Readings: Electronic Literature and Avatars of Story
Presentation: Wendy on Radiant Textuality
In many ways, Marie-Laure Ryan’s text Avatars of Story voices many of the same preoccupations as Jeff Rice’s the Rhetoric of Cool. Though these texts diverge in terms of subject matter, general formula, and approach to new media, both are concerned with locating, in the history of composition or literary studies, the foundation of today’s dominant pedagogy. In essence, Rice and Ryan are both interested in locating the root or origin of those forces that continue to bear influence on digital practice(s). For his part, Jeff Rice turns to 1963 and the “rebirth of composition studies” because, as he argues, the emergence of a dominant and enduring pedagogy can be traced to important events that occurred during this year: “That one dominant representation and, consequently, one dominant pedagogy can be traced to this date disturbs James Berlin’s observation that rhetoric and composition comprises ‘a diverse discipline that historically has included a variety of incompatible systems’” (Rice 17). Similarly, Ryan turns back to the sixties in order to trace the evolution of literary studies. Although Ryan’s framework focuses on key developments in 1966, both authors are ultimately making the same move with regard for their specific pedagogical interests. This move, as it plays out in Cool and Avatars is to locate a historical context in which certain dominant interests or interpretations emerged; interpretations that continue to exert control over the way that we construct texts today. As Rice argues, the discourse of 1963 is problematic in that it encourages the transfer of print methods to digital media without any consideration for the nuances of computer mediated systems and environments. Ryan, for her part, works to constitute a, “transmedial” definition of narrative that regards media as something other than “self-contained systems of signs” (Ryan 5).
Where Ryan’s text diverges is in relation to how she appropriates certain developments in 1966 in order to discuss the avatars one experiences in contemporary digital realms or environments. Whereas Rice focuses on five writing methods particularly well suited for the digital (i.e. juxtaposition, non-linearity, the use of image, etc.), thus working towards a model of opposition, Ryan seems more interested in discussing Avatars within the purview of a newly codified understanding of narrative. This is to say that whereas Rice is interested in everything that the typical narrative is not – order, sequence, etc. – Ryan is still interested in appropriating a certain form of narrative in the discussion of avatars (“interactive narrative”). In a way, one might read that Ryan is attempting to include the digital within the broader framework of narrative practice. Whereas Rice doesn’t even seem concerned with finding the redemptive value in this type of qualification (i.e. “this is, and this is not narrative”), Ryan, as her title suggests, is still interested in what digital narrative or story means. This initially manifests as she argues for a “transmedial” definition of narrative.
Ryan’s attempt to work with this definition drives her to locate in virtual environments, the type of attributes one might attach to more traditional literary productions. For instance, in her discussion of virtual games, she suggests that the processes of interaction are somewhat similar to what one would find in a detective novel:
“The narrative logic of IF and of computer games in general is closer to the mode of operation of detective novels than to the logic of drama, in that a gun shown hanging on the wall will not necessarily fire, contrary to Chekhov’s prescription for well-constructed play. In a game narrative, it is indeed part of the player’s task to sort out what will fire and what will not” (Ryan 129-130)
Even if part of Ryan’s argument is to identify that there are certain differences between print and digital media, she is still very interested in how each media exerts influence on the other. In this portion of her text she speaks not only to the narrative logic of computer games such as IF, but argues that such games share the very logic of detective novels. One might read, in a sense, that the avatar is guided just as the reader of the detective novel. In fact, this argument becomes somewhat of a textual thematic in that Ryan constantly voices concern for that which guides various media.
At the beginning of chapter six, for instance, Ryan observes that computers are programmable machines that execute commands sequentially and at a controlled pace: “in the domain of artistic expression…the behavior of digital objects is regulated by the invisible code of the program.” Continuing, Ryan argues that this invisible code (pre)determines artistic production. Though Ryan’s greater move will be to say that digital productions, unlike print media, are increasingly dependent on changing technological platforms, she only seems interested in constituting another narrative.
