May 26, 2007

ELO: Hayles

Two new, and very different, essays were just announced by the Electronic Literature Organization. I've not always been a fan of ELO, but (obviously) I'm a big fan of terrific electronic literature. The new essays, it seems to me, say something important about the state of electronic literature.

It's too bad that this Important Thing is not what the writers thought they were discussing, but a tangential discussion is better than none.

Kate Hayles asks, "Electronic Literature, What is it?"

Hayles finds it to be quite a lot of things, and the essay proves a useful and modern survey of the gamut of electronic literature. Hayles is at her best when her vision is broadest, and in this survey her vision ranges all the way from classic hypertexts to codewerk and desktop cinema, from generative poetry to VR experiences.

Hayles' survey certainly confirms her assertion that "Electronic literature tests the boundaries of the literary and challenges us to re-think our assumptions of what literature can do and be." It's not a surprising or a bold assertion, but there it is. The essay is a useful piece of scholarship.

What Hayles seldom does, unfortunately, is allow herself much enjoyment of the work. Occasionally, she'll spare a sentence or two to describe and praise one among more than a hundred works she mentions. And Hayles herself is generally "blind to content" (a transgression for which she indicts Espen Aarseth's Cybertext). It's an essay about literature, after all, but we rarely hear of a character or an idea that does not concern a formal property of electronic literature itself.

The essay concludes with a summary of the "X-Literature Initiative", a pipe dream summons for all electronic writers to "migrate" to a common XML dialect they will all share and that will somehow be concocted to everyone's satisfaction at some later date. Hayles is right to say that "the scope" of this initiative "is breathtaking." Apparently she believes they are making progress. The last I heard of the project was in September 2004, when they estimated that they should be able to create an cross-platform interpreter for HyperCard within a year. How's that coming?