Summary and Conclusion

Here I thought I knew how to write literature. My ignorance never fails to surprise me: I may know a couple of things about writing traditional literature, but even the most basic things about writing digital literature, such as explorations of connotation, escaped me entirely until I worked my way through writing this piece. So this blog entry will be an attempt to explain part of the journey into the understanding I have gained from writing and reading, and critiquing, digital literature in this project—some understanding of its conventions, and the successes and failures that I have had, and that I can see in the work of digital artists, in meeting or failing to meet those conventions.

All writing of creative literature, at least in my experience, begins with discomfort, and the beginning of this piece began with discomfort as well—particularly over the narrow definition of modernism that Jessica Pressman used in her book, Digital Modernism: Making it New in New Media. This discomfort was, perhaps, the only part of my thinking about digital literature, and especially its relationship to modernism that did not change throughout the process of writing “Old Man on the Beach,” perhaps because I have given it a lot of thought even before this class began—if digital literature is going to expand beyond a narrow readership, it will need to take a broader view both of modernism and of the practice of modernism in a digital medium.

So, on to the actual writing of the piece. I began with what I hoped to accomplish. I should say that the theoretical underpinnings of what I was trying to do were only vaguely established before I began the actual writing. I did this intentionally, taking the approach that Sergei Eisenstein used in developing his theory of film, in which the work is done first and the exploration of the theory behind how it was done comes afterwards—a form of reverse engineering. One of those vague underpinnings perhaps is not quite so vague, since it has underlain every piece of literature that I’ve ever written—if art is the aesthetic expression of the human experience, which I think it is, than the human—that is character—underlies all good literature and so must be the first thing to be considered. I did that here, here, here, and here. Much of this I didn’t use in the actual piece, but the exploration was still needed in order to have a full-enough understanding of the character on which the piece would be based.

With the character established, I needed to consider technique, which was all very new to me, given my inexperience with digital literature. This led to an exploration of how the text needed to move, and how it would form a visual metaphor for the piece. That led, eventually, with quite a few stops and starts, to the writing of the text for the first draft, and this led, with more stops and starts, to the initial draft of the piece.

Anny close reading must begin with a detailed description of the piece actually contains. Following Eisenstein, the next thing I did was try to analyze what worked and what didn’t, and the aesthetic foundations of what lay beneath those things, such as text flow and structure, and the interplay of the text with its visual and auditory background. This led to an attempt to classify the genre of the piece as digital literature, and I was able to identify many of the things that didn’t work, and that gave me new understanding into digital literature as a whole. With all of that in mind, I rewrote the piece, in light of my new understanding.

Where this has all led me is into a fascination with the potential of digital literature, which I would like to explore in writing more digital work, and hopefully into a deeper understanding of its techniques and conventions. For example, I would like to apply my new understand to digital literature based on Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night, as well as his Olive Trees. Degas waits after Van Gogh. The possibilities are endless.

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The differences between traditional and digital literature

The differences in writing traditional literature and digital literature reflect the inherent limitations and potentialities of the two forms, and my experience of the differences between them that came out in writing this piece can be divided into what I expected and what I didn’t.

What I expected. What I expected in writing this piece that proved to be different than writing a traditional piece of literature was an expansion in the use of metaphor beyond the literary. I expected to have to explore and try to clarify the metaphor of the moving text, both in the movement of the text itself and in its relationship to the visual and auditory background of the piece. I expected to have to find a way for the text to move like water—like surf coming into, and then going out from, a beach. I expected to have to adapt the text—its speed and its size—to reflect the movement of that surf and the difficulty of reading surf, and the structure of the narrative to reflect the surf as well.

This, or course, means that the reader would have to approach reading the text differently than a reader would read a piece of traditional literature. The left-to-right, top-to-bottom method of reading a traditional piece of literature would have to be abandoned if I was to maintain the visual and auditory metaphor; I called this blog “The Spiral” because that was how I expected the reader would have to read the text: left-to-right, but also top-to-bottom followed by bottom-to-top with the eyes spiraling up and down the screen. With the method of text movement that I finally settled on, that spiraling method of reading became moot, but that is the expectation I began with.

