From Codex to Code: Computational Poetics and the Emergence of the Self- Reading Text

8:30 AM, Friday 17 Aug 2018 (1 hour)

So irretrievably connected is the act of reading to works of print that any comparable digital engagement with a text often seems best considered as a unique activity of its own. Whatever we are doing with words viewed via electronic screens, doggedly poking at them with our fingers, moving them about from document to document with a simple double-click, or jumping erratically from one link to another in an ever-growing, highly fluid hypertext, we are not “reading” them. In her book, Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents (Duke UP, 2014), Lisa Gitelman similarly adds, “[w]ritten genres in general are familiarly treated as if they were equal to or coextensive with the sorts of textual artifacts that habitually embody them. . . . Say the word ‘novel,’ for instance, and your auditors will likely imagine a printed book, even if novels also exist serialized in nineteenth century periodicals, published in triple-decker (multivolume) formats and loaded onto—and reimagined by the designee and users of—Kindles, Nook, and iPads” (3). The three latter devices she lists constitute together the most common tools currently available to distribute digital texts. At the same time, they remain strangely distant, perhaps even divided from traditional acts of reading, not to mention, as Gitelman notes, the very foundational genres of writing as a practice.

This paper looks theoretically at the digital text in relation to computational reason, reviewing its recent development as both a new technical object and disciplinary form, distinct from all prior modes of print. To engage with writing in any digital format, as I will argue, is to partake in a highly complex, multifaceted set of new media relationships derived in part from very specific coding protocols. In addition, key to a more substantial interpretation and assessment of all digital written works is the subsequent revision of many long serving, traditional reading competencies previously associated with academic writing and the literary arts. The printed word continues to offer modern culture an effective tool for developing a reflexive, dialectical approach to knowledge, using media to interpret and document how we observe the world around us. Digital, computational modes of writing by contrast emphasize a much more immanent technicity and structure in this very same world, relying on coding to assemble, synchronize, and ultimately predict real-time epistemological models for just about any phenomena. My own ongoing research into human-screen interactivity, much of it based on quantitative field studies conducted in the classroom, seeks to provide a more theoretically in- depth understanding of our current social, cultural and epistemological relationship to digital, screen-based writing. Driving this core analytical aim is the central premise that to work with language as a computational device is to see and use text as a means for directly executing semantic relationships rather than interpreting them self-reflectively, critically, and, to some extent, canon-based. In this way, digital texts in both theory and practice invite us to consider a revisionary mode of knowledge construction, where language combined with programming no longer serves to mediate our reality as we observe it, but instead generates it anew through the ongoing implementation of machine-readable commands. When the act of reading, however, literally originates within the machine itself, it seems useful to describe any texts generated in process as “self-reading,” or even “reader-less,” comparable perhaps to various parallel initiatives within the auto industry today to produce the first fully functional “self-driving” cars. As with this matching revolutionary moment in modern transportation, today’s “text users,”

along for the ride, so to speak, seem quite ready to assume a fundamentally less personal, less critically interactive relationship to the text as its own object and mode of production. Here, and again, distinct from print, the electronic text emerges as part of a much more complex, more intricately defined symbolic network of near-constant knowledge construction. To consume language in the digital era, whether by screen, goggles, or some other wearable device is to participate in an increasingly vast, yet dynamic computational system, while at the same transforming past analogue reading practices into more aesthetically poignant, often politically radical activities.

New Jersey Institute of Technology
Associate Professor