Electronic Literature after Flash (MLA14 Proposal)

I recently proposed a sequence of lightning talks for the next Modern Language Association convention in Chicago (January 2014). The participants are tackling a literary issue that is not at all theoretical: the future of electronic literature. I’ve also built in a substantial amount of time for an open discussion between the audience and my participants—who are all key figures in the world of new media studies. And I’m thrilled that two of them—Dene Grigar and Stuart Moulthrop—just received an NEH grant dedicated to a similar question, which is documenting the experience of early electronic literature.

Electronic literature can be broadly conceived as literary works created for digital media that in some way take advantage of the unique affordances of those technological forms. Hallmarks of electronic literature (e-lit) include interactivity, immersiveness, fluidly kinetic text and images, and a reliance on the procedural and algorithmic capabilities of computers. Unlike the avant garde art and experimental poetry that is its direct forebear, e-lit has been dominated for much of its existence by a single, proprietary technology: Adobe’s Flash. For fifteen years, many e-lit authors have relied on Flash—and its earlier iteration, Macromedia Shockwave—to develop their multimedia works. And for fifteen years, readers of e-lit have relied on Flash running in their web browsers to engage with these works.

Flash is dying though. Apple does not allow Flash in its wildly popular iPhones and iPads. Android no longer supports Flash on its smartphones and tablets. Even Adobe itself has stopped throwing its weight behind Flash. Flash is dying. And with it, potentially an entire generation of e-lit work that cannot be accessed without Flash. The slow death of Flash also leaves a host of authors who can no longer create in their chosen medium. It’s as if a novelist were told that she could no longer use a word processor—indeed, no longer even use words.

Or is it?

This roundtable brings together a range of practicing e-lit authors and scholars to discuss what the end of Flash means for electronic literature, new media, and the broader field of digital humanities. Each participant will limit his or her remarks to a strictly-timed six minutes, with the bulk of the session devoted to an open discussion between the panel and the audience. We will open with Chris Funkhouser, who argues that the importance of Flash to digital poetry in the early years of the 21st century cannot be understated. An e-lit poet himself, Funkhouser suggests that it is not the end of the software itself that is his primary concern, but the question of what happens to the aesthetic principles that have emerged out of Flash.

Building on Funkhouser’s ideas, Dene Grigar will next highlight two critical characteristics of Flash poetry: kinopoeia (movement that imitates or suggests a word or idea) and musicopoeia (music that imitates or suggests a word or idea). Grigar highlights three works that show the need for such new terminology: Ana Maria Uribe’s Anipoemas, John Kusch’s Red Lily, and Thom Swiss’s Shy Boy.

After Funkhauser’s and Grigar’s introductions to Flash we move to questions about the preservation, emulation, and study of Flash-based electronic literature. Zach Whalen begins this discussion by recalling earlier concerns about the preservation of web-based e-lit. Whalen focuses on Talan Memmot’s groundbreaking Lexia to Perplexia, which cannot be viewed in modern web browsers. Whalen explores why Lexia to Perplexia “breaks” and what one must alter in order to “fix” it. Whalen then questions the tacit assumption of digital preservation projects, which is that digital works must always be preserved. Ultimately, Whalen concludes that ephemerality and obsolescence are significant aesthetic properties of electronic literary works.

Next, Leonardo Flores picks up on the ethical and artistic dimensions of preservation by exploring the strategies that e-lit authors have developed to extend the life of their works. Using Dreaming Methods and R3/\/\1X\/\/0RX (remixworx)—two British e-lit collectives—as his case studies, Flores finds one strategy is to make the source material of individual works public, while another strategy involves migrating works to alternative platforms, such as HTML5 or iOS, that offer similar—but not the same—functionality.

The importance of code arises in both Whalen’s and Flores’ lightning talks, and Mark Marino pursues this question full throttle in his talk about code studies and Flash e-lit. Marino grounds his insights in his collaborative study of William Poundstone’s canonical work, Project for Tachistoscope [Bottomless Pit]. Marino suggests that studying the underlying ActionScript code of Project for Tachistoscope can deepen our understanding of the work, revealing new layers to the work that more screen-focused analyses neglect.

The final two lightning talks imagine the future of electronic literature without Flash. Amanda Visconti surveys the way e-lit can appropriate digital platforms that were never designed for poetics or narrative. Visconti argues that such platform poaching combines the veneer of credibility associated with a digital archive or a wiki with a narrative license that is simultaneously ethically dangerous and rich with possibilities for counterfactual knowledge.

Finally, the formal part of the roundtable ends with Stuart Moulthrop, the author of some of the most widely read and taught electronic literature works. In an act of provocation Moulthrop argues that “there never was such a thing as Flash.” Moulthrop sees Flash as a blip in the idiosyncratic timeline of electronic literature. Flash was, Moulthrop points out, an always-limited convenience, merely a way of developing interesting interfaces for the Web. Moulthrop ultimately finds that the idea of an interface-based literary art is larger and more durable than Adobe’s powerful but deeply flawed product.

Moderated by Mark Sample, this diverse “Electronic Literature after Flash” roundtable capitalizes upon the growing interest in electronic literature—and the digital humanities more generally. Given its focus on the preservation and study of soon-to-be obsolescent forms of technology, this roundtable will also appeal to MLA members invested in the more conventional fields of textual studies, bibliographic preservation, media studies, and information sciences. And finally, the roundtable speaks to the enduring concerns of authors and artists who simply want their works to be available and accessible to future generations of readers.

Image: game, game, game, and again game by Jason Nelson

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