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ELO 2015: The End(s) of Electronic Literature

"Learn to taste the tea on both sides": AR, Digital Ekphrasis, and a Future for Electronic Literature

Robert Fletcher (West Chester University)

Panel: Narrative Theory
Wednesday, August 5 • 11:00 - 12:30 (Sydneshaugen skole: Auditorium A) 

This presentation will link the trope of “digital ekphrasis” (as articulated by Cecilia Lindhé) and the developing of platforms for “augmented reality” to argue that one probable future for electronic literature lies in the interweaving of “born digital” and print texts in ubiquitous layers of mediation. It will examine three instances of “augmented” print – the multimodal performance of ekphrastic poetry, the AR comic book Modern Polaxis, and the AR epistolary romance Between Page and Screen – all of which demonstrate the power of “intermediation” (Hayles) and foster a critical perspective on it. Looking at these amalgamations of print and digital textuality through the lens of digital ekphrasis reveals that electronic literature will most likely always arouse ambivalence, just as the trope of ekphrasis in traditional media has, for better or worse, provoked a sense of the uncanny through its interweaving of visual, auditory, tactile, verbal, or haptic experiences.

I will first establish the aesthetic and rhetorical theories of ekphrasis that will frame my discussion of augmented reality and electronic literature. In writing of the centuries of ambivalence associated with intermedial “picture poems,” W.J.T. Mitchell has outlined the “dangerous promiscuity” of ekphrasis (155), how its “mutual interarticulation” (162) – with words helping to determine the significance of images and vice versa – threatens the stability assigned by audiences to each medium, at the same time that it provokes the “hope” that each medium’s limitations can be overcome. Lindhé has rehearsed and extended that discussion to highlight specifically “the interaction between visual, verbal, auditive and kinetic elements in digital literature and art” (Lindhé Par.13). She makes the case that the more comprehensive theory of ekphrasis in rhetoric allows us to understand and appreciate the intermedial functions of digital textuality in new ways: “digital literature and art align with this concept of ekphrasis, especially in the way that its rhetorical meaning is about effect, immediacy, aurality, and tactility. The multimodal patterns of performativity in the rhetorical situation stage a space-body-word-image-nexus with relevance for how we could interpret and discuss digital aesthetics.” Lindhé’s concept of digital ekphrasis has much to offer as we think about the power of electronic literature, but I will argue that the ambivalence the trope has always elicited is just as important to remember. 

In the final section of the presentation, I will demonstrate how various AR texts court a sense of the uncanny and thereby serve as paradigmatic examples of the multi-layered future of electronic literature. After noting the precedent of Caitlin Fisher’s Andromeda (Electronic Literature Collection, V.2), I will examine the remediation of print poetry through multimodal AR performances and locative poetry (Berry and Goodwin). Next, I will offer a close analysis of Sutu’s AR comic book Modern Polaxis, which employs both the palimpsest effects of AR and the tropes of science fiction (time travel, body snatchers, the automaton) to encourage us to “learn to taste the tea on both sides” of an uncanny reality. Finally, I will end with a discussion of Borsuk and Bouse’s Between Page and Screen, to my mind the most ambitious use yet of AR for literary expression. Like Lev Manovich’s thoughts on “the poetics of augmented space,” Borsuk’s work (both the book and her essay on “words in space and on the page”) shows us, it is more fruitful to think of AR as a cultural and aesthetic practice than as a technology. The platforms for AR may change from smartphones to wearables, and beyond, but AR itself will persist in, among other things, an uncanny electronic literature not just “born digital,” to use Strickland’s phrase, but cached in the world around us. 


Berry, Marsha and Omega Goodwin. 2012. “Poetry 4 U: Pinning poems under/over/through the streets.” New Media and Society. 15.6: 909-929. Print.

Borsuk, Amaranth. 2011. “The Upright Script: Words in Space and on the Page.” Journal of Electronic Publishing .14.2. Web.

Borsuk Amaranth, and Brad Bouse. 2012. Between Page and Screen. Los Angeles: Siglio.

Fisher, Caitlin. 2011. Video demonstration of Andromeda. The Electronic Literature Collection, Vol. 2. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Electronic Literature Organization. Web.

Hayles, N. Katherine. 2007. “Intermediation”. NLH 38: 99-125. Print.

Lindhé, Cecilia. “‘A Visual Sense is Born in the Fingertips’: Towards a Digital Ekphrasis”. DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly 2013: 7.1. Web.

Manovich, Lev. “The poetics of augmented space”. Visual Communication 5.2 (2006): 219-40. Print.

Mitchell, W.J.T. 1995. Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Print.

Sutu. Modern Polaxis. 2014. Print.

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