Italo Calvino’s Six Memos as ethical imperative in J.R. Carpenter’s The Gathering Cloud

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

In 1985, Italo Calvino wrote a series of lectures (later published as ‘memos’) in which he proposed six values he deemed crucial to literature as it moved into the next millennium: lightness, quickness, ‘crystal’ exactitude, visibility, multiplicity, and consistency. Though never a writer of electronic literature, Calvino has frequently been associated or referenced in relation to digital works. His 'If on a winter’s night a traveller…' and 'Castle of Crossed Destinies' are often referenced in relation to digital structures (the former’s ‘pumpkin vine’ structure in relation to early hypertext works, and the latter’s infinite-structures in relation to codex/programmable fiction), and his early hypotheses and fictions on computer writers and readers are referenced in relation to contemporary computer writer/reader projects. 

J.R. Carpenter’s web-based work 'The Gathering Cloud' (2016) (hereafter TGC) exhibits Calvino's values. TGC was commissioned by North East of North (NEoN) in Dundee, UK, in 2016. As well existing as a web-based work, it has also been performed as a poetic work with accompanying graphics and disseminated as a print book. The latter, Carpenter argues, ‘further confuses boundaries between physical and digital, scarcity and waste’. 

TGC is informed by Howard’s 1803 'Essay on the Modifications of Clouds'. Howard’s ‘frontispiece’ and five ‘plates’ are used in Carpenter’s web-based work. Poetry is then superimposed on these repurposed illustrations. Situated ‘within’ the poetry, animated gif collages play, sometimes due to the reader’s actions or of their own accord. Where Calvino in his memos writes that he considers the virtues of the binary opposites of his values (i.e. weight, lingering, 'flame' exactitude, ambiguity, singularity, and inconsistency) no less compelling, Carpenter’s work suggests that Calvino's values (or rather the absence or removal of their binary opposites) are not only preferable in terms of contemporary literary challenges, but an ethical imperative in relation to environmental impact as it relates to contemporary media, dissemination, and indeed everyday life.

In this analysis of TGC, Calvino’s values (i.e. lightness, quickness, etc.) will be discussed in relation to each of the work’s six sections (i.e. the ‘frontispiece’ and five ‘plates’). I argue that there exists a gap in the understanding of Calvino’s influence on contemporary digital literary aesthetics and approaches that is exemplified by TGC.

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Kamilla Idrisova