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An Evolving Anthology

Electronic Literature: Contexts and Poetics

Davin Heckman (Winona State University) & James O’Sullivan (University of Sheffield)

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 This draft essay has been chosen by the editors for open review. You are invited to read this draft and comment on it. The editors may then ask the authors to revise their work in the light of your comments, with the goal of eventually including the revised essay in the anthology.


2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 What is electronic literature? Producing a conclusive answer would require a response to a different but related question, “what is literature?”, a perplexity which has persisted for far longer than the former. For Derrida, the “institutionless institution” of literature is “a paradoxical structure”, “constructed like the ruin of a monument that basically never existed” (42). Electronic literature should not be construed as other, but rather, as a construction whose literary aesthetics emerge from computation—a system of multimodal forces with the word at its centre. Since first garnering critical attention, electronic literature has been theorized and critiqued in a variety of ways, and yet, remains as ambiguous as ever. It is ambiguous because it is amorphous, and for each trait which might be classified, a new form, or potential, emerges from previously unanticipated evolutions or juxtapositions.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 In its earliest days, electronic literature was very much associated with the literary hypertext. The emergence of narrative selections—of choice—was not exclusive to digital media, but the computer did allow it to be rendered in manners which were previously unforeseen. With the proliferation of new technologies, this trend shows no sign of abating: practitioners have a continuous stream of new modes of production to adopt and manipulate for the purposes of artistic expression. Where we once had the hypertext, we now have augmented reality, and there is no predicting where the literary might reside decades from now. What has remained constant, however, not just within the context of this digital epoch, but over centuries, is the presence of the literary.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Electronic literature, at its most essential level, must be both electronic and literary. Even if we cannot define the literary, we can at least recognize it, and from recognition, we can begin to build meaning. This chapter attempts to do just that, offering readers an account of some of those contexts of which they must be aware if they too are to recognise literature that is inherently digital, suggesting and extrapolating a poetics suited to works of this nature.

Definitions of Electronic Literature

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Technological influences on contemporary modes of expression have given rise to new literary forms which continue to attract authors and intrigue critics. While the origins of electronic literature can be traced back several decades, the field, as both an artistic movement and branch of scholarship, is still in its formative stages. The nature of electronic literature, being literary, and bound to rapidly evolving digital aesthetics, is such that it resists stable definition, but there are some generalisations which can lend themselves to classification. Electronic literature, as the term has come to be utilized by the broader field of digital scholarship, does not simply refer to static text offered through screen media. N. Katherine Hayles defines a work of electronic literature as “a first-generation digital object created on a computer and (usually) meant to be read on a computer” (3). A more recent definition, advanced by Serge Bouchardon, is based on the same principle distinction between “digitized and digital literature”:

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 We can retain the idea that the mere fact of being produced on a computer is not enough to characterize digital literature. Digital literature uses the affordances of the computer to dynamically render the story. If an e-reader simply displays text in the way a printed book displays text—the only difference being that to advance the text one scrolls rather than turns a page—this is not “digital literature.” It is printed work digitized for optimal display in a portable computational environment. Digital literature is algorithmic. It changes as the reader engages it. (3)

