Wow. . . .

Let me just say how deeply impressed by the work all of you did on Blog Post 4. It was an absolute pleasure to read through your various engagements w/ a truly diverse body of texts. Truly. Wow. Great work.

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Black Box by Jennifer Egan

Black Box by Jennifer Egan is an adventurous short story, originally released through Twitter as a series of tweets. A courageous literary feat, Black Box is a classic thriller featuring a beautiful American “spy” trying to infiltrate an unnamed infamous criminal. Written in second person this short story, indirectly guides our protagonist, who I’ll refer to as Beauty, through a treacherous mission. Set in the future, Beauty has been surgically enhanced with a chip in her hairline, a microphone implanted just beyond the first turn of her right ear canal, a camera in her eye, and a button embedded behind the inside ligament of her right knee. Surrounded by powerful men who’ve underestimated Beauty’s intelligence, she manages to seductively manipulate and outsmart all of the men around her.

Egan started tweeting Black Box on May 24th from 8:00 PM to 9:00 PM and continued for ten consecutive nights. Black Box, much to my surprise, has become one of my favorite digital works thus far. Although the experience the reader receives from anxiously awaiting each tweet is a one time thrill, it’s an unprecedented reading experience no other digital literature thus far has presented. Even if other writer’s who use digital interfaces try to recreate this experience by only allowing their program to run once, it still couldn’t quite recreate the same effect. Overall, Egan’s Twitter platform induces an exciting yet anxious reliving of the protagonist’s adventure. Black Box, although considered an electronic piece of literature, does the same work as print, in that the details, the imagery, and the connotations conjure up a world you can see yourself in, and essentially relive. Overall, it’s a realistic adventure that emerges you in the story,

Written in second person, the first tweet reads: “People rarely look the way you expect them to, even when you’ve seen pictures”. I thought it was worth noting how she chooses to commence the story in such a fashion. One of social media’s biggest critiques is the facade individuals are capable of presenting on social networking sites. Within these fake profile are falsified images, faint subtleties, flaws, and mannerisms that you can not pick up on unless meeting the person face-to-face. She continues, “The first thirty seconds in a person’s presence are the most important”. It’s clear that as a spy, first impressions are everything. Both phrases resonate so well with the obsession social media has induced in recent generations. Its an obsession with appearances, caring how others perceive you, and a need to control the image you put out, which is exactly how Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook work.

Choosing not to incorporate her story within the technical space of a digital interface posits the work as anomalous and therefore changes the writer and the reader’s utility beyond even the confinements of normative digital literature. Black Box is an unusual piece when compared to the other digital literatures we’ve read thus far, in that she incorporates a modern social platform. With this being said, I had a hard time drawing any connections between Black Box and the other digital literatures we’ve read thus far. I can say that while Vniverse cannot be read linearly, Black Box and a Jew’s Daughter can, even with the Jew’s Daughter hyperlinked changes. But unlike a Jew’s Daughter, Black Box doesn’t have the same inquisitive feel. You’re constantly searching for changes in a Jew’s Daughter, whereas the writing and even the protagonist’s story is very forthright. Beauty knows that every decision she makes must be very calculated and forthright much like the style of writing.

Digital platforms generally allow for free modes of expression, but Twitter’s 140 character limit presents a different sort of hindrance that perhaps, in the process of writing Black Box dictate how Egan chose to write this piece. Whether Egan transfigured the story to befit this limitation isn’t clear but further proves how she effortlessly infuses social media within this literary piece.

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Come see a free pre-screening of Unfriended!

Hey all, I’m gonna mention this in class, but there’s going to be a free screening of the movie Unfriended in the William Pitt Union tomorrow night. I work anti-piracy security for movie pre-screenings, so I’ll be working it, but I don’t have an exact time for when it’s going to start(sorry!). I have to be there by 6:45, so I’m just assuming it’ll start around 7:30 or 8. But don’t quote me on that.

