Conceptual Writing As Fanfic

This essay originally appeared in Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World (Dallas, Smart Pop, 2013), edited by the amazing Anne Jamison. Buy the book; it’s a great collection from a unique press, and worth supporting.

APRIL 1, 2014: There are some interesting echoes of what I have to say here in Brian Droitcour’s “Young Incorporated Artists.”

Conceptual Writing and Fanfiction are the Bearded Spocks of their respective universes.

If you’re reading this, you probably already know more about fanfiction than I do.

What I know about is a thing called conceptual writing. And I think that one useful way to think about conceptual writing is as fanfiction about conceptual art.

Another might be to say that, in neighboring universes that overlap slightly, both fanfiction and conceptual writing play the role of bearded Spock. What I want to consider in this brief essay is the value of a kind of forced cultural exchange. In the event of an unexpected ion storm and a transporter accident, or its prose equivalent, is there anything useful that writers of fanfiction and conceptual writing might learn from each other? It’ll take me a few hundred words to get to the point where we can find out.

Conceptual writing is a term that has come to describe the work that my friends and I have produced over the last dozen years. One major example is Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day, which consists of the entire text from the September 1, 2000 issue of the New York Times—stock quotes, ads, captions, and all—reset in 9-point type, reproduced line by line, and bound as a massive paperback book, with Goldsmith listed as the author.1 In more general terms, conceptual writing is a catchall description for a mixed bag of writing techniques used by people who are interested in the impact of networked digital media on the creative process, the social function of authorship, and the economy of publishing.

This sort of writing is fannish in the sense that it draws much of its inspiration from things that were happening in the art world from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s. Conceptual art is a big, complex category, but Alexander Alberro usefully describes it in terms of four major “trajectories”: a deemphasizing of the importance of the artist’s technical skill and the cohesiveness of the final product; an increasing emphasis on the importance of text over images; a shift away from the aesthetically pleasing toward the conveyance of that odd modern invention we call information; and a questioning of how art is “supposed” to be framed, and the notion that there is a “correct” context (like a gallery) in which people are supposed to encounter it (pp. xvi, xvii ).2 Conceptual writing follows these trajectories because, with a few exceptions, they had been largely ignored by literary writers.

Before there was a clear consensus about what it was or what it was going to be called, what conceptual writing did was to draw attention to the rhetorical aspects of writing that canonical literature usually neglects: weather reports, legal transcripts, social media feeds, stock quotes, Usenet posts, and so on. These texts are the “dark matter” of literature; they make up the bulk of everything that’s written, but we habitually pretend that they don’t matter in any capacity other than the moment.

John Guillory describes such texts as belonging to what he calls “information genres.” In order to use them to convey that peculiar modern invention we call “information,” we have to pretend that they have no rhetorical value of their own that might taint it.3) By repackaging great swaths of information in media and formats other than the ones in which it initially appeared— again, think about Goldsmith reformatting the New York Times as a book—conceptual writing drew attention to the fact that all writing is poetic. It is poetic in that it always says more than we intend, and we assign value to it in keeping with large sets of external factors that sometimes have little to do with the ostensible content.

What conceptual writing does now is produce more poetry.

Over thirty years ago, legendary avant-garde poet and small-press publisher Bob Cobbing remarked that “there is no point whatsoever in adding to the quantity of poetry in this world. The world has quite enough poetry already. Probably too much. Far too much. The only excuse for being a poet today is to add to the quality of poetry, to add a quality which was not there before.”4 From Cobbing’s perspective, the job of the writer is not to produce more of something already recognizable, but to constantly shift approaches and techniques, literally making difference. Rather than simply adding to the bulk of unread books on the shelf, conceptual writing, like Cobbing’s work—and, I’d argue, like fanfiction—reframes big chunks of culture in a different context than they originally appeared, so that we can think about just how odd they actually are.

As is the fate of all successful cultural interventions, conceptual writing no longer exists on the margins of culture; it has become (semi-) respectable. Conceptual writers have performed in the Whitney Museum of American Art and the White House, and Goldsmith was selected as the Museum of Modern Art’s Poet Laureate for 2013. Say what you want about these institutions and whether or not conceptual writing deserves a place in them, but they’re very definitely not the margins. Conceptual writing has also produced the inevitable signs of cultural legitimacy: two giant, doorstop-sized anthologies, Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing5 and I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women.6 Conceptual writing has become a big tent, and all sorts of people have laid claim to it (which is not particularly surprising, for reasons I’ll get to shortly).

From my perspective, this isn’t an occasion for either celebration or mourning. I’m trying to provide a relatively dispassionate description of a process of cultural circulation that has happened many times before and will happen many times again. Monet was a radical before he was a calendar. What interests me—and is of relevance to both conceptual writing and fanfiction—is what happens next: how a community based around a formerly marginal writing practice deals with its own relative success.

It’s certainly possible to argue that fanfiction follows at least some of the trajectories of conceptual art, too, but that would take more space than I have here. The similarities between fanfiction and conceptual writing that I want to consider right now have nothing to do with tone, style, or subject matter. What interests me are particular similarities in the practices of their respective communities, and how cultural policing keeps them separate. In some respects, I think that conceptual writing has more to learn from fanfiction than the reverse.

Conceptual writing, like fanfiction, grows out of particular kinds of interpretive communities.

In his Introduction to the UbuWeb Anthology of Conceptual Writing, Craig Dworkin coined the term conceptual writing in its present usage.7 (It has since been revised and expanded for Against Expression.) Dworkin emphasizes that even though the majority of the anthology’s writers “were participants in the set of contemporaneous practices that came to be known as ‘Conceptual Art’” (see Lippard8), “conceptual writing” does not refer exclusively to “writings by conceptual artists.” Instead, Dworkin is after something that he calls “distinctly conceptual writing.”9

This deft rhetorical maneuver allows for a bit of anticipatory plagiarism on Dworkin’s part. The invention of the category of “distinctly conceptual writing” means that regardless of era, nationality, form, politics, or aesthetic allegiances, Dworkin can now claim the works of modernists like Alfred Jarry, Gertrude Stein, and Samuel Beckett, as well as texts from various neo–avant-garde individuals and groups, such as Fluxus and the Oulipo. What’s going on here is an attempt to imagine a community.

All arts communities try to situate themselves within a larger history of the kind of work that they admire. Dworkin’s invention of the notion of “distinctly conceptual writing” means that he can expand his canon into the present, to include work by twenty-first-century writers. Those people, whose names have been listed in different combinations at different times and different places (Dworkin included), are my friends, and here we arrive at the crux of the matter. Regardless of where it is now or what was happening elsewhere (and I know for a fact that in Vancouver and England at least, other communities were developing their own ideas about what could eventually be included under the big tent of conceptual writing), my experience of conceptual writing began with friendships more than with a sense of stylistic affinity. If you don’t like the people you’re talking to and writing with and for, you find another group. (I suspect this is true of fannish writing communities and fannish friendships, too.) Family resemblances are superficial at first, and develop as you and your friends discuss and debate, then work to find commonalities and ponder differences with the other communities you encounter along the way.

Dworkin’s essay, of course, first appears in the context of UbuWeb. The closest thing to the online home of conceptual writing, UbuWeb is a massive repository of avant-garde art, writing, audio, and video: everything from anonymous street flyers and outsider art to digital copies of early films by directors like Gus Van Sant. Much of the material on UbuWeb infringes on various copyrights. All of it has been collected and posted without permission and has been maintained through thousands of hours of labor without remuneration—except, perhaps, in the form of increased online reputation. I’d argue that this sort of unauthorized and quasi-authorized categorization, sorting, and positioning of one’s literary heroes in order to contextualize one’s own work is functionally indistinguishable from fannish activity, including fanfiction.

What makes the difference between conceptual writing and fanfiction are the respective cultural fields in which they occur.

Conceptual writing is located within literature and is ambivalent about wanting out. Fanfiction is located without literature and is ambivalent about wanting in.

American architectural and cultural theorist Charles Jencks expands on Umberto Eco’s notion of “double coding” to describe hybrid styles that deploy popular and elitist connotations simultaneously. Double-coded texts communicate with the public and “a concerned minority” at the same time.10 Sometimes called “dog whistles,” such texts contain references that will usually only be recognized by those “in the know.” When Omar quotes a line from Steve Earle’s song “New York City” to McNulty in an episode of The Wire (“The Cost,” 1-10), and Steve Earle is already a recurring cast member in the show, that’s a dog whistle. Morrissey’s use of the Polari phrase “Bona Drag” for the title of one of his albums is another type of double coding. Like Cockney rhyming slang, Polari was developed to indicate to members of specific communities (gays, carnies, etc.) that you were one of them. Different manifestations of double coding can achieve very different ends.11 Conceptual writing and fanfiction both partake of double coding in a way that creates a strong but slightly skewed resemblance—think Spock versus bearded Spock. When encountered by chance against the backdrop of everyday life, both fanfiction and conceptual writing can easily be mistaken for something more mundane, unless you know the subtle signs (Spock’s beard) that indicate that what you’re looking at means something profoundly different from what you think it does.

Conceptual writing formed within the world of small-press poetry, though many of its practitioners are ambivalent about identifying their work as poetry or themselves as poets (witness Kenneth Goldsmith’s frequent refrain that he’s not a poet, even though he’s been published largely by poetry presses). Dworkin mentions instances in which “one of the central figures of language poetry—a writer who had in fact himself incorporated transcribed texts into poetry” repeatedly excluded conceptual writing from poetry.12 This same Language poet told me, on another occasion, that what I wrote wasn’t poetry, but was “some sort of conceptual art.” If it was a compliment, it was backhanded at best. I think he meant it as a kind of policing gesture, to exclude my work from the set of things he wanted to consider important. But it’s hard to tell, because in North American culture, poetry itself is already a marginal activity. Books of poetry account for only 0.12 percent of total market sales in Canada,13 (I’m Canadian; given the amount of support Canadian literary presses receive from the government, and the lack of such support in the US, I assume that the figure is even lower in the states). For all of the newfound cultural capital that some of its members have accrued, in terms of the number of books in circulation, conceptual writing remains a margin of a margin.

Fanfiction also began as the marginal activity around genre fiction (or, as the academy condescendingly calls it, “paraliterature”). There are established pathways between fanfic and genre fiction, especially in science fiction. Not only do some SF fanfiction authors become commercial writers, but some commercial SF writers do more than support fanfiction—they continue to write it themselves.14 But fanfiction is making serious incursions into mainstream publishing. Penguin and other prestigious houses are beginning to buy up little publishing operations that publish fanfic and were previously considered “vanity press” services;15 Amazon is moving into the business of licensing entire fictional universes, presumably in the interest of producing a domesticated version of fanfiction. In a contemporary context, fanfiction has a much more convincing claim to cultural centrality than conceptual writing and even, arguably, poetry in general.

