A New "Gospel of the Three Dimensions": Expanding the Boundaries of Digital Literature in Jörgen Schäfer and Peter Gendolla's Beyond the Screen

A New "Gospel of the Three Dimensions": Expanding the Boundaries of Digital Literature in Jörgen Schäfer and Peter Gendolla's Beyond the Screen

2011-11-03
Beyond the Screen: Transformations of Literary Structures, Interfaces and Genre
Jörgen Schäfer and Peter Gendolla
Media Upheavals 44. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2010. Print.

Just when you thought you were used to electronic literature, this critic makes the case for “beyond the screen” with a review of Jörgen Schäfer and Peter Gendolla’s book of the same title, focusing on “transformations of literary structures, interfaces and genre.”

“I call our world Flatland, not because we call it so, but to make its nature clearer to you, my happy readers, who are privileged to live in Space.” - A. Square, Flatland (3)

“That literature has to leave the flatlands of books in order to return to nature as its original realm, back into the book of nature…becomes surprisingly possible through the use of the recent and latest technical media and is now also being “realized” by respective projects.” - Peter Gendolla, Beyond the Screen (377)

In Edwin Abbott’s 1884 novella Flatland: a Romance of Many Dimensions, narrator “A. Square” articulates a transition between two- and three-dimensional space. He describes Flatland as a plane-like world inhabited solely by two-dimensional polygons, and it is only when an emissary from “Spaceland” - a Sphere - visits A. Square on the last evening of the year 1999 in order to preach the “gospel of the three dimensions” (75) that our narrator learns about the world beyond it. Even though Flatland’s 19th century publication date precedes the advent of popular digital technology by a century, the novella in its entirety, from A. Square’s skepticism to his subsequent conversion, offers an oddly prescient set of lessons for those who would attempt to bring literal depth to the discussion of contemporary digital aesthetics, as would the authors and editors of Beyond the Screen: Transformations of Literary Structure, Interfaces, and Genres.

Like the narrator of Abbott’s 1884 novella, the authors of the essays contained in Beyond the Screen do move beyond the two-dimensional frame that has tended to contain conversations about virtual representation. And in their attempt to sketch a space that is burgeoning, fledgling, and not quite, as-yet, fully-formed, the authors of Beyond the Screen employ the same rhetorical strategies that the Sphere uses to convince A. Square of an as-yet undiscovered transcendent realm. Additionally, the authors demonstrate collectively a balanced set of perspectives, sharing both the expansive purview of Spaceland’s Sphere, as well as, at times, A. Square’s skepticism about the ability to transcend the flat surface of representation - be it on the page or on the screen - at all. And, just as Flatland is not merely a book about the form of space but a political and sociological satire of social spaces, class structures, and gender, Beyond the Screen is at its best when it explores how artistic spaces that extend beyond the screen intervene in the politics of everyday life.

But it is the book’s titular and most pressing objective - i.e., to account for literature that extends beyond the screen - that makes it transcend the aesthetics of Flatland and makes it stand out from other academic works that attempt to theorize new media. Unlike many studies from the “first-wave” of digital criticism of the mid- to late-nineties, which tended to focus on the capabilities of the stand-alone computer (see, for example, Michael Heim’s “Erotic Ontology of Cyberspace,” Lev Manovich’s Language of New Media, Janet H. Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck, Turkle’s Life on the Screen), this work takes into special consideration digital art that exists within and as a part of complexly configured spaces of performance and expression and thus makes a welcome addition to the exciting work being done by scholars such Rita Raley (“Writing 3.D”) and Mark B.N. Hansen (New Philosophy for New Media); scholar-practitioners, such as Noah Wardrip-Fruin (Expressive Processing), and Mark Marino (“L.A. Flood,” Critical Code Studies), among the many other artists and apostles of three-dimensional space. Beyond the Screen is divided into three sections, each of which considers one way that new media literary aesthetics can be said to move beyond the flat grid of the computer terminal. The first section considers the relation between literature and locative, spatially-informed media; the second offers diverse perspectives about the transformation of literary genres vis-à-vis digital media; and the third presents a short collection of essays that focus on the problems and practicalities involved in editing, publishing, and preserving digital works. While it is not possible to do justice to the many compelling articles contained within this collection, it will be demonstrative to identify a selection of standout essays. Such works are noteworthy not only because of the high quality of thinking they express, but because of the ambitious theoretical and philosophical frameworks they employ.

