Toward a Semantic Literary Web: Three Case Histories

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

In this talk, I introduce a new literary and arts collective, electronic text + textiles, whose members are exploring the convergence of written and material practices. While some associates create actual electronic textiles (the 'smart fabrics' produced by textile artist Zane Berzina in collaboration with materials scientists based in Greiz, Germany ), I myself have explored the text/textile connection as it manifests itself in writing produced within electronic environments. My online laboratory consists of two literary web sites, ebr (, a literary journal in continuous production since 1995, and the Electronic Literature Directory (, a project that seeks not just to list works but to define an emerging field. Rather than regard these sites as independent or free-standing projects, I present their development in combination with the current (and similarly halting) development of semantically driven content on the Internet (e.g., The Semantic Web, or Internet 2.0).

My purpose is to determine to what extent concepts can flow through electronic networks, as distinct from the predominant flow of information. The latter, in which documents are brought together by metatags, keywords, and hot links, is arguably destructive of literary value. Where tagging and linking depend on direct, imposed connectivity at the level of the signifier, the creation of literary value depends on suggestiveness, associative thought, ambiguity in expression and intent, fuzzy logic, and verbal resonance (where slight differences, not identifications among fixities, are the origin of meaning - "the difference that makes a difference," in Gregory Bateson's phrase; Emily Dickinson's expression of "internal difference / where themeanings are," and so forth).

Conceived as a fusion of verbal instruction and iconography rather than a narrative reinforced, directed, or opposed by imagery, written texts on the Web can scarcely be expected to be read, considered, and interpreted as text. At a time when powerful and enforced combinations of image and text threaten to obscure the differential basis of meaning as well as the potential for bringing together, rather than separating, rhetorical modes, electronic text + textiles seeks to recognize and encourage the production of of nuanced, textured languages within electronic environments.

I take ebr as my primary example. Consistent with language that emerged early in the development of the "web," I elaborate a
vocabulary of running threads, folds, and textures rather than links and hotwords. The conceit of weaving, which was adopted as a visual metaphor in the early electronic book review interface design by Anne Burdick (ebr 2.0), has since developed (through the contribution of site architect Ewan Branda) in ways that affect the form and content of the journal, to the point where no single genre - criticism, fiction, poetry, advertising, visual arts - is ever presented apart from the others. Even the email messages announcing new material on the ebr site are a combination of pseudo-spam and poetry. ebr is not the only literary web site to have achieved a long-term online presence, though it is certainly one of the longest running. But where most established journals on the Internet have reproduced themselves by occupying ever more specific niches within the overall media ecology, ebr has remained open to the promise of media multiplicity. A look at the development of the interface, from version 1.0 in the year 1995 to the current, year-old version 4.0, reveals how the multiplicity of literary expressiveness can drive interface development, rather than the alternative where (in interfaces not designed with literary values in mind) expression is made to conform to categories and constraints imposed by commercial technologies.

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Patricia Tomaszek