Alex Saum-Pascual on e-lit's relocation to platforms with massive user bases, and the beauty of meh.
Much has been said since Leo Flores proclaimed in 2018 that we had entered a new phase in the creation of electronic literature works (Flores). Building on Katherine Hayles' definitions of first and second generation electronic literature (2008), he observed the emergence of a third generation of electronic literature ("third gen e-lit" from now on) that can be summarized as that which "uses established platforms with massive user bases," (Flores), or in other words, an e-lit that responds to the birth of the web 2.0 and extends to today’s app-based works. Following this definition, Nick Montfort (2018) has referred to those latter works as "post-Web," understanding that they are made on applications that do not rely on the World Wide Web for their access or distribution. Without disagreeing with either of them, this essay engages these two concepts by discerning a subcategory of third gen e-lit that uses established Web platforms with massive user bases for its creation and also maintains an ambiguous political tension with the presence of the Web in our everyday life. This is what I call "postweb" literature, although I am giving the term a slightly different connotation than Montfort.1I follow my own spelling of "postweb" according to my book #Postweb! Crear con la máquina y en la red (Iberoameriana-Vervuert 2018). Under this definition, digital media is no longer conceived as “new media,” but as a marker of our present era that has changed the way writers relate to the past, history, and their record. Please refer to it for a further explanation of this concept within the Spanish context.
When defining third gen e-lit, Flores has also emphasized the rise of an unprecedent number of e-lit creators, even if many of these creators are unaware of the existence of the Electronic Literature Organization and/or would not consider themselves third gen e-lit writers, for that matter. To this, Kathi Inman Berens adds that when it comes to those works and writers, such as instapoetry and its influencers (which most of us wouldn't think of as poetic a priori), they could be read as third gen e-lit if we consider them together with the read/write capacities of social media metadata ("E-Lit-s #1 Hit"). Popularity then rises to the top of third-gen e-lit's main characteristics, which Flores links to the ease and availability of software tools with an "increasingly lower barrier to entry" (Flores). This is undeniable, and while I agree we are experiencing a shift in the way users relate to writing technologies and their resulting data for literary creation on the Web - or via apps - I think more granularity is needed when discussing the appearance of a new literary sensibility associated with the use of these technologies. Both Flores and Montfort (and Berens to a certain extent) are classifying literature as media, platform, data network, and reader function; as objects made with certain tools even, not really engaging with the type of themes, voices, aesthetics, politics, or, in other words, everything else that constitutes the literary qualities of a text.
Even though media-specific readings are essential when studying digital objects and expressions, I find it necessary to explore how, within those works that have appeared thanks to a participatory Web culture, not all things can be read the same way. Before disregarding their importance or the overall quality of third gen e-lit (and to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater) we should try to redefine what could be poetic (or having literary value) within these works, since thinking about quality in traditional terms (or, at least, in the terms we have used to define quality when referring to first and second generation e-lit) may no longer be sufficient. I see the emergence of a particular sensibility and approach to e-lit which, regardless of its media, platform or distribution channels, is informed and defined by them in as much as its main defining characteristic would be its full awareness—and defiance—of the role the Web plays in almost every way life is experienced today.2I am referring to the Web in the broadest sense of being "online," please also include app platforms as well, since for my purposes there is little phenomenological difference between experiencing Twitter via an app on a smartphone than via its Web platform on a desktop.This relates to the role of digital media in literary creation but also to the role of digital media, now inseparable from the Web, in our human experience. Digital media and the Web are thus no longer seen as a novelty, but as a sign of our present time, inevitably changing the way writers (and really all of us, because in the realm of third-gen e-lit we are all writing) relate to the world. Within this context, where online and offline seem to be more and more intertwined or indistinguishable, we need to stop juxtaposing analogue and digital and we should start talking about modulations of the digital or "different intensities of the computational" as David Berry and Anders Fagerjord call it (142).
Under this paradigm, therefore, even certain print works can, and should, be considered e-lit (or postweb in my take) when and if the print product shows an interrogation of the digital technologies and Web contexts that were necessary for their conception. A book like Jorge Carrión's Crónica de Viaje (2014), which is a printed Google historical narrative that imitates the shape and look of a laptop computer, but also, something more mainstream like Steven Hall's The Raw Shark Texts (2007), which uses the paper book as a mnemonic device, emphasize a previous state of digital networked composition. Hall's novel could be described as a romantic thriller with worrying undertones about the future of data storage, while Crónica is a broader experiment on the narrativization of this type of information and its complex relation to its embodiment in a book. Although these two books originate in different parts of the globe and in different languages, they both take full advantage of the computer and its online contexts and capabilities in order to express the existing tension between mechanisms of production and the material treatment of memory. The key element to understanding these works as postweb, then, is not their virtual bodies, medium, or their circulation, but their creation under the premises of building upon existing digital forms and familiar Web interfaces. Their concerns - such as memory and data, surveillance, storage, and human exceptionality -, and also the way they look and feel, respond to patterns that didn't previously exist in the world, that is, until the Web appeared. These works came out of the current digital condition and responded critically to it, and although they are not the product of massive user generated data, they share a similar postweb sensibility in their relation to online experience 3Please refer to my article “Memory Traces: Printed Electronic Literature as a Site of Remembrance,” in Comparative Literature Studies 57.1 (2020): 69-94, for a thorough analysis of these works. .
When looking particularly at the kind of born-digital third gen e-lit we have at hand, I see two main proposals which, paradoxically, are both born out of the same paradigm that rejects novelty as an aesthetic pursuit (the Web is nothing new anymore) and which rely heavily on "remix" and "pastiche" for their composition. On the one hand, we can mention successful types of third-gen e-lit such as those identified by Flores, like "Lazy Cat" by txtstories, part of New Form Productions, a for profit entertainment studio that generates digital content. This is a type of e-lit that takes advantage of the digital platform (YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, mostly) for distribution and it responds in a complacent manner to its protocols and conventions. But not all third gen e-lit is as complacent as this; some maintains an ironic relationship to social media and its representability within it.
What I see as truly interesting third gen e-lit is that which maintains a hyperawareness of the capitalist commodification and datafication of human experience on the Web, but relates to it in a sort of ironic, shoulder-shrug-meh, as it oscillates between defiance and conformism. This position (the meh) has abandoned all desires of being "difficult" or politically disruptive in traditional terms ("Modernist," as Jessica Pressman would call it (2014)), in order to engage in a sort of cartoonish, yet not completely apolitical, disenchanted critique of corporate media. Amateurish production and bad composition, poor image editing, and the formal repetition present in memes, for instance, are key to recognize this. And this, when done well, represents an understanding of the computational and its representation in an attempt to domesticate it, juxtaposing "domestication" to the "defamiliarization" of high Modernist art, or to the best works of second gen e-lit, for instance. The work done by the editorial collective Broken English, where they remix popular memes with Marxist theory is a good example of this. Flores describes the "ease" of third gen e-lit as "works of e-literary popular culture that seek ease of access and spreadability," which "are aligned with the poetics of contemporary digital culture." Building on this, I believe these poetics have all to do with the tension that emerges between postweb works' paradoxical awareness of the evils of corporate media, and their existence and survival within it.
Within this framework, purposeful amateurism is read as a critique of those other polished techno-imperialist aesthetics that make software invisible (like Alexander Galloway reminded us in The Unworkable Interface) or that make even hardware invisible (as Lori Emerson argued in Reading Writing Interfaces). Poor remixes, glitchy programs, patchy sites, all serve as a reaction to the cleanliness, lightness and invisible pervasiveness of the Web in our lived experience. Against the supposed "artistry" of code that has turned programmers and developers into the new cool, holding the highest salaries of the world while homelessness in the San Francisco Bay Area rises to record levels, amateur participation within those systems inevitably makes a stand against (but within) them. Thinking about e-lit simply in terms of its underlying programing, platforms of distribution, or the tools involved in its composition, means that we take an ahistorical view of these forms and the metaphors and analogies that we use to explain them, and it even falls in certain instrumental tendencies pro efficiency and organization that are fostered by the capitalist application of these technologies (because ideologies are always imbedded in technology). But, a broader and more critical look at certain types of third gen-lit can offer a pushback to instrumentality.
