- Writing in Real Time: Emergent Poetics from Whitman to the Digital by Paul Jaussen
The opening pages of Paul Jaussen's Writing in Real Time introduce readers to "emergence," a concept borrowed from systems theory wherein "small, local actions or actors can produce large, global, and unexpected effects" (2). The "complex adaptive systems" that demonstrate this principle at work range from the shifting, swooping shape of a flock of birds in flight to the evolving, adaptable aesthetics of the long poem—the latter being the focus of this book. Within these systems, Jaussen explains, "first-order actions produce unexpected second-order effects," and those effects in turn "redirect the behavior of the first order, transforming the system as a whole and shaping its encounters with the environment" (2).
In centering its analytic framework on a term like "emergence," one of this study's main goals is to "demonstrate the broad flexibility of systems thinking for analyzing poetry" (37). Jaussen's ambitions towards this end are twofold: on the one hand, to show how "systems theory offers us a powerful alternative for thinking about the relationship between form and content, poiesis and history, creativity and change," and, on the other, to posit that "literary texts may be a neglected yet crucial site for apprehending the concepts of scientific discourse, including systems theory" (25, 2). In and of itself, this overall premise—that the disciplines of systems theory and literary study can be productively brought into contact with each other—represents one of the book's most compelling features. If we look to recent trends in modernist literary studies, the argument reads as an innovative addition not only to the extensive body of existing scholarship that reads early twentieth-century literature alongside technological development but also to the more recent embrace of media studies as a productive framework for considering this literature as part of wider historical, technical, and communicative contexts. As Jaussen convincingly demonstrates throughout Writing in Real Time, systems theory generates terminology and conceptual frameworks that open up new and productive conversations between individual texts and the world around them, and also point to transhistorical textual affiliations that literary critics have not previously considered.
The specific texts that provide the material "core" of Jaussen's argument are all examples of the long poem, a genre he proclaims a "formal misfit" within literary scholarship, as it has faced "neglect" by movements ranging from New Criticism, structuralism, and the Frankfurt School to deconstruction and even "the latest revival in critical interest in literary form" (signaled by Marjorie Levinson's 2007 PMLA essay "What is New Formalism?") (6–7). By setting up a backdrop of lyric-centric critical discourse, Jaussen presents his more targeted goal as "an attempt to respect the dynamism, the creativity, and the continued timeliness of the long poem" (37). In terms that clearly bring the book's broad and narrow goals together, he proposes that [End Page 853] "long poems persistently reflect on the challenges of transformation within time, quite often anticipating the discourse of complex adaptive systems," and that, as a result, "systems theory and the long poem may be not-so-distant cousins, sharing a family resemblance of concerns" (5). Jaussen pitches his approach as a strategy that avoids the either/or debates around historicist and formalist interpretive practice, as he is simultaneously attentive to formal structures and aware of poetry's embeddedness in its historical moment and place of origin. "In many of the poems I consider," he explains "one cannot cleanly separate formal adaptation from unexpected historical events because the poem's … form becomes the framework through which the environmental event is experienced as an event" (4; emphasis in original). Or, as he puts it in chapter two (on Whitman), he is "not proposing a formalist reading at the exclusion of historicizing or theorizing interpretations. Instead, an emergent model of form shows history, form, and theory as themselves networked, structurally coupled, and mutually illuminating" (43).
The book's sustained interest in poetry's responsiveness...