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DHQ "Reviews": post on "Digital Literature and the Modernist Problem" by Bolter and Engberg



For the last month or so, I've spent considerable time reading up on recent scholarship in digital humanities. This post is the first of several "reviews" of recent work in DH scholarship, all from DHQ (Digital Humantiies Quarterly). I place the word "reviews" in scarequotes because my intent here is not to arrive at some absolute critical determination about a work or topic, but to open up discussion regarding the varied and exciting contributions of these scholars. I hope you will find these posts engaging.

Bolter, Jay David and Engberg, Maria. “Digital Literature and the Modernist Problem.” Georgia Institute of Technology and Blekinge Institute of Technology. DHQ 5.3, 2011.

In “Digital Literature and the Modernist Problem," Bolter and Engberg focus on the provocation: "The historical avant-garde and by extension all of modern art and design have left us with this question: what is the relationship between formal innovation and political action?" (7). The article presents an overview of aesthetic and political concerns regarding the productions and possibilities for 21st century digital literature, understanding these literatures as engaging in critical debates that have shaped the very meaning of modernism and the the very possiblities of the avant garde. Drawing on competing theories of the avant-garde proffered by Rancière, Bürger, Drucker, and Huyssen, the essay explores the implications of the demonstrable fact that writers of digital literature have been generally interested in extending the purely “formalist” concerns of modernist art and literature while tending to ignore the sociopolitical concerns of 20th century avant-garde movements. Yet, in drawing upon the work of artists such as Jason Nelson, Bolter and Engberg suggest that certain writers of digital literature have moved beyond the “modernist problem” by undoing or eschewing the binaristic split between aestheticism-formalism and political engagement. Nelson’s poetic-visual work undermines the terms of this debate by forgoing the debate altogether; as Bolter and Enberg note, Nelson is "hardly eschewing mainstream media attention; instead, his works come across as joyful rather than committed to formal innovation as the teleology of digital literature. Nor does his work — despite some avant-garde echoes in texts and descriptions on his websites — seem to be adhering to a program working toward political or cultural change" (18). See Nelson's website, winner of the 2009 Webby Award in the "Weird" category:

Bolter and Engberg's essay bears directly upon recent disucssion in one of my graduate seminars at Vanderbilt, in which students have explored the actual or perceived rift in modernism between aestheticism and political engagement. Some takeaway questions generated by this article and by Nelson’s work:

  1. Why must political awareness (or in the case of Virginia Woolf, as many have posited, “self-awareness”) be sacrificed at the altar of formalism? 
  2. Ought modernist preoccupations be defined as being situated between these two poles of competing interest? 
  3. Might 21st century neo-modernist projects imagined and staged on the Internet, presumably a democratizing medium or “canvass,” shift the terms of debate on the “modernist problem”?
  4. Is modernism over? And the related question / concern: Is the avant-garde dead, finally and forever, or might its concerns be recovered / resuscitated / re-imagined through works of digital art and literature?
  5. If so, what does it then mean to be creating non-digital artwork in the 21st century? 



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