Sited and Sighted Desire

Ethos offers insight into the materiality of the author position in digital poetics, particularly through the interface of image and word. The author position in digital poetics, while interactive, and through that interactivity distributed across numerous sites, is always positioned materially, constrained by the physical limitations of place, time, and person. Merely because the author position in digital poetics involves many people does not diminish the reality of the physical, material sitedness of those embodied people. Because ethos is similarly material and sited, similarly positioned between image and word, it provides perspective on this aspect of the wandering author and its ethical implications.

Ethos is both constrained and free. Despite Aristotle's ostensible and initial insistence on ethos as a text, as a product of speech as it is delivered, ethos is also an act: it is sited and sighted. As Amélie Oksenberg Rorty (1996) reminds us, "the Rhetoric presupposes and is implicitly informed" by Aristotle's philosophy of mind and his theory of action (as well as by his logical works and political and ethical theory) (p. 1). The materiality of ethos can be traced in two ways: through Aristotle's theory of vision and Aristotle's theory of movement, as reflected in the concept of orexis or desire. Both underscore the essential materiality of any persuasive performance, including that of digital art.

First, as a performative act, rhetoric fuses speaker and audience in a visual-verbal loop. The quality of spectacle, in which the Athenian citizen viewed a speech as one who might become a participant in that speech at any moment, fosters a sense of the materiality of seeing: what one sees has implications for one's position and for one's actions. In addition, the quality of eunoia in ethos emphasizes the necessity of material sitedness and sightedness because it is based, in part, on the rhetor's appearance as well as on the rhetor's words. Eunoia depends on the physical act of seeing, and, for Aristotle, sight is not a disembodied process. According to his explanation of vision in De Anima (trans. 1986), seeing occurs because actual changes take place in the human eye so that eye and object resonate. Thus, physically, the viewer cannot be separated from the speaker because that which is viewed materially alters, even in a small way, the physical existence of the viewer. Seeing the rhetor as ethical, of good character, involves both a material and a philosophical vision because citizen and rhetor are linked in material and reciprocal visual loops.

Second, Aristotle places orexis, or desire, at the heart of all change—intellectual, emotional, physical. Martha Nussbaum (1986) defines orexis as a desire that requires a reaching out to one's environment; thus, orexis, and through orexis, persuasion, is kinesthetically based. The evocation of ethos is intertwined with the evocation of orexis: the desire of a citizen to "reach out" and move in his environment in a particular way, a literal movement in a material sphere. Ethos occurs in the doing, in the rhetor's physical performance and in the citizen's physical responses to that performance; thus, ethos is located in a material milieu. In an era of spectacle, ethos evolves as a participatory process within which rhetor and audience craft and share a performative site that exists as long as the interaction exists.

These material aspects of ethos inform the paradox of location in the midst of distribution characteristic of the author position in digital poetics. Even as the author position is inextricably diffused throughout an ecology of nodes and rhizomes, it is also irredeemably located in a material situation. This idea of location goes beyond email addresses, websitedness, and virtual sitedness, although it encompasses those paradoxes as well. It implicates the material stratum (or strata) of our participation in both virtual world and real world. Brian Lennon (2000) argues that out of habit we identify the postmodernist poetic text as "dematerialized," ephemeral, a "simulacrum" (p. 65). Ostensibly, immersion in the digital realm merely intensifies the ephemeral, dematerialized quality of poetic texts (Gaggi, 1997). However, if we consider the milieu of spectacle within which digital poetics evolves, especially the materiality of the visual realm of hypermediated aesthetics, then we challenge this perception of dematerializaton. As Barbara Maria Stafford (1997) points out, seeing is participatory, constructive, and material, especially in the digital realm where we are required to construct meaning out of a barrage of fragmentary images and word. Inescapably implicated in that seeing is the embodied see-er. We cannot divorce digital poetics from performative sites. The fusion of saying and seeing in the digital realm is the simultaneous fusion of discursivity with materiality. The author position, distributed across nodes, is also located within the physical amalgamation of machine, scene, and user.

The desire on the part of many digital poets to expose the mechanics of production, to force into the open the constructedness of vision and words, reflects both the sited and sightedness of classical ethos. Espen Aarseth (1997) makes such a desire a central characteristic of his definition of ergodic cybertexts (p. 1), while Richard Lanham (1993) perceives this desire to be rhetorically based: "Pixeled print destabilizes the arts and letters in an essentially rhetorical way, returns them to that characteristic oscillation between looking AT symbols and looking THROUGH them which the rhetorical paideia instilled as a native address to the world" (p. 24). It is, as ethos reveals, both.

