In “Better with the Purpose In: or, the Focus of Writing to Reach All of Your Audience,” Deena Larsen responds in a riPOSTe to Hannah Ackerman’s essay on sound elements in electronic literature, “Better with the Sound On” (ebr October 2021). Larsen approaches Ackerman’s essay from the position of a “dual writer” in exposition and exploration, exploring the question of audience in e-lit, particularly the imagined audience as one that is able-bodied and who may have specific embodied experiences of literature. In order to explore “multiple audiences with the same message,” including by tapping into multiple senses, Larsen draws upon Kate Pullinger’s work Letter to an Unknown Soldier and Amira Hanafi’s A Dictionary of the Revolution.
A recording of searing, unrelenting pain sounds has just started screaming on this page.
Perhaps you have not noticed. Perhaps, like me, all sounds are painful to you and you routinely turn off the volume to live in silence (Colucci 2021). Or you are hard of hearing. Or your computer is malfunctioning.
Perhaps, then, as you are now reading this in silence, you are wondering what signifiers you are missing—what clues are going unheard. Are the sounds vital to convey the full meaning of the piece? Is this piece like r(a/u)pture music where you see the multi-modal words converge—the rap beat rupturing your eardrums in a rapture of sound pulsating through your body? Or was this just providing an atmosphere, so you can shiver in the dark and stormy sights as you listen to the tales of a winter’s night (Calvino 1982)?
Perhaps you are grateful that the recording does not actually exist—it was only in my description.
What are you missing?
Fight down the FOMO, you say—possibly to those complaining about missing alt tags or meaning only encased in sound. You mutter this toyourself, possibly to other readers. You want to play, to write in multiple media, to infuse a symphony of sounds, images, texts, navigation, game play. Does it really matter if someone is lost along the way? Everyone is missing something. Everyone gets something entirely different from a work of electronic literature. No one hits the same node in the same way twice.
Well, yes, but. . . swinging at the FOMO and murmuring imprecations at those who cannot experience all of the multiplicity of information channels that you are playing on misses the point entirely. Who is your audience? What do you want from them?What will they come away with from your work—and will you have succeeded in your purpose?
What is this essay’s context?
This essay responds to Hannah Ackermans’ EBR essay “Better with the sound on.” Ackermans (g)prowls over several fronts, but her arguments can be boiled down to:
Make your works accessible. Use the accessibility considerations to spur your creative constraints. Explore a broad range of possible experiences—but invite everyone along for the ride. And up until now those invitations have been few and far between as she notes the systematic exclusion of disabled people:“Electronic literature has a lot of potential for universality and borderlessness, but exclusory practices also slip into the experimentation and customs of digital writing.”
Ackermans is absolutely right, and we are guilty as charged—but in many more dimensions than she pontificates. There is an underlying fault here—in that the past three generations of electronic literature (Flores 2019) have been writer (ec)centric, not reader centric.
I write this response as a dual writer:
- Exposition.1I’m tempted to render this as ex-position. But my boss would strike that, my colleagues would not understand, and Human Resources would remind me once again that humor is not permitted in the workplace and the next time something like that happens, I will get that permanent mark in my record. In my day job, I write for the government: reports to Congress explaining the need for funding to build or manage a project so people and fish can have water, to farmers and cities explaining what actions need to be taken in light of climate change, to analysts explaining how to use an esoteric but vital model, or to planners on how to bring stakeholders from need to done. The first thing I ask is: Who is the audience? What is the purpose? What do you want your audience to do after reading this report?
- Exploration. In my secret love life as an electronic literature writer from the first generation on, I never have once asked who my audience was—much less my purpose. Instead, I have wondered such useful things as: Can you tell a story in just the links between nodes? (Yes, Marble Springs). Can you create a complex ELIZA character using just her responses? (Yes, Eliza and Andromeda ). Can you show the bones of a piece to prove that structure is the same as story? (Yes, lots). Can you use Kickstarter as a novel platform? (No, not without a whole lotta time and effort in marketing and maybe not even then).
What was I/were we thinking?
This is my confession, and yes, my accusation—we2Who are we? Good question. wro(I)te for the journey, for the exploration. I am not even sure we wrote for Joe Tabbi’s hopeful description of a discourse that was an “universally accessible, open-ended archive primarily for texts.” (Tabbi 2010, p. 3). Nothing produced electronically has ever been universally accessible (much to the chagrin and outrage of early visionaries who saw those tantalizing possibilities rise and fall like a dream not only deferred—but denied entirely)(Nelsen 1982). First, you need electricity, then the correct hardware and software, and then the time—because writing in these possibilities necessarily means that readers have to untangle these (re)cords of potential meanings.
