Esta es la ponencia que expuse el pasado 1 de mayo en el encuentro Hybrid Storyspaces celebrado en Cornell University. Espero que sea de vuestro interés.
Esta es la ponencia que expuse el pasado 1 de mayo en el encuentro Hybrid Storyspaces celebrado en Cornell University. Espero que sea de vuestro interés.
Text and Internext: the literary change to fluid texts and its effect in current narrative
What is literature now?
As an exhibition is no longer the logical and only end of the creative process for artists like Philippe Parreno, the publication of the literary work in the form of a book is only one of the possible “happy endings” for writing these days. The new phenomena such as blogs, e-literature, text processors and digital readers allow writers to express themselves in many different ways which are shaking the old concepts of text, writing, authority and distribution. But also the main brand, Literature, is suffering changes in depth. Katherine Hayles (2009:3) remembers how the committee of ELO offers a broad concept of what can be called electronic literature: “work with an important literary aspect that takes advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer”. For Hayles, “although tautology is usually regarded as a cardinal sin by definition writers, in this case the tautology seems appropriate” (íbidem). Nevertheless, one of the problems is that today, all forms of electronic or traditional literature use computers in many of the steps of creation, design, correction and / or publication. In fact, for the digital artist Eduardo Kac, our connected condition, the “broadband network ubiquity (the eventual ability to process and exchange messages in any media anywhere) (…) will undoubtedly contribute to expand the poet’s creative media and will affect the writing/reading process in stimulating ways” (Kac 2007:8).
I would like to explain some of those changes; changes that not only take place in the writing of the books, but also in the minds of the readers. For instance, Gregory L. Ulmer explained (2003) that the common reader has the temptation of reading the screen as if it was a page. Now the question is: have the common readers begun to read the page as if it was a screen? And I believe in an affirmative answer. There have been some writers who have been preparing us during the last centuries for those new perspectives: the Lawrence Sterne of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759-1767), Mallarmé, Apollinaire and his calligrammes, Julio Cortázar and the comics inserted in Fantomas, Octavio Paz and his Topoems, the Brazilian and Swiss concrete poets, the photographs in the novels of W. G. Sebald and David Eggers, and so forth. The image was never a stranger to literature readers, and now even the dynamic image, the moving images, could be part of the same vision of the world and the arts, part of the same Weltanschauung.
For us, the information is a continuum, and Literature is a form of information. Roy Ascott explained the concept of aesthetics of communication, and we have to think that the sharing of information is a breeding ground for new ways of creation, for a new Art and a new Literature. First of all, we have to discover what Literature and information have in common: the fluidity of discourse, the liquid stream of sounds and words that mold the current of our voice, the river in movement of the communicated thoughts. We can share this stream. We can move it from one place to another, from one person to another, from writer to reader. We’ve always done it, historically, but today we have the means to put it in motion in many new and fantastic ways. We can scroll information, literary information, materially or immaterially, printed, compressed or virtually. As Terranova indicates, electronic resources can help us in this new movement: “Esta característica del espacio de red, el movimiento, la divergencia continua, la diferenciación, hace que la textualidad electrónica sea una textualidad inestable y fluctuante, sujeta a las dinámicas de los sistemas físicos abiertos” (Terranova 2006:143). We can then rethink the idea of text, always with a subconscious element of written or printed formats, and create a new word in which the idea of movement could be consubstantial. We posit to talk of internext, text + internet, text plus the images of travel, share or transfer. Internext as a fluid textual concept. We need a neologism opposed to former models of fluctuation, based on antique descriptions of text as a traveler meme which in fact could not leave the web. On the contrary, internext is truly very fond of travelling and is portable, since it goes from the hard disks of computers to the web, and then from internet to the digital readers, phones, tablets or whichever electronic devices, or even to other hard disks. In every moment the internext could be read, forwarded or printed, without leaving its virtual form. While the traditional text could be read, and the electronic text could surf the web, the internext can do everything shaping the different formats of reading. Like other fluids, internext is channeled. We are not talking about other forms of text, we are talking about a new way to look at it, to consider the text, in order to understand the infinite possibilities and accept the late changes in creation, reading and distribution of books. But new perspectives sometimes need new names. Hermogenes explains this need of name-givers in Plato’s Cratilo. We have to become proto-poets to create the new names of things, as Auden said in Making, Knowing and Judging (1956), interpreting the Genesis (2007:396).
