Preservation Paths. A Review of Pathfinders: Documenting the Experience of Early Digital Literature by Dene Grigar and Stuart Moulthrop, Élika Ortega

Preservation Paths. A Review of Pathfinders: Documenting the Experience of Early Digital Literature by Dene Grigar and Stuart Moulthrop

Élika Ortega (University of Kansas)

The preservation of digital objects has become a priority in the study of arts and culture in the last few decades. With practical and theoretical ramifications, digital preservation touches many areas of contemporary cultural production. Engineering feats like the gigayear data storage disk (De Vries) address part of the problem, but it remains a fact that long-term storage is only one side of digital preservation. Aside from preventing “bit rot” (storage media decay), the preservation of digital objects must consider the procedural qualities of applications, its material dimensions, as well as the user engagement it fosters. Furthermore, as Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito point out, institutional and legal issues further complicate the technological and aesthetic aspects of preservation. As a field accompanied by a sense of urgency, digital preservation offers exciting opportunities for scholars to devise ways of addressing each of the many layers of the problem. An inventive instance focused on electronic literature or E-Lit is the recently released open-source, multimedia Scalar book Pathfinders. Documenting the Experience of Early Digital Literature (http://scalar.usc.edu/works/pathfinders/) by Dene Grigar and Stuart Moulthrop.

Grigar and Moulthrop propose a unique methodological approach to preserving four 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). Pathfinders includes extensive documentation and a photographic record of these E-Lit works, as well as a traversal: a videotaped walkthrough of how authors and other readers read and interacted with them. The chapters devoted to each one of the works follow roughly the same structure: an introduction, a list of the works versions, an artist’s statement, the author’s traversal, an interview with the author, an edited sound file of the interview, two readers’ traversals and interviews, the photographic record of the work’s artifacts (floppy disks, cassettes, booklets, CD’s, inserts, among others), a history of the work, and two critical essays. The amount and the granularity of information contained in each chapter, particularly in the authors’ traversals and interviews, make them obligatory references to any scholar working on any of these four works, and to any E-Lit scholar in general. The field-specific methodologyestablishes and highlights the significance of electronic literature among the larger social significance of digital cultural production whose preservation has inspired monumental efforts like the Internet Archive. Furthermore, Pathfinders successfully documents the distance and unfamiliarity produced by the old computers and the interfaces of BASIC, HyperCard, and Storyspace, a self-reflexive record of the very process of documentation.

In the corpus included in Pathfinders, we see the influence these works have had in “shaping literary theory and criticism that, today, are used to discuss born-digital writing” (“Introduction” par 1). The photo collection of each work also tells us much about the four works’ ideation, history, and modes of distribution. Although it is not made explicit, the selection also suggests a shift from what can be considered “boutique” works like Uncle Roger and Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse—their uniqueness as artifacts that built up on the artists’ books tradition of the 1970s and 1980s—to the more standardized aesthetic and material configuration of the Eastgate publications in the 1990s. The contrasting (comparative) styles of Grigar and Moulthrop’s selection historicize the rapid changes that have influenced and been influenced by creative works like Malloy’s, McDaid’s, Jackson’s, and Bly’s. As stated by the authors, the four works Pathfinders focuses on are unique contributions that show a spectrum of the kinds of experimentation done in the pre-web era of E-Lit. In that sense, these works constitute challenging reading exercises that might have been equally surprising for coetaneous readers as they are to us now.

In the interviews conducted by Grigar and Moulthrop, as well as during the traversals, artists reveal fascinating details that were only likely to come up in such a curated context. Judy Malloy’s admission that she transformed the narrative of Uncle Roger into verses due to the ACEN datanet’s fifty character per line limit (Judy Malloy Interview, Part 5) is emblematic of the determining role of technology affordances in literary composition. An unassuming claim from John McDaid to have invented the concept of street view when working on the navigation in his HyperEarth (McDaid Traversal, Part 5) poses the materialization he anticipated of ideas that were in people’s minds at the time. Previously unseen problems with new editions emerge in Shelley Jackson’s traversal when the image of a right arm accompanying a particular part of the story does not appear in the 2001 CD-ROM edition (Jackson Traversal, Part 2). Similarly, Bill Bly’s walkthrough of his own archival collection at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) demonstrates the iterative process of creating an E-Lit work through various software versions and the importance of preserving electronic drafts and manuscripts (Bly Interview, Part 8). Far from being trivia facts, these are informative and nuanced details capable of shaping new readings of each of the four works.

Aside from the authors’ insights, by recording the readers’ experience, Grigar and Moulthrop capture the various processes entailed in E-Lit reading. We can observe and hear the old computers running the disks and the human readers interacting with them—an indisputable enactment of how “every act of reading electronic literature…includes both human and non-human actors” (Hayles par 42). Through the traversals, we are capable of seeing both the authors refamiliarizing themselves with their works and new readers getting acquainted with the electronic texts. In this fashion, we, as readers of Pathfinders, get a third-person experience of the works. Some could see the authors’ and readers’ traversals as offering an approach to the works that leads them too much, that could potentially fix their interpretation. But the traversals become an object of study themselves attached to the works though not quite part of them.

