Over the last thirty years, we have spoken about electronic literature in terms of its newness. Scholars have emphasized new ways of reading, challenges to closure, and entirely new models for composition. From the earliest books in the 1980s through recent scholarship in this maturing field, critics have sought out the unique features of the electronic medium. Ludologists, in particular, have challenged attempts to reduce electronic literature to a variation on older print forms.
I want to offer a different perspective on the challenges posed by electronic literature by revisiting the relation between older and newer media. When a new medium emerges, it challenges the existing order and vocation of older media. Sometimes older media respond directly, such as the impressionist shift away from realism after the advent of photography. But often the influences of a new medium are more subtle and indirect, and instead bring out a potential that is implicit but latent in an earlier medium. Alan Spiegel’s Fiction and the Camera Eye and Nancy Armstrong’s Fiction in the Age of Photography are examples of scholarship revealing that newer media subtly revealed new potentials within an older medium.
In this talk I will make a case that electronic literature can be read to subtly change of the core narrative concepts that we have developed through in literature, theater, and film. Obviously, a full discussion of this change is impossible in twenty minutes, but I will take as a proof-of-concept a re-reading of the concept of narrative setting. Specifically, I will discuss electronic works by J.R. Carpenter and Jason Nelson against the formulation of narrative space and time provided by Bakhtin’s classic essay on the chronotope. Although Bakhtin’s discussion of space and time can easily and productively be applied to these electronic works, I also read this relation backwards as a critique of some of the assumptions implicit in Bakhtin’s essay – especially Bakhtin’s tendency to see a continuity between narrative space and the phenomenological world in which authors and readers live.
The upshot of this discussion is a claim that life “after” electronic literature isn’t only going to be a matter of new and emerging forms for writing, but also a transformation and deepening of some of our most basic narrative concepts.
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