Review of A Companion to Digital Literary Studies

Review of A Companion to Digital Literary Studies

2009-04-28
A Companion to Digital Literary Studies
Ray Siemens and Susan Schreibman, eds.
Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

Scott Hermanson considers the Companion’s success in negotiating its own position between digital literature and print media.

Ray Siemens and Susan Schreibman’s A Companion to Digital Literary Studies published by Blackwell attempts to capture a snapshot of digital literary studies as it stands on what is likely a new world. Editing a Blackwell Companion series must be daunting when faced with that wide a spectrum. Specificity is easy. Exploring the esoteric niche means forgetting everything outside, staying in the bubble of one’s particular hobbyhorse. The companion, however, forgoes this luxury and must take the wide-angle view. How much more intimidating, then, to edit a companion to a field like digital literary studies where the rate of change is so rapid and the field itself so new. As they did in 2004 with A Companion to Digital Humanities, Along with John Unsworth. A Companion to Digital Humanities. Eds Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens and John Unsworth, Blackwell Publishing, 2004. http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companion/ Siemens and Schreibman bring together a varied collection of thinkers to consider digital literary studies as a discipline itself, doing a substantial amount of footwork in categorization and definition of a facet of literary studies that is at once absolutely based in past scholarship but also alien and protean. In doing so, they run the risk of a tome quickly made obsolete. But we might argue that such a field is most in need of an authoritative manual, something that sets some firm boundaries (or at least starting lines) for discussing the issues particular to digital literary studies.

Does this work then become a tour guide for strangers to the new lands? This would seem to be Alan Liu’s understanding as he frames his Introduction, “Imagining the New Media Encounter.” He enlists the rhetoric of colonialism, empire, and exploration in order to shape the discussion in these thirty essays on digital literature. For Liu the central metaphor is the narrative of first contact. Digital literature as it meets the old world of print media.

In that meeting, of course, is the negotiation and renegotiation of terms. Digital literature looks back on traditional texts, seeing it as a nascent version of its magnificent self. Liu writes, “media archeology encourages us to see old media as beta-releases of computability, digitality, random access, Turing machines, Von Neumann architecture, databases, programming, hypertext, and so on” (13). This seems a natural thing to do. In understanding complex phenomena, we frequently create a teleological narrative to explain cause and effect. And there is a rather obvious element of connection to this present point in communication and those that came before us. These things are all connected because they all seek to do the same thing - categorize and analyze the human condition and experience. That means similar ways of accounting for the vastness of experience. And we always reconfigure old ideas through new. How else to explain the perpetual staging of Shakespeare dramas re-imagined in fascist Italy, apartheid South Africa, or other anachronistic settings?

It is this power of comparison that seems most necessary to define digital literature, to establish its identity, its borders, its characteristics. But really, is this feat possible? Certainly there are elements to digital literature that make it radically different from previous print media. Experiencing the tricks that digital literature can do in the hands of an artist is like seeing Cirque du Solei after a steady diet of Shriner clowns stuffed in a car. The new medium can be quite dazzling. But it’s also epic in scope. Digital media can enact change across the entire landscape of communication. It blurs, if not completely erases, defining lines between text, speech, pictures, video, and film. Can any tome be a “companion” to a phenomenon so widespread? A friend to all but close to none? Can this collection succeed in any respect tackling such a large subject?

The production of digital literature creates a stunning reassessment of content and form. Among others, Christian Vandendorpe’s essay, “Reading on Screen: The New Media Sphere,” reveals something about how the production of digital texts alters what we classify as important in a reading experience. He suggests that the greatest asset of digital literature may be its ubiquity. Ease of copy and storage, Vandendorpe notes, has allowed digital documents to seriously challenge the dominance of the codex and its portability and lack of expense: “Ubiquity is the perfect solution to portability” (205). But achieving the quick, exact copy and the minute storage space has meant that what remains as literature may only contain that which can be coded - namely the letters, numbers, and symbols of the printing press. We’ve lost the form in favor of the content. Book collectors will, of course, feel this absence intensely, perhaps even in the same sense that audiophiles have clung to their vinyl in the face of first compact discs and now mp3’s and iTunes. Yet there is more to this than the desire for the aura of the first edition. John Lavagnino, in his essay “Digital and Analog Texts,” while not lamenting a loss of beauty that characterizes the LP lover’s lament, notes that moving from print to screen has sacrificed an analog understanding of the printed work. Digital literature decrees that only those elements codified (or that can be codified) count as significant. Lavagnino writes that, “with texts we are free to see any other features as significant” (412). Features such as margins, weight, texture, and blank space mean something with a book. Without them we lose some sense. We lose the ability to map information, and I use that verb quite literally. Mapping presumes a fixed landscape, and the mutable forms that digital literature can take frustrate at least that element of memory and comprehension that notes information in physical relationship to other pieces of data. As Lavignino points out, we must examine “how texts are appropriately presented and not merely worded” (412, his italics) to appreciate the work. I do not mean to say that one presentation is better than another, but that we must be cognizant of the presentation, and be especially diligent of this in translating texts into digital format.

