The Struggle to Define a Position: What will be the Future of Electronic Literature?

TXTual Healing by Paul Notzold

Last week I attended a fascinating roundtable at Kingston University London which focused mainly on the position of electronic literature within the literary and artistic field and within academia more in specific. The roundtable, entitled From the page to the screen to augmented reality: new modes of language-driven mediated research, had as one of its preconceptions the idea that electronic literature is not given the attention and with that the status it deserves, especially within literary criticism. Within electronic literature one can say there is a very broad understanding of language in a multi-modular way. With the use of new technologies in language-mediated practices, new research platforms and research methods are being explored which has led to a rich variety of products. What unites creative practitioners and researchers is their exploration of the word and the abstract character of language and its materiality in different media in an experimental practice. The main question remains: why isn’t this work part of a more mainstream platform?

This question was one of the main topics of the keynote speech by Jay David Bolter entitled Elite and popular: digital art and literature in an era of social and locative media. Bolter paid specific attention in his talk to the cultural position of digital literature focusing on two major questions:

  1. How does digital literature relate to the traditional (academic) literary community or to the traditional art community?
  2. How does it fit into our culture’s media practices today?

To explore the first question, Bolter recollects one of the oldest debates on digital literary forms, the debate on hypertext in the 80’s and early 90’s. Recalling an 1992 NYT article by Robert Coover as a representative of the hypertext movement, it was thought hypertext could create a revolution in reading and writing. The reaction of the literary community to that claim could be seen as hostile and defensive: hypertext takes from the author the authorial voice. And, as Bolter states, although digital literature has developed and changed in manifold ways—blurring boundaries—the response of the literary community has not changed. Interestingly enough Bolter claims that where the academic community has ignored digital literature, within the art community digital art has had a more welcome incorporation. Although digital artists even so complain that they are not getting the recognition they deserve, the digital art community is much more involved in a dialogue with the wider art community than the digital literature community with the wider literary community. Bolter explains this situation by pointing out that art has from the beginning been opening up to multimedia and has been expanding its domain to that which was available, extending the definition of what constitutes art at the same time. Because of this specific precondition, digital art has had it easier to connect to these evolving conditions.


Screen. Installation by Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Andrew McClain, Shawn Greenlee, Robert Coover, and Joshua Carroll. Video by Michelle Higa

When we look at the dialogue between electronic literature and the literary academy, the latter community has not been of much help. As Bolter states, the literary academic community does not want to concern itself with the questions brought up by experiments with electronic literature because of the specific cultural position literary scholarship has occupied. This cultural position is reflected in the tight relationship between the technology of print and the cultural research practice of literary academics. This is the kind of scholarship that can be defined as print scholarship. Paraphrasing Elizabeth Eisenstein, Bolter recollects that modern textual scholarship came about with the coming of the printing press. Modern textual scholarship is strongly coupled to the notion of fixity, to the notion of a stable text and author and to scholarly precision in the fixity of the text. So the printing press became the necessary tool for the kind of scholarship that developed. And, as Bolter argues, today the literary academy is still very much defined by the kind of practices that are defined by this fixity and stability of texts. This is also visible in digital text editions and digital scholarship which try to emulate the printed text, for instance the Perseus Project. The print methods are adopted in the digital world as scholarly traditions of the classics are being refashioned. And as Bolter points out, digital technology is particularly effective in doing this. The digital technology can even be said to be better than the printing press in preserving, transmitting and fixing by the use of digital technology.

Perseus Project

Before the start of the workshop the participants were send a list of questions to focus on (which you can find here). Bolter breaks these questions down into two streams

1. Questions on the formal/material and questions on the medium

Bolter claims that the literary community is not interested in both these questions where their focus remains on the printed text. However, electronic literature is not so much interested in emulating print literature. This idea of born-digital text re-mediating printed text was a phase common in the very beginning of electronic literary experimentation. Yet, as Bolter states, today electronic literature has evolved. Not even purely verbal digital texts are interested in mirroring printed text anymore. Electronic literature has become much more interested in the mixing of modalities. This has led to the question whether electronic literature is (still) literature or whether it is or has become art. A comparison is currently made between (experimental) electronic literature and the historical avant-garde, especially there where it concerns thinking about digital forms. However, as Bolter argues, seeing electronic literature in the light of this tradition is a phase within the development of digital literature that are we are moving beyond now as well. Nowadays the study of the materiality of the digital is central to the thinking about digital literature (like it is with other media forms). Where in the print era the focus would be on media specific analysis and on the technology of inscription, nowadays the focus is on multi-modality and the mixing of forms rather than on the plurality of forms. As Bolter claims, the literary academic community will not be off much help here either. His recommendation is to turn to the art community, where they have been thinking about the condition of the medium, in a multi-medial way, for many many years and where they have developed a solid body of criticism and theory to help us.

2. Questions of cultural practice and research.

Again here, Bolter claims, the kind of questions the traditional academic community wants to have answered are not well-related to the development of literary technology. For instance the tools they want to use for research are still very much focused on thinking about text in a print-based way: they focus on lexicography, archiving, philology etc. and not on the new practices that the digital informs. Once more Bolter states, the contemporary art scene and community are the places to look at for interesting dialogue.

  Simon Biggs – reRead, Interactive Installation 2009

Bolter goes on to discuss the second question stated at the beginning of his talk: ‘How does digital literature fit into our culture’s media practices today?’ Here he turns to the practices commonly associated with web 2.0 or social media as another possible solution. We are experiencing new forms of digital communication on an enormous scale. These are facets of digital culture that form the popular background for any form of cultural production. As Bolter explains, this plenitude of contemporary media culture is increasingly hard to encompass in a general way. The main reason for this is ‘the loss of centrality’. We don’t really have a center for our culture anymore when it has become so diverse. There are now so many consumers, producers, and modes of production. It is increasingly difficult to claim that there is any form or practice that occupies a centrality. As Bolter clarifies, this is not any different from the situation in the 20th century, but we may have a different sense now of our cultural condition: we are drifting from the print era to a multimedia condition. In the era of print we still had the hope or aspiration of a cultural center. Again this relates to idea that we could fix our culture, that there are certain things that have centrality for our culture. Digital media make us aware of this plenitude perhaps in a way we did not know existed before. We now become aware of the many different forms that are available, non of which comprehend the digital community. We now have more users/producers than with any previous literary form. There are also many new forms that are just beginning to make an impression, like for instance augmented reality technologies, which allow us to write on the world. By writing in a mark-up language we are creating augmented reality experiences that create environments and we overlay these over real spaces. These kind of user created environments add again to this plenitude.

Still from TXTual Healing by Paul Notzold

As Bolter repeats, we have so many choices now in terms of media forms and expressions that we cannot claim centrality anymore. What constitutes art in this domain when we have writing forms available to millions of people who do not necessarily participate in art communities? Bolter mentions the example of TXTual Healing created by Paul Notzold which mixes ‘elite’ and ‘popular’. The question is, is this art? Is it literature? Does it matter? Is that still a question we need to ask? Bolter argues for an expanded notion of digital writing, one that is not interested in connecting to any literary or artistic community but one that sees digital writing as a new media practice that loosens itself from these stamps,

For his concluding remarks Bolter focuses on the future of literature. The strong institutional inertia can enable literary forms in print to develop continuously. One consequence of this is that literature will be one of the limited types of writing that remains committed to print where so much more writing is connected to new media. This will be detrimental to literature’s status as it necessarily marginalizes itself if it stays committed to this medium. And if literature self stays anchored to print so the literary academy will also stay anchored in a kind of research that remains committed to print. Should digital literature set out a dialogue with the academic community to set out a new path and cultural practice? Bolter argues for another strategy: digital literature should set up a dialogue with the arts community and should focus on popular writing practices. It should relinquish the role of ‘the avant-garde of literature’ and it should find itself committed to other forms of dialogue with more popular forms of writing.

rr ii, by Joerg Piringer is a visualized sound poetry or a sonified visual poem. the material of the acoustic and visual part consists only of electronically modified representations of the sound R.

What interested me the most in the debate that followed after Bolter’s keynote is how much it is akin to the debate surrounding the digital monograph in the Humanities (and to the debate surrounding the Digital Humanities more in general) in the sense that it very much focused on the issue of what defines electronic literature, the power struggles that revolve around this process of defining, and the question what kind of strategical position electronic literature should uptake.

Another similarity I found whilst listening to the discussions between the electronic text practitioners and researchers, with respect to the discourse surrounding the digital monograph is that also in the field of electronic literature the discussion can be stripped down and analyzed on three different levels: a medial level, an institutional level and a political economy level. In the following I shall try to summarize my notion of what the roundtable discussion was about along these three lines.

Still from Still Standing by Bruno Nadeau and Jason E. Lewis

The discussion on the medium focused mostly on how to redefine reading in a digital environment. Where are readers now and what are readers? The new generation seems to be lost on print literature. A whole new generation emerges that no longer reads in the traditional sense. Bolter reposed this statement by stating that text still has a strong position within education. This has lead to a situation in which many students don’t now how to read digital literature. A new reading logic needs to be developed, or a new logic of reading with which you start from scratch with every new project. This reading logic is also more than with print-based text very much connected to the body. We read a digital text differently because we interact with it. we loose something of its signification but we also gain things between the signification of the text and its manipulation. Digital text focuses more on play and esthetics. For instance in the work Still Standing, by and Bruno Nadeau and Jason E. Lewis, the meaning of the text lies in the body’s interaction with text in space. But perhaps the problem is not (only) with the reader but also with the writer. Interaction design is not a strong feature in most digital literature pieces. When a complicated use-interface is used, this is a problem of the writer and not of the reader. Finally the discussion centered on the problem of defining electronic literature where it is very much coupled to the idea of print, where for centuries literature was actually oral. There is actually a difference between textuality and literature.

