Book review: New Media Poetics

New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories
Ed. By Adalaide Morris and Thomas Swiss.
The MIT Press, 2006. 425 pages.

We live in the posthuman age. The posthuman view recognizes that we are not the bounded and autonomous human beings imagined by Enlightenment thinkers. We are instead cybernetic organisms joined in continuous feedback loops with media and information technologies.The term posthuman has been defined in various ways, but the common element in its use is a synergy between human beings and intelligent machines.

So what does that have to do with music, with art, with literature? With poetry? The human-machine synergy has profound implications for the category “literature” and its subset “poetry” as they enter into combination with networked and programmable machines to emerge in such amalgams as “electronic literature” or “e-poetries”.

That’s the argument of the authors and editors of New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories (The MIT Press, 2006; 425 pages).

With this collection of 17 essays, Editors Adalaide Morris and Thomas Swiss aim to extend the work of understanding the computer as an expressive medium by adding new media poetry to the study of hypertext narrative, interactive fiction, computer games, intermedia art, and other digital art forms. They showcase a series of dynamic examples of this kind of writing and they consider some ways these examples “reconfigure the familiar field of poetry by bringing back into view the vital but marginalized lineages of print and sound poetics, procedural writing, gestural abstraction and conceptual art, and activist and or utopian communities formed by emergent poetics.”

New media poetry is more than the simple migration of words from page to screen, ink to pixels, static to dynamic forms, more than a shift from black letters on white backgrounds to flickering patterns in millions of colors, say Morris and Swiss. New media poetry is a different order of writing. New media poetry relies on hardware, software, and code, and definitions of new media poetics that do not account for code “miss the synergy crucial to its operations, its realm of discourse, and its self-reflexivity.”

Of the three broad categories of new media poems – hypertextual poems, poems composed for dynamic and kinetic manipulation and display, and programmable texts – the essays in this volume focus primarily on the last two.

The chapters in Part I, Contexts, consider connected structures that produce, nourish, and circulate new media poetics. They emphasize communities, rather than individual authors. Part II, Technotexts, emphasizes a dynamic media ecology in which works exist in reciprocity rather than hierarchy, in collaboration rather than revolution or even evolution. The chapters in Part III, Theories, are written by practicing poet-critics and develop a series of terms to address these and other questions concerning how to think about new media poetics.

Some of my favorite moments occur when Marjorie Perloff writes about her interest in differential texts—texts that exist in different material foms, with no single version being the definitive one. And N. Katherine Hayles reasons that print and electronic literature have different qualities and there’s no point in privileging one over the other. In comparing and contrasting how electronic and print media conceive of poetry as an event rather than as an object, she shows that both print and digital media offer potent resources, while being clear about how these resources differ. Talan Memmott points out the huge divide between digital creative work and page-based criticism written about it. Memmott proposes that more critical work produced as hypermedia will open doors to new and diverse critical methods and responses that might be more directly applicable to digital culture.

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