The quality of digital poetry or art—not merely as contained within our aesthetic reaction to digitally expressive works but, as well, within our intellectual grounding in them—might suggest that the digital’s ephemeral character is an indication of its lack of an apparently material ontology. While, aesthetically, the digital’s ephemerality lies in the very fact of the digitally artistic enterprise, actually its material substrate is what makes the aesthetic pleasure we take in it possible. When we realize for ourselves the role played by this substrate, furthermore, a paradox looms up before us: We enjoy and, separately, understand the artwork comprehensively and fully; we also allow ourselves to enter into an ongoing conversation about the very nature of the physical world. This conversation is not insignificant for the world of art—especially inasmuch as art, even digital art, depends upon the actual materials of the world, as well as upon our physical engagement with the art. To be sure, digital poetry and art, whose dynamic might demand the dissolution of the line that would otherwise distinguish one from the other, have brought the notion of embodiment to the fore of our respective considerations of them. Here, then, is the charm along with the paradoxical strength of digital art and poetry. It is our physical participation in them that makes them fully come into being. This notion of art and physicality is that to which I will now turn.
However we might feel about Kant’s conceptualization of art, aesthetics, the sublime, even judgment, it’s worth noting not only that Heidegger finesses certain Kantian contingencies Watson points up (e.g., a possible relation to ethics, and the status of an aesthetic judgment in relation to the sublime and perhaps to beauty). The younger philosopher also takes us back, with a specific purpose in mind, to the ancient Greek viewpoint at the root of the Western intellectual—and I dare say artistic, possibly aesthetic—tradition. In doing so, he imparts a powerful lucidity in thinking about art and/versus technology (thereby in thinking about equipment versus a work of art). These distinctions bear directly on my present discussion.
While a figurative painting may contain a narrative (in his essay, Heidegger discusses one of Van Gogh’s portrayals of a pair of shoes), and while a viewer of that painting may be focusing on this narrative, nonetheless the viewer will gain a sense of what helps to make the narrative exist on the painting’s canvas in the first place—composition overall, brushstrokes, pigment, thickness, etc.—moving closer to the elemental nature of the art object. The contrast with a piece of equipment includes this awareness of the artwork’s materiality.
A “mere” shovel, for instance, which is a technological artifact, a piece of equipment—its honed wooden shaft tipped by a tempered and shaped metal handle on one end, on the other end an equally tempered piece of metal designed for the purpose of removing snow, lifting it, placing it somewhere else—is both viewed and understood by us precisely as a tool. We are likely more ready to appreciate, to understand, this shovel as a tool if it is seen, let us say, leaning against the side of a house. What happens, however, when we encounter the shovel leaning against the wall of an art gallery or museum, and when there is a small plaque bearing a title for that “shovel,” indeed a title someone, let’s say an artist—let’s say Marcel Duchamp—has given it? In its so-called “natural” setting, the shovel is construed as having a purpose, a pragmatic function, most of all when it’s actually being used by a human being who would dig with it. We ignore the materials that have been exploited in the shovel’s design, in its formation.
What Does a Poem Do?
The notion of art versus tool underlies Seamus Heaney’s well known poem “Digging” (whether or not Heaney fully, consciously, realized this). He wonderfully transforms a shovel into a fountain pen with which he writes poems (maybe implying the very poem “Digging”); here are some passages from the poem:
- Between my finger and my thumb
- The squat pen rests […].
- Under my window, a clean rasping sound
- When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
- My father, digging. I look down
- The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
- Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
- He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
- To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
- Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
- By God, the old man could handle a spade.
- Just like his old man.
- The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
- Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
- Through living roots awaken in my head.
- But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
- Between my finger and my thumb
- The squat pen rests.
- I’ll dig with it.
I know I am being cute here but I want to observe, in passing, that writing is a technology. And if we are to think of poetry, its aesthetics, then we can only do so when, really, we acknowledge the context in which poetry proper came into being, which occurred with the advent of literacy.
