Digital Modernism

Digital modernism refers to a particular category of electronic literature: second-generation, primarily text-based, and – crucially – closely engaged with literary modernism. The term was first outlined by Jessica Pressman in her book of the same name (2014). By ‘modernism’, Pressman refers both to the traditionally-understood category of artistic output in the early 20th century and a general temporal alignment. The latter is largely drawn from Ezra Pound’s injunction to ‘make it new’: as modernism repurposed classical antiquity, digital modernism in turn rejects the recent past in favour of literary modernism. This can be read as an implicit critique of the value placed on novelty and reader-interactivity in new media. Pressman argues that these works borrow prestige from the literary canon in order to provoke more traditional, close reading practices. As a term, then, digital modernism might be considered a form of ‘call and response’: by affiliating these born-digital works with modernism – whose authors are, for the most part, secure in their canonisation – Pressman fulfils digital modernism’s request for literary prestige.

Pressman writes in reaction to the long-standing critical assumption that electronic literature is a descendant of post-modernism. Hence, as well as describing a particular set of electronic literature, digital modernism provokes re-examination of new media’s relationship with modernism more generally. This ‘alternative genealogy’ affords scholars of both periods greater insight into the parallels between them, which include formal experimentation, medium specificity, and the influence of wide-spread technological development. Digital modernism as a category thus allows a view of the past as well as the present, being perpetually engaged in the work of redefinition and renovation.

McHale, Brian. “What was Postmodernism?” In Post-Digital: Dialogues and Debates from the Electronic Book Review, edited by Joseph Tabbi, 163-179. Vol. 1. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.
Pressman, Jessica. Digital Modernism: Making It New in New Media. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Rettberg, Scott. Electronic Literature. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2019.
Seita, Sophie. Provisional Avant-Gardes : Little Magazine Communities from Dada to Digital. Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2019.

(Authored by Florence Walker)

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