Janky materiality

Artifice and interface

Poetry is music, and nothing but music. — Amiri Baraka 

Poetry is heard; it is the heard thing. — Erín Moure

Materiality and embodiment

We live in machines but are not machines. Restless forms imagine new presents, where past and future meet. As becoming-digital beings, we retain and engage the problem of embodiment, which needs a world, needs other forms, needs to die. Death is our stake: neither early nor late.[1] To come to grips with the machine is to hold it in our hands, or to see the machine around us, as not to become machines.[2

We go inside the machine and become part of the machine. We step in and we step out. We pass through shadow. We live for a time, then die.

We buy a dead person’s machine on the internet. 

stacks of cassette tapes on a wall shelf


A word on janky, a janky word. It is loose, sounds like its own provisionality, its imminent crumble, rupture, break. Janky sounds derogatory but is readily reclaimed.[3] Poor quality. Janky invokes reclamation, or the reclaimed, the reused. It sounds like a slur, and needs to be taken back. The janky construction is loved together, not slipshod or cheap; or cheap but loved, constructed in amorous desperation, for love of the thing,[4] and recognition of embodiment, our objecthood. Janky materiality is real, is ambient artifice, aesthetic use value, provisional utility. Janky material knows it is on the way out, and so is everything else, but janky material is without pretense,[5] though it is full of shit. See Douglas Kearney’s messthetic Mess and Mess and.[6] “Perhaps an easy, if messy, way to understand mess is the passage from Order to garbage. Mess, thus, is liminal.”[7] We may be becoming-digital but we are definitely becoming-shit. Janky materiality knows this, knows it is a bashed kit of parts. Shake the box and it might work right for a minute. When all else fails, or before you try anything too involved, smack the side. 

Jankiness is also and always appropriation: of material, of culture, between contexts. There is always a problem with jankiness. It is unstable, it is matter out of place;[8] indifferent matter, though materials may be parsed. But the assembly functions in unpredictable ways. It is a sub-heterotic hybrid, with strange vigor. The components, in other forms and formats, might have worked better, but janky constructs do something else. Their contexts, meanwhile, conflate the histories of their components: hyperspatial hauntologies that put us in the here and then. Jankiness is borrowed context and borrowed time — works until it stops working, falls and fails into another use, functions on the fritz.

To operate janky materiality, read the instructions and figure out how to misuse the device. Read the component manuals, patch them together and run that text through the machine. Don’t be shocked if you get your wires crossed — that jolt is the circuit lighting up.

synth setup


With thanks to Rachel Zolf, who challenged us on our use of the term janky and its prior associations, below is a note we sent to her for clarification. Janky Materiality will gesture toward and enact its own messthetic by periodically incorporating notes to collaborators — scraps of conversations we have as we assemble our constellation of texts. In addition to participating in the ethos, aesthetics, and strategies that comprise our subject matter, we wish to show gratitude and respect for our more and less formal coinvestigators, and assert the essentially collaborative nature of scholarship and writing practice. As digital media scholar, artist, and provocateur Talan Memmott has asserted, you can’t be an effective scholar without being a practitioner. 

By the way, to clarify about associations with janky in Janky Materiality: it doesn’t so much come from marginalized, poor or working-class people and populations of color as it is used often by privileged people to denigrate material improvisation by disadvantaged people (look at that janky car/tool/instrument/shelter!). What I want to reclaim is the genius and ingenuity of that improvisation (not just or even primarily in impoverished or marginalized communities, though all artists, musicians, innovators, etc. learn much from them, and this needs to be acknowledged and considered), and the ways it speaks to semantic and aesthetic precariousness, to repetition when it is just irregular enough to become rhythm, to texture and process and unpredictability, to the possibilities that arise from what is off-balance, to provisionally assembled parts that do not match, to jerry (and jury) rigging, and to what this means for cultures of making and doing and thinking. 

Who we are

Who are we and why are we talking like this? Writing is a conversation not just between writers and readers, but between writers and themselves. A short prose piece or discrete poem may be written in a sitting, then revisited by other selves. Longer works are necessarily written by multiple selves, or one self over time, that diachronic self becoming several. To write as we is to extend this conversation, to anticipate and invite the change and growth upon which critical writing is premised. It is to keep ourselves in mind, so that as we talk to ourselves we include one another. 

We write, then, in many places at once, many places, many times. The front end-page of Lisa Robertson’s Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture opens:

We went, we returned. We went; we returned. We went: we returned. Now place softens to become the lining of the mouth. 

There the mouth becomes the place to which we return, or a place returns in the mouth, which reforms place as language. We place ourselves in language at each return. 

I began to research the history of surfaces. I included my own desires in the research. In this way, I became multiple.[9

We might say the same about interface, as we are becoming-digital. Our interface with language is embodied, and digitally mediated, and we write, read, and think along a line of flight between the analog and digital, never arriving in one or the other state. 

Digital language writing

What is digital language writing,[10] and why call it that? Why summon a term (language writing) associated with the so-called poetry wars? Can this be a meaningful corrective to e-poetry’s shortcomings? 

We have observed that there are two significant issues[11] with e-poetry as poetry: 

1. Focus on device, program, computation, with language as side effect, afterthought, content.[12]
2. Conventional, even narrative poetics and unimaginative forms, even among those who recognize e-poetry as an extension of twentieth-century innovative poetries like Black Mountain, language writing, Dada, concrete poetry, open-field poetics.[13

Language writing remains a useful term for indicating an attitude and approach to composition and reading. We insist that it refers to an active, relevant poetics, and does not merely recall a rancorous late twentieth-century debate. Language has ideological and material presence. The structures of grammar, syntax, semantics, and typography are potential meaning structures that may be distinguished from one another, though they may never be disentangled from the reading and writing process. We read and write with our bodies and minds, and the risks and stakes of embodiment are relevant to language operations. Language is in the world, as are our bodies, which are on the line. It matters whether or not we write in conventional sentences or prosodic forms. Our assumptions about phrasing, our sense of etymology, our engagement with pronouns and tense — these are matters that matter, to paraphrase N. Katherine Hayles’s gloss on materiality.[14] Poetry and poetics are not separate pursuits, nor are they nondistinct. Poetics apply as well to prose.[15

If language writing is still a relevant term in poetics, language writing is a useful typology for e-poetry. We insist on it. 

Canadian digital poetics

Janky Materiality[16] was originally conceived in response to a call for essay contributions for an edited volume called Decoding Canadian Digital Poetics, and subsequently broadened to its current scope to engage cross-cultural, cross-media works. However, innovative Canadian poets remain at the core of the project. As we think becoming-digital hybridity, we think as well about genre formations (poetry, electronic music, e-lit, etc.), along with regional and national accents.[17]

We are particularly engaged with these nuances as they inform discourse communities. Writers like Erín Moure, Rachel Zolf, Lisa Robertson, bpNichol, and David Jhave Johnston have intersecting and cross-pollinating poetics that are informed if not wholly determined by their Canadian heritage. Their poetics are also inflected by implicit and explicit critique of nationhood and colonialist rhetoric. Canada’s particular histories of settler-colonialist relations with First Nations peoples have marked the thinking of these writers, and decolonizing critique has come to the forefront of post-millennial avant-garde Canadian writing.[18

For additional context, we present an excerpt from the original Decoding Canadian Digital Poetics call:

For a long time now, Canadian poets have been credited with making significant initiatory experiments in the fields of electronic literature and digital poetics, but there has been relatively little work done examining what constitutes a Canadian digital poetics, what kinds of writing constitute the genre, and what new reading practices are invited by digital poetics. This proposed edited collection[19] looks at the emerging field of Canadian digital poetics and asks two primary questions. First, what is the role of a national literature in the increasingly boundary-less world of electronic literature? And second, how do Canadian digital poetics change the way that we read and engage with these texts? 

And here is the original Janky Materiality abstract, presented in this context as a partial introduction to the animating concerns of the project: 

I would like to explore blurry intersections and cracked interfaces between page and screen, analog and digital practice, in the work of Rachel Zolf, bpNichol, David Jhave Johnston, Erín Moure, Jake Kennedy, and Kevin McPherson Eckhoff. Using Nichol’s scrappy First Screening as a foundational flickering text, I’ll think about the ways digital material practice extends the poststructural field in key works by these writers, all of whom … have committed page-based practices that are (further) destabilized by their computer-based experiments. These writers treat language itself as a janky technology that works (at least temporarily, as Moure writes in “The Anti-Anæsthetic”) through its own failures, so that digital mediation serves to further break and rewire language operations.

In particular, I will consider Zolf’s quasi-analog/digital data-based compositions from her Tolerance Project, along with her poetics of illegibility and glitch in Janey’s Arcadia; Nichol’s concrete poetics of page and screen (with special attention to Coach House Books’ profoundly punning sidewalk tribute on bpNichol Lane, a literal concrete poem); Jhave’s fuzzy language and transparent poetry machines as partially assembled at his glia.ca; Jake Kennedy and Kevin McPherson Eckhoff’s anarchic, deconstructive BFF videos;[20] and Moure’s radically relational poetics (via Zolf’s “‘Like plugging into an electric circuit’: Fingering Out Erín Moure’s Lesbo-Digit-O! Smut Poems”).

