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    Review of:
    Loss Pequeño Glazier, Digital Poetics: The Making of E-Poetries. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2002

A poem is a small (or large)
Machine made of words.

--William Carlos Williams

  1. The odd thing about innovative literature is that no literature is innovative. The familiar but unsolvable paradox of Ezra Pound's rallying cry to "Make it new!" (147) was exactly what made modernist aesthetics so persuasive and productive for the last century of literature. Pound's statement is paradoxical from the first: he seems to call for new forms and subjects for literature, for a rejection of tradition, all the while using a quote from the tradition-bound world of Confucius. Of course, the critical problem involved is nothing new. In the simplest sense, the "new"-ness of literary innovation occurs against the background of a tradition that novelty ends up reinforcing. Any literary work will be innovative in purely conventional ways, readable for its experimentation and for its relation to a stable tradition of experiment. On the other hand, the deep thrill of the new remains in its claim on the future, where each innovation opens a temporal difference within the continuities of literary history. Making it new seems to enliven the present with the future. Innovation is always possible, for the odd thing about innovative literature is that all literature is innovative. It is hard to see literary history without Pound's axiom. Or, better: at once novelty and tradition, surprise and repetition, the paradox of innovation--and the degree to which we resolve or displace it--explains something of the role of literature today.

  2. If we are to take Niklas Luhmann seriously, the paradox of innovation underlies "art as a social system" (199-201). The systematicity of literature, as an institution, is built on this paradox of an innovation that is never more than a repetition. Literary innovation and the modern identification of literature as innovation allow for the observation of processes of historical novelty. This is not the place for an extended exposition of Luhmann's general social theory, but literary innovation plays a fundamental though paradoxical role in his understanding of modernity as a system of interlocking subsystems.[1] The functional differentiation of each closed, self-maintaining subsystem means that theory can only offer partial accounts of system functioning.[2] Each theoretical account is focused on the subsystem's particular mode of differentiation. For systems to differentiate themselves, they must internally copy and reflect the distinction between system and environment. The system of artworks differentiates itself through its concern with innovation. The focus on novelty is the form of self-reference unique to artworks in the social systems of modernity. Moreover, the particularity of the written medium codifies and universalizes the self-referential, auto-telic function of artworks (284-5). As a result, all modern artworks tend toward the medium of writing. Meanwhile, if innovation is central to the self-production (autopoeisis) of all systems, then the specific role of literature is the observation of this self-production "itself" (Roberts 33-5). Literature is how modernity describes the kinetics of its own historical evolution. "Making it new" is a dynamic maintaining the openness of sub-systems to the environment. One implication is that the language-focus of contemporary poetries is less a response to a postmodern loss of reference than a self-referential code within a language increasingly employed as an instrumental tool for exchange and commerce. This is evident in the popular role of literature: it must produce results that are declared to be important but are not taken seriously.

  3. The first-order theories of cybernetics and informatics that underlie Luhmann's theories already presupposed a concept of literature as information density. While Luhmann's concern is with observation and differentiation between systems, these "first order" theories approached "control and communication in the animal and the machine"--in the words of Norbert Wiener's subtitle to Cybernetics--as a matter of coding and transmitting messages within a given information system. For example, Claude E. Shannon's crucial Mathematical Theory of Communication argued that information was unrelated to meaning (31). The problems of information theory were instead a matter of efficient coding and transmission of messages. For Shannon, the more complex and difficult the encoding of a message, the more information it contained. Inversely, information-dense messages contained little redundancy, that is, little of the message could be lost without compromising the communication involved. Now, the novelty of literature was Shannon's singular example of information density (56). Literature consistently supplied the limit concept of a message with little or no redundancy. Since information theory addresses systems of coding and transmission, literature remains necessary to the definition of information while lying outside its space of application. Literature is the medium of information "itself."

  4. From a systems-theory point of view, innovative literature is a meta-code ensuring the stability of the systems through pure self-reference. "Innovation" is the doubleness of a paradox that literature thematizes. The proximity of literature to the root association of poetry as poeisis or "making" suggests a more dynamic role than internal self-maintenance. No doubt Luhmann's description is accurate enough, though it does little to explain why literary innovation remains so compelling despite all paradoxes. That is, it works well as a description of "art as a social system" but less well as an account of literature "itself." The insistence on systematicity does not solve but merely displaces the paradox of innovative literature. Rather than take this as a failure of Luhmann's rather grandiose theory, it should be seen as pointing out the asystematicity of literary innovation. Luhmann's theory offers a displaced version of literary aesthetics within the rigorous sociological rubric of systems theory. Literature becomes a provisional closure, the institutional site for the introduction and assimilation of innovation. The poetic point of systems theory is that innovative literature--as making, poeisis--rather than simply thematizing the integration of newness into the system, is what creates the dynamism of the system in the first place. So-called digital literature only underlines the point, since it automates processes defined by and identified with modernist innovation: instant surrealism or Burroughsian cut-ups via text generators; instant seriality and collaboration via email or IRC; instant concrete and animated poetry via Photoshop or Flash; instant procedural and concept poetry via hypertext or HTML forms; and so on.

