Nolan, Carrie. “Digital Gestures.” New Media Poetics. Ed . Adalaide Morris and Thomas Swiss. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006. 217-45. Print.

"Digital Gestures" by Carrie Nolan


The primary argument of Nolan’s text is that digital poetry does not devalue our relationship between experiencing writing and our human bodies, but instead “evokes this body and its kinetic energies” in various creative ways (217). Nolan begins by explaining that this experience is illustrated through digital poetry’s use of programs like Flash, Director and DHTML to create text-based animation which uncovers the relationship to the body: “When letters move, morph, or pulse, they expose digital writing’s nostalgia for the hand, the producer’s creative will to reengage with and express the kinetic impulses of the body” (218). Nolan positions her approach to digital poetry as gestural, situating gesture as movement (rather than emphasis), to restore a “choreographic” element to the word: “For me, a gestural animation corresponds to and evokes the ductus, or stroke, of the writing hand; it reinscribes the movement of the body as it is engaged in the production of individual or connected letters” (218). Nolan also touches on text animation that renders itself obscure (or illegible due to the nature of the animation), and notes that this generates and conceals “signification achieved through written signs” (218).

Nolan discusses the difference between handwriting and typing, seeking to debunk statements that typing creates a distance or makes for less intimacy between the body and its inscriptions. To facilitate her argument, she establishes that handwriting is just as learned as typing is: “[T]he body that makes contact with the page, the hand that produces the script, has already been disciplined, self-alienated, at once device and limb, expressive tool and conditioned flesh” (222-3). Nolan notes that all forms of writing is learned bodily energy, and that handwriting contains all of the alienation and negative aspects of typing, though they are simply inflected differently. When using a word processor, then, the body experiences all of the same kinetic instances in a displaced way: the mouse engages our hand by enabling it to draw invisible figures with the cursor, the movement of fingertips can alter fonts, letters and words can be dragged across the screen, distorted, rotated or even set spinning (which suggests that digital technology has the power to recall the rhythmic and gestural components of writing).

So how does this all relate to digital poetry? Nolan positions digital poetry in the same category as works created under the umbrella of “gestural abstraction” to help recover some of the more “provocative” and even “subversive” utilizations of animation in modern poetic practices. She does admit that some digital poetry is static (that some pieces don’t use animation), but even with their static nature there is attention drawn to “the act of shaping, to the gestures required for creating the stroke that produce inscriptions” (225). With digital poetry that is animated, the user can see how it “mime[s] the ductus, either by allowing the user to morph or trace a letter by interactive means or by staging the letter as movement, as an animated form” (225). After exploring several pieces to supplement her argument, she closes with the thought that a hand moving, even within the “confined space of a mousepad,” can humble legibility. If this is so, digital poetry is the best way to explore and expose the visual properties of the written language and experience writing as a performed activity and its relation to the body.


I agree with Nolan’s argument in the way that I do not feel that handwriting and word animation are separate entities in relation to the body: we use our hands to write and to type, the tools we use to capture the written word are the only difference. I think she makes a compelling argument for animation, particularly animated words, when she illustrates how animated type on the screen recalls the act/ductus/stroke of typing: you can see how animated type in digital poetry unfolds meaning, creates meaning and obscures meaning, thereby going beyond the written word. I am not sure I entirely agree with her argument on static poetry and how it calls attention to the act of shaping or gestures used to produce inscription: I wasn’t sure if we as readers are trained to pick up on this, as she does not quite explain how this attracts our attention. All in all, I thought this was a pretty compelling argument for digital poetry to be positioned as an equal, if not somewhat superior (in certain ways) to handwriting.


1. What are your feelings on Nolan’s argument? Do you think a distance or lack of intimacy exists in your experience of digital poetry as opposed to written poetry?