[-empyre-] What is robot poetics? How/why should we teach it?

Davin Heckman davinheckman at gmail.com
Wed May 3 22:37:23 AEST 2017

I am enjoying this month's topic.

I am also pasting a segment of an article that I am working on with James
O'Sullivan for the forthcoming Bloomsbury Handbook of Electronic
Literature.  In other sections of the article, you get close readings of
Mez and Tisselli. Elsewhere, both James and I have tried to wrangle with
the question of "poetics," on our own and writing together.

Some good places to find works by many of the fine writers identified in
Susan's message are:

electronic book review (which includes some great pieces by John Cayley,
Maria Damon, Bill Seaman, Sandy Baldwin, Rui Torres, Lori Emerson, N.
Katherine Hayles, Anna Gibbs and Maria Angel, Nick Montfort, etc.)

Dichtung Digital (which is not the most easily searchable, but has articles
going back many years).

And, the ELMCIP Knowledgebase (a searchable tool that can help you locate a
wide range of relevant works):

I look forward to reading more!


Heckman, Davin, and James O’Sullivan (forthcoming, 2017), “‘your visit will
leave a permanent mark’: Poetics in the Post-Digital Economy. Bloomsbury
Handbook of Electronic Literature. Bloomsbury Press.  Joseph Tabbi, editor.
Deeper than the individual work, the poetic gestures can be taken in
aggregate as soundings of the information in the age of networks. A habit
in this field is to think in terms of “media ecology.” This colorful
metaphor for the function of media systems, itself an indispensable
approach developed by Innis, Ong, McLuhan, and others, carries with it an
implicit naturalism.[1] Initially, the “ecological” innovation offers an
opportunity to step away from the individual genius/revolutionary artifact
conception of cultural history, instead seeing subjects and their objects
as situated in networks. But this metaphor is not without its own
liabilities. One being its “naturalism” and an affinity for related
concepts in digital media studies, perhaps in turn aided by the
cyberlibertarian fascination with “emergence” and “spontaneous order” as
dynamic tendencies made possible in the age of the home computer and then
the networked computer. The roots of the word “ecology” are oikos and
logos. Oikos is “the house,” which can slip between the household (family),
the home (environment), and property (capital). Logos slips between reason,
study, and law, with the unifying feature being the desire to find
consonance between what is, what is knowable, and, thus, that order to
which one must necessarily conform. As a result, it is metaphysical.

In the word “ecology,” we understand it to mean, broadly, the rational
study of any system of habitation, and within the natural sciences, it
retains shades of its innocence. As applied to social scientific fields
(like communication, sociology, psychology, and anthropology), the notion
of a socially formed “ecology” loses its innocence. As a creature within an
ecology, the hopeful monster is a mutation, a theoretically welcome
aberration that can survive systemic upheavals and establish a new
equilibrium that serves the health of the system. Within such a system, the
modest innovations of style and design within digital discourse exist to
keep it interesting, to drive attention, and ultimately to enhance and
preserve its role as a market. In other words, art is largely a technical
practice which serves an instrumental purpose. Indeed, it is this tension
between the apparatus and impulse that Tisselli himself takes up in his
November 2011 statement, “Why I Have Stopped Creating E-Lit.” He writes:

"But what I really need to express, before I can continue creating e-Lit,
is that I feel an urgent need to achieve a more complex and holistic vision
of what I am doing and reflect on its implications, unless I agree to just
blindly collaborate in the vertiginous destruction of our world."

Yet, once the study of human sociocultural practices transforms from the
impulse to the apparatus, from the political to the biopolitical,
technology extends its dominion over the natural sciences. This is the
realization of the Anthropocene: that the planetary ecosystem is determined
(though unpredictably) by human action. The term “Anthropocene” is now
commonly used to recognize the paradigm shift in thinking about “ecology”
in the wake of wide-scale technical transformation of the natural
environment. Hence we, too, may invoke this term even if it contains
distortions in that it positions humans rather than human systems of social
organization as the definitive culprits in this shift. As Jason W. Moore
(2013) notes in his text on “the Capitalocene,” “the modern world-system
becomes . . . a capitalist world-ecology: a civilization that joins the
accumulation of capital, the pursuit of power, and the production of nature
as an organic whole.” In any case, the enframing perspective described by
Heidegger (1993: 19–20) of the world as a “standing reserve” becomes,
itself, nature.[2]

This shift is intermingled with a second revolution, at the cultural or
expressive level: the arrival of a digital convergence. The increasing
digitization of all communication at ever more specific levels and its
generalization via global networks has obviated the relational dynamics of
singular subjects and their interactions. As a paradigm for the study of
social systems, “ecology” functions as a simulacrum, a way of thinking
about organized social behavior to facilitate management and
industrialization of resources, rather than a description of actual
conditions as expressions of an underlying “natural” state.

