A “Latent News” Report: Found Poetry and Fair Dealing

When I studied at the U of Guelph and belonged to its Creative Writing Society, in early 2004, we created found poetry by playing the Surrealist game Latent News: “one or more persons cuts out each individual line from several different newspaper stories, mixes them up, and then rearranges them as quickly as possible into entirely new stories, the only rule being that the lines must be arranged into syntactically correct sentences. The name is derived from the impulse behind the game: to disorder the mystification called ‘news’ and thereby to reveal something of its latent content” (Rosemont 169, emphasis added).

Latent News Report, Jan. 21, 2004

women who band together to seek
For example, the new guidelines
to Understand Men Through Their
having boards take this / from one of Radio 3’s other sites,
Apart from the fans, who are being
revenge after their wealthy, / anesthesia for a procedure to
a history of heinous allegations.
where this stuff is going. But / Canada has vehemently denied
an interim ruling yesterday,
Along the way, the Patriots made
South Africa’s Kalahari Desert, to help
busy, complex surroundings of a
sampler. Each of the four singers
A PROVEN MONEY MAKER. You receive
the groundwork for universal suffrage and
stream of independent Canadian
of the Month and Young Wives.
successful, who could not find a
volume of more than 14 million
studies. And I was happy to be here.

mccutcheon_latentnews2004 Over ten years later, I can’t attribute my source more precisely than to guess that this latent news report is probably taken from then-current stories in The Globe & Mail. (I’m a bit amazed to find that the CWS’ webpage about our latent news reporting is still up. The Internet really is forever…sometimes.)

This repurposing of found text to reveal the “latent news” represents another practice of fair dealing, the users’ right in copyright law that allows you to reuse copyrighted works in limited ways. In this case, a substantial portion of a news article (or more than one article) may end up being used, but what is most significant here the selection and sequencing of the words, which serve to turn the original piece into a critique of that piece and by extension a criticism of the assumptions, biases, and other really quite narrow parameters of “news-worthiness.” That is, the latent news is first and foremost a practice of criticism, and as such is eminently defensible as fair dealing.

It’s arguable that as a practice of Surrealist poetry, the Latent News doesn’t demystify the news so much as it may simply trade one kind of mystification – that of corporate-biased, corporate-owned news media – for another – that of avant-garde appropriation art. Is the form maybe a bit outdated? In the age of social media, readers and users have found highly effective ways to demystify, criticize, and call out the embedded, encoded, and otherwise less-than-obvious premises and biases in mainstream journalism. A vocabulary of memes and tropes has emerged around social media users’ criticisms of corporate journalism. Take, for example, the trope of “fixing” stories and headlines. Here’s one of my favourite examples, in which the ever-incisive @FugitivePhilo “fixes” a headline for Bloomberg Business News:

Sarcasm seems to play a big role in the Internet’s memes and tropes of media criticism. Some of it is maybe prompted by the extreme economy of words that a platform like Twitter demands; maybe more of it is a response to the rampaging stampede of trolls the Internet sometimes seems like, where every single news article is graced – by virtue of affording a comment box – with its own hundreds-strong club of assholes. (Present readers excepted…blog commentators don’t seem cretinous; it’s mainstream news that brings out the trolls.)

But despite the new forms adopted and circulated by critical readers of news, there’s still a place and a role for the Surrealists’ Latent News, I think, and I think too that Latent News practice can readily adapt to the new media environment. (Maybe today’s Latent News can remix not only an article itself, but also its accompanying torrent of trolls.) New tools lend themselves to this game, tools like Poetweet, which eats lines from whichever Twitter account you feed it and spits out instant sonnets, rondeles, and other poems. With tools like these you can demystify your own news. Here’s a Latent News sonnet that Poetweet produced from my own Twitter feed, which tends to relay a lot of news stories (or else this process would produce not Latent News, strictly speaking, but centos more broadly):

Payment Demands

Emphasis on the need for balance.”
The social process of learning.”
Metric for measuring excellence.”
That it still needs explaining.)

Watches sunrise on giant TV screens
You to go to jail for sharing files
& thoughtful citizens.”
Vibes tickle your earholes.

Boots ’n’ cats
By children not vaccinated?
Users With Baseless Legal Threats

Public & the public interest.
Universal basic income as a right.
Paramilitaries to Clear Protest

The fact that Poetweet made this automatically points to another key Surrealist technique, automatic writing, which tries to free the writing process from rational control and self-censorship to the maximum extent possible. The Latent News offers an opportunity to closely read and materially engage with a journalistic composition; it lets you learn about such composition by taking it apart and not putting it back together the way you found it. It represents a warped, distorted kind of playback, and playback has proven an effective form of criticism in itself. According to playwright and critic Rick Salutin, playback is a major rhetorical device in the digital age, as demonstrated for instance by The Daily Show: “You simply repeat what your foe or target said, letting the audience realize how dangerous or vacuous it is. … [Jon Stewart] plays a clip by a public figure. Then he repeats it himself in an amazed tone. It’s devastating” (A17).

Latent News also deals in irony and timeliness (one of these is also a criterion of news-worthiness…guess which?). I’ve given a sample of the form made of news from way back in 2004, and I’ve lost the sources as well. So what news, precisely, was being demystified at the time is now lost to that time. It may be a kind of adaptation that works better – and that more effectively criticizes – when the reader can see the original and the cut-up remix facing each other. So maybe I should post again soon with a more current sample – together with a link to its source material.

That said, the Surrealists’ game of Latent News remains an engaging – and, let’s admit it, fun – exercise in close reading, critical reflection, and creative reinterpretation. It combines playback with cut-up, creating new contexts in which to understand “all the news that’s fit to print” – while exposing the contexts that made what’s in print seem fit to be news.

Works Cited

Rosemont, Franklin. “Surrealist Games, 2. Latent News.” Surrealism in the USA. Spec. issue of Race Traitor 13-14 (2001): 169-70.
Salutin, Rick. “Proud despite the facts.” Globe and Mail 18 Mar. 2005: A17.
The Globe & Mail, circa 2003-4.
van Veen, Tobias C. [@fugitivephilo]. “Fixed it for you: ‘How Big Pharma & Capitalism Failed to Stop Ebola Because Black People Aren’t Profitable’.” Tweet. 6:19 PM, 30 Sept. 2014. https://twitter.com/fugitivephilo/status/517106488717107200

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3 responses to “A “Latent News” Report: Found Poetry and Fair Dealing

  1. Pingback: Roundup from Day 4 of Fair Use Week | Fair Use Week

  2. Pingback: Roundup from Day 4 of Fair Use Week | ARL Policy Notes

  3. A great article on a very interesting tool Mark. Thank you for sharing!
    It reminded my of the poem by Robert Bly, “The Great Society” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/176615

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