This review is from the 2014 MLA convention. The full convention program can be viewed here.
Review by Rachael Sullivan
Anastasia Salter (University of Baltimore)
Daniel Anderson (University of North Carolina)
Zach Whalen (University of Mary Washington)
Stuart Moulthrop (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)
When I had the idea for this session and posted a call for papers over a year ago, I was (and still am) dealing with the problem of trying to write about internet-specific textual practices and literary works with no clear medium, boundary, name, and/or genre. The internet supports errant bits of writing that cannot properly be called “texts,” yet my training tells me I need to read these as texts in order to analyze and document them. My future-minded self tells me I need to screen capture, download, PDF, and archive like crazy in order to preserve these “texts” for my research. Yet (yet another yet) — like the bird in flight, the spinning top, the “snowflake crystal caught in the warm hand” — to capture the thing is to lose it and take away its ability to do what it was born to do. Or, at least, skew it to the point that it no longer has the same identity it had when it was alive in its native context. I wanted to organize a discussion around texts that wander or escape the grasp of curators and critics because they are, essentially, not texts. They are not even born-digital “works” exactly. They are, as Rita Raley so clearly articulates in her contribution to Comparative Textual Media, “born-digital textual practices” (44). Although the thing might involve text, it cannot be fully pinned down for the purpose of analysis and preservation because the moment it’s pinned down is the moment it changes. It is always excessive of its container, always disappearing in its appearance.
If you identify with the computers and writing community, you might already be convinced that “writing” can mean animation and sound and nonalphabetic characters and more. However, as with more traditional understandings of offline textual production, there often comes that moment when the writing gets a name, a definable boundary, a proper citation format. Maybe that happens because a student has to submit something to fulfill a course requirement. Maybe it happens because an article needs to get published and marked as final. Maybe it happens because something needs to be entered into an anthology or database. In another session at MLA, Jill Walker Rettberg spoke frankly about the set of challenges that she and her colleagues face in trying to categorize and describe feral hypertexts and distributed narratives, such as My Imaginary Well-Dressed Toddler Daughter, in ELMCIP. There comes a moment when an expression, a resistant gesture, an unfolding story, or a cognitive process finds stillness.
Or maybe that moment never comes. Each panelist in this session addressed born-digital textual practices while allowing those practices to remain performative and in flux. Without rushing to assign a genre and a name, the speakers raised more questions than answers about their topics. The session as a whole, in my eyes, celebrated the discomforting misbehavior of “texts” that, because they are networked and live, are hard to talk about and write about.
Anastasia Salter began the session with her discussion of Twine, an open-source Mac/PC authoring platform for creating interactive fictions and games that output to HTML5. Twine allows its users to make hypertexts with minimal technical knowledge: “If you can write a story, you can make a Twine game,” according to Salter. She compared Twine to the simplicity of Hypercard in the 1990s in order to show how much has changed for game developers today. The complexity of Xcode and C++ (used for professional game development) discourages novices from creating games. Largely due to its accessibility and manageable learning curve, Salter argued, Twine is proof that platforms can be engineered for social change. Referencing a few examples of Twine games like Here’s Your Rape by nora last, At the Bonfire by finny, and Hunt for the Gay Planet by Anna Anthropy, Salter showed how Twine game developers (nora last and Anna Anthropy, in particular) reclaimed the form of games for a new community and as a mode of expression for marginalized groups. Anthropy, Salter claimed, is the reason Twine has taken off as a platform. “Where is the LGBT community within gaming culture?” she asked. Given the sexual harassment that women encounter when trying to form an identity as a game developer, Salter suggested that Twine has potential to change the definition of games and enrich the voices we hear in the gaming community.
Dan Anderson wrapped up the session with a mesmerizing performance of his ongoing work on disruptive and (yes) frustrating forms of creative/scholarly multimodal “writing.” Anderson’s performances are hard to describe (I’ve seen two of them), but Mark Sample’s tweet (with accompanying Vine video!) is a perfectly accurate description:
— Mark Sample (@samplereality) January 12, 2014
Anderson implicitly asked the audience to consider, for a moment, setting aside a search for “the message” and allow noise, confusion, and WTF-ness to intervene. If we can do this, he seemed to suggest, we might then unearth our own biases and comfort in print media. As Stuart Moulthrop said in his response later, this is not failure to communicate. It is success. During Anderson’s performance, I saw layers. All kinds of layers. Layers of sonic and verbal and visual registers. Layers of prose scholarship, in some of what Anderson said, and layers of poetic creativity, in what he did and what he showed. Layers of actual windows (YouTube clips, images, text boxes, web searches, and more) on his desktop, each set to a medium level of transparency. Windows overlapped but never completely obscured each other, embodying Anderson’s provocation that “you never really see things — you only really see traces of things.” At one point, he asked: “What happens when digitial media are infiltrating the composing process from the beginning?” And then he followed up later, referring to Johanna Drucker’s DHQ article on performative materiality: “it’s all just a mess – there is no way you could understand any of this by thinking of a single text. What if you made an interface this way? And what would scholarship look like if you made a space for that layering?” This final question resonated with me, since I was witnessing what such scholarship would and does look like.
Sunday afternoon at the MLA brings many bleary eyes, tired voices, and a general sense of having moved on—to a fast-approaching spring semester, a plane ride, or lunch. But this session overall returned me to the present moment. It enlivened me and energized my own interest in uncertain and marginal forms of digital-textual performance. As Moulthrop phrased it beautifully in his closing remarks, “We are speaking the unspoken and shedding dead leaves.” Sometimes this work gets glitchy and confusing and uncomfortable and alienating. But that is what oppositional practices do. That is change. That is misbehavior.
Bio: Rachael Sullivan is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her dissertation analyzes the ideology of user-friendliness by tracing its sources in the history of personal computers and articulating its effects on digital writing practices.