#ELRBOOKS: Book reviews by Kathi Inman Berens

Originally published on WordPress on the 21st Decemeber 2018.

The ELR is delighted to share a very generous contribution by Kathi Inman Berens that she defined “Five Books About E-Literature Interfaces”. The Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities and Publishing in Portland State University’s English Department chose books that were all published between 2015-2018 to bring to our attention the concepts of materiality and interface in both electronic and print literature. More importantly, what really shows how central the print book as a medium is in digital culture, is the concept of liberature (with b) which reveals in which ways a book conveys literary meaning to the reader.

Good read!

These five books declare new aspects of e-literary interfaces as material sites of inquiry and cultural intervention. Challenged to write short reviews of five books about e-literature, I selected these recent books written by authors living in Poland, Denmark, Norway and the United States paying particular attention to interface as a site of encounter. In addition to being erudite, these books are all immensely pleasurable to read. I sequence them to tell a story from general to specific and back again: from a definitive overview of electronic literature, to the medial history of one interface, to playable books as genre, to a close reading of one e-lit work from three vantages, to a critical treatment of mobile and pervasive literary interfaces.

  • Electronic Literature, by Scott Rettberg
  • The Book, by Amaranth Borsuk
  • Liberature: A Book-bound Genre, by Katarzyna Bazarnik
  • Reading Project: A Collaborative Analysis of William Poundstone’s Project for the Tachistoscope {Bottomless Pit}, by Jessica Pressman, Mark C. Marino, and Jeremy Douglass
  • The Metainterface – The Art of Platforms, Cities and Clouds, by Christian Ulrik Andersen & Søren Bro Pold

In Electronic Literature (Polity: 2018). Scott Rettberg offers a definitive introduction to e-literature suited for classroom use and field overview. Rettberg’s comprehensive vision attends to origin stories that make the claim for e-literature as an essential component of 21st-century literature and art by connecting e-literature to print-borne avant-garde literary movements such as surrealism, Dadaism, Flarf, concrete poetry, and metafiction; and to performance art movements such as the Situationists, psychogeography, Happenings, and various installation artists. Compendious in scope and playful in tone, Electronic Literature is that rare book that can teach things both to specialists and newcomers, inviting everybody to the banquet that is e-literature’s generic diversity. “The Internet is the most important contemporary communication network, but earlier discourse networks, such as the postal system, have also been used for literary art” (156) Rettberg writes, noting postal art as a precursor to network fictions such as netprov, cellphone novels and codework.

This is just one early example in the book of how “commerce-driven communication technologies can be configured as venues [where] the network can take the place of the gallery.” The history Rettberg traces from local or embodied spaces to networks, is structurally replicated in chapters on “Hypertext Fiction” and “Interactive Fiction and Other Gamelike Forms.” E-literature is perhaps still most associated with hypertext in the cultural imagination, which Rettberg calls “a strange situation” because it’s “the genre that has been most written about in the field while simultaneously the genre least actively pursued by writers in recent years” (86). (Don’t worry, Twine fans: Rettberg devotes a good chunk of the “IF and Other Gamelike Forms” to discussing this open-source hypertext framework and community, which Rettberg depicts in his discussion of Porpentine’s works as a lovechild between hypertext and interactive fiction.) The traffic between community formation and technopoesis is an abiding theme of this book, attending carefully to who made what and when. That kind of documentation is especially important because e-literature works are highly ephemeral. Rettberg masterfully charts a field of literary influence with emphasis on nodes; his work distantly reading e-literature dissertations and citational practices, and his curatorial practice of exhibiting significant media archeological archives such as PO.EX, supplies a bird’s eye view of a field that Scott Rettberg knows intimately, having founded the Electronic Literature Organization in 1999, an organization now global and multilingual. “In spite of the short life span of many works of electronic literature,” Rettberg notes, “genres of electronic literature don’t die, nor do they fade away. It is more appropriate to consider how genres and forms . . . serve as building blocks for other forms that follow them” (201).

