On Reading 300 Works of Electronic Literature: Preliminary Reflections

In a panel discussion at the 1998 “Bookends” conference at SUNY Albany, Jacques Derrida spoke of Internet initiatives under way by his younger colleagues in France at the time. The first thing they would do, he said, is set up editorial boards, appoint in-house grant writers, and establish closed review processes – effectively replicating the foundations of recent print practice in the  new media.

At the time, I may have allowed myself a moment of self-congratulation since I had done no such thing in the journal I’d founded four years previously, www.electronicbookreview.com [ebr], a DIY literary critical enterprise. Today, I’m not so confident; and I recognize how many institutional inheritances I depended on, not least the collegiality that let me work with and attract contributions from scholars like myself, and also programmers and designers interested in print/screen transformations. Certainly the Internet prior to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was less dominated by commercial content and instrumental constraints, and it was easy enough to take advantage of a medium created, by scientists, for purposes of freely sharing documents among colleagues working at a distance from one another.

I won’t address here the commercialization of content on the Internet and the neoliberal capitalist turn in academic life. (That was critiqued, as it was happening, notably by Marc Bousquet and Katherine Wills in their ebr thread, Technocapitalism, and the accompanying Alt-X Critical E-Book, The Politics of Informatics [2003].) Instead, I want to look at the way institutional practices can be transformed, if Humanities scholars can make consistent, collaborative, and (not least) frugal use of the affordances of network technology in gathering literary works and forming conversations around them. My recent experience reading 300 works of electronic literature for preservation on the Wayback machine at archiveit.org, an initiative co-sponsored by the Electronic Literature Organization and the Library of Congress, suggests that the oft-noted “obsolescence” of works published in perpetually “new” media is an institutional and cognitive problem as much as a technological challenge. Capturing works on the Internet at stages of their development is technologically feasible. What is hard is finding the works worth preserving, defining their literary qualities, and establishing incentives for readers to go back, for more.

Whatever transformations the Humanities undergo in new media, a condition for the field’s possibility has to be the ability to re-read, and the freedom to cite, the work of peers and precursors. This is the task of editorial boards and granting institutions in online environments: those who vet works need to look at, not only what an author has accomplished, but at what the work might become, as it circulates among other works and, over time, collects comments from readers as well as its initial peer reviewers. In print, the credentialing process ends when the contract is signed; in e-media, the work is vetted continuously (or could be) and lives or dies depending on the readings it attracts, the re-writings it inspires, and how these are presented. That trail of commentary, not number of objects sold, constitutes popularity and presence in electronic environments (though business models will need to emerge, in university presses or other not exclusively commercial enterprises that can recognize this processual aspect of the digital literary object).

The conditions that matter to current research in the Humanities are constrained (though one hopes not pre-determined) by the collective creation of a “Semantic Web” or “Web 2.0” under the direction of Tim Berners Lee, the original architect of the World Wide Web. To some extent, this development answers the need to locate, identify, and re-circulate, information produced and found in electronic environments. The ability to “tag” material conceptually, rather than to search character strings, is of course attractive – one might even say, seductive – for literary scholars. There is first of all the promise, roundly critiqued by Florian Cramer, that “semantic technology” can “allow people to phrase search terms as normal questions, thus giving computer illiterates easier access to the Internet.” Easier access (what Alan Liu more broadly critiques under the phrase, “user friendliness”) generally means a more complete cluelessness about what is actually being searched at the level of code because, at this level, there can be no “semantic language understanding.” As Cramer points out in his “Critique,” that grail has eluded Artificial Intelligence researchers for decades.

Neither should humanists hope to realize, through networked computers, the Aristotelian dream of universally valid categorizations. The so-called “ontologies” that computer scientists create are not ontological in the philosophical sense (no more than, say, the glossy “literature” promoting a product or company has anything to do with novels, poems, or essays). Semantic Web [SW] “ontologies” are not ways of being, but rather ways of sorting and selecting. Cramer calls them “cosmologies,” in the sense of Borges’s “Chinese encyclopaedia”:

In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into:  (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking  pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the  present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn  with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just  broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like  flies.

Cosmological systems, while good at proliferating differences, remain indifferent to meanings and ambiguities that, whether or not they are recognized in the world, certainly characterize literary work in any medium.

From a literary viewpoint, more promising than the SW’s knowledge management pretensions are the really quite modest methods of tagging texts. Assigning meaning at a second order, apart from the actual text encoding, depends entirely on people and the professional and communicative networks we establish. The creation of professional standards is essential.  Otherwise, semantic markup will only redouble the work needed to create the text proper, and we’ll have built, in Cramer’s words, “a library whose catalogs outnumber the books they reference.”

That can be avoided, I think, if humanists approach the tagging of works as a properly critical practice, developing with works a glossary of keywords and literary concepts. Doing this means that the ones vetting the works should be expected to ground their judgments in professional standards. The burden of understanding is placed on those who presume to evaluate the work, and that understanding needs to circulate with the work proper.

An evolving glossary of electronic literary terms (to echo M.H Abrams’s long established Glossary of Literary Terms in print) has to be applied to works consistently and with an awareness of tag clouds forming throughout the Internet (at www.rhizome.org, for example, and at the newly released Electronic Literature Directory, version 2.0). Moreover, the terms will have to change as the kind of work produced in electronic environments change, and these changes can be tracked. What scholars can then construct is not so much a universal set of categories defining “electronic literature,” “net literature,” or “digital or online literature,” but rather a practice capable of producing a poetics, as e-lit author and critical theorist Sandy Baldwin has recently argued. The novelist Robert Coover made a similar argument when he reported his experience “On Reading 300 Novels” for the 1984 PEN/Faulkner Awards – before the Internet existed, and roughly a decade before Coover himself would move decisively into electronic environments (without ever ceasing to write books). While conducting my own summer e-lit reading, I’ve kept Coover’s essay in mind, especially the criteria he used to distinguish settled and emerging genres.

Coover found that a majority of submissions were “serious” or “priestly” works praised by critics “for their vision, style, commitment, sensibility, honesty, their ‘intense realism.’” These are high-minded works that seek to “transcend mere storytelling, to reach past entertainment for its own sake into speculative and morally perplexing realms….” (38) Many such works are the product of Creative Writing programs, and they can seem “somewhat homogenized” despite the conscious search for a personal “voice.” A few best sellers, mostly formulaic exercises in established genres, also made it to Coover’s desk (and overflowed to his floor).

Ultimately, Coover supposes, “both of these voices are conservative. Both tend, through formal acquiescence, to extend the reign of the cultural establishment, even while challenging it now and then on the surface” (38). But occasionally, “rarely,”

a third voice arises, radically at odds with the priestly and folk traditions alike, though often finding its materials in the latter and sharing with it a basic distrust of the establishment view of things. This voice typically rejects mere modifications in the evolving group mythos, further surface variations on sanctioned themes, and attacks instead the supporting structures themselves, the homologous forms. Whereupon something new enters the world – at least the world of literature, if not always the community beyond. (38)

In a later, more famous essay, “The End of Books,” Coover would carry his investigations beyond “the supporting structures” of genre, psychology, and cultural anthropology to the medial infrastructure itself. In electronic archives, both structures, the generic and the medial, are capable of being transformed concurrently – and those transformations (as much as the work itself) are what need to be tagged and traced.

I don’t expect to find, in my sample of 300 e-lit works anything resembling The Public Burning or even many works in the mode of Coover’s proto-hypertext, “The Babysitter.” Only rarely have I applied the keywords, “Postmodern,” “Experimental,” “Fiction,” “Poem,” and even “Narrative” to electronic literature post-Web 1.0. A bifurcated story by Milorad Pavic on www.wordcircuits.com; a Pynchonesque presentation of the first Iraq War by Stuart Moulthrop (www.eastgate.com); the rude road trips, real and imagined, by Rob Wittig and the collective of “Unknown” writers (robwit.net/robwit/archives; unknownhypertext.com); Mark Amerika’s phon:e:me (phoneme.walkerart.org): these e-lit classics continued the deconstruction that the earlier generation of postmodern authors began. Or rather, one might now say, the first generation of e-lit works completed that deconstructive task, building the digital “Bookend” my conference colleagues and I discussed in Albany ten years ago.

What is being produced at this moment in a Web 2.0 environment cannot be categorized or neatly summarized, though it’s safe to say that the “narrative” and “semantic language understanding,” where found, will co-exist with codes and other non-verbal contexts, much as “the human” nowadays is bounded everywhere by non-human forces and objects. These may have been present always, but their mechanisms are coming to consciousness more readily, and more often. What I’m reading, for the most part, doesn’t often differentiate between “critical” and “creative” writing; the most prolific e-lit authors are also programmers and designers who seem to be as comfortable conversing with scientists and technologists as with other writers. Chances are, the history of the current era won’t appear (like Coover’s articles) in The New York Times or in traditional peer reviewed academic press books. That should not be a cause for gloating, among those who advocated early for a literary migration to new media, or cause for complacency among those who expect the printed book to outlast its new media upstarts. It is rather a call for constructing models of reception and commentary within the medium of our practice, and without too much worry about current disciplinary arrangements.

Works Cited

  • Baldwin, Sandy. “Against Digital Poetics (Title in Process)” www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/against (under p2p review, July 2008).
  • Coover, Robert. “On Reading 300 American Novels.” The New York Times Book Review (March 18, 1984): 1, 37-8.
  • —. “The End of Books” The New York Times Book Review (June 21, 1992).
  • Cramer, Florian. “Critique of the ‘Semantic Web.’ Nettime. Tue, 18 Dec 2007.
    [A rough transcript of a lecture manuscript written for the "Quaero Forum" on the politics and culture of search engines at Jan van Eyck Academy, Maastricht, September 2007.]
  • Liu, Alan. The Laws of Cool Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
  • Tabbi, Joseph. “Locating the Literary in New Media.” Contemporary Literature  (Summer 2008). Online at http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/criticalecologies/interpretive.
  • —. “The Processual Page.” In The Future of the Page, ed. Peter Stoicheff and Andrew Taylor. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004. Online at New Media and Culture: http://www.ibiblio.org/nmediac/fall2003/processual.html
  • —. “Setting a Direction for the Electronic Literature Organization’s Directory: Toward a Semantic Literary Web.” http://eliterature.org/pad/slw.html

36 comments to On Reading 300 Works of Electronic Literature: Preliminary Reflections

  • Davin Heckman

    In graduate school, I think I picked up an obsession with novelty. Working with new media and critical theory, there is a general orientation to seek out new things. Underneath that, I suppose, was the very real desire for me to prove that I wasn’t a fraud. The desperate effort to pursue some new bit of technical jargon, as stupid as it sounds, was a way for me to stave off fears about my own inadequacy. Well, I still feel inadequate, I still am easily distracted by new things, and I still throw around jargon. But! I have also discovered that the theory which moves my mind the best is the theory that, although it is original, has patience with usefulness over novelty, which seeks to advance a way of thinking rather than glorifying the writer. Here, I think, is where the brilliance of Joe Tabbi’s piece resides. The argument is a good one and I have very little to add to it. Its strength is that it resonates with a number of other good ideas that I have been reading about in other places.

