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Johanna Drucker is Pulling My Leg

Johanna Drucker has a thoughtful review of Matt Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms in the Spring 2009 issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly. I think most of what she says is spot-on. But she has to be kidding with this, right?

Have any works appeared in digital media whose interest goes beyond novelty value? Not yet.

My first reaction was to say, She’s got to be kidding. Perhaps we can’t see more recent work clearly enough, so let’s turn the clock back a quarter century. We then find a group of works that clearly pioneered new aesthetics, that are still having important influence on work produced today, that are well-loved enough by audiences to produce amateur preservation and derivative works, and that are now attracting the attention of major cultural institutions like museums and universities. This sounds to me like the characteristics we see both in important alternative works and mainstream cultural productions — two or three decades later we can see which ones have interest that goes well beyond novelty value. A good portion of the early 1980s work I’m talking about, of course, has been distributed and understood as games — whether graphical video games or textual interactive fictions — but computer games are simply a subset of digital media.

But then I read Matt’s response to the review, and started following his links to related discussions at the Institute for the Future of the Book’s blog and at The Guardian, and was dispirited to find one of digital media’s defenders (Mark Bernstein) writing:

Can’t we leave the yahoo anti-intellectual pose to the gamerz?

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. There was a period in the digital media field when it was a struggle to get games included. (Now it seems there’s often a struggle to get things other than games included.) The old prejudices are still there.

As for the conversation to which Mark was contributing, it gets more nuanced from there, at least some of the time, and it’s worth reading. (Even though, being a year old, it’s ancient in blog years.) That said, I’m still left with the question: Drucker was joking, right?


About the author:  Noah Wardrip-Fruin is a Professor of Computational Media at UC Santa Cruz and the author of Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies. Read more from this author


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14 Comments

  1. Posted July 9, 2009 at 10:04 AM | Permalink

    I had the same reaction, actually what I wrote on Matt’s facebook note about the review was: “Good review, except for that last paragraph. When Drucker asserts that “Have any works appeared in digital media whose interest goes beyond novelty value? Not yet.” It makes me wonder how much time she has actually spent reading works in digital media. It’s a shame. I have a great deal of respect for Johanna Drucker as a thinker and as a scholar, but I think she goes out on a cracking limb there in making a huge sweeping generalization about a field of practice with which she has only a passing familiarity. Is it safe to assume that she has done her homework? I don’t think so. It has taken me time and sustained attention to find works in digital media that do have literary value but they are out there. I’m surprised that she even asks “If these weren’t digital texts would we read them as literature?” This seems a rather ignorant question. These texts are, after all, digital texts. I don’t think Johanna would be surprised if her cat did not bark. Cats, after all, are not dogs.”

    Maybe she was just trying to be a provocateur, but I hated to see that comment, particularly in that venue. The ELO has submitted a number of very good digital humanities grant proposals to the NEH, and we have had the same response nearly every time — on a panel of three reviewers, two will find the proposal worth funding, and one of whom will state flatly that it has no merit, not on the basis of the proposal itself or its relevance to the call, but because they find electronic literature itself to be without merit. Those reviewers, who have generally not spent a great deal of time reading electronic literature, will love to hear from a scholar as renowned and intellectually capable as Drucker that they needn’t bother to do the reading, and remain safe in the comfort of their pretensions. I’m tired of seeing the dice loaded against the advancement of a field that deserves its well-earned place in the digital humanities, and the institutional support that the other sectors of the digital humanities currently enjoy.

  2. Posted July 10, 2009 at 6:05 AM | Permalink

    What I wrote , in response to the claim that

    Hypertext’s main offense is that it is boring, in the same way that Choose Your Own Adventure stories are fundamentally boring

    was that

    Literary hypertext is boring, in exactly the way James Joyce and Samuel Beckett and all the rest of those dusty old moderns and postmoderns are boring. Who would read them for pleasure? Who would read them at all?

    I believe you would agree with this.

