Review of Traversals: The Use of Preservation for Early Electronic Writing | Leonardo/ISAST

Review of Traversals: The Use of Preservation for Early Electronic Writing

Traversals: The Use of Preservation for Early Electronic Writing
by Stuart Moulthrop and Dene Grigar; foreword by Joseph Tabbi

The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2017
296 pp., illus 30 b/w. $45.00
ISBN: 9780262035972

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
July 2018

It is difficult not to think of these famous lines of Horace, written more than twenty-one centuries ago and still readable, even in their original language:

“Exegi monumentum aere perennnius regalique situ pyramidum altius, quod non imber edax, non Aquilo impotens possit diruere aut innumerabilis annorum series et fuga temporum.”

“I have finished a monument more lasting than bronze and higher than the royal structure of the pyramids, which neither the destructive rain, nor wild Aquilo is able to destroy, nor the countless series of years and flight of ages.” (Odes 3: 30, lines 1-5, published 23BC)

The very classical, perhaps eternal, topic of the author speculating on, day-dreaming or boasting of the afterlife of her or his works, is something that the successive new media revolutions of the last decades are forcing us, as readers as well as writers, to reconsider in radical ways (the authors take her as their starting point the early 1980s, that is the years of the emergence of the home computer, but they could have worked also on more recent or older case studies). True, the loss of literary and other works is far from a new phenomenon (most works are almost immediately forgotten; many works are destroyed, by accident or on purpose; still others get simply lost), but the issue of their technical accessibility is becoming one of the major problems of our contemporary, electronic culture. More and more it becomes clear that most electronic works are extremely vulnerable to technological obsolescence and can no longer be read when the software and hardware that was used for their production is no longer in use or supported. The life span of these works does no longer depend on their inherent qualities (“good” works” having more chances to survive than “bad” works, at least in general), but merely on that of the life span of the technology that made them possible – and that they helped explore and develop at the same time (Eastgate System, Inc.’s Storyspace is a good example of the simultaneous and reciprocal development of a writing space software and the actual production of real works, in this case the perhaps bizarrely named “serious hyperfiction”).

If one decides that just moving ahead in order not to miss the next new thing and that just forgetting about the past is what matters, then technical obsolescence is not a problem. But if one believes instead that “we must struggle never to forget” (p. 237, last words of the text), then the situation becomes quite different (it should be reminded here that in cultural semiotics, as illustrated by the School of Tartu of Yuri Lotman, culture is defined as “non-hereditary memory”). The keyword of this book’s subtitle is therefore twofold: it is about preservation, but even more about the use of preservation, a way of saying that it should be read as a double warning: first, against the illusion of the very possibility of such an enterprise (nothing can be “really” preserved –– what is being preserved is always only a certain form or version of it); second, against the confusion between material conservation (which is a necessary step in the larger process but nothing more) and preservation in the broader sense of the word (which refers to the need of making meaning of the object of preservation, here and now but also in the future).

Traversals is the answer two pioneering creators and scholars in the field of electronic literature, Stuart Moulthrop and Dene Grigar, offer to the most urgent practical and theoretical debates on how and why preserving works that can no longer be read (or that it was no longer possible to access before an “updated” – and thus inevitably different – version was launched, as in the case of Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, recently reissued as a USB-stick). The authors address the issue in two ways since their book tackles a wide range of theoretical (and political) questions while at the same time elaborating and exemplifying a real method. To distinguish between both is not easy since all theoretical stances are inextricably linked with methodological choices and vice versa, but for the didactic sake of this review, it may make sense to try to see what belongs to the method and what can be reframed in more general and theoretical terms.

Which are the major points stressed by Moulthrop and Grigar from a methodological point of view? I would like to highlight the following elements:

1. To preserve implies first of all to select, that is to decide which kind of works can be considered worth preserving. Given the fact that even in the limitless field of electronic writing there exists a certain consensus of what is really interesting. Scholars in the field do not seem to have metaphysical doubts on the usefulness of a “canon” and that is a very good thing when quality issues are concerned (no benchmark is even thinkable without a canon). But one easily imagines that this situation is something that can change very rapidly. In practice, Moulthrop and Grigar discuss four case studies (Judy Malloy’s Uncle Roger, John McDaid’s Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse, Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl and Bill Bly’s We Descend), which all belong to the pre-web era, a period of exceptional creative freedom and bottom-up research by independent artists. They also discuss the tactical omission of the best-known and still much debated work of that period (Michael Joyce’s afternoon: a story) and list other possible case studies, while strongly emphasizing the necessity of limiting the number of cases in order to enhance the quality of the reading.

2. To preserve should not be confused with to archive and emulate. It is of course crucial that the work should be kept materially alive, that is accessible, or in certain cases to be reconstructed in order to re-experience it with other means. But time and again the authors stress the fact that it does not suffice to guarantee the material availability of the work, which is only one of the conditions that make possible what really counts, namely the reading of the work.

