September 15, 2003

Fiction and Recombinant Text

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 3:01 pm

Marie-Laure Ryan and I recently began an email discussion about The Impermanence Agent. As our conversation turned toward the impact of the Agent’s textual alterations, and the relationship of such techniques to story, Marie-Laure suggested that we open our dialogue into a conversation on GTxA. As happened with our previous, impromptu exchange (in the comments on my review of her Narrative as Virtual Reality) we’re hoping for contributions from this site’s drivers and visitors. Our plan is for things to kick off tomorrow, with Marie-Laure posting an initial message as a comment on this entry. We’ll see where things go from there…

21 Responses to “Fiction and Recombinant Text”


  1. michael Says:

    I look forward to the exchange!

  2. Marie-Laure Ryan Says:

    I’d like to start a discussion about Noah Waldrip-Fruin’s The Impermanence Agent. As you probably know, the text tells a story about the narrator’s grand-mother, Elinore, in the left-hand side of a small window on your screen. This story is illustrated with family pictures. The left-hand side displays various theoretical texts. If you let the program run for a week or so, it will grab pictures and phrases from the cookie jar on your hard disk (or whatever it is called—the cache that contains materials from the web sites you have visited), and it will replace parts of the original text with these materials, while respecting the syntax, so that the whole thing reads like a coherent text, at least on the micro-level. The longer the program runs, the more the original story gets displaced by your own materials. The author tells us that the program ends up “customizing” its text to the reader’s personal interests, since, arguably, readers only visit web sites of interest to them.

    As a narratologist, I see the whole project as the deconstruction of story rather than the creation of personal-interest stories. This of course implies no negative judgment; I find the project a very original example of what I call conceptual art–art that should remain unique. And if the art of the programmer is an aesthetic element, –i.e. if the reader’s admiration for the cleverness of the code that cannot be seen is taken into consideration, certainly it is an impressive achievement. I also found Elinore’s story very moving as a piece of literature. I’d love to read it in a book on sepia-colored paper, with a creative graphic lay-out, and reproductions of old photographs.

    Maybe the deconstruction of the story as the user’s personal materials are inserted tells us something about reading narrative: the point is to get out of oneself, to project oneself into other minds and into another world. If we let our daily business and preoccupations and crumbs from our Web surfing interfere, the Other disappears –and so does the storyworld. It’s an exercise in de-immersion.

    On the other hand, there is a great deal of self-projection that takes place during the reading of a narrative text. There is a paradox here: I enjoy fictional worlds because they are foreign to me, a way to expand my experience and to sneak into foreign lives; and yet to make them coherent, to make the fictional world come to life, I need to complete the text with materials drawn from my own memory and experience. The intrusion of materials hidden on my hard disk into Elinore’s story could be regarded as an allegory of this process, if it did fuse harmoniously with the original text. But it does not; it destroys the original story without creating “my story,” because the resulting text is too incoherent, to aleatory on the macro-level to pass as a story.

  3. noah Says:

    I’d like to begin by thanking Marie-Laure for proposing that we have this discussion and for starting us out with such a careful consideration of the Agent project. Too often new media art and writing projects get reduced to one-liners, notable for how they function rather than anything they try to mean through that functioning. I should also mention, right off the bat, that The Impermanence Agent certainly isn’t something I created by myself. It was initiated in response to an invitation for me to create an artwork for Plexus’s “Omnizone” exhibition — but as Brion Moss, Duane Whitehurst, and then Adam Chapman each joined the project they all acted as true collaborators, contributing both to concept and execution.

    I should probably also clarify that the Agent doesn’t invade people’s hard drives to gather material. Rather, it monitors new browsing that you do through the Agent’s proxy server. It’s possible to turn the proxy on and off, or use multiple browsers, in order to separate the browsing the Agent sees from other browsing you do. And the Agent starts altering content almost immediately — as soon as the story has been shown once, unaltered. When we say “about a week” what we mean is that, if you browse relatively heavily and leave the Agent running the whole time, after a week more of the word-by-word content will be drawn from your browsing than remains from what I wrote initially. The capsule descriptions we give of the Agent don’t always make these things clear, but Brion and I have written an essay that goes into some detail for those who are interested:

