Introduction to Electronic Literature

Despite a landmark essay by the novelist Robert Coover, the emergence of literary writing in new media does not signal an “end of books.” Conceivably, there could be an end to literary studies as an autonomous discipline and a cessation of literary reading as a significant cultural practice. However, what new media enact is a more direct engagement of the literary arts with the arts of image, sound, and computation, and hence a renewed appreciation of a long-standing insight, available in the writings of Walter Ong, Elizabeth Eisenstein, and Marshall McLuhan but only now reaching general consciousness: the idea that print literature has long been part of a fragile “media ecology” (Tabbi and Wutz 1997). The representational requirements of literary narrative, for example, change radically after film takes up the burden of depicting realistic settings, and the placement of words in proximity to filmic, video, and sound elements continues that relocation of the literary in new media. With the redrawing of narrative and visual boundaries comes the emergence and continued differentiation of modern literary forms (whose reflexivity foregrounds verbal inventions that were always present in earlier writing, especially in sui generis narratives such as Tristram Shandy).

The continuation of the print legacy itself remains as uncertain as the fate of globalization and modernity (see Cochran 2001). For reading to re-emerge as a consequential activity in the new media ecology, more is required than the scanning, storage, and promotion of our classics. As books cease to be the primary storage vehicle for recording, preserving, and disseminating thought, our legacy texts need to be engaged actively in “born-digital” writing – which is to say, in works that are designed for the media where the current generation does its reading. We should not look to the internet for forms and genres that emerged in print and continue to thrive there. Rather, the task of defining electronic literature is an ongoing process of differentiation, not the least of which is the distinction between how we read books and how these practices circulate in current reading and writing spaces.

The Literary Prefiguration of The Internet

Electronic literature is not just a “thing” or a “medium” or even a body of “works” in various “genres.” It is not poetry, fiction, hypertext, gaming, codework, or some new admixture of all these practices. Electronic literature is, arguably, an emerging cultural form, as much a collective creation of terms, keywords, genres, structures, and institutions as it is the production of new literary objects. The ideas of cybervisionaries Paul Otlet, Vannevar Bush, and Ted Nelson, foundational to the electronic storage, recovery, and processing of texts, go beyond practical insights and can be seen to participate in a longstanding ambition to construct a world literature in the sense put forward by David Damrosh: “not an infinite ungraspable canon of works but rather a mode of circulation and of reading … that is applicable to individual works as to bodies of material” (Damrosh 2003: 5).

The failure of print scholars to create a space for traditional literature in new media is evident, however, even among those with an avowed interest in the “global” circulation of discourse. For example, the postcolonial scholar Arjun Appadurai (2000: 22) writes that “public spheres” are “increasingly dominated by electronic media (and thus delinked from the capacity to read and write)” (cited in Prendergast 2004). That “thus” can rankle. Obviously, Appadurai is not thinking of the internet, which is still (and likely always will be) overwhelmingly textual, despite an insistently instrumental visual presence. The assumption that reading and writing are of course “delinked” from electronic media shows just how deep the separation of spheres has become for scholars like Appadurai, who continue to evaluate globalization primarily through the reading and writing of printed materials. Appadurai and most of the contributors to Debating World Literature (Prendergast 2004) want to locate a literary practice commensurate with processes of globalization. But by dissociating reading and writing from electronic media, these scholars fail to entertain the idea that writing produced in new media might in fact be an emerging world literature.

It was not supposed to be like this. Appadurai’s casual dismissal of reading and writing as active elements in “electronic media” should seem strange if one recalls how cyberculture visionaries advanced the idea of a universally accessible, open-ended archive that primarily stores texts. That was the idea behind Vannevar Bush’s (1945) Memex and Ted Nelson’s (1974) hypertext – not the current expanse of decontextualized hot links that take readers serially away from the text they are reading at any given time, but rather, a means of bringing documents, in part or in their entirety, to a single writing space for further commentary and the development of conceptual connections. The worldwide collaborative potential of collecting documents, not lost on these American information specialists after World War II, had already been expressed by the Belgian Paul Otlet in his Traité de documentation (1934). There the thought of connecting people to the libraries of the world via telephone and electronic screens led to his vision of a technological encyclopedia. In Otlet’s “conceptual prefiguration of the Internet” (préfiguration conceptuelle d’Internet), every extant work in print would be but chapters and paragraphs in a single “universal book” (unique livre universel) (Levie 2007).

