[-empyre-] Towards a theory of digital poetics

Simon Biggs s.biggs at eca.ac.uk
Thu Mar 12 21:20:21 EST 2009

Before I respond to a number of good points raised by others I wish to say
that my original intent with this thread/provocation was to start a
discussion in the Empyre ³bar², So I am glad that there have been responses
of the ilk we have seen. That said, I am sorry the bar snacks are tasteless
and that, in particular, the drinks have no kick whatsoever. I know this
makes it hard to work up the appropriate spirit for this sort of discussion,
but that¹s the digital for you.

Jim wrote:
> In 'new media', there's a sense of the importance of theory such as
> Manovich's work. But not much sense of the importance of the theory of
> computation to an understanding of the phenomenology of computing.

Similarly, my concern was to ensure that the dual topics of poetics and the
digital were at the heart of any discussion on what digital poetics (or
ePoetry) might be. Many debates on this seem to forget these aspects of the
area of practice, taking a narrow view of poetics, assuming that it means
poetry, and generally ignoring the implications and consequences of
computational theory. In doing this the effect is to elucidate a view of
ePoetry that is little different to traditional practices that embrace
concrete poetry, visual poetry, multimedia and the concept of the open work
of art. Each of these forms of practice are, indeed, part of the genealogy
of digital poetry, in large part because many key practitioners in the field
come from these backgrounds, and to understand digital poetry it helps to be
knowledgeable about them. However, none of these practices are digital

I agree that poetics are extremely difficult to define but I would stand by
my general definition ­ although I might reword it. The creative practice of
association could also be written as a motile engagement with the interplay
of dynamic elements. What I am seeking to do here is to separate poetics
from human intent and authorship and regard it instead as a phenomena of
things. In that sense Juan is right that this definition cannot be used to
define poetry. That would be a tautology anyway. However, it is a way of
seeking to situate poetics in relation to other things and remove the legacy
of Romanticism, and the centrality of the human, from the discussion.

The point about formal and informal (human) languages, raised by Juan, is
also good. However, research by colleagues here in Informatics illustrates
that whilst they might agree early computing emerges from formal logic they
see current developments far from those early beginnings. They are concerned
with complexity and fuzzy logic, their objective being to create affective
computational models. These are not strict formal systems, although they are
fundamentally linguistic. Indeed, the bulk of this research is being carried
out by teams of computer scientists and linguists and involves artificial
systems interpreting and responding to body language, facial expression,
vocal tone, gesture and speech without building precise models of what is
occurring but functioning as sets of dynamic contingencies and probabilities
that may or may not require resolution prior to action. I consider what they
are seeking to do as digital poetics ­ which is possibly why we find it easy
to work together on artistic projects.

Whilst this work is distant from Turing¹s original concepts it continues to
embody them at its core, taking in the work of Winograd and others along the
way. One very specific concept that is being pursued by this research team
explicitly employs Dawkins work on Memes, seeking to create
self-perpetuating affective linguistic systems that are able to interact
with one another as well as with their environment. I don¹t think they are
looking at Kant to inform their work ­ although perhaps they should?
However, I would argue that computing need not, and is not, constrained by
strict formal systems that allow no choices outside a given system.
Artificial reasoning has developed far beyond its early limitations and in
the process illustrated that human cognition is far more constrained than we
previously imagined (and certainly far more so than Kant proposed). So, I
dispute that there is much difference between human and non-human languages
and would include in that not only the language of machines but also the
languages of nature.

Sally makes a good point when she asks whether I am conflating things that
can be digitally described with being digital. Perhaps I am but I am
employing an expanded definition of what the digital can be. My fingers are
digital. My DNA is digital. My computer is based on digital systems. The
language I write with here is inscribed, through various protocols, as
digital. Where do we draw the line between what is digital and what is not?
The big question, of course, is whether there are any spaces in-between. At
that smallest of scales what is going on? Is it particles or waves, or both?
Last week I was at an event where the Professor of Physics was having his
portrait unveiled. That Professor was Peter Higgs, responsible for
formulating the concept of the Higgs Boson (the particle they built the CERN
collider to find). I doubt he knows the answer to that question yet. Perhaps
it is neither. However, down to at least the scale of the Higgs Boson
everything is discrete, even if we do not perceive it to be so. That looks
sort of digital to me.



Simon Biggs
Research Professor
edinburgh college of art
s.biggs at eca.ac.uk

simon at littlepig.org.uk
AIM/Skype: simonbiggsuk

Edinburgh College of Art (eca) is a charity registered in Scotland, number SC009201

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