    The reference to gamerz was not to you, Montfort, Kirschenbaum, Whitehead, Short, and crew, but to those who argue (as the author pretended to be arguing) that reading is doomed because 3D is shinier, and also to those who pretend to blame electronic fiction for the ills of modernism as well as postmodernism.

    But some good came of this discussion; because it was clear that a number of participants in that discussion were handicapped because they were unfamiliar with the key writing and research on literary hypertext, and some of that work was tricky to locate, Diane Greco and I collected a forthcoming volume of classic writing about Reading Hypertext, which will appear August 15.

  3. Noah Wardrip-Fruin
    Posted July 10, 2009 at 10:22 AM | Permalink

    Scott, I think a problem with much academic discussion, including in our field, is that people actually make more time for the secondary work (e.g., critical books on elit) than primary work (e.g., elit). So the view of the field is what you see in the secondary work. And much of our secondary work (including some of my own) focuses on newly-emerging things (currently) or the first/early examples of things (historically). That can help lead to a sense that the field is about novelty, which perhaps we can begin to change by shifting focus in the critical work.

    Mark, I didn’t understand your comment to be aimed at the position the post author was taking (at least rhetorically) because the post author wrote “I’m not a gamer.” But of course I disagree with the idea that reading is doomed :-)

    And, speaking of critical work, Reading Hypertext looks like a great resource!

  4. Posted July 10, 2009 at 10:48 AM | Permalink

    Noah:

    much of our secondary work (including some of my own) focuses on newly-emerging things (currently) or the first/early examples of things (historically). That can help lead to a sense that the field is about novelty, which perhaps we can begin to change by shifting focus in the critical work..

    I know we’re not talking about games here, but as a case in point in my own field of specialty, it kills me that we have all these in-depth deconstructions of the fabulousness of Pong/Atari/some niche piece of hardware that 300 people bought in the early 80s, but people seem to have nothing to say about the 16-bit era. It seems that it’s some sort of middle point: not old enough, but not new enough, bookended by the first mass-market home entertainment systems and then the jump to 3D.

    I’m going to write this book myself!

    However, if one isn’t going to focus on firsts or lasts, I’d be interested to hear how you’d frame a text on something that doesn’t meet the novelty quotient… I’m sure this happens in all sorts of humanities, but my own exposure to them is not very great.

  5. Wendell Piez
    Posted July 10, 2009 at 11:18 AM | Permalink

    These are interesting responses to what (my guess) is probably a willing if not completely deliberate provocation. But I think the suggestion that games are the exceptions that (dis)prove Drucker’s rule is more interesting than debating either how she meant it, or even the merits of the claim on its face. Noah, can you offer which games (or works in digital media) you have in mind, and how do they measure up to the stated (or implied) criteria?

    Scott laments that one out of three NEH reviewers finds nothing in electronic literature worth government money: yet this is probably about the same proportion (or more) as would have found Ulysses worth promoting in, say, 1930. What of it? Drucker’s argument is more sophisticated than simple resistance, I think, even (especially) if you take it seriously.

    After all, Johanna Drucker (it’s safe to say) is hardly one who would argue that because incunabula (whether digital media, 15th-century print, or anything else) are often not of great interest from a literary perspective, they are unimportant and not worth preserving….

  6. Noah Wardrip-Fruin
    Posted July 10, 2009 at 12:08 PM | Permalink

    Wendell, I realize you’re probably looking for a more detailed answer, focused on specific works, but I’m thinking along the lines of “noir cinema” or “modernist novels.” I think you can say of the entire output of Atari/Activision designer/programmers, or the entire output of Infocom writer/designer/programmers, or of other groups of early 1980s digital media producers that their works “clearly pioneered new aesthetics, … are still having important influence on work produced today, … are well-loved enough by audiences to produce amateur preservation and derivative works, and … are now attracting the attention of major cultural institutions like museums and universities.” I also think this is true of people working in the fine arts and computer science ends of digital media, though with narrower public knowledge, some of whom Nick and I collected in The New Media Reader. So I don’t think there is a dearth of examples, but rather an embarrassment of them. And I don’t think they started or stopped in the early 1980s — I just chose that as a time that seemed far enough away that the influence could be clear.

