- A Poem Is a Machine to Think With: Digital Poetry and the Paradox of Innovation
A poem is a small (or large) Machine made of words.—William Carlos Williams
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.
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.
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...