The Absence and Potential of Electronic Literature


There is no understanding of electronic literature. No theory exists to analyze literary texts and signs on the computer and the network. How does the digital inscription become literary? Don’t get me wrong: there are admirable descriptive formalisms and historical genealogies of electronic literature. All these function as criticism should, but offer nothing of electronic literature as such. Existing criticism begins from the presumption that “there is” electronic literature and proceeds to describe the various works in existence (for example, in _Electronic Literature_ Hayles explicitly refuses to theorize the subject of her book). . The results are productive for maintaining the existing distribution of texts and readings in a field of literary and non-literary texts. My paper is part of a project refusing the given-ness of these forms and histories. The theory of “electronic literature” is a failure, and I insist on the achievement of this failure. The larger project is a technical and philosophical argument for the absence and potential of electronic literature. For purposes of this paper, I draw my examples from the ELC Volume 2. I will ask the question “why is there electronic literature at all?” in terms of the conditions of existence for texts at the interface of the computer, the network, and the human subject. The stakes are high. The absence of a theory and the negation involved opens a field of potentialities. 1) Absence of the work. The internal tagging of electronic literature in remediated terms - such as poem or fiction, but also much more broadly as video or games, etc. - situates the general category of “the literary” in an undetermined open field of digital production. In turn, this openness allows electronic literature to problematize its differential relation to other forms of work (e.g. artifacts such as computer programs or academic scholarship) with resulting institutional effects. 2) Absence of community. There are coherent communities of scholars and creators of interactive fiction, computer games, and so on. Such groups originate in a logical relation to practices and fields of production. The ELO defines its community in vaguer terms. In fact, the ELO as community is a metonymic displacement of the community of electronic literature; which is to say that the participants at this conference are exactly this community. We share relations to electronic literature as an absence or openness of definition. The community does not share anything; it is nothing but this contingent grouping. Such contingency is powerful as a means of advocacy and affiliation. As shown by projects such as CELL or by the sheer diversity of the organization’s membership, the ELO community is potentially affiliated with all that is produced in digital media. Finally, 3) absence of the subject. The philosophical condition for the work of digital writing is a topology of absence: interruption and entropic expenditure of the subject at the gap or dispersion that is the digital text, leaving nothing but characters codes, file formats, and other forms of inscriptions. At stake in electronic literature is the impossible survival of the subject across this topology, whether legally in the name of the author or archivally in data storage files. “The literary” is a fiction or turn beyond the absence of the subject; it is a “becoming” of/in the digital text. This potential of electronic literature is the highest of stakes: the end (culmination/goal) of digital writing.

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