[-empyre-] Towards a theory of digital poetics

Sally Jane Norman s.j.norman at newcastle.ac.uk
Fri Mar 13 01:55:00 EST 2009

Yes, grateful for the bar ambiance Simon. One of my favourite people, Erik Satie, used famously to go into the same bar/ cafe in Denfert Rochereau or thereabouts where he would routinely ask for a shot of alcohol from one of those bottles one sees suspended upside down above the counter, those ones armed with a lid that serves as a measuring device for serving drinks. Satie would order the dose he could see at the TOP of the inverted bottle. I guess he mixed up the concept of discrete doses with the inevitable fluidity of the alcohol contained in an organisational model that was moreover already topsy-turvy. And he probably wasn't the most solvent of customers in the first place. story of my life.



From: empyre-bounces at gamera.cofa.unsw.edu.au [mailto:empyre-bounces at gamera.cofa.unsw.edu.au] On Behalf Of Simon Biggs
Sent: 12 March 2009 10:20
To: empyre at gamera.cofa.unsw.edu.au
Subject: Re: [-empyre-] Towards a theory of digital poetics

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 "bar", 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 that's 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 poetry.

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 Turing's 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 don't 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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