03: Poetry, Interaction, Interface

The question about how we read poetry can be rephrased in terms of its material basis: how and why do we respond to a poetic text? In what way are we drawn to, or pushed away by, the literary devices in any given piece? The answer advanced in the previous chapter could be summated by the following two propositions: that poetry is inherently visual on the one hand – as a result of its particular (and historical) spatial relationship to the page – and that active participation of the reader is required in the meaning-making process.[1] The central proposition of the first chapter might be simply put thus: when we read a poem, we are necessarily perceiving it as a localised material expression (such as a book), caught within particular socio-cultural frameworks. In this sense all poems are language-objects and not just language. The unanswered question then is: What model(s) of materiality can be applied to relate a poem’s material expression to its material basis? How can these two elements – each essential to the reading experience of a poem – be sculpted into a cohesive language-object? In this final chapter, I intend to outline such a model, drawing heavily on the architectural framework advanced by conceptual artists/architects Arakawa and Gins.

[Image (above): e.e. cummings, 'i like my body when it is with your', detail]

But first a necessary detour: how does new media technology fit into this discussion? Apart from a few allusions, most of my thesis to this point has focused on literature’s print culture, still conceived as the literary space par excellence. This could be considered an oversight, especially given the rapid changes within the publishing world, generated by e-reader technology and digital archiving initiatives such as the Gutenberg Project or GoogleBooks.[2] Furthemore, when we speak of the visuality (or indeed sonority in the case of a spoken poem) we are in fact discussing its interface: the media which allows us to perceive it. When we speak of the active participation of the reader we might also be suggesting that the reader must interact with the poem and not just read it. Interface and interactivity are both terms heavily associated with the field of new media arts. At first glance, it appears then that a poem’s materiality might be best explored through the field of new media writing – and my intention now is to test this idea, moving through the work of a number of new media critics. Of particular relevance will be Espen Aarseth’s historical understanding of cybertexts, which foreground interface as part of the user experience.

Before moving further, I want to make a lexical clarification. It is possible to think of electronic literature and new media writing as interchangeable terms. For the purpose of this discussion, electronic literature refers to literary works produced for consumption by personal computer users and which are specific to that medium.[3] On the other hand, I have taken new media to be broader in its scope, encompassing all electronic media and art, including hybrid compositions. Finally, except where it is used by others, I will prefer the term “user” to “reader” or “viewer” since “user” is not perceptually specific. It also accepted within new media criticism.

Old media: interacting with the new

As Joseph Tabbi notes in a recent review, the constant stream of upgrades to new media production and consumption technology has ‘placed the literary imagination in a situation of continual nostalgia’ caused by the fast-pace of technological change. Under this system, just as a work is accepted into the popular consciousness ‘the next set of upgrades [arrives], the network has rearranged its protocols, and the next set of works appears, rendering previous works, if not inoperable, then classics before their time.’[4]

This implies the need for a more fundamental stance on electronic literature: Tabbi is frustrated by the tendency in electronic literature studies to define past media by its otherness and new media by its revolution – what Espen Aarseth refers to as ‘imperialist’ stances designed to carve out one critical territory at the expense of another.[5] Tabbi is instead interested in the continuation of the textual as it has crossed from one medium to another and, as is often the case, back again, or into another medium altogether.

One of the traditional conditions for new media art, apart from the requirement that it be computer-generated, is that of interactivity. According to Darren Tofts, interactivity ‘is the refinement of a very specific kind of engagement with art that positioned the participant or visitor as an integral part of the creative process.’[6] The other conditions for new media art, he contends, are immersion and interface, both of which function to draw the user into a given piece as actor and/or participant. For my purposes, two questions follow from this definition: first, are these three conditions specific to new media writing; and, second, do these terms of reference suffice for a discussion of new media writing?