Ultimately, Ryan’s emphasis on the digital as a form of new narrative becomes incredibly problematic. This assessment is really validated in consideration of the argument Ryan constructs within the final pages of this text. Here, considering that she interprets digital interaction as a process of narrative fiction, Ryan decides to address certain mainstream discourses on reality. The argument that Ryan makes, rather, attempts to pass off as profound, is that our digital selves are never actually real expressions. In a rather cliché sense, she argues that unlike the avatars we create, our physical or actual bodies remind us of our presence in a certain reality.
“Metalyptic texts make us play with the idea that we are fictional, the product of a mind that inhabits a world closer to the ground level than we do, but they cannot turn themselves into the command language that scripts our lives, into the matrix of irreality that envelopes our existence, and in the end, they cannot shake our conviction that we inhabit the only world that exists ‘for real,’ because this world is the one that we inhabit corporeally. We can visit other worlds in imagination, but our bodies tie us to the base of the stack.” (230).
Despite the initial and more interesting argument that reads the human as a fictional composition, Ryan ends by suggesting that our, “bodies tie us to the base of the stack.” In many ways, it seems that this is the most confusing portion of the text. If the rest of the book leads up to a reading of digital realm as being a narrative space, and avatars as the intense narrativization of the human body, it seems strange that Ryan would read into the limitations of the real and the imagined. Ultimately, I am more impressed in her initial suggestion…that we play with the idea that we are fictional. If Ryan’s language here can be read to suggest that the bodies’ command language exerts control over bodily processes, thus paralleling the computer’s command language to which Ryan previously alluded, how is the reading of avatars in “real life” lost to this text? Ultimately I am just confused by Ryan’s decision to contradict the logical and more interesting progression that she initially seems to be getting at. Either way, one would still have to ask what import there might be in considering the avatar as something other than the reality of the body. Whereas there may be some utility in the reading of the fictional corporeal, I’m not sure that there is any import in Ryan’s absurdly simplistic deduction.
Our texts this week are something like a Twilight Zone episode for me, or maybe one of those old Star Trek episodes where someone goes through a rift in space or something to enter a mirror universe where good is evil, black is white, and poor Leonard Nimoy has to keep a straight face under two dollars worth of a yak-hair goatee. This is really the first time I’ve read any literary criticism of a sustained length since drinking the rhet-comp Kool-Aid two years ago, so the whole enterprise (see how I slipped another Star Trek joke in there—zing!) is both familiar and strange—since electronic literature and experimental literature were some of my main interests as an incoming grad student in Fall 2006, Hayles’ book in particular is something that would have been right up my alley. So this is kind of like glimpsing into that mirror universe—where, maybe, I’m a lit crit student (with crepe hair goatee?) and I’ve never bothered to read or care about anything in rhet-comp after my pedagogy practicum. As Rod Serling would have it: “You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension—a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into the Literature Zone.”
I begin with this bit of alternate universe navel-gazing only because I am interested here in trying to figure out a way to make these texts productive in terms of a rhetorical practice. To do so, I feel, I have to at least acknowledge—if not give some accounting for—the difference between what we might tentatively call the “literary reading” and the “rhetorical reading” of these texts; or, to use ten-dollar words, a distinction between reading them (and the texts they study) as hermeneutic or as heuristic.
I’ll use the Hayles book as my example. To grossly over-simplify, Hayles reading is itself hermeneutic: she approaches the electronic literature she describes in fairly typical critical fashion. Hayles deploys a series of different theories in order to explain and decode the relationships between forms of electronic literature and print literature. This is a fine project, and Hayles does so with typical skill and insight, but the goal of textual exegesis for its own sake doesn’t offer much, I would suggest, to students and scholars whose work is more interested in invention and production. One could do a hermeneutic reading of Hayles book in order to understand the relationships she explores between print and digital lit, or to use her reading of, say, Lexia to Perplexia, to support your own reading of the text. What Hayles’ book does not offer, though, is an explicit apparatus for the creation of digital texts, and that, I argue, is where the heuristic reading becomes most useful.
