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 some further exploration of how a text might be composed algorithmically, using a random text generator, consider The Apostrophe Engine. Can a machine compose a poem? That question is a version of the Turing test or the imitation game devised by Alan Turing. Check out this version of the test applied to poetry Bot or Not. You could experiment with your own version of machine composition. Put a word like “Poetry” into a text; then proceed to select the first or second word suggested by your text program, and continue to do that. Is the result poetic? literary? Is it a composition?

Reading Birkerts: the how as well as the what

When we pick up an essay such as “Hidden Intellectualism,” or a book of essays such as The Gutenberg Elegies, we can expect an argument. One familiar way of putting it: the author will present a “thesis.” A better way of phrasing this, I think, is to recognize that we are entering into a conversation in which the author seeks to move us toward his or her understanding of the given topic. And the reason, the motivation, for this movement or persuasion is that our current or given understanding of the topic is in need of rethinking or revision. The author seeks a change, a new understanding. Or to use language we will discuss further this week: the author raises a problem or question that seeks to move us from the conventional or given understanding of the topic. In responding to the problem or answering the question, the author changes our understanding.

In the opening pages of The Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts focuses in on a way of thinking about reading (and as he points out, reading/writing, since the two go together) that we are going to explore and exploit throughout the course. Basically, what he does, and what we will do as we continue to read him and other authors, is foreground the process of reading and style of writing that he has in front of him. He pulls back the curtain, as I have suggested (to use the Oz image), on the mechanics and craft (for me, mechanics need not be a bad word; it might be for Birkerts, however) of the writing. This is particularly relevant to Birkerts’s argument; Birkerts converses with us about his primary concern that our ability to read books has fundamentally changed in the electronic age. How Birkerts writes and how he argues is relevant, then, to what he is arguing for. This is also true for our writing.

We see this focus on “how” vividly in the opening of his first chapter, in his focus on Virginia Woolf and her ‘stylistic verve’; on the ‘how’ of her writing rather than the ‘what.’ So, this is a useful starting point for us, since we are also interested in exploring the craft of writing (and its relation to the thinking that goes in to critical reading) and want, also, to develop the verve (vivacity, vitality) of our style. A basic definition of style in writing I would suggest is the how that informs the what; the method and mediation that shapes the message.  I wonder what your sense of style is: what the word means to you, in regard to writing and also to other acts and arts. I also wonder what your sense of your own style is.

And so, as we continue to read Birkerts, in addition to developing a grasp of his ‘message’ and pursuing a critical reading of this text, we also want to use him to think about his style and our style. We will often talk about the “how” of his writing in addition to the “what.” To use a famous phrase we will encounter later in the course, we will explore how the medium of his writing informs his message. We want to see what we can learn as writers,what we can borrow from his example.

To give you one example: in his introduction, Birkerts offers all of us (I include myself in this, a writer who still struggles at times in setting up a focus and thesis for a project–particularly larger ones) a useful, decent model for an introduction: declaring ‘straightforwardly’ his ‘premise’ and ‘focus’ and working towards a full statement of his thesis:

As the printed book, and the ways of the book–of writing and reading–are modified, as electronic communications assert dominance, the ‘feel’ of the literary engagement is altered. Reading and writing come to mean differently; they acquire new significations. (6)

We will work throughout the course on ways to develop our own introductions and how to set up our focus and thesis more effectively. So, consider this introduction as a useful example to get back to when you are working on your own essays. We will talk more in class and workshops about what is useful and what is effective in how Birkerts introduces his argument and the ways we can learn from his “how.” One thing we see right away that I would suggest is effective: Birkerts tells us at key points what he is arguing, highlighting key words that signal to us something important: premise, focus. He talks to us as readers of his writing–as though he is having a conversation with us.

Your initial writing in response to our reading, the blog (which can and should lead to stronger writing for your essay projects), can begin to notice and focus more on this ‘how’ in addition to providing some summary of what a particular author has said. Notice how an author like Birkerts uses words like ‘premise’ or ‘focus’ or talks to you as a reader. In other words, notice elements of his critical thinking, rhetorical knowledge, and knowledge of conventions (from our rubric and learning goals of the course). I will continue to ask of each writer we read and engage with: what can we learn about our own writing from this writer?

And at the same time (of course) we are reading this book for the “what.” What interests me right away is to note the ways that this focus on how–and more generally on the “non-linear” style of writing/thinking that he appreciates in Woolf and wants to imitate in his own–sounds like a key characteristic of digital writing and the technological mediation of thought and language that he is trying to resist. He says in his opening paragraph: “All thinking is relative, relational, Einsteinian. Thinking is now something I partake in, not something I do” (11). At the end of the semester, when we get to electronic literature and digital writing, this quotation will seem very apt for how we “partake” in the thinking of “hypertext” and its Einsteinian relativitiy. So I suppose my question for Birkerts at this point: do you secretly wish, or perhaps by necessity, need to write (the how) in a way that contradicts the logic of your argument (the what: reading should not be relative, relational)?

