Archive: November, 2008

Paidia and Ludus

[General,Research] (11.29.08, 4:07 pm)

I made a mistake in my posts on Tristram Shandy and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. These two unconventional narratives have a playful element, and I was describing this as ludic. That actually was not the word I was looking for. I was digging through some notes the other day and found some notes that I took when Marie-Laure Ryan visited, and found a comparison between paidia and ludus. Paidia represents uncontrolled play, whereas ludus is structured and goal oriented. So, the comparison that I meant to make earlier is that both Sterne and Calvino embraced paidia, whereas most narratives and novels have a form that more resembles ludus.

The distinction between paidia and ludus are outlined by Callois. Chris Bateman gives an excellent analysis of the complexity between the two.

I’m sick

[General] (11.27.08, 12:08 pm)

And it’s my own damn fault, too.

Normally, I never get sick. Audrey thinks it’s the flu, since I’ve been basically out of comission since Monday. In my own hubris, I did not elect to get a flu shot when I had the opportunity earlier this year. Curses! I think I’m on the upswing, though. It is still a real drag, though, since I had been planning on doing a lot of work this week, and have only been able to do a fraction thereof.

Oh well, so it goes.

Laurence Sterne: Tristram Shandy

[Readings] (11.22.08, 1:07 pm)

The title is a bit misleading, it is actually “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman”

Sterne’s work is important in understanding one of the borderline cases of narrative. Despite being published six decades before Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, it is a work that seems deceptively modern, or even postmodern. It would be very easy to draw comparisons between Sterne’s writing and the “lines of flight” described by Deleuze and Guattari.

As a work, Tristram Shandy is erratic and nonlinear, circular even. The premise is that the book documents the life of the eponymous subject, who is the narrator, but the main subjects of the book are his father, Walter Shandy, and his uncle Toby. There are a number of other characters who come into play, as well, but the focus is on those two. In the first volume, the narrator is trying to tell the story of his life, but really, he can’t begin to do that before accounting for his birth, and then his conception, and then the life of his parents before hand. The narrative is endlessly digressive, and draws connections between all manner of works of philosophy, science (of the time, of course), and history. Essentially, as the narrator is trying to tell a complete story of his life, he cannot do so without expanding to include more than could ever be written within his lifetime.

One of the reasons for this is that philosophy and science, especially the eclectic, have an essential role in making sense of everyday life. The living world connects to many disparate systems of meaning. Thus, there is a sort of art of connecting, in drawing allusions between everyday life and works of science and philosophy. This idea of naturalism works in contrast to the literary movement of realism (which in itself was a very particular type of narrative), which focused on life alone without connections to other realms. Sterne was interested in parodying this, and exposing a paradox of literary fiction: To capture anything in its true depth will exceed the time of the thing being described. Eventually, when all approaches are exhausted, time changes from exposition, to instead moment by moment direct communication.

The reading of the book seems like it might be well equated with hypertext. Wikipedia is an invaluable aid of making sense of the many connections and allusions drawn within the writing, and with all of his analogies, Sterne is drawing the reader through what really feels like a hypertext experience. The connections are not directed, but demonstrative. The characters are not really driven to achieve specific goals, but rather, understand themselves and the world around them. Most other novels are framed by some sort of goal or obstacle, especially in the bildungsroman tradition. The result of this shift in emphasis is that Tristram Shany has a ludic quality. I mentioned the term “ludic” in reference to If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, and the essence of that comparison is that both the reader’s engagement as well as the characters’ activities are playful.

In Tristram Shandy, the reader must be active. The reader is required to make creative interpretation in order to get meaning out of the text. Because the experience is nonlinear, cut up, even, the reader is responsible for gathering the pieces and putting them together into a coherent whole. Sterne’s writing illustrates the connections to many parts of his world, and these connections must be brought and woven together to put that world together.

Some final notes from Ian Watt’s introduction: The book is not a novel. It fails at that because it is incomplete. Similarly, its system, and there certainly is one, must come off as playful, rather than gamelike explicitly. There are virtues of exploration and balance. It connects the deepness of nature and philosophy to the triviality of life.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorSterne, Laurence
TitleThe Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
Tagsfiction, media traditions, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon


[Games,General] (11.20.08, 11:40 am)

Normally I don’t spend much time with political games. I like the idea of political games in principle, but it is frequently difficult for me to really get into them. A few days ago, I stumbled on Ian Bogost’s post about Molleindustria‘s new game Oiligarchy.

