An Interview with Myself

What do you usually write about in your posts? Are there broad themes or specific concerns that reoccur in your writing?

Themes, yes. Many common themes. The other day, I did an exercise with myself where I tried to list out the ideas that I’m truly interested in working on. I tried to be as explicit with myself about the topics that I truly feel internally motivated to learn about independent of external reasons (grades, career opportunities, etc) for pursuing a topic. Here is a picture which illustrates where this landed me.

I don’t think this list is exhaustive. Three days later than the drafting of this, I’m already surprised that I didn’t jot down anything about the politics of self-representation or the ways in which comics can be used as an artistic medium to express information.

Anyways. Unsurprisingly, a lot of these themes came up in my projects and posts. The politics of language appears most prominently as a theme in my submission for the Tracery Project. This project at its core aims to tackle the ways in which the words we choose to use have political implications. I talk about explicitly the concepts of intellectual property and crediting in my first two blog posts, The Hoax of Originality and Write Bad Poetry, Sing Out of Tune, and Other Relevant Platitudes If The Robots Don’t Take Over. Constructions of mental and emotional (dis)ability came up with Mental Illness in Electronic Literature Tropes and Scattered Thoughts on “Pry”. My blog post on The Game on “Empathy Engine”  clearly explored the idea of games as a proxy for larger societal issues and conversations.

How have your blog posts evolved over this semester?

I’m free! Not really… but I have managed to at least partially unchain myself from my internalization of the conventions of academic writing that so often distress me. This course, inadvertently, has challenged the ways that I think about my own writing. By reading digital literature that so clearly pushed the bounds of what is considered literature, I’m given the opportunity to think about the ways to communicate information that aren’t as clearly narrative-oriented, or that carry out a narrative in a way that’s different than what we’re used to. Social psychologists have discussed that we read at a reading level much higher than our own writing level, which perhaps explains why so many of us internalize our struggles to create and publish content at the collegiate level when we’re bombarded with a series of highly edited, peer-reviewed articles and books that people devote their life to creating.

Of my pre-conceived notions about writing that have evolved this semester, I feel that the most significant has been my understanding of structure and linearity.

What ideas or threads in your posts do you see as worth revisiting?

Externalizing through blog posts some ideas about originality has allowed me to process it more consciously and actively. While I discussed the concepts on a more global level, I think that it’s worth exploring the effect that the collegiate emphasis on originality, original ideas, original research, original art, etc actually serves to reinforce existing systemic inequalities. While most transparently, a system of intellectual property serves to stop ideas from being stolen (which by the way, still happens unchecked to authors and artists of color all the time), the system as it currently exists also encourages us to only treat the published, well-regarded works of others as what we need to credit, rather than our mothers for listening to and shaping our ideas, our friends for encouraging and supporting certain pursuits and conversations, our professors that truly set us off on thinking about a topic in a particular way, the novels and short stories we’ve read that influenced our worldview and ideologies.

We’re conditioned to treat only the subject material that directly relates to the methodology of the work that we’re conducting as worthy contributions worth accrediting. And that’s not a quick fix. Until the mass inequities of women and especially women of color in higher education and professionalized spaces and the labor of traditionally feminized roles is anywhere near addressed, this reality will continue to result in the invisibilization of the labor that our communities (largely held up by supportive women who hear us out) have put into developing the people and ideas that we hold near and dear to our identities today.

On “How to Rob the American Electorate”: An Artist Statement and Reflection

Earlier this semester, our class was presented with the opportunity to choose one work of digital literature to focus on extensively in the format of a Let’s Play video. Having already become enchanted with Alan Bigelow’s how to rob a bank, I chose this piece for my analysis. Through the process of becoming more intimately familiar with the piece’s narrative arch and ways of exploiting digital mediums, I concluded that the work ultimately communicates a story using methods that would not be possible in a traditional book of print.

As a recap, my argument centered around three themes that Bigelow’s work served to highlight: surveillance, passive consumption, and normalization of product placement. The first two themes, that of surveillance and of passive consumption, I’d like to pick apart again here. The method of information delivery that how to rob a bank uses makes a cunning critique of the ways that information can easily be collected about us based on our smartphone usage. The success of the piece depends largely on our ability to grasp information about the phone user completely independent of any external narration. Relatedly, the method of progression involves a process of consistent swiping familiar to the average smartphone user. We, as readers, indicate we have absorbed the information and are ready for the next visual or auditory information to consume by swiping to the left. When played on the computer, this process is enacted by a similarly familiar mechanism to the modern digital browser (the arrow keys).

