Computer Poems and Codework: Redefining Subjectivity for the Digital Age / by Kurt Beals

Computer Poems and Codework: Redefining Subjectivity for the Digital Age

Kurt Beals

This paper considers how poets have responded to the changing function of language in the digital age, and specifically how they have developed models of hybrid subjectivity to replace the traditional lyric subject. The first computer poems were written in 1959 in Germany, when Theo Lutz programmed the Zuse Z 22 to write poems using a simple algorithm. In the decades that followed, electronic literature and Netzliteratur took a wide variety of forms in different countries, with some digital authors employing increasingly sophisticated forms of computer animation, while some moved towards the fictional strategies offered by hypertext. Meanwhile, other authors working both in German and in other languages attended increasingly to the “materiality” of the apparently immaterial digital text, focusing on the quantified and encoded character of language in digital media. Some poets, following Lutz’s lead, programmed poetry generators to produce texts that approximate human compositions to a greater or lesser degree. Others, such as Florian Cramer, John Cayley, and Mez (Mary-Anne Breeze), turned their attention to computer code languages, either writing poems that double as executable computer code or integrating fragments of code into the visible “surface” of their works. These strategies explore the interface of digital technologies and their human users, presenting the act of writing as a process of feedback or collaboration between human and digital authors. Building on the work of theorists such as N. Katherine Hayles and Lydia Liu, this paper examines how these experiments challenge traditional models of poetic subjectivity founded on the lyric “I” and suggest alternative models of authorial agency and subjectivity suited to the digital age.

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