Wednesday, February 4, 2009

In Defense of Word Clouds

Jodi Dean argues over at iCite that meaning is not at stake in word clouds (which she mistakenly refers to as “tag clouds”). But is meaning really “at stake” in most speech or writing? When every pundit on television and radio can bloviate incessantly about what this or that “means” and still not come up with an adequate answer, who is to say word clouds are an any less useful form of discourse? I would argue that, as the reader (or viewer as the case may be), it is my place to ascribe meaning and I can get as much of it, if not more, from a word cloud than many of the things that pass for argument or dialogue today. Language is far from adequate to convey “real” meaning anyway (if such a thing even exists), but it is the best tool we have. If I can look at words in a different way and make connections that I wouldn't have made except for the word cloud then I have gained something that used-up clichés and blowhard analysis can never give me.

I guess what I'm having difficulty understanding is, if indeed “meaning is not at stake in tag (word) clouds," why is Dean having such a problem with them? So what if words become images? It isn't as if word clouds are somehow usurping regular speech in everyday dialectic (as she seems to be implying) or that they haven't existed since at least Dadaism and the Russian avant-garde (as she acknowledges).

Dale Smith at Possum Ego latches onto Dean's thesis to use it in his, apparently ongoing, argument against flarf. The presumption that “contextual meaning” is of prime importance in poetry is, in my opinion, a ridiculous one. Poetry is, above all, art—and art is what I as the artist derive from its creation or you as the audience gain from its consumption. I don't need my “ah ha” moment spoon fed to me, thank you very much. Some people do and those people, I would argue, are missing out on plenty of meaning. I'm sorry Dean and Smith don't “get it” but, fortunately for me, it's not necessary that they do.

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