A later contextual excerpt is appropriate here, this from correspondence subsequent to the original call for work (and acceptance of the above proposal) by the volume’s editor, Dani Spinosa:

While you are writing, I would like you to consider the three primary concerns of this edited volume: materiality and media-specific analysis, reader/user engagement, and the question of nationhood. Your essay will be included in the section titled “Interface: Materiality.” The issue of national literature in e-lit is a highly contested one, and there is not much work existing on it, which is why this volume is so important. Please be sure to consider how your text(s)/author(s) fit(s) into a history/tradition of Canadian literature as you write. 

We noted the heightened attention to a critical perspective on nationhood that no doubt follows from responses to the original call. This puts us in good company, and redoubles our responsibility to engage decolonizing strategies and discourses. 

Finally, we present our note on the question of nationhood, which followed a brief conversation with David Jhave Johnston, who voiced unease with nationalist frameworks when we discussed the original call: 

Think in terms of “happen to be” as a way to take care in discussing poetics in the context of national(ist) formations. As in, these poetries and practices happen to be contextualizable in terms of a national discourse, though of course this is a very particular discourse sub-community within Canadian literature. But they also happen to be in relation to one another, which is to say they do form and inform one another (among other others). 

And perhaps we can trouble these cultural and nationalist formations by opening our field of reference to reach outside Canadian literature to better understand and otherly engage Canadian digital poetics. These are some of our concerns, and some of the conversations that informed Janky Materiality at its outset. May we see each other, and exchange ideas in the spirit of empathy. 

Janky scaffolding (pronominal interface)

‘there was an illegible relation to materiality
‘and this was mistaken for orthodoxy — Lisa Robertson

From an email to a coinstructor in the Architecture Writing program at Pratt Institute,[21] in reply to a question about Lisa Robertson’s “Doubt and the History of Scaffolding”: 

At the time LR was writing as The Office of Soft Architecture, taking commissions to do investigations and write essays (e.g. for Cabinet). A Canadian poet under the influence perhaps of some of the conceptual arch teams you’ve brought to attention in section. 

Scaffolding is material structure, and there is a scaffolding/building interplay in language and on site. There’s a profound and somewhat implicit argument here about language function and desire, and a related one about the relationship between architecture and language materiality. (And the ways we understand and experience physical architecture conceptually.) Nor do I think it’s reducible to the semiotic turn in architecture nor post-structuralism, though it may be influenced by both. Once we see scaffolding as interdependent with a building, and recognize we don’t have to privilege one over the other, we see architecture (and structure) differently. Particularly if we can imagine one yearning and swaying with/into another. Especially if we take the moment of ostensibly temporary inhabitation of scaffolding (say, by a worker or graffiti artist) as indifferent from inhabitation of a) the surface of the building and b) the building itself. So/and there’s either a becoming-structure or becoming-scaffolding or maybe becoming-architecture here. Some or all of this.  

Every sentence a strut. 

Susan Rudy and Ryan Fitzpatrick describe Robertson’s Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture as “anti-lyric poems written, not only without an ‘I’ but without a conventional author.”[22] Rudy and Fitzpatrick write with a collaborative we[23] that recalls Robertson’s favored pronoun in this volume, but hers expresses multiple subject positions. “Issued out of what she calls the Office for Soft Architecture, a fictional architectural office interested only in studies and proposals rather than built structures, this office investigates sites (like shacks, scaffolds, fabrics, furnishings, the weather) that make the impermanence of structures visible.”[24] But Robertson, as the Office for Soft Architecture, also uses we to enfold the general observer and more or less conventional wisdom. And it is a hybrid interface[25] in which the Office is a part of its own audience. 

scaffolding on a building with a lofted nativity scene among it

In Robertson’s “How to Colour,” Goethe is quoted using a conventional pronominal form: “Goethe wrote, ‘We love to contemplate blue, not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it,’ perhaps a more agreeable persuasive rhetoric for an army to perpetuate.” Notice also the implication of a plurality in singular form (army). The following paragraph, from a slippery (or perhaps sticky) perspective, begins “We wonder how white became so innocent,” and concludes, “Mixture is our calling.”[26] The essay begins, after an introduction and brief portfolio of illustrations, “We can’t always tell the difference between sentiment and emotion.”[27] And, further on: 

We are aligned with a surface. We exchange mineral components with an historical territory, less like cyborgs than like speaking, ambulatory dirt.[28]

We wonder, of course, who invited a cyborg to the party just to reduce it to dust. But we notice as well that subjectivities are presented and navigated as built structures, though they are, as are many of the architectural built environments toured by the Office, provisional, ever being revamped, and yearning toward their scaffolding. 

Indeed, a key dialectic is constructed in the volume’s crucial tract, “Doubt and the History of Scaffolding.” But it is an open one that accepts other terms, other figures. Like the scaffold, it is a latticework (and a lacework). So scaffolding and building embrace, gazing into each other’s forms and seeing themselves as the other. Meanwhile, “there are three things to be said about scaffolding” — and here the voice is passive, the speaker so dispersed it has vacated the premises. “It is a furnishing, it is a skin, and it is a grove.”[29] It “substitutes for a site.”[30] It is also described, tantalizing and nearly tragic, as “falsework,” “almost a catastrophe.” But then it is a “ceremonial branchwork.”[31

Still from Guy Maddin's 'My Winnipeg'
Still from Guy Madden’s My Winnipeg.  

Scaffolding makes our surface alignment literal, as we are granted access to roam the facade, to survey its color and texture, and upend the site plan(e). 

“Now scaffolding floats freely, detached from the severity of an origin,”[32] and here scaffolding becomes signifier drifting along the chain of signification. But for all its semiotic variation, flitting about reference, it is also a material structure affixed, however provisionally, to a building.[33] Scaffolding, though, is agile, a moveable feat, compared to its lead-footed partner. 

But buildings too are temporary structures, as the Office notices in its psychogeographical wanderings through the changing city of Vancouver. The amassing arrival of scaffolding signals a (built-in) desire in buildings to change. For buildings, too, are outgrowths of our nature. In this way they are becoming-scaffolding, at one with their inner-facing interface. “In darkness the scaffolding is foliage,”[34] and here the falsework becomes (again) a grove.

Tyree Guyton's Heidelberg Project, Detroit
Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project, Detroit.

Speaking of hearing

[T]extual audiovisual interactivity [TAVIT] is inherently oscillatory: Where should we look? What should we hear? Is reading primary?; multimedia is like a multimodal party.
— David Jhave Johnston 

Jhave’s MUPS[35] is a solution to the problem of the archive. How do we read the archive? is the problem of the archive.[36] MUPS suggests we read the archive at once: we braid the archive. No more, in our digital age, do we resort to the methods of the Self-Taught Man in Sartre’s Nausea who reads the library from end to end, becoming no wiser. Only in testing juxtapositions untethered to the abecedarian (though that is one way to produce juxtaposition, it has no value if it is fixed), only in transposing materials, can we find the (or a) matter that matters. But we need to see the pieces move, we need levers and dials, and we must engage the grain of the material. We need an interface. So MUPS reads and interprets silence and pause in order to thread the records, and we adjust levers to offer forgiveness or tighten connections. Can we step back and view the archive, or do we lose its grain as we zoom out, as we move from materials to material, assemblage to container? The problem of what goes in the archive includes us.

MUPS project description

Notes on Aesthetic Animism: A scrapbook report

Digital poetry is not simply a descendant of the book. — David Jhave Johnston 

As with Moure’s Pillage Laud, which invites us to ontologically read[37] the byline on the cover, David Jhave Johnston’s Aesthetic Animism gives us pause even before we open the book. On its cover, the author is listed as “David Jhave Johnston.” We will find him identifying himself as a poet taking refuge in academia, and that embeddedness is evident in the typographical materiality of his name on the cover. There is the working name of the artist — Jhave — and the working artist name of the writer David Jhave Johnston. That boldface invites us to override, if not conflate, Jhave as author of this work. In hopes that the janky materiality of the previous sentence has not blurred its sense into grammatical folly, here it is with tightened wheels: Let’s call him Jhave, as he is writing an engaged poetics that interfaces theory and praxis.

“This emergent [networked] self displays signs of being lithe, immediate, opportunistic, and distributed; it still cares for the word but sees the [digital] containers as disposable.”[38] Here we interject via context, and reiterate that digitality is a material condition. So, a digital container is not an oxymoron, and furthermore refers not just to hardware or software but to analog-digital interface, which we need in order to access the networked self, as Jhave has it. This networked self may be a digital imaginary, just as Jhave adapts an earlier formulation about the book form (as foundational to imagined selfhood) from Patricia Crain via Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman in order to mediate the digital form without making these forms (or selves) coextensive. If not a departure from embodiment, there is a new, distributed (and distributive) mode of embodiment in the emergent, networked self. For Jhave, the digital poetics action is in embodied, animate letterform organisms that “demand to be received as structures that are far from abstract; they demand to be known as selves.”[39] These are, in many senses, hybrid forms.[40] They are multimediated, transdisciplinary, deeply distributed and, we would argue, becoming-digital in their reference and reach across material realms.

