Building on the work of Souvik Mukherjee (2017), T. Shanmugapriya and Nirmala Menon (2018, 2019), Samya Brata Roy identifies emergent elements of a multimodal E-Lit tradition in India.
At the outset it becomes rather crucial to clarify what the curiosity called solo Electronic Writing is all about. For much of the newer E-Lit, mostly emerging from the West, we see people across disciplines collaborating to create beautiful pieces of narrative art. But what happens if we look at only those artefacts which are done by people all alone? It limits the amount of experimentation one can do and thus gives us a better sense of what can be done without collaborations in a field where they occupy a very central position. But what is the point of looking into such a subset which is very much considered to be a thing of the past in the discourse of E-Lit? This is where the Digital Divide is brought into the picture. Access to Internet in a country like India is not uniform by a long shot. Accessibility ranges across geographical spaces and it is interconnected with other points of privilege as well. From this perspective, only looking at solo creations gives me an idea of what is possible when people have the bare minimum in terms of infrastructure and support. E-Lit as a field here cannot even be called nascent and hence my plan was to chart the possibility from the absolute rock bottom where people may just open a blog. My point is to understand what people are doing, why they are doing it and how we can move forward from here as a mode of practice and as a possible field of academic inquiry.
If one uses the Internet as a place to create or write like paper, then how does the act of writing in these two modes differ? Even if they do, how does it differ in the Indian context? I use the term writing in a broad performative sense which incorporates different forms of media to create a narrative.
I try to understand these questions by primarily using the works of Jessica Pressman, Shanmugapriya T and Nirmala Menon. The first part tries to understand how Print Anxiety can be a determining factor while creating in the digital space. In the second part, I contextualise the discussion by rooting it in the Indian context. And in the final, I use some samples to show what solo E-Lit is and what we can read from it. The Internet, as a mode of writing is still new, the influence of the print is palpable hence the Modernist angst of the past is tangibly seen. But, as we move forward, naturalise the digital, and begin to form collaborations of our own, in the Indian context, we could see more experimentations akin to our understanding of the Postmodern which detaches itself from the spectre of print culture.
THE ANXIETY OF PRINT
CS Lewis, in his Preface to Paradise Lost (1942) talks in detail about Milton’s pursuit to recreate the oral tradition in a piece of paper. The greatest challenge for Milton, according to Lewis, was to give a sense of the performative of the bygone tradition while reading a piece of paper in an armchair. Here we get to see Lewis explore what I call a modal anxiety. Initially, the primary mode of communication was oral: people spoke, sang or chanted. But, when we come to the Literary, and especially that of writing the Epic (something that used to be sung), we see authors like Milton trying to recreate the same when that idea does not exist anymore. Now, when we have the digital mode with print, I believe the same anxiety comes into the picture. This anxiety can be traced as a fetish of the commodity called ‘the book’ and a constant desire to recreate the print aesthetic while writing in the digital mode. Jessica Pressman deals with these strands of thought in two of her works: Bookishness and Digital Modernism.
