The professor and critic turns to technology explosions past—think typewriters, gramophones, and radios—to map the modern intersections of information and art.
Photo courtesy Katherine Finkelstein
Addressing his graduate students at Columbia University, Dr. Paul Stephens asked them to comb through the poems of Gertrude Stein to find the line that would make the worst “L train tattoo.” After a few laughs and some back and forth, “please butter all the beef-steak with regular feel faces” won out.
Stephens opens his course on modernist American poetry and poetics with a quote from poet and critic David Antin, “From the modernism you choose, you get the postmodernism you deserve.” The line serves as an overarching theme for his lectures, but could just as easily be the epigraph for his forthcoming book, The Poetics of Information Overload: From Gertrude Stein to Conceptual Writing. In it, Stephens looks to Stein and the avant-garde tradition of modernist literature to better grapple with the contemporary world of computers and smartphones, and the psychological phenomenon of having endless information at our fingertips. He examines the way informatics—how we process information—was an aesthetic concern of modernist artists at the turn of the twentieth century, who also experienced disruptive technological innovations. So indeed, recalling the right modernists might just open up space to better understand how to juggle the information bombardment of the post-modern world.
And Stephens knows something about juggling. A professor, author, and founding editor of the critical journal Convolution, he found a moment to talk early on a Friday evening at a deli around the corner from his office, before leaving to introduce a poet at the reading series he organizes. (The “introduction” consisted of reading aloud every Facebook status she had posted in the last six months.) Expounding on about the artists who inspired his research, our “literature of distraction,” and outsourcing memory to global technology, Stephens presented a take on everyday hurtles and the artwork they produce.
–David Foote for Guernica
Guernica: You recently finished a book manuscript called The Poetics of Information Overload. What can we expect from this?
Paul Stephens: The main argument of The Poetics of Information Overload is that avant-garde poetic form throughout the twentieth century has been informed by changing media technologies. For writers such as Gertrude Stein to young writers currently active in New York City, poetry has been interested in how technology affects how we are able to pay attention and access information. We can’t write poetry the way we could before the advent of the typewriter, the gramophone, the radio, the television, the computer, and now even the smartphone.
Guernica: Information overload is a hot topic; we all struggle with being bombarded. You look backwards to Gertrude Stein, Stéphane Mallarmé, Walter Benjamin, T. S. Eliot—at the way the modernists who were also on the cusp of a technology explosion dealt with information and how it was conveyed via new channels. Some, like Stein, embraced this bombardment; others, like Pound and Eliot, did not. How can we return to Stein and relate that to having an iPhone?
Paul Stephens: A major impetus for the book was my research on Bob Brown, who described a pocket reading machine in 1930. A friend and disciple of Stein, Brown was thinking about the new technologies of microfilm and sound film, and the possibility that it would soon be possible to transmit poem texts instantaneously by means of radio. He put together an anthology that asked poets to write what he called “readies,” parallel to the “talkies,” which had just revolutionized film. The anthology included writers like Stein, Pound, William Carlos Williams, and the Italian futurist F.T. Marinetti, and probed how poetry would change if it were sped up. He was never able to construct the device, but did publish the anthology.
Amazingly enough, it was prophetic of some of the developments we’ve seen with smartphones. For instance, they got rid of punctuation and compressed words—a lot of the poems looked like textese, a sub-language we’re now increasingly familiar with. Bob Brown claimed to get the idea from reading Stein’s Tender Buttons on Wall Street in 1914 and looking at a stock ticker at the same time, which is just mind-blowing to me. The stock ticker was an extraordinary invention—essentially a horizontal scroll that conveyed instantaneous price data over long distances in real time, not unlike Stein’s notion of a “continuous present.” The fractured, cubist syntax of Stein seemed like language in motion to Brown. He thought her modernist experiments were a parallel development to reading facilitated by machines, and he predicted that our pace of reading would accelerate.
I have an ambivalent relationship to the term “overload.” I think it’s often used carelessly.
Guernica: Now that we’re all pocket poets of sorts, now that there’s a new language put into motion, how does this change poetry going forward? Will my kids write poems with hashtags and “LOL”s?
