Reham Hosny (University of Cambridge and Minia University) asserts that works of e-lit resist straightforward classification due to their "hybrid and mosaic nature." This complexity poses formidable hurdles in the development of computational models aimed at categorizing e-lit into distinct genres. The challenge is further compounded by issues such as media format obsolescence, ephemerality, interactivity, and the wide array of manifestations across different platforms. Despite these formidable challenges, Hosny not only explores potential solutions but also provides a comprehensive framework for understanding the core issues associated with the classification of e-lit.
This is an appropriate moment to systematically revisit genre theory and re-evaluate its premises and conceptual frameworks in light of emerging literary genres associated with digital technology. Since the mid-eighties of the last century, a new kind of literature that has taken advantage of computational technology began to attract the attention of literary scholars and became the subject of various literary studies. This new literature has come to be known by the designation of electronic literature, as assigned to it by the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO); the first international organization in the field interested in promoting, disseminating, and investigating the aesthetics of this new kind of literature. The Electronic Literature Organization, on its website, defines electronic literature (e-lit) as ‘works with important literary aspects that take advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer.’ (Electronic Literature Organization, 1999) The paradigm shift caused by the interaction between literature and computer technology has opened up new research venues and encouraged revisiting the traditional literary theory to investigate its feasibility and reliability for perceiving the new literary context. One of the resulting challenges is the encounter between electronic literature and genre theory.
The revolutionary movement from paper-based culture into digital-based culture has affected all forms of life, especially cultural production. To understand the nature of this transformation, it could be said that digital technology has provided unprecedented and innovative multimedial forms that could be comparable, in some respects, to the appearance of writing so many centuries ago (Frog et al. 2016, 28), or the introduction of the printing press to the 15th-century literary community as noted by several critics. The transformation into digital culture constitutes a challenge to genre theory. Genres are more stable in the non-digital world, so we can at least try to study their aspects. However, because we no longer have access to obvious genre indications, this process becomes considerably more difficult when dealing with digital texts (Kwasnik and Crowston 2005, 82). As a result of the paradigm shift, genres have developed to be “frameworks for meaning-production and interpretation in diverse forms of communication. The text-oriented paradigm had been overcome” (Frog et al. 2016, 27).
The introduction of new forms of expression by exploiting the capabilities of digital media has affected the concept of genre. It has become so obvious that generic behaviours are always changing, differing by context, media, culture, or network, as well as across time. Additionally, language use in different communicative and social contexts is also influenced by the advent of computer technology. Writing using acronyms and emoticons has become part of vernacular communication due to the Internet's writing capabilities (Frog et al. 2016, 28). The identity of genres is evolving with the ubiquity of web capabilities and services: ‘As documents have migrated to the web, however, their identity as genres has also evolved. New document genres have emerged …, while older ones have blended, changed, and been incorporated into different social endeavors. Print-document genres adapted to the web, and new electronic genres emerging frequently, appear to be shuffled, disassembled and then put together again, in a seemingly chaotic manner’ (Kwasnik and Crowston 2005, 79).
As JoAnne Yates and Wanda J. Orlikowski (1992) note, genre formation and evolution may be affected by the appearance of new media (299). An important question could be asked: What does this traditional theory have to do with the most experimental kind of literature; namely electronic literature? As ‘a mainstream cultural category,’ genre is used as a framework for analyzing the unstable state of electronic literature genres: ‘one of the distinguishing aspects of twenty-first-century culture is art’s transformed relationship to genre. Whereas modernism is well known for its antipathy to genre, and postmodern culture is famously characterized by its pastiche of multiple genres at once …, today contemporary literature is marked by noticeably different uses of genre’ (Martin 2017, 7-8). Perceiving various kinds of discourse in the framework of genres enhances the user’s expectations about the conventions of each discourse genre. Preconceptions about types of events and actions assigned to each genre can be perceived by readers; for example, we expect political incidents or activities to be introduced in news reports, but not mundane, everyday actions or happenings (Van Dijk and Kintsch 1983, 197). Studying new instantiations of expression and their reception from the lens of genre requires defining the factors that control the appearance and development of these new forms of expression as Frog (72) believes.
Although there is no consensus on a unified definition of genre (Kwasnik and Crowston 2005, 77; Santini 2006, 32), genre is perceived as ‘sets of conventions that transcend individual texts, and create frames of recognition governing document production, recognition and use,’ (Mehler et al. 2010, 4, italics in original), ‘instrumental categories, useful for author and reader alike in forming the understanding of a text and in providing the appropriate intellectual context for information acquired through it,’ (Karlgren 2010, 33, italics in original), and/or ‘artifacts’ in the meaning of ‘cultural objects created to meet and streamline communicative needs. These cultural objects represent the role that a certain type of document plays in an environment. Each genre shows a set of standardized or conventional characteristics that makes it recognizable among others, and this kind of identity raises specific expectations in the recipients, despite the fuzziness of genre labels’ (Santini 2006, 32-3). The wide scale of scholarship on the genre - whether literary or non-literary genres - and the different used perspectives, make genre theory a very rich and thrilling topic of study. There is a conspicuous need to investigate the current state of interacting genres not only with other genres, but also with various fields such as computer technology.