“The page becomes vestigial; the screen dominates for a while; and now we are entering an era of mediated things, poetic objects, and poetic organisms.”[41] This does not mean, however, that we see new media formats as fresh paradigms (we still swipe the pages of our eBooks as though turning pages, make marginal notes, etc.), or that the era of mediated things follows from a fundamental rethinking of page-based literature, writing and reading gestures. Paradigm shifts become process orientation. The (vestigial) page may not be functional in terms of digital materiality, but its power as conceptual metaphor remains — though it might not always define our notion of interface. In time, we come to recognize the material difference between paper and screen, and find ourselves among the processes. And yet, Jhave’s mediated things cast shadows, just as they leave marks on the pages of Aesthetic Animism.

Still from Jhave's 'Human-Mind-Machine'
Still from Jhave’s Human-Mind-Machine.

What remains as well is language, which has its own materiality as it continues to comprise (in part) the materiality (and terms) of mediated things. “Poetics arises when language explores unstable technological edges — edges being spaces where potential resides.”[42] Here the edge still sounds like that of page and screen, particularly as we read from a hardcover book,[43] though Jhave is pursuing a (lyrical) vision of digital poems as “proto-organisms, endowed with quasi-mitochondrial code, drifting across an ontological divide between abstraction and embodiment.” Indeed, Jhave imagines digital poets (a term that evokes singularity) engaged with “immense immersive interfaces of semiautonomous word ecosystems.”[44] These technological edges traverse and are the traverse of becoming-digital materiality, and their immanent, constitutive instability is semiotic. Janky Materiality is distributed across mediated forms, informing (and, again, comprising) our digital poetics. “Hybrid literacy may require knowledge of film, television, animation, cartoon, websites, 4chan, Reddit, memes, and moving, time-based media … to engage in cyclic readings across networks of pop culture, branding, philosophy, and so on.”[45] We might imagine this as the nexus of intermediation and intertextuality.

Re: tablets analog and digital: “Digital etymologically originates with the digit: a finger.”[46] So touchscreen functionality is an analog-digital interface, an at-hand (and fingertips) becoming-digital. “Now digital media is once again making typography malleable and tactile. Writing has come full circle to its roots in mud.”[47] This circuit might also be read as the fundamental and perseverant analog basis of writing. Even an autonomous writing machine has to be built — or the autonomous writing machine maker has to be constructed out of hybrid materials. 

Our eyes and ears perk up in the “Analog Materiality: Language Poetics” section. Jhave writes about the hybrid lineage of language writing as carried through (and appropriated by) “computationally enhanced and networked poetry,” where language is treated as “sociological material, a constructed structure.”[48] We are here at a nexus of language writing, integrated materiality, and Canadian digital poetics.

“One of the primary revelations of materiality is how writing techniques leave fossilized forensic traces in literature as they migrate … from media to media.”[49] We abet and reflect these traces in our treatment of screen as page (as we turn pages in epub readers) and in interface conceits for apps (smartphone tape recorders, analog ringtones). See J. R. Carpenter’s homepage image of a spiral pocket notebook, which algorithmically rotates among other mediations as the page is loaded. This is both analog interface nostalgia and becoming-digital continuum. 

Our knowledge of the world (our epistemology) arises from relational acts, experiences, physical systems, and the tactile presence of other organisms. Language is the abstract, systemic filter of these epistemic experiences; it is also the means by which experiences think within us.[50]

Here we have a confluence of Moure’s sense of embodied language practice and Burroughs’s preoccupation with language as a virus. This leads us as well to contemporary notions of object orientation, and, for example, the idea that if we synthesize a virus, that virus acts through (and upon) us to come into being.[51] We might further triangulate with Rosmarie Waldrop’s suggestion (via Valéry, in Waldrop’s essay “Alarms & Excursions”) that language thinks for us — which we might transmute into language speaks for us. In Pillage Laud, Moure wants to know what happens when we fuck with the machine.[52]

Jhave suggests a thought experiment in which “words speak to each other through poems.” 

Words want to speak. They use us to make them. They made computers be born so they could begin to develop faster networks for communication.[53]

Only this may not be a figurative scenario, for Jhave or anyone else. Nor have we as individuals made words, whether or not they are organisms (viral or otherwise). Our thoughts, though, move through words, our cognition so riddled with words there is nothing else (but words, riddles, holes) to it. Language is interface, and that interface is the substance of language, just as words connect to other words, language knits to other language, along the chain of signification, and we are ever slipping a stitch. This we is tricky, elusive, because we express ourselves as language.[54

However, as much as we need language for sentient, self-aware, contemplative existence, we appreciate the janky materiality of language. It is always at a remove — the distance(s) between words and meaning(s), and the strange relation between words and objects. With Jhave, we favor the term “letterforms,” and agree that digital materiality allows us to model and experience language objects. But we are suspicious of the yearning to realign[55] signifier and signified, language and material reality, words and objects. We are not drawing false equivalences between these dialectic pairs, nor are we suggesting Jhave wants language to be less janky, more holistically and directly referential and representational. Instead, we wish to assert a distinctive premise of Janky Materiality as a line of inquiry.[56] We may think of language as a modular set of objects in relation, but they are not avatars for other objects, or are not essentially so, even if they have the capacity to operate as such. Hands may form shapes and gestures that cast representational shadow forms on the wall, but we do not confuse those projective forms, or the projecting forms, for the subjects of their enactments. We can, however, be both here and there (and there and there etc.) — see the hand, the shadow, the wall, the built world. And see ourselves seeing. Those gestures, how they engage the hand and the world, and how they transform the world, though the gestures are not strictly repeatable, and are prone to fail at inflecting darkness and light, and are prone as well to dissolve or reorganize into an obscene or incomprehensible gesture: this is Janky Materiality. 

Language cannot leave semantics behind for a truer relation. There can be no healing of the tear between world and word, because sense in language is the wound. Here we mean deeper sense, rather than surface sensation, though deeper sense can of course limn any surface. Meaning is felt as language is thought. We are speaking here of embodiment, as we imagine this language to have travelled from within and from without. This language relation is carried and (further) inflected by every interface and exchange, and the materiality of that interface is the substance of language and thought. Its potential to break down is (janky) material to the engine of sense. If it ran smoothly and predictably it would be free of meaning potential.[57] This is how language works by not working. 

Perhaps there is a threshold at which the language object becomes object, and no longer operates as language, exhibiting semantic functionality. Or perhaps that threshold is an abstraction (a meta-abstraction within or among language’s fundamental abstraction of meaning), or the territory beyond that threshold, on the object side, is an abstraction, and a language object can only be a becoming-object.

Here we are not so much trying to understand Jhave’s argument about mediated, animated language objects, apparently living digital material, “word-object-organism,”[58] as we are playing off his thinking to help articulate and nuance a Janky Materiality of language practice in which Jhave participates in the poetics of Aesthetic Animism and his own digital poetry, which informs and is informed by his formal poetics. Jhave’s work also participates in a relational material poetics with the other players in the field of Janky Materiality, in part via the construction of that field. 

So, for example whether or not Jhave’s thinking language explicitly interfaces with Alice Coltrane’s body of work, they link up here, where we listen to Coltrane alternate between synth organ and percussive, analog piano via the vinyl embedded medium of the “live” album Transfiguration (1978), which we listen to and semantically interface with while also reading Aesthetic Animism (2016). Thus 1978, 2016, 2018, and the year(s) in which this language is read or scanned are transposed. 

Alice Coltrane record cover

Language machines

Language is a network, a grammatical and semantic system, and linguistic structures are machines. William Carlos Williams described his ideal poem as a machine. Here he is in his introduction to The Wedge:

To make two bald statements: There’s nothing sentimental about a machine, and: A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words. When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem I mean that there can be no part, as in any other machine, that is redundant.

Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matters like a ship. But poetry is the machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. As in all machines its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.[59]

Of course, languages are built on redundancy, and calibrated for usage by context. A poetic use of language depends on a nuanced understanding of etymology and context. Williams’s concern with redundancy relates to concision — to what is often referred to as poetry’s economy of language. But this is also a matter of form and function, where the two are indistinct. Williams is using the metaphor (or perhaps the metonym) of the machine as well to distinguish his poetics from the lyric, which in Williams’s terms is both sentimental and redundant in its aestheticized use of language. We are tempted to describe lyric poetry as tactile and sensual, though this would not distinguish lyric from Williams’s machinic mode, interested as he is in the demotic, and in an immediacy of imagery. Likewise, we might describe lyric as highly emotive and expressive,[60] but Williams’s poetry is not without these qualities. However, many of his poems are distinguished by their precise and minimal linguistic forms. We wager that while Williams’s poems, and the way he writes about them in his poetics,[61] are quintessential object lessons in poem-as-machine, any well-wrought poem may be considered under the tinkerer’s flashlight. Moreover, any carefully constructed work of language may be considered as an operational machine. 

