Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Deformity, Praxis, and the Digital Aesthetic Work

Finding a single thing to respond to in Jerome McGann's Radiant Textuality feels like a Sisyphean task - as soon as I think of one topic to criticize (the wanton abuse of the word "quantum" in chapter 7, for instance) or an idea to pick up and push farther (McGann's interesting approach to the development of new critical tools comes to mind) another tangentially related boulder tumbles back down the hill, taking me with it back to square one.On some level, Radiant Textuality's sprawl is a performative product of the subject matter. There's something wry about McGann's shifty text given its conclusions about the limits of the book and the potential of "deformance" to unlock new critical perspectives. Perhaps, in the same sense that it has already been "marked up," Radiant Textuality has already begun to deform under my readerly eye. McGann's multigeneric approach to this text is in and of itself a form of the deformance that he suggests in chapter 4. Radiant Textuality is rife with addendums, appendices, notes, digressions, introductions, prefaces, close readings, dramas, and criticism. It slips with startling fluidity from one form to another, loosening the reader's demands for linear argumentation. It suggests, rather, an internal logic which it describes as it deploys. In other words, Radiant Textuality is the performative enactment of what I take to be one of McGann's central arguments. The lesson we learn from digital humanities projects is not that computational logic displaces the book. Rather, computational logic shows us what was true all along about the books we thought we knew: they were already algorithmic to the core.

Though this implication is potentially interesting, I'm doubtful that it's a terribly revolutionary. It seems the two primary insights to garner from McGann's wandering tour through his quasi-biographical research journal are rather less sexy, but still, I think, quite important. On the one hand, McGann's preference for digital tools for literary criticism seems to rest on his belief that books are in some way an informational subset of computational archival. The book, argues McGann' is a specific kind of informational engine which inscribes its own instructions for consumption in its corpus. Computers are much much better at encoding informational at the indexical level, and therefore, at least when it comes to the marking-up of structural and semantic information (a process which Mcgann seems to equate to criticism) and therefore offer us a new critical vantage point on the books we've always loved. The critic who criticizes using a set of tools that is made of the same stuff as his critical subject, argues McGann, necessarily starts at his task with a significant impairment. Computerization grants the critic the new tools he needs to adequately account for the structural and semantic complexity of bookish algorithm.

The second insight which I take to be particularly interesting is McGann's is his view of deformance as the specific mode of criticism which computational logic unlocks. Beginning from Dickinson, McGann looks to the efficacy of techniques of erasure, isolation, and arbitrary but physical reworkings of texts themselves as textual, typographical objects. Rhymes which were otherwise hidden (think here of Keats) suddenly spring out to digital humanist. Photoshop yields a newly chromatic Blessed Damozel. Herein I find the potential for genuinely illuminating self-reflexivity. It seems that despite all the apparent scientific rigor of digital experimentation, there is something delightful, almost Proustian, about the kinds of accidental aesthetic discoveries that newly mechanized recombinations of analog works, whether literary or otherwise, might enable. There is something refreshingly serendipitous about the whole affair.

I also find McGann's focus on generating a praxis out of his longsuffering sojourn with The Rosetti Archive and then the Ivanhoe Game to be refreshing as well. In his calls for critical praxis he reminds me of his compatriots in OOO who also lament the lack of what Ian Bogost calls philosophical "carpentry" in his book Alien Phenomenology. If some of McGann's formulations are lacking in precision (I'm still not sure why TEI or the OHCO thesis are regarded as important to the digital humanist) or reserve (say quantum one more time...) they make up for it in their self-consciousness. McGann seems genuinely invested in a constant reciprocation between his ideas, their implementations, their results, and the new ideas those results generate. This kind of scholarship seems to be particularly needed in a field which all too often falls into screechy optimism.

