A threefold quest into digital literature.
Digital literature is ephemeral, sometimes even instantaneous, and in extreme cases even made to vanish (eg. in the form of interventions). That changes the way of disseminating it completely.
What is digital literature again?!
I have come to terms with the fact that digital literature cannot be simply defined as literature that is digitally published – that is, if it uses digital means as an inherent part of its presenting the story. Nope, no ebooks or blogs are on the list – what’s excluded are forms of established literature that are digitalized to create unconventional reading experiences and/or to enhance performance. If it is doable offline, it is not really digital literature. Digital literature on the other hand resembles more often (partly non-human) performances, interventions or machines that are determined by change and thus it is to a high degree ephemeral.
Digital literature is often recognized as being closely linked to art movements. Happening, detournément, approbation and visuality are categories that easily apply to digital literature. And with this, the way of disseminating becomes different from conventional forms of literature. Indeed, as literature leaves the shell of the book and the shelves of the bookstore and levels up to virtual existence, it becomes both very easy and very difficult to disseminate digital literature.
Easy because digital literature is readily accessible and usually low in price which is connected to the democratic vision at the dawn of digital literature. Difficult because there are no categories or established genres (eg. at amazon) and no book stores for distributing digital literature. Google Search is more of a help to get to know some of the works. Digital literature in the form of games has clearly established publication tools and the animated aphorism of digital culture, gifs, which are usually shared on blogs and social channels – I, for one, am not aware of any website or shop that would be specialized in digital literature. Facebook groups, twitter, blogs and articles – it is all there, but there is no shop or drop-in center.
Library and storage
And it is hard to archive. So disseminating takes place differently and uses common channels on the internet. And also because of the partly ephemeral nature of digital literature and rapid technological development, the different works are comparatively hard to track down. Especially those from some time ago that are already somewhat outdated. Archiving digital literature is as we all know not impossible but there are no institutions or groups officially responsible for doing it. It is mainly left to the creators of the works. The only thing I know of is Kenneth Goldsmith’s ubuweb that is but more about avant-garde works than focusing on digital literature.
What was it again?!
Coming back to the question of dissemination, one could assume that the problems facing the distribution of digital literature are actually political and stem from the very nature of the internet being regulated among a row of companies which undermine the force of the initial democratic and open source positions of the net art of the nineties. Let alone for the artist’s chances to earn money with it. The political stance though has finally been taken on by movements such as Occupy. For the internet, now, Amazon, Google or iTunes have become big and usually these channels are used to distribute digital literature. Take for example the project “Pry” that is only available on iTunes for iPad and uses digital means to produce an ever-so immanent experience of a character. Web-site based projects on the other hand are somewhat like hidden treasures you only come across by looking and looking, following links etc., getting into groups and following the right people. One thing I would like to mention here too are exhibitions and festivals (one of the most intriguing was “Vital to the General Public”, curated by Jason Edward Lewis and presented during the imagineNATIVE Festival 2011 in Toronto). Often these venues cross boundaries between the worlds of literature and media arts and the game world.
Between the links
So digital literature is often not declared as such but rather draws on other media arts. Actually when you look at digitally published books written exclusively as an app or website, the distinction with a text-based movie blurs. Does literature become a text-based medium once again? Do we revert to the conventional definition? Does more text equal more ‘literature’? Or is it just the art of language? I cannot answer that now. These are questions yet to unfold and become visible.
Photo credits: Erkaha / Wikicommons