- "Living Letterforms":The Ecological Turn in Contemporary Digital Poetics
faut-il se rappeler
it comes to one thing
que l'on peut n'être seul
one cannot be alone
parmi cette autre multitude
amongst the multiple beingsDavid Jhave Johnston, Sooth
T he work of Canadian artist David Jhave Johnston—in Teleport, subtitled "a tiny tale of inter-body tourism," in his post-Fukushima Extinction Elegies, and particularly in his video poem, Sooth—contains in miniature many of the central themes and formal features of digital poetry as it evolved over the course of the last decade. If Talan Memmott's poetic practice, specifically in his well-known Lexia to Perplexia, exemplified the self-reflexive engagement with inscription technologies particular to "writing machines" at the turn of the millennium, Jhave's practice is paradigmatic of work after 2000 in its enactment of a different type of media ecology, one not exclusively concerned with human-computer interactions or computational processes.1 In its articulation of an ecological matrix of natural spaces and built environments and a diversity of life forms, Jhave's practice also serves as an important counter to the "narcisystem," Memmott's neologistic formulation for our fetishistic attachment to the enclosed circuits linking the human [End Page 883] subject and the apparatus ("Delimited Meshings"). Narcisystems, as Memmott explains, "privilege local space over remotional [sic] attachment," while the ecological systems articulated in Jhave's work instead foreground these very attachments, those formed as a consequence of making oneself available to, and responding to, the entities, bodies, or "multiple beings" contained within it. In broad terms that cannot, of course, be comprehensive, digital poetry in the past ten years has made a similar turn from the human-machine loops that structure text generators and combinatorial works alike toward ecological matrices that are at once mediated and lively. Brian Kim Stefans's Flash-based The Dreamlife of Letters, with its elegant animated design, is another key bookend for the beginning of the decade, one that might serve as a contrast between a poetic practice that plays with text behaviors and the concrete arrangement of letters in a monochromatic and two-dimensional screen space and the work that starts to emerge with different software platforms and scripting languages, that which makes intensive use of video and ambient sound and thereby invites new modes of sensory apprehension and both reflects upon and opens up into the world beyond the screen.
That digital poetics should necessarily be included in a survey of poetry of the first decade of the twenty-first century gives some indication of its newly established institutional presence. Now the subject of university courses, dissertations, monographs, edited collections, journals, festivals, and literary anthologies, digital poetics is no longer widely subject to the charge that it is a mere curiosity or technocratic exercise that privileges technique over poetic language. In light of the significant material investments in personnel, infrastructure, and exhibitions, reductive evaluative distinctions between a proper poetic practice supported by the weight of history and ephemeral tinkering within a particular production environment now seem especially outmoded.2 Indeed, nearly every commentary on the fundamental [End Page 884] changes we have seen in our reading and writing practices, whether anecdotal or based on expert knowledge, recognizes the transformative potential of "electronic" or "digital" text, broadly conceived. Participation in the field has also grown, which is attributable both to the shifts in cultural status and to the increased range of modalities of practice made possible by technological developments.
My claims for the newfound prominence of digital poetics, however, might be offset by the wide variety of terms used to describe it—New Media poetics, e-poetry, electronic literature, New Media writing, networked and programmable poetry—and by the repeated gestures to define it that come at the outset of almost every text written on the subject. Adalaide Morris argues that "definitions of new media poetics that do not account for code miss the synergy crucial to its operations, its realm of discourse, and its self-reflexivity" ("New Media Poetics" 9). Christopher Funkhouser stipulates that a digital poem is such "if computer programming or processes (software, etc.) are distinctively used in the...