During Chercher Le Texte, a conference held in Paris in October, an initiative of ELO (Electronic Literature Organisation), some of the ideas that are (latently) present in the workgroup of Algolit, were described and confirmed. This post is a subjective reading of several conferences I attended, meant as an invitation for discussions and exchanges.
I-literature is a transdisciplinary practise, developed by writers, developers, performers and can be extended by visual artists, musicians, and others.
The literary can be defined by ‘working with language’. The difference between an analogue literary author and an i-literator is the conviction that the language of literary creation can also be code language, and that these are free by nature. While since the 18th century an analogue literary author considers her unique combination of words as a property that can be commercialized, copying is inherent of the activities of the i-literator (Søren Bro Pold & Christian Ulrik Andersen (Danmark), Post digital Books & disruptive Literary Machines).
I-literature or electronic literature, call it algoritmic literature, is a fairly recent phenomenon. Ficticious narratives are the base ingredients but the creations can take on various forms depending on the content. They can be web-productions, performances, installations, text files, printed books… Due to the multimodal aspect of the practise, collaborations between makers from different disciplines are natural.
Transformation of literary aspects
Working with code affects some criteria by which analogue literature is defined. Therefore, this kind of creations are more easily found in the new media artworld.
1. Narrativity as an active process of experiences
The development of the narratives is realised through conditions rather than through the creation of characters (Will Luers, Make me think: Composing the Narrative Interface).
A database is an archive of language, language is a means of production of the internet. Through the use of language as data, language as meaning can be generated. This literary process is called the algorithmic feedback (Manuel Portela, Scripts for infinite Readings). Machinal processes (bots) read and write potential literary texts that we in turn can read and rewrite. The distance between reading and writing is disappearing, creating new experiences and habits. Reading becomes writing and writing becomes reading.
Meaning is created through personal associations, f.ex. ‘red’ & ‘food’ makes you think of a tomato intuitively. These personal associations enhance new forms of reading, writing, rewriting and rereading, interactive, multimodal, self-referential (Will Luers, Make me think: Composing the Narrative Interface). The source code is of great importance, as it can function as a manual, and more (see below).
2. Single authorship makes place for collaborative authorship
Writing is intertextual by nature. I-writing is also interdisciplinary: it can refer to generating code, design, audio, video, image, text, performance… Processes of rewriting en rereading can be infinite, which extends the idea of authorship infinitely.
This aspect affects the history of copyright directly (Johannah Rodgers, Beyond Binaries: Continuity and Change in Literary Experimentation in Response to Print and Digital Technologies). The way it exists since the novelists of the 18th century, it means an obstacle of i-literators. The use of GPL-code and Free Art Licenses allow for remixing, the creation of new and personal versions and for keeping track of the history of ‘revisits’. They also allow the reader/writer/curator/critic to fully grasp the many layers of the work, to archive it and/or to adapt it to newer systems (Mark Marino, Close Reading E-Literature).
3. Realism is back
(Søren Bro Pold & Christian Ulrik Andersen, Post digital Books & disruptive Literary Machine)
The literary aspect of a creation lies in the language and in how this language comes into being. It affects the concept itself: the literary can be present in any digital discipline. It is not just using a tool to generate something, but it is ‘doing critique of the network’, writing FOR and WITH tools and make the underlying structures legible and questionable in the writing. Text, image and video generators allow for different forms of interaction and for legibility on different scales.
An example of this kind of creation is Ubermorgens The Project formerly known as the Kindle forkbomb. An internet-robot collects comments that people make on youtube-films, generates a book with it, with a cover and an isbn-number and uploads it to Amazon. The comments read as complex dialogues. The individual people are reduced to actors in a network of machines. The work creates meaning around het idea of the ‘networked’ computer. It is the realism branch of i-literary creations.
The work also questions the controlled consumption systems managed through tablet devices like Kindle and I-pad by corporations like Apple, Amazon and Google. They force users into passive consumers despite the rethoric of empowerment and interactivity. Language in these cases is controlled and closed for the readers by the so-called ‘providers of culture’. Controlling language is one of the tools of controlled consumption.
