Electronic literature is not just a “thing” or a “medium” or even a body of “works” in various “genres.” It is not poetry, fiction, hypertext, gaming, codework, or some new admixture of all these practices. E-literature is, arguably, an emerging cultural form, as much a collective creation of terms, keywords, genres, structures, and institutions as it is the production of new literary objects. The ideas of cybervisionaries Paul Otlet, Vannevar Bush, and Ted Nelson, foundational to the electronic storage, recovery, and processing of texts, go beyond practical insights and can be seen to participate in a long-standing ambition to construct a world literature in the sense put forward by David Damrosch (2003: 5): “not an infinite ungraspable canon of works but rather a mode of circulation and of reading... that is applicable to individual works as to bodies of material.” The model for such constructions may be not the global literary commerce envisioned by Goethe and adopted by Karl Marx, not the romantic tradition of poets as world legislators, and not the current model of a “world republic of letters.” The model adopted in this essay, rather, is the literary practice of writing under constraint, developed long before the Internet but suited to its computational impositions and gamelike literary presentations. Instead of a canon of works preserved solely by the power of institutions, the essay presents a freestanding network of authors as precursors to, and models for, this potential world literature, namely, the Oulipo.

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