Just Humanities


Illustration by E. Benyaminson, from Hello, I’m Robot! by Stanislav Zigunenko, 1989. Via

by Stephanie Boluk

This series of short interventions were made at the “Futures of Electronic Literature” discussion at the bi-annual Electronic Literature Organization conference in 2012. Titled “Electrifying Literature: Affordances and Constraints,” the conference took place at West Virginia University in Morgantown on June 20th to June 23rd. The contributors were organized by Stephanie Strickland to offer suggestions on how to improve the organization as it attempts to re-define its mission in a shifting cultural, economic, and technological landscape. Ranging from the concrete to the poetic to the theoretical, the following nine short statements were made by a group of emerging artists, scholars, and practitioners from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds.

As Patrick LeMieux and I drove to the Electrifying Literature: Affordances and Constraints conference at the University of West Virginia in 2012, we discussed the various issues we would raise at the “Future of the ELO” roundtable. Stephanie Strickland had invited us to participate and urged all the panelists to be critical–to not only explore the constraints of electronic literature as an aesthetic category or platform for production and scholarly inquiry, but to interrogate the organization itself (its principles, shortcomings, biases, etc). A relative newcomer to the ELO, I knew little about its early years. But as Patrick and I talked, I found myself less critical of any gaps and failures in the fifteen-year old organization, and more impressed simply by the mere fact of its continued existence. The problem of digital media’s ephemerality and obsolescence is not just a problem of hardware and software, but more importantly, of culture, community, and shared history. In 2004, Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort published “Acid-Free Bits: Recommendations for Long-Lasting Electronic Literature.” But what about recommendations for a long-lasting Electronic Literature Organization? The mere persistence of this group of artists, theorists, scholars, practitioners, and many undefinable hybrids in the face of so many technological, economic, and cultural shifts struck me as an extraordinary feat in itself.

Although the panel took place during the non-apocalyptic 2012, rather than predicting an eschatological end of history for the ELO (or, more commonly, an entropic atrophying of energy and interest), its many active members were thriving and not just maintaining, but expanding the scope and scale of electronic literature. Dene Grigar, Lori Emerson, and Kathi Inman Berens curated the inaugural exhibit and performance of electronic literature at the Modern Language Association (MLA); Loss Pequeño-Glazier spearheaded E-Poetry 2011 (with another soon to follow across the Atlantic in 2013), John Cayley organized the second Interrupt at Brown University, another European ELO conference took place in Paris on the Translating E-Literature, and the The Electronic Literature as a Model of Creativity and Innovation in Practice (ELMCIP) coordinated Remediating the Social in Edinburgh. By 2013, electronic literature would make it into the very heart of American print culture: with an exhibit taking place at none other than the Library of Congress.

In many ways, the ELO anticipated what is becoming increasingly common practice within traditional humanities departments. Before Bruno Latour famously pronounced that the culture of critique has run out of steam,1the members of the ELO included some of the most industrious artists and practitioners developing alternative methodologies, tools, and strategies towards traditional scholarly work. Shelley Jackson’s early hypertext Patchwork Girl (1994) and Nick Montfort and Stephanie Strickland’s Sea and Spar Between(2010) are as much creative literary works as they are research essays written in a post-print media ecology. The alternate reality game Speculation(to which I lost months of my life) was a poetic attempt by N. Katherine Hayles, Patrick Jagoda, and Patrick LeMieux to teach basic computer literacy and address the technologies and cultures of Wall St. and finance capitalism through maximalist postmodern science fiction. These techniques co-exist among others such as the Electronic Disturbance Theater’s Transborder Immigrant Tool that used GPS technology to provided poetry and life-saving information about water cache locations and Mark Marino and Rob Wittig’s meta-reality show netprov@tempspence which brought the poetry of Edmund Spenser, electronic literature, and Oulipian constraints to an unlikely audience of over a million reality television fans. From its earliest origins, the ELO has a long history of blurring boundaries to build critique into its performances and productions (and vice versa).

Such strategies are increasingly moving away from the once-eccentric margin of humanities departments. The reasons for this mainstreaming are as political as they are scholarly: adopting the term practice is one weapon to fend against the increasingly attenuated position of humanities programs in North American universities. The rhetoric of “making” and “doing” that informs the turn towards practice-based programs, pedagogies, and research is one bid to maintain relevancy in the eyes and metrics of upper administration.

