This panel comprises three papers, two by creator/conveners of participatory projects, the third by an interested theorist. The creators offer reflections on the meaning of participatory engagement based on their own experiences with the form. The theory paper adds some more abstract reflections addressing questions of general concern to electronic literature as a cultural movement.
When the Electronic Literature Organization was born 25 years ago, digital experimentation suffered from a binary disease. On the one hand, works were often received (perhaps by some of us conceived) largely as exercises in disruption: signs of an end of books, or spectres from the aftermath of that apocalypse. Conversely, electronic work was dismissed as dead-end experimentation, doomed to imminent irrelevance because, as Jane Douglas echoes Dr. Johnson, nothing new lasts. This increasingly maddening impasse was eventually resolved through persistence. Time passed. Online bookselling and the advent of e-books finished off the end of books. Meanwhile emergent practices, though never broadly popular, defied extinction long enough to enter into dialogue with established interests.
Credit for perseverance belongs to all who kept on keeping on, but particular thanks go to N. Katherine Hayles, who introduced the crucial notion of “the literary,” a cultural Oort cloud surrounding the inner system of received literature, out of whose precincts strange forms of verbal art are seen to precipitate: graphic novels, fan fiction, algorithmic verse, Twine games. Hayles’s revised cosmography helped advance discussion from disruption/denial to continuity – refiguring end-as-terminus into end-as-outcome, the double sense explored in this year’s conference theme. This crucial shift grants to experimental writing the power to reproduce or reassert the effects of traditional literary art. Writing in digital media can become, in Marjorie Perloff’s phrase, “poetry by other means.”
Amalgamating traditional literature with an emergent literary allows serious consideration of phenomena that might otherwise escape notice: see Stephen Johnson’s discovery of narrative sophistication in 21st-century television, or Henry Jenkins’s appreciation of socially mediated complexity in Survivor and Lost. Something similar goes on in Hayles’s later discussion of changing cognitive styles, the interplay between “hyper” and “deep” forms of attention. See especially her argument for electronic literature as amenable interface, where she proposes to juxtapose Emily Short’s Galatea with Richard Powers’ Galatea 2.0. Both “hyper” interactive fiction and “deep” novel serve a unified end of literary expression. Inner and outer spheres harmoniously align.
Yet though Hayles’ vision happily rescues us from dreary dualism, it also leads to new problematics. Both literature and the literary may be existentially disturbed by their encounter. If the new lasts, it becomes the status quo: the phrase “electronic literature” seems increasingly redundant now that the majority of verbal production is digitally mediated. By the same token, the presence of “poetry by other means” can bring crucial changes to the meaning of poetry. What if the ends of literature supposed by digital practices differ in important ways from those of traditional writing?
In answer to this last question I will consider two cases in which the electronic inflection of “the literary” opens a particularly acute gap between emergent and traditional practice: the performative message-writing of the Overpass Light Brigade, and the networked improvisation of the 2012 Occupy MLA project. Both projects redefine writing not as an originally solitary and asynchronous practice, but as directly participatory social action. Significantly, both instances also confront social developments – insurgent right-wing politics and academic neo-liberalism – that profoundly transform the ground conditions for both literature and “the literary.” By foregrounding the tensions between mass and elite sensibilities, these examples of what I call the public literary demand a further revision of the cultural model, one that gives as much recognition to discord and opposition as it does to discourse and harmony.
As the screen expands, public space collapses. We move through restricted zones, tweeting while walking, chronicling a catalogue of ends in 140 characters or less. What questions, within the circles of academic intelligence and delectation, do we ask of ourselves? What is the scale of our formulation? How do we frame the concerns of our worlds?
The Wisconsin Uprising pushed me to learn our state’s rich history of resistance. We marched, we collected signatures, we delivered; and we lost more than we won. Two elections later, and we realize that we are not merely experiencing a rightwing anomaly that will in due time – when good citizens realize the con – swing us back to sanity, but we are living the end of our Progressive era, as its long historical sweep ceases, leaving us with narratives of austerity, authority, compliance and control. Idle No More. Occupy. Los Indignados. Black Lives Matter. Question Austerity: from regional to national to international, we shift in scale and perceive emergent patterns coalescing at the ends of the familiar, searching for resistance, for answers, models, resilience, a way through.
What questions do we ask of our beloved practices, our genres, our art forms, our technologies, when the urgencies of ends coalesce around epic struggles framed at the scale of planets? Indeed, the ends of capitalism, the ends of nature, the ends of climate stability, the ends of peak oil, the ends of the commons - to name just a few - catalogue an index of ends that could make an Oulipian jump the run of his labyrinth and take to the streets, telling the story, like Calvino, over and over, of insurrections and revolutions that lose themselves in violence only to find themselves in the new old language of love. But is the literary up to the task of the times?
The Overpass Light Brigade emerged organically out of the Wisconsin Uprising. We wanted to open up for public protest the long nights of winter, so we illuminated signs. We wanted to place propaganda where the people were, so we hit bridges and streets during evening rush. We began to perform and perfect a communitarian, meme-focused DIY public service announcement system that was as short as the short form can get and still be language. We cognate with the hashtag, interlocking contested public spaces with contested virtual spaces, each to each amplifying a circuitry of generative and distributive gestures. Our public literature isn’t electronic as much as it is battery operated. We make alphabetic mobile devices for people to hold and collectively create meaning as they bear witness over the highway night, with semi-trucks honking air-horns in Doppler drop roaring the dark highway down. And the urgency of insurgency is open sourced, with the Light Brigade Network coming soon to a city near you; testimonials in LEDs pushing at the edge of the allowable with police always watching, twitching between rest and arrest.
And finally, what do we say? What forms must art in the age of urgency take? Light in the darkness, gestures of solidarity, issues of efficacy, poetics and persuasion, collaborations and community: these are the things that interest me. This is what I want to talk about with panelists and practitioners. I’ll show a few slides, maybe a video, and mostly want to talk with people about why we do what we do and what we think we are doing when we do it.
I’m intrigued by the way that electronic literature narratives can not only contain a political dimension (the way print literature has often done) but can contain current events and even breaking events. In netprov (networked improv narrative) projects such as the ones Mark C. Marino and I are currently producing, moment-by-moment changes in social and political situations can be woven into the stories. This mimics the way in which blogs, image sharing, video sharing and social media are used by reporters, bystanders and newsmakers in and around real-life incidents in the contemporary media universe. I will look at how these voices and perspectives weave – confronting, contradicting and illuminating each other – and compare them to vast social fiction projects such as those of Balzac and Faulkner, examining the similarities and differences resulting from their technological constraints and affordances.
I will look in particular at:
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