Question 3: ML Digital as Object of Study

Digital technologies have caused us to re-think existing literary and cultural formats, and new platforms that have transformed our understanding of what a ‘text’ is. What are the new cultural forms being developed at the interface between literary-cultural expression and new media technologies? What existing rich cultural, literary and artistic heritage (going well beyond the Anglophone), do they build on? How might they force us to re-think the (implicit) nation-state assumptions that conventionally underpin Modern Languages practice?

First contributor:

Claire Taylor

Respondents:

Thea Pitman

Emanuela Patti

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3 thoughts on “Question 3: ML Digital as Object of Study

  1. Claire’s post raises some crucial questions for the future of Modern Languages: how can we deal with an increasing number of ‘cultural products’ that do not fall into the traditional categories of textuality? And, how can we, as Modern Linguists, contribute to the digital culture studies from our perspective?
    We are clearly experiencing a condition of cultural ‘in-betweeness’ in which the notion of ‘boundaries’ itself has become problematic. The category of ‘cultural products’ includes today a wide variety of creative forms ranging from traditional arts such as literature, cinema, painting, drama to electronic literature, digital cinema, media art. Digital technologies have also transformed traditional arts into new hybrid creative practices – see, for example, the application of new media to literature, theater, dance, performance art and installation. At the same time, they have given impulse to numerous, often overlapping, forms of digital art such as computer art, multimedia art, net art that use digital technologies as an essential part of their creative process. To what extent should all these practices become the object of study of Modern Languages? And, how does the exploration of these art forms help us make sense of the cultures we are studying?
    Modern Languages departments already include experts in various disciplines such as cinema, visual arts, performative arts, and music. For many Modern Linguists exploring artistic contaminations, including ekphrasis, adaptions and the radical boundaries crossing of avant-garde movements, is an established research practice. However, somehow reflecting the XX century cultural industry and institutions, we have generally approached these creative forms from one disciplinary perspective. Thinking in terms of artistic boundaries has certainly been useful to understand how and why they were pushed. Artistic avangardism, for example, has typically been an expression of political radicalism. Transgressing artistic boundaries thus meant challenging the social and cultural values associated with them. Today we are not only exposed to hybrid cultural artefacts, in which the contamination of artistic languages tends to become the norm rather than a form of transgression, but also to different social dynamics involved in the cultural production. These considerations, as well as many others including the materiality of new ‘cultural products’, force us to rethink the notion of ‘experimentalism’ through which we have traditionally interpreted artistic experiments across the arts. Can we still use it to define practices where artistic hybridity has become the norm?
    Modern Linguists can offer a significant contribution to these and many other questions related to digital culture. From their privileged historical and cultural perspective, they can draw interconnections between the national literary, cinematic and artistic cultures of experimentation and new digital practices. In the conference Experimental Narratives: From the Novels to Digital Storytelling, held in London on 26th and 27th February 2015, we reflected precisely on how the notion of literary experimentalism has evolved in different countries. At the same time, the interartistic/intermedial dimension of contemporary cultural practices encourages us to develop new interdisciplinary theories and collaborative research projects in the perspective of an interconnected research culture of the arts.

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  2. Some years ago I was invited to write a series of texts on the relationship between new technologies and literature for the Argentine state portal of education, Educ.ar
    (http://coleccion.educ.ar/coleccion/CD17/contenidos/mt/literatura/literatura/introduccion.html)
    I had just finished my degree in literature at the University of Buenos Aires and new media, experimental narratives and social networks were nowhere near as popular as they are today (Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006) didn’t exist). I offer a translation of one of those texts here because it addresses the issue of how digital technologies have transformed our understanding of what a ‘text’ is. But perhaps more than that, this post is about how many of the re-definitions of the notion of ‘text’ that we often attribute to digital technologies had already been prefigured by writers of the pre-digital era.

    ….

    On the net everything is connected to everything. A rhizome, a matrix, a fractal, all these Deleuzian figures help us to understand how the information is distributed and organised in the digital realm. When we are only referring to texts, that labyrinth in which each node is connected to another node has a specific name: the hypertext.

    Electronic hypertexts have certainly modified our reading journeys. Argentine cultural theorist Beatriz Sarlo once rightly pointed out that on the net we read skipping (and skimming) pages, at a very fast pace, as if we were always on the crest of a wave. In addition, hypertexts create new techniques of composition and meanings. Indeed, online links reorganise narrative structures and invite the reader to interact with the text, to transform it and to translate it.

    It seems that hypertexts have also materialised the old utopia (and Dadaist obsession) of collective writing. The very nature of blogs, for example, seems to give credence to that phenomenon. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that the principle beneath electronic hypertexts – the interconnection of texts that invite multiple entries of reading – is not new in the world of literature.

