Random Borges | Infinite E-Lit: A Look from Hispanic Legacies

This is the abstract of the talk I will be giving at the Hall Center for Humanities at KU as part of the Digital Humanities Seminar on March 25th.

As indicated in the title, this talk is part of the larger research/curatorial project Hispanic Legacies in Electronic Literature that I’ve been working on with Alex Saum-Pascual for the last few months. As the whole project is still a work in progress, please excuse the plethora of developing ideas and feel free to provide constructive feedback. I’m hoping to share the slides soon too.

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In this paper I propose a juxtaposition between Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges’ imagined figures of infinity such as “The Library of Babel,” “The Aleph,” and “The Book of Sand” and contemporary examples of Electronic Literature (E-Lit) that analogously and literally enact endlessness in reading and writing. Media figures of infinity—the conceptual and structural strategies used by writers to shape, structure, and create infinites (or boundless electronic literary works)—underscore the tensions between the life span of artworks and their conceptual underpinnings, the machines and code that materialize them, and the people reading them. In that sense, while some of the works selected directly address Borges’ own media infinity figures and in a way enact or materialize them, others constitute an analogous instantiation of deep time literary and/or philosophical concerns—something that Joseph Tabbi has called “relocations of the literary.”

In Borges’ stories, the infinite library, the Aleph, and the book of sand all sway from a being objects of fascination and wonder at first, to disquieting and even destructive ones—the house that holds the Aleph is demolished; librarians in the Library of Babel often commit suicide; the narrator in the book of sand has to hide the codex in order to regain his sanity. Taking this ambivalence as a starting point, I explore how it is incorporated into infinite E-Lit works that instantiate a poetics of the humanly possible—where their spatial-temporal dimensions are inaccessible (even ungraspable) for readers.

I look at four media figures of infinity and a couple of examples for each one: endless generative texts (Dan Waber’s Sestinas, Nick Montfort’s Taroko Gorge + remixes), infinite loops (Waber’s Argument 1 and 2, and Matt Schneider’s Babelling Borges), infinite canvas (Nick Montfort and Stephanie Strickland’s Sea and Spar Between, Mark Sample’s House of Grass of Leaves and Laura McGee’s Infinite Notebook), and data-mined social media founds (Jim Andrews’ Teleporter and David Hirmes’s Infinite Wonder, Infinite Pity). Even when not exhaustive, this sample of infinite E-Lit suggests an identifiable interest with the possible dimensions of electronic literary works in tension with the material constraints of the machine’s life spans, software obsolescence, and our own capacity of reading and forces the question of what the friction between endlessness and material limitations tells us about the literary in a culture of technology in which nothing endures.

Update March 26: Slides are now available via Figshare.

Update April 6: The talk was recorded and there is now a video available here.

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