Review of Grammalepsy: Essays on Digital Language Art and Electronic Literature

Grammalepsy: Essays on Digital Language Art
by John Cayley

Bloomsbury Press, NY, NY, 2018
298 pp., illus. 25 b/w. Trade, £57.60; ePub, £62.21
ISBN: 9781501335761; ISBN: 9781501335778 (£62.21).

Electronic Literature
by Scott Rettberg

Polity Press, Cambridge, UK, 2019
234 pp. Trade, $69.95; paper and open e-book, $24.95
ISBN: 9781509516773; ISBN: 9781509516780; ISBN: 9781509516810

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
April 2019

Grammalepsy: Essays on Digital Language Art

A professor at Brown University where he directs a graduate program in digital language art and teaches a writing course in immersive virtual reality, John Cayley is definitely one of the most important voices in theory and practice of what he is increasingly reluctant to call “electronic literature”. The latter term has been imposed by the double success of the leading professional organization, ELO, “Electronic Literature Organization” (https://eliterature.org/), and the eponymous book by N. Katherine Hayles, Electronic Literature, commissioned by ELO (Notre-Dame UP, 2008) and still considered a landmark publication in the field, together with Lev Manovich’s classic The Language of New Media (MIT Press, 2001). Although Cayley’s work is very close to that of Hayles, given their common literary background, his take on the field is highly original and as ground-breaking as that of Hayles, mainly because Cayley’s theoretical and critical writings are deeply rooted in a writerly practice. This practice-based but theoretically very strong approach explains the singular and singularly exciting position of Cayley in the field.

The use of a neologism, grammalepsy, is an easy way to highlight this originality. Clearly referring to Derrida’s grammatology, which redefines language in terms of material inscription and thus questioning the typically Western and metaphysical belief in language as a mere copy of an interior voice, Cayley strengthens and broadens the materialist dimension of Derrida’s theory by foregrounding not so much the production of writing as the reception of language, both oral and written, which he defines as a semiotic process of “grasping” (hence the suffix “-lepsy”, like in narcolepsy and other comparable words), that is as the process that converts material items in linguistic units. Language does not exist in itself; it comes into being, so to speak, when readers or listeners manage to convert certain objects into signs, more precisely into linguistic signs.

Grammalepsy is logically inseparable from the notion of medium, since linguistic signs do not appear in a void but are necessarily linked with a certain host medium, and Cayley’s work on medium, which is key in his approach, is on its turn linked to the notion of medium-specificity. For Cayley, it does not make much sense to qualify language as “a medium”, since the grammaleptical gesture is not linked to a specific support or host medium: Language can appear in different host media, and there is no essential relationship between for instance writing (as a specific type of language) and the book. This relationship is the result of various and longtime well-established cultural practices and usages, yet it should not be taken as the sign of an eternal or absolute connection, as demonstrated by the current shift from analog to digital forms of writing (which Cayley does not read in terms of supersession but in terms of a further widening of the medium possibilities of writing).

For similar reasons, Cayley is also skeptical of the notion of electronic literature. On the one hand, he rejects the idea that the computer is a medium, that is a single medium. Instead of reducing the material and semiotic complexities of this kind of writing (to be read in plural, obviously), he proposes to frame practices of electronic writing as examples of networked and programmable media. Programmable, because of code-based, and he makes very clear as well that code as such is not a language, for the simple reason that normally computer code resists grammaleptical understanding. And networked, given the interaction between hardware and software, production and distribution, and writing and reading. On the other hand, Cayley also suggests that the digital revolution deeply changes the very notion of literature, since the writing produced and processed in networked and programmable media is very different from the type of literature we used to find (and archive) in books. Materially speaking, the signs are changing, in the two senses of the word: They are no longer just verbal signs, but aural and visual signs; moreover, they are also moving, that is ephemeral, mobile, permanently mutable. Culturally speaking, the way we make sense of them also uses criteria that are different from those that produced the idea of literature in the era of the printed book (literary quality, for instance, is now challenged by certain quantitative aspects and issues of interaction and appropriation).

Grammalepsy is an essential book for many reasons. The quality of the author’s theoretical sharpness and reflection is of course one of them, and one will find in this book an in-depth but often somewhat polemic dialogue with all the major critics and theoreticians in the field. No less important is the interaction with Cayley’s own practice, which is always also a very critical practice, eager to explore the often unnoticed constraints of both the technical tools and the institutional thresholds, limitations and black boxes of the industries that make and sell them (or that sell our use of them when they are offered for free). Cayley’s work with Google has nothing to do with new literary genres such as flarf poetry, which may have challenged canonical values in literature but did not critically question the internet it used as a new tool of writing. In addition, it is absolutely fascinating to discover a book that brings together the best of Cayley’s writing since more than two decades in a way that helps see the progressive thickening and strengthening of the author’s creative and critical work. Grammalepsy is much more than a kind of personal anthology, it is a book that has the courage as well as the ambition to disclose a work in progress but in time, that is not a snapshot of the Cayley’s ongoing production and reflection (that would just be a work “in progress”), but an overview of the way in which this work in progress evolves in and through time (that is taking the risk to reveal errors and contradictions). From that point of view, one can only be admiring of the pioneering and visionary dimension of these essays, often much ahead of their times. Finally, it is also greatly refreshing to notice that Cayley’s framing of the shift from analog to digital is permanently benefiting from the many insights that come from his literary background, both as a theoretician and as a poet. The lasting impact of book culture and the culture of poetry allows him to develop a critical theory of digital language art that is rich and complex, avoiding the traps of essentializing “electronic literature” while taking seriously the changes previous forms of writing are currently undergoing. Absolutely remarkable in this regard are his observations on the rise of the audiobook, an apparently “poor” and “monomedial” form of literature, which he provocatively links with projections on the dramatic changes of language, which is now no longer digitally processed in its written but also in its oral forms (speech recognition, automatic translation, etc.).