Bolter and Grusin offer a more developed overview of new media, arguing that its two fundamental qualities are hypermediacy and remediation. Hypermediacy derives from a term coined by Ted Nelson in 1965.[7] It denotes how new media space is explicitly assembled from “old” media spaces (eg. film, text, sound, etc). Bolter and Grusin oppose this stratagem to the camera obscura technique in renaissance painting, which sought to dissimulate the painting frame and position the viewer within the picture. ‘In all its various forms, the logic of hypermediacy expresses the tension between regarding a visual space as mediated and as a “real” space that lies beyond mediation.’ In the logic of hypermediacy, ‘the artist (or multimedia programmer or web designer) strives to make the viewer acknowledge the medium as a medium and to delight in that acknowledgement.’[8] The plethora of media embedded within any major newspaper website (an oxymoron!) demonstrate this aspect of new media: here, video players sit along side photo galleries, flash advertisements and text-based news pieces. The user experience is one of conscious interaction with the media interface.

guardian-screenshot

[Image: guardian.co.uk, screenshot (30 August 2009): a typical news site, assembling a variety of text-, video-, sound- and image-based media]

New media as a process of remediation flows from hypermediacy: the integration of “old media” within a new media interface is by definition a process of re-presentation. Remediation is not unique to new media technology, as it has been in train since the first days of written communication, when textual and image-based media could be combined and re-combined. Technological interfaces aside, what is different are the speed and ease with which such recombination is now possible. [9] Remediation implies that new media is essentially a hybrid form, dependent both upon extant media but also the human subject who engages with it. It exists, not because it is a new and pure form, per se, but because its users invest it with very real meanings, associations or relationships.

Summarising Bolter and Grusin’s argument, I want to propose that new media, at one level, can be conceptualised as a tangle of “old” media. This supports Tabbi’s case that new media is not a rupture with old media (such as the book). Another facet of this argument is that new media’s relationship to its component parts permits the radical acceleration of elements immanent for decades, if not centuries before. We also see that the idea of interface is not unique to new media but that new media technologies, instead, foreground the interface as part of the new media experience.

Honing in on electronic writing, Espen Aarseth supports these arguments in his excellent and still relevant typology of what he terms cybertexts, ‘the mechanical organisation of the text, by positing the intricacies of the medium as an integral part of the literary exchange’ and ergodic texts, which ‘require nontrivial effort’ and extranoematic movement for the reader to traverse them. Aarseth draws up a matrix of cybertexts dating as far back as the classic Chinese text, I Ching (易经 or Book of Changes) but also including recent electronic “texts” such as adventure games and hypertext novels. He assesses the various texts according to typology variants, concluding that:

The paper-electronic dichotomy is not supported by our findings. It is revealing and refreshing to observe how flexible and dynamic a book printed on paper can be, and this gives us an important clue to the mergence of digital text forms: new media do not appear in opposition to the old but as emulators of features and functions that are already invented. It is the development of codex and print forms not their lack of flexibility that makes digital texts possible.[10]

ms2174-600px

[Image: Devimahatmya, Praise of the Great Goddess, Manuscript in Sanskrit on palm-leaf, Bihar or Nepal, 11th c., 32 ff., 5x31 cm, 2 columns, (3x27 cm) from The Schøyen Collection: an example of an early ‘cybertext’ requiring extranoematic movement as part of the reading process.]

What Aarseth, Bolter, Grishin and others are arguing is that those qualities of interaction and interface, which we have come to think of as the hallmarks of new media, have been present in both art and literature for hundreds, if not thousands of years. It is therefore insufficient to describe new media art – whether computer game, website or electronic literature – according only to their particular interface and interactive qualities. Whether immersion is unique to new media or not is a question that I am leaving to one side in this instance since it is not of direct relevance to my argument.

My point is that the (r)evolution of new media is not its delivery of new ways of interacting or interfacing with any given textual object (with text being used in here its widest possible sense to include items such as websites, computer games and flash poems), extraordinary as these may be. To my mind, new media’s relevance to this thesis is the manner in which it has explicitly foregrounded interactivity and interface as essential compositional elements.

In the literary context, we find this argument advanced by N. Katherine Hayles: ‘With significant exceptions, print literature was widely regarded as not having a body, only a speaking mind’ – a legacy of the 18th century copyright debate, which saw literature as a purely intellectual rather than embodied construction.[11] Jerome McGann, on the other hand, argues that this gap was caused by the shift from written to printed English in which the gap between the writer and the literary object (and between the literary object and the reader) was widened. Hayles expands this argument when she posits in Writing Machines: ‘Elecronic text had its own specifications, and a deep understanding of them would bring into view by contrast the specifications of print for what it is: a medium and not a transparent interface.’[12]

While the user has always been a figure, no matter how abstract, in the construction of literary objects, only recently has this immanence come to the fore. McGann notes its 19th century re-emergence in the work of Kelmscott Press’s intricately designed books. In describing William Morris’s The Earthly Paradise with its ornate borders, its use of all-capital letters and its mediaeval type face, McGann writes:

