Imagination, Interactivity and Ethics in Electronic Literature

Imagination has been a central value term in literature and criticism since the Romantics, though unreflective use of the term in some humanist criticism led to it losing force as a critical concept during the 20th century. Interactivity has become one of the dominant concepts of the digital age, widely used in an impressionistic manner (for example in the marketing of electronic devices), but with a range of specific and technical meanings across practices and disciplines (literature, dance, design, architecture, film, psychology, computer science and art). Interactivity is often assumed to have a positive value, as offering empowerment, flexibility or choice, but has also been critiqued from various positions. Lev Manovich denounces ‘totalitarian interactivity’ which seeks to ‘externalize the mind’s operations’ so as to invite us to ‘mistake the structure of someone else’s mind for our own’ (61). Slavoj Zizek proposes the concept of ‘interpassivity’ in which ‘the necessary obverse of my interacting with the object … [is that] the object itself takes from me, deprives me of, my own passive reaction of satisfaction (or mourning or laughter), so that it is the object itself which “enjoys the show” instead of me’ (6). Kristoffer Gansing argues that an ‘ideology of the interactive’ colludes with ‘global consumer culture’ within which ‘interactivity is sold as an “empowering” phenomenon’ while it ‘in reality functions as a basic constituent of a regulative consumer society’ (39). More nuanced responses often involve typologies of forms and degrees of interactivity (Klastrup, Jensen) or seek to distinguish between trivial and significant forms of interactivity (Biggs).

This paper will address the relationship between interactivity and imagination, and hence between ‘physical’ interactivity and imaginative interaction: does physical interactivity with the electronic literary work enhance or limit the ethical potential of imaginative engagements? These questions involve the location of the text, both within imaginative ‘space’ and within the spaces, processes and codes of the digital medium. Both imagination and interactivity imply forms of engagement on the part of the reader (and author) which may be accorded aesthetic and ethical value. An idea of ethical reading involves the transformation of the reader in the act of reading. How does this relate to the idea that the reader should transform the work in the act of reading? The paper would consider these issues, with reference to works of electronic literature; for example works by Simon Biggs, Melinda Rackham, John Cayley and Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries.

• Simon Biggs, ‘On navigation and interactivity’ (online)
• Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press,
• Kristoffer Gansing, ‘The Myth of Interactivity or the Interactive Myth?:
Interactive Film as an Imaginary Genre’ (online)
• Lisbeth Klastrup, ‘Paradigms of Interaction: conception and misconceptions of
the field today’, dichtung-digital 2003-4.
• Slavoj Zizek, ‘The Interpassive Subject’ (online)