Where Are We Now?: Orienteering in the Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 2

Where Are We Now?: Orienteering in the Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 2

Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 2
Eds. Laura Borràs, Talan Memmott, Rita Raley, and Brian Stefans
Cambridge, MA: Electronic Literature Organization, 2011. Web/DVD.

In an increasingly monolingual, globalized world, the second volume of the Electronic Literature Collection may just offer a map of the territory. The question the reviewer, John Zuern, poses is how do we navigate this terrain going forward?

Although we can now make what we write instantly available more or less everywhere in the world, every act of writing takes place somewhere, in a particular location, at a particular time, in a particular dialect of a particular language, and within the corresponding geopolitical, historical, cultural, and linguistic parameters. Moreover, every act of writing is somatically situated, exerting a strain, often imperceptible but sometimes debilitating, on a particular writer’s body. Acknowledging this inevitable emplacement and embodiment of writing - and consequently of reading - has by now become a commonplace, if not a piety, in much of the artistic and critical discourse on electronic literature, yet as I made my way through the 63 works comprising the second incarnation of the Electronic Literature Collection, the truism powerfully reasserted itself as a recurring, richly varied, and still-urgent theme.

The very first piece in the lineup, Annie Abrahams’ Flash poem “Separation/Séparation,” strikingly emphasizes both the bodily and geographic dimensions of literary creation and reception. Inspired by the author’s experience of repetitive-strain injury, the poem is designed to reinforce ergonomic guidelines aimed at preventing such injuries. Clicking too quickly or forcefully invokes the error message, “You don’t have the right attitude in front of your computer,” and the poem periodically pauses to lead the reader through stress-reduction exercises. While the central focus of Abrahams’ piece is the computer user’s fraught relationship with the machine, by providing English and French versions of the work, Abrahams, a Dutch artist working in France, also underscores the powerful but often under-recognized role of a language - “native,” “national,” “other,” “foreign” - in situating us in relation to whatever we read, even when that situation amounts to a separation due to our inability to comprehend. As do many of the texts in Volume 2, “Separation/Séparation” encodes the coordinates of its creation in the form of the different human languages it engages.Embracing the otherness of two languages, Abrahams, whose native language is Dutch, wrote both “Separation” and “Séparation,” as she explained in an email message to me on 21 July 2011.

Some of these entries are grounded in the political economies as well as the languages of specific locales. Combining English and Spanish, Mark Marino’s innovative hypertext “a show of hands,” which offers alternative paths through its narrative in response to the reader’s prior choices, reveals the precarious lives of Mexican immigrants living in Los Angeles, while Sharon Daniels’ Flash documentary “Public Secrets” gives the inmates of the Central California Women’s Facility a place to tell their stories (and Erik Loyer’s bold, clean design gives those stories ample room to move around in). Other works in the collection incorporate satellite imagery, geo-positioning, and other forms of mapping in inventive ways. Christoph Benda’s “Senghor on the Rocks,” a multi-volume novel in German depicting a European videographer’s sojourn in Senegal, plots the movements of its first-person narrator on a Google Earth map of Dakar; J. R. Carpenter’s “in absentia” employs the same mapping technology to document and decry, in English and French, the gentrification of the Montréal neighborhood of Mile End; and in Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph’s “Inanimate Alice (Episode 4),” a NASA Visible Earth photograph representing the young heroine’s post-industrial English town serves as an interface to different dimensions of Alice’s less-than-wonderful adventure. Part fiction, part historical reconstruction of an 1869 expedition into the American West, Roderick Coover’s “A Journey into the Unknown” unfurls across the screen as an oneiric map of the territory, inlaid with photographs and nodes of narrative. Literary cartography turns skyward in David Clark’s “88 Constellations for Wittgenstein,” a brilliant meditation on the personal and intellectual itineraries of the Viennese philosopher and his associates, as well as in Stephanie Strickland’s “V:Vniverse” (created with Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo), a literally and philosophically animated hypertext poem about gender, embodiment, temporality, and reading.Chris Funkhouser examines the connections between Strickland’s “V:Vniverse” and her print collection V: WaveSon.nets/Losing L’Una in an essay in the Electronic Book Review at http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/superdense. In both of these works, numbered star charts and diagrams of the constellations serve as the principal graphical interface, aligning the cognitive improvisation of star-gazing and celestial navigation with the touch-and-go process of finding meaning in a text. Exhibiting such an impressive capaciousness in terms of styles, media formats, countries of origin, and languages, Volume 2 of the Electronic Literature Collection is itself a kind of map: with their carefully plotted flyover of the landscape of contemporary computer-based writing, co-editors Laura Borràs, Talan Memmott, Rita Raley, and Brian Stefans have provided us an opportunity to get our bearings, to take up positions, and to chart courses within this diverse, fertile, and ever-expanding field.

