Scanbed Poetics

2:00 PM, Tuesday 14 Aug 2018 (1 hour)
This paper addresses poetry that has begun to probe the scanbed and its sense-making apparatus, optical character recognition (OCR). It surveys a growing list of texts operationalizing the semiotic architecture of digitization to both scrutinize the kinds of ‘reading’ that process performs and to reflect on our contemporary moment of machine generated language and distant, distracted, or otherwise disengaged reading. This is a recent impulse that equips poetry with the tools necessary to address 25 million books now sitting on Google’s servers, print-on-demand publishing, distant reading methods in the digital humanities, stacks of spam in junk folders, and the precarious labor tucked into those various discursive formations. Thus: scanbed poetry, found poetry whose provenance lies not with born-digital texts but with texts borne across the analog-digital divide by page-scanners. Such pieces pull from source material retrofitted with (new) language by algorithms-cum-interpreters and presented onscreen as surrogates for their pulpy variants. A skein of machine generated text lies atop these surrogate images. Acting as supplement to their human-facing typefaces, this text addresses machines, making possible grep commands and other searches across web services and databases (early example: Loss Pequeño Glazier’s “eclout”). The result: gaps. OCR does not always read right, and when it doesn’t, it renders text spanning from glitched and garbled word salad to the civil but still misplaced letter. In either case these substitutions will augment the course of their computational analysis through a mechanically modulated semiosis generated out of the gaps between analog and digital, between (mis)recognition and reading.
UC Santa Barbara
PhD candidate