This gathering is unique. What differentiates it from other gatherings on the electronic book review is that rather than being compiled and united via subject matter, what unites these papers is that they were all first delivered at the Arabic E-lit Conference in Dubai which took place in February 2018. The publication of conference proceedings may not be particularly innovative. In this way, the gathering works to “Mind the Gap” in the scholarship surrounding electronic literature, providing open access to conference papers that the scheduling and finances of travelling may have made inaccessible to some scholars. Incidentally, “minding” this gap in access and in study was the primary theme of the 2018 ELO conference on electronic literature. This theme, and the topics discussed at the Arabic E-lit conference, suggest that we have arrived at a moment in the digital humanities and the study of e-lit in which scholars are now paying acute attention to the ways in which our scholarship must address not just the affordances and intermedialities of electronic literature, but also the barriers to its study and reception.
This is all to say that, at this point in the study of electronic literature, writers and scholars alike are starting to pay close attention to what texts we are reading, studying and classifying as electronic literature, and which texts have been generally overlooked. The issue that has become central to the study and dissemination of electronic literature, then, is the issue of access: what works do we have access to, and what do we have to do in the surrounding scholarship to lift barriers to access? This gathering works to address this issue head-on, and emblematic of this move is the fact that I, as editor of the gathering, was not able to attend the conference due to several issues of access, not the least of which is the fact that I remain precariously employed as an adjunct professor.
And yet, by virtue of the generosity of the speakers and organizers of this conference, particularly Reham Hosny, I am able to read the discussions and unite them together, curating and editing the presentations to make them accessible to a wider audience. In light of this issue of access, the gathering places in conversation the work of established scholars in the field, such as N. Katherine Hayles and Serge Bouchardon, with early-career scholars like myself and Hosny. In doing so, the gathering prioritizes the communicative aspects of digital scholarship, reminding readers that this scholarship is meant as discursive and dynamic rather than static. What’s more, the papers address the issues of access and the Western bias of the scholarship surrounding electronic literature. But, these papers do not simply critique scholarship for its bias. Instead, all of the papers propose better methods for organization, categorization, and discussion on electronic literature to address and work to correct issues of bias and access in this field.
In her essay, Hosny addresses this issue directly by moving beyond the critique that Arabic electronic literature has been historically underrepresented in places like the ELC and other central repositories for the dissemination and study of e-lit. Instead, Hosny proposes real, practical methods for bridging this discrepancy, bringing new works to light and encouraging translation, open access study, and careful consideration of linguistic and national bias in our scholarship.
Beside Hosny’s study, this gathering focuses on the sensory reception of electronic literature, paying particular attention to sight, sound, and touch as we engage digital texts. For example, Doris Hambuch uses the cartoons of Khaled Al Jabri to reconsider our use of screens and other technological dependencies. Rather than simply reprimanding readers about the effects of blue light on our sleep patterns, she proposes that we look to Al Jabri’s work as a way of reconsidering the role of the screen in visual poetics and graphic literature.
Alongside the image-centric, visual analysis of Hambuch, John Barber’s essay encourages us to reintroduce the importance of sound in electronic literature. Too often, our discussions of the sensory reception of electronic literature focus on the haptic and the visual, losing sight of the significant interventions and unique affordances e-lit has in its aural properties. Serge Bouchardon, in his essay, prioritizes gesture and manipulation in literature. He considers how technology alters and opens new ways in which works can be physically, materially engaged-with.
Uniting all of these concerns, is the inclusion of a revised version of N. Katherine Hayles’s plenary speech, “Electronic Literature in Context: Literary Text as Cognitive Assemblage.” In this talk, Hayles proposes that we consider computers as co-authors, creating cognitive assemblages in which creativity and not simply action is distributed. Hayles requires that we rethink the role of technology in electronic literature as not simply a medium through which the author(s) work(s), but rather a contributor to the work. In my riPOSTe to Hayles’s essay, I expand on her cognitive assemblage to include the reader as a third term. Thus, this gathering positions the authorship of electronic literature as threefold: an author or group of authors who initiate creation, the technology which makes significant cognitive decisions in the production of the work, and a readership that alters the work as they read and engage on a sensory level.
All in all, this gathering is designed to immerse electronic book review readers into the discussions and debates that occurred at and surround the 2018 Arabic E-lit Conference in Dubai. As such, it is crucial that I end by reminding our readers that the ebr began and continues as an open-source and freely accessible journal focusing on the study of electronic literature. The editors of ebr have dedicated this space to working towards addressing and opening issues of access in the reception and scholarship of global e-lit. This gathering is only one step in that direction.