Lit Misbehaving: a special session at #MLA14

I’m really happy that a session I (well, WE) proposed for the 2014 MLA convention has been accepted. It was a decent amount of work, so it’s a relief to see that the idea will materialize! Keep an eye out for “Lit Misbehaving: Responding to New and Changing Modes of Creative Production” if you’re at MLA this year. I’d love to see you there. Here’s the full proposal:

Through engaging and performing with new modes of digital creativity and authorship, the speakers on this panel seek to continue the ongoing work of venturing into potentially unfamiliar realms of textual production. Hybrid print/video essays, games created in online communities, and algorithmic Twitter updates: these are undisciplined texts. Their misbehavior asks us to reevaluate assumptions about what it means to have agency and a voice in nascent and vulnerable digital authoring spaces. Panels at last year’s MLA Convention and recent digital humanities discussions have attended to online publishing and computer-based methods of analysis and research. However, the evolution of creative expression takes many forms that (because they might feel different or discomforting) risk being overlooked by scholars of literature and media. Furthermore, theorizing about emerging digital modes rarely happens in these very modes. By bringing new media artistic and literary practice together with alternative scholarship, this session hopes to disturb traditional print-centric notions of how texts and their authors can and should express themselves. In turn, such disturbance may unsettle genre conventions, publishing processes, readerly expectations, and gender norms, and so give credence to much-debated principles of the digital humanities: DIY making, hacking, play, and experimentation.

Tensions in discussions of the digital humanities reflect the shifting boundaries evoked by and materialized through new modes of expression. In an opinion piece published in The New York Times in 2012, Stanley Fish traces a rigid line between traditional critical work and digital humanities work, concluding with a concatenation of oppositions “between what is relevant and what is noise, between what is serious and what is mere play.” Fish’s distinctions, though contentious, are useful because they articulate resonant and often unspoken biases that leak into thinking about texts. An important goal of this session is to bring marginalized and underrepresented voices (human or otherwise) into focus, not by disciplining them, but by celebrating their misbehavior and putting them in dialogue with past literary and artistic experiments.

The distinction between “what is serious and what is mere play” quakes when we examine the Twine platform: a tool for building choice-driven stories easily publishable to the web. Twine’s code-free interface combined with its flexibility of extension by more experienced coders make it a novice-friendly tool, and its free open-source status removes it from some of the associations of privilege that more traditional and expensive game development tools bear. As Anastasia Salter argues, works built in Twine hearken back to early electronic literature, such as Hypercard and Eastgate hypertext novels, but their relationship with these established digital forms is not straightforward. Twine creations have emerged into a communal space outside of both “indie” gaming and electronic literature. Several of these works (particularly Nora Last’s “Here’s Your Rape” and Anna Anthropy’s “Escape from the lesbian gaze”) invite a feminist reading, both in the marginalized voices and experiences they bring to play and in the very agency expressed through their creation. The “Twine revolution” rejects any limitations about appropriate subjects for play and games, fusing forms and techniques from electronic literature with narratives that reconstruct the female game character through text, shifting agency to new and previously unheard voices.

Daniel Anderson turns to another expressive form with an uncertain status: the hybrid essay. Continuing his work as a researcher and practitioner of digital and cross-modal composition, Anderson recently has experimented with essays that feature videos composed in concert with text intended for print publication. The experimentation tests the boundaries between print and video modes, highlighting a challenge associated with transformative digital texts: the implicit nature of their arguments. Texts featuring digital affect (Murray), resonating with ambience (Rickert; Morton), or representing digital ontologies (Bogost) may strike us as odd simply because they are cast through unfamiliar materials. Discomfort with digital texts, Anderson suggests, marks less a failure to deliver a message and more a successful intervention in the unspoken academic approaches codified through the communicative ease of print. As a case study, Anderson takes a forthcoming, published hybrid print/video essay to bring to light tensions between implicit and explicit registers of expression across print and digital modes. His presentation will feature scholarly/poetic video artifacts, ultimately proposing (and enacting) an alt-scholarship conveyed through visual, sonic, and verbal registers.

Extending the session’s focus on marginalized voices and contentious or peripheral modes of text production, Zach Whalen takes up a topic that has received almost no critical attention: Twitter-based literary creativity. Returning to Fish’s distinction “between what is relevant and what is noise,” Whalen’s treatment of tweetbots and text art shows that the noise itself is often composed and reflects networked instantiations that resist typical hierarchies and binaries. From @horse_ebooks to @stealth_mountain, many of the voices filling timelines are produced by algorithms, generating text in complex collaboration with datasets and distant authors. Complementary projects like @crashtxt explore the boundaries of expression in 140 characters—as well as some unstated ideological boundaries—by inviting anyone to create tweets from a restricted palette of non-Western and non-alphanumeric glyphs. These fragile, visual texts rely on Unicode characters that may not be supported by all browsers and devices, and such fragility underscores their aesthetics with the same machine-dependence inherent to _ebooks-style bots. From constraint-based production to Oulipean and Dadaist expressions of machine-driven aesthetics, Whalen excavates Twitter as a textual and typographic performance space, tracing antecedents in the resistive literary epistemology of electronic literature.

Stuart Moulthrop, the session respondent, will facilitate audience discussion. Moulthrop writes and teaches about gaming and digital media, and he has been a central figure in electronic literature for more than two decades. His perspective will help us think through the question of how new and changing modes of creative practice and scholarship are unsettling the boundary lines that Fish and others reference when determining worth. This session is committed to acts of opening, to interdisciplinary experimentation, to validating fresh objects of study, to alternative modes of scholarly production, and (perhaps necessarily) even to unruliness.

Panelists and working titles of their presentations:

  • Anastasia Salter (Assistant Professor of Science, Information Arts and Technologies, University of Baltimore) “Bonfires, Lesbians, Depression and Rape: Twine, Feminist Voices and Agency in Game Narratives”
  • Daniel Anderson (Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Director of the Studio for Instructional Technology and English Studies, University of North Carolina) “Turn up the Opacity: Discussing Discomfort with Digital Modes”
  • Zach Whalen (Assistant Professor of English, Linguistics and Communication, University of Mary Washington) “_ebooks, Typography and Twitter Art”