Visual and Sound Poetics in the Technologizing of Culture
by Philadelpho Menezes
To discuss trends in experimental, concrete, and visual poetry during the last four decades (the theme of this meeting), we need, first of all, to establish a basic agreement about the meaning of those terms. I think it is correct to use "experimental poetry" as a generic term which embodies every kind of non-versified and non-declamatory poetics not linked to the rhetoric and stylistic configuration of traditional writing. In this way, every aesthetic which appeared in our century (futurism, dada, surrealism, cubo-futurism, phonetic poetry, lettrism, concretism, electronic poetry, sound poetry, visive poetry, and so on) is but a variety of aspects of the same poetics of experimentation, a poetics which emerges as an effect of the crisis of écriture and stretched out as a mark of the intersemiosis of the whole century.
But in what sense can the "experimental poetry" be understood after the overcoming of the spirits of avant-garde and its poetics of revolution through the changing of the aesthetic sign? What does experimental poetry mean in a period of culture when every activity of daily routine seems to deal with the newness of technologies and when we all must experience the prospect of permanent change?
It is clear that "experimental" here doesn't carry the sense of traditional experiments as literary theory has been trying to establish. According to this point of view, every writer employs the techniques of experimentation in his particular process of creation in order to elaborate a special style which allows him to distinguish himself from his masters. The search for a specific style can be justifiable only in a culture of traditional writing where esteem for the masters has importance in a conception of the indisputable superiority of the past and the perpetual decadence of the present. Since futurism, "experimental" has come to mean exactly the opposite: the crisis of past and the constant invention of the future from the re-invention of the present.
I adopt the term "experiment" to designate not the particular process of writing, but the poem as a complex of codes, signs, and techniques directed to a reception modified by the intersemiosis of contemporary mass culture. In the field of experimental poetics, to consider the private universe of the author does not matter. We must consider the social system of communication established between author, work of art, and consumers. In this way, it is possible to understand the importance of the new possibilities of form and techniques of work opened up by the old avant-gardes.
It is also important to rethink the role of reception as a fundamental element for the existence of a work of art. The poem-reception relation may be explained by the utopia of non-style and by the recipes for creation of poems that we can find from futurism to the concrete and visual poetry of the 60s. These recipes functioned as an impersonal formula workable impersonally by everybody even though they didn't hinder many poets from fixing a distinctive style among the general rules of avant-garde poetics.
Nevertheless, experimental poetry cannot explain too much unless it is divided into two phases as seems to occur in every art of our century. In the first half of the twentieth century, avant-garde poetry explored material and formal ways; that is, it explored the material feature of signs as well as their organization inside the poem. It is well known that there was not a simple intention to innovate just for the sake of innovating. The main attempt was to provoke a rupture with the traditional rhetoric of poetry by inserting the materiality of the sign into the work of art as an index of daily life. Introducing a sign of daily life was an attempt to reconcile art and life in a utopian project of revolution of sensibility and mind.
On the other hand, materiality and organization allowed poets to create new forms of relation between signifieds and signifiers, new potentialities for the semantic level of communication. These last three decades have brought a general crisis of utopian projects, together with a failure of avant-garde intentions, and new perspectives for artistic language have been offered with the non-materiality of technological signs. The immaterial sign of the new technologies begins by questioning and giving up formal and material experiment, inasmuch as it cancels the corporeal sign and its indexical relation with physical life.
What is the immediate effect of this overview, presented above, in experimental poetry? It seems to me that poets have found two ways. One is a trend of those who are linked to historical fashions of experimental poetry: the option is to seize upon the verbal constructions which can offer them a paradigm of security among the instability of new features of technological signs. Nevertheless, this cannot prevent them from experimenting with the new technologies, notwithstanding the old manner of their application of media. This trend is commonly seen in visual poetry.
The other tendency is to adopt non-materiality as an axis for contemporary communication. Counterbalancing that peculiar condition, poets put themselves at stake as the unique material sign of poem. This leads to an enigmatic postulation where the poet works like a technologized musarum sacerdos. The poem emerges as immaterial and intangible words, a kind of secret and lost language linked to Epiphany. The mystic approach towards technology can be observed from McLuhan's theory of a Pentecostal reintegration of the world to Paul Zumthor's search for the oral essence of mankind; from Hugo Ball's phonetic poems to Pierre Garnier's concept of a primordial souffle, and to recent sound and performance poetry. They emphasize the characteristic feature of post-avant-garde art, which seems to be marked by a search for a revival of the sublime and an apathy of reception a corollary of the emptying of the potentiality for transgression caused by daily life's routine of technique innovation.
Besides, I must observe that the two trends above described, each in its own way, are able to dialogue with the advent of a culture of new technologies. They differ radically from the nostalgic attitude which sees in new technologies the end of civilization, a rupture with the order of traditional humanism, and the coming of apocalypse. What I want to point out is that the poetics of technologies undoubtedly an emblem of the poetry of this end of century has not yet been explored as it could be: the new kind of expression that the discourse of image, sound, and word can produce. New dimensions and rhythms and even new conceptions of reality, suggested by the technological media, might not need the revival of verbal discourse, as it occurs predominantly in visual poetry, nor the revival of a mystical mode of sound poetry.
In my practice as a poet, I have been trying to investigate especially the new forms that technological media suggest for organizing visual and sound signs in space and time. But I try to escape from the specific problems of form to head for a semantic field where the complex relation between reality and thought for aesthetic signs is imposed. In 1985 in S o Paulo I organized a polemical exhibition, called "Intersign Poetry," in which I proposed that after decades of experiments with sound and image effects, experimental poetry must address itself also to the new meanings that new forms can produce. Such poetry must begin with the opened possibilities of organization of the form in new syntaxes required by technology, if one works with technical media, or suggested by technology, if one works on paper or with traditional means.
Linguistic and semiotic theories agree with the idea that our thought is conditioned by the form and the organization of the signs in a discourse. And these theories argue that language is fascist, as Roland Barthes said, because it imposes a procedure of thinking and guides us to a certain concept of reality which reinforces the system of language. We can escape from this vicious circle only if we are able to perceive the fragility of the links between signs and thought, language and reality. Poetry is the chief guide for this practice because it exposes the sign as a touchable event that makes signs as real as the material world, in spite of the fact that signs are a creation of thought. An expressive language based on new ways of combining different kinds of signs gives rise to another form of rationality and another conception of reality, but this is possible only if this language constitutes itself at a complex semantic level of interpretation varied degrees of signification. Experimental poetry of the last four decades (especially concrete, visual, and sound poetry) faced the fact that transgression and strangeness have become meaningless in a society saturated by daily technical changes. It confronted also the end of a utopian perspective which nourished the sense of revolution of the historical avant-gardes and put in its place the realm of technological features as a way to bring poetry perpetually up to date (as if it also brought the poet physically renewed).
Experimental poetry today, what I conceive as Intersign Poetry, must confront the realm of visual and sound effects and must try to find ways to organize signs, in order to fill the technological products of poetry with the richness of ambiguity and complexity that signs contain when they are worked as ambivalent phenomena aimed at interpretation.
If the first technological phase was marked by the idea of against interpretation, experimental poetry today, which includes a second technological phase, must work on behalf of reading visual and sound effects. It would keep the spirit of experimentation, then nourished by an opened utopia, a pluritopia which expresses a permanent sense of reinvention and variation (or transformation) of the world.
Pignotti, Lamberto e Stefanelli, Stefania
Polkinhorn, Harry, ed.
© copyright 1995, Philadelpho Menezes