Back to the Book
(Text of the original application, 2010)
Since the late 1980s, scholars have claimed that the future of Western literature as an art form would be electronic: innovations in literature would come from the electronic technology of hypertext, replacing paper and books as state-of-the-art bearers of the literary. Such claims have been part of a growing tendency in media studies to consider the digital as the integration of all media. In line with this tendency, Henry Jenkins has identified media convergence as a key dynamic of the present: different media meeting and merging. However, since the 2000s, claims for the electronic-literary future and media convergence stand in need of being corrected. From the 1990s on, literature has been transformed on paper and in book-form as much as, if not more radically than, it has been innovatively transformed in electronic environments. My project investigates these reinventions, and then investigates if they point to a more complex dynamic of media-interaction in the present: one typified by divergence rather than convergence alone; by material diversity rather than digital unification alone. How has the literary evolved as an analog art alongside the digital, and how does this evolution complicate existing models of media convergence? The question is probed on the basis of three integrated cases regarding the re-materialization of the novel and the book as a hybrid mode, and the subculture of paper-based networks of self-expression in personal zines.
…I’m ultimately creating a book that can’t exist online…I think that’s the bar that the Internet is driving towards: how to further emphasize what is different and exceptional about books.
Historians and critics of literature continue to be fascinated by the digitization of literary practice in the last decades. The impact of the digital and the information age on literature as a print-based medium (fiction, poetry, life writing) has been mapped from John Johnston’s Information Multiplicity (1998) to Joseph Tabbi’s Cognitive Fictions(2002) and Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman (1999) and My Mother Was a Computer (2005). The transmigration of literature from paper to the computer has been widely researched in the field of electronic literature studies (ELS), focusing on the innovative potential of the literary as a digital phenomenon, and its rehearsal of older modes (Landow 1994, 2006; Block 1999, 2001; Ryan 1999, 2001; Pequeño Glazier 2001; Bolter 2001; Simanowski 2002; Wenz 2003; Walker 2008). ELS has also investigated the ways in which modernist and postmodernist paper-based literatures have anticipated digital textualities, such as hypertext or automatized, programmed writing. Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s acclaimed New Media Reader (2003) illustrates this reverse historical perspective. On the other hand, critics like N. Katherine Hayles (2002, 2008) have been at pains to show how digital technology has materially affected paper-based literary texts (from lay-out to reading practices), and how the prominence of technology in ELS may in turn force us to reconsider traditional practices of literary criticism in paper and book-form.
Adopting a critical materialist approach, our project intervenes in these leading debates on electronic literature and the impact of digitization on paper-based literature and criticism:
*our primary focus is on innovative trends – material, formal, functional – in analog rather than only digital American and European literatures of the last two decades;
*we propose that these trends may not be seen exclusively through the prism of new digital technologies (Dresang 1999), nor that experimental literature from the 1960s-1970s can be reduced to a prehistory of the digital (Wardrip-Fruin 2003.
At a time when digital technologies of writing and reading are still re-materializing paper and books, innovations in analog literature may be less derived than critics like Dresang have argued for. Her Radical Change theory hinges on the thought that formal changes in children’s literature during the 1990s can only be properly understood as paper-based reflections of emerging digital concepts like interactivity and connectivity. Such an explanatory framework threatens to be reductive when we consider the continuing importance of cinematography and photomontage as well as modernist assemblage art to current reinventions of analog literature.
More productively, Hayles studies the material specificity of contemporary hypertext and print text in their mutual contrast (2002), while Mark Hansen claims that transformative fictions like Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000) celebrate the superiority of print as a channel of the real and as a flexible channel mimicking other recording technologies (2004). Following this lead, I argue that innovative trends in analog literature between 1990 and 2010 (I use ‘analog’ to refer to a paper-based artistic practice extending beyond linear print) do not ape digital techniques, but materialize analternative to digital hypermedia: books as Gesamtkunst. To that extent, as an alternative hypermedium, analog literature deviates materially from the digital: it withdraws into the material resources of print, paper, and book to recuperate itself.
Thus, fictions like The Raw Shark Texts (2006) incorporate existing films through a mixture of typographic design and flipbook techniques, while other contemporary author-designers rework found literary texts into multidimensional visual surfaces through etching, painting, or carving.
Paradoxically, this deviation does not contradict the growing, digital institutional framework of literary production and consumption. This framework has changed dramatically since the 1990s, with the ubiquity of digital printing (photographic reproduction), online bookselling and printing on demand, the online transformation of libraries into portals, open access, and online criticism (Rutten 2007) – all this has profoundly changed the ways in which books as well as digital texts are made, distributed, and read. In that institutional sense, we can no longer make a rigid distinction between digital and analog literature: the latter is increasingly part of the technological, infrastructural, and social-cultural framework of the former.
