Cultural Stasis and Illusion of Modernism

The theoretical extent of the ‘digital menace’, typically described as a book-killer, has often be overrated, not to say generally mistaken, by common sense. Actually, the rise of new media in the Digital Age slightly affected the popularity of the the book as a medium and even more slightly the one of novel as a genre. Basically, Calvino offered a very wise advice when he introduced his «Six memos for the next millennium» stating that he trusted in literature and in its ability to last through the current millennium, because its specific bag of tools is able to do things that are otherwise undoable.
Far from having been threatened, not to mention killed, by web culture and new media, literature has played an essential part in the development of groundbreaking commercial web based services such as Amazon, originally established in order to sell books online. Moreover, literature has found plenty of room in second generation web-based communities, even representing the main interest which very crowded web based communities of enthusiastic readers share through social network services, such as aNobii, LibraryThing, or Goodreads. When it comes to genres, such literary systems emerging from digital shelves of socially networked bookworms look like ‘Estremistan’ as defined by Taleb in his book about The Black Swan, that is as a winner-takes-(almost)-all cultural environment in which the novel definitely plays a hegemonic role.
So, the major environmental shift determined by the rise of digital media did not impacted dramatically neither the popularity of literature, that looks pretty much in a good shape, and the predominance of the novel, that is emerging more and more as a global standard. Predictions about the death of the novel, and eventually literature in general, were simply the wrong byproduct of historical approaches required to stress crucial turning points marking the transition into different, sequential stages of cultural evolution. Such frameworks necessarily periodize cultural phenomena so as to define linear scenarios in which previous stages are paradoxically explained on the basis of what follows.
Such linear continuum works as far as recent facts like, say, TV reality shows are embedded in a system entailing, say, ancient epics as if both phenomena wouldn’t be explainable apart from each other. Instead, the eventual cultural ‘meaning’ of Finnish Big Brother, say the second season broadcasted in 2006, perfectly fits even into a scenario in which Iliad or Aeneides have never been created. The opposite remark is equally true in terms that, say, the ancient Greek Tragedy doesn’t intrinsically  require to be assumed as part of an historical scenario leading to, say, current developments in electronic music.
From a novel-centered explanatory angle, cultural evolution looks like a very long period of stasis, in which events happen on a recursive basis. New genres and new media appear through such historical continuum but they seem to be unable to take over cultural hegemony. For instance, Keitai Shosetsu emerge as stories delivered on cell phones 140 kangis at a time, but they fatally end up in the top ten entries of best selling japanese novels. Readers of Harry Potter or Twilight sagas worldwide are victims of the novel as well.
Before such literary sensations appeared nobody would have bet a single penny on the chances of a novel for the youth to impact global mass markets as a cultural Tsunami right in the middle of the digital era. Cultural analysts would have rather take their chances on videogames like Tomb Raider or immersive massively multiplayer online role-playing games such as World of Warcraft. Such products are undoubtedly very popular, especially among youth on a global basis, still they convey a weaker emotional involvement in respect to characters and stories told through novels, which keep being more pervasive and deeply rooted into cultural systems.
To some extent such novel-based cultural stasis suggests that modern never happened. Rather, such abused category is a legitimate wish, an aspiration, a need which emerge on a recursive basis. Somewhere and sometimes cultural products arise which seem very modern. Unfortunately, they are always suddenly followed by amazingly not-modern ones. The introduction of utmost silly category of post-modern just testify the typical inability of western culture to finally give up on the illusion of modernism.
For modernism to emerge as an actual outfall of cultural history we should probably wait for the novel to disappear, or at least to be marginalized. But how to kill the novel?  That’s probably the very question cultural engineers should be wondering about.

La Ecología de la novela

Here’s the breakdown, presentation and bibliography of the Curso de Posgrado on  «La Ecología de la novela» I gave at Facultad de Filosofia y Umanidades of Universidad National de Cordoba (Argentina) on 1-4 setiembre 2008.

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Unidad 1
Percepción, emoción y acción en las artes, la música y la literatura

