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#ELRPROMO: “Other Codes / Cóid Eile: Digital Literature in Context”

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In a few days the event “Other Codes / Cóid Eile: Digital Literature in Context” will take place in the Irish city of Galway. The organizer Anne Sofia Karhio, a researcher in the field of electronic literature, accepted the invitation to participate in an interview to promote the event.

This is the first #ELRPROMO, a new topic in the blog that aims to the announcement of forthcoming events in the field of electronic literature.

ELR: Anne Sofia Karhio you are a researcher in the field of electronic literature. When did you start studying electronic literature and what are your main research interests in this field?

Anne Sofia Karhio: I have, like many others working on electronic literature, been trained in more traditional literary scholarship. I studied comparative literature at the University of Helsinki, and then English literature at Trinity College Dublin and finally at the National University of Ireland, Galway, where I got my doctorate and where I’m still based.  I’m not sure whether “traditional” is exactly the right word here, though, as I was always drawn to the more quirky or experimental. My initial interest in electronic literature was also a result of that: I simply became curious about what happens when words move from page to the digital domain, all the strange shapes and forms they can take, and what this means for how we understand language and literary expression. It was only after my PhD that I really started looking into digital literature, and I have to admit that it has been quite a learning experience, though a really rewarding one.

My postdoctoral research project, co-funded by the Irish Research Council and the European Commission via Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions, took me to the University of Bergen to work with Scott Rettberg, Jill Walker-Rettberg and other researchers in electronic literature and digital culture there. It is difficult to explain how life changing that experience was – the research community in Bergen is quite amazing, and really welcoming for newcomers. Due to the Bergen connection I have also been lucky to be able to connect with many well-known scholars, authors and artists, some of whom have since visited Galway – these include Scott Rettberg, Rod Coover, Maria Engberg, Jason Nelson, and Alinta Krauth.

My current research focuses on poetry, technology and landscape, and I’m therefore particularly interested in the shifting border between verbal and visual expression in all kinds of multimodal environments. My research has been largely focused on form, aesthetics, and close reading and analysis, and there has been less of that practical or creative input that characterizes the work of so many scholars of electronic literature. At the same time, practice has started infiltrating my research in all kinds of small and perhaps unexpected ways – like trying out augmented reality apps to explore how these technologies frame the visual environment, and so forth.

ELR: What is your approach to electronic literature? Do you see electronic literature as experimental literature? Do you make a comparative study with other artistic practices?

Anne Sofia Karhio: I have no background in IT or programming, so I have had to learn a lot of things from scratch just to get beyond the level of surface aesthetics of many works. I also continue to work on print poetry as well as digital literature, and want to consider questions of landscape, for example, thematically as well as through the technological platforms and practices. To jump to the last part of that question first, the concept of landscape has its historical roots in the visual arts, so this is a constant point of reference. Overall, I guess it is safe to say that the borders between art forms are currently in turmoil, which means that cinematic expression, music and sound, and all kinds of embodied and haptic technologies are also increasingly relevant. It can be a little bit of a balancing act, sometimes, to retain an openness to these developments, and still keep a focus on the specific topic of one’s research. But I suppose as a researcher I’m most comfortable in inhabiting that transition zone, historically as well as aesthetically. For me, the new digital homes for literature were never a sign that literature would be discarding print to embrace the digital; rather, there is a range of transformative exchanges between these two domains.

It is hardly controversial to say that experimentation often characterizes electronic literature, not least because of the relative novelty of the medium. Many dislike the term “new media”, as computer technologies as well as electronic literature have been around for decades. I speak of “new media technologies” in my own research, but more in the sense of technologies that are new, rather than New Media as shorthand for late 20th-early 21st century digital technologies. This also allows for a historical perspective: I’m quite interested in the work of poets who relate the current historical moment to how writers and artists engaged with the technological changes in the Victorian era, for example – the “new media” of that period. The Northern Irish poet Sinéad Morrissey is a wonderful example of that.

I suppose that like any other art form, electronic literature can be conventional or experimental, depending on whether it repeats pre-existing forms and practices, or finds new ways of challenging them. But one does encounter particularly many practitioners who are drawn to the idea of testing new methods of creativity and dissemination. There is more than a hint of that eccentric scientist mentality, and of course the question is how patience with scholarship and aesthetic craft relate to the fascination of the “new”. And then there is the issue of aesthetic and artistic communities, and the national and cultural institutions that foster them (or fail to do so). Experimentation and artistic license are not part of the culture in quite the same way in different countries. Ireland, for example, has produced pretty revolutionary experimental writers, like Beckett and Joyce – but they did their experimentation elsewhere, for reasons that relate to the culture and society here. Experimental literary communities may have found it more challenging to prosper in Ireland, for various reasons, though there are individual scholars and practitioners who are testing new platforms here, too, like Jeneen Naji in Maynooth, the electronic literature author Michael J. Maguire, or James O’Sullivan who runs New Binary Press. Not to even mention quite a few younger researchers that are curious about the field.