Erín Moure, at the start of her poetics collection My Beloved Wager, references a passage from Gilles Deleuze that applies the machinic metaphor to the book, when considered as writerly text[62]:

[Y]ou see the book as a little non-signifying machine, and the only question is ‘does it work, and how does it work?’ If it doesn’t work, if nothing comes through, you try another

The non-signifying machine does not necessarily evoke a stripped-down model free of redundancy, though it does sound wildly operative even as he breaks it down to a functional binary. On the other hand, there are two questions to ask the machine: Do you work, and how do you work? That second question invites critical and semantic (or antisemantic, per nonsignification) complexity. There is as well a metacritical component: What does it mean to work? And how does not-working work?

Moure further explores such linguistic complexity in a larger piece of the same volume, “The Anti-Anæsthetic,” where she inheres poetic function in sound, as a mode of temporarily and serially evading ideologies programmed into a semantic rule of law. 

Or, as she puts it in another essay in the collection, “Stakes, Poetry, Today”: “And poetry, this suspected, suspect word — this word thought held in suspension and suspicion — falls on the side of hearing (rather than understanding).”[64] So to function sounds different than to mean, and the nonsignifying machine emits a song.

Person's palm with words written in pen on it: "across / phasetime / musical absences / at the heart of language."

Janky bodies 

Interface connects body and machine, media to media. Media is interface; media mediates. Language is media, interface, mediates body and thought, body and knowledge, body and other. Language mediates object and referent, language object and concept, material being. Language is janky interface between sign and signified, sign and sign. The chain of signification, point de capiton, slippage and catch, button and unbutton, is Janky Materiality. The body quilts,[65] is quilted, the body forms language, is informed, the body is between one body and another, grasping and forming objects, the body is in relation as language objects are in relation, language is in the body, is in the mouth, is chewed and spit, is lofted, released. Language is janky, a body, and the body is janky, becoming corpse, failing, casting off, breaking down, regenerating and degenerating and growing rogue cells, a Janky Materiality that is the body of song, and the body of language, the body of work. The body is janky. Jankiness begins at the hand and foot and eye and mouth and tongue and ear of interface, and jankiness follows from the other end of interface, and is accessed at both ends of interface, and there are many ends, sending and receiving, transmission that is janky with packets and protocols, lines of interface and interference, alternating signals, off/on and channel by channel, perceived by bodies in space. Janky bodies. 

Reading a book by its cover 

Pillage Laud is the key text in Rachel Zolf’s essay about Erín Moure’s digital poetics, “‘Like plugging into an electric circuit’: Fingering Out Erín Moure’s Lesbo-Digit-O! Smut Poems.”[66] There[67] Moure reads writing as reading and selection, pre- or post-programmed with lexical intervention, becoming-digital massage. 

Indeed, Zolf reads Moure’s interventions in machinic poiesis as a matter of vocabular insertion and sentence selection from autogenerated MacProse output.[68] Meanwhile, Zolf selects her favorite Moure writing selections, adding a secondary analog process to the procedure. So Zolf’s essay embeds a few covers of Moure-selected classics, while attending to the semiotics and poetics of the book’s covers.

We should mention as well Zolf’s attention to what she identifies as Moure’s larger concern with “inter/intrasubjectivity and the bloom and rush of encounter and jouissance across languages, cultures, and bodies — specifically women’s bodies.”[69] Zolf is attending to the ways this poetics is extended and (disem)bodied by machine-process-collaboration; these circuits patch into our preoccupations as well. Which is to say inter/intrasubjectivity is a matter of interface, and Moure’s Pillage Laud is becoming-analog.[70] As well, we are engaged with interface between Zolf and Moure, Zolf-text and Moure-text, Janky Materiality and Zolf-Moure-MacProse-text.

Here, from memory, we cover and riff on Zolf’s cover version, or at least that’s what we discover on subsequent return to Zolf’s essay after several intervening years. Where Zolf folds her line readings (and unreadings) — selective cover versions — into structural, material analysis of book packaging — (un)covering the covers — we linger on the deep surface of the texts. 

Where book cover is (becoming-digital) interface. 


The cover of the 2011 Book*hug edition of Pillage Laud[71] lists the author in quotes, like this: 

“ E R Í N  M O U R E ”

Here there are multiple authorial distancing[72] effects: monumentalizing (and genericizing), accenting the I,[73] blowing open (atomizing, breaking apart self-cohesion), scare quoting. This is a further mutation from byline format on the original self-produced, spiral and perfect-bound 1999 artbook edition[74]: 

poems by “Erin Mouré”

And here, the typeface is a quasi-script, nonconvincingly[75] blurring the line between font and handwriting. We notice as well the genre distinction bundled with attribution, and the variant accent (hopping from inflected given to enflourishèd[76] surname, i to e), consistent with periodic changes to Moure’s pen name (or print name). In her writing on translation, Moure notes that the process of translation is an embodied experience[77] that translates the translator — this is an origin story for the transformations in her name. 

Cover of 'Pillage Laud'
Photo credit: Rachel Zolf.

Meanwhile, the author bio page at the end of the Book*hug edition elaborates: 

“Erín Moure” is a biological product in the usual state of flux,
containing organic and inorganic elements
extending backward and forward into time, but tending as are all organisms
toward homeostasis, in spite of entropic forces. 

Erín Moure is an indicator of a social structure
projected onto this organism.[78

Below which is a photo of Moure sleeping on a chair, backed by trees. The practice of composing one’s bio, often (as in this case) penultimate to the colophon at the end of a published work (not counting the back cover text), is common, though it does not typically extend the style of the body of work.[79] In this case the book declines to end, or ends where it began, as it began on the front cover, where the first authorial challenge was inscribed. Turn the book over and another typical location for the reiteration of author bio is populated with a note on the book project, which begins:

Pillage Laud is a lost cult item from the last century. It used MacProse, freeware designed by American poet Charles O. Hartman as a generator of random sentences based on syntax and lexicon internal to the program; it worked on Apple systems prior to OSX and is now in the dustbins of computer history. 

Here authorship is further dispersed among two humans, software, and multiple computers. This is, in short, a note on the becoming-digital materiality of the book. It concludes: 

In 1999, the news was shocking: Moure’s poems are written by a computer. In 2011, now that everyone is a computer, the book can be read anew. 

Of course, in 2017[80] written by a computer and written with a computer are coextensive conditions, particularly, for example, if one is typing on an autocorrective tablet or smartphone (just try using nonstandard language formulations under those conditions and watch the machine collaborate, ready-player-one or not[81]). This pervasive, ambient, becoming-digital interface, and the ways we tend to ignore or erase the seams (and jankiness) of language (itself a technology, embedded in other technologies), were on Moure’s mind all along. 

So this reissue, from cover to cover, is a new work, or a reworked work, which, among other counterauthorial moves, highlights the collaboration and authorial agency of the publisher, the designer, the typesetter, the software, the printer, and the later (reinflected) self, all mediated through language. Call it distributed distribution. A metainterface. 

Conceptualism and the synth poem 

The art object can simply be dispensed with in favor of language, data, and other means of immaterial documentation that record the idea of an art object. In many cases, the artwork may communicate a set of parameters — via text, numbers, graphs and so on — to viewers or to second-party fabricators who construct or “complete” the material object.[82

Here in Ross Elfine’s thumbnail sketch of conceptualism may be a link between modular synth and language-oriented poetry composition. Imagine a diagram of a particular patch setup for what Allen Strange would call a musical situation, which might evoke or produce a musical experience or event. Now cross-reference this diagram (which abstracts one aesthetic experience into another) with Lawrence Weiner’s 1969 “Declaration of Intent”: 

1. The artist may construct the piece.
2. The piece may be fabricated.
3. The piece need not be built.
Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist, the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.[83]

Lawrence Weiner, installation view, DiaBeacon

Now let’s triangulate with a piece of bpNichol’s 1966 “Statement”: 

how can the poet reach out and touch you physically as say the sculptor does by caressing you with objects you caress? only if he drops the barriers. if his need is to touch you physically he creates a poem/object for you to touch and is not a sculptor for he is still moved by the language and sculpts with words.[84

And now let’s break up the sausage party with a sentence from Erín Moure’s “The Medium”: “The medium is not poetry itself but language and I choose language.”[85]

And because there is overlap between material language practice in poetry and various conceptualisms in poetry and other art forms, a word from Rachel Zolf: “I am an impure proceduralist.”[86

We note that Elfine is careful to be cautious about a tendency for conceptualism’s (and critical perspectives on conceptualism’s) reduction to notions of “purity”[87] in regard to materiality and form (versus material and structure). He also takes care to note the difficulty in making critical generalizations about conceptualism: 

While most conceptual practices may share the goal of challenging the received tenets of a discipline by focusing on its ideational premises, the means and mediums deployed by artists and architects in the 1970s varied widely.[88

Zolf’s informal statement illuminates the Janky Materiality of her conceptual practice. For example, she creates and sources a database of what she calls poetic DNA in The Tolerance Project,[89] but she freely and without compunction massages the results of her analog grepping[90] of material to produce crowdsourced poems that reconfigure notions of originality and authorship, but also process itself.[91] In another project, Janey’s Arcadia (Coach House Books, 2014), she subjects various documentation and representation (text, audio, and video) of Canadian First Nations and colonial settler encounters to all manner of glitch and stitch, outputting a by turns hilarious and nightmarish glottal jam and flow of palimpsestic, radically revisionist (and de-revisioning) poetics and poiesis that in performance leaves Zolf and all in range gasping for air (an affect/effect that overwrites itself on the eyes and breath of readers in subsequent encounters with the text). Her earlier volume Human Resources (Coach House Books, 2007) sets a precedent for later janky data(de)basing[92] by sourcing and reorganizing (sometimes borrowing insidiously banal source forms) the passive aggressive, casually coercive, sexist, manifestly unethical language of the office. 


