Beyond Taxonomy: Digital Poetics and the Problem of Reading

  1. 1. Talan Memmott

    Brown University

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Beyond Taxonomy: Digital Poetics and the Problem of


Brown University


University of Georgia

Athens, Georgia




Kretzschmar, Jr.



(Talan Memmott is a hypermedia artist/writer/editor
from San Francisco, California. He is the Creative Director and Editor
of the online hypermedia literary journal BeeHive (). His hypermedia work
appears widely on the Internet. In 2001 he was awarded the trAce/Alt-X
New Media Writing Award for his work Lexia to
Perplexia, which also received honorable mention for the
Electronic Literature Organization’s award in fiction. He is a tutor for
the trAce Online Writing School, and has been a speaker, panelist,
reader and performer at various Conferences and Universities. He is
currently at Brown University as their first electronic writing graduate

What is digital poetry? The definitions are decidedly nebulous.
The term digital poetry has been applied to a variety of creative literary
applications, from work developed in Flash and DHTML to MOO spaces and works
that utilize Perl. From cybertext to web art, digital poetry is somewhat
interchangeable with other terms used to describe what could be called
creative cultural practice through applied technology. We can agree that
digital poetry as hypermedia presents an expanded field of textuality that
moves writing beyond the word, toward a relationship between signs and sign
regimes, their integration, disintegration, and interaction one to another.
But, how these relationships are established in digital poetry is as diverse
and various as the practice itself.
The problems of developing any general typology, let alone taxonomy, are
hinted at in Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext: Perspectives on
Ergodic Literature. Aarseth puts forward a number of models for
the definition of various types of objects (buttons, actors, interactive,
controller, layout) within creative applications—including games,
interactive fiction, and hypertext. As the analysis expands, it is
discovered that these typologies breakdown when any given piece is viewed as
a whole. One moment a button may be a button, the next moment it may be an
actor; or, any given element may carry the attributes of any number of types
Digital poetry does not properly define any specific type of expressive
object. Because of this there are many problems that emerge for the
reader/users of digital poetry and for those that deal critically with such
work. Lacking a definite object of study, we must begin to move away from
the idea of digital poetry as a genre toward an observation of applied
poetics within the digital environment—a poetics that is based in an
individual author’s engagement with media technologies, as scripted,
programmed and applied within a particular work.
Using Artaud’s The Theater and its Double as a
guide, this paper explores the mise en scène (or mise en screen) as a
potential model for the close reading of digital poetry. The paper looks at
a number of web-based digital poetry works that utilize a variety of
technologies to demonstrate how the network and its technologies play into
artist/writer intent to develop an applied poetics rather than poetry
Katherine Parrish’s Oulipo inspire web project
MOOlipo is examined for its creative use of MOO
technology to create a particpatory poetical space. In this work the user
particpates by inputting text, which is parsed and filtered under certain
rules to affect the output. The various rooms of the MOO have different
produce different effects. In one room a mesotic is created from user input,
in another room the word order of the input text is reversed.
Two other works that require user participation for the construction of
content will be examined. Lisa Jevbratt’s Syncro
Mail, a web-based mail service, requires that a user input the
email address of a second (perhaps unknowing) ‘user’. Through this process,
the second ‘user’ receives a random image and a random word in their email.
This piece uses perl scripting for its functionality and presents a unique,
if not mysterious method of poetic emergence. In the delivered email there
is no explanation as to the relevance or connection of image to word, nor
any indication of how, or where the mail originated. The connections, the
poetry must be made by this second ‘user’, independent of any knowledge of
the process. Another project with much more immediate participatory poetic
results is You and We, a collaboration of Seb
Chevrel and Gabe Kean. You and We allows users to
upload images and short texts. Using a combination of Flash and Macromedia
Generator, the images and texts are randomly compiled in a somewhat
cinematic, MTV-like display complete with music. Within seconds of uploading
an image or text, it is incorporated into the collection. As of November
10th, 2002 there had been over 1,500 images uploaded and nearly 5,000
Additional works to be examined include; Brian Kim Stefans’ The Dreamlife of Letters for its use of letterist animation,
and a couple of “codeworks” by Ted Warnell—VIRU2
and BERLIOZ—for their elegance and simplicity of
interface as well as their transparency. Warnell’s work allows the functions
of code to play into the applied poetics of his work, at the surface. In
VIRU2 the actual code that drives the piece is
made viewable as screenal text. The exposure of code at the surface and the
integration of functionality, aesthetics and poetics in Warnell’s work
emphasizes the role of technology and an individuated ecounter with media in
establishing what is inferred by the term digital poetry as well as applied
Rather than work from a model that hopes for a close reading through the
abstraction of words from their media-rich environment, this paper proposes
that critics and readers take a more choragraphic (to borrow a term from
Gregory Ulmer) approach to reading that observes the entirety of a work—from
interface design to interactivity, the written word and code—as something of
a micro-cultural statement. By examining digital poetry objects as a whole
we may begin to recognize how each work presents an individuated applied
poetics and move away from overreaching taxonomic designations.
This paper also proposes that more critical work be developed in hypermedia
environments as a way of diminishing critical/theoretical detachment from
the realities of creative digital practice.

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Conference Info

In review

"Web X: A Decade of the World Wide Web"

Hosted at University of Georgia

Athens, Georgia, United States

May 29, 2003 - June 2, 2003

83 works by 132 authors indexed

Affiliations need to be double-checked.

Conference website:

Series: ACH/ICCH (23), ALLC/EADH (30), ACH/ALLC (15)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

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