by Kamlakar Bhat.
I. Emerging Phenomena of Digital Literature
I am ‘writing’ this note on “Digitization and Literary Studies” on my laptop, consulting online resources on my mobile phone. And the reader of this piece may access it through one or the other digital platform. This entire circle of production and reception is an illustration of the topic on which I wish to reflect here.
We all have daily experiences of the way technology has enhanced our capabilities as well as sensory perceptions. Such technological enhancement of the human faculties is now an old story – bifocals for example have been around for centuries now. Today we recognize how our cognitive ability too is enhanced by technology. Take the example of the DRS system used in Cricket or the slow-motion shots during cricket broadcast, which facilitate better cognition of events that are too distant, too fast, or too minuscule for our bare senses to discern. In a way, we have ceased to be bare human beings, as our existence is not only enhanced but to a large extent enabled by technology. This technological extension of the human engenders a new way of perceiving human endeavors. Thinkers have attended to this new way of being human. Today we have many technology-assisted ways of existence – from pacemakers to artificial limbs.
Beyond this physical and material sense of our human capability being assisted and enhanced by technology, human creativity and scholarship too are technologically facilitated. Specifically, the many kinds of digital technologies since the last decade of the previous millennium have enhanced the kind of work being done in creative and scholarly fields. For example, interactive computing has created a new genre of narrative that goes with video games. Today’s video games are akin to what prose fiction was for 17th century Europeans. Similarly, big data is revolutionizing the scholarship by enhancing our pattern recognition ability by many counts. Thus, in both literary production and literary criticism, digital platforms have facilitated new practices changing the very terrain of art, literature, literary studies. Consider this: there are poets today, with thousands of readers but have not a single printed book to their names. There are those who are widely quoted as writers, whose writings may not fit into the genres of either poetry or prose. Literary magazines are no more the preferred platform to find readers for one’s writings. Digital platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, yourquote, Telegram, WhatsApp groups, or such other social media fetch readership in the thousands and find quicker circulation across continents than print media platforms. Literary Studies too has transcended the “book” to the extent that a mobile phone is a better means of accessing a range of resources than some libraries! Then, of course, there are software programs available that bring to literary studies heretofore unknown ways of studying a text. Consider this too: writers who combine photographs with poems; interactive visuals and verbal pieces; narrative videogames, interactive stories.
Thus, the emergence of digital technologies in the last couple of decades as the preferred route to the production, circulation, reception, and discussion of literature has altered the field of literary studies. The field of academic inquiry in literary studies facilitated and impacted by the diverse digital technologies is now a part of the field called Digital Humanities.
Let us reflect on the implication of the emerging phenomena of digital literature to literary studies. We may begin by not so much prescribing or even describing it, but by imagining it. Even for people who have not developed a detailed familiarity with the various forms of digital literature, and have used and experienced only a few of them (say Facebook) their experience would have led them to meditate on some paths opening up for literary studies. Let us start not by questioning the “what” of digital literature, but the “so what”.
The zone of contact between literature and digital media may be understood fruitfully in relation to two aspects: the narratives of new media and the reorganization of literary studies under the influence of digitality. First of all, we may find analogies for the way ‘digitextuality’ reorganizes textuality in the way oral and manuscript literary cultures were reorganized by print technology. Digital technology does not only enable new types of literary productions and experiences but also transforms the way print literature exists in the digital age. The emergence of digital literature in no way means the end of the printed book. This is akin to how, even after nearly five hundred years of print culture, we still have both oral and manuscript culture in some or the other forms. Orality for example has not disappeared. It has made its peace with technology to exist in the form of pop songs. But print and literacy have reorganized it. What implications will digital media have for ‘literature’ is an interesting thought to pursue. What follows are a few fragments of such a pursuit.
