For the past 2 years, our lab, the CRC in digital textualities, leaded by Marcello Vitali-Rosati — Who is in our minds, words, hearts, and panel today, and also somewhere in Europe —, has been working on a directory of digital literature that can reflect our research on literary digital works, mostly works in French published on the web, that didn’t appear in other existing directories (ELO, NT2, etc) and, most importantly, that could not fit therein because they didn’t match the definition of « digital literature » adopted by those anthologies. Let’s look at an example: this is the Twitter profile of a french-canadian writer, Anne Archet. A quick look at this account shows a non-consensual use of the platform: her tweets are full of puns, but we’re not just in front of a parodic account: the contents may be satirical, even political, but also poetic. Profile images are interesting too: Anne Archet is always playing hide-and-seek with her readers. She’s never published her own picture online, but always some photo-montages like this one, mocking the self-exposure behaviour on social medias, as well as the femme-fatale imagery as it appears in cinema and magazines. So Anne Archet plays with the structure of the Twitter platform itself (as a very formatted writing space that allows creative writing and poetry), and she also plays with a set of connotations linked to social media (as the tension between privacy and exposure, or between virtual identity and so-called real identity). She transforms Twitter, a microblogging platform mostly used to spread news, into a space of creative writing. This is an example of what we could call « Twitterature. »
At the CRC in digital textualities, our researches focus on this new kind of writing practice, born at the same time as the participative and social web, but also on a pretty much older kind of online writing generally excluded from the major directories of electronic and hypermedia literature: I think about blogs, for instance, which exist since the late 90’s, but can’t really be considered as a model of electronic literature. As you can imagine, the conception of our directory intends to rethink the notion of digital literature itself, and to propose a new epistemological model.
Define « digital » literature: an evolutive concept
According to several scholars, the field of electronic literature could be divided into two major parts.
At the very beginning of electronic literature, the experimentation around the new technology of the hyperlink was at the center of the writers’ practices and scholars’ theory. This generation of researchers, who included, among others, personalities such as Bolter, Landow, Hayles, was interested in the possibilities offered by technical tools and technologies. Katherine Hayles, pioneering researcher in the field, asked herself in an article published on the site of ELO (Electronic Literature Organization) in 2007 the very same question that we ask ourselves today: « Electronic Literature : What is it ? » In this work, Hayles pursued a twofold objective: firstly, to draw up the state of the art of the field; on the other hand, it aims to clarify the electronic literature formulation given by a specific committee made up of ELO members. This definition of an electronic literary work, « work with an important literary aspect that takes advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer » requires, according to Hayles, three additional considerations: first, even if it recognizes that the term « important literary aspect » is a tautology, this is not a problem because digital readers have expectations shaped by centuries of printed literature; secondly, Hayles sees in the media versatility an essential feature of this kind of literature « because electronic literature is normally created and performed within a context of networked and programmable media, it is also informed by the powerhouses of contemporary culture, particularly computer games, films, animations, digital arts, graphic design, and electronic visual culture ». Finally, it settles the thorny issue of the fundamental difference between paper and digital, claiming that the particularity of electronic text remains in the fact that it « remains distinct from print in that it literally cannot be accessed until it is performed by properly executed code. » If the first two points discussed by Hayles, the continuity of cultural and literary forms and the opening to other art forms, notably the visual ones, work against a technology based definition, the last one seems problematic to us. Although the issue of technological devices and writing technologies is a major one, our theoretical hypothesis is that we cannot make that the key element for deciding what is digital literature. Let’s take, for instance, the Madeleine project, a fictional story carried out on Twitter by Clara Beaudoux: once printed in a book, have the tweets lost their digital characteristics?
