July 28, 2003
Exchange on Circulars

[Here's the final, unedited version of Darren Wershler-Henry's and Brian Kim Stefans' exchange (in a series of 250-word paragraphs) about the website Circulars, which yet lives even if we treat it here as a dead project. The exchange meanders into a discussion of blogs, group authorship, appropriation, the public sphere, intellectual property, etc. and we get a little argumentative at the end -- not quite Freddy vs. Jason, but enough to create wrinkles. This exchange forms the third part of a three section essay on the website to be published in a forthcoming MIT book.]

BKS: I've come up with an awkward, unsettling title for this essay: "Circulars as Anti-Poem." I'm sure cries will be raised: So you are making a poem out of a war? The invasion was only interesting as content for an esoteric foray into some elitist, inaccessible cultural phenomenon called an "anti-poem"? (There is, in fact, a lineage to the term "anti-poem" but I don't think it's important for this essay.) This legitimate objection is to be expected, and I have no reply except the obvious: that a website is a cultural construct, shaped by its editors and contributors, and more specifically, Circulars had a "poetics" implicit in its multi-authored-ness, its admixture of text and image, its being a product of a small branch of the international poetry community, etc. Of course, the title also suggests that this website has some relationship to a "poem," but perhaps as a non-site of poetry—as it is a non-site for war, even a non-site for activism itself, where real-world effects don't occur. But my point for now is that the fragmentary artifacts of a politicized investigation into culture—Gramsci's Prison Notebooks for example—has an implicit "poetics" to it, but standing opposite to what we normally call a "poem." This suggests roles that poets can play in the world quite divorced from merely writing poetry (or even prose, though it was the idea that poets could contribute prose to the anti-war cause—as speech writers or journalists, perhaps—that initially inspired the site.

DWL: Hey Brian: what are you using to count words? MS Word says the previous paragraph has 254 words; BBEdit says 259 (me, I'm sticking to BBEdit). Poets—particularly poets interested in working with computers—should be all about such subtleties. Not that we should champion a mechanically aided will to pinpoint precision (a military fiction whose epitome is the imagery from the cameras in the noses of US cruise missiles dropped on Iraq during the first Gulf War), but rather, the opposite—that we should be able to locate the cracks and seams in the spectacle ... the instances where the rhetoric of military precision breaks down. As such, here's a complication for you: why "anti-poem" instead of simply "poetics"? Charles Bernstein's cribbing ("Poetics is the continuation of poetry by other means") of Von Clausewitz's aphorism ("War is the continuation of politics by other means") never seemed as appropriate to me as it did during the period when Circulars was most active. The invocation of Smithson's site/non-site dialectic is also apposite, but only in the most cynical sense. Is the US bombing of Iraq and Afghanistan the equivalent of a country-wide exercise in land art? In any event, the relationship is no longer dialectical but dialogic; the proliferation of weblogs ("war blogs") during the Iraq War created something more arborescent—a structure with one end anchored in the world of atoms, linked to a network of digital nonsites.

BKS: I hesitate to tease out the "non-site" analogy—the site itself is too variable: for me, I was thinking of Circulars as being the non-site of activism, not just a corollary to the sweat and presence of people "on the streets" but a vision of a possible culture in which these activities (otherwise abandoned to television) can exist, not to mention reflect and nourish culturally. That is, are our language and tropes going to change because of the upsurge in activity occurring around us - in the form of poster art, detourned "fake" sites, maverick blogging? I admit that some of what we've linked to is nothing more than glorified bathroom humor, but nonetheless if the context creates the content for this type of work as a form of dissent, I think that should be discussed, even celebrated. I haven't read too much about this yet. Thinking of Circulars as the "non-site" of the bombing itself is both depressing and provocative: it's no secret that one of the phenomena of this war was not the unexpected visibility of CNN, but Salam Pax's Dear Raed blog, written by a gay man from the heart of Baghdad (even now he is remaining anonymous because of his sexuality). I could see Circulars as a "poetics" but I prefer to think it as an action with a poetics, my own tendency being to think of poetry as the war side of the Clausewitz equation, simply because poetics seems closer to diplomacy than a poem.

