More from the paper files… this is the hand-out I created for a talk at UCLA last February. I’d like to develop these ideas into a fuller paper that creates a basic, very basic, set of critical principles by which to discuss the widely divergent forms of digital literature out there.

The pieces I discussed were Talan Memmott’s Self Portrait(s) [as Other(s)], Christian Bök’s Eunoia, Stuart Moulthrop’s Pax: An Instrument, and Judd Morrissey’s The Jew’s Daughter. Eunoia was included primarily because it was highly informed by information aesthetics without having any of the classic features that one associates with print works that play on tropes from electronic literature (the novels of Mark Danielewski, for example).

I created a blog for the talk which elaborates on many of these principles in more detail, though none of the literary analysis is up there. (There is a much weaker, earlier form of this talk available online in audio form, but I won’t point you there as I don’t quite endorse it — it was just a bare sketch of the later talk, which itself did not have all of its terms settled. But in case you’ve heard it already, here’s me telling you that I’m not entirely behind it.)

The “Holy Grails” that start off the talk are really my thinking through, and simplifying, the vast array of tropes that I see appear in various works of criticism about electronic writing. If there is a “telos” in the development of electronic writing — these are often alluded to in the criticism — it seems to be toward a few horizons, usually using as a departure point some notion of the “author” and the “page” (or book). The third “grail” is a more recent addition, due to the greater visibility of video games as possible forms of art (see my previous post).

My notion of “crisis” comes out of Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction, so to this degree I was observing these works as “fiction.” Basically, Kermode reads narrative fiction, particularly novels, as setting up moments of anticipated “apocalypse,” which it can either satisfy or betray during the course of the narrative. It is during these crises that one can situate oneself on the narrative timeline, knowing where one is in relation to the “arc” of the story. (I am oversimplifying, of course.)

Since, indeed, most of the works I discuss are not narratives in a conventional sense — and do not have the sort of teleological drive that narrative fictions have — these crises must be replaced by something else. I took a few shots at what these could be, though I’m quite sure these seven categories are not the right ones (a few are, a few not). I was being a bit superstitious with my numbers here — 3, 7, then 1 — and might have fudged in trying to get everything all Pythagorean.

I introduced a new genre of writing for object-based environments, the “Surrealist Fortune Cookie.” It’s briefer than a “lexia,” something that could be reshuffled and reconfigured endlessly without losing its charge. I quoted a few lines from John Ashbery’s 37 Haiku as examples. My contention was that databased bits of text that are to be reconfigured algorithmically are most successful when they have elements of the surrealist haiku (or fortune cookie) as they are fragmentary (but can stand alone), enigmatic (more question than statement), and narrative (but without a closure).

After introducing these basic concepts, I then went through the four works (actually, only two works, as I ran out of time) and tried to evaluate how they operated in terms of the grails, the crises, and finally, in terms of the “surrealist fortune cookie.” Of course, the relationship of each of these works to the concepts varied greatly.

Language as Gameplay: From ‘The Oulipo to the Jew’s Daughter

Brian Kim Stefans, 2/12/08

The Holy Grails of Electronic Literature

Writing Without the “Author”: To write a piece that can be read several different ways – none predetermined by the “author” – which will provide distinctive, compelling reading experiences each time – that is, displacement of the “author” onto the algorithm.

Reading Beyond the “Page”: To write text for an environment that serves a textual function at nearly all times while maintaining the illusion of a dynamic, three-dimensional, processed space that is moving as far away from the “page” as possible.

Writing/Reading as Gameplay: To create a programmed object that serves equally as a piece of literature and which also serves as a “game” with all the “fun” implied in such a title — that is, to in­corporate the user completely into the world of algorithm and the world of the screenspace.

Seven Varieties of Crisis

1. Crisis of ESCHATOLOGY — we are not sure where, in the standard narrative paradigm, poetic paradigm, or essayistic (syllogistic) paradigm, we are located nor can we, for the mo­ment, imagine the end.

2. Crisis of SIGNIFICATION — something has occurred in our understanding of conventional relationships between word and thing, or even letter and word; language seems to be becom­ing pure inscription and “non-referential.”

3. Crisis of SYMBOLISM — something seen to have a merely contingent value is seen to have a role in a symbolic universe.

4. Crisis of SUBJECTIVITY – the narratological “I,” whether of third or first person, has shifted.

5. Crisis of GENRE – we have slipped from a narrative event to a poetic one, or more criti­cally, from a non-fictional, documentary mode to one that seems colored by the imagination of an “author.”

6. Crisis of MORALITY – something in the flow of words has forced us to question our own place in the social network due to the “danger” of assimilating these words into our experi­ence – i.e., will I choose to “own” this reading experience or not?

7. Crisis of AUTHORSHIP – something in our reading has suggested a shift from a largely au­thored universe – hence a conversation with another responsible individual – to a largely al­gorithmic one — a conversation with a (“schizophrenic”) robot.

What is a Surrealist Fortune Cookie?

A “Surrealist fortune cookie” is a single sentence that would touch off same element of the various “crises” noted above — a non-trivial reading experience that is brief, open-ended, and yet acquires the enigmatic (permanently “revolutionary”) quality of a Surrealist object – straight out of the world of the Comte de Lautreamont, who wrote of the beauty of “the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella.”    Send article as PDF