The Muse

(An International Journal of Poetry)

Volume-1                                          June-2011                                                        Number-1




How Dangerous Is Digital Literature?


Felix Nicolau, Ph. D.,

Associate professor,

 “Hyperion” University,

 Bucharest, Romania


As a consequence of time getting more and more compressed, the future of literature should belong to shorter species, namely poetry. If this proves true, a prominent attention must be paid to digital poetry, for instance SMS-poetry. One of the basic principles of this new type of creation is mixing and capsizing the lines of a poem, the invitation addressed to the reader to take part in reshaping the structure of a poem. Forget about the classical stereotypy regarding the immutable, geometrical structure of a poem. To exist digital means to customize and manually “reinstall” the data of the poem.

After the first wave of theorists and authors of digital literature, we cannot insist anylonger on the dramatic differences between the medium of publishing. The sheet of paper and the monitor are basically the same. What really matters is the new facility the virtual space offers to the writers. Exactly like forwarding or back-streaming a movie, the reader of digital literature has the possibility to break the strict chronology and the rhythm of a text. And this is only about the horizontal axis. But there are also the vertical and the oblique axes. Basically, literature assumes lots of characteristics specific to video games. It is sufficient to place the cursor on a node and immediately a picture or a graph will pop up announcing the content which is to be accessed. Reading becomes this way not only interactive, but spectacular, imagistic, too.


The toxic pleasure

Maybe the archetypes of digital literature were The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. Gentleman, by Lawrence Sterne, and Finnegan’s Wake, by James Joyce. The former belongs to the 18th century, the latter to the 20th one. Sterne envisaged the narrative playfulness. He interrupted the narrative flow at will, dropped and resumed plot lines in a manner that could seem whimsical. I was always amazed in front of this avanguardist courage. Much in the same fashion, James Joyce stated that he built his novel after the logics of dream. |Finnegan’s Wake would represent the nocturnal life, which ought to go berserk, compared to the diurnal cycle of human activities. Actually, the 20th century author painfully strove to defend his creation, if we compare him with his more relaxed foil in the 18th century. This shows that the temporal advancement doesn’t coincide all the time with the advancement of freeing the mind of prejudices.

Jean Baudrillard’s suspicion, not to say awe, as to the virtual reality, has something in common with the medieval witch hunting. Of course, the radical disillusion spoken about in The Perfect Crime lures from the flashy screens of computers and of course simulacra pervade our world progressively. But is not literature in itself an illusion that has been fighting reality for centuries?

On the other hand, Pierre Lévy’s radical slicing of the knot by annihilating the opposition between the real and the virtual, in his book Qu’est-ce que le virtuel, proves a far-fetched levelling optimism. Not only these two environments are different, but they can evolve such isolation that the virtual virtualizes itself up to the point where we reach a second degree of potentiality. N. Katherine Hayles signalled this tendency in How We Became Posthuman. The emerging issue is whether this transcending process is a negative one or not. This “virtualization to a second degree of the already virtual” (in Ryan, 39) is so unsettling only because it pushes Plato’s and Aristotle’s ideatic scaffolds one step further. How can one get absorbed into virtual depends I think on the degree of intelligence and imagination. Virtual can function as prosthesis for diminished intelligence and imagination. But Aristotle in his Poetics indicated that we are attracted to the fictional world especially because it is different from the real one. The fact that the contemporary human beings are not able to tell fiction from reality, equates with them having no more an aesthetic sense. Taking virtual for granted betrays a blatant misunderstanding of the condition of the game. Mimesis evolves into fetishism.


Repetition is not necessarily boring

On the other hand, in postmodernist era the Freudian principle of pleasure overwhelmed the opposing principle of reality. Pleasure is lived at maximum following a suicidal drive. Virtual is no longer something else, as Susanne K. Langer put it in Feeling and Form (1953), but it has become the ubiquitous and all-engulfing reality.