It is in fact by drawing themselves away from a techno-centered position as well as from hyperlink-centrism that scholars belonging to a second wave have explored other theoretical and critical perspectives, thus laying the foundations for the plurality of approaches that characterized today’s digital literature. A fundamental contribution, in this direction, has been the one carried out by experts of reading and writing practices. The scholars coming from this study field, in fact, was the first to study digital literary works under what we call perspectives of continuity, aiming less to detect absolute breaks or novelties in the history of digital literature than to look closely at the mutations, reconfigurations and changes brought about by the digital, and this on several levels: reading, writing, studies of the supports, literary practices, reception and also, of course, devices, techniques and technologies. The last theorical perspective on digital literature we would like to talk about today is the one developed by Marcello Vitali Rosati, one that we all have religiously adopted. Digital literature is a prism through which we analyse larger social changes, such as the reconfiguration of notions of authorship, authority, and literariness as well as the modes of content production, dissemination, and legitimization, whether those contents are literary or not. According to this point of view, a true reflection on digital literature cannot confine itself to the sole field of literature, but it demands the adoption of a more comprehensive point of view because « the logic of new supports and media in the Gutenberg galaxy is inseparable from a whole digital ecosystem, if not from the mutation of a whole society »
Why a new repository ? Toward a wider conception of digital literature
Hayles’s definition of electronic literature aims to establish a specificity of it and to distinguish it from the rest of the literature, identifying what a hypermedia work is and grouping together all works that could not exist outside digital environments, our perspective leads us to a slightly different definition of digital literature. Influenced by an undeniable evolution of literary practices we consider the « digital turn » as « the epistemological turn in which the study of the electronic literature shifts toward in a theoretical analysis of what literature is in the digital age. […] Beyond sharpening our knowledge of new literary practices up, it allows us a better comprehension of what our culture is in the digital age » to quote Marcello. In other words, the problem is not really how to define « digital literature » but how to define « digital ». We therefore propose to speak of « literature in the digital age » rather than talking about « digital literature » and to take into account a whole series of literary practices that do not fit into the definition of electronic literature, despite their presence and their growing impact in the field of
contemporary literature (digital or not).
Of course, being so inclusive also brings some issues: our corpus doesn’t have clear boundaries and may seem a little bit messy. We take full responsibility for this mess, since it appears important to us to give up the ontological approach of the « true nature » of digital literature.
In fact, it seemed irrelevant to us to build our directory on a precise definition of the nature of the objects we identified. Our approach is rather based on the institutional purpose of such a directory, which is the desire to make visible and accessible some works that, otherwise, would not fall into any of the stabilized categories. We conceive therefore our project as the addition of another little piece of the puzzle to understand the mutation of literature in the digital age.
The question of accessibility and circulation of digital literature
The first question that we asked ourselves concerns the constitution of our corpus: how did we get access, in the first place, to all these different websites, profiles, blogs, selected in our corpus? We must confess a part of serendipity in the way we found and accessed these works, in the same way the circulation of digital literature is quite unpredictable (more than printed literature). However, it is essential to put in place some criteria – at least practical ones – to identify these works and insert them into a corpus.
The circulation and the visibility of digital literature depend largely on the literary community in which their author belongs. The example of the community gathered around the french writer François Bon is particularly significant. François Bon is known as a real catalyst for francophone digital production and is able to operate as a hub by creating relationships and links between a large number of writers. His activity on social networks has made him a true prescriber: his recommendations have gradually determined the institutionalization of a body of works – or rather writers.
This exchange between writers who determine the emergence of a community must be taken into account as a fundamental aspect of digital literature: what allows a writer to enter a corpus is his belonging to a specific community. But the most important question remains open: how do we build our corpus? Within the works identified through a community, how can we select those that can be considered as literature? What aesthetic criteria can we mobilize? What dynamics of legitimization?
The question of legitimacy
The question of the aesthetic value of these works will always remain subjective and will depend on the preferences and approaches of each reader: we can invoke the quality of the style, of the language or the evocative power of the text … This subjectivity is not an exclusive feature of the field of digital literature, as Hayles pointed out, too.
The question of legitimization seems more relevant. In the printed model, publishing companies used to provide a writer their authority: some famous publishers are even known to publish the « best » writers. But what happens in the case of digital literature published on the web, on the website of a writer or on a social media? We know that the digital space has produced its own forms of legitimization. Some may regret it, but we must admit that, today, a few big companies are selling authority that is able to legitimize contents published online. The web can sometimes be a huge production machine of authority, and most of us don’t really question this authority. Think of the way we « trust » Google search: 99% of users never go beyond the first page of results, which means that these results – and only these ones – are legitimate. How do we say? No better place to hide a dead body than the second page of a Google search. This way, a blog that maintains a good rank in a Google search has a completely different position compared to a blog that is not indexed.
In addition to those search algorithms, we can mention of few other forms of legitimization, like social networks and recommendation practices: profiles on social networks have an importance and an influence proportional to their visibility. The number of subscribers becomes a sort of legitimization; this legitimacy can then be transferred via the recommendations. If François Bon – with his 14600 subscribers on Twitter – quotes a work, it will have a strong legitimizing function.
