Sunday, April 12, 2009

Digital Literature, Bakhtin and the Dialogic Principle

From Dim O'Gauble

What is Digital Literature?
The term refers to simulative and representational works with important literary aspects that take advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer. Within the broad category of digital literature are several forms and threads of practice, some of which are:

•Hypertext fiction and poetry, on and off the Web
•Kinetic poetry presented in Flash and using other platforms
•Computer art installations which ask viewers to read them or otherwise have literary aspects
•Conversational characters, also known as chatterbots
•Interactive fiction
•Novels that take the form of emails, SMS messages, or blogs
•Poems and stories that are generated by computers, either interactively or based on parameters given at the beginning
•Collaborative writing projects that allow readers to contribute to the text of a work
•Literary performances online that develop new ways of writing
(Adapted from the Electronic Literature Organization)

Henry Jenkins, Game Design as Narrative Architecture
Jenkins' essay outlines a way of thinking about computer games, as digital communicative artifacts, some of which embody stories or narratives.
Central to Jenkins ideas about computer games and narrative are:

1. Spatiality
“Before we can talk about game narratives, then, we need to talk about game spaces. Across a series of essays, I have made the case that game consoles should be regarded as machines for generating compelling spaces, that their virtual playspaces have helped to compensate for the declining place of the traditional backyard in contemporary boy culture, and that the core narratives behind many games center around the struggle to explore, map, and master contested spaces.” (Jenkins 4)

2. Environmental Story Telling
“Environmental storytelling creates the preconditions for an immersive narrative experience in at least one of four ways: spatial stories can evoke pre-existing narrative associations; they can provide a staging ground where narrative events are enacted; they may embed narrative information within their mise-en-scene; or they provide resources for emergent narratives.” (Jenkins 5-6)

3. Enacting Stories
“Spatial stories are held together by broadly defined goals and conflicts and pushed forward by the character's movement across the map. Their resolution often hinges on the player's reaching their final destination, though, as Mary Fuller notes, not all travel narratives end successfully or resolve the narrative enigmas which set them into motion. Once again, we are back to principles of "environmental storytelling." The organization of the plot becomes a matter of designing the geography of imaginary worlds, so that obstacles thwart and affordances facilitate the protagonist's forward movement towards resolution. Over the past several decades, game designers have become more and more adept at setting and varying the rhythm of game play through features of the game space.” (Jenkins 7)

4, Embedded Narratives
“According to this model, narrative comprehension is an active process by which viewers assemble and make hypothesis about likely narrative developments on the basis of information drawn from textual cues and clues. As they move through the film, spectators test and reformulate their mental maps of the narrative action and the story space. In games, players are forced to act upon those mental maps, to literally test them against the game world itself. If you are wrong about whether the bad guys lurk behind the next door, you will find out soon enough - perhaps by being blown away and having to start the game over.” (Jenkins 9)

5. Emergent Narratives
"The characters [of The Sims] have a will of their own, not always submitting easily to the player's control, as when a depressed protagonist refuses to seek employment, preferring to spend hour upon hour soaking in their bath or moping on the front porch. Characters are given desires, urges, and needs, which can come into conflict with each other, and thus produce dramatically compelling encounters. Characters respond emotionally to events in their environment, as when characters mourn the loss of a loved one. Our choices have consequences, as when we spend all of our money and have nothing left to buy them food. The gibberish language and flashing symbols allow us to map our own meanings onto the conversations, yet the tone of voice and body language can powerfully express specific emotional states, which encourage us to understand those interactions within familiar plot situations." (Jenkins 12)

Jenkins in Narrative Architecture provides a basic structure for thinking about digital media in terms of texts; as systems of meanings that can be located in cultures. Once a work of digital media is classified as a text then it can be analyzed in a literary sense. My own approach to digital texts is concerned with reading. How are they read? Perhaps some words of writing for the screen will give us some hints on how screen based texts can be read:

"Writing for the screen according to Dreaming Methods has little to do with writing in the traditional sense. In the digital world, text does not have to stand still, can be superimposed against colourful backgrounds, animations and imagery with no print design restrictions or costs, and it can also change and mutate depending on a user/reader’s interactions. It is as if the physical entity that is text itself has changed from static to liquid, has learnt to move around and react in response to other media – and is thus able to form new narratives-in-motion which require different methods of both writing and reading" (Undreamt Fiction, 5).

