Poetry As Content

The device reduces poetry, like everything else, to content. Which is to say, in order to appear on the device, the poem must become an image or a recording that is clickable, swipeable, sharable, and likeable. It must be susceptible to search engine optimization, to analytics, to data mining. It must become (at least in potential) the site for an economy of clicks, views, and advertisement. This is the logic of the device. It is the medium for which everything becomes content and for which no amount of content is sufficient, because content drives its economy.

In being reduced to content the poem simultaneously consents to become data, a file with a designation, a series of coded ones and zeros. To appear on the device as content, it must populate a place in the database, be housed as data on a server, be arranged and ordered by the server’s “back end”. It must become a series of bytes that can be instantly disseminated and infinitely reproduced. This is true without exception. Content and data are inseparable for the device.

This reduction to content-data is insidious because it appears like expansion. The poem is no longer confined to the brute physics of the page but is now freed into the far more fluid physics of the device. It can be copied and shared around the world, can be searched and found from any point on the planet, can be read by any device with access to the network – all without the time and expense of printers and papers and international shipping. The poem has been transmuted into pure energy, has left the restrictions of its corporeal body behind.

But this expansion is illusory, because it is an expansion of the poem only with respect to reproduction, distribution, access, and searchability. It comes at the cost of a commensurate reduction in its function as a poem, because the poem (as is true of anything) always appears on the device primarily as something other than itself. It does not cease to be a poem, but it appears first as content-data and only second as a poem, if indeed it ever manages to appear as a poem at all. It is unable to avoid its functional equivalence to a dick pic or a celebrity tweet, a baseball highlight or an algorithmically generated news article. Whatever distinctions might be said to exist between these things (and they are not many as we might like to assume), they are essentially interchangeable for the device. The device makes all things appear as content first, and only secondarily, if ever, as what they purport to be.

This has always been the case with every medium, of course, at least to a certain extent. In a book, for example, the poem appears first as book and page and only second as a poem, but the device adds additional layers of mediation. It contains the poem, certainly, but it also contains the books, the pages, and the apps through which the poem appears. It has likewise reduced these things to thumbnail images in a list, to items in a database, to locations for advertising. Authors of ebooks are now often paid by the number of pages that readers have read, which is to say the number of clicks made, the number of potential advertisements viewed. In this sense, then, the poem on the device appears first as application, then as image, then as page (or post, or tweet, or status update), then as site for advertisement, and only lastly as poem.

For this reason, the device might be better understood as a kind of arch-medium, a medium through which other media are made to appear. More importantly, although these kinds of arch-media have existed before (the television is a proto-device in this sense), the device is now so dominant, so totalizing in its cultural influence, that it is quickly becoming (if it has not already become) the only medium through which other media can relevantly appear.

The device enforces this reduction to its own logic to such a radical degree, not because it offers anything by way of speed or efficiency over other media (though it claims, appears, and sometimes may even actually do so); not because it is more immediate than other media (it is in fact far more mediated); not because it enables greater social connection than other media (though it might do so, at the cost of social relation); not even because it now occupies a more central cultural role than other media (though this is unquestionably true). Its totalizing influence is much more a function of the fact that it has made itself the only available interface between data and content, making it indispensable for accessing the content to which it requires all things to be reduced.

Whereas non-digital media like a book might be interpreted by anyone who can read, even (with enough labour) if the original language has been lost, the data of the device is in every case irrecoverable without the proper machine reader. The poem as image or text or audio file cannot be accessed without the proper program to read it, the proper hardware to run and display it. The device thus renders access to data entirely dependant on its own technology, ensuring that once a critical mass of poems (and family photos and tax returns and wiki articles and porno clips) has become data, we are no longer able to access the various elements of our lives without its intervention. Once we have written our poems as text files, once we have published them in online journals, posted them on blogs, or reduced them to a hundred and forty characters on twitter, we have become dependent on the device and its logic to recover them.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: