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
Print transformed the word, and software transforms print. But Katherine Hayles' new book is dissatisfied (rightly) with the simplistic assumption that literary writing has simply shifted from one format to another. Rather, the entire thesis in Electronic Literature is that the medium and its technologies are producing particular kinds of writing itself and therefore new kinds of the reading experience.
Electronic literature is a "digital object created on a computer and (usually) meant to be read on a computer" (3). It is literature "created and performed within a context of networked and programmable media ... informed by ... computer games, films, animations, digital arts, graphic design, and electronic visual culture" (4). This literature questions the "histories, contexts, and productions of literature, including as well the verbal art of literature proper" (4). Hayles emphasises throughout her book one key argument: the medium determines the new forms of writing, and that traditional notions of what constitutes the "literary" must be rethought. These assumptions and propositions constitute the field-defining inaugural chapter. Hayles surveys the many emerging genres in electronic literature (especially interactive fictions), the sense of play that pervades much of this literature, installation pieces, and generative art, and the key critical studies that have sought to map the field. Hayles is alert to the tendency to reduce everything to code, and, therefore, constantly centers the question of aesthetics in studying these genres.
From the second chapter Hayles begins her careful exposition of the essential features of electronic literature. Using complexity theory and cognitive approaches, Hayles suggests that humans and computers are partners in a "dynamic heterarchy," defined as a "multitiered system where feedback and feedforward loops tie the system together through continuing interactions circulating throughout the hierarchy" (45). The human and the computer must both be seen as "cognizers" that are intermediated. The computer's performance builds up responses out of processes that read the binary code. These performances, in turn, elicit emergent complexity in the player, whose cognitions also build up from processes interpreting sensory input to higher thought processes. But -- and this is the key -- even though the human player's thoughts might possess higher cognitive powers than the computer, they are bound together with the computer's processes in what Hayles terms "intermediating dynamics" (56). With that, the tech-stuff out of the way, Hayles comes to her conclusion: "the experience of electronic literature can be understood in terms of intermediating dynamics linking human understanding with human (sub)cognition through the cascading processes of interpretation that give meaning to information" (57).
With this, Hayles has decisively shifted the focus on to the human-computer mutual dependency (or dynamic) that generates the power of electronic literature. Reading Michael Joyce's network fiction (afternoon; Twelve Blue) Hayles shows how images and pictures emerge out of seemingly random information. In Maria Mencia's work (Worthy Mouths; Birds Singing Other Birds' Songs), more than the mix of human-machine cognition, what we see is the linkage, or disconcerting disconnect, between sound and verbal icon, phoneme and grapheme, human and non-human ways of knowing. For Hayles, Mencia's work maps a history of literary creation itself -- from sound to written marks to iconographic shapes and human speech as computerized voice production. Judd Morrissey's The Jew's Daughter also problematizes print in the digital era with time, narrative logic, and plot are all made infinitely more complex with overlapping layers and random movement (in the work letters and words are replaced when we move the cursor over the screen). Unlike in the print medium, the words here change in response to the reader's perception -- the characteristic feedback loop system of New Media.
Moving on to the "contexts" of electronic literature -- the body and the machine -- Hayles argues that we need to focus on the dynamics entwining body and machine. Adapting Friedrich Kittler's influential formulations on the role of technical media in the formation of human subjectivity along with Mark Hansen's work on embodiment and New Media, Hayles argues that the so-called "threat" to embodiment does not really exist because, very simply, embodiment is human being even though it might transform in relation to technology (104). Hayles argues against Hansen's account (which she accurately sees as possessing a contradiction at its heart -- where Hansen sees "mixed reality" as the consequence of the human body-technology dynamic, but also argues for embodiment as central to it), suggesting that the feedback loop between material artifact (especially in an intelligent machine) and embodies human enactor is central to all perception. Further, Hayles notes, much contemporary technology does not depend on the human enactor, and the material builds larger components using the characters of the constituent parts (110-11). Hayles, after noting contemporary work in cognitive sciences and philosophies of the mind, proceeds to analyze Talan Melmott's Lexia to Perplexia. She argues that such "playful" works demand and engage with the "hyper-attentive" human mind and cognition where we have to process multiple information streams and rapid transformations (images, words, graphics, morphing screens). In Nippon, the text, the embodied response, machine pacing and transnational semiotics (Japanese ideograms and English words together on the screen) also foregrounds the relation between text, body, and machine.
Turning to literature as a means of understanding computational practice in chapter Five, Hayles argues that networked and programmable media create recursive feedback loops among embodied practice, tacit knowledge, and explicit articulation. Just as print creates feedback loops, electronic literature intertwines human ways of knowing with machine cognitions. Our sensory output alters the machine's output because the machine takes cognizance of it, and whose output in turn affects our perceptions. Hayles puts forward (and demonstrates) two propositions: that verbal narratives are simultaneously conveyed and disrupted by code and distributed cognition implies distributed agency (an argument she concluded her now-cult work, How We Became Posthuman, 1999). In William Poundstone's Project for Tachistoscope the images and sounds -- essentially, information flows -- come at the user too fast, and it becomes difficult for her to integrate them all. The idea here, Hayles suggests, is to explore the channels of communication between consciousness and levels of perception below conscious awareness. Embodied consciousness that enables us to read literary language is what is called into question here, and the meaning, if any, is the consequence of recursive interaction between the ability (or inability) of the user and the machine. Using the works of John Cayley and others, Hayles argues that computational practice is closely aligned, now, with artists, players and programmers.
In her final chapter, Hayles speculates on the "future of literature." Print and electronic textualities are increasingly intertwined as new forms of textual surfaces, new kinds of reading experiences, and "performances" are produced. After listing and quickly summarizing the major characteristics of digital texts through a series of examples (163-5), Hayles proposes that these texts are situated at the intersection of human and computer cognition, where the uniqueness of each is at once subverted and reinforced. The uniqueness of the "authorial voice" gets subverted through the intermediation with computer language, just as the reader's experience of integrated meaning-generation from the "text" is subverted by the nature of information flows from screen and speakers. Hayles prophesies that "digital literature will be a significant component of the twenty-first century canon" (159).
Hayles' work is a stand-alone introduction to digital literature. Her careful exposition of both the theory (technical) and practice of the medium and the various genres serves literary studies, New Media studies, and the larger domain of cyberculture studies. Her attention to questions of literary aesthetics, thematics and forms combine well -- but we are not surprised at this, those of us who know her work -- to produce scintillating readings of a whole world of new texts. The accompanying CD with the works of the authors she discusses enables the reader to "perform" the texts -- and this greatly aids in understanding Hayles' arguments. A delightful book, Electronic Literature is a major contribution to literary-cultural theory and digital culture studies.
Kittler, Friedrich A. Discourse Networks 1800/1900, trans. Michael Metteer, with Chris Cullens. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990.
_____. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.
Hansen, Mark. Bodies in Code: Interfaces with Digital Media. London: Routledge, 2006.
Pramod K. Nayar:
Pramod K. Nayar teaches English and courses in Cultural Studies at the University of Hyderabad, India. His newest books include An Introduction to New Media and Cybercultures (Wiley-Blackwell 2010), Packaging Life: Cultures of the Everyday (Sage 2009), and Seeing Stars: Spectacle, Society and Celebrity Culture (Sage 2009). His New Media and Cybercultures Anthology is forthcoming from Wiley-Blackwell in early 2010. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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