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The New Literature

This is a piece I wrote for our class zine on  Critical Theory of Technology for Allison Burtch at the School for Poetic Computation. Hope you enjoy it.

Literature is first and foremost about having ideas important enough to discuss and write down in some form. So you have to ask, “What is the literature that is best written down on a computer?” – Alan Kay

When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink… Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning” – George Orwell

What is the new literature? What is the most direct method of communication in an era of digital technology?

Much like Orwell’s ‘long words and exhausted idioms’ I think there are similar over-trodden tropes in digital technology that emerge to fill in the empty space where real meaning might have been. A project where you use a Kinect to control X with your body. What does it say about X, or about your body? I don’t know, but I guess it’s kinda neat.

In my poetry studies in college we focused a lot on how “form is content, content is form.” When Shakespeare leaves off the final stress in a line of iambic pentameter, he does it for a reason, it creates a palpable void that means something at that point in the poem. With our current state of digital technology we have unprecedented capacity to communicate with form, but instead we just see form being used to communicate itself. The Kinect shows you cool stuff you can do with the Kinect. Parallax scrolling shows you that parallax scrolling is pretty. I am all for things that are fun, cool or pretty and agree they are ends in and of itself, but they needn’t be the only ones.

When Alan Kay asks, ‘what is the literature that is best written down on a computer?’ I think of a literature that is felt out through Orwell’s ‘pictures and sensations’ and embellished with words to get the meaning across. People have become complacent in the complete control they have over endless pages of text across the internet: listicles thrive on their skimmability, longreads a gratifying self-flagellation. I want a literature that is more surprising, more frightening, more intentional in its medium, something that might require the reader to pay attention to how they are being told rather than just what.

But this creates a problem as to where one should focus attention: on developing technical skills to better communicate through ‘pictures and sensations,’ or on actually ‘having ideas important enough to discuss and write down in some form.’ Over the past two years I have been much more focused on developing new technical skills at the expense of interesting things to say, and mostly I think that is ok. I’m not convinced that important ideas and the ideal form for communicating them need to come from the same person.

In other mediums (music, film games) increased complexity of technology has simply led to more people being involved in the process. But writing, the discipline dedicated to the most direct communication of ideas, has remained the stronghold of the isolated auteur. I think it is important that there be people whose primary responsibility in life is to think about the world, but I don’t think they should necessarily be solely responsible for figuring out the best way to convey that thought. Just as data visualization allows for public consumption of vast troves of statistical information, I’d like to see new forms develop for better public understanding of theory, human experience and political argument.

For myself I’m interested in experimenting with my role on both sides of the equation: making myself a vessel for other writers I admire (a la Keats’s negative capability) and thinking long and hard about something and working with others to express it in in the best possible way. The new literature is immense and has barely been explored, there are so many things I still want to try. I hope you will join me.


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