Before the invention of writing, poetry was done
for the purpose of keeping a tribe’s memory. Techniques we now think of as the elements of verse—once simply mnemonic devices meant to be of pragmatic use—were invented so that a historian-poet could manage the task of collective memory, a telling of it performed at special tribal gatherings. This historian’s process was carried on by first creating a matrix in which information could be held—the matrix being a creation and holding of it within formulas of phrase, rhyme, rhythm and so on—could be retrieved, could be remembered and performed. These were techniques of remembrance, later active memory (cf. Walter Ong’s monumental Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word
and a wealth of like scholarship since (Ong 1982
Art and poetry are useless. Verse is, at bottom, language arranged according to designs inherited distantly from preliterate times for no practical purpose. The use of a shovel as a shovel, a tool, a piece of equipment, dissolves our potential attending to its woodenness, its metalness, as well as its shape and density—dissolves our capacity to attend to what otherwise might be the aesthetics of its elements along with its shape or design. Duchamp’s so-called “readymade” he titled In Advance of the Broken Arm
(1915), a mass produced shovel put on display, is a purported work of art that resides within our visual and cognitive engagement of it as something quite material. In Advance of the Broken Arm
has been comprehended by various artists, as well as critics and scholars, in many ways that do not account for the work’s absolute material presence—not unrelated to that, moreover, its presence as a mass-produced object that nevertheless could be seen as beautiful (but now I’m going beyond what Heidegger’s essay might be saying).5
Duchamp’s shovel, if it were being used to move snow, would be taken up in one’s hands and maneuvered with one’s arms, and so it could be the instrument by which someone clearing a sidewalk or driveway could be injured from the strain of the snow’s weight, à
la Duchamp’s not very clever joke (at the time he “created” this readymade
, he could have been trying to educate the art world). I mean to pun when I talk about the hand holding the shovel, in thinking about Heidegger’s expostulations on technology. In other work of his where he contemplates the use of tools (within discussions of Being or Dasein
), he organizes the concept of tool
according to two categories: zuhandheit
to mean there by nature or ordinarily existent or “hands-on,” and vorhanden
to mean fabricated or in readiness or simply at one’s disposal, or “before one’s hand” or “close at hand” (cf. (Heidegger  1993
), Being and Time
408–9/Sein und Zeit
357–8). In the latter case, as writes Iain Thomson, “we come to experience ourselves as isolated subjects standing reflectively before a world of external objects, which we thereby come to experience as standing over against us in the mode of something objectively ‘on hand’” (Zalta 2016
, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
This perception of Duchamp’s shovel is so regardless of whether or not this readymade (made in a factory and ready for use?) is to be considered as a work of conceptual art—conceptual art insofar as the work embodies, supposedly foregrounds, an overriding idea; and so, as is usually said of conceptual artworks or conceptual poems, aesthetic value purportedly is at most ancillary in the engagement of the work. In modern and postmodern art commentary, the material substrate of a work like In Advance of the Broken Arm is not fully recognized for what it is. Heidegger’s pointed return to classical Greece is critical to our present consideration of materiality in art and poetry, on the other hand, as well as in media and conceptualism. While there are obvious ways in which the ancient Greek technē might lead to our thinking of conceptual artworks as ultimately lacking a material significance, it can be the other way around.
Much of what I have been saying about art can also be said about a good deal of American poetry since about 1900—certainly the poetry of the North American avant-garde, which has been uniquely involved with art. Craig Dworkin’s recent study, No Medium
)—a scholarly discourse but also a personal and objective meditation on art and poetry in their essence—prompts us to think about the readymade
. Not unrelated to it, Dworkin considers the completely black or completely white painted canvas. In addition, he also considers artifacts like Ronald Johnson’s RADI OS
(Johnson’s erasure of the first four books of Milton’s Paradise Lost
). And, as might be expected, Dworkin examines what, for the poetic avant garde, has been the foundational poem Un Coup de des
(1897) by Stéphane Mallarmé, in the context of these other works.
On its own this poem—a poem and a work of art—foresees the potential in N. Katherine Hayles’s scholarly book written more than a century later, titled Writing Machines
), which is both an autobiography and objet d’art
. Hayles’s volume bridges writing and print to computing (although her concern in this book is not so much about digital expressivity). Writing Machines
possesses a potential even she may not have seen—insofar as she quite deeply understands what inscription is and how it has shaped us throughout history. Her book is a prelude for subsequent studies of hers and yet, for me, it stands out as not having been superseded by anyone’s critical study since it appeared.7
Chiefly, what she has had to say about the efforts, the logistics, involved in producing the very volume Writing Machines
as a physical object, a highly designed physical book, is remarkable. While it might seem odd on its face for me to note that her book can be easily read, I am making a certain point here and it is one with which I think she would agree.
Why should a book be an object whose text is meant to be read? A more recent book, Credit
by Matthew Timmons
), is not, while its physical presence is powerful and it can be said to be materially beautiful. (The fact that its purchase price is quite steep is another element in this work’s conceptualization
, to use this word in a very pointed way—that is, not only might you not need to read the book but you also need not purchase it, as it is for sale; yet to make this last point is take us back to Watson’s complaint about Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and to Kant, whereas we really do not need to do that in order to understand what is being said about conceptualism here.) Essentially a collection of credit card offerings and dunnings, Credit
is a book we might think of as literary art. It’s usually thought of as conceptual poetry. It is, like Writing Machines
, however, an objet d’art
. For me this term must comprehend the potential appreciation of the art object’s material existence.
While I would choose to value the material play and beauty of Timmons’ book, Dworkin does not arrive at the notion of sheer materiality, its artistic or poetic value, that which I wish principally to explore. Indeed, relatively little ink has been spilled (I note the anachronistic nature of my phrase here) in explaining what I am arguing is the powerful assertion of the material nature of art, when so much else that was revolutionary, for instance about Duchamp’s readymades, has needed to be spelled out. Dworkin’s profound insights about illegible or disappeared art, or conceptual poetry or art, is of crucial importance, on the other hand, and I wish to appropriate them in a way that will become clear shortly when, in this context, I take up the critical commentary of Brian McHale. In order to get there, though, I feel the need first to qualify a blanket statement made a while ago by John Cayley, whose influence as digital poet, theorist and scholar of digital poetics is immense.
Cayley begins his essay “Time Code Language” with a sweeping assumption that is unwarranted. He writes that “[o]ne of the defining characteristics of poetic writing is its attention to the materiality of language” (Cayley 2009, “Time Code Language: New Media Poetic and Programmed Signification”, p. 307
This pronouncement does call attention to the nature of language as found in experimental writing of late—for Cayley specifically to its linguistic textures
, which is not unimportant to consider when the writing is no longer to be found on the page—as involves digitally programmed poetry that may be in visual flux, such as could be viewed on a screen. Yet a good deal of poetry, for convenience we might think of it according to Charles Bernstein’s phrase “Official Verse Culture,” is not all that textured. Let me leave aside, for now, what Cayley may have been trying to indicate when he uses the term poetic
in “Time Code Language”—a pivotal essay in our history of ideas—and simply consider the range of canonical poetry in the last century and more.
