Escaping the Prison House of Language: New Media Essays in the Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 2

Prepress version of article originally published in Norwegian in Vagant 4/2010 as “Flukten fra språkfengselet”

The first Electronic Literature Collection was published in 2006. Including 60 works of electronic literature of diverse form and content, all published under one cover online and on a CD-ROM, the collection offered readers and educators a valuable resource, a set of works distributed freely under a Creative Commons license. The ELC provided teachers with a place where they could send students interested in exploring e-lit, and critics with a set of archived works around which they could gather their discourse – a set of common touchstones that served to help develop and refine a shared critical language about the emergent forms of literary practice.

The editors’ intention was not to publish a one-off anthology to form the basis for a canon but instead to launch a regular practice of periodically gathering, publishing, and making as widely available as possible curated collections of e-lit. A different collective of writers and critics, reflecting a different curatorial agenda, would edit each successive volume. In addition to reflecting a different aesthetic sensibility, each iteration of the Electronic Literature Collection would demonstrate changes in the nature of the artistic practice of electronic literature, serving as a sort of biennial exhibition for the field of electronic literature, showing transitions in literary and artistic practices in the field over time.Continue reading

MLA Teaching Narrative Theory and SPEIL Archiving Electronic Literature and Poetry

I have chapters in a couple of books that have just recently been released. Jill Walker Rettberg and I coauthored the chapter “Narrative and Digital Media” in the MLA Volume Teaching Narrative Theory. The chapter takes readers through a semester of teaching narrative-based electronic literature works. The volume offers a broad sweep of approaches to integrating the teaching of narrative theory in literature classrooms, and is edited by Jim Phelan, Brian McHale, and David Herman. I also recently published a chapter “Editorial Process and the Idea of Genre in Electronic Literature in the Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 1” in the volume Archiving Electronic Literature and Poetry: Problems, Tendencies, Perspectives published by the German journal SPEIL edited by Florian Hartling and Beat Suter. The book, including articles in English and in German by a number of leading editors, publishers, authors and artists working in the field of electronic literature, is a valuable contribution to the discourse of the challenges of publishing, disseminating, and preserving works of electronic literature.
Teaching Narrative Theory
SPEIL Archiving Electronic Literature

Drunken Boat #10 and “Electronic Literature in Performance”

The mammoth 10th anniversary issue of the online journal Drunken Boat is now out. I have a piece “Electronic Literature (in Performance)” in the DB Electronic Arts and Literature folio about the work presented at last year’s Electronic Literature in Europe conference, describing many of the works and including video documentation of many of the performances. Jessica Pressman also has an excellent essay, “Charting the Shifting Seas of Electronic Literature’s Past and Present” close reading e-lit from the Drunken Boat archives and discerning emerging genres, and there is a new hypertext poem, “That Night” by Steve Ersinghaus and James Revillini, among other delights. The other folios in the 10th anniversary issue of Drunken Boat include the Mistranslation project, with contributions from a number of digital poets, a huge collection of materials from Black Mountain College, 100 new poems, conceptual fiction, visual poetics, nonfiction, and a folio on arts in Asia. It is less a journal issue than an entire library of interesting literary production. I look forward to exploring it in more depth.

Communitizing Electronic Literature

Digital Humanities Quarterly 3.2 (Spring 2009) has been published. The issue includes a cluster of articles on finishing digital humanities projects, edited by Matt Kirschenbaum, a cluster of articles on data mining, edited by Mark Olsen, three articles including my piece “Communitizing Electronic Literature“, and a review by Johanna Drucker of Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination.

“Communitizing Electronic Literature” is a revised and expanded version of the talk I gave at the ELO’s 2008 Visionary Landscapes Conference. In it, I try to lay out what I think are the principle issues confronting the field of electronic literature today, and to establish what I think is at stake within it. In placing the article with Digital Humanities Quarterly I am implicitly arguing that the creative and critical practices of electronic literature are a vital part of the field of digital humanities. A version of the digital humanities focused exclusively on applying digital technologies to the literary and historical archives of the past, at the expense of any sustained attention to the digital cultural production of the present is a version of the digital humanities with no future and in effect no imagination.


