Archive: March, 2009

Poetry and Adaptation

[Research] (03.31.09, 9:41 pm)

I am about to look at Catullus, which is on my reading list. I am pretty familiar with Catullus, but addressing his work requires a larger consideration of adaptation and poetry as a whole.

Poetry tends to have a special place in the spectrum of human expressions. Poetry implies pure expression in the clearest sense. It is a distillation of some intention or meaning. What does it mean then to adapt poetry?

Adaptation rarely occurs between poetry and other media. Instead, what must occur is extension. Poetry alone lacks the concrete elements of narrative, but does include the visual descriptive elements that might be found in images. Poetry may be interpreted from these forms, since poetry is a distillation, and can find the relevant substance or essence in something and extract it. Poetry is refined and worked over, meticulously formatted, worked, and reworked.

It is possible to examine the relationships between poetry and other media. I will look at examples of nonpoetic text, the image, the moving image (film, for example), and finally games.

A predominant theme in considering the relationship between poetry and other media is ekphrasis. Ekphrasis is a rhetorical device, it aims to relate one work of art to another by describing its essence and form (Wikipedia). This may be thought of as a description and extension of the original. Ekphrasis is therefore closely related to adaptation, but is meant to be used synergetically with the original.


Nonpoetic text, the novel especially, is historically about realism. It is about fleshing out the conceptual into a world that is real and rich. In this sense it is the antithesis of poetry, yet the concept of a poem might inspire and form the foundation of a written text. Frequently novels have been written that take lines of poems (or verse, at least) as titles. The Sound and the Fury is a good example. While in these cases, the resulting work is not an adaptation in any literal sense, the work may be considered as having been spun from (or through) the original source.

The Image

Images are often the subject of poetry. Many paintings, especially in the Romantic era were inspired by poems. Poetry is often derived from naturalist images as well. The close relationship between poetry and painting is best felt in the Romantic period, where literature and art were heavily affected by classical influences. The painting in this case may adopt the values of elegance of visual forms. However, unlike the short, succinct dimensions of poetry, painting was instead wide and spacious, complex and rich. While poetry is meant to evoke rich images using few words, an actual image can therefore compliment, but not be exchanged with poetry. Abstract visual art more strongly shares the dimensions of starkness that visually rich paintings lack.

To use an information metaphor, a poem is highly compressed, whereas an image is decompressed. In this I will consider images to be things that are primarily corporeal and nondigital (but even digital images may contain detail at nearly imperceptible depths). Images are often treated lossily, they may be viewed from distance, up close, and are often so rich that they may contain more detail than can be perceived with any one view. Often, an image might contain detail inadvertently placed by the artist, nearly imperceptible, but part of the whole. The relationship between image and poem is much like that between poetry and text, but while text may be losslessly reproduced (in most cases, translation excluded), images retain an issue of depth.

To compare the relationship between adaptation from image to poem, it might be worth comparing the poem to the process that is used to create the image. In Romantic or classical painting, the content might involve references to mythology, use of symbols, and use of color or material to deliberate effect. While the resulting form is dense, beneath it exists a language. This language might be especially simple, as is the case in poetry, where the process is about some core and essential concept. The most clear example of this is Jackson Pollock, whose painting is entirely about his process.

Moving Images

Film, and the moving image in general, initially seem to exacerbate the problem of the depth and complexity of the image. I think that the contrary is the case, that the image is made less deep by extension through time. Casting the image in time instead emphasizes the role of the underlying language. While people routinely look closely into images to discover details, this is more rare with moving images. Details that are important are placed temporally appearing only briefly instead of existing hidden amidst other details in space. In film, the language of the moving image becomes established significantly by cutting and the strategic rearrangement of time. In this sense, the moving image may have some core message or meaning that exists articulated by its visual and temporal metaphors.


The virtues of poetry are generally brevity and elegance. This immediately strikes a chord with programmers (and mathematicians). Programmers tend to have a value of brevity and elegance within code. Elegance in verse and code are both subjective and up to interpretation, but both tend to be readily identifiable. The relationship between code and poetry has not gone unnoticed, but efforts made to unite them have rarely been successful.

Mechanics in games can share similar features of elegance and simplicity. Board games and other (ludologically focused) games tend to value simple rules that lead to complex and elegant play. Lauded examples of these are Go, Chess, Tetris, Conway’s Game of Life (though this is a system rather than a real game), and the Prisoner’s Dilemma (though this is more of a situation or moment than a game). These tend to express relationships and situations that are mathematically interesting, but as such, and despite their elegance, the subject of these mechanics alone rarely have intersections with the space of poetry.

Semiotically speaking, words too have no meaning until we associate meanings to them via reference. In this sense, a game only made of rules has no meaning until elements of the game are associated with the real world. However, because games are cultural artifacts beyond their rules alone, this process of association is made more easy. Rules themselves are denotated objects, they are used within games and thus have meanings associated with them. To say that “love is a zero sum game” has meaning because the mathematical and game theoretic term “zero sum” means something. Likewise, there are genres of games with their own tropes, conventions, features, and implications. Thus connecting a game to some other concept via reference connects all of its tropes and implications as well.

I would argue that existing genres of games may be alluring but are not a viable language for poetic reference. Rather, behind the rules of games are systems, and it is these systems that has the greatest potential for distilled expression. The process of doing this is something like finding the system behind the poem, or behind the image of the poem, and then identifying and defining procedural rules for it.

This leads to a new predicament. What is the system behind a poem?

Sheri Ray Graner: Gender Inclusive Game Design

[Readings] (03.31.09, 1:04 pm)

Females and Machines

This first chapter examines the relationship between gender and machines. The fact that the game industry caters to boys aged 13-25 can be traced to deeper cultural influences that affect how girls perceive computers. There is an attitude that girls do not want to have fun by playing computer games, and this leads to a larger cultural understanding that the only type of software that women might buy for themselves is productivity software. One of the suggested reasons for this is that girls are usually given only secondary access to technology, this leads to a compounding of attitudes and also a prevalence of boys doing game development. If girls cannot have fun with games, they will be less comfortable, and less adapted to working with computers later on.

Three elements of design seem to be at the forefront of how to design for female audiences. In general, girls prefer activities to goals, to have the computer as a collaborator and not a foe, and have negative consequences allow recovery rather than punishment.

Conflict and Conflict Resolution Styles in Game Design

Ray suggests an interesting idea that gender inclusive designs should allow for indirect competition and nontraditional conflict resolution. Conflict poses an interesting role within games, because conflict tends to be worked into their definition. However, the types of conflict predominantly used in games are violent, and this (I think) is because it is easy to depict. This has become prevalent enough though that designers construe all conflict (and hence all games) as requiring violent conflict.

A similar issue exists with competition. Direct competition involves directly preventing other players (or agents) from winning or achieving an objective. Frequently girls will avoid and shy away from interpersonal competition. Ray gives an example of a focus testing session done by Her Interactive where boys and girls played an early title, but there were not enough computers to go around. The boys would attempt to crowd out the girls, and the girls tended to give up control and withdraw (or standing over the boys shoulders and watching), later articulating that it is not worth fighting over. Ray suggests that the lesson to learn from this is to enable indirect competition, where players can succeed independently and not interfere with each other.

A final observation is of another market research experiment done by Her Interactive in 1995. In this, high school girls were asked to play fighting games, and then were asked what they thought of them. The girls did not like the games, but the reasons they gave were that there was no reason or context for the violence. They did not find the violence itself distasteful, but lost interest in it quickly.

Stimulation and Entertainment

Ray presents an interesting argument that entertainment is all about physiological stimulation. Males and females are wired to respond to stimulus differently. She explains that this difference emerged in humankind’s origination in hunter-gatherer societies. The roles of hunting (occupied by males) demanded response to visual stimuli. The role of women was centered around childbirth and child raising, necessary to sustain the tribe. This role requires powerful emotional responses.

The first thing to do realize from this observation is that games should be emotionally stimulating. Part of the solution to this is the development of a backstory, a story that explains the histories of characters and what their relationships are to each other. This ensures that there will be a groundwork and context for emotional relationships and understanding. The second thing that Ray suggests is to present mutually beneficial situations between the player and other in-game characters. Doing so incorporates ideas of interdependence within game mechanics (something used to great effect in Ico, for instance).

