- Digital Index:Control Poetics in Die Maschine
Mankind is beginning to understand how to dismantle and reassemble the most complex and unpredictable of all its machines: language.—Italo Calvino (1997, 10)
Unfathomable mind, now beacon, now sea.—Samuel Beckett (2009, 110)
Is poetry computable? Can a computer poetize? These questions, in addition to being contemporary to debates in the digital (or computational) humanities, were once central to a context in which computers were hardly ubiquitous—that of the postwar French avant-garde. In the years following World War II, and in parallel with developments in cybernetics, computer science, and other fields interested in so-called information technologies, a handful of French writers were using their artistic practice to explore the borderlands between the human mind and machines. Among these was celebrated novelist Georges Perec, whose 1968 radio play Die Maschine explicitly poses the question of poetry's computability. Written between 1967 and 1968 and first broadcast on November 13, 1968,1 the machine's preamble claims a singular goal: that of discovering the "inner mechanism," or essence, of poetry. In its efforts to do so, Perec's Maschine executes a series of "protocols," each taking a different approach to dismantling and reconstructing Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's poem "Wanderers Nachtlied."
These protocols, as well as the goal that they serve, are complicated by Die Maschine's formal architecture, an intermedial reference that frames Perec's work as a particular kind of machine: it is, quite literally, a [End Page 83] computer. This is most evident when one recalls Alan Turing's foundational essay "Computing Machinery and Intelligence," which posits that digital computers are constituted by three component parts: an "Executive unit," a "Control," and a "Store." In a move of literary engineering, Perec transmutes Turing's "Executive unit" and "Control" into poetic voices (the "Speichner" ["Processors"] and "Kontrolle" ["Control"]) and his "Store" into linguistic and textual data banks.2 In the process, the author effectively entextualizes (or makes literary) the material qualities of the digital computer, thus allowing the textual versions of Die Maschine to serve as essentially cybernetic (cultural) objects insofar as each effaces the line not between machine and man, but between (digital) machine and text.
What is additionally striking about this formal structure is that it establishes Die Maschine as the same kind of machine that Gilles Deleuze's "Postscript on Control Societies" positions as central to "control societies"—a societal type, in contrast with Michel Foucault's disciplinary societies, that operates by multiplying the means of control over its subjects. With this point of relation in mind, this short essay will be dedicated to thinking about the textual manifestation of Perec's machine, not simply as the poetic realization of some cybernetic fantasy, but more pressingly, as a vector of control in itself. Doing so, I want to argue, allows for one to observe (or read) how the Maschine radically modifies the question posed by its preamble: instead of asking whether or not poetry is computable, its machinations in fact chart the extent to which poetic communication is controllable. In this way, my ultimate goal will be to explore how Die Maschine might help us to understand how communication—or language—can be marshalled as a means of control.
In order to bring these "control poetics" into greater focus, I want to first gloss the imbrication of communication and control through the lens of the postwar sciences of information theory and cybernetics, as doing so will point towards how the cybernetic model of communication historically animates the control function of Perec's radio play. More specifically, I will consider how this model, as well as the influence that it exerted on the development of linguistics in the postwar period, establish what of (Goethe's) poetry can be digitized by Die Maschine, or, what of the poetic object is already fundamentally discrete. From there, I will offer up a reading of Die Maschine's 2015 English translation in order to track the machine's attempts to break Goethe's original poem into measurable units. Through this reading, I will argue that rather than unearthing some "essence" of poetry, the poetry of Perec's Maschine...