Wherefore Genre?

These are my notes for the talk I gave yesterday at MITH on genre in electronic literature in the context of the forthcoming Electronic Literature Collection that I’m editing along with Nick Montfort, Kate Hayles, and Stephanie Strickland. Even though much of the talk was planned the night before and on the train out, it turned out pretty well. There were about a dozen intelligent folks in the room, and I had the chance to tour MITH, which will soon be the new home of the ELO. I’m very pleased that the ELO will be housed in such a great environment. I’ll be cleaning the talk up and delivering a new version of it in a couple of weeks at Brown as part of the upcoming 2006 e-fest.

Wherefore Genre?

THE PURPOSES OF THE COLLECTION

* “Centering moments” — 2001 E-LIt Awards, 2002 State of Arts, 2006 Collection

* Dissemination function
–Importance and meaning of creative commons
–Importance of viewing/reading works as a collection for scholarly discourse.

* Importance for writers of “place of honor” in the context of a creative culture that exists outside of any sort of traditional market economy, or real-world ftf social structures.

* Archival function

* In some cases (not flash), makes files accessible/searchable for a different kind of scholarly access (forensic) than simple web viewing

Comparison to previous “centering moments” — almost as many submissions, more of them “legitimate.” Less hypertext, more forms. Focus in our selections on representing a broad overview of different types of types. Process: combination of open submission and direct invitation. Accepted only works that would function in a standalone. Criteria for selection was unanimous agreement among the four editors. Resulting collection will include about 60 works of e-lit, out this fall.

GENRE QUESTIONS

Discuss the challenges of teaching new media in literary context, and the importance of doing so.

First of all, what is literature? Let’s start with some Russian formalist ideas:

The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.” (Shklovsky, “Art as Technique”, 12)

***

It seems clear to me that for a writer words are not at all a sad necessity, not just a means by which something is said, but are rather the very material of the work. Literature is created from words and takes advantage of the laws by which they are governed.

It is true that in a work of literature we also have the expression of ideas, but it is not a question of ideas clothed in artistic form, but rather artistic form created from ideas as its material. (Shklovsky, “Form and Material in Art”)

Ways in which the idea of genre is problematic for the consideration of electronic literature — the well-intentioned failure of the electronic literature directory, for instance.

Perhaps genre should not be the primary way that electronic literature is framed. Conclusion of ELO directory committee, commitment to reframe directory around keyword/tagging/folksonomy.

On the other hand, genre is useful concept in several senses. The most important is probably that cultures of practice form around genres. While some types of lyrical or epigrammatic novels might share more characteristics with poetry than they do with many other novels, and while some narrative poems might be more like short stories than they are like most other poems, the way that they are received, contextualized, and studied is in a large part determined by the writer’s self-identification — “I am poet and this a poem.” / “I am a novelist and this is a novel.” The way that we read a given work of literature is a significant sense determined by the other works of literature with which we group it. Birds of a feather also tend to flock together. Writers regularly borrow from, steal from, reference, recycle, respond to, and parody the work of the other writers they perceive to be in their peer group. Genre identification both helps to shape the writer’s idiom and the reader’s sense that forms of literary expression exist in a historical continuum. What I have in mind here is sort of like what Robert Altman said the other night at the Oscars about his career as a director — “These films have been different moments, but to me it’s all the same movie.” I think the student of literature should be able to look at a career of reading in the same way.

There is also the question of what characteristics we should use to distinguish genres. The most common approach is probably to distinguish categories of work on the basis of purely technical/syntactic measures. What type of software or electronic document is a given work? This is a kind of technological determinism. All works written in Storyspace software, for instance, share some common aspects in terms of interface that constrain those works in different ways than works produced as web documents or flash flies. The constraints of a given type of software or programming language function as literary constraints. This is again a different idea of genre than we’re accustomed to from print culture, more like grouping literature distributed in manuscript form from literature printed in mass-market paperback than grouping by poetry or fiction. Cultures of practice often form around elit produced in a give type of software as well.

