Class Thread on Media-Specific Analysis (Week 14)

From Gloria:
At the beginning of the semester, we read Katherine Hayles’ definition of what electronic literature is and she mentions media-specific analysis, where the reader must consider what “sub-genre,” of sorts, the piece is. I wasn’t sure what to call it, but I wanted to bring up experience-specific analysis, or how our experiences, as a whole, affect our view of the piece. As technology advances and newer computers and operating systems replace their predecessors, it is possible that a piece cannot be experienced fully. For example, we all experienced bpNichol’s “First Screening” either through an emulator or by playing a video. What, if anything, is lost through the use of such emulators? Can the experience of viewing “First Screening” on a 1980’s Mac somehow be preserved? Should authors keep this in mind as they create pieces?
To go a step farther, does the digital media that is necessary to experience the pieces allow E-Lit to still be classified as literature? A recent study discovered that reading on electronic devices actually rewires the circuits in our brains. What does electronic literature offer that traditional literature does not, and vice versa? Here is the link to a radio segment that talked about the study: http://www.marketplace.org/topics/tech/learningcurve/how-reading-screens-rewiring-our-brains
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7 Comments

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  1. I have a lot of thoughts for this prompt, so I’ll try to be organized in how I approach it.

    First, I do believe that there is some sense of loss from pieces like bpNichol’s and the emulator. We talked earlier in the year about the loss of the physical “button pushing” and the overall simple mechanics of the Mac computer at that time. However, when I considered this in regards to your questions about preservation and author intentionality, I thought about other forms of physical texts that are no longer in use (papyrus, parchment, scrolls, etc.). Just as papyrus was eventually overtaken by cheaper forms of paper and the scroll was replaced by the more efficient and less bulky codex, I view the emulator and the Mac book similarly. I admit the loss, but I don’t believe it to be so great that we have to preserve it. As for the planning on the author’s part, I don’t see how they could account for all the technological changes that might occur in the next ten years, let alone longer than that–however, I believe that they should be aware that their pieces and the medium in which they work most likely will be outdated.

    I thought the research was fascinating, but I question whether the test subjects of the research study were completely unbiased. Since E-literature (particularly E-readers) have really only started to gather steam within the last few decades, I wonder whether it is the test subject being used to viewing the codex in an academic/serious sense, while they are used to digital media as more leisurely reading. I guess what I am saying is that it would be fascinating to take a peek at future research as the interviewer says, especially with the future generations who will probably no longer use codexes in the classroom. I wonder if the circuits would still be different in that case, or if the medium is truly the cause.

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  2. I believe the term Gloria is looking for is a ‘phenomenological’ analysis of the pieces, looking at the experience, the ‘lived moment’ of the piece’s run / read / etc. This is necessarily separate from the pure code of the piece, especially with older pieces that are heavily influenced by the hardware limitations of their platforms and the difficulties of translating between code languages. Nowadays, it is a little easier in some regards to preserve experience, as emulators grow more advanced and can handle the hardware intricacies of older machines more effectively. Despite this, there is always a lost element regardless of the preservation quality – timeliness. In all literature, the culture into which it wades is lost, sometimes within weeks (i.e. memes, small-scale current events, pop culture). An author should be aware that their piece is entering in at a specific time, and thus has an element of timeliness. This is especially important for e-authors, seeing as this timeliness manifests in the very means and media of the work.

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  3. In answering both pieces of the question here, I think Brian’s use of the term “translating” is worth expanding.

    While the term is relevant simply to describe the technological process behind preserving a text like bpNichol’s, I think it is equally relevant to describe the experience of E-Lit and that experience as it changes over time. Walter Benjamin, in theorizing about the process and effects of translating a text between spoken or written languages, suggests that “if there is such a thing as a language of truth […] which all thought strives for […] this very language […] is concealed in concentrated fashion in translations” even though “its products are less sharply defined” than the original. Basically, Benjamin expresses what a number of translation theorists suggest–that, although the process of translation causes certain features of a text to shift or even fall away, the process of translation moves a text closer to some deeper or higher truth than the original.

