The discourses of digital media in literary studies often focus on the ways that new media force reconsiderations and reconceptions of the literary. Digital media, in this line of argumentation, offer an occasion to destabilize the workings of literature for new generations of writers and readers. New media do more than this: they also provide an opportunity to think critically about what work the very category of literature performs and to reimagine what the discipline of literary studies takes as its object of study and its raison d’être. In confronting new media, literary studies has concentrated on the distinction between the analog and the digital, differences in the materiality of texts, and the ways electronic literature jumbles representation and forces readers into modes of textual interaction that were unlikely in print. Meanwhile, digital textuality has transitioned from the novel to the banal, provoking an explosion in everyday textual culture in forms such as blogs, social networking platforms, and various genres of short messaging services. These forms of everyday digital textual culture are not literary by most conventional definitions, and this is precisely the point. The opportunity they present to literary studies is not to expand the scope of the literary, but to open the notion of literary studies to literature’s great other: non-literature.

Embracing this challenge builds upon the legacy of a previous generation’s reshaping of the field, even as it represents a new direction by which the current crop of scholars and students can leave the field in better shape than they found it. A generation ago, they argued about the canon. The argument was at times fierce, and the outcome was promising: a literary studies that entertained the notion that non-Northern, non-Western, non-white, non-male, non-bourgeois, and other non-hegemonic traditions might count in its definitions of literature and authorship. The idea of the canon was forever troubled, and graduate students of my generation were the intellectual beneficiaries. While we were hardly treated to certainty, we were treated to a set of questions about what literary studies might include. Our advisors had honed and sharpened these questions over two decades’ heated conversation, and it was unthinkable not to think about what the canon is, what it represents, whom it serves, and what political and ideological work it performs. Though the work has not been completed, the canon wars are unexpungeable from the disciplinary record. Occasionally, unreconstructed syllabi and curricula may slip through, but not without raising eyebrows.

Today, literary studies should take up a different debate: what is the function of the literary in an age of widespread networked text? This question in fact contains two related questions. First, what are we to do with everday digital textuality?  An unprecendented flood of textuality means that everyday writing, preserved with varying levels of care, offers a window into the ethics and cultural practices of an era. Literary studies should welcome this flood of text. Every living discipline thrives by interrogating its practices and objects of study with regularity. If the way we read now is more screen than page, more tweet than blank verse, then let’s deploy the power of literary studies to understand how those textual forms work, how they communicate meaning, what textual practices thrive and falter, and how all of these traits might compare with other and earlier textual cultures.

Taking up the problem of what to do with everday digital textuality leads to the second question: what is the function of the literary?  Everyday digital media present literary studies with the opportunity to interrogate the category of the literary; to examine anew what the category does to texts, the people who read them, and the people who study them; and to think about how it can reimagine the boundaries of its disciplinary operations. That literature has a history goes without saying. But some of the most compelling work in literary history has asked where the very category of the literary comes from and what ideological work it performs.

Historically speaking, the question of the literary is a tributary of the canon wars, where the category of the literary has been charged with reinforcing the conditions of possibility for commercial growth (Valenza); enforcing distinctions among different classes of imaginative writing, effectively in order to make bank on supposedly non-economic aesthetic value (Poovey); and cementing class distinctions by defining the terms according to which markers such as literacy and a good education can be measured (Guillory). In each of these variants, the category of literature emerges against the background of an expanding economic and cultural market for printed material in the 17th and 18th centuries, while the complementary academic field emerges in the 19th and 20th centuries against the background of an expanding intellectual market for the production of knowledge in the modern university. For both literary writers and literary scholars, the distinctions marked off by the category of the literary were useful in establishing credentials and accumulating cultural, economic, and intellectual capital. But the continued enforcement of these distinctions leaves the discipline of literary studies in an intellectually and strategically tenuous position: by forsaking other forms of writing, the field passes up opportunities to deploy its tools in sites of textual production and consumption that are much closer to both the lived experiences of contemporary digitally mediated society and the lives of the students who should populate its courses.

