It is too easy to fall into prognostications of electronic literature as the end of literature or as a new beginning. (...) Such views imply too much teleology, and see electronic literature purely as the unfolding of the possibilities of the apparatus. The rhetorical logic at work is literalization, i.e. taking literary works as the sum of their technical features. (Rui Torres & Sandy Baldwyn, eds. 2014. PO.EX: Essays from Portugal on Cyberliterature and Intermedia. Morgantown, WV: Center for Literary Computing: xv-xvi).
Our panel title, adapted from Manuel António Pina’s poetry book (1), serves to interrogate our notions of literary art today, when we consider its current production and distribution through various media (printed codex, programmable media, digital platforms, Internet, social networks). The ironical paradox contained in the phrase “it is just a little bit late” seems to suggest the idea that not much has changed despite the so-called “big changes” (in the case of Pina, it is relevant to know that his work was published in 1974, the year of the Portuguese revolution). Taking his ironical premise into the field of literature, it is legitimate to ask ourselves how literary art has changed across these media incarnations, how meaningful is “the electronic” for a definition of literature, what changes are actually significant, and how they impact on notions of author, work, reader and literary experience. The papers in this panel offer three perspectives on the end(s) of electronic literature and may be described as attempts to de-literalize its technical apparatus.
(1) Manuel António Pina (1943-2012). The title of his poetry book is “Ainda não é o fim nem o princípio do mundo calma é apenas um pouco tarde” [“It’s not yet the beginning or the end of the world remain calm it’s just a little bit late”]. This book was originally published in 1974.
This paper aims to reflect on the possibilities of electronic literature at its intersection with printed literature. In other words, is it just a little bit late to think about electronic literature exclusively in its electronic mediations and interfaces?
Drawing from Lori Emerson's idea (2014) that the future of electronic literature is born online but that it survives in its printed form, it is pertinent to question the persistence of code in a medium that cannot run it, and in an interface that transforms its performance: the printed book. In order to address these dynamics, my analysis will focus on computationally generated and programmed novels which have also been published in printed form: Nick Montfort’s novels World Clock (2013) and MegaWatt (2014), and Talan Memmot’s My Molly Departed (2014). Monfort’s novels, written in the context of NaNoGenMo (National Novel Generation Month), were generated with Python code, and their source codes were made available as free software, allowing any reader/user to engage with the novels in their electronic and/or printed instantiations. World Clock and Megawatt engage with notions of temporality in printed and electronic literature: inspired by Stanislaw Lem’s One Human Minute and Harry Mathews’s The Chronogram for 1998 (World Clock), and based on passages from Samuel Beckett’s novel Watt (Megawatt), they offer an alternative material performance of the experience of time and interface.
Talan Memmot’s My Molly Departed was written during the development of the hyper/multimedia electronic performance Twittering, A Procedural Novel (aka My Molly (Departed)). These latter generated texts were rewritten for inclusion in the novel, and some of them were then reprogrammed to become part of the electronic work. Constituted by a textual feedback loop, which implies a transmedial autopoiesis, both works destabilize notions of computational devices and codex structures as all-purpose media.
The analysis of these works aims to argue that Emerson’s proposal for the future of electronic literature – that of a return to the analogue interface, i.e. intermediations of electronic and printed literature as a frictional media – should be considered in a broader context: that of the post-digital condition. Florian Cramer defines this condition as “an age where, on the one hand,” digital “has become a meaningless attribute because almost all the media are electronic and based on digital information processing; and where, on the other hand, younger media-critical generation artists rediscover analog information technology”(Cramer, 2012) and where “old” and “new” media no longer exist as meaningful terms, but only as technologies of mutual stabilization and destabilization (Cramer, 2014).
In addition, post-digitality explores the possibilities of digital media through its destabilization and intersection with other mediations, processes, and interventions. An example of which can be found in the novels presented, as they represent a “trans-action” between digital/ analogue/ electronic/ printed media and interfaces: novels that are born-electronic/digital and that are reconfigured into printed forms. Books that are developed by transcoding processes: from the specifics of electronic literature (programming, generation, multimedia) to the specificity of printed literature (bookbound, stable text in the page interface). This is neither the beginning nor the end of electronic (and print) literature. It is just a little bit late (to consider them apart).
