Returning to his 2010 essay, “Electronic Literature as World Literature,” Tabbi extends those arguments in light of community built scholarly databases that have since emerged and in contrast to an uncritical tracking of “views, citations, downloads and occasional shared themes” (not to mention an increased precarity of authorship, where one’s scholarly work is basically given away).
For digital practices to be literary, Tabbi argues, our selections need to circulate within various institutional, academic, curatorial, and cultural structures – each of which is devising its own set of relations to the digital. This essay aims to initiate those ongoing conversations and evaluations in the field of born digital, electronic literature. In so doing, Tabbi suggests how acts of close reading can bring scholars into closer contact with one another and also activate the databases where e-lit archives are presently stored, read, curated, and mined for verbal and perspectival patterns. (Which have been described, in broad outline as a kind of distant reading.)
Introduction: What counts as literary
Scholars have absorbed, all too well the compulsion to “publish or perish” and the most prominent among the first generation of digital archives play to this precarity. What goes unremarked, however, is the way that scholarship itself – and the conversations it can generate – is able to build communities of interest and mark out directions for the literary arts and humanities. We must do more than cite hits, take note or be notified automatically when our own work has been referenced in this or that new publication. What’s needed is for scholars to register which works – our own and those we have engaged – are being written about and discussed, which are being taught and how they’re being situated in scholarly and creative discourse. Whether, and how well our individual careers as researchers and literary makers may thrive is debatable, when advancement is measured in metrics and grounded in sites that track only views, citations, downloads and occasional shared themes but not conceptual interactions, commentaries, or literary communities (and canons) in formation.
The realization of such work, as Goethe understood in his foundational conception of a “common world literature transcending national limits” (cited in Prendergast 2004: 3), has mostly to do not with any fixed aesthetic or generic characteristics, but rather with how our work is received, cited, and recirculated across national, linguistic, and (in recent decades) platform boundaries. Yet so very many of our new communications infrastructures, the ones that reach hundreds of thousands, are set up precisely to sideline and delimit conversation, analysis, and critique – which is to say, the qualities that are meaningful and remain at the heart of humanities research. Instead, we are being asked to inhabit an emptiness of quantification that has overtaken the humanities, whereby essays and arguments, sustained research projects and career goals get lost under
impact and perfunctory citations that accumulate influence without producing insight. Where’s the communicative dimension? The intimacy that was always a presence in the practice of literary arts?
There is of course no lack of individualism, if not to say isolation in today’s commercialized formats. After all, it is mostly we, the scholars who are doing the work of uploading, identifying, and processing stored works. Instead of engaging communities of interest, the distribution of scholarship is highly personalized, and exchange tends to be restricted to follow up emails between an author and the individual who downloads that author’s article. We may receive from Researchgate.net or Academia.edu, for example, a notification that this or that essay we have published has been cited. But that’s the extent of our interaction with such sites: self-interest, occasional one on one email exchanges and a vague feeling of participation – with texts that we’ve “visited” in Academia’s preferred term. In this instance, we are enrolled in a venture capital firm of $17MM and a drop of the needle demos of “an estimated 46MM account holders (December 2016) and 36MM unique visitors per month.” (Johannah Rodgers, ‘Academia.“edu,”’ np) 1www.electronicbookreview.com, April 17, 2017: it is unclear how many of the millions are enrolled or employed by academic institutions. While the venture capitalists may trumpet their all-inclusive reprints as a democratic alternative to an enclosed, credentialed academic publishing model, the rights to scholarly work so assembled no longer belong to authors within or outside the academic community. And there is no recourse, when the firm eventually (inevitably) sells off the entire collection of works posted there to one or more buyers. Like other capital driven companies such as Google Apps or Facebook, the valuation of a company like Academia.edu is in reselling the data gathered, not preserving an archive. As Penny Andrews has pointed out, in a blog on The Winnower, “Academia.edu closure would most hurt the precariously employed, who have nowhere else to go and then nothing to show for the time invested in the platform.” (Andrews points out that the same could happen to the photos and other everyday personal records posted daily to Facebook.) https://thewinnower.com/papers/5014-event-report-why-are-we-not-boycotting-academia-edu More collegially, we might download from JSTOR (or another institutionally supported archive) an article published by a scholar in our home department coming up for promotion or tenure. Though we can see how many others have downloaded a given book or essay before us, we’re unlikely to join in the sustained conversations this scholar’s work engages, or initiates. How many Humanities departments still have periodic meetings where faculty present and discuss our work? The most that most of us will ever do occasionally is to “share” a link to an article in Twitter. From the moment a book or an essay has been sequestered behind digital paywalls, it is no more capable than a print publication of being located in proximal relation to currently active scholarship and community-built research sites (along the lines of the Poetry Foundation, for example, Open Humanities Press, Internet Archive or any number of institutional repositories 2Too many for any one scholar to follow, which is why it is essential for institutionally supported, Open Access (and also curated) repositories to be searchable with shared protocols across multiple institutions, so that books and articles in a given field are accessible in one place. (That way, our archives stand a chance of being at least as useful as the row of stacks in our field, that still remain in our library basements – in those libraries that still keep books in open storage.) that present for example reflective essays and running commentary along with the creative and archival work that is featured). Any digital book or essay that is not circulated freely among a specified cohort (linked with similar archives and maintained by professional, long-term archivists and editors) is no better able than a print journal article to advance scholarly discourse and debate.
