Dérives. Bringing (digital) space back to literature

First of all, let me thank all the organizing committee of Elo 2018 for the hard work in organizing this year edition and for accepting my proposal. Thank yo for the opportunity to be here today, discuss my ongoing research with you. I would also like to thank my colleagues and friends of the research lab, the Canada Research Chair on digital textualities, for their daily support, and for the discussions and the exchanges that have nourished my reflections so far. Let me also mention my supervisors, Marcello Vitali-Rosati and Bertrand Gervais. A special acknowledgement, and I promise that will be the last for today, goes to Figura — centre de recherche sur le texte et l’imaginaire for having supported my participation at ELO 2018.
I will start my presentation by drawing up a theoretical context to explain what I mean by bringing space back to literature. In order to do so, I will talk about Henri Lefebvre’s idea of production of space in order to understand how space can be not just represented, but also produced. We’ll then see how space is produced, and by who or what. Lastly, in the second part of my speech, I will analyze a Montreal-based literary project called Dérives. This work manifestly puts space at its core by situating itself in the trail of the Debord philosophy and practice of situationism and drifting. Dérives perfectly shows how literature can play a fundamental role in rethinking the structures of space, spatial representation and digital space itself.
In 1974, the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre published a book, The production of space, that became a cornerstone for any critical perspective on space. Starting what we call the spatial turn, Lefebvre influenced thinkers such as Fredric Jameson and Edward Soja. Lefebvre’s approach consists on going beyond the limits of absolute, abstract and philosophical conceptions of space, to move towards an idea of space considered not as an empty, mathematical or ideal medium, but as part of a complex process of production. This process, according to the French philosopher, generates a plurality of instances, which he groups under three structural categories: “Spatial practice, which embraces production and reproduction, and the particular locations and spatial sets characteristic of each social formation. Spatial practice ensures continuity and some degree of cohesion. […] Representations of space which are tied to the relations of production and to the “order” which those relationships impose, and hence to knowledge, to signs, to codes, and to “frontal” relationships. Representational spaces, embodying complex symbolisms, sometimes coded, sometimes not, linked to the clandestine or underground side of social life, as also to art (which may come eventually to be defined less as a code of space than as a code of representational spaces).”
While we can’t deny the historical weight of Lefebvre’s ideas as well as his revolutionary point of view about space, I think that we should take another look at his core beliefs. According to his Marxist approach — openly claimed throughout the whole book —, Lefebvre gives a prominent position to what he calls spatial practice, that is economics and technology. Representations of space — in broad terms: architecture and urbanism — follows in his hierarchy. At the bottom of the pyramid we find all forms of art or, as he calls them, representational spaces. This hierarchy is based on the degree of presupposed concreteness of every category, and it shows the minor role played by all kinds of art and imaginary practices in Lefebvre’s vision of space. While practices of space are the sole instances that contribute to the so-called real and true production of space, artistic practices produce a space that is a space “directly lived through its associated images and symbols, hence the space of “inhabitants” and “users”, but also of some artists and perhaps of those, such as a few writers and philosophers, who describe and aspire to do no more than describe. This is the dominated — and thus passively experienced — space which the imagination seeks to change and appropriate. It overlays physical space, making symbolic use of its objects.”
If we accept Lefebvre’s discourse, we have to agree that art and literature don’t really participate actively to production of space. Instead, they just cover that space, adding a sort of fancy layer to something produced by other more concrete instances, such as economy and technology. Still, history tells us quite a different story. Since its earliest materializations, literature has tried to not only describe space, but also to imagine new forms of it, going far beyond the decorative role given by Lefebvre. Utopian literature, as instance, envisions a socio-political perspective by imagining new societies, not only in a temporal manner – in an undefined future or past – but also through the invention of countries, maps, and even worlds. Or let’s think about the role of Baudelaire’s work in shaping the collective image of Paris. In the 20th century, the works of science-fiction writers made things such as cybernetics, virtual reality and cyberspace become a common imaginary, shared by all kinds of people. William Gibson’s Neuromancer (the novel in which the term cyberspace was firstly used) Isaac Asimov’s works and David Cronenberg’s movies, just to name a few, pictured new technologies in a way that still influences our manner of thinking, and therefore developing and building, that kind of technologies.
