Category Archives: Fiction

Divisio Operis et Paratexte dans la tradition manuscrite du roman médiévale

Hybrid Ecologies and Embodied Narratives

The paper which describes the experiment I ran with Kai Pata at Tallinn University during the Erasmus joint course about Ecology of Narratives was finally published in Cognitive Philology. The course is detailedly described in  a wikiversity page. The entire experience was monitored in a wordpress weblog intended as an aggregator of individual experiences. Here’s the abstract of the paper mixed with a couple of slideshare files we set up so as to present our work around.

A Design-based research tested a Hybrid Ecosystem emerging from collaborative storytelling supported by geo-locative technologies and Social Networking Services. We assumed that such Hybrid Ecosystem emerges when people experience a given environment through their own sensory-motor system while processing related locative media. We found that individual and collaborative activity in a hybrid ecosystem could be described on the basis of the swarming concept from biology.

Topics and themes seem to emerge, to be narrated and spread on the basis of unplanned, not concerted, polygenetic activity. Interaction basically leads to the emergence of behavioral patterns which immediately develop into mutated forms. As soon as a topic or a theme spread among the community, individual participants start differentiating their unique point of view on it, eventually comparing it with the one of some peers, so as to team up on the basis of affinity.

Literal references emerging from storytelling in hybrid ecosystems outscore metaphorical by far. Rather, comparison is definitely very active as a processing strategy whereas proper metaphors and generalizations emerge on a very limited basis. It looks like individual participants evaluate the collaborative streaming of narrative references as a series of individual, standalone events which are meaningful in themselves, not because the combination of them make it possible to grasp a general meaning.

A more careful assessment of data is very likely needed, but we can already conclude that narratives which emerge in hybrid ecosystems supported by locative technologies and Social Networking Services define the borders of participatory and collaborative story formats which reshape human presence in the environment while redefining the very concept of storytelling. We look forward to develop other design experiments so as to test our claims on embodiment of narratives and hybrid ecologies based on new very intriguing applications such as Layar, Wikitude and other similar ones which implement the very concept of augmented reality.

Embodiment of Stories in Hybrid Environments

Philology and criticism usually apply to literary works that have been written and published or documented literary systems as actual genres. That is, literary studies typically focus on past or present state of the art but they hardly offer predictions, prefiguring forms that will play a role into the future development of cultural landscapes. Making a remarkable exception in respect to the norm, the present contribution aims to forecast potential development in storytelling based on locative media. That is, as part of a more general inquiry on the Ecology of the Novel and Hybrid Ecologies, it will investigate potential literary applications based on Global Positioning System (GPS), Geographic Information System (GIS) or similar geotagging standards.

People living in European cities are very familiar with tourists looking puzzled while trying to figure out why they spent a couple of paychecks to find themselves speechless in front of a pile of old stones or a very long marble sculpted pillar, say the Colosseo or the Colonna Traiana in Roma. By labeling perceived items with annotations, guidebooks and tour guides aim to orientate, to locate tourists by regulating their sensory experience of the landscape. In a looser way, the contextual reading of novels taking place in the very same place a traveler is visiting complements the sensory experience with narrative reference. Indeed, descriptions of urban or natural landscapes define potential ‘presences’ triggering a variable amount of action potential. So, bidirectional flow connecting narrative references and actual perception define an hybrid ecology, making it possible to inhabit natural landscapes by means of stories and, conversely, causing environmental features to trigger resonance of narrative references. That’s why the interplay of narrative contents and environmental experiences supported by locative technologies potentially allows a dramatic shift in the relationship between people and the environment through narratives.

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In a few years narrative artists and storytellers’ communities will be likely writing or taping stories to be broadcasted by locative media mining 2.0 websites for contents delivered by Location-based media on GPS or GIS enabled portable wireless devices. Textual narratives as podcasted stories will will invade laptop computers and mobile phones, providing readers and listeners with pertinent references or analogical interferences aimed to enriching natural environments. Presences triggered by the mirror matching of references entailed by symbolically encoded narratives, both in audio and written text formats, will invade urban and rural environments, forests and deserts, islands and hills, mountains and beaches, enhance the sensory experience of perceived landscapes. So, questions arise. What formats may be forecasted as the standards ones when it will come to the implementation of socially shared narrative art with locative tagging? Will these new narrative standards reshape interactions between subjects and environments?