La música sinfónica o el jazz tienen mucha dificultad para permitir a los oyentes distinguir la experiencia perceptiva de las emociones que sienten y de las acciones que eventualmente imaginan mientras están sumergidos en el flujo de la melodía sax. En general, la música es un conjunto intrincado que une, mezcla y fusiona eventos perceptivos, emociones y acciones a las cuales se refieren las modulaciones armónicas.
El arte abstracto básicamente codifica referencias en actos de pintura que hacen imposible desentrañar eventos perceptivos, emociones y acciones, distinguiéndolos unos de otros. Action painting es muy probablemente un caso típico porque tiene como objetivo unir en un nudo la percepción de los colores y de las formas, de las emociones inspiradas y de los gestos reflejados que se realizan a través de la obra de arte.
El arte figurativo disminuye con fuerza la cantidad de referencias potenciales inspiradas por la experiencia estética, especialmente cuando se representan sujetos históricos o mitológicos. De todos modos, la identidad de los personajes representados así como la de los paisajes pintados continúan siendo un verdadero acertijo. La experiencia estética se basa fuertemente sobre la compensación analógica y ésta a su vez se basa en experiencias individuales de sujetos similares y/o de los textos que se tratan.
La referencia poética a eventos perceptivos, emociones y acciones puede construir conceptos muy eficaces y consistentes. De todos modos, las fronteras y el “amoblamiento” del “nicho ecológico” definidos por el poema son por lo general procesados por el lector y por el oyente según su propia comprensión del concepto. El formato literario de la novela emerge como un modelo global porque facilita una comprensión veloz de los eventos descriptos. Por cierto, los nichos ecológicos se transforman analíticamente en novelas gracias a las características específicas de interdependencia de las descripciones de eventos perceptivos, emociones y acciones.

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Unidad 2
La ecología de la novela

Los estudios teóricos más importantes han abordado siempre el tema crucial de la mímesis enfocando la relación entre literatura y realidad, sosteniendo que las novelas imitan la realidad a través del lenguaje, traducen hechos y eventos a través de actos semióticos o establecen mundos ficticios coherentes al cruzar el mundo actual o “real”. Nuestra hipótesis propone un punto de vista diferente al introducir una teoría “ecológica” de la referencia narrativa. Según la teoría de las posibilidades de Gibson y los recientes descubrimientos en el campo de las neurociencias, en particular del mirror neuron, historias y novelas en particular, pueden comprenderse sobre la base de un conocimiento individual conectado con la acción. Ejemplos derivados de la tradición europea de las novelas de tipo medieval o pre modernas servirán para poner en marcha una discusión que muestre cómo las novelas, textualmente, codifican las acciones y cómo los eventos narrativos referidos a experiencias sensoriales y a respuestas como emociones, sentimientos, pensamientos, deducciones o decisiones, dependen de respuestas conectadas con la acción. Finalmente, se tomará en consideración una nueva idea de la novela como “nicho ecológico” y se esbozará una teoría “ecológica” de la referencia narrativa para una mejor investigación filológica de las novelas en el ámbito general de las literaturas comparadas.

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Unidad 3

Las novelas como “nichos ecológicos”

Introduciendo la Teoría de las posibilidades como la piedra fundamental de su enfoque ecológico a la percepción visual, Gibson (1979) describió el concepto de “nicho” como un conjunto de posibilidades que un animal puede manejar de manera eficaz. En su redefinición de las posibilidades como relaciones entre características del ambiente y habilidades de ciertos organismos, Chemero (2003), de acuerdo con su enfoque “situacional”, redefinió el concepto de nicho como un conjunto de situaciones y capacidades (affordances) en el cual pueden ejercerse una o más habilidades de un animal. La definición de Chemero se adapta de manera estupenda a la novela como sistema narrativo, en tanto se considere al animal como el protagonista y su historia se entiende básicamente como  el conjunto de situaciones en el cual pueden ejercitarse una o más de sus habilidades.
Chretien de Troyes’, en Chevalier au Lyon, presenta un conjunto de situaciones con verdaderas merveilles et avantures, características significativas que ofrece el ambiente al caballero. Cervantes simplemente ofrece a su Don Quijote molinos de viento en lugar de verdaderos gigantes y provee habilidades especiales y necesidades a su héroe al mismo tiempo que define su ambientación ecológica. Musil coloca su Mann ohne Eigenschaften en una suerte de ambiente claustrofóbico donde se ofrecen encuentros y reuniones como oportunidades para una infinita inacción. James Joyce pone a su everyman ante los desafíos cotidianos insignificantes que le ofrece el ambiente urbano.La extensión del nicho puede ser definida básicamente como el conjunto de los modelos de actividad que los personajes, por lo general los protagonistas, ejecutan a lo largo de la historia. En efecto, un nicho narrativo, como el ecológico, puede definirse como el conjunto de situaciones en el cual pueden ejercerse una o más habilidades de los personajes. Esto sin embargo no puede ser el nicho ideal en el cual el personaje fácilmente triunfa luego de superar obstáculos, cumplir requisitos, ejecutar tareas, completar misiones hasta alcanzar la meta. La lucha y el fracaso son parte del proceso de la supervivencia en ambos ecosistemas, el natural y el narrativo. En consecuencia, la intensidad dramática de la novela puede ser considerada básicamente como la extensión del desajuste entre las habilidades del personaje y las características del ambiente.

