If you need an introduction in Digital Media, visit the DM Primer.
In this space I'm going to talk about my personal experiences with digital media as a longtime DIY poet (35 years) and web-content specialist (basically a putter-upper) by day (25 years) in my own little corner of this internet. For the last few years I’ve been taking poetry MOOCs (massive open online classes) which led me to the world of digital poetries (particularly through Davidson College’s Electronic Lit MOOC). I’ve wading through the various textbooks and essays on the topic and it recently occurred to me I might have some ideas for digital media poems.
One frustration has been finding myself positioned between two sets of ideologues: the digital artists and the academic or “paper” poets. Many of the digital media practitioners have a kind of avant-garde disdain for paper poets. They will literally say it's a dead end. (It’s not.) On the other side I have found very few traditional poets willing to even entertain conversations about digital pieces even if they’re my pieces and those poets are friends of mine! Literally, their eyes glaze over. There’s no complaining or arguing about how “this is not real poetry.” It’s like I’m talking a language that’s foreign to them. Maybe I am.
Rarely can I find a single digital literature survey classes offered at universities and colleges and this is after 50 years of digital literature has occurred. Lit survey programs usually stop at post-modernism (into which contemporary poetry often gets dumped) or worse programs will stop at modernism (judging by the schools and MOOCs I’ve attended). Modernism is over 70 years old. And post-modernism has been old news for a least a few decades. This means most programs are decades and decades behind.
And my great enthusiasms have not been contagious in those circles. This might be because paper poets are uncomfortable with the perceived complexities of technology. Or maybe they are overwhelmed by all the "new media" history to catch up on. After all, it’s a full-time job learning about all the literary history up to 1980. Which is exactly why academics are valuable. They research the literary past and the craft of wordsmithing. To them, random computer experiments lack not only humanity but proper attention to the construction of poetry. To them there isn’t much to see here beyond theory, apparatus and media. To them, digital artists lack a full knowledge of craft and literary history. And I think they have a point.
For decades digital media experiments have been esoteric and intellectual. And like a scientist’s scientist, there are poet’s poets, people working so deeply and theoretically in the field their appeal is only for practical practitioners, not the general public. But at some point, the practical poet will want to find practical applications from pure-poetic experiments.
I have also had difficulty talking about paper poetry to digital media poets. They think paper poems are too quaint and limited or they’re not interested in discussions of word-crafting or lit-history beyond the French symbolists whose theoretical ideas they working from. Digital media poets are often more interested in the craft of programming and procedural experiments. But if you’ve ever judged a poetry book contest, you can attest to the fallacy of the idea that books are dead. Publishers are buried in submissions from thousands of poets still seeking print publication. And many interesting experiments are still happening in the print realm.
I can see how fascinating it is to explore the boundaries of meaning-making and the boundaries of the machine. But it’s not everything. And it’s not new. Dadaism is 100 years old. The experiments of the symbolists and Stéphane Mallarmé are 100 years old as well. Alan Turning’s automated love-letter generator, often acknowledged as the first new media piece in 1952, is 69 years old.
I can see both sides. By vocation and family history, I’m more tech savvy than many of my aging, paper-poet peers. I know just barely enough not to feel overwhelmed by the onslaught of new hardware gadgets, online tools and proliferating smartphone apps. But then again, I still see paper as a pretty solid technology, and a very pleasurable one too.
But media poetry seems like an obvious extension of paper poetry, especially given a computer’s extra affordances and features. In his “Videopoetry” essay from Media Poetry, E.M. de Melo e Castro says “Poetry is always on the limit of things. On the limit of what can be said, of what can be written, of what can be seen, even of what can be thought, felt, and understood….beyond the frontier of what we are prepared to accept as being possible.” And I think that’s what makes technology attractive for new poetry.
He then goes on to say experimentation has mostly been in the domain of scientists (or technologists), but presents an exciting challenge for “producers of beauty.” He references the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé and his visual experiments with words and says this is the precursor to computer experiments and that “the poet is confronted with his or her own skills to operate technological equipment.”