The emergent multimedial and multimodal forms of expression revolt against the text-based traditional concepts of genre, which have been unreliable in conceiving the current transformation of various instantiations of expression (Frog et al. 2016, 29). As ‘multiple means of meaning making,’ (Jewitt et al. 2016, 2), multimodality, especially of new media artifacts, engages with the question of genre. The various semiotic modes participating in the meaning-making process of multimodal works raise questions about the typology of these kinds of texts. For example, Gunther Kress perceives text as an ‘ensemble’ of signs (52-3), which is the result of a ‘social action.’ (69) In invoking the category of a text, Kress notes, we are inviting a practice of ‘representation.’ Awareness of the social conventions; ‘the socially generative conditions’ of producing this representation is of a great importance according to Kress because these conventions refer to the ‘genre conventions’ (70). His adopted social approach places genre ‘within a broad framework of text as the result of constant making (in writing or speaking) and remaking (in reading or hearing) of accounts of the place of writers and readers in the world, providing us with the sense of who we think we are’ (71). Kress extends his social semiotic approach to genres and proposes that social in/stability leads to genre in/stability. In this context, it is important to investigate the conventions of making and the social relations that constrain relationships among the constituting elements of another kind of literature; electronic literature.
Digital Technology and the ‘Shared Space’ of Creativity
Mass media started to take a digital turn in the late 1970s to be transformed from the analog to the digital form. Bo Kampmann Walther called the transformation process of most media into new digitized forms a ‘convergence’ (Qtd in Fagerjord 2010, 187). This process of convergence has included the production tools and distribution networks of different industries. Different kinds of old and new media – i.e., image, text, sound, Television series, and film – have been created, edited, or/and converged using the capabilities of computers. Different media forms have been transmitted through various networks all over the world. Additionally, genres of writing have converged with services on Internet webpages (Fagerjord 2010, 188).
Convergence as a consequence of digitalization has been developed to describe the current Internet milieu and provide an understanding of how new forms of expression develop. The concept of convergence evolved to be a ‘remix,’ or ‘read/write’ culture. Assembling parts by the technique of ‘copy and paste’ is currently a common way of formulating digital genres (190). The techniques of convergence, remix, read/write, and suchlike led to the appearance of myriads of new genres such as home page, Internet meme, blog, YouTube remixes, in addition to the adaptation of old and existing genres such as hypertext fiction, kinetic poetry, Twine story, to name just a few. It is conspicuous that ‘digital representation has become a lingua franca; it has created a shared space where forms from different genres in different media may be combined in new ways, creating new genres’ (190).
The ‘shared space’ created by digital technology, where traditional paper-based literature and digital tools interact and fuse, provides new variations of literary and artistic expression, which are called electronic/digital literature: ‘The varieties of electronic literature are richly diverse, spanning all the types associated with print literature and adding some genres unique to networked and programmable media’ (Hayles 2008, 6). Perceiving e-lit as a continuation of rather than a rupture with the literary tradition, the perspective pioneered by Katherine Hayles, and creating comparisons between print and electronic literature is criticized by critics such as Talan Memmott who argues that such a perspective minimizes ‘the material, performative, and computational actualities of digital poetry for the sake of developing an evolutionary progression from print to screen’ (293). However, such comparisons are helpful in defining the precursors of digital textuality and its literary qualities as Memmott believes.
In the production process of an emerging literary digital tradition, authors test ‘what sorts of reactions occur when new mixes of computational method and literary practice are cast into the same cauldron’ (Rettberg 2019, 7). However, electronic literature is sometimes perceived as against traditional literature; Hayles’ general consideration of e-lit is ‘to exclude print literature that has been digitized,’ because e-lit is ‘by contrast “digital born”’ (3). This state of convergence and diversion from the larger historical framework of literary tradition is a conspicuous trait of the theoretical engagement of the field.
Others such as Serge Bouchardon (2017) perceive digital literature1In a footnote in the same resource, Bouchardon noted that he used ‘the expression “digital literature” insofar as it refers explicitly to the digital medium’ (1). Generally speaking, electronic literature and digital literature are used interchangeably to denote the same meaning. by differentiating it from digitized versions of print literature: ‘Digital literature uses the affordances of the computer to dynamically render the story. If an e-reader simply displays text in the way a printed book displays text – the only difference being that to advance the text one scrolls rather than turns a page – this is not “digital literature.” It is printed work digitized for optimal display in a portable computational environment. Digital literature is algorithmic. It changes as the reader engages it’ (3). Bouchardon refers to the distinction - although this is not always a clear-cut distinction - between digitally born literature that depends on computational creative processes and digitized literature, which does not lose its features when it’s printed out. However, this attempt of defining digital literature is important not for the purpose of classification, according to Bouchardon, but for getting ‘a finer grasp of the objects’ and providing ‘analytical insights’ (2).