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Unidad 4

Literatura en movimiento y arte narrativo en la era de los locative media y de la red social cibernética

La Filología y la crítica se dirigen generalmente a obras literarias que han sido escritas y publicadas o a sistemas literarios en tanto géneros. Es decir, los estudios literarios por lo general se focalizan en el pasado o el presente del arte pero rara vez ofrecen predicciones o prefiguran formas que jugarán un rol en el desarrollo futuro de los paisajes culturales. Como excepción con respecto a la norma, nuestra contribución tiene como meta predecir un desarrollo posible en la narración sobre la base de los locative media. Se investigarán en particular potenciales aplicaciones literarias basadas en Global Positioning System (GPS, Sistema de posicionamiento global), Geographic Information System (GIS, Sistema de información geográfica) o modelos similares de geocodificación. Es probable que dentro de pocos años artistas y comunidades de narradores podrán escribir o registrar historias para ser transmitidas por locative media; de la misma manera procederán las páginas web, con contenidos transmitidos por medias basados en lugares o GPS o GIS o sistemas inalámbricos. Narraciones en forma de historias podcastadas invadirán las computadoras portátiles y los teléfonos móviles y proveerán a los lectores y oyentes de referencias pertinentes o de interferencias analógicas destinadas a enriquecer los ambientes naturales. Las presencias potenciadas por el juego de correspondencias de las referencias narrativas invadirán como plaga los ambientes urbanos y rurales, aumentando las experiencias sensoriales de los paisajes percibidos. ¿Qué formatos pueden ser previstos como los nuevos formatos estandarizados cuando se llegue a la implementación de un arte narrativo compartido socialmente con marcadores virtuales? ¿Reformularán estos nuevos estándares narrativos las relaciones entre sujetos y ambiente? Finalmente, mientras se provee un nivel operativo permanente de interacción entre los contenidos narrativos y los ambientes naturales, cabe preguntarse si las historias geocodificadas podrán jugar un rol crucial en el sistema literario.

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Unidad 5

La larga cola de los estantes digitales

Lejos de haber sido amenazados, o incluso asesinados, por la cultura web y por los nuevos medios, la literatura ha jugado hasta ahora un papel esencial en el desarrollo de servicios comerciales revolucionarios basados en la web tales como Amazon, que fueron creados con el fin de vender libros on line. Además, la literatura encontró mucho espacio en comunidades de segunda generación, basadas en la web, y hospedó servicios como páginas de networking social, wikis, blogs y folksoonomies, cuya meta es facilitar la interacción, la creatividad, la participación y la colaboración. En algunos casos, la literatura incluso representa el interés principal que algunas comunidades muy numerosas basadas en la web comparten a través de servicios sociales cibernéticos como aNobii, que polarizan lectores del lejano Oriente, y de Europa sud occidental, y LibraryThing o Goodreads, que por lo general atraen lectores de América, Canadá, Gran Bretaña e India. Este tipo de sistemas hacen posible que los lectores puedan colocar sobre plataformas digitales los catálogos de libros que poseen e interactúen con otros lectores según sus intereses literarios. Aparentemente, están emergiendo nuevos senderos para la investigacion literaria, considerando que muchas bibliotecas individuales y privadas continúan ofreciéndose a través de internet. En particular, un análisis comparado de estadísticas vinculadas con aNobi y con LybraryThing’s evidencia una nueva apreciación de la Literatura Mundial como un sistema emergente de cánones digitales de gran importancia sostenido por un público que se identifica como lectores entusiastas.

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Bibliografía

Chemero, A. 2003
An Outline of a Theory of Affordances, in «Ecological Psychology» 15: 181-195.

Feldman J. – Narayanan S. 2004
Embodied meaning in a neural theory of language, in «Brain and Language» 89: 385-92.

Aziz-Zadeh, L. – Damasio, A. 2008
Embodied semantics for actions: Findings from functional brain imaging, in «Journal of Physiology» 102 (1-3): 35-39.

Moretti, F. 2000
Conjectures on World Literature, in «New Left Review» n.s. 1 (Jan.-Feb. 2000), pp. 54-68.

C. Anderson, The Long Tail, in «Wired» 12, 10 (Oct. 2004)

For further reference please check: The Ecology of the Novel. A Book in Progress by Anatole Pierre Fuksas.