I find these elements significant to reflect back upon because of their relevance in the construction of my final port project. Beginning the creation of my own original spinoff of how to rob a bank, I thought I knew what I was getting into. I had a general sense of how the mechanics of the project worked, and I was intrigued by the ways that this piece was uniquely digital in comparison to other forms of digital narrative we looked at which perhaps relied heavily on auditory or textual narration to deliver the plotline. What I had little to no idea about was how much work would go into the construction and carefully planned revealing of a digital persona. Throughout the process, I fancied myself quite the digital spinster – beginning with a few semi-defined pivot points and slowly teasing out details about the character and background story as I continued.  The creation of this process was much like the unraveling and repackaging of a ball of yarn, leaving the story nicely contained for the next person to approach and experience. I do not doubt that this analogy would find common ground in the mind of Alan Bigelow, himself self-proclaimed author of “webyarns”.

The magnitude of the fact that the day I sit down to write this reflection, and reveal this project on my digital domain, is the day that President Trump commits yet another act of political violence upon an entire population of people is not lost on me. It would be unfortunate and perhaps shameful to write this reflection and leave out the fact that today is the day that President Trump chose to formally recognize Jerusalem as the state of Israel’s capital and to order the U.S. embassy to relocate to this area of contentious and genocidal settlement. The combined efforts of the scope of this paper and the limits of my own concision does not leave me room to give justice to this conversation, but this is an event of global importance that we cannot rightfully ignore.

I also wish to recenter the intentions of this project and, accordingly, the merits of humor and satire in building community, developing a voice, and recognizing the absurdities of the world around us. Nonetheless, humor and satire will never be more than a conversation, and thus, I take seriously both objections to the representations I have presented in this project and the ultimate end aspiration to make meaningful change in society beyond the satiric representation of a detested profile in the United States at this present time.

It is worth here noting that the intention of this project was never to move beyond a caricatured vision of a Trump supporter. For one thing, this pieces does not aim to underline a commentary of how we arrived in this political moment, but rather to give due attention to the automated campaign fundraising texts that President Trump’s media and fundraising team continue to carry out to this day. The account represented through the texts from the 88022 number is in no way fictionalized. Every message, video, and link displayed on the screen appeared in an actual message from the Trump campaign over the past months. Setting aside the natural discomfort that arises from a sitting president running an active fundraising campaign, this project aims to highlight the unique tone of these messages. The choice of diction, register, and false urgency aim to culminate a fabricated sense of interpersonal communication and individual attention that stands in stark contrast to the messages’ mode of delivery (i.e. mass telecommunication with all who enlist in receiving such updates with no availability or opportunity for response).

By using this project to respond to an assignment which asks us to transcribe, or “port”, one form of narrative to a new media, I aim to work alongside Alan Bigelow and other electronic authors in challenging underlying constructions of what constitutes literature. I found that the most meaningful way to transcribe texts into a fuller story was to create a character that represented the traits of a person whom the continued media contribution campaign clearly targets.

On another level, there are already plenty of pieces which do the work of humanizing white supremacists, misogynists, and generally xenophobic Americans. Perhaps most crucially though, to whom do these pieces ultimately actually serve?  In response to the debates surrounding the New York Times profile of a Neo-Nazi, Twitter user Talia Levin sums up this point succinctly: “illustrating the banality of evil by focusing solely on the banality and not the evil seems counterproductive”. In other words, who we choose to spotlight with full depth of character and who we choose to write off with two-dimensional tropes is immensely political.

Joe Duncan as a character explicitly represents an exaggeration of several tropes: namely, the deeply misogynistic, bro-ish, oil-stock-trading econ major who doesn’t respect the broader fields of humanities, nor any ethical boundaries. One intention of this project was to create a character that could believably parody some of the traits of the people we encounter on the daily at Davidson, rather than to place the cultural indictments of the vigilant Trump supporter on a distant, classed and regionalized other.