DWL: The variability and heteroegeneity of the site, was, I think, partly due to the infrastructural and technological decisions that you made when putting the site together, because those decisions mesh well with the notion of coalition politics (I’m thinking of Donna Haraway’s formulation here). The presence of a number of posting contributors with varied interests, the ability of readers to post comments, the existence of an RSS (Rich Site Summary) feed which allowed anyone running a wide variety of web software packages to syndicate the headlines, a searchable archive, a regular email bulletin—these are crucial elements in any attempt to concentrate attention on the web. Too seldom do writers (even those avowedly interested in collaboration and coalition politics) take the effect of the technologies that they’re using into account, but they make an enormous difference to the final product. Compare Circulars to Ron Silliman’s Blog: on the one hand, you have an deliberately short-term project with a explicit focus, built around a coalition of writers on a technological and political platform that assumes and enables dialogue and dissent from the outset; on the other hand, an obdurate monolith that presents no immediate and obvious means of response, organized around a proper name. Sure, the sites have different goals, but Silliman’s site interests me because it seems to eschew all of the tools that would allow any writer to utilize the unique aspects of the web as an environment for writing. And sadly, that’s typical of many of the writers’ blogs that exist.

BKS: I haven’t been too bothered with those aspects of Silliman’s Blog for the mere fact that it would double his time having to respond to the comments, many of which could be vicious flames. I’ve deleted some of the comments on Circulars, in one case because the poster was making scandalous allegations (drugs, child molestation) about the head of an advertising agency, and another because the poster, in American fatwa-esque fashion, deemed that I should have a rocket shoved up my ass. Of course, your point is well taken—Silliman’s Blog could use some real-time play-by-play; I’m sure a diagnostic essay is forthcoming. I did set Circulars up with the intention of there being subsets of discussion on the site, separate groups of people who would engage with each other over some time—“committees” of sorts, with their own story threads. This happened for a brief period—there was a lot of heat generated by one of Senator Byrd’s speeches against the war, and there was a discussion about Barrett Watten’s “War = Language.” I was prepared to develop new sections of the site if anyone so requested, though I confess to being dictatorial about the initial set-up, basically because I know more about the web than most poets and I hate bureaucracy. I was hoping that some of the more frequent poet bloggers who were writing political material would send their more considered material for posting to Circulars, but most simply posted to their own blogs without telling me.

DWL: I’m not suggesting that blogs and newsforums should be about the abrogation of editorial control—far from it. It’s always necessary to do a certain amount of moderation and housecleaning, which, as you well know, takes assloads of time. During its peak, I was spending at least 2 or 3 hours a day working on Circulars, and I’m sure you put in even more time than that, even with the help of the other industrious people who were writing for the site. Which takes me back to the value of the coalition model: a decent weblog NEEDS multiple authors to work even in the short term. The classic example of a successful weblog is Boing Boing , a geek news site that evolved from a magazine and accompanying forum on the WELL in the late 80s/early 90s. Mark Frauenfelder, the original editor, has worked with many excellent people over the years, but the current group (including Canadian SF writer/ Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Cory Doctorow, writer/video director David Pescovitz and media writer/conference manager Xeni Jardin) presents a combination of individual talent and a shared vision. There’s nothing *wrong* with personal weblogs, but, like reality TV, they get awfully thin over time. Even when the current search technologies adapt to spider the extra text that blogging has created, the problem of anemic content isn’t going to go away unless we start doing more collective writing online. The problem is partly a need for education; most writers are still in the process of learning how to use the web to best advantage.

