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Anthological and Archaeological Approaches to Digital

Anthological and Archaeological Approaches to Digital
Media: A Review of Electronic Literature and Prehistoric Digital
Poetry
Stephanie Boluk
University of Florida
sboluk@ufl.edu

Review of: N. Katherine Hayles. Electronic Literature: New
Horizons for the Literary. Notre Dame: University of Notre
Dame Press, 2008; and Chris Funkhouser, Prehistoric Digital
Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms, 1959-1995. Tuscaloosa:
University of Alabama Press, 2007.

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 insignificant issue, as the setting aside of
collaborative, serially constructed works from the field of the literary
reinscribes into new media forms a Cartesian model of authorship that
is the legacy of the print monograph.

The extent to which the selections in the first volume of the Electronic
Literature Anthology are technologically determined should also not be
overlooked. ELO required that the material be viewable across different
platforms and easily downloadable from the Internet. This eliminated
a substantial number of important early works for possible inclusion
(and thus implicitly shapes the direction that future production and
study of electronic literature will take). As Hayles's book and ELO's
collection are considerable achievements that will no doubt become
standard texts in university survey courses, it is important to
understand that canonicity in this context is not solely generated
through the perceived aesthetic or historical value of a work, but the
particular medial and technological conditions that govern its
development and reception. Funkhouser's discussion of the substantial
body of digital poetry that is no longer easily accessible (or even still in
existence) serves as a vital complement to the approach taken in the ELO
anthology. Criteria for inclusion in his archaeological project were not
dictated by any site, platform or software-specific requirements.

Electronic Literature surveys and discusses works which Hayles defines
as "digital born." These are artworks created and generally intended for
viewing on a computer -- to distinguish them from digitized objects
such as print books originally created for other media outputs, or print
works refitted to the requirements of e-book hardware and software.
Through examination of historical trends and the emergence of different
branches of electronic literature, both she and Funkhouser establish 1995
as an important historical threshold that distinguished different
generations of electronic literature. For Hayles, Shelley Jackson's
Patchwork Girl (1995) is the culminating work of the "classical" era of
hypertext fiction -- the end of a generation of works made using
programs such as HyperCard and Storyspace (6-7). The classical era
of hypertext eventually gives way to works that are more multimodal.
These works feature a greater diversity of "navigation schemes and
interface metaphors that tend to deemphasize the link" (7), and make
more extensive use of multiple data streams containing sound,
images, film, and animation.

In addition to web-based forms of electronic literature, Hayles also
touches on a wide range of other forms: interactive fiction (IF); "code
work," an aesthetic form that emphasizes the way in which code and
literary effects may be cross-pollinated; "locative narratives," a common
sub-species of which is the Alternate Reality Game (ARG); and "generative
literature" or text generators, which make use of complex algorithms to
produce textual effects. Hayles also borrows Noah Wardrip-Fruin's terms
"textual instrument" and "playable media" to describe electronic works
that move away from traditional notions of gaming yet retain a high level
of playability. Some similar experimental practices in print that serve as
antecedents can be seen in the work of the Oulipo, the "new novelists,"
and William Burroughs; electronic literature serves to further facilitate
these kinds of practices.

Central to Hayles's argument is her concept of "dynamic heterarchies."
Dynamic heterarchies are a "multi-tiered system in which feedback and
feedforward loops tie the system together through continuing
interactions . . . different levels continuously inform and mutually
determine each other" (45). Hayles characterizes the interaction between
different media, between humans and machines, and between code and
language as forms of dynamic heterarchies. This model shares
considerable family traits with the dialectical tradition, but it lacks the
politicization built into dialectical forms. In place of an adversarial
framework, she heavily relies in her theory on sexually reproductive
metaphors, invoking, for example, images of a mother and fetus to
describe these feedback systems.

The dynamic heterarchy comes to serve as a kind of all-purpose model.
It affects Hayles's analysis on multiple levels and fits in with an
idiosyncratic rhetorical tendency in her work to use reproductive imagery.
She extends this trope to a discussion of the relationship between
different branches of scholarly thought, producing her own dynamic
heterarchy using Mark Hansen's discussion of embodiment and Friedrich
Kittler's techno-determinism. She maps their scholarship onto her model
of a dynamic heterarchy in which they exemplify two limit points engaged
in a kind of (re)productive oscillation. This tendency to replace conflict
with (re)productive cooperation recurs in Hayles's scholarship. For
example, Hayles (2007) has recently challenged Lev Manovich's now
notorious claim that "database and narrative are natural enemies" (225),
proposing an alternative theory in which each is instead viewed as "a
natural symbiont whose existence is inextricably entwined with that of
its partner" ("Responses" 1606).

To complement Hayles's overview of the field of electronic literature,
Funkhouser's Prehistoric Digital Poetry presents an impressive
genealogy of digital poetry from 1959 to 1995, historicizing many of
the digital practices Hayles reviews. Funkhouser labels the era
between 1959-1995 "prehistoric." His terminology draws attention
to the large amount of information now already irrecoverable from
the early history of electronic poetry. The book is a record of
Funkhouser's archeological excavations -- it is a project of
reconstructing fragments of works made inaccessible through the
vagaries of technological progress and a collective, sometimes
alarming lack of foresight about the importance of data preservation
in digital environments. In some cases, Funkhouser does not have
direct access to the artworks he discusses, as they no longer exist.
He reconstitutes them through exhibit programs, correspondences
with artists, catalogues, and through other creative approaches.

Given Funkhouser's herculean efforts of archival collection, it would
have been useful had he gone into greater detail about his own
viewing process and the specific ways in which he gained access to
many of the works he discusses (e.g. the process of emulation or
technical troubleshooting on obsolete computer hardware).
Funkhouser has put together a rich collection of obscure, barely
remembered works, and it is a sad conjecture that much of what he
has gathered will likely only be preserved through the screenshots
and technical descriptions he provides. As much new media
scholarship has recently emphasized, access to older technologies
is a pressing issue because much gets lost when work migrates
across platforms, even when this migration is motivated by the
desire for preservation. This can have significant consequences
for the history of electronic literature.2

Funkhouser uses the term prehistoric to emphasize the irony
surrounding the immense archival challenges of writing a history
that is only fifty years old. He also argues that "[t]he work
discussed here is prehistoric because no masterpieces or 'works
for the ages' emerged to lodge the genre in the imagination of a
larger audience" (6). Although Funkhouser includes many artists
(Philippe Bootz, Eduardo Kac, Alan Sondheim, etc.) who have made
significant contributions since 1995, he defines this pre-1995 era
as a kind of anonymous, ill-recorded pre-history before digital
poetry coalesced into a stable field. These digital poets can be
compared to bards prior to the invention of writing, whose
anonymous, collective legacy is retained through their epic poetry.
Yet, to regard post-1995 digital poetics in terms of the establishment
of distinguished authors actually departs from some of the poetic
approaches Funkhouser promotes in later chapters. He laments,
for example, that the Internet did not model itself more after Ted
Nelson's Xanadu, which could have yielded, he suggests, borrowing
Nelson's terminology, a more "deeply intertwingled" form of
de-subjectivized, participatory poetics (DM54). Such a poetics
would be, presumably, predicated on a model of collective
authorship that is antagonistic to the one that he uses to
demarcate contemporary digital poetry from the pre-historic.

Funkhouser's archaeological method sets his work distinctly apart
from ELO's anthological approach as he focuses on works that
have become largely inaccessible to a lay audience using only
contemporary technological devices. There are no "masters" or
canons of early digital poetry not solely because of the aesthetic
quality of early digital poetry, but also because of the technical
constraints that surrounded production and reception. Herein
lies the superb value of Funkhouser's archeology: his book serves
as a direct intervention against what Terry Harpold in Ex-foliations:
Reading Machines and the Upgrade Path (2009) calls the "conceits
of the upgrade path" -- the most often market-driven momentum
with which new technologies of the reading surface supersede the
old with little interest in historical preservation (3).

It is not only specific digital works, but also entire technologies
that are forsaken on the path of medial innovation. Funkhouser's
discussion of MUDs (multi-user dungeons) and MOOs (multi-user
dungeons, object-oriented) aptly conveys the problems of data loss
and obsolescence. As the conditions produced in these systems
were not reproducible in the emergent technology of the World Wide
Web, the technology surrounding the MOO itself was prematurely
arrested by the release of an incommensurable upgrade.

