Martin reviews Astrid Ensslin's Pre-Web Digital Publishing and the Lore of Electronic Literature, a book that addresses the knowledge gaps surrounding the early era of digital creation and publishing, while testifying to the necessity for multidisciplinary approaches to this field of study. Martin discusses the reconstructivist stance from which Ensslin labors to embed digital literature into our larger understanding of the literary arts.
Digital obsolescence is the greatest threat to contemporary scholarship. Many electronic artefacts are lost to the communities of researchers focusing on electronic literary and visual arts, with many more at risk of joining them. Enormous achievements in restoration and archiving in recent years have perennialized many works, but innumerable ones remain inaccessible, and gatekept with them are the histories behind early digital art practices.
Astrid Ensslin’s Pre-web Digital Publishing and the Lore of Electronic Literature, published by Cambridge University Press in the Elements in Publishing and Book Culture series in 2022, is an academic acknowledgement of this experience gap, this knowledge gap caused by technological evolution, obsolescence, and now accessibility to restored works. In her book, Ensslin enlightens us on one part of digital literary history all while establishing a methodology that spans the scope of the knowledges necessary to the field of electronic literature. Her ultimate goal is to fill a knowledge gap at the center of a seminal period in the electronic arts, more specifically in the mid-nineteen nineties at the height of the newly released World Wide Web’s popularity. As Ensslin points out,
…there is a dearth of dedicated studies documenting how these transformations, coupled with the rapid growth of the dot.com bubble and the ascent of fourth-generation gaming platforms, affected the operations of digital literary subcultures manifesting themselves in coterie-based publishing experiments like the EQRH.
The Eastgate Quarterly Review of Hypertext was a literary review by “’[s]erious hypertext’ publisher Eastgate Systems.” Founded in 1982, Eastgate Systems intended to create its niche in a publishing world evolving and contending with new digital platforms by modeling itself as a “site of experimentation and innovation.” It should be noted that the only other historical or critical scholarly work on the EQRH published to date is Astrid Ensslin’s 2018 Electronic Literature Organization conference paper, later published in the conference proceedings Attention à la marche !/Mind the Gap! (Gervais & Marcotte 2020). In this earlier work, “’Completing The Circle?’ The Curious Counter-Canonical Case of The Eastgate Quarterly Review of Hypertext (1994-1995),” Ensslin explores and develops the concept of “canonization” within the digital arts and presents the initial research which would become Pre-web Digital Publishing and the Lore of Electronic Literature. In the latter work, Ensslin elaborates upon her earlier research into the history of the Eastgate Quarterly Review of Hypertext, not only shedding light on a little-known story of the publishing industry but bringing broader perspective to the development of the digital arts, their publication, and their audience-reach at an instrumental time in the history of pre-web arts. Despite the small scale of the EQRH, compared to reviews of hypertext or digital literature today, the review “emerged during the early years of what is now retrospectively known as Web 1.0” and was fundamental in the establishment of creative practices in the context of electronic literature. This study combines the historical knowledge of Eastgate Systems with the oral histories provided by Eastgate contributors and with the experiential analysis of the works published in the review.
Initially “conceptualized as a software and publishing company,” Eastgate Systems soon became a critical experimental locus of creative output at a time when the world was also experiencing “a shift from first-generation personal computers to a second [generation] that introduced key innovations such as the computer mouse as the first clickable pointing device, graphical user interfaces, and bitmapped screens.” Primary contributions to the electronic arts from Eastgate include Storyspace, a tool for creating hypertexts and Tinderbox, a personal content management system, as well as a vast repository of electronic works, solidly accomplishing the company’s vision to be “a site of experimentation and innovation in the fast-changing publishing world.” The introduction of the Storyspace software alone is enough to forever cement Eastgate Systems—Quarterly Review aside—into the annals of key historical moments in electronic arts as its impact on the creative practices of artists cannot be understated: of the over 2000 works archived in the Electronic Literature Organization’s The NEXT at the time of this writing, almost a quarter of that figure were created using Storyspace.
