Notes on N. Katherine Hayles: Literature and the Literary: Why Electronic Literature is Key to Their Future

Critical Writing
Publication Type: 
Record Status: 
Abstract (in English): 

Kate Hayles‘ keynote here at The Future of Electronic Literature (ELO2007)  discusses why literature departments and programs should and in fact need to incorporate electronic literature in their curriculum. Here are my notes from her talk.

There are three ways of integrating e-lit in universities:
1. A department of media arts – film people, computer people, literary people.
2. An interdisciplinary program where students from different departments come together.
3. Depts of English or other literatures that introduce electronic literature as a component of their faculty lines, curriculum etc. Such a dept is often hard to convince of the importance of e-lit in the general study of literature.

The development of literary studies since mid-twentieth century has posed a number of challenges to literary scholars: cultural studies, ethnic studies, post-colonial studies, diaspora studies. Each of those has placed pressure on the dept and changed the kind of questions that literary studies must ask. E.g. what does it mean to write literature in English? (Rather than just in Britain or the US)

What kind of assumptions does the introudction of e-lit catalyse in lit. depts? What are the pressure points?

1. What des it mean to write literature in a specific medium? (Have largely assumed the medium is print, with a small bow to manuscript culture)

2. Frequent questions when addressing literary audiences:
- why do we call these works “literature”? (e.g. in the ELC)
- can a work of literature BE literature if it has no words?

Modest proposal:
- Literature requires words that can be read/spoken or works that directly draw on language such a sound poetry. (i.e. to be literature, a work must have….) (thinks about 40% of the works in the ELC might not qualify)
- “The literary” consists of literature plus artworks that interrogate that contexts, histories, and productions of literature. (this is a broader definition, we need a broader definition.


Has to do with the way these works are institutionalised. A literature department cannot leave aside that which is called “the literary”. IT also defines a particular interpretative status with which to view these works. (Alternatives: the sonic, the filmic – these are other focuses through which some of the same works might be seen).

Why contest for this territory? Why not leave it to sound artists, animation etc.?
1. Literary interpreations bring out some of the richnesses of this work that would be lost from other perspectives.
2. This is a vital part of twenty-first century literature, and if we leave it aside it will impoverish our understanding of all literature, including print literature.

An understanding of these literary works will broaden our understanding of ALL literature, including print literature.

Stephanie Strickland and Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo: Slipping Glimpse
Includes words, so clearly literature. However, much more is going on here than simply words and language. Questions what it means to read and what it means to be read.

Donna Leishman: Deviant: The Possession of Christian Shaw (2004)
Becomes literary by its narrative focalisation of the viewpoint. At first the focalisation seems to be from outside, but as you engage with it you begin to understand that in fact you are seeing all this from within the eyes of Christian Shaw. The tip-off happens in the first screen when you see a screenshot of Christian Shaw’s journal – no words, but presented as a codex on the screen, connecting it to the traditions of literature. Alludes to computer games, but there are no rewards – yet would be productive to interpret it from the viewpoint of ludology as well, but the literary is clearly important, especially as it challenges the ludological and chooses a narrative logic instead.

Giselle Beiguelman, Code Movie 1 (2004)
Hexadecimal code on the screen. The hexadecimal code being shown on the screen might be, but isn’t (?) the same hexadecimal code that is used to generate the movemnets of code on the screen. So there’s an apparent recursive loop between code that runs the work and code being shown on the screen, but there’s a disjunction, too. This piece questions what it means to read. This is a narrative about legibility. What is at stake is the very legibility of the screen itself. Appearence of chomping black teeth going to eat the screen – so there’s conflict. What is at stake is whether legibility will be preserved at all. The code leaves the 2d plane of the screen and seems to leap off into 3d space – this is the climax of the piece, as Kate Hayles reads it. This is how we must read today, take the work off the 2d screen (is this what she says?). Then the denouement – the return to static characters on a flat screen, that could seem as though they’re identical to print. So this is an interrogration of how a digital work differs from print, but the more important issue is that of legibility and what it means as a human reader to be confronted by code that you may not be able to access and even if you can access it you may not be able to understand it.

