October 13, 2011
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Roots Of Electronic Literature

Before this MLA dustup attempts (and fails – these things never work) to erase years of hard-won knowledge and finely wrought electronic literature that was created before ELO, I’d like to remind everyone about TINAC, the crucial movement that represents the moment in the late 1980s when the literary embraced the digital, when the street found its use for things and the thing knew itself.

TINAC was an informal gathering or collective, including many of the first literary writers who were actively committed to discover new opportunities in new media. I wasn’t part of this, not until the very end. TINAC stood for “Textuality, Intertextuality, Narrative and Consciousness” (or, alternatively, “This Is Not A Conference”) and included (among others) J. Yellowlees Douglas, Michael Joyce, Nancy Kaplan, John McDaid, and Stuart Moulthrop.

Here is the Dryden Minifesto from TINAC, promulgated in 1988:

I) No interruptions.

Reading should be a seamless and uninterrupted experience. Its choices proceed from the expression of possibilities as a narrative medium and depend upon the complicity of the reader in the creation of a narrative. Reading is design enacted.

II) Any person.

Interaction manifests itself through recognition, sympathy, and witness as much as through impersonation, perception, and exploration. Apprehension of character is participatory design.

III) Every ending.

Closure has been described as the completion of self by the reader. It is, in this sense, design determined.

IV). A read-write revolution.

Interactive narratives are what is written, whether by reader or writer. Authorship is an invitation to active design.

This manifesto is still interesting and timely, more than twenty years later. Its language and its concerns are difficult but repay concentrated effort. They assume a broad view of electronic writing, not the narrow focus that the ELO faction imagines hypertext has. Where most people today are still wrestling with surface mechanics — multiple endings, page turning, video illustrations – TINAC was already moving beyond that surface into much deeper territory. There’s no hint here that they were thinking only of blue underlined text: that historical canard arose from a misunderstanding of Aarseth’s Cybertext. Before ELO spent a couple of hundred thousand dollars on “branding” e-Lit, almost every serious scholar and critic used “hypertext” or “hypermedia” to include all, or almost all, the kinds of media that Aarseth called cybertext and ELO calls e-Lit.

(There was an additional ten-point TINAC statement that included the famous three-link dictum. I can’t put my hands on it right now. Can you? Email me. )

I had assumed that Prof. Emerson’s sentence about Glazier’s book was a slip-up that somehow got past her and the MLA reviewers. Happens to me all the time; you’ll find plenty of typos right here. (Does MLA have reviewers? Surely someone in the field read that first sentence, at least. I know that MLA has different standards of evidence from Chemistry or Computer Science, but colleagues are supposed to save you from things like this.) Supposedly, we’re all working toward truth and understanding, and the sentence as written is at least prone to misunderstanding.

Alternatively, Emerson might be asserting the claim that Glazier’s Digital Poetics literally redefined electronic literature and represents a clean break with previous critical and artistic practices. This doesn’t happen often – some would say it doesn’t happen at all – but one might point to Ruskin on painting, Shaw/Wilde/Eliot on theater, or possibly The Beatles as precedents. But to my knowledge, no one has ever published this claim for Digital Poetics – not even the enthusiastic Sandy Baldwin. It is, moreover, primarily a book about poetry, and the concerns of "digital literature“ are usually conceived as extending to prose. I know the literature pretty well, and I’ve certainly never heard this sentiment before. (I have the greatest respect for Glazier, whose indefatigable work to provide a space for electronic poetry has been of indispensable service to the field.) If that’s the intent, you’ve got to make the argument.

I’d expected Emerson would simply clarify the sentence, but her rejoinder tries to argue that the ELO rebranding of of hypertext and new media as eLit was both significant and crucial: that it changed everything and so makes earlier scholarship worthless (or not worth mentioning). That’s a very interesting argument: it might, for example, explain some of the strange gaps in the organization’s directory of electronic literature. About fifteen months have passed since I observed that

The directory currently appears to list 159 works. Some hypertexts that aren’t listed include Greco’s Cyborg, Kolb’s Socrates in the Labyrinth and “Twin Media: Hypertext Under Pressure”, Falco’s Dream with Demons and “Charmin’ Cleary”, Mary-kim Arnold’s “Lust” and “kokura”, Michael Joyce’s Twilight, a symphony and “Twelve Blue” and “WOE”, Brian Thomas’s If Monks Had Macs, Richard Holeton’s Figurski at Findhorn on Acid, William Gibson’s Agrippa: The Book of the Dead, Adrienne Eisen’s Six Sex Scenes, Carolyn Guyer’s Quibbling and “Izme Pass” (with Martha Petry), Judy Malloy’s Uncle Roger and its name was Penelope and Forward Anywhere (with Cathy Marshall), Rick Pryll’s Lies, Nitin Sawhney’s HyperCafe, Deena Larsen’s Samplers, Jean-Pierre Balpe’s oeuvre, Loss Glazier’s oeuvre, and George P. Landow’s Victorian Web.

A few of these were added last August, but apparently not Cyborg, Socrates in the Labyrinth, “Twin Media”, “Charmin’ Cleary”, “kokura”, Twilight, “Twelve Blue”, “WOE”, If Monks Had Macs, Agrippa, “Six Sex Scenes”, Quibbling, “Izme Pass”, Lies, “HyperCafe”, Samplers, Balpe’s oeuvre, Glazier’s oeurve, and Victorian Web. There seem to be plenty of other notable absences. Off the top of my head: Ryman’s 253, Marc Saporta’s Composition 1, Robert Coover’s “Heart Suit”, Deena Larsen’s Marble Springs, Eric Loyer’s Strange Rain, Em Short’s Galatea, John McDaid’s Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse, The Perseus Project, the electronic edition of the OED, Michael Fraase’s Arts and Farces, and Paul La Farge’s Luminous Airplanes.

The “resources” category seems to do a reasonable job of covering the papers of ELO presidents past and present, but you won’t find any mention of work by Ted Nelson or Cathy Marshall, by Bob Stein or Polle Zellweger, by George Landow or by me.

Some of these precede ELO’s branding efforts or were created by people who didn’t go to those famous ELO parties, but the #elit hashtag doesn’t simply stand for the aspirations of a faction. We’re working on the future of fiction. And it’s past time to get back to work. I hear on Twitter that they’re still flogging the PAD report on preservation, which announced an ambitious technical program in August 2005 – open-source HyperCard, a universal XML dialect for digital literature, and more. It seemed to me to be unrealizable at the time and as far as I’ve heard, no one has done a lick of work from that day to this.

Meanwhile, on the real preservation front, we’re doing a ton of work here. its name was Penelope for iPad, Judy Malloy’s wonderful classic about art and AIDS, is in testing. We’re just getting started on two complete rewrites – re-envisionings – of Storyspace. And we’re hosting (and sponsoring) a meeting next month about Dangerous Readings – a weekend hackfest and international web art/science camp for writers and programmers and critics who want to get stuff done.

We’d welcome help. And I’m willing to help: I’m happy share what I know about the history, the technology, and the craft with anyone who is interested. My Rolodex® is your Rolodex. But I’d be happier if there were fewer obstructions. Muddying history doesn’t help.