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Bouchardon, S., Heckman, D. (2012). «Digital Manipulability and Digital Literature», Electronic Book Review, août 2012


Abstract and Figures

Serge Bouchardon and Davin Heckman put the digit back into the digital by emphasizing touch and manipulation as basic to in digital literature. The digital literary work unites figure, grasp, and memory. Bouchardon and Heckman show that digital literature employs a rhetoric of grasping. It figures interaction and cognition through touch and manipulation. For Bouchardon and Heckman, figure and grasp lead to problems of memory - how do we archive touch and manipulation? - requiring renewed efforts on the part of digital literary writers and scholars.
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Digital Manipulability and Digital Literature
Serge Bouchardon
Davin Heckman
Serge Bouchardon graduated in literature from La Sorbonne University (Paris, France). After working
as a project manager in the educational software industry for six years, he wrote his dissertation on
interactive literary narrative and is currently Associate Professor in Communication Sciences at the
University of Technology of Compiegne (France). His research focuses on digital creation, in particular
digital literature.
Latest book published: “Littérature numérique: le récit interactif”, Hermes Science Publishing, Paris,
The Digital offers a range of technical possibilities, notably in terms of manipulation (both algorithmic
and gestural manipulations). These manipulative possibilities can modify the modalities of literary
writing. Studying the conjunction of the Digital and of the Literary - by analyzing digital literary works -
proves to be relevant on an epistemological level. The tension between digital manipulability and
literary creation allows indeed several notions to be refined, expanded or transformed. This is the case
for the notions of figure in rhetorics, grasp in anthropology and memory in archivistics. This revaluation
of key notions in certain scientific disciplines gives digital literature a heuristic value.
Digital literature, manipulation, figure, grasp, memory, heuristic value.
On a theoretical level, the Digital is based on the manipulation of discrete units with formal rules
[Bachimont, 1997]. On an applicative level, interactive works are based on the gestural manipulations
of semiotic forms (text, image, sound, video) by the reader. Both types of manipulations mentioned
above are related. Manipulation is indeed the essence of the Digital. In terms of manipulation, the
Digital offers a range of technical possibilities. To what extent can these possibilities affect the
conditions and modalities of literary writing? The idea here is to confront literary creativity with the
manipulative possibilities of the Digital. To what extent can digital literary writing, in turn, affect the
broader analytic landscape? The idea here is to open calculate language to creative possibility, and
thus explore its liberatory political potential.
There seems to be a mutual incompatibility between the Digital and the Literary. Whereas literary
expression (and artistic expression more largely speaking) mobilizes a material and gives it meaning,
the Digital has to discard the meaning of writing in order to make it calculable and manipulable, as the
history of the Digital shows. Despite this significant difference, authors have been creating literary
works on computers for over thirty years. These works are sometimes called digital literature, or
electronic literature, e-literature, cyberliterature. A work of digital literature is a piece created with a
computer and meant to be performed on a computer [Hayles 2008, 1-42]. A distinction ought to be
made between digitized works and digital works. A digitized work is a work conceived for another
medium (the printed medium for example), but made accessible on a digital medium. A digital work is
a work specifically created for the computer and the digital medium and it exploits some of their
characteristics: hypertext technology, multimedia, interactivity. There is a great diversity amongst
works of digital literature: hypermedia, kinetic, generative, collective pieces…
The mutual resistance between the Digital and the Literary, which first creates a tension, is at the
same time that which invests it with potential: on an aesthetic level of course, but also on an
epistemological one. As a matter of fact, the tension between digital manipulability and literary creation
leads us to reexamine certain notions, chief among them are the logocentrism which has crept into
contemporary understandings of representation (as exemplified by the rise of religious fundamentalism
under late capitalism) and the hyperelativism which fractures binding social consensus (as exemplified
by the decline of the public across the same period).
