Electronic Literature: polymorphous possibilities

In the electronic poem “the dreamlife of letters,” the phrase “polymorphous possibilities” floats and twirls around the screen. The poem is grouped in the Ambient text section of the archive. This type of text is described in this way:

Work that plays by itself, meant to evoke or engage intermittent attention, as a painting or scrolling feed would; in John Cayley’s words, “a dynamic linguistic wall-hanging.” Such work does not require or particularly invite a focused reading session.

I think this particular text, and this kind of text (ambient), represents something larger about electronic literature that you are likely to experience as you explore this new media type of literature this week. “Dreamlife” is interested in “letters.”  All verbal texts are, to some extent. Some texts more than others. This one takes its interest more deliberately, and perhaps (so I might argue) more fervently, than many others. When you read–or watch–this poem, you witness the polymorphous possibilities of language. The poem reminds us, it seems to me, of the fact that any poem, any text, is made of such things. And made from the possibility of making and unmaking words and combining and moving letters.

It doesn’t “invite a focused reading session.” This is true. And yet, poetry is hard for many people, readers and non-readers alike. Consider the poem “Poem” by Charles Bernstein–a well-known, academic poet (and a co-founder of the Electronic Poetry Center at SUNY Buffalo). Is it so different from “Dreamlife”–except that it is static? Might we think of reading “Dreamlife” more like listening to a song: moving and morphing along? Does the poetry (or more broadly, the literary) reading experience need to be difficult? Must it be a focused reading session? What about, instead, an experience of reading? “Ambient” suggests that the environment and the experience of the text and its reading (its watching, its playing…) matters more than a conventional view of focusing on the meaning within a text.

Focus is a concern for Sven Birkerts; it point to a difference between linear print texts and many, if not all, of the electronic literary texts available at the archive. But what if focus implies, or derives, from participation rather than concentration? Isn’t poetry difficult, in part, when we are sitting too quietly or silently, waiting for it to speak to us? Consider some of the Oulipoems [constraint-based texts] which invite reader activity while also working something like a mad-libs game. It might surprise you, but these computer-generated texts are based on print poems from the mid-twentieth century, including the famous “Hundred Thousand Billion Poems” by Queneau. Andrew Piper refers to this group of poets in his chapter “By the Numbers.”

Can or should the experience of reading literature be something like a game? Or an algorithm? Can composing literature–poem or story or essay or argument–be processed like information, combined and re-combined like numbers or letters in a slot machine? What if it already is?

Or, perhaps hypermediacy means the hyperactivity of print culture, rather than its disappearance. Recall what Murray says–electronic text is the child of print culture. Here is one text, as sort of nightmare of digital communication: Out of Touch.

A text by Moulthorp (the hypertext author Birkerts reads in his chapter) titled Radio Silence–showing an interest in the ideas of play (rules for reading) and the interest in pattern.

A well-regarded hypertext–that emphasizes a different kind of linking nonlinearity: The Jew’s Daughter.

For links to other literary hypertexts, visit HTLit: Literary Hypertext.

Reading (Playing, Navigating) Hypertext

Jackson Pollock/ the medium is the message?

Hypertext literally means “over text.” The connotation is a text that is somehow over-stimulated in being a text. In digital terms, it means an electronic text that has a linking mechanism in which a reader has some agency in going to related texts and choosing from multiple pathways through a text. The world wide web is basically a massive hypertext.

