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Sandy Baldwin and Philippe Bootz, eds

Regards croisés: Perspectives on Digital Literature

by Sandy Baldwin and Philippe Bootz, Editors
West Virginia University Press, Morgantown, WV, 2010
128pp., illus. 9 b/w. Paper, $19.95; eBook, $19.95
ISBN: 978-1-933202-47-1; ISBN: 978-1-933202-48-8.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

The least one can say of this collection of essays on electronic literature, is that it is different from most existing material on the topic. Even when written outside the US, this material is strongly indebted to what is being done in the American academia: the authoritative critics and theoreticians most often quoted, such as N. Katherine Hayles, George Landow or Lev Manovich, the works and authors that have been recently canonized by the ELO (Electronic Literature Organization), but also the gate keeping institutions are all definitely North-American, and US English is their global language. Regards croisés does not ignore this line of thinking and working, since all the contributors to this volume (Shuen-Shing Lee, Alckmar Luiz dos Santos, Camille Paloque-Bergès, Eugenio Tisselli, Janez Strehovec, and Alexandra Saemmer, Sandy Baldwin, Philippe Bootz) are well-known theoreticians and practitioners in the field, often with a proven international (read: US) record and in all cases a good knowledge of the ongoing research at Brown, MIT, San Diego, etc. Moreover, the ambition of this book is not all to criticize the research done in the US or in relationship with it. Its basic stance, which in a certain sense is not unlike the "glocalized" project defended by Leonardo (as readers may know, the journal has also a section in French!), is rather to offer a broader, i.e. linguistically and culturally more diverse framework for the study of emergent forms of literary writing.

How is this difference then made concrete and palpable in this volume? What strikes at first sight is of the course the ambition to take into consideration works written in other languages, French and Portuguese for instance. However, this expansion of the field remains superficial (although important and necessary, of course) in comparison with the real breakthrough proposed by all the contributors, namely the conviction that even works produced for the global market and with the help of such universal tools as the modern digital media, are deeply rooted in local cultural and linguistic traditions, and can only be understood when referred to them. Hence, the overall emphasis on the importance of language in electronic literature, and the subsequent claim that the visual turn and the multimediazation of the (hyper)text do not suffice when it comes down to understanding why certain authors are doing what they are doing. In addition, this foregrounding of the text goes far beyond the simple reminder that not everything in new media has shifted towards visual and multimedia signs. Finally, it also implies the necessity to study the specifically verbal dimension of digital literature in relationship with literary ideas, traditions, debates, and models in which the contemporary e-texts are deeply embedded.

More specifically, this reopening of digital literature to textual and verbal signs takes three different forms. First of all, a strong accent put on close reading. Second, the highlighting of the historic density of concepts, genres and models. When contributors of this book use the word "poetry", for instance, they will take care in defining what cultural practice and structure of feeling lays behind or underneath a word that is deceivingly simple. Yet it makes a crucial difference if one accepts or rejects the idea that poetry, although being a "machine", is also aiming at "producing emotions". French poet and theoretician Paul Valéry, whose reflections on poetry are still playing a paramount role in French culture, said both, but contemporary critics of digital poetry, who may like to quote Valéry's statements on the machinic aspects of poetry-writing, will tend to discard or simply ignore the flip side of Valéry's poetics. Given their attempt to disclose the cultural background of writing and literature in specific historic and geographical contexts, the essays in this book manage to offer more than once a refreshingly multifaceted approach of their corpus. Third, the importance given to the crossing of boundaries, but not the kind of boundaries that are generally discussed in the field of digital literature. Here, the main focus is not only on the crossing of new frontiers and the leap into the future, but also, more modestly perhaps, the blurring of boundaries between present and past. It is the mix of existing methods of reading and reading, on the one hand, and emerging practices in screen writing, reading and thinking, that gives this book its special value. Regards croisés makes us travel through time and space, and it makes a strong plea for the integration of traditional and cutting-edge reflection on electronic literature, not as a new form of literature, but as literature tout court.

Such a stance is not a mirror-view approach of the future. It offers, on the contrary, a sharper awareness of the literary text as an "event", i.e. as a moment in time, a performance, in which change is taking place, but never in an absolute manner. The richness of this approach can be discovered in the stimulating rereading of certain too well-known concepts, such as the mix of closeness and remoteness of Benjamin's aura (here applied to the reading of digital literature in the essay by Philippe Bootz) as well as in the innovative theoretical hypotheses that are defended in various articles (such as the analysis of the rhetoric of brevity in the essay by Alckmar Luiz dos Santos).

Last Updated 7 March 2011

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