jeweled platypus


tuesday, december 09, 2008
Notes about digital poetry and the history of copyright

I had a lot of fun attending some of this quarter’s events held by the UCSB English department. Here are my scribbles from a couple lectures — filtered through my brain, so they’re not very accurate representations of what was said — to make them searchable for my future reference and to share them too.

Literature.Culture.Media Center Event:
Gaps, Vexes, and the Digitas, Lisa Samuels, November 20

Our printed handout consisted of a screenshot, three pages of poetry, and five pages of Java. That’s my kind of lecture. Samuels talked about two of her works of electronic poetry: a collection of “gap scans” (poetry she has annotated and broken apart using custom software) and “Vex Increment” (a semi-random animation of an appropriated poem, generated by custom software).

She sees the gap scans as visualizations of the deeper meanings of the appropriated poetry, redacting words and parts of words to reveal nuances and marking them up with bits of criticism that appear in tooltips. Learning to see depth is learning to read. Naive reading is linear while expert reading is conceptual. The visual spectacle of the marked-up text is important. “Archipelago poetics”: reaching across little islands of text, reaching between disciplines, etc.

One of her gap scans has a visual element, “If” with radiating lines of text, that reminds of calligrams [like the one on the right]. She says this was a challenge for the student coding the project — text layout routines aren’t designed to let you do wacky things like that. Maybe typewriters could handle it better. The software you use helps determine the kind of poetry you can write, and the kind of poetry you write helps determine the software that you use, etc.

“Vex Increment” is a text animation that goes along with a slow piece played on treated piano, sounding to me like old clocks ticking and chiming. She is interested in randomness within set structures, and she likes patient, non-frenetic delivery of digital work. This work was partly inspired by a speed reading toy with words displayed one at time, like this one. People talk about randomness and pseudo-randomness; reminds me of Oulipo.

The complexity of the custom code generating and displaying her work is related in some ways to the complexity of the text and the analysis. She talked about looking at the code written by her collaborator, trying to read it as a non-programmer, recognizing words and figuring out patterns of whitespace. Punctuation is a type of code within written human language. Whitespace in poetry and code is meaningful but non-functional. She’d like to make the code a more visible part of the project; this makes me think of quines. Looking at code from a literary point of view is not always silly.

She likes A Humument, of course. Book art has a tradition of physically-enacted criticism. Her work also reminds me of a recent post about Williams poems, including interest in generating them programmatically (which happened).

History of Books and Material Texts Research Focus Group Lecture:
The Public Sphere and the Emergence of Copyright, Mark Rose, November 7

“Texts” vs. “works” (Foucault, Barthes). The history of books became a subject with the appearance of the digital. The prehistory of this kind of study was bibliography and textual study.

Milton’s Areopagitica discusses the “public sphere”: private people coming together in a public. An older form of this was the prince representing the land. Public-ity. (Habermas.) Late 17th century.

Areopagitica turned the world of books into little dramas, like “the piazza of one title page” where he compares a title page to courtly rituals, in opposition to the idea of the public sphere. Looking at Milton’s title page, “speech” is big, his name is big, and there are no licensing symbols. The whole thing was a protest against the indignity of licensing.

At this time, books were seen as embodiments of their authors, and authors were seen as living in their books. Books are vital and generative, like people. The brain was understood to be the womb of ideas. Milton talks about “precious lifeblood”; semen was seen as the distillation of blood; this was a biological space; be fruitful and multiply.

The Stationer’s Company was concerned with social and economic propriety and order — wholesome knowledge. The company had a hierarchical structure, with meticulous ritual displays of decorum, confirming their authority. This was the pre-modern structure of princely public-ity.

After the end of licensing, there was a massive amount of publishing. Then, the Statute of Anne provided a limited copyright (1710), not to maintain good order, but to protect individuals. This gives legal reality to the public sphere: authors have a right to their own work. The Statute’s term limits created the public domain. Since then, there has been tension between property and discourse and controversy over term limits. Eldred vs. Ashcroft established that there is (or could be) conflict between free speech and copyright.

The focus in the 18th century was on labor. Copying was not OK, but adaptation took labor so it was OK. In 1841 in the US, this shifted to market value.

The distinction of private vs. public didn’t quite apply to the Stationer’s Company, and it doesn’t quite apply to conglomerates like Viacom.

Dematerialization is latent in the abstracted process of writing.

Early Modern Center Lecture:
The Gutenberg Parenthesis, Thomas Pettitt, October 16

This lecture has informed a lot of what I’ve learned this quarter. The basic idea: the postmodern has much in common with the early modern, and the modern was just a temporary period between the two. But this was almost two months ago, so instead of notes from memory, here’s part of Pettitt’s handout.

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I’m Britta Gustafson.

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