Nowadays, things have quite changed and moved closer and closer toward Lefebvre’s perspective. While the literature and arts capabilities to shape and build up digital and physical spaces are winding down, the so-called GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft) system is driving the narrative, basically unchallenged. Let’s take the example of Google. Google is an online services private company that notably owns the world most used search engine. While empirical studies show that Google has indexed barely 2% of the existing web pages so far, Google is the widely considered ad the whole Web. More significantly, the Page Rank indexing algorithm and the Chrome web browser have become so normative that today websites are developed to fit their structures as smoothly as possible. Google has become the true ordering principle of the Web — to quote the title of a paper written by its creators presenting their project at its early beginning. What are the consequences of GAFAM takeover on the digital world?
Several scholars from various fields argued that since the massive commercialization of small and portable devices equipped with 3G Internet connections and location technology, we entered an age where digital and physical space are no longer separated by clear boundaries. This phenomenon, called by Sabine Breitsameter “hybridation of space”, produced an irreversible entanglement between the two of them. Whether we call this entanglement everyware, code/space, or net locality, the result is one and the same: digital space has become for us a space as a whole. Or, from the physical perspective, we can say with Gordon and de Souza e Silva, that “the spaces we interact with on a daily basis are filled with data — pictures, thoughts, reviews, and historical documentation — aggregated into accessible and usable bits of information”. Information has become a concrete, solid, and quite tangible infrastructure of space. Or, to put it bluntly, “we don’t enter the web anymore; it is all around us.”
In this context, it is clear what is at stake when I talk about GAFAM appropriating the way we think about the Web, and the consequences of shaping our digital world and therefore the whole world. Moreover, when related to the space, the convergence of the two of them shows how important narrative and soft powers are, as intended by the political theorist Joseph Nye. Let’s take as example the Borges short novel On exactitude in Science, where the Empire’s Cartographers Guild draws a map the size of the Empire, and corresponds with it in each and every point.
Echoing the Empire’s art of cartography, Google’s aim is not only to represent the world through its mapping system and its digital presence on the Web, but also to impose its own vision, perspective, and values. Yet, while nowadays the commercial, economical, and marketing narrative is the most dominant one, there are other kinds of discourses, principally coming from arts and hacktivism, that show another way of thinking about digital and physical spaces. At a time, artists explored alternative ways to make use of new technologies such as location based ones (as Karen O’Rourke shows in her Walking and Mapping. Artists as Cartographer). Now writers start to claim a more active role. Projects such as Cécile Portier’s Traque Traces and Étant donnée, or the works of Pierre Ménard, Anne Savelli and François Bon try to thwart the technological and commercial foundations of contemporary space representation, showing flaws in the philosophy of digital and web mapping tools developed by such actors. By hacking these projects, these authors intend to expose their hidden ideology: while wearing the mask of spatial representation neutrality, they are spreading their own dominant vision of space.
I will now move to the second part of my presentation, dedicated to closely analyze the literary approach to digital and physical space, on a collaborative project based in Montréal, Dérives, of which Benoit is one of the most important contributor.
I’ve decided to choose Dérives amongst many other similar projects for two main reasons. Firstly, this project reflects, over the years, the changes occurred in the larger field of electronic and digital literature: it started on blogs in 2010, then aggregated on websites, nowadays it is carried out via several social networks. The second one is that through their poetic of space, based on the literary use of Twitter’s hashtags as paratext and location technique, these authors actively participate in building the image of the city of Montreal, reshaping the digital space of Twitter and imaging a new structure of contemporary space.
At its beginning, Dérives was a small collaborative work site, to quote its authors, that regrouped a few writers based in Hochelaga, a Montreal neighborhood. They knew each other at different degrees and they first started the collaboration under the form of exchange of personal blog posts, ruled as it follows:
• The posts of this four-hands writing experience must be tagged dérive as well as série [with the number of the series].

