The three papers in this panel seek to move beyond primarily formalistic discussions of electronic literature as well as approaches primarily concerned with drawing definitional boundaries for it. Instead, they propose to explore various works of electronic literature in terms of the potential dialogue they may open with concepts that are often locatable outside or beyond the current critical boundaries of electronic literature.
More specifically, Aquilina’s paper will explore how “literary eventhood” may occur in works which, in different ways, fall under the nomenclature associated to electronic literature. Callus’s paper, on the other hand, will focus on the concept of the “literary absolute” to try to discover whether it could bear any consequentiality to current understandings of electronic literature. While both papers will show an awareness of the potential “category mistake” that this may involve, they argue that such attempts are fundamental in discussions of the “ends” of electronic literature. Calleja’s paper will also seek to extend or trespass definitional restrictions by emphasising on the role of imagination in contemporary indie games, which highlights a continuity between print, electronic texts and cybertexts that we too often take for granted.
The approaches being proposed are not colonising discourses. Rather than simply applying terms from literary studies or from game studies to examples of electronic literature, they start from electronic literature (or some modes in which it functions) to speak about concepts that may potentially have a wider scope than it. Our interventions in electronic literature from peripheral starting positions will operate with both the risks and the potential originality that such approaches may bring.
Starting from a discussion of ‘the event’ of literature (Derrida, 2002), which may be provisionally defined as something that does not simply identify, express or represent, but something that “happens”, this paper seeks to explore how the “literary” event may occur in works which, in different ways, fall under the nomenclature associated to “electronic literature”.
It is argued that electronic literature, as an art form that allows for the confluence of a series of other forms and modes, such as literature, digital gaming, performance art and digital installations, redefines the literary “object” in ways which, on the one hand, challenge traditional conceptions of literariness while, on the other hand, suggest further possibilities for the literary.
This literary (or “post-literary”) experience involves a re-thinking of the role of close reading in the encounter with electronic literature. For the best part of a century, the amenability of texts to close reading has been a fundamental ingredient in the ascription of literary value and in canonisation. Electronic literature, conceived – at least in its current status – as a form of experimental literature, has a complex relation to traditional literary scholarship in the way it demands that we experience the literary in ways that may transcend or even sideline close reading in favour of, for instance, bodily interaction or what Hayles calls “hyper reading” (Hayles, 2012). In electronic literature, the text as a “static” object, a fixed creation that can be accessed, analysed and interpreted at any time in ways which elucidate what the text is about, different aspects of its form and the relationship between its form and its content, gives way to the work as a space in which the literary may arise performatively or experientially. The implications of this include that the role of language in the literary experience is affected as the written word now interacts with time, image, sound, video, code, game mechanics, platform, bodily interaction and more in the literary event of electronic literature.
Derrida, Jacques. 2002. Without Alibi. Edited and translated by Peggy Kamuf. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Ensslin, Astrid. 2014. Literary Gaming. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Hayles, Katherine .2012. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ricardo, Francisco J. Ed. 2009. Literary Art in Digital Performance: Case Studies in New Media Art and Criticism. Continuum.
Simanowski, Roberto. 2011. Digital Art and Meaning: Reading Kinetic Poetry, Text Machines, Mapping Art, and Interactive Installations. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
In the House of Trust
I see the sign: Free
I find alphabets and case histories
Still I worry about the end of analog media—
We occupy this space
Literary criticism in the second half of the twentieth century was heavily invested in discussions of “the literary absolute”, particularly in the light of Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy’s 1978 book on the theme, which centred on close engagement with the Jena Romantics’ conceptualisation of poetry and the literary. Related discussions feature also in the work of Maurice Blanchot, Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida, among others, with literary theory taking up the theme in landmark commentaries by critics like Derek Attridge, Timothy Clark, Peggy Kamuf or Joseph Tabbi that probed further questions of “literariness”, the “singularity of literature”, the “division of literature” and the sublime.
With hindsight, those discussions could arguably be seen as almost the last hurrah of the convergence of “high theory” and “high literature” in humanities departments. Electronic literature is by no means the development that displaced those discussions. There are many other factors that contributed to that episode. However, in a conference that explores “the ends of electronic literature” it is not a bad idea to trace the disciplinary contexts and the prevalent critical debates contemporaneous with its emergence. This can help in gauging whether there are any currently overlooked resonances with other trends from the time that could, conceivably, exert an enduring and deeper impact on critical perceptions of electronic literature in the 21st century and uncover unsuspected affinities with theoretical debates that might be dimmed for a time but which are, demonstrably, set to glow brightly again, if in different guise.