One way to make this book work for us is to read it, in part, as a guide to what features we might ask our students to produce in doing digital composition. Extrapolating a little from Hayles, we might say that digital compositions could/should feature any of the following: (a) intermediation, in which “recursive feedback loops operate through the differently embodied entities of the computer and human, [to] become an explicit part of the work’s design, performance, and interpretation” (82-3); (b) distributed agency, so that the text “mobilizes the effect recursivity always has of unsettling foundations while simultaneously catalyzing transformations as each partner in the loop initiates and reacts to changes in the other” (130); (c) revelation and transformation the digital realm beneath the interface so that “computation is revalued into a performance that addresses us with the full complexity our human natures require” (157). I am not arguing that every student text could or would feature all three of these, but in calling attention to the qualities of digital literature, we might read Hayles as offering a critique of the limited imagination of much new media scholarship.
Although Hayles obviously locates these features in literary production, it is not too difficult to imagine a context in which students could use many of the same techniques for argumentative writing. As a thought experiment, imagine the following possibility. A student decides to compose a new media piece that argues that abortion is murder. Rather than trotting out some old statistics and vitriol from the usual suspects, the student composes a piece that, once started, appears to “abort” itself: text crumbles and disappears, images pixilate and vanish, the interface freezes, distorts, sends error messages, and finally implodes, leaving no apparent trace of itself on screen. That the program might still be running on the computer underscores the student’s argument: abortion is destructive and, even unseen, has lasting effects on those who abort their unborn. While I understand it is perhaps ambitious to imagine such a text (let alone an instructor who could feasibly teach its composition), thinking through how we might apply the qualities Hayles outlines here suggests ways that composition theorists might re-imagine what we mean when we ask students to approach the task of digital composition.
In response to Hayles’ and Ryan’s text for this week, I really have one thing to say … I get it, with the computer you can run programs that do funny things with words, and you can hyperlink stories so they don’t go anywhere and are completely incomprehensible. Good for you. Really, if the examples on the disk that was included with Electronic Literature are the best electronic literature has to offer, then we have got a long way to go. And in response to the question raised by Ryan, are these really narratives? My answer be, “probably, but if they are then video games certainly are because I would rather be tied to a chair and forced to watch someone play World of Warcraft for ten hours than to try to read Cayley’s Translation, Glazier’s White Faced Bromeliads on 20 Hectares, or Joyce’s Twelve Blue (although in the case of Twelve Blue, if I were high enough I might, but the blue screen was giving me a headache) ever again. Just because you CAN program something like that, doesn’t mean you SHOULD. It all reminds me of dabbling in programming repetitive loops in BASIC in high school … fun for a bunch of teenagers to watch “Mr. Fox is a Dumbass” scroll across the screen hundreds of times, but I’d never try to publish it.
From a theoretical perspective, I found both of these texts to be very interesting and entertaining, and I thought that Hayles’ position that all literature has become digital in some sense because of the ubiquity of digital typesetting, design, and printing of texts was right on. Programs like InDesign, PhotoShop, and Quark really do make the publishing world go round, and make a lot of things possible in layout and design that would never make the cut, like Plascencia’s The People of Paper and Danielewski’s House of Leaves, because of the enormous costs involved. However, it seems to me that with the absolutely mesmerizing, accessible, and user-friendly capabilities of design (through Flash, Director, DreamWeaver, and the list goes on) on the home computer that what is claimed to be “electronic literature,” or at least the canonical texts cited by both Hayles and Ryan, would be a little more impressive than word games and incomprehensible (or at least incomprehensible enough) hyperlinked stories. Watching random words float across the screen to even more random piano notes does not constitute anything that I would consider engaging, entertaining, or not aggravating.
I understand the usefulness of these experiments as experiments. Can an algorithm be written that will create a pattern of words in a random fashion in the way I want it to? Is there a way to create a text that functions as a recursive feedback loop? Can I write in blue across a blue background about blue stuff and throw in bizarre hyperlinks to make a seemingly interesting story not make any sense at all? Perhaps I’m just old fashioned and I understand electronic literature like I understand much modern art—my nephew could do that with a pack of Pop Rocks and a paintball gun. Feedback loops should be reserved for punk rock.