BKS: I'm not sure that it's necessary for a blog to be multi-authored; what it really needs is a mandate, and it's possible that, were the mandate simply to produce rich, incantatory prose -- imagine the Marcel Proust blog -- a highly disciplined approach could work. Steve Perry's Bushwarsblog, for example, succeeds quite well on this level (not the Proustian but the muckraker), as does Tom Mantrullo's Swiftian Commonplaces. Both of them have "political" agendas, but they are also well-written and thoughtful for what are in effect news publications without an editor. It helps that these two are journalists and conceptualize their blogs as a distinct form of news writing alternative to the mainstream -- the individual voice is sharpened by an informed sense of the social arena in which it will resonate (in which the message will ultimately become dulled). Just today, Tom posted a link to the Times story on corporate blogging—yecch -- and has coined this aphorism, a detournement from Foucault though sounding somewhat Captain Kirkish to me, to describe his project: "To blog is to undertake to blog something different from what one blogged before." A version of "make it new" but with the formal precedent being the blog itself -- a vow not to let individual "multi-authoring" become equal to corporate mono-glut. Perhaps the model blog is that which responds to the formal issues of other blogs as if they were social issues (i.e. beyond one's "community"), hence transforming the techne of the writer into a handling of hypertextual craft.

DWL: It’s all to easy too imagine the Marcel Proust blog—Christ, what a nightmare (shades of Monty Python: “Proust in his first post wrote about, wrote about …”). Endless streams of novelistic prose, no matter how incantatory, are *not* what I want to read online. William Gibson, for one, thinks there’s something inimical about blogging to the process of novel-writing. I think that the paragraph-as-“post” is the optimal unit of online composition, and that an optimal online style would be some sort of hybrid of prose poetry and healthy geek cynicism (imagine a Slashdot full of Jeff Derksens). But I think I see your point, that it’s possible for one writer to produce the kind of dialogic multiplicity that could sustain a blog. There is, however, a large difference between “possible” and “likely.” IMO, as less stratospheric talents than the geniuses of high modernism, we stand a better chance of generating strong content collectively. Another model that I find promising is the Haddock Directory -- a site I’ve been reading daily for at least 4 years. Haddock has recently moved to a two-column format: standard blog description-plus-link on the left (maintained by the site’s owner and editor-in-chief, if you will) and entries from the Haddock community blogs, identified by author, on the right. It’s a very neat example of the effective aggregation of data within a particular interest group. And it seems to follow Stein’s dicta “I write for myself and for strangers.”

BKS: I’m still curious about the line “generating strong content”—what do you mean by “content”? My guess is not “writing” as we know it, but some admixture of links, intro paragraphs, pictures, HTML formatting, that creates a dynamic, engaging, and timely space on the screen. “Content” moves from “writing” to the shape one creates by selectively linking to other sites, serving, but also provoking, a “particular interest group.” (I wrote earlier today in a dispute over blogs: “Circulars was a short-term effort (or as short-term as the war) that was a response to what I sensed was, or would be (or hoped to be) a moment of crisis in terms of American self-identification.” Who would have thought, ten years ago, that a group of weblinks and writing could contribute to a crisis in national identity?) Most writers would probably feel demeaned to be referred to as “content managers,” as if all writing were a versioning of some other writing (put it back in your pants, Harold), but, frankly, we’re admitting for a whole lot of plagiarism in this concept of “content.” I think the blog-ring model on haddock.org is strong, since it lets writers tend their gardens, deriving whatever classic satisfactions one gets from writing, and yet contribute unwittingly to a larger collective. I agree: some “types” of writing just work better online—claustrophobic syntax, also non-sequiturs, drives readers back to hunt for hearty prose (though writers like Hitchens seem to be as uncompromisingly belle-lettristic on screen as on paper).

