Futures of Electronic Literature

Futures of Electronic Literature

Marjorie C. Luesebrink
and Stephanie Strickland

E-lit authors Stephanie Strickland and Marjorie Luesebrink organized a panel on the “Future of E–Lit” at the ELO 2012 conference, allowing emerging and early career authors to articulate institutional and economic, as well more familiar technological, developments that constrain and facilitate current practice. The panel papers were released in ebr in March 2014. Luesebrink and Strickland followed up with comments on the papers, offering a “progress report” on the future of the field. The individual responses are available as glosses on the essays and in full here.

In March 2014, the electronic book review (EBR) published nine short papers on the futures of electronic literature and the role of the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO). These papers reflect talks solicited for a special session of the 2012 ELO conference at West Virginia University, a session proposed by Marjorie Luesebrink in which emerging artists, scholars, and practitioners would offer suggestions on how to improve the ELO as it re-defined its mission in a shifting cultural, economic, and technological landscape. At Luesebrink’s request, Stephanie Strickland gathered a group to participate and moderated the discussion session. Responses ranged from the concrete to the poetic to the theoretical. Luesebrink and Strickland [L&S] respond briefly to each below, providing first the EBR capsule description of each paper and then delineating changes that have (and have not) been made by the organization in response. 

“Reading the Wind” by David (Jhave) Johnston

EBR: In his video-poem “Reading the Wind,” David (Jhave) Johnston identifies the current environment for electronic literature, and in doing so, claims the impossibility of knowing its future.

L&S: Jhave Johnston’s lyric approach to temporary trajectories, perpetual calculus, and paradigm extinctions puts us on notice that we face headwinds of every kind drawn forward, as we are, by something beckoning at the limits of legibility. 

“Electrifying Literature: ELO Conference 2012” by Amaranth Borsuk

EBR: How does the electronic literature community continue to develop? Amaranth Borsuk looks towards the print literature community and suggests that we adopt a number of its most successful practices.

L&S: Amaranth Borsuk suggests that the ELO award prizes and help members in their career paths. In 2014 the ELO established the Hayles and Coover Awards for criticism and creation, respectively, of electronic literature works. We established a Standing Committee on Credentialing chaired by Joe Tabbi and another, on Publications, chaired by Philippe Bootz. We believe both can contribute to career-building. 

But, as Borsuk says, “I think this group has addressed, and will address, some of these concerns.” What she really focuses on is the image of e-lit as something not understood, texts with microchip hats or the like. Are we “spearheading the conversation about where literature is headed”? We believe that Electronic Literature Collection/3, 2015, will contribute signally to this conversation—it and the accompanying critical book planned in conjunction with it. 

Borsuk asks why we aren’t part of large database, data visualization, and social collaboration projects. The ELO has just concluded a trial alliance with DHSI, the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria. This alliance will help us work with uses of language not heretofore characterized as literary. She also suggests that we offer workshops at other institutions. We offered workshops these past two years at DHSI and more are planned for next year, however these are not as yet workshops designed to produce a single group-authored work of the sort she proposes. 

We also acknowledge that we don’t have the human resources to support a blog like the Poetry Foundation’s nor a journal like Jacket2, both of which have big money and institutions behind them. We wonder if members think we should maintain a blogroll on our site for blogs such as Post Position and Grand Text Auto

“Histories of the Future” by Patrick LeMieux

EBR: For Patrick LeMieux, the future of electronic literature is not before us, but instead entails an investigation of the past—of the unknowable territories with which we collaborate through e-lit.

L&S: Patrick LeMieux is concerned that we should promote and honor research into important theoretical issues associated with language and computation, namely “multitemporal moments and multiscalar movements,” because we are positioned to see “what not only outpaces human consciousness but time and space itself.” What is the linguistic analogue of “something that is resolved conceptually but is unresolvable in practice”—could this not be a poetry generator for instance? 

LeMieux’s interactive Java applet, Every Icon Editor, makes concrete for us the fact that microtemporal speed and recombinatorial potential soon escape the register of human experience and trouble the very concept of time. Every Icon Editor is keyed to John Simon’s Every Icon. Simon’s piece, running since 1997, cannot reach the goal of filling in its third row (of 32) till well after the death of the sun. Every Icon Editor, seemingly simple software with profound implications, proves that we can never know the durational quality of digital media even as these media increasingly constitute our experience. 

