COLLOQUE DE CERISY - AUGUST 2005
FRENCH LITERARY PRODUCTION ON THE INTERNET,
IN SEARCH OF AN ISSUE. . .
From the 13th to the 20th of August, 2005, the Cerisy-la-Salle chateau hosted a symposium1 devoted to on-line French literature. For a week, contributions were delivered to a hand-picked audience at the perfectly satisfying rate of two before lunch and at most three in the afternoon. But - beyond the charm of the venue, beyond the overhanging shadows, benevolent and oppressive by turns, of great figures of 20th-century European thought and literature looking over us from their photos as we made our way down the hall, beyond the spectacular weather that afforded us pleasant dips into the normally cold waters of the Channel - what can be said about the conference without falling into the tropes of a travelogue? What issues or themes can be gleaned, given the variety of contributions?
That's just the problem with thematic symposia, as opposed to those, often held at Cerisy, devoted to a single author. When everyone's speaking about the philosophy of Jacques Rancière, or the work of Marcel Schwob, as in two symposia held in summer 2005, one doesn't have to search out a theme, or wonder what could possibly be discussed once the doors are closed.
The three terms of the title - Internet littéraire francophone - can in fact be combined in different ways: does one speak of a network devoted to the study of literature written in French, bringing new tools to the study of conventional literary texts? Does one broach the question of the publication, and then of the protection and display of French-language literature throughout the Internet? Or does one speak of literature that is a product of the Internet, with the ancillary quality of having been written in French? Such is the subject, and the issue, of a symposium like this one that its true subject may take a week to come out.
RENEWING LITERARY STUDIES
One certainly can't rely on the order of participants' interventions, one that might even have constituted an implicit discourse, to possibly reveal an outline of the organizers' intentions.
Michel Bernard's inaugural talk, however, connected squarely with our first interpretation above, and his subject dealt unambiguously with computer-assisted literary studies.2
The idea of using computers and the Internet in the study of written literature is catching on quite naturally and gradually becoming common practice in literature departments. But one should distinguish between things related to computer-aided study and those related to network practices.
What Michel Bernard usually practises3 in the Master program he gives at Paris 3 is indeed computer-assisted study of written literature.
As the Internet is uncensored, and its content not authenticated, the obvious difficulty of networked literary study is searching for content, and then checking the validity of that content. This could be described as the first step in networked computer-aided literary study. Information, as everybody knows, is plentiful on the Web, and in just about any field; but how does one know if a piece of information is valid, if it isn't simply strewn with errors, if it isn't intentional misinformation, even organized piracy, or parody? One might recall the well-known case from the world of Net-art where a site presenting itself as that of sports equipment manufacturer Nike turned out to be the work of cyber-activists.
While, to my knowledge, no site has yet been found to knowingly give false information on an author, or to set up a parody so skillfully as to take in unsuspecting visitors (one wonders what the pranksters are waiting for to take some irreverent shots at overblown literary figures), one can't be too sure.
To get information from the purest source, one's first precaution might very well be to identity reliable databases. Searches on BNF, Gallica, Frantext, Fabula are sure to afford us a good first selection.
If knowing the true sources of information were sufficient condition for acquiring it, we'd be in seventh heaven! With an example search on a person's name, Michel Bernard demonstrated the problem with literary searches on the Net.
Eugène Mutiaux, for instance, is a character in Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu; but he was also a real-life person, a relative of Proust's, and an art collector. Which one do we search for? How does one set up a query on the database? These are just some of the issues Bernard raised with respect to computer-assisted literary study on the Internet.
Joint organizer of the event and host of the LITOR list, Patrick Rebollar voiced the preoccupations of any researcher wanting to check the validity of his or her sources, of any user on the Net looking for reliable information. Since the Internet is an open network, in which just about anybody can publish what they want, one invariably finds the chaff with the wheat.
Rebollar's proposed solution to the situation might have seemed peculiar if it weren't coming from one of the major actors of the French literary Internet: he imagined setting up a kind of net-watch for French-language literature on the Web. As soon as an error had been found on a literary site, the silent but thorough watchdog would report the mistake to the site's bewildered Web master. Then, if the error went uncorrected, it would be up to others on the network to report the error everywhere they could. A charter could be drawn up listing some best practices.