Paul Stephens: That’s already happening with the poetry written by twentysomething New York poets such as Trisha Low, Sofia Le Fraga, and Andrew Durbin. We think of poetry as a contemplative genre where we go into nature or experience our true selves, our true voices. There are quite a few advocates for poetry as an antidote to information overload, or advocates for what is sometimes called “slow poetry,” or poetry as a way to remove ourselves from this world of textual and informational bombardment. But there’s another strand of contemporary and modernist writing, which to me is more interesting, that explores the limits of our ability to comprehend and process information. It presents us with texts that can’t simply be assimilated to close reading, take-away meaning, or a sense of authentic authorial voice. Traditional versions of lyric poetry may be increasingly quaint in a world where our identities are constantly in flux or formed through Facebook and v-chat, or any number of technological mediations in our everyday experience of language.
Guernica: If all this text and information is going to be a significant cornerstone of our identities, we shouldn’t think of it as an overbearing overload per se, but embrace what information we can process?
Paul Stephens: I have an ambivalent relationship to the term “overload.” I think it’s often used carelessly. There’s an enormous scholarship on the topic. Some scholars locate the emergence of information overload in the Renaissance, with the emergence of print culture in Gutenberg. Others locate it in Medieval scriptoria, where monks would run out of space to annotate books because there’s limited space on a page—at a certain point when sharing books you become unable to process all of the glosses. There’s another compelling argument, made by Alex Wright in his book Glut, that the library of Alexandria, which had several hundred thousand volumes, already superseded the bounds of the human capacity to possibly comprehend such vast knowledge.
There are also information overload self-help books, which I find pretty useless. Are you really going to go on an information diet? I don’t know many people who have sworn off their smartphones. Once you adopt such a powerful technology, it’s hard to go backward. I’m interested in media archeology, but I don’t have much patience for people who fetishize typewriters. When we get these extraordinarily powerful new technologies, it’s hard not to have them influence our lives. Information overload suggests an exclusively negative relation between humans and information technologies—that we can’t create the filters we need to find the information most meaningful to us.
On the other hand, there’s a kind of info-utopianism you get from people in the technology industry, who see technology as a panacea for information scarcity, or information asymmetry. Just because you have a laptop and internet access in sub-Saharan Africa doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to modernize a country overnight. There are very complex economic and social relations that govern access to information. We can find the exact price for any given stock or something online, but that doesn’t mean our lives are going to be enriched through that knowledge.
I do think the benefits of information technologies vastly outweigh the drawbacks, but we should be conscious of those drawbacks. As a literary historian, I’m more interested in questions of aesthetics and in how practices of reading and writing change over time.
People often think of this literature of distraction as originating with Gertrude Stein. Is it possible to read every word of her 925-page Making of Americans? Sure it’s possible, but what does it mean to cognize every word in the way you would a Shakespeare sonnet?
Guernica: Some of those drawbacks include not giving our full attention to the people and things directly around us. Stein and some of the avant-garde tradition embrace this type of multi-tasking as a place of artistic contemplation rather than letting it all be a big distraction.
Paul Stephens: There’s a rich literature of distraction, although that framing might be a bit reductive. One of the great exemplars of this is Tan Lin, who has worked in multiple media formats to rethink the poetry book as a genre. He does what he calls ambient writing, where he times it precisely, and his goal is to create states of distraction in his readers. He works to get you into a contemplative state, sometimes even comparing it to meditation. In a sense, he uses information bombardment paradoxically to get us back to a contemplative state.
People often think of this literature of distraction as originating with Gertrude Stein. Is it possible to read every word of her 925-page Making of Americans? Sure it’s possible, but what does it mean to cognize every word in the way you would a Shakespeare sonnet? This literature of distraction has to be in dialogue with new technologies, with the possibility that we can have experiences of literature which overwhelm us into states we’re familiar with in modern life: feeling fatigued, inattentive, or not being able to process all of the data we have in our lives.
Guernica: So we read differently now, like Stein suggests? We “read at” something rather than read it in depth?
Paul Stephens: Stein was involved with early psychological research on attention spans at Harvard–she and her professors were interested in how the accelerated pace of modern life would affect people’s ability to pay attention. A lot of management science in the twentieth century was designed to make people more efficient by making them less distracted. Writers like Stein and Bob Brown, and now writers such as Tan Lin and Kenny Goldsmith, seek to confront us with massive blocks of information that take on dimensions that thwart what we traditionally expect from poetry as a formal expression of carefully crafted sound and meaning.