In a culture that largely imagines print as a vehicle for linguistic meaning the effect is to foreground textuality as such, turning words from means to ends-in-themselves. The text here is hard to read, is too thick with its own materiality. It resists any processing that would simply treat it as a set of referential signs pointing beyond themselves to a semantic content. This text declares its radical self-identity. This kind of textual scene short-circuits referential reading procedures. Through the apparent temporality of language we plunge into a different order of things.[13]

With a few substitutions, McGann’s analysis could easily apply to contemporary new media writing where the user interaction with a Flash poem, for example, could be seen as “short-circuiting” traditional reading practices.

chaucer_kelmscottedn-600

[The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (Hammersmith: Kelmscott Press, 1896): an example of Morris’s work ‘thick with its own materiality’]

Here my engagement with critics such as Hayles and Aarseth draws to a close. Their interest lies primarily in the typology of new media writing and electronic literature. Their goal is establish a critical framework for discussing this field’s materiality[14]. From this point I want to explore the implications of hypermediacy and the notion of the cybertext for the material poem. In doing so I am supporting the idea that a key contribution made by electronic literature has been to bring to the fore an interaction between user and text prevalent throughout literary history, albeit one that has lapsed into the background of the reading experience.

Landing sites: the user in relation to the poem

If this interaction between user and text has been immanent in cybertexts (to borrow Aarseth’s term) since the advent of written texts, it makes sense to delve into non-electronic literature and traditional artistic media for other precedents. This will enable me to put forward a model of materiality suitable to poetic discourse (insofar as I have defined it through this thesis).

I have previously explored the relationship between Michel Riffaterre’s two-phased reading of poetry and the work of conceptual artists Shusaku Arakawa and Madeleine Gins, specifically their image-text works The Mechanisms of Meaning (1963-1973) [MM].[15] This discussion also touched upon their architectural installations too (broadly categorised under the rubric Sites of Reversible Destiny). Drawing heavily on an analysis by Mary-Ann Caws (2002), I argued that Gins and Arakawa’s work in MM foregrounded temporality: their textual and sculptural strategies acted to disrupt the time of standard reading patterns. Their work could thus be construed as a template for constructing material expressions for poetic texts, which according to Riffaterre demand alternative reading strategies, that is, re-reading. I concluded with Charles Bernstein’s response to Arakawa and Gins’ work: ‘Language is embedded into these works not as something to be read, as on a page or even a screen, but as something to interact with in an unfolding/enfolding web. The constructed “landing sites” of Reversible Destiny challenge rote perceptual patterns and activate underutilized cognitive paths.’[16] I now wish to build on this framework and its focus on the two-phased reading process that Riffaterre propounded.

In the same way that I have used this thesis to expand my understanding of Riffaterre to comprise the fuller semiotic context in which he works, my intention now is to engage with Arakawa and Gins’ architectural body of work, specifically those associated with Architecture: Sites of Reversible Destiny. I want to understand the sorts of interactivity and interface that they propose through their architectural interventions, and how these might be applicable to a model of poetic materiality.

Underpinning Arakawa and Gins’ [A+G] proposal is a spatio-temporal definition of destiny as the natural movement of a body through the everyday, or what they term ‘ubiquitous sites.’ It is a motion that one day will lead to death But this everyday destiny is commonplace and irreversible only so long as movements of the body are natural. To challenge destiny, it follows we must denaturalise the natural and this is the artists’ project. Their strategy is to break ubiquitous sites into a matrix of landing sites defined by their contact with the body of the human subject. Each of these landing sites has the potential to challenge normative movement (and therefore normative perception) by forcing the body to acknowledge itself and the world which it defines.

Though A+G establish a detailed taxonomy of landing sites (perceptual, imaging and architectural), I will simply refer to them more broadly as perception sites since ‘the world and the body (and mind) moving through it are very much entwined.’[17] George Lakoff, discussing the limit of the human brain’s plasticity, likens this process to that of reconfiguring people’s image-schemas: ‘Cognitive linguists have discovered that people understand the relationships between things in space in terms of elementary schematic mental images, or “image-schemas.”’[18] Returning to Riffaterre’s semiotics, it becomes possible to think of both image-schemas and landing sites with regards to the relationship of signified to signifier: a grammatical structure of landing sites (prose) will lead to mimesis or a ubiquitous site; an ungrammatical structure (poesis) will lead to the disruption of mimesis, or a site of reversible destiny.

