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The Disturbed Dialectic of Literary Criticism in an Age of Innovation / Davin Heckman


Davin Heckman
Mass Communication
Winona State University
P.O. Box 5838
175 West Mark Street
Winona, MN 55987



Electronic Literature, Digital Arts, Databases, Criticism, Speed, Time, Dialectic, Attention



In this essay, Davin Heckman discusses the impact of technical change on the field of criticism in electronic literature and the digital arts.  Heckman discusses the challenges speed poses for critical discourse and discusses some of the ways that critical database projects can serve to promote criticism that, in the words of Matthew Arnold, is “sincere, simple, flexible, ardent, ever widening its knowledge.” [1]


The State of the Electronic Literature Directory

In his famous 1935 essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin turned his pen towards the curious intersection of art and technologies of reproduction, at once calling into question the fascistic impulses of the Futurists and pointing the way towards an emancipated aesthetic field. [2] Though the work has enjoyed sustained and productive focus in light of digital media – in the sense that each viewing of the ‘e-ject’ (electronic object) is itself a reproduction and the original is difficult to locate – I would like to use Benjamin’s essay as a point of departure in this special issue of Leonardo Electronic Almanac on Speed, Dromology, and Invisibility. [3] In particular, I would like to discuss the rhythm of literature, criticism, and refinement across the transition from print to digital. I hope that readers will keep in mind that my generalizations are not intended to be taken as ‘totalizing’ claims, as rules that define the production and reception of literary texts. Rather, I hope to initiate a discussion that may provoke thought about the changing role of criticism in the arts.

I come to this essay as an editor of the Electronic Literature Directory ( According to our About page:

The Electronic Literature Directory (ELD 2.0) is a collection of literary works, descriptions, and keywords. As the Web evolves, the work of literature co-evolves in ways that need to be named, tagged, and recognized in a Web 2.0 environment. For this purpose, the ELD is designed to bring authors and readers together from a wide a range of imaginative, critical, technological, and linguistic practices.

Both a repository of works and a critical companion to e-literature, the ELD hosts discussions that are capable of being referenced and revised over years of use. In this respect, Directory content differs from blogs and wikis in that each entry, once it is approved by a board of editors, is unchanging. The submission of entries and their evaluation is open to anyone, and any entry can be supplemented if a later reader can successfully advance an alternative vision of the work and its context. [4]

In other words, the ELD is a database with a rather specific editorial mission: to document the field of electronic literature. The means by which this documentation is pursued is through deliberate acts of selection and writing, furnished by our users and the engagement of a community of peers.

This project of documenting electronic literature (and the digital arts, in general) is not, however, a simple one. Expectations generated by the massive scale of Google search and the general breadth of collaboration evident in Wikipedia habituate users into expectations of volume and speed. Such habits are, in some sense, necessary for a pioneering field whose rapid change and growth have occurred beyond the perception of more traditional humanities institutions. On the other hand, the work of criticism, slow and engaged, requires that our efforts reflect a degree of care, process, and selectivity that are often at odds with these contemporary habits. Thus, the challenge is to perceive the field of ‘born digital’ works in their ‘native’ state, preserving the appropriate historical strengths of the critical tradition, while developing theories and methods capable of performing the role of criticism in the emerging cultural landscape. The degree to which such projects fail or succeed is, to reflect on Benjamin, dependent on our capacity to see how the circulation of works corresponds to fundamental shifts in perception.


The Vertical Dialectic of Criticism

There has been a disruption in the dialectical relationship between artists and critics. In The Function of Criticism at the Present Time, Matthew Arnold defined criticism as “a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world,” a sentiment which has been roundly (and rightly) criticized on a number of counts. [5] Most famously, Stanley Fish took issue with Arnold’s presumed “disinterest,” while Raymond Williams has made thoughtful critique of Arnold’s repressive tendencies. [6] For my part, I too take issue with the idea that criticism can ever be “disinterested” as I do with the idea that it is the critic’s job to “propagate the best that is known.”  In practical terms, a quick search for entries by “Davin Heckman” in the ELD will reveal a selection of works that simply could not be honestly construed as “disinterested.” If it were disinterested, there would be a distribution of entries that evenly covers the history of electronic literature. If it were simply reflective of “the best,” it would be a different list altogether. Instead, what you see is a list that is driven by matters that are inessential to the field as a whole, but, rather, reflect two distinct tendencies: 1) Works by a handful of artists whose works feed into my larger research project on poetics and instrumental language; and 2) Works that I have stumbled upon as I drift through my day.

