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Locating the Literary in New Media

From: Contemporary Literature
Volume 49, Number 2, Summer 2008
pp. 311-331 | 10.1353/cli.0.0027

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Only in North American academia would the first three titles listed above have appeared before the fourth. Only here would "culture" be the first thing literary scholars think of writing about when confronted with transformation in the material media of our own practice. Works a transformation in the material media of our own practice. Works of literature are cited in these first three books, occasionally as participants in the transformation but more often as casualties or, at best, as well-crafted, all-too-human expressions of what it feels like to live through the transformation. Race in Thomas Foster and Martin Kevorkian, gender in N. Katherine Hayles, and class in all three are given early and articulate expression, a sign that humanities scholarship, for better or worse, has learned to move in step with the changes wrought by technology, new liberal economics, and new media communication. Innovations in commercial technologies, it seems, have given a Second Life to academic cultural studies, allowing scholarship to continue its exploration of any and every human, posthuman, and animal (but only occasionally mineral) implication of our ever-changing, ever-diversifying, ever-present and determinedly "contemporary" culture. As the embrace of informatics and instructional models in classrooms has been, arguably, an outcome of professors' exclusion from boardroom and backroom politics, the fascination with technoculture seems to have distanced humanities scholars from even our former object of interest—not the book, nor its successor media, but the literary imagination as it is constrained and enabled by technology.

Kevorkian, writing on relations of race and technoculture, understands what it might mean for humanists to want to put technology in a "black box," but only Matthew G. Kirschenbaum offers a clear alternative to cultural containment strategies. Still, one won't find much literature on offer in Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. By the time we have this groundbreaking, clear-eyed look at the actual mechanisms at work in literary production, the discussion has already moved past print authors to designers of computer games and the "born digital" work of Michael Joyce and William Gibson—Agrippa, not Gibson's literary and science fiction, not the "cyberculture" that Thomas Foster (in The Souls of Cyberfolk) finds everywhere (in "posthuman speculations" about the technological modification of bodies, cyborg feminism, "sexy robots" in Japanese and North American visual art, cross-racial performances, Billy Idol's Cyberpunk album of 1992, the franchising of nationhood in globalization discourse, and much else). The ubiquity of cyberculture is a reinscription not of print literature (its metaphors, visions, representations, and phrasings) but rather of "specific categories of postmodern theory" (Foster xxviii). Theory—not fiction, not poetry, not the wide-ranging cultural essay or editorial—has become the new "vernacular" of popular culture. We might find "literariness" circulating through the mediasphere, but rarely references to literature; "fictionality," but not fictions; "autopoiesis," but not much poetry.

Or perhaps it's there, and we just don't have the tools or skills or cast of mind to see it. Gibson's three-hundred-line text is listed in Kirschenbaum's bibliography, after all, as "Available online—everywhere," so if it's literature we want, all we should need to do is go there (269). Go anywhere, follow the links, and the literary will emerge in its own good time. Or if typing URLs and visiting Web sites is by now "old world," we can set up a Rich Site Summary (RSS) to bring the literary to us, 24/7. RSS: it's "really simple," we're told by new media artist Kate Armstrong.1 Perhaps. But the ubiquity of Agrippa, the work we happen upon here in Kirschenbaum, is not the most reassuring sample because, paradoxically, this particular text was initially supposed to disappear the moment it was read, its lines erasing themselves one by one with no recovery possible. Agrippa: A Book of the Dead was presented, ostensibly, as a prescient allegory of the literary text's disappearance within a media environment that, in 1992, was still emerging, still a place of experimentation, where one could still take a crack at breaking codes (without undue fear of bringing the Feds to your door), where personae could...

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