What I didn’t expect. The things that surprised me in writing this piece had less to do with text movement—something I was expecting, given my reading of other digital literature pieces—but what happens when text is made available or unavailable to the reader. This doesn’t happen in traditional literature—no text is ever unavailable, since the reader can always look forward on the page or look back. When the text is presented on a screen, though, there is no looking forward or looking back. The reader has only what I choose, as the writer, to have on the screen at any given moment.

The biggest surprise that came about from exploiting this quality of digital literature was the use it creates of connotation. In a traditionally written text, the connotation of a word is very difficult to change, because it is wedded to the words that come before it on the page. But in a piece of digital literature, those words can be removed and in effect divorced from the words that follow, creating the opportunity for new connotations connected to the word in question. An example that occurs in “Old Man on the Beach” is the connotations attached to the word pain. Initially, its connotation is a physical one, related to the man’s arthritic fingers and knee:

 pain 4

But with the dropping of the first line, and with the transposition of the couplet, and with the addition of a second line, through the movement of the text the connotation changes:

 pain 3

The fact that the reader can no longer refer back to the first line allows a change in connotation from a physical sensation to the emotional pain of the loss of his wife.

This opens up an entire world of potentiality to explore, one I would like to explore in other works.

What I hoped to do

The primary thing that I hoped to accomplish in writing this piece was to bring the other side of modernism into the digital realm—that side of modernism represented by William Carlos Williams that T.S. Eliot disparaged as not being poetry at all, and that writers like Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos were to carry on with and expand upon. That side, to me, is best defined by the audience that it is being written for. In traditional modernist literature, a comparison of T.S. Eliot to William Carlos Williams reveals that they were writing for different audiences: Eliot for a much more sophisticated audience capable of understanding close reading and literary allusion; Williams for, I won’t say a less sophisticated audience, since understand his work at any level of depth requires a great deal of sophistication, but a broader audience, one that includes those readers not capable, or not yet capable, of accomplishing effective close reading or understanding literary allusion, who would still be able to read a piece and comprehend it at some level, if not yet at the deepest level that the piece reaches. To a reader like that, Eliot is complete incomprehensible, and without appealing to a reader like that, the reader capable of understanding Eliot will eventually be no more, because there will be no literature bridging the gap between reading that only requires elementary skills and reading that requires a great deal of sophistication and experience.

In terms of digital literature, I would consider works like those put out by Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries as falling on the Eliot side of modernism, and what I have at least attempted to do as falling on the Williams side of modernism. You need reading skill to hope to ride the wave of YHCHI without becoming overwhelmed; it is not necessarily a starting point for anyone who might be interested in exploring digital literature who doesn’t have the reading experience to catch the allusions in a piece like “Dakota,” for example, to Homer’s The Odyssey, or the reading skills to keep up with the rapidly moving text. But a piece that is easy to read, at least on its surface, might be a starting place, which is what I attempted to do.

A few Difficulties Encountered

The primary difficulty I encountered in writing the piece, aside from learning to use the program (Anime Studio Pro), was integrating each line of narrative. The primary problem with that was that the role of each line varied as the text moved, and as text was added and removed:

1) Other than the opening line, each new line begins as the second line in a couplet:

opening screen

2) Each line then transposes to become the first line in a new couplet:

screen 2

3) Each line then becomes the first line in another new couplet, with a new line of text as the second:

screen 3

4) Finally, each line transposes to become the second line in yet another new couplet:

screen 4

So each line has to play four separate roles, and each role has to make some kind of semantic and grammatical sense. In my first attempt in writing the piece, I resorted too heavily to conjunctions at the end of lines (and, or, as, etc.) to provide that semantic and grammatical sense, but that became too artificial and distracting. I found I could eliminate some of that problem by eliminating (and thereby having the reader assume) punctuation and capitalization. To get this all to work with the degree of coherence with which it does (to the extent that it even has coherence) required writing and rewriting and rewriting and cursing and cursing and cursing.