A First Philosophy for Z Space

Perhaps a logical way to begin to reckon with digital technology that allows literary space to extend beyond the screen and into three-dimensionality (such space is often called Z-space, because of its dependence upon x, y, and z axes), is to size it up ontologically, to ask, in other words, what it is, how it has come to be, as well as what it implies for us as human beings. This is the approach that N. Katherine Hayles takes in “RFID: Human Agency and Meaning in Information-Intensive Environments,”It is also, incidentally, the first approach that the Sphere takes in his attempt to persuade A. Square of the veracities of space, scolding him because he does “not even know what Space is” (68). in which she attempts to shift the discussion of RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) from epistemological concerns about surveillance and privacy - i.e., “who knows what about whom” (95) - to ontological questions about “what we conceive ourselves to be” (104).

Hayles provides two instructive narratives from the annals of science fiction to ground her analysis, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004) and Philip K Dick’s Ubik (1966), and demonstrates how these works offer ways to consider “the possibilities for ethical action in environments made animate through embedded sensors, communicators, and actuators” (104). Cloud Atlas, she argues, with its dystopian, corporate-run world, is primarily concerned with issues of epistemology, surveillance, and control, as evidenced by the character Somni-451, whose RFID tag, which is monitored and recorded, constitutes her soul. Ubik, on the other hand, with its preoccupation with the commodification of vitality, i.e., “who (or what) has it, who can steal it, who is losing or gaining it” (111), provides us with a narrative that expresses the ontological possibilities of a media-rich environment. After outlining the negative and positive ethical implications that both works suggest, Hayles claims that “It is up to us to face the epistemological and ontological challenges they represent and imagine how they can be used to fashion a better world” (114). This is an ambitious objective, to be sure, but by looking at these works side-by-side, Hayles shows us the potential of thinking of ontological and epistemological concerns as inter-twined in media-rich environments. Her powerful argument is that when we change how we know, we change not only what we know, but who and what we are.

This instructive lesson extends beyond the technology of RFID and is applicable to all of the case studies explored in the anthology. Dene Grigar’s essay “Hyperlinking in 3D,” in particular, with its discussion of “event links,” which allow users and performers to hunt down information (an epistemological act) and create and navigate hyperlinks within real-world spaces (an ontological experience) offers an apt, real-world expression of the epistemological and ontological possibilities inherent in the narratives that Hayles summarizes. Hayles’ ontological analysis also makes an apt springboard for diving into essays that ask not only what new media art is and can be, but also how it is made and the challenges posed by its production.

In “A Town as a Novel,” for example, Jean-Pierre Balpe provides a nuts-and-bolts account of his creation of Fictions d’Issy, a novel distributed across electronic billboards and the screens of handheld mobile devices within the Issy les Moulineaux commune in the 15th arrondissement of Paris. He explains that his attempt with Fictions d’Issy was to re-think the potential of literary spaces by “generating a novel of which the plot would be the town itself” (339). This statement is both provocative and misleading. The idea of a town (a spatial entity) functioning as a plot (a series of events) is an exciting one, but Balpe never quite justifies this claim. Instead, the town helps structure the novel’s plot by providing the raw materials for readers to make narrative decisions. The text of the novel comes from a text generator program that Balpe wrote for the project, and its various plot-lines depend not only upon chunks of texts and the technological infrastructure of billboards, mobile phones, and digital networks, but also upon the actions, responses, and physical movements of its readers.

In “The Global Poetic System,” another fascinating essay detailing the particulars of producing digitally-enabled texts, Laura Borràs Castanyer and Juan B. Gutiérrez similarly describe the practical challenges of using Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to create a decidedly literary GPS, known as the Global Poetic System, that would transmit poetry specific to the locations and desires of its users. The exciting project, funded with a 200,000 Euro endowment from the Spanish Department of Industry and Technology, delivered valuable lessons about financial scalability, as well as lessons about the importance of open architecture, open libraries, and open service, all of which were just as - if not more than - important as open source code for generating and shaping user experience.

