Marie-Laure Ryan: Narrative as Virtual Reality

[Readings] (01.31.09, 10:55 pm)

The focus of Ryan’s discussion is to use the language and metaphors of virtual reality to look at texts and narrative. Virtual Reality, as a genuine endeavor has largely been discredited, or at least has come to be understood as suffering from major flaws, and was so in 2003 when this book was published. The important elements of virtual reality are ways of thinking about experience. Ryan picks out the two dimensions that follow from VR as immersion and interactivity. These dimensions do not belong to VR, but it is in that context where they take on their most evocative meaning. VR is important not because of what has been achieved in terms of hardware and input devices, but because of the ideas and metaphors it has created in culture. The idea of a virtual world is a powerful thing, and it has roots in ritual, narrative, and performance.

What is perhaps the most startling about Ryan’s analysis is that she is not attempting to analyze VR in context of narrative theory, but instead analyze narrative theory in the context of VR. Within the scope of this analysis, Ryan brings forth several ways of thinking about texts as worlds.

There is a useful review of the history of literature with respect to immersion and interactivity. The immersive ideals are tied to the aesthetics of illusion, relating to the idea of transparency in the medium. A narrative is transparent when it easily enables immersion. Nonfictional modes tip away from immersion, with a focus on form and language. The 19th century realist novel tips back and focuses on immersion again. Subsequently, modern literature often returns to examining the use of language, again distancing from the experience of the storyworld. In postmoden literature, the idea of meaning becomes ambiguous and is dependent on interpretation. Interpretation begets a kind of co-creation of meaning, which shifts to an aesthetic of interactivity. The postmodern form can be seen to exist the most prevalently in hypertext.

The Two (and Thousand) Faces of the Virtual

This chapter compares two perspectives on the virtual. Ryan compares the interpretations of Baudrillard to Lévy. The conflict is over whether the virtual is purely fake or a matter of potential. The Baudrillard sense of the virtual is simulacra, that which designates an absence of the real and gradually is mistaken and interchanged with it. Lévy’s understanding (taken from Becoming Virtual) is more positive, that virtual is a state of potentiality. In this sense, there are two processes: virtualization and actualization, which compliment each other. Virtualization introduces ambiguities and possibilities, while actualization moves the virtual closer to a state of concreteness. There are four points about these processes: (p. 36)

  1. The relation of the virtual to the actual is one-to-many. There is no limit on the number of possible actualizations of a virtual entity.
  2. The passage from the virtual to the actual involves transformation and is therefore irreversible. As Lévy writes, “Actualization is an event, in the strongest sense of the term.”
  3. The virtual is not anchored in space and time. Actualization is the passage from a state of timelessness and deterritorialziation to an existence rooted in a here and now. It is an event of contextualization.
  4. The virtual is an inexhaustible resource. Using it does not lead to its depletion.

The role of virtualization and actualization are significant within narrative. Ryan clearly prefers Lévy’s understanding of the virtual, and rightly so. A text may be considered something that employs both of these processes, and the reading of a text is a means of moving from a more virtual world into a more actual one.

Virtual Reality as Dream and as Technology

This chapter discusses the ideas and hopes for VR as compared to its reality. Much of the concept comes from the metaphor of the holodeck, which became a common idealization. The intensity of speculation about the potential of VR (in its early days) was rampant and suggests at the pervasiveness of the desire to be within a world.

The idea of VR is a dynamic object, a simulation. Ryan compares the idea of simulacra to simulation, as it pertains to VR and computer simulations. Baudrillard’s conception of simulacra are objects which embody deception. “Computer simulations differ from this conception of the simulacrum on several essential points: they are processes and not objects; they possess a function, and this function has nothing to do with deception; they are not supposed to re-present what is but to explore what could be; and they are usually produced for the sake of their huristic value with respect to what they simulate. To simulate, in this case, is to test a model of the world.” (p. 63)

When input is given to a simulation, it becomes the life story of its user. Simulation is a space of possible stories.

The Text as World

The metaphor of text as world is used by VR theorists, but it has roots deep in literature. Ryan gives the particular examples of Brontë and Conrad, who present worlds in effort to get the reader to see and experience. A text, as a semantic domain,  is a cosmos of meanings. In order to be a world, it must be seen as a whole. Reading turns literary codes into content. There are four approaches to understanding texts as worlds:

