Abstract: Poesis and the Procedural

If it is accepted, here is an abstract for a panel my colleagues, poets Sten Carlson and Robin Clarke, and myself propose to deliver at the 2011 Society for Literature Science and the Arts Conference in Waterloo, Ontario this September.

Poesis and the Procedural

This panel will begin by framing and reading from a collaborative manuscript of poetry, Dear Human Converter Box, a book conceptually situated in the interface between artificial intelligence and poetics. The authors will read from the manuscript and gloss some of its central theoretical and political concerns, which include the procedural and collaborative processes involved in its composition. This portion of the panel will conclude with a multimedia “performance” of one poem via a text-to-voice application. The third panelist will present a general theory of “poetic assemblage” and engage specifically with Dear Human Converter Box as an instance of such assemblage.

Dear Human Converter Box: Poetry in the Age of Intelligent Machines
    —Sten Carlson and Robin Clarke, University of Pittsburgh

Panelists will read from and discuss their line-for-line collaboration, Dear Human Converter Box, abook-length sequence of poems that investigates the possibilities of a machinic intelligence brought to bear on the making of poetry. Taking two texts—Giambattista Vico’s The New Science and Manuel DeLanda’s War in the Age of Intelligent Machines—as its conceptual frame of reference, the book stages the transfer of cognitive structures from humans to machines in the late twentieth century, bringing an experimental, oppositional poetics to bear on those very cognitive structures. Once artificial intelligence has been achieved, DeLanda argues, “we might imagine specialized ‘robot historians’ committed to tracing the various technological lineages that gave rise to their species.” One of the wagers of this project is that, whereas the robot historian would largely assemble genealogies to describe, illustrate, and account for the history of AI (a history, DeLanda points out, that would look very different than one written by a human historian), the robot poet would involve itself in processes of aesthetic experimentation and discovery that would interrupt, complicate and transform the fundamental forms of such an intelligence. Considering, for example, that artificial intelligence has developed largely along procedural lines in the service of the military-industrial complex, what are the implications on that intelligence of a felt and imagined machinic poesis capable of (in Vico’s terms) “perturbing to excess” its own rational, barbarous properties and processes? Put differently, how is the poem—as a site of imagination, critique, pleasure, irrelevancy, excess—a technology capable of refusing strictly rational “intelligence” as such? As a line-for-line collaboration between two poets, Dear Human Converter Box takes up these problems not only at the thematic and formal levels, but at the level of the composition process itself. Certain objective formal constraints put into place in the book, as well as freestanding language systems like ready-made word “palettes” and appropriated source materials create systems of information, knowledge, and music continually assembling themselves in ways the authors hadn’t anticipated. On the one hand, the formal techniques and collaborative processes in this project enact the very processes of assemblage and emergence that the book is about. On the other, collaboration and assemblage challenge the suppositions of much lyric poetry that posits the poem as an isolated, autonomous, and rarified aesthetic object and the author as a discreet, ahistorical and unmediated identity. As both enactment and opposition, then, the poetry in this book emerges—via mutual aid, inspiration, contradiction, multiplication—as what our co-panelist Bradley Fest calls a “poetics of assemblage.”

The Robot Poet: Toward an Assemblage Theory of Poetry / a Poetics of Assemblage
—Bradley J. Fest, University of Pittsburgh

One of the major impasses that any coherent theoretical or critical approach to poetry has historically faced was accounting for the relationship between part and whole in the poetic text. Whether it was the New Critical emphasis on looking at the whole of the poem-itself, deconstruction’s focus on parts that broke the form of the whole, theories of influence where the whole was the entire canon of Western literature, or the many other critical approaches that have flourished in the wake of theory, entire schools of literary criticism have often been defined by their approach to this problem. Drawing upon the work of Manuel DeLanda and his mobilization and codification of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s theory of assemblage, this paper will attempt to point toward an assemblage theory of poetry. What assemblage theory offers, I will argue, is a mode of looking at poetry that can simultaneously account for the absolute heterogeneity of the various parts that make up a poem, while able to retain a complex view of the assembled whole, a view that understands any assemblage to also be a part of other poetic assemblages. To demonstrate how such a critical approach might be undertaken I will engage with the work of my colleagues on this panel, Sten Carlson and Robin Clarke, and further suggest that their ongoing collaborative project Dear Human Converter Box points toward a poetics of assemblage, a poetry that fundamentally understands itself as an emergent property of the process of imaginative assemblage.


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