As Ensslin notes, “[t]he technologies produced and traded by Eastgate themselves provided the grounds for an evolving community of practice as they centered around Storyspace.” As a “key hypertext authoring tool,” its facility liberated neophyte authors and artists to dive into the electronic arts. The impact such tools would have on publishing was still uncertain, creating, according to Ensslin, instability within the industry during the early 1990s. She notes the period as “a time of uncertainty, leading publishers and authors to question the future of print as a technology and as a cultural paradigm.” In short, Ensslin posits Eastgate as both a driver and an exemplifying figure of pre-web digital cultural practice.
Ensslin also identifies the need to designate the term “pre-web” as not necessarily indicating a chronological presence or naissance before the existence of the World Wide Web, but as predating the birth and proliferation of creative expression on the latter. Volumes of the EQRH were published on 3.5-inch floppy disks, never online, and have not been restored or recreated for Internet access; the final chapter is therefore dedicated to detailed descriptions of each work gleaned from the systematic “traversals,” or experiences, performed by Ensslin herself. The paratextual print materials included in the folios are likewise described, though summarily.
The experiential portion of the study was realized via a combined methodology of archival work with the published materials and an approach first coined by Stuart Moulthrop and Dene Grigar: traversals (2015). These traversals, so-called as individual readers are recorded while they experience from start to finish a pre-web or otherwise obsolete digital artwork, take place at the Electronic Literature Lab at Washington State University Vancouver which hosts an archive of obsolete yet running software and hardware. Readers experience artworks on the original machines and platforms supporting them, reading aloud the text all while describing for an interviewer and the camera the visual graphics (which are sometimes shown to the audience via accompanying recordings and photographs) along with their emotive and experiential processing of the work. The resulting ethnographic documentation provides access, to a degree, to previously semi-lost works, on top of nuancing the importance placed on the individual reading experience to contemporary scholarship in digital arts.
In addition to extensive descriptions, Ensslin carries out close readings and thematic analysis of each of the works. This more practical chapter resembles a literature textbook, providing contextual and historical information relevant to culturally inaccessible pieces, much like a study guide for non-contemporary literary works. Beyond the crucial resources provided, this chapter’s importance is cemented by the practical employment of the “lore” collected and collaged in the previous chapter. Ensslin describes “lore” as “based on storytelling and personalized memory, binding its agents together by a keen sense of shared interest or experiential background even while subjective accounts of one and the same event, place, interpersonal relationship, or time period will likely differ.” The emphasis on the concurrence of literary and digital data with human oral history further underscores the profound weight of a [digital] literary artwork’s singularity. The historical portion of the study is partly realized via “systematic qualitative-ethnographic trajectory” in which thirteen EQRH contributors were asked the same eight questions. The answers collected from Deena Larsen, Stuart Moulthrop, Edward Falco, and others are presented in a constellation of knowledge from oral or written accounts by the interviewees along with information sourced directly from paratexts and other published materials.
Generally, Ensslin’s research privileges constructivist theory—or rather, the elements of constructivism that allow for a reconstructivist stance in a post-Derrida deconstructivism era (2004). Evidence of the importance of meaning-making in various learning processes and contexts abounds: Kalantzis and Cope have shown its value in multimodality at large (both 2020); Connery et al use psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s writings to explore the power of meaning-making in the arts (2010); the application of such educational approaches has even reached sustainability studies (Sundermann et al 2022) and chemistry (da Silva 2020). Ensslin herself has published on the application of constructivist methodologies in the literature and foreign-language classroom (2006), youth psychology (with Skains et al, 2016) and game studies (with Bell, 2012). When one considers the author’s various calls to embed digital literature in the mainstream psyche and literal steps towards the canonization of the very same (2007), it is therefore no surprise to see the same constructivist approach taken here. Rather than eschew the concept of canon, Ensslin seeks to rework it so that it may better serve a less gatekept scholarship and mainstream understanding of digital literature and, by extension, of all non-traditional forms of creative expression and practice. Far from shirking the structures of the academia, Ensslin steps away from common literary practice, all while legitimizing “lore” via ethnographic studies. At others, however, Ensslin’s position is less mitigated and more rooted in tradition.
