On the UCLA campus, in a room devoid of textiles--just cement, wires and screens--a group of about 150 people discussed the future of books, literature, words. These people, gathered for a recent Symposium on Electronic Literature, don't think of books in terms others do, the printed word, the rustle of a turning page. They speak of a "new literary movement." They are building "a new kind of subjectivity." They are trying to recapture, "to salvage the human inside of technology."
The Electronic Literature Organization has its
headquarters on the UCLA campus, as a joint project of the media arts
department and the English department. The group is not in the business of
e-books, a phenomenon that seems to have come and gone, but of something
much more revolutionary.
These people play with words, images and
technology in ways that involve the viewer/reader much more physically in
the act of viewing and reading. In their world, computers and bodies speak
to each other; they make things together. A person does not simply tell or
read a story; a person is actively involved in unfolding the story. There
is hypertext, clicking and referencing and deepening a work layer by
layer. In some cases, holographic poems can be thrown like baseballs. The
technology changes every day.
There is less authority regarding
what is good and what is bad. There is no canon, though there is a body of
work, some a decade old, that can be referenced the way the rest of us
might compare a work of art to Shakespeare or De Kooning. These include
William Gibson's "xanadu," a story that disintegrated bit by bit over a
six-month period, and Michael Joyce's "Aftermath," the first electronic
literary book with hypertext links.
There are related classes on
campuses around the country. Robert Coover, author of, most recently, the
book "Ghost Town," teaches classes at Brown University on Web writing and
hypertext. There is even a Review of Electronic Literature. But few of the
other institutions that help the dissemination of literature as we know
it, like a publishing industry and distribution and marketing networks,
are in place. This appears to be a blessing and a curse.
Hayles, the doyenne of electronic literature and author of the printed
book "How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature
and Informatics," is a professor of English and design/media arts at UCLA.
She was the first speaker at the conference, a woman in a pink kimono
surrounded by screens and wires. The topic she raised, which seemed to
inflame the audience, is the question of obsolescence.
interest of building a canon," she said, "we cannot reject works because
the technology with which they were created has become obsolescent.
Instead we should use criteria like elegance of solution, ideas that turn
the constraints of technology into possibilities." Obsolescence "isn't an
issue for Shakespeare," one man said. "Why should it be for
When these people speak of literature, they mean Borges or
Neruda or Nietzsche. They mean high literature, avant-garde literature,
political literature. The first car, Hayles told the audience--the
horseless carriage, as it was called--resembled its predecessor, the horse
and carriage, more than it did the cars of today. In the same way, these
works resemble, in content, their printed predecessors more than new media
as they are used commercially.
Hayles showed several works on the
big screen to her left. "Database," the project of graduate students
Arianne de Souza e Silva and Fabian Walker, featured a room with a screen
and a printer with a video camera and a keyboard. The viewer blacks out
words as he or she reads, so rather than the traditional, durable text,
you have something transitory, more like speech than print. The project
was inspired by Borges' story "The Immortals," in which troglodytes
incapable of speech turn out to be poets and other historical figures,
In artist-writer Diane Slatterly's project, "Glide,"
the story is told of a future culture with no written language, only a
visual one--glyphs made of semicircles. Another, "The Many Voices of Saint
Caterina of Piedmonte," an interactive story by Silvia Rigon and Alison
Walker, tells the story of the life of a medieval holy woman brought to
ecstasy and visions by anorexia and malnutrition. The story unfolds
through the voices of multiple women. Often these women were made to do
penance by writing their autobiographies, thousands of pages long, and
some of these can be accessed by hypertext. In this project, narrative
layering of voices and image and text uncovers the political truth of
their starvation and deprivation.
"Califa" is a project that tells
the story of California using navigational apparatus so that the viewer
can overlay maps of stars, fault lines and Chumash settlements and the
changing landscape of California: freeways over rivers over
"These are the pioneers on the cutting edge of this
field," Coover said. He pointed to a long history of intertwined word and
image: illuminated manuscripts, pictographs, Zen calligraphy, the Torah,
W.G. Sebald. In Coover's university classes, titled "The Game of Fiction"
and "C.A.V.E. Writing," students play with text and image, wearing virtual
reality glasses and carrying wands to navigate through that
Coover and Hayles stressed that hypertext technology,
rather than being exclusive, could be more available on the Web than books
ever have been in public libraries. "Part of our task is to think through
questions of access," Hayles said. "Young people of all classes are
entranced by the Web. There is a great divide: The 18-year-olds I teach
intuitively have a better understanding of strategies than the older
graduate students. The visual vocabulary of video games is, for better or
worse, pervasive. Electronic literature has a dual parentage: high
literature and popular culture. It is a literary popular
A representative from Finland described the chat rooms in
his country, which often have audiences of hundreds of thousands of people
in a land of just 5 million. He spoke about text-based television, about
the possibilities of having viewers' diaries and even books on
Between conference speakers there was a shuffle of wires and
buttons and microphones, with an undercurrent of anxiety that things might
not work. Most speakers used notes written in good old-fashioned
composition books and note pads. The lights had to be off for the screen
to be visible. "We don't know how to have it light and dark at the same
time," said Victoria Vesna, a UCLA professor, "but we're working on
An overheard conversation in the hallway addresses whether
"literature" is too loaded a term to apply to this art form. A young man
worries that if so much time is spent on theories and definitions,
electronic literature will become institutionalized just like all the
other arts. Oppressors loom.
But all is not lost.
Epstein, co-founder of the New York Review of Books, former head of Random
House and the author of several books, spoke of the future of publishing,
of ATMs for books, of machines placed, for example, in the basements of
Starbucks that could print out a book, trim it and bind it minutes after
being ordered by a customer on a computer upstairs.
More works in
progress! Fewer deadlines! More money to authors as publishing costs
decrease! He is not afraid. The future looks bright indeed.