While providing a permanently operative level of interaction between narrative contents and natural environments, geotagged stories will likely play a crucial role in a very fragmented and user-oriented literary system. Still, the rise of socially-networked locative narratives will hardly doom the novel to marginality, not to mention extinction. As an unifying, very generalist mainstream narrative point of view establishing the very parameters of how so-called ‘reality’ is supposed to work, the novel will outlast the next technological revolution as it did with previous ones. Potential evolution of novels may imply geocoded editions of both classic ones from the past and brand new ones intentionally developed so as to fit and be implemented into locative media. Such a process may be supported by further locatively implemented releases of wireless digital readers such as the Sony PRS-500 or Amazon’s Kindle.

However, new plastic forms will very likely arise. For instance, locative Keitai Novels, or different systems, eventually exerting collaborative web-logging tools as comments and annotation systems alongside locative technologies and defining new borders for narrative art. Certainly, web 2.0 communities of narrative artists may play with landscapes, tagging them with stories providing peculiar, literary affordances of geocoded environmental features. Being part of a community may imply writing, annotating and commenting on locatively tagged stories, that is sharing a peculiar perception of natural environments or cityscapes marked by narrative tags. In addition, being the node of a given network may entail the embracing and the adoption of peculiar locative tags to be applied to shared narratives. Both the sensory assessment of places and the reading of stories will very likely be part of an integrated, plastic, ever changing immersive experience, redefining the whole concept of storytelling and human presence in the environment at the same time. Policy-makers would eventually be required to avoid that the array of disposable geocoded stories may cause “narrative pollution”, infesting as undesired spam both the individual and collective ecological interplay of people and landscapes.

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Aknowledgments

The full paper on «Embodiment of Stories in Hybrid Environments: Narrative Art in the Age of Social Networking and Locative Media», a first draft of a potential contribution to a collection of studies about Hybrid Ecologies, has been originally presented at KERG in Tallinna Ülikool, Tallinn, Estonia. Some of the topics have been discussed during the Mobile City workshops (Rotterdam, NAI, Feb. 27-28 2008).

Action Potential and Urban Fiction

Xing Danwen’s work in progress named Urban fiction features a series of photographs shot both on film and digitally, manipulated with various computer techniques. Despite the 2dimensional framework supporting it, Urban Fiction provides very interesting samples of ecological art based on the action potential triggered by the placement of people into an urban landscape.

The statement of the artist provides some interesting hints about the purpose of her work. Namely, she offers that «When you face these models showing such a variety of different spaces and think about the life-styles associated with them, you start to wonder: is this the picture of life today? Do we really live in this kind of space and environment?». Basically, Danwen seems to establish her atwork in a traditional fictional framework that goes back to aristotelian mimesis, in terms that she aims to make people compare the artificial life of her artistic environment with the ‘real’ one they actually run.

Moreover, Danwen maintains that «people live in cubes that are squeezed next to one another, separated only by thin walls. This physical proximity, instead of leading to greater closeness and intimacy between people, can often create psychological distance and loneliness». Hence, an ecologically grounded approach emerges, since issues as proximity and spatial closeness arises and, interestingly, are asymmetrically paired with emotional correlatives as intimacy and loneliness.

An ecological approach seems to arise even more strongly when Danwen describes the urban setting she sets her fictions into:

«the sculptural form of these new residential buildings, the floor plan of the apartments, and the various interior designs are all related to the inhabitants and their “individual” taste and needs. The models of these new living spaces are perfect and clean and beautiful but they are also so empty and detached of human drama».

Indeed, landscape is shaped according to tastes and needs of characters performing in it and it’s even designed so to mark a sharp detachment from their feelings and emotions. Danwen offers that «when you take these models and begin to add real life–even a single drop of it–so much changes», since «this entire body of work is playful and fictitious, wandering between reality and fantasy». Basically, her art is described as going back and forth from ‘reality’ to ‘fantasy’ all the way back.