The most evident example is the presentation of the published EQRH works in grouped literary genres rather than by order and volume of publication or even alphabetically by author, further tunneling digital literary forms into the canonical traditions defined and upheld by purportedly legitimate literary and academic bodies. Note the choice to refer to “poles” of a “spectrum” (short fiction, poetry, and nonfiction) rather than “genre.” I do not disagree with such a regrouping, in fact I posit that if presented in order of publication, the proto-forms of literary art which compose the works would lose some of the canonic luster Ensslin captures. Besides, that genre should be considered a spectrum rather than a category is not a debate for any writer or artist seeking, like the authors of the EQRH, to “explore …breakages with traditional forms.” It is the structural dependence on genre as defined entirely by pre-digital practice that falls just short of the reconstructivist approach for which the author calls and which leans towards ideas of elit practices enveloped within the broader field of literary studies, rather than a literary studies composed as much of form-making as it is breakages and proto-redefinitions of genre.
Echoes of the traversals from Grigar and Moulthrop’s own “first cut at an oral history of early electronic literature” in Pathfinders (2015), later elaborated upon in Traversals (2017), can be heard in Ensslin’s interviews with the key figures of the history; however, Moulthrop and Grigar go further by including interviews and video recordings of the artist experiencing their own pre-web work, and recordings of two additional readers, for a total of three traversals performed per artwork. In so doing, Pathfinders becomes an educational resource which validates an artwork’s life separate from the creative and publishing processes, and also doubles down—literally, as well as figuratively—on the value of the individual, constructivist meaning-making process. As meanings multiply, no single experience is more just than the others. Grigar and Moulthrop’s Pathfinders was destined for non-traditional publication online, meaning, in practical terms, readers are presented with introductory text to the work, the author’s traversal, the author’s interview, and then two videos of additional traversals. Perhaps medium decides the object, as in Pre-web Digital Publishing and the Lore of Electronic Literature, the works are presented with accompanying screenshots and a single body of text composed from the meaning-making processes of Ensslin’s own traversal and the earlier interviews with the EQRH publishers and authors. The images present an enormous resource, reproducing the visual elements of the works included in the journal for readers three decades later and most importantly, providing a frame of reference for the interface of each traversal. Though the nature of traversals is undoubtedly subjective and Ensslin makes no claim to objectivity in her interpretations, the combination of the traversal and interviews here renders a singular narrative for the life of each work, much like a textbook would do. This is practical, and yet highlights a paradox inherent to the study: [re]constructivism requires the multiplicity of meaning-making, and yet the act of lore-making is to create singularity from multiplicitous meaning.
The very idea to construct a lore for electronic literature and its value for research stemmed, for Ensslin, from a discussion with Dene Grigar in late summer of 2019 and from the evidence, or lack thereof, that the environment of pre-web digital creative practice left a knowledge gap unique to the period. While flourishing digital practices and literacies define a scholarly understanding of the pre-web era, the global north had not yet experienced the paradigm shift of the fully documented and documenting Web as it is known today; the vestiges of an oral tradition from this era were thus at risk of extinction due to a fundamental shift in informational practices worldwide. What is clearly arising today in the Grigar et al school of thought is a preoccupation for the mitigation of cultural values and patrimony with a perceived, though perhaps accurate, hyper-individualization of the human experience in the digital era.
Establishing pre-web digital creative and publishing practices within the framework of “lore” testifies to the historicity of the recent past and the nature of the data involved. Where A.I. Badry and A.Y. Lubis argue that digital art lacks an aura, suggesting the medium cannot provide the authenticity, individuality and quality Walter Benjamin first posited as necessary for the art object, Ensslin delineates the practical and storytelling elements of electronic literature that illustrate the presence that such a work can have. Ensslin delineates the practical and storytelling elements of electronic literature that illustrate the presence that such a work can have. Poignant though striking is the argument that “[a] work’s existence in space, time, and community alone reflects a key moment in socio-technological history that might otherwise go unnoticed or remain undocumented,” which is then illustrated throughout the descriptions of the works in chapter three. I say this is striking, not because it falls back upon older modes of thought on literary objects, but because it exemplifies the presence of an aura in the study of works touched by or on the brink of obsolescence or inaccessibility. As much as Ensslin establishes lore as a legitimate ethnographic approach in digital media studies, she also largely illustrates the impact of the EQRH and other pre-web or Web 1.0 works on current modes of literary production and readership.