Fanfiction and conceptual writing have both been fueled by the rapid growth of networked digital media.

If fanfic and conceptual writing both have their origins in the small-press circulatory practices of specific interpretive communities, both have taken off as a result of the explosive growth of the Internet. Here again we encounter Spock’s beard, because there are uncannily similar-yet-different theories to account for this growth in both fanfiction and conceptual writing, each with their respective critical champion.

On one side of the mirror, Henry Jenkins, the preeminent theorist of convergence and transmedia, has made a strong case for the reliance of transmedia on fanfiction.16 Briefly, transmedia theory argues that storytelling now takes place across multiple media platforms, creating entire fictional universes that require the audience to visit many of them to experience fiction fully, and to actively participate in the telling of its stories. Star Trek, with its multiple series, books, comics, cartoons, websites, and huge, active fan community, is the canonical example; Jenkins’ work began with studies of fanfiction in the Star Trek community. On the other, Marjorie Perloff, the preeminent critic of the literary avant-gardes, developed a similar theory of what she calls the “differential text,”17 which I’ve expanded elsewhere to a theory of “differential media.”18 Perloff’s work on this subject begins with a consideration of Kenneth Goldsmith’s Fidget, a key early text of conceptual writing. While Perloff emphasizes the differential text is a series of aesthetic possibilities for different kinds of manifestations (Fidget has been, among other things, a book, a website, a performance piece, a gallery installation, and two tailored paper suits), Jenkins focuses on transmedia as a business model—but truth be told, both transmedia and differential media rely on the creation and circulation of cultural capital. Moreover, both have demonstrated that reputation and other forms of cultural capital can be translated into actual capital.

But there is a substantial difference between fanfiction and conceptual writing that proceeds directly from the relationship of each with transmedia and the differential text. Both fanfiction and conceptual writing can manifest differentially, but they place their emphases on different aspects of their source materials. Where fanfiction uses transmedia as its vehicle, conceptual writing takes as its subject the materiality of the new configurations and forms that transmedia provides.

Where fanfiction shifts characters to other settings, conceptual writing shifts text to other discursive contexts.

The basic move of both fanfic and conceptual writing is the ancient trope of the clinamen: repetition with a slight difference. In the form of a diagram, we could represent the respective swerves from tradition of fanfic and conceptual writing as spirals of varying degrees of tightness, expanding out from a point that they nevertheless continue to orbit. However, these spirals operate on different objects. Fanfiction works at the level of what’s written or said: for example, by combining characters from two different fictional worlds. Conceptual writing works at the level of the context in which something is written or said: for example, by shifting the context of a text’s publication from official courtroom transcripts to a hardbound edition published by a literary small press.

If fanfiction always proceeds with reference to some sort of original text produced by a successful commercial writer, conceptual writing begins by referring to gestures and practices produced by generations of successful avant-garde artists who already were calling the notion of originality itself into doubt. And yet, Dworkin notes that conceptual writing acquires a “strong sense of signature” because it makes “irrevocable” interventions into culture.19 Over time, a canny act of appropriation becomes indistinguishable from Romantic notions of creation out of nothing. W. G. Sebald allegedly gave the following advice to his creative writing students: “I can only encourage you to steal as much as you can. No one will ever notice. You should keep a notebook of tidbits, but don’t write down the attributions, and then after a couple of years you can come back to the notebook and treat the stuff as your own without guilt.”20 Creativity and appropriation are two sides of the same coin, and ultimately are inextricable from each other. While both fanfiction and conceptual writing might appear to challenge or threaten originality, they also rely on it and reproduce it at other moments.

Kenneth Goldsmith is the E. L. James of conceptual writing. Or, to put this all another way: This is an essay about E. L. James if I say so.

Both Goldsmith and James are symptoms of whatever it is that has replaced the crumbling narratives that we’ve used to make sense out of the tatters of modernity—some mutant form of celebrity culture.

Fanfiction is now demonstrably capable of producing bestselling authors. Conceptual writing has had some mainstream successes: the international success of Christian Bök’s Eunoia, and Kenneth Goldsmith reading for President Obama—and his subsequent lampooning by Jon Stewart—are two of them. If literature retains any of its privilege, it’s only so that privilege can be claimed by the Spock-bearded rabble that it traditionally relegated to the hinterlands, now bent on dividing between themselves the diminishing spoils of what we used to call literature.

To avoid reproducing the myopia and narrowness that conceptual writing and fanfiction came into existence to contest, they both need to recognize that they are part of a larger cultural tendency to see all creativity as a process of remixing. Dworkin notes that “in the twenty-first century, conceptual poetry thus operates against the background of related vernacular practices, in a climate of pervasive participation and casual appropriation.”21 The only problem with that sentence, from my perspective, is what counts as foreground and what counts as background.

By recognizing itself as a minoritarian practice (i.e., part of the background), conceptual writing might become capable of doing something that poetry has never been capable of: recognizing the things that look just like it and transpire all around it that are not published as poetry, don’t circulate through literary communities, aren’t received by people as literary texts, but nevertheless could be formally indistinguishable from conceptual writing . . . and not colonizing them for poetry in the process. There’s a price to pay for that, though: actually giving up the last vestiges of the Romantic notion of author-as-lone-genius, the ones that even a century of modernity refused to erase. In its place, we might install some sort of invisible but open conspiracy that’s capable of appreciating the tactical efficiencies of the things we want to dismiss as cheesy imitations and knockoffs. If makers of conceptual writing and fanfiction really desire to operate differently from culture at large (and I’m no longer sure that this was ever the case), they’d need to produce writers who are not interested in becoming celebrity authors, but are willing to dissolve away into the shadows before the laurels can be handed out. Not Warhol’s Factory, but Batman Incorporated.

Here’s a PDF of the essay as it appeared in the book.


  1. Goldsmith, Kenneth. Day. Great Barrington, MA: The Figures, 2003. 

  2. Alberro, Alexander. “Reconsidering Conceptual Art, 1966–1977.” In Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, edited by Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999. 

  3. John Guillory, “The Memo and Modernity,” Critical Inquiry 31 (2004 

  4. Cobbing, Bob and Steven Ross Smith. Ballet of the Speech Organs: Bob Cobbing on Bob Cobbing. Saskatoon/Toronto: Underwhich Editions, 1998. 

  5. Dworkin, Craig and Kenneth Goldsmith. Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing. Avant-Garde & Modernism Collection. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2011. 

  6. Bergvall, Caroline, et al., eds. I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women. Los Angeles: Les Figues Press, 2012. 

  7. Dworkin, Craig Douglas. “The UbuWeb Anthology of Conceptual Writing.” UbuWeb. Accessed 9 June 2013. http://www.ubu.com/concept/ 

  8. Lippard, Lucy R. Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972; A Cross-Reference Book of Information on Some Esthetic Boundaries. New York: Praeger, 1973 

  9. Dworkin, “UbuWeb Anthology.” 

  10. Jencks, Charles. “From ‘The Death of Modern Architecture’ from What Is Post-Modernism?” In From Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology, edited by Lawrence Cahoone, expanded 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell. 

  11. Ibid. 

  12. Dworkin and Goldsmith, Against Expression 

  13. CBC Books. “To Read or Not to Read: Fresh Air Considers the State of Poetry in Canada.” CBC Books, 11 Apr. 2011. http://www.cbc.ca/books/2011/04/to-read-or-not-to-read-fresh-air-considers-the-state-of-poetry-in-canada.html 

  14. Romano, Aja. “10 Famous Authors Who Write Fanfiction.” The Daily Dot, 30 Aug. 2012. http://www.dailydot.com/culture/10-famous-authors-fanfiction/ 

  15. Sonne, Paul and Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg. “Penguin Group Dives into Self-Publishing.” Wall Street Journal, 19 July 2012. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444464304577537092288601370.html 

  16. Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006. See especially chapter 3 

  17. Perloff, Marjorie. “‘Vocable Scriptsigns’: Differential Poetics in Kenneth Goldsmith’s Fidget.” In Poetry, Value, and Contemporary Culture, edited by Andrew Roberts and John Allison. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002 

  18. Wershler, Darren S. Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg (Canadian Cinema vol. 6). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010 

  19. Dworkin and Goldsmith, Against Expression 

  20. Skinner, Richard. “Max Sebald’s Writing Tips.” Richard Skinner (blog). 14 Jan. 2013. http://richardskinner.weebly.com/2/post/2013/01/max-sebalds-writing-tips.html 

  21. Ibid. 

Title of Essay in Plain Type

This essay originally appeared as the Afterword to Nick Thurston’s Of the Subcontract, or, Principles of Poetic Right (Information As Material, agented by Coach House Books, 2013). Pick up a copy of it; it’s a timely and troublingly gorgeous book.

This book begins with an image. We know it is a false image, and that is the problem.

This is not the late nineteenth century. We are past the point of delight and instruction. We are no longer capable of being amazed by the performance of the latest technologies and then elucidated by the description of their operation.

We are also past the point of criticism. In an era of faith-based presidencies and fundamentalist theocracies, reason takes a backseat to religiosity and gut feelings. Simply revealing the point where there were errors in our thinking solves nothing.

We know the fix is in. We know that the explanation we are offered is not the real explanation. And yet we hang around for it.

In this book’s opening image, what we see, from behind, are the ostensible inner workings of the Mechanical Turk, an infamous “automaton” built by Wolfgang von Kempelen in the late eighteenth century. This copper engraving was first published in 1783 in one of a stream of books, pamphlets and articles that claimed to have figured out how von Kempelen’s machine worked.1) We already know that the revelations this image claims to present are a sham. We already know that what lies behind those doors and compartments are not the various and sundry components of an actual clockwork mechanism capable of playing a match-winning game of chess, but what movie set designers call “gak” – elaborate mechanical confections attached to the surface of a prop to give us the sense that something marvelous and technical is occurring within it – something, in this case, made more opaque by the puppet dressed like an Eastern mystic who faces the audience. We’re entertained by how impressive it all looks, even though we already know that what is really inside the cramped and stuffy confines of the box is at least one small, sweaty, poorly-paid human being.

This worries us, because we also know that Amazon.com’s choice to adopt this icon to describe their low-rent Internet-based crowdsourced labour pool, Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT), is both wholly appropriate and eye-wateringly honest.

