of Electronic Literature
by Maryland Institute for Technology in
the Humanities and the Electronic Literature
University of Maryland, College Park,
College Park, MD
May 3, 2007
Conference website: http://www.mith2.umd.edu/elo2007/.
Reviewed by Dene Grigar
Digital Technology and Culture
Washington State University Vancouver
Co-sponsored by Maryland Institute for
Technology in the Humanities (MITH) and
the Electronic Literature Organization
(ELO), "The Future of Electronic Literature"
was a one-day symposium that looked at
where the art and field of electronic
literature are headed. For those unfamiliar
with this form of new media, electronic
literature has been described as "a first-generation
digital object created on a computer and
(usually) meant to be read on a computer"
 that possesses a "literary quality"
 evident in such diverse works as the
image and sonic rich Flash-based work
>>oh<< by Dan Waber, Reiner
Strasser, and Jennifer Hill-Kaucher and
the interactive fiction / generated text
/ game environment of "Ad Verbum" by Nick
Montfort. In fact, electronic literature
enjoys worldwide popularity and is promoted
by international groups like Hermeneia
in Spain and Elinor in the Scandanavian
countries, among other organizations.
That the ELO has collected over 2000 such
works in its own Directory suggests a
large canon with a potentially large readership.
And like other forms of new media, electronic
literature is a highly interdisciplinary
field that embraces science and technology
in its production and delivery and, so,
brings together those interested in experimenting
with literary forms into these domains.
Despite this success and growth, electronic
literature, according to Neil Fraistat,
Director of MITH and Board member of the
ELO, is one of the "most imperiled" art
forms of new media. Speaking at the symposiums
opening session, Fraistat provided reasons
for its imperiled state: First, problems
with access and preservation can render
works obsolete over time; and, second,
electronic literatures connection
with science and technology makes it difficult
for it to fit easily into a traditional
English or Literary program.
In terms of the first problem, the solution
has been to upgrade works to function
with new platforms or to update code for
the changing web standardnot
to mention to hang on to old computers
(re: Macs) with their old operating systems
and software in order to read diskettes
and CDs collected in our libraries. In
terms of the second problem, those of
us committed to the field have found it
easier to emigrate from English departments
(that see computer-based literature as
anything but literary) to new media programs
that offer a more welcoming environment
for our passions or to build interdisciplinary
programs that allow for a diverse collection
of scholars and interests.
The theme of access and preservation continued
throughout the opening session with Kenneth
Thibodeau, Director of Electronic Records
Archives, National Archives and Records
Administration (NARA). His talk, "Perspectives
on Digital Preservation," discussed archiving
records. NARAs specific mission
is to "preserve any type of electronic
record" and "guide all other agencies
in lifecycle management of their e-government
records." Thibodeaus talk made sense
in light of ELO s PAD project ("Preservation,
Archiving, and Dissemination"), which
"seeks to identify threatened and endangered
electronic literature and to maintain
accessibility, encourage stability, and
ensure availability of electronic works
for readers, institutions, and scholars."
 From this initiative have come the
e(X)literature Conference held in UC Santa
Barbara and documents like Acid-Free
Bits: Recommendations for Long-Lasting
Electronic Literature, and Born-Again
Bits: A Framework for Migrating Electronic
Literature, both which discuss strategies
for keeping electronic literature accessible
to readers. Noting the shared interest
between NARA and the ELO, Thibodeau called
for "digital persistence"that
is, recognition for the need for individuals
and groups to collaborate on solving the
[preservation] problem. Those of us in
the audience frustrated with browsers
too robust to display works created even
a few years ago, for example, were eager
to hear Thibodeaus suggestion. Did
he really imply that NARA will share its
data about preservation with the ELO and
work with the organization to keep the
work in its collection accessible to readers?
Following Thibodeaus keynote came
several panel discussions covering topics
such as Process-Driven Literature and
International Electronic Literature. In
the first, artists Nick Montfort, Rob
Kendall, Stephanie Strickland, and Noah
Waldrip-Fruin showed the process used
in producing their work, and Scott Rettberg
talked about the process of reading an
ergodic text. The panel was informative
in that it provided insight into truths
that those intimately connected with the
field have long known: the enormous amount
of time, effort, and technical skills
it takes to produce a piece of literature
in this genre, as well as the challenges
the works pose for readers who want to
experience them. Laying bare this information
helps to make sense of some of the obstacles
electronic literature faces if it is to
continue to gain in number and popularity.
In the second panel, artists and scholars
from Europe, South America, and North
America looked at the international electronic
literature scene.  Sandy Baldwin, leading
off the panel, asked several questions
relating to its development world-wide,
particularly "how regional or hemispheric
states of description. . . inform elit?"
and "to what degree is what we say is
elit solely coming out of practices [driven
by] academia?" From his perspective, international
electronic literature is based on "contingencies
of exchange (friendships, fellowships,
chance meetings, etc.)," the symposium
a case in point.
Others on the panel talked firsthand about
their participation in the field. Laura
Borras Castanyer (Spain), for example,
introduced the audience to Hermeneia ,
a very active organization she oversees
that acts as a gateway to all things literary
and digital, and Jill Walker (Australia,
Associate Professor in Humanistic Informatics
at U of Bergen) gave a lively talk about
Elinor  and some of the works generating
from members of that organization. Bernard
Gervais (Canada) discussed his lab, NT2
, aimed "promoting the study, discussion,
the creation and archiving of new forms
of hypermedia works" (authors translation),
and Juan Gutierrez (Colombia; PhD student
at Florida State U, Biomedical Mathematics)
showed his work in Adaptive Digital Narrative.