For those of you who don’t know what it is or haven’t heard of it, it’s a new horror movie coming out this weekend. Here’s a trailer if you’re interested

The reason I’m posting this here is because I just saw it earlier tonight, and it reminded me a LOT of Vidzila’s Rezolution. It’s a horror movie told completely through one of the main character’s interactions with her laptop. From the little bit I’ve read since I got home, it seems like they were trying to bring the concept of “found footage” into the 21st century even more than it already was. To that end, the filmmakers have dubbed their completely screen-grabbed storytelling style “cybernatural”, and I found it really interesting. I’d love to hear what you guys have to say about it, and I’m looking forward to seeing it a second time myself.

tl;dr: Free screening of Unfriended tomorrow night, 7:30ish in one of the Union ballrooms. Be there or be somewhere else.

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Translating Walter Benjamin in John Cayley’s Translation

First of all, I had to turn the music off after a while. No offense to Giles Herring, but it was particularly unpleasant (and from checking out some of the other texts mentioned in these posts, I’m realizing that disorienting, disturbing, and downright annoying audio seems to be common occurrence in E-lit, which is interesting in and of itself and raises some questions). Truthfully, I can’t think of any significant way to connect the music to the text at this moment, except that maybe the discordant nature of it mirrors the nature of the text. Am I losing a large part of the reading experience in shutting out the aural experience?

So grating audio aside, the interface of John Cayley’s QuickTime text Translation is a black screen split in half. On the right side, you have white text that is changing, letter by letter, about once every five seconds. Sometimes during a transformation, a bunch of letters change. Other times, only one or two new letters appear. Most of the time, the text is unintelligible, a mere jumble of letterforms that defy semantic recognition. The text eventually will turn into readable passages that slip between English, German, and French randomly. The left side is a bit more confusing, but seems to correspond to the right side in terms of transforming. It has blocks of white, almost like scraps of cut out paper, that sometimes show German text, black lines, or red images, all of which I personally cannot make sense of at all. There is no pause button, nor is there an end. I had left the text running for like, three hours and just kept coming back to check on it intermittently. It never looked much different.

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The introduction from the ELC mentions that Translation has some optional interactive components, that pressing Shift + E will elicit transitions that move towards meaningful English, Shift + F for French, Shift + D for German. These options are not intuitive at all, as the work provides no “help me” section or any directions. To get a passage of readable English without just waiting for it to appear randomly, I was holding Shift + E for nearly five minutes. The result of this is that I didn’t really read this work so much as I watched it, anxiously awaiting the arrival of a language and letter combination that I could actually recognize and read. Which is, strangely enough, less frustrating than it is entrancing. But I’m curious about the difference between reading and watching, since this pops up in a lot of digital literature.

Okay, so what does the legible English actually say, when it chooses to say it (or when you stubbornly hold down Shift + E)? While the format of the text looks like a poem broken into four stanzas, the text itself is actually taken from Walter Benjamin’s 1916 essay “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man” (there are also some pieces of text that will surface which are taken from Proust, though I won’t focus on these).

screen2

So I read Benjamin’s essay in an attempt to get some context. As a whole, it’s pretty strange, mostly because he proposes that there is a language of man and a language of things (I’m still working this out. At one point he talks about “the language of this lamp.” This idea does correspond to what we were talking about in our last class, though, about the world as a text which is only accessible through language). The portion above comes near the very end of it. The essay proposes a theological origination of language, and basically what I took from it is that language is an entity that exists on a translational continuum. We have the divine word of God (a language of creation), the name-based language of man (a language of knowledge), and the nameless language of objects (a language of materiality). Words, or names, function as “the translation of the language of things into that of man” (“On Language as Such”). So Benjamin isn’t really concerned with moving between the languages of the English, German, and French when he talks about translation. He’s thinking more of language as a whole which moves on a continuum spanning the languages of God, subjects, and objects.

