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When Professor Leonard Kleinrock and his team at the University of California sent the first message between two interconnected computers on 29 October 1969 – exactly 50 years ago today – they laid one of the technological cornerstones of what would become the Internet, a technology that allows networked computers to communicate with each other.

As could be expected, the computer crashed during the first attempt to send the message. On the second attempt, the computer shortened the message; instead of “Login”, the other computer only received the first half of the word: “Log”.

In the beginning was the Word, but there was also a system crash and an arguably poetic act of communication.

On the basis of this anecdote, I would like to submit a definition for the literary act as it takes place on and with the Internet: the crash symbolises the unanticipated moment of surprise and the transmission of the message represents the creative act, which requires two sides, the sender and the receiver. This basic definition of digital literariness comprises two elements: immanent disruption and process-based transmission. [1]

In the following, I shall offer examples of digital literature without conceptually incorporating them. I will describe how they transmit and how they disrupt. How they emancipate themselves from known genres, how they establish new literary traditions, and how they counteract a monocultural literary branch, and yes, even a monocultural societal narrative. To some extent, they adhere to the tradition of “minor literature” with which Deleuze and Guattari so brilliantly interpreted Kafka’s short stories.[2]A “littérature mineure” is characterised as follows: a deterritorialisation of language, a connection between the subject and the direct political, a collective arrangement of the expression. Digital literatures renew linguistic possibilities from an “any place” – they are inherently “deterritorialised”. They contain – even if they have an individual sender – a diffused “we” or an anonymous non-recognisability. And they interrupt the current of digital messages, algorithms and archives with texts that possess a dialogical effect which could always serve as the start of a conversation – for they can be commented upon.

I classify these “digital literatures” into three separate categories, each in terms of how they are created: platform literature which is created and posted first in social media; hashtag literature (actually a sub-form of platform literature) which can be sorted by the same catchword or phrase chosen by the author or cowriters; and code/bot literature which requires someone to first write a computer program which can then automatically generate new texts. All these literatures have one thing in common: they are open to all and open-ended. In principle, they are indefinitely readable and writable, they are process-based, and point from the present to the future. In this sense, they resist classification by the predominant, standard concept of a completed work.

The fundamental prerequisite for all of these literary forms is the awareness that we are living in the age of “webism”, as the American magazine n+1 described it in an essay in 2010. The Internet “felt from the first less like a technology and more like a social movement — like communism, like feminism, like rock and roll.” [3]Webism has meanwhile permeated all aspects of central European life. That leads us to the conclusion that digital reading and writing, as well as the ability to use or even reprogram digital tools represents more the norm than the exception in the literary field. And that the disrupting transmission within these digital frames represents a necessary creative act.

Platform literature

Internet wenn ich in deine unsichtbaren
Augen schau
fühle ich mich als blickte ich in
die ganze Welt.

Puneh Ansari  is a writer who lives in Vienna. She writes status reports on Facebook about malignant outgrowths of capitalism, the moon landing, the World Cup, brutal penguins, puberty and television shows. In 2017 my publishing company mikrotext released a selection of her posts called “Hoffnun’”, (Hope) with a dropped “g” as is sometimes done in English. These are self-confident commentaries on current events which stylistically imitate the linguistic abbreviations from chat apps and thematically visit current issues like a will-o’-the-wisp. This gives them the feel of rapid, intimate personal messages, as if just jotted down off-the-cuff. With her polemic, stream-of-consciousness poems or poetic short essays, Ansari interrupts the flow of banal, quotidian, political news which often dominate Facebook feeds. She often reflects on the conditions of the digital universe in which these texts are conceived.

Facebook ist das Kommunending
vom 21. Jahrhundert
Alle liken alles von Allen und sharen

alles mit Allen als
gäbs keine Viren kein Aids u

kein Morgen.
& dann wundern sie sich dass die
Geschlächtskrankheit
SIE trifft ihr eigen fleisch & blut
ihr liebstes hab &
gut ihr macbooc3000
Dann kommen sie plötzlich drauf
dass sie zu wenig
Zeit mit ihrer Familie verbracht
haben und werden
existenziell

 

Other platform authors are posting similar literature online. Perhaps one of the best-known authors in the German-speaking region is the Austrian writer and cartoonist Stefanie Sargnagel, who received the audience prize at the Ingeborg Bachmann Reading Competition in 2016, a distinction that heralded her arrival in the classical literature scene. She made a name for herself with Facebook posts featuring anonymised call-centre monologues from her job at an address inquiry agency, but she also gained acclaim for her short ironic raps, aphorisms and observations. She plays the role of a digital humanist of sorts, polemicises against anti-democratic and exclusionary positions and fights for the matriarchy, and not only with the feminist organisation Burschenschaft Hysteria. Axel Rühle called her “one of the boldest voices of Austria” in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Sargnagel has certainly received attention outside social media circles as well, meanwhile incited by the derisive reports coming from the Austrian tabloids which their readers apparently expect.

