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Configurations 8.1 (2000) 63-85

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Screening a Digital Visual Poetics

Brian Lennon


Book was there, it was there.

Gertrude Stein

"O sole mio." The contemporary elegy, Peter M. Sacks has observed, mourns not only the deceased but also the ceremony or medium of grief itself. 1 Recent trends in digital media theory signal the absorption of initial, utopian claims made for electronic hypertextuality and for the transformation of both quotidian and literary discourse via the radical enfranchisement of active readers. Born in 1993, the democratizing, decentralizing World Wide Web--at first, the "almost embarrassingly literal embodiment" (George P. Landow) of poststructuralist literary theory, a global Storyspace--has in a mere six years been appropriated, consolidated, and "videated" as a forum for commerce and advertising. 2 Meanwhile, with the public recantation [End Page 63] of hypertext's virtues becoming a kind of expiation ritual, 3 the initially minimized warnings of new-media theorists such as Landow, Jay David Bolter, Michael Joyce, Stuart Moulthrop, and others are being echoed with increasing frequency. These thinkers have seen from the start that electronic hypertextuality, or the computerized proliferation of symbolic writing, was only a step on the way to general electronic hypermediation dominated by iconic visual, rather than symbolic textual, forms. Bolter's recent thinking in particular emphasizes the continuing marginalization of (hyper)text as the "videating" media of television and film adapt and encroach on previously textual environments of the Web. 4

As if in response to this (as though, in the accelerating vistas of electronic writing, there were time enough for anything like "response"), Web-based or distributed electronic writing has evolved from its first alphabetic-(hyper)textual forms toward diverse incorporations of, and hybridizations with, the static or kinetic image. At the same time, poets and visual artists working from a tradition of typographic experimentation that reaches back to futurism and Dada, and includes twentieth-century visual and Concrete poetry, are using networked, heterogenetic writing spaces to create and distribute a new electronic visual poetry. This growth of visual writing may be seen as a response to the technological acceleration that permits more and more complex forms of information--from simple text, to static images, to animated and then to user-interactive text-image clusters or constellations, what might be called "lex/icons"--to coexist in one "medium" or information-delivery system. It might also be seen as evidence that commoditizing the videation of the Web invites subversive uses of that videation--just as, say, the video art of Bill Viola is dependent on (and talks back to) the same technology that extends the commodity value of a blockbuster (and then Blockbuster) film. 5 As Bolter suggests, "True electronic writing is not [End Page 64] limited to verbal text: the writeable elements may be words, images, sounds, or even actions that the computer is directed to perform." 6

Out of habit, we identify the "modernist" poetic text as "materialized," and the "postmodernist" poetic text as "dematerialized," ephemeral, a "simulacrum." The extent, however, to which "materiality" (taken as sensous, extraverbal reality, something more than the functional-instrumental, "transparent" use-value of a word) is integral to much postmodernist poetry, poetics, and art practice might be seen as reason to interrogate this habit of thought. 7 Theories of postmodernism--those, for example, of Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard, or Fredric Jameson--that replay a "break" or "divide" tend, overtly or covertly, to become entangled in the problem of the "McLuhanesque": that is, they are built around the notion of a revolution in the rise of media, an event that must dramatically and irrevocably have changed the essential fabric of daily life in the developed West. That these theories describe at least the perception of some significant cultural and historical complex called "postmodernism" is unworthy of dispute. What a synthetic and structuralizing theoretic overview may neglect (especially when it goes seeking diagnostic or prophetic authority) is the hybridity of practice by which even self-identified avant-gardes, such as the American L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers, tend to locate themselves historically. Postmodernist poets...