It may not be out of context to indicate here that even though we use the term ‘literature’ to refer to textual practices of various ages and societies, the differences among them cannot be ignored. Thus, even if we continue to use, for example, the term ‘poem’ to refer to a Facebook post that reminds us of ‘poem’(s) found in books, the differences that inform its production, circulation and reception – in short, the way it is constituted – requires us to acknowledge that these are distinct phenomena.
II. New Media and the Reorganisation of Perception
We have had oral, manuscript, and print literature before electronic literature. Electronic literature tests the boundaries of the literature and challenges us to re-think our assumptions of what literature can do and be.
What modern society calls literature is inseparable from print technology and is invariably linked to that unique object engendered by the print, viz. book. Importantly, much of the literary conventions are determined by the typographic principles of printing. The connection we can surmise between coherence, linearity, chronology, page numbers, paragraphs, and chapters is illustrative. Thus, printing not only determined the form but also the content of literature. What is more, the arrival of a book through print affected the cognitive processes by making the visual and verbal the dominant contact. As observed by Marshall McLuhan, print culture, ushered in by the Gutenberg press in the middle of the fifteenth century, did bring about the cultural predominance of the visual over the aural/oral (Gutenberg Galaxy pp. 124–26). In print, culture perception comes to be geared towards that which is determined by the print technology – reading. That is why modern culture is so prominently literacy culture. To realize the significance of this, we must reflect on the demand some people keep making for only the “literate” to be allowed to contest in elections, i.e., that only reading is an indicator of competence and wisdom.
For centuries, modes of knowledge, learning as well as aesthetics, were carried out under conditions of deafness as it were. “Reading” has such an important place in modern society. Reading is sans sonic. It is visually weak. But look at the predominance of reading in the modern culture, in its pedagogy, in the desired skill acquisition, in the production and reception of literature. In the modern era, literature is equated to a ‘read’ text. This predominance of the visual experience is a consequence of print technology. Thus, literature, a product of this print technology too emphasized the visual experience. As we move to the digital platform, we reorganize our perceptual habit by supplementing our visual perception with aural. But, to be more specific, the perceptual adjustment that the digital technologies enforce upon us is more than this: it is interactive. Today, perception is no more passive reading or hearing, but interacting at multiple levels.
III. Digital Media and Literature
Locating the literary in the digital world is an estranging task: digital evokes visions of the non-literary; of the algorithms, codes, programs, mathematics, and machinery, etc. It is not that the literature which we read from a printed book now stares at us from a screen donning novel garments such as hyperlinks, but that literature as we have known it is also being transformed from within. That is to say that the textual practice of literature is a different entity altogether under digital influence. As Brown and Duguid said, all writers are now designers (2000, 4). Unlike the writer of texts, the designers of digitexts are writing codes or combining verbal texts with visual and sonic pieces. Instead of the linear framework of the arrangement, the designer may set up her digitext through certain interactive steps.
Digital literature is literature produced and accessed using various digital technologies. In the same way that a book has been an artistic and literary venue, electronic literature has seen a growing body of work that deploys networked and programmable media as the material basis for artistic innovation and creation.
Digital literature is a mixed medium: literacy welded to computation. In that sense, it is interspecies. It seems to weave together forms of computer games with forms of literary techniques: while interactivity and multiple pathways may be linked to games, such other aspects as a point of view, narrative voice and literary allusions come from the literary resources. There are transformed terrains and operations too: reading becomes browsing; the reader becomes interactor; writing becomes encoding or designing.
Digital literature uses links and computational permutations. It may incorporate fragmentation, rupture, and combinations of diverse discourses. It is properly a multimedia platform. It includes autobiography, travelogue, poetry, fiction, non-fictional narrative, commentary, and philosophical meditation. All in all, it is a promiscuous mixing.
IV. Literary Creativity – New Paradigms
Like Tristram Shandy in the 18th Century that hinted at the unpredictable possibilities of the emergent form of novel, digital art today is a space teeming with possibilities. As the novel began to consume other literary forms, digitexts too may eventually transform the terrain of the textual practice of literature drastically by changing the genres of ‘literature’. Writers today deploy the visual, sonic, design, and interactive potentials offered by digitality to produce works that enrich and extend verbal texts.