    While it is tempting to imagine an “electronic literature” that exists as pure potentiality, unbound by past conventions, the question I keep coming back to is this: “Is it even possible to read ANYTHING as a blank slate?” This IS what radical novelty implies: That the writer—let’s not even call him or her a writer or artist or even a him or her, let’s call it a writer–the writer is making a work of art. And (let’s stick with the form) the reader is reading a text. At some point, that act of writing, making, performing, reading, or whatever must suggest at some level a similarity with a representation that is held in common between at least two people. Before we even arrive at a work of literature, there is some kind of relationship of communication that holds the various parties in place while consciousness is shared.

    Now, we know, following Roland Barthes or Claude Shannon or Jacques Derrida, that communication occurs over an interval (time or space) and that the very thing that makes the transmission of information valuable is the very thing that makes it incomplete. Denotations may remain fairly consistent, but signs are powerful because they are connected to a world of experiences called connotations, which can vary from person to person. Information, even if it is transmitted with a minimum of noise, still requires something on the other end capable of decoding at the level in which it was encoded. Even philosophy cannot produce certainty. Thus, communication, though it can never occur between blank slates, neither can it occur between two fully equivalent ciphers.

    But between these two silly extremes, there is a place for communication about literature which is rooted in some body of expectation but whose branches reach for the heavens, and whose seeds might land in far away places. Tabbi points to this third way, “Instead, I want to look at the way institutional practices can be transformed, if Humanities scholars can make consistent, collaborative, and (not least) frugal use of the affordances of network technology in gathering literary works and forming conversations around them.” He suggests that we need some of the function traditionally associated with literary criticism, but that we might pursue them by other means.

    And here, I will get to those good ideas that I have been reading about in other places. Knowing what we know about struggles over the Literary Canon (its exclusionary character, its elitist qualities, and the limits it places on those scholars and creators working in its shadows), the first priority of any project which seeks to create a body of “good” works should be its own self-definition. If we (and there might be many groups) disclose the place from where we are working, explain our intentions, and drop some parameters to frame the discourse we are using, we might actually be doing more to “free” electronic literature than we would if we imagined that we were operating without any criteria or definitions or objectives. While I have a difficult time with a lot of the fan-centered criticism that I have read in popular culture studies, I do think that we can find insights by reading the works of Henry Jenkins or Janice Radway or John Fiske, to look at how “consumers” of popular culture texts establish certain paradigms for reading so that they can evaluate and create works with an eye on a particular community. This already happens in academic culture, in departments and programs, on email lists, and at national meetings. Bringing these concerns to the forefront, making them the topic of reflection, might offer us some sense of limited continuity upon which we can base decisions about genre, style, and, ultimately, quality. These limited frameworks, if we acknowledge up front that they are artificial contrivances rather than organically formed norms, should not fall into the same trap of becoming “natural” because the moment of their creation would be marked transparently. And, besides, why shouldn’t a body of competent, enthusiastic readers of electronic literature make determinations about what works, what doesn’t, what ought to be read, and for what purpose? I can learn a lot about the Rocky Horror Picture Show from fans, but at the end of the day, I am also just as free to ignore their opinions to form my own if I want to. On the other hand, I might never have seen the Rocky Horror Picture Show had it not been for the fans’ labor to maintain its presence.

    The second piece of scholarship that would be useful here is Robert Altman’s Film/Genre (1999). Altman’s text examines the interplay between expectations and their violation, between genre breaking films and the constitution of new genres. This model of genre formation is useful in that it is highly dynamic. While it is centered on mass culture in many ways, it also establishes the importance of the work of art itself in the formation of tastes and attitudes. But, most importantly, it allows for considerations of “quality” that are rooted in criteria, without simply appealing to the wisdom of the critic as the arbiter of taste.

    To bring me back around to Tabbi’s argument, I believe that the works I cite above along with Tabbi’s critical interest in the practice of sorting and tagging affirm the socially constructed nature of our communication without leaving us in the doldrums of relativistic thought (a caricatured version being the idea: since our value judgments are relative, it is somehow an injustice to make them). Rather than shrinking the role that we play in reading, evaluating, and re-reading works of art by making its transmission more efficient, the very means through which Web 2.0 is made more efficient requires us to read and think critically. And for me, I often think of myself as a humanist, there is great promise in the idea that systems of new media communication and instances of new media art could emphasize and expand the role that people play in determining what we value and why we value it.

    This in turn, brings us back to the fundamental question of criticism itself. The role of the critic is threatening because human communication matters. If we wish to “automate” the practices of human moral and aesthetic discernment by ignoring the critical capacity, do we not engage in the same sort of denial of human agency which is at the heart of our very anxiety about canon formation in the first place? Criticism can be unjust and cruel. In withdrawing from the potential for repeating such injustices, which are unjust precisely because they deprive people of consideration and free expression, we choose a blanket deprivation and pretend that human communication about such things is wrong.

  • While there is much to criticize about the “Semantic Web,” neither natural-language question-answering nor “universally valid categorizations” are goals Semantic Web technologies aim to achieve. In fact, what Semantic Web technologies offer are ways to create and share the kinds of “glossaries of keywords and concepts” you desire. There is no expectation that these will be universally valid; rather the opposite: it is assumed that specific communities will create their own, locally valid vocabularies, building bridges between them when mutually desired. There are no doubt flaws even in this modest vision. But we won’t understand the nature of those flaws unless humanists embrace and abuse and critique these technologies on the grounds of what they actually do, and not dismiss them out of hand on the grounds of what they’re fantasized to do.

  • Joe Tabbi, Mark Amerika, and others who have pioneered e-literature have been at it long enough to adopt an historical perspective on what they have brought forth. Discerning an emerging niche, they fitted it out with what proved to be a technologically-enabled form of e-criticism and e-literature, one that is continually open to revision, transformation, and exportation. In his essay, Tabbi examines briefly some of the challenges involved in devising new ways to “tag” e-literature (critical or otherwise) in ways that prove useful and informative to researchers and artists. The issues involved here are not merely technical, but “semantic” in that even emerging forms of searching and tagging still lack the cognitive capacity to understand the nuances, depth, and meaning of the content that is to be categorized in one way or another. Who knows, of course, what the situation will be a decade from now?
    In his concluding paragraph, Tabbi opines that those working in the world of e-literature ought not be too concerned about the strong possibility that neither The New York Times nor peer reviewed academic press books will publish the brief history of e-literature. Instead, e-literature folks should go about the business of constructing their own domain(s). I would add the following considerations. The New York Times has been struggling to survive not only in the face of “free” on-line news sites, but also in the face of the blogging revolution, which in some ways brings to fruition Lyotard’s projection (in The Postmodern Condition) of widely disseminated sources of information and judgment. Academic presses and other venues for displaying knowledge produced according to traditional methods face similar challenges not only to their grip on what counts as genuine “knowledge,” but also to their very survival as publishing organizations. The problem reaches even further, of course, into the very future of higher education as currently constituted. If academia is to survive the digital tsunami, faculty and administrators must take into account the fact that is already well known to our students, namely, that some time ago universities lost their policing role in regard to defining what is known and what is worthy of being known. Knowledge is being generated in many different ways, a number of which need to be incorporated into and could be improved by faculty, before those of us currently employed in places of “higher education” wake up one day to find that students no longer see the point of investing $100,000 for a four-year education.
    In effect, Rabbi is suggesting that those involved in the development of e-literature need only bide their time. They will be the ones who composed the history of the decline and fall of newspaper and university empires that failed to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.

  • Joe Tabbi’s “On Reading 300 Works of Electronic Literature” raises several important issues relating to born digital literary works. Of interest to Humanities scholars should be his focus on the need for “defining their literary qualities” and “preserving” them for posterity, since the unique aspect of elit is its technological attributes and expanded use of media elements like sound, animation, and video (among others). In these works the literary is not simply the ideas, feelings, experiences evoked from words, but also generated by the technology the author utilizes for telling the story, creating the poem, and producing the drama. The technology is an aspect of the content and, so, is inseparable from any analysis of the work itself.
    Here is what I mean: It is not enough to talk about the car metaphor in Ingrid Ankerson’s “Cruising;” for in a work, like hers, in which video and spoken word are both utilized, we must also address the way the “reader” can control the speed of the video by touching it with the cursor. It is not enough to talk about repetition in the spoken words found in Dan Waber, Reiner Strasser, and Jennifer Hill-Kaucher’s “>>oh<<” because it is inextricably linked to the act of running our cursors over the gray dots. It is not enough to examine tone in the words found in ”Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries animated work, “Samsung,” for the music and the way it synchronizes so seamlessly with the words help to emphasize the works’ irony.
    In a world where innovations to operating systems and updates to software make orphans of documents written a mere five years ago or where one’s favorite website is no longer readable on this year’s browser, preserving works, as Tabbi suggests, whose content involves technological expressions working in conjunction with the work’s words looms as one of the biggest challenges archivists of elit face. Those of us also familiar with Greek theatre and the technological innovations that emerged during Euripides’ career can understand this example: Imagine that hyperlinks, as one finds in Michael Joyce’s afternoon: a story, become a footnote in a literature book in the same way the cranes hoisting the Greek actors up in the air have become because hyperlinks, like the cranes, cannot be represented in any way to the reading audience. If so, how will we ever recreate the experience of choosing the paths we wish to follow that are so integral to Joyce’s story if we cannot find a way to preserve them in the future generations of hardware and software?

  • This reply may be titled “No Time for Footnotes: A Sprint in the Marathon of Digital Media Arts”. This is so because I received an email message via the ELO listserv to post responses by “noon” today.
    I received the message at 7:02 am today, and, since current ELO headquarters is Maryland, I must assume the deadline is EDT rather than my time, PDT.

    So, I invested nearly two hours reading not only Tabbi’s provocative article but the rest on the scroll. Then, I saw I have moments only to comment by EDT deadlines.

    The discomfort of the haste to comment is part of a larger discomfort I experience based upon 25+ years as a creator, advocate, particpant in digital media arts.

    In the last decade of these efforts I concluded that my pilgrimage would serve best if I explored the overlap of these media art forms: academia, native digital media arts [e.g., Cyan's classics Myst and Riven on which I was deeply involved] and traditional audio/visual media [aka "Hollywood" in which I have invested over 30 years in the above capacities] enhanced by visual effects [e.g., The Dark Knight, Shrek, and all work that would fall within the Visual Effects Society].

