The Poetics of Information Overload: From Gertrude Stein to Conceptual Writing
by Paul Stephens
The University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2015
240 pp., illus. 21 b/w. Trade, $87.50; paper, $25.00
ISBN: 978-0-8166-9439-6; ISBN: 978-0-8166-9441-9.
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
Poetry is not only language-driven, which is a truism, it is also technology-driven, and the increasing technologization of language as well as the information overload that it produces have of course a dramatic impact on the reading and writing of poetry. At first sight, this impact is purely negative: in an information-saturated culture, where the sheer amount of available data and the ubiquity as well as the instantaneous reproduction and dissemination of this data is already beyond human imagination (and perhaps also beyond human control), there are good reasons to think that poetry is no longer a relevant way of using language. At second sight, however, the situation is a little different, not only because poetry does not disappear at all (its very resistance can be seen as the symptom of its lasting and stubborn social significance), but also because the poetic medium, at least in its most ambitious and avant-garde forms, helps develop new strategies to counter the bureaucratic and depersonalized management of data, language, and eventually people. Whether these strategies are socially and politically successful is open to debate, but Stephens's history of the poetic involvement in medium and technology issues from 1900 onwards is convincing and suggests that it is not possible to discard the poetic avant-garde as powerless and sentimental. It is on the contrary the poetic endeavor that discloses and explores important parts and consequences of information overload.
Stephens's book is an important continuation of the groundbreaking work of, among others, Marjorie Perloff, whose pioneering study of the relationships between writing and mediality (cf. Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media, 1994) has been the starting point of an important strand in literary analysis, prolonged and expanded afterwards by scholars such as N. Katherine Hayles and many others working at the crossroads of medium theory, media archeology, textual materialism, digital humanities and, most importantly, close reading, for it would be a serious mistake to think that the focus on technology automatically translates into a shift from close to distant reading. One may stress the importance of big data for poetry, both as a creative practice and an object of research, but this deep rootedness of poetry in information and medium technology does not imply that writers, readers, critics, and scholars abandon what poetry makes poetry.
The Poetics of Information Overload combines two strands. On the one hand, it offers an excellent overview of the notion of information overload and the many changes it underwent during the twentieth century. In addition, Stephens gives also a clear discussion of the social, political, and ideological debates that surround information overload in the broader context of the managerial and bureaucratic control of human behavior and society. In the critique of this control, which is often nothing more than the illusion of control, the role of poetry is key, Stephens argues. On the other hand, the book proposes also an inspiring and challenging new history of the avant-garde poetry in America, yet not without paying a more than deserved tribute to certain foreign models, such as for instance Raymond Queneau's A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, French original: "Cent mille milliards de poèmes", 1961).
What makes this history so interesting is first of all its span: The Poetics of Information Overload manages to describe the essential movements and figures of the last hundred years, and it succeeds in doing so by the clever selection of leading figures (some of them more known than others, but this is definitely a strong advantage of the book) and by the refusal of distinguishing between major and minor tendencies and debates. The study is divided in six chapters, which cover the twentieth century in a very balanced way (Stephens does not fall prey to the illusion that the closer we come to the present, the more we have to say about history). If Stein and conceptual or constraint-based writing (the school of 'uncreative writing' as it is called today, although not by Stephens himself) represent the beginning and end of the book, there is also room for chapters on Bob Brown and his readies (a device that interacts with microfilm technology and the ideology of speed-reading), on Charles Olson and his attempts to rethink information processing in relationship with the human body (this chapter is centered on the Black Mountain College pedagogy), on the mimeographic or photocopy revolution of the sixties (a chapter in which McLuhan is intensely present), and finally on the 'Language' poetry of the seventies and eighties (probably the most directly politically inspired movement of the century). This highly pedagogical structure is all the more convincing since Paul Stephens pays a lot of attention to certain larger tendencies that bridge the gap between the technological and stylistic particularities of each period. Fundamental in this regard is the notion of appropriation art, which may be seen as the unifying element of the whole history of the avant-gardes (next to the political and ideological stance towards language management).
Well-documented and elegantly written, Stephens's book demonstrates the vitality of literary and poetic studies in the age of big data criticism, where questions of style and individual authors may seem superseded by the dream of laying bare hidden patterns with the help of sophisticated computer programs. After having read The Poetics of Information Overload one should become aware, though, of the inherent limits of certain forms of Digital Humanities. Information management is not just unavoidable but necessary, and there is not the slightest note of Luddite nostalgia in Stephens's work. However, what we can learn from poetry is vital as well and Stephens is an excellent guide in this respect.