In this paper, we will focus on three notions in particular which are revalued and reconfigured by the
relationship between digital manipulation and literary writing: the notions of figure, of grasp and of
memory. These notions intervene on the three complementary levels of a digital literary work: the
figure concerns the manipulation of a semiotic form, the grasp involves the manipulation of the
interface, the memory concerns the manipulation of the whole creation for preservation purposes. As
poiesis is defined against instrumental language, so digital literature prompts an understanding of
expressive “language” and its trifold relation to subjectivity. As a heuristic, digital literature provides
insights into an understanding of language within interpersonal persuasion (rhetoric via figure), shared
systems of meaning (anthropology via grasp), and the technical system (archivistics via memory). In
the schematic of individuation developed by Bernard Stiegler, individuation is accomplished through a
triple process: the individual (or psychic), the social (or collective), and the technical (or techno-
Stiegler explains, “The I, as a psychic individual, can only be thought of in relationship to a we, which
is a collective individual: the I is constituted in adopting a collective tradition, which it inherits, and in
which a plurality of Is acknowledge each other’s existence” [Stiegler, 2009]. Thus, the formation of
subjectivity is an interplay of different processes informing identity. The individual experiences him or
herself in the context of others. The collective experiences itself as a group of individuals that can be
offset from other groups. A conventional understanding of the process would dictate that our identity
is produced by our capacity to identify with those groups to which we belong and our ability to
contribute as individuals to those groups in a recognizable way. To this dual process, Stiegler adds the
question of how individual and collective identifications are recorded and replayed, producing both the
capacity for cultural “inheritance” and possibility of inscription (ie. capable of decision, entering into
epiphylogenesis, developing a temporal consciousness).i
Just as print literature opened up the analytic advantages of print to creative intervention and
reflection, so digital literature opens up the augmented analytic capacity of the computer age, and in
doing so allows us to reexamine the characteristics of signification more broadly. Digital literature is
the heuristic by which the human is experienced against the backdrop of an instrumental, logocentric
1. Digital manipulability
On a theoretical level, the Digital is defined as a technical device based on discretization 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 doesn’t 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.
By nature, a text on a digital medium is thus the result of calculation. A digital text is made up of two
types of texts: a text as a code and a text displayed on screen. I am referring here to Bruno
Bachimont’s [Bachimont 2007, 23-42] distinction between recording form (“forme d’enregistrement”)
and restitution form (“forme de restitution”). In a book, the recording form (the printed text) and the
restitution form are identical, whereas they are distinct on a digital medium. On this medium, the
source code is not what the user sees on the screen: for one form of recording, several forms of
restitution are possible because of the mediation of calculation. This distinction is close to the
distinction between “scripton” and “texton” by Espen Aarseth [Aarseth 1997, 62]: Aarseth indeed
coined these terms to distinguish between underlying code and screen display.
Though the recording form and the restitution form of print are indistinct, one can perceive a relative
desire for manipulability at the level of the codex, the verse, the word, and the letter. While it is critical
to note the integral role of computation in the restitution of the digital text, it is difficult to dispute the
embedded ideal of analytical manipulation present, for instance, in this relatively conventional
scholarly format. Citations and references, arranged and controlled, performing the work of analysis in
a manner that aspires towards its hypothetical restitution in the minds of others. And it would, perhaps,
be a mistake to overlook the function of this ideal in the theory of a “clockwork universe,” the scientific
method, the scriptural focus of the Protestant Reformation, and the general spirit of the Enlightenment.
In each case, the hope is for practice of rendering and calculation that is immune to the capriciousness
of the human observer, and instead reliant on a habituated form of reading and rational thought that
can be externalized and re-membered.
As an interesting digression, the early work of literary scholarship was primarily geared towards a kind
of bibliography, history, and translation, with the emphasis placed on correcting and preserving the
record. What we understand as literature today was an insurgent exploitation of the analytic liabilities
of print media, an entertaining distraction of the emerging middle class, a prototypical form of hacking
and gaming that had found its moment of opportunity between the priorities of Enlightenment
humanism and Protestant faith. It is only later that literary art becomes important from an expressive,
interpretive, and cultural perspective, that literary scholars were able to successfully incorporate many
of the features literature had initially resisted (stasis, linearity, clarity, universality, and, eventually,
under the New Critics, Truth) into its central value. Literature’s place is that of a niche organism,
between the feeling and reason, and thus the medium of archived speech lends itself to both
passionate assertions of belief and falsifiable demonstrations of reason, both considered species of
truth with ontological implications. On the line is the long term accountability of the subject.
Today, literature is held up against digital culture for its ability to habituate readers into linear thought,
reasoned discourse, and deep concentration. And, of course, as textual writing, it is often very good at
these things. But what is often lacking from this understanding is the critical context as a form which
exposes the limitations of its proto-digital ancestor (ie. The word as Truth). In a world where heavy
analytical tasks are performed by computers and policy decisions are removed democratic process,
such a context is increasingly meaningless. Without the lively explorations of the limits of inscription
and their competing priorities for truth, faith becomes fickle and facts become flexible. In other words,
the basic processes that literature mediates become deprived of their foundations as an affective
force. The strongest evidence of this shifting foundation is, perhaps, the preponderance of conspiracy
theories, within articulations of faith and reason, as all-consuming, teleological truths so true they must
not represented—Speculative “non-fictions” predicated on the idea that, to quote the X-Files slogan,
“The Truth is Out There.” But it tends not to be held, but to be discovered. Truth tends not to be linear
and centralized, but distributed within the unofficial and official records. It tends not to be directly
represented, but symbolized through occult references. Thus the plain-spoken democratic spirituality
and the egalitarian discourse of rational thought are replaced with calculated interpretations of
modular texts.