We can see how these issues are being addressed in the world of journalism. In an attempt to create a more stable presentation, Vandendorpe directs us to online style sheets for the New York Times (211), and I would similarly point out a magazine like Orion that creates an interactive product, but one that retains a very concrete appearance, independent of the individual screen accessing its data.http://www.orionmagazine-digital.com/orionsample/sample/ These new technologies codify some elements that previously were deemed irrelevant.

Yet these changes, and other, imminent improvements in technology that will make electronic literature increasingly similar to traditional printed books, only offer superficial similarities. The appearances may mirror each other, but the conditions and contexts remain significantly different.

In his popular book, The Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts addressed what meaning might be sacrificed when text migrated from the printed word to the electronic realm. While Birkerts posited quite a number of salient changes to the reading experience, I think his most incisive insight concerns time. Print, he argues, “posits a time axis: the turning of pages… is a forward-moving succession.” Sven Birkerts. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994. p122 Digital works, however, are “felt to be evanescent.” Ibid They create a heightening of the present where knowledge is understood more as a collage, a “lateral and synchronic enterprise…not as a depth phenomenon.”Ibid 137 The instantaneous, networked data - be it aesthetic lexia in a work of digital literature or fragments of other types of information - produces the illusion of perpetual access. When read, a printed book casts a longer shadow than the electronic word, accessing a past that conversely, the digital work flattens. Because the printed work must make more allowances to the arrow of time - indeed, so much of the printed book is about pacing, leading the reader through time at a particular rate - the act of reading works as metonymy for history.

Birkerts goes so far to argue that electronic literature “leaches out traditional meaning and a sense of self by shattering the basic space-time coordinates we have always oriented ourselves by.”Ibid 219 We may even lose a sense of reflection in the face of an ever-accessible present. One might note the acceleration from diary to blog to Facebook to Twitter: a rapid progression along the continuum from deep reflection to mere reaction. This loss of orientation is of no small importance. If we extend Liu’s narrative of first contact as an explanatory metaphor for digital literature, we might also see the loss that accompanied the colonial enterprise; the cultures, languages, and perhaps connections between people that were severed by new technologies.

With the digitization of vast amounts of text (as in Google’s Library Project and the digitizing of some 15 million books), we can envision a future where the individual book ceases to possess its individuality. Vandendorpe notes that some would view such a world with despair, but he dismisses those concerns as that of near Luddites, overwhelmed by the coming tide: “The revolution brought in by the internet may well be seen by some as a barbaric invasion similar to the ones that marked the end of the Roman Empire” (213). Yet this simile too quickly pockets the very real concerns that a digital world built upon snippets, anonymity, and promiscuity robs us of the very personal connection, the intimate communication of literature.

On occasion these essayists will note - some with regret, some with excited anticipation - that the primacy of the “author” will erode significantly with the spread of digital literature. The author as a controlling figure parceling out information will be subsumed by ubiquitous access to vast terabytes of information. Granted, much of this excitement about digitizing acres of text considers text in terms of non-fiction and facts: the quantitative sum of knowledge that allows us to build a radio, grasp political changes, discover the history of China or annotate and archive literature. For the reader/surfer of the digital world, the author disappears behind a rain of fragments as the work disintegrates into discrete bits of text to be reassembled into patchworks. The effacing of the author may not be so traumatic when dealing with a fair portion of the written world, but when it comes to literature of a certain artistic merit, literature that seeks to define ourselves in relation to the world, we need that sense of an individual voice. I can do no better than to enlist the novelist John Updike:

[The book] is the site of an encounter, in silence, of two minds, one following in the other’s steps but invited to imagine, to argue, to concur on a level of reflection beyond that of personal encounter, with all its merely social conventions, its merciful padding of blather and mutual forgiveness.http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/25/books/review/25updike.html?pagewanted=2&_r=2 paragraph 10 To credit Vandendorpe, he also quotes Updike from this same selection, citing the “grisly scenario” of “promiscuous word snippets stripped of credited authorship” (213).

