Excess and writing have in many ways become impossible to understand in the terms of one another. The boundless capacity of the internet, and even a modest personal computer, to register, store and move textual matter, along with interface illusions such as the infinitely scrolling page, means that it becomes ever more implausible to think of a technological limit to writing. This is problematic, not least because human rhythms and capacities are increasingly measured and set against those of technology. Terms such as “limitless potential” are used interchangeably with regard technology and cognition to imply an infinite financial wealth within the mind which need only be unfettered by faster and more efficient devices, and greater intimacy with them.
In The Interface Effect (2015), Alexander Galloway proposes four regimes for art, based on their political and aesthetic incoherence or coherence. Ideology for example, is proposed to be politically coherent – aligned to a dogma – and aesthetically coherent – it makes sense. Galloway finishes by proposing that it is to the “dirty regime” of Truth, where works intersect political incoherence and aesthetic incoherence, that we must look for works which are capable of speaking in non-generic ways about the coercive nature of technology. This, he says is an analogue of Giorgio Agamben’s theory of ‘the whatever’:
“The whatever finds its power in incontinence and transformation, not unification or repetition. Likewise the whatever is politically incoherent because it tends to erode existing territories and institutional routines … No centre exists toward which it might gravitate” (142)
Artworks of the regime of truth, it is suggested, offer a way in which the increasingly coercive and invisible process of structuring by interfaces might be made available for critique: “effacing representational aesthetics and representational politics alike, in favor of direct immanence” (142). The politically unaligned and aesthetically inconsistent work, almost by definition, is one which comes into contact with, and breaches, its limits – the ends of enquiry which match up, hold the work together (aesthetic coherence) and align it with existing social frameworks (political coherence), are left ragged, and the moment of the work is not generic: “neither a universal nor an individual included in a series, but rather “singularity insofar as it is whatever singularity” (Agamben 1990, 1).
Disappointingly though, Galloway posits no singular work that exhibits these qualities – other than a footnote which gestures towards an unpublished work by his colleague Eugene Thacker. In this essay I would like to suggest that Ben Lerner’s poem Mean Free Path exhibits precisely these qualities by disclosing, as a facet of the poems the formerly withdrawn aspects of relation between his testimony on love poem, war poem, and elegy, and the structuring, disorganizing principals of ‘the language of new media’ which allow for it.
I want to use the digital “Codec” as a framework to describe the occluding/revealing process of the enunciation as a structure for testimony. The writing of excess in Mean Free Path (2010) I will argue, does not explode into (and therefore gesture at) limitlessness, breaking down boundaries of decency, rapidity, scale for example, but rather flickers at the limit of what has and hasn’t been said – stammering – hovering in the condition of the unsaid, while continuing to say it.
In referring to the “contemporary”, I am drawing on Agamben’s notion of someone who is able to view ‘the darkness’ of their time (Agamben 2009, 50). Agamben uses the metaphor of the darkness in the night sky, which he says is not the darkness of absence, but rather of those stars which move away from us so fast their light never reaches us – it withdraws: “To perceive, in the darkness of the present, this light that strives to reach us but cannot-this is what it means to be contemporary.” I would like to show how the contemporary poet is now one for whom interface effects are retrieved from withdrawal. The darkness of their time, I assert, refers precisely to ‘that which is withdrawn’ in use.
Withdrawal is essential to Heideggeran ontology, and Agamben (1973, 71-75) has used the term to affirm a distinction between the human open-ness and animal self-withdrawal of which he says the human-as-animal is composed. I posit a similar move in considering the boundary of human open-ness and technological self-withdrawal which makes up the writing subject. For Heidegger, a tool necessarily withdraws into invisibility while we express our own being through it – using it to our ends. Galloway similarly has written of the invisibility of media and interfaces thus. The better they work, the more invisible they become. To look at the other side of the coin: our experience of devices is precisely and uniquely the experience of their failure. This, what Heidegger called un-readiness-to-hand (Heidegger 204-207), when a tool becomes unavailable, broken or unwieldy is a moment in which the tool discloses itself in relation to someone who would use it. Importantly, this disclosure is specifically related to an aspect, that is, the nature of its unsuitability in-relation-to.
What the contemporary must bring back from withdrawal – the darkness which is the light which moves away – is the withdrawn technological and its relation to the human language it produces subjectivity with. In writing at limits, the contemporary poet in particular is in a position to retrieve those formerly withdrawn aspects of the technological process which structures their enunciation.
Testimony is associated with speaking at limits, especially as it relates to speaking trauma. In Remnants of Auschwitz (1999, 144-146), Agamben distinguishes between the living being and speaking subject. In this distinction, we have the opportunity to observe how the technological inculcates itself as an element of subjectivity at the moment of the enunciation. The enunciation as the horizon on which the “possibility of speech realize[s] itself as such”, has to do with the techné of language production – the interface is now then the apparatus which allows the testimony to appear as such.
But what the structuring processes of the technological against which the testimony becomes an excess? The model I would like to use is that of Codecs. Codec (compression-decompression/coding-decoding) is a process which allows for the most salient features of New Media – namely its sampling and quantifying, and the subsequent tropes such as modularity and variability (Manovich 2002, loc 646- 800).