Starting from the computational processes, peculiar to digital literature, Noah Wardrip-Fruin (2015) conceives digital literature as ‘literary work that requires the digital computation performed by laptops, desktops, servers, cellphones, game consoles, interactive environment controllers, or any of the other computers that surround us’ (29). Digital literature is seen by Wardrip-Fruin as a subcategory of digital arts. Digital computation is the ‘shared space’ between electronic literature and digital arts; the point that helps blur the boundaries among literary and artistic genres and imposes more challenges in the way of contemporary genre theory.
Reflecting on the development of e-lit works before and after the Web, Hayles differentiates between the pre-Web e-lit works that consisted of ‘blocks of texts’ with limited multimodal features and the after-Web works that ‘make much fuller use of the multimodal capabilities of the Web’ (6). E-lit genres emerge in relation to the production, reception, and recognition of works in progress: ‘Major genres in the canon of electronic literature emerge not only from different ways in which the user experiences them, but also from the structure and specificity of the underlying code. Not surprisingly, then, some genres have come to be known by the software used to create and perform them’ (Hayles 2008, 5). Flash poems and video stories are clear examples in this context.
Hayles emphasizes the role played by computation in the accessibility to the e-lit work. She confirms that electronic text ‘cannot be accessed until it is performed by properly executed code’ (5). Talan Memmott (2006) also emphasizes the integral role played by software in determining the identity of the e-lit work:
A work developed for a MOO will have very different qualities than a work developed for Macromedia Flash or HTML. A work meant for Perl presents a different poetic system than work to be transmitted through email. Strategies of signification that arise out of these writing technologies operate in different modalities with different intent than strategies of page-based authorship. These differences are not superficial or interfacial but integral (294).
In the same context, Memmott adds that different digital technologies are employed by different authors and by different works by the same author (294).
All these shared spaces of creativity caused by the appearance of digital technology affected our perception of textuality and meaning-making of literature to the extent of redefining literature when encountering the current digital context and revisiting the traditional critical scholarship to test its durability in the face of this new digital tyranny. Investigating the genre theory frameworks to study the typology of electronic literature is one of the urgent subjects in the current literary scholarship.
Challenges of Classifying E-Lit Genres
Classifying e-lit works into genres is not an easy task. Approaching e-lit through the lens of genre theory will be loaded by the theoretical perspectives formed by many centuries of print literature genres. As believed by Scott Rettberg (2010), the common and current perspective adopted when classifying works of e-lit is the ‘purely technical/syntactic measures: What type of software or electronic document is a given work?’ (89). This approach is criticized by Rettberg for causing ‘technological determinism’ of the e-lit works. He also refers to the unsuitability of the generic terms inherited from print literature (i.e. fiction, poetry, and drama) to identify most electronic literature genres (88). Moreover, it takes a long time for established genres to be formulated in identifiable formats: ‘Typically, genres are assumed to be slow-forming with fuzzy boundaries, often emerging only over generations of producers and consumers, and proving resistant to change’ (Dillon and Gushrowski 2000, para. 1). Comparing the long centuries paper literature genres took to be formulated in genres with the few decades of e-lit since its appearance brings to light a strong challenge in the way of perceiving e-lit in genres.
There are many hurdles related to the nature of the field that complicate the process of investigating e-lit from the genre perspective. On the one hand, I concur with Alastair Fowler: ‘Naturally, new forms are hard to describe: it takes time to develop a critical language for exploring them’ (1982, 34). Joseph Tabbi (2007) returns to this issue while setting a direction for the Electronic Literature Directory hosted by the ELO. Tabbi remarks that the Directory was designed to include presentations of the e-lit works, in addition to developing a self-sustaining discourse on these works --a‘folksonomical’ critical language or metadata that describes the semantics of these new artifacts (Under Semantic Web Applicability, Toward a Semantic Literary Web: Setting a Direction for the Electronic Literature Organization's Directory (eliterature.org)).
On the other hand, E-lit works are artworks with ephemeral and time-based nature. They are not stable and fixed works like those printed on paper. Some e-lit works last for a short time due to many reasons, one of them being the obsolescence of the used digital media such as Flash e-lit works, which faced the same problem after Adobe’s announcement of not supporting Flash Player after Dec. 2020. Away from the durability of the e-lit work, ephemerality could be one of the techniques that originated in the reception process such as certain kinds of programmable generative writings, which last for a few seconds on the screen. Other e-lit works such as performances and installations are scheduled at specific times.
