Cherchez le texte: Proceedings of the ELO 2013 Conference

Literature in a State of Emergency

Davin Heckman

Literature in a State of Emergency

Abstract: Giorgio Agamben has identified the "State of Exception" as the emergent principle of governance for the 21st Century. To summarize Agamben's argument, alongside the emergence of modern theories of governance (democratic societies with defined human rights), a state of permanent emergency has been declared in response to the various threats to said society that have enabled an exception to the rule to persist as the emerging norm. Parallel to this crisis in politics, there is the increasing currency of the term emergence in literary criticism, media theory, and cultural studies to describe the general state of change. Increasingly, this term is used to describe change as a benign and specifically digital determinism. This paper will consider electronic literature as both a laboratory for formal innovation and a site of critique. Specifically, this paper will take into account the relationship between literacy, law, literature and criticism and will rely upon a reading of Sandy Baldwin's New Word Order, a work that reimagines poetry in the context of the first-person shooter game.

This paper is an attempt to understand the formalist conception of poetics as "organised violence against ordinary speech1" at a time when the prevailing order is structured by what Giorgio Agamben calls, "The State of Exception". Agamben has identified the "State of Exception" as the emergent principle of governance for the 21st Century. To summarize Agamben's argument: alongside with the political progress of the 20th Century (marked by the expansion of democratic societies with defined human rights), a state of permanent emergency has been declared in response to the various threats a "free" society might face. This has enabled the exception to the rule to persist as the emerging norm. As Agamben notes, totalitarian societies are typically arranged around the suspension of freedom in the face of a threat. He writes of Nazi Germany, "The entire Third Reich can be considered a state of exception that lasted twelve years2". However, historical eras like "The Cold War" or the "War on Terror" have provided the pretext for the more "moderate", situational suspension of rights in a nation like the United States, which typically is not considered "totalitarian". Agamben's claim, in other words, is that crises provide the pretext for the selective interruption of liberty, allowing so-called "democratic" societies to maintain the illusion of human rights while violating them at their whim.

Parallel to this crisis in politics, there is the increasing currency of the term "emergence" in literary criticism, media theory, cultural studies, and game studies to describe the general state of change. "Emergence" refers to states of order that are produced in chaotic systems. "Weak Emergence" refers simply to fortuitous organizations that take place as many small operations aggregate themselves into more powerful process. "Strong Emergence" refers to those spontaneous orders that resemble intelligent activity. While emergence has been used in fields like evolutionary biology and economics, I am specifically interested in its use in digital culture. Increasingly, this term is used to describe change as a benign and specifically digital determinism, a kind of inevitable cultural progression facilitated by machine intelligence.

I wonder what it means to subvert the prevailing order when techniques of violence are, in fact, a structuring principle. In pursuit of this aim, I will explore the impact of digital media on agency: immersion as the user's absorption into the digital text and emergence as a posthuman subjectivity that arises as an expression of algorithmic systems. Here, it is fair to ask, where the poetic operation occurs: does digital literature disrupt or reorganize immersion? Does digital literature disrupt and reorganize emerging subjectivities? In what ways does literature create space for human subjectivity in the digital realm?

The Exception Proves the Rule

Our understanding of exception carries with it a variety of connotations that exceed its basic understanding as "extraordinary" or "outside of the norm". In everyday parlance, we can use "exceptional" to refer to those things that are better than average. We can also talk of "taking exception" to something, when we mean to say that we are unwilling to abide by something or accept a statement without qualification, as a kind of contrary statement. We declare "exceptions" to rules to indicate formally defined loopholes. And we request "exceptions" be made to rules when we feel that circumstances warrant flexibility. We use the term "exceptionalism" both to describe the state of being superior to the prevailing order, which thus means that one is not bound to the convention, norms, and in some cases the law that governs everyone else. Thus, a leader like President Obama can make positive statements on Human Rights and global equality like, "On this Human Rights Day, let us rededicate ourselves to the advancement of human rights and freedoms for all, and pledge always to live by the ideals we promote to the world". While maintaining elsewhere that in the face of the NSA's secret surveillance programs that monitor virtually all US citizens, have limitless access to private databases, and target the citizens and leaders of other countries (friends and foes alike):

I am comfortable that the program currently is not being abused. I'm comfortable that if the American people examined exactly what was taking place, how it was being used, what the safeguards were, that they would say, you know what, these folks are following the law and doing what they say they're doing3.

