Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Code Poetry: The Conversation pt1 (4/6)

[21/10/15] GT:


As to your own piece, the first thought (sorry) was that we could do an anthology of this stuff! Poetry, or poetry and poetics essays, making use of computer software language? But let's leave that thought aside for now.

This is only a starting point for a discussion. I'm not an expert, I've only dabbled in coding many years ago and I have only basic html. If anything, my interest is in my inability to make computer code functional: I fill it with mistakes and fall into recursive traps, lose track of my variables and collapse the sense of what I'm doing. That in itself fascinates me, and that's why I turn to it repeatedly.

The part that struck me recently, when I was thinking about your poem (I've been thinking about it on and off for a couple of months since we met and you showed me the print outs of your work) is that computer languages often separate out functional language from 'commentary' or 'notes to programmer'. So there's a separation of language which needs to be interpreted by machine, and language intended for the human robot working on the code.

That suggests hierarchies and the ability in semiotic terms to construct simultaneously a language that 'does work' and a language that reflects on the work done. Some of the early drafts of 'Static Exile' were written in that kind of format, as 'dismissable' sections of code which were designed not to be read by the 'authorities' lurking in the poem.

Your piece has that in abundance - a hierarchy and ancestry of precision and lists, but also a disruption of reading approaches, as if a machine might make sense of the code where a human can't, but accesses the narrative, or the emotion, or, more likely, the structural politics. Who talks about the structural politics of computer code? (That reminds me of a story I heard about Cold War coders, about how Russian programmers had so little storage space, they had to work harder to execute the same calculations as US programmers using fewer lines of code.)

The question of reader/processor is a strange structural problem in reading such texts: the layout in your piece forced me to read with two heads, a machine-head and a poetry-head. I found myself delighted by certain lines in your work, but they weren't 'yours' or anyone's so to speak, even where they were credited. They belonged to some kind of process; and the idea of the 'code' poem being decodable was fascinating, that there was only process in front of me, no sense of meaning. And that became meaning, forced attention to how structure carried meaning.

The 'resistance' Perloff takes from Adorno and discusses in one or another of her books (I think reflecting on conceptualism in Unoriginal Genius) lies in a resistance at the level of process: language, at the level of the word, the line, or units and stanzas, has actually begun to recede as the alienness of process (against the partial familiarity of syntax) takes over. Which sounds a lot like conceptual poetry, but done without the need to devolve responsibility for the 'curation' of texts so far from real world issues.

Am I making sense? I think my point is, I was hit by the context and concept. When you showed me some of these a couple years ago, I was puzzled and found the difficulty overrode my sense of enjoyment of the lines, but couldn't explain why. Now, with a bit more understanding from certain 'linguistically innovative' poetries (god, how I hate having to write that phrase for job applications), and the context of my own slightly more McSweeneyish response to a similar conundrum, I 'get it' at the level of process better. I can see a degree of human motivation behind it, even where I haven't decoded the specifics of your content, the arguments you've assimilated (although I take signifiers and signposts to the direction they point in).

[I would love to chat more about the process of these poems. It matches up with some experiments Andrew Bailey tested out on me once, and still occasionally uses, though you've a much more developed architecture in these and you did explain some of the simultaneity and serialisation at work. Rather than go into the coding influences, where you found things, I'm fascinated by the effects on language at this stage. I'd love to attempt a dialogue in writing, if you have time, maybe we can use these emails to think about a conversational essay for Gists & Piths, which, incidentally, I've been full of plans to restart now the thesis is over.]

[28/10/15] TC:


Many thanks for reading and thinking so thoroughly about 'Codeswitching'. There is so much I want to expand on what you have written but I think you have really zeroed in on what I was trying to do with this observation: "That suggests hierarchies and the ability in semiotic terms to construct simultaneously a language that 'does work' and a language that reflects on the work done."

This piece was written on a January morning 2004 almost in one go. I am definitely trying to work my way out of some of my own frustrations re. machine and human language, but I think more importantly I am trying to think what it means to write as a writing subject whose sense of agency is gradually slipping away.

