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New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories

by Adalaide Morris and Thomas Swiss, Editors
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. & London, England, 2006
416 pp., illus. Trade, $38.00
ISBN: 0-262-13463-2.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens
KU Leuven
Faculty of Arts, Blijde Inkomststraat 21, B-3000 Leuven, Belgium


So fast go the changes in digital technology, and so fast also their impact on culture, that the theoretical knowledge of what we do and learn by simply putting things into practice stays inevitably far beyond the practical knowledge of it. The phenomenon of such a gap between the practical and the theoretical, or the instinctive and the categorical, is far from new, and it has been formulated with impressive acuteness by Gertrude Stein in a famous lecture delivered at Amherst College. Taking as its starting point Stein’s insights on the fact that "what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything", this intelligent and useful volume, brilliantly introduced by Adelaide Morris and carefully edited by herself and Thomas Swiss (the two of them at the time from the University of Iowa), makes a more than welcome attempt to bridge the gap between the two forms of knowledge mentioned above.

Today’s practice is clearly on the side of Web2.0, which we continue to call the "interactive" version of the Internet, yet this term is definitely inappropriate to catch what’s new in the shift towards newer uses of the Internet and other digital technologies and environments. The notion of interactivity has been put into question by several major theoreticians (the best-known of them being Espen Aarseth) of the "pre"Web.2.0 applications, and various contributors of New Media Poetics attack it fiercely. However, this collection does not limit itself to denounce the rear-view mirror (to follow the metaphor coined by Marshall McLuhan) that helps us to enter to future when we rely too much upon the conceptual tool of interactivity. It introduces also a whole series of alternative concepts that fit better our current practices of digital writing.

Among these concepts, the most salient are obviously those of "experience" and of "temporality". The first one, "experience", aims at broadening the already traditional idea of "immersion" that is often associated with digital culture. Yet contrary to "immersion", which involves an idea of loss as well as completeness (one enters completely a fictional world, in which to behave as in real life), "experience" hints to a broader range of sensations and thoughts, in which self-reflexivity and the splitting of the self are also present. And contrary to the more aesthetic approach of the digital sign as "mobile" and "dynamic" (in comparison with the so-called fixity of signs in print culture), the notion of "temporality" transfers the temporal dynamics to all the features and aspects of digital communication (including the subject itself and his or her making sense of the active shaping of the signs during the digital experience).

Moreover, New Media Poetics takes also sides in favor of a medium-specific approach of the field, which is also in sharp contrast with the stereotyped ecumenical vision of an overall "multimedia" approach of digital culture in the 1990s. By doing so, the book follows the tendency, launched by Lev Manovich and Katherine Hayles, amongst others, to avoid fashionable discourses on post-medium hybridization and to foreground, instead, the multiple ways that reshape medium-specificity in the digital Age. Hayles’s ideas on "technotextuality" (i.e. the basic stance that the text is a material object molded by the formal characteristics of its carrier and communicational context) are here rightly passed on to new media poetry.

New Media Poetics offers the best currently available overview of poetry at the new media age (it continues thus the groundbreaking work on poetry and media by Marjorie Perloff and Katherine Hayles, both eminently present in this book). Besides, it also makes room for authors that are deeply committed to digital writing themselves (I am thinking here of Kenneth Goldsmith, Talan Memmott and John Cayley, but this enumeration is of course not exhaustive). Such a move is extremely valuable. First, it helps to correct the too rapidly institutionalized canon of the first generation digital works: thanks to books like this, with a focus on Memmot’s Lexia to Perplexia or Cayley’s riverIsland, it should become possible to leave behind the so-called, but unhappily called, golden age of hyperfiction still deeply rooted in classic teleological narrative and print culture (see Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, now part of the Norton anthology). Second, it contributes also to the sobering observation that there is much more to find on the Internet than just the newest, the latest, and the hottest. The archival function of the Internet is at least as important, not just for new media poetry, but for new poetry tout court. Thanks to the digital archive and its possibilities for open and free access (the website that comes here to mind is, of course, UbuWeb) one can rediscover many aspects and examples of avant-garde writing, and one does it in a way that is much more complete than ever before, both from a quantitative and from a qualitative point of view: We finally can read now so many treasures we only knew from hear-say, and moreover we can look at them and listen to them simultaneously.

Like WJT Mitchell’s "pictorial turn", which is less the shift from one paradigm than the opportunity to reread the whole tradition, the digital turn in poetry does not draw a line between poetry in print and poetry on screen. The great merit of Morris’s and Swiss’s collection is to remember us this modest and exciting lesson.



Updated 1st October 2006

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