Thus, deprived of a world in which “human nature” and “human spirit” play
their parts, Media Ecology is an incorrect term for post-digital
ecosystemic approaches. There is no transcendental law of the world to
which one appeals. Instead, we refer to the declarative law of “nomos.”
Nomos identifies the juridical power of code and structure without recourse
to the metaphysical status of logos (and the understanding of ecology and
nature). Hence, “economy” is the appropriate term for the programmed oikos.
And against this economy, the question of poetics is reframed.

With this conception of the economy (oikos + nomos), we turn to the
revelatory function of poetics. To unsettle the milieu of the digital
economy is to create estrangement—to remove ourselves from its comfort or
to make its comfort strange: to make it uncanny (unheimlich—un-home-like).
Thus we can understand the poetic practices employed by Mez and Tisselli
and their radical potential. The poetic wrangling with systems of
signification strives to disrupt the seamless façade of large-scale
disruption as social ecology is transformed into economic material. The
hope of such poetic acts is to make us live again, to live with each other.


[1]. Joseph Tabbi (editor of this volume) and Michael Wutz (1997) introduce
the term “Media Ecology” to North American literary scholarship in Reading
Matters: Narrative in the New Media Ecology.

[2]. Here, we might say that the cultural frame (the dispositif, in
Foucault) ceases to function as a metaphor for the power of discourse and
becomes inscribed into materiality. This is, in fact, a key difference
between human language and machine language—one functions semiotically (in
extreme cases, as if it were real) and the other operates within a logical
regime as a command. As Alexander Galloway notes, “Code is the only
language that is executable . . . code is the first language that actually
does what it says” (quoted in Chun 2011: 100). Agamben gestures toward this
emergent reality in What Is An Apparatus? (2009).

On Tue, May 2, 2017 at 2:20 PM, VANDERBORG, SUSAN VANDERBORG <
SJVANDER at mailbox.sc.edu> wrote:

> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> A definition is challenging! Terms such as robot poetry, cyborg poetry, or
> machine writing might potentially include a huge variety of poetic
> practices: speculative poems about robots, poetic alterations or
> palimpsests from texts in robotics, code poetry, hypertext poetry, poetry
> produced via search engines (such as Darren Wershler and Bill Kennedy's
> *apostrophe*) and other digital poetry experiments. Poems using email or
> tweets. Poems that reenvision collaboration between programmers and poets.
> There is already a rich scholarly tradition for many of these robopoetics--*Fashionable
> Noise,* *New Media Poetics*, *Digital Poetics*, *Prehistoric Digital
> Poetry*, and Hayles's *Electronic Literature* and *Writing Machines*, and
> essays by John Cayley, Talan Memmott, Stephanie Strickland, Ian Hatcher,
> Florian Cramer, Matt Applegate, Steve Tomasula, and others, invaluable for
> teaching digital, code, and machine poetics in a special topics seminar I'd
> like to propose. Matthew Kirschenbaum's thoughtful "Machine Visions"
> details texts whose styles truly enact Haraway's idea of cyborg writing;
> Gregory Betts, too, discusses cyborg poetics in his article "I Object," and
> Christian Bok's "The Piecemeal Bard Is Deconstructed" traces "robopoetics"
> to its roots in RACTER algorithms.
> Increasingly, robopoetics doesn't only reflect a world saturated with
> technology but a forum where print and digital cultures interact
> productively. In "Noise in the Channel," Wershler talks about prose-poetic print
> books, including Drucker’s *The Word Made Flesh*, whose page layouts
> anticipate digital formats. *Writing Machines* also juxtaposes
> experimental artists' books and digital poetry.
> I've enjoyed teaching texts from Shelley Jackson's *Patchwork Girl *to
> Brian Kim Stefans's *The Dreamlife of Letters* and Jason Nelson's *Game
> Game Game and Again Game* in grad and undergrad poetry or postmodernism
> classes; they raise provocative discussions about what constitutes a book
> or a poetic collage. But I've taught robopoetics most frequently in an
> undergrad literature survey class called "American Cyborgs." Larissa Lai's
> "rachel" poems in *Automaton Biographies* pair magnificently with both *Blade
> Runner* and Haraway, Susan Slaviero's "Consider the Dangers of
> Reconstructing Your Wife as a Cyborg" humorously (and menacingly)
> complements our cyborgs and gender unit, and Margaret Rhee's ": Trace" from *Radio
> Heart* introduces "Race," in the title's wordplay, as a social
> construction already-already present even when it hasn't been "programmed
> yet." The "robot" in her book's subtitle pays homage to Asimov stories in
> which robotic identity is linked to race and discrimination such as
> "Bicentennial Man" and "Segregationist." And there is the short film for
> the lyrics of "Many Moons,'" set amid an updated slave auction, where
> Janelle Monae presses a button at her neck to change the skin color of her
> android character. Studying robot poetics and robot subjectivity becomes a
> way of talking about fights for civil rights, human rights--and the
> interpretation of documents from the Declaration of Independence to the
> U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.
> I'm very eager to hear how others in the forum have taught any form of
> robopoetics, and in what contexts, or with what results...
> Best,
> -Susan
> _______________________________________________
> empyre forum
> empyre at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au
> http://empyre.library.cornell.edu
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