Media Theory for the 21st Century

January 21, 2008

Week 3 Discussion, Part One: The Dreamlife of Letters

Filed under: Discussion,New media art — kknight08 @ 5:38 pm

My suggestion for week three grows out of some work I have done for The Transliteracies Project. For discussion, I would like us to take a look at Brian Kim Stefans’ “The Dreamlife of Letters.” Created in 2000, the piece is situated within a rich textual genealogy – the flash animation is a critical response to a poem by Rachel Blau DuPlessis, which is itself a response to the Dodi Bellamy essay “Sex/Body/Writing.” Keeping in mind one of my favorite Heidegger quotes, “questioning is the piety of thought (35),” I offer below a series of questions that I hope will spark class discussion.

My interest in the piece is centered on the idea of “intervention.” I’d like us to use Stefans’ piece as a way to complicate Kittler’s assertion, “So there’s one guru or prophet who writes the programs, and everyone else is a consumer who doesn’t intervene in the process in any serious way, especially not at the level of hardware, but just lets it run until it has built up a largely literary science fiction phantasm on top of itself” (qtd. in Johnston 3).

I’d like to contrast this with one of Heidegger’s assertions: “Because the essence of technology is nothing technological, essential reflection upon technology and decisive confrontation with it must happen in a realm that is, on the one hand, akin to the essence of technology, and, on the other, fundamentally different from it. Such a realm is art” (35).

While Stefans and other new media artists may not intervene in the writing of the software, what other types of critical interventions are made by works like “Dreamlife”? Do the benefits of using of software as critical praxis outweigh our alienation from hardware? Is a work like “Dreamlife,” which we situate in the realm of art, better equipped for “a decisive confrontation with technology” than practices like writing assembler code?

Additionally, how do non-participatory works like “Dreamlife” compare to certain Web 2.0 technologies that appear to grant the user a more substantial level of participation? For instance, the website LibraryThing allows users to catalog their personal libraries and connect to other users. However, any input from the user is still situated within the pre-existing framework of the tool. Is “intervention” in this context illusory?

Do either of these paradigms offer the user a chance for substantial intervention? Or do these works further “[damn] humanity to remain human”? (Kittler 157).

I have written Transliteracies Research Reports on both “The Dreamlife of Letters” and “LibraryThing.” If you would like more information on either, follow the links above.

And just for fun, here is a piece I worked on that would have been much more appropriate in the context of last week’s discussion: In the Beginning Was the Word: A Visualization of the Page as Interface. I don’t intend to discuss this at all, but it may be of interest to those thinking about old media in light of new media frameworks.

– Kim


Bellamy, Dodie. “Sex/Body/Writing.”

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Poem responding to Sex/Body/Writing.

Heidegger, Martin. “The Question Concerning Technology.” The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays.

Johnston, John. “Friedrich Kittler: Media Theory after Poststructuralism.” Literature, Media, Information Systems.

Kittler, Friedrich. “Protected Mode.” Literature, Media, Information Systems.

Stefans, Brian Kim. Original response to DuPlessis.

—–. “The Dreamlife of Letters.”


1 Comment »

  1. This is a great choice, in part because it brings up the relationship between “calculation” (which Kittler identifies as the crucial aspect of the computer) and artistic practice. Along those lines, I’d like to call particular attention to the origin story Stefans provides for his ur-text:

    “Attached to this email, however, is a little poem that uses the words of Rachel’s text. I ran some computer processes on it; actually, all I did was alphabetize the words in it and then construct shorter poems from them. However, various faults in the method left a cluster of non-alphabetized words at the top, and words that appear after m-dashes and slashes are not alphabetized. These processes usually display the formless subconsious of certain texts, but it’s hard to imagine a subconscious to Rachel’s text – it’s so ‘exposed’ – so this actually provides a superego for it. Change or add to it what you will.”

    Stefans admits that all he’s done is run a basic concordance program on “Rachel’s text” (to get the data) and then hit return a few times (to transform that data into a series of “shorter poems”). It’s worth noting, then, that the new media aspect of the final text radically alters Stefans’s initial “shorter poems.” With the Flash animation, it becomes both an engaging artwork and a way to visualize the patterns in the data set. The plain text series itself is rather dull.

    The primary exception to this charge of dullness is the revealing phrase “Food for Freud,” which appears prominently in both versions of Stefans’s piece: at the beginning of a line in the plain text version and clearly in the upper-lefthand corner in the Flash version.

    This alphabetic “coincidence,” if that word makes any sense in a Freudian context, highlights Stefans’s broad claim for the usefulness of concordancing as a poststructuralist reading tool. But what do others think of the claim that the process of counting and alphabetizing a text’s lexicon is a useful way of revealing its “formless subconscious”? Lacan and Kittler would certainly protest the adjective here, but the idea itself intrigues me, especially in light of innovations like the statistics provided by Amazon’s Search Inside feature: Statistically Improbable Phrases, partial concordance, syllables per word, etc. What does it mean to read or interpret a text by organizing its constituent parts in this way? Moreover, what do automated concordances mean for a living writer who can now check his or her entire corpus with a few keystrokes? Benjamin describes how the world of “unconscious optics” as introduced by the camera alters our understanding of motions as basic as “the way people walk.” What does it mean to know that today a computer can not only watch but count every linguistic step you take? More importantly, as a living writer what are the effects of having that count displayed back to you?

    Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations, 237.

    Comment by jeremysc — January 22, 2008 @ 8:54 am | Reply

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