Poetics of the Data/Body: Intimating Data Visualization After the Post-Internet Turn
When I was a kid, “internet” was still written with a capital “I,” the Internet, like a first-person pronoun, a discrete selfhood. And I was on it. Before Lev Manovich situated algorithms as organized expressions of culture, a kind of spell for transmuting reality into experimental narratives, I was dialing up “Wicca” on the family PC because I wanted to be Sarah Bailey from The Craft. Before Katherine Hayles articulated computer code, like speech and writing, as identarian performances that blur the lines between human and machine, my mom was yelling at me to get off Myspace and finish my meatloaf.
Now that the internet is ubiquitous, lowercase, I’m never not on it. I am it, from my personalized ads to my biometric login, and I’m not telling you anything new, anything smart. I harbor no nostalgia for a life before and I struggle to entertain an alternative future because, as someone (Mark Fisher? Fredric Jameson? Slavoj Žižek?) once remarked, “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” But sometimes, like when a crush lights up my cell and my gut jumps, I wonder whether I’m not falling for a screen. I wonder whether I’m in a submissive relationship with data: its power, visualization. I wonder whether I like it. Whether I’m a sub or a subversion. Whether I have a choice. What does it mean—what meaning can I have—in being post-internet or, to borrow from Florian Cramer, to exist in contemporary culture when fascination with the digital has become historical?
What does it mean—what meaning can I have—in being post-internet or, to borrow from Florian Cramer, to exist in contemporary culture when fascination with the digital has become historical?
The term “post-internet,” I’ve learned, already exists, emerging from unclear lineage in the visual art world. Nonetheless, one point of entry into a lived reality immutably connected to, and intimately habituated by, the online realm could be the spring of 2011, when Harm van den Dorpel tweeted, “Doesn’t the impact of the internet on arts reach far beyond art that deals with the internet?” Similarly, Artie Vierkant signifies post-internet as “a distinction which carries ramifications beyond the art context as a societal condition at large, and […] it would be antithetical to attempt to pinpoint any discrete moment at which the Post-Internet period begins.” For Marisa Olson, to whom the legibility of the post-internet moniker is also attributed, the ascendancy of the internet operates like an invisible hand as much for the specialized art audience as for the average person. “There doesn’t seem to be a need to distinguish, any more, whether technology was used in making the work,” Olson writes. “[A]fter all, everything is a technology, and everyone uses technology to do everything.” According to Cory Arcangel, the technicity of post-internet practice is equally immersive. “Internet art can be anything,” Arcangel states. “The Internet is a research tool […] Lots of artists are making Internet art, although outwardly their work may have nothing to do with computers.”
Crucially for these proleptic purveyors of post-internet art, post-internet is not a movement or a denomination, but a condition of culture as inherently networked, a promiscuous aggregate of discourses, ideologies, subjectivities, methodologies, performances, productions, distributions, and aesthetics formed by informing each other across virtual and actual spaces and throughout time. Within its ambiguous genealogy, post-internet art is art made after the internet and/or art that is aware of the internet and/or art that is about the internet and/or art that utilizes the internet and/or art that exists on the internet. The categorical malleability of “post-internet” has thus resulted in formal innovations, notably the zeitgeist of post-internet poetry.
The categorical malleability of “post-internet” has thus resulted in formal innovations, notably the zeitgeist of post-internet poetry.
Poetic devices traditionally serve to foreground their medium specificity relative to the language of other literary genres, nonliterary texts, everyday speech, computational language, etc. as in a form of glitch, making a poem more of a poem. In contrast, my understanding of post-internet poetry exists within the context of culture after the invention of the internet as a form of black box. To the extent that post-internet can persist as a medium, it is in Marshall McLuhan’s sense of a technological extension of human grasp, an interface translating between body and environment. Charles Whalley appears at the forefront of theorizing post-internet poetry, exchanging medium fetishization for an analytical lens on the production of meaning and subjectivity. “We are almost in a future where to talk about poetry ‘influenced by the digital age’ is as redundant as talking about poetry ‘influenced by print,’” Whalley writes. What interests Whalley are not novel technologies, but the cultural substrate in which technologies play an omnipresent role. After the post-internet turn, poetry cannot be analyzed according to values of literary interpretation that treat the author as singular and authorial intent as an inscription that can be successfully decoded. Rather, poetry must be analyzed in relation to media theories that can frame poetry as timely inquiries into the networked subject position and the expression of multi-partisan human and nonhuman intensities.
