Electronic Literature Without a Map

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

The paper discusses several problems that seem to define and determine the field of electronic literature in theory and practice and suggests several strategies to remedy the situation in the spirit that is both analytical and polemical.

Electronic literature has been around at least for 50 years and many of its typical ergodic ingredients share a cultural (pre)history that reaches back to classical antiquity and beyond (I Ching). Still, the cultural, economical, educational and even literary status and visibility of electronic literature is low and obscure at best despite occasional canonisations of hypertext fiction and poetry (the works of Michael Joyce and Jim Rosenberg), literary groups such as the OuLiPo that from very early on extended their orientation beyond print literature, and the efforts of an international or semi-international organisation (ELO) to promote and preserve electronic literature - not to mention multiple and more or less influential and comprehensive theories of electronic and ergodic literature.

The days of hype and claims of novelty are or at least seem to be things of the past and there are no great expectations anymore for whatever happens to emerge from the ghetto or cloister of electronic literature. Compared to many other cultural niches there are neither crossover successes attracting wider audiences nor popular forms and genres of electronic literature. This condition situates electronic literature in the position similar to various avant-garde movements although without the latter’s cultural impact and influence. The paper argues for the acceptance of the elitist-experimentalist-marginal status of electronic literature with the twist of choosing its academic, institutional and post-industrial allies and enemies accordingly.

The paper has three condensed parts: cultural, theoretical and practical. The first charts the socio-cultural infrastructure of the field and the three main circuits of distribution and dissemination of electronic literature: commercial publishers, the free market of the Internet, and the museum/art scene each with its own cultural and commercial logic. The position of electronic literature is further triangulated in relation to digital games (and their ergodic strength), journalism (a neighbouring field of writing) and electronic civil disobedience (for values’ sake).

The second part calls for the integration of theories of electronic literature to the continuously hegemonic theories of print literature. In the academic context electronic and ergodic literature could provide fresh theoretical challenges to literary scholarship rotting away under the dominance of cultural studies and a wealth of counter-examples to the presuppositions and false generalisations of implicitly or explicitly print-oriented and print-based theories. Integrative and isolationist approaches are compared and two forms of the former are isolated for further study. The preferred deep integration (made possible through modified cybertext theory) works at the level of theoretical and paradigmatic foundations of literature whereas cheap integration (cf. Murray and Ryan) sets conservative constraints derived from mainstream print literature as norms and values supposedly assisting the birth of more user-friendly electronic literature.

The third and more speculative part of the paper divides the field of electronic literature into four dimensions: poetry/prose, fiction/non-fiction, ergodic/non-ergodic and drama/simulation and then locates a set of theoretical and practical blind spots arresting the development and further expansion of the field.

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Eric Dean Rasmussen