Earlier this year, the Archive of the Now was removed from the World Wide Web. In a statement claiming responsibility for the action, the hacktivist group Anonymous said that Queen Mary College, University of London, where the archive was hosted, and “other universities should be much more interested in protecting their own data . . . than in analyzing the data of others” (qtd. in Afifi-Sabet). Founded and run by scholar and poet Andrea Brady, the Archive of the Now is a collection of freely downloadable audio and video recordings of contemporary poets. It appears to have been collateral damage in an action intended to target Internet research at the university funded by the UK Ministry of Defense, such as a project on “Cross-cultural attitudes and the shaping of online behaviour in crisis situations.” The blurring of the lines between comparative cultural studies, military analysis, and contemporary poetry highlights broader questions that attend attempts to construct an archive of the now, to historicize the present or very recent past, as in this Report on the State of the Discipline. Who owns, controls, and uses the archive? What economic and geopolitical realities does it reflect and maintain? What practices does it enable or inhibit?

The practice of comparative literature today is increasingly shaped by the contested archive of the now that is the Internet. Websites such as Brady’s have allowed me to write from New Zealand about contemporary poetry in China, Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere in ways that would have been impossible before the development of the World Wide Web.[1] Contemporary works of poetry increasingly assume web searching as a precondition of reading (Reed 757). Though massive and massively larger than a decade ago, the Internet is a highly skewed and partial archive, subject to corporate and state control, as Anonymous’s hacktivist actions and Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency remind us. The NSA and its partners, including those in the country from which I write, are also busy compiling an archive of the now, one that would have been the envy of twentieth-century totalitarian states such as the Soviet Union and which at the same time may well be the most extensive archive ever complied for the comparative study of everyday life. To speak, then, of the archive of the now is also to acknowledge the now of the archive: the pervasiveness of archiving in our present moment, including in the theory and practice of comparative literature.  

I want here to connect these various archives of the now by using contemporary literature to explore the historical contingency of recent comparative literary practices, methodologies, and theories. Current theories and practices of comparative literature are shaped by our historical moment, but this historical contingency is rarely acknowledged sufficiently in our discipline. We forget at our peril that the archive is “always finite and therefore selective, interpretative, filtering, and filtered, censuring, and repressive”; it “always figures a place and an instance of power” (Derrida 100). A key way to guard against narratives that continually place “us” at the center of things and that offer “globalization stories as the new form of modernization narratives” is to interrogate and so question how the present technological, economic, and geopolitical environment shapes the practice and theory of comparative literature (Saussy, “Comparative Literature”).

The link-node hypertext structure of the World Wide Web and the increasing mobility of goods and global elites have over the past two decades encouraged a comparative practice that “sees, instead of discrete national literatures, all literatures as participating in a network of power-inflected relations” (Shih 84). This sense of global connectivity is even more pervasive now than a decade ago, when the last report on the discipline already noted that, “the current ‘space of comparison,’ rather than requiring that different works or traditions be deliberately wired up to communicate, sees them as always already connected” (Saussy, “Exquisite Cadavers” 31). Susan Stanford Friedman recently wrote of “circulation” and “world-systems” theories as the main competing paradigms for comparative literature, world literature, and global modernism (“World Modernisms” 501). Whereas world-systems theorists draw on the work of Immanuel Wallerstein to emphasize the unequal relations between core and peripheral economies in a global system, the circulation model of comparison envisages network-like structures that “avoid the categorical violence of comparison within the framework of dominance” through translation, transculturation, “juxtapositional comparison,” or “incommensurable relationality” (Friedman, “Why Not Compare?” 40–41; Melas 36). Yet even as they divide over the relative weight given to the network’s non-hierarchical possibilities and its “power-inflected relations,” both circulation and world-systems theorists share a view of the world in which everything is connected. In each case, the sense of global connectivity is reinforced by the archive of the now that is the World Wide Web. Read in this way, what was once a particular strength of our discipline––to make unexpected connections, to cross national boundaries––now becomes the normative practice of the Internet age.  