The work of literary art is about the idiosyncratic view, the particular viewpoint of the genius. As such, it requires a one-to-one correspondence between reader and author. Anything less is less than literary. Digital text suggests speed, transience, and impermanence. Losing the tactile and the duration of the physical text diminishes the experience and lessens the reflective faculties of the reader.

Yet if we are drifting away from this element of reflection, we are embracing the wonders of scholarship that digitization has allowed. Perhaps the most common use of digital work in relation to scholarship has been the expansion of the annotation of texts. We’ve already had the preponderance of books that are now accompanied by annotations: the Annotated Lolita and A Companion to Gravity’s Rainbow and such. Digital media allows scholars to take this to a new level, access a vast range of texts, images, video, maps, and complete archives at a keystroke. Yet while this facet of scholarship is immensely improved, there isn’t that much change in the type of scholarship. The accumulation of relevant information is still the same, but with the aid of digital storage and access there’s a lot more of it.

Some argue, however, that the scholarship has the potential to alter how we think about a text. Dirk Van Hulle, in “Hypertext and Avant-texte in 20th Century and Contemporary Literature,” writes about digitally enhanced analysis of such pre-digital works as The Sound and the Fury (143). Here the use of hypertext links doesn’t just provide an annotation of background information or facts, but rather enables a different sort of close reading through which a reader can rapidly access various points in the novel that refer to similar events. This hypertext version allows the reader to literally reconstruct the chronology of the novel potentially in ways that reverse the confusing timeline of the Benjy chapter, for instance. Van Hulle notes that such digital annotation (even rearranging) of the text works very well with modernist works that frequently made use of fragments and decontextualization in portraying the world. It is with some irony, then, that the digital technology which is so adept creating non-linear works can also be effective at recreating a linear narrative out of modernist fragments.

Yet, this trick is no different than what scholars have always done. Reams have been written in explaining The Sound and the Fury, succeeding in doing something just like what Van Hulle describes. Perhaps his scenario lets us envision an undergraduate more quickly grasping Faulkner’s difficult text with the aid of a reconfigured text, but even with this powerful tool, we must remember that the technology does shut down some interpretation. Again, the selection of what counts as data - what phrases, tropes, and themes get codified - limits what counts as interpretation. Analysis becomes dependent upon the programmer’s sense of what’s important.

Another more radical reshaping of scholarship accompanies digitization. Choudhury and Seaman note that the myriad options of publishing and formats will certainly challenge the traditional monograph as the gold standard of literary scholarship. Already departmental notions of acceptable scholarship are changing in light of digital journals, web-based organizations, and electronic texts. This change can be beneficial for the discipline. We’ve already faced a concern about increasingly higher standards for tenure, and a glut of unpublished monographs and shrinking outlets for publication in the traditional sense. If the publish or perish mindset continues to influence how we rank and value individuals, departments, and colleges, then the flourishing of digital scholarship enables us to reward research and thoughtful ideas even if they are best conveyed in some fashion different than the journal article or monograph.

A darker side of this, however, concerns scholarship that takes advantage of the vast richness of data now available in digital form. In and of itself, there is nothing particularly sinister about the Medievalist who can now crunch numbers, accounting for all the particular phrases in a work. Or the 17th century specialist who can map all references to religion and, for example, darkness, cross-referencing them with references to money, and then create a matrix that reveals a new architecture within the works of a poet. With the advent of digital databases, scholars can mine an incredible amount of data, uncovering patterns and trends that were difficult if not impossible to imagine. But data-driven scholarship can easily be misconstrued as more valuable or more legitimate because it relies on hard numbers. Humanities have lately struggled with the ability to adequately explain themselves to outside viewers. Many academics in the humanities have experienced the challenge of articulating the value of literary studies to relatives, friends in the business world, or elected officials responsible for state university funding. But as digital scholarship bleeds into the humanities, we can envision departments where this type of data-driven research becomes elevated above others because it is easy to sell, quantifiable, and a product of exact numbers. The danger exists in privileging the 1 and the 0 and obscuring the infinite gradations in between.

Certainly there is a place for this scholarship, and I don’t mean for my preferences to take precedence. But we must be wary of embracing too strongly the riches of data-driven scholarship at the expense of the personal interpretation. Literary study is not a science nor a social science. Raw numbers can only take us so far.

I want to end with a foray into the aesthetics of digital literature. While the benefits and strengths of applying the digital medium to scholarship are both apparent and rapidly being employed, a sense of the aesthetic of digital literature is less clear and less easily addressed.