However, where criticism cannot be disinterested, it can be pursued in earnest: the critic can attempt to make sense of the text with fidelity to what is written and how it might be productively understood. To state it differently, there might be no singular correct reading of a text, but there can be wrong ones, and critics should strive not to be wrong. Similarly, where the critic can no longer make definitive declarations of what is “the best” (and therefore, what all people should know), critics can fairly easily place texts in juxtaposition and compare them based on explicitly defined criteria. This might not answer the question of what is “best,” but it does mean that there is a role for some measure of discernment that can be communicated to readers more broadly.

Although the critical assessment may rise or fall based on the internal consistencies of its argument, the larger question is whether or not that assessment can describe an ethical relationship between reader and writer as mediated by text. Does the critic identify something ‘true’ in this interaction? If the truth identified by the critic is self-evident in the work, then the criticism is preliminary and possibly superfluous. If the work apparently contradicts this critical point, then the criticism may be flawed. If the reader or writer conflict with each other or the critic, then there is a dispute over ethical determinations. When the field of criticism manages to expose an ethical interaction that is larger than the dynamic that exists for the subject position of the reader or the writer with regards to the text, then criticism adds something to the practice of reading and writing by expanding the dialogue of reader and writer and by finding gestures within the text towards a world that is not contained within the conversation as it was initially imagined. Though few writers are flattered to hear others describe their works as incomplete, most writers know this feeling well. Equally, few readers are delighted to hear their interpretation described as ‘misreading,’ but most serious readers understand this too. So, while Arnold’s description of the critic as one who propagates the “best that is known,” it seems that this is the best that can be known: the best literary experiences are those which are experienced as incomplete, that leave the writer yearning to accomplish something more, that find the reader ever seeking; where the text contains within itself instructions for further reading and writing. Perhaps the “disinterest,” here, is a recommendation that we proceed in this open-ended process, without commitment to our own subject position as readers and writers, without crippling loyalty to the text as object, without faith in our own ability to write perfect criticism. These are works that gesture towards important truths about human existence: they interrogate the common-sense answers to life’s big questions by insisting on further questions. To appreciate this fully, we need more than isolated readers (‘liking’ furtively or reading closely), we need communities that generate sustained discourse about the works. We need venues that can register this discourse.

In other words, literary criticism has to accomplish something critical with regards to the work of literature. It must make some socially meaningful judgment about literature, as it is made and as it is read. Such an observation might seem tautological, but if one is to proceed with an act of criticism, one promises to make some judgment on the text in its fullest form, as it springs from one milieu, is condensed into a rather concise package, and springs forth into another.

Arnold’s definition is not entirely irredeemable if read through the lens of contemporary ideas of knowledge and discourse. His biggest error is not in his assertion of disinterest, nor in his elitism, but in his inability to express the dual nature of criticism, whether he was aware of it or not: the idea that criticism first tries to tell us something about the formation of the text. It then tells us something about how we read the text, but it cannot tell us anything if we already know what it is saying; and we cannot really see it if we do not understand the various points at which the text itself interacts with consciousness. What Arnold does say, however, is ultimately not that far from where I want to take him, “I conclude with what I said at the beginning: to have the sense of creative activity is the great proof of being alive, and it is not denied to criticism to have it; but then criticism must be sincere, simple, flexible, ardent, ever widening its knowledge.” [7]

The purpose in bringing up Arnold thusly is not to re-establish some kind of Arnoldian paradigm of criticism, I only wish to highlight the disjunction between Arnold’s point of view and our own, while situating it within the context of an emerging practice of literary criticism. The point that I wish to make here is that the transmission of narrative (in the case of fiction), the experimentation with procedure (in the case of poetry), and the playfulness of performance (in the case of drama) does not, alone, constitute the culture. Culture, historically speaking, is produced through critical engagement with an array of communicative practices. The poetic intervention against logic, the narrative recuperation of time, and the affective transformation of embodiment all are taken up into thought, forming subjective relationships to reason, order, and being as structured collectively through the critical negotiation. Art, again, takes up the quotidian and subjects it to its meandering, once again, investing it with an everydayness. Hence, the dialectical progression of being is tied to the dialogue itself, which has, at each point, its own material foundations and means of expression. In other words, and this echoes the rather conservative point made by Arnold, art does not exist without its critical reception.  There can be words, there can be media, there can be expression. Yet, rather than fixating on specific technologies and techniques, what we understand as literary is dependent on the process of writing as a kind of intentional making and reading as a form of purposeful reception.