One implication of Rettberg’s comment on genre is that the traditional literary standard for canonicity is imbued with the technopoetics of print as a durable technology. Amaranth Borsuk’s The Book (MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series: 2018) historicizes “the book” as a medial creation space whose capacities stretch beyond genre or canon in a well-scoped, -designed and -executed “pocket” book written in accessible language. Like Rettberg’s book, Borsuk’s is also ideal for classroom use. The book ushered forth a number of significant and enduring literary relations: between author and reader, author and publisher, publishers and readers. Borsuk grounds each chapter in book materiality; the first, “Book As Object” includes hand-drawn illustrations depicting the evolution of writing technologies. Chapter two, “Book as Content,” focuses on the book as “body,” an “intimate” space, and attends to the paratextual cues that have evolved over time and made the book a remarkably efficient random-access interface. (I like Borsuk’s clever demonstration of a pointing-finger manicule on p. 87). An avant-garde poet herself, Borsuk’s chapter on “The Book as Idea” distills how artists’ books depart from the book-as-commodity. The book is a surprisingly stable category given the bold experiments with book size and today’s multiplication of commodity formats. “Amazon offers us the same ‘book’ in paperback or Kindle edition, at slightly differing prices . . . . When books become content to be marketed and sold in this way, the historic relationship between materiality and text is severed” (112). Borsuk tours through artists’ books by William Blake, Stéphane Mallarmé, Ed Ruscha, Ulises Carrión, “theatrical” bookmakers like Fluxus artist Alison Knowles, and Bob Brown’s “Readies.” Her personal fascination with computational book arts manifests in this chapter’s extended rumination on moveable books of all sorts: the recombinant poetics of Queneau; CYOA books, flipbooks and unbound books; and “ephemeral” books, such as Marcel Duchamp’s wedding present to his sister, a geometry textbook to be suspended by strings from a balcony during their honeymoon in Buenos Aires, “where the elements would gradually wear away at it” (185). Borsuk’s emphasis on book materiality moves discussion of “the book” away from well-worn notions of books as “a space of fixity, certainty and order” (194) and springs the radical potential, in the digital era, inherent in a stable publication format. Borsuk’s untaming of the “book” is evident in both grand and quotidian gestures, such as noting the Renaissance readers who used the book as a storage system: “pressing flowers, copying recipes, keeping photographs, compiling clippings”—personalizations that persist today. “Defining the book involves consideration for its use as much as its form,” Borsuk argues. “Our changing idea of the book is co-constitutive of its changing structure” (195).

What are the definitional implications of books’ changing structures? Katarzyna Bazarnik’s Liberature: a Book-bound Genre (Jagiellonian University Press: 2016; Columbia University Press distribution 2018) culminates two decades of work as both book arts practitioner and theorist. The “b” in liberature draws attention to the book’s active role in co-producing literary meaning with readers: print-bound technotexts. Popular versions of liberature in English include Danieleweski’s House of Leaves, Johnson’s The Unfortunates and the amusing graphical oddities of Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. The preëminent Polish liberatic author, poet Zenon Fafjer, launched his career with the liberatic poem Oka-leczenie [“Mute-Eye-late;” “healing/hurting of the eye]” (2000, co-authored with Bazarnik); and his 1999 manifesto “Liberature: Appendix to the Dictionary of Literary Terms.” The manifesto sparked a literary movement that Barzarnik’s book classifies as a genre. In Liberature: a Book-bound Genre, Bazarnik tests generic parameters, taking up phenomenology debates of mid- and late-twentieth century about how sequential space supports reader decoding, and more recent scholarship of genre that examines why generic boundaries are unstable but still useful. Bazarnik defines liberature as “spatialized, multicoded writing inextricably bound up with the material form of the book” (46). Bazarnik’s focus on physically playful books pivots on spatial metaphors: book as “meaningful space,” “navigating device,” “buildings” and “bodies.” These spaces are made meaningful by the creative ways they require people to read (in sections on book as “event” and “performative space”).

Bazarnik’s definitional work in parts one and two sets up the final section on “The Question of Genre.” This one challenges fundamental principles of e-literature scholarship because, as Rettberg’s book and many others make clear, technotexts’ generic parameters can be vanishing points. Bazarnik defends the value of genre as “an important analytic instrument” (110) of technotexts because genre is a common “frame of reference” that rewards efforts to “modify regulatory conventions in the literary field” (117). In her survey of genre’s theoretical contexts, Bazarnik finds common ground by yoking genre to readerly performance, a “repeated verbal behavior that is meaningful in social situations . . . a way of doing things in the world” (168). This relational, contextual definition of genre makes good sense, and does battle with strict enforcement of generic markers that invalidate liberature as “too liberal to be functional in any serious sense” of literary classification (21). One can finish reading Liberature: a Book-bound Genre and wonder why genre is a noun, a thing, as opposed to an adjective: liberatic qualities of engagement. Agnieszka Przybyszewska proposes grading a technotext’s playable properties as varying degrees of liberatic encounter, as do other scholars. Bazarnik’s turn to interactive reading validates liberature as genre, refurbishing genre for an age when reading is interactively heterogenous.

If Bazarnik aims to situate liberature using existing generic tools, Reading Project: a Collaborative Analysis of William Poundstone’s Project for Tachistoscope {Bottomless Pit} (University of Iowa Press: 2015) underscores the limitations of strict classification in parsing even one e-literary work. Collaborative authors Jessica Pressman, Mark C. Marino and Jeremy Douglass braid together media archeology, critical code studies and visualization as they exfoliate William Poundstone’s Project for Tachistoscope {Bottomless Pit} (2005). Attribution matters in Project, but the authorial divisions are deliberately, productively messy. Identifying who wrote what discloses the edges of expertise and allows readers to chart the progress of the authors’ mutual influence. Writing very much for each other, such openness requires emotional “vulnerability” (140) as discoveries “reroute individual interpretive efforts and [lead] to group epiphanies” (138).

The result is a suspenseful book of literary criticism. Chapter one teaches the reader how to read media archeology, visualization and Flash. Chapter two excavates the tachistoscope as a media instrument and Flash as an authoring tool. In chapter three, Douglass’s “core samples,” volumetric readings of Project’s screen output, segue into readings of the “optical unconscious” and the “detritus” of Poundstone’s code, a materialist reading of authorial intention where .fla files [production files] are an “archive of writerly process and intention” (79). Chapter four, “Subliminal Spam,” is the analytic pièce de résistance where the critical limitations of any one vantage on Project dramatically play out then give way to a satisfying synthesis. “I had been foolish to rely too much on my eyes,” Douglass confesses. “Project’s fixed sequence of words had been flickering by me the whole time, disappearing behind video frames and hiding in low contrast black-on-black changes. On reflection, I realized that [his and Mark’s] conflicting viewpoints lead to greater understanding” (97) because the results were neither random, nor fixed, but both: an insight that siloed expertise would not have yielded. Reading Project: A Collaborative Analysis shows that “collaboration is not just a trendy practice but a powerful sea change in academic knowledge work” (140).

In The Metainterface – The Art of Platforms, Cities and Clouds, Christian Ulrik Andersen & Søren Bro Pold track what it means that “today’s cultural interfaces disappear by blending immaculately into the environment” (10) and propose net art and e-literature as materially self-conscious practices that reveal “fissures” in “habitual” (159) ubiquitous computing. What is the “metainterface’? It’s the movement of human/computer interaction from the desktop to the smartphone and cloud. Humans are both agents and quarry, where they use smartphones to electively inscribe themselves on the network, but also shed enormous quantities of data harvested by media companies such as Facebook and Google. For Andersen and Pold, e-literature resists the mostly invisible ways interfaces manage us. Chapter one renovates Benjamin’s theory of art’s “tendency” to reveal “fissures” in the smooth surfaces of technical revolution (24). Resetting Benjamin’s “The Author as Producer” essay in our contemporary media ecosystem, where shifts in the culture industry preview the broad shifts from owning to licensing, sharing and leasing, we see loss of of ownership as also a loss of the vernacular web, and the privacy it fostered. Chapters two, three and four canvas a range of metainterface manifestations: cloud-based computing as a “grammar” of interface aesthetics and algorithms that anticipate behavior (chapter two); the ongoing “territorialization” of the urban landscape (chapter three); cloud interfaces touching everything (general) everywhere (global).

Fissures made visible by art call attention to the evitability, the choices, that undergird our engagement with technical architecture. Metainterface highlights many art interventions that make labor and production visible in examples such as Super Mario Clouds (Arcangel, 2002), Summer (Olialina, 2013), Toxi*City (Coover and Rettberg, 2014) and SNOW (Shelley Jackson, 2014-present), among others. Metainterface also surveys how a database art can intervene in the war on terror or climate change by using “interface tactics” for reading (172, emphasis in original). A final chapter on “Interface Criticism By Design” teases out how self-conscious interface design shuttles between use and context. Articulated in case studies of the Poetry Machine (Anderson, Pold and others 2012-present), and A Peer Reviewed Journal About ___ (Cox, Anderson and hundreds of participants, 2011-present), this final chapter shows the radical potential of mindful interface design as an intervention in the black boxes and hidden processes that characterize corporate-owned metainterface materialities.