    http://www.impermanenceagent.com/agent/essay2

    Marie-Laure writes “As a narratologist, I see the whole project as the deconstruction of story.” I tend to see it in somewhat different terms. The project’s story, before alteration, is about memory and documents — and how these are corrupted or lost when we wished to hold onto them, or preserved when they should not be. Then the Agent system performs a process related to these ideas using the material of the story itself and material drawn from our own browsing. So I don’t think it’s a deconstruction of story, but rather a way of moving the language of the story into a new relationship with the reader that is closely connected to what the story is about — it allows the story to mean in a new way. Marie-Laure sees this as an example of “art that should remain unique.” My hope is that, in time, the Agent won’t look unique, but will rather look like one flawed predecessor for a growing body of work that employs dynamism at the level of text (rather than, say, plot), influenced by the actions of the reader, and functioning in a way that causes the starting text and its recombinant processes to work together toward an experience that we can see as part of the literary tradition. But I don’t know what the chances of that are…

    As for the issue of “customization,” we mean to use that term as though it has permanent quotation marks around it. Our writing about the Agent critiques the dream of the Daily Me (http://web.media.mit.edu/~walter/index.html#personalization). I hope it’s clear from what I’ve written in the paragraph above that what we’re trying to accomplish is rather different.

  4. Marie-Laure Ryan Says:

    Noah writes “the project’s story is about memory and documents and how these are corrupted or lost when we wished to hold unto them.” Here “story” is taken in a more general sense than I do when I say that the project deconstructs the story of Elinore: it means the general, or symbolic meaning of the process of invading the original text with the user’s documents. This meaning—which is not narrative in a technical sense–is a “meta-message”. I read this meta-message as the enactment of the memory loss that affects Elinore in her old age: the gradual inability, precisely, to make coherent stories out of one’s life. But this loss of memory is Elinore’s, not mine. In my case, on the contrary, the process has the effect of activating my memory: “Oh, I know where this phrase comes from—it is from that Web site about organ enlargement that I visited by inadvertently clicking that Spam e-mail.”

    But Noah’s comments on his work make me want to branch into another topic. Those of you familiar with literary history know about the catchphrase of New Criticism: the intentional fallacy. This means that in interpreting a work we should disregard the author’s intent and just focus on what the work does. This position has been attacked as too radical; I think that we should take the author’s claim into consideration in assessing what a work does—and decide whether or not the work achieves its purported goal. And then, a work may achieve goals not foreseen by the author. While the types of texts favored by the New Critics were text and nothing else, so that the reader had entire freedom in deciding what they meant, recent digital texts have mixed theory and fictionality as what I see is an attempt to force their point on the reader. The same goes of many art installations, as if the artistic ‘gesture’ were too obscure to speak for itself. This trend really annoys me—or rather, what annoys me is the tendency of commentators to bow to the theoretical claims of the author, rather than asking: does the work really succeed in what it claims to be doing ?

  5. noah Says:

    Actually, when I wrote that the “story, before alteration, is about memory and documents — and how these are corrupted or lost when we wished to hold onto them, or preserved when they should not be” I was talking about the unaltered story, the one that could be printed on paper.

    Here’s a short summary of that story:

    Elinore and Cleveland

    [are the parents of]

    Anne and Willard

    [and Anne's daughter is]

    Joan

    The story sections alternate between two times. One is Joan’s time. She’s searching through her grandparents’ house (letters, files, newsclippings, photos), and querying people’s memories, looking for an explanation for why her grandmother (Elinore) went back to her grandfather (Cleveland) after they separated when her mother (Anne) was young. In addition, in these scenes we can slip into memories, often reported memories, from the family history.

    The story’s other time is the time of a document, a letter. We have the scene of it being written, a scene of it being burned, the scene in which it is photographically copied before the original is burned, and the scene where the two times come together — when Joan finds the photographic copy. Because the partial text of the letter repeats, the longer the Agent is active the more these texts, which are “the same,” diverge from one another. It’s this letter that, when Joan finds it, explains what happened between her grandmother and grandfather, and leads to the final scene.

