Digital Poetry: From Cybertext to Programmed
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by Phillipe Bootz
Laboratoire Paragraphe, Université Paris82
Rue de la Liberté
93526 Saint-Denis Cedex 02
philippe [dot] bootz [@] univ-paris8 [dot] fr
(Translated by Loss Pequeño Glazier, Camille
Paloque-Berges, and Simona Schneider)
e-poetry, digital poetry, procedural model, intermedia,
technotext, Transitoire observable, form, cybertext
This article first and foremost insists
on the importance that the concepts of technotext
and intermedia are taking on in contemporary poetry.
The role of the computer is thus considered in
this context. It is argued that the digital medium
presents new circumstances for communication by
redefining the role of the reader. This model
is examined within the context of a procedural
model of communication. Two particularities of
the digital medium described in this model, namely
the semiotic gap and the processing capacity,
permit the introduction of a new category of sign,
performative signs, as well as new aesthetic layers
that introduce specific properties of readability.
It is thus necessary to take into account a new
function of reception, meta-reading, to explain
the aesthetic intentionality of these layers.
It is concluded that it is thus interesting to
explore the concept of programmed form in order
to address these layers.
The theoretical approach to digital literature
often focuses on the concept of the hypertext.
But an analysis of the evolution of poetry reveals
that numerous aspects of hypertext already exist
in contemporary poetry, even in that which is
not digital, without necessarily having to invoke
the concept of hypertext in order to explain them.
In fact, we can even consider electronic fiction
to be pointing narrative in a poetic direction
Thus, though the concepts of ergodic literature,
of cybertext and of technotext are useful, they
do not allow us to apprehend the fact of digital
poetry in its entirety. Their limitations are
contained in their premises; they address literature
by locating themselves exclusively from the point
of view of the reader, as if he was the focal
point of the work. This point of view might seem
reasonable, and yet it has been proven that a
number of works do not follow this mode, notably
those of the French digital poets and, more loosely,
most of the work produced by the writers and artists
of the international collective Transitoire observable.
In limiting themselves to this single point of
view, the standard theories do not correctly describe
the role that the machine plays, nor the exact
purpose of reading. These theories consider the
computer to be nothing more than an artifact that
produces the visible component (that which is
observed). For certain theoreticians, the semiotic
layers and techniques overlap, as if the reader
and the machine could form a new “cyberentity”.
This isn’t correct in the case of digital
poetry. The truth is at once more simple and more
interesting: the technical artifact establishes
a “semiotic gap” between two entities
that can both be considered “the”
text, but not from the same point of view, in
fact not for the same actors. Digital poetry today
explores the role of language in signs that use
this gap, and which only exist thanks to it. In
this case, programming can become a new condition,
a new context for poetic creation. All this poses
a question, which remains unresolved today: what
can the artistic forms be?
In the first part of the article I will recall
some properties of contemporary poetry that abide
in digital poetry. Then, I will present the role
of programming using the theoretical model called
“procedural model” that I have been
developing since 1996  and I will introduce
at the outset the artistic collective Transitoire
observable. (Maybe footnote for the English name:
Observable Transitory) .
Technotext and intermedia in post-dadaist
Poetry: the art of general semiotics
For a long time, poetry has no longer
been an art solely of the verbal sign. During
the 20th century, it oriented itself toward a
more general semiotic approach. From its initial
calling, to explore the relationship between a
sign and another sign in purely linguistic terms,
it opened itself up to the relationship between
a sign and another sign in multimedia terms and
then became a place where the sign’s relationship
with the world is reflected upon and its capacity
In this journey, the computer has become a medium
of choice, but the object of digital poetry doesn’t
differ, in this exploration, from that of sound
poetry. That’s why many of the characteristics
of digital poetry were already present in the
preceding avant-gardes and are only pursued in
digital poetry. The most important ones are relative
to the concepts of technotext and intermedia.
The technotext in pre-digital poetry
Since the introduction into poetry of
the tape recorder by François Dufrêne
in France in 1953, poetry has left the book and
has become interested in the relationships that
the sign has with the technology it uses for its
creation or communication. The same year in Brazil,
Wlademir Dias-Pino was also interested in the
relationship of the poem with a base in the principal
of poem/process. Dias-Pino only revealed his principle
in 1967, but he had been using it since 1953.
