Poetry News

Literature of Distraction and Other Conversation Topics with Paul Stephens at Guernica

By Harriet Staff


This one went up right before the holidays, so we must make sure it's seen well! Guernica's David Foote interviews professor and critic Paul Stephens, who talks about juggling. Actually, "[e]xpounding on about the artists who inspired his research, our 'literature of distraction,' and outsourcing memory to global technology, Stephens presented a take on everyday hurtles and the artwork they produce." It's a great interview, and here's some:

Guernica: Now that we’re all pocket poets of sorts, now that there’s a new language put into motion, how does this change poetry going forward? Will my kids write poems with hashtags and “LOL”s?

Paul Stephens: That’s already happening with the poetry written by twentysomething New York poets such as Trisha Low, Sofia Le Fraga, and Andrew Durbin. We think of poetry as a contemplative genre where we go into nature or experience our true selves, our true voices. There are quite a few advocates for poetry as an antidote to information overload, or advocates for what is sometimes called “slow poetry,” or poetry as a way to remove ourselves from this world of textual and informational bombardment. But there’s another strand of contemporary and modernist writing, which to me is more interesting, that explores the limits of our ability to comprehend and process information. It presents us with texts that can’t simply be assimilated to close reading, take-away meaning, or a sense of authentic authorial voice. Traditional versions of lyric poetry may be increasingly quaint in a world where our identities are constantly in flux or formed through Facebook and v-chat, or any number of technological mediations in our everyday experience of language.

Guernica: If all this text and information is going to be a significant cornerstone of our identities, we shouldn’t think of it as an overbearing overload per se, but embrace what information we can process?

Paul Stephens: I have an ambivalent relationship to the term “overload.” I think it’s often used carelessly. There’s an enormous scholarship on the topic. Some scholars locate the emergence of information overload in the Renaissance, with the emergence of print culture in Gutenberg. Others locate it in Medieval scriptoria, where monks would run out of space to annotate books because there’s limited space on a page—at a certain point when sharing books you become unable to process all of the glosses. There’s another compelling argument, made by Alex Wright in his book Glut, that the library of Alexandria, which had several hundred thousand volumes, already superseded the bounds of the human capacity to possibly comprehend such vast knowledge.

There are also information overload self-help books, which I find pretty useless. Are you really going to go on an information diet? I don’t know many people who have sworn off their smartphones. Once you adopt such a powerful technology, it’s hard to go backward. I’m interested in media archeology, but I don’t have much patience for people who fetishize typewriters. When we get these extraordinarily powerful new technologies, it’s hard not to have them influence our lives. Information overload suggests an exclusively negative relation between humans and information technologies—that we can’t create the filters we need to find the information most meaningful to us.

On the other hand, there’s a kind of info-utopianism you get from people in the technology industry, who see technology as a panacea for information scarcity, or information asymmetry. Just because you have a laptop and internet access in sub-Saharan Africa doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to modernize a country overnight. There are very complex economic and social relations that govern access to information. We can find the exact price for any given stock or something online, but that doesn’t mean our lives are going to be enriched through that knowledge.

I do think the benefits of information technologies vastly outweigh the drawbacks, but we should be conscious of those drawbacks. As a literary historian, I’m more interested in questions of aesthetics and in how practices of reading and writing change over time.

Guernica: Some of those drawbacks include not giving our full attention to the people and things directly around us. Stein and some of the avant-garde tradition embrace this type of multi-tasking as a place of artistic contemplation rather than letting it all be a big distraction.

Paul Stephens: There’s a rich literature of distraction, although that framing might be a bit reductive. One of the great exemplars of this is Tan Lin, who has worked in multiple media formats to rethink the poetry book as a genre. He does what he calls ambient writing, where he times it precisely, and his goal is to create states of distraction in his readers. He works to get you into a contemplative state, sometimes even comparing it to meditation. In a sense, he uses information bombardment paradoxically to get us back to a contemplative state.

People often think of this literature of distraction as originating with Gertrude Stein. Is it possible to read every word of her 925-page Making of Americans? Sure it’s possible, but what does it mean to cognize every word in the way you would a Shakespeare sonnet? This literature of distraction has to be in dialogue with new technologies, with the possibility that we can have experiences of literature which overwhelm us into states we’re familiar with in modern life: feeling fatigued, inattentive, or not being able to process all of the data we have in our lives.

Guernica: So we read differently now, like Stein suggests? We “read at” something rather than read it in depth?

To find out what Paul Stephens says to this, turn to page here.

Originally Published: January 4th, 2013