Besides the verbal mode associated with print literature, e-lit is visual, aural, gestural, inherently multimodal and also multimedial. Its intended literary and artistic message is delivered via image, sound, filmic and other media and modalities: ‘Many technologies are converging – voice, image, text, databases, computing – creating opportunities for combining and recombining genres of many different kinds in inventive ways and for unexpected purposes’ (Kwasnik and Crowston 2005, 79-80). Moreover, interactivity, the seminal technique in e-lit production and reception could be divided into many levels: ‘Observational, navigational, participatory, co-authoring and intercommunication,’ (Kwastek 2010, 507) which could generate different kinds of e-lit pieces with different characteristics, that couldn’t be possible to be grouped under the umbrella of one genre. Additionally, the manifestations of this kind of literature are unstable: ‘A characteristic feature of new media artworks is that their manifestation may differ over time—works may be presented as online and offline versions, as performances or installations, according to the occasion’ (508).
Rettberg (2019) approaches this subject, bearing in mind the unstable and ever-changing boundaries of this field: a mutability that keeps us from conceiving e-lit in genres with clear-cut boundaries: ‘The variety of venues for electronic literature also complicates the situation of genre. If the same work is presented first online for readers sitting at their computers, and then as a performance for a live audience, and then as an installation in an art gallery, can we even break its genre down into categories as basic as literary text, performance, or visual art?’ (9).
The hybrid and mosaic nature of e-lit acquired by its location at the intersections of ‘computer games, films, animations, digital arts, graphic design, and electronic visual culture,’ makes it a ‘hopeful monster’ mutated from the interaction among ‘different vocabularies, expertises, and expectations’ (Hayles 2008, 4). This fluctuation among different arts expands the generic ‘repertoire’ of e-lit to include different hybrid genres that revolt against classification. This situation is reminiscent of Schlegel’s opinion that ‘every poem is a genre unto itself’ (qtd in Szondi 1986, 93). Additionally, the interactive space of the literary work in its journey from the paper page, print novels, poems, to the computer screen, interactive fiction, Kinetic poetry to finally the actual physical space, AR, and VR works changed the shape of as well as our conceptions about genres of literature.2For a detailed and insightful exploration of the development of the interactive spaces of e-lit., see Hayles (2008, 7-11). As Hayles notes, the transition of computers from desktops into physical environments led to the appearance of new kinds of e-lit. (11). It is clear that these difficulties in the way of generic classification of e-lit make it a problematic subject.
With all this said, however, the identification of literary genres not only exerts a formative influence upon the author's linguistic style but also contributes significantly to the reader's perception that diverse modes of literary articulation are firmly situated within the context of a rich historical narrative (Rettberg 2010, 89). Conceiving genres in their transformations from print to digital cultures will expand the horizons of genre theory to provide new frameworks for the ever-changing forms of expression. Typological classifications of ‘emergent expression’ across different media cultures are important because they give tools, terminology, and frames of reference to conceive ‘unfamiliar traditions’ in different contexts and their significance.
Automated Genre Classification
Contemporary genre theory is a multidisciplinary field. Working on genre theory is, currently, the concern of literary theory, information and computer science, computational linguistics and Artificial Intelligence, and library and information science. The appearance of the Internet and its related genres such as webpages, emails, forums, and the development of social media platforms after that and their related forms of expression led to the appearance of big data along with creative expression that need to be computationally analysed. This affected genre theory in many ways. Genre theory moved from concerning itself with classifying print literature depending on a few aesthetic identifiers (e.g., form, content, function, etc.) into computationally classifying the digitized versions of print literature, in addition to classifying the emergent web-related forms. Currently, scholars with multidisciplinary backgrounds or scholars from different disciplines collaborate to develop models to computationally classify texts, specifically, texts on the web. Automation was the resort of Santini (2007) to build a genre classification tool by determining different ‘facets’ to identify genres depending on artificial intelligence. The developed software is programmed to make assumptions about the work’s genre depending on the fed criteria.
Web genres or genres of the Internet are the basic topic of automated genre classification based on natural language processing and machine learning. However, automated genre classification has its challenges, one of them is the difficulty of fitting various web documents into one genre because of the complexity of these pages and the fluid and rapid evolution of the web (Santini, 2007). Building a computational model for genre classification requires developing a theoretical framework based on exploring some related issues such as defining the kind and number of features used to differentiate among genres, the responsible agent for defining these features and their number, whether the genre features recognized by humans are recognized by the computational model or not, etc. (Mehler et al. 2010, 9). This computation-based classification system may be suitable for big data such as myriads of webpages or blogs that may be identified under the label of web literature or Internet literature3For more elaboration on the concept of Internet literature, see Chen (2012, 537-546)., but this method is not reliable when it comes to born-digital literature, at least so far. Andrew Dillon and Barbara A. Gushrowski investigated over 100 web personal home pages and found that there is a great deal of similarity between many of them to the extent of forming the digital genre of the personal home page, which they believe to be the first digital genre (2000, para. 1-2).