Notice the moderate character of the assertion and the admissions it contains. Firstly, the program and its use will be kept secret and this lack of transparency and accountability to the citizens it protects and governs is "lawful." There is no defiance in these claims, simply an assertion: If these "folks" told the "American people" what they were doing, then we'd know that they are doing what they say they are doing. The catch, of course, is that they won't tell us what they are doing. And to make it perfectly clear, they intend to charge those who are trying to tell us what they are doing with breaking the law. If Snowden believes he is in the right, then, "like every American citizen, he can come here, appear before the court with a lawyer and make his case4". Yet, this massive, automated digital surveillance program cannot be standing in the same sunlight of transparent justification.

Thus, the understanding of exception carries with it, not only an externality to prescribed order, but a positive connotation that points to some sort of extraordinary status. In some cases, these exemptions are highly situational (i.e. "The rule SAYS no liquids are allowed, but this medication is medically necessary") or they reflect privileges that are structured by power itself (ie. "No weapons are allowed on aircraft, but law enforcement can bring weapons onto the plane").

Above the experience of exception, however, there is the question of who has the power to deny or permit such exceptions. In the end, even if bringing liquid medication onto a plane or allowing legitimate law enforcement officers to carry weapons makes sense, the exception is made or denied under the pretext of authority. Hence, an individual tasked with the execution of the law speaks on behalf of the sovereign power, but their institutional authority resides in their capacity to carry out the mandates of power faithfully. Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the definition of sovereignty offered by Carl Schmitt: The Sovereign is "he who decides on the state of exception5."

What this actually means is harder to understand, but I will offer a pragmatic definition. In theory, the democratic system in the US is based on the notion of popular sovereignty, an idea that stretches back to the Enlightenment. At times, this is construed to mean a kind of individual sovereignty, which informs libertarian and some anarchist traditions. In other cases, this is interpreted to mean that this capacity to rule resides in the specific representatives that are elected to carry out the affairs of the state. To state it more simply, the question of sovereignty lives on the boundary between the code and its exception.

Our everyday understanding of "code" — as a uniform system of substitutions, an organized collection of legal rules, and/or a system for programming machines to follow instructions — suggests that it is indeed an example of "ordinary language". The more important question is whether or not computer code can be said to function as an ordering principle for the ideological framework of the larger technical system, and to ask where and how exceptions to this code might be found. This is not to say that computer programmers themselves operate in any sort of malevolent sense. Indeed, there is a strong cultural lore about "hacking" as a transgressive practice, sometimes selfish and sometimes altruistic. What remains is that the instant, modular, and proprietary expressions of code across digital networks have emerged as dominant and play an increasing role in administering biopower. This codification of daily life is not applied exclusively to the logistical management of mass populations, but also directs the everyday actions of individuals, directing desires, habituating social interactions, and imbricating itself into the social feedback loops where individuation occurs.

Elsewhere, I have asked whether or not electronic literature can serve as a form of organized violence against technical systems ("Technics and Violence"). Specifically, I have posed this question in relation to close readings of Serge Bouchardon's Flash-based works 12 Labors of the Internet User, To Touch, and Loss of Grasp, noting the sensitive exploration of interface. The first deals with non-functional design, the second with the metaphor of touch, and the third with the problem of losing touch, all three examples of the implicit epistemological tensions exposed in digital writing. Where semioticians have studied and print poets have played, we have a keen sense that signs elide and, even, distort information in the transmission of meaning. Digital writing enables us to identify the significance of processes like "manipulability" and explore the semiotic character of processes, dynamics, and procedures6. Moving beyond this question of the text and its reader, I have attempted to argue that Electronic Literature offers via this reflective process, occasions for critical "deliberation" within the context of a fluid attention-based economy ("Politics of Plasticity"). Such critical practices, following Bernard Stiegler's monumental discussion of memory and technics, are places where subjects might train themselves to "struggle against [the] carelessness" of the shallow, transitory habits of commodified social activities (Ars Industrialis).

However, it is necessary to imagine and to conceptualize the network from the outside in. Rather than considering only the place of human subjects within the machine assemblage, we might ask ourselves if the network itself has its own subjectivity, and, if so, what its power might be. The discussion of "sovereignty" supplied through Agamben gives us one process-based model by which we can explore the "personality" of the "one who decides". Similarly, the discourse of emergence as a developing intelligence coupled with the broader character of 21st Century human life as life within a state of emergency can provide a complementary model for the power of networks to contain the human.

