Language, Materialities and Experience

This paper was initially written for a postgraduate assignment.  As this is a working version, please note that it should not be cited yet unless the author is contacted first.  To do so, please email yen(at)

Any feedback or comments would be greatly appreciated.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.




And now, why will you ask us to deny the humanity of the slave?  And estimate him only as the equal of the hog?  Why ask us to do what you will not do yourselves?  Why ask us to do for nothing, what two hundred million of dollars could not induce you to do?[1]

This is an excerpt from Abraham Lincoln’s speech on the Kansas-Nebraska act at Peoria, Illinois made on 16 October 1854.  Powerful sentences.  With imagination, we can conjure up a voice in our head, which we think would sound most like Abraham Lincoln’s voice to reread the quotation, with stresses, that we imagine he would have made whilst addressing the large audience.

A collection of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches is edited into book number seventy-two of the Penguin Great Ideas books, as part of a ‘collection of speeches from one of the great orators in history[2]’.  The cover (see image) is purple with a black silhouette of Abraham Lincoln’s portrait and opening lines of the Gettysburg Address quoted.  The small paperback of only one hundred and thirty pages somehow manages to communicate a sense of purpose and importance to the reader, from its simplicity and perhaps from its position within the collection that Penguin has so carefully put together.

What is interesting about this little purple book is that the literature it holds was not written to be printed or published.  It was written to be orated nearly a hundred and sixty years ago.  The purpose of this literature today in the codex form is perhaps primarily as a written archive for the epochal speeches of Abraham Lincoln.  However, it is also a book, a part of a literary collection, a piece of literary art and depending on how it is read, it could also be part of an autobiographical collection, a literary documentary, even as a philosophy or history textbook.



Digital Humanities is not a new area of study, especially when considering its digital age.  Tracing back to around 1989, the studies in Digital Humanities could be seen as the development from studies in Humanities Computing[3].  In the mere twenty odd years that have passed, technological developments have been vast and remarkable, suggesting a more realistic age of perhaps a century of progress.  Though such may be the case, ‘as a profession [English literature], we are just learning how to live with computers, just beginning to integrate these machines effectively into [literature]…, just starting to consider the implications of the multilayered literacy associated with computers[4]’.  In its basic guises, Humanities Computing suggests the expansion of computing into the areas of humanities, whereas Digital Humanities suggest the concentration of humanities study within the digital environment.  The origination of Digital Humanities today from these two strands, though arguably similar, is key to the understanding of what literature is in Digital Humanities as we will explore further.  The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0 proclaims that:

Digital Humanities is not a unified field but an array of convergent practices that explore a universe in which: a) print is no longer the exclusive or the normative medium in which knowledge is produced and/or disseminated; instead, print finds itself absorbed into new, multimedia configurations; and b) digital tools, techniques, and media have altered the production and dissemination of knowledge in the arts, human and social sciences.[5]

Literature means different things to different people, especially in academia, where the traditional studies of literature would suggest the notion of ‘high art’ in fiction writing.  In addition, some believe that literature cannot be just ‘writing’ and insist that literature must be something more specific, for example the novel in book (codex) form.  Some literary scholars would also question the acceptance of other forms or writings like articles, journals, comics and receipts as forms of literature.  Imagine the difficulty when electronic literature was introduced on platforms like the Internet, electronic books, computer games and other digital mediums.  Where would they be categorised under, if not literature?  Most digital humanities scholars use the term electronic literature, assuming a universal understanding that literature refers to written works (without discrimination), whilst traditional literary scholars tend to ignore the developments of literature in the digital platforms, considering them not be literature, but a different area of studies altogether.

In the humanities… we hesitate to embrace information technology in its most innovative forms, and we deploy our own unique, field-specific metaphors so far removed from the information metaphor that result in the stubborn defense of academic silos with the attendant digital divide [that is] highlighted.[6]

Paul Youngman’s message does not necessarily aim to critique the lack of digital knowledge within humanities in academia, rather, it champions the idea that in the current world, we are no longer able to disregard information technology in what we do.  This, I believe is true in any area of studies, let alone the humanities.  In literature, it is important for the definition to be more encompassing than just ‘high-art’, a concept that is still primarily limited in its scope by academia, scholars and critics.


Printed texts have perhaps enjoyed too long an unchallenged reign and have thus created in its readers a sort of assumption of its physical form.  As we have been trained to read in the linear method (line by line, page by page) for more than the past four centuries, any new form of text would inevitably be subjected to this reading method or technique.  With the introduction of digital texts and the idea of digital literacy, this concept is slowly being challenged, initially by the digital savvy community.

