Monday, February 06, 2006

Against a Generative Grammar of Flarf

...it certainly can't explain or explicate how language goes from being on a search engine page to how it becomes "Mars Needs Terrorists."

Tony Tost


Most of Dan Hoy's recent essay, "The Virtual Dependency of the Post-Avant and the Problematics of Flarf", in Jacket #29, "is about the uncritical use of corporate algorithms as a generator of poetic chance and catalyst for engaging the Other." Later in the essay, however, he reframes the issue in terms of "the problematics of using [Google] as [an effective generator of poems]", a characterization he uses again near the end, casting "Google as a poetic generator". This conflation of Google as a chance-generator and alterity-catalyst with Google as a poem-generator is perhaps just an imprecision in the essay, but they share an important assumption: that the use of Google directly explains or accounts for essential features of the poems, i.e., that Google constitutes a "generative" deep structure that explains the surface structure of the poems. Hoy's thesis is that Google-sculpted poetry is Google-structured poetry because the poets are either unable or unwilling to bring their material to crisis (to make "critical" use of it). He sees this as "a trend [, which I'll refer to as 'flarf',] among the ‘post-avant’ ... that betrays not just their mediated upbringings but an antiquated technophilia."

I think this is the most substantial thing that is wrong with Hoy's essay. He has simply failed to consider the difference between pages and pages of Google search results and the poems that are built out of them. (Despite the fact that this difference was the primary focus of those parts of my criticism that he cites.) He offers no demonstration of any isomorphy between flarf works and Google results and therefore no basis for the claim that the procedures that generate flarf poems are isomorphic with the algorithms that generate Google returns. This is an admittedly formal refutation of Hoy's scholarship but, since he proposes explicitly not to read the poems, very little more is possible at this point. My brief (and ironic) despair over the presence of marketing on the Internet (the "muses" were never a serious option) was very precisely an awareness of the possibility his essay takes (for granted) as a structural necessity. Anyone who briefly considers the matter will realise, as I did, that it is very unlikely. It would be interesting, however, to show that the structure of a page or two of Google results corresponds in some striking way with the structure of a page or two of Deer Head Nation. If Hoy ever attempts such a demonstration of his thesis (a demonstration that his rhetoric is in some sense already obligated to provide) I would be glad to examine it.

Until such time, Hoy has simply failed to demonstrate that the object of his essay exists: a trend towards the uncritical use of Google to generate poetry.

15 comments:

Jay said...

From Hoy's piece: "If there’s a difference between flarf and its progenitors it’s that Cage and Oulipo researched or created their generators of deterministic randomness, whether it be the I Ching, the weather, or mathematical formulas."

To what degree do "flarists" actually claim Cage/etc as "progenitors"?

It seems to me there exists (in the archetypal "flarfist defense" that Hoy sketches) a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between Cagean chance operations, which might be claimed to replace the ego-as-editor, and so-called "chance operations," which throw a bunch of raw linguistic material at the poet who then proceeds to edit that material according to her or his desires, whims, intuitions, etc.

The latter isn't Cagean at all, in my opinion -- the ego doesn't recede, it just works with linguistic raw material that the poet didn't happen to create. My suspicion is that Hoy's fear of contamination of flarf/search-engine poetry by the values latent in proprietary corporate search algorithms has something to do with the conflating Cagean chance and "flarfist chance."

Anne Boyer said...

Yet another way Hoy misses the mark -- the progenitor of Flarf isn't Cage, or Queneau, but Baroness von Else Freytag Loringhoven. For example, a short poem by the Baroness:

"No spinsterlollypop for me!
Yes! We have no bananas
I got lusting palate
I always eat them...
There's the vibrator
Coy flappertoy! ...
A dozen cocktails, please!"

Thomas Basbøll said...

Jay: I think you're right about this. I don't see Cage as a precursor either, except as a experimentalist/avant-gardist, or something very general like that.

And you're right that the two procedures don't deal with the ego in the same way. I think flarf does to the reader what Albers colour-studies did for his students:

"Because of the laboratory character of these studies
there is no opportunity to decorate, to illustrate, to represent anything,
or to express something – or one's self." (Interaction of Color, p. 9)

Though flarf does arguably offer opportunities for decoration, let's say it discourages reading the words for anything other than the effects they produce.

Using the flarf operation (leaving the surrounding controversies on the side) to "express yourself" (i.e., to represent your ego") is doing it the hard way, we might say.

Anne: Thanks for the new point of reference. And the squid.

Anne Boyer said...

I realized the brevity of my comment might make it seem as if I am being flip about the Baroness. I am not.

As a reader, I think Flarf is at least 3/5s Dada: picking up whatever whenever, using it "wrong". This is not utopianism!

The procedural element is much like the procedural element a fish uses when bottom feeding: a fairly simple consumption/digestion of crap -- and I mean this as a compliment. Bottom feeding is ecologically important. Chance hasn't so very much to do with it, other than the chance of what crap that day fell to the bottom of the tank. Then, as Jay points out, the crap-gathering is very much dependent on the individual Flarfist.