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Electronic literature has emerged as a result of intermedial juxtapositions between literary and computational aesthetics and resides at the juncture between the most contemporary linguistic and multimodal aesthetics, manipulating language through digital paratextuality and technical structures. It is in this sense that electronic literature, or e-lit, is not to be confused with text that has merely been remediated; remediation being “the representation of one medium in another” (Bolter and Grusin 45). Literature probes the entire apparatus of linguistic communication, expands the range of expression, and debunks the illusory certitudes of ordinary speech. In an age pulled apart by the crisp declarations of twittering tyrants and the general malaise of a post-factual society at war with itself, literature doubles down: it seeks meaning in nonsense, it makes strange what is known. Instead of tearing down one slogan to replace it with another, the literary imagination seeks to carve out worlds within. To be sure, this is not the only political project that matters, it is not even, in itself, a “political project” at all. Rather it is liberation by another means. To illustrate what we mean by this, we might think of language like the historical image of the “police call box”: a ubiquitous reminder of order, a means to mobilize police action, and a tiny holding cell for those who violate codes. But in the hands of the literary artist (and their companions, those readers who travel with them), this confinement is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, it bends the very spatiotemporal laws that keep us bound, and it brings us opportunities to witness, wonder, intervene, reflect, and transform.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 While print can complement a work of electronic literature, computation should comprise some inherent component of the piece’s aesthetics. Even where a material connection between print and digital is absent, many aesthetic conventions persist between the forms: “digital technology advances poetry into dynamic areas that were at least partially available in the prehistoric and even pretechnologic era” (Funkhouser 5).1 Pointing to the precise point of demarcation between literature which has been remediated, and born-digital electronic literature, can prove problematic. As critics, we must be cautious not to confuse formats with poetics, situating artificial boundaries between digital artistry for critical convenience. While the aesthetics of electronic literature should not be reduced to text on a screen, a given piece of digitized print literature could in fact incorporate some innovation that allows us to classify the work, in some respect, as born-digital. What we can say from this is that the practice of digitizing print literature in itself does not constitute electronic literature, but that print literature can be reimagined through computation.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 While the aforementioned definition by Hayles is perhaps the most widely utilized, numerous critics have elucidated on the nature of the art. Espen J. Aarseth’s cybertextuality, or what he referred to as “ergodicity”, was among the first of the major “post-hypertexual” theories. A text is considered ergodic when “nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text” (Cybertext 1). Early delineations tended to focus on nonlinearity, on the potential for electronic literature to possess a perceived “ability to vary, to produce different courses” (41-42). Traversal functions have remained central to the appreciation and interpretation of electronic literature, but more recent examinations of the form have jettisoned the precarious notion of linearity. Noah Wardrip-Fruin notes that electronic literature is simply “a term for work with important literary aspects that requires the use of digital computation” (163). This is aligned with the Electronic Literature Organization’s definition, which encompasses any work “with an important literary aspect that takes advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer” (eliterature.org).

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 The evolutionary essence of electronic literature makes settling on a consistent ontology a problematic undertaking. The rapid proliferation of creative technologies has lent itself to this transience. Scott Rettberg hits upon the crux of the matter when he portrays the field as “a kind of moving target” (ELMCIP). Segregation—situating digital constructs on a spectrum of computational art—is perhaps a more pragmatic strategy than precise ontological situation. Astrid Ensslin’s literary-ludic2 spectrum is the methodological realisation of ludoliteracy’s tendency to “exhibit various degrees of hybridity”, the “complex expressive processes” of digital media meaning that this mode typically refuses to fall “neatly into generic or typological categories” (43-45). Adopting such an approach, accepting that electronic literature can be many things across a broad spectrum, allows us to move beyond the quandaries of definition to an inclusive critical framework which is more readily applicable to interpretations of born-digital art. In essence, electronic literature has the potential to be a lot of things—hypertexts, codeworks, literary games, augmented realities—so much so that the forms privileged in many of its earliest manifestations have already been resigned to history, while there exists an array of future iterations yet to be conceived.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 1 As counterintuitive as it may seem, electronic literature needs to be considered as an umbrella term that incorporates an ever-increasing range of literary forms that utilize a larger sensorium3 of effects than traditional literature—electronic literature is inherently multimodal. The consistent elements are its reliance on language and computation: the latter establishes a set of meaningful rules which manipulate the former, sometimes based on reader interactions. These rules have meaning, in that they shape the content through dynamic procedures which cause the literary to emerge as much from the medium as the content it carries. E-books, for example, usually contain print literature that has been relocated from the page to the screen—they avail of technology’s disseminative potential, but typically, not its creative affordances. The distinction between digitized and digital literature is that of presentation and expression—digitized literature mirrors the codex on a screen, whereas digital literature allows computer-driven transformations to take hold beyond the surface; the impact of the digital is not merely seen in the display, but embedded throughout the entire aesthetic configuration. Electronic literature is work that could exist in no other space but that for which it was developed/written/coded—the digital space, which, while commutative, cannot be without the technical affordances of its underlying systems.

