Rethinking Comparative Literature: Literary Studies in the Age of Electronic Media

Given the rapid transformation of the global communication system, the humanities in general, and literary studies in particular, are faced with theoretical and methodological challenges, which are difficult to meet within the conventional disciplinary boundaries. That said, there seems to be a tension between the supra-departmental nature of electronic literature and the departmental model of most academic institutions. In view of this “institutional in-between identity” (R. Simanowski), I regard it as essential to sustain or to revivify programs in Comparative Literature – or, complementarily, what in German academia has been called “Allgemeine Literaturwissenschaft” (‘General Theory of Literature’). Such conceptions, which had successfully been established and developed as a supplementary or even as a comprehensive discipline since the 1950s, mostly aim at analysing literature beyond its national characteristics, particularly from the analysis of inter- or supranational cultural interchanges. In addition, there also are other possible areas of comparison from which research orientations can derive, most notably from the comparison of literary communication in different media systems. I understand Comparative Literary as Comparative Media Studies, which allows for reconciling the consequences of the media upheaval with the continuing question in what way any notion of “the literary” still is connected to the tradition of literature in other media. The flaw in those positions that solely emphasize the differences between media is that literature is not and never has been defined in a medium-specific way only. It rather has been exemplified by media like the book, but never credibly defined because of it. Therefore, the discussions regarding the prevalent literary theories are by no means finalized. In my presentation, I will demonstrate that basic assumptions of literary theories such as the Formalist approach of ‘defamiliarization’ that defines ‘literariness’ as a differential concept correlated with ordinary language or Wolfgang Iser’s considerations about the reading process still should be reappraised much more closely regarding the question whether and to what extent they can be applied to electronic literature. In a second step, I will argue that the methodological spectrum in literary studies is to be complemented. The relationships between ‘text’ (as a particular configuration of letters), ‘work’ (as a communicable entity) and the ‘material medium’ cannot adequately be analyzed with traditional methods of literary studies only, when the literary ‘artwork’ no longer is a closed object, but itself a processing entity (e.g., "The Readers Project," "slippingglimpse"). In order to be able to describe the coordinated participation of numerous media devices and persons in various ‘activity roles’ at the particular time and place of artistic performance, innovative methods and tools have to be developed in collaboration with ethnographers, computer scientists, linguists, and empirical sociologists.

Full paper: