Speculative Computing as Methodology

Denton's Game of Life code

Benjamin Laird

Primarily, my project The Code of Things is researching the differences in the representation of a person in biographical poetry across media. This of course has methodological implications: representing a person in biographical poetry requires an approach that takes historical information and reinterprets it as poetry.

In Dorothy Livesay’s essay The Documentary Poem: A Canadian Genre she writes that documentary poetry is “a conscious attempt to create a dialectic between the objective facts and subjective feelings of the poet”. And while I think there are differences between biographical poetry and documentary poetry, I still find Livesay’s suggested dialectic to be at the centre of both kinds of poetry.

Moving biographical poetry into programmable media immediately affects the process of writing poetry. Usually for me, writing print-based poems requires drawing in multiple sources and software—such as LibreOffice and Inkscape. While my poems in programmable media will often follow a similar method of construction (many of my poems, regardless of media, begin with pen and paper), it is in their finished state in programmable media that they will continue to use and negotiate with other programs, libraries and frameworks. For instance, even the simplest web-based poems are incomplete without a browser capable of rendering the poem. This is because the poem exists only as a potential, until the code is executed when the reader encounters the poem.

The proposition of comparing print-based and screen-based works is one that comes from the earliest research in digital poetry and hypertext. As Talan Memmott points out in Beyond Taxonomy, while it was useful in the development of the field of digital poetry to show precedents, a focus on the differences between screen and print tended to minimise the capabilities of poetry in programmable media and also the immense variations between technologies and individual practitioners.

There are also a range of styles and modes between individual poems and poetry collections independent of media, which experimental print collections like Bloody Jack and Marionette show. The media characteristics I am exploring are framed in terms of how a poet can exploit them to represent a historical figure in biographical poetry. This poet-centric approach is unavoidable, perhaps, as writing biographical poetry involves the “subjective feelings of the poet”—and thus, the poet cannot be removed from the poem.

Memmott suggests thinking about individual digital poems as instruments. For that to be realised, though, “one must first recognise [the digital poem] as a specific application or piece of software: a tool for the development of something other than itself”. Memmott compares the digital poem as tool/instrument to that of a clarinet. A clarinet is learned much like a digital poem, and a “digital poetry object is by default … a piece of software that needs a user to become an instrument of/for signification”.

In this framework, the digital poem (or poem in programmable media) is a subjective instrument or tool. As such, I am applying/trying/experimenting with Johanna Drucker’s speculative computing as outlined in SpecLab. Drucker writes that speculative computing was defined “to push subjective and probabilistic concepts of knowledge as experience (partial, situated, and subjective) against objective and mechanistic claims for knowledge as information (total, managed, and externalised”.

This resonates a lot with my work, where the writing of biographical poetry embraces the “partial, situated, and subjective” through the use of poetry as the form in which the biographical is presented.

Furthermore, speculative computing differs from digital humanities in that while

[t]he digital humanities community has been concerned with the creation of digital tools in humanities contexts. The emphasis in speculative computing is instead the production of humanities tools in digital contexts. We are far less concerned with making devices that do things—sort, organise, list, order, number, compare—than with creating ways to expose any form of expression (book, work, text, image, scholarly debate, bibliographical research, description, or paraphrase) as an act of interpretation (and any interpretive act as subjective deformance).

Though I am building a database to store much of what I find on Denton (his books of research, poetry, letters and journals) the artefacts created as a result of that part of the research are all the product of acts of interpretation and so clearly on the speculative side. Yet it is at the point where archival material transforms into poetry that my research is being done. Speculative computing offers a model of humanities computing that, as Livesay states, is central to documentary poetry: the “dialectic between the objective facts and subjective feelings”.

In Denton’s three volume The Soul of Things, much of the reporting documents life on other planets and histories of Earth as seen by psychometrically sensitive members of his family. Through being psychometrically aware of places and objects, or even on pinpoints of light in the night sky, whole visions of other landscapes and histories come to life through Denton's transcriptions. This documentation was produced via a scientific process that was a consequence of Denton’s beliefs, and he of his time. Denton’s method reinterprets historical artefacts so that they take on the histories the psychometers believe the objects had; it is a method that reveals much about Denton’s character. All this leaves me to conclude that an interpretation that uses digital poems as instruments of meaning-making, and as conscious attempts at creating a dialectic between objective facts and the subjective interpretations of the researcher is one that best suits the representation of Denton.

These are still incomplete thoughts. I still want to explore what the individual poems are capable of expressing and in what ways the poems are part of a larger work, a work that requires multiple reading strategies. And even though I think of all the poems as a single work, I still refer to them as individual poems. These questions I expect will be resolved, partially at least, as I create more works and progress further into the Denton archive.