Daniel Morris, Not Born Digital: Poetics, Print Literacy, New Media

Daniel Morris, Not Born Digital: Poetics, Print Literacy, New Media (London: Bloomsbury 2016) 258pp. £88 Hb. ISBN: 9781501316708

A woman sitting next to me on the subway asked about the book that I was reading: 'Is it good?' I nodded.  'I mean, is it helpful, to people who were not born digital?'  I didn’t quite know what to say.  Daniel Morris’s book Not Born Digital, does not set out to help, nor does it set out to hinder. 'It’s too much about poetry,' I said.  The woman seemed a bit disappointed.

Morris’s book describes the analog origins of contemporary digital poetics.  It is not a longue durée papyrus to PDF, or Gutenberg to Google history of a form, but rather an argument about late twentieth and early twenty-first century poets and poetics.  It’s analog in the way that MTV and audio cassettes are analog.

The book begins with a discussion of Hannah Weiner’s Weeks; chronologically the first in a series of '"dirty" conceptual projects' that make up the Not Born Digital archive.  Morris defines '"dirty" conceptualism' by contrast with Duchamp, who '"obliterated" functionalism by taking the bicycle wheel "out of the earth and onto the planet of aesthetics"' (19). Morris’s dirty conceptualists move their bicycle wheels from the earth to independent publishing houses, never quite leaving the planet.  They make projects that 'envision cultural memory, collaborations, archives, and autobiography, reframed under the sign of poetry, in small press formats.' (21)  Rather than launching unwitting objects upon the purified 'planet of aesthetics' these poets remain dirty in their work – in the long poetic tradition of addressing the quotidian, they place pieces of the ordinary world under the sign of poetry.

The frame '"dirty" conceptualism' holds best when the conceptualist repurposing gesture applies to media and communications technologies, from Weiner’s television broadcasts in Weeks, to Patrick Durgin and Jen Hofer’s emails in The Route.  The parallels between these two projects, or between Kenneth Goldsmith’s Soliloquy and Noah Eli Gordon’s inbox [a reverse memoir], allow us to see how contemporary digital poetics is deeply indebted to analog media.

The middle two chapters of the book depart from this material support to focus on poetic texts that repurpose the archive.  Susan Howe, the godmother of American archival poetics, appears alongside Andrei Codrescu, a Romanian American poet and NPR commentator, who works on the boundaries between personal and political history.  Morris is concerned by feminism in approaching Howe’s Spontaneous Particulars; worrying about coming off as too feminist in a footnote ('It should be noted, however, that Jonathan Edwards is by no means the enemy in this story' (149, n.8)), but never quite articulating the radical feminist potential of Howe’s investment in the archive.  Morris is more comfortable providing the political stakes of Codrescu’s complicated and contaminated collapses of history and memory, from post-Katrina New Orleans to war-torn Bucharest.  While of independent interest, these chapters wander away from the digital theme of Not Born Digital.

This book follows the conceptualist deployment of communications media in poetic practice with a critical project of close reading texts that resist close reading.  Morris attempts to close read three of Goldsmith’s notoriously unreadable texts (in three separate chapters), as well as Weiner’s Weeks, Gordon’s inbox, Durgin and Hofer’s The Route, and to some extent, Juliana Spahr and David Buuck’s An Army of Lovers.  Morris announces his engagement in this project on multiple occasions, explicitly rejecting the theoretical frameworks given by the poets in their introductions and interviews (generally frameworks of a loose-fitting conceptualist disengagement) and implicitly rejecting the critical position of surface reading.  Goldsmith is the key figure for Morris’s project in this regard.

I commend Morris for approaching Goldsmith’s 'The Body of Michael Brown' without the tone of controversy that accompanied initial responses to the poet’s repurposing of Michael Brown’s autopsy report for a spoken word performance at Brown University in 2015.  Morris usefully positions 'The Body of Michael Brown' as an addendum to Goldsmith’s Seven American Deaths and Disasters, forming the eighth death inscribed in a particularly American narrative of public tragedy.  I would have appreciated some research into the conventions of medical language and autopsy reports, to better inform the close reading of the linguistic material Goldsmith repurposes in poetic form.  The passive constructions of the autopsy report, quoted at length, are less a function of the very real institutional racism of medicine, and more a function of the linguistic conventions used to establish scientific authority in medical discourse.  If Goldsmith was shot, his autopsy report would employ the same passive constructions.

Perhaps as a nod to the new media mixtape practices of his subjects, Morris has a tendency to cite from non-standard sources: Wikipedia, the back cover of My Emily Dickinson, IMDb (on Warhol’s a: A Novel).  Like the authors of the Fluxus project, Topographie anécdotée du hasard (An Anecdoted Topography of Chance), an apt unmentioned predecessor to these '"dirty" conceptualist projects', Morris often allows his footnotes to overtake his text, to mixed effect.

Not Born Digital is a text of specific critical interest.  Rather than a survey of new media poetics, or the guide to digital apparatuses that my subway companion was hoping for, Daniel Morris’s text provides a series of detailed analyses of recent and contemporary poetic texts.  As the title indicates, Morris focuses on poets who were born before the digital era, but whose work engages new media sources and forms.  If your work includes on the specific poets discussed, your reading will be rewarded.

Kimberly Adams, New York University