Thus, for many years, the poem has been a technotext
in the sense given by Katherine Hayles  and
the introduction of the computer becomes a part
of this search for technological platforms and
devices that poetry has been investigating since
this period and that the review DOC(K)S systematically
relates ever since the issue that it produced
in collaboration with the electronic poetry review
alire in 1997 .
The notion of technotext is not treated in exactly
the same way by François Dufrêne
and Wlademir Dias-Pino. For François Dufrêne,
the technical device only has a relationship with
the author. This concept came out of action poetry
and poetic performance. For Dias-Pino, the use
of the technical device is turned to the advantage
of the reader. The reader becomes a component
of this device, no poem can, physically, exist
outside of its reading. Thus, a machine can capture
a sound poem, but not a poem/process. The difference
can be found in the use it makes of perception
and of the cognitive interpretation in the physical
process of the creation of the poem. The distinction
between the two points of view is important. Certain
works are oriented towards the author, others
are oriented towards the reader.
In a technotext, the sign can’t be isolated
from its technical and cognitive contexts. What
Jean-Marie Klinkenberg denominates as the “stimulus”
of the sign , or what Katherine Hayles calls
“the body” of the sign, remains an
important component of the sign. So important
that rhetorical tropes use it in digital poetry.
The stimulus of the sign is the base of the signifier,
the part of the world that is considered as the
physical carrying out of the sign by semiotic
decision. It has nothing to do with the plastic
base or with the object on which the sign is inscribed
with regard to the communication of it, but of
a component of the sign itself, the manifestation
of the sign before any work of categorization
that works against the reduction to signifier/signified
that the linguistic works with by only considering
the result of this categorization as the sign.
Since the stimulus can be found in the real world,
it can be seen by others as a non-significative
part of this world, having no signification for
another (this part of the real is no longer, then,
a stimulus of a sign in the eyes of that person.)
Contemporary poetry often works on the stimulus
of the sign and not on its signified.
The intermedia in pre-digital poetry
The sound and visual poets often consider
themselves intermedia poets in the sense defined
by Dick Higgins in 1965. For him, intermedia principally
consists of the breaking down of barriers between
artistic genres as well as between art and life.
In 1998 Philadelpho Menezes reintroduces this
phrase with a different, more semiotic meaning.
For him, an intermedia work generates a flow that
circulates between signs belonging to different
semiotic systems. He ties the term more specifically
with the concept of media (in the sense of a text,
an image, a sound constitute medias.) Menezes
makes preferential use of the term intermedia
over multimedia because in these works the meaning
is created by a circulation between the medias
and not by the integration of these medias. Intermedia
works are thus pluricode works in the sense of
the semiotic. Post-dadaist poetry is very much
intermedia. Intermedia is today a general semiotic
approach that can not be reduced to a specific
semiotic such as the linguistic.
In intermedia, the construct of the text can
no longer be reduced to its simple linguistic
signification; it must be considered as a text
that is a fabric of signs, whatever the particular
semiotic each of them reveals.
The procedural model
Literary theory constitutes a special
case in the theory of communication. In a digital
medium, literary theory must then take into account
technique, psychology, semiotics and usage. The
procedural model goes in this direction. It has
already been the subject of several articles in
English [7 to 10] but let’s recall some
characteristics useful to our argument.
The role of the computer
Incompleteness of the program
The theories of digital literature usually
think of the computer as a simple calculating
tool that transforms algorithms implemented by
the author in the program into what is then seen
and read by the reader. In the vocabulary of Espen
Aarseth , the textual layer of a program is
thus composed of textons and “what is read”
— scriptons. From this perspective, the
role of the program consists of calculating what
is scripted onto the screen. If the program is
not interactive, the scriptons live potentially
in the textons, whereas an interactive work gives
them a virtual character. Thus, cyberliterature
becomes interesting only in the case where it
is equally ergodic.
