INTRE:FACE conference archives: Hannes Bajohr presenting What is digital literature

The INTRE:FACE Digital Conference (06.02.2016-07.02.2016), organized by Katharina Deloglu and Tom Bresemann, hosted by Andreas Bülhoff, tackled many important questions regarding digital literature. In a series of articles we bring you the speeches and discussions held at the INTRE:FACE Digital Conference, dealing with problems regarding digital literature and different tools used to construct it, for example how can digital tools be used to offer new approaches to production, what digital tools already exist and how are they structured, to more applied problems, such as how can literary activists use digital means to connect with one another, how we can make most of digital material and many other interesting topics.

Hannes Bajohr proposed an example of a distinction between digital literature in opposition with digitized literature. You can watch the informative video here and then make sure to read the heated debate bellow!

Andreas Bülhoff: You made some distinctions in your presentation but I was a bit skeptical, could you talk about the digital work you mentioned, the example you mentioned was conceptual writing and it reminds me of a project by Kenneth Goldsmith, Day, where he transcribed the weather forecast by hand to his computer, I’m not sure this would express digital work, it reminds me of monks copying the Bible in the 16th century.

Hannes Bajohr: I think the question is: does digital literature have to be read digitally, or can it be also read in print. What is the basic distinction? So the question cannot simply be one of the mode of transmission, but you have to go back further, to something like an historical a priori: What make it possible to occur in the first place, and what world view does it express? Code poetry and conceptual writing were just examples, in a way arbitrary ones, and yet pertinent, because conceptual literature as it is practiced now – a generation after Goldsmith – does exactly what digital literature should: to express a digital world view. Goldsmith’s project was ‘repeated’ by an author named Lawrence Giffin, Ex Tempore. He sat down to write the dates and times for 24 hours: now it’s 9:42, now it’s 9:49…, etc. As soon as you see this, a performance that does not necessarily have to do anything with digitally, you don’t quite believe that it was actually hand-made. While it is possible to do this by hand, it is much more likely that it was programmed. The reader’s skepticism renders it, paradoxically, digital.

I find the difference between digital and digitized literature really useful, but I find the other definition you gave much more problematic and reductive in the sense that digital literature is for example code poetry, which is also hard to define, where is the code and what is the code? But when you merge conceptual literature with it, which is a school, a way of writing, every writer in this field would not fit into the category. I think saying digital literature is code poetry and conceptual writing is a bit restrictive.

Hannes Bajohr: The definition is of course incredibly reductive, and it cannot encompass all of digital literature. I just wanted to show one aspect: that it is not necessarily the mode of reception that makes digital literature digital – and to a certain extent not even the way of production (but that’s a different topic). What makes conceptual writing interesting this: the ability of code to process text has helped a lot of people to carry out conceptual projects. Code and concept are often closely related, and converge in digital literature. You may have heard of the National Novel Writing month, where people pledge to write around 50.000 words. Now, there is also a National Novel Generation Month. A similar concept, but the challenge is to write a code that generates a novel. Without planning to be conceptual, the generated novels are conceptual, because there is necessarily a concept behind them by which they are generated. One example is a novel by Nick Montfort, Megawatt, which is based on passages from Samuel Beckett’s novel Watt, a novel with a lot of repetitions that can be modeled with a programming language – he used Python – and even be expanded. It leaves aside all of the more intelligible language of Beckett’s novel and is based, instead, on that which is most systematic and inscrutable. It does not just recreate these passages, although with minor changes the Megawatt code can be used to do so. In the new novel, rather, they are intensified by generating, using the same methods that Beckett used, significantly more text than is found in the already excessive Watt.

Andreas Bülhoff: You have a very production centered conception of digital literature. You publish your works in pdf, a very traditional format, what is behind this decision?

Hannes Bajohr: We use it because we use print on demand. There is a whole sub-genre of experimental literature that works with print on demand. Again here is the question if digital literature has to be digital, immaterial, or can it also be printed, take a material shape. And if you look at a printed book and a kindle simply as different kinds of output media, instruments for text, the difference shrinks. The interesting thing about print on demand is that it allows a decentralized form of publishing that is still material: you have a book – and yet it also exists in digital form. Print on demand books have a very strange ontological status – the PDFs are books in potentia. And maybe I just like the idea of an object that is simultaneously there and not there.

Aleksandra Małecka: I don’t know if you knew, but the publishing house I work for published a computer generated novel, The World Clock, and we sold 200 copies of it, even got 15 reviews in mainstream media, so I think this shows that if you have a physical object it means something. My question would be if you are familiar with the term highly computational literature and how would you relate it to your definition of digital literature?

Hannes Bajohr: I think it would cover the same ground, this literature goes into the same direction, and it could easily be said that this literature, The World Clock, is also very much conceptual. I would just like to say that with my definition I didn’t try to cover the whole digital literature, only give an aspect of what it can be. The point was: The difference between materiality and immateriality for me does not matter when it comes to digital literature.


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