The question of electronic literature – its definition, existence, significance, relationship with literature (plain and simple) – has always been bound up with questions of media and medium. New media. Electronic media. Media qualified by digital, computational, networked, programmable and so on. And all of these terms hypostasize practices while encapsulating and concealing an even more fundamental problem concerning their medium in the sense of artistic medium. Historically, as of this present, an electronic literature exists. It exists significantly, as corpus and practice, and as an institutionally supported cultural formation. It has established a relationship to literature as such, and this is also, to an extent, institutionally recognized.
However, questions and confusions concerning media – signaled understandably but inappropriately by the absurd, skewmorphic misdirection of “electronic” – remain encapsulated in “literature” itself. The medium of literature is not letters or even writing. The medium of literature is language. And this latter statement is a contradiction, arguably an assault, by literature, on language itself, as if the art of language could be entirely encompassed by an art of letters. The future historical role of “electronic,” digital, computational and programmatological affordances will be that of enabling artists and scholars to overcome our long-standing confusions concerning literature and writing, but not by replacing literacy with digital literacy.
It has become a commonplace of the discourse surrounding electronic literature to say that the predominant practices of aesthetic language-making are currently produced in the world of (print) literacy and that this has been problem since the advent of “electronic” literacy. It has been a problem for far longer than that. Our predominant art practices – of visual or fine art – are currently produced, chiefly, in the world of visuality. Qualifying (visual) art with “digital” or “electronic” is less and less necessary because “digital media” simply allow visual artists to explore visuality in new ways, continuous with those of previous practices and institutions. For art, media may have changed but the artists’ medium is consistent. By contrast, digital media will enable us to discover that aesthetic, artifactual language-making may also take place in the world of aurality, in the world of what we can hear and, in particular, of what we can hear as language, and faithful to language as artistic medium, as aurature.
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