We may refer to these new kinds of works as ‘cybertexts’ or ‘technotexts’.  No matter what the chosen term, it is important to keep in mind the plurality that is easily forgotten behind the unifying umbrella term: there is a huge variety of possible approaches to the new textuality, and it is easy to forecast that, so far, we have just seen the first glimpses of what is to come.[7] 

This development sees print becoming ‘embedded within a multiplicity of media practices and forms of knowledge production[8]’.  As print becomes just another medium in which texts and words can be integrated with and displayed, we see the development of the new forms of digital writing from two angles; writers moving into the realm of digital technology and technologists moving into creative writing.  Both these concepts create very particular types of writings that have clear characteristics of their own, but they are nonetheless pushing the boundaries of what literature is.

The complexity of language is not a new topic.  Though there are common languages that are widely used in the world today, there are still cultural, social, religious and even political nuances that varies depending on the origins of the literature (and its author), geographically and historically.  To understand fully literature that is written even in just one language requires not only the understanding of the language, but of the cultural, social and political stance of the period and subjectivity of the writer and characters.  Imagine what it means to understand texts written with the usage of slang, vernacular or even other languages.  The ability to comprehend fully the meaning would lie in reader’s knowledge of everything that relates to the specific piece of text.  In the digital realm, new languages are introduced to literature, either wholly or in creole (new language that emerged through contact between computing language and an existing language[9]), which adds to the complexity of digital literature.  Fluency and understanding of these new languages are crucial in its development.

For traditional (print) writers exploring digital writing, we would find most commonly the use of hyperlinks or similar processes to create a non-linear piece of writing.  These pieces would most closely relate to the ‘choose your own adventure story-books’ made popular in the 1980s, where the reading path is somewhat determined by the reader and not the text.  In these books, the possible paths are finite and pre-determined by the author, allowing the reader to explore and create different plots depending on the choices made.  However, more sophisticated digital literature today would create a flexible platform, allowing readers to have complete flexibility in the reading path and how much information is explored.  In a lot of the cases, the number of plots, paths or choices could be so vast that a reader would never be able to explore every one of them, creating the illusion of infinite choices.  Jacques Derrida foretells this in Paper Machine when he tells us of ‘the off-switch or cutoff point – the interrupteur – which will never disappear (it is essentially impossible)[10]’.  What he had not realised was that he was not foretelling, for the technology had already existed.  Derrida refers to physical limitations, like the size of a book or the memory of a CD, as the measurement to how far a writer could continuously write for.  If we take the Internet, limitations of file sizes are primarily the concern of the server and this is easily remediated through accessing or using servers elsewhere.  In theory, the limit of the Internet is the size of all the servers and computers that are connected to the Internet at one moment, which can be said to be limitless.  There are other literature that can be streamed directly on the Internet without requiring permanent memory, like ppg256 which we will discuss below.

Let us first look at Chemical Landscapes Digital Tales[11] by Mary Pinto and Edward Falco.  Without knowing how many pieces of written prose there are and where all the hyperlink points are on the image, it is impossible for a reader to know if they have come to the end of the piece.  Ah[12], a piece by K. Michel and Dirk Vis is simple, yet powerful, showing us that this literature in what it has set out to do can only be effectively represented on this platform.  With strings of words flowing across the screen at different paces, it brings into question how we read, constantly creating new experiences as the words flow past.

For technologist writers, the creativity seems more varied, due to the fluency of the languages (English and/or programming languages) used as well as the familiarity with the platforms.  Though there seems to be a highly creative output here, much of the work can only be understood by practitioners from similar backgrounds.  The use of creole is more popular within this writing community and texts have deeper undercurrents.  Nick Montfort’s ppg256[13], as previously mentioned, is a great example of a thoughtful use of programming (Perl language) to create an English (sounding) poem.  It is a creative piece of programming because it does not actually use any external dictionary or word references.  Words are created randomly from 256 pre-determined characters[14] (see appendix).  The programme generates an endless stream of poems (without requiring permanent memory) until it is interrupted.  Hugo Leisink’s version of The Ghost Writer[15] in the website ‘Movies {as code}’ is more to the point.  ‘Movies {as code}’ is a website that presents alternative versions of real movies, but in code form.  With Java programming language, the single line of code written by Leisink literally creates a document that instantiates the word ‘ghost’, hence the ghost writer.  This example would reflect the use of creole, emphasising on the programming language, suggesting what we know as a ‘play on words’.  Finally, there is a poem called Method to my $madness[16] by user stevieb in Perl Monks’ website’s Perl Poems section.  This is a more traditional English poem which is peppered with notions of Application Programming Interface like $ (variable) and () (method).  The poem can be read directly in English, without needing to understand the additional markings, but the markings create a new level of nuance that can be appreciated by other Perl programmers.