In addition to an archeological framework, Funkhouser creates an
interesting classification system through his chapter organization.
Borrowing from the conventions of previous scholarly works such
as Loss Pequeño Glazier's Digital Poetics (2002), Funkhouser moves
from discussion of text generators to visual and kinetic poems to
hypertext and hypermedia and finally to online networks. In one
illuminating section, Funkhouser compares a system of digital poetry
classification he had set down in 1996 with his current model in
Prehistoric Digital Poetry. He lists his previous organizing
principles: "hypermedia, HyperCard, hypertext, network hypermedia,
or text-generating software" (237). This taxonomy shows how
smitten nineties new media criticism was with hypertext. Like
Hayles, Funkhouser marks the historical shift away from the classic
hypertext of the 1990s by demonstrating how nearly the entire
spectrum of new media production was once defined in terms of
the link. Funkhouser's comparison clearly conveys that it is not
only technologies, but also theoretical constructs that have an
accelerated obsolescence in the field of digital literature.

One can detect a kind of liberatory shift through the chapters in
Prehistoric Digital Poetry. Each new form presented seems to
offer an increase in agency and greater intervention on part of the
reader/user of digital poetry. Throughout the book Funkhouser
indicates his preference for works that open up the field for both
reader and creator. Funkhouser regularly resorts to a rhetoric of
"interactivity" in a way that, although it may not put pressure on
this concept in terms of human-computer interaction, stretches
the limits of the definition of poetry. The chapters move away
from more rigidly conceived author/reader distinctions to a model
of poetics in which production and reception are interleaved with
one another. Whether through the discussion of the interpretive
(or non-interpretive) flexibility of the aleatory text generator or
the open writing space of the MOO, the progression of
Funkhouser's chapters works to expand the possibilities of reader
agency in both mechanical as well as hermeneutic terms.

As the horizon of digital arts and literatures expands, the question
that both Hayles and Funkhouser must confront directly is how to
define their field. Digital media has become ubiquitous, and the
convergence of media has further eroded the boundaries between
fields that were once imagined as distinct from one another. The
ontological differences between work categorized as digital art or
as digital literature, for example, are not as important as the fact
that these works address and are situated within two different
discursive contexts. These distinctions do not focus on any
intrinsic technological or formal quality of the medium in which
the work is produced. Both "digital poetry" and "electronic
literature" self-consciously borrow from print traditions and affix
a technological signifier to the conditions of writing with
networked and programmable media. Both scholars devote
considerable attention to defining the way in which the adjectives
"digital" and "electronic" reshape older models of poetry and of
literature more generally. Yet both also seem to take for granted
that the terms "poetry" and "literature" have commonly understood
meanings. As Funkhouser writes of "poetry": "I examine texts
made with computer processing that identify themselves as poetry,
have an overtly stanzaic or poetic appearance on the screen, or
contain other direct conceptual alignments with poetry as it has
been otherwise known" (25). For Funkhouser, poetry is either that
which defines itself as poetry or, following Hayles, that which
alludes to the idea that there are commonly accepted notions about
what falls into the category of poetry. Hayles, ELO, and
Funkhouser are comfortable acceding to prior conventions to leave
a certain undecidability in their terminology. The result is that the
specific works presented shape and delimit what is included within
the borders of digital literature.

As with much time-sensitive new media scholarship, both Hayles
and Funkhouser conclude their books with prognosticatory chapters
in which they attempt to look to the future of their field. Hayles
argues that the future has basically already arrived in that nearly
all print literature is now inflected by the conditions of digitality
(Electronic Literature itself, which comes with a CD-ROM and
makes reference to supplementary materials on the ELO website,
serves as an example of this). Hayles chooses to end her book
with a discussion of Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, a
work that is not digital born, but that embodies this state of medial
interpenetration. Hayles portrays the future of electronic literature
as one of undecidable flux in which code, medial output, humans,
and machines are in a constant play with one another.

If Hayles recursively selects print as a way of inaugurating the
future of digital literature, Funkhouser moves in another direction.
He looks to video games, proposing a model for future digital
poetry based on Espen Aarseth's notion of "cybertext" and
"ergodic literature" -- works that require the "nontrivial effort"
of a user. Funkhouser sees the growth of participatory, ergodic
texts as "crucial" to the future of digital poetry, and ties the fate
of digital poetry to that of games. Gaming technologies and
logics offer the potential for digital poetry to be produced in an
open, multi-authored, collaborative dataspace. Yet while he casts
a hopeful eye in this direction, he does so with a strangely limited
definition of a video game. The peculiar result is that Funkhouser
both looks toward and is strangely dismissive of games, offering
generally reductive characterizations of a form he would have
digital poetry colonize. Like Hayles, Funkhouser reveals a blind
spot about the popular and its intersection with the comparably
isolated objects he examines. He pessimistically suggests that
"Given a new set of stimuli -- a slower pace of presentation,
materials absorbed as words and artwork -- the typical video
game audience might change its tastes, but I do not see those
radically different modes ever conjoining in titles that reach a
high level of popularity in mass culture" (251). After dedicating a
book to works that have never achieved more than minor
subcultural fame, one wonders why Funkhouser raises the issue
of commercial or mass popularity. While popular commercial
videogames are still certainly dominated by a highly restrictive
set of generic conditions, there is a growing movement towards
avant-garde gaming -- a movement that has been co-opted by
the industry to varying degrees.3

