Aesthetics of Digital Literature

Multimedia Blessing or Curse?

By Sven Kliem



"Reading" is no longer what it used to be, a basically imaginary or hallucinatory activity that has always been the entertainment of a privileged elite.” – Thomas Kniesche

Literature, like every other art form, is constantly subjected to the ever-changing effects of time, new developments in society and inventions and experimentations by its authors. Written literature has been around for over 4000 years, but the advent of the Digital Age initiated by the invention and rise of the computer and Internet, has introduced digital literature (“electronic literature” is used interchangeably) to the public, a form of literature that in many instances changes the role of the creators and recipients of a text.

Robert Coover brought electronic literature to the public’s attention with his essay “The End of Books” in 1992. He later became one of the founding members of the Electronic Literature Organization. In his essayWhen Digital Literature goes Multimedia: Three German ExamplesRoberto Simanowski discusses Robert Coover’s statement that the "constant threat of hypermedia: to suck the substance out of a work of lettered art, reduce it to surface spectacle" is one of the developments that accompanies digital media. Simanowski interprets Coover’s notion as diminishing the aesthetic aspects of hypermedia, since superficial entertainment is what the reader experiences after literature has gone to multimedia and hypertext has gone to hypermedia. Simanowski discusses whether the new technological possibilities inevitably inherit the danger of overwhelming the reader through the unfamiliar presentation and diminish the meaning of the text itself (Simanowski).

In this paper, I argue that incorporating multimedia into digital literature does not diminish the creation of meaning in literary texts, but that other factors play more influential roles in meaningful conception. The creation of meaning is heavily influenced by the reader’s perception of the text, his or her mindset to this particular form of literature and his or her expectations with regard to reading. I will lay the basis for my argument by defining digital literature in the context of the Reader Response theory. The development of the Internet and the increasing role of the user (or reader, in the case of literature) require a new view on centuries-old concepts such as reader and author. The recipient moves from the point of simply “consuming” the text to the point of becoming an active participant in the creation of literature and his reading experience evolves to a completely new level. A definition of digital aesthetics will form the last part of the theoretical background. In the following section, I will take a closer look at two examples of German digital literature, Das Epos der Maschine and Spätwinterhitze, which take distinctly different approaches to utilizing the technological possibilities. By showing examples of digital aesthetics in those texts, I will support my argument that multimediality does not in fact deprive texts of their substance but rather adds a uniquely new level of aesthetics to them. Digital aesthetics in combination with the text are one of the main factors that influence the creation of meaning in digital literature.

Because this paper focuses heavily on the digital aspect of literature and is published as part of a website that emerged from the coursework, I have decided to mainly rely on digital sources that are readily available to the interested reader while reading the paper.



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