    In studying the post and predecessor posts, I see terms like “ontology”, “delphic”, “epistemology”, “meaning” [which suggests teleology to me]. To me, these terms are philosophical in origin and remain so in value. I have been studying philosophy now for over 40 years.

    What I discover above all is this: academia, native digital media arts, and Hollywood resists sharing among these fields ["field synergy"]. I do not attribute this to any ill-will by one to the other but rather to cultural differences I have experienced with pain, dismay, and even sorrow among these communities.

    I have “walked point” in field synergy effort, as I said for over 25 years. Nothing would please me more professionally than if I were to see advances in this regard.

    It would particularly thrill me if these advances used philosophical examination as a foundation, though passing use of terms does not suffice and I find misleads.

    Ah! I now may be ten minutes past my deadline! I have learned the “deadline” is very important in academic culture.

    So, I cut through the grasss to end thusly. What I seek and seek to advance are artistic works of enduring universality which are native to digital media and naturally, then, have synergy with all three fields described.

    As my time and more likely my welcome has expired, I invite the reader to my site which shows both current and historical paths to where this expditionary finds himself today and just the beginnings of where the journey may go.

    I also invite the opening of channels of communication with me and my communities of colleagues. I hope that my skepticism about such opening is incorrect, albeit reinforced by at least a decade of my effort and experience while on the faculty at UCLA.

    To do so will require going beyond peppering with philosophical terms and references to thinkers like Derrida and Foucault … beyond: to those visionaries who seem to frighten experts: Socrates, Kant, William James and others I am always prepared to apply to our Web2.0 world and beyond.

    Charles Spencer Chaplin, a founding genius of cinema, was never an academic, a “Hollywood” person in the modern sense, or a digital media artist.

    He did however establish that cinema was to play a vital role in human arts and culture through his works of enduring universality.

    Please. May I join the party along with some of my friends?

  • In my post, I made passing reference not only to philosophical terms such as “ontology” and “cosmology” but also to “the neoliberal capitalist turn in academic life.” After reading Harvey E Harrison’s just-in-time-delivery and Davin Heckman’s reflections on the compulsion one feels as a grad student always to be up to date, I’m reminded of how that new liberal model operates in practice, in academia. Scholars nowadays have grown accustomed to working under stricter and stricter deadlines – and that means that publications, more and more, are produced on the template: “identify a hot new topic, apply a current theoretical context, and post your analysis before the competition beats you to it.”

    I must apologize to Harvey E Harrison for my having pushed this model to an extreme. Basically, I got the dates wrong when I told my colleagues at the Electronic Literature Organization that responses were due already at noon, Thursday. In fact, respondents have another several days before my own response to the respondents is due online, Wednesday the 29th.

    Sorry about that, Harvey! And thanks Davin for the reminder that working in ‘new media’ doesn’t mean having to write exclusively about ‘the new.’

  • “That can be avoided, I think, if humanists approach the tagging of works as a properly critical practice, developing with works a glossary of keywords and literary concepts. Doing this means that the ones vetting the works should be expected to ground their judgments in professional standards. The burden of understanding is placed on those who presume to evaluate the work, and that understanding needs to circulate with the work proper.”

    My own response to this passage, which I think lies near the core of Joe Tabbi’s perceptive essay, is to wonder how useful the notion of “criticism” is if we are attempting to rethink the “human” in its interactions with the strangely smart, exceedingly lively creatures (animal or machine or virtual) who are today our companion species. To “tag” something or someone, of course, is a critical act–an act of organization based on discriminations of similarity and difference that ultimately have an evaluative component (if not necessarily “good” or “bad,” though an inordinate amount of folksonomic tagging on the Web today has that flavor, then at a minimum “cool” or “spam”). But, somehow, the word “criticize” seems out of place in describing tagging behavior. Criticism is a very high-level act of the sort that we used to think was properly “human,” another high-level concept. But tagging is a much lower-level, bounded kind of act (and, no doubt, could be broken down even further into component perceptual, attention management, or otherwise cognitive and manual skills–all the way down to fine finger control on a keyboard or mouse). There are very few humans whose acts of criticism I trust. However, there are many more humans–the entirety of the “wisdom of the crowd” or “rule of many” we see on Web 2.0 today, in fact–whose acts of tagging I trust. That crowd, indeed, may be the greatest example today of what I above termed “strangely smart, exceedingly lively creatures.” To be able to appreciate and learn from that different kind of crowd human, I think will require that we rethink the notion of “criticism” so that it draws on lower-order human operations, which in turn overlap with and can be made more tractable through machinic operations (which I think is the point of Semantic Web, in whose context the notion of semantics as “meaning” is too high level to be useful). So, for example, let’s try substituting the notions of “filtering” or “linking” for “criticizing.”

    “Human”: the filtering animal, the linking animal.

    Some institutions will then still find value in laddering up filtering and linking acts from the tag level up through narrative, argumentation, etc., all the way to critical writing.

  • John Cayley

    Invoking Foucault, via Florian Cramer, in order to query, quite properly, the status of ‘Semantic Web’ ‘ontologies’ (yes, those are scare quotes, pace Ryan Shaw’s comment — if we are going to be content to be critical and productive with ever-evolving folksonomies let’s just call them that), Joseph Tabbi also stirs up one source of the anxieties underlying his piece: What is the discourse of literature in digital media? What are the statements that this literature can make? And what statements can be made about this literature? Will any of these statements survive — achieving both significance and affect — thanks to a persistent, vital discourse, one that circulates in the academy as well as the wider culture?

    Tabbi is subtly affirmative. While recognizing — if not demanding — that “institutional practices can be transformed,” he quietly stresses a certain continuity with the actual existing discourse of literature — “ability to re-read, freedom to cite, the work of peers and precursors.” He rather implies, through his conceit of comparative reading — 300 novels vs. 300 “e-lit works” — that the actual existing discourse of literature runs deeper in terms of articulation and aesthetics and is somewhat richer in nuance. Practitioners and critics of literary work in newer media will, for example, learn how to address their would-be discourse by better understanding something of what Robert Coover discovered as he waded through all that would-be high-literary prose.

    And yet Tabbi rightly emphasizes that, apart from well-understood categories and genres of literary practice, Coover also discovered a relatively uncommon, difficult-to-assimilate novelty and innovation in certain of the books that he read; and that Coover later and famously articulated the now unavoidable notion that the media of literature will change radically, and that the media of literature will change what literature will become.

    Blogging “On the Human,” is Tabbi preaching to the converted? Almost certainly. However, despite the fact that he edits or rather, perhaps, ‘e-edits’ an important, pioneering, proven journal of mediated writing, one that, essentially, created its own “professional standards” based on and faithful to what was and is still an emergent critical culture, despite having done all this for years, Tabbi is quite properly anxious about how, ultimately, his contributions and those of his contributors will engage with institutions of knowledge and poesis. As more of a practitioner than a scholar of writing in digital media, I share this anxiety. I agree with what he says and with the tenor of his argument. We need to pretend to know where we are going even if we don’t. We need to have articulated aesthetic values in order to be able to discover emergent aesthetic values.

    So far this comment is by way of my own inflected paraphrase of Tabbi’s argument. More baldly: ‘New cultures need new categories, not just new practices, except that digitally mediated literature is not new in so far as it is literature. It’s somewhat doubtful that the categories implicit in “e-lit works” are commensurate and effectively engaged with those of well-made novels, for example, but we do know that reading novels carefully and well forces us to recognize new things and new categories and new values as such. We must apply such principles of literary culture to digital literature as we create the new categories of a new profession. And get the institutions on board.’

    To go further, it is interesting to note that the only other critical address to the issue of practice that Tabbi cites favorably is Sandy Baldwin’s ‘Against Digital Poetics (Title in Process).’ I’ve heard two presentations of this paper and, although I agree that Baldwin seriously attempts to delineate “a practice capable of producing a poetics,” he does so by explicitly rejecting those critical moves whereby the affordances of new media are regarded as potential or realized extensions of literature in actual existing, established media. For Baldwin, digital poetics is what its practices generate; literature go hang. For Baldwin a ping trace is digital poetics, but so is a Shakespeare sonnet on your iPhone. His point, I believe, is that digital poetics is not only or essentially a ‘better’ or ‘radically different’ (digitally poetic) poem or narrative that, for example, changes its screen image or diction over time (just because digital media can make it so). Baldwin’s position is coherent but extreme and might be also considered to be corrosive if one happens to feel protective of established literary categories and practices.

    What underlies Baldwin’s position are symbolic practices, a poesis and a poetics that encompass coding and computation — and everything that they can do. I have to bring this comment to a close and there will be other venues for any elaboration of these ideas, but I will say this: Apart from the necessity to establish continuity with literary practices in established media, there remains a crucial obligation to explore the relationship between language and media. Language is always already, at least potentially, a vehicle for intermedial practice — I’m thinking especially of Art Language and conceptual art more broadly here — and language shares this property with ‘the language of new media’ as Lev Manovich has it. Manovich’s ‘language’ is, of course, chiefly figurative, but it does refer, amongst other things, to the symbolic practices of coding and computation. The sharing of certain properties between language and coding is no coincidence. If literature has been made from language, new media have now made it possible that literature is also made from code. Crucially, new media do this in such a way and with such currency that the practices they suggest to poets, writers, and makers will become a necessary, vital part of established culture. But we do not yet understand how or when or what will be made as such, as integral to established culture that is. Apart from the effort of responsible and attentive categorization to which Tabbi calls us, we are also required to understand how language will serve poesis in the media of explicitly abstract symbolic manipulation.

  • Davin Heckman

    Dr. Liu,

    I agree with you distinction between criticism and tagging (one as a high level act, the other, low level and bounded). But I wonder, as a professor, if you find that helping students move from the low level acts of discernment (which tend to be impulsive) to high levels of discernment (which ought to become progressively grounded in reflection) is often what we really teach. In my experience (and I teach a lot of 18-year-olds), I find that I am often encouraging my students to reflect upon the assumptions that their initial judgments are based on, and to explore the judgments made by others.

    In a way, I think that criticism as a relatively solitary act attempts to accomplish what the “crowd” is able to achieve through multiple, minute tagging operations… In other words, teaching critical thinking is often about internalizing the collective thought process by looking at history, sociology, traditions, alternative interpretations, etc., and assessing the way that many small, fragmented, dispersed assumptions can contribute to an overall understanding which we call discourse.

    Now, as a relatively isolated activity, I agree that criticism is hard to “trust” (unless of course an individual critic situates the criticism in question within the context of other forms and methods of critique, which is another way of saying that criticism seeks to expand its range of consciousness by reflecting upon the broad range of perspectives).

