The schematization you see here is a speculation on the move from mechanism to reception that some electronic works have been fostering.
For some time now, I’ve been looking at the problem of what seems like anything like a distinguishing ontology for digital media art and literature. It seems grandiosely Romantic, and not a little naïve, to expect that from such a proclamation an objective set of markers might emerge such that our feeling for a contingent abstraction like the aesthetic and literary through the electronic can articulate distinctly from artistic impulses, processes, and products in supports that are not electronically mediated. This question extends the inquiry of aesthetic ontology that new expressive traditions ask themselves from time to time. As a case of art – that is, as aesthetic material – film’s own ontological ground was explored by a long procession of deep thinking compressed into less than seven decades, to include the writings of Sigfried Kracauer, Rudolf Arnheim, Stanley Cavell, Susan Sontag, Irving Singer, and rather less cogently, André Bazin and Slavoj Žižek. By invoking the name of ontology it ought to be clear, then, that I am referring to theory, not criticism; Kracauer is theory; Pauline Kael is criticism. Theory’s importance can be gauged by its influence on criticism; criticism’s importance lies in its effect on the public, to whom it addresses itself. Theory’s audience is different; it listens and speaks to the broadest swath of history. Criticism is more constrained to (and by) specific works and topical trends. Criticism cannot address areas that are central to philosophy but which theory can graze because of its connection to the structural foundations of the philosophical.
To further clarify terms here, critique is philosophy, as we know from the title of many a great treatise, while criticism is the hovering over a critique without the stance of a rigorous framework. One of these post-critical concerns is the question of ontology. Reminding ourselves in the twentieth century of a much older lineage of inquiry, we know – perhaps most recently from Heidegger – that ontology is not theory, it is an interrogation of essence. Framing the question of new media art and literature as an interrogation of this kind impels us to think in less ideologically constrained terms, and while ideas of an “essence” may be both naïve and elusive, the notion of process seems much closer to what we might be seeking. For if we imagine anything like a “discipline” of digital aesthetics and poetics at this historical moment, we are soon caught by the care with which electronically mediated creative expression has been chronicled both as process and as result. In digital art, the result, as a visual product, has been the materia prima, whereas in electronic literature, it is the process that has enjoyed greater exposition in monographs, blogs, journals, conferences, groups, and organizations like this one, so that its discursive space is filled as much by objects of expression as by writerly documents of its functionality.
It is the latter of these lines of effort that has enabled electronic literature to begin its successful path toward legitimization within the academy. Some of the humanities have become digital humanities by – perhaps temporarily – coming to the engineering paradigm and looking empirically at what comprises mechanisms for organizing memes of principally linguistic expression. In varying degrees, the aesthetization of these mechanisms has reflected the language of information systems and has not avoided showing the computational character of works of electronic literature. That books have emerged with titles like Katherine Hayles’s Writing Machines suggests that the discourse of industry has become embedded into that of poetics, aesthetics, and creative expression. This synthesis of tongues is largely responsible for our ability as critics to speak of textual fluidity and poetic process in an objective manner unlike ever before, and has bestowed a degree of stability to concepts and observations that a discipline needs. Freud followed the same pattern in the establishment of psychoanalysis, adopting metaphors like “pressure” and “sublimation” from the language of mechanical engineering for a new poetics of subconscious motivation.
I am of course not claiming that electronic art and literature harbor scientific ambitions, but rather that they now reflect a structural foundation that was lacking before major contributions to the idea of an aesthetic or poetic framework emerged, even while computational explanations of poiesis were there from the beginning. Responding to a need for objective discussion of texts and games, Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext in the late 1990’s exerted the same formalist impact on digital theory that Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism had on literary theory half a century earlier. Such was Frye’s objectivist call that not until almost ten years later, with Barthes’s idea of the writerly text, Derrida’s deconstruction and Iser’s work on reader-response does attention turn back again to complex phenomenologies of literary reception, away from the objectivist centrality of structural relations as functional constituents of a literary work.