In practical terms, the critical nature of the boundary between the rule and its exception is elucidated in Wendy Chun's article, "Crisis, Crisis, Crisis, or Sovereignty and Networks". Chun, invoking Agamben's work, notes that "codes and states of exception are complementary functions7" in two important senses. Culturally, new media make their appeal to users through "real time". The value of high speed, instantaneous communication is that it ensnares users into its "just-in-time" logic — while there might be many things one can do or one ought to do, the attraction of what is happening "right now" pulls us away from any sort of consciously driven agenda. Secondly, and this is integrally related, is Galloway's observation that "Code is a language, but a very special kind of language. Code is the only language that is executable… code is the first language that actually does what it says8." The exploration of the critical relationship between risk and management in the digital era is addressed in greater detail in my own article on "Utopian Accidents", but where Chun's formulation is especially critical, is in connecting these observations to Agamben's discussion, connecting this logos to the emerging sovereignty of code itself — and the error implicit in wanting to see code as another human language.

When we consider human language, even when it is rendered with force, we fall back upon the power of the one who speaks. Executable language, on the other hand, does not need the authority of its author for its power to be felt. Scripts can be written by anyone, they can be borrowed and repurposed in a variety of ways, with no regard for who thought the code into being. Instead, the power of the code is registered by its application, and the measure of its authority is in its execution, not in the personality that sits behind it or even directs its use. A sloppy bit of code written by "Bill Gates" simply will not work, no matter how important the man might be. And, once a functional code is in use, it becomes very difficult to dispute the moral character of its outcomes because there is nobody "responsible" for what the algorithm does. As Google explains:

If you recently used Google to search for the word "Jew", you may have seen results that were very disturbing. We assure you that the views expressed by the sites in your results are not in any way endorsed by Google. We'd like to explain why you're seeing these results when you conduct this search.
A site's ranking in Google's search results relies heavily on computer algorithms using thousands of factors to calculate a page's relevance to a given query. Sometimes subtleties of language cause anomalies to appear that cannot be predicted. A search for "Jew" brings up one such unexpected result. ("Explanation")

As we can see, Google's attention to the issue of search results emphasizes the fact that no decision was made to prioritize anti-Semitic websites. Rather, the algorithm looks at a complex web of factors and applies them objectively to the corpus of the Internet. In some cases, the result is disturbing and offensive. However, as Safiya Noble notes in her lengthy study of search engines, gender, and race, Google's algorithms are not neutral, rather they are written to prioritize their bottom line, boosting results where it is in their interest to do so. And, in fact, in some countries, Google has agreed to manipulate its search results to gain access to those markets.

In response to this question of responsibility, Jacques Ellul's comment on the Nuremberg Trials from the 1992 documentary, The Betrayal by Technology is extremely important:

In a society such as ours, it is almost impossible for a person to be responsible. A simple example: a dam has been built somewhere, and it bursts. Who is responsible for that? Geologists worked it out. They examined the terrain. Engineers drew up the construction plans. Workmen constructed it. And the politicians decided that the dam had to be in that spot. Who is responsible? No one. There is never anyone responsible. Anywhere. In the whole of our technological society the work is so fragmented and broken up into small pieces that no one is responsible. But no one is free either. Everyone has his own, specific task. And that's all he has to do. Just consider, for example, that atrocious excuse… It was one of the most horrible things I have ever heard. The person in charge of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen was asked, during the Auschwitz trial… the Nuremburg trials regarding Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen: "But didn't find you it horrible? All those corpses?" He replied: "What could I do? The capacity of the ovens was too small. I couldn't process all those corpses. It caused me many problems. I had no time to think about those people. I was too busy with that technical problem of my ovens." That was the classic example of an irresponsible person. He carries out his technical task he's not interested in anything else9.

Though we might struggle with the idea that these things (and many others, from the robo-signing scandal that afflicted many homeowners to various forms of digital profiling, from catastrophic events on the stock exchange to the general creep of electronic surveillance) are simply nothing we are responsible for. If nobody, in particular, can be said to be responsible for something that is being done, then we must consider the possibility of locating responsibility elsewhere.

"Get off of my Cloud!": Immersion, Emergence, and Cloud Consciousness

As Agamben writes, "The voluntary creation of a permanent state of emergency has become one of the essential practices of contemporary states, including so-called democratic ones10". Thus, the question of the state of emergency carries with it an implicit collapse that stands in stark contrast to the idea of emergence as used in evolutionary, economic, and digital discourse. While at heart, both understandings of the term imply a kind of pool of phenomena from which a specifically notable and singular event erupts. In the case of national emergencies, the quotidian is disturbed by some sort of violent incident. Specifically, in cases of social unrest, the emergency really and truly is a case of a different mode of operation that is initiated when pervasive, ubiquitous dissatisfaction achieves a critical mass and malaise gives way to decisive action.

