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Digital Literature : From Text to Hypertext and Beyond

Written by eastern writer on Saturday, February 09, 2013

a thesis by Raine Koskimaa Today we are living in an increasingly digitalized culture – so much so that it soon may become as ubiquitous as electricity. When that happens, it will be as trivial to speak of digital-whatever, as is at present to speak of electrical culture. The pace and mode of digitalization varies from one cultural sphere to another. All cultural phenomena have their own traditions, conventions, and ways to evolve. There is always friction – cultural habits seldom change over-night, even though technological development may be drastic at certain times. Cultural phenomena are also diverse and heterogeneous and the change may proceed at different speed in different aspects of the phenomenon. This is very much the situation of literature at the moment. In book printing the digital presses have been a part of every day business for some time already. Through word processors a vast majority of literature is written and stored in digital format. We can say that since the 80’s digital processing has been an inseparable part of book production, even though the end product has been, and still mainly is, a printed book. The computer revolution and accompanying software development have given birth to a whole new field of digital texts, which are not bound to the book as a medium. These texts can be read from computer screen, or increasingly, from different reading devices, so called e-books. Digital textuality opens an infinite field to expand literary expression. The difference between print and digital texts can be put simply: print text is static, digital text is dynamic. Digital textuality can be used in many ways in literature. So far the most common way has been to treat digital textuality as an alternative medium for literature – the literature stays the same even though it is published as digital text; it could be published in print as well. There are certain advantages in digital format as such, eg. digital files can be transferred quickly from one place to another, digital texts can be easily updated etc. There is, however, literature which uses digital textuality much more effectively. They integrate aspects of digital dynamics as part of their signifying structure and widen the range of literary expression. Typically this literature cannot be published in print at all. The rise of the so called new media in the wake of digitalization has caused strong media panics, which have had a take on the ponderings about the future of literature too. In most generic forms the questions have been: will book disappear?, will reading die?, will literature vanish? Naturally, there are no simple answers to these questions and answering them is even harder because several different (even though closely interrelated) topics are usually confused. It seems as a safe guess that book as we know it will loose ground to digital texts. This will not, however, be as drastic a change as it may sound to some – literature is not bound to book format. Literature has survived changes from orality to papyrus scrolls; to pergaments; to codex book; there is no reason to believe it would not survive the change for the machines. Literature is inevitably dependent, to some extent, on its medium, but this does not mean that the evolution of literature would be simply following changes in its material basis. The medium sets its limitations, but inside those limits literature has been continuously changing and evolving. The change from print text to digital text doesn’t automatically cause any changes in literature. On the other hand, there seems to be a line of evolution inside literature which tends towards digital textuality without any outside pressure, as a natural next step. Also, digital textuality has caused an opposite evolution, literature which is pointedly committed to the materiality of print book. So, if we take a look at literature today, we can see that there are several things going on simultaneously: traditional print literature is still going strong (according to many indicators, stronger than ever), there is parallel publishing (the same text in print and digital formats), there is literature published in digital format because of technical reasons, there is such ”natively” digital literature which isn't possible in print, and there is literature published as handmade artists' books. Digitalization touches the whole field of literature, directly or indirectly, more or less strongly. Still, this is just the beginning, and the transitory nature of the present situation has resulted in spectacular prophesies and speculations regarding the future of literature. Speculations are important, naturally, as there is no future without visions, but we need also to stop for a while now and then and reflect. And first observations probably are: there is very little of original digital literature existing yet; the old conventions, formed during the five centuries of print literature, direct our expectations of digital literature; the boundaries between literature and non-literature are becoming diffuse. In this study, I have chosen ”hypertext” as the central concept. If we define hypertext as interconnected bits of language (I am stretching Ted Nelson’s original definition quite a lot, but still maintaining its spirit, I believe) we can understand why Nelson sees hypertext ”as the most general form of writing”. There is no inherent connotation to digital in hypertext (the first hypertext system was based on microfilms), but it is the computerized, digital framework – allowing the easy manipulation of both texts and their connections - which gives the most out of it. In addition to the ”simple” hypertexts, there is a whole range of digital texts much more complex and more ”clever”, which cannot be reduced to hypertext, even though they too are based on hypertextuality. Such digital texts as MUDs (Multi User Domains – text based virtual realities) are clearly hypertextual – there are pieces of text describing different environments usually called ”rooms” and the user may wander from room to room as in any hypertext. At the same time, however, there are several other functions available for the user, she may talk with other users, write her own rooms, program objects performing special tasks, or, solve problems and collect game points. Hypertextuality and hypertext theory do not help us much (if at all) in understanding this kind of textual functionality. For that we need cybertext theory. Cybertextuality is – as Espen Aarseth has defined it – a perspective on all texts, a perspective which takes into account and foregrounds the functionality of all texts. From the cybertextual point of view all texts are machines which perform certain functions and which have to be used in a certain way. Also, the reader may be required to perform some functions in order