Saturday, February 04, 2006

Response to Dan Hoy's flarf essay in Jacket

I don't have any personal stake in flarf or the accusations Dan Hoy levels at flarfists in this article, since I'm not among their ranks, despite having appropriated some of their processes (or more accurately, whatever impressions of their processes that have radiated out from the hermetic confines of the flarflist) in a peripheral way. But since my F7 project was explicitly addressed in Hoy's article, I will respond to portions of it. And can I mention, apropos of nothing, that F7 wants to change "flarfists" to "florists," and that this seems thrillingly appropriate, given the electronic gardens they tend?

It's worth noting that I like Dan personally, and admire him as an academic and a writer. It's also worth noting that the two poems of mine that will be included in Hoy's own Soft Targets journal both include elements generated by Google. I don't point this out as a contradiction meant to undermine his argument, but it is of interest – if I am unthinkingly complicit in the technocracy because of my processes, doesn't Hoy also share in this complicity by disseminating them? And, unless Hoy plans on publishing my poems with annotated criticisms of their mode of production, isn't his complicity as superficially unthinking as he would have mine to be? I fear that Hoy set out with a thesis already in mind, then found out-of-context examples to support it, instead of letting the research decide what it wanted to say. I have no problem with his ideas about Google’s corporate technocratic nature, but that he offers them as some sort of corrective – using his essay to skewer what he intuits to be the motivations of some poets working in this vein, instead of simply presenting his otherwise penetrating thoughts on Google without damning people for intentions that surely aren't his to know – is odd.

Hoy's assertion that poets using Google to make poems are somehow oblivious to Google's hierarchal nature goes largely unsupported. His reading seems extremely selective. He calls me out for not acknowledging the hierarchy embodied in Google and Microsoft Word's spellchecking function, when in fact I do, however glancingly, in the very same blogpost he quotes in his article:

"[T]he spellchecker used as a palette was compiled by a group of persons unknown to the author..."

This is by no means the explicit critique that Hoy calls for, but it does indicate at least a rudimentary awareness on my part of the not-actually-random nature of the F7 project. Tony Tost, who, to be fair, has had the benefit of close personal contact with me throughout the evolution of my project in forming his analysis, gleans this in his post (responding to the same article) on his Unquiet Grave blog:

"I mean, do you really think Brian Howe hasn't thought about the fact that the language suggestions brought up by the F7 key are a corporation's assertion of what normal or correct language use should be? Isn't it conceivable that that's a big part of the thrill and appeal of the F7 project, taking a technological tool that was intended for one normalizing purpose and hijacking it for a more disruptive, weird and incorrect purpose?"

This is entirely on the money, but again, while I know Dan, I've been in much closer personal contact with Tony over the year-and-a-half I've been working in this vein. So Tony actually has empirical knowledge of my thought processes, which Hoy does not. It's not clear what poets could do to "question the implications" of using Google and other generative technological mediations to Hoy's satisfaction, besides writing critical articles such as the one Hoy just published, which have no place in the work. Hoy's exegesis is welcome, but his ostensible assertion that the poet should have already done the critic’s work, and that the debatable fact that this hasn't happened somehow undermines the integrity of the poet's project, is less so. It seems to me that this sort of questioning is inherent in the work. If there's no explicit critique of Google or Microsoft in my project, one is implicit in the fairly monstrous voice that ripples through it, and I've spent much time pondering the ideological implications of what I'm saying vis-a-vis what MS Word's Spellchecker thinks I'm trying to say according to the cultural biases of its programmers, which power structures it favors and which groups it disenfranchises, how to exploit this slippage for powerful aesthetic affect and penetrating political comment, etc. What makes Hoy so sure that the basis of any Google-oriented project is not a critique of the tool it uses?

I wouldn't contest Hoy's claims that Google poems are biased, since they express the biases of the search engine's designers, and ideological, since they express the will of their "authors" in result-selection criteria, but I can't really countenance his claim that flarfists and people using Google to make poems are unaware of these implications. The questions he feels are going unaddressed seem to be, in my reading, exactly the questions such poems intend to raise. On a side note, I'm no longer using Google in my poetry, focusing instead solely on the F7 process – it was something I needed to experiment with for my own edification, but it's not an idiom I'm interested in pursuing further, when others have been doing it longer and more exactingly already. But I feel certain that my own experiments with Google and the Spellchecker actually foreground my own complicity, as a young white male, in the hegemony – as I blend poetic "I" statements with Googled results and Spellchecker generations, I become indistinguishable from the oft-horrible content of the poems. My acknowledged complicity seems to me to fairly resound through the poems, as does my burgeoning terror at the same.

Hoy is right that my F7 poems do stem from an imposed value system – I was imprecise in my blogpost. What I meant to say is that it they are free from my own imposed value system, at least to a greater extent than my unmediated poems. At the time, I was very rigidly observing my processes, not allowing any legroom for myself to make choices, creating the original nonsense texts entirely by keyed patterns and chance operations like dice rolls, randomly generated numbers & so forth, and even when arriving at the stage when MS Word presented me with a palette of word choices, I used chance operations or sequential rules to select those as well. While I was cognizant of MS Word's ideological bent and its affect on the poems, it wasn't something I was interested in explicitly addressing at this rudimentary, exploratory stage of the process, although this is no longer the case – now I allow my will into the poems freely and haphazardly, since I've found the tension is more interesting than the pure process. At any rate, I felt that these poems were engaged in a tacit critique of the media that produced them, even if it wasn't one that I fully understood myself yet.

I also disagree with Hoy's assertion that poets who use technologically mediated processes are excited about technological progress, when in fact the opposite seems true – the emotional register of such poems scans to me not as excitement, but dread, or at least a deep unease with the decentralization of the human, the individual, and the unique embodied in this technology. The gleefully obscene, almost giddy tone that pervades such poems scan as whistling past the graveyard, false and jarring contrasts to the poet's very real terror. Why Hoy chooses to read such impulses as "utopian," I have no idea, since they are plainly dystopian in their panoramic view of the vertiginous, canted, treacherous linguistic surface that mediates so much of our 21st century lives.

What Hoy's article ignores is flarf's and google-poetry’s (and yes, F7’s) sheer inevitability. Whatever their real or supposed ideological blind spots, they are the inevitable expression of our era, and if the poet's greatest calling is to inhabit his or her moment as fully as possible (contestable, but I believe it is, lest we all fall prey to the museum culture of "timeless" poetry), practitioners of flarf and other technologically mediated processes are answering this call most directly, engendering circumstances for critiques such as Hoy's, critiques that would be more valuable were they to examine the discernible phenomenon and not make blind assumptions about the phenomenon's practitioner's intentions. The collaging of (often corporately-generated) primary sources is shaping up to be the defining medium of our era – rap (at this stage, my thinking is that F7 has more in common with Mike Jones or DangerMouse than John Cage), mash-ups, DJ mixes, literary pastiche and hyperauthorship, rampant televisual meta-satire, etc etc etc. For poetry to try and stay "above the fray," as it were – doesn't this just make it more marginal than it already is? Perhaps that's what some poets want – to not see poetry become like TV – but I'm interested in poetry that engages with TV in its own arena, not to mimic it but to challenge it, to inhabit its moment. Hoy argues that there's an elitist bent to Googled poetry, but it's a lot closer to getting one's hands dirty than musing abstractly on the periphery of the culture.