ELO 2014: the tensions of digital literature
To define Digital Literature, we often relie on a distinction between digital-born literature and
digitized literature, although the boundary is not always clear. But how can we go further in
defining features of DL?
Digital literature is based on tensions that contribute to establishing its specificity: tension on the
media, on the semiotic forms, on the programmed writing and on the aesthetic experience. The
word tension does not necessarily mean conflict, but rather suggests the deconstruction of the
obvious on both sides; it can be a creative tension.
Insofar as we aim to define DL in problematizing it, let us focus on an example that is as a
borderline case in order to identify some tensions which underlie and fertilize DL.
An emblematic example
In 2009, Jerome Fletcher proposed the creation of …Ha perdut la veu. In a first phase, this creation
took the form of an installation in a museum in Barcelona (in the frame of the e-poetry conference
and festival), then the form of a transmittable object released on DVD, and at the end the form of
an online creation (http://www.jeromefletcher.org/projects/ha-perdut-la-veu/).
The principle of this creation is the following. The reader, while leaving the mouse button pressed
and moving it , can make a text appear gradually. An interface is provided to the reader, which
allows him/her to choose another "layer" (next layer in the interface) corresponding to another text.
The text is in fact organized in layers and the player may at any time choose to make the text of an
upper layer appear above the previous one - in the manner of a palimpsest -. The author Jerome
Fletcher uses the term overlaying to describe the process. In fact, when the user moves the mouse,
the reading experience can be both the erasure (giving the reader the impression of revealing the
contents of a lower layer ) than the overlay.
…Ha perdut la veu, de Jerome Fletcher (2009).
The textual fragments that appear address the issues of voice (and loss of voice), language and
identity. These fragments are alternatively in Catalan and in English.
- The Catalan fragments come from a children's story written by Fletcher and translated into
Catalan, in which animals lose their voice (hence the title of the creation, which means in Catalan
"has lost his voice"). This story has a political dimension, referring to the attempts by the dictator
Franco to erase Catalan, to replace Catalan by Castilian (Spanish), particularly in the context of
- Texts in English come from a translation of a text by Deleuze and Guattari called "Kafka: toward
a minor literature".
The language alternation corresponds also to an alternation between narrative and theoretical text.
Without going into detail, the author draws a parallel between three minority situations: children's
literature compared to adult literature, Catalan compared to Castilian, digital literature in relation to
the printed literature. The author summarizes these issues in a theoretical article that explains his
approach, which is based on the table below.
Table from “…ha perdut la veu - Some Reflections on the Composition of E-literature as a Minor Literature” by
Although this very brief description of the principle of the creation does not fully give account of
the reading experience, I would like to emphasize that this creation reveals certain tensions. This
creation is indeed emblematic of certain tensions that feed DL, even though it is not representative
of the diversity of DL creations.
Tension on the media
The piece by Jerome Fletcher is based on a tension between the printed medium and the digital
medium. Clearly, the creation of Jerome Fletcher can not be printed without losing its raison d'être.
It is indeed digital and not digitized literature. But is it that simple? In this creation (unlike other
creations of DL), text fragments are not generated but are pre-written; they exist as image files
(.jpg). We could imagine printing all the image files and superimposing them, thus accounting for
all the texts (even if it doesn’t render the experience of gestural reading).
This creation stresses the tension between the cultural, literary and artistic forms inherited from the
printed world (here including palimpsest and collage) and the forms born with the Digital (such as
the particular mode of appearance on screen depending on the gesture of the reader). The tension
on the media is also due to the deeply intermediatic dimension of any digital production.
The tension regarding the media does not only refer to the tension between the digital medium and
the printed medium, but also to the tension between the various devices used to render the work.
The creation ha perdut la veu is at the same time a contextualized installation ("a site-specific
piece, or at least a context-sensitive-piece") and an autonomous creation, a transmittable offline
object (DVD) and an online creation (on the Web). The tension between a unique object exhibited
in a museum in Barcelona and a reproducible object corresponds in some way to a tension between
artistic creation and literary creation. This raises the question of the positioning of DL in relation to
Tension on the semiotic forms
In our exemple, there is a tension between linguistic text and image. Through the action of the
reader, bits of letters are given to see as an image before gradually composing words to interpret.
The author plays on the boundary between the visible and the readable.
Technically, thanks to the digital, all semiotic forms (linguistic text, image, sound, video) are
encoded in the same way, i.e. in binary form. But from a semiotic point of view, they retain
properties inherited from cultural traditions. Thus a tension arises between the technical
potentialities made possible by the digital and the semiotic properties of these different semiotic
forms, as well as the way they make sense together and are transformed by this inter-semiotisation.