Due to the extensiveness of the process, I found that I had, in fact, accidentally created not one project, but one full story, which could not be given justice within the limits of this project. I expect, and hope, to return to this process to continue the story of Joe Duncan’s journey to New York to meet his hero, Donald Trump. However, in its current iteration, there are two “easter eggs” which may or may not come up in playthroughs. First, we are exposed to three forms of digital interaction which Joe engages in: texting, emailing, and tweeting. While Joe’s (read: my) number is somewhat intentionally not revealed in the course of the story, both his email account and Twitter handle can be found through the close reading of the screenshots and GIFs provided in the project. Should the reader choose to message Joe on either of these platforms, they will be surprised to be immediately greeted with a characteristically offensive response. The email account uses a simple automatic reply system commonly used for vacation responses to send an aggressive comment. Joe’s Twitter account runs a script provided by the service Cheap Bots Done Quick, which utilizes Kate Compton’s Tracery JSON framework to cycle between several possible remarks when users tag the handle. These easter eggs were designed in response to our classes’ conversation about migratory clues and transmedia storytelling, such as the spinoff website available from the clues of the video, This House Has People In It

Overall, the project has room for several next steps which I hope to expand on in future months. Several further platforms (visible on Joe phone’s home screen) were originally imagined as potential platforms for plot development, which ideally future chapters will speak to. The next chapter of the story necessarily entails a journey of personal confrontation with the disparity between the tone of the Trump campaign’s fundraising messages and the reality that not every average Joe supporter will be able to sustain a personal relationship (or even meet) the president of the United States. I do also wish to eventually either amend or expand the easter eggs that currently exist such that further content beyond personal aggrandization can be obtained through the additional efforts of the reader. Ultimately, I hope you enjoyed experiencing this project. I surely enjoyed creating it.

Scattered Thoughts on “Pry”

I’ve decided I’m going to try to list this as a database rather than a narrative.

  1. I’m glad Pry was left for last because I think this piece has the most sophisticated digital presentation of all of the platforms we’ve explored. We started with Ice Bound Concordance, which had the potential in my opinion to be the most sophisticated (should its digital technology have been the most up to date) for a few reasons: first, its embodied technology. Like Between the Page and Screen, Ice Bound Concordance used the built-in camera on digital devices to project additional meaning into physical space for the viewer/reader/player; second, the depth of its message. Unlike Between the Page and Screen, which made some strong and valid points about the meanings of language and life, Ice Bound Concordance took several hours to complete and made several new commentaries through each chapter and mechanism for engagement provided. Why do I think Pry was more sophisticated? It’s worth exploring the ways in which the dating of technology affects electronic literature. In my view, the aesthetic and functional performance of technology relative to other mediums of the time is paramount to its effect on the reader. Perhaps an affordance of most traditional books is that we expect very little regarding its display of words across the pages. Digital literature faces this problem more seriously. We must be captivated (as a function of our expectations of competitive technological storytelling methods of the time) by the presentation of the work, or the work’s meaning diminishes. Pry is sophisticated, beautiful, and created with cameras and digital platforms that appear modern and current in my imagination. For now.
  2. Speaking of, one of the most effective techniques available for communicating first-person narration throughout the story is the requirement that both fingers be attached to the screen for the viewing of the entire section. The story will progress if you don’t maintain active attention to keeping your fingers in the right position. That requirement of touchscreen technology on app-based platforms feels very relatively new to me, in comparison to the clicking and arrows of other stories we’ve explored in this course.
  3. Another effective technique was the ridiculously high quality of the camera work. I felt astounded that it was even showing on my phone at such a high quality. The role that this played in communicating messages involving loss of vision cannot be understated. When we are watching a first-person and the picture blurs, it is a stand-out moment, as the quality of the camera work feels so close to the normal experience of seeing that a blur registers as our own vision as readers actually failing. Or perhaps this game was just very effective in having me internalize the main character’s psyche.
  4. Lots to say about the unconscious versus the conscious. I’m sure we’ll talk about Freud in class. My favorite symbol of understanding and talking about these concepts comes from the idea of the iceberg, where the conscious are the thoughts and perceptions that are completely visible, the pre-conscious are the things that are within reach of bringing to the visible, and the un-conscious are the things so repressed and buried that we can’t even access them on a regular basis.
Graphic obtained from a personal blog explaining to their readers the Freudian concept of the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious levels of the mind. Here is the link to the source.
[So it ended up being a list of narratives. I guess that’s how this goes.]

