Reading Procedurally

[General,Research] (04.07.08, 10:39 am)

Okay, so here comes an idea that I have been working through a great deal recently: “Everything is a system.” That’s not too unusual of a claim. I am sure that there are many sources who would support such a proposition. Using that umbrella, though, we can focus in on a specific subset of everything: narrative. By narrative I’m thinking more or less of traditional style narratives, ones that can be read in a more or less traditional manner. Tristram Shandy or Finnegan’s Wake may not fall under that limitation of narrative, but the vast majority of literature does. Okay, so the idea is this: narratives are systematic, they contain elements such as value systems, character motives, and external events. These are recorded and the result is a narrative. That is a more specific claim. It would require a little more defense, but it is a little more interesting.

A pattern that leads up to this idea is the anguish (or nonchalance or delight) expressed by authors when a story or the characters in it run away beyond the author’s control. When characters and situations are described fully enough, there is less authorial agency over what can happen or what those characters can do. The agency in the story changes from the absolute control of the author, to the multifaceted whims of the characters in it. Sometimes in this way a story might work itself into a dead end or rut from which there is no escape. Or characters might do things that the author never intended to happen, but the author couldn’t very well impose or enforce a change because that would somehow break the story. Now, why is this? How can a story take control of itself? How can narrative take on such a life of its own that its author is rendered powerless to stop it? The answer to that resides in a term familiar to mathematicians: Consistency.

In order to be consistent, a story or system must operate under a certain set of rules, rules necessarily limit the number of outcomes for any given situation, and frequently can limit the outcomes down to a small or singular value. Authors must define a system and then work within it, but the more a narrative is fleshed out, the more restrictive the system will necessarily become. The rules become both a determinant and consequence of writing.

Systems are necessarily translatable. This doesn’t mean that one system can always be transformed into another, but there are translation functions that can enable either a lossy or a lossless translation on systems. Or, more abstractly, more conceptually, we can say that we interpret systems in a lossy manner, because of the limitations of perception. We can say that instead, in all processes of interpretation, we apply an interpretation function to read systems out of the experienced phenomena. We can also say that it is possible to reconstruct and apply those systems independently. Thus, my interpretation of a system, be it a book, film, game, or engineering science may be slightly different than the original creation. My interpretation may be different from yours, but all are connected via this chain of interpretation.

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