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ELO 2015: The End(s) of Electronic Literature

Electronic Literature as a Means to Overcome the Supremacy of the Author Function

Heiko Zimmermann (University of Trier)

Panel: Collaborative Narrative
Thursday, August 6 • 11:00 - 12:30 (Sydneshaugen skole: Auditorium R)

In his seminal essay “What Is an Author?” Michel Foucault maintains that we can only accept literary discourses if they carry an author’s name. Every text of poetry or fiction is obliged to state its author, and if, by accident or design, the text is presented anonymously, we can only accept this as a puzzle to be solved, or, one could add, as an exceptional experiment about authorship that is verifying the rule. This was in 1969. In the meantime, a profound change of all forms of social interaction has been taking place. Amongst them are works of electronic literature that use the computer in an aesthetic way to create combinatory, interactive, intermedial and performative art. One could argue, of course, that electronic literature as new media art often only is a proof of a concept addressed to the few tech-savvy select. However, these purportedly avant-garde pieces break the ground for developments that might happen barely noticed, and by this serve an important political, ideological, aesthetic and commercial purpose. Amongst these developments is a change of the seemingly irrevocable rule of the author in literary discourses. In the realm of digital writing, there is a group of texts that seem to systematically depart from the supremacy of the author function. None of them makes this its objective nor its topic. It just happens that digital writings with a certain set of common features in their production and reception processes do away with the author function and allows to focus, as Foucault hypothesizes, on the modes of existence of these discourses, their origin and circulation, and their controller.  

In my paper, I would like to look at the production and reception processes of a number of canonical digital literary texts, amongst them Toby Litt’s blog fiction Slice, the huge collaborative writing project A Million Penguins, Reneé Turner’s mash-up fiction She…, Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, and Charles Cumming’s Google-Maps mash-up The 21 Steps. They all share what I call delayed textonic authorship, i.e. contributions to and modification of the text that happen further to the end in the continuum of production and reception. They also share various expressions of uneasiness with traditional authorial roles and ultimately a departure from the supremacy of the author function. Looking at the primary texts, one can see various forms of disintegration of the author function, amongst them escape from one text into another, the indistinguishability of authors and characters, scolding of the authors by the editors, disorientation over the limits of one’s own text, and the renouncement of authorship.

In my paper, I would like to visualize the structural novelties in the production/reception processes of such texts by using the new model of the textual action space. I would also like to showcase the particularities of dealing with shifts of the author function and show that the departure from the author function does, indeed, not only allow us, as Foucault has predicted, to look at the modes of existence of discourses, their origin and circulation, and the underlying power structures; this is precisely what we are forced to look at when the author function is absent in aesthetic discourse. The insights gained by analysing electronic literature this way enable us to fundamentally rethink the possible commercial ends of literary production.


Aarseth, Espen J. 1997. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Print.

Bennett, Andrew. 2005. The Author. Edited by John Drakakis. The New Critical Idiom. London: Routledge. Print.

Cumming, Charles. 2008. “The 21 Steps”. We Tell Stories: Six Authors, Six Stories, Six Weeks. Penguin. Web. Date accessed 25 Aug. 2010.

Foucault, Michel. 1995. “What Is an Author”. In Authorship: From Plato to the Postmodern, edited by Seán Burke, 233–46. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Print.

Joyce, Michael. 1990. Afternoon, a Story. Watertown, MA: Eastgate. CD-ROM.

Litt, Toby. 2008. “Slice”. We Tell Stories: Six Authors, Six Stories, Six Weeks. Penguin. Web. Date accessed 25 Aug. 2010.

Mason, Bruce and Sue Thomas. 2008. “A Million Penguins Research Report.” Institute of Creative Technologies, De Montfort University. Web. Date accessed 26 Apr. 2011.

A Million Penguins. 2006. Penguin. Web. Date accessed 25 Aug. 2010.

Moulthrop, Stuart. 1992. Victory Garden. Watertown, MA: Eastgate. CD-ROM.

Turner, Renée. 2008. She… Fudge the Facts. Renée Turner. Web. Date accessed 25 Aug. 2010.

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