This is what I describe as “bookishness”: creative acts that engage the physicality of the book within a digital culture, in modes that may be sentimental, fetishistic, radical. Cell-phone covers crafted to look like old books; decorative pillows printed with beloved book covers; earrings, rings, and necklaces made of miniature codices; store windows that use books as props; altered book sculptures exhibited in prestigious collections; and bookbound novels that revolve around a book as a central character. (PressmanBookishness1)
Pressman directly connects the Marxist notion of Commodity Fetishism to the idea of the Book and shows how the object has been commodified in itself. In a milieu, where the Book does not enjoy the centrality as it once did, this fetish is a desperate attempt to cling on to a bygone era. This aspect becomes crucial when we see that Insta quotations resemble the fonts made by a typewriter or the background resembles that of the page of an old book. This is the realm of resembling physically, apart from making the post have a perfect page like alignment. Also, the crucial point of digital culture is the aspect of interactivity where the content is not static and it is flowing through the media platforms and various spaces of culture. N. Katherine Hayles (2004) terms a unit of this cultural form as the flickering signifier where she says, extending the Lacanian notion of the floating signifier, that neither the signifier nor the signified stays static and it’s constantly flickering in and out of existence. Hence, if interactivity or fluidity is the ethos of the digital space, that places electronic literature in the counter position of the print culture which is static in nature, since the book does not move after it has been printed. In the internet or the digital space, the artefacts might not remain the same: links might die, advertisements might pop up, the interface might change and the entire platforms or technologies can go obsolete (Fitzpatrick 2011). Hence, if meaning making is relied upon by this many factors, then it cannot remain static at all, it will visually change at every reading. Once again, like the schism between orality and print, the same can be observed in the case of print and the digital. Therefore, when people create in the digital space, this modal anxiety can be traced just like Lewis did in the case of Milton. In the Modernist condition as well, we find an attachment towards the past and a lamentation to what society has come down to. The work of Eliot, Pound and Owen, albeit in a more specific context, bears reflection of the same. One can ruminate that the modernist is someone in the present with their heads turned towards the past. Therefore...
What’s true of modernism more generally is true of digital modernism as well: it is “a strategy of innovation that intentionally employs the media of its time to reform and refashion older literary practices in ways that produce new art.” Just as Joyce returned to Homer, and Pound borrowed “make it new” from an anecdote about an eighteenth-century B.C.E. (Wollaeger, Dettmar and Pressman xi)
Thus, when we see the print traces in digital writing now, it can be said that it uses the bedrock of tradition to create something new. Yes, a new mode comes with the tantalizing possibility of making something new or totally re-inventing everything that comes along with it. But, as Pressman argues, digital or electronic literature (used interchangeably here) does not just scratch everything out and start afresh but it uses the old and mixes with it to form a hybrid which might pave the way for a new artefact altogether. Hence, we can see this as a precursor to Digital Postmodernism in a very broad sense of the term. One can attribute the digital very simply to the Postmodern condition just because it is digital, but, if we look at the cultural dialectic of anxiety and acceptance, then we can take the phase we are in as the phase of Digital Modernism. If now, people are only typing texts on the web without using a lot of media, that means the effect of the print is very visible though it is in a different modal context. In spite of writing in the digital mode, the authors are looking back at print. This is decidedly the Modern anxiety. Another element at play here, in India, is the binary between the sciences and the arts. Mukherjee (2017) points out how because of the lack of a collaborative infrastructure and awareness, E-Lit is not flourishing in India as it needs people from both the sides to work together. The crossing over is crucial as E-Lit, by definition, is born-digital and its aesthetic depends on computational elements. Pressman encapsulates the above in her book by stating that
Electronic literature has been celebrated as a postmodern literary form that grows out of technologies, subjectivities, and poetics from the middle of the twentieth century, but this book provides an alternative genealogy. Across diverse genres and programming platforms, I examine a subset of contemporary online electronic literature that remixes literary modernism … Writers involved in digital modernism assess the state of electronic literature, and of literature in general in our digital age, and they decide to raze and rebuild. (Pressman 2)
The first generation of E-Lit according to Hayles was primarily hypertextual narratives with multiple, often non-linear, reading paths. However, these texts can definitely have non-electronic predecessors such as
Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch, and the Choose Your Own Adventure young adult book series, all of which use footnotes or other textual devices to connect chunks of text and enable navigation of the narrative as a network rather than a linear path. (Pressman 6)