Let's think of how this plays out on YouTube, for instance, since it is txstories' main distribution platform, and because, "Lazy Cat," this paradigmatic example of third gen e-lit, is a mere video. And just like it, a substantial number of third gen e-lit is being distributed on YouTube, because, "[i]f YouTube is anything, it is both industry and user driven" as Snickars and Vonderau (11) have stated, again emphasizing the tensions I am interested in. In the words of Abigail Keating, "video websites like YouTube as distributary spaces problematize the distinction between 'leisure' and 'corporate' media to arguably its most explicit extent" (107). This is such because, YouTube, by being driven essentially by amateur production dismantles the prospect of the amateur being bound by the private sphere, and instead, catapults "amateurism into not only the public but also the global sphere" (Keating 107). Keating explores this dynamic in relation to the virality of videos, looking in particular at the "Harlem Shake," but her paradigm applies to all viral amateur videos, as well as to the type of YouTube postweb poetics I am most interested in. Keating says, "on a technical level, although much of YouTube's content is intrinsically self-representative, subjective and chaotic, each contribution to the landscape inadvertently forms part of a broader corporate logic that is composed of a monitored system of algorithms, statistics, data and revenue" (107). Ironically, one could say that while the whole point of the so-called YouTube revolution was to undo how we (the common users) were meant to interact with and exhibit media, the rules of virality within the platform ended up defining and commodifying our participation (i.e.: you need to play by certain rules to go viral). Consequently, Keating wonders, "if YouTube is now the mainstream - which in the realm of popular culture, I would argue, it is - is exposing oneself on such a podium not fundamentally regulatory to begin with?" (107)
Well, yes, and no, this is the beauty of the meh. It all depends on the relationship a work establishes with the rules that define its form. For instance, if a rule for virality is entertainment (like our very entertaining cat friend) tweaking those rules to make something really boring may expose a productive political tension. Considering the hyperawareness I was mentioning earlier that deeply understands the relation between digital technology and today's avoidance of boredom, we may see it differently. According to David Berry, "[t]oday, computers and computational devices are increasingly sold as an entertainment media, they are sold in some sense to combat the boredom created by the excess generated from the computational efficiencies that are changing our economies" (Berry 201). And although Berry wasn't just talking about YouTube, the dichotomy "virality vs boredom" is at the heart of its logic. And, consequently, against a funny cat, a successful postweb poetics should be structured around boredom. A poem like "Invisible Things_a tedious YouTube Poem," where I repeat a list of invisible things over and over for 6 minutes as the image gets blurrier will never go viral, while it also complies with what Craig Hight has termed "YouTube aesthetic": "amateur footage, edited on a desktop, intended almost as throwaway pieces of culture" (Hight 5). As unusual as it is, this poem is easily recognizable as a YouTube product, emphasizing particularly its nature as a "throw away piece of culture." Its understanding of ephemerality and planned obsolescence stands in stark opposition to the idea of transcendent art, polished art, expert art, preserved art, Modern art, or first and second gen e-lit art.
The low quality of the YouTube image also links it to the aesthetics of the third gen e-lit genre par excellence: the meme, as those mentioned earlier. The meme runs on virality, however, but as those images go viral, they are also discarded - thrown away -then sometimes recuperated and saved, then remixed again, losing "quality" every time, becoming increasingly "poorer." In the early days of massive Web sharing, Hito Steyerl called low resolution digital images "poor images" saying that they are the true "popular" images: "images that can be made and seen by the many. They express all the contradictions of the contemporary crowd: its opportunism, narcissism, desire for autonomy and creation, its inability to focus or make up its mind, its constant readiness for transgression and simultaneous submission." Each transfer and reformatting causes their degradation but they also point to the number of users who have cared enough to remix and share these images over and over again. So, the poor image, Steyerl believes, ends up creating a sort of global network and a shared history. It loses its visual substance, its quality in those terms (remember Steyer was talking about film, mostly), becoming "amateur looking" and "unprofessional" but, by doing so, it recovers what she calls "its political punch." "It mocks the promises of digital technology" (Steyerl), as she claims in "In Defense of the Poor Image," because "[o]nly digital technology could produce such a dilapidated image in the first place" (Steyerl).