I mention all of this so as to acknowledge this return from mechanism to subjectivism as the central experience of the text in this discussion. However, is isn’t human subjectivism that I want to discuss here, but rather that of the text or art machine, so the discussion is not about a full return, but rather a helical recurrence, a flyover, based neither on structural/medium nor reader-reception terms, but on those of a third path, unique to electronic art and literature, which come into view when we can feel a work escaping its own expressive plane in favor of a recursive observation of its own process, that is, in what we might imagine a mirror phenomenology. What is the demonstrable evidence of this subjectivity? It is the work’s aesthetic when it operates in tension with its own frame, its own Dasein, its being-there present to us as an automatic apparatus but one that is powered by a move toward the transcendence its own framed representation, exposing reflective qualities that resemble those of human engagement itself, which they prompt.
Interested in suggesting something beyond language, beyond representation, I am invoking the impression of a mirror so as speak of the being of a particular genus in some very familiar examples of electronic art and literature. So the process in question is not presentation but rather the escape from presentation, where trajectories or acts of perception, understood as a line traced from the object to the viewer, open out onto something different, where the work additionally behaves as its own viewer or reader. That is, the work assumes and performs the position of its Other, the vantage that we have historically occupied.
In order to effect this move, the work of art or literature must transcend the conventional conditions of its own medium as a structure of exhibition – that is, the conditions of mere presentation that I encapsulate with the first Exposition state in the opening diagram. To operate while suggesting a sense of itself, it would bring us to contemplate how it could be effecting something of its own contemplation. But why the transcendence of its own medium-hood? In order to operate to show, to illustrate, to demonstrate and to convey its own reading, a work must invert the structure provided by its medium so as to become a passive listener, reader, or beholder, and in so doing, is no longer operating through an original transmissive function, it is refuting that function by becoming the Other, the target of itself.
Perhaps we could say that such mirroring exists here in a limited form of Lacan’s view of the child’s first consciousness of individuation. There, the specular image, the image spéculaire, refers both to the simultaneous appearance of the body on a reflective surface and to the reflective act that the child experiences in seeing this second image, this “little other”. The mirroring act gradually extends from something limited to a physical medium to what is performed by humans interacting with the child, where the child can see his or her actions mirrored in those of the adult in gestural play. By implication, we can take Lacan’s argument to imply a further milestone in the development of social cognition as the exactitude of this interaction gives way to looser forms of dialogue and relationship, enabling the child to move from the expectation of strict reflection to one of unrestricted response as the primary means of engagement with the world. This amplification of the mirror process is what permits, without overwhelming confusion, the emergence of behavior outside of the expectation frame of the habitus, the environment as an always-there arrangement of phenomena. That is, with the appearance of the Other, the regularities of the observable field begin to perform differently but have not yet become understood as entirely self-aware or self-observing, the Other is still an other, and the notion of a projection whose source is what is doing the looking is not yet established, even though a rustle of deviance in the framework of the image is already evident. This is the realm of reality as the performative apparatus and in electronic textuality, it is that to which the poem For All Seasons conforms.
Transgression : Mueller’s For All Seasons,
A case of this transcendence is the secondary use of letters and words as nontextual objects, thus denying their literary function as tokens of language, as we see in Andreas Mueller’s familiar For All Seasons, where a quartet of prose pages establishes, by way of exposition, some memory embedded in the author’s experience during each season of the year. In each case, the linguistic system becomes subject to breakdown, the electronic medium showing its characteristic dynamism in allowing the text’s words to be participants in a transcendence from language and escape from the structure of textual reading, out into a figurative evocation of the recalled memory in question.
Figure 1. Andreas Mueller, For All Seasons. Software.
But is playful rupture in this text’s formal transcendence – no doubt a literary purist might balk at this flouting of print’s function – the sum of what we experience in For All Seasons? After all, it ends – as concept and process – as it began: as a case of transcendence, as an inverting departure from nullified image within a formal text to nullified text within a formal image, yet one without return or resolution using those same terms of form, image, or space. The escape from one form into the emergence of another is articulated through the mimetic suggestibility of natural forces at work – fish gliding through streams, the pull of gravity on falling snow, and the turbulent vortices of windstorms – and in their modification of our reading from a poetic to aesthetic one, and our relationship to the text from a lexical to a visual one. So although textuality recedes and imagery emerges, the transition is purely surface-level and retinal, if clever. The integrity of the narrative is reinforced by this translation of form because the electronic medium is equidistant from either form, text or image. Its intimacy is only with the modality of dynamic change and translation. But that very closeness to processes of alteration is what allows us to imagine it as a medium for reflection, for altering the position of the instrument itself from something invisible or transparent to something self-indicative. And in fact, for something closer to post-transcendental reflection on the work, we don’t have to resort to electronic media at all. We can imagine two examples, one each from the world of postmodern visual and the postmodern literary.
