Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary
Author: N. Katherine Hayles
Publisher: Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008
Review Published: December 2009
I thank Pramod Nayar and Luis Amata Perez for their reviews of Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary. Pramod Nayar gives a detailed and largely accurate account of the book, for which I am grateful. Luis Perez gives a somewhat more critical take, which can also be useful. There are a couple of points from his review to which I would like to respond.
As he notes, one of the central issues I foreground is the changing nature of the literary in a digital age. In my view, literature can and will exploit more fully the resources of visual, acoustic, and kinetic elements that have always informed the literary tradition. The rubricated letters of illuminated manuscripts, the rich illustrations of children's books, the moveable volvelles of G. P. Harsdorffer in the seventeenth century, the kinetic aspect of Queneau's Cent milliards de poèmes, the moveable and re-arrangeable parts of artists books -- these and many other examples have for a long time sought to expand the repertoire of the literary beyond verbal text. Until recently, however, these texts have been as it were a minor literature, existing in the margins of the regular print paragraphs that take up most of the literary scene. With the multimodal capabilities of programmed and networked media, the new sense of the literary is now changing what it means to read and write, not to mention to interpret and explain.
This brings me to what seems to me an oddly puritanical passage in Perez's review where he finds my erotic allusions to Michael Joyce's resonant electronic work Twelve Blue "scary." To clarify, I should note that my language in this explication was meant to contrast with Marie-Laure Ryan's "attack" on the work, in which she uses her determination and wide literary experience to force the work into meaning. My metaphors were meant to suggest that the work would not yield its subtleties to this kind of approach, because the meanings that emerge come largely from subconscious and unconscious associations as we read -- the work requires an embrace rather than crowbar. It owes its character in no small part from the navigation scheme that evokes a musical score; playing it requires and embodies a sense of flow similar to losing oneself in a piece of music, where the mind is allowed to follow associative links without immediately demanding rational causality or strictly logical connections. The flow, the privileging of pleasure over goal, and the sense of improvisational play was part of what I had in mind by choosing erotic metaphors. Whether this was successful or not is up to the reader to judge.
The larger argument implicit in Electronic Literature has to do with the changing nature not just of the literary but of the humanities in general. Neither reviewer noted, for example, that Electronic Literature comes with an accompanying website that includes fourteen original essays, sample syllabi, brief biographies of all the authors in the Electronic Literature Collection Volume 1 (included as a CD in the book), a "sizer" to indicate the approximate reading time required for the works, and so forth. A growing number of websites are now not merely accessories to a printed text, as is the case with Electronic Literature, but free-standing critical, historical, and creative works that use the expansive multimodal resources of digital environments to re-define how work in the humanities is done. My current project explores the implications of this shift in the humanities and of the transition to digital communication systems generally. Entitled How We Think: The Transforming Power of Digital Technologies, it is under contract to the University of Chicago Press and scheduled for completion in 2010.
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