Of course, Otlet, Bush, and Nelson understood that electronic media might include works of all countries, cultures, and languages. But inclusiveness alone did not make their vision universal. Rather, the operative feature everywhere in early cyber-literary thought – what would make the technologically enhanced book more than the sum total of books in print and in manuscript everywhere – was its promise of reshaping boundaries. National and cultural divisions would thereby shift toward more conceptual discriminations: the kind of distinction that does not separate people categorically but is capable of connecting them in discourse. Concepts and connections that had remained potential (because of the book’s physical separation from other books) could now be activated in the mind of a reader. The technological excitement lay, that is, precisely in its promise to renew the “capacity to read and write” (Appadurai), with the added value (so necessary to universalist thought) that the results of one’s reading could be conveyed to others, debated, and revised. In every case, the knowledge transfer would occur not through interpretive activity or through description or summary alone but because every user would be similarly free, in Nelson’s words, to “list, sketch, link, and annotate the complexities we seek to understand, then present ‘views’ of the complexities in many different forms” (Nelson 1974: 332).

Reconsidered in the context of computational and communications media, the universality of literature would not lie in attaining a single common language or in the expression of an essential human spirit but rather in inhabiting a common workspace. A word Nelson coined for this process was “transclusion” – an inclusion through site transfers of separate texts that could be full or partial, depending on one’s requirements: in every case, the “original” document or set of documents remains at its home address while being reproduced at the target address (not just referenced or linked sequentially). The achievement of this capacity, which can make reading and researching also a kind of worldwide consortium building, could potentially bring to the public a literary project that had earlier been considered private and secluded.

In If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino implies the threat posed by entertainment media to literary privacy when he has his narrator advise the reader to shut the door and “let the world around you fade. … Tell the others right away, ‘No, I don’t want to watch TV!’ Raise your voice – they won’t hear you otherwise – ‘I’m reading, I don’t want to be disturbed!’ … Speak louder, yell: ‘I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!’ Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone” (Calvino 1979: 1). The situation is different in the collaborative, receptive media that, like the internet and unlike television, include text as a primary component – although here, too, demands JOSEPH TABBI 300 are made on a reader’s time and attention. In new media, readers can risk becoming like Calvino’s harried publisher later in the novel, whose room is full of books that are never read, only circulated and recirculated, their authors too well known to us as personalities and occasional celebrities for their works to hold any fascination.

In Industrial Poetics (2005), the poet and literary scholar Joe Amato questions whether even the authors of most blogs ever go back and read what they have written, for an audience that is for the most part never even hinted at in the writing. A literary text contains, traditionally and of necessity, an “implied reader” within its rhetorical structuring. Premature announcements of hypertext’s “interactivity” notwithstanding, a close reading of random unsponsored web writing reveals a deep inability of many would-be authors to imagine that someone actually could be reading or responding. Those sites that do attract readers, generally (still) attract authors – but web authorship may differ from print in that authors do not speak while readers listen: this is to say, print remains a broadcast media, directing communications from one to many – even though, unlike radio, television, and other broadcast media, the sense of one-to-one communication is achievable in print through the aforementioned creation of an “implied reader,” a role which any individual can, through attentive reading, apply to oneself. The internet, by contrast, is a reception medium, from many to many and without the narrative continuity or sustained rhetorical address needed to single out individuals.