The question of the frontiers and of the granularity
Third question: on the web, where does a work of digital literature begin and where does it end? It’s very tricky to answer this question: in the digital space, the spatial and temporal unity required to be able to speak of a « work of literature » – and thus to delimit an item in our corpus – is very rare.
Let’s consider the case of the workshops-writing-websites that proliferate on the web (in french we use the term « site-chantier »). Let’s take the example of Arnaud Maïsetti’s website: we could consider the entire website as one work of literature, or take into account only a particular project published thereon (for example the « Journal) », or also take into account each page (an entry of the « Journal », or a text of the project « Fiction du monde »…). Each choice presents its own limits.
If we choose a very small granularity, like a single page of the website, then we will describe quite stable objects – a page can be changed, but the changes will always be fewer than for the entire site. A page will also be relatively homogeneous from a stylistic, formal, thematic point of view. On the other hand, because of the quantity of the pages, our work of description will involve a radical selection, which will necessarily be very arbitrary. Just to give an idea: the website of Arnaud Maïsetti has more than 2000 pages: it is obviously impossible to list them all. But which one would we select? The choice of selecting bigger projects is also very problematic. It is very difficult to identify and isolate projects from the rest of the site, as writers often change the layout of their platforms.
Considering this, we finally chose to list websites and consider the whole site-workshop as a work of literature. But, technically, this still poses problems: what is meant by « website »? Is it all the content managed by the same CMS? Or any and all content broadcast under the same domain name? The choice we made in our directory is more about reception than about production. So we decided to put aside the way the content is produced, in order to focus on the user experience.
Concretely we consider as a singular work all the contents that are diffused inside a platform which displays the same menu bar, the same graphic signature, and which allows to return to Home Page in all the pages.
The choice we made implies a profound change in our conception of what is a literary work, since the objects we’re selecting are neither homogeneous nor stable. We are in a situation of editorialization: a process opened in time and in space. In the same site, we find news, poems, fragments, photos … and every day all the content can change, sometimes drastically.
The epistemological question
In order to build a directory capable of facing the challenges mentioned previously, we had to think about a way to stabilize — and therefore, to institutionalize — how we conceive a work: for instance, to say that it’s important to mention the CMS chosen by the writer means to link the idea of literary work to the one of CMS — and by that to give a very specific definition of thework. Then, we had to choose descriptors that can be standardized and thus used by other directories – so that the different directories can be interrogated in a unique way. For the latter reason, it would have been better to use an already existing vocabulary, but none met the requirements of the first two issues mentioned.
Thus, we chose a hybrid approach: we started from the taxonomy used by the Cell project which is expressed in MODS and which makes it possible to specify the type of publication (site, file, film, CD-ROM …), the media used ( text, image, video, etc.), the reading procedures (navigation, observation, interactivity …), the electronic devices (keyboard, mouse, GPS, microphone …). We then added descriptors that seemed necessary for us to take into account the more literary aspects of a work: editorial form (antichronological order, for example, or tree or microblogging), genres, literary forms and literary subjects. This allows us on the one hand to make our repertoire searchable by the other actors of the digital literature (ELO, CELL, NT2) and on the other to have an epistemological freedom, which is essential for us to adapt the repertoire to the needs of our research.
The problem of conservation
We have one last question to deal with: the archiving and preservation of these works. This is an issue we share with all the other anthological projects in digital literature. Nothing assures the durability of our objects: writers can radically change their websites, they can stop holding them, and they can erase them. In addition, many of these works are in proprietary platforms: we may quote the Vlog of François Bon on YouTube, or the profiles on social networks (Twitter or Facebook).
Some archiving projects are effective for the websites of authors: first, of course, archive.org which also allows manual archiving from any user. As part of our directory, we always ask archive.org to archive the works we list. Another project that goes in this direction is that of legal deposit of the National Library of France – which by cons is not accessible, if not on site (for legal reasons).
But these forms of archiving do not make it possible to find the work just as it was consulted in the first place: the depth of the archiving (the number of links from a page that are archived) is always limited and nothing guarantees the graphic rendering – especially when the technologies used are not standards.
This means that nothing guarantees the sustainability of this corpus. Listing it also means finding ways to preserve it, or rather to keep the elements that interest the research. Choosing a corpus in the field of digital literature also means allowing it to it exist.