Turkey has had a labour migration agreement in place with Germany since 1961. For decades, Turkish families have relocated to do the work that Germans would rather not; a pattern that recurs all over the world, within and without international legislation.

(My brother’s first wife was German. Tradition in Germany has it that the night before a wedding, there is a large party. Guests bring old dishes, crockery and anything else that can be broken into pieces by throwing it on the ground. Afterwards the bride and groom clean up the mess together, in order to symbolize their hope that nothing essential to their relationship will be broken in the future, and that they are committed to working together to clean up any messes that might come along. The German sense of humour being what it is, my brother’s fiancée’s friends showed up with a load of old toilets, bidets and sinks and proceeded to smash them into large, heavy chunks. His soon-to-be-father-in-law waved his hand dismissively. “Never mind”, he said. “My Turks will take care of it.” In retrospect, maybe my brother and his now-ex-wife should have cleaned it up themselves.) 

We have a growing suspicion that Amazon’s Turks might not be faring much better. Researchers have conducted some very detailed studies into who, exactly, works for AMT, and we have read them with concern.

From Panos Ipeirotis’ dataset we know that 54% of the people that work for AMT (“Turkers”) are between 21 and 35 years old. We know that 70% of them are women. We know that 65% of them have a household income of less than $60,000 per year, and that 55% of them do not have children. We know that 46.80% of them are from the United States, another 34% are from India, and the remaining 19.20% are from everywhere else.2

We have also read essays explaining that the Turk is in fact an elegant metaphor for the precarious condition of the worker in a globalized and networked milieu.3 And we have made a substantial amount of art that actually makes use of Amazon Mechanical Turk as a productive medium to demonstrate the same point, but in a way that is, you know, artier.

The point is not that the mechanism is empty, like some kind of neutral reproducer. The point is that it is a mechanism that already includes a spot for you – like the Law in Franz Kafka”‘s novel The Trial – whether that spot is in front of it as a player, inside it as the operator, behind it as the spectator being shown its misleading components, from afar as the critic describing and demystifying it by virtue of your criticism or, increasingly, as the artist or writer (mis)using it in your project.4) The moment that you engage the setup as a problematic, the machine springs into action.

The history of people using AMT to make art is almost as old as the history of the platform.

Gregory Laynor, Stephen McLaughlin, Kaegan Sparks and Vladimir Zykov published a series of AMT pieces in 2008 on their FOR GODOT blog, under the titleI WAS TOLD TO WRITE 50 WORDS, which was exactly the workshop exercise they had been set by their professor, Kenneth Goldsmith.5

The same year, Blogger user Ann conducted an exquisite corpse-style experiment on AMT, choosing a first line, having several AMT workers submit next lines and picking one winner, then resubmitting that line until the poem was completed. One example still appears on the Crowd Poet blog.6

In 2010, Markus Strohmaier produced In the daily life of a Mechanical Turk, a poem constructed around the acrostic phrase “infinite monkey” and arranged in a series of rhyming couplets. The individual lines that filled this framework were composed by AMT workers.7

Also in 2010, the question “What are the most creative uses of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk?” appeared on the user-generated Q&A platform Quora, and answers are still being added. Nat Friedman responded, 

I had Turkers email poems to a friend of mine who was faced with a dilemma. For $0.50 you get a pretty good poem, and for $1.00 they really put in an effort. Be sure to set the time limit for the HIT high enough so that they have time to compose something good.

Ben Packer contributed this answer to the same question: 

I had MTurkers write love letters to my wife.

I gave enough details for them to write something specific and personal (but not enough for them to find and stalk us – hopefully). I paid 25 cents with up to a 50 cent bonus for great ones. When I got them, I copied and pasted them in emails to my wife. She was very confused, particularly by the one that was signed “Frank”. I told her it was a typo.8

A year later, Suzi Grossman wrote several AMT poems. The first, “Scary Cat”, began with a poem by Alfred Tennyson, which she then excised text from and had workers fill in the blanks “madlib style.” The second, a sound piece, consisted of single lines about “late fall” read by AMT workers, then stitched together.9

Aaron Koblin and Daniel Masse’s Bicycle Built for 2,000 uses AMT on a larger scale. In this project, the workers listened to a short sound clip, then recorded themselves imitating what they heard. 2,088 such recordings were synced together to produce a choral version of “Daisy Bell” (1892), the song used to create the first example of musical speech synthesis.10

On Strip Generator, a social media comic strip production portal, dogtrax’s Digital Writing Month strip describes completing a difficult class assignment to write a digital poem by outsourcing it all to AMT… and then paying for it in Bitcoin.11

Fred Benenson’s Kickstarter-funded Emoji Dick submitted each of the 10,000+ sentences in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick to an AMT worker three times for translation into Japanese emoticons (emoji). Another set of workers voted on these results, selecting the most popular sentences for use in the final book. More than 800 people spent about 44 days working on this project, making $0.05 per translation and $0.02 per vote per translation.12

I am sure I have missed a number of other, similar projects along the way. Whatever. Reception cannot keep pace with this kind of production, and the resulting glut strips away our ability to distinguish. All that remains is the corporate ruthlessness of the search algorithm and its numerically defined sense of what your search should produce, presented to you as though it were perfectly transparent and logical or the poetic voice of some correlative intelligence.

What this history means is that we need to read Of the Subcontract not solely as a critique of poetry (lyrical, conceptual or otherwise). Nor can we read this book solely as a critique of the economics of the Amazon Mechanical Turk. Of the Subcontract needs to be read as a critique of artists and poets who employ networked digital outsourcing as a production method … including the author. If this is institutional critique, the point is that art is now quite comfortable inside the institution. There is no neutral place on which to stand.

Paraphrasing the work of Peter Sloterdijk, Slavoj Žižek summarises contemporary ideology with the following aphorism: “they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it”.13 The artistic gesture of using AMT to write poetry is fully ironized. It wants to assert, at the same time, that the once-lauded cultural value of the work of poets is now so close to nothing as to be indistinguishable from it, and that the work of precarious labourers in a networked digital milieu, which is remunerated far below minimum wage, without benefits or the collective bargaining power of unionization, is nevertheless dignified. But we cannot even be bothered to agonize about the deadlock any more.

The act of using AMT to make art has already settled in the popular imagination at the level of a composition exercise in the classroom. We try it once, blog about it, perhaps crowdfund the product of our orchestrations in order to package it more elaborately and add another level of iteration to the multiplicity of our production. Then we move on. The traces of our efforts sit on various backwater corners of the web, echoed and reechoed by their real audience: spiders and robots, who, like us, read without caring.

Although Amazon Mechanical Turk might be a market-leader, it is by no means a unique business. Online portals that connect employers and workers and extract a fee for doing so facilitate a new sort of freelance production that is, in the double sense, data-based. Take, for instance, the foreword “by” McKenzie Wark at the beginning of this book, which was subcontracted to a ghostwriter in Lahore, Pakistan, for $75 via Freelancer.com.

Of the Subcontract is entirely unconcerned with originality. We might consider it as an attempt to exhaust the gesture of using AMT to write a book of poetry by producing its most complete realization, in the hope that we might somehow be able to move past the point of deadlock. In that respect, the message of this book would echo the title – and the futility – of derek beaulieu’s recent collection, Please, No More Poetry (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013). Because, of course, even if the message is to stop and do something else, what has been produced is yet another book of poetry to add to the long, long shelf of unread titles.14) We can be polite about it, but we cannot even dignify our own request by refusing to partake ourselves.

This book is not a solution but a symptom, a litmus test of larger social changes, both basic and corrosive. We use data to represent these changes to ourselves. The meanings that we abstract and extract from that data enforce and accelerate those changes. Data is the great leveller, reconfiguring both the most privileged and the least privileged kinds of writing as Human Intelligence Tasks. Poets and professors can point to this change, but so far, have not been able to move beyond it. As we are beginning to realize, our tasks, too, can be outsourced.

In a myriad of ways, Of the Subcontract implicates us. It contains only synthesized voices from an unprecedented future, complicit in their own exploitation, mustering a form of writing that is brutally present.

Here’s a PDF of the essay as it appeared in the book.


  1. Karl Gottlieb von Windisch,Briefe über den Schachspieler des Hrn. von Kempelen nebst drey Kupferstichen die diese berühmte Maschine vorstellen (Pressberg, 1783 

  2. Panos Ipeirotis, ‘Demographics of Mechanical Turk” (NYU Center for Digital Economy Research Working Paper CeDER–10–01, 2010): http://www.ipeirotis.com/research/publications/demographics-ofmechanical-turk 

  3. See especially Ayhan Aytes, “Return of the Crowds: Neoliberal States of Exception”, Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory, ed. Trebor Sholz (New York: Routledge, 2013): pp. 79–97 

  4. Franz Kafka (1925),The Trial, trans. Willa & Edwin Muir (London: Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd., 1983 

  5. Gregory Laynor, Stephen McLaughlin, Kaegan Sparks, Vladimir Zykov,I WAS TOLD TO WRITE 50 WORDS, FOR GODOT (26 April 2008): http://forgodotarchive.blogspot.ca/2008/04/i-was-told-to-write fifty-words.html 

  6. Ann, “The Mechanical Turk Poetry Project”, Crowd Poet Blog (August 23, 2008): http://crowdpoet.blogspot.ca/2008/08/mechanical-turkpoetry-project.html 

  7. Markus Strohmaier, “Programming Poems with Mechanical Turk”, Intentialicious: Markus Strohmaier’s Weblog (29 December 2010): http://mstrohm.wordpress.com/2010/12/29/programming-poems-withmechanical-turk/ 

  8. ‘What are the most creative uses of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk?”, Quora: http://www.quora.com/Amazon-Mechanical-Turk/What-arethe-most-creative-uses-of-Amazon-s-Mechanical-Turk. Nat Friedman response: 27 October 2010; Ben Packer response: 27 June 2012 

  9. Suzi Grossman, “Mechanical Turk Idea” (November 4, 2011): http:// suzigrossman.dreamhosters.com/blog/?p=107 

  10. Aaron Koblin, Daniel Masse, Bicycle Built for 2,000: http://www.bicyclebuiltfortwothousand.com/ 

  11. dogtrax, Digital Writing Month, Strip Generator (3 November 2012): http://stripgenerator.com/strip/692976/digital-writing-month-themechanical-turk-poet/ 

  12. Fred Benenson, Emoji Dick (self-published, 2013): http://www.emojidick.com/ 

  13. Slavoj Žižek (1989), The Sublime Object of Ideology (London/New York: Verso, 2008): p. 25 

  14. derek beaulieu, Please, No More Poetry: The Poetry of derek beaulieu, ed. Kit Dobson (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013 

Best Before Date

What if the poetic has left the poem in the same way that Elvis has left the building?