The Long Tail of Digital Shelves

Far from having been threatened, not to mention killed by web culture and new media, literature played an essential part in the developing of groundbreaking commercial web based services as Amazon, originally established so as to sell books online. Moreover, literature found plenty of room in second generation web-based services such as social-networking sites, wikis, blogs, and folksonomies, aiming to facilitate interaction, creativity, sharing and collaboration. In some cases, literature even represents the main interest very crowded web based communities share through social network services, as aNobii, polarizing readers from Far East and South-Western Europe, and LibraryThing, mostly attracting readers from America, UK and India, smaller communities of english readers being even shared by Goodreads and Shelfari .

Such literary Social Network Systems make it possible for readers to upload on digital platforms the books they own, to provide personal comments and remarks and to interact with other readers according to their literary interests. That’s why a compared assessment of public data provided by such systems makes it possible to investigate the extent of literary canons from the vantage point of people self-identifying themselves as enthusiastic readers. Of course, being communities very plastic and unstable in terms of geographical distribution and linguistic identity, not to mention literary tastes of their members, the present assessment is very likely subject to dramatic changes in time. Still, some very general remarks may enlighten meaningful aspects of literary social network services that would eventually outlast plasticity and mobility of massive data provided by an equally plastic and mobile community of book-readers.

First off, interesting remarks emerge in respect of a crucial issue as the one concerning ‘nationality of books’. Indeed, literary canons established by enthusiastic readers uploading their books on digital shelves seem to stretch linguistic borders traditionally defining what national literature a novel, a poem, an essay, a literary work in general belongs to. Basically, ‘national identity’ seems to be lost in translation, being books indexed, discussed and ranked on the basis of the language they have been read in. Cultural identity of novels and other literary works is basically defined in reader-based terms, reshaping the very concept of ‘nationality of books’ so as to fit the global system of world literature. Local language-based systems «think globally and act locally», that is they glocalize themseves incorporating foreign books by means of translation.

Basically, social network services supporting bibliographical catalogues of books directly uploaded by readers credit translation as a major factor determining uneven globalization of literary canons. South-Western European and Far Eastern systems seem to be extremely permeable to literary works originally written in foreign languages. Incorporation of foreign items mostly apply to English franchised series as Harry Potter’s saga and The Lord of the Ring, or Dan Brown’s super-pop page-turners. Some more books may be accommodated into local systems, since they are perceived as universal masterpieces or because they eventually fill occasional voids. Rather, English hegemony in world literary systems seems to reflect in substantial autonomy, not to say factual isolation of English language-speaking global community and regional ramifications. Indeed, it just seems flexible enough to be incorporating a few unavoidable masterpieces from literary systems based on different languages. Such evidence seems to confirm remarks formulated by Roberto Antonelli (2000: 334-335) about strengths and weaknesses of ‘imperial’ anglo-american canon, a very powerful and effective one when it comes to pervasively invade other systems, but basically unable to self-globalize itself by acquiring foreign references.

Discussing the novel as a genre in search of his own identity, Thomas Pavel (2002, then 2006) observed that the list of nobel prize awarded authors in the last fifty years mostly include novelists from everywhere in the world, restating both the global extent of the genre and his crucial position in literary global system. Accordingly, and predictably, the vast majority of popular books owned and uploaded on digital shelves by socially networked readers are novels. Predictably, Harry Potter’s series by J. K. Rowling and The Lord of the Ring trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien are amazingly popular on a global scenario, being featured among top 50 books in all far easter, european and american charts. This is of course due to franchise strategies based on popularity of blockbuster movies and reproduction of contents on all disposable platforms, exerting new convergence culture, as defined by Hanry Jenkins.

Dan Brown’s best sellers achieved the status of very global literary reference just on the basis of certified literary effectiveness, as other as in the case of literary sensations like Tuesdays with Morrie and The five people you meet in heaven by Mitch Albom, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini or La Sombra del Viento by Carlos Ruíz Zafón. Indeed, as it happens for franchised series, such books basically top every possible chart emerging from digital shelves featuring books uploaded by enthusiastic readers from Europe, America and Far East. Moreover, super-classic novels as O Alquimista by Paulo Coelho, Cien Años de Soledad by Gabriel García Márquez, Das Parfüm by Patrick Süskind, Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí by Milan Kundera are equally top ranked in every pop list. They basically emerge as masterpieces, that is typical specimina of the genre, and, accordingly, they play a crucial role in the global scenario.

Some other literary classics from the 20th century play a global role to a minor extent, being just very popular in some of the major communities, as in the case of 1984 by George Orwell, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (English, Spanish, Italian) or L’étranger by Albert Camus and Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (French, Italian, Spanish). Some novels play a crucial role in limited regional systems, as the ones by Daniel Pennac, mostly uploaded on Italian and french shelves or Isable Allende, very popular on Spanish and Italian. Popularity of many others is just limited to their original birthplace, as in the case of masterpieces by Italo Calvino and very popular ones by Stefano Benni in Italy. Likewise, novels by Yu Hua are on top of pop lists emerging from Chinese shelves, but keep been basically absent from international rankings, besides the amazing success of internationally acclaimed movies by Zhang Yimou they actually inspired.