The Berlin translator and dramaturge Kontny recently used the term “bubble poet” to describe another platform author, the Berlin resident writer Eliza Aseva . Aseva doesn’t see herself as a poet, as she explained to me in a chat, but she could live with the “bubble added on”. Kontny had actually meant the term ironically because Aseva had been insulted on Facebook as a “leftist bubble creature”. The accusation: she only writes “flowery poems” that “nobody outside her bubble understands”. Surprisingly, her readers and Aseva herself took the dig as a compliment. Aseva captures urban observations which can either be scathing commentaries or gentle affirmations: a couple’s passive-aggressive conversations at the next table, racist comments toward her, the summer breeze under a sundress. For her female bubble readership, her writing elicits a sense of solidarity with her poetic and observational position. The disturbance that she’s transmitting alters and moves the bubble around her. The bubble, i.e. the readers who have subscribed to her channel, is both an audience and echo chamber. The Facebook posts are not what one would define as diary entries or letters, like the classical genre of personal and presumably private writing. They are autofictional [4]and blur the boundary between the literary first person and the real-world writer.

Puneh Ansari describes in a podcasthow some of her readers comment her texts “as if I were a side”, “as if we were at war and I had to defend myself”. Her authorship seems identifiable, she herself is held responsible which opens her up to outside attack, but her authorship is a fluid, staged, but not clearly defined “side”. The young poet René Kartes told me that “there’s a more or less large scene of poets on Tumblr who publish their texts on these blogs on a pretty much regular basis.” As he explained it, these blogs are “anonymised poetry spaces” which writers use on various blog systems. The format completely undercuts the cult of the venerated poet celebrity, as all the poets remain anonymous or go by pen names. The individual text and the corresponding profile, whatever shape it takes, are what generates identification: “With instantaneous writing, you aren’t representing yourself or who you should be according to social dictates, rather you’re performing a constantly updated version of your ideal self, a never-ending ‘published ‘selfie’.” [5]

In other words, what we have is “post lit” – literature comprised of postings, or “status lit” which replaces the “status question” on social networks like Facebook (“What are you doing right now”) with a literary format. This is “platform literature”. It makes use of a commercial online platform as a momentary venue for writing and publishing. And the platform determines the scope of the texts, such as their length, readability, link options via tags, hashtags or links, for example. Puneh Ansari regards her digital writing as a “subgenre of writing for me or whatever for people at the computer, it’s a new more communicative and flowing form of written communication which is why it’s so stressful sometimes, but people get totally into it.”

Possibly the world’s most famous platform poet is Rupi Kaur , whose volume of poetry Milk and Honey has sold over 2.5 million copies. Her first texts appeared on Tumblr starting in 2013, after which she switched to Instagram where she published her short-lined poems with accompanying illustrations. Kaur lives in Canada and writes about friendship, bodies, violence and trauma. The New York Times called her and other “Instapoets” the most important poets of our time despite occasional criticism that their texts are often banal and naive. With their “aphoristic, confessional and inspiring verses”, these poets reach people who normally would never read poetry.[6]Toan Nguyen from the ad agency Jung von Matt sees the success of Instapoetry in the “emotional participation” which Instagram encourages; the readers feel they share responsibility for the channels they follow.[7]

When all it takes to publish something is a click, it creates non-hierarchical access to the readers; there’s no need to consult with a publisher or an editor-in-chief. It allows new voices to be heard. This amounts to democratising the means of production in the Marxist sense. Twitter has been around since 2005 and now has 330 million users, Facebook started in 2004 and now has 2.2 billion users, and Instagram was launched in 2010 and now boasts one billion users. It was only logical that platform literature would evolve. And once the algorithms notice someone, when their number of likes increases, these literary artists usually leave their platform and publish in other formats, e.g. books, podcasts, events or interviews. The Leipzig philosopher and author Jan Kuhlbrodt feels a “sense of joy” when online texts convey “realisation” – a very clear definition of literariness. “Perhaps it has always been that way,” he writes in his essay “On the Small Form”, “that the web has always existed; that it lay unnoticed over things and only materialised with the computer and its connection with other computers.” [8]In platform literature, the connection of the individual with the world becomes visible. As Puneh Ansari puts it, “the main difference is that on fb I write whatevers happening in the moment and when your writingwriting, you have to sit down and write something.”

