After much excitement about hypertext fiction in the 1990s, many digital-literary-arts practitioners moved away from narrative. There seemed to be a recognition that the hyper-reading digital environments promote was not conducive to long-form narratives. Lev Manovich’s influential The Language of New Media (2002) declared that databases dominated over narrative; narrative was now a residual, if not yet obsolete, epistemological form. But born-digital authors have not entirely abandoned narrative; rather, the narrativity inherent to their artifacts has been diffused, redistributed across non-linguistic modalities. New production technologies make it easier to integrate images, animations, music, sounds, and other modalities into cybertextual artifacts often more akin to video games than novels. In multimodal environments, where textual output is more variable, narrative qualities can appear elusive or ephemeral. Nonetheless, narrativity, like other indicators of literariness, persists in new media writing.
Both the leisurely reading and scholarly study of long, avant-garde mega-novels have benefited from the creation of networked, open access resources. And databases designed to promote reading and scholarship of digital writing, such as the ELMCIP Electronic Literature Knowledge Base and others that will be soon be cross-searchable in the CELL network, have the potential to yield significant insights about new narrative forms, including the database platforms themselves. Consequently, I remain open to, and even optimistic about, Katherine Hayles’s vision of narrative and database interacting in a mutually beneficial relationship as “natural symbionts.
Rather than advancing a master narrative about the status of narrative in our digital and soon-to-be post-digital (Cramer) era, however, it seems more productive, at this juncture, to examine, closely and critically, narrativity in select works of “e-lit” and connected discursive practices that constitute the contested field of electronic literature.
Critical antecedents include studies that relocate literary narrative by analyzing forms grounded, conceptually and materially, in technologically aware writing practices: Tabbi and Wutz’s Reading Matters: Narratives in the New Media Ecology (1997), Ciccoricco’s Reading Network Fiction (2007), Simanowski’s Digital Art and Meaning (2011), Punday’s Writing at the Limit (2012), Hayles’s How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis (2012), Pressman’s Digital Modernism: Making it New in New Medium, (2014) and the University of Siegen’s Media Upheavals series. What distinguishes these books is their recognition that any digital poetics will be impoverished unless it engages, deliberately, with a long literary tradition in which human language – words shaped deliberately into aesthetic forms that stimulate narratable ideas – remains the most significant medium.
But it’s not enough to assert the value of the literary and the significance of narratable ideas, scholars must situate works of e-literature within the larger media ecology while continuing to draw upon resources provided by literary studies to extract semiotic meanings that enable texts to endure over time.
My presentation considers one implication of embracing the materialist aesthetics inherent to many technotexts: will experiential accounts of users’ affective, embodied experiences supplant readers’ efforts to understand what a text means? My position is that developing a critical attentiveness to affective processes in networked narratives is crucial to understanding contemporary literature and developing an affective hermeneutics for 21st-century literary studies. Affectively reading William Gillespie’s visually striking post-print novel Keyhole Factory alongside Gillespie and Travis Alper’s digital prose poem Morpheus Biblionaut generates a compelling, distributed narrative system, one designed to advance a progressive, media-ecological awareness, and possibly a politics.
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