Approaches to Interactive Text and Recombinant Poetics by Bill Seaman
Critical Article Presentation

Angela Aliff


Like Katherine Hayles, Seaman finds in the relationship between human and computer that the computer functions as an extension of the human mind and body. He explains that although traditionally we have stored our knowledge in words and think of knowledge in the form of words, media environments have freed meaning from the constraints of text. Now sensual interfaces create a space where bodies, objects, data, and coding work together to produce meaning and context for meaning.

Seaman uses Manturana’s description of the linguistic domain to explain how this process occurs through the media that connects human and computer. (Two organisms interact, cooperate, create consensual interaction, and produce relevance for both organisms.) When this process occurs, the result is “the recombinant poetic,” which is similar to Hayles’s “coevolution.”

The result of this interaction is the production of “emergent meaning,” which is too complex to be confined to the written word. As a result, we need to redefine reading or come up with new ways of understanding.


What is meaning?

Meaning is not simply production through words. It is experiential, an “interweaving of sensual experience (of the lived environment) intermingling the body, technology and thought.” We already know that the mind "knows" differently than the body "knows;" when these ways of knowing are extended through technology, the bridges between mind, body, and technology create a space full of potential for emergent meaning.
  • Includes empirical experience, the special qualities of virtual environments, and authored physics
  • Involves patterns that the creator of the machine could not predict or intend (emergent meaning)
  • Produced by a continuously changing and mutable context that occurs within the body/computer combination

What is authorship?

When we perceive, we produce meaning. This production is not authorship in the traditional sense of creating a text. However, because the production of meaning is so complex and cannot be confined to words written or spoken, we need a new way of referring to the producer of meaning other than author.
The role of the author is both “to subvert negative tendencies of control” and to “re-interpret and shift the intended focus of the machine.” (I read this portion of Seaman’s response to Jill Walker as giving authors the responsibility of maintaining control over the machines since the negative tendency in our relationship with them is to allow them to have control.)

What is reading?

Experiences cannot be “read.” Again, the terminology is misleading. We can only understand meaning “by drawing on multiple qualities of meaning production as arising through interactivity within the overall context.” The new way of “reading” involves…
  • the relationship between sound and space.
  • the physical behavior of the “reader” and its effect on the media.
  • how spatial relations can change the experience of the virtual world.
  • how physical experience intermingles with virtual experience.
  • expressive exploration.
This experience is so complex we need a better way of thinking about and articulating it.

For Discussion

Bill Seaman implies that terms such as reading, or reader, or authorship, or text are misleading and even dangerously limiting. How have these terms affected our experience with e-lit positively or negatively in this class?

As Sarah posed yesterday quoting Stefans, “Does emergent meaning threaten “the ontological security of the self . . . by this prospect of limitless information and limitless recombination”? (Hayles 156). Is this question ominous or threatening? What can or should be done with all the meaning that emerges from personalized, irretrievable virtual experience?

The use of technology extensions as a means of expanding the human’s ability to think and experience has created seemingly endless knowledge stored and multiplied within systems that also contain infinite potential for the creation of context (in part through the accessibility of that knowledge by countless users). What is needed to make endless knowledge relevant for the finite human experience?\

Critics like Hayles and Seaman frequently discuss the implications of the mind-body-computer relationship. Is there a space in this relationship for emotion connection, or even for the soul to find something meaningful? Hayles states that “in electronic literature performed by networked and programmable media . . . emotions signify as more than irrational fleeting sensations” (157). But what do emotions signify as within electronic literature?