In reception media such as Otlet’s universal book and the internet, documents and imaginative discourses are not given as ends in themselves but as material to be reworked, relocated, and remixed (to use an anachronistic formulation that came into vogue after the digitization of music). The idea that this potential needed to be liberated, implicit in Otlet and Bush, is made explicit in Nelson’s titular concept of “computer lib.” Nelson’s program for the freeing of mental capacities through human/machine interaction, consistent in so many ways with contemporary programs of racial, sexual, and lifestyle liberation (and often exceeding these in rhetorical fervor), to a degree brought technological transformations into the realm of worldwide social and cultural transformations.

Three decades into the computer revolution, the conceptual freedom celebrated by Nelson is no longer so convincing, and the open-source, do-it-yourself culture of file sharing is no longer so fluid when the interfaces encountered by most readers have been largely pre-formatted to serve commercial and instrumental ends. In the time of Nelson and Bush and during the rise of the IBM mainframe, computers were still largely available only to big business and a cohort of researchers. The personal computer came later, and no one predicted its transformation of the writing space essentially into an office and entertainment center. Under such conditions, the liberation of “minds” from the constraints of new media now requires a more active, oppositional role available not to the mass of computer users but only to a subgroup of “hackers” who are capable (often by breaking copyright laws and proprietary protections that did not exist in Nelson’s heyday) of penetrating and changing configurations at the level of source code. That kind of competence remains the domain of only a few.

“To hack,” writes the literary critic Adelaide Morris, “is to work within a set of constraints – linguistic rules, programmatic structures, protocols that organize data exchange and enable telecommunication connections – to keep possibilities in circulation. In this sense, the purpose of a hack is to interrupt inevitability, to put ghostly alternatives back into motion, to engender fresh abstractions, to find a way, like Emily Dickinson, to ‘Dwell in Possibility’” (Morris 2007). Only by keeping these constraints in view and at the same time “engendering fresh abstractions,” posing alternative source codes as well as experimental textual formations against the achieved configurations of worldwide commerce and communication, is it possible to maintain literature in its potential state – not as a revolutionary program to be realized (Nelson’s “computer lib”), but rather, as a condition for creativity.

The Dream Life of Literal Letters

First-generation electronic literature, contemporary with Ted Nelson at the dawn of the brief age of the “personal computer,” tended to explore the openness and freedom of linkages and modes of circulation that were available to authors having some programming knowledge and working with a range of often unreliable, but largely open-source, software. That may have helped reinforce Nelson’s libertarian pose, and proponents still speak of the “affordances” of ever new, mostly obsolescent technologies. Generally, however, the born-digital works that have lasted tend to gain creative traction not from exploiting ready-made affordances but from revealing and writing against the constraints inherent in additional levels of mediation (beyond the comparatively direct linkage from mind to hand to pen and paper). It is no accident, for example, that games – concerned with rules of operation and conduct – were among the first achieved examples of electronic literature and they remain the only commercially viable practice for the literary arts.


Robert Pinsky

With the publication in 1984 of Mindwheel, Robert Pinsky contributed not only a pioneering work of electronic literature but also a rare crossing over from the literary world, where he was a recognized poet teaching English at Berkeley. Pinsky brought his abilities to interactive fiction, which many people at the time saw as “just games.” Thomas Disch, a novelist and poet, did something similar with his game Amnesia, but Disch was frustrated that no one would recognize and review Amnesia as literature and he denounced interactive fiction afterwards. Pinsky didn’t do this, but neither did he remain active as an author of electronic literature. The same can be said of Robert Coover, who introduced a generation of graduate students at Brown University to the practice of electronic literature but himself continued to write print novels.

