Code X: Experiment as Digital in Canadian Elit

What is elit?

Because this is a digital humanities panel, I am assuming that I don’t have to do too much work in defining electronic literature or arguing for its inclusion in literary study. But, because this is a paper on definitions I would hazard only this problematic in terms of defining the field. By electronic literature, and in this paper I focus specifically on digital poetics, I mean those works of literature that are either transmedial or purely born- (and raised-) digital. I take a cue from Sandy Baldwin’s really lovely essay “Against Digital Poetics” for the electronic book review, where he argues that digital poetics needs to be concerned with “de-scription” and that it must “treat the net not as a new telecommunication system added to other writing systems but as a netting that captures or contains digital writing in a great ephemeral surface or skin, as a productive (poetic) layering of bodily markings and remarkings.” What Baldwin calls for here is, in essence, a transformation of the way that eliterature, and to an extent DH in general, has tended to view networked technology.

That is, in titling this panel “Trans/forming the Digital Humanities,” the organizers use the slash to acknowledge at once the relative nascence of the field and also the divide that is happening between what are termed first and second wave digital humanists as they transform the field as well. The move from first to second wave DH is a move, to crudely summarize it, from the qualitative datasets and textual mappings championed by Franco Moretti’s “distant reading” in the first wave to, for example, Stephen Ramsay’s “algorithmic criticism” that works to use DH’s qualitative data (word maps and other visualizations, patterns, counts, geo-tags, and so on) as a jumping-off point for a new kind of hermeneutics.

What is the purpose of national divides/genres in elit? 

If the first wave of digital humanities has been championed as post- or trans-national in its embracing of “World Literature” and “distant reading,” then perhaps this so-called second-wave of DH offers us the opportunity to return to some of the more useful elements of print-based criticism with new eyes and a plethora of resources presented in the early days of DH. One of these more useful elements may be the role of a national literature in the context of electronic literatures and new media studies. The role of a “national literature” in an era of globalization has been significantly critiqued by critics of print-based literature; Adam Carter’s chapter on “National Literature, Canadian Criticism, and National Character” outlines these quite well in a Canadian context. Building on Frank Davey’s arguments in Post-National Arguments, Carter recognizes the critical value of a national literature that moves beyond the “drably uniform” national characters that have to be abandoned and instead looks to a national literature that embraces historicity, hybridity, and heterogeneity.

The issue of a national literature has been addressed in the context of electronic literature by Luciana Gattass in her article “Digital Humanities in Praxis: Contextualizing the Brazilian Electronic Literature Collection,” where she uses her project of creating a specifically Brazilian Elit collection for the ELMCIP to look at how such practices may help to “discuss and problematize quantifying trends in humanistic scholarship.” I, like Gattas, come to this intersection of DH and national literatures by way of more conventional literary study and not programming or computer science (to lay my biases bare), so maybe it’s not surprising that I am interested in discussing a “Canadian eliterature” where the national qualifier refers to, in Gattas’ words, both the “incommensurable notion of a ‘national literature’ and to a mere geo-tag” simultaneously.

This issue has also been addressed to some extent in the context of Canadian electronic literature by Kate Eichhorn in her chapter on “The Digital Turn in Canadian and Québécois Literature” in the Oxford Handbook of Canadian Literature. In this chapter, Eichhorn brings up the question of a national literature in an elit context by pointing out the fact that texts are typically attributed to a national literature by way of the citizenship or residence of the author, the geographical location of writing, or the fact that a work is published in said nation. But, in digital poetries and electronic literatures, Eichhorn notes, these factors are frequently complicated. For example, many of the individuals involved in the production of elit do not identify as authors, but rather as artists, engineers, programmers, PIs, and so on. The production of texts in elit also frequently involve collaboration with nonhuman entities like programs/apps, search engines, text generators, or source code. Elit is also often made from human collaboration, especially internationally, and also frequently results in self-publication online or in online journals. All of this complicates the already-complicated role of a national eliterature.