However, as a matter of artistic practice, the matter of paper and books endures and evolves alongside the digital as a parallel or alternative track. Paper-based graphic narration has, for instance, witnessed a considerable increase in sales as ‘serious’ fiction in the 2000s and has steadily expanded as an artistic field since the 1990s (Baetens 2008). Similarly, since 2000 the scope and function of the book has widened, as ever more professional and amateur artists have engaged in the ‘treating’ or transforming of found books and texts into multimedial and multifunctional objects: from overwriting to decoupage, book-altering or text-treating is now practiced in book art, art therapy, internet and library groups around the world (Drucker 2004).
The question that this project seeks to answer is why predictions of theorists and practitioners (often they are identical) of digital literature have not come true: why analog literary modes have been successfully reinvented, and have continued to flourish in digital times. Relative to this, the project also seeks to show why this new paradigm is insufficient as an explanatory framework to account for radical change in analog literature during the last two decades.
Research question: How and why have digital and analog literatures diverged as material practices within an increasingly digital institutional framework of literary production and consumption in America and Europe?
Research aim: The final aim of this project is to write a literary history of the present that connects formal-material changes in analog literature to the changing cultural significance of authorship and autography (here: the visibly embodied imprint of an author) in the age of media multiplicity.
Hypothesis: The mediasphere of the present is too prolific and multidimensional for one medium to succeed or replace another (Duguid 1996, Hayles 2002, Striphas 2009). Seen in this light, reinventions of the analog cannot be put aside as anachronisms but may be an integral, evolving part of an ever more, and more complexly, mediated present.
To account for this complexity, we use the analysis of the proliferation of old and new media in the present by Sonja Neef et al (2006). Unlike Jenkins’ model of media convergence, with its emphasis on the functional interchangeability of media and the forging of an integrative multiple media system, Neef, Van Dijck, & Ketelaar point to a centrifugal rather than a centripetal tendency in today’s media sphere. They argue that:
*newer media technologies (such as digital word-processing) are productive of older media technologies (such as handwriting) in so far as the latter are reframed and readjusted with respect to, and with the rising dominance of, the former;
*this readjustment includes a resetting of the social meanings, cultural practices, and aesthetic functions attached to these media technologies (handwriting becoming the sign of authenticity in the age of print, Xeroxed texts becoming the sign of authenticity – of being handmade – in personal zines in the age of digitization): these media are seen in a different perspective and thus used and valued in a different way.
What we call media divergence (the refashioning of older media technologies as alternative channels alongside newer media technologies) must therefore be seen as a relational process. With respect to such divergence, Neef et al focus their analysis on handwriting and its various relocations in the age of digitization.
By contrast, our project widens the scope to hybrid literatures that are autographic to the extent that they leave the visible or palpable imprint of an embodied inscription (cuttings, drawings, pastings), and/or deploy such imprints to redirect reading as a physical activity, revolving around multiple sensory feedback. This is how the ‘auratic’ (a unique, physical materiality connecting past and present, author and reader) dimension of books and paper pages is being played out in ever greater numbers today.
We thus propose four working concepts to unravel the dynamics of media divergence in these analog literary practices during the last two decades:
1. materiality: the tendency in the texts and book-works to be analyzed is to foreground and creatively interrogate the material conditions of paper, textuality (i.e. what makes a text into a text, or function as text), and ‘bookishness’;
2. hybridity: related to this is their shared tendency to integrate and refashion different modes of mediation – verbal-visual-(photo)graphic-sonic and even sculptural – within the material constraints of paper, print text, and/or book;
3. singularity: while moveable print precisely enabled mechanic reproduction, hybrid analog literature of the last two decades re-inscribes the singular by foregrounding manual labour (cf. drawing and hand-writing in personal zines), by transforming the book into a uniquely sculptured medium (carving in book-altering), or by making use of limited and different editions (House of Leaves, Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts, 2006, or limited circulations of personal zines) – in these respects recent trends in analog literature play with defining characteristics of manuscript culture;
4. authenticity: relative to 1-3, hybrid analog literature leaves a] the (image of the) palpable imprint of an author-artist (or rather ironically plays with it) and b] engages readers in a haptic (involving the sense of touch) experience of the ‘real’ – a being in touch with ‘authentic’ rather than exchangeable matter.
Originality of the topic
Since the 1990s, the principal focus on materially innovative literary practices has been on new electronic modes of literary writing that have creatively altered the architecture of the paper page. Such practices have been referred to as a “literature of the interface”: a literature experimenting in interface design, formally innovative and technologically rich. By contrast, and without ignoring these developments, our project:
*explores current innovations in, and reinventions of, analog literary practices;
*develops critical tools to analyze these innovations and reinventions;
*investigates, on this basis, what the material discontinuities between digital and analog literary practices may tell us about the future of both practices.
This leads to a deeper understanding of media divergence in the age of media multiplicity: what does it mean to be analog in this age? Is it to be out of joint or part of a multiple time frame in which past and present, old and new media, evolve coterminously (Kosseleck 2002)?
For a description of the three individual projects go to: Projects in this blog.
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Primary Texts (limited selection)
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