Honestly, ergodic reading as Espen Aarseth (1997) describes it, was needed only because we were not concentrating on the possibilities for the reader, but for the writer. Could we hide mirror worlds only accessible by guessing a password that seemed intuitive to the writer, but not the reader? (Yes,Uncle Buddy’s Funhouse). Could we tune works to an individual? (Yes, The Book of Going Forth by Day). Could we mirror the sky with an infinite work that you can look at but never traverse it all? (Yes, Sea and Spar Between). Could we create bots or software that spewed creative (imm/nons)ense that readers would need to interpret? (Yes, lots). And then could we hide the source code to make it difficult for scholars? (Yes, completely by accident and losing files3Please never ask me for my source codes and do not tempt me to tell you the many and woeful tales of how they were lost (beginning with the classic trip and fall downstairs on the way to the VAX machine basement with my punch cards…) –disobeying the edicts of Acid-Free Bits—or yes, by design: “What makes the analysis of bots different from other textual generators is that the source code, which many theorists consider key in understanding works of e-lit, is rarely available for reading.” [Lampi 2017]). Could we generate text on a picture that told a continuing story? (Yes, memes, the ultimate me – me generation). In short, we were enticed by the dark lore of possibilities, and we were surely led astray by the power of creation.
Yes these journeys (we/a)re available only to a few. Yes, you could spend your years ferreting out all the possible meanings—even those that the author did not conceive of or connect with. Have fun storming the castles—some have lower drawbridges and fewer moats than others.
Who are we talking to now?
Ackermans brings us back to the realities of relationships to actual readers by pos(i)ting an essay that “provides a space for you to imagine different people, to consider closely that your bodymind works differently from other bodyminds.” Who, then, could we be writing for? Joe Tabbi (2010) points to new publics, but warns that they, too, may be lost to the dynamic requirements for access: “The concept of a world literature, as Prendergast’s survey makes clear, is tied to the creation of newly internationalized reading publics and to the loss of such publics (and their potential for renewed creation) with the ascendance of new communications infrastructures.”
Why, then, would we be writing for this plugged in audience? Ackermans asks rhetorically, “Who among us has not experienced literature as a gateway to a renewed and expanded understanding of the world around us as well as ourselves?” and invites us to expand on these experiences: “Multimodal works have many opportunities for both accessibility and inaccessibility.” This goes beyond the culture and worship of the difficult4As a contra(pun)tal note here, I have always maintained that I write in levels for reading experiences: an easy, fun little jaunt to pick up a few(mets) here and there, a deeper dive for conten(x)t, and the commitme(a)nt to live with the work and uncover(nt) the terri(s)tory. or the wrenching defamiliarization that Ackermans (and others) assume to be the purpose of the work.
Rather than Ackermans’ wondering “why we are so invested in telling stories in a manner that only able-bodied people can experience?” we should wander over to “why are we so fascinated with tricks and techniques that only a few can—or care to—experience?” I contend that experimental journeying into possibilities inherent in mixing text and imagery and sound is worthwhile in and of itself5Ok, yeah, and I don’t want to admit I have wasted my life. —without a defined audience and purpose—and without reaching the breadths of accessibility that Ackermans passionately envisions. We justify to ourselves that—Just like basic research—our experimentation provides a jumping-off space for creating methods to communicate with an audience. But like basic research, this recherché niche writing should be seen as laboratory where we take experimental steps to evolve language beyond print-dependent textuality as Cayley (2018) describes. These laboratories may have windows for the public to peek in, but they are by no means open books.
Why are we writing now?
So, let’s step back for a moment from the question of accessibility to the more basic question of audience and purpose. When and why should we open the gates and games to all? As many answers as there are writers—and readers—and doers—will ultimately emerge from this question. So let me focus on one aspect that I now (re)deem critical to humanity’s very survival: serving as a community discourse for social and scientific causes. Electronic writing can stream into the greater rivers of human consciousness and community.
Ackermans describes Lyle Skains’ work, No World 4 Tomorrow, and Lyle’s current efforts to open this work up for universal design so that all of her intended audience (12 to 15 year olds) can access the work. This access will further Skains’ intended purpose (to motivate young people to care and act to slow climate change). When you want an audience to do something, you make the work accessible—in content, in delivery, and in actions. I applaud this work and the embrace of universal design. Lyle Skains has recently changed the fonts, colors, and language terms so that more audiences can easily enjoy the work and be enthused about meeting the real-world challenges that face us all. The work now provides ways to tap words to change to a synonym or phrase to make this text easier to understand. The work then addresses multiple audiences with the same message. The Twine text-to-speech function is enabled, so that students with visual difficulties can read as well. This is a work in the act of accessorizing,6I was going to write access(able)/the/orizing, but that would be a lot to unpack, and it should only be co(n)ver(t)ed by an e(r)go-audience thirsty for more work(lds). and the next steps are to work with cultures and language.