This textual fluidity has many consequences to be analyzed. One of them is that the transition is not pure; there are elements of the older forms that persist in the new ones. Hayles saw that clearly: “When literature leaps from one medium to another (…) it does not leave behind the accumulated knowledge embedded in genres, poetic conventions, narrative structures, figurative tropes, and so forth. Rather, this knowledge is carried forward into the new medium typically by trying to replicate the earlier medium’s effects within the new medium’s specificities” (Hayles 2008:58). But, as sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote, our Liquid Modernity (2003) is too a new reality and address to us questions that we have to manage to keep our course without troubles. Information, relationships, trends and institutions in this era are liquid, changeable, under Bauman’s view, and this affects everything, including our vision of arts and literature. It also distorts our idea of the subject, our image of ourselves as individuals. We think of ourselves as liquid too. We can vary, we are mutable, we can adapt to new realities and spaces and ways of living. And the new literature is conscious of that mutability. We’ll see an example of this: talking about Judd Morrisey’s The Jew’s Daughter, Hayles remarks that: “Possessing a fluidity and mutability that ink durably impressed on paper can never achieve, it simulates the illusion of a coherent self producing the narrative (and by implication, a coherent self producing the narrative) while also making visible on the screenic surface the temporal discontinuities, spatial dislocations, and narrative ruptures that subvert the premises underlying traditional ideas about consciousness, thereby pointing toward another model of consciousness altogether” (2008:81). Novels like The Jew’s Daughter respond artistically to this new form of subject, in the same way that non electronic books as D. F. Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999) or Dave Eggers’ You Shall Know our Velocity (2002) enacted the same kind of crisis of subjectivity, portraying the liquid Self.
Another interesting effect of the internext -of the liquid textuality in the new narratives-, is the absence of distinction between creation and channel. As thinker Steven Shaviro pointed out, “The ideal of modern aesthetics is thus ironically realized: in the digital realm, form and content are one” (Shaviro 2005:47). The web is no more a course, a pipe, a bed, a conductor, a channel, a medium; the web is now a raw material to cook, it is a bank of creative elements to use, it is like landscape for the renaissance painters or the music of the spheres for baroque poets. The cyberspace is creation and distribution at the same time, oozing his principles everywhere. To delve into this, the art essayist Nicolas Bourriaud has offered his idea of postproduction. According to this idea, the new artists “who insert their own work into that of others contribute to the eradication of the traditional distinction between production and consumption, creation and copy, readymade and original work. The material they manipulate is no longer primary. It is no longer a matter of elaborating a form on the basis of a raw material but working with objects that there are already in circulation on the cultural market, which is to say, objects already informed by other objects”(2007:13). Now we can see again two main signals of the internext together: information and circulation. The current art may be considered like the sum of the particular works plus the interactions, references, and hidden quotes among all of them. The internext is infocirculation. Those concepts obviously effect the ideas of authorship, intellectual property and individual creation, but we have no time to go deeper into these matters.
In any of the steps included in the Figure 1, the object of communication can be altered. The reader can comment, vary, fluctuate, highlight, expand or reshape the discourse, or share it with other readers. When the text returns to the creator enriched with the new information, the writer can rethink the work and send it altered again. The process can go on and on indefinitely. In each loop the internext gets information in the same way that an email forwarded multiple times to many people incorporates all prior emails underneath the new text. Although we can’t always see the information gained by the internext in every step, the information does exist. If one text is sent to a publisher, the reading reports could stay hidden at the publishing house for years, but they can be added (if they are literarily relevant) to a future electronic or critic edition of the book. Besides, all the emails in reference to the work among writer, publisher, designers, correctors, critics and readers could be treated also as critical correspondence. The internext starts when the idea left the mind of the creator and then expands and diverges its paths in unpredictable and multiple ways.
Another dimension to emphasize of the internext is the lack of distinction between word and image. We now want to stress the importance of the Visual in the new literature. Iván de la Nuez, writer and art critic, wrote an article in 2006 explaining that the Visual Culture could be for literature in the 21st century a mere continuation of its aesthetic by other means, paraphrasing the famous von Clausevitz’s quote. As a number of critics have pointed out, images are more and more frequent in recent literature, and the use of visual effects is structural in electronic literature, as Landow and Hayles demonstrated. This new visual culture in literature became omnipresent in published books of the last decade in all countries. Novels such as House of Leaves (2000), by Mark Danielevski, Guerra ambiental (2002), by Spaniard Javier Montero, jPod (2005), by Canadian Douglas Coupland, Cero absoluto (2005) by Spaniard Javier Fernández, The People of Paper (2006), by Mexican-American Salvador Plascencia, or Bombardero (2008), by Peruvian César Gutiérrez, are just a few examples of a very widespread trend of literature which includes text and image at the same level.
This ongoing change is one of the most important that Literature has suffered ever. We examined before some of the causes, but the main goal now is to define some of its consequences. One of them is the proximity gained to a new sort of readers, the digital readers. Barbara Warwick says: “By using an expanded concept of ‘text’ as content that includes overall design, graphics, and strategic use of links; one can see how these authors kept readers on their sites and encouraged return visits” (
This has a clear impact on another concept of our interest: what skills are needed to be a writer today? Does the writer need to be as gifted as an illustrator, such as Mark Danielevski? Is he required to have deep programming knowledge, like Judd Morrisey has? Is it necessary to master design and advertising in the way of Douglas Coupland? Maybe, or maybe not, if he or she can seek for help with all these skills, with the corresponding effects on the authorship of the work. But the point here is that the ignorance of the requirements of an art does not mean that we are allowed to do just anything. As writers, our lack of expertise could not be a cop-out. If we writers are thinking of using design techniques or layouts in our books, we must be responsible for our decisions. We can’t seek protection in the misunderstood “anything-goes practice” based on the freedom that new technologies provide us. This could create a worrying foible of our works. On the contrary, we have now two jobs: study design or ask for the help of an experienced designer. I like the following quote from Jessica Helfand which refers to web design, but we also can extend her criteria to our broader purposes: “Design principles –like good sentence structure, editing techniques, or the ability to articulate an original idea –seem to have little if any tangible value here. (…) The Web, as a publishing platform, makes such distinctions seem arcane and unnecessary. But if we assume, for a moment, that design is perhaps obliged to identify broader communication needs to a wider audience, such qualifications may, in fact, be more critical than ever” (Helfand 2001:94). We need now to complete our training; we must be ambitious and study other arts to complete ours. We ought to comprehend the implications of creating nowadays, which exceeds the precedent art of writing. As the Argentinean narrator Guillermo Saccomanno has remembered in one of his short stories, the designers were named in the past “Art Directors” (1994:115). Some authors had called Lit[art]ure the new process of convergence between arts forced by technology (Borràs 2008). The result is that writers can now be named textual artists, creators who build books or e-books mixing various techniques, arts, tools and epistemes in order to express the fruit of their imagination, in the most complex and exact way.