While I won’t have time to show any interactive fiction here, of the types of electronic literature, IF is probably the best example of a self-sustaining culture of practice, an affinity group formed around a particular type of computer program. The five works of IF that will be included in the Collection are radically different from one another in terms of their settings, characters, and themes (retelling a Greek myth, a kind of 19th century magical realism set on a French estate, a story of an execution in Venice, and a work set in an ancient civilization in which the goal is to persuade a crowd of people toward your adopted viewpoint on matters of war and peace, a story in which the user must learn and negotiate the corrupted language of a bad machine). While the subject matter of IF ranges from adventurous spelunking and superhero adventures to these types of literary subject matters, the way that the reader negotiates the traversal of the text is largely similar, by typing commands into a text parser, moving through a described story-world, and solving problems. IF has a dedicated user community with a fairly high and fairly specialized level of expertise. The community has been successful at solving its own archiving and distribution challenges, in the absence of any commercial market. Downside is that working with IF can be very challenging for new users, who have to learn a set of conventions and commands that might initially seem hermetic.

While it’s somewhat less important in a general sense, in the specific context of teaching new media writing in a literature classroom, we need to consider the dynamics of structuring a syllabus — of how a course can be structured into “units” that focus our exploration of the subject. While one sensible way to structure a course is around particular themes that recur in many different types of work, another traditional and useful method is to structure a course around genres, that is around works that share some formal and technical characteristics, or that emerge from a particular affinity group. The danger of such an approach to electronic literature is that too much time and effort can go into discussing the formal and technical aspects that bind a cluster of works together at the expense of a concentration on the semantics of any given work. This is a particularly vexing challenge in teaching electronic literature. Because the formal and technical aspects of electronic literature are so varied and often complex, we need to spend a lot of class time discussing how a given work means before we can get to a discussion of what it means. Even when they don’t practice as often as they should, most students know how to operate a codex. The technology of the book is so familiar that it has become transparent. In studying electronic literature a great deal of time and effort is required simply to learn to traverse the text. This labor and these discussions are worthwhile, but can sometimes lead to a rather mechanical approach to reading. I often have to remind students that while they first have to figure how to read a work of electronic literature, analysis should typically go deeper than deciphering an unwritten user’s manual. The text machine itself should be used, the story or poem read.

Bolter and Landow’s early studies focused on the relationship of hypertext to other forms of literature ranging from the oral tradition to postmodern theory and fiction. More recent work has focused on the materiality of electronic literature and on understanding the procedurality of works of electronic literature as text-machines. While I agree that it’s tremendously important to realize that many works of electronic literature are computer programs functioning in network environments, with distinct materialities specific to that situation, one of the ideas that the submissions to the Collection has really underscored for me is that there is also a great deal of validity to that earlier approach — in an analysis of the emerging genres of electronic literature in the context, in particular, of both literary and artistic movements of the 20th Century in an expansive way. Avant-garde traditions ranging from Dada, Lettrism, Concrete poetry, Language poetry, Surrealism, Fluxus, the Oulipo, and Postmodern fiction, are being reborn in contexts specific to computer. These works are computer programs, but they are also literature, with clear connections to literary forms of the recent past. If we do think in terms of genre, our understanding of the concept should be shaped by the context of those earlier movements.

While in the late 80s/early 90s, most of the critical attention in literary studies on electronic literature was focused rather narrowly on hypertext, typically produced in Storyspace software. Now we see a staggering variety of approaches to electronic literature. If we think of electronic literature as “a movement,” we need to consider that it is a different type of movement than any we’ve seen before, unbound by common forms or adherence to any singular manifesto, a kind of Noah’s Ark of literary forms filled with strange animals freely miscegenating and mutating at an extremely rapid rate.

The 2001 Electronic Literature Awards – many of the shortlisted works really challenged my concept of what fiction is or should be: Memmott, Chan, Mez.