Like an argument about the canon, an argument about the literary strikes at the core of literary studies. The inquiry about the canon asked which texts do or do not merit reading, which authors ought to be let in or kept out, what advantages the field and its practicioners bequeath upon those who are included, and what violence is visited upon those who are excluded. A questioning of the literary asks whether literary studies is primarily organized around, on the one hand, specific sets or types of texts or, on the other, a concern with textuality as a window into cultures, ethics, politics, and modes of social inscription that matter, have mattered, or will matter in people’s lives. By no means is this a strict binary decision. The currently dominant organization of the field around nation, period, and genre produces ample opportunities to inquire about how text functions and what social and cultural effects obtain. But by foregrounding the question of textuality before the status of a specific text, literary studies can shake off the various pieces of ideological baggage that have accrued to the discipline over the course of its formation and reestablish its value in the intellectual economy of the university.

The question, then, is about how everyday digital textuality differentiates itself from other and earlier forms of textual cultures. What specifically does digital culture offer to the comparatist that scrapbooks, marginalia, job printing, and grocery lists do not?  Why should this wave of textual banality be transformative for literary studies?  The answer and the opportunity for the discipline lie in the structure of contemporary digital textuality and the ways that it integrates into the dynamics of everyday life.

Incompleteness and Updatability  

The defining textual traits of digital media are unfinishedness and updateability. We never know what, if anything, might come next (Kushner). This is the quality that early literary critics of new media fixated on. George Landow deployed the term “very active readers” to focus on the histories of rhetoric, literary imitation, and fanzines as well as the possibility that hypertext might erode the dominance of the “supposedly discrete, finished text” (6, 9). Mark Poster described the internet as “underdetermined” because it is “open to practice” and because it “solicit[s]… social construction and cultural practice” (17). Though digital culture has moved on from the moment that Landow, Poster, and their interlocutors critiqued, this underlying instability remains effectively baked into the digital cake.

Another axis of digital studies fixated not on the popular uptake of networked computers but the appropriations of them made by artists and writers. Critics such as N. Katherine Hayles and Matthew Kirschenbaum have unpacked the significations and material underpinnings of electronic novels, poems, art, and other forms of cultural production that do not fit neatly into the generic categories that have shaped disciplines in the print era. Much of this work has shown how the creators write against the grain of electronic media simultaneously to force readers to decision points and to liberate them to shape their own readings. A text like Michael Joyce’s afternoon breathes in ways that Hamlet cannot inasmuch as it responds to its reader’s input.[1]

Yet even the most compelling instances of electronic literature cannot breathe in the way that social media does, and it is thus somewhat unsurprising that the hypertext novel and electronic poetry are still generally shelved in the experimental literature section (cf. Fitzpatrick 97-100, Nakamura 240). Even if afternoon or the more recent work of Young-hae Chang Heavy Industries respond to readers’ inputs, they still seldom allow readers to interact with one another--and when they do, readers are generally kept within the confines of the authored text. Even as its exponents challenge legacy features of print literature, electronic literature remains set apart from the textuality of everyday life. The limits of electronic literature lie ultimately not in their status as electronic artifacts, but in their status as literary artifacts.

 The truth is that electronic literature does not offer the only or most direct access to the poetics, ethics, politics, and technics of digital culture. The curmudgeonly cultural critic Lee Siegel has observed that “literary art [...] has been replaced by life,” because mediated representations and discussions about life and popular culture have become “the realm in which we lose ourselves in a moral problem.”  Where Siegel sees moral grappling, we might also see the intentional or incidental negotiation of more or less obviously significant political commitments, markers of identity, ethical questions, and social dilemmas: the right is wrong, the left is loony, this eighties song really does epitomize me, what should I wear? Certainly, the snark that tumbles off your Twitter feed differs in polish from the Lawrence and Proust that Siegel romanticizes. But the textual encoding of everyday life presents a unique opportunity to those who would claim the mantle of textual analysis. It is not the distinction of high and low culture that has been collapsed by new media, but the widespread expansion of meaning-laden banality from the sphere of orality to that of the written word.[2]

 Literature must now share the title to what Siegel characterizes as the hallowed “sanctuaries of anti-closure and infinite perspective, of right and wrong mashed together and dissolved.”  Here we hear echoes of those early hypertext critics: Siegel’s anti-closure is a new avatar for Poster’s underdetermined internet. But what is new in this decade is the way that this underdeterminedness is at once wholly unremarkable and readily at hand in a vast archive of texts. What is unfinished in social media is not only the text, but also the life of which the text is a component.