But this cavil is not meant to de-emphasize the significance of
either Electronic Literature or Prehistoric Digital Poetry. Both
discuss a fascinating collection of texts. Hayles provides
useful readings and re-readings of the works of better known
artists (John Cayley, Michael Joyce, Talan Memmott, and others)
while Funkhouser unearths examples of early digital poetry that
even specialists will delight in learning about. The importance
of these works for both teaching and scholarship in the
amorphously defined field of the digital humanities is substantial.
Funkhouser's archaeology and ELO's anthology take two
complementary approaches to the problem of new media
historicism. Making a great deal of electronic literature freely
available across platforms as ELO has done is an impressive
achievement. This anthology of electronic literature will play
a significant role in defining the perception of contemporary
electronic literature, thus shaping the practice of future
generations of digital artists. The very fact that the Electronic
Literature Anthology will no doubt have a significant impact
on the field as a primary resource makes a work like Funkhouser's
all the more valuable. Funkhouser's goal is not to pass judgment
or to emphasize the value of a work as much as to record that it
was once there.

The production of digital literature is tied quite closely to its
criticism and study, as many digital poets are scholars and vice
versa; the shifts and developments in one area are never without
consequence in the other. This is why both an authoritative
anthology and an archaeology are valuable interventions against
ahistoricizing trends in digital media. They oppose claims
surrounding the "newness" of new media and recuperate not
merely specific histories but a larger sense of the importance and
necessity of taking an historical approach to the digital -- a
logic always at risk of being lost in a field so deeply enmeshed
in the rhetoric of technological progress.


Notes

1 See the October 2007 issue of the PMLA in which Ed
Folsom, Peter Stallybrass, Jerome McGann, Meredith L. McGill,
Jonathan Freedman, and N. Katherine Hayles discuss how database
technologies have altered humanities research not only by
increasing access to historical materials, but also by transforming
the theoretical concepts that undergird concepts of text,
authorship, and narrative. Using The Walt Whitman Archive as a
central case study for examining the changing profession, Folsom
suggests that the database offers an alternative to the codex that
is in many ways more suited to reading and organizing Whitman's
poetry.

2 See for example, Matthew Kirschenbaum's Mechanisms: New
Media and the Forensic Imagination [0](2008), Terry Harpold's
Ex-foliations: Reading Machines and the Upgrade Path (2009),
and the Platform Studies series from MIT Press, edited by Ian
Bogost and Nick Montfort. These works stress technological
specificity and provide case studies about which it is essential
to take into consideration the unique material conditions of
production and reception. For example, Harpold's study of
Afternoon, a Story demonstrates how the claims made by Joyce
scholars were often only applicable to the specific platform on
which they viewed the work--yet their arguments were presented
as if able to be generalized to every version of the text, creating
problems for establishing Afternoon's critical history.

3 See for example, the video game-influenced art and poetry
of Jason Nelson, Camille Utterback and Romy Achituv, Natalie
Bookchin, Julian Oliver, Brody Condon, Cory Arcangel, Mary
Flanagan, Auriea Harvey, and Michael Samyn.


Works Cited

Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Print.
Funkhouser, Christorpher T. Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An
Archaeology of Forms, 1959-1995. Tuscaloosa:
University of Alabama Press, 2007. Print.
Harpold, Terry. Ex-foliations: Reading Machines and the Upgrade
Path. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009. Print.
Hayles, N. Katherine. Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the
Literary. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008.
Print.
---. "Narrative and Database: Natural Symbionts." PMLA:
Publications of the Modern Language Association of America
122.5 (2007): 1603-1608. Web.
Liu, Alan. The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of
Information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Print.
Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge: MIT
Press, 2000. Print.
Nelson, Theodor. Computer Lib: You can and must understand
computers now/Dream Machines: New freedoms through
computer screens -- a minority report. South Bend, IN:
Tempus Books of Microsoft Press 1987. Print.

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