    So, a pretty traditional story. You can see why Joe Tabbi called it “workshop realism” in his “Overwriting” piece on TIR Web:

    http://www.uiowa.edu/~iareview/tirweb/feature/tabbi/

    I also think the topics you raise regarding the author’s intent — in works where the author designs the reading/ performance/ interaction/ alteration system as well as authors its contents — are interesting. More soon…

  6. nick Says:

    It seems clear that the Impermanence Agent has a story (“the Agent’s story”) which is part of the system and is displayed at the beginning of a long-term “run” of the system. I suppose one question is, how else is “story” or are “stories” involved in the project? Noah seems to see the project, overall, as enacting the Agent’s story, while Marie-Laure sees the project as deconstructing the Agent’s story.

    It seems both perspectives are useful, but I’m not sure that treating a story’s theme by means of a process makes one’s process more story-like or makes the concept of “story” more relevant overall. Myst has a story too, written in the books in the library. An experience of Myst involves that story and deals with many of its themes. Of course, perhaps there are interesting things to be said, or that have been said, about Myst as deconstructing or giving new meaning to its main story. I don’t mean to knock Myst – it is one of the greatest screen-savers of all time, after all – but it doesn’t seem like the idea of story does much to explain how it works as a computer program, puzzle/game, interactive experience.

    As a thought experiment, what if the Agent’s story were not a story at all, but just a list of propositions, proverbs, images, or maxims, all dealing with the theme of memory, transience, and loss? Couldn’t we say many of the same things about how the process and workings of the system reflects what was written about in the text?

  7. Marie-Laure Ryan Says:

    In response to Nick, I think we are playing here again with two meaning of “story,” or two levels. In the narrow sense, story is something that happens to intelligent agents in a world situated in time; this happening must be reasonably rationalizable by attributing goals and plans to the agents, and relations of causality between the events. What is told by the text of The Agent after the first round is certainly not a story in this cognitive and logical sense. I cannot re-tell it, for instance. It has no coherence.

    In a more metaphorical sense, “story” is a process that affects an object. So you can say that there is a story of the transformations that the text undergoes, and you can tell that story: it gets invaded by the user’s materials. In this “story” the hero is the text. In the other story, the hero(ine) is Elinore. The story of the meta-level is the destruction of the story told by the text.

    In many computer games there are two stories—the fixed story that the player discovers (i.e. the story written in the books in Myst), and the meta-story of the player’s actions in the gameworld. All games have a meta-story written by the user’s actions, but relatively few of them have the fixed underlying story. These two levels is what, in my opinion, make games particularly susceptible to metalepsis—the blending of the levels.

    About Nick’s last comment—what if the Agent’s text was not a story in the narrow sense but just a list of propositions about memory, loss, etc. In this case I would interpret the meta-story as the destruction of a human consciousness by the machine—as represented by the code of the program. But this assumes that the initial texts does represent a human consciousness. What if it were only a machinic assemblage ?

  8. noah Says:

    What about something like Burroughs’s cutups? How do such projects connect with the ways “story” and “fiction” are being used in this conversation? And what happens to a cutup experiment when it is carried out in the reader’s time and place, and works with material determined by the reader’s actions?

  9. nick Says:

    Marie-Laure, in my post I meant to use only one sense of “story,” a sense that is close to the first one you mention and to WordNet sense 2, “a piece of fiction that narrates a chain of related events.” I mean “the Agent’s story” to refer only to the text that Noah has glossed, which appears at the beginning of a “run” of the impermanence agent. (I may be using the term differently than Noah does; sorry about that.) I am do nto claiming that anything else (e.g., our way of understanding what is going on with the program) is inherently a “story” and I didn’t mean to refer to anything else in my post above by using that world. Similarly, when I write “Myst has a story” I refer only to the text that appears in books in the library and that narrates events in the way you describe, in the first sense of the word. I did not mean use any other sense of “story” (e.g., anything having to do with where I’ve clicked so far) or to use it figuratively or on the meta level.

    I use the words “process” and “workings” to describe how the comptuer program Myst and the system The Impermanence Agent function. It’s true that you can chronicle or try to explain through narrative how these systems function, but you could also do that with a single image that they present; you can also do that with a program to compute Fibonnaci numbers.

    I agree that after a while the text that scrolls by is “certainly not a story in [a] cognitive and logical sense.” What I’m wondering is if anything else in the project particularly deals with “story” in the narrower sense in some way.