But Stéphane Mallarmé’s experiments are not the only valuable examples of interesting poetry on paper. And we shouldn’t feel beholden to stay on that treadmill of language disruption.
Both sides need to get over themselves. Traditionalist academics need to get over their fears and commit to exploring technology without prejudice, which is, to be honest, harder than it seems if you're a person who really fears digital media poems will replace paper poems. But rest assured, they will not. And as interesting as they might be, auto-generated poems will never replace poems written by human beings. I’m sure of this. Books are still very cool things as physical objects. And the majority of poetry readers do not turn to poems to find out what a machine thinks about humanity. At the end of the day, most people turn to poetry to connect with other people. So paper poets need to drop the mistrust and catch up.
Meanwhile, digital media poets are probably themselves too full of self-satisfaction about their own experiments. Their essays are full of the same academic blah-blah and ironic didacticism they claim their digital pieces are attempting to escape. It often feels like the pieces were created as precursors to the essays explaining how great the pieces are. I'm not immune to that myself. See current essay.
But because I’ve been inspired by these digital media experiments, I’ve begun my own particular paper and digital poems, albeit with my much more limited amount of resources and technical skill. I thought it was time to state some of my goals, even if mostly for myself.
The comments below take a lot of quotes from Eduardo Kac’s collection of essays Media Poetry because that’s the last digital media anthology I've read and it’s full of "new media" think-tanking. It was also published in 2007 and may not reflect the current thoughts and feelings of its essayists.
Our Tools Have Turned Us Into Tools
In Giselle Beiguelman’s Media Poetry essay “Nomadic Poems” she says it’s “very possible that all this Herculean effort to manage data, domains, and new languages is in vain. All that we say nowadays can be deleted and reconstructed without leaving a single trace of what it was meant to be. This does not matter. We did it. We have updated McLuhan. The medium does not count.”
I would say in hindsight it does matter. Having worked with website systems for decades, moving thousands of webpages from one content management system to another, I can attest that time is an expensive commodity. The Herculean efforts matter to artists and business alike. We can stand to lose as much if not more than we gain devoting/devouring our time to technology, clicking away into the void. We lose data. We lose ideas. We lose energy. We lose time. We can even lose lives if we spend time on the wrong things.
I’ve been working on websites as part (or all) of my day job since 1996 and I’ve seen an avalanche of tools come and go during that time with increasing speed. The old job of webmaster has turned into a plethora of many jobs, (web content specialist, user interface designer, information architect, graphic designer, social media manager, data specialist, not to mention a whole fleet of IT people to keep websites up and running and secure from hackers). Websites now have complicated pipelines and content management databases where website pages can be stored and easily searched, which is a far cry from slinging files up onto a server with FTP programs. Websites now have third-party add-ons that need constant maintenance and upgrades every few months and, due to perishable software shelf-lives, costly migrations of content every few years.
Besides content management systems, there are measurement tools, ecommerce tools, educational or recreational interactive facilitators that can plug into a website. And these tools, (along with every other personal service in your life), need passwords. So there are password management tools.
No tool or system is perfect so companies spend copious amounts of money and time and increasingly larger teams are required to move data from one system to another every few years where inevitably we lose just as much functionality as we gain, sometimes for no good reason beyond management's hubris or an agenda-driven consultant’s advice. Then there are frequent security updates and integrations and future migrations into new versions of evolving software. With every migration, there’s always a learning curve that slows down productivity.
All these tools need to be set up, configured and interacted with in cumbersome ways. None of them integrate with each other very well. I’ve personally seen people spend hours using the relatively ancient software Microsoft Excel to compile data manually from other incompatible data reporting tools.
And besides that, not only do work processes have to happen in the “real” world, they then need to be inputted as data into a computer reality. All this creates a huge (and arguably unnecessary) workload for everyone, leaving little time or mental space or physical energy to do “real-world” work and decision making. Not only is data paralysis common, but so is tool fatigue.
