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E_lit = White_flight (Provocation 1) at WRT: Writer Response Theory




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[This post comes as the first of several provocations to spur a reexamination of the electronic literature scene. Unlike our usual mild posts, these posts Will Raise Temperatures on elit.]

With the first arguments for electronic writing as an artistic medium, as in literary hypertext, came the attendant claims at its democratic nature. In George Landow’s Hypertext (albeit 2.0, 1997), he writes of the democratic even anarchic nature of hypertext. Readers are empowered to read; writers enabled to publish. Certainly, the self-publishing model of much of electronic literature (often due to the lack of edited venues) proves that the DIY has seized the day from the peer-edited at least with regard to this innovative arena.

Of course, implied in this rhetoric is the notion that everyone will be able to contribute — that the face of electronic literature will be made up of that diverse array of pixels — the marginalized voices.

So why, when we examine reading lists of electronic literature and collections of new media do we see so much #FFFFFF? And if not so much whiteness (as critics point to a sizable representation of Asian-American authors), then so much homogeneity? So much cultural privilege? Take various samplings of electronic literature. Take membership in organizations.

The easy answer is, of course, access. People with money and privilege have computers and the time to use them to produce artworks. If the digital divide is a material and economic reality, the demographics of the artists will reflect that reality.

But what happened to access? What makes a new media artwork art? Hits? Page views? Or inclusion in anthologies? Or critical examination in the texts? Or inclusion on syllabi?


Do these questions sound familiar? They’re the same ones that English departments faced in the 1980s. So while English Ph.D. students moved towards topics of marginality, racial discourse, expanding the canon, another set of students and scholars moved toward this new media. Were they only white students? No. But in a literary field that emerges in the 1980s and early 90s, why don’t we see an equal emphasis on the diversity of the canon? What do we see in electronic literary scholarship? Literature, Television, and Film have asked these questions of themselves, but what of electronic literature? Are we only beginning to ask these questions? Or did our answers get buried?

Well, thanks to the work by Deena Larsen, MD Coverly, Shelley Jackson, Emily Short, Jayne Loader, Judy Malloy, and many others, the elit canon has quite a few women in it, moreso than, say, print novels at their parallel developmental moment.

However in terms of a “democratic” diversity of socio-economic class and race (not to be separated), it seems the wide portal to electronic literature has been blocked by a gate and a security guard.

Lest I over state this provocation, let me acknowledge some of the diversity. First, who might we emphasize in a new (un)canon. Who might point the way? Many of the critics and artists who deal most with race could be categorized more broadly in “new media” then electronic literature with stronger ties to visual and audio media than predominantly text-based media (which may be more of a way of saying they’re contemporary scholar-artists).

A small (but growing) list of Scholar/Artists who are expanding the field

[Write Recommendations for This list]

Wendy Chun, Brown(?)

Beth Coleman, MIT

Colette Gaiter, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis

Pamela Jennings, Carnegie Mellon University

Kara Keeling, UNC.

Tracie Morris, Sarah Lawrence.

Erick Loyer, USC-affiliated.

Lisa Nakamura, University of Wisconsin — Madison

Mendi and Keith Obadikie, Princeton University, William Paterson University (respectively).

Also, there is diversity of content. Consider MD Coverly’s multi-ethnic tale, such as Califia. Or consider such works that focus directly on issues of otherness and ethnic identity, such as Mexotica by Guillermo Gómez-Peña and the Dartmouth Community. Or consider the provocatively-named Mongrel collaborative and their Telephone Troittoire. Surely, the number of similar projects is broad and growing. [The previous lists are stubs, please send us more]
Possible Solutions for the near future:

  • Encourage and facilitate participation and literacy in electronic literature for all
  • Expand what we include in electronic literature (a topic I’ll take up in a later provocation): e.g. DJ Spooky’s work
  • Search, promote, and publicize works from those not yet included
  • Re-examine our syllabi

At the recent MITH/ELO symposium, Sandy Baldwin offered the example of Afro-Futurism to counter this claim of a homogeneous realm of new media studies. Yet, having a critical-artistic genre and being included on syllabi are two very different things.As for model courses, consider Mireille Miller-Young’s Black Feminist Multimedia course or Doug Moody’s: Representation of/from Latinas/os in the Media and the Art. Of course, the revolution has succeeded when the course does not need the identity-group title and still includes a broad range of readings.

There seems to be a breakdown between the electronic literature network, which seems to have a fairly white hue, and the new media studies network, which perhaps grows more out of a cultural studies tradition. Now there are reasons why many of us in electronic literature cling so tightly to word-based new media works–so merely including projects from previously unincluded (uninvited) groups does little if those projects are not deeply rooted in text — or to put it another way, to expand the categories to include works that emphasize, say, image at the exclusion of text does not solve the problem.

What if the question is access to computer technology or certain kinds of programming skills, as the demographics of say computer-game programmers seems to suggest? Is there any faster way to expand the definition of electronic literature to include more kinds of authors and hence encourage more participation, innovation, and conversation from and between more different kinds of users.

