Starting with Umberto Eco's 1962 essay, "Opera aperta," and progressing into Emanuela Patti's tentative forays into Italian Electronic Literature from the 1960s to the Present, Roberta Iadevaia nicely locates a trajectory for Italian e-Lit, albeit one that is still open, "in contention," without any "encyclopedic guarantee, and no single world order on which our imaginative projections can rest."
It seems to be a really good time for Italian electronic literature, at least from the point of view of criticism. Two essays have been published within five months, both aiming to reconstruct the history of Italian e-lit, namely my Per una storia della letteratura elettronica italiana [For a history of Italian electronic literature], published in November by Mimesis, and Emanuela Patti's Opera aperta. Italian Electronic Literature from the 1960s to the Present, published in April by Peter Lang in the Italian Modernities series vol. 39 edited by Pierpaolo Antonello and Robert Gordon of the University of Cambridge.
Both essays identify the works by Nanni Balestrini–the electronic poem Tape Mark I (1961) and the combinatorial novel Tristano (1966)–as the starting point of Italian e-lit. Both end with Fabrizio Venerandi's Poesie elettroniche, a collection of e-poems published in Italy in 2017 and included in the Electronic Literature Collection 4 in June 2022. Both recognize Enrico Colombini as the “father” of Italian textual adventures. But the similarities stop right about there. Although the essays propose the same goal and focus on the same time span, they are, surprisingly and significantly, very different indeed. The reason is to be found precisely in the concept chosen by Patti as the title of her essay.
“Opera aperta. Forma e indeterminazione nelle poetiche contemporanee” is a celebrated essay by Umberto Eco, published in Italy in 1962. In his essay, Eco starts from the assumption that all works of art, regardless of their medium, are “open” because they always address the interpretative horizon of the users. The difference from the past, Eco specifies, consists in the greater degree of critical awareness that contemporary aesthetics have about the interpretative relationship; while an artist of a few centuries ago was very far from being critically aware of this reality, now such awareness is present above all in the artist who, instead of undergoing the “opening” as something inevitable, elects that opening as a productive program, promoting the greatest possible openness. Specifically, Eco distinguishes two types of “opening”; one attributable to Medieval aesthetic theories, the other deriving from the Symbolism of the late nineteenth century, in particular from Stéphane Mallarmé.
The first type, made familiar by Dante, but older, is based on the theory of allegorism, which is why it provides the possibility of reading artworks not only in their literal sense, but in three other senses, namely the allegorical, the moral and the anagogical. Eco observes that such a work is undoubtedly endowed with a certain “opening”–the reader knows that each figure is open to a multitude of meanings that she must discover–but in this case “opening” does not at all mean “indefiniteness” of the communication, neither “infinite” possibilities of form nor freedom of use. There is only a set of strictly pre-established outcomes, so that the interpretative reaction of the reader never escapes the author's control. Evidently, Medieval aesthetic theories were based on the concept of an ordered cosmos: the order of the artwork mirrored that of the imperial and theocratic society.
By contrast, with the poetics of suggestion inaugurated by Mallarmé and magnificently carried out by Franz Kafka, the work is intentionally left open to the free reaction of the user. Unlike Medieval allegorical constructions, here there is no univocal interpretation for the supra-senses as they are not guaranteed by any encyclopedia, they do not rest on any world order. The work remains boundless and open as it is “ambiguous”, since a world ordered according to universally recognized laws has been replaced by a world based on ambiguity, both in the negative sense of a lack of orientation centers, and in the positive sense of a continuous reconsideration of values and certainties.
Here, brutally summarizing we could say that Patti gave voice to the Dantes of Italian electronic literature, I gave voice to the Kafkas.
The Dantes are mainstream. They are widely recognized writers well integrated into the Italian literary system. The Kafkas are underground. They do not recognize themselves in the Italian literary system and vice versa.
The Dantes are the defenders of Literature (emblematic, in this sense, Tommaso Pincio’s Panorama, where “what seems to be the only activity of resistance to the digital world […] [is] the close reading of books” (213)). Nor could it be otherwise; their cultural interface is still the Book as knowledge, as representation, as illustration, as transmission, as (of) an ordered world entirely managed by the supreme being (the Author). The Dantes represent the literature of the human.
The Kafkas have made Mallarmé's lesson their own by conceiving the book as a practice, as a rhizome, as a field of forces that are not only human, as an auto(idio)matic world that no author can control or contain. The Kafkas are not afraid to show that the literary is no longer the exclusive prerogative of literature. The Kafkas represent the literature of the posthuman.
No wonder then that Michela Murgia’s Il mondo deve sapere was a series of blog posts “mimetically” transposed into a book “without significant editorial changes” (183). Francesco Pecoraro’s Questa e altre preistorie used some posts previously published on the author's blog as “preliminary ‘open’ notes that lend themselves to being ‘contaminated’, but ultimately need to be polished and re-written by the writer” (186) and in fact these posts too were transposed into a (printed) book. Wu Ming's collective distributed narratives offered just “the illusion of participation in the narrative” (192) as “ultimately, they [the readers] do not change or contribute to the story” (193). Scrittura Industriale Collettiva's wiki novels were, of course, printed as books “in the most traditional literary format, the historical novel” (205); besides, the SIC methodology is overtly based on a hierarchical structure, as “The artistic directors have a role similar to that of film directors […]. They basically have full control over the process of writing.” (200). Tommaso Pincio’s Panorama was, of course, a (paper) novel as well as Viola’s I dirimpettai, composed of transposed blog posts originally published on Facebook. All the projects related to Twitterature mentioned by Patti are “re-writings of other literary works” (220), obviously taken from the canon of printed literature. Facebookature includes: “auto-fiction”, where “the author of Facebook posts can be seen as a ‘hologram’ of the writer himself/ herself” (227), or “extracts of their [Italian writers] forthcoming novels” (227), or “long posts that require a certain level of attention and reflection that does not seem to be compatible with the medium used” (228), or Facebook post series reworked and published as a (traditional, printed) novel.
