Urbanalities: Modernism, Postmodernism and Digital Literature

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

Urbanalities, by babel and escha, is described as a ‘short story-poem-comic strip-musical, with randomly generated text’ (ELC, Author Description). It is a relatively accessible, visually and aurally appealing digital work, with strong elements of humour and a dark undertone. Although its technical underpinnings and some of its formal influences (such as the ‘VJ stylings’ mentioned in the ELC introductory note) are contemporary, its themes and expressive use of form are strongly reminiscent of high modernism, notably that of T.S. Eliot, in Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) and The Waste Land (1922). These are the themes of urban alienation, ennui, neurotic constraint or paranoiac anxiety, sexual degeneration or sterility; and a fragmentary form which mimics an vision of a fragmented social realm. The authors themselves signal strong connections to another aspect of modernism, that of Dada, in their description of Urbanalities as ‘A mash-up of Dadaist technique and VJ stylings,’ and in their association with Dada-inspired websites such as www.391.org.

These links to the modernism of the early 20th-Century might signal a certain derivativeness or datedness, but are more likely to be read as an ironic postmodern appropriation. Elements of both critical postmodern parody and uncritical pastiche (Jameson’s ‘blank parody’) can be detected. The title of Urbanalities (containing the idea of ‘banality), while it clearly has a thematic relevance to the work’s evocation of banal existence and banal social interaction, strongly suggests an ironic, reflexive admission of the self-conscious use of cliché: the work is not just (in part) about banality but is also (in places) deliberately banal itself, in accord with the authors’ web personae and pronouncements. Of relevance here is Jessica Pressman’s interpretation of Young-hae Chang Heavy Industries’ Dakota as a form of ‘digital modernism’, which she defines as ‘a sub-set of electronic literature that shares a common, conscious modus operandi … [using] central aspects of modernism to highlight their literariness, authorize their experiments, and …. [present] a conscious resistance to the central characteristics and expectations of mainstream electronic literature’ (Jessica Pressman, ‘The Strategy of Digital Modernism: Young-hae Chang Heavy Industries's Dakota’ MFS, 54.2, 302-26, p. 303). While Urbanalities does not share the minimalist aesthetic of Dakota, and contains some of the features (such as graphics, multiple colours, photos and playful fonts) to which YHCHI have objected (Pressman, 303), it is equally non-interactive, and has elements of a ‘retro-aesthetic’ such as Pressman describes (306), and alludes to Eliot just as Dakota alludes to Pound’s Cantos.

This paper would start from a close reading of Urbanalities, exploring its relationship to modernism, postmodernism and Dada, in order to suggest how its aesthetic can be located in relation to these historical influences, as well as the characteristics of (an alleged) ‘mainstream electronic literature’. It would then go on to question the idea of ‘digital modernism’, which has gained some currency, but is marked by a certain instability (for example Pressman applies the terms ‘modernism’, ‘postmodernism’ and ‘post-postmodernism’ to aspects of Dakota). Marjorie Perloff’s conception of ‘21st-century Modernism’ postulates a continuity from early 20th-century modernism to late 20th-century Language and ‘Linguistically Innovative’ poetry, a Modernist ‘tradition’ (with the paradox that implies) which digital literature might or might not wish to join. The paper would address more broadly the usefulness of applying such period / mode terms to digital work - is the idea of digital (post)modernism a regressive categorisation reflex or does it usefully contextualise the shifting terms of aesthetic development?

(Source: Author's abstract for ELO_AI)

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Audun Andreassen