Though language would be the main tool in any writing, in digital humanities, we have to also consider on what platforms and how literature is used.  ‘Texts must always be embodied to exist in the world [… and] materiality of those embodiments interacts dynamically with linguistic, rhetorical, and literary practices to create the effects we call literature.[17]’  As the Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0 states, “[n]ow it [digital revolution] must shape a future in which the medium-specific features of digital technologies become its core and in which print is absorbed into new hybrid modes of communication.[18]”  Although digital humanities suggests the necessary use of technology, it does not ignore traditional mediums like handwriting, print, or art, it suggests that attention is given to the various reproduction methods and mediums, paying attention to its materiality.  Jenneke Adema and Gary Hall discusses the change of medium in their paper ‘the Book as a Form of Political & Conceptual Resistance in Art & Academic’ for the online conference on ‘(Im)materialities of Text’ by suggesting that artists are liberated from the traditional gallery exhibition method through the publication of their art collections in a book[19].  David Heckman, at the same conference takes a different angle in his paper ‘the Politics of Plasticity: Neoliberalism and the Digital Text’ by suggesting that ‘a mode of presentation, by virtue of its mode of production, can lead to formal patterns which effect the cultural competencies of those who are interacting with the content.[20]’  Heckman suggests that the writing and reading processes are driven and affected by the technicality of the production within the chosen medium or materiality.  When faced with a new medium, the new interface forces the writer and reader to pay attention to it, as opposed to familiar interfaces where the competency is assumed.  However, when the familiar and strange interfaces are brought together, the traditional medium becomes defamiliarised as attention is forced upon it.  And thus, ‘materiality of the artifact can no longer be positioned as a subspecialty within literary studies; it must be central.[21]

Writing on new digital platforms will undoubtedly be different.  Johanna Drucker explores the process of modelling in detail, in her book Speclab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing.  This process of modelling though, is a new concept that neither technologists nor writers are fluent in.  Precisely because both are specialists in their own areas, they each require the other’s input in order to be able to produce new literature on new platforms.  Not unlike the role of the editor in print literature, the technologist would act as the editor or platform specialist to the writer.  Due to the newness and constant change in technology, we are finding overly intricate pieces of writing from the literary community or intensely complex technical works from technologists.  These will not take the place of popular literature anytime soon as it requires the internal knowledge of electronic literature to appreciate, understand and consume.  However, in transmedia practices in mass media, we are starting to see what popular culture have come to accept of literature in digital humanities.  These are stories written for an array of platforms across media like books, TV, film, radio, computer games, social media and the Internet.  Initially, many of these projects would have a primary media focus.  For audiences who are technologically savvy, they are able to get a fuller experience in a specific programme through access of all the materials across platforms.  The way writing is applied to these platforms make for ingenious creativity as even if audiences choose only one media to participate in, they would still be able to enjoy a complete story without realising that there is more that they are missing out on.

A good example of this is the recent BBC TV series of Sherlock, created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books.  The main storyline was scripted for television, but supporting the series was four main character websites, which were updated in ‘real-time’ as the series progressed[22].  Character Twitter accounts[23] were also employed, giving audiences who were active on Twitter a fuller experience, creating a somewhat augmented reality, whilst following the television series.  This new form of writing requires a multi-disciplinary and team approach.  Writers now need to network and co-create[24] with production/platform/media specialists, to get their ideas across effectively in whichever platform they choose.  As propagated by the Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0, “interdisciplinarity/transdisciplinarity/multidisciplinarity are empty words unless they imply changes in language, practice method and output.[25]”  As succinctly summarised by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum in his article on Digital Humanities,

the digital humanities today is about a scholarship (and a pedagogy) that is publicly visible in ways to which we are generally unaccustomed, a scholarship and pedagogy that are bound up with infrastructure in ways that are deeper and more explicit than we are generally accustomed to, a scholarship and pedagogy that are collaborative and depend on networks of people and that live an active 24/7 life online[26].

The online community that society had readily labelled geeks since the beginning of Internet developments have grown, as more and more people become computer literate and participate in online activities.  Within this alternate world is a network of communities, within which some have never met in real-life, but have developed a true collaborative relationship through their prowess in networking.


To fully experience the literature of Abraham Lincoln today as it was originally intended is impossible.  Each speech had its moment just once, when it was delivered.  Every person who had the opportunity to witness the speech would have experienced it differently as well.  Where they stood would determine how well they could hear him, if there were any distractions around them and perhaps most importantly, what their political and social stance was at that moment would determine if they would have enjoyed or disapproved of the speech.