The concept of "new narratives-in-motion" makes it difficult to use many established literary methods of critique to analyze these texts. The 'emergent narrative' which Jenkins describes, that "Our choices have consequences" when we respond to the text, means that these texts are different within a range of possibilities each time they are responded to. As Undreamt Fiction describes, digital texts are often "purposely open-ended, ambiguous, short, fragmentary – and are often additionally considered to be a powerful visual element: blurred, obscured, transient, animated, mouse-responsive" (5). Reading such a text is as much a matter of navigation as it is of interpretation. Undreamt Fiction describes the way in which the author, Andy Campbell, creates digital works of fiction. The description of how the materials of the text (images, links, coded spaces) are combined with the written material is an interesting insight into some of the differences between writing for the screen and the page (or the stage):

"The writing is produced largely during the actual design and scripting process. Prose is keyed directly into ActionScript arrays or variable strings (the works rarely use technologies such as XML and are often hard-coded rather than done in any modular way**) and are often literally “attached” to visual “objects” lying around on the Flash “stage”. The writing can go through several drafts until it feels to fully work with the other media it is interacting or existing with; on occasion it is removed from the Flash environment altogether and copied into Word or Notepad for scrutiny on its own terms" (8).

It because of the 'fluid' nature of digital texts that I find the writings of Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) useful in trying to understand how digital texts can be understood as rich cultural media.

Who was M.M. Bakhtin?

Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin was born in Orel, south of Moscow, in 1895 and grew up in Vilnius and Odessa. He studied classics and philology at St. Petersburg (later Petrograd) University, then moved to the country, first to Nevel and then to Vitebsk, in the wake of the revolutions of 1917. During the 1930’s and early 1940’s, he completed some of his most important studies of the novel, including "Discourse in the Novel," "Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel," and "Epic and Novel." He also completed his major work on Rabelais, submitted as his doctoral dissertation to the Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow in 1941 (he was later awarded the lower degree of Candidate). A successful teacher in Saransk during the 1950’s, Bakhtin was discovered in the early 1960’s by a group of Moscow graduate students who had read his Dostoevsky book. He wrote notes titled "Toward a Reworking of the Dostoevsky Book" in 1961; published a second edition of the book, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, in 1963; published the Rabelais book, Rabelais and his World, in 1965; and published a collection of his most important essays on the novel, The Dialogic Imagination, in the year of his death, 1975. During the last twenty-five years of his life, he also wrote several essays later published under the title Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. His work spread throughout the West in the 1980’s and is the subject of vigorous debate and reassessment in Russia in the mid 1990’s (Emerson, First Hundred Years).

Bakhtin can be described as a philosopher, cultural and literary critic and theorist. In his large body of work, much of which has not been translated into English, Bakhtin provides several theoretical devices that can be used to critically analyze cultural and symbolic systems (including texts). Chronotope, Carnivalization, Heteroglossia, Polyphonic, Monologic, and Dialogism are all terms which Bakhtin develops, in a sense as analytical tools. The last of these, dialogism is what we will be discussing today, particularly in relation to a work of digital literature.