And then there are the ghost-towns of data that were created and abandoned soon after they were built up.
Creating this cyber reality actually distracts us from working in the "real" reality. It’s as if problems don’t exist until they show up on a data report. Meanwhile, real customers are complaining "in-person" in droves, but to no avail. Just consider how your for-profit health care system runs and enough said. You could provide copious amounts of human feedback all you’d like, but nothing changes because the only reality that exists to decision-makers are trends on reports....if you’re lucky; most companies only provide lip-service to the idea of data-driven decision-making and make decisions without customer feedback or data. They just do what they "think is best based on their own experience."
And then when these increasingly complex tangles of systems break down, IT teams are having increasingly harder times determining where the problem is and how to resolve it. And who hasn’t had infuriating conversations with an IT help desk? All those hours explaining breakdowns with devices and software that seem maddingly mysterious and quirky. I like to joke that IT people are a problem-averse group of people in a problem-riddled field.
This is all to say, I’m not convinced about the new technology utopia. There’s a lurking luddite within me that feels post-it notes are a pretty good meeting reminder tool, judging by all the malfunctioning and ignorable calendaring tools that still fail to get people to meetings on time.
In many ways, the computer revolution has been a disappointment and possibly a fool’s errand and I don’t always see justifiable results for all the effort and time-sink.
But then again the computer revolution has also been somewhat of a heart-warming miracle.
Arguments With My Father
I have this running argument with my Dad about word-processing programs like Microsoft Word and Google Docs. Actually, we have a difference of opinion about computers in general. My father is a retired computer programmer. He thinks computers are smarter than we are and if they take over the world, good riddance to bad rubbish (that would be us humans).
But anyway, one day I asked him where humans should keep their intellectual property in perpetuity. What software did he think would be usable one-thousand years from now? His response was, “What? You think someone will be interested in what you have to say a thousand years from now?” And I said, “Well okay, hypothetically? What word-processing software will be viable so far into the future? Will alien archaeologists be able to open our Microsoft and Google documents eons from now?”
Paper has already shown itself to be much more resilient than digital media. Our oldest book dates back to 600 BCE. On the other hand, we've already experienced obsolescence in early media art pieces, classic literature that has been forever due to device compatibility issues, data corruption and device extinction. Digital media is much more perishable than physical paper media. My contention is that paper has a remarkably higher chance of surviving, despite yellowing, inevitable decomposition, fires and floods. Digital file corruption is a much more probable scenario than a devastating fire or flood. Undeniably it happens: the Universal Studios fire of 2008, the 1973 National Personnel Records Center fire that destroyed millions of veteran’s personnel records, and just recently my father’s early love-letters to my mother were destroyed when their little white dog peed all over them. But we’re likely to lose information in a devastating fire maybe once in our lives. We’re doomed to file corruption multiple times in a lifetime. We’re also doomed to be hacked multiple times. It’s much easier to hack into everyone’s information online than it is to break into all our houses, find our personal paper data files and steal them one by one.
My father’s response to all this was to say that the probability of alien archeologists is very low. Sigh.
My whole point is that paper is still a pretty swell technology.
On the other hand, there are things you can do with technology that are pretty nifty, too. Just think about the invention of the washing machine for a minute.
Digital Media Concepts
The following is my list of the important aspects of digital media writing.
Readers are active producers and therefore works can be spontaneous and unique.
Digital media artists and writers like the idea that their readers are not passive consumers, that they have to “do” something to keep the piece moving along. They have to make decisions, click buttons or links, input data or get the randomizer running. A related idea is the fact that these pieces result in one-of-a-kind, spontaneous experiences that are completely unique to that reader or user. Digital media proponents think this is a better kind of reading experience because it equalizes the relationship between author and reader. The author gives up some control. The reader gains some.