My argument is built on the premise that the creation, reception, and dissemination processes of born-digital literature are more complicated than those of Internet or web literature to the extent that computational models of classification, in their current status, cannot be reliable in perceiving and covering all their facets. I argue that developing a model to classify born-digital literature into genres will be more complex than developing computational models to classify e-books or Internet literature. Automation plays a more pivotal role in the second case than in the first. This is due to the special nature and challenges peculiar to born-digital literature. Building a corpus of born-digital literary works is challenging, in terms of the rapid obsolescence of e-lit’s media formats, ephemerality, interactivity scale, and the various manifestations of the same work on different platforms. In addition to all these challenges, another one lurks in the possibility of the authors’ ignorance of their creative works’ classification as e-lit: ‘The history of e-lit includes projects that may not be labelled by their authors as part of this literary tradition and, in fact, some of the most compelling engagements are found in animation, videogames, social media, mobile applications, and other projects emerging from diverse cultural contexts and technical platforms’ (Electronic Literature Organization 2016, par. 3).
Achieving such a gigantic work requires an institutional effort of systematic collection, evaluation, classification, annotation, preservation, curation, and maintenance of e-lit works. A quick visit to one of the volumes of the Electronic Literature Collections issued by the ELO, the Electronic Literature Collection Vol. 3 (ELC3) for example, will show metadata, paratexts, and annotations of the included works, in addition to written descriptions and video documentation, as well as source materials, provide an insight into each work's underlying architecture (Electronic Literature Organization 2016, par. 6). As experimental literature, e-lit employs computational processes of production, reception, and dissemination in a unique way. This may lead to considering every single e-lit work as a separate genre, as mentioned before, and undermine the notion of recurrent regular traits among texts that genre theory is built upon.4For more light on the notion of genre as recurrent communicative practices, see Yates and Orlikowski (1992, 299-326). In this context, it is difficult to identify features that will be shared by all members of a specific genre. This is reminiscent of Carolyn R. Miller’s notion ‘that the set of genres is an open class, with new members evolving, old ones decaying’ (1984, 153).
It’s now clear that using an automated computational method of genre classification requires a scale of conformity among the classified texts, where the information retrieval science is used to calculate the probability of text relevance or non-relevance to a set criterion: ‘Given a new document, the task of a search engine could be described as deciding whether the document belongs in the relevant set or the non-relevant set. That is, the system should classify the document as relevant or non-relevant and retrieve it if it is relevant.’ (Croft, Metzler, and Strohman 2015, 244) For example, the Bayes classifier is a system of identifying relevance based on a certain conditional rule, which is called the Bayes Decision Rule (245). The lack of conformity among prospective born-digital literary works, in addition to the above-mentioned challenges, complicates the generic classification. A critical examination of the institutional endeavor to categorize electronic literature into distinct genres reveals several inherent challenges. In a departure from conventional reliance on genre as a metadata criterion, ELC3 for example, has opted for employing the identifier of Keywords, which included a few numbers of genre labels such as comics, interactive fiction, Twine, Fanfiction, in addition to other keywords that refer to various programming languages and platforms. Moreover, archiving e-lit works using video documentation affects the features of these works and transforms them to be conceived as related to other genres. For example, the video documentation of the cave-based virtual reality and performance work Canticle by Samantha Gorman lacks the interactive aspects that the original work has and resituates the work in a different format than its original one.
The ELCs depend on a tagging system consisting of multiple and varied descriptors mainly for the purposes of archiving, reading, and the scholarly studying of e-lit works from different angles than for generic classification purposes. This tagging system varies to include the conventional descriptors of the print literature, technical descriptors of the used software and platforms, evolving critical vocabulary, and author and title tags (Rettberg 2010, 88). Perceiving an e-lit work in various and loose technical and non-technical categories erases its generic identity. Participating in various groupings at the same time serves as preserving and archiving e-lit works more than framing their clear generic identity.
Despite all the above-mentioned challenges, perceiving e-lit in genres is an indispensable process for building and developing the field. Moreover, ‘genres provide an efficient way of dealing with documents at all stages of a document’s lifecycle – from creation to dissemination to storage and retrieval and to utilization for new and creative purposes’ (Kwasnik and Crowston 2005, 80). I believe that it is important to take advantage of the classification systems based on print literature and web literature and build on them to propose a new classification system intrinsic to the idiosyncratic creative and digital nature of e-lit. In the following section, the relation between genres and their underlying software will be the standpoint for introducing a functional framework for e-lit typology. This framework will be applied on various case studies to test its credibility.