So, the novel prevail as a genre and some novels prevail as paradigmatic specimina of the genre, the extent of their popularity being absolutely global. Still, popular novels are always included into library systems entailing plenty of unpopular other ones and of course, plenty of books that doesn’t seem to be very popular and are not novels at all. That is, single digital shelves typically feature popular novels side by side with unlucky ones and, of course, essays, scientific books, comics, gardening manuals or other references. Digital shelves basically reflect a dynamic, interactive idea of private libraries, conceived as networks of books interacting with each other to a variable extent. Since, literary canons are interactive systems based on mutual interaction of objects they include, they shouldn’t anymore be addressed as series of independent entries, that is lists of books to be read or included into syllabi, as the one proposed by Harold Bloom (1994). Indeed, they actually work like plastic networks to be surfed, their emergent meaning being defined by permanently mobile paths connecting single items, which identity and shape is not given once and for all.

Assumption of books as milestones of a static literary system has to be addressed as faulty and misleading, as far as the identity of novels, poems, literary works of any kind is defined by their interaction with readers and other books they read. Connective patterns subject to permanent plastic reshaping, questioning status, position, presence of single literary works. For instance, Raimbaud’s Une saison en enfer plays a different role into reader-specific literary systems entailing Petrarca’s Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta and Elliot’s Waste Land rather than, say, Wedding Season by Katie Fforde or To Hell in High Heels by Helena Frith Powell. Since the same point apply to every single literary work uploaded into a digital library, every shelf can be basically addressed as an interactive system, defining the meaning of any item it features in terms of actual or potential connections with any other listed one and they all together.

Novels are sunk into systems which borders are designed so as to include essays, memories, philosophical investigation as comics or cookbooks. Moreover, pop books are integrated into digital shelves in which readers uploaded very peculiar, individual readings that are not very popular at all. In this sense, literary canons entailed by digitally shelves have to be addressed as long-tailed systems, in the terms described by Chris Anderson in his very popular works about The Long Tail, his book being even featured as #17 in the aNobii Semplified Chinese top list and #89 in the English one! The concept has been originally coined in a ground-breaking Wired article aiming to describe niche market strategy introduced by business companies as book-based one Amazon, realizing significant profit out of selling small volumes of hard-to-find items to many customers, instead of only selling large volumes of a reduced number of popular items.

Literary canons emerging from digital shelves may be addressed as long-tailed systems both in terms of being based on shelves featuring a few very pop books and plenty of peculiar, not-very-common other ones and in respect to the bottom-up process they arise from. Indeed, according to Anderson, the group of persons that buy the hard-to-find or ‘non-hit’ items is the customer demographic called the Long Tail. Likewise, ‘non hit’ Italian housewives as Australian free-climbers or Chinese accountants, or anybody else who may like to upload his library on a digital shelf, are basically contributing in defining plastic contemporary canons of World Literature with their own likings and personal options. If literary social network services will keep growing, future canons would hardly just depend on cultural strategies planned by critics, intellectual, academicians belonging to prestigious institutions, neither on marketing-based ones established by publishers, agents, editors, authors or journalists.

Needless to say, being the game still up and running, these very general remarks just aim to provide a first assessment of slowly emerging and self-defining system of World Literature from current point of view of digitally competent book readers. Present appraisal may be compared in the future with updated ones, so as to measure and assess variation in the literary system through time. Further investigations may even very interestingly focus on locative-sensible data, eventually describing very small local systems in respect of the general one. Moreover, emphasis on long-tailed systems may help in re-defining current literary systems as by identifying peculiar patterns of co-recurrency of clustered books on digital shelves, even taking into account locative and linguistic pertinence.

Still, even a very general assessment allows to conclude that literary social networks seem to be providing some interesting answers to the ‘problem’ of World Literature, as Franco Moretti (2000) properly defined it. In particular, collaborative nature of web 2.0 services and communities makes it possible to quickly embrace relevant segments of ‘the great unread’, as Margaret Cohen (1999: 23) defined the huge amount of literary leftovers stockpiled into analogical libraries. New paths for literary criticism emerge, while communities of readers keep sharing individual readings, so as to make it possible for everybody to surf through millions of books instead of sticking with the few hundreds listed in syllabi, histories of literatures, anthologies, typical canon in general. Indeed, huge amounts of typically unread books become part of global literary system and regional ramifications as far as occasional readers upload them on digital long-tailed shelves.