 

#hunderthjahreinternet
jetzt wo ich in der verbannung lebe
auf einem schottischen moosfels
auf einem orgelwachturm aus kupfer
und kein fernseher mehr da
ist, die selbstmisshandlung durch
den internetkonsum zu betäuben,
in der betäubung dem bewussten zu
entwenden und in den unbewussten
schlund der magengrube wegzusperren,
ist diese sofakonstellation
mit dem tvschrein obsolet geworden.
ich könnte das sofa umstellen,
noch ohrensessel und fauteuils hinstellen
und einen salon machen
wo sich die elite trifft und über die
geschehnisse des fernsehens diskutiert
in legendären abenden voller
urbaner mythen bei brötchen und
absinth. oder lesekreise oder malkreise,
bastelkreise, internetzirkel,
mondmessen, und so etwas.
fin de siecle II

 

Hashtag literature

One of the most fascinating functions on the Internet today is the ability to index one’s content, in other words, choose the key words that best describe the content. With these key words, or hashtags, the writers and other web users are able to locate texts much easier amidst the mass of online content – and by way of these hashtags, collectivise the text with personal opinions and annotations. The hashtag simplifies collaborative writing, reading and individual archiving. It is also disruptive in that it often appears cryptic or abbreviated, but also funny, like a self-contained language game. At the same time, hashtags serve as the glue and segue for the further collaborative development of thoughts, text fragments and themes.

One of the pioneers in the German-language hashtag literary scene is the publisher Christiane Frohmann. Not only does she publish new digital literature, she also writes her own on the Twitter account @ PGexplaining about feminist, social, political and literary topics, as well as common misunderstandings about the digital sphere. For instance, she uses the Victorian painting of the Pre-Raphaelites and combines their powerful historical imagery with short, recognisable, combative statements that shine a light on the digital condition. The “beautiful corpse”, according to Frohmann, “bordering on kitsch” always appears “a bit annoyed”, which thereby conveys a critical distance to the male perspective.

The disruption here comes in the form of a re-interpretation of male works of art and the text-image disparity – an effective method of meme culture. Many of the image captions are dialogical in character, for example, the girls are asked something, and they reply accordingly. The Pre-Raphaelite Girls are not only a textual, but also visual hashtag. They are no longer mute, pale, half-naked objects for display. They talk back – digitally. Hashtag literature broadens the genre of serial literature. The serial format is well-suited for duplication in other media, such as print. In a sense, hashtag literature is already pointing ahead to the post-digital era as a possibility without explicitly calling for it.[9]  Meanwhile, the Pre-Raphaelite Girls explain the Internet has naturally come out in book form and is available in English translation.

 

„Präraffaelitische Girls, was
ist eigentlich ‚digitale Literatur’?“
„Digitale Literatur ist Literatur,
die von Menschen unter digitalen
Bedingungen produziert wird
und dies mediiert.“

 

 

Even a chat on a dating app appended with a hashtag can become a literary document. On the platform Jodel, the hashtag #iwantotouchhim evolved into a digital romance that began with the following status:

Should he reveal his feelings? Yes or no? With the help of the hashtag, Jodel users were able to follow the unfolding events of a love story in almost real time, a story that had a happy ending and later was published as a book.[10]  

Code and bot literature

Eugene Kudashev , “writer, artist, person”, waits until he gathers at least 50 subscribers before starting a newsletter. On his website, he writes, “Why email? Why yet another newsletter? Well, apparently that’s the only way to break out of the algorithmic censorship: all social networks present stuff in a feed, and there’s no way to know what exactly is being hidden from you, and who exactly sees what, which is quite annoying to say the least. So email it is for now, I guess, until we get to a better internet.”[11]  It might seem somewhat old-fashioned to wage resistance by newsletter, but it makes sense – especially when it is sent from one’s own server or an independent provider, and not via Gmail.

One can also put up resistance by writing one’s own algorithms. This is what Eugene Kudashev did: The website rupi or not, which he programmed himself, suggests either automatically generated verses of poetry or lines by poet Rupi Kaur. The browser then asks the users to guess who wrote them. Incidentally, Kudashev’s program doesn’t generate the “fake” Rupi poems itself; it uses the Rupi Kaur generator created by Albert Xu.

Even though “bots” seem to be part and parcel of robots, those human-like, but non-humanoid entities, they couldn’t exist without human intervention. A bot is based on text, language, programming. Humans have to create it and enter, define and decide on its text selection concepts. In Germany, this is the work of Hannes Bajohr and Gregor Weichbrodt who comprise the collective 0x0a. They write software which searches a thematic corpus of text according to a prescribed rule. The software then generates and classifies a new text, essentially deterritorialising language. This conceptual digital literature makes the underly classifications in language collection visible to the user and condenses them. The applied system of classification is an inherent part of the concept of this bot literature. The result is an enlightened literature which is digital because it is based on code and digitally accessible collections of texts (also entire literary works).

The text Wendekorpus by 0x0a, originally published in the literary journal EDIT, applies the following procedure to the texts it finds: “Based on 3.23 million entries in existing works on West+East political change from the German Reference Corpus (DeReKo-2013-II) with Cosmas II 3.11, search for sentences of exactly six words in length beginning with “we” in alphabetical order.” Here, an excerpt:

wir wollen gleiches recht für alle
wir wollen ihn mit allen gehen
wir wollen jetzt keine panik erzeugen
wir wollen nicht kneifen, sondern kämpfen
wir wollen nicht länger seiltänzer sein
wir wollen nicht ohne gedächtnis leben
wir wollen recht und keine rache!
wir wollen recht und nicht rache!
wir wollen, daß unser land gesundet
wir wollten keine leere worthülse verwenden
wir wollten nicht in verruf geraten
wir wollten nur das alte stürzen
wir wollten so sehr geliebt werden
wir wurden oft nicht ernst genommen
wir wußten nicht, wo es hingeht
wir zücken stifte, stellen aufnahmegeräte an

 

Günter Vallaster pointed out during a discussion of the book datenpoesie by the Austrian code artist Jörg Piringer that the code poetry scene was still relatively small, “but very active and closely networked”.

Besides Piringer and 0x0a, other representatives in the scene include Nick Montfort who teaches digital media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Zuzana Husárová and Richard Kitta in Slovakia. The fourth annual Code Poetry Slam took place in Vienna in 2019 where a number of representatives from this field of literature introduced themselves and defined their art as follows: “Code poetry is first and foremost what you make of it – from poems written in pseudo programming languages to odes in C++, from spoken-word texts in machine language to executable shell scripts that transform your laptop into W.B. Yeats – code poetry can do all that and much more. We want to create an interface between languages at all levels, innovative approaches in the fusion of literature and technology.”[12]

A scene has also converged on the free online and downloadable PDF-zine published by Andreas Bülhoff whose digital reflections also incorporate thoughts on the analogue. In my email interview with Bülhoff, he wrote: “Since 2018 I’ve published 50 zines in which I’ve used text to explore the conditions of the post-digital era. Like how reading, writing and text rendering are changing due to the transition from the analogue to the digital, which standards work and what potentials these can give rise to. Some zines only work digitally and lose their effects in printed form, e.g. Void, in which white text in a PDF can only be made readable by marking it. Others only make sense when printed and bound as brochures, like Print , which uses invisible colour codes left behind by the printer as markings on the printouts. Or Sort, which plays on the relationship between correct and incorrect page ordering in brochure printing. The pieces range from the rather traditional poems to conceptual or visual works, code poetry and self-reflective essays. It was especially important to me to integrate the latter into the project because sync is published at a frequent rate that closely mirrors my life. (I’ve made zines in the train, on the couch at a friend’s place, in the library, at my desk, before and after brushing my teeth, with or without a cat, dead-tired, hurried or carefully thought-out and with a long conceptual advance planning.)”

This brief description of his publication concept demonstrates how closely intertwined digital processes are with one another and with analogue techniques. They show how disruptions are made visible and how a PDF can function as a networked, sharable transmission. And how the digital engages in correspondence with the analogue.

Logout

In his important essay “was wird literatur? was wird poesie?” (what becomes literature? what becomes poetry?), Pringer offers a linguistic and socio-critical perspective on the data- and program-based literature of the future and the role it will play: “poets in the coming years will not stand by and watch the corporations take control of the language algorithms. they will write for the computing machines. they will reprogram the computers. hack the language recognition systems in mobile phones. pervert big language data clusters. they will develop a dynamic poetry. flowing texts. poetry from information. poetry from disinformation.”[13]

In other words, literary speech and writing in the digital age will require one to analyse, question and present language, language usage, language modes and programming languages used in computing machines. On the 0x0a website, one can find another, but equally clear definition of digital literature: “The digital experience need not be merely descriptive. The digital experience expresses itself at other levels, that of production, distribution, iteration, combination and the immaterial.”[14] Digital writers represent just one area of this digital literature, but for the time being, they are likely the most visible. They are sharpening their arguments and aesthetics in collaborative, disruptive transmissions, like in a digital salon.

