Monday, October 06, 2008

Further on flarf

FLARF IS A WORD new to me; I found it yesterday, in the course of reading further, among the many comments posted to Ron Silliman's blog, about Issue 1, the huge "anthology" of "poems" that included one attributed to me. One of Ron's commenters referred to it as a "fauxthology," a word I like.
"Flarf" apparently refers, originally, to a specific kind of writing: poems — let's beg that question for the moment — generated by a computer routine that trolls the Internet for source material and then, using various algorithms, chops up the material it finds and reconfigures it into lines with the appearance of poetry.
There's lots to like here, beginning with the neat trick by which the figurative "net" of the Internet is used to sieve material on the Internet.
Recursiveness. Matt Matsuda, I think it was, suggested that our culture like all previous cultures will die of acceleration: but our own culture's death will result, I think, from an accelerated recursiveness, and flarf may be a straw in the wind.
In any case it's a procedure with an honorable source going back to the cut-ins of William Burroughs and, beyond them, to the "random" generation of literature by Marcel Duchamp, of art by Hans Arp. It's inevitable that the literature of our time would be spelled with the double "l" of litter; Joyce got to that one in Finnegans Wake.

Flarf is automated Oulipo, and that's a contradiction in terms; surely any real Oulipo outcome must proceed from deliberateness. Perhaps the ouvroirs of potential literature — or should it be translated "literary potential"? — are taking over the consciousness of the workers within; perhaps that's what interconnected computers are doing to us all.
Fine with me: let bots do their mindless thankless work all they like; if some of the result is amusing, or poignant, or possibly even provocative, so much the better. But there's more to this affair than simply flarf.

Issue 1 has resulted in metaflarf by activating a sizable community; many of its 3,164 "contributors" are apparently readers of Ron's blog, or have been mentioned in it; and the sixty-odd comments that have appeared so far on his complaint about the fauxthology amount to flarf criticism, in both senses of the term.

While I've never been a fan of the concept "intellectual property," which sounds to me like a contradiction in terms, there are two things about a completely open public domain that bother me. One is the possibility of one's own work being forwarded or distributed inaccurately — with errors, whether deliberate or not, attributed to one's original work. The other is the possibility of one's own name being attached to things one has had nothing to do with, as is the case with Issue 1.

In this case, or at least in my own case, no harm done: no one would remotely think of me as a poet, or of the "poem" reproduced here yesterday as something I would or might have written. But if I were a poet, as Ron Silliman (to name only one of the thousands of "contributors") is a poet, then a casual reader may easily have made that mistake, and formed an opinion of the poet completely outside the poet's ability to influence. This, it seems to me, is an intolerable situation; it goes beyond hoax in the direction of fraud.
So I revise my feeling of yesterday that Ron goes too far in his anger with this event. His outrage is justified, and the perpetrators of the event can't be excused with the explanation that their work is art. I've never before been comfortable with the idea that artists, however outrageous their work may seem, are hoaxers. But then I've never before had to deal with anything quite as postmodern as this event seems to be.


Nada said...

Your definition of flarf is not correct. Please do a little more research!

Charles Shere said...

Sorry about that. As I said, it's a new word to me; as I wrote, it "apparently refers…" I didn't really mean to provide a definition. But since you do know one, perhaps you could provide it.