The same can be said of each author who has achieved a reputation in the field of electronic literature: the poet Stefanie Strickland presents online and print versions of her major work, V: Wave.Son.Nets/Losing L’Una (2002); Michael Joyce (who according to his Vassar University web page is “no longer maintaining a public web presence”) has moved from his landmark hypertext, Afternoon: A Story of 1987–91, to a print novel, Liam’s Going, published in 2002; and Shelley Jackson has achieved a successful transition from her debut e-literary work, Patchwork Girl, a cyber-feminist hypertext revision of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, to a career of cross-genre (and cross-gendered) experimentation in print (2002’s The Melancholy of Anatomy and 2006’s Half Life) and in performance art – notably her Skin Project, a network narrative in which each word is tattooed on the skin of a volunteer. In such work, electronic literature emerges as a realization of literary qualities that might reference, but rarely tries to reproduce, the narrativity and lyrical flow that remain the province of print. Jackson herself sees her work as continuous with the very literary goal of producing a world apart from our conventional narratives. But Jackson’s hybrid literary “world” is “full of things that you can wander around in, rather than a record or memory of those wanderings” (Jackson 1998). Electronic literature, then, to a degree, represents a move from the literary to the literal – a presentation not of stories but of words themselves as they are transformed by multiple media.

In second-generation electronic literature, not infrequently, not even the word but the letter becomes the unit of operation, as in Brian Kim Stefans’s “Star Wars: One Letter at a Time” (2006). There, for example, Stefans might present, flashing on the screen and accompanied by the sound of a clicking typewriter, the letters purportedly typed by Star Wars creator George Lucas, one letter at a time. Typically for works of electronic literature, Stefans presented the work in the context of an art exhibition. Significantly, he presented the work along with a generic tag: “lettrism.” Playfully, since the ring of the typewriter can be heard at the end of each typed line, the author further locates the work under the category of “bell letters.”

The invention of terms and creation of new categories on the page or in linked documents, if conducted collaboratively in a networked environment of metatags, keywords, and coded reference, could give the literary community control over language’s current development and its materiality in letters. The metatag offers a literary specificity and materiality not achievable in print. Through tags and glosses that attach to the text and reappear in other similarly tagged texts, readers everywhere can indicate types and genres that will be searchable, so long as they are recognized by other readers and other taggers. The terms attach directly to a range of texts, unlike a literary index that requires the turning of pages, or notes that require access to a book or article in some other physical location. As electronic literature develops, new genres will need to emerge (different from, say, “novels,” “poems,” and “narratives,” whose conceptual work evolved with print and can best be experienced there). The development of a metatag vocabulary, continuous with the development of electronic literature itself, is unique in that each stage in this development, determined by crowd consciousness more than by critical fiat, can be recorded and traced by readers and researchers (see Heckman and Tabbi 2010).

Authors of born-digital work (notably Mez [Mary-Anne Breeze], who has invented a literary language, Mezangel, mixing coded symbols and English) extend this control to computer code, which is sometimes written to be read as text, though this practice is surely exceptional. As John Cayley (2002) puts it in the title to his contribution to the “cyberdebates” at http://www.electronicbookreview. com, “The Code Is Not the Text (Unless It Is the Text).” When code operates at speed, it is not being read by humans, and besides, those literary authors who create code will always be a minority, a professional cadre or community of hackers whose specialized and often proprietary knowledge is less and less likely to reach the universality (among educated classes) of print literacy. Even if widespread code literacy were achieved, it is unlikely that people would think in code, the way everybody thinks (and communicates) in language. Information might be lost in translation from one linguistic language to another, and this is not a hindrance but rather a condition of literariness – as David Damrosh recognizes when he makes the capacity to “gain in translation” one of his criteria for world literature (Damrosh 2003: 281). Code, by contrast, is not enriched by being brought into written language – it simply becomes inoperable.

What the creation of terms in print and metatags in electronic networks can accomplish is a positioning of the imagination at the place where language is generated. Hence the creativity of Ben Marcus, whose aesthetic emerges from the intersection of mathematics and semantics, is a mode of invention wholly consistent with an electronic environment where letters, words, and sentences themselves are capable of becoming elements of a network (in this case, the specifically verbal network of definitions and cross-references in a glossary):

SHIRT OF NOISE Garment, fabric, or residue that absorbs and holds sound, storing messages for journeys. Its loudness cannot be soothed. It can destroy the member which inhabits it. …

