setInterval(): Time-Based Readings of Kinetic Poetry

Tese de doutoramento de Álvaro Seiça sobre poesia cinética digital. [Ligação]

Thesis for the for Degree of Philosophiae doctor Doctor (PhD) at the University of Bergen 2017. Date of defence: 02.02.2018. <>

Abstract >

setInterval() is a study of digital kinetic poetry by English, French, and Portuguesespeaking poets whose work defies the very act of writing and reading. It places an emphasis on the historical, cultural, and technological contextualization of kinetic poetry written in diverse media. A wider study of kinetic poetry has been missing, because the field has been relatively undocumented until now. Thus, setInterval() contributes to existing literature with new research, and develops innovative methodology for reading and analyzing poems that literally move.

The forms of kinetic poetry surveyed include film poetry, videopoetry, holography poetry, and digital poetry, which are all dependent on spatiotemporal elements. Therefore, there is a focus on the temporal and spatial dimensions of poems that are time-based and animated. Poems written and read with computational media require interdisciplinary expertise, because they are scripted with code and often integrate text, sound, image, and interactive functions.

The creative works that are analyzed in full-depth in this study are Stephanie Strickland and Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo’s Flash poem slippingglimpse (2007), and Ian Hatcher’s JavaScript and JQuery’s ⌰ [Total Runout] (2015). Other reviewed works include poems by E. M. de Melo e Castro, Marc Adrian, Ana Hatherly, Silvestre Pestana, bpNichol, Nick Montfort, John Cayley, Philippe Bootz, María Mencía, Philippe Castellin, Rui Torres, Jörg Piringer, J. R. Carpenter, and Jhave. This selection aims to engage with a polyglot perspective, as these works demonstrate diverse linguistic, literary, cultural, and artistic traditions. Even though these authors work within similar production and reception contexts—a global community framework, shared networked, and programmable settings—there are rich differences among them at the level of language, local and national topics, themes, and sociopolitical concerns. The case studies presented throughout the dissertation intend not only to provide a sample of different practices within the field, but also to extract practices that are common to kinetic poetry specifically developed and published in digital systems.

This thesis is an article-based dissertation organized around six articles. The articles situate kinetic poetry and experimental poetics in cultural and technological context. They analyze poems by Strickland and Hatcher in detail, and address issues of canonization and self-referentiality in the field of digital poetry, between 1995 and 2015, via network and visualization analyses. Poets create kinetic poems with computers, via networks, and compose them by scripting code with timers that influence modes of presentation and reception. The tempo set in programming for screens and media output—which allows for text to move—can determine whether a poem can be read and viewed, only viewed, or whether it is illegible. This fact poses the guiding question: How can the critic analyze surfaces of inscription that can be on the verge of unreadability?

The research addresses three levels of analysis that I call ‘micro-,’ ‘meso-,’ and ‘macro-reading.’ These levels investigate modes of reading kinetic poems, their literary and artistic context, and their reception context. Why is the history of kinetic poetry embedded in literary and artistic movements? How does it affect contemporary practices? A relocation of the entanglement of literature with technology and media proves that 1950s-60s experimentalist authors played a crucial role in anteceding an approach to art as a quest for transgression, invention, and recreation that was shaped by multiple media. The attitude of facing the creative act as research, and as a synthesis process, meant that all types of media could be used to materialize and expand the literary field. These notions would echo in the process of experimental poets in the late twentieth century and, it is my claim, continue in digital poetics.

A comprehensive section presents a literature review of digital poetry. It debates different taxonomies of kinetic poetry and digital poetry, and it defines the terms ‘timer,’ ‘time-based,’ ‘setInterval(),’ and ‘diastêma.’ Another section discusses frequent practices, processes, and techniques employed by poets: spatiotemporal dimensions; multidirectional reading; typologies of timers and textual motion; multilayer, superimposition, juxtaposition, and palimpsest; methods of appropriation, anthropophagy, and remix; coding, authoring software, and interface; randomization and aleatory processes; and finally, the notion of kinetic poems as performative events.

In order to analyze the kinetic poems’ behavior, the theoretical methodology used in this study combines perspectives from literary criticism (Samuels and McGann 1999) with digital literary studies (Funkhouser 2007, 2012; Jhave Johnston 2016). It takes insights from materiality and media-specific analysis (Glazier 2001, Hayles 2002, 2004, 2008, and Pressman 2014), critical code studies (Marino 2006), media archaeology and interface studies (Emerson 2014), collaborative, and multiapproach studies (Pressman, Marino, and Douglass 2015). At the level of praxis, the methodology engages with the notion of “deformative criticism” (Samuels and McGann 1999) and “operation” of works (Strickland and Montfort 2013). Furthermore, empirical methodology involves code forensics and transcripts, the emulation of Silvestre Pestana’s Computer Poetry (1981-83), modifications of source code and surface, interviews with poets and scholars, research collections developed in the ELMCIP database, and curating exhibitions of digital literary works.

The study’s main contribution to the field is the historical overview of kinetic poetry, and the critique of links between experimental poetry and digital poetry. The key finding is the development of a method to read kinetic poetry that blends critical inquiry with modifications of kinetic poems. It contributes to the analysis of digital poetry with exploratory readings, by manipulating code, interface, and the display of creative works. The modification of works constitutes a practice-based strategy that entails altering their output in order to analyze their kinetic behavior. This intervening practice engages with experimental criticism theorized and practiced by Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann (1999). Therefore, I propose a new method for enriching the analyses of digital literary works, by considering the poem as a perceived event, since it is composed by spatiotemporal, rhythmic, conceptual, and semiotic dimensions. What I call a ‘modifying deformance’ is no less than a method that emerges out of coding practices and theory of literature. Finally, I argue that modifying deformances can pave the way to resituate assumptions in the field of digital poetry, regarding literary and aesthetic criticism of works that move across time and space.

Has part(s)

Paper I: Seiça, Álvaro. “Kinetic Poetry,” edited by Dene Grigar and James O’Sullivan. Electronic Literature: Contexts, Forms, and Practices. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic (forthcoming, 2018). Full text available in the main thesis.

Paper II: Seiça, Álvaro. “The Freedom Adventure of Portuguese Experimentalism and Kinetic Poetry,” edited by Joseph Tabbi. The Bloomsbury Handbook of Electronic Literature. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017: 165-180. Full text available in the main thesis.

Paper III: Seiça, Álvaro. “The Digital Diasthima: Time-Lapse Reading Digital Poetry.” ISEA2015: Disruption. Proceedings of the 21st International Symposium on Electronic Art. Vancouver: ISEA, 2015. The article is available at:

Paper IV: Seiça, Álvaro. “Polymorphic Reading in Strickland and Jaramillo’s slippingglimpse.” Full text available in the main thesis.

Paper V: Seiça, Álvaro. “A Critique of Control and Black Boxes: Modifying Deformances of Ian Hatcher’s ⌰ [Total Runout]” Poetics Today 40 (forthcoming, 2019). The article is available at:

Paper VI: Seiça, Álvaro. “Digital Poetry and Critical Discourse: A Network of Self- References?” Matlit 4.1 (2016): 95-123. The article is available at:

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