Of course, we don’t have language instead of the thing, though we can have language in stead of what it might indicate. We do have the indication. And perhaps we have both the language and the thing. But language, and any language formation, is a thing apart from the thing(s) to which we imagine it refers. It is both, and it is a Janky Materiality we describe. Janky Materiality is itself a Janky Materiality, unstably signifying an unstable signification, a materiality that is quasimaterial and becoming-digital. This is composed with a Bluetooth keyboard synched with a laptop running a piece of modular writing software that organizes and saves subdocuments to a cloud archive. That materiality is material to Janky Materiality.

And the form(ul)ation of a Canadian (digital) avant-garde (poetics), and the ways that inflects and is inflected by North American poetics, are both material and immaterial, an uneasy nationalist formation.[93] A synthesis.

The piece may be fabricated. The piece need not be built.


Impressed into asphalt at bpNichol Lane[94] is a concrete poem:


This is a material concern, the figural made literal. If a poem is concrete, how about a lake, a lane, a line, and what is a lone? Or is that read or do we read bpNICHOL / LONE / A / LINE / A / LANE / A / LAKE / A, and what’s a lake? A lane is set but we unset it — we a line a lane. We jump in a lake.

inverted image of bpNichol lane
Image inverted from @bpNicholLane on Twitter. 

We have gone off page,[95] which lays page parameters and orientational conventions bare. How do we approach such a language construction? The poem is made of (or in) concrete, bordered by semi-irregular (but recognizably rectilinear) cracks. We could approach from below, viewing the poem at a typical page orientation (though we seldom walk toward a page); we can come at it from the side, though the lane is narrow so we can’t back away far enough for the poem to fade from view, and the line of L’s become half-rectangles, or the opposite line of E’s become M’s; or we might drop in from above the poem, but still on the ground, dumping the poem on its head, or one of its heads, a line of inverted A’s (and an I, and an O) arrowing into our laps, flanked by 3’s and 7’s and subtitled 3NO7.

Postscript: On further consideration of the apparent disconnect between e-lit and experimental poetry communities 

First, some notes from which we proceed, for the sake of process orientation, to encourage and provoke further consideration and conversation.

Poetry machines (language generators, algorithmic text manipulation) as writing tools versus educational tools:

In the latter case: study experimental forms and traditions, along with linguistic computation. Are these tools useful, though, for practicing writers with a well-developed sense of history and technique? They could be but are not necessarily designed or framed this way. 

Is there a correspondence between experimental writers who are not drawn to e-lit tools and to conceptual writing, and a correlational overlap between e-lit and conceptual writing? How to study and explore beyond anecdotal evidence?

If e-writing tools do not appeal to modes of engagement by practicing writers who also write without those tools, their application will be limited to educational contexts and e-lit scholars/practitioners who do not have engaged, substantial writing practices outside experimentation with the tools. Whereas (and otherwise) tools might be developed with the sense that to experiment with a tool is to experiment with (or facilitate experimentation with) language. To the extent that e-writing tools aim to replicate human language experimentation, they will fail to engage experimental writers as they also fail to produce (or facilitate) meaningful experimentation. Instead, they mimic aesthetic effects. Conceptual writers who eschew expressivity, agency, and intent, however ingenuine or self-contradictory those positions may be, may not mind the stakes (or lack of stakes) of such computational pastiche.


These might be shaky claims. And here our terms — e-lit, experimental writing, experimentation, forms, traditions, tools, conceptual writing — are particularly unstable. We are conjecturing from limited experience, from watching brief demonstrations of tools that are sometimes (and too often) underconsidered by their makers (a generous take), or cynically presented (a less diplomatic take). And while one developer might speak about his tool with an air of See, my computer can write poetry, and if I press this button it writes prose, a deeply thoughtful writer like Jhave will present complex, scholarly, experimental, joyful (undercut with lyric melancholy) research and praxis involving machine learning, huge poetry databases, and human interface with dynamic, diachronic mashup shapely text generation.[96] Somewhere in between, intriguingly so, is Nick Montfort’s Taroko Gorge, which creates formally rigid poem-generation script outputs that have vast potential as educational coding tools but perhaps limited potential for helping practicing poets better understand their craft. Thanks to Montfort’s Exploratory Programming for the Arts and Humanities textbook and related workshop, we have experimented with adapting Montfort’s adaptation of Theo Lutz’s 1959 Stochastic Text generator, which proved to be a simple and powerful way to explore language preoccupation via grammars of textual recombination. Allison Parrish has led us to similar revelations with generative scripts and their capacity to feed Twitterbots. The work of these two runs deep and wide, and their thinking and experimentation with textual generation are ongoing and profound.


Allison Parrish describes her 2018 book Articulations at her site:

The poems in Articulations are the output of a computer program that extracts linguistic features from over two million lines of public domain poetry, then traces fluid paths between the lines based on their phonetic and syntactic similarities. The book … is the culmination of an extended period of research in machine learning and phonetic similarity. 

The resulting poetry makes for a prosodically captivating performance, where Parrish clearly enjoys the music of her vectoral, algorithmic output, and the audience joins in that melodic pleasure. However, the resonance of the poems does not carry over into the semiotic realm, and any mnemonic function is dispersed in alliterative, anaphoric, homophonic, and homonymic effects. These are powerful and essential prosodic techniques, but in Articulations, they are effects isolated from semantic or countersemantic strategies, nor is there a consistent impression of sound as sense. Sound is organized according to “phonetic and syntactical similarities” and to computationally derived phonetic proximity, rather than arranged to critically generate aesthetic effects and manipulate affective registers. It sounds like a poetry simulation, lovely as it often is, rather than a presentation of a procedure or output that lends itself to be integrated into a critical and aesthetic writing practice (at least as Parrish presents the generated and packaged output). It’s a demo, not a tool.[97] The human-machine collaboration happens before and after the output is generated and fixed in publication. That post-output collaboration is the reading performance, which does of course generate pleasure in reader and audience. We like to listen, and we might like to read aloud, but we need not think about the poems as either potential meaning structures or even nonsignifying machines (to borrow a phrase from Deleuze — see “Language machines,” above). We say this with deep appreciation for language writing and other potentially nonsemantic or radically writerly texts in which meaning is generated by the reader as much as it is programmed (or written) into the
text.[98] That level of sophistication in terms of poetics and poiesis (even considered apart from meaning and interpretation) does not emerge from relatively untreated signal processing algorithms. Nor is this Parrish’s intention — she succeeds in her poetic aims, according to the terms of her research, which she articulates well in her scholarship and presentation. Our critique is in our own terms, and relates to the general concerns of Janky Materiality as a theory and praxis. 

Perhaps what is missing here, from our perspective, is more direct interface and intervention from the poet.[99] This interplay, this becoming-digital poetics, is explored and enacted to spectacular effect in Jhave’s ReRites, effects that are critically undermined (and/or troubled) by sheer volume of output, touched as it is by obsessive human hands, driven by lyrical impulse (Jhave nods to this with the tag “griefwork”) toward experimental composition. 

Language art as archival rewriting practice

The elegant, minimalist interface at Jhave’s ReRites page belies a complex, nuanced poetics. The opening statement is simply put and provocative, itself a text to be unpacked.

The RERITES operate as a machine-human hybrid durational writing project.
6­–8am for one year, I rose and edited machine-generated poems.

Does the farmer write the fruit found on a branch?
Authorship is fluid.

The poems themselves are machine-human hybrids, as is the becoming-digital process by which they are generated. This does not, however, mean that process and product are identical, and this is the aesthetic provocation. Jhave does not make the argument, explicitly or implicitly, that anyone can do this. Given the same material, and machine-human processes, our outputs would be qualitatively different, and Jhave’s resulting poems are singular even in their seemingly endless generation. However, he does show us that everyone does something like this when they write. We work with an existing language and a giant corpus. Our poems are not a given but our materials are. Our techniques, regardless of medium, are related. Our interface is with language. We filter verbiage, adjust phrasing, swap terms, sample registers. We copy, paste, type and delete. We write over previous formulations: we palimpsest. We echo and transpose. 

Jhave imports as well a commonplace of writing practice: the schedule. (And what is a schedule but a rite [and a re-rite], or repeated, ceremonial — in the sense of ritual, but also figurative authority — activity?) His revision is to rename his practice: editing. This, though, is inserted between more conventional notions of writing in the surrounding sentences. But those formulations are transformed by the boldface sentence. We begin with somewhat common phrasing in a less common context: “hybrid durational writing project.” Surely not all writers speak of hybrid or durational projects, but we are still in the regime of writing. After the schedule is established, we get a hybrid allegory. And while we are accustomed to farming metaphors for our writing labors, our practice of cultivating language, we are perhaps less used to thinking of the farmer as a writer of fruit.[100] We are, however, disabused of this notion — or, rather, the image is troubled by Jhave’s formulation. We are presented with a farmer who writes fruit, just as the logic of the formulation is called into question. Really, the farmer finds rather than writes the fruit, reaching out as the farmer does with the farmer’s own branch, to take fruit from the arm of the tree. But the farmer raised that tree! Oh, is that so? 

Anyway, and this way, authorship is fluid, moving between arm and branch, corpus and process, mouth and mouth, paper and screen.

Next on the ReRites page comes an access catalog of Jhave’s output. By now Jhave has become the word processor, and his production has been augmented not only by complex and relentless machinic collation (and/or de- and re-collocation, the unbinding and rebinding of more and less discrete source materials, akin to what our organic processors do with found/learned language), but by Jhave’s own on-schedule rigor. The results, over a yearlong durational practice, are twelve volumes, amounting to 3,249 pages of poems. Aside from the hyperprolific page count, there are several other curiosities here. This is a digitally mediated project carried out in the realm of electronic literature, and though the text output option is a scrolling format, the dominant collection paradigm is page-based publishing (volume, page, epub and mobi book emulation formats). These digital archives are followed by teaser text and a photo image advert for “A twelve-volume / custom-bound / limited-edition / art-book / box-set / of poetry / generated by A.I. / & edited by a human.” This is a straight-faced satirical commerce poem (the line breaks and hyphens are a tell, as is the overdetermined AI/human binary) folded into the project (just as the web page is integral to ReRites, as part of the vast gallery of digital projects/documentation gathered at Jhave’s glia.ca). It is reiterative of the opening statement (and samples and resituates the ostensibly minimalist design counteracted by boldfaced typographical excess), but also re-visionary and re-positioned. It is addressed (as if) to a different audience, the traditional literary consumer-collector. It is practical and rhetorical; perhaps you can order a set (though it is not immediately clear what it will set you back, you can follow a link to Anteism Press, where you may or may not find the set for sale), but you can certainly critically appreciate the gesture of materializing the process as collectable artifact. 

The following re-mediation is a series of embedded videos that capture and re-present the process. Some seem to be in real time, and allow the viewer-reader to admire and assess Jhave’s decisions while imagining their own. Sometimes Jhave will sculpt a strophe (by selecting, deleting, typing over), only to select his construction and delete it: a dramatic sequence that evokes a cinematic impression of loss, while speaking to the writerly process of letting go. Meanwhile, that interinanimative sense that language moves forward and backward in the textual/compositional field,[101] and that the language that is there contributes potential meaning along with the language that is not there, lingers. Other videos are sped up to produce a time-lapse effect and a visceral formal feeling, as we see the hewn figure emerge. In all cases we are not so much witnessing a virtuosic or controlled performance (though there are moments of that) as we are encountering a theory of poiesis. 

Next on the page is a statement on code, “Forked and modified from public repositories,” which sounds like a digital analog for the language practice here enacted. We should state the obvious by pointing out Jhave’s verve for writing these sorts of paratexts. This is where his aesthetic practice, poetics, and academic training light up in a circuit (see “Notes on Aesthetic Animism: A scrapbook report,” above).

cover of 'House'

There is a statement on the corpus, which draws from “Approx. 90%+ contemporary poetry + 10% song lyrics, rap, science articles, tech terms and other internet detritus.” These fields are further broken down to more specific sources, with a version of poetic economy,[102] which is the general mode of the page — the packed minimalism we mention above. We wonder how far back in the list “other internet detritus” refers, not because we wish to critique Jhave’s implied distinction between poetry, song lyrics, and rap, but for the rather profound implication that the internet collects and transforms all of this and more into indifferent material — that is, everything we pour into the internet (or feed into its maw, as John Cayley has suggested by calling a Google search bar a devouring mouth) becomes the internet. We might also say it’s all language, all material, and poetry (as poiesis and poetics) is the selection and arrangement from and of that material. 

Brief statements of tech, license, and artist attribution follow.

Janky touching

Perhaps it is touch that makes jankiness possible, makes language art material embodiment. Touch is interface, and connects us with artifice. Whatever our writing tools produce, we wish to put our hands on it, take it into our bodies, press up against it. We wish also to handle the tools, to assemble them piece by piece, reach into their bodies, leave our marks on them. We want to run our programs along textual bodies. Writing is embodied as it is made, and as it is received (or processed). Machines may enter the desiring circuit, but we must resist keeping our hands off them, or handling their outputs with empty gloves. Or we become mere technicians, scientists in a plastic jar. 

1.[return] Here we reference early death as a consequence of white supremacy and capitalism, early death borne disproportionately by people of color and especially Black people, but also poor people. A common (though not uniform) condition of early death that can become a solidarity for better embodiment, more life without surrendering to the accelerationist fantasy of becoming-deathless that is the dream of ultimate privilege. For some people to live forever, others must not live at all, or live less. Janky Materiality acknowledges the precariousness and instability, the temporality, of embodiment. We must be in this together, in order not to seek digital enclaves of immunity, or vantages from which to look and listen without consequence or fellow feeling.

2.[return] Though we may well be cyborgs, in augmentive alliance with machines, we are also becoming-animals, in alliance with all that lives and has lived, singing to all who will live.

3.[return] The word reentered popular consciousness in 2019 when Golden State Warriors point guard Steph Curry dismissed the Toronto Raptors’ Finals game two defense as janky: “‘The whole fourth quarter they were playing some janky defense, just trying to send bodies to me everywhere, and our whole roster just took advantage of it.’” To us, this sounds like the Warriors reappropriated a janky strategy, or entered into a janky system and rewired it to their advantage. When asked about his use of the term, Curry said: “‘I don’t know, that’s a little Southern, North Carolina slang that I probably just pulled out of my back pocket. It sounds right. I don’t really know what the true definition is’”; Josh Peter, “Steph Curry, Warriors ready for Raptors’ ‘janky’ defense in Game 3,” USA TODAY, June 4, 2019.

Steph Curry playing basketball, facing three defenders

4.[return] without materialistic fetish, animistic appropriation, or posthumanist shell game (OOO, OK!)

5.[return] has no claim, is made and remade

6.[return] or MESS AND MESS AND or Mess And Mess And, though the inadvertent jankiness of proper style is most appropriate

7.[return] Douglas Kearney, Mess and Mess and (Blacksburg, VA: Noemi Press, 2015), 18.

8.[return] It is also potentially viral, or to borrow Davin Heckman’s preferred framework, metastatic (as in “metastasizing media”), where metastasis describes a metastability. He considers the potential for an organism to be hijacked by a metastasizing agent, though we are thinking in terms of assemblages that might sample from a number of systems or system components, without necessarily intending to control or dominate those systems or contexts. Also, Heckman is speaking primarily about social media spaces and meme transmission. Still, we find Heckman’s reading of metastasis as metastability provocative and illuminating in the context of janky materiality. We are in conversation here with his Electronic Literature Organization 2018 conference presentation, “Digital Vernacular,” and with personal email correspondence (August 18, 2018). 

9.[return] Lisa Robertson, Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture (Toronto, ON: Coach House Books, 2011), 9.

Cover of 'Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture'

10.[return] Over the years, attitudes among and around writers associated with what we now tend to refer to as language writing have changed. When we use this term in Janky Materiality, we engage that usage in all its historical and contemporary variations: Language Poetry, Language Writing, language poetry, language writing (used here), Language poetry, Language writing, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, etc. (including various forms of scare quoting). See Bob Perelman, The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996):

Even the name is hard to pin down. … Language writers themselves have been no more united [than scholars and critics] in their terminologies: ‘language’ is always included, sometimes capitalized, with but mostly without equal sings; the second word is sometimes ‘poetry,’ sometimes ‘writing.’ There is also ‘the language school,’ ‘the language movement,’ and the increasingly popular ‘so-called language writing,’ which catches the distrust of labels. (19)

11.[return] endemic if not decimating

12.[return] This should be complicated with reference to the history of electronic music, as described by Allen Strange, early in Electronic Music; Allen Strange, Electronic Music: Systems, Techniques, and Controls, 2nd ed. (Dubuque, IA: William C. Brown Publishers, 1983). Early electronic music is essentially experimental, and leads to the development of new instruments. In that sense, early electronic music materiality includes the source and the signal, and subsequent electronic music is built from both precedents. But this is to encourage experimentation with and exploration of forms as a means of engaging materiality. This can be distinguished from running content through a device, without sufficient attention to material input and output. This matter matters.