Mental Illness in Electronic Literary Tropes

The political philosopher Hannah Arendt once stated, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” In fact, she did more than state it. Arendt is most popular for her controversial book, The Banality of Evil, in which she makes the bold claim that evil is not in fact perpetrated by evil individuals, but instead the product of all uncritical individuals not questioning the evils of the systems they are complicit within. (It is also worth noting, she lived as a Jewish woman and Holocaust escapee in the United States. Her writing of this concept becomes most controversial due to its heavily implied suggestion that the cultural leaders of Jewish society at the time were at least partially responsible for the mass genocide committed against their people by their degree of compliance with their oppressors.)

In puzzling over the four categories of dysfunctionality in digital art, I’m most interested in the idea of the experimental dysfunctionality, which Dr. Sample describes in his summary as the idea that the dysfunction is in fact groundwork for a new type of functionality altogether. This seems to fit neatly into a genre of disability studies which argues that society frames what is considered disability by deciding what counts as functioning appropriately, or normally, and holding all else to that standard. In terms of the washing machine, the washing machine is dysfunctional because it cannot perform its function in the forest, on its side, unconnected to the electric grid. The experimentally dysfunctional perhaps then draws parallel to the Arendtian conclusion that it is not the individual that is dysfunctional (or evil, in moral terms) as much as the standard and system behind what is considered functional and normal which needs to change. Glitch art, for example, seems to speak to folks with mental illness across the spectrum because it shouts out a problem, an incongruence, a dysfunction that sits in contrast to what is expected, in an incredibly relatable way.

This contrasts to the, perhaps, alienating feeling produced from a few of the other themes and tropes we’ve discussed. To illustrate, much of our class discussion (and the larger internet discussion outside of the classroom) of Her Story focused on the possibility that either there was an evil twin sister involved, or the main character was just mentally ill. The mental illness we refer to loosely in this situation is known as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), though its name has changed several times with the new editions of the DSM. To what degree does the genre of the gothic and the theme of the uncanny require and depend on this trope of the double as the dissociative, as the mentally ill? I would hope not so much at all. However, even popular representations outside of this course — for example, M. Night Shyamalan’s recent film Split mirror such a depiction of individuals with DID as violent, as threats to society, as the type of unreliable narrator whose autonomy should be consistently undermined in favor of the larger societal welfare. Surely, most of the harm of this trope comes from the viewer’s internalization of the trope as generalizable to the larger population of real (non-fictional) characters living with mental illness, and yet, we still choose to typecast the individual as the dysfunctional villain in most popular representations of mental illness to date.

I feel that we should be cognizant of this problem in our discussions – we should bring it to the forefront – and problematize it – and we should just consider for a moment how people living with this disorder, or others, feel the impacts of being placed into the aggressively pro-social or anti-social serial killer box upon our first encounters. As a person who is regularly diagnosed as having varying forms of mood disorders, I can speak to the experience of being quickly condensed into the good mentally ill (the one that won’t off themselves in front of you, the one that can still have a conversation and perform the part, the closed doors only mentally ill) or the bad mentally ill (stay away from these folks, potentially violent, emotional drain, not worth your time).* Neither one of those boxes feels good. It’s something to work on, and our understanding of those who suffer and those who are not normal as inherently violent and dangerous is perhaps a good place to start our work.

*I am borrowing this framework from a great article by Sam Dylan Finch, available here.

The Game as “Empathy Engine”

Today in class, we were given time to explore different Twine games available on the Internet. I chose to look at a series of Twine pieces called “Lights Out, Please“. These works fall solidly under the category Dr. Sample defined in class today as “dark”, “horror” based Twine games. There’s something special about the horror Twine stories presented in this collection though, that being that they’re created from the perspective and voice of a group of marginalized authors. Why does this matter? As was brought up in class today, when an industry is dominated by one particular type of person (in the video game industry’s case, straight white men), the games tend to be created for and by solely that demographic. This is largely the root of the #GamerGate scandal starting in 2014, as men lashed out about the illegitimacy of the games created by women in a “No True Scotsman” sort of fashion.

