Multiliteracies in ELA Classrooms

Electronic Literature is Not Print: A Reflection on N. Katherine Hayles @

July 11th, 2013 · 1 Comment

The above statement seems rather obvious and straightforward.  Hayles argues that electronic literature is characterised by its digital nature which is reliant on code (an entirely different source language), as well as its hypertextuality (I think we all understand this term).  Also, though it is ‘[l]ocated within the humanities by tradition and academic practice, electronic literature also has close affinities with the digital arts, computer games, and other forms associated with networked and programmable media.  It is also deeply entwined with the powerful commercial interests of software companies, computer manufacturers, and other purveyors of apparatus associated with networked and programmable media” (24).  Alright, fine, but who cares?  I don’t recall anyone getting all up in arms about classifying electronic literature as print (though I’ve been ill-informed many times before).  What becomes important and worthy of debate, however, is the way in which “electronic literature can be seen as a cultural force helping to shape subjectivity in an era when networked and programmable media are catalyzing cultural, political, and economic changes with unprecedented speed” (24), and in a different way than print media does.  The larger question then becomes whether or not these changes are having a negative or positive affect on us.

This idea of media and how we use it changing the nature of our culture and subjectivity isn’t new.  Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore wrote in their 1967 publication The Medium is the Massage (produced by Jerome Agel) that “All media work us over completely.  They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected” (26).  This sounds not only a bit dramatic, but enticingly believable.  But is it?  If we get back to Hayles’ work and think about electronic literature, in what ways has it changed us, and if it has are we better off because of it?  She writes, “Much as the novel both gave voice to and helped to create the liberal humanist subject in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, so contemporary electronic literature is both reflecting and enacting a new kind of subjectivity characterized by distributed cognition, networked agency that includes human and non-human actors, and fluid boundaries dispersed over actual and virtual locations” (24).  But is her characterisation of this new subjectivity accurate and/or sufficient?  Also, who or what are these non-human actors?

On the positive side of things I think we might say that we are introducing greater and more rapid access to information, but how is this changing our subjectivity?  Are we becoming more intelligent more quickly because of it?  I think this notion is highly debatable.  In an educational context we might say that electronic literature and hypertextuality are meeting the educational needs of students who learn differently than the verbal/linguistic types (according to Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences) who have always been favoured in a print literature setting.  Of course we also might argue that e-lit/hypertexts are feeding a highly distractible ADDesque generation of kids who above not being able to focus aren’t engaging with their imaginations as they once did, and as a result require more and more external sources of entertainment, satisfaction and gratification.

In her book A Theory of Adaptation, Linda Hutcheon writes about the telling and showing modes of texts.  The telling mode comprises the written word- the print based novel, and the showing mode in the realm of the visual- plays and films (22).  She writes:

In the telling mode […] our engagement begins in the realm of imagination, which is simultaneously controlled by the selected, directing words of the text and liberated- that is, unconstrained by the limits of the visual or aural.  We can stop reading at any point; we can re-read or skip ahead; we hold the book in our hands and feel, as well as see, how much of the story remains to be read.  But with the move to the mode of showing, as in film and stage adaptations, we are caught in an unrelenting, forward-driving story.  And we have moved from the realm of the imagination to the realm of direct perception- with its mix of both detail and broad focus (23).

Where does electronic literature fit into this theorization, and perhaps specifically hypertexts?  If we are to take Hayles assertion that electronic literature is not print literature then we must place it in the realm of the visual- the showing mode.  Do we then agree with Hutcheon’s idea that in this mode we are moving away from our imaginations when we engage with electronic literature and hypertexts?  And bringing McLuhan et al. back into the conversation with Hayles and Hutcheon, in what specific ways does electronic literature alter our subjectivity, sociocultural interactions, and ultimately, our lives?  Or should we be placing electronic literature, perhaps nebulously, in the divide between the telling and showing modes?


Works Cited

Hayles, N. Katherine. “Electronic Literature: What is it?” Jan. 2 2007. Web. 5 Jul 2013. <>.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2006. Print.

McLuhan, Marshall, and Quentin Fiore. The Medium is the Massage. Ed. Jerome Agel. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press, 2001. Print.

Tags: e-literature · Uncategorized

1 response so far ↓

  • adamh // Jul 13th 2013 at 4:15 pm

    My apologies, class, for not addressing the question I was trying to get at more effectively during our presentation. For whatever it’s worth:

    noun, plural sub·jec·tiv·i·ties for 2.
    the state or quality of being subjective; subjectiveness.
    a subjective thought or idea.
    intentness on internal thoughts.
    internal reality.

    (from Wikipedia)
    Society and subjectivity

    Subjectivity is an inherently social thing that comes about through innumerable interactions within society. As much as subjectivity is a process of individuation, it is equally a process of socialization, the individual never being isolated in a self-contained environment, but endlessly engaging in interaction with the surrounding world. Culture is a living totality of the subjectivity of any given society constantly undergoing transformation. Subjectivity is both shaped by it and shapes it in turn, but also by other things like the economy, political institutions, communities, as well as the natural world.

    Though the boundaries of societies and their cultures are indefinable and arbitrary, the subjectivity inherent in each one is palatable and can be recognized as distinct from others. Subjectivity is in part a particular experience or organization of reality, which includes how one views and interacts with humanity, objects, consciousness, and nature, so the difference between different cultures brings about an alternate experience of existence that forms life in a different manner. A common effect on an individual of this disjunction between subjectivities is culture shock, where the subjectivity of the other culture is considered alien and possibly incomprehensible or even hostile.

    The self and subjectivity

    Subjectivity of course presupposes a subject, one that experiences all the phenomena that makes up and produces subjectivity. The subject is the form of an existing being while subjectivity is the content, and the process of subjectivation is the alteration of what it means to be that subject. It is a classic philosophical question of whether the self, or the subject, is a transient or permanent aspect of existence. Whatever the answer to the problem, it can be said that subjectivity, which is the way that the subject expresses itself, constantly undergoes change, though still remains constant characteristics, depending on the subject who has the potential to affect their subjectivity. This is true, that subjectivity is constantly undergoing change, because what makes up our psychic experience is a wide range of perceptions, sensations, emotions, thoughts and beliefs, that, through the passage of time, and our relation to space, constantly generate transformation in terms of our subjective relation to the world.

    Perhaps it is naive, as Theresa suggests, to think that the electric/digital world hasn’t significantly affected our lives, but what I was really trying to get at was in what specific ways has it? I’m not sure if this is quantifiable or measurable, but when change is assumed to have taken place on a large scale, as it has according to Hayles, I think we should be able to point at what and where these changes are, and why they are meaningful. My subjectivity has changed since I rode the bus last evening, but I don’t feel that it was a life altering experience. The question that I was interested in playing with was how the digital reality (which encompasses e-literature) has affected us individually as well as our relationship with others. Perhaps this question is too broad, so if you’re simply interested in more resources of e-lit, here’s a good one:

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