Dirk Van Hulle draws a line connecting the modernist fragments of Eliot, Stein, and Faulkner through post-modern experimentation to the hypertext of digital literature. Van Hulle argues that the modernists, in their use of fragments and deviation from linear narratives “prefigure literary aesthetics in the digital age” (140). He employs this aesthetic timeline for a specific purpose, namely to show that the process of composing literature has now worked its way into the final product as an element of the aesthetic experience. But rather than focus on process as the integral part of digital literary aesthetics, I think Van Hulle’s literary antecedents better reveal the frustrating element of a digital literature so indebted (and perhaps enthralled) with fragmentation and non-linear narrative structure.

Hypertext, the ability to link related fragments of data at will and non-sequentially, dramatically opened up artistic possibilities. With some very minor exceptions, traditional text moved in one direction, arrow straight Narrative strategies like flashbacks certainly manipulate the temporal, but most authors employ these in such a way that the reader encounters them in a very precise narrative order. . Authors were bound and blessed by the responsibility of control, knowing exactly when a reader would encounter every piece of information in a work. This presumed the reader enlisted in the contract with the author, that the work was an ordered text, beginning at the beginning. Of course people would skim, skip, and read out of order, but all acknowledged that this was a “wrong” way to read the work. Hypertext, while still constraining the author in some respects - somebody has to decide which fragments are linked, and even what constitutes a fragment - the literary compass expanded greatly. An author went from having the tight restrictions of a pawn to the abundant versatility of a queen.

Unfortunately, this flexibility has had mixed success for digital literature. The deliberate disorienting elements of high modern and postmodern experimentation probably would have run its course but for the advent of digital literature. With such new tools at hand - tools that worked exceptionally well with fragmentation, disorientation, and frustration of linear narrative - most authors drawn to digital literature signed up for another round mucking up the narrative line.

Van Hulle notes that “One of the characteristics of many forms of digital literature is the use they make of disorientation as an aesthetic quality” (148). For some readers, arguably most readers, this leads to frustration and, as Van Hulle writes, “goes some way to explain that up until now hyperfiction has not become ‘mainstream’ ” (148). This disorientation can work quite well in smaller works, I think, because of the reader’s ability to feel, eventually, that they have consumed the whole of the work. They can step back and process the whole. Here I’m thinking of a work like “The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot” by Stephanie Strickland.http://www.wordcircuits.com/gallery/sandsoot/index.html Innovative use of hypertext links, images, and a strong controlling metaphor hold the piece together. The individual lexia work like variations on a theme so that the whole is something akin to music like Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.”

Yet expanded to larger works, the frustration of the non-linear narrative overwhelms the work. Because digital literature (in hypertext versions, anyway) cannot rely on prescribed order, it must sacrifice complexity - at least on a larger scale. Lexia can only be so large or else the use of hypertext becomes moot. Fragments become wholes. Yet in fragments and small doses, the scale of meaning can only be so great. The larger the work gets, the closer the border of chaos at the edge of complexity. One can build and build, but soon one just has confusion, just as one can add color and more color to a painting until a brown sludge results. Thus longer works of hypertext literature seem to collapse under their own weight, offering the reader more than they can comprehend, left with a perpetual concern that something else may still need to be read. Van Hulle rightly points out that digital literature is not limited to hypertext, and the other experiments with technology do not rely on disorientation and non-linearity as hypertext works, yet this latter aesthetic seems to me to predominate.

Yet this incompleteness and lack of stable narrative in hypertext explains why one of the more successful combinations of narrative and hypertext has come through games rather than straightforward literary productions. Nick Montfort, in his essay “Riddle Machines: The History and Nature of Interactive Fiction,” looks back at the early hypertext games like Zork where players became active participants in a story. For the most part, this style of gaming has moved away from the author-controlled environment to the massive multi-player, role-playing games where much of the environment is created by the players themselves instead of a controlling author. But Monfort documents one of the earliest experimental forays outside of linear narrative, when the book became interactive in a new way. As his title suggests, Monfort sees the riddle as the literary aesthetic model rather than the novel. Here the work was a formal success, a good marriage of the medium and a new way of creating art that built upon a literary antecedent. There may have been disorientation, but the riddle provided a way to achieve some coherence in the work. It offered closure and a new understanding of the world.