Accordingly, this paper revisits the concept of “the literary absolute” to try to discover whether it could bear any consequentiality to current understandings of electronic literature. To be sure, it could be said that the attempt is undermined by a fundamental category mistake: the idea of the literary absolute and the practice of electronic literature are too incommensurable to make any such investigation tenable. This paper acknowledges that difficulty. It argues, however, that the ends of electronic literature (with ‘ends’ here understood in terms of ‘calling’ as much as ‘terminality’) are better served by alertness to those theoretical and philosophical understandings of the literary that are disposed to consider whether the literary absolute can, in fact, go electronic. Central to this argument will be the discovery in discussions around the literary absolute of a prefiguring of concerns emerging from and in electronic literature, together with an examination of the two that finds viable mediations within the concept of the aesthetic illusion, especially as explored in recent work by Werner Wolf that has clearly discernible implications for the study both of electronic literature and digital games. Literary analogues offered for illustrative and comparative purposes may include, among others, Saussure’s speculations on a different form of literary absolute in hiscahiers d’anagrammes and Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard; examples from electronic literature and its game interfaces may include, among others, Façade and The Stanley Parable. Reference will also be made to some Stephanie Strickland’s most recent electronic poetry, from which the epigraph is taken.
The game world has recently been experiencing a renaissance of games that lean strongly on the use of text to communicate their worlds, characters and events. Games like Kentucky Route Zero(Cardboard Computer, 2013), Device 6 (Simogo, 2013), 80 Days (Inkle Studios, 2014), Blood and Laurels (Short, 2014) and A Dark Room (Doublespeak Games, 2013) are examples of text-heavy indie games that have not only been incredibly successful commercially, but also raised the bar in terms of the quality of writing found in games. It is also evident that the writing employed by these games has aspirations of literariness. These games are a continuation of a trajectory in indie game design that moves markedly away from the drive towards mimetic representation found in mainstream game titles by requiring more active engagement of the player’s imaginative faculties through the employment of more low-fidelity visual representation, more abstracted simulation and the use of text, among other things.
The emphasis on imagination (Bateman, 2011) of contemporary indie games highlights a continuity between print, electronic texts and cybertexts that we too often take for granted: the printed, spoken or flickering word’s main function is to connect our imaginative faculties. The tightest relationship between literature, electronic literature and games therefore lies in way they each shape our imagination. The other papers in this panel will tackle this issue in relation to literature and electronic literature. This paper will explore the games’ constituent elements: their mechanical systems, representational layers and hardware affordances shape the imagination, comparing and contrasting these elements with those found in print literature and electronic texts. These constituent elements form the percepts that stimulate our imaginative faculty into internal images that allow us to experience the fictional/simulated world. Theorists have used various terms to account for this blending of perception and imagination in consciousness, but the co-dependence of these faculties seems to be an area of agreement. Sartre calls the percept “the physical analogue” (Sartre, 1972) which we experience in consciousness by “dressing” this analogue with our imagination in a process he calls “synthetic projection”. Walton calls it a “prop” (Walton, 1996) which is invested with imagination in the process of “fictionality” (Walton 1996, 2013), a term shared by Walsh (2007) in his work on fiction in literature. Iser (1979) has similarly built his theory on the psychology of reading on the coming together of text and mind within the imagination. Within cognitive psychology Kosslyn et. al. (1999) have conducted a series of experiments that prove that mental imagery is activated with every form of sensory input, concluding that the imagination plays an important part in perception. This view is shared by a number of researchers of visual perception that have studied the imagination including Kearney (2002), Richardson (1969), Finke (1989) and Block (1981).
This paper will thus explore the relationship between the representational elements of text-heavy indie games and the mental images these create as they combine with the mechanical rule systems that animate them. In so doing I will argue that the combination of minimalist and abstract visual representation together with a tightly designed mechanical rule system that has been created from the ground up specifically for the individual game (unlike the majority of mainstream games) creates a vivid imaginative experience that gives the indie games considered here their alluring power. They provide hints, metaphors and indications of the worlds they represent, leaving it up to the player to fully flesh out those worlds, characters and events with their own imagination giving players an engaging and memorable gaming experience that they have had a stronger role in co-creating.
Inkle Studios. 2014. 80 Days. iOS. Inkle Studios.
Bateman, C. 2011. Imaginary games. John Hunt Publishing.
Block, N.J. 1981. Imagery. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Cardboard Computer. 2013. Kentucky Route Zero. PC. Cardboard Computer.
Doublespeak Games. 2013. A Dark Room. iOS Doublespeak Games.
Finke, R.A. 1989. Principles of Mental Imagery. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Iser, W. 1979. The act of reading. Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Kosslyn, S. M., Pascual-Leone, A., Felician, O., Camposano, S., Keenan, J. P., Ganis, G., ... & Alpert, N. M. 1999. “The role of area 17 in visual imagery: convergent evidence from PET and rTMS”. Science. 284(5411): 167-170.
Kearney, R. 2002. The wake of imagination. London: Routledge.
Richardson, A. 1969. Mental Imagery. London: Routledge.
Sartre, J.P. 1972. The Psychology of Imagination. London: Methuen.
Short, E. 2014. Blood and Laurels. iOS. Emily Short.
Simogo. 2013. Device 6. iOS. Simogo.
Walsh, R. 2007. The Rhetoric of Fictionality: Narrative Theory and the Idea of Fiction. Theory and Interpretation of Narrative Series. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.
Walsh, R. 2011. “Emergent narrative in interactive media”. Narrative. 19(1): 72-85.
Walton, K. L., & Howell, R. 1996. “Mimesis as make-believe”. Synthese-Dordrecht. 109(3): 413-434.
Walton, K. 2013. “Fictionality and imagination reconsidered”. In From Fictionalism to Realism.
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