Complex Occasions: The Cybernetic Attunement of American Poetry Open Access

Hessel-Mial, Michael (2016)

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The present study explores the relationship between American poetry and the early computer and information sciences called cybernetics. Arguing that the roots of contemporary digital culture lie in this intersection, I examine the role of information theory in the writings of Norbert Wiener, Martin Heidegger, Charles Olson, various early computer artists, and John Cage. These each examine, from widely varying disciplinary backgrounds, the significance of information's application of scientific measure and functionality to language. The first chapter describes the key terms in Norbert Wiener's cybernetics, information and feedback, as being motivated by both mathematical considerations and Wiener's considerable anxiety about the potential negative impact of automatic machinery on society. The second chapter examines Charles Olson's early poetry as witness to historical crisis, with the turning point being the arrival of cybernetics in his early masterwork, "The Kingfishers." Archival sources to show that feedback plays in conceptualizing his poetics, which is then elaborated over the Olson's later writings to join poetry and technology in his concept of "quantity." The third chapter outlines Martin Heidegger's critique of cybernetics as the "essence of technology," showing that his predicted results of cybernetics - globalization and increasing precarity in lived experience - characterize most later political critiques of cybernetics, as well as Heidegger's belief in the redemptive power of poetry. The fourth chapter offers a general survey of the application of cybernetics to aesthetics, focusing on two competing approaches: feedback-based works of automata and performance, and information-based works of computer-generated images, music and text. The fifth chapter examines the role of communications science in John Cage's writings in his book, Silence. Cage's term, "interpenetration," is examined as an adaptation of information principles to society itself, made interconnected by communications technology. "Complex Occasions" is a genealogy of digital culture, showing that key scientists, philosophers and poets identify the persistent aesthetic and political concerns surrounding digital technology.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Cybernetic Moment - 1

Chapter 1: Cybernetics Against Itself: Norbert Wiener and Cybernetics in History - 13

Chapter 2: To Prove the Law: Charles Olson and the New Poetic Way - 47

Chapter 3: Bringing Heidegger to Measure: Technology, Ontology, Temporality - 90

Chapter 4: Cybernetics and the Arts: A New Aesthetic Program - 146

Chapter 5: Saying Yes to Chaos: John Cage, Interpenetration, Information - 182

Conclusion: The Measure of the Occasion - 245

Bibliography - 250

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