Even the chose of characters performing in the urban landscape contributes to the blending of ‘real’ and ‘unreal’, since the artist explains that «all the figures in this series are images of me, playing different characters», so to establish another paradox: «“I” am real but at the same time “I” am unreal» and to reshape the subject according to the urban surroundings they are immersed in. Indeed:

The figures act out totally imaginative roles as part of different plots and in different spaces that I visualize when I look at these models. For example, “I” am sometimes a white-collar office worker brought to despair by job pressures and spiritual emptiness. Sometimes “I” am a materialistic woman enjoying a life of pleasure and dissipation. Or “I” am a young girl who has accidentally killed her lover in a mood of anger.

Danwen conceives the various scenes as part of a general vision aimed to represent «represent the state of urban life today». Indeed, «together the resulting pictures compose the episodes of the urban fiction». The point of view of the observer matters, since future and Past are associated with age and growth, as modern life is: «In our childhood, skyscrapers were buildings that we had to raise our head to look at. Now we can imagine our future by bending down to examine tiny models of buildings».

From an ecological point of view, urban fictions matter in respect of the action potential triggered by still frames referring to ‘fictive’ people caught in the act of performing various action. Potential affordances of environmental features define the extent of the interaction between characters and landscapes that may be understood in a single framework based on common coding of perception and action. The very sharp detachment of landscapes from people’s feelings can’t help ruling completely out of the picture emotional correlates based on very subtle evaluation of environmental elements, as it will be shown in the following detailed appraisal of given episodes.

Murder Scene

The actual action is not represented in the making. Besides, the portrait of the wounded corpse laying into the blood puddle joint with the woman standing, his arms in the air, suggests that she just committed the crime, hitting him on the tummy with the weapon that is now on the floor.

Car Crash

The cars crashed into each other are necessarily the result of a motor action that took place in the very recent past, since the woman, eventually one of the drivers, seems still in a frenzy, her legs in motion, while looking for help. Even tho the landscape looks completely unreactive, the emotional state of the woman can be easily mirrored by the viewer exactly because it features given environmental items. Indeed, taking the crashed cars out of the pictures it would be impossible to clearly understand why the woman looks so hurried and afraid, all the eventual explanation being at that point equally suitable.

Condo People

The women on the roof look like they are sharing some kind of secrets, the one in the black dress wispering something in the ear of the one with blue hair. Sure thing, intimacy between them can be given for granted on the basis of spatial proximity and gesturing. The fact that they actually are on the roof may eventually imply some sort of secret going on between them, eventually concerning the other people set in the vicinities. Indeed, they could be talking about the gal who’s leaving with her bike, as they may be sharing some secret about the guy smoking by the window. Likewise, both of them may be concerned. The relative positioning of characters distributed in the urban landscape define actual and potential connections going on between them.

Bikers from the Window

Same as above. What do the smoking guy is thinking while staring at the couple on the bike by the window? Why is the gal almost crying? Are the three people connected in some way? Are their actions related?

Cliffhanger

Extreme action potential triggered by the woman on top of the skyscraper is a typical sample of cliffhanging suspence. Of course the question is: is she about to jump? And, eventually, why?

Affair

Relative positions of characters are in this case very interconnected. The woman has seen from the balcony his husband/partner, who probably just got off his blue car and is now strolling his troller while heading to the entrance of the building. The naked guy is just making his way out of her place. The whole scene looks basically like a crucial frame extracted from an episode featuring some sort of adultery.