Maria Mencia, “Birds Singing Other Birds’ Songs.
This is the piece that always makes literary audiences ask: “Is this literature?” Mencia is a philologer. She recorded the sounds of actual sounds singing and then transformed those sounds into morphemes. Then she asked human readers to read the morphemes as though they were birds. Then she tweaked the human sounds digitally to make them sound more bird-like. So we have a capsuled history of literacy – from orality to writing, from writing to a more regularised form, from print to a more regularised form of that and back to orality. This narrative –> should be seen as literary.

Camille Utterback and Romy Achituv, Text Rain (1999)
Letters rain down on the screen and as the viewer stands in front of the installation, her shape is registerde by the installation and becomes part of what happens on the screen. Sometimes letters make words. The gestural important.

Camille Utterback, Composition (2000)
Using characters (alphabetic and typographic) to generate images of the viewers.

Camille Utterback, Drawing from Life (2001)
Seeing DNA as code. (Print metaphors – copy reading errors, copywriting errors are metaphors used by geneticists)

Camille Utterback, Untitled (2004)

Someone in an earlier panel today asked what the disadvantages are of calling these things literature. Do we lose something by locking new forms into an old paradigm? Or does there come a point where you don’t have a discipline anymore, when you only have a grabbag of various items? There may be some limit point, but the advantages of seeing these works as literary seems to be greater than disadvantages [I may have smudged this part of her argument].

In Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things, he makes an argument about spines, which are objects in space and time, e.g. using RFIDs. Literature is not something that happens only in books, or only on screens, but something that has the potential to move out into the environment. When that happens, the scope of the literary will expand to even greater proportions.

We can now see that “What is a game?” is a pretty boring question compared to say “How” is this played?” I’m pretty sure that “What is the literary” is a similarly boring question. Luckily , the field of literary studis provides us with a number of examples of more interesting questions. (Noah Wardrip-Fruin commenting on Camille Utterback’s “Untitled”.)

Calling these things literary allows us to make common cause with our colleagues in departments of literature while giving us tools to see challenges (OK, so I can’t quite remember her concluding line).

Rob Kendall: What about other narrative forms that are not traditionally seen as literary, such as a ballet like Swan Lake?

Kate Hayles: If literary interpretations can help us understand those works in ways that say choreographers or dance theorists can’t, then yes, it would be useful to interpret them as literary.

(Someone): There’s a conservative drive towards defining genres, disciplines – see how this is important in terms of being able to talk with your colleagues – but is this really how we should be thinking? Is this our job?

Kate Hayles: It’s necessary to work within these constraints when working in academia. For instance, when working with grad students, you want to help them to actual get jobs – and how you define these things affect whether scholars of electronic literature can actually get jobs. We don’t want people to be casualties on the wayside because people can only describe themselves in catagories that don’t mean anything on the job market. This is likely to not be a long-term solution – electronic literature and literature is changing so fast that things will be different in ten years time.

Joe Tabbi: Literature departments are opening up already, see cultural studies. “Take a topic, apply a theory and produce an article – just in time.”

Kate Hayles: The objects of cultural studies are predominantly text. Maybe not literary texts in a conventional sense, but predominantly text. Electronic literature challenges the assumption that things should be text – and what is text?

Stuart Moulthrop: As happy as I am with the talk you just gave, I can now also see another talk you didn’t give: the virtue of the literary is a two-way door. We can talk with our colleagues and say look, it’s still literature. But also, the examples you showed also show the things that literature hasn’t been able to deal with over the last century or so, as you have showed in your many books on code. I was delighted that your last example was the Sterling book. Sterling is a polymath. I thin the real diversity of the literary is that it allows us to diversify. While I want to be able to talk with our colleagues, I also want to be able to spread out to hte many other things that can be done with this.

Kate Hayles: Yes, the literary viewpoint is only one seat at the table – there are many other seats at the table. Disciplinary transformation – it’s not painless. We’re in the process of disciplinary transformation right now. In twenty years we’ll look back at talks like this one and laugh and think “how silly”.

Events referenced:

Titlesort descending Date Location
Electronic Literature Organization 2007 Symposium: The Future of Electronic Literature 02.05.2007
Maryland Institute of Technology in the Humanities College Park
United States
The permanent URL of this page: 
Record posted by: 
Scott Rettberg