DWL: I like to think of myself as a malcontent provider. As someone who works regularly with found text, copping to the “plagiarism” that’s at the heart of all “original” writing doesn’t worry me at all; in fact, I’m beginning to think it’s a necessary strategic position for artists at this particular moment in history. As thinkers like Siva Vaidyanathan and Lawrence Lessig have been arguing strenuously for the last few years, the concept of intellectual property is a relatively recent, regressive invention that has nothing to do with the reasons that copyright was established two hundred years ago, and that it actually reverses copyright’s original function – to provide a short-term monopoly solely to drive innovative thought, not to create perpetual profit. Artists in many disciplines are increasingly moving toward creative processes based on appropriation, sampling, bricolage, citation and hyperlinking, but the multinationals and the entertainment industries are driving legislation in the exact opposite direction by arguing that ideas can and should be owned. Artists and writers who have a large investment in their own “originality” do us all a serious disservice by refusing to recognize and protect the public domain … the very thing that makes ongoing artistic activity possible. So by all means, yes, don’t just “write” (a verb which in many cases bears the superciliousness of the Romantic), build (mal)content. Bring on the hyperlinks, intro paragraphs, pictures, PHP scripts and HTML formatting, especially if they help to demonstrate the mutual indebtedness that all creativity entails. Use Your Allusion.

BKS: Copyright laws may never expire fast enough for internet plagiarizers who want appropriation now, but I haven’t heard anything recently about the Edison company suing Napster, nor did the estate of George Meredith go after David Bowie for stealing “Modern Love.” Unfortunately, for poets it hardly matters—if there were a P2P system for trading poems, we’d love it, and so poetry may be not a rich ground for recruitment in this battle. No one cared about the Vaneigem series until the Times cease-and-desist letter came in (Vaneigem still doesn’t care); it’s the reverse of that Benny Hill routine in which a pervert’s trying to look up a lady’s skirt—once she takes it off and stands there in a bikini, he loses interest. Poets are already in the public domain—we’re floundering there, certainly not unwittingly, but nobody asks permission to steal their turns-of-phrase, their new sentences and rhetorical ticks, or any linguistic innovation. As for creative products geared toward highlighting how indebted creativity is to reworkings of other cultural products—I like them, of course, but didn’t this trend already pass, along with Verfremdung effects in theater— placards, talking to the audience, sweating on them? Kenny’s Day is an exception, but it took him 836 pages to be one. I welcome the challenge of working with language apart from appropriation, I suppose because, on the web, I’m all about appropriation—The Truth Interview, Circulars, etc.—and non-appropriative stuff—programming Flash, “writing” poems—seems fresh again. Ah, the dialectic!

DWL: If we treat creative products geared toward highlighting how indebted creativity is to reworkings of other cultural products as a trend that’s had its time, we’ll get precisely the culture we deserve – i.e. one with no public domain (with the Supreme Court’s rejection of the Eldred appeal of the Sonny Bobno Copyright Extension Act and Mexico considering extending copyright to life-plus 100 years and allowing the government to collect royalties on works in the public domain, we’re that much closer to a continent-wide lockdown). And while I agree in spirit with the notion that poetry’s value is arbitrary (which, for the most part, means it’s valueless), as someone who ran a press for five years, I know all too well that (a) poets are as capable of getting all pissy about contracts as any other kind of writer and (b) that no business is too small to receive a cease-and-desist letter from a multinational hell-bent on maxing out the value of its intellectual property holdings. Besides, with Circulars, I thought that the project wasn’t poetry qua poetry as much as it was expanding an innovative poetic sensibility outward into policy and politics … which means, in my mind at least, championing the values of an open relationship to content. As writers, we need to have the freedom not only to repost and recontextualize the news of the moment, but also to deconstruct, détourne and all of those other French verbs that start with D, without a constant fear of litigation.

BKS: Circulars was indeed intent, on the most abstract level, on “expanding an innovative poetic sensibility outward into policy and politics,” but not to argue for that sensibility. I agree that a liberated public domain is necessary to maintain the type of free-wheeling, free-borrowing public discourse necessary in a heteroglot “democracy” but, alas, the point of the site was to upset a government and exploit any means necessary in creating the sort of fervor one might associate with a “revolutionary” culture. Appropriation was one suprisingly popular means. Tom Raworth’s poem “Listen Up,” written in the voice of a bigoted warmonger in tight couplets and submitted as a joke to the “Poets For the War” website, was another (and stronger for being sui generis). I do think the torrent of “remixes” and detournements that ensued leading up to the war put centerstage a seething but as yet underground counterculture that shares many of your (and my) views on “property” – that could go somewhere. This is a generation of people who are on the other side of the paradigm shift regarding cultural property – that and other values could be the seed of a new, but as yet themeless, sensibility. My hope with Circulars was to illustrate the potential power of such sites in times of crisis as provocative, popular cultural tools, and to put our “avant-garde” poetics to the service of a specific cultural effort, not to refresh arguments for classic avant-garde gestures themselves. But, of course, intentions are neither here nor there.