Experiencing Locative Literature

As the above essays suggest, it’s nearly impossible to consider questions of ontology in isolation - i.e., without also recognizing that such questions are fundamentally linked not only to the nuts-and-bolts of production, but to the way technologically innovative literary spaces create experiences for their readers. Essays in the first section of the book that attempt to delineate how works of digital literature are explored, perceived, experienced, and/or felt, offer the most convincing case studies of how literary spaces might be said to extend “beyond the screen.” They also provide excellent models for thinking about how such works necessarily include the act of reading in the process of writing and creating literature.In chapter seventeen of Flatland — “How the Sphere, having in vain tried words, resorted to deeds” - the Sphere is able to convince A. Square of his veracity by taking him to Spaceland directly. A Square’s experience is fully transformative and viscerally felt: “AN UNSPEAKABLE horror seized me. There was a darkness; then a dizzy, sickening sensation of sight that was not like seeing …” Once oriented, however, A. Square’s sensations turn pleasurable: “I looked, and, behold, a new world! There stood before me, visibly incorporate, all that I had before inferred, conjectured, dreamed, of perfect Circular beauty …” (78). In other words, it is his experience of three-dimensional space, not descriptions or abstractions, that assures his conversion. Additionally, they offer productive ways for thinking about how such experiences complicate common-sense notions about narrative structure.

In “Walk This Way,” Rita Raley considers narratives delivered in diverse spatial locations as fundamentally in need of experiential analysis and offers a reading of a work by Knifeandfork.org (Brian House and Sue Huang) to test her claim. In their locative narrative “Hundekopf” - a “mobile, location-aware, SMS-based narrative on the Ringbahn train in central Berlin” (299) - users move to different locations and access instructions and text chunks, in effect, both reading and creating the story as they make their way through the German subway system. Because of the demands placed upon the readers, Raley argues that this piece cannot be reduced to what it is, but needs to be considered instead of terms of the reading experiences it creates: “it is not simply the instrument but the mode of engagement. The real difference, then, is not ontological but experiential: with a mobile narrative, content responds dynamically to the place of the reader/participant…” (303).

The importance of the reader is, of course, already well-established in media theory - Raley reminds us of Espen Aarseth’s term “ergodic” to refer to works of digital literature that require “non-trivial effort” to negotiate them. But Raley adds an important distinguishing feature to her discussion of the reader’s importance to locative narratives: performance. Such works, she suggests - in that they are multi-modal, spatially distributed, and require the creative participation of the reader - offer a challenge to the static authority of the written word, even as they simultaneously help re-weave one of the written word’s most cherished claims to fame: temporality. Pieces like “Hundekopf” turn temporal events topsy-turvy. As Raley writes, “plot is not simply the ordering of events in time but movement, directions, paths, and routes” (306) created from the actions of readers. As a result of this, plot becomes spatially and experientially motivated, dependent upon the decisions of their readers as they make their way through space, rather than upon statically arranged prose.

Curiously, this fairly new form of narrative manages to resurrect an extremely old debate about the serial, temporal nature of prose. The media theorist and literary critic W.J.T. Mitchell boils this problem down to its very essence, writing in the opening paragraph of “The Politics of Genre: Space and Time in Lessing’s Laocoon,” that “Nothing, I suppose, seems more intuitively obvious than the claim that literature is an art of time, painting an art of space” (98). Put in even broader terms, pictures delineate space, while words unfold over time. Mitchell’s mission throughout the rest of the essay is, of course, to complicate the too tidy distinction that Lessing makes so “obvious,” but the point remains that pictures and words seem, prima facie, to achieve their effects via distinct means. Images are static, words dynamic. The special province of the image is description, while the special province of words is narrative flow.