Electronic literature is an important evolving field of artistic practice and literary study. It is a sector of digital humanities focused specifically on born-digital literary artifacts, rather than on using the computer and the network to redistribute, analyze, or recontextualize artifacts of print culture. Works of electronic literature appeal to configurative reading practices. The field of electronic literature is based on a gift economy and developing a network-based literary culture built on the collaborative practices of a globally distributed community of artists, writers, and scholars. This article situates the development of the field of electronic literature within academe, some of the institutional challenges currently confronting the field, and its potential for further development.

Fibreculture Futures of Digital Media Arts and Culture Issue

Issue 11 of the online journal Fibreculture is now out. The journal features a collection of essays from the 2007 Digital Arts and Culture conference, including my essay “Dada Redux: Elements of Dadaist Practice in Contemporary Electronic Literature“, as well as eleven other notable essays from the conference. Among the highlights: Axel Bruns on Produsage, Jim Bizzocchi on African Diasporic Orature and Computational Narrative in the GRIOT System, Tracy Fullerton, Jacquelyn Ford Morie, and Celia Pearce on the Gendered Poetics of Space in computer games, Jaako Suominen on Retrogaming and more.

Four Brief Observations on the Audiatur Festival

Below is a short piece I wrote on the Audiatur Festival which will be published (in Norwegian) in the next issue of the Scandinavian literary magazine Vagant.

1) The all-grown-up 20th Century avant-garde: Christian Bök kicked off the festival with a virtuoso performance of Kurt Schwitter’s “Ursonate” and later that same evening we heard a remix of the same work in Tomomi Adachi’s “Schwitter Variations.” Over the course of the festival, work by Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, and Marcel Duchamp was also performed and/or reinterpreted. The ghosts of the Dada were present. When Hugo Ball gave birth to sound poetry at the Cabaret Voltaire, he said that he did so to “renounce the language that journalism has abused and corrupted.” It struck me as a curious twist that the creatively destructive impulses of the Dada in the early 20th Century have become codified in the 21st Century to the point that they now form the basis of entire school of poetic practices. The Dadaist impulse to use sound to tear down a corrupted language is now the basis of a developed and sophisticated architecture of non-semantic poetics. Can avant-garde practices that are nearly hundred years old still be considered avant-garde? Does it matter? No matter what else sound poetry is it is no longer a revolution in progress, but rather one that has already occurred, an experiment that has developed a room of its own.

2) The (humor) generating capacity of constraints: Another 20th Century literary movement which has lived far beyond it originary moment in the 1960s, the French ensemble of writers and mathematicians, The Oulipo, was well-represented at Audiatur in the person of Jaques Robaud. While to readers unfamiliar with the Oulipo, a writing practice based on mathematical principles might seem to promise only a dry and cerebral outcome, the constraint-based writing presented at Audiatur demonstrated the ample capacity for humor and play within constraints. Robaud performed a backwards retelling of the creation story in the book of Genesis, in which God successively undoes the layers of his creation, and sees that that undoing is good. In his “Brev” piece, Robaud took us down a cycle in of infinite regression in which a reply that likely will never come is amply addressed. Leevi Lehto read a constrained (N+7) poem that was additionally tortured by the use of all the Finnish vowels. Christian Bök performed selections from Eunoia, probably the most famous recent work of constrained writing, in which we heard hilarious passages about food, writing, and sex, each composed of words using only one vowel. One of the pleasant surprises of the festival for me was not that constrained writing practices generated compelling and complex uses of language, but rather that they were almost universally uproarious. It seems constraints enable poets to shed their high serious gravitas and locate their inner comedians.

