Tagged: literary theory

Word Salad Wednesday: Ergodic Cybernetic Textuality and Games

Salad with catsWell the title is a mouthful, yet it relates to an article in The Guardian concerning the literary significance of role-playing games. Norway’s Aarseth coined the term “ergodic” to describe literary systems that evolve according to the choices of the reader/player.

First, this is just incorrect. Ergodic has a very specific meaning in thermodynamics. Ergodic means that the temporal evolution of a system will be random and irreversible. Aarseth takes the Greek meanings too literally choosing to equate the ergo (work) and hodos (path) with the temporal evolution of hypertexts (where one chooses the next step) or RPGs (where players choose the next steps but there may be random decisions dictated by dice roles). He also likes the term “cybernetic” which was literally “pilot” and was given its modern meaning by Norbert Weiner wherein it refers to autonomous control of a system to stabilize against environmental signals.

Neither of these relate to RPGs or hypertext per se, nor to the general class of reader/engager-based control of media access or fiction. The concept of generative art might be more apt, though it should be modified to include the guidance of the reader. Oddly, guided evolution or change might be the best metaphor altogether leading us to something like Lamarkian Literature (though that is too culturally loaded, perhaps).

Or we could just say “games.” After all, these are games, aren’t they?

The Great Crustacean

little-lobster-costumeDavid Foster Wallace’s Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky in Consider the Lobster is worth reading for nothing else than the following two paragraphs:

The big thing that makes Dostoevsky invaluable for American readers and writers is that he appears to possess degrees of passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we—here, today—cannot or do not permit ourselves. Joseph Frank does an admirable job of tracing out the interplay of factors that made this engagement possible—[Dostoevsky]’s own beliefs and talents, the ideological and aesthetic climates of his day, etc. Upon his finishing Frank’s books, though, I think that any serious American reader/writer will find himself driven to think hard about what exactly it is that makes many of the novelists of our own place and time look so thematically shallow and lightweight, so morally impoverished, in comparison to Gogol or Dostoevsky (or even to lesser lights like Lermontov and Turgenev). Frank’s bio prompts us to ask ourselves why we seem to require of our art an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions, so that contemporary writers have to either make jokes of them or else try to work them in under cover of some formal trick like intertextual quotation or incongruous juxtaposition, sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks as part of some multivalent defamiliarization-flourish or some such shit.

Part of the explanation for our own lit’s thematic poverty obviously includes our century and situation. The good old modernists, among their other accomplishments, elevated aesthetics to the level of ethics—maybe even metaphysics—and Serious Novels after Joyce tend to be valued and studied mainly for their formal ingenuity. Such is the modernist legacy that we now presume as a matter of course that “serious” literature will be aesthetically distanced from real lived life. Add to this the requirement of textual self-consciousness imposed by postmodernism and literary theory, and it’s probably fair to say that Dostoevsky et al. were free of certain cultural expectations that severely constrain our own novelists’ ability to be “serious.”

I miss him when I read him now. But being serious in the age of irony needs moral issues that are worthy of engagement rather than distancing; take Romeo and Juliet—the family rivalries are actually antiquated and quaint. The strangled universality is that love might triumph but people are crappy. Antiquarian moral conundrums may be translatable to our era but there is no guarantee that it will be so. Whale hunting is just dumb and cruel—not a great human drama. And that leaves open the possibility of the conversion of the aesthetic distancing to re-converge with everyday life. Too bad we lost a champion of the cause.

Mimetic Persuasion

There is a temptation to be dismissive of “genre fiction” as being merely a fantastical diversion while “serious fiction” and, more relevantly, “realism” retain all of the gravitas that we want to ascribe to writing as an art. And realism must be somehow tied to everyday events because it must be realistic. But what if all art is inevitably bound to artifice in that there is no possibility of chaining a symbolic reference to its ostensible referent?

Thus we chain the crumbling infrastructure of logical positivism to postmodern literature. It is all artifice. There is always a black swan. It is all “mimetic persuasion” (Aristotle channeled through James Wood) where storms of metaphor haloed by limns of allusion and imitation conspire together to push the reader into a caricature of reality that “art…is a disproportioning–(i.e., distorting, throwing out of proportions)–of realities, to show more clearly the features that matter in those realities…” (Thomas Hardy). There is no reality in realism, just the font of imagination that tries to crystallize reality into regularized sheer planes of repetition, of character leitmotivs (oh, poor Proust), of voice, of metaphor, and of estrangement (from Dostoevsky to Nabokov).

We have, then, a bad theory in any scientific sense, where the theory has been overridden time and time again, making psychology look comparatively moored in its modest aspirations. At least psychology is converging with biology. But realism remains subdivided across the aesthetics of literary preference. It lives in fiefs and forts, much like architecture or modern art in general. There is not even local predictability to the grammar of aesthetic change. It may be that theory is not even the right word. Literary theory should be replaced with literary analysis and aesthetics should be untied from the dock of rationalism. We should read only for thrills, from “A screaming comes across the sky” to “They rode on into the darkness and the moonblanched waste lay before them cold and pale.” Even the titillation of Fifty Shades of Grey might be as relevantly important (sorry, haven’t read it.)

We just have preferences and tastes. There is no pejorative attached to “just,” however. Universality is a chimera. Deep analysis is a divebombing mockingbird. There are intricacies, sure, but there is no centrality, no essential character to the artistic effort. Just individuals engaged in mimetic persuasion. Art is art, in short.

AntiTerran Metatextuality

Intertextuality is a loaded word. It covers allusion and parody and reference. For some authors, it is the motivation to write, from Umberto Eco’s semiotic indulgences to Nabokov’s vast, layered palimpsest in Ada. I create deliberate allusions to Genesis in Teleology and references to Nabokov’s Ada in Signals and Noise.

The opposite of intertextuality might be centrality or concreteness, but it might also be the extension of the literature or artwork as references in other works that extend or reimagine the original work, creating a literary chain of sorts. Your intertextual references are referenced by my metatextual extensions.  Outertextuality? Whatever the term, we get a kind of referential landscape like a network that builds on an artificial landscape, the lives of imagined characters, and the universe of ideas that they inhabit.

Dieter Zimmer, who appears to have done the German translation of Ada, has a brilliant example of metatextuality in his Geography of AntiTerra. With methodical precision, he translates the textual descriptions into a map of the imagined world–a kind of fan cartography that solidifies the strange geography into a complete realization. I’m reminded of the Elven dictionaries in The Silmarillion or the detailed online fan fiction from adoring readers of current bestsellers.

I think there is likely a strong connection between the psychology of religious belief and the same motivators towards metatextuality. Imagined worlds are always interesting and plotted. Even when characters are harmed or injured, we feel only fleeting sensitivity to the idea of their injury. Moreover, the intertextuality is a network of coherence-supplying support for the narrative’s epistemology. The more detail, the greater sense of clarity of the imagined world, and the more buy in as to the reality of mysteries described therein.

Interestingly, there is both supporting and counter-evidence for this idea.  The previously discussed work on apophenia leads the way, but we can drill in even more closely on these notions by looking at experimental methods that show relationships between New Age belief and schizotypic personality indicators (although not traditional religious belief, interestingly), as well as the evidence that semantic association is greater among schizotypic personalities.  Building that palimpsest of associations is carefully-controlled madness.