Now I’ll try to explain how my current work is trying to deal with some of the previous questions we’ve already talked about, and to focus on the challenges that we can face as writers of the 21st Century. As a literary critic I can analyze my own work, within the logical limitations, and realize how information and infocirculation are shaping my writing. The fragmentation of my novels, for instance, is a consequence of our continuous multitasking activity. As Shaviro remarked, when we are on line “my attention fragments and multiplies as I shift among the many windows on my screen. Being online always means multitasking” (2003:7). And for me writing is an experience very similar to surfing the web, because I’m navigating my own mental system, which is too formed by words, sounds, dynamic images and texts of other authors. My mind is a Web, and I’m progressively becoming a keyboard author, reserving the fountain pens only for the writing of poetry. And writing on a computer means writing in a multitasking way, with Wikipedia, the online dictionary of the Spanish Royal Academy of the Language and Google opened in different tabs of the net explorer, as Jorge Carrión wrote in my blog years ago. The Spanish Nobel Prize of Literature, Camilo José Cela, said in an interview that he wrote his books always with a lot of dictionaries and encyclopedias around his desk. We need the same information as him to create, but we find it in the same place where we write, and in the same format. The copy & paste tool is an irresistible temptation to us, and we use it frantically.
I recently published in
If I had to define Alba Cromm, I’d say that it is a novel without boundaries or limits. It takes advantage of the web, the computers, the traditional narrative and thinking, the advertisement, the mass-media, the Theory of Information, the conventional magazines, television, blogs and printed books. I look around and try to assimilate all the information and possibilities of expression that I see in our reality. I use the internet, the internext and the intertext. I create and I recycle. I believe in freedom. I believe that writers have to create a world using all the tools of their time and unfurl the possibilities of their imagination.
AUDEN, Wystam H. (2007): “Hacer, saber y juzgar”, Los señores del límite. Selección de poemas y ensayos (1927-1973); Galaxia Gutenberg / Círculo de Lectores, Barcelona, 2007.
BAUMAN, Zyugmunt (2003):Modernidad líquida, FCE, Buenos Aires, 2003.
BORRÀS CASTANYER, Laura (ed.) (2005): Textualidades electrónicas. Nuevos escenarios para la literatura, Editorial UOC, Barcelona.
-(2008), “Lit(art)ure”, Quimera, nº 290, enero 2008, dentro del especial “Nuevas tecnologías narrativas”, coordinado por Vicente Luis Mora.
BOURRIAUD, Nicolas (2007): Postproduction;
HAYLES, Katherine (2008): Electronic Literature. New Horizons for the Literary;
HELFAND, Jessica: Screen. Essays on Graphic Design, New Media and Visual Culture; Princeton Architectural Press,
KAC, Eduardo (2007): Media Poetry: An International Anthology; Intellect Books,
NUEZ, Iván de la (2006): “Cuando el arte mata”; El País, 23/09/2006.
PRENSKY, Marc (2001): “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants”, On the Horizon, vol. 9, n. 5, NCB University Press, octubre 2001.
SACCOMANNO, Guillermo (1994): Animales domésticos; Planeta, Buenos Aires.
SHAVIRO, Steven (2003): Connected, or What It Means to Live in the Network Society; University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
TERRANOVA, Tiziana (2005): “Redes abiertas: la edición electrónica y la inestabilidad del ciberespacio”, en Laura Borràs Castanyer (ed), Textualidades electrónicas. Nuevos escenarios para la literatura, Editorial UOC, Barcelona.
ULMER, Gregory L. (2003): Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy; Longman, New York.
WARWICK, Barbara (2002): Critical Literacy in a Digital Era. Technology, Rhetoric and the Public Interest;
 “la nuestra se percibe ya como una época en la cual el arte -o, mejor, la cultura visual- le ofrece a la literatura la posibilidad de continuar, desde otras perspectivas, sus labores narrativas o sus tareas como cartero de la sabiduría. El choque entre estos ámbitos producirá seguramente la nueva poética del siglo que empieza”; Iván de la Nuez “Cuando el arte mata”; El País, 23/09/2006.