    But, in a way, reading and reflecting on your insights here has brought me to another one (which you allude to): The high-level act of criticism is, under one worldview, is an expression of the ideal human subject. But if we take a view of criticism which is built upon the idea that the individual seeks to obtain the wisdom of the crowd, and that the crowd offers an alternate view of a human ideal, we can arrive at an ideal of human consciousness in which the individual and the collective are not in competition–they are in a fecund relationship with each other.

    Here, the wisdom of the crowd is exposed to the reflection necessary to challenge itself to change (take, for instance, the various bigotries that need to be struck down) and the romantic myth of the individual is brought back down to earth (the knowledge of the individual is built upon and requires its community).

  • Alan: thanks for your helpful distinction among evaluative acts of critical judgment and the lower-level, networked behavior of tags, keywords, and Semantic Web technologies. In my own critical writing, especially in my book Cognitive Fictions (Minnesota 2002), I like to think of such differences as congruent with the cognitive makeup of humans – where the majority of activity goes on below consciousness and in distributed networks that extend beyond the boundaries of our bodies and self-consciousness. Indeed, only a small part of the brain’s activity is used for making critical evaluations and conscious decisions. One of the challenges, and one of the terrific opportunities, for those who are trying to do literary work in electronic environments, is that we are continually confronted with activities and behaviors that go on more or less independently of the meaning-making activities that are the “higher-level” interest of criticism. As your reference to the “finger control on a keyboard” suggests, this condition is closer to music, in that we work best when we the lower-level operations (which key to hit at which moment) happen without our being aware of them.

    The distinction among levels is also useful in situating the Semantic Web debate. As I noted in the essay, Florian Cramer is probably right to argue that tags and keywords will never enter the realm of simulated intelligence or semantic “meaning.” But, according to your description, Alan, these descriptive elements /need not/ be meaningful or subject to critical judgment in order to be useful. Recognizing this lower-level operation – which works precisely because it excludes human consciousness – is the first step toward achieving the more “modest vision” of critical activity, cited by Ryan Shaw in his response above.

    In my essay, I too spoke of the “methods of tagging texts” as “quite modest” and I located the /critical/ activity not in the tags themselves but rather in the establishment of “professional and communicative networks,” a higher-level, institutional arrangement. That’s where critical judgement comes in, because we’re identifying concepts in works and then communicating among peers, not trying to develop or master some critical universal language in the creation of tags and keywords.

    I find it remarkable that (in contrast with my experience writing books in the Nineties and earlier this decade) the majority of my writing today is done “live,” in forums like this one where tags accompany the text of my essay. Up there, to the right, I notice some of the “tags used in this forum,” namely: “adaptive functioning animals anthopology art controversies e-literature electronic literature evolution food genetic engineering genome.”

    I can see the relevance, more or less, of some terms; others have nothing to do with my essay but they lead me to other essays in this forum and beyond. As I refine my argument in light of the responses so far, I might want to add tags like “filtering animal crowd human.” But even these may be too zoocentric for describing the kind of “exceedingly smart, exceedingly lively creatures” we find ourselves living among. At some point, I expect the discussion here will develop beyond the humans, animals, and machines that are after all a very thin slice of the cognitive environment. As we move further afield, I expect to encounter stranger keywords: “spirochete metastrophe chatterbot lexia.” These are the kinds of terms that come up, when reading current works of electronic literature. In pursuing this project, I may need to remind myself that the tags and descriptions I apply today are contingent, and will have a life of their own that neither I, nor any single critical consciousness, will be able to track.

    Putting those new names into circulation, and tracking those terms, as they develop, is the place where criticism can locate itself in the new media. Like consciousness, the place is important but also marginal.

  • Joe, why do you think humans, animals, and machines are “a very thin slice of the cognitive environment” and that thicker slices will be found by following keywords such as “spirochete metastrophe chatterbot lexia?” Not familiar with that phrase (or, I confess, e-lit generally) I wonder if you’d help me understand why I should expect to find more cognitive environment there than here?

  • Gary, I selected those four sample keywords from works I happen to be reading at the moment, among them Talan Memmott’s “Lexia to Perplexia” which has a section titled “Metastrophe.” This is a work full of neologisms. It is a literary machine for generating the kind of keywords and concepts, in a work of art, that I am advocating for institutionally. Katherine Hayles describes Memmott’s work as “a set of interrelated speculations about the future (and past) of human-intelligent machine interactions, along with extensive resinscriptions of human subjectivity and the human body” (Writing Machines, MIT 2002: page 49)

    I’ll need several more hours with Memmott’s work before I am ready to decide if “human subjectivity and the human body” really are reinscribed, or if we humans aren’t for the most part /kept out/ of the literary mechanism. Really, I am approaching the field case by case, with each work that I read for the Electronic Literature Directory and at this point I’m just not sure that “the human” and our reflective sensibilities will predominate.

    Here’s a line from “Lexia” -

    “The combined inTents perform as components of a single ideocratic device, de.signing, de.veloping and exe.cuting the mechanism that permits their passage.”

    - except you don’t read the line as we read it here. At the actual site (I’m looking at the version on The Iowa Review Web), you don’t see plain text on a white background. There’s a grid behind the words, and the movement of our eyes going over the lines of text from left to right makes it appear that the words are unstable, shaking. But then when you stop reading, and just look – you see that nothing’s “really” moving.

    Whatever made those words shake like that, in Memmott’s work, is going on at perceptual levels well below consciousness, subjectivity, and reflection.

    And what about all those words that look like code? A word like “exe.cuting,” for example, obviously isn’t sending instructions for further operations but it does make us aware that operations are going on all the time, producing from one moment to the next the combination of image and text that we are viewing and reading. (In the time that I’ve taken to write this post on Memmott, I notice the graphic for the grid background has changed.)

    As Dene Grigar says in her post, technology “is an aspect of the content and, so, is inseparable from any analysis of the work itself.” But beyond technology, there is a material, and perceptual realm that a work like “Lexia” powerfully suggests – and this realm is arguably larger than either technology or human consciousness.

    In his post, John Cayley speaks of language serving “poesis in the media of explicitly abstract symbolic manipulation.” Much of that manipulation can be done by humans and machines. But much (and likely much more) is done by agents that are neither human, machine, nor animal though they can be parts of us, and we of them.

    The “Spirochete,” for example. A “tiny, spiral-shaped, highly mobile bacteria” that biologist Lynn Margulis thinks could be “the origin of consciousness, the reason we can think and communicate at all.” I was reading about spirochetes at the Sputnik Observation site, http://sptnk.org, under the thread “I think therefore I am a spirochete.” There one will find a mixture of scientific and speculative writing that acknowledges a world that goes beyond our engrained zoocentrism, which is itself a hangover of our engrained humanism and the technophilia that is a pendant to that. The point being that “humans, animals, and machines” is still a rather thin slice of Gaia, so to speak.

  • As I know little about eliterature, though I certainly do know of it, it would be impertinent of me to venture a comment on Joe Tabbi’s interesting remarks. But I do know something about classification and its vicissitudes, about ontologies in the cognitive science sense, and a bit about criticism as well. And so I do feel competent to respond to Alan Liu’s remarks about the difference between mere (my word, not his) tagging as a low-level operation and criticism as a high-level operation.

    I would like to introduce another term, description. If we tag, say, apple with terms such as red, fruit, plant, and edible, we are describing it. It is a rather low-level of description, but it is description nonetheless. We are so thoroughly familiar with apples that we find little or even nothing problematic about associating such descriptors, such tags, with apple. But description is not always so unproblematic.

    In The Science of Describing Brian Ogilvie shows how the descriptive natural history that was so important to Charles Darwin originated in the early modern era when thinkers pondered a simple matter: Are the flora and fauna around us here and now the same as the flora and fauna mentioned in the classical texts? The question is simple enough, but how do you go about answering it? And that question implied a set of parallel questions: Are the flora and fauna about me here (say Florence) the same as the flora and fauna about you in, say, Paris, and about you in, say, London? How do we establish a descriptive practice that allows us to answer such questions with confidence?

    Well, they did establish such practice, but it wasn’t easy. They had to figure out what things to include and what to exclude (Foucault discusses this in The Order of Things), they established conventions for drawing, and the learned how to create and use reference collections of specimens. In short, they created a discipline, a new discourse, where none had been before. Once that had been done, once the conventions had been created and validated, the acts of analysis and description became mere description. They ceased to be, as current vernacular has it, “rocket science.” Description had become routine, highly skilled routine, but routine nonetheless.

    Charles Darwin had the benefit of decades of accumulated descriptions. Without that accumulated routine he could not have discerned the patterns that he described in On the Origin of Species. Even at that the cumulative record was not sufficient; he had to go into the field and experience for himself the process of reducing the world to description (or, perhaps, reproducing patterns in the world through description). And yet, we must note, description has not become entirely routine and unproblematic in biology, and the simplest kind of generalization over description, classification, is deeply problematic in its details.

    Let me suggest a crude parallel between literary studies and biology. In this parallel we are somewhere between the point where the early moderns first posed their questions (about sameness and difference between things they could see and things they knew only through descriptions) and the point were Darwian could survey a large collection of mutually consistent descriptions of organisms and lifeways. We’re still trying to figure it out. What are the relevant descriptors (tags) and how do we apply them?

    The question may be acute for electronic texts because they are new, but the questions remain for the entire ill-defined body of texts for which we are intellectually responsible.

  • This is an engaging thread! I have a few thoughts on the matter of tagging, particularly as it relates to Electronic Literature:

    * Tagging is an activity that is, at the same time, deeply personal and communal archival.
    * Tagging is the work of building knowledge networks through shared folksonomy.
    * Tagging is something we do in the margins to remember and what we do online to collect and share.
    * Tagging is the trail of the biscuit crumbs that fall from our lips to the pages of the book beneath us.
    * Tagging is the revelation of our internal stacks but it is also the process by which we populate them.

    Recently, I’ve been thinking more about the power of tagging for the crowdsourced collection of resources (http://sosclassroom.org). They say tagging works when it’s focused and incentivized (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/19/technology/internet/19unboxed.html)

    Of course tagging is like bursting open the doors of Dewey’s study and inviting the factory workers and accountants and charwomen and children create their own system, each person’s perfect in its own right.

    In the world of electronic literature and networked art, tagging reveals a lot about a person’s disciplinary interests. Let us consider an example of electronic literature. Take Jaime Alejandro Rodriguez Ruiz’s Golpe de Gracia:
    http://delicious.com/url/7092fae57e4ba27d0076559788938ddd

    It has been bookmarked 18 times on Del.icio.us. The tags range from “arte” to “proyecto,” and the most commonly used tag is “flash,” the authoring software.

