December 2008

I’ll be reading at this event… hope to catch up with a lot of you in San Francisco!

The reading is on Sunday, Dec 28th at the Forum at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on 701 Mission Street between 3rd and 4th Streets. The event starts at 7:00 and will go until 10:00.


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More from the paper files… this is the hand-out I created for a talk at UCLA last February. I’d like to develop these ideas into a fuller paper that creates a basic, very basic, set of critical principles by which to discuss the widely divergent forms of digital literature out there.

The pieces I discussed were Talan Memmott’s Self Portrait(s) [as Other(s)], Christian Bök’s Eunoia, Stuart Moulthrop’s Pax: An Instrument, and Judd Morrissey’s The Jew’s Daughter. Eunoia was included primarily because it was highly informed by information aesthetics without having any of the classic features that one associates with print works that play on tropes from electronic literature (the novels of Mark Danielewski, for example).

I created a blog for the talk which elaborates on many of these principles in more detail, though none of the literary analysis is up there. (There is a much weaker, earlier form of this talk available online in audio form, but I won’t point you there as I don’t quite endorse it — it was just a bare sketch of the later talk, which itself did not have all of its terms settled. But in case you’ve heard it already, here’s me telling you that I’m not entirely behind it.)

The “Holy Grails” that start off the talk are really my thinking through, and simplifying, the vast array of tropes that I see appear in various works of criticism about electronic writing. If there is a “telos” in the development of electronic writing — these are often alluded to in the criticism — it seems to be toward a few horizons, usually using as a departure point some notion of the “author” and the “page” (or book). The third “grail” is a more recent addition, due to the greater visibility of video games as possible forms of art (see my previous post).

My notion of “crisis” comes out of Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction, so to this degree I was observing these works as “fiction.” Basically, Kermode reads narrative fiction, particularly novels, as setting up moments of anticipated “apocalypse,” which it can either satisfy or betray during the course of the narrative. It is during these crises that one can situate oneself on the narrative timeline, knowing where one is in relation to the “arc” of the story. (I am oversimplifying, of course.)

Since, indeed, most of the works I discuss are not narratives in a conventional sense — and do not have the sort of teleological drive that narrative fictions have — these crises must be replaced by something else. I took a few shots at what these could be, though I’m quite sure these seven categories are not the right ones (a few are, a few not). I was being a bit superstitious with my numbers here — 3, 7, then 1 — and might have fudged in trying to get everything all Pythagorean.

I introduced a new genre of writing for object-based environments, the “Surrealist Fortune Cookie.” It’s briefer than a “lexia,” something that could be reshuffled and reconfigured endlessly without losing its charge. I quoted a few lines from John Ashbery’s 37 Haiku as examples. My contention was that databased bits of text that are to be reconfigured algorithmically are most successful when they have elements of the surrealist haiku (or fortune cookie) as they are fragmentary (but can stand alone), enigmatic (more question than statement), and narrative (but without a closure).

After introducing these basic concepts, I then went through the four works (actually, only two works, as I ran out of time) and tried to evaluate how they operated in terms of the grails, the crises, and finally, in terms of the “surrealist fortune cookie.” Of course, the relationship of each of these works to the concepts varied greatly.

Language as Gameplay: From ‘The Oulipo to the Jew’s Daughter

Brian Kim Stefans, 2/12/08

The Holy Grails of Electronic Literature

Writing Without the “Author”: To write a piece that can be read several different ways – none predetermined by the “author” – which will provide distinctive, compelling reading experiences each time – that is, displacement of the “author” onto the algorithm.

Reading Beyond the “Page”: To write text for an environment that serves a textual function at nearly all times while maintaining the illusion of a dynamic, three-dimensional, processed space that is moving as far away from the “page” as possible.

Writing/Reading as Gameplay: To create a programmed object that serves equally as a piece of literature and which also serves as a “game” with all the “fun” implied in such a title — that is, to in­corporate the user completely into the world of algorithm and the world of the screenspace.

Seven Varieties of Crisis

1. Crisis of ESCHATOLOGY — we are not sure where, in the standard narrative paradigm, poetic paradigm, or essayistic (syllogistic) paradigm, we are located nor can we, for the mo­ment, imagine the end.

2. Crisis of SIGNIFICATION — something has occurred in our understanding of conventional relationships between word and thing, or even letter and word; language seems to be becom­ing pure inscription and “non-referential.”

3. Crisis of SYMBOLISM — something seen to have a merely contingent value is seen to have a role in a symbolic universe.

4. Crisis of SUBJECTIVITY – the narratological “I,” whether of third or first person, has shifted.

5. Crisis of GENRE – we have slipped from a narrative event to a poetic one, or more criti­cally, from a non-fictional, documentary mode to one that seems colored by the imagination of an “author.”