Apart from these examples, as we are talking about Modernism, we can also look at Eliot’s The Wasteland as a hypertext poem which keeps referring to other works or concepts and depends on them severely for the meaning making to take place. Curiously enough, such work has actually taken place where projects have been dedicated to creating online variorum editions. One of the most important uses of hypertextuality can be seen in Richard A Parker’s Exploring “The Waste Land” as there is a website dedicated to the poem which traces all the references as concepts sprinkled through the poem as hypertexts. Whenever there is a reference, that area is embedded with a URL which either pops up or takes the reader to the dedicated area to provide the context. Not only should one read the digital artefact with equal attention, but the readers also must take into account the question of materiality in the context of the digital. That is to say that the online mode is a collection of platforms or materials which one can use for their creative output, i.e., to say that an Instagram is not the same as WordPress. The digital makes the text nebulous and it becomes difficult to recognise where it begins or ends; it has no clear demarcation like what Gerard Genette (1997) suggests in his idea of the paratext. This problem can be understood if we look at what Shanmugapriya and Menon calls the technoeikon:
We propose technoeikon to analyze the literary and digital artifacts of digital literary texts: images, kinetic texts and images, videos, graphic designs, and acoustic, the threads of which are either a component or reinforce digital literary texts that make the reader/ viewer to be more focused than in print text. The elements of technoeikon saturate digital literature like the cosmos filled with natural objects. Hence, digital literary works emulate ‘the nature of the world’ to present the text with wholesomeness. We use technoeikon to represent ‘skill of weaving images’—the images instantiate the motion images of the real world in digital literature. Weaving skeuomorph images embody the ideology of natural systems which offers a realistic perspective to the reader. This is a unique disposition of digital literary works. The creator’s aesthetic experience of the world and his/her message manifested through both technoeikon and text are inextricable to the theme of the work. (Shanmugapriya, Menon and Campbell 651)
Thus, it is clear that the text cannot be demarcated in the digital space as to what is the text and what is not. Everything contributes to the process of meaning making.
THE INDIAN CONTEXT
Souvik Mukherjee (2017) traces E-Lit in India back to the ancient forms of oral storytelling and states that it is rather rhizomatic in nature and the awareness of the same is not there yet echoing Rettberg (2009) where he also says many “people have no idea that electronic literature exists”. Consequently, Shanmugapriya and Menon (2018) build on Mukherjee’s idea and find emergent elements of the multimodal E-Lit in the Gita Govinda, Patta Chitra and Chitra Kavi. Their 2019 paper, attempts at historicizing the E-Lit tradition in India.
Cloak Room presumably marked the birth of Indian digital literature. Subsequently, few SMS novels such as Neelakannukal (2006) and Deaf Heaven (2009) are also published. (Shanmugapriya and Menon 65)
Therefore, the first generation of E-Lit is here ascribed to the SMS novels. The second generation of the same is however attributed to the works generated by social media, i.e., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. While there can be some elements of similarity with Twitter fiction and SMS novels due to the constrictions of characters in one SMS/Tweet, the space thrown open by other social media profiles remains something to be reckoned with. Before going into that, it is also important to consider blogging and story sharing sites like Blogger, WordPress, Wattpad and the newly popular Medium. Wattpad can be seen as a user generated storytelling site with not much scope to innovate whereas Blogger, though it is a bit outdated now, and WordPress are spaces where one can truly experiment with and implement media to a comparatively larger extent. Medium is a much cleaner and simpler space where one can surely add images but there are limitations. Facebook was the initial space of sharing snippets of creativity from spaces like TerriblyTinyTales etc. but with the advent of Instagram, one can say that most of the aesthetics which is directly linked to the act of writing can be found there.
THE ACT OF WRITING
In order to find the spaces of creative production, I launched a survey on the 15th of March, 2021 where I wanted to find how solo creators shared narratives in the online space. To re-iterate, the aspect of the creators being solo is very important because I wanted also to see how much could people produce without outside support. I collected open ended text-based interview responses till the 15th of April, exactly for a month to have a sense of symmetry. I received 89 responses and the next step was to clean the data so it would be easy for me to carry out the analysis. I asked my respondents to leave URLs to their sites of production and from that data I will attempt to closely read a random handful to show how the anxiety of print contributes to the aspect of Digital Modernism. The first case that I will try to deal with is the bite sized quotation-ish content of Instagram and YourQuote. Both platforms heavily rely on texts within pictures. While Instagram has the role of the caption as well, YourQuote, as the name suggests, functions like a community which shares quotations based on prompts given by each other.