CARL Name applied to food built from textiles, sticks, and rags. Implements used to aid ingestion are termed, respectively, the lens, the dial, the knob. …

SPEED-FASTING EXPERIMENTS Activity or practice of accelerated food abstention. It was first conducted in Buffalo. The record death by fasting occurred in two days, through motor-starving and exhaustion, verbal. (Marcus 1995: 14, 41, 44)

Marcus’s writing is not born digital. Published in 1995, The Age of Wire and String could have accounted for the internet only in its infancy, when it was still used mostly by scientists, small working groups, and niche social networks. If Marcus’s work is “experimental,” it is so in the best sense of trying out concepts and carrying a certain hypothesis through to the end (however counterintuitive or defamiliarizing the conclusion might be). Wire and String, a network of short experimental fictions in print, has the feel of electronic literature. It has the capacity to conceive of language in some primordial state of semantic mutability where each word can first take on meanings arbitrarily, based on how we happen to hear of a term or where we look it up, and then can build new meanings in use, as one term comes into contact with other terms. Meanings accrue not primarily by narrative means alone but rather by glossary-like definitions and cross-references, a “dreamlife of letters” that Stefans would literalize in his “Internet text” but which has haunted print culture for a long time.

Constrained Writing

By contrast to the early, “computer-liberated” writing of first-generation electronic literature, the work of Cayley, Stefans, Strickland, and others develops in the contexts of the internet and database technology and so tends to be more aware of the limitations of proprietary technologies. Second-generation electronic literature is often more consciously about writing under constraint. While embracing expressive freedoms in their vocabulary and syntax, secondgeneration electronic literary works formally reflect a growing sense that limits have been reached, materially and ecologically, in the rationalist technological project. Aware of the contingency of technology (and the more likely universality of abstract mathematics and language, which are of course embodied in but not tied to some specific technology or software), electronic literature can develop differently, more universally. Electronic literature can achieve universality by placing greater importance precisely on words whose presence is not platform-specific, or at least by striving for platform independence in a Semantic Web (Web 2.0) environment of shared keywords and metatags. The renewal of semantic diversity could be as important to “ecological” literature as any topical engagement with questions of biodiversity and declining resources. The “exhaustion, verbal” cited by Marcus compels a renewed verbal invention as well as a backward-looking, etymological, and (in Stefans) typographical exploration.

This displacement of writing from formal to semantic constraints is already recognizable in the work of several precursors of constrained writing, notably the Oulipo group (ouvroir de littérature potentielle) whose members selfconsciously have submitted their verbal productions to mathematical rigor. The reasons for shifting to semantic constraints were set out, for example, by Harry Mathews, who (consistent with Marcus) defines literary potential as a question of new words, “beyond the words being read,” lying “in wait to subvert and perhaps surpass them” (cited in Motte 1986: 126). With computers as one – but not an exclusive – context for renewed literary creation, Mathews approaches the problem of writing in constrained environments through a straightforward and familiar distinction, between syntax (how a phrase, sentence, or work is structured) and semantics (what a site or work is about conceptually and not only in terms of information). The distinction has been important in the development of the Oulipo away from mainly structural, combinatorial, and material experimentation (where the mathematical structure is outside the process of creation) toward a concern with the ends of narrative, content, and creativity. “Mathews’s Algorithm,” an essay in Warren F. Motte’s Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature (1986), is remarkable precisely in its concern with gathering and recombining semantic elements from past literatures – as, on the one hand, a mode of literary commentary and, on the other hand, a stimulation to the creation of new stories, potential stories that haunt those we know from the literary canon.