The Extension-Literary Classifier
As occur at the crossroads of digital technology and textuality, and as a result of its aesthetic engagement with digital media and language (Electronic Literature Organization 2016, par. 2-3), proposed frameworks of classifying e-lit into genres should consider its literary and digital aspects. The literary aspect has had its traditions and conventions since the days of Aristotle. Although the digital aspect has a short history of development, it is ubiquitous, overwhelming, and continually developing. An e-lit work may include various digital components such as platforms, programming languages, different media types, and digital techniques. This may be conducted in an online or offline environment or both. If it is possible to identify the literary aspect of an e-lit work depending on the form, content, and function criteria, which digital components will be accredited as identifiers of the e-lit work’s genre?
John Bateman (2008) notes that ‘the move to multimodal genres places the artefactual nature of genres very much in the limelight’ (11). Like approaching multimodal texts from a genre perspective, investigating e-lit from the genre perspective leads to highlighting the ‘materiality’ and the ‘artefactual nature’ of e-lit works. This ontological framework of investigating the ‘artefactual nature’ of e-lit can be expanded to include other frameworks such as the ‘n-tier information system’ (Gutiérrez et al. 2009) as a paradigm for perceiving the functional nature of e-lit. This paradigm inspires the aesthetics and terminology of the computer science field and applies them to the process of producing e-lit artifacts. The information system of e-lit is perceived to be ‘a set of persons and machines organized to collect, store, transform, and represent data.’ In developing this paradigm, the authors reflect on other precedent information systems approaches such as Aarseth (1997); Gutierrez (2002); and Wardrip-Fruin (2006).
This 3-tier architecture of e-lit artefacts isolates three layers of the e-lit system: data, process, and presentation. The data layer is perceived to refer to ‘the set of words, images, video, etc., which form the narrative space.’ The literary component, according to this framework, is one element of the data layer. As ‘the rules programmed in a computer,’ the process layer works on data to develop the manifestation of the text. The final product is delivered through the presentation layer, which is concerned with ‘the physical rendering’ of the text.The 3-tier information system is a useful framework for understanding the nature, specificities, and not least, the classification system for e-lit. Based on this understanding of how e-lit artefacts are constituted, processed, and rendered, any proposed system of e-lit classification should reflect the 3 constituting tiers: data, process, and presentation. I argue that file extension is a robust and eligible identifier of the 3 tier components of any e-lit work. The file extension or just extension is the group of letters, readable by humans and computers, constituting the last part of the file name and preceded by a dot. For example, if there is a file named mypresentation.pptx, the extension will be .pptx. This extension refers to a PowerPoint file/slide show, which was created and could be presented by the application of Microsoft PowerPoint Presentation, version 2007 and above, that makes use of the Open XML format. The older versions of the Microsoft PowerPoint application produce files with the extension .ppt. Slide shows with the extension .pptx are eligible to include text, video, music, and pictures.
An e-lit piece with the extension pptx gives the indication that this work contains text, video, music, and/or pictures. This data is processed by the Microsoft PowerPoint application and the final output will be presented on screen by the same application. This e-lit work’s information is understandable by both humans and computers; hence, both easily recognize the right classification of this work. File extension performs the exact job assigned to genre by Frog, Koski, and Savolainen (2016); not just to help provide frameworks of grouping and classifying texts, but also to generate ‘information about the particular text and how it should be understood’ (35).
It can be argued that the file extension gives a strong reference to the classification of the e-lit work as an information system by providing information about the data encoded in the work and how it is processed and finally presented. However, we are not aware of the literary aspects of this artefact so far. We don’t know if this e-lit piece is, for example, a narrative or poetic text. This means that the extension identifier should be complemented with a literary identifier. In this case, the extension-literary classifier will give a reliable typology of the e-lit works by putting into consideration not only the computational aspects, but also the literary features. In the light of this framework, the work under study could be a pptx poem, a pptx sonnet, a pptx story, a pptx novel, or a pptx play.
By adopting the extension-literary classifier, we are building on the findings of the traditional genre theory based on verbal textuality and augmenting these findings with the computational, multimodal, and multimedial aspects, peculiar to the nature of e-lit as an information system. This classifier perceives e-lit as a natural continuation of the tradition of literature by inspiring its role from the traditional literary poetics and its current computational development in the digital age. The extension-literary classifier opens up new venues for the archiving and classification projects of literary and artistic artefacts by refining the automated approaches to classification and minimizing the human intervention-based systems of classification to meet in a point at the middle.