Now, an ideological fallacy should be highlighted. It was reiterated that the tradition of impegno– that is, commitment to social and political causes–remains very strong in the Italian literary world. However, as Patti observes, “Eco’s call for impegno was thus a call for the re-appropriation of a Marxist political agenda, which also highlighted that artistic practice cannot be disjointed from a critical response to the superstructures of capitalism.” (23) However, Patti herself later states that “the fact that most Italian writers who have experimented with electronic media, and especially those of recent generations, have chosen print and the paperback as the final form for their experimentation demonstrates, I argue, an intention to re-appropriate what they have created and re-claim their ownership/authorship in the context of the fragmentation and dispersion of the Internet.” (51) Ultimately, these authors continue to be the gatekeepers, their symbolic capital continues to be the only one to be recognized by other gatekeepers, such as awards and publishers, and “printed fiction is still the main form in which ‘authorship’, and thus intellectual authority, is recognised.” (187)
The Dantes do not possess IT skills. As Patti notes, “the full creative potential of writing new original content has still to be explored in Italy” (220) [...] “the lack of new genres in this area is due to the fact that poets need creative IT skills to develop new digital genres […]. For those who come from a traditionally literary background, this is not common expertise.” (252)
Like Alessandro Baricco in his essay The Game (cf. Lorusso 2019), the Dantes believe that using a personal computer or a mobile device is enough to have computer literacy. They use computer in “speedrun mode” (Lorusso 2021), in order to achieve a specific goal. In this regard, it is emblematic the use of Instagram by Francesco Arminio, who launch a photo contest inviting followers to post images that evoked his “brief and intense poems” (252) in order to increase the sales of his collection of (traditional, printed) poems. (The goal was achieved). The Dantes justify and nourish what Lorusso (2021) rightly defined as “impersonal computing” (“its features: computer accessorization at the expense of an authentic read-write literacy, mobile-first asphyxia, dispossession of an intimate know-how”).
The Kafkas have an authentic computer literacy as they are able not only to read materials and tools, but also to write materials and tools, and, as Alan Kay teaches, “In print writing, the tools you generate are rhetorical; they demonstrate and convince. In computer writing, the tools you generate are processes; they simulate and decide.”
In short, the Dantes use the computer as a tool, the Kafkas use it as a medium. This explains why in Patti's essay there is no medium-specific analysis of the works; it is precisely the medium that is missing. Patti does not need to examine source codes or identify different types of “interfacial media figures” (Saemmer) or “dysfunctionalities” (Ryan); the writers' skills are read-only skills.
Does all this mean that Patti's essay is not recommended? Absolutely not (who would dare to advise against Dante?) for at least two reasons.
The first is that Patti has provided a compelling analysis of the ideology of literary forms and a timely reinterpretation of Italian "open works" in relation to popular culture and society. The broader spectrum of theoretical and ideological influences, as well as the cognitive, psychological and cultural dynamics that triggered certain authorial responses to technologies are explained with great clarity and precision. The second is that literature (and electronic literature is no exception) is extensive, and may well include both Dante(s) and Kafka(s).
However, I would recommend integrating Patti's essay with other resources to have a broader view of the phenomenon of Italian electronic literature. In this regard, my hope is that there will be many others critical resources on this fascinating and yet underrated subject. As Lorusso writes (2019), we do not need a progressive narrative that justifies the state of the art, just as we do not need the newspapers' scaremongering; we need surprises. “We need alternative chronologies of the internet, passionate stories, risky uchronias, oral tales of the network, destabilizing predictions. And we need these to come from different voices, from choirs of voices, from voices capable of understanding humanism in technique and technique in humanism.”
Eco, Umberto. Opera aperta. Forma e indeterminazione nelle poetiche contemporanee, Milan: Bompiani, 1962.
Iadevaia, Roberta. Per una storia della letteratura elettronica italiana. Milan: Mimesis, 2021.
Kay, Alan. “User Interface: A Personal View”, Laurel Brenda (ed), The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design, Reading: Addison-Wesley, p. 191, 1989.
Lorusso, Silvio. “L'anti-game, tra Baricco e Bifo.” minima&moralia, March 18, 2019 https://www.minimaetmoralia.it/wp/approfondimenti/lanti-game-baricco-bifo/
Lorusso, Silvio. The User Condition: Computer Agency and Behavior, February 12 , 2021 https://theusercondition.computer/
Patti, Emanuela. Opera aperta. Italian Electronic Literature from the 1960s to the Present. Oxford and New York: Peter Lang, 2022.
Ryan, Marie-Laure. “Between Play and Politics: Dysfunctionality in Digital Art.” Electronic Book Review, March 3, 2010
Saemmer, Alexandra, “Interfacial media figures.” HAL, 2008