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
The work of Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges exemplifies the wrestling of a seemingly limitless imagination with the obvious limits of the page. In Borges's short story "The Book of Sand," a bibliophile Scotsman from the Orkney Islands gives the narrator a book that literally has no beginning and no end. The fictional book is made up of never-ending permutations (and/or combinations) of foreign and thus illegible symbols. Turn the page and you will never find the same one again.
At the time, Borges was writing within the boundaries of books -- the physicality of ink on paper. Today, with the advances in electronic programming -- that which produces electronic literature -- N. Katherine Hayles, author of Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary, describes a movement that, in some ways, is bringing to life Borges's fictions.
In generative art, for example, "words and images ... shift ... through randomizing algorithms or programs that tap into real-time data flows to create an infinite number of possible recombinations" (58). Other categories of Electronic Literature include network fiction, which "makes use of hypertext technology in order to create emergent and recombinatory narratives" and interactive fiction (IF), which has strong game elements (8). The boundaries of what's possible seem to be fading, but with that comes the fading of hard definitions to separate what is literature -- in this case electronic literature -- from other digital manifestations. For as Hayles explains:
The demarcation between electronic literature and computer games is far from clear; many games have narrative components, while many works of electronic literature have game elements ... we may say that with games the user interprets in order to configure, whereas in works whose primary interest is narrative, the user configures in order to interpret. (8)
It is ironic to be reading Electronic Literature in print form . The hardcopy speaks to the fact that EL has not been a requisite in your average curricula -- let alone household -- hence, Hayles's goal for her book to "help electronic literature move into the classroom" (ix). The book comes with a CD-ROM -- a necessary component -- that includes many electronic works, in addition to the ones Hayles references. The book's still-frame illustrations of EL just don't cut it, and Hayles's descriptions, though emphatic, still do little to bring the electronic texts out of the ether. I recommend first popping in the CD and having a look at the samples before tackling the analysis of the electronic texts. It will help.
While it remains to be seen how many instructors make EL required reading, Hayles and her cheeky co-editors call the electronic works -- many with no recognizable words and most with visual and audio elements -- "literature" and thus "stimulate questions about the nature of literature in the digital era" (4). Hayles points out the fact "that almost all contemporary literature is already digital in the sense that it has existed mostly as digital files" and "almost all communication, except face-to-face talk, is mediated through some kind of digital code" (x, 132). The obvious question Hayles asks (and so should we) is "What differences do these entanglements make to our sense of what it means to communicate with one another?" What does it say about the literary and where it's going?
I posit the real issue Hayles and her co-editors are getting at is not one of electronic literature per se  but literacy  -- how we are to read and interpret the information in our contemporary dealings? The world we live in today, at least in the technologically developed sectors -- the digitized world of the stock traders Hayles spends some pages describing in chapter three -- is oversaturated with information. And the literature she describes is an outgrowth of that complexity. It does not mean that the works tackle anything more complicated thematically than the literature that came before it . The mode of EL's transport is by far more complicated than the antiquated pencil/pen/typewriter-to-paper routine; therefore EL's medium runs the risk of overshadowing its content.
Hayles wants the content of EL to be glorified. But does it hold up to or do good by the technological advancements that make it possible?
One problem with putting so much importance on EL is the fact that it is so inaccessible. Most people haven't seen EL, because many of the operating programs become obsolete within a few years -- "electronic literature routinely becomes unplayable (and hence unreadable) after a decade or even less ... [and] ... risks being doomed to the realm of ephemera, severely hampered in its development and the influence it can wield" (39-40). There is a poetic element to the obsolescence that befalls much of EL, but it is a poetry that exists without paying heed to the work on the floppy disks. Of course there is the salvation that awaits the works that are made "accessible [through] cross-platform formats," like the CD-ROM that comes with the book (40).
Hayles goes on to makes a good point here:
Insisting on an internalized subvocalized "voice" as the standard for literary quality can only lead to the predetermined conclusion that electronic literature is inferior to print literature, for the criterion already dictates the outcome. By contrast, attending to the multisensory modalities through which electronic literature operates not only illuminates its dynamics but also elucidates how contemporary print novels operating in new media conditions are also undergoing transformations as they too participate in the recursive feedback loops connecting bodies and machines, natural language and code, human and artificial intelligence. (118-119)This is true. But it begs the question: what should be considered literature then? Hayles proposes that the literary be defined "as creative artworks that interrogate the histories, contexts, and productions of literature, including as well the verbal art of literature proper" (4). Is everything that does this to some degree and is digitized (encoded, binary coded) Electronic Literature then? As Hayles writes early on in the book, "Like the boundary between computer games and electronic literature, the demarcation between digital art and electronic literature is shifty at best, often more of a matter of critical traditions from which the works are discussed than anything intrinsic to the works themselves" (12). What of video collages or video clips posted to YouTube? They're digitized.
Hayles makes the argument that "digital literature will be a significant component of the twenty-first century canon" (159). But when "almost all contemporary literature is already digital" that actually isn't much of a prediction (159). The canon will be the canon. To drive the point home even further: "Books will not disappear, but neither will they escape the effects of the digital technologies that interpenetrate them. More than a mode of material production (although it is that), digitality has become the textual condition of twenty-first-century literature" (186).
Though seemingly stating the obvious, Hayles still comes across as an EL apologist -- someone who longs for EL to be a part of the twenty-first century canon. This is most clearly demonstrated in her orgasmic analysis of Michael Joyce's Twelve Blue:
Like sensual lovemaking, the richness of Twelve Blue takes time to develop and cannot be rushed ... Let us begin, then, with a leisurely embrace that wants to learn everything it can about this textual body, with an intention to savor rather than attack or master it. (64)Her language is oddly erotic, but she goes further with choices like: "arousing the desire to probe further ... Gradually, as the player enters the flow and lets it enter her" (66). Or:
Such play as this has no necessary end, especially when the player accepts the flow as fulfilling desire rather than insisting on the sharper, more focused, but also briefer satisfaction of a climax, no sooner reached than replaced by the legendary sadness of denouement. Here the pleasure is more diffuse but also longer lasting, ending only when the player closes the work, knowing that if she were to linger, still more flows could be discovered, more desires evoked and teasingly satisfied. (69)At this point in the book, Hayles shows her hand and falls into hyperbole and melodrama. The tonal shift is jarring and a little scary.
So, Borges's Book of Sand may exist -- if binary code wills it -- but will it move someone to want to communicate with it, to fall in love with it, as great literature is wont to do? Or will the reader refuse to become "A prisoner of the book" (as the narrator of "The Book of Sand" becomes) and not read the damn thing in the first place (if it doesn't speak the reader's language)?
Because if no one "reads" it (intermediates with it), then it most certainly will not be joining any canon any time soon.
Luis Amate Perez:
Luis Amate Perez is a writer and comedian based in New York City. His work has appeared in Fiction, Born in the 1980s (Route Magazine, 2008), Rejected: Tales of the Failed, Dumped, and Canceled (Villard, 2009), and will appear in the forthcoming Beyond Race Magazine. He performs regularly at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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