The Instagram pages function on three levels: the outline, the post and then the caption along with it. Some pages go for a dedicated aesthetic where they upload content one in three posts and purposefully include fillers in the remaining two. When someone opens the profile, the chessboard-like aesthetic plays a crucial role in the perception of meaning. In this case, I would go so far as to say that the way the text looks is more important than the text in itself. The technoeikon, thus, operates in the realm of beautification mostly. Then comes the singular (or double/triple panelled) post with its caption and the comments. Because of the limitations of the picture, many authors use the caption to flesh out the content which they could not in the main post. Therefore, it serves as an extension to the main post at hand. Then comes hashtags or metadata integration where an author might latch the posts by tagging other profiles or themes by @ing them or #ing them. Last but not the least comes the uploaded picture in itself. More often than not, they are presented in two ways: text with something that adds to the beauty of the picture or the text presented in such a way that it resembles the phenomenon of bookishness.
Before proceeding, it is important to note I have decidedly chosen not to provide screenshots and embed URLs to the said sites that I will be mentioning. The reason behind doing this is to challenge the act of reading itself which would only work in the digital space and not in the print form. These examples were chosen purely at random out of my dataset and they do not even represent a fraction of what people may be creating outside them. Here I very much acknowledge my bias and limitations. It is also important to state that the study was conducted and presented at ELO 2021 during the peak of the covid second wave in India. So, the collection and presentation of the data is directly related to the positionality of the author during such a time of crisis.
The first page that I will be looking at in this context is midnightpoetryandchai. Looking at the profile from the outset, it is clear that the focus here is in the amalgamation of art and text. Paintings and pretty objects are used as backdrops to house the text which makes it even prettier to look at. Roses, clouds, paintings and any Instagrammable photo has been used here to create a backdrop to house the text. The text is more like a quotation which lures in the reader to open the singular post, which then takes you to the longer caption which is present like the normal format of the print text. Therefore, the aspect of the digital is limited to aesthetics and does not use coding or other means of computation. One might argue that the comment section is also important but I would not consider it here as those are reflections and can be divided by authors. Visuality of the text here becomes more important than the text in itself. Can we call this a hypertext? Technically yes as it leads the reader from one point to the other where the picture acts as a lure or trailer to the text. But, once you reach the main text, more often than not there is no visible difference from the print format. The next case would be that of tinta.poetry. Mostly the structure of this page is similar to the last one. But there is one fundamental difference! The aesthetic quality that the author has chosen here directly resembles that of an old book or a manuscript. Aside from the fact that the profile picture is that of Eliot himself, the reference to the book or the manuscript via the use of the visual can be seen as an example of bookishness as Pressman puts it. This mode strikes a sense of familiarity and I would say that it adds to the perception of the reader as well. YourQuote is another similar platform which relies on the aspect of quotations and images to bring in a sense of visuality. But the platform is dedicated to that activity only while Instagram is used for many other things as well.
Coming to the more longform side of things, we have the good old blogs. The concept of blogging is almost as old as the internet in itself. In my responses most of the blogs were from Blogger and WordPress and only a few from Medium. The Blogger sites mostly resemble an older internet interface with not much dynamic activity going on. But, two WordPress accounts are what interest me here. An Unstable Extravert has a very curious web page design. The webpage in itself resembles what I could call a school notice board where all the posts seem to be stuck with sellotape. Some of these posts are separated by pencils and the posts themselves mostly do not use any other form of media and are mostly short poems. The about page of the author is designed like a notebook with lines in between to write the text. These extra-textual signifiers of the pencil, sellotape and the notebook give the vibe of a school goer and hence the nostalgia factor influences the meaning making. The posts in themselves, however, do not use any media elements. Therefore, these signifiers though not directly bookish in nature hint at the things related to it in a roundabout way.
