Interactivity and the Wandering Author

Type "digital poetics" in your search engine, and you will discover a wealth of interactive websites where online collaborators—one time and repeated, novice and veteran—jointly contribute to the creation of poetry, to what one website author refers to as "word art." The aesthetic manifesto from The Word Project website highlights the radical shift in poetics evoked by the possibilities of interactivity in digital spaces. The author writes:

The traditional paradigm of artwork and audience is being challenged and rewritten. No longer is the audience a PASSIVE viewer but in web based art becomes an ACTIVE participant in the artwork. The process of interaction between artwork and audience requires choices to be made by the viewer. The much-dreamed-of aim of an artwork to alter its audience is given a whole new twist with the audience now capable of altering the artwork. The result is an exciting symbiotic-type relationship which is opening up new spaces in art hitherto undreamed of.

The digital possibilities of cyberpoetics has changed the nature of audience; reciprocally, it has changed the nature of author. Digital poet Brian Kim Stefans (1999) criticizes his own composition, "The Dreamlife of Letters," because its early incarnation reflected the "antique 'concrete' mode," an "other aesthetic" no longer "very interesting" to the author because it was not sufficiently interactive. It possessed no "natural place to let the viewer in" and by that criterion is perceived by the author to fail as a poem. His identity as a poet is linked to a transaction with the reader in what he calls a "social construct" (2003, p. 76).

The phenomenon of deliberate interactivity raises intriguing questions concerning identity—ethos—and ethics: who is writing and who is taking responsibility for the writing? I argue that the anomalous position of "author" in interactive digital texts, especially interactive poetic digital texts, can be fruitfully conceptualized through the lens of Aristotelian ethos, a lens that enables us to address the knotty phenomena of ethics, aesthetics, and identity.[1]