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Aknowledgments

The full version of the paper, complete with accurate data, will be published on the International Literary Journal «Critica del Testo» 10/1 (2007). I am largely in debt with Alessandro Lanni, who introduced me to Convergence Culture and the Long Tail, Sergio Brunori for all the help with Chinese books, Christa Zacchei, who introduced me to aNobii, Nicoletta Costantini for plenty of suggestion helping a better understanding of literary social networks.

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Bibliography

Anderson, C. 2006
The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More, New York, Hyperion.

Antonelli, R. 2000
Il canone Nobel, in «Critica del Testo» 3 (2000), pp. 321-336.

Bloom, H. 1994
The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, New York, Harcourt Brace & Company.

Cohen, M. 1999
The Sentimental Education of the Novel, Princeton (NJ), Princeton University Press.

Jenkins, H. 2006
Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, New York, New York University Press.

Moretti, F. 2000
Conjectures on World Literature, in «New Left Review» n.s. 1 (Jan.-Feb. 2000), pp. 54-68.

Pavel, T. 2002 then 2006
Il romanzo alla ricerca di se stesso, in Il romanzo. II. Le forme, a c. di F. Moretti, Torino, Einaudi, 2002, pp. 35-63, then reprinted as T. Pavel, The Novel in Search of Itself: A Historical Morphology, in The Novel. Volume 2: Forms and Themes, ed. by F. Moretti, Princeton (NJ), Princeton University Press, 2006, pp. 3-32.

Peripheral Vision, Traces and Immersive Landscapes

Previous entries about Mark Jenkins’ and Xing Danwen’s artworks showed that an investigation on how immersive environments are described in novels and how narrative references interfere with sensory experience of landscapes may take advantage from comparative remarks coming from sculpture and manipulation of digital imaging. More advantageous remarks may come from the field of photography, namely from suggestive artistic shots by Timothy Atherton, a former police evidence photographer who definitely developed an ecological artistic approach to landscapes.

Being resonance a key-concept in Gibson’s Theory of affordances, Atherton conceptualization of photography makes plenty of sense in ecological terms since he maintains that «the idea of a photographer as being a person who follows traces is one that resonates strongly for me». Moreover, Atherton conceives the transference happening when the photographer make a picture as part of an exchange taking place between photographer and scene. Basically, in his view «the photographer simply uses the camera to make a trace of what he sees before him or her». Atherton’s approach to photography doesn’t seem based on traditional mimetic approaches, given that he describes his photography as an «ongoing attempt» to understand what he sees, by following clues so to establish «temporary conclusions that then lead to other questions and other clues». In these terms, by quoting Joyce («Bethicket me for a stump of a beech»), Atherton summarizes his work as aimed to «interpreting traces».

Introducing his series of “Peripheral Vision” (2003) Atherton states that «extended suburban condition does not easily show up on maps, it is in many ways more of a suburban state of mind than a topographic location». While photographing suburban landscapes, Atherton found himself «looking at things that are somewhat off centre, off to the side – a peripheral vision. Things that are often unnoticed and just below our level of perception». Indeed, «things seen that are in plain sight yet so familiar or obvious they are usually ignored, unseen, and their existence barely registered – attention no longer paid to them».

Peripheral Vision

Describing his series of “Immersive Landscapes” (2006), Atherton offers that «to try and impose order on this messy and unordered view seems a mistake. Instead, recognizing the disorder, letting the fine detail spread over the whole image and allowing the eye to wander over the whole field without finding a clear point of rest draws the viewer into the apparent fractal detail and chaos of the image». Indeed, he describes the results of his work as portraits of «“immersive” landscapes where the whole wide visual field is potentially full of interesting subplots over and against the overall story that the picture is telling».

Immersive Landscapes

Introducing his new work, Traces (2007), Aherton interestingly quotes Italo Calvino:

The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the street, the gratings of the windows, the bannisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning-rods, the poles of the flags. Every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls

Actually, Atherton’s collection of Traces seems pretty much inspired by Calvino’s remarks from the Invisible City (Le città Invisibili, Torino, Einaudi, 1972), that may even count as a very interesting meditation on hybrid ecologies based on the merge of literary references and sensory experience of landscapes. Namely, the bare concept of Le città invisibili entails open reference to cities that are there even tho they are not perceivable by sight. Actually, Atherton’s Traces exert potential of landscapes referring to previous or potential actions. The camera can help guessing or foreshadowing past or future events on the basis of clues, leftovers, affordances ready to be triggered by somebody who’s actually out of the picture.