Yet Cayley’s work translates Benjamin’s conception of translation, applying it to domain of national languages. The work digitally enacts exactly what its text, Benjamin’s text, says: “Translation is removal from one language into another through a continuum of transformations / translation passes through continua of transformation[,] not abstract ideas of identity and similarity.” Indeed, a continuum of letter transformations takes us from English to French to Benjamin’s original German. This isn’t how we typically think of translation between languages. If I’m moving from English to French, I translate word by word, discretely rather than continuously, swapping English signifier for French signifier, working through “identity and similarity.” Cayley defies this notion entirely, which is what makes it so unsettling.

Of course, the issue of translation exists in all of these texts that we’ve been focusing on, even the ones written in just one language: code must be translated, by the computer rather than the human, into what the reader sees on the work’s interface. The idea of moving between languages is more prominent in electronic literature than it ever was in print.

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Books About Blue

Hey guys,

If anyone really enjoyed William Gass’s On Being Blue, you might want to check out Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, published in 2009.  It delves through the author’s personal experiences, interlaced with the endless meanings of the color blue.  It’s composed as a selection of 240 short poems. On Being Blue reminded me of it, so if anyone’s interested, check it out.

maggie-nelson-bluets-review-kelli-anne-noftle-1

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Six Year Olds Have iPads?

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“The first thirty seconds in a person’s presence are the most important” (Black Box). Likewise, the first thirty seconds on a webpage are the most important—it better be intriguing, or it’ll be getting the X.

 Black Box, a short story by Jennifer Egan, was originally released through a series of tweets on her Twitter account. One tweet at a time, the story unfolds. It follows the journey of an American spy in the near future, with computer chips inserted into her body (a recording device in her ear, a camera in her eye, an emergency button in her knee, etc.), on a secret mission in the Mediterranean. It is written in second person, which makes the reader feel as though she is in a dream of her own making, as if she temporarily is the spy herself (at least, that was my experience with it). After each sentence or so, I would press the arrow to the right of the text, and I’d be presented with a couple fresh lines. The tweets are delivered in the form of instructions on how to behave as a spy:

“A microphone has been implanted just beyond the first

 

Activate the microphone by pressing the triangle of cartilage across your ear opening.

 

You will hear a faint whine as recording begins.

 

In extreme quiet, or to a person whose head is adjacent to yours, this whine may be audible.

Should the whine be detected, swat your ear as if to deflect a mosquito, hitting the on/off cartilage to deactivate the mike.”

The suspenseful, action-packed plot moves fluidly between instructions that guide the main character’s actions, and a narrative through the main character’s internal thoughts. These thoughts include the reasons why she must stay alive (so she can see her beloved husband again who is back in America, so that she can have children one day, etc.).

Beneath the rectangular area of screen, on which appears one tweet after another, is a paragraph about Jennifer Egan and her previous works. Beneath this paragraph is one line that says, “You can read the story — tweet by tweet — below or head over to The New Yorker for a more traditional reading experience.” I gave this option consideration—I am a traditional literature fanatic. To me, nothing beats curling up on the couch with a good Jane Austen novel (the “good” description is unnecessary). Yet, sitting in front of my bright computer screen, with the knowledge of how this story was originally released, I chose to read the 606 tweets. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but another reason, perhaps the main reason, why I didn’t want to switch to the traditional form of literature is simply because it wouldn’t hold my attention. Cuddling up with a good book, sure, but reading on my computer is an entirely different experience. I want information fast, and reading long texts on my screen is tiring. Perhaps it is because I have trained my mind to be scattered across my monitor—I have five Microsoft Word documents minimized and eight tabs open on Safari that I continuously jump back in forth between. (As a side note, I’m curious—is a Kindle perhaps the happy in between of our long and short attention spans? We can apply our long attention spans to traditional texts but they are on electronic devices, allowing us to sporadically jump between texts.)

