Distributed Authorship, Beauty, and Ethico-Aesthetic Resonance

A key characteristic of twenty-first century digital authorship, and an integral part of its aesthetics, is the phenomenon of distribution, a quality with ethical and political implications. Joan Retallack (2003) acknowledges this ethical imperative in her poethical, a concept that positions both ethical responsibility and aesthetic pleasure in the poet's relationship to others, not to a system of idealized rules. John Cayley in "Writing on Complex Surfaces" (2005) uses Retallack's poethical as the starting point for his exploration of the ethico-aesthetic dimension of three-dimension digital art. He highlights the distributed quality of poethical, calling it a kind of "engaged formalism," an ethically charged poetics that, quoting Retallack, he says exists as an "interconversation" at "linguistic and cultural coastlines." The quality of distribution in the ethics and aesthetics of digital art is also central to Eduardo Kac's (1993) definition of telepresence art. He claims that "the rhythms created by this new art will be accented by intuitive interfaces, linking and networking concepts, telerobot design, and remote environment construction." Thus, the digital author position is distributed not merely across lexia or lex-icons, but across the system of interlocking loops that constitute cyberspace communities. Ethos can help us understand the nature of this distribution and its ethical imperative, for Aristotelian ethos is similarly diffused throughout the levels and loops of a performance.

Ethos is not located in the speaker or in an audience or in a site. It is dispersed throughout the ecology of speaker, audience, scene, and city-state. Nowhere is this distributed quality more evident than in eunoia, the third component of ethos. As defined by Aristotle, eunoia is both an element of pathos, of emotional appeal, and of ethos. It serves double duty. Eunoia is the feeling of friendship and good will that a rhetor evokes, which means that ethos is spread across the content of the speech itself (networking with pathetic appeals) and across the context of the speech act (networking with audiences).

This distribution is further underscored by the play of visual and linguistic elements in ethos through eunoia. The visual elements of eunoia, like the rhetor's physical appearance—clothes, stance, as well as delivery—contribute to the evocation of eunoia. Via eunoia, ethos circulates throughout the network of bodies, communities, and moments. It is a product of the ecology of rhetor, audience, scene, and city-state.

Annie Abrahams's whimsical "wishes" resonates with the distributed quality of ethos through eunoia. Designed for the 1999-2000 issue of Riding the Meridian, "wishes" is part of Abraham's larger being human cyberpoem. The charming "wishes" site consists of a random array of demure boxes that flash into place when the site first loads. The boxes, outlined in narrow orange lines, encase plump pink circles which, in turn, surround pale round centers. The boxes are arrayed against a welcoming background. There is no threat of violence, dislocation, or alienation. Instead, the entire site with its cheerful sunshine yellow background solicits an engaging feeling of friendly mischief. Continuing this puckish quality are the boxes themselves. Each box is a link, connecting to images, sounds, words that express gentle wishes: a hand, a bird flying, the word "hope" outlined in stones on a sandy beach, the sound of applause, and so forth. One link opens to a dialogue box where the readers are invited to contribute their wishes as well, and the design of the site, with its tender ethos, sweetly persuades. In a pop-up box, linked to the small "info" at the bottom right of the site, Abrahams explains that readers can contribute wishes to another website connected to this project, and those wishes will be integrated into multimedia artwork that cycles back and forth between the web and the real world. While this version of "wishes" created for Riding the Meridian contains only "Annie's wishes," the promise, invitation, and pleasure of the digital poem lie in the readers becoming a part of its spirit. As the poet notes in her info pop up, she will "guard" the wishes the readers entrust to her, "shaping" them into HTML with the help of other web artists and "html lovers." Thus, "wishes" owes its aesthetic and ethical identity to an ecology of factors: artist, readers, word, image, scene, and machine.

The fluid movement of ethos across speech and cultural contexts, across individual and multiple bodies, across seeing and saying informs the ethical responsibility and the aesthetic pleasure of digital poetics. First, ethos underscores that the author position in digital poetics is a product of oscillation. It is not an author who writes just as it is not the rhetor who creates his or her ethos. It is the context that writes; authorship and authority evolve from the resonance of the whole, the reverberation among members of a network. Brian Lennon (2000) hypothesizes digital visual poetics as a "zona inexplorada of a never wholly discovered, validated, or otherwise bounded networld field" (p. 68). Drawing on the concept of the transient "node or rhizome" made famous by Deleuze and Guattari (1987), Lennon conceives of digital visual poetics as a resonance among and within the gaps of temporarily related nodes. Like ethos, which exists through the resonance among rhetor-audience-seeing-saying, the author position in digital poetics also exists through this resonance.

Carolyn Guyer's (1998) struggle with the evolution of her hypertext narrative, one designed specifically to elicit interactivity that eventually dismays her, demonstrates that digital authorship cannot be assigned to any single individual contributor, even that of the initiator of the site. Rather, it is a function of the whole because it is diffused across the network of nodes and lived experiences. The "wishes" webpoem relies on just such an ethical distribution for its identity. Readers who contribute violent or threatening experiences violate the ethos of the web poem unless those expressions transform into wishes that return to the hopeful spirit of the "wishes" cyberpoem; more explicitly, one pop-up box inviting contributions gently requests that readers eschew pornography and pornographic links, both of which would erode the aesthetics and the ethics of the cyberpoem.

The implication of the distributed quality of authorship is that it is encumbent on all participants—all wreaders—to act in such a way that the context—the resonance—survives. The aim of the digital poet is to emulate the harmony or balance of seeing and saying within which she is immersed. Thus, "wishes" constrains the wreader to reinforce the joyous spirit of the site. In addition, different digital poems require different responses. For instance, maintaining the harmony and balance of a web poem may require deliberate inharmony and unbalance. I emphasize that ostensible paradox because an aim of much digital poetry is to expose and disrupt the supposed stability of surfaces. If the aim of a digital composition is to dismantle the ostensible "givenness" of reality and the status quo, then the quality of distribution requires honoring that larger context; it, paradoxically, requires harmonizing with inharmony. Thus, like the ancient rhetor, the reader of digital poetry acts and speaks in ways that align with the larger context. Anthropologist and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson (1991), whose work influenced Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus, calls this an aesthetic sensibility: the means by which one achieves a goal must resonate with the goal. Otherwise, the means to a goal will undercut that goal. Vehicle and end must complement in ways that create beauty in both, thus feeding back into and reinvigorating the context.