In Defense of Meaning: Roberto Simanowski Close Reads Digital Art


Text Rain, Camille Utterback and Romy Achituv, 1999

by Yra van Dijk

Digital literature runs the risk of becoming top-heavy, by which I mean that the amount of theory (let’s say: the head) on digital literature is weightier than the body of works to be considered. This is quite contrary to the situation in print literature, where serious literary criticism is diminishing, whereas works are abundant.

An attempt to explain this imbalance would point at the changes provoked by digital literature: at the effects it has on our notions of authorship, medium, content, readership, and the body, effects that need careful contemplation. Indeed, studies and papers on digital literature of the last decade have often focused on these larger consequences of the new art form, trying to establish taxonomies (Aarseth) for example. Other endeavors aimed to sketch the changes that occurred in reading (Gervais), to map the relation between digital literature and the larger field of new media technologies in general (Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Katherine Hayles’s work), or to establish the literary tradition from which the new art form stems (like New Media Poetics by Morris and Swiss).

Now that this foundational work has been done, it is time to turn to the works itself. We need a criticism of digital art, as Roberto Simanowski argues in his book Digital Art and Meaning, which appeared in 2011 (a German version came out recently: Textmaschinen, Kinetische Poesie, Interaktive Installationen. Für eine Hermeneutik digitaler Kunst). Simanowski, professor of media studies in Basel, also known for his editorship of the online journal dichtung-digital , intended to fill in the critical lacuna. Vehemently defending the necessity for professional criticism and scholarship, he emphasizes the need for a critical discourse on digital art. It is not enough to just “embrace an artifact in its phenomenological materiality” (x), we have the obligation to try and establish its meaning.

The preface to Digital Art and Meaning reads as a manifesto for hermeneutics. Simanowski emphasizes time and again the importance of the mind in understanding the mediated world and the mediated work. Reacting to critics like Roy Ascott, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and Susan Sontag, the author rejects the dismissal of the critic and pleads for an approach of art and literature that allows for the establishment of the “deeper meaning.”

The belief in a deeper meaning, extracted from the work by a professional critic or educator, is surprising for somebody as versed in post-structuralist theory as Simanowski is. A hierarchy between surface, on the one hand, and hidden meaning, on the other, is not exactly in the line of Derrida. We may understand Simanowski’s aversion against mere surface, phenomenology and pure “spectacle” as a reaction to the prevalence of the medium, the code, the body, and the material of the work in current criticism about digital art. Simanowski pleads for a reintegration of the material and the symbolic aspects of the works. He departs from the assumption that all art is the result of creative expression; instead, it has a message. This message is not necessarily stable, though. The hermeneutic enterprise means “to experience the relativity, uncertainty, and infinity of signification” (210). Digital Art and Meaning is, according to its author, driven “by the belief that bodily experience within an interactive work is the more or less intentional result of [..] creative expression and that it thus requires interpretation on the part of the spectator or interactor” (x).

This agenda is decisive for the ensuing analysis of individual works. Pieces that turn out to have no meaning beyond visual aesthetics, technology or chance are dismissed. Not underestimating the importance of the computer, code, or the spectator’s body in the interactive art he discusses, Simanowski does point to the shortcoming if a work is based on this “spectacle” alone.

Although the author elaborately pays homage to the work of Katherine Hayles in his preface, he seems to be of a different school altogether. Hayles chooses a theoretical position somewhere midway between technophile and technosceptic: for her the agency in digital art is not with the machine, nor entirely with the human, but in between the two. Simanowski, on the contrary, does not seem to allow for any agency of the machine in art, nor is he satisfied with only a direct “presence” as advocated by Gumbrecht. Ultimately, Simanowksi believes in an active intellectual human mind (the author’s and the reader’s) that is in interaction with the body and with the work to produce meaning.

Great Wall of China, Simon Biggs, 1996

And it is meaning that he is after. In careful analysis of digital artworks: installations like Text Rain, text Machines like Simon Biggs’ Great Wall of China, kinetic poetry like David Small’s The Illuminated Manuscript or mapping art like George Legrady’s Making Visible the Invisible. The analysis of many works turns out to support a larger question on the production of meaning: is meaning to be found with the author, the code, the materiality, the text, the reader, the cultural context, or in all these places at the same time? Author’s intentions are a tempting and often used source for finding a meaning, but Simanowski uses Schleiermacher to explain why this is so problematic. The fact that he himself does turn to the author’s opinions now and again, is illustrative of the flexible approach advocated here. The stance towards digital art that is developed over the course of the book is above all interdisciplinary and a compromise. One has to assign meanings, but signification remains “infinite.” Intentions are not important, but the author may have something useful to say. “Hierarchies between presence and meaning are deconstructed, this art should be understood as as event and object.” Interpretation is thus not a move away from the world, rather the contrary, and it thus has ethical consequences: “the hermeneutic venture is political, whatever the subject of the work at hand may be” (20). Finally, the code should not be at the forefront of the aesthetic experience, but the reader needs to be savvy enough to see whether an aspect of the work was intended or the product of a flaw.

