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From the letter to electronic lettrism.

Derrick de Kerckhove ASCII

From the letter to electronic lettrism.The reincarnation of the word and the implosion of the Muses. Interview to Derrick de Kerckhove by Emanuela Patti. Wicklow, July 23rd, 2010

EP: After its original form of orality, for many centuries now literature has mainly developed as a creative form of expression of the Gutenberg Galaxy In the technological shift from writing to digital language, from text to hypertext though, the word seems to undergo a new transformation In some of your lectures, you used the concept of ‘electronic lettrism’ to describe this evolution Could you explain what you mean by that?

DdeK: In 1947 Isidore Isou, a Parisian artist, published the manifest of lettrism. In fact, lettrism further develops what Arthur Rimbaud had started with Voyelles, meant to give colour to the letter, and rethink the letter as something sensorial. This offers an artistic dimension to the problem; it is a form of calligraphy, which originates, in my opinion, from the impact of the new technologies of reproduction and diffusion of publicity images on erstwhile bare Paris walls, but it’s also a return of the senses into writing: Apollinaire’s Calligrammes, for example, turn the lines of writing into images.

Electronic lettrism is the same thing, but at a higher level. It brings a return of the senses in the letter, the return of the word, to be more precise. The letter favoured the eradication of the senses from the word, in fact, reduced it to the reproduction of signs. As a consequence, virtual reality is the reverse of all this, it heralds the return of the Muses, the implosion of the Muses on the electronically augmented human body. One could think that the virtual dimension has nothing to do with language and all to do with the senses. I believe that the virtual is a product of language; however, it is not a product of the written word. We will always go through the letter, but in this dimension of lettrism the artistic ambition is to please and carry people beyond it. In this respect, I refer to the electronic Logos as the place where we find the imitation of the ancient Logos, the magic, creative, productive, diffusive dimension of the divine word which creates things. That we find in the electronic letter. That’s it! The electronic lettrism is the shift to this dimension.
It is an exaggeration to say that the Muses implode on themselves, but it is an exaggeration which makes us understand that we are not experiencing the explosion of the things from the alphabetic letter, but the implosion of things. Therefore, augmented literarity addresses the word rather than the letter.

EP: Moving on to the question of readership, you distinguish between the
‘literary person’ and the ‘screen person’ Could you explain the difference between the two and how the concept of ‘screen person’ affects the reception of a text, or, I should rather say, of a hypertext?

DdeK: The ‘screen person’ and the ‘literary person’ are easy to distinguish, as the literary person introduces the world into the head and processes the information in a silent and private way. This does not mean you cannot write or speak. The point is that the process of reflection and creativity first starts inside the head; in other words, it is an abstract description you have to embody through the sensorial memory of your senses. So, going back to electronic lettrism, this is indeed the embodiment/reincarnation of the word at a second degree. In this respect, instead of doing things inside the head, the ‘screen person’ does it outside the head, and not alone, but potentially employing an amazing quantity of resources and process systems and having the possibility to share interests with a group of people without being physically present.
This creates a very different situation: while it is clear that it is always the head that does the main processing of the information, all the while, most other cognitive skills (drawing, designing, calculating, music composition and interpretation, professional, social and personal organization, sorting, classifying, storing, remembering and imagining) are more and more delegated to the machine.
The screen person is someone who takes advantage of this possibility and spends his time between the external and the internal condition.

EP: How is that going to affect our imaginary and our memory? And what impact could that have on literature?

DdeK: To tell the truth, I do not know what the consequences of this situation on one’s personality could be and I cannot even foresee it. Nevertheless, the existence of this scenario reminds me of Plato and his tale, where Theuth offers writing to the god Amon Rah and tells him to have found a remedy for the memory of human beings. And Amon Rah, who is much smarter, replies: ‘To invent is one thing, to foresee is another. You think you have discovered the remedy for memory loss, but actually you found how to forget about everything, by relying on external sources instead of remembering by oneself. This will create an insufferable amount of ignorant people’. But Eric Havelock makes another point, namely that literacy did not make people stupid or ignorant, it liberated their mind from the need to repeat and remember so that they could finally innovate.
The impact on literature is that it turns into crossmedia, transcinema, videogames, interactive art installations, Youtube, and, why not, the genre of the epigram, Twitter.

EP: If you trust more and more machines and delegate your normal cognitive functions to them, Is Google making us really stupid?

DdeK:I have already found an electronic answer to Montaigne, who used to say ‘Il vaut mieux une tête bien faite qu’une tête bien pleine’ (better a head well-made than one well filled). Nowadays who cares about well-made and well-filled heads? Let’s put all the heads together!

Back to Havelock, on the one side there is Plato’s thinking followed by moralist philosophers, on the other side there is Eric Havelock, who was much inspired by – and inspiring to-McLuhan. He says: ‘If ancient Greeks have lost their memory because they moved it from their heads into the books, they have gained a lot in terms of invention. Instead of wasting a lot of energies for remembering, they have gathered all their energies for thinking. Pas mal. I like this reasoning and I find it in line with my positive, optimistic dimension. Now the question is: what happens if you give not only your memory but also your cognitive processes, such as deduction, innovation, creativity, which are operations normally associated with humans to machines? What could be the outcome for the head, after that it has got ridden of thinking and calculating tasks?