3) The tower of Babel might not be so bad after all: Audiatur was truly international with readings in Norwegian, English, Swedish, French, Japanese, Finnish, Russian, among others. Several poems were read, notably a couple of pieces by Caroline Bergvall, which were multilingual. My own petty epiphany was that I found it as engaging to listen to poetry in languages that I absolutely no comprehension of, such as Japanese, Finnish and Russian, as I did when the poems were read in English. The odd middle ground of languages I half-understand, French, Norwegian, and Swedish, was more challenging. The musicality, intonation, body language and other physical performance aspects of poems in languages that I did not understand fascinated me. That is to say, just as one can appreciate sound poetry, perhaps one can appreciate the sound of any poetry, provided the meaning of lines and individual words doesn’t get in the way.

4) The shadows of the digital: The one aspect of the festival I thought was somewhat disappointing was that electronic poetry (forms of poetry that make specific use of properties of the standalone or networked computer) per se was not represented in the mix. As evidenced by works included in the recent electronic literature collection ( many of the conceptual threads we saw gathered at Audiatur, from a revivification of 20th Century avant-garde practices to conceptual writing to cross-cultural multilingualism, are also present in recent e-lit. I think it would be revelatory to see these practices presented alongside each other, perhaps at the next festival. While e-lit didn’t rear its head, the influence of digital culture could be seen in many of the pieces presented, such as the bits of video game sound effects in some of Bök’s Cyborg Opera pieces, Martin Larsen’s use of binary code, and Adachi’s theremin-enchanced readings of concrete poetry. Perhaps it no longer makes sense to separate digital culture from culture at large, as computers and networks to some extent pervade all aspects of literary culture.

My Sloppy Handwriting as a Logo for Vagant

Hey this is the coolest thing that happened to me today. I’ve got a short piece on the recent Audiatur poetry festival coming out in the next issue of the Scandinavian literary magazine Vagant. They translated the piece from English into proper Norsk for me (I could have given them a third-grader Norsk version — “Jeg liker audiatur, audiatur var veldig bra, etc.) which was nice of them. But the cool thing today was that they emailed asking if I could send them a sample of my handwriting within the next hour or so to use as their logo for this issue. My students always complain about my handwriting, crack jokes about how I ought to be a medical doctor with the level of scrawl I work with. So what the heck, why not? I wrote “Vagant” a few times on a piece of paper, took a picture, and emailed it back. Two hours later they sent me a cover layout with my scrawl where a proper logo should be. That’s cool.

vagant cover

Getting Translated . . . into Bulgarian

The internet works in mysterious and sometimes wonderful ways. Yesterday I got an email from Reneta Bozhankova of the faculty of Slavic Studies at Sofia University Bulgaria on behalf of a journal called Literaturata (The Literature), asking if they could translate my essay “All Together Now: Collective Knowledge, Collective Narratives, and Architectures of Participation” into Bulgarian. I had to get out a map to remind me where Bulgaria actually is, but I’m pleased as punch that somebody wants to take the effort to translate some of my writing, particularly into a language I have no hope of understanding. A revised version of that essay will also be coming out next year in New Narratives: Theory and Practice, Thomas Browan and Ruth Page, eds. published by University of Nebraska Press, but I’m glad that the Bulgarians will be able to read it in their native tongue first. Now if we could only find some Romanians willing to translate The Unknown . . .


I recently made a contribution to TAGallery, a project of The project is an experiment in using to collaboratively tag interesting sites related to new media art and literature. Each curator/participant is contributing a short “exhibition” of ten links on a theme. Predictably, I suppose, I contributed a collection of electronic literature links.

Electronic Literature Collection, Volume One

Electronic Literature Collection, Volume One

The Electronic Literature Collection Volume One, which I edited along with Nick Montfort, Katherine Hayles, and Stephanie Strickland, has been published. Nick sent along an instant message with visual verification. The Collection, which includes 60 works of electronic literature published under a Creative Commons license, will shortly be available for free from the Electronic Literature Organization via download or physical CD-ROM.

