|Texts and Contexts|
We began the Ivanhoe Game in a distinctly ludic spirit. In spring of last year, Jerry McGann had suggested to me that within the text of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe lurked several alternative narratives. Scott’s contemporary readers had called for their enactment. Frustrated by the piss-poor resolution of the romantic plot, ending in a rather too-predictable banishment of erotically interesting characters to various marginal zones and leaving a hero and heroine united whose intimate romance held promise only of tame domesticity and a lassitude with respect to libido, Scott’s fans had urged him to reconsider the end of the tale. Thackeray, with consummate acerbic wit, supplied at least one such scathingly conceived alternative in his short “Rebecca and Rowena.” To this day readers may find something admirable in the creation of an archetype of the anti-hero in the novel’s main protagonist, but surely for the rest of us the image of the spirited Rebecca resigned to some vague, veiled, spiritual order has a momentary charm at best. If ever a character reached out from the past conception of its author’s conventions and constraints, it is Rebecca.
These unwritten outcomes might be reached through leaping off points in the existing narrative. The price of participation in the game was—for me—the steep one of actually having to read the Scott novel. But with what intensity was this activity charged by the knowledge that what lay ahead was the opportunity for intervention in the text.
This charge had an immediate impact on the reading activity. Every passage of Ivanhoe took on significance. Recognizing that any new text would have a domino effect—as in one of those sci-fi movies or ancient philosophical tales in which the reworking of a single inconsequential-seeming gesture in a brief instant causes the fate of nations to change their destiny—so I felt my textual rework would have a ripple effect in the whole of the Ivanhoe novel and its discursive field. Certainly any interventionary activity required taking this into account as a possible outcome. A single change in the story would require adjustments to the rest of the plot, to various characters and their consistent presentation, and to various pre- and post-conditions of all aspsects of the narrative’s unfolding.
Now, to date there have been three iterations of the game, all played in electronic space, and one critical assessment of the project. Does the game require electronic space? In the first round, Jerry and I “intervened” in Ivanhoe. In the second game, we brought Bethany Nowviskie and Steve Ramsay into play with Wuthering Heights. Beth created an electronic posting space on “blogger” that had minimal features, but provided sequential postings in a shared, accessible, and date-stamped environment. The third iteration was a game of Frankenstein played by students in Jerry’s class. And finally, he had a group of his graduate students generate a critical response to the game. They put together a respectable critical lineage that linked Ivanhoe to theoretical antecedents in OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle), as well as to Alfred Jarry and Pataphysics, Tom Phillips’s The Humument, Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch as well as a host of other alternative forms that qualify as literary deformance texts —transformed and exhumed, produced by generative procedures or chance-operations, or made as hypertext. They also cited similarities with games and combinatoric stories in popular culture, while noting a debt to feminist theory and the project of recovering and uncovering marginalized texts, tales, and pointsof view. In a spirit of eclecticism, but with attention to materiality within literary and critical practice, they even noted links to certain characteristics of language writing.
But so far, nothing in the sketch I’m producing hints even slightly at a need for new media, or for digital and electronic tools. Nothing even suggests radical innovation, and one can even detect a whiff of the slightly sophomoric, if pleasurable, act of wreaking playful havoc on a classic percolates through these acts of creative writing.
So let me pose two questions to bring us back to the digital media context:
The answers overlap. In its current (limited) electronic form Ivanhoe makes use of digital media to create a collaborative and performative space. This allows the players to trace and provoke reactions among themselves, to create a sense of a “game” through the surprise and fun of the postings—which in turn generate an impulse to respond. The electronic space allows for links among texts, and the demonstration of a hyper-textuality (juxtapositions, sequencing, arranging) as part of the fundamental critical operation. But the potential for use of computer/digital media in Ivanhoe has other possibilities. The elements of the discourse field have the capacity to be arranged and organized and for that process to be visualized within electronic space. Thus the pattern of play could be displayed. Rules might emerge from the pattern of play rather than being imposed from the outset or top down. Such rules might include specification of the pre- and post-conditions for combination of narrative elements. For the computer could function as a player, it will have to be able to engage with natural-language and create responses either to formal patterns within text structure or to patterns and relations that form in the strategy-game-discourse-field path level. Ultimately, an aim of the game is to have the computer introduce random elements and interventions that bring their own innovation and surprise to the experience. Perhaps the most important aspect of the electronic domain, however, is the way it functions as a social space for interpretation and mediation. More on this in a moment.
First, a few points on the potential glimpsed in conversations with computer science folks. With Dave Leubke and Dave Brogan we’ve discussed some of the ways games and narratives are structured in terms of constrained pathways. We’ve also touched on visualization techniques for multi-user and collaborative authoring environments that might function to produce a graphic mapping of play. With Worthy Martin we’ve talked about the ways natural language can be sufficiently constrained to permit correspondences with formal language in a digital environment.
Why is this interesting? Invoking the concept of games suggests multiple narrative possibilities through use of modularity and linked units or other combinatory techniques, but these are largely linear and hierarchical. We want to push against this model, to explore the possibilities of creating layered, elaborately structured and embedded, non-hierarchical and recursive structures of texts, literary texts in this case, in electronic media. A PRODUCTIVE tension exists between requirements for electronic manipulation at a game/narrative level and the conventions/potentialities of discursive prose or poetic forms This tension pushes against the strengths of the computuer, which has strong analytic capabilities, not interpretive ones. But by forcing the two realms—humanistic subjective interpretation and dis-ambiguating requirements of the computational domain—into relation, the goal is to show the underlying rules on which human players’ moves, habits of thought, are premised.
Jerry summarizes this as a process “to develop skills of critical self-awareness” and I agree, though my emphasis is slightly different, that what we are seeking is “increasing self-conscious critical interpretation.” One’s moves and Strategies become formalized in the dis-ambiguating context—and that forces one to articulate what is being done and how. As we have become aware, tasks involving such activity as the use of SGML and mark-up tags contain many implicit interpretive assumptions—not the least of which is that semantic unruliness will be disciplined through rigorous hierarchy. Our proposed NML (Narrative Mark-up Language) is premised on the idea that all linguistic/ textual / discursive elements have multiply-markable, ambiguous, and dare I say it—pataphysical—aspects. Thus the Ivanhoe game is a way of studying and reflecting on acts of critical reflection.
Along the way we developed an elaborate nomenclature, set of (almost unreadable) rules outlining the game structure with detailed schemes for keeping and losing points. At one point we imagined (or I imagined) the computer as an elaborate automated score-keeper. But we also engaged in fantastic images and textual excesses, indugled in sly one-upsmanship our clever and erudite obscurantism triumphing and trumping each other’s moves. By requiring a distinction between roles and identities, between a “player” and a character, we required, in the second and third versions at least, that all moves have a justification to them that demonstrated their critical premises. The performative aspect of playing the game in collaborative space put our critical and reflective operations on clear display.
We know that every act of reading is interpretive. And that every interpretation is an act of deformance. In Ivanhoe, the multi-dimensional, composite character of the discourse field literalizes the “intermedia” aspect of any given, original text. The game makes it clear that every “text”—every edition, version, printing, and every single volume of any text—is an instantiation of one or many possibilities of production, expression, and reception.
Like film or multi-media, digital artifacts invoke a new critical vocabulary. Terms like non-linear, interactive, labyrinthine and also, Espen Aarseth’s term “ergodic” (the idea of navigation as work and path) have attached to electronic and hypertextual forms. But Ivanhoe isn’t concerned with “electronic textuality” as its primary object of study. Ivanhoe enacts a mode of inter-subjectivity in the game space of play. The “text” serves as a point of departure, taken to be porous (infinitely expandable by insertion, linking, glossing) and unstable, non-static—continually subject to reinvention. But the “text”—as it becomes “discourse field”—serves as configured site of inter-subjective interaction. Thus if the game provoked a certain competitive instinct (unlike other academic work?) it also promoted the pleasures of building on, riffing with, tweaking each other’s work in a series of exchanged responses..
Mediation is a process of social intercommunication. Ivanhoe is not primarily concerned with the “making of an artifact” but with unfolding interrelations in a community of scholars through the collaborative creation of a discourse field. This is a construction, an elaborate, intricate, configured process of expression and exchange. Interpretation here is not conceived as a linguistic, semiotic, cognitive act but as a social process of mediation through textual production, through creation of the discourse field. Discursive practice functions as collaborative perception unfolding into a configuration that is theoretically unlimited. In phenomenogical theories of film study (such as those of Vivian Sobchack) a film is understood as a dialogue between filmmaker and viewer, an artifact and object of perception, but not reducible to the artifact. So in Ivanhoe, the process embodies the reflective, self-conscious experience of expressive interpretation in a dialogic mode of intersubjective relations—configured as an expanding discourse field of linked texts, images, critical and bibliographic, as well as creative expressions. Fragmenting, navigating, re-ordering and reconfiguring original text is one part of the process—but the continual active navigation that emerges from dialogic relations through textual production is another. Thus the “fun” of Ivanhoe was provoking and experiencing reactions of Beth to Jerry or Steve to me—all within the codes of the discursive field as roles and characters, the player persona and the enacted textual characters. Taking our point of departure as a literary text, its “prefigured” condition gave rise to a refiguration in the process of play. The only organizing framework is the pattern of play, and that, too, can be reinvented. Should rules be made? Emerge from the game? Be created to be pushed against as constraints? Or ignored? No simple closure, no narrative finitude or interpretive recovery of “meaning” from an original, not even closure on a “reading” serve as the goal of the game. By definition, Ivanhoe has a perilous navigational instability.
In summary, then, as a critical practice, Ivanhoe suggests using electronic space as a means of facilitating a mediated intersubjectivity. The characteristic features of the game are a certain anxiety brought on by the competitive aspect of the game (not all players would agree with this, some claim to have been in pursuit of “truth and beauty”) and the pleasures of collectively interacting with each other through the text. A social relation was configured through a discourse field and discursive play whose goal is increased self-consciousness about critical practice, as well as contribution to creation of a full discourse field for any given text—the archive of real and imagined artifacts that elaborate its potential to sustain interpretive play.
Why the machine? To hold and display the “game” and its field of artifacts, the full spectrum of possible media interpretations, versions, sources, and responses to a work and to function as an asynchronous and collective game-space of interaction, to analyze play and show patterns, to give rise to rules from the pattern of play, and finally, to interrupt and disrupt the human players through its own a simulation of a subjective interpretation.
|TEI markup by Andrea Laue|