Electronic Literature, or Whatever It’s Called Now: the Archive and the Field

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

The umbrella term ‘electronic literature’ arches broadly over a multitude of digital art forms, so long as they satisfy the criteria ‘electronic’, and ‘literature’. However, it is this paper’s primary contention that the extent of the term’s coverage is delimited by whatever has already been archived. Understandings of what constitute ‘literature’ and the ‘literary’ are manifold and include concepts of the letterary (also as in ‘belles lettres’), the poetic, the lyrical – but also, the canonical, and the institutional. This paper will argue that that which can now be pointed to by literary and digital humanities scholars, and called ‘electronic literature’, is in large part only recognisable because archivisation has been used in its regard as an instrument for institutionalisation and canon-creation. This body of work is also only findable because archivisation has preserved it, faced as it is with the constant threats of platform erosion, and obsolescence sooner rather than later. Archivisation is therefore both a problem of media, and a problem of selection. Indeed, it is one because it is the other: electronic literature must be archived based on practical merits, like the feasibility of emulating, migrating, or documenting works; as well as conventional merits, such as iconicity, or importance for anchoring the praxis of electronic literature within a scholarly tradition. That which is less iconic, little studied, or a repetition of what has already been done, is consigned to the peripheries of the field to await oblivion, its fate sealed by a platform that is intractable and unamenable to archivisation. The peripheries teem with relatively unknown works that nonetheless speak for the potential evolution of the field. It is one such work that this paper will examine, in order to enable the final argument: that recent undercurrents of dissatisfaction with the term ‘electronic literature’ (reminiscent of those felt in the early years of the field) are now perceivable because there is a need to expand the horizons of what electronic literature is now; how is it increasingly practised and theorised. As ‘a periodic snapshot of an emergent field in motion’ (Scott Rettberg), the canons of electronic literature must move with the field, its evolution snapped – albeit selectively – by the archive. Some of what is at the peripheries ought to be pulled into the center by the archive’s gravity if ‘electronic literature’, or whatever it’s called now, is to stand the twin tests of time and nomenclature.

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Vian Rasheed