    Chris, avoiding novelty needn’t be our primary driving concern, but in Expressive Processing I chose to write about systems I thought were important, even if they weren’t first. Probably Eliza is not the first interactive character and SimCity is not the first simulation game, though they are both early, influential examples of their forms. And, Wendell, there are a couple things I think are worth looking at for more than their novelty value :-)

  7. Wendell Piez
    Posted July 10, 2009 at 3:55 PM | Permalink

    Noah, your response actually opens up room for agreement between you and Drucker. After all, she has said nothing that would contradict your claim about genre aesthetics, which is where you make your strongest case here.

    Even more than this, while you and others are taking umbrage at her asking what specific works of e-lit “merit … critical engagement” for their specifically “literary” qualities — without quite taking up the challenge to name them :-) — you fail to notice that Drucker’s concluding paragraph goes on to liken e-lit, in this, to artists’ books — which is to say, to much of her own creative production:

    A similar problem exists in the field of artists’ books, where production values tend to interfere with literary ones because of the energy required to actually make the things. Paradoxically, the generative tension between transparency and resistance to media that form the right conditions for a higher level of aesthetic production may arise only when the geek-culture necessity for technical engagement disappears. Then these peculiar code products will appear as what they are, early and self-conscious works whose reflection on production is part of their textual condition…. (¶ 10)

    And what’s so bad about early and self-conscious, if current “geek-culture” with its technical engagement in e-media (like once and future print geeks with their ink rollers and lead type) is what we need to show the way to more facile and transparent media? You could choose to be honored by the comparison. Who needs literary? Maybe it is precisely for being early and self-conscious that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

  8. Noah Wardrip-Fruin
    Posted July 10, 2009 at 4:14 PM | Permalink

    Wendell, this is the part of Drucker’s piece I’m arguing with:

    Have any works appeared in digital media whose interest goes beyond novelty value? Not yet.

    I think viewing the last 50 years of work in digital media as novelties or incunabula (because they don’t fit with the aesthetic criteria of prior artworks) is ridiculous. It’s like arguing that Dada artworks were incunabular versions of Rembrandts.

    Yes, I could also take up the part where she argues about literary value. But that would be a different blog post :-)

  9. Noah Wardrip-Fruin
    Posted July 10, 2009 at 9:06 PM | Permalink

    That said, with the question raised, here’s a preview of what I would write in that other blog post. No surprise, I also hope that she’s joking to ask of Kirschenbaum’s examples

    If these weren’t digital texts would we read them as literature?

    To me that’s like asking, “If these weren’t dances would we appreciate them as immobile stage tableaus?” Or, perhaps more to the point, “If these weren’t video games would we watch them as animations?” If the answer is yes, all that tells us is that the works in question occupy a narrow niche within their form — not their value.

  10. Posted July 10, 2009 at 11:41 PM | Permalink

    I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. There was a period in the digital media field when it was a struggle to get games included. (Now it seems there’s often a struggle to get things other than games included.) The old prejudices are still there.

    I tend not to consider this mainly the fault of theorists, because game designers themselves only occasionally even try to position their works as interesting media. The dominant narrative is almost exclusively sales and entertainment, much to the chagrin of long-suffering folks like Chris Crawford. If the designers and studios themselves say that their main criteria are sales and fun, who’s to blame when they get taken at face value?

    Sure, third-party scholars might still read a media or art angle into even productions that claim not to have one, but it does provide a hurdle. Compare to film studies, which in its formative years had the advantage of a whole range of filmmakers who were deliberately attempting to create interesting film—not just entertaining film, or film that would do well at the box office. Would it have gotten off the ground as a respected academic field without having Vertov, Eisenstein, Buñuel, Epstein, etc. to work with?