Merging these two lexicons, we might posit that an ungrammatical structure of landing sites lies at the core of Architecture: Sites of Reversible Destiny. In this body of work, A+G gradually transform recognisable locations into quasi-labyrinthine Sites of Reversible Destiny. This process occurs through a systematic re-mapping of each location’s landing sites, eventually leading to a situation where the ‘body is redirected; the paths to the old landing sites are blocked.’[19] Importantly, this re-mapping always retains some grammatical structure in common with its former self: their process is analytical, not wildly fabulist. We can observe these qualities in any one of their built works. In this instance, I will focus on the Reversible Destiny Lofts in Mitaka, Japan.

reversibledestiny_001

[Image: Arakawa and Gins, Reversible Destiny Lofts, Mitaka, Japan, Photograph: Masatako Nakano]

The Lofts, located in suburban Japan, are brightly coloured (and inhabited) apartment stacks. Room modules emanating at various angles from a circular, central living area define each level of the building. Internally, uneven floor surfaces and modulating lighting conditions are all landing sites which contribute to a complexity of living environment not found in residential architecture. This is apartment living, but not as we have come to think of it.

In discussing the Lofts, Jondi Keane examines the relationship between A+G’s procedural architecture and ecological psychology, the relationship of an organism to its environment. The distinction he makes between functional and procedural architecture harks back to A+G’s initial distinction between ubiquitous sites and those of reversible destiny. ‘The procedural approach applies to perception and action, to perceiving the world and constructing experiments for living. Procedures enable persons to think environmentally when engaging with and organizing their surroundings (conceptually and perceptually).’[20]

By applying this procedural architectural approach to a living environment, Keane argues, the artists make its inhabitants acutely aware of their own perception, of their own senses as a means to enabling the act of living. The goal is not one of a defined outcome (a destiny) but to force the body into questioning its position in relation to the environment that supports it. Again, the similarities to Riffaterre’s semiotics of poetry are startling: how do we force a reader to question the semiotic structure of a poetic text, to recognise that this semiotic structure does not lead to grammatical outcomes?

bridge-02-webArthur Danto, reviewing A+G’s 1990 exhibition Building Sensoriums 1973-1990: – for determining how not to die at the Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York, offers another perspective on this position. He likens their The Process in Question/Bridge of Reversible Destiny to Marcel Duchamps’ Etant donnés. The Bridge is in fact an architectural model of a bridge designed as a sequence of some 24 “perception stations” each composed of landing sites so complex the artists cheekily suppose it might take 40 days to cross the bridge, should it ever be built. In physical form, the Bridge is a starkly-angled structure, divided into distinct segments, each of which comprise a circuitous maze of geometric structures: cubes, spheres, meshed vertical planes, zig-zagging ramps, and so on. A theoretical user must somehow navigate their way through this sequence of spaces. Both the Bridge and Etant donnés demonstrate, he argues, ‘the way art springs into being only through the collaborative intervention of the viewer.’[21]. Their work is explicitly about drawing the user into a matrix of landing sites, not so much to answer a question but to guide the viewer/user into transcending given perceptual patterns and thus in reversing their own destiny.

[Image: Arakawa and Gins, The Process in Question/Bridge of Reversible Destiny, 1973-89, wood, mesh, plastic 42 feet x 13 feet 10 inches x 5 feet 10 ¼ inches overall, from Ronald Feldman Gallery]

The relevance of A+G’s body of work is not simply altering the time span it takes to move through a ubiquitous site. They are also keenly focused on how to unbalance the body sufficiently that its perceptual patterns are fundamentally altered. How we might apply this approach in a poetic context is the final subject of this chapter.

With regards to an architecture of Reversible Destiny, A+G’s methodology for a site such as the Bridge can be partly divined in the neat aphorism or “saying” – one of many that punctuate their work: ‘Number and complexity of perceptual landing site configurations are directly proportional to intricacy of path or terrain.’[22] In their terminology, terrain is functionally differentiated from floors or flat planes: it destabilises or hinders the body’s movement; the more complex the terrain, the more complex the structure of landing sites.