The hundreds of thousands of notifications from Academia.edu go out precisely to one author at a time, referencing a given work that might either mention one’s name or resemble another work we may have happened to download. Arguably, such notifications give us little more than a like on Facebook or Twitter; the enumeration of downloads is no more interesting than the number of “friends” we have listed on social media. We all would do well, in such instances to follow the example of Ben Grosser, whose Demetricator removes the numerical quantifications from all his Facebook pages.3Grosser’s self-described aim with this work is “to disrupt the prescribed sociality these metrics produce, enabling a network society that isn’t dependent on quantification.” He writes: “The Facebook interface is filled with numbers. These numbers, or metrics, measure and present our social value and activity, enumerating friends, likes, comments, and more. Facebook Demetricator is a web browser addon that hides these metrics. No longer is the focus on how many friends you have or on how much they like your status, but on who they are and what they said.” (Introduction, Facebook Demetricator) The implication, that metacommentary, discursive engagement, and evaluative standpoints are too easily sidelined by quantitative, commercial values, has the potential to move both social and political conversations toward the kinds of alternative social media (ASM) described by Robert W. Gehl, who notes how “the dominant sites – Facebook, Google, and Twitter – have retained or even intensified some of the problems of mass media power and anti-democratic communication that traditional alternative media theorists have described.” (1) Arguably a similar reconfiguration of databases along ASM lines is needed, for their world literary potential to be realized.
Nothing is lost, though it’s arguably a weight off our shoulders, and our thoughts not to have to track such enumerations, of friends or likes or hits. And the same is true, no doubt for our scholarly works, which we might better stumble across in a printed index or list of works cited, in the course of our reading or in searches we would better conduct ourselves, through sites that are community built. Identifying what is, what is not and (most importantly) what could be “literary” about individual works that are currently both generated and found within an active, networked environment is an evaluative necessity. During our present era when the act of reading is itself relocating within multiple media (and not just the internet), new literary and cultural identifications arise: Metatags need to be devised and implemented by many in conversation, not a select few in isolation. The common search engine set up by the Consortium on Electronic Literature (www.cellproject.net) is one example of such cross-database collaboration, although such designations are useful only insofar as they may be revisited, reaffirmed and (what is most important in a field that is changing along with digital platforms) revised.
That last, revisionist and continually questioning activity is key, and it is much more than the maintenance and updating of works we may find within (and ourselves add to) a given database collection. Contention and dissent about what counts as literary need to be brought forward, lest we turn critical writing into a “stuck record of the past,” in Adam Phillips’s take on the decline of self-criticism in contemporary culture. Phillips cites Samuel Beckett’s eerily prescient line from Worstward Ho, “something there badly not wrong,” as one way of describing a diminished critical and creative conversation with contemporary literary writers, and writing. If there is nothing wrong, nothing to resist in ourselves and our collective cultural instantiation, what need can we have for a literary imaginary whose purpose is, if anything, to disrupt and change normative structures that have been internalized? What’s there, in our archives no less than our disengaged, noncommittal and inconsequential “visits” to social media, is for Phillips “unimaginative, both about morality, and about ourselves. Were we to meet this figure [imagined by Beckett] socially, this accusatory character, this internal critic, this unrelenting fault-finder, we would think there was something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel. We might think that something terrible had happened to him, that he was living in the aftermath, in the fallout, of some catastrophe. And we would be right.”
