The apparatus of digital literature: a stenographic disposition in five minutes or less

Here is the text of my E-poetry 2011 paper. I am taking part in the Sugar City Dialogues part of the program, which calls for five minute “statements” in rapid fire succession. Hence the brevity of the following, and hence its nature, which many of you will no doubt discover on your own. It’s rather unoriginal, in several senses, but I will leave that alone. As I read, I plan to have Joerg Piringer‘s “Unicode” running behind me (or to the side, whatever). Read more about “Unicode” here, or watch below.

The apparatus of digital literature: a stenographic disposition in five minutes or less

Key your present time texts and you will begin to see who you are and what you are doing here. Mix yesterday with today and feel tomorrow your future rising out of old apparatuses. You are a programmed apparatus set to read, select, copy, and write.

Who disposes of you?

Who decides what particles to dis-play back in present time?

Who dis-plays back old humiliations and defeats holding you in predisposed set time?

What I am trying to pick out with “apparatus” is a thoroughly heterogenous ensemble consisting of discourses; institutions; reading practices, close or otherwise; regulatory decisions; laws; administrative measures; letterforms; writing machines; philosophical, moral and aesthetic propositions—in short, the disposed as much as the indisposed. Such is the system of the apparatus. Not only, however, corporations such as Apple and Microsoft and Adobe, departments, schools, conferences, disciplines, tenure processes, the proportional representation of men and women among us, and so forth (whose connection with power is in a certain sense evident), but also the pen, writing, prose, philosophy, verse, code, applications and apps, computers, cellular telephones, e-poetry, and—why not—language itself, which is perhaps the most ancient of apparatuses—one in which thousands and thousands of years ago a chimpanzee inadvertently let itself be captured, probably without realizing the consequences that it was about to interface.

If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be arrangements of technical images; the rest, fragments of letters, bits of code, lumps of semantics, records of sound, pieces of movement and stasis, phials of odors, plates of food and excrement. Booksellers would consider it quite a novelty; critics would murmur, yes, but is it art, conceptual, representational, or otherwise; and I could trust a majority of you to use it as you would a parlor game. After all, in European printed language it is an automatic assumption that letters forming words are separated by space from other letters forming words, that these letters march (without moving) across the page from left to right, and that the lines so formed—lines of force interacting with curves of visibility and enunciation—are strictly parallel and progress downwards at equal intervals. The hypothesis to be presented here is: Occidental culture is a discourse whose most important information is stored in an alphanumeric code. This code is in the process of being replaced by other, differently structured codes. If this hypothesis were accurate, we would have to count on a fundamental change of our culture in the near future, perhaps the end of the anthropological machine of Western humanism.

For mechanized writing to be optimized, one can no longer dream of writing as the expression of individuals or the trace of bodies—no longer the signature or the traditional image. The very forms, differences, and frequencies of its letters have to be reduced to formulas—now the password or the technical image. So-called humanity is split up into physiology and information technology. When Hegel summed up the perfect alphabetism of his age, he called it Spirit. The readability of all history and all discourses turned humans or philosophers into God.

Speaking of Hegel, if “positivity” is the name that, according to Hyppolite, the young Hegel gives to the historical element—loaded as it is with rules, rites, and institutions that are imposed on the individual by an external power, but that become, so to speak, internalized in systems of beliefs and feelings—we, by borrowing this term (here renamed “apparatus”), take a position with respect to a decisive problem, which is actually also our own problem: the relation between individuals as living beings and the historical element. By “the historical element,” I mean the set of institutions, of processes of subjectification. and of rules in which power relations become concrete.

For we belong to apparatuses and act in them. The newness of an apparatus in relation to those preceding it is what we call its currency, our currency. The new is the current. The current is not what we are but rather what we become, what we are in the process of becoming, in other words the Other, our becoming-other. In every apparatus, we have to distinguish between what we are (what we already no longer are) and what we are becoming: the part of history, the part of currentness. History is the archive, the design of what we are and cease being while the current is the sketch of what we will become. Thus history or the archive is also what separates us from ourselves, while the current is the Other with which we already coincide.

So what is the status of of human freedom with respect to writing with an apparatus, with this transparent, mechanical process? Probably as follows: I know, when I strike a key, that I am dealing with a programmed instrument that reaches into the swirl of particles and packages them into texts. I know that a word processor can do this automatically, a chimpanzee can do it accidentally, and a stenographer can do it by copying an existing pattern, and that in all cases, the same text as mine will appear. I know, therefore, that my keys are inviting me into a determined mesh of accident and necessity. And, in spite of it all, I experience my writing gesture concretely as a free gesture, in fact, free to such an extent that I would rather give up my life than give up my apparatus.

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