Reading Info:
Author/EditorRay, Sheri Graner
TitleGender Inclusive Game Design: Expanding the Market
Tagsfeminism, games, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

Andrew Rollings and Earnest Adams on Game Design

[Readings] (03.30.09, 11:12 pm)

I want to look at this book in two respects. The first is as the book was intended, for application to the design of my lofty Pride and Prejudice game idea. In this sense, I will take the authors advice as it was intended to be received. The second dimension is as a critical view of game design as viewed from the industry. This is not a theoretical text, but a trade text, intended to be applied to the practice of game design. As a work that examines the practice of making games, it deserves critical attention.

The first thing I am really interested in that the authors describe is the relationship between game design and art. While the big name designers tend to be considered artists, the actual practice of making games and doing game design is about craftsmanship. Artistry is about expression, and it is true that games do involve expression (as does nearly any real craft), but the bulk of the work and focus is on the actual craft itself. I think that there is a spectrum between artistry and craftsmanship, between expression and technique, but but the craft side is much more important than generally is acknowledged to be. The idea of crafting also suggests that game design is a process, a skill that may be evaluated and judged, and one that must be improved and developed by practice.

As has been the case recently, my notes stop a little short. The reason for this is that after the chapter on storytelling, the book discusses characters (the discussion of which is better handled in Isbister), and then gets into technical and gritty issues regarding gameplay. There is a brief discussion on moral challenges which is interesting, but my attitudes on moral systems in games have been firmly established. The part following this is a detailed discussion of existing game genres.

What Is Game Design?

The authors present game design as depending on three main supports: core mechanics, storytelling, and interactivity. The core mechanics are the science of the game, the mathematical dimension that form the absolute bedrock upon which the game must stand. Core mechanics are so integral to a game that they often become invisible, pervasive to the point at which their absence becomes notable. As such, core mechanics tend to be the least questioned or developed dimensions of games, to much detriment.

Storytelling as described by the authors is primarily used as a means to create a dramatic arc, which keeps attention and modulates the flow of the experience. As such, the narrative is not the end of a game, it is instead instrumental, the means to producing an experience. I do not think I agree with this approach to narrative, as there is certainly more to narrative than drama.

Interactivity is used to apply to everything that the player can perceive and affect. The interactivity thus lives in visual representations, audio, cues and feedback, as well as the buttons and interface that structure the player’s means of affecting the world. Interactivity is posed as separate from the core mechanics, because the core mechanics govern the math that is internal, while the interactivity governs the user engagement. I think this separation is a little arbitrary, but it can make sense if we view the three pillars as subject to different degrees of intersection. For example, interactivity in Wario Ware games might be considered to overlap significantly with the mechanics.

Game Concepts

Focusing on practice and production, the authors look at some of the basic formal elements necessary in games. These are the setting in which the game takes place, the model of interaction, and the perspective the player has. These qualities lend themselves quickly to generic classifications. Looking further, these can reveal the modes of interaction and behavior, and the levels of realism. The ultimate goal of making games is entertainment. Successful entertainment requires working between audience expectations and the formal game elements. The ultimate and deciding factors for success in this case is economical, how many people buy the game. However, there is also a tradeoff: the idea is to find an audience and entertain it really well.

The authors describe the genres of games (and in fact spend the entire second part of the book exploring them). Genres are stable and used because of what they have in common in terms of their formal qualities, and with the types of audiences who play them, and their reasons for doing so. I find the discussion of genres somewhat stiffling, but their placement makes sense within this volume, as genres exist due to the reasons of marketing, audience recognition, reviews, and retail. Despite the capacity for games to extend beyond the narrow spaces of genres (and they do, especially in independent titles), it is remarkable how ingrained genres are.

Game Settings and Worlds

One of the core reasons behind creating coherent game worlds is to establish a sense of harmony. This is harmony between the world, mechanics, and player. The effect of achieving this is something like suspension of disbelief or immersion, but does not fall within the trappings of having belief of sense of presence. The essence of harmony is an emotional resonance. Examples of games with good harmony are Myst, Half-Life, and Tetris. Games with good harmony tend to be very long lived.

I tend to think of harmony as arising out of a consistency between the in-game world and the fictional world that is being represented by the game. Looking at parts of game worlds, the authors examine the very technical essences required for constructing games. This means the dimension of the game space, how it is perceived and navigated, how objects are represented and distinguished, what the boundaries are and how to deal with them, how time works for the different elements of gameplay, and so on. The authors continue and discuss aesthetic, emotional, and moral dimensions of game worlds, which all emerge from how the model of the game responds to the player activity, and how the player responds to the behavior of the model.

Storytelling and Narrative

The authors turn in this chapter to Campbell’s monomyth, and then to Christopher Vogler’s “A Practical Guide to the Hero’s Journey.” The monomyth is used as foundation for all game plots. The authors defend the model in that it is meant to be a form, not a fomula, and that the term “hero” can be applied to female as well as male characters. This is somewhat upsetting since Campbell’s monomyth is expressly aimed at male stories. Female narratives are inherently excluded from this model (whether or not the heroes of the stories may in fact be heroines). While the structure is not meant to be a formula, the fact that it is presented as form suggests that while not all games that use the monomythic structure may be successful, it suggests that all successful games must employ the monomyth.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorRollings, Andrew and Adams, Ernest
TitleOn Game Design
Tagsspecials, games
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogic Imagination

[Readings] (03.30.09, 11:46 am)

The Dialogic Imagination is Mikhail Bakhtin’s examination of the novel. The book describes the novel as a new genre, one that is relatively new and immature. This is despite being written in the 1930s, when we would normally think of the novel as being much more stable. Bakhtin nonetheless saw the novel as new and unique among genres, because of its capacity to incorporate material from other genres, and reformulate and parody them. There are many powerful analogies that can be made between Bakhtin’s study of the novel and digital media. The digital too is young and immature, and like the novel it has the capacity to incorporate, extend, and parody other media. It does this the same way that the novel does, by revealing the structure and patterns of the other genres and media. The digital is uniquely gifted in this fashion, as it can operationalize these rules and reveal their capacities and limitations.

In this work, Bakhtin introduces his ideas of dialogism, which is his approach to intertextuality and the property of a work existing in a constant dialogue with its context. This may be seen as a dialogue between languages, between the language of the text and the languages that make up the world in which the text exists, that the text describes. I would probably call “languages” as he describes them to be “models” instead, as they involve similar terms of particular treatments, interpretations, and understandings of the world. Another term for the complex network of languages within which any text exists is heteroglossia. The term heteroglossia literally means having different languages, but it may be thought of as a state of many interpretations under which a single word may be understood. Bakhtin is reacting to the movement of linguistics that he sees as forgetting the inherent heteroglot nature of language. This probably means Saussurian linguistics, but applies much more strongly to Chomskian context free grammars.

There is a glossary written by the translators which gives a definition of heteroglossia (partly transcribed; p. 428):

The base condition governing the operation of meaning in any utterance. It is that which insures the primacy of context over text. At any given time, in any given place, there will be a set of conditions–social, histoiracal, meteorological, physiological–that will insure that a word uttered in that place and at that time will have a meaning different than it would have under any other conditions; all utterances are heteroglot in that they are fucntions of a matrix of forces practically impossible to recoup, and therefore impossible to resolve.

My actual notes are rather brief, and I have focused on only two sections: Epic and Novel, and Discourse in the Novel.

Epic and Novel

The focus of this is on the study of the novel, and what it means to study the novel. It is a new genre and its skeleton is flexible, and not hard. The novel has the potential to continue to grow and shape itself beyond what it is now. This may be compared to older genres such as the epic and tragedy, which are old and stable. To extend the metaphor, their skeletons are hard, thus they cannot grow beyond what they are. One may even go so far as to say that their skeletons are brittle, that extension too far will quickly shake a work beyond the reaches of the genre.