The Emergence of Electronic Literature4

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Electronic literature is very much a continuation of aesthetic practices that were in existence long before the advent of digital computing. While ease of dissemination is now a major benefit of the medium, prior to consumer electronics and the contemporary Web, works of creative computation, presumably, went largely unpublished and have since been lost. Examples of some of the earliest works of electronic literature to have received (relatively) popular and critical attention include John McDaid’s Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse,5 a hypertext novel produced with HyperCard 2.0;6 Judy Malloy’s Uncle Roger,7 first released in 1986 as a serial on the WELL’s8 Art Com Electronic Network; Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl,9 more recently released on flash drive but originally published in 1995 on 3.5 floppies; and Bill Bly’s We Descend,10 which was re-released with new content via the Web in 2011.11

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Much of electronic literature’s first-generation of works formed part of the hugely significant “Eastgate School”, which saw the commercial publication of numerous canonical hypertextual works through Eastgate Systems’ Storyspace platform. Foremost among these early hypertexts was Michael Joyce’s afternoon, a story, published in 1990, having first been demonstrated three years prior, at the 1987 gathering of the Association for Computing Machinery. Joyce presented the paper in question, “Hypertext and Creative Writing”, alongside Jay David Bolter. In describing the mechanics of the literary hypertext, Bolter and Joyce point to “a new literary dimension” (43) with which authors can work: “Instead of a single string of paragraphs, the author lays out a textual space within which the fiction operates” (42). Many of the early Eastgate works were constructed in this fashion, offering a variety of paths through which the reader can traverse literary fragments, known as lexia.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 As more intuitive and sophisticated multimedia applications and computer systems became available, electronic literature evolved into a variety of increasingly intermedial forms. In 1999, Scott Rettberg, Robert Coover, and Jeff Ballowe founded the Electronic Literature Organization, a non-profit initiative intended to “promote the reading, writing, teaching, and understanding of literature as it develops and persists in a changing digital environment” (eliterature.org). Founded in Chicago, the ELO secured its first institutional headquarters in 2001, when it moved to the University of California, Los Angeles. In 2006, the organization was moved to the University of Maryland, College Park, before relocating to its current headquarters, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 2011. A definitive milestone in the advent of electronic literature as something more than merely hypertextual was the publication of the ELO’s first Electronic Literature Collection in October 2006 (see Fig. 1). It is, as Chris Funkhouser claims, “the first major anthology of contemporary digital writing” (electronic book review). Edited by Hayles, Nick Montfort, Scott Rettberg, and Stephanie Strickland, the collection marks electronic literature’s progression towards increased multimodal, intermedial, and computational complexity.

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16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Fig. 1. Electronic Literature Collection Volume One, from collection.eliterature.org. Electronic Literature Organization, Oct. 2006.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Comprised of 60 works of electronic literature, the collection offers readers an opportunity for genre-based browsing. As can be seen in the variety of this list, the Electronic Literary Collection embraces a diverse range of technologies, including, amongst many others, “ambient”, “animation/kinetic”, “constraint-based/procedural”, “generative”, “Flash”, “Javascript”, “Shockwave” and “VRML” (eliterature.org). Reviewed in Digital Humanities Quarterly, the collection is referred to as a “menagerie of forms” that “offer a sense of the perpetual metamorphosis of electronic literature” (Marino). This collection, as Mark Marino rightly asserts, is all about “variety”. While individual authors had moved beyond the hypertext long before 2006, publication of the ELO’s first collected volume was the field’s first definitive statement on the nature of electronic literature as being more than just links. In February 2011, the 62-piece Electronic Literature Collection: Volume Two, edited by Laura Borràs, Talan Memmott, Rita Raley, and Brian Stefans was published, followed by a third volume in 2016, edited by Stephanie Boluk, Leonardo Flores, Jacob Garbe, and Anastasia Salter. The varying ways in which the field has evolved can be appreciated through these collections, which offer snapshots of the movement, and the technologies and techniques favoured by artists, at any one time. The canon is, of course, far broader than what can feasibly be presented in any number of anthologies, and as an increasing number of development companies turn to the ludoliterary, we are starting to see a much higher volume of electronic literature permeate the mainstream.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 While several books provide a historical perspective of electronic literature,12 much work is left to be done to build a literary history of electronic literature. Recent research undertaken by Stuart Moulthrop and Dene Grigar as part of Pathfinders,13 a preservation project funded by the National Endowment of the Humanities, has uncovered historical information about the aforementioned early works of electronic literature by McDaid, Malloy, Jackson, and Bly. The Pathfinders project is a highly significant contribution to the field’s relatively sparse, and increasingly jeopardised, literary history.14