Manuel Portela highlightened John Caley’s The Reader’s Project as another example. A series of algorithms of ‘Project-readers’ generate different ways of reading:
“The traces and consequences of others’ readings are accessible to us over the internet and, more recently, through networked ebook readers. The indexing and statistical analysis of everything that has been inscribed into the realm of big data allows us to search and retrieve textual fragments from a vast, increasingly comprehensive literary and linguistic corpus in arrangements that are first ‘read’ by algorithmic and statistical models and then offered up to us in finely composed—and often illustrated, multimediated—pages that precede and predetermine any further or deeper ‘human’ reading. Perhaps this is how we are now inclined to read, as our relationship with language and language-making changes fundamentally? Is the algorithmically composed reading ‘social’ or ‘posthuman’? Is our subsequent ‘deep’ reading a solipsistic throwback? For works that have been written by human individuals, questions of ownership, copyright and integrity are raised continually in entirely new, if instantly commonplace, situations.” (Common Tongues)
Throughout his experiments John Caley got convinced that what we call writing is brought into existing by reading; while it is only read by machines, it is not writing. What can we call it than?
4. Synchronous creation
The i-literary landscape can be compared to the literary landscape at the end of the 18th century in England (Johannah Rodgers, Beyond Binaries: Continuity and Change in Literary Experimentation in Response to Print and Digital Technologies). Authors like Lawrence Sterne (Tristam Shandy) experimented with content and form. They were as envolved in the creation of the text, as in the design and production of the publication. They experimented with typography and new technologies. There was a deep resonance between form and content, created through the trial & error method that forms the basis of algorythmic writing. The concept grow during the creation process. What works or not, what collides or not, co-defines the content. In this process i-literators perform esthaetic interventions.
This needs a process in which you can establish methods, integrate comments, and expect of people and machines to be both reader and writer.
Lev Manovich, Cultural analysis & visualizations
Manuel Portela, Scripting Reading Motions
Stuart Moulthrop, You say you want a revolution (1991), in New Media Reader
Alessandro Ludovico, Post-Digital Print (on the mutation of publishing)
Geoff Cox, Speaking Code
Frederic Jameson, Prison House of language
Goldsmith, Unedited Transcript
John Caley, Writing to be Found
Dunciad Variorum, 1729
Exquisite Code, Will Luers & Brendan Howell: http://exquisite-code.com/
Jeremy Douglas, video in ‘cube’ format, you can chose to slice it yourself
Ubermorgen, the project formerly known as the Kindle forkbomb
Johannah Rodgers, The DNA-project (cfr ELMCIP)
Christian Bök, Xanotext
Amaranth Borsuk, Between Page & Screen (hm)
Manuel Portela (Portugal), Scripts for infinite readings
Manuel Portela is Assistant Professor with Habilitation in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, University of Coimbra, Portugal, where he teaches courses on literature and new media. He is the author of O Comércio da Literatura: Mercado e Representação [The Commerce of Literature: Marketplace and Representation] (Lisbon: Antígona, 2003), a study of the English literary market in the 18th century. He has translated fiction, poetry, and theatre, including works by Laurence Sterne, William Blake, and Samuel Beckett. He received the National Award for Translation for Tristram Shandy in 1998. He has published, exhibited, and performed his own visual and digital works. He is a team member of the research project ‘PO.EX ’70-80: A Digital Archive of Portuguese Experimental Literature’, the author of DigLitWeb: Digital Literature Web , and co-founder of a new Doctoral Program at the University of Coimbra, ‘Advanced Studies in the Materialities of Literature’.
Søren Bro Pold & Christian Ulrik Andersen (Danmark), Post digital Books & disruptive Literary Machines
Christian Ulrik Andersen is associate professor at Aarhus University, Chair of Digital Aesthetics Research Centre and part of Centre for Digital Urban Living. He is the co-editor of Interface Criticism – Aesthetics Beyond the Buttons (2011, with Søren Pold) and a series of peer-reviewed newspapers (2011/12, with Geoff Cox).
Søren Bro Pold is Associate Professor of Digital Aesthetics at the Department of Information and Media Studies, Aarhus University, and head of the Interface Aesthetics Research Group. He works with digital and media aesthetics – from the 19th century panorama to the interface, e.g. electronic literature, net art, software art, creative software.
Johannah Rodgers, Beyond binaries: Continuity and Change in Literary Experimentation in Response to Print and Digital Technologies
Johannah Rodgers has been an Assistant Professor in English at City Tech since 2008 and has been teaching writing courses at various CUNY campuses since 1998. A working fiction writer who is particularly interested in innovative approaches to narrative and storytelling, she is also involved in research projects related to the history and anthropology of literacy, authorship studies, and book and media history. Her short stories and essays have been published in Fence, Fiction, Pierogi Press, and The Brooklyn Rail, where she is a contributing editor. She received her Ph.D. from The CUNY Graduate Center in 2007, her M.F.A. in Fiction from The City College of New York in 1998, and her B.A. in Comparative Literature at Stanford University. She has also studied literature and philosophy at Yale and Oxford Universities.
Will Luers, Make Me Think: Composing the Narrative Interface