 Mark Marino (USC) introduced Rodriguez
Ruiz, a Columbian code writer and brought
up the nettlesome question of diversity
when he asked the audience how, in a field
that is so white, we can work to be more
inclusive of artists working outside the
Western world? Good question, indeed.
The second keynote was given by renowned
theorist N. Katherine Hayles. Entitled
"Literature and the Literary: Why Electronic
Literature is Key to Their Future," the
talk focused on the lack of institutional
support for research into and artistic
production of electronic literature. The
answer to the question, suggested in the
title, is tied to what we think of as
the qualities or basic characteristics
of literature. Hayles said that if we
focus on a traditional linguistic description
of literature "then much of what is produced
[as electronic literature] would not be
considered literature." A better way,
she told the audience, is to think of
works as "literary" rather than as "literature."
In this way we can talk about traditional
works of literature as well as "artworks
that interrogate the contexts, histories,
and productions of literature." Taken
from this perspective, she said that English
Departments "may not be so comfortable
giving up the stake [in something] if
[it] were categorized as literary."
That we should care what happens to English
Departments was made clear when Hayles
moved into the part of her presentation
that argued "literary traditions and interpretation
. . . add to the richness . . . electronic
literature" just as electronic literature
"broadens our understanding of print literature."
Here, she took the audience through several
works, most notably Stephanie Strickland,
Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo, and Paul Ryans
Slipping Glimpse. Hayles showed
us that "to ignore the visual art component
would impoverish the work since [the visual
art component] shows the contrast between
accident and order, a major theme of the
work that would be lost if we only paid
attention to Slipping Glimpses
words." Her talk demonstrated that the
work, essentially a "round robin of reading,"
asks its reader two questions: "What does
it means to read and be read" and "what
does it mean if a computer reads?"
At the end of her address, Hayles described
a scenario not unlike Platos in
the Symposium. Hers, however, was
one not built around a banquet table but
rather a conference table. What she envisioned
is actually an interdisciplinary program
where people from the arts, humanities,
and sciences team up together not only
to produce electronic literature but also
to critique it, a process she said "would
add something unique to the discussion
At the end of her talk I was left with
an obvious question: Is the name, Electronic
Literature, a suitable one for the art
and field? "Electronic Literary Works"
just doesnt have the same ring to
it as Electronic Literatureor
even E-Litbut may better describe,
as Hayles pointed out, what we create
and study go far in helping others to
understand it better.
The final panel looked at "Electronic
Literature in the 21st Century."
Thom Swiss, outgoing president of the
ELO, provided updates about the organization,
and Joe Tabbi, the incoming president,
talked about his work on ebr. Stuart
Moulthrop showed his piece, Radio Salience;
Emily Warn, Editor of the Poetry Foundation
Network (poetryfoundation.org), talked
about the organization and its site, a
remarkable and successful undertaking;
and Josh Weiner talked about the potential
audience for electronic literature.
Hayles, also on this panel, complicated
the panel discussion by making "outrageous
suggestions for where electronic literature
is going when it moves out of the computer."
Hayles assumption that electronic
literature will move outside the confines
of a computer screen may seem a tame idea
for Leonardo readers, especially
those working in new media performance
or creating art installations, but it
is, indeed, a provocative one for folks
who have staked careers on hypertext,
flash, interactive, and adaptive fiction
and poetry (to name just a few computer-based
forms of electronic literature). Thus,
the litany of works produced for black
box theatre spaces, CAVEs, and cell phones
that she recounted hinted to the fact
that electronic literature may not one
day move beyond the screenit
already has. The question is, can
the field catch up to the art? But, more
importantly, the practical problem with
how this new development troubles the
already complex issue of accessing and
preserving such worksnot to
mention defining them and identifying
genrewere also raised by this
This author left the symposium concluding
that it was a huge success, for far from
being a series of presentations by close
colleagues talking esoterically about
pet projects, it was a day spent looking
hard at where a field and art form are
headed. I, for one, left with more questions
than answers and with a delicious discomfort
knowing that wherever electronic literature
is going, the journey any of us
take with it will be one heck of a ride.
This is a happy thought for someone who,
as a grad student studying Homeric Greek,
remembers a professor telling her that
the insight she had about the Odyssey
could not possibly exist because if it
did, then someone hundreds of years ago
would have already had it. From that standpoint,
all fields should offer its practitioners
and scholars as much freedom to both fear
and celebrate its future as electronic
literatureor whatever we should
 Hayles, N. Katherine. "Electronic
Literature: What Is It?" Electronic
Literature Organization. V1.0. 2 Jan.
2007. Accessed: 24 May 24 2007 <http://eliterature.org/pad/elp.html#sec1>.
This very recent publication, sponsored
by the ELO, lays out the "development
and current state of electronic literature"
and so should be read by anyone interested
in learning more about the field and art.
 Electronic Literature Organization.
Accessed: 24 May 2007 <http://eliterature.org/>.
 PAD. Electronic Literature Organization.
Accessed: 24 May 2007. <http://eliterature.org/programs/pad/>.
 The panel made its presentation online
at: WRT WIKI. ELO/MITH Panel on International
Electronic Literature. Accessed: 24 May
 Hermeneia. Universitat Oberta de Catalunya.
Accessed: 24 May 2007. <http://www.uoc.edu/in3/hermeneia/eng/index.html>.
 Elinor: Elektronisk Litteratur I Norden.
Accessed: 24 May 2007. <http://elinor.nu/>.
 Gervais, Bernard. "NT2." Accessed:
24 May 2007. <http://www.nt2.uqam.ca/>.
 Gutierrez, Juan. "Adaptive Digital
Narrative." Accessed: <http://www.literatronic.com/src/initium.aspx>.