Surely we speak more credibly of the materiality of writing when thinking about a poem by Gertrude Stein or Louis Zukofsky, for example, than one by their contemporaries Amy Lowell or Edna St. Vincent Millay. Nonetheless, Cayley has put his finger on something crucial in our trying to account for the present avant garde, which has distantly been set in motion by Modernist literary innovation. Often seemingly radical Modernist experiments were operating under a shifted intellectual and aesthetic paradigm that engendered a poetics standing apart from both immediate and removed poetry predecessors. In large, the paradigm shift comes out of an emergence from Enlightenment, thinking including Kant’s Critique of Judgment and Isaac Newton’s theorizing of a three-dimensional universe. The rethinking of the atom in the nineteenth century, Einstein’s theories of Relativity early in the twentieth, later Bohr’s model of atomic structure, and Heisenberg’s Quantum Mechanics and Uncertainty Principle, individually and collectively affected people’s understandings in all disciplines, including within the arts and then in poetry, and also yielded technological innovations that, about 1900, profoundly changed the way people lived their lives in general and in specific how they made their art.
Dworkin does not discuss this macro-shift, yet he is finely attuned to its nuances. For instance, to leap forward in time, he responds to the thinking of Jean Baudrillard whose work certainly is a reliable indicator of the postmodern condition. In L’Autre par lui mệme Baudrillard
) places an emphasis on, Dworkin observes, “transience and dematerialization, on transparency and disappearance” of texts, and so on. A range of appearance-disappearance serves Dworkin as a springboard for his own contemplations of text, writing, and art. In contrast, while using erasure
as an emblem for all kinds of poetry or art, for an aesthetics, to which Baudrillard’s theorizing might obtain, he realizes how erasure is not in some respects a disappearance or dissolution, not an end of something, since we can
look as well at the opaque material remainder, at the inescapable residuum of recalcitrant physical matter left behind when certain inscriptions do not occur as expected. In the absence of inscription, the substrate can be seen not as a transparent signifier but as an object in its own right, replete with its own material properties, histories, and signifying potential.
This argument does not merely obtain to erased text. And I concur with it. Where I want to depart from Dworkin’s analysis is in his comprehension of art as a presence-absence phenomenon, one having to do with an approach toward avant-garde poetry and art in which the material “substrate” is there to be read—and to be read almost as after the fact. In contrast I want to say that, since the start of the twentieth-century, the materiality of the work is what increasingly has occupied the foreground of our aesthetic or intellectual engagement of that work.
needs to be emphasized. Dworkin’s analysis eventually posits media
as the embodiment of social investment—accordingly defined semiotically, beginning with his mention of a “substrate” (cf. above), within the context of Baudrillard’s thinking and as contingent upon, Dworkin writes, “not so much the play of presence and absence that has animated studies of inscription, but rather the recursive realization that every signifier is also itself a sign” (Dworkin 2015, p. 9
). My alternative approach might take as its metaphor here the dark matter
we have discovered in galaxies; by definition this dark matter, as determined by the term we have given this phenomenon (or antiphenomenon), is unreadable. This is to say that our present moment is one that is partly defined by an identifiable unknown. There is an opacity, an unreadable element within our calculus of discourse, within our epistemology, and it is a necessity. Art, poetry, without mystery or the inexplicable, or possibly the enigmatic, is finally not really art or poetry.
Do poets ever talk about poetry in the way Robins and Little talk about art? I think to answer this question by recalling the Objectivist poet George Oppen’s notion that language was not to be trusted. In his Daybook he wrote that “’words are a constant enemy: the thing seems to exist because the word does.” (Oppen 2007, p. 53
). In his poem “A Language of New York” he cautions: “Possible/To use/Words provided one treat them/As enemies.”9
What do these passages have to do with doing
or working with one’s hands? Little spoke of pouring concrete with one’s hands and shaping it. What’s the difference between concrete and words? Oppen talks of building
a poem, as what happens at a construction site. Here is the first half of his poem “The Building of a Skyscraper”:
- The steel worker on the girder
- Learned not to look down, and does his work
- And there are words we have learned
- Not to look at,
- Not to look for substance
- Below them. But we are on the verge
- Of vertigo.
Is great art, is great poetry, the moment of “vertigo”? Might it happen when we avoid looking “below” words for “substance”? We mix the ingredients to make and pour concrete and maybe smooth it out like constructing strings of words or syntax. Concrete and language, words—but also, what is the difference between philosophy (to say nothing of political diatribe, or any theorizing of one sort or another) and poetry? More to the point, to echo Cayley (above): What is the difference between prose and poetry? What does language do, or what do words do (as Ludwig Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations
) asks), and what do poems do
? Is it better to ask of what are poems made
Poets conceived of their praxis differently with the advent of the technology of writing (again preliterate poetry not verse as we came to know it, but rather memory-keeping). It is worth noting particularly the complexities of post-orality prosody when, for the first time, the aesthetics of verse is truly contemplated as such (once the sceop
is no longer burdened by the task of record keeping, so to speak). The difference is stark. The troubadours had available to them huge possibilities for agreements of sound, by the late eleventh century, provided by Old Provençal (as literacy slowly spreads among the aristocracy outside the Church). Nearly all western verse forms used today come from them (the sonnet indirectly, due to the troubadours having fled the Albigenisan Crusade to Sicily where that specific form first emerged).10
At the height of the era of the book, with the Industrial Revolution—when photography, cinema, and a number of writing technologies like the typewriter were affecting people in powerful ways—experimental poets were ever more aware of their linguistic materials
, their written
and printed texts
, words more visual and material than before.
