Aesthetic Animism: Digital Poetry as Ontological Probe

What is this thesis about

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What is this thesis about

This thesis is about ontological transitions of language in mediated environments. Ontology stems from the Greek verb ontic: of being. It is the study of what exists, what is real, and what has come to be accepted as being real. Language is becoming visually and palpably different from what it was prior to computation. New means of expression are emerging. I explore what this means for the reception of poetry. Poetry is crossing an ontological membrane from being an abstract printed system to becoming a system of quasi-entities: words and phrases that are dimensional, kinetic, interactive, code-full, context-aware and tactile. I claim that some of the independent elements of future languages will be perceived as if they were organisms.

This thesis is also an unfinished story told through the lens of an ongoing digital poetry practice that is occurring during a period of entropic technological change. Some of it (of necessity, contingent and speculative) is a meditation on how language (an abstract discursive semiotic structure) evolves in tandem with images (representational processes tightly intertwined with technology). It is also a practitioner’s journal that offers a critique of software design’s implicit teleologies. As such, while striving to be clear, I offer probes rather than impeccably safe logic.

The era we are living in lends itself to large claims. Yet I attempt to temper vast claims with common sense and empirical examples so as to suggest plausible pathways for digital poetry. Speculative hypotheses act as probes, they make no claim to be certain fact derived from quantitative evidence.

In short, this thesis is about the poetic edge of language and technology.


“Ces arbres reposent sur une arborescence complexe composée des lettres de l’alphabet.”[These trees consist of complex arboreal structures composed of letters.]

Cyrille Henry. Verbiage Végétal.

The link between poetry and animism is ancient: oral poetry arose in the mouths of oracles who read messages in matter. Advertising has used life-like mobile text for decades. And I am far from the first to link animation and animism. Animation has been referred to by Cholodenko as the 'illusion of life' by the Lumière brothers, Walt Disney and Orson Welles. Etymologically animation is either endowing with movement or endowing with life (Cholodenko. 1991). I am also not the first to link digitally animated text to notions of aliveness. Jason Lewis and Alex Weyers’ Active Text (1999) prototype application was called It's Alive!

Animism permeates the implicit philosophical approach of many projects. Example: Cyrille Henry’s 2007 art work Verbiage Végétal0draws trees out of words drawn from internet branchings. The result is static images, but these represent fossils of a vibrant information ecology.


“… visual/typographic/written (and by extension, verbal) styles encode history, identity, and cultural value at the primary level of the mark/letter/physical support … “

Johanna Drucker. Figuring the Word.(213)

In my research, I utilize both empirical and interpretive strategies. Empirically, I create digital poems and analyze the authoring environments involved in their creation; interpretively, I am examining the ontological implications of language that emulates life-forms.

My empirical research-creation practice involves working with (and coding within) diverse softwares, creating and exhibiting (both physically and online) digitally-mediated language-art. Based on this creative practice, I critique the timeline. Timelines are a design feature of all contemporary animation software interfaces; they define and imply a temporal model; yet the impact of the timeline’s teleology on creative practice remains largely unexplored. I explore these temporal-design questions by juxtaposing commercial softwares with the custom typographic-animation software Mr. Softie created at Concordia in Jason Lewis’ OBX lab. This work is part of a recent branch of media theory called speculative computing (proposed by Johanna Drucker in 2009) which explores the co-emergence of art, theory and interface implementations.

My interpretive research examines the literary, aesthetic and ontological implications of digital poetry, specifically the effect/affect of digitally-mediated language-art (which is now malleable, kinetic, reactive, audible and tangible) on collective attitudes toward life. This is what I call the turn toward living language. The migration of language from flat-page to interactive screen has already been widely discussed in the critical literature; yet, a semiotic system for interpreting multimedia tactile language-art does not yet exist. I review previous proposals for interpreting multimedia language art0; and propose a new set of terms (tav, tavt, tavit) for interactive-audio-visual-texts. Ontologically, I explore how mediated language is blurring fundamental distinctions between animate life and inanimate or mediated matter. I reflect these speculations through the lens of digital poetry, analysing how it is written, published and read (both in private and performatively). The results of these meditations challenge conventional definitions of life and suggest that mediated language is more than visual language, -- it is a quasi-entity,-- and this change has crucial ramifications for human society.

My exploration starts by examining paper poetry and language-art installation, then it examines digital poetry in time-based media which either possesses dimensionality, moves credibly, reacts appropriately0, and/or displays life-like characteristics (i.e. it likes the mouse, it remembers users habits, it may disappear/die). The final segment of analysis concerns how the works were created: how does software design implicitly impede and/or aid the development of living language?

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