6. Crisis of MORALITY – something in the flow of words has forced us to question our own place in the social network due to the “danger” of assimilating these words into our experi­ence – i.e., will I choose to “own” this reading experience or not?

7. Crisis of AUTHORSHIP – something in our reading has suggested a shift from a largely au­thored universe – hence a conversation with another responsible individual – to a largely al­gorithmic one — a conversation with a (“schizophrenic”) robot.

What is a Surrealist Fortune Cookie?

A “Surrealist fortune cookie” is a single sentence that would touch off same element of the various “crises” noted above — a non-trivial reading experience that is brief, open-ended, and yet acquires the enigmatic (permanently “revolutionary”) quality of a Surrealist object – straight out of the world of the Comte de Lautreamont, who wrote of the beauty of “the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella.”

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Ok, well that’s a pretty heady title. I wrote this short document up about a year ago in preparation for my “Video Game Narrative Studies” class in Richard Stockton College. It was an odd and very experimental class, but I think I came up with some interesting ideas on how to teach such a thing.

Anyway, unrevised, here is the “manifesto,” which — frankly — I completely forgot about after I wrote it (it was never given to the class, I believe). I simply rediscovered it in my papers (luckily, I had printed it out, as my computer was stolen in late July and I didn’t have a back-up of this file).

Here’s the website for the class, Video Game Narrative Studies. I asked one of my students to contribute his paper — discussing architectural conceits in Oblivion and Second Life via Barthes’ Empire of Signs — to the arts website I created at Stockton, Richard Stockton Overdrive, which you can read here.

I realize writers like McKenzie Wark and Ian Bogast have answered, or at least discussed, many of the following questions and issues in great detail, and with more nuance than I could ever muster, but I think there are a few interesting, original nuggets in the following.

A Manifesto For Video Game Developers

Much has been made about the possibilities of video games to “tell stories” with the same impact of films and novels. Though much game development has been moving in this direction, the directions game designers have taken have gener­ally been two-fold: pushing for greater detail in the simulated gameworld (rang­ing from light effects to facial expressions), and greater complexity to the back story of the game (much of which is mistaken for the actual “embedded” content of the narrative).

There are several approaches that game developers can take to enrich their narra­tives without sacrificing gameplay. The present offering, by a person who has never designed a video game*, is intended to encourage game developers — many of whom are independents with resources on a par with the industry — to take the risks that dramatists, novelists, filmmakers and, yes, poets have taken with their arts for centuries.

*Not entirely true — I designed tons for the Vic-20 back in the day.

1. Story

The novel and the feature film have less to do with each other than one might initially think. Feature films, in fact, might bear a stronger relationship to the lyric poem than the novel, given the rigidity of a movie’s 3-act narrative structure and the awareness that the reader of the poem has of the poem’s duration.

Complicating components include the variable time factor between narrative “events,” the structure of databased information versus the linearity of sequen­tial events deemed necessary for a “story,” and the perspective of the “player” as character within game worlds.

Two issues that will be discussed will be that of the variably placed “plot point” that suggests the narrative structure to the viewer, and the issue of “telos” in a game world predicated on the reproducibility of effect, looped narrative struc­tures, as well as mods by which the user extends the game world.

Tying “story” to “character” will be a consideration of the monomyth, including questions of reversals of characters, the shape of the narrative as visible to the “first person” player, and the descent into hell.

2. Character

Characters who, like Peter Lorre in M, start as highly unsympathetic but who turn out to have human dimensions that make us question our entire moral universe. The Golem — and his enslavement and hence humanization by the Hobbits — is another example.

Can the user be forced to occupy this morally ambiguous space of a character without, on the one hand, putting an estranging irony between oneself and one’s avatar so much that the connection lacks urgency, and on the other identifying so strongly with the moral ambiguity — and growing so uncomfortable with it — that the game ceases to be “fun”?

The “otherness” of NPC characters is not often appreciated. Characters are either human puppets (on either end of the good/bad binary) or are monsters which might have a greater chance at occupying this morally ambiguous space, but who are nonetheless “monsters” and hence overtly “other.”

Also to be considered will be the issue of a “fluid” consciousness — an experienc­ing consciousness not bound by time constraints, or if by time constraints, ones that are as variable as “frames per second.” How is a player to understand and read the important “plot points” without the obviousness of a cut-scene? Can a player be expected to engage in an interior monologue of some emotional com­plexity while also engaged in play?

3. Art

Games are a form of “task-based” interactive art. The distance between interac­tive paintings such as those by Camille Utterbeck and the Austrian artist tu­ and the “synaesthetic” games such as Rez and Everday Shooter has shrunk, such that one must look video game visuals as more than dressing up the play of other­wise anonymous algorithms.

