The antithesis of close reading

Although the Web did not give us the hypertext novel or essay, it does now offer us unprecedented access to texts (and images and videos) of all sorts. Ted Nelson was on the right track when he asserted that global hypertext would give rise to a sense of liberation. Infinite fields of texts are available to be downloaded, appropriated, taken apart, added to, or ignored—whatever the reader, now also a writer, wishes. The problem is to find the desired text in the plenitude; once found, the text is open for any use. This combination of reading and rewriting is the antithesis of close reading, above all, because it does not respect the sanctity of the original text nor care about its place in a traditional canon. These new practices can lead to casual appropriation without any concern for copyright or authorship. Yet what is happening to intellectual property in books and all other media forms illustrates the contradictions of our media culture—radically changing and yet unwilling to let go of the assumptions of an earlier age.


Reflective reading in the digital age

When printed books, magazines, and newspapers were central to our media culture in the twentieth century, there were clearly many different practices of reading (and writing). Huge literate populations (approaching 100% in the developed world) had different tastes and needs and read in all kinds of environments, superficially or carefully, quickly or at leisure. Yet those who fear the loss of print now seem to regard as essential one kind: contemplative or close reading. Reflective reading is a practice of amateurs, of lovers of books, who envision reading under a tree, in silent conversation with the author. “Close reading,” the professional scholar’s equivalent of reflective reading,

Because social media combine text, images, audio, and video and present themselves to each in multiple windows and dynamic, they invite the user to what Maria Engberg characterizes as a polyaesthetic form of reading. The critics of social media are right in insisting on the “superficiality” of polyaesthetic reading. Their mistake is to think that polyaesthetic reading replaces reflective reading. Their favored form of reading will not disappear, as long as the (traditional) literary community continues to practice it. But it can no longer constitute a cultural ideal of reading, to which everyone must or should aspire.

Who cares about the future of the printed book…

For the intellectual elites of the twentieth century, the printed book embodied the order and unity of culture; it was the guarantor of knowledge. The belief in the centrality of books was held by professional writers, literary scholars, philosophers, historians, and even by art historians and musicologists, who studied other media but set down their results in books and articles. Now, in the twenty-first century, the book is simultaneously changing form and losing status, and writers and humanists find these changes extremely traumatic. What is perhaps surprising is how untraumatic these changes are to others in contemporary media culture. If you walk from the back to the front of an airplane today, you are likely to see passengers in every row with digital devices: some reading books on iPads or Kindles; many playing videogames or listening to digital music. Yet others will be reading printed newspapers or paperbacks. For our media culture, the format has become a matter of preference and availability. The future of the printed book, the question that seems a matter of life or death to the literary community, is of relatively little concern to most today, even to many who continue to read fiction or non-fiction for pleasure as well as for their work—not to mention the many millions who prefer digital forms like videogames or the online remediations of television and film.

Edge of Tomorrow

Hollywood film has had an ambivalent relationship to the video game. Some films are remediations of videogames (the Resident Evil series); other films (such as Existenz) threat the videogame as a cultural threat (because it threatens the cultural dominance of film). Edge of Tomorrow is rather unusual: it is a film that reconciles the “flow” of the videogame with the “catharsis” of Hollywood film. The repetition of the same day refers to the endless replayability of the videogame. The cathartic quality of the Hollywood tradition is subdued throughout the film—until almost the very end. At the end, Cruise is smiling because he knows that the romantic relationship is about to begin. He has gotten beyond replay and the film can now resolve itself in typical Hollywood fashion. But we never see the resolution: the film never triumphs over the videogame.

Popular modernism I

In the mid twentieth century, when the cultural paradigm of modernism began to lost coherence, its fragments were picked up by figures in popular culture. The rhetoric of elite or high modernism “descended” into popular culture, while at the same time (ironically) it was being superseded within the art community itself. Starting in the 1950s and 1960s and continuing through the following decades, figures in jazz and rock music, film, television, and so on began to talk or be talked about as if there were modernist artists. The assumptions of modernism, particularly the notion of developing the medium, were picked up by writers and thinkers of all sorts. Marshall McLuhan borrowed some of the these assumptions of modernist art and translated them into his version of media studies. Digital media writers have enthusiastically received these ideas from McLuhan: every digital technology becomes a new medium whose special qualities changes the way we take pictures, make and listen to music, tell stories, write, think.

The aesthetics of flow and catharsis

Here is a draft of a paper that I am writing on the aesthetics of contemporary popular media. (Click on the title below to download.)

The aesthetics of catharsis and the aesthetics of flow

(I would be delighted to receive comments and criticisms. Please do not cite the paper, however, without first contacting me:

Catharsis and flow

Digital culture today is divided between an older aesthetic of catharsis and the newer aesthetic of flow.

The new film by Christopher Nolan is a scifi adventure, but it is also a film that reflects on the nature of filmmaking in an age of digital media. The goal of the team that is to break into the dreaming mind of Australian businessman and plant an idea. The inception of an idea can only be accomplished by inducing an intense emotional release, or catharsis (the movie’s term), in the subject’s mind. Catharsis is of course what “serious” Hollywood movies and television dramas are all about.  Inception is not only an emotionally charged drama; it is also and obviously an action-adventure film with clear references to videogames and the videogame style that we find in many films today. The team has to operate simultaneously on three dream levels (like the levels in a FPS)– each with its own architecture  and a set of obstacles and anonymous assassins.  And videogames work primarily with an aesthetic different from catharsis: that of flow.