If there is truly such a thing as digital literature, I think Ryan’s text comes closer to the mark. The storytelling and interactivity of the video game world is at times remarkable in the depth of characters, worlds, and storylines, and as Ryan states in her text about the retelling of gaming experiences, “When players of computer games recount their experience, they frequently do so by telling a story. For instance, a lengthy passage of Espen Aarseth’s essay ‘Methodological Approaches to Game Analysis’ consists (ironically) of a narrative of his experience in the fictional world of Morrowind.” And although I can think of quite a few things I would rather do than listen to someone give me a narrative account of time spent in Morrowind (I get enough of my brother-in-law talking about WOW) I would rather so that than listen to someone give me a narrative account of watching The Jew’s Daughter. The narrative of video games, although perhaps lacking in the traditional narratology concept of requiring a narrator, a narratee, and a recounting of events that have passed or an Aristotelian plot structure, it has one thing that Haylesian electronic literature lacks—purpose. If the narratee is bored senseless by the narration, there is no point for the narrator.
If what has been heralded by these texts as the future of digital and electronic literature is as good as it gets, or rather as good as it has been able to get thus far, I pray that the book remains alive and well for years to come. The question then, is this: Is this really the best there is to offer, and if not, where is the good stuff?
“My Body” by Shell Jackson, is an erotic romp through one’s ruminations of the body, sexuality, violence, the grotesque; it is similar to a porno site in which after clicking on one link, one is subjected not only to images, sounds, and text, but to other links which are connected, but also veer wildly more and more out of control. First, it is only a man thrusting his penis into a willing vagina. But, as the exploration continues, one finds oneself presented with more and more variations, variations which keep moving closer and closer to the obscene and grotesque. But, one [I] cannot look away. The images, the exploration, the experience draws the viewer in more and more until one wonders how one [I] got there.
And then, sprawling across the screen, flashing, is a link for horny singles in the area. Interest is peeked, and with slight resistance, the arrow quivers over the link and then enters. What’s the harm? One look doesn’t mean I am interested, that I am considering a liaison. It is simply a voyeuristic exploration into the underworld, the underbelly. Similar to my exploration of Shelly Jackson’s “My Body,” my hand, fused with the mouse, finds itself linking onto the words “vagina” rather than “skin.” But, as in the examination of porn sites, the interaction with the “vagina” subtexts brings me to other unexplored, often unsettling, themes. Likewise, in my journey of porn sites, before I am fully aware, I have viewed a milf lazily lying across a child’s bed, half naked, with stuffed animals surrounding her. I have evolved; I am now more than voyeur, I am an interacter. The screen flashes and milf99 hails me: “Want to play?” Do I? Yes, but only out of curiosity. I want to know who she is. Why does the mixture of childhood and sexuality simultaneously elicit horror and desire? Desire. What do I desire in this image? Her unapologetic sexuality? Her grotesque interweaving of motherhood and sexuality? Her body? Yes, her body draws me in. How does she get those thighs? And those perky breasts! I am curiously jealous. While I contemplate my response, an ad flashes: “New Hollywood Diet—guaranteed to work!” The chain is broken. Or is it? Eager to embark on the quest of firm thighs and breasts, I enter the hailing promise flashing before me.
I have entered a realm of self depreciation and deprivation. Images upon images of amazing transformations flicker upon the screen. Jenny has magically lost 40 pounds in the last two months. She went from a self hating chub to a svelte, sexy siren. John has lost his man boobs and now sports amazing pecks. All attribute their new found figures, happiness, and desirable bodies to a weight loss pill. “Are you unhappy?” asks Candice, a virtual self-help diet guru. I cannot keep my eyes focused, flabby skin, muscular skin, gleaming skin, they all vie for my attention. My eyes rest upon a lemon penetrated with a straw; the lemon asks me “Are you tired of sucking?” In what way? Then, I happen to maneuver towards a new ad. Hearts billow up like clouds. Below the hypnotizing love clouds, words flash: “Everything you wanted to know about your love life…”
“Rate your sex life” demands the screen. How do I compare? Am I normal, out of touch? Do I still have a sex life? Let’s find out. As I click onto the hyperlink, I am blocked from entering. Candice wants to talk with me. She wants to know if she can help me decide what diet pill would best fit my weight loss plan. Competition is keeping me from my ongoing journey of self discovery. In frustration, I click on the exit button on the chat window. Again, I am hailed. After a few more frantic clicks on the red X, I am finally directed to the site I am now not even sure I want to visit. Finally, I obtain access. “Your Love Character: Who Are You?” And so, after a battery of questions, I am told that I am a vamp. Really?! Me?! Well, yes I am! A sexy vamp. Sex. A sex site flashes, calling me, the sexy vamp. Enter? I do. And as I begin to explore, jumping from link to link, a half clad image asks me “Want to Play?”
