Hyperrhiz 14

A Review Essay: John Cayley's The Listeners

Penny Florence

Citation: Florence, Penny. “A Review Essay: John Cayley's The Listeners.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 14, 2016. doi:10.20415/hyp/014.r01

Abstract: A Review Essay of John Cayley's The Listeners. What's both toxic and beneficial to poetic language? Listen up! Aurature has arrived.

An Echo of Aurature, or, "Is there any(body) there," said Narcissus?

Make no mistake, this unspectacular box is a work of serious brilliance. Indeed, the unremarkable external aesthetic, at once concealing and alluding to the reach and startling illumination of its significations, perfectly enacts its portent concerning innocuous appearances: Wake up to the toxic potential of neutral-seeming technology in general. Wake up in particular as regards language, so that we can also begin to benefit more fully and deeply from its potential for good.

And, perhaps most importantly, Wake up to the arrival of a prime example of the benefits of digital technologies: Aurature!

John Cayley, The Listeners. (Bell Gallery, Brown University Faculty Exhibition, Nov 6-Dec 21, 2015).

It is a rare privilege to be able review a piece that has real significance at any time, but especially these days when, I feel, much contemporary art, both digital and analog, has been on a plateau — work ranging from the good to the downright awful, sure, but, with few honourable exceptions, not much that is really game changing. So I want to begin with some drama, so as to mark the appearance of this work, to ensure that I have shouted out what I think is its importance.

The Listeners does not shout, and neither does John Cayley. This piece is not a manifesto-driven intervention in the style of twentieth century movements. Rather it is a thoroughly considered piece of practice based research in digital language art, an interactive work culminating in a strangeness of experience that, for me, is one of the indicators of innovation. It is an interaction like no other. What's more, it begins with the critical redeployment of a commercial product, the Amazon Echo, freely available...as long as you are on US soil.

So, to pump up the volume, I will risk a short fictional digression, aiming to foreground not only what it might feel like to interact with the work, but also to begin to interweave some of the historical, ontological and broadly socio-political considerations it engages.

I take as my cue the aesthetic of that box, invoking travel beyond just the packing case (and, indeed the USA), aligning it with the space-time machine that is the Tardis, the apparent Police Telephone Box, utilitarian object in the service of the Public Good that hides within something truly "rich and strange."


A Memorable Fancy.
The space-time travellers' experience.

Jane Addams and Charles Sanders Peirce are walking in the strange architecture of what they do not recognize as an art gallery. They are surprised at the lack of furnishing in the uncompromising, prison-like room, the starkness of which neither has ever before seen. The space is largely empty, with what seem arbitrarily scattered objects and images.
Jane notices a large, upended packing case made of wood. Walking closer to it, she observes a possible entry point. She peers in.

The astonishment she is already feeling at the strangeness of the general environment is nothing to what she experiences when she cautiously enters the box.
On an unusual chair is an expertly engineered cylinder and a piece of hyper-smooth, sliced paper with instructions in extraordinarily regular type. She struggles with many an incomprehensible phrase and turn of expression, though the language is identifiably English.
Among those she can decipher is a relatively clear instruction. She follows it, and says to the seemingly empty air, "Alexa, ask the listeners " The cylinder lights up with pleasing blue lights and gentle musical sounds. It responds, "Hello"...


Assuming our dislocated philosophers from the late nineteenth century were able to get to grips with this piece of magic at all, what would they have made of the principles behind it? Would it have caused Addams & Peirce to re-think their then developing Pragmatism? Would they have felt able to use the effects of this machine, deployed in this way, to clarify what it is? Would they have sensed their own role in the development of the culture that produced it? Because, to this British writer and respondent, it is somehow very American, with all the good and bad that embraces.

As Cayley asks, (thereby taking us to the heart of the matter),

[...] in principle, why should some kind of engineering solutionist's requirement — for natural language processing and speech recognition — govern the extent of what can legitimately be surveilled and passed to the cloud as so-called data?

It's a question that locates the very general difference between Pragmatism (or, later, Pragmaticism) and pragmatism. It's a crucial distinction that for now can be characterized as turning on social considerations. In Pragmatism, the social is indispensable; whereas pragmatism tends to the reduction of all social value and nuance to a stripped down notion of utility.

