When defining what literature is within print culture, certainly means of production is taken into account: we discuss the nature and history of the material text, the creative techniques of the author, editorial interventions in relation to the manuscript, and the politics of the publishing industry. For socio-cultural criticism, defining the text also means thinking about its thematic claims, its relation to context, and its political affiliations. For formalisms, defining a text means defining its structural and formal operations. Finally, understood to be closely partnered within philosophy to aesthetics, ethics is imported into literary criticism as a central defining parameter of the difference of literary discourse: stemming from origins as different as Platonic rhetoric, Bakhtinian sociocultural criticism, Levinasian ethics, and neo-liberal philosophical ethics, ethical criticism explores how (print) literature (particularly the novel) uniquely constructs, embeds, and poses ethical questions and may itself be determined precisely by its fundamental relation to ethical inquiry. What is quite interesting is that this last definition of the text—the text as ethical inquiry or as ethical form—has barely entered the conversation about electronic literature, though all of the other approaches to print literature have been, or are being, explored in this new context.
By “ethics” here I do not mean thematics—an implied ethical question or dilemma raised for readers by the plot, an approach that often reduces the text to a case study for philosophical debate. I mean to reference a more philosophical, and perhaps Bakhtinian, notion of ethics as form. For Bakhtin—as for Lukacs in Marxist criticism—form is ethics and ideology: ethical values are not things that can be extrapolated from the text like a paraphrase, but rather are the approach to the world, the Other, the Self implied by the very operations of the textual apparatus. One looks for the text via the ethical stance toward the world and toward value implied by the structural form and formal operations of the text itself.
In this paper I will illustrate how an ethical poetics might give us new terrain to cover in our discussions of electronic literature. Specifically, this paper explores how the notion of dialogism—as a central ethical delimiter of the print novel—is redefined as interactive recursivity in electronic literature. This paper grows out of my work on interactivity in my monograph-in-progress on dialogics in the contemporary visual, literary, and performing arts; in that book I differentiate between rhetorical dialogics (an ethical relation between author and reader), formal dialogics (including intertextuality and intermediality), and relational dialogics (participation in the artwork by audience/reader). My claim in this paper is threefold:
1. that electronic literature (in contradistinction to print literature) has the potential to encompass all three of these kinds of dialogism by the nature of its form;
2. that in electronic literature, recursivity redefines dialogics and algorithm is the new site of ethical form;
3. that the recursivity of machinic operations and human interaction demanded by electronic literature radically reconfigures ethical dialogics as post-human dialogism.
Electronic literature thus becomes centrally important to new discussions about the ethics of a text and in fact may figure a new stage of ethical formalism that weds human to machine without eviscerating the text’s ethical dialogics. What is the relation between dialogism and interactivity? Is a posthumanist ethical relation possible between human and algorithmic Being? What is the ethical relation between *author* and audience as it is mediated by the interactive electronic text? In what ways does recursivity redefine the nature of dialogics?