Digital ecology offers an indeterminate and open-ended possibility for artworks. The experimentation with multiple possibilities of a text that writers carried out in print and the readers experienced in their interface with ‘texts’ is made virtual by the digital media. Its unforeseen effects not only emphasize the unpredictable but also project art as a game. An important genre of digital literature is game text. Video games are the dominant medium that narratives take today so much so that cinema which used to hold that position earlier, now derives from video games.
‘Digital humanities’ has had a far-reaching effect on the way literature is studied as well. For example, rather than individual experts writing monographs published by prestigious publishers, digital ecology typically has a crowdsourced scholarship. Projects in digital humanities develop tools, apps, software programs, databases, and games and present data in interactive forms. Wikipedia is a widely recognized example of this. But even archival projects such as Project Gutenberg typify the turn towards crowdsourcing. Thus, scholarship in digital humanities is mainly collaborative, wherein the links often transcend the boundaries of institutes, disciplines, professions, and nations. This ‘mass’-ification of resourcing scholarship helps digital humanities to address problems, issues, and tools that were simply disparate and disconnected for the individualized scholars.
The difference is not only in the way scholarship and digital texts are produced. We discern this departure in the scale and manner of the reception. The audience for digitextuality are quite often much more. For example, while a traditional poet, unless she is a national or international celebrity could hope for very few readers for a poem that has appeared in a magazine, the same poet today may reach out to thousands of ‘readers’ on her Facebook wall and through viral sharing even obtain millions of viewers, and all this in a very short period of time – within hours.
As for audience participation in co-producing, while traditional scholarship has little room for it, digitextuality in fact has genres made up of just that, in addition to the crowdsourced texts – fan fiction is an example. Scholarly digitexts may easily find thousands of unique visitors each month as the audience reach is global compared to the few hundreds over an extended period that its analog counterpart may reach.
Hypertext: Hypertext is a resonant text – it is ‘enriched’ inherently by several of its contexts given verbally, visually, or aurally. Hypertext enables multi-versions of text to be presented in a reader-friendly manner. Hypertext is endlessly and literally intertextual – it literalizes Barthes’ notion of a text being a tissue of quotations. It also enacts the theme of death of the author by the multiple interfaces – moving between various texts in experiencing one.
Digital poetry, flash poems, mixed media installations.
Interactive texts – poems, fiction: The interactor controls a player character by issuing commands. Uses puzzles.
Network narrative: digital fiction that makes use of hypertext technology in order to create emergent and recombinatory narratives.
Novel software that generates fiction based on inputs fed to it. Media literary communities, web or app-based publications, book clubs
Locative narratives: Narratives located in specific locations such as the London library. Red Fort. These are even delivered on cell phones while the reader is on site.
Codework: Use of programming code as components of a poem – replete with pun and play.
http://collection.eliterature.org/1/ (Faith, Foot, Strings, Carving in possibility, Regime change)
Interactive fiction, flash fiction, interactive poetry, click poetry, animated poetry
V. Digitextuality and the Value-frame
Permanency vs. transience; deep vs. hyper attention; text vs. cybertext; static vs. evolving
The dislocation of the frozen, solid form of the book may also imply several shifts in the very basic values associated with literature. One may, for example, speculate that contrary to permanence, the value that implicitly and explicitly ruled the very notion of literature, digital literature might valorize transience. Such a shift would seriously question even the very basic tools of analysis that we all still use with such flourish. Poststructuralism had theorized such promiscuity as a feature of any text – ‘textuality’ – but, digitextuality makes this not only a conceptual but a material feature of texts.