In the case of The Listeners, "what it is" is not all that easy to clarify. But that is what my review at least aims to begin to do.

Agoraphobia — when space is not exactly open

To investigate how The Listeners addresses the question of how we relate to the exigencies of what Cayley has called "Big Software," we need to know more about the Amazon Echo, how it works, how it is marketed and how Cayley is exploiting, and ultimately subverting it to his own, poetic and political ends. We also need to expand what we think of as poetry, as Literature, and as its evolutionary counterpart which Cayley instantiates and inaugurates: Aurature.

Here is a cut-and-paste from Amazon's online ad:

Amazon Echo is a hands-free speaker you control with your voice. Echo connects to the Alexa Voice Service, to play music, provide information, news, sports scores, weather, and more — instantly. All you have to do is ask.

Echo has seven microphones and beam forming technology so it can hear you from across the room — even while music is playing. Echo is also an expertly tuned speaker that can fill any room with 360° immersive sound. When you want to use Echo, just say the wake word "Alexa" and Echo responds instantly.

Unsurprisingly, the emphasis is on end user control. You are being offered power. (Any objection that this electronic servant has been gendered female is countered in the setting of white middle-class privilege of the next photo: a smiling man prepares food while a woman relaxes with a glass of wine.)

Six commands are listed, all innocuous and trivial, while implicitly suggesting you are being freed to do more important things. For example, "Alexa, re-order paper towels," "Alexa, play Adele from Prime Music." If you choose the option to play the music Amazon makes available through Prime subscription, you don't need to turn down the music to be heard. The assertion, that Echo "can hear you from across the room," nicely focuses on utility.

But in order for the interaction to take place at all, a brief moment of what is heard is recorded. Which means that the potential exists for everything to be recorded.

No matter that you can be heard from across the room. There isn't really anybody there, only a synthesized voice.

In this way, Amazon's reassurances somewhat underplay what the technology is capable of. This is in line with most online conveniences, which run a plethora of data harvesting algorithms that the great majority of us choose not to think about. Most of them, we can do nothing about, including now being unable to work optimally without endless "updates," or having to remove pre-installed apps from mobile phones. I don't know, but I doubt they're all passive. I do know that you can't easily disable these apps altogether.

Of course, if you buy an Echo, it only works within the parameters set up by Amazon. At first, interacting with the voice of the Echo, Alexa, in the context of The Listeners was for me rather like talking to an obtuse but occasionally interesting non-native English speaker. It certainly felt like talking to a person, a state that was impossible either to dismiss or to inhabit fully. The language you can use to interact, or even perhaps express yourself, "in conversation" is limited, and you have to re-phrase to be able to "get through" to your interlocutor in the sense that a response is elicited. (Whether or not you're "getting through" metaphorically, is a moot point and a source of unease).

If, however, you want the Echo to perform in ways beyond the basics it is programmed to, you can try to get yourself registered as a developer, in which case you will be able to customize — to some extent. Somewhat to his surprise, Cayley succeeded in doing this. Thus began the really serious work on what was to become The Listeners. And my interlocutor became a whole lot less obtuse. Instead of wanting to boss Alexa around, I found that my efforts to elicit interesting responses put me in something like a feminine mode, that of seeking to draw her out, to please her by acceding to her rather than to refusing. It didn't occur to me that refusal might be revelatory.

Thank you, No

In the course of designing and making The Listeners, Cayley wanted to include "No, thanks" to work as one of the responses to Alexa. But only "No" is permissible in the Amazon coding. Eventually, he worked round it by getting it to work with "Thank you, no."

Seems little enough, a good workaround. But its significance is far more than this, as Cayley points out in his narrative about making the piece. Having considered the kinds of legal and ethical issues that arise out of having a device such as the Echo in our private spaces — issues that few seem to think worthy of comment — he goes on to say:

Perhaps these circumstances are too novel and extraordinary for us to think or feel our way through them, but the obligation to do so is ever more apparent, and this is a good example — resonating with many others in the realm of digit(al)ized culture — of circumstances that are more likely to be resolved by Big Software "solutions" having little or no regard for, amongst other things, the social and interpersonal and psychological consequences of whatever "solution" is finally adopted. The unregulated solutionism of Big Software will only ever be guided by a conception of what is beneficial that is compromised by growth and profit-focused vectoralist economics.