But usually readers gain only limited control at the end of the day. The creator/consumer model isn’t really that much turned on its head. And yet, interactivity is a lot of fun for times when you feel like putting in a bit more effort. Not every reader comes to reading to work so hard, however. And there’s something to be said for the teacher (author)/student (reader) relationship. Dismissing didacticism is also dismissive of expertise and the honorable act of information sharing. Neither model is better or worse than the other.
Video games also do a better job with studies in interactivity than media poetry because armies of digital architects and programmers are available to study every possible kind of interaction a reader/user might experience.
Outcomes are open and various instead of closed and fixed.
Digital media pieces can have multiple variations or outcomes (like song remixes). There may be no final or definitive version. Different choices made by a reader could lead to various narrative outcomes (like a Choose Your Own Adventure). Poems and stories are allowed inputs from readers and the structures of pieces can take the form of branching trees or infinitely random variations. Open forms are a cool aspect of computerized literature, but again it’s not the only option. Paper pieces can offer randomization to a more limited extent (the aforementioned Choose Your Own Adventure or novel experiments like B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates). Likewise, valid new media pieces can be closed forms with otherwise interactive elements. Neither model is intrinsically better or worse than the other.
Meanings are relative and matrixed by readers.
This is an old idea, borrowed from modernists and reading theorists. Readers create meanings. Authors don’t. This is largely true. Every reader of a novel creates their own imaginative variation of the story being told. But authors help the process along quite a bit with more or less detail, description and metaphor. A theory of anti-manipulation is interesting. However, it's hard to say hello on the street to someone without some kind of human manipulation occurring.
Language poetry often operates with parataxis, placing sentences together without connective tissue to suggest a relationship. The reader must then matrix the meaning from gaps in the language. The Sci Fi Channel TV show Ghost Hunters once described matrixing in much more negative terms: when the brain is processing pure audio noise (like on a voice recording), the brain will try to construct (or matrix) words where none exist, similar to how Rorschach tests once operated in psychotherapy. Matrixing often produces imaginary results, not unlike conspiracy theories.
Film and Literature PhDs are taught to look for hidden meanings in texts. The documentary Room 237 is a good example of matrixing (and culture theory) gone haywire when people matrix meaning out of noise.
Process is more important than message.
In her Media Poetry essay “Nomadic Poems” Giselle Beiguelman says, “In these days of nomadic words, the interface is the message.” This seems to be a popular idea with digital media practitioners. Interactivity and randomization requires computer programming and a processing structure. Many digital media artists believe the crux of their art is in processing, much more so than in the final message (which is just an offshoot of the performed procedures). This idea is a very easy sell for tech-heads. This idea is a much harder hard sell for humans trying to share meanings with other humans.
The media-is-the-message project is one of many. It cannot speak for all our digital media goals. Besides, a piece could have process and a message. Imagine that. If you try harder and work at it longer, you could have the best of both.
The aim is distortion and communication disruption.
In his Media Poetry essay “Holopoetry,” Edward Kac talks about “meaning production” being unlimited to “linear syntax” and how we can “[place] bodily intelligence on equal grounding with linguistic and logical intelligences.” Again, I think modern-day conspiracy thinking should cause us to question the wisdom of this idea.
For many media artists, the aim is not to inform or be readable. They seek instead communication discontinuity, fragmentation and nonlinear thinking. This idea is also as old as the first modernist language experiments. Disruption is also a recent buzzword in the business realm: think outside the box, disrupt the status quo with a new product or invention. Unfortunately, we’re now seeing the political implications of a disrupted world on a populace that seems completely lost in the new chaos, a world evermore piling up with new technologies creating complexities beyond their comprehension.
And the disruptions were done on purpose? There are some communities for which a cashless society is a horrifying idea. These people feel left behind not only vocationally but they’re finding it increasingly harder to just get by. All the theoretical aesthetic and business models fail to take into account the full impacts for technologically disempowered communities. There’s a real culture gap here and it has created an infuriated group of people. Disruption and distortion isn’t all fun and games, not to mention the trolls who have arisen to distort and disrupt for their own nefarious purposes.