A model for the material poem

As I have argued, the set of relationships at play in the materiality of language can proceed from a similar basis. When deconstructing any given language-object, we might think of terrain as its material basis (which includes its semiotic structure, its grammar). The idea is that this terrain should influence the architecture of its material expression: the more complex the terrain, the more complex the landing sites for the body/mind of the user negotiating the space of the text. However, references to the familiar must be maintained to encourage the user to finish the journey.[23]

Extending this metaphor to the poetic discourse at the heart of this discussion, we can describe the terrain as a localised semiotic system that subverts mimesis, sometimes to the point of having no discernible fixed meaning. Its primary interface is visual and, therefore, spatial: I am thinking here of Rosemary Huisman’s argument that poetry is closely defined by its spatial relationship to the page. Embracing A+G’s philosophy of reversible destiny we need to create a poetic material expression (architecture) that disrupts movement towards a fixed destination, in this case a fixed meaning. On the other hand, its material treatment must drift away from the visual and spatial properties of prose, which is most often bound by the justified and mono-font text blocks in a codex.

We might thus construct an architectural tool kit for constructing the poetic language-object with a number of primary propositions. Having established the terrain (material basis), we can then consider the opportunities for reflecting this through a textual architecture. The idea that this architecture exists within a particular socio-cultural context, in a particular edition, is reflected in the idea of the language-object, which derives from a Marxist notion of materialism.

Material Basis Material Expression Language-object (materialism)
Terrain (primary) Landing site opportunities Outcomes
  • Poetry as visual and spatial
  • Engage the visual aspect of language
  • Disrupt the page structure
  • Differentiate the space of the screen from that of the page
  • Experiment with typography to create distinctive visual space for poems
  • Recontextualise language-object outside of standard codex spaces
  • Challenge print-culture (read literary culture) norms
  • New media objects distinct from print objects
  • Poetry as extra-literary, hybrid object
  • Localised semiotic system
  • Lack of discernible (or at least immediately discernible) meaning
  • Force the body into concentrated reading positions
  • Create unique language-objects
  • Create non-standardised navigation systems
  • Position language-object outside of standard literary spaces
  • Make it a task to the turn the pages (but make the user want to know more)
  • Disrupt rote reading motions
  • Re-construct the relationship of the codex to the body
  • Challenge print-culture (read literary culture) norms
  • Re-reading as integral to the poetic experience
  • User interaction with textual interface
  • Language-object as non-ubiquitous site
Terrain (secondary) Landing site tactics Outcomes
  • Separation from the lyric tradition
  • If performing, separate the reader from the audience and discourage the dramatic reading mode
  • Non-referential sound-scapes to destabilise context
  • Draw attention from the “lyrical” I to an indeterminate self
  • Highlight the language, not the poet

This matrix is illustrative rather than encyclopaedic – for example the secondary terrain of performance is referenced only in terms of the lyric tradition (and the associated poetry of the self).[24] Accordingly, I want to position this matrix as a template rather than a fixed set of rules: a stratagem for rethinking how we position the materiality of poetry and, perhaps, literature more broadly.

The strategies outlined above are among those that I have determined through the creative component of this thesis. Accordingly, I have applied this critical framework to develop an evaluation for the creative projects I have worked on as part of this Masters – with the understanding that this is practice-led research rather then research-led practice [see www.nongeneric.net/itbeginsinthebook/?cat=6]. There is no doubt that at least one of the projects would have benefited from this model of materiality, if applied at the outset.

The key points to retain in relation to the poetic discourse in question – as outlined by my assessment of Perloff, Riffaterre and others – is this:

  • If we are to approach this poetry as a literary object with its own visual and spatial qualities, then we need to experiment with ways for the interface of poetry to be delineated from that of prose (and how this interface can be made immediate or explicit, as per the principles of hypermediacy).
  • If this poetry operates on the basis of a localised semiotic system then the reader should be made to interact with the text in a way that disrupts the movement towards a final and authoritative meaning.

We can relate this to A+G’s architecture for sites of reversible destiny by comparing such acts with an effort to unbalance the body/mind of the user as s/he crosses the poetic terrain. We can also surmise that the referential poetries of authors such as Clive James, Andrew Motion and Peter Porter can be left as they are, printed in the Australian Book Review and other established literary-culture publications.

I have argued that interface and interactivity are not quintessentially the domain of new media arts. Instead, new media arts has acted to foreground them as essential components of the user experience of a language-object. We can therefore include new media arts in the chain of potential material expressions of a poem, but we do not have to limit ourselves to this particular set of technological practices.