One speaker at the PopTech conference (that I spoke about in my last blog post) also referenced this problem of the body/positionality of the programmer. His name is Ramesh Srinivasan. I’ve attached an image I created quoting his speech below, but as a general overview, he spoke mostly of the ways in which algorithms are not actually biased, but rather, that they reflect the biases that we hold. While in some instances, face recognition software may actually be programmed to not recognize darker skinned faces, in most instances, algorithms like Facebook’s and Twitter’s newsfeeds are not forcing us to look at certain sources more than others, but rather those are the things that we actually click on the most. (Note: The quotation featured below actually had an addendum, that being, “rather than some sort of neutral engineering voice that has never been neutral”.)

To this point, Lights Out Now is a game about kidnapping, abuse, and assault. The curator of this project, Kaitlin Tremblay, noted that “The fear shown in horror games and films isn’t a unique horror—for many people, it is part of a daily lived reality. Many marginalized people live with a certain kind of fear in their everyday lives. Whether this is a fear of getting home safely without being harassed or assaulted with hate speech, or a fear of being alone in their own apartment due to break-ins, or even a fear of simply leaving the house.”

As José comically noted in today’s class (and I believe Olivia a few classes ago), it’s not an uncommon phenomenon for many psychological horror games to “gaslight” us. This collection of works flips the script by recreating the type of gaslighting, fear, and anxiety that many marginalized people experience on a daily basis. I’ve attached some screenshots below as examples.

Pay special attention to the way that the size increase of certain words for emphasis, and the ways in which these examples ask us to refuse to speak up about the things we’re experiencing, while simultaneously placing the blame on us if we don’t get the help we need.

Ultimately, these games are unique in that they provide an opportunity for folks who may not ever experience this kind of gaslighting because of their social positionality and privilege to understand and empathize with the experience of those who do. That is where their power comes in. As Asi Burak, Chair of the Games for Change organization and creator of a famous Israel/Palestine peacemaking game, noted at the conference, the perspective that we create in virtual games can serve as an “empathy engine”.

Works Cited:

Tremblay, Kaitlin. “Lights Out, Please.” Itch.io, 10 Mar. 2016, kait_zilla.itch.io/lights-out-please.

Velloci, Carli. “Flesh & Twine: A New Storytelling Platform Explores Gender Horror With Each Click.” Bitch Media, 2015.

Power to the People (All of Them)

This past week, I had the tremendous opportunity to attend the 21st annual PopTech conference. I was one of few undergraduate students who was provided this opportunity. The conference is a space of convergence for up-and-coming ‘innovative’ individuals across all fields of study and practice which brings together professionals and experts in their disciplines to speak, much like a TED conference. At PopTech 2017, I had the opportunity to witness the rap / electric viola combination of Rahzel the Legend and Martha Mooke, to hear from the world’s hottest relationship scientists, to see an artistic collaboration by famous 3D painter Alexa Meade, and perhaps most relatedly to this course, hear from National Geographic experts about their work of expanding the field of ‘citizen science’ and digital mapping programs.

Here are some images/quotes I created about the National Geographic speakers and populated on the official PopTech Twitter account, available originally here.

David Lang, most famous for his work on creating underwater drones to map the world’s oceans, spoke at PopTech about his interest in democratizing exploration. As I was in charge of live tweeting the conference, I got a myriad of interesting quotations from his speech. One that particularly struck me was this idea of citizen science. He explained, “Citizen science is one of the few places where there’s a bridge between the public and scientists. It’s not just scientists publishing, there’s a conversation. We need to have a scientifically literate society. Citizen science offers a glimmer of hope in that regard.”

Aside from the obvious connection between the spatial organization of digital environments that we’ve talked about this entire course, as per Janet Murray’s piece, I also was struck by the relationship between his comments and the work of Twine. Twine provides a platform for everyday internet users to create their own virtual games without the deep knowledge and understanding of complex programming languages usually required to complete such work. Similarly, Kate Compton’s Tracery framework allows for us to create Twitter Bots with ease and little to no programming familiarity.

Projects like all three of the above are working to change who we understand as gamers, who we understand as programmers, who we understand as explorers, and who we understand as scientists. This is important to work that needs to be done to expand these fields of study from merely the ivory tower of academics, to fields that we don’t necessarily need to hold a degree to contribute to and create within.