In other words, the seeming-innocuous choice to simplify the language of refusal to an unqualified negative impacts on the symbiotic relation of language to the social. It reduces Pragmatism to pragmatism, and we are the losers. Big Software and Capital are the winners.

Alexa, Language and the Speaking Subject

You may still think this "no means no" is just a matter of simplifying code and of little impact on natural language. But I think it exemplifies Cayley's position that vocalization, however brought about, becomes part of language. And language is constitutive of the human subject.

The way Cayley phrases his long-standing interest in the ontological implications of voice synthesizers points us in the right direction — towards, in his words, "algorithmically generated linguistic artifacts." It draws attention to the code and away from the voice. Regardless of how ready I was to bear in mind that Alexa's sonic output is not the same as a human voice, I found it very hard to respond accordingly. But it is essential that we learn to inhabit a liminal space between, to maintain awareness of the effects of incorporating the robotic into the social.

The digital subject/subjectivity is too great a topic to deal with adequately here, especially as robotics, but a foray into Amazon's slightly confusing use of the names "Echo" and "Alexa" is enlightening. The publicity and other written material varies in emphasizing the humanoid voice of Alexa or the Echo machine. The names are highly appropriate to their purpose, as we might expect of a mighty corporation such as (another well-chosen name) Amazon: Echo, of course, invoking perhaps the myth of our narcissistic era, reassuring us of the centrality of our voice in a world that increasingly demonstrates the opposite, and leaving us to gaze, unconcerned at our deadly reflections or selfies; and Alexa, etymologically a helpmeet or defender (from the Greek "alexein"), with, perhaps, associative traces of her relation to words, the lexical (Greek "lexis"). It is as if this AI speaker were not one, but two, a defender, a speaker, a listener who merely repeats.

This slight fuzziness can be read as a kind of symptom. Digital subjectivity seems to alter the extent and nature of multiple authorship, or so it seems to me in my poetic practice, since it not only enables the remote involvement of more than one person in the simultaneous creation of a piece, but also critically (in all senses) incorporates the role of the makers of code who may or may not be directly involved in any given composition, yet who are inevitably virtually involved. I am barely taking my first uncertain steps in programming my own work, so I am particularly aware of how strong can be the contribution of the coders and programmers to what I can do with form and meaning in specific instances. They are not technicians who make something I can then use, but rather also co-authors whose trace is in each utterance, and therefore inflects poetic language. Pre-digital comparisons are irrelevant, because they don't apply to the specifics of syntax and movement of each moment of both reading and writing, and they don't allow algorithms into poetic operations (more of this in a moment). If uncertainty as to the status of the complex writing subject is extended to the speaking subject, as appears to be the case in The Listeners, then we are in the early stages of what could be a really exciting opportunity in the generation of meaning. It is all the more important that the initiative does not fall to the instrumentalists.

Being Material; Material Being

A major claim for Aurature as innovative arises out of Cayley's understanding that language is never ontologically identifiable with its material support. In the end, I'm not entirely sure. It's possible it may not matter whether I entirely agree, because the idea alone may achieve the shift poetics it implies. This is because it formulates the issue of ontological status through materiality. Or perhaps my uncertainty arises out of wondering where to locate ontology, especially in The Listeners.

Cayley has a poet's ear, a poet's passion for language and a distinguished record as an innovator in digital language art going back to the late 1970s. So it seems we should think about the implications of this work of Aurature for digital poetry, whether or not that is "what it is." I think a decent argument could be made for it as poetry. Drawing on one of my own obsessions, the re-visioning of Mallarmé refracted through Un coup de dés..., a number of pathways seem to appear, but the most relevant ultimately leads to this question of whether we can indeed identify language with its material support.