  5. It is exciting, then, to read the persuasive call for "electronic space as a space of poeisis" (5) in Loss Pequeño Glazier's Digital Poetics: The Making of E-Poetries. Invoking poetry as making or poeisis both broadens the scope of poetic innovation and raises the question of "What are we making here?" (the title of the final section of Glazier's book). Opening the field while raising the stakes is typical of Glazier's approach. This is a challenging, sometimes frustrating, but always important book. Digital Poetics fascinates as a reflection of its subject matter, as an attempt to grasp the textuality of e-poetry in the antique textuality of the book.

  6. At first glance, one finds in Digital Poetics an assemblage of diverse essays reflecting disparate occasions and sources, but unified by a singular insistence that innovative poetry practice informs how we might explore digital media. This first reading finds in Glazier a kind of policeman of innovative writing, laying down the law declaring who is in, who is out. As one might expect, such maneuvers produce a reaction. Brandon Barr's review in Electronic Book Review argues that Glazier's "prescriptions and descriptions seem to narrowly define precisely where he wants [...] expansion to occur." Other early responses have similarly focused on these efforts to fix and monumentalize a canon and criteria for innovative literature. These critiques confuse particular moments in Glazier's argument with crippling errors.[3] Suspiciously, such readings find Glazier's book too easily repeating the modernist paradoxes of the new and innovative, too explicitly positing the oxymoron of normative innovation. Let it be said that Glazier is fundamentally committed to an inclusive poetics, open to diverse technologies, forms, and modes of authoring--as his pioneering work as creator and Director of the Electronic Poetry Center (<>) makes clear. In fact, the book is much more subtle in staging the processes of innovation within institutional thematizations of the new. If there is a performative contradiction here, between Glazier's commitment to innovation and his insistence on distinguishing the innovative from the non-innovative, it reflects the tight, reflexive relation of poeisis to conceptualization. Innovation will be institutionalized, will become part of the dynamics of the system of literary history. Glazier recognizes his book as part of this process: he insists on the radical openness of innovative practice while insisting on its particularity to certain modes and traditions. Glazier's criticism is as much a result of as an interpretation of its object.

  7. Make no mistake: Digital Poetries is a paradoxical book. Read this book against the grain, but the grain is multiple and branching. Glazier offers an appropriate description of e-text: "Because much or all of your text may not be received, you must, to be successful, create a text that is somehow suspended between various possibilities of reading." He continues that such a text is "provisional, conditional, and characterized by its multiple renderings," or better: it is a "program" (15). Glazier's book is a kind of "program." Like the web-based poetries Glazier uses as examples, the book oscillates between display and markup, a "dance between possibilities of representation" (15). The skeleton key to understanding innovative literature is not this or that innovative literature but literary innovation itself, and it is this poetic principle with which Glazier dances. Innovation or poeisis occurs. The result is a kind of model of how to read poetry, focused on a background of innovation against which all making occurs. Glazier's central claim bears close attention: through the over-reaching of poetry as the exemplification of digital media, particularly within the current interest in programmable poetry and codework as literature, innovation shines through as a cultural process within and against literary tradition. Still, Glazier's exclusionary moves in establishing criteria and a canon for innovative digital poetry are what first get the reader's attention. These moves amount to three major claims.

  8. First claim: prose and prose concepts dominate discussions of digital literature. This means that the primary examples of digital literature are in prose form and are situated in the prose tradition. A simple reading of the major scholarly works on digital writing shows this claim to be non-controversial. More interestingly, Glazier shows how discussions of digital writing continually adopt prose concepts and terms as paradigms. Prose, with its narrative trajectory and linearity, swallows all other forms of literature when it comes to the digital. Glazier's alternative is no surprise: innovative poetry.

  9. Second claim: the emergent canon of thinkers and practitioners of digital literature excludes other possible writing practices. These figures largely overlap with the dominance of prose: they are the writers whose work circulates in discussion of digital literature, the texts taught in universities, cited in the press, and so on. The configuration is something like Moulthrop/Joyce/Landow/Bolter. Glazier's response is to suggest that equally important work emanates from the field of digital poetries. He presents an alternative configuration something like Cayley/Kac/Rosenberg and Glazier himself.