Traces

Introducing his work, the photographer describes his photo art in very general terms as «an essential way of seeing, of exploring and understanding something or somewhere». Art is conceived as an explorative behavior leading to the discovery of traces. The artist finds and collects evidences and tries to make sense of them, interpreting them in some way, so to reach «provisional conclusions which are then either discarded or built on». Still, art doesn’t imitate some sort of physical reality located ‘out there’. Rather, it establishes temptative approaches to the environment based on «traces people leave, the evidence or signs that the camera can discover, often seeming to find them in unnoticed or disregarded terrain».

Actually, Atherton adopts a very ecological approach to photo art based on «the principle of exchange», maintaining that «every contact leaves a trace – that with contact between two things there will be an exchange». As an artist, he sees exchange as an interaction not just taking place between «inhabitant and place, but also between photographer and place». That is, he regards the trace of light on film as an exchange». Interestingly, Atherton portrays traces in order to make the viewer wondering about actions that eventually took place or are about to happen. In this sense, a former police evidence photographer, he exerts action potential triggered by visual hints in the very same way detectives try to re-enact events leading to crimes on the basis of clues they find on crime scenes.

With all evidence, the very same process is exerted into crime stories, namely the ones defined as “woodonit”, so as to establish a deep involvement of the reader into the story being told. Indeed, the reader is involved into reverse engineering since the very beginning of the novel, when the corpse of the victim is typically discovered. The same process is exerted to a variable extent in basically every novel, thriller as romantic, mainstream as experimental ones, since potential reference always outstrips textual borders, bringing into play speculations about other events that are not necessarily encoded into textual description.

Novels as Ecological Niches

Introducing the Theory of Affordances as a crucial milestone of his ecological approach to visual perception, Gibson (1979) described the concept of niche as a set of affordances an animal can cope with effectively. While redefining affordances as relations between environmental features and abilities of given organisms, according to his “situational” approach Chemero (2003) redefined the concept of niche as the set of situations in which one or more abilities of an animal can be exercised. Chemero’s definition amazingly fits the novel as a narrative system, as far as the animal is intended as the protagonist and his story is basically understood as the set of situations in which one or more of his abilities can be exercised.

Chretien de Troyes’ Chevalier au Lyon draws a set of situations entailing proper merveilles and avantures, meaningful features the environment affords to the knight. Cervantes simply feeds Don Quijote windmills instead of proper giants, exerting special abilities and needs of his hero while defining his ecological surroundings. Musil sticks his Mann ohne Eigenschaften into sort of a claustrophobic environment mostly providing commissions and meetings as opportunities for endless discussion and inaction. James Joyce follows his everyman through highly underrated challenges a very common urban environment provides him with.

The extent of the niche may be basically defined as the array of activity patterns characters, typically protagonists, perform throughout the story. Indeed, a narrative niche, as an ecological one, can be defined as the sets of situations in which one or more abilities of characters can be exercised, not as the ideal one in which the character easily succeed in overcoming stakes, fulfilling requirements, performing tasks, accomplishing missions, attaining goals. Struggling and failing are part of the process of surviving in both natural and a narrative challenging ecosystems. Accordingly, dramatic intensity of a novel may be basically addressed as the extent of the mismatch between character’s abilities and environmental features.

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Bibliography

Chemero, A. 2003
An Outline of a Theory of Affordances, in «Ecological Psychology» 15: 181-195.

Gibson, J. J. 1986 (o. v. 1979)
The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Hillsdale (NJ), Erlbaum.

Disembodied Novels

Embodiment of stories has been investigated so far especially in respect to psychotic stories. In particular, Els van Dongen devoted a book (2002) and a follow-up paper (2003) to the topic, maintaining that stories that are seen as irrelevant and incomprehensible get their non-psychiatric meaning and power by embodiment. According to van Dongen, psychotic people, namely patients diagnosed with schizophrenia, try to regain control over their lives and to influence the course of events by performing and carrying out actions that are based on a story, which has become sort of a text for living. Indeed, so as to gain power and control, schizophrenics need to do more than narrating in language: they have to make their story a narration of flesh and blood, they have to become part of the story itself by embodying it. Since the power of psychotic stories doesn’t come from telling but from acting out accordingly, the final meaning of the mad story is less situated in discursive practices than in the performance, exerting narratives as social features.

Van Dongen observed that it can be misleading to contrast the world of normal people and the schizophrenic one by defining the first one as reality and the second one as situated outside reality. Indeed, for the main part, schizophrenics live in the so called real world where normal people spend their lives. Moreover, the so called ‘mad world’ has its own universe of discourse, its own conception of reality and criteria of rationality, sometimes very different from the ones applying to the non-psychotic world. Both the remarks may be ecologically re-framed by saying that so called mad stories embodied by schizophrenics basically rely on peculiar filtering strategies. That is, they are based on a non-standard common coding of perception and action and the special pairing of perceptual events and/or actions with emotional states.