Literature in digital humanities is the coming together of language, materialities and experience.  To study literature in digital humanities is to appreciate the complexities of these elements and to understand that every occurrence (experience) is a different one.  Though I am unable to experience Abraham Lincoln’s speech as he had intended, through the reprinting of the speeches, I have the opportunity to appreciate it in a different manner.  There are already various ways to experience the literature of Abraham Lincoln, from print, to radio, to film and there will no doubt be more different formats in future.  After all, as Derrida tells us,

We have experienced the transition from the pen to the typewriter, then to the electric typewriter, then to the computer, and all this in thirty years, in a single generation […] the voyage continues…[27]

[1] Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address (London: Penguin Books, 2009) p.29
[2] Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address, back cover
[3] Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens & John Unsworth (ed.) A Companion to Digital Humanities (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004) Chapter 1
[4] Cynthia Selfe, ‘Computers in English Departments: The Rhetoric of Technopower’, Association of Departments of English Bulletin, no.90 (1988) pp.63-67
[5] The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0, p.2
Accessed 15 April 2012
[6] Paul A. Youngman, ‘21st-Century Humanities: Art, Complexity, and Interdisciplinarity’ Human Affairs, vol.22 (2012) p.112
[7] Raine Koskimaa, ‘Cybertext Challenge: Teaching literature in the digital world’, Arts & Humanities in Higher Education, vol.6 no.2 (2007) p.172
[8] The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0, p.7
[9] N. Katherine Hayles, Writing Machines (USA: The MIT Press, 2002) p.50
[10] Jacques Derrida (Rachel Bowlby trans.) Paper Machine, (California, Stanford University Press, 2005) p.28
[11] Mary Pinto & Edward Falco, Chemical Landscapes Digital Tales Accessed 30 April 2012
[12] K. Michel & Dirk Vis, Ah Accessed 30 April 2012
[13] Nick Montfort, ppg256 Accessed 30 April 2012
[14] An explanation of how the code works is available in the Appendix.
[15] Hugo Leisink, The Ghost Writer Accessed 30 April 2012
[16] stevieb, Method to my $madness Accessed 30 April 2012
[17] Hayles, Writing Machines p.31
[18] The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0, p.2
[19] Jenneke Adema & Gary Hall, ‘The Book as a Form of Political & Conceptual Resistance in Art & Academic’, (Im)materialities of Text – online conference Accessed 28 April 2012
[20] David Heckman, ‘the Politics of Plasticity: Neoliberalism and the Digital Text’, (Im)materialities of Text – online conference Accessed 28 April 2012
[21] Hayles, Writing Machines p.19
[22] Sherlock, BBC TV Series, official website Accessed 30 April 2012
[23] Sherlock Twitter accounts @SherlockSH, @MollyMH, @MycroftMH, @WatsonJW Accessed 30 April 2012
[24] The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0, p.4
[25] Ibid. p.3 NB: emphasis are as printed in the original text
[26] Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, ‘What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?’ Association of Departments of English Bulletin, no.150 (2010) p.6
[27] Derrida (Bowlby trans.) Paper Machine p.31


Espen J. Aarseth, Cybertext: Perspective on Ergodic Literature (US: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997)
Walter Benjamin (J.A Underwood, trans.) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (London: Penguin Books, 2008)
Jacques Derrida (Rachel Bowlby, trans.) Paper Machine, (California, Stanford University Press, 2005)
Johanna Drucker, ‘Blind Spots: Humanists must plan their digital future’, The Chronicle Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education, vol.55 no.30 (2009) p.B6
Johanna Drucker, Speclab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing (US: The University of Chicago Press, 2009)
N. Katherine Hayles, Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary (US: University of Notre Dame, 2010)
N. Katherine Hayles, Writing Machines (USA: The MIT Press, 2002)
Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, ‘What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?’ Association of Departments of English Bulletin, no.150 (2010) pp.1-7
Raine Koskimaa, ‘Cybertext Challenge: Teaching literature in the digital world’, Arts & Humanities in Higher Education, vol.6 no.2 (2007) pp.169-185
Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address (London: Penguin Books, 2009)
Martin Lister, Jon Dovey, Seth Giddings, Iain Grant & Kieran Kelly, New Media: A Critical Introduction, second edition (UK: Routledge, 2003)
Cynthia Selfe, ‘Computers in English Departments: The Rhetoric of Technopower’, Association of Departments of English Bulletin, no.90 (1988) pp.63-67
Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens & John Unsworth (ed.) A Companion to Digital Humanities (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004)
Paul A. Youngman, ‘21st-Century Humanities: Art, Complexity, and Interdisciplinarity’, Human Affairs, vol.22 (2012) pp.111-121 


Alliance of Digital Humanities Organisations Accessed 12 April 2012
The Digital Humanities Manifesto V.2 Accessed 15 April 2012
Electronic Literature Collection Accessed 30 April 2012
Materialities of Art – Between the Codex and the Net (online conference) Accessed 28 April 2012
Sherlock – BBC TV Series Accessed 30 April 2012

APPENDICES are available upon request.  Please email yen(at)

This paper was initially written for a postgraduate assignment.  As this is a working version, please note that it should not be cited yet unless the author is contacted first.  To do so, please email yen(at)

Any feedback or comments would be greatly appreciated.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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