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ELO 2015: The End(s) of Electronic Literature

It Is the End of the World as We Know It and I Feel Fine

Markku Eskelinen (University of Jyväskylä)

Panel: Past Futures and Future Pasts
Friday, August 7 • 11:00 - 12:30 (Sydneshaugen skole: Auditorium A)

My paper tries to make three simple points, each one of which is connected to a specific end of electronic literature: theoretical, practical, and historical. The point of departure is of course electronic literature as we know it and perhaps like it to be: seriously undertheorized, critically experimental, ignored by media and literary departments, and practiced in relatively small and isolated communities that are firmly situated outside the usual constraints of literary market economy. This is about to change given the multitude of devices and gadgets suitable for consuming electronic literature controlled (i.e. produced, published, distributed and owned) by big media corporations. In short, we’ll soon have something new and unprecedented: popular electronic literature and probably all that usually (or historically) comes with it: both healthy and counterproductive tensions between e-literatures high and low, experimental and generic, innovative and mainstream etc. Therefore, we might need several alternative ends. 

First, as electronic literature re-activates ergodic, procedural, combinatory and other centuries and even millennia long literary traditions while still struggling with the tangled triple heritage of 20th century modernism, avant-garde, and postmodernism, it offers unique perspectives on literary history and plenty of chances to radically rewrite it (as a necessary and unavoidable continuation or sequel to all of the above). In short, electronic literature should confront and challenge literary history and include itself in it as an act of self-defense before it is too late, and tablet textuality takes over and both re-invents and re-historicizes the wheel. Electronic literature’s failure to do this could constitute its very own end and confirm what many may already suspect, i.e. that in the greater scheme of things electronic literature was destined to be collateral damage. The first part of the paper will give examples of how to strategically situate electronic literature into literary history.

Second, we will reach an end with no actual ending (or beginning) in sight. Electronic literature could easily be conceptualized as one giant and heterogeneous research program that has enormous potential to undermine, test and falsify several currently hegemonic notions and concepts of literary theory (and not only of literary history) and set reasonable limits to their analytical and explanatory power. Here the goal is to use electronic literature to offer countless easily verifiable counterexamples to any overreaching paradigm that presents itself as a general theory of literature, but is based on print literature and nothing but print literature. The second part of the paper will give examples of how this may help us formulate new research questions. 

Third, if rewriting literary history and expanding literary theory with the help of electronic literature are not good or worthy enough, then there is always the classic possibility of rewriting the classics. The third and final part of my paper speculates on how to embody, enhance and modify the texts and personal poetics of Joyce, Musil or Kafka with a wide variety of born digital literary devices.

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