Literature, then, is a relational concept. And critical discernment is the means by which these relations are consummated for society. Often, the individual experience of reading and writing is what motivates consumption and production. The collective practice is necessary, however, if we wish to understand its full significance.

We benefit when we view such a critical trajectory within the process of discovery that Hegel outlines in The Phenomenology of Spirit:

The bud disappears in the bursting-forth of the blossom, and one might say the former is refuted by the latter; similarly, when the fruit appears, the blossom is shown up in its turn as a false manifestation of the plant, and the fruit now emerges as the truth of it instead. These forms are not just distinguished from one another, they also supplant one another as mutually incompatible. Yet at the same time their fluid nature makes them moments of an organic unity in which they not only do not conflict, but in which each is as necessary as the other; and this mutual necessity alone constitutes the life of the whole. [8]

What we see emerging in Arnold, from seed to plant, from plant to bud, from bud to blossom, from blossom to fruit, and again returning to seed, is the systemic nature of knowledge in which it resists any straight, static determinations about the nature of literature at any given point in its progress. Viewed from within the Hegelian process, the Real is positioned outside its present manifestations, and within the dynamic processes by which it is pursued in its totality.

While I have tried to establish a kind of back and forth that exists between artists and readers, with critics in the third position, the field of Electronic Literature is characterized by a force which seems to have dwarfed this dialectic: the rate of technological change. A casual glance will reveal that there are many significant developments in the field that, had they happened over a longer timeline, would likely be much easier to sort out. Take, for instance, the body of works known as ‘Hypertext fiction,’ which represent the closest thing Electronic Literature has to a sustained, stable format. If we track literary hypertext along the history of Eastgate Systems, we are looking at an aspect of the field of electronic literature that dates back to the company’s founding in 1982. If we broaden our definition to include interactive fiction and text-based computer gaming, we can push the timeline back to 1975, with the creation of Adventure. Beyond this, we can trace the form back to the ‘Hypertext Editing System’ by Ted Nelson and Andries van Dam in 1968. [9] In any case, the history of this particular literary form is a half-century old at its most generous estimation. It is not really until Eastgate Systems emerges as the first commercial publisher of Hypertext as Literature that we see a committed effort to the literary exploration of a particular form, with the bulk of their literary offerings published in the 1990s (though Eastgate continues to develop hypertext tools for writing and research and continues to maintain the currency of its significant literary catalog in emerging formats). If we add web-based Hypertext fiction to this timeline, we would add to the overall number of works available, but the bulk of creative output would still be distributed over two decades and would place a massive technical innovation smack in the middle of this arc.

To put this in perspective, one might juxtapose this to the history of the novel, which, even at its most conservative definition, spans three centuries.  If we want to consider a genre, say, the Gothic, over 70 years pass between the publication of Horace Walpole’s mess of a book, The Castle of Otranto (1764) and Edgar Allen Poe’s elegant perfection of the gothic in The Fall of the House of Usher (1839). [10]

While Walpole enjoys distinction for his innovative use of the form, his distinction is in no way robbed by the accomplishment of those who refined it. Nor is Poe’s work considered less, in spite of the clearly derivative nature of its content: it is simply part of the slow pace of literary history. Instead, we hold in our heads a framework that can find a form interest in the broad trajectory of literary practice. A familial resemblance across historical time is typically viewed as one of two things: reactionary or revisionist. In either case, whether positively or negatively understood, we construe these resemblances as socially and historically significant. A familial resemblance among contemporaries is, if the two are friends, a movement, or, if enemies, a crime. In these cases, the closer we get to the contemporary, the more we tend to personalize these influences. The state of Electronic Literature does not have the time for a family resemblance across generations. It is rather the case that these intergenerational family resemblances are always a bit strained, like the bastard child looking for an irresponsible parent, and often seem to challenge credulity. We look towards print, the visual arts, and performance for glimmers of recognition, a familiar cheekbone, a curious nose, an eccentric mannerism. [11] In the ELD, we consider these examples as antecedents to the field. In most cases, however, we are dealing with works that are relatively contemporaneous. Thus, the field does not easily allow for this slow dialectic to proceed across decades, across generations. In other words, historically, the time of literature has been slow and staggered. The kind of back and forth between the creator of a work and its critical reception, followed by a modified approach, and yet more criticism, has simply been short-circuited by the rate of change.

