Over the past decade, expanding access to Big Data has produced a number of innovations in electronic literature and digital culture more broadly, ranging from Twitter bots, media art and generative poetry utilizing social data to vernacular creative writing, journalism and fictocriticism on platforms such as Tumblr and BuzzFeed. These divergent modes of expression all rely on the ability to find and sort high-volume, real-time, multimodal digital data – for example tweets, Instagram photos, animated GIFs, YouTube videos, SoundCloud audio tracks and more – and recombine them in novel works of bricolage. Yet despite the increasing prominence of these writing practices, they have received scant scholarly attention.
In this paper, I propose that we consider these works as a discrete class that employ a novel and distinctive orientation to literary craft: namely, the central writerly act inheres not in the crafting of sentences but in interfacing with data structures via search string manipulation. This process typically has three steps: first, a search string is constructed with primarily Boolean operators; next, the results are sorted via manual browsing or algorithmic filtering; finally, the disparate content is assembled together with traditionally crafted text or paratext into a coherent whole. I demonstrate the technique with two examples: the data-driven e-lit installation “Death of an Alchemist” by myself and Dr Andrew Burrell, appearing at ISEA2015, and the “Buzzademia” digital humanities initiative led by Mark Marino, which I have been closely involved in as a writer for BuzzFeed.
With its emphasis on repurposing online content, this emergent digital writing technique clearly must be understood as belonging to the broader ecosystem of remix culture; it also has obvious links to the conceptual poetry movement. However, the emphasis on optimizing data search sets these works apart from those related tendencies. Invoking Sigmund Freud’s analogy of the “mystic writing pad”, which has previously been compared with hypertext, I suggest that we understand this new poetics through a related metaphor: scratch art paper, a children’s toy that allows the user to trace an original figure that is wholly constituted by another, previously created drawing. Literary originality is, increasingly, expressed through the deployment of virtuosic search terms aimed at finding the creative work of others.
This nascent form of poetics is, I argue, a defining literary technique of the age of Big Data. Indeed, for several reasons, we may consider such writing as being not literary but post-literary. It often resists categorization under the rubric of “literature”, proudly associating with lowbrow and vernacular forms of communication. Such writing also eschews traditional models of literary authorship in favour of a liminal form of human-machinic agency. Finally, it is often pervasively multimodal, de-emphasizing the written word in favor of image, video and other non-verbal data.
The post-literary turn, if we accept that is what these forms of writing represent, offers some exciting new modes of creative expression. On the other hand, it may also be considered symptomatic of what Peter Sloterdijk has called the waning power of language – and the growing tyranny of images and data – under late capitalism. Reconceiving search strings as literature thus presents a tangled knot of opportunities and problems.
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