Still, calculation is always present between a recording form and a restitution form. That we forget this
is a convenient nostalgia that reifies both the “chaotic” complexity that the machine can comprehend
and the “stable” simplicity of a bygone era. Between these two extremes, we lose sight of the human
capacity to modify and adapt to conditions, to act. While the raison d’être of paper documents is that
they make the graphic and spatial representation of information possible [Goody 1977, 140-196], the
raison d’être of digital documents is that they make calculation on these documents possible. As a
matter of fact, it is because calculation allows inscriptions to be manipulated that the reader can be
given the possibility to manipulate inscriptions. Thus the essence of the digital could be manipulability
[Ghitalla & Boullier 2004, 19-125]. The digital text is as much a manipulable text as a readable text,
and for this reason, the reader’s reception of a text may have to be revalued.
2. Figures of gestural manipulation
Literary and artistic digital creations often rely on gestural manipulations from the reader (for instance
to activate a link, to move an element on screen, to enter text with the keyboard). In an interactive
work, the gesture acquires a particular role, and fully contributes to the construction of meaning. Y.
Jeanneret reminds us that turning a page « doesn’t involve any particular interpretation of the text »
[Jeanneret 2000, 113]; on the contrary, in an interactive work, « clicking on a hyperword or an icon is
itself an interpretative act. The interactive gesture is primarily the actualization of an interpretation
through a gesture ». To what extent can these gestural manipulations contribute to the constitution of
rhetorical figures ?
Since Antiquity, the figures have made up a significant part of rhetoric, even though rhetoric should not
be reduced to rhetorical figures. Figures are generally divided into four main categories: diction (e.g.
anagram and alliteration), construction (e.g. chiasmus and anacoluthon), meaning (tropes, e.g.
metaphor and metonymy) and thought (e.g. hyperbole and irony). The rhetorical figure is traditionally
defined as a “reasoned change of meaning or of language vis-a-vis the ordinary and simple manner of
expressing oneself”ii.
In computing contexts, our understanding of the figural is influenced the divergence between the
restituted figure and its recorded form as code. In the context of programming ontology, this means
that objects are defined as discrete entities within the program framework. Following the arguments of
the Object Oriented Ontologists, the concept of the “figure” is no longer a “figure of speech,” rather
such figures are individuated precisely through their objective existence. As Levi Bryant explains, “To
be is a simple binary, isofar as something either is or is not. If something makes a difference then it is,
full stop. And there is no being to which all other beings are necessarily related” [Bryant 2011, 268].
This flat understanding of being, without recourse to its collapse, deconstruction, or migration, is more
than merely rhetorical in the context of the digital, as the chief function of the digital is, following
Manovich’s identification of the database as the defining metaphor, powered by its ability to define and
manipulate discrete objects. However, the functional ideal of the modular component has always had
a home in machinic contexts and in the imagination. Predictably, this modularity has also been
anticipated by a host of rhetorical manipulations that undermine the discrete character of the modular
through literary practice.
Interactive and multimedia writing calls upon certain existing figures, such as the metaphor and the
metonymy. For instance, Stuart Moulthrop [Moulthrop 1991, 119-132] and Jean Clément [Clément
1994] highlighted the way in which certain figures could be reinvested in hypertextual writing. Thus
Jean Clément reckons that, because a hypertextual fragment can be understood differently depending
on the reader’s journey, it calls into play the concept of metaphor [Clément 1995].
Yet the figure can function somehow differently in digital literary works. In a previous paper
[Bouchardon 2002, 65-86] on the digital fiction NON-romaniii, Bouchardon showed how hypertextual
navigation materializes certain rhetorical figures. In this work, the materialization of figures is rendered
through the creative use of frames and windows. Bouchardon analyzed several examples including
synecdoche. The synecdoche is a figure where a part of something is used to refer to the whole thing.
In NON-roman, when the reader clicks on the link “Apt. 3rd floor”, he/she triggers a materialization of
the synecdoche. Indeed as he/she clicks, a window appears on the screen, offering a tour of the whole
apartment (figure 2). The rhetorical figure is paired with the material space and architecture of the
Figure 2. Non-roman (1997).
