I’m zooming through a corridor made of words. On either side, chunky text passes by my shoulders. My eyes flit from one wall to the other, trying to absorb the letters. I am inside a poem.
Then the corridor ends. The space widens, curves, and pinches together above me to form a dome. I look upward and see “The Sun.” But the only light in this virtual reality space comes from the six projectors behind the screen walls that surround me.
The words lining the walls form a poem that can be read in many ways. You can read in columns. You can read in rows. You can read in circles. You can read words at random, stopping on whichever ones catch your eye. Their meaning is fluidly conveyed, and you are the fluid interpreter.
This is electronic literature.
I’m standing inside the CAVE, an 8-foot cube in Brown University’s Granoff Center for the Creative Arts. The CAVE is Brown’s interactive virtual-reality environment, designed to display immersive 3-D visualizations programmed by students. Kathleen Ottinger, the poem’s author, stands beside me, controlling this simulation with a pair of motion-detecting 3-D glasses and a modified Wii controller. She is a college senior completing a dual degree from Brown and RISD in literary arts with a concentration in “electronic writing” — poetry and prose written within a digital medium that cannot be read outside of that medium without losing some or all of its significance. Her project required her to write both the text of the poem and the code for the program that projects the colorful, moving displays onto the walls.
Walking into Brown’s CAVE is kind of like walking out of Plato’s. I can’t decide whether to be dazzled or paralyzed by the light — whether I’m thrilled that the artistic possibilities for “writers” are expanding ever outward, or terrified that my definition of what literature is has been shattered.
For the past 20 years, the field of electronic literature has been developing beneath the noses of academics, book lovers, and college English majors like me. Now it is ready to reveal itself to the masses and revolutionize the way we think about the book, whether we’re prepared for it or not.
I’m a technophobe. C++ sounds like a mediocre grade given by a pitying teacher. Java is coffee. Books allow me long periods of quiet, of calm, of deep concentration, and I was skeptical that a literature based on digital mediums could successfully command my full attention.
Then I read “Translation”, a work by Brown literary arts professor John Cayley. The piece starts with a screen divided in two, half black and half white. After a moment of quiet, a deep piano note sounds, and little fragments of German text appear on the black half of the screen. More fragments appear with each pulsing note, and new instruments join in as the notes quicken. The text, which appears in German, French, and English, concerns the nature of translation. A symphony of occasionally harmonious, but often dissonant sounds both clarifies and mystifies the text. I was mesmerized.
But not all e-literature resembles “Translation”. Previous forms of e-literature were less grounded in visual stimuli. The first generation was mostly fiction: authors wrote short stories composed of various “lexia,” pieces of narrative designed for the Internet, where they were linked together and could be rearranged by the reader to produce variations on the stories. The first work of this kind, Michael Joyce’s afternoon, a story, was published in 1990 on a CD-ROM.
The introduction of Flash Player software allowed for the emergence of a second generation of e-lit: digital poetics, which often incorporates more visuals, animation, and other elements that require a computer to be appreciated.
Cayley is among the field’s biggest names, but he doesn’t like using the term “electronic literature” to describe his work. In his opinion, it focuses too much on literature as a finished product; he prefers to call it “writing in networked and programmable media,” which emphasizes first the process of creating e-lit, then the medium through which it is communicated.
While doing computer research in Chinese studies and translation in the late 1970s, Cayley started conducting poetic experiments with personal computers. For Cayley, a poem is not limited to the words it encompasses, but also includes the rules by which it is made. He wanted to see how deconstructing that process using computers could create interesting poetic effects. “Computation is integral to the processes of composition,” he says. “A computer is like a complex surface upon which one can write.”
Nowadays, Cayley uses computers to create programs and algorithms that generate poetry. Sometimes he works with existing texts or with words gleaned from Google’s Ngram Viewer and uses computer programming to impose a set of rules upon the text that could be poetically interesting. Other times, the poem’s text is designed to change with every reading, so that a reader experiences the same process each time but not necessarily the same words. For Cayley, the literal text of the poem is not the poem; the poem is the process generated by the program.