Such an approach neglects an important element:
computer science directs many different actors,
and no one has any more control over the entirety
of what happens in the machine. This is why the
concept of “transitoire observable”
plays an important role in the procedural model.
The transitoire observable is the multimedia event
that happens in the space-sound of the screen
at the execution of the program of the piece.
It is so named because this event constitutes
“the transitory and observable state of
the program in the process of being executed.”
It does not concern a technical state but a communicative
and aesthetic state. The computer does not act
like a Türing machine in relation to its
user. The program that the author writes contains
only a part of the instructions used for its execution:
the author is only a co-author of what happens
on the screen, even if his program is only a description
of what he wants to see appear on the screen.
The transitoire observable changes with time.
The same program produces a different transitoire
observable when it is executed in a different
technical context or on a different machine, and
this is true even when it consists of just a basic
description of what can be seen on the screen.
The relationship between the diverse transitoires
observable made by the same program is called
“procedural transformation” in the
The procedural transformation denies that the
computer be considered a calculator only. One
must take into account the incompleteness of that
program, which acts as the unvoiced for the machine.
The semiotic gap
The fact that the program cannot be seen
by the reader once it is executed constitutes
another important technical fact . What results
is that the author of the program has an overarching
view of the work whereas the reader can only have
a local understanding of it. This difference would
not be present in a non-computer programmed work
which calls on the reader to execute its instructions.
It is thus important to distinguish the “texte-auteur”
(“author-text ”) from the “texte-à-voir”
The “texte-auteur” is constituted
by what is written by the author, in a format
that he can understand and manipulate. It contains,
in a programmed work, the program he writes himself
in the programming language (and not in the compiled
binary file) and the givens that the author adds.
The “texte-à-voir” is the part
of the transitoire observable that the reader
considers “the” text . For the
same transitoire observable, it could differ from
one reader to the next by virtue of the archetypes
and mental schemes brought into play by the reader.
I have been writing programmed poetry since 1977.
The first texts were produced with a computer
and their programs were meant directly for the
reader. In this type of texts, called “matrix
poetry,” poems worked in a classical manner
(the matrices) are made to read like a combinatory
program that extracts certain parts depending
on a specific algorithm in order to incorporate
them into a new text (called a surtext) which
treats a subject other than that of the matrices.
The reader must follow the instructions given
by the program himself in order to read this surtext.
Matrix poetry is founded upon intertextuality,
the underlying idea of which is that it works
in two ways: the context of each matrix is incorporated
into the surtext, and, in return, the subject
of this new text is reinjected into the matrix.
In the non-computer programmed works, the reader
has access to the entirety of the materiality
of the work. He is in a transverse position when
communicating through such a work.
When a program is designed for a computer, the
“texte-auteur” is real for the author,
whereas the “texte-à-voir”
remains virtual. In turn, it is real for the reader,
and the “texte-auteur” remains mainly
imaginary for the reader; he cannot attain it
when he executes the program, he can only imagine
it. In this case, he cannot know the exact rules
that make it up nor the intentionality with which
the author suffused it. The elements of “texte-à-voir”
are nothing but traces of this intentionality,
they do not make it explicit. There exists, then,
a “semiotic gap” between the “texte-auteur”
and the “texte-à-voir” which
comes out from the loss of visibility of the intention
of the author. The “texte-à-voir”
reveals an intentionality that is its own and
adapted and that may differ greatly from that
of the “texte-auteur”. These two intentionalities
coexist in a category of works that the procedural
model qualifies as “mimetic works.”
But, most of the time, programmed digital poems
are not mimeic.
Thus, for the reader, the transitoire observable
makes up the real screen for the “texte-auteur”
and is thus a large part of the work.
Figure 3: the position of the reader in a computer
The computer modifies the nature of technotext.
Note that, as Sylvie Leleu-Merviel shows ,
the machine does not deal with the sign internally.
