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John Cayley, Independent scholar
Associated with Royal Holloway College, University of London, and Dartington College of Arts

Literal rather than digital art. Poetic practice informed by the materiality of language has greater power to articulate cultural production than ill-defined digital practice.

By literal art I mean poetic practice determined by the materiality of language. Linguistic materiality is manifested in inscription, understood (in a poststructuralist sense) as the material instantiation of any act of language. Inscription thus encompasses not only speech and writing but any cultural object which may be added to (or, indeed, removed from) the archive of articulation. While investigating so-called 'communication' technologies and their histories, Friedrich A. Kittler and other media discourse analysts have suggested that culture may proceed by recasting or downplaying the materiality of language, reprogramming its agents and subjects in terms of specific technologies and institutions. Such analyses literally flesh out the deconstruction of print culture as an expression of Romantic logocentrism. The 'age of print' was (and to an extent still is) a period when, ironically, technologies of writing achieved what Kittler sees as a perfected, transparent 'alphabetizaion' which then recited or ventriloquized the concepts of authorship, originality, individuality, intellectual 'property' and (male) artistic and intellectual mastery. For Kittler this discourse network was reconfigured, around '1900,' by audio and audiovisual recording and transmitting technologies - gramophone, film - then later by their digitization. According to this view, whereas the discrete literal entities of the alphabet were successfully re-cited as a 'smooth and continuous [analogue] flow of personality,'* media technologies have led to radical cultural reconfiguration. The regenerative potential of literal art is bracketed and stunned in this analysis. Having been comprehensively recast as 'literary' during the age of print, literal art briefly reasserts its materiality in the early part of the century, before the initiatives of cultural determination are handed over to novel technologies of sound and light, and their associated, emergent arts. What is elided from this analysis is the inalienably discrete, 'digital' character of linguistic materiality, precisely its literal articulation, and the way this articulation both enabled the reconfiguration of '1900' and served as a necessary precursor for actual existing digital transcription. Moreover, whereas the digital as such must be understood as reducible to the ultimate abstraction of 0/1, the literal provides us - potentially - with an articulation of media which retains discrete entities and programmable structures at any culturally significant or affective level of abstraction (letters, words, phrases, sentences, books; pixels, cells, regions, shapes, pictures; notes, samples, movements, symphonies; sprites, clips, tracks, transitions, movies; etc. etc.; a letter in this sense is any member of a finite set of discrete entities which articulate the materiality of language.) Literal art should not, once again, be downplayed or recast, this time, in 2000, by 'digital new media.'

Poets (and writers generally) have long lost all claims to a mastery loaned to them by print culture. They must once again serve the literal matter of language. This literal materiality should, in turn, be recognized as intrinsically and necessarily, not only historically or momentarily, engaged with the entire gamut of cultural production which emerges from the generalized, networked use of programmable machines. Moreover, an appreciation of literal art in this sense enables a more significant and affective analysis of culture than that which now accrues from screen-grazing current transcriptions of sound and light in terms of a banal and minimally-articulated abstraction: the 0/1 digital. 

* I owe this formulation to the translators' introduction in: Kittler, Friedrich A. «Gramophone, Film, Typewriter». Trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999, p. xxii. Other sources will of course be cited in the full version of the paper.

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