Digital Culture and Non-Literary Texts

Social media are the latest in a long line of non-literary textual artifacts that hold promise for literary studies. After a twentieth century that was dominated by the image, a textual century seems now to be underway.[3] However, because this textuality is bound up in the sociality of everyday life, literary studies has largely shrugged. The vast, deep, and imperfect textual archive that is social media invites new questions along the frontier of the literary and the non-literary:  What are the parameters of character, plot, or description in social media?  What forms of narrative thrive on new media’s various platforms?  How are social media stories emplotted in ways that recycle, reappropriate, rehash, or reject source texts from different textual traditions?  Questions like these are the natural province of a literary studies that sees an opportunity in Lutz Koepnick’s observation that “no age has written and read more than the one nursed on text messaging, Twitter, and Facebook” (233).

If we're to believe Valenza, Poovery, and Guillory, non-literary and lowbrow texts have existed alongside and for as long as literary texts, and literary scholars have periodically been drawn to them. Among the most prominent examples of this sort of inquiry are Janice Radway’s treatments of dime novels and popular literature. By sidestepping both the Western canon and the anti-canons its detractors proposed in rebellion, Radway opened a passage to understanding how the matrix of authors, publishers, and readers conspire to produce popular literatures. Radway’s objects of study were the Harlequin novel of the 1970s and the Book-of-the-Month club, both one-to-many media forms that were quite literally bound up in the history of the codex book. But, like today’s social media, these novels constituted a large part of the textual diet of a significant number of readers, and both thus offer a window on the construction of subjectivity, the workings of social difference, and the interactions of content producers and consumers in their respective contexts. By extending literary studies to popular literature, Radway was able to gain purchase on a widespread textual culture that was closed off by the largely unread literary texts that are more frequently the field’s focus. An engagement with social media today can have a similar effect—possibly on an even greater scale given the penetration of the digital textual form in contemporary culture.

A different approach to non-literary texts is seen in Tom Conley’s work, which uses a non-literary form of cultural production (maps) and the associated intellectual and professional practices (cartography) to weave together two key threads from early modern literature (the emergence of the self and the rise of the nation). The encounter that Conley stages between the literary and the non-literary enriches the scholarly understanding of space and subjectivity more thoroughly than an engagement with only one or the other. What stories can be unearthed about postmodern understandings of space or subjectivity by unpacking Google Maps?  What strains of literary production could we put productively into conversation with Snapchat, Boing Boing—or even something as banal as email?

Somewhat further afield is scholarly work that treats the ephemeral textual artifacts that litter the everyday landscape. For example, David Henkin traced the explosion of textual material in urban spaces in the late 19th century.[4] Henkin argues that signs, posters, business cards, handbills, newspapers, and standardized paper money all conspired to reframe economic, social, and political power differentials in terms of reading, rather than purely oral exchange. More recently, Lisa Gitelman's work on the blank forms, photocopies, and file types of the workplace has allowed for a renewed focus on the materiality of the media through which administration does its work in cultures within and beyond the office. Such attention to non-literary textual culture deepens the context in which we might read Dickens, Balzac, or Wallace. Bartleby may have prefered not to write, but Henkin’s work helps us see what Bartleby could not help but read. Meanwhile, Gitelman’s work allows us to feel the weight of the paperwork Bartleby refused and the power structures that he sidestepped in doing so. The backdrop to everyday digital life is equally full of textual ephemera. What do banner advertisements, polls, webforms, and listicles tell us about the public textual spaces of networks or the administrative processes through which its cultures flow?

Clearly, I’m not the first to suggest a deep connection between literary studies and the objects that it excludes. Indeed, the 1993 Bernheimer Report declared that comparative literature “should include comparisons between media, from early manuscripts to television, hypertext, and virtual realities” (45). The leap the Bernheimer group could not have been expected to make was from an approach to digital media as exotic and “new” to an understanding that the internet would inaugurate an explosion in wholly banal textual culture (cf. Kirschenbaum and Werner 407). However, the insistence two decades ago that the field welcome different media of cultural production reveals that literary studies has been preparing for the arrival of non-literary digital textuality for some time. In the decade ahead, a signal challenge will be to articulate approaches to the vast and imperfect digital archive that builds on the historical strengths of textual interpretation while lowering the drawbridge to allow both the admittance of new texts and the forays of literary scholars into the provinces surrounding the castle.

