Aesthetic Animism: Digital Poetry as Ontological Probe

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Aesthetic Animism:

Digital Poetry as Ontological Probe

William David (Jhave) Johnston

A Thesis in

the Humanities

Doctoral Program
Presented in Partial Fulfilment

Of the Requirements

For the Degree of

Doctor of Philosophy

At Concordia University

Montreal, Quebec, Canada

November 2011

© David (Jhave) Johnston. 2011.


This is to certify that the thesis prepared

By: David (Jhave) Johnston

Entitled: Aesthetic Animism: Digital Poetry as Ontological Probe

and submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of
complies with the regulations of the University and meets the accepted standards with

respect to originality and quality.

Signed by the final examining committee:
_______________________________________ Chair

Dr.V Venkatesh

_______________________________________ External Examiner

Prof. John Cayley

_______________________________________ External to Program

Dr. J. Camlot

_______________________________________ Examiner

Prof. J. Lewis

_______________________________________ Examiner

Dr. C. Salter

_______________________________________ Examiner

Dr. Sha Xin Wei

_______________________________________ Supervisor

Dr. O. Dyens

Approved by ___________________________________________________________

Dr. E. Manning, Graduate Program Director

November 11, 2011 _______________________________________

Dr. B. Lewis, Dean, Faculty of Arts and Science

Aesthetic Animism:

Digital Poetry as Ontological Probe

David (Jhave) Johnston

Concordia University, 2011

This thesis is about the poetic edge of language and technology. It inter-relates both computational creation and poetic reception by analysing typographic animation softwares and meditating (speculatively) on a future malleable language that possesses the quality of being (and is implicitly perceived as) alive. As such it is a composite document: a philosophical and practice-based exploration of how computers are transforming literature, an ontological meditation on life and language, and a contribution to software studies. Digital poetry introduces animation, dimensionality and metadata into literary discourse. This necessitates new terminology; an acronym for Textual Audio-Visual Interactivity is proposed: Tavit. Tavits (malleable digital text) are tactile and responsive in ways that emulate living entities. They can possess dimensionality, memory, flocking, kinematics, surface reflectivity, collision detection, and responsiveness to touch, etc…. Life-like tactile tavits involve information that is not only semantic or syntactic, but also audible, imagistic and interactive. Reading mediated language-art requires an expanded set of critical, practical and discourse tools, and an awareness of the historical continuum that anticipates this expansion. The ontological and temporal design implications of tavits are supported with case-studies of two commercial typographic-animation softwares and one custom software (Mr Softie created at OBX Labs, Concordia) used during a research-creation process.


I am indebted to my thesis advisers for their assistance during this process. I am grateful for their guidance, astute experience and extreme candidness. Errors or excesses remain mine.

Inundated in information, in the age of the internet it is certain that many ideas in this thesis were first expressed elsewhere. I have tried wherever possible to cite all sources, but it is probable that the pioneering work done by many thinkers (among them Jay David Bolter, Richard Lanham, Johanna Drucker, Katherine Hayles, Loss Pequeño Glazier, Bill Seaman, Stephanie Strickland, Eduardo Kac, Eric Vos, Christopher Funkhouser, John Cayley, Francisco Ricardo, Charles Hartman and many many others) has seeped into my mind.

In addition, the following people each at some time proved themselves invaluable in offering encouragement: Rita Raley, Jake Moore, Anke Burger, Chris Funkhouser, Amy Hufnagel, Laura Emelianoff, Vasilios Demetrious, Skawennati, Jessica Pressman, Davin Heckman, Jim Andrews, J.R. Carpenter, Daniel Canty, TBone, Stephanie Beliveau, Bruno Nadeau, Patrice Fortier, Erin Manning and Frances Foster. Big thanks to Lazarus for listening to my doubts and offering good sensible counsel. Bina Freiwald for indefatigable grace and encouragement. And a huge thanks to Stephanie Strickland for her fastidious editorial eye which helped me immeasurably.

During my research work I was given the opportunity to exhibit by Oboro, BNL de Montreal 2011, ELO @ Brown 2010, e-Poetry 2011, Fais Ta Valise, Beluga Studios and NT2. Such opportunities to place online work into physical contexts provide valuable perspective.

