Screening the Literary: Writing Quality on the Web

François Bon, le vidéo-journal (2 Oct. 2016)

What happens to the concept and phenomenon that we call ‘the literary’ in today’s hyper-connected multimedia environment? To date when theorists have spoken about electronic or digital literature, they have tended to focus on what constitutes their ‘electronicness’, what defines them as ‘electronic’, rather than what makes them literature. But Katherine Hayles notes that we have to think about what is at stake in the other half of the term: ‘the entire field of electronic literature test[s] the boundaries of the literary and challenges us to rethink our assumptions of what literature can do and be’[i]. In our workshop on the 28th October, we interrogated not only the nature of individual pieces of electronic literature (of the kind present in the Electronic Literature Collection, for example), but also what it means to be doing literature online. This can be in a blog, on a single-authored or multi-authored website, on social media, on YouTube, or even engaging with other forms of locative digital media entirely. What do we reader-users mean by ‘literary’ in this case, and what do those who ‘do literature’ like this mean by it?


Thinking literary things

Some conceptual screening first: All three terms need to be given equal emphasis: doing, literature, and online – because if there is change, then it happens in and through the combination of the three. We talk about ‘doing’, with an emphasis on how that doing happens, and we also think about how the emphasis shifts from the done to the doing: the process, that state of being in flux. And the flux is of course the web, the ‘online’ angle of the triangle.

Literature remains of course the most complicated and semantically loaded concept of the three. Can we possibly unpack it? A Hungarian literary critic, Mihály Szegedy-Maszák, begins a 1992 paper by declaring that ‘the most important question for me is not so much “what is literature“, but “when is a text literature”’.[ii] This seems a pertinent distinction for our purposes, because it shifts the perspective from an essentialist to an observational position.

Today, a quarter of a century later and in the present context, there are two further amendments to be made, however. First, the formula indirectly reminds us that “when is a text literature“ is not quite the same as “when is a text literary“. ‘Literature’ associates a type of (social) discourse and an institution, with its mechanisms of consecration, (self-)preservation, and stultification. It associates the idea of a canon and a judgement of not only quality, but of (cultural) value over texts.

Secondly, there is also an underlying assumption in Szegedy-Maszák’s question, namely the idea that literature, or the literary, is self-evidently to be found in texts. When digital, however, the literary appears on screens or in other forms of media technology. A screen of any kind today also means multimediality and connectedness: the possibility for words and texts to be combined with sounds and images, both still and moving, and for all this to be directly connected to other similarly complex material; to be open to change; and to allow easy communication around and about them in the same virtual-digital space in which they exist.

At the same time, if the concept of text is either no longer so central or is changing meaning, the same applies to writing. Vilém Flusser writes in his essay on ‘The Gesture of Writing’[iii] that the linearity we associate with this is very much accidental – and Occidental – and it could be completely different. And what is going on in the digital environment invites us to take this accidentality seriously and in a broad sense: what we mean by ‘writing’ as limited to words and language for the content might also be to a certain extent contingent and historically determined.

Szegedy-Maszák’s programme statement could in this light be reformulated as follows: ‘The most important question for me is not so much “what is [electronic] literature“, but “when and how is something literary on the web”’.

The problem is of course that we have one equation with two variables: the ‘something’ (the literary), the phenomenon we seek to circumscribe on the one hand, and the concept (literature) based on which we could circumscribe that phenomenon on the other. This is nothing short of a wicked problem for literary theory, and its circularity can only be meaningfully addressed through a dialogue between practice and concepts, between practitioners and theorists. The talks and the roundtable discussion in the workshop accordingly approached the question from different angles, from both the practitioner’s and the theorist’s perspectives, addressing different manifestations of what could qualify as ‘literary’ in the cyberspace.


Doing literary things

In his opening talk entitled ‘The Author, Not the Book’, François Bon (author, reminded us of the exceptional opportunity we have in living through a transition and being able consciously to observe it. Today’s dominant book culture is the result of a well-defined series of technological transformations that led from the first clay tablets to the proliferation of printed books. The current stage can be viewed as a chance to explore alternatives to the status quo in which the book, however important it may be culturally, is determined by its nature as a physical object with a market value and obeying economical laws more than purely inherent and aesthetic ones. The freedom and ease to create, combine, and communicate that digital technology offers on the one hand shift the focus of attention from the product to the process, and from the ideal of the professional writer to that of the creative amateur. On the other hand, they invite us to rediscover a logic similar to the processual and largely amateur nature of creativity in the cyberspace in much of what constitutes the Western literary canon from Rabelais’s living language to Dickens’s serial fiction and from Baudelaire’s notes on painting to Kafka’s notebooks.

