Poetics, Ethos, and Ethics

Elaine Scarry (1999) in On Beauty connects aesthetics to justice, reminding us that aesthetics and ethics are intertwined in complex ways. Aesthetics in cyberspace is similarly knotted to ethics. As Carol Gigliotti (1999) and Bob Stein (1999) reveal, theorizing about cyberspace cannot be separated from theorizing about aesthetics. The term cyberspace was born in a novel, and the virtual sphere is quickly becoming a medium as well as a repository for art in new and varied forms. In addition, both Gigliotti and Stein argue that aesthetics in cyberspace cannot be separated from ethics in cyberspace, which means that cyberspace poetics cannot be separated from configurations of ethos, good character. "What is the ethical content of the cultural identity we are building with digital aesthetics?" Gigliotti asks (p. 51). This, she claims, is the fundamental question we must address. And central to that knot of aesthetics and ethicality is the interactive dimension of digital poetics.

Carolyn Guyer (1998) highlights this complicated knot of relationships among ethos, ethics, and aesthetics in a stunningly practical way. She notes her pained recoil when a writer, one she guiltily deems less proficient than she, enlarges her hypertext novel at her invitation in ways Guyer finds unsatisfactory. In Guyer's estimate, that contribution diminished the value of the entire creative effort: It adversely affected the ethos of the site and thrust Guyer into an ethical dilemma: Does she censor the contribution—and thus violate the spirit of interactive, hypertextual fiction—or does she cede her "authority" as initiating author? Despite her desire to have readers add to her work, Guyer is unprepared for the extent to which one small addition to a much larger array of lexia results in the reformation of the ethical authority of the entire site.

Guyer's flinch, her visceral response, is an aesthetic response with ethical dimensions, and it swirls around interactivity. Her recoil functions on two levels: she rejects the textual emendation and the massive reconfiguration catalyzed by that small change because the perceived inferior contribution changed not only the identity of Guyer's hypertextual fiction but also her identity intertwined with that fiction. However, that rejection also evokes an ethical dilemma for Guyer because the fiction exists as a site for collaborative contribution. If she rejects the emendation, does she also reject the founding premise—the ethics—that motivated the hypertextual fiction in the first place?

Brian Kim Stefans (1999) struggles with a different aspect of the ethico-aesthetic knot swirling around interactivity in the creation of his Flash poem "The Dreamlife of Letters." His digital poem grew out of his response to an academic paper authored by Rachel Blau DuPlessis, which Stefans found "textually detailed, and nearly opaque." So he alphabetized her words and created a series of "concrete" poems that eventually metamorphosed into the Flash poem. However, that aesthetic choice rings with ethical implications as Stefans (2003) reveals in an ICQ Chat Session with Darren Wershler-Henry. Here Wershler-Henry queries Stefans about the ethical nature of the textual interactivity (p.18). Does the loss of DuPlessis's "semantic coherence," thus the loss of a coherent statement of her feminist politics, erode the "political efficacy" of her words? Do Stephans's aesthetic choices undermine DuPlessis's political choices?

Stefans (2003) acknowledges the validity of Wershler-Henry's question, a question which strikes at the heart of ethics. He defends his response by claiming that by "slowing her text down, isolating a few key terms, creating some different juxtapositions," he was able to access the energies of her "thematized feminist viewpoint," which he implies were muffled by DuPlessis's "classic 'word salad'"(p. 18). He further defends his poetic license (and the direction of his aesthetic work in 2003) by pointing out that the Flash poem "Dreamlife" links to DuPlessis's paper so that both texts interact.

Whether Stefans enacts the traditional male role of co-opting a woman's words and "re-speaking" her in ways that undermine her authority and credibility is an interesting question, but not precisely what I want to emphasize. What is important for this webtext is that Stefans's aesthetic choices have ethical implications lodged in issues of textual, readerly, and writerly interactivity. Stefans's "Dreamlife," like Guyer's hypertextual fiction, highlights that questions of beauty cannot be shorn from questions of ethics; therefore, understanding the slippery phenomenon of the author position in digital poetics requires grappling with troublesome and troubling questions of ethics. Aristotelian ethos opens the door to addressing both simultaneously.