The novel gets on poorly with other genres, as it exposes their inner workings and makes use of their forms, incorporating them into itself (similarly to digital media). This absorption not only furthers the genre of the novel, but it also changes and recontextualizes the original genres as well. Similarly to arguments made about adaptation, as well as transmedia, when the novel as a form makes use of other genres, those genres must then be understood in context of how they have been adapted and extended by the novel.

On the subject of adaptation, Bakhtin describes the process of novelization, which serves to make the original genre more open, flexible, and self reflective. It is interesting to compare the idea of simulation and adaptation, as this poses a very similar threat. The novel has the power to expose patterns, show inner lives, and reveal new perspectives in a work, and the existence of a novelized work (whether the original is theatre, epic, film, comic, or so on) requires that the original be considered in context of these perspectives. In a sense, the novel exposes a new canon. Bakhtin focuses on the broader reaches that the novel has over literature: “In many respects the novel has anticipated, and continues to anticipate, the future development of literature as a whole. In the process of becoming the dominant genre, the novel sparks renovation of all other genres, it infects them with its spirit of process and inconclusiveness.” (p. 7) What is interesting about this is that digital media, and simulation especially, has the capacity to do this very thing. It too has the capacity to reveal new perspectives and change how other media and genres understand themselves.

Bakhtin reveals three properties of the novel as a genre. (p. 11)

  1. Its stylistic three dimensionality, which is linked with the multi-languaged consciousness realized in the novel;
  2. The radical change it effects in the temporal coordinates of the literary image;
  3. The new zone opened by the novel for structuring literary images, namely the zone of maximal contact with the present (with contemporary reality) in all its openendedness.

The epic has three properties as well: its subject is the absolute past, its source is national tradition, and it is separated from reality by an epic distance. While the epic is about the past, the novel is about the moment. Within the novel time is free and flexible, but is fixed and absolute in the epic. The epic world is finished and fixed, it cannot be re-thought without breaking the epic form.

Epic authority and distance is destroyed by the elements of humor and laughter, revealing the reality and human nature, which breaks the image of pure greatness and potential. The epic presents an image of wholeness, but the comic reveals the inconsistencies and incompleteness. The novel has been the agent of this change, picking up other genres and dragging them to reality.

Discourse in the Novel

I am going to quote the opening paragraph to this essay as it is a good summary:

The principal idea of this essay is that the study of verbal art can and must overcome the divorce between an abstract “formal” approach and an equally abstract “ideological” approach. Form and content in discourse are one, once we understand that verbal discourse is a social phenomenon–social throughout its entire range and in each and every of its factors, from the sound image to the furthest reaches of abstract meaning. (p. 259)

This essay argues against the pure stylistic analysis of the novel, explaining that the context of the novel is important, even primary, in the understanding of its meaning. This context is developed socially, and thus the novel is a combination of social and individual speech. “The novel can be defined as a diversity of social speech types (sometimes even diversity of languages) and a diversity of individual voices, artistically organized.” (p. 262)

Language (spoken or written) is subject to an intersection of not only individual dialects, but also social-ideological languages. Literary language is heteroglot–stratified into many languages. Spoken utterances exist at a strange intersection between forces that aim to reveal and increase this stratification (centrifugal forces), and other forces which aim to condense the speech back into a coherent and unified whole (centripetal forces). The fact that both of these exist means that there is a dialogue between the individual speech and the social speech, between the different languages. Bakhtin explains that stylistic analysis has given no acknowledgement to this dialogue.

In analysis of models and systems, this idea of dialogue between individual and systems has a great deal of potential. In simulation and adaptation of fictional worlds, many systems are being considered, and dialogue must take place between each of them. There are the systems of the world of the author, the world of the characters in the author’s work, the world of the adaptors, the world of the readers, the medium, and the world conveyed via the rules of the simulation. In this sense, the adaptation process is not a matter of hit or miss, or of fidelity, but rather a negotiation between languages and systems to find some reconciliation of meaning.

The discussion reveals the dialogic nature of words and language. This starts with the observations that languages already exist and that things have names within those languages. Linguists tend to forget that language is built on top of existing language, and must be in some fort of dialogue and relationship with it. There is no longer a state where there is no such thing as a thing that does not have some sort of word or phrase already used to identify it. Thus, if something recieves a new term to identify it, that new term must be understood in relationship to the old ones. It is easy to forget this, especially with respect to programming, where the arbitrariness of language becomes absolute. With Bakhtin’s advice, we might remember that even ideas depicted by simulation have words, and the language we use to interact with the simulation is in dialogue with the language that we use to build the simulation.

Bakhtin compares authoritarian discourse and internally persuasive discourse. Authoritarian discourse binds the word to power and authority, and demands recognition. It aims to be considered whole and indivisible. The whole of the word and its associated rhetoric are united in autoritarian discourse. Internally persuasive discourse is incorporated, at least partially, into one’s own world. It has the capacity to awaken and open up new words. The novel is a system for bringing different languages in contact with one other, in doing so, it forms hybrids. In this way, the novel can be considered a tool for breaking apart authoritarian discourse, as it breaks down wholes and redevelops them into hybrids. The novel must be understood in the context of heteroglossia, how the novel has situated itself with respect to other languages.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorBakhtin, Mikhail
TitleThe Dialogic Imagination
Tagsphilosophy, sociology, specials, narrative
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

Mark Stephen Meadows: Pause and Effect

[Readings] (03.28.09, 4:32 pm)

Meadows addresses the question of interactive narrative from a perspective of visual arts. Meadows himself is an artist and has done a great deal of experimental work with digital media. His approach is strongly reminiscent of Barbara Stafford, and focuses on the roles of the visual and spatial in constructing narratives. The essence of narrative, in his terms, is the communication of a perspective. This approach is interesting and useful from my understanding of models as conveying a particular view and way of looking at the world. His ultimate resolution though seems to describe a spatially navigable world (with narrative environmentally embedded), which seems an anticlimax, narrowing something which could be made more broad.

My focus in looking through the book is on the first part. This is where Meadows summarizes and explains the dimensions and elements of interactive narrative most fully. The remainder of the book describes the relationship between story and image, as well as story and space. Meadows is interested in narrative extensions, particularly alternate reality games, and includes some discussion of these, but my summary does not cover these in depth.


Narrative is about conveying perspective. Traditional narrative conveys one perspective. Meadows’ goal is to expan the notion of narrative to include multiple perspectives (as seen in interactive narrative), and also to broaden the ideas of interaction design, and to emphasize the role of imagery within narrative.

Modern narratives are transmedial and multimodal, weaving text (print), image, video, web sites, games, puzzles, and so on. Meadows gives examples of magazines, television, film, commercial video games, as well as alternate reality games. Gradually, narratives come to exist in many forms and are disseminated over many forms of media. The strongest and most striking example is the alternate reality game, which is used as a form of marketing, but builds up a narrative universe that interweaves with the narrative of the marketed product. These are all described as narrative forms because they convey perspectives, but the perspectives are many and are interwoven.

There are two types of perspective: emotional and visual. These are deeply linked in our cognitive understanding of the world. The relationship between visual and emotional perspective has been explored for a long time in visual art. Meadows gives examples of renaissance painting, specifically Giotto, who obsessively explored the relationships between the perspectives of the subject of a painting and its viewer. Meadows describes Giotto’s process as heralding a “perspectivist” approach, which depicts both the dimensional and emotional perspective of a subject. This approach is dependent on the viewer’s position with respect to the painting. To capture the right moment, the viewer must physically move to the place at which it is possible to best see the work. This lends the process of finding the perspective out to the viewer. Like interactive narrative and games, this activity requires active engagement.

One of the effects of this process is that there exists one correct view of a work, a correct perspective to see, where everything will rightly fall into place. In this sense, interpretation is a regulated and moderated activity. It does entail more freedom than being simply handed a perspective, which makes the perspectivist view a revolutionary one in the face of the authority of the church. In renaissance painting, the church frowned upon unapproved and unsanctioned interpretations, making the act of interpretation a political one. In this sense, there is still a right perspective, but a conflict of power over to whom that perspective belongs.

The perspectivist approach challenges the authority of meaning and the objective interpretations. The elements of perspective are the relationships between foreground and background, context to decision, and the situatedness of artifact and meaning. These elements are common and integral to interactive narrative. Interacttive narrative, in this view, is like a painting in the sense that the reader has the capacity to navigate around it and see inside of it in different ways. This does not seem to include in great degree the internal dynamics of the artifact, though.

