by Jim Andrews
In the summer of 2009, the Vancouver poet, performance, media artist and scholar Kedrick James visited at my house for three days. Basically, we talked, carried on and showed each other what each has been up to. We share a connection as poets and media artists. Then Kedrick’s partner, Olga Glukovska, came for a short visit, collected Kedrick, and the two of them went off to portage a series of lakes on Vancouver Island. They’d return in five days. In the meantime, Kedrick had left me with his laptop and, on it, lots of images of Kedrick and a few of Olga, who makes terrific books, is a student of visual art, and is also a model. In the five days, I made this series and also the series on Olga.
Writing Post-Person: Poetics, Literacy and Sustainability in the Age of Disposable Discourse is Kedrick James’s 2009 doctoral dissertation. It’s a terrific look at the history of automated spam and how spoets (spam poets) are situated in that environment. He also develops very useful perspectives on informational garbage and recycling toward a poetics of sustainability and informational environmentalism. How do writers and and how does writing move forward in the age of automated, disposable discourse when writing is devalued by automated excess, and the proliferation of other, competing media? Kedrick James’s thesis is hopeful, actually, in what many perceive to be a dark time for literary writing and education, and that hope is partly in what he sees arising from active engagement by writers in these issues.
I’ve taken four samples of writing from his thesis, together with photos of Kedrick and some of his graphical collages, and collage them in dbCinema in appreciation of what he’s doing. I’ve also created a stir fry text from those samples of his thesis. You can read the quotations themselves by clicking on the rectangle in the stir fry or mix them together by mousing over the text.
I think his thesis is significant to contemporary writing and encourage you to visit his website kedrickjames.net and his band’s site disciplineofchaos.com—he’s in a collaging/sampling band. The thesis is not available online but if you want to read it, contact him. There is also an essay by Kedrick on vispo.com called POET PIRATE NETBOT.
Here is Kedrick’s text that appears in the dbCinema slidvid.
WRITING POST-PERSON: LITERACY, POETICS, AND SUSTAINABILITY IN THE AGE OF DISPOSABLE DISCOURSE
This monograph addresses the mail, in particular the rise of mass electronic mail, and its illicit form commonly known as spam email. When I began studying spam, I was asking questions about information environments and, taking a poetic approach, I wondered if there were methods by which we could recycle waste in information environments. I hoped to satisfy two agendas: one, to provide a strategic focus for qualitative research into the prevailing conditions in a communicative medium on which many people the world over have come to depend; and two, to understand how language under its new high speed, high volume digital conditions informs how we live and learn as writers. Much is to be gained in the study of contemporary language and literacy by concerning ourselves with the texture of the current information environment, and with how language, literacy and literature are caught up within the web of high-tech—even robotic—discourse.
My approach to the subject of spam reflects the personal background I bring to this work as a Canadian scholar, researcher, poet and educator. The history of correspondence and postal networks provides many opportunities to think through contemporary social practices. The problems and advantages of electronic mail affect millions of people worldwide, and help shape new cultural habits, social networks and patterns of language use. Acknowledging the Western (specifically, European and North American) biases of the research, this work is restricted to English-language mail. I neither account for the linguistic and cultural complexity in North America nor for the history of postal services that have existed from antiquity in parts of the world other than Europe or North America.
I chose to limit myself in this fashion for two reasons: first, a comprehensive history and examination of trends globally is beyond the scope of a single thesis; second, I do not have the linguistic or cultural background to do justice to a study of electronic mail in languages other than English. That said, the developments in systems of public correspondence described herein led to the creation of a digital network environment and infrastructure in which spammers thrive, and from which I was able to gather a corpus of data for qualitative analysis.
Spam email typifies textual excess. The exuberance of spammers is something few people would defend. Like other forms of excess and waste, spam threatens the stability and utility of the environments it pollutes. However, I write to examine spam, not to condemn it: thus, the poet and educator in me instigates a further bias with respect to the literary perception and study of texts and information systems. My approach to spam is idiosyncratic. Most research and journalism about spam is situated within discourses of war and crime: Google’s search engine finds over half a million online articles and blogs using the term “spam wars.” I have chosen to use a literary lens instead—to observe the developments that have led to the current situation of spam from a viewpoint of language and literacy; in particular, writing and poetry.