Generally, Rebollar was concerned with the status of the Internet as living space around literature: Internet Littéraire Francophone could then be understood as the meeting of all French speakers throughout the world who read literary texts on line, who seek information on literature, create literary blogs, put information on line, or who manage, one way or another, the display of a French literary network. In other words, a gathering of all francophones participating in a giant literary salon the size of the Web.4
This dual activity - organizing the network, and orientation within it - deserves further thought and contributions, as the subject is of considerable importance.
Michel Lemaire, the creator of Astrolabe (whose name alone partly defines the object), presented the advantage of both illustrating a major preoccupation connected with orientation, and of setting an example as a French-speaking Canadian making his contribution to the construction of a French literary studies network.
In short, the Net is no longer the indeterminate mass we tauntingly referred to as a "maze," or that we fearfully described as a web, with all its negative connotations, including the nightmare of finding oneself prisoner of a depesonalized digital spider; the network, thanks in part to search engines, and in part to many human regulators - be they portal administrators, researchers, etc. -, may be described as an organized digital environment.
The small part of the network one could define as the French-speaking literary Internet is then that amorphous part that is redefined and reassessed every time we turn on the computer and connect, a changing part of the network whose defining characteristic is to be French-speaking (including French per se) and to deal with literature in one form or another. The global network termed the Internet is an organized digital environment made up of an infinite number of temporary sub-networks, themselves defined as organized digital environments.
PUBLICATION ON THE NET: ADAPTATION, DISTORTION, OR RE-CREATION?
It's news to no one that the Internet is also a publication space. HTML, which allows for interconnections on networks and computers, is textual mark-up language. Images, sounds, mouse-clicking interactivity - all that came afterwards. And even then, images, sounds, and interactive commands must all be named and described to exist on the Web. The Net is a digital environment mostly made up of words. The issue of publishing literary works could not fail to be raised.
In this vein, we can't forget to mention the work of Étienne Brunet, who adapted his program Hyperbase, initiallty designed for the study of large textual corpora - literary or not - in a closed environment, to a statistical study of the use of French words on the Web. In ten years, Brunet told us in Cerisy, French has lost a little ground, in relation to English, though he sees no need for alarm - especially considering that in last ten years, since 1995, entire continents have entered the fray, which has naturally diluted French presence on the Web somewhat.
The Internet is indeed an opportunity for the French language, and consequently for the greater French-speaking community, la francophonie: while English is widespread as the language of business and scientific publishing, and as universal pidgin, French nevertheless retains its dimension as a common language of speakers scattered far and wide across the planet, if not as sign of a French "exception"... The interconnection through language - a role previously played by overseas French schools and French publications - now functions through the Internet, which is not only the largest universally accessible database, but also the largest French-language publication space.
In this respect, one is delighted to see such treasures of French literature as Madeleine et Georges de Scudéry's novel, Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus5, so well preserved and presented by Université de Neuchâtel in Switzerland for a project produced by Claude Bourqui and Alexandre Gefen. The remarkable work of putting this literary colossus on line - all 21 volumes of it - should convince the last of the sceptics. A work that no one was reading any more, a work that had just about disappeared from the consciousness of French readers - when, in the 17th century, it was the equivalent of a TV series, that is, the object of everyone's attention, the subject of many a high-society conversation, and even the confirmed motive for marital disputes - has, thanks to the Net, become a living, attractive work again, a doorway in fact into social practices whose once close connection with literature is easily forgotten, a literature that transcended rigid categories of oral/written literature.
As any reader launching www.artamene.org may see, the unabridged text of the work is not only available, but also presented such as to make multiple readings possible. Thanks to a quite complete set of paratextual tools, too numerous to describe here, readers can not only choose a mode of presentation - font size, image style, text style -, but are also kept informed, throughout their reading, of the characteristics of each of the 400-plus characters that populate the novel thanks to pop-up contextual info. The needs of scholarship and research were given scrupulous attention as each page read on the site can be cited with pagination referring to the original publication and direct hyperlink. Topping the refinement, one can keep track of the date and time of one's reading of the document.
I leave to readers the pleasure of discovering yet more the paratextual tools which the paper edition could not have dreamt of. Here then, is more than the exhumation of a work on the Net: one could almost speak of a re-creation that even restores the work's original quality as a salon piece, made as much to be read as to be spoken.
