Incunabula

Is e-literature just one big anti-climax?

Amerika may well be on to something when he claims that we are witnessing the emergence of a ‘digitally-processed intermedia art’ in which literature and all the other arts are being ‘remixed into yet other forms still not fully developed.’

Hamlet on the Holodeck New Edition

Pages 36-37

In 1455, Gutenberg invented the printing press—but not the book as we know it. Books printed before 1501 are called incunabula; the word is derived from the Latin for swaddling clothes and is used to indicate that these books are the work of a technology still in its infancy. It took fifty years of experimentation and more to establish such conventions as legible typefaces and proof sheet corrections; page numbering and paragraphing; and title pages, prefaces, and chapter divisions, which together made the published book a coherent means of communication. The garish video games and tangled Web sites of the current digital environment are part of a similar period of technical evolution, part of a similar struggle for the conventions of coherent communication.1 Similarly, new narrative traditions do not arise out of the blue. A particular technology of communication—the printing press, the movie camera, the radio—may startle us when it first arrives on the scene, but the traditions of storytelling are continuous and feed into one another both in content and inform. The first published books were taken from the manuscript tradition.Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, written in manuscript in 1470, drew on prose and poetry versions of the Camelot legend in both French and English, which in turn drew on centuries of oral storytelling. The elements of the story were all there already: the rise and fall of the hero Arthur, the gallantry of the knights, the love between Guinevere and Lancelot, and the destruction of the Round Table through civil war. But Malory’s prose brought these elements together and introduced colloquial dialogue, more consistent plotting, and a pervasive tone of nostalgia. Fifteen years later, William Caxton took Malory’s separate tales and bound them together into a single volume, with descriptive chapter headings that lured readers into the story. Only then, after such long episodic narratives were commonplace in publishing, could Cervantes write a contemporary tale like Don Quixote (1605), which marks the beginning of the European novel.We can see the same continuities in the tradition that runs from nineteenth-century novels to contemporary movies. Decades before the invention of the motion picture camera, the prose fiction of the nineteenth century began to experiment with filmic techniques. We can catch glimpses of the coming cinema in Emily Brontë’s complex use of flashback, in Dickens’ crosscuts between intersecting stories, and in Tolstoy’s battlefield panoramas that dissolve into close-up vignettes of a single soldier. Though still bound to the printed page,storytellers were already striving toward juxtapositions that were easier to manage with images than with words. Now, in the incunabular days of the narrative computer, we can see how twentieth-century novels, films, and plays have been steadily pushing against the boundaries of linear storytelling. We therefore have to start our survey of the harbingers of the holodeck with a look at multiform stories, that is, linear narratives straining against the boundary of predigital media like a two-dimensional picture trying to burst out of its frame.

…. …. … … …. …. …. …. …. …. …. ….. … …. … …. … ….

We cannot use the English theater of the Renaissance or the novel of the nineteenth century or even the average Hollywood film or television drama of the 1990s as the standard by which to judge work in a medium that is going through such rapid technical change.

Similarly, new narrative traditions do not arise out of the blue. A particular technology of communication the printing press, the movie camera, the radio -may startle us when it first arrives on the scene, but the traditions of storytelling are continuous and feed into one another both in content and in form. The first published books were taken from the manuscript tradition. Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, written in manuscript in 1470, drew on prose and poetry versions of the Camelot legend in both French and English, which in turn drew on centuries of oral storytelling. The elements of the story were all there already: the rise and fall of the hero Arthur, the gallantry of the knights, the love between Guinevere and Lancelot, and the destruction of the Round Table through civil war. But Malory’s prose brought these elements together and introduced colloquial dialogue, more consistent plotting, and a pervasive tone of nostalgia. Fifteen years later, William Caxton took Malory’s separate tales and bound them together into a single volume, with descriptive chapter headings that lured readers into the story. Only then, after such long episodic narratives were commonplace in publishing, could Cervantes write a contemporary tale like Don Quixote (1605), which marks the beginning of the European novel.

We can see the same continuities in the tradition that runs from nineteenth-century novels to contemporary movies. Decades before the invention of the motion picture camera, the prose fiction of the nineteenth century began to experiment with filmic techniques. We can catch glimpses of the coming cinema in Emily Brontë’s complex use of flashback, in Dickens’ crosscuts between intersecting stories, and in Tolstoy’s battlefield panoramas that dissolve into close-up vignettes of a single soldier. Though still bound to the printed page, storytellers were already striving toward juxtapositions that were easier to manage with images than with words.