We must, then, make a distinction between semiotic
phenomenons and technical phenomenons. There is
no more than phenotext and genotext in the computer
contrary to what Katherine Hayles maintains. We
should better consider the technical device as
adding a processing capacity to the medium of
which the “texte-auteur”, in this
case, is a performative sign. A performative sign
has two sides to it (“texte-auteur”
and transitoire observable) connected by the process
of the execution of the program. One is invisible
to the author, the other to the reader. The tie
between these two aspects of the sign is as strong
as the semiotic link that links the signifier
and the signified: one cannot exist without the
other, they are inseparable and united out of
a relationship of mutual necessity. This sign
can not exist if the program does not work, it
would not know how to limit itself to one algorithm
component that, because of the incompleteness
of the program, is incapable of register the transitoire
observable. The processing capacity is thus an
expression of the relation that the calculability
holds with the procedural transformation; it registers
the two contradictory aspects where one points
the program in the direction of potential and
the other in the direction of the virtual.
The question of programmed forms
Programmed digital poetry extends the idea of
intermedia (in the sense defined by Philadelpho
Menezes) by adding a new category of signs: performative
signs. Programming posits itself as a new challenge
for the poet because it, not the program, constitutes
the substance (even in Hjelmslev’s terms)
of these performative signs that must manage different
aspects of the work: the incompleteness of the
program, the activity of the reader and the intermedia
transitoire observable. In this case, the semiotic
gap can generate “unreadable” layers
in the author-text. There are signs in the “texte-auteur”
that don’t have any corresponding trace
in the “texte-à-voir,” no elements
of it there are present as an hint of these signs.
We can conclude that the reader is not the destined
recipient. I don’t mean the person who is
reading, but the role of the reader in the situation
of communication. In other words, reading does
not allow one to access all of the aesthetic layers
of the programmed work of a digital medium. In
order to fully access the work, another position
must be maintained: that of the meta-reader. A
meta-reader is one who knows the “texte-auteur”
or its properties and who observes someone else
in the process of reading. He is thus able to
interpret what happens during this reading. The
meta-reader thus occupies the same role as the
classical reader but he is unable to read. In
fact, intellectual comprehension and emotional
comprehension, which are mixed up in a non-digital
work, are largely dissociated in a programmed
digital work, the role of reading principally
being attached to emotional interpretation and
the role of the meta-reader being that of intellectual
Today, such unreadable signs exist in adaptive
generators  and in works done in the aesthetic
of frustration . An adaptive generator carries
out the calculations on the machine during the
execution of the program and modifies on the fly
the logic of the program which has been activated
towards the goal of producing a transitoire observable
that satisfies the aesthetic rules to the highest
level of abstraction. The aesthetic of frustration
considers that the activity of reading is one
of the components of the work. The actions and
reactions of the reader are thus used by it as
iconic signs of other processes that are carried
out in life; they constitute the aesthetic representation
of these processes in the work itself. The reader
carries, sometimes unknown to him, an essential
part of the follow-through of the work in the
role of involuntary actor and not as the author.
In this aesthetic the work is not conceived of
in order to please the reader, nor in order to
be read in the same way as a book or a video.
It is not as much a robot as a place for the confrontation
of the intentionality of the reader and that of
These two programmed forms are as many specific
forms as can be developed when we use the totality
of new possibilities that the medium offers through
the semiotic gap and performativity. Other forms
reconsider the behavior of the transitoire observable
as an image, an icon, of aesthetically parametrized
algorithms. Poets and artists are exploring this
route, notably Alexandre Gherban.
It seems that these profound aesthetic layers
are largely independent from the media operated
upon by the program. That’s why, in 2003,
Alexandre Gherban proposed the creation of a collective
of artists who are seeking to reconsider the concept
of form in which the programming (and not the
program, nor only the transitoire observable)
is the material worked on by the aesthetic activity
in programmed art. Tibor Papp, Alexander and I
have thus created Transitoire observable. It consists
of an open international collective, which has
already been joined by numerous digital artists
and digital poets.
The question of programmed form remains open.
It constitutes a new stage in the exploration
of global semiotic art.
1. Jean Clément, «
afternoon a story : from narration to poetry in
hypertextual books », in A:\littérature,
Villeneuve d’Ascq (MOTS-VOIR, 1994) pp.