The ideas of meaning matrixing, distortion and disruption have also encouraged people to feel fully justified in coming to conclusions without proven premises or solid logic.
We can’t blame all these political situations on digital media poets but in a sense the situation is everybody’s fault, which gives all culture disruptors partial culpability. The idea of relativism in realties has meshed very well with our 21st-century narcissistic tendencies. Everyone now requires total supremacy as an author, reader, consumer, judge or jury. Linear thinking is not the only or best kind of thinking but it’s a valuable kind thinking and we should think twice about diminishing it.
Randomizers and auto-generators are poets too!
This is a fun game, as were Mad Libs. But Mad Libs are significantly less satisfying than say Marcel Proust describing in hundreds of pages of detail how human beings fall in love with other human beings. Life is often random in tragic and beautiful ways. Randomizers are just pretty in small ways. People who are interested in technology find randomized outputs entertaining but most humans come to literature to hear what other humans have to say, not what machines accidentally say.
Words are mostly raw material.
Some media artists feel the use of words in pieces qualifies their pieces as literature or specifically poetry, instead of just words being used as visual material in art objects. This tendency is another barrier for academic and paper poets and critics. For them, the sum of the words, (the meaning making), is greater than the material of the words themselves. And this is a touchy divide. Many digital media artists defensively hold to the idea that their pieces are literary. But simply incorporating elements intended to be “read as part of a system of written language" does not qualify the piece as a poem or poems would exist as anything with a word or two incorporated into it.
In George Oppen’s notes from The Selected Letters of George Oppen, he says “…the poem is NOT built out of words, one cannot make a poem by sticking words into it, it is the poem which makes the words and contains their meaning. One cannot reach out for roses and elephants and essences and put them in the poem.”
Poems are not floating letters or random sentences. I say this after 30 years of language poetry experimentation. I feel similarly about language poet experiments as I do about ghost hunting experiments. Although fun and interesting to watch them go, after decades of testing sentences and poking ghosts, I’m not sure the resulting evidence has proven anything phenomenal.
Art manifestos limit the playing field, even when they’re presumably trying to expand it.
None of the concepts above are mandatory to create poetry in technology.
Friedrich W. Block’s New Media essay “Digital Poetics or On the Evolution of Experimental Media Poetry” has a good summary of what might make a digital poem:
- mechanical, algorithmic generation of text
- electronic linkage and multi-versioning or non-linearity or individual readings derived from that
- multimedia or animation
- dialog between machine and user and thus a shift in roles between author, reader, editor
He goes on to say, “They have but one flaw: they say nothing about the esthetic or artistic state of digital texts. Online shoppes, route planners, library catalogues, multimedia encyclopedia, scientific mailing lists or news forums, erotic chats, search machines or even the homepage of one John Smith…might just as well be included here….When technological conceptualization levels off, the old question of poeticism rears its head…only when we proceed semantically according to art-specific conditions do we move forward.”
The affordances of computers are not limited to art and poetry. Viable experiments can still happen on paper. You can use computers to create unspontaneous, undistorted, fixed, closed, content-laden pieces that still could not be read anywhere else but with an electronic device.
I recently bought a coffee mug on Etsy.com designed with funny and out-of-context tweets by the entertainer and tweet-stormer Cher. Not only are the tweets recreated out of context as the design of the coffee mug, but the tweets themselves are infamous for lacking context and sometimes sense. The tweets are sprinkled across the surface of the mug and I show it to everyone visiting the house...as a reading experiment. Where does one start reading a mug of random Cher tweets? Does it matter if you are left-handed or right-handed? It does. What is the first tweet you are enticed to read? What the hell do Cher tweets mean on a coffee mug?
