Shapeshifting texts: following the traces of narrative in digital fiction

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

We have been referring to electronic literature as a corpus of texts with dynamic and
multimodal features. A digital text can change during reading and assume the form of a
collage work, a film or a game. Additionally, the text as a whole (Eskelinen, 2012),
because of its own transient nature, might never be presented to the reader. The text
can be played at such a pace as to be partly or completely ungraspable. Due to the range
of forms assumed by the text, it might also be unable to return to an early state. This
means that the reader might not be allowed to reread or replay the text in order to achieve
a final or coherent version of it. This also means that there might be no original state to
return to.
Shapeshifting is the ability of a being to take the form of an object or of another being.
This has been a common theme in folklore and mythology and it continues to be explored
in games or in fantasy and science fiction films, as well as in literature. Since digital
fiction is created through a computer and this tool can show emergent behavior, texts can
easily undergo unexpected metamorphosis. They are transmorphs that change their shape
- from letters to images or icons, from human language to binary code - by simulating
(or becoming) different art forms or media. Brainstrips (2009), by Alan Bigellow, for
example, incorporates comic strips, photography and audio files. Andromeda (2008), by
Caitlin Fisher, is a pop-up book which comes to life thanks to augmented reality
markers detected by the computer’s webcam. Some of these texts thwart any notion of
textual stability/identity in order to respond to the reader’s intervention or to complete a
programmed action. In Connected Memories (2009) María Mencía tells the story of
several refugees living in London through disappearing keywords. In The Flat (2005),
by Andy Campbell, the reader follows a trail of memories. Following the traces of
narrative and dealing with the text’s constant shapeshifting are the tasks a reader might
have to accept in order to read digital fiction. Subverting the reader’s expectations is
often part of the game.
The reader, trapped in a symbiotic relationship with the machine (Hayles, 2008), must
unmask the story while exploring and manipulating the elements on screen. Volatile
signifiers transmitted by an auto-generative text have an impact on the process of
signification. During the contact with the text, immersion in the narrative and
interaction with the text (Ryan, 2001) become often irreconcilable. With this paper I
propose an analysis of the multimodal, transient, interactive (or reactive) nature of the
digital text. By applying the concept of shapeshifting to the works cited above, I aim to
address the impact of textual hybridity and transience on reading and, simultaneously,
to depict electronic literature as an ever-evolving shapeshifter.

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Daniela Côrtes ...