The Descent of the Novel

While Darwinism still faces incredible and scientifically unacceptable skepticism as a naturalistic theory about the origins of living species, ‘natural selection’ and ‘struggle for survival’ keep being abused as any concept can be in the field of human sciences and, lately, even in the humanities, namely the theory of the literature. Indeed, a couple of recent books, Joseph Carroll’s Literary Darwinism. Evolution, Human Nature and Literature (New York-London, Routledge, 2004) and a collection of studies about The Literary Animal. Evolution and the Nature of Narrative (Evanston, IL, Northwestern University Press, 2004), edited by Johnatan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson, basically defined literature as an actual factor in the adaptation and natural selection of the human species. Both of them collected a good share of negative criticism, mostly due to the polemic overtones and the lack of documentation and/or consistency showed by many of their contributions. So-called ‘literary darwinism’ has even been criticized from a darwinist point of view by Steven Johnson, as it will happen in here in a partially different (and probably more radical) way.
The general problem with Literary Darwinism and The Literary Animal basically concerns the question underlying the collected contributions, that is “why” literature should be considered an “adaptive feature” and “how” literature “evolved” as an evolutionary asset. Indeed, all the «why» approaches, as «why» the mammals evolved the ear from a gill, «why» the horse evolved a single finger when he got four, deal with the actual outcomes as evolutionary goals, not just as the aftermaths of evolutionary processes relying on differential variation regulated by natural selection. Basically, self-proclaimed literary darwinists adopt a very deterministic approach to the Evolutionary Theory, never maintained by Darwin himself, offering a series of «evolutionary fairy tales», as Stephen Jay Gould might have very likely called them.
Moreover, the particular problem basically concerns the fact that evolution of speech is certainly a biological event, whereas the discovery of literature is definitely one of a cultural kind, as Alvin Lieberman wisely observed (The Relation of Speech to Reading and Writing, in Orthography, Phonology, Morphology, and Meaning, ed. by R. Frost and L. Katz, Amsterdam, Elsevier, 1992, pp. 167-178). Since literacy just arose some 10000 years ago, so that the Homo Sapiens-Sapiens survived 99.9% of his evolutionary history without literacy. Whatever so called darwinian explanation of such a late feature of human culture, started some half a million years ago, looks pretty hazardous, even considering oral narratives as avatars of literary ones (why not Narrative Darwinism and The Narrative Animal, then?). Hence, instead of investigating causes as a starting point, that is looking for the “big bang of literature”, a more reasonable darwinistic approach to literature, originally maintained and recently developed by Franco Moretti (Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History, Verso, 2005), actually deals with the descent and evolution of literary forms, as the divergence of genres, through time and space, circumscribing the period of interest to the age of literacy or its segments so to look for turning points in the curve of an evolutionary process that is still running.
Indeed, storytelling can develop in infinite directions. Humans can tell circular, intertwined, very complicated, atemporal, parallel, out of topic, very confused stories, and usually they do. The western standard of storytelling could have eventually developed through history into any of the various casual formats a narrative can take as a report of events in natural conversation. So, why the mainstream story format evolved into a linear, oriented and concluded narrative, a chain of events connected by consistent logical ties? In other words, why a modern reader who enters a bookshop finds himself surrounded by novels? Moreover, the novel itself could have evolved through his relatively short history into a different genre, ruled by some fully different principles of consistency. So, why it simply did not happened? Some very celebrated novels as James Joyce’s Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake failed to set a standard for English novels. Likewise, the extremely inventive Carlo Emilio Gadda’s ones failed doing the same for Italian literature. Basically, such ‘mutated individuals’, as many others throughout western literatures failed to breed and develop into new species. So, why any attempt to break, to twist, eventually to avoid the general format of the novel resulted in an evolutionary failure?
