Regards Croisés: Perspectives on Digital Literature Edited by Philippe Bootz and Sandy Baldwin. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2010. 160pp.
Reviewed by Amanda Athon, Bowling Green State University
In the introduction of Regards Croisés: Perspectives on Digital Literature, co-editor Sandy Baldwin explains the collection’s title. The phrase, which roughly translates from French into English as “Crossed Regards,” refers to an intersection of viewpoints. And this is essentially the thesis of the book: digital literature has transformed the way we regard written text due to its intersections with visual imagery. Even our notion of what makes something a “text” or an “image” has changed due to the emergence of digital literature, the authors contend. Text can be something generated from a computer or words input by the user. An image might be a still from a movie or a manipulated animation. The authors not only analyze trends in the field, but do so from a multicultural perspective. Many of the essays are translated from the authors’ native languages; nations from France to Taiwan are represented in the collection. Most of the authors have extensive backgrounds in programming and technology rather than the liberal arts. The seven essays in this collection seek to understand how these intersections of text and image create new meaning.
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In the first essay of the collection, “Narrative Motors,” Eugenio Tiselli explains the title of the essay, a term he uses to describe restraints placed upon digital writing that require the input of “textual fuels” in exchange for the output of language (3). Programming languages are types of these motors, since they require text input from a computer user and process this text according to set rules the programmer has determined. Tisselli describes various ways digital authors have used these narrative motors, including the automatic generation of poetry, as well as a tongue-in-cheek postmodernist essay generator. The author discusses combinatory language practices, which use these operations in order to generate a new text. These programs emulate human writing by following the rules for syntax that humans have given the computer. This is similar to our own speech patterns, Tisselli argues, referencing Chomsky’s notion of a generative grammar system. Perhaps most interesting is the section on process driven narration, which the author defines as texts “whose development through time depends on contingent events” (6). The textual creations Tiselli describes read like performance art: text on a webpage that loses a single character each time it receives a hit, a page where each visit brings the replacement of a word with its synonym, and another program which creates movies through linking various images of synonyms for any word the user inputs. It is through these new uses of reordering, reorganizing, and linking of texts, Tiselli contends, that we can see old information through new lenses.
That digital literature allows us to make playful use of language is a common theme throughout the book. In “Digital Poetry Beyond the Metaphysics of ‘Projective Saying,’” Janez Strehovec points out that multimedia often seeks to engage the senses using radical appropriations of digital tools and methods. It highlights the spatial relations of language, something that has traditionally been done in print poetry. The key difference between print-based poetry and digital poetry, Strehovec asserts, is that digital poetry is inherently minimalist, leaving behind the formal traditions and issues that print-based poetry concerns itself with. Strehovec’s point is an astute one. Twitter culture has engendered a belief within society that anything worth saying can be done in under 140 characters, and the streamlined nature of digital poetry seems to reflect this. Gone are the days of lengthy, formal poems, according to many digital poets. The author gives weight to his argument by discussing how poetry influenced modern philosophy, invoking a detailed description of Heidegger’s views on the matter. Heidegger’s belief that poetry is god-like in weight and concerns provides a contrast for the minimal, conceptual concerns of digital poetry. These concerns largely embody identity issues, especially those dealing with 9/11, the economy, globalization, and gender, according to Strehovec. In order to embody these concerns, digital poetry attempts to blur the lines between pop art and bourgeoisie culture. The poets are concerned with not only their identity within society but among their peers—some, notes the author, prefer to think of themselves as digital poets, others are simply poets, and others still prefer not to label themselves. Strehevoc discusses in detail the ways that digital poetry distinguishes itself from print, but also discusses the similarities: both toy with the use of signification, use only the most essential language, manipulate structure as a means of conveyance, and hinge on the unsaid as much as what is said. Naturally, there are some drawbacks to a medium that is both so rigidly defined and yet vast in scope, and it’s disappointing that Strehovec doesn’t attempt to discuss this.
