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Poetry at the Digital Divide
Remix Artworks, Neo-Orality, and Digitopia Blues
by Ian Samuels
[To techno-culturalists] it is the creation of the live mix, the manipulation of raw data, the recreation of reality in one's image that is the essence of the creative act. The product, like the source of the data, is irrelevant. It's all about process.
- John Sobol, Digitopia Blues
"Neo-orality" is a concept that is synonymous with the process of remixing, whether it be of music, images, data, or text. This concept (to be explained shortly) emerges at the end of John Sobol's book Digitopia Blues (Banff Centre Press, 2002) - his opinionated take on race, technology, and American pop music culture. Neo-orality also has implications for poetry on the Internet - or "cyberpoetry" as some have termed it. Sobol alludes to cyberpoetry in only the briefest of ways. Yet it's one of the book's most interesting subjects, and one that's given political resonance by another notion of Sobol's - that of the "digital divide". It's the three-way meeting of neo-orality, cyberpoetry, and the digital divide that will occupy this essay.
In order to tackle the subject of cyberpoetry, it will be useful to first review Sobol's ideas of "neo-orality" and the "digital divide".
The term "orality" shows up frequently whenever discussion turns to the trajectories of popular music and culture through the 20th century - and particularly when they reference the dynamics of North American culture, racially-charged in its own particular way. In many such cases, "orality" is framed as something like the protagonist in a lengthy historical thriller; a cultural force emerging from preliterate African roots to launch a ragtag battle against the overwhelmingly mechanical and rationalized power of the "literate" Western world. ("Orality" is here defined as the expression of a primal, pre-literate state of being: it is both a literal description of a state of technology in which human society communicates, remembers, and interacts without writing; and a metaphorical description of a mind-set, or way of being, that draws from the virtues and dynamics embodied in oral cultures.)
What's interesting about the thoughts on culture which emerge from these narratives is not necessarily the strict boundary they often try to draw between oral and literate. Rather, it is the ways in which these boundaries inevitably break down; the way the defining line between the two imagined worlds blurs as the theory takes shape. More astute philosophers (like Sobol) eventually take note of that blurring, and specifically address themselves and their concept of "orality" to the problem.
John Sobol's Digitopia Blues: Race, Technology, and the American Voice produces an interesting idea from its attempt to come to grips with the confusing boundary between the oral and the literate. Sobol begins his sweeping journey through the history of American popular music with a very specific definition of orality, which among other things is held to be community-oriented, participatory, interdisciplinary, and process-oriented. These, to Sobol, are all signature elements of an African-American oral subculture whose tension and various engagements with the mainstream "literate" culture have produced Western popular music as we know it today.
Oddly for a book entitled Digitopia Blues, however, Sobol only gets around to discussing the digital implications of this oral vs. literate tension in the final chapter. This is a shame, because some of the most interesting and tantalizing material in the book emerges from his attempt to confront a key paradox. Namely, that the emergence of the Internet (a technocratically-run network dependent for its very existence on a form of literacy - written code) has in fact made possible numerous forms of art that fit Sobol's criteria for orality very closely. These new art forms of the digital age - fluid, recombinant, collaborative, participatory, and process-oriented (ie, remixed) - need a new descriptor in the oral vs. literate scheme, and Sobol opts for the term "neo-orality".
For Sobol, the neo-oral aesthetic is to be found in (among other things) the culture of rave and electronic music, whose neo-oral culture of remixing is indebted to earlier forms of pre-digital (but still technology-based) forms of orality, such as hip-hop. By Sobol's definition of the term, the neo-oral extends into the digital realm wherever work can be found that privileges the process of the creative act, and the inclusiveness of that act in reaching out to and involving a community. Among other things, this implies a connection to interactive forms of online media art, visual art, and cyberpoetry.
To his credit, Sobol does not present his version of neo-orality as an emerging utopia (or dystopia). Rather, he talks about a rarely-discussed problem concerning the setting in which neo-orality is set to unfold. This problem is what he calls the "digital divide" - that point at which the fluid story of orality "takes on a hard, material meaning". He writes:
In America today, in the world today, people of colour are largely absent from the Internet, excluded from participation in the digital revolution. Participation requires money; money for computers but also for education, for network infrastructure, for electrical power infrastructure. Huge swaths of the of-colour world are missing these things, and so are unable to engage with the digital future."
As a means of bridging this potential divide - which Sobol describes as "a form of renewed enslavement" characterized by an "enforced wordlessness" of peoples of colour - Sobol proposes that "what is needed is for progressive oralists, literates, and digitalists to work together" in pushing toward empowerment. In other words, where inclusivity is concerned, it is not enough to bring oral forms to the Web if the originators of these forms (and the cultural traditions behind them) are shut out. Facilitating the participation of these communities is essential. Sobol ends by saying that oral poets will have "a role to play", but refuses to speculate on "what a postliterate poetry will look like".
