Electronic Literature:
New Horizons for the Literary

By N. Katherine Hayles
Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008

Introduction by Joseph Tabbi
President, Electronic Literature Organization

Back in the Seventies, when the word "culture" was not yet being paired routinely with "studies" or "wars," Roland Barthes made a practical observation concerning the mediating role of institutions. The literary canon, Barthes noted, is "what gets taught." Not what gets promoted, referenced, demo-ed, written up, or linked to. Professor N. Katherine Hayles needed only to raise the topic of canonicity, in her 2001 address to the ELO at UCLA, to determine a direction for the Organization. Just a decade or two into the era of personal computers, many pioneering works were no longer supported by available platforms. Without the ability physically to read these works, Hayles argued, scholars could not create the canon that is needed to build a field.

I've experienced few moments when the shock of recognition was so palpable at a literary conference. Some of the authors present, as I recall, were bothered by the very idea that there should be a new canon for new media. Wasn't canonicity one of the hierarchies the medium was promising to eliminate? Others, recognized innovators with a stake in such debates, might have been feeling the anxiety of obsolescence. The recognition that inclusion in print anthologies might be the best chance for work produced in multiple media to be read even by the current generation of university students, was a clear signal that authors themselves needed to start paying attention to the staying power of their own medium.

Barthes' cheeky reduction of this most complex and contested of cultural formations is no less useful for electronic literature than it has been for the literary heritage in print. In fact, classroom activism after post-structuralism might have gained in relevance because today the medium itself needs to be taught. Even as content is studied, routes of production and transmission are being created and need somehow to be preserved. There is no guarantee that electronic literature will be any better integrated in today's networked society, than works in print have been up to now: both legacies need to be activated (not just put "out there," without supporting institutions). The modest mechanisms of course description, syllabus construction, genre identification, and the composition of author bios, offer the most efficient means for scholars to go about this foundational task. While scholars and authors of e-lit do well to seek out and even develop custom tools, the field development does not need to wait on technology: it can be done with resources currently at our disposal through universities and augmented through connections within established scholarly networks, libraries, and literary databases, nationally and internationally.

Each of the publications presented here on the ELO site, by board members and friends of the Organization, addresses aspects of the institutionalization of literature in electronic environments. The two 'byte' productions, by Montfort, Wardrip-Fruin, Liu , Durand, Proffitt, Quin, and Réty, bring home the problem of obsolescence and offer a set of best practices for those who would like their work to last, at least materially, in the electronic environment where the work was produced. My 2007 essay, Toward A Literary Semantic Web, outlines a project for rebuilding the ELO Directory of Electronic Literature in line with archival projects in our sister arts of music and graphic design, and consonant with a Web 2.0 vision. Hayles' Electronic Literature: What Is It? covering works that appeared in Volume 1 of the Electronic Literature Collection, demonstrates one critical approach to the study of works of el-lit. Where past practices of 'close reading' have emphasized the specifically literary qualities of verbal productions in print, and where subsequent approaches have emphasized the location of racial, gendered, professional, and class identities, Hayles offers an awareness of "media specificity" as a primary concern for the current generation of literary criticism.

Historically, no literary "approach" has been offered without controversy, and no modern institution has proven more effective than the classroom, for debating the merits of any one scholarly, critical, or aesthetic agenda. Such debates, once they get started, very quickly produce texts and authors to be championed by one side, denounced by other sides, and verified by the most demanding Peoples' Court in the World Republic of Letters — namely, undergraduate and graduate students, and a cohort of school kids who are unlikely to read anything whose cognitive and medial complexity is less than a computer game. The current presentation by Professor Hayles, an ELO sponsored, online companion to her book, Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary, provides authors, scholars, and school teachers with some of the resources we will need, to get those debates started.

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Colophon · The template for the Web edition of this document was marked up by Nick Montfort in valid XHTML 1.1 with a valid CSS2 style sheet. It is screen-friendly and printer-friendly; a style sheet for printer output is provided which browsers should use automatically when users print the document. To cite a specific part of this document, give the section number (such as 3.2); it's also possible to link to specific parts of this document by using the links at the top, under the heading "Contents." I am pleased to acknowledge assistance from the Electronic Literature Organization in the preparation and dissemination of this document. I am also indebted to Matthew Kirschenbaum, Marjorie Luesebrink, Alan Liu, Nick Montfort, Stephanie Strickland and Thomas Swiss for their helpful comments and corrections, and to Andrew Pan, who served as my guide through many of the interactive fictions mentioned here. Any errors that remain are of course solely my responsibility. ¶ Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You may reproduce Electronic Literature: What Is It? noncommercially if you credit the authors and the Electronic Literature Organization. To reprint this work in a commercial publication, contact the ELO.