The Aesthetics of Materiality in Electronic Literature

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

According to the French author and theoretician Jean-Pierre Balpe, “all digital art works are first conceived outside the framework of a pragmatic relation to materiality. Any manifestation of digital art is but a simulated moment of an absent matter.”

However, I wish to show that there is at least as much materiality in the digital media as in other media. Of course, as a formal description, digital and material can be distinguished. Digital media correspond to formalization, insofar as formalization is understood as the modelling of a given reality through the use of a formal code. But because digital media refers to the effectiveness of digital calculation, it can be considered as “material”, at least on two levels:

on the level of what occurs in the machine, calculation being a material process,
on the level of what occurs in the interaction with the user, a symbolic and behavioral interaction, in which the system acts on the user and is acted by the user.
The question of materiality is indeed related to that of the media. Yves Jeanneret insists upon this materiality, when he says that “the power of writing is primarily related to the materiality of its media.” Unlike those who present digital writing as deprived of any materiality, Yves Jeanneret points out the materiality of this form of writing : “In addition to its own materiality (network, memory, screen, keyboard, etc), computerized writing is a repeat, a quotation, a mise en abyme of all the materialities of the documentary culture. Digital writing does not amount to a loss of materiality. In fact, materiality is not absent from digital writing. On the contrary it is doubly there, it is materiality squared : the materiality of the media, and that quoted by the media.”

In electronic literature, this materiality is often used for aesthetic purposes. The Trésor de la Langue Française gives a definition of literature as « the aesthetic use of the written language ». This definition may seem very narrow, especially because it doesn’t take into account the oral literature. However, what we can observe in many digital literary works is a displacement of the “aesthetic use of the written language” to the aesthetics of materiality : materiality of the text, of the interface and of the media. That is what I shall show on the basis of a corpus of digital literary works.

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Eric Dean Rasmussen