[-empyre-] Objecthood and Ephemerality

joseph tabbi jtabbi at gmail.com
Fri Apr 17 00:07:31 EST 2009

Thank you, Michael, for the (again) generous responses. Your
comments/qualifications on collectibility got me thinking.

On further thought, after claiming that e-lit is nesting with the
arts, rather than with traditional literary institutions, I have been
thinking more about how e-lit also distinguishes itself from the arts.
Because, yes, my friends those several years ago who 'framed' their
texts recognized that entry in the art world demanded that they
deliver an 'object,' something you could hang on a wall or present
through an inteface. Something that could be collected, and circulated
through networks. That then makes the work commodifiable in so many
ways, and these days concepts circulate comfortably with commodities.
Though what actually circulates (verbally) are labels, tags, and
keywords that can be grasped during the overall period of 'viewing.'
Once one actually attends to developed concepts, arguments, phrases,
motifs, narrative developments, or the materiality of written/spoken
language, then one has stepped out of the system of circulation. The
time of reading is so much different than the time of viewing. Not
necessarily slower (a disciplined viewer knows how to pace herself,
how to take in visual meaning over time, and also 'all over' the space
of a visual composition).

Not slower necessarily, and certainly not inferior or superior. But different.

One way I have tried to describe that difference, is through the
distinction (in Systems Theory and also in cognitive discourse)
between perception and communication. Viewing obviously takes place
during the (relatively instantaneous) time of perception, discussion
during the time of communication, and reading - that occurs somewhere
else or in between, when perception and communication are reduced to
distractions. But these realms aren't separable. We are always
perceiving, even when we are sitting alone quietly in a room reading.
Our own thoughts are still occurring (though muted, and unattended)
even while we are reading the recorded thoughts of an author. That is,
our thought-track is unattended so long as we're caught up in a
written narrative. The moment we stop to notice something we've
perceived  (a noise in a room) or something communicated to us (a
reminder from the person living with us that we need to be somewhere
else, not here reading) - at this moment we return to the time of
living perception or active communication.

The use of a 'collectible' is that, yes, it confers value on the past
(by retrieving an object that would otherwise be lost to perception or
communication, in the general entropy of existence). Very
occasionally, collected objects are available for continued
contemplation, and continued communication (for example in scholarly
essays on the object, or in social discussions after a visit to a
museum, or at the home of a friend who owns works of art). That's how
writing, perception, and communication connect with art, over the
extended life of a work that someone, in collaboration with some
institution, has made an effort to collect.

But we connect with literary works differently. And the difference
might be given in what it is we collect, and where the collection
takes place. In writing, whether e-lit or traditional print, we do
need a stable material medium, so that the words we encounter at a
given time and place are the same, as those encountered at other times
and in other places where the work might be read. We need stability
and reproduceability, so that we have something to *go back to*, when
we want to re-read the work. No matter, if the order of the words
changes, as happens in hypertextual constructions. The words in the
nodes do not change (unless platform incompatibilities over time have
rendered the work inaccessible). If the words themselves change by
design, we're not then capable of reading - what we are doing, is
observing, or perceiving, the replacement of one verbal installation
with another (as when a 'text rain' shows some words at a given
moment, and other words at another time, in differnt postions on a
screen). (But has the digital artist somewhere secured a canonical
text, before it gets purposefully washed away by rain? These are
questions we need to bring to each work of e-lit we encounter, I
should think.)

Words need to be collectable, and they need to be collected in the
mind of a reader, retained, forgotten, and recoverable in re-reading.
Without this continuity of thought and literary object, one leaves the
realm of conscious reading and moves into more perceptual or
communicative realms.

(Always keeping in mind, that perception, consciousness, and
communication happen at the same time - even as we can attend to a
conversation and still have our own thoughts: this layering is very
important I think to any aesthetic experience, where material and
mental activities are constantly interacting.)

Another thing, about literary reading: the things "collected" are
collected not in rooms, but in our minds. And these collectibles -
written words - happen to be the same things that are present during
conscious thought. The things we read are also the things we think
with.  However: over time, we have had other thoughts, our words have
acquired associations with new experiences, and this means we can
experience a written work quite differently when we go back to it, at
another time, for more.

But the comparison is possible because the words on a page or screen
are in the same medium as our conscious thought.

And these (thoughts) are 'collectible' only by an individual, or by
one person at a time who reads one work at a time. (Even when
multi-tasking, the memory of patterns and meanings have to assemble
around *this* work, or another work: otherwise one is not involved in
reading; one might be collecting hybrid parts for one's own reuse.)

So I'd revise my remark in the last post about literature
becoming-a-network. It may be possible for literature to *circulate*
through networks - and this is being faciliated through the electronic
markup of works, through the use of metatags and keywords so that
works can be retrieved according to semantic content (and not just by
matching character strings).

That kind of networking is I think essential for the persistence of
the literary in electronic environments. And it's one reason, over the
past few years with my colleagues at the ELO, I've been encouraging
the development of an Electronic Literature Directory.

But the reading of works - this remains I think an essentially
individualistic process - one that we can perceive happening in
others, and we can then communicate to one another our various
experiences while reading. The material instantiation of literary
writing in a network can (to deflect Benjamin) bring thought into
contact with the non-human, and networked literature can do this now
in a highly nuanced and evolving way.

But reading as such, and the literary, remain technologies for
constructing an individual consciousness, not for building networks or


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