- In Babel’s Shadow: Multilingual Literatures, Monolingual States. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2010. URL: UMP site
It may surprise some to read that this book has its origin in new media studies. Certainly, I have parted ways with the gadget lovers, in an area in which complacently energy-dependent boosterism, in the equation of what is new with what needs attention, is in some ways still a critical norm. Still, in formulating a limit for contemporary literary book publication, and so for the criticism dependent on it, I have tried to describe a need for electronic literature, as an archive and engine of forms of textual culture that book culture today really does block — from visibility, and in that, from both critical and archival presence. This has meant backing up from the “new” in new media, on the one hand, and stepping up to the end of printed books, on the other — working a fold in the disciplinary temporality of new media studies, at the very limit of the literary-capitalist print culture through which academic literary and new media studies still reproduce themselves, today.
Reviews and commentary:
- Tina Steiner, untitled review in Translation Studies 5:2 (2012): 255-258
- Claire Kramsch, untitled review in Comparative Literature Studies 49.1 (2012): 138-141
- Christine Mitchell, “Does Not Compute: Language Circuits and Translatability” (review essay), TOPIA 26 (Fall 2011): 179-185
- W. Gilbert Adair, "A Review of Brian Lennon, In Babel's Shadow: Multilingual Literatures, Monolingual States," EBR, October 24, 2011
- Marshall Brown, “Encountering the World,” Neohelicon 38.2 (December 2011): 349-365
Articles and essays:
- “Machine Translation: A Tale of Two Cultures.” Completed for A Companion to Translation Studies, ed. Catherine Porter and Sandra Bermann (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).
Electronic computers as we know them today were devised for Allied and German military cryptanalysis and ballistics calculations during the Second World War. In the postwar period, the U.S.-Soviet arms race encouraged attention to a broader cultural application of computing, in a vision of computers as fully autonomous and fully automatic translators of human writing and speech in natural languages. In the United States, the imagination of human language successfully manipulable by an electronic computer was embraced by some prominent postwar mathematicians and engineers, contested by others, and regarded with caution or dismay by most humanists and writers and many journalists. Debate over the technical and ethical limits of computing was widespread and energetic, both in the academic world and the U.S. literary and journalistic public spheres; literature and literary language had a surprisingly prominent place in this debate, as the last frontier for the power of computation and its ultimate test. As such (and in the United States, at least), the history of machine translation, or “MT,” provides a vivid illustration of the postwar conflict of what C. P. Snow called the “two cultures” of applied science and the humanities.
- “New Stationary States: Real Time and History’s Disquiet.” Completed for a forthcoming issue of symplokē.
In what follows, I will suggest something not new and startling, so much as hidden in plain sight: that there is no reason to believe any new critical turn will prove any less resource-intensive than what preceded it, or that the tendency of modern research to what Heidegger called “the industrious activity of mere busyness,” and Harold Innis “the expenditure of subsidies for the multiplication of facts,” will be any more sustainable in digital media, for example, than it was in print — either ecologically or as a cultural assertion of civilizational modernity as fait accompli. To address the ecological impasse we now face is not to demand some productive new critical-theoretical innovation, perhaps, so much as some restraint of mechanized critical and critical-theoretical production, in itself — truly a re-evaluation of ourselves as we are accustomed to work. With masters that cannot be pleased, and little left to lose, I suggest, we might as well insist on this long-durational productivity of waiting for our work. But this need not entail what the historian Arthur Herman, in The Idea of Decline in Western History, superciliously names “cultural pessimism.” One model for such professional literary and cultural-critical temporization, in the new stationary states to come, might be found in a now widely proposed, if nowhere enacted revaluation of the essay and of a certain essayism; another, perhaps, is ongoing professional second language acquisition.
