Uncreative or conceptual writing is a type of literature that is born of and made possible by the digital. Although its precedents run deep through twentieth-century modernism, it’s only when things become digital that writers begin to realize new possibilities for language—that is, when it is transformed literally into a plastic material. For the first time, we’re experiencing the ability of language to alter all media, be it images, video, music, or text, something that represents a break with tradition and charts the path for new uses of language. Words are active and affective in concrete ways. You could say that this isn’t writing, and, in the traditional sense, you’d be right. But this is where things get interesting: we aren’t hammering away on typewriters; instead—focused all day on powerful machines with infinite possibilities, connected to networks with a number of equally infinite possibilities—the writer’s role is being significantly challenged, expanded, and updated.
What we take to be graphics, sounds, and motion in our screen world is merely a thin skin under which reside miles and miles of language. If you need evidence of this, think of when you’ve mistakenly received a jpg-attachment in an e-mail that has been rendered not as image but as code that seems to go on forever. It’s all words (though perhaps not in any order that we can understand): The basic material that has propelled writing since its stabilized form is now what all media is created from as well. In analog days, there wasn’t a speck of language residing under the emulsion of a photograph, embedded on a film strip, or lurking in the grooves of an LP. Today, that’s all it is.
With the rise of the web, writing has met its photography. By that, I mean writing has encountered a situation similar to what happened to painting with the invention of photography, a technology so much better at replicating reality that, in order to survive, painting had to alter its course radically. If photography was striving for sharp focus and precise representation, painting was forced to go soft: hence Impressionism, Cubism and then full-blown Modernism. It was a perfect analog-to-analog correspondence, image to image, thus setting the stage for an imagistic revolution.
Today, digital media has set the stage for a literary revolution. In 1974 Peter Bürger was still able to make the claim that “because the advent of photography makes possible the precise mechanical reproduction of reality, the mimetic function of the fine arts withers. But the limits of this explanatory model become clear when one calls to mind that it cannot be transferred to literature. For, in literature, there is no technical innovation that could have produced an effect comparable to that of photography in the fine arts”. Now there is.
While writers have always had a deep and intimate knowledge of language’s capabilities—formally and emotionally– video demonstrates that technology has made language act in ways that I don’t think we’ve conceived of before. In it, words aren’t used to express anything: they don’t sing, emote, or pull heartstrings. Instead, language is pure material: active and affective, more akin to clay or a sledgehammer than a transparent (or opaque) communicator (or miscommunicator).
Never before has language had so much materiality—fluidity, plasticity, malleability—begging to be actively managed by the writer. Before digital language, words were almost always found imprisoned on a page. How different it is today, when digitized language can be poured into any conceivable container: text typed into a Microsoft Word document can be parsed into a database, visually morphed in Photoshop, animated in Flash, pumped into online text-mangling engines, spammed to thousands of e-mail addresses, and imported into a sound-editing program and spit out as music—the possibilities are endless.
Along with materiality comes the fact of abundance and excess. The web houses and produces untold amounts of language, and as a writing machine, it is constantly producing more. Today computers continually query and respond to each other over the internet, assisting one another to become ever more intelligent and efficient. Although we tend to focus on the vast amount of human-to-human social networking being produced, much of the conversation across the networks is machines talking to other machines, spewing “dark data”, code that we never see. In August of 2010, a watershed occurred when more non-human objects came online registered with AT&T and Verizon in greater numbers than did new human subscribers in the previous quarter. This long-predicted situation sets the stage for the next phase of the web called “the internet of things”, where machinic interaction far outpaces human-driven activity on the networks. For example, if your dryer is slightly off-tilt, it wirelessly sends data to a server, which sends back a remedy and the dryer fixes itself accordingly. Such data queries are being sent every few seconds and as a result, we’re about to experience yet another data explosion as billions of sensors and other data input and output devices upload exabytes of new data to the Web.
At first glance, armies of refrigerators and dishwashers sending messages back and forth to servers might not have much bearing on literature, but when viewed through the lens of information management and uncreative writing, these machines are only steps away from being programmed for literary production, writing a type of literature readable only by other robots. And as a result of networking with each other, their feedback mechanism will create an ever-evolving, sophisticated literary discourse, one will be not only invisible to human eyes, but one that will bypass humans altogether.
Christian Bök calls this robopoetics, a condition where “the involvement of an author in the production of literature has henceforth become discretionary”. He asks, “why hire a poet to write a poem when the poem can in fact write itself?”1 Science fiction is poised to become reality, enacting Bök’s prediction for the literary future when he claims that, “we are probably the first generation of poets who can reasonably expect to write literature for a machinic audience of artificially intellectual peers. Is it not already evident by our presence at conferences on digital poetics that the poets of tomorrow are likely to resemble programmers, exalted, not because they can write great poems, but because they can build a small drone out of words to write great poems for us? If poetry already lacks any meaningful readership among our own anthropoid population, what have we to lose by writing poetry for a robotic culture that must inevitably succeed our own? If we want to commit an act of poetic innovation in an era of formal exhaustion, we may have to consider this heretofore unimagined, but nevertheless prohibited, option: writing poetry for inhuman readers, who do not yet exist, because such aliens, clones, or robots have not yet evolved to read it”.
But this begs the question does literature need to be read? Or more pressingly, is it actually read? I’m not so sure about that. Of course, within the confines of a book or a Kindle, yes. But on the internet, text is mostly skimmed. Or copied. Or emailed. Or archived. Or FTP’d. Or PDF’d. Or Instapapered. Or bookmarked. Or liked. In other words, language on the web is managed—as in information—or parsed more than it is really read. Computing space is active and reading is passive. On the web, we just want to get to the next click, so we find ourselves in the position of saving it for later. And in doing so, the reader has become archivist. And, in turn, so has the writer.