Testing the Extension-Literary Classifier
In the following lines, the potentials of the extension-literary classifier as a proposed framework for classifying e-lit artifacts will be tested. Four works of e-lit5For more inclusive discussion of the proposed framework, I chose to analyse case studies other than the Anglo-American works, which have been the center of scholarship in the field, to depend on examples from Arabic e-lit, which are reliable to be representative examples of e-lit in general. will be typologically analysed to investigate the feasibility and credibility of the extension-literary classifier as a working classifying framework for e-lit genres. The first case study is Laʿeb Al-Nard (The Dice Player) by Nissmah Roshdy (2013), published on and downloadable from the most popular online video platforms YouTube and Vimeo. This work is a video file with the .mp4 extension. Video files with this extension are described as ‘Moving Picture Experts Group MPEG-4 Part 14 standard multimedia compression files. These files can contain both video and audio, along with still data images, subtitles, title and chapter information … Files in the MP4 format use MPEG-4 Part 10 and MPEG-4 Part 2 video compression. Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) is used for audio compression. MPEG-4 Part 3 audio objects may also be used’ (File Extension MP4 n.d.).
The extension description clarifies the type of data included in such files, the kind of processing this data undergoes, and how this file can be manifested and rendered. The permitted data to be incorporated in a file with the mp4 extension is still images, moving images, audio, and linguistic components. Also mentioned in the description are the used processes of overlaying and audio and video coding compression to combine all these elements. The final artefact can be played by one of the mp4 software players such as QuickTime Player, Media Player Classic, or RealPlayer according to the used operating system whether Windows, Mac, or Linux. Rendering the final work in this format leaves a limited potential of interactivity practiced by the reader to ‘traverse’ such a work. Interactivity will be confined to clicking the play, pause, and replay buttons.
The data that The Dice Player incorporates is visual sceneries, silhouette characters, which are rotoscoped from frames of video footage depicting the artist while doing some dances (Bonta, 2014) or sketched by the artist and converted into digital versions, Arabic calligraphy with its sign system and letter’s dots, music by the band Trio Joubran, poetry recitation6Poetry recitation by the prominent Palestinian late poet Mahmoud Darwish, the original author of the poem Laʿeb Al-Nard (The Dice Player), recorded from the event Fi Zel El Kalam (In the Shade of Words,) in 2008. The audio of the complete poem with the poet’s recitation and Trio Jubran’s music is available via this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IXBMA5croUo&ab_channel=alaaaffash , and English subtitles. The processing conducted on this data can be separated into one process done by the artist and another by the computer. The former refers to the storyboarding process, where the artist created a digital and hand-drawn storyboard (Roshdy 2013b, 67). She created sequences of silhouette characters, visual sceneries, kinetic Arabic typography, and English subtitles, synchronized with music and poetry recitation. These animation techniques were performed by the computer to produce the final mp4 file of The Dice Player, which could be rendered on screens and played by one of the video player applications.
Although the digital features of The Dice Player are now clear, we don’t have any idea about the literary aspects of this artefact. The Dice Player by Roshdy is a concise version of a poem by Mahmoud Darwish with the same title.7Darwish’s poem was published in his volume of poems La Urid Lihadhi Alkasida An Tantahi (I Don't Want This Poem to End), that was collected after his death and issued in 2009. However, this information is not the criterion we depend on when knowing the literary genre of The Dice Player. Reflecting on the literary aesthetics of this artefact manifested in rhythm and language, which is condensed, metaphorical, and figurative, shows that The Dice Player is a poem not, for example, a novel, a short story, a sonnet, or a play. According to the extension-literary classifier, the genre of The Dice Player is MP4 Poem; a designation that is representative of the computational and literary aspects of the artefact. In building on the poetics of traditional literary genre theory and information system, MP4 Poetry represents a genre of e-lit with defined literary and computational aspects and potentials.
The second and third case studies are Kissah Rubʿ Mukhifa (A Quarter-Scary Story) by Ahmed Khalid Tawfiq (2002) and Hafanāt Jamr (Bunches of Embers) by Smail El Bouyahyaoui & Labiba Al-Khemar (2014). Both works are websites, where the former has the .htm extension and the latter has the .html (Hypertext Markup Language) extension. Both extensions support using various semantic and formatting data such as blocks of text, images, videos, audio, and colours. The main process behind constructing such works depends on the hypertext technique, which links different nodes of textual and multimedia components together. The final artifact is presented on a website with different pages linked together through active points. This hypertextual construction provides a wider range of interactivity with the work than the above-mentioned MP4 works. Hypertextuality gives the reader nonlinear paths for traversing the work and the freedom of choosing these paths, in addition to playing a role and taking part in the succession of actions and the decisions of characters in a way that affects the final shape of plot. Such structure makes these works close to the traditional gamebook series Choose Your Own Adventure.
