Representations and Reconfigurations of the Digital in Swedish Literature and Art 1950-2010

EniacIn 1966 a certain Olof Johannesson published a book with the title Sagan om den stora datamaskinen (The Story of the Big Computing Machine), provided with the fitting subtitle ”A Vision”. And, truly, it was a vision, a story about the future, a speculative essay, to which the factual ground seemed secured by the person hidden behind the pseudonym – the Swedish Nobel laureate in physics, Hannes Alfvén. As all SF, based as it is on extrapolations of established knowledge and technology, the vision of Alfvén contains a number of pertinent observations. More interesting today, however, is to read Sagan om den stora datamaskinen as an early response, in literary form, to a new cultural situation – a situation marked by the intensified presence of digital technology.

The research program Representations and Reconfigurations of the Digital in Swedish Literature and Art 1950–2010 has as its ambition to initiate a mapping of how literature and art (in part) in postwar Sweden came to imagine and incorporate, process and problematize – and resist – the emergence of computers and their increasingly important role in culture, society, and everyday life. This is not something that happens with the brekathrough of personal computers and the advent of the Internet during the 1980s and 1990s, but must be traced back to the immediate decades after World War II. Neither is Alfvén the first to deal with the issue in a literary context. Already in the 1950s, cybernetics and information theory were confronted in aesthetic and cultural discussions, and at the time when Alfvén’s book was published, the first attempts to create literature with the help of a computer took place in Sweden.

The research program intends to address the question of digitization in relation to literature and art on different levels during the historical period in question, 1950– 2010. And the material runs from experimental works in the 1960s to a computer game programmed by acclaimed writer Kerstin Ekman to contemporary poetry and novels by Lars Jakobson, Johannes Heldén, and others. On the one hand, we will explore how digitization is construed as a topic in novels, poetry, art, and criticism. On the other hand, we will analyze how the computer as a technology and cultural phantasm leaves tangible traces in the formal imagination of literature and art.

The latter is expressed, for instance, in how questions of automatization and the relationship between man and machine are developed into thematic configurations, how posthumanism as a topic enters literature and art, and is framed by dystopian as well as utopian ideas. At yet another level one can observe how the increasing intermediation – between different systems of representation such as code and language, between different storage media such as the book and the hard drive, etcetera – affects artistic methods and forms; for example, how algorithms are used as tools in writing and in the creation of images.

This indicates that also digital literature, in a more restricted sense, will be focused within the frames of the program. One of the projects will be devoted to a mapping and an analysis of digital literature and art in Sweden during the period, but also to the building of a digital archive for these works, which can function as a source to a previously inaccessible cultural heritage (we no longer have the software and hardware to access these works) and as a methodological tool for humanist research.

In Representations and Reconfigurations of the Digital in Swedish Literature and Art 1950-2010, these and similar effects of digitzation on literature and art in Sweden will be investigated and analyzed in three monographs – among them a doctoral thesis – and a couple of academic essays. That this work must be interdisciplinary is obvious, but the ambition is also to find and analyze material from the different arts in order to, thereby, show how changes in the media ecology have affected the relations between two previously separate aesthetic fields such as literature and art. The multimedial ”paradigm” (or dispositif) inaugurated in contemporary culture will thus, perhaps, also affect and transform how established disciplins within the humanities define their objects and projects of study and research.

For general information contact: jesper.olsson@liu.se