Electronic Literature in the Anthropocene

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

Contemporary environmental traumas are placing formidable demands on the creative arts when it comes to interrogating their kaleidoscopic complexities and implications. Electronic literature that engages topics of climate, infrastructure, and nonhuman agency is in a promising position here, due to its recasting of extent literary and poetic traditions using the architectures of contemporary digital computing and communications infrastructure. These technologies are involved not just in measuring and mapping a rapidly degrading environment, but their developmental histories and continued functioning are implicated in both embedding and perpetuating the very effects being detected.

This paper, presented at ELO 2019, examines the varied capacities and potentials of electronic literature to critique the present ecological moment. It discusses a selection of three works that engage not only the most evident questions of digital technology in the context of environmental sensing, but which deploy their literary qualities to establish modes of sense-making that reach beyond the peripheries of data-driven eco-discourse. The first two works discussed are the Twitter bot Station 51000 (@_LostBuoy_), by Mark Sample, and This is a Picture of the Wind by J.R. Carpenter. Both are examined in terms of their use of literary language and digital environmental data to place into dialogue human and non-human modes of perception and knowing.

This paper closes by discussing the author's own creative practice, and, in particular, a speculative multimedia project entitled Waveform. This project is one in which an airborne camera drone measures the outlines of incoming ocean waves, and uses the datapoints yielded to generate poems that meditate on practices of measurement and classification in a scientific context. Here, the seemingly Apollonian gaze of airborne sensors are recast using the algorithms of poetry generation, working to examine the deep histories and consequences of treating the world ‘as from above’. The sciences and discourse of the Anthropocene are products of our late scramble to account for the serious damage caused by these attitudes — to map the effects they rendered peripheral to their gaze. It in this way that the critical-creative potentials of electronic literature are summarised and accounted for in this paper.

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Richard Carter