Sunday, August 30, 2009

How do You Recognise the Nonlinear when you Meet It?

An article by Sherol Chen on the Expressive Intelligence Studio blog entitled Nonlinear Storytelling in Games: Deconstructing the Varieties of Nonlinear Experiences inspired some thoughts relating to my own research work in digital narrative. I begin with the words of Sherol Chen:

Narrative is the combination of story and discourse. I believe the distinction of story and discourse is quite novel and under-appreciated in the area of interactive storytelling. For the purposes of this discussion, I’d like to deconstruct the nonlinear in narrative to give deeper insight into what this relationship between story and discourse actually entails. The term nonlinear takes many meanings depending on context, which is a result of the complexity in the meaning of both story and discourse.

The last sentence I found particularly thought provoking. The relationship between context, story and discourse is used to define the potential qualities of the 'nonlinear', almost in the sense of a matryoshka doll, with one nested within the other and so on. Context is posited as a result of story and discourse working upon each other. To further focus this approach I would add the concept of response, as the X factor in a digital text, which allows narrative alternatives to not only move along in multiple directions (not necessarily forwards), but to also be interpreted in a variety of ways. The potentials for response that are encoded in a digital work of narrative rely on both the articulation and recognition of discourse structures (or, as I use in my thesis following the work of Kittler; as networks). Thus far I am totally with Chen. The problem I have with Nonlinear Storytelling in Games: Deconstructing the Varieties of Nonlinear Experiences is buying into the entire concept of the 'nonlinear'. The supposed tensions between the linear/nonlinear in narrative I see as a dead-end discussion (in ways similar to the ludologists/narratologists divisions in the digital studies of the late 90s and early 00s).

As Chen suggests in Nonlinear Storytelling in Games, the concept of a linear narrative as relevant to digital media has emerged out of a series of assumptions about the role of time, and I would argue to a lesser degree space, expressed primary via the medium of language. My use of language to express my ideas is still widely considered (despite the efforts of Roland Barthes et al.) relative in that what I say is mine and me. To have command over language and harness its properties in order to express myself is considered an important part of education and realizing my own potential.

Language in this sense is regarded as the product of an authorial process, be it attributed to a single person or a team. The reality in a narrative is understood as contingent upon the style/s developed within the authorial process. There is the suggestion that there is something original and unique regarding a particular work of narrative. The idea that the 'story' begins and ends at a certain point, that it relates to particular situation/s or 'discourses' from the (for examples) social, geopolitical or gendered world. This is proposed as the case with Facade, the work Chen gives as both an example of a linear - "Facade is clearly linear on the discourse-level"- and nonlinear - "Clearly, Facade was created with an extremely nonlinear gameplay in mind"- story. However, in order to understand Facade, and any other work of narrative (digital, enacted, written or recorded) one must be equipped with the technical, discursive and interpretive skills that are demanded by it as a text. These skills are the literacies we are watching evolve around us today.

In Nonlinear Storytelling in Games, statements such as "Stories that start at the beginning of time", and "human beings live linear existences", fail to clarify the representational and experiential aspects of narrative in digital works. Further examples of the infusion of what the digital work does and what can be interpreted from it include Chen's statements; "You enter the apartment, you leave the apartment, and your experience is not disrupted neither temporally nor are you ever separated from your initial perspective", and "The presentation is determined by the audience interaction". In the case of Facade the apartment should be understood as a narrative construction in itself and it is filled with discursive values and assumptions that must be subscribed to for the narrative to function, both as material and story. When it comes to this synaesthesiae area of narrative architectures I usually first refer to Henry Jenkins' Games Design as narrative Architecture as a good starting point.

The distinction between linear and nonlinear suggests a hierarchy, or at the very least a différance. The latter fuels the fires of speculation with endless discussions on the levels, terms, attributes, and forms of so called linear and nonlinear narratives. The former has a much more discursive implications. Narrative becomes a cultural construction and what is considered as narrative shuts out of the circle of knowledge production that which is deemed not. In a similar system to that which Reawyn Connell points out in Southern Theory, in regards to

Mainstream social science pictures the world as understood by the educated and affluent in Europe and North America. From Weber and Keynes to Friedman and Foucault, theorists from the global North dominate the imagination of social scientists, and the reading lists of students, all over the world. For most of modern history, the majority world has served social science only as a data mine.

