Hyperrhiz 06: Essays

Weapons Of The Deconstructive Masses: Whatever the Electronic in Electronic Literature may or may not mean

John Cayley

Brown University, Literary Arts Program


This piece is an attempt to hasten the death of the 'electronic' in 'electronic literature' — to re-cognize it as a dead metaphor — as the prelude to an agonistic meditation on my generation's anticipation of the death of literature itself, with 'the literary,' potentially, waiting in the wings (and published elsewhere, elsewhen, elsehow).

'Weapons of the Deconstructive Masses' — in the midst of a desperate, necessary call for change, it might be best to get this all over with quickly; to admit that, "There aren't any," and desist from any threat or preparation to invade a sovereign field of cultural production where intellectual democracy is always already safe.

When I began to prepare this short essay, it was going to be by way of those critiques that ask, "Does it matter what we call it?" Of course it matters, or makes meaning, in the sense that words resonate and cannot be prevented from doing so. Nonetheless, that linguistic signs derive signification from locations within structures of differences and as a function of manifold contexts of usage; that their material specificities are arbitrary: — these facts are not contradicted by the revisionings of poststructuralism. Neither is poststructuralism any kind of reliable ally for poetic law-makers who, like Ezra Pound, seek to establish 'proper names' for things, 'true names,' zhengming, a human-native tendency that he also translated from Chinese culture where it remains equally conservative, command-expressive, and poetically exacting, and also every bit as profoundly constraining and cultural-absolutist as it would be in some Poundian West. I mean to say that, within the systems and structures of language, names are put forward and are used, and they come to signify what they signify, to mean what they mean. Deconstruction can't do anything about this except to play in the slippages and gesture towards ruptures and anomalies, making différance without necessarily making any difference.

Bizarrely, the etymological and associative play of deconstruction is formally and, I would argue, significantly and affectively resonant with the same play that one finds in — as the epicentric example — Pound's later 'ideogrammic' work. In The Cantos Pound creates poetic ideograms from shards and fragments of transcultural, translingual etymology and association in order to establish the 'sincerity' of true names, with "... the sun's lance coming to rest on the precise spot verbally" . Derrida performs in precisely the same way, but so as to question, within writing, within the discourse of philosophy, the possibility that writing can ever produce any kind of 'proper' signification.

All this is simply to give you some idea of where I might have been and, to a certain extent, still am coming from. This prelude also rhymes with the sequel to this paper, where we are again confronted with a disturbing contradiction between literary nostalgia or longing for what I later call 'persistent form,' and cultural inclinations which are formless or polymorphically and transmedially associative beyond anything we have yet encountered.


As a matter of historical fact — and not only in the United States — 'electronic literature' has emerged as a preferred term, one now destined to survive even my own attempts at deconstruction, especially since the publication of N. Katherine Hayles watershed, digestible, CD-equipped, all-in-one critical review, come constructive textbook, come seminal polemic, come new theoretical framework: Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary . Thus, whereas we never had 'steam literature,' or 'electric literature,' or 'telephonic' or 'televisual literature' — at least not of any cultural moment or persistence — we have already had 'electronic literature' for a remarkably long time, especially given the hyperhistory of new media development. If, by electronic literature we mean practices of writing in networked and programmable media — what I have always tended to call it — then we are likely to have an 'electronic literature' for some time to come. However we will have to bury the material-metaphoric implications of 'electronic,' precisely because the use of this adjective misdirects our critical and theoretical attentions. Writing in networked and, especially, programmable media weans us off even the traditional attachments of literature to particular forms of material cultural support: all the predominant and authoritative cultural formations that cluster around paper and printing and 'the book.' We are not out to replace one privileged material cultural support for another and so we must metaphorically bury 'electronic' and must do so in the full critical awareness that, over a much longer period, a number of similar literary qualifiers indicating other material cultural supports were buried long before it. Literature has never been, for any of us, just 'literature.' Without needing this ever to be said, it has been predominantly, successively, concurrently 'oral literature' or 'manuscript literature' or 'book literature,' and so on. Recently, Hayles and other theorists, notably Alan Liu, are turning to a notion of 'the literary,' perhaps driven in part by unconscious or unacknowledged anxieties that literature may never be able to slough off the privileges entailed by some form of contingent material support . For Hayles 'the literary' is something like the potential articulation of symbolic feedback loops within complex, aesthetically motivated structures that 'intermediate' human and non-human cognizers and agencies, themselves emergently self-organized in 'dynamic heterarchies.' Her theoretical framework provides a necessary revisioning of our brave new world and looks towards 'the literary' as one way to embrace and articulate this vision, while acknowledging that the resulting 'electronic literature' may be at a loss for words let alone paper to write them on . For Liu, since the advent of the graphic browser, culture generally and literature in particular, is already long since swamped, overlooked and downplayed by the 'cool' detachment that disregards a committed, materially supported poiesis. It's hard to be cool about making things, especially poetic things, especially poetry. It's even harder to be cool when reading poetry itself (as opposed to the cool theory that may envelop or disguise some of it), privately and particularly in public. Literature is uncool; while 'the literary' has, at least, an outside chance of looking good and trading up. In the world of poetry, for example, while literature skulks in the academy, you can apply 'the literary' to everything from rap, to spoken word, to open mic, to conceptual poetics, to 'epoetry,' whatever any of these may or may not mean.