The awards really problematized and challenged my idea of what can constitute fiction. Where were the stories here? Were stories necessary at all? HT already either discards or reformulates major aspects of fiction — plot, character development. But here we had complete reconceptions of the idea that fiction should in some way be fabular. Jarring mix of theoretical/critical discourse, kind of “critifiction,” an impulse to embody the theoretical.

Side note — is fiction fundamentally about being told a story? Tension between interactivity and one of the essential pleasures of story — bringing a sense of order or coherence to human experience which is itself less ordered, more fragmentary, less tidy than it is typically conveyed in print fiction. Some would argue that the main reason many read fiction is in a way to be controlled, rather than to control.

Some brief examples from the Collection that problematize the idea of genre:

Giselle Beiguelman — Code Movie 1 —

From the author’s description of the work:
Code Movies are made with hexa, ascii and binary codes extracted from JPG images. Saved as simple text, they are reworked and edited in Flash. They are part of a larger project Iíve been working on since 2004 (//**Code_UP). The submitted work (Code Movie 1) is made of hexa code. The project interrogates the role of the code in the meaning construction and the new forms of translations that digital languages embody. It questions: Now, that the Cybertext confuses itself with the notion of Place (a web address, for example) and that the Image only reveals itself through a ìhyperinscriptionî (an URL), can we think in a poetics of the transcodification between medias and file formats? Can we keep talking about “WYSIWYG” utopias? How does it affect our ways of reading, seeing and perceiving?

My questions — is watching this really reading? Certainly not on the level that the signifiers themselves are meant to carry any semantic meaning. Stripping non-linguistic code out of its meaningful context, if only to make the point that a form of non-human-readable language underlies all forms of web media, including JPG images.

Jim Andrews — Nio

From an interview: “The visuals are a kind of visual poem—that’s what I’ve been doing for ten years is visual poetry. Often the animations are partial phoneticizations of the sounds. At other times, they are simply in visual rhythm with the sounds. Since the sounds are synchronized with the animations, Nio is, in part, an exploration of the tone of motion of language, of sound, a kind of lettristic dance, vortex of letters, an odd visual/sound poem.”

My thoughts — There are letters here, and phonemes, if not words. This is an aesthetic and evocative experience. There are established traditions in sound poetry. What kinds of effects does this have on the reader/interactor? Focus on pure sound/visual/interactive nexus. Nothing we’d conventionally think of as explicit semantic meaning. Poiesis without words. Nio is one case where what makes it “literary” is less the content of the work itself than the intentions of the poet. Andrews refers to himself as a writer, a poet, and refers the process of creating Nio as “writing.”

Is there a difference between writing poetry and writing code? Both are acts of inscription, both take place at the keyboard, both result in “intentioned” and meaningful work.

John Cayley — Overboard

Here letters and words do impart meaning. This is clearly a poem as we’ve understood poetry — it has line breaks, for instance, but it also forces us to pay attention to the structural units of the poem: the shape and structure of the lines, the words, and the individual letters, in a way that we typically don’t when reading print poetry. There’s certainly a relationship here to concrete poetry. The movement of the poem, as words phrases lines and stanzas surface in and out of intelligibility, is part and parcel of the semantics of the text of the poem.

Mary Flanagan — TheHouse

One of several submissions of a type of kinetic poetry that might be called “architectural.” The reader negotiates a 3D space, an abstract house of boxes and language. The short phrases that compose the text describe the painful claustrophobia of living in a house in which a relationship is breaking down. Poem uses this virtual architecture as an objective correlative for the situation described in the text.

babel and Escha Romain — Urbanalities

Described by the authors as “A short story-poem-comic strip-musical.” Not interactive, but making use of randomized, but thematically related content. Whatever else it is, this is clearly a form of Dadaist poetry.

Posted in Uncategorized Tagged with: , , , ,
2 comments on “Wherefore Genre?
  1. Jason says:

    Scott, thanks for coming down to MITH and giving an enjoyable talk. It’s always nice to finally put face (and handshake) to name.

  2. Scott says:

    Thanks, Jason, it was great to meet in person you too, and great to see such an talented and involved group of grad students studying new media at UMD.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>