    In On Literature (2002), Umberto Eco has written in this respect that ‘before the invention of the computer, poets and narrators have dreamt of a totally open text that the readers could infinitely re-write in different ways. Such was the idea of Le Livre, as extolled by Mallarmé; Joyce thought of his Finnegans Wake as a text that could be read by an ideal reader affected by an ideal insomnia. In the sixties Max Saporta wrote and published a novel whose pages could be displaced so as to compose different stories. Nanni Balestrini gave one of the early computers a disconnected list of verses that the machine put together in different ways so to compose different poems; Raymond Queneau invented a combinatorial algorithm by virtue of which it was possible to compose, from a finite set of lines, billions of poems’. Moreover, for Eco the ‘machine’ that allows us to create infinite texts with a finite number of elements was invented thousands of years ago: the alphabet.

    Similarly, Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges had warned us that from the Iliad onwards all possible metaphors have already been imagined and written at some point. In ‘The Metaphor’ (1952) he mentions some of the classic ones: river-flower, river-time, woman-flower, stars-eyes, dream-death and so on. This idea was in fact already present in ‘Pascal’s Sphere’ (1951): ‘Perhaps universal history is the history of a few metaphors’. On many other occasions the author of The Aleph insisted on the idea that while the stock of words that make up language is limited, it admits infinite combinations. Another example of Argentine literature, Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch (1963), and its ‘table of Instructions’ that breaks with the linear narrative sequence imposed by the Aristotelian poetic matrix, was written with a similar playful spirit.

    The principle of recombining and reorganising the same pieces to create new totalities lies behind the idea of the ‘hypertext’. In fact, Borges’s 1941 story ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ has often been said to have inspired the information technology expert from the US, Ted Nelson, to coin the term in 1963.

    Despite all these similarities between physical books and digital texts, however, for Eco there is still a substantial difference between both formats. While a book offers multiple interpretations, it says something that cannot be modified. With a hypertextual CD-ROM, he writes, we can imagine different endings for classic novels like War and Peace; we can re-write these stories; we can create innumerable destinies for the characters of Madame Bovary. Yet while all these games that are now possible in digital media are exciting and teach us a lot about creativity and freedom, Eco concludes that they do not replace one of the principal functions of the ‘unchangeable texts’ of literature, namely, to teach us about fate and death and about the uncontrolled and fortuitous aspects of our lives.

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  3. I would like to bring an example of cultural forms being developed at the interface between literary-cultural expression and new media technologies. It is the case of narrative practices extending beyond traditional literary forms. While printed books are still the main outputs of such practices, websites are the place where the ‘storyworld’ of the novel can find a multimedia representation in the form of extra contents such as visual maps, illustrations, music; interactive sections such as fan fictions; or promotional materials such as book trailers. Through new media, literary fiction can be expanded at a multimodal level, address wider communities and build a collective identity around the stories. Far from electronic literature, we can rather inscribe these practices within the broad category of ‘transmedia storytelling’ (Jenkins 2003; 2006), as they systematically spread the story across multiple media platforms. What these narrative practices especially share with the examples from the entertainment business Jenkins mentioned in Convergence Culture (2006), such as The Matrix or The Lord of the Rings, is the way they engage audiences in the process of storytelling. Contemporary Italian fiction presents a number of significant cases of literary experimentation in this direction. Authors such as Wu Ming, Scrittura Industriale Collettiva (SIC) and Kai Zen have made ‘networking’ the underpinning principle of their artistic activity – in this respect, see Networking. The net as artwork (2006) by Tatiana Bazzichelli, the first tentative reconstruction of the history of artistic networking in Italy. Collaborative narrative practices characterize most of these projects at different levels, not only because they are all groups of writers, rather than individual authors, but also because they involve the audience in the co-creation of narratives and counter-narratives of our history, whether these address past events or current affairs. See, for example, one of the early experiments of Wu Ming’s transmedia storytelling, the novel Manituana (2007) website [http://www.manituana.com/], directly inspired by Jenkins’ Convergence Culture (for a review of the novel in English, see http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/nov/07/manituana-wu-ming-book-review). But the best example of Wu Ming’s artistic networking is how they build their ideological discourse in their blog, wumingfoundation.com, involving the participation of their readership. Within this perspective, the novels are just a fragment of a wider process of collaborative storytelling between authors and readers, developed through social networks. These cases are particularly interesting for the way they have developed, through new technologies, a certain Italian underground culture into popular culture. This also reveals a strong desire to overcome postmodern fragmentation with a renewed sense of collective identity. The way they have appropriated the Anglophone concept of ‘transmedia storytelling’ is thus representative of a specific Italian community. Behind the word ‘story’ we can read in fact a certain ideological identity and worldview that we could not understand without knowing its cultural background.

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