[-empyre-] empyre Digest, Vol 52, Issue 10 (fwd)

Alan Sondheim sondheim at panix.com
Sat Mar 14 17:19:21 EST 2009

From: "Juan B. Gutierrez" <jgutierrez at caviiar.org>

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.

Alan: I've always found the "meme" concept somewhat sloppy; it quickly 
becomes reified as if it were a well-defined token. A Turing machine 
might break down and return anomalous reading - in other words, error is 
exact. This doesn't apply to the meme concept.

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.

Alan: It depends on how "practical reason" is defined - I tend to 
associate it with Piagetian analysis (and Piaget's mathematics for that 
matter). Practical reason and language need have no relationship to each 
other whatsoever.

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.

Alan: I love your description here; I do question intentionality. As has 
been pointed out, I can walk around and declare anything is art or poetics 
- there's a fallacy here which is fairly complex. I also think, getting 
back to the above, that poetics need not have any essence whatsoever.

Kind regards,


Juan B. Gutierrez
Research Fellow

From: "Simon Biggs" <s.biggs at eca.ac.uk>

I am arguing that all language, being a discrete system, is effectively
digital, using an expanded definition of language here, including all human
languages as well as other phenomena.

I am not employing the word digital here limited to its use in computing but
in the sense that any discrete system or phenomena can be described as

Alan: I doubt that human language is discrete in this sense; it's 
problematic whether one can even isolate syntactic units. A good example 
might be cuneiform and its apparent limited number of strokes; beyond 
that, pretty much everything is up for grabs and somewhat irregular. If 
you talk about "effectively digital" and you want to expand it, then 
you're effacing the very nature of the digital, that is binary outcomes 
within classical information matrices - and it's this (what someone calls 
"updating" here) that deeply distinguishes human language from the 
digital. On a related matter, I'm not even sure what "discrete" means - 
once one is beyond thinking about potential wells.

The question remains whether it is possible to signify without or beyond or
prior to language. It is unclear if this is possible, but there are
certainly cases where it is unclear where the significatory origin of an
event lies. There is probable value in taking a relational approach to this,
considering all signification to be a function of the relationships between
things and that meaning cannot arise where there are no relationships (can
anything be situated without a set of relationships?). These relationships
(which may themselves be divisible) are discrete (this is probably a
tautology) and so are functionally digital systems. Similarly, poetics
indicate the dynamics of these relationships. Poetry is a very specific case
which I am not addressing here.

Alan: Kristeva has a lot to say here; I think the chora is implicated in 
non-linguistic or pre-linguistic phenomena.


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