dELO: Affordances and Constraints

dELO: Affordances and Constraints

Samantha Gorman

Commenting on the high price of long term literary collaboration (and the brevity of most funding in the Humanities), Samantha Gorman asks if it’s necessary for arts practitioners today to create commercial start-ups. Can scholars and Digital Language Arts entrepreneurs find a way to bring literary work into “hybrid communities” and “outreach”?

This series of short interventions were made at the “Futures of Electronic Literature” discussion at the bi-annual Electronic Literature Organization conference in 2012. Titled “Electrifying Literature: Affordances and Constraints,” the conference took place at West Virginia University in Morgantown on June 20th to June 23rd. The contributors were organized by Stephanie Strickland to offer suggestions on how to improve the organization as it attempts to re-define its mission in a shifting cultural, economic, and technological landscape. Ranging from the concrete to the poetic to the theoretical, the following nine short statements were made by a group of emerging artists, scholars, and practitioners from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds.

(This short essay has been transcribed and adapted from talk points given during the “Futures of Electronic Literature” panel at the 2012 Electronic Literature Organization (ELO) conference. It reflects the views and positions of that time and context.)

The academic terrain is shifting. In this landscape, how might the ELO leverage its unique affordances and constraints in order to grow, sustain and thrive? To do so, introspection is crucial. Therefore, in the spirit of this panel and discussion, this talk will use the ELO as a focal point. It synthesizes the pulse of observations I’ve made and discussions I’ve had within our very community. However, it is also a meditation on larger issues of adaptability and resilience facing communities of hybrid practitioners and scholars. Because critical and creative craft is the spine of the institution, reflections made in this paper consider the nature of our medium. Practice and the practical intersect. It is precisely through contemplating this intersection that we can discover the affordances we must make in order to reach across generations and into wider communities.

Culture continues to march on around us. In this collection my colleague, Ian Hatcher, points out: “platforms are becoming so pervasive that it is increasingly hard to ignore them”. Trends in the digital humanities eventually adapt and incorporate these platforms along with the methods of data production and analysis they afford. Within this contemporary context, where should contributions by the ELO and similar institutions stand? How do we productively assimilate and differentiate our own brand? The rapid pace of technical and scholarly trends dictates that our efforts at sustainability can’t be completely retroactive in approach. When platforms and aesthetics are continuously refreshed, our interval of relevance fluctuates. Should we shift with this interval, or should we view obsolescence as an aesthetic feature of our craft? Should we decide on sustainability, on preservation? If so, what is the price? Will the fruits of our archive still function the same as what we sought to retain? The ELO seems to strive to operate as an umbrella organization. Therefore, questions of preservation and whether to expand or abolish genre seem integral to its future.

How can entities like the ELO sustain identity across generations even as the needs of its scholars/practitioners evolve and archiving efforts demand larger investment? Is it possible to maintain a brand, or will our work be subsumed into wider cultural milieu? Let’s consider our affordances and constraints. Constraints are those factors that would seem to operate against sustainability, but closer examination may reveal avenues of interest within the challenge. First, the constraint of cohesion. Let’s suppose that we are not a genre. Rather, our backbone is a set of loose cultural practices. While a codified genre can afford to remain somewhat static across time, the practical, poetic and political concerns of digital technology slam us forward into nebulous territory that necessitates iteration if we are to remain executable. Ironically, the very nature of what we do serves as a constraint for its maintenance. Literary and computational aspect are tenuous and evolving. Literary content is inherently subjective and the computational aspect changes too fast for a lasting set of conventions. If even our constraints are indeterminate, perhaps this is a hint that our best sustainable avenue is in expanding and relating–our definitions, our resources and our people–rather than in compressing and defining.

Living organizations based in digital production should honor lineage and past developments, but be careful to divide effort. As our culture contorts around us, we should take an active and engaged role in developing bodies and new blood: both in terms of evolving approaches and in terms of numbers. At the original time of this talk, one of the stated goals on the ELO “About” page[1] was: “to bring born-digital literature to the attention of authors, scholars, developers, and the current generation of readers for whom the printed book is no longer an exclusive medium of education or aesthetic practice”. This is an excellent aspiration. My personal inspiration for this talk originated from commentary by my students in digital performance and creative writing at the Rhode Island School of Design. I realized that many of them weren’t interested in engaging with materials archived by the ELO and looked for inspiration in wider industry and culture. Although I made an effort to introduce the ELO legacy and Electronic Literature Collection, I still experienced this reaction. Further, I’ve experienced this reaction elsewhere: in other institutions and with my peers. So why wasn’t the material connecting? I realize that no two teaching experiences are alike and this is not a wide analysis. But, it is curious and worth observing. If cross-generational involvement is key for sustainability then it might be imperative to examine these reactions.

A catalyst for this reaction may be found in differences of assimilation and generational aesthetics. Although I was comparatively close in age to my students, I realized that there was a significant generation gap in how students took certain technologies, approaches and platforms for granted. More than the generation gap, I recognized that hybrid work presented through industry and advertising seemed to have a larger reach and significantly influenced cultural shifts in how we read and write. Premises and techniques of the avant-garde are often assimilated into the everyday; especially, as advertising strategies. One only needs to look at the adoption of surrealist images into 1930s advertising and modern appropriation of “Happenings” in guerilla marketing.Advertising shapes our wider cultural context and design fads. These aspects can’t fully be ignored because they are also part of what shapes the fabric of our classrooms.