"Dialogic relationships are a much broader phenomenon than mere rejoinders in a dialogue laid out compositionally in the text; they are an almost universal phenomenon, permeating all human speech and all relationships and manifestations of human life - in general, everything that has meaning and significance." Bakhtin, Problems with Dostoevsky's Poetics 40.
Dialogism is a concept that Bakhtin returned to again and again in his writings over a forty year period of time. Bakhtin applied three broad sets of meaning to the term dialogism (Morson and Emerson 130). The first is "as a global concept, as a view of truth and the world" (130-131). In this first sense dialogism is a philosophical concept. It is not concerned with dia-logue, two entities in exchange with one another. Dialogism is, in the philosophical sense, the unfinalized becoming that is the condition of all reality. In Bakhtin's words,

"To be means to be for another, and through the other for oneself. A person has no sovereign internal territory, his wholly and always on the boundary; looking inside himself, he looks into the eyes of another or with the eyes of another" (Towards a Reworking of the Dostoevsky Book 287)

The second sense of dialogism found in the work of Bakhtin is the classifying of particular characteristics as dialogic in works of representation as opposed to the monologic. What is dialogic compared to the monologic may perhaps become clearer when we consider the third sense of dialogism developed by Bakhtin.

We are most concerned with the third sense of dialogism, because it is useful in analyzing literary texts. Dialogism in this sense is the contexts of language and how meaning is created not by words or even sentences, but by use. Dialogism is based on the fact that nothing can be understood without making reference to something else. Bakhtin argues that the basic unit of meaning in language is the utterance, any self-contained expression, this could be from a grunt to a multi-volume work of fiction. Even what is an utterance is determined by the contexts of its authorship (and we are all authors according to Bakhtin). The dialogic relations that define the meaning of an utterance spread out from the point in space and time where the utterance meets its addressee. This point of reception is dialogic in the sense that social values change and texts are read differently depending on what values are assigned to them at the time.

Bakhtin's dialogism should not be thought of as relativism, the idea that dependency determines truth. Rather dialogism is an extension of logics and dialectics, whereby binary relations are argued to be simplified accounts of how cultural systems work. Bakhtin in his own readings of texts (particularly by Dostoevsky) came to firm conclusions regarding the meaning/s of a text and how they should be interpreted. Dialogism offers a "broadening and deepening of the language horizon" (Morson and Emerson 315) and what I see as a democratization of expression. In dialogism authorship continues on into interpretation, and there is no final word on any text that is still a part of culture.

In a visual and spatial sense I think of dialogism as a web, or if you will a matrix, where all recognizable features of reality (which Bakhtin argued was based on language) are interconnected. It is a matter of following one series of relations far enough until you come to another point of intersections. However, when dealing with literary texts, as we are, it is only the representative systems of the text which provide the extent of the dialogic matrix. How text represent meaning is through systems of dialogic relationships that can be recognized in the texts.

In contrast to the dialogic Bakhtin proposes the monologic. Since no utterance is truly monologic (language can only function in relation to all previous utterances), it should perhaps be said that utterances can only attempt to isolate and freeze representation. These unanswerable or silencing utterances, often where an 'absolute truth' is presented, are within monologic discourse. Bakhtin said that if an utterance does not give rise to a further utterance then it is of a monologic character. Another example of monologic discourse is what Bakhtin terms 'theorism', where the live-event use of language in context is removed from it and it takes on isolated sign-like qualities. Bakhtin is critical of linguistic approaches to language , where samples are taken from language and rules are applied to them.

I would now like to explore dialogism further by providing a rough dialogic reading of Dim O'Gauble by Andy Campbell that I hope we can discuss further in the seminar.

A Descriptive Reading of Dim O'Gauble (2007)

Dim O'Gauble by Andy Campbell embodies the five principles of narrative architecture outlined by Henry Jenkins in Game Design as Narrative Architecture. Dim O'Gauble relies on spatiality for the narrative to move through time. The reader navigates the text in a rectangular pattern with four links to images related to the elements of the story. The story is created through the efforts of the reader to"assemble and make hypothesis about likely narrative developments on the basis of information drawn from textual cues and clues" (Jenkins) as embedded narratives. Although a simple example it is necessary for a degree of enactment in realizing the goal of Dim O'Gauble, the reader must learn and follow the rules of the text in order to successfully complete the navigation and simultaneous narrative. The fifth of Jenkins' attributes of narrative architecture, 'emergent narrative' is not strongly represented in Dim O'Gauble. While it could be possible to develop further narrative scenarios from the text from recoding or using ti as the raw material for another work, the deign of the text as it is only allows for a limited number of programed outcomes.