Most Flarf reads (to me) as freak-out-panic-attack-oh-no-apocalypse -- a Loringhoven-esque hardcore "nonsense" made more compelling by millenialism: a dada on speed, a hat made of vomit-words found in the Internet (trash bin). I am obviously enthusiastic about this.

Jay said...

Anne - "This is not utopianism!" . . . Seems like this could be an important distinction -- the Cagean project is, as I understand it, fairly explicitly utopic . . .

Thomas - I do agree that using flarf to "express oneself" (in any conventional sense of that phrase) would certainly be going about it the hard way. I suppose what I meant was that in flarf (at least as I understand it), the poet still makes certain editorial decisions that Cagean chance procedures might seek to eliminate. When writing flarf I'm not obligated, for example, to use the search results in exactly the same order that they appear on my screen, nor am I obligated to use all of the results within a certain numerical range (say, everything one pages 1-10). I might, instead, try to put things together with an ear toward creating, in Anne's words, that "freak-out-panic-attack-oh-no-apocalypse" effect . . .

tmorange said...

thomas wrote:

"He offers no demonstration of any isomorphy between flarf works and Google results and therefore no basis for the claim that the procedures that generate flarf poems are isomorphic with the algorithms that generate Google returns."

such a demonstration on the part of an "outsider" would be quite impossible since the alchemical secrets by which google garbage is turned into flarf gold have largely, if not exclusively, remained with the flarfistes. at least, i could never get what they were doing exactly, but then again i never asked. and clearly plenty of people have taken their own liberties with the processes.

jay: you're right, i think the cage progenitor claim is largely hoy's invention.

jay and boyer (anne?): the baroness is certainly a primo case of ur-flarf. as is alexi kruchenyk.

and i think the "utopianist" argument is slightly off too. it's the idea -- whether held by flarfists or not, it's very much a part of the google spirit and in bernstein's blurb for deer head nation -- that google is some kind of index to the zeitgeist, this is a profoundly mistaken idea that fails to understand how google works.

--tom

tmorange said...

If Hoy ever attempts such a demonstration of his thesis (a demonstration which his rhetoric is in some sense already obligated to provide) I would be glad to examine it.

but he stated flat out that he wanted to take up the reception of the poems and not the poems themselves

Until such time, Hoy has simply failed to demonstrate that the object of his essay exists: a trend towards the uncritical use of Google to generate poetry.

i dunno, i see a lotta poems and books of poems floating around that bear evidence if not direct admission of techniques involving google, and yet i've not come across one poetics statement by any of the authors of these poems that reflects a critical awareness
of the many many complicated overdeterminations that google embodies. it's high time; and if it's forthcoming at hoy's prompt, so much the better for all...

tom

Thomas Basbøll said...

Thanks for your comments, Tom.

It is the "overdetermination" thesis that I'm questioning. Hoy has not demonstrated that Google "embodies" the determinants of Flarf.

My argument is that, as a first approximation, search results radically underdetermine the poems. In fact, I'm working on a post that makes this most relevant connection between Flarf and Google. I do think there is a connection, but that it is a critical one. It is the poems that must reflect critical awareness, not the statements of their poets.

My series here at the Pangrammaticon "The Annotated Pilot" did end up showing an interesting critical awareness (in Tost's "I Am Not the Pilot") of the "ruins" of Internet usage, Hoy's (rather poor) reading of those posts to the contrary.

Hoy's statement about not reading the poems is just bad scholarship given his point in the essay. He says that Flarf poems are generated by uncritical use of Google, but he insists on showing this by reference to what people like me say about Flarf.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Jay: yes, it is the lack of "obligations" to the Google results that makes the idea that Google "overdetermines" Flarf implausible. (It could still be shown in particular cases, of cases, and, like I say, Hoy might still offer that demonstration.)

Tim Peterson said...

HOW I INVENTED FLARF

Yeah, I actually wasn't going to say anything about it, because I'm the modest type, but actually neither Gary, Kasey, nor Drew is the one who invented Flarf. I did.

Well, my mom is the one who came up with the name. But the basic idea was mine. I must have been about fifteen or so, and we were having some Language poets over for dinner that evening, and I was excitedly telling them about this new movement I was thinking about founding, called Matronism. My mom, who was spraying artificial cheese out of a can onto the Collected Shakespeare, suddenly butted in and said "Honey, why don't you call it Flarf, instead? I think that's a nicer name." The Language poets all nodded, and the room because stymied by intense expectation.