And so I invite fellow researchers, scholars, educators and writers to view the developments that gave rise to spam from a personal-linguistic rather than techno-militaristic perspective. In education we are compelled to understand today what the student will contend with tomorrow and, in the course of teaching, to inspire notions realized well into the future. It is this future that the concept of writing post-person attempts to address, analyzing the conditions of literate correspondence, both by framing a historical 3 perspective on writing as public discourse and by looking toward a new construct of the author in the digital age.
Although spam is a genre that is native to the digital realm, the problem it presents is not. That problem has accompanied the development of public mail since the mid-nineteenth century postal reforms. Thus, writing post-person extends the pun in two theoretical directions: Writing in the post-personal age, an age of mass production, commercialization and automated dissemination of information, and writing as a person of the post, a poster of messages, a source of data, the object rather than the subject of networks. My use of this term implies no nostalgia for a pre-digital era of correspondence, nor does it suggest any deprecation of the role of new technologies in modern life. The post-person reflects merely one stage in the long journey we might call the authorship of the self. I have attempted to introduce poetic possibilities for an appreciation of contemporary writing practices, to revisit the past to understand how to embrace and educate for the future…
The Art of Recycling in an Age of Automated Correspondence
Investigating the information environment is something I approach as a teacher and teacher educator, because I cannot do my work without a sense of the environment from which, and into which, my students come and go; it is something, moreover, that we can do together.
But the recycling of information is something that requires an additional personal perspective, drawing on the work of learning as a poet. Poetry is important to cultural recycling for several reasons: it is one of the oldest means of discursive recycling; poetry focuses on language qua language. In other words, poetry reflects the conditions of the system of meaning-making as its primary referent; it compacts expression and compresses meaning. It hones aesthetic proclivities of linguistic selection and self-discovery, gleaning linguistic treasures along the way.
But the effects of this process are not merely quaint, restoring a pastoral field of pristine reflection on hallowed texts. Cultural recycling, Moser (2007, p. 8) argues, is not obliged to adopt a notion of an eternal return as the repetition of cycles:
“Quite the contrary, ‘recycling’, especially in the cultural sphere, always concerns the idea of transformation and metamorphosis. It never brings a system, or a material, back to the same position, or to its former identity.”
Nor is recycling merely generative of newness; rather, it combines the process of erasure and reduction with reemergence, interpolating “a negative and a positive moment” (p. 9). This moment, by definition ecstatic, is the central thematic of Bohrer’s (1994, p. 51) conceptualization of suddenness as central to the Modern aesthetic and “the ecstasy of the moment which is so striking in modern poetry.” Quoting Junger’s “Sicilian letter to the man in the moon,” Bohrer states that these are “‘moments of an indeterminate expectation in which one listens to the ‘voice of the unknown.’” Here, at the moment in which the text becomes a stranger-to-itself, the recycling processes begin. The recycling moment is “a conceptual common denominator” to “processes and procedures that already have their own historical and discursive existence, such as parody, pastiche, collage, montage, epigonism, re-writing, remaking, sampling, reconversion, mixing, etc.” (Moser, 2007, p. 9).
These traditions of cultural recycling take on a broader literary-historical significance in Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1981) “chronotope” theory of folklore and its rise into novelist discourse, traceable from the Greeks on, as the force of social practice upon the production of cultural forms and the point of the accession of waste and excess to culture, recycled through language. He explores this sociocultural transformation of the world in Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, in which all the refuse of the body, of language and the social order, is flushed to the surface of narrative and, in the process of destroying the traditional matrices of objects, phenomena, ideas and words, Rabelais puts together new and more authentic matrices and links that correspond to ‘nature,’ and that link up all aspects of the world by means of the most marvelous grotesque and fantastic images and combinations of images. In this complex and contradictory (productively contradictory) flow of images, Rabelais brings about a restoration of the most ancient-object associations; this flow enters one of the most fundamental channels of literary thematics (Bakhtin, 1981, p. 205). The channel of literary thematics he addresses is the generative principle of discourse, the transition of waste into novelty and excess in effect.
He presents us with the complexity 26 of the obvious: that the (stratified) world de-composes, and degrades, but in principle it is never disposable. The author-as-cultural-recycler calls forth the wreckage of history and makes it correspond with the present: the object, phenomena, idea, or word regains answerability. Through these links, correspondences and processes, a culture’s life-force becomes invigorated.