The Heuristic Value of Electronic Literature

Critical Writing
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2010
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What makes electronic literature interesting for researchers?
Maybe not its artistic and literary value, but rather its heuristic value.
Indeed electronic literature not only permits previous media to be reexamined (paper for instance), but it also allows several well-established notions to be questioned (cf. figure above) such as:
- narrative in narratology;
- text in linguistics and semiotics;
- figure in rhetorics;
- materiality in aesthetics;
- grasp in anthropology;
- memory in archivistics;
- literariness in literary studies…

Exploiting the heuristic value of electronic literature has two consequences:
- an evolution of some notions in certain scientific disciplines, and maybe of the disciplines themselves;
- a revealing effect regarding both digital technology and interactive and multimedia writing.

Where does electronic literature derive this capacity of interrogation from? From its sometimes hybrid status (paper vs digital) and its internal tensions (static vs dynamic text). Yet we should consider that this heuristic value is also due to the Digital and its properties: the need to be explicit - regarding formats for example - and the tendancy to objectivize the processes. This need to explicit formats and media is obvious for example in the HTML language : the metatags allow information to be given on the file itself, on the way it is to be interpreted and indexed. The media and its various formats are thus verbalized. The Digital entails a form of explicitation, and thus reflexivity, on its own formats and frames of production. It is this explicitation of format which invites us to revisit previous media, or at least to further interrogate what wrongly seemed inherent to the printed media.

Just as the Digital supposes a need for explicitation, the works of electronic literature objectivize certain properties of the literary. In this sense, they play a revealing role. One can even wonder to what extent digital writing may end up using conceptual tools made explicit by literature theoreticians. Let’s take the examples of the categories used by Gérard Genette to characterize the narrative speed : pause, scene, summary and ellipse. In a digital work, we could consider integrating these concepts into a DTD (Document Type Definition). It is indeed in a DTD that the poetics (from the Greek poiesis, meaning “making”) appears. DTDs specific to digital literary works could thus be elaborated, which would unveil their poetics. We would have here the principles of an objectivization of their stylistic devices.

However, electronic literature remains, from an anthropological point of view, “an experience that goes beyond us”, as Bruno Latour would say (« une expérience qui nous dépasse » ). Besides its heuristic value, electronic literature provides an experience of limits.

(Source: Author's abstract for ELO_AI)

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Audun Andreassen