We can't help but matrix meanings in this reading experiment from the mashup of our idea about Cher, politics, and the disconnect of technology when used by a technology non-native. Cher has managed to figure out this social media platform and use it to communicate imperfectly (and sometimes controversially) to millions of people. Then, someone thought it would be funny to recreate Cher's funniest, most nonsensical tweets on a coffee mug. And what does that mean about coffee mugs and why we read them?
Computers don’t corner the market on raising interesting questions about how we read and what media we read on.
There’s something missing.
Everyone has theories, like leaflets on the Las Vegas Strip; and most people will contort their whole bodies around to avoid touching one. At this point everyone's theories are starting to smell like a carnival of evangelisms.
Most digital media pieces feel overly theoretical and heady. Some lack emotion, some lack directness, some lack sincerity, some lack intimacy. And you can’t help but wonder how much of distortion, the requirement of meaning matrixing, and anti-authorship is really another kind of sublimated narcissism.
You often experience these pieces subconsciously yearning for digital media artists to get a little bit out of their own heads, at least after the initial concept phase. There is no reason why we must use digital media tools for solely intellectual experiments. Although those are good to have, they shouldn’t be the only thing.
And digital media artists are just as susceptible to the quicksand of the self. Giving agency to the reader seems as disingenuous as the “have-it-your-way” mantras of our current culture. The idea that everything is customizable is a secret little lie. Does anybody really feel any more empowered now as a reader or a consumer of technology, especially after decades of paying allegiance to the idea that the customer always comes first? Who buys that anymore? Meanwhile, we're experiencing shrinking food packages and increasingly lame customer service support labyrinths. We are definitely not more empowered as readers or consumers.
In fact you could argue readers are now much less inclined to put in the extra effort due to the short-form, fast-consuming culture required by the ever-increasing demands on our attention and time. We need information fast and we need it to be quickly digestible. This is the tell-me-something-quick-and-give-me-something-for-free era. Trying to give the reader more responsibility has not created better readers at all.
The hard truth is that techies don’t read much traditional poetry and paper poets don’t understand technology. But we need more traditional writers to join the digital media mix. We need their skill set. We need to be open to their craft and historical contributions. Traditional poets need to be open-minded to digital media and the opportunities technologies offer. We can learn a lot from each other.
The failures of the computer utopia can’t be understated.
In Friedrich W. Block’s New Media essay “Digital Poetics or On the Evolution of Experimental Media Poetry” he recognizes the overlap with other historic experimental literatures and contends there is an “added value” with digital poetry. He admits much of the work has a “strong bias in theory.” He points out that language experimentation first started after “the global catastrophe of world war and the Holocaust…Following the experience of a total abuse of language, media and art, the demand was for a more radical approach than simply supporting a ‘realistic’ representational function of language.”
Now we look back on that experimentation and we have a lot of quality material to show for it and we’ve posited some very good questions. But 70 years later the circumstances are also very different for us and we need to re-evaluate our need to constantly make-it-new-at-all-costs (no publicity is bad publicity).
Digital poems don’t need to bring into question the existence of traditional methods and media. Which is a good thing because honestly they don’t do that well. Paper still seems pretty cool, stable and flexible in comparison. The world hasn’t abandoned books. And writing and thinking don't always have to be about writing and thinking.
I have increasingly complex and ambivalent feelings about the internet. I’ve worked at the root of the thing for about ten years now, on and off. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) literally runs the root zones of the internet and facilitates its governance from constituencies around the world, coordinating the technical aspects and “ensuring the network's stable and secure operation.” From working here I’ve learned about internet history and have witnessed many internet controversies including domain name malfeasance and contention over ownership and privacy and the rise of new generic top-level domains.
When I started working at ICANN there was no Twitter, no internet trolls. Facebook was a cool little underground social space primed to replace MySpace. I’ve been fortunate to work among some of the smartest (and nicest) people in the business of internet technology. I was here when Vint Cerf (“Father of the Internet) was still chairman of the board. And it was one of his speeches in 2015 that first alerted me to the possibility that a a whole generation of intellectual property was at risk of disappearing. Which in turn ignited the big worry that leads me to argue with my father every six months about the technology of paper.