ELR: In 2015 you co-organized the ELO2015 Conference “The End(s) of Electronic Literature” and co-edited the Conference Program and Festival Catalog. What are in your opinion some of the most important outcomes of that event?

Anne Sofia Karhio: The ELO2015 conference was quite an overwhelming experience, partially due to the sheer number of proposed papers and art works. The diversity of the material covered in the catalog, for example, makes it quite difficult to make any kind of a generalizing statement on the conference contributions thematically or even technologically. But the conference topic or title, “End(s) of Electronic Literature”, does suggest a certain coming of age of the field, I think, though perhaps those who have been a part of the organization longer might be better equipped to evaluate that. I believe there were varying opinions on that title, and whether it reflected some kind of pessimism regarding the future of electronic literature, e-lit being “done”. But more than that, I’d say it reflected a historical moment of a kind of coming of age – now that electronic literature has been practiced for decades, and has more institutional recognition, there is also a need to reflect on its purpose, its changing forms, and perhaps even its key concepts in a way that may not have been similarly possible before. What the ELO2015 conference certainly highlighted for me was that the sheer variety of what is now covered under the term “electronic literature” is such that it raises all kinds of questions, mostly very interesting ones, on what we understand even by the term “literature” in a wider sense. The question is far from new, but we can now approach it from new perspectives.

ELR: From 11-12 May 2017 the conference “Other Codes / Cóid Eile: Digital Literature in Context” will take place. What will be the topics discussed on this occasion?

Anne Sofia Karhio: I spent quite a long time trying to find the right phrasing for the title of the conference. The term “context” is not entirely groundbreaking, of course, but here it partially stems from this sense that formal, aesthetic and technological questions still overshadow an awareness of that extra-literary (or extra-artistic) terrain from which electronic literature, too, emerges. It is interesting – and sometimes slightly frustrating – to see how the old debate regarding formalism and aesthetics versus cultural identity or context still keeps repeating itself, even in the field of electronic literature. But I’d like to go beyond that and seriously consider how literature in the digital domain can offer a new aesthetics for social critique, how new technologies make it possible to examine the more sinister aspects of the new digital society from within in the context of globalization, for example, and how questions of linguistic difference now also assume a new relevance. The bilingual title of the conference, “other codes” as well as the Irish language “cóid eile”, is not there just for a bit of exotic cultural flavor! I’d like to think that the approaches of the invited speakers that we will hear from at this event reflect the variety of ways in which “context” can be understood: Sandy Baldwin, Jessica Pressman, María Mencía and Scott Rettberg have all engaged with it differently, like looking at non-Western electronic literatures and global issues, questions of gender and sexuality, precedents in literary movements in the 20th century, multimodal art practices, and aesthetic communities or new genres.

ELR: What do you hope or foresee for the future of electronic literature?

Anne Sofia Karhio: I think as humanities scholars we are naturally equipped to defend the importance of art and literature and have a sense of how they shape the human experience, and how they profoundly interrogate our relationship with the non-verbal as well as the non-human domain. But the more I learn about how digital media technologies impact on our environment, and how their connections to all kinds of questions of economic and political power, surveillance and control work, the more convinced I am that literary scholars and practitioners, as well as digital artists in other fields, have a huge responsibility to make visible (sometimes literally!) what these technologies do what they are used for, and what possibilities of expression, agency, or resistance they give us. Digital arts and humanities are too often understood merely as applying new technologies to humanities research on established forms of cultural expression. This might sound a little bit bombastic or lofty, but I think if we are at all worthy of calling ourselves humanities scholars, we also have to do the opposite (and this is what so many practitioners of electronic literature already do): we must apply the rigor and critical force of humanities creativity and scholarship to all aspects of the digital. Too much is at stake for us to leave the digital for the engineers alone. The old joke applies: science can tell you how to clone a dinosaur – humanities can tell you whether it might be a good or a bad idea!

 

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Interview with Jessica Pressman

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ELR: Jessica Pressman since 2012 (?) you are member of the Board of Directions of the Electronic Literature Organization. How did you get started with electronic literature and what fascinates you most about this literature genre?

