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Memos for Undergraduate Education

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2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 I teach an upper-division undergraduate course called Internet Literature in an English department. About two-thirds of the students are English majors, and the rest mostly Journalism majors with other miscellaneous areas represented (Art, Business, Psychology often included). We meet in a networked classroom, justified by the fact that until recently students composed websites, following the principle that it is helpful in learning about new media to express your experience multimodally. Now the projects are composed as blogs, supplemented with basic Photoshop. In the context of an English department, or at least the one at the University of Florida, this modest bit of online authoring comes as a shock to many of the majors, whose standard expectation is the research paper. Our assignment is called the “learning screen,” to make explicit the contrast with the conventional paper.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Figure 3
Electronic Literature Collection

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The object of study is covered now by the Electronic Literature Collection. The publication online of this collection is welcome for many reasons, not the least of which is that it solves the problem that arose when I expected students to browse lists of suggested links as a point of departure for finding their own examples of E-Lit. It was amazing how many students wanted to use E-Bay, Wikipedia, Yahoo, Google, and other functional or production sites as examples of art. Now I can assign the Collection, and students accept it as they do anthologies assigned in paper classes. The fact of inclusion is evidence that the selection is indeed a work of E-Lit.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The aspect of the assignment that I want to recommend is the use of Italo Calvino’s ”Six Memos for the Next Millennium” as the basis for the assignment. In these lectures Calvino extracts from his lifetime experience of reading (especially) Italian literature, as well as creating some of his own, a set of qualities that may be universal, to be found in language arts regardless of medium or epoch (these are my claims on his behalf). By stating these qualities as essences (Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, Multiplicity), ”Memos” provides an interface between the familiar aesthetics and forms of print literature and the unfamiliar or experimental aesthetics of E-Lit. Anyone with a background in avant-garde or experimental arts recognizes immediately the formal rationale for new media, but my students for the most part lack any such background. We project onto “Memos’” an intention of defining a set of qualities giving a measure of “literariness,” to be tested against the experience of print literature, and as a guide for encountering the effects of less familiar forms and practices.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Our use of Calvino is typical of heuretics (logic of invention), meaning that it is generalizable to other works and different assignments. The method is nothing new, having been practiced by the Roman orator Cicero. The strategy is to adopt “Memos” as a template, meeting the prescription that if students are expected to write or reason in a particular way, they need a model for guidance. “Memos” exemplifies the genre of “memo,” and much of the in-class work was devoted to extracting from the example the general rules for a template. The working title of the blogs was “Five Memos for E-Lit.” A related heuristic is that we are not exactly imitating Calvino, but seeking what he sought. We accept that the five qualities are the proper ones – Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, Multiplicity. Calvino died before he completed the sixth quality, projected to be “Consistency.” An interesting complication to the assignment would be to invite students to create this sixth quality, either “Consistency,” or one of their own devising.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Figure 4
Italo Calvino’s “Appropriated Personal Emblem”

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 In class we work through the first memo together, implementing a Confucian principle: if I show you one corner (of the table), you should be able to find the other three. The quality analyzed is “Lightness.” We discern in the discussion that there are two layers to the description: objective, addressing the properties of the quality; subjective, in which Calvino expresses his own poetics and tastes relative to the range of possibilities implied by the quality. Here is one of the instructions for the blog: use the memos as an opportunity not only to apply the qualities as a probe of E-Lit, but also reflexively as a review of your own sensibility. The analysis reveals that each memo has six parts:

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 1) Analogy #1 (Mythology) . Calvino presents each quality in a style closer to literature itself than to criticism or philosophy. He relies on analogies and images more than on concepts. His first analogy is from Greek mythology, the story of Perseus versus Medusa. He tells part of the myth, and explains its implications as an allegory of literature. The point is that literature does not look directly at its referent, but indirectly, in the manner of Perseus using his shield as a mirror redirecting the Gorgon’s look back at herself.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 2) Binary opposition: notice the binary opposition structuring the chief property of Lightness. Lightness is revealed in the way a work treats the burdens or existential weight of living life. It is understood as including a range of possibilities covering a polarity between “light” and “heavy” (the opposite of “light” is not “dark” but “burdensome”). This structure sets the pattern for every quality, all of which organize their property as a range of options over a binary polarity. Kundera’s title, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” identifies Calvino’s insight. The structure was abstracted from several examples — works by Kundera and Montale.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 3) Analogy #2 (Science). Calvino continues his procedure of finding analogies for the qualities of literature in other discourses, and drawing on works that reflect his personal education and cultural background, as well as personal taste. In each instance his purpose is the same, to identify a property of Lightness. Having established his view that Lightness is a way of treating the burdens of existence, Calvino now specifies how literature accomplishes this effect, which is by dissolving the solidity of the world. The analogy used to make this point is De Rerum Natura by the Ancient atomist, Lucretius. The burdens of existence are revealed through Lightness to be like the physicality of substance, which in fact is not solid but is a flux that is minute and mobile.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 4) Emblem. To make the quality and its properties memorable, Calvino selects one literary example that condenses the relevant features in one dramatic gesture or action. His thesis is that literature is light in the way that it discloses while transcending the weight of the world or the burden of living. The scene designated as emblem for this property is from the Decameron by Boccaccio. The scene is from a story in which the poet Cavalcanti is challenged by a group of revelers, who accuse the poet of impiety and ask him what he wishes to prove by denying the existence of God. The setting happens to be a cemetery, and the poet’s answer is to leap over a tombstone, leaving behind his inquisitors. This leap, associated with the proverb about whistling past the graveyard, is the emblem putting into an icon this primary property of Lightness.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 5) Mood. As is apparent by now, Calvino commits himself to a consistent unified definition of each quality, which unfolds step by step through each memo. The next aspect of the quality noted is that it may be discerned in the overall mood of a work. Literature through its art shows how the world actually is (the weight of living), how to behave in such a world (the leap over the tombstone), and now the mood, how one should feel about this conduct in such a world. The example is Shakespeare, whose characters take some distance from their own dramas. The vicissitudes of action are framed within a mood, with the dominant mood alternating between melancholy and irony.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 6) Analogy #3 (literary criticism). Calvino’s final criterion of measure derives from literary criticism, specifically Vladimir Propp’s study of Russian wondertales. He uses Propp’s insight that folktales express an anthropological context, in that literature, regardless of how fantastical it may seem on the surface, is motivated by a real human need. His final example of Lightness to make this point is another “leap,” this time the parable “The Knight of the Bucket,” by Kafka. Calvino’s point is that the story of a magic coal bucket that carried its owner around scavenging for something to burn in the stove, refers to the wartime hardships during the time that the parable was written (1917). The story ends tragically because the bucket is so light (so empty) that it carries its owner up and away until he is lost.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 The next step is for the students to go through each of the memos, identifying the features (analogies and the like) used to define the quality. The instructions for composing the blog memos were itemized on the syllabus: a) Explain the quality according to Calvino; b) Propose and justify as an analogy for the quality in E-lit an example from some other mode or domain of knowledge. Use a different analogy for each quality; c) Emblem: Propose and justify the selection of some figure to use as an icon that condenses in a single visualization the feeling of the quality; d) E-Lit Example: Select one work of E-Lit from the Collection and explain how it manifests the quality. Use a different E-Lit example for each quality. One additional required feature was to refer to the other book we read for this part of the project, Katherine Hayles’s “Electronic Literature.” The instruction was to select one idea from Hayles’s introduction, and apply it to the E-Lit example, using a different idea for each quality (ideas such as recursion, or use of code, for example).

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Figure 5
Memos for Internet Literature

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 The other lesson drawn from “Memos” more generally, as a guide for approaching E-Lit, is that each of the qualities may be read as a review of the capacities of multimodal art: a poetics for designing or composing a work of E-Lit – an E-Lit Elements of Style. This attitude to “Memos” treats them as prescriptions, rather than as descriptions (as also happened with Aristotle’s Poetics), but it is a useful exercise within limits. Lightness = verbal texture, the language in which the piece is composed: lexicon, diction, syntax. Quickness = the “path of thought” of a work, which translates formally into linking in hypermedia, or the manner of unfolding of theme, plot, figure: circuitous? Direct? The rhythm of passage. Exactitude = the mood or atmosphere of the piece, focused on a scale from sharp to vague. Visibility = visualization in images, but more generally the appeal to all the senses using figures, description, exposition, as well as image or sound files. Multiplicity = the relationship between parts and wholes, on a scale between clean and cluttered. Samples of the product:

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20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 An example of a Website version

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Previous: Introduction: Electracy | Next: The EmerAgency as Graduate Seminar