Being past the digital turn

Eichhorn’s argument for a “digital turn” in Canadian literature is useful for me in that it really pushes forward a conversation about Canadian electronic literature in a way that incorporates the usefulness about geographical or national literary study (identify trends, considering socio-cultural, historical, physical, and geographic factors, and so on) while allowing for the complication and line-blurring offered by digital textual production and dissemination. But, in 2016 with many decades of transmedial and electronic literature under our belt, we must now work to define a Canadian literature that has already turned digital. So, with all this as preamble, I am now prepared to argue that Canadian elit can be best described with four primary issues or preoccupations: that its visual concerns are heavily indebted to concrete poetry, especially as it was interpreted in the print medium by earlier Canadian practitioners, namely bpNichol; that its aural concerns are heavily indebted to sound poetry as it was interpreted by early Canadian practitioners, namely Nichol again and his work with the Four Horsemen; that its spatial concerns are frequently approached using mapping tech or other qualitative means met with the intensely personal, almost confessional, intrusions; and finally, that it has tended toward author-effacing conceptualism rather than the kind of reader engagement we see in other national electronic literatures, like in the US or much of Europe. For the rest of this paper I’d like illustrate these points by using three central works of Canadian elit: Darren Wershler’s electronic version of his print-based book of poetry, NICHOLODEONLINE, Mark Sutherland’s born-digital Code X, and J. R. Carpenter’s in absentia.


The visual elements of Canadian elit, especially in its early years, are clearly heavily indebted to the traditions of concrete poetry and typewriter poetics of the Canadian avant-garde over the past century. With bpNichol as the most popular figure at the convergence of these two genres, his influence can be clearly felt in Canadian eliterature, but the influence of concrete internationally (by way of the US and Brazil especially) and other Canadian and American pioneers of typewriter poetics (eg. Steve McCafferey) are also clearly evident. These points of influence are probably best demonstrated by NICHOLODEONLINE, the electronic manifestation of Darren Wershler’s first book of poetry, NICHOLODEON. While most of the poems and supplemental materials on NICHOLODEONLINE are simply digital reproductions of the print book organized in unique (and often difficult to navigate) web design, the poem I have used today as a representative of Canadian elit from NICHOLODEONLINE is “Grain: a prairie poem,” a piece that shares a good deal with the early kinetic and Java experiments of elit internationally, but one with a clearly Canadian bent. Its interest in using letters to represent the flatland and horizon of the Canadian prairies as well as the growth and spread of one of Canada’s major exports, wheat, functions as a metapoem that demonstrates the influence of other Canadian poets (Nichol’s and McCafferey’s presences looming in the background) as well as the obvious influence of Canadian poet Dennis Cooley, a pioneer of the genre we now call the “long prairie poem.” Compared to the length of other kinetic poems, we could even say that “Grain” is relatively “long” and its inclusion in the mass of poems hosted on NICHOLODEONLINE makes is kind of serial. What is most striking is that the poem is clearly indebted to the way the concretists and early typewriter poems use and mess with the grid (see Nichol’s Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer or McCafferey’s Carnival panels as examples) but also how the animation of a digital, kinetic poem is freed of some of these limitations.


The influence of concrete and of typewriter poetics is also pretty clear in W. Mark Sutherland’s Code X also published by Coach House Press four years later, although I am much more interested in its aural properties. Code X, the packaging for the original CD-ROM boasts, turns its “readers” into collaborators on a transmedial sound poem and concrete poem by turning their computer keyboards into sound poetry producing machines. Each key places a typewriter-font collection of seemingly-randomly-placed letters on the screen while at the same time queuing an audio track of Sutherland’s vocal performance of the letter. So what’s interesting here is that the features of early concrete and typewriter poetics get matched with the common vernaculars of sound poetry’s major players like Kurt Schwitters, and especially their interpretation by the Canadian sound poetry collective The Four Horsemen, which included Nichol! What’s more, more than in NICHOLODEONLINE, “readers” here become engagers, players, who make some interesting agential choices in the text. This kind of reader engagement in the text, and uniquely in this case in the aurality of the text, gets met with the clear influence of avant-garde traditions; this point of convergence becomes a major feature of Canadian elit as a national literature.


