Paul Stephens, The Poetics of Information Overload: From Gertrude Stein to Conceptual Writing

Paul Stephens, The Poetics of Information Overload: From Gertrude Stein to Conceptual Writing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015) 240 pp. $25.00 Pb. $87.50 Hb. ISBN: 9780816694419

In The Poetics of Information Overload, Paul Stephens offers a cogent history of the debates around information overload, its political, socio-economic, philosophical, and particularly its poetic implications. This is a history fraught with pathological anxieties; characterized by a fear of the decay of our critical and conscious faculties, draining economies of attention, and concern about the nervous impact of the ‘global information glut’. It is easy, then, to see why some have held that the deluge of information—so endemic it has become the concern of everyone from HR consultants and self-help bloggers, psychologists and neurologists, to the president of the United States—might preclude poetic investigation. In his introduction, the author states his intention to remedy this view. Indeed, the book’s early chapters often have the feel of clinical case-studies, the avant-garde offering in one way or another its proposed solutions (or wilful exacerbations) of pathologies of the nascent and growing information age, in turn designed to remedy the misconception against which the book poses its central challenge: that information technologies, and the ‘ongoing crisis of anxiety’ induced by them, are prohibitive to poetry. Far from being antithetical to one another, Stephens asserts a long history of shared concerns between the avant-garde’s engagement with cutting-edge technologies and radical changes in cognition and behaviour demanded by the modern proliferation of data.

As Stephens notes, information abundance, the necessity of multi-tasking, and the accumulation of specialized information, has become a precondition of how we negotiate modern experience. Although the writers under Stephen’s scrutiny are primarily American, Stephens draws upon the interpretations of the European avant-garde Oulipo group, appending to Raymond Queneau’s (1903-1976) view of ‘the accumulation of specialized information having reconfigured the ways in which literary texts are created and experienced’ an emphasis on a ‘renewed attention to poetic form’ (12). His argument is sharpened by this limitation, staking a clear focus on the amply rich field of avant-garde poetics rather than attempting any larger scale cultural or literary overview of information overload as a general phenomenon.

If information overload challenges our attention, Stephens suggests avant-garde poetry as an ‘antidote to distraction’ (23). Drawing on Marjorie Perloff’s delimitation of the avant-garde from the mainstream, Stephens presents an intertwined history of avant-garde poetics, information technology, and pathologized notions of overload. Offering a series discrete essays on its theme, finding roots in the ‘saturated’ texts of Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), Bob Brown’s (1856-1959) ‘reading machine’, and Charles Olson’s (1910-1970) ‘insatiable desire to embody information’ (4), Stephens then turns his attention from individuals to groups of poets as a survey of later historical moments, examining the ‘interplay of poetry and informatics’ among the 1960s and 1970s poets John Cage (1912-1992), Bern Porter (1911-2004), Hannah Weiner (1928-1997), and Bernadette Meyer (1945-); the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets' pursuit of paradise as a corollary of political and technological revolution; and an examination of the conceptual writings of Tan Lin (1957-), Kenneth Goldsmith (1961-), and Vanessa Place (1968-), as they engage with cognitive capitalism and risk. While this allows for a broad survey of the century’s fascination with data consumption, this structure leads to moments of unevenness. For instance, Porter is granted only three pages, a third of which is given over to introducing the poet.

Stephens capitalizes on the breadth of his subject’s connotations, mapping data process onto the avant-garde poets’ concern with ‘remediation and transcoding’ (xv) designed to challenge the limits of cognition, perception, and memory. Considering Stein, he offers a mode of reading, characterised by twentieth century inattention, suggesting that her characteristic repetitions and adoption of the ‘continuous present’, texts such as The Making of Americans (1925) invite skimming. Stephens convincingly adopts Ellen Berry, Barbara Will, and Linda Stone’s respective notions of ‘relaxed hyperattention’, ‘attentive inattentiveness’ and ‘continuous partial attention’ to characterize the paradoxical state Stein’s works demand of the reader. Drawing on Stein’s scientific study of psychologies of attention and distraction, which allowed her to view ‘the mind as an information processor’, Stein’s works explore through formal induction the breakdown of modern attention (45). It was this, Stephen’s suggests, that led the subject of his second chapter, Bob Brown, to seek a remedy in his ‘reading machine’, an attempt Stephen’s claims to ‘eradicate the difference between human and book’ (63). A similar, broadly posthuman, notion of the writer/reader as information processor emerges here as ‘Brown figures himself as a writing machine and a reading machine’ (66).

The Poetics of Information Overload regularly comes face-to-face with issues of the appropriation, processing, and handling of new types of knowledge, their management and control. For Olson, Stephens argues this recuperation involved a ‘(re)embodiment’ of rogue information in a poetics where ‘the antidote to a limitless universe of knowledge is not a renunciation of universal themes, but rather an intensification of attention, or . . . concentration’ (99). Considering the later groups of poets, Stephens turns his attention to the ‘informatic turn’ toward ‘informatic motifs, found materials’, and ‘the exhaustive recording of everyday experience’ prefigured by Stein (109). The shift from ‘information scarcity’ to ‘information abundance’ (117) leads these poets to works of exhaustive detail questioning of the limits of memory in the new constellation of forms made possible by data technology. This informed polyvocal approaches to data handling as a psychical or even clairvoyant experience, in which ideas of networking, data reception and transmission, offers a path to overcome the limitations of the individual mind in isolation.

The avant-garde, as Stephens argues, always aspires to be predictive and/or creatively destructive of contemporary paradigms in order to ‘recuperate lost meanings’ (9), injecting—or infecting—exhausted or overwhelming data-sets with new and valuable meanings. However, such is the nature of the avant-garde that many of the texts Stephens considers have been deemed oversaturated or ‘unreadable’ (1); the readability of this book, however, is a virtue of his writing style, which is elegant and clear throughout, handling a wealth of critical commentary with a commendable lightness of touch. As such, Stephens offers an engaging and stimulating introduction to the breadth of the American avant-garde’s conscious poetic engagement with the data age, its anxieties, and its ongoing struggle for recuperation.

Rachel Fountain Eames, University of Birmingham