Next up, I would like to look at Soham Deb. The blog page appears simple in itself but the possibilities it throws open are what I want to talk about here. Mostly, what we see here is a collection of photographs and descriptions that accompany these photographs. It is pretty simple but the possibilities are something that can be explored. One can use these images on a space to tell stories about things that may or may not be related to the space in itself. Therefore, it opens up interesting questions of meaning making.
This strand is taken up by Sen Sanchari who not only creates an archive/ portfolio of her works in her website but also manages to weave a sense of narrative through the pictures. The narrative serves as a mood builder which helps in understanding the authorial intention.
Not being able to resist a sense of incestuous self-glorification, I finally come to talk about my work in WordPress and how I subvert the photojournalistic pieces that I just mentioned. thepenarchist in general happens to be a curious mess as it contains anything that captures the author’s whim. But my point here is to focus on a specific type of work. I call these mocktralogues (mock travelogues) which uses pictures of real places but weaves a narrative that apparently has no relation to the place. The word ‘apparently’ becomes important here as in a roundabout manner it does make sense. Indraprastha: The city that wasn’t! is perhaps the best example of such a mocktralogue where I use pictures of real locations from Delhi to tell a narrative using hyperlinks that seems to be unrelated. But, if someone delves deeper into the links and reads into the narrative, then the pompous attempt at satire by the author becomes rather clear. At WritePods, a writing workshop headed by Deena Larsen and Jules Chatelain which took place just before ELO 2021, this aspect was discussed at length at how this form uses the hypertext form to create two layers of the narrative which operates in conflict initially but compliments eventually. I was suggested by Lyle Skains and Deena Larsen to back the links up using the wayback machine because links can go dead and then the entire hypertext narrative would fall flat! The effort that goes into creating these mocktralogues, all by myself, are immense which is why I have only been able to write two of them to date! Not only that, most of my readers, in my local circle, miss the point that they have to click on the links. The element of interactivity is lost hence as the embedded links are read as just highlights. Once again, the anxiety of print reading strategies comes to the fore where the awareness of the digital really needs to be built from the ground up. All the things that I have looked at, in the Indian context, have limited the incorporation of media to the realm of images and images only. Not even do URLs feature as a part of the narrative, which might open up the possibilities of a branched and non-linear e-lit format. I believe that is due to our training of reading and writing in print which limits the experimentation to the images. That is why, even in the digital mode we try to replicate the features of the print. This phenomenon can be very well looked at as a Digital Modernist anxiety which fails to treat the digital mode as a mode of its own. But, while the authorial intention can be that, because the medium is different, the meaning making changes and it does not serve the same function as it would have in print. That is to say that a picture in a book does not serve the same function as it does in a web article or in an Instagram post simply because we interact with the same in a different way. Once we have learned to create in the digital space and accept the nuances of this mode, we can then claim to be in the zone of Digital Postmodernism.
So, finally what is the point of all this and what is to be done now? I chose my samples very consciously at the outset for analysis. The solo works of E-Lit may seem very backward and of no use for critical conversations within the broader discourse of E-Lit but my proposition is to question the paradigm of the electronic itself and consider to what extent people, in a space like India, can experiment on their own in spite of the digital divide. The understanding that emerges is that there is immense scope for collaboration and if I am to add a cliché: a spectre of E-Lit is circling India and it's just a matter of time before it gets more wide acceptance. The formation of ELitIndia was one such step in the direction to consolidate conversations towards a particular direction. If people can already have the potential to experiment so much alone, just think what they can do on coming together and thus I end as an incurable optimist looking backwards at the numerous points of origins from an imaginary vantage point in a hypothetical future.
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