Jörgen Schäfer, Peter Gendolla (eds
Beyond the Screen. Transformations of Literary Structures, Interfaces and Genres
by Jörgen Schäfer and Peter Gendolla, Editors
Bielefeld: Transcript (Media Upheavals series, volume 44), 2010
568 p. 44,80 €
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
Based on a Siegen conference of 2008, this book is the fruit of a transatlantic collaboration between mainly German and US based scholars in the field of electronic literature. It brings together researchers linked to the ELO (Electronic Literature Organization) and the immersive laboratory called the ‘Cave’ at Brown University on the one hand and new media and medium theory specialist from various German universities on the other hand, although in a very open and inclusive spirit (of course certain teams and countries are underrepresented, but this flaw is difficult to avoid in such a creative and burgeoning field as e-literature). Moreover, since the book is much more than just the proceedings of the conference, it finds its place in a larger publication program conducted by the two editors who have been dramatically productive in the last few years, with impressive collective publications both in English and in German with the same publisher).
It is a pleasure to observe that this very heavy book with numerous contributors and a wide range of topics has, nevertheless, a clear focus. Its aim is to study the future of electronic literature following three major lines, on which I shall return immediately. By stressing the notion of electronic literature, the editors make a clear statement on the (relative) autonomy of textual and more specifically literary production within the broader field of new media studies and digital culture studies. Despite its apparent simplicity, such a statement is courageous and refreshing, since it goes against the grain of the current doxa of media hybridization and the blurring of boundaries between all the media and sign systems that can be communicated through a digital channel. E-literature is not seen as the integration of the thing formerly called literature in the new heaven of Computerland. Second, by stressing the importance of the future of e-literature, the editors do not only express their belief in the fact, which is far from being accepted by all specialists, that literary writing has a future on the Net (and beyond), they also accept the idea that we one now have a solid basis for the study of e-literature and that it is therefore no longer necessary to reopen old discussions on the definition of electronic literature. Rather than reopening the case made by authors such as N. Katherine Hayles in her book Electronic Literature (2008; a publication sponsored by the ELO and now broadly implemented in college teaching), the priority is now to see what e-literature represents today and how it shapes our literary mind and expectations.
Beyond the Screen is organized in three sections. In the first section, “Beyond the Screen”, the editors have gathered the essays that analyze e-literature’s ‘expanded field’, i.e. the expansion of the text in a temporal and spatial environment that is no longer limited to the 2D-surface of the computer screen (the very interesting of ‘locative media’ works, using for instance GPS technology, are among the most speaking illustrations of this new tendency). In the second part, “Beyond Genre”, one finds a number of contributions that question aspects of literary taxonomies and genre classifications (most examples here take as their primary focus the question of digital poetry, whereas one would have expected a more thorough discussion of less recognized genres such as videogames). In the last section, “Beyond the Library” –for me the most interesting part of the whole book–, Schäfer and Gendolla make room for very basic but also very essential interrogations on the storage, preservation, archiving, reproduction, editing, disclosing, classifying, and publishing of electronic sources. Often discarded as merely technological, these questions prove, however, to be so fundamental that one can only accept with great joy the new prominence that is being given to them in debates that aim to be in the very first place cultural and directed toward a broad debate (as is demonstrated by the astonishingly clear language of all the texts of this collection).
In general, the reading of this volume is very rewarding. The cultural, aesthetic, and social stakes of the discussions are clearly marked, and the helpful editorial hand of Schäfer and Gendolla makes that the unusual length of this publication is never felt as a handicap (though the very wealth of the material might have required a general index, which is missing now). The organization of the collection is clever, although slightly out of balance. In this regard, the very presence of the second question on genre problems comes as a little surprise, for the type of questions that are raised here do not seem very specific of e-writing and e-literature: any form of innovative cultural production since more than a century has had a similar agenda. If the strong insistence on e-writing’s ‘literariness’ should be welcomed, a minor point of the volume is that too many essays, however interesting they may be in other regards, do not respect enough this thematic focus, expanding the scope of research too much in the direction of visual arts, new media arts, performance arts, etc. It is clear that such reframing of digital literature is useful and perhaps inescapable, but it appears a little at odds with the strong claim in front of a more strictly literary approach.
What has bothered me as well is the difficulty of defining literature itself. Time and again, literature is defined in very general terms, which do not really clarify the object that is at the center of the book. Just one example: ‘If we do not understand the poetical only as an effect of literary procedures –in Roman Jakobson’s sense of “poetic function”– but as a re-projection of socio-historical and technical conditions of the body to its sensual self-perceptions, then (…)’ (p. 56). There may be good reasons to consider Jakobson’s definition as insufficient, for instance in its ignoring of the body and the interaction of body and speech technology, yet the alternative that is being formulated here does hardly help solve the question that triggered the very argument of Jakobson, namely the distinction between poetic and non-poetic language and the best ways of describing it. The limits of Jakobson’ poetic function are not superseded by the new approach that should accept the challenge to redefine poeticity in a formal manner within the new and more satisfying framework that we are in need of when being confronted with unclassifiable examples of electronic writing. The lack of any real definition of what literature actually may be makes also that most contributions are more descriptive than evaluative (with some notable and very refreshing exceptions, such as the essays by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Roberto Simanowski). Yet the need of a critical assessment of what is currently being produced is a real issue –and one should at least raise it, even if one rejects the classic criteria and ready-made arguments that help distinguish between the good, the bad and the ugly. As Joseph Tabbi’s article clearly demonstrates, there are even very good reasons to refuse to take part in this aesthetic discussion, but at least his contribution foregrounds in an exemplary matter what is at stake in this kind of debate. Finally, one should notice also that in this volume there is, after all, not much theory or, to put things more precisely, not much theoretical debate. Of course most authors define very plainly the framework that they are using, but in almost all cases this framework is just mentioned, instead of being critically challenged or discussed as well. ANT, for instance, which runs through the whole book, might have deserved a more thorough theoretical conversation, for after all it is not a method often used in discussions on poetry, in the aesthetic sense of the word –and literary scholars can only take their advantage from this kind of discussions. The same applies to the use of cognitive theories, reading-response theories or theories of knowledge. All these questions are being treated in traditional literary (i.e. print-oriented) scholarship as well, and the dialogue with the insights, the doubts, and the interrogations of this more traditional body of theory might have been very interesting. It is missing now, but that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be room for it in the continuation of Schäfer and Gendolla’s work in progress.