Ultimately then, our problem and focus will prove to be not so much concerned with the qualifications of its various qualifiers, such as 'electronic,' but with literature itself. Rather than attempting to identify the specificities of a certain variety of literature or the literary, we must turn to questions — this is precisely what Hayles does in her book — of how the aesthetic viability (or not) of this newly mediated literary practice recasts literature itself and how this impacts on artistic culture broadly addressed. Liu's approach contrasts tellingly. Hayles accepts, more or less as a given, that there is a viable electronic literature and that we are (therefore) obliged to address its specificities and challenges. Liu is radically uncertain about the position of literature and the literary in what he sees as the now predominant, overarching 'culture of information.' In this — our contemporary — culture he discovers 'cool' as a (perhaps the) prime aesthetic operator. As a backdrop to my argument, I'm required to knit together a number of citations from Liu's book that will provide a somewhat troubling delineation of this term in his insightful usage. 'Cool' information troubles literature and seems to render it 'uncool' in proportion to its redefinition culture itself. "Cool is the aporia of information. In whatever form and on whatever scale (...), cool is information designed to resist information — not so much noise in the information theory sense as information fed back into its own signal to create a standing interference pattern, a paradox pattern. Structured as information designed to resist information, cool is the paradoxical 'gesture' by which an ethos of the unknown struggles to arise in the midst of knowledge work" (Liu 179). "What is the future of the literary when the true aestheticism unbound of knowledge work — as seen on innumerable Web pages — is 'cool'? Cool is the techno-informatic vanishing point of contemporary aesthetics, psychology, morality, politics, spirituality, and everything. No more beauty, sublimity, tragedy, grace, or evil: only cool or not cool" (Liu 3). But 'cool,' for Liu, also indicates an aporia that might paradoxically provide a solution to his aesthetic aporia. "What transitional aesthetics can bridge the rift between class-based and classless aesthetics, between a 'distinction' of literature that is now dying and its resurrection in a new body or form? Or, in a less utopian voice, what aesthetics can represent itself to itself as transitional in this manner? My argument is that the answer inheres in the avowed aesthetics of contemporary knowledge workers: 'cool'" (Liu 400, n8). The problem remains that he cannot see how the contemporary artistic practice of literature, even an electronic or digital literature, can become a part of this process of aesthetic transformation in, shall we say, a theoretically unified way.

Before proceeding, we must also be a little more clear about how we qualify those literary practices that currently bear the epithet 'electronic.' Unsurprisingly, this approach hinges on some understanding of the methods and properties of artistic practice itself, especially those we may characterize as 'literary.' In so far as artists identify as literary — without further qualifier — a distinct, established tradition of practice and criticism is able to examine their explicit claims as well as those that remain implicit in the work. In so far as artists engage in more novel practices of language art-making and in so far as they appear to share such practices with others, the designation of these practices becomes a matter of negotiation. While resisting the potential overdetermination of past concepts and forms, we do have to find appropriate, and necessarily abstracted, abbreviated phrases for processes and things that, even now, we do not yet entirely comprehend.