Tension on the programmed writing
The creation by Jerome Fletcher is both a written and a programmed object. The tension between
program and writing raises the question of forms (the tension between the formal requirements of
programming and the cultural and literary forms of writing), but also the question of meaning.
Program and writing
On the one hand, a program makes it possible to define in advance the manipulation of units that
will be executed automatically. On the other hand, writing can be defined as a system of expression
that reflects thinking. One can thus identify a tension between the program (which is an automatic
manipulation of symbolic inscriptions) and writing (which is a device used to externalize memory
and thinking). On the one side a form of closure, on the other the possibility of the expression of
meaning. The challenge is to create space for new meaning from an initial impossibility. There is
thus a tension between programming and writing (even if programming is also of course a form of
writing), which is a creative tension.
In this creation by Flecher, the tension on the programmed writing raises the question of
architextual1 writing. Indeed, the interface of the creation is similar to that of a piece of software.
Actually, the author used this interface and the functionalities it provides three times for three
different creations, which are therefore like variants of the same work: Pentimento (2003)2,
…Reusement (2007), …ha perdut la veu (2009). The creation itself appears as both a singular piece
of work and as a piece situated in a series of variants using the same device. In fact, it is to be seen
as both a software development and as a unique creation. The author was led to conceive ( with the
support of a programmer) his own architext for his creation.
The use of the same software gives an echo to the CMS (content management systems like
Wordpress, SPIP, Drupal), these automated tools which have given digital writing a new industrial
dimension. These tools have thus established a tension between forms of industrialization and
individualization of writings. We have the automatic content generation on one side and the
singularity of self-expression on the other. To what extent can the Digital be used to support a
singularity, in the sense of a singular writing?
In our example, the tension of the programmed writing finally raises the question of performance.
Jerome Fletcher talks about "writing for performance and writing as performance".
1 Jeanneret, Y. et Souchier, E. (1999). « Pour une poétique de "l'écrit d'écran" », Xoana, images et sciences sociales 6/7,
éd. J.-M. Place, 97-107.
2 Pentimento : http://projectsarchive.airstudiofalmouth.co.uk/digitallit/pentimento/
A digital literary work is indeed not an object, but in most cases it isn’t 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 through
the gesture of the reader.
There is a tension between textual fragments already written (and recorded under the form of image
files) and the gesture of the reader which makes the texts exist in an always different way. A
tension between text to read and text to act. For the reader, this is an "improvised performance "
(Fletcher, 2011), insofar as it progressively uncovers the texts but also its location on the screen. Is
it possible to program improvisation?
Tension on the aesthetic experience
In …Ha perdut la veu, through the words that appear and disappear because of his/her gesture,
through the phenomena of composition and decomposition, the reader is led to feel a physical
relation to language. There is a tension here between the materiality of the object and the revelation
of meaning, between materiality and transcendence, which is the characteristic of the aesthetic
There is a tension between the contemplation of the revealing of meaning and the physical action
which is necessary for this revealing. Indeed the creations of digital literature often rely on devices
in which the reader acts, composes, constructs. Is this experience, which is based on gestural
activity, compatible with an aesthetic experience - or even an aesthetic revelation? The creative
tension here is between the openness to meaning which requires the reader to be ready and
available, and the closure of the device which requires him/her to be busy, active, engaged. The
creation has to entail an aesthetic experience, which can not only be based on “doing”.
Digital literature is based on tensions that contribute to establishing its specificity: tension on the
media, on the semiotic forms, on the programmed writing, and on the aesthetic experience. Note
that we do not necessarily find these tensions in all the creations of DL and that these tensions are
not exhaustive. .
We could mention other tensions, such as the tension of the authorship (both an author's work and a
collaborative work, or both an original writing and a remix). But let's stick for the moment to the
tensions emphasized :
- tension on the media : between digital literature and digitized literature, but also between
contextual installation or performance and transmissible or online available object;
- tension on the semiotic forms: between the technical potentialities of the Digital and the semiotic
properties (inertia proper to each form);
- tension on programmed writing: between a form of closure with the program and the opening to
- tension on the aesthetic dimension: between the revealing of meaning and the physical action
which is necessary for this revealing.
All these tensions are not new with digital literature, but they are probably raised anew. It is on the
basis of these creative tensions that digital literature can build its identity and consider new