Follow Harriet on Twitter
Writing’s Crisis v.1.0
Peter Baldes, Joan Jonas, Vertical Roll, Sliced Vertically (2005)
With the rise of the web, writing has met its photography. By that I mean, writing has encountered a situation similar to what happened to painting upon the invention of photography, a technology so much better at doing what the art form had been trying to do, that in order to survive, the field had to alter its course radically. If photography was striving for sharp focus, painting was forced to go soft, hence Impressionism. Faced with an unprecedented amount of digital available text, writing needs to redefine itself in order to adapt to the new environment of textual abundance.
Before the web, quantitatively speaking, text had the illusion of being finite. Yes, libraries were available for plundering in their entirety, but the effort of utilizing those texts was enormous. The text was effectively stuck to the page. You could xerox a page but you got a copy with the text still held in tact onto the page. The only way to liberate the text was to retype the text and yet, even then, you got yet another copy with the text glued to the page. How different then is the fluidity of digital texts, easily swiped, rapidly portable and ready to be poured into any desired form. Once freed from the prison of paper, the possibilities are endless. And therein lies the heart of writing’s current crisis. While most writing has ignored this and carried on with business as usual, some camps have been trying new tactics: Flarf, Google poems, hypertext and strains of e-poetry have proposed solutions with varying levels of success. Yet, a over a decade into the game, no one possibility leads.
There’s a room in the Musée d’Orsay that I call the “room of possibilities.” The museum is roughly set up chronologically, happily wending its way through the nineteenth century, until you hit this one room which is a group of painterly responses to the invention of the camera. In this room are about half a dozen proposals for the way painting could respond. One that sticks in my mind is a tromp o’eil solution where a figure is painted literally reaching out of the frame into the “viewer’s space.” Another incorporates three-dimensional objects atop of the canvas. Great attempts, but as we all know, Impressionism won out.
As writers, are in that room of possibilities now. Where will it lead? I think we can get a clue of not what to do if we look at the history of both video art and net art, two recent forms that grappled head-on with new technology. About a decade or so ago, net art was huge. Programmers were the new art stars; they were regularly featured in Whitney Biennials. But soon, the art public fell out of love with net art. The problem was that the field ended up as the province of programmers, not artists. And these programmers were more interested to see how high they could make a machine jump, rather than infusing a machine with a sophisticated aesthetic sensibility. The problem was also made clear with early video art technology which, too, first became the province of geeks who wanted to see what the machines were capable of. Those early experiments never made it out of the gate, rather the medium needed an artist like Joan Jonas, who simply twiddled the vertical adjust knob on a television set to create one of early video art’s most profound works of art. By working against the technicality of video, Jonas made great art. Warhol, too, often claimed that his static camera films — so against the grain of the 60s avant-garde jump-cut style of his day — were a throw back to early cinema, where the camera was incapable of even so much as a pan. Today, Warhol’s “Sleep” seems much more radical because of what it doesn’t do technologically rather than what it does.
Punk rock taught us the lessons of working against technology’s allure: “Here’s three cords. Now start a band.” You can give a guitar player the best guitar in the world, but that doesn’t mean she will play with soul; technically adept session musicians are a dime a dozen. Likewise, I feel that writing’s challenge right now is not so much making the machines jump, rather it has to do with the embrace of the thing the web does best: distribution and dissemination. Back to three chords. Unlike modernisms, we will not be wowed by new formal innovation; we will be wowed by the way works of various formal stripes circulates and recirculates. The machines indeed will jump — there are teams of programmers working on that now — and soon enough, poetry will be the complete province on machines (“Writing poetry for inhuman readers, who do not yet exist, because such aliens, clones, or robots have not yet evolved to read it.” — Christian Bök) — but until then, what’s new is old.