Is there not something badly not wrong in being asked daily to “view your mentions” in this or that “influential” book or article. Or maybe there’s a paper in one of my recognized research areas that mentions the name J Tabbi; another in Bruno Ministro’s research area, “Close Reading.” Or because I happened to have downloaded a given essay some time ago, might I “Want to give it another look?” At this one, maybe: “Novel Beyond Nation,” because I happened to have downloaded another, titled: “Big Novels / Big Data: A Short Take.” Academia.edu is not at all disturbed, either, by outspoken criticism directed against its own business model, so even as I draft the present essay I am reminded in an email (April 16, 2020; 9.59am) that I once “visited the paper by Gary Hall and Janneke Adema, Why Are We Not Boycotting Academia.edu?” first presented at a symposium in Coventry University, 8thSeptember 2015. These citations are mine, belonging to me and to no other, no less than the songs that turn up, again and again on my Spotifyplaylist that is based not so much on curated collections with implicit or articulated value judgments 4In recent years I am more often subscribing to curated playlists, and so discovering curious archival turns in artists like Jimmy Page, Pink Floyd, Kate Bush or Radiohead who have been active in the remastering and online recirculation of studio recordings decades after their initial release. Even so, as the reissued tracks now recirculate via Spotify, the original transitions from one song to the next that defined the Long Play (lp) recording are sometimes abruptly cut, so that the reflective and connective spirit of the (much higher sound quality) remaster is lost. but on selections from my own personal listening history, regardless of value, without acknowledgement regarding which if any public is being addressed. When born digital communicative acts, and cultural aspects are thus packaged as data, we can observe a reduction in communicative, inter-personal and narrative potential not unlike that which goes missing in Beckett’s Worstward Ho.
For Adam Phillips, the discipline being sidelined (and defended by Beckett) is psychoanalysis. The idea of something inside becoming ¨badly not wrong,¨ of our having lost something valuable is not just a condensation of Beckett’s inimitable aesthetic but also a defence of the Freudian Super-Ego, its ability “to look at,” and critique, oneself and others “from varying points of view.” (Phillips, np) Far from mere repression, critique is also a way to stay in touch with “the unpredictable, prodigal desires” that were unleashed by psychoanalysis. And are there not similar, prodigal and disruptive tendencies in and around the digital sphere – those that remain interactive and are institutionally deposited and generally accessible? There is also something interactive about the critical stance, assuming it is shared publicly and not repressed: “Where judgment is, there conversation should be.” (Phillips again) Without conversation, and without contention concerning what counts as valuable and worthy of our attention, collective as well as individual, we are left (in literary and humanistic studies) with little more than data.
This is not a tendency that occurs only in our current digital situation. In 2003 David Damrosh was already defining world literature in terms that resisted accumulation to no end, with no discernable order (as we move from one intertext to the next). Damrosh, in my opinion rightly, advocated “not an infinite ungraspable canon of works but rather a mode of circulation and of reading . . . that is applicable to individual works as to bodies of material.” Citing the context of Weltliteratur, a term used (at first) to convey the French reception of a stage play by Goethe that was not nearly so well received in his German homeland, Damrosh makes explicit the need to recognize how a literary work changes the moment it crosses borders (unlike exchanges of capital or daily news and other momentary, informatic communications across cultures, and also unlike translations of long-term, legal documents that minimize ambiguity or interpretive qualities). The ability through relocation to capture, reconsider, and extend a work’s aesthetic and ethical implications could well be what defines its worldliness and literariness – the potential for a work to gain in translation, even as it touches on lived experience and cultural contexts that are never quite the same as those brought over from its host country or retrieved from an earlier era. A work that’s worth our individual and collective attention never really leaves its place of origin, and only those works that hold onto a sense of otherness will be received and recognized as truly worldly.
A World (Literature) Elsewhere
I emphasize this retention of otherness, what a deconstructive reading would describe as a constitutional difference and deferral (e.g., differance), as a distinguishing aspect of an emergent world literature. More than a desirable addition (one of many possible features), the constitutional situation of literature as another world is key. It’s what makes literature a formal art, not a mere accounting, elucidation or apology for the world we have now, in regions that are already known if not (ever) fully itemized, economized, and colonized. The desire for a “world elsewhere” is present, arguably in all of our (relatively few) world literary works, whether presented in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus or in the emergent, “new world” aesthetic explored by Richard Poirier in A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American Literature (1961). Where Coriolanus, banished from Rome, turns on his adjudicators with the phrase, “I banish you,” he knows that there exist other, literal worlds he can inhabit; distant places the empire hasn’t yet reached. By the time we get to Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalist movement in America, there is no longer a Corolanian rejection or turning away from the actual world that we, ourselves as self-aware subjects inhabit – a world we might colonize, or be colonized by, depending. What we see emerging in nineteenth century American literature is a call for formal, rhetorical and stylistic deviations from what is already present in the world we know and live in. Emerson’s noteworthy edict, “to build therefore your own world,” is not a call to depart from the place where one is. (Even Thoreau, who detached himself famously in Walden Pond and once sought an outlying, natural alternative in unexplored regions around Maine, actually found there a fair amount of trash left by tourists.)