to be able to read the texts, or, she may be allowed to act as an active participant inside the textual world. Cybertextuality, then, is not only about digital texts, but because digital form allows much more freedom to textual functionality, there is much more need for cybertext theory in the field of digital texts than in print text[1]. So, keeping in mind cybertextuality is a perspective on all texts, we can use the term cybertext in a more limited sense to refer to functional digital texts – this means that all digital texts are not necessary cybertexts (plain text files like in the Project Gutenberg archives, or, e-texts in pdf format are no more functional than average print texts). Now we can better define the scope of this study. The theoretical framework is a combination of cybertext theory and more traditional theory of literature. The focus is on hypertext fiction, even though several other text types - digital and non-digital, literary and non literary, fiction and poetry – are also discussed. To deepen the understanding of hypertext fiction and its reading, quite of lot of attention is paid to the evolutionary line of print fiction which seems to be a major influence in the background. That aspect explains the first part of the subtitle, ”From text to hypertext”, with an emphasis on the transitory phase we are witnessing. On the other hand, the approach is open to the latent aspects of the hypertexts discussed, which already refer to the wider cybertextual properties – because of that the ”and Beyond”. In the main title, ”Digital Literature”, literature is used in a narrow (”literary”) sense. The method is inductive in that through scrutinizing individual, concrete exmples, a more general understanding of the field is sought after. Through not trying to include all the possible digital text types in this study I aim to be more analytic than descriptive. This work should be seen as a collection of independent papers – some of them are previously published, some are still waiting for a proper forum. Most of them have started as seminar papers. I have used the opportunity to make some corrections and changes to the articles previously published (mainly to reduce redundancy, or, to add materials cut out from the publications) – thus, the chapters of this study are not identical with published versions. This study is in its fullest form as a web based electronic text – however, if you are reading this study in print format you are not missing anything substantial. The web text includes additional linking, which makes it easier to follow some ”sub-plots” inside the work – themes that reoccur in different contexts. Also, in web version, many of the works discussed are directly linked to the text, and thus, only a click away. In the first chapter of this study I will give a description of the various traditions behind digital literature, of characteristic properties of digital literature, and, the basics of cybertext theory. I consider various hypertext studies belonging as a part to the broader category of cybertext theory. The second chapter, ”Hyperhistory, Cybertheory: From Memex to ergodic literature”, is an overview of cybertext theory, circling around Aarseth’s theory of cybertext and ergodic literature. Various other approaches are discussed, and integrated to the theoretical framework. For understanding cybertext theory, a historical glance to the development of hypertext systems (and ideologies behind them) is necessary. The integration of hyper- and cybertheories is still very much in progress – hopefully this chapter contributes to that integration. In the third chapter ”Replacement and Displacement. At the limits of print fiction”, several novels and stories are scrutinized from the cybertextual perspective. The aim of the chapter is to show the various ways in which print fiction has anticipated hypertextual practices. The fourth chapter, ”Ontolepsis: from violation to central device” focusses on the narrative device which I have dubbed ontolepsis. Ontolepsis covers different kinds of ”leaks” between separate ontological levels (inside fictional universe). Metalepsis, the crossing of levels of embedded narration, is one type of ontolepses, and certainly so far the most studied one. There is a rather lengthy discussion of fictional ontology, and its relation to narrative levels, because these are essential topics in understanding the phenomenon of ontolepsis in all its forms. A science fiction novel, Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, is used as an example, because its multilayered ontology serves perfectly in illustrating the multifarious nature of ontolepsis. In fiction, ontolepses have been seen as violations of certain conventions – the latter part of the chapter discusses how in hypertext fiction ontolepsis has become a central narrative device. In the fifth chapter, ”Visual structuring of hypertext narratives”, three hypertexts, Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, Stuart Moulthrop’s Victory Garden, and Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, are analyzed stressing their navigation interfaces and use of ”spatial signification”. Narratological questions are also foregrounded. Chapters six and seven, ”Reading Victory Garden – Competing Interpretations and Loose Ends” and ”In Search of Califia” form a pair. They are rather lengthy analyses, or, interpretations, of Stuart Moulthrop’s Victory Garden, and M. D. Coverley’s Califia. In the end of Califia chapter, the question of interpreting hypertexts is discussed. Two forms of interpretative practice, hermeneutics and poetics, seem to have their own roles in regard to hypertexts. The next chapter, ”Negotiating new reading conventions” focusses on reading. In this chapter I’ll look at how traditional reading conventions, on the one hand, still inform hypertext reading, and on the other hand, how hypertexts themselves teach new reading habits, and how new reading formations are negotiated. The final chapter, ”Hypertext Fiction in the Twilight Zone” is a kind of summary. It suggest that fiction based on ”pure” hypertext may be closing its end, and at the same time, looks at the cybertextual means which have appeared to fertilize the field anew. In the horizon there are computer games, virtual realities and other massively programmed forms towering, but also a possibility for a new literature. [1] Which is not to say that there were no use for cybertext theory in the field of print texts – first, there is an amount of experimental or avant garde print texts which take full advantage of functionality potential print book offers; and secondly, there is still much to do to understand the way how literature (even in the most traditional form) works as a technology (see Sukenick (1972) ”The New Tradition”, in In Form: Digressions on the Act of Fiction. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press) – cybertext theory should prove quite fruitful in that field of study. more visit