I nonetheless want to conclude this chapter by applying this model of materiality to works by an electronic literature practitioner, Jason Nelson. A lecturer in cyberstudies and digital writing at Griffith University, Nelson has established himself as in the field of electronic poetry through his intricately programmed Flash-based poems. At a general level, his work is distinguished from much Flash poetry by their highly inventive and generally non-linear interactivity, their lo-fi graphics and rough-hewn soundscapes, and, the frenetic overlay of poetic textual fragments, usually gleaned through interaction with the work.[25]

nelson-game600px

[Image: Jason Nelson, Game, Game, Game and Again Game (Game), screenshot]

These qualities are all on display in his piece Game, Game, Game and Again Game (Game) a platform-style poetry game in which the user controls a round squiggle (literally), moving it through a series of hand-drawn arenas. The theme, he writes, ‘hovers around our many failed/error filled/compelling belief systems’, while also repelling the ‘tyranny (cringe) of clean design and cold smoothness of much of the web/net-art.’[26] Like most platform games, the goal is to navigate a character (the squiggle) through a variety of belief systems (each represented as one of 13 levels in the game – not including the “victory chapter at the conclusion”), a process that involves moving through various hotspots, most of which trigger a textual fragment on-screen such as ‘Step 2 of 5 … you will never reach anything. Built into your walk are glass doors, broken only by those wanting them open, handles or knee pads and black pugs.’ Small “home-movies” containing nostalgic domestic scenes are also embedded in certain levels.

The piece is undoubtedly an achievement in lo-fi aesthetics and intricate software coding (though it appears that Nelson by and large repurposes existing code, which is not a problem in itself).[27] However, whether it works as a language-object is another. To determine this factor, our starting point is to establish the material basis of the work. Given the obtuseness of the language and the seemingly disconnected nature of utterances throughout the piece, we can associate the poem with a localised semiotic system and a lack of fixed meanings (indeed the premise of the piece is to challenge certain belief systems). But this material basis is closely intertwined with the field of ludology, since the interface is ostensibly that of a computer game. It therefore makes sense to consider Game within the expectations of the platform game genre as well. These two characteristics are thus the qualities from which we should derive the piece’s material expression.

The material matrix of this work, based on these principles, thus unfolds as follows, along with elements of the material expression that in, my opinion, have not been accounted for:

Material Basis Material Expression Language-object (materialism)
Terrain (primary) Landing sites Outcomes
  • Interactive platform game
  • Substitute rewards (eg treasures) with revelation of poetic texts
  • Retain some familiar game elements (eg villains)
  • User-controlled “hero” to unlock poem
  • Subvert soundtrack and sound effects
  • Special (victory) platform
  • Hand-drawn graphics

Absent landing sites:

  • Finite lives, scores, narrative drive, genuine rewards, puzzles, consideration of user-experience.
  • Poem as game, game as poem
  • Interface clear but outcome opaque
  • No defined outcome
  • Neither quite poem nor game
  • Localised semiotic system
  • Lack of discernible meaning/outcome
  • Symbolic rather than narrative progression through poem
  • Embedded home movie clips seemingly unrelated to text
  • Variety of typographical treatments for textual fragments
  • Various poetic dictions
  • Playful diction

Absent landing sites:

  • Ability to revisit texts without extended navigation, clear poetic strategy to join textual fragments together
  • Re-reading not facilitated
  • High level of user interactivity
  • Variable poetic time

My assessment of Game as a language-object is explained below.

Having “completed” the poem-game to find a bonus “story of life”, a tongue-in-cheek treatment of the subject, at its conclusion, I was able to discern Nelson’s poetic intent more clearly. One interpretation is to view the work as drawing a correlation between the absurdness of trying to complete a game with the impossibility of completing a life. According to Nelson, both are constructs that belief systems have trained us to accept. The language-object is ostensibly successful in that regard: it lacks common game features such as rewards or puzzles. However, the very lack of these meant I couldn’t find a compelling reason to “complete” the work, other than to analyse it. Nor was I able to revisit certain poetic elements (as I might be able to in a book or even a saved version of a computer game) without dragging myself through the interface again.

In some sense, the interface itself, even without the poetry, was absurd enough to achieve such an objective – for example memory memes inserted into the game, in the form of grainy Super 8 home movies, are entirely decontextualised. They are a kitsch intrusion, appearing almost for the sake of it.