Poetics of the Digital

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Rather than approaching the question of electronic literature by mapping out its historical development or its relationship to social and institutional organizations that engage in its creation, consumption, criticism, and curation, one can attempt to interrogate the ways in which “writing with” a computer can offer authors new dimensions to the literary as a species of form. As Flusser explains, writing has multiple preconditions (2):

  1. 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0
  2. The blank surface
  3. A means to mark the surface
  4. An alphabet
  5. Knowledge of a “convention” which allows this alphabet to correspond to something else
  6. Knowledge of the proper form for constructing these signs
  7. Knowledge of a specific language
  8. Knowledge of the rules of writing for this specific language
  9. An idea that can be communicated through writing
  10. A motive to communicate the idea through writing

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 For Flusser, these preconditions recede into the background of our consciousness as the habit of writing supplants the conscious effort with which we learn to write. For instance, it is difficult to know when the child recognizes the relationship between written and spoken words, though it comes later that the child learns the significance of specific words. Later still, the child moves towards reading new words. And, of course, it is entirely possible for the child to never learn the written language, while being entirely able to communicate complex ideas through verbal means alone. What we should note is that writing itself does not enable complex communication, it simply complicates communication. But if we do not make explicit these multiple conditions, we forget how writing works.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 The introduction of an accessible form of recording and transmission, the emergence of democratic theories of governance, and the dream of universal literacy engages the masses in the translation of everyday practices into written text. This, in turn, fed into abstract practices of documentation, planning, and conceptual thinking surrounding archivable, teachable, and replayable formats that permitted us to further distinguish between noise and pattern, introducing notions that the patterns themselves could be compared, scrutinized, rejected, accepted, and hypothesized. This feedback loop provides the foundation for critical thinking and public discourse. Thus, the historical coincidence between the emergence of print literacy and the accelerated production of knowledge has conditioned in us the desire to associate the two practices as if they are one and the same. However, we can now imagine other routes to the same goal.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 As a number of scholars have found, many of the insights and impulses we associate with contemporary digital writers were anticipated in the work of earlier writers. Chris Funkhouser’s Prehistoric Digital Poetry, the Po.Ex Digital Archive of Portuguese Experimental Literature, and George Landow’s Hypertext are some projects that represent the practical and theoretical ways that the qualities we associate with digital media, were, in fact, conceptually evident to writers in advance of technological development. Once the computer became available, even before digital literary texts are formally produced, the merest suggestion that writing could be produced algorithmically or bound hypertextually initiates a flurry of activity in which language itself is opened up to reflection. Nowhere is this clearer than with the OULIPO writers, who explored the notions of creating all possible works within a specific mathematical constraint. While the appeal of such works often resides in concept, the notion that literature can be understood via formal processes offers evidence of the sheer impact of the technical world view on our understanding of human expression.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Yet, there is something critical to the relationship between print literature and electronic literature. Funkhouser, for instance, explains: “Poetry is poetry, and computer poetry—though related to poetry—is computer poetry” (Prehistoric Digital Poetry 80). Within the context of the argument he has developed, this distinction is significant: it misses the point to read electronic literature as a strict continuation of a literary history, or, as a digitization of print or an extension of print. In the same way that various major genres can be broken into sub-genres we can see that the taxonomy of literature is not symmetrical. In poetry, aural qualities are formal elements that allow one to draw distinctions. In the novel, themes, tropes, and narrative qualities are prioritized. However, though a sonnet has certain sonic qualities that designate it as such, these formal characteristics are tied to narrative and thematic qualities, as well. Thus, a sonnet might have some topical affinity with, say, the low literary form of the contemporary romance genre novel. All of this is simply to say that literature, even if we wish to understand it in its most canonical forms, suffers from a very promiscuous ontology. At some level, the application of this ontology to emerging media, while a useful heuristic at times, must occasionally be hacked, transmigrated, or overwritten to permit different formalities to be recognized.