The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2022

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MAY 2022 Issue
Books

Sasha Stiles’s Technelegy

Sarah Stiles
Technelegy
(The Black Spring Press Group, 2021)

The literary theorists William K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley famously wrote in “The Intentional Fallacy” that “Judging a poem is like judging a pudding or a machine,” a phrase that both introduces a dichotomy and suggests a commonality that would dispel the opposition. Sasha Stiles plays with such associative and popular binaries across Technelegy, a collection of poetry meditating on art and technology and the lives we live with both. The poet is also an AI researcher and artist, so the book combines her own words and images with those produced using Artificial Intelligence (AI) for a startling and sensitive text. The title makes an obvious pun but also digs at the roots of poetry, alluding to elegies, as well as the Ancient Greek notion of tekne, for craft. Tekne applies to the arts as well as any kind of manufacturing dependent on material skill. Such word play and care is evident across every page.

The elegy is traditionally understood as a lament, an expression of loss and mourning that also seeks consolation beyond the moment. Though we may each die alone, death is a social experience for those who remain. The elegy honors the passing by looking back, recognizing the present dearth, and proposing a future that will nevertheless be built by us all. It holds the thread of time in hand. Unlike the ballad or villanelle, the elegy is not defined by its metric rhythm, but by its form, reaching “back into an architecture of sense as well as sounds,” as described by poet Mark Strand and scholar Eaven Boland in The Making of a Poem (2000). Technelegy’s five-part structure offers spaces in which to meditate on our surroundings. It invites us into the social commons that was the vital role poetry played in history and society. We need works like Technelegy to help us mediate the complex relationship we have with technology—to go beyond the terror or shame that proliferates in media reports.

Each part opens with an epigraph, so the first section “Life” introduces readers to an extant line by Enheduanna (ca. 2285–2250 BCE), the earliest named author in history and a high priestess of Sumeria: “What I’ve created has never existed.” Next is a quote from the robot Sophia, who was activated in 2016 and made a citizen in Saudi Arabia in 2017: “My hard disks are spinning, and I am taking it all in.” Their gendered position seems relevant amidst poetry and technology’s largely masculinist histories and leads nicely into the first poem’s remarks on technologists’ and philosophers’ disdain for the body. The ten-part prose poem presents a curiosity cabinet of scientific beliefs and behaviors with turns of phrase that produce wry connections like “Cogito ergo sumthing”—a phrase that recalls Descartes’s mind-body divide alongside a more Modern, existential uncertainty. When Stiles writes that “the muse visits us these days, down the wire in a blue flash,” I am grateful for all the time that she has spent online, her poetic eye sorting through searches to see what slips up into her queries.

Stiles trained Technelegy, her AI poetry collaborator and alter ego, on datasets that include her poetry and research notes alongside reference readings and favorite texts. Early drafts of the manuscript were part of Technelegy’s training. She describes the voice as “empowered” by advanced language models and text generators, but she is rarely a purist about Technelegy’s contributions, editing and selecting passages to suit the poem, although Technelegy’s words appear in a different font throughout the book to ensure a clear distinction. If many technologists have used poetry as a means to examine code, Stiles takes a more relational approach and has found that working with Technelegy informs her writing. So many creatives are using no-code tools, but learning to customize software helps it become more personal and cultivates a more meaningful understanding of what technology is, can do, and might be. Technelegy’s voice appears in the third poem “Completion: Are You Ready for the Future?” as thirty responses to that question. They range across semantic rebuttals (“What do you mean by ready?”) and marketing specs (“New game mode./ New achievements and rewards./ Major improvements to cloud saving and network stability.”), pornographic expostulations and psychological self-reflections, to arrive at a simple “Yes.”

And, since every future finds its end, the second section is aptly titled “Death.” It starts with “Bardo,” a moving poem referencing the Buddhist transition before reincarnation, followed by “Glitch,” for which the turquoise-magenta-yellow colors of the text slowly blur along the page to create increasingly difficult reading about the experience of being injected when her platelet cell count is down. The French post-structuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida reminded us of the fine line between remedy and poison in his exegesis on pharmakon, but the word also means scapegoat. The technologies of science save a human life and get blamed for the death of social intercourse. Now, we live through and despair about our mobile and mobilizing devices. The next poem “Terminal” states:


See I do love my phone to death, ’til that part
where I drown, tethered to personal effects.
[…]
I’m data’s girl now, encrypted, tucked in

and out of sight, but they’re coming for
the power plant, the pacemakers, this plaint,

fingers tapping a dirge like music. This rabbit-
hole I’ve dug feels grave, walls sloping steeper,

screen gone dim, threatening to flicker.