Part of the problem is that in trying to subvert both the poetic and platform game genres, Nelson moves further and further away from each. While there is no doubt this is a well thought-out work, Game appears lost in its own self-referentiality to the point where not caring about the outcome of the work means that it has achieved its artistic objectives. A final message on the penultimate level, expressing amazement that users have actually finished the piece, only reinforces this view. Game appears ultimately to centre on its user-hostile interface rather than poetic substance, which is regrettable given the substantive imagination driving the work. As Talan Memmott concludes in assessing another of Nelson’s new media poems, ‘Perhaps then, they are works to be operated rather than read (in the strict sense).’[28] Impenetrable as his philosophy on the works is, hidden behind a thick layer of humour and irony, perhaps this is precisely the outcome that Nelson seeks.

Returning to the materialist model I have sought to establish through this paper, we can note two things that might make such a work more complete (or at least more satisfying from a user perspective). First, A+G’s point that the familiar must, in some form, remain. Second, a parting note from British poet and critic Veronica Forrest-Thomson, who charts terrain not at all dissimilar to Riffaterre’s.

Writing back in the 1970s, Forrest-Thomson argues that our experience of the (non-verbal) world is both limited and created by language, since our understanding of it is necessarily verbal. Her emphasis is that while both ‘ordinary language’ and ‘poetic language’ articulate the world, they are necessarily different in how they function.

Poetry’s role within this paradigm – and by extension art’s – is to articulate and mediate (that is, transform) the non-verbal world by subverting ordinary language. In her terms, it must simultaneously achieve continuity and discontinuity with ordinary language. Poetry must ‘control the meanings and feelings generated by the words it uses’ and ‘control experience by verbal relationships that channel it in a structural attitude.’[29] Forrest-Thomson argues that poetry acts to both establish a continuity with non-verbal concepts but also to limit ‘the kind of external material which is assimilated and subjected to new organisation and articulation,’ and thus distanced from ordinary language. [30]

In this continuity-discontinuity model, we can discern one of the fundamental challenges at the heart of the material poem. How do we reference the tradition we are trying to subvert, yet create a language-object that sits in the borderlands of those very cultural norms. Has Nelson achieved this balance? I don’t think so. But that does not deny his work is an exciting leap into the potentialities of electronic poetry and, by extension, the material poem.

> Go to Conclusion

< Return to Chapter 02


[1] The caveats to this proposition are many and best explored by revisiting the previous chapters. One argument that might come to mind immediately is that poems are also audible objects, delivered by a speaker, for example at a poetry reading. One response to this argument might be that the spatial arrangement of a poem on the page also relates closely to its rhythm as a performance.

[2] A good overview of some of the tensions in this debate can be found in a recent article: Williamson, G. ‘Is that a canon in your pocket?’, The Australian Literary Review, July 1, 2009. Other tangents in this debate include issues about readability and usability in screen-based practices. See for example Nielsen, J ‘How Little Do Users Read?’ http://www.useit.com/alertbox/percent-text-read.html or Morkes, J and Nielsen, J ‘Concise, SCANNABLE, and Objective: How to Write for the Web’ http://www.useit.com/papers/webwriting/writing.html

[3] A useful and concise taxonomy is Adalaide Morris’s in her introduction to New Media Poetics where she describes six primary typologies (in a poetic context at least): literal art, poem-games, programmable/procedural computer-poems, real-time reiterative programmable poems, participating networked/programmable poems and codework poems. See also the somewhat more comprehensive overview by N. Katherine Hayles: ‘Electronic Literature: What is it?’ http://eliterature.org/pad/elp.html (Electronic Literature Organization, 2007)

[4] Tabbi, J. ‘Locating the Literary in New Media’, Electronic Book Review http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/criticalecologies/interpretive, accessed 15 March 2009

[5] Aarseth, E. J. Cybertext: perspectives on ergodic literature (Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press, c1997)

[6] Tofts, D. Interzone: Media Arts in Australia (Fishermans Bend: Craftsman House, 2005) p. 13

[7] ibid. p. 12

[8] Bolter, J.D. and Grusin, R. Remediation: understanding new media (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, c1999) pp41-42

[9] For example Kenneth Goldsmith’s ‘The Bride Stripped Bare’ (Morris, A. and Swiss, T. (eds.) New Media Poetics: contexts, technotexts and theories (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2006). Here Goldsmith explores the power that new media technologies have to decontextualise and recontextualise texts such as a stock-standard celebrity interview taken from one website to another and subjected to various formatting changes. As I argued in the first chapter, literary texts (and other media) have always been in a state of edition-based flux (Grigely, 1996). What new media technology enables, perhaps, is for this flux to be elevated to hyperflux: dissemination and re-contextualisation becomes accelerated, enabled and promoted by new media remediation technologies.