A second difficulty was in synchronizing the audio, the moving text, and the static background. Once I figured out what the metaphor would be involving the difficulty of reading the text when it is over the water, compared to when it is over the beach, that either became easier or I became more resigned to it, rationalizing the metaphor. I played around with the speed at which the audio rhythm of the waves reached the beach, but found, at least with the limits of my software, it was impossible to synchronize it to the text exactly; the rhythm simply varied too much.

Classification of “Old Man on the Beach”

Classification becomes a rather intricate question because the conventions of digital literature as a whole have not yet been entirely settled. To try to integrate the thoughts of the major thinkers who think about classification becomes even more intricate, since often those thinkers disagree. I need simplification, so to simplify the problem of classifying the genre of  “Old Man on the Beach,” I’ve decided to focus on the criteria suggested by just one of those thinkers: Raine Koskimaa, critieria he suggests in his article “Approaches to Digital Literature: Temporal Dynamics and Cyborg Authors” in Reading Moving Letters, edited by Roberto Simanowski, Jorgen Schafer, and Peter Gendolla.

Koskimaa begins at the most fundamental level of classification, by defining what he means by “digital literature.” The term, he claims, has three different meanings: 1) digital publishing, which applies to traditional literature and books published with the aid of digital technology, such as ebooks; 2) scholarly literary hypertext editions, which are hypertextually annotated digital works used for education and research; and 3) programmed texts, which are on one level or another computer code. Not being a book and being no way scholarly, by the process of elimination, “Old Man on the Beach” becomes the third.

In order to further analyze genre in digital literature, a few definitions are needed. Koskimaa defines a texton as the deep structure text within the system–the code; scripton as the surface structure as it appears to the reader; and the traversal function as the mechanism which turns textons into scriptons, or the software.

Within programmed texts, Koskimaa defines seven variables which identify what genera a piece of digital literature falls under. They are:

  1. Dynamics, which can be static, in which the scriptons remain constant, intratextonic, in which the number of textons is fixed though the scriptons may change, and textonic, in which the number and content of the textons may vary.
  2. Determinability, which can be either determinable, in which the same response will always produce the same result, or indeterminable, in which responses are unpredictable.
  3. Transiency, which can be transient, meaning that scriptons appear through the passing of time, or intransient, in which scriptons appear through user activity.
  4. Perspective, which can be personal, requiring the user to play a role in the piece, or impersonal, in which the reader is not an active participant.
  5. Access, which can be random, meaning that all the scriptons are available to the user at all times, or controlled, in which the scriptons are available only when certain conditions are met.
  6. Linking, which can exist explicitly or conditionally, or can not exist.
  7. User function, in which the user explores, configures, interprets, or is involved textonically in the piece.

Koskimaa recognizes that this level of classification is unwieldy, since it results in 576 different combinations or genres. My own opinion is that many of these genres are so closely related as to be hardly distinguishable, and I suspect that with the passage of time the number of those genres will decrease. So to classify “Old Man on the Beach” in Koskimaa’s terms, it would be:

  1. Dynamically static, since the scriptons remain constant;
  2. Determinable, since the same response will always produce the same result;
  3. Transient, since the scriptons appear with the passage of time with no user interaction;
  4. Impersonal, since the reader is not an active participant;
  5. Controlled, since the scriptons are only available to the reader with the passage of time;
  6. Non-linked, and;
  7. Interpretive, since the reader’s only function is to interpret the interplay of text, background, and audio.

So, rearranging some of the initial letters to create an anagram, “Old Man on the Beach” becomes a DINCIST, which sounds a little gay, which the old man on the beach might have actually been; I didn’t ask him.

Interplay of the Text and the Background

What I hoped to accomplish with the interplay of the text and the background was some kind of an allusion to the mystery of the sea—how what is mysterious in the water becomes revealed only when it washes ashore. Now, I couldn’t find a really good picture of a dead whale washed ashore (and besides, you don’t really experience a dead whale until you smell a dead whale, and computer technology has not yet gotten us to the point of that), so I tried to create a metaphor with the text. I positioned the background in such a way that the text isn’t really legible until it washes up on the sand; while it is at sea, the reader can guess at what it says about the old man, but cannot be sure until it reaches the bottom third of the screen.

Again, this is something that would be impossible to do with traditional literature, but which the movement of literature in the digital realm allows.