10 TRIES, 100 POEMS (TAKE 1) :: KYLE BOOTEN :: FIELD NOTES :: PSYCHOTECHNOLOGIES OF CARE, ALGORITHMS OF ATTENTION

This Field Notes entry by poet and researcher Kyle Booten marks the first installment of ‘10 Tries, 100 Poems,’ a Field Notes mini-series wherein poets document their participation in experimental workshops that use poetry as a means of resistance to contemporary forms of distraction, deception, and distortion. The workshops, conducted by digital media literacy advocate Alexandra Juhasz, are part of a larger project, #100hardtruths-fakenews, which attempts, in Juhasz’ words, to “understand, combat, or teach about the crisis of fake news.” Read more about the idea behind the workshops in the Series Introduction. [2018 series editor: Adrian Silbernagel]

Image by vvdr12, used under CC BY-NC 2.0.

When Alex Juhasz asked me to help lead a workshop on the relationship between poetry and fake news, I felt intrigued but uncertain. After all, so many of the proposed antidotes to mendacious digital media come from the technological and ideological milieu of digital media itself: if certain accounts (be they humans or bots) spread lies on social networks, we need the networks to identify and disable them. If it is becoming more difficult to tell the difference between truth and falsehood, we need machine learning to filter out or at least flag the lies. The fixes are ready-made, embedded in the problems. Poetry, from “the valley of its making,” does not generally traffic in Silicon Valley solutionism.

Let me put aside for a moment the notion of “poetry” and think instead of a broader category, what philosopher of media Bernard Stiegler has called “psychotechnologies,” techniques and regimes through which cognitive faculties (especially attention) are formed or destroyed. According to Stiegler, the contemporary “programming industries,” which would include social networks as well as digital advertisers, operate psychotechnologies on an industrial scale in order to control, sell, and corrupt attention. Fake news, from this perspective, is only an especially egregious symptom of a pervasive malady: even those of us who (we assure ourselves) have not been duped by viral fake news are still constantly distracted and manipulated by other arms of the programming industries. In this light, we don’t simply need to solve the specific problem of fake news. We need new psychotechnologies through which we may be able to reclaim our capacity to pay attention in ways that are not self-destructive.

Stiegler considers the ways that techniques of writing are also technologies of the mind. But poetry, I think, is a particular kind of psychotechnology — a collection of algorithms of attention made up of more or less precise instructions (poetic forms). To take up or emulate a form or even a small part of one (e.g. the sonnet and its volta, Schuyler’s long, skinny poems [so full of parentheticals], Berssenbrugge’s parataxis) is a way of at least temporarily reprogramming the way one’s mind moves. And when we preserve and pass on forms over short or long timescales, it must be in part because we believe that these forms are not just aesthetically interesting but also that they are good for us (which is not to say “wholesome”). They give us ways of caring for our embodied minds and, by extension, to social worlds in which these embodied minds move.


The workshop at the Ammerman Symposium was a chance to work through what it would mean to use poetic forms explicitly as psychotechnologies of care, algorithms of attention that could possibly restructure consciousness in ways that run counter to those enforced by the programming industries. First, Alex introduced the workshop’s participants (mostly scholars and media artists, often both) to her #100hardtruths-#fakenews project, provoking a critical discussion about digital media and social networks in particular. Next, after briefly introducing Stiegler’s concept of psychotechnologies, I asked the participants to go along with my claim that poetic forms are algorithms of attention, and I charged them with imagining forms that could help us take care of our embodied minds. The resultant algorithms tended to read like Fluxus scripts designed to promote cognitive hygiene amidst poisonous mediascapes. Often, like this one by Maro Pebo and Lisa Moren, they suggested ways of directly taking control of one’s attention (or, as hard truth #16 puts it, “practicing strategic contemplation”):


a two hour walk to generate a poem
1. create a list of activities (with an alarm) to go off every 5 minutes for 2 hours
2. Go for a walk
3. Observe the truth of your surroundings
4. Allow for associations that relate to your observations and record during or after walk
5. If vibrations occur, then answer phone and follow your own prompt
6. Forget Associations
7. Repeat until two hours are up