Long after the limo pulled away, the audience was still in the arena, screaming for more. Even after his death, especially after his death, Elvis is sighted, replicated and imitated all of the time, but in radically different contexts. If anything, his death was really the beginning of a wild proliferation and circulation of Elvisness beyoind the domain of popular music. In that process, though, the form and meaning of Elvisness changed (and continues to change) dramatically, adapting to and eliciting new kinds of interpretive communities that are interested in having conversations about it, even organizing their entire lives around it. And none of this seems to detract much from the ardor of the original Elvis fans, even if the number of people still waiting in the arena continues to dwindle … and even if the arena itself is in precarious shape.

It’s not that the poetic can’t still be found in poetry; the vast and varied world of small literary presses, poetry blogs, magazines, zines, readings and literary festivals attests that poetry qua poetry is still chugging along just fine. It’s just that the official channels of poetry are not the first place that most people encounter poetic effects these days … and probably haven’t been, for some time now. Reciprocally, what readers are encountering in the books published by poetry presses like Les Figues, Roof, BookThug, Coach House, The Figures, Housepress, Make Now, Truck, etc. is, increasingly, language that was previously considered to be unpoetic. Regardless of this reversal, though, the domains of poetic and public discourse remain largely separate from each other.

In blunt, numeric terms, most of what we read and write isn’t poetry. Of all of the books sold in Canada in 2010, only 0.12 percent of total market sales were poetry titles1. Nevertheless, the metaphors that poets and their critics have used over the last hundred years to discuss poetry’s relationship to media privilege the primacy of poetic discourse, suggesting that ideas flow out from poetry to culture at large. However: poetic language has always already been outside the poem. The inherently paragrammatic nature of language guarantees that it’s always been possible to find poetic effects outside of poetry, and, though it’s impossible to fully document this phenomenon, there are a wealth of examples. Much of the avant-garde writing and art of the last century occupied itself by specializing in harvesting examples of paragrammatic poetic language from “outside” the normal channels of poetic production and redeploying it as art.

Two things changed over the first decade of the new millennium in terms of how poetic language circulates. First, when contemporary experimental writers appropriate large chunks of text for their own use, they don’t necessarily do so because of the location in that text of qualities normally associated with poetry (rhyme, meter, unusual imagery, elegant prosody etc.). Instead, they do so in order to focus attention on the qualities of the genres that we use to convey that peculiar invention of modernity called “information.” This is significant because in order for such genres to convey information, we normally pretend that they have been flensed of all rhetoricity. The result is what Kenneth Goldsmith has called, at various points, boring, uncreative2, or conceptual writing3: a tendency that makes claims to its importance in the world of poetic discourse precisely through its use of previously nonpoetic language. The second is that this tendency to draw attention to the properties of information genres has also been occurring simultaneously outside of the channels in which poetry circulates, at a speed too rapid to argue that such practices are the result of a dissemination from conceptual writing and its ilk. Poetry isn’t currently a driver of culture but a symptom. What interests me is not so much how to read conceptual writing – plenty of critics have already figured that out – but how to read the things that are occurring simultaneously with it, and bear a strong family resemblance to it. The question of what to write after the formalization of conceptual writing also raises its head.

In his essay on the memo and modernity, John Guillory provides a startling reminder that although the modern epistemic order locates literature at one end of its axis and scholarship and science at the other, the great bulk of writing over the last century and a half has been neither literary nor scientific4. Instead, the dark matter of modern textuality is informational writing: memos, business letters, status updates, forms, executive summaries, lists, web pages, reports, RSS feeds, classifed ads, indices, catalogues, howto manuals and countless other hybrid “information genres” that we habitually ignore. Informational writing, especially in its megageneric form, the document, often eludes scrutiny because of its odd combination of ephemerality and permanence: it might be read once or never, but it must always be filed away somewhere, and, at least in theory, accessible5. As both a cause and effect of modernity’s invention of the category of information itself, informational writing aspires to be a mere conduit, to flense itself of all rhetorical flourishes; the more interesting the individual document, the less representative it is of its own genre6. As scholars, we are confronted with exciting project of describing all of these suddenly visible hybrid genres, especially in terms of their roles and functions in constituting the modern, the postmodern and the emerging world of the amodern. As writers, though, we are confronted with some genuine questions about how to proceed.

Of course, there is no zero degree of rhetoricity. As Umberto Eco joked many years ago, the best definition of the sign is that it is anything that can be used to tell a lie7, and art has always been a form of lying. I’d argue, in fact, that the long history of the 20th century avant-gardes consists, for the most part, of artists and writers re-asserting the rhetorical value of information genres by appropriating and recontextualizing significant chunks of them. But rather than thinking once again about appropriation as a practice within writing and art, I’d like to consider the implications of the proliferation today of poeticized information outside of the manifold forms and institutions of verse culture.

For most of the last decade, I’ve been noticing an increasing number of examples of what I initially thought of as “uncreative writing in the wild” or “conceptualism in the wild.” The problem I now have with this term is that it prioritizes the “-ism,” implying a flow outward from poetry into culture at large. This notion of influence and transmission has been one of the command metaphors behind the discourse of poetry and technology for about a century. In 1922, Ezra Pound declaimed that “Artists are the antennae of the race”8. Marshall McLuhan picked up on this metaphor, updating and expanding it many times. This passage is from the introduction to the 2nd edition of Understanding Media:

Art as radar acts as an “early alarm system,” as it were, enabling us to discover social and psychic targets in lots of time to prepare to cope with them. This concept of the arts as prophetic, contrast with the popular idea of them as mere self-expression. If an art is an “early warning system,” to use the phrase from World War II, when radar was new, art has the utmost relevance not only to media study but to the development of media controls.9

Christopher Dewdney’s “Parasite Maintenance” updates the technology in McLuhan’s metaphor for the late 20th century (with a touch of Jack Spicer thrown in for good measure), imagining the poet as a satellite dish: “The radio telescope becomes a model of the bi-conscious interface between ‘the mind’ and signals from the ‘outside’ which the poet receives”10. What these models have in common is that they imagine communication in terms of a more-or-less linear transmission. As James Carey famously pointed out, the transmission model of communication is always wrapped up in “complementary models of power and anxiety”11. Looking again at Pound’s fascist wartime broadcasts, McLuhan’s cold war conservatism and Dewdney’s lysergic paranoia, it’s probably time to find another way to describe the relationship between poetry and the rest of contemporary culture. Teleological accounts of the “influence” of media and literature (and in this case, of their overlap) almost inevitably overlook the messy, contingent ways in which media, formats and genres overlap each other. Rather than origins or influences, it might be more productive to consider, as Foucault suggests, institutionalizations, transformations, affiliations and relationships12. As a corrective then, a better metaphor might be the poet as dosimeter – an index of ongoing exposure to something ambient that’s already in the environment. Something, for that matter, that might actually have killed you before you even knew it was there.

More recently, I’ve started to refer to the objects appearing in culture at large that conceptual writing resembles as “findables.” Here are a few:

The Diary of Samuel Pepys13. Since January 1, 2003, designer and programmer Phil Gyford has been publishing and annotating entries from the 17th century diary of Samuel Pepys on a daily basis. Gyford was one of the first to recognize the cultural significance of the blog as a form, and began this practice long before tools like WordPress and Blogger were commonly available, and at a time when the content of the Web still skewed heavily toward nerd topics (Star Wars, Star Trek, Linux, etc.).

Harry Potter & the Well of Scammers14. 419 eater is a website dedicated to making miserable the lives of perpetrators of Advance Fee Fraud (aka “419 fraud” because of the section of the Nigerian penal code concerning the fraud schemes that originate within its borders). In 2006, “Arthur Dent” [pseud.] received a typical 419 letter from someone identifying themselves as “Joyce Ozioma”, offering him $27 million USD to invest. Dent in turn offered the scammer the opotunity to earn $100 per page of handwritten text for inclusion in “a very important 4 year long research project on Advanced Handwriting Recognition and Graphology systems.” In short order, he convinced them to write out longhand, scan and email him all 293 pages of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – now visible on the website.

The Leila Texts15. There are three ways to send an SMS on the Verizon network: entering a phone number manually, picking a contact from your phonebook, or typing in a name. If you type L-E-I-L-A, you send a message to novelist Leila Sales. Since 2007, she’s been saving and blogging the messages that have been sent to her (on average, five times a day) that should have gone to other Leilas. What’s of interest to her, as the site’s subtitle (“Small glimpses into strangers’ lives, courtesy of a technological glitch”) suggests, is not just the content, but the circumstances of its production and appearance.

Horse_ebooks16. @Horse_ebooks is a Twitter account associated with horse-ebooks.com, which is itself part of e-library.net, a clearinghouse for quickie ebook titles. Beginning in early 2011, the Twitter feed began to publish excerpts from horse books, mixed with other fragments of text. The combination is oddly compelling, in part because it’s difficult to determine if the tweets are automated or the selections of a human intelligence. The Horse_ebooks Twitter feed caught the imagination of the Internet public late in 2011, and remains a media darling as of this writing.

Richard Dreyfuss reading the Apple iTunes End User License Agreement17. In 2011, CNET Reporters’ Roundtable asked actor Richard Dreyfuss to do a reading of the iTunes EULA as part of an inquiry into why the prose of such licenses is so convoluted. This differs from earlier performances, such as Christopher Walken’s dramatic reading of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” because what’s foregrounded in Dreyfuss’s case is not poetic language, however banal without the accompanying music and performance, but the complex legal language of clickwrap agreements.

Casting the term as an adverb rather than a noun (the “found poem”) is deliberate, because the findable is about potential rather than accomplishment. What that potential represents is a context for discussing the kind of amusing crap that surfaces in our inboxes all the time – altered and unaltered images, funny infographics, viral videos, even spam – in terms of the conditions of its circulability, iterability and form. The “findable” is a genre, an empty container, a potential context serving many of the social purposes we used to attribute to poetry.

The differences that make findables something other than poems are not material; they have to do with questions of circulation. Findables aren’t conceived of as poems; they aren’t produced by people who identify as poets; they circulate promiscuously, sometimes under anonymous conditions; and they aren’t encountered by interpretive communities that identify them as literary.

