By Jan Baetens
The Gathering Cloud
Axminster, Devon: Uniformbooks, 2017, 112 p., 12 pounds
In the field of electronic literature, the name of J.R. Carpenter, a Canadian-born multimedia artist, writer, researcher, and performer, is since many years a major reference. The publication of The Gathering Cloud, a hybrid work that not only combines print and digital creation but includes also other forms of textual communication such as performances, lectures and exhibitions, is an important new step in her work, which should enable this writer to find a larger audience –and at the same time to bring that larger audience to the new media practices that are still considered relatively marginal or alien to literature in general.
The Gathering Cloud is a hybrid creation in a twofold sense. First, because it combines in a nontrivial way online and offline elements, as a kind of “indie” version of what the cultural industry calls “transmedia storytelling”. Second, because it is itself, in each of its mediatic avatars, a mosaic of genres and modes –in this case of essay and poetry, and also of word and image. Taking as its starting point the encounter of something very concrete and literal (cloud formations and the many ways to label and identify them) and something very abstract and metaphorical (cloud computing), J.R. Carpenter rethinks the history of both elements, offering a poetic rewriting of the history of man’s attempts to fix in words and categories what radically exemplifies the idea of mobility, namely real clouds, on the one hand, and addressing the multiple implications of envisioning the digital networks in terms of clouds, on the other hand. She thus intertwines literature, media history, and ecocriticism, clearly showing the impact of poetic creation on digital theory as well as the necessity to stop thinking on literature as having no relationship at all with actual social, environmental and political issues.
More generally speaking, The Gathering Cloud is much more than just another example of the ongoing trend to bridge the gap between fiction and document in literary writing. It is also an innovative case in the age-old dialogue between science and literature, which strikes the right balance between the singularities of each field (science is not reduced to a mere literary theme; poetry is not used in order to vulgarize science). Like Christian Bök’s Crystallography (1994, revised 2003), it is part of a newly emerging canon of art and science creations that help reshape the fundamental unity of the humanities.