The idea behind Oiligarchy is that the player is in control of the oil industry. Not just one part of it, but all of it, the whole thing. Early on, the player is responsible for exploring and building: looking for reservoirs and whatnot. However, over time, domestic reservoirs begin to reduce in output, and demand increases, so the player must look elsewhere for oil. The player can drill for oil in Venezuela, Nigeria, Alaska, and Iraq, and each of these have reaching political implications. The game keeps track of many ongoing variables, such as domestic stability, environmentalism, as well as other events and factors. It is oddly fun to play, and each play through can lead to one of four potential endings.

The most fascinating thing about the game is the postmortem written by the developers. It explains in very explicit terms the model at the core of the simulation, which is the Hubbert peak theory, and the political implications of the model. All of the events in the game are based on either real events or theories, and most of them come with citations. I find the explict focus on the model, specifically the way that it manifests and is ever present within gameplay to be very impressive. This careful exploration and critical approach to models is precisely what I want to encourage in my work about adaptation.

While the model is transparent and visible, it is also integral, so it would not, for instance, be easy for someone to try out their own model within the context of the game. Molleindustria did release their source code, though, so someone could presumably try. This is an aesthetic of openness which is becoming more prevalent in games, and that is a very good thing. Sid Meier’s Civilization is a game that I usually criticize for its colonialist  and expansionist approach to history, but even the fourth installment of the series comes with extensive modding capabilities, including the ability to swap out the core of the game code.

Italo Calvino: If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler

[Readings] (11.19.08, 3:35 pm)

Italo Calvino is an important figure in narrative. Calvino’s fiction can be described as modern or postmodern, in that it pushes some conventional boundaries of fiction. Despite this, unlike many other postmodern writers, Calvino is accessible and deeply enjoyable, without being any less profound. Because my work is on adaptation of fiction, and my particular approach is modeling of fictional worlds, it is important to see how my theories hold when pushed to some of the boundary cases of fiction and literature.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is important because of its reflexivity. When asked what it is about, the clearest answer is to say that it is a book about reading. Specifically, it is about the experience of reading, the pleasure of reading, and the relationship between reading and writing. At times, it reads like Calvino is poking a great deal of fun at Barthes’ Death of the Author. I normally think that writing is about building worlds, and to some extent, building dramatic structures, but to Calvino it comes down to experience and imagination.

The book spells out a great many scenarios. It is almost like a laboratory, to see as many takes on reading and writing that can be explored within its pages. The protagonist of the book is the Reader (who is explicitly male). There is imaginative speculation of the reader fatasizing about the Other Reader (who is explicitly female), who is reading the same book. The Reader imagines the experience of the Other Reader as she reads the same pages that he reads. Later on, narration shifts to the perspective of a writer who watches a woman reading from his balcony, and voyeuristically fantasizes that she is reading the book that he is writing.

These scenarios are important because they playfully illustrate the complex relationships between reading and writing, as human dimensions. It is important too because it exposes a broader model. Beyond the model of a story world itself, Calvino exposes the model between authorship and readership. Because the novel is written so reflexively (but playfully so) the nature of this model is made very visible, so that the real reader can think and reflect upon it. Play is a central element in Calvino’s novels, and gives the story a ludic quality, rather than a formally structured one.

The introduction by Peter Washington yields some important notes. “By Presenting possible worlds, he can remind us that there are alternatives to the present order of reality. Most important of all, he can practice the negative but essential virtue of encouraging his readers to take nothing on trust.” (p. xiii)

Calvino was inspired by texts outside the Leavisite “Great Tradition”: Cervantes, Sterne, Stevenson, the Decameron, and the Arabian Nights. It is worth noting that the novels of the great tradition can probably be seen as having an explicitly formal structure, specifically, one that could be expressed in rules with a clear objective. The form of the novel itself is not necessarily intrinsically gamelike, but novels frequently have a structures that resemble those commonly used in games (notably progression and bildungsroman, as well as Cambell’s hero’s journey). Works outside the “Great Tradition” tend to be nonlinear, multiform, self-referential, and so on. These have a format which is much less gamelike, because they lack that sort of formal structure. Instead, they are ludic, abstractly playful. Calvino’s writing is like this: it is inherently joyful and delightful and rich with play.