Unlike their modernist literary cousin the “found poem,” though, findables don’t recover anything for poetry. In this respect, they’re also very different than the “Sought Poems” that K. Silem Mohammad describes. He outlines Flarf’s database-driven method of poetic production which consists of entering multiple keywords into Google and then “whittling and shuffling” the results18. Mohammad’s term for the output of this method is the “Sought poem”, an apt term for “a process of aggressively looking for something, with the intent of enlisting it in some capacity”19. This “enlisting” signals clearly that Flarf is still a literary activity. Flarf enlists superabundant content and then squeezes it into recognizable literary forms: poems that are lineated, arranged in stanzas, and so on. “Maybe,” Mohammad writes, “sought poetry is a metrics after all”: a rigorous control of form that enables “accidents of theme”20.

All of the findables I’ve just mentioned have analogs in conceptual writing. Long-form blogging of texts like the Pepys’ diary project became a common trope in conceptual writing circles about three years ago; see, for example, Simon Morris and Nick Thurston’s 2009 piece Getting Inside Jack Kerouac’s Head21, in which they first blogged, then republished, all of On the Road, or Vanessa Place’s Twitter feed of fragments from Gone with the Wind22. Both the tricksterism and the holography of Arthur Dent’s 419-baiting find an analog in the practice of Kenneth Goldsmith, who has at various times positioned himself as both scammer and scammed. In an early article, “May We Graft Chicken Wings To Your Head in the Interest of Aviation,”23 he has written about the history of media pranking, and is currently working on a series of holograph manuscripts of historically significant manifestoes, such as The Communist Manifesto and the S.C.U.M. Manifesto. Like the Leila texts, Goldsmith has a series of letters that he has received since 1994 from people assuming – because of his role as WFMU DJ “Kenny G” – that he is the smooth-jazz musician Kenny G (b. Kenneth Gorelick)24. The Horse_ebooks Twitter feed is a sort of superior hybrid of Flarf and my two automated web projects with Bill Kennedy, The Apostrophe Engine25 and Status Update26, used to generate our books apostrophe27 and Update28.

It’s possible to “find” poetic effects in another text because of the inherently paragrammatic qualities of language. The most succinct definition of the paragram remains Julia Kristeva’s famous note from Revolution in Poetic Language: “A text is paragrammatic, writes Leon S. Roudiez, ‘in the sense that its organization of words (and their denotations), grammar, and syntax is challenged by the infinite possibilities provided by letters or phonemes combining to form networks of significations not accessible through conventional reading habits’”29. This effect has always existed outside of poetry, and has usually been considered as an amusement at best and an annoyance at worst. In one of his “Mathematical Games” columns from Scientific American, Martin Gardner relates the story of Adam Sedgwick, a Cambridge geologist, discovering a “buried poem” on page 44 of the first edition (1911) of William Whewell’s Elementary Treatise on Mechanics, and reciting it as an after-dinner speech:

            There is no force, however great,
Can stretch a cord, however fine,
Into a horizontal line,
Which is accurately straight.

Whewell, himself the author of two books of verse, was not impressed, and changed the text in the book’s second edition to eliminate the rhyme30.

Steve McCaffery expands on the notion of the paragram thoughout his critical writing, arguing that while findables and other sorts of paragrammatic phenomena can be intentionally embedded in a larger text, they are just as often fortuitious occurrences that arise inevitably and unavoidably because of the combinatory nature of writing31. McCaffery also specifies why a complete history of findables is technically impossible: “if form is, as Dennis Hollier proposes, ‘the temptation of discourse to arrest itself, to fix on itself, to finish itself off by producing and appropriating its own end’ (1989, 24), then the paragram stands as form’s heterological object, structured upon nonlogical difference and, as such, impossible to be claimed as an object of knowledge”32. Looking for findables, then, is a tactical negativity that affords a number of possible outcomes. McCaffery lists three: a sophisticated form of artistic production (as in the Surrealist objets trouvé); an opportunity for found texts to become something like a critical or theoretical practice (as in Readymades, Situationist détournement or the work of Bern Porter, found poet par excellence); or a reaffirmation of negativity that equates all meaning with the experience of loss of signification (as in a general economy, or the work of Vanessa Place)33. The first two outcomes are the now-familiar tactics of the historical avant-gardes; the third is that of conceptual writing at its most uncompromising.

But I think that there is also a fourth possibility implicit in McCaffery’s schema that describes the current cultural moment: a system of commercial production that is more than capable of churning out an endless stream of commodifiable objects saturated with effects that were once the privileged provenance of poetry. To the extent that poetry – however traditional or however conceptual – functions in such an environment, it is as a kind of inoculation: poetry on the subway, National Poetry Month etc. as something “good for us” that we encounter so that we can be excused from actually buying books of poetry or attending poetry readings. From the perspective of people ignoring that .12 percent of poetry books purchased out of the total number of books published in Canada per year, there is no effective difference between the poetry world’s various squabbling factions.

Conceptual writing didn’t kill poetry any more than postmodernism killed the author. It displaced what counts in the economy of small-press literature, perhaps, in the same way that postmodernism changed the function of the author. But for all its displacements in terms of what counts as a culturally significant text, conceptual writing leaves its own authors largely intact, and oddly romantically inclined about their own effect on posterity.

As I write this, my friends are all very busy writing manifestoes in response to Johanna Drucker’s “Beyond Conceptualisms: Poetics after Critique and the End of the Individual Voice.” The contentious line, for many of them, is “Conceptualism is probably over now, even in its newest iterations”34. I believe that Drucker’s thesis is essentially correct, and read “over” as shorthand for a whole series of institutionalizations, transformations, affiliations and legitimations that not only interpellates conceptual writing as one stylistic choice among the many that are available to aspiring young poets, but points to the fact that so far, conceptual writing has had nothing interesting or useful to say about the findables that very likely preceded it and have definitely kept pace with it every step of the way. There’s no point in claiming findables for poetry; that trick is now at least a hundred years old. Whether or not conceptual writing gets a second kick at the can will depend on how it comes to grips with its own uncanny double on the outside of the poetic economy. Until then, it’s still back in the building with all the other Elvis fans, oblivious to the limousine driving into the sunset.

References

Carey, James W. Communication as Culture : Essays on Media and Society. Rev. ed. New York ; London: Routledge, 2009. Print.

Dent, Arthur. “Harry Potter and the Well of Scammers”.  2006.  419 Eater. March 31 2012. <http://www.419eater.com/html/joyce_ozioma.htm>.

Dewdney, Christopher. Alter Sublime. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1980. Print.

Drucker, Johanna. “Beyond Conceptualisms: Poetics after Critique and the End of the Individual Voice”.  2012. Poetry Project Newsletter. April/May 2012. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2012/04/conceptual-writing-was-intriguing-and-provocative/>.

Eco, Umberto. A Theory of Semiotics. Advances in Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Foucault Live: Interviews, 1961-1984. Semiotext(E) Double Agents Series. Ed. Lotringer, Sylvère. New York: Semiotext(e), Columbia U., 1996. Print.

Fresh Air. “To Read or Not to Read: Fresh Air Considers the State of Poetry in Canada”.  Toronto, 2011. Fresh Air.  April 11, 2011 (first aired April 9, 2011):  CBC Books. 2011. <http://www.cbc.ca/books/2011/04/to-read-or-not-to-read-fresh-air-considers-the-state-of-poetry-in-canada.html>.

Gardner, Martin. “Mathematical Games: Puns, Palindromes and Other Word Games That Partake of the Mathematical Spirit.” Scientific American 211.3 (1964): 218-24. Print.

Goldsmith, Kenneth. “The Kenny G Letters”.  Electronic Poetry Center, 1999.  SUNY Buffalo. February 14 2012. <http://epc.buffalo.edu/ezines/deluxe/three/kennyg.html>.

—. “May We Graft Chicken Wings to Your Head in the Interest of Aviation”.  New York, 1995.  LCD. February 14 2012. <http://www.coyleandsharpe.com/7.html>.

—. “Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing.” Open Letter Twelfth series.7 (Fall 2005): 98-101. Print.

—. “Uncreativity as a Creative Practice”.  Buffalo, 2000.  Electronic Poetry Center (SUNY Buffalo). 11 November 2009 2009. <http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/goldsmith/uncreativity.html>.

Guillory, John. “The Memo and Modernity.” Critical inquiry 31 (2004): 108-32. Print.

Gyford, Phil. The Diary of Samuel Pepys. London2003. Vol. 2012. Print.

Kennedy, Bill, and Darren Wershler. “The Apostrophe Engine”.  Toronto, 2001. February 14 2012. <http://apostropheengine.ca>.

—. “Status Update”.  Toronto, 2010. February 14 2012. <http://statusupdate.ca/>.

—. Update. Ed. Fiorentino, Jon Paul. Montreal: Snare, 2010. Print.
Kennedy, Bill, and Darren Wershler-Henry. Apostrophe. Ed. Holmes, Michael. 2006.

Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. 1974. Trans. Waller, Margaret. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984. Print.

McCaffery, Steve. North of Intention: Critical Writings 1973-1986. 1st ed. New York/Toronto: Roof Books/Nightwood Editions, 1986. Print.

—. Prior to Meaning: The Protosemantic and Poetics. Avant-Garde & Modernism Studies. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2001. Print.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Signet Books. 2nd ed. New York, Scarborough, Ont.: New American Library, 1964. Print.

Mohammad, K. Silem. “Sought Poems.” 88: A Journal of Contemporary American Poetry 3 (2003). Print.

Morris, Simon, and Nick Thurston. Getting inside Jack Kerouac’s Head. Dringhouses, York: Information As Material, 2009. Print.

Needleman, Rafe. “Richard Dreyfuss Reads the Itunes Eula”.  CNET Reporters’ Roundtable Podcast, June 8, 2011. MP3.  Cnet.com. March 31 2012.

Place, Vanessa. “Gone with the Wind Twitter Feed”.  Los Angeles. 14 February 2012. <https://twitter.com/#!/VanessaPlace>.

Pound, Ezra. “Paris Letter: December 1921.” Dial LXXII.1 (1922): 73-78. Print.

Sales, Leila. “The Leila Texts”.  Brooklyn, 2007.  Blogger.com. March 31, 2012 2012. <http://theleilatexts.blogspot.ca/>.


  1. Fresh Air, “To Read or Not to Read: Fresh Air Considers the State of Poetry in Canada,” April 11, 2011 (first aired April 9, 2011), 2011, CBC Books, Available: http://www.cbc.ca/books/2011/04/to-read-or-not-to-read-fresh-air-considers-the-state-of-poetry-in-canada.html2011. 

