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Cherchez le texte: Proceedings of the ELO 2013 Conference

Introduction to the ELO 2013 Proceedings

by Joseph Tabbi & Gabriel Tremblay-Gaudette

The only way for books to retain their waning authority in our culture is to wire texts into the library. The reign of the copy is no match for the bias of technology. All new works will be born digital, and they will flow into the library as you might add more words to a long story. In the clash between the conventions of the book and the protocols of the screen, the screen will prevail. –– David Shields Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (Random House 2010)


Before the Summer 2013 Paris gathering of the Electronic Literature Organization, Joseph Tabbi had already published one paper on the theme, “Electronic Literature as World Literature” (2010). And what better forum than Paris to observe the emerging field’s worldliness? Tabbi’s earlier speculations were just that – speculative, and well aware that the model imagined by Goethe in the 18th century, for various reasons never really took hold in the succeeding centuries of print literature.  A “modest intellectual enterprise fundamentally limited to Western Europe, and mostly revolving around the river Rhine (German philologists working on French literature). Not much more,” is how Franco Moretti saw it.[1] That particular print precedent was enough to warn many of us off any notion that our newly available corpus of born digital works would be any more available for an unimpeded cultural trafficking. But our gathering that summer at Paris 8 Vincennes Saint-Denis and the Bibliothèque nationale de France gave us reason to hope: not only were there more scholars from more countries than ever before, but the creators of e-lit were meeting in the same rooms as the scholars, even as scholars could observe, in the exhibition, a selection of current works that we’d soon be writing about in our academic journals and literary/arts colloquia – at times in conversation with the work’s creators.

The feeling among both literary artists and scholars was that the literary corpus had started to expand and diversify, through projects like Moretti’s own exploration not of novels and poems per se, but their representation (and relocation) using “maps, graphs, and trees.” That was a project that Scott and Jill Rettberg self-consciously brought over to their ELMCIP Knowledge base, which was devoted specifically to born digital writing. Where Moretti had questioned “trends of inclusion and exclusion”[2] in the literary canon (specifically, in the Norton Anthologies of literature), the Rettbergs in their Paris talks approached “Electronic Literature as a Model for Creativity in Practice,” a shift toward author/reader interaction (and potential identification) that moved questions of influence, originality, and canonicity into the background, making these things seem, almost, “old fashioned.”[3]

More generally, with the founding of our trans-national Consortium on Electronic Literature, ELO members in Canada, the USA, Portugal, Germany, Norway, and Spain had begun (in the words of David Shields cited in the epigraph) to wire texts into the library. All of them: canonical and ephemeral, bound in print and circulated on broadsheets, born digital and scanned (but not, as we’ll see, for the proprietary Google library project). The literary “searching” indicated in our conference title, was very much a transfer of texts, and economies of attention to databases.

In a similar vein we also heard, at the Paris conference from Nick Montfort and Stephanie Strickland, about their own relocation of lines from Emily Dickinson and phrases from Herman Melville into an ongoing presentation of combinatory stanzas numbering in the trillions. Only a miniscule fraction of the stanzas, of course, are observable at any time by any one reader on any given screen – as a sampling of one, two, three, or four-line sequences. The “trillions” can be conceived, mentally; they might (again, conceivably) be read in full someday if everyone in the world were to check in at the site at the same time. But this (entirely notional) relocation of Sea and Spar Between as a really experienced (and collectively realized) world literature, suggests that we’re no closer than Goethe or Moretti ever came to fulfilling earlier potentials.