In the mid-1990s, some pioneers of digital literature, such as poet-programmer John Cayley, were already criticizing hypertext’s restrictive ontology of nodal entity and fixed relations (“Beyond Codexspace” 168). Cayley’s reservations parallel recent criticisms of David Damrosch’s influential account of world literature both for its assumption that literary works have a single place of origin and for its defining of relations as the crossing of national or linguistic boundaries (Walkowitz 171–72; Shih 83). When Cayley proposed a “holographic” poetics in which texts, like light waves, would continuously diffract and change each other and themselves, he was seeking an alternative to the regimented mode of thinking proposed by nodes and links (“Beyond Codexspace” 172). Cayley’s collaboration with poet Yang Lian 杨炼 on a bilingual HyperCard performance piece Dahai tingzhi zhi chu 大海停止之处 / Where the Sea Stands Still (1997), for example, allows for different parts of the text to appear on four screens simultaneously in sometimes reinforcing and something contrasting ways. The work reminds us that that things repeated are never quite the same, just as “now” is never the same now––“now is furthest away” (现在是最遥远的) in the words of Yang’s poem. Cayley and Yang’s use of repetition and interference suggests an alternative, diffractive way of imagining world literature in which nodal entities and relational links are themselves in continuous flux.

Comparative literature has also responded to rapid increases in the quantity and availability of information, to what is termed elsewhere in this report “the wave of big data flooding all subjects” (Thomsen). Just as the development of the Internet was driven by and drove the use of enormous datasets in fields such as genetics and astrophysics, the great upsurge in digital information and its near-instantaneous communication around the globe find an analogue in comparative literature’s turn to very large scales, including––in addition to world literature––Gayatri Spivak’s “planetarity” (71–102), Wai Chee Dimock’s “deep time,” Laura Doyle’s “inter-imperiality,” Franco Moretti’s “distant reading,” and the even vaster geological scale suggested by the Anthropocene (e.g., Wenzel).

Many contemporary works of art and literature also address big data and global scale. But they do so in ways that remind us that digital data are never raw, never separable from their material context of instantiation, never “transcendental,” despite our tendency––encouraged by the template structure of increasing numbers of webpages––to imagine “data pours” as the seamless transference of data from one form or container to another (Liu 211–36). Kenneth Goldsmith’s Printing Out the Internet (2013) is a crowd-sourced installation and performance piece in which people from around the world were invited to print off a part of the Internet and send it to the Labor Gallery in Mexico City. The impossible task of printing the entire Internet was not achieved, of course, though mountains of printouts were accumulated (fig. 1).


Fig. 1. Kenneth Goldsmith with papers from his Printing Out the Internet project, Labor Gallery, Mexico City, 2013. Photograph by Marisol Rodríguez. Image courtesy of Kenneth Goldsmith and Labor Gallery.

Goldsmith thereby highlighted the size of the Internet and the difference between its digital, ink-and-paper, and oral materializations, as his statement accompanying the work emphasizes:


Goldsmith here echoes the postscript to a much earlier work, Soliloquy, which contains a transcription of every word he spoke in one week in 1996:




Elsewhere, he extends the metaphor: “Perhaps the materialized language would be taken to digital encoding centers, where it would be loaded onto high density CDs and stored as a record of our thought” (“I Look to Theory”). Goldsmith’s vision of language transformed into data echoes the popular idea that “all the words ever spoken by human beings” could be contained in five exabytes of data, an idea apparently first put forward by CalTech physicist and computer and information scientist Roy Williams in 1995, not long before Goldsmith made his Soliloquy recording.[2] Such imagined archives of speech have to some extent been realized in the NSA’s project to record every single phone call made in selected countries (Gellman and Soltani). But whether in the fantasies of the NSA or of students of world literature, stores of language frozen as data project positivist visions of totality that increasingly inflect understandings of language, literature, and culture.