One can't help but wonder, then - what does the postliterate poetry now taking shape look like? And how does it address itself to the question of the digital divide (if at all)? Intrigued both by the notion of the digital divide, and the possibility of a poetics that might in some way challenge it, I believe that it may be instructive to look at a few artists who have worked in the "neo-oral" realm that Sobol hints at.
One writer who has thought extensively about the question of poetry in the online world is Brian Kim Stefans, publisher of the Internet magazine Arras (www.arras.net). Stefans' own online literary works play extensively with the various components of language as a concrete "raw material" to be mixed and manipulated through digital technology. He also issues "settings" of other poets' works, which are essentially multimedia "remixes" of words written by others. These transformative adaptations use technologies like Flash and Shockwave to add another layer of meaning to otherwise strictly (in Sobol's terms) "literate" texts.
Stefans' work is wide-ranging, savvy in the ways of that somewhat controversial body of textual philosophy called "literary theory", and is certainly community- and process-oriented. Moreover, Stefans often explicitly states his opinion that art on the Web is about altering (or altering our impressions of) the fundamental processes at work in the daily functioning of society and of the digital economy. As he mentions in a recent post to Arras' weblog, "My sense is that what we do on the Web has to have some sort of dynamism to it - has to aspire, even if it is only a dream, to alter the avenues of distribution, cultural capital, etc., rather than simply to 'make something more available'."
Notably, Stefan's work often also strives to involve and implicate the viewer in interactive and dynamic ways. His setting of Dan Farrell's The Inkblot Record is probably one of the best examples of this. This project takes a literate text and turns it into a malleable online Shockwave object. The reader helps to transform and rearrange the work on the screen, transitioning from one part of the text to another and generating, with motions of the mouse, a shifting, kaleidoscopic, and weirdly disturbing "inkblot" in the far right frame.
Stefans clearly qualifies as one of the champions of post-literacy or "neo-orality", though he would perhaps have reservations about the terminology. The constant interplay between visual and text that Inkblot piece achieves stands in stark contrast to online works that function basically as Web archives of static texts (Jon Fried's Definitions leaps to mind), situating Stefans closer, at least as aspirations go, to the likes of Eduardo Kac - whose transgenic art piece Genesis (http://www.ekac.org/geninfo2 (link no longer active)) remixes language at the level of the living cell.
Acts of Qrime
Though media artist Motomichi Nakamura would perhaps balk at thinking of his work as "poetry", his piece Qrime (www.shift.jp.org/gallery/024/) has no less claim to the term than Stefans' remix of Inkblot, because Qrime is composed (at least in part) of "found" texts. Qrime is a hyper-interactive and aggressively-disturbing animated musing on violence (toward the self and others) that frequently intercuts its graphical machinations with literate pearls of wisdom concerning our cultural curiosity about violence, or the nature of human sacrifice. For example, one can expect - in the midst of a flurry of animated stick-figures frenetically mugging or garrotting one another - to be suddenly confronted by a sweetly-phrased poetic letter from a Japanese WWII kamikaze pilot to his parents, informing them of his good fortune in being chosen to die.
Favouring an animated format, Nakamura nevertheless shares Stefans' enterprise of implicating the viewer in what is seen on the screen - and thereby generating an awareness of process, of the fundamental acts involved in bringing such-and-such an image or text to light. In a very concrete way, both Inkblot and Qrime make the user part of a creative community viewing and interacting with the same work. It's a mode of creation that closely fits the model of post-literate neo-orality laid out by Sobol. This is "cyberpoetry" that synthesizes the "literate" and "oral" worlds, emerging from process-based and philosophically-aware work that does not necessarily concern itself with political activism per se (or with the concreteness of the digital divide as Sobol frames it). Rather, it emphasizes an overall creative practice that privileges thinking about, and re-thinking, how art and society function.
The Neo-oral Challenge
Does this kind of cyberpoetry match Sobol's criteria for neo-orality? A case can certainly be made. But does the "post-literate" format address and confront the digital divide? As witnessed in the works of creators like Stefans or Nakamura, it does so only at the level of formal approach - by including gestures toward neo-orality, toward making online work that is generative of a sense of process and community. Meanwhile, the more concrete political issues that Sobol raises - issues of race and technical infrastructure - remain largely outside the scope of these works.
Because the concrete effects of artworks meant to raise awareness about process through their structure are so unpredictable, and so hard to measure, difficult questions are posed: Should cyberpoetry be addressing the digital divide more directly? And if so, how might it do so effectively, without becoming didactic or propagandistic? (Or should it be didactic and propagandistic?) These are the most important, and most briefly-addressed, questions resident in Digitopia Blues. While it is not possible to answer them here, there are certainly promising signs of poets and artists working in "digitopia" right now who are capable of engaging such questions and bringing them into the open.
Ian Samuels is a writer who lives and works in Calgary. His work has appeared in periodicals including dANDelion, Open Letter, and The Capilano Review, and has been anthologized in Side/Lines: A New Canadian Poetics (Insomniac Press: 2002). His first book of poems was CABRA (Red Deer Press: 2000), and he has recently completed a second.