Over the course of the book, the protagonist is the Reader, but the Reader remains an ambiguous character. Presumably, the reader is initially the actual person reading the book, Calvino speculates on what the Reader’s habits and situation might be, but then the Reader becomes more active and more specific. The sections about the Reader are written in the second person, much like roleplaying narration.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorCalvino, Italo
TitleIf on a Winters Night a Traveller
Tagsfiction, media traditions, specials, narrative
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

Who Killed Amanda Palmer?

[Concerts] (11.19.08, 12:44 pm)

This past Sunday, Audrey and I went with a few friends to see Amanda Palmer. The show was fun and off the wall. The first opening act was Vermilion Lies, a very silly cabaret duo, almost vaudeville. After that was another band, The Builders and the Butchers, who were really great. They are somewhat Americana, (they remind me a lot of The Decemberists), and initially seemed somewhat out of place. Over their set, though, all their songs revealed an ominously morbid tone, which helped them fit right at home.

Opening acts have an interesting role in concerts. The opening act is primarily responsible for entertaining and riling up the audience so that they are enthused for the main show. As a result, there is an interesting aesthetic to the acts. They aren’t supposed to be the focus of the show, so there is a freedom to be eccentric and not perfect. Because they have to get the audience excited, opening acts tend to have a lot of participatory elements as well. Their lyrics tend to repeat and the audience is encouraged to sing along. In this way, the opening act is very dependent on the audience, but the main act is meant to stand on its own.

When the main act comes to stage, the performance shifts in nature. The audience moves from being participants to really being just the audience, and there is a pressure for the show to be more perfect and authentic. Amanda Palmer’s act was especially noteworthy in this regard because she was accompanied by The Danger Ensemble, who are an Australian performance troupe. They brought an entire theatrical dimension to her show, which converged and worked in a lot of ways.

The set itself had a bunch of songs from her new CD, as well as a few songs from the Dresden Dolls, as well as a few new surprises. I had been reading about her European tour and was sad not to see Zoe the Cellist, but we did have Lyndon Chester, who could play a mean fiddle. Watching Amanda play the keyboard was pretty remarkable in itself. She was never trained to read music, so she is self taught, and I could see all of that crazy obsessive emotion and energy pounding into the instrument. Without drums to support her, she practically played it percussively.

Audrey also got hugged by Mark of the Danger Ensemble during “We Have to Drive”. I’ve been looking photos, but haven’t been able to find one of her getting hugged yet. Just have to keep looking!

Edit: One omitted detail that I forgot about: There was an encore at the end of the show, where Amanda teamed up with both Vermillion Lies and The Builders and the Butchers to sing a couple of songs, a Bon Jovi cover (for donations to the Danger Ensemble) and then Leeds United. Afterwards, there was another encore, but it was a bit different this time. Amanda came back on stage alone with a ukelele, an out of tune ukelele, and sang Radiohead’s well known song, Creep.

This was a great moment because it totally subverted the idea of officiality in performance. Much of the audience had left at this point, leaving a large huddling mass near the center of the stage. We were all very much together, and we were all singing along. The instruments weren’t plugged into the speakers, there was no microphone, so it was just her and the audience together. All of us were necessary to make a sound, and we were all singing, not necessarily in tune, but we were all part of the song together.

I mentioned earlier that the main act of a concert usually works independently of the audience, but that notion was subverted in this last song. The voice of the audience was necessary for the song to have any volume, as was especially evident when she hit the high notes of the song and we couldn’t keep up. Briefly, the audience was quiet and it was just her singing alone. Vermillion Lies came back on and did some acapella rhythm for her, but that last moment was pretty incredible.

Also also: A couple got engaged during the “Ask Amanda” session. I can’t believe I forgot to mention that. It was very sweet.

Neil Postman: Amusing Ourselves to Death

[Readings] (11.14.08, 5:48 pm)

Neil Postman is an interesting figure. His book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” can be read not only as a vicious attack on television, but also on any form of media or mass communication. The style and tone of his writing makes him seem old fashioned and stuffy. He comes off as hostile towards media and dismissive of anything that takes people away from that nostalgic golden age where people actually read books. It is easy for those of us who grew up with television, video games, and, more recently, the internet, to read Postman and imagine counterexamples to all of his arguments. No, we might say, media has a positive role in our lives, and we have been made stronger for it. Such an argument is valid, certainly, but it is reacting against Postman’s words alone and not some of the deeper themes that lie underneath them. Postman might say that television affects us negatively, we might claim that it affects us positively, but the point is that it affects us nonetheless.