We see similar process of reader engagement on the level of navigation and some agential choices on the part of the “reader” in J. R. Carpenter’s in absentia, a work of electronic literature that uses Google mapping technology to interrogate gentrification of Montreal, Quebec’s Mile End neighborhood, famous as a hub of artistic production and community (it’s where we get Grimes, Drawn & Quarterly and Ubisoft, for example). In absentia, as a bilingual English and French piece, is uniquely Canadian, and its interest in merging the intensely personal alongside the impersonal project of mapping and geo-tagging. The convergence of personal with more impersonal data-gathering tech is another hallmark of elit more generally, and has been used extensively (especially as a feminist project) in Canadian electronic literature. In absentia is an almost disorganized and difficult-to-navigate collection of maps, narratives, images and text (some from Carpenter, some from other voices) that attempts to present the reader with some agential choices about how they receive, interpret, and navigate its pages, calling into question how we navigate maps and other impersonal datasets digitally, and how this practice informs the ways w navigate space IRL.


Each of these three examples demonstrate, to some extent, the ways in which we as readers are able to make interventionary and agential choices in our reading of digital texts, and in this way they are not quite demonstrative of Canadian elit, but rather exceptions that prove a rule: that the Canadian avant-garde, and especially its DigPo/elit genres, have tended to focus their work more acutely on the author-effacing traditions of a conceptualism that seems to be taking over experimental and avant-garde communities internationally (Canada is no exception). Where elit in some other countries has tended towards some more powerful and interventionary reader engagement (the ELO contains some wonderful examples of this), Canadian elit for the most part has been made up of texts like these where reader/player engagement involves navigate within a set of predetermined parameters or choose from a limited set of options. In Carpenter’s in absentia, for example, we have limited choices to how we can engage with the space (as polyvocal and communal as it may be). We view piecemeal the text, the city, and the narratives, and we do do in our own self-determined order, but we do not alter the text or intervene in it in any significant way. In Sutherland’s Code X, we do seem to alter the text—the way it sounds, the way it looks—but only slightly; the voices and visuals are predetermined, and though they look random they do ultimately form a pre-written textual “whole” that speaks of the reading process of the digital text as leading to the end goal of making adequate and  substantial meaning from the text at hand (or cursor): “reading was a road a car a mnemonic mechanism driving towards form and meaning.”


If we are to see Canadian eliterature as taking the place of the politically irresponsible and by now tired forms of conceptualism that have heretofore dominates experimental literary circles for the last decade or two, then we need to see a Canadian eliterature that doesn’t simply shirk off the interesting a valuable elements of textual study (like national genres, for example) that can contribute insight into textual study beyond metadata, beyond geo-tags that speak only to a time and a place of textual production. The national literary history and cultural, social, and geographical elements of a “Canadian elit” contribute much to the study of these three texts. And what’s probably more useful in the long run is that reading these three pieces as parts of a larger national eliterature that is just now fully taking shape points out those elements of the genre that we do need to focus on or pay more attention to. What this process has taught me, at least, is that to continue a politically responsible Canadian experimentalism, we have to move past “digital turns” and author-rejecting conceptualism and use the visual, audio, and spatial possibilities of digital poetics to engage more fully with readers, to view networked technology as more than just telecommunication and cat memes and to see it as way for all of us (as readers, writers, and critics) to start making significant agential and interventionary entrances into texts we have too often viewed from a distance.


This paper was originally presented at NeMLA 2016 in Hartford, CT for the panel “Trans/forming the Digital Humanities.”


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