The American Transcendentalist project does not so much outwardly reject social norms and lifeways, as it seeks to relocate experience via conceptual, distinctively aesthetic forms, and formalism. The literary sphere is not a place to which we escape, so much as a “world inside the world” (Libra) that we might create – as the very Emersonian novelist, Don DeLillo has done in his re-imagining of the Kennedy assassination, from both the imagined point of view of the historical Lee Harvey Oswald and the perspective of the (fictional) CIA case officer Nicholas Branch. As the latter’s name suggests, the best we can hope to achieve in a world changing event like this one, are indeterminate narrative branchings through an archive that can be explored endlessly. And this particular, literary exploration of DeLillo’s, given the presence of televisual media and extensive official handling, is already marked through and through by fictions before the novelist enters the scene. (Similar arguments might be made for ‘true life’ novels in similar modes by Norman Mailer in The Executioner’s Song, which replaced the author’s previous self-advertisement with voices and perspectives carried over from personal interviews with those who knew and observed the book’s lead character, death-row inmate Gary Gilmore. Likewise for Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day and Mason & Dixon, which channel this author’s prior ecumenical excesses into a more structured fealty, respectively, to 18th and 19th century stylistic conventions.)
Such worldliness in American literature, while distinctively other than what can be found everywhere in our everyday world weariness, can also offer new ways of bringing internal, felt experiences into contact with what others are experiencing, elsewhere and in one’s own milieu. In so doing, our personal, reflective experiences are made to circulate outward, in literary forms and “styles” that can be shared and experienced collectively. Indeed, “the place of style” (my emphasis) in Poirier’s formulation is not to be found in any specific geographical region or cultural disposition. The internalization of literary forms and styles introduced by American Transcendentalism in the mid-19th century, is by now a realized, trans-national modernist condition in which there are no longer any external regions or resorts that are left untouched by power relations, cultural instantiations, and mediated awareness. In such a situation of ongoing and extensive mediation, worlds are there for the taking – through a use of individualized styles, first person thought streams and third person narrative perspectives. This has led to a flourishing of late modernist fictions in the United States, from Dos Passos to DeLillo, that have managed to bring alive the “camera eye” coverage that we live with, unreflectively for much of our lives: such literary representations widen our medial perspective and render experience shareable. There are strong suggestions that similar (and more broadly mediated) literary experiments might be formulated within digital environments, as one finds in the 3-D visual and spoken narratives of Roderick Coover and Scott Rettberg; namely: Toxi.City: A Climate Change Narrative (on the aftermath of the 2005 Katrina Hurricane) and Hearts and Minds: The Interrogations Project (reflecting on the Iraq War). These are works that resituate events that already have in place an extensive (though largely unscripted) televisual and official archive. By scripting ongoing conflicts and climate change from a perspective that is both filmic and personal, through interviews with participants (and also, in Hearts and Minds, voiceover actors), the literary works give to these events a stylistic component not found in journalistic coverage. Here we are given follow ups, years after the events take place that convey alongside the known data, concerns that are ongoing. In the films we can observe the ways that individuals who lived through the hurricane, and soldiers who were assigned to commit torture, reflect back on the experience in their contemporary American circumstance (which is no longer of active interest to reporters and journalists, not to mention legislators who have not addressed the U.S. position on torture). Viewers of the films are equipped with handheld navigators, allowing them to trigger individual objects, “such as a toy truck” in Hearts and Minds, “a Boy Scout poster, or a pair of wire cutters.” All are elements that relocate readers, viewers and listeners in a world apart, where individual reflection and a collective understanding might have the time and space needed to emerge.
In its referential range and initial reception 5Hearts and Minds is the 2016 winner of the Electronic Literature Organization's Robert Coover Award for a Work of Electronic Literature., the work of Coover and Rettberg is clearly indicative of one possible direction that a post-digital aesthetic imaginary can take, seeing as how it brings to the current generation of reader/viewer/listeners a new sort of stylistic and formal overlay. What this work shares with earlier world literary formations is the creation of a distinctive style that both integrates the powers of media coverage and extends these to a time frame that is actually (albeit sadly) appropriate to both the irresolute military commitments of the U.S., even now, and similarly long-term climate changes that surely have stimulated, in this and many other media-ecological fictions, a rethinking of narratives of innovation and growth. One might hope that multimodal literary projects along these lines, presented in live performance (and not distributed via solitary, self-isolating apps) might encourage incoming generations to recognize a genre in formation for a tangible collectivity.
