In this riPOSTe-turned-essay, John Cayley reflects on “the perpetual problem of terminology” in the field of electronic literature.
In the EBR publication of her ‘Introduction’ to Electronic Literature as Digital Humanities, Dene Grigar cites my use of the adjective “digital” to suggest, I think, that I am comfortable with “an understanding of literature in any medium as art,” although the sentence that she quotes from Grammalepsy —“There is art, but no one need mention that it is ‘digital’ because art is simply part of a culture that is also, inevitably, historically digital, and these circumstances have little to tell us concerning the significance or affect of the art as such.”—is concerned more with my understanding that “the digital” is not, itself, a medium but, if anything, a generalized, functional abstraction for the representation of many humanly perceptible artistic media, including language. The digital is not necessarily pertinent to practices of art in any medium.
These days, I consider “digital language art,” the phrase that I use for what I practice, to be a strategic compromise, specifically with regard to its “digital” qualifier. Most certainly, I do strive to make “language art.” The fact that I often make it with digital tools, in the context of media that are delivered “digitally,” or within the architecture of cultural formations that are characterized by their “digitality,” this is happenstance and history, not necessarily crucial or important for any reading of my language art as such … unless and until it is. And when it is, these days, I prefer to think of the effects that are produced or generated by my language art as being “computational,” as effects of computation. Because of the way that “digital” and “the digital” have been used over the past few decades I find it difficult to understand how “the digital” itself could—to provide the example that is pertinent here—have an aesthetic. Everything today is digital but not everything has an artist-made aesthetic. The computational, on the other hand, has matured to the extent that it does now seem to have various aesthetics of its own, aspects of which may be adopted for artist-made artifacts, projects, and performances. Despite ubiquity, the computational still presents itself as a delineated domain. Not everything is computational. Computation evolves and changes. But it isn’t a hold-all, like “the digital,” which finds itself in difficulty when trying to provide us with meaning because it can be applied to anything, even the humanities. In the recent past, I would have avoided computation and computational due to somewhat negative or constraining connotations. I used to call what I did “writing in networked and programmable media,” which still seems to me a reasonable characterization when attempting to specify and begin to describe certain practices of language art.
The perpetual problem of terminology. These days, in the computational domain, rendered as “ontology,” no less. It comes up all the time. It turns out that I’ve written on the subject at least a couple of times.1John Cayley, ‘Of Programmatology,’ Mute, Fall 1998; ‘Weapons of the Deconstructive Masses: Whatever the Electronic in Electronic Literature May or May Not Mean,’ Hyperrhiz 6 (2009). I’m known for having considerable difficulties with “electronic literature.” I still do, despite accepting that it has become a designation both reconfigured and stabilized by the institutions, communities and practices that have emerged around it. Today this phrase means what most of the people in these networks say it means, and yet it still remains to be said that this is more a matter of institutions and communities—many of them academic—than of practices. For the reason that “electronic music” works to delineate particular ways of making some, but not all, music—music that relies on actual electronics—“electronic literature” does not work for me. The literature of “electronic literature” does not rely on actual electronics.
I am not, however, going to be advocating for institutional or other name changing to evoke “computational literature” despite the fact that, in this case, there is now a “computational literature” that does rely on actual computation.2See, for example, work in the Using Electricity series which Nick Montfort is editing for Counterpath Press, http://counterpathpress.org/using-electricity (accessed February 7, 2021). I’m going to stick for the time being with “digital language art” or, when I’m feeling ecumenical, “language art” plain and simple.
Which brings us to the problem of “literature” and “the literary.” I prefer and use “language art.” This is because I think of language, not literature, as the medium of the art that many of us practice. Although, traditionally, the artifacts of language that we value and wish to preserve have inhabited the material cultural formations of literature, this circumstance is, precisely, something that digital or, more specifically, computational practices of language art call into question. Literature and “the literary” may, of course, evolve to change, and encouraging such evolution may well be part of the project of the Electronic Literature Organization and of electronic literature as digital humanities (both book and concept). But other powerful cultural forces have their own sense of literature and its trajectory, and I do not see much evidence of literary culture (including literary culture as computationally or digitally delivered) being deflected from its fixation on text and textuality, to cite only one of its most egregious misdirections. As I’ve said in other contexts, “text” is not language, until and unless it is.3‘The Language That Machines Read,’ in Attention à la Marche = Mind the Gap: Penser la Littérature Électronique in a Digital Culture = Thinking Electronic Literature in a Digital Culture, ed. Bertrand Gervais and Sophie Marcotte (Montreal: Les Presses de l’Écureuil, 2020). Please also visit https://nllf.net. Text only becomes language when it is read, and thus read into shared practices of language. Historically, the texts of literature have become a treasured preserve and, indeed, archive of language, and they have done this because these texts are read, reread, interpreted, quoted, appropriated, misused, misunderstood and, most of all voiced (literally evocalized)4Garrett Stewart, Reading Voices: Literature and the Phonotext (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990). in a very special sense: they are brought into the embodied experiences of communities of language animals as an aestheticized and treasured aspect of these experiences, artistic experiences that pertain to the human faculty for language.
It follows that there are—and there are—many and extensive domains of language art practice which are not within the textual bounds of literature. And given the fact that computational affordances significantly and historically reconfigure our compositional relationship to and control over linguistic sound, I believe that there is the potential for a distinctly non-literary future for language art, but one for which computation also provides the affordances of recording, editing, and archive, let alone programmability.
But I’m not just making a case here for my personal fascination with the potentialities of an emergent “aurature.”5John Cayley, ‘Aurature at the End(s) of Electronic Literature,’ Electronic Book Review (2017); ‘The Advent of Aurature and the End of (Electronic) Literature,’ in The Bloomsbury Handbook of Electronic Literature, ed. Joseph Tabbi (New York and London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018). By tradition and convention, the texts of high-culture theatrical productions may be valued as literature even though they are best experienced as multimedia—albeit literary—performance. But I don’t think that the same can be said for high-culture computer or video games ... yet, and maybe not in my lifetime. There is no question, however, that many plays and many computer games are highly treasured expressions of language art. And there are so many examples of digital, computational making that might be better appreciated as language art rather than insisting that they conform to a procrustean literary bed, or by sacrificing them to a largely academic campaign which threatens to do no more than expand the empire of letters.
Cayley, John. ‘The Advent of Aurature and the End of (Electronic) Literature.’ In The Bloomsbury Handbook of Electronic Literature, edited by Joseph Tabbi, 73-94. New York and London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.
Cayley, John. ‘Aurature at the End(s) of Electronic Literature.’ Electronic Book Review (2017) http://electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/aurature (accessed August 13, 2017).
Cayley, John. ‘The Language That Machines Read.’ In Attention à la Marche = Mind the Gap: Penser la Littérature Électronique in a Digital Culture = Thinking Electronic Literature in a Digital Culture, edited by Bertrand Gervais and Sophie Marcotte, 105-113. Montreal: Les Presses de l’Écureuil, 2020.
Cayley, John. ‘Of Programmatology.’ Mute, Fall 1998, 72-75.
Cayley, John and Harold Wells. NLLF. Website. https://nllf.net (Accessed February 7, 2021).
Cayley, John. ‘Weapons of the Deconstructive Masses: Whatever the Electronic in Electronic Literature May or May Not Mean.’ Hyperrhiz 6 (2009) http://hyperrhiz.io/hyperrhiz06/essays/weapons-of-the-deconstructive-masses.html (accessed August 13, 2017).
Stewart, Garrett. Reading Voices: Literature and the Phonotext. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.