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New Directions in Digital Poetry

by C.T. Funkhouser
Continuum, New York, 2012
344 pp. Trade, $120.00; paper, $34.95
ISBN: 9781441165923; ISBN: 9781441115911.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

It is not an exaggeration to state that the field of digital poetry is a rapidly shifting one. Certain works that are here under discussion have, for instance, already vanished or have been taken online for reparation, perhaps forever. Other evolutions are very uncertain: We don't know what will happen with Adobe on the Ipad. New trends and soft- and hardware may disappear (does Second Space still exist?) or on the contrary emerge and revolutionize the field at the very moment in which the reader is entering the pages of this book or reading this review, etc. At the same time, however, almost no other field has been institutionalized so swiftly:  Not only is there a strangely accepted consensus on what should be considered the canon of digital writing, but also the names of those who put the standards in critical writing in the field are very limited and hardly contested. On the one hand, and contrary to all other areas of cultural production, the field of digital writing has not been questioned by the challenges of the so-called canon wars: There is a real canon, fixed (so to speak) by the Electronic Literature Organization, author of a double anthology of the works that are supposed to matter. On the other hand, authors like Lev Manovich, N. Katherine Hayles, Rita Raley, Jörgen Schaefer, Joe Tabbi and some others (I apologize for not naming them all here) do represent a body of critical knowledge that, in fact, structures the field.

Both aspects are undoubtedly and inextricably intertwined. It is the breathtaking rapidity of change and growth in the field that creates the need of a solid and perhaps rather narrow canonization of authors and works, while this hasty canonization serves also as a springboard to new evolutions.  In-between both elements, i.e. the chaotic evolution of the field and the reassuring invention of some safe beacons, there is room, however, for an open and hands-on approach of digital writing, which helps the reader find her way in the jungle of this new form of writing that may seem either deceivingly simple or incomprehensibly or overwhelmingly multifaceted.

In this regard, C.T. Funkhouser's study is probably one of the most useful ones that have been published recently. A well-known and much appreciated pioneer of historical scholarship on digital poetry, mainly with his book Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An Archaelogy of Forms, 1959-1965 (University of Alabama Press, 2007) of which the current study is the logical and chronological continuation, C.T. Funkhouser is an author who has a strong sense of serving the community. His hands-on knowledge of digital writing (which he teaches and performs at the same time), his almost encyclopedic yet never asphyxiating awareness of what is happening in the field, his capacity of selecting the best of what has been done, his broad-mindedness and his refusal to promote certain kind of digital writing to the expense of other ones, his extreme modesty (this is not an author who is promoting his own ideas on digital writing), as well as his perfect understanding of what the reader may be expecting from this kind of book, all these qualities make him a wonderful guide.

C.T. Funkhouser's approach in this book follows three different lines. The first one is chronological. After having described in his previous book the kinds of digital writing that predated the appearance of the world wide web, Funkhouser focuses here on e-poetry of the www era, but not without making clear yet fluid distinctions between three different generations of digital poets. He starts with a presentation of authors who migrate with their existing work to the new technological environments (not necessarily but mostly that of the www). He then shifts to works that display a stronger attempt to experiment with the new possibilities of the (permanently new and renewed) media. He, finally, foregrounds creations that can only be invented and produced by relying on the technicalities of the www (such as for instance, to give a very simple example, new forms of automated text production based upon the Google search engine).

The second line is critical. C.T. Funkhouser chooses what he considers the majors works and authors of each period (even if there is some overlap between the periods and the authors), and he provides the reader with a very modest but precise and dramatically helpful user's guide: What is the technology that has been used, and what does the reader need, technically speaking, to access and read the work? What does on observe when entering the work? How much time does it take to read? Is it possible to read the whole work or can one only read fragments? What good and bad surprises do the reading of the work offer us? How does the work take into account the expectations and reactions of the reader? How do works change through time? What is successful and what is a failure? Very simple questions, but exactly the questions readers, and not only lay readers, ask in their confrontation, which can prove stressful or disappointing, with this kind of material?

The third line is theoretical and critical. Although C.T. Funkhouser withdraws from any Great Theory whatsoever (readers who are looking for strong statements on the future of digital writing should never open this book), he has sound ideas on the position of this kind of writing in contemporary culture. His two major references in this regard are Marjorie Perloff and N. Katherine Hayles. The former inspires him excellent pages on the conceptualization of digital poetry as cultural anthropophagy (the digital mash up culture is a good example of Perloff's defense of the "unoriginal genius", although Funkhouser is definitely less critical toward e-writing than the more avant-garde oriented Perloff). The latter offers him the distinction between two types of attention, namely deep attention (the willingness and capacity of spending a lot of time on one single artifact) and hyper-attention (the craving for permanently new stimuli and the unwillingness to accept boredom), a distinction that he uses in a (typically) ecumenical mode since Funkhouser sees the future of digital poetry (and perhaps of literary in general) in the new yet still to discover balance between deep attention and hyper attention. This conclusion is characteristic of Funkhouser's way of thinking, which, however globally favorable to digital poetry, eschews extreme positions and is not afraid of self-criticism.

Last Updated 3 July 2012

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