When I visited Ottinger at Brown, she showed me one of Cayley’s CAVE sketches: not quite a poem, but a piece of art that expressed a poetic idea. Cayley worked with a RISD professor of graphic design to create a virtual 3-D rendering of Magritte’s famous pipe painting. They called it “This is Not Writing.” The words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” floated beneath the virtual pipe, just as they do in the painting. When you put on the motion-detecting glasses, you can “walk” inside the pipe and interact with it virtually.
But how can I describe to you, using only words, what it means to interact with a virtually-created pipe? How can I describe the smooth, realistically-rendered mahogany of the pipe’s inner contours?
“Stepping inside” the virtual pipe, I understood how Jonah must have felt inside the whale. The space was claustrophobic, the roof of the pipe curving downward above my head in the shape of the whale’s back. The crawlspace I had entered grew smaller as Ottinger pressed the remote control forward. Light, not among Jonah’s luxuries, emanated from an unknown source. This is not a pipe.
This was true — it wasn’t a real pipe. But Ottinger pointed out to me that the pipe was, in some ways, more of a pipe than an actual pipe. This pipe opened itself up to me, and let me see its entrails. It was communicating something to me that would have been inexpressible on the page.
Electronic literature has a way with converts.
Kathi Inman Berens, a lecturer at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication, lives and breathes e-literature, but she wasn’t always on board. “I felt really alienated from the machine,” she says. Then, sitting outside with her iPad reading Michael Joyce’s “Twelve Blue” a number of years ago, she noticed that she could see her reflection in the screen. As she read, she saw herself reacting to the drama of the story.
“[It was] this uncanny moment where the dark black screen was reflecting my own embodied reaction to the text,” she says. “I started to think, wait a moment, maybe a computational device can do things that a book can’t do. That’s when I realized I needed to embrace electronic literature in a systematic way.”
Now, Berens is a member of the Electronic Literature Organization, which runs field conferences and has published two e-literature collections to make the medium’s best works easily accessible. Her scholarship focuses on 21st century digital communication practices, and she co-curated the first Electronic Literature Showcase at the Library of Congress last April. I had mentioned in an email that I still doubted whether or not electronic literature could convey the warmth and depth of human emotion, the way a good book can. She responded with a link to “Underbelly” by Christine Wilks.
“Underbelly” was chilling. The piece tells the stories of female coal miners who chisel away at the treasures hidden in the earth, and a female sculptor who chisels away at stone to create a piece of art. It includes the eerie voices of women in the mines and a video clip of the sculptor describing her practice. The computer cursor that viewers use to navigate the story illuminates sections of an underground mine, highlighting animations of the coal miners crawling through the dark passages like ants.
Although the piece features no text, Berens says it still feels like literature to her because of its ambiguities, allusions, and concerns, and because it tells a spoken-word narrative. A work like “Underbelly” raises questions about how literature itself is defined in a world where books are no longer the default vessel for writing. Electronic literature demonstrates that literature can come to us today in an unexpected form.
But the form itself is, of course, both a strength and shortcoming. A child can pick up a book and understand how the practice of reading works, but reading a hypertext novel can feel awkward to someone unfamiliar with the medium. You can’t dog ear pages, or flip forward or backward within seconds. When holding a Kindle in my hands, I find myself romanticizing the smell of an old book, the comfort of a library, the feel of different kinds of paper.
There are problems with the accessibility of e-literature as well. Since the field is still a niche one, efforts have not been made on a grand scale to preserve older works of e-literature that were created using now-obsolete software. Berens says that ELO’s preservation strategy is to videotape sessions where people are interacting with a work of e-literature so that the various performances (“traversals”) of that work can be archived. At the moment, there is no conceivable way for ELO to provide people with access to every piece of e-lit that was created using outdated technology. A work’s lifespan is as long as that of the computing software it runs on, and software lifespans decrease by the year.
Even so, Berens believes e-lit can be spread to the masses. Our brains, she says, are becoming better suited to non-print forms of reading. She mentions an Internet meme that became a YouTube video last year: a baby touching a magazine like it was an iPad, getting fed up because it didn’t respond to her touch, and tossing it aside.
