Narrative Affect in William Gillespie's Keyhole Factory and Morpheus: Biblionaut, or, Post-Digital Fiction for the Programming Era

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

Programmable computation is radically transforming the contemporary media ecology. What is literature's future in this emergent Programming Era? What happens to reading when the affective, performative power of executable code begins to provide the predominant model for creative language use? Critics have raised concerns about models of affective communication and the challenges a-semantic affects present to interpretive practices. In response, this essay explores links between electronic literature, affect theory, and materialist aesthetics in two works by experimental writer and publisher William Gillespie.

Focusing on the post-digital novel Keyhole Factory and the electronic speculative fiction Morpheus: Bilblionaut, it proposes that: first, tracing tropes of code as affective transmissions allows for more robust readings of technomodernist texts and, second, examining non-linguistic affect and its articulation within constraint-based narrative forms suggests possibilities for developing an affective hermeneutics.

My project was prompted by calls for more in-depth critical interpretations of works of electronic literature; an appreciation of how Gillespie problematises tropes of proximity and distance used to characterise modes of critical reading; and a desire to explain Gillespie's commitment to both conceptual, constraint-based writing practices (facilitated by computational media) and the intentional production of meaningful narrative affect. Ultimately, my analyses showcase Gillespie's countertextual achievement: assembling a network of texts, both electronic and analogue, that functions as a literary ecosystem resistant to the instrumentalism of the neoliberal publishing industry. Gillespie's Spineless Books provides an exemplary model of and working platform for collaborative, conceptual, and countertextual literary writing across media.

(Source: Author's Abstract)

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The Programming Era, as I define it, is the period when the affective, performative, and transformative power of executable code begins to provide a powerful, and potentially the predominant, model for creative language use.

Morpheus: Biblionaut is a remediation of the ‘Biblionaut’ chapter from Keyhole Factory, and Gillespie and Alber’s moving work of e-lit attunes readers [...] to how Gillespie’s intricately structured novel stages scenarios of affective communication in order to raise concerns about the ways meaningful human communication gets devalued in a media ecology warped by the quantifying pressures of technocapitalism.

This essay suggests how this work of e- lit [Morpheus: Biblionaut] enables readers to make sense of a larger, complex literary ecosystem that Gillespie is creating with not just Keyhole Factory but also Spineless Books, a small, avant-garde press Gillespie founded on the palindromic date of 20 February 2002 (20–02–2002) and still operates from his Urbana, Illinois home.

What happens to more ‘traditional’ modes of language arts, such as lyric poetry or narrative storytelling, and, more broadly, humans’ ability to read, write, and make meaning, if writing computer code is valued more – based on the financial and cultural capital its authors accrue – than writing literature in ‘natural’, ‘human-only’ languages?

[T] the figure of the isolated and disoriented poet-astronaut in Morpheus: Biblionaut gives a unique spin to debates about literature’s long-term future given the prevalence of short-term perspectives in the contemporary media ecology, the devaluation of writing and criticism with an ever-accelerating publishing cycle, and the benefits and limitations of ‘close’ and ‘distant’ readings.

Morpheus: Biblionaut performs important cultural work by foregrounding concerns about reading’s future in the Programming Era while preparing readers for the challenge of interpreting Keyhole Factory, a conceptual, constraint-based novel that can seem dauntingly esoteric if readers don’t practice both close and hyper readings of the codex book and the digital text and consult the web-work map that constitute the Keyhole Factory textual ecosystem. These three components comprise a larger ‘Work as Assemblage, a cluster of related texts that quote, comment upon, amplify, and otherwise intermediate one another’.

By design, Morpheus: Biblionaut demands deep attention and rewards close, sustained re-readings, which become increasingly significant as the reader picks up on subtle clues about and allusions to Keyhole Factory. Its formal constraints require readers to practise attentive-reading strategies that are at risk in post-digital media environments, while its content prompts readers to read the piece self-reflexively. The senselessness the Biblionaut experiences in the isolating environs of deep space, readers can infer, is akin to the indifference to meaning he experiences in the isolating publishing environs of cyberspace.

And when Keyhole Factory is read as part of an even larger, deliberately designed literary ecosystem, including texts published by Gillespie’s press, Spineless Books provides an exemplary model of and working platform for collaborative, conceptual, and countertextual literary writing across media.

Confronted with a technocapitalistic ‘attention economy’ that undermines both the ‘psychic faculty that allows us to concentrate on an object’ and the ‘social faculty that allows us to take care of this object’ (Stiegler 2013: 81), Gillespie (in a way anticipated by Pessoa) has decided to develop an elaborate literary system enabling him to become a ‘self-effacing’ literary presence.

As a motif, the government’s indifference to the Biblionaut’s reading-and-writing abilities is but one of many incidents in which interpretation is rendered irrelevant by the ontologisation of meaningful human language into affective, but asignifying, forms.

Approaching a literary artwork simply as a technology for producing affective responses in the reader instrumentalises the work, rendering much of its full affective dimension irrelevant (the inevitable modulation of non-linguistic affect into linguistic, and hence, inherently significant forms, for instance). Yet the temptation to technologise the text is, understandably, particularly strong when reading works of

That this message might sound retrograde to those who feel writers working in multiple media should abandon the literary altogether suggests why the readers and writers who believe in the field of electronic literature and the ethico-political importance of sustaining human readability need William Gillespie, DIY publisher and author of affective, meaningful post-digital fictions for the Programming Era.

Critical writing referenced:

Publishers referenced:

Title Location
Spineless Books
P.O. Box 91
61803 Urbana , IL
United States
Illinois US

Databases/Archives referenced:

Titlesort descending Organization responsible
Electronic Literature Directory Electronic Literature Organization
ELMCIP Electronic Literature Knowledge Base ELMCIP: Electronic Literature as a Model of Creativity and Innovation in Practice, University of Bergen, Electronic Literature Research Group, University of Bergen, Program in Digital Culture
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Eric Dean Rasmussen