Because Inception is a film and not a videogame, it ultimately comes down on the side of catharsis. The main character Dom gets his own cathartic moment at the end of the film. But by putting these two forms (film and videogames) in tension, Nolan is playfully suggesting the danger that videogames and the aesthetic of flow pose for traditional film and its aesthetic of catharsis.


Let’s look at the notion of the emotional engagement and catharsis in interactive narrative. Among IN writers, catharsis is seen as part of a successful dramatic or narrative experience. Good literature is cathartic, good (Hollywood) films are cathartic, and interactive narrative should be too. That is, all these narrative forms should bring the reader/player to a kind of emotional release. For IN writers, in fact, current videogames do not maximize the power of the medium, precisely because they do not mobilize the emotions of the player, as Hollywood films do. When Steven Spielberg signed on to create games for Electronic Arts, he said that what we needed was a game that would make the player “cry at level 17.”  Spielberg is a master of Hollywood film catharsis, so it is natural for him to want to create games that have the same effect on the player. And this is exactly what many in the IN community assume is an inevitable part of their project.

Yet, like the notion of closed, coherent narrative, the goal of catharsis has been challenged by literature and drama throughout the twentieth century. For example, catharsis was exactly what Brecht criticized in the drama of his day. Brecht’s plays aimed to challenge the viewer to think about the dramatic subject at a critical level–not to fall into an emotional swoon. Practically all experimental art of the past hundreds years has challenged the idea of this kind of immersive emotional engagement.

IN-3: The objection of elitism

Many would say that appealing to the avant-garde as a critique of IN is elitist and out of touch. The IN movement wants to create popular narrative forms. Millions of people go to see Titanic and still watch Casablanca or It’s a Wonderful Life on television. Only a tiny group knows or cares about the films of Man Ray or Hollis Frampton.  But we can still argue that these avant-garde authors could inject new ideas and new life into the IN project – just as they did repeatedly in the twentieth century to film and even television. Avant-garde notions of montage and editing have been taken into the grammar of popular film. So we can ask: why can’t the IN movement benefit in the same way from the work of past innovators? Why not try to develop new forms of fragmented and incomplete narrative based on the model of the experiments of the past? Why couldn’t research be conducted into how to proceduralize the narratives style of Buñuel or Warhol?

In fact, the fragmentary and incomplete narrative forms are sometimes popular today. They are not necessarily elite. Music videos are a good example. There is a wide range of styles of visual narrative styles in music videos. Often the scenes present disconnected, fragmented, even contradictory moments in a story that may work with or against the music. The genres and media forms that are popular with younger people often seem to be prefer these angular and incomplete narrative forms. Facebook is an exercise in building little narratives that make sense only to a few friend, if even to them. So is Twitter. And among its many genres, YouTube includes talking head videos that seldom give us a sense of narrative closure. I’m tempted to suggest that rounded closed narratives are popular with the Baby Boomers and progressively less so with younger generations. What are the age demographics for shows like Mad Men or reruns of the West Wing?

IN may be committing itself to a narrative model that has the same future as the Cadillac.

IN-2: Completeness and clarity

Let’s start with the assumption of completeness and clarity. (In what follows, I am going to use the terms “narrative” and “story” more or less interchangeably—I will discuss the nuances in a later entry.)

It seems obvious and uncontroversial to say that interactive narratives like all satisfying stories must have a beginning, middle, and end. The question is what that means—in particular what kind of an ending must a story have. There is always the issue of cultural difference. Do different (historical or contemporary) cultures have different notions of what makes a story complete?
But we don’t have to look that far. Even within European and American culture in the past 100 years, there have been many attempts to call into question the notion of a complete and satisfying narrative.  Practically every literary, dramatic and cinematic avant-garde in the 20th century has offered alternatives to the rounded, closed narrative form. The futurists and Dadaists presented plays and performances with incomplete or absurd narrative lines. Most experimental filmmakers from the surrealists of the 1920s  (e.g. Man Ray) to the structural filmmakers of mid-20th century (e.g. Frampton and Brakhage)  either mocked or ignored the narrative techniques of mainstream cinema. Video art of the 1970s and 1980s seldom aimed to create coherent narrative lines. Then there are all the literature experiments from the futurist poets to the lettrists to stream of consciousness authors to postmodern writers who in one way or other subvert closed narrative forms. Bertholt Brecht, whose own plays were quite accessible and in some cases even popular, adopted a style that worked against what he called “Aristotelian drama.”

The interactive narrative community ignores this history. There are works that might be said to be on the fringes of the IN community that do break the rules of completeness and clarity—for example, some Interactive Fiction games such as Adam Cadre’s Photopia and the work of the early hypertext movement (Joyce, Moulthrop, etc.). These experiments are not models for the work that is reported at conferences such as ICIDS, however.

The Interactive Narrative project has as its goal to proceduralize narrative: to create an algorithm that can author narrative texts.  The reader/player helps to shape the narrative by inserting herself into the procedural loop—in other words, she becomes part of the algorithm. The interactive narrative produced in this way is expected to have the dramatic arc and coherent plot of a Hollywood “three-act” film.