Unfortunately, the medium moved away from this, back to intellectual concerns of that postmodern moment. To quote Van Hulle again, “The dismantling effect of hypertext is one more way to pursue the typically postmodern challenge of the epistemologically suspect coherence, rationality, and closure of narrative structures, one more way to deny the reader the satisfaction of a totalizing interpretation” (150). But here’s the thing. The world is indeed suspect in coherence, but perhaps literature shouldn’t be. We live in the world of frustration, suspect rationality, and fragments. We look to literature to make sense of that. We depend upon it. What’s the purpose in a literature that merely recreates that? I greatly appreciate literature that challenges the easy closure, the simple solution, and the teleology of a master narrative. But literature that challenges it by merely refusing to create a coherence seems to me to be a lesser way to challenge that. It’s a tour de force, a virtuoso handling of the technology, but does it help us? Does it sustain us in any fashion? Shouldn’t literature help us to understand, cope, make sense, organize, and provide us with a tool for living? If the frustration of merely mimicking a chaotic world is the only end, is it any wonder people have not embraced the medium as a viable outlet for artistic literature? Critics of modern and postmodern literature may have rightly chastised their excesses, those that sought to merely create a mimetic mirror of the superficial, disconnected world without providing understanding of it.

Yet let’s look at the great authors that employ this in print; Pynchon, Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf, Eliot and many others. Yes, they looked for ways to invoke a fragmentary sense of a world breaking apart. Theirs was not always to merely hold up the mirror, but to give a lens for understanding, a critique of the world that frustrated our attempts at rationality, sense, and coherence. And it will be up to authors of digital literature to create works that move beyond beta tests of the technology.

Will any of this last? I’ve made some tenuous suggestions about what sort of works and scholarship might have lasting permanence, but can we expect that posterity will even have the option of reading seminal works of digital literature? Can digital literature, so vulnerable to the advances of technology, achieve the lasting permanence of the concrete book? Anyone who has encountered the unreadable file attachment, or the long ago written document that no longer opens on the new computer, might have a brief bout of nausea contemplating the archives of electronic literature. Though the one unqualified good of digital literature has been the ease of access to archives, these archives are sensitive to technological changes in ways that printed text is not. Choudhury and Seaman list quite a number of fascinating projects that have exploited the flexibility of the digital archive: access to specialized collections N I N E S a networked infrastructure for nineteenth-century electronic scholarship http://www.nines.org/, libraries that publish Connexions http://cnx.org/ and Center for Innovative Publishing http://cip.cornell.edu/webdocs/about.html, and massive data crunching for scholars Roman de la Rose Project http://rose.mse.jhu.edu/. Though these innovate uses of the digital medium suggest amazing possibilities, even Choudhury and Seaman gulp at the thought of the long-term commitment that libraries must make in light of these new digital activities (545). With the rapid pace of change in technology, permanent loss of data is a real threat. Kenneth Price, in “Electronic Scholarly Editions,” believes we can meet the challenges of combining uniformity and standards with the crucial individuality of various projects and scholars, but these challenges are not small. The burning of the library of Alexandria might pale in comparison to the potential for erasure or obsolescence of entire digital storage systems.

Nick Montfort and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, two contributors to the Companion, have elsewhere noted this concern, especially as it relates to creative work: “Electronic literature doesn’t come on bound, offset-printed pages. Keeping it on a shelf doesn’t mean that it will be easy, or even possible, to read it in the future. Even putting it into a vault with controlled temperature, light, and humidity won’t ensure its availability.”“Acid-Free Bits: Recommendations for Long-Lasting Electronic Literature” v1.0 June 14, 2004, Preservation, Archiving, and Dissemination (PAD) project. Electronic Literature Organization. http://eliterature.org/pad/afb.html If Birkerts notes the aura of the ephemeral surrounding digital literature, meeting the archival challenges will help keep that particular aura from becoming a reality.

In some sense, The Companion to Digital Literary Studies cannot succeed anymore than this review could succeed in addressing all the issues relevant to digital literary studies. The topic is broad, the landscape expansive, and the change rapid. A fair amount of the collection is about classification, distinguishing digital literature as apart from regular literature. In essence, it is a taxonomy. But it is also a narrative, one that tells a story that ends at the moment of digital literature’s potential ascendance. Liu calls for good new media narratives that envision “whole imaginative environments” (16). He drafts Keats’ lines from “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”: Cortez “star’d at the Pacific” while “all his men/Look’d at each other with a wild surmise” (7). The mandate of the collection, he writes, is “to tell a good story of new media encounter…in ways that thwart any facile modernization narrative” (16). Too often, however, the following essays are enamored of the power of digitized texts, slipping precisely into the modernization narrative that Liu warned against. He concludes his introductory essay calling for a “poiesis of digital literary studies able to imagine how old and new literary media together allow us to imagine” (20). It’s a worthy goal and a fair measurement for the collection.