E-literature and the Un-coded Model of Meaning: Towards an Ordinary Digital Philosophy

Abstract (in English): 

As Ludwig Wittgenstein observes in Culture and Value, “a work of art does not aim to convey something else, just itself.” My paper uses the Wittgensteinian ordinary language philosophy (OLP) perspective to show how e-lit works often encourage a coalescence of various uses of the word ‘meaning’ in literary contexts. Beside the transitive meaning [what something means], the word “meaning” can be intransitively used in at least three different ways, denoting (1) value [how much something means], (2) a specific Gestalt [meaning as expressive of a specific structure], or (3) an (apparent) appropriateness [something as meaningful element]. The difficulty to neatly separate these uses during e-reading can be put in relation with the reconfiguration of our reading experience in terms of what Anna Munster calls inter-facialization.

Digital works, in fact, often visually offer themselves to the reader as organic entities
interweaving permanence and mutability, i.e. as so-called changing expressive Gestalts whose
configurations of words are purposefully meant to undergo readjustments and modulations. “Facing” digital literary works as wholes can produce for readers, in Wittgenstein’s terms, “the same strange illusion which we are under when we seem to seek the something which a face expresses whereas, in reality, we are giving ourselves up to the features before us.” Far from the reductionist “friendly face” and “interface erasure” dynamics discussed by Munster in relation to users, I use Annie Abrahams’s Separation/Séparation, Stuart Moulthrop’s Deep Surface, and other e-lit works as duck-rabbit models able to show how the interface condition (“facing” digital literary works as wholes) is itself an impermanent one. Besides ‘contact surface’ (Brenda Laurel), “obstacle” (Donald Norman), or “space for interaction” between entities (Joanna Drucker), e-literary interface can be construed – from the OLP perspective – as a flickering entity in relation to the variegated language-games we enact in relation to the word “meaning”.

Such construction can also help in framing the artistic use of the contemporary
computing idiolect in so-called Codework by Alan Sondheim, Mez, Talan Memmott, John Cayley and
others within Wittgenstein’s view of thinking (speaking) as an activity governed by rules and procedures. Although carefully crafted in written form, some of the Philosophical Investigations’ remarks can be seen as examples of a ‘mind at work’. The procedural aspects of Wittgensein’s writing can therefore reconfigure our reading experience into paying attention to the indiscernible interconnection of value, appropriateness, and expressiveness mentioned above. Well beyond the dualistic signifier/signified conceptualization, reading Codework can therefore be constructed as facing snapshots of the thinking (i.e., speaking) process with consequences that are contingent on the various language-games we enact in facing algorithmic 'meaning[ful(ness)]'. In conclusion, by using OLP, my paper brings the issue of where to find e-literature, strongly encouraged by the ELO 2012 conference theme, in close contact with what we are actually able to see in front of us (i.e. to face) as the ‘object’ of the e-criticism’s search.

(Source: Author's abstract, 2012 ELO Conference site)

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Eric Dean Rasmussen