Both 'electronic literature' and the all but insignificantly preferable alterative 'digital literature' imply that there is a 'variety,' a 'branch,' 'a faction,' or, perhaps even a 'genre' of 'literature' (problematic in itself, since Flaubert and long before new media, according Barthes in Writing Degree Zero) that is distinguished by the characteristics of the material from which it is made or the media in which it is realized, rather than the procedures of its generation. Both terms tend to substantiate literary production, to highlight the (finished) product (that always already has a past, a history), rather than (a continuing, emerging, developing) practice. For some years I have tried to make a point of highlighting practice by using the slightly roundabout phrase 'writing in networked and programmable media' . As a matter of pedagogic pragmatism I now also encourage the shorter 'writing digital media,' the WDM of my title, a phrase in which there also hovers a cloud of pronouns and less-articulate possible relationships between writing and digital media: writing [in] digital media; writing [for] digital media; writing [transitive] digital media. But this is, as I say, pragmatism, part of what is a necessarily collective approach within which terms will continue to emerge and fade away along with 'electronic writing' or 'electronic literature.' In these latter terms the reference to material support will become invisible, folded into the designation as programmable electronics — gradually, steadily, then exponentially — become ubiquitous. The material and metaphoric overtones will simply die. We should be more concerned, as we will see, with what may or may not die with that synthetic dying fall, I mean ...

The Literary


to be continued ....


Confucius (= Kong Fuzi). Confucius: The Great Digest, the Unwobbling Pivot, the Analects. Glen Hughes, 1928. Trans. Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1969.

Gendolla, Peter, and Jörgen Schäfer, eds. The Aesthetics of Net Literature: Writing, Reading and Playing in Programmable Media. Bielefeld: Transcript, 2007.

Hayles, N. Katherine. 'Distributed Cognition in/at Work: Strickland, Lawson Jaramillo, and Ryan's Slippingglimpse.' Frame 21.1 (2008): 15-29 linked from website «http://www.let.uu.nl/alw/frame/en/21_1_cyberpoetics.shtml».

— . Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary. Ward-Phillips Lectures in English Language and Literature. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2008.

Liu, Alan. The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.


  1. A number of colleagues and friends have read this paper since it was first presented. I would like to thank Roberto Simanowski and Aden Evens for particularly detailed and helpful comments. All contentious opinions, errors, and misapprehensions remain my own. The final part of this paper, on 'the literary' will, hopefully, be published elsewhere.
  2. Confucius (= Kong Fuzi), Confucius: The Great Digest, the Unwobbling Pivot, the Analects, trans. Ezra Pound (New York: New Directions, 1969) 20. The quoted text is Pound's ideogrammic gloss for the character cheng (Wade-Giles: ch'eng) often translated as 'sincerity.' See also: The Cantos, LXXVI, 468/474.
  3. N. Katherine Hayles, Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary, Ward-Phillips Lectures in English Language and Literature (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2008).
  4. Alan Liu, The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
  5. A representative quote: "Electronic literature extends the traditional functions of print literature in creating recursive feedback loops between explicit articulation, conscious thought, and embodied sensorimotor knowledge. ... While print literature also operates in this way, electronic literature performs the additional function of entwining human ways of knowing with machine cognitions." Hayles, Electronic Literature 135. For 'dynamic heterarchies' see: Hayles, Electronic Literature 44 ff. N. Katherine Hayles, 'Distributed Cognition in/at Work: Strickland, Lawson Jaramillo, and Ryan's Slippingglimpse,' Frame 21.1 (2008).
  6. I am happy to see that this phrase has now been taken up quite widely in the literature, not least in Hayles' new book (op. cit.) and, for example, in the recent collection of essays, Peter Gendolla and Jörgen Schäfer, eds., The Aesthetics of Net Literature: Writing, Reading and Playing in Programmable Media (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2007). The phrase can also be shortened to 'writing in programmable media' since programming enables network. The mark of an explicit relationship with practices of coding will continue to enrich and to specify our literary practices in these media, but it is not yet clear to me that programmability and processing give rise to all their distinguishing characteristics, or, for that matter, operate significantly or affectively in every example of those practices to which we turn our attention. Programming enables the network but cultural production on the net does not always practice coding and neither does every instance of writing in digital media. As a term, 'writing digital media' attempts an abbreviated reference to this situation by encapsulating the conjunction of networked and programmable media, without specifying the precise grammar that underlies this conjunction. I am also anxious to note, in passing, that I consider coding to be a distinct cultural practice, distinct, that is from writing, for example. For this and contrasting views, wee the recent NSF workshop on 'Codework' organized by Charles (Sandy) Baldwin at West Virginia University. Position papers from this workshop, including one of my own on this question, are online at http://clc.as.wvu.edu:8080/clc/nsfworkshop, and will be published in due course.