Besides, in digital works, the reader has to make an action (roll over, drag and drop, type letters). This
manipulation of media (text, image, video) contributes to the construction of meaning. For instance,
very often, when a reactive zone is moused over, a text or a picture appears. It disappears as soon as
the cursor leaves the reactive zone. This appearance/disappearance effect is here the result of the
user’s action. It is exploited in many digital works. However it only becomes a figure when it provides
another realm of possibility for a text, a picture, a video, giving the impression that there is depth lying
under the digital surface, depth that can be explored [Bouchardon 2008]. The appearance
/disappearance figure can unveil the other side of things (a hidden reality). It can also suggest
semantic depth, a double meaning, that objective rendering can collapse into depth and polysemy.
Therefore, we can identify rhetorical figures specific to interactive writing: figures of manipulation
(meaning gestural manipulation). It is a category on its own, along with figures of diction, construction,
meaning and thought. The figures of manipulation are based on the user’s interaction with the
interface. Let us take an example. Anonymesiv is an online creation in French (figure 3). In the first
scene, the reader is asked for his/her name, but the letters keyed in do not stay in the text area and fly
away. Like the man who appears in the video loop in the background and who avoids the camera, the
reader will always remain anonymous. It is a figure insofar as there is a discrepancy between the
reader’s expectations and the result of the manipulation. Thus, such works highlight the potential
estrangement between the aggressively asserted agency promised by the digital and the limitations of
the ontological constraints they impose upon the domain of meaning to secure their smooth function.
Figure 3. Anonymes (2003).
The expression "rhetoric of manipulation" [Bouchardon 2008] seems adequate to define interactive
writing. Interactive writing is based on figures of manipulation (meaning gestural manipulation), rather
than on figures of meaning like tropes. Examples of digital literature show us that the notion of figure
can take into account the gesture of the reader. It may modify our approach to the notion of figure in
3. From control to loss of grasp
As seen previously, the figures of manipulation are based on the control of certain elements by the
user. In The Language of New Media [Manovich 2001, 62-115], Lev Manovich analyses the influence
pre-existing cultural traditions (the printed word, the cinema and the human-computer interface) play
on digital language (and on what he calls “cultural interfaces”). While the audiovisual (cinema) tradition
refers to a way of controlling the flux, the human-computer interface (the control panel) refers to the
idea of control by the user. Likewise, in software ergonomics, we can find complementarity between
"guidance" and "explicit control" [Bastien & Scapin 1993].
Control of the user and control by the user are not only intimately linked, but their inter-relations seem
to be a specific mode of writing in digital works. Their constant co-presence results in a tension that
produces interactivity. However, this very idea of tension is an answer to one question only: who/what
manipulates? The user or the technical system? This level is that of a classical human-machine
interface approach. In fact, even this question remains within an ergonomic approach while one
should also consider an anthropological one. So the question is to know how the world of the user (or
the supposed worlds of the user) is or is not taken into account. Francis Chateauraynaud
[Chateauraynaud 1995, 236-253] suggests a model of "grasp”. According to the author, one summons
two kinds of elements to have a grasp on one’s environment: elements based on conventions and
material elements to be found in the immediate environment. These dual elements characterize the
concept of grasp. Grasp emerges from the meeting between markers (points of reference which
depend on conventions), and habits (which are localized practices). Giving control to the user does not
necessarily entail giving him grasp in a traditional anthropological meaning: the user doesn’t always
have the frame necessary for the grasp.
At that point one sees two positions for the user :
- in control / under control ;
- with grasp / without grasp.
Conversely, the user can have less control and paradoxically more grasp. Instead of thinking in terms
of the user being in or under control, one should think of the user having or not having grasp. Or rather
it is a question of identifying the various possible combinations. Indeed, the user can be in control and
either with or without grasp, just as the user can be under control and either with or without grasp.
In contrast to the discrete, objective interest of the figurative, grasp presents a subject-object
orientation to our understanding of the digital. Where the figural tends to struggle with subjectivity in
discrete, objective, individual terms, grasp defines subjectivity as relation. The most basic
understanding of this is in the material elements of grasp: ie.The user is the one who manipulates the
tool. This is the foundation of subject-object relations and informs our understanding of prosthesis. A
more loaded question becomes the conventional elements of grasp, specifically as expressed through
the politics of access and influence: ie. What is a tool and who uses it? It is along these lines that
control and grasp are synchronous or divergent. What forms the subjectivity in these situations is no
longer the empirical status of the figure, instead it is the place of this figure within a network of activity.