The materiality of writing, the written text residing over and against the poet, becomes ever more apparent. Oppen is thinking of writing when he is thinking of language—although, as a deeply philosophical poet, he is also realizing language’s problem. So is someone like Stein who wished, rather in keeping with her friend Pablo Picasso’s artistic intentions, to put pedestrian syntax under such strain that the words themselves, in their material existence, even apart from their capacity to invoke abstract thinking, could be savored for themselves, could be seen
as such, could be felt. What did it mean to type a word on a piece of paper, afterwards to look at it, not a handwritten word containing a personality, instead a word disconnected in some new and striking way from the creator of that word who was contemplating it, in its composition on a typewriter, just as it was coming into visual form? In her groundbreaking study of Modernist experimental typography, The Visible Word
), Johanna Drucker points out that this typography, its very presence, in effect was an “insistence upon the autonomous status of the work of art (visual or literary) which veritably defines the founding premise of modernism”; that insistence itself rested “upon the capacity of words to claim the status of being
rather than representing
.” To be sure, she continues, for various Modernist movements—Cubism, Futurism, Dada, Vorticism and others—in order to make such a claim “the materiality of their form had to be asserted as a primary in-itself condition not subordinate to the rules of imitation, representation or reference” (Drucker 1994, pp. 10–11
A transformation within the writer was taking place. To describe it is to conceive of life within a shifted cultural milieu, in a manner not unlike how Allan Bullock, writing about Modernism in early cinema (in (Bullock 1991, “The Double Image”, pp. 58–70
)), understands what happened when someone entered a movie theatre for the first time at the turn of the twentieth century, the person emerging from it utterly transformed, possessing a novel concept of self as human. Not only were there images of human beings witnessed on a screen, comprehended in some new way, in part through self-identification; also the fact was that the images had been moving through seemingly real time in ways that created narratives, so the identification with the story on the screen, with the person on the screen, the person “over there,” was unavoidable, within a new sense of time itself. In our present moment, as I write, we are caught up within an analogous moment of transformation, as the nature of space and time is affected by digital technologies; these technologies spur a rethinking of the real and the virtual. In Chaos Media: A Sonic Economy of Digital Space
, Stephen Kennedy refers to digital space
not merely as “an alternative realm or [. . .] a real/virtual dichotomy but as a lived experience of space that is facilitated and/or augmented by technology” (Kennedy 2015, p. 3
). Just as the notion of self
evolved in a certain direction, and human psychology was profoundly affected due to the technology—and art—of cinema more than a century ago, so too do digital technologies today have their effect on us, and it is fair to say that these, as a part of human expression, impinge upon our art making while altering us psychologically, philosophically, perhaps aesthetically.
A new identification was occurring with and through Modernism, yet this could only have happened through a new and dramatic objectification
. For someone like Ezra Pound, or HD (Hilda Doolittle), or William Carlos Williams, the world stood apart as a nascent image. The trio gave birth to Modernist poetry (Burton Hatlen referred to them as “The Philadelphia Three,” their having met at the University of Pennsylvania when they were still in their teens).11
They create Imagism. And all a reader has to do to get a sense of the upheaval they were caught up in is to look at their spacings on the page. Williams often composed on a typewriter, between seeing patients as a doctor in Rutherford, New Jersey over four decades of medical practice.
Oppen, a later Modernist, read these three poets assiduously. He also was befriended by Pound and Williams. If, for Oppen, one of the principal Objectivist poets, words were the enemy, then his viewing of them as such could have come from his sense, possibly not just subliminal, of his being alienated or somehow simply being set apart from them. The words physically existed when he looked at “his” words on a typewritten page; they were over there.
How best not to fall into the trap of language than by constructing poems—sets of signs, linguistic designs, inscriptions—possessing the sense of language-as-written, indeed as printed. They possessed a resistance or friction. Might it be, then, that the “recursive” nature of reading material language need not depend on a semiosis, contrary to Dworkin’s assertion? To read an Oppen poem is to engage it in similar fashion to the way one views or engages a work of art, not just a sculpture but a painting as well, especially a Modernist painting.
In his postmodernist paintings, Little’s striations of color are striking, and his overall composition is exhilarating; it is important, moreover, to think of the color’s material being on the canvas, extant there because of his putting together elements like pigment, oil, honey, and other ingredients, other materials, in unique ways over hours, days, mixing the elements, in his mind the materials that will eventually make one color or another—a merging that will possess a sheer visuality and a depth in some other medium. Little stirs, heats, stirs, cools—stirring, heating, stirring, over and over until some experience of the paint per se he has made comes to a fullness—so that the meaning of his abstract paintings, if we may talk like this about a truly abstract painting, necessarily involves its physicality, even its sculptural values.
In this regard, there is a distinction to be made between Little’s abstractions and those of a painter like Mark Rothko. (Abstract paintings by someone like Barnett Newman or Louis Morris, with whom Little has been compared, their vertical striations, don’t make for as apt a comparison.) Rothko’s work—also the product of many cycles of mixing, heating and cooling, stirring—helps me to make a larger point. The difference between the work of Little and Rothko, these two abstract colorists—taking into account their complex processes of creating color and texture, to be more precise how they each create the affect of color, color in and for itself—has precisely to do with this affect.