Place and Space in New Media Writing

I guest-edited a just-released issue of the Iowa Review Web focused on the ways that different forms of new media writing reconfigure concepts of place and space. Another way of looking at the issue, however, is as a Grand Text Auto takeover of Iowa’s finest web journal. The issue features Jeremy Douglass’ interview with Nick Montfort on his interactive fiction Book and Volume and Brenda Bakker Harger’s interview with Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern on their interactive drama Façade. I also interview Shelley Jackson on the various manifestations of the human body in her corpus of work, and interview Jane McGonigal on alternate reality gaming. A short introduction contextualizes the various approaches that authors of electronic literature have used to conceptualize space and place. I hope that you’ll visit, read, and enjoy. Thanks to the authors and contributors and to Iowa Review Web Associate Editor Benjamin Basan for helping to put the issue together.

“The Me Everybody Knows”

Stuart Moulthrop, Jill Walker, and I were quoted in an article by Stephanie Shapiro, “The Me Everybody Know” in the Modern Life section of last Sunday’s Baltimore Sun (archive). The article is a solid and intelligent survey of perspectives on the ways that web technologies including webcams, blogs, and sites such as my space and flickr are being used for self-representation.

In Copenhagen for DAC 2005

I’m in Copenhagen at the 2005 Digital Arts and Culture Conference. The Americans, having been up since 2AM ET, are looking a bit bleary-eyed. The team (mostly Nick) is blogging the conference over at Grand Text Auto. I’ll be presenting my paper, “All Together Now: Collective Knowledge, Collective Narratives, and Architectures of Participation” tomorrow at 5AM, err, that’s 11AM here. It’s been published in the handsome printed proceedings, although somewhat disappointingly attributed in the table of contents to another author by the name of Scott “Rhettberg.”

First Person, Games, and the Place of Electronic Literature

After a hiatus for redesign, the electronic book review is back online. A review/essay I wrote in response to Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin’s First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game, titled “First Person, Games, and the Place of Electronic Literature” is among the crop of new offerings. Brian Kim Stefan’s Priveleging Language: The Text in Electronic Writing, which makes a compelling argument for a return in digital poetry to a focus on language as having “some notion of address,” as attempting to communicate intentioned meaning rather than serving as just another form of material. In “Bass Resonace,” John Cayley provides an interesting reading of the graphic and film title work of Saul Bass, digging into a genre that offers some lessons for creators of kintetic poetry.

The Electronic Literature Collection — Call for Works

The Electronic Literature Organization seeks submissions for the first Electronic Literature Collection. We invite the submission of literary works that take advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the computer. Works will be accepted until January 31, 2006. Up to three works per author will be considered.

The Electronic Literature Collection will be an annual publication of current and older electronic literature in a form suitable for individual, public library, and classroom use. The publication will be made available both online, where it will be available for download for free, and as a packaged, cross-platform CD-ROM, in a case appropriate for library processing, marking, and distribution. The contents of the Collection will be offered under a Creative Commons license so that libraries and educational institutions will be allowed to duplicate and install works and individuals will be free to share the disc with others. Continue reading

ARHU Rocks

I recently got word from Rob Gregg, the Dean of Arts and Humanities, that ARHU will support two projects I proposed earlier this term. For the first time this year, Stockton earmarked research funds for projects by junior faculty, to be supported at the divisional level. Stockton is funding my travel to Copenhagen to present my paper “Collective Knowledge, Collective Narratives, and Architectures of Participation” at the 2005 Digital Arts and Culture Conference. Stockton is also supporting the Electronic Literature Collection, a major publishing project by the ELO which will also be supported by the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing (CPCW) at the University of Pennsylvania, ELINOR: Electronic Literature in the Nordic Countries, the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) at the University of Maryland, and The School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota. I have been working with my ELO colleagues on developing the ELO program for the past six months, and I’m very pleased to that Stockton is one of the institutions supporting it. The Electronic Literature Collection will be an annual publication of current and older electronic literature in a form suitable for individual, public library, and classroom use. The publication will be made available both on the Web and as a packaged, cross-platform disc, in a case appropriate for library processing, marking, and distribution. The contents of the Collection will be offered under a Creative Commons license so that libraries and educational institutions will be allowed to duplicate and install works and individuals will be free to share the disc with others. We’ll be announcing the call for works next week, and the first Collection will be published next fall.

