Class Thread on Interactivity (Week 5)

We’ve considered quite a bit during our class time questions of personal interaction with a piece. Especially the idea that if a piece is not thoroughly interactive—or at least slightly interactive—it may not be taking full advantage of the format for which it was “written.”

For today, we read some pieces that were more interactive, such as J. R. Carpenter’s The Cape. However, the interactivity may or may not have been adding to the piece in its quality, meaning and communication.

Today, I’d like you to interact more fully with the question of just how interactive a piece of electronic literature should be for it to be considered an exemplary form of itself. Is interactivity even necessary?

[Thanks to Rachel for providing this week’s prompt. Don’t forget, by the way, to read Tory’s VBIR, which you can find in our shared Dropbox folder.]

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  1. In hypertext, I believe that the level of interactivity is almost essential to the piece’s overall meaning and quality. I believe that the level of control the reader possesses over the pace of the story and the order of the story’s text (I think particularly of “I Have Said Nothing”) deepens the connection between the reader and the text. The freedom in the reader to “choose their own adventure” also adds a complex level of frustration and confusion that is also seemingly necessary to many of the pieces’ meanings. Again, I think of “I Have Said Nothing,” where the confusion mimicked a teenager’s mind after severe trauma or more relevantly for this week, “The Cape” where the unreliability of the text (in that we aren’t sure if we have read/experienced it all or if we have read it in the correct order, etc.) adds to the overall reminder about the unreliability of memory Carpenter wishes to convey. Interactivity can be an important part of the experience of an E-lit piece.

    However, I do not believe that a level of interactivity is entirely necessary for a piece to be an “exemplary form of itself.” I think specifically of bpNichol’s piece or Cayley’s windsound, where the pieces have pretty much been reduced to a video—the level of interaction is mostly just pressing ‘Go,’ or ‘Play,’ which I do not believe adds a significant contribution to the overall meaning or experience of the piece (although others may disagree, as I believe many critics believe this is an essential piece to experiencing the piece fully).

    In short, interactivity may be helpful for some pieces to be exemplary examples of E-literature—in that interactivity can add a whole new layer of meaning—but I think the creators/authors of E-literature are not required to include (or use) it.

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  2. I think I’ve talked before about my dissatisfaction with the interactive elements in the kinetic poems we encountered a couple weeks ago; and I mentioned the distinction between interactivity as navigation in hypertext rather than interactivity as choice in interactive-fiction or gaming. The interactivity of this week’s selections isn’t as easy for me to categorize.

    In many of the pieces this week, the role of interactivity was in some regard a complement to the role of motion in kinetic poetry–a way of governing the reader’s experience. In kinetic poetry, motion introduced time and time became a limitation on understanding. In hypertext pieces like “Going through the Signs,” “The Cape,” and especially “The Jew’s Daughter,” interactivity is essentially a way of building walls and gates between the various components of the text. The actual act of clicking a sign or mousing-over a word or phrase is not so much an act of navigation since these are all fairly linear experiences despite being hypertextual. It is, instead, an act of progression. In stark contrast to kinetic poetry which robbed the reader of control over the reading experience, interactivity in these texts fundamentally returns control to the reader such that the text will be entirely static without input (again, “The Jew’s Daughter” is a good example of this kind of gating). In this way, the interactivity of these texts is largely functional rather than aesthetic.

    I was struck significantly by the brief comment (I almost didn’t catch it) during Strickland’s commentary on her piece “Errand upon Which We Came.” She begins the walk-through of the poem by addressing the butterfly and what it allows the reader to do–control the pace of the poem. If the reader wants to read at their own pace, they interact with the butterfly and it pauses the reading experience. This is a reverse kind of gate, but functionally similar. And yet, Strickland comments on the butterfly’s agency, that she’s given it a certain amount of agency, and even comments that in a different poem she had given a river symbol the agency.