Having finished Radiant Textuality, I couldn't help but feel, however, that McGann had left it unfinished. Perhaps that is part of the book's own deformity, but I'd like to push for a moment at what I take to be an enormous oversight in McGann's conceptualization of digital-logic-as-critical-tool. If indeed editing is a critical activity (a proposition I find wholly agreeable) and if the power of the computer to illumine the book lies in its greater efficacy in processing the algorithmic logic which already inheres in its pages, what happens when we turn these critical apparatuses back onto the digital object? Nowhere in Radiant Textuality does McGann seem willing to admit the existence or even the possibility of a rich, wholly digital aesthetic text. I'm left wondering if his particular view of digital humanities could accommodate the relatively straightforward e-reader, let alone the meticulously crafted fictions of Heavy Rain and Spec Ops: The Line, or the vibrant simulated societies and economies of EVE Online. Indeed, the decidedly un-fun structure and implementation of the Ivanhoe Game lead me to believe that McGann, at least at the time of this book's publication has very little experience with the rich world of video games. Given that these objects (aesthetic works that I take to be thoroughly textual) exist on the same logical plane as the computerized critical tools which McGann advocates for deploying upon the analog book, I wonder what kind of critical apparatus McGann would imagine for them if he was given the opportunity. If one of the worthwhile products of the many projects in Radiant Textuality was an uncovering of the computerization's critical power as a deforming agent, how might we begin to imagine a deformed video game? A deformed Kindle? A deformed app? Would McGann even consider these things texts? At the very least McGann gives us some ground on which to start asking these questions, or as McGann might say, to imagine what we don't know.


  1. What do you think a deformed video game to look like? McGann argues that "'The Ivanhoe Game' is not a video game to be bested but a difference engine for stimulating self-reflection through interactive role-playing" (222). To me, this sounds more or less like an RPG, and it has me wondering whether or not "The Ivanhoe Game" implicitly makes the case that games can be both useful vehicles for studying texts and are also texts worth studying, too. Is "The Ivanhoe Game" another example of deformation? I'm also wondering to what degree video games already allow for the sort of self-reflexive subjectivity that McGann tries to obtain through his game.

    Of course, the fact that his game is pretty much purely textual also leads one to wonder if McGann imagines a game that can accomodate digital images, anyway. Since so much of his book is focused on text -- aside from some marveling at Photoshop -- it does seem that either the book and/or McGann are simply products of their time, in which these issues had not yet come to the foreground, or, that the digital image simply doesn't hold as much interest.

    1. Maybe this would count as deformed a digital image... which, I suppose could be argued is as much a precursor to "game" as "text." (Randomly copying out of my hex editor here):


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  2. In some ways, though you in a more loving way, you raise similar questions in your ending comments as I do. You seem to be questioning the application of McGann to a more contemporary moment which always begs the question of if his goals/ideas/pursuits can still translate. How does the incorporation of digital images change McGann's project? Perhaps, thinking about it this way, the relevance of McGann's text is rooted in, as you say, it's seemingly incompleteness.

  3. I’m glad that you’re raising video games, since it allows me to air my uncertainties about McGann’s discussion of ‘readerly’ engagements w/ texts on page 159 --- I’m a bit confused as to how this distinction b/w ‘readerly’ (therefore, ‘passive’) and ‘active-participatory’ maps onto anything but these extremely free-form (and outdated), MUD-based games. Your point about updating the discussion of video games is well-taken, since by the book’s publication in 2001 there already were extravagant text-based games that I would argue provided a sort of ‘readerly’ experience (and one that is infinitely more enjoyable than a MUD, in my opinion) --- let’s think back to Planescape: Torment, whose claim to fame was its 800,000 words. Torment and the less text-heavy games like it that followed are essentially language-machines, organized by moments of choice in which a few pieces at a time of this designer-input dialogue become visible for players to choose from. Choices unlock more dialogue, and allow you to avoid the game’s non-dialogue-based aspects (like combat or even exploration [i.e. you can talk people down, convince others to fight in your stead, and get people to tell you exactly where things are]). While ‘active-participatory’ in a sense (though perhaps not McGann’s sense), this single-player game from 1999 looks more like one of those ‘choose-your-own-ending’ cheap novels from the 80s than a MUD. I bring those little books up for a reason --- they too are language machines, and by encouraging you to flip around based on a series of ‘choices’, they are providing something that I would argue exists in the space between ‘active-participatory’ and ‘passive’ (‘readerly’).