Luminous Airplanes is a hypertext–calling itself a “hyperromance” or hypernovel. Actually, we are reading the digital extension of a print book titled Luminous Airplanes; the digital version picks up from the print version and in some way (I think?) forwards and extends it. Before the reader gets too far into the reading experience, we are confronted by choices and challenges as a reader. How should we proceed? Which path should we take? There is a story here: there is a narrative, there is a narrator, an initial event or conflict that seems to motivate things (a given, a problem, with the response being the writing of this narrative). What might be different for some is that this narrative–and the reader of this narrative–is never merely background or taken for granted. There is an interest in the reader’s participation. This is where the linking mechanism comes in. We have choices to make. But it should also be noted that this sort of literary experience–a narrator talking about the book we are reading, the reader in some form participating in the book as though it is being written with us–is not new to digital literature. This is a quality of postmodern literature that predates digital hypertext. Digital hypertext–we can call it with an ear to Birkerts, the fate of literature in the electronic age–extends, through digital means, a desire to write and read stories or texts in which the medium is the message. A postmodern book (like McLuhan’s) makes the reader mindful that she is reading a book. La Farge takes it a step or two further by extending his book into digital space: we can read about Luminous Airplanes (the book)–and even buy the book online–while we read Luminous Airplanes (the hypertext).

I think of the painter Jackson Pollock as an analogy–not only for how La Farge operates and what his artistic interests are, but also for how we as readers engage with this work.

We have choices to make. By the second “page” of the narrative, we have multiple choices, choices that suggest we are in some way participating in the writing/rewriting of the very story we are reading. But even that isn’t exactly the case, since we have a choice to navigate by way of a map–rather than go in the direction of pages, we can get rid of the “book” analogy entirely and follow a map that exists “outside of time and space.” One of the critical terms we will encounter for understanding the effects of digital hypertext is immersion and immersive text. It is no accident that Luminous Airplanes has a page titled “Immersive Text” and has its readers think about this concept while reading. And there is intertextuality (something now more familiar to us as readers), which in the case of the reference to “Rip Van Winkle,” suggests how the dismembering (and remembering) of various pieces of the story is also a theme within the story. In this way, the medium is part of the message.

The author Paul La Farge talks about immersive text in this short video interview found on his webpage.

This isn’t how we traditionally think of reading. But perhaps we need to find alternative verbs and participles for the activity we are doing. Perhaps it is better to borrow from other activities: navigating, playing, exploring, browsing, gaming. What else, what other analogies come to mind? And–my question for us to take up as we evaluate this literature critically: are these analogies for our reading completely beyond what we think literature and reading should entail?


Some other hypertext reading experiences you might consider….

“The Museum” by Adam Kenney, a hypertext novella that plays upon the idea of navigating story as an analogy for navigating a space such as a museum.

Emily Short, First Draft of the Revolution

  • Links and Doubles. Note the ways this text from the beginning plays with the idea of a fluid text in which writing is doubled and linked. Have you read other texts–including texts that are not digital–in which the experience of reading is doubled or linked in some way? Unlike some hypertexts (following the logic of nonlinearity), this one does have an end.
  • Participation. The reader’s invitation to rewrite this text while reading it. Participating as a reader, but also as a writer–for example, asking for more information. Think about ways Joseph Harris’ Rewriting provides insight. Or Janet Murray on immersion. Or McLuhan.
  • Author’s Statement. For further reading on this text, see the author’s description and overview here.

Electronic Literature Collection [we will be reading from this collection next]

  • Stretchtext: Spastext[Stir Fry Text]  Material metaphor: focusing on writing, on the role of the reader.
    • Another of the Stir Fry Texts, Correspondence–identifies the real materiality of language that the writers are interested in; think Jackson Pollock with painting. What are the paintings “about”? Some art critics would say: about painting, the paint, the painter’s (and viewer’s) interaction with this medium.

Some critical links

  • Birkerts’s concern with hypertext as too much fluid process, the loss of authorial product, seems an obvious connection to most if not all of these hypertexts. Yet they also suggest to me an implication of fluid process that SB doesn’t address, one that I would consider to be a valuable and crucial aspect of literary reading, deep and otherwise: the reading is dynamic, it moves.
  • For a contrasting view of hypertext as valuable, if still messy, in its process, consider Shelley Jackson’s discussion of her own hypertext, Patchwork Girl.
  • Rhetorical Devices for Hypertext

Here is a platform called Twine that we can use to create a hypertext–that is, a non-linear, linked narrative, poem, essay or other sort of literary work you might conceive. In other words, a narrative that we might treat more like a game. [Thanks to Aaron for pointing me to this site]

Some help with how to create links in Twine.