  2. Kenneth Goldsmith, “Uncreativity as a Creative Practice,” 2000, Electronic Poetry Center (SUNY Buffalo), Available: http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/goldsmith/uncreativity.html, 11 November 2009 2009. 

  3. Kenneth Goldsmith, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing,” Open Letter Twelfth series.7 (Fall 2005): 98 ff. 

  4. John Guillory, “The Memo and Modernity,” Critical inquiry 31 (2004): 111.
    [5] Guillory, “The Memo and Modernity,” 113. 

  5. Guillory, “The Memo and Modernity,” 113. 

  6. Guillory, “The Memo and Modernity,” 114. 

  7. Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics, Advances in Semiotics. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976) 7. 

  8. Ezra Pound, “Paris Letter: December 1921,” Dial LXXII.1 (1922): 73. 

  9. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Signet Books, 2nd ed. (New York, Scarborough, Ont.: New American Library, 1964) xi. 

  10. Christopher Dewdney, Alter Sublime (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1980) 77. 

  11. James W. Carey, Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society, Rev. ed. (New York ; London: Routledge, 2009) 27. 

  12. Michel Foucault, Foucault Live: Interviews, 1961-1984, Semiotext(E) Double Agents Series, ed. Sylvère Lotringer (New York: Semiotext(e), Columbia U., 1996) 46. 

  13. Phil Gyford, The Diary of Samuel Pepys (London: 2003), vol. 2012. 

  14. Arthur Dent, “Harry Potter and the Well of Scammers,” 2006, 419 Eater, Available: http://www.419eater.com/html/joyce_ozioma.htm, March 31 2012. 

  15. Leila Sales, “The Leila Texts,” 2007, Blogger.com, Available: http://theleilatexts.blogspot.ca/, March 31, 2012 2012. 

  16. https://twitter.com/#!/horse_ebooks 

  17. Rafe Needleman, “Richard Dreyfuss Reads the iTunes EULA,” June 8, 2011, MP3, Cnet.com, March 31 2012. 

  18. K. Silem Mohammad, “Sought Poems,” 88: A Journal of Contemporary American Poetry 3 (2003): Non-paginated Word document. 

  19. Mohammad, “Sought Poems.” 

  20. Mohammad, “Sought Poems.” 

  21. Simon Morris and Nick Thurston, Getting inside Jack Kerouac’s Head (Dringhouses, York: Information As Material, 2009). 

  22. Vanessa Place, Gone with the Wind Twitter Feed, Available: https://twitter.com/#!/VanessaPlace, 14 February 2012. 

  23. Kenneth Goldsmith, “May We Graft Chicken Wings to Your Head in the Interest of Aviation,” 1995, LCD, Available: http://www.coyleandsharpe.com/7.html, February 14 2012. 

  24. Kenneth Goldsmith, “The Kenny G Letters,” 1999, SUNY Buffalo, Available: http://epc.buffalo.edu/ezines/deluxe/three/kennyg.html, February 14 2012. 

  25. Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler, The Apostrophe Engine, 2001, Available: http://apostropheengine.ca, February 14 2012. 

  26. Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler, Status Update, 2010, Available: http://statusupdate.ca/, February 14 2012. 

  27. Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler-Henry, Apostrophe, ed. Michael Holmes (Toronto: ECW Press, 2006). 

  28. Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler, Update, ed. Jon Paul Fiorentino (Montreal: Snare, 2010). 

  29. Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984) 256. 

  30. Martin Gardner, “Mathematical Games: Puns, Palindromes and Other Word Games That Partake of the Mathematical Spirit,” Scientific American 211.3 (1964): 220. 

  31. Steve McCaffery, North of Intention: Critical Writings 1973-1986, 1st ed. (New York/Toronto: Roof Books/Nightwood Editions, 1986) 208-09. 

  32. Steve McCaffery, Prior to Meaning: The Protosemantic and Poetics, Avant-Garde & Modernism Studies (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2001) 13. 

  33. McCaffery, Prior to Meaning, 14. 

  34. Johanna Drucker, “Beyond Conceptualisms: Poetics after Critique and the End of the Individual Voice,” 2012, Available: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2012/04/conceptual-writing-was-intriguing-and-provocative/, April/May 2012. 

antenna

Artists as RADAR: McLuhan Reading Poetry

 “Artists,” wrote Ezra Pound, “are the antennae of the race.”{{1}} In the introduction to the 2nd edition of Understanding Media, so does Marshall McLuhan, who updates and expands the metaphor:

Art as radar acts as an ‘early alarm system,’ as it were, enabling us to discover social and psychic targets in lots of time to prepare to cope with them. This concept of the arts as prophetic contrasts with the popular idea of them as mere self-expression. If an art is an ‘early warning system,’ to use the phrase from World War II, when radar was new, art has the utmost relevance not only to media study but to the development of media controls.

When radar was new it was found necessary to eliminate the balloon system for city protection that had proceeded radar. The balloons got in the way of the electric feedback of the new radar information.{{2}}

As Friedrich Kittler, one of McLuhan’s most successful contemporary intellectual heirs, puts it, “Information technology is always already strategy or war” {{3}}. War elicits new forms of communications, retrofits old ones for its own purposes, and violently blasts existing media landscapes into drastic new forms, producing unexpected juxtapositions.

World War II, in fact, was the force that put Marshall McLuhan in contact with two of the leaders of the early 20th century avant-gardes: Pound and Wyndham Lewis. McLuhan met Lewis while teaching in St. Louis in 1943, and maintained a close working friendship over the next two years, while both were living in Windsor, Ontario. McLuhan and Hugh Kenner traveled to St Elizabeths Hospital in Washington D.C. in 1948 to meet Pound, where he was incarcerated for putting his “poet-as-antenna” aphorism into practice, producing radio broadcasts in support of Mussolini’s fascist government during WWII. McLuhan had read Pound with enthusiasm while a student, long before the war, and corresponded with him for several years after. By the time McLuhan joined the faculty at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto in 1946, he was in all likelihood the only expert on modernist poetry at the time in all of Ontario {{4}}. McLuhan biographer Philip Marchand notes that in later years, McLuhan always credited the poets of the modernist avant-gardes as “the real inspiration for his media studies” {{5}}.

Contemporary journalism and popular culture, when it thinks about McLuhan at all, tends to see him from the wrong end of the telescope, positioning him as a technologist and a futurist rather than as someone deeply invested in language and literary tradition. In the masthead of its first issue in March 1993, Wired magazine declared McLuhan its “patron saint,” and for many commentators, this marked McLuhan’s return to a position of public legitimacy after the indifference that his works faced for much of the 70s and 80s. The first actual article on McLuhan in Wired (4.01, Jan 1996), Gary Wolf’s “The Wisdom of Saint Marshall, the Holy Fool,” describes him as scholar, teacher, social, political, and economic analyst … but there’s no mention of poets or poetry anywhere.

It’s an odd blind spot, because McLuhan’s writing, is obsessed with, saturated with, avant-garde poetry and poetics, both as form and subject matter. Take the only known letter from McLuhan to Harold Innis (1951) as an example. Though he is arguably even more important to the formation and theory of Communication Studies than McLuhan, who described his Gutenberg Galaxy as a “footnote” to Innis’s work {{6}}, Innis was rarely read outside of Canadian Communications circles until the resurgence of interest in McLuhan’s work in the 90s. This letter is important because it’s not only one of the first clear statements of McLuhan’s interest in the importance of “technological form” over “informative purpose” (that is, “content”){{7}}, but also of his notion of “organizing an entire school of studies” around the subject of communication {{8}}. So what does he write about, when attempting to attract the attention of Innis, a political economist and historian by training? Avant-garde poetry and poetics.

What McLuhan sees in avant-garde technique is a vehicle for discussing the “function and effect of communication on society,” which he thought was the only thing that would keep English departments from going the way of the study of Latin and Greek {{9}}. He seizes on Stéphane Mallarmé’s “discontinuous juxtaposition of unrelated items” as the signature method of the first avant-garde, Symbolism. Right or wrong, throughout his career, McLuhan would use the word “Symbolism” as shorthand for anything collaged, because of its ostensible etymology as sym-ballein, or “thrown together.” In terms of its usefulness for cultural analysis, McLuhan reads Symbolist technique as a diagram of the way that stories on the front page of a newspaper butt up against each other {{10}}. Here is the artist at work as cultural antenna: pointing directly to a formal quality of media that was previously so close to us, so familiar, that it was entirely invisible; this is a phenomenon that Innis famously refers to in his own work as “bias”. In his introduction to the 1st edition of Innis’s The Bias of Communication, McLuhan writes of using avant-garde poetics “to organize the data of the historian and the social scientist” {{11}}, a direct argument for the value of reading the records and statistics of technology through cultural forms.

McLuhan’s writing style is, infamously, as poetic as his reading strategies. This is especially true in his work with graphic designers, like Counterblast, which draws both its name and style from Wyndam Lewis’s Blast, but it also applies to his conventionally typeset prose. In response to one critic, McLuhan wrote, “My canvasses are surrealist, and to call them theories is to miss my satirical intent altogether. As you will find in my literary essays, I can write the ordinary kind of prose any time I choose to do so” {{12}}. McLuhan’s “mosaic” prose style, based on the juxtaposition of multiple fragments to create startling and memorable effects, culminates in the creation of his own literary form: the “probe”. The probe is a sort of weapons-grade aphorism that uses punning, metonymy and other literary tropes to staple two or more disparate ideas together. Probes alter perception by associating ideas rather than serving as building blocks in a logical argument. Their purpose is to raise questions more than provides answers; probes are heuristics, machine made of words whose job is to help us to figure out how we know what we know.

Part of the problem is the contemporary attitude about poetry other than music lyrics, or, what I like to call the penicillin theory of poetry. Writing poetry is now a minoritarian art form, roughly equivalent in scale, economics and impact to making doilies for the church rummage sale (and I say this, candidly, as a poet, a publisher and a scholar of poetry). To save ourself from admitting the truth of this situation, we use poetry as a kind of cultural inoculation, putting it in the ad space on buses and subway trains and congratulate ourselves about how enlightened we are. All that reading poetry on the subway does, though, is absolve you from having to actually buy and read a book of poetry or, God forbid, go to a poetry reading.