For instance, on the web, full screen display and disactivation of the browser’s functionalities is an
example of control by the system and of loss of grasp for the user. The user loses the points of
reference of the browser’s interface.
Now, preselected temporalityv, which is a form of control by the system, is also a possible grasp for the
user. Indeed, the user finds himself/herself in a frame which he/she is accustomed to, that of the time
flux to be found in audio-visual type works. This is the case in the cinetic works – often developed with
the Flash software – which are played without any interaction opportunity for the user. For instance, in
My Google Bodyvi, a human body is represented through pictures corresponding to the various parts of
the body, these pictures being renewed at regular intervals. The program displays the results of the
requests made automatically to Google Images concerning the word « head », « body », « arm »,
« hand », « leg » and « foot ». This work shows a graphic body in continuous and regular evolution.
Figure 4. My Google Body, by Gérard Dalmon (2004).
Just as interactive works rely on this constant play between a controlling and a controlled approach,
they also rely on grasp and loss of grasp. The idea is to get the user involved and to destabilize
him/her, so that he/she might possibly enjoy becoming disoriented and playing with the work.
Thus, very often, the play between grasp and loss of grasp is the basis of literary interactive works.
Ceremony of innocencevii is a work made up of a succession of postcards from a painter and one of
his admirers. Each postcard is an enigma that the user has to solve by doing certain things in a
predefined order. Let us take the example of the first postcard (cf. figure 5): after a while, the bird
shown on the picture eats the cursor of the mouse. Immediately, the cursor disappears from the
screen. At that point, one may think that the user is totally under control, since he/she cannot use the
mouse in the way he/she is used to. Yet, moving the mouse (whose cursor is invisible on the screen)
still has an impact on the elements of the postcard. The functionality of the mouse is in fact not
disactivated. One can observe a play with the loss of grasp. By losing the cursor of the mouse, the
user has also lost the grasp which is a point of reference for him/her. Yet the user can now achieve the
task expected from him/her. The card turns round finally and the text is read by the character who
wrote the message.
Figure 5. Ceremony of innocence’s first postcard (1997).
As in Ceremony of innocence, numerous works exploit this strategy of the loss of grasp. Figures of
manipulation could be expected to give more control to the user, but in many digital literary works, the
artists use these very figures to introduce a loss of grasp. When manipulating, the user finds
himself/herself being manipulated by the author. This play on the loss of grasp invites the user to have
a reflexive attitude towards his/her interactive practice. The rhetoric of interactive writing is an
invitation to interact differently, to have another apprehension of interactivity. In digital literary works,
interactivity doesn’t consist in giving more or less control to the reader, but more or less grasp. The
focus on these works shows that the anthropological notion of grasp is valuable to analyze and
understand interactive manipulations.
4. From stored memory to reinvented memory
The tension between digital manipulability and literary creative practice led us to reexamine the
notions of figure or grasp. This tension also questions the notion of memory in archivistics, the
technical occasion of subjective formation. With regards to the trifold model of identity formation
offered in the introduction, the question of memory takes on a special significance with regards to what
Stiegler refers to as “tertiary memory,” or the various techniques and technologies for storage and
transmission. As Stiegler notes, there is a tendency to overlook the technical aspect of human
existence, creating a false equivalence between the computer memory and the human brain, when the
more apt comparison digital storage ought best be understood within the context of tertiary retentions.
Stiegler explains,
For 15 years now I have taken pains to show that given the fact that the computer has not
been analysed or even seen as a technical prosthesis by cognitivist theory, which, in a
diametrically opposed view, refers to Turing in order to define it metaphysically as an “abstract
machine,” what has in fact been neglected and repressed by cognitivism, as well as by
philosophy as a whole, going back to Plato’s first gesture of thought, is the place of technics in
general in life, technics as the condition of life that knows… The brain is not an abstract
machine, on the one hand because “abstract machines” do not exist, and on the other,
because this organ is in no respect a machine: a machine is not a living organism, and therein
lies its force. The brain is a living memory—that is to say a fallible memory, in a permanent
process of destruction, constantly under the sway of what I call retentional finitude. This
biological living memory is, however, only one memory among others: particularly alive, it is
nevertheless nothing outside its inert memories—i.e., its technical memories: the essential
point being the relation between what is living in the brain and what is dead in its technics qua
memories. [Stiegler 2009]
Indeed preserving a whole digital creation means preserving the ability to manipulate it, not simply for
the sake of storing data, but in order to reinvent it, to read it.
The archiving and preservation of digital data appear particularly crucial in the field of digital literature.
