[-empyre-] Towards a theory of digital poetics

Juan B. Gutierrez jgutierrez at caviiar.org
Wed Mar 11 15:43:20 EST 2009

In response to the very provocative discussion about digital poetics:

We do not need to define what Poetics is. Aristotle failed I his 
Poetics. Berthold Brecht failed in his Little Organon for the Theatre. 
All others --who are in between-- also failed. Simon defined poetics as 
"the creative practice of association". That is, a process with multiple 
outcomes; it is thus irrelevant to try to define poetics as a function 
of what is poetic. In that respect both Simon (definition as process) 
and Alan (impossibility of "poetics is") are correct.

The problem becomes a little bit hairy with the suggestion of comparing 
the experience of language (Meme) to a Turing system. While compelling 
in principle, the analogy does not survive close inspection. The concept 
of the Meme has to do with human language. Turing computational theory 
has to do with computational language. Both languages are conventional, 
but while Turing language is formal, human language is not. This 
deserves further explanation: human language is comprised of a set of 
conventional signs, i.e. signs that are understood by all parties, 
including bodily language, sounds, symbols, etc. A Turing machine also 
requires a set of conventions so that a machine can interpret a specific 
sequence. They are different, however, in that a Turing machine cannot 
deviate from the rules set by the sequence of symbols, while human 
machines can (and often do) deviate from formalities.

A possible analogy between computation and the Meme is the distinction, 
in German idealism terms, between knowledge and belief. The classic 
example is Kant, whom tried to express the conditions for knowledge in 
his Critique of Pure Reason (what we *know* and how we know it, e.g. the 
temperature of the room), and the conditions for beliefs in his Critique 
of Practical Reason (we cannot *know* a god, but we can choose to 
believe in it). In this analogy, a Turing machine corresponds to the 
pure reason, and human language to the practical reason. That is to say, 
human language depends on non-formal choice, while Turing machines have 
no choice at all. Where does it leave us? Well, the vomitrocius 
dialectic of a person is another person's literary treasure, i.e. it is 
a matter of opinion.

Poetics deals with the subjective experience, which is in the end, 
expressed with human language. Turing machines are incapable of 
subjective experience, unless they become so complex that the emerging 
property of a system of Turing machines has little resemblance to the 
individual component. The latter assertion can be explained with an 
analogy: a single molecule of dye moves randomly in a solvent, but the 
collection of trillions of molecules in a drop of dye diffuses in a 
solvent according to a very precise law; thus, the emerging behavior of 
the system is radically different from the behavior of the individual 

Poetics have little to do with Turing machines, and much to do with 
human language. We cannot ask what is poetic in an intrinsic way. 
Poetics is a matter of consensus, i.e. a collection of subjective 
experiences, i.e. a matter of morals and beliefs. Enunciation is not 
enough for poetics, since both humans and Turing machines have that 
capability. Poetics is the "simple" exercise of consciousness ("simple" 
in the same sense that all communicated human ideas along the existence 
of the species can be represented with a couple dozen alphabetic symbols).

The automated production of a machine is not poetic if there is no 
intentionality… this is precisely the window of opportunity to define 
digital poetics. Recently I went to an illuminating art exhibition. A 
piece was in the center of the room. It was a sturdy and ordinary wood 
base for cargo storage painted in white… or so it seemed. The tag read 
"No Title". I succumbed to the temptation of garbage art: "These modern 
artists think they can get way with anything, this is outrageous, I can 
do it too, and worse which is better… etc." Then I read the fine print: 
"Bone China". Suddenly, this piece became a masterpiece. How was it 
possible? Bone china is the most delicate material to work with. How 
could this artist create such perfect texture? But… was it really bone 
china? Verification would mean destruction of the piece. I smiled. I 
noticed that other people were looking at me. At that moment is when I 
realized that the artist was a genius. The piece was an installation, 
and the performer was the public. I stepped aside, and became a 
spectator for the next victim. And I saw her, the artist. She was 
looking at those of us who were looking at the onlookers. We were her 
secondary installation. In a second of distraction I dreamed that if we 
plugged that piece into an electric outlet, this could perfectly be a 
piece of electronic literature. What differentiates this piece from any 
object thrown into an exhibit with the bombastic claim "this is art"? 
Intentionality is the essence of poetics, along with directionality and 
craftsmanship. That is why there cannot be such thing as machine art, or 
art "found" in nature.

Kind regards,


Juan B. Gutierrez
Research Fellow

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