    However the work has 21 single-use tags, used only once. These include:
    * descriptive: narrative_digital
    * editorial: curiosidades
    * categorical and at one time political: game
    * the thematic, imagistic: cadaver.

    It has even been tagged as “Elearning.”

    This is not to argue for the irregularity, unpredictability of tags, as my taxonomically inclined colleagues might complain (The tag “differance” is used 35 times in how many different ways.), but to notice how many questions tagging raises for those who are trying to hold very disparate works in their mental libraries: are we to group by themes, genres, media, or even national origin (“colombia”).

    But in this so-called moment of Web 2.0, to connect any set of works, or rather links to those works, is to make them more prominent and more accessible, is it raises their ranking on search engines. Patrons of the Internet universal library send a distracted page down into the holdings, where he tends to grab the books that are closest to the elevator doors.

    Electronic literature benefits from tagging because it is the sign of readers engaged in the act of filling up their curiosity cabinets, their Uncle Buddy’s fun houses and their gardens of forking syllabi. That task becomes games since writing e-lit often involves creating that object which is difficult to tag.

    What appeals to me about your post if this sense of the diversity of electronic literature — or its refusal to be categorized, and yet a this point Professors of Letters who are attempting to create 21st-Century syllabi do need a way to access the works, perhaps not a cannon, but a database, and the ELD 2 should be one starting point.

  • Jan Baetens

    As defined -and defended- by Joe Tabbi, the task of “tagging”, as a critical act in the two major meanings of the word (critique as a form of metalanguage, critique as a critical and theoretecal reflection on the stakes of this very task) is both very challenging and quite problematic.

    It is very challenging in the first place, since tagging may provide a pragmatic yet not unstructured answer to the difficulties raised by reading e-lit as well as tho the lack of a “poetics” (Sanny Baldwin quoted by Tabbi). No reading is possible without any previous form of identification and awareness of the intertextual field in which it occurs is imperative. E-literature is no exception to this rule. Tagging can provide clues, certainly if the reviewers are conscious of their responsibility and accept to take benefit of their tagging activity to shape the glossary of keywords that is still cruelly lacking for the reading of e-literature.

    Yet even if this glossary is “evolving” (as Joe Tabbi wants it to be -rightly of course), the problem remains how one will produce the miraculous shift from a set of catagories to “a practice capable of producing a poetics” (Tabbi). I fully agree to no poetics is possible without a proper vocabulary, but what about the next step, i.e. the transition from “form” (the glossary) to “force”" (the poetics), as Derrida might have called it?

    The problem is that the shaping of a glossary, which will entail in the case of e-literature a severe reduction of the myriad of possible tags that reviewers may use, contains already a poetics. For instance, as the examples given by Tabbi and discussed in some other replies clearly foreground, a poetics of innovation, discarding “good” yet insufficiently innovative e-literature and outlawing all e-literature that obeys traditional standards (yet recent French scholarship by William Marx and others has demonstrated how illuminating rearguard literature can be for the avant-garde). The production of a glossary is so much constrained by the point of view of the tagger that it will prove necessary to include a “third order” aspect to the analysis of the tags proposed (which are “second order” in relation to the “first order” structure of the text itself), namely the standpoint or prospective that informs the stance of the reviewer. I moreover think that the critical readig of these third order elements will prove more helpful to establish a poetics of e-lit than mutual agreements between honest reviewers on the tags that will and that tags that won’t make it into a final (yet always provisional) glossary.

    A good example of what I mean is the absence in Tabbi’s very interesting and useful comments and insights of the blurring of boundaries between the image and the text, and, more radically, the absence of any comment on what must have been part of the famous 300 works he has been reading over the Summer: literary e-works that are “purely visual” (or, less radically, e-works in which the role of the word is so reduced that one can legitamitely ask whether they are still “texts” -unless of course, but this can not be Tabbi’s ambition, to go on using “text” as synonym for any meaningful human practice or product). In the ELO anthology that accompanied N. Katherine Hayles’s “Electronic literature” (and I suppose that all of the somewhat 60 works in that selection must appear as well in the set of 300 works read by Tabbi), there were some works whose tagging as “literary” was no longer evident.

    Literature itself is facing similar issues: if we accept, as we all do now, that graphic novels are… novels and therefore literature, what do we do with textless graphic novels (a dramatically important subgenre)?

    Yet all this brings us back to the problem of the glossary rather than to that of the poetics. My gut feeling is that both should be separated, instead of seeing as complementary. Yes, tagging is necessary, as is the new glossary. But by just scrutinizing and reoargizings a set of tags, there may be the risk that certain tags will never pop up so that crucial discussions may continue to escape us (I am thinking of the word and image problem here). Neither will a glossary, how well done it may be, will tell us something about the poetics, which has to do with literary programs, assignments, and issues -all elements that are, if I can say, “tag insenstive”. Suppose one tags an e-poem as “deprived of rime”, such a description, although technically clear, is still open to many interpretations, and their ordering and examination is not a matter of glossary.

  • Maria Angel

    There’s lots of interesting stuff here and it’s hard to know what to engage with in a short space. We appear to inhabit one of those periods of epochal technological rupture and innovation where things emerge that cannot be contained by present classifications. I think that Joe’s engagement with electronic literature will be crucial to the way that we will come to think of the ‘literary’, and while I can see the kinds of tension and anxieties that result from importing structures from literary analysis into electronic domains, I can also see the value of many of its tools, for example, its reflexivity, its attention to questions of history and culture, and its theories of language and genre. All of these are valuable in thinking about the emergence of new forms. There’s no doubt that electronic culture will change the nature of literature, and the nature of the ‘human’, but that’s happened before. The rise of ‘literature’ is commensurate with the rise of typography, and certain practices of the self (I’m synthesising Ong and Foucault here for brevity’s sake) such as silent reflective reading made possible by the stability of print, and which arguably also results in the creation of subjects with particular kinds of interiority and consciousness. I think that what we see with electronic culture is a reorientation of the human through a different form of mediality that has to do both with the technology and formal codes which make practice different (Brian Rotman’s work is good on this), but also with other cultural structures that feed off, affect and intensify certain online practices. The difference between ‘tagging’ and ‘genre analysis’ can be thought of in terms of what Nigel Thrift calls new structures of attention involving a new distribution of the senses where ‘fast’ thinking, experimentation and a reliance on non-cognitive realms such as habit, intuition and emotional connection are replacing more temporally cumbersome forms of motivation and engagement (such as reflective analysis). Commodity culture has embraced and perpetuates these new structures, as is apparent in any corporate mission statement or piece of advertising. It seems to me that if electronic literature emerges in this context then the processes of rational conservation and conversation that Joe works on are crucial to the maintenance and transmission of ideas and forms of expression (even if in the last instance it is merely to remind us of who we once were). The question of ‘value’ or what counts is up for grabs, but shouldn’t it be? As a relative outsider to the North American Elit community (I hail from the global south, Sydney Australia), I think that the debates surrounding electronic literature are really exciting and healthy, although I imagine it gets a bit hot at times (and Joe I think that you’re a brave man!). We don’t have to choose between two ends, in fact perhaps what emerges will probably ‘choose’ us. I think that tagging is both a novel opportunity for rethinking the migration, circulation, and shape of the ‘work’ (and since when has critical analysis not been a type of data mining?) and a form of jamming the traditional machine of literary aesthetics. It’s probably too early to say what will come to be, but I like Joe’s openness to what’s already there, and his readiness to work with what comes through the door…

  • Davin:

    This is a very wise, strong response that synthesizes the ideas of the individual and collective. I agree that “teaching critical thinking is often about internalizing the collective thought process.” I find that in my own teaching the essential questions come down to: “are the assumptions underlying your argument robust enough to acknowledge the assumptions of others?” or “how could you build into your argument viewpoints persuasive to a more general audience different from you?”

    Web 2.0 (e.g., Wikipedia) and what some have called Web 3.0 (Semantic Web) pose these questions in the following form, which I personally believe will be the great question for higher education for the next intellectual generation: how to (re)invent the discourses, practices, designs, institutions, and technologies that negotiate between expert knowledge (in the academy, the professions, industry research, government agency expertise, or elsewhere) and the new networked public knowledge evident in blogs, wikis, social networking, etc.? Currently, there is considerable disorientation, tension, and even hostility between these two zoness of knowledge production and reception. How scholarly online sites incorporate “tagging” methods is symptomatic. So far, scholarly research sites (when they do so at all) mostly use tagging as a bewildered, superficial add-on to searching, collecting, editing, annotating, and other activities modeled on older paradigms of working in a “library,” “archive,” “edition,” etc. There is little or no thought about the relation between established, peer-reviewed practices responsible for expert (aka “critical”) knowledge and the social-networking practices that generate the “wisdom of the crowd.”

    How to bridge between low-level tagging and high-level expert or critical knowledge–the latter exemplified in what amounts to “controlled-vocabulary” tagging based on a formal ontology (in literary criticism, for example, “the Miltonic as opposed to Spenserian influence on Wordsworth’s epic form”). I think that the idea of “extensibility” (as in XML-like extensible schemas by which semi-autonomous communities can elaborate their own vocabularies) is the zone in which this negotiation is currently occurring.

    Put less technically, and entirely in the spirit of your deep response, “extensibility” is currently a way of thinking how knowledge can be both individual and collective, local and general. Whether knowledge today can also be meaningfully critical in the way you articulate–so that the individual/local and collective/general are reciprocally “exposed to the reflection necessary to challenge itself to change” is open to question. What we now mean by “network”–a fundamentally distributed or decentralized information architecture–is agnostic in that regard. For example, there is no assumption that the author or readers of any particular blog need know anything about blogs of an opposite political or other persuasion, to the detriment of critical thought.

  • On going viral: an account of spreading digital poetry to the masses.

    Often we, those of us gleefully mired in academic and institutional paycheck splendour forget about audience. Those readers/players/users/explorers who inhabit our work. And it’s more than odd (and somewhat scary) that we don’t discuss/address the issue of “who reads our damn work”, certainly considering that most of us place our work within the supposedly biggest, broadest, most accessible venue in history, the internet. We jump ahead to talks of classification, of tagging and preservation, without really trying to gather up those millions or billions (depending on the language) of net users so desiring new and interactive content. And if we find
    a way to properly save and tag our works. So what? Who will care?

    Forgive the jump here, but it’s relevant. One of the greatest feats of archiving/saving digital material was accomplished, not by institutions, but by, most likely, teenagers or at least youngish gen-xers. Early video games, from Atari to Nintendo to C-64 were reborn by coders making emulators. They cracked into defunct cartridges and created ROMS for nearly every game produced. And so now we can all play those games, close to their original form. And why did they do this? Because they loved the games, fondly recalled their storylines and play and wanted to share the experience with others.

    My point: someone other than the creators/scholars/students of electronic literature must love the work, must engage enough to share the work. If we build an audience,
    try to build an audience, outside our circles, steadfastly calling our work digital poetry and fictions, then the work will be saved and tagged and identified, no matter what we do.

    My own experience, which I don’t think is an anomaly, has been to see a viral spreading of digital poetry. Millions of readers/users have played and shared and talked about my work. Not all of that talk has been complimentary, with people tending to love or hate my creations. But they are spreading the work, talking about digital poetry in car enthusiast forums and pop culture blogs. And even if it’s only for the weird/absurdist factor, they are considering the work as digital poetry.

    So while it might sound overly simplistic, electronic literature writers appear to be skipping the audience and going straight to the critics/theorists/archivists. And again I would warble, in the strongest and loudest possible voice, “who cares”? The first step we should be taking is to gain an audience. One percent of all global net users is over five million, which is at least a hundred times more than many good books sell. Can we reach 0.05 percent of net users?

  • I suspect Joseph Tabbi’s excellent article and the many subsequent intelligent replies, taken in the context of the current economic climate, surreptitiously suggest moot questions of cultural hegemony, exclusivity and potential unrest among future digital natives. Should I comment directly on the kernel of his original questions, i.e. Can I know if models of reception and commentary will conform, if these digital works will actually ‘work’ in a sense that is comparable to accepted or traditional literary understanding / criteria ? Erm.. no..I can only offer my own messy mispredictions below to mirror his lucid reflections above.

    In the year Robert Coover was reviewing dead trees, several naïve (geographically isolated) individuals, myself included, were experimenting with the initial hardware wave of personal computers, comparing the performances of then new Amstrads to our toddling two year old C64s. Like the web of Tim Bernier’s Lee, the mantra, “Save & Save often” had not fully entered common consciousness and anyway quarter inch tape was relatively expensive, consequently many ‘If Then Goto’ like textual/creatively conditional experiments, actual works, failures, innovations, were blown to a void beyond the bios. Maybe for the survival of the field it was just as well such barriers and gaps existed.

    The academy and Eastgate developed, curated, preserved, evolved and promoted their own commercial vision/version – and anyone with any affinity with digital literature certainly respects even reveres Bernstein, Joyce, Bolter, et al – but by now clichéd notes ‘on Newtonian thinking in an Einsteinian universe’ have been hammered again and again, wave after wave, onto the doors of the academy, recently by people like ‘David Weinberger’.

    Institutions IMHO introspective under a perceived threat from the current wave of de-commercialization, democratization, decentralization, demarcation of knowledge management and the nature of knowledge itself, will not jump to encourage the rise of a new Georgics ala Thomas Hughes, Rabelais rewritten by Rheingold’s mobs, or Shakespeare restructured by Surowiecki crowds or Shirky’s everybody. S(H)elf preservation must take precedent. (Certainly in Europe)

    The majority of the academy resists such a wave, the evaporation of its brand of knowledge gate keeping, its central role in knowledge definition itself – into such high seas are today’s writers/creatives trying to birth works that may have those, contentious, confusing, fifth column like, ‘Digital Literature’ e-lit, tags applied.

    Emergence in such a pull paradigm, the era of the prosumer or produser – means hitting the high seas but getting that sheet music off the turntables, sound ideas and solid compositional principles, common values and aspirations but invalid formats, erroneously specialized, extinct, incompatible, ultimately irrelevant – irreconcilable – new round pegs for old academic squares. Will Digital literature be a free forum in the future or bound to it’s antecedent academic past- rigidly contained by the academy and fixed within categories of knowledge and understanding that are themselves shifting, dying or even dead. “To be dead” according to the rural Irish Poet Kavanagh, “is to stop believing in the masterpieces we will begin tomorrow…” I commend Joe Tabbi and other contributors for throwing shapes.. of life preserver that just might fit and save us from the next wave.

  • Rita Raley

    Davin’s reply quite usefully illuminates the tension between “institutional practices” (Joe’s phrase) and user practices (consumers, fans). I sympathize utterly with Joe’s call for the development and maintenance of professional standards as we engage in archiving projects, particularly the archiving of e-lit, but I wonder what the function and role of the amateur reader will be. This is an issue I think about in each of my classes on electronic literature. I spend a great deal of time providing the kind of classificatory schema that Joe implicitly describes – I suppose we might still call this data “history” and “context” – but inevitably one or more of my students offers a way of reading that surprises me. I do not mean simply that a student makes an insightful textual observation; of course this kind of pedagogic moment can happen regardless of medium and topic. Rather, I have witnessed firsthand the extent to which this current generation of students is particularly well positioned to produce “models of reception and commentary” based on their own experiences with the medium. There is a sense, then, that these amateur readers have the requisite professional knowledge to make evaluative distinctions. If we complicate the professional/amateur division, what we are left with is the “institution.” So, I have to rephrase my question: what will be the function and role of the non-institutionally aligned reader for archiveit?

  • Rita Raley

    Since I am in the middle of the very activity Joe describes – vetting electronic literature, in my case for the next volume of the ELC – I want to highlight the issue of critical judgment. It has long been my sense that the academy, and specifically scholars working in literary and media studies departments, needed to have a hand in the developing of “hotlists,” as we then called them. It was this very sense of urgency that led me to start a project I called “Hypermarks ” (you will have to forgive the decade-old design). But I abandoned the project for two reasons: one was that I found it practically difficult to keep on top of a list that was subject to constant fluctuations as addresses changed and links died. This is a version of the “obsolescence” problem that Joe describes. My other rationale for abandoning the project is somewhat more substantive: I had to confront the fact that I was essentially compiling a list of individual favorites in the guise of a common list or list held in common. If I were to work with Joe’s title, I realized that ‘I was reading 300 works of electronic literature that I found interesting.’ What was missing, in other words, was an editorial review board, which is precisely why the ELC I has been such a resounding success. But I have to say that my co-editors and I are not functioning in a manner qualitatively different from a print-based review board. Joe suggests that the credentialing process for electronic literature differs from that of print, and indeed one would have to agree that practically that is the case. But is it conceptually or qualitatively different? Of this I am less certain. Do we want it to be conceptually or qualitatively different – this is the more pressing and more interesting question. On the one hand we have the very compelling argument by Sandy Baldwin “against digital poetics,” in other words, against the category of literature itself. On the other, we have Joe’s call for “constructing models of reception and commentary.” I suspect that we would be well served if we were to borrow from and try to accommodate both, such that we develop a critical vocabulary that attends to the distinctive qualities, features, and significance of both process (algorithms) and product (output, text).

  • On reading Joseph Tabbi’s title, I thought of the movie 300: “No retreat, no surrender.”One thing I admire about Tabbi, and there are many things, is his openness to innovation and change, whether in his current work on electronic literature or the earlier work on postmodern narrative. The concluding gesture of “On Reading 300 Works of Electronic Literature” asserts the need to construct new critical models “without too much worry about current disciplinary arrangements.” A nicely self-reflective and even neurotic conclusion to a “preliminary reflection” which began precisely by worrying about just such a dependence on “institutional inheritances.” Tabbi stakes out the importance of addressing the challenges of net culture, and in particular, in arriving at a critical practice suited to the emerging field of electronic literature. The answer given is semantic technologies, in particular “tagging” to produce metadata. Of course, tagging itself is not the entire answer, though it is particular suitable to a re-tooled literary criticism focused on electronic literature, since tagging proposes a writing practice as the suitable meta-critical approach to objects on the web. According to Tabbi, the need is “keywords and literary concepts” to support a humanistic tagging of electronic literature. This glossary would evolve to keep pace with the dynamics of the field itself. Tabbi points out the limits of tagging and “cosmological systems” in general, which remain “indifferent” to “meanings and ambiguities that […] characterize literary work in any medium.” The problematic but important point here is, firstly, the preservation the particularity of literature, and secondly, of a specialized understanding codified in intermediate systems to ensure that the tags are partially interpreted, even when not taxonomically determined. I will elaborate on the productive and poetic implications of this point.

    To clarify the literary distinctions he seeks, Tabbi cites a clever parallel story of Robert Coover also reading 300 works of literature. Coover’s describes most of the works as engaged with literary tradition in a self-conscious and high-minded manner or in an unconscious and formulaic manner. For Coover, these are conservative “voices.” “Voice” includes writing conventions identifying genre and so on, but also the subject of writing that positions author and reader within a social system. Against this, he sets the rare discover of a “third voice.” Instead of reinforcing the establishment, it attacks “the supporting structures themselves, the homologous forms.” The result: “something new enters the world.” A different voice, a different subject, a different enunciation. Coover is careful to qualify the outcomes of this third voice: the “something new” enters “at least the world of literature, if not always the community beyond.” I take this straight up: innovation occurs; it is thematized or displayed in literature; but it may remain inarticulate in other domains. Tabbi argues that such transformations are the goal of his proposed new form of criticism that can tag and trace what already occurs poetically. Literary criticism of electronic literature describes the “becoming-literary of the literal,” as Derrida put it.

    I cannot address at any length the debates about defining the semantic web or Web 2.0, or about whether these terms are even useful. It is true that Tim Berners-Lee sees them as extensions of his initial web architecture. In Ambient Findability, Peter Morville writes his basic definitions of Web 2.0 in the follow repeated mantra: “Words as labels. Words as links. Keywords.” Link and labels collapse in the keyword. For now, I will follow this lead and treat tags like links – those fetish objects of the earlier web – as series of partial objects.

    A tag describes. The appeal of the tag is its non-hierarchical, bottom-up approach to description. More tags means thicker description. Identity is revealed through classification. Note that description remains the conceptual basis for the tag. As a result, tags presume an aesthetic component. The person tagging responds in some way. This would be the case even where the tag is chosen from a severely restricted vocabulary set (no response at all), or where randomly selected tags are applied (any response at all), or in other hypothetical situations. At tag is nothing other than description as aesthetic choice. Is this not why the tag is so popular?

    The advantage of the tag is that it does not start from high level logical distinctions, or so the argument runs; it does not make use of taxonomies. The crowd and not the ruler speak through the tag. Because of its inescapable aesthetic component, however, the tag sticks to the proper name. The tag is sticky because the descriptive core hits at the object itself. The mere application of the tag implies some similarity. Or even more: it tags processes of becoming-similar of objects in series on the web. A curious paradox: the open or free choice of tags arrives at the proper name of the thing. I am not supposed to tell you this – I should instead assert that tags “are not ways of being, but rather ways of sorting and selecting,” as Tabbi is careful to remind us – but is this not the secret of the tag, its diacritical gesture towards being even in its almost aimless scatter of descriptions?

    On the one hand, the taxonomical or legal name of the object: call this the institution of the authorized title or deed to the work. On the other hand, the amateurish and collaborative scattering of attributes around the object: call this creative acts of authoring. What holds the practice of tagging together is the institution of literature, here displayed in the schematization of the author’s name on the one hand, and acts of creation on the other. This conceptual space is precisely that of Tabbi’s transformations. Tagging and tracing produces knowledge through work on these “supporting structures.”

    Assume a distinction of the net and the world. I could write a description of an apple or a chicken or a person or other objects in the world. I provide extensive tags for each object. The apple would be more finely significant, as would the chicken, as would the person. The description is powerful and binds the objects. To describe you as person, man, woman, father, daughter, and so on, is to inscribe and codify your body. On the net, however, is it not the case that the inscription is tangled with the body of the object itself? We proceed from bodies of inscriptions, rather than inscribing on bodies, and these inscriptions circulate in information domains, and from these we construe the other bodies. Or in a different way: we tag objects and through tags come to recognize “popularity and presence in digital environments,” as Tabbi puts it.

    Is the partiality of net objects not an aspect of the semantic net? Partial because of non-decomposable relations between objects that share the total sememe of the net. (Google, in all its wisdom and idiocy, is nothing other than an opening to this sememe.) Partiality because redundancy and self-reference of objects is necessary to communication. (Header data describes packet format and guides information through the net. Check digits detect errors in code and transmission.) Partial objects are series without end. (I tag an object on the net and the tag sticks and becomes part of the series.) Tabbi follows the best practices of contemporary critical theory to carefully state that semantic web ontologies “are not ways of being, but rather ways of sorting and selecting.” Cool distributions of data, no end of sorting and selecting, and no end of tagging. Ontology flattens until there is no possibility to specify, nothing but packets of information. (In all this, in my discussion too, there is confusion about what is meant by semantics when dealing with information, much as the confused critical theory over Claude Shannon’s use of “semantics.”)

    It is the case, however, that the distinction to make is not between net and world but between inscriptions and bodies. The tag as aesthetic responds towards the absent other, towards the body understood through the net. In the absence of the body, the scatter and dispersion of tags across the author’s names and the work indicate a very different proper name: neither as a legal designation of a subject (taxonomy), nor as connotative description of an individual (tag), but as a consumptive intensity that manifests in the series and objects of the net. (This requires a very different understanding of the subject of enunciation I earlier identified with Coover’s three voices. Also, think here of the “trail of commentary” that Tabbi states “constitutes popularity and presence in electronic environments.”)

    Return to literature. The poetics of invention as described by Coover – the notion of a third voice “Whereupon something new enters the world “ and “that attacks instead the supporting structures themselves” – are the precondition of Tabbi’s insistence that literature must be tagged, but also that it problematizes and resists tagging. How do I recognize literature and what am I recognizing? When does this work become literature? Do these not remain a basic problems and fascinations? As a problem, literature irritates and drives the electronic environment. (Look at Ted Nelson’s admittedly different use of “literature” in formulating hypertext.)

    Again, Coover wrote: “something new enters the world – at least the world of literature, if not always the community beyond.” The problem of Tabbi sets electronic literature and its critics, is to generalize this community, to discover it at work in the “community beyond.” What community is this? Well, what of the communities which arise around collaborative tagging and semantic technologies? Are these not “literary” communities? Not only because they are constituted of and through writing, but because they start from blank, from the other that I must write towards and from the absenting of data that must be described. Such communities require description and tagging, and keep requiring it, keep requiring it to be renewed and re-interpreted and such is literature. Alphonso Lingis wrote of the community of “those who have nothing in common.” Those who share nothing: no institution, no nation, no language – and thus must invent all that community means. This is precisely a literary community and the impossible community around electronic literature.

  • Davin Heckman

    Rita,

    You bring up so many good points. I think this new generation of literary critics, like the work that we criticize, are perched on very different models of “culture.” On the one hand, we have the definition of Culture which is tied to the traditions of the University, in which an elite group of scholars serve as the curators for civilization vis-a-vis their particular area of specialization. The second definition of culture, coming to us through cultural studies, folklore, and popular culture studies, is that vision of culture as something that is created by a community. This is culture as a work in progress, as opposed to culture that is inherited.

    In studies of subculture, we find that new subcultures (and even old ones, perhaps, especially “old” ones) are engaged in the invention of tradition to serve contemporary cultural needs. As Hobsbawm defines “invented traditions,” these are contemporary practices which try to establish continuity with the past as a means of teaching norms and beliefs for the present.

    The great opportunity here, I think, is the dialectic that we work in. On the one hand, the traditions of literary culture can offer us a set of tools and definitions by which we can analyze the works in question. And, these tools are hard enough that they can also be used to provide a rigorous analysis of the assumptions of new media. The stodgy sort of critiques that are often sloppily applied to “new” culture can be applied with restraint, discipline, and rigor to ask, “In what ways can new media answer old questions, solve old problems, or serve the traditions of culture?” While too much of this type of criticism can be tiring, it also gives us insight into real issues… like, what is the benefit of a long attention span? Does the root-tree formula of rationally structured information offer benefits for certain types of thinking? What are the basic questions that we expect literature to answer? In what ways is this particular piece consistent with the literary tradition?

    On the other hand, our knowledge of cultural studies can offer us a crucible in which we can take a critical look at the traditions that we work under. As Jason Nelson pointed out above, discussions such as the one we are having right now might represent a mere sliver of the actual audience for new media art. And, knowing that we do not necessarily sit squarely in the Lit Crit tradition, we have to ask ourselves: In what way do we function as a subculture? How do our actions now engage in this process of “inventing” tradition?

    Surely, our efforts at tagging texts are NOT, as Mark Marino has pointed out, the only tags that will be affixed to such works. The beauty of tagging is that a work can be tagged and cataloged in multiple ways, which can speak meaningfully to multiple reading audiences. What we can do, through this process, is develop a taxonomy which will convey meaning to a select group. It will suggest affinities for certain types of thinking about things, without precluding other ways of thinking about the same thing. On the other hand, the tags can urge us, and others who use them, to think about things more broadly. (My mind wanders to the time when one of my undergraduate professors suggested I read Frankenstein as a “science fiction” novel at a time when my reading was informed by its popular cinematic interpretation as a “horror” story.)

    What it does suggest, as Joe Tabbi and others have pointed out, is that we have an incredible opportunity to open up the process of how we value works of literature…. and when I say how… I mean both what the works are classified as and how we work in the course of creating these classifications. Here, we have a chance to re-invent the humanities (like scholars have been doing for decades), but we can re-invent them with greater reflection, transparency, and humility.

    To get back to Alan Liu’s great question for the next generation of scholars (on how to reinvent….), this testifies to the declining role of the humanities scholar in the University, as our work is reduced from “the Guardian of Culture” to one subculture among many. BUT, if we can, through our own practice, both as scholars and teachers, explore the process in its full potential, we might discover a new purpose. Rather than serving as the gatekeepers of culture, we can contribute to an overall atmosphere of greater reflection and awareness. Where we can teach productive ways of thinking and analysis rather than officially approved subjects and perspectives.

  • Hi – I wish I could recognize myself here; the emphasis seems to be on stricture, restraint, tradition, coherent and enumerable works, quantity, discipline and disciplinarity, and an academic discursivity that may be at odds with whatever, I think of early rock criticism and how rock survived it through popular Jason Nelson appreciation and self-organizings and things like MMR – Maximum Rock and Roll – which was punk-oriented written by the practitioners and survived and may still survive for decades. What I want to say – I’m struggling here -

    1. Elit will survive without academia and with or without critique, just as newgroups do.

    2. Elit either doesn’t exist or is so limited in terms of definition as to be useless; some of the most fascinating work I’ve read in fact has been on newsgroups, not official ‘elit’ but out there in a way that a. it wouldn’t have existed outside the electronic, and b. it’s completely interactive as people replied and hacked into each other – think of IRC for even fast forward elit of the highest order, populist as well.

    3. How do you tag IRC?

    4. For what it’s worth I agree with Sandy and Jason above and I do wonder what it _means_ to read 300 novels, if that is even possible, or for that matter to _do_ 300 works of elit – what’s the timeframe here? How deep does one go?

    5. Tags don’t only classify; they exclude, sort according to what can only be considered a Directorate – what happens to videowork with or without text, Second Life performance documentation, etc.? I worry about tags, as if they provided a kind of liberal expansion – too often in human history they’ve been used otherwise.

    6. And (given that I also teach etc.) I worry about the lack of anarchy here, the measured responses, the kinds of closure that appear, at least from the outside (I’m not a member of the ELO as far as I know for example). On another couple of lists we’re hammering out things between and among concepts of work and play, and it’s the former that dominates, to the extent that work is structured, teleological, classifying, and play might involve simultaeously leaving the playing field altogether and at the same time doing something wondrous. -

    I’m sure I’m missing the point here – it’s just that I’ve taught all sorts of strange lit and new media on and off for years, and have always worried about schemata and their use.

    - Alan (in which case apologies for the intrusion – I seem to do this far too often -

    – maybe we Web 4.0 we can stop numbering -
    - final note – at this point – the literary community, elit community, if elit ‘exists’ – is absolutely everyone and we should start tagging twitter for the lit of our time -

  • A tag describes. The appeal of the tag is its non-hierarchical, bottom-up approach to description. More tags means thicker description.

    Yes.

    Let me once more, for the sake of contrast, take a look at biology. The business of classifying organisms on the basis of observed similarity (morphology) predates the consolidation of the evolutionary paradigm of random variation in the genome and selective retention of phenotypes. In the context of the evolutionary paradigm, however, classification has a very useful property: In those cases where inheritance is strictly vertical (from parent to child), the structure of the classification follows the structure of the genealogy of the organisms in the classification system. Classification mirrors a critical causal process (reproduction with variation); if you will, classification reveals being.

    Alas, inheritance is not always vertical. In some areas of the plant kingdom hybridization between related species is common. Hypbridization involves horizontal transfer of genetic information. In the world of single-celled organisms horizontal transfer is quite common. In these cases phylogeny tends to take the form of a network rather than a tree and the principles of classificion are . . . obscure? . . . under investigation? I don’t really know the current state of thinking on such matters as I don’t follow them that closely, but I’m pretty sure they’re settled. Morphology no longer tracks phylogeny in a perspicuous way; the relationship between classification by morphology and being is obscure.

    In the cultural sphere, inheritance is not, in general, vertical. Horizontal transfer of cultural traits is common. And the nature of causal processes is obscure. And classification by morphology is an obscure business. I suspect one reason genre theory is so troubled is that our texts simply do not sort themselves conveniently into taxonomic trees such that a given text properly belongs in only one taxon in a classification system. We are in a domain where the Borgesian cosmology is not so deeply parodic as one might wish, a world where the assertion of privilege for a given taxonomic scheme entails a burden of arbitrary invention.