I enjoy the tension between the explicitly algorithmic logic — the numbered steps, the division of poetic time into measurable increments, the “while loop” implicit in step #7 — and the overabundance of terms pointing to difficult-to-define epistemological or cognitive phenomena — “the truth of your surroundings,” “associations”, “observations.” What are we meant to store in these linguistic variables? Likewise, I am intrigued by the injunction to forget my “associations,” whatever these may be. If one aspect of cognitive self-care is choosing what to remember and what to forget, Pebo and Moren’s instructions invite a careful economy that balances both, and yet they also reveal a structural imbalance between remembering and forgetting. The prompt, the calendar, the vibrations — these add up to a simple but effective artificial memory. But how would I assemble media to guarantee that I forget my “associations” or anything else (e.g. a fetid but sticky morsel of fake news, a piece of media that some company has designed to pluck my specific desires/anxieties)?

Despite the title Pebo and Moren gave to these instructions, perhaps it is against this algorithm’s spirit to actually “generate a poem.” Would not the poem sabotage the act of forgetting (not to mention interrupt the flâneur’s rhythm)? Still, a poem could also help elucidate the algorithm’s cognitive effects, and so Alex Juhasz and I tried to generate poems while following these instructions (if also tweaking them somewhat). Alex, with Gavin McCormick, produced a poem out of a walk through Brooklyn. The poem itself is broken up into sections that correspond to five-minute periods, yet each of these sections contains two verse paragraphs, one for each writer, one of which tended to be more “observational” and the other more “associative.” The resulting twin-text demonstrates a method of dividing the labor of perceiving and thinking about the walked-through world:


Meanwhile, I focused on reacting to the “activities” (prompts, really) I had programmed to pop up on my phone every five minutes. These prescheduled mental events felt less like writing poems than like calisthenics of attention. One ordered me to consume intentionally the kind of media I would typically consume idly:

Activity alert at 5:27 p.m.: gather 13 social network comments.
1. I used to spend half my life chasing networks. Now with YouTube, I’ve swapped that time for time to create.
2. Started from 0, now I’m at 19k. Next I’ll be at 100k.
3. …even a whit the beauty she leaves behind like her eternal, up to now, shadow.
4. Dude I have no idea how I got here but I’m glad I did
5. Only Beethoven and Bach come close.
6. Context: a knightship is a glider (a structure that translates itself across the Life grid periodically)
[ran out of time]

Others prompted me to spend five minutes paying attention to texts I admire but whose specificities continually slip through my fragile memory. One, for instance, encouraged me to meditate upon a line from Jennifer Moxley’s Clampdown (2009), “…for we / understood their suffering, didn’t we, and we / were the ones who took it upon ourselves to make it new.”:

The time of modernism (vintage new) vs. the time of the event (actually new?) vs. the time of suffering (keep it underspecified). A new poem has the most current timestamp, though these can be forged, and the time bars scrubbed. A new poetry is exciting (desublimation) and can be explained quickly in an elevator.

After following Pebo and Moren’s algorithm, I realized that I actually had very little trouble following step #6, the step of forgetting. The vibration of the phone itself ensured my quick amnesia, shocking me into a new task, the shot clock once again winding down to the next buzzer. Five minutes seemed to be the perfect amount of time, at once not enough and too much. (What weight could you hold in your head for five minutes? How many reps, and how many sets?) I found following their psychotechnological algorithm to be unfamiliar and challenging (to be more specific, exhausting), and perhaps this alone is evidence that is worth the attempt. But if poetry really could provide us with ways of reprogramming our minds in response to the programming industries, at what timescales must this training occur, and what would serve as proof of transformation?



Kyle Booten is a postdoctoral fellow in the Neukom Institute for Computational Science at Dartmouth College, where he is designing literary interfaces. His recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Boston Review, Lana Turner, and Western Humanities Review.