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Saved by Caroline Kelley
on June 4, 2009 at 6:48:06 pm


Electronic Literature: A Hopeful Monster, A Trading Zone

An Interactive HUMlab Workshop (2008 - 2009)

with Caroline Kelley and Cecilia Lindhé

In the first chapter of N. Katherine Hayles book Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary (2008) she outlines some of the features of electronic literature, declaring that it is "generally considered to exclude print literature that has been digitized, is by contrast ‘digital born,’ a first-generation digital object created on a computer and (usually) meant to be read on a computer" (3).  In crafting her definition, Hayles also takes into consideration The Electronic Literature Organization’s influential definition of the new field.  This inclusive classification allows for work performed in digital media as well as work produced on a computer but published in print.  As Hayles states, the ELO committee embraces: "work with an important literary aspect that takes advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer" (Electronic Literature, 3). 

However, the ELO formulation raises some questions – especially in regards to the diverse functions and contexts of the computer in relation to e literature – forcing us to consider the transformative nature of computer technology as well as the assorted ways this technology is employed (by writers, artists, academics, etc.).  The definition is also somewhat rhetorical in that it relies on its reader’s implicit understanding of what is meant by an "important literary aspect" (Hayles, Electronic Literature, 3).  Nonetheless, the use of rhetorical or tautological statements is understandable if we take into account the path that electronic literature takes as it follows hundreds of years of print literature and the more ancient traditions of manuscript writing and, prior to this, oral history transmission.  As a result, a preponderance of e literature readers – especially those new to the field – approach it with strong preconceptions formed by print culture.  Electronic literature must metastasize and modify these expectations. 

Finally – as electronic literature is generally developed (and "performed") in the framework of networked and programmable media, it is strongly informed by computer games, films, animation, digital art, graphic design, and electronic visual culture.  In this sense, electronic literature is a "hopeful monster" (as geneticists label adaptive mutations) composed of parts from a variety of traditions – that may not fit neatly together.  Intrinsically hybrid, electronic literature becomes a "trading zone" (as Peter Galison calls it in a different context) where diverse vocabularies, expertises, and expectations intermingle (Hayles, Electronic Literature, 4). 


We have adopted Hayles’ terms "hopeful monster" and "trading zone" as qualifying elements of the workshop title but asked the group to suggest alternatives as the workshop progressed – and we encouraged everyone to make any suggestions or changes in the workshop wiki. 

Speaking of the wiki, we also envisioned an interactive and interdependent workshop that was somewhat experimental.  While we (Caroline and Cecilia) might have been the "conveners" of the workshop, we hoped everyone would take an active role in planning sessions, participating in group discussions, and "presenting" or "performing" their own work (or a relevant topic of interest). 

In designing the workshop, we wanted to explore different ways of "doing" the workshop or seminar that might be less traditional – drawing on educational theories that could also be used in our classroom teaching.  To be more specific, we hoped this workshop would be a space to try "reflective practice" as well as to some degree "cooperative or participatory learning."  This may be different from our prior experiences of workshops or seminars where information is "transmitted" from a speaker or a lecturer to participants and there is a well-defined body of knowledge to absorb (and to discuss or regurgitate).  We wanted to attempt to move away from this structure and to create an opportunity to reflect – as a group – on what we read and discussed as well as our diverse knowledges and experiences.  That is, we hoped to facilitate a "community of practice" where we inquired together into the subject of Electronic Literature, supported and contributed to one another’s process of learning and understanding, and generated knowledge collectively.  Within the space of the workshop, everyone was expected to be a learner and have an opportunity to share their knowledge – as well as to actively contribute to the direction of the workshop.  Ideally, our intent as facilitators was not to "deliver content" but to create a space that strengthens our capacities for critical inquiry, our understandings of the new field of Electronic Literature and inspires us to reflect on our own approaches to teaching and learning.  Much like the emergent field we discussed, we wanted to experiment with newer ways of accessing knowledge. 

One of the elements of our participatory approach is the workshop wiki – mentioned above – which is hosted by PB Wiki.  Everyone was offered writer status and encouraged to produce and edit content, make suggestions (i.e., session topics or themes, reading, online resources, etc.), and help to organize it. 

Our first workshop session on 15 December consisted of a series of informal introductions – to the subject of Electronic Literature, to the idea of reflective practice (and cooperative or participatory learning) and to each other.  The work of Hayles – highlighted above – and others was included in our overview of the field and we displayed some examples of contemporary e literature.  Finally, we to talked about themes for the next workshop session in January 2009 as well as directions the workshop might take.

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