The text Dim O'Gauble (henceforth DO) is first introduced from the Dreaming Methods website (where is it is stored) as
"A boy experiences frightening visions which he shares only with his grandmother. Dim O'Gauble is based on a series of the author's childhood drawings and presents the user/reader with a complex mass of entangled colours and shapes. Navigation however is straightforward - simply click on the arrows in the background to progress to the next "scene" of the story, and click on the yellow-tinted words for animated cut-sequences that reveal additional narrative fragments" (Introduction).
In stating that the "navigation is straightforward", it can be understood that navigation, or manipulation of perspective in the text, is limited to a particular number of possibilities. These possibilities are based on the nine yellow arrows in the text. Clicking on the arrows directs the reader around the represented space of the text. Each of the arrows is accompanied by a verse , three of which have hyperlinked words in them. Some small degree of panning and zoom can be achieved with mouse movements in DO. These mouse movement emphasize a degree of depth to the images and provide a focus on the childlike but intricate sketches that form the background to much of the text. The sketches are what frames the fragmentary (patchwork) narrative of DO, these are what the narrator produced as a child.

DO is a website on the World Wide Web (WWW) which is coded using Adobe Flash. When it is first opened a square image opens in the middle of the screen framed by black. Through the use of silhouette branches placed in the image over the background a weak three dimensional effect is created. The image opens with a animated written text which reads: "So_______here it is. A patchwork of the whole meaningless thing. The sprawling backbone of everything She didn't understand" (DO). A number of dialogic relations have already been established in the first few seconds of encountering the DO text.

The two characters of the narrative have already been introduced, the narrator of the majority of the story, Dim and 'She', presumably his grandmother. Dim's mother is referred to in the text,but only in the third person and is not a represented as an active voice. The Flash materials of the text define a number of possible ways in which the text can be responded to. Flash is not generally considered an 'open' code system. Rather, Flash is about surfaces, the visual effects and linkages appear in reading without any indication of the processes going on behind the surface. As well it is not possible to easily break into the code of the text. In this sense, response is controlled from the perspectives of the authored text. A very limited number of choices can be made in reading DO.

When the initial image opens so does the music, a long ongoing loop of vaguely eastern sounding music (Indian tabla with its suggestions of distant places, an exotified dimension to the text) with drone wind-like sounds. No matter which arrow one clicks on it always follows the starting order. The first written text that is read in DO is;
"So don't go to bed, stay up sketching
why would i blame you for doing the things
that i did when this happened to me?"

The first 'verse' of this digital poem is not spoken by the child, Dim, of the story. But rather someone who has already had "this happen to me". With only the 'sprawling backbone' quote going before this one in the programmed order of the text, it seems that it is an older person speaking. Perhaps the 'she' already mentioned. It seems Dim's grandmother is the speaker and she has experienced a similar situation (not sleeping and sketching).

The quote "Throw off your rucksack and trainers" refers to the end of school and the freedom all children remember when released from the classroom. The last two words of the tine are linked with roll-over text "19th August". The 19th of August is the first day of the school term following the summer holidays. Opening the length presents a new image:

Clicking on the image just takes you back to the "rucksack and trainers" link. In the image are two animated written texts. The view from a the school field and a distant blaze that is 'oblivious' to everyone, except obviously the narrator. The loneliness of the narrator in the restrictive school environment is conveyed by the image. The faceless (invisible) figure in the school grounds is the only one who knows that there is fire (danger, excitement, change) on the horizon (the future).