At 2012 SXSW Interactive, trends and fads were everywhere. Among the buzzwords were Second Screen, ARG, and Transmedia Storytelling. Some of these strategies are not new to us. In the industry context it is sometimes difficult to tell the reality of what is “innovative” from the marketing buzz, but the point is: where are we in all of this? There seems to be a definitive push toward narrative in viral marketing and gaming. In 2012, indie games with interest in poetics and narrative such as Journey, Heavy Rain and The Path have gained important traction. So too have digital campaigns and poetic works, such as The Wilderness Downtown, made or collaborated by top design firms. Companies like b-reel in New York are setting trends for innovative and interactive reading experiences. As artists and scholars we should always be wary of market hype and cognizant of advertising politics, but perhaps we should also acknowledge the contributions of a wider cultural to our general mission. We should be especially aware of these trends, if not for their interesting cultural implications beyond academia, then as a space for intervention. How might we subvert these spaces and search out avenues for deep engagement with literary content? After all, we have a stake in how these artifacts and updates are impacting modes of cultural production and reception.

Now that we’ve examined some of our constraints and their potential avenues for introspection, lets look at our strengths and affordances. ELO’s “About” page also suggested the following outreach strategy: “[Engage] a team of graduate students and international scholars with a career commitment to the field of electronic literature, to coordinate submissions to our collections and stay current with curatorial and technical standards”. Putting this strategy into practice through initiatives like this panel is one way to leverage the power of our diverse community for growth, coordination and outreach. The inclusion of new committed voices is essential, but how do we find a wider representation of voices to include? For example, I’ve been approached by a few emerging scholars who didn’t know about this panel and would have liked to join. How could the structures of this organization helped us invite and identify these scholars sooner?

Yes, this talk deals with the ELO, but it also asks the larger question of how like-minded organizations in the current academic climate can find connection, support and community. Now, more than ever, it is essential that we look towards and after each other. How can the ELO dialog with other hybrid organizations. As suggested above, perhaps the solution starts at home. We need to better leverage the affordance of our community and its connections. By connecting to other hybrid communities our members are already a part of we can diversity recruitment and devote webspace to less represented or canonized subsets of media driven writing. Once connections are made we might compare notes on how other diverse, hybrid communities have adapted and survived.

Most importantly, outreach is a curatorial practice. Outreach need not be tacked on to our already impressive man-hours of volunteer work, but it can be a living, breathing part of our natural practice. Outreach can take the form of: sustainability through publication, sustainability through flesh, and sustainability through network. Initiatives in publication could be open to wider member involvement. Satellite publications under the ELO umbrella could help spread the word through an editorial board comprised of each new generation of members. Works could be solicited from members’ outside communities and include works of conceptually related print and a wider array of “computational writing” practices. Partnerships may also be made with existing print/online publishing communities that newer members have a stake in. A portion of publication efforts should focus on production and dissemination as well as archiving and collecting.

The principle of sustainability through flesh invites live community gatherings, meet-ups and casual salons. Most importantly, the flesh or liveness could be an exciting way to introduce new members to a wide variety of work. A reading series, linked across cities by same name, could be curated by different members under the umbrella of the ELO. Finally, the notion of sustainability through network encourages community incentives. How can we connect with each other? What resources might benefit members? Our present level of commitment and infrastructure might allow for some immediate resources. First, a more visible database of where to send work and what to do with work. Once work is submitted, an indication of how to publish through the ELO network could be helpful. Curators could also benefit from official sponsorship. This could be as simple as the permission to use the ELO logo in official capacity for official and satellite events or the distribution of materials before and after events. Spreading the word can only help our future sustainability. Should we succeed, what projected initiatives might be warranted? If we wish to encourage participation in the ELO beyond academia, continuing travel and in-kind support for unaffiliated artists is essential. Infrastructure and funding to support prizes, residencies and fellowships might also garner attention from outside the institution and provide a submission base.

Yes, culture continues to march around us and we must work within our constraints to march with it. Yes, the current academic landscape is uncertain. But, if we engage in introspection and honest assessment of our strengths and weakness and if we do some creative thinking around the parameters of adaptability and insularity, we might not only sustain well beyond the next decade, but also thrive.

Samantha Gorman is a writer, scholar and media artist. Current work includes the tactile novella Pry with Danny Cannizzaro. Samantha holds an MFA from Brown University in Literary Arts – Digital Language Arts. She has taught courses in Digitally Mediated Performance and Digital Literature at the Rhode Island School of Design. Samantha currently lives in L.A. where she is a Ph.D. candidate in the interdivisional Media Arts + Practice (iMAP) program at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. 


E-Lit Futures 2012 Forum: Next in Line Hatcher 

Stephanie Strickland and Marjorie Luesebrink:

Luesebrink & Strickland: Samantha Gorman, teaching at Rhode Island School of Design, was struck by the generational gap between herself and her students and the much wider gap between her students and older work collected by ELO. […] Gorman analyzes a form of generational aesthetics—as did Florian Cramer in his keynote for the 2012 ELO Conference—that is connected with advertising and the commercial.