The Infinite Question: Borges and E-Lit

1 hour
Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges has been styled as one of the precursors of electronic literature, and his influence has been explored in a multitude of projects, especially when referring to the development of hypertextual structures (Manovich) or posthumanist theories (Herbretcher, Callus). Rather than tracing Borges’s overall influence in electronic literature, this talk presents a series of recent works of e-lit that that engage with Borges's particular figures of infinity as described in The Library of Babel (1941), The Aleph (1949), and The Book of Sand (1975). In each of these works, Borges’s figures of the infinite can be conceptualized as their own media object/process, inasmuch as they shape the limits (or lack thereof) and the form of their own particular “infinite”--very much in the same way that the media configurations of a work of electronic literature. Within this framework, Nick Montfort’s Taroko Gorge and Dan Waber’s Sestinas are presented as generativist works with the potential to run forever. Matt Schneider’s Babelling Borges is read as a looping Twitter bot whose loops signal infinity as a conceptual motif, in a similar manner to the multilingual looping translations we see in Luis Sarmiento’s Babel’s Monkeys. Laura McGee’s Infinite Notebook opens up the reading canvas to a rhetoric of zooming in and out as a way of navigating infinity in spatial terms. Finally, David Hirmes’s Infinite Wonder, Infinite Pity, and Jim Andrews’s Globebop take these explorations into the vastness of social media mining as apps that serve as windows into the universal--like the original Aleph.

Although all these e-lit examples are different in terms of computation, interface and interactivity, they all engage directly and indirectly in a dialogue with Borges’s figures of infinity by enacting them structurally, but also conceptually—that is by the process they unfold and the output they produce, either computationally by means of non-stop algorithms or other mechanisms, or collectively and socially by drawing on our ever growing electronic output. Further, the impossibility of ever reading them completely highlights both the instantiation of Borges's media figures and the enactment of our reading, determined not by the bounds of the literary work, but by our own human-machinic condition: human exhaustion as well as the material conditions of the machine (electricity, connectivity, obsolescence, etc.). Borges sustains that literature embodied in the library will endure illuminated and infinite, independent to--and extending beyond--human life. But he also gives back a certain degree of agency to the reader, however, offering her the capacity to stop, forget, and begin to read again. Thus, it is reading what draws the boundaries of the infinite, negotiates the possible, and in a way keeps it under control. At the same time, it is the infinity of these works of e-lit what suggest their potential long-term relevance beyond machine lifespan and hardware and software obsolescence.

This talk is part of the larger No Legacy project that explores the use of computational and digital technologies in literary production in the networked world and its material connections with 20th-century Latin American and Spanish technologized approaches to literature like Futurism, Concretism, Creationism, Stridentism, Magical Realism, and others.
Northeastern University
Assistant Professor
UC Berkeley
Assistant Professor

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