Lecture: On "Electronic Literature: What Is It?"

N. Katherine Hayles, usefully enough, begins the first chapter of Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary by defining electronic literature, providing a survey of some of its major genres, and discussing some of the major critical, theoretical, and pragmatic challenges inherent in the production, distribution, reception, and study of electronic literature.

In many ways, her initial survey of electronic literature can be summed up with two passages. In the first of these, she argues that “To see electronic literature only through the lens of print is, in a significant way, not to see it at all” (3). As she states later on, electronic literature is not simply print literature read on a computer. By this, what she means is that to assume or expect electronic literature to conform to the logics, conventions, and practices we expect from print literature is no more reasonable than to expect Shakespeare to adhere to modern post-copyright notions of authorship and originality1, or to insist that micro-fiction adhere to the same techniques of plot and character development as a 19th-century Russian novel. At the very least, we need to remember that even when electronic literature looks like print, it is fundamentally different than print because computer code shapes how electronic literature is performed (5).

While Kenneth Goldsmith suggests in “Revenge of the Text” that we can find literary and aesthetic value in code itself (code separate from, say, code poetry which is written to be read as poetry as well as a function as a functional computer program), we experience electronic literature through the mediation of the computer’s translation of the code into a performed work, whether that work is a series of hyperlinked lexia such as found in traditional hypertext fiction or a fully functional virtual reality system such as the CAVE. In other words, while we might think of written language on a page as a form of code that we translate as we read, the act of reading electronic literature requires two levels of translation: first the computer translates the computer code into the work of literature which we then translate through reading.2

The second passage that I believe sums up the most important elements of Hayles’ chapter is when she identifies what she most values in the scholars of networked and programmable media and the critical interpretation of new media3, that is that they focus both on the “specificity of networked and programmable media” while also seeking to “build bridges linking digital art, literature, and games on the one hand, and traditional critical practice and philosophical writing on the other” (24). She then explains, “In my view the optimal response requires both of these moves at once – recognizing the specificity of new media without abandoning the rich resources of traditional modes of understanding language, signification, and embodied interactions with texts” (24). In other words, while we need to recognize that electronic literature is not print-based literature and should not conform to the conventions and logics of print-based literature, we do not need to abandon our already established analytical and interpretive skills or our theories and critical frameworks. Rather, we need to recognize that we are applying them to new media environments and must, therefore, understand the new digital medium as a new medium and adapt our old practices to study the digital even as we also seek to develop new modes of analysis and interpretative theories native to the digital.

As she notes earlier in the chapter, we have over 500 years of print literature and a much longer tradition of manuscript-based literature and oral tradition from which to draw upon. As we have expectations of genre, forms, literary techniques, styles, and methods already developed, electronic literature, she argues, “must build on these exceptions even as it modifies and transforms them” (4). As it modifies and transforms past practices, we should expect electronic literature  – and indeed do find – to draw upon other elements of our contemporary digital culture as well, things like “computer games, films, animation, digital arts, graphic design, and electronic visual culture” (4). Finally, she suggests that while we can draw from and use our practices, techniques, and assumptions of literacy, we might need to stop thinking of these practices as literacy, at least when applied to the digital. In fact, new media theorist Gregory Ulmer, she notes, has coined the term “electracy” for these new practices. Electracy, Ulmer has explained is to the digital what literacy is to print.4

At this point, it might be a good idea to take a step back and remind ourselves what exactly Halyes means when she refers to electronic literature. She notes that when she is discussing electronic literature she is specifically excluding digitized print literature (3). Electronic literature is, instead, “born digital” and created on a computer with the intent that it be read on a computer (3). Having set these parameters, she then turns to the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO) for their definition. Electronic literature is, they explain, “work with an important literary aspect that takes advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the standalone or networked computer” (3).

Among the genres they list on their “What is E-Lit?” page are:

  • Hypertext fiction and poetry, on and off the Web,
  • Kinetic poetry presented in Flash and using other platforms,
  • Computer art installations which ask viewers to read them or otherwise have literary aspects,
  • Conversational characters, also known as chatterbots,
  • Interactive fiction,
  • Novels that take the form of emails, SMS messages, or blogs,
  • Poems and stories that are generated by computers, either interactively or based on parameters given at the beginning, and
  • Collaborative writing projects that allow readers to contribute to the text of a work
    Literary performances online that develop new ways of writing.

We find many, but not all, of these same genres included in Hayles survey of some of the major genres of electronic literature.5 The genres Hayles identifies and discusses are:

  • Hypertext fiction (pp. 5-6),
  • Network fiction (pp. 7-8),
  • Interactive fiction (p. 8) and interactive texts (pp. 10-11),
  • Locative narratives (pp. 11-12),
  • Installation pieces (pp. 12-16),
  • Generative art (pp. 18-20),
  • “Code work” (pp. 20-22), and
  • Flash poetry (22-23).

One of the common features of electronic literature, she notes, is its experimental nature. Just as the 20th Century saw literature pushing against and playing with the affordances and constraints of the print medium, we find a fair amount of electronic literature “interrogating networked and programmable media as the material basis for artistic innovation and creation” (20).

Halyes ends the chapter with a discussion of issues related to preservation, archiving, and dissemination (39-42). As she notes, we have elaborate practices, structures, and infrastructures developed to handle the preservation, archiving, and dissemination of print literature and digital nature electronic literature offers new challenges and requires us to develop new practices, structures, and infrastructures to deal with electronic literature.[1. Many of these issues overlap with other forms of digital media from electronic scholarly texts we looked at two weeks ago to the electronic files that make up your student records at Winthrop to your Facebook profile and the consumer data stores like Target and Amazon keep on all of us.

  1. See last week’s lecture “The Medium Is the Mix: Writing and Remix Culture“.
  2. And this, here, is where we must remember that electronic literature is not print. In point of fact, our “reading” of electronic literature might involve reading text, viewing images, watching text and/or graphics move around, clicking elements on the screen or inputting text or other commands, listening to spoken words or music or other sounds, even physically moving our bodies or moving ourselves to specific locations.
  3. Among the former she identifies John Cayley, Loss Pequeño Glazier, Alan Sondheim, Brian Kim Stefans, and Stephanie Strickland; and among the later she names Florian Cramer, Rita Raley, Matthew Fuller, Ian Bogost, Mark B. N. Hansen, Adalaide Morris and Matthew Kirschenbaum.
  4. If you’re scratching your head at this, that’s fine. If you are, however, you might want to spend some time over the next few days thinking about what practices, techniques, and assumptions you have that have been shaped by a life of engaging with print and think about what practices, techniques, and assumptions you have that have been shaped by a life engaging with the digital.
  5. It may be worth noting that Hayles book Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary was written as a project for the ELO and this first chapter which we’ve read is available on their website. And if you haven’t noticed, there’s a CD-Rom at the back of your book which contains works from The ELO’s Electronic Literature Collection, Vol. 1.

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