    As I see it, the presence of an initial “story” is not essential to the effect and workings of the Impermanence Agent. It’s an interesting artistic decision to use a personal story rather than a bunch of classefied ads, or list of headlines, or a list of things to do, or some other coherent but non-story text. But it seems to me like the system could have worked the same way and had a similar (if not identical) effect on users if some other initial text was used.

  10. Scott Rettberg Says:

    Hey we were just covering cutups yesterday in my New Media Studies class. I think it’s sort of important to separate out the idea of “author” here as well. That is, an “authored” story as being determined by a non-artificial intelligence — one of the questions we asked in class was who would we consider to be the “author” of a Burroughs cutup, if it was one of the truly arbitrary variety — say the front page of the New York Times sliced and repasted at random. Did the authors of the news items write the story? Did Burroughs, by wielding the scissors, write the story? Was chance the author? Was the “author” merely the procedure? Was it a story at all, or simply a text? This is also a question for the text produced/dissembled by impermanence agent. Is the product of the marraige between a story and a computational procedure any longer a story?

    I’m puzzled, and you of the narratological bent can probably help me here, as to whether or not the perceptions of the individual reader determine whether or not something is a story? If I read a randomly determined cutup and find within it a coherent narrative, which I can then retell and explain (in the same way as we’ve made constellations of random clusters of stars in the night sky) does that then make the cutup a story? Or has my process of reading and bringing coherence to the material created a new story? And if that is the case, then isn’t this what any interpreting critic does any time he or she constructs an interpretation? In other words, is the story ever a story before it is interpreted?

  11. Marie-Laure Ryan Says:

    Intersting question by Scott. I’ve come to the conclusion that one must make a difference between a text ‘being a story’ and a text ‘having narrativity’. A text is a story if (a) it is intended by the author to inspire in the reader a narrative interpretation; and (b) if it is able to do so. (I may want to tell you a story, but my performance may be so deficient that you cannot make narrative sense out of it).

    On the other hand, a text, of for that matter life itself, has narrativity if it is able to inspire a narrative interpretation, whether or not this was intended. So, a Burroughs text may have narratvity without being a story.

  12. noah Says:

    Nick writes: “But it seems to me like the system could have worked the same way and had a similar (if not identical) effect on users if some other initial text was used.”

    So Nick, if I interpret you correctly, you’re saying that some other text – addressing ideas similar to those in the story, but not itself a story – would have made the Agent just as effective a piece of art. So why use a story? Why not just use random propositions on the same theme?

    I guess I’m of the school of writers that produces stories (and poems, and plays) with the belief that what we’re saying can’t be expressed any other way. I think my summary of the Agent’s starting story was a violence to the story for a particular end (like Cliff’s Notes) rather than a capturing of all the story contains.

    Another way of putting this is that I see writing a story as an engagement with language. A plot summary doesn’t say what the story’s language says. And given that what’s happening on the level of language is so important to me, it’s probably why I’m more interested in using computation to carry out processes on the level of language than on the level of plot.

    My question for GTxA folks is: Am I the only person who thinks this is interesting? Are we – as a field – only interested in what comes after Choose Your Own Adventure, and not in what comes after the cutup?

  13. nickm Says:

    Noah, it’s good to read about your motivation as a writer and artist for placing a story as the initial text. But I was also wondering if “the presence of an initial ‘story’ is … essential to the effect and workings of the Impermanence Agent” — a question about the structure and reception of the system.

    Obviously the effect would be different in some ways with a non-story text, but it would also be different if the story used was a story about going to get a sandwich instead of a story about loss and memory. How much does it matter that we have a story and how much does it matter that we have a text dealing with memory? There are other options for non-story texts besides “random propositions.” These might include mathematical texts, analects, and lyric poems, although not all would be as appropriate for this sort of computer system. My thought experiment wasn’t particularly suggesting that the story be replaced by something random, just that it be replaced (in our minds) by something that was organized in a different way. This would be a way of considering, as with variable substitution and with Stuart’s “A World without Cybertext” DAC keynote, how essential a particular thing or feature really is.

