Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Code Poetry: The Conversation pt2 (5/6)

[02/08/16 and again 16-18/08/16] TC:

I write a lot and throw out the significant majority of the stuff I write. I used to think that code is a good way of giving me a chance to rethink how language works outside Greek, English, French or any other language I have some knowledge of. I still think that, but I also think that code language allows for something else: it allows me to rethink how language can often function (perhaps more often that we’d like to admit) as a strategy of acknowledgment, negotiation and reconciliation. Yes, the question of defamiliarisation and alienation of self and subjectivity has been a long running theme in a lot of the stuff I have been doing but there is also an implied negotiation folded in there [note: I wrote “neogotiation” instead of “negotiation”, which I love: negotiating with what is new? negotiating everything from the top?]. I think this is also why I am endlessly fascinated by musical remixes or variations on a musical theme: sometimes, the intent is to playfully appropriate while other times, the intent is to intentionally subvert the original track/theme. I was gobsmacked with DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing when I discovered it in the summer of 1998 (perhaps it was late summer?) and the idea of a flowing subjectivity working across different rhythms, times, series, strata and discourses. It helped that I spent most of 1997 reading Douglas Rushkoff’s books (Cyberia and Media Virus, in particular) and discovering in the summer of 1998 Kodwo Eshun’s mind boggling More Brilliant Than The Sun which exposed me to so many novel concepts and theories. More than anything, all this stuff showed me that one must in some way acknowledge their own, personal responsibility within the culture one finds oneself. And while all of this began from my being intrigued by people creating works of art borrowing, appropriating and modulating on existing artworks, this also eventually also dovetailed back to a discussion I had with a childhood friend who was moved back to Greece in the mid-1980s from Italy and brought along with him a huge PC and this book that taught you the BASIC programming language. That was quite the future shock. More defamiliarisation emanating from late childhood.

Code tends to equally frustrate and surprise me still: my fantasy of code - before I really got into it - used to involve the lightcycles from Tron (geek!) but I was rather disappointed when I realised that code turned out to be less exciting than motorbikes appearing out of thin air. The disappointment gave way to excitement when I realised code was a language which meant another grammar and another syntax one uses to make new stuff (geek!). So, even when defamiliarisation and alienation are present in these code poems, I view code also as an alleviation, or rather a rebuttal to nostalgia. To extend your line of thinking further, MIS needs to be dismantled every day bit by bit: as Deleuze and Guattari say, there is no such thing as a clean break but I think we need to conceive of strategies and mechanisms towards an investigation of aesthetically arid and socially irresponsible uses of language. So, to reiterate: your point about Making It New is very astute and the distinction you are making between MIS and MIN is necessary to acknowledge and express. But in using I think there is more to this: the ubiquitousness of code needs to addressed. My response to your message is made possible through the mediation of computers, and by extension code. As N. Katherine Hayles notes in, what I think will become a key text, ‘Traumas of Code’, “Derrida’s famous aphorism, ‘Il n’y a pas de hors-texte’ [there is nothing outside the text] has been replaced by its computational equivalent Il n’y a pas de hors-code [there is no outside to the code]”.[1] This inability to exist outside code in the supermediated world we live is bound to have some repercussions. We need to have some understanding how this supermediated world is constructed and how we live in it. One needs to acknowledge the existence of the code running in the background and what it does to us and our understanding of ourselves and the world. The internet of things and all that. I was discussing something along these lines with Sophie Mayer over coffee at some point and Sophie pointed out that the Singularity has already happened and we need to realise that the machines are actually training us in how they work rather than the other way round (hope I am not paraphrasing too much! Sophie can correct me if I am misquoting her).

And, as mentioned before, it is this ubiquitousness of code that I am trying to negotiate with in these poems. Expertise follows after acknowledgment turns into familiarity: a feedback loop. I am also attaching a poem in Greek written & published in 2010 [2] which attempts to consider what inspiration is all about/where it stems from and how code might figure in the creative process. The poem is an attempt to talk about many things: the actual language is inspired by the work of Mez Breeze, an Australian-based internet artist who has invented her own hybrid language mezangelle but it also attempts to ask many questions about machine language and its effect on inspiration using various oulipian techniques. The background of the poem itself is a graphic representation of the moves made by my hands while using the keyboard. So, the poem in itself is both a manifesto which playfully explains as much as it obscures.

So: how do you communicate in this language that is human in origin but also machinic in a very real way? What is the impact of this machine language on human language? How can register and tone be documented in code? Writing across and between languages makes one reconsider how one thinks in whichever language one is writing. I know I have written poems that have begun in one language that were finished in another (English to Greek and vice-versa); but I have also written poems in, say, python which have given me answers about impasses reached in half-finished or abandoned poems written in English or Greek. It is a rather peculiar process: sometimes, it feels like solving a puzzle but mostly it feels like negotiating with some sort of unresolved issue between languages and between different modes of perception, action and reaction. Hayles puts it succinctly, “Experienced consciously, but remembered nonlinguistically, trauma has structural affinities with code” (ibid). And while one can certainly disagree with Hayles’ point re. affinities of code with trauma, somewhat unconsciously I think that poetic languages, itself an excess/surplus of language, as a unique means of navigating trauma and its specific linguistic/semantic codes, code and its attendant traumas. I am too weary to begin such a discussion here because I am still thinking through these issues myself; I fear I will end up sounding callous or insensitive or insulting (probably all three simultaneously) so I will try and tread carefully. Surplus of meaning (or the exhaustion thereof as a result of the trauma of meaning surplus) can alienate: an excess of production often implies an inability to effectively process said surplus. But surplus/rarefaction of meaning might also require new reading capacities and code can be a way to think about this but also about new modes of meaning production and reception.

Code poetry offers that rare opportunity to simultaneously recontextualise without ‘breaking’ as you say the meaning of words, hence its inherent ‘strangeness’. Το repeat a claim made many times before, poetry is of the body and when it works, it amplifies the affective capacity of the body. Code poetry on the other hand can work both in paper but also when it runs, though the effect can be starkly different depending on the reader/viewer. This is where the familiarity comes in and to be honest, this is what I am least interested in. I am more interested in how code poetry makes me rethink about the friction between different languages, potential impasses, dispersals and breakdowns of communication and meaning production; in other words, code poetry offers the chance to think about how the machine as language and language as machine works and how and when they might break down. Code poetry makes even more apparent not only the constraints of language and their effect on the actual body but also the generation of new sources of meaning and the new affective challenges they pose.

Once more, we return to this: how do we read in this age of hypermediation? What is it that we do with what we read? How do we navigate the paradigm of too much communication, too much information? Poetry and code poetry might offer some sort of solution but there is a lot of work we have to do for (and on) ourselves if we want to keep up. The question is not what the AI overlords will do when they emerge gleaming from their perfect pods but how we are going to keep up with the evolution of poetry and language in a context when machine mediation will be seamless for a certain part of the population. What are the new cultural and social inequalities that will be created there and how must we tackle them?

I have meandered enough and have again offered more questions than answers.


[1] N. Katherine Hayles, “Traumas of Code”, Critical Inquiry vol. 33, no. 1 (Autumn 2006): 136-157. Available online.

[2] The poem was written in the context of a literary festival when asked by a newspaper that perennial question “What is inspiration?”

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