Future Cinema

Course Site for Future Cinema 1 (and sometimes Future Cinema 2: Applied Theory) at York University, Canada

Michel Chaouli: How Interactive Can Fiction Be?

Last week’s reading by Lev Manovich presented a dichotomy between the form of the database and that of the narrative. In his words, “many new media object do not tell stories; they don’t have beginning or end…’ (Manovich, 1). It is in this context, one in which we presume the supremacy of the database form, that we look at Chaouli, who tries to understand where literature, the narrative form par excellence, fits in. How does literature, and fiction in general, respond to new media technology? What is the role of narrative in new media works?

In the new media landscape fiction has been called interactive fiction, electronic fiction and hyperfiction. It can be characterized by the use of hypertext which allows for “non-sequential writing – text that branches and allows choices to the reader” (Nelson in Chaouli, 601). Many writers, even before the computer, attempted to make their fiction interactive, to somehow include the reader. However, so far there has been much resistance on the part of readers to engage in and seek out this type of fiction.

Chaouli specifies the nature of the hypertext. In the environment of code, “text” no longer exclusively refers to words. Therefore, when linking from one place to another, we can also be linking from one type of “text” to another, for example, from words to images, or to music. In itself, writing is not separate from other forms, and the hypertext allows for a multiplicity of texts within a given narrative. To read a story is also, potentially, to see it and to hear it.

Furthermore, the hypertext is characterized by the loss of absolute order. There is no longer an “equally convincing and appropriate reading, and in that simple fact the reader’s relationship to the text changes radically” (Bolter in Chaouli, 603). By being able to navigate through a text, a reader suddenly has control over the story. Consequently, the story no longer carries meaning within itself: meaning is only made through the participation, and direction, of the reader who makes his/her own narrative. At a time when we are getting used to the idea of media customization and interaction, giving the power over to the reader follows larger cultural trends, but, as Chaouli argues, this is not what is happening in the world of fiction.

Stepping back from fiction for a moment, Chaouli considers the concept of “interactive communication.” He characterizes it be a flattening of the distinction between author and reader, between producer/creator and consumer, sender and receiver. There are two ways to understand this: the first is the economic perspective which asserts that because of the open nature of the Internet every consumer can also be a producer, and secondly, through the perspective that “every act of reception is in itself productive” (Chaouli, 605). The reader must often contribute, in some way, in the decoding of the text. The notions of authorship are henceforth challenged, since the text requires the input of both the creator and the consumer to have meaning. To return to fiction in particular, the distinction between author and reader becomes blurred and even nonexistent. This would lead to a redistribution of power in which the superiority of the author is abolished.

This utopian ideal of a community of equals strikes Chaouli as counterproductive for fiction. He argues that this interactivity between author and reader negates the very principles of literature. Moreover, he claims that in the push towards dismantling hierarchies through the power of new media we “tend to ignore that in order for art to occur, communication must be distributed unevenly: some narrate, write, dance, or since, while others listen, read, or watch” (Chaouli, 607). It is only when one can take in a work of art precisely without having to actively engage or participate in its production, that one is able to reflect and appreciate it. Chaouli uses the example of avant-garde art which is often thought to be demanding precisely because it requires the reader to work instead of liberating him/her to read.

One of the powers of literature is to create fictional worlds. The reader gradually becomes familiar with this world and is able to make assumptions or understand the implicit nature of the text. Chaouli describes this as filling the blank. Another way of considering it could be using Manovich’s terms: the reader becomes familiar with the author’s paradigm, and is therefore able to uncover the underlying logic of the text, the algorithm. In hyperfiction the world of the author is no longer defined since it is partially created by the reader. The text is flexible and therefore the reader can no longer make assumptions, projections or implications: the relationship between the paradigm and the algorithm is confused. The reader is stripped from the pleasures of deconstructing, and understanding the text, because the text itself is not stable, and in a way, is ultimately incomplete.

To uncover the relationship of the reader and hyperfiction Chaouli takes a closer look at hypertext itself. While hypertext offers some choice, he argues, the options are pre-determined, limited and offer a false sense of infinite possibility. So while we consider fiction in books to be embedded with an inherent power struggle, hyperfiction is not any less dictatorial. Moreover, Chaouli argues that in the very act of having to make choices and decision on what hypertext to follow, we must bring in our non-fictional selves into the creation of fiction. At that moment what we read loses an element of fiction and we enter a “crisis of fictionality” (Chaouli, 616). In this act of authorship we become increasingly removed from the fictional world created by the original author. Chaouli suggests, as a solution to this problem, that the reader become fictionalized as a reader, eliminating the interruption between the non-fiction self making choices, and the fictional itself.

Lastly, Chaouli offers a suggestion for integrating fiction making and the interactive networked computer. He calls this the fictionalization of reception. While this breaks away from traditional notions of literature, it could be a way of making hyperfiction more popular. The reason is that the fictionalization of reception plays on our participatory culture, and instead of producing readers it would produce writers. But these writers are not authors per say since their primarily goal is to entice others into writing as well (Chaouli, 616). This might be successful because it is a lot more fun to participate in creating hyperfiction, than to simply read it. The new hyperfiction then becomes more like a game. It seems that even Chaouli has abandoned hope for a hyperfiction which provokes critical reflection on the part of the reader, and has given in to the fun, participatory nature of computer games.

1. Chaouli is ultimately suggesting that hyperfiction become a participatory game. Is he abandoning his grander ideas of the literary narrative? Could we say this hyperfiction game is therefore just another database?
2. What happens to the power relationships between creator and consumer in participatory culture? In the network?
3. Is there a different between interactivity and participation?
4. Can we translate Chaouli’s concerns with the fictional narrative onto other forms such as cinema? What is the importance of the form when working with new media? Could we argue that all narratives are converging?

Thu, January 25 2007 » narrative, seminar summaries