    You write, “I’m more interested in using computation to carry out processes on the level of language than on the level of plot.” It seems like since the computation is being done to language and not in any story-specific way – if this is right – then the concept of story is not important to the workings of the Impermanence Agent, to the way the system actually functions. (I don’t mean to use “workings” metaphorically at all.) In that case we’d do well to focus on why story is important in terms of its effect on the user.

    Marie-Laure’s distinction between one’s ability to make a story out of something and it’s ability to communicate a story to you is a good one. The other ways story can be involved in interactive systems (“backstory,” allusion or reference to well-known stories) are also interesting and important to distinguish. These are discussed by Henry Jenkins, but not in anything I can find online right now – Noah, is this in Henry’s First Person article?

  14. noah Says:

    I need to be offline for a few hours, but two quick notes:

    – The processes of the Agent and its story were created together. So the story’s language was written and revised, in part, to work with the actions that would be performed by the computational processes. Similarly, the processes were designed, in part, for the way they would work with this particular story. I guess that’s part of why I resist discussing them in isolation from each other.

    – To answer Nick’s question: Yes, you’re thinking of Henry’s essay for First Person.

  15. scott Says:

    What comes after the cutup?

    I’m interested in following up on Noah’s question here — I do think that we, as a field (a sort of generality) are interested in what comes after the cut-up, at least as interested in that as we are in what comes after the choose-your-own-adventure, but I think it’s also important to contextualize that saying that we, as a culture, have already been interested in what comes after the cut-up in a bunch of different ways. A big chunk of what we used to refer to as “postmodernism” is really “what comes after the cut-up.” Postmodern architecture, for instance, sampling in rap and hip hop, even some of what Andy Warhol was doing, are after the cut-up. Even channel-surfing and webreading are, in a way, after the cut-up. I think it’s important to contextualize this — we’re already living in a culture that has absorbed the idea of cut-up and refiltered it into everyday life. I think that, in the same as you could say that whether or not you’ve read Macbeth, you’ve always already read Macbeth by virtue of living in a culture that has read Macbeth and reprocessed it a million times in Disney films, murder ballads, cartoons and commercials, etc., you’ve always already learned Burroughs cut-up, and it’s a part of your everyday life. It’s always in the background. Many of the hypertext works that come “after the choose-your-own-adventure” also come “after the cut-up.” Even the earliest Eastgate hypertexts of note, Afternoon, Victory Garden, Patchwork Girl are informed conceptually by Burroughs.

    I guess the issue for electronic writers is what do we gain and what do we lose? It comes back to that issue of narrative interpretation, or intentionality, or control. How precisely do we want to control a reader’s interpretation, and how precisely do want to sort of sculpt the background noise that we invite in after the cut-up? There’s a difficult balance of leaning on the conventions of narrative vs. leaning on the power of computational procedure.

    The interesting thing about a work like the impermanence agent, or other net.art or works of electronic writing which utilize the network in similar ways, is that in addition to the choices of the author (both of the story and of the procedure) and the choices of the reader (or interactor or what have you), there is this aleatory element of what happens to be happening on the bit of the network we bring into the story. A sort of building material beyond our control, an unpredictable noise. I think that in the impermanence agent, you’ve done a pretty good job of sculpting this noise into concept, but that the concept comes at the cost of (or intentionally dissembles) the story that was there before the concept came barging in the door. So as you say, this work is a point of departure for the other works that will come after it. I’m interested in the idea, however, of an impermanence agent that comes back to story, that rebuilds after dissembling. What would such a story look like, and what would be gained and lost in that case?

    Just as a side note, this morning I was reading Ron Sukenick’s wonderful epigramatic/polemic essay In My Own Recognizance in ebr — a couple of lines stood out as I consider these questions — “Style should maximize intelligence./Form is merely a way of discovering content.” and “Collage and cutup are ways of interrupting the continuity of the controlling discourse – mosaic is a way of renewing discourse. / Mosaic: new tiles, old fragments, odd scraps – remix. Out of remnants new design. Continuous not discontinuous.”

  16. Jill Says:

    The way I think about “story”, it’s the bare ribs of the events and so on, which we readers can deduce from reading the text, but only indirectly, or by reading Cliff Notes or the author’s summary (thanks Noah). So from my point of view, I see the workings or rules or process of The Impermanence Agent as the expression of a story, along with the use of language and images. Surely exchanging Elinore’s story for a shopping list would be rather like taking Macbeth, keeping the late sixteenth century acting style, the Globe Theatre, the hecklers in the audience, the blank verse, the five acts, the costumes, the witty dialogues and the anguished monologues, but making the content of the play a set of instructions on how to build a typical Elizabethan mansion?

    The difference is perhaps that it’s a lot harder to imagine keeping the workings and style of Macbeth without the story than it is to imagine the workings and style of The Impermanence Agent without its story, though I suppose it could be and probably has been done. It would be a parody, since we’re so familiar with Macbeth. Macbeth was of course written in a style already well established, whereas The Impermanence Agent is the first example of its style, form, workings.

    It seems that the constant experimentation in form and concept that we see in electronic writing not only makes us question the validity of “story” but even makes us think that story is optional. Actually, it is optional. If we leave it out, we’re no longer making literature, but concept art. Which might be quite all right.

    Noah, if The Impermanence Agent is remembered for its concept rather than its story, or rather than the combination, would that bother you?

    (Btw, the Henry Jenkins article Nick mentioned is online, too. And I like Marie-Laure’s idea of the reader/player’s actions in engaging with a work as being a kind of frame narrative for a possible story, as well as Scott’s idea of an impermanence agent that rebuilds.)

  17. nick Says:

    Jill, first, thanks for the link.

    You write “I see the workings or rules or process of The Impermanence Agent as the expression of a story.” We can see the rules and process of a calculator as expressing a story, if we like, but as an amateur narratologist I perfer to think of narratives, and not other things, as expressing stories. How do the rules or process of The Impermanence Agent, such as text alteration, narrate? And if they do, somehow, is there some more specific term we can use for the things that narratologists call narration — such as printing a text or synthesizing a voice that says “The king died, and then the queen died of grief”?

    You may have been thinking of my comment about replacing the IA story with some non-story text when you wrote “It seems that the constant experimentation in form and concept that we see in electronic writing not only makes us question the validity of ‘story’ but even makes us think that story is optional.” I’m neither questioning the validity of story nor claiming that it is optional in electronic writing. The term “story” is very useful when it is well-defined. And I don’t think it’s optional in many types of e-lit/electronic writing.

    How can you remove the story from Tale-Spin, Minstrel, Universe, Brutus, or Facade? The elements and aspects of story are essential to their workings. There would be almost nothing for the systems to do. It would be like removing language, or Web browsing, from The Impermanence Agent.

    By pointing out that story could be removed without breaking the way The Impermanence Agent functions (even if the aesthetic effect would be quite different, even if it’s not what the creators of the system want) I’m trying to distinguish it from the other systems I mentioned above, and explain how “story” can tell us more about how they work than about how The Impermanence Agent works. And of course it’s not that I dislike the IA or think that it’s masqerading as a story-essential system. It’s a great system (far more compelling than the story generators I mentioned) and that’s one of the reasons it deserves this sort of close analysis.

  18. Jill Says:

    Ah, I was imprecise. I meant that, taking a narratological distinction between story/discourse or fabula/szujhet or (less narratologically) content/form, the workings of IA, are the discourse not the story. They’re the way the bare bones of the story (as Noah explained it) is expressed. That’s why I was comparing those workings to the costumes, blank verse and acting style of Macbeth.

    It’s a really interesting point that you COULD take just the workings (that is; the way in which the text disintegrates and is replaced, in part, by bits of what the reader browses) and apply them to anything else and they’d still work. Differently, but it’d still be kind of cool.

    Perhaps that means that IA creates a genre, much as Elizabethan theatre can be recognised as a genre though its formal qualities as much as by its content. Similarly I can tell that the Bruce Willis film that’s playing in the background as I type mixes a Western genre (guns, cowboys, prostitutes in bars) and film noir (hats, voice-overs, almost monochrome colour) without having seen the beginning of the movie, knowing the title or paying any attention to the story. You could easily insert another story (within limits) or even, possibly, a shopping list, and I’d still identify it as western/film noir. Perhaps the workings of the Impermance Agent are the same?

    Would that make sense to you, Nick?