Kate Pullinger’s powerful manifest, Letter to an Unknown Soldier, opened up a writing campaign, Write your letter now, which invited participation “[o]n the hundredth anniversary of the declaration of war, everyone in the country was invited to take a moment and write that letter.” As Pullinger relates: “The response was extraordinary. The invitation was to everyone and, indeed, all sorts of people responded: schoolchildren, pensioners, students, artists, nurses, serving members of the forces, and even the Prime Minister. Letters arrived from all over the United Kingdom and beyond, and many well-known writers and personalities contributed.” The entry requirements were simple: to say what you need to say about war. There is still a barrier here—of speech, of cognizance, of technology needed to compose and send the letter. But the subject matter resonates within all of us, and the electronic literature aspects allowed “a crowd-sourced participatory media artwork written by thousands of people who don’t think of themselves as writers.” This is a purpose and a calling—to entice people to think about war and to write about it.
Amira Hanafi’s A Dictionary of the Revolution brings these types of voices into an Arabic work that took 160 words/concepts used in discourses within the Egyptian uprising in 2011 and interviewed people using these word-cards as triggers for memories. This visual memorycomprised of their voices is laid out as a circle with colored lines in shades of blues, purples, and greens to show links between the concepts. Thicker lines indicate most connections, and of course “Revolution” holds the thickest web of all of the lines. “Legitimacy” holds one of the thinnest webs.7My desired alt text here is “Screenshot of A Dictionary of the revolution. If this were truly accessible, I'd list every word and their relationship networks. This would be quite difficult and labor intensive.” Had I but world enough and time, I’d render this work completely accessible. There are sound files of the interview scripts in Arabic, and each word selected will provide a list of words it connects to. However, there is no translation for the color blind, no way to hear the screen. The purpose is noble: to inform the world of the stories of the war and revolution. The work is visually stunning. Is all of it accessible? By no means. To enjoy all of this work’s affordances, you must be in possession of a computer, be able to read (probably better in the original Arabic as translation offers its own challenges), be able to mouse, and to either hear or read the text. Is the content accessible enough to suit the purpose? I believe so.Can audiences who are visually, hearing, or mobility impaired engage with the work on any satisfying level? I think so. But I am not sure, as I have not experienced this piece from any other perspective but my own. Had we but words enough and time, we could provide a usability experiment(ence)—that would also serve to give this work the greater visibility it deserves.
How can we/I/you achieve these goals?
If the author’s purpose is to reach out and communicate,8Rather than examine the possibilities within writing and sharing the joys of these structural castles in the air with other odd writers or aca/epi/demics out who get a thrill out of deeply intertwingled hyper-dimensionality. then yes, as Ackermans preaches to us, we must welcome the constraints of accessibilities to enhance our creativity within our electronic literature practice and outreach. But first, what do we mean by accessible? And for how long? If you notice, this piece, too, is transitive—relying on the web for a lot of the underlying meaning.9I can’t help myself. I seriously can not write straight. I have to shoot threads of meaning underneath the warp and weft. Sorry. My purpose in responding to Ackermans is to entice us all to think about access and audience, purpose and communication, content and context. This piece is not designed for the ages—it is just a trigger point here and now. To meet my goals for this piece, I need your help.
- What are the key concepts we need for accessible writing?
- What audiences do we want to reach—how do we reach them and how do we find them?
- How do we write within these frameworks of access—thinking along dimensions of readers, writers, abilities, perspectives, languages, and more?
Moreover, how will we grapple with and accept that not everyone can grok the same meaning in the same way? Universal design cannot accommodate everyone to have the same experiences—nor would that be wise (Vonnegut 1961). For example, I will never understand nor experience what a first-person shooter game can convey or what virtual reality can conceive—my vertigo is too much for the screen or goggles. Someone who has never known color will not see the lines and flows of A Dictionary for the Revolution—nor get the myriad of tiny details inherent in a single meme. Underlying sounds can provide an emotional overlay —or a vital link to meaning from the speaker—but someone with a hearing issue will miss out. Nor will someone unfamiliar with the vagaries of modern Egyptian slang ever fully appreciate the nuances of that text. Yet action, color, images, sound, and original language and idioms enhance reading experiences.
This is not a conclusion--just the beginning
This divergence of experience brings me back to my original point: what is the purpose for your writing? What do you want the audience to think, to feel, to do? Can we provide universal designs that fulfill your purpose for all audiences—yet still allow for individual reader experiences based on their time and effort available, ability, culture, background, language, perspectives, etc.?
What are the practicalities? How do we take this theoretical discussion into the keyboards and minds of electronic literature writers, readers, gamers, and others?
At the moment, Accessible Bits is a bit stalled. An idea we’ve tossed around for far too long now. And I want to do this—from my day job perspective of writing accessible content for everyone to act on and my secret love life perspective of playing with rea(l)ms of possible writing strategies. But I lack the spoons. And thus I end on a plea for help. Who wants to write and manage that manifesto with us?
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