Mathews’s concern with semantic innovation (rather than narrative or generic continuity) hints at the kinds of continuities that are enabled in our move from predominantly print to electronic environments. Not least, the Oulipian project of recovering not masterworks but productive constraints from prior eras (even prior to print) offers an excellent precursor to the current project of carrying literary qualities from the past into new media environments. “Mathews’s Algorithm,” instead of proposing numerical constraints exclusively, would enable authors to identify and select “semantic elements” from (for example) a play by Shakespeare so as to mark phrases, words, and episodes and then to reconfigure the events and outcomes, producing alternative plays. But Mathews does not stop there. He extends his tabulation to include elements in Hamlet of “love,” “possession,” and “victory” and how these terms course through moments of “consummation,” “danger,” “war,” and so forth. Here, “the elements are far more abstract” than the numerical constraints on plot and structure, though still the “abstractions fall short of a concept” (Mathews 1986). That prospect, using words to generate conceptual configurations, while still to be realized, is now actively being pursued by many, among them several literary writers, in the (as yet speculative) construction of a worldwide Semantic Web (Web 2.0).

Toward A Semantic Literary Web

The reason authors would want to interest themselves in a Semantic Web is straightforward. This network promises to establish within electronic environments a place where connections have to do with semantics, involving conceptual linkages among documents, not the decontextualized hot links of the internet as we have known it (namely, Web 1.0). Semantic Web database technology allows not only the tracking of keywords and concepts but also an awareness of their evolution in time. If works are identified and tagged not just according to bibliographical criteria (author, title, and publication date) but also according to literary values (for example, representations of the “actual structures and modes of functioning of literary genres” cited in Prendergast 2004: x), then the opportunity emerges for the creation of a “living” archive (where past works are, in Nelson’s terms, “transcluded” into the writing space of new works). To be sure, the living archive is highly presentist: past works that are not tagged and transcluded will be lost and forgotten or, given the inevitability of technical obsolesence, they will be accessible only to forensic recovery, which means they’re as good as gone (see Kirshenbaum 2008).

“Leaves and writings fade, but words remain,” as Jean Lescure noted in “A Brief History of Oulipo” (cited in Motte 1986: 32). A literary deployment of database technology has to be, like literature itself, reflexive and flexible, capable of looking forward to corresponding works by others as well as backward to discovered precedents, able to reference print and born-digital works with equal ease. A viable electronic literary practice also needs to persist and continually reproduce itself in a shifting “now” that changes each time a work is brought in touch with another work, past or future. Indeed, “publication” itself needs to evolve so that a work’s significance is accounted for, not by the number of hits or number of objects distributed and sold, but by the density of connections.

The Semantic Web project (Web 2.0), to realize itself, depends on the adoption of Web standards and a certain a priori agreement in principle by practitioners in numerous fields, among which literature is unlikely to take the lead (although one hopes the literary won’t be left behind, its critics debating technoculture while the work of material creation is left to others). What is found during electronic searches would depend, in principle, not on a matching of character strings but on the identification of metadata and the development of a terminological vocabulary shared among numerous content providers, creators of literary works among them. Not all texts on the internet would be so marked, but those that did conform to a developing conceptual vocabulary would be available to searches and (proponents argue) would reinforce and be reinforced by other texts using a conforming vocabulary. This conformity at the level of the database, however, should not produce conceptual uniformity: new names, hybrids, and descriptors can be created continually. The development of the field would in some sense be the change in the frequency with which certain names are used and others drift into disuse. This is a viable use of the Semantic Web. It differs from the utopian promise, roundly critiqued by Florian Cramer (2007), that “semantic technology” can “allow people to phrase search terms as normal questions, thus giving computer illiterates easier access to the Internet.” The quest for natural language intelligence using computers, a grail of AI research for the past thirty years, had best be set aside – just as the pursuit of narrative can be safely left to its continued development in print. Not all literary qualities need to migrate into electronic environments, but some qualities, semantic descriptors, for example, can be put to literary use. In this more limited version, enacted by humans in collaboration with machine intelligences, the Semantic Web would appear to be consistent with the cultural traffic that in past centuries generated the idea of a world literature, though it differs from past exchanges in that literary genres are not just discussable but capable of being identified and tracked during the time of their development: persistence, in such a practice, would be given not by critical canon formations but rather by an emerging crowd consciousness, enacted by anyone and all who take an active interest in tagging the texts they find valuable.