While a fraught political climate may be driving this renewed interest, it did not emerge without some early adopters laying the theoretical groundwork. Jay David Bolter, Robert Coover, N. Katherine Hayles, and Michael Joyce were just a few who grasped at an early stage the transformative role that computational culture would have on the humanities. Gregory Ulmer’s applied grammatology and electracy, for example, re-thought continental philosophy and substituted the interpretive drive of hermeneutics with a heuretic–and perhaps to some heretical–“logic of invention.”2(In fact, Ulmer’s theories were instrumental in shaping the early critical mission of Electronic Book Review.3 reinview (book review + interview) with Gregory Ulmer from 1996.) Yet with the rise of the so-called “digital humanities,” it’s no longer individual scholars or small-scale communities like the ELO suffused with what Hayles and Jessica Pressman have called an “ethic of making,”4but entire departments that are explicitly incorporating these models of hybrid research into their program philosophy and disciplinary structures. And while this opens up many fascinating and promising possibilities for research–and a clear and bright future for the ELO–there are also certain points at which I am wary that this relationship between the digital and the humanities might be some kind of Faustian deal. As much as there is a renewed potential (and funding opportunities) for humanities departments willing to incorporate forms of digital practice within their general catalogue, it is still important to be mindful of how, particularly at an institutional level, the embrace of these technologies is often part of an increasing complicity with the instrumentalization and corporatization of the university system–and that, in North America at least, this is also accompanied by a growing anti-intellectualism.

Having attended schools in the sheltered urban center of Montreal, I was not prepared to witness some of the more egregious attempts to undermine the liberal arts that I encountered at the University of Florida–a school filled with thriving departments and a wonderful community of scholars despite the fact that Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, declared Anthropology (and by metonymy all social science, Arts, and humanities programs) to be a waste of taxpayer dollars. In 2012, he attempted to implement a “differential tuition” plan in which students in less “productive” and job-producing majors would actually pay more tuition than those in STEM fields. Deploying the Digital Humanities as a technofix for what boils down to funding and ideological warfare within the American University system may, counterintuitively, impede rather than advance the field. I’ve always seen the digital humanities as one phase of a dialectical process in which the concept of the digital will eventually become obsolescent. At some point the innovative practices that comprise “the digital humanities” will be collapsed and conflated into “the humanities.” Perhaps the same conditions apply to “electronic literature” with the field eventually transforming back to where it began: “literature.” My hope is that the terms “digital” and “electronic” will eventually be dropped, but my fear is that it’s the “humanities” and “literature” more likely to wither away.

And so amidst this tempestuous and contestatory media ecology, whither ELO? What first attracted me to this organization was not simply that so many of its members were early adopters of technology and open to the study of literary and artistic forms across non-standard media platforms, but it was because they did all of these things in a way that maintained a balance between creativity, criticality, and working with emerging technology. The ELO is a place where philosophical, political, and scholarly inquiry maintain a fine balance with critical making and aesthetic experimentation. And that’s not easy to do. Perhaps in another article, I will take up Stephanie Strickland’s call for criticism more directly, but what I want to advocate for in this piece is not a new or radical change to the ELO’s mission, but rather a re-affirmation of what I have already witnessed: a continued and dedicated commitment to a practice that refuses to take for granted the political, aesthetic, and ideological investments that accompany the toolsets and language we use. Although technology changes at an ever-accelerated rate, we have not discovered all there is to know about hypertext and interactive fiction, let alone haikus and iambic pentameter. And as we discover how to read the nonhuman history of microtemporal inscriptions and how to write in and about emerging genres and platforms like biopoetry and nanoliterature, I hope the ELO continues to critique new forms of media literacy while placing them in conversation with aesthetic forms of the past.

My future for the ELO is one that is able to slow down and look back as a means to move forward. It resists the upgrade path and is unafraid to continue a process of painful self-reflection. Indeed my future for the ELO may even be a future willing to sacrifice its futurity, as Eugenio Tisselli boldly did when he “gave up e-lit” because of the exploitative conditions surrounding coltan mining, the labor conditions in manufacturing plants, and the irreversible environmental damage wrought by a poetic practice unavoidably embedded in computational capitalism. My colleague Jonathan Beller notes how “we write our revolutionary tracts on the backs of slaves”5 and indeed is this not precisely what I am doing right now? Yet rather than repress electronic literature’s mode of production, my future for the ELO chooses to holds these truths close. In my future (which is really the present), addressing these relations will be the point of departure for an ethics of making rather than the invisible underside.

Piece originally published at Electronice Book Review |