Stunning Montreal for the 2018 Electronic Literature Organization conference. Skyline from Mount Royal and abstract follow…
“Narratologize it, Don’t Criticize it: feat. With Those We Love Alive”
There is a moment in Porpentine’s With Those We Love Alive (2014) when we must choose whether to join a murderous mob (albeit one murdering soft, pink, kitten-like “princess spores” that have spawned from a Skull Empress). It serves as a prompt to read digital narratives of choice – often, binary ones – in light of the intensely binarized socio-political moment more broadly.
In theorizing Twine, an initial impulse might be to identify and celebrate what looks like a significant historical return to the early experiments with narrative networks, including pre-Web Storyspace fiction and early Web-based digital fiction. By no means a simple or direct lineage (how long is a piece of twine after all), Interactive Fiction inflects Twine’s form while the gaming industry colors its rhetoric. That said, Twine fiction is decidedly digital fiction and, more specifically, “network fiction” (Ciccoricco 2007). As Patrick Jagoda has observed, “the problem of global connectedness cannot be understood, in our historical present, independently of the formal features of a network imaginary” (2017, 3), by which he means the network in all of its material and figurative forms. In theorizing the “network aesthetics” of Twine, however, a tension arises between the conspicuous connectivity of an idealized network and the starkly oppositional pathways and alienating disconnections found in Twine fiction in practice. In a second impulse, then, the digital literary critic might be cast back into the historical now, into the unmoving shadow of the 24-hour news cycle, forced to read and repeat With Those We Love Alive, as I was, at the same time as reports of Heather Heyer’s death in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, 2017. Would you like to join the mob?
This proposed paper brings elements of narrative theory to bear on the emerging category of “empathy games” (Caballero 2014). It questions where the focus of reader empathy ultimately falls in a work such as With Those We Love Alive in relation to character or author as Other, and ultimately suggests that reading Twine fiction – despite our best intentions – risks a return to an uncritical and problematic form of biographilia. My final critical move is, nonetheless, redemptive in arguing that it is not only possible but also necessary to interbreed formalism and historicism (plus biography) when reading Twine. Indeed, we should see the very gap between the two as specious, a byproduct of an outdated “Criticism, Inc.” (Ransom 1937) that has collapsed under the weight of history – or at least a new historicism that feeds on “the power of formalism” (Liu 2008).
The proposed paper will close with some speculations on the next generation of digital literary scholarship: Twine fiction clearly represents an opportunity for the development of digital literature and the material, figurative, and human networks it engenders. But it also presents us with an opportunity to cultivate a compassionate criticism, nourished in intimate fashion by the paradoxically detached interconnectivity – what Jagoda calls the “alone-togetherness” (6) – of our digital culture.