The claims about affect fall within the larger frame of technological determinism, but there is something more present in Postman’s book. In order to take control over media, so that we can use it positively, we must understand its agenda. Following from McLuhan, Postman argues that each medium has an agenda. To not be manipulated by this agenda, we must be aware and critical of it. This concept has been called media literacy. Digital media is not only a medium of its own, but is a conduit, a channel for many other media and systems, each of which have their own agendas. Specifically I am interested in simulation, and thinking about the agendas of simulations, which are often closed, like television, concealing their agenda beneath their surfaces. I want to consider a practice of simulation literacy, where the methods, assumptions, and epistemology of a simulation can all be put under scrutiny.

The Medium is the Metaphor

Before the book begins, Postman presents an analogy which sets the tone and climate for the rest of the book. He compares two authors, Orwell and Huxley, who wrote of terrible dystopias. Their visions both present worlds where people are controlled, but through very different means. Orwell is generally more widely recognized, and his dystopia 1984, presents a world where books are burned and history is rewritten. Huxley’s Brave New World is one in which there is no need to burn books or rewrite history, because no one reads anyway. Postman sums them up neatly: “In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us, Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.” One of these worlds is implicitly the direction that the future is heading. The underlying assumption behind this is that we are slouching toward some dystopia anyway.

Postman’s writing comes across as extremely dated, as though he is appealing to some idyllic period in which spectacle was never a factor in communication. There are a couple of examples of how media has restricted the range of what is possible. A presidential candidate must necessarily now be telegenic. This is definitely true, though. Once media has been introduced, it must be accounted for. By virtue of this, media affordances have restricted what is or may be possible. Behind the moralizing, this restrictive nature of media is still real.

There is a religious element to Postman’s objections to television which is hardly surprising. The relationship between the iconography of media and the religious sin of idolatry reveals a deep spiritual unease with the representational power of media. By virtue of its semiotic nature, media and technology have the power to transform icons and images, and this has a profound affect on thinking and conceptualization.

Media as Epistemology

Postman gives a review of the requirements of reading and print culture. This idea translates directly into the notion of print literacy. The first of these requirements are physical and very basic, but they give way into deeper and deeper requirements of comprehension and analysis, which are not even verifiable. It is impossible to measure whether someone truly understands a text, especially when connected to the vast cultural network of meaning. This is literary intelligence at its highest level, and it is by no means easy. To claim that someone is literate means to go beyond the basic ability to understand sentences, but to also go to these deeper roots of making sense of the text, and knowing how to make sense of the text. The practice of meaning making has no set measure or procedure.

I raise these issues because they expose that print-intelligence or print-literacy is not some simple or easy idea. This direction undercuts Postman’s work somewhat, as he means to explain that this form of intelligence was common before television. It is arguable that this may be the case historically, but it is not the case generally. Thus, instead of being a conflict between types of media, we can view Postman’s argument as a conflict over literacy.

The Typographic Mind

The key characteristic of the typographic medium is exposition. Exposition is a mode and methodology. It is the epistemology of the literary medium. “Exposition is a mode of thought, a method of learning, and a means of expression. Almost all of the characteristics we associate with mature discourse were amplified by typography, which has the strongest possible bias toward exposition: a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; a tolerance for delayed response.” (p. 63)

I would argue that the idealization of this is somewhat fallacious. The “era of print” certainly had its share of spectacle, irrationality, and logical falsehoods. The ideas here are still important, though. Exposition is still a value of print, and it is an affordance.

The Peek-a-Boo World

Telegraphy enabled instantaneous communication, but also came with decontextualization of information. Postman argues that it inflicts a kind of impotence on the communicated content. Because it is deprived of context, he claims that the new information ceases to be meaningful or relevant. This is unfair. If we were impotent in the age of the telegraph, then we were impotent before. This also comes with the implicit assumptions that the receivers of information are wholly passive. Postman argues that the information-action ratio was greatly diminished after telegraphy, which may be true, but a diminished ratio does not indicate a reduction in the actual action itself.

The heart of the matter is that television has become a myth in the sense of Barthes. It is invisible, unquestioned, and only accepted. Postman’s idea is that the communicated artifacts of television should seem bizarre and not natural. The world seen through television seems natural, even though it is false. Postman’s goal is to make visible the epistemology of television, to expose the transformational process so that it is denaturalized. This reverberates with Barthes agenda in Mythologies, to reveal how mythologies are present and prevalent and influential even though they are invisible.