Opportunely, van Dongen never suggested that mad stories should be assessed as different from normal ones because the former have to be embodied and the latter have not. As suggested by previous entries, embodiment of stories is even implied in the processing of narratives normal people go through while reading a novel or listening to a story. That is, embodied stories are part of the every-day experience of so called ‘normal’ people as well. Rather, disembodiment of narratives may be associated to peculiar neural lesions like the ones described by Oliver Sacks (1985) in his famous collection of clinical cases. For instance, the renowned dr. P, aka The man who mistook his wife for an hat,

investigating the difficulties with leftness of his patient, Sacks observed that his visual field deficits affected both his visual perception and his visual memory and imagination. Hence, «thinking of the almost allucinatoryintensity with which Tolstoy visualises and animates his characters», he tested dr. P’s «internal visualization» questioning him about Anna Karenina, a novel he craved. Interestingly, Sacks describes the reactions of his patient as follows:

He could remember incidents without difficulty, had an undiminished grasp of the plot, but completely omitted visual characteristics, visual narratives and scenes. He remembered the words of the characters but not their faces; and though, when asked, he could quote, whit his remarkable and almost verbatim memory, the original visual descriptions, these were, it became apparent, quite empty for him and lacked sensorial, imaginal, or emotional reality.

The clinical case provides an amazing sample of how disembodied processing of a novel should work. Basically, descriptions do not trigger the embodiment of corresponding sensory experiences and interoceptive correlates as emotions and feelings. Besides, the mere words or sentences are stored, saved as ’empty’ labels and strings lacking any peculiar reference. As Sacks remarks, being dr. P, a musician and a teacher at the local school of music with undiminished musical skills, memory for words might have been part of a more general strategy of compensating visual impairments with peculiar enhancement of auditory and sensory-motor skills.

Interestingly, the clinical case described by Sacks provides evidence of a disembodied processing of narrative events, that is the inability of decoding sensory experiences and emotional correlates on the basis of verbal references, associated to major visual impairments including inability to figure out body part related affordances of very common items. Indeed, dr. P showed undiminished ability of describing shapes, abstract forms, whereas he failed to visually recognize a glove by the pure sight, being rather triggered by sudden understanding of his function as soon as he wore it.

Hence, dr. P’s peculiar ‘reality’ makes plenty of sense in ecological terms. Indeed, inability to focus on narrative events entailing visual references seems paired with a more general visual impairment affecting actual sensory appraisal of natural environments. Likewise, the case of The Lost Mariner presents a similar inability of visual-related language processing paired with a general amnesia involving loss of all visual images, without any sense of loss being present:

Indeed, he had lost the very idea of seeing-and was not only unable to describe anything visually, but bewildered when I used words as ‘seing’ and ‘light’. He had become, in essence, a non visual being (p. 41).

Such evidence corroborates hebbian association models proposed by Pulvermüller (1999, 2002: ch. 4, 50-65), based on the idea that distinct cortical topographies represent biological counterparts of words and their symbolic inherently referential features. In particular, assemblies that process words referring to visually perceived objects trigger neural activity in the perisylvian cortices but even recruit additional cells from visual or motor cortices depending on the content of the word.

In general, observation of patient showing congruent disembodiment of stories and corresponding sensory experiences supports the idea that that understanding of narratives relies on the enacting of appropriate embodied experiences the described events refer to (Feldman and Narayanan 2004). Indeed, the ability to utter and process linguistic references to perceptual events, as narrative ones based on literary sources, seems to be somatotopically related to the ability to process corresponding sensory events and actions in natural environments.

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Bibliography

Feldman J. – Narayanan S. 2004
Embodied meaning in a neural theory of language, in «Brain and Language» 89: 385-92.

Sacks, o. 1985
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, New York: Summit Books; London: Gerald Duckworth .

Pulvermüller, F. 1999
Words in the Brain Language, in «Behavioral and Brain Sciences» 22 (1999): 253-336.

Pulvermüller, F. 2002
The Neuroscience of Language. On Brain Circuits of Words and Serial order, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Van Dongen, E. 2002
Walking stories. An oddnography of mad people’s work with culture, Amsterdam, Rozenberg Publishers, 2002.

Van Dongen, E. 2003
Walking stories: narratives of mental patients as magica, in «Anthropology & Medicine» 10 (2003) , pp. 207-222.

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).