- “Can Multilingualism Be Simulated?” Critical Multilingualism Studies 1.1 (November 2012): 94–106. URL: CMS site
I propose to consider the question “Can multilingualism be simulated?” The term “multilingualism” is often used to mark one of the human social and existential behavioral conditions produced especially by experiences of migration and displacement, but also by special intensities of education. To the extent that it stands in contrast with “monolingualism” as marking the state-managed sovereignty of a nationalized standard, or written dialect, “multilingualism” is also often used to mark the violation of de jure or de facto state-managed codes for public (and certain forms of private) communication, including those employed in and for the regulation of both labor and education. If “multilingualism” is in some ways thus often imagined as a litmus test for what we might call the humanity of a state exercising its monopolies of both knowledge and force, it might be worth considering the question of whether multilingualism can be simulated, as the spoken and written production of the state-managed code itself can now be simulated by software.
- “Remediafication.” Revue française d’études américaines 128 (2011): 30–45. URL: Cairn.info
This is an essay in critical history. It is an attempt to inscribe the dynamic history of a field into its new stationary state. One may read it as a kind of critique of pure media, or of mediation reconstituted as an epistemological object and object of triumphant discipline — “remediafication,” if you like. I propose that digital literary and cultural studies, in its United States context and on the United States model, is the site of a schism in humanistic discipline that attracted two very different and quite incommensurable critical temperaments, right from the start — one of which customarily honors itself by disavowing the other, and which has recently attempted to declare a kind of victory over its adversary.
- “distance@.” symplokē 17.1/2 (2009): 175-189. DOI: 10.1353/sym.2009.0019
The global village, the world imploded in a caul of socialized electricity, is privatized in the home-bubble, a nut or seed-pod of data, the personal-professional archive whose exponential growth in life online, this essay suggests, shunts modernist critical practice (ours) into reverse. In this closure of critical distance, down the longue durée of the library shelf, we see our own work on the “junk-pile of critical history,” “instructive as a hyperbolic interaction of critical desire with the modes of production” of our time (Willmott). There is no more necessary perspective than this; for scholarly production, today, no less than less rigorous forms of ubiquitous capture, compulsive diarism, and self-archiving, is an embrace of the surveillance state — as much as its self-study, in what we might have to call our “telepathy”: the pathos of (critical) distance, of distance which is always already “at” place. In nowness, in newness, the need to be “Herr von Vorsicht,” der Fernseher, tele-visor, seer and broadcaster, prophet, fortune-teller, astrologer, historian — scholar — are we not precisely archiving ourselves, growing what Adorno termed “herbaria of artificial life,” archives and anarchives whose endurance, whose beginnings and ends, as archives, cannot be known?
- “New Media Critical Homologies.” Postmodern Culture 19.2 (January 2009). 13,238 words. DOI: 10.1353/pmc.0.0049
New media studies, we might say, has discovered temporality. After fifteen years in which its cultural dominant was presentist prognostication, even a kind of bullying, the field has folded on itself with such new guiding concepts as the “residuality,” the “deep time” or “prehistory,” and the “forensic imagination” of a new media now understood as after all always already new. This essay rereads the legacy of hyperfiction pioneer and demiurge Michael Joyce through Fredric Jameson’s call, twenty years ago, for a “deeper comparison” than new media studies is yet ready to make, even today. It argues that new media studies, as a disturbance in both the practices and production regimes of humanistic discipline, is and always has been best thought less as an emergent field than as a site of such double vision. If we still want to consider Joyce’s work a founding moment in new media literary studies in the U.S., it suggests, we will have to recognize the radical untimeliness of, and at, that foundation: the extent to which the negativity of Joyce’s secession from this emergent field must be understood not as the end of his influence in it, but in antinomian fashion, as its beginning again.
- “The Essay, in Theory.” diacritics 38.3 (Fall 2008): 71-92. DOI: 10.1353/dia.0.0062
In English, at least, essay-theory makes for a dialectically enlightening literature review. What one might, with perfect justice, call a vast wealth of work on the anarchival genre is now — has always been quickly — out of print, exclusive property of the scholarly archives through control of which we guarantee (less persuasively by the day, to be sure) our expertise. It is as though one were condemned to the archive by writing about the essay, that form so often and so vigorously imagined as a bridge linking university writing to what is left of the literary public sphere — or more recently, to “creative writing,” its institutional analogue. This article proposes for the figure or cipher of “essayism” three critical homologies: (a) as a name for the effect or intensity of “theory” in U.S. literary-critical and scholarly research practice; (b) as the object of a sometimes sincere and sometimes malicious mourning, in pronouncements of theory’s death; (c) as a mark of the indiscipline of “creative writing,” understood as a space into which English studies and U.S. literary studies have diverted the disruptively writerly energies of imported Continental thought.