2. Philippe Bootz, "Un modèle fonctionnel
des textes procéduraux", in Les cahiers
du CIRCAV, No. 8 (REXCAV, Université de
Lille 3, Villeneuve d'Ascq, 1996) pp. 191-216.
3. The collective's manifesto, along with numerous
theoretical articles, can be accessed at the collective's
4. Katherine Hayles, Writing Machines, Mediawork
(Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 2002).
5. alire10/DOC(K)S série 3 13/14/15/16,
Villeneuve d’Ascq, Ajaccio, MOTS-VOIR, Akenaton,
CD-ROM MAC/PC and book (1997).
6. Jean-Marie Klinkenberg, Précis de sémiotique
générale (Paris: Points, 1996).
7. Philippe Bootz, « The functional point
of view: New artistic forms for programmed literary
works », trad. Fr. Verrier, in Leonardo
No. 32.4 (1999) pp. 307-316
8. Philippe Bootz, “der/die leser ; reader/readers”,
in F. Block, C. heibach, K. Wenz (éds),
p0es1s. Asthetik digitaler Poesie (The Aesthetics
of Digital Poetry) (Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern,
Deutchland, 2004) pp. 93-121.
9. Philippe Bootz, « Hypertext : solution
/dissolution », John Cayley (trans.) in
Cybertext Yearbook 2002-200 (Research Centre for
Contemporary Culture, University of Jyvaskyla,
Finland, 2003) pp. 56-82.
10. The Transitoire Observable site provides
numerous other articles.
11. Espen Aarseth, Cybertext, Perspectives on
Ergodic Literature (Baltimore and London: John
Hopkins University Press, 1997).
12. When the reader has access to the code, for
example in the case of HTML works, he is no longer
a reader but a meta-reader (this term is defined
later in this article).
13. Thus, the "transitoire observable"
is not a sign but a physical event supporting
a sign. The reader interprets certain parts as
the stimulus of the texte-à-voir.
14. This mental archetype is denominated “profondeur
de dispositif” ("depth of the device")
in the procedural model. Note 8 refers to the
presentation of this concept.
15. Extract from Philippe Bootz, Hymne à
la femme et au hazard (1977), republished with
and without computer programming in alire7 (1994),
republished in Le Salon de Lecture Electronique,
CD-ROM PC (MOTS-VOIR, 1995).
16. Sylvie Leleu-Merviel, « les désarrois
des « Maîtres du sens » à
l’ère du numérique »,
in Hypertextes, hypermédias : créer
du sens à l’ère du numérique,
H2PTM’03, (Paris: Hermès, 2003) pp.
17. “Signes inlisibles” ("inlegible
[STET] signs") in the procedural model.
18. There is always, certainly, a cognitive interpretive
reading, but such a result is partial. Comprehending
the work completely necessitates having the two
roles of reader and meta-reader.
19. See Philippe Bootz, « adaptive generators
and temporal semiotics”, conference e-poetry’03,
Morgantown, April 2003, http://transitoireobs.free.fr/to/html/adaptive_generator_web_fichiers/frame.htm
20. See reference to Note 8.
Born in 1957, Doctor of Physics
and Doctor of Information and Communications,
Associate professor at the University of Paris8
where he is a member of the Laboratoire Paragraphe.
Has practiced programmed poetry since 1977. Co-founder
of the collective of French digital poets L.A.I.R.E.
in 1988, he has served as the editor and director
of the review of digital literature alire since
1989. He is also a founding member of the international
collective Transitoire Observable.
Citation reference for this Leonardo
Electronic Almanac Essay
Bootz, Phillipe. " Digital Poetry: From Cybertext
to Programmed Forms." "New Media Poetry
and Poetics" Special Issue, Leonardo Electronic
Almanac Vol 14, No. 5 - 6 (2006). 25 Sep. 2006
Bootz, P. (Sep. 2006) " Digital Poetry: From
Cybertext to Programmed Forms," "New
Media Poetry and Poetics" Special Issue,
Leonardo Electronic Almanac Vol 14, No. 5 - 6
(2006). Retrieved 25 Sep. 2006 from <http://leoalmanac.org/journal/vol_14/lea_v14_n05-06/pbootz.asp>.