Is playing with a text, as a writer and/or a reader, analogous to writing and reading a text? In what ways is playing comparable to writing and reading? Would you argue that these activities, playing and writing/reading, should remain distinct?

Some stories/games created with Twine:

“Howling Dogs” by Porpentine.

First Draft of the Revolution by Emily Short and Liza Daly

For links/discussion of other literary games, see Aaron’s post on The Museum.


Birkerts: countering, counterargument, conclusion

Sven Birkerts concludes The Gutenberg Elegies by focusing on an opposition between “the solitary self” and “the collective.” For Birkerts, a true self is solitary and a true sense of self exists only in solitude; this condition of selfhood is cultivated best through the pages and linear lines of books. Birkerts sets against this condition of solitary selfhood the “condition of connectedness” that he associates with what he terms “the ever-expanding electronic web.” “They are not only extensions of the senses,” he argues about the technological improvements of the electronic age in his “Coda,” “they are extensions of the senses that put us in touch with the extended senses of others.”  In other words, the problem is not so much that we are, in the age of overwhelming information, overloading our senses by extending their range and reach; more troubling for Birkerts, we are extending ourselves and our senses into and among the extended senses of others. “Others” is the real pejorative term here (224). Birkerts fears contamination through connection.

This is where I disagree most strongly with Birkerts’ understanding of the “amniotic environment of impulses,” to use his telling metaphor of the web. I think Birkerts aptly characterizes the effect of this environment of impulses. He gets the technology right; the uncited echo of Marshall McLuhan’s defintion of technology as the “extensions of man” brings that home. We have, as McLuhan shows, always used technology to extend our senses–long before the age of electronic communication. Birkerts could be more precise in recognizing that such “extensions” would include the technologies of writing and print and bookmaking that informs the books that thus inform the selfhood he fears we are loosing. Books are part of an earlier hive of information and communication network. But no matter; he elsewhere in this book admits that his beloved book is, of course, a form of technology–even if that view is kept to a minimum. Birkerts gets not the technology wrong nor its implications (the extension of senses); he misses the point in fearing the connection to others. That is to say, I am troubled most by the “condition of connectedness” that Birkerts, it seems, forbids the act of reading. Why is connectedness the problem and solitariness the goal of our selfhood or of the creativity of reading and writing that informs it? Why must we think of creation in solitude?

Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein before it, indicates that Birkerts’ problem is in seeing connection as the problem. Rather, in connecting to others, literary texts connect readers to writers and written words they create. And, when we consider an electronic text, we find in many cases, the connections are even stronger.

This is not to say that there aren’t problems lurking in connectivity. I would agree with Birkerts to the extent that he worries about the loss of authority in multiplicity. However, I think he goes too far in arguing that only the individual author, domineering over the individual and solitary reader, can count for what it means to be a reader (or writer). In my view, creativity can only come through connection that exists beyond the self. The result, I understand, may be a literary text that undermines what we think of as a traditional novel or poem. Consider, for example, “This is Not a Poem.” That title might remind us that this re-visioning of the traditional relation between reader and writer (the reader here becomes a writer, even rewrites the writing) or between artist and viewer has been going on for some time. For further reading consider On the Virtues of Preexisting Material, by Rick Prelinger: A recent article that takes up the problem of originality in the digital age, and proposes that we think instead of collage and patchwork. He speaks of orphaned works of creation and quilts: the echoes of Frankenstein and Patchwork Girl are noticeable–as are the concerns of Plato.

[The text above is my example of a critical application of Birkerts, stitching in, through paraphrase and direct quotation, a key idea from his conclusion to then set up the focus I will use to read Patchwork Girl: in effect, using Birkerts’ own terms and language (connectedness vs. solitariness) for my own thesis, though reversing his view, drawing distinctions. Also, entertaining counterargument from Birkerts.]