Words are animated in DO, such as in the passage:

My mother used to call them my

The last word/s of the sentence alternate with a few seconds between each in the order represented in this quote. The word 'mullocks' is taken from Chaucer (All this mullok [was] in a sieve ythrowe.) written in the late 14th Century. The written parts of DO are composed in plain spoken English, something that is according to the tradition, non-literary. Chaucer was the first author to compose in vernacular English. The use of a reference to Chaucer is an example of what Jenkins describes as "spatial stories can evoke pre-existing narrative associations; they can provide a staging ground where narrative events are enacted." A dialogic bridge is suggested in the use of the word 'Mullocks' in DO, going back six centuries to one of the earliest innovators of English Literature. The use of vernacular spoken English in DO, creates the atmosphere of the childhood home of the narrator. All is written in past tense and third person, the reminiscences of the narrator to a time (and place) that is no longer present.

From "Crumpled maps and memories" (DO), 'memories' is linked and opens to the image of a boy from behind at the entrance to a tunnel:

In the tunnel is a moving green light and darkness. The underground of the tunnel and the under-conscious nature of memories (the linked word) is a metaphoric connection between the image and the link. The written text which appears in the tunnel image recounts the fear of the tunnel, "you would clop through, on horseback you said, terrified" (DO). A journey back though memory is often both a painful and pleasant exercise. The fears of childhood are never totally abandoned, but remain in such mental images as the tunnel and the dare.

From the quote;
Made sense - the bricks you said.
Tattooed as if knowing. Carrying weight.
'The bricks' is linked to an image with a '2nd October' roll-over. The dates correspond to the progression of the text, moving through the first term following the summer school holidays in the United Kingdom (19th August to the 10th October). From the 'bricks' link an image of the now familiar boy and a school:

The red brick school house is contrasted to the "cold walls" of the dark tunnel. Both structures contain something; the controlling environment of the school and the subterranean world of memories. In each of the tunnel and school images the boy faces the structures alone. The relationship between the boy and what he is viewing is not one dominated by fear. There is a determination in the posture and perspective of the boy. At the same time, it is not a comfortable relationship.

Each of the windows opening from the main window of DO provides contexts for the written verse and even the sketches which frame the narrative. School plays a n important role in the emotional life of the main character. But is somehow seems that these seemingly external references (school, tunnel, the burning building etc.) are fragments and are not part of the main frame; the sketches.

Towards the end of the series of verses the third last one states:
Think of it as a kind of stitching they said
And think yourself lucky/unlucky
final word lucky alternates every few seconds with its binary opposite, unlucky. Here the possibilities offered by digital media are used to present a dual account of what it is to possess the 'not-sleeping-sketching-see-things' state that the boy seems to carry. In dialogic terms both are parts of a larger structure and are not mutually exclusive. One is dependent upon the other.
Stitching is linked with a 14th November (in the second term of school) roll-over to an image:

The bricks of a suburban home frame what could be a bedroom window, perhaps the bedroom where the sketching is done. The window is filled with large butterflies and a silhouette has taken the place of the boy in the other images. The two quotes in the window refer to the future, when "all this will be gone" (DO). Once again a mood of nostalgia is infused throughout the multimedia sequence.

The final link in the series of verses is "I had promised to come with you." The final four words are hyperlinked to a short video of a tunnel. A roll-over text appears with the length "10th December". Clicking the link the music stops and a sound collage of backmasked audio and the tuning of a radio. The tunnel is the 'ending' of DO. In the tunnel written passages fade out not giving little time to read them. According to the author:
"In “Dim O’Gauble”, the final sequence, walking down an industrial tunnel as both characters in the story attempt to communicate with each other, includes vaguely readable text which slowly gains focus as the end of the tunnel is reached." (Undreamt Fiction)
The text Dim O'Gauble is about memories, how spaces and places are so often the sites of memory. The theme of memory gives rise to the image of the failure of communication and how understanding often emerges 'after the event', when a stronger sense of (dialogic) context is available. The community around Dim, which he seems to feel outside of, is what is resisted in the late night sketching, where he feels he has found something special of his own (the remembered butterflies through the bedroom window). Going back over the events later in life an understanding can be reached. The understanding is achieved once one has been back through the terrifying tunnels of memory.

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