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Jessica Pressman on The Future of Digital Literature

Written by eastern writer on Friday, February 08, 2013

Digital literature scholar Jessica Pressman will speak on the future of literary studies in an upcoming lecture at Coe College. The event will be held on Thursday, Feb.21 at 4 p.m. in Kesler Lecture Hall of Hickok Hall. Entitled “Electronic Literature: Literary Studies in the 21st Century,” the presentation is free and open to the public. In her lecture, Pressman will share her work on literature and how the digital age has changed the future of it. Her book, “Digital Modernism: Making it in the New Media,” describes how changes in technology are shaping the ways in which we read, study and engage with print and electronic literature. Currently, Pressman researches and teaches 20th and 21st century experimental American literature, digital literature and media theory. She is a Fellow with the American Council of Learned Societies and a Visiting Scholar in the Literature Department at the University of California – San Diego. She has served as assistant professor of English at Yale University and received her Ph.D. in English from UCLA in 2007. Pressman has earned awards for her work as an educator and writer. She received the Sarai Ribicoff Teaching Excellence Award from Yale College in 2010. More recently, she earned the Morse Fellowship Research Sabbatical from Yale University to complete research on her second book. The author’s other works include “Close Reading Electronic Literature, a Collaborative Case Study of William Poundstone’s ‘Project for the Tachistoscope: [Bottomless Pit],’” co-written with Mark C. Marino and Jeremy Douglass, and “New Paradigms for the Humanities: Comparative Textual Medium,” co-edited with N. Katherine Hayles. Pressman is currently working on a manuscript that examines the fetishization of the book object in 21st century print and digital literary culture. Pressman is articles editor for “Digital Humanities Quarterly,” president of the MLA Media & Literature Executive Committee, a member of the board of directors at the Electronic Literature Organization, and a board member for the online journal of digital art Dichtung-Digital. For more information, call 399-8581 or visit

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Review: Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization

Written by eastern writer on Friday, February 08, 2013

Paperback, 280 pages Published :April 5th 2006 by The Johns Hopkins University Press ISBN : 0801883806 (ISBN13: 9780801883804) edition language: English original title : Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization As an academic discipline built upon Enlightenment thought and a cosmopolitan worldview—not grounded in the literary tradition of any single language or nation—comparative literature has benefited from regular reexamination of its basic principles and practices. The American Comparative Literature Association 1993 report on the state of the discipline, prepared under the leadership of Charles Bernheimer, focused on the influence of multiculturalism as a concept transforming literary and cultural studies. That report and the vigorous responses it generated, published together as Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism, offered a comprehensive survey of comparative criticism in the 1990s. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, globalization has emerged as a defining paradigm in nearly every area of human activity. This latest report from the ACLA demonstrates that comparative critical strategies today can provide unique insights into the world's changing—and, increasingly, colliding—cultures. Incorporating an even wider range of voices than had its predecessor, the report examines how the condition (or myth) of globalization in all its modes and moods, affirms or undercuts the intuitions of comparative literature; how world literatures whether seen as utopian project or as classroom practice, intersect with the canons and interpretive styles of national literatures, and how material conditions of practice such as language, media, history, gender, and culture appear under the conditions of the present moment. Responding to the frequent attacks against contemporary literary studies, Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization establishes the continuing vitality of the discipline and its rigorous intellectual engagement with the issues facing today's global society. Contributors: Emily Apter, Christopher Braider, Marshall Brown, Jonathan Culler, David Damrosch, Caroline Eckhardt, Caryl Emerson, David Ferris, Gail Finney, Roland Greene, Linda Hutcheon, Djelal Kadir, Fran├žoise Lionnet, Fedwa Malti-Douglas, Richard Rorty, Haun Saussy, Katie Trumpener, Steven Ungar, Zhang Longxi

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Quote on Art and Literature

    "There is only one school of literature - that of talent."
~ Vladimir Nabokov (1899 - 1977)

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