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

By Paul Stephens. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015. 240 pp. $25.00 (paperback). ISBN 978-0-8166-9441-9. $87.50 (hardback). ISBN 978-0-8166-9439-6

The title of Paul Stephens’s The Poetics of Information Overload: From Gertrude Stein to Conceptual Writing has the kind of definitive ring to it that connotes comprehensiveness. The book’s preface, expanded and published in Guernica Magazine upon its release[1] would lead the reader to this conclusion as well since it prominently references Dadaism, Oulipo, and a wide range of modern and contemporary poets. The book however, confines itself to a close examination of a handful of American poets in the avant garde tradition: well known and not so well known modernists, Gertrude Stein and Bob Brown; mid-century poet Charles Olson; “less well known poetic texts” (109) from the 1960s of John Cage, Bern Porter, Hannah Weiner, and Bernadette Mayer; work from L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets Lyn Heijinian and Bruce Andrews; and a survey of contemporary conceptual poets with special attention to Tan Lin, Kenneth Goldsmith, and Vanessa Place. Stephens’s avant garde is a primarily white group of poets whom, following Marjorie Perloff, he distinguishes from the “mainstream,” a view recently critiqued by Cathy Park Hong in her essay “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant Garde”[2] and Gillian White in her recent book Lyric Shame.[3] Following the pattern of many other contemporary academic monographs, The Poetics of Information Overload is primarily comprised of previously published articles and unpublished talks. Four of the six chapters have appeared in easily accessible journals. The book concludes with a brief afterword on Robert Grenier, famous, Stephens notes, for his 1971 pronouncement “I HATE SPEECH” (178) in his essay “On Speech,” and more recently admired for his “drawing poems.”

Avant garde poets of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Stephens argues, have been “often obsessed by the changing nature of information and its dissemination in the twentieth century” (xvi), resulting in bodies of work he says are “centrally concerned with technologies of communication, data storage, and bureaucratic control” (1). These

poetries of information overload…. poetries (and poetic texts) that relate either formally or historically to information saturation…. ask us to rethink our commonly held notions of literary meaning (what was there to say that can no longer be said?), our notions of communication and transparency (what is the difference between a difficult literary work and a cryptogram?), as well as our notions of personhood (how are we defined by our access to, and ownership of, information?). (36)

Stephens’s premise is as sound as it is unexceptionable. But it is not original. A close look at the footnotes shows that many of the organizing ideas in each chapter come from other critics and theorists. Stephens’s linguistic method seems to be to overlay the given interpretations of the poets he considers with an information-based theory or buzzword of one sort or another that reframes the already accepted, information-based readings of his sources. For example, much in his direct interpretation of Bob Brown’s “readies” – an invented poetic form characterized by a compressed, telegraphic-style composed for a hypothetical “reading machine” (a sort of optical teletype in reverse) – can be found in Craig Dworkin’s 1999 article “‘Seeing Words Machinewise’: Technology and Visual Prosody.”[4] From Dworkin and others that Stephens cites, it is clear that Brown scholars have established Brown as reacting to mass information production and its correlate technologies. Stephens’s contribution in this chapter is to suggest that Brown should be understood as an example of what Luciano Floridi has called the “inforg,” an “interconnected organism” that “[shares] with biological agents and engineered artifacts a global environment ultimately made of information, the infosphere.” The quote is from page 9 of Floridi’s 2010 Information: A Very Short Introduction[5] and the idea leads Stephens to “suggest most provocatively” that Brown’s reading machine “fashions readers and writers as global word processors…” (63). It is this notion of the global that becomes central to Stephens’s retelling of Brown’s life and the jumping off point for linking Brown with modernism’s fascination with finding a universal poetic language, a point previously made by Tim Armstrong in his 2005 Modernism: A Cultural History(106).[6] While the gathering of historical detail in the chapter is not uninteresting, the idea of the “inforg,” once it has played its role (there are many such terms throughout the book that come and go just as easily) is immediately dropped and the argument proceeds by association to a conclusion already put forward elsewhere. Here and throughout the book, Stephens’s rhetorical method is to progress associatively from one borrowed idea to the next.