For Little, it’s what he would call illusionism
. In Rothko’s paintings, there is what is often thought of as a spirituality. Rothko has achieved his sense of the spiritual in great measure by his own arduous and protracted process of preparing his materials, of processing them; and I dare say his profound involvement in his materials for their own sake was necessary to achieve the end he did. Little takes us more deeply into abstraction itself, however. Possibly Rothko did not choose to be quite as abstract. Little tells Celia McGee, who has paid a visit to his studio, that he’s “a strong believer in [. . .] something physical and perceptually tangible.” Well, so is Rothko. And yet, more to the point, Little also says to her, by way of explanation: “I’m not interested in illusionism, the way a lot of abstract artists are. I’m interested in flatness, the flat plane, and materials that keep illusions at bay” (in “Driven to Abstraction” (McGee and Little 2011
)). The spiritual as illusion? Was there a story-telling, a narrative quality Rothko could not or would not avoid?
abstraction? I think of “The Increasing Abstraction of Language,” a poem by William Bronk (whose intense relationship with Oppen had a salutary effect on both poets’ writing). Bronk paid attention to the textures of words and syntax as if, in the verse line, there was an existence all its own apart from any rhetoric integral in it. In this poem Bronk is
- [. . .] amazed at the way the language survives
- other structures: we go on talking as if
- we had never lost all we come at last
- to lose, the time and place the language described
In an untitled poem, Bronk notes that his “are invented words and they refer/to inventions of their own [. . .].” In an abstract painting the problem of language never enters into the picture (pun intended). Jacques Derrida writes, beginning Of Grammatology
(Derrida  1976
), that “the problem of language has never been simply one problem among others” (p. 6).
We might appreciate how the philosophical attention to language paid by someone like Derrida (a work like Of Grammatology
may have inflected the intellectual and artistic climate of its time) lends an important perspective on the midcentury emergence of word art. Well after the initial thrust of Modernist aesthetics, thought, the coming to the fore of the material, and, well after the experimental typography movement Drucker has analyzed, a new form of word art begins to be created by the conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth and then, in a newer form, by the artist Jenny Holzer. When Holzer first exhibited her language-as-art productions they were understood, including by her, in a number of ways—none of which had to do, though, with the sheer materiality manifesting in the various media of her word art as it was to evolve. Starting in 1978—following upon Kosuth’s innovations in the 1960s, which included the making of paintings that were written statements—Holzer’s work was no longer to be restricted to the traditional artist’s canvas. She first called her writings Truisms
. Trained in the Whitney Museum program, she had become steeped in both Western and Eastern philosophy and literature. Out this background, she began to see how her writings “could be simplified to phrases everyone could understand.” Her sententious truisms were printed and displayed “anonymously in black italic script on white paper.” She would then affix the written-upon paper
to building facades, signs, and telephone booths in lower Manhattan. Arranged in alphabetical order and comprised of short sentences, her “Truisms” inspired pedestrians to scribble messages on the posters and make verbal comments. Holzer would stand and listen to the dialogues invoked by her words.
Three years later, she created Living Series; rather than on paper, this time her “word art” manifested as short and simple statements on plaques made of aluminum or bronze—which is to say that the mediums were more durable, more substantial.
I single out the evolution of Holzer’s artistic vision and practice ultimately to suggest that her work evolves at what is roughly the midpoint in a progression whose story this essay tells. Her art serves as a synechdoche12
not merely for the twentieth-century’s merging of North American art and poetry, or vice versa. What she has done with her art-as-writing goes beyond the achievements of someone like Kosuth; it’s qualitatively and ideologically different. Her linguistic statements (visual statements?) are physically embodied over time in ever more solid substances—aluminum, brass, stone. Eventually, however, she uses neon lighting. Might the ontology of the artwork, at this point, be not just the glass and chemicals of the light installation but also, more importantly, their emitted light, its glow?
Thinking about the arc of a word-artist’s evolution, such as Holzer’s (can we conceive of her as a language-artist?), I am thrown up against a series of questions: What does it mean to make marks? What is writing? What is formal language? Also: What is physicality? And: Can there be an aesthetics of conceptual art? This last question is there to be asked since, if an artist rather than a poet is doing the writing, must the writing in and of itself be taken as being of significance, or must the writing be comprehended as a part of some larger gestalt? The fact of Holzer’s fashioning of neon light works (other artists—Dan Flavin among several comes to my mind—continue the practice) might ask us to contemplate a transforming concept of the physical.
A broader framework for thinking about all these Modernist and Postmodernist artists and poets I have mentioned could rest with the notion that our sense of the material in their respective work is at once being over-determined and undermined in terms of the physical. Possibly the material is being interrogated as such, inviting our situating of these artists within an intellectual construct marked by the conceptual shift away from Newton’s classical physics and, along with it, away from a sense of certainty or determinacy, which can no longer render a comprehensive picture of the world. As I’ve already suggested, newer scientific paradigms coincide in time with artistic and literary Modernism and its aftermath.
In the earlier twentieth century, most famously, Einstein’s theories of Relativity but shortly thereafter Bohr’s remodeling of the structure of the atom, Heisenberg’s Quantum Mechanics and Uncertainty Principle, and then the Einstein-Poldosky-Rosen experiment—all, in their respective moments, helped to radically reconceive our understanding of the nature of the world, our understanding of substance and time. Einstein’s concept of four dimensions, to include time, is superseded by models of many more dimensions, postulations of alternate universes and the like. Key to my present inquiry, furthermore, are breakthroughs in physics that have eventually led to digital technologies. Alongside strides in computing there is the flourishing of the science of genomics that, I would contend, has also helped to establish coding as the conceptual and intellectual paradigm of our present era.