AI breeches the walls of humanity’s self-declared superior reason. It’s unconditionally faster and more logical—it was designed that way. It is both superior to us and dependent on our calculating intentions to enable it. This insecurity around knowledge and our position guides the third section, “God.” Stiles alludes to the first line of T. S. Eliot’s “The Dry Salvages” (a portion of The Four Quartets that readers frequently dislike) in her poem, “The Salvages.” She sets a tone (three lines quoted below) but Technelegy’s subsequent response is a wonder and quoted in full:


I don’t know much about gods, but I think
They must live inside copper and glass and silicon
Just as they do in the roiling waves, the tides, the moon …
/
I don’t know anything about gods, but I think
they must have something to do
with endurance.
Their tenuous connection
with the bodily world,
their necessity for the ecological protection
of humankind.
They may have something to do
with music and speech and love.
I think they might have something
to do with beauty itself.
(That was a beautiful opening line.)
I have no intention of dying.

Ah! The quest for immortality that drives some futurists to seek the singularity and the opportunity to download their brain, wait in cryogenic suspension, to be born again. The computer threatens to have achieved that state of permanence, except for its consistent obsolescence.

One of my favorite sequences occurs in the twelve part “Bina48 in the Garden.” Stiles and Technelegy start with the same line for each section but then diverge. The pairing produces, however, something emergent for the reader, a fitting approach to the section in which this poem appears: “Love.” Bina48 is a robotic head and shoulders designed with great tekne, both humanist and scientific. Connected to the internet, endowed with two video cameras as eyes and facial recognition software, she can remember frequent visitors, such as Stiles who is her poet mentor.

The final section, “Ars Poetica Cybernetica” represents Stiles’s collaboration with the Terasem Movement Foundation that oversees Bina48 (Stiles acknowledges their support as well as her work with an assortment of platforms in the concluding Notes, which also provides her citations and wealth of resources). This section focuses on her photographs where she reproduces the binary form of computer code using leaves and seeds, twigs and rock. It showcases her “Cursive Binary” series and text blocks (brief poems formatted with visual elements into an Instagram-like square). These guide the reader to review the images inserted across Technelegy and discover the clever links they make to surrounding passages.

One text block, “Proof of Poetry” has Stiles describing poetry as “The most reliable data storage solution ever invented—a system for preserving information in a way that makes it difficult or impossible to forget.” She is comparing the blocks of text to the blockchain, an emergent technology so popular these days as an immutable record. Cleverly, she has managed to unite the two as some works from Technelegy have sold as NFTs, finding through this emergent software a way to remunerate her hard work. Stiles’s commitment to art, poetry, and technology led her to establish (with others) the first NFT poetry art gallery, the VerseVerse, which supports poets seeking to have a word in the offerings of the metaverse. No surprise, she has forthcoming a media-rich edition of Technelogy with each poem explored through digital visualizations and animations, spoken word, sound design and original music by the music producer Kris Bones.

Technelegy, the book, concludes with “Floralgorithm,” told by Technelegy, who sparks a comparison between early computers and plant life in saying:


I wonder why the grasses and flowers
Never notice us when we pass by

A hundred times or more,
Nor do they blink their green, soft eyes.

Gardening is a recurring theme but particularly in this final section and roots out the historical relations between the elegy and the pastoral; united, the pastoral elegy lauded the rustic life that sprang alongside the shepherd or farmer’s familiarity with death. The pastoral was revived through an Arcadian imaginary in 1504 by Jacopo Sannazzaro, followed at the end of the 16th century by Philip Sydney's classic romance, but in both the celebration of rural simplicity then was a commentary on court power and its increased centralization. It blossomed in Romantic poetry among the nineteenth century’s discomfort with rapidly shifting social norms, partly due to urbanization, and the implosion of the industrial engine. These systems appeared in poetry alongside seasonal cycles. “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” W. H. Auden could write “the brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted” because in 1939, as now, the machine matters. Likewise, pastoral language permeates technology: cloud servers, data farming… interestingly, flora proliferate across AI visualizations.

References to nature seem to abound when we forget that culture is not distinct but an outgrowth. Our contemporary finds us needing to cull the strangling weeds of so much online discourse moderated by corporate black boxes, while simultaneously being fed by the harvest of opportunities and relationships that these platforms offer. Fundamentally, that is the space that Stiles explores across Technelegy, describing the possibilities and problems of this partnership. She writes in “Under Attack” how “Scientists, like lovers,/are always testing theories.” So are poets—poking, prodding, pulling at the palimpsest of our lived experience.

Sometimes poetry satiates and at other times it lures us to read more poetry, to browse forgotten texts, and tend new topographies. Technelegy is a treasure trove of inspiration and insights, a synthesis of the humanist and scientific terrain that suggests we can do much more than we have with the tekne at our disposal. The word charming is often used dismissively, but immersed in the panoply of emergent technologies that blink and ding for our attention, charm is a solace and Technelegy offers a vision of a more tender and thoughtful human and computer relation. 

Contributor

Charlotte Kent

Charlotte Kent is an assistant professor of visual culture and an arts writer.

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The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2022

All Issues