There we might actually drink some of the AJAX-laced Web 2.0 Kool-Aid:
Without retracing the entire shift from literary hypertext to the many forms of art we call electronic literature, we might see some of the original predictions of the democratic net to be more true in the context of the technologies collected under Web 2.0. If Web 2.0 is anything, it is an age (or moment) of facilitated user creation. It is the moment not merely of the database but the database combined with the dynamically generated and formatted page. It is the user manipulating developed venues. As Landow writes,

The history of print technology and culture also suggests that if hypertext becomes culturally dominant, it will do so by enabling large numbers of people either to do new things or to do old things more easily. (289).

The popularization of new media writing forms in this media moment offers an opportunity for a wider inclusion. While we seek avenues to promote more access to the computer literacy necessary for electronic literary art, the template-driven publishing forms of blogs, wikis, and even natural-language programming languages create holes in the gates and offer to open up the community of electronic literary arts.



2 Responses to “E_lit = White_flight (Provocation 1)”

  1. 1 Christy Dena

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    Good to have provocations Mark. :)

    Some quick thoughts –

    My experience of the elit scene is mediated — I’m in Australia and those who are in Australia live in different parts. My experience of the ’scene’, therefore, has been almost entirely online and so because I have no intimate knowledge of the culture (scene) on a first-hand (live) level, I cannot comment on any issues to do with that.

    My own experience of works that are created in another language are almost entirely through you Mark. You’ve done a great job on raising awareness. That experience, though, is through the English interviews you’ve conducted. I cannot engage directly with the works because I am not (unfortunately) literate in reading another language. If the works did not rely on text, then I could engage with them. I guess that is the (your) point — that as soon as the artform relies on a literacy that is text then it is immediately a cultural language and so is highly specific. I don’t mean to say that non-text works are not culturally grounded. No, but the modes of images and sound have a wider accessibility than text.

    As I don’t have an awareness of the issues facing creators I can only posit that the problem is that there are works that are created but they are not acknowledged? Then this means it is an issue of where the eLit hubs are. Are there many eLit bodies that act as cultural gatekeepers or is there just one? And if it is just one (the ELO) then it would seem they would have to make sure there are people on the board or whatever that do speak for and champion the works of non-English typing writers.

    My intuitive response is the model I champion in many spaces: that of ‘unity in diversity’. I would like to see many hubs in that sense, that are brought together under a unified theme. In that sense, I do not think that ELO should be THE hub (if that is what is up for discussion here) but one of many. Rather than bring the concerns into a hybrid organisation, that there are many organisations. The issue then may be (I don’t know the circumstances) how other hubs can be encouraged and then how all the hubs come together. But maybe this needs to happen in stages — where their is a diversity agenda in a single hub and then it grows into many…

    On the access and technology issue. That is one for those who type in any language. I’ve never created in Storyspace. Although I’ve got lots of ideas for works that require complex systems, in the past I’ve created works which I have been able to figure out by myself — blogs, bots & websites. I am at the stage now though where I keep hitting walls. My works now often require the expertise of a few people, and that requires $$ and time. I guess in the context of what you’re talking about, this is where teaming together artists with different skillsets (programmers, installations creators, software architects etc) can be brought together through specially-funded residencies, mentorships etc. That is another possible avenue.

    Off the top of my head. Another possibility is commissioning some works to be translated. Of course one would not be experiencing the original work, but if the translation is seen as a collaboration in some sense it would at least raise awareness.

    After all of this, I guess another positive effect would be that artists who currently create in #FFFFFF would then feel that any explorations of other TYPE would be acknowledged.

    And then of course…there is always code art — which is a language that seems to unify us all. :)

  2. 2 Mark Marino

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    Thank you for the full reply, Christy,

    I must qualify this post by saying that a lot of the comments about race and ethnicity pertain particularly to the race and ethnic relations in the United States, though I do think the post speaks to a fundamental challenge to an artform based on expert knowledge.

    I take to heart your comments about including other languages. As you propose, we (as a community) will ultimately need to work towards translations of these wonderful elit pieces. That was something we discussed at the ELO/MITH conference. It will go a long way to bridge gaps and expand our understanding of elit just as the international conferences and competitions do. And as you mention, when people turn to visuals as the sole solution, they throw the app out with the operating system. These are valuable pieces that are deeply rooted in language.

    But beyond this international, interlingual divide, is the gulf between the privileged insider groups within each nation and those who have been excluded. If we follow the literature model, the solutions require both outreach and inclusion. The argument goes that a broader array of texts will act as an invitation to a broader array of artists. I like that idea of teaming up.

    While some institutions act as gatekeepers, everyone who teaches electronic literature to students is a gatekeeper, so too those who blog. ELO probably already functions in the kind of network you are discussing. It is one node among many.

    The changes will happen to a degree from the grass roots, or the user-side, as net goers “favorite” and “bookmark” and share that which appeals to them. But the lit side of Elit always seems to benefit from a bit of explication. Perhaps being more open and inclusive in our exemplary objects is a first step.

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