May 26, 2007

ELO: Tabbi

Joe Tabbi writes "Toward a Semantic Literary Web: Setting a Direction for the Electronic Literature Organization's Directory." Tabbi is a professor of English at Chicago Circle. He seems to support experimental writing, but his rhetoric is weirdly Republican.

Before reading this essay, I'd heard of Whig History, but I didn't know about Republican Lit Crit. This essay is cleverly presented as an academic working paper, but the attentive reader will find it filled with whimsy.

If experimental music and, later, improvisational jazz, lost their audience with the development of pop-oriented mass media, literary writing lost its audience a generation later, with the conglomeration of publishing in the Eighties and Nineties.

I read this and think to myself what a wonderful world of the fantastic Tabbi has created, a world where pop developed only a generation before the 80's. No Crosby, no Sinatra, no Jimmy Dean. No Opry! No Elvis! Back in the '60's, I guess they'd be listening to John Cage on their AM radios as they prepared to ship out for Da Nang, and "bubblegum" and "hair rock" would mean -- what? Moody Blues or Modern Jazz Quartet?

And in this new universe, the mass audience for literary writing survived the Great War! Compare this out our own world, where the best seller list for Memorial Day 1980 looked something like this:

  1. The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum
  2. Princess Daisy by Judith Krantz
  3. No Love Lost by Helen Van Slyke
  4. Random Winds by Belva Plain
  5. The Devil's Alternative by Frederick Forsyth
  6. Kane & Abel by Jeffrey Archer
  7. Portraits by Cynthia Freeman
  8. The Ninja by Eric van Lustbader
  9. The Bleeding Heart by Marilyn French
  10. Innocent Blood by P. D. James

Ah, those were the days when everybody read real literature, the time before publishing conglomerates spoiled it all.

But Tabbi, an inspired fantasy writer, is not satisfied merely by creating an alternate world, but also invents explanation to make that world cohere.

Both of these declines occurred with the rise of broadcast media, which by their nature reach a critical mass when content is homogenized and distributed from a centralized source

In our world, the publishing medium of the 1980's was not so very different from the medium of 1900 (when writers like Joyce had no trouble at all finding a publisher), and publishers in our world used to be notorious for haring after novelty and sensation at the expense of literary value. (In our world, the fact that a work reaches a vast audience implies the necessary consequence that lots of people experience it; you can't have a mass audience without this kind of homogeneity. Tabbi's nostalgia, then, seems to be for the good old days when only exceptional people (the gentry) read — perhaps 1814.)

Tabbi's concrete proposal calls for a database, or a wiki, or something — a big list, anyway. It is suppose to hold lots of electronic literature, or maybe pointers to electronic literature. It's meant to be annotated with lots of tags by lots of volunteers.

The ELO should be soliciting as wide a range of categories as possible, that all suggestions should be vetted, and that a mechanism is implemented for monitoring the frequency of keyword use by readers and editors alike. This way, Electronic Literature can aspire to an alternative to the age-old, vexed question of naming as a form of empowerment for some and disempowerment for others.

That age-old, vexed question of Adam's Power To Name (D20, hits on a 17 or above) is solved: all we have to do is vet and monitor, and nobody will be disempowered. (Well, nobody except the people who aren't vetting, but never mind them. This is Republican Lit Crit: the people who aren't vetting and whom we can't coopt aren't part of the base. To hell with them.)

In our case, readers need to be assured that what they are viewing is, in fact, regarded as literature by trusted and informed agents.

Oh, for a bright and shining land where you could trust those informed agents! The method (Kurtz: Do you think my methods are unsound? ) seems to be this: instead of asking a bunch of English Professors to review hypertexts and tell us which ones are literature and which not, we'll ask a bunch of English Professors.

Tabbi reads the opening to The Semantic Web Primer and discovers the queue, a concept in which he takes a special delight.

This layered approach might be reflected in a working arrangement where Directory submissions are sent to a que [sic] and picked up in a reasonable time, by a select group of responsible Board members (the reconstituted and expanded Working Group, if my suggestion is followed)....One needs a certain degree of faith, that a wide readership will adopt our terminology, but there are ways of providing a kernel that will get such adoption started.

There are ways.... In our mundane world, we introduce new critical nomenclature by using it, by showing how it illuminates our understanding and our enjoyment. In this fantasy, though, other methods are better. The key dream is that folksonomy is "after all" an emergent ontology. Folksonomies, in Tabbi's world, "are often put forth by their proponents as a critique of high-level, demagogic Semantic Web models." It's reassuring to know that, in Tabbi's universe, it's the high-level aristos who are demagogues, so we don't have to worry about those folks in the folksonomy! (Again, Republican Crit: those dangerous demagogues are probably from the democrat party.)

In Tabbi's world, alas, it appears we will no longer enjoy the company of English professors.

What critic would write a scholarly essay on The Unknown, when it is so much simpler to enter into the network, to attend the same conferences and hang out at the same parties attended by the authors, and be written about?

What critic would write a scholarly essay? In our quotidian world, Sam Johnson has a snappy answer: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." It seems to me that critics get paid to write, and professors get paid to profess. So if you profess to love The Unknown, writing makes sense. (If you love going to conferences and hanging out at parties attended by the authors, that's another thing, isn't it?)

The institutional problem seems to present a personal concern:

The moment a professor or a writer stops regarding the computer as an enhanced typewriter, ceases to treat 'techies' as service personel [sic] uninterested in literature, and seriously seeks to locate literary concerns and create works in the new media environment, that potential e-lit author no longer enjoys the implicit support of a discipline. Authors working in electronic environments soon find themselves subject to stringencies of corporate and commercial enterprises that have their own, not always compatible, social structures and values set on knowledge production, description, and location.

This is quite wonderfully inventive! An English professor who is caught acknowledging an engineer or a scientist's interest in literature is, no doubt, turned out into the street, drummed out of the discipline. Perhaps, at the older universities, they ceremonially tread his tweeds underfoot as a warning to undergraduates.

What a world! I can't wait to read the next volume and to learn what happens to Hermione. And what about Naomi?