The Poetics of Re-use

A discussion space and materials base for the reading/talk, "The Poetics of Re-use," with Brian Howe and Buck Downs, as part of the In Your Ear reading series, curated by Adam Good and Cathy Eisenhower.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Some notes toward a personal theory of Re-Use

One of my favorite aspects of Visio is the ease with which you can simply copy objects and arrange them in various ways; it is so much more responsive to re-use than a word processing program. -- Adam Good

It is on this point, perhaps, that Adam and I diverge. I'm not familiar with the Visio software, but, having worked with Microsoft Word's spellcheck function (as well as various other internal formatting and text-alterating algorithms) for nearly three years now, having produced what must be one hundred completed poems and many more fragments using the process in this span, I have found the word processor's facility for re-use to be bottomless. This cannot be attributed to the software alone, which is governed mechanically and is only as good as its input, or the text alone, which is governed organically and is limited by its author's experience, but by the intersection of the two -- more accurately, the tension -- where they vie for dominance.

I should briefly describe my process. I use various technological media -- online translators, text databases, search engine fodder, thesaurus programs, and, centrally, MS Word's spellchecker -- to create poems. When I began working with this process, I was very interested in its techno-philosophical implications -- I was interested in producing viable poems outside of any human agency, or within a human agency that was, at most, curatorial. As I "wrote" in the manuscript's title sequence: "We see that F7 is roofed by dolorous retinas, while I primly kneel to discord, organic, and reword it." As such, I devised rigorous rules to govern the creation of each source text that I would comb over with the spellchecker, which in this instance became a sort of palette, brimming with colors I could choose from which depended upon what the program thought I might be trying to say with a certain letter combination (this process felt very mystical to me, something like divination, and it still does, although the fact that the program was designed by humans with their own ideology and disseminated by corporate interests complicates matters immensely...).

I used serial operations, chance operations, patterns and various other intrigues to devise the source texts, defined strict parameters by which I would choose the final words, and so on. Examples from this stage of the process can be seen here.

But over time, I became less interested in these implications, or at least, less interested in directly engaging them in the texts. I began then to focus more on corrupting source texts in various ways, re-arranging them according to intuition, and using the spellchecker on these more fluid creations, often times leaving syntax intact to create a more "readable" effect regardless of your knowledge of the workings of the process.

I believe that, aestetically speaking, there is *exactly enough* in the natural world. But the constructed world, aided by the Internet, cheap recording equipment and a widespread and instantaneous communcations-net, contains far too much. In such a circumstance, to conjure something "new" out of thin air (insofar as anyone does this -- "good poets borrow, great poets steal", but I'm talking about a more literal definition of re-use) seems completely unneccessary, what with so much raw signal floating around already, and so many astounding means to manipulate it.

My interest in re-use, poetically, dovetails with my interest in re-use in other media -- hip-hop and electronic music and noise music, collage-based and found-item visual art, metafiction, etc. By no means do I disregard the value of first-order production, but I prefer to manipulate the extant signals. This is where our culture speaks to itself; it is our artistic moment's defining characteristic.

If this approach sounds limiting on paper, I've found it to be just the opposite. My process is essentially hypergolic, and what's more, infinitely so -- any volume of "fuel", in this case, text, can produce an infinite series of new texts, which themselves can be recombined to make more texts, etc.

Re-use is not theft in this regard. Theft implies the loss of a physical quantity -- someone forgets their suitcase in a coffee shop, I take the suitcase, and they no longer have access to it. But text, at least within the ambit of my process, is not a depleteable resource. I take it, I manipulate it, yet the source remains unaltered and undiminished -- it's like I pick up that abandoned suitcase and an identical one instantly manifests in its place.

I'm interested in watching these transactions occur as I usher them into being, seeing what kind of augers they contain, which thematic concerns emerge, and how the new texts relate to the source texts, from which they may be wildy different (even unrecognizable), but from whose brow they undeniably sprung. It's rather like looking for yourself in your father's eyes. After spending so much time with the process, I can't help but perceive Borges' Library of Babel in every scrap of text-- through technology, I cam glimpse its endlessness.

My Foreign Letter series is an attempt to posit an endless chain of texts from a single source, to write enough of them to create a continuity and for that invisible line to be evident as stretching on eternally. The first Foreign Letter, from which all the others derive, was cobbled together from scraps of emails sent to me by an Austrian correspondent; that poem and the first "remix" can be seen here, and another here.


  • At 2:11 PM, Blogger Brian said…

    I meant to say one other thing about using MS Word's spellchecker, or any technology of corporate orgin, to make poems. Since these technologies are quite obviously agents of control, homogeneity, hegemony and normalization, using them to birth glossolaliac ravings, to create convulsive and unruly texts that brim with chaos and danger, is, while not overtly political, an act of personal liberation. I don't mean this "turning the weapon against the wielders" stance to sound heroic -- Dan Hoy made some persuasive arguments against this stance in his Jacket essay on Internet-based poetics, and he's right that it's illusory to think that Microsoft is somehow challenged by a random poet using its tools in subversive ways, and that poets even run the risk of becoming complicit with these institutions by using their tools at all. But for me it is an act of personal conviction -- a reminder to myself that institutions, no matter how much they might try to persuade me otherwise, do not comprise the essential stuff of my experience. In this way, it is useful to me in de-programming institutionalized thought in my own life, if not actively revolutionary.

  • At 4:14 PM, Blogger buckd_dc said…

    >>Re-use is not theft in this regard.

    Is there a regard in which Brian thinks re-use is theft?

    I haven't thought much about the property-crime aspect of writing in a while, I guess since I've been busy working on the worthlessness angle. But I think this might be a question that some folks would enjoy hearing Brian tangle with.

  • At 10:23 PM, Blogger marwal said…

    I have to admit, I keep hoping that one of you is going to be an actual thief. Not that I plan to go your bail.


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