Works Cited:

Janet Murray, chapter 3 from Hamlet on the Holodeck (1997)
Carolyn Petit, “Power to the People: The Text Adventures of Twine” from GameSpot (2013)

Only Linear Narratives Have a Wrong Way

Good morning, Electronic Literature. Doing the Let’s Play video for this class has motivated me to think of these blogging assignments more as conversations and less as papers that require a direct point with three pieces of evidence. (Funny, though, because the latter more accurately reflects the assignment we had for the Let’s Play. I guess I’m trying to indicate more of a commentary on the tone of the writing.)

I’m sad to say I will not be in class to discuss how to rob a bank, which was actually the piece I chose to do my Let’s Play video on before I realized it was on the syllabus! I love this piece. I’m going to embed my video below.

*As a quick note, I mentioned a tiny detail about an app game showcased on the user’s back screen as “Taylor”. It’s actually called “Lifeline”, where you work with and guide the character, Taylor. Probably will hear more about that game from me later in the semester on this blog.

I covered most of the main points of what I wanted to say about the work in the assignment, though now having sat with the The Language of New Media reading for about a week and a half, I want to think about this piece in the context of the narrative versus the database. This piece is situated solidly in the narrative camp in a way that is almost profound for its representation on a digital platform. I’m thrown back to the conversations we had on the second day of class about the impending death of the eBook – as it failed to take advantage of key affordances of the new platform it has migrated on, instead, mirroring the mechanics of reading a material book. While I definitely do not feel that way about Alan Bigelow’s work, and I think that he creates the effect of swiping quite intentionally as a form of passive consumption, I’m still kind of left flabbergasted by the lack of effort I have to put into reading and following the story, and there is pretty much no way I can conceive to do it differently. Just like a book in print, if I wanted a different read on the information and characters provided, I’d have to literally blatantly skip pages. Every detail in the narrative is provided for a reason.

Most of my conceptualization of the lack of “database” in this piece comes from the fact that there is little ability to navigate spatially on the screen (though also notably, little ability as well to consider this piece particularly encyclopedic). The options are quite simple, forwards with the right arrow key, or backwards with the left. In fact, you can only go so far backwards on the left before the screen forcefully informs you “wrong way!” and puts you back on course. I’m reminded of the little flying koopa that puts you back on track when you’re going the wrong direction in the Mario Kart franchise. I’ve attached images of both below for comparison.

The “Wrong Way!” sign if you go too far backwards in how to rob a bank by Alan Bigelow: http://webyarns.com/howto/howto.html
The character at the top is indicating that you are going the “Wrong Way!” in the GameCube game, Mario Kart. Image taken from TheUltimateTailsFan28’s Youtube Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RpU_b3jZIww

Anyways, even the other piece that we read for class today, which could also be clearly and uncontentiously classified as digital narrative and literature, at least challenges the form of the webpage a bit more than Alan Bigelow’s work by giving us some room to navigate the space and choose different directions. This piece, however, also relies heavily on the narrative structure in that it requires all things to be read and interpreted with the author’s end point and framing centrally in mind.

Works Cited:

Lev Manovich, “The Database” from The Language of New Media (2001)

Let’s Play: how to rob a bank

I found this amazing piece of art, how to rob a bank – all lowercase for minimalist aesthetic points, on the Shortlisted Competition Entries of Reading Digital Fiction (parentheses funded by the AHRC, close parentheses).  All credit for the piece goes to digital author Alan Bigelow, famous for pushing the boundaries of multimedia work for several years, with most of his finished productions available on his website webyarns dot com.

Works Cited: 

Murray, Janet – Hamlet on the Holodeck (1997)
Rabinowitz, Peter – Narrative Conventions ( 1987)
Raley, Rita – Dataveillance and Counterveillance (2013)
Zuboff, Shoshana – Surveillance Capitalism (2015)

Technological Sublime, Technological Uncanny, and Boundless Houses

Inherent in the Kantian definition of the sublime is the human experience of being overwhelmed. Nye adds that “the perception of what is immense and infinite changes over time and across cultures.” (Nye 10). This becomes particularly relevant with the advent of modern technology. While it is seemingly intuitive that natural phenomena may be sublime, as well as perhaps outer space, and new territory in an unmapped world, at a very basic level, technology magnifies the human capacity in a way that is both sublime and perhaps, uncanny. To elaborate, concepts of the cyborg emerge in literature as a technological double of sorts. The idea of the clone similarly relies on this foundation of technological innovation pushing the human capacity beyond its natural limit or beyond the point that we still find comfort in our reality. At its core, the sublime means representations so expansive that we can’t quite wrap our mind around their entirety. In this way, perhaps the technological sublime finds great overlap with the technological uncanny.