I propose that Jussi Parikka’s concept of “media archaeology” presents a methodology of and for the allocentric post-internet perspective. While “archaeology” might conjure associations with digging down or bringing to light, Parikka’s project is more about learning to recognize the stratification of media for what it is: a relational tension between old and new, past and present, static and dynamic, minor and major, apparatus and context, actual and imaginary, material and immaterial. The aim of media archaeology is to understand any media—that is, any object of study—neither in isolation nor as the result of linear, universalizing progress. It is opposed to seeing so-called old media as simply obsolete and so-called new media as uncomplicated harbingers of innovation.
Parikka’s concept is indebted to Michel Foucault’s contribution to the archaeology of knowledge and culture, which, as Parikka summarizes, asks “why a certain object, statement, discourse or, for instance in our case, media apparatus or use habit is able to be born and be picked up and sustain itself in a cultural situation.” Parikka also draws upon Erkki Huhtamo’s work on the cyclical nature of phenomena in media culture and Siegfried Zielinski’s work on the ways in which sensory perception encounters the past in the present in order to stage an archaeology that moves nonhierarchically. Rather than digging down, I think of media archaeology more like revealing vectors. Rather than bringing to light, I think of media archaeology more like inspecting the nodes where displaced earth has collected.
Rather than digging down, I think of media archaeology more like revealing vectors. Rather than bringing to light, I think of media archaeology more like inspecting the nodes where displaced earth has collected.
I think media archaeology has a big crush on vectors and nodes. I think its gut jumps for post-internet poetry. In what ways can a post-internet poem function media archaeologically in form as well as content? I attempt here to offer a provocation—an instance in which poetry enunciates both an aesthetics tightly interwoven with technology and an auto-inscription of technology in order to reclaim a sense of self in an age when connectivity can seem obfuscating and the capitalist regime that produces connectivity can seem untenable. If my data/body is bigger than I am, if my data/body extorts me, if it will outlive me, if whatever I am is the tiny dot of an “i” within the intercorporeality of the internet, if I am a porous artifact ensconced by systems I cannot touch but which I feel keenly, maybe applied media archaeology can help me reattach to three important sites that its theory articulates: the body, the imaginary, and the archive.
My following poem emerges from a Gephi-directed social graph generated using the open-source Twitter Analytics tool developed by the University of Amsterdam’s Digital Methods Initiative. Twitter Analytics collected posts on Twitter with the hashtag #artbasel and #abmb during the professionally prestigious and always infamous Art Basel Miami Beach fair in December 2012. This produced a set of 25,210 tweets, which the tool exported along with additional data culled by applying filters including, “Which other hashtags were most often associated with the subject?” and “Who tweets the most under the chosen hashtags?” I then used these exports to generate Pivot Table reports that identified recurrences and commonalities. Lastly, I imported this information into the Gephi program, which visualized it as a social graph directed by user mentions and activity.
This resulting graph represents link weight by connecting hashtags and coloring the connections in order to map patterns of communication and locate communities within the data. Purple, for example, represents the activity of South Florida public relations, event management, and social media marketing, while green represents a largely local blogosphere. This graph also represents the frequency of user activity by scaling the size of individual nodes. Interestingly, the Tribal Art Miami satellite fair appears overwhelmingly as the most active Twitter user, despite being infrequently retweeted itself. And there seemed to me something moving—something both tragic and commendable in its vulnerability—about one node going all out so hard.
And there seemed to me something moving—something both tragic and commendable in its vulnerability—about one node going all out so hard.
