From Audio Black to Artful Noises: Looking at Sound in Electronic Literature

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

The interplay between sound and image was a vexed issue for practioners and critics of the 20th century art screen art. As the story goes, some argued for a "complex interaction of sound with image" (Kahn 142) others for the political necessity of non-synchronized sound. Early on, "the dream" of "correlating sound and image" through localization (Altman) to deploy sound so as "to reinforce the reality effect" and to "induce[...] spectators to center their gaze." (Polet). There is a sense of disappointment in this trajectory, from the "talkie"to Dolby Surround, by which the sound track comes to maintenance of an illusionistic 3-dimensional visual space. 

Language-based art composed and accessed through networked computers allows composers the technical latitude to cross boundaries of discipline and convention—freely mixing text, image and sound. Yet at times electronic literature has seemed to be the second screen art of the 20th century. Students and critics alike frequently operate as though "the single most innovative feature of digital poetry is animation. . . " which is facilitated by "animation programs [that] extend experience of the verbal construct in ways that earlier works could not...." (Noland 218) What accounts for the dominance of the visual? To what extent is sound in electronic literature relegated to what Charles Bernstein, after Erving Goffman, would call the disattend track? 

The process of locating disattend tracks, and bringing them to the center of attention, can be understood as not only a primary pedagogical aim but also a central project of much modernist and contemporary art. Within text-bound literary studies, the disattend track may include such features as the visual representation of the language as well as its acoustic structure. (Bernstein) 

This presentation is interested in calling attention to the range of sound practices deployed in recent electronic literature, such as: the meditation on listening and indeterminacy of Stuart Moulthrop's "Radio Salience" and Strasser and Sondheim's "Dawn"; the foregrounding of sound-track in Young-Hae Chang's pseudo-filmic flash poems; the adoption of "edit to the beat" techniques of MTV and television commericals in Beiguelman's "Code Movie 1"; the privileging of audio in the remix rhythms in Babel and Esha's "Urbanalities;" the witty, instrumental score for the kinetic word ballet of Kendall's "Faith;" the user-driven audio collages of Mencia's "Birds Singing Other Birds' Songs" and Andrew's "Nio;" the triggered, synthetic sound of Rachkam's "carrier (becoming symborg);" and the ambient drone and crackle accompanying Geniwate's "Generative Poetry." 

In all, I am interested in a use of sound that calls attention to itself, that works in tension with the visual channel of the work—a use which, in N. Katherine Hayles' terms, interrogates the inscription technology that produces it, [and...] mobilizes reflexive loops between its imaginative world and the material apparatus embodying that creation as a physical presence" (25).

(Source: Author's abstract for 2008 ELO Conference)

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Scott Rettberg