There’s quite a range to these projects of distraction. Goldsmith has a book called Soliloquy, where he recorded every word he spoke for an entire week, but didn’t transcribe the speech of the people he was talking to. Much of what is now called conceptual writing is very interested in creating formal constraints. It’s not necessarily a more careless literature—you could also think of a project like Soliloquy being a parody of confessional poetry. You want to confess things? Listen to what I say for an entire week. Listen to what I say to my lover, what I say to my boss. Some of what’s in the eight hundred pages of Soliloquy is quite risqué.
Guernica: There is something heroic about that. It breaks down the quarantine of poetry in reality, bringing poetry into the space of the mundane and banal of everyday life rather than the escapism of thought, the contemplative sonnet off in a meadow somewhere.
Paul Stephens: Absolutely. Another famous example of this is Raymond Queneau’s One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, where he created a combinatorial framework of fourteen lines of fourteen sonnets that could be remixed at will, so you get fourteen x fourteen x fourteen. Queneau was a brilliant mathematician, poet and novelist, and a founder of the Oulipo movement, which aspired to apply scientific and mathematical models to the writing of poetry. His Exercises in Style, for instance, consists of one hundred variations on a completely insignificant incident on a Parisian bus.
Guernica: There could be a looser treatment of language that could be a more accurate treatment in many ways. Could this blending of meaning and information continue until personal identity collapses into it as well? Didn’t Brown say “Books and I are one”?
Paul Stephens: Brown wrote a fascinating appendix to The Readies anthology, which has never been reprinted. He fashioned himself as a victim of information overload. He was a collector of rare books, his father was a book dealer, and he was a self-confessed graphomaniac. He saw an ever-increasing acceleration of reading, and parodied himself as being like a book or a book machine. It’s a fascinating parody that exposes the ambivalence that lovers of literature and books can feel in the face of the reality that no one can ever read all the books they want to in a lifetime. Brown maps that onto modernism and onto what he thinks will potentially happen with literary form.
There is a line of argument in contemporary media theory that we are outsourcing our memories to global technology, to Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook. The media theorist Bernard Stiegler claims there is a kind of global ADD problem, that we’re being infantilized by our dependence on technology.
Guernica: What would Bob Brown do with an iPhone?
Paul Stephens: [Laughter] I think he would love iPhones. He would have loved his iPhone and his iPad and would be eagerly awaiting the latest new gadgets. For people interested in text, sound, and the experience of language and writing, those are wondrous devices. Maybe we do lose something; we don’t remember things in the same way. I’m quite careless when I get on the subway and don’t know where I’m going. I assume I’ll figure it out with the phone. These devices save us time, but they also change the parameters of what we are exposed to. In some ways, they bring us closer to other people, but perhaps it’s a false closeness.
Guernica: Is the main threat of information overload that we communicate less with each other, or that the relationship is not as deep?
Paul Stephens: There is a line of argument in contemporary media theory that we are outsourcing our memories to global technology, to Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook. The media theorist Bernard Stiegler claims there is a kind of global ADD problem, that we’re being infantilized by our dependence on technology. What does it mean to instantaneously remember something? Poetry is an ideal example of this because traditionally it’s mnemonic; rhyme and rhythm makes it stick in our heads. Popular music too is characterized by rhyme and repetition so that we can’t get out of our heads. There’s something about having millions of songs at your disposal that makes the individual songs not mean as much. My ritual in high school was to go the record store every week and spend whatever I could on one or two albums. I confess that I like LPs, and the sense that you have to take some care to collect and maintain them. It brings you closer to the experience of what it was like to listen to the Sparks album Angst in My Pants in 1982.
Guernica: You edit a print journal, Convolution. Does editing a print journal have something to do with a preference for physical media?
Paul Stephens: Not necessarily. I do think the codex book or journal is still an extremely versatile and powerful technology, but I also do the majority of my reading on a laptop or iPad. Most academic journal articles now take the form of PDFs, but there is also a renaissance of innovative print journals coming out, reinventing print for a new era. With a journal like Convolution, we’re interested in the interrelationship between form and content, and how the print journal might take on a new life now that to a large extent it’s freed being from a utilitarian object. I don’t think the print journal is in any way a nostalgic form.The flip side of information overload is that we live in an age of extraordinary information abundance. A large part of the fascination of being a scholar for me is sifting through enormous masses of textuality, and trying to find out what’s worth paying attention to. I’m an infomaniac—what more can I say?
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