- Anthological and Archaeological Approaches to Digital Media: A Review of Electronic Literature and Prehistoric Digital Poetry
N. Katherine Hayles's Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary and C.T. Funkhouser's Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms, 1959-1995 exemplify the current disciplinary drive to establish a critical language for speaking about digital literature. The publication of these two modes of scholarship—an anthology and an archeology—demonstrates that a field of inquiry has already stabilized and is working to establish a canon and history. Hayles and Funkhouser have undertaken scholarship that reclaims as much as it reforms an "underlying sense of the literary," as Alan Liu writes on the first page of Laws of Cool, "that is even now searching for a new idiom and role" (1).
Both Prehistoric Digital Poetry and Electronic Literature have a stature and significance each in its own right, but taken together their emergence signals a larger shift in literary-humanist studies, also seen in the rise of new interdisciplinary and transmedial humanities programs. As conflicted as this development might be (simultaneously promoted and critiqued by media scholars such as Alan Liu, Marcel O'Gorman, and Gary Hall), the humanities are going digital. This can be seen in the growing attention paid to literature that is "digital born." Just as significant, digital research tools have allowed older works to be substantially rethought in light of new interpretive models.1
Hayles's Electronic Literature is a companion piece to a projected multi-volume anthology of electronic literature co-edited by Hayles, Scott Rettberg, Nick Montfort, and Stephanie Strickland. The first volume in this series produced by the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO) is available online and as a CD-ROM accompanying Hayles's book. ELO's definition and selection of electronic works directly intervene in the constitution of the field. Hayles takes up ELO's definition of electronic literature as "work with an important literary aspect that takes advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer" (3). She accepts their tautological definition of electronic literature as literature that contains an "important literary aspect" on the basis that works will inevitably be shaped by a priori assumptions from past traditions (even in their attempts to redefine what constitutes the "literary").
Expanding ELO's definition, Hayles characterizes the literary as "creative artworks that interrogate the histories, contexts, and productions of literature, including as well the verbal art of literature proper," adding a critical, self-referential element to her notion of the electronic literary (4). Hayles's definition of electronic literature by default includes works that attend to the specific conditions of their medium and historical context; they are explicitly oriented by self-reflexive relays between multiple orders of textuality.
Just as popular culture studies and postcolonial theory have broadened concepts of the literary in the humanities, Hayles suggests that electronic literature performs the same gesture through an expansion to include technologies beyond print. Despite this acknowledged kinship, her analysis of electronic literature remains distinct from the causes and concerns of popular culture studies. Hayles's examples of electronic literature are generally taken from academic or fine arts contexts; the works included in ELO's collection are the product of a relatively small and networked group of artists, critics and artist-critics including Philippe Bootz, Loss Pequeño Glazier, Stuart Moulthrop, and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. Works that Hayles discusses substantially, such as Judd Morrissey's The Jew's Daughter, Michael Joyce's Twelve Blue, and Talan Memmott's Lexia to Perplexia, are self-consciously avant-garde and not created for mainstream audiences.
Thus there are notable exclusions from Hayles's discussion of electronic literature. Collaborative artistic projects or forms that tend to be more consistently associated with popular traditions such as web comics, fan-fiction, .gif building, and meme generation, are not—for a number of disciplinary reasons—part of the canon that ELO is building. This is not an...