The Text as World versus the Text as Game: Possible Worlds Semantics and Postmodern Theory
This essay explores the implications of possible worlds theory for literary semantics by locating the theory itself within a field of possibilities. The adoption of this model presupposes three binary choices:
1. A commitment to a metaphor of the text as world, or even to the text as a multi-worlds universe, as opposed to a conception of the text as game.
2. Within the regime of the text as world, a commitment to a centered, but also freely recenterable ontology built on a distinction between an actual and merely possible worlds, as opposed to a model (such as Nelson Goodman’s) that regards all worlds as ontologically equal.
3. A further commitment to the conception of language that the philosopher Jaakko Hintikka calls "language as calculus," as opposed to the view he labels "language as the universal medium." The calculus model postulates the existence of a set of predicates applicable to all possible worlds, a set which can therefore serve as basis for the construction and the comparison of worlds, while the universal medium concept favors a relativist approach, according to which textual (and cultural) worlds are self-enclosed systems of representations which can only be studied in their own terms.
The essay discusses the strengths and limitations that are tied to these choices.
Cyberspace, Virtuality, and the Text
This essay investigates the connections of the VR concepts of immersion and interactivity to two philosophical interpretations of virtuality. One, associated with the work of Jean Baudrillard, regards the virtual as that which passes as real, but is not. The other, developed by Pierre Lévy, the French philosopher of electronic media, conceives the virtual as that which could become real. One meaning suggests the negative idea of a "hyperreal" that takes the place of reality (or hides its absence, in the more radical interpretations); the other supports the positive idea of a field of possibilities. While immersion in a virtual world depends on a notion of fake reality, interactivity can be seen as the development of the potential inherent to the virtual. The essay argues that virtuality is inherent to both print and electronic texts, but electronic texts elevate the virtual-as-potential to a second power.
Will New Media Produce New Narratives ?
This paper takes a critical look at the claim, voiced by many prominent theorists of digital textuality, especially by George Landow and Janet Murray, that the new digital media will deeply transform, or “reconfigure” narrative. This claim can be understood in two ways: (1) digital media transform narrative on the level of story—they create new types of narrative in the semantic sense of the term; (2) digital media affect discourse, but leave story intact. If one adheres to a universalist theory of narrative, by which narrativity is a cognitive pattern that transcends cultures and history, the first interpretation is untenable; it is therefore on the level of the presentation and experience of story, if indeed they convey one, that digital media affect narrativity. But even if “narrative” is regarded as a universal cognitive structure, this structure is flexible enough to encompass a wide variety of forms. The question of the impact of digital media on narrativity thus breaks down into two issues: (1) What types of plot and what narrative themes are compatible with the properties of the medium ? (2) How are these plots and themes presented and experienced ? This paper surveys the properties of digital media, singling out interactivity as the most distinctive and classifying this feature into distinct types: internal, external, exploratory, ontological, selective, and productive. Each of these types is shown to favor different narrative themes and different variations of the universal narrative structure. Rather than assuming, as the first generation of hypertext theorists have done, that interactivity necessarily works in support of narrative meaning, I regard their compatibility as problematic. The production of new forms of narrative discourse through digital media is therefore the result of a compromise between the properties of the medium and the demands of narrativity: new media must adapt themselves to narrative, as much as they affect the way we experience it. The specific forms of this compromise, as well as the mode of narrativity particular to each case (diegetic vs. dramatic), are discussed separately for several genres of digital textuality: literary hypertext, computer games, MOOs, VR installations, and Webcams.
Digital narratives have often been hailed as open works that contain many texts in one. This paper explores some of the system configurations, linking strategies, and modes of user participation that enable digital texts to achieve the problematic task of combining variability with narrativity. The investigation focuses on three areas of narrative variation : discourse, point of view , and plot—the most difficult to achieve if narrative logic is to be respected. The paper concludes by discussing the idea (or rather the dream) of a variability of the meta-level: a narrative engine that modifies itself, and the stories it can tell, in response to the user’s actions.
Digital Narrative: Learning to Think With the Medium
If we regard dependency on the hardware of the computer as the distinctive feature of the medium family known as “digital”, then the various types of text-creating and text-displaying software should be regarded as the submedia of digitality. This essay revisits the evolution of digital narrative over the past twenty-five years, presenting it as the story of the relations between software support and textual products and asking of each authoring system: what are its special affordances; and how do these affordances affect the construction of narrative meaning ? The types of texts examined in the paper are: text-based interactive fictions; Storyspace hypertexts; and Flash texts. The paper argues that digital texts should not be expected to be enhanced versions of the novel, of drama, or of the cinema. Their achievements reside in other areas: freely explorable narrative archives; dynamic interplay between words and image; and active participation in fantasy worlds, such as we find in multi-player on-line computer games. Digital narrative is only a failure if we judge it by the criteria of the literary canon, this is to say, by the criteria of another medium.
Metalepsis, a rhetorical and narrative figure described as early as the 17th century by French rhetoricians, has become one of the favorite concepts of postmodern culture and contemporary critical discourse. This essay explores its manifestations in various fields, with special emphasis on its affinities with computers and on its manifestations in digital culture. The narratological concept of metalepsis is explained through the computer-programming concept of the stack, a hierarchical system with distinct levels and a LIFO structure (last in, first out). Metalepsis is an interpenetration of levels that challenges the hierarchical organization and the rigid order of processing of the stack. Two forms are distinguished: rhetorical metalepsis, which opens a temporary window between levels, and ontological metalepsis, which attacks the logical distinction of levels and leads to what Douglas Hoftadter has called “tangled hierarchies” and “strange loops.” Any hierarchical system can be subjected to metaleptic operations, whether the levels are rhetorical or ontological, visual or musical, logical or technological, spatial or temporal. After an overview of metaleptic effects in narratology, mathematical logic (Gödel’s theorem), experimental science (Schrödinger’s cat), and computer science (Turing’s proof of the insolvability of the halting problem), the paper turns to metalepsis in code poetry, computer games, and virtual reality technology. In most of its manifestations metalepsis challenges the boundaries of fictional worlds located on the higher levels of the stack, without affecting reality, but the paper investigates the theoretical idea of a metaleptic take-over of the “ground level” of reality by the images that are stacked upon it.