In the field of digital literature, media blur one into another. A single piece of digital literature might draw on the literary tools of fiction, poetry, painting, photography, film, etc. The best works, though, force us to question the distinction between media altogether. The question “what is a poem?” becomes “what (if anything) does the medium tell us about a work?” Because the very concept of the artistic medium is troubled from the start, the close-reader of a digital work has no predetermined analytical strategies or tools to bring to the work. We are, instead, forced to either draw on techniques used in the analysis of existing media or to throw out those techniques and discover new ones. As I approach the task of close-reading Andy Campbell’s “Spawn,” it seems sensible to do a little of both.
As it appears on screen, Campbell’s “Spawn” assaults the reader/viewer with it’s dull and incessant score, a drone (too amelodic to be called music) intermittently interrupted by an echoing rat-a-tat sound-effect. The sound is so overpowering that I find it difficult to even engage with the visual components of the work. In fact, when I first encountered “Spawn,” my immediate compulsion was to turn the audio off so I could focus more intently on the words and images. Does the fact that this option is built into the work itself suggest the audio is not integral to the content? Is the audio just an unnecessary backdrop upon which the rest of the work can be viewed?
My immediate response to both of these questions is “no.” While you can turn off the sound, the work’s default is for the sound to be on, and (given it’s idiosyncratic and grating quality) it’s hard not to have the sound burned into your ears/head after hearing it for even just a few seconds. The sound in “Spawn,” like the rest of the work, plays with the binary opposition of nature and machine. The droning score sounds, at once, like the hum of a very large swarm of bees and like the electrical murmur of a thousand networked computers. The rat-a-tat sounds, at once, like the regular click-clack of a machine gear and like a heart beat skipping a single “tat” every third beat: dun duh, dun duh, dun . . . dun duh, dun duh, dun . . .
“Spawn,” is in many ways about engaging us viscerally in the act of viewing/reading/watching/hearing. It does its work by engaging many of our senses at once. The grotesqueness of the image helps to engage our senses of smell and touch, because the sight of decay reminds us directly of its smell. The horrors of the image and (some of) the text causes our skin to crawl, itch, break out in goosebumps, etc. So many of the words Campbell uses are either physically assaultive or have a fleshy weight in our mouths: “chunk,” “chipped,” “pinched,” “aching,” “click,” etc. Likewise, the textures of the image engage our sense of touch vicariously. The liquid spreading and bubbling across the dark surface, for example, looks positively 3-dimensional.
The best literary criticism engages a text in an intimate, and even erotic, way. In Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, Laura U. Marks calls this “haptic criticism” (ix). When we write about literary texts (especially audiovisual media), “the task is to make the dry words retain a trace of the wetness of the encounter” (x). My experience of Andy Campbell’s “Spawn” is an emotional one, a sensuous one, a flirting with the slimy textures of the image, as my mouth bends around the words and my hand fondles the mouse in an attempt to reach deeper and deeper into the poem. “Spawn” doesn’t frustrate my attempts to read it; the poem doesn’t resist interpretation. Even as the sound acts as a sort of barricade (for me), the constant dance of the image and bite of the text lure me in. I find myself edging closer to the screen, as if I could read the poem with my fingers.
Campbell writes, “everywhere i look i see ceiling / arms reach from radiators / rugs o o o shelves o o o plaster / between forefinger and thumb / a blue needle pinched / aching.” “Spawn” is contained on the screen within a small frame, its size determined by the resolution of each reader/viewer’s computer monitor. It’s a closed frame; i.e., nothing ever crosses its edge. The poem is on the inside of the frame, and the rest of the world outside the frame is just blackness, suggesting there is no rest of the world beyond this one surface, this one upside-down jar. There is no option within “Spawn” to make the poem appear full screen, so it is framed again by the browser window, and again by the bezel of the monitor. Again, nothing from within the poem crosses these edges. It is contained, a world with nothing but “ceiling” on all sides.
Still, as I’ve described, my experience of the poem is not consistent with this. Even though I can’t, I do feel as though I could (or do, at least figuratively) reach into the frame (like the “arms reach[ing] from radiators” that Campbell describes). No matter how closed the world of the poem appears, the content of the poem suggests the possibility of an open frame, the possibility of an open container. The upside-down jar looks, at first, to be sealed; the dancing black pods inside are unable to escape. However, there is a viscous liquid spreading out (and bubbling with decay) on the surface beneath the jar, suggesting that only the jars solid inhabitants are contained. And, even these inhabitants have found ways to escape: “rugs o o o shelves o o o plaster,” and there they are outside the jar, little circular pods, “o o o,” dancing amidst the furniture and even inside the “plaster” of the apparently impenetrable walls. The little “o”s are also in our hands, “between forefinger and thumb”; and their bite is like the poke of a “needle,” which breaches our skin, a closed frame that won’t stay closed. In the world of “Spawn,” the frame is permeable, walls are permeable, skin is permeable.