    I’m comfortable talking about agency in terms of games and interactive-fiction; in fact, I’m pretty sure I used the term when distinguishing navigation from choice. But in those instances, it is the player or the reader who is given agency by the interactive element of the text. Strickland phrased it, rather, as the interactive element given agency by the author. The reader is not the agent in her mind, or maybe only the will behind the actual action of interaction. It is, by her comment, the textual or symbolic element that is the agent within the piece. I’m not sure I understand the implications of this fully, since it’s so far from my usual perspective on the subject, but it sounds as though to Strickland, the question of interactivity’s importance is not “how am I interacting with it” but, rather, “through what am I interacting with it” or even “what am I actually interacting with.” This may explain the somewhat cryptic remark from I<3E-Poetry about "The Jew's Daughter," suggesting that there is a kind of subtext formed by the words the reader mouses-over to change the body of the work. There, the changing of the body of work would be secondary to the actual elements that the reader is interacting with. It's something of a paradigm shift, and I'd have to re-read these texts specifically with that in mind.

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  3. Interactivity is not a necessary component of electronic literature, strictly speaking, but the flexibility of the virtual metamedium is only a segment of the range of possibilities offered by computer-generated literary works. Interaction with the computer, physically, is a requirement for its use. This is technically true of codices and scrolls and the like – pages must be turned, the knob-things on scrolls whose names elude me must be rotated – but the work is done to access the information. It does not change the nature of that information or its presentation (excepting extremely art-school-studenty projects). The nature of the computer, that it allows for any form of interaction and any form of data manipulation, means that interactivity becomes a key part of any work, whether it is interactive or not. The choice to not be interactive is a choice made in light of interactivity – one does not work on e-lit and go ‘huh, I hadn’t thought to let the reader muck about in this’, one works knowing the possibility is there and choosing a measure of control to lend to the viewer. An exemplary work should allow the reader not only to control how they navigate the piece with some degree of variability (speed, destination, etc.) but to reflect those decisions in the work of the piece itself (word choice, passage presentation, et al.).

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  4. The entire question of interactivity is in equal parts fascinating and frustrating. The fascinating elements have already been quite well expressed by my peers. What has been frustrating to me is the subjectivity of interactivity. Discussing the experience of, for example, the Cape seems impossible when readers’ different interactions with the text create different experiences with, in fact, differing levels of interactivity. The reader who chooses to click left to right has interacted with the text, yes. However, a reader who takes it upon herself to dictate the very order of narrative has claimed more power and done more to change the nature of the piece.
    With any kind of literature, different people interact with the text in different ways, of course. While one reader spends hours trying to solve a linguistic puzzle in a piece, maybe another is fascinated by the way the words sound when read out loud. E-literature heightens this difference to a degree where I am not sure we are even reading the same text anymore and we are probably not experiencing the exact same level of interactivity. So, what one person may view as profoundly interactive, another may experience as “not interactive enough” to be fully taking advantage of the technology. With this is mind, I hesitate to categorize any piece as interactive enough to be exemplary.

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  5. I find it interesting how you phrased your question: “I’d like you to interact more fully with the question of just how interactive a piece of electronic literature should be for it to be considered an exemplary form of itself. Is interactivity even necessary?”
    I think interactivity is absolutely necessary, but our definitions may slightly differ. The way you phrased your question, suggests that we will be interacting with a question. We aren’t clicking mouse buttons or turning knobs or even flipping pages, but to a degree, by the simple dedication of our thoughts to an issue, we are interacting. The same, I feel, can be said for e-lit. The authors all demand our interaction to varying degrees. They may not require us to push or pull or prod anything, but we are, inevitably interacting with our rapt attention, and thoughts. So, in saying this what is my intention? I’m not, as it may seem, trying to dodge the question, but rather defining my terms so I may answer it more fully. I believe that interactivity is crucial to any form of literature, because attention and a given thought is necessarily interactive. However, do I believe that one must push a button or click something on a web page for it to be interactive? No more than I believe that a book loses some of its meaning if someone turns the pages for you. The meaning stays the same, your mind is still captured by the words on the page and your attention follows.