The conference theme of a literary search – and resultant relocation? – was shared by digital makers and scholars alike. Our co-presence, indeed, was as noticeable as the balanced diversity among participants from geographical locations within Europe, Scandinavia, Canada, the U.S., South America, Australia, and Hong Kong. J. R. Carpenter recalled her own early prognostics (and who was there among us, scholar or maker, who didn’t venture a forecast or two?): Carpenter recounts her November 1998 “Little Talk on Reproduction at Studio XX, a feminist artist-run centre for technological exploration, creation and critique founded in Montreal in 1996,” and another talk with the same title at the Banff Arts Center in Alberta, Canada (February 2010). The first talk “had been prognostic, to use Walter Benjamin’s term.” By the time of the second talk, Carpenter had reached the realization “that everything expected of the future had long since transpired. Except, we had no idea what to expect. We might say that in the age of computational production longevity lends aura to a work. Except. On the internet, nobody knows how far we have left to go.”

Or how far we’ll be allowed to go? The shareability, citability, and Open Access that most of us took for granted in our engagements with born digital writing (as we’ll see momentarily) could be squelched by proprietary claims on our worldwide literary corpus. There had been limits imposed, for example, by Nationalism, ethnocentrism and language centered practices in Europe and the United States over the past two hundred years of literary modernity. Those differences could be addressed, however, through translation – to the extent that one contributor to the World Literature debates, David Damrosh, argued that it was precisely those works which “gained in translation” that were most likely to be recognized as World Literature.[4] The emergence of the Consortium on Electronic Literature and contemporaneous development of archival projects at a number of university laboratories in touch with ELO [5] , could make such translational (and also trans-medial) interactions more likely among our members and collaborators. But could this self-consciously world literary activism compete with the proprietary activity under way at just this time by the emerging digital giants? As Florian Cramer had argued in a smaller ELO gathering the year before at West Virginia University, the former dominance in broadcast media of NBC, CBS, and ABC, could hardly compare with the gatekeeping abilities of the gatekeepers of digital reception, Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook.[6]

An embrace of boundlessness and worldwide interactivity, so palpable in so many of the Paris 2013 papers, was also heard in a keynote lecture[7] by hypertext pioneer Stuart Moulthrop at the Library of Congress in April 2013. In their Paris essay, Strickland and Montfort recap Moulthrop’s argument, “that electronic text exceeds any containment, being neither content, contained for consumption, nor a water-tight vessel able to contain an immersion experience. [Moulthop] calls Sea and Spar Between an outstanding example of this failure and goes on to argue that such failure maps and models salient aspects of 21st-century reading/writing experience.”

The creators of e-lit particularly were also always aware of the technical and conceptual constraints that facilitated this openness. As Montfort and Strickland indicated, in brief, “Sea and Spar Between defines a population of stanzas comparable to the number of fish in the sea, around 225 trillion, each harpooned by two fixed coordinates. The lattice of stanzas is unvarying; the only random thing about the generator is where it locates you each time you launch it.”

But there were other approaches, around this time, that were taking a different turn, by applying business models from search engines, customized advertising, and social media networks that were unknown when first generation e-lit authors were exploring nonlinear linkages among (“hypertextual”) lexia and works within stand-alone computers. In Paris 2013, Joergen Schaeffer was (with Cramer a year earlier) among the first to point out how “companies like Amazon, Apple and Google” had “become powerful gatekeepers to all different kinds of media contents, including works of literature.” The Google library project, for example, took no interest in mapping or conceptually relocating the texts being scanned into their database; nor was there any distinction needed between a given text’s canonical or marginal position: all that mattered was that these books were out of copyright, and could be scanned for free from the U.S. Public libraries.[8]

But more is at stake than the digital commodification of print works that could be accessed freely, and still can be in principle though one’s local library is unlikely to have anywhere near the selection that is now available (with some pages omitted, different ones for each visit) at Google Books.[9] What Schaeffer notices is the complete disinterest among dominant internet companies in anything other than the non-networked, bound book. All three companies, writes Schaeffer, “take for granted that literature will still be categorized as novels, short stories, poems or essays, so that the only problem seems to be how to transfer them from the printed page onto the displays of electronic reading devices. Yet, if this was the only problem, the e-book as a device and the Internet as a distribution channel would rather promise to stabilize the functionality and semantics of the book culture.
To return to the terms set forth by David Shields in the epigraph: it’s our internet moguls who are upholding, and strengthening, the regime of the copy and the hegemony of the book, while imposing even more restrictions (for example, the inability to share or lend the copy for a time, stricter copyrights and higher prices). The papers gathered here, in this volume, should make the larger process of literary relocation evident. Instead of Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook, we’re the ones, the makers and receivers who are doing the “wiring of texts into the libraries.”