The basic movement, as I explained to our guests, would be a poetry that involves no humor whatsoever. Irony would be completely foreign to the language, as would guile, innocence, rancor, truculence, and all vaguely impassioned tendencies. The basic goal was to employ words as "firm objects," but in the sense of a kind of beige fabric in which one could rummage around and come up with something possibly of interest, although that something would be seen as just as interesting as any other thing within the beige blanket. Or no, maybe not a blanket, more like a jagged piece of sunroof. Or a woven placemat. This effect is what I referred to at the time (in my posts of January 3 and 17, 1973) as the hypostatization of boredom, or Fred. The hypostatization of boredom effect in Flarf would ideally foreground the properties of language which situate the absent subject in a discourse of multivoiced tonality, or hyperspace continuity gumbo. But at the same time as we wanted to investigate these "firm language objects," we also wanted to write like machines. We tried a number of ways of doing this, early etch-a-sketch and "cash register" poems numbering among the more interesting acculturations. Flarf was later to pass through a number of "concrete" or "performative" stages, but at this early stage, we primarily concerned ourselves with boring holes in the various inroads that political correctness had made into our lives (and more importantly, our poems, Gary would remind me in those evenings sitting by the fire with a tall glass of mint julep and one hand down his tight-fitting trousers) by means of postcolonial theory and writing workshop hayseed materials. One of our favorite items at that time was a gong which I would hit fiercely with my rear end when an effective Flarf poem had been performed or accomplished.

Some people understand the purpose of Flarf as an exploration of Googled or procedural texts, but that was actually a very late stage in the movement and my mom came up with that idea too, though how Drew got around to claiming it for himself later is a much longer story than I can get into here. No, Flarf was originally a movement that involved "getting back to nature" through a post-Derridean entrapment of the writing subject in the act of cleaning my toe fungus. And once it was written, there was very little we could inhabit but through repetition, a very spotty strategy not unlike that of the Situationists whose balls measured a full three inches across on a clear day. Yes, we all enjoyed rummaging around in Fred continually over this period of time which signified the lively formation of this movement. I can still see them, eyes glinting in the sunlight of abstract lyric possibility, my comrades Gary, Drew, Nada, Katie, Kasey, Jordan, and some other people, out on the softball field of contemporary poetry, looking back askance to me for guidance, or a sign of the shallow humor they had come to know over the past few weeks of becoming weaker through collective encumbrance, aesthetic bewilderment, and a total dour humorlessness which by this point had become a way of life for us all.

tmorange said...

thomas:

Hoy has not demonstrated that Google "embodies" the determinants of Flarf.

huh? this seems to have it backwards to me. isn't the argument whether or not the poems embody the determinants of google?

My argument is that, as a first approximation, search results radically underdetermine the poems.

yes, agreed! google search results are (and i know i'm oversimplifying) based on popularity (more frequent hits yield a higher page ranking).

but google as a cultural phenomenon is overdetermined: it is a site (no pun intended) that is highly contested by a variety of forces whose interests are rarely mutually inclusive. (as a symbol of entreprenurial ingenuity, high stakes corporate investment, the internet boom, the tech bubble, computer nerds and geeks, democratization good and bad, globalization good and bad, opportunity, limitations, etc.)

that's a lot of "critical awareness" to require poems to reflect.

tom

Thomas Basbøll said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Thomas Basbøll said...

Tom,

I thought I was using "embody" as you were in the following:

"a critical awareness of the many many complicated verdeterminations that google embodies."

I.e., the overdeterminations at issue would be "embodied" (in Google) as my mind is "embodied" (while this machine is to me).

The more I think about, the more I am convinced that the sort of critical awareness that Hoy is proposing (I don't want to say "the level of critical awareness") has so vast and murky an object that if anyone took it upon themselves, they would never get any writing done. I see the opposite impulse in Flarf.

Joshua Clover notes Hoy's "presumption that poets should have theorized their own work explicitly and completely as a necessary supplement to the poetry, without which it can't be trusted or read as such" and thanks you for the tip. I think it is an absurd presumption.

tmorange said...

Joshua Clover notes Hoy's "presumption that poets should have theorized their own work explicitly and completely as a necessary supplement to the poetry, without which it can't be trusted or read as such" and thanks you for the tip. I think it is an absurd presumption.

well clearly from the posts i've been reading on the lucipo archives you and i have fundamentally opposed views on all of this. you have said that "Using the language [Google] collects for you doesn't commit you to the sources in any way; there is no investment" which i find absurd as i do not see how once can so easily divorce words from their contexts, nor do i see how one can not have some kind of investment in or committment to the materials one uses or appropriates or makes one's own.

bests,
tom

Thomas Basbøll said...

Tom, when I said "absurd" I meant that it didn't make sense to me to demand that poets explicitly and (especially) completely theorize their practices. I quoted Joshua because I had no reason to think you would think such a thing.

But I think you and just disagree about this thing about investment, not in any sort of fundamental way. Though I'm sure I've thrown those words around, too, I probably don't have a fundamental position from which to approach poetry.

I think the wonder (perhaps the puzzle) of Flarf is that it does make divorcing words from their contexts look easy. Making a poem out of those words may still be hard, but that initial act of estrangement is brought upon the materials in a flash of what Dan calls "corporate algorithms".

The trick (and I'm still open to the idea that there is some funny-business goin on here) is to convert "sources" into "materials". The difference between these are the degree of investment.

There is no appropriation because the Flarfist, to use Pound's phrase, "have not wished for property". The Flarfist does not effect an "appropriation of the materials" but an "inappropriation of the poem". The materials are just lying around for the taking.

This is why the reader gets that "it was open so let myself in" (Ben Lerner) feeling when reading them.