  10. Final claim: innovative writing can be distinguished from non-innovative writing. Glazier argues that innovative writing is marked by two central concerns: 1) it "offers the perspective of the multiple 'I'" and, 2) it "recognizes the importance of the materials of writing to writing itself, an engagement with its medium" (22). He goes on to identify the non-innovative with specific features: "narrative, plot, anecdotal re-telling of human experiences, logical descriptions, chronological sequences of events, a reliance on factual information, a view of language as a transparent (or at most, tinted) bearer of meaning, and an attachment to a Modernist aesthetic" (47). The innovative lines up very clearly with the poetic, and with a very particular line of poetic tradition.

  11. What are we to make of these three claims? Glazier is persuasive in showing the exclusive focus on digital narratives, and there is no doubt that this focus limits the field of literature and enforces a concern with rules, ordering, and territories. Just as certainly, nothing is gained by replacing one canon with another and one set of rules with another. The point-counterpoint quality of aligning constellations of names must be understood as a tactical maneuver rather than as the absolute declaration of a new canon: it is not that Cayley/Kac/Rosenberg/Glazier must now be read to the exclusion of all others, but that they open the field of digital poetries circumscribed by Moulthrop/Joyce/Landow/Bolter. No doubt, none of the figures on these lists (including Glazier himself) is committed to a single and monumental view of digital literature. Glazier's targets are instead our easy institutionalization of "major figures" and the almost subterranean assimilation of exemplary works to models for all work.

  12. The criteria distinguishing the innovative from the non-innovative are somewhat more complex. At first they seem easy to dismiss, since any writing can be shown to exhibit Glazier's criteria for innovation. Adorno's assertion that "even demystified artworks are more than is literally the case" (45) applies: even the most non-reflexive writing shows, in its resistance to reflection, a concern with its medium and its mode of authorship. The criteria of innovation can be generalized into meaninglessness. Furthermore, there is an arbitrariness to his list of non-innovative features. A "Modernist aesthetic" would describe many of the writers Glazier valorizes as precursors to electronic poetry: Pound, Williams, Stein; who could be more Modernist? Moreover, Modernism is typically seen as challenging the other items in the list (narrative, plot, linearity, etc.). As a tactical approach to reading poetry rather than as an empirical feature of poems, however, "the perspective of the multiple 'I'" offers insight into writing that emphasizes the conditions enabling voice, the polyphonous messages crossing even the most transparent communication, and the agency of various informational nodes and programs (47-54). Again, looking past the prescriptive rhetoric, Glazier's criteria function less as restrictions on how to write than as a pedagogy applying equally to the reading of innovative poetry and digital media.

  13. Glazier's connection between innovative writing and a recognition of "the importance of the materials of writing to writing itself, an engagement with its medium" is complicated by a conceptual slippage. Is the point the materials or the medium? The distinction is not trivial, implying the difference between a focus on the tools of making and the way these tools are reflected in the object. Glazier's use of "materiality" derives from Jerome McGann's work on textual "conditions," situating the poem "within specific conditions of textuality" (20). Glazier further elaborates McGann's point in terms of the "licensing" of textual experimentation by "the cultural scene" in which it moves. These conditions "not only inform, but facilitate the emergence of specific types of writing" (55).[4] The slippage from material to medium is stabilized in the notion of informing "conditions." Here literature is roughly an example of historically contingent conditions of text production, a mimetic reflex to the cultural scene. In terms of digital media, literary writing remains of interest as a reflexive example of digital media. Poetry works like the doubleness of code (as something to be read and something to be performed). In the background is a rhetorical schema binding the immateriality of digital information and the materiality of particular instantiations. That is, we read digital media, and we do so because they are like innovative literature. The consistency of this reassuring schema rests on the critical gamble of a mimetic likeness between literature and digital media. The slippage between medium and material is indicative of this mimetic relation.

  14. The crucial point--the crux of Glazier's argument--is the nature of the exemplification involved. Is the poem simply a repetition of the conditions that license it? Does an emphasis on materiality dissolve the poem into its medium? Or can we speak of engagement with the medium as a more complex negotiation? Similarly, does an emphasis on materiality, both in innovative writing and in digital media, materialize poetic innovation? Can innovation be grasped in this way? Is the status of the material in fact a concealed concern with the reception of novelty, that is, with the reading of innovation?[5] Curiously, though he invokes McGann and other theorists of textual materiality, close attention to Glazier's argument reveals a difference between Glazier's theory of the material and the materialities that he examines. In fact, Glazier's use of materiality rescues an explicitly poetic materiality, closer to Robert Duncan's "first permission" (7) than to McGann's "licensing." Glazier balances an awareness of the ideological frameworks in which poetry occurs with the material conditions created through acts of poeisis.

