Relocating the Literary: In Networks, Knowledge Bases, Global Systems, Material and Mental Environments

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

In two essays, "Toward a Semantic Literary Web" (2006, ONLINE at and "Electronic Literature as World Literature" (2010, Poetics Today), I set out a project for identifying literary qualities and marking literature's present transformations within new media. The idea in these essays was to discern aesthetic and communicative qualities that I felt could be carried over to the present (e.g., Goethe's and Marx's unrealized call for the formation of a world literature "transcending national limits"), and those that could easily go missing (e.g., the materially bounded object whose aesthetic can be recognized and repeated by a generation of authors in conversation with one another, and renewed, revised, or renounced by later generations).

Trying to hold onto both of these desirable literary qualities, the aesthetic as well as the communicative, I turn my attention in the present talk to the one place where such conversations are now being staged - not in stand-alone scholarly journals or social media (online or in print) but rather, in databases. Specifically, I consider the open source, open access literary database. I settle on database construction as a necessary scholarly and technical complement to the creation of works, not for wholly archival purposes, but as a condition or destination for present creativity. The electronic database, by granting authors (and their critics) access to present discourse networks and a means of identifying works,opens possibilities that appear unique to literary writing in new media.

One point of reference in my talk will be the Electronic Literature Organization's Electronic Literature Directory (ELD version 2.0). The ELMCIP Knowledge Base, developed in Scandinavia, the U.S., and Europe, offers another, complementary point of entry. Brief descriptions of other literary archives, developed or in development in Montreal, Providence, Siegen, Sydney, and elsewhere, will indicate how interoperability can work at the level of databases, and how literary collaboration might at last begin to work across disciplines and institutions. I argue that the current, wide-ranging database construction (already a trans-disciplinary collaboration among scholars and programmers), is the necessary precondition to the emergence of the electronic 'world literature' that I described some years previously.

Literary works by John Cayley, Jason Nelson, Simon Biggs and others (who turn, or detourne, informatic databases into literary works) will be accessed through the above databases and discussed during the course of the talk.

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Jill Walker Rettberg