Transgression : Decollage and Humument
Reflection, always an act of turning-about, is especially evident in the arsenal of conceptual artists, who since Duchamp’s physical ninety-degree turn of non-art objects into new poses have taken materials out of their original contexts of expression and repositioned them so as to interrogate how they contribute to a kind of Cultural Invisible. Finding new basic material not in visual art’s readymade but in the already-made of advertising, Jacques Villeglé has for five decades spoken through disruption by assembling new visual conversations out of elements once employed as tokens in that space.
Figure 2. Jacques Villegle, Carrefour Sylvia Montfort – Picasso, 1973. décollage mounted on canvas.
Wrenching poster chunks from their wall sites throughout Paris and fighting – or perhaps colluding – with the adhesive that fixed them into place, Villeglé’s reconfigured shards are subsequently reorchestrated into new visual orders entirely distinct from those of their origins. That messages of material consumption now speak as elements of aesthetic production suggests that reflective media are always appropriative. And while the scenes of playful reuse set the conceptual tone of these works, the ghost of culture industry hovers persistently over them. It is a tension between the original, as intended perceptual and the new, as inverted conceptual, so that, echoing with hypnotic reference to the world from which they were torn; these shards are hostages of reference between that and that other no less constructed world of conceptual art. The same approach appears in the classic and all-too-well known re-text A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel, Tom Phillips’s usurpation of an original text, rendered essentially inconsequential if not by history, then by his conversion of it into a palimpsest, is an example of the secondary discourse of de-literature. The book’s pages, each defaced, or re-faced, in a unique way, foster a new reading through a selection of words that does not conform to the text’s conventional order.
Figure 3. Tom Phillips, A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel, Page 210, Tetrad Press Edition, 1970[-75]
The transcendence in evidence in Villeglé and Phillips is marked by an indisputable escape from the work’s original structure, where dissimulation inverts into revelation, not only of the second reading enforced by the new field of legibility created on each page, but more widely as the system of denial of the base text in which one identity yields to a new set of relations comprising both another text and another textual practice. This comes nearer to the mirror phenomenology of which I am speaking, but by nonetheless lacking evidence of its own self-observation, cannot be said to converge back onto the reflexive.
Reflexivity: Industrial Wall Panels and The Readers Project
In fact, the move is nontrivial. Works that appear to behave with mirror-like reflexivity cannot simply choose to do so, they must first establish themselves with the same attention to structure that static representative works possess. This foundation, which conveys a kind of propositional logic or order as a first step, is necessary as a basis for the subsequent refutation through which the work exercises any perceptible transcendence, what I call an impulse to freedom from the strictures not of its form but its function as a representative object, as named by the second stage here. This transcendence is often the final destination for much electronic art and literature; it finds its ontological fulfillment in the breakdown of the order, logic, or structure that was first exposed. But only when the work makes itself part of the solipsistic process of its own being can it express as icon and index simultaneously.
Figure 4. Andrew Neumann, Quartet, 2005. Panel, solid state video, LCD screen, and electronics.
Here we enter the world of Andrew Neumann, for example, in whose series of Industrial Wall Panels there hangs an unsettling symmetry of perception locked in the structured of work that allows us to see observe it observing itself and showing us both its presentation and representation in a single field of view. We might moreover observe that the process of self-observation is a transparent mark or index into its own logic and flow of operation. This is crucial to the notion of a machine-level subjectivity; we must see it having a feeling for itself as an organism.