Archiving, then, is the new folk art, something that is widely practiced and has unconsciously become integrated into a great many people’s lives, potentially transforming a necessity into a work of art. Like quilting, archiving employs the obsessive stitching together of many small pieces into a larger vision, a personal attempt at ordering a chaotic world. It’s not such a far leap from the quiltmaker to the stamp collector or book collector. Walter Benjamin, an obsessive collector himself, wrote about the close connection between collecting and making in his essay Unpacking My Library : “Among children, collecting is only one process of renewal; other processes are the painting of objects, the cutting out of figures, the application of decals—the whole range of childlike modes of acquisition, from touching things to giving them names”. In Benjaminan terms, all of these impulses—making, collecting & archiving—can be construed as folk practices.
Let’s add to that the organizing of digital materials. The advent of digital culture has turned each one of us into an unwitting archivist. From the moment we used the “save as” command when composing electronic documents, our archival impulses began. “Save as” is a command that implies replication; and replication requires more complex archival considerations: where do I store the copy? Where is the original saved? What is the relationship between the two? Do I archive them both or do I delete the original?
When our machines become networked, it gets more complicated. When we take that document and email it to a friend or professor, our email program automatically archives a copy of both the email we sent as well as duplicating our attachment and saving it into a “sent items” folder. If that same document is sent to a listserv, then that identical archival process is happening on dozens— perhaps even thousands—of machines, this time archived as a “received item” on each of those email systems. When we, as members of that listserv, open that attachment, we need to decide if—and then where—to save it.
I could go on, but you get the point. Writing on an electronic platform is not only writing, but also doubles as archiving; the two processes are inseparable. Or take the “simple” act of listening to music. If we look closer at that which we automatically do every day without thinking, we’ll find it's not so simple. Let’s say I want to play a CD on my computer. The moment I insert it into my drive, a database is called up (Gracenote) and it begins peppering my disc with ID3 tags, useful when I decide to rip the disc to MP3s. The archiving process has begun. Unlike an LP, where all that was required was to slap the platter on a turntable and listen to the music, the MP3 process requires me to become a librarian. The ID3 tags make it possible for me to quickly locate my artifact within my MP3 archive. If Gracenote can’t find it, I must insert those fields —artist, album, track, etc.— myself.
Clearly, all of this is a far cry—and a lot of extra busy work—from the act of merely listening to music. In fact, I spend much more time acquiring, cataloging and archiving my artifacts these days than I do actually engaging with them. The ways in which culture is distributed and archived has become profoundly more intriguing than the cultural artifact itself. What we’ve experienced is a inversion of consumption, one in which we've come to engage in a more profound way with the acts of acquisition over that which we are acquiring; we've come to prefer the bottles to the wine.
What we’re experiencing then, is the evacuation of content. Content—that most important core of expression—has vanished. In its place is the idea of moving information. It doesn’t really matter what that information is; what matters is that we are keeping busy moving this material. In fact, the literary critic Marjorie Perloff has coined a term, “moving information”, to signify both the act of pushing language around as well as the act of being emotionally moved by that process.
Concurrently, the re- gesture has been on the rise: the retweet, the reblog, the repost. So much so, that the re- gesture has come to trump the original. The discovery and dissemination of an artifact is more important than the artifact itself. Content has seceded to the idea of distribution, replication and multiplication. Take the most powerful blog Boing Boing: They don’t create anything, rather they point to cool things. And the fact of them pointing at something far outweighs the importance of the thing they are pointing at. Writers operate in the same way: taking their cues from Duchamp 100 years ago, the new writing is pointing.
Predicting the forthcoming glut of information, the conceptual artist Douglas Huebler wrote, “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more”2. I’ve come to embrace Huebler’s ideas, though it might be retooled as: “The world is full of texts, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more”. It seems an appropriate response to a new condition in writing today: faced with an unprecedented amount of available text, the problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists. How I make my way through this thicket of information—how I manage it, how I parse it, how I organize and distribute it—is what distinguishes my writing from yours.
Again, Marjorie Perloff has recently begun using another term “unoriginal genius” to describe this tendency emerging in literature. Her idea is that due to changes brought on by technology and the internet, our notion of genius—a romantic isolated figure—is outdated. An updated notion of genius would have to center around one’s mastery of information and its dissemination. She posits that today’s writer resembles more a programmer than a tortured genius, brilliantly conceptualizing, constructing, executing and maintaining a writing machine.
In closing, careers and canons won’t be established in traditional ways. I’m not so sure that we'll still have careers in the same way we used to. Literary works might function the same way that memes do today on the web, spreading like wildfire for a short period, often unsigned and unauthored, only to be supplanted by the next ripple. While the author won’t die, we might begin to view authorship in a more conceptual way: perhaps the best authors of the future will be ones who can write the best programs with which to manipulate, parse and distribute language-based practices. Even if, as Bök claims, poetry in the future will be written by machines for other machines to read, there will be, for the foreseeable future, someone behind the curtain inventing those drones; so that even if literature is reducible to mere code—an intriguing idea—the smartest minds behind them will be considered our greatest authors.
- 1. Christian Bök, “The Piecemeal Bard Is Deconstructed: Notes Toward a Potential Robopoetics.” Object 10: Cyberpoetics. 2002. http://ubu.com/papers/object/03_bok.pdf (June 19, 2009). This afterword owes much of its thinking to the work of Bök, who much more elegantly presents his notion of Robopoetics than I ever can. Bök is also much more optimistic than I am, but his work in the field, particularly with his latest genomic project, is convincing enough to make any skeptic rethink their position.
- 2. Douglas Huebler, Artist’s Statement for the gallery publication to accompany January 5 – 31 (Seth Segelaub Gallery, 1969).