Overflowing Narrative Well of Narrowly Fed Non-Accessible Spring?
Hayles’ Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary analyzes “…how the embodied subject and the computational machine can be thought together,” and asks “…should the body be subjected to the machine, or the machine to the body?” and/or “… whether the embodied human becomes the center for humanistic inquiry within which digital media can be understood, or whether media provide the context and ground for configuring and disciplining the body?” (87). Here I am drawn to Brian Rotman’s work Becoming Beside Ourselves: The Alphabet, Ghosts, and Distributed Human Being, when he discusses Guttari’s work “Technological machinesof informationand communication operate at the heart of human subjectivity, not only within its memory and intelligence, but within its sensibility, affects, and unconscious fatasms” (82). Rotman goes on to suggest that the serial/parallel duo is necessary to understand this paradigm. According to Rotman, “parallelism foregrounds co-presence, simultaneity, and co-occurrence and is exemplified in collaborating, displaying, and networking, while serialism foregrounds linear linear order and sequence and occurs in counting, listing, lining up, and telling” (83). It would seem then, when we engage in digital storytelling— marrying the dual art of storytelling and technology (Ryan xiv)— we are organizing serially as a narrative and parallel as a presentation (Rotman 84). According to Ryan, in Avatars of Story, hypertext challenges many Aristotelian ideas, for in “the digital age, narrative could become something entirely different from what it has been in the oral, chirographic, and print ages” such as “1) fixed sequence; 2) definite beginnings and ending; 3) a story’s certain definite magnitude; and 4) the conception of unity and wholeness associated with all these other concepts” (xv). For Ryan, then, narrative has become synonymous for avant garde writing, so why continue to call it narrative? Ryan argues that “…digital authors need to relate the new to the familiar and to give a human face to their textual machines” (xvi). Here, however, Rotman would argue that such facilitation more readily lends itself to the process where a “new medium confronts and absorbs its predecessor” (107), just as gesture was taken over by speech; speech taken over by writing; writing taken over by networks. Still, gesture, speech, and writing are lingering ghost effects which continue to marginalize students with cognitive diversities. While one could be hopeful that networking would begin an era where such prejudice would not continue, the obvious lack of disability approach throughout both Hayles and Ryan’s work begs nothing of the sort will occur. Clearly, however, the lack of analysis regarding the disabling forms of new media is not being considered as one of the issues that pose problems for this area of study. While the study of narrative within various media is obviously beneficial to both media studies and narratology, for Ryan “…the main problem facing the transmedial study of narrative is to find an alternative to the language based definitions that are common fare in classical narratology” (7).
November 6, 2008
Response to Ryan/Hayles
When Marie-Laure Ryan outlines various narrative modes, she (taking note, of course, from Plato and Aristotle) makes the distinction between diegetic and mimetic narration. While I do not disagree that performing arts, opera, and the like are indeed mimetic, Ryan’s definition of mimesis is skeletal at best. Of course, this is the first chapter of Ryan’s book, and her descriptions serve as a foundation for her overall discussion, but I think she misses the fruitful work that incorporation of the digital into mimesis would have to offer to her study of digital narrative. N. Katherine Hayles, too, praises Ryan’s transmedial approach to narrative; certainly, Ryan’s goal is transmedial narrative, but I remain convinced that she misses a key point when she delegates mimesis solely to the dramatic arts.
In order not to mix my messages, I will refrain from discussing “mimesis” as Ryan discusses it as one of the three aspects of narration (along with chronicle and emplotment). I’m more interested in exploring the classical definition of mimesis as both the representation of nature and as imitation.
Plato describes tragedy and comedy as mimesis. Although tragedy and comedy are first and foremost dramatic forms, it seems natural to extend mimesis into the realm of affect, as both forms are meant to evoke very strong, and widely variegated, emotions. If mimesis encapsulates emotion, then video games like Final Fantasy, Guitar Hero, and even World of Warcraft could be considered mimetic. Games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band seem especially well-suited as examples of digital mimesis, as they are representations of dramatic arts. While songs can be played one at a time, the ultimate goal of the games, as their titles imply, is to emulate a live concert of a rock and roll group, all in the comfort of your living room. But I would be doing a disservice to these games if I designated them as nothing more than hollow simulacra of the arts they imitate. In actuality, part of the fun of these games is NOT getting the imitation right, either by missing notes on the guitar or purposely singing poorly to gain laughs from friends. In so doing, players create something new through imitation/representation, just as William Burroughs’ cut-up and Jeff Rice’s patchwork sampling of various transmedial works to make a statement: what is old can be new again. These are all still narrative discourses in an interactive way, though they may not have the same type of “point” that Jerome Bruner would argue a narrative needs in order to be consider “narrative”. It seems to me that Ryan would embrace these examples; it’s surprising to me that she doesn’t pay more mind to mimesis and its contemporary incarnations in various media.
On a smaller scale, I wonder too if we can extend our ideas of mimesis even further, into blogging and online communities. In Bodily Arts, Debra Hawhee also credits Theognis Democritus, and Isocrates, among others, as understanding the importance of alliances in the quest for learning. She specifically discusses a “pedagogy of association—a cultivation of habits and practices achieved by placing oneself in a close relation to those who practice the arts one is pursuing” (149, emphasis mine). Online forums can develop narrations all their own, as members create new threads and post photos and links to interesting websites. Not only does membership to an online community create some sense of comraderie (I would venture to say that Adam Banks would agree, as he noted in his documentation of Black Planet), but it also creates a set of formal and informal “rules” by which members must abide in order to be taken seriously. The habits that one assumes are indeed imitative, as they are based upon the actions (or inactions, as the case may be) of senior members.
We could take another note from Hawhee, who notes a cornerstone of classical education: “upon ‘entering’ literature, [a student] encounters the descriptions and encomia of good men from the past, so that ‘the boy in envy may imitate them and yearn to become even as they” (Hawhee 150). Quintilian takes this idea further, nothing that it is not sufficient merely to imitate the great writers and thinkers of the past, but to make their ideas relevant to the present moment: kairos with a twist. Mimesis has a much richer context than Ryan seems willing to admit, or just didn’t have the time/space to. I’m hoping for the latter.
Perhaps Façade, Ryan’s example of the most “intelligent” (172) narrative discussed in her book, serves as a better example of digital mimesis, though in a more covert way than I discuss above. The player, or, rather, guest at Grace and Trip’s party, can only type into the designated space (or, in a later edition of the game, the ability to open doors, etc.) in order to further the story. However, even this action can be considered mimetic. What makes mimesis more than mere simulacra is that throughout game play, the player is forced to tailor his or her responses to the parser. As Ryan explains, if the player’s responses are too complex, the game parser may not be able to compute the response, and will choose a path from the game’s inventory. If the player’s statements continue to be ignored, the player may shorten her responses to one or two words, thus eliciting a response from Grace or Trip. At the most basic level, this game is an imitation of the disintegration of H. Paul Grice’s conversational maxims through a dinner party gone awry. If we are to think of mimesis as simply as Ryan does, as “showing” rather than “telling,” then Façade is entirely mimetic. By navigating the results of various responses, players might then take the aspects of the game that they enjoy, tweak them, and make their own game, one more tailored to their interests and that can act as their own mimetic narrative. Of course, this presupposes that players have the know-how to program their own games. Perhaps Johndan-Johnson Eilola is right, however; soon we won’t need to know the code, all we’ll need is a vision. We can then do precisely what transformative mimesis prescribes: imitate, all while making things better. Moreover, we can do it in the digital.
In Marie-Laurie Ryan’s Avatars of Story she references Roger Caillois and his concepts of paidia and ludus to discuss computer games and narrativity. She believes a combination of paidia and ludus (as defined below by Caillois) in the same game environment is possible within computer forms of entertainment. Similar to Ryan, Jerome McGann’s Radiant Textuality prizes digitalized spaces for game play in relation to literary and imaginative texts. His invention of the Ivanhoe game represents Caillois’ concepts of play, and renders the manipulation of language (through practices of deformance) as arbitrary, yet rule-based. The following explication will discuss Caillois in the context of a literary text, Alice in Wonderland, to demonstrate how language (whether print-based or digital) can be viewed within a discourse of game play.
Caillois’ book Man, Play, and Games, differentiates between two extremes of play when games are conducted:
[Games] can also be placed on a continuum between two opposite poles. At one extreme an almost indivisible principle, common to diversion, turbulence, free improvisation, and carefree gaiety is dominant. It manifests a kind of uncontrolled fantasy that can be designated by the term paidia. At the opposite extreme, this frolicsome and impulsive exuberance is almost entirely absorbed or disciplined by a complementary, and in some respects inverse, tendency to its anarchic and capricious nature: there is a growing tendency to bind it with arbitrary, imperative, and purposely tedious conventions, to oppose it still more by ceaselessly practicing the most embarrassing chicanery upon it, in order to make it more uncertain of attaining its desired effect. This latter principle is completely impractical, even though it requires an even greater amount of effort, patience, skill, or ingenuity. I call this second component ludus. (13)
The anarchic, explosive qualities of paidia are necessarily controlled in Wonderland by the arbitrary, rule-based conventions of ludus. Language is articulated and manipulated by the Wonderland characters in the guise of a game. Word meanings are grounded on Vygotskian pseudo-concepts; pseudo-concepts produce multiple and contradictory meanings; communication advances or retreats based on how the subjects control the objects, and how the objects are then played with by other subjects, until ludus is all that remains with language. Ludus, as a method of play, becomes mandatory in Wonderland because it skillfully sets up a system of control to comprehend the paidia surrounding the characters. Without a self-contained, rule-based game to negotiate and refine the chaotic characteristics of paidia, communication of any condition would be impossible. As the state of Wonderland exists, characters are already deemed as “mad” by the Chesire Cat. But this madness is located within the individual, closed systems of language that these characters construct; consequently, the social aspect of language is challenged in Wonderland as a result of pseudo-concepts permeating a paidia-conditioned landscape. While ludus serves the purpose of obtaining a “method to the madness” in Wonderland, it challenges an outsider, such as Alice, to move beyond the level of pseudo-concepts and practice her logical meaning-making skills to detect fallacies, expose utter levels of nonsense in language, and ultimately, rise above the paidia in Wonderland by controlling her own game of ludus.
For Alice, negotiating Wonderland requires her to engage in multiple games that involve ludus. In order for Alice to play, she must conquer the rules of these language games and overcome the frustration that she faces when verbally communicating with other characters. Ultimately, Alice uses ludus to her advantage in Wonderland, as a way of playing that indirectly transitions her thoughts from complex thinking to concept thinking. Caillois explains why ludus, as a way of playing, indirectly leads to the acquisition of a new skill: “[Ludus] is complementary to and a refinement of paidia, which it disciplines and enriches. It provides an occasion for training and normally leads to the acquisition of a special skill, a particular mastery of the operation of one or another contraption or the discovery of a satisfactory solution to problems of a more conventional type” (29). In Wonderland, therefore, ludus leads to the mastery of language for Alice, which trains her logical meaning-making skills and evolves her understanding of word meaning. Nonsense, as a device of language play, creates the Wonderland context that revolves around games with arbitrary rules, and conversations that contain misunderstandings with word meaning.