This situation has been a little more than a century in the making, and has everything to do with changes in the kind of media that we use. To cite Friedrich Kittler again, whose thinking on the subject is heavily indebted to both McLuhan and Innis, before the second half of the nineteenth century, poetry had a monopoly on the delivery of vivid cultural experiences. That changed in the mid 19th century, when virtually every form of electromechanical media reached a mass audience within a few decades. For Kittler, from the era of silent cinema onward, “Film establishes immediate connections between technology and the body […] which make imaginary connections unnecessary” {{13}}. Moreover, “Film exhibits its figures in such detail that ‘the realistic’ is ‘raised into the realm of the fantastic,’ which sucks up every theme of imaginative literature” {{14}}. People continue to write lyric poetry, of course, in the same way that people used to keep cheering long after Elvis had left the building. Or sighting him after he’d died. But with poetry’s powers diminished, from Kittler’s perspective, “The new sciences and technologies made it necessary [for poets] to renounce the imagination” {{15}}. After the turn of the century, all poetry could do that was new was to comment on is its own material qualitities … which, beginning with Mallarmé and Christian Morgenstern, was the source of the very avant-gardes that so fascinated McLuhan. The reason that early avant-garde technique is a useful tool for thinking about technological form, then, is that it is technological form, and that it talks about that form continuously.

Another, related problem is our tendency to divide how we think about the world, into what the sciences are allowed to say with credibility, and what poetry (in its diminished capacity) and the other arts are allowed to say with credibility. Bruno Latour has written about this problem extensively, most directly in We Have Never Been Modern. His major point is that such “Great Divides” between the territories of disciplines means that all sorts of hybrid objects fall through the cracks, and the processes that create those hybrids remains “invisible, unthinkable, unrepresentable” {{16}}. In contemporary society, such hybrid objects are precisely the ones that are the most interesting and the most controversial. As McLuhan observed, “The problem with a cheap, specialized education is you never stop paying for it” {{17}}. In an era of skills-based, “practical” education, we desperately need interdisciplinary thinkers, people to think about what’s NOT been taken into account.

What would it mean to take McLuhan’s poetics seriously, and to take contemporary experimental poetry seriously? What I want to argue, shamelessly and polemically, is that it’s time take another look at the poetic qualities of the excluded languages of the everyday: the language of science, the language of the Internet, the language of graffiti. Not “poetry” in a generic poetry-on-the-subway and greeting card sort of way, but a specific kind of writing. Annoying, provocative writing that many people might not consider to be poetry at all, but what Latour would call hybrid texts: writing that is too odd or too difficult to classify using any other category than … poetry.

Published in Matrix.

Featured image by brewbooks.

[[1]]Pound, Ezra. ABC of Reading. New York: New Directions, 1934. 73.[[1]]
[[2]]McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964. xi.[[2]]
[[3]]Kittler, Friedrich A. Discourse Networks 1800/1900. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990. 371.[[3]]
[[4]]Marchand, Philip. Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger: A Biography. 1st MIT Press ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998[[4]]
[[5]]Ibid., 41.[[5]]
[[6]]”Introduction to The Bias of Communication. vol. 8. McLuhan, Marshall. Marshall McLuhan Unbound. 21 vols. Corte Madera, CA: Ginko Press, 2005. 8.[[6]]
[[7]]Molinaro, Matie, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye, eds. Letters of Marshall McLuhan. Toronto: Oxford University Press Canada, 1987. 221.[[7]]
[[8]]Ibid., 220.[[8]]
[[9]]Ibid., 222.[[9]]
[[10]]Ibid., 221.[[10]]
[[11]]McLuhan, “Introduction,” 5.[[11]]
[[12]]qtd. in Theall, Donald F. The Virtual Marshall McLuhan. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001. 67.[[12]]
[[13]]Kittler, 244.[[13]]
[[14]]Ibid., 246.[[14]]
[[15]]Ibid., 250.[[15]]
[[16]]Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993. 34[[16]]
[[17]]McLuhan, Marshall, and David Carson. The Book of Probes. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press, 2003. 531.[[17]]

Live Without Books

The Ethically Incomplete Intellectual

In between all of the baby-feeding and the moving and the new-job-starting, I made a little art. “The Ethically Incomplete Intellectual” is a broadside that was commissioned by the 2010 Scream Literary Festival (for their “Agents Provocateurs” theme) and designed by Andrew Faulkner and Leigh Nash of The Emergency Response Unit. The image is from a collaboration between RM Vaughan and Jared Mitchell. The text is the weaponized version of a paper that I wrote on the subject of that collaboration … a paper which will shortly be in print in Open Letter.

UPDATE: Print copies of this broadside are once again available from TERU’s Etsy Shop, but they won’t last forever. Which is sort of the point of making literary ephemera, anyway. I’ve attached a PDF of the highest quality version in my possession to this post (link below), which will look good on your screen, but doesn’t hold a candle to the genuine item.

The Ethically Incomplete Broadside

porter_large

Finding Bern Porter

Sometimes the best writers of poetry aren’t poets at all. At such times, the job of the poet isn’t to write poems, but to find them.

The major practitioner of found poetry as poetry was Bern Porter. As Porter’s biographer James Schevill notes, the use of found material is a major component of 20th century art {{1}}, but few writers have devoted the bulk of their career to it, and no one developed the practice to the extent that Porter did. Formally trained as a physicist and engineer, Porter worked both on the development of the cathode ray television tube for the Acheson Colloids Corporation {{2}} and on the electromagnetic separation of uranium for the Manhattan Project in the Physics Department at Princeton {{3}}. On August 8, 1945, the day after the USA dropped an atomic bomb — the fruits of Porter’s labour — on the city of Hiroshima, Porter announced his resignation and never returned to work {{4}}. He subsequently spent much of the rest of his long life developing an expressly pacifist, intermedial, interdisciplinary fusion of scientific and artistic sensibilities that he referred to as “Sciart” {{5}}. The chief results of Sciart were the objects and texts that Porter referred to as “Founds”.

Over the course of Porter’s life, he published four volumes of Founds out of a projected series of seven: Found Poems (Something Else Press, 1972), which Porter wished to call Everybody’s Don’t Book (Dog Ear Press, 1984); and Sweet End (Dog Ear Press, 1989). Founds often include fragments of text, but “many are wordless, stemming from Porter’s insights into technology’s visual appeal” {{6}}. But founds were not just limited to words and images; they could also be objects {{7}}, sounds {{8}}, or even subject positions: “In the end,” writes Schevill, “Porter himself becomes a Found” {{9}}.

Like the objets trouvé of Dada, Surrealism and Merz, Porter’s Founds could be either physical objects or signs on paper. They were sometimes recontextualized without alteration, and sometimes modified in small but significant ways, such as cutting of portions of them away, or, conversely, combining them with other found elements to create a larger synthesis. Yet there are also some important differences between objets trouvé and Founds. Despite the apparent similarities of the objects themselves, they appear within significantly different discursive formations that are separated from each other by two factors: the horrific physical damage and considerable epistemological impact of atomic weaponry, and the rising importance of visuality as an effect of global mass media {{10}}.

Following World War II, Porter spent a considerable amount of time in Japan, especially in Hiroshima, attempting to come to grips with the consequences of his wartime employment. It was during this period that Porter began to make connections between his artistic production and a growing interest in civic planning. In the context of post-nuclear and the building blocks for the construction of a new one. Schevill cites Wastemaker: 1926-1961 (Abyss Publications, 1972) as the most important of Porter’s early collections of Founds. Porter’s comment that he chose the title “to imply not only the careless person who makes waste, but one who “remakes waste, who finds waste that is both significant and beautiful” demonstrates his own ambivalence about this process {{11}}.

To underline the shift in milieu that makes Founds different from objets trouvé, Schevill begins his discussion of Porter’s Founds not with Duchamp, Picasso and Schwitters, but with Tadeusz Kantor’s The Ruins of Odysseus. Kantor staged the play in a bombed-out building in Krakow during the Nazi occupation of Poland in the 1940s. The set decorations consisted entirely of “grotesque fragments of war” — found objects scavenged from the ruins of the city by the play’s cast. For Kantor, who at that point had no knowledge of Duchamp’s Readymades, “When the room was filled with objects, the text of the play lost its importance. What was important was constructing the environment, and the action of finding, choosing, and bringing those objects in” {{12}}. Making sense of Founds, then, will require not a hermeneutics of the object or text, but an analysis of the circumstances of their production, circulation, exchange, and the transfigurations that occur as they change contexts, with particular attention to the social space around them.

from objets trouvé: their imbrication in global media networks. Because of his prewar work on the development of the cathode ray tube and his postwar work at the University of California’s Engineering Materials Laboratory, Porter was acutely aware of the material conditions that brought about this shift in context. It should come as no surprise, then, that many of Porter’s founds expressly engage with mass media forms, especially photography, telephony and the post. For example, like Moholoy-Nagy and Man Ray before him, Porter produced a number of photograms (images created by placing objects directly on photographic paper and them exposing them to light — a kind of cameraless photography). Here again, Schevill argues for a contextual difference:

The process of “snapping a picture,” capturing a certain kind of external light, becomes a battle with an internal light that has burst out of confinement to exert primal force. If Man Ray’s and Moholy Nagy’s [sic] photograms achieved a distinctively decorative quality, Porter’s struggled to show — like Jackson Pollock’s explosive drip paintings that soon followed — the power of a new energy to distort, threaten, and thrill. {{13}}

Similarly, Porter’s The Manhattan Telephone Book 1972 “reveals the lonely anonymity and increasing defensiveness of a system that advertises open, friendly communication” {{14}}. It is in the ambivalence and tension that results from Finding an object and recontextualizing it that a productive critique emerge.

For the first decade of the 21st century, the most visible practitioners of found art have been Davy Rothbart and Jason Bitner, editors of (what else?) FOUND magazine, its accompanying trade publications and its website. The “One snowy winter night in Chicago a few years back, Davy went out to his car and found a note on his windshield — a note meant for someone else, a guy named Mario,” a noted they “loved” so much that they kept it to show to friends. When they began sharing their find, Rothbart and Bitner discovered that their friends had similar objects to show them in return. It was at that point that they “decided to start a magazine called FOUND, a showcase for all the strange, hilarious and heartbreaking things people’ve picked up.” After spending a year collecting materials, “then with scissors and tape we slapped together the first issue of FOUND in June of 2001.” The magazine was, at first, an annual production; the first of several trade books collecting items from the magazine appeared in 2004. “We certainly didn’t invent the idea of found stuff being cool” (Rothbart and Bitner), states the site, but beyond that vague admission, there’s no indication that the basic gesture of their enterprise has been an important technique of cultural production for the last century.