The Practice of Interpretation

Bringing non-literary texts in and sending literary scholars out into everyday textual culture amounts to a funny sort of boundary work, and not only because the border between literature and non-literature is fuzzy. Science and technology studies understands boundary work to refer to disciplinary discourses that distinguish valid from invalid practices and practitioners in order to consolidate intellectual authority and keep interlopers out (see Gieryn, esp. 792). In the classic formulation, boundary work is a matter of exclusion. In contrast, I am proposing a sustained stroll along the border between the literary and the non-literary as an exercise in inclusion. By committing to engage with the full range of textual artifacts that characterize digital culture, literary studies can commit itself to an honest and ongoing interrogation of just what the literary can be in a moment of media change. There is a material difference here: rather than crouching among the classics, a literary studies that opens itself to non-literary digital textuality embraces the unfinishedness of its project (and not only its canons) by allowing itself to be updated.

Such a move is not without its risks. Everyday new media threaten to destabilize key terms that have already been hotly contested: author, text, and genre—but also edition, audience, character, and narrative. Generic categories such as novel, poem, and play, as well as the notions of authorship that support these genres, are by no means eliminated in the media regime that has spawned blogs and Facebook, but they do present differently, and in ways that challenge the categories of analysis and disciplinary identity that formed literary studies as a discipline in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. What kinds of narratives do social media produce?  How can we understand the category of plot in a Facebook feed?  Questions such as these are uncomfortable for literary scholars used to dealing with literary work, but literary scholars are precisely the people who have the training and sensitivities needed to offer insightful responses.

More than mere insight, such questions are of strategic and intellectual importance. Strategically, they grant literary studies a renewed foothold in digital media, so that it might elbow its way back into a conversation now dominated by fields such as communication studies, anthropology, sociology, and even management studies.[5] Such a move accomplishes this strategic goal by drawing on and reenergizing the intellectual practice that has propelled literary studies since its establishment as a discipline: the interpretation of texts.

In exploring a shift in the practice of literary analysis, Steven Connor writes that “interpretation not only illuminates what had previously been obscure, it also, and perhaps more importantly, makes it clear that it was obscure or mysterious” (183, original emphasis). This illuminating function is the old anchor against which Connor perceives a “new, expanded form of interpretation [that] does not say what things say, but shows how they work [...]” (184). Connor uses this distinction to flesh out another distinction: “A nonliterary text is to be read; something that is taken to be literary, that is to say treated as interpretable, is a program to be run” (184, emphasis added). On both sides of the shift Connor describes, there is a deeper function that both the old and the new interpretation performed: interpretation is needed because literary texts are somehow difficult in a way that non-literary texts are not. By extension, literary studies is constructed as socially essential because it is uniquely able to perform this interpretive labor. But where I part ways with Connor is in the assumption that the literary/non-literary distinction is necessary for the practice of interpretation to make sense and hold intellectual and social value. Rather than insist that some quality of a text renders it literary or not, literary studies stands only to gain by insisting from the start that all textual culture is, in Connor’s words, “worthy of being reread” (184). As film scholar Charles Acland might say, the problem with literary studies has been literature, the use of genres to designate the boundaries of a discipline (46).[6]

Were James Carville a comparatist, he would surely drawl: “It’s the interpretation, stupid!”  Literary studies is uniquely able to perform the interpretive labor of grappling with the ways that people in different language communities, social strata, and geographical frames are making meaning through text today. Other disciplines may be equipped to theorize the conditions of communication through digital media, the cultural structures that digital media represent and create, the social relations that digital media enact, or the business arrangements that make digital media financially sustainable. But only literary studies can think about contemporary practices of reading and writing with the confidence of several centuries’ experience asking these very questions and developing tools to respond. The “literary” in “literary studies” is a decoy. Everyday digital media offer to the field an important strategic and intellectual opportunity. By insisting on the practice of interpretation rather than the specific object of study, the next decade of comparative literature can be one of expansion, rather than retreat.



