Upcoming MLA16 Session "Reader Mediations in Electronic Literature"

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    Élika Ortega

    Chair: Mark Sample, Davidson College
    Session Organizer: Élika Ortega, University of Kansas

    The place of the reader in electronic literature has conventionally been taken as a “writerly” one, where participation, involvement, interaction, activation, co-creation, etc. are but some of the activities required to read a work. Although this is true to a certain extent, forms of reader interaction are (in)scripted into a writer’s intended creative composition. Explorations into how “writers of electronic literature design, control, cast, or otherwise shape their readers’ experience and interaction” have recently started to take place in venues like the 2014 ASA round table “Scripting the Reader in Electronic Literature” organized by Leonardo Flores. Similarly, the documentation of readers’ experience of early electronic literature is also the focus of the large-scale project Pathfinders directed by Dene Grigar and Stuart Moulthrop.

    Further, examining what a reader does with a work of electronic literature becomes even more complex if we add into the mix the ways in which readers engage the media devices used in e-lit works. Following Lisa Gitelman’s notion of media, in e-lit works media will carry with it a series of associated protocols and communication practices. Associated media practices and protocols, even when they might be adjacent to the composition of e-lit works, will not only shape readers’ expectations and inform their experience of said works but also, crucially, have an effect on the readers’ experience of the work’s material media. Experimental uses of media and the adaptation of e-lit works from one device into another will also reshape and impact our conventional uses of media devices and often reframe them in and out of a larger media ecology.

    Organized under the auspices of the Media Studies, Visual Culture group, “Reader Mediations in Electronic Literature” directly engages the presidential theme of the conference Literature and Its Publics: Past, Present, and Future. The four talks in this session take a comparative media approach to think about media, reception, preservation, and adaptation of works of electronic literature. The speakers explore, on the one hand, how the very act of reading these works is structurally subjected to the devices that materialize them as well as their planned obsolescence and accelerated technological developments; and on the other hand, ways in which reading of E-Lit works takes place by means of various devices and thus shapes new reading publics.

    Dene Grigar opens the session drawing on her curatorial experience during the Game Changers exhibit to talk about preservation best practices for literary apps. Grigar takes Evan and Geoffrey Young’s The Carrier as a case study after the iOS app recently stopped being available on the Apple Store. The Carrier (2009) was first and exclusively published in digital format for mobile devices and thus constitutes a paradigmatic example of how electronic literary works have altered our use of media objects. Grigar’s “Preserving Literary Apps: A Call to Action for Digital Humanities Scholars” ask us to document and collect works like The Carrier and lays the ground to discuss the specificities found in the media devices shaping readers engagement with particular media objects.

    The issue of preservation is the starting point for Kathi Inman Berens to look into the phenomenon of adaptation in E-Lit. In “Touch and Decay: Tomasula’s TOC on iOS” Berens proposes a device-specific reception history examining TOC’s porting from desktop to mobile environment. As any other work of electronic literature TOC has been subject to the cycles of novelty and obsolescence. Its adaptation to iPad offers a rare opportunity to examine a canonical work of electronic literature where the identical content has been ported from desktop to a mobile device. In doing so, TOC programmer and co-author Christian Jara transformed its reader interface from click to touch, which in the iOS environment is stylized into a lexicon of eight gestures. Furthermore, Berens examines what is gained and lost during medial evolution and adaptation even in terms of access to an iPad, an expensive device that commands less and less of the tablet market share.

    What is gained and lost through the use of different devices links Berens’ presentation to Élika Ortega’s “Textual Environments and Reader Mediation in Electronic Literature.” This paper discusses the notion of multimateriality: the multiplicity of devices and interface configurations used to read individual works like Simon Bigg’s re-Read, Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse’s Between Page and Screen (2012), and Upside Down Chandelier by María Mencía, Christine Wilks, Jeneen Naji, and Zuzana Husárova. Ortega argues that multimateriality leads to the creation of emergent and provisional “textual environments” whose components cannot be discretely separated without crippling the layered reading experience embedded in the text’s configuration. Furthermore, textual environments are not static or stable but provisional and usually repeatable. Finally, Ortega focuses on how media configurations in these works alter the associated communication protocols and the expectations brought about by each medium utilized.

    Closing the session, Rita Raley explores the practices taking place in multi-screen display of algorithmically generated texts, the apparent randomness and durational structures of which remove semiotic certainty—texts that may momentarily coalescence but are not practically or theoretically available for meaningful integration. Raley proposes “disintegrated reading” as a mode of reception that is non-responsive to the expectation that we should be doing things with—that is, parsing, making functional, instrumentalizing—texts and text data. Raley takes “disintegrated reading” as a critical framework for understanding our engagement by installations and projects representative of the shifting ecology of text including Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen, Shakespeare Machine; Sarah Waterson, Cristyn Davies, and Elena Cox, Trope; and John Cayley and Daniel Howe, The Readers Project.

    “Reader Mediations in Electronic Literature” investigates a wide array of factors shaping the reading of e-lit works—market, device, communication protocols, adaptation, obsolescence—and thus is set to be an important precedent for studies of media specific reading as new reading practices and publics emerge.

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