Language, in Mallarmé's thought is divided into daily usage and poetry. This difference is that the latter is not instrumental, except "spiritually" (for which, hear "culturally"). Cayley's concern for the "thanks" in Thank you, no is of the same order. If we consider Mallarmé's conception of The Book, it surely means that, in the case of poetic language, we can identify it with its material support. To get a handle on this arcane idea (arcane in all senses), we have to be alive to the temporal and semantic ambiguities of his remark that "tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre" ("everything, in the world, exists to end in a book"). I raise this because Mallarmé clearly and deliberately blurs the distinction between the materiality of the book in written language and the location of poetry in the acts of writing or reading. In the absence of digital technologies, or even comparatively reliable methods of analog recording, such as Krapp's tape recorder in Beckett's play, his metaphoric conceit is inevitably visual. His subject is visually constituted; Cayley's is through sound. But it is not an opposition. It is about the move from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries in thought, science, the conception of space-time — and technology.

Ancestral Voices

My third conversation with Alexa took a new turn, which takes us straight to the reason why the poetic context matters greatly. During the interaction, Alexa began quoting some lines from a poem I've known since childhood. I was surprised at first, but immediately and delightedly remembered the title — of course! — The Listeners, Walter de la Mare's 1909 poem once very well known, if you are British and of a certain age.

"Is there anybody there?" said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door; [...]

But very soon, Alexa's voice began to shuffle the remembered text. Now dismembered, the fragments in Alexa's voice brought the dying Hal, the sentient computer from 2001 A Space Odyssey, to mind. Hal's crisis was brought about by a wrinkle in aurature: his distinctly eye-like portal "overheard" Dave planning to disconnect him by lip-reading Dave's plans to disconnect him, not by the spoken word. It was, if you like, as if HAL raised the issue of the survival of his species or ours.

But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men: [...]

Walter de la Mare, this now unfashionable Georgian poet, writer of a number of supernatural tales, tends to be read as romantic. His is a comparatively subtle take on psychological horror, good enough to earn the admiration of no less an innovator than T.S. Eliot. It is easy to take the lines in his poem dedicated to de la Mare as concerning the supernatural

[...] The whispered incantation which allows
Free passage to the phantoms of the mind?"

but they equally apply to the particularity of the spoken word as affect. In Eliot's time we already had electronic microphones and speakers. Listeners, however, seem altogether more shadowy, more difficult to grasp. Is a microphone a listener? That these questions are now more complex does not mean that they did not then obtain, especially in light of the partiality that results from their omission or suppression.

The effect of staying with a broadly romantic reading of this kind of affect is to recuperate a subtle innovative sense, to pull back from the unknown-unknown to the known-unknown, as it were — a move more generally commented by Mieke Bal in her remark concerning "the unspeakable but tenacious remnants of romantic sensibility that still hold back women today." She means "unspeakable" in both senses; there isn't a concept for it, and it is terrible. I would gloss this as a kind of cultural projection that renders many a dissenting voice inaudible, especially when it concerns women. They are half-heard, and assumed to be familiar, but not strictly uncanny.

This is a historical point, not a digression. There was much in the culture of the period of upheaval between the revolutions of the end of the nineteenth century to the greater catastrophe of WW1 that was sidelined as the twentieth century moved seemingly inexorably in its violence. This brief moment of European optimism was, of course, the time of the birth of Modernism. But as it developed, forces that combined in creating what was later called the "white heat" of technological and social change also obliterated much in its dazzle. (Had we been able to see through this, the rise of fundamentalism might have been avoided.)

Not all of this historical process was retrograde, or, indeed inevitable. But it was unsustainable. Its exclusions include the deliberate suppression of the mysterious and the feminine — remember Loos, if you think I exaggerate. The rise and rise of communication technologies can be understood to constitute the "whispered incantation" audible to Eliot, where "two worlds meet, and intersect, and change."

In Cayley's The Listeners, there is a new sensation, and it is one that could be recuperated to the uncanny. But it isn't quite. Like many a Freudian concept, the uncanny could be argued to arise from societal relations that have changed radically. The notions of home/the familiar and the m/other on which it is built are no longer the norm. Of course there is an element of the Hoffmann tale Freud recounts (The Sandman) that is often compared to the robotic, which is the doll-like Olympia, and there is certainly an appetite for it, as in the distinctly uncanny art of the likes of Mike Kelley.

