Digital literature and the Digital
Serge Bouchardon, Professor, University of Technology of Compiegne
Ref.: Bouchardon, S. (2011). « Digital Literature and the Digital », Journal of Writing in
Creative Practice (JWCP), vol.4 n°1, June 2011, London: Intellect Books, 65-78.
In this article, the approach to the Digital is based on the distinction between three levels:
a theoretical level, an applicative level and an interpretative level. Now digital literary
works play on the tensions between the three levels and allow these tensions to be
highlighted. Studying the conjunction of the Digital and of literary creation – by
analysing digital literary works – thus proves to be relevant. Looking into the specific
properties of the Digital can throw light on the potentialities of digital literature; in the
same way, digital literature can act as a revealer for the Digital.
In this article I shall focus on the properties of the Digital in order to highlight the
potentialities of digital literature. The Digital offers a range of technical possibilities,
notably in terms of manipulation (both algorithmic and gestural manipulations). To what
extent can these possibilities modify the conditions and modalities of literary writing?
The idea here is to confront literary creativity with the manipulative possibilities of the
I make the two following hypotheses:
- Looking into the specific properties of the Digital can throw light on the
potentialities of digital literature and even open paths for digital literature.
- In the same way, digital literature can act as a revealer for the Digital.
1 – The three levels of the Digital
I am currently leading a project in France (called PRECIP
1 and funded by the French Picardy region) that studies digital writing practices and the
ways in which digital writing could be taught, notably in secondary schools. In this
project, our approach to the Digital is based on the distinction between three levels: a
theoretical level, an applicative level and an interpretative level.
- level 1: the theoretical possibilities of the Digital
- level 2: the potential of the applications
- level 3: the expressive potential of the contents.
In other words:
- level 1 corresponds to ‘What can be theorized about the Digital?’
- level 2 to ‘What purpose can be served by the applications?’
- level 3 to ‘What can be expressed by the contents?’
The following is a description of these three levels:
1 – Theoretical
On this level, the Digital is defined as a technical device based on discretization2 and
manipulation with formal rules. Relying on sequences of zeros and ones, the Digital is the
manipulation of discrete units deprived of semantics. There is indeed a ‘semantic divide’
(Bachimont 2007): the Digital does not have any proper meaning or interpretation (cf.
Figure 1). This level is plain calculation; it is at this level that one has access to the
universality of calculation and its possibilities.
Figure 1: The Digital’s double divide by Bruno Bachimont.
The properties shown on the theoretical level and that all result from discretisation are
manipulability, abstraction, addressability, integration, perfect duplication and
2 – Applicative
The second level is a formatting of the first level. Applications introduce functionalities
that offer various ways of manipulating and interacting with the digital material. Through
the intended meaningful purposes of these functionalities, semantics is introduced at this
It is relevant to work on the relations between the Digital as such and the applications,
and to study the link between the first two levels, between what is digitally possible and
what is feasible application-wise.
3 - Interpretative
The third level expresses content and calls for interpretation.
This level contains the semiotic form represented for itself, with its own constraints and
its own coherence. Each semiotic form (e.g. text, picture, sound, video) has its own logic,
which may lead to a certain form of inertia – resistance to change. An application always
makes a compromise between the possibilities of the Digital and the inertia of the
The three levels are the levels of the tool, but with different degrees of resistance, of
inertia: inertia of the technique, of the application and of the content.
Each level has its own logic of development and its own constraints:
- The purely formal construction of computing as a combinatory space
- The applicative construction regarding the tasks targeted
- The interpretative construction, which depends on the content’s own coherence
and on its context.
These logics are desynchronized and incompatible a priori. The resulting tensions call for
resolutions, compromises that will be the cornerstone of practices. What makes this
approach relevant is not so much the highlighting of these three levels, but rather the
unveiling of possible interactions and tensions between these three levels.
To sum up, digital writing practices bring into play the technical possibilities of the
Digital (technical level), the applicative potential (applicative level) and the expressive
potential of the contents (interpretative level). Practices result from the tensions between
these three levels.