It’s telling that, in 1935, one Ludwik Fleck publishes a book titled Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact
(Fleck  1979
) in which, as Peter Quartermain reports, “the assumption [. . .] that scientific facts are flat, impartial, neutral, objective,” is no longer tenable (in (Quartermain 2013, p. 271
)). Within the span of time of these advances, whose effects on society have included the undermining of our sense of stability, a sense of solidity located in Newtonian physics and Enlightenment reasoning (along the lines of Kantian judgment
)—Modernism and then Postmodernism arise. The atom was being rethought prior to 1900 when Mallarmé is composing Un Coup de des
(1897), whose overriding of the physical structure of the book as artifact (e.g., text crossing the book’s gutter), and whose spacings of words are two aspects of a poetry to emerge in which linearity and syntax are tested in the extreme—for the ultimate purpose of bringing forward language as material fact
American poets, artists and others attended the 1913 Armory Show in New York City, which was a revelation for Williams and other poets. Along with Cubist art, they encountered Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (1912). While this painting can be read in a number of ways, I would say that the mechanistic look of the “nude” figure is especially compelling. Moreover, the nude descends the staircase, the descent depicted in visual phases. The sense of motion, the moving through an intuited space-time, interestingly enough, was also evoked in a 1913 sculpture by Umberto Boccioni, the principle painter of the Futurist movement (he was not represented in the Armory Show). Titled Forme uniche della continuità nello spatio (Unique form of continuity in space), Boccioni’s figure appears to be walking forward, the sculpting suggesting motion most of all, and as one turns away from the viewing the temptation is to read phases of motion into the work. The figure’s contours—featuring curved planes making up a quasi-abstracted anatomy, its head and musculature more resembling hydrofoil design than organic tissue—uncannily suggest both flow and resistance at the same time, within the portrayal of motion. Another of the Futurists, Mario Sironi, paints a Cubist-like, mechanistic looking female dancer, Ballerina, in 1919. Viewing it a century later, it’s impossible not to be reminded of Duchamp’s 1912 Nude.
In thinking about early cinema, whose visual field on a screen was, relative to later cinema, inadvertently revealing of its construction—in other words the jumpy sequence of still images resembling the descent of Duchamp’s nude (of course, the sequences of still photos, such as done by Edward Muybridge, were artifacts said to have influenced Duchamp’s artistic growth at this time (Malamud 2012, p. 68
)—it is possible to consider an artist who was already developing a machine aesthetic soon to become more pronounced in his readymades. Did Duchamp wish his supposedly human figure, shown walking down stairs, to be conveyed through an anatomy resembling, let us say, an erector-set construction? Metal pieces of a child’s erector-set, units for assembly, must have looked like steel girders used in constructing tall buildings. The Home Insurance Building in Chicago had been built in 1884–1885, considered the first skyscraper although only ten stories high. It was followed by, in New York City, the Metropolitan Life Insurance tower in 1909 and then, in 1913 (the year of the Armory show), the Woolworth Building (both buildings considerably taller).
Wildly popular throughout most of the twentieth century, the Erector Set was first manufactured in that same year, 1913. This is the year Duchamp creates his Bicycle Wheel
. Four years later, Duchamp exhibits Fountain
, a mass-produced ceramic urinal he turned upside down and signed “R Mutt,” the most famous of his readymade
s. In Advance of the Broken Arm
(En prévision du bras cases
) was created in 1915. A decade later Fritz Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou visit New York for the first time; she then writes a screenplay and novel, giving rise to the futuristic Metropolis
whose filming was begun that year, the film released in 1927. Lang later said: “I looked into the streets—the glaring lights and the tall buildings—and there I conceived Metropolis
” (Minden and Bachmann 2002, p. 4
). The film’s aesthetics, despite its storyline, reveal an enchantment with the high-technology of the period, the plot markedly anti-technology and anti-capitalist. It’s possible to see this same tension in Duchamp’s Fountain
and his earlier Nude
, I suppose. All the same, the visual power of Metropolis
betrays any anti-technological pose, I think, which may have been put forward as a way to appear reasonable or simply as a way to reconcile the artist’s—Harbou’s, Lang’s or Duchamp’s—struggle to wholeheartedly embrace a “new.” On the other hand, in thinking about the readymade
s, it is possible to argue that they came out of some breatkthrough insight unanticipated by anyone, yet which was coalescing in Nude
and which can also be seen as anticipated in narratives by someone like Fernand Léger (whose paintings were exhibited at the Armory show), in which yet another version of the machine aesthetic is being proffered.