Twitter and Facebook are amazing in that they can connect you with people you love, see how they’re doing and reconnect with long-lost friends. There’s really interesting Twitter art like Witch Court Reporter by poet Richard Osmond, Mark Samples' William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound Twitterbots (eventually suspended by Twitter when Twitter-bots became infamously politically villainous).
The internet’s lack of gate keepers and the availability of affordable and free software has been a godsend for DIY artists. But like all other tools finagled for unintended purposes and resulting in unintended consequences, the brilliant algorithms of social media also facilitate very bad things. Now conspiratorial rants have gone viral and the spread of deep lies and conspiracy cults has caused political instability around the world…
…which is why we can’t have destabilized, meaning-ambivalent, avant-garde nice things.
The law of unintended consequences.
Digital media artists, (as well as language and concrete poets), have to own up to what the destabilization of language might have wrought out there on the mean streets. What kinds of political propaganda and authoritarianism have we enabled while we were trying to destabilize political propaganda and disrupt authority with our abstractions, destabilizing languages and our dismissal of a contract between authors and readers?
I appreciate how we’ve come to believe we need to break down communication in order to understand it like we’re mechanics taking apart a clock to see how time works. But sometimes avant-garde experiments remind me of slasher horror films and their makers who defend the physical abuse of women in their stories. We’re not celebrating violence, they contend, but in fact we're just exposing it. As if violence against women was some big secret. The excuse is a disingenuous, backdoor way of fetishizing violence. The net effect is just more violence. We love to pretend our experiments are honorable, possibly civic, but in reality we’re just fucking shit up.
The political reality is that we now need communication that is communal and stable, not destabilized and relative. Meaning matters (if you haven’t noticed). We need less abstractions and more human faces. We do have obligations to each other. And not every student can be their own teacher. We need to figure out how to navigate the onslaught of information, not just point to the problems. We need people who are informed again. We need information to be readable. We need to regain trust between authors and readers.
Which brings us to the new sincerity movement. According to Wikipedia, New Sincerity is a post-ironic, post-postmodern break from coldness, distance and cynicism. Wikipedia also says the movement was popularized in 1990s by David Foster Wallace. And I do remember him talking about adding sincerity back into his work at a reading he gave at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles to support his short story collection Oblivion (2004). The example story he read was “Incarnations of Burned Children” which I remember being shockingly sincere.
But even Marsden Hartley was talking about “Aesthetic Sincerity” back in 1918 after he wanted to move on from modernism and an “a-la-mode’ aesthetics toward a post-cubist, post-abstract, post-futurist “essential reality” because he could already see that “theory in art is refining itself to vacuity.” (see Marsden Hartley and the West)
Someone might ask what’s the harm in vacuity? David Foster Wallace might answer the death of the soul and you can surely look at human interactions on the internet today and argue that vacuity leads to the death of a collective soul.
But if irony is dead and artists still yearn for a difficult challenge, we’re in luck. New sincerity isn’t easy for those of us raised on irony. It’s no pretty little pink bow of possibility. It is instead one psychologically large and tense knot for us to untangle.
My Attempts and Where They Fit
But as suspicious as I am of new tech tools as utopias and as limited as I am in both technological skills and my own digital ideas (probably due to aforementioned tech-skill limitations), I’m glad these digital media experiments are happening. I just don’t think they should happen to the exclusion of all the other things.
I’m not particularly interested in disruption for disruption’s sake. Make-it-new is an empty charge. You don’t need a computer to test the limits of communication. And a computer isn’t the only logical extension of print poetry. I don’t really care what a machine has to say. I’m looking to communicate with human beings. I’m looking to like, love, dislike, be challenged by or find pleasure in what other humans have to say as human beings having a human experience. And if humans want to lure me to my keyboard for this, I’m okay with that.
And regardless of the media, I do like to think about whether the media's particular features or affordances serve a message better than any other media would have done.