- “Gaming the System.” EBR: Electronic Book Review, September 2009. 16,164 words. URL: EBR site
It cannot be denied that the works here under review are saying something new, if by “new” we mean also that which, far from being discovered in uncharted territory, was all along hidden, as it were, in plain sight. Sometimes, it is a matter of the structural amplification of scale through which the matter (the material, and its mattering) of context itself thwarts the circumscription of the phenomenological object, by reorganizing it from within (its image, as it were, re-taken at higher resolution); at other times, it seems necessary to look through the plane of the real, with and at that other, imaginative world of remonstrantive interpretation called ideology critique. Both are flexible and adaptive forms of the scientism through which the literary humanities in the United States, in its retransmission of French intellectual struggle, mixes discourse-analytic tactics of parallel delineation with hermeneutic strategies of serial penetration, and through which both its Comtean and its Marxist positivisms express, as François Dosse has put it of their transatlantic progenitors, “a certain degree of [Western] self-hatred.”
- “The Antinomy of Multilingual U.S. Literature.” Comparative American Studies 6.3 (September 2008): 203-224. DOI: 10.1179/147757008X330203
After September 2001, among other effects that may or may not have been foreseen, the new direction of US national political imperatives revived support for foreign language learning as a component of human or cultural intelligence. Across the political spectrum, lack of competence in languages other than English is now acknowledged as a serious weakness of educational, economic, and military resources in the United States. In the critical study of contemporary literature, the multilingual spirit of this new emphasis collides with the monolingual letter of the publication industry that produces books. In the production of research objects for scholars of contemporary literature, language difference, the ground zero of multiple language acquisition, is displaced by translative representation of language difference. To the extent that scholars understand themselves as analysts of already given objects, regarding intervention in the process of literary production as beyond their practical or desired ability, the premium placed on language difference here is insufficiently theorized.
- “Misunderstanding Media: The Bomb and Bad Translation.” Criticism 47.3 (Fall 2005): 283-300. DOI: 10.1353/crt.2007.0001
“Gadget,” we are reminded by Nicolas Freeling’s 1977 novel of that name, was in Manhattan Project jargon “a playful and harmless word for what we would call an atomic bomb.” Freeling’s novel turns the word over and over, linking the primitive device produced by America’s best minds in the heat of a just war to the hacked-out contraption always already acquired by its most bitter enemies, and reflecting on the inversions of the age of insanity opened there: above all, on what can only be called the Bomb’s satanic cuteness. In this essay, I examine the work of the gadget in an age of miniaturization: the molecular age of packs, bands, cells, all the social miniatures in the panorama of stateless (and indeed, headless) terror. My argument will be, first, that as a sign for inhuman efficiency, a form of the machine evolving by becoming more radically present-to-hand, the gadget is simultaneously a sign for the human value of inefficiency, of waste and expenditure. Second, I will argue that in the form of the portable translator, the gadget can tell us something about the human and the inhuman in language, that most artificial rose: about bad translation, or translation applied in spontaneous or calculated bad taste, and about the waste of translation.
- “Screening a Digital Visual Poetics.” Configurations 8:1 (Winter 2000): 63-85. At Project MUSE
Rpt.: “Screening a Digital Visual Poetics.” In Eduardo Kac, ed., Media Poetry: An International Anthology, (Bristol: Intellect Books, 2007): 251-270.