Substituting for the lack of history — or any vestige of critique — in this narrative is a sort of sentimental nostalgia that Fredric Jameson characterizes as one of the hallmarks of the cultural logic of late capitalism in Postmodernism. Nostalgia, argues Jameson, is not about “representing” historical content (including “our own present and immediate past”), but about conveying a sense of “pastness” through the stylistic connotation of physical qualities {{15}}. The love for all the strange, hilarious and heartbreaking things that FOUND has found, then, is a perfect match for their digital layouts of torn scraps of keys secured with adhesive tape that fill its web pages and trade paperback books.

This last point is important because, though FOUND mimicks the production style of the pre-desktop-publishing zines of the 1980s, it is another sort of entity entirely. From its second issue onward, FOUND already imagined itself as a commodity, complete with barcode, seven pages of carefully ironized classified ads, including a FOUND t-shirt and a CD that presage the rang of customizable goodies on the website’s “Merch” page, and, tellingly, a subscription form that is the only pristine, digitally typeset page in the issue. When it comes to selling itself, FOUND has always been all about clarity. The cover of FOUND: The Best Lost, Tossed, and Forgotten Items from Around the World, the first paperback collection of the magazine (published in 2004), removes all doubt, announcing itself as “The National Bestseller.”

As Jameson contends, the commodity is the “other face” of postmodern nostalgia, and it exerts a powerful bidirectional influence. As simulacra like FOUND emerge, nostalgia reaches back and transforms early editions of the works of the Dadaists, Surrealists, Porter and even the first few issues of FOUND from historical documents into coveted collectors’ editions that fetch magnitudes more than their original cover prices on eBay and ABEBooks. As “a bit of yuppie furnishing,” they are every bit as contemporary as their networked digital duplicates. The latter also continue to transform, foregrounding themselves “as language and as communication (rather than as artistic production in any older sense)”, connecting “the omnipresence of the media as such” to the entire assemblage {{16}}. It should come as no surprise, then, that editor Davy Rothbart has parlayed his reputation from FOUND into a career not as an artist, but as a radio and print journalist, regularly contributing to public radio’s This American Life (again, selections of which can be purchased as a double CD from the magazine’s website) and a range of leading periodicals, including The Believer, High Times, The New Yorker and The New York Times, among others.

… but the chain of dialectical transformations doesn’t stop there. Borrowing from the vocabulary of communication and cultural theorist Raymond Williams, Jameson notes that the historical elements caught up in and transformed by a postmodern digital frame can “slowly take on the positive and active values of conscious resistance, as choices and symbolic acts that now repudiate the dominant poster-and-decorative culture and thereby assert themselves as something emergent rather than something residual” {{17}}. Out of the digital textual echoes of a revolutionary analog avant-garde past, it may be possible to imagine a utopian future. Jameson is quick to point out that there are no guarantees that any such utopia will ever materialize out of the incessant formation and destruction of assemblages of various signs, discourses, subjects and objects caught in the cultural ferment, but a provocative question arises. What happens when we start discussing possibilities instead of the already accomplished? What happens if we start to consider the problem from the point of view of potential? What, in other words, if we think about the Findable instead of the Found?

(to be continued elsewhere …)

Originally published as “Alienated 15: Finding Bern Porter.” Matrix 87 (fall 2010): 54-55.

[[1]]Schevill, James Erwin. Where to Go, What to Do, When You Are Bern Porter: A Personal Biography. Gardiner, Me.: Tilbury House, 1992. 5.[[1]]
[[2]]Ibid., 46.[[2]]
[[3]]Ibid., 59-61.[[3]]
[[4]]Ibid., 73.[[4]]
[[5]]Ibid., 6.[[5]]
[[6]]Ibid., 304.[[6]]
[[7]]Ibid., 246.[[7]]
[[8]]Ibid., 261.[[8]]
[[9]]Ibid., 271.[[9]]
[[10]]Ibid., 297.[[10]]
[[11]]Ibid.[[11]]
[[12]]Ibid., 296.[[12]]
[[13]]Ibid., 94-95.[[13]]
[[14]]Ibid., 302.[[14]]
[[15]]Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Post-Contemporary Interventions. Eds. Fish, Stanley and Fredric Jameson. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. 19.[[15]]
[[16]]Ibid., 170-71.[[16]]
[[17]]Ibid., 171.[[17]]

Dynamic Typography

Say What Again: Avant-Garde As Software (video)

Gertrude Stein once observed that the first time someone makes something, it’s ugly and no one likes it. The second time someone makes the same thing, it’s pretty and everyone can like it. I’ve often taken Stein’s aphorism as a commentary about how the forms of the 20th-century avant-gardes, which were once so far outside of the mainstream of culture, have become smoothly functioning components of the vast digital machines that we use to sell things to each other.

In 2007, Jarratt Moody, then a student at the Savannah College of Art & Design, made “Say What Again” for a class on time based-typography taught by Professor Duff Yong. For a long time, it circulated around various video sites under the title “intonation.mov,” which I actually like better than “Say What Again,” because it sums up the nature of the entire clip without referring explicitly to its content.

Whatever you call it, this clip is the epitome of the phenomena that Lev Manovich describes in his essay “Avant-Garde As Software” namely, that software “codifies and naturalizes” the techniques of early twentieth-century innovators in Italian and Russian Futurism, Merz, Dada and the other avant-gardes.

“Say What Again'”s evocation of mayhem through letters in motion positions it as a direct descendant of Filippo Tomasso Marinetti‘s “parole in liberta” (words in freedom). What Marinetti was after was a form of literature that accurately conveyed the enthusiasm of the day for emerging forms of electrical and mechanical technology. In his 1912, “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature,” Marinetti writes: “One must destroy syntax and scatter one’s nouns at random” and “one should deliberately confound the object with the image that it evokes” accomplishing this goal by varying tones to avoid a “tedious unity” – using symbols instead of letters, employing a multitude of typefaces and sizes, non-rectilinear layout and so on.

In “Geometric and Mechanical Splendor and the numerical Sensibility,” he writes that, “The words-in-freedom, in this continuous effort to express with the greatest force and profundity, naturally transform themselves into self-illustrations, by means of free, expressive orthography and typography.” Nearly a hundred years before “Say What Again,” the sensibility that could have produced it was already in place.

The avant-gardes, of course, made films of their own, some of them typographic. Marcel Duchamp‘s “Anemic Cinema,” wildly innovative in a time of wild innovation, is an analog ancestor of dynamic typography. Given the technological limits of the day, most of the films of the avant-garde were quite short, so there’s a certain formal similarity between them and many of the clips on the Internet, which tend to be brief in order to minimize the limitations of streaming media. But the similarities go beyond duration to describe a particular kind of cultural moment.

Like the typography of Italian Futurism, “Say What Again” emphasizes the dynamism and violence of the culture that produced it through the placement and size of typographic elements. What’s more, the choice of particular typefaces also conveys meaning because of the previous uses of that face as well as its general shape and outline. Linotype Mistral, now inseparable from its appearance on the cover of NWA’s definitive gangster rap album Straight Outta Compton, connotes violence even without animation and accompanying blood spatter.

The slab serif face that the bulk of the video is set in is some version of Rudolph Wolf’s Memphis Bold or Extrabold. Created in 1930, “Memphis” refers to the city in Egypt, not the one in Tennessee – not because Egyptian writing systems look anything like these characters. When these characters were first developed for use in advertising at the beginning of the 19th century, Napoleon had just invaded Egypt, and a vogue for all things Egyptian spread across Europe. Calling a new typeface “Egyptian” at such a moment was, above all, good marketing.

Shih-Tien Yang, an authority on Egyptian faces, reports an anecdote about Napoleon using square-serif characters on large signs in combination with soldiers using telescopes to relay messages over long distances. Maybe.

In any event, a canny typographer named Robert Fanning, whose Fann Street Foundry specialized in the development of display faces, dubbed the big blocky letters “Egyptian” (they had previously been marked at “Antique” by Robert Figgins in 1815). What does all this have to do with Marsellus Wallace? Well, like the soundtrack says, both are big and both are black — in typography, “black” indicates a weight of type that has heavier and thicker strokes than a bold face. Those who wish to can ruminate on the pharaonic power Wallace wields throughout the film as well.

The SCAD typography students’ work, and this clip in particular, have spawned something of a dynamic typography craze. Look at Moody’s online portfolio or Google “dynamic typography” and you’ll start seeing some very successful commercial work almost immediately. There’s nothing inherently “revolutionary” about any form; as the dynamic typography of Italian Futurism was once absorbed into Fascism, it’s now become part of late capital’s visual vocabulary. The Ford “Crazy Smart” commercial for the F-150, with voiceover by Denis Leary, brings things full circle, returning dynamic typography to Futurism’s obsession with the automobile as the nexus of mechanical speed and power:

What’s fascinating to me is that the production, circulation and consumption of this clip and others like it takes place without any real reference to the century of typographic innovation that preceded it. I suppose that this is how the “new” is always created – by locating buried nuggets of potentiality that were betrayed by the actual events of the past, then polishing them up for all to see.

ouija_green

Status Update: “Literature for the Focus-Challenged”

Brian J. Davis wrote a great piece on status update in the Globe Books section online:

Status update: ‘Emily Brontë and her Playstation are overly friendly these days’

Facebook’s status update bar may be its most popular, enduring and influential feature (given the rise of Twitter’s real time fixes for the focus-challenged). For writers Darren Wershler and Bill Kennedy, status updates are also poetry. Or, rather, it becomes poetry after the RRS feeds of thousands of Facebook users have been harvested, shorn of the user names and attached to the names of dead poets or writers.

Wershler and Kennedy’s site statusupdate.ca performs that task with each visit, thereby creating an alternate universe where the famous and the obscure are alive, well and reveling in the banal. Thus, Samuel Johnson’s “socks keep falling down. Day after day, sock after sock. WHY?!?!” and “Ted Hughes is not a number! I am a free man!” Should you become fascinated by the fact that Kingsley Amis is “watching Serenity for the second time,” each dead writer’s name has its own RSS feed.

Some of you may note that Wershler and Kennedy are the same digital hooligans behind the poetry-generating website and book Apostrophe. statusupdate.ca does the idea of generated poetry one better by working on several levels simultaneously. First, and most important, it’s flat out funny and endlessly readable. Yet dig deeper and Wershler and Kennedy’s cheeky appropriation of Facebook’s purposefully “neutral” look also reminds us that Facebook is wholesale appropriating your information for all manner of data-harvesting, 140 characters at a time. By attaching the name of a writer to effectively anonymous lines, Statusupdate.ca lessens the bite of social networking economics.

If I can paraphrase an old radical slogan, “Users! One more step to be creators.”

Reposted with permission of Brian J. Davis. Featured image by ~!.