The Transformation of Literature in the Electronic Age

Reading electronic literature is frustrating. Analyzing electronic literature is frustrating. I like traditional literature. I understand traditional literature. You analyze the context of the passage or linearity of the plot, etc. But here? There’s none of that. I’m not saying that context isn’t important. But I couldn’t summarize the text I just read if I tried. And that frustrates me.

Stuart Moulthrop’s Hegirascope begins with several three-line passages that flash across the screen. There are no other buttons on the screen. In the minute it took me to realize that the words were going to change regardless of how fast or slow I read, two passages had flashed by. I was a passive reader in this moment. Continuing on, there are several longer passages, each surrounded by four links. Each link takes you to the next link, and then the next, and so on, until you realize that you already read this passage, and suddenly, you wonder, what have you been doing for the last hour? There’s no definitive ending to the texts we’ve been reading. If you click on a link there’s a new passage. If you click on another tab and come back to the text, there’s a new passage. Where is the order? There is no official definition of what literature is—it’s fluid, ever changing.

One passage by Moulthrop in particular that struck me was about the use of the Internet:

The effective deployment of Internet technology requires both strategy and tactics. Tactics was once known as a science of limited solutions, but technology has changed that. The twentieth century taught its warriors to use all available means without fear or hesitation. The arsenal of freedom has grown mightily: machine guns, antipersonnel mines, submarines, poison gas, radio, tanks, movies, aerial bombardment, biotoxins, television, napalm, rocketry, radar, digital computing, psychotropic drugs, lasers, satellites, particle-beam weapons, simulations, counterinformation systems… “killer apps” all, to use the language of modern warfare.

The youth of today may no longer know the awesome thrill of riddling an enemy’s fuselage with 50-caliber rounds or laying down a stack of incendiaries along the Ginza. But that does not mean he should shy away from the full potential of his tools. Use every weapon at your disposal.

Reading this text in 2015 gives an entirely new meaning to modern warfare in a world of technological advance. The transformation of literature from solely print copies to electronic literature shows society’s reliance on technology. One criticism of our generation is the lack of focus and long-term attention to anything. Our interactions have boiled down to whatever can be communicated in 140 characters. There are new venues to read, explore, and analyze new types of literature. Texts such as Hegirascope, texts that are concerned with form and interactivity, call for a new type of analysis, one that isn’t about linearity or content. Hegirascope is a story about Gina and Bent, driving towards Memphis, but I wasn’t concerned with the story. I was concerned with the words on the screen, how they were linked, what the connection was between this passage and the next. It’s not what you’re reading; it’s how you’re reading it.

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2 Responses to The Transformation of Literature in the Electronic Age

  1. mattdice says:

    Your last sentence brought to mind the quote “The medium is the message.” In the age of electronic literature, the medium remains the same (code) but can take many different forms. Maybe that ties into using every weapon at our disposal. Sure, we can rely on solely paper and and ink books, which works perfectly for traditional narratives and will probably remain the leading medium for literature for years to come. But when you also have all of these experimental types of literature coming out, electronic literature can create curveballs that physical paper and ink could never achieve. It would be impossible to recreate Hegirascope on paper, unless the author was there himself removing the pages for you. While I’m not sure if stories like this will ever dominate popular culture, it is relevant to say that “using all of the weapons at our disposal” and experiencing works like this will definitely enrich our understanding of literature as a whole.


  2. rdlebby says:

    I’ve found most of our electornic readings to be frustrating as well, and I think the lack of a clear ending is most of the reason for this. I really miss being able to know how far into a text I am just by looking at my bookmark. When I first clicked on a link in Hegirascope that sent me back to a page I already read, it was overwhelming. Eventually, I just gave up on controlling the order of my reading, forced myself to focus, and read every “page” in the order that it popped up. Perhaps this is the exact opposite of what we as readers are expected to do (those links must be available for a reason), but I needed to create the illusion that I was moving forward.

    Thank you, though, for the reminder that literature is “fluid, never changing.” I think it’s a concept I need to embrace for any further readings we do, and also one that I’ve been running from. Sometimes I think it’s impossible for me to immerse myself in a text like this that doesn’t even seem to have a meaningful plot, but I think you’re right once again in saying that looking past the (lack of) plot to the potential connections Hegirascope and other electronic literature make available is just as rewarding.


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