Sunday, May 17, 2015

Literary Modernism in TriadCity

Literary theorist Brian McHale defines Modernism this way:

"I will formulate it as a general thesis about modernist fiction: the dominant of modernist fiction is epistemological. That is, modernist fiction deploys strategies which engage and foreground questions such as ... 'How can I interpret this world of which I am a part? And what am I in it?' Other typical modernist questions might be added: What is there to be known?; Who knows it?; How do they know it, and with what degree of certainty?; How is knowledge transmitted from one knower to another, and with what degree of reliability?; How does the object of knowledge change as it passes from knower to knower?; What are the limits of knowledge? And so on." Postmodernist Fiction, Methuen 1987, p. 9.

Subjectivity is central. Unreliable narrators; interior monologue; juxtaposition of multiple simultaneous points of view; ambiguity; allusion; associative leaps; puns and multiple associations of words; discontinuity; fragmentation; emphasis on dream and unconsciousness; elimination or subversion of privileged narratorial points of view, often with multiple narrators: these are all strategies which devalue certainty. McHale emphases that literary “high” Modernism was shadowed by a more popular form which mobilized similar techniques: detective and mystery fiction, where Sherlock Holmes is as much the Modernist paradigm as Leopold Bloom. Something which I think McHale misses: Modernism’s assimilation of themes from contemporary science, Relativity foremost, but also Psychoanalysis, both devaluing privileged points of view. Modernism’s technical practices change the relationship between author and reader, turning texts into games, where consumers of the work are expected to see beyond narrative surfaces, and success of the work depends in large measure on the author’s skill at providing the clues which readers require to figure things out.

Lolita is a wonderful example. Lolita’s funny specifically because the naive and not particularly observant narrator has no idea what’s going on. The woman he believes he’s able to control is cheating: we see that, the narrator doesn’t, and the comedy becomes increasingly farcical as her cheating becomes more and more brazen. This is a game, a textual one, in which readers are expected to perform a particular type of mental activity to successfully consume the work.

Where Modernism in print is fixed in a single dimension - constrained by its medium of distribution - computer-generated or -mediated Modernism is far more free. Narrative can change in real time under algorithmic control established by authors, opening new authorial possibilities which can be radical or subtle depending on intent. We explore these possibilities everywhere in TriadCity.

For starters, we can dynamically change the text encountered on a reader-by-reader basis, imposing reader subjectivity in a literal way. You and I may walk our characters into the same room at the same moment, and find it described differently to each of us. Where I may find it a drab and unexceptional space, you may experience it as, say, subtly menacing, perhaps by the implication that someone is hiding. Your character may find a larger number of visible items presented to view, while mine may literally not see all of the things that actually are there. Even more radically, one of our characters may see people or things which in fact are not there: we can impose hallucinatory visual and auditory experiences simulating schizophrenia, without necessarily telling you this is happening. We can vary these experiences from reader to reader, or by whole classes of the characters through which reader-participants engage with the work. This is a powerful and very wide authorial tool which is not possible in pre-digital media.

TriadCity uses multiple software techniques to enable these experiences. We can begin with a base text which can be modified dynamically depending on individual character histories, strengths, and proclivities. Or authors can provide multiple texts describing the same space, one of which will be chosen by the computer at runtime under the author’s algorithmic control: characters with attributes ABC will be shown text one, while those with attributes XYZ will be shown text four. Or the computer can dynamically generate whole sub-narratives composed of randomized phrases or other raw material which it assembles in real time — we do this to generate certain classes of dreams for instance, which characters experience while sleeping. The computer can produce AI-driven characters to interact with, and can tailor their attributes specifically for the human-driven characters encountered. This results in a highly dynamic experience with narrative subjectivity under authorial control.

The width of these possibilities enables pure cacophony — not what TriadCity authors typically intend. Most deploy them subtly. I'll frequently produce descriptions which vary by only two or three words depending on the moral alignment of perceiving characters. A "good" character will experience the hearth as warm and inviting, while an "evil" character will experience it as glaring or harsh. These differences are often merely of tone, or emotional nuance. They serve to underscore the thematic centrality of "good" and "evil" in TriadCity: what these terms mean there is demonstrated by these subjective narrative shifts.

I know of no other sustained narrative project which imposes subjectivity of this scope on participants’ experience.

TriadCity mobilizes the Modernist technical palette in other ways too. Textual and linguistic games are endemic, from regions narrated in Pig Latin to a prison of puns — titled "PUNishment", natch — to which misbehaving miscreants can be sentenced. Human-driven characters will dream. We shift narrative voices and points of view, and associative games are ubiquitous. We everywhere build narrative resonance by juxtaposition and fragmentation, rather than continuity. We impose radical forms of consciousness such as the schizophrenia mentioned earlier. We have narrators who'll speak to certain classes of characters while remaining silent with others, and others who lie. These ideas and many others are all ways we adapt Modernist techniques to our multidimensional medium.

Digital media free Modernism from the constraint of linearity imposed by printed distribution. Nabokov's printed and bound Lolita will always cheat in the same way at the same time in the same place every time she's encountered, by the narrator and by readers. A TriadCity Lolita may or may not. And, you may see and understand her, or like Nabokov's dim narrator you may not. It depends. The medium makes this possible.

Robert Natkin abstract

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