  19. nick Says:

    Program function and interface and such are sorts of overarching features like genre, true. The idea of layering such over different stories (or something besides a story) is intriguing.

    Yes, I completely agree that “the workings of IA are the discourse not the story,” which is helpful in explaining how the story, and concepts of the story, “function” (in a more meta sense) in the piece overall. In other words, the story (narrowly speaking, of course: the original text that is transformed) is important to the system – this helps us realize why it is.

    It also makes me think that techniques that work at the story-level or at what linguists would call the discourse level (above the sentence, that is, not to be confused with story v. discourse) might be combined in pleasing ways with text-modifications of various sorts. E.g., Noah’s n-gram chaining alternative news system combined with the discourse-level analysis of a system like Warren Sack’s Questioning the News.

  20. andrew Says:

    Sorry to jump in so late here — I’ve been tied up the past two weeks with moving from Chicago to Boston, hunting for an apartment, etc.

    I’ll respond to Noah’s question, “Am I the only person who thinks this is interesting? Are we – as a field – only interested in what comes after Choose Your Own Adventure, and not in what comes after the cutup?”

    Of course we’re interested! I’m very interested in any project that procedurally combines or recombines content. The Impermanence Agent has its own particular way of doing that, thereby offering its own particular effect and pleasures for the interactor.

    I think Nick’s thought experiment, of how much it would fundamentally alter the core concept of the piece to substitute a non-story text in place of the traditional story, is a good question. In such a case, it’s probably true that the operation of the IA would indeed have both similar deconstructive effects (Marie-Laure’s take) and/or recombinant effects (Noah’s take). However I agree with Noah (not because he says so, but because I believe so :-) that in such a case, the piece as a whole would be significantly different. I see the story as specifically designed to work with / complement the nature of the IA’s processes. To me the piece is not primarily about the high-concept functionality of the IA, rather the combination of those processes and their effect on the particular story of Elinore. Without that story, and the use of something more generic, the IA becomes conceptual art, not e-lit or networked lit, as Jill suggested.

    What I’m getting at is I’m very interested in the sum total experiential effect of the combination of technique / technology (e.g., the procedures of the IA) _and_ the particular specific content that the procedures effect or create. Of course the procedures themselves are “content” to be appreciated as well, in the sense of conceptual content, but at the end of the day, I care more about the ground-level, immediate experience of playing a work.

    Therefore, I should qualify my earlier statement to say I’m interested in works that recombine / generate content somewhat coherently. Like Scott said, works that rebuild after disassembling, but specifically, reconstructions that do more than make sense just syntactically. (To take an overly simplified example: mad-libs make sense syntactically, but can’t sustain one’s interest for too long.) I think the IA is a fine experiment in recombinant content, and I get the point about the story mean-ing in a new way, and that works for me, but similar to Marie-Laure, the overall experience I feel is more the deconstruction of a story than the construction of a new one. I doubt Noah, Brion, Duane and Adam thought the IA would actually create coherent new narratives, so by no means is this a failure of the authors. But I bet they’re happy when even semi-coherent stories do happen to get generated.

    I believe that real-time generation of new, varied, coherent fiction / literature / drama experiences, in collaboration with the interactor, is the enormous and exciting challenge we have before us. (This doesn’t have to mean plot-centric experiences, just coherent ones.) To date, a lot of new media artworks, including some hypertext fiction, seem to offer a-tad-too-incoherent reassemblages of content. I don’t think this is because artists prefer it this way, but instead because it’s technically very difficult to get a computer to generate new, varied coherent content. So I’m most interested in works that artists imbue with more intelligence, allowing the system to become more of an actual writer. Where the system actually has some knowledge about the nature of the content it’s recombining, even if those pieces content were originally written by a human. (So I have to disagree with Nick that the IA is far more compelling than the story generators of the past :-)

    My question back to you Noah is (or anyone else), is coherency old-fashioned? Like Aristotelian is old-fashioned?

    p.s. Learned a new word — aleatory. Gotta start using that.

  21. Jill Says:

    Aren’t we into post-non-coherence these days, though? I mean, non-coherence has been done, right?

    Of course, so has coherence.

    (Great summary to and commentary of the discussion, Andrew, thanks)

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