It is a field that is highly contemporary; in part, because it is ‘new’ media, but also because it is ‘new media’ and it exists within an era of scripted, habituated newness and in a field of practice that is exceptionally so. To illustrate, the copy of Moby Dick that sits on your bookshelf will be retain its pagination, dimensions, and form until it is destroyed. A web-version of the same title may very well enjoy fundamental changes in its medium of presentation if your browser is updated, if you switch to new software, if you use a new computer. In other cases, a ‘classic’ work may simply be placed out of reach: works in Flash, for instance, became unavailable to iPad users because Apple chose not to allow Flash Player on its mobile devices. The data file may or may not change, but when you open it, it is, materially speaking, new. As it flickers across your screen, as one scrolls through text, as one skips from node to node, the work is perpetually reassembled on the space of the screen. For artists looking to explore even this simple aspect of form, there are two ways in which the formal decision is tied to newness. First, the artist must make a technical decision, either using what’s available by default or making specific decisions about choosing not to. Second, the artist, in exploring the tools of their medium, must make the literary formal decision by default using the standard in which they are most comfortable or by making the specific decision to choose a more advanced or esoteric form. This does not mean that these factors are totally absent in prior regimes of literary production. It is only that they are more central to the writer working in new media. Historically, if a student chose to pursue a degree in creative writing with the intention of becoming a novelist, their education would consist almost exclusively of reading books for content and creating new content. Rarely, does the creative writing student have to take courses in typesetting, typography, bookbinding, print-making, fiber arts, and the related material practices. They simply have to take classes about writing short stories, novels, and poetry. While the Digital Poet or Hypertext Author does not necessarily have to be a computer programmer at this stage, it is absolutely essential that the technical shape of their literary work be part of their process.  While the traditional creative writer might want to explore innovative narrative techniques at the level of content, for the electronic writer, the newness factor is the default setting. The historical antecedent to this, of course, is Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-67), in which Sterne famously insisted upon diagrams, marbled paper inserts, the black page, etc. [12] And, interestingly enough, not only involved Sterne being compelled to wrangle with the specific printing and binding technologies, but with the technical apparatus of the publisher, markets, distribution networks, piracy, the public, etc). Electronic Literature is at this point in time, engaged with the question of its newness. A form is developed, a particular iteration is published, the innovators are noted, and almost as quickly, it can be supplanted, not by a carefully conceived derivative, purified through the crucible of the work’s critical reception, but by the release of a new technology.

Beyond the question of authoring, there is a real problem in the digital arts with the question of preservation and compatibility. As Oliver Grau noted in his Keynote address at ISEA 2011, huge slices of digital heritage are simply being lost to time. [13] Not only have individual works been lost to obsolescence, corruption, malicious attacks, and neglect, but entire databases of work have fallen offline. And, of course, there are many examples of this. For instance, University of Siegen’s “Media Upheavals” database currently exists as a spreadsheet, Po.Ex in Brazil is currently collecting previously offline cyberstudies and digital poetry that stretches back to the 1960s. On a smaller scale, the prolific innovator Rob Wittig, has had many of his works destroyed by hackers. And with the transition away from Flash, one has to wonder whether or not many of the great works from the last decade will be available in the future. Nevermind the fact that the institutions that engage in these endeavors often enjoy unstable funding, scholars are under pressure to pursue work that will be “recognized” by tenure and hiring committees. So the development of database is enormously important, simply from the perspective of documenting digital heritage, especially of works that perform a critical role, that exist at the fringes of practice, that are trailblazing the forms which may not be there. We cannot talk about things if we cannot explore.