And whose texts, and how they’re cited, or simply relocated word for word?  This too is a practice that’s up for reconsideration, by Shields in print as much as any born digital literary compiler. For the Shields citation, in section 76 (page 30) of Reality Hunger, appears to have been lifted directly from a New York Times article titled, “Scan This Book!” Shields’s essay is an excellent example of the “Uncreative Writing” advocated by Kenneth Goldsmith and referenced in Tabbi’s essay for the 2013 Paris presentation, “Relocating the Literary: In Networks, Knowledge Bases, Global Systems, Material, and Mental Environments.”[10] And relocated also in a deceivingly conventional book-like object such as Reality Hunger, where we might find well over 300 such citations in 205 pages, unacknowledged in the body of Shields’s text but listed (at the publisher’s request) in an appendix. Whether we can expect further deformations of our bookish conventions, or a stricter bookishness in our online reading environment is not for us to say. To again cite Carpenter, “nobody yet knows how far we have to go,” or in which direction.

The stated goal of the conference, as indicated by its title, was to "look for the text", insisting on the transformation, malleability and instability of what is to be understood as the literary text in our current era. One should not expect to find an authoritative answer to the question "where is the text?" in the following pages. Rather, this book is a collection of suggestions, possibilities, epiphanies, sharp turns and partial findings in light of the various scholarly investigations that were presented at the conference. It attests to the complexity, relevance and potential for the field of electronic literature to understand and explain – and occasionally enact through our own interpersonal and transmedial collaborations – the impacts of digitization and screen culture on literature.

May we keep searching for the text; in the meantime, here are some travel advices for whoever seeks to embark on this path.

[1] “Conjectures on World Literature,” in Prendergast, Christopher, ed. Debating World Literature. London and New York: Verso (2004): 148.
[2] See the section on the Norton Anthology in the web page for Morretti’s Stanford Literary Lab:
[3] Note for example how easily, in 2018, N. Katherine Hayles dismisses the canonical “influence study” of Harold Bloom. His exploration of the agonies of one writer influencing another is presented by Hayles as “One branch of literary criticism, somewhat old-fashioned now.” That said, might digital literary scholars risk throwing out the baby of “influence” – a necessary part of co-creation across generations – with the bathwater of (for the most part, white male) “agony”? Would Montfort and Strickland’s own engagement with Dickinson and Melville not be, in part an example of “influence,” taking readers back to the print (re)sources?  Hayles’s essay can be found here:
[4] Damrosh, David. What is World Literature? Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2003: page 281.
[5] Currently, such literary archival projects are situated at NT2 at the University of Montreal, the Electronic Literature Laboratory at Washington State University Vancouver, the University of Maryland College Park's Maryland Institute of Technology in the Humanities, the Trope Tank at MIT and the Media Archeology Lab in Boulder, Colorado.
[6] Cramer’s lecture appeared that year in electronic book review and was reprinted in the Bloomsbury Handbook of Electronic Literature. London: Bloomsbury Press, 2018: pp 361-70.
[7] “Failure to Contain,” cited in Paris by Strickland and Montfort “Spars of Language Lost As Sea.”
[8] The Project was documented by Andrew Norman Wilson, who worked (as a “red badge” employee with certain privileges) for a time at Google until he was reported by one of the immigrant (“green badge”) workers in another facility who observed him filming and interviewing and followed her employer’s instructions to report all such activity. See “Workers Leaving the Googleplex.”
[9] Approximately 32M at the time of this writing.
[10] Reprinted in 2017 in the journal, CounterText and in The Bloomsbury Handbook of Electronic Literature (399-420).

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