 

This holds true in Mark Sample’s House of Leaves of Grass as well as its predecessor, Sea and Spar Between. Both pieces utilize a JavaScript framework that by default, show 15 stanzas on a standard size monitor. Zooming in and out will adjust the number of stanzas visible, to the point that there are none in legible view (because of their microscopic font size or because only select words of the stanza are showing). This process feels similar to traversing the natural sublime, in that you can stand on the top of the Grand Canyon, and consume the view (with your eyes or a camera) of the grand masses without detail, or you can travel to a particular point and view the details of the beauty without the larger picture.

 

Screenshot of Max Deutsch’s Harry Potter Neural Network Output.

 

Similar to the neural network that creates chapters based on a set of Harry Potter world characters, nouns, verbs, events, and spells, the grammar file for Sea and Spar Between reveals an array of nouns and syllables found in the Dickinson world. If this process were not automated, and instead, a worker was to sit and create each of these possible stanza combinations, we could imagine the labor that would require. I am reminded of my days as an elementary schooler, unfamiliar with the inventions of the printing press, sitting in my room trying to copy onto blank pages by handwriting my favorite short stories to share with my friends so that we may each have a copy. This very extension of what I could ever humanly complete, through the printing press, and through the technology imposed in the electronic literature pieces we’ve discussed, is itself, another dimension of the sublime irrespective of the visual representation of the product that’s created.

 

Within House of Leaves of Grass, we see little color and, perhaps as an extension of the rules of notice, we should pay attention to where that color surfaces. The color blue is used every time the stanza uses the word “house”. In This House Has People In It, the house represented the suburban unit of isolation. At any point, should a neighbor have walked into the house, the story arguably may not have been as dark. Central to the dark and twisty plotline of this piece is the family unit being removed from the larger community, and in many ways, trapped in the locus of the house. House of Leaves similarly represents a house that is of course, physically bound, but paradoxically, internally boundless. House of Leaves of Grass, the electronic literature piece, takes this concept one step further by playing with the number of stanzas (which, as the author notes, comes from the Italian word for ‘room’) such to approximate the number of cells in the human body. In the context of the technological sublime, perhaps this serves to make a statement about the ways in which, much like a family in a suburban house, we are trapped in the confines of our body, and yet, our body contains multitudes. What do we think?

 

Works Cited:

Deutsch, Max. “Harry Potter: Written by Artificial Intelligence.” 8 July 2016, medium.com/deep-writing/harry-potter-written-by-artificial-intelligence-8a9431803da6

Monfort, Nick, and Stephanie Strickland. Sea and Spar Between, nickm.com/montfort_strickland/sea_and_spar_between/

Nye, David E. American Technological Sublime, MIT Press, 1994.

Sample, Mark. House of Leaves of Grass, http://fugitivetexts.net/houseleavesgrass/index.html

Resnick, Alan. This House Has People In It. Adult Swim, 15 Mar. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-pj8OtyO2I&t=317s

The Institutional Response Generator: Your Hot, New, Go-To Tragedy Response HelperBot

The Tracery Project as a platform excites me because it gives an avenue for less technically advanced, but highly procedural minds to explore the predictability of texts. When I say “procedural”, I generally refer to “the procedural” nature of digital environments as described by Janet Murray in Hamlet On the Holodeck. She writes “the computer can be a compelling medium for storytelling if we can write rules for it that are recognizable as an interpretation of the world” (Murray 73). In other words, our ability to write rules for computers to generate content similar, or somehow meaningful in interpreting, the world around us is described by the quality of being “procedural”. She furthers that “the challenge for the future” is to make it such that “rule writing” is “as available to writers as musical notation is to composers” (Murray 73-74). The Tracery library created by Kate Compton is doing just that.

