poetry machines

I keep thinking back to Landow’s comment on Vannevar Busch’s “poetic” vision for information technology:

“Busch wanted to replace the essentially linear fixed methods that had produced the triumphs of capitalism and industrialism with what are essentially poetic machines–machines that work according to analogy and association, machines that capture and create the anarchic brilliance of human imagination.”

It’s odd to think of computers as having “poetic” properties, since on a deep functional level, computing seems like the apex of logic and rationality–pure units of information working together to create functional systems with predictable effects and as little “noise” as possible. To make the machine work we are still very much beholden to linear, mechanical processes and, in a very literal way, the capitalist-industrial assembly line. But on the surface level of software and the user interface, as Busch so aptly observed, things get a lot less objective/linear and a lot more subjective/idiosyncratic, yielding the flexible and intuitive ways to organize and display coded information encoded in today’s personal computers, hence the open-ended nature of the interface and the metaphorical “poetry” of the machine . The “poetic” underpinnings of the user experience enable us not only to organize our documents more efficiently, but also to explore theĀ  expressive potential of the interface-as-medium.

So what happens when we use poetic machines to write poetry? Hypertext experimental writing, a la Joyce, Jackson and Strickland. I’m using the term ‘poetry’ fairly broadly, in reference to the fact that these authors seem as concerned with the aesthetics of hypertext as with its apparent meaning or narrative function.

Although their hypertext projects are ostensibly narrative, I found myself mentally placing them less in the context of traditional literary fiction and more in the context of avant-garde experimental writing: for example, Gertrude Stein’s stream-of-consciousness poetry, or William Burroughs’ “cut-ups.” The associations, fragmentations, and surreal non sequiturs these authors attempted to capture in plain text are, in a sense, coded into the basic vocabulary of hypertext.

Working in the hypertext medium forces Joyce et. al. to deal with structures imposed on their narrative by the interface. Sequential, open-ended, multilinear reading is the most obvious consequence of hypertext, and while that in itself could be the subject of many blog posts, I’d also like to note some of more subtle ways in which these narratives are influenced by their mechanism: themes of fragmentation or displacement in time, as well as frequent allusions to “the machine” (for instance, Strickland’s “zeros and ones” motif throughout “The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot”). Then again, these themes are mostly present at the level of allusions or references within the text–they don’t seem to have had a serious formal impact on the text itself. To me, the surprising thing about this week’s hypertext readings was not how much they differed standard literary fiction, but rather how attached they still were to literary conventions of plot, character, and so forth. There must be people out there writing super crazy avant-garde hyperpoetry. But who?

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