The author thanks Katalin Cseh-Varga, Lesley Curtis, and Leon Jackson for helpful comments on a draft version of this essay.

[1] Virtual bookshelves have been published on electronic literature. Perhaps the most pertinent primer to which I can point readers is Jessica Pressman’s contribution to this State of the Discipline Report.

[2] Bearing in mind Joyce Coleman’s critique of Walter Ong, we might remember that the rise of networked sociality does not impute the end of orality, but rather the introduction of a new form of textuality alongside existing oral and textual modes of cultural interaction.

[3] Needless to say, digital media that characterize the twenty-first century are not only or merely textual. See, for example, work by Johanna Drucker on interface design and Geoffrey Batchen (esp. chapters 8 and 9) and José van Dijck on digital photography.

[4] Note also Ronald Zboray’s contention that the 19th-century explosion of textual ephemera had an even more profound effect on those living in rural settings (225).

[5] Worth noting: “at a college near you, at this very moment, a student is changing their major to Communication Studies,” a discipline whose recent PhDs find themselves facing rather more encouraging professional prospects (Schmitt). The stakes of demanding a seat at the table are the very lifeblood of any academic discipline: students. (Full disclosure: I’ll soon begin working in a communications studies department.)

[6]  Acland uses this formulation to critique film studies as uninterested in the material conditions of film’s production, distribution, and consumption.


Works Cited

Acland, Charles. Screen Traffic: Movies, Multiplexes, and Global Culture. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 2003. Print.

Batchen, Geoffrey. Each Wild Idea: Writing, Photography, History. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT P, 2000. Print.

Coleman, Joyce. Public Reading and the Reading Public in Late Medieval England and France. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.

Connor, Steven. “Spelling Things Out.”  New Literary History 45.2 (2014): 183-97. Print.

Drucker, Johanna. Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2014. Print.

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. New York: NYU P, 2011. Print.

Gieryn, Thomas F. “Boundary-Work and the Demarcation of Science from Non-Science: Strains and Interests in Professional Ideologies of Scientists.”  American Sociological Review 48.6 (1983): 781-95.

Gitelman, Lisa. Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 2014. Print.

Guillory, John. Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993. Print.

Henkin, David M. City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York. New York: Columbia UP, 1998. Print.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT P, 2008. Print.

---, and Sarah Werner. “Digital Scholarship and Digital Studies: The State of the Discipline.”  Book History 17 (2014): 206-58. Print.

Koepnick, Lutz. “Reading on the Move.”  PMLA 128.1 (2013): 232-37. Print.

Kushner, Scott. “Virtually Dead: Blogospheric Absence and the Ethics of Networked Reading.”  Communication Review 14.1 (2011): 24-45. Print.

Landow, George P. Hypertext 3.0: Critical Theory in New Media in an Era of Globalization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2006 [1997, 1992]. Print.

Nakamura, Lisa. “‘Words with Friends’: Socially Networked Reading on Goodreads.” PMLA 128.1 (2013): 238-43. Print.

Poovey, Mary. Genres of the Credit Economy: Mediating Value in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Britain. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2008. Print.

Poster, Mark. What’s the Matter with the Internet?  Minneapolis: U of Minn. P, 2001. Print.

Pressman, Jessica. “Electronic Literature as Comparative Literature.”  ACLA Report on the State of the Discipline 2014-2015, ed. Ursula Heise et al. 28 June 2014. Web. 4 January 2015.

Radway, Janice. A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1997. Print.

---. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: U of N.C. P, 1984. Print.

Schmitt, Jason. “Communication Studies Rise to Relevance.”  The Huffington Post. 22 October 2014. 5 December 2014.

Siegel, Lee. “Is the News Replacing Literature?” The New Yorker, 12 February 2014. 11 November 2014.

Valenza, Robin. Literature, Language, and the Rise of Intellectual Disciplines in Britain, 1680-1820. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 2009. Print.

Van Dijck, José. “Digital Photography: Communication, Identity, Memory.” Visual Communication 7.1 (2008): 57-76. Print.

Zboray, Ronald J. Rev of City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New YorkJ Am Hist 87.1 (2000): 224-25. Print.