Draft of paper given at ELO 2019 in Cork. This is a work in progress; attribute appropriately.
Title: E-locutio: Stitching Styles and Pulling Threads in Electronic Literature
Author: Helen J Burgess
Affiliation: NC State University
Abstract: This paper explores some common stylistic elements that appear among writing, programming, and embroidery. Stylistic activities seek to optimize limited resources (fiber, memory, or speech), create patterns of expression (knots, loops, repetitions), and build networks and relations between ideas (“threads”).
Classical rhetoricians have long known “style” as an integral component of Cicero’s five canons, where it refers to the application of language patterns to achieve specific persuasive purposes: for example, the use of the chiasmus or “cross” as a tool that forces the reader to reflect on relationships between and reversals of concepts. Style, or elocutio, is the portion of the rhetorical canon concerned with the how of language. Just as we consider aesthetics as a crucial part of a visual poem, so too elocutio considers the persuasive exercise of aesthetics in writing and speech: the structure of the sentence; the choice of words; their ordering and relationships. Paratactic language works in short clusters, stringing together ideas and asking the reader to consider them in parallel: each working in tandem with the previous one to show relationships that are equal, or opposite, piling on words like Benjamin’s angel of history. Hypotactic language, on the other hand, organizes clauses so that some are subordinate to others, constructing complex arguments that reveal the depth and inequity of things, their relative meaning dependent on their place in the sentence. The rich vocabulary of style gives us tools with which to construct suasive worlds: from a to z, from anaphora, the repetition of words at the beginning of successive clauses, to zeugma, wordplay that combines two meanings.
Style asks us to make choices, asks us to consider carefully every word, every clause. It asks us what each does in the sentence, why it is there and not elsewhere: sometimes for efficiency’s sake, and sometimes to express overflow, but always with care for consequences. The application of technique/techne/craft to the expressive media we work in is evident, whether the medium is page, memory core, or cloth. Style is in play not only in literary expression, in prose and poetry, but also in programming languages (what we call “programming styles”), in the choices we make in visual and moving media, and in the care we take in stitching those choices together to create meaning. In CE880 Kashmiri poet and mathematician Rudrata wrote in the Sanskrit Poetic Figures of Speech of the concept of auchitya, or propriety: the appropriate fit of figurative language to task. Leela Prasad notes that this concept is mirrored by Aristotle and Cicero’s Western poetics in the concept of decorum: the deployment of style in the most fitting manner in order to achieve ethical persuasive effect. Although we are more accustomed to viewing the building of a work of electronic literature as a deployment of “poetics,” reframing such activity as the application of style enables us to more fully see the suasive material dimensions of work in different media: asking not “what does this thing say” but “what does this thing do to us.”
Thinking of style in terms of choice and care also asks us to think about what is available to work with, what we have available to deploy. We’re used to literary constraints as artificial: twitter character limits for example, or the formal limits imposed by Oulipo. But when working in physical instantiations of electronic literature, such as those that feature embedded electronics, we are forced to think of other constraints: of space, materials, processor speed and memory capacity. When I’m working on my laptop, for example, text storage seems infinite. But when I’m only working with 32k of flash memory in an Arduino processor, suddenly text is a huge deal. Each character takes up space, and we soon come to realize the inefficiencies inherent in language. Without stylistic optimization, for example the definition of a function that can be repeated multiple times – a kind of anaphoric workaround – it’s flabby, imprecise. And that non-optimization of language means I can literally fit less of it on the processor.
Rudrata was certainly aware of the potentials of mathematics for efficiency in the exercise of poetics. One of his legacies is the concept of the Knight’s Tour, in which the goal is for a chess piece – specifically, the Knight, which moves in an L-shape – to move about a chess board, touching each square exactly one time. The Knight’s Tour is an instance of a Hamiltonian cycle: a concept from graph theory in which a path is traced through a graph of points and lines such that each vertex is visited once. Rudrata mapped a half-chessboard onto Sanskrit syllables, so that following a Knight’s path would produce a poem. In computer science, the Knight’s Tour problem is commonly assigned as a pedagogical exercise in applying various algorithmic techniques or heuristics such as Warnsdorf’s rule, in which the knight is always moved to the next square by selecting the option that will offer the fewest number of subsequent moves. This method of selecting pathways has obvious applications in complex hypertexts such as the ones produced in the Literatronic engine, for example Mark Marino’s A Show of Hands.
Let us return to elocutio, or style, and consider the effects that a Knight’s Tour approach to electronic poetry might have, as compared to one in which selections may be repeated. Nick Montfort’s Taroko Gorge is a good example of the latter – this poem relies on repetition, generated through the use of randomization. The poem works by returning items from each of several arrays, creating an effect that, through repetition, is meditative in its mood. It is strongly parallel – words are repeated and remixed, with each composition providing a momentary account before it moves on to the next clause, and multiple repetitions of words effecting a kind of circular gestalt, enhanced by the fact that the poem will run effectively forever if left to its own devices. The programming style is somewhat hypotactic, with each function being fed into the next in a vertical flow, but the structure is fundamentally paratactic, with each array listing items horizontally in parallel.
Now imagine that each item in the array was repeated precisely once, using a Knight’s Tour solution. The same words would appear, but the effects would not repeat or call back to previous clauses. Instead, we’d get a narrative description of one space in one set of words. The poem would also terminate, providing a temporal punctuation to the experience of the space. The stylistic choice to employ a Knight’s tour, thus, would make a fundamental change to the effect the poem had on the reader.
As someone working in the material dimensions of electronic media, specifically those informed by traditional crafting techniques, I’ve been interested in the Knight’s Tour as an embroidery technique. Working in fiber, we may be constrained to a very small canvas and with a limited amount of thread. Each stitch is precious — not only must it convey the most meaning, but also preferably using the least amount of space and with the least thread. Any experienced stitcher knows that the first thing we tend to do when no one is looking is flip the object over and look at the back: looking at the efficiencies employed by the stitcher as they seek to move from point a to point b. The substrate conditions of the Knight’s Tour – a chessboard grid – are highly compatible with sewing in a small, framed space such as an embroidery canvas. And, while the idea of the Tour is to avoid repetition at the vertices, there is often a clear pattern to its visualization, dealing as it does in slowly closing constraints. Knight’s Tour boards of different grid sized create pleasing patterns that resemble Celtic knotwork.
Embroidery often plays on the “doubling back” of stitches, such as those used in Spanish blackwork, in which one works every second stitch in one direction, and then returns in the other, creating an unbroken line that appears identical on both sides of the fabric. But when one is planning one’s route, one is also often thinking about how to get from here to there in such a way to optimize thread. The situation gets even more complicated when dealing with e-textiles, since conductive thread can never touch or the electricity will be unable to complete its journey around the circuit. This calls for what’s called an “uncrossed” Knight’s Tour such that not only is each point on the canvas is visited only once, but also that the path that the thread follows never crosses with any other part of the circuit.
As with style, embroidery is about both beauty and function, about the pleasing fit of material to form. Thus writers, and coders, and stitchers, surf on a curve of potential, seeking to balance the two constraints of available space, or string, and the necessity of expressing what needs to be said. We make choices such as: should I reveal or conceal the work I’m doing? Make it look hard or effortless? Maximize access to the materials, or hide them? And, is this the best word, or function, or stitch, for the purpose? What “work” does it do? Can I do it another way? Does it fit in the space I have? This tension between efficiency and aesthetics is the domain of the exercise of elocutio – and an example of Rudrata’s auchitya, the quest for propriety, in which the fittingness of style to purpose is what enables the pleasure of the reader.