When Digital Literature goes Multimedia: Three German Examples

Roberto Simanowksi
Harvard University, USA
[Home Page]


Abstract: The aim of my presentation is to bring some German pieces of digital literature to the attention of a non-German audience and to discuss to what extent these pieces exploit the gimmickry of the underlying technology to express a message.

The growth of digital literature in Germany is in part due to the "Pegasus" competition for digital literature organised by the newspaper "DIE ZEIT" and IBM from 1996 to 1998. The first two competitions limited applications to 200 KB and favoured the word, but the third competition dropped the limitation and opened the way for the 'multimedialisation' of net literature. Two types of digital literature in Germany have since developed: one favours interactivity and collaboration, the other the multimedia power of the digital media. My contribution will present and discuss three examples of the second type of digital literature derived from the 1998 "Pegasus" competition.

The first example, "Das Epos der Maschine" (The Epic of the Machine) by Urs Schreiber, presents a visual image consisting only of words, since the words themselves represent pictures by moving in a predetermined way. For example, words that put technology into question form a question mark with the word 'Truth' as a period. If one clicks on the question mark, the words disappear behind the 'Truth' as if it had swallowed them. However, the question can be 'eaten' in this way, it cannot be erased, because if one moves the mouse the word 'Truth' moves and is followed by those other words as if they stick on the truth until the cursor stops and those words disappear again. I will discuss the significance of this effect.

"Die Aaleskorte der Ölig" (Oily's Eel Escort) by Dirk Günter and Frank Klötken, offers 6.9 billion story-telling possibilities because each of the 20 scenes (each consisting of an image and a short text) can be told by each of its 5 characters. The deeper meaning of the piece appears not through the hypertext structure but because of the re-reading that this structure forces. It is not the openness implied by the combinatorial possibilities of the text that is important, rather the openess of the text with respect to its meaning. What initially looks to be the quintessence of multilinear form becomes a critique of that form. The work makes fun of hypertext by overplaying its central feature. We may consider this a turn from the death of the author ideology back to the idea of a work well designed and controlled by a powerful author.

The third example, "Trost der Bilder" ("Consolation of Images") by Jürgen Daibers and Jochen Metzgers, tells the story of a man who falls in love with a mannequin and locks himself overnight in a store in order to gaze upon it. The manequin's face can half be seen in the background of the text and is shown at the end of the story without the accompanying text, but only for a moment. This combination of image and time setting leads to the deeper meaning, because the readers who hit the return button in order to see the mannequin's face testify to their attraction to the mannequin. To be sure, they do not thereby become like the man in the story; nevertheless, their action re-enacts the reading process in general, which is also a materialization of life in our imagination.

About the Presenter: Since June 1999 editor of www.dichtung-digital.de (reviews on and scholarship about digital literature.) 1998 visiting scholar at Harvard University, research on digital literature. 1997 research fellow at University of Göttingen. 1996 PhD in German literature.

Books: Europa - Ein Salon?, (Coed.) 1999, Kulturelle Grenzziehungen im Spiegel der Literaturen, (Coed.) 1998, and Die Verwaltung des Abenteuers. Massenkultur um 1800 (1998).