Lecture: On Hayles’ “The Future of Literature”

Books will not disappear, but neither will they escape the effects of the digital technologies that interpenetrate them. More than a mode of material production (although it is that), digitality has become the textual condition of twenty-first-century literature. — N. Katherine Hayles, Electronic Literature, 186

Having presented the general argument of Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary in chapter 4, N. Katherine Hayles concludes her book on electronic literature by examining three print novels: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper, and Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves. While this might seem at first glance an odd way to finish off a book on electronic literature, it’s entirely consistent with the argument Hayles has made throughout the book. If, as she has claims, intermediation interpenetrates computer code and human language, digital and analogue processing, and print and electronic media; and if this occurs through a process of coevolution through recursive feedback loops in which the interaction of A and B means that A and B mutually shape the development of each other, and the change to one invokes new changes to the other, then we should find that not only is electronic literature influenced and shaped by print, but that print literature should be influenced and shaped by digitality. And that is why Hayles ends her book with an examination of three recent print novels: to demonstrate how the digital is exerting its influence upon print.

Hayles begins chapter five, “The Future of Literature: Print Novels and the Mark of the Digital,” by claiming that electronic literature “will be a significant component of the twenty-first century canon,” and she reminds us that this shouldn’t be too surprising when we remember that today nearly all print literature exists as a digital file at some stage in its production (159). However, this is not what Hayles means when she claims that electronic literature will have its impact on twenty-first century literature. Instead, she argues, we find print textuality imitating electronic textuality while also intensifying features of print “in effect, declaring allegiance to print” (162).

Having made this claim, Hayles then defines a number of characteristics of electronic textuality “around which the dance between imitation and intensification takes place” (163). They are:

  • Computer-mediated text is layered. That is, there’s the text we read/perform/experience and the code that renders that text (163-64).
  • Computer-mediated text tends to be multimodal. Unlike print books which can display verbal text and images, computer text can include sound and video as well as verbal text and images (164).
  • In computer-mediated text, storage is separate from performance. In print, the text is both stored and performed on the same page, whereas a digital text can be stored anywhere a local computer can access it (whether that’s the local hard drive or a web server on the other side of the world), and we can’t access computer code while it performs (164).
  • Computer-mediated text manifests fractured temporality. Electronic text can be programmed to display at its own rate regardless of how fast or how slow we read. Additionally, it can be programmed so that we have to stop reading and perform other tasks such as clicking a mouse or entering text in order to keep reading (164-65).

Having defined these major characteristics of digital textuality, Hayles devotes the rest of her chapter to discussing how these characteristics play out in that “dance between imitation and intensification” in the three novels mentioned above.

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