13.[return] As Loss Pequeño Glazier argues in Digital Poetics: The Making of E-Poetries (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2001).

14.[return] In the prologue to My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), Hayles writes: “I like to think of materiality as the constructions of matter that matter for human meaning” (3).

15.[return] There is no standard definition of language writing, as there is no standard definition of poetry (or language, perhaps). Here we attempt to give a sense of our concerns with and via language writing, as a way toward articulating what digital language writing might be.

16.[return] You are reading a curated selection from a manuscript.

17.[return] We speak figuratively of accent as local nuance, though the dialectal echo is intentional.

18.[return] See Rachel Zolf’s Janey’s Arcadia, which uses OCR glitch error noise to dramatize colonial overwriting of Indigenous people’s bodies and history, and to detourn and hybridize colonialist and anticolonialist texts. For more context, see the Jacket2 feature on the Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries conference, posted October 6, 2016. The preface by Gregory Betts and Katie L. Price ably lays out the stakes for thinking about Canadian avant-garde poetics in decolonizing terms. We are particularly interested in their attention to “the roots and origins of language,” a concern they locate in the work of bpNichol. As well, we find useful the punning, etymological work they do with the term avant-garde, reading avant in French and English as a before that indicates both forward thinking (standing before) and a look back at preceding movements (coming before), ideas and relations along “intersections of Indigenous decolonization and the [Canadian] avant-garde.”

19.[return] The field will have to wait — as of January 2019, production of the volume has been canceled.

20.[return] While the videos did not make it into this version of the project, they are worth mentioning for their gleeful, janky materiality, as the two poets fuck with the format, whether it’s the self-made book trailer, smartphone interview or amateur performance video documentation, or faux road-movie dialogue (the Silver Car Sessions, many of which are conversations with Canadian avant-garde writers). We’re happy not to describe them in detail, nor re/deconstruct their pleasures, and instead recommend these neo-Dada gems, precariously embedded in the YouTube/Vimeo archiscape, and partially collected at Eckhoff’s eponymous WordPress blog.

Kevin McPherson Eckhoff and Jake Kennedy, BFFs.
Kevin McPherson Eckhoff and Jake Kennedy, BFFs.

21.[return] Personal email to Lawrence Blough, September 26, 2017. In conjunction with a studio seminar taught by architects Lawrence Blough and Cathryn Dwyre, I (here the first person asserts itself) taught a writing workshop called Monstrous Forms, which took the studio theme Heterotic Architecture as pretext for an extended conceit involving monsters, hybridity, and formal assemblage. A key text in my preparation was Jack Halberstam’s Skin Shows, in particular the way Halberstam describes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a gothic monster of a book: “The structures of both Frankenstein and Dracula activate and exemplify models of production and consumption which suggest the Gothic, as a genre, is itself a hybrid form, a stitched body of distorted textuality”; J. Halberstam, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), 33. These texts are built from layer upon layer of accounts (reports, letters, diaries, news pieces, etc.) and generic registers, and in the case of Frankenstein, this patchwork is analogous to the monster it assembles. Furthermore, Halberstam describes this assembly as a “textual machine … that generates meaning” (32). We assemble Janky Materiality from an off-brand kit of parts, according to an off-rhyming scheme.

22.[return] Ryan Fitzpatrick and Susan Rudy, “‘If everything is moving where is here?’: Lisa Robertson’s Occasional Work on Cities, Space and Impermanence,” British Journal of Canadian Studies 26, no. 2 (September 2013): 175.

23.[return] From which “Ryan” will later step out as a third person — he, “a subject position that is white, middle class and male,” which we belabor for the sake of its appositional, conventional specificity — who steps into one of the sites previously visited by the Office’s Occasional Work. Fitzpatrick and Rudy, 183–84.

24.[return] Fitzpatrick and Rudy, 175.

25.[return] And, as Rudy and Fitzpatrick survey the forms Robertson inhabits in her work — e.g. lyric, epic, eclogue, meteorological discourse — we recognize that form is itself an affective and affected interface, a deep surface whose ornamentation is material to its sense, just as it de/reconstructs the aesthetics embedded in source forms. Rudy and Fitzpatrick describe this process in spatial terms (via what they call “the spatial turn in literary studies”) as “reoccupation of a conventional form” (176). Later in their essay, they will describe space as an interface inscribed on the transhistorical surface of a given place (in this case New Brighton Park in East Vancouver, and the site of Robertson’s “Site Report: New Brighton Park” in Occasional Work), which we see as a palimpsestic, textu(r)al condition. “Space and place are messy, produced by the ways that various actors move across them in the spirit of collaboration or in violent antagonism” (182). We are moving across a janky material interface between site and reference. In the introduction to “Site Report” we learn, “historical research concerning the site was conducted at Vancouver City Archives and the Northwest History Room at Vancouver Public Library” (33), which multiplies the sites of citation, further complicating the historical construction of place and space as the Office investigates “the first real estate transaction in the city,” reconstructing an origin myth of Vancouver. “This was the first colonial sale of the Musqueam clam beach called Khanamoot” (39). That is, First Nations land.

26.[return] Robertson, 121.

27.[return] Robertson, 120.

28.[return] Robertson, 123.

29.[return] Robertson, 140.

30.[return] Robertson, 142.

31.[return] Robertson, 141.

32.[return] Robertson, 140.

33.[return] And here we have linguistic and material jankiness embodied in “Doubt and the History of Scaffolding.” So too is the conflated first-person plural, corporate we, and communal pronoun a janky, unstable interface, whose membership keeps cutting out. Meanwhile, we insist on (dis)locating our central argument in the scaffolding that undergirds the textual body.

34.[return] Robertson, 142.

35.[return] A performative interface built around special access the multimedia poet and scholar David Jhave Johnston was granted to PennSound’s digital collection of poets reading their poems, MUPS appears as a grid of boxes corresponding to selected audio recordings which, when clicked, toggle on/off. Once multiple box/buttons are engaged, a WEAVE option appears. When activated, recordings switch from simultaneous to sequential broadcast, and the user may access additional controls to adjust threshold, tolerance, and pause rate for semiautomated interface between signals.

36.[return] as are What is the archive? and How do we enter the archive?, though MUPS focuses on the first question, even while it might illuminate these other questions

37.[return] It does so in a sense Jhave describes as close aesthetic reading, though we will also avail ourselves of “media-specific analysis (materiality),” as we get ahead of ourselves. As we shall see, Moure begins to trouble her authorial function on the outer shell of Pillage Laud (Moveable Type Books, 1999; Book*hug, 2011). David Jhave Johnston, Aesthetic Animism: Digital Poetry’s Ontological Implications (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016), 9.

38.[return] Johnston, 2.

39.[return] Johnston, 7.

40.[return] Also, Jhave describes a hybrid relation “between language, poetry, and digital media” (11), which manifests “a deep continuity between life, language, and computation” (12).

41.[return] Johnston, 3.

42.[return] Johnston, 5.

43.[return] Aesthetic Animism is also available as an eBook, and in doctoral thesis form downloadable here.

44.[return] Johnston, 4.

45.[return] Johnston, 20.

46.[return] Johnston, 23.

47.[return] Johnston, 24.

48.[return] Johnston, 39.

49.[return] Johnston, 216.

50.[return] Johnston, 41.

51.[return] Sophia Roosth, author of Synthetic: How Life Got Made (University of Chicago Press, 2017), discusses this notion of indirect or distributed quasibiological agency with Sean Lally in his Night White Skies podcast episode 24, “Synthetic Life” (July 23, 2017).

52.[return] See the “Reading a book by its cover” section. 

53.[return] Johnston, 49.

54.[return] Here we revisit the rationale for the first-person plural form in Janky Materiality. Of course, we revisit ourselves in the process of composition, the durational act of writing. Those selves are a we, a chorus, a commotion — a discourse of selves. And those selves are carried not only by we but by the whole set and series of language formulations. Here we are.

55.[return] as if there were an originary alignment

56.[return] Informed as it is by Moure’s “The Anti-Anæsthetic,” particularly her gleaning extended technique playing off Lacan’s point de capiton to engage (perversely, in language) presymbolic, semiotic hole-ness of the unspeakable, slippery, originary fall from mother, our becoming-Real: “Yet the relational does require terms to make sense. … To truly privilege the relations [inherent in signification], then, requires the creation of a structural slippage, but this process holds only for a moment because to privilege the relational (since it requires terms) means, ever, a slip back into terms again”; Erín Moure, My Beloved Wager (Edmonton, AB: NeWest Press, 2009), 25. So poetics falls back on the poetic, which then snaps to attention, before it rediscovers all that Law prescribes (and proscribes) for the sake of anxiety reduction. Our challenge, if we seek to wake up from that numbing dream, to move from anaesthetic lack of fellow feeling and the sound of one another to aesthetic relationality, feeling ourselves: “How not to let the slippage stop”? (29). Seriously, just read the essay, not to better follow this janky extension but to plug into Moure’s lit circuit. 