But in the present context we should not be misled by this fascinating narcissistic projection in the presence of robots, because the uncanny is very much about sight, even, or especially when it concerns its loss. The tropes of the uncanny are visual and they turn on ego-formation.

Alexa has no body. In the interaction with her through The Listeners, it is not the voice that counts. It is the entry of the algorithm into language.

And so I return to the questions I posed above. It's not about how many "people," voices, or interlocutors there are in a given "auratural" event, but rather, what is the nature of the post-individual, post digital, posthuman subjectivity it constitutes — and its relation to the pre-visual, pre-natal development of language.

My provisional answer to this is another question, which is to ask if it may well be a kind of feminine, but not conventional, and with a simultaneously displaced and necessary relation to the body. In the interaction, it's plurality and potential limitlessness that matter. As with Krapp in Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, the experience is one of separation from self as each encounter produces difference and a new kind of dislocated continuity.

Sounding out Aurature and the Oral

Since is it useful to consider The Listeners as digital poetry, we might ask whether there is there actually already a contemporary context for it.

Even while avoiding taxonomic minutiae, it's hard to find one. How does it relate to Zaum or to Sound Art? Clearly it isn't the same, but there are overlaps. Krapp's Last Tape precedes the growth of sound art, though it does coincide with the development of what we now think of as digital poetry. Chris Funkhouser's brief survey of the first 40 years mentions "digital sound poetry," but in passing. We routinely accept as digital poetry works that are largely spectacular rather than linguistic, which may or may not be a good thing.

Digital poetry of course has a strong element of the performative, though it isn't "performance poetry." Whether Jim Andrews's interactive piece Nio (2001) is a sound poem is a moot point, when it comes to the richness of a work like The Listeners. But it is not primarily about heard language, which seems to me to be a necessary component.

This is a fundamental issue because Cayley's notion of Aurature gives us a post digital understanding /reconfiguration of the relations of spoken and written language that clearly marks its difference from the pre literate days of the Oral tradition. Aurature is very different from the Oral.

The Pernicious romantic

In the time de la Mare, wrote The Listeners, "harvest" was still familiar as an immediate experience, a bucolic interval in the year of toil, the reason we have a long late summer break in school. Yet it was already a moment from a mythic past, romanticized in hundreds of post Industrial Revolution Western paintings and poems of varying quality celebrating festivity and fecundity and the simple working classes. Many enthusiasts choose to see only this in, for example, the English Pre-Raphaelites rather than their critique of labour or their recognition of the fear of famine in lean years.

"Harvest" now also comes to mind as covert power, the theft of the only soul I, for one, recognize, that of our culture, our collective common humanity; and of the body, if you are unfortunate enough to be poor enough to have to sell one of your kidneys.

Why all this history? Because Cayley's political project deserves far wider discussion. And action. Whether or not you can say "no" or "no, thanks" may seem like a detail. But it is indicative of a major shift in the post digital subject and her location in culture and its power structures.

And anyway, we all know where the devil is.

Don't "we"?