2 – The three levels and digital literature
Here I make the hypothesis that digital literature plays on the tensions between the three
levels and allows these tensions to be highlighted. Art (and literature in particular) acts as
a telescope of tensions: it provokes them and makes them observable.
I will illustrate these tensions with different examples. The three levels are always
simultaneously present, but each example focuses on a tension between two levels in
1.1. Tension between levels 1 and 2
This tension concerns the relations between the Digital as an abstraction and the
applications. It is a tension between the level of the technical possibilities and the
applicative potential (for an appropriate use).
1.1.1. A very constrained hypertext
Example: Thethingasitis, by Michael Atavar (http://www.atavar.com/)
In Thethingasitis, Michael Atavar proposes an online work in a hypertext form. His work
is a reflexive text about his practice with a computer. In this example, the hyperlink is
reduced to its simplest expression. For every textual fragment, there is always one single
link. The link anchor is based on one letter (and not on a word that could mean
something), always the last letter of the word (arbitrary dimension), activable by rolling
over (no need to click). It is a ‘passage to the limit’ (‘passage à la limite’, Derrida) of
hypertext technology in the sense that it is exploited in its minimal dimension. This
literary and artistic proposal unveils and plays on a tension between the technical
possibilities (any content is addressable) and what is offered on the applicative level (the
last letter of the last word of the fragment acting as a single link, allowing access to the
next fragment only).
Figure 2: Thethingasitis.
1.2. Tension between levels 1 and 3
This tension concerns the link between what is possible technically and possible
1.2.1. A random text/image relation
Example: Grafik Dynamo, by Kate Armstrong and Michael Tippett
Grafik Dynamo is a constantly changing mock graphic novel. It shows three frames that
remind the reader of a comic strip. Narrative fragments are constantly loaded into these
three frames, where they are combined with images taken from the Internet. Every few
seconds, the content of the frame changes. Yet the reader never knows which narrative
fragment or which image is going to change. The order of replacement is so erratic that
the reader cannot anticipate the next change and never knows where to look next.
Marie-Laure Ryan (2010) speaks about ‘ludic dysfunctionality’ and ‘violations of
familiar reading protocols’ concerning this work. Indeed, Grafik Dynamo is a very
subversive work. It undermines the reading principles of printed written material. In
graphic narratives, the pairing of image and text is carefully devised and narratively
meaningful. The result is a coherent story. In Grafik Dynamo, this pairing is haphazard
and inconsistent, and any narrative coherence is pure coincidence. Readability is
undermined. The reader’s traditional reading strategies and expectations are constantly
thwarted. There is no visual unity or semantic coherence between the frames, and the
narration and dialogues are disconnected. Readability is questioned, as the basic principle
of reading from left to right is challenged. The eye follows the transformations as they
occur on the screen, and ‘this results in a parsing of the display that moves randomly in
all directions’ (Ryan 2010).
Figure 3: Grafik Dynamo.
The random dimension is made possible thanks to level 1, the technical level of the
Digital. Level 3, the interpretative level, corresponds to the question: What can be
expressed? In this creation, the reader may experience difficulty in giving meaning to the
random associations of texts and images. However, the readers ‘can treat the random
pairing of text and image as a stimulant for the imagination, by trying to create their own
stories out of individual frames’ (Ryan 2010). The indefinitely renewed tension between
level 1 and level 3 makes this piece interesting and relevant.
1.2.2. Manipulable video sequences
Example: Moments de Jean-Jacques Rousseau, by Jean-Louis Boissier (CD-ROM,
Gallimard Editions, 2000)
The CD-ROM Moments de Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Jean-Louis Boissier features
eighty interactive videos filmed in places where Rousseau3 spent some time. These
‘moments’ are played by actors and transposed to today’s environment. A simple
displacement of the mouse cursor on the screen starts the sequence, shot in subjective
camera (POV or Point Of View shot).
Beyond the hypertext reading of Rousseau's work, the main interest of the CD-ROM lies
in the possibility of having certain moments acted and offered to manipulation. The 80
interactive video sequences come in windows that slide across the screen. They are
panoramic shots, which are partly unveiled as the mouse cursor is moved. The characters’
faces and gestures and the objects’ behaviour vary according to the position of the mouse,
creating short dynamic playlets calling up events from Rousseau’s life (for instance, the
‘cherry idyll’, during which cherries fall into a young girl’s low-cut blouse).
If we look at the files included in the CD-ROM, but not accessible from the interactive
narrative itself, we can see a file entitled ‘A propos’,4 which shows the ‘diagram of an
interactive sequence’ (cf. Figure 4). We understand that all the sequences are based on
the notion of loop, yet also offer an itinerary. Every sequence is a short story that will
only reach its end with the reader’s manipulations. This pairing diagram-image is very
stimulating when the reader decides to view it. However, this diagram was only a
document used during the conception stage and was not meant to be included in the final
work. The reader is only guided by the flux of images. The temporal dimension is here
the decisive factor. So we have very short video loops that constitute a manipulable
sequence. Unlike in a video panoramic, here there is an itinerary and a possible closure,
the building of a mini-narrative.
Figure 4: The diagram of an interactive sequence in Moments de Jean-Jacques
In this example, level 1 is that of manipulability. Level 3, that of content, proposes video
sequences. But a video corresponds to a flux. The standard interpretative form of a video
is to be watched. A video sequence is not easily manipulated without losing its meaning.
We can say that the semiotic video form resists manipulation. All three levels can be
found here; level 2 is that of the assembling of the different video loops. Yet the reader is
hardly aware of level 2.
There is a tension between level 1 and 3 insofar as the reader does not easily understand
why the video (corresponding to a temporal flux) does not always have the same
behaviour. Now for Jean-Louis Boissier, it is the manipulation of the video sequences
that gives them meaning. He refers to them as playable.
1.2.3. A loss of grasp
Example: Loss of Grasp, by Serge Bouchardon and Vincent Volckaert
Loss of Grasp is an online interactive fiction about the notions of grasp and control. Six
scenes feature a character who is losing his grasp on his life. In the fifth scene, I can
interact with my own image captured via a webcam. I manipulate an image of my own
body. But this image itself is being continuously recalculated by the device. The
impression of having a grasp again is just an illusion, which may be experienced as an
even deeper loss of grasp. Usually, manipulating a medium (image, sound, video) is
associated with choice and control. But here this is not the case. Technically, I should be
able to manipulate (level 1), but I have no grasp on my own image (level 3). In Loss of
Grasp, this play on grasp and loss of grasp mirrors the reader's experience of an
interactive digital work.
Figure 5: Loss of Grasp.
1.3. Tension between levels 2 and 3
Here it is a question of playing with the tension between application and content.
1.3.1. A semi-autonomous application
Example: Auto-Illustrator, by Adrian Ward (http://swai.signwave.co.uk/)
Let us take the example of a work that is also an application and that plays on a gap
between application and content. It is more an example of digital art (software art) than
digital literature proper. Auto-Illustrator is a parody and a generative exploration of the
vectorial drawing software Adobe Illustrator. Its creator Adrian Ward defines this
creation as an ‘experimental, semi-autonomous, generative software artwork’.
Figure 6: Auto-Illustrator.
‘We take it for granted that in a graphic program the code listens to our input: if we select
the straight line tool, we do not expect the program to draw an arabesque. Auto-illustrator
breaks this basic contract between the software designer and the user by complicating
(rather than completely severing) the relationship between the movements of the hand
and the behavior of the tools: the program does listen to the position of the cursor, but it
translates it into output through a mysterious algorithm. If you select the freehand pencil
tool, the system draws unpredictable (though rule-governed) graffiti; if you select the text
tool, the system picks the letters and invents nonsense words. The square and the oval
tools do not draw regular geometric shapes, but give you a choice between ‘shabby’ and
‘precise’ shapes, as well as between ‘childish,’ ‘artistic’ and ‘regular’. There is also a bug
tool, which places moving creatures randomly on your screen. They will create art for
you by crawling around and drawing lines’ (Ryan 2010). This creation stages the creative
dimension of the programmer’s activity.