It has to be asserted that text and digitext are dissimilar on many counts. The differentiation that is worth recalling here is made by Espen Aarseth, who prefers the term cybertext. Cybertextuality is for Espen Aarseth not a distinct object but a distinct understanding of textuality. It is a perspective on any texts which underlines its functionality. For Espen Aarseth, all texts are sort of machines performing certain functions and have to be used in particular ways. The reader too would need to perform certain functions so as to read the texts, act as an active participant within the textual terrain. Print-based book is a static medium for literary texts, thus receiving a fixed content. Digitexts have the potential to be not only multi-moded but also evolving continuously – updated, altered, supplemented. With interactive texts, audience action alters the content or the sequencing of the text. Thus, digitext is process-determined.
One of the radical forms of the digitext, on the contrary, is where the designer manipulates the way it is accessed by the reader. For example, the digitext may take a certain period of time before the next text appears, the reader may be hurried to do a fast reading or the reading may be slowed down. Thus, unlike the print text, a digitext has a temporality about the way it is accessed and this temporality may even be a part of its semantic and stylistic structure.
VI. Digitality and New Society
Digital labor: social forms, subjectivities, materialities, and power relations entwine in the creation, marketing, and use of the software.
Digitality reorganizes economic relations too. Notice how in the digital economy the division between production and consumption are collapsed. That is to say, labor is really revised in different ways. First of all, consumption is one of the chief forms labor takes in digitality. Notice how in using Facebook we become the creators of its surplus-value. Services are another kind of new labor. Importantly the digital economy has raised the stock value of knowledge workers. All these are transforming social relations in ways that make our categories of social analysis seriously inadequate unless substantially revised.
Some of the contexts of the digital economy are better articulated by invoking globalization. Processes of globalization engender and are engendered by digital technologies. In terms of new labor, it is the digital technologies that have ushered in the unhinged dispensation of remote regulatory regimes. This kind of reorganization of labor has obvious implications for our notions of both sociality and class relations. This, therefore, asks us to reformulate political approaches to literary studies.
If print culture created individualism, nationalism, and the value-frame of objectivity, what would the digital technology produce? Digital technology: no anonymity, complete consumer, encrypted being dissociated from material human content. “Mediated” society – mediated as in produced/controlled by media and subjected to the arbitration rather than sovereign. Neo-authoritarian gates of access and identity becoming unpassable. Digital technology is giving rise to new ways of fashioning lives: Facebook, avatar, chatrooms, etc. are revising notions of self and sociality. Reality has become a repetition of representation.
Even as we design technology, technology begins to redesign us. The digital media may be developed as an aid to our affairs, but it has to be said that the media begins to make us new beings too. McLuhan puts it as a formula: technology is an extension of the human senses; the change in the nature of our senses changes the mode of sensing or perceiving (1967). Thus, technology including media alter our cognitive processes and redesign our being.
Importantly digital media is not entirely a literacy-based one – it can accommodate non-literate inputs via sight and sound. If we keep in mind Anderson’s thesis that the imaginary community of nation is helped to be by print culture, we can perhaps be hopeful of digital media enabling the participation of a wider population in the imagining of a community.
Regarding the impact of digitextuality / new media on sociality, Ananda Mitra says, “a new set of possibilities for community and nation formation have emerged” with computer-mediated communication. (Mitra, Ananda. 2002. “Virtual commonality: Looking for India on the internet.” In The Cybercultures Reader, edited by David Bell and Barbara M. Kennedy, 676-694. London and New York: Routledge 677).
VII. Postcolonial Moments
How can digitality interrupt the colonial determinations?
Being generated beyond the structures of colonial determination, digitextuality may enable for the first time a possible post-colonial discourse to be fashioned.
The dominant forms of modern literature as well as the dominant methods of literary studies in India emerged under conditions of colonial impact. One of the results of this is that literary studies were either dominated by the colonialist perspective or the anti-colonialist perspective. Thus the field of literary studies in India has been dominated by the anxieties emanating from the facts of empire and has been serving the purposes of negotiating the effects of the experience of colonization. Digital literature and the consequent digital literary studies have opened up a field of engagement that perhaps is truly post-colonial. It is a field of literary discourse that is free of the anxieties of the history of empire. Therefore the questions that this field will concern itself with will be different.