Meadows makes an extended argument that software and narrative follow the same rules, and that software can be understood as narrative. This is done in the context that it is authored, read, follows a plot (which in software are use case scenarios), and makes use of a set of metaphors. Meaning in software, as in narrative, is co-created. I find this argument troubling, though. Yes, connections may be legitimately darawn, but I think that it is not as useful to view software as narrative. The effects, contexts, uses, and practices surrounding narrative as compared to (arbitrary) software are incongruous and extremely different. The properties of formal structures (plot or use cases), metaphors, co creation of meaning, and so on, I would argue belongs neither to narrative or software, but are general properties of human cognition and engagement with artifacts.

Meadows describes interaction as fundamentally about communication, which is governed by three principles. The greater the depth of these, the richer and “better” the communication is. Again, this is something I find problematic because there are many kinds of communication, and not all of them aspire toward interactivity. For example, shouting to alert people in a building of an electrical fire ascribes to none of the principles of deep communication, but that does not make it less meaningful, important, or worse than a fluid conversation. The three principles are:

  1. Input / Output – Feedback and responsiveness. The depth and degrees of channels by which input and output occur with the system.
  2. Inside / Outside – Involves a linking between sign and idea. Inside denotes experience, feel, and meaning, while outside covers design, feel, and symbols.
  3. Open / Closed – An open system will come to include more via interaction, it is open toward accommodating additional state and input, and is wholly responsive. An open system should get better with use, whereas a closed system is fixed and cannot change.

There are four stages to interaction:

  1. Observation: the reader reads and understands the state of the system
  2. Exploration: the reader determines what can and cannot be done within the system, and plans an action
  3. Modification: the reader/interactor changes the system
  4. Reciprocal Change: the system makes a change on the reader (feedback?)

Meadows examines some dimensions of design concerns, and the dilemmas that interactivity poses to design. Design requires the treatment of both information and time. This involves decisions, but poses a conflict regarding the role of the author versus the interactor in constructing the narrative.

The modes of interactive narrative were heralded by the episodic story structure, which changes the modes of narration, perspectives, and identification. Episodic stories enable a shifting kind of identification, which often involves a cyclical structure, where each episode returns (at least partly) to its point of origination. This is like interactive narrative in the sense that the interaction has the capacity to return to an original state. It is a feature of all software to be resettable. Meadows gives a definition: “An interactive narrative is a time-based representation of character and action in which a reader can affect, choose, or change the plot. The first-, second-, or third-person characters may actually be the reader. Opnion and perspective are inherent. Image is not necessary, but likely.” (p.62)

Eventually, Meadows gives a review of several kinds of structures for interactive narratives, which may be modal, modulated, or open plot structures. These are presented as networks with nodes as decision points between them. One irritating thing about peoples’ understandings of interactive narratives is that they always involve node-graph models. These tend to almost always produce a spatial understanding and representation of the story. They convey that story is necessarily spatial. I disagree with this. Understanding decisions and paths is a property of analysis, not design. One characteristic about these designs is that they portray the narrative as soley the path or traversal along the nodes as the essential part of the narrative. While I agree that the process of navigating through the world is important, this seems to be omitting the importance of being in the world. When the plots are distinguished simply as graphs, this says that the two plots are different, and that the interpreter makes this judgment and distinction. This undercuts the value of the reader’s interpretation of the space. The reader may see there as being decisions where there may be none in the graph, or not see decisions that are in the graph. The reader may be actively forming attitudes and opinions that are not expressible within the graph structure. When decisions are spatialized, it is often represented that the story world is just a space that can be traversed, where decisions are navigational (as in the “open plot structure”, where each arrow is a double arrow). This is distressing, because if a decision may easily be undone, or if it is possible to navigate around it, then the decision is meaningless.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorMeadows, M.S.
TitlePause and Effect: The Art of Interactive Narrative
Tagsdigital media, narrative, cybertext, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

Berger and Luckman: The Social Construction of Reality

[Readings] (03.27.09, 10:28 am)

This book straddles a dubious boundary between philosophy and sociology. The subject of the book is the sociology of knowledge, and, from the title, it should be understood that reality is socially constructed. The point of this is a surprising and powerful argument against introverted approaches to philosophy, suggesting that the deep philosophical questions of “what is real” and “what is meaningful” depend not on trancendental truths, but on communities of individuals. Along the way, the authors describe some progressive arguments regarding the processes of institutionalization and deinstitutionalization. My approach to the book is to think of it from the perspective of models and how people imagine and percieve systems. As such, my focus is primarily on the topic of the construction of reality and the objective reality of society. I leave out the final chapter on society as subjective reality, but it should be noted that this is still important despite my neglect. Wikipedia also has a very useful summary of the book.

It should be noted that the book was published originally in 1966, and many of the attitudes and positions the book is being used to challenge are less dominant now. Particularly, this is the case with the transcendental philosophy of knowledge that is criticized early on.

Introduction: The Problem of the Sociology of Knowledge

This book is an approach to reality and knowledge that is in contrast with (and challenges) the philosophical dominance and interpretation of the problems of knowledge and reality. The authors wish to provide some medium between the “man on the street” view of reality and the perpsective of the philosopher. Some of this is dependent on ideas of what may be taken for granted. For the “man on the street,” reality is simply there and can be taken for granted. For the philosopher, nothing may be taken for granted, and it is necessary to question everything to uncover fundamental and eternal truths. The role of the sociologist is to challenge these views and assert that meaning occurs to people, and is dependent on the group who is percieving reality. The sociologist knows that different groups have different perceptions, but these perceptions must be acknowledged (instead of being questioned to yield absolute truths). The sociology of knowledge is concerned with the social construction of reality. In context, this is a rather bold claim.

Many of the base ideas of the sociology of knowledge come from German scholars, most notably Max Scheler (who originated the term), but ideas also come from Marx, who argued “that man’s consciousness is derived by his social being.” Scheler uses some specialized terms, notably “ideal factors” (Idealfaktoren) and “real factors” (Realfaktoren). The authors explain: “That is, the “real factors” regulate the conditions under which certain “ideal factors” can appear in history, but cannot affect the content of the latter. In other words, society determines the presence (Dasein) but not the nature (Sosein) of ideas.” (p. 8) In Scheler’s view, human knowledge and experience is ordered by society. This order informs how the individual sees the world, and because it is socially pervasive, it seems natural. This way of looking is the “relative-natural world view” (relativnatürliche Weltanschauung), a concept which remains very important. It is important to note how the descriptions used here are about perspective and views, which are similar to my approach to models. After Scheler, Mannheim and Talcott Parsons have been heavily influential in the sociology of knowledge.

Deciding scope, the authors explain that: “The sociology of knowledge must concern itself with everything that passes for “knowledge” in society.” (p. 14-15) This is meant to broaden the focus beyond mere ideas, which is the subject of some other approaches. The authors challenge the intellectual distance of theory about the fomulations of reality and knowledge. These are far removed from the day to day concerns that constitute peoples’ realities. The authors take on social reality comes from George Herbert Mead. THe authors see the inquiry as also pushing for a new direction within the scope of sociology itself, to understand the knowledge and realities of socieities.

The Foundations of Knowledge in Everyday Life

Everyday life is interpreted: “Everyday life presents itself as a reality interpreted by men and subjectively meaningful to them as a coherent world.” (p. 19) The section examines sociological implications of everyday life. It is intersubjective, also empirical, but it is not scientific. Commonsense understandings are pre-scientific or quasi-scientific, but are functional and pervasive nonetheless. The authors approach to this is phenomenological. Consciousness must be understood as intentional. People form attitudes toward things, have intentions toward them, and understand things through experience and perception. Understanding of how things work comes from these experiences, and operates according to causal logic, but is not scientifically accurate. This is how naive theories of physics become embedded in one’s mind, because they are reinforced by experience.

