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  • Information Poetics
  • Barrett Watten (bio)
The Poetics of Information Overload: From Gertrude Stein to Conceptual Writing by Paul Stephens. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015. 240 + xvi pp. Paperback: $25.00

I have nearly unlimited access to music; I can audio-record my entire day; I can record high-definition video and send it wirelessly. There are over forty thousand messages in my Gmail inbox. The world's major newspapers are continually updated by the minute. Thanks to my mobile web browser, I have access to more words than were contained in the National Library of Ireland on June 16, 1904. On that day, Leopold Bloom carried the following items in his pocket.


What do we mean by information? How can we discuss its poetics— the discourse of the making of art or writing as its condition of possibility? There are three distinct uses of the term at work in Paul Stephens's revisionist history of the American avant-garde tradition. Stephens's baseline narrative is the pervasive sense of being overwhelmed that we live and suffer on a daily basis, readily identifiable in the quotation above and reflected in the covers of self-help publications with titles such as Surviving Information Overload, Information Anxiety, and Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous to Your Organization (xii–xiii). A second narrative begins with modernism's imitation of information surplus, represented by the list of [End Page 275] random items in Leopold Bloom's pocket, continuing through the textual experiments of Gertrude Stein and the avant-garde "Revolution of the Word" of the 1930s, and ending at a point of convergence with conceptual art and writing, from the 1960s to now. As initial premise, Stephens wants to show how modernism and the avant-garde in its development recognized, contested, transformed, and made something new out of the technological development of what has been called, from the 1950s on, the "information society." The two narratives of development parallel and support each other, in a continuous present of technological determinism: the increasing tendency toward ever-greater information resources as a consequence of the media and technology that create and access them and the parallel development of avant-garde forms that represent or reflect on surplus information. Stephens's focus on the avant-garde—despite disparities of scale between big data or mass media and the elusive and inaccessible works of individuals and coteries—is his overarching claim: that works of experimental art and literature provide the best register, and potential remedy for, the condition in which we live: "Although information technology has typically been figured as hostile or foreign to poetry, … avantgarde poetry has been centrally concerned with technologies of communication, data storage, and bureaucratic control—not simply rejecting those technologies, but also adopting and commenting on them" (1).

Innovations of modernist and avant-garde poetics thus intersect with information in ways that produce a proliferation of forms that reflect on, as they counteract, this overload. But here the question is precisely how the convergence of poetic form and what Mark Poster termed "the mode of information" takes place. At the basis of this question is what is meant by "information" and even more specifically its relation to the language that embodies it. Mediated processes of storage and retrieval are anything but neutral to the information—or the knowledge and language— they represent. At the intersection of information and poetics is a set of parallel but also negative conditions in which, for Poster, "the representational function of language has been placed in question by the differential communicational patterns each of which shift to the forefront the self-referential aspect of language."1 Rendering a form of knowledge—for example, the catalogue of the National Library of Ireland—into information (the card catalogue that accesses it) transforms the library's content into something entirely different, a differential system that turns its content into a formalized set of metadata. [End Page 276]

For Ron Day, the modern invention of information is thus a politically and culturally invested process that leads to social "command and control," on the one hand, along with the illusion of an equivalence and transparency of information in its major forms...


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pp. 275-283
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