Recent  trends in digital media theory signal the absorption of initial, utopian claims made for electronic hypertextuality and for the transformation of both quotidian and literary discourse via the radical enfranchisement of active readers. The putative demise of textuality, inevitable or no, on the electronic network known as the World Wide Web is presently accompanied by a flourishing of poetry and text-based or alphabetic art that takes for granted not only its own dynamic, kinetic, virtual, and interactive visuality, but also — contrary to alarmists’ fears — a real, material, bodily human “interactor.” This essay offers an essay, a tentative gesture, at a digital visual poetics: a poetics that draws by necessity on an entire century’s worth of language art and visual poetry, while at the same time formulating ways to read and to look at, to “screen,” the new and seemingly newly ephemeral artifact of the electronic visual poem.
- “Glass Houses: A Reply to Loren Glass’s ‘Getting with the Program’.” EBR: Electronic Book Review, February, 2010. 2,513 words. URL: EBR site
When she becomes the critical master, and dares to wipe the expression of intellectual indigence from her face, the creative writer upsets the university’s order of things.
- Review of Joshua Miller, Accented America: The Cultural Politics of Multilingual Modernism. Completed for a forthcoming issue of Modern Language Quarterly.
- Review of Enda Duffy, The Speed Handbook: Velocity, Pleasure, Modernism (Duke, 2009). Modern Fiction Studies 56.3 (Fall 2010): 660-663. DOI: 10.1353/mfs.2010.0018
- City: An Essay. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2002, 2011. URL: UGAP site
I CONFESS THAT I HAVE NO IDEA what Kierkegaard (or his persona, Constantin Constantius) meant by “repetition.” Here, however, I mean to say that successive iterations of one single event multiply its existing points of entry. I was born: on the eastmost fringe of the City, in an enclave at the foot of the Airport, and I learned to sleep through the scream of jets, which I knew traveled over the ocean. My earliest awareness of the City: at the station, where I waited with my mother, in the idling car, for my father. At one end of the block: “the creek” — a tract of spongy undeveloped land, beyond which stretched the runways. From the creek: the frogs that filled our yards; Gina Ragazza, two doors down, pressed sharpened sticks through their bodies — twitch, twitch — as airliners floated roaring overhead.
- Dial Series One. Elmwood, CT: Potes & Poets Press, 2000. URL: Google Books
with the procedure
Non-refereed articles and essays:
- “Lyric as Negation.” Seneca Review 37.2 (Fall 2007): 65-70.
The essay is negative, as “nonfiction,” its genus, is negative: not a fourth genre, but the negation of genre. Where drama promises public spectacle, and poetry retains its cachet as the origin of the language arts, “nonfiction” offers only not fiction, the refusal or denial of fiction. Nonfiction refuses that with which we associate rapture and transport, the pleasures of the imagination in a world of regimented time. The very idea of it strikes one sometimes as boring and pitiable, like the figure of Bartelby the Scrivener, whose complete introversion is a monument to the death in meaningless work. Even the Encyclopaedia Brittanica concedes that “nonfictional prose seldom gives the reader a sense of its being inevitable, as does the best poetry or fiction.” Nonfiction cannot answer the question, “Would I die if I were prevented from writing?”
- “Sentimental Education.” Bookforum, Summer 2004: 31-34. (Editorial retitle of “Critique and No Time.”)
The true pathos of the creative writing programs (and this is why they have an inverted political value) is that they are filled with aspirants partly in flight from something — growth and profit-obsessed American business culture — without necessarily being fully in flight toward something: not toward a knowledge of literature, either low or high, historical or contemporary, and sometimes not even really toward reading at all. The dream, particularly in the fiction and nonfiction divisions of such programs, tends to be one or another variation on winning the lottery, on never having to work again in one’s life, except in the euphemistic sense with which an actor paid millions of dollars to act in a film might refer to “my work.” It is another version of the dream of rock stardom: to escape and live above it all, the measly two weeks of vacation per year, the being bossed around all your life or else having to plant a knife in someone else’s back to get a leg up. It’s a selfish dream, but viewed dialectically, it reveals an intense antipathy to overwork and to meaningless work in our culture. Who wouldn’t want to escape?