We can make a comparison to games and internet culture, but by virtue of being new media, they are perpetually under analysis and criticism. They have not yet become totally naturalized, but, some conventions are moving in that direction. Postman’s analysis of television is holistic and reductive, but exposing epistemology is key in developing new literacy.

The Age of Show Business

Good sound byte here: “Each technology has an agenda of its own. It is, as I have suggested, a metaphor waiting to unfold.” (p. 84) Later, “Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted, or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure.” (p. 87) This is in comparison to print, whose supra-ideology would be exposition. It is ambiguous what, if any, supra-ideology computation must have.

“Now . . . This”

The argument here goes to support the literacy theme. Things viewed on television, the news specifically, seem implicitly credible. Because things are presented accurately, they are understood as truth. Books still can and do this, using all manner of fallacies. Postman seems to imply that, as television is new and immediate, it is more credible. Maybe this relates to media maturity. Alternately, the argument seems to be that since entertainment is the content of television, truth is irrelevant. This reverberates with McLuhan and Raymond Williams.

The Huxleyan Warning

There is an argument here, not for literacy exactly, but for awareness and skepticism. Technology is ideology. “To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple.” (p. 157) The argument is steeped with technological determinism, but is still compelling. Introduction of the alphabet changes culture at a cognitive level, and instantaneous communication produces a social and cultural revolution. This claim sounds like the types of claims, alternating between doomsaying and social revolution, that the internet would have on culture. An argument against Postman is that culture has motivational and self regulating forces of its own. While it may be affected, it still works to regulate itself. This counterargument is also valid, but the culture is still changed. Without awareness, it may not regulate itself positively.

To produce this awareness, Postman explains that we must change how we engage with television. “The problem, in any case, does not reside in what people watch. The problem is in that we watch. The solution must be found in how we watch. For I believe it may be fairly said that we have yet to learn what television is.” The focus on information brings Postman’s critique straight into digital media.

Further: “In any case, the point I am trying to make is that only through a deep and unfailing awarenss of the structure and effects of information, though a demystification of media, is there any hope of our gaining some measure of control over television, or the computer, or any other medium.”

Reading Info:
Author/EditorPostman, Neil
TitleAmusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business
ContextPostman's idea of media literacy connects to the idea of simulation literacy.
Tagsspecials, media traditions, media theory
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon


[Concerts] (11.13.08, 2:37 pm)

This past Tuesday, Audrey and I went over to East Atlanta, to the Earl for a nice indie music concert. We knew we were in for something, but really weren’t quite prepared for it. The actual concert started at 9:30 and the doors opened at 9:00. Audrey unfortunately had a class that normally gets out at 8. That’s right, 8 PM. We graduate students just live it up, don’t we? Fortunately, she managed to get out a bit early, and we scooted over there and tried to find dinner.

Fortunately, and we noticed this once we started wandering around, the Earl is also a restaurant. They had a wide variety of menu items that seemed to cater very precisely to the our demographic: the pretentious indie music crowd. I mean this endearingly! I had a guacamole burger, which was outstanding. It was just very amusing. We sat next to a couple of guys who were going to do some photography and conduct an interview with M83 frontman Anthony Gonzalez.

The show itself opened with School of Seven Bells, which I had heard about a few days ago. Their music is sort of an ethereal and spacey, with an unusual strong sense of rhythm. Their music has a somewhat otherworldly quality to it, sounding like a soundtrack that scores a journey to some lush but remote and isolated destination. I heard about them a week before the concert, and then found out that they were opening for M83, which was a pretty nice coincidence. There are three members to the band. The vocalists are sisters and occupy guitar and keyboard. There is also another guitarist who spent a lot of time rocking out. The singers layered together creating a nice resonance, that created not just music, but really something more like a textured soundscape.

When School of Seven Bells finished, they dismantled their set, and the stage crew began setting up for M83. They brought up a large quantity of fascinating and delightful looking electronic equipment. The setup took quite a while, but eventually the band itself came on stage.

M83 opened with an extended version of Run Into Flowers. The case with this, and with all of the rest of the tracks they played, was that the original song was not a script so much as a guideline. No song really was close at all to the album versions. Because M83 exists in a complex hybrid between pure electronic music and Explosions In The Sky-style instrumental music, the actual set combined elements of performance of electronic music with more traditional stage performance. Guitars were layered on top of each other to create a texture, and the actual electronic elements, coming from keyboards as well as Gonzales’ laptop, came together to sound like they were being mixed live before us.