Birkerts chapter 2: hidden reading life

Note on process: This posting represents an alternative approach for using the Glog in response to reading. In my first Glog on Gutenberg Elegies (focusing mainly on the introduction and first chapter), I used the glog while reading, taking notes, then spending more time with an issue I noticed and wanted to delve into. In effect, I finished the Glog when I finished reading. Those of you who like to read and take notes might try this. Remember that you needn’t write the entry live; you can if you prefer write in a notebook (I assume it would be digital in some form, ie a word document) and copy at a later point into your wordpress Glog. Another option would be to read an entire assignment, take some notes along the way in the book or a notebook, then sit down to reflect on the reading by writing your Glog. Experiment with the best way for you to glog. The purpose is for you to find the mediation of your reading (in effect, that is what we are doing; Birkerts would likely cringe hearing that word in connection to reading) that will best prepare you for class discussion and for your future writing. Overall, whether you write while reading or soon after, I do suggest that you never leave too much distance between your reading and your writing.

Why would Birkerts cringe? Because reading should be, as he sees it, a solitary act. The picture of reading I get thus far, particularly from the autobiographical perspective he provides in chapter 2, emphaszies what he calls his “hidden reading life” (38). Due to family dynamics that he explores, he learns to associate reading with “feminine” principles shaped by his mother and in some tension with his father. His father emphasizes the activity of doing and associates reading with passivity. I don’t want to psychoanalyze too much–though the way SB presents this, he does seem to invite this kind of analysis of psychodynamics. Is SB’s strong love of books (bibliomania) tied to feelings for his mother? I am not thinking Oedipus here so much as the way he associates reading so strongly with privacy, with the hidden, almost with an illicit activity (daydreaming in the middle of the day, inside, presumably was illicit from his father’s perspective). 

Mediation–in the form of digital reading, the screen–of this private and secluded activity thus violates not the object (the text, the book) but the subject of reading: the reading experience that Birkerts has with books. It makes the experience public; it pulls the books out of the boxes: recall his assertion that books are most alluriing when being packed up in a box (53). Digital mediation of reading and writing is lots of things; one of which is greater connection with a reading/writing audience. That is of interest to me. I wonder if others agree, are equally interested in the social aspects of digital writing (even something like Facebook). Birkerts is concerned about reading becoming too social. My concern is that his definition of reading and its significance is too narrowly viewed as private, as requiring privacy.

A wild assertion/speculation at this point: the struggles he details in this same chapter with becoming a writer, the difficulty in writing as he had planned–these stem from his overly anti-social view of reading. What do you think?

Gutenberg Elegies: duration and distraction


Right away as I begin the reading (my second time–I read the 1994 edition earlier this summer) I hear and see in the new introduction lots of oppositions and antinomies, phrases that indicate and figure what reading is (for SB) vs. what technology has done to reading. I am going to list a few here as I keep reading, then go back to one or two and dig in, see what I notice about these oppositions.

digital bit vs. material atom

life hurried and fragmented by technology vs. life slow and frustrating, vivid in material totality (xii)

deep transformation in the nature of reading: shift from focused, text-centered engagement to far more lateral kind of encounter (restless, grazing, clicking, scrolling): xiv

duration vs. distraction; counter-technology (anti-technology) vs. technology

page vs. screen


I am noticing a fairly narrow defintion (and from this, narrow view) of ‘technology.’ The phrase “counter-technology of the book” raises a problem. He is so sharply defining things in terms of the binary opposition book vs. technology, he neglects historical perspective on book technology. The book is a technology–as is the writing it contains. Indeed, he glides over the fact that book publication was a major technological invention and innovation; and that the digital revolution is often thought of as the most transformational invention since the printing press. I first went to this book (and thought it would be helpful in the course) wanting more historical perspective on what “Gutenberg” means for literature and reading–in other words, what the technology of reading/writing books is about and how that compares/contrasts with more recent technologies of reading and writing in digital environments. Thus far, I don’t see much historical perspective on what “book” means; rather, see him taking the object of a book for granted–and assuming that its main difference from the ‘electronic’ text (screen, etc) is that the book is an actual object whereas the other is not. But books are made from printing technologies–and still made from printing technologies that have migrated to digital formats and still involve electronic components [a point that Katherine Hayles will make]. And aren’t digital technologies such as computer screens objects?


On page xiv he defines “Literature” very narrowly as fiction–then asserts that fiction is under assault by nonfiction. What’s up with his view of nonfiction? Is he adding fiction vs. nonfiction to the reading vs. technology list of binaries? Is nonfictional somehow more technological and fiction more artful? This is where these binaries get interesting because they start to slip and slide. One of the things I particularly wonder: he includes ‘memoir’ in his definition of nonfiction–yet his own book (also nonfiction) relies on autobiographical perspective and experince, as he tells us in the introduction. His focus is on something he calls “private self.” A contradiction?

Does the ‘digital bit’ have material atoms in it?

What does he mean by reverie?