The endgame is commonly known as the final stage of a chess game, more precisely when there are only a few pieces left on the board. Being a decisive phase in the game, the player has to rethink his/her strategy very carefully, for instance, by giving more emphasis to a pawn but also by changing the initial defensive role of the king into an attacking position. Since it is not all about rationality, like in any game, chess also has its very own materialities. For instance, if we consider the way a player predicts a movement, it can be said that the eye, with all its physical actions, can fulfill more than a simple optical function. Not to mention tactile aspects that are necessary to make every single movement along the board, or even the interoceptive sensations that can affect players during the game.
Endgame is also a play in one act written by Samuel Beckett (he too was an avid player of chess) where four characters, confined to a four-wall bedroom, talk about ends that can often mean new beginnings. In this kind of tridimensional chessboard, each confined movement of a character has a finality (together with each line of speech), both being of crucial importance to understand the “final movement” (or “checkmate”) drawn by its author. In addition, it is also important to state a certain tactile connection between these characters, for instance, what Theodor Adorno says of Hamm and Clov, the two main characters (one blind and unable to stand, and the other unable to sit), where the latter can be understood as being “the glove with which the master touches the world of things, which he can no longer directly grasp” (Adorno: 1961).
By establishing an analogy with these two somewhat similar definitions of the word “endgame”, this paper aims to discuss digitality as a metaphorical “endgame” played by literature. More specifically, it addresses a series of “movements” that can define its ending or its new beginning(s), in particular the increasing artistic experimentation around tactile properties of electronic devices in order to create digital literary works of art.
By emphasizing what I call poetic-haptic operations of reading/experiencing electronic literature and through the outline of a multisensory theory of analysis which can be more suitable, I argue for an understanding of the material specificities of digital multimodal environments, and it is my intention to draw attention to specific reading processes that are not restricted to vision.
For this purpose I will analyse two electronic literary works of art: Still Standing (2005) by Jason Edward Lewis and Bruno Nadeau, and Textopia (2008) by Anders Sundnes Løvlie. The first one, an “interactive installation” that plays with the notion of interaction and motionless bodies, draws attention to the ways in which we read a literary text; the second one, a locative poetry project where the user/reader/player contributes to a fluid, and eventually controversial, redefinition of literature.
The dialogue between humans and machines is no longer a metaphor: language is now shared with computers, it is distributed through biological and digital systems, converted and synthesized in forms of writing and reading that force us to rethink the nature of language, textuality and the production of meaning itself. Through a comparative analysis of two literary works that explore the mechanisms of language generation and computer processes, this paper intends to reflect upon the dynamics of reading and writing in generative literature. In what ways are the acts of writing and reading affected by the use of digital technologies in generated texts? How does the intermediation process (Hayles, 2005, 2008) between code and language affect textuality? What is the relationship between each textual instantiation and the textual whole (Eskelinen, 2012)? How do we make sense of an “infinite text”?
In Tower (2011), Simon Biggs (with the collaboration of Mark Shovman) explores an interactive virtual reality environment as an interface for automatic text generation articulated with speech recognition. This work reflects upon the materiality of language through the experimentation of digital interfaces, pointing to the intricate relationship between writing and reading in the context of automatically generated literature. Through visualization, speech recognition and predictive text algorithms, Tower explores the interrelations between the words spoken by the reader and the associations that emerge from them, predicting what the next word should be, based on the combined text of Joyce’s and Homer's Odyssey. As words join together, a spiral grows to resemble a Tower of Babel composed of all spoken and potential instantiations of language. While highlighting the multimedial nature of electronic literature, this work demonstrates the recursive interrelation between reading and writing and the ways in which language is distributed through a hybrid textual system.
Húmus - Poema Contínuo (2008) is a work in Portuguese language conceived by Rui Torres (with the collaboration of Nuno F. Ferreira), using Herberto Helder’s readings of a homonym work by Raúl Brandão as source material. This work clarifies the mechanisms of automatic text generation, highlighting the relationships between the generative nature of language and its articulation with computational processes, while outlining the relationship between matrix and database, syntagm and paradigm, and syntax and semantics in text generation. Furthermore, Húmus reflects upon the problematic of authorship, questioning the relationships between intentionality and meaning in a text that emerges from the input of three authors separated in time. Another important aspect of this work is the way in which it explores the interplay between authorship and readership, since the reader is able to publish his chosen textual occurrences in a blog, Poemário. As Manuel Portela notes, “Reader-edited or reader-authored instances (...) become part of a continuous process of textual proliferation (...). Textual instances, as writings and readings, seem to have been released from any definite authorial origin” (Portela, 2012: 50).
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