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Any reader who expects digital works to simply continue down the path of literary progress through the twentieth-century is going to find that electronic literature is inferior or imitative in some respect. For instance, developing a voice that is convincingly personal in terms of its recognizably human patterns while exhibiting naturalistic eccentricities is something that computers are not yet good at—either the program exhibits recognizable character traits through generalization, or the program generates surprise through randomization, each representing abstracted and extreme qualities that are successfully balanced in the well-rendered character. To transcend this, a writer can intervene directly in the process through writing, or can experiment with algorithms, parameters, or databases to craft a more nuanced generalization. The third option, which is much harder for readers and writers nurtured on traditional forms—but which finds encouragement in aspects of the avant-garde sensibility, without necessarily carrying the ideological weight—is to simply explore the limits of the available tools without worrying about whether or not it lines up with prior practices. For purely historical reasons alone, we must, as demonstrated by Funkhouser and Hayles, consider the fact that electronic literature is materially different from print literature, and can thus benefit from a liberal attitude towards historical literary criteria—a liberality which is offset by a rigorous analysis of the properties of the medium itself. When the inherited literary criteria do not apply, or only partially do, the attentive reader should recognize that something else might be going on in the text beyond mere novelty.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 However, by working with and against these technical limits, the writer is engaged in a kind of poiesis that parallels the challenge that words have historically presented to authors, only by way of an altered system of representation. If early novelists, for instance, explored the potential of the epistolary form to create the pretext necessary for the experience of the text as literature, one can argue that contemporary writers are engaged in similar practices with computers. Is the epistolary format strictly “about” letters being exchanged? Or is it about simulating a record of text-based communication between two subjects which resembles a familiar form? If writers developed and readers learned dialogue conventions that enabled conversations to unfold on the printed page, then we can say that digital pioneers are exploring and contemporary readers are field testing new conventions for the experience of a literary representation. The goal of the author, then, is not to mimic the formal practice of indicating dialogue, but to facilitate a calculated transmission of that dialogue to a hypothetical reader in a manner consistent with the formal, technical, and narrative priorities of the work. This insight is important for critics because it suggests that there is enormous potential in treating electronic literature like plain old print literature, provided we engage in this treatment retrospectively rather than the other way around. If we look at literature and ask how electronic literature represents a hypothetical future, we judge the not-yet-created based on the material accidents of the old. However, if we accept electronic literature without speculation as contemporary literature and read backwards into history, it enables us to see old literary techniques more clearly, to recognize the determining aspects of history, to see the aspects of the dialectical process that are otherwise concealed, and, finally, to improve more broadly on the theory of literature, literacy, and, ultimately, language itself.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Today, it is difficult to imagine a writer who does not employ some aspect of digital process in their work, be that in composing, editing, or publishing, but the fact remains that the digital is not simply a technology that has washed over the field of literature, resulting in electronic literature as a default practice. Indeed, electronic artists, while often striving towards the cutting edge, are also quite likely to dwell for years exploring a particular format to experience the full range of affordances that might be found, recognizing that some affordances only arrive through habitual use as the form itself becomes representative of something. Writers make creative use of ubiquitous forms, expanding the range of expression while having fun with our emerging habits of Web readership. Many writers have found in the techniques and technologies of writing occasions to reflect upon the act of writing itself. This activity is so focused, in fact, that there is a community of writers, publishers, and critics that labors specifically in and around the affordances and limitations of the computer.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 In the work of Richard Holeton, readers will find a consistent tendency to exploit commonplace digital forms for literary effect. His early work, “Frequently Asked Questions About ‘Hypertext’” (see Fig. 2),15 uses the FAQ convention to support a rather comprehensive satire of digital forms.