The preservation of works of digital literature leads to a real theoretical and practical problem. A digital
literary work is indeed not an object, but in most cases it is not either a simple event limited in time,
like a performance or a digital installation. In fact, it partakes of both aspects: it is a transmittable
object but also fundamentally a process that can only exist in an actualisation.
Some authors consider that their works – notably online works – are not meant to last forever. They
consider that their works bear their own disappearance within themselves. Their lability is part of the
artistic project. This claim can be made a posteriori, as in the case of Talan Memmott and his Lexia to
Perplexiaviii. But the majority of the works do not claim to adhere to this aesthetics of dereliction or
disappearance. What should be preserved in such digital literary works? The mere preservation of the
original file seems insufficient to preserve the work. Especially so if the work is generative or
interactive. In this case, the file is not the work as it is not what the reader perceives. Not to mention
that online works sometimes rely on readers’ contributions: they grow thanks to the internet users’
contributions and are in a process of constant evolution.
In this way, digital literature as print literature did before, opens up the analytic pretensions of
contemporary writing technologies to reflection and scrutiny. Here, the ideal of the perfect thinking
machine as the abstract and infinite retention machine is challenged by pleasure of works that we can
change individually or socially.
All the same, however, these works are not necessarily doomed to be lost to history. That the readings
they inspire would activate audiences to preserve these works mirrors the archival efforts of libraries
past. Though the possibility of automated duplication of everything is real and increasingly likely, within
this sea of everything, the human process of reading and archiving is still active, though not
necessarily so limited by material accident as print archives are with regards to shelf space, budgets,
staff, and patronage. Instead, the questions of preservation and archiving revolve around
programming, compatibility, bibliography, and interest. To meet the needs of such an inventory of
works, the NT2 laboratory (New Technologies New Textualities, UQAM University in Montreal)
constituted an online “directory of hypermediatic literature and arts”ix. The Electronic Literature
Organizationx also wishes to emphasize an editorial and reviewing activity. The ELO website indeed
provides the reader with a directory (Electronic Literature Directory) selected by an “editorial
collective”. ELMCIP has implemented the Knowledge Base, which documents individual works within
the larger field of practice, and includes data regarding exhibitions, publications, events, courses,
institutions, conferences. These three directories (in the context of an emerging network that includes
Hermeneia, Po.ex, Media Upheavals, Brown Digital Repository, Creative Nation, and electronic book
review) tend to contextualise the works by offering a critical documentation, but do not aim at
preserving themxi.
When dealing with the preservation of digital works, one must take into consideration the fact that
digitalization does not preserve the content, but the resources and tools used to rebuild the content.
Content is only accessible through the functionalities of the tools. The first consequence is that
interpretation is conditioned by access tools. The second consequence is that reconstruction is
variable. One can observe a proliferation of variants. Numerous versions of a similar content are to be
found. Therefore, the questions which must be asked are: what makes the identity of a content? What
makes some versions acceptable? What permits to differentiate a variant from the original? Maria
Engberg [Engberg, 2005] bore such questions in mind when she analyzed the various versions of
RiverIslandxii by John Cayley.
Jim Andrew’s initiative on the webxiii to preserve the digital poem First Screening by bpNichol (1984)
combines several strategies. Thus Jim Andrews proposes:
- the original computer program coded with Hypercard;
- the emulator of the original machine which permits to run the program today (emulation);
- a rewriting of the program in javascript to play the work on today’s machines without resorting to an
emulator (migration);
- a rendering of what was seen on the screen at the time through the use of a video (simulation of the
Figure 6. Online preservation of « First screening ».
By proposing these complementary approaches, Jim Andrews claims that “the destiny of digital writing
usually remains the responsibility of the digital writers themselves.”xiv The authors themselves have to
organize the strategies of preservation of the works. It could be relevant to notice the number of
authors who, in a perspective of preservation, reinvent one of their creations several years later. This
is the case in Tramwayxv, an online creation by Alexandra Saemmer. The first version, in 2000, has
just been reinvented by its author, taking into account and poetizing the evolution of formats and
These practices lead to another model of archiving but also of memory. The conservation is not a
preservation of the physical integrity of the content, but a permanent reinvention of the content based
on the preserved elements. The issue is to preserve an identity of the content through the
transformation of its resource and the variability of its reinvented renderings. What digital literature
teaches us is that preservation should adopt an organic vision of memory, that is a vision in which the
content has to evolve, change, adapt to be maintained and preserved.
