04: Closing the Codex, Opening Ideas

In one sense, this conclusion is superfluous; the individual self-assessments of the three creative projects delivered as part of this project – The Homeless Gods, The Material Poem and Conversions – are possibly better suited to that purpose. But in writing this thesis, I found a distinct thread, one not entirely clear to me at the outset. This thread runs as follows.

[Image: James Stuart et al, Conversions,
Title banner detail, Bookworm, Suzhou]

In the first chapter, I argued that materiality is always implicated in the production and consumption of literature, not only because language is invariably shared as a language-object but also because of the socio-cultural conditions that affect its consumption. We might also use the term “interpretation” as a less mercantile piece of terminology. However, within the field of literary studies there has been a divergence between these two components of materiality (namely materialism and material expression) and a literary work’s material basis. The material basis of a literary work refers to the literary devices to which we respond intellectually and emotionally as readers. In my research, especially from the editorial work undertaken for my anthology The Material Poem, the best works of text-art and experimental writing account for this relationship. Such works are both media-specific and also media-appropriate: there is a conscious link between the driving artistic force of the language and the medium through which it is expressed.

In Chapter 2 my task was to examine this understanding of materiality as it pertained to poetry. The first question became: what is the material basis of poetry? Poetry is a disparate genre subject to many discursive claims and counterclaims. In this regard, my first claim is based on Rosemary Huisman’s: that poetry is an inherently visual form of literature, not only since the written word is, by definition, visual but because of the practice of lineation that has been prevalent in Western literature since the 14th century. When we consider other literate cultures such as those using the comparatively ornate Arabic and Chinese scripts, the visual tradition extends even further. The transition from the epic function of poetry to the shorter and more visually and spatially contained lyric function could be taken as a further emphasis of this tendency, while reinforcing the divide between the function of poetic and prosaic language[1].

This difference, contends Michel Riffaterre, is one between mimetic language (prose) and semiotically subversive language (poetry) in which the reader is no longer able to accept poetic language as an expression of literalness. Instead, they must engage with the text meta-semiotically: a process that requires a two-staged reading process in which the reader first approaches the poetic text heuristically (to apprehend its structure as a poem) and hermeneutically (to interpret its localised semiotic system). The goal is to perceive a poem’s meaning (or significance) by finding the hypogram (an idea or phrase) that unlocks the localised semiotic system, or ungrammaticality, of the poem. While this mode of reading is not unique to poetry, it nonetheless suggests that poetry’s material basis is predicated on non-conventional reading patterns. When we take into account the surface-deep metonymy of Marjorie Perloff’s poetics of indeterminacy, we move away from the idea of fixed meanings (or fixed semiotic systems and fixed hypograms to continue Riffaterre’s terminology). Within many contemporary poetic discourses, it falls squarely on the reader to make their own interpretation of any given poetic text.

If Chapter 2 consisted in determining the material basis of poetry – or at least certain poetic discourses – then the question at the heart of Chapter 3 was to how to resolve this basis as a material expression. At first glance, building upon the idea that reader interaction and literary interface lie at poetry’s heart, I wanted to understand whether new media art might be the apposite form for poetry in the 21st century – interface and interaction being two concepts at the heart of much new media theory. It became clear quite quickly that new media’s operations in terms of interaction and interface can be seen as an extension of traditional media (including literary media). This argument stems from my reading of Espen Aarseth, Jerome McGann, Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin, in particular. What new media technology has accomplished, in the context of electronic literature at least, is to (re)foreground interactivity and interface as essential to art’s communication processes.

This conclusion also allowed me to move from a media-specific approach to a more fundamental framework, one indebted to the procedural architecture of Arakawa and Madeleine Gins. At the heart of their thinking lie Sites of Reversible Destiny: spaces in which the inherent potential for art and architecture to challenge the body’s rote movements (or destiny) through spatial trajectories is realised. This challenge comes through their design of landing sites: perceptual points at which it is possible to change the way the body both comes into contact with and defines terrains it moves through. Put otherwise, landing sites are those points at which an architect can force a subject’s body to question accepted motions, and, by extension, accepted meanings. The parallels to Riffaterre’s semiotics of poetry, in particular, are tangible, giving rise to my final proposition: a model for the material expression of poetry. If we accept my central contentions regarding poetry’s material basis as a visually based ungrammatical structure, then we can use Arakawa and Gins’ procedural architecture to propose a model for poetry’s materiality. In this model, a poem’s interface is positioned as a series of landing sites that force the reader to interact with it in such a way that they are able to forego (and indeed embrace) the accepted semiosis of mimetic forms of literature (prose). In turn they are able to embrace poetry’s ungrammaticality. There are subtleties to this position, of course, but that is its essence and the basis from which a critical assessment of material poems might proceed.

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[1]See Bernstein, C. ‘The art of Immemorability’, Rothenberg, J & Clay, S eds, A Book of the Book, (New York: Granary Books, 2000). Here Bernstein charts the shift from oral poetry to printed poetry, which enabled the stabilisation of a text and the subsequent rise of the epic poetry function. However, this epic function (poetry as the infrastructure of memory) was to be superseded by the novel and other prose functions in the 18th century, a period concurrent with the rise of poetry’s lyric function, a more individual mode of expression. In the lyric mode, poetry ‘does not create language that is commitable to memory but rather a memory of the analphabetic that is committed to language.’ p.516.

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