Although the ELO’s working definition dates from 1999, when Jeff Ballowe, Robert Coover, and Scott Rettberg unwittingly christened the field, it is still the most widely referenced:
“Electronic literature refers to works with important literary aspects that take
advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked
It also serves as a basis for subsequent elaborations, such as N. Katherine Hayles’s famous answer to the question, “Electronic Literature: What is it?” (2007). Hayles emphasizes the medium-specific affordances of work “created on a computer and (usually) meant to be read on a computer”, thus excluding non-“digital born” literatures from the debate. While setting a direction for the ELD in the same year, Joseph Tabbi adds that electronic literature is “not just a ‘thing’ or a ‘medium’ or even a body of ‘works’”; rather, like Lori Emerson after him, Tabbi indicates its status as an “emerging cultural form” accompanied by a critical framework of “new terms and keywords”.
Philippe Bootz links the churning out of new terms and appellations to those “peculiarities” of electronic works that anyone reading or appreciating them may wish to emphasize. For instance, the term “electronic” was “commonly used in the 1980s-1990s” to highlight “the technological nature of the medium’s functioning”. Nowadays, he assures, “In Europe, the term ‘digital literature’ […] is currently the most commonly used”. In a 2015 paper for Digital Studies, Marcello Vitali Rosati is able to identify the nuance of emphasis achieved in the change from “electronic” to “digital” observable in continental scholarship:
“The definition of electronic literature once concentrated on the tools used in the
production of literary works and the critical analysis concentrating on the objects
produced with the aid of new technologies. The move to the adjective “digital” marks
a change in perception: now, from this perspective, the challenge is no longer to study
works produced thanks to computers, but to understand the new status of literature in
the age of the digital.”
In this context, Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s preference for the epithet “digital” in the paper Five Elements of Digital Literature (2010) is telling. He in fact moves to consider the computational aspects of such works as definitive because they “call attention to language, present us with characters, unfold stories, and make us reflect on the structures and common practices of such activities”. Literature in the age of the digital is thus portrayed as a self-reflexive endeavour, producing theoretical commentaries on the praxis of writing through the act of creative inscription. While editing the ELC Vol.1, Hayles ventured to clarify the phrase in the 1999 definition, “important literary aspects”, and in turn anticipated Fruin’s insight. Noting that works with minimal investments in letteral language were being included within the Collection since they were about writing or meaning-making in electronic or digital media, Hayles deftly draws expectations away from the solely “verbal art forms” connoted by “literature”. Instead, she invites them to settle more broadly upon “creative artworks that interrogate the histories, contexts, and productions of literature”.
Scott Rettberg’s entry in The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media (2014) and the introduction to his monograph, Electronic Literature (2019) both reiterate the primacy of “the computer (or the network context)” as a mediatic affordance (“in some way essential to the performance of carrying out the literary activity”), or as the object of self-reflexive exploration (“genres of writing that explore the specific capabilities of computers and networks”). The Johns Hopkins entry is particularly useful for characterising electronic literature differentially against hypertext, cybertext, interactive fiction, e-poetry, and even digital literature. This detailed anti-definition demonstrates awareness of the successive updates wrought to the term by the Editorial Collectives responsible for anthologizing the ELCs; for instance, Leonardo Flores, Stephanie Boluk, Jacob Garbe, and Anastasia Salter’s observation in 2016 that “[e]lectronic literature (or e-lit) thrives at the intersection of digital media and textuality”. The Johns Hopkins entry and the Collective’s lessons from ELC Vol.3 suggest that whatever we choose to call it, this agglomeration of experimental literatures sets out to conduct “literary research and development” (minus the market logic), thereby reconfiguring traditional modes and concepts of textuality.
A similar message emanates from the debate surrounding what in France is called “littérature numérique”. Steeped in first-hand knowledge of the OuLiPo’s and A.L.A.M.O’s forays into computer-assisted literature, the pioneering kinetic digital poetry of L.A.I.R.E, and the speculative attitudes of continental avant-gardism, the exponents of littérature numérique understand, with Jean-Pierre Balpe, that “the sole interest” of this kind of literature “is literariness, what makes a given work a literary work”. Serge Bouchardon goes on to argue that littérature numérique has intrinsic heuristic value insofar as it “opens up literariness” and puts it to the question by proposing “literary works that do not meet the traditional criteria of literariness (constantly evolving text, use of multimedia, material interventions of the reader)”. In “Qu’est-ce que la littérature numérique?” (2006), Bootz considers this move a “displacement” of the age-old literary question to centre in “issues that were traditionally external or marginal” to the institutional understanding of literature. The key difference between littérature numérique and electronic literature is evoked in Bootz’s subsequent conclusion: “It is in this displacement that the creative activity, the real one, resides, and not in the result displayed as text on the screen.” What emerges perhaps more unequivocally from the French as opposed to the Transatlantic debate is that to employ “littérature numérique” (or any of the nomenclature encompassed or omitted in this entry) is to nail one’s colours to the mast vis-à-vis one’s critical approach to this new mode of doing literature. In other words, what we call it matters almost as much as what it foregrounds, questions, displaces.