[-empyre-] digital canon cannons

Juan B. Gutierrez jgutierrez at caviiar.org
Fri Mar 20 06:39:26 EST 2009

Davin and Alan, thanks for a enriching discussion.

Even though there are countless instances of electronic literatures, we 
cannot overlook the fact that not all electronic text is literary 
(search Hayle's talk in MITH-ELO 2007). Having letters in an artistic 
setting does not automatically create a literary object. Likewise, some 
videogames have very complex narratives, but in most cases they are 
fillers the serve the purpose of relaxing players from the shooting, 
driving, fighting, etc. and they could hardly be classified as 
electronic literature. Incipient classes are evident, e.g. Nitendo's 
Mario Bros is not literary; it can be an object of interpretation as a 
cultural phenomenon and even the narrative predecessors could be 
discussed, but the experience of consumption is *not* literary... and 
now we could start another thread discussion "what is the literary" :)

So, whom and how decides what is literary and what is not? Whom and how 
decides what belongs to a canon of electronic literature? These are open 
questions we should not avoid just because they are difficult to answer, 
or for fear of exclusion. As Borges put it succinctly "there are no 
unpublished masterpieces".  So advocating for a canon is not advocating 
for a rigid structure, but for analytical tools that help study, 
communicate, and distribute to specialized audiences and the greater 
public the electronic literature production of new authors.

The conformation of a canon has happened in the past by the consensus of 
the elites, i.e. the "experts" of the field. Alan challenged earlier the 
existence of experts, but clearly they are the people who use their 
positions in academia, or other social structures that confer authority 
to the speech, to publish their opinions about electronic literature in 
the form of technical articles, books, etc. de-facto shaping the field. 
Foucault has a wonderful little piece titled "The Order of the Speech", 
which was his inaugural lesson as a member of the French academy, 
December 11, 1971.  In that piece, Foucault slaps the group who bestowed 
that honor upon him by saying that social structures that control the 
speech, such as the academy, guilds, etc. are in place to contains 
dissidents and maintain regularity according to certain parameters. For 
example, academia has the "publish or perish" rule to determine who 
stays. Industry uses "profit". So, Foucault thanks the Academy and 
reminds them that any person on the street could say the same things he 
is saying, but would be ignored.

The order of the speech in electronic literature is far from being fully 
determined, as the notion of expertise can arguably be challenged. The 
dynamics of digital channels, which allows many to publish and gain 
community consensus, will counterweigh efforts to normalize and exclude 
dissidents. It seems to me that the cannon will be formed slowly by 



Juan B. Gutierrez
Research Fellow

davin heckman wrote:
> Thank you, Alan.  I agree, I like this discussion, but I also think
> maybe it's time to give this thread a little nap.  I would hate to
> distract from other, equally important issues.  (If you want to, maybe
> we can pick it up some other place or time....  but maybe after I have
> taken the time to reflect upon your comments more carefully...  and
> after I have tracked many of the sources you've suggested.)
> But before I put this discursive baby down for the nap, I'll give it
> one more quick blast with the air horn.  I don't want people to walk
> away thinking that I am advocating a return to the Dead White Men
> approach:
> When I started on this discussion, the furthest thing from my mind
> was saying which pieces AREN'T poetry.  Rather, I envision that a
> canon could be constructed in positive terms, which attempts to mark
> examples of turning points or the emergence of generic conventions
> within the field.  This of course is rudimentary work, it is always a
> day late and a dollar short, and it always happens after the "event."
> This kind of criticism might even be useful for working artists,
> because it builds an awareness of cliches and dead formalities, but I
> suspect that artists already know these things before critics even
> catch wind of them.  At the same time, it gives artists alternative
> genealogies (which tends to be something of an oedipal relationship--I
> love Debord, I also think he is a fraud).  I remember learning about
> Marcel Duchamp, I was looking at a library book when I was like 5
> years old, and was very pleased to see a potty in it.  And it is
> something that I come back to (several times a day, even) to pay my
> respects (and by my respects, I mean sincere respects, the full range
> of considerations--from dread, loss, guilt to joy, love, and hope).
> It's certainly not new and it is certainly canonical, but the spirit
> of the thing frequently sutures itself to my experience of life and
> art and thew absurdities of culture.  And I think that such things can
> function as a heuristic for the considerations of other things.  If I
> hadn't studied the Situationists, I don't know that I would have even
> recognized my favorite piece of poetry in recent memory: Throwing a
> shoe at George W. Bush.  (But, of course, if art history did not
> contain the Situationists, I might not have studied them either.)
> On the other hand, I feel that people do pay attention to what a
> "critic" says.  I know that I give your words careful consideration,
> and am more likely to be influenced by what you say because I hang it
> to a certain collection of works and writings associated with you.  If
> I see your name (or someone else who I recognize) on something, I am
> more likely to read it.  It's totally unfair that I would do this.
> And it is a habit that I studiously try to break.  But it tends to
> happen.  Thus the role of the critic is a loaded one, not entirely
> different from a canon, it's just more dispersed and transient.
> Also, I don't think that the presence or absence of a canon leads to
> lawlessness in the civil sense.  Rather, I think it functions in the
> literary world as a formal code, which can be treated as law.  And, in
> the context of my class concerns, when the nation-state (and the legal
> frameworks associated with it) disappears, exploitation usually ramps
> up.  Whenever an artist or journalist has had to go up against power,
> their only hope is that they can make an appeal to the code, "First
> Amendment!"  And when a law is blatantly unfair, you attack it.
> Similarly, the canon can also afford the opportunity to defend the
> work of the artist.  Is Mapplethorpe a smut peddling pervert?  Maybe
> he is...  but this smut is wonderful art (please refer to the entire
> history of the nude in the history of art, and you will see that he is
> adding something significant to it).  Of course, it could go the other
> way.  But such things can offer strategic tools.  I know that I have
> used important books in the emerging field of electronic literature
> along with an argument about the history of modern poetry to convince
> my department that we should have a course in electronic literature
> every other year, and now we do.  (And, a number of my students have
> shown their puzzled parents and/or troubled teens what we have read in
> class, and now some of these people, who aren't even my students, read
> and/or complain about it, too).
> So, with that, I am going to take a vacation from this thread.  But if
> people want to answer on the list or off the list, I would be happy to
> hear.  I am just going to stop crowding things up so much.
> Peace!
> Davin
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