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30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Fig. 2. “Frequently Asked Questions About ‘Hypertext’” Electronic Literature Collection Volume One, from collection.eliterature.org. Electronic Literature Organization, Oct. 2006.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 The piece purports to answer common questions about an anagrammatic poem entitled, “Hypertext,” by “Alan Richardson”, and performs this work, appropriately, as a hypertext itself. Those familiar with the FAQ format understand the implicitly fictional character of the genre, as FAQs are written in anticipation of questions that the hypothetical reader may have. At best, FAQs are culled from actual questions and streamlined into the simulated perspective of a typical reader. At their most inventive, they are the questions that are purely speculative, reflecting what the creators think you ought to know. In keeping with the pragmatic mission of the FAQ, the questions and answers tend towards a kind of abstract precision. When FAQs fail to answer the reader’s question, it is usually because of a kind of solipsism and circular ontology that, in itself, is a conceptual hypertext that leads towards an idealized form of “customer satisfaction”. In the process of satirizing the FAQ format, Holeton also manages to tell a story about the controversy surrounding the poem, and thus manages to pull a host of other aspects of digital communication into this elegant work. The proverbial poet, Alan Richardson, is purported to be a tech boom millionaire whose poem was circulated virally through email transmission. Yet, he is a mysterious figure who has “disappeared”, exciting the interest of conspiracy theorists, literary critics, fan fiction communities, and hackers, all of which are represented in the FAQ. What at first appears to be a rather simple satire of digital banality gives way to a sprawling world of competing speculations that undercut the solidity of the work’s purported form. In other instances, like “Custom Orthotics Changed My Life”16 or Voyeur with Dog,17 Holeton uses the professional slide show format, complete with bullet points and colorful charts, to tell comically banal stories of human folly and tragedy. While these works are novel arrivals to the literary scene, they evoke an entire history of literary practices that exploits the norms of language and explores its potential.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 This evocation is as evident in contemporary screen fictions, even in technically-complex developments that incorporate state-of-the-art components like expansive playable spaces, physics engines, and virtual and augmented realities. Ensslin’s spectrum is both expanding and contracting: the range of technologies that offer creative affordances is growing, but the aesthetic boundaries that dissect this scale are being drawn closer together. The great irony of electronic literature, often heralded as an esoteric field on the periphery of literary, media, and digital scholarship, is that literary games have never been more popular. In the mobile market, where the audience is usually casual gamers, we see that hypertext has fashioned a revival: games like Reigns (2016) and Lifeline (2015) appear like novel additions in the iOS games catalogue, but they are no different, structurally, from the fictions of the Eastgate School—the narrative progresses as the user chooses between a selection of paths, with different lexia being presented as a consequence of these interactions. It is true that they have been adapted for the specifics of the platform—Lifeline mimics mobile communications, whereas Reigns operates as something of a commentary on Tinder, with narrative paths selected through oppositional swipes—but the affinities with their antecedents outweigh these particulars.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Mez Breeze and Andy Campbell’s All the Delicate Duplicates (2017) is a walking simulator, a genre which has come to prominence in recent years, most notably in the work of The Chinese Room. The traversable spaces within which Breeze and Campbell continue to set their works continue to advance in complexity. The Dead Tower (2012) uses Flash to render an atmospheric, but relatively small space within which readers encounter segments of mezangelle18 verse, while #PRISOM (2013) uses Unity to generate a more sizeable world of reflection and refraction, mimicking and problematising social surveillance. All the Delicate Duplicates (see Fig. 3) represents their most ambitious space yet, a space in which you interact with a series of objects that operate as narrative cues.

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35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Fig. 3. All the Delicate Duplicates (Mez Breeze and Andy Campbell), from Steam, Feb. 2017.

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 Duplicates is as beautiful as it is technically impressive, and it is a signal of how artists like Breeze and Campbell are drawing electronic literature in from the outskirts of the canon—this is a work that has been recognised with mainstream accolades. Among other awards, it received the 2015 Tumblr International Digital Media Prize, was an official selection at the 2015 Showcase Parallels Freeplay Independent Games Festival, and was a finalist in the 2014 BBC Writersroom / The Space Prize for Digital Theatre.

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 These are both the present and future of electronic literature—a future that possesses forms we cannot even begin to anticipate. Consider the trajectory of Breeze and Campbell: like their contemporaries, they would have started with command line, inherently textual environments—mezangelle is representative of these beginnings. Literature has always been textual, the computer afforded an opportunity for a reciprocative textuality, and now, the domain is one in which the real and fantastical and continuously merged, through immersion and augmentation. But even as technologies advance, and the works of the pioneers look increasingly archaic, their significance has never been more apparent. The pathfinders—to borrow from Grigar and Moulthrop—established a set of schema upon which the successors have laid increasingly-intricate multimodal mosaics, but the schema remain evident. The aforementioned mobiles games, the prize-winning gameworlds produced by Breeze and Campbell—these are but the most contemporary iteration of a long line of literary practices. Significantly, we are now at the point where electronic literature has its own lineage; where Shelley Jackson used hyperlinks between segments of text, Breeze and Campbell use 3D objects developed using a resource-intensive engine. All this—drawing attention to examples of digital works, both old and new—is simply a means of demonstrating that the ambition of the form remains consistent, and that is to manipulate language, to transform the linguistic into the literary, by means of computation.

