Digital Archive of Portuguese Experimental Literature

[Rui Torres]

The potential of the use of computers in the humanities has been widely examined (Ref.25), and literary studies is no exception (Ref.26). The stimulating aspects of hypertext must be articulated with the challenges it poses to the traditional roles of students, teachers, and theorists of literature. There are creative, as well as institutional and intellectual effects, which force scholars to understand these new and powerful methods for editing and organizing texts (Ref.14).

The study of hypertext and its impact on the scholarly archive, which is increasingly published in electronic formats, demonstrates a paradigm shift: from the archive as a classified collection of texts to the archive as a network of texts (Ref.13). On the other hand, the complexity of cybertexts, which are articulated in a new range of features previously unexpected, such as mobility, temporality, multiplicity, and interactivity (Ref.21), entail new literacies, a new theoretical vocabulary, and a new critical stance.Digital media further open up space for a recognition of the importance of the materiality of multimedia writing to writing itself. Ryan hence recognizes an awareness of the medium as being affected by its material support (Ref.23), noticing that the development of electronic textualities has “led to a rediscovery and critical investigation of print and the Codex book.” (Ref.23)

In this light, the historical importance of innovative poetry (concrete, visual, etc.), which recognized, avant-la-lettre, the importance of the aesthetic function of language (Ref.05; Ref.22) is also relevant to literary studies. There is a noteworthy solidarity between experimental poetry and the possibilities that the computer offers. However, one must acknowledge that many of the operations that the machine provides can be found in previous poetical practices: from collages and automatic writing to permutations and the dream of a synaesthesical and multi-sensitive total poetry (Ref.22; Ref.06).Even though the role of experimental literature of the second part of the twentieth century is nowadays easily recognized as crucial for the understanding of digital strategies for new literacies (Ref.13; Ref.23; Ref.25; Ref.26), most of the pioneering works that established current genres of digital literature are not often available on the Internet and are generally difficult to access (Ref.09; Ref.30). On the other hand, the first experiments done with older programming languages were created with software that is no longer available, in such a way that it is already possible to call them “prehistoric” (Ref.08).The goal of the present project is precisely to contribute towards the preservation, classification and presentation of these works, as well as to provide a reflexive and a pedagogical perspective. For methodological purposes, we will divide our chosen corpus into two sets of textualities: Visual and Sound Poetry; and Cybernetic Literature.


Visuality and material expressiveness in Experimental Literature

The use of expressive techniques and topographic constellations was generalized after the appearance of concrete and visual poetry, in the 1950s (Ref.28). The importance of concrete and experimental poetry to the development of new poetic practices, namely those based on electronic media (electronic or digital poetry), leads scholars to find systemic affiliations of experimental poetics to digital media (Ref.04; Ref.20).According to Lennon, “poets and visual artists working from a tradition of typographic experimentation that reaches back to futurism and Dada, and includes twentieth-century visual and Concrete poetry, are using networked writing spaces to create and distribute a new electronic visual poetry.” (Ref.15, p.64).

This shift of concrete poetry from analog to digital media is also observed by Simanowski (Ref.24), who states that “[w]ithin the digital realm concrete poetry gains two more levels of expression”, as “time and interaction” become additional ways of expression. In a similar manner, Portela (Ref.19) explicitly mentions an “intrinsic connection between concrete poetics as a theory of the medium (i.e., of language, of written language and of poetical forms) and digital poetics as a theory of poetry for the digital medium”, and Glazier (Ref.10) is also keen in recognizing the urgency to address “the lines of continuity between innovative practice in print and digital media.” (Ref.10) Resolving that “digital poetries are not print poetry merely repositioned in the new medium” (Ref.10), the author agrees that “[i]f one considers the visual work of any number of innovative writers, the connection between materiality and the conditional dynamics of writing begins to become tangible.” (Ref.10)


Cybernetic literature and the coordinates of combination and generativity

Cyberliterature, also called generative or virtual literature, designates those literary texts whose construction is based on computing procedures: combinatory, multimedia or interactive (Ref 03). Cyberliterature promotes experimentation and play, working in the path of historical avant-gardes and within the space opened by the universal experimentalism of writing, image and sound (Ref.29). Therefore, besides text generated by engines and programming algorithms, it is important to evaluate the consequences that digital and multimedia technologies have in the context of poetry, prose or theater (Ref.16; Ref.18).

Experimental poetry may be regarded as a contribution to “overcome an eventual exhaustion of codes, reactivating them in order to create new mechanisms to produce meaning, not yet depleted by their use.” (Ref.22) But the compositional methods and techniques that experimental poems use, namely “atomization or pulverization of the verbal material, juxtaposition, agglutination, redistribution, cutout” (Ref.22) also suggest that poetry is in tune with the prevailing media of the time. Poetry assists us not only in dealing with old and new media, but also in clarifying the way we write and read texts in general.


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