I’m grateful to be part of a department that recognizes not only the value of presenting scholarly work at an international conference, but also supporting the development of a publishing project that will have a significant impact on the curriculum of new media studies in literature both here and at other institutions.

Implementation, Romanzo

Over Easter weekend, Jill and I were visiting Nick Montfort and Hannna in Philadelphia when we got an exciting bit of email from Riccardo Boglione. He is translating our sticker novel Implementation into Italian, one installment at a time. The translation of the first installment is complete, and will be posted to the site, along with the English version and the photo archive tomorrow. We will post the rest of the translations as Riccardo completes them. I'm pretty excited, grateful, and hopeful that we'll also see some interesting photos of the stickers from the Italian version soon.


Mystery House Taken Over

I've just completed my first foray into interactive fiction, which has been published as “Mystery House Remixedup” on the Turbulence site, where it is downloadable along with other MHTO projects. I was working at a technically rudimentary level, just subsituting the text, inserting new texts, and changing a few images. Many of the others involved in the project are experienced IF authors who did a lot of work on the level of code. At any rate, the projects together form a fascinating “mod” project you should check out. The “kit” to work on the project is also available. My new media studies students are currently working on their mods.

From Nick's announcement:

The MHTO Occupation Force is pleased to announce the launch of Mystery House Taken Over.

The Mystery House Advance Team – Nick Montfort, Dan Shiovitz, and Emily Short – has reverse engineered Mystery House, the first graphical adventure game. Members of the Advance Team have reimplemented it in a modern, cross-platform, free language for interactive fiction development, and have fashioned a kit to allow others to easily modify this early game.

Modified versions of Mystery House have been created by the elite Mystery House Occupation Force, consisting of individuals from the interactive fiction, electronic literature, and net art communities:

  • Adam Cadre (Varicella, Photopia)
  • Daniel Garrido, a.k.a. dhan (Ocaso Mortal)
  • Michael Gentry (Little Blue Men, Anchorhead)
  • Yune Kyung Lee & Yoon Ha Lee (The Moonlit Tower, Swanglass)
  • Nick Montfort (Ad Verbum, Implementation)
  • Scott Rettberg (The Unknown, Implementation)
  • Dan Shiovitz (Lethe Flow Phoenix, Bad Machine)
  • Emily Short (Savoir-Faire, City of Secrets)

Blog Books in the Times

I was quoted in an article in today's New York Times about books by bloggers. In the article, I might come across like the resident skeptic (and I'm missing a comma). I was trying to point out that blogs and books are different forms, that a great blog doesn't necessarily make for a great book, that each medium has its own formal qualities. I don't disagree that there are some reasons why publishers would want to publish books by bloggers — successful bloggers are generally people who prove that they can write in a consistent way, that their writing attracts an audience, that their knowledge is up to date, and that their topic areas are relevant. But I do think that the act of sitting down to knock off a blog entry is fundamentally different from the act of sitting down to write a sustained work, whether it be a novel or a long work of non-fiction. Last weekend I was in Providence with the Grand Text Auto drivers. We had some interesting discussions about this very topic. If GTxA does pull together a coauthored book, it will likely have a different flavor both from the blog and from the type of scholarly monograph that any of us would be likely to write on our own. I don't think that blog “shovelware” would make for a compelling book, but there are some characteristics of blog writing which might make for an intruiging hybrid with the traditional academic book.