Literature and The Internet: New Forms of Electronic Writing
Paola Carbone and Susana Pajares Tosca
Organized by "Écritures du roman contemporain de langue anglaise" (Paris IV-Sorbonne) in collaboration with trAce and Nottingham Trent University. 15-16 March 2002. http://trace.ntu.ac.uk/events/sorbonne/
This small event, with some 50 participants, ran for two days in the magnificent location of the Sorbonne, in the heart of Paris. The organizers made sure that everything ran smoothly, from technical requirements to organizing excellent lunches for the participants in nearby restaurants.
Even though the title of the conference seems to point to a formalist interest in electronic literature, the question of form was nearly absent from the discussion. Only two or three papers dealt with specific electronic formats such as hypertext or time-based narratives on the Web. The papers were very heterogeneous, bringing many different perspectives to the discussion -- not merely the digital narrative and authorship questions so common in recent conferences about electronic writing. Participants dealt with identity, pedagogical approaches to electronic formats, the Web as a publishing medium, and legal questions on copyright, among others.
There appeared to be a bit of a gap amongst the participants: some of them were long time "insiders" in the field of electronic literature, talking about new aspects and phenomena related to the world of digital literature. For others, electronic literature seemed to be a new discovery or a metaphorical inspiration to talk about something else. Still, the relatively small size of the group allowed for an inspiring exchange of points of view between the "factions".
FRIDAY 15th March
Sue Thomas (www.trace.ntu.ac.uk) made us think about the Internet as a place to display a performance, a place such that that questions of gender, sexuality, nationality, and name become irrelevant to define relationships and identities. The "artist on the net" is a poet as well as a visual artist, a non-fictional writer, a 3D filmmaker..., that is to say, someone with skills, tools and sensibility but still beyond conventional artistic labels.
According to Friedrich Borries, the Internet can be perceived as a public space devoted to the exchange of information and transit comparable to any architectural urban area. This is the main idea characterizing the "Berlin Urban Diary," a project carried out in Berlin's Alexanderplatz between January 15th 2001 and February 22nd 2002, in which a huge screen displayed short messages sent by Berlin citizens. He described this form of writing (by the people, for the people) as "public literature".
This non-interactive way to enjoy "literature" avoids the risk that Adrienne Eisen pointed out: the click. Any click is a risk! The well known American e-writer talked about hypertext creative writing, both from the point of view of the author and from the point of view of the teacher. Eisen underlined how we still need to feel at ease with the electronic medium in the same way that linear writers are at ease with theirs. Eisen reminded us that when we write hypertextually we must remember that any single page has to be good, and that our project is not otherwise (i.e. linearly) realizable.
Evoking papyrus as well as binary code, the novelist Tom Bradley stated that the Internet changes everything but nothing for the writer, since he is still alone with someone to talk to. Nonetheless, the net is functional as a place for research and as a window to attract audience.
Literature on the Web was approached from a different point of view by Sophie Aymes, who talked about a literary Web site for pre-Internet artists. Researching Mervyn Peake's and Wyndham Lewis' Web sites convinced her that literary societies are not using the electronic medium at their full potential, neither as a way to make themselves known nor as a medium to disseminate the works and poetics of their artists.
A very interesting project, Horses for Courses, was presented by Michela Ledwige. This is an interactive, 3D Web-based film. Its "author" emphasized the lack of a standard format and traditional conventions for a new universal medium that needs a new marketplace as well as massive investments.
Two talks were dedicated to copyright. Andrew Stake pointed to the idea of "the original", economic rights, moral rights, reward for labor and authorship both for individual and collaborative experiences in the creation of digital works of art. On the other hand, Miranda Mowbray focused her attention on the global distribution of intellectual property revealing to the astonished audience how companies, which disseminate online writing, often claim extensive rights to commercial exploitation of this writing. It means that most of the documents published on the net are owned by few providers such as aol.com, sony.com and McDonalds.com.
SATURDAY 16th March
The day opened with Susana Tosca's paper "Using hypertext to teach literature", in which she described the experience of trying to take the theory of lyrical links into practice. She described her work with a group of students analyzing James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The audience were mostly concerned with how hypertext is "not really interactive" unless some dynamic/adaptive strategies are adopted.
Leonard Schwartz read from his work "New Babel", a long poem about words, the confusion of modern life and various contemporary events such as the 11. September 2001. He talked about the communicative power of the Internet to transcend geographical barriers and cyberspace as a safe place for some to get in touch with the real.
Andy Campbell's paper "Using Flash to Create New Imaginative Fiction" was an account of his experience as a Flash author, transforming other author's textual (linear) fictions into something entirely different: multilineal, multimedia and time-based. Drawing upon reactions to his own work, Campbell sees the digital literature of the future as moving away from text and into video and interactivity.
Alain Cazade presented "Multimedia and Poetry: today's parenthesis, tomorrow's mainstream?", in which he described an annotated edition of the work of poet David Jones that his students navigate to read. In it, they learn about the author's context, see pictures, listen to sounds, etc. The system contains many exercises and possibilities for the students to follow their own interests. Cazade finished with a reflection on the new role of educators in the digital era.
There followed a round table about online magazines with David Applefield, Andrew Gallix and Wendy Perkins. They mainly commented on the many new possibilities for self-publication that the Web has opened. In a world where virtually anyone can be a publisher, it is good time to rethink the role of literary editors. The audience participated in the debate with comments about how to manage the immensity of the Web, the new skills necessary for authors-editors, and what filters mean in an open publishing world.
"Online diaries: Towards a Structural Approach" was an extremely interesting paper by Viviane Serfaty, in which she proposed a description of the structural characteristics of online diaries or Web logs, based in the four parameters of accumulation, open-endness, self-reflexivity and co-production.
Shaheed Fatima analyzed the English copyright laws in relationship to the Internet in "Conceptual Blockbusting: Copyright in Cyberspace", analyzing the main historical obstacles for useful copyright laws and describing some possibilities for reformation.
Chuck Guildford described his online program for creative writing in "Make it Online: Writing, Reading and Teaching Poetry on the World Wide Web", with some moving stories from international readers. Einar Moos read a very entertaining account of Kant's life (and other stories), comparing the Internet with a new kind of consciousness related to the philosopher's work in "Kant and the Metaphysics of the Internet".
Finally, "Is an Author a Person?" by Suzanne Ebel looked at authors of classic hypertexts in relationship with Jameson's ideas on postmodernism. She talked about the new role of authors and the meaning of "artificial authorship", relating the Oulipo experiments with AI and some literary forerunners like William Gibson.
The conference closed with a very generous and pleasant cocktail. For us it was a refreshing experience and an excellent opportunity to meet some old friends. A remarkable initiative.
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