Digital media poems an be simple, and not just because simple is the limit of my own capabilities, but just because they can be. And sometimes should be.
I’m interested in finding a way to insert more sincerity, emotion and directness into digital media pieces, more traditional-sounding poetry (some traditional craft elements like rhyme or meter). I’m interested in taking something that could stand as a traditional poem on paper and think of ways to make it interactive so that the affordances of a computer can better serve its message or, yes, sometimes challenge its meanings. But I would still like to provide for my audience a findable meaning.
I was once vacationing in Cancun with my husband and two other couples. Two couples were sitting in the hotel lobby on a large, circular couch while we waited for the third couple to come down and join us. Two little kids were running around and jumping on the other side of this round couch. The husband of the other couple turned to my husband and me and said disparagingly that he always made sure as a parent to teach his kids to only use things in the way in which they were intended to be used. And immediately I remembered this picture above. My friend Karen and I were pirates and the couch was a pirate ship. (And this was my parents good couch.)
I’m interested in finding a use for things in the way for which they were not intended. In Brian Lennon’s New Media essay, “Screening a Digital Visual Poetics,” he paraphrases William Dickey in saying a computer is a tool given to us so we can “create with it something it was not intended for.” So I'm not alone here. Many of us are interested in subverting the intended use of things.
Years ago while I was attending Sarah Lawrence College I worked at Yonkers Contracting Company and they asked me to set up their Human Resources database with Lotus Approach (the first Lotus windows-based reporting database). As I created my little form of input fields I noticed I could write pop-up tool tips for each field. Being young and irreverent, I added tool tip jokes for as many fields as I could, hoping some sad little data-entry admin years on would find them not only informative but also funny. Months later I accidentally corrupted the entire database and had to rebuild the whole thing in Microsoft Access. In my post-crash gloom, I dispensed with the funny tool tips. But I would be very tempted to misuse tool-tips again in the future.
And considering my own pernicious impulses, it may be surprising to hear me say I am also interested in inserting more love into digital media, as a gesture of sincerity, as a way to tap into universal feeling, and because that’s where Alan Turning started us off with digital literature back in the 1950s.
But this love thing is a challenge. It's not only a risky word in academies and in avant-garde circles but it has also been demoted as a "weak" word in our current political culture. And so it feels slightly revolutionary (which is what New Sincerity suggests). All this makes the idea of internet love poems seem even more appealing to me. I would like to see what I could and couldn’t do with that word.
My personal big challenge as a Generation X-postmodernist is the inherited desire to hide from sincerity. And so hiding is another interest. My yearning to hide has to do not only with my personal discomfort with my own feelings but is part of a tradition of many women poets who have used persona, metaphor and other literary masquerades as a way to say subversive things or just to express honesty in a misogynist space. Alicia Suskin Ostriker has written all about women and masquerades in her essay “I’m Nobody” from her book Stealing the Language.
And I must say, in this regard html pages have been a boon of hiding places, their one special affordance that I find to be immensely useful.
What makes my poems digital media? Readers need a computer to interact with the fully. That’s it. They’re built with features that require a mouse or finger to click a link, reveal hidden text or copy and paste words from one browser tab into another.
Not everything I’ve tried has worked. A lot of these early pieces are messy and lacking in the very clarity and emotion I’d like to see more of out there. But this is the project anyway. I can’t claim any successes, but I can claim a great enthusiasm to try.
Technologists need poets. Many of them learned to code at a very young age and thus avoided a very broad education, literally the humanities. Many of them have become cold, narrow specialists. They need poetry to teach them humanity.
And poets, in their own narrow little bubble of word coding, need technology and technologists to teach them inhumanity. Technology is everywhere in our lives. Poets can turn off their smartphones and go outside to write haikus with paper and pencils (and I do that myself; it's very necessary to do that), but at some point poets need to deal with technology and how it has shaped our thinking and feeling.
- Mary McCray, 22 July 2021