VIII. In Conclusion
Digital technology has played an important role in engendering the processes of globalization and has become its principal platform. Throughout the modern period, the printed book conditioned the forms that knowledge took: for e.g., knowledge is produced in a way as to be conducive to be stored in the book format. The same is the case with the frameworks of knowledge: for e.g., learning is tested based on the ability to reproduce the learned matter as a ‘text’. In contrast to this, in the era of globalization the emergent technology for knowledge formation, dissemination, and reception is digital. While the dislocation of print media by digital technology may not be news in itself, the digitization of discourses underway has serious implications for the being of literary discourses, their social use, and their study.
An investigation into the consequences of digitization on literary studies has to look into several areas: the transformations in reading practices, digitized ‘book literature’, the emerging digital literature, the blogosphere, and the contexts of studying these. The way a literary work is understood and analyzed in a classroom may not be suitable for the study of digital literature. The strangeness involved is like moving from counting the rhythm of a poem to its algorithm. Emerging technologies will continue to open up newer platforms for literary discourses. It is possible to notice that initially the digital media was fashioned after the book. The difference was not drastic except one read vertically rather than horizontally. As the new media flourished, the confining model of the book is left behind and the wider possibilities of the digital sphere are being richly and fruitfully explored. No more, it would seem, does the bard wrap himself in the austere black on white. The flickering screen is not merely an electronic version but the look that the book has donned.
IX. Further Reading
“About Us.” Transcribe Bentham: A Participatory Initiative. University College, London, 1999–2009. Web. 1 May 2011. <http://www.ucl.ac.uk/transcribe-bentham/about/>.
Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (1997). The Johns Hopkins University.
Brown, John Seely, and Paul Duguid (2000). The Social Life of Information. Boston MA: Harvard Business School Press.
Gitelman. Lisa. Always Already New: Media History and the Data Culture (2006). Cambridge, MA: MIT.
McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962). 1st ed.: University of Toronto Press; reissued by Routledge & Kegan Paul.
The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (1967) with Quentin Fiore, produced by Jerome Agel; 1st ed.: Random House; reissued by Gingko Press, 2001.
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). 1st ed. McGraw Hill, NY; reissued by MIT Press, 1994, with introduction by Lewis H. Lapham; reissued by Gingko Press, 2003.
Mitra, Ananda. “Virtual commonality: Looking for India on the internet” in The Cybercultures Reader (2002), edited by David Bell and Barbara M. Kennedy, 676-694. London and New York: Routledge 677.
Pannapacker, William. “The MLA and the Digital Humanities.” Chronicle of Higher Education. Chronicle of Higher Educ., 28 Dec. 2009. Web. 3 May 2011. <http://chronicle.com/blogPost/The-MLAthe Digital/19468/?sid=at&utm_source =at&utm_medium=en>.
Price, Kenneth M. “Edition, Project, Database, Archive, Thematic Research Collection: What’s in a Name?” Digital Humanities Quarterly 3.3 (2009): n. pag. Web. 1 May 2011. <http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/3/3/000053/000053.html>.
Rockwell, Geoffrey. “Inclusion in the Digital Humanities.” GeoffreyRockwell.com. N. pub., 7 Sept. 2011. Web. 5 Nov. 2012. <http://www.philosophi.ca/pmwiki.php/Main/InclusionInTheDigitalHumanities>.
Schreibman, Susan, and Siemens Ray, eds. A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. (2008) Oxford: Blackwell. http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companionDLS/
Spiro, Lisa. “Opening Up Digital Humanities Education.” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities. Spiro, 8 Sept. 2010. Web. 3 May 2011. <http://digitalscholarship.wordpress.com/2010/09/08/opening-up-digital-humanities-education/>