Electronic Literature Workshop

December 8, 2008

I’ve been preparing for a meeting tomorrow with a colleague in the HUMlab about organizing a series of seminars + workshops on the topic of Electronic Literature.  I’ve found Kate Hayles (currently at Duke University, previously at UCLA) helpful in thinking about the developing field of Electronic Literature.  In her new book Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary (2008) she offers some definitions of Electronic Literature that I want to highlight — I especially like the idea that Electronic Literature is intrinsically hybrid and might incorporate literary or artistic (or other) traditions that don’t fit neatly together thus creating a so-called ‘hopeful monster’ or a ‘trading zone’:

Electronic literature, generally considered to exclude print literature that has been digitized, is by contrast “digital born,” a first-generation digital object created on a computer and (usually) meant to be read on a computer.  The Electronic Literature Organization, whose mission is to “promote the writing, publishing, and reading of literature in electronic media,” convened a committee headed by Noah Wardrip-Fruin, himself a creator and critic of electronic literature, to come up with a definition appropriate to this new field.  The committee’s choice was framed to include both work performed in digital media and work created on a computer but published in print (as, for example, was Brian Kim Stefan’s computer-generated poem “Stops and Rebels”).  The committee’s formulation reads: “work with an important literary aspect that takes advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer.” As the committee points out, this definition raises questions about which capabilities and contexts of the computer are significant, directing attention not only toward the changing nature of computers but also to the new and different ways in which the literary community mobilizes these capabilities.  The definition is also slightly tautological in that it assumes preexisting knowledge of what constitutes an “important literary aspect.”  Although tautology is usually regarded as cardinal sin by definition writers, in this case the tautology seems appropriate, for electronic literature arrives on the scene after five hundred years of print literature (and, of course, even longer manuscripts and oral traditions).  Readers come to digital work with expectations formed by print, including extensive and deep tacit knowledge of letter forms, print conventions, and print literary modes.  Of necessity, electronic literature must build on these expectations even as it modifies and transforms them.  At the same time, because electronic literature is normally created and performed within a context of  networked and programmable media, it is also informed by the powerhouses of contemporary culture, particularly computer games, films, animations, digital arts, graphic design, and electronic visual culture.  In this sense electronic literature is a “hopeful monster” (as geneticists call adaptive mutations) composed of parts taken from diverse traditions that may not always fit neatly together.  Hybrid by nature, it comprises a “trading zone” (as Peter Galison calls it in a different context) in which different vocabularies, expertises, and expectations come together to see what might emerge from their intercourse.


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