Regarding preservation, the digital age is undoubtedly the most fragile and complex context in the
history of humanity. The added-value of digital technology is thus not where one expects. The digital
medium is not a natural preservation medium, but is on the contrary hell for preservation. But digital
technology makes us enter another universe which is a universe of reinvented and not stored memory.
From an anthropological point of view, this model of memory is more valuable and more authentic than
the model of print media which is a memory of storage (the book that one stores on a bookshelf just
like the memory that one would store in a case of one’s brain) and the popular conception of the brain
as computer. Indeed, cognitive sciences teach us that memory does not function on the model of
storage. From this point of view, digital literature can be regarded as a good laboratory to address
digital preservation: it makes it possible to raise the good questions and it presents the digital age as a
move from a model of stored memory to a model of reinvented memory.
It is relevant to analyze the conjunction of the digital manipulative possibilities and of the modalities of
literary expression. The tension between the Digital and the Literary not only permits previous media
to be reexamined (paper for instance), but it also allows several well-established notions to be
revalued, i.e. to be refined (figure), expanded (grasp) or transformed (memory). This is what could be
called the heuristic value of digital literature.
Exploiting the heuristic value of digital literature has two consequences:
- a revaluation of key notions in certain scientific disciplines (besides the notion of figure in
rhetorics, grasp in anthropology, memory in archivistics, we could mention narrative in
narratology, text in linguistics and semiotics, materiality in aesthetics, literariness in literary
studies... [Bouchardon, 2009]);
- a revealing effect regarding digital writing.
Although the Digital offers a realm of possibility to literary creation, it also presents difficulties in terms
of writing and reading, notably on three levels: intersemiotisation of media (the cobuilding of meaning
by various media - text, image, sound and video – is more difficult to grasp), hypertext reading
(hypertextual navigation contributes to disorientation and compromises the reading) and author/reader
dialectics (interactive contents renegociate the roles of the author and the reader via the availability of
reading and writing tools). Digital literary works play with these difficulties and thrive on these stakes.
They emphasize the tensions and throw light on the digital writing practices. In this sense, digital
literature can act as a revealer for digital writing.
Works cited
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Bouchardon 2002
Bouchardon Serge, “Hypertexte et art de l'ellipse”, in Les Cahiers du numérique, La navigation, vol. 3,
p.65-86, Hermes Science Publishing, Paris, 2002.
Bouchardon 2008
Bouchardon Serge, “The rhetoric of interactive art works”, DIMEA 2008 Conference, ACM Proceeding
Series Vol.349, 2008.
Bouchardon 2009
Bouchardon Serge, “Littérature numérique: le récit interactif”, Hermes Science Publishing, Paris, 2009.
Bryant 2011
Bryant, Levi R., “The Ontic Principle: Outline of an Object-Oriented Ontology, in The Speculative
Turn, edited by Levi Bryant, et al., re-press, Melbourne, 2011. 261-78.
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perception, Editions Anne-Marie Métailié, Paris,1995.
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Clément Jean, “Afternoon, a story, du narratif au poétique dans l'œuvre hypertextuelle”, in
Clément 1995
Clément Jean, “L’hypertexte de fiction, naissance d’un nouveau genre ?”, in Vuillemin Alain et Lenoble
Michel (eds.), Littérature et informatique: la littérature générée par ordinateur, Artois Presses
Université, Arras, 1995.
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Engberg, Maria, “Stepping Into the River - Experiencing John Cayley's RiverIsland”, 2005.
Ghitalla & Boullier 2004
Ghitalla Franck and Boullier Dominique, L’Outre-lecture, Editions Georges Pompidou, Paris, 2004.
Goody 1977
Goody Jack, The Domestication of the Savage Mind, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1977.
Hayles 2008
Hayles Katherine, Digital literature: New Horizons for the Literary, University of Notre Dame, Indiana,
Jeanneret 2000
Jeanneret Yves, Y a-t-il vraiment des technologies de l’information ?, Editions universitaires du
Septentrion, 2000.
Manovich 2001
Manovich Lev, The Language of New Media, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2001.
Moulthrop 19991
Moulthrop Stuart, “Reading for the Map: Metonymy and Metaphor in the Fiction of Forking Paths”, in
Hypermedia and Literary Studies, Paul Delany and George Landow (éd.), p.119-132, 1991.
