March 7, 2006

Rettberg’s talk “Wherefore Genre?”

by Nick Montfort · , 2:53 pm

It’s spring break, so I decided to take a trip to Maryland and hear a talk…

Wherefore Genre?

Scott Rettberg’s talk at MITH (University of Maryland). I was pleased to hear Neil Fraistat plug Grand Text Auto in introducing Scott…

Scott uses the Electronic Literature Collection volume 1 (eds. Hayles, Montfort, Rettberg, Strickland) to discuss the notion of genre in e-lit. There is no established publishing model, economic market. This causes problems with in presenting work in the classroom, assigning work.

The importance of “centering moments” such as the two $10,000 prizes offered in 2001. This was also successful in showcasing other work, beyond the two winners. The Symposium at UCLA helped in this way, too. The Collection continues this: available online and on CD, can be duplicated via a Creative Commons license. Gives us a common set of works to discuss. Important for writers, since there is little recognition available otherwise. Serves some archival function, although this can be improved. At least bits are distributed to different places rather than being a single copy on a Web server.

What is “literary?” Shklovsky’s idea: making objects unfamiliar (strange), to “increase the difficulty and length of perception.” Defamiliarization. “Literature is created from words.”

The Electronic Literature Directory as a first move to categorize e-lit. Some shortcomings: traditional literary terms, labels that are descriptive aren’t actually in use by people (“prominent graphics,” “recorded sound”). Alternatives might include a “folksonomical” tagging of the Flickr or del.icio.us sort.

Cultures of practice form around genres. Technical categorizations (written using this software) is useful in some ways, but invites technological determinism. People using the same systems form cultures of practice, too. IF is probably the best example of a self-sustaining practice. Subject matter varies, but the way the reader traverses the text is similar in all of these. The IF community has solved its archiving and distribution problems in the absence of a market. Can be challenging for new users, though.

How to structure a syllabus? Methods, themes … but one possibility is genre. Often, lots of discussion of how a work means before we get to what it means. Analysis should go deeper than deciphering a user’s manual. Connections to earlier literary movements are important, and attention to a diversity of approaches.

Some interesting cases from the Collection:

Giselle Beiguelman’s Code Movie 01, animating the hex data from a JPG.

Jim Andrews’s Nio, involving letters and phonemes, but no words per se.

John Cayley’s Overboard, stanzas of text emerging slowly over time.

Mary Flanagan’s The House, an architectural and kinetic system of texts.