The Syrian author Assaf Alassaf, whose works include an episodic novel on Facebook in Arabic with the hashtag #deliciousgermanviza which has meanwhile been released in German as Abu Jürgen, described web literature as the “literature of democracy”. By this, he emphasised how taking advantage of digital tools can be self-empowering – even without programming knowledge – and how they help people in many countries around the world achieve greater freedom. Digital literature will continue to raise poetic resistance by cleverly using these digital tools. A small, but powerful literature that will stand up to antidemocratic, inhumane and rabble-rousing voices on the web. Diversity and humour and the desire to enlighten will always make itself heard. The time has come to finally make these literary forms more visible in the traditional literature branch, in bookstores, at literary awards ceremonies, at readings, festivals and culture pages.

 

Note: You can access the AR content of this article via the issuu-paper of this magazine.

 

[1] For an academic discussion on concepts of digital literature, I strongly recommend Code und Konzept. Literatur und das Digitale (2016), edited by Hannes Bajohr. https://orbanism.com/produkt/hardcover-codeund-konzept-hannes-bajohr-hg-berlin-frohmann-2016

[2] Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Kafka — Für eine kleine Literatur. Aus dem Französischen von Burkhart Kroeber, Frankfurt am Main, 1976.

[3] https://nplusonemag.com/issue-9/the-intellectual-situation/internet-social-movement 

[4] Also see the discussion between Miriam Zeh and Marc Degens on Deutschlandfunk Kultur, 19 Aug 2019: “Roman kriselt. Autofiktion blüht.” (The novel is in crisis. Autofiction is booming)

[5] https://orbanism.com/frohmann/2015/instantanes-schreiben-christiane-frohmannliteraturinstitu-leipzig-20150529 

[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/15/books/review/rupi-kaur-instapoets.html 

[7] https://www.handelsblatt.com/arts_und_style/literatur/buchtipps-dieseliteratur-stars-dichten-auf-instagram/24853790.html?nlayer=Panorama-News_11251840&ticket=ST-9401255-NjR9a3sxjVDxf442udtB-ap1  

[8] https://www.mikrotext.de/book/jan-kuhlbrodt-ueber-die-kleine-formschreiben-und-lesen-im-netz 

[9] See the series Kleine Formen featuring Sarah Berger’s Tinder Shorts or Birte Lanius’ bizarre Life Ordeals K, published by Frohmann, the tiny tales Auf die Lange kommt es an by Florian Meimberg published by S. Fischer, Hannes Bajohr with Halbzeug and Clemens Setz with Bot published by Suhrkamp, the „Twitter grandma“ Renate Bergmann, published by Rowohlt, the Techniktagebuch edited by Kathrin Passig, the new series Autofiktionen published by Sukultur, the works of the publishing house edition taberna kritika in Switzerland, and the platform authors published by my company mikrotext. If you are interested in further names of publishers and works, please feel free to contact me.

[10] https://ichwillihnberuehren.de

[11] https://eugenekudashev.typeform.com/to/qF2d5A  

[12] https://codepoetry.at

[13] http://www.literaturhaus-graz.at/joerg-piringer-was-wird-literatur-was-wird-poesie/

[14] Bot literature is naturally far broader in scope. For further reading, I would recommend, e.g. Ulf Stolterfoht’s Ammengespräche, a language-philosophical conversation with a chatbot, Mara Genschel’s cute gedanken, for which she wrote poems on her mobile phone featuring the text recognition program T9 with all of its false suggestions and slow learning, both volumes of which were published by roughbooks. On Twitter, one can find literary disruptions created by Twitterbots, such as @magicrealismbot, @str_voyage, @sosweetbot, @wievergleich. Interactive haiku generators and the Googlism bot enable users to write their own poems using pre-programmed text analysis tools.

Nikola Richter

Nikola Richter is a publisher and author. She lives in Berlin. With her independent publishing company mikrotext, one of the winners of the German Publishers’ Prize in 2019, she publishes new narratives and texts with an attitude and manages a digital, literary circle of friends.