Semiotic Engineering: an HCI Theory That Can Be Adopted for the Analysis of Works of Electronic Literature

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

An increasing number of journals and conferences have been publishing articles and critical essays about electronic literature, but still mainly adopting traditional approaches to literary texts, such as close-reading (deeply rooted in the New Criticism trend), or reporting readers’ experiences (in accordance to the Reception Aesthetics). These approaches, however fruitful and well-established in literary analysis as they are, were not originally conceived to study digital texts. Therefore, they systematically fail to grasp specificities of electronic literature, unless the critic goes beyond the limits of the method and adopts other analytical tools as well.

Considering this gap between the digital materiality of electronic literature and the traditional analytical procedures that literary theory has devised for printed texts, this paper is aimed to present an analytical approach to computer systems and their interfaces that can be used for the sake of literary criticism in the field of e-lit: Semiotic Engineering (SemEng). Semiotic engineering is a semiotic theory of human-computer interaction (HCI), which views interactive computer systems as messages from designers to users conveyed by system interfaces. Interactive systems are, thus, seen as texts, which allows us to understand e-lit productions as interactive systems whose messages purposely have aesthetic intentions, or a poetic function, as described in Roman Jakobson’s famous communication model. Furthermore, SemEng is intended not only to capture the message of the system, but also its metamessage, i.e., the message from the designer to the reader explaining how the system message should be unpacked.

In the field of literature, the concept of a metamessage is evidently analogous to Umberto Eco’s notion of the model reader, where a text defines, by its structure, the interpretive limits of its content, which is a key element to the understanding of the interpretability of any piece of literature (including electronic ones). EngSem reconstructs the message and the metamessage conveyed by interactive computer systems by analyzing their interfaces as sign-clad texts. The original sign categories devised by the theory were the Peircean tripartition of metalinguistic, static and dynamic signs, but new studies have found that other categories of sign can be added to the theory, so as to better grasp systems messages and metamessages. All in all, as it is a theory based on Semiotics and Linguistics (especially on Jakobson’s, Eco’s and Peirce’s contributions to those fields), but developed within Computer Science academia, to help software engineers and interface analysts better understand systems communicability (rather than their usability), we believe that SemEng can help bridge some of the gaps between Literature and Computer Science studies in the realm of Electronic Literature.

To prove that hypothesis, this paper carries out an analysis of In Absentia, by J. R. Carpenter, a work published in the Electronic Literature Collection volume 2, under the analytical lenses of Semiotic Engineering. Besides showing the critical insights into this work provided by SemEng, we also discuss ontological and epistemological aspects of the theory, concluding that it can open up new discussions and analytical paths into electronic literature.

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Jana Jankovska