Infinite Ungraspable Canons (and the Death of a Discipline)
If the stylistics that until now have characterized world literary formations is to appear in born digital literature, it is not likely to be found in corporate media whose metrics are carefully designed to discern spending habits and time allocation. World views and critical evaluations are precisely what go missing in corporatized social media – not just from the uncritical inclusion of any and all literary writing in scholarly databases tagged for categorical distribution, but in the “digital humanities” generally, a scholarly emergence(y) that, for all of its “infinite ungraspable” canons 6My plural. Damrosh uses the singular because the set canon of texts is only the background for the emergence of an individual, constitutively singular world literary work, that is for Damrosh not confined by its language of origin or nationality. One danger, I would argue of an uncritical plurality of works in different languages, is that canons will be simply multiplied, rather than specific works emerging with a new set of implications and resonances in other languages – the way, for example, the Gilgamesh epic reached its pinnacle in regions where it was first translated, even as Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey, which were preserved in manuscript form (with substantial variation) over half a millennium in ancient Greece, became a bona fide world literature through its eventual transference to a print archive, and was then circulated worldwide through a process of multiple translations that continues today. (See Luttwak). of creative and scholarly work has yet to establish, in academia anything approaching a widely shared curriculum for literary studies of born digital writing and scholarship. In 2014, a “decade-plus” into “the emergence of digital humanities (DH),” David Golumbia was already warning of an ongoing “Death of a Discipline” brought on by a much longer, and still ongoing attack from “a wide range of conservative political forces…under the assumption that the humanities are useless or fail to teach skills necessary for employment.” (Golumbia 158) Particularly vulnerable has been our long established and diminishing “literary-interpretive practice, including that of the New Critics and their philological predecessors like Erich Auerback and Leo Spitzer, a generalized ethics of the encounter with the other in language that interpretive humanities offer.” (Golumbia again) Of particular concern to Golumbia is the alternative, but unrealized direction taken at the turn of the present millennium by post-colonial literary scholars such as Edward Said and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. In 2003, Spivak argued in a “slim volume,” also titled Death of a Discipline, that “we need to move from Anglophony, Lusophone, Tuetophony, Francophony, et cetera” and instead “take the languages of the Southern Hemisphere as active cultural media rather than as objects of cultural study by the sanctioned ignorance of the metropolitan migrant.” Neither Spivak nor Golumbia explicitly connect this laudable, but (in 2014 when Golumbia was writing, and today) largely unrealized disciplinary turn with the exploration of a similarly notional World Literature by Damrosh and (notably) Franco Moretti. Indeed, Moretti is one of the few scholars to have brought a world literature background to bear on digital developments. He once characterized world literary practice in our own time as a “modest intellectual enterprise” that never quite lived up to its beginnings in Goethe and Marx. 7Marx addresses a prospective multinational, infrastructural condition for a borderless literary practice in his equally well-known characterization of a “world literature” that would “arise” out of the “impossibility” of one-sided, nationalist, and local literatures. (Cited by Moretti in Prendergast: 148) Although we have, arguably, reached a level of global development where nationalism is indeed impractical, we have yet to see the emergence of a worldwide genre or multicultural imaginary that relates to a global polity in the way that the novel, for example, has encapsulated (or once had) a sense of national belonging. Introducing a special issue of the Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, “Novel beyond Nation,” Jernej Habjan remarks on “the persistence of the novel despite the crisis of the nationalist social bond.” And while recognizing that “nationalism is being increasingly replaced by post-nationalist identity politics,” Habjan and his contributors maintain that “the novel is not being sublated by any new form. While the tombs of unknown soldiers, [Benedict] Anderson’s ingenious representational equivalent to one’s unknown national compatriots (9-10), are being overshadowed by monuments to living American presidents erected by emerging identity communities as part of their politics of recognition, Mikhail Bakhtin’s diagnosis of ‘novelization’ (6) as the fate of all genres seems more topical than ever¨ Like Spivak, Morretti recognized that contemporary world literature was “fundamentally limited to Western Europe, and mostly revolving around the river Rhine (German philologists working on French literature). Not much more” (Prendergast 2004: 148). Indeed, Moretti’s own coinage, a decade or so later of the term “distant reading” is not accidental, as a description of the kind of research drawing on word usage frequencies and other quantifiable aspects that scholars could now apply to a literary corpus that soon would be gathered in databases. Given his own attention in the mid-1990s to an epical, modern world literature “from Goethe to Garcia Marquez,” Moretti was not unaware of the dangers, in Golumbia’s words, of demoting “interpretive close reading as the hallmark of literary study.” (“Death of a Discipline”160) Indeed, Moretti and his colleagues at the Stanford Literary Lab, Ryan Heuser and Long Le-Khac, address this problem head on, in the fourth of their influential digital pamphlets (2012). As they say in the concluding section:
The general methodological problem of the digital humanities can be bluntly stated: How do we get from numbers to meaning? The objects being tracked, the evidence collected, the ways they’re analyzed – all of these are quantitative. How to move from this kind of evidence and object to qualitative arguments and insights about humanistic subjects – culture, literature, art, etc. – is not clear. (Cited in Liu 411; his emphasis)
Like Golumbia commenting on DH practices generally, Alan Liu turned his own attention to the meaning of the digital humanities themselves – and on looking closer into the quantitative data gathered in the Stanford lab, Liu found its literary realization to be lacking. The Stanford scholars’ stated goal of getting from numbers to human meaning could not be realized without the presence of a “humanly understandable concept” that is introduced at the outset. (Liu 414) For the Stanford scholars, a set of soft, socially normative signifiers assembled out of 19th century British novels (seed words for their monitoring such as gentle, sensible, vanity, elegant, delicacy, reserved, mild, and restraint) revealed in their frequency certain trends in the genre’s development that might be linked to a thematic of “social restraint,” “moral valuation,” “sentiment,” and “partiality.” Then, by introducing a set of contrasting seed words (hard, for example), Heuser and Le-Khac brought forward an unexpectedly “large cohort of “concrete descriptive words of a direct, everyday kind.” (Cited in Liu 413) All that, however, was familiar to scholarship on this period and genre – notably in the “knowable communities” described by Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society and The Country and the City. What Heuser and LeKhac brought to the discussion was a structured, computationally verifiable account of geographical and temporal changes in expression, from soft to hard, in the face of “urbanization, industrialization, and new stages of capitalism” in 19th century England. But without consulting earlier, unstructured, human powered and computationally unverifiable scholarly works, and without more recent semantic fields that Heuser and Le-Khac took over from the recently published Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (2009), they would not have been able to situate their important, but by themselves decontextualized empirical findings.
More is at stake here than a scholarly debate on one particular historical tendency or “the classificatory form of relational semantic positions” (Liu 415) in 19th century British fictions (significant though these are for humanities scholarship that both recognizes and incorporates an unprecedented set of digital affordances). The need to integrate database analytics with acts of reading and interpretation, is what Liu’s critique brings out clearly. The ability to do both, or not, and whether such collaboration is achievable through co-authorship and collective project building, are key to the continuation of humanistic inquiry within current reading environments. As we saw in Golumbia, whose “Death of a Discipline” essay was published the same year as Liu’s “Meaning of the Digital Humanities,” there is another, political dimension to Liu’s argument. Liu’s essay, after all, appeared under the PMLA heading, “the changing profession.” And Liu explicitly indicates that the term crisis “is appropriate when we realize that the meaning problem also affects pedagogy and jobs in the wake of economic recession, which brings the problem cruelly to bear on individual humanists in training or seeking jobs.” (419)
A decade on, we have not gotten over this crisis. It has deepened. Golumbia, for his part, I think rightly attributes the success of a determinedly value neutral DH to its neglect not only of close reading and critical interpretation, but of political valuations and trans-cultural interactions as well. Regardless of the political orientation of its advocates, DH as a politics, for Golumbia, “has overtaken (though by no means displaced) another, to my mind, much more radical politics,¨ that of Spivak and Said, which ¨promised a remarkable, thoroughgoing, and productive reconsideration of the foundations of scholarly research but that, crucially, emerged quite directly out of the research practices and protocols that had been developing in literary studies until then.” I agree with Golumbia that these (and many other expansive and cross-disciplinary tendencies – in my own field of literature, science, and the arts for example) have been sidelined over the past two decades, even as our personal and collegial lifeways have been socially distanced, from the time that Facebook (over) took the stage. And though we cannot prove “a direct connection between the advent of DH and the relative decline of other projects,” as Golumbia says “we need to consider the thesis that the rise of DH and the notable fall of other projects are not simply coincidental.”
That said, one cannot ignore the fact that the field where such propositions are being decided has itself moved into a digital sphere – and the inability to turn digital communications into a public sphere can also, arguably be a reason for the sidelining of radical literary projects by what I’ve been calling (after Beckett) a “badly not wrong” analytics. Golumbia, despite his valid reference to a once vibrant, and still desirable multi-lingual strain in literary studies, makes no mention of emergent, born digital literary works and genres in any language, be it subaltern or Western – an oversight that has become all the more striking in the ten years that have passed since he published his essay – years during which a still modest, but geographically and linguistically expansive practice of electronic literature has emerged.
