The materialities of close reading: 1942, 2009

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

Today, we not only see video games and online role-playing games interpreted, in print-based scholarly journals, by way of classical literary and narrative theory (to the dismay of the radical ludologist), but we also see the inverse: classical novels interpreted by way of role-playing games staged in computerized, simulated environments (as in Jerome McGann's IVANHOE Game). The use of classical theory for the study of contemporary video games and video games for the study of classical literature, however, does not necessarily mean that we now inhabit a mixed up muddled up shook up literary-critical world. In fact, these examples might mark opposite sides of a continuum of critical practice, and underscore the logic of analyzing a text in a given medium with the tools of a different – and complementary – medium.

The notion recalls McGann's own assertion that problems in textual scholarship inevitably arise when we "deploy a book form to study another book form," thereby creating an undesirable "symmetry between the tool and its subject" (2001, 56). If the assertion holds true across media, it would appear that we have arrived at a rather tidy formulation: scholars should utilize the tools of a dynamic medium in order to study a text in a fixed one and, conversely, they should make recourse to a more stable medium in order to study dynamic works of (digital) literature. The formulation is, of course, too tidy, and breaks down as soon as we consider texts that would fall anywhere in the middle of this continuum. What sort of critical tools and critical perspectives would best suit works of digital literature that rely on a fusion of discursive and material complexity / movement?

Most theorists and critics invested in language-driven digital literature at least tend to agree on a pronounced need for more "close readings." At the same time, it is still not entirely clear what is meant by "close reading" and how (or even if) the very notion of close reading applies to digital literature. This paper suggests that digital literature prompts a revisitation, re-articulation, and reanimation of the concept of close reading, one that attends to the material context of its process and product. It will first consider the historical and genealogical development of close reading alongside the material and technological developments of 20th century literary production – the very context that was consciously elided by its earliest practitioners as they sought to insulate literature from the vulgarities of industrial and technological culture. Then it will perform a series of short close readings of a recent work of digital literature, TOC: a new media novel by Steve Tomasula (et. al.) (2009). The first will disregard medium and materiality, the second will "read" only the medium and its materiality, and a third will read both elements in concert. The experiment aims to demonstrate how understanding textual materiality as something distinct from a work of digital literature is at once impossible and absolutely necessary.

(Source: Author's abstract for ELO_AI)

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Audun Andreassen