Digital poet Darren Wershler-Henry seeks to enact this rhetorical-aesthetic desire through his creative work. In an interview with Brian Kim Stefans (2003), Wershler-Henry discusses his own efforts to expose the linkage among reader-author-machine by means of the visual-verbal dislocations of "DeskJetsam," one poem in a larger series aimed at highlighting in Wershler-Henry's words, the "underlying material phenomena essential to the poem's production—the technical quirks of particular means of production—printers, driver software, etc.—and their various shortcomings... it renders visible the stuff that makes language possible" (p. 25). Thus, in "DeskJetsam" the reader is presented with a page from which drips a series of five lines of various lengths that are comprised of blurred letters. Click on the "?" in the upper left hand corner of the page, and Wershler-Henry describes the poem as a take off of Apollinaire's rain poem. . .or the results of a Hewlett Packard printer running out of paper. Here, through the affordances of the digital technologies, Wershler-Henry seeks to move from what Lanham calls a closed poetics to an open rhetoric. In doing so, Wershler-Henry creates what he perceives to be ethical poetry, poetry that requires the reader to look at and through simultaneously.

The ethical implications of sitedness and sightedness for digital poetics are two-fold. First, engagement in and with digital poetics involves more than casual eye movement or fingers on a keyboard. It involves proprioception: the commitment of the whole person flowing through the keyboard into the digital poem, the digital world. As readers put in and take out, they become part of something larger, something that feeds back into—rearranges even in small ways—their material identities. At this moment of participation, the self—as a material phenomenon—comes into being. Therefore, actions, choices, and creative decisions filter not just through the digital machine but also through the flesh of the user.

The "Why suffer" link to Annie Abrahams's being human cyberpoem derives its power in part from this aspect of ethos. The persuasive punch of "Why suffer?" depends on the user's visceral, physiological experience. Focusing on abuse, the cyberpoem functions as a deliberate, multimedia (visual, textual, and aural) assault on the user. The page opens by readers clicking on the "Why suffer?" link on the being human homepage. A photo of a woman crouched in a kitchen corner against a wall and a refrigerator materializes on the upper left side of the page, immediately capturing the attention of Western readers who automatically begin to read on that side of a page. The figure holds both arms over her face, and her body continually scissors into a fetal position as if protecting itself from blows. The letters d, o, n, t in different colors and sizes float up and down the page, while across the bottom of the page loops a series of phrases, beginning with "I do agree. Yes, you are right. I do agree."

However, as the words continue to loop, as the letters d, o, n, t continue to float, and as the figure continues her fetal flinch, the words change. While the phrases begin with a woman's terrorized efforts to avert abuse by agreeing with the rightness of the abuse—a use of language which self-persuades the abuse victim that she should be abused—they slowly begin to shift, streaming to a gradual epiphany and subsequent resistance: "I am right, it can be otherwise. I am right, I am not like you, you are wrong, I am right, I know what to do, I know who I am." The words of the last phrase "I know who I am" are spatially separated for emphasis. As this change in naming the world and self occurs, the image of abuse disappears until only the words and letters d,o, n, t remain. As the small lettering at the bottom of the page indicates, this is a "test to predict potential aggressive behavior," and the effectiveness of the site is directly linked to the physiological recoil of the user, a recoil that will elicit the desire on the part of the user to "reach out" and change self and world. The impact of the cyberpoem rests on this material ethical appeal, one in which art and life mix together.

Second, the sitedness of Aristotle's ethos implicates the design of cyberspace itself as a site that invites and/or discourages poetic performances. Athens was constructed to enhance the reciprocity of seeing and saying, promoting democracy as it was then defined. Conversely, the construction of the modern city—with its sprawling, disconnected, and closed in areas—discourages democracy, discourages the participatory and collective seeing/saying so necessary for the flourishing of democratic citizenship (Sennett, 1994). If the architecture and physical deployment of bodies from fourth century Athens to twenty-first century Los Angeles emphasize a particular interplay of seeing, saying, and civic engagement, then we are confronted with a crucial task in digital aesthetics: to construct a digital environment that promulgates both digital poetics and humane performances. John Cayley (2005) argues just this point. Cayley's recent creative efforts have cycled out of the Internet into virtual performances in Brown University's four-wall VR Cave and then back to the Internet in various forms. In an article exploring the possibilities for three-dimensional performance art that invites the user to participate physically in a virtual world, Cayley concludes thusly:

I hope to have indicated above that programmable media provide arbitrarily numerous means to realize, in program and performance, complex relationships between the symbolic realm of language and the world it dwells within, represents and constitutes. To achieve this we require a textuality of complex surfaces, capable of conveying a multi-dimensionality that is commensurate with lived human experience, including the structured culture of human time.

To achieve this, we also need the sitedness and sightedness of ethos.