The manuscript of Madame Bovary could also figure among the happy initiatives that saw the publication on the Internet of a document that would never have been given a chance as conventional edition. Going over the Web pages of this impressive collective effort, one can't help but admire the array of skills and work that went into producing it: Flaubert's writing seems to come alive thanks to the patient work of transcription, undertaken by volunteers under the supervision of Danielle Girard and Yvan Leclerc. With the on-line digital edition, one sees and reads all the writer's hesitations and can follow the genesis of the work.
Here too, one would have to speak of re-creation on the Net, since a conventional edition could never have done the same. The work of transcribing the manuscript was so massive it required the good will of volunteers to bring it to fruition. It's the Net's collaborative dimension, explicitly countercultural with respect to the laws of money, that was mobilized here.
To conclude, since literature isn't composed solely of sacred masterpieces of the past, nor of buried treasure, since it is created every day, one must mention the work of Norbert Dodille, of the Université de la Réunion, who created a showcase site for budding Réunion authors, providing them with resources and a venue for expression.
Isabelle Aveline, well-known for hosting zazieweb, expressed her worries about the future of a site that has long-since been a point of reference for literary life on the Net.
As for the Fondation La Poste Web site, partner in the symposium, it proposes a selection of letters, which seems a natural fit.
TOWARD COMPUTER-BASED LITERATURE?
The third interpretation of Internet littéraire francophone brings us back to the creative process, as very dissimilar speakers summoned up various aspects of on-line literature, or computer-based literature.
As library science's homage to contemporary creation, Marie Lissart presented us with work undertaken by a group of four conservation students (Pierre Chagny, Anne Lejeune, Marie Lissart, Cécile Tardy) from the École nationale supérieure des sciences de l'information and the Bibliothèque de Lyon.
Titled Repérage et sélection de sites de littérature contemporaine par une bibliothèque universitaire de lettres et sciences humaines ("Identification and selection of sites of contemporary literature by a literature and human sciences university library"), the document raised issues regarding research methodology on the Net and the conservation of digital works.
How does done differentiate between conventional literature published on the Net, and which only changed media, and literature actually created for this support? This question, too, was broached.
We won't dwell on questions of classification within computer-based literature - genres and sub-genres that evolve by the month along with technologies and modes of publication -, nor on the thorny question of terminology - must we speak of "electronic literature," "hypertext literature," or "computer-based literature"? My preference lies with "computer-based literature," for reasons too long to explicate here -, but we note the thoroughness and seriousness of one of the first publications by librarians, in France, to deal with the digital domain. That the problem of the conservation of digital works was raised must taken as a sign of developing maturity in the field.
Philippe de Jonckheere (Désordre website) presented work of his own that illustrates very well the problems brought up by Marie Lissart and her colleagues regarding the classification of literary works on the Net. Is it a question of literature that simply migrated from on media to another, but that remains fundamentally book-bound literature, or of creative work conceived from the start for the digital medium? Such was one of the questions.
Some indications may be considered, such as the environment chosen by the author, through the links he creates, which sort of project his intention. In Désordre website, for instance, links mostly refer to written literature. Other hints could be mentioned, but that would take us outside the scope of this essay. On the whole, though, the literary work to be seen on Jonckheere's site, though it makes good use of hyperlinks, and though it mixes images and words, still seems to me to belong to written literature more than to computer-based literature.
A dialogue between narrative and technique, the author's examination of information and communication technologies - themes developed by French-speaking Brazillian scholar Alckmar Luiz Dos Santos, of Santa Catarina Federal University -, may just define the border line between written and computer-based literature. How we conceive of technology in our narratives, how narrative told by technology itself may influence our construction of narrative: such were the themes Dos Santos' fascinating reflections.
It is of course not a question of maintaining that computer-based literature should only deal in questions of apparatus, as some authors and theorists might suggest, but it should nevertheless always remember the modes of utterance that allow it to exist, always harbour in its implicit discourse the author's struggle or complicity with the new languages he is required to master.
Almost echoing these preoccupations, Isabelle Escolin-Contansou responded on the theme of the literary avant-garde on the Net: what is avant-garde, what isn't, how does one define the notion of avant-garde in an environment that is itself a radical departure from the modes of publication we've known for the last few centuries.
French literature on the Internet can be termed digital or electronic or computer-based, no matter. But, from the moment it leaves the gowns of written literature, it can no longer be dealt with through the critical apparatus developed for paper-bound literature. This was the theme of a talk that I gave at the symposium. It presented the result of two years' work on critical approaches to computer-based literature.