Each song was layered with a great deal of complexity. The guitars were primarily responsible for creating a sense of texture, and came together with such resonance that they faded into the background. On top of those, the keyboards and vocals gave shape to the auditory space. On more than one occasion, when the leading instruments stopped or subsided, it sounded like silence, until we gradually realized that the music was still there, that it had never left us. When the instruments picked up again, they had the feeling not of individual instruments constructing a whole, but of waves that washed over us.

The band consisted of Anthony Gonzalez, the mastermind behind M83, who alternated between keyboard and guitar. There was also another guitarist and a drummer, who hammered away behind his drum cage. However, there was also another keyboardist, Morgan Kibby, who contributed to vocals as well. The word “contributed” doesn’t really begin to describe it, though. Kibby was a ferocious bundle of energy. She sang a lot of the tracks from saturdays=youth, and pounded away at those keyboards like she was possessed. Both she and Gonzalez were brimming with enthusiasm and energy. It was impossible to see them without having that energy rub off.

I’ll leave you with an emblematic video of a live performance of Couleurs, though the sound quality doesn’t remotely do it justice.

Nile Online

[Games,General] (11.11.08, 11:31 am)

I’ve become totally addicted to this game. It’s made by Tilted Mill, which is the wonderful studio responsible for Pharaoh, Caesar, Sim City Societies, and many other delightful city building games. Nile Online is very fascinating conceptually. It is a broswer-based casual MMOG. Contrary to many browser-based MMOGs, it is not implemented using Java or Flash, but rather PHP delivering dynamic HTML with Ajax. It is casual because player actions are implemented over time. Creating a building in the beginning may take 15 minutes, but later on, upgrading it to a higher level may take 6 hours.

The primary mechanic of the game is trade. Players can trade with each other, but much of the trading is unchecked, so it relies on trust and communication (via an in-game email/scroll system). One could probably say that it is about economies, but the way that the economy is implemented in game, it relies on issues of time and distance that make it unlike many contemporary economic games which are much more instantaneous. It’s a lot of fun.

Meanwhile: When did Open Office 3 come out? Sun really needs to figure out how to cultivate popular enthusiasm and support! Maybe I’ll give some sort of review later after I get it installed. It’s a great project, but needs more publicity for it to get recognized. I don’t want them to advertise. I hate advertisements passionately. But they could see about getting their product reviewed on blogs or on tech news sites.

Henry Jenkins visits LCC

[General,Talks] (11.09.08, 7:09 pm)

Renowned media and culture scholar (and blogger) Henry Jenkins visited us this past week. He gave a lively presentation on media technology as used in the election campaign, and later met up with several of the research groups. I stuck around the group meeting with Janet’s narrative schema group where we looked at some of Sergio Goldenberg‘s eTV projects, as well as Hartmut Koenitz’s Advanced Stories Group. I was at this last meeting, but was not especially conversational, as one, I don’t have a huge amount to say about the projects, and two, I did not have much completed work of my own to show. Nonetheless, there were a few very interesting bits that I picked up from both events, and I’ll try to convey them here.

Politics and Media

I’ve studiously avoided discussing politics here. This is not to say that I don’t have my own strong beliefs, but I find nearly all political discussions to be exhausting and ultimately futile. Nonetheless, there are a number of very interesting and noteworthy things discussed in Jenkins’ talk about media in the election, and in political communication in general. So, I’ll try to review what I can.

The talk opened with a review of how media has been used in previous elections. The Lincoln-Douglas debate is an example which is frequently used as a non-mediated political event. The historical debate was dry, logical, and textual. However, the situation of the debate was still at a carnival. Bands played, there were sideshow performances and greased pig chasing contests. Spectacle was still very much an issue. Neil Postman claimed that the spectacular nature of television could never match the rationality of the Lincoln-Douglas debate, but this claim misses a complex relationship between politics and media.

Media has been used by all candidates in recent past, and the skilled use of media has tended to make for successful elections. Examples are FDR and radio, Nixon and Kennedy over television, Reagan and dramatic iconography, Clinton with cable, and finally Obama and the internet. This election is marked by a convergence of media. Obama’s skilled use at weaving many kinds of media together to create a coherent and consistent message is in part responsible for his overwhelming success.