    In the case of E-Lit, I’m not exactly claiming that viewing bpNichol’s work through an emulator is bringing us closer to enlightenment. I would, however, argue that though certain elements of the experience, or certain phenomenological factors, are shifted or lost, at the very same time, that which is core to the text (both its experience and its content) is brought nearer the surface. It’s not a universally agreed upon point, but I think it might offer a lens through which to view the process of moving from one machine to the next.

    As regards preservation, an original experience can absolutely be preserved through the work of archivists willing to maintain the original technology–an effort not dissimilar to archivists preserving ancient texts in dead languages.

    As regards authors, of course they must be mindful of this. To work with technology and not be aware that it is constantly outmoded would be naive. That said, to create E-Lit in full acknowledgement that some amount of translation will necessarily change the piece as it ages frees the author/coder to think about the original experience and also about its iterations in future machines, in the way that a novelist may be aware that their language is not the only language in which a story has been or will be told.

    As for the classification of literature, I for one am absolutely willing to fall back upon Ensslin’s conception of the literary as that which foregrounds language. If oral language (Homer, Cicero, etc.) can be literary just as much as enacted language (Shakespeare, Miller, etc.) and just as much as printed language (Wordsworth, Shelley, etc.), then so too can digital language. An authors awareness of and intentional craft of language within a piece is what lends it literary qualities, regardless of how the brain decides to process that language or those qualities. E-Lit doesn’t, then, offer us new potential for language itself per se, but instead offers opportunities to use language in new ways, to present it in unique formats, and to distribute in to new audiences… literature, assuredly, but translated by the screen, just as the page translated the voice.

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  4. At the risk of repeating some of what my colleagues have expressed already, I would say we do miss something when experiencing a piece through an emulator. There is the absence of the physical interaction and the sense of causing the program to run, as well as differences in screen quality, brightness, and more. However, I think this is nothing new to literary studies. What I wouldn’t give to experience the tone of the Odyssey as an oral poem or the perfectly accurate pronunciation of Beowulf or the original costume worn by Hamlet as it was performed for the very first time. However, those experiences are no longer available to me. Still, I thoroughly enjoy the works as they have been archived in the form of modern codices—and ebooks, too. Are they different? Yes. Has something been lost? Yes. But they have been preserved in an alternate form that still allows us to enjoy them. In this way there is, yet again (for perhaps the billionth time in this semester), a strong similarity between e-lit and performative works like theater and oral epics.
    This analogy also allows me to confidently assert that E-lit experiences are literature inasmuch as performative text is literary. Locative texts, for example, are basically the written form of site-specific/environmental theater. Both forms are different from codices, to be sure, but (usually) contain the literary elements of text and so can be a type of literature.
    As to the issue of our brains being rewired, I believe a great deal more studying will have to take place before we can assert exactly how reading digitally is going to shape the future reader. This is an issue of huge importance to me as an educator in the field of English, where reading is becoming increasingly electronic and where reading skills are highly emphasized. I worry that students who only know digital reading as scrolling through a buzzfeed article or twitter feed—where everything is centered on fast, easy, short-attention-span-focused experiences—will not be able to embrace deep reading on page or screen. I think we in this class have experienced deep reading in e-lit texts that perhaps has not been explored with the majority of the population. I think it’s important to emphasize the skill of reading well on paper and on the internet for students, but I do worry that the constant exposure to text designed to be easy to read will make it hard for us in the future to work toward something challenging but good for us.This is helped, I think, by e-literature breaking down traditional ways of reading on computers.

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  5. I’ll try to work from a different angle than my peers. While there is “something” missing as the mediums become facsimiles of their original content, that is, in part, the beauty of E-Literature. The mediums are going to be constantly evolving as quickly as technology as a whole develops. I remember our lengthy discussion in class about Agrippa, and Geoffrey’s staunch claims that the author was a sellout for intentionally allowing Agrippa to exist. Yet, it is because we had the skeleton of the work that we were able to discuss so heatedly about the subject. I’ve said before that the most important characteristic of the works that we’ve viewed so far is the E part of E-Literature. By nature, technology becomes obsolete as new technologies are developed to replace the old ones. I like Tory’s point about old print forms becoming the paper texts that we know now. “Something” is lost, certainly, in that the specific experience of viewing/reading the text in its original production cannot be completely emulated, but I believe that is too narrow a view on a new, burgeoning field. The fact that authors and programmers are able to fluidly reproduce the work in different programming languages is something that is unique to the “e-ness” of E-Literature, and that cannot be overlooked when appreciating the works as individual pieces who have undergone changes and when considering the field as a whole.