By calling our attention to the spatial and experiential nature of such works, Raley takes seriously the importance of user-reader performance and participation. And in contrast to narratologists such as Marie-Laure Ryan, who has suggested that works of digital literature might need to “limit user participation to a largely observatory role” for them to be successful, Raley offers a powerful counter-argument: “Interactive narrative, a broad category that encompasses everything from text-adventure games to mobile narratives, needs to situate the participant as an “experiencer” rather than a voyeur” (313). This is easier said than done, of course, and the challenge that emerges is to craft narratives that lend themselves to meaningful user participation.

The tension between the user’s expectation and experience of digital art and literature is the topic of Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s “Beyond the Complex Surface,” an examination of a few experimental table-top narratives that claim to offer opportunities for interactive narration. Wardrip-Fruin offers a useful definition of interaction as something quite akin to Norbert Wiener’s description of feedback, i.e., as “a change to the state of the work - for which the work is designed - that comes from outside the work” (234) and argues that the structures of these interactive surfaces invite disappointment because of the limited sense of interaction the spaces afford. To address this problem, he urges developers to think more carefully about how to match “process intensity” with user experience and to envision a way to balance sophisticated internal processes against “blunt” and “repetitive” reader experience: “Rather than…hiding limited systems from our audiences for whatever time we can, our task should be to craft processes that contribute to the meaning of our works” (241).

A Historical Approach

Yet another strategy to move the discussion of computational aesthetics beyond the flatlands of screen space is to approach the topic from a historical perspective that considers how digital literature both conforms to and departs from literary tradition. This is the tack taken, to various extents, by nearly every essay in the collection. In “From Concrete to Digital: The Reconceptualization of Poetic Space,” for instance, Anna Katharina Schaffner traces the connection between digital literature and concrete poetry; while in “The Gravity of the Leaf,” John Cayley aligns the projection walls of CAVE environments with the blank background space of Magritte’s “La Trahison des Images,” in order to argue that both spaces create diegetic breaks by deliberately mixing visual and verbal codes. Works such as these, which seek continuity among medial forms offer just as much insight as those that attempt to root out reversals and ruptures, however dramatic they may be. In “No Preexistent World,” Peter Gendolla offers another wonderful example of this former type of scholarship, brilliantly illuminating the idea of the universal totality expressed in German Romanticism - in the writing of Novalis and Goethe, in particular - to ideas about new media art. Both he argues, in spite of vast differences in terms of the cultural and historical milieux that foster them, share the same goal of “not simply dissolving the separation of genres and of the arts alone [but] deleting the difference between art and nature, transferring art into everyday life and thereby transforming it aesthetically so that it finally can become “universal poetry” (375).

The first essay in the collection, in particular, Jorgen Schäfer’s “Reassembling the Literary,” focuses most explicitly upon the problem of historicity. In this essay the author argues that those who study and engage with works of digital art are necessarily preoccupied with “both complexly interwoven persistent chains of tradition and with discontinuous moments” (26) because works of digital art not only express new formal possibilities, but hearken back to an eventful literary past. This assessment is sensible for the way that it seeks recourse to the past in order to chart the trajectory of the future, and in this way jibes well with that most emblematic essay of literary criticism, Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” - if I might be permitted to swap media innovation for authorial genius.

Schäfer’s next move, however, in its criticism of book culture, is more provocative in terms of the historical narrative he charts. He argues that the book marked a “decisive caesura for the history of media” that “can in principle be reversed again” (33). This is a strong, well-phrased - and even poetic - claim. Yet calling for a reversal of the book or referring to written text as a mere “caesura” in literary history seems counterproductive, and while it is not an inaccurate use of the term, per se, it misses an opportunity to recognize the term’s specific literary valence. While in Latin a caesura signifies a cut, in literature a caesura signifies a pause within a line of poetry during which only silence occurs. While the advent of “the” book, in all its gloriously diverse forms, signifies an event within media history, silent it is not, nor has it ever been, nor has it ever necessarily cut itself off from - nor silenced - other forms. Different literary forms can and do exist side-by-side, without ever necessarily forcing each other out of the ring. In line with Henry Jenkins, I suggest that a model of convergence rather than conflict would be a more useful one to frame this discussion. With that said, the idea that digital works can help revitalize performative literary features that were integral to pre-print culture is both fascinating and tantalizing.

