Sound bytes and computer blips

Marjorie Perloff's electronic world

Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media pivots on a seven-word manifesto: “The poet’s arena,” Perloff declares, “is the electronic world.”[1] A key move in a long career, what backs this claim? What leads forward from it? How does it fare in the thoroughly mediated, digitized, networked, and programmable world we currently inhabit?

Although by no means an obvious pair even now, two decades ago poetry and the electronic world were as odd a combination as Lautréamont’s sewing machine and umbrella. In 1991, poetry retained an aura of sanctity sufficient to prompt US poet laureate Joseph Brodsky to propose that a poetry anthology be placed beside the Bible and phonebook in every hotel room in the country.[2] In the same year, in what seems a far-off galaxy of greenscreen prompt lines, the University of Minnesota introduced the Gopher browser plugin that allowed users to send, search, and retrieve documents over a pre-World-Wide-Web Internet. Scholars — even new media scholars like Friedrich Kittler, whose Discourse Networks 1800/1900 (Stanford University Press) appeared in English in 1991 — had barely begun to link the worlds of poetry and electronics. No one had yet declared that one was the arena of the other.

Although the components and circuits that populate Radical Artifice — among them, dial-up modems, CompuServe information services, the control-G button, and a newly-identified disorder called “computer anxiety” — now seem as retro as big yellow phonebooks, Perloff’s point has not only held but grown increasingly pressing as its emphasis has turned from mediated “sound bytes” (xiii) to the digital logics of writing in an age of information.[3]

Most manifestoes start with a slap and end with an endorsement. In 1991, Perloff’s slap was for the speech-based, image-driven, late-Romantic lyric that maintains an “authentic self” for postindustrial consumer culture. The poetized “sound bytes” of this expressivist enterprise hawk, Perloff continues, are the very same TV talk show, electronic billboard, “real life,” “natural language” confessions and pontifications it pretends to scorn.

This boisterous polemic is not, for Perloff, a skirmish but a protracted battle in which she has consistently backed, with exegetical brilliance, the complex and varied forces of “radical artifice.” Poetry as making, as praxis — the work of urban, technological, multilinguistic Futurists, Concretists, Oulipeans, and Language writers — contests the slackness of mediated enterprises. Its arena is a site of combat; its tenor, resistance; its lineage, a century of artificers at work both on and off the page.

Blinking steadily in the background of Radical Artifice, however, was a second, more productive sector of the electronic world: the “computer blips” that signal the digital substructure of contemporary global culture, economics, and politics, and, as Perloff argues in Unoriginal Genius (University of Chicago, 2010), instigate its most compelling poetics. Although computers are central to both books, Radical Artifice focuses on the graphic interface of the screen while Unoriginal Genius descends toward the operating system’s algorithmic imagination and database logic.[4] “The revolution that … occurred [soon after 1990],” Unoriginal Genius begins, “was not in writing for the computer screen but in [learning to navigate] an environment of hyperinformation” (xi).

Midway between Radical Artifice and Unoriginal Genius, Perloff’s brief but astute review of Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media (MIT Press, 2002) emphasizes his principles of digital cognition: numerical coding, modularity, automation, variability, and cultural transcoding.[5] These ideas propel Perloff not, as one might expect, toward contemporary new media poetics or even media theory but rather toward the buoyantly differential poetics of the post-desktop, information-rich, networked, multimedial, and polylinguistic world of ubiquitous computing.[6] Cutting and pasting, appropriating, sampling, framing, and recycling, this poetics of procedure and citation drives the work of such writers as Christian Bök, Craig Dworkin, Kenneth Goldsmith, and Vanessa Place. Linear thinking dies hard, but the strength of Perloff’s engagement with the meaning-making procedures of these successors to Cage, Duchamp, and Warhol is its turn toward the arts and techniques of non-linear thinking in an age of information.



[1]Marjorie Perloff, Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), xiii.

[2] Joseph Brodsky, “An Immodest Proposal,” The New Republic, November 11, 1991, 31–36.

[3] To determine your score on 1989’s Computer Anxiety Scale, click here.

[4] “Perhaps,” Perloff speculates in Radical Artifice, “it would be more useful to work the other way around and to consider, more closely than we usually do, what really happens … at the computer terminal” (15).

[5] Originally published in Common Knowledge 9, no. 1 (2003): 157–58. Perloff’s review is available here.

[6] For an example of Perloff’s attention to new media poems such as Brian Kim Stefans’s Dreamlife of Letters, see Adalaide Morris and Thomas Swiss, “Screening the Page/Paging the Screen: Digital Poetics and the Differential Text,” in New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts, and Theories, ed. Morris and Swiss (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 2006), 143–64.