For my project, I created an Institutional Response Generator which aims to address the often sterile, shallow, hollow response of institutions (and especially academic institutions) to national tragedies affecting their constituents. Because institutions of higher education pander to a wide variety of bankrolling alumni and parents, they are inherently inclined to remain apolitical for the sake of keeping the peace. However, the onslaught of increasingly horrific incidents as well as an oppressed populace gaining increased critical consciousness thanks to pressure of progressive organizers has forced institutions to respond at least nominally to such incidents. The common response of an institution has several key traits, perhaps most notably, the lack of historical analysis regarding why the event may have occurred and lack of accountability on the part of the institution. The first aspect of this project that aims to address this is the intentional use of the passive voice in several of the possible generations (from “The #topic# is something we as #unifyingNoun# must address” to “sustained damage to several local mosques”, as opposed to having sentences with active agents and descriptions of the agents’ corresponding actions). Regarding accountability of the institution, the generator provides an entire branching mechanism to “dissociateFromGuiltyAgent” as well as to “avoidResponsibility”. The options within these branches represent common phrases institutions may use to redirect attention away from their own role in contributing to (or failing to stop) violence, and towards an individual or group that perpetrated violence. This is meant to be a commentary on the way we interpret our institutions as holders of values with mission statements, yet ask very little of them in terms of accepting a role in the creation of dominant culture and subcultures.

Another key feature of generic responses is the response of “advocateDialogueNotAction”. For any powerful institution, it will always be in the institution’s best interest to prevent real conflict and demands that require shifting who holds the power. Famous early wave feminist Sojourner Truth made the analogy, “I know that it is hard for one who has held the reins for so long to give up; it cuts like a knife” (Truth 65). To incorporate such notions into my project, I created (some Davidson-specific and some general) sentences that advocate for commonly advocated solutions that fail to meaningfully disrupt power relations, yet provide some semblance of lip service to the issue at hand. I attempted to replicate the dynamic in which such statements are framed as calls to action but actually seek to offer an alternative deliberately distinct from activism in a traditional sense.

At this juncture, it is relevant to note that several of the “artistic” points of the piece reflect the code itself rather than only the result that the code generates on a public-facing screen. This study of the signifying features of code has an entire category of scholarship behind it. Regarding the JFK: Reloaded video game, Mark Sample and Cindy Poremba engage in a lively discussion about what it means to be a documentary video game as well as whether the code behind a product is in and of itself a critique-worthy feature of the product. For context, the JFK: Reloaded game is a first-person shooter game in which the player is prompted to reenact the assassination of former President John F Kennedy in the most historically accurate manner possible. Poremba notes, “By shifting the notion of documentary away from the inherent properties of recording technology, objectivity, and authority, and by framing it as a matter of social negotiation” the game complicates our understanding of “documentary” as “objective truth” (Poremba 8). However, Sample notes that perhaps, through “three lines of code commentary” in which the coders reveal misogynistic intentions in the creation of the game, the creators “absolutely undermine the entire stated pedagogical project” by revealing parts of their positional framing (Sample 2). I attempt to similarly (yet, perhaps more intentionally) play with understandings of the critical ways in which our framing plays into coding endeavors. Thus, I encourage those interested in the decisions I made to check out the rest of my Tracery grammar file to explore the other symbolic decisions I made in the creation and naming of the different components of the code.

Overall, my project fits into the larger sociological scholarship of what societal change looks like, the larger digital humanities scholarship of what the non-functional features of code signify, and the larger digital affordance conversation. I hope to expand on the project by providing additional examples, sources, and page formatting, and put it on a public-facing platform (aside from where it lives, here on my personal website) at a later point. Thanks for reading!

Sources:

Murray, Janet. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press.

Poremba, Cindy. 2009. “JFK Reloaded:  Documentary Framing and the Simulated Document.” Loading… 3 (4). http://journals.sfu.ca/loading/index.php/loading/article/viewArticle/61.

Sample, Mark. “A Revisionist History of JFK: Reloaded (Decoded).” Play The Past RSS, 2011, www.playthepast.org/?p=1519.

Truth, Sojourner. “Two Speeches.” The Essential Feminist Reader, Modern Library, 2007, pp. 61–66.