Intersectional Scholarship in Electronic Literature and Digital Humanities

panel / roundtable
  1. 1. Elika Ortega

    University of Kansas

  2. 2. James O'Sullivan

    Pennsylvania State University

  3. 3. Dene Grigar

    Washington State University, Vancouver

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This panel examines some of the many shared issues between Digital Humanities (DH) practices and theories with those in the study of Electronic Literature (E-Lit). Until recently, the fields of DH and E-Lit, though intimately related, have intersected only to a certain extent. The historical development of each of the fields––broadly speaking, DH originating from the earlier humanities computing; E-Lit work from experimental poetics and digital media––might be the reason why these two fields have not engaged in sustained communication. A few events have started to revert this tendency. Within the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO), the approval of the Special Interest Group on Audiovisual Data in Digital Humanities (SIG AVinDH) is an important milestone fostering the exchange of “knowledge, expertise, methods and tools by scholars who make use of audiovisual data types that can convey a certain level of narrativity: spoken audio, video and/or (moving) images” (

AVinDH SIG @DH2015 in Sydney)
. Similarly, constant collaboration between the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) and the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO) in the last few years has lead to deeper collaborations between scholars bridging both fields of knowledge.

In previous ADHO conferences, though on occasion E-Lit has been part of the schedule, it remains a fact that there is room for a timely intervention not only signaling where E-Lit and DH intersect, but also pointing out where E-Lit specific insights are capable to illuminate instrumental approaches to DH theory and practice. E-Lit work has much to offer to DH. An awareness of the expressiveness and historicity of the digital medium that compliments its instrumental and innovative dimension. Dealing with multiple expressive codes besides language, and through the leadership of the ELO, E-Lit work has been at the forefront of inclusivity, diversity, and multilingualism. Issues that continue to be discussed in DH venues.
Specifically, the papers in this panel will focus on the materiality of electronic literature as it illuminates the ongoing debates of print-digital media and changing reading and writing practices; the applicability to works of E-Lit of forms of quantitative criticism that had been used exclusively for print literature in DH; and finally, the best practices for collecting and archiving electronic literature as it affects GLAM and what it can teach us about all, or most, DH work subject to obsolescence. We hope that this panel will foster further explorations and collaborations between the two fields of study.

"Print" Works of Electronic Literature and Scholarly DH Narratives

Élika Ortega, Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities. University of Kansas.

These paper starts with the question what can DH practitioners learn from material composition of electronic literature works in order to improve the outreach of DH projects? This work focuses specifically on the material architecture of "print" works of electronic literature, which I understand as those that depend or heavily hinge on print materials for their digital configuration. Drawing from this corpus, I propose to take E-Lit works as models to explore and address the effect of digital media as it has modified––and continues to propose a modification of––reading and writing practices as well as modes of abstracting, encoding, and communicating information, all of which are common in DH pedagogical and research praxis.
First, I examine a handful of creative print works of electronic literature including Stephanie Strickland's et al
Vniverse (2011), Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse’s
Between Page and Screen (2012), Nick Montfort’s
#! (2014), and Jacob Garbe and Aaron Reed’s
Ice-Bound (2015). I argue that the architecture of these works requires specific infrastructural conditions and the unfolding of several practices or protocols for their reading that pose challenges not only for preservation and archives professionals, but for the average reader as well. Strickland’s
, Borsuk and Brad Bouse's
, Montfort's, and Garbe Reed's works are so uniquely imagined and crafted that they seem to embed within them the specific critical framework to be theorized. In that sense, they too demand a tailored reading: a look into how their text is media and how their media is text. These kinds of compositions, I argue, have much to teach DH practitioners and students about the expressiveness of the digital medium, the way electronic and print media reciprocally inform, shape, and inflect each other. Further, they allow us to study the modification of the practices and protocols associated with each of its material components: print objects are not self-sufficient and translatable outside of the digital realm, computational devices are rendered useless without input from print materials. Even when these works are highly experimental, the specific conditions of each one constitute a laboratory to investigate contemporary changing reading and writing practices.