The low-order language in which a digital media item is stored is called data, that protocol which allows for it to be shown, the interface. Codecs such as those having the file extension .jpg, .tiff, .raw, store visual information as data, in a string of alphanumeric figures. Before being run by the Codec interface, the data itself does not conventionally exist on the plane of the human subject, and after, both the interface and data are withdrawn as the a-priori to what we see.
Two aspects that are important to note about this relation: 1) both the storage format of data and the structuring interface used to make the image immanent ordinarily occlude themselves in revealing the image – they are the unsaid which is in the saying of the image. 2) The data of the storage format stakes no claim to being the originary, or ‘essence’ of the image, being only precisely the a-priori, not containing either the exhaustive information with which the image can reveal itself (for it requires the interface for that), nor to contain everything that will be shown (for any viable interface could show a singularly different version of it), nor having any privileged relation to the real (being structured like a language).
The salient innovations of Glitch Art bring aspects of both the data and the interface in a Codec into immanence. Artists such as Rosa Menkman (2008) and Nick Britz (2011) have forced the Codec to disclose itself, by editing the source code of data or interface in order to produce situations wherein they fail to articulate or stammer their data. The resulting media then literally exceed their data, being added-to by patterns, colourings, warps from the interface; while also becoming diminished, half-withdrawing from view in favour of the ‘darkness’ of their structure.
MEAN FREE PATH
I want to read the way in which the Amercian poet Ben Lerner, in his 2010 collection Mean Free Path, willfully enters the enunciation of his work into the disorganizing principals of new media, in effect making the structuring relation of data-interface by which we access his testimony critically present in a work “singularity insofar as it is whatever singularity”.
In Mean Free Path the poem is broken into the unit of the phrase and reformed as stanzas, each of a uniform number of lines and line-lengths. Each phrase appears to us as a singular ‘bit’, reappearing in any number of different contexts throughout the poem. In the systematic incoherence generated by these contexts – their failure to determine a singular meaning – what Lerner crafts in the work is a distinction between ‘traditional language’ (whose ‘sampling’ we might associate with the literary technique of parataxis), to the more violent sampling of linguistic units by the computational.
“I’m not above being understood, provided
The periodic motion takes the form of
Work is done on the surface to disturb
Traveling waves.” (48)
The misfit in semantic units and phrase-unit across the poem is a continual smeering and bluring of the edges of the unit, producing a sense of leaking or liquidity of relations in the stanza – a sense that the uniform is being exceeded by the potentiality of its content. Very rarely will a full-stop or line break relate to a semantic gap in the work, whereas such gaps announce themselves seemingly randomly throughout. All the way up, zooming out of the structure of the poem, we anticipate a form to emerge, but this finale or closure is continually offset by the confusion of structuring and content which bring it into existence:
“I planned a work which could describe itself
Into existence, then back out again
Until description yielded to experience
Yielded an experience of structure
Collapsing under its own weight like
Citable in moments: parting
Dusk. Look out the window. Those small
Rain. In holding pattern over Denver
Collisions clear a path from ground to cloud” (49)
In the drama that plays out across the book, it is as though the enunciation of each stanza is a bank of the same data subject to a new interface, activating a variable version of what is willed to be said – each refusing to reinforce the other, as with these elements from the first two stanza:
“But not how you mean that. The slow beam
Opened me up. Walls walked through me
Like resonant waves”
“Imperceptably into gift shops. The death of a friend
Opens me up. Suddenly the weather
Is written by Tolstoy, whose hands were giant
Resonant waves.” (39)
The system of relations between the what is sayable and unsayable in each stanza then, is continually deferred by virtue of the numerous ways in which the component phrase-units and stanzas might be read across and with one another. What is clear is that something is escaping us in each version:
“There must be an easier way to do this
I mean without writing, without echoes
Arising from focusing surfaces, which should
Should have been broken by structures” (40)
Mean Free Path does not exist without the structure which disorganizes its content. Its poetic making is precisely in the interplay of this content and that disorganizing structure to which Lerner testifies – what the poem says, is what is unsayable:
“And that’s elegy. I know I am a felt
This is the form where my friend is buried
Effect of the things that I take personally
A gentle rippling across the social body
I know that I can’t touch her with the hand
That has touched money, I mean without
Several competing forms of closure” (56)
We have observed several motifs of ‘aesthetic incoherence’ in Lerner’s work, and this kind of approving denouncing ambivalence toward the disorganizing principals of new media (and “money”) is what Galloway refers to as the ‘political incoherence’ of the regime of truth. Lerner’s poetry is sustained by the rhythms, tactic and tropes of new media, without which it simply wouldn’t exist on the plane of the contemporary; but then what it testifies to, is the impossibility of testimony (or elegy) under these very conditions.
What I will call the Glitch Poetic as the writing of an excess, is not human attainment surpassing the speed and efficiency of new media. Nor is it the human testimony explicitly falling short of the demands made of it. It is rather the moment produced when the sampling, quantifying activity integral to new media (Berhard Steigler’s “grammatisation”, Heidegger‘s “technological-understanding-of-being”, and Galloway’s “interface effect”) does not exhaust that which it structures. Sampling and quantification as new media structuring devices are a new poetic form, and by reading poems which work in excess of this form, we don’t mean that the form breaks, but rather the sayable in them is tangibly corrupted by its emergence through that form. The Glitch Poetic, is in this sense, a call to and a performance of the irrational in language, a Romanticism to parlay against the new-Empiricism of code.