Friedrich W. Block

In the Beginning

A response to Roberto Simanowski’s keynote address given at the “Remediating the Social” conference, Edinburgh, Nov. 2, 2012

(All proceedings at

Roberto has dealt critically with "Timeline", a relatively new technical function of the Facebook platform. As I understand Roberto, he considers “Timeline” an influential symbolic form by which autobiographical writing changes from personal storytelling to an automatic, numerical database. In this he sees – with John Cayley – a vectorization with problematic social and political implications and asks: “ How can the mode of narration be entered into the presumed realm of database?“

I read this question as a challenge to the objectives of ELMCIP, and therefore to electronic literature as a model of creativity and innovation in practice. However, among the artistic works here in Edinburgh, I have found none which deal directly with Facebook and Timeline or other commercial offers of social media. Also, in general, artists in the field of electronic literature or net art don't seem to be working with these platforms. We know of a few projects, but these are rather radical-critical reactions. For good reasons. We will come back to them.

Roberto connects three aspects important to our interest in creativity and innovation: language, time, and self. He does this against the background of the literary tradition of historiography and autobiography. At the temporary end of this development, he sees the Timeline as a tool for self-description. But, he also refers to the beginning: “ In the beginning“, he writes “ in the beginning of the history of historiography was the word and the story“. I choose this sentence as the starting point for some thoughts about language, time, and self in the electronically oriented poiesis: It is said that

“In the beginning was the word and the letter I.”

“Every letter is kissing your little fingers”: as can be read in the futuristic manifesto “The Letter As Such” by Velimir Khlebnicov and Aleksei Kruchenykh from the year 1913. Every letter is kissing your little digiti, little digits …

Language is the crucial social and individual medium in which communication and cognition occur and connect. In turn, the computer is a language machine. Electronic literature, digital poetry, is interested in the form of this medium language, or rather, in the form of structures and processes in and by this electronic language machinery. So, we are moving in a complex system, branching endlessly, from the letter as such or elements thereof, to highly differentiated texts of thinking and communication – and back again. We are moving in a spectrum from program code and its elements to technically lavish multi-modal applications.

In his nine theses about net-computer-literature, Florian Cramer demanded that this kind of literature should reflect computer processed language, that it should consequently and consciously mix or contaminate natural and artificial languages.

This was in the year 2000. Today, I think, this is more relevant than ever. Several projects shown at “Remediating the Social” are following this argument. Examples include works by Philippe Bootz, John Cayley and David Howe, Mez or And/Or and Johannes Auer, to mention but a few.

Of course Facebook with its Timeline is diametrically opposed to this position. From the user’s perspective, it is believed to function in a completely mono-linear way – nicely symbolized on the graphic surface by the line of Timeline, which threads everything successively. The code remains hidden to the user, as do all the other well-known and very problematic processes running behind this restrictive service. Therefore, Timeline cannot count as a site in which we might artistically or poetically inscribe ourselves. There is hardly even room for subversive action.

Geoff Cox correctly argues in the “Book of Books” of documenta13: “If existence is ever more prescribed through scripts and programs to which we have less and less access, then the challenge for those making programs is to open up aesthetic and political possibilities of recombination and to liberate the imagination and desire from the market.” (Note 037: David Link, Kassel, Ostfildern 2011, p. 3)

So it seems that Facebook is mainly confronted with projects of hacking or artistic interventions - projects which regularly lose a direct conflict with the software giant. Nonetheless, Eugenio Tisseli’s Facebot  “Debasheesh Parveen” has so far successfully subverted the Facebook machinery by spamming the Timeline of this profile with automated inscriptions, actually creating a fictional diary – wonderful nonsense.

I will move on from language to the aspect of time.

“in the beginning was the word and the letter i.”

Timeline’s line also symbolizes the mono-linear notion of progressing time. Roberto has pointed to the tradition of the chronicle: the linear report of historical data. Again, digital poetics do not follow this kind of linearity, but they are disrupting and disturbing it. One very fine example in this direction is Mez’s project for “Remediating the Social”: “ _The_Tem(Cor)p(oral)_Body_“ conceives disconnections of the space/time continuum, it is modifying time parameters during writing thus performing what could be called a crisis of linear, chronological time. „Crisis“ is etymologically related to “Kairos”, another notion of time which is complementary to Chronos.

Moving down from capital to minuscule, from big “I” to little “i”, we see that word and letter contain both line and point. The digital form “i” symbolically evokes Chronos and Kairos, as well as the arrow of time. As we know, there is a paradox connected to this which takes us from ancient world philosophy to quantum mechanics, and which was first described by Zenon of Elea in the 5th century BC: if everything in continuous motion occupies now, then the flying arrow as such is motionless .

The clash of both notions of time was already part of Greek mythology: persuaded by Athena to break the ceasefire with the Achaeans, Pandarus shoots the arrow at Menelaus, but he misses the Kairos, the correct - in this case - the deadly point. The directed process of time - the movement of the arrow - is opposed by the exact point of time, the gap, the cut. Chronos suffers the crisis while Kairos is cutting time into before and after. Kairos proves that time is not reversible: no two instants are the same; every repetition is always something else.

One concern of poetry and electronic writing, as I see it, is to enter the Kairos, the point, the cut, the in-between, to concentrate with all means on the point where differentiation, where the creation of reality takes place. In short: where poiesis occurs.

I have asked myself whether Timeline could provide such a telling, deadly spot, which could really interrupt all this linear spoon-feeding. This is only possible in a radical way - by deleting one’s identity there. Let’s go to Here, I can finish myself off, but only on Myspace and Twitter. Then on to to commit virtual suppukoo on Facebook and consciously give Timeline a narrative highlight. But the knife, programmed by Seppukoo for this purpose, has been effectively removed from the market by Facebook. At least we can still find the instructions …

“In the beginning was the word and the letter I.”

In the artistic context of “Remediating the Social”, orientating oneself towards “I” or “self” means a poetic reflection of subjectivity in its dependence on society, (language) culture, and media technology.

In all arts, self-observation and self-description particularly address cognitive processes of identity construction - cognitive processes which are embodied and socialized, such as reading, writing, interpretation, thought, perception and feelings. In our field, this is especially true for the examination of artificial, automatic processes.

At Timeline the automation of chronological recording is concealed while the poetry of auto-generative texts aims at awareness, experimental experience, reflexive subjectivity - just think of Simon Biggs’ fascinating projects. In a poetological essay [] Simon explains the intention “ to disrupt the reader's expectations [...] by uncoupling the reader's search for meaning, and thus their own definition, from the text and shifting it towards the processes, and disjuncture, of their own perception.“

In my view, this reflexivity is closely intertwined with two other poetic principles: condensation and diversity.

Condensation lies in the total concentration on the Kairos of poiesis. It also can be experienced in another way, both communicatively and performatively, in symposia such as ours here in Edinburgh, in exhibitions, festivals, congresses, anthologies, platforms and networks. Bundled by certain interests and perspectives, art communication becomes a poetic nucleus.

Dynamic diversity is complementary to such condensations. This is represented by all the artistic and discursive contributions to our meeting in its entirety. Commercial offers à la Facebook urge us to believe that they are the only option – and go as far as the hubris that they are the only place life happens and the only way.

What a totalitarian presumption! Within poetic diversity and condensation, and thus in the creative and innovative practice with its openness and flexibility, we find all the options for insight, awareness, self-determination and the scope of social and political action.