Both the .htm and .html extensions refer to HTML files or pages. The main difference between them is that the .htm extension was widely used with early operating systems such as DOS. The .html extension is currently used with recent operating systems. This suggests that e-lit works with the .html extension have been produced and published after the appearance of works with the .htm extension. This is the case with the two works under study, where A Quarter-Scary Story with the .htm extension was produced in 2002 and Bunches of Embers with the .html extension was produced in 2014. Based on the literary aesthetics and the classification assigned to these works by their authors, the former is a story and the latter are very short stories. According to the extension-literary classifier, A Quarter-Scary Story is an HTM Story, and Bunches of Embers is HTML Very Short Stories. The temporal dimension is an added value to the extension-literary classifier, where the time of the work production and publication can be inferred as discussed in the two cases of the HTM Story and the HTML Very Short Stories.
After applying the extension-literary classifier we are informed that the work by Smail El Bouyahyaoui & Labiba Al-Khemar uses newer technology for web development than that employed by Ahmed Khalid Tawfiq’s work. The updated versions of software provide more capabilities and potentials than the outmoded versions; a shift which may affect the type of incorporated data, conducted processes, and presentation of the e-lit piece. The proposed classifier is indicative in relation to the software and hardware development, and the point of time that encloses this level of technological development, hence the potentials and the temporal context of the classified e-lit artefact. This can be helpful in investigating the technological obsolescence issues during conducting archiving projects of e-lit artefacts. As an example, e-lit pieces with the .swf extension refer to works that comprise graphics and text, designed by the Adobe Flash program, and, at the same time, refer to the time span and modernity of the piece. As Adobe stopped supporting Flash Player after 2020, the .swf extension gives the indication of the obsolescence of the software and the unavailability of the e-lit piece after 2020. This indicative metadata necessitates certain logistics and considerations when starting projects of classification, restoring, and archiving such e-lit pieces.
The fourth case study is Al-Barrah (The Announcer) by Reham Hosny and Mohamed A. Nasef (2019). This work is based on an application, with the .apk extension, to augment linguistic content with AR and hologram content. Applications with the .apk extension are designed for “Google’s Android mobile based operating system … for use on the Smartphones … [and] tablets in addition to the mobile phone usage … These APK extensions are compressed file archive that contains the codes for the program, mainly the application resource files and the AndroidManifest.xml” (File Extension APK, n.d.). The data incorporated in files with the .apk extension consists mainly of a wide range of components such as still and moving pictures, videos, audio, 2D and 3D shapes, and text. The processing stage includes developing codes by the programmer to instruct the computer to compile all these types of data. The final output is an application with the .apk extension to be downloadable on Android mobile devices to link physical or linguistic content with digital multimedia content through the camera of the digital device.
As elucidated in the preceding case studies, the extension-literary classifier proves to be a valid identifier of the literary, technical, interactive, and temporal aspects of e-lit genres. Nevertheless, it is imperative to acknowledge the presence of inherent limitations associated with this classifier, particularly when it comes to more intricate and elaborate genres of e-lit that extend beyond the scope of the works discussed above. For instance, the present argument does not delve into an assessment of the extension-literary classifier’s suitability for classifying genres within the domain of e-lit installations and performances. These manifestations of electronic literature possess unique attributes, both in terms of materiality and conceptual intricacies, which may not be adequately captured by the classifier’s current framework. Consequently, while the extension-literary classifier offers a working identifier of several dimensions of e-lit genres, its applicability to the broader spectrum of electronic literary expression remains a subject worthy of further inquiry and scrutiny.
In conclusion, the endeavor to apply traditional genre theory to the classification of electronic literature has proven to be a complex and multifaceted undertaking. The challenges posed by the rapid evolution of media, the inherently ephemeral and ever-changing nature of e-literary works, and their often mosaic and hybrid structures cannot be underestimated. Within this exploration, I have introduced the extension-literary classifier, which emerges as a pivotal tool in the quest to comprehend the digital and literary dimensions of e-lit genres. Through the examination of file extensions and literary aesthetics, this proposed classifier is an indicative identifier of the temporal span of producing and publishing the e-lit artifact, the used digital technology, the range of the reader’s interactivity with the artifact, and its aesthetic features. In doing so, it not only aids in generic identification but also lays the groundwork for more sophisticated classification, preservation, and archiving initiatives dedicated to electronic literary artifacts.
As we conclude this inquiry, it is worth noting that the potential applications of the extension-literary classifier extend beyond the boundaries of this study, as future research endeavors may explore its adaptation to even more idiosyncratic manifestations of e-literature, such as installations, performances, or works characterized by distinctive material and conceptual literary attributes. The continuous refinement and application of such tools and frameworks will contribute to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the ever-evolving landscape of electronic literature and enrich the exploration of this dynamic and captivating realm of literary expression.
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