As LeMieux says,

unlike data logs and transaction records, e-lit invites speculation on the nature of processor cycles and refresh rates, of electrical currents and electrons. Electronic literature attempts to approach abstract, autonomous software in terms of human forms of inquiry and teaches us to recognize the actions of the nonhuman agents with which [we] live.

In fact, our future is “constantly co-written by computational collaborators.” We think that these facts, among others of the sort addressed by John Cayley studying massive corporate search engines, should lead ELO and e-lit writers to engage a new politics of language and of code as a language. 

“The Ode to Translation or the Outcry Over the Untranslatable” by Natalia Fedorova

EBR: Natalia Fedorova sees the future of electronic literature in translation: just as translation from her native Russian to English can teach us about both of those languages, translations between “natural languages” and “languages of code” can clarify what makes electronic language literary.

L&S: Loss Pequeño Glazier’s call for entries to E-Poetry 2015 opens with full caps: DEDICATED TO THE CONCEPT THAT THERE EXISTS ONE WORLDWIDE CONTEXT FOR DIGITAL LITERATURE. We endorse this worldwide context and point out that such a context makes urgent Natalia Fedorova’s call: to study and practice problems of translation, both of natural languages and of code. To this end, Electronic Literature Collection/3, 2015, has obtained the services of critics as curators in a number of languages and also recruited several translators to help with curation and production. 

Fedorova cites John Zuern: “paying attention to what happens when we translate (or don’t translate) electronic texts will lead to finer-grained insights into the relationship between ‘electronic’ as a category and ‘literature’ as a category.” She adds,

Certainly, the role of ELMCIP Knowledge Base cannot be underestimated as it provides the opportunity for cross reference, and thus the dissemination and reviewing of both creative and critical works. Also the description passage in English helps open and create interest in multilingual e-writing practices.

She has in mind raising interest in locations, like Russia, where e-lit is not as developed. She would also like a larger role for capable translators in drafting ELMCIP entries. We note that ELMCIP is but one of many directories (nine and growing) in several languages that are being made interoperable in the CELL-Synapse initiative of ELO, headed by Sandy Baldwin. The Electronic Literature Directory is being refigured as part of this work. Thus there exists important coordination between the ELO and ELMCIP. 

It is, however, beyond the present capability of ELO to hold festivals and exhibitions for “different target groups” as she suggests. In the festivals and exhibits that we do mount we aim for language multiplicity. It is also the case that ELO now has a procedure to offer itself as co-sponsor of independent e-lit activities that are approved by the Board. Perhaps this form of endorsement will prove helpful to those wishing to mount “targeted” exhibitions, conferences, or festivals. 

“dELO: Affordances and Constraints” by Samantha Gorman

EBR: 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”?

L&S: 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:

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 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.

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. In order to remain engaged in “developing bodies and new blood: both in terms of evolving approaches and in terms of numbers” she advises looking to our “brand” and looking beyond any idea of codified genre. Instead of genre, she explains that

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.

She is careful to note that one does not necessarily seek to profit commercially from every technical trend, fad, or buzzword—though an ability to do so manifests some kind of relevance. She reminds us that this is also the field on which relevant interventions or subversions may be made. Beyond that she asks about issues of adaptability and resilience facing communities of hybrid practitioners and scholars. The practitioner/scholar, though somewhat known in MFA programs, in general has a hard time finding a home. We agree that ELO or e-lit is a community where these issues are pressing. 

Gorman makes the point that outreach is a curatorial practice. Speaking for our past, we could state that ELO and members of its Board have practiced outreach of many sorts over the span of our practice. The effort to recover works now disappeared from the Internet is one form of this outreach. Tracking down persons once identified by us as e-lit (TextArc) artists but who went on to work for financial firms (W. Bradford Paley) or who went on to found gaming companies (Aureia Harvey) is a form of outreach—much in the spirit of Gorman’s recommendations. We have also attempted to recover the relatively less prominent work of women. Kathi Inman Berens, in this article focused on gender, evaluates the effect on practitioners of not being able to get scholarly jobs that might have secured their livelihood. We have also reached out to new forms of technology—as in the roundtable for the 2014 ELO Conference addressing the problems of adapting work to new platforms—but our approach is perhaps more catch-up and less pro-active. 

What we cannot do is reproduce the experience of young digital natives without recruiting those very persons to both the organization and jobs within it. We will not find these people at MLA but more likely at SXSW or startups or design schools. They will, however, have formed their own forms of sociality and connection. We welcome any suggestions about effective outreach to them. Any member is invited to serve on the Standing Committee for Outreach.

