Robot Poetry: Representation & Technological Poetics

W.J.T. Mitchell, in his gloss of the notion of “representation,” addresses Aristotle’s Poetics, commenting particularly on Aristotle’s criteria for distinguishing representations from one another — but he changes Aristotle’s language slightly. Where Aristotle speaks of the object, the manner, and the means [of representation], Mitchell speaks of the object, the manner, and codes. At this point in the essay Mitchell has already defined the term codes as he intends to use it, stating that “by [codes] I simply mean a body of rules for combining and deciphering representational signs” (13). However, he equivocates shortly after this point, commenting in an aside that “what I am calling ‘codes’ here are basically the same thing as Aristotle’s ‘means‘ — that is language, musical forms, paint” (13). Notably, though Mitchell returns several times to the idea of codes as some distinguishing aspect of representation(s), he never explains why he shifts his terminology from means to codes.

I don’t necessarily mean this as a criticism of Mitchell: of course precision in language is important, but I don’t intend this to be an exercise in ritualized skepticism aimed haphazardly at the academic essay. Rather, I’d like to take codes in the direction of the possibilities offered by Derridean wordplay — which is, of course, particularly tempting in conjunction with the other readings this week, which not only engage directly with Derrida (in the case of Stuart Hall) but also with (in some sense) the idea of codes, both in the case of Hall and Fox Harrell. Codes as a term is, of course, richer with symbolic meaning and ambiguity than means — one gets the sense of “a body of rules” but also “the rule of law” (cf. “civil/judicial codes”), “an obfuscation” (in the sense offered by cryptology/encryption) and most importantly (particularly in a course focusing on the digital) there is the sense of code as computer-language (which in itself perhaps suggests a body of rules, the rule of law, and an obfuscation).*

I believe there was a reference in the Negroponte essay, several weeks ago, to the possibility for (computer) code to serve as a form of concrete poetry. Perhaps, like some of the other points in the essay, this suggestion seems rather naive and romanticized in the current technological moment; however, this connection between code, codes, and poetry is thrown into an entirely different (and perhaps more productive) light when considered against today’s readings, particularly Harrell’s case study of his GRIOT system, a computer program that writes poetry (or, perhaps, a computer program that “writes” “poetry,” depending on one’s level of skepticism with regard to its output). I could probably write an entire blog post about the questions of authorship that Harrell’s project raises — and the related issues of the borders between Harrell’s code and the GRIOT system’s poetry.

Why largely ignore the thorny issues of participatory authorship, hinted at in Harrell’s mention of the call-and-response form, as well as the question of whether or not computers can be poets (and, further, whether that question is meaningful in any real sense post-death-of-the-author)? While I certainly hope we can discuss these issues further in class, I want to highlight the fact that Harrell elides dealing with these questions head-on to instead deal with questions of representation — which brings his thoughts full-circle with the Maxwell essay as well as Hall’s piece. For example, Harrell’s concern for the “extreme diversity of contexts and histories” rendering the concept of “an African diasporic tradition of orature…problematic” (3) recalls Hall’s insistence that “difference” is already inscribed within [Caribbean] cultural identities” (238).

To what extent is cultural identity a form of representation, and how does that representation relate to “representation” in the sense taken up by Mitchell and traditional theories of aesthetics? Should Harrell’s GRIOT system be considered as obeying codes of artistic or cultural representation, or both?

One comment

  1. First off, your paragraph on codes is excellent. By all means, yes, let’s activate the variable meanings of words and see what we get.

    I wonder in what ways we could take this further. Language, and the interpretability of Language, are always an interesting question, and I think it is exactly in this digitizing moment, this emphasis on and transition into the possibilities of the digital, where we are best positioned to consider codes and our usages of and accesses to them. Here too I want to point out that an inaccessibility regarding codes can be as important as access, for instance coded language, or speaking in codes. If we think in this way (concerns of access and non-access), then we might consider ways in which “Hall’s insistence that ‘difference’ is already inscribed within [Caribbean] cultural identities’” as considering various codes which interact, overlap, alter and challenge each other. Codes in this way get shown as a conglomeration of differing paratactic encounters which jostle and produce in relation with each other. I’m reminded here of dialects (in what ways might dialects be considered as codes, for instance my recognition of someone from the American South by their usage of y’all). Of course this similarly prompts the question of what happens when various digital codes interact. There is no inherently native language to the internet, only languages with greater or lesser accessibility. Therefore on the internet lies a conglomeration of constructed and created codes, differences among which may be fairly difficult to translate, and lead to particular sorts of impediments (404 sites, images not loading, etc). This seems different to me than spoken codes, which operate within environments which may better lend themselves to plasticity and alterations on the part of face to face users (hand signals, finding common ground,etc.).

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