Literary Practice and the Digital Humanities, Redux: Data as/and Poetry

panel / roundtable
  1. 1. Rita Raley

    English Dept - University of California, Santa Barbara

  2. 2. Sandy Baldwin

    Center for Literary Computing - West Virginia University, English - West Virginia University

  3. 3. Nick Montfort

    Massachusetts Institute of Technology

  4. 4. Noah Wardrip-Fruin

    Computer Science - University of California, Santa Cruz

  5. 5. John Cayley

    Brown University

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Literary Practice and the Digital Humanities, Redux: Data as/and Poetry

Raley, Rita, Associate Professor of English, University of California, Santa Barbara,
Baldwin, Sandy, Associate Professor of English and Director of the Center for Literary Computing, West Virginia University,
Montfort, Nick, Associate Professor of Digital Media, MIT,
Wardrip-Fruin, Noah, Associate Professor of Computer Science, University of California, Santa Cruz ,
Cayley, John , Visiting Professor of Literary Arts, Brown University,

This panel brings together four of the central theorist-practitioners in the field of what is commonly called electronic literature for a discussion of the question of data as/and poetry. Drawing on a range of aesthetic and discursive traditions – from sublimity to communication theory – panelists will consider the structural and operational logics of writing in programmable and networked media. As a foundation for more general theoretical inquiry, they will engage specific compositional practices ranging from Perl poetry generators to writing with and against Google search algorithms. In broad terms, then, the panel will contribute to the conversation about the role and function of literary aesthetics and practices in the digital humanities. It is in sympathy with the “material turn” in the digital humanities toward the platform and the mechanism, but it seeks more fully to understand the relations between material form and aesthetic effects (and affects).

Sandy Baldwin considers the problem of data and poetry in terms of what might be called the unaccountable or “wayward.” He argues that such waywardness is historically and formally tied to poetry, situating data in the discourse of the sublime and in relation to a tradition of the metaphoric and the figural. As poetic discourse, the wayward or unaccountable is a problematic enunciative tactic, the rhetorical “lighting up” of detritus into significance and readability. Various “codework” practices can be seen as pursuing such tactics as uttering data and enunciating the author’s name through the data midden. Nick Montfort discusses some of the textures of data and code, and the complexity of these two categories, in Montfort’s ppg256 (Perl Poetry Generator in 256 Characters) series. Even in the acrostic method of Jackson Mac Low, the set of “data” consists of two different sorts of data, source text and seed text, that are used differently. In the ppg256 series, the only textual “data” is in quoted strings embedded in the code. Despite these complexities, making the distinction between code and data is important to understanding how ppg256 generators work and is important to the poetics underlying these programs. Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s presentation traces one particular birth narrative of an operational logic, that of the n-gram as a literary logic. It connects mathematicians such as Claude Shannon and Andrei Markov, the contributors to popular personal computer publications such as Byte Magazine and Scientific American, as well as figures such as Hugh Kenner and Charles O. Hartman. Finally, in contrast, the independent development of literary n-gram techniques by artists such as John Cayley is used to ask whether such logics are as different from collision detection (and others representing the physical world) as they may seem. John Cayley’s remarks will be directed to those tools, instruments and services that now give us close-to-no-cost access to indexed, mapped, statistically modeled, data-driven views of the largest corpus of language practice on the planet. He will do this with reference to three ongoing projects: ‘writing to be found,’ which explores techniques for generating aesthetic linguistic forms with=against services like Google; The Readers Project (with Daniel C. Howe), which might be thought of as ‘writing through visualizing reading’; and The Natural Language Liberation Front, which engages, agonistically, with the institutions and institutional consequences of all these new relations of literary production.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2011
"Big Tent Digital Humanities"

Hosted at Stanford University

Stanford, California, United States

June 19, 2011 - June 22, 2011

151 works by 361 authors indexed

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Conference website:

Series: ADHO (6)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None