The pivotal moment to Jenkins is the CNN-YouTube debate. This is revolutionary and pivotal because it marks a return of control from an institutionalized system (television or town-hall debates) to popular control. The clash between participatory (meaning user/popular controlled) culture with the authority of mass media. There were two sets of controversies that came out of this. The first was the reaction against the legitimacy of the YouTube questions, and the second was a reaction against the authority of CNN to filter and screen the questions in the first place.

The issue of legitimacy takes a complex spin when examined carefully. one of Jenkins’ examples is a snowman, asking about global warming. The example was decried somewhat as illegitimate, because it is ostensibly not serious. Literally, the snowman is fictional, and it is at odds for a candidate to be faced with a question from a fictional character. However, a snowman asking about global warming is still apt metaphorically. Furthermore, there is a deeper thread: The snowman speaks with a squeaky voice that is reminiscent of Mr Bill from Saturday Night Live. Mr Bill was, in turn, a “user-created” tape sent to SNL. This example thus taps into a somewhat deeper set of meanings than may first appear. User created questions work beyond the questions themselves, but also pull the weight of a larger set of cultural meanings.

The YouTube debates are one example in which users were able to “talk back” to the candidates and the media, but there are also other cases. One example is the “3-AM girl” who was in some stock footage used in an advertisement by the Clinton campaign, but then was able to post a response saying that she supported Obama. All of these cases are ways in which users have taken control of media and used the internet to talk back, taking control away from the usual media authorities.

In turn, existing media still does not go away, but rather takes on a new relationship to the internet and other media sources. Television broadcasts something, and this is reacted to on the internet, and is in turn broadcast out by television. There is a feedback cycle between blogs, YouTube, cable television, and national news and television.

Other Tidbits

On reality television: This has always had to do with ethics. While reality TV always focuses on conflict, or strives to create conflict, the conflict is ultimately about ethics. Characters have different ethics, and observers project their own values onto them. Jenkins explains that this is how some theorists have come to understand gossip: people project values onto characters, and talk about those characters to communicate their ethical values. In a sense, reality television is used by audiences to discuss their own ethics indirectly.

We were still discussing the eTV projects, in terms of exploring fictional worlds, specifically as relates to convergence, and an interesting point came up. Convergence is the process of revealing a fictional world through many different kinds of media. An example of how this works is when a franchise (for example, The Matrix) splits off into several media forms (beyond films: an animated series and some games), and while watching or consuming one form of media, there is a reference to something that occurs in the others. This sort of connecting process is an active function of the viewer, and helps build a better sense and knowledge of the fictional world. Jenkins called the sort of pleasure that results from this “epistemophilia,” which is a pleasure of knowing and connecting. Epistemophilia is associated with puzzles and transmedia works.

Epistemophilia is also conflicted with a different pleasure, the pleasure of immersion, even though the two are often confused. Immersion is the sense of being in a world and experiencing it viscerally. (Maybe I should call it “ontophilia”). Immersion is at odds with epistemophilia, which can be seen as a type of “spoiler” that undermines the sense of being. Immersion is normally associated with transparency and immediacy. To be in a fictional world, the media that exists between the user and the world must be overcome. On the other hand, with epistemophilia, the media is necessary. An epistemophilic desire is to take advantage of a medium in order to understand and piece together the world as an external observer. This can be done for instance with freeze frames in DVDs (to catch some subtle and impossible clue). Both of these desires relate to the relationship between the user, the medium, and the world.

Later, while discussing the advanced stories system, Jenkins warned us about the mechanics of fan fiction and interactive story systems. Character drives fan fiction. In this case, characters are used projectively: to explore values and idealizations. Branching narratives do not deal well with the complex matter of character motivation, which is what drives fan fiction. There could be branching narration (not narrative), which explores different perspectives. The culture of writing is compelled by character psychology. In rich environments and settings, the world is a character.

This last bit was somewhat troubling to me, though. My work is focused on adaptation of fiction, and is looking at Jane Austen specifically. Austen has a huge culture of recreation, and adaptation, much of which reads very much like fan fiction. However: my approach and focus has been on recreating the social world and model, rather than capturing the characters exactly. I could make the argument that real motivation is impossible without some social or cultural model (that expresses values), but I do not attempt to express the deep complexity of character. At least not yet, the essences and complexities of character are extremely hard to formalize.

Nonetheless, I did speak to him for a few minutes afterwards, in which I hurriedly (and possibly incoherently) explained my ideas, and he seemed to give me an endorsement, so that is a positive sign. Hooray!

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