Locked in Translation "Digital" Literature and the Embodied Frameworks of Language

Reading and interacting with media from print to digital has always been a tactile, embodied experience.

And we see over time that those ways we read are changing with the ways we touch.

But the way we talk about this change still needs an update.

In this presentation, therefore, I make a case for a critically provocative redefinition of the digital to argue that the frameworks of language through which we navigate proto-digital and digital literature has always been embodied, as literalized through the haptic, tactile, and "digital" ways we interface with medial texts.

In David Cronenberg's debut novel, philosopher Aristide Arosteguy addresses the digital, admitting,

"I like the French word, numérique, better. It’s more descriptive, and it doesn’t confuse with the reference to human fingers, to digits" (120).

Lev Manovich uses Dziga Vertov's film to propose his "language" for new media.

Manovich assures us that he does not mean,

"that there is a single language of new media." He "use[s] 'language' as an umbrella term to refer to a number of various conventions used by designers of new media objects to organize data and structure the user’s experience" (7).

Abbie Garrington explores the haptic dimensions of the cinema in its modernist context:

"Associated primarily with the visual, cinema—with only a flat screen, and without the benefit of galvanic knobs [lke those of the 'feelies' from Aldous Huxley's Brave new World]—is able to stimulate the whole human sensorium. As Siegfried Kracauer established, film treats the viewer as a 'human being with skin and hair’, presenting ‘material elements' that 'directly stimulate the material layers of the human being: his nerves, his senses, his entire physiological substance'" (40).

Jessica Pressman says of Ezra Pound's orientalist technologizing of the Chinese ideogram that,

"Pound turns Chinese into a kind of medium" (142).

John Cayley actually translates Chinese through a medium.

His poem "windsound" can be read in response to Pound's fantasy as a critique of and commentary on the mutability rather than the universality of language.

Furthermore, Cayley's "Translation" allows interactors to confront their material control--or lack thereof--over this seemingly immaterial quality of language.

Walter Benjamin states that the greatest power of language is in the "name," for,

"Man is the namer; by this we recognize that through him pure language speaks. All nature, insofar as it communicates itself, communicates itself in language, and so finally in man...Man can call name the language of language...and in this sense certainly, because he speaks in names, man is the speaker of language, and for this very reason its only speaker" (65).

If we consider the ways in which code is similarly "the language of language" then its names are almost certainly in English.

A review of Stein's book at the time from the Louisville Courier Journal judges that,

"'The words in the volume entitled Tender Buttons are English words, but the sentences are not English sentences according to the grammatical definition. The sentences indicated by punctuation do not make complete sense, partial sense, nor any other sense, but nonsense'" (36).

Stein's "nonsense" draws our attention to the "thingness" of the word (Ong 11).

As Ong discusses the shift from orality to literacy, Gregory Ulmer proposes we consider what he calls the shift from literacy to electracy:

"Electracy is to digital media what literacy is to print. [Therefore,] what literacy is to the analytical mind, electracy is to the affective body: a prosthesis that enhances and augments a natural or organic human potential."

Annie Abrahams's "Separation/Séparation" may be split by its dual language title, but its interactive instructions unify the experiences...or compromise them back into an English context.

Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux connect Raymond Queneau's playful poem generator to the generative play of a hundred thousand billion fingers manipulating videogames:

"Whether reading Queneau’s book or playing a videogame, the constraints of poem and program produce repetitions" (174).

If videogames feel too childish for such a literary connection, consider the children's book which inspired Queneau:

Though the debate continues (and the language changes), there are compelling arguments for games as electronic literature.

Literary games can play with the materiality, temporality, and liminality of language.

But the embodied frameworks of language we operate within can sometimes present problems outside of literary games.

When developer "Night School Kevin" suggested French players use their keyboards' arrow keys to navigate the game, he received this poignant joke reply:

"Arrows for one hand, Space & Enter for the other hand, mouse for the third hand..."

"Digital" literature draws our attention to the tension between frameworks of language and our embodied experiences of them, leaving us not so much lost in as we are locked in translation.

Created By
Caleb Andrew Milligan


Created with images by Wokandapix - "letters keys keyboard" • Pexels - "book book pages close-up" • Yos C. Wiranata - "Logitech Mouse" • FirmBee - "office freelancer computer" • Pexels - "code code editor coding" • ObeyGravity - "keyboard qwerty computer" • Nemossos - "French keyboard, night scene" • mpardo.photo - "The Power"

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