  1. Cognitive psychology (metaphors of transportation, and being lost in the book). This is the classical sense of immersion, explored by Richard Gerrig and Victor Nell.
  2. Analytical philosophy (possible worlds). This model is the subject of another of Ryan’s books. This explores the combinatorics of what worlds could possibly exist.
  3. Phenomenology (make-believe). This model is connected to the sense of play, where the story world exists within a kind of magic circle. This approach is studied by Kendall Walton. In this sense, representation and fiction are equivalent, and worlds take on a phenomenological character.
  4. Psychology (mental simulation). Simulation is the subject of most interest to me. Simulation is studied by Walton, as well as by Stephen Stich and Shaun Nichols, and Gregory Currie. Stich and Nichols argue that simulation is a kind of counterfactual reasoning, where the simulator suspends their own decision making and takes on the beliefs and desires of the simulated to determine their course of action. The act of reading moves the story world forward in time (and also along the causal chain). Simulation is thus the reader’s performance of the narrative. It hearkens back to Aristotle’s Poetics which recommends envisaging things vividly. Simulation is perhaps the best endorsed by the process of writing: “There cannot be a more eloquent tribute to the heuristic value of mental simulation than the feeling voiced by many authors that their characters live a life of their own.” (p. 114)

Immersive Paradoxes

Temporal immersion is similar to what might be called suspense. This has to do with dramatic tension and reader investment. Ryan makes an analogy of suspense to the to the engagement of sports fans. Even though sports fans have no agency over the outcomes, they are very engaged and immersed in the game, psychologically invested in its outcome. There are three bullets describing the immersion of the sports fans, and then another three describing narrative suspense. (p. 141-142)

  • The enjoyment of the spectator is due that he roots for one of the teams and sees one outcome as vastly preferable to another.
  • Spectators participate in the action through the activity known as “armchair quarterbacking”: they imagine scenarios for the action to come and make strategic decisions for the participants. This activity is made possible by the rigidity of the rules that determine the range of the possible.
  • Suspense increases as the range of possibilities decreases. It is never greater than in the ninth inning or the last two minutes of the game, when the teams are running out of resources and options are reduced to a sharply profiled alternative: score now and stay alive, or fail to do so and lose the game. At the height of suspense, the ticking of the clock (if the game is limited by time) becomes strategically as important as the actions of the players. When this happens, the spectator reaches a state of complete temporal immersion.

Narrative suspense operates according to similar rules:

  • Dramatic tension is usually correlated to the reader’s interest in the fate of the hero. The prototypical suspense situation occurs when a character is in danger and the reader hopes for a favorable alternative.
  • Suspense is dependent on the construction of virtual scripts and events. Though it is tied to uncertainty, it must present what Noel Carroll has called “a structured horizon of anticipation” (“Paradox,” 75). This horizon is given shape by potentialities that trace visible roads into the future, such as the processes currently underway, the desires of characters, the goals to which they are committed, and the plans under execution. The reader’s ability to project these paths is facilitated by narrative devices that constrain the horizon of possibilities in the same way the rules of a game determine what can happen….
  • The intensity of suspense is inversely proportional to the range of possibilities. At the beginning of a story, everything can happen, and the forking paths into the future are too numerous to contemplate. The future begins to take shape when a problem arises and confronts the hero with a limited number of possible lines of action. When a line is chosen, the spectrum of possible developments is reduced to the dichotomy of one branch leading to success and another ending in failure, a polarization that marks the beginning of the climax in the action.

There are four kinds of suspense. These differ in terms of intensity, subject matter, and the role of the reader.

  1. What suspense. This is the most intense of the varieties, and is a matter of wanting to know what will happen next. Usually this is met with some crucial narrative question: will the hero triumph over the villian, will the two lovers marry, etc. The involvement of the reader is in a state of not knowing the outcome.
  2. How (why) suspense. At the next level is the question of how an event or situation came to take place. The reader knows the outcome, but not the process leading to that outcome, and the mode of engagement is thus a matter of the reader moving forward and backward in time.
  3. Who suspense. Ryan explains that this is the suspense of murder mysteries, finding out who did it. The reader is epistemic rather than invested, and the reader is not attached to the outcome. This suspense is a matter of considering several finite options instead of paths.
  4. Metasuspense. This is a matter of suspense regarding how the author is going to weave the narrative together. This is the least immersed in that it involves meta speculation on the part of the player.

The paradox of suspense is that a written text is necessarily certain. Suspense requires uncertainty (from Carroll). Kendall Walton poses a resolution that uses make-believe theory, which is of play. The reader constructs a game wherein certainty is stricken from the game rules.

From Immersion to Interactivity

Section compares texts as games and texts as worlds. Ryan gives the examples of Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Proust. These were maximally dense as narrative worlds and pinnacles of the realist movement. Subsequent works could not maintain the density of narrative realism, and subsequently narrative worlds needed to break apart and become dissociated. Play becomes a dominant theme and operation within these. Ryan compares games and language, where the terms of games do not fit easily into the literal sense of narrative.

Ryan compares each of Callois’ types of play to texts. This works in terms of reader expectations. In modern and postmodern narratives, narrative rules shift from ludus to paidia, as systems move to subvert rules.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorRyan, Marie-Laure
TitleNarrative as Virtual Reality
Tagsnarrative, simulation, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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