Grigar and Moulthrop are not oblivious to the irony of creating a digital artifact “about works in danger of obsolescence due to evolving digital technologies”. Quite the contrary, the authors integrate this idea so that it reveals the messiness, the instability, the improvisation, and the radical materiality and situatedness of their endeavor. The thorough reader of Pathfinders is likely to encounter little errors in the videos, and in them she will find Grigar and Moulthrop’s friction with the challenges of preservation. These are also indicative of how—even with protocols and methodologies outlined in detail—the works, the computers, the rooms, and the readers impose their conditions. Glitches, errors, and malfunctions that might not have been meant to be preserved, all of a sudden become enlightening moments showcasing aspects of electronic literature that are, for all matters, unfixable–both impossible to mend entirely, and impossible to make permanent.

Furthermore, we see Grigar and Moulthrop’s methodological approach developing. Changing camera frames, various degrees of focus on the onscreen action, and more or less emphasis on the readers’ manipulation of the work and its materials let us see facets of Grigar and Moulthrop’s preservation work in a speculative way. Their work highlights how digital preservation is still, to a large extent, a reactive endeavor and thus one in which being responsive to on-the-ground circumstances is crucial. In Pathfinders we see the process of production as an integrated part of the book. As a consequence, readers getting lost in the structure of the works, not knowing where to click next, and finding a way to make sense of lexias, together with equipment crashing and humming, electronic beeps, and momentarily unresponsive software, all become part of the works’ experience we have access to through Pathfinders.

The reader traversals preserve aspects of the works that could not be preserved in any other way. The radical differences in how the works are treated and read speak to issues like the expressive languages of E-Lit and the way that the computers’ affordances inform and shape our engagement with them. Expert readers like the works’ authors, as well as scholars like Matthew Kirschenbaum, and Grigar and Moulthrop themselves, are capable of showing details informed by specialized insights and vocabularies that perhaps many of the readers of Pathfinders will recognize. Nevertheless, as acknowledged by Kirschenbaum the particular conditions of the traversal—the unfamiliarity of the specific computer and the operating system being used—adds a layer of spontaneity (Bly Reader Interview Part 2). In contrast, non-expert readers’ traversals show the strangeness of the experience of reading electronic literature works grounded on intricate navigation and complex systems of signification. Non-expert reader traversals open up alternative ways of looking at the works. Just like the moments when the computers fail and glitches happen, the light struggles of the readers become revelatory of basic functionings and dynamics in the works that are unlikely to be noticed and theorized.

Pathfinders accompanies and expands a number of E-Lit preservation efforts carried out in the last couple of decades. Most notable among them: the re-edition of works published by Eastgate from 3.5-inch floppies into CD-ROMs and more recently USB drives; the emulated versions of bpNichol’s First Screening and Geof Huth’s Endemic Battle Collage currently hosted at Jim Andrew’s site vispo.com; and Nick Montfort and Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s handbook Acid-Free Bits. Recommendations for Long-Lasting Electronic Literature. Ultimately, vintage hardware collections and E-Lit archives, among them, Dene Grigar’s own Electronic Literature Lab and MITH’s catalogue are the very foundation for the project. Grigar and Moulthrop have produced in the readers’ traversal a secondary source for the study of the E-Lit works they focus on, and simultaneously new primary resources for the study of reading in digital media that are adjacent but not exactly attached to the works. Pathfinders is an artifact in itself and a part of the archive of the four works it deals with. As a result, Grigar and Moulthrop open the door for renewed studies of the works included in Pathfinders and set the ground for a subfield of E-Lit reading studies. The description and study of E-Lit reading like the ones found in the traversals might in time be explored further. Ultimately, these protocols propose and invite the development and establishment of a novel approach to E-Lit preservation. Pathfinders invites us to read these four works of E-Lit literally through someone else’s eyes; more importantly it invites everyone to take a look at the history of a field with a still fragile record.

Works Cited

De Vries, Jeroen et al. “Towards Gigayear Storage Using a Silicon-Nitride/Tungsten Based Medium.” arXiv (2013): n. pag. Web. <http://arxiv.org/abs/1310.2961> 27 July 2015.
Grigar, Dene and Stuart Moulthrop. Pathfinders. Documenting the Experience of Early Digital Literature. Vancouver WA: Nouspace Publications, 2015. Web. <scalar.usc.edu/works/pathfinders/> 30 July 2015.
Hayles, N. Katherine. “Deeper into the Machine: The Future of Electronic Literature.” Culture Machine 5.0 (2008): n. pag. Web. <http://www.culturemachine.net/index.php/cm/article/view/245/241> 27 Jan. 2015.
Montfort, Nick, and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. “Acid-Free Bits. Recommendations for Long-Lasting Electronic Literature.” The Electronic Literature Organization. N.p. Web. <http://eliterature.org/pad/afb.html> 27 July 2015.
Rinehart, Richard, and Jon Ippolito. Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2014.

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