- Review of Appendices, Illustrations and Notes by Terence Gower and Mónica de la Torre. American Letters & Commentary 13 (2002): 195-197.
We read it in bed one Sunday morning in spring, drunk on its mockery, knowing it true, and asking ourselves: how to be sincere about a hoax? Like Swift’s modest proposal, it is a hoax for those alert to hoaxes, in whom irony and sincerity form a binary star, orbiting each other ever more closely. There’s a despair, there, that these desiderata also point to, which is their poetry. Such is the ambivalence of being-for-mail; and at the point of the kiss, the collison — what then?
- “Cary Peppermint’s ‘Curiously Strong’ Americana.” 2001. Distributed via Nettime, March 16, 2001. URL: Nettime archives
How much would you pay for something real? This question is posed by “An American Work of Art in Progress,” playing Zwischenology within the new+/-old commodity aesthetic of what one might, with a semicolon-wink to Teilhard, now term “noömedia.” Everything’s up for sale, yes. But that’s too easy. Each component fashions itself from the D.I.Y. machine of mid-tier services (Evite, Ebay, Mp3.com, Zing) offering prepackaged experiential formats for the vox populi to adopt at its leisure. “An American Work of Art in Progress” lives in that interior public sphere accessed via the dual mode of “home privacy” plus logged invasion and governed by the social contract including sincerity.
- “Literature and the Transposition of Media.” American Letters & Commentary 12 (2000): 72-76.
Hypertext utopism has had its day, and creativity in the electronic arts is concentrated, for the moment , in practices of programmed visual and kinetic poetry that have their roots in the experimental typography of the historical avant-gardes and European modernism, as well as the internationalist Concrete poetry of the 1950s. Programmed “code poetries,” the forms of the moment, will suffer a similarly pained relation to utopia (and/or apocalypse) as did hyperfiction, which has been hyped and debunked, and hyped and debunked again, at dizzying net-speed. Meanwhile, print culture and electronic media continue to interact, crossbreed, surge and ebb across and through each other in patterns that are mutually repressive and stimulating at the same time. What happens when a work created in and for the electronic medium then evolves “backward” onto the page? The task here is not only to notice proto-cybertexts, but also to think about what it means to produce a version of digital art for plain old paper.
- “Please, Use Your Browser’s 'Back’ Button.” Poetry Project Newsletter 180 (June-July 2000): 26-27.
New forms of Internet-dependent writing/coding are flourishing, and a good deal of it is important and extraordinary. Not merely an incitement to brave new poetries, however, Internet is also — and perhaps more significantly, thus far — an inexpensive distribution system for “old” ones as well. In the gift economies of “otherstream” poetry, it is perfectly forgivable, I think, simply to transfer one’s operations from the print medium to the Web, without feeling — yet — any ethical imperative to program.
- “Techne — nostos — physis: The procedural poetries of Joan Retallack.” EBR: Electronic Book Review 10 (Winter 1999-2000). URL: EBR site
The formalist writer today is, like the postmodern urban planner, an architect of rubble: everything has, in the most basic sense, been posited already; there are no “new” sensibilities, no “original” voices (though there are certainly voices that have historically been suppressed); now it is a matter of suggesting dialectics of access and retrieval, for archive (data bank) and research (recombination), that will lead us to specific provocations of that notion of “new.” But if “pure practice” — known in the trade as “craft” — can be codified and reproduced like any other technique, if a computer can be programmed to compose traditional sonnets, or sestinas, or terza rima, or Dickinsonian or Trakl-esque lyric, or Jamesian hypotaxis, or a hostile critic’s version of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing, or the gnarly jargon of postmodern academic prose, then perhaps the computer’s encroachment on human uniqueness is most meaningful in its specific historicity: everything has been posited already, yes, only not in this particular way, at this very moment. It is incumbent on the writer not to mourn the loss here (of her or his exclusive control of language), but instead to notice the specific new possibilities that loss indicates. It is in this sense that the procedural poet is the ghostwriter of genres.