It certainly isn’t the case that the first volume of the Electronic Literature Collection ignored issues of locality and linguistic diversity. Under the keyword “Place,” Volume 1 actually lists considerably more entries (11) than does Volume 2 (3), in part because the latter seems to scope its application of the term more strictly, and under “Non-English/Multilingual,” the second volume boasts only four more works (11) than the first (7), which includes groundbreaking texts in French by Philippe Bootz, Marcel Frémiot, and Patrick-Henri Burgaud as well as texts by John Cayley, Sharif Ezzat, Loss Pequeño Glazier, all of which incorporate languages other than English. Whereas the first volume had a necessarily retrospective emphasis, however, tasked as it was with defining a field and showing where electronic literature has come from, Volume 2 seems more intent on showing us where electronic literature is now - and perhaps even hinting at where it, along with its institutional and critical support systems, ought to be going. Internationalization is clearly on the editorial agenda; the collection reinforces the drive to represent electronic literature as a world-wide phenomenon reflected in the recent scholarly anthologies Regards Croisés: Perspectives on Digital Literature (2010), edited by Philippe Bootz and Sandy Baldwin, and Reading Moving Letters: Digital Literature in Research and Teaching (2010), edited by Roberto Simanowski, Peter Gendolla, and Jörgen Schäfer. As indicated in the Electronic Literature Organization’s announcement of Volume 2’s launch, the expertise of co-editor Borràs, director of the international research initiative Hermeneia and co-editor of the anthology Textualidades Electrónicas: Neuvos Escenarios para la Literatura (2005), facilitated the inclusion of texts in Catalan, Portuguese, and Spanish such as Ton Ferret’s “The Fugue Book,” a subversive send-up of Facebook in Catalan; “La Casa Sota el Temps” and “Universo Molécula,” two works by another Catalan writer, Isaías Herrero; the swarming bot-poems of “Palavrador,” a collaborative virtual reality project under the direction of Chico Marinho; Jaime Allejandro Rodríguez’s multimedia mystery “Golpe de Gracia”; Rui Torres’ “Amor de Clarice,” which incorporates a short story by Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector and Torres’ poetry generator “Poemas no Meio do Camino.” Volume 2 also serves up English translations of Suzanne Berkenheger’s “The Bubble Bath” (originally in German) and K. Michel and Dirk Vis’ “Ah” (originally in Dutch), as well as a number of pieces presented in what amounts to “facing-window” translations. Along with Abrahams’ piece, these include Serge Bourchardon, Kevin Carpentier, and Stéphanie Spelné’s Toucher (in French and English), David Jhave Johnston’s “Sooth” (in French and English), and Rozalie Hirs’ poem “Family Tree,” animated by Harm van den Dorpel (in Dutch and English). This wide selection of translated work is a welcome sight, not only because translation makes these noteworthy texts accessible to more readers, but also because it draws our attention to practical and philosophical questions about the materiality of electronic literature - a point to which I will return later.

Volume 2 has many other virtues in addition to its international outlook. It is good to see important texts by three of the co-editors of the first volume - Stephanie Strickland, Nick Monfort, and Scott Rettberg. In addition to “V:Vniverse,” Strickland’s work is represented by the captivating poem-program-video fusion “slippingglimpse” (created in collaboration with Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo and Paul Ryan). Nick Monfort’s formidable skills in both human and programming languages - as well as across literary genres - are in evidence in his interactive fiction “Book and Volume,” in which the reader plays the role of a networking specialist charged with rebooting a number of servers scattered throughout a dense urban space, and his stylistically and computationally minimalist Perl poetry generator “ppg256.” Rettberg makes his appearance as a co-author, along with William Gillespie, Dirk Stratton, and Frank Marquardt, of the rollicking hypertext novel “The Unknown.” The collection also adds Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern’s highly influential interactive drama Façade, as well as “Chroma,” a fascinating adventure game/story by Erik Loyer, who for years has made significant contributions to electronic literature as both an author and a designer. The judicious return to authors who also appear in the first volume (for example, Wardrip-Fruin, J. R. Carpenter, Judd Morrissey, Stuart Moulthrop, and William Poundstone) acknowledges the continuing importance of these writers and invites reflection on the development of their artistic practice. Additionally, keyword categories proposed but left empty in Volume 1 - “CAVE,” “Database,” “Hacktivist,” “Installation,” and “Locative” - each now contain at least one entry, a testament both to the prescience of the Volume 1’s editorial team and to the efforts of Volume 2’s co-editors to document important work that can’t be accessed adequately via the Web. Examples of these projects include Marinho’s “Palavrador”; Caitlin Fisher’s “Andromeda,” in which the paper-based 3D of the child’s pop-up book meets cutting-edge virtual reality; Justin Katko’s “Up Against the Screen Mother Fuckers,” developed for the CAVE at Brown University; and - a welcome sight indeed - the celebrated CAVE piece “Screen,” produced by Noah Wardrip-Fruin in collaboration with Josh Carroll, Robert Coover, Shawn Greenlee, Andrew McClain, and Benjamin “Sasha” Shine. All of these achievements are laudable, but to my mind Volume 2’s most valuable contribution remains its commitment to diversifying, in terms of provenance and language, the set of texts that make up the growing community (if not the canon) of electronic literature.

Why are linguistic diversity and the ensuing task of translation so crucial to a vibrant, “sustainable” literary culture, regardless of medium? The following reflections on the second volume of the Electronic Literature Collection will take the form of a meditation on that question, a question that seems especially crucial to me in light of an observation Roberto Simanowksi makes in one of his chapters in Reading Moving Letters. From the vantage point of his longstanding engagement with electronic literary arts, Simanowski notes that “works of digital literature very often use English as the lingua franca in accordance with the increasing importance of globally accessible cultural expressions and to the decreasing role of language in digital literature” (237). Simanowski’s comment points to two literary-historical developments that warrant some serious scrutiny. Each of them is associated with a different sense of the word “language”: presumably, as a particular language - English - gains dominance in electronic literature, language as such is beginning to recede as the paramount means of expression in computer-based creative writing. Simanowski even seems to imply a correlation of these two processes, whereby a monolingualization marks the advent of a delingualization. While for some readers “the decreasing role of language in digital literature” may be something to celebrate, for others (myself included) the suggestion raises both questions and hackles. Faced with these developments, don’t we have to ask ourselves what a literature without language would actually be? At the same time, don’t we also have to ask ourselves how we might mount an appropriate, medium- and discipline-specific critical response to the situation Simanowski describes, a response that asserts the centrality of language, both as such and in particular, to properly literary cultural production without resorting to the reactionary appeals to “the humanistic expressivity of literature” N. Katherine Hayles has rightly cautioned against (85)?

An inspiring answer to this second question comes from Joseph Tabbi, who in a review of four books on cyberculture, including Hayles’ My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts, concludes that “the realm of informatics, even if embodied in objects, routes, channels, and the bodily cage, however complex or ubiquitous, is still of a different order of complexity from the meanings and lifeways that find expression […] in literature and the arts” (“Locating the Literary” 330). Tabbi identifies two prominent orientations within critical discussions of digital literature, one emphasizing a decisive rupture between digital and print forms of literary production, the other viewing electronic texts as perpetuations of various literary-historical trends, both formal and ideological, that originate in print culture. He then challenges us to imagine a third route for critical practice, an orientation:

that neither insists on literary autonomy nor subordinates literary history to a dutiful registration of advances in technological complexity and their sociopolitical consequences. That third, distinctively literary tendency would be less a critique of the world or a celebration of technology than an extension of technological exploration using textual and narrative means. (“Locating the Literary” 326)

Tabbi seems to be calling for a critical practice that teases out the intricate, heterogeneous connections among the many varieties of linguistic and computational expression to be found in electronic texts without privileging mode one over the other. While these connections are often text-intrinsic, they inevitably also link individual works with each other and plug them into the cultural, socio-economic, and technological power grids comprising the world in which we all write and read. The second volume of the Electronic Literature Collection opens up any number of avenues along which we might advance the “expansive and worldly cultural approach” Tabbi advocates (“Locating the Literary” 326). One of them leads into the thicket of languages and the tripwires of translation.

Language as Such and the Languages of Electronic Literature

Eugenio Tisselli’s “synonymovie” invites readers to submit a single “seed” word that prompts the work’s Web search engine to generate a slideshow-like sequence of verbal synonyms paired with sometimes obliquely associated images gathered from the Internet.In his essay “Narrative Motors,” Tisselli offers a brief discussion of his objectives in “synonymovie,” including his notion of a generative seed-word (8). An advisory appears beside the text-entry field on the opening screen: “English please” a request attesting to the function of English as a master constraint on many types of programmed, networked creative writing. Aiming to maximize the potential of his engine to find synonyms and appropriately corresponding images for whatever words users enter, Tisselli - who commands at least four languages - restricts the pool of acceptable words to the presumably global lingua franca. Although a non-English word will occasionally return a relevant image (“enseignement,” for example, resulted in a picture of a classroom), these foreign films stall at the first frame. Tisselli’s restriction of users’ input doesn’t amount to an artistic deficit, but it does point to the continuing sway of what Rita Raley, surveying the state of language on the Internet in 2003, calls “a networked ‘Global English,’” which in order “to reduce the chance of misfire, to eliminate noise […]; must necessarily be universally readable, particularly by machines” (305). In the domain of electronic literature, the responsibility for resisting the imperialism of English doesn’t ultimately lie with individual authors (though they can certainly contribute to the cause) as much as with the discursive and institutional initiatives that are shaping the field. The Electronic Literature Collection is one of these initiatives, and the configuration of Volume 2 indicates that almost a decade after Raley’s assessment, although Global English aggressively continues to assert itself, “we are nevertheless still in a moment in which linguistic subcultures can and do operate against the grain” (Raley 300). Especially significant in this regard is the collection’s presentation of works in Catalan alongside selections in Spanish, as well as its attention to works that engage language politics in Canada, for example Carpenter’s “in absentia” and Johnston’s “Sooth.”

Though I could only superficially parse the Spanish, I spent a long time feeling my way through Doménico Chiappe and Andreas Meier’s novel “Tierra de Extracción,” a multimedia hypertext composed in Director that weaves together five narrative lines, all intersecting with the history of the impact of a century of oil development on the Venezuelan town of Mene Grande. Chiappe discusses the production of this work, which went through a major revision for its 2007 publication, in an interview with Jonathan Blitzer at wordswithoutborders.org “Tierra de Extracción” demonstrates how a broad international scope can accomplish more than just a representative assortment, deepening the resonances among works within an anthology and inspiring comparative, cross-media explorations. In this case, thematic pipelines link “Tierra de Extracción” with “Inanimate Alice,” in which the heroine’s father works for an oil company, and with “Flight Paths,” also by Kate Pullinger and Chris Jacob, in which a migrant worker’s journey from Pakistan to London passes through the petroleum-fueled economy of Dubai. A critic might include all three in a study of literature that grapples with the social ramifications of the oil industry, a project that could look all the way back to Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!

Scratching the surface of “Tierra de Extracción” made me wish for translations of this and all the other texts in the collection in languages I don’t know. My personal desire to access these works is coupled with a sense that everyone involved in electronic literature would benefit from a more thoroughgoing practical and theoretical engagement with problems of inter-linguistic translation as they apply to digital textuality. As Jessica Pressman notes in her fine analysis of Young-hae Chang Heavy Industries’ dual-language “Nippon,” attention to translation supports a critical orientation “that is neither focused on the onscreen text nor the computational code but which illuminates the symbiosis enabling both.” Examining translations of individual digital works reveals the widely varying degree to which changes to their verbal texts entail adjustments to the computational processes that display, manipulate, and/or generate them, thus revealing meaningful variations, from work to work, of the co-dependent relationships between both signifying systems. A quick comparison of the translations of Berkenheger’s hacktivist hypertext “The Bubble Bath” and Michel and Vis’ animated poem “Ah,” both of which appear in Volume 2 only in their English versions, exemplifies some these differences.

Berkenheger’s piece, which originally appeared in 2002 as “Die Schwimmmeisterin,” is designed to be readable only in Internet Explorer on the PC platform. It deploys deliberately glitch-ridden scripts to expose and lampoon IE’s tolerance of shoddy (and potentially hazardous) code. Berkenheger allegorizes the user’s relationship with Microsoft’s maddening browser by way of an erotic melodrama, distributed across unruly pop-up windows, featuring a less-than-responsible supervisor [die Schwimmmeisterin] at a public swimming and spa facility, her male intern [der Praktikant], and a demonic piece of malware. Security upgrades to IE in the years following the initial publication of Die Schwimmmeisterin prompted Berkenheger to revise the piece several times, and by the text’s own admission, it now amounts to “a modern ruin - even after several redevelopments.” The piece that appears in Volume 2 represents a significantly pared down version of the much longer 2002 original, and some of the scripts have been simplified. Berkenheger explained the background of the translation and revision of her text in an email to me on 3 August 2011. Colleen Schmitz and Klaus Ungerer prepared the English translation of “The Bubble Bath.” A version of “Die Schwimmmeisterin” in German can be found at http://www.berkenheger.netzliteratur.net/ouargla/websprudel/browser.htm

While hardly ruinous, the transfer of the German text of “Die Schwimmmeisterin” across linguistic platforms to “The Bubble Bath” brings some curious incompatibilities to light. An earlier translation of the title as “The Swimming Attendant” keeps the focus on the lead character, but it loses not only the original’s gender specificity but also its authoritarian echo of Meister [master], along with its even more important reference to the vocational-education apparatus in which Berkenheger’s characters are embedded. However questionable her work ethic, in the German cultural context Berkenheger’s swimming attendant is no temporary, minimum-wage employee. Schwimmmeister(in) is a professional title in Germany. To earn it, a person must undergo an apprenticeship [Praktikum] and pass a certification exam, a process comparable to the programs that produce Microsoft Certified Professionals - and reproduce the corporate culture that has fostered Microsoft’s slipshod products. “Apprentice,” then, gesturing toward the old guild system, might have been a more precise English equivalent for Praktikant than “intern.” The new title is even more interestingly odd. A literal translation of Sprudelbad [whirlpool bath or Jacuzzi], the English “bubble bath” typically denotes a private indulgence and thus departs from the decidedly public bathing - an emblem of the public Internet - over which this swimming-mistress presides, though the English words do add the financial connotations of “bubble” and “taking a bath.” My aim here is not to complain about the translation of Berkenheger’s text, which on the whole corresponds nicely to the work’s whimsical spirit, but to point out that the metaphorical connections between the story Die Schwimmeisterin tells and the programming malfeasance its scripting exposes are realigned and attenuated in “The Bubble Bath.” Berkenheger reports that although the translation did involve some recoding of scripts associated with some on-screen behaviors, the real conundrums had to do with the kind of cross-languages asymmetries I’ve pointed out. While Berkenheger’s allegorical tale depends on cultural codes that resist translation, her scripts are largely independent of that story, so - ultimately - the central message of “The Bubble Bath” is not lost in translation: IE’s crappiness turns out to be universally comprehensible.

The translation of Vis’ animation of Michel’s “Ah” involves a somewhat more intimate engagement with the digital processes that instantiate the poem. The version in the Electronic Literature Collection constitutes not only a translation (by the noted Dutch translator Paul Vincent) of Michel’s “Ah” (Douchelied) but also Vis’ re-animation of his original Flash rendition of the poem.The Dutch version of “Ah” can be found at http://www.hprtkst.com A stream-of-consciousness musing on the everyday implications of Albert Einstein’s theories, “Ah” depicts associative thinking as an improvisation on the built-in phonetic chords of a particular language - a process by which sounds turn into phonemes and morphemes, which turn, in turn, into words and ideas.In this respect, the evolution of words from sounds in “Ah” is reminiscent of the gradual emergence of linguistic signifiers from ambient natural and computer-generated noise in John Cayley’s “windsound,” which appears in Volume 1 of the Electronic Literature Collection. Working in the Flash environment, Vis had to create new symbols representing the English words, and he had to reconstruct the movement of these elements and the pacing of their superimpositions, which at times fleetingly produce serendipitous - and of course language-specific - morphs between morphemes as well as transient new words. Lost in the English version is the close phonic and semantic link between the Dutch een [one] and the first three letters of “Einstein,” along with the palindrome-in-passing created by the last four letters of that name and niet [not] (see figs. 1 and 2). Among the gains is the lovely overlap later in the poem by which “the rusting goes steadily on” turns briefly into “the trusting goes steadily on.”

To view a larger version of the image above click here.

Fig. 1. Screen shot of K. Michel and Dirk Vis’ “Ah” (“Douchlied”). Used with permission.

Fig. 2. Screen shot of K. Michel and Dirk Vis’ “Ah” as translated by Paul Vincent. Used with permission.

According to Michel and Vis, translating the poem into English met with few difficulties; achieving a fluent reanimation, however, required a subtle material intervention into the structure of the program that regulates the poem’s flow. Michel and Vis described the process of animating and translating “Ah” in an email message to me on 30 July 2011. In the same way, translating the one-word entries in Peter Cho’s lexicon-like “Wordscapes” into another language would be a more or less straightforward enterprise in linguistic terms, but it would require a painstaking reconfiguration of the animated elements out of which many of these words are built.

Extending this thought experiment - what would it mean to translate this work? - to other entries in Volume 2 reveals different and more intense interdependencies between particular languages and particular computational approaches. Braxton Soderman’s haunting “Mémoire Involuntaire No. 1” is an English-language animated prose poem that slowly replaces words with their increasingly remote synonyms, shifting the mood and implications of its account of an early childhood memory. It might appear that translating it into the language of its Proustian title, or any other language, would run up against the same kind of constraint Tisselli encounters, insofar as Soderman’s work draws its synonyms from WordNet, the English lexical database developed at Princeton. Similar databases are becoming available for other languages, however, and in comparison to “synonymovie,” the set of words seeking synonyms in Soderman’s text is small and, crucially, predefined. By contrast, any natural-language translation of Neil Hennessey’s word-generator “Jabber” would have a radically transformative effect on the language of the programming. Designed as it is to point out how nonsense words tend to conform to the orthographic conventions of the nonsense-maker’s native language, accommodating “Jabber“ ‘s estranging neologism-building operations to the morphological and graphical characteristics of German, Hawaiian, or Tamil, for example, would likely require thoroughgoing revisions to the source code.In “Freeing the Jabberwock: On JABBER, The Jabberwocky Engine,” a philosophically rich essay on the development of his nonsense-poetry generator, Hennessey explains that his work “codifies and automates the disruption of neologism so that each iteration of the generator provides a further estrangement from our language. The unfamiliar smuggled into our language in the guise of the familiar.” Hennessey’s idea is that nonsense words exercise an alienation effect for speakers of languages; Jabber demonstrates the principle in the specific case of English. Rendering it into a language like Chinese might demand a complete departure from the program’s fundamental phoneme-combining logic, so that “Jabber,” as Hennessey conceived it, would for all practical purposes be entirely lost in translation.

Like “Jabber,” Monfort’s “ppg256” is a consciously language-specific poetry generator. In the essay accompanying this piece, Monfort explains in detail how he has defined the strings of characters and bigrams out of which his Perl program assembles two- and four-letter words so that authentic English lexemes occur approximately 60% of the time. As with “Jabber,” it is theoretically possible to “translate” “ppg256” to produce poems in other languages, but the morphological and syntactic features of at least some of those languages would require new strategies (Monfort’s ingenious “atonof” preposition generator, for example, would certainly have to be retooled), and I imagine they would also put pressure on the specifically computational constraints Monfort has set for himself, one of which is keeping the length of the program itself within 256 characters. In comparison with Hennessey and Monfort’s texts, Mez’s “cross.ova.ing 4.rm.blog.2.log 07/08 XXtracts,” despite mezangelle’s (its hybrid language) reliance on the notational conventions of programming languages, might be seen as considerably more “translatable,” at least into languages using the Roman alphabet, as it would require no functionally consequential alterations to a machine-readable, executable code.

I entered the word “translation” into Tisseli’s “synomymovie” multiple times, generating different movies that featured words like “move,” “paraphrase,” “simulation,” and “deception,” as well as delightful outliers like “excretion” and “beguile.” One movie ended on the word “communication” (accompanied by a picture of a man shouting in another man’s ear), another on “assertion” (accompanied by a picture of dense vegetation that may or may not be marijuana).

In the present context, these results seem especially apt. In the interest of communication, literary translation aims to overcome language difference, yet through its myriad losses and compromises the process cannot help but assert that difference, and not always in lamentable ways. In the case of many electronic texts, the literary artifact’s specific materiality also bristles at the approach of the translator. Thinking about the consequences of this or that text’s relative openness and resistance to language-to-language translation compels us to think more precisely about the intersection of each work’s verbal and computational dimensions - the mixed signals that distinguish it from its non-electronic and electronic counterparts - and, perhaps, to rethink the metaphorical uses of “translation” now proliferating in digital literary criticism, which sometimes threaten to collapse the important differences between the verbal and the computational. Furthermore, raising the question of translatability, as do many of the works in Volume 2, shows how difficult it is to isolate language as such from the tangled skein of particular languages out of which particular works of literature emerge.


If we take seriously Simanowski’s suggestion that “language,” however we scope that term, is stepping aside as the central player in electronic literary arts, what other components are taking the lead, and where are they leading? Choosing among several possible candidates, including the broad categories of “the visual” or “the kinetic,” I will briefly touch on a meaning-making modality that seems to me even more distinctive of computer-based literature. It goes by several names, including “kinesthesia,” “haptics,” and the appealing though somewhat too device-bound designation “mouse reading” proposed by Janez Strehovec (374). It comprises all the means by which electronic texts solicit their readers’ bodily participation alongside their intellectual and emotional engagement. As many writers have discovered, running a feedback loop through the reader’s body has profound aesthetic as well as ethical potential because it establishes a dynamic link between what Aristotle, in Rhetoric, calls lexis - the stylistic, figurative dimensions of a text - and what he calls, in the Nicomachean Ethics, hexis - a word often translated as “habit” or “disposition” and referring to a kind of moral orientation, the degree of control we exercise over our responses to stimuli and the choices that follow from them. Conceptualized in these Aristotelian terms, kinesthetically augmented reading constitutes a psychosomatic exercise of phronesis, and many of the writers represented in Volume 2 have found ingenious ways to tie this deliberative dimension of reading to particular philosophical, ethical, and political themes.

In 2004 I had the privilege of reading/playing/enduring “Screen” in the Brown CAVE under Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s patient guidance. Like many others, I experienced a curious combination of enchantment and anxiety as the texts surrounding me began to fly apart, their disintegration accelerating as I flailed at the airborne words. As the piece drew to its close, my ambivalence shifted to a sense of urgency coupled with something like regret: my efforts to re-member the work had done nothing to prevent its collapse, yet the narration, delivered by a voice now unmoored from the projected text, underscored the indispensability of just such an effort. Although its compressed, personal narrative itself provides no specific historical context, the conclusion of “Screen” powerfully implies that individual memories are bound up in collective histories and that our desire to preserve the former entails a responsibility to honor the latter. For me, “Screen” remains the gold standard for evaluating other works’ success in establishing meaningful links between what they “say” and what they compel their readers to “do.”

Like “Screen,” Bruno Nadeau and Jason Lewis’ video installation “Still Standing” directly ties the very integrity of its text to the movements of the reader, who must stand motionless in front of the screen in order assemble individual letters into the short poem and to maintain its legibility. “Still Standing” resembles Abrahams’ “Separation/Séparation” in both the somatic demands it makes on its reader and its message: preserving our physical and psychic well being in our hyperactive, impatient culture requires a deliberate slowing down. Equally delicate, Bourchardon, Carpentier, and Speln’s “Toucher” offers five sensuous means of influencing the appearance of textual and visual elements on the screen: “move,” “caress,” “hit,” “spread,” and “blow,” each bearing erotic and ethical implications that reinforce the poem’s investigation of the paradoxes of “touch” in computer-mediated relationships. As they acknowledge in their artists’ statement, “this touching experience reveals a lot about the way we touch a multimedia content on screen, and maybe also about the way we touch people, objects [sic] in everyday life” (emphasis in original).French and English versions of this statement can be downloaded as a PDF file from the “Presentation” link on the works’ home page. Drawing on the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, the authors of “Toucher” are keenly aware of the moral dimensions of our bodily interactions with communication technologies.

On the opposite end of the kinesthetic spectrum, Sandy Baldwin’s generically “mod”-ified hybrid “New Word Order: Basra” embeds the words of a poem (Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry”) in the environment of a first-person shooter game (Half-Life) and brilliantly entangles the acts of reading, aiming, and hitting a target, while Jason Nelson’s “Game, Game, Game and Again Game” adapts the format of the platform game to propel its reader-player through levels of fractured commentary on close-mindednessed in both on- and off-line culture. In his author’s note on this piece, Nelson describes it as “less a game about scoring and skill, and more an awkward and disjointed atmospheric, the self built into a jumping, rolling meander of life.” In Nelson’s text as in all the others than employ kinesthesia, the reader’s movements are as figural as they are functional; built into the lexis of the text-as-instrument, the integrity of reader’s own embodied self is stylized, rendered legible as an expression of hexis, which is, in the end, life-style.

A beautiful confluence of the two issues I have focused on in this review - diversity and embodied reading - can be found under “X” in Cho’s “Wordscapes.” In Cho’s Processing animation, the red dot indicates the location of the reader’s cursor. As the dot approaches the white dots composing the word “xenophobia” (and representing the individual members of a xenophobic community), a position-detection script (representing xenophobia itself) repels the white dots from the red one (see fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Screen shot from Peter Cho’s Wordscapes. Used with permission.

The brilliance of Cho’s depiction of the corrosive effects of xenophobia lies in the fact that when the white dots act on their aversion to the “stranger” - with whom the reader is, via the mouse, identified - their coherence as a meaningful collective is destroyed. If we focus not on the repellence of the white dots but rather on the power of the red one to dispel their malign solidarity, we see that Cho’s work figures its reader not only as a passive victim of prejudice but also as an agent of monitory disruption in a totalizing but inherently unstable system.

A comparable agency is at work in Volume 2 of the Electronic Literature Collection. I am not implying, of course, that the critical discourse on electronic literature has been xenophobic; in fact, as Tabbi suggests, the collective intellectual project organized around digital literary production is poised to dispel the wraiths of nationalism and chauvinism that continue to haunt more conventional disciplinary formations of literary scholarship. Cho’s agitating red dot, then, might be aligned with the critical imagination shaping the Electronic Literature Collection, one that heralds the unsettling arrival of linguistic, technological, and formal “foreigners,” recognizing that these newcomers bring not only an additive diversity but also unpredictable, transformative challenges. Translation is a key component of this critical hospitality, and it is not by chance that Sandy Baldwin launches his preface to the volume Regards Croisés by wrestling with the problem of translating the book’s title. Baldwin parlays this linguistic conundrum into a consideration of the much broader problem of consolidating the field of electronic literature:

The task of “coming to terms” with digital literature, set out in my initial reflections on translating the title of the collection, is always a task of codifying, normalizing, and locating the field within communities, nationalities, and geographies. It also means resistance to any codification, location, or normalization, a resistance emerging from the problems or gaps or alternative views on the literary work. Such problems are specific to language, specific to literature as the problem space of language, but also specific to national cultures and other communities. (xiii)

Through their perspicacious choices, the co-editors of Volume 2 have problematized the field of electronic literature along the lines Baldwin sketches out. Individually, and each in its own way, the 63 works comprising the collection compel us to reflect on how we are bound - cognitively and somatically constrained, but also socially, ethically, and politically connected, obligated, and implicated - by codes. Collectively, they ask us to check the calibration of the conceptual compasses that guide our thinking about “electronic literature.”

Where Are We Now?

As a collective artistic and critical enterprise, electronic literature is reinforcing the global cultural ties our communication technologies make possible. At the same time, electronic texts - like many in Volume 2 - that insist on their site-specificity and that simultaneously demand and interfere with translation can also work against the displacement, alienation, commodification, and homogenization that accompany globalization, thus helping electronic literature realize the potential Tabbi envisions: to assume the role of a world literature that “can be regarded as an alternative formation to globalization (with its ideal of unconstrained flows of capital and information and its ideology of progressive freedom)” (“World Literature” 26, emphasis in original). In Tabbi’s view, if electronic literature is to fulfill this promise, authors and critics will need to privilege not the novel capacities of this or that technology but rather “a renewed verbal invention as well as a backward-looking, etymological, and […]; typographical exploration” (“World Literature” 35). To “backward-looking” I would add “outward-looking,” underscoring the need to resist the temptation not only of techno-presentism but also of a metropolitan parochialism content to go about its business in English and two or three other languages of European origin. Surveying collections like the one under review here, it is all too easy to point out gaps (the Asias? the Africas? the “Arab World?”). A more important task is to ask after the conditions that have left those openings and to think of them precisely as openings.

The co-editors of the second volume of the Electronic Literature Collection are obviously committed to combating (or at least complicating) the trends toward monolingualism and language-less-ness Simanowksi identifies. As I have been suggesting, such efforts to preserve and foster linguistic diversity are vital because having to think about particular languages - the interactions of the different human languages spoken in different parts of the world and differently positioned vis-à-vis the global dominance of English - helps us to think better about language as such, both as the medium many of us assume, perhaps naively, to be the sine qua non of any artwork claiming to be “literature” and as the somewhat slapdash metaphor for the various other sign-systems (programming “languages,” visual “languages”) that also play essential roles in digital literary production.

Simanowski makes his remarks about the ascendency of English and the demotion of language in the context of a perceptive and rather pessimistic overview of the place of electronic literature in the teaching mission of European and North American universities. For better or for worse, university-based teaching and research remains a powerful driving force for electronic literature, a role that incurs weighty responsibilities. People on campuses throughout the world are rising to the occasion, as Volume 2 clearly indicates: shimmering beneath the collection’s gorgeous interface is an equally alluring map of the personal and institutional networks that have nurtured the production, promotion, and study of computer-based literary arts. As those of us who work in the academy strive to integrate electronic literary texts into our curricula, we should also strive to establish more nodes and strands within this international Web of scholarly and creative interchange. Parallel to this initiative, we ought to develop more compelling rationales for retaining foreign language requirements for undergraduate and graduate students.Noting the discontinuation of courses in textual studies as well as the drawdown in foreign-language requirements in American universities, Tabbi observes that “what professors of literature are jettisoning from the curriculum, it seems, are precisely those disciplinary forms that would allow us to enter both the media and world culture on terms specific to our own practice as writers” (“World Literature” 318). To these ends, we might encourage more projects that take, if not translation as such, the dynamic Aufhebung (the overcoming and upholding) of differences between languages as a central theme.John Cayley’s remarkable “windsound” and “Translation” (Vol. 1) are exemplary of such initiatives; another example is Annie Abrahams’ 2010 Huis Clos/No Exit: On Translation, a multi-location video performance in collaboration with Ruth Catlow, Paolo Cirio, Ursula Endlicher, Nicolas Frespech, and Igor Stromajer, which can be found at http://bram.org/huisclos/ontranslation/

In an essay on translation that resonates in many ways with Tabbi’s reflections on a remediated world literature, Emily Apter asserts that “ideally, one would redesign literary studies to respond critically and in real time to cartographies of emergent world-systems” (581). Insofar as every work of electronic literature represents a creative and often critical appropriation of our unevenly globalizing society’s most powerful means of meaning production, it more than deserves a place in such a revitalized and, I would argue, now unavoidably comparative discipline. For our part, we should think more about electronic literature’s engagements (and complicities) with monolingualism and with the operations of global capitalism not only out of a high-minded sense of ideological duty, but because the insights we derive will help us argue for the field’s contribution, indeed its indispensability, to a polyvocal discourse (nurtured in part, but not exclusively, in universities) that is responsive to innovations in communication technology and, even more important, responsible for cultivating a critical, interpretive orientation toward those emerging modalities of always-located, always-embodied human-human, human-machine, and human-world-system interaction. Crafted by a crew of seasoned travelers, the second volume of the Electronic Literature Collection provides a guidebook to the rugged, exhilarating terrain through which all of us, as readers, writers, and teachers of electronic literature, are now finding our way.


Works Cited

Apter, Emily. “The Untranslatables: A World System.” New Literary History 39.3 (2008): 581-98. Project Muse. Web. 25 July 2011.

Baldwin, Sandy. “Preface.” Regards Croisés: Perspectives on Digital Literature. Eds. Philippe Bootz and Sandy Baldwin. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2010. ix-xiv. Print.

Hayles, N. Katherine. Electronic Literature: New Horizons of the Literary. South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008. Print.

Hennessey, Neil. “Freeing the Jabberwock: On Jabber, the Jabberwocky Engine.” Electronic Poetry Center. Electronic Poetry Center, 10 May 2002. Web. 24 Jul 2011. http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/hennessey/data/essays/Jabber_epoetry.htm.

Pressman, Jessica. “Reading the Code between the Words: The Role of Translation in Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries’s Nippon.” dichtung-digital. 2007. Web. 3 Aug. 2011. http://dichtung-digital.mewi.unibas.ch/2007/Pressman/Pressman.htm.

Raley, Rita. “Machine Translation and Global English.” The Yale Journal of Criticism 16.2 (Fall 2003): 291-313. Project Muse. Web. 8 July 2011.

Simanowski, Roberto. “Teaching Digital Literature: Didactic and Institutional Aspects.” Reading Moving Letters: Digital Literature in Research and Teaching. Eds. Simanowski, Roberto, Jörgen Schäfer and Peter Gendolla. Bielefeld: Transcript, 2010. 231-48. Print.

Strehovec, Janez. “In Search for the Novel Possibilities of Text-Based Installations.” Reading Moving Letters: Digital Literature in Research and Teaching. Eds. Simanowski, Roberto, Jörgen Schäfer and Peter Gendolla. Bielefeld: Transcript, 2010. 367-74. Print.

Tabbi, Joseph. “Electronic Literature as World Literature; or, the Universality of Writing under Constraint.” Poetics Today 31.1 (2010): 17-50. Project Muse. Web. 28 July 2011.

—. “Locating the Literary in New Media.” Contemporary Literature 49.2 (2008): 311-31. Project Muse. Web. 28 July 2011.

Tisselli, Eugenio. “Narrative Motors.” Regards Croisés: Perspectives on Digital Literature. Ed. Philippe Bootz and Sandy Baldwin. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2010. 1-10. Print.