On top of this basic layer of documenting the field and preserving access, there is a second layer of activity that must flow from it. This is the critical engagement with the works. Currently, the volume or work, the speed with which it appears and recedes from consciousness, and the inherent complexities of interactive, time-based, transmedia and intermedia texts make it hard work to talk about the field, much less to form dialogues about the field of practice, and to present these dialogues for further consideration.

On the other hand, these ontologically unsettled conditions echo those conditions which gave rise to the criticism and innovation we associate with the emergence of the Literary when print was new. Hence, there is a real powerful potential in creating venues for multifaceted discussion: the basic documentation of the work, the application of heuristic frames, the negotiation of taxonomies, the development of contextually rich critical claims, and a robust discourse around these claims. It is not enough for the work to flash into our minds, like a meme that everyone circulates for a day, only to be forgotten the subsequent day. What is needed is sustained thought pursued in the context of community and an appropriate ecology of activity.

A secondary effect of pursuing this kind of work is to document the dispersed, collective nature of knowledge work. We are at a point in the history of higher education in which we are going to skim the cream off the aura of the institution while leaving the framework of knowledge generation to languish. How else are we to understand the appeal of MOOCs and the sordid treatment of contingent faculty? We know that knowledge is created when many, many people engaging in a multitude of diverse approaches engages in discourse on a topic. The publication of a work or the coronation of an “expert” is often the death of the organic assemblage that cultivates and generates the support for the specific point in question. Rock star academics exist because they are tied into an extremely productive network, sitting at the intersection of institutional power, state interests in education, undergraduate tuition, graduate student support and research, and peer engagement. I do not mean to take anything away from the people whose books I buy on a regular basis, but it would be dishonest to overlook the vast pool of labor that holds these specific accomplishments aloft. Yet MOOCs ignore this, and instead uphold a model of society that is based on a model that is at once exclusive (if you are the featured professor) and massive (if you are the student), diminished is the idea that each participant contributes to and benefits from the discourse that creates knowledge. That what matters is the one “best” professor being elevated, while everyone else is effectively sidelined, marginalized, or consigned to low paid, low security facilitation. [14]

Against these conditions, I warn against the temptation of fatalism posed by a flat reading of Hegel’s text: the idea that we all have our roles to play in the progress towards synthetic truth. Yet, in retrospect, this fatalism seems apparent when we arrive at those points in which our role becomes articulable as such. Recall, for instance, the plot of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, where Alex rapes the writer’s wife, and thus initiates the sequence of events in which the writer recognizes him, seeks revenge, initiates Alex’s ‘cure’ and subsequent return to ‘freedom,’ which results in Alex’s ‘growing up.’ But we recognize our vantage point when we see Alex destroy the writer’s manuscript, A Clockwork Orange, and we are momentarily forced to reflect upon the text we are reading as an object in our hands rather than a narrative we are immersed in. [15] The narrative world is rife with ironies that spin upon these recognitions of order in the sequence of events. Yet, this fatalism can also be applied to history: the U.S fights a proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, U.S. operatives in that proxy war develop a potent strand of politico-religious ideology which eventually comes to turn on the United States. However, Hegel, himself warns against such fatalism, explaining, “Though it may seem contradictory that the Absolute is should be conceived essentially as a result, it needs little pondering to set this show of contradiction in its true light.” [16] There is, in a sense, a redemptive element to the watershed moment of realization, but this process is always a performance. The epiphany is reached, the conversion must be immanent; and only then do the roles become clear. Collectively, we call these moments ‘paradigm shifts,’ individually it is akin to an apotheosis.

The fact, however, is that though we play our roles in this, and though the evolution (if I may use evolution in the most neutral sense possible) of consciousness takes place across a geological timeline, a tectonic space, the actual roles of individuals and societies are contingent, variable, undetermined, until of course, a specific end is reached. We only know that our roles have implication for being. Ethically, we want to pursue this agenda of growth with an openness to truth, with an earnest desire to be, not only an individual who experiences being as meaningful and authentic, but also as a part of a community in which these same experiences of being can be affirmed as meaningful, deep, and substantial. We must seek truth from where we are, but must remain open to the where this search will take us. Given the highly contingent roles we play, this is the only ethical path open to us in the absence of any definitive, Absolute Knowledge.