    The study is one of many neurological studies that are attempting to observe the relationship between developing technology and brain structure. Environmental psychology and more specific studies within have observed that our physical environment affects physical brain structure (i.e. someone living in NY their whole life has a different physical structure than someone living in Miami). Since it is a relatively new field of study, it is difficult to determine whether these changes due to technological advances are positive or negative. The implications that the brief article Gloria linked include our desensitization to the screen and how that affects our perception of not just books but the world. Since everything can be accessed through screens, and screens are conglomerations of artificial light, it makes sense that our brains are starting to rewire to accommodate this change in visual stimulus. Artificial light, after all, is perceived and processed differently than natural light. Electronic Literature first and foremost allows worldwide accessibility to works through the internet. It secondly allows texts to assume qualities that were previously unique to digital media such as automatic motion, sound, and dynamic interactivity. Geo-locative texts most clearly demonstrate the advantages of e-literature on a variety of levels. They allow humans to connect in ways that were previously impossible, for better or worse. Part of why “The Silent History” and its geo-locative feature is so incredible is because it surpasses time to bring together human experience. Every individual who viewed the text at a specific location did so at that place, for that purpose. It truly is something incredible to think about in terms of philosophy, sociology, psychology, and really any other humanist field.

    Electronic literature does not challenge conventional literature, it merely allows another avenue of access to literature as a whole. Arguments against digitizing all works are primarily an economic one just as much as they are philosophical. Printed books will never go extinct, and digital books, therefore knowledge and experience, will allow the world to progress and connect in ways both terrifying and wonderful.

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  6. When it comes down to it, what actually is lost from a 1980s mac, to current day emulation on a computer screen? The actual pushing of buttons is certainly absent. But I think Tory’s point is quite relevant. What’s the difference between papyrus, scrolls and modern day bound books? Beyond that, is there much of a difference between paperback or hardcover? If so, what is it?
    I’d contend that if there is something lost, which there may be, that sacrifices the meaning/value of a piece, then perhaps the piece wasn’t worthwhile to begin with. If moving from a 1980’s screen to a current one is enough to completely tamper with artist intent, then there was likely very little intent to begin with. Words carry literature. Code carries technology. Both of those are still present in modern society.
    As for the question of whether or not E-lit can be classified as literature due to the media component, that feels like a question we’ve been hashing out since the beginning of the semester. To be perfectly candid, there are a number of books that shouldn’t be classified as literature. Same with e-lit. Certain pieces simply aren’t up to scratch. However, there are a number of e-lit pieces that do fulfill the role of being carried by their prose. Electronic literature is considered an art form, but your definition of literature is what will allow the genre to be ushered through the gates of “literariness”. Certain readers are reluctant to admit works like Tolkien’s LOTRO or Rowling’s Harry Potter series into realm of “real literary work.” And would rather classify such works as “fluff” or “good fun, but not worthy of true literary accolade.”
    It comes down to a matter of taste.

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  7. This is a really complicated question and encompasses many of the issues we’ve been grappling with this semester. I think that the use of emulators as a medium for electronic literature is a necesscity. This is a rapidly changing and expanding field and without emulators much of the e-lit canon would be lost forever. I think maybe the visceral experience of running a very old computer could be lost through the use of an emulator but that isn’t really a part of the work as a whole. The original experience cannot be wholly preserved through an emulator but I think that most do as good of a job as they possibly can. There’s a certain sense of nostalgia that comes with being apart of the beginning of something and I don’t think that feeling could be replicated with an emulator, especially with something like First Screening. I think that authors entering the field of e-lit should definitely be aware that technology changes so fast and should keep that in mind when creating. It would be ideal to create things that can be run on various programs without losing the heart of it.

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