If web epistemologists study the internet as a distinct knowledge culture—if Twitter is an archivable object of study—then it also has mass: it can feel, collide, fall (in love). My data/body was there too: in Miami, where I lived; at the fair, where I worked; in love, where I wished I were. The poem I will share and analyze is not so much an interpretation of the data visualization as it is a response to it—a refusal, in fact, to accept data as a closed system and an insistence upon #heartbreak in excess of medium specificity:
The sun thumps your back,
baby, new pink
involucre bending over
a broken turtle, your ass a soft thumb
beside the highway, your weight the uvula
on the hell mouth, hot as fuck. You look
like a topiary schoolboy dared to be tender.
You look like the Trapper Keeper of my dreams.
You squint your nose like the mascot
to my Parliament of Things, a platform
for ambient intimacy, where a Solo cup
is never lonely, and good things come
to every thing. One balmy ribbon of blood
dots the asphalt between us: fold here,
sweet antipode! Doubled over, vomiting
brings us momentarily closer to god.
A media archaeology of the poem could begin, then, with the sedimentary layers of its production: the Art Basel Miami Beach fair, the participating artists and artworks, the local and visiting populations, the travel fuel emissions, the text and image content generated during the event, the food consumed, the drugs done, the money exchanged, the weather enjoyed, the sweat evaporated, the ocean that bore witness. This describes Parikka’s media archaeology of the body, which invites “affect as a way to think of media outside representation and as a process of material mediation that attaches to the body outside the cortex as well.” Media, in this sense, is affect-coded through haptic sensations, emotions, and signifying semiotics. “Whereas there is nothing new in the turn towards the body,” Parikka writes, “the way it is intertwined with […] the senses and their media technological conditions is what distinguishes media archaeology as a useful methodology.”
Media, in this sense, is affect-coded through haptic sensations, emotions, and signifying semiotics.
A media archaeology of this poem, then, could begin with the sedimentary layers of the Art Basel Miami Beach fair as a dataset: Twitter, the digital tools used to scrape, store, evaluate, and visualize information, the code that performed these commands, the databases in which they remain somewhere living, the underground cables through which they traveled, the minerals in the Peruvian Amazon harvested to manufacture my laptop, the temperature, respiratory, digestive, and cellular processes, and electrical rhythms of my body as I first considered this data in 2012 and as I consider it now. This describes Parikka’s media archaeology of the archive. Once a centralized site of object-oriented storage, the archive has evolved into a distributed network necessitating curatorial decisions, which constitute “the primary form not only of organizing and expressing, but of producing realities.”
A media archaeology of this poem could begin, then, with the sedimentary layers of the Art Basel Miami Beach fair as recalled from my tenure in the 305, my position at the Rubell Family Collection of contemporary art, the shared apartment on NE 26th Terrace, the promise and precarity of my early twenties, my social media during that time, my friends, my possessions, my dispossession, my desire. This describes Parikka’s media archaeology of the imaginary, or “the drive to find important ideas and contexts outside actually existing technologies.” Imaginary media exist in lapsed memory; in non-object-based forms, such as electricity, ghosts, or nonhuman scales palpable only through their containers including the body; and in desire. Imaginary media thereby remain as largely unrealized or unrealizable concepts. Parikka, however, is interested in materialist notions of imaginary media like, perhaps, the exteriority of this post-internet poem.
Media archaeologies of the body, the archive, and the imaginary are impossible to contain within purely analog or digital cartographies. To the extent that this poem exists on the page or screen, it is nonetheless an affective assemblage, unsterile, made new through media archaeological readings, made material-semiotic through disruptions of digital abstraction. In this vein, questions like “What is post-internet art?” cede themselves to questions like “What are the conditions of possibility?” It is possible that somewhere in some stratification of the ground I’ve covered, I could encounter Sarah Bailey from The Craft. I could encounter this essay and all of you readers, art-goers, sunbathers, lovers that are now part of this reading. Thank you for your participation.
Publab Fellow 2022
Kendall Grady is a former LARB Summer Publishing Workshop participant and a current educator, poet, and PhD candidate at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where they write toward a media theory of love and the couplet form.