• dérive posts must be produced in an alternate manner, successively, one in response to the other. Any contribution guides the ongoing series.

• Any series is made by 8 elements (texts, photos, sounds, etc.) gleaned on Hochelaga neighbourhood.

• The first series begins with this photo, spark. The second will start with a contribution by VW, and so on.

• The total amount of series is undetermined.

• Rules can be modified at any time, without any notice.

As remarked by several scholars, in the first phase exchanges are longer, the subjects more intimate, and the authors have more time to develop their ideas and the answers to each other, coherently with the outlines of the blog literature. Also, external participants are occasional and less engaged, according to the project structure which favors strong ties created and cultivated both online and offline.
In a second moment, characterized by both an opening to external contributions and a drive to stabilization, not only the rules are changed (especially the last one, showing the increasing weight of others participants: rules can be modified at any time, without notice, by one of the regular participants: Victoria Welby, Benoit Bordeleau, Alice van der Klei), but new media are explored, confirming once again a double tendency: open up and tighten up. When the project’s site moved from Hochelaga to the UQAM buildings, paper exchanges, later lost by the US mail service, drifted away, are made by the most active participants maintaining a more intimate writing dimension. On the other hand, the project lands on the digital space of Twitter, opening up to potentially anyone’s contribution The shift towards Twitter was a radical one for the collective: after two abandoned attempts to build a headquarter, a website to store all the contributions, it is actually on Twitter that the most part of dérives takes place. From a literary point of view, abandoning the blog’s form in favour of the social network’s one, along with shifting from the desktop computer to the mobile device, had a huge impact on poetics, especially considering that dérives is a project about city, urban spaces and walking practices as flânerie and drifting. Since mobile devices have a stronger mobility and portability degree than laptops, they make now available to us the same literary possibilities as block notes used to, as argued by Bertrand Gervais in his later works on the writer-flâneurs. Temporary impressions and thoughts, encounters, volatile moments, and feelings are now privileged as literary material over introspection and narration.
Landing on Twitter has not only changed literary forms and materials, it has also had an impact on how the authors dealt with the subject of dérives, that is space. Let’s consider another way of looking at the space production process, a very different one than Lefebvre’s point of view. Daniel Chartier, a Montreal-based scholar, has developed the concept of “idea of a place” applying a phenomenological perspective to literature. According to him, “a place […] exists first and foremost as a discursive network, thus as series and accumulation of speeches, which determines and shapes its boundaries, constituents, history, parameters, etc […] the discursive existence of the place accompanies its real existence […] either its materiality, the lived experience of those who live there or the visit, etc. For any place, one would thus find a double existence: discursive (what one says about it) and phenomenological (what is known from experience) […] There is not, a priori, one of these existences which is more important than the other: the place exists both by its materiality and by its discourse. There is not even anteriority of one over the other”
Following Chartier’s ideas, through the ability to tell stories about places — locitelling —, literature can shape not only how we perceive space, but how we inhabit it, and therefore how we produce it. What happens to the “idea of a place” and to the production of space in the age of net locality and hybrid spaces?
As pointed out by Fabien Girardin, member of the MIT Senseable City Lab, one the most important research labs on digital architecture and smart cities, when we are walking in a city using our mobile devices, we produce two types of digital fingerprint, passive and active ones. While passive ones do not depend on us, but rather on the emplacement of internet entry points and location tracking technologies, active digital fingerprints are the one that we voluntarily decide to share. Sharing a located blog post, a located photo on Facebook or a located post on Twitter, as in Dérives, allows us to contribute in building an image of the city, according to our intentions, perspectives, and points of view. Thus, active digital fingerprints are a creative material for our vision of space; something that, far from just being received, we can dispose of and manipulate, in order to build our own narration about spaces and located situation. What dérives tells us, in the end, echoes what the Canadian artist Karlis Kalnins — to which we owe the very expression locative media — argued about location: it is more a matter of situation than a matter of place, and I would add than a matter of technology. Dérives, amongst other things, leads us to rethink about the meaning of what “being-in-a-place” is. By proposing a location system that is not precise nor technology-driven, but rather literary-driven, that is indicating one’s position by the hashtag #NameOfAPlace (back alley, parc, squares, streets, etc), the collective shows us the possibility to re-imagine the idea of location: being-there can be defined not only via technologies but also, and perhaps most importantly, by narrative and discursive construction.
That, together with the fact that anyone can participate to the project by simply tweeting with the hashtag #dérives, leads us to the conclusion of my presentation.
If everyone is a potential lociteller, this means that anyone can share his or her own vision of the city — in this case, Montreal, even if there were contributions from Paris as well as from the USA —, and build a kaleidoscopic, plural, and diversified image of the city that challenges the supposed neutrality of any cartographic project aiming to cover the whole reality, like the empire cartography or Google Maps’ cartography. Bruno Latour, in a short text titled “Paris, invisible city: the plasma”, argues that there is nothing less true than believe that, thanks to satellite images and details-zoom, we can finally access to THE reality. According to Latour, Google Maps allows us nothing more than a brief glimpse through a window, or, using his own words, a peep show. What is at stake here, disguised as a struggle for a true objectivity, is a matter of politics, as he reminds us: “The illusion of the zoom, in geography and sociology alike, has the drawback of making life in the city completely suffocating. There are no more loci, since everything is filled by the apparently smooth transition from the whole to the parts and from the parts to the whole, as if there were not a single gap, not a single breathing space. The filling up has been done. We are suffocating. This – to use a scholarly word – is a question of mereology: the relationship of the parts to the whole, which is the privilege of politics. It is not up to geography or sociology to simplify it too quickly, assuming the problem has been solved and the totality is already known, as if Paris were merely an image, sliced up, waiting to be reassembled ».
By promoting multiplicity, proliferation and partiality, projects such as dérives remind that not everything has been said, that there is so much more in our spaces — physical or digital — than we believe: dérives allows us to get space back, and allows you to finally take a deserved break.

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