Everyday life is embodied and immanent. It is organized around the “here” of the body and the “now” of the present (p. 22). Everyday life may be safely assumed as reality, and this is a domain of familiarity and experience defining a world of connected meanings. Things observed are given meanings and fit within the world, so that they can interact and interrelate with each other. This works until there is something problematic that does not fit into the model. The response for dealing with something problematic is to attempt to integrate it, to fit it into the model so that it is not problematic anymore. Another solution, although it is not really discussed, is to broaden the model. Problems seem to lie on the separate and incompatible nature of different realities. The authors describe everday life as paramount, but I disagree, as reality and domain shifts (a stepping out) may be a part of everyday life. Different realities, in this sense, are domains such as theatre or religious ceremony.

Face to face interactions are extremely real in that they are very present in the here and now. However, interactions are made more distant through the application of categories and functional understandings (a bank teller, a European, a stranger). As such, these lead to further degrees of anonymity as a person becomes less understood as an individual and more as a category. This, essentially, makes the other less real, at least in the sense of interaction. By contrast, in interactions that are intimate and face to face the individual becomes immediately important and generalizations are less powerful. This illustrates another sense in which anonymity can be constructed, and leads to a dehumanization. This level of distancing is also important in online interactions, as well as with characters in games. This suggests that a way to encourage identity is to create a sense of the here and now within the social context.

Signs, and by extension language, have the power to be detached from their context. When recorded, a sign indicates some meaning that was, at some point, belonging to a moment, a “here and now.” The sign becomes something that can be removed from its context and carried elsewhere, where it can be observed and understood without the original moment.

The stock of knowledge shapes areas of reality based on the parts of everyday life that one must deal with frequently. The world is structured in routines, all of which are fine until something problematic emerges. The world has its own logic, and is structured according to relevances. Relevances depend on interaction and have social value and meaning. The world of one’s reality is not simply a single unit that exists in detachment, but it is shared, or at least it overlaps with the worlds of others, because everyday life is a shared phenomenon.

Society as Objective Reality

This chapter is concerned with the existence of the institution and how reality is understood objectively in the social context. The argument is reminiscent of Foucault, that institutions form rules and interpretations for understanding; the discourse of an institution is enclosing. The social world leads to habitualization, and gradually, habitualization gives way to institutionalization. Humans are naturally world-0pen, in that they can shift from one world of meaning to another with relative ease. However, institutions are closed, in the sense that the world of meaning communicated by an institution is encompassing and shuts out other worlds. The authors introduce world-closedness earlier in the chapter, in discussion of the worlds of animals, which are limited and cannot be extended or opened to anything else (although animal play might contradict this somewhat). The authors summarize the objective view of society: “Society is a human product. Society is an objective reality. Man is a social product.” (p. 61)

Institutional development involves the formation of logic, but this is not uniform or individually determined. Logic is social and shared. Individuals take part in an institution by developing biographies that are consistent with the system. (This resonates with Holland, as well as Denzin). Roles enable the self to be understood objectively (a la Mead), and are performed (a la Goffman). Roles enable objectification on the count of others, to enable oneself to be percieved as a type or a category, rather than as an individual. Types are necessarily interchangeable (a la Marx?). Roles represent and embody the social order, and are formed by the same process of institutionalization.

Symbolic universes are a level of legitimization of an institution. The authors explain that these universes are products of a gradual objectification, sedimentation, and accumulation of knowledge (p. 97). Their meaning comes from their history. Symbolic universes order and categorize biographic and institutional knowledge.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorBerger, Peter and Luckman, Thomas
TitleThe Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge
Tagsspecials, sociology
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Scott McCloud: Understanding Comics

[Readings] (03.26.09, 5:33 pm)

Comics and games actually have quite a bit in common. They share a common trait that they exist on a level of text and images, and they share the common negative characterization as being childish, valueless, and intended for entertainment only. Games are interesting in comparison because they extend beyond the referential level of iconicity and move into the space of systems. I think that the visual language of comics has a great deal of potential to illustrate meaning from games, especially in terms of relating the complex narrative devices used in adaptations. Games that employ a great deal of text and dialogue (before entirely cinematic cut scenes) have often used conventions of comics to convey this dialogue.

McCloud is an important figure because he sees his work as aiming to legitimize comics, and account for the characteristics of the medium, as separate from the content. He goes through properties of signs and signification, as well as story and discourse, showing and telling. These are principally the concerns of narrative.

It is also worth noting that that the medium of comics has been connected to games for a long time. Early games frequently had in their manuals a short comic that quickly illustrated the narrative gist of the game’s backstory. Furthermore, many game adaptations have come directly from comics, and more recently have come from comics, to film, to games. There thus seems to be an affinity of sorts between the two media, and this may broaden the conception of how adaptations might work.

Setting the Record Straight

McCloud’s first step and goal is to legitimize comics. First he looks to identify what comics are as a medium. He borrows Eisner’s term “sequential art”, but the critiques the definition to find out how to examine it more precisely. The definition he finally settles on is “juxtaposed pictoral and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” His goal is to look at what the essential properties of the medium defined by this definition are, beyond the content that makes up work in the medium.

He reviews some of the historical roots of comics, going as far back to the pre-Colombian Mixtec manuscript describing the exploits of “Ocelot’s Claw.” He indicates that this, the Bayeux tapestry, Egyptian paintings (not hieroglyphs), Trajan’s column, Greek painting, and Japanese scrolls all are comics, and form the historical anchor for the origin of comics.

The definition of comics suggested is important for what it leaves out: The content, genre, and subject matter; the materials and tools; the representational rules and constraints; suggesting that all of these are up for grabs.

The Vocabulary of Comics

Comics use an iconographic language. Icons are referential, but they are not equal to their reference. These depend on a language of metaphors and cultural practices of understanding in order to be correctly understood. McCloud describes this as the process of cartooning, which is amplification through simplification. Cartooning strips images down into their essential meanings.

The reason why this works with comics, McCloud suggests, is because of fundamental properties of human cognition, that depend on interaction and identity formation. People will identify with a very simple cartoon, but see a realistic image as implying an otherness. This simplification process is described as being cognitive and embodied. Self awareness is conducted on simplified terms. For example, driving a car involves projecting one’s awareness onto the whole of the car, not just the self within the car.

Cartoons are thus lifelike because we can extend our consciousness into them. There is a transition from realistic to abstract images that occurs on several levels:

  • complex to simple
  • realistic to iconic
  • objective to subjective
  • specific to universal

Words lie in this as well, as words are the ultimate abstractions. Pictures are received information, but writing is perceived information. This introduces a cut along the spectrum of perception to interpretation. A realistic face transitions to a very iconic one, moving from more perceptive to more interpretive, but a description of a face moving from a word to a paragraph moves from simple reception to more active perception. However, moving in this axis, the level of iconicity raises but then declines.

The whole of this defines a system of three axes: picture, reality, and meaning. Comic artists fall within wide ranges of this space through the characteristics of their work.

Blood in the Gutter

Closure is the property of people to complete the missing meaning of something, for instance, imagining that the other side of an object exists when only one side is visible. This is a cognitive property, but also enables images to be understood via small cues. Closure is performed temporally via the spaces (the gutter) in comics, in between panels. This is incidentally the same as the “fill in in the gap” property of narrative in general. To make meaning between a sequence of images, active participation of the reader is necessary to construct meaning and complete the act.

McCloud defines six types of closures:

  1. Moment to moment
  2. Action to action
  3. Subject to subject
  4. Scene to scene
  5. Aspect to aspect
  6. Non sequitur

By far and away, (2) is the most common in American and European comics, but by contrast, (5) is very common and culturally important in Japanese comics. McCloud suggests that this is because Japanese and Eastern culture in general strongly values intervals, with pauses playing an important role in the whole. This indicates an important valuing of minimalism. Western culture is more focused on action and continuity.

Overall, closure is a negotiation between the seen and unseen.

Time Frames

The visual form of the panel has an effect on the perception of time of that panel. Events and actions cause time to stretch and play out over distance. Silent panels illustrate a paused moment, or alternately stretches of time in which nothing happens. McCloud gives a review of the panel language at a technical level, with closed and unclosed panels and bleeds each having expressive qualities. Comics are a still medium that can represent motion, and there are several ways of doing so, by employing different perspectives.