Goldsmith’s treatment of language as vast quantities of data to be stored, sculpted, and mined finds an obvious analogue in the work of Moretti and the Stanford Literary Lab’s vision of data-driven studies of world literature. But references to data size are to be found across a wider range of contemporary approaches to comparison. In opposition to the treatment of literature as data, Haun Saussy in his contribution to the last State of the Discipline Report noted the smallness in bytes of such a large and complex work of literature as Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which can be contained within a text file of 1.15 megabytes (Saussy, “Exquisite Cadavers” 32). Anxieties about the relative smallness of literature (or even of all language) as compared with the Internet and scientific data are reflected in the continuous upping of the scale of comparative literature––from world to global to planetary to even (though tongue-in-cheek) “interplanetary literature” (Saussy, “Interplanetary Literature”).  

Contemporary poetry likewise responds to big data by, among other things, upping the stakes even further through the potential literature pioneered by the Oulipo writers. Raymond Queneau produced a sonnet with one hundred thousand billion permutations. Similarly, Simon and Christine Morris initiated a vast potential project when they used a computer program to generate and print re-orderings of all 223,704 words in Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams (Morris and Morris, Re-writing Freud). Tolstoy insisted that the only way to explain Anna Karenina was to repeat all its words in exactly the same order (292). Combining the Morrises’ and Tolstoy’s insights and Saussy’s 1.15 megabyte file, we could imagine all the possible combinations and permutations of the words contained in the novel War and Peace as producing a potential text so large that the entire Internet would appear vanishingly small beside it.[3] Just as physicists suggest dark energy and matter constitute most of our universe, so potential literature dwarfs even the mightiest database.

Such absurd imaginings seem a long way from the everyday tasks of comparative literature and recall instead the ’pataphysics or “la science des solutions imaginaires” of Alfred Jarry, whose influence is acknowledged by Goldsmith in the name of what is arguably his greatest work, the online archive of avant-garde poetry and film UbuWeb. Like comparison in literary and cultural studies, however, works of potential literature highlight the myriad possibilities of textual permutation, which only increase in the Internet age. While a decade ago Saussy bemoaned the flatness of the Internet, webpages are in fact rich reminders of historical depth. Because they are frequently updated and often, like the Archive of the Now, disappear entirely, webpages accentuate the complexities of the historical record and of our “textual condition” (Gitelman 123–50; McGann). The web shows us what comparatists already know: texts live multiple and changeable lives across space and time. An oft-repeated way of describing large amounts of data is to speak in terms of multiples of all the books held in the Library of Congress. Yet as students of literature understand, the meaningfulness and interpretative history of the books in a library’s collection far exceed their word count. Even the vast digitalizing project Google Books reveals markers of materiality that defy quantitative summation. The Art of Google Books contains thousands of images highlighting scanned books’ original print and paper materiality––foxed pages, library stamps, marginalia, and the like––and the process of their digitalization––scanned hands turning pages, neon moiré on images, and so on (Wilson).

Like The Art of Google Books, Dmitri Prigov’s installation Videnie Kasparu Davidu Fridrikhu russkogo Tibeta (Caspar David Friedrich’s Vision of Russia’s Tibet; 2004; fig. 2) explores databasing and global connectivity not as the opposite of literature but as a material, affective, and aesthetic condition of contemporaneity. 

Fig. 2. Dmitri Prigov, Videnie Kasparu Davidu Fridrikhu russkogo Tibeta (Caspar David Friedrich’s Vision of Russia’s Tibet), as exhibited in the group show “En un desordre absolut: Art contemporani rus,” Centre d’Art Santa Mònica, Barcelona, 2012. Photograph by Costanza Baldini. The installation was originally exhibited at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow in 2004. Reproduced with the permission of the Estate of Dmitri Prigov and Costanza Baldini.

