This is Not a Novel: Experimental Literature as Prototype

July 17, 2013, 08:30 | Short Paper, Embassy Regents F


This short paper describes how digitizing experimental print texts can be used to innovate the aesthetics of the web, produce new models for human-computer interaction, and further theorize touch interfaces. Matthew Kirschenbaum has long identified the “tactile fallacy” often associated with digital media (43), but, as Sebastian Heath pointed out more recently at the 2011 Digital Humanities meeting, “‘digital materiality’ does not yet have a fixed meaning.” By building upon work by Katherine Hayles, Alan Liu, Marlene Manoff, and others, this paper will help account for the material metaphors of interface design and how touch interfaces have become a central concern for a supposedly immaterial medium. Because of the advanced design techniques used by commercial web developers and the universalized standards and backward compatibility of HTML markup, popular manifestations of the web have a great deal to teach academic discourses about the aesthetics of reading and visualizing the materiality of texts. I turn, therefore, to contemporary experimental literature as a means of grappling with the materiality of print and testing the limits of presentation semantics in web markup. As a first step, this paper will present various web based prototypes of CSS styling to visualize Jonathan Safran Foer’s decidedly print text Tree of Codes (2010).

At the core of my approach are two simple observations. First, since experimental authors have been pushing the limits of print and remaking traditional conceptions of the book for decades, any digital humanities discourse that presumes to revolutionize literature through a radical reshaping of its formal possibilities must also account for the long tradition of experimental literature. Second, contemporary fiction is published in an increasingly digital media environment, and contemporary authors are responding to this new context through a critique of digital publishing. As Elizabeth Eisenstein argues, the printing press has long been an agent of social and political change, but it is also becoming a tool for technological critique. In short, the purpose of my paper will be to show how this critique can be leveraged to produced innovative methods of web development.

Digitizing Experimental Literature as a Prototyping Framework

Specifically, this paper will present several style sheets in CSS 3 that attempt to digitize Foer’s Tree of Codes. Since the failure of any perfect mimesis is a foregone conclusion, this failure demonstrates a method for producing new text forms but also offers a vantage point from which to make interpretations about the importance of materiality in Foer’s text. Through a combination of 3D transforms and animations made possible with CSS3 and canvas elements, I will work to show the complexity of our still new and evolving web standards. Technological experimentation makes manifest the purpose of all cultural and literary experimentation. Because literary traditions perform and inform the history of the book along with a broader technological context, prototyping experimental literature in the populist medium of the web is most capable of formally bridging reading technologies. It is, I argue, the points of rupture between mediums that signals new directions for development and experimentation. Furthermore, this methodology exists at the threshold between electronic literature community and the digital humanities, while offering a means of reconciling these often disparate discourses.

Web Development and Literary Authoring

In a commercial context, developers like Mike Kuniavsky, Indi Young, Luke Wroblewski, Peter Merholz, Jeffrey Kalmikoff, and John Zeratsky have become the theorists of the ever emergent web. The tools that have thus far been created by engineers and designers must, however, incorporate a broader understanding of the function and purpose of literature and literacy. It is the role of academically informed web designers to interpret contemporary design culture through the history of the book. It is now well understood that digital literacy must not relegate pedagogical practice to simply teaching a new user interface. Because of the great potential for “computers as modelling machines” (McCarthy 27), prototyping and making digital books is a fundamental methodology of the digital humanities and, as Alan Galey has described it, “the design ethos of thinking through making” (111). In the context of Jerome McGann’s earlier claim that “The next generation of literary and aesthetic theorists who will most matter are people who will be at least as involved with making things as with writing texts” (19), I argue for literary authoring and web development to become a unified creative act. As Manoff has observed, “The content or text of a book cannot be separated from the physical object that houses it” (319). In a print context, the storage and delivery of content is linked absolutely, while authoring is a privileged external act. In a digital context, creative web development has the potential to link literary authoring and delivery into a single act, while storage and preservation becomes an external function of literary production taken up by digital humanists.

Platform Development and Repository Building

This paper represents only the earliest stages of a multi-year project to build an experimental literature web platform that hosts a repository of open source CSS modules and the tools to develop online literary projects. As a member of the multidisciplinary research team in The Electronic Textual Cultures Lab, I am currently seeking funds to mobilize the additional expertise required to complete a project of this size and complexity. Set within the context of the early prototyping and feasibility stages of a broader digital humanities project, this paper represents a template for the future implementation of this longer term development strategy with the technical support at the Humanities Computing and Media Centre at the University of Victoria.


I would also like to thank the generous input and mentorship of Raymond Siemens and Jentery Sayers at the University of Victoria during the development of this project. This work is supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada.


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