Time is enormously important in narrative theory, and the dimensions that are introduced by comics are really quite astounding.

Living in Line

Lines are used to express mood and evoke senses (this derives partly from Kandinsky, who was interested in the idea of a line being able to stimulate all five senses). Lines are expressive forms, especially around faces. The line has a style and expressivity, which has the capacity to evoke mood and emotion.

Show and Tell

The focus of this section is on words and the image, but it could be extended to include showing and telling in the broader narrative sense. Historically, showing and telling originated together, but became separated over time. With focus of abstract and expressionist art, they turn back together again. A collision of these occurs with Magritte, who indicates the conflict between words and images.

Showing and telling exist in terms of visual versus technical emphasis. McCloud gives an example where a scene is illustrated purely visually, and then accompanied with text, or is only text. Each of these conveys its own meaning, but the combination of image and text causes the reader to evaluate the image in context of the text and the text in context of the image. In this, they become interdependent, the meaning produced by both wholly dependent on the two together.

Showing and telling may trade off, and the ultimate form of comics involves a balance between the two. What is most significant and powerful about comics is the way in which the two may be combined and juxtaposed.

McCloud does not examine in depth the ideas of the conflict between showing and telling literary form itself. Indeed, the text presented in comics tends to automatically assume the role of “telling” because the text is presented clearly and may be simply heard, whereas the image is what must be visually seen. To mix a narrative showing with an image becomes confusing, and the image takes on the role of the illustration, or often the “interpretation” of the textual scene.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorMcCloud, Scott
TitleUnderstanding Comics
Tagsmedia theory, specials, narrative
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

T.L. Taylor: Play Between Worlds

[Readings] (03.24.09, 12:13 pm)

Finding New Worlds

The opening describes Taylor’s experience at an Everquest conference. She explains this as a strange and shifting environment with a mix of real and virtual identities, and a blurring of the in game world with the out of game reality. There is an intertextual nature in the space, where the convention bleeds between real life and the concepts and themes of virtuality. It also blurs between what is part of the game and not part of it.

Taylor argues that the social connections and shared knowledge are central to the individual’s experience. She investigates social spaces, social systems of Everquest, but considers the types of players to be not clear cut or uniform (as suggested by Bartle). She explains her experience in character creation as being a process of identity formation and exploration. She chooses a gnome because both gnomes and humans have the least overtly sexualized female avatars, and, wanting to be adventurous, chooses the gnome over the human. She chooses to be a necromancer because of its appeal as referencing some of the lore evoked in the documentation.

Character choice determines social role and function, and ultimately how player is involved in the world.

Explains that process of ethnography in virtual world is playing in between worlds, because the ethnographer is stuck within between these multiple spaces. Advocates a kind of immersion, but this is not only within the game world, but also the fan made sites and forums.

Gaming Lifeworlds: Social Play in Persistent Environments

Taylor gives a review of the origin and history of MMOGs, through tabletop, then to MUDs, then to 2d and 3d worlds.

She explains that the mechanics of the world result in certain social practices and dependencies being created. Examples of this is the yell command and the corpse run, and the obligations created of players as they interact with the world– ie, a player is supposed to shout “train” if they are running away from a series of mobs which are in pursuit. This is interesting because it is a point with the creation of social obligations. This gradually translates into a much deeper network of social roles and obligations with groups, guilds, and raids.

Economically, these systems lead to certain emergent effects, which in early version of Everquest, resulted in players needing to sell things to each other directly, and thus created a kind of emergent marketplaces. Later, this was changed and led to a much more automated system for trading. This resulted in a cultural shift, where the emergent market districts essentially disappeared.

Beyond Fun: Instrumental Play and Power Gamers

Taylor describes the phenomenon of power gamers, who are gamers who approach the game instrumentally. Her discussion goes over popular negative attitudes by other players, over the blurring of Explorer and Achiever (because power gamers like to push the rules) and the goals and motivations behind them. They have a much more statistical and numerical approach to the game, seeing things as only the numbers, and are tolerant of critique and close scrutiny and analysis of methods.

She presents them in a much more positive light than frequently given to power gamers. Ultimately, power gamers are part of social groups who work around these values and develop repositories of knowledge. Often they are the ones who write FAQs and the like.

Where the Women Are

Women are not generally acknowledged as part of the standard “gamer” demographic, although Taylor notes that women form a substantial portion of the players of online games. Generally, women are not explicitly targeted or marketed to and are frequently actively disenfranchised, but they still are interested in these games. Taylor is interested in why that is the case.

She looks at the types of play that women like to engage in within online games, and finds that the types of play most valued are social and identity oriented. The identity play is about identity experimentation (a la Turkle) and taking on of personas. She notes that all forms of interaction occur through avatars, so even while someone might not think that a player is an elf, they are limited to the interaction with the avatar to form impressions. Because character appearances are limited (it is not uncommon to run across another character with the same face) players must distinguish themselves through dress and name. Avatars enable a kind of identity and gender experimentation that is otherwise inaccessible in everyday life.

Taylor explains that exploration becomes attractive to female players because the exploration of the environment is faced with gender neutral threats. This is in contrast to real life, where threats to exploration are often explicitly gender oriented.

Taylor rejects the suppositions that girls attitudes toward games are indicators of any inherent disposition or biological bias. She criticizes the tendency of researchers to focus on these issues to the exclusion of social and structural factors that have gone into establishing the culture and labels of gamers, which have emerged as explicitly exclusive to women.

A few more examples of play types are given. Players value in-game status (by demonstrating accomplishments), and integrate this in with forum life. Female players make use of a mysterious element that combines femininity with in game status (which may be of a traditionally masculine frame). Combat is often valued because of its collaborative nature, but also can be a ground for expressing aggression. Ultimately, women are still predominantly disenfranchised by the marketing and the projected hypersexualized roles of women in the game.

Taylor concludes the section by looking at design, and cites Brad McQuaid, who was one of the lead designers of Everquest, who purports to design with a color-blind and gender-blind approach. This is something that proves to be problematic, as a “blind” approach invariably privileges one group as the default. Taylor emphasizes the value and importance of designing for women, but challenges the simplistic models put forth by the pink games movement. She explains that greater visibility of gender (not less) in both the game worlds and the design are necessary, and that this requires a sociology of the body.

Whose Game Is This, Anyway?

Taylor goes over a number of emergent phenomena, ranging from the lawsuit between NCSoft and Marvel, the auctioning of in game content, the idea of time spent in game as labor, fan made mods (and extensions), and fanfiction. These each introduce complicated relationships between the users, the game companies, and the idea of property as relates to the online game world. The final resolution to this appears to be that worlds should be co-created between players and designers.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorTaylor, T.L.
TitlePlay Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture
Tagsdigital media, games, cyberculture, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

The Jane Austen Book Club

[Readings] (03.23.09, 12:11 am)

An important thing to note about this is that The Jane Austen Book Club was originally published as a book, and only recently was made into a film. Both book and film were released to a great deal of popularity. According to Wikipedia, the film departs significantly from the actual novel, though. This situation seems to be the case in all adaptations, however. The novel itself is arranged into six chapters, each focusing on one of the characters in the story, and correspondingly on one of Austen’s books.

One of the focus points of the story is an interesting turnabout regarding Jane Austen. Instead of the focus being on the characters, it is really about the readers. The process of reading and interpretation on the part of the readers themselves. This is explained in a good New York Times article.


Opening focuses on urban Californian landscape. We see a panorama of population with cell phones, cars, computers, shouting and full of confusion. This appears to be an expression of all the things that make the modern age different from Jane Austen’s world. There seems to actually be quite a lot with people’s interaction with and frustration with technology.

The opening gives various shots of the characters in their various lives, giving a very brief glimpse of each one of them. After the montage, we have segments focusing on the characters in more detail.

The characters first meet up at a funeral for someone (who is revealed to be a dog). An early interaction is between one of the characters (Allegra; who happens to be gay) and her father, who emphasizes the need for human connections, which suggests a connection to the pressure of marriage. (Hinting perhaps at ways in which Austen’s world is closer to ours).