57.[return] Only when advertisements fail to run smoothly, signal (and sell) as intended, do they generate aesthetic meaning potential.

58.[return] Johnston, 51.

59.[return] William Carlos Williams, The Collected Later Poems (Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1950), 4.

60.[return] And in this (American) grain we take notice of Jed Rasula’s designation “lyric solipsism” as a less circumspect formulation (see The American Poetry Wax Museum [Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1996], 26).

61.[return] whether in an introduction like that of The Wedge, in the prose sections from his virtuosic metapoetics Spring and All, or his sometimes catty but no less essential survey of his modernist milieu, The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams

62.[return] In S/Z (Hill and Wang, 1975), Roland Barthes distinguishes the writerly text that engages a reader as an active participant in investigatory meaning-making (often in a linguistically challenging literary environment) from the readerly text in which nothing is required of the reader but to follow along with the text according to the writer’s clear intentions.

63.[return] Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations, qtd. in Moure, 15. 

64.[return] Moure, 206.

65.[return] and quits

66.[return] With partial apologies for our own reference interface to the essay that animates this module, an essay we have as unpaginated, janky, OCR-rendered pdf via EBSCOhost libproxy Academic Search Complete database, emailed by Zolf. Our reference is this janky interface, echoing in its OCR errors Zolf’s own strategy in Janey’s Arcadia. Rachel Zolf, “‘Like plugging into an electric circuit’: Fingering Out Erín Moure’s Lesbo-Digit-O! Smut Poems,” Canadian Literature 210/211 (Autumn/Winter 2011): 230–41.

67.[return] and there, as we will see

68.[return] Of the latter operative technique, Zolf writes “It seems that ‘Erín Moure’ made the Pillage Laud poems by selecting whole sentences from the program output and placing them in proximities and contiguities that made sense to her own internal biological mechanisms.” Zolf, 232.

69.[return] Zolf, 230.

70.[return] Indeed, it goes both ways.

71.[return] PILLAGE LAUD on front cover, Pillage Laud on back cover, Pillage laud under Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in publication listing.

72.[return] distancing from and via authorship

73.[return] I always carry/carries an accent and an inflection.

74.[return] Thanks to Rachel Zolf for loaning her limited wire-bound copy, one of twenty-six issued, this one lettered K.

75.[return] Unconvincingly might suggest a failed attempt, whereas nonconvincingly is intended to suggest an intent to be nonconvincing. Moure embraces the corny artifice.

76.[return] and here we indulge ourselves to mirror the acute accent for grave purpose

77.[return] as is reading: “A practice of reading is always embodied”; Moure, 173.

78.[return] Erín Moure, Pillage Laud (Toronto, ON: Book*hug, 2011).

79.[return] thereby blowing the author’s cover, as it were 

80.[return] by which time, to paraphrase (and jankify) N. Katherine Hayles, everyone’s mother will have always already been a computer

81.[return] Poet Sean Collins would later collaborate with his smartphone’s predictive text to write a series of poems to (or perhaps, in a mediumistic sense, with) his late father, collected in a chapbook called Planchette (Accidental Player, 2019), featuring cover artwork by the poet Laura Theobald, who had previously conducted her own poetic collaboration with predictive text, her 2015 chapbook The Best Thing Ever (Boost House). See “Sometimes We Coincide: A Conversation between Laura Theobald and Sean Collins.

cover of 'Planchette' by Sean Collins

82.[return] Ross Elfine, “The Dematerialization of Architecture: Toward a Taxonomy of Conceptual Practice,” Journal for the Society of Architectural Historians 75, no. 2 (June 2016): 204.

83.[return] Lawrence Weiner, “Statement of Intent, 1969,” documented in exhibition at the Dia Art Foundation website.

84.[return] bpNichol, The Alphabet Game: A bpNichol Reader (Toronto, ON: Coach House Books, 2007), 142.

85.[return] Moure, 70.

86.[return] Quoted from conversation. Here we will appose, if not elide, conceptualism and proceduralism, for the sake of bringing concept-based, project-based, and procedural poetry into conversation with one another — or rather, we enter a conversation that is already taking place. Along with language-based practice, these are all strains Zolf grafts into her work. And as with all terms of her poetics, “procedure” is critically investigated, as in her 2010 book Neighbour Procedure (Coach House Books), which traces the clinical connotations of the title phrase to profoundly destructive military tactics that demolish community and commons by strategically tunneling through adjacent domiciles and converting interiors to battlefields (or trenches).

87.[return] Elfine tends to put “purity” and “pure” in scare quotes as shorthand for so-called but also, perhaps, to keep his hands clean.

88.[return] Elfine, 203.

89.[return] Completed in 2011, as documented at thetoleranceproject.blogspot.com.

90.[return] Here we refer to the computing term (grep) for a command that retrieves a string of characters from a plain-text data set. 

91.[return] She is both critiquing and extending writing practice/process, while hybridizing an analog/digital approach, as she manually sifts through and sutures search results from a digital archive of language formulations (whether contributors donated complete manuscript files, outtakes, or random language assemblies, cut-and-paste jobs, lingual spume flecked with detritus, crappy and/or janky materials).

92.[return] We checked to see if this is a novel neologism (with apologies for the tautology), and found an empty Squarespace website at datadebased.com (accessed August 25, 2017) whose blog page is dated March 29, 2017, and tagged “MARKETING, DIGITAL MARKETING, FACEBOOK ADVERTISING, FACEBOOK” and indicates “1 like.” Of course, we use the term “empty website” figuratively in a digital materiality context in which the site is brimming with content. In the context of Human Resources, the site appears to be an uncanny digital postcard lost on arrival. (The image on the back of the card is Spam.)

93.[return] And let us not make the formulas and formulators invisible. Jed Rasula writes: “The museum collection and the anthology reify the unique, which is transcribed into an image of the collective benevolence of the host. The social medium that most conspicuously qualifies as host is the nation” (17). Where the quintessential metonymous artwork might be a red Rauschenberg combine that folds in pieces of other works and affixes a small mirror to reflect (and embed) the viewer.

94.[return] Where we find the address of Toronto publisher Coach House Books, which publishes volumes by bpNichol, Zolf, Moure, Steve McCaffery, Kevin McPherson Eckhoff, and other avant-garde Canadian luminaries.

95.[return] As did bpNichol with his pioneering DOS-based (and floppy-disk-housed) kinetic concrete language poem-program for Apple IIe computer, First Screening (1984). The media materiality of the piece stranded it in the limbo of platform obsolescence at multiple junctures, as first the Apple IIe disappeared, then the posthumous 1993 HyperCard version lost commercial hardware support. In 2007, a collective preservation society (Jim Andrews, Geof Huth, Lionel Kearns, Marko Niemi, and Dan Waber) released four emulated and remediated versions. The page embeds the now-classic warning invocation, “O ye digital poets: the past of the art is in your hands and it is you who must recover and maintain it.”

Still from bpNichol with repeated phrase: "THE BOTTOM LINE IS WHERE CHANGE IS"
Still from bpNichol, First Screening.

96.[return] See the following “Language arts as archival rewriting practice” section for a close reading of the homepage for Jhave’s ReRites.

97.[return] See Parrish’s brilliant synthesis of semantic and phonetic word vector research, a computational hybrid math/word approach to machine-generated poetic composition, in her talk, “Experimental Creative Writing with the Vectorized Word.” Whereas Articulations has a hermetic quality, the techniques and thinking Parrish presents in this talk and elsewhere have tremendous potential to inform open-ended aesthetic linguistic investigation.

98.[return] The insight available from such computational analysis of text generation as evident in “Experimental Creative Writing with the Vectorized Word” is profound, while performances of the output are less nuanced, and we say this with all due respect, having enjoyed multiple readings from Articulations in more and less traditional, more and less e-lit–savvy audience contexts. If this is a demo rather than a tool, it is nonetheless a demo of a tool. However, we remain in the realm of vectoral algorithmic poetry simulation if we decline to massage the output of these processes — that is, if we limit human collaboration with the machine after generating the text.

99.[return] For an insightful Twitter thread analysis of some of the tendencies and limitations of neural network writing, and human-machine collaboration, see Janelle Shane. In response to comedian Keaton Patti’s ostensible Olive Garden bot script, which Shane both celebrates and aims to debunk, she concludes: “I wish people wouldn’t present these fakes as bot-written. Actual AI-written text just isn’t that coherent.” In the replies to the thread, Shane nuances her position in relation to human-machine interaction: “And there ARE comedy writers who use real machine learning in their work. Actual AI-generated humor should be recognized.

100.[return] Though, notably, William Carlos Williams did this trick of working from rather than toward the image, presenting a farmer as a writer in Spring and All.

101.[return] that is, back and forth in its surface/depth

102.[return] This includes a subsection called “Terminology,” which is a set of descriptive phrases including the lyrical-inspirational-pathos-cum-metatag “griefwork.”