Prior discussions of the visual aspect of games have concerned itself with model­ing and mise-en-scene i.e. those aspects of video games that most resemble movies. However, at any given moment on a screen, the trajectory of objects, the abstract clouds of detritus and fire that characterizes an explosion, or the swoop­ing in an out of the camera, gives us a for more abstract “beauty” to deal with, akin to the fetishization of speed and. motion that the Futurists and Constructiv­ists (informed by the writing of philosopher Henri Bergson) exploited.

The success of games like Geometry Wars — a fairly unadventurous shooter in terms of gameplay — demonstrates the gamer’s interest in becoming part of a world that, for all of its obvious sensual offerings, is primarily abstract. The coll­pasing of the grid into the trail of the player’s spaceship is suggestive of some sort of expansion of the subjective experience of play into the underlying grid-work of the algoriths — or is it?

Is there a philosophical perspective being articulated here? Is this a questioning of the stranglehold of societally sanctioned “time” and “space” on an individual? Is there an economics of waste being explored here?

5. Spaces

Henry Jenkins writes of “embedded narrative” and various sub-genres affiliated with it, claiming that video games tell a large part of their stories in the very spaces that are to be explored. However, most of the narrative that is revealed via these processes can still be folded under the concept of “backstory” ele­ments of narrative that pre-date the parts that compose a “strong” narrative that could provide for such elements as catharsis and character reversals. What Jen­kins doesn’t consider, however, is the sense of the gameworld being “othered.”

Consequently, how does the Situationist concept of the “derive” play out in video games? Is the exploration of a game space truly akin to the Surrealist-inspired interactions with “chance” that they are often valorized as? How does the revival of interest in psychogeography – in a user friendly kind that relies on absent narrators communicating through cellphones – relate to the open-ended structures of the Situationists? Is there really possibility for the “chance encoun­ter” or “chance juxtaposition” in a video game?

Games that we can consider range from the compacted image of New York pre­sented in The Godfather to the very realistic architecture of JFK Reloaded. Archi­tecture might, in fact, be our closes approximation to “reality,” and hence the presence of the auteur — that one who is enslaved by corporate structures and ideology but who must nonetheless find expression between the cracks (or edits) — might best be found here.

Are video game spaces — the empty parts — the primary architecture of video games, and what we actually see the “empty” parts?

5. Architecture

The “beautiful ruin” has been a staple of several architects of the last century, primarily by Louis Kahn, but also the Nazi Albert Speer. Not surprisingly, many video games seem to valorize these same principles, opting for the evocative post-apocalyptic tenor over the clean-structured, fully operational modern, pro­fessional note.

We also understand the unfolding of representational elements in video games, either through cut scenes or otherwise, as reliant on the sorts of strategies com­mon to comics, not to mention the gestalt-switch conundrums of an artist like M.C. Escher. The key issue is to determine how images unfold through time, how it is that we perceive these images, many of which will be unique but then again pre­determined by algorithm, and thus our appreciation as well of “chance” in a con­trolled environment.

Lastly, we will explore the relationship of video game architecture to the “American vernacular” as explored in Venturi’s Learning from Las Vegas. Is it pos­sible that architects have something to learn with the way game worlds are de­signed — in terms of the perspectives they offer, for example, on ruined portions of their creations. How is power conveyed through perspective?

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…in San Francisco at the end of December. Let me know if you’ll be around (looking for a couch to crash on, actually). Be reading at the big poetry shebang on the 28th and a discussant on a panel concerning experimental literature in Asia. Details below…


Sunday, December 28th

Small Press Distribution is hosting this year’s MLA off-site reading for visiting poets on Sunday, December 28th from 7-10. With the generous sponsorship of the Poetry Foundation, we have secured the Forum in Yerba Buena Center on Mission Street between 3rd and 4th Streets in San Francisco. It will be a nice space to read in and is located within a few blocks of all of the MLA hotels. We expect to include 60 or so readers from out of town, along with a few local poets, in the event. There will be many great readers, books galore and much else to please and surprise you. Brent Cunningham and I will be your emcees.


Monday, December 29th

695. Literary Experimentalism in East Asia

7:15–8:30 p.m., Nob Hill D, Marriott

Program arranged by the Division on East Asian Languages and Literatures after 1900

Presiding: Walter K. Lew, Univ. of Miami

1. “Digital Complex: Redefinition of Literary Sensibility in Japan,” Koichi Haga, Josai International Univ.

2. “Writing Machine Collectives: Digital Poetry in Hong Kong and Taiwan,” Karen An-hwei Lee, Santa Ana, CA

3. “Negotiating between Languages: The Poet Kim Su-yông’s Resistance to Monolingualism in Postcolonial South Korea,” Serk Bae Suh, Univ. of California, Irvine

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