MLA 2012 Special Session | Reading Writing Interfaces: E-Literature’s Past & Present

Below are abstracts for the papers that Dene Grigar, Stephanie Strickland and Marjorie Luesebrink, myself, and Mark Sample will present at the January 2012 MLA Annual Convention in Seattle. Our papers could certainly change between now and then, but for now…here is the shape of our panel. [Note: as of January 12, 2012 a copy of my own paper is available here.]


It is remarkable that in just ten years, since the publication of the first book on electronic literature (Loss Glazier’s Digital Poetics in 2001), e-literature has firmly established itself as a thriving field. However, all too often, readings of e-literature (or digital-born writing that makes the most of the capabilities of its medium) take the form of accounts of what appears on the screen, with little attention to the material context of the writing – whether its hardware or software. Or, conversely, such readings point to how e-literature reminds us of Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that the medium is the message. Instead, this panel takes up Katherine Hayles’ injunction for “media-specific analysis” of e-literature by focusing on the defining role of the interface in particular. Our argument is this: personal computers from the 1980s as much as the latest multitouch devices are finally revealing themselves not just as media but as media whose functioning depends on interfaces that frame what can and cannot be written. Further, e-literature often deliberately works against or draws attention to the strictures of digital writing interfaces and so it is an ideal site to explore this tight inter-connection between writing and writing interface. All four presentations, then, try to shift the definition of “interface” outside its conventional usage (in which interface is usually defined quite broadly as the intermediary layer between a user and a digital computer or computer program) and apply it to digital writing/media from the last twenty years to mean the layer between the reader and particular computer platforms which allows the reader to interact with a literary text.

As an example of this approach, Dene Grigar‘s paper opens our panel with a detailed discussion of the exhibit “Early Authors of Electronic Literature: The Eastgate School, Voyager Artists, and Independent Productions” (now installed at the University of Washington). Grigar looks specifically at the major technological shifts in affordances and constraints provided by early computer interfaces and the ways in which e-literature writers from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s worked with and against these interfaces. For example, she discusses the command-line interface of the Apple IIe – which was released in 1983 – as an example of an interface that exemplifies an ideology wholly different from the now dominant Graphic User Interface. Thus, the command-line interface also makes possible entirely different texts and entirely different modes of thinking/creating such as that exemplified by bpNichol’s “First Screening” from 1984.

Stephanie Strickland and Marjorie Luesebrink then offer a co-presentation in which they move the discussion into the 21st century by focusing on works included in the recently published Electronic Literature Collection Volume Two – an online anthology that highlights and preserves exemplary e-literature from 2001 – 2010. This collection features a stunning variety of interface choices in works of animation, generation, augmented reality, gaming, hypertext, AI-based interactive drama, interactive fiction, poetry and video. Strickland and Luesebrink focus in particular on e-literature whose interface requires the reader’s bodily movement as a fundamental component as well as those texts whose reading calls for a knowledge of code as well as a familiarity with network forms such as the database, personal home page, Frequently Asked Questions list, blog, listserv, commercial website, wiki, or email. Thus, while they acknowledge the interface defines what is or can be written, Strickland and Luesebrink demonstrate that the interface also creates the reader.

I, Lori Emerson, will then take a slightly different approach in that I argue recent e-literature by Judd Morrissey and Jason Nelson represents a broad movement in e-literature to draw attention to the move toward the so-called “interface free” – or, the interface that seeks to disappear altogether by becoming as “natural” as possible. It is against this troubling attempt to mask the workings of the interface and how it delimits creative production that Judd Morrissey creates “The Jew’s Daughter” – a work in which readers are invited to click on hyperlinks in the narrative text, links which do not lead anywhere so much as they unpredictably change some portion of the text. Likewise working against the clean and transparent interface of the Web, in “game, game, game and again game,” Jason Nelson’s hybrid poem-videogame self-consciously embraces a hand-drawn, hand-written interface while deliberately undoing videogame conventions through nonsensical mechanisms that ensure players never advance past level 121/2. As such, both Morrissey and Nelson intentionally incorporate interfaces that thwart readers’ access to the text so that they are forced to see how such interfaces are not natural so much as they define what and how we read and write.

Finally, Mark Sample provides a close-reading of one work in particular that in fact takes advantage of the “interface free” multitouch display: released just in the last year, “Strange Rain” is an experiment in digital storytelling for Apple iOS devices (the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad) designed by new media artist Erik Loyer. As dark storm clouds shroud the screen of the iOS device, the player can take advantage of the way in which the multi-touch interface is supposedly “interface-free” – the player can touch and tap its surface, causing what Loyer describes as “twisting columns of rain” to splash down upon the player’s first-person perspective. In the app’s “whispers” and “story” modes “Strange Rain” unites two longstanding tropes of e-literature: the car crash – the most famous occurring in Michael Joyce’s Afternoon (1990); and falling letters – words that descend on the screen or even in large-scale installation pieces such as Camille Utterback and Romy Achituv’s Text Rain (1999). Sample argues “Strange Rain” transcends the familiar tropes of car crashes and falling text, reconfiguring the interface as a means to transform confusion into certainty, and paradoxically, intimacy into alienation. [the full text of Sample’s paper is now available here.]