Gorman also mentions emerging scholars and here our new alliance with DHSI as well as the increasing number of panels we staff at SLSA, MLA, and &NOW should be of help. Perhaps we should also ally with Hastac? The Standing Committee on Grants is working to help members with grants, an activity of interest to emerging scholars. Again, we solicit suggestions—and count on the youngest among us to help us reach the most relevant forms of publicity. We share Gorman’s sense that we are not based on some tightly-defined form of product but rather on a loose set of practices. 

Finally, Gorman suggests we undertake a publishing program. Such a program has been considered several times by the Board and decided against for lack of funding and person-hours to accomplish. We have, however, initiated a program whereby we network by means of endorsing and publicizing programs of many sorts that others initiate. Already this has occurred with several conferences and exhibitions, as well as the ELOunge events founded by Claire Donato and Jeff Johnson in New York City.

“ELO: Theory, Practice, and Activism” by Claire Donato

EBR: One of several early career participants at the Electronic Literature Organization’s Summer 2012 “Futures” panel, Claire Donato comes down on the side of non-commercial, non-entrepreneurial, educational approaches to an emerging digital literary practice.

L&S: In almost complete contrast to Gorman, Donato would like us to look not toward those farther out on the technological-innovation curve, but those farther back, those on the other side of the digital divide. We cannot emphasize enough that we endorse this goal but must also confess that ELO has not found a realistic way to implement it. We do have a Standing Committee for Outreach on which we invite all interested members to serve. 

Donato states that she also

thinks it is necessary for the ELO to preserve writers’ stories regarding their technology adoption practices over time. One idea may be to curate a series of interviews with writers of all ages about how technology has influenced their literary practices. As suggested at the last ELO Conference, we need to concern ourselves with archiving to preserve history so that we can reflect on the past to impact the future.

We certainly agree and the Pathfinders project that Dene Grigar has initiated at University of Washington Vancouver (not itself an ELO project) addresses just this issue. Both John Barber and Jhave Johnston have made, respectively, audio and video files that track some specific aspects of e-lit practitioner history. We agree that a more comprehensive program to do this would be valuable. The Archiving Standing Committee and our Archive-It membership both involve scrutiny of current practice and consideration of how to persuade digital archivists about the kind of information they will need to obtain from e-writers in order to reconstruct both the works and a relevant context for them. 

Donato suggests that the

ELO might develop classroom guides and materials for teachers addressing concrete ways to nurture reading, writing, and thinking alongside computer literacy skills. Just as importantly, we might provide some of our prior generation technology to underserved schools, perhaps around the Boston area, where the ELO is based. Other ways I envision the ELO addressing social justice issues is via collaborations with institutions that work with the disabled, the homeless, veterans, and prisoners. We might also initiate artist-in-the-schools programs similar to those sponsored by the Millay Colony for the Arts [and] Teachers and Writers Collaborative.

To address these suggestions in turn: the ELO site did once feature a collection of syllabi. As the entire drift of these comments suggests, such syllabi become outdated very quickly because the works in question are no longer supported, or no longer even findable. Teaching computer literacy itself is handled by many MOOCs and other online initiatives, e.g. http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Teaching_Computer_Literacy. Deena Larsen, an ELO Literary Advisory Board member, has been active in devising basic educational programs of her own design for the public. At the other end of the difficulty spectrum, Hayles, Jagoda, and LeMieux designed the game Speculation to teach high-level computer and finance capitalism literacy conjointly. Teaching a computer literacy integrated with literacy and literature-learning might perhaps be allied with the focus on e-lit for children at the upcoming 2015 ELO Conference in Bergen. Jill Walker Rettberg has been instrumental in developing this topic. 

We find it hard to give away hardcopy books cost-effectively, let alone outdated hardware. Shipping, refurbishing, and proper targeting of need are all expensive. Trying to run contemporary programs on outdated hardware is an additional learning burden, for underserved teacher or student. Much evidence exists that even new equipment piles up in closets for lack of cables, or other necessity, if it arrives in an underserved system. Alas, the Boston area is no more a locus of ELO member hardware than anywhere else in the nation, so it does not constitute a credible distribution point. Our Board members are located in Australia, Hong Kong, the USA, and three countries in Europe.

Nor do we have the infrastructure to support longterm connections with prisoners, veterans, or public school systems. We are able to endorse workshop, or networking, projects in any area a member wishes to act if a plan is acceptable to the Board, but we are not able to offer material support. 

Donato has herself worked for organizations

including 826 Valencia, 826 NYC, the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative, and the New School’s Institute for Urban Education. In one way or another, all of these programs are devoted to helping students from underserved populations develop self-awareness and agency via the creative arts. By reaching out to these organizations and offering lesson plans online that address relationships between digital technologies and language art, the ELO could establish ties with new communities and increase awareness of what it means to read and write literary art in the early 21st century.

Again, we endorse this goal, could sponsor a call on our website for people similarly interested, would be a sponsor for a grant a member might want to write toward this aim, and would certainly encourage a panel or roundtable on this topic for ELO Conferences. 

“Who’s Left Holding the (Electrical) Bag?: A Look to See What We’ve Missed” by Ben Bishop

EBR: Recalling ebr’s early exploration into “green” and “grey” ecologies, invisible etchings on silicon and massive environmental consequences, Ben Bishop calls our attention to questions of “power” at the heart of our newly digitized critical and creative practices: “Not clout or capability, but electrical power generated by spinning turbines.”

L&S: If for Gorman ELO risks collapsing by virtue of irrelevance, and she would like us, therefore, to develop a distinctive contemporary “brand,” for Bishop we risk collapsing under our own weight and the undisciplined variety of work we support. He would like to see us disappear, assimilate, in regularized fashion back into the field from which he feels we came, namely literature. Apart from the fact that people in e-lit come from net.art, gaming, design, computer science and other fields in addition to literature, we note that the ELO’s efforts to become a regular part of MLA or AWP have encountered resistance. SLSA and &NOW, by contrast, both of which focus on cutting-edge or experimental practices, have been welcoming from the beginning. Though two of us have presented e-lit at MLA since 1995-6, only with the introduction of curated exhibits by Dene Grigar has more interest been shown at the annual meetings, yet not necessarily an interest that brings us new members. We still present something of a “danger” to more established departments. As online journals become standard for contemporary creative publication, and as they include some portion of e-lit in their offerings, we have begun to make headway at AWP where, again, we have made largely unnoticed presentations since the mid-90s. 

Bishop’s second point is a crucial one—and one on which we hope all will act. He notes the extraordinarily polluting (toxic, water-intensive, energy-expending) nature of supporting digital access:

For example, on the February 11 2009, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was released. Over 5 million hours of multiplayer were logged on XBOX Live—I was oblivious to the fact that I was contributing (so-to-speak) to an environmental nuclear event of my own. Given this realization, how will all that wattage affect my personal valuation of gaming time? How does it affect my energy bill? What cost, to me and to the ecosystem, of those hours perusing or creating works of electronic literature on my large LCD monitor and power hungry video card?

Are there well-respected studies comparing the overall cost of various technologies, or that suggest ways of computer manufacture/use that minimize ecological impact? Certainly the myth of a clean technology needs to be confronted—and as well the exploitative treatment of coltan miners, for instance, needs to be understood as coordinate with cell phone use. However, this issue is much wider than ELO. What kind of forums exist to challenge Amazon, Google, Facebook, or Apple on the grounds of eco-impact or social justice? Is an appropriate alliance for ELO possible? 

“Just Humanities” by Stephanie Boluk

EBR: What are we to make of current calls for “practice based” research in the Digital Humanities and e-lit fields? What about “art as research”? Stephanie Boluk sounds a caution concerning the ways that literary studies are being worked into the “instrumentalization and corporatization of the university system.”

L&S: Stephanie Boluk suggests that

[a]t some point the innovative practices that comprise “the digital humanities” will be collapsed and conflated into “the humanities.” Perhaps the same conditions apply to “electronic literature” with the field eventually transforming back to where it began: “literature.” My hope is that the terms “digital” and “electronic” will eventually be dropped, but my fear is that it’s the “humanities” and “literature” more likely to wither away.

Boluk also states her

re-affirmation of what I have already witnessed [at ELO]: a continued and dedicated commitment to a practice that refuses to take for granted the political, aesthetic, and ideological investments that accompany the toolsets and language we use. Although technology changes at an ever-accelerated rate, we have not discovered all there is to know about hypertext and interactive fiction, let alone haikus and iambic pentameter. And as we discover how to read the nonhuman history of microtemporal inscriptions and how to write in and about emerging genres and platforms like biopoetry and nanoliterature, I hope the ELO continues to critique new forms of media literacy while placing them in conversation with aesthetic forms of the past.

We fully endorse Boluk’s view of what ELO does, investigating on every level investments that accompany toolsets and language, and in fact language as toolset. We also find ELO vested in learning how to read the nonhuman history of inscriptions in emerging genres and platforms. We believe that using the term “digital” with humanities, as at DHSI, or “electronic” with literature, in an MLA context, in fact permits just such an investigation. “Humanities” and “literature” themselves must change, and they are after all terms of recent vintage compared to very old concepts of song, making, ritual, and the like. We would stress that e-lit practice arose, also, from the study and practice of visual art, games, media, design, and computation. These practices too are bringing pressures to bear on literature. We do not think ELO should be the boundary-enforcer for “just humanities” in such a context.

That said, we agree that corporatization threatens the university and its traditional values both of learning and sharing knowledge, and we agree that a turn against “theoretical” as opposed to “applied” or “practice” types of work, whether in science or in the traditional humanities, has led to eradicating entire departments (anthropology, linguistics) as a cost-saving measure—we, too, see a general anti-intellectualism in the United States. We note, in this connection, an interesting contrast with Samantha Gorman’s wish to move us farther out along the applied technology curve. Boluk says,

My future for the ELO is one that is able to slow down and look back as a means to move forward. It resists the upgrade path and is unafraid to continue a process of painful self-reflection. Indeed my future for the ELO may even be a future willing to sacrifice its futurity, as Eugenio Tisselli boldly did when he [temporarily] ‘gave up e-lit’ because of the exploitative conditions surrounding coltan mining, the labor conditions in manufacturing plants, and the irreversible environmental damage wrought by a poetic practice unavoidably embedded in computational capitalism.

We also find it entirely appropriate that the ELO align itself with Boluk’s own goal of exploring an “ethics of making” by addressing such relations. 

As well, we believe there is an inherent tension within the digital humanities program between distant reading, statistical analysis of anonymized data, data as culture—a view that also infects archival practices—and the use of digital humanist or literary tools to preserve an individual collection or to focus attention on and offer help in sustaining smaller language communities such as Catalan or many Native American languages. It is our hope, in allying the ELO with DHSI as one of its many alliances, that we can introduce some of these critical and ethical perspectives into its purview. 

“A Tag, Not a Folder” by Ian Hatcher

EBR: The “electronicness” in literary writing, Ian Hatcher suggests, is more of a cognitive disposition, an atmosphere or condition that is present regardless of the print/screen/pen(cil)/paper medium one inhabits. 

L&S: Stephanie Boluk places us “amidst [a] tempestuous and contestatory media ecology.” The terms “digital” and “electronic” begin to seem to her, and others, outdated, co-opted, or past their prime in terms of rhetorical usefulness. Ian Hatcher finds them too constraining. They should not be used to label technology-aware writing practices if they establish a Procrustean category (folder) as opposed to being one descriptor among others (tag). He would like us to apply the term “electronic” more generously and more expansively because he has

heard multiple people suggest that the ELO is not so much making headway in convincing larger art/writing circles to acknowledge digital systems as legitimate platforms for literary work as [that] the platforms are becoming so pervasive that it is increasingly hard to ignore them.

He notes that at ELO 2012 “code and text peculiarly and productively coexist with performance and music and other New Weird Electronic hybrid forms.” He affirms “exciting possibilities for cross-pollination, publication, and curation” involving these hybrid forms and encourages ELO to expand notice of them and to solicit their practitioners as members.

He also points out that

even when writing with a pen by candlelight [as…in the unpowered aftermath of Hurricane Sandy] I strongly suspect there are still notes of ‘electronicness’ to be detected in my approach to language, due to the sheer amount of time I’ve spent in front of screens and working with code. My memory and conceptions of space and time are imprinted with the logics of digital systems.

That statement is most likely true for many in ELO, for many in our society, and investigation of what we might mean by literature that is “conceptually” electronic, imprinted somehow with the logics of digital systems, is a productive path to explore. It is not as clear to us that we should collect “conceptually” electronic work in an ELC publication if the work is able to appear in other publication formats. However all such decisions are up to the independent editorial collective (each of the Collections (1-3) has a distinct group of editors). 

Finally, Hatcher points to the need for

grappling with the digital power structures of our time. The politics of data mining, privacy, and language collection/filtration (Google) seem especially crucial for us to be seeking avenues of engagement with, as digital literary works could be incisive and useful tools of cultural intervention on those fronts.

This goal of grappling with the digital power structures has been brought forward by several of our respondents and is indeed one ELO affirms. We grapple with access to materials, with the archiving of materials, and seek to exhibit and collect work inspired, in content or structure or distribution, by an awareness of the thoroughly political nature of language and code. We would welcome suggestions about more effectively and frontally addressing digital power structures.