  4. So, my initial impulse last night was to force us to think of specific ways in which we might deform a video game. This morning, however, I'm struggling to see how we might do that.

    My original thought: If the principle of deforming is to make particular use of digital technology to warp and reform the medium of print by exposing its algorithmic qualities, then deforming a video game would require using digital tech to expose video games' algorithms. This seems pretty easily done with the right access to the right technology; nobody is going to argue (I should think) against the fact that, at a material level, video games are comprised of algorithms. Certainly their effects go beyond algorithm, but the point still stands that it's much less of a stretch to argue that video games are at core algorithmic than it is to make the same (valid, I think) argument about Dickinson.

    Which got me thinking: if what digital tech offers us a way of rethinking how print media works, what I've proposed above is not at all the same thing as deforming. We would need a different medium for representing video games that would let us see something surprising about how they work. So, here's my latest wild idea: what if, instead of using the subtly Whiggish teleology manuscript<print<digital that occasionally peeks out of McGann, we deformed that progression. What if print media (standard linear-narrative) allowed us to see new ways in which video games operate?

    So, that is to say, let's accept for the moment that print media tend to drive us through their linear progression via emotion and connection with characters. Deformation allows us to view these emotions and attachments as algorithmically encoded (very cool). Conversely, we know that a substantial amount of the video game reading-experience comes from algorithmically encoded progression: completing mission objectives, acquiring new abilities and equipment, moving an algorithmic approval or morality counter, etc. Deforming video games would thus, through my (slightly screwy) logic, require us to expose the ways in which those algorithms operate at the level of emotion and attachment.

    Two questions: Is the above internally consistent for its own logic? And more importantly, is it externally consistent for the praxis it could offer?

    (I realize that this mostly proves the counter-theory argument that an affect theorist is going to see affect in everything--but it's not my fault that affect theory is right about everything.)

    1. Well, as I go through old posts and comments, this one link is simply too perfect not to share. This certainly counts as a deformance of a video game, no, and one that is interesting in ways folks in English departments will immediately recognize.

      Why I hacked Donkey Kong for my Daughter: A Father switches the Roles of Mario & Princess in Donkey Kong.

  5. In response to Adam's comment: I wouldn't call MUD-based games outdated so much as ahead of their time. MUDs (along with the non-video game Dungeons and Dragons) were immensely influential in the development of the modern MMORPG, a genre which was already enjoying widespread popularity at the time McGann wrote his book -- consider Everquest (1999), Ultima Online (1997), and Neverwinter Nights (1991). It is important to note that, while retaining the text-based (active-participatory) interactivity of MUDs (along with much earlier games such as Zork), this genre is also intensely visual. Participation with the textual elements of the game (main storyline, sidequests, guilds, etc.) is just as important as navigating the visual landscape (exploring, puzzles, pathfinding, combat, avatar customization, etc.).

    Another point: this might be (read as: is almost certainly) a misreading of McGann's terms, but I wonder if we could think of modding as type type of video game deformation. Modding is, at the most basic level, re-ordering and altering an existing game's "algorithmically encoded progression." A mod's effect can range from updating outdated graphics to supplementing the narrative to tweaking gameplay mechanics to creating entirely new games (or even entirely new genres). Recall that such popular games as Counter Strike and Dota trace their origins to mods of Half Life and Warcraft III, respectively. I suppose this megs the question: to mods-as-deformations contribute to our interpretation of the original texts, or are they merely means of producing new texts?

    1. Also, if you want to waste a few precious hours: