Electronic Literature as World Literature: An Annotated Bibliography
A snapshot of items on Joseph Tabbi's desktops, vertical and horizontal, presented at the Chicago meeting of the Modern Language Association in December 2007.
Site for collection of 300 URLs that The United States Library of Congress is archiving in collaboration with the Electronic Literature Organization and archive-it.org. Here readers will find, and can add, references to individual works and collections along with descriptions, keywords, and metatags. The latter can be bibliographical (giving author, title, pub date) but also semantic (indicating genres and other conceptual concerns). By growing terms along with works, the ELO editors (myself among them) hope to create a profile for an emerging field.
Cochran, Terry. Twilight of the Literary: Figures of Thought in The Age of Print. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Like Consenstein (below), Cochran sees the practice of literature emerging from material culture, namely, 'the real and ideal constraints implied in bestowing meaning on material artifacts" (3). Under consideration are questions of memory and inscription and the realization of a 'mass mind' linking multitudes spread out over large distances. The co-emergence of literature and 'a global modernity' make Cochran's account of the roughly five hundred years of print a nice complement to Wallerstein's and Braudel's account of the (roughly) five-hundred-year longue durée of the current world-system.
Consenstein, Peter. Literary Memory, Consciousness, and the Group Oulipo. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002.
A "cognitive approach" to literary analysis that does not lapse into facile explanation. Consenstein might productively be read with The Work of Fiction (Palgrave 2003), a collection edited by Alan Richardson and Ellen Spolsky, and my own Cognitive Fictions (Minnesota 2002). These books are useful for anyone wishing to know where literature and the cognitive sciences intersect (and also how to recognize the much larger area of motor and perceptual concerns where the two fields have nothing at all in common). Consenstein, like Cochran, sees literature as emerging (like consciousness) from material and structural constraints. That places literature in a place where its continued development in electronic environments might be conceivable (as a response to new constraints, not as a practice subordinated to gadgets and gizmos, or the romance of embodiment).
DeLillo, Don. Cosmopolis. New York: Scribner, 2003.
The longue durée in a stretch Limo. Traveling across lower Manhatten, the 28-year-old multi-billionaire Eric Packer encounters a presidential motorcade and its trail of globalization demonstrators and performance artists, their protest serving less as an alternative than a bracing resistance to power. Amid periodic conversations, sexual encounters, and continuous, disastrous speculation on currency markets, Packer thinks mostly about language. Words for him are as disposable and changing as the pure products and precious objects he owns and disregards: The "skyscraper" where he keeps a 48-room penthouse seems to him anachronistic in "the quality of the word… no recent structure ought to bear this word. It belonged to the olden soul of awe, to the arrowed towers that were a narrative long before he was born." (9) "The word office was outdated now" (15), "chairs have arms and legs that ought to be called by other names" (164). A security guard's handgun is not outdated, "But the word itself was lost blowing in the wind" (19). A corpse "laid out" brings to mind "an embalmed term in search of a matching cadaver."
Marcus, Ben. The Age of Wire and String. New York: Knopf, 1995.
As nouns in Marcus become verbs, characters become concepts, and words come into proximity with other works, equally removed from familiar contexts and connotations, these 'wire and string' constructions take on a life of their own. Marcus's books differ from experimental writing of previous generations in the United States: his ambition, while large, is realized in patterns, recurrences, and recombinations, not in the promulgation of grand world-thoughts. A model for the development of a Literary Semantic Web:
SHIRT OF NOISE Garment, fabric, or residue that absorbs and holds sound, storing messages for journeys. Its loudness cannot be soothed. It can destroy the member which inhabits it. (page 14)
Tillman, Lynne. American Genius: A Comedy. Brooklyn, NY: Soft Skull Press, 2006.
Encyclopedic narrative in the tradition of Moby Dick but instead of presenting an exhaustive account of whaling (energized by the tragic narrative of outbound quest) we have a stream-of-consciousness treatise on dermatology, textiles, interior design, and much else. The skin, the largest organ of the human body, is Tillman's white whale, an object at once in nature and in us, and something more than a metaphor for the space of writing:
...skin is the agent of the body that protects its other organs, by covering them, and by being an information station that allows the other organs, my doctor explained patiently, to adjust to changes in the outer environment. My condition, dermatographia or dermatographism, skin writing, is not life-threatening, but because of it my skin tingles, pulses, and itches, and if I were to stroke my arm with a fingernail, white lines would surface and be visible for at least fifteen minutes, as my skin releases histamines, which produce swelling, and this occurs in about ten percent of the population, but the swelling is not a hive, since in dermatographia only raised lines surface, which resemble writing on the skin.
Wallerstein, Emanuel. World-Systems Theory: An Introduction. Durham: Duke UP, 2003.
If "no one," in the words of Niklas Luhmann, "disputes the fact of a global system," (a big IF), then those who do find this a compelling notion are themselves compelled to assign a start to it, and also to imagine its end (or plausible alternatives). Wallerstein's periodization derives from Braudel's notion of a longue durée, a lasting (though not eternal) 'now' whose extension, around 500 years, can be appreciated as consistent roughly with the "five hundred years of print literature" (Hayles, "Electronic Literature: what is it?" section titled "A Context for Electronic Literature").
-- since their presentation at the Chicago MLA, these notes have been worked into an essay, forthcoming in a special issue of Poetics Today on constrained writing, co-edited by Jean-Jacques Poucel and ebr thread editor Jan Baetans.