Today’s intellectual paradigm shifts are the predicate (not necessarily in any obvious way) for what, among most readers of poetry, are disconcerting innovations like Conceptual Poetry, Flarf, and Digital Writing, whose respective imaginative practices are, I would argue, distantly sponsored by the larger transformation (I call them imaginative
practices yet I am mindful of theorizing such as in Marjorie Perloff’s critical study Unoriginal Genius
) or in Dworkin’s and Kenneth Goldsmith’s Against Expression
(Dworkin and Goldsmith 2011
), an anthology of conceptual writings, as well as in the 2015 release of the perhaps droll Riddled with Imagination: A Conceptual Poem
by Kelsie Anne Sandage
)). As a consequence of digital technologies in particular, these practices, akin to early developments in cybernetics and more recently artificial intelligence and robotics, have brought forward questions surrounding embodiment and with it prosthetics, questions especially salient in my present focus. They are compelling within the digital writing/digital art community. Preceded by theorizing in a variety of intellectual communities, most vivid in the field of robotics and artificial intelligence, the questions are likewise significant when considering conceptual poetry and Flarf. In this respect, I would add in passing the proposition that advances in artificial intelligence will fully validate the poetic efforts and enhance them. Given this situation, furthermore, I would also suggest that the sheer materiality of art, such as that being produced by a painter like Little, will not become less compelling over time, rather just the opposite. Eventually it will be recontextualized.
What awaits is the paradox of disembodied, or let us say the paradox of dematerialized, art as typified in the exploitation of a neon light’s glow. The glow is being reimagined within a physics that comprehends our biology. People now think about the poetics of computation; in the biological sciences quantification plays an increasingly significant role. The end result of these newer intellectual forays in our time will not be the body’s abjection, however; quite to the contrary, there is already a deeper realization of its beauty, and this may be particularly the situation as we start to live in more complex ways with robots that become our rivals. The solidity, the tactile nature of one of Little’s paintings is material art; so are Holzer’s or Flavin’s neon installations. Embodiment represents a key set of concerns that take us more deeply into an understanding of what it is to make art, to be artful in the sense of doing something that is at once both ennobling and utterly useless. In any case, it is necessary in order to be human. At the same time, embodiment as metaphor for conceptualization is of great use in trying to comprehend digital poetry and art.
Present-day innovations in poetry are part of a fundamental artistic impulse rooted particularly in later poetic Modernism. High Modernism—I include the experimental typography Drucker has examined, which got underway in 1909—gave birth indirectly to the materialist impulse and avant-garde poetry rooted in, yes, Williams and Stein, but also the Objectivists who revered Pound and the other Imagists and yet who had an intuition about language and writing in and of themselves, which the Imagist and even the Vorticist programs failed to realize. A focus on the material is not necessarily a focus on image or in some way even on object. If we leap forward to post-World War Two North America what becomes clear, in the final analysis, is that High Modernism distantly anticipated the work of an artist like Holzer who stands, chronologically, at a key point along the trajectory of what evolved in North American avant-garde poetry. There are forbears of the later American avant-garde poetry and poetics, and the three formations of present experimental work I am considering can be traced directly back to them. Is it ironic, even so, that the poster child for this dramatic shift is not the work of a poet but rather an artist’s breakthrough creations? Maybe not.
Up until now I have discussed, generally, the increasing materialization of both art and poetry. I have needed to acknowledge that most commentators would have this story in reverse. The prevailing narrative makes the case for a de
materialization of either art or poetry, subsequent to the advent of Modernism. Discussing North American poetry Brian McHale does just this, admirably, in his incisive study The Obligation toward the Difficult Whole
). With the phenomenon of dematerialization comes, furthermore, as McHale argues, “the effacement or occlusion or dispersal of the traditional lyric ‘I’” (p. 256). This disappearance of the lyric “I”—would it be too playful to think of it as its erasure?—is a contributing factor to the condition McHale describes, although it might also be viewed merely as an outstanding feature of it. What I mean to imply is that there has been a precondition for typically postmodern gestures or for full-blown postmodern poetics, in which the lyric “I” is nowhere to be found. (The title of Dworkin’s and Goldsmith’s Against Expression
may be seen as emblematic of what McHale examines.) Absent the lyric “I,” however, what takes place is not so much a turn toward the material. Quite the opposite, the artist or poet is thrown back upon materiality.
I offer a representative abstract expressionist painting to make this point clear. My perfect specimen might be Convergence
(1952), one of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings executed in the 1940s and ‘50s. The painting contains no perspective, no point of attention, and no narrative. As Little would say of the aim in his own paintings, decades later, the purely abstract painting should contain no depth. In either artist’s radically abstract works there is none. Indeed, Little strives to achieve “the flatness of the plane” (Little and LaRocco 2009, “In Conversation”
), what is in effect a two-dimensional visualization or field (among many comparative examples of this is his painting Near-Miss
It is quite correct to discuss the gestural elements in a purely abstract drip painting like Convergence (not so in one of Little’s mature paintings). What should not be ignored are more fundamental values of either artist’s painting: color and the paint itself, which can and should be celebrated for their own sake and which essentially comprise the aesthetics of the painting. Attention to these can usefully be set in contrast to Pollock’s gestural praxis usually focused upon by commentators. His gestures might be read as signs or the elements of a kind of narrative; and if we accept the interpretations of many critics and scholars who have talked about the unconscious having been laid bare, so to speak, in a Pollock drip painting (regardless of its two-dimensionality), represented there as a kind of record, then in some measure we can also talk about the narrative as autobiographical.
This kind of art making has evolved, distantly, from Picasso’s cubism, and his friend Stein’s, let’s call them, cubist poetry texts. Can we say much the same for today’s conceptual writing? Is it unreasonable to consider Nude Descending a Staircase that—not unlike its Futurist counterparts I have mentioned—can be read as cubist-influenced, as a conceptual work, or simply as containing a nascent conceptual impulse? The conceptual artistic act does not merely comprehend something like the installing of Duchamp’s Fountain (often viewed, nonetheless, as Dadaist in inspiration). Of course, Fountain’s significance extends beyond the mere collapse of distinctions between high and low art (that cliché most often trotted out when discussing this artwork). The obdurate nature of “his” mass-produced ceramic object, its very stolid existence in time and space, both situationally and sensibly, should not to be overlooked.