Digital literature, through its branched or even rhizoid structure of narration fights exactly these intoxicating ways of approaching the virtual. When the readers are supposed to cross nodes and choose pathways across, not along, a non-linear plot, the reading for jouissance, as Roland Barthes called it, dwindles. To read means, in these conditions, to select and reorganize. In order to construct a feasible literary work, the reader-as-an-author has to move back and forth, up and down over the narrative chart. Of course, these intricacies involve rationality, taste and self-awareness. That is why Gilles Deleuze’s concept of complex repetition excludes boredom. One can create better by resuming things already mentioned. Actually, the notion of the refrain (or ritournelle) as formulated by Guattari and Deleuze, reinvents the musical and pondering qualities of the Medieval Ages and the Renaissance rhythms. The science of distinguishing new sounds by playing the same key over and over again.

David Ciccoricco quotes Rimmon-Kennan’s essay “The Paradoxical Status of Repetition” (1980), with the view of demonstrating the complexity and usefulness of readjusting data by means of repetition: “Paradox 1. Repetition is present everywhere and nowhere; Paradox 2. Constructive repetition emphasizes sameness; Paradox 3: The first time is already a repetition, and repetition is already the first time”(Reading Network Fiction, 55).

Without any doubt, repetition plays a significant role only in digital literature. The so-called paradoxes are shocking only for the avalanche-like Western culture. Otherwise, repetition means besieging sense, that is profound investigation and deeper insight. Of course, before Deleuze’s and Derrida’s considerations on repetition there was Nietzsche’s doctrine of ever-lasting recurrence. It is mainly what David Ciccoricco calls “the time and time again of network fiction” (3). Which is obviously different from the modernist imperative: make it new! And even more disrupted from the postmodernist recycling of myths, happenings, and characters. And this because in network fiction the principle of repetition is intimately linked to relaunching the interpretation of the same literary work and not to parodying or demythologizing a whole culture. This “collaborative composition” envisaging “the sense of immersion in an interactive text” (Ciccoricco, 13) is much more a paradigmatic than a syntagmatic one.


Anarchy or inventivity?

It has become a common place that fact that digital literature is to be read in leaps and jumps. While admitting that “network fictions are emergent and recombinatory” (Ciccoricco, 7), like Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1 (1962), where the “box” of narration meant 150 loose and unnumbered pages, some theorists warn about the lack of hierarchy in this literary “anarchic” work. So, what would be the principle of composition of this art? In David Ciccoricco’s vision, the hypertext documents could be arranged in three main categories: axial, arborescent, and networked (5). The first two ones are more “hierarchical” on account of the main axis supporting their plots. The networked ones, being disposed into a system of nodes without a dominant axis are freer and more “anarchic”. Advancing the concept of rhizome in A Thousand Plateaus, 1987, Deleuze and Guattari recognized also the heterogeneity of digital literature.

Heterogeneity doesn’t mean lack of structure. The readers build their own structure of a book and this one is only a visage of the multi-layered multi-façade rhizoid structure of the network fiction. Of course, some readers will “assemble” a better structure than others, in conformity with their cultural skills. The text becomes thus plurivalent, weaker or stronger, in function of the quality of its players. A puzzle with many final images. Is this a simulacrum or an opera aperta? What if the reality has come to be the simulacrum of the virtual? Maybe it does not count that much. Maybe more important is for a book to incentivize the readers, irrespective of the technical strategies involved. Otherwise, we should take for granted Dorris Lessing’s piece of advice: “when a book’s pattern and the shape of its inner life is as plain to the reader as it is to the author – then perhaps it is time to throw the book aside, as having had its day, and start again on something new” (The Golden Notebook, 21).


Key words: puzzle, node, rhizome, structure, virtual.





How Dangerous Is Digital Literature?

The alarm signal was pulled by Jean Baudrillard who warned about the greedy nature of the virtual. We have the right this prophecy, or, at least not to panic for the time being. The virtual is dangerous for those who use it in mediocre activities. Thus, if we consider the Gilles Deleuze’s concept of „complex repetition”, digital literature can be apprehended as a stimulus for a profound reading. The liberty to choose the narrative itinerary spurs the cultural responsibility and enhances the capacity of voyaging across the literary labyrinth. In order to generate such a performance, we need an initiated reader, able to read in a creative manner, as a reader-author


Works cited:

Ciccoricco, David. Reading Network Fiction. 1973. Copyright 2007. The University of Alabama Press, USA.

Lessing, Doris. The Golden Notebook. 2007. Harper Perennial. 77-85 Fulham Palace Road. London, U.K.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. Narrative as Virtual Reality. 2001. The Johns Hopkins University Press. USA.