The Aesthetics of Net Literature (2007) is the first of four books comprising the impressive Medienumbruche│Media Upheavals (2007-2010) electronic literature (e-lit) series. Each of the collections puts diverse perspectives―those representing the literary, the artistic, the technological, and the performative―into conversation by finding shared points of contact and common nodes of intersection. In this introductory edition, editors Peter Gendolla & Jörgen Schäfer establish the collection’s working assumption by positing that literary processes “emerge from techno-social networks”: new forms of literature have arisen “as a result of the programmed manipulations of signs and the networking of computers and their users” (9). The sixteen essays here work toward an aesthetic of electronic literature by contemplating the question of the new literary quality that materializes when a work is born digital in the midst of programmed signs and networked users. Each participating author contributes an approach or a provocation that interrogates this issue.
Proposing a programmatic framework, for instance, for an e-lit aesthetic, Philippe Bootz locates the new within a work’s procedural function and suggests we read literary forms as programming processes and programming processes as literary (poetic) material. Bootz offers a procedure for studying digital literature that separately examines the surface-, communicative-, and meta-levels of a work that together provide an entry point for understanding not only its meaning but also its creative (and creating) aesthetic and the relations it enacts within its dynamic.
Posing a more pragmatic approach, one that begins prior to the establishing of any sort of Bootzean reading structure, Roberto Simanowski argues for a re-defining of the very terms we use to classify the ideas and objects of our study. He challenges us to “shift from linguistic hermeneutics to a hermeneutics of intermedial, interactive, and performative signs” by focusing on “the digital in digital literature” (47-48). He smartly gestures toward the misappropriation of ‘electronic’ as an organizational modifier in so far as it limits our theoretical boundaries if used as a strict qualifier. By dismissing the premise that electronic literature is literature electrified, he points toward a method of analysis that rejects the severance of the electronic medium from the work’s literariness and instead appreciates that the literary is indeed inseparable from the mediated, performative (inter)face of the unified work.
Gendolla & Schäfer likewise reconsider the terminological distinction so as to reframe the stage of the debate. As with Simanowski, what is at stake in the terminological is the ideological; our terms reflect and define the discourse of our ideologies. Though they too reject the practicability of the ‘electronic’ adjective, they advocate we replace the term electronic literature, not with digital literature as does Simanowski, but with the moniker net literature contending that electronic literature, as “a specific organ of perception, as a ‘high-voltage’ sixth sense,” should be more precisely perceived (and conceived) as an interconnected operational field bound with and within the larger network of technocontemporary life (17).
Perhaps by thinking of our e-lit works as digital net(literature)works, the importance of scholars such as Bootz who privilege process functionings can effectively interface with those such as Simanowski who call for a more intermingled interdisciplinary approach, and a living, networked aesthetic that properly considers all the various newnesses of electronic (or digital or net) literatures can emerge.
The remaining essays of this edition dialogue with these basic conceits and add diverse voices to the growing body of e-lit theory. It is this diversity of thought and the creativity of their connection that make The Aesthetics of Net Literature and the subsequent editions of the series such well-produced collections.