Monday, April 14, 2008

Seminar: "Digital Literature, Bakhtin and the Dialogic Principle"

Engelska D, inr. 30 hp
12a Digital literature
12b Bakhtin and the Dialogic Principle

15th April 10:15-12:00 C203.

'Life knows two value-centers that are fundamentally and essentially different, yet are correlated with each other: myself and the other; and it is around these centers that all of the concrete moments of Being are distributed and arranged.' — Mikhail Bakhtin, Towards a Philosophy of the Act

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)

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. Chronotope, Carnivalization, Heteroglossia, Polyphonic, Monologic, and Dialogism are all terms which Bakhtin applies complex meanings to, 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.

In the English translation of “The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays” by M. M. Bakhtin (2002 edition), dialogism is described as

“Dialogism is the characteristic epistemological mode of a world dominated by heteroglossia. Everything means, is understood, as part of a greater whole – there is constant interaction between meanings, all of which have the potential of conditioning others. Which will affect the other, how it will do so and in what degree is what is actually settled at the moment of utterance. This dialogic imperative, mandated by the pre-existence of the language world relative to any of it current inhabitants, insures that there is no actual monologue. One may, like a primitive tribe that knows only its own limits, be deluded into thinking there is one language, or one may, as grammarians, certain political figures and normative framers of “literary languages” do, seek in a sophisticated way to achieve a unitary language. In both cases the unitariness is relative to the overpowering force of heteroglossia, and thus dialogism.” (Glossary to Bakhtin,2002:426 by Holquist)

Key Words and Phrases

“Epistemological mode”
"A theory of the grounds of knowledge: how we ‘make meaning'." (Pearce 2)

“Many Tongues”
“Refers to the ‘internal differentiation’ and ‘stratification’ of different registers within a language in particular, the struggle between the official (ideological dominant) and nonofficial registers.” (Pearce 62)

“The base condition governing the operation of meaning in any utterance. It is that which insures the primacy of context over text. At any given time, in any given place, there will be a set of conditions – social, historical, meteorological, physiological - that will insure that a word uttered in that place at that time will have a meaning different than it would have under any other conditions; all utterances are heteroglot in that they functions of a matrix of forces practically impossible to recoup, and therefore impossible to resolve. Heteroglossia is as close a conceptualization as it possible of that locus where centripetal and centrifugal forces collide; as such it is that which systematic linguistics must always suppress.” (Glossary to Bakhtin,2002:428 by Holquist)

“Speaking alone”
“Monologue refers to those texts in which (to quote Lodge) ‘the authorial narrator does not merely impose his own imperative frame on the table, but makes the characters speak the same language as himself.’ (p19) Bakhtin, as we have already seen, associates this type of authorial hegemony largely with prenovelistic discourse, although it is also a tendency in the classic-realist novel fronted by the so-called ‘omniscient narrator’.” Pearce 51)

Not simply ‘turn taking’, but is perhaps better expressed in the word closest to that used by Bakhtin; dialogism. Dialogism is a state or condition, not just an activity but a quality of being.

“Dialogic relationships are possible not only among whole (relatively whole) utterances; a dialogic approach is possible toward any signifying part of an utterance, even toward an individual word, if that word is perceived not as the impersonal word of language but as a sign of someone else’s semantic position, as the representative of another person’s utterance, that is if we hear it in someone else’s voice. Thus dialogic relationships can permeate inside the utterance, even inside the individual word as long as two voices collide within it dialogically (microdialogue, of which we spoke earlier).” (Bakhtin, 2002:184)

In relation to a work of digital literature dialogism operates throughout the artifact. It is in the sense that the mechanics and design of the work of digital literature are also sources or sites of meaning. The materiality of literary works as dialogic systems, no matter what media, is well illustrated by a short video, “Learn the Book”:

What makes a book meaningful in the context of the ‘medieval helpdesk’ is learning the registers of its use. These registers are culturally, historically and socially situated. Because we are so familiar with books as a means of storing and transmitting information, culture, knowledge, and so on we do not question the dialogues that exist around such artifacts and how they are employed in the construction of meaning.

A well known and respected theorist of digital literature, Katherine Hayles writes;

“Let us begin rethinking materiality by noting that it is impossible to precisely specify what a book – or any other text – is as a physical object, for there are an infinite number of ways its physical characteristics can be described. Speaking of electronic text, for example, we could focus on the polymers used to make the plastic case or the palladium used in the power cord. The physical instantiation of the text will in this sense always be indeterminate. What matters for understanding literature, however, is how the text creates the possibilities for meaning by mobilizing certain aspects of its physicality.” (Hayles 2005 103)

So, how does the digital text create “the possibilities for meaning by mobilizing certain aspects of its physicality?” By observing the principles of dialogism as proposed by Bakhtin and applying them to a complex, one could say heteroglossic, example of digital textuality; we can gain some idea of how the possibilities are embodied in the assemblage.

Alleph is a complex labyrinth based upon seven depicted visual spaces; an overgrown garden, an abandoned school classroom, a brick wall, an abandoned workshop, empty prison cells, a landscape of menhirs and an abandoned medical theatre. From these dynamic, navigable spaces eleven texts of spoken and written prose, poetic and dramatic narratives and eight puzzles (game or toy like) can be opened from links in the spaces. Move your cursor around inside the images and when you come across a link a green mass will appear around the cursor. Click on the link and it will open a window of text, audio or graphics.
As well as the spoken audio texts; in Rasta Creole English, Persian, Urdu and Standard English, there are also several sound and music audio texts. Spoken and written works included within Alleph are by Maqapi Selassie, Farid al Din Attar, and are performed by Amjad Hussain Shah and coded by Irvine Saunders. Alleph was produced using Macromedia Flash by a production team from Emote Media Production Company in Birmingham England, led by digital artist Sakab Bashir. The work is described by Bashir as “A true interactive story” and “a self portrait” in “a patient labyrinth of lines tracing the face”.

The remainder of this seminar shall be devoted to looking at, interpreting and experiencing Alleph by Sakab Bashir.

Texts Referenced
Bakhtin M.M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. 1981. Ed. Michael Holquist.
Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas Press, 2002.

Bakhtin M.M. Towards a Philosophy of the Act. trans. and notes by Vadim Liapunov, ed. by Michael Holquist and Vadim Liapunov Austin: Texas UP, 1993

Hayles, N. Katherine. My Mother was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Pearce. Lynne. Reading Dialogics. London: Edward Arnold, 1994.

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