- Feedback, Information, and the Fabrication of Spatialisme
Information is information, not matter orenergy. No materialism which does not admitthis will survive at the present day.—Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics
By 1967, Georges Perec knew that literature had become a science. That year, the celebrated novelist observed that cybernetics and its sister discipline of information theory had come to play a pivotal role in cultural production: “la science des messages et des codes (je veux dire cette branche de la théorie de l’information qui s’appelle la linguistique) constitue aujourd’hui la base théorique de toute l’écriture” (36). This remark has proven prescient, particularly in light of contemporary humanities research: in addition to studies detailing the impact of cybernetics on particular philosophical, psychoanalytic, and anthropological currents in France, more recent work has uncovered concrete historical evidence for the debt owed to information theory by (structural) linguistics.1 Informed by such studies and guided by Perec’s observation, the present article exposes how information theory was drawn into the French literary field. More specifically, in what follows [End Page 859] I reconstruct one of the first instances of cross-pollination between these techno-sciences and the postwar French avant-garde—Pierre Garnier’s concrete poetry, or Spatialisme.
Garnier (b. 1928) had begun his poetic career after World War II as a member of the École de Rochefort. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he became increasingly interested in the visual poetics of the concrete movement, developing a particular fascination with the work of the Swiss-born Bolivian poet Eugen Gomringer and the writers affiliated with the Brazilian Noigandres group (often seen as the core of the movement). These influences led the French poet to devote himself to a re-theorization of the concrete, for which he penned a first manifesto, “Plan pilote fondant le spatialisme,” in 1963.
Spatialism belongs to a rich tradition of visual poetry in France. The defining feature of this genealogy—its illumination of the materiality of language—crystalized between the late-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries with the poetic innovations of Guillaume Apollinaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Isidore Isou. For their part, the poems of Apollinaire’s wartime collection Calligrammes (1918) manipulate the matter of language to compose images that thematically mirror their content. Mallarmé’s earlier Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (1897) had similarly drawn attention to its own linguistic material (though without recourse to visual representations) by exploiting typographic size and style to inspire non-linear readings of its lines. Isou, the founder of Lettrism, carried this torch further, insisting on the physical immediacy of the poetic utterance by making frequent use of calligraphic techniques and fluid, ever-changing graphic forms (or “hypergraphie”).
While Garnier explicitly drew on this aesthetic heritage in his elaboration of Spatialism, he ultimately went beyond it by seeking inspiration in cybernetic thought. Yet by the time that his “Plan pilote . . . ” was published, the science of “communication and control” had long since left its mark on the concrete movement. The forerunner of this tendency was again the Noigandres group, which as early as 1958 was building the cybernetic metaphor of feedback into its aesthetic framework. With this in mind, I will begin my exploration of Spatialism by outlining how the concept of feedback impacted early concrete poets’ understanding of their own output. I will then contrast this conceptual history with that of a second key cybernetic term—information—which I argue was the basis of Garnier’s recasting of visual poetry. In particular, I chronicle how the poet’s appropriation of Abraham Moles’s “Information Aesthetics” transformed his poetic project in the years surrounding Perec’s diagnosis. I close by tracking [End Page 860] the generative impact of Moles’s definitions of “semantic” and “aesthetic” information on three iterations of spatialist fabrication2 from the mid-1960s. Together, I conclude, this history of ideas and its derivative artistic production not only elucidate the technological legacy of French poetry, but problematize emergent approaches to literature and its study in the Information Age.3
Before turning to the conceptual impact that cybernetics had on concrete poetry, we must...