The Use of Preservation for Early Electronic Writing
An exercise in reclaiming electronic literary works on inaccessible platforms, examining four works as both artifacts and operations.
Many pioneering works of electronic literature are now largely inaccessible because of changes in hardware, software, and platforms. The virtual disappearance of these works—created on floppy disks, in Apple's defunct HyperCard, and on other early systems and platforms—not only puts important electronic literary work out of reach but also signals the fragility of most works of culture in the digital age. In response, Dene Grigar and Stuart Moulthrop have been working to document and preserve electronic literature, work that has culminated in the Pathfinders project and its series of “Traversals”—video and audio recordings of demonstrations performed on historically appropriate platforms, with participation and commentary by the authors of the works.
In Traversals, Moulthrop and Grigar mine this material to examine four influential early works: Judy Malloy's Uncle Roger (1986), John McDaid's Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse (1993), Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl (1995) and Bill Bly's We Descend (1997), offering “deep readings” that consider the works as both literary artifacts and computational constructs. For each work, Moulthrop and Grigar explore the interplay between the text's material circumstances and the patterns of meaning it engages and creates, paying attention both to specificities of media and purposes of expression.
Traversals is a significant and vital addition to the field. Moulthrop and Grigar are both preserving and enhancing our understanding of what electronic literature was, is, and can be. Combining interviews with some of the founding figures in electronic literature production and scholarship, Moulthrop and Grigar offer a unique historical, creative, and literary-critical perspective on the first wave of born-digital works. In placing the 'reader' at the heart of their account, they offer robust and illuminating analyses that situate the works within their literary, technological, and critical contexts. This book is essential reading for any scholar of electronic literature.
Alice Bell, Sheffield Hallam University; author of The Possible Worlds of Hypertext Fiction and coeditor of Analyzing Digital Fiction
Plenty of scholarship has addressed the various difficulties of archiving electronic literature, but Moulthrop and Grigar offer a completely unique preservational method in Traversals. With painstaking accounts that address decaying platforms, rotting bits, and complex networks of meaning, the authors demonstrate how 'deep readings' are essential to the continued preservation of e-lit.
James J. Brown, Jr., Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Digital Studies Center, Rutgers University
In their lucid and affectionate analysis of four canonical works, Moulthrop and Grigar explore not what electronic literature is, the inadequacy of the term revealing that impossibility, but its modes of performance through time and space. Traversals is an important cultural artifact, a necessarily partial and biased act of translation and preservation by practitioners of the art that not only provides a fascinating snapshot of the pioneering golden years of 'born-digital' writing, but also speaks to our uncertain future as human readers and writers.
Illya Szilak, independent scholar, curator; author of Reconstructing Mayakovsky and Queerskins