The Dialectic of Horizontal Criticism

We need, in short, to hasten our perception of the complexities of the moment. To frame my argument within a more contemporary point of reference, Alain Badiou’s notion of “the set” as comprising the range of knowledge as the logical potentiality framed within its structure and the revolutionary transgression of the bounded structure provides another way of considering the notion of heterogeneous progression towards knowledge without being fatalistic. [17]

Similarly, we can imagine a horizontal vision of this dialectic, that steps beyond the sequential process of thesis, antithesis, synthesis that seems to favor the vertical progress of the historical from its zero point towards the future. Useful for our understanding of this horizontality is Hai Ren’s concept of “imaginal time,” the time of globalization in which the realities of progress associated with history are increasingly co-present, experienced as differentials spread along the horizon of the present, rather than closed moments in a sequence. [18] In other words, I mean to ask, can the dialectic as developed by Hegel be applied to a context of simultaneity? Certainly, this seems possible if the organic unity imagined is that of the interpersonal dialog as opposed to long process of ‘progress.’ Foucault’s heterotopia emerges as a particularly promising instance of a momentary instance of the dialectic in action. Here, truth is located interpersonally, held into place through the negotiations of language, in which the minute turns of intercourse shift meaning over from incomprehensibility to the furtive, contingent moments of communication. [19] To answer my question, there can be no simultaneity, except when the dialectic process reaches a point of its singularity, where it engenders the social and individual shift in consciousness. The closest we can come to simultaneity in this process is only when it functions systematically, as a set whose rules can be articulated within the defined constraints of its domain.

Thus a shift in critical consciousness is required if we wish to practice criticism in the present day. While post structuralism has rendered it difficult for subjects to imagine discrete, defined roles in discursive projects, the projection of such roles is necessary if we wish to engage in critical practices. This is not to pronounce that I am a ‘critic,’ and therefore will cease to be a ‘reader’ or ‘writer.’ Rather, it is to say that in a time when crowd-sourced approaches, fan-based scholarship, and the general spirit of open access have revealed the critical value of readily practices, we must then accept the notion that reading itself has been fundamentally altered. At a time when networks, technology, and participatory media trends have likewise removed the critical barriers to aesthetic expression, we must accept the notion that writing has also been fundamentally altered. Why, then, has criticism not been altered accordingly? Rather than permit criticism to be subsumed into expressive and interpretive practices, the task before the critic is to imagine criticism that can identify in these shifts a fundamental change in the relationship between reader and writer via text. It is no longer enough for critics to correctly note which theoretical catch phrases have been incorporated into the writing process, as if a self-consciously ‘postmodern’ movie tells us anything we didn’t already know about contemporary life in all its wacky juxtapositions. Similarly, it is not enough for us to marvel at how quickly a student in a literature class leaps to the kind of politically correct truisms about the nature of some dysfunctional relationship dialed into an adolescent novel about some fashionable ‘issue.’ Nor is it enough to applaud the umpteenth television show that expresses the neoliberal myth of personal reinvention. This is not to say that these kinds of overt messages are ‘bad,’ it’s just that we learn nothing beyond what we already know if we do not re-imagine the critical process, if we do not strive to see the systemic relation between writer-text-reader (or producer-commodity-consumer, programmer-software-user, architect-building-occupant, teller-story-listener, or really any mediated relationship).

To truly apprehend the nature of the dialectic of reader and writer held together by the thread of the text, there must be a clearly delineated third position, that which is neither reader nor writer, though one might at times be one, both, or neither. Rather than define the critic as a special class of person, it is better to identify the critical faculty as a distinctive subject position, a way of viewing the text and how it functions socially as a nexus of interaction between readers and writers. This is the essential nature of criticism, yet it is constantly muddled, disturbed, and confused by the fact that it is defined by a process that is seeking out the breaches in even tidiest circuits of communication between reader and writer with regards to the text. Criticism must also be aware that against its tidy projections of untidiness, there are a multitude of readers and writers, the singular nature of each is impossible to know and that the one performing the act of criticism is similarly complicated. Thus, we deal with probabilities, juxtaposing the more likely to the less likely, realizing that the rule can be just as relevant as its exception.

