Digital Poetics 1

The Self Does Not Exist

When I look for a place to start our discussion, I am reminded of a website from a few years ago. With the ominous address “,” the site presents a single face filling the screen, with another face replacing it every time the user presses “ENTER.” No commentary or introductory text is offered, but a quick search returns cautionary news articles written when the site launched in 2019. The site is the work of a former NVIDIA engineer who created a custom A.I. that generates faces in real time from images scraped from social media platforms. The site became an obsession for millions looking for the gaps in these images and perhaps a place to cup the features of former lovers, deceased loved ones, and maybe even their own features living a new life. The attraction elbows our pausing-at-a-car-crash revulsion at humanity’s demise. The face, as the emblem of the self, is no longer a protected territory. It is instead a collection of assets, assembled and reassembled like a jigsaw puzzle that can never be finished. It’s a situation that Wordsworth and Emerson might not recognize, but for Mary Shelley, Kafka, Poe, and Gogol, it is territory they walked, long before they could see the ground under them.  

The launch of the personal computer traced the outlines. “How fast will Word 6.0 fix typos?” asked a 1993 ad in a computer magazine. “How fast can you make them?” If users typed “SHip teh cartons Friday,” the program corrected the text to “Ship the cartons Friday.” Predictive text, a similar technology which has been interrupting our Google searches since 2004, draws upon common inquiries for its suggestions:

 “Do you want…a pizza?”

 “Do you want…to go out?”

 “Do you want…a vacation?”

When ChatGPT got dropped like a stink bomb on November 30, 2022, the borders around the analogue self became too noxious to ignore. Misleading text-generated images. Deep fakes of politicians. Term papers and blog posts churned out in an instant. Today the technology is the bane of teachers grading A.I.-generated student work and an excuse for technology executives to lower the rates of “creatives” and other remote workers. For this technological revolution, there is no Steve Jobs standing up front explaining how A.I. is going to make our lives better and cooler. Companies like OpenAI and its imitators have instead said everything that needed to be said by remaining silent, leaving the rest of us to conclude that, with automation:

1)    The only acceptable expenditure on labor is zero,

2)    The photos and personal data we’ve been giving away on social media for all these years has found new revenue streams.

Many academic poets pretend nothing has changed. They live as 21st-century people, bouncing between text messages, Zoom meetings, and endless email, but when they sit down to write, they might as well be sitting there with a quill and candle. Thankfully, not everyone is an aesthetic Luddite. A growing number of poets have been going hands-on with the new technology. Maybe you know some of these poets. Maybe they are you. I think of poets like Richard Siken and John Gallaher, who have been feeding text into ChatGPT and Midjourney and dropping the results into their social media feeds. I also think of Jeffrey Grunthaner and Kenji Siratori. Their Paracelsus’ Trouble with Sundays (Posthuman Magazine, 2023) threads found language and generative images into a 21st-century equivalent of Une Semaine de Bonté, Max Ernst’s 1932 artist book scraped from Victorian encyclopedias and romances.

Sometimes I wonder what Leonora Carrington would make of such work. She might hate it, or more likely she’d wonder why it took us so long to repoint the fenceposts of Surrealism. The work winds its measuring tape around the person typing prompts into the software, along with the consciousness of all the individuals who were used as training data. Forget originality, forget preciousness. The digital self is always the collaborative self, leaning closer to a camera that can only see data. With proximity, the unknowability of personhood goes slack against a different kind of skin:

 “Coded Messages” (from John Gallaher's My Life in Brutalist Architecture, Four Way Books, 2024)

 I’ve dwelt in the kingdom

of absence, living in two directions, or no directions,

like hunting the snark, when there is no snark,

as all snarks are boojums. It’s endless. Then gone. Some many-eyed angel

of possibility. There are a lot of John Gallahers out there.

I’m friends with several on social media, and I get updates:

John Gallaher flying, John Gallaher at the pyramids, etcetera.

For Charles Bernstein, the challenge isn’t personal, but epistemic. The eternal questioner and aesthetic hellraiser recently collaborated with artist Davide Balula on a custom A.I. model trained on Bernstein’s entire corpus. The resulting poems were generated between 2020 and 2022, and, according to a prefatory note, deletions were made, but no new language was added. Writing about Poetry Has No Future Unless It Comes to an End: Poems of Artificial Intelligence (Produzioni Nero, 2023) on her Substack, Joanna Drucker declared that many poems in the collection are “utterly convincing” as Bernstein poetry:

“An Emotion Not Comprehended”

I had such a great time

When I got home

That I needed all the attention

I could get.

Also, the notable lines:

“The Clear Relief of a Hat,”

The clear relief of a hat

the corduroy of habits.

Bernstein has given us what technologists call a “use case,” or provable example of the technology deployed in a practical manner. What we take from his example depends on how we feel about authorship. Some of us find confirmation of our worst suspicions. And some of us see it as a call for something new, something weird, something that isn’t the Robert Frost poem from 1936 that academics write over and over.

The market isn’t waiting for anyone’s buy-in. A slew of chatbots, based on the likenesses of long-dead celebrities, have been popping up. Marilyn Monroe is the latest to get the A.I. retread, along with Jimmy Stewart and Andy Warhol. If there were any money in it, you know we’d already have bots for Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, and Frank O’Hara.

I became aware of such weirdness several years ago. It was at a tradeshow in San Francisco. An animation startup I represented was demoing software that mirrored your expressions from an iPhone to an animated character on a nearby monitor. Watching videos of the software had not prepared me for seeing it live. Every time a person who had been scanned winked, a cartoon bear on the screen winked. Some people tried to move faster than the software could move. They zig-zagged between laughing then crying, crying then laughing, but the software mimicked them, down to the micro-expression.

The “self” as a fluid modality is nothing new. Most young adults have been playing videogames for years, infusing virtual characters of different races, different genders, different species with their selves. The first game on the market with multiple, playable characters was the futurist fighter Galactic Warriors (Konami, 1985). And the first game that allowed players to choose their character’s eyes and ears and nose and mouth was Funny Face, from 1989.

‘90s kids: How many hours did they spend grinding through game levels as Sonic the Hedgehog, or Laura Croft, or Super Mario? I don’t know. And I’m not going to turn this into a sociological study. My point is that there is often a lag between the time a technology enters the world and when there is an art to explain how it has changed us. The Sears catalogue, the Amazon of its day, began selling televisions in 1949. But it wasn’t until 1963, fourteen years later, when Nam June Paik broke through with an exhibit featuring televisions “hacked” by magnets to distort their display.

For me, the work of Divya Victor best represents our moment. Curb (Nightboat, 2021) gives us a self already hyphenated by race, religion, gender, and country of origin. The “curb” of the title functions as both a noun and a verb. It is the boundaries, physical and social, the self encounters. It is also resistance enacted on the self and resistance the self directs toward its own behavior, to look and act a certain way, to “pass.” In one of the book’s strongest moments, the speaker places us inside an Uber driven by a fellow immigrant:

 “Milestone 2


457 S. Marisposa Ave.

Los Angeles, CA                                                                   

                                                                               Head north on S Mariposa Ave toward W 4th St

                                                                               0.2 miles

your uber has arrived

how are you today?                       

where are you from?                                        Turn left onto W 3rd St                           

where are your parents from?                        0.6 miles

how many years have you lived here?

We all ride-share the binary of these columns. The subjective, analogue self and the surveilled self edge toward a destination that keeps pulling away. On the positive side, the digital self can feel like a new form of pantheism, with its spirit cast to inanimate objects. On the negative, as in Victor’s poem, it can be a violence we never escape. Such is “the weather.”