This recalcitrant quality certainly obtains to a concrete poem such as, for instance, Sight and Sigh
by Travis McDonald
), in which words are under threat of dissolution or, better still, erasure, in the very instant of their calling attention to themselves as written (note the partially visual effect of the dropped “t” in the book’s title). The words of a concrete poem, even when they are not really meant to be read, or in some sense exactly when they should be read or attended to, reside implacably on the page, a screen in the McDonald poem (inasmuch as his collection was published as an online PDF, the PDF a seemingly stolid textual medium although it is made up of 1s and 0s, a matter of production that is itself nontrivial). The words are part of the aesthetic experience of mark-making or otherwise inscription (would they be so even if generated algorithmically?). In this sense, at least, these words contribute to the poetics of the material.
In this development of poetry or art, which I have just been locating in conceptual writing, we find the context for McHale’s quick survey of the poetic field, when he writes as follows.
Robert Rauschenberg’s erasure of a Willem de Kooning drawing is arguably one of the defining gestures of postmodernism, inaugurating the “dematerialization” of visual art. If one were seeking an analogous defining gesture in poetry, there would be a number of candidates: Ronald Johnson’s erasure of all but a few dozen words on each page of the first four books of Milton’s Paradise Lost
, to produce his own poem, RADI OS
; Tom Phillips’s over-painting of the pages of an obscure Victorian novel, leaving only a few legible words, in his book A Humument
; the many “lost” passages (missing, untranslatable, speculatively reconstructed) in [Armand] Schwerner’s The Tablets
); or even Tom Raworth’s one-line poem, “University Days,” which reads in its entirety: “[This poem removed for further study.]” Or one might push the inaugural moment of the postmodernist practice of erasure still further back, to the great postwar European poets of silence and the void, Paul Celan and Edmond Jabés.
Not incorrectly, McHale is making a case for the disappearance or dematerialization of poetry and art (as I have said). He wants to account, too, for the emergence of postmodernism because of that disappearance. In this regard, it is none other than Dworkin who tells the story of John Cage’s monumental musical composition 4’33”
—which came out of the realization that, in Cage’s words, “‘Something is always that makes a noise’” (in (Dworkin 2003, Reading the Illegible, p. 40
)). This is to say that Cage realized silence is nonexistent. Reflecting upon what was Cage’s oeuvre
and this key realization about it, Dworkin is able to extend it by extrapolating the idea that “Cage translated the white canvases of Robert Rauschenberg from a visual to an auditory medium” (p. 40). Now we are talking about something, let us say it is a principle or concept, which manifests in various mediums and yet is a commonality. How does erasure act upon the concept or insight existing as an element in one or another medium? Erasure always leaves something (new). Is what is left that element? Does erasure mean the material is dissolved, erased
in the sense of disappeared
Rather than dematerialization, in the cases of both Rauschenberg and Cage (the latter’s 4’33”
usually thought of as containing passages of “silence”), their respective “works foreground the material circumstances of their art: what must always already be present before any ‘message’ can be relayed” (Dworkin 2003, p. 40
). The implied critical posture here allows for a deep reading of writings, visual wordings by poets like Schwerner or Susan Howe. In The Tablets
(its first review appeared in Art News
), which is a fictionalized reproduction of our earliest written records, Schwerner plays off the idea of erasure or, simply, lost passages. In a work like Howe’s Thorow
), also using the past as an element in composition, native American inscription reflecting signs like animal and human tracks, all the activities of daily living, and history, figure prominently. Howe and Schwerner are discussed by both Dworkin and McHale. Considering the fact that, as Dworkin puts it, “writing is itself (always) already a visual art,” perhaps there is an ironic truth in his saying that
[t[he ideal of a ‘perfect’ language, one operating exophorically to communicate a “content” of purely referential signifieds, would depend [. . .] on the absolute transparence of the medium; not just the “disappearance of the word” into a blank page’, but ultimately the disappearance of even the page itself. As the material of the medium asserts itself with an increasingly intrusive opacity, the exophoric possibilities diminish in proportion.
Dworkin seems to be wanting, in a fashion, to apologize for this circumstance. He subsequently writes that “the materiality of the medium makes available alternative strategies for pursuing signs along routes of signification [etc.]” (Dworkin 2003, Reading, p. 73
). I prefer, in keeping with my own way of experiencing a Pollock drip painting, to agree with a scholar like Quartermain who would say that, in the poetry of someone such as Stein, what the reader experiences is the “sheer presence
of [. . .] words, the obduracy of [a] language and its refusa
l to explain” (Quartermain 2013, Stubborn Poetries, p. 8
; my emphases). Quartermain is also exercising a refusal, as if there is no need to look for “alternative strategies.” Dworkin furnishes them with great aplomb. The difference, given this dualism of attention to art and poetry, typified by Quartermain and Dworkin, is nicely encapsulated by Drucker when she writes that “[t]he basic conflict,” which is “the granting to an object of both immanence and nontranscendence, “disappears if the concept of materiality is understood as a process of interpretation rather than a positing of the characteristics of an object” (Drucker 1994, The Visible Word, p. 43
). Dworkin’s and Quartermain’s approaches, which I’d offer might be viewed as complementary, are the consequence of the fact that in the early twentieth century a new way of reading, a new way of looking
, was becoming ever more necessary.