A central theme in the Alice texts involves characters playing games with arbitrary rules and conditions. Ludus and nonsense language complement and complicate the nature of games in Wonderland because Alice must learn rules that are arbitrarily administered by the subjects playing the games. For example, when the Chesire Cat inquires about Alice’s status in the croquet game with the Queen, Alice emphatically responds: “I don’t think they play at all fairly…and they quarrel so dreadfully one can’t hear oneself speak – and they don’t seem to have any rules in particular: at least, if there are, nobody attends to them” (54). In this situation, not only does it appear that no rules are applicable in a game of croquet that Alice had previously deemed herself familiar with, but if rules do indeed exist, then the players aren’t systematically following them. Hence, anarchy and chaos persist at a level of paidia that makes play difficult for Alice. Contrary to this condition of paidia in the Queen’s courtyard, ludus is experienced when Alice enters the Looking-Glass world’s massive chess game:
“I declare it’s marked out just like a large chess-board!” Alice said at last. “There ought to be some men moving about somewhere – and so quick with excitement as she went on. “It’s a great huge game of chess that’s being played – all over the world – if this is the world at all, you know. Oh, what fun it is! How I wish I was one of them! I wouldn’t mind being a Pawn, if only I might join – though of course I should like to be a Queen, best!” (103)
Despite Alice’s childlike enthusiasm for playing this chess game, along with Carroll’s affirmative foreshadowing of her win below the chess diagram, as described in the subheading, “White Pawn (Alice) to play, and win in eleven moves” (84), her ability to win and become a Queen is only achieved when she familiarizes herself with the arbitrary rules that accompany language usage. Humpty Dumpty’s rule, “Words mean what I choose them to mean,” typifies the relationship that most Wonderland characters have with language. Therefore, word meaning is the foundation where language, logic, and play intersect.
Whether the Alice texts are manipulated on the printed page or on a digital space, Caillois’ concepts of paidia and ludus combine to create a condition of game play that Ryan and McGann would appreciate.
I sent this to Jeff, but forgot to post it on the site. Sorry about that!
I have been doing some considerable thinking about the wiring of the human brain after reading N. Katherine Hayles book, Electronic Literature. In her chapter entitled “Contexts for Electronic Literature,” she discusses the phenomena of cognitive changes from deep thinking to hyper attention. Hyper attention “is characterized by a craving for continuously varying stimuli, a low threshold for boredom, the ability to process multiple information streams simultaneously, and a quick intuitive grasp of algorithmic procedures that underlie and generate surface complexity.” She points out that the newest generations are raised to think in this fashion through their exposures to media. This marks a shift in cognitive strategy away from “deep attention.” Deep attention “is characterized by a willingness to spend long hours on a single artifact…, intense concentration that tends to shut out external stimuli, a preference for a single data stream rather than multiple inputs, and the sub-vocalization that typically enlivens the reading of print literature.” These changes in cognitive strategy certainly must have a serious impact on our pedagogical strategies as teachers of literature and composition. (117)
Deep attention is what one thinks about when imagining the work of the great thinkers, artists, and inventors of our past. Would Monet or Seurat have created such intricate masterpieces had they not had the patience to practice pointillism, the method of applying paint by dotting the paint on the canvas? Would Edison have been able to invent the light bulb, cylinder phonograph, electricity, kinetophone, or film projector without the countless hours he spent in his laboratory working on each one until he had achieved perfection? Would Thoreau have been able to help father in the Transcendentalist movement without his years at Walden Pond? Although these questions are rhetorical in nature, the answer I and many may arrive at is that these achievements would not be possible without the cognitive ability for deep attention. So, if mankind is evolving away from deep thinking through exposing our youth to media and creating a race that thinks and reacts though hyper attention, are we doing more than just changing the methodology of how mankind thinks? I believe that we are. One need only to visit my high school English classroom to see the repercussions of this movement of cognitive strategy.
The hyper attentive student is not an easy one to teach in the classical pedagogical methodologies. This student lacks the patience for studying literature independently. Stories are greeted with groans and comments about how boring the texts are, especially when compared to other forms of nonprint media like the television, film, or digital videos streaming online. Composition is treated much the same. Essays are whipped out and edited little. Surface scanning for Grammar Check-like errors is the most common strategy for improving drafts. Spending the time crafting a single quality writing is seen an unnecessary act when the writing most commonly done is through text messaging and IM-ing and publication rapidly done, often through multiple conversations occurring simultaneously. So what is a teacher to do? A teacher must adapt and make the material engaging and meaningful for this type of learner and a marrying of old and new medias is the way this must be done. All of this must begin with the very young since it is in the very young that cognitive abilities formulate.
My questions are about the curricular development of an English language arts program. How would one compose such a program around the hyper attentive student? Is there still validity in the older methodologies of teaching literature and composition if it fails to register with our newest generations? Does this mean that we need to rethink literature and composition altogether?
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