There is an encounter between Prudie and her husband Dean, which reveals his  disinterest in her. She is a French teacher and has been awaiting a trip to France with her husband (who would be travelling as part of a business trip). She encounters him in a bar wherin he explains that the trip is off due to his business circumstances. The encounter is shot with his gaze fixed not on her, but on a television screen.

Sylvia later has dinner with her husband Daniel, where he explains that he has been having an affair and that he sees their marriage as ending. He explains that his relationship with the woman, with whom he is having the affair, is non negotiable, and that he won’t give her up. This encounter takes place around his car, and is met with general fumbling with the lock on the car door.

The next scene features some of the characters outside of a movie theatre going to a screening of Mansfield Park. While they are waiting Bernadette begins to have an argument with Prudie (the two have not met). Prudie’s being upset can be traced to her frustration with her husband, but their talking is quickly hashed out by describing the characters in the film. Prudie is upset about the filmic interpretation, and Bernadette jokes that “A little Jane Austen is better than none at all.” The two leave and meet up, Bernadette invites Prudie to the hypothetical book club.

There is a conversation between Sylvia, Allegra, and Jocelyn about the divorce. Jocelyn professes that one can get by without love, Allegra attempts to poses more optimistic and open ended ideas. This frames right away varying different approaches to life and love that are expressed by the characters literary analogues.

Jocelyn meets Grigg while he is attending a science fiction convention. They talk about books, and she invites him (off camera) to the book club.

The first meeting takes place at a starbucks, but begins with some conflicts between the characters. Most significantly occurs between Prudie and Allegra, who start off at each other’s throats. Some of this occurs via disagreements between interpretations, but generally falls into Prudie being oddly upset about things and repeatedly threatening to leave. When Grigg arrives, he seems a confused presence, because of his total lack of familiarity with the books and general silliness.


We see a few scenes with the characters on their own. We see Prudie ogling one of the students in the school that she teaches as he makes out with another student. Sylvia runs into her husband again, and then Sylvia and Jocelyn later discuss the book club meeting on the phone.

The connection to Emma occurs via Jocelyn, who is the emphasis of this section. Jocelyn breeds dogs, and also has been attempting to set Grigg up with Sylvia.

The discussion features the different interpretations of the characters on the novel. Allegra criticizes the chemistry between Emma and Knightley, remarking that it is more understandable that Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax are more in love because they behave badly. Prudie explains that subdued control over romance is more distinguishing of love in Austen’s novels. It is this kind of discussion about moral battleground using the book characters as testing grounds, not for the course of conduct, but for the actual interpretations in the novels. Grigg observes that Knightley only scolds Emma, the woman he loves, and Prudie remarks that men can do whatever they want to the women they love. This is a clear reference to her own relationship. Jocelyn quickly challenges this interpretation. This enables her to make an indirect statement about Prudie’s relationship to her husband without mentioning or even being aware of it directly. There is quite a lot of that.

Mansfield Park

This section has a significant variation from the novel, as Sylvia takes on Mansfield Park in the film, but it is really covered by Prudie in the book.

Prudie’s husband leaves for Detroit and she asks her mother (a somewhat scatterbrained pot smoker; Allegra might remind Prudie of her) to pick her up later. This does not happen, and Prudie is approached by the high school student (who she has been ogling since the beginning of the movie) asks her to help him practice his lines for the play. It is important to note that Mansfield Park involves a play taking place and the protagonists falling in love through first the play acting. The practice that Prudie has with the student swiftly moves into flirting.

Grigg is asked by Jocelyn to take Sylvia out to lunch, but also asks about Allegra. Grigg is confused by this, and thinks that she is trying to set him up with Allegra, and he asks his sister if this is some kind of test.

Sylvia in private discussion with Jocelyn explains that her interpretation of Emma is that the success of a marriage is dependent on its weakest partner, and that her problem has been that Daniel is just that. Daniel is a “wobbler”, like many of the characters in Mansfield Park, whereas Fanny Price is the stable rock of the family.

In discussion, Prudie explains that her interpretation is about the long suffering daughter (who is Fanny Price). The discussion is about how the characters like Fanny Price, as she is solid, but not willing to accept fault in others. The discussion culminates in Sylvia getting upset about her husband (voiced through Fanny Price’s betrayal). After each of the meetings, there is a post-scene where some of the characters depart, and the other charactes talk about the departing ones.

Northanger Abbey

Grigg and Jocelyn go out furniture shopping, and while Grigg tries to inspire some emotion in Jocelyn, she encourages him to take Sylvia for dates. He asks about Persuasion, and Jocelyn immediately launches into an animate explanation of some of the plot. Later on, he takes Jocelyn out to a used book store, and shows her some books and gives a recollection of his childhood and relationships and experiences with science fiction books.

There is an encounter between Sylvia and Daniel. He comes by and attempts to mow the lawn and offers to fix some of the things in the house. He seems to be somewhat needy and discheveled. We see Trey and Prudie as he comes onto her and she relates some of the psychological abuses put upon her by her mother.

The party arrives at Grigg’s apartment, to be assaulted by a bunch of remote operated haunted house props. This is somewhat distressing to the women, but they see it as a reference and joke regarding Northanger Abbey’s gothic references. When they move on from there, Grigg explains that he read the Mysteries of Udolpho. Grigg sees Northanger Abbey as a novel about novels, and connects it with several of the anxieties of writing. There is less discussion of interpretations, but there is confusion over the romantic drama as Jocelyn finds herself jealous of Grigg’s interactions with Sylvia.

Pride and Prejudice

We find out that Prudie’s mother died, which is a moment of tension. After the funeral Prudie flips out at Dean due to her perception of his flirting with one another person at the funeral. The sequence is shot to portray a wall between them. He explains that the highschool drama is over, which she rejects.

Grigg does make a lunch date with Sylvia, and they discuss Jocelyn. This is done via Pride and Prejudice. Sylvia asserts courtship is easy; Grigg disagrees. We see a sequence of other scenes discussing mistaken identities and other conflicts.

This winds up finally at a library fundraiser (much like a ball) where the other characters are present. Here the conflicts between the characters are less spoken of through the books, and more are allusions to them. They do discuss the books, but use them in much more direct analogy to their own lives. The interactions become more dramatically conflicted, and raise to a head with a direct confrontation between Jocelyn and Grigg. Later there is some active speculation about what happens to the characters outside and after the novels.

Sense and Sensibility

Prudie leave a note with her high school lover (but this is left vaguely). Allegra falls in an accident while mountain climbing, and Sylvia and Daniel discuss their marriage while Allegra is unconscious. The book club convenes over Allegra’s hospital bed. The discussion focuses on how the characters wind up matched up. The characters discuss the characters in the book, and their discussion is much more directly in reference to their own lives and relationships.


The party convenes at a beach. Daniel comes by and asks if he can join, citing that Persuasion is about mistakes and second chances. We see Prudie go to visit a motel where she sees her high school lover, but is startled by a walk light which she sees to read “What would Jane do”. She then leaves and does not shack up. Grigg brings his sister to the book club. Allegra brings her doctor to the club as well.

In a dramatic scene, Prudie returns to her worthless husband and asks him to read Persuasion. He pretty strongly refuses. Prudie presses and presses, and finally begins reading to him. Finally, in a later scene, we see him reading to her.

The ending features a montage of the characters having come to their resolutions, which are generally all positive and reconciled. Jocelyn finally reads Ursula Le Guin, Daniel leaves a note to Sylvia who finally calls him. Dean and Prudie reconcile after he finishes Persuasion (having stayed up the night to read it).


The characters meet up at another library dinner the next year, where all of the characters have joined the book club, and everyone is happy.

Reading Info:
TitleJane Austen Book Club
ContextCaptures some of the culture surrounding Jane Austen
Tagsfiction, settings, media traditions, specials, fan culture
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Becoming Jane

[Readings] (03.22.09, 6:42 pm)

Becoming Jane is a fictional filmic adaptation of Jane Austen’s life. The film heavily stresses her relationship between Thomas Lefroy, although this is actually not a relationship that has much to support it in the historical record. Over the course of the film, the events and characters inspire her to write Pride and Prejudice.

