[-empyre-] contexts and collaborations

John Cayley john_cayley at brown.edu
Thu Oct 14 09:13:04 EST 2010

Dear -empyre-

I was ready to write with some thoughts on my collaboration with Penny Florence when my reading of Jean-Bapiste Labrune's recent responses rendered me acutely aware of the context of this practice, and of the context of aesthetic practice generally. I've become so paralyzingly aware of context that, for example, I originally wrote 'Penny' and 'Jean-Bapiste' (as if you and I know both of these people well) and went back and added surnames, since I don't know J-B and many of us may not know Penny, at least not as a collaborator. I have just playfully (I hope) evoked the indeterminate play of address that is prevalent in all critical discussion but radically so in digitally mediated fora. The link here is institutions. J-B asks us to be aware and wary of the institutions within which we work, especially while pretending an autonomy for this practice. I agree absolutely that we are always within and necessarily complicit with _many_ institutions as we work and that the value systems of these institutions - only occasionally aesthetic - often manifest agonistic and contradictory relations. A contemporary problematic - the institution of a contemporary problematic - arises from networked and programmable media's ability to generate potential, emergent, virtual (in the strong, contra-digital sense of this word) institutions with close-to-immediacy. I'm here. I'm in -empyre-. How did I get here? And do I belong? Scaled-up somewhat, these remarks apply to the institutional complicities which J-B interrogates.

As it happens, and perhaps in opposition to the practices of what are now suddenly and shockingly predominant institutions - Facebook, Google Accounts - -empyre- is exemplary. I have been introduced. You already know that next week I will play a collaborative role in a presentation to the 'Making Sense' colloquium in Paris-out-of-Cambridge. Terrifying. I have, through Penny, been introduced to an institution that I do not yet know well. As Penny set out in her recent post, our work entered into productive correspondence during and after the organization and realization of a series of events at the Tate Modern that placed digitally mediated literary poetics in dialogue with art. My other qualifications for this engagement? Until 2007, I practiced and theorized irregularly and relatively independently as a poetic writer in and of programmable media. Pretending the role of a writer of this description means that I attempt to produce literary work for which computation is a vital aspect of the literary artistic medium. In 2007 I accepted a position in the Literary Arts Program at Brown University. Although Brown's program is rightly recognized as strongly innovative, institutionally it is also a part of the "creative" "writing" program(me) that has pullulated in the US academy (cf. Eli Batuman in a recent LRB). Context indeed. That's how it's happened; here (at last) is how I see it working:

Penny's outline has been posted. Here is a summarized retelling from the viewpoint of my current practical engagement (in the midst of my attempt actually to make something that is new to me - and I do mean that I am doing this in this extended, shifting present). Penny responded to certain formalizations of iterative, literal translation that I have represented as process in coded, time-based pieces of literary art. She refers specifically to the series that I call _translation_, and has already provided a link to my lamentably 'ancient' website. In this series, nodal, natural language texts are sited within a dynamic system driven by relationships between protosemantic elements (those _on the way_ to 'making sense' - although 'sense' for me is a difficult word) at the level of the letter. The texts perform transliteral morphs from one to another, often across languages. At stake, I believe, is an aesthetic and critical wager that (even) these directed protosemantic processes have some significance- and affect-generating bearing on the texts with which they engage and also that such time-based processes themselves can and should be read as _the text_ in a broader and ultimately more comprehensive understanding of text and textual practice. The process is the text. 

Penny was as interested in the virtual critical address of such text-as-process towards (found or composed or conventionally translated) 'host' and 'guest' texts (these terms are from Lydia Liu's _Translingual Practice_) in systems where these categories of text are implicitly or explicitly paired. Do the generated liminal, transitional states of the system have a critical or aesthetic purchase on our readings? My investment has already been made clear. Yes they do, I wager, poethically (Joan Retallack's formulation). But Penny sees a way to go further. Taking up her long-standing readings of Mallarmé, she paired a sonnet, 'Le Pitre chatié' with some verses extracted from the 'Prose pour Des Esseintes' and challenged us to find a way to put these texts into a dynamic relationship based on underlying translations, ultimately by both of us, into English. Penny is also interested in allowing the protosemantic, transliteral processes back into the work as, I would suggest, subprocesses of those that will drive an initial iteration of 'Mirroring Tears: Visages' but I may not get that far in the coding before our presentation next week and I also worry about the incorporation of the audio correlates that Penny has identified.

It all sounds reasonable now but it took a while before this made sense - practical sense, sense as practice - to me. In my other work, currently, I am explicitly engaged with reading (_The Readers Project_ another collaboration between Daniel C. Howe and myself) - with what reading is, and with how all the endlessly various dynamic visualizations and representations of reading that digital media make possible - how these may reveal or conceal, enhance or destroy what reading has been for us. Now, I am tending to see many of the digital poetic pieces that I have made as 'readers,' but as readers that read critically and that also, arguably, write - with and against me, with and against us. 

What one may see or read, when 'Mirroring Tears: Visages' is presented, will be two poetic texts, in French, each with "wind-eyes" "torn" in their "tissued facade" (quoting phrases my my own translation of 'Le Pitre chatié'). Inside these windows, words and phrases mined from all the English translations made for both texts by Penny or I will be shown, according to an algorithm the details of which I am still working out. These "tears" in the texts will read and translate the two texts one into and out of the other, with, virtually, a critical, human translator's address - an address that will be mediated by a technological encoded representation of 'reading' - reading that relates to human reading but is programmatic: exhaustively describable in terms of digital symbolic manipulations. Penny asked: can digital poetics perform a critical address to these texts? We hope to present one of many possible answers.

And all I really wanted to say is that I have already learned and will have learned so much from this collaboration. And I anticipate that much of what I will have learned will derive from its context. I will have been making sense, although I may still have been struggling with the object implied by the practice that this rubric continuously suggests. On the other hand I'm sure, more or less, that we will have been making.

John (Cayley)
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