eLiterature & Electronic Literature

Noah Wardrip-Fruin

Fabio De Vivo




Digital Literature and Correlations

a cura di

Fabio De Vivo

1. We live in a Digital Epoch. What are the effects of Digital Media on literature? And what is the main challenge for literature in this epoch?

There are many impacts. The obvious one is the change in distribution models. A less-obvious one is for literature to connect with, and occupy spaces within, other elements of the network. Even less obvious, but probably most important, is the potential for literature to be shaped by computational processes.

2. You are a member of the Electronic Literature Organization. What is the electronic literature for you? And what are its main peculiarities?

I’m not particularly interested in trying to figure out what to exclude from “literature.” For example, I’ve never been interested in the question of whether a great screenplay is literature. Instead, I’m interested in work that has important literary aspects, which can be for any medium, including digital media. For me, electronic literature (which I often call “digital literature” instead) is any work with important literary aspects that requires the use of a computer (for authoring and/or the audience). I wrote about this in my dissertation.

What does it mean that a work of literature requires a computer, that it requires digital computation? If I take a Virginia Woolf story and send it via email, does it become digital literature? Certainly, like anything transmitted or displayed by a computer, it invokes computational processes — and in this sense a computer is required. But it is also certain that those processes have nothing to do with Woolf’s work — it does not require them in order to be itself. So unless I view my act of situating Woolf’s work in an electronic context as the creation of a new work, one which requires digital computation in order to be itself, we can safely say that this is not digital literature. We can say the same, in fact, of all work that uses the computer only as a distribution and display mechanism — which could be substituted for any other(s). An Alfred Hitchcock movie distributed as digital video is in the same category. There is nothing wrong with such work. It is simply media distributed and/or experienced using a computer, rather than digital media.

On the other hand, we can see that work which explicitly includes processes of digital computation in its definition, such as a computer game, requires digital computation. The same is true of work that is explicitly designed for its surfaces to be experienced in a context employing digital computation, such as an email narrative. Certainly in many cases such work could be moved into other contexts, and perhaps necessary computation could be carried out by other means (e.g., by human effort, or specially-designed equipment). But this would then be documentation or translation of the work. In some cases the impact of a translation of this sort is relatively minimal. The audience experience of the work might remain substantially the same. But in other cases the work becomes quite different — as when processes once carried out invisibly by the work must now be understood and executed by the audience.

We can see the broad outline of these issues boiled down to a few concise lines in the definition of “electronic literature” on the website for the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO, 2005) (one of the field’s most active non-profits):
The term refers to works with important literary aspects that take ad- vantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer.

3. There are scholars who speak about the reader empowerment (Landow) and others who speak about the death of the reader and/or the death of the author (Simanowski). In your opinion, what does it change in the reading and writing act of a work of eLiterature in comparison with a traditional print-centric literature? And if there are changes, do they affect positively or negatively these acts?

The main thing that changes is that it is much easier, and more common, for authors of digital literature to change the reading interface — and redefine the activity of reading — that it is for print authors to create, for example, artists books. Beyond this, authors are also able to define processes for how works respond to acts of readers, and they have created many. I believe it does not make sense to generalize as to the impact of these changes, they’re different case by case.

4. There are scholars who maintain that electronic literature needs a completely new kind of theory and others who sustain that the traditional theory just needs an update. What do you think in this respect?

I believe it needs both — and a third thing. It needs extensions to theories of literature, it needs connections to extended theories in other areas (e.g., gaming), and it needs new theories.

5. There is a great number of theoretical texts about digital literature, but theoretical texts about how eLiterature can be used in educational systems are restricted (Simanowski et. Alt.). What do you think about the possibilities of employing digital literature in educational systems? Is there a future in following this way?

Yes, stories have always been a powerful educational tool, both in fiction and drama, and moving to (potentially responsive) digital media offers exciting further possibilities in this direction.

6. You are a digital media writer, artist, and scholar, but you are also a professor at the University of California. In your teaching experience, can educational practices take benefits from the use of Electronic Literature? If they can, could you provide some examples of how eLiterature can be used in this field?

I believe both reading and writing digital literature can be educationally important. In my book Expressive Processing (2009) I make an argument that, in addition to the traditional gains from reading and writing literary texts, digital work also offers the possibility for helping students understand computational processes more deeply. Given how influential computational processes are on our daily lives, this is a very important educational goal.



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