Now, in the incunabular days of the narrative computer, we can see how twentieth-century novels, films and plays have been steadily pushing against the boundaries of linear storytelling. We therefore have to start our survey of the harbingers of the holodeck with a look at multiform stories, that is, linear narratives straining against the boundary of predigital media like a twodimensional picture trying to burst out of its frame.

Jessica Pressman – Digital Modernism: Making It New in New Media

Electronic literature is still in its nascent stages, but in just over two decades of existence it has already witnessed the passage of at least two generations, the development of a small but certain canon, and the rarefaction of expectations about what electronic literature is and does. Electronic literature emerged and gained critical interest in the late 1980s and early ’90s. This “first generation of electronic literature,” as Katherine Hayles calls it, was comprised primarily of hypertexts, a genre of text-based narrative that promotes nonlinear, or more accurately multilinear, reading paths.11

Dene Grigar – The Present [Future] of Electronic Literature 

The word emergent is key since it implies something in development. Suffice it to say that as a new form it is still in the throes of establishing conventions, as well as a developing a large critical and theoretical base, as exists currently for print. Five hundred years of printing can develop a medium in a way that a mere 25 years of personal computing cannot. So, despite what anyone thinks about the terminology used for this art form, scholars working in the late 20th or early 21st century will not be the final arbitrators of it.

J. Yellowlees Douglas – The End of Books, Or Books Without End: Reading Interactive Narratives

Yet for all their apparent differences, both hypertext fiction and digital narratives function like any medium in what historian Elizabeth Eisenstein calls its incunabular stage—an evolving form that in its infancy absorbs the media and genres that preceded it.20 Both forms contain recognizable genres still borrowed from print, with digital narratives focusing primarily on popular genres: adventures, fantasy, mystery, and science fiction. Similarly, hypertext fiction mostly follows the path of late-twentieth-century fiction, characterized by multiple perspectives and voices, episodes linked with associative logic and memory, and rejection of the conventional, often pat, final awarding of marriages, happiness, money, and recognition that wrap up narratives in mainstream and genre fiction alike.

This is especially true since the book as a technology evolved over the course of hundreds of years through innovations like spacing between words, tables of contents and indices, standardized spelling and grammar, the development of genres and conventions, and, ultimately, copyright, aimed at shoring up author’s rights and royalties, but which also ensured that readers encountered the author-ized version of a work and not a hastily pirated copy that more or less replicated what some quasi literate had made of the author’s work.9 Hypertext,
conversely, has been with us only since the late 1950s in prototype and only for the past fifteen years in mostly primitive applications that offer readers the sketchiest of notions of the contents of nodes, the destinations of links, of where they have navigated within a network of nodes and links, even of how much of the narrative they have consumed.10

If the book is a highly refined example of a primitive technology, hypertext is a primitive example of a highly refined technology, a technology still at the icebox stage. This is a far cry from the zero-frost refrigerator-freezer version of the technology envisioned by Aarseth and Murray, who anticipate, respectively, machine-made stories and frame-based authoring systems enabling writers to cycle through “the possible plot possibilities, eliminating many of them and specifying appropriate choices or priorities for situations where the story pulls
from multiple directions.”11

During each medium’s incunabular phase, moreover, a small number of genres flourish, wither, and die: between 1450 and 1500, the 20 million incunabular print texts produced included ballads and chapbooks, vulgarized versions of chivalric tales—old and familiar forms easily ingested by poor readers who passed them on, hand to hand, until they disintegrated. Of these early forms of print fiction, no current descendants survive, entire genres wiped out by the advent of penny periodicals in the late eighteenth century.8

Dene Grigar – Electronic Literature: Where Is It

If Mark Amerika is right and we are, indeed, “witnessing the emergence of a ‘digitally-processed intermedia art’ in which literature and all the other arts are being ‘remixed into yet other forms still not fully developed'” (Gallix), then engaging in such works would surely flummox even the most experienced reader of elit, for missing would be those neat cognitive structures – ‘those “abstract containers” – ‘where we place similar objects for the purpose of making sense of them (Lakoff 6).

In this 2013 video, Shelley Jackson and Dene Grigar express a shared sense of being in the incunabular phase of digital literature

George Landow – Hypertext 3.0

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