Still from Birds Singing other Birds Songs, by Maria Mencia.jpg

In the discussion on how to define electronic literature within an institutional setting the statement was made that if electronic literature does not establish a connection with print, it will never get established as literature. This connection with art that Bolter proposes, turns it into a separate category. Maybe we should focus on a third space in which connections are sought both with the art world as well as with the literary aristocracy. This third space within an institutional setting could focus on digital culture where it can connect to broader forms of digital textuality. In this way electronic literature does not necessarily have to loose its ‘literaryness’. This third space is not about creating a new field but about re-conceptualizing the idea of electronic literature and asking different questions. This third space could also rise above the division made within the traditional academic community between theory and practice and the institution’s suspicion of practitioners. It could focus on interdisciplinarity and practical experimentation. The problem also has to do with the institutional difference between Art and Humanities departments. As a researcher-practitioner, are you in Arts or in the Humanities? It is about creating a new space within the institution. For now digital literature is hidden away in different spots within the university, from the literary department to the department of media or computer science.

As Scott Rettberg explains, the choice for the term electronic literature was a strategic choice, instead of going for a definition like a ‘language-based digital art form’ in which the idea of text as a specific material (like clay/paint etc.) would have been lost. As Rettberg states, digital textuality/electronic literature was a successful institutional strategy to frame it. Not that it is not digital art or that it is a fundamentally different thing, but we should have a lens that borrows something from the literary tradition.

Another part of the debate on the institutional context focused on how to establish quality criteria for electronic literature. How does a research-practice fit within the academic framework? What constitutes peer review for a performative piece, an installation, for electronic literature, and how do you get that recognized within an institutional framework? How can we create new peer review structures? How do you both fulfill academic ánd artistic criteria? How do we create interesting opportunities for practitioners to create work together, collaborative, and to learn techniques and strategies within an institutional setting? How do we create a new methodology?

  abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz demo video by Joerg Piringer

The discussion on the position of electronic literature within the publishing industry and the wider realm of scholarly communication focused on the usual topics, from the debate of how to position oneself in the spectrum of closed and open models, to issues of copyright, governance and ownership of material. It also focused on the ubiquity and lack of transparency of various new media of publishing like Facebook. Are these the places were electronic literature should focus on, is that were they should be publishing? But what about the control over people’s data? Should we claim back these spaces as public spaces, or should we subvert these big company owned environments?

The discussion delved deeper into issues of openness and accessibility. Electronic text practitioners that work within a university setting have the opportunity to make their work openly available because they already have a salary, which in a way gives them the opportunity to be experimental. The problem is however that the present publishing system obliges you to give away your copyright. Within the Electronic Literature Organization however, they use a Creative Commons License [see update underneath]. The problem is that you can’t just put your work on the web, you need to think about copyright issues. This problem becomes more urgent when we think about developing economic structures for creative-practitioners outside of (or on partly within) academia. The culture of free can be detrimental for practitioners outside of the university. What kind of value does free put on your work? On the other hand you could argue that the economic value of art does not only lie in a consumable product (this is a very 19th century economic model), it lies in many things, amongst others in the process of creation and the context in which it is produced and exhibited. Also new models are being set up which recognize this problem and which try to find a solution. Still, the models are most likely going to change. As an electronic writer you need to become a strategic producer within this new framework.

The Electronic Literature Organization hosts many beautiful works on their website. You can find some stunning collections here, here, and here.

Update 02-08-2010:

Davin Heckman from the Electronic Literature Organization was kind enough to provide me with some additional information about the ELD and its copyright license by mail. Underneath a digest of his email.

The ELD does not publish any works except the brief, descriptive entries themselves. As the ELD Handbook states:”Basically, if you write them, you are free to publish it elsewhere as you wish.  In addition, the work published here is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported license: <>. In a nutshell, this means that others will be free to use your work for non-commercial purposes as long they provide appropriate attribution and do not alter it (unless, of course, you give them permission to do so).”

The ELO provides the umbrella for the ELD and ELC.  Basically, the ELC and ELD are two separate projects.  The ELC is a peer-reviewed venue for publishing works of electronic literature, to give artists a venue for publication, to give new readers an interesting way “in” to the field.  The ELD is much more open in terms of what we can index.  There is, however, an editorial process in place to make sure that the entries themselves meet certain criteria that might make them suitable for use in scholarly projects.  The ELD is more of a bibliographic project, geared towards providing a user-built guide to the field as a whole. 

3 comments on “The Struggle to Define a Position: What will be the Future of Electronic Literature?

  1. Diane Lauer
    July 26, 2010

    Thank you for your reflections. I appreciate learning about this topic through your learning lens and experiences. As an educator and facilitator of school media collections I found your discourse very interesting.

  2. jannekeadema1979
    July 26, 2010

    Thank you Diane! If you are interested in Electronic Literature, might I recommend exploring the collections I mention a the end of my post, where you will find some very valuable resources you can use for educational purposes.

  3. Ben Basan
    July 29, 2010

    I’d also like to thank you Janneke. I’d asked for something like this in response to the announcement of the conference on Facebook, this is just what I was looking for! I’m working on pervasive computing in electronic lit., so reading this makes me regret not being there.

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