So, yes I did try to write in different styles and different discourses (hence, my attempt at using the Dewey Decimal System and transcribing as accurately as possible a Scottish accent); in the end, it did not matter: I wanted to put down a feeling of alienation and alienness to the whole idea of writing. I am always thinking that writing is the most natural thing to do but if you ask me how certain lines have come about, I have no idea. I know this sounds like I am veering dangerously close to fairy-land stories about the "transcendental nature of writing" but in fact, what this piece is trying to do is to figure out how the process of writing (and language) actually has a very material consequence.

I remember being taught Ancient Greek and one of the better teachers explaining to us the concept of the infinitive as an ice cube and we must think of the declension of verbs as the melted water that comes from the ice cube. Does that make sense to you? So, yes as you say I am hugely interested in process if only because process gives a glimpse into how we come to think about the world. I am afraid this all sounds very airy-fairy but I am maintaining this is all very hard line materialist and we need to question the process of how we come to say what we say, constantly.

This is where some of the poets N. Katherine Hayles has been championing fail: it is fashionable to diss Goldsmith for his politics but the interesting thing is that for all his talk of appropriation and process, his work and work ethic seem to be completely unburdened by the practical ramifications of his own practice. Hope this all makes sense.

[I would be very interested in taking this further and yes, I would love to do this for a revamped Gists & Piths. This is a lot to think about. Apologies if I am not making perfect sense (which, as you know, it would not be the first time).]

[18/1/16] GT:


I wanted to carry on with this discussion about computer code and poetic language. I completely understand the idea of language as having a material process. Sociological studies hold that the 'frame' through which we experience the world is often stronger than the material evidence, or even the material language we see in front of us.[*] So, yes, poetry needs to tackle that head on.

Lately I've been reading studies about climate deniers and the language of the Anthropocene. I wouldn't say I've yet the grounds for a solid foundation for the argument, but the idea that language is itself a filter to our experience of the material world meets up (perhaps a skewed joint) to what you say.

[I'm thinking about Kamau Brathwaite's argument that the iambic pentameter can't capture the experience of people in Commonwealth countries, like in the West Indies, where snow never falls, even though they were been bombarded with such poems under colonial rule. What does it do to your sense of reality when the language you have to respond to and experience the world is almost exclusively from a culture thousands of miles away?]

The ice cube/melted water problem: what happens when you restrict your vocabulary, as the Dadaists (or was it the Futurists?) attempted, to just nouns and verbs? What sense of the world do we learn? And so too, a static, past-tense vocabulary: the close, third person past tense of a generic literary novel?

The question of 'doing work' with code had me thinking along related (OK, possibly tangential) lines. I have a sense of a functional language in code (accompanied by a reflective //commentary which the computer is told not to read). Which makes me wonder how 'new' comes about in coding. If you are given only a finite set of 'functional' words to work with then 'originality' comes about only through contextualisation. You can't re-purpose the meaning of words, the code would 'break'. At least, that's my limited sense of it and I defer to your better understanding.

Against this, I started thinking about the 'function of poetry'. Which is a dangerous path, but hear me out. For myself, I guess I'm still thinking about the whole 'make it new' (MIN) dictat. And I acknowledge there's a separate approach which I'll describe as 'make it safe' (MIS).

The MIN approach suggests a constant re-purposing, re-contextualising, restructuring, of language and its architecture: the word, the sentence, the line, the stanza, the paragraph, the book. MIN is a moral condition which suggests the world is not right; there's always a need to open up the structures of discourse so that power can be reassigned, questioned, challenged; but also a need to think our ways through external challenges. Both are a form of adaptation.

MIS then is using language to preserve, conserve, those factors which supposedly are already OK. You could say, from this reading, that MIS is written by people who think the world doesn't need changing. The complacent/bourgeois/already powerful/blind. They're quite insulted in literary history, even by people who'd fit that category.

I'd say you need a balance of both (but I would say that (but still)). And I lean toward MIN. Only, I understand it as a practice of making poetry wherein the language is simultaneously unfamiliar and understandable.

I don't want to start setting up more binaries than I have already, so I'll put this on pause. But with all the ways that you can defamiliarise, alienate, make new, with poetry, and the limits to code languages by comparison, I wonder why or how, you turn to code language to alienate yourself? Doesn't the code require a degree of expertise, thereby, familiarity, already? Is it yourself or your reader you want to alienate?

More questions than offerings, given how late, how late.


[*] I was thinking of George Lakoff, an article in Alternet full of typos I read around that time, but his book, Metaphors We Live By, might be more relevant now.

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