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 In many cases, the work of e-lit authors and practitioners results strictly in objects that could not exist on the printed page, and thus we should be reluctant to say that the concepts these writers explore would simply be inconceivable to anyone else. Oral poetry, song, and dramatic literature are all time-based. Gaming, ritual, and call-and-response performances are all interactive and/or collaborative storytelling techniques. Pictographic writing systems, religious art, ritual, and drama are all visual. Music, oratory, and performance all have audio components. Many games and rituals include elements of chance or creative modes of meaning generation. Architectural spaces and medieval manuscripts are hypertextual for readers. From time to time, the print tradition has sought to look to these close relations to achieve a perspective of estrangement from conventional language, to implement a reflexive process into the act of reading and writing text. The miracle of electronic literature is not that computers are so now; the miracle is that it is so thoroughly anticipated, suggesting that the literary perspective itself is a viral, feral, primordial tendency of human consciousness. But everyday linguistic practices reflect this aspect of human consciousness that cannot live without thinking about things, modifying them, and sharing them with others. The literary mode seeks to represent and reproduce these practices in technical objects. Though hardly the expression of individual artistic genius, memes circulate via this raw literary tendency. The aggregate effects of small acts of liking, sharing, and making collectively comprise a mode of poetic activity which the main channels of literary theory have not been able to respond to. “Electronic literature” as a creative practice, focal point for a community of readers, and a subject of scholarly discourse provide an alternative zone in which the techniques and technologies of language are open for criticism and speculation in a period of radical transformation.

Useful Resources

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 Electronic Literature Organization

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 Pathfinders

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 Electronic Literature Collection

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 Electronic Literature as a Model of Creativity and Innovation in Practice (ELMCIP)

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 Link to Zotero Bibliography

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 CELL: Consortium on Electronic Literature

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 Electronic Literature Timeline


46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 1. There are a number of specific treatments of this lineage that readers may find useful (see Glazier, Di Rosario).

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 2. Ludic refers to the characteristics of play, in this context, those which one would typically associate with a videogame.

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 3. With thanks to our second reviewer, unnamed, for suggesting this useful term.

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 4. The authors would like to acknowledge ELO President and Associate Editor of this anthology, Dene Grigar, for her guidance on this particular section.

50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 5. “John McDaid’s Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse”, Pathfinders, http://scalar.usc.edu/works/pathfinders/john-mcdaid.

51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 6. HyperCard is a hypermedia programming application for early Apple systems, such as the Apple Macintosh and Apple IIGS, which pre-dates the Web. Launched in 1987, its last stable release was offered in 1998, before being withdrawn from sale in 2004.

52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 7. “Judy Malloy’s Uncle Roger”, Pathfinders. http://scalar.usc.edu/works/pathfinders/judy-malloy.

53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0 8. The WELL, or Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, is a virtual community launched in 1985 by Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant. http://www.well.com/aboutwell.html.

54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 9. “Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl”, Pathfinders. http://scalar.usc.edu/works/pathfinders/shelley-jackson.

55 Leave a comment on paragraph 55 0 10. “Billy Bly’s We Descend”, Pathfinders. http://scalar.usc.edu/works/pathfinders/bill-bly.

56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0 11. We Descend, Volume 2 (2011), by Bill Bly. http://www.wedescend.net/.

57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0 12. See, for example, Chris Funkhouser’s Prehistoric Digital Poetry, and Eduardo Kac’s Media Poetry, both published in 2007.

58 Leave a comment on paragraph 58 0 13. Grigar, Dene, and Stuart Moulthrop. Pathfinders: Documenting the Experience of Early Electronic Literature. http://scalar.usc.edu/works/pathfinders/.