Neumann’s panels capture the reflexive potential in sculpture. For a case of reflexivity in electronic literature that is equally centrifugal, there is the compound plurality of autonomous textual readings known as The Readers Project. Horizontally landscaped across two pages with ample margins, this work appears at first sight to operate as a conventional text for a conventional reading. Soon, however, notice is taken of the fact that the text, already in sublimated grey against its white backdrop, is itself is some flux, it isn’t moving but it isn’t stable. We might notice that between the plane of its presentation and that of our viewerly observation is an intermediate layer or process that affects this transparency. What is being altered is evidence of what is being performed; as the work exists principally not to present texts but to present readings, and offers us both.
Figure 5. John Cayley and Daniel Howe, The Readers Project (screen capture).
The chromatic shapes that traverse over the text are readers – machines which like human readers, possess specific behaviors aligned around the selection of words that conforms to an order of meaning. What The Readers Project documents is the distance between the method of reading and that of meaning-making that for us is one and the same. But the distinction is worth contemplating, for lexical scanning is dependent only on the regular presence of text, but to make meaning, a departure from that foundation is necessary, and this is the basis of all subjective reading. What The Readers Project makes strange is what is to us so familiar, and this strangeness, with its aesthetic logic is based on the fact that each of the readers here, shown in its own color, operates according to its own trajectory, the rules of which are unique to each.
Following the acrostic tradition explored by Jackson Mac Low, John Cage, and other explorers of structural transgression through axial reordering, the first reader, a Mesostic, selects words for reading when these possess a letter comprising a pre-intended word. The reader wants to predetermine what it reads by creating words from letters cutting across other words, as shown in the highlighted uppercase element. Seen separately, the reader is a selection system intended to reflect the creation of a word not in any of the words it reads, and therefore its notion of “reading” refers rather to concordance, a process of revealing word patterns constructed perpendicularly to actual texts.
Figure 6. The Readers Project, partial view of a mesostic reading.
The vertical word “READING” is found across lines of text and
is marked by capitalization within the horizontal text body.
This is not the only reading process; there are two others. There is a nearest-neighbor reader whose proclivity is to move toward the right and front, selecting words that fit any natural language trigram found to be frequently present in Google search retrievals performed in real time. This process, associative at a local level, is led by a Markov chain of terms capable of being “distracted” by lexical encounters with any term’s leading neighbor. The product of this reading resembles a meandering search for the “correct phrase” that is common experience to all speakers and writers.
Figure 7. The Readers Project, partial view of a nearest-neighbor reading.
A third reader moves in the opposite, perhaps entirely counterintuitive direction – left and up, holding in memory the last two words it has read and seeking phrasal connections with any of its neighbors that may contains such term collocations. This reflects an entirely stream-of-consciousness reading against the conventions of Western text, exercised directionally but by implication in an ontological way against the narratival offers of text’s continuities.
Figure 8. The Readers Project, partial view of a collocation reading.
If earlier on J. Hillis Miller read deconstruction as “not a dismantling of the structure of a text, but a demonstration that it has already dismantled itself. Its apparently-solid ground is no rock, but thin air”[i] it was perhaps fitting to use this very dismantling as the basis for reflexivity in a word that reads itself, posing the question not of what a text is, but what it can be when the medium realizes its own subjectivity. This domain of subjectivity is vastly broader and more influential than might be imagined, it is evident in horizons, like Wittgenstein’s early logic, far from the world of thought as structured centrally by individual perception, That is, at first, and because it emerges from the most acerbic corner of modern analytic philosophy, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: has something to say about formal logic, which is to say, the denial of subjective readings. Except, of course, that his movements within the structure of logic are entirely from within that body, not from the removed position of logic’s pedigree of declarative otherness. So when he observes that “The internal relation which orders a series is equivalent to the operation by which one term arises from another” (5.23) he describes not action from the margins but from the core of motivation, which is to say, the possibility of acquaintance with conditions of truth from within, where the order exists not as form but as cause of form, cause of meaning. And that is a phenomenological compression that likewise comprises the truth conditions of text as a world of propositions and of image pictures, even if they mutually appear to cancel one another out.
[i] J. Hillis Miller, “Stevens’ Rock and Criticism as Cure,” Georgia Review.30 (1976): 34.