Some interesting clues may eventually come from a couple of papers about Letteratura e darwinismo (‘Darwinism and the Literature’), that Ugo Angelo Canello published in Padova in 1882, while Lessona, Canestrini e Saccardo were still busy translating in italian the complete works of Charles Darwin for the UTET publisher, based in Torino (1872 and 1890). The debate on the evolutionary theory was spreading all around Europe, when Canello, one of the early pioneers of Romance Philology, openly referred to Darwin’s Descent of the Man while contesting the romanticist esthetic of the «arts for the arts», that is the Schlegel’s assumption of art being unnecessary and just aimed to please, adopted in Italy by the very celebrated literary critic De Sanctis. Essentially, Canello adopted a positivistic point of view, based on Darwin’s Descent of the man. He defined the literature, and the arts in general, as a purposeful evolutionary tool, meant to establish the benchmarks of the sexual fitness and reproductive success.
In Canello’s view, visual arts define the standards of male and female beauty, that is their effectiveness in the natural and cultural environment and the expected ability to ensure the survival, growth and social achievement of the offspring. In other words, the bodies painted and sculpted by artists through the human history of the arts have to be considered as the true indicators of the ideal partner’s genetic fitness.
The evolutionary effectiveness of the literature is more remarkable into the field of the human ethology. The literature have to be considered as a device aimed to describe, to show, and usually to worship the selective behaviors that allow the establishing of the family, regarded as the milestone of any human society. The typical topic of novels, epics, plays and fiction in general is the struggle for sexual reproduction, according to the fact that narratives are about the differential selection of behaviors ensuring the reproductive success.
Canello sketched two different kinds of narrative plots. The former, leading to an happy ending, is involving a young lady and a young man that usually go through all the natural barriers, the cultural stakes and the social obstacles before earning the legal and righteous validation of their «natural ambition» to marriage and breeding. The latter tells the story of a badly assorted couple, in terms of age or social difference, their relationship typically being ruined by an affair with a a third person, better matching the needs of the male or the female individual of the married couple. Adopting an ecological approach to ethics and aesthetic, Canello rejects the typical account defining as moral and good just the first kind of plots. Rather, he considers both as samples of right and wrong partnerships, aimed to show, warn, eventually rectify the sexual choice and, as an outcome, the sexual selection.
Last but not least, Canello assessed the authorial awareness as a totally unnecessary asset. Even if the authors of the novels, the epics, the plays are just aimed to please by their works, or to show how life is, just doing it they indirectly (pleasing) or directly (describing) show how the sexual selection works or should work. So, according to Canello’s the arts are involved in the evolutionary process, suggesting the individual behaviors that ease the choose of the better partner. Indeed, Canello gave a terrific clue, assuming that the Homo Sapiens-Sapiens is «per eccellenza un animale imitativo», a sort of ‘mimetic mammal’. In sum, Canello stated that literature, as the visual arts and every other symbolic activity, could eventually benchmark the male and female prototype of reproductive success. In his view, imitation, a key-feature of human nature, acts as a major player into the evolutionary process well known as the sexual selection. Indeed, Canello circumscribed the «usefulness» of the literature to sexual selection, assessing poetry and narratives as devices aimed to establish patterns of icon worshiping, so to stress and emphasize the selective advantages of some physical and cultural set of characters in the struggle for the reproduction.
Canello’s approach, a good sample of how positivism could have applied to literatures regardless of History even in the 2oth century, may somewhat match intuitions about an ecological theory of the novel. Indeed, the novel typically blends body-part related and general aspecific events, giving a deeper insight of character’s peculiarities, his strengths, his flaws, the way he or she or it plans and performs throughout a whole story. Every single reader of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary knows the leading character of the novel much better than his own wife or partner. Likewise, hardly somebody knew his partner or husband better than Pierre, after reading Tolstoy’s Война и миръ (War and Peace). The same can be said of every single protagonist of every single good novel. Narratives and other literary kinds as the experimental novels or the simply sloppy ones, that went all the way to extinction maybe failed to blend perception and action, emotion and evaluation so to establish patterns of icon worshiping as valuable and easy-to-grab as the ones provided by the novels that survived, bred and found spots into the ‘shelves of fame’ of literary canons.

