Digital Literature and the Modernist Problem

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

What is the status of digital literature in contemporary culture? After more than 20 years of production, the audience for digital literature remains small in comparison with the audience for "serious" or popular fiction. Many scholars and practitioners assume that digital literature constitutes a contemporary avant-garde, which does its work of experimentation outside or in opposition to the mainstream. Recent comparisons of digital poetics and early modernist art practices (e.g. by Scott Rettberg and Jessica Pressman) indicate continued interest in this issue. The notion of the avant-garde might seem thoroughly out of date in a consideration of the digital future. Important theorists (e.g. Huyssen, Drucker) have argued that the avant-garde is no longer viable even for traditional media and art practices. On the other hand, the avant-gardes of twentieth-century modernism made claims about the function of art that remain surprisingly influential today, within the art community and within popular culture. As Peter B├╝rger and others have discussed, an important division grew up in modernism on the question of whether art should strive for formal innovation or for sociopolitical change. Avant-gardes of the twentieth century took up positions along a spectrum from pure formalism (e.g. the Abstract Expressionists) to overt political action (e.g. the Situationists). This modernist problem is still apparent in the practices of digital art and digital literature today. While the digital literature community is in general committed to formal innovation, some are critical of this commitment, in part on the political grounds that (technological) innovation has become a byword for the digital culture industry.

We propose to read examples of contemporary digital literature in terms of this modernist problem. Our reading is meant to contribute to the larger question: do digital art practices in the twenty-first century constitute a turning away from the aesthetics of the avant-gardes of the twentieth?

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Maria Engberg