I need to thank my family, especially Mom, for continual support. And lastly Sophie Jodoin who saw me through this intellectual rite of passage.


my neighbour

Laurie Walker

and my

gentle stepfather

Murray Thorner


How can this document be read? 9

What is Digital Poetry? 9

Preface 10


1.1What is this thesis about 14

1.1.1Precedents 15

1.1.2Strategies 16

1.2What is Software-Studies? 18

1.2.1Practice-Led Software-Studies 18

1.3The Turn toward Living Language 19

1.3.1What I Propose 25

1.3.2Machinic Language is Living Language 27

1.3.3Between Boole and Disney 29

1.3.4Methodological Notes 31


2.1Visual Language 34

2.1.1Pubs, Psychedelia and Illuminated Manuscripts 35

1.1.1Visual Language in Poetry 37

2.2Early History: Malleable/Sculptural Text 38

2.2.1Pre-Historic Malleable Type:Clay 38

2.2.2Cabbalists & Alchemists 39

2.2.3Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema 39

2.3Opacity: an inversion of typographic transparency 41

2.3.1Mary Ellen Solt : sensual concrete 41

2.3.2J. A. Miller’s Dimensional Typography 44

1.2Digital Malleable Precursors 46 Kac: Holo and Bio Poetry 48

1.2.1Poet-Painter Hybrids 50 Ciccariello : A painter-poet 50

2.3.3Programmer Poets 51 Said 52 Cho : from TypoTypo to Takeluma 52 Fry’s Tendril 54 Schmidt: programmer of dimensional typography 56

2.3.4Contemporary Practitioners: Motion Graphics & Mammalian Malleability 59 and Hacktivist Typography: Eyewriter 60 as Tech Ops : attack of the Filler poems 61 Hypothetical Letter-Object: Oggiano Holzer Zeitguised 62

1.3Text/image Conjunctions: On The Path to Embodied Letterforms 64

2.3.5Visual Language: Volumetric and Situated 69

2.4Second Life, the 2nd Life of VMRL 72

2.4.1CAVE: spelunking the virtual 74

2.4.2As Far Away from the Page as Possible 76

2.4.3In Closure: From Watching to Reading to Watching 77


3.1Aesthetic Animism: Introduction of Term 78

3.1.1Evolution Argument 80

3.1.2Prosthetic argument 82

3.1.3Assimilation argument 84

3.1.4Network argument 86

3.2Hybridity: things come together as they fall apart 89

3.2.1Language’s Latent Tongue 90

3.2.2Bouba/Kiki : Shape-Sound Synaesthesia 92

3.3Summary Synopsis of Volumetric Argument 94

3.4Summary of Aesthetic Animism Arguments 95


1.2Timeline Hegemony: a paradigm reconsidered 100

4.1.1Ancient History: When vases were in vogue 101

4.1.2GUI History 101

1.3.1Early Animation Software: Alan Kay, VideoWorks (1985)Amiga (1985) 102

4.1.3Timeline’s Fundamental Parts 106

1.3.2Implicit Principles of Timelines 107

4.1.4My Claims about Timeline 108

4.1.5Homogenous Granularity 110


4.2SOFTWARE CASE-STUDY : Compositing After Effects onto Poetics 113

4.2.1Ancient History: George Meliés and the Heel of Time 114

4.2.2Motion Graphics: IBM’s first Artist-in-residence John Whitney 115

4.2.3After Effects: A Brief History of Hybridity’s Origin 115

1.4.1Kinetic Type, Compositing Suites & The Hybrid Canon 117

4.2.4Is Compositing only Gloss? Bi-Stable Decorum. 120

4.2.5A Tentative Hybrid Theory: Composition 122


4.3.1A Very Brief History of Sculpting Software 126

4.3.2As Usual a Disclaimer 127

4.3.3The Mudbox Interface 129

4.3.4What does Mud have to do with Language 130

4.3.5Shape Semantic Synergy, Motion-Tracking and Music Videos 131

4.3.6What do Ads have to do with Poetry again? 133

4.3.7Re-awakening the Inert 134

4.3.8Working in Mudbox 137

4.3.9The Impoverished Hand Fed by the Empathic Head: Sculpting 5.0 138

4.3.10How does this relate to Timelines? 140

1.4.2Instrumentality 141

4.3.11The Role of 3D in Future Writing 141

4.4SOFTWARE CASE-STUDY : Mr Softie 143

4.4.1Mr Softie History 144

4.4.2Creative Practice in Mr Softie 146

4.4.3StandUnder: a specific case-study of Mr Softie Use 147

4.4.4Parameters and Palpability 149

4.4.5Synthesis of Interaction and Instinct 153


5.1.1A Theory of Multimedia Synergy: in-out-between 157

5.1.2Outside Words, Interior Worlds 158

5.1.3Aesthetic Animism Reconsidered 159

5.1.4Lumps, Logarithms & Kristeva’s Chora 160

1.2.1The Expanded Field 162

5.1.5What May Be 163

APPENDIX: Research Creation & Image-Essay 167

APPENDIX: The Ekphrasis of Interiority 168

Bibliography 170

Directory: conu -> THESIS -> public

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