Many of the essays in the collection deal specifically with digital poetry. Alckmar Luiz dos Santos argues in “How to Read Words in Digital Literature,” that digital poetry is rooted in the Brazilian tradition of process and concrete poetry. These traditions used not only written words to evoke image, but also an actual “concrete” image in which the poem was shaped like an object, or in the case of process poetry, changed its image upon subsequent viewings. Although the author feels that these earlier poets played a role in the prevalence of simplistic language inherent to digital poetry, he also believes that later pun-like poems played a role in the shift toward more minimalist language. Ultimately, Luiz dos Santos points out, e-poets rely on a machine to create images, both actual and metaphorical. These images must move human thoughts and emotions in order to have a successful poem. Early digital poets relied too much on imagery, representing only the visual and not the written word, or relaying only a poor attempt at the written word in favor of an image. The author’s main argument is that the poet must bridge the gap between the image and the written word in order to create effective digital poetry. This process of bridging image and word—which Luiz dos Santoz dubs the “unity of our intervention” (88)—brings coherence to a poetic work. Luiz dos Santoz assumes his readership is somewhat familiar with not only the history of e-poetry, but also the Brazilian poetical canon, as he makes his argument. This assumption could alienate some of his audience.
Other essays in the collection are much narrower in terms of audience. Co-editor Philippe Bootz analyzes aesthetic meaning in relation to theories of Walter Benjamin and Mario Costa in his essay “The Unsatisfied Reading,” with an emphasis on how modality affects a work's presentation. Yet, without any context for Benjamin or Costa, a reader unfamiliar with their arguments will likely miss the value of Bootz's thesis. Similarly, Shuen-shing Lee's essay “Speak, Memory: Simulation and Satire in Reagan Library” presents an analysis of language principles within programming, but assumes that the reader already has or will familiarize oneself with the text generator Reagan Library. More background on this application's purpose and content would be helpful, so that Lee's analysis of “mnemonic simulation and surrealistic satirization” (41) would have a greater payoff. In another example, Camille Paloque-Berges's “Agents Provocateurs” argues that language is part of a larger structural frame of communication and the related clash between actor and network is capable of producing experimental poetics. She cites the 1990s digital art movement of “codeworks,” emails whose text emulated those of viruses and spam emails as an example of this occurrence. The writers of these emails refer to themselves as “Spam Artists” (Palogque-Berge 29). The idea of one man's internet-trash being another's treasure is fascinating, but without further contextualization of the art movements some meaning may be lost on readers.
In the collection’s final essay, “Textual Material in the Digital Medium,” Alexandra Saemmer’s essay focuses on not only the written word in digital literature, but also its sound. She begins by referring to Denys d’Halicarnasse’s notion that the written word is a “pleasure object” (93) and inherently sensual, especially in its auditory qualities. Interestingly, the author feels that if text itself is pleasing to the reader, when language that was written is only spoken, it loses some of its appeal. The object of pleasure is gone. If this is the case, then text paired with animations and hypertext molds substance and form in a way that is uniquely pleasing to the beholder. Saemmer’s most convincing evidence is a study of students at the University of Lyons 2. Students were given written text and assigned to skim the material. Participants digested very little of the text and were reluctant to read as they felt that this kind of assignment was not worthy of their time. They hadn’t fully processed the information in the text because they had such resistance to it. Students were then given a sample of text combined with images that simulated the playing of a videogame. Students were more receptive to the material once it was combined with imagery. The pairing of image and text made the material fresh and it was less intimidating to students. Not only does this pairing engage the reader, but it also transforms how the reader applies meaning to a given word. Digital poets have seized this trend, bending the traditional signs and their significations.
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Although the book bills itself as an anthology on digital literature, it spends a great deal of time covering digital poetry and the mixture of text and image. Digital literature is a vast field and the editors provide little information as to why they’ve included these particular essays in the collection. Due to this, there really isn’t much to hold the book together thematically. The book fails to present a unified look at digital literature, instead jumping from a broad view of digital poetry to a highly specific analysis of aesthetic theories and back again. It’s unfortunate that the editors of the collection did not fully realize the opportunity to remark on trends in the field of digital literacy or how, in light of the revelations of the essays, digital literacy’s multicultural appeal truly matters—and clearly, it does.
Despite these shortcomings, the essay collection provides what is often an interesting look into a subculture of digital literacy. It’s refreshing to see a work that so embraces multiculturalism, having represented not only digital literature in America, but globally. The essays are most successful when they represent a broader view of digital literacy in society and present themselves as accessible works on technology. The essays are at their weakest when they are so audience-specific that they seem out of place in relation to the rest of the collection.
Regards Croisés: Perspectives on Digital Literature would appeal to those with some existing knowledge of scholarship in digital literacy and those interested in its philosophical groundings. For those seeking a more general primer on the field, look elsewhere.