The problem of speed, though it upends the vertical progression of past regimes of production and reception, is not in itself a problem for criticism. There are still readers, there are still writers and they still interact through the text. The difference is that these particular subject positions are not so easily isolated, not easily localized on a particular historical individual or archival document. We don’t necessarily need a stable sustained form like the novel or the Gothic to understand the significance of Electronic Literature more deeply (though such consistencies, where they are perceptible, provide excellent case studies), what we need is a critical exploration of the plane of consistency itself (in this case, it is that of technological change and social adaptation). What Derrida did for words, we must do for the interface, the platform, the logic of new media itself. We cannot, however, argue against the pretense of authority as expressed through the aura of stability associated with words, we must speak of the aura of currency, of the presumed veracity of change, of the upgrade, of the improvement, of the debugged. The promise of newness is that which we have come to trust. It might not be all that the critic does, but a rigorous discussion of the trajectory is at least a pressing project, if not the most pressing one: What are the poetics of innovation? How does it function grammatically? How does the poet play with this language? What are the social, ethical, philosophical implications of this presumed foundation of cultural existence? Whereas past critics may have had the time and luxury to mistake their acts of reading or writing with criticism, losing sight of the function of the text within culture, we have the luxury of living at a time when we are seeing a radical shift in the function of the text itself. The question is whether or not we will do it, or if we will simply watch the relationships between readers and texts change without thinking critically about what these changes mean, what changes we’d prefer, what changes we’d sooner avoid. In effect, it requires a critical commitment, not to what we will conclude that the text means, but to a process of criticism that is preoccupied with care, that is ‘interested’ in the very hope that culture might truly be determined through a disinterested process of seeking what is best for human culture, rather than being determined by the tremendous social forces that have emerged as a default consequence of a democratic processes of free market ideology. Criticism allows us to stand still and look at the stories that are being told. It cannot save us from the reality of time. But it can allow us moments and spaces that we can claim for common use and the cultivation of political will. [20] We must, like the signatories of the Ars Industrialis Manifesto, “struggle against carelessness [incurie], against the destruction of attention.” [21] Such literary criticism must attend to that which is not immediately understood, but which holds power in the realm of expression, which animates the text, which is written, hard to notice, but nevertheless true.

In practical terms, as it pertains to the Electronic Literature Directory, there are two possibilities relating to the twofold process of the ELD’s editorial protocols. On one level, it is a rather mundane, but necessary, meeting place for readers, writers, and works. The entries themselves really and truly do tend towards mere descriptions. At its most basic level, it is a project that serves to promote a model readership that is coexistent with writing. This, at its first level is, what the Ars Industrialis group might consider a manifestation of the “economy of contribution.” [22] This is not to diminish the value of this project. It serves a necessary role in that it enables valuable connections around works whose content form, as I have described elsewhere, has the potential to “shatter the utility of the interface.” [23]

The second possibility, and this is one is highly contingent, is that the ELD may serve as a nexus for precisely the cultivation of care and attention in service of the social as the next logical step towards a criticism that is “sincere, simple, flexible, ardent, ever widening its knowledge.” In creating a common space, a public sphere for ‘electronic literature’ that is open to all, we might inspire and cultivate a critical practice which is aware of the changing dimensions of the text vis-à-vis the discourse that takes place on our pages. What we lack in the slow deployment of verticality, we might gain in horizontality. If we grow large enough, not simply as a matter of quantity, but large enough in the depths of our social consciousness, we might take this broad horizon of literary discourse and, in the crucible or speed, pressure, and the needs of the moment, distill a sense of just what these changes mean for criticism.



[1] Matthew Arnold, “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), 825.

[2] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Marxist Literary Criticism (2005), (accessed August 27, 2013).

[3] For a more detailed discussion of the e-ject, see Dene Grigar, Joesph Tabbi, Matt Kirschenbaum, Michael Angelo Tata, Davin Heckman, Maria Angel, and Anna Gibbs, “E-Ject: On the Ephemeral Nature, Mechanisms, and Implications of Electronic Objects,” (panel presentation at Digital Arts and Culture, Irvine, 2009), (accessed August 27, 2013).

[4] Electronic Literature Directory, “About the Directory,”  Electronic Literature Organization (accessed August 27, 2013).

[5] Matthew Arnold, “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” 824.