Claire Taylor (Professor in Hispanic Studies, University of Liverpool) continued these reflections on continuity and disruption through innovation in her paper ‘From Print to Tweets: Tracing the Heritage of Digital Genres’. She explored the extent to which ‘born digital’ artworks rely on pre-digital ones, with the effect that the digital technology is not in itself the main focus of these pieces (however it may look, the medium is not the message). Spanish-Argentinian author and web artist Belén Gache’s Gongora WordToys manipulates in playful ways the famously complex texts of Spanish Baroque poet Luis de Góngora. Each page in Gache’s virtual poetry collection reinvents a text in a different way, setting it in motion in the form of a dizzying spiral in ‘Dedicatoria espiral’ or making words and expressions pop up in an series of tiny windows in ‘En breve espacio mucha primavera’, for instance. The interactive software serves the purpose of making us rediscover the process of reading and meaning making. The literariness of the product resides not only in the fact of using canonical texts, but in the attention to their productive dynamism and its disruptive potential. Also reworking canonized texts but in a very different vein, the US-Salvadorian Eduardo Navas proposes a digital remix of Adorno’s Minima Moralia in his ‘Redux’ version, updated in light of the twenty-first century context.

Claire Dean (HighWire, Computing & Communications, Lancaster University) is a ‘storymaker’ who explores ways of making nature tell stories with the help of technology. She presented the creative space that is her ‘writer’s desk’: a rather random-looking collection of often unidentifiable objects, some with wires connected to them. Experimenting with everyday and natural material, hardware and software, learning as she goes and creating objects that will, in their own way, turn into stories, Claire considers herself to be less of a print-bound author than a writer who makes stories quite literally from the materials around her – writing has become for her a much broader concept and practice than scribbling in a notebook or typing away on a machine. The stories told – fairy tales of a new kind – are material, interactive in requiring the user-audience to manipulate the objects, and singular in that each object is (first) a fragile prototype that may never be followed by another, consolidated ‘final’ version.

Presenting a very different kind of online literary presence, Emily Spiers (DeLC and Institute for Social Futures, Lancaster University) focused on performance poetry videos. The question is again what happens to an age-old practice – oral poetry and its live performance based on the presence of performer and audience in a shared physical space – when it is recorded and passed on in a fixed, dematerialised, and disembodied form through distant digital access. The words enter into a new logic of transmission and circulation that enables quick and exponential spreading. Emily detects on the one hand a ‘utopian impulse’ underpinning much online performance poetry, and links it on the other hand to the experience of the everyday in a Heideggerian sense. Here the power and presence of poetry are at stake – and their limits possibly extended.

The four talks were followed by a roundtable discussion, in which four further perspectives were presented. This took the form of brief snapshots of how the literary is questioned through its contact with technology. Allyson Fiddler (DeLC, Lancaster University) introduced Elfriede Jelinek’s complex and complicated relationship to the web, including how her name is turned into a literary brand of sorts. While politics is never far, Jelinek relentlessly produces her dense texts that focus on language and seem to care less about their appearance on the screen. Delphine Grass addressed the case of the controversial French author Michel Houellebecq and his critical attitude to technology and globalization, where literature is primarily a means of communication. Andy Darby (HighWire, Computing & Communications, Lancaster University) then took us towards the new uses of fiction in human-computer Interaction, presenting his work on design fiction and science fiction prototyping. Finally, Charlie Gere (Lancaster Institute for Contemporary Arts) pulled the threads together in what he proposed to call ‘Of Instagrammatology’. With this, he reminded us of the limitations of our human perspective and suggested how an emerging group of speculative realist texts may be able to help us think through the impact of technology on culture.

A lively discussion followed with all participants involved. François Bon pointed out that the ‘literary’ as we know it is an essentially retrospective concept. Indeed, by looking back onto its former manifestations we are likely to be limiting ourselves in trying to imagine alternative forms. While we cannot and should not entirely forget the tradition it carries, the process of reimagining either the literary or its boundaries is already clearly in progress, as many of the examples cited prove.

If there is any conclusion is to be drawn at this point, it is probably the emphasis on the process – of experimentation, exploration, disruption, and communication – rather than on the product. The literary can stretch the ties that bind it to textuality, and these ties can be recognized and undone in the interaction between different media. The flux in which the literary exists on screen, in cyberspace and through other digital objects thereby allows it to manifest its long hidden face as something that is constantly in the making.


(This event was made possible thanks to the financil support of Lancaster University and the Institut français du Royaume-Uni de Londres.

The talks and the roundtable discussion will soon be available on the YouTube channel of Authors and the World.)

Erika Fülöp


[i] Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame), 2008, p. 5.

[ii] ‘Az irodalmi mű alaktani hatáselmélete’, in Bevezetés az irodalomelméletbe, ed. István Dobos (Debrecen: Kossuth Egyetemi Kiadó, 1995), pp. 75-110.

[iii] ‘Die Geste des Schreibens’, in Gesten: Versuch einer Phänomenologie (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1994), pp. 32-40.


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