Stiegler 2009
Stiegler Bernard, “Desire and Knowledge: The Dead Seize the Living”, translated by George Collins
and Daniel Ross, Ars Industrialis, 2009.
i Another way to think of this interplay of societies, individuals, and technics is to think of the various
words with their root in the Latin legare, which gives us “legend,” “legacy,” “legitimate,” “legal,”
“delegate,” “legible,” “legislate,” etc. The root word and its offspring reveal the relationship of the
individual and the collective engaged in hominization.
ii Quintilian, De institutione oratoria, IX, 1, 11-13.
iii Boutiny Lucie (de), NON-roman, 1997-2000,
iv, 2001,
v Let us compare the various ways of playing the time according to the media. The audiovisual media
are very controlling : the duration of a film coincides with the viewer’s flow of consciousness. On the
contrary, the printed text is far less controlling : readers read texts at their own pace. With the digital
medium, no preset pace is imposed to the user : the pace depends on the degree of interactivity
present in the work. The user is alternatively controlling or controlled.
vi Dalmon Gérard, My google body, 2004,
vii Mayhew Alex, Ceremony of innocence, CD-Rom, Real World et Ubisoft, 1997.
ix This directory in French identifies and indexes the artistic and literary experiments on the Web, in
order to describe them and to encourage their study:
xi However, the ELO Preservation, Archiving, and Dissemination (PAD) project materialized in two
DVDs, Electronic Literature Collection volume 1 and 2. The ELD has an on-going agreement with (a partnership between the Internet Archive and the Library of Congress) to archive a
selection of key works. ELMCIP has announced the development of its own anthology of European
Electronic Literature.
xii Cayley John, RiverIsland,
xiv Ibid.
xv Saemmer Alexandra, Tramway, 2003-2009,
... Within the overarching theoretical framework of narratology, the base for examination of the creative artefacts for meaning-making lies in Hayles's (2002) media-specific analysis (MSA), which facilitates analysis of the materiality of the multimodal texts, and how that materiality shapes the resulting narrative. This MSA includes semiotic analysis of visual grammar and design (Kress and van Leeuwen, 2006), of hyperstructures such as navigation and interactivity (Bouchardon and Heckman, 2012;Ryan, 2006) and of source code (Marino, 2006;Montfort, 2003Montfort, , 2011. This approach is applicable not only to a digital work as displayed, in order to examine the effects of digital media upon the works themselves, but also source code, in order to discuss aspects of process and composition. ...
Conference Paper
Full-text available
The materiality of fiction narratives is, ironically, a rather intangible concept, particularly as the notion of materiality traditionally relates to specifically tangible tools of creation — such as the painter’s brush or the sculptor’s clay. The materiality of digital artifacts lies only superficially in the haptic hardware of screens, keyboards, and mice; the materiality of modes, navigation, and interaction must also be explored for their effects on metaphor and meaning. Bouchardon & Heckman identify three levels of materiality in digital literary works: the figure of a semiotic form, the grasp required to physically interact with the work, and the memory of the work — its whole compiled from the parts of code, hardware, and user/reader experience that form meaning (2012, n.p.). In presenting her theory of the technotext, however, Katherine Hayles argues that it is the conjunction of the physical embodiment of technotexts (whether semi-tangible in digital form, or as fully physical as a book) with their embedded verbal signifiers that constructs both plurimodal meaning and an implicit construct of the user/reader (2002, 130-1). This paper seeks to examine the dynamic on the other side of technotexts: that of the creator and the text. Specifically, this paper examines how the materiality of digital media contributes to a layered metaphor that delivers meaning, reflects on the cognitive processes (the writer's and the reader's) of navigation, and generates a dynamic narrative structure through user interaction. Often such an understanding is not a conscious process — many writers and artists engage with their chosen medium through an instinctive understanding of the materials at hand, gained through exposure to others' works and through their own experiences. In other words, the explicit study of the materiality of a medium is not always required for artistic success, however that may be judged. By examining multimodal works ranging from film (Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner) to print texts (the Frankenfont project) to born-digital texts (Andy Campbell’s 2009 Nightingale’s Playground, as well as the author’s own practice) this paper argues that digital media have a significant effect on the outcome of the artifact itself; awareness of these effects, their variations according to hardware and software, and the affordances of these various materials offers the digital writer greater insight and capability to craft his/her texts for the desired metaphorical meaning.
If we are to comprehend electronic literature through descriptive exploration, there are countless historical, cultural, social, and artistic repercussions that need more thorough extrapolation: for all the stellar scholarship that has been done in this field, much of the required excavation remains undone. But we also need to reemphasise foundational concepts, repeatedly interrogating the manner by which the screen transforms the ways we read and write. Flusser’s preconditions of writing point to a number of communicative practices which are of relevance to us, such as the need for a blank surface, a means by which to mark that surface, and a system for the construction of signs and language (Heckman and O’Sullivan 2018).
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