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  6. Interactivity is one of the defining experiential characteristics that separate a digital piece from a paper&ink piece. In the past, we have used examples of the mechanical nature of “reading” (for lack of a better term right now), a piece of e-literature such as a mouse click versus a page flip. A purpose that both of these actions fulfill is to register a chronological progression of text. We naturally assume that page 1 is before page 2 and that the contents of page 2 should follow page 1. I want to call into attention, then, the characteristics of “The Cape” as a piece that is certainly and distinctly E-Literature. If the piece were found in a paper&ink book, it would simply be a picture book of sorts. Motion, however, is not something that can be achieved so easily. Although the pictures do not move in the same way as previous works we have examined (such as Mandrake Vehicles or Birds), it is still something exclusive to digital technology. Interestingly, the text does not move at all. Another element of exclusive digital work is the inclusion of the sound clip of an old radio show discussing how to whistle. In the span of a few short lexias, J.R. Carpenter differentiates his text from traditional paper&ink text. Keep in mind, the text itself does not move; the text functions in the exact same way as it would in an actual book, providing a communication of intent. The pictures, however, are elevated to animation via digital technology, and the sensory experience is also elevated (with the addition of sound) with technology.

    Finally, going back to the question of interactivity, it seems to me that “The Cape” provides a good case against the necessity of interactivity in an exemplary electronic literature piece. Carpenter creates an experience that juxtaposes traditional text with digital medium in a simple, effective way.

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  7. Similar to Joe’s response, I think it’s important to think about what it means to interact with something, particularly a piece of literature. One could say that we interact constantly with everything around us so what is so special about the way we interact with e-literature and what do we really mean when we say we interact with it. I think what it means here is when the continuation or meaning of a piece relies on us as the reader to further the piece. Some works we’ve read stand by themselves and they don’t require us to keep pushing it along. So the interactivity of a work relies on how much we have to work to read it. I think that there’s a sense of gratification as a reader in interacting with a piece. It creates this sense of, “Yes! I have discovered this and this story it is made possible solely by the choices I’m making to keep clicking!” It really is an exciting process but, when you think about it our interaction isn’t really as deep or as important as it seems sometimes and that can be disappointing to realize after reading something that filled you with a sense of user importance. But, to answer the original question, I think that the interactivity of a piece relies on the level of participation it requires from the reader to further the story. The more participation required, the more interactive it is.

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  8. I’m a little conflicted because hypertext, in and of itself, is inherently interactive. However, I believe that electronic literature, as a whole, does not have to be extremely interactive in order to be considered “exemplary.” I think that Abby and Joe bring up excellent points in that we must first define what “interactive” is, and for me that would be the reader interacting with the piece on a more physical level, as in clicking different links or buttons.

    When I think of electronic literature, the piece that I usually think of first is Weber’s “Strings,” which I am absolutely obsessed with. The piece isn’t very interactive because you simply click a link and watch the string undulate across the screen and form different words and shapes. Yet the piece is so fascinating to me because of how Weber utilized a non-alphabetiform and the way that it engaged me. I wouldn’t say that “Strings” is not literature, but it honestly reminds me of a .gif that continually loops. However, I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing! (I love gifs…)

    On the other hand, I wasn’t the biggest fan of this week’s readings as a whole. I’m not sure if I would classify “The Cape” as being very interactive, because it seemed as if I was simply clicking buttons so that I could flip the page and keep on experiencing and reading it. I would loop “The Jew’s Daughter” in this same category of faux-interactivity, if you will, because you don’t really have a choice of where to go next. In order to progress in the story, you had to hover over the highlighted word. However, in “Cannibal Dreams,” it was as if you were choosing your own adventure, in a sense, because you could click on any of the links in any particular order. Depending on the order that you clicked on the links, a “sub-poem” of sorts would appear as well.

    Nevertheless, I do not think that interactivity is a crucial component to making a piece exemplary. In fact, I think that a piece that can be analyzed both on paper and on a computer screen, like Buchanan’s “Mandrake Vehicles,” would have just as much, if not more, worth as an interactive piece.

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