“There’s a whole generation [that] is being trained to read with their fingers and with swipe gestures and pinches, for whom games are a robust narrative experience, a world-making, world-believing experience. For those sorts of readers, the computational is just assumed, as opposed to a bizarre add-on,” Berens says.
Talking to Berens, I remember how in the CAVE at Brown, Ottinger showed me a programming effect called a “particle system.” You input a set of text or pictures into the computer, and then, projected on the CAVE walls, your input swirls around you like a tornado. The words and images fall out of order, and you are inside the eye of a storm.
In some ways, electronic literature is like a particle system. It is pulsating with creative ambition and possibility, but some of that enthusiasm gets tangled up in obstacles like obsolescence, technophobia, and general misunderstanding. Even so, it has the potential to be the medium we use to read literature in the future.
My generation is a liminal one, Berens says. As millennials, we are both immersed in the print world that academia still promotes and drawn into the cyberspace world of our peers. We could swing either way, cowering inside a fort of print books or embracing the sounds, swipes, and Flash of electronic literature. We are the ones who will decide how to manage the limitless possibilities of the medium.
But maybe seeing a print-digital divide is a false dichotomy. Maybe we don’t have to choose.
For Jessica Pressman, studying e-literature is about looking back. A former Yale professor, she is now a visiting scholar at the University of California, San Diego. “The history of media shows that mediums overlap and are recursive in their relationships to each other,” she says. She has just written a book — a print book — that places electronic literature in the context of literary modernism of the 1920s.
Although much of her critical study focuses on Generation Flash digital poetics, she says that what she loves about e-lit is the writing, not just the media incorporated to enhance the writing. “People tend to get lost in the bells and whistles of the Flash medium,” she says.
Pressman hopes that her book will shift the field’s analytical emphasis from the newness of the medium to its connection to the past. She argues that digital literature can teach us important lessons about the canon of English literature and open up new ways to interpret that canon. “To understand contemporary literature,” she says, “you have to understand the past.”
Pressman taught a course on electronic literature at Yale in fall 2010 and 2008. Yale has a traditional English department, she says, but the department was on board with her approach; her class was “taught within literary tradition.” Pressman left Yale for family reasons, but she says that she knows there will be a future for e-literature at Yale. “It’s no longer an avant-garde field,” she says. “It’s out there. And it’s happening.
Because e-literature is literature, it has to be studied in the context of what came before, and studying it, in turn, can shed new light on the hallowed, age-old canon of print literature.
Standing in the CAVE with Ottinger, I remember why I love print books — their look, their smell, their feel.
We are viewing “Cubes,” an interpretation of the Jorge Luis Borges story “The Library of Babel” created by two former Brown Literary Arts graduate students. The project is made up of twenty-seven cubes that fill the physical space of the CAVE one at a time. Since only about eight cubes can be seen at any given moment while standing in the CAVE, the number of rooms we can enter seems infinite. Each time Ottinger moves her Wii remote, a new room comes into view, and a specially selected chunk of Borges text appears before our eyes. The outline of the CAVE is rimmed with more text. The rooms are literally made of words.
But Ottinger saves the best for last. The project imposes a “scaling effect” upon the text at the click of her remote. The letters rimming each side of the cube suddenly zoom toward us. They seem to glide over and under each other as they grow larger in size. Sometimes they flicker, an effect called “z-fighting” that occurs when two letters are trying to occupy the same coordinates within the program. I am seeing the letters up close, watching them interact with each other in a way they never could when printed on the page.
I think to myself — isn’t this exactly what I’d always wanted to do with my favorite books? Escape inside the words?
I can’t resist the urge to grasp at the air, to feel the letters made real between my fingers.
I see solid objects before me, and I reach for them like they are buoys in a mystical, floating world I can’t quite understand. All I feel is empty space.
But I continue to see the words. I can’t tell you about them because they aren’t the words you see on this page right now. These words re-imagine words. These words, immaterial but pulsating, are a riddle.
Empty, but limitless.