Further, I argue that in their radical specificity, creative works like these that rely on various print or digital media for their poetic, material, or narrative construction provide models for multimodal design that is both highly desirable and commonly found in DH scholarly outputs. The organization of information––whether poetic, narrative, or scholarly––is certainly responding to the same moving-target media landscape and, thus, bringing them all together offers an opportunity to observe how material composition is approached in creative works in ways that can be extrapolated to scholarly works. To that end, I extract a handful of compositional strategies from the works mentioned above that can be translated to a scholarly realm. Among them, we can find the use of augmented reality, the design of a script that takes the reader from one medium to another, the
extension and complementation of information through different expressive languages, and even the performance of reading as an interpretive act. Under this light, aside from being great examples of poetic and computational creativity, these works of electronic literature are capable of illuminating the ongoing debates on the future of the book, and the place of the monograph in academic careers. Crucially, these works also signal the need for training in alternative reading and writing capacities that sits at the center of DH instruction, project development, and outreach. Taken as models of composition in the media ecology in which DH work is currently carried out, these works offer avenues for communication between the two fields not only on a conceptual level, but also as a methods of argumentation and interpretation.

Quantifying the Evolution of Electronic Literature with Zeta
James O'Sullivan, Pennsylvania State University

This paper seeks to determine to extent to which electronic literature (understood as born-digital literature with an inherent computational aesthetic) has evolved, by analysing the language used to describe the works included in both
Volume I and
II of the Electronic Literature Organization's
Electronic Literature Collection. These anthologies include descriptions of the works by their respective editors, as well as by the contributing authors. Outlining the various technical and literary characteristics reflected in each work, these descriptions provide a unique opportunity to determine the aesthetic qualities of the canon, as depicted by some of the field’s most prominent practitioners. Furthermore, the considerable time between the publication of the collections, released in 2006 and 2011 respectively, is such that they provide a useful sample when examining how the electronic literary movement has developed throughout the contemporary era. Using a method typically reserved for print literature, this paper applies a macro-analytical approach to the analysis of these descriptions in an effort to produce some quantitative evidence to support critical interpretations on the evolution of electronic literature. Research of this sort has never been conducted in this field, and thus, not only does this paper develop our understanding of the literary movement in question, but it also breaks new ground in the application of specific computational methods to born-digital artistry.

Methodology & Results
For the purposes of this study, Craig’s Zeta was selected as the method best suited to identifying trends in the manner by which electronic literature is described by its creators and curators. A Zeta analysis compares two datasets, producing a set of words distinct to each. In other words, it gives a set of words most likely to occur in Set A, which are unlikely to appear in Set B. In this instance, the analysis compared the editor and author contributions from each volume, providing a list of words which indicate what topics were being prioritised across the collections. Comparing these wordlists, we can see how it is that the focus of the electronic literature community changed over the course of this particular time period. The Zeta analysis was conducted using R, with a text slice length of 2,000, text slice overlap of 1,000, an occurrence of 2, and filter threshold of 0.1. For the purposes of this abstract, the top 25 distinctive words have been displayed (see Table 1), but a more complete set of results will be addressed in the final offering.

Volume I (2006)

Volume II (2011)


























Table 1. Top 25 distinctive words used to described the anthologised works

The results of the Zeta analysis provide computational evidence for many of the assumptions that one might make when speculating on this issue. For example, there is a marked shift from static “diagrams” in
Volume I, to “video”, in
Volume II. The evolution of Web cultures is also apparent, with “dhtml” giving way to “google”. Beyond these, somewhat expected, findings, other, more interesting, revelations are also present. In particular, the inclusion of herself" in the later collection would suggest a rise in feminist electronic literature, while words like “exploring” and “poetics” in
Volume I suggests a field that, in 2006, is still ontologically uncertain. As already noted, a more robust analysis drawn from a more thorough interpretation of the entire set of findings will be offered in this paper. However, from this limited snapshot into this study, it is clear that this approach yields valuable insights into the field, and justifies the use of macro-analysis in the extrapolation of cultural contexts.

Rendering Literature: Methods for Collecting and Archiving Electronic Literature

Dene Grigar, PhD, The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program, Washington State

University Vancouver
This presentation, entitled “Rendering Literature: Methods for Collecting and Archiving Electronic Literature”, focuses on methods developed to document early digital literature, 1986-1995.
This paper builds on research undertaken with
Pathfinders: Documenting the Experience of Early Digital Literature (with Stuart Moulthrop,, a project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities that developed the methodology for documenting early works of electronic literature (1986-1995) and the print-based book,
Traversals (forthcoming, The MIT Press, 2016, also with Moulthrop) that provides a critical look at the works themselves.
Rendering Literature aims to discuss best practices for collecting and archiving electronic literature by libraries, museums and other institutions so that works retain their inherent significant properties, including its cultural context.

Electronic literature is an experimental literary art form that can include a combination of words, images, sound, video, animation, gestures, and movement but always involves code and computation. Referred to often as born digital literature, electronic literature cannot be experienced meaningfully in print and is intended, instead, to be accessed through digital devices. Early work was published on floppy disks, CDs, and DVDs, but the advent of the web made sharing it online with a global audience popular from 1995 onward. The introduction of smart mobile devices in the mid-2000s drove artists to innovate their art for the app environment. To remain accessible to a reading audience, many works of electronic literature have been updated to newer platforms and software iterations––sometimes many times––resulting in numerous versions of a work. In cases of literary art produced as apps, it is not possible to study versions of a work saved on a single device because upgrading to a new version of a work overwrites the previous version completely.
Contributing to the challenge of archiving electronic literature is that many of these works are published as a combination of digital files, accompanying documentation websites, and ephemera. Some, like John McDaid's
Uncle Buddy Phantom Funhouse (1993) include audio cassettes that are part of the narrative. Others like Judy Malloy’s
Uncle Roger Version 3 (1987-8) were packaged in hand-made artists boxes that themselves are works of visual art. Recent works like Erik Loyer’s
Breathing Room (2013) or Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse’s
Whispering Galleries (2014), require additional equipment like a Leap Motion controller. Still others like Jody Zellen’s
Urban Rhythms (2011) exist only as apps. In a word, these works differ widely from traditional digital texts and yet, to date, there are no specific methods used for handling this form of literary art.

A visit in October 2015 to the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library
at Duke University to locate data in the Judy Malloy Papers for an article about her database novel,
Uncle Roger, drove home the need to analyze methods of archiving and preservation undertaken at collections of electronic literature in the U.S. Floppy disks were separated from their artists boxes and unavailable for review, while inserts for the artists boxes were placed in separate folders in a different section of the archival containers. The six versions of the work were not readily distinguishable from one another. Discussions with the librarians and archivists revealed that they too were interested in determining how best to handle such complex problems for works that resist current preservation and archival practices.

Research Significance
Nothing lasts forever. Paper mildews. Sappho’s nine books of poetry were burned, leaving but a few extant poems for us to read. Today, poetry and literary forms are increasingly produced in the electronic medium, and the danger facing them is not dampness or fire but the constant innovation of digital technology. Net poetry by artists like Jason Nelson created a mere 10 years ago, for example, is quickly becoming obsolete today because the Apple Corporation decided in 2007 not to support Flash on its iPhones. Despite this problem, digital technologies have fostered the production of so much experimental work that one of the key challenges facing the humanities today is how to transmit the heritage of a culture whose objects are multiplying not simply in mass of items but also in types of system or interface––and where the nature of those varying interfaces greatly complicates the task of identifying, collecting, and otherwise treating the object. This is an enterprise that requires traditional archival research to work in conjunction with Digital Humanities practice where computation methods figure largely (Burdick et al., 3).

For the last 25 years I have collected works of electronic literature. Driving my efforts besides a fascination with avant-garde literature was the early realization that many of the works in my collection were, over time, becoming impossible to access without computer equipment contemporary with the works themselves. In other words, it became necessary for me to collect, along with floppy disks, CDs, and DVDs holding electronic literary poetry, fiction and essays, computers for which the works were intended to be experienced. To date, I have collected a library of 200 works of electronic literature and 46 vintage computers dating to 1977. I have also found it necessary to collect versions of software for which these works were produced, such as Netscape Communicator used by many electronic literature artists for early experiments with net art and other web-based practices. My library and computer collections are now housed together in the Electronic Literature Lab (ELL, at the Vancouver campus. ELL represents the method of digital preservation called Collecting, an approach different from Migrating and Emulating in that it seeks to retain the cultural experience of a work without moving it to a newer platform or representing it in a new setting, respectively.


Electronic Literature Organization.
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Burrows, J. (2007). All the Way Through: Testing for Authorship in Different Frequency Strata.
Literary and Linguistic Computing, 22(1): 27–47.

Burrows, J. (2004). Textual Analysis. In Schreibman, S., Siemens, R. and Unsworth, J. (eds),
A Companion to Digital Humanities. Oxford: Blackwell.

Hoover, D. (2008). Quantitative Analysis and Literary Studies. In Schreibman, S., Siemens, R. and Unsworth, J. (eds),
A Companion to Digital Humanities. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 517–33.

Eder, M., Kestemont, M. and Rybicki, J. (2013). Sylometry with R: a suite of tools.
Digital Humanities 2013: Conference Abstracts. Lincoln (NE): University of Nebraska Lincoln, pp. 487–89.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2016
"Digital Identities: the Past and the Future"

Hosted at Jagiellonian University, Pedagogical University of Krakow

Kraków, Poland

July 11, 2016 - July 16, 2016

454 works by 1072 authors indexed

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (11)

Organizers: ADHO