59 Leave a comment on paragraph 59 0 14. This section is intended to provide little more than a frame of reference for those new to the field, and those with a particular interest in electronic literary history would be better served engaging with such projects as Pathfinders, and indeed, further contributing to what is a major gap in the field through research of their own.

60 Leave a comment on paragraph 60 0 15. Holeton, Richard. “Frequently Asked Questions About ‘Hypertext’”, Electronic Literature Collection: Volume One. http://collection.eliterature.org/1/works/holeton__frequently_asked_questions_about_hypertext.html

61 Leave a comment on paragraph 61 0 16. “Custom Orthotics Changed My Life”, Kairos 14.2. http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/14.2/disputatio/holeton/

62 Leave a comment on paragraph 62 0 17. Voyeur with Dog, Counterpath Press. http://counterpathpress.org/elitpath/holeton/voyeur.htm

63 Leave a comment on paragraph 63 0 18. Mezangelle is a language developed by e-lit artist, Mez Breeze. More detailed descriptions can be found in Aria Dean’s interview with Breeze (2016), which accompanied the Net Art Anthology by Rhizome.

Works Cited

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Bolter, David Jay, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2000. Print.

Bolter, Jay David, and Michael Joyce. “Hypertext and Creative Writing.” HYPERTEXT ’87: Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Hypertext. N.p., 1987. 41–50. ACM Digital Library. Web. 30 Sept. 2012.

Bouchardon, Serge. “Towards a Tension-Based Definition of Digital Literature.” Journal of Creative Writing Studies 2.1 (2016). Web.

Dean, Aria. “Mezangelle, an Online Language for Codework and Poetry.” Interview with Mez Breeze. Rhizome, 2016. Web.

Derrida, Jacques. “This Strange Institution Called Literature: An Interview with Jacques Derrida.” Acts of Literature. Ed. Derek Attridge. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Di Rosario, Giovanna. “Electronic Poetry: Understanding Poetry in the Digital Environment.” University of Jyväskylä, 2011. Print.

Ensslin, Astrid. Literary Gaming. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2014. Print.

Flusser, Vilem. “The Gesture of Writing.” Flusser Studies 8 (May 2009): http://www.flusserstudies.net/pag/08/the-gesture-of-writing.pdf

Funkhouser, Chris. “Electronic Literature circa WWW (and Before).” electronic book review. N.p., 8 Oct. 2007. Web. 9 June 2012.

—. Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms, 1959-1995. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007.

Glazier, Loss Pequeño. Digital Poetics: The Making of E-Poetries. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2002. Print.

Hayles, N. Katherine. Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2008. Print.

Landow, George P. Hypertext : The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Holeton, Richard. “Frequently Asked Questions About ‘Hypertext’”, Electronic Literature Collection: Volume One. http://collection.eliterature.org/1/works/holeton__frequently_asked_questions_about_hypertext.html

—. “Custom Orthotics Changed My Life.” Kairos 14.2 (15 January 2010): http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/14.2/disputatio/holeton/index.html

—. “Voyeur with Dog.” Counterpath Press Online. Special E-Lit Edition (3 April 2009): http://counterpathpress.org/elitpath/

Marino, Mark C. “Review: The Electronic Literature Collection Volume I: A New Media Primer.” 2.1 (2008): n. pag. Digital Humanities Quarterly. Web. 7 Nov. 2013.

Rettberg, Scott. “Editorial Process and the Idea of Genre in Electronic Literature in the Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 1.” Archiving Electronic Literature and Poetry: Problems, Tendencies, Perspectives 29.1/2 (2010): 85–95. Print.

Wardrip-Fruin, Noah. “Reading Digital Literature: Surface, Data, Interaction, and Expressive Processing.” A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. Ed. Susan Schreibman and Ray Siemens. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008. 163–182. Print.

“Contents by Keyword, Electronic Literature Collection, Volume One.” eliterature.org. N.p., Feb. 2011. Web. 11 July 2012.

“ELO’s History.” eliterature.org. N.p., n.d. Web.

“What Is E-Lit?” eliterature.org. N.p., n.d. Web.

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Source: https://hcommons.org/under-review-davin-heckman-and-james-osullivan-electronic-literature-contexts-and-poetics/