Electronic Literature

Is it mere coincidence that I am given the opportunity to simultaneously review John Cayley’s Grammalepsy and Scott Rettberg’s Electronic Literature? Regardless of the very different scope and purpose of these two great books, the former more theoretically and conceptually oriented (although one should not underestimate the strong conceptualization and real theoretical thinking of Rettberg), the latter having a more directly encyclopedic ambition (even if Cayley’s book can also be used by all those who are interested in a thorough mapping of the field), their more or less joint publication is probably a sign of the times. More and more books are being published indeed that manage to combine the best of both worlds: a large overview of what electronic literature (and as we know the term is far from being accepted by all those working in this field) has been yet also currently represents and an in-depth theoretical reflection on the actual meaning and challenges as well as restrictions and obstacles of this type of writing (and it should be clear from the start that the notion of writing can no longer be restricted to written language alone, in spite of the fact that even after the visual and digital turn written language remains at the center of what is happening in electronic literature at large).

One of the key practitioners as well as theoreticians in the field, Rettberg approaches electronic literature as a form of experimental writing. This is an important initial claim for two reasons. First of all, it allows to establish a kind of a priori continuity between analog forms of experimental writing, such as for instance Dada (a movement Rettberg is not afraid of calling the most important artistic movement of the twentieth Century–it is of course allowed to disagree, but that’s another issue), and electronic literature, not only in its most innovative forms but as a specific type of writing in itself. Second, the experimental take on electronic literature as a whole helps the author to avoid some of the pitfalls that have hindered much previous thinking, for instance the idea that electronic writing would supersede analog forms of literature (this is clearly not the case, and the clear framing of electronic literature as experimental immediately dissipates that kind of naivetés) or the idea that electronic literature has the same role and impact as the giants that currently dominate the market. Instead, the emphasis on experimentalism, which takes into account the relative weakness of this type of literature in comparison with the corporate use and control of the internet by giants like Amazon and Google, highlights the critical and cultural value of electronic writing for the future of textuality.

Rettberg’s ambition in this book is at the same time very modest and utterly original. At first sight, it proposes a very broad and all-encompassing overview of what has been produced in the field. The past tense is not a detail here, since the light-speed changes of technology, hardware and software alike, make that many works have ceased to be accessible–a crucial issue in electronic writing, already the object of another recent outstanding book, Traversals(by Stuart Moulthrop and Dene Grigar; in comparison with this study, however, the tone of Rettberg’s study is much more optimistic). Yet what is important here is not only the exceptional scope of the material covered in this book (I cannot think of an important work of electronic literature that would be missing), but also the singular theoretical approach that is followed to organize, describe, and analyze the material. Rettberg’s starting point is amazingly simple, since he proposes a taxonomy that adopts the traditional category of genre. The classification of the complete production along five genre lines (namely: combinatory poetics, hypertext fiction, interactive fiction, kinetic and interactive poetry, and collaborative networked writing for the internet, eventually complemented with a certain number of practices that blur the boundaries between writing and other practices, such as gallery installations or expanded cinema) is at the same time very transparent, perfectly user-friendly, and highly efficient, thanks for instance to the permanent awareness that the frontiers between genres are porous, that genres can be mixed, that genres are not transhistorical essences but change over time, etc. However, this apparent simplicity should not prevent us from seeing its great explicative power and important theoretical stakes. The apparently old-fashioned instrument of genre theory proves perfectly compatible with a sharp reading of the interaction between text and technology, making room for a revision of general genre theory in light of medium theory and information and communication theory that both revitalizes the notion of genre and avoids the simplifications technodeterminism. Genre thus proves to be the ideal playground for a thorough rethinking of the creative interplay between writing and technology, which should profit as well to genre theory in analog contexts –and probably to other fields such as media archeology as well (where a traditional concept such as genre is often the object of some a priori distrust).

Two last words on this important book. For all those looking for a sound and perfectly informed introduction to the field, written by someone whose inside knowledge and personal experience does not twist or distort an almost jargonless description of the field: this is the book you have been waiting for. And for hurried readers: on pages 14-17, Rettberg even succeeds the tour de forceto discuss all important critical thinking and major books and authors in a crystal-clear synthesis. For all those eager to continue the theoretical discussions launched by key voices such as, well, those detailed on the abovementioned pages 14-17: Do not think that this book is just a guided tour of what electronic literature stands for today; each page of this work contains theoretical and critical suggestions and surprises, as if it were also a videogame with (intellectual) easter eggs.