function in relation to a task. In this example, Auto-Illustrator highlights a tension
between levels 2 and 3. What does it mean when the task is not carried out as intended in
1.3.2. An input with fleeting inscription
Example: Anonymes v.1.0 (http://www.anonymes.net/anonymes.html)
The Internet user clicks on the reactive zone made up of the word ‘Anonymes’ and has
access to a first scene. The video of a man getting up from an armchair keeps playing
endlessly. This man obviously refuses to be filmed. Does he want to remain anonymous?
The reader is invited to type his or her name in an input zone. Action is expected from the
reader for the sequence to start. The reader types a letter, but this letter, instead of
remaining in the input zone, drifts away and disappears from the screen. The reader is
likely to type a letter again, to verify whether the result will be the same. The second
letter also drifts away. By now, the reader is bound to type several letters faster to watch
them scatter. The resulting effect is close to certain kinetic poems (letters on the move,
drifting around on the screen and drawn to each other), but here the data are introduced
by the user him or herself.
Figure 7: Anonymes.net
On the applicative level, the Internet user can type letters in an input zone. But this
keyboard input does not result in a lasting inscription. The reader introduces data (level
2) that drifts away (level 3). The meaning of the scene (the letters of the name that
inevitably drift off the screen) is to be related to the title of the whole work, Anonymous.
The impossibility of engraving one’s name echoes the video (a man wants to leave to be
out of shot). This is a never-ending scene: the reader remains anonymous forever. The
power of this scene is based on the tension between level 2 and level 3.
Digital literature can reveal the tensions between the different levels of the Digital.
Emphasizing these tensions and the ways of giving them meaning throws light on the
The tensions unveiled can be the cornerstone of an educational programme for the
teaching of digital writing. Since these tensions are best highlighted in digital literature
and digital art, studying such works at school is particularly appropriate (this is part of the
In the same way, this three-level approach, which emphasizes the ‘technological trends’
(Leroi-Gourhan 1993) of the Digital, can open paths for digital literature.
Bachimont, B. (2007), Ingénierie des connaissances et des contenus. Le numérique entre
ontologies et documents (Engineering of knowledge and contents. The Digital between
ontologies and documents), Paris: Hermes.
Bouchardon, S. (2008), The Rhetoric of Interactive Art works, DIMEA 2008 Conference,
10th-12th September 2008, Athens, Greece, ACM Proceeding Series vol. 349,
D=10169068&CFTOKEN=68698915. Accessed 28 January 2011.
Hayles, N. K. (2008), Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary, Notre Dame,
Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press.
Leroi-Gourhan, A. (1993), Gesture and Speech, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London:
Ryan, M.-L. (2010), Between Play and Politics: Dysfunctionality in Digital Art,
Electronic Book Review, Boulder: University of Colorado,
http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/imagenarrative/diegetic. Accessed 28
Serge Bouchardon graduated in Literature from the Sorbonne University (France). After
working as a project manager in the educational software industry for six years, he wrote
his dissertation on interactive literary narrative, and he is currently Associate Professor in
Communication Sciences at the University of Technology of Compiegne (France).
His research focuses on digital creation, in particular electronic literature.
As an author, he is interested in the unveiling of interactivity.
Postal address: 40 rue de Clamart - 60200 Compiègne - France
1 PRECIP stands for PRatiques d’ECriture Interactive en Picardie
2 In a logico-mathematical sense, a discrete system is a system composed of primitive
independent signs that can be distinguished through a systematic mechanical procedure.
3 Jean-Jacques Rousseau is a French writer of the eighteenth century. His work
Confessions (published in 1782) initiated the modern autobiography.
4 In the « visuels » folder, « Documents interactifs » sub-folder, « A propos.exe » file.