Jessica Pressman: I actually worked from the ELO far before 2012. I served as the Programs Director for the ELO back in 2001-2 and then took on more responsibilities as Associate Director (2002-4). I did this while I was a graduate student at UCLA. ELO was then housed at UCLA, and N. Katherine Hayles was the Faculty Director. I was the sole staff member, and I got a first-hand education in the ELO and in non-profit organization.

But this is not how I started with electronic literature.

I applied to graduate school to study Victorian Literature. I wanted to study the Pre-Raphaelites; image and text are inseparable in such work (think Dante and Christina Rosetti). I was also interested in what I now understand to be the social networks that configured and propelled that artistic movement. Multimedia, multimodal, social networks: it was all there.

But, I was unhappy at UCLA, so I took a leave of absence. I went to Boston and worked for a company (Cognitive Arts, founded by AI pioneer Roger Schank) that then (in 2000, the height of the dot-com wave) was making interactive training simulations for companies and schools. We basically were making narrative teaching games (again, using language from today to describe the past). I liked the work but wanted to understand it from a more critical perspective. So, I read George Landow’s Hypertext. And, bam: that book hit me. It gave me a critical vocabulary and framework to approach that stuff that I was making, to understand what I was doing and what I wanted to do. I wanted to study hypertext.

Well, it just so happened that the foremost scholar of hypertext and this new thing called “electronic literature” was back at UCLA: Katherine Hayles. So, I returned to UCLA, shifted my focus from the first industrial revolution to the second, and then worked with Kate Hayles in all things e-literature and ELO. Kate is really how and why I started, learned, and loved the field of literary criticism focused on electronic literature. She is a role model and a mentor.

ELR: In your article “Electronic Literature as Comparative Literature” (2014) you state that electronic literature is comparative because it combines text, image, sound, movement, interactivity and design. As a researcher and teacher of experimental American literature would you say that electronic literature is experimental literature, too?

Jessica Pressman: I think electronic can be experimental. More often than not, it is, but this is because right now we are still accustomed to thinking about “literature” with terms and conceptions derived from print. But, “experimental” does not describe a platform or media; it describes use of that platform and media. Some books, films, sculptures, play, etc. are “experimental;” some works of electronic literature are too.

ELR: In your latest book “Reading Project” (2015) you explain how to analyse e-literature. Could you explain why it is necessary to use different methods?

Jessica Pressman: Reading Project does not aim to explain how to analyze e-literature—I would never presume or desire for there to be any one way to analyze anything—but, rather, to offer a model of how digital humanities (DH) practices can produce literary criticism. Jeremy, Mark, and I were tired of hearing critiques of DH that its creation and use of tools doesn’t lead to interpretative payoffs; most of these critiques are valid, by the way. We also wanted to experiment with pursuing literary criticism that employs the actual affordances of computational media to address a digital work; thus, we read the programming code (Mark’s Critical Code Studies approach) and created big data visualizations (Jeremy’s Cultural Analytics work), and we built a Scalar tool (Scalar Workbench) to assist others in practices similar types of collaboration. Finally, we had a professional goal and critique as well: we wanted to show what is gained by collaborating in literary criticism, by eschewing the scholarly model of a solitary researcher pursuing hermeneutics by instead having three scholars work collaboratively and dialogically towards building a single interpretation.

The reason why electronic literature elicits different critical methods is because such work often defies a single genre or disciplinary category. Is Tender Claws’s Pry (2015) a work of film, game, novella? The answer is not interesting but the question compels different approaches, which leads to (or should) interesting opportunities.

Just by designating a work (Pry, for example) as “literature” already implies how one will approach and value it: through a focus on its text. But many of the works that I spend my life reading and teaching could (and often are) identified and understood as other types of cultural objects: visual art, film, games, performances, etc. One of the reasons I love electronic literature is precisely this: because it invites and rewards multiple critical perspectives and practices. In so doing, it pushes literary critics towards reflexive consideration of our normative practices and towards experimentation with new ones. That is exciting to me.

ELR: In the description of the ELO’s role you can read that the organization aims to create “a network of people who produce works of electronic literature and people who read, discuss, and teach e-literature”. How successful has the ELO been in this attempt so far and how do Universities collaborate with the ELO?

Jessica Pressman: I think the ELO has been invaluable. The very fact that we have an annual conference, an archived volume of works (the Electronic Literature Collection), and a website for interpersonal connection means that we have a field. We have a community.

ELR: What do you foresee for the future of e-literature?

Jessica Pressman: I am a literary historian more than a prophet or visionary. But, from this perspective, I believe I can proffer that whatever comes along that seems completely new and futuristic will offer us new ways for understanding our past and for appreciating our seemingly “old” media.