The poverty of these images, their disregard for novelty, the lack of original composition, i.e., their "low quality" in traditional terms, is the only true postweb aesthetic that ends up having any value, and it is essentially ingrained in the logics of third gen e-lit. It is so precisely because it lives within the meh contradiction that is opened up by third gen e-lit works: in its frustrated desire for virality and its complacent mockery of media production, and in its necessary participation with these capitalist logics. "There's freedom in the small, good thing that is a hand-coded webpage where the author makes every single decision about how that page displays and operates," ("Third Generation") said Berens, but true postweb third gen e-lit understands that freedom is not a real possibility anymore for the common Web user, because their lives don't happen in artisanal interfaces but within massive user generated data. Like Hito Steyerl said about poor images, postweb third gen e-lit works are just as much about conformism and exploitation, as they are about defiance and appropriation. Not all third gen e-lit is as aware of this but downplaying its importance for its populism and circulation within capitalist or corporate media is also a way to deny the essential true that it reveals about our tense and paradoxical relation to these structures. Postweb memes and boring YouTube poems are composed around the affordances and ideologies of social media and their users' data, and as such they conform with and exploit their platforms, yet they also have the potential to defy and appropriate their logics. Like it or not, they are a reflection of our own online reality. Meh.
Berens, Kathi Inman "E-Lit's #1 Hit: Is Instagram Poetry E-Literature?" electronic book review http://electronicbookreview.com/essay/e-lits-1-hit-is-instagram-poetry-e-literature/ 4/7/19
____ "Third Generation Electronic Literature and Artisanal Interfaces: Resistance in the materials" electronic book review. 5/5/19 http://electronicbookreview.com/essay/third-generation-electronic-literature-and-artisanal-interfaces-resistance-in-the-materials/
Berry, David. M. Critical Theory and the Digital. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. Print.
Berry, David and Anders Fagerjord. Digital Humanities: Knowledge and Critique in a Digital Age. London: Polity Press, 2017. Print.
Broken English. "Memes." http://brokenenglish.lol 23/8/2019
Flores, Leo. "Third Generation Electronic Literature" electronic book review. 4/7/19 http://electronicbookreview.com/essay/third-generation-electronic-literature/
Hayles, N. Katherine. Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary. Indiana: Notre Dame UP, 2008. Print.
Hight, Craig. (2008) "The field of digital documentary: A challenge to documentary theorists" Studies in Documentary Film 2:1, pp3-8
Keating, Abigail. "Video-making, Harlem Shaking: Theorizing the interactive amateur" New Cinemas 11.2+3 (2013): 99-110
Montfort, Nick. "A Web Reply To the Post-Web" Post Position, Nick Montfort's personal blog. 8/26/2018 https://nickm.com/post/2018/08/a-web-reply-to-the-post-web-generation/
Pressman, Jessica. Digital Modernism. Making It New in New Media. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014. Print.
Txtstories, "Lazy Cat," 2018. https://youtu.be/KKanP1OQS5A 8/22/19
Saum, Alex. "Invisible Things_a Tedious YouTube Poem," 2019. https://youtu.be/Gd_XboqmzJU 8/23/19
Steyerl, Hito. "In Defense of the Poor Image". e-flux Journal.10 (Nov 2009). https://www.e-flux.com/journal/10/61362/in-defense-of-the-poor-image/ 8/21/19
Cite this Essay:
- 1I follow my own spelling of "postweb" according to my book #Postweb! Crear con la máquina y en la red (Iberoameriana-Vervuert 2018). Under this definition, digital media is no longer conceived as “new media,” but as a marker of our present era that has changed the way writers relate to the past, history, and their record. Please refer to it for a further explanation of this concept within the Spanish context.
- 2I am referring to the Web in the broadest sense of being "online," please also include app platforms as well, since for my purposes there is little phenomenological difference between experiencing Twitter via an app on a smartphone than via its Web platform on a desktop.
- 3Please refer to my article “Memory Traces: Printed Electronic Literature as a Site of Remembrance,” in Comparative Literature Studies 57.1 (2020): 69-94, for a thorough analysis of these works.