However, in biology, emergence refers more specifically to the conditions in which an evolutionary leap occurs. Perhaps, some set of amino acids or something, are simply reacting as they normally do… and then, when a certain fortuitous relationship of matter and energy arises, a more advanced form of organization emerges, and so the idea of emergence is understood at a variety of levels: The creation of life, the leap from simple cells to complex ones, the leap from single to multi-celled life, the development of social organization, and so on.

In economics, in the work of Friedrich Hayek (and, especially, Libertarians who draw inspiration from his work), minimally regulated social and economic activity, which permits variety, experimentation, and competition resulting in emergent order, is superior to order that is directed by law. This theory updates, in many respects, the philosophical idea of "natural law" to reflect changing ideas about the order of the cosmos and the role of culture in society.

The terrain of computing, perhaps because it lends itself to the very kind of modeling that is necessary for the exploration of these ideas, or perhaps because the field itself is infused with a technoprogressive ideology that it inherits from the tradition of scientific positivism and because its rise coincided with the neoliberal turn towards deregulation in the 1970s onward, makes spectacular use of theories of emergence. Furthermore, data machines, because they run on progressively expanding expressions of what is at root, a very simple binary, provide ample occasions to see emergence in action. It is possible to simulate many small interactions over virtual eons while bearing witness to the progress that takes place.

As the means of capturing and storing data expands along with our ability to process this data, we become increasingly capable of evaluating previously undetected patterns in the data. And, because the human-centered systems of organization like narrative, mapping, procedure, taxonomy, and other techniques of conceptualization are not intrinsic to the way that digital machines "see" the world, our ability to be responsible for it is diminished. In a real sense, what we see in big data are emergent phenomena.

Hence, emergence is perceptible precisely where former regimes of organization are immersed into the cloud. Where subjects are sucked into the data, they are subsumed and algorithmically rearticulated into more significant expressions of order.

The field of electronic literature, as with other areas of digital communication, carries within it, works that call into question the state of emergency by which one regime is transfigured into another. In New Word Order: Basra, Sandy Baldwin creates a poem using a hacked version of the engine from the game Half-Life. According to Baldwin's statement on the piece, NWOnow draws upon text from a Billy Collins poem, "Introduction to Poetry", in which the poet laments his students' approach to poetic language and literary reading strategies. Collins writes:

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means11.

Baldwin ups the ante, dumping the text into this visual landscape in which the reader (now a player) can navigate the text. Of course, in this scenario, Baldwin honors Collins' wish that his students would explore the text of a poem, quite literally forcing them to "walk inside the poem's room12".

But this "immersion" into poetry is not without irony, because in Half-Life, the reader is armed with a crowbar, a machine gun, and some hand grenades. Baldwin writes:

You can keep playing and wandering in the space, of course, but you soon begin to attack the words. It cannot be helped. The attack is a part of the immersive conditions of the space. The crowbar will destroy individual letters; the rifle or grenades will take out whole words or more. Soon the words are broken and reduced. The fragments continue to hang in the air. You can use this as a reduced text, a processed writing for alternative readings. As the hanging letters swirl with smoke and become more and more isolated, the text thins to unreadability. Nothing is left in the end. Break the words, destroy the letters, and the room is empty. You can pace around but no words are left. If you still have a grenade, you can complete the destruction and drop it at your feet to end the game. Otherwise, the space is yours, cleansed of words13.

At once, Baldwin subjects the piece to the very sorts of rude reading that Collins decries and marks it with its own kind of tragedy by suturing it rhetorically to the violence of the game space and the real-world events of the Iraq War. The upshot is a sense that this is a consumable text—drawing on the cultural associations of gaming as a consumer art and the annihilation of the words themselves as consumed by violence. Thus the piece is also a question about humanism in the 21st century. After watching the public succumb to the "marketing" of the Iraq War with the specious rhetoric of self-defense, the stringent demand for misplaced justice, the tortured claims of humanitarian objectives, and the impulse for revenge as the throbbing subtext for a grieving nation, one might ask if words are worth anything anymore.

