Hyperrhiz 16: Introduction


Sandy Baldwin, Reham Hosny, and Kwabena Opoku-Agyemang

N. Katherine Hayles’s Electronic Literature (Notre Dame UP 2008), still the paradigmatic work in field, proposes calling the American hypertext works of electronic literature — e.g. Michael Joyce’s Afternoon — “classic” or “first generation.” While this distinction was no doubt useful in discussing the influence of American hypertext, it has been perpetuated in later critical discussions, and it imposes a logic of canonicity (“classics”) and organic geneticism (“first generation”) that suggests other works, from other languages and regions are non-classical and outside of the family. Thinking back to McLuhan’s media theory, we must acknowledge that we live in a small global village connected by digital media. In short, could e-lit be literature’s best chance to be truly global?

How global is electronic literature? Without a doubt, e-lit is exciting and takes literature into the future; but is it diverse and multicultural? Can globalizing e-lit become a way of reconciling conflicts between what is local and what is international? At first glance, e-lit is markedly un-global and lacks diversity. Existing discussions and definitions of electronic literature propose formal principles, perhaps with reference to communities, histories, or practices of production. An extensive critical practice and history is codified around the hypertext e-lit that emerged in the USA in the 1980's, and by subsequent refinements and extensions of this paradigm. In all this, there is little evidence of a concern for geography, nationality, and politics. These problematics are not simply secondary in discussions of e-lit: they are silent and invisible. Indeed, arguably e-lit is constituted only through the exclusion of concerns with globalization and transnationality. In this sense, electronic literature is an extension of the imperial archipelago of European literature and its New World expansions and experimentations. As a result, this special issue asks: what would global electronic literatures look like?

Of course, this is a first glance and the situation is undoubtedly more complex. Certainly e-lit is being produced, discussed, read, and archived far beyond the USA and Europe. Anyone with some knowledge of the field will offer examples to support this broader view. Thriving communities and diverse practices are at work in Africa, the Middle East, South America, and Asia. Is this a surprise? Perhaps it is, since the canonized works of e-lit are not at all from these regions and linguistic/cultural communities. Such evidence for a global e-lit heightens the question: why is e-lit not approached in this manner? Why are nationality, geography, and politics not in the foreground? The realities of global e-lit outpace and leave behind critical practice and formal discourses.

In one of two epigraphs to “Toward a Semantic Literary Web: Setting a Direction for the Electronic Literature Organization's Directory,” Joseph Tabbi employs Don DeLillo’s quote: ”You didn't see the thing because you didn't know how to look. And you don't know how to look because you don't know the names” to characterize the nature of electronic literature, as well as mainstream receptions to the discipline. Written in tandem with Hayles’s seminal essay “Electronic Literature: What is It?”, Tabbi’s article argues for a sustained positioning of electronic literature that allows for adequate tracking and referencing. While the evolution of electronic literature has addressed the various stakes that Tabbi set out in his essay, the DeLillo quote is still relevant in terms of progress along regional, cultural, and linguistic lines.

This special edition attempts to reorient DeLillo’s quote by making e-lit the object of the sentence; in other words, what does it mean if e-lit does not know enough about places beyond its current scope? E-lit as a discipline has made significant progress in expanding its reach beyond initial thresholds to becoming a significant force in creative expression. The Electronic Literature Organization for instance, which is the foremost gathering of scholars and creative artists connected to e-lit, boasts of conferences and collections that speak to the impressive breadth of the genre. However, a lack of attention to places outside Euro-American Anglophone spaces continues to plague the discipline; thus e-lit requires such a problem to be addressed.

In engaging with this problem, this special edition presents eight articles that not only shed light on endeavors in e-lit from their regional spaces, but also present a cosmopolitan conversation on a more globalized state of e-lit. These articles interrogate the existing histories and theories of e-lit to diagnose an excluded global unconscious. Further, they offer new works and approaches from a wider geographical scope than currently offered by e-lit.

Ana Marques da Silva leads off an initial conversation on Portuguese experimentalism and critical writing, arguing for a broadening of perspectives on the historical and theoretical contexts of electronic literature. She addresses the technical and socio-political dimensions of digital media and their impact on electronic literature, and poses questions on the tensions between the informational regime and the literary sphere. The main postulate of Perla Sasson-Henry’s essay “E- Lit in Spanish: Voices of Dissent in a Globalized World” is that regional perspectives and incidents have global effects outside their boundaries. Examining works by Gutierrez and Rodriguez Ruiz, Sasson-Henry argues that immersion in the specificities of specific culture or regional histories in fact create a global focus. Dolores Romero Lopez’s “Spanish Digital Literature in the Garden of the Forking Paths” follows the evolution of Spanish electronic literature from hypertext to multimedia by reflecting upon the first precursors, the recent efforts, and the new networks such as Hermeneina and Hipertulia. Ana Cuquerella’s “New Media Cultures. The Creative Potential of the Hispanic Digital Literature” approaches electronic literature as a global literature because of its accessibility without the barriers of time and space. Cuquerella further argues that the frequency of certain patterns and themes add to the global significance of electronic literature.

A second conversation brings a Middle Eastern perspective to the discussion through Reham Hosny’s “E-Lit in Arabic Universities: Status Quo and Challenges” and Eman Younis’s “Transcontinental Texts: Reality or Fantasy?: Mohammed Sanajilah’s Novel Chat as a Sample.” Hosny’s argument is informed by structural, financial, and logistic challenges that characterize the state of e-lit in Middle Eastern countries. For Hosny, diagnosing the problems that plague the Arabic classroom situation is key to identifying and then building a generation of Arabic e-lit critics and writers who will engage with the discipline in more sustainable ways. In order to accomplish such an endeavor, scholars have to avoid viewing the Arab world as a monolithic. Through categorization, Hosny suggests a method of not only dealing with such a potential pitfall, but to also create an environment that is relevant to Arabic sensibilities. Younis also deals with place but on a more conceptual level. Place tends to be a contentious element in the Middle East, and in processing place through digital texts, Younis argues that virtual place presents a unique set of implications in relation to Arabic e-lit. She teases out some of these implications by examining the wider relationship with globalization. For Younis, the relative lack of progress in Arabic e-lit makes this genre unprepared for the phenomenon of globalization.

Kwabena Opoku-Agyemang’s “Sankofa, or Looking Back while Moving Forward: Concrete Poetry and African Literature” considers the relationship between concrete poetry and Adinkra symbols. Using Sankofa as a reference point, Opoku-Agyemang theorizes on ways in which traditional African symbols and genres of e-lit can work together to expand notions that are connected to both entities.

Finally, in “The Absent Presence of Electronic Literature in India,” Souvik Mukherjee analyzes Indian video games and digital poetry in the context of non-linear narratives. In finding that the turn to non-linearity continues a long tradition in Indian creative endeavor, Mukherjee looks at Indian digital literature not as a new entity, but as a continuation of this tradition.

Globalizing Electronic Literature both upsets existing views of e-lit to show their parochial and regional assumptions, and celebrates the realities of e-lit as a global phenomena. In the process, e-lit is re-placed in an unmapped field of multiple linguistic/literary cultures and media environments. The hope is to arrive at an expansive, inclusive, and truly global field.