Unlike Golumbia, Liu is himself both a maker and critical analyst of online literary databases, notably The Voice of the Shuttle, one of the earliest humanities research portals that ran from 1994 to 2006 and allowed “for dynamic views of the data (general to specific) and user contributions.” The imported entries ranging alphabetically from About.com Literature Pages to Watermarks, link to sites that Liu himself, his students and scholarly cohort happened to find of interest, and the goal was never to be comprehensive but rather, in Liu’s words, “to seduce other humanities scholars onto the Web by showing them available online humanities materials.” The kinds of meaning assembled within Liu’s exploratory, modestly self-sufficient VoS database circulate differently within community built, digital formations (with categories designated from the start to feature not only archival works, and not more than could be consulted by any of the – not too many – scholars who contributed to the project).8By the time Liu published his essay on meaning (and its avoidance) in the digital humanities, he had archived the Shuttle and moved on to other endeavors: the University of California Transliteracies Project, on online reading, RoSE (Research-Oriented Social Environments), and the 4Humanities advocacy initiative, whose topic-modelling project titled "WhatEvery1Says" focuses on public discourse about the humanities.
It has been my personal position, articulated (in Tabbi 2010) a few years before Liu’s and Golumbia’s DH critiques, that the ongoing digital relocation of literary texts and communicative contexts might actually realize our long-postponed worlding of the kinds of critical and interpretive conversations that Goethe, Marx, Damrosh, and Moretti, have set out. Arguably, that possibility might now extend to the approach set out by Spivak and Said. If the trans-national, multi-lingual model advanced by these two has not taken root in disciplinary practice, that might be in part a result of their followers (like Golumbia) not having brought the work of these scholars (and many others) into the collaborative, affinity spaces where these works can be productively positioned, so that the themes and human-semantic elements introduced in any given scholarly work can circulate among actual, current works in multiple languages but also, definitively, in multiple modes and media also.
The Digital Archive as an Affinity Space
By now, collections of multilingual works are being archived, and addressed by scholars in integrated, and interconnected databases. These, for example:
Complementing the collections, which are still very much in progress, is the Consortium on Electronic Literature (www.cellproject.net) that links works and scholarly entries from each of the above groups in a common search engine, while at the same time bringing encyclopedic style entries and essays by many of the gathered authors into a single location. Similar in range to the database projects initiated by Alan Liu, the listed collections are not free standing, and neither are the source texts offered up exclusively for “quantitative methods”: as Hannah Ackermans states in her own contribution to the present “e-Lit [Frame]works” gathering, these databases assume and allow space for “acts of reading and interpretation specifically.” Several of the CELL databases in particular – for example, the Portuguese language PO.EX, the French NT2, and the Spanish CIBERIA, each “highlight their language-specific content as a corrective to the field’s focus on English-language works in the past.” The CELL project leaders, Ackermans notes, “think of their databases as not simply a documentation process, but a connected, accessible, and productive part of the future of electronic literature.” A given implementation is “nearly always” advanced through focused, periodic meetings in conferences and hosted workshops. The Consortium is, in agreement with terms that emerged around the same period (early twenty-teens) an Affinity Space that articulates its parameters and pursuits through curated, and (one can hope) demetricated Alternative Social Media (ASM).
The “field” that Ackermans references, notably, is not the same as the mostly unread, exclusively English language novels that Moretti, Heong and LeKhac addressed, nor is it the literary canon that Spivak and Said wished to reconceive, through the inclusion of both diversely gendered and non-Anglophone literatures. The databases that Ackermans explores for the most part archive literary works that are born digital, and at the same time distributed worldwide. It is the case that such diversity is presently being addressed for example in Spanish language collections put together by Elika Ortega, Maya Paniagua, Alex Saum and others. 9A critical examination of born digital Latin American writing by women, is under way at the time of this writing by Nohelia Meza, for presentation in the Brazilian journal, texto digital, and also in ebr <www.electronicbookreview.com>. Similar features in several languages are under development for presentation throughout the coming year, 2020-21 in ebr.But there is more than linguistic diversity required for the realization of the paratextual, trans-national and intertextual qualities that have long characterized world literature, however limited its realization in practice. I have cited already Spivak’s urging of literary scholars to regard formerly subaltern languages “as active cultural media rather than as objects.” Might not the same be said for digital media? For not only multiple languages, but also a diversity of media to be recognized, and integrated into both the works being read and the world spanning, peer reviewed, public and published conversations being generated by the works.