Given the foregrounding of subjective and experiential memory in this study, the author openly acknowledges the risks of such an approach: “By adopting lore as a research object and method, I consciously enter controversial scholarly territory.” Yet despite her concerns, Pre-web Digital Publishing and the Lore of Electronic Literature serves as the case study par excellence of the “unresolvable contradictions” facing [the e-literature] community. Perhaps the greatest strength of Ensslin’s work is the testimony it provides to the multidisciplinary nature of the objects of study which necessitates an equally pluridisciplinary approach. Armed with a combinatorial approach and the goal of rectifying the “host of unpublished information circulating among writers, scholars, and publishers of early hypertext literature and embedded in their memories and joint nostalgic musings … never … documented in any systematic way,” Ensslin calls for a reconstruction of literary studies, even if this reconstruction is complicated by a credence in the same canonical scholarship the author seeks to remold. As such, lore becomes not only a narrative background for storytelling, but a scientific approach that captures the human data between software and hardware.
Badry, A.I., & Lubis, A.Y. (2017). Digital art and its uniqueness without aura. In M. Budianta et al. (Eds.), Cultural Dynamics in a Globalized World (pp. 89-95). Routledge.
Connery, M.C., John-Steiner, V., & Marjanovic-Shane, A. (2010). Vygotsky and Creativity: A Cultural-Historical Approach to Play, Meaning Making, and the Arts. (Ser. Educational Psychology: Critical pedagogical Perspectives, vol. 5). Peter Lang.
Cope, B., & Kalantzis, M. (2020). Making Sense. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Electronic Literature Organization (2020). The NEXT. https://the-next.eliterature.org/
Ensslin, A. (2004). Reconstructing the deconstructed – hypertext and literary education. Language and Literature, 13(4), 307-333. doi.org/10.1177/0963947004046283
(2006). Literary hypertext in the foreign language classroom: a case study report. The Language Learning Journal, 33(1). doi.org/ 10.1080/09571730685200061
(2020). “Completed the circle?” The curious counter-canonical case of The Eastgate Quarterly Review of Hypertext (1994-1995). In B. Gervais & S. Marcotte (Eds), Attention à la marche !/Mind the Gap! (pp. 511-524). Les Presses de l’écureuil. Print.
(2022). Pre-web Digital Publishing and the Lore of Electronic Literature. Cambridge University Press. Print.
Ensslin, A., & Bell, A. (2012). “Click = Kill”: Textual You in Ludic Digital Fiction. Storyworlds: A Journal of Narrative Studies, 4(1), 49-73.
Ensslin, A., Skains, L. Riley, S., Haran, J., Mackiewicz, A., & Halliwell, E. (2016). Exploring digital fiction as a tool for teenage body image bibliotherapy. Digital Creativity, 27(3), 177-195. doi.org/10.1080/14626268.2016.1210646
Grigar, D. (2019). A Conversation about Socrates in the Labyrinth, Hypertext & the Lore of Electronic Literature. https://vimeo.com/358533888
Kalantzis, M., & Cope, B. (2020). Adding Sense: Context and Interest in a Grammar of Multimodal Meaning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Moulthrop, S., & Grigar, D. (2015). Pathfinders: Documenting the Experiencew of Early Digital Literature. doi.org/10.7273/WF0B-TQ14
Moulthrop, S., & Grigar, D. (2017). Traversals: The Use of Preservation of Early Electronic Writing. MIT Press. Print.
da Silva, J.R.R.T. (2020). Memory, Imagination, and Meaning-making in Learning Scientific Concepts: A Case Study About the Concept of Substance in Chemistry. Human Arenas: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Psychology, Culture, and Meaning, 4(4), 577-298. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42087-020-00134-6
Sundermann, A., Weiser, A., & Barth, M. (2022). Meaning-making in Higher Education for Sustainable Development: Ungraduates’ Long-term Processes of Experiencing and Learning. Environmental Education Research, 28(11), 1616-1634. doi.org/10.1080/13504622.2022.2069679