This sense of the incomprehensible, though it is specifically resonant with the historical background of the piece, is, according to Baldwin, a feature of the gamespace itself:

Immersion in computer space is incoherent. It is not that I disclose myself to others and we meet as equals. There is not a grid or surface, a clean and smooth world, across which I encounter others. Such a space might be filled with challenges, physical obstacles, puzzles, but its inherent dimensionality and cohesion guarantees that it can be passed over. The game can be won. This is not immersion. Immersion is lost in the mediacy of gaming where the outcome is always there and guaranteed, even if the guarantee is distant and difficult, even if I cannot win but you might14.

Baldwin continues, describing the specific features of Half-Life itself:

Dimensions split. People become alien. Headcrabs transform other people, your colleagues, into walking zombies. Same becomes other and different. All that is other must die. The world of Half-Life is simple: there are immobile structures things such as rocks and walls; there are moveable structures such as boxes and tables; and there are living creatures. As otherness invades, even the rocks and walls become alien, tables turn organic. Half-Life is a shooter game and the story advances through annihilation of the enemy. As life is ruptured by the alien, all that lives must be killed. Matter moves because of the dimensional split; matter is shootable; all matter must be shot15.

And finally, he concludes, "The moment that interests me could be seen as 'emergent' gameplay, in the sense of an unplanned and unexpected use of the game16".

Beyond the content of the piece (the words, their context, and the conditions of their destruction) and platform upon which this content is experienced (the gritty atmosphere, the perspective of the first-person shooter, the content of the game Half-Life), there are deeper questions that resonate with the idea of the emergent order to which this piece responds.

The first is our seeming difficulty in the gluttony of digital communication to do anything other than destroy our language and eventually ourselves. While much is made of the potential that such technologies have to connect people to each other, when subjected to the metrics of machinic reading, social life becomes a kind of half-life, or at least half-human life. The second is the moral irrelevance of such anti-social activities in the context of gaming. Apart from the adjustments that the code introduces to our communication and its meaning, there is the abdication of ethics that are directed by the play itself. The third is that the incoherent character of immersion itself should be considered alongside the character of the emerging posthuman assemblage. What have we done with our community? What do we consider ourselves responsible for? What can we claim to know or understand about our position in the world?

I believe there is some merit, at times, to simply shrugging our shoulders and acknowledging that "the machine" did it, particularly when such a statement is true. But by posing these questions in creative form, inviting us to play at the answer, and, most importantly, by MAKING the game ask questions and probe for answers, electronic literary works remind us that the problem is less the tool, than it is the ideology which suggests we have no authority to wield it. Or, perhaps, more radically, it is our decision to relinquish our agency and submit to the sovereign power of the of the network that has transformed our existence to little more than a game in which we are free to consume limitless experiences in which our actions are of little consequence. To return to Baldwin's own description: As the hanging letters swirl with smoke and become more and more isolated, the text thins to unreadability. Nothing is left in the end. Break the words, destroy the letters, and the room is empty. You can pace around but no words are left. If you still have a grenade, you can complete the destruction and drop it at your feet to end the game. Otherwise, the space is yours, cleansed of words17.


  1. 1. Jakobson qtd in Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.back

  2. 2. Agamben, Giorgio. State of Exception. Kevin Attell, Trans. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 2005. back

  3. 3. Qtd. in Favole, Jared A. "What Obama Said on Putin, Snowden, Obamacare, al Qaeda, Fed." Wall Street Journal. 9 August 2013. back

  4. 4. Obama qtd. in Favole, Jared A. "What Obama Said on Putin, Snowden, Obamacare, al Qaeda, Fed." Wall Street Journal. 9 August 2013. back

  5. 5. Ibid. back

  6. 6. Bouchardon, Serge, and Davin Heckman. "Digital Manipulability and Digital Literature." Electronic Book Review. August 2012. back

  7. 7. Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. "Crisis, Crisis, Crisis, or Sovereignty and Networks." Theory, Culture & Society. 28.6 (2011): 91-112. back

  8. 8. Quoted in Chun 100. back

  9. 9. Van Boeckel, Jan., prod. The Betrayal by Technology: A Portrait of Jacques Ellul. 1992. back

  10. 10. Ibid. back

  11. 11. Collins, Billy. The Apple that Astonished Paris. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1988. back

  12. 12. Ibid. back

  13. 13. Baldwin, Sandy. New Word Order: Basra. Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 2. February 2011 Cambridge, Massachusetts: Electronic Literature Organization back

  14. 14. Ibid. back

  15. 15. Ibid. back

  16. 16. Ibid. back

  17. 17. Ibid. back