Aesthetic Animism: Digital Poetry as Ontological Probe

Summary Synopsis of Volumetric Argument

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3.3Summary Synopsis of Volumetric Argument

The following points reiterate the preceding argument

  • The human body is composed of cavities that operate as sonic resonators (mouth, tongue, palate, larynx, etc…)

  • These resonators take specific shapes when speech occurs

  • Over millennia, shape-sound associations have developed that link morphemes (morsels of sound) with structural forms. This is known as the Bouba/Kiki effect. It is cross-cultural.

  • More specific and fine-grained shape-sound associations probably exist. These embodied shapes associated with sounds and speech are latent sculptures. Specifically, these shapes are the latent shape of letters, or the appropriate geometry of clusters of letters.

  • Prior to digital media, no inscription tools existed capable of depicting these sculptural archetypes (of the resonating body cavities) as letterforms0

  • Future digital letterforms may adopt characteristics of these internal innate shapes

  • As these innate shape letterforms emerge, writing with them will become an intuitive art. Cadenced and nuanced use of formal weight and texture may be idiosyncratic and suggestive of character. For instance, the speech of one character might express its subjectivity (or conceal it) through surface tensions. Another voice might be characterized by its refractory index.

  • In short, as text-audio-visual (tavs) emerge, proprioceptive and interior aspects of our physiognomy may find means of expression through the descendants of technology such as VMRL and CAVEs in augmented reality on mobile phones and avatart (avatar-based art).

3.4Summary of Aesthetic Animism Arguments

The following points reiterate the main points of the preceding animism arguments (before turning in next section to pragmatic software-studies):

  • Aesthetic animism is a subjective attribution of life or livingness based on a perception of credible autonomous motion or systemic beauty0.

  • Poetry (as I define it) is both an aesthetic and an ontological act; it challenges our conception of what is living.

  • Digital media introduces a very dynamic change into poetry, aesthetics and ontologies by offering letterforms the opportunity to appear to be alive.

  • Enhanced by digital media, this appearance of living language heals the split that separated the written from the spoken: words are re-natured, given visual voice.

  • As an extension or prosthetic of our bodies and minds, language -- once it assumes a body (of skinned kinematic reflective 3D) and a mind (of networked metadata memory and protocols) -- seeps across an ontological boundary.

  • Physically appropriate and obedient of basic laws like conservation of momentum, gravity, collision detection, receiving light, casting shadows, and occupying space, digital letterforms appear as tangible real-world objects.

  • The introduction of meta-data structures into volumetric digital text introduces memory and metabolism into language.

  • This transition is not some hallucinatory revelation that transfigures society; it is a subtle gradual osmotic shift in our subconscious apprehension of language.

  • The ubiquity of power-law network dynamics suggests from a different perspective that this metamorphosis of language is at another level a coming into focus of what was already there.

  • The partial dissipation of ontologically-sealed categories evidences a poetic continuity: digital systems, living organisms, and language conjoined.


“Critical Code Studies is the application of hermeneutics to the interpretation of the extra-functional significance of computer source code. It is a study that follows the developments of Software Studiesdescription: external link and Platform Studiesdescription: external link into the layer of the code. In their oft-taught textStructure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, Herald Abelson, Gerald Jay Sussman, and Julie Sussman declare, "Underlying our approach to this subject is our conviction that 'computer science' is not a science and that its significance has little to do with computers. The computer revolution is a revolution in the way we think and in the way we express what we think" (xvi).”

Mark C. Marino. Critical Code Studies and the electronic book review: An Introduction. 09-15-10 0

Software studies lies at the nexus of code and culture, in an epistemological estuary that although mapped and known to exist, is still relatively untracked0. For practice-led researchers (i.e. artist-academics), software studies offer a chance to reflect on the interdependency of creativity and design in practice. In this thesis, software studies also connect the ontological proposal (of aesthetic animism) to empirical practice as a digital poet. Critical discourse around software is shifting rapidly. The quotation from Mark C. Marino that opens this chapter points out several ways these shifts are occurring: first software studies has been joined by platform studies and now critical code studies0. Each serves as valuable tool in an increasingly technological world. Future domains will include network studies, implant studies, and avatar studies in the humanities.

What follows is a very hands-on focus on the creation of several specific works, preceded by a meditation on temporality and the role of the ‘timeline’ (see Fig). I examine the timeline as a temporal construct, delineate what I know of its history, review Johanna Drucker’s SpecLab study of temporal concepts, and meditate (briefly) on the benefits and risks of timeline systems that quantify repetition versus systems of (what I call) instrumental softwares which provoke improvisational process.

The turn toward living language entails authoring environments appropriate to the task, and it is my feeling that the timeline paradigm is sub-optimal in certain respects when it comes to the modelling and manipulation of (tav) digital texts. Time-based media, and time-based lifeforms, are not amenable to nuanced descriptions within linear quantifiable spreadsheets. And spreadsheets (as explained below) are historically the organizational paradigm that underlies the contemporary timeline. Literature is precisely the opposite: ambiguous, parallel and quality rich. Experiential time curves. As far as I know apart from the work of Drucker, the impact of linear-timeline authoring environment design on experiential depiction remains un-researched in digital humanities.

Interface design is the face of software; and software constitutes the distributed aspect of the intelligence that will make letterforms seem alive. As Lev Manovich insightfully notes, several key figures at the origin of interface design left clues that they perceived software as quasi-entity. Ivan Sutherland, who in 1963 laid the seeds for motion graphics, entitled his PhD thesis Sketchpad: A man-machine graphical communication system. Manovich comments: “Rather than conceiving of Sketchpad as simply another media, Sutherland presents it as something else - a communication system between two entities: a human and an intelligent machine. Kay and Goldberg will later also foreground this communication dimension referring to it as ‘a two-way conversation’ and calling the new ‘metamedium’ ‘active.’ (We can also think of Sketchpad as a practical demonstration of the idea of ‘man-machine symbiosis’ by J.C. Licklider applied to image making and design.”(67. 2008 draft)

Informed by an awareness of animism at the origins of interface design, I will next explore the evolution of timelines as design features, not with the intention of establishing any firm conclusions, but instead opening questions concerning creativity in quantitative environments.

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