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The Future of Electronic Literature

by Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities and the Electronic Literature Organization, Co-sponsors
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" [1] that possesses a "literary quality" [2] 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 symposium’s opening session, Fraistat provided reasons for its imperiled state: First, problems with access and preservation can render works obsolete over time; and, second, electronic literature’s 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 standard––not 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. NARA’s specific mission is to "preserve any type of electronic record" and "guide all other agencies in lifecycle management of their e-government records." Thibodeau’s 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." [3] 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 Thibodeau’s 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 Thibodeau’s 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. [4] 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 [5], 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 [6] and some of the works generating from members of that organization. Bernard Gervais (Canada) discussed his lab, NT2 [7], aimed "promoting the study, discussion, the creation and archiving of new forms of hypermedia works" (author’s translation), and Juan Gutierrez (Colombia; PhD student at Florida State U, Biomedical Mathematics) showed his work in Adaptive Digital Narrative. [8] 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 Ryan’s 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 Plato’s 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 of it.

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 doesn’t have the same ring to it as Electronic Literature––or even E-Lit––but 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 screen––it 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 works––not to mention defining them and identifying genre––were also raised by this "suggestion."

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 literature––or whatever we should call it––does.


[1] 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.

[2] Electronic Literature Organization. Accessed: 24 May 2007 <http://eliterature.org/>.

[3] PAD. Electronic Literature Organization. Accessed: 24 May 2007. <http://eliterature.org/programs/pad/>.

[4] The panel made its presentation online at: WRT WIKI. ELO/MITH Panel on International Electronic Literature. Accessed: 24 May 2007. <http://writerresponsetheory.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=ELO/MITH_Panel_on_International_Electronic_Literature#Organizations>.

[5] Hermeneia. Universitat Oberta de Catalunya. Accessed: 24 May 2007. <http://www.uoc.edu/in3/hermeneia/eng/index.html>.

[6] Elinor: Elektronisk Litteratur I Norden. Accessed: 24 May 2007. <http://elinor.nu/>.

[7] Gervais, Bernard. "NT2." Accessed: 24 May 2007. <http://www.nt2.uqam.ca/>.

[8] Gutierrez, Juan. "Adaptive Digital Narrative." Accessed: <http://www.literatronic.com/src/initium.aspx>.



Updated 1st June 2007

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