Secondly, assuming we agree with Schäfer’s claim that the book is not what guarantees the category of the literary - and we should all be able to get behind this claim - what, then, does? Schäfer doesn’t offer a solution to this question. Instead, after describing the ways that literature will evolve in new media environments, he makes use of Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory (ANT), and discusses new media poetics as a process of translation. This is an exciting line of inquiry, but he follows it towards the surprising prediction that such works will emerge from the combination of individual elements, none of which will be recognizable as literary, except, as Latour writes, “during the brief moment when they are reshuffled together” (qtd on 27). In effect, this move towards “re-shuffling,” “re-assembling,” and “re-associating” seems to dissolve the category of the literary altogether, and it is unclear what will emerge in its place. And if - as Schäfer and Gendolla argue in their introduction - works of new media art offer both new aesthetic forms, as well as ways to invigorate what has counted as literary in the past, then what is the point of predicting that such elements will not be recognizable as literary elements in the future? These are exciting, timely questions that Schäfer’s essay poses but never, unfortunately, resolves. These qualms aside, Schäfer’s argument about how literature created via new media platforms can take us beyond the pages of the book provides an important rehearsal of new media theoryAs it has been articulated most forcefully by Kittler, Manovich, Hayles, Aarseth, among others. and is useful for setting the collection in motion.

A Question of Form

On the whole, Beyond the Screen is teeming with critical insight, yet its over-arching objective of articulating a new, multi-dimensional poetics at times gets sidetracked by related but not wholly compatible pursuits. To put it perhaps too bluntly: there are many fine essays within the collection that do not quite fit the project as a whole. In part, this is the result of the book’s somewhat unbalanced structure: the first section is 364 pages long, the second section less than a hundred, the third less than 90. Unfortunately, this trend of diminishing pages also reflects a trend of diminishing critical returns, at least in terms of the book’s most pressing ambition. The third section, in particular, however insightful its discussion of the complexities of editing, publication, and preservation, seems slightly misplaced-although anyone interested in the issues of obsolescence and preservation that plague born-digital works would do well to read it. Beat Suter’s discussion of the difficulties of archivization is particularly timely,Although there is a mis-attribution here: The Editor of The Agrippa Files is Alan Liu and not, as the author suggests, Nick Montfort. and Ravi Shankar’s essay on publishing is wonderfully readable.

Yet this same section, in spite of - or perhaps because of - the fact that it marks a detour from the book’s central ambition, is extremely interesting for the way it calls into question the vexed relation between form and content with which the book, as a whole, grapples. Again, Flatland proves instructive. While Abbott’s original vehicle of publication, i.e., a book, marked an apt marriage between form and content - after all, what medium could be better suited to express a flat, surface world than the pages of a book? - one wonders about the choice of medium for Beyond the Screen. It’s somewhat puzzling that a collection of critical insights about moving beyond the flat surface of the screen has found its home in the flat pages of a book, and readers may find themselves asking the following question: Why did the editors of this international collection chose the codex as their medium of choice, especially since they are attempting to describe the way digital works operate in a wide variety of three-dimensional spaces? Consider, for example, Joseph Tabbi’s “On Reading 300 Works of Electronic Literature.” This excellent, self-contained essay, which is followed by thirty pages of thoughtful, fantastic responses, was initially posted on the web, and the entire conversation is still available online at onthehuman.org. Because its original publication allowed for threaded conversation, with links and points of intersection that would be easily traceable on-line, one wonders why they have been re-published here - linearly, statically, and temporally fixed to the page.

In spite of these minor shortcomings, Beyond the Screen is an excellent and ambitious collection that attempts nothing less than a re-calibration of digital aesthetics. It should make excellent reading for anyone who is curious about what is at stake in the poetics of emerging media.

For more on the Critical Code Studies Conference, co-organized by Mark Marino, see the series of essays and discussions posted under ebr’s First Person thread.

2011-11-10