Some of the last decade’s best work on the contemporary––such as Lauren Berlant on “cruel optimism” and Sianne Ngai on the “stuplime” and the “interesting”––explores the structures of feeling underlying how, say, a work of conceptual art or a John Ashbery poem generates a sense of “impasse,” a low-affect, minor or cool resistance to the “free-floating and impersonal” postmodern sublime of global networks and information overload (Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories 147–73; Berlant 23–27; Jameson 64). Prigov’s installation would, in particular, seem to exemplify Ngai’s account of how modernist and contemporary works of “stuplimity” draw on but revise the romantic sublime by replacing shock in the face of the infinite with shock and boredom in a continuous encounter with the iterations of “finite bits and scraps of material in repetition” (Ngai, Ugly Feelings 271). As in Friedrich’s Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog; 1818), Prigov presents an overwhelming vision. Yet instead of marking the encounter with an unrepeatable, inexpressive, and infinite nature, Prigov confronts us with the mass-produced and finite but extremely numerous products of newsprint––snowdrifts of paper that recall similar accumulations in the work of writers like Cage, Beckett, Ashbery, and Goldsmith.

Situated in Russian as well as Western conceptual and contemporary art traditions, however, Prigov’s work cautions that data overload and post-industrial desire can generate quite different aesthetic and emotional categories depending on the “us” in question. Prigov’s Vision superficially resembles, but differs from, the “cool” or “merely interesting” aesthetic on display in Goldsmith’s adaptation of conceptual art to literature (Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories 146). If “stumplimity drags us onward into the realm of words rather than transporting us upward toward an unrepresentable divine” (Ngai, Ugly Feelings 274), Prigov’s work keeps both options in play, inviting the viewer to attend to the close-up, exhaustive task of reading the newspapers, and to survey them from a distance, to look beyond the fog of paper to the returning gaze of the monstrous or divine eye. On the one hand, Prigov stresses the messy materiality and fragility of the archive of the now through the medium of print newspapers: impermanent markers of the daily that are under threat from the rise of digital technologies and, in the Russian context, increasing government monopolization and control of the press. On the other, in decanting newspapers into the given form of Friedrich’s painting and its many subsequent iterations, Prigov presents a materialization of the transcendent digital “data pour” that at the same time invokes the heights of German Romanticism and Russian nationalism––through the towering Altai peaks known as “Russia’s Tibet.” While, like Goldsmith, Prigov confronts today’s vast snowdrifts of information, his work’s emotional register is at odds both with the cool immateriality of the postmodern and data sublime and with the aesthetics of minor affective resistances. By fusing the transcendental data pour with resistant materiality, and romantic nationalism with the geographical expanses of global feeling, Prigov’s work suggests the need to question the oppositions between network and node, data and materiality, totality and locality, stuplimity and sublimity on which “our” comparative forms and contemporary aesthetics are built.

To archive the now is also to write it. Data do not speak for themselves just as speech is not just a certain quantity of data. As the production and availability of literature has increased exponentially over the past few decades, gatekeepers and filterers of information––the archivists––have become increasingly important (Dworkin 21). Yes, in our role as archivists, we should expand the field and seek to escape our various provincialities. But forms of expansion or relation are not in themselves enough, unless they are accompanied by an awareness of the conceptual assumptions and structures of feeling that attend the archive of the now.


Works Cited

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Cayley, John, and Yang Lian. Dahai tingzhi zhi chu 大海停止之处 / Where the Sea Stands Still. A “performance reading with cybertextual projections.” Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 27 May 1997. A videocassette recording of the performance is held in the ICA Archive, London.

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[1] Websites that have proved rich sources for my writing about contemporary poetry include Vavilon (http://www.vavilon.ru), Novaia literaturnaia karta Rossii (http://www.litkarta.ru), Shi shenghuo 诗生活 (http://www.poemlife.com), Electronic Poetry Center (http://epc.buffalo.edu), UbuWeb (http://www.ubuweb.com), and PennSound (http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound).

[2] The webpage where Williams equates all words ever spoken to five exabytes of data is no longer online. According to a 2002 version of the page archived at The Way Back Machine, the page was created in 1995. A Czech translation confirms that the page and this phrase were online prior to January 1996 (Kohoutková).

[3] If we assume a vocabulary of, say, 10,000 words, then for a book with 500,000 words (roughly the length of War and Peace), there would be 10,000 to the power of 500,000 possible permutations, that is, a one followed by two millions zeros, with each permutation being about one million bytes in size. The amount of digital data worldwide is currently estimated in zettabytes, a measure of bytes with a one followed by twenty-one zeros.