[10] Aarseth, E. J. (1997) p.10

[11] Hayles, N.K. ‘Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis’, Poetics Today, Volume 25, Number 1, Spring 2004, p.73

[12] Hayles, N. K. Writing Machines (The MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2002) p.43

[13] McGann, J. Black riders : the visible language of modernism (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, c1993) p.74

[14] See especially Hayles (2002), where she discusses the computer itself as integral to the materiality of electronic literature.

[15] Stuart, J. ‘From text to texture’, Cordite 20: Submerged, 2004 (http://www.cordite.org.au/archives/000677.html)

[16] ibid. quoting Bernstein, C. ‘Response’, in Loizeaux, E.B. & Fraistat, N. (eds.) Reimagining Textuality: Textual Studies in the Late Age of Print (Madison, Wis: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2002).

[17] Arakawa, S. and Gins, M. Arakawa and Madeleine Gins architecture: sites of reversible destiny: architectural experiments after Auschwitz – Hiroshima (London: Academy Editions, 1994) p.19.

[18] Lakoff, G. ‘Testing the Limits of Brain Plasticity: Or, Why Is There a Wall Down the Middle of the Tub?’ in Arakawa and Gins, M. Reversible Destiny (New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 1997) p. 118.

[19] ibid. p. 118

[20] Keane, J. ‘Constructing the Conditions of and Environments for Interdisciplinary Research on Perception and Action,’ Ecological Psychology, Issue 20: p.343–360, 2008, p. 354.

[21] Danto, Arthur C. ‘Gins and Arakawa: Building Sensoriums’, Nation, Vol. 251 Issue 12: p429-432 (1990). p.430. The Ronald Feldman Gallery’s website has details of the exhibition: http://www.feldmangallery.com/pages/exhsolo/exhgin90.html

[22] Arakawa, S. and Gins, M. Arakawa and Madeleine Gins architecture: sites of reversible destiny: architectural experiments after Auschwitz – Hiroshima (London: Academy Editions, 1994) p.65.

[23] Arakawa and Gins (2002) make this point with regards to their landing sites too. The point is to create an ‘identity crisis’ (p. 87) by which ‘the familiar passes through itself’ (p.73), not to divorce the language-object from its material basis.

[24] See Bernstein, C. ‘The art of immemorability’ Rothenberg, J. & Clay, S. (eds.) A Book of the Book (New York: Granary Books, 2000) or Perloff (1999)

[25] Compare for example the manic and mysterious hymns of the drowning swimmer (www.secrettechnology.com/hymns/navigate.html) or Pandemic Rooms (www.secrettechnology.com/pandemicrooms ) to the generally clean-cut poet-designer collaborations exhibited at Born Magazinehttp://www.bornmagazine.org) (

[26] Nelson, J. ‘Introduction’ Game, Game, Game and Again Game (Game) (www.secrettechnology.com/gamegame/gamegame.html). This rebellion against established belief systems bares similarity to Arakawa and Gins’ efforts to reformat human destiny through architecture. See Lakoff (1997) or Arakawa and Gins (1996; 1997).

[27] See for example, Leishmann, D. ‘Leishman on Two of Nelson’s Works’, The Iowa Review Web, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2007. http://research-intermedia.art.uiowa.edu/tirw/vol9n1/artists_each_others_work.php Accessed 16 May 2009.

[28] Memmott, T. ‘Clutteralist Aesthetics and the Poetics of Whimsy: The Work of Jason Nelson’, The Iowa Review Web, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2007. http://research-intermedia.art.uiowa.edu/tirw/vol9n1, accessed 16 May 2009.

[29] Forrest-Thomson, V. ‘Continuity in Language’, Cook, J.(ed.), Poetry in theory: an anthology, 1900-2000 (Malden, MA : Blackwell Pub., 2004) p. 458.

[30] ibid. p.459



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