticity designates solidity as much as suppleness, designates the definitive character of the imprint, of configuration, or of modification. According to this first limit or semantic extreme, plasticity, though not altogether assimilable to rigidity, marks a certain determination of form and imposes a (very strict) restriction on the capacity for deformation, re-formation, or explosion (15).

This expanded view of plasticity is critical, for embedded in any understanding of the brain as computer is our own practical understanding of our relationship to computers and their place in daily life: multi-purpose tools that can be modified and updated until they are replaced by newer models. Or, as Malabou explains, we accept the view that “brain plasticity constitutes the biological justification of a type of economic, political, and social organization in which all that matters is the result of action as such: efficacy, adaptability – unfailing flexibility” (31).

What matters here are not simple declarations of the ontological status of one type of being versus another type of being, the key is to identify the processes that are mobilized when discrete beings interact and to articulate the means by which they differ. In other words, our being is not simply flexible nor rigidly determined. Rather, we have choices to make which not only alter the arrangement of objects within our range of grasp, but which fundamentally alter our perception of those objects, our capacity to affect them, the intentions which initiate specific effects, our relationship to those around around us, the social context within which such acts occur, the historical framework from which social and material contexts are formed, and the future towards which our acts are directed. To say it differently, once we know that the decisions we make open some doors and close others, both objectively and subjectively, the landscape we inhabit becomes subject to our deliberation. Flexibility is implication, a silent vote of confidence in neoliberal reductions of human beings into human resources, perhaps made more soothing by the virtual reality of back buttons, reboots, and upgrades in digital platforms and the perennial hope that we will invent our way out of consequences. Plasticity, instead, is life without such illusions. Plasticity acknowledges that we live lives of consequence and that thinking matters. ‘Materiality’ as a concept for critical study is itself devoid of meaning without an understanding of the processes of its manufacture and the processes that it enables, neither of which can be contained within its own definition. Having an understanding of being that exceeds what can be empirically known is what mobilizes political, ethical, and social processes. Thus, how we render this being in material form, is itself, something of a political declaration. And though we are not indistinguishable from the writing we produce and consume, we learn metaphorical lessons from these things because they are inscribed with meaning in excess of their formal existence.

Russian formalist literary critic Roman Jakobson defined the literary process as a strategy of “estrangement” produced through “organized violence” against “ordinary speech” (Eagleton, Literary Theory, 2). Darko Suvin, in his study of science fiction, identifies a process of “cognitive estrangement,” not against ordinary speech, but against ordinary ways of thinking. Along these lines, I offer the idea that electronic literature is defined by a process of “technical estrangement.” This estrangement, especially in the early years of electronic writing was focused on the technology of books and print. Implicit in its capacity to provoke critical thinking about the form of the book is the capacity to direct this critical attention to the broader tools of literary representation, including digital interfaces and code. However, it is against the backdrop of network textuality that the fullness of this technical estrangement can be explored. While Jakobson’s use of the word “ordinary” always carried connotations with the power to categorize, command, and declare, it is the prospect of the global, networked analytic process that produces the most potent realization of such “ordinary” language. It is against such institutions that organized violence gains such potential energy. The capacity to open up difference between ourselves and systems of control, to affect estrangement, to dissociate politics from knowledge, and reconstitute them in accordance with collective desires, is the struggle of our generation.

Piece originally published at Electronic Book Review |

Cover image by Cory Arcangel

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