EP: An empty head? Is that possible at all?

DdeK: Well, the emptiness of Eastern wisdom is the way to be as full as possible. I cannot say whether this is either positive or negative. I am reporting things I am interested in and I find it totally useful to think about it rather than simply reporting. I am thinking about it and can never find a solution. What is this incredible implosion of all the heads together for? What is this phenomenon of the electronic language for? The screen person is different, as I think, from the literary person. I imagine the screen person as something different, but I cannot feel and see him/her well yet. What I do see is that the networked person is not the same as the literate one. It’s a different geometry. When you are hyper connected and exposed every minute to some kind of sensor, you become transparent. Not to yourself but to whoever needs to x-ray you. Your identity is supported by your connections not by your personality. Are we either absolutely different or are we exactly the same just with different tools? I think today we are different, as much as the person of the Middle Ages is different from the person of the Renaissance. And this difference between the medieval and the renaissance Self is evident not only in the works of art, but also in the thinking and in politics as well. There is a wide context that shifts totally from the medieval to the renaissance sensibility.

EP: How would you define this period, then?

DdeK: I call this period neo-baroque for this reason, because we are witnessing the revolution of all senses and we are rethinking all our senses under the conditions of electricity. We are acquiring very quickly an extended, secondary sensoriality where touch plays an increasingly important role. We are immersed into this livewire environment, enmeshed into it. We could say we are in the middle of hyper-literature, even if hyper-literature is still the product of the letter. Instead of considering the letter as a part of an ensemble, it is the point of view of the hypermedia through the letter that has to be taken into account.

EP: Taking into consideration the point of view of the hyper-literature, I would like to go back to some concepts that you have identified and outlined, i e anonymity, ubiquity, episodism, plurality of actors It seems to me that the authorial subject can be identified with a wide variety of new emerging characters nowadays I am thinking, for example, of the possibility to be in more than one place, to multiply endlessly your identity through the avatars, but also to hide your identity through an anonymous avatar…

DdeK: We are going back to the ancient Greek masks, which (literally) allow(ed) you to personify. That is the origin of the persona. Today we are witnessing the reversal of this condition. We are going back to the masks, which are actually silencing, concealing the person. This gradual loss of features in our representations (take Avatar as one example, but emoticons provide another) reflects and promotes the gradual eradication of the kind of personalities we inherited from the literate era. You need a large base to emerge in a fluid environment, not deep roots.

EP: With regard to the masks, our well-known Italian writer, Luigi Pirandello, who was also a dramatist, talked about the identity in terms of ‘One, No one and One Hundred Thousand’ Are we experiencing the triumph of this floating identity?

DdeK: Pirandello is definitely one of the main writers who predicted the problem of the identity. The Late Mattia Pascal is a masterpiece on the issue of the identity and Adriano Meis could be considered as the first avatar in the history. I think it is interesting to rethink our antecedents to understand what is currently happening. From now on identity has to be separated from selfhood. The identity can float as long as the self of experience and memory has succeeded in establishing continuity. If memory lessens, so do the experience and the self. To mentalize your perception of the novel’s environment inside your head as the original source of what you see is one thing; another thing is to look at this as an objective production because someone else can see your avatar. This is the materialization, the objectification of the process of your self-image, the possibility to multiply your identity and sensibility, and reach the simulation of the point of view. I call that the objective imaginary and I see an embryonic form of it in Second Life and other online shared environments.

EP: Shall we come to terms with the schizophrenic aspect of this experience, then?

DdeK: Yes, but it depends on your ability to manage these situations. For this reason we are thinking about how to define our current being in comparison to the being of the Renaissance.
The Renaissance emphasized the physical boundaries of the identity, which was something static that could not be either doubled or replaced. Now, on the contrary, we are experiencing its multiplication towards its expansion. Today, you can still perceive some of this Self, there is a physical space where my Self is, and this is a guarantee of your presence in the world. The vision too, even though it is not so clear and precise.
All this reminds me of James Joyce in the Finnegans Wake ‘Here comes everybody’. Joyce’s principal character in the novel. In the middle ages, the notion of Everyman, Jedermann, was a main step in the direction of the human being’s definition and of the feeling of being an identity. As Northop Frye explained very well, in the novel there is a continuous definition of the individual considered as an individual, not as part of an anonymous crowd. Jedermann was the main figure in the German drama; he was the embodiment (internalization?) of this character in general. In line with this anonymous formula, from comedy and tragedy to the novel, from Mona Lisa’s portrait, to one of Molière’s characters and to Marivaux’s characters in the France of the XVIII century, a more and more precise definition of the individual occurred. What’s going on today? Children are always in front of the screen and make such a frequent use of the emoticons that they have lost their sense of physiognomy. While classic novels and paintings used to emphasise the face’s details and the expression, kids tend to stylize it. We are shifting from definition to de-definition to go towards multiplicity. Identity is up for grabs and will soon turn into a commodity.