Apart from this flexible theory of digital hermeneutics, Simanowski provides us with a practical (and well indexed) canon of digital art. To what extent this all still counts as “literature” remains to be seen: clear-cut definitions are hard to find. Instead, the author chooses to focus on the function text has in these works. Does the work “cannibalize” text? Without ignoring the prevailing “paradigm of presence” (83) or the importance of “decoding technical affects” (2) he keeps checking whether text is merely ornamental in these works. An installation like Still Standing finally “undermines its own agenda and contributes to the fast-paced agenda it criticizes” (52). The spectacle is, in the end, a “hostile environment” for text, and Simanowski contends that text can only survive if there is both action on the material level of the work and contemplation on a deeper level. Interactivity alone is not enough, he argues, and not politically subversive, as it is made out to be: “interactivity is cultural industry in camouflage” (157).

Here we can hear Adorno, who pops up often in the line of arguments and seems to be the main theoretical frame of reference. Apart from Adorno, Simanowski’s arguments are constructed with reference to a long tradition of exegesis and literary theory. Thoughts of Derrida, Lyotard, Barthes are used to meet the needs of digital close reading.

This theoretical stance can be found also in another book for which Simanowski was responsible. The volume Reading Moving Letters, which he co-edited with Jörgen Schäfer and Peter Gendolla, also emphasizes “semiotic reading.” Many of the contributors refer to literary theory and use its devices to approach digital texts: defamiliarization is one of them, for example (Zuern, Strehovec and Saemmer).

The explicit intention behind the “handbook” (and the lectures at Brown University on which it was based) was to provide tools for both criticism and education of digital literature. Here, again, the emphasis is on criticism and here, again, the book may introduce newcomers to digital art since it focuses on “the down to earth practices of research and teaching.”

And again we witness the way in which criticism of digital literature navigates between Scylla and Charybdis. We have to take into account the tradition of avant-garde, but we must avoid the “logic of parenthood,” as Gendolla and Schäfer rightly point out. We have to acknowledge that these works are digital art, without ignoring its literariness at the same time – this is the point made in Zuern’s contribution. We have to be aware of the technological basis of the works, without giving prevalence to the code alone.

Still, stances differ within the collection. Jörgen Schäfer and Peter Gendolla claim in their contribution (“Reading (in) the net”) that with net literature the production of the unique artwork has ceased altogether: “texts in computer networks can only be described as transitory effects of human-machine-human etc communication.” (93). In their view, the signifiers keep changing which implies that there is never a product, only a process.

This tendency, to enlarge the schism between “normal” and net literature, is often visible in criticism of digital literature. It always implies making contemporary print literature more static than it really is and denying the cross-over between the media. After all, how many literary novels or poems still lay “claims for perfection, consistency and harmony of finalized texts”? Likewise, the idea that we still cherish according to Schäfer and Gendolla, the notion that meaning resides in “the text alone,” has in fact been abandoned fifty years ago in literary studies. For print literature too, hermeneutic approaches already account for meaning produced by the reader, the context, and the material presence of the work. I’d rather say that the machine is just one more factor amongst these.

Both the “technophile” and the “technosceptics,” to quote Maria Goicoechea, are represented in the volume. Noah Wardrip-Fruin would fall into the first category: for him, the entire goal of reading digital literature is pragmatic and serves mainly to develop “computer literacy,” rather than for aesthetic or ethical reasons. The second category, of “technosceptics” is more represented by, for example, Zuern or maybe Goicoechea herself, as are the attempts to bridge the divide between media theory and literary theory. Alexandra Saemner for example, attempts to define some of the rhetorical tropes that may work in a digital text, like “kinaesthetic rhyme” or “transitional metathesis.”

Even more directly applicable is the second part of the book, in which the same authors reappear to discuss issues related to the teaching of digital literature on an academic level. This offers a wealth of material on departmental and classroom strategies, works and theories to be discussed, assignments to be given, etcetera. The local implications and variations of teaching digital literature in France, Spain or Finland are discussed. Strangely, no one seems to confront the problem that all the major works discussed seem to be in English. What does this imply for a national digital literature? Does it exist? Do we need it?

After all, Reading Moving Letters is not exactly a handbook, in the sense that there is overlap on the one hand, and digression on the other: the authors employ different terms, concepts and definitions of digital text, which may turn out to be slightly confusing for students. If you are planning to organize a course on digital literature, Simanowski’s Digital Art and Meaning is just as much of a guide, because of the clarity and consistency of arguments, and of course with the many individual interpretations of works that are offered in a coherent theoretical framework. By turning to the body of work constantly, we can make sure the theoretical head never becomes too heavy.

Piece originally published at Electro Poetics |

Works Cited

Simanowski, Roberto. Digital Art and Meaning. Reading Kinetic Poetry, Text Machines, Mapping Art and Interactive Installations. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2011. Print. Electronic Mediations 35.

Simanowski, Roberto, Jörgen Schäfer and Peter Gendolla, eds. Reading Moving Letters Digital Literature in Research and Teaching. A handbook. Transcript Verlag, Bielefeld, 2010