In the classifying of narrative, such as non/fiction, non/linear, and diegesis/mimesis, an enormous amount of human expression is relegated to the status of objects. An example of this exclusion comes from how narrative itself is defined. The Wikipedia entry (despite its digital and inclusive reputation) privileges the same origins of narrative that have been in use in the European academy for the past 200 years;

Stories are of ancient origin, existing in ancient Egyptian, ancient Greek, Chinese and Indian culture.

The civil, sedentary nation-state origins of the story are maintained, privileging a form of narrative that excludes an enormous number of cultures and systems of knowledge. An example of such exclusion comes from my own homeland. While the stories of the many Aboriginal Australian cultures have been studied extensively by anthropologists, linguists, sociologists and religious scholars, it is most often divided into their parts according to the traditions of inquiry. An Aboriginal oral account of a place name, for example, has corresponding portions of its telling in body markings, landscapes, song, dance and painting. Knowledge of many of these features of a story often requires initiation and a defined status within the groups to which the story belongs. This trans-medial and highly social format is a whole, but in terms of academic discourse it remains divided along lines of classification that had their nearest origins in the 18th century of Europe. I believe such distinctions as linear and nonlinear are an extension of this hierarchical organizing of knowledge systems. To illustrate this point I quote from a translated Central Desert story from the Walpiri people of Australia;

"This dreaming that belongs to Yajarlu. There was a woman digging a big hole. It was a woman, digging, an old woman. Nearby there was a small child, crawling about. The woman emerged from the hole and she walked about nearby. The child was still crawling about, crawling about near her. Another woman arrived. She saw the child" (Yimikirli 39).

This is a complicated passage with much suggested but not stated in it, for example the relationship between the old woman and the young child not being maternal. The causality that usually attaches features of narrative to each other, in terms of space and time, are never really stated. As a result what could be termed the 'non/linear' nature of the narrative is played out in a spatial field featuring depth (the hole) but no edges, where characters move and events take place seemingly at random and repetitively. In the book format from which the narrative is re/presented, abstract and highly symbolic paintings are featured, which are the trans-medial portions of its overall manifestation. As well, dance and singing are aspects of its telling. The trans-medial configuration of what is tilted in the book The Travels of the Witi Poles make its inclusion in a library difficult in its original form or its construction as an internet mediated narrative extremely limited.

Digital media does move us closer to being able to present in an assemblage the many elements of such a story as The Travels of the Witi Poles, across various formats within a single telling. The barriers which define much of our present (preset) inquiries into such telling dissolve when faced with the ways such modes of expression articulate narrative truth. In the case of the Walpiri, narratives such as The Travels of the Witi Poles were/are survival manuals in the extreme conditions of the Tanami Desert. Such a function, along with defining personal identity of the keeper of such a story, renders the classifying system of present day narrative studies as marginal.

Many of the problems that arise in working with reality-defining narratives from indigenous societies can be seen to have resonances in digital story telling. The embodiment of texts through fan cultures, the participatory nature of computer games, the spatial and even topographic possibilities of Alternate Reality Games and GIS are a few of the examples of new media defining new realities. By continuing to solely use binary systems of logic based on selective examples in relation to the embodied and relational spectrum of representation and participation found in digital works, we deny ourselves the full potential of the media. We need to look more broadly towards other systems of telling that include cultures once considered antithetical to the grounding principles of the inquiry. By using other sources to inspire a more inclusive and integrated narrative environment I believe we can assist with overcoming some of the problems that face the world today. The realization that humanity is not separate from nature and the spaces we build and occupy are testament to this is one possible outcome of a revision of how narratives are created using digital tools.

I thank Sherol Chen for inspiring this rant.

1 comment:

meika said...

inneresting, just been re-reading Hal Duncan's take on narrative per se.
Narrative's Function 1, 2, & 3.

So if a narrative is a story that returns to a semblence of balance, then a discourse is a soap opera that goes on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on until the deep cycles of time intrude