Pop Subversion in Electronic Literature

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

The “vernacular” comes from the Latin verna meaning “home-born slave.” In its common understanding, it refers to the native speech, and has long been associated with “populism.” Many assumptions about digital discourse in the United States are framed by the pragmatics pop forms, driving even political and intellectual discourse into what behavioral scientists call “system 1 cognition”: short-term, unreflective, reactive, and, ultimately, manipulable thinking. This paper, drawing on critical writing developed by Justin Katko and Sandy Baldwin, will discuss choice architecture and strategies of détournement in electronic literature. Against the heavy presence of tagging in social media spaces and graphic design in public spaces, this presentation will analyze Typomatic by Serge Bouchardon, et. al, as a form of digital writing that subverts the reductive tendencies of instrumental signification in favor of ambiguity and excess at the level of the word. Even as I draft this proposal, I find myself wanting to describe the it as a work, for it is a concept, an installation, executed by artists and given a title: Typomatic. But the genius of the work reveals the tension between interface and its output. The Typomatic, is not a body of texts, rather it is a platform on which others are allowed to play. While it might not be the immediate thought of those who play with the machine, it is worth considering the relationship between the tools and the model of social interaction they enable. On the one hand, it is “populist” and “democratic”. Everyone is invited to play along, entering their own word, seeking out its relation. But as each player generates their little text, the role of author migrates into her hands, and her audience, whoever she chooses to share these riddles with (and sharing seems rather inevitable), invites the reader to consider “why?’ Why this word? Why this pairing? What do they mean by this? The interplay between author and readers is held together by the text. In this feedback loop, editing, revision, and virtuosity become emergent priorities, as microcommunities of literary entanglement mobilize acts of discretion to improve writerly engagement with linguistic complexity. The tie that binds the reader and writer through the tool is the appreciation for indeterminacy, eccentricity, cleverness, divergence, and surprise. Contrast this to social media, in which togetherness is achieved through consistent repetition of tags, explicit repetition of content through retweeting, and affirmation through favoriting (in the case of Twitter) or through liking, sharing, and commenting (on Facebook), and, more importantly, the structural consolidation of consensus through the metrics of visibility that elevate the already visible (branding), and one can see rather plainly how communication platforms reproduce different models of the public: In the case of so-called social media, reproducing official messaging under the appearance of everyday speech, or in the case of subversive works like Typomatic, reproducing the pleasures of sociality and fecund individuation in the play of the text, while cultivating the sustained, reflective, and, ultimately, liberatory engagement associated with “system 2 cognition.”

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Davin Heckman