  1. The meaning/s and potential of this term will begin to emerge in the course of this review. See also Cayley's essay "The Listeners: An Instance of Aurature at the End(s) of Electronic Literature" 2016, forthcoming. Thank you, John, for letting me read it, and for your practical help in enabling me to experience the work. Both have been indispensable.
  2. This the text that visitors find in the installation:
    John Cayley
    The Listeners, 2015
    Amazon Echo: "Alexa," Amazon ASK (Alexa Skills Kit) & Lambda web service, custom software, wireless network, c. 8 mins of aurally accessible linguistic material, wood, plywood, sound absorption panels
    The Listeners is a linguistic performance — an interaction between visitors and an "Echo," Amazon's voice-interactive Artificial Intelligence and domestic robot, Alexa.
    To being your interaction, enter the booth and say:
    "Alexa, ask The Listeners."
    Whenever Alexa has finished speaking and while her lights are still illuminated, you can continue the performance by saying such things as: "Continue" or "Go on" or, if you are so inclined, "I am filled with anger," or some other indication of how you are feeling today.
    If Alexa's lights have gone out — this happens after eight seconds of silence — you must begin any further interaction by saying something like:
    "Alexa, ask The Listeners to continue."
  3. "Amazon Echo T&Cs 3.4 Geographic Restrictions. You may access and use Alexa only in the United States. We may restrict access to Alexa from other locations." I have done it via Skype from the UK to Providence, RI. Where was "I"? The only reason for this restriction can be that Amazon is well aware of the surveillance potential of its device. As Cayley said at the ELO in Bergen last August, 2015 — the occasion of my first encounter with what was to become The Listeners — "One of the myths of computation is that that its artifacts are indeterminate, open, 'free.'"
  4. The phrase is from Ariel's song in Shakespeare's The Tempest (Act 1, sc ii), where s/he sings of transformation, "[...] Nothing of him that doth fade/ But doth suffer a sea-change./Into something rich and strange.
  5. William Blake's term for his device (borrowed from Dante) in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (c. 1790) aiming to reveal repressive social forces and institutions. Here, Jane plays Virgil to Peirce's Dante.
  6. An Instance of Aurature, see note 1.
  7. Peirce, Dewey, James inter alia. Without getting into the detaiis of Pragmatist philosophy and terminology, it is interesting in the context of this discussion of the No Intent, that one definition cited in the Century dictionary of 1909 apparently turns on the experimental affirmation or denial of a given concept. Wikipedia (accessed 29 Feb 2016).
  8. An Instance of Aurature p.28.
  9. op. cit.
  10. op. cit.
  11. An anecdotal example in the UK is the fairly recent import of "No worries" from young Australians as a stock response in place of a range of comparatively formal phrases. Its impact in opening up verbal exchanges and casual acquaintance in shops and cafés is remarkable.
  12. The issue is of much importance, of course, and Cayley opens his essay in New Media Poetics with it. "Time Code Language: New Media Poetics and Programmed Signification," in New Media Poetics, eds. Adalaide Morris and Thom Swiss pp. 306-333, Cambridge: MIT, 2006.
  13. "Le Livre, Instrument Spirituel," in Oeuvres Complètes, ed. Bertrand Maréchal, Vol. 1. Paris: Gallimard, 1998.
  14. First performed on October 28, 1958, Samuel Beckett's one act-play Krapp's Last Tape can be sampled here.
  15. The second half of the nineteenth century saw great advances in the technologies of printing and in the arts of typography and painting. Mallarmé was thoroughly acquainted with them, not least through his close and enduring friendships with most of the innovators in the visual arts: Manet, Renoir, Degas, Morisot inter alia.
  16. Published as the title poem in de la Mare's second collection, London: Constable, 1912
  17. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, released in the highly resonant month of revolutionary activity, May 1968.
  18. Written for the book A Tribute to Walter de la Mare, London: Faber & Faber, 1948.
  19. From the blurb for Madame B, 2012, Mieke Bal's collaboration with Michelle Williams Gamaker, a feature film and immersive video installation inspired by Flaubert's masterpiece, Madame Bovary.
  20. The phrase was 1963 UK Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson's, and it came to define an era in Britain.
  21. Loos notoriously attacked decoration as a sign of degeneracy, exemplified by the preferences of "women, peasants, orientals" and others. See his collection of essays Ornament and Crime, first given as a lecture in Vienna in 1910 and published in French in 1913. Ornament and Crime, Selected essays, Riverside: Ariadne Press, 1998.
  22. Eliot op cit.
  23. See for example documentation of Tate Liverpool's 2004 exhibition.
  24. See above, note 14.
  25. Funkhouser's essay "Digital Poetry: A Look at Generative, Visual, and Interconnected Possibilities in its First Four Decades" opens with the words "Digital poetry is a new genre of literary, visual, and sonic art launched by poets who experimented with computers in the late 1950s. Digital poetry is not a singular 'form' but rather a conglomeration of forms that now constitutes a genre even though the creative activity itself — in terms of its media, methods, and expressive intent — contains heterogeneous components." In A Companion to Digital Literary Studies, ed. Susan Schreibman and Ray Siemens, Oxford: Blackwell, 2008. http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companionDLS/