  11. Posted July 11, 2009 at 1:06 AM | Permalink

    Sure, third-party scholars might still read a media or art angle into even productions that claim not to have one, but it does provide a hurdle.

    I should emphasize that I didn’t mean this as a “well, you could do this” non-suggestion, just a guess that it’s not merely prejudice that keeps out games. The active efforts of their creators, who largely bathe them in rhetoric that disclaims any interest in media or art, and in a good number of cases actively disdain any such thing, instead proclaiming that they do games, and games=fun=entertainment=products, certainly can’t help when it comes to them languishing in an odd place on the new-media radar.

    I do think new-media scholars should try to rescue interesting productions even from unwilling producers, but it goes beyond games as well, to electronic literature produced by non-scholars, Flash animations, web films, and other forms of experimental non-professional new-media culture. My favorite non-game study in that direction is Simone Kurtzke’s PhD thesis, Webfilm Theory, but my impression is that Flash animations and webfilms aren’t widely taken seriously in new-media circles either, probably even less so than games are.

  12. Wendell Piez
    Posted July 12, 2009 at 9:06 AM | Permalink

    Noah, I was going to argue that you are having to pull Drucker’s line further
    out of context in order to make your hay of it. But your most recent response has come back to the issue and pretty well unpacked it. FWIW, I agree that the coming (ongoing) revolution will (further) alter what it means to be “literary”, even while not undoing it entirely — layering literary on literary the way Don Quixote did (while the books it satirized did not).

    So yes, Dada artworks were incunabular versions of Rembrandts — that is, of what Rembrandts came to be once Dada was done, and of everything built on that.

    The difference between our readings, I think, is that you take it that Drucker means to disparage electronic media, whereas I take it that she means to characterize its “early and self-conscious” moment — which I regard as rare and valuable, even if not fully formed. To the extent this is the case, “novelty value” isn’t really something to sneer at (and I think the rest of Drucker’s paragraph suggests why not).

    Glass half empty: it isn’t quite there yet. You can disagree with this (that’s fine), but one could also suggest a half-full version: as the culture deepens, greater things are in the works.

  13. Posted July 14, 2009 at 12:18 PM | Permalink

    Thanks for this energetic and exciting conversation.

    Personally, I can relate to Scott when he says, “I’m tired of seeing the dice loaded against the advancement of a field that deserves its well-earned place in the digital humanities, and the institutional support that the other sectors of the digital humanities currently enjoy.”

    And yes, Scott, it certainly seems to be the case that digital literature is the poor stepchild of the Humanities, and we go begging where others find large grants to stuff into their CVs.

    But things are changing, and changing fast. Some predictions:

    Within five years, many online journals and magazines that now only publish traditional text-based fiction and poetry will be publishing digital literature, as part of their online offerings, on a regular basis;

    Most major universities and many colleges (if they don’t already) will offer courses in New Media, and those courses will cover/include digital literature;

    Accomplished scholars like Johanna Drucker will be saying “oops!” (if she hasn’t already, on this blog) and seeking a vocabulary that accepts the continual flux and explosive change of current practices in digital literature;

    Most everyone will accept that finding a Joyce, Beckett, or Faulkner in the world of digital literature might take as long as it did in the world of print, and considering the radical differences in these forms, that any such search is probably bogus to begin with (c.f. Noah’s post above);

    The average digital writer on the web will be more well-read, and have a higher visibility, than his/her counterpart “midlist” writer in traditional print. (For more on this, see my recent post at http://netpoetic.com/category/alan-bigelow/);

    I could go on, but you get the idea. We take two steps ahead for every one someone else sends us back. Anyone care to make a wager?

  14. Posted July 21, 2009 at 7:45 AM | Permalink

    Great discussion — and it got me thinking about student resistance to e-lit in my own classes. I’ve decided that we ought to teach (both our students and our colleagues) as though electronic literature were a foreign land.

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