    In this world tags give us a way of organizing texts without forcing them into any particular taxonomic scheme, as others have already noted. Given a reasonable budget of tags and a good search engine we can explore the universe of texts according to schemes we make-up on the fly.

  • Alan,

    As far as I can tell, the only differences here are temperamental not substantial: you worry about the absence of anarchy, I am troubled (here and in the post by Jason Nelson) by a lack of discipline and an overabundance of self-assertion.

    If you want to know ‘how deep’ a reading of e-lit goes, you could have begun by looking at what participants in the discussion have said about actual works of e-lit during the past week. In response to Gary Comstock, I spent some time discussing Talan Memmott’s Lexia to Perplexia. Dene Grigar illustrated her arguments with apt citations of Dan Waber, Reiner Strasser, Jennifer Hill-Kaucher, Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, and Michael Joyce.

    I am not the one to say whether or not reading 300 novels or 300 e-lit works is possible. (I trust Coover, not to have read every word of every novel, but to have read far enough into each work to know the kind of object he was dealing with – ‘priestly,’ ‘popular,’ or that indescribable ‘third voice’ that is pursuant on Coover’s early descriptions and distinctions). I can’t know, until my published readings are engaged, whether they are superficial or deep. I cannot speak for how the tags I create or select will be received by “history” or by “absolutely everyone” (your terms of choice). I will be interested in seeing how e-lit tags are accepted, rejected, or transformed by “individuals” and by “crowds,” the terms put forward during the productive and sustained engagement between Alan Liu and Davin Heckman. I also appreciated Sandy Baldwin’s characterization of tagging: “description as aesthetic choice” and “Cool distributions of data, no end of sorting and selecting, and no end of tagging.”

    So long as the project can be kept open-ended and /responsive/ (and the soon to be released ELO Directory is designed for this) , I think it’s unlikely that the activity of describing and tagging works will be the work of a “Directorate.” But that’s a matter of trust, not assertion.

  • Davin Heckman

    Good point! From a philosophers perspective, they are the same thing….

    as long as humanities scholars aren’t being liberated from gainful employment in the process.

  • All:

    The discussion has been, as Davin Heckman said in his initial response to this thread, “useful” in refining my own sense of the literary possibilities, and also the limits, of the technology I’m currently using during a summer-long project of close reading, viewing, and description. In lieu of a “summary,” I’d like to invite the participants of this forum to view a draft of the oft-mentioned Electronic Literature Directory (version 2.0), where a small sample of e-lit works is now available:

    http://eld.thedigitalreview.com/

    I should emphasize that this is still under construction. The Directory won’t be launched probably until next month, when the initial works gathered by myself and my team of editors will be made available to the public, who will be invited, in turn, to comment on the works presented and to submit works (and keywords, commentary, and new descriptions) in turn.

    I think of the Directory as a profile of an emerging field, whose outlines, tools, and techniques ought to be coterminous with developments in the Humanities generally. The kind of works being collected are the “facts” or “objects” that digital literary studies are given to work with. Bruno Latour speaks of “facts” as “gatherings,” and the question for digital literary studies would then be, what kind of discipline – what set of shared writing practices and habits of response – is suggested by the “gathering” now under way by literary scholars and artists working in electronic environments.

    The Electronic Literature Directory is in no way “representative” of the sum total of online literary activity – no more than Latourian “facts” are representative of the world observed by scientists or sociologists. What the ELD offers, as does any scientific enterprise, is a sustained and continuous assemblage of facts a participant can return to, reflect on, contest when necessary, and reconsider in light of one’s own work and what others are reading and viewing currently.

  • Note sure if these posts are still going through. But thought I would respond anyway.

    Joe Tabbi says “I am troubled (here and in the post by Jason Nelson) by a lack of discipline and an overabundance of self-assertion.”

    Really no self assertion was intended and the comment about “lack of discipline” is absurd. Rather, mine was a very simple and hopeful point. Speaking as a writer/creator of e-lit, I create to further the field, how we understand, let’s say digital poetics, for personal reasons and then for some type of audience. I don’t create to be popular, but somehow my work has had success both in the critical/academic realm and the wider net/web. I say this because it appears our goals, Joe’s and mine and others, are the same. To create, consider, expand and share.

    And yet, for the most part, we have not been successful at sharing our work. And it would seem a directory such this would have sharing/spreading as one of its primary goals. So, perhaps we could occasionally borrow the directory and its subsequent entries and transformations as a platform for promoting e-lit directly. And I would be glad to lend a hand in bringing new eyes/hands and voices to the field.

    How about this for an idea. Highlight different tags each week….much like wikipedia picks various articles to highlight. Thus introducing people to work, without making them slog through the directory.

    Or having guest taggers….who create tags, apply them, then share which works they tagged, what the tag means and why they tagged them.

    Jason

  • Jason,

    This sounds to me like an excellent idea and I look forward to working with you on expanding our ‘tag team.’

    My thanks also to the editors at onthehuman.org, for having given us a model that I hope we can bring to discussions on the e-lit directory.

    JPT

  • And our thanks in turn to JPT! For tag teamers wanting to go another round, we cordially invite you to help us continue the conversation on Facebook, http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=52472677549.

  • “We jump ahead to talks of classification, of tagging and preservation, without really trying to gather up those millions or billions (depending on the language) of net users so desiring new and interactive content. And if we find a way to properly save and tag our works. So what? Who will care?”

    Jason, if we don’t save and tag works, who will know they have been written, and read?

    You will know.

    After I’ve completed my summer reading, I might know /some/ of what you and 299 others have written over the years.

    I won’t question your claim that ‘millions’ have ‘played or shared’ your work. I don’t doubt that some of those who’ve encountered the work will have cracked the codes and saved a number of the works in their original form.

    What I will question is the likelihood of such activity producing a disciplined literary practice, even in the unlikely event that everyone calls what they’re doing ‘digital poetry and fiction.’ Who is to say that these terms, fiction and poetry, will be the ones that describe ‘the literary’ in new media? Over how many reading generations will the works (whatever they’re called) be recoded, resaved, and recirculated?

    I’m not talking about posterity or about canon formations: I mean available for reading, playing, and sharing over the course of our respective working careers and reading lives.

    The Beowulf epic, I’ve heard, would have been lost had it not been for one transcription found in a closet or desk somewhere. There must have been other transcriptions. Some of them might have been found and wondered over, before being lost again. During the time of its oral transmission, there must have been thousands of auditors and several poets who memorized lines and produced further lines along the same template, with variations according to the occasion.

    Those auditors gathered, and presumably they dispersed. I doubt anybody thought to ‘gather them up,’ as you suggest doing for the current generation of e-lit auditors.

    I don’t pretend to work outside of institutions, but I have a different model in mind for the sharing of work and the creation of an e-lit audience.

    The Electronic Literature Directory (ELD 2.0), which I’ve labored on for the past three years together with programmers and e-lit authors, is designed to “gather” not readers so much as /readings/. In my summary post on Wednesday, I’ll point readers of this thread to a draft version of the new directory. There, readers will be able to submit, classify, tag, and describe works. The activity that each work attracts, by the individuals who draft critical entries as well as by the crowd, will be a measure of that work’s presence, at least in one network that is forming around communities of e-lit authors and scholars.

    In time, as the number of works in the directory grows, I’ll be less interested in watching a field in formation – say, the “Digital Humanities” – than I will be interested in watching how terms we use today to describe the field either persist or fade away, as other terms enter the discourse. Whatever terms stick won’t be the result of a few charismatic, popular, or authoritative voices. We’ve designed things so that the crowd, by discussing works and contributing terms of their own, should be capable of serving as a counterweight to the considered judgements of a critical cohort. (But the critics are the ones with a professional commitment to seeing the project into production, and hopefully keeping things going.)

  • Davin Heckman

    Alan,

    What a great many things to think about (some, I have addressed in my reply to Rita Raley’s comment downstream). But I wanted to think out loud about extensibility, because I think this is precisely one area where “critical thinking” is absolutely necessary. On the one hand, the sort of long-range thinking, the care for the future that extensibility implies is extremely positive. On the other hand, what this care is, how it is determined, and on whose behalf is an extremely powerful political issue. Technology itself is often described as being a neutral force, and indeed, when the future arrives at our doorstep, we are forced to use the tools that are available. Where moral/ethical concerns are most important, increasingly, is in how we envision this future, what tools we plan to have on hand for what kinds of problems.

    While low level tagging responses might have enormously positive collective results, the sort of temporal engagement that it requires runs contrary to the kind of time consciousness that extensibility requires. As with the potential for the individual and the collective to come into productive relationship, there is also the opportunity for the phenomenological character of the present to come into conversation with potential futures that the present might suggest. (Certainly, a lot of the popular discussions of ecology center on this type of consciousness… what kind of light bulb to use? should I recycle? should I commute? Etc.).

    And, as always, an extensive familiarity with “extensibility” might also highlight the radical potential of the present, not just the power of planning for the future. As technologies for planning and prediction become more developed, when long term strategies fail to account for something, this can be catastrophic, but it also can suggest freedom and agency and the radical possibility of “newness.”

    As a humanities scholar/professor, I think this is the way to think about the future of the humanities. Not necessarily as the stewards of a culture steeped in the past, but as someone who is working on building a future that places the cultural and social concerns of humanity in the center. The role of the humanities might be to take an activity like tagging, which is short-term and immediate, and overlay it with the social form of “extensibility” which might described as something like “love” or “care” or “justice” or any number of human virtues which imply a radical desire to live for “others” across intervals of space or time. As you explain, there is no requirement that people seek out other critical perspectives. But it is something that we can advocate for in the name of the “liberal arts.”

    As far as tagging electronic literature goes…. I think the thought process behind tagging might go like this: 1) What do I think this is? 2) How can I tag this so that someone who likes what I like could find it? 3) How can I tag this so that someone else who is not like me might try it? Even this relatively small arc connecting the self to other demonstrates this care in a small, everyday way (I think of people who leave useful tags in the way I think of a person who picks up litter on the street or as a motorist who lets a pedestrian cross at a crosswalk). It connects the impulse of the individual in a specific situation to a community that might exist beyond the immediate phenomenological perception of the instant. But a lot of small gestures, even if they are done with the tiniest amount of forethought, can add up… just as surely as millions of mindless gestures can add up to streets choked with garbage.

  • “reduced from”

    Perhaps “liberated from”?

  • [...] Tabbi, On Reading 300 Works of Electronic Literature: Preliminary Reflections Looking at scholarship as it goes online, and how it changes the established academic [...]

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