How does one broach works that are not textual, but display text nonetheless; how does one overcome a certain number of objections regarding the very existence of a critical discourse, objections formulated by Edomond Couchot,6 for instance, but also by Jean-Pierre Balpe, and that derive from the thoroughly unstable nature of digital work, an instability some authors fully assert; how does one analyze a screen on which text and image intermingle, and not just text and images, but interactivity with the reader? In short, before a changing, uncertain aesthetic object, how does one engage a critical discourse? Such are the questions I developed, questions whose sole objective is to progress, step by step, toward the development of a methodology for a critique of computer-based literature. If all goes well, the project will come to fruition in three years' time as the subject of a doctoral thesis. (I will have first taken care to define computer-based literature, and explain how it is continuous in a broad sense with oral and written literature.)7
Finally, another doctoral thesis topic was previewed for participants at Cerisy: that of Serge Bouchardon, concerning interactive narrative, and which also broaches the particularities of digital creation. In an array of creations, presented either on the Net, on CD-Rom, or as performance, Bouchardon attempts to analyze narrative transformations. When the digital environment fashioned by information and communications technologies have the effect of giving readers much more control over the narration through what we call interactivity, how do we reconcile narrativity and interactivity? Bouchardon is defending his thesis December 7 at Université de technologie de Compiègne, where he teaches.
At week's close, at the end of the symposium, after having heard the meal-time bell ring for the twentieth time - a bell one must surely heed, or have to fast through studious matinées or applied afternoons - when it came time to take stock of this rustle of neurons, were the outlines of Internet Littéraire Francophone any clearer? Did we even know what was covered? Of the three directions I suggested, admittedly a personal reading, which of the three is more representative? Can we summarize tenor of the event? Is there commonality in the presentations?
The "Francophone Literary Internet" is certainly an organized digital environment devoted to French-language literature, offered by those who create the sites and those who provide content, but also by those who manage its visibility, or examine its content. In this respect, the function of the many "compasses" on the Net, whether human or algorithmic, shouldn't be forgotten. They, too, are part of Internet Littéraire Francophone, which is also a way of saying that literature could not exist without readership, nor without support.
Specifically digital, or computer-based literary creation has made its special vocation, even obligation, to scrutinize this support, as a condition of its existence, as a guarantee of its authenticity. Surely a preliminary to more advanced study.
Computer-based literature deems that it is breaking with its predecessors, written and oral literature. Yet, as we've seen over the last week, speakers from the universities most engaged in the study of computer-assisted literature have shown keen interest in digital creation. We've seen digital creators impressed with university response, and with the openness shown toward the most innovative creations.
I won't attempt to produce a summary at all costs - a rhetorical exercise at best. The French-speaking literary Internet is indeed made up of distinct sub-groups that cannot be subsumed. Their only common denominator is the French language, which must rely on all its resources to take its place in a massively Anglo-Saxon environment.
The issue of this symposium, if one must define it, could well lie at the intersection of its three directions - which would be good news indeed. Past the time of disdain and misunderstanding, past the time of ignorance and foolishness, might we be simply entering the time of realism, where the digital is taken for what it is, a tool to serve oral, written, and electronic literature, and a tool that francophones - because their legacy is a language as given to elegance as it is to dispute - finally use without complexes, though never blind to the complexity.
1 : See the program, created by one of the event's organizers, Patrick Rebollar, the other organizer being Michel Bernard (Univ. Paris 3).
2 : Michel Bernard was one of the founders, with Henri Béhar, Jean-Pierre Goldenstein, Pascal Mougin, and Patrick Rebollar, of the website
Hubert de Phalèse, which is devoted to computer-assisted literary studies.
3 : Introduction aux études littéraires assistées par ordinateur, PUF, 1999, 225 p.
4 : See Patrick Rebollar's work, Les salons littéraires sont dans l'Internet.
Presses universitaires de France, Collection Écritures électroniques, 2002, 224 p.
5 : Madeleine et Georges de Scudéry, Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus, éditions Garnier Flammarion for part of the work, and the website www.artamene.org for the whole work.
Presented by Claude Bourqui and Alexandre Gefen.
6 : Edmond Couchot, L'œuvre d'art numérique, Flammarion.
7 : Papers will be published in the symposium proceedings, or Actes du Colloque de Cerisy, ILF 2005.
The publication date will be posted through Patrick Rebollar's website: www.berlol.net.
Xavier Malbreil, Université de Toulouse II
(Translated from French by Ron Ross)