Paul Stephens – The Poetics of Information Overload: From Gertrude Stein to Conceptual Writing

The Poetics of Information Overload

University Of Minnesota Press, ISBN-13: 978-0816694419, English, 240 pages, 2015, USA

We can attempt a definition of “information overload” as a perceived disproportion between the quantification of the information we ingest and our capacity to metabolise it. Clearly this is not something necessarily related to digital media, as it has been experienced in our analogue and mechanical past, arguably at every major change in the mediascape. Nonetheless, the often-touted acceleration imposed by the digital has triggered a different scale, as the ‘big data’ concept easily proves. How to compensate for this disproportion? Stephens proposes that we use signs against signs, where, to paraphrase McLuhan all we do now can be reduced to “rubbing information against information”. He intertwines avant-garde poetry since 1900 with its relationship to rapidly changing media, appropriating and transforming the new information pace through its own literary strategies. The result is enthralling and rigorous, taking the reader through a long enjoyable path of cross references, poetry and inspired visions which, (un)surprisingly, sound ultra-modern most of the time. Furthermore, the different forms of conceptual writing seem to assume the form of cultural antibodies, designed to cure information overload, processing concepts through the incredible power of language, especially in its visual poetic forms. De-contextualising a quote Katherine Hayles, Stephens’ book seems to argue that “if we can become the information we have constructed, we can achieve effective immortality.”