The film presents a dramatization of Austen’s life as though it were one of her novels. Generally, this is an interesting blend between the world of Jane Austen’s stories and the historical and hypothetical accounts of her life. Throughout the film there are allusions and references to her novels in terms of events, situations, and types of characters. This supports a theory of textual extension, where the film may be considered a work that is Austen’s by proxy.

The film itself supports the theory of deep reading and the existence of characters beyond the page. This is featured in a couple of the conversations between the character of Jane her companions. The idea of textual extension is actually a necessetity for this work to even exist, because in order to acknowledge a fictionalization of Jane Austen’s life, we must understand that it extends Austen through the gestures of her character given by her writing, and the historical accounts of her life.

Most significantly, the film presents a weaving through the literature of and about Jane Austen. It presents an interpretation not just of her character, but also of her world.


Opening is scenes of natural countryside, matched with scenes of writing. Amidst writing, plays piano, to obvious distress of family. Presentation is that Jane is frustration of family, that parents need her to marry. Some of the scenes between the family give a slightly more suggestive and bawdy character, but this is relatively subdued.

Next scene shows Jane in church, as minister presents moral lessons that seem to be directed at Jane specifically: that a woman must be quiet in the morning, must have a husband later in life, and must keep her profound intellect a profound secret. This reverberates with “moral” literature for women of the time. “Wit is the  most treacherous talent of them all” Seems a clear reference to Dr. Gregory’s letter to his daughters.

We see scenes of Austen and her family visiting a wealthy neighbor, Lady Gresham, in a scene that is reminiscent of Elizabeth’s visiting of Lady Catherine. There is a suggested intention of Jane being set up to marry Gresham’s nephew, Mr. Wisley, who stands to inherit a large estate. The dilemma is presented that the family is in a similar situation to most of Jane’s protagonists, but that Jane will not be tempted by such petty things as wealth.

The film cuts to a scene featuring a number of men interacting in a bawdy masculine space. There is first a boxing match within a bar, after which they leave, while being manhandled by a number of women. One of these is Jane’s brother Henry, the other is Thomas Lefroy. The latter is a character who the historical record has shown to have only the most incidental connections with Austen’s life, but shapes up to be the love interest in this film. Lefroy is a “mischievous” character, but and is also a law student (one might go so far as to call him a rake). What is interesting about this encounter is how dramatically set apart his character is from the standard literary world featured in Austen’s writing. While Jane lives in a world that resembles the space of her writing, Thomas is in an entirely different one.

The men return to the Austen family house, leading to a return of domestic scenes. Jane proceeds to read to her family (a congratulatory letter to her sister Cassandra regarding her engagement), which seems greatly entertaining to the family as a whole. Midway through, Lefroy interrupts and causes something of a slight scene (and nearly falls asleep during the reading). Jane is somewhat distressed and frazzled throughout the reading. Afterwards, she flips out and burns the letter (she was reading the wrong one?).

The next day, both she and Lefroy take walks in the woods surrounding the house. Lefroy sees Jane and attempts to catch up to her, where Jane remains evasive. They engage in some verbal sparring, with Jane being the voice of proper conduct and manners and Lefroy being so much more wild. Lefroy attempts to flirt, but Jane seems to reject this flirtation and storm off.

There is a dance scene after this, where Jane dances with Wisley, who comes across as stuttering and awkward, going so far as to tread on Jane’s feet while dancing. This presents an allusion to Mr. Collins. Afterward, Jane criticises Lefroy’s purported arrogance. They dance, and there is again verbal sparring during the dance. Afterwards, their behavior is described as potentially damaging to Jane because of Lefroy’s reputation.

There is a cricket game some time later, and Jane displays her thwarting of gender roles by unexpectedly joining the game.

While visiting the Lefroy house with her family, she visits the library and finds Tom Lefroy reading. He reads a fairly sexually explicit passage aloud from a book about nature (that Jane suggested he read). Lefroy asserts that, in order to be an accomplished author, Jane requires experience. She protests and demures with rejections of Lefroy’s history and reputation. He then suggests that she read Fielding’s Tom Jones.

We see a few scenes where Jane reads the book, whispering aloud, and is echoed by Lefroy’s voice as she does so. The cinematography makes this appear to be an awakening moment of sorts. Later, she approaches Lefroy about the book, disapproving of it. She explains that a book ought to show how the world really works, instead of giving overt moral lessons (where the good thrive and the bad are punished). She explains that the novel should reveal the true meanings behind character’s actions. This suggestion is consistent with the idea of deep reading behind characters (as existing beyond the text).

She and Lefroy visit some carnival, which again appears to be a transgression into the sort of boisterous masculine space. Lefroy again gets involved in a boxing match. This appears to again be a kind of revealing moment focusing on Lefroy’s character and Jane’s reaction to it.

Later, we see Mr. and Mrs. Austen discussing Jane’s potential marriage to Wisley, with Mrs. Austen saying that she should marry soon, and Mr. Austen saying that she should marry whoever will make her happy. This again seems a strong reference to the Bennett family. The next day, Lady Gresham and Wisley visit, during which Wisley awkwardly proposes. Jane rejects, and is afterwards loudly chastised by her mother. The emphasis is on the family’s poverty, and of the terrible fate that would befall Jane should she not marry well. The business with Lefroy is problematic because not only does Lefroy not have any money, but his reputation is actively damaging.

The next scene features a private ball which the family visits, but is made to be quite elegant, but awkward. Jane dances with Wisley, whilst under some degree of scrutiny by others, but is visited by Lefroy. Over the course of the evening, Jane overhears some of the romantic exchanges between her brother and her Eliza the Comtesse, and is approached by Lady Gresham, and finally is visited by Lefroy, wherein they kiss. Finally Lefroy proposes elopement.

Jane visits Lefroy’s uncle’s (Judge Langlois) house. She writes a letter to Cassandra discussing the elopement, with a glowing voice. Jane immediately offends Langlois by praising the virtues of irony and wit. Jane and Lefroy visit Ann Radcliffe the next day. Radcliffe appears somewhat awkward and is a sobering influence on Jane, expressing that her life both writer and wife is difficult. Having had this encounter, they return and Jane cannot sleep. She wakes up and begins writing First Impressions. Whispers from throughout the book are heard, suggesting that she writes a great deal of it in that evening.

Lefroy the next day attempts to persuade his uncle to consent to his marrying Jane. This is promptly and vehemently rejected, after having read a letter that appears to have been sent by Wisley. Because Lefroy is totally dependent on his uncle, he refuses to elope and Jane is heartbroken.

Jane returns home, visits Lady Gresham, and news arrives that Cassandra’s fiancee Fowle has died of Yellow Fever. Cassandra is greatly upset by this. Jane learns shortly after that Lefroy is in town.

An interesting encounter occurs where Jane meets with Wisley, brings up his earlier proposal, and then calls him on his letter to Langolis. This encounter has a strong resemblance, and is a sudden reversal, of the proposal scene between Darcy and Elizabeth (where Elizabeth confronts Darcy about his separation of separation of her sister and Bingley). The point of this seems to be about attempting to make out and distinguish Wisley’s character. She then accepts his proposal, and storms off.

Lefroy visits Jane while she is walking with her brother George, and he attempts to offer an explanation of his conduct. Lefroy has been engaged, and a confusing interchange occurs in which he again proposes elopement. She consents to run off with him. Later, Cassandra chides Jane regarding how difficult it will be for her to write with such an elopement.

While leaving, Jane discovers a letter from Lefroy’s parents about how they were thanking him for his sharing his allowance with them. The implication is that, despite his reputation, he is a good person for allowing his family to  depend on him. Jane rescinds the elopement for the sake of his family.

There is further drama between Gresham and Austen’s family. Though Jane and Wisley meet up and part amicably. Wisley gives Jane the idea for the famed opening line of what would become Pride and Prejudice.

There is a glimpse in the future, where we see Jane at a musical performance, where Jane, despite her anonymity, is approached by a fan. She meets up again with Lefroy (now married), and is introduced to his daughter. Jane gives an extremely unusual public reading.

Reading Info:
TitleBecoming Jane
ContextFictionally recounts the life of Jane Austen, and illustrates her world
Tagsfiction, settings, media traditions, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon
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