Readers coming to The Poetics of Information Overload with a thorough background in a specific poet or movement covered in the book will therefore most likely not learn anything new from Stephens, but they may be introduced to the work of other poets with whom they are less familiar and with a wide number of authors who have written about information theory and the history of the impact of information on twentieth and early twenty-first century society and culture. The book is written in an “I notice this, I notice that” style, and Stephens notices a lot. This is, perhaps, the book’s greatest virtue.

Readers coming to the book knowledgeable about the history of information and information theory will most likely learn nothing new on that front. In fact, they may find that Stephens draws on a surface acquaintance with the literature, such as with the Floridi reference noticed above. For the most part, Stephens relies on sweeping, synoptic statements from other scholars and critical theorists to establish premises related to information and culture that serve (or sometimes fail to serve) to contextualize a portion of his argument.

For example, we see Stephens in his chapter on Charles Olson quote and paraphrase Albert Borgmann in half of a very long paragraph, pointing to Borgmann’s tracking of the semantic development of the term “information” in contradistinction to “knowledge” via Norbert Wiener, Claude Shannon, and Vannevar Bush and ending with a quote relating an anecdote from Borgmann on Fritz Malchup’s decision to use the word “knowledge” rather than “information” in the title of his The Production and Distribution of Knowledge (92). The quote ends with Borgmann’s assertion that Malchup relied on a Platonic tradition that privileged abstract rational knowledge over perceptual information. But Stephens does not use this quote to deepen his argument about Olson’s turn against the modernist poetic projects of Pound and Williams that sought to construct knowledge out of information with which he begins the chapter. We do not learn anything about the information theorists he has referenced second-hand other than that they continued to discriminate between knowledge and information. Stephens simply juxtaposes Borgmann with his own assertion as a rhetorical jumping off point to note Olson’s anti-Platonic attempt to privilege information and facts over abstract historical generalizations within his poetry, an idea that can be found in Robert Von Hallberg’s work on Olson conducted in the 1970s.[7]

Stephens’s lack of careful attention to the literature in the area of information studies seems to carry over to the poetic practices of the writers he considers. Discussing Kenneth Goldsmith’s poem “The Day,” a word for word transcription of a portion of the edition of The New York Times published on September 11, 2001 (a miniature version of Day, his book-length transcription of the paper’s entire September 1, 2000 edition), Stephens makes the claim that Goldsmith “interject[s]” a phrase of his own into the text transcribed from the paper, specifically the phrase “inflammatory / remarks about / Palestinians.” “Nowhere do the words...appear in the text of the original article,” Stephens asserts, a sign that “Goldsmith’s aims, even if they are primarily ironic or parodic, are not free of value judgments” (170). Stephens’s claim is bold given Goldsmith’s declared allegiance to “uncreative writing.” A quick follow-up on Stephens’s footnote tells us he consulted the online archive of The New York Times.[8] It is true the phrase he quotes does not appear there. A just as quick consultation of the print edition[9] shows us that it does. Such an error does not undermine the overall thrust of the book, nor does it lessen the book’s value as a compendium of recent scholarship on its topics. Rather, it may simply point to the impact of information overload on scholarly writing itself.

Robert Farrell, Lehman College, City University of New York


[1] Paul Stephens, “Stars in My Pocket Like Bits of Data,” Guernica, July 15, 2015, accessed November 1, 2015,
[2] Cathy Park Hong, “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde,” Lana Turner Journal, 7 (2014), accessed November 1, 2015,
[3] Gillian White, Lyric Shame (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).
[4] Craig Dworkin, “‘Seeing Words Machinewise’: Technology and Visual Prosody,” Sagetrieb 18 (1999): 59-85.
[5] Luciano Floridi, Information: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
[6] Tim Armstrong, Modernism: A Cultural History (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2005).
[7] see Robert von Hallberg, “Olson, Whitehead, and the Objectivists,” boundary 2 2 (1974): 85-112 and Charles Olson: The Scholar’s Art (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978).
[8] Alan Riding, “Arts Abroad; France’s Shock Novelist Strikes Again,” The New York Times, September 11, 2001, accessed November 1, 2015,
[9] Alan Riding, “Arts Abroad; France’s Shock Novelist Strikes Again,” The New York Times, September 11, 2001, E2. ProQuest Historical New York Times, accessed November 1, 2015.