[6] Fish’s work Is There a Text in this Class? is particularly noteworthy for challenging the pretense of ‘disinterest’ implied by Formalist critical strategies. In Culture and Society, Williams offers a nuanced reading of the role that Arnold establishes for ‘culture.’ At once, Williams recognizes the earnest desire that drives Arnold to pursue the cultivation of a humane ideal, yet situates this view within the historical framework and the personal, repressive biases of the man. See Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in this Class? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980); and Raymond Williams, Culture and Society: 1780-1950 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).

[7] Matthew Arnold, “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” 825.

[8] G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomology of Spirit, trans. J.N. Findlay (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), par. 2.

[9] For a good synthesis of this history, see Jill Walker Rettberg, “The Genealogy of a Creative Community: Why Is Afternoon The “Granddaddy” of Hypertext Fiction?” (paper presented at ISEA, Istanbul, Turkey, September 2011),“granddaddy”-hypertext-fiction (accessed August 28, 2013).

[10] Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto (Champaign: Project Gutenberg, 1996), (accessed August 27, 2013).; Edgar Allen Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher (Champaign: Project Gutenberg, 2010), (accessed August 27, 2013).

[11] Hegel, par 20.

[12] Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy was originally published over 9 volumes by several publishers from 1759-1767. A digital copy of an 1853 published by Ingram, Cooke, and Co. is available in the Internet Archive (accessed August 28, 2013).

[13] Oliver Grau, “Media Art Explores Image Histories: New Tools For Our Field” (keynote address, ISEA, Istanbul, Turkey, September 14-21, 2011), (accessed August 28, 2013).

[14] I see the ELD and the emerging Consortium on Electronic Literature (CELL) as an alternative to this. Other examples can be found in The Foundation for P2P Alternatives (, FemTechNet’s Distributed Open Collaborative Course: DOCC (, and Claire Birchall and Gary Hall’s work with Culture Machine and the Open Humanities Press.

[15] Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (New York: Norton, 1986).

[16] The best such work is Christopher Funkhouser, Prehistoric Digital Poetry: An Archaeology of Forms, 1959-1995 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007).

[17] Alain Badiou, Being and Event, trans. Oliver Feltham (New York: Continuum, 2005).

[18] Hai Ren, personal correspondence.

[19] Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” in Diacritics 16 (1986): 22-27.

[20] In his essay “A Hundred Years after Culture and Anarchy,” Raymond Williams discusses Arnold’s complicated view of the 1866 occupation of Hyde Park in London. While Arnold was sympathetic to the aims of a broadened equality to be achieved primarily through culture and education, he failed to connect the political actions of the protesters with the idealistic aims in his work. Rather, Arnold juxtaposed the aim of culture to his unfavorable view of the actions of the park’s occupants, and endorsed their repression. My claim is that critical discourse often precedes the advance of political action, but in ideal situations would obviate the need for antagonistic action. To consider a more contemporary instance, like the occupation of Gezi Park, we can see where critical engagement is manifested in protest activity. But when one considers what the protesters are standing up against (as Williams notes in the case of Hyde Park), the people are clearly the agents of culture standing up against the wanton destruction of the “public”. Raymond Williams, “A Hundred Years after Culture and Anarchy,” in Culture and Materialism (New York: Verso, 2005), 3-9.

[21] Ars Industrialis, “Manifesto,”, Ars Industrialis’ website, 2010, par. 3, (accessed March 6, 2013).

[22] Ibid.

[23] Davin Heckman, “Electronic Literature as a Sword of Lightning,” in Leonardo Electronic Almanac 17, no. 1 (2011), (accessed August 27, 2013).


The author would like to thank the U.S. – Norway Fulbright Foundation, the Digital Culture Department at the University of Bergen, Siena Heights University, the Electronic Literature Organization, and ISEA for nurturing and supporting work related to this essay.


Davin Heckman studies digital humanities practices that cultivate purposeful, deliberative responses to the conditions of life in the 21st Century. He is the author of A Small World: Smart Houses and the Dream of the Perfect Day (Duke University Press). Heckman serves as the Supervising Editor of the Electronic Literature Directory ( and the Electropoetics thread editor at the electronic book review ( In 2011-12, Davin was a Fulbright Scholar in Digital Culture at the University of Bergen, where he began work on a new manuscript on the relationship between literature, criticism, and society in the digital age. He is an Associate Professor of Mass Communication at Winona State University in Minnesota.