Death of the Text (maybe through resignification, but definitely not through Bush’s perception of terrorism)

This is where things get interesting.  In that this is where things get messy.  I mean, this is where I start drowning, because, to misquote EmmyLou Harris, signification is deep water, baby, and I’m in way over my head.  I’m going to discuss two things: the introduction to Walter Benn Michaels’ The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History and Jörg Piringer’s visual poem/video Nature.  Through some impressive rhetorical maneuvering (reminding me faintly of a BMX race – dirty, risky, athletic and, at times, exceedingly graceful), Michaels demonstrates that to value the materiality of the poem over the text is the same thing as valuing the subjective reader’s interpretation over any inherent meaning (he also proposes that “if you hold, say, Judith Butler’s views on resignfication, you will also be required to hold, say, George W. Bush’s views on terrorism” (13), though he hasn’t quite convinced me of that).  To inexpertly sum up Michaels’ main points (or to insert my subjective interpretation of them), valuing the materiality of a text over the textuality of the text is to privilege interpretation (i.e. a reader’s experience of the text) over the actual meaning of the words (i.e. they syntax, the grammar, words arranged in a specific order to make meaning).  By privileging the reader’s experience (i.e. subjectivity (i.e. an individual’s experience, knowledge, knowledge systems and beliefs (i.e. cultural baggage))) over the inherent meaning (i.e. author’s intent) of the text, a critic is confusing disagreement (implying error at least on one side) with difference, inequality with multiculturalism.  It is, Michaels asserts, “the Left’s way of learning to live with inequality” (17).

Here’s the thing.  I think that I disagree (not differ) with Michaels on some basic points even without taking digital poetry into consideration, such as his damning of subjectivity.   Readers make meaning.  They just do.  Even if you presented a simple, brief text to a roomful of readers (let’s imagine a roomful of English graduate students) and told them that the passage they are reading has inherent meaning that the author intended and it is not their role to “interpret” the text but to only summarize the inherent meaning, you would still get a roomful of people debating what the inherent meaning is.  Interpretation is simply a part of reading.  Interpretation is a part of interacting in the world:  “What did he mean by that?” “Did you see that look she gave me?” “I don’t think that chair is safe to sit on.”  However, the first part of his thesis does make sense.  Valuing materiality is tantamount to valuing subjectivity, but (BUT) in the realm of digital poetry, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Take, for example, Jörg Piringer’s visual poem/video Nature.  The video plays on a gray backdrop where the letters in the word “Nature” are seemingly randomly scattered about the screen in different font sizes.  Thrown in with the letters are symbolic characters (i.e. =]+_).  The video starts with a black screen and the first six lines of Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud.”  Suddenly, the recorded voice of an elderly lady speaking accented English slowly reads the poem.  Her voice is slightly mechanized (reminding me of the man who owned the corner candy story down the street from my grandmother’s house in downtown Albany.  He had a tracheotomy and spoke by pressing a wand up to his neck.  He was always a bit impatient and I often ended up with Swedish fish instead of the wax coke bottles, but I didn’t mind so much.  And see, already the reader’s experience, the reader’s cultural baggage is making its way into the experience of the poem).  Once the voice finishes reading the poem, the screen turns to a “nature” shot – an insect’s perspective of a field of grass, behind a hazy hill can be seen.  Some detritus is in the grass – some dead leaves maybe.  This image never leaves the video, and for the next three or four minutes, a soundtrack, consisting of electronic beeps and whirrs along with insect and frog noises, plays.  Then the screen fades to black.  (And even in this description I’m being interpretive – the “insect’s perspective”, the “slightly mechanized” voice, the “hazy” hill).

The text here is limited to the title of the piece, “Nature,” the title of the website, the first stanza of Wordsworth, the scrambled letters of the word nature, the navigational bar, and two links at the top of the page that I will discuss in a bit. Rhe navigation bar on the left side, while textual, is also more than textual.  It is a control panel for the reader, our way in and out of the poem and into and out of other poems.  It posits as foundational the reader’s ability to interact with the work, to modify her experience with it in diverse ways.   Our experience with the main text is mediated by another voice, an extra layer of materiality that begs us to make associations that the text alone (Wordsworth alone?) would not ask us to make.

Other material aspects of the poem – the visual (not only the screen, but also the little bar that moves across the bottom indicating a passage of limited time) and the sounds are foregrounded in the piece.  The photo and the sound are intermedial – they affect each other, they interact – and it could be argued that Piringer intends the interaction to mean something specific, that the meaning is inherent, and that our role as readers is to receive that meaning, not bring our own associations and interpret it.  But the work also includes two links at the top right corner of the page: “change view” and “mangle content”.  Without even clicking on the links to see what they will do, they already highlight the existence of  (the necessity of) subjectivity.  By offering “change view,” Piringer proposes that the poem (its meaning) will change with a changed perspective.  A similar argument can be made for “mangle content.”  By changing the content, the poem asks the reader to adjust her understanding of the poem in its previous incarnation.   Additionally, each time you refresh the page, the background composition of the letters and symbols change, further destablizing the idea of inherent meaning in the poem.  If the poem changes each time the reader experiences it, it is asking the reader to “see” the poem in a new way, to re-orient herself, to rearrange what she already knows (her previous knowledge of the poem which becomes part of her culture).    The poem depends on the reader’s faculties to process the changes, to make meaning out of the changes.  It requires the reader’s participation.

This I think, is what Michaels’ would argue vehemently against – the need for a reader’s participation, the idea that a text needs a reader.  He would argue, I think, that a text needs its author to be meaningful, not the reader, and definitely not the reader’s contexts.


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