Critical Disclaimers

Positivism and the Humanities
The way Positivism incarnated into literary studies led to the History of the Literatures, being History conceived as the only positive scientific basis humanities could rely on. History of the Literatures basically required Titles, Authors, Publishers, Dates, so to the identify single literary objects ready to be placed into linear, progressive series, moving from simple forms to more complex and accomplished ones. Unfortunately, History resulted in a questionable and debatable researching field as any other one featured by the humanities can be. Besides, literary works keep being labeled as given ‘positive’ units, as if the ‘positive’ series of events leading from the origins of a given literary system to its peak and its consequent decline could explain their ‘meaning’.

So ‘real’ that is not
‘Modern’ literary criticism established Realism as an ideological feature in order to calibrate the progressing scale, perpetuating the aristotelian mimesis as the crucial feature modulating the referential process. Since the idea that language ‘naturally’ ‘represents’ ‘reality’ started being seriously questioned, classic realism resulted in a theory based on very shaky foundations. Unfortunately, post-positivist theories of the novel reacted in a very compulsive way, basically abolishing reference as an actual issue criticism should deal with.

Auto-referring to nothingness
Indeed, structuralism established Text with capital ‘T’ as the one and only authority. Consequently, literary works have been evaluated just as texts referring to other texts, intertextuality becoming the ‘cool’ thing to do for a while. Since form and structure imply a given symbolic basic constituent of a story, structuralist criticism resulted in a perpetual and desperate quest for primitive textual units, aimed to identify the base-brick of a story. Unfortunately, components are an hypothesis, any part of a story being not an universal symbolic unit encoded into a given textual feature. That’s why the whole doesn’t correspond to the sum of his components, that is the novel will always be exceeding the sum of its episodes, chapters, paragraphs, phrases, sentences, words, syllables and single letters.

Close reading causes blindness
Even approaches to the novel relying on close reading developed sort of a fetishism of the text, relying on the assumption that the text and the novel can be identified as the very same thing. Unfortunately, getting closer to the text doesn’t actually make the poem or the novel any closer, since literary works are not just texts written or printed on paper pages, folded into a square-shaped object called a book. Therefore, when it comes to the understanding of the novel there is nowhere criticism can get close to, since there is no way to get close to something that is not even dimensional at all. That’s why the metaphor of close-reading is definitely out of place and the procedures it actually addresses are actually ineffective.

Deconstructing Deconstructionism
Correctly assessing theories of ‘general meaning’ as a product of modernist ideology, deconstructionism disassembled the novel by approaching it from multiple critical angles, each one showing partial coherence and cohesiveness. In the process, ‘Realism’ has been deconstructed as an ideological feature feeding modernism aim to find general ‘truth’. Unfortunately, Deconstructionism can be deconstructed as well as an ideological feature feeding post-modernist aim to find local truth. Indeed, the bare concept of ‘part’ qualifies as an arbitrary feature as well. Since you start questioning unity, you can’t stop till you reach infinite, given that every literary text can be partitioned in infinite possible ways. So, partial angles are not more attainable than the general ones. Probably literary criticism hit rock bottom with deconstructionism, in the desperate effort to perpetuate the traditional divisio operis as the typical reading strategy. In this sense post-modernism looks pretty much as a modernist-dependent fashion of pre-modernism. Not to mention the fact that, deconstructing everything, deconstructionists end up asking the very questions they are supposed to answer, being often even payed for that.

Ecological Art: People and Objects

Some artworks by Mark Jenkins exerting action potential, according to ecological accounts of perception based on Gibson’s Theory of Affordances…

 

1. Typical ‘sitting affordance’ of a trunk
performed by a fictile person, that is a puppet.

 

2. Actual affordances of a sidewalk and ball
performed by a ‘fictile’ child,
exerting the action potential featured by
the ‘real’ landmark and object
by means of a puppet.

 

3. Fictile dogs exerting action potential
entailed by rubbish dump

 

4. fictile ducks exerting action potential
entailed by sidewalk chute.

 

5. The real guy smiles at the fictile one
caught in the typical gesture of
‘asking a cab driver for a ride’.

 

6. objects may suggest potential affordances
based on cultural references,
as the crucified puppet
on top of the lightpole

 

7. basic (even tho pretty much unusual) affordance of a pole
performed by a baby-puppet

 

8. culturally-tagged affordance of a pole
performed by a grown-up puppet

 

9. ‘real’ mom instinctively protects her curious daughter
while walking next to the drop-out sitting on the floor,
that is a puppet exerting the ‘sitting affordance’ of the sidewalk,
socially-labeled as the distinctive tract
of an homeless person asking for a coin.

 

10. A ‘real’ person checks the sitting drop-out
trying to figure out if he is ‘real’

 

11. Fictile person suggesting
body-part related affordance of his arm.
The question that very likely arises
about the missing part is ‘where is it?’

 

12. fictile human objectified