A Coalescence of Theory And Fiction

A critical practice equipped to engage the world-building potential of electronic literature will emerge only when such syntactic/materialist awareness is also informed by a semantic approach, one that can trace what works are about – what genres they employ and deform, and how concepts circulate within individual works and in networks too. Indications of such a critical approach turn up not frequently but often enough to give a sense of what is at stake. When Jaishree Odin (2007) describes a prominent e-lit production by Talan Memmot as being about “the coming into being of words and sentences as codework,” and when Odin notes, moreover, that such a development reflects “a coalescence of theory and fiction,” this literary critic is finding in Memmot’s work a promise held by the Semantic Web itself. When Lori Emerson (2008) describes an “emergent, flexible poetics” that embraces avant-garde traditions in both bookbound and digital poetries, she indicates how poetry always tends to “move toward abstraction,” using formal invention not as an end in itself but as a way to convey meanings beyond the materiality of sense and syntax and (on screens especially) to enact spatial relations beyond measure and number. Eric Rasmussen (2008) in his turn has usefully proposed the term “senseless resistance” for describing how affective elements of aesthetic objects resist being encoded into the symbolic mode.

Once we leave aside the sense-making and narrative satisfactions of print literature, we might learn to admire the computer-aided virtuosity of a work of electronic literature such as 2002: A Palindrome Story, 2002 words in length, by electronic literary artist Nick Montfort and Spineless Books publisher William Gillespie. Beating a record set precisely by an Oulipo member, 2002 establishes a direct line from the Oulipo to electronic literary practice. But the primary continuity – what counts as a world literary practice – is more a matter of Montfort’s and Gillespie’s perpetuating a literary network of collaborative JOSEPH TABBI 308 text production. In this case, with the passing of print into one tradition among many emergent practices, the constraint “discovered” in past literature is the Oulipo program itself.

Montfort/Gillespie and Queneau certainly share a willingness to subject themselves to arbitrary rules: that a “story” must read the same going forward as going backward or that a line in a Queneau poem (or, rather, his 100 Trillion Poems) must make sense when read with previous or subsequent lines in another poem from the same ten-page collection. But Oulipian and electronic literary practice do not aim at the creation of compelling narratives or absorbing poetic meditations. Those will continue to be produced in print, a medium we can now appreciate as uniquely suited to narrative demands for the creation over time of beginnings, middles, and ends (a working out of information through sequence and duration that more often than not is frustrated in electronic environments). Even a subversion of closure or a nonchronological narrative, to be meaningful, needs to happen against prose structures that reasonably extend over a period of time. Indeed, one signal accomplishment of electronic literature may have been to help locate narrativity not as a literary universal but as one of many literary qualities best realized in particular media such as print and film.

“O readers, meet Bob. (Elapse, year! Be glass! Arc!) Bob’s a gem” (Montfort and Gillespie 2002). Indeed, he is. At any rate, Bob’s as good a protagonist as Anna or Inna, Kiki or Abba, or for that matter Bob’s babe, Babs. Individual preference is beside the point when it comes to the production and reception of Oulipian works and works of electronic literature. What the Oulipo offered instead of isolated, subjectively rich poems, stories, and critical prose was an alternative way of looking at literary practice, a new formulation of its problems and its potential. This alternative, in turn, would be as much a project of rereading and reformatting achieved work as of creating new works.

What the Oulipo was doing, not coincidentally during the same early years of cybernetic exploration that produced the visions of Bush (1945) and Nelson (1974), the mathematics of Norbert Wiener and the sociology of Gregory Bateson, is caught up in the unprecedented proximity of literature to computers, the coexistence in the same writing space of code and text, perceptual image and temporal narrative. The literary precedence of Oulipo, of Otlet’s 1934 prefiguration of the internet, of postmodern literature, and of other past programs to be rediscovered (and whose potential may be recognized and realized for the first time in new media environments), constitutes the promise of electronic literature.


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