Whatever we may think of DH, we need to recognize that what we are reading, most if not all, is accessed in databases – and even our print canon is patiently being commodified by corporate initiatives like the Google library project. 10This project is analysed in both my introduction and Shelley Jackson’s opening essay for The Bloomsbury Handbook of Electronic Literature. Its description in Andrew Norman Wilson’s 2010 Vimeo post, Workers Leaving the Googleplex, might stand as a good example of a characteristic convergence in e-lit of both lived and narrativized; strictly individualized and corporately controlled experience. Which is all the more reason to register and explore more carefully alternative projects being developed by a minority but growing collection of scholars, authors, and critical makers of born digital literary work. One irreplaceable resource for such activity would have to be a semi-public network of university libraries, whose members have raised Golumbia’s ire insofar as numerous librarians who affiliate with DH “consider it appropriate to express very strong opinions about professional matters in literary scholarship, especially standards for promotion and tenure, despite library schools not as a rule being institutionally part of the humanities.” Nonetheless, the libraries are where the literary canon has been, and is being stored – and any chance of our work reaching a viable audience 11By viable, I mean those having academic accreditation (as students or faculty), not the indiscriminate audience of (for example) Academia.edu. whose 46+ MM subscribers (as of December 2017) have no clear connection to – or support from – scholarly professions. In no way should this indiscriminate audience be considered “general,” since participation of the sort I have already described, where one reader, depending on his or her track record, is notified one at a time of works by published authors. This is more of a social media grouping than any active literary community, and more likely (given its support as a venture capital concern) to sell off its assets, with no more likelihood of preserving access to those who sent in their publications than social media has for its freely accumulated materials. will depend on how successfully all scholars, literary and otherwise, can be made to bring our published work into library databases (and not into the for profit venture firms whose databases are mined, not curated).
The trajectories leading up to this project have been identified, in existing conversations that pre-date the digital turn. Ackermans, for example, an Electronic Literature scholar (and ELMCIP database editor) has situated the classical hermeneutics of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Hans-Georg Gadamer in relation to a prospective “digital hermeneutics” put forward by Tom van Nuenen and Inge van de Ven. In doing so, Ackermans articulates what the digital can bring to a literary practice that is at once, of necessity “fragmented and relational, displaying hypertext characteristics.” It is understood that no one reader will ever connect the fragments and itemize potential relations among today’s extensive scholarly data sets – no more than anyone could read all of the thirty thousand English novels gathered in databases by the Stanford lab. Chances are slim that even a literary devotee will do more than sample the collections in our world literature canon, however this corpus is reconsidered and revised by scholars in the digital era.
But there are other ways, as Moretti recognizes, to approach the all too evident unreadability of literary arts and scholarship, other kinds of reading that can be far more transformative than the inclusion or exclusion of this or that particular title from one or another database in this or that part of the world. What’s needed rather is a self-conscious inclusion and awareness of the conversations surrounding the works we have assembled in databases: the ripostes and glosses that accompany many of the essays published in this journal, ebr, differ from blogs in that they are coordinated by the same editors who have commissioned the essays and coordinated their external peer review. The meta-discussion, moreover, is as much a matter of linking new essays to those by the same auther, or to those by others engaging similar themes – so that the archive is renewed and revisited even as our authors advance the literary discourse.
A literary “field” has been and always will be a construct of the imagination – much like a nation state, religion or any other imagined community that is larger than a village, prayer group or research klatch. The digital corpus – and its community-built databases – differ from print only insofar as the gathered items are orders of magnitude larger than the Western literary canon, for example. It’s the latter, relational activity that turns the experience of individual readers into a wider field of practice. And there is much to be gained when no single “one,” individual or discipline, but instead many multidisciplinary readers worldwide are able to link their dispersed activities to overarching concepts that are named, considered, contested, and (by withstanding those contests) recognized over time as part of a literary field.
Two of the primary databases in the CELL project, the Electronic Literature Directory (ELD) and ELMCIP 12Electronic Literature as a Model of Creativity in Practice., can stand roughly for the close and distant, fragmentary and relational readings that Moretti, Liu, Ackermans recently, and so many others in past centuries have advanced (with only moderate success, so far). Where the ELMCIP group have organized upwards of thirty thousand born digital literary works and presented them with the aid of graphs and data maps, the ELD has remained focused on hermeneutic analyses of a few hundred entries – many of them archived by members of the Electronic Literature Organization. The positioning of the ELD as a component within ELMCIP, once accomplished could offer a way of recombining the close and distant approaches, in communication with other, Open Access literary databases whose works are accessible and also linked to one another through a common metatag structure. This unprecedented capability of bringing the work, and conversations around the work into a single, accessible framework, has been colonized by venture capital enterprises for good reason. Even now, the death and life of a digitally archived scholarship needs to be determined one work at a time, even as we publish new works of our own. By resituating those affordances in community built databases that belong to the scholars and curators who design and populate them, and by resuscitating archival works we stand a chance of realizing a kind of focused, trans-disciplinary and multinational mode of circulation and of reading that has been, thus far imaginable only as a potential world literature.
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