If to preserve means to preserve in order to be read, this reading can be organized in two steps, respectively called “Pathfinders” methodology and “Traversals” process in the authors’ project funded by the US National Endowment for the Humanities’ Office of Digital Humanities. First, during the Pathfinder stage, the creator of the work (but it is perfectly possible to replace the author by a knowing and informed reader) is invited to “[work] through the possibilities of these multifarious works” (p.5). These “demonstrations performed on historically appropriate platforms” (p. 5), which contain the comments given by the creator who speaks aloud what she or he is doing, are video-taped and are one of the materials studied in the second step, called Traversal. This second step – the results of which can be read in this book– is defined as “a reflective encounter with a digital text in which the possibilities of that text are explored in a way that indicates its key features, capabilities, and themes” (p. 7).

More concretely, to read is a creative intervention that combines two different orientations. On the one hand, a Traversal tries to analyze the internal structure of the work, both at surface level (what is the actual text that appears on screen) and at “deep” level (that is at the level of the underlying code). On the other hand, it also aims of understanding the contextual (historical, cultural, social, political, etc.) aspects of the work, of its production as well as its reception.

Finally (but this enumeration is certainly not exhaustive), Moulthrop and Grigar underline the collaborative and interdisciplinary dimension of the preservation of electronic work, and this at all possible levels and steps of the process.

The result of this two-step methodology is impressive. First of all, it produces a reconstruction of lost works that is at the same time very modest (the authors acknowledge that the outcome of a Traversal is not the work “as such”, but the thick description of an encounter with it) and highly informative, since it analyzes not only the surface of the work but also its relationships with the underlining and always determining code. The text under scrutiny is always a double, if not triple text: The text as it can be seen and retold, often in its successive and sometimes quite different versions; the “hidden” codes of the text; the interplay between surface and deep structure. Second, the chosen method also discloses that the work as it appears thanks to the Traversal is a richer, more detailed, more complex, and differently framed work than the one that readers and even specialists thought they knew. The Traversal of Malloy’s work demonstrates for instance the progressive downsizing of the graphic style of the initial version, which the attempt to reach a broader audience had to soften (at least in this regard). That of Bly’s We Descend clearly highlights the fact that this work, as it was said from the beginning, was not a quite weak illustration of the narrative possibilities of Storyspace, but an example of a nonnarrative use of the program. Bly’s intent interest was less in storytelling than in building an archive, and this new perspective helps understand what makes this work so challenging.

Method and concrete analyses can however not be separated from the powerful theoretical reflection on preservation that is another key aspect of this book. The dramatic contribution of Moulthrop and Grigar’s work to the collective commitment to electronic preservation goes beyond the mere elaboration of a hands-on approach whose principles and guidelines are generously shared with the reader. It has also to do with a number of strong theoretical and political claims that this kind of research allows to put forward. The most striking features of this theoretical work can be found in the first and last chapter of Traversals, which raise fundamental questions on, first, the definition of electronic literature and, second, the larger horizon of the preservation of this kind of writing.

For Moultrhop and Grigar, the definition of electronic is actually just the starting point of a broader reflection on a set of key elements such as digital-born and digitally borne, open and closed forms of writing, or reading and writing. In this book, the debate on the definition of electronic literature is also meant to make room for new debates on the definition of literature itself. More concretely, this debate is repositioned in the larger context on the relationship between work and medium, the authors of Traversals making a strong case for the medium-specific or medium-sensitive materialist textualism of scholars such as N. Katherine Hayles or Matthew Kirschenbaum for whom code is anything but abstract and immaterial.

As far as the second question is concerned, that of the long-term use-value or impact of electronic preservation and the textual materialism that accompanies it, the authors make a very convincing claim for the cultural and political value of memory. Their metaphor of the “Sappho syndrome”, that is “the disappearance of literary works to the extent that all that remains are fragments and references to them by others” (p. 230), liberates us from certain forms of technological naiveté or hubris, which may make us believe that machines will allow us to preserve everything while discharging us from the obligation to truly commit ourselves to their (inescapably partial and eventually ephemeral) preservation. Moreover, the Sappho metaphor is also a great tool in correcting the systematic omission of female creators, certainly in a field that is almost automatically associated with masculinity.

Traversals is a crucial publication in the history of scholarly thinking on electronic literature. It is also a substantial demonstration of the necessity to always link theory and practice. Finally, it is also a brilliant example of the way scholars and creators can sketch new ways for socially and politically inspired and inspiring work that does not betray the heart of their own profession. For all these reasons, and for many others, this book should be on the shelves, no on the desk of all those seriously dedicated to the field.