This month, we are featuring three essays and one riPOSTe from major figures in the field. Katherine Hayles’ essay “Literary Texts as Cognitive Assemblages: The Case of Electronic Literature” asks the important question: “How is creativity distributed between author and computer?” This is the first of four essays forthcoming from the Dubai e-literature conference. Look for the others in future issues of ebr!
ebr has acquired permission to re-print the introduction of John Cayley’s new book Grammalepsy: Essays on Digital Language Art (2018), the first in the Bloomsbury series on Electronic Literature. This long-awaited collection of essays explores the conditions of language, whereby the language of digital media—and the digital language art that results—requires a way of thinking about the ontological relationship between language and medium that goes beyond literary limitations of staticism and print.
Agreeing that translation studies does well to address questions of transcoding, Nick Montfort further extends the project advocated by María Mencía, Søren Pold, Manuel Portela (and our first respondent, Belgian Poet Laureate Jan Baetens).
“13 Ways of Looking at Electronic Literature” is an experimental essay by Ivan Callus and Mario Aquilina that suggests unique and varied vantage points on how to write, write about, and think through the tone of electronic literature. An extra perk of the essay: each of the thirteen points is accompanied by a mini-bibliography of vital scholarly and creative works in e-literature—a valuable resource for research and pedagogical purposes!
Katherine Hayles’ essay “Literary Texts as Cognitive Assemblages: The Case of Electronic Literature” uses the term “cognitive assemblages” to describe networks of actors as they are perceived to be entwined or autonomous. For instance, she notes the active role—and yet constant lack of awareness—of media users in the ever-efficient smart city and its “technological couplings, communications, energy flows, and material affordances that are deeply integrated with computational media.” Hayles considers how far cognition extends, drawing from her recent book Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious (2017), to describe the conditions under which we might deem computers as having cognitive capacities towards becoming as autonomous as we imagine ourselves within the interlaced city network.
These deliberations extend to the relationship between the device-using writer and their own “infrastructural dependencies” on compositional software, whereby the computer can and has been argued as a kind of creative collaborator of the e-lit writer. Exploring a string of questions about user choice and whether artistic content lies on screen or in code, Hayles examines the computer as co-author in several e-lit examples, including Stephanie Strickland and Nick Montfort’s Sea and Spar Between, Montfort’s “Taroko Gorge” and Scott Rettberg’s code-remix of it in “Tokyo Garage,” and Johannes Heldén and Håken Jonson’s Evolution.
In her analysis of each case, Hayles points out that the agency of the computer to affect literary content exceeds the limits of John Searle’s 1980 “Chinese Room” thought experiment. In particular, the example of Evolution becomes a kind of ontological game in which the authors seek to pass Alan Turing’s “Imitation Game.” These observations lead Hayles to conclude that “we are now on the verge of developments that promote our computational symbionts to full partnership in our literary endeavors.”
John Cayley’s Grammalepsy: Essays on Digital Language Art compiles some of his best known essays over 20 years, consisting of analysis of the unique processes of aesthetic linguistic making and practice in computational media—processes that must be understood in terms of a textuality beyond the static and therefore beyond print. He coins the term “grammalepsy” to describe the unique theory and practice of digital language art (his term for electronic literature), “the grammatization of linguistic aurality” that is examined ontologically instead of in literary terms of “writing” alone.
Describing language as “media-agnostic” and humans as “language animals,” Cayley thinks of language in terms of its ontological power: in signification, language becomes a condition of humans through our usage of it, and our usage of it is also that which creates language. In these terms, and as a creative practitioner of digital media, Cayley argues that “one of the most significant future cultural potentialities—as digital affordances continue to be applied to language—will be the reconfiguration of the relationship between language practices and their predominant support media.”
What follows is a chapter breakdown that will be useful to interested readers, especially as Cayley prefaces them with a description of the threads that run through the chapters and which are worthy of mention. These threads include: the differences among digital language art, literary art, and language art; digital language art becoming digital art; issues of nomenclature; the shift from terms such as “cybertext” to “hypertext”; his well-known claim that code is not human language; the relationship between time and language art; altered practices of language; and the role of artists in stages in history (focusing on the digital, of course). Evidently, Grammalepsy will stand as a key work in the study of electronic literature, offering as not all other scholarly texts can a career’s bounty of practice, experience, and careful consideration.
Nick Montfort’s “Minding the Electronic Literature Translation Gap” is a riPOSTe to July 2018’s publication “Electronic Literature Translation: Translation as Process, Experience and Mediation.” A look at explorations of the topic in early e-lit turns up longstanding interests in the translinguistic, transcreational, the metrical, material, and contextual. Montfort offers this itemization not just to enlarge a specific list and topology for translation studies, but also to show that the concept of literary translation almost certainly needs to be exploded and reworked. To Portela, Mencía, and Pold’s four-dimensional understanding of translation—the translinguistic, transcoding, transmedial, and transcreational—he offers three additional dimensions. The metrical accounts for the rhythmic meter of poetry that can be specific to literary form and language. The material considers the physical conditions through which “text” is presented. And the contextual describes additional considerations—perhaps political or historical—in the publication, presentation, and reception of “text.”
With these additional notes on how translation occurs in electronic literature, Montfort stresses the solid theoretical underpinnings that e-literature is often not thought to have, and encourages further critical discussion. It does not escape me that Montfort’s title makes reference to the upcoming 2018 meeting of the ELO in Montréal, entitled “Mind the Gap!” As we will soon gather to make critical discussions come into fruition, it is worth considering that theories of e-lit remain ongoing insofar as the technologies with which we practice, through their rapid development and unpredictable usage, require theorizing and re-theorizing.
Ivan Callus and Mario Aquilina’s wonderful essay, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Electronic Literature, or, a Print Essai on Tone in Electronic Literature, 1.0,” is an experimental contribution with, as the authors describe, a “performative awareness of the challenges of tone in electronic literature.” The essay is prefaced by whimsical instructions for use for those who are familiar with literary study in general, but not necessarily with e-literature, on how to read for shifting notions of space, language, and creativity. How, in other words, do the stakes of literature change through the computer and upon the screen?
So to not take away from the richness of all thirteen ways offered by Callus and Aquilina, I will not list all thirteen. Instead, let me paraphrase select points that intrigue or challenge the tone with which we write, write about, and think about electronic literature:
1. Medium-specific analysis is necessary.
3. Experimentation with digital affordances is a part of being creative in e-literature.
4. Electronic literature still relies on a relationship with the letter as we think about it in literature.
5. However, electronic literature also utilizes many other communicative forms that do not take second place to the letter, including what is on screen and behind the screen.
9. Electronic literature is in tension between an ephemeral state and an archival impulse.
10. “Electronic literature is code. And not everybody can, or wants, to read it.”
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Associate Editor and Director of Communications, ebr