DWL: Okay, time to boat this bass. I don’t think it’s possible to separate advancing an argument from at least the implicit support for the underlying sensibility – otherwise, you have no credibility. If the arguments you make succeed to some extent in supporting the cultural effort in question, then there is still some point in proceeding to operate from that underlying sensibility, because you’ve demonstrated its efficacity. Circulars was a beautiful thing because, within the mandate it established for itself, it worked … but part of the reason that it worked is that there’s something useful in the fusion of innovative poetics, geek culture and a transnational left/oppositional politics. That’s a more quiet stance than revolution, but I’m not a revolutionary, just a frustrated idealist with a talent for synthesis. As we continue to glue new fins and antennas to our weird little poetic cyberspaceship, I can’t help but feel that the underlying sense of the mission continues to evolve. I mean, I’ll use some of the techniques that the historic avant garde has to offer, but am not interested in many of its values (opacity, for instance) and am skeptical of the potential for revolution. That doesn’t mean that I won’t try to cruft together a more amenable space (for and with anyone who’s interested in being involved) in the interstices of late capitalism with whatever tools and materials are available. Right now, that means, among other things, websites, weblogs, mailing lists and whatever else we find along the way.

Posted by Brian Stefans at July 28, 2003 11:27 AM | TrackBack

Note the new asterisks whenever we reference favoriteNumber, except for that new line right before the return.

Posted by: Hugh on January 19, 2004 12:17 AM

For this program, it was a bit of overkill. It's a lot of overkill, actually. There's usually no need to store integers in the Heap, unless you're making a whole lot of them. But even in this simpler form, it gives us a little bit more flexibility than we had before, in that we can create and destroy variables as we need, without having to worry about the Stack. It also demonstrates a new variable type, the pointer, which you will use extensively throughout your programming. And it is a pattern that is ubiquitous in Cocoa, so it is a pattern you will need to understand, even though Cocoa makes it much more transparent than it is here.

Posted by: Pompey on January 19, 2004 12:17 AM

Note first that favoriteNumbers type changed. Instead of our familiar int, we're now using int*. The asterisk here is an operator, which is often called the "star operator". You will remember that we also use an asterisk as a sign for multiplication. The positioning of the asterisk changes its meaning. This operator effectively means "this is a pointer". Here it says that favoriteNumber will be not an int but a pointer to an int. And instead of simply going on to say what we're putting in that int, we have to take an extra step and create the space, which is what does. This function takes an argument that specifies how much space you need and then returns a pointer to that space. We've passed it the result of another function, , which we pass int, a type. In reality, is a macro, but for now we don't have to care: all we need to know is that it tells us the size of whatever we gave it, in this case an int. So when is done, it gives us an address in the heap where we can put an integer. It is important to remember that the data is stored in the heap, while the address of that data is stored in a pointer on the stack.

Posted by: Magdalen on January 19, 2004 12:18 AM

When the machine compiles your code, however, it does a little bit of translation. At run time, the computer sees nothing but 1s and 0s, which is all the computer ever sees: a continuous string of binary numbers that it can interpret in various ways.

Posted by: Owen on January 19, 2004 12:18 AM

This is another function provided for dealing with the heap. After you've created some space in the Heap, it's yours until you let go of it. When your program is done using it, you have to explicitly tell the computer that you don't need it anymore or the computer will save it for your future use (or until your program quits, when it knows you won't be needing the memory anymore). The call to simply tells the computer that you had this space, but you're done and the memory can be freed for use by something else later on.

Posted by: Eli on January 19, 2004 12:18 AM