November 1, 2006

Questions about E-Lit from Jena Osman

by Nick Montfort · , 4:15 pm

In opening the discussion that started Autostart, Jena Osman, poet and director of the creative writing program at Temple University, asked several good questions of the attendees. We could have easily filled the remaining time in the discussion with trying to answer these, but we moved along to hear other poets’ perspectives and didn’t get to really discuss Jena’s questions, although I know that some of us were turning them over in our minds. Fortunately, Jena was kind enough to provide her questions and to allow us to post them here. I’ll starting by doing this, and perhaps will offer some answers in comments (rather than as some sort of top-level annotation) in a bit.

I’m interested in the differences in terms of the reading process between texts that are pre-digital and then put up online and texts that are made with the screen in mind. it seems like they’re calling for two different kinds of attention. At least two. With the former I always feel a strain, that I’d much rather print it out and read (but maybe that’s generational). Unless they somehow acknowledge this transfer from hard text to screen – like Brian Kim Stefans’ rendition of Creeley’s “I Know A Man” or his other “One Letter at a Time Pieces.” (And I’m curious to learn about other examples of digital transcription.) But with etexts, I often feel like I’m reading much more for process and activity than for content – I’m reading the action of reading. What does it mean to separate out the act of reading from the text itself so distinctively?

The first question when reading digital work is always one of process – how will it move, what will it do, how do you make it go – rather than a question of a stabilized end- result, a finalized content. Form has totally taken over content, rather than being an extension of it. After reading (or moving through it) I often can describe to someone what I did but not what I’ve read.

I’m curious to hear people articulate the kind of attention that digital media motivates. If the attention is fleeting or always in motion, how does that change our relation to meaning. In other words, what kind of world do these works model?

Problem of interfaces; often feel like I need a guide or demonstration. I need to teach myself how to use these things, teach myself how to read, and I often don’t have the patience to sit and figure it out.

Ephemerality and access – it seems to me that digital literature has more in common with theater/live performance than books. Although its lifespan is longer than other performance arts.

I’m also interested in what the digital is doing for the voice – aside from simply recording it, is there a new orality appearing through digital culture? What are some examples?

Definitions of interactivity. Is having control on how a predetermined text moves around the screen, or having some control of how that text is distributed/read really interactive? What’s at stake in the concept of interactivity? I think this question connects back to my question about reading.

3 Responses to “Questions about E-Lit from Jena Osman”

  1. nick Says:

    I won’t try to answer all of these, at least at once, but in reply to Jena’s question about attention:

    I’m curious to hear people articulate the kind of attention that digital media motivates. If the attention is fleeting or always in motion…

    I find that different pieces of e-lit ask for many different sorts of attention. “Dakota” by Young Hae-Chang Heavy Industries rewards close study and efforts to draw correspondences with the first two of Pound’s Cantos, while also riveting the reader as it plays – in the Whitney, it could clearly be seen that it drew a more focused attention than any other piece in The American Effect exhibition. It would be quite common for a reader to pursue each of the five interactive fiction pieces in the Collection as intently as one would a novel, and for a longer period of time, with note-taking and discussion with others to accompany the reading and the typing, the figurative thinking and experimentation that is carried out in interacting. Brian Kim Stefans’s “The Dreamlife of Letters,” which might seem an “easy read” at first, asks the reader to try to reconstruct the message from which it is constituted, and to read this altered message, as the forms of words dance in a way that also asks to be seen, traced, and appreciated. Alan Sondheim and Reiner Strasser’s “Tao” hardly demands attention or interpretive energy, but it opens a calm space of text and image that is very amenable to repeated experience, being both connected to the everyday experience of the computer but also at a different pace from it.

    There are electronic pieces that don’t ask for, or reward, the same interpretive focus or attention as do the most powerful poems and pieces of prose, but I wouldn’t characterize the level of attention that I devote to e-lit as fleeting or always (or even typically) in motion. Just as we use workaday computers to glimpse ephemeral news and movie listings and such – and also to study deep puzzles as we sift through scientific data or corpora of text – the literary use of computers engages the reader, and user, in many different ways.

  2. nick Says:

    I’ll add one more thing to this, which is that some interesting e-lit pieces do not make very many demands on the reader, and can be read during a corporate lunch break – or even when the reader is supposed to be working. While these may not be reconfiguring reading practices in a dramatic fashion, they are nevertheless opening up the possibilities of our workplace computing devices for literary expression and exchange, showing that international business machines can be literary machines, too. In their contexts, I think these sorts of fleeting-attention sessions of reading are quite worthwhile.

  3. josemanuel Says:

    I think Jena Osman made an important point there. Do we have to re-learn to read in order to be able to fully understand e-lit, or maybe it’s the authors the ones who have to learn to write e-lit? For example, some works from the ELO collection puzzled me in a bad way. I didn’t know how to “use” them. Comparing the experience to that of reading a book, it was like reading something in an unknown language about an unknown topic, while simultaneously not even knowing which page I was on, nor which one I had been before, nor after. Ignoring even how to turn the pages.

    But there was also something I noticed on myself. The more I related to the (supposed) theme of the work, the more I could understand how it worked. So, was I consciuosly not taking the effort of learning how to read the works I was not interested in from the beginning, or were those works really “easier” than the others and I still may blame my illiteracy on the authors? My impression is that it’s a 50%-50% thing, but I can be wrong. I believe, though, that Ms. Osman is right in suggesting that this is probably due to the novelty of the form. My children will be able to read those works and explain them all to me, I’m sure.

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