  15. The best instance of this conditional making is the work of Jim Rosenberg, invoked by Glazier as "one of the most valuable investigations currently underway" in digital poetry (137). There is as yet no adequate critical discussion of Rosenberg's poetry--which is as much rooted in mathematics, music, and philosophy as in poetic tradition--but Glazier provides an excellent opening, and with good reason: Rosenberg offers a poetic practice rooted in poeisis or innovation prior to any particular material instantiation. At first this seems paradoxical, given Rosenberg's tight identification with digital poetry (and his place in Glazier's alternative canon). In fact, Rosenberg challenges the digital orthodoxy by defining hypertext in the abstract, as a way of representing a network that could represented by "other means than using a computer--on paper, for instance." At the same time, Rosenberg takes hypertext as a way of thinking not yet possible in any given technology. That is, hypertext is in no way a function of technology but rather a particular approach to writing practice. This resulting provisionality of the poem situates poetic innovation in the reader and not the material text.

  16. Rosenberg's diverse works share an interest in simultaneity. While we are familiar with simultaneous musical notes or simultaneous visual figures in painting, writing is largely understood as a linear, sequential medium. As Rosenberg is at pains to point out, even such a purportedly multilinear form as hypertext--at least in the dominant link-node model--is intrinsically rooted in the line. While structurally there might seem to be many possible choices for the reader, reading or navigation is a disjunctive process of choice and elimination. The link-node follows a logic of "or." There are other possibilities. Just as category theory offers divergent forms of mathematical inclusion and exclusion, Rosenberg proposes that the disjunctive link-node is only one of a multiplicity of hypertexts. His work seeks a logic of "and," rooted in conjunction or gathering.

  17. Rosenberg's poetic simultaneities are piles of words, stacked clusters of word "skeins," following his insight in "The Interactive Diagram Sentence" that such juxtaposition is "the most basic structural act." Mousing over "opens" the simultaneity to reveal an individual skein, a scatter of words and phrases, with "vertical" relations indicated by changes in font. The simultaneity is a poem that emits readable texts. Each text is the outcome of the user's mouse interactions with Rosenberg's programmed relations between skeins. Appearances are conditioned by the user's attention via the structure perception-mouseover-poem. The poem is an opening.

  18. While it is possible to speak of particular textual conditions enabling Rosenberg's work--the tradition of Mac Low's simultaneities, the availability of easily programmable Hypercard stacks, and so on--none of these adequately accounts for what happens as individual skeins appear and disappear. The simultaneity remains in a kind of quasi-space and -time prior to the text. Mousing over is the real time of the poem. The resulting words are not inscriptions but transcriptions of the user's movement and attention. Following Rosenberg's definition in "The Interactive Diagram Sentence": the simultaneity is a "fundamental micromaneuver at the heart of all abstraction," producing a minimal possible world, a phenomenology of momentary objects.

  19. Rosenberg argues that we should think of hypertext as "a medium in which one thinks 'natively.'" The paradoxical task is to think of the technology that would be adequate to "an individual thought" that "is entirely hypertext." Rosenberg writes a poem for technology not yet available. In this disjunction of grand conceptual apparatus with its instantiation in digital media, Rosenberg's work is innovative by means of its own failure. These poems mark the structural relation between a poem and itself as an act of innovation. The poem is innovation's "mode of disappearance," as Jean Baudrillard puts it (213).[6]

  20. The recent convergence of code and writing offers an extended test ground for the notion of provisional materiality developed in Glazier's and Rosenberg's work. Glazier's argument for the structural similarity of poem and code (164) and the assimilation of the poet to programmer (176) comes in the context of emergent writing practices such as Alan Sondheim's "codework" and MEZ's "net.wurk."[7] In much of this work, code is invoked as a mode of citation, distortion, and linguistic play; in some cases, the work itself is the outcome of executable code. This "uneasy combination of contents and structures" (Sondheim) would seem to fulfill Glazier's claims that innovative poetry will inform how we might explore digital media. What makes these works is their thematization of the coupling between code as an artificial language instructing and interacting with a microprocessor, and code as something to be read.

  21. Literary innovation continues to provide the model for what is new about new media. The poem does not exemplify the work of digital media, but we understand digital media through literary writing. Our experience of innovative writing provides the particular, reflexive experience we seek in digital media. In the end, code is a kind of extra or "ternary" sign added to text. To call this sign "materiality" is to acknowledge the conditional, procedural, and rhetorical quality of the material.[8] "Code" metaphorizes poetic invention, and it is this metaphor that makes codework so fascinating today. Innovative writing practice makes digital media new.

  22. The value of Digital Poetics is its identification of the systematic relation between innovative poetry and digital media. Digital poetry reflects on processes of organization and development in the systems of communication and media we live in today. Glazier starts his book with the observation that "we have not arrived at a place but at an awareness of the conditions of texts" (1), and in this respect his book seems to mime its object, offering less of a conclusion than a sustained reflection on its own conditions of possiblity. The prescriptive veneer of Glazier's argument is a reaction to a rigorous attention to literary innovation. The text integrates Glazier's own poetry with critical reflection and reverie, and further adopts and adapts terminology from UNIX and other computer environments, dissolving the distinction between acts of programming and poetry writing. If this book frustrates, it is in part because it is written through William Carlos Williams's attitude toward the poem and the program--toward the program-poem--as "active," where the poem is itself "an instrument of thought" (6). The paradoxical self-reflexivity involved is obvious: the poet "thinks through the poem" (6) to discover the very poem being thought through. Glazier convincingly shows that digital media is a site of just such poetical activity today.
  23. The Center for Literary Computing
    West Virginia University

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    1. See Rasch on Luhmann as "modernity's most meticulous theorist" (10).

    2. Lyotard's critique of Habermas, directed at the desire for an "organic whole," hardly applies to Luhmann. Luhmann's modernity offers not so much a lack of unity but a unity composed of functions and relations that cannot be surveyed from outside. See Rasch 29-52.

    3. See, for example, Weishaus' review in Rain Taxi and the debates in the archive of the venerable POETICS listserv. Compare Hartley's review, with its emphasis on poeisis paralleling my own.

    4. Compare the influential "media materialism" of Friedrich Kittler where the conditions of information processing are defined as material for a given cultural moment.

    5. N. Katherine Hayles's influential How We Became Posthuman is a parallel example of this presupposition that literary texts provide insight into the material structures of digital media.

    6. This concluding chapter of Baudrillard's Symbolic Exchange and Death is a valuable contribution to the analysis of poetry, often overlooked for his better-known essays on simulation.

    7. See Sondheim and MEZ.

    8. A useful comparison is Michel Foucault's analysis of the "enunciative function" that requires a "repeatable materiality" (102) in order to organize those institutions that facilitate possibilities of reinscription and transcription (103).

    Works Cited

    Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P, 1997.

    Barr, Brandon. "Intersection and Struggle: Poetry in a New Landscape." Electronic Book Review. E-Poetry, 3-24-02. <>. Accessed September 10, 2002.

    Baudrillard, Jean. Symbolic Exchange and Death. Trans. Iain Hamilton Grant. London: Sage Publications, 1993.

    Duncan, Robert. The Opening of the Field. New York: New Directions, 1960.

    Foucault, Michel. The Archeology of Knowledge. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972.

    Hartley, George. "Innovative Programmers of the World Unite!" nmediac: The Journal of New Media and Culture. Winter 2002. <>. Accessed September 10, 2002.

    Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago, IL: U of Chicago P, 1999.

    Kittler, Friedrich. Discourse Networks 1800/1900. Trans. Michael Metteer, with Chris Cullens. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1990.

    Luhmann, Niklas. Art as a Social System. Trans. Eva M. Knott. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2000.

    MEZ [Mary-Anne Breeze]. "Net & Codeworkers Inc[ubation]." trAce Online Writing Centre. <>. Accessed July 10, 2002

    POETICS listserv archive. SUNY Buffalo. <>.

    Pound, Ezra. "Canto LIII." Selected Poems. New York: New Directions, 1957. 262-74.

    Rasch, William. Niklas Luhmann's Modernity: The Paradoxes of Differentiation. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2000.

    Roberts, David. "Self-Reference in Literature." In The Problems of Form. Ed. Dirk Baecker. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1999.

    Rosenberg, Jim. "The Interactive Diagram Sentence: Hypertext as a Medium of Thought." Originally printed in Visible Language. 30:2. <>. Accessed July 10, 2002.

    Shannon, Claude E. and Warren Weaver. The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1963.

    Sondheim, Alan. "Introduction: Codework." ABR 22.6 (Sept/Oct 2001): 1.

    Wiener, Norbert. Cybernetics: Or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991.

    Weishaus, Joel. "Review of Digital Poetics." Rain Taxi Online Edition. Summer 2002. <>. Accessed July 10, 2002.

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