Unlike the other electronic literature with which we’ve engaged, which is unfamiliar territory, this short story is a peg in the hole of our familiar, ever-present digital/social media world, which our generation is obsessed with to the point of addiction. All you have to do is look around a crowded room of college kids, with all their noses in their phones instead of in books—I have a feeling if we all had to give up our electronics for a week, heck, even just a day, few of us would be successful.

The other electronic literature we have analyzed is intriguing, but often frustrating because of its unfamiliarity and the effort that must be exerted to make sense of it. Black Box is refreshing because it’s new-age technology, but also familiar. It’s not a game we have to figure out—it’s a game of which we are masters.

How many times have I clicked on a link that took me to a captioned picture that’s part of a list, and mindlessly clicked, clicked, clicked, until I reached the last picture and it’s caption? How many times have we all scrolled down our Facebook News Feeds or scrolled through tweets? Buzzfeed is a perfect example of our shortening attention spans and our need for information to be presented quickly. The popular solution is to replace articles with lists—we want the key points only and we want them fast.

Black Box is without a doubt a fast-paced, action-packed, intriguing story. It circulates around the heroic endeavor of a voluntary undercover spy who is always in eminent danger, while spying in a foreign country—I was holding my breath for the majority of the read. However, in addition to the riveting plot, the components of the literary piece that make a reader want to finish it, are simply its familiarity and its short-attention-span-grabbing techniques.

Members of older generations (as a generality) think that social media sites are overflowing with an excess of stimuli—their view of our digital world may even mimic our view of William Poundstone’s Project for Tachistoscope [Bottomless Pit].

Technology is something that evolves through the generations—what is easy to a seven-year-old may prove impossible to an eighty year old. My seven-year-old niece is better at maneuvering through an iPad than I am, yet my grandma still uses a flip phone and answers it upside down.

Electronic literature is unfamiliar territory and it’s difficult to wrap one’s mind around certain electronic texts. As we discussed in class, to fully appreciate the text in all its depth would necessitate the reading the text over and over again until it was memorized completely, thus enabling the reader to forge all the possible connections. The example mentioned in class was Stephanie Strickland’s Losing L’una.

I believe our generation is just young enough to hop on for the ride, but I have a feeling it will be the generation that grows up immersed in electronic literature that will really grab this sort of literature by the horns. Through the movement of the generations, change occurs.

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Embodiment in Everybody Dies

At the inception of the “digital game”, two camps spawned fairly independently of each other. One was a game that had visuals but very little plot. Pong, Tetris, even Pac-Man and Mario are of this type. “Computer technology”, which for the time was just machinery with processors capable of doing algorithmic computations independent of human hand, was still in its infancy, and the mechanics strained that capability heavily (the visuals, movement, physics, etc.). Thus, most games of these types had very little narrative.

The other was the text based RPG, also called adventure games. The first of these were designed to be somewhat like a single player digital Dungeons and Dragons (or whatever Tabletop RPG is your preference) in that a setting is described to the player, who then had to decide what to do. Narrative was essential, as there were no graphics or skill/coordination based mechanics (platforming, fitting a 4 block shape into holes at increasing speed), and the creators were free to go wild with the narrative because the lack of visuals made them quite a bit less processor intensive, so the bottleneck was merely the size of the program.

As hardware improved, videogames with narrative became easier and easier to create, so text based games slowly faded from mainstream. As is the tendency of media, that which fades from public eye tends to form a cult following, in this case made up of scholars interested in how digitizing narrative and literature warps it in new and interesting ways.

Everybody Dies by Jim Munroe is a game that certainly does just that. You start out as Graham, a self-described metalhead who works at the local grocery store. He was assigned to “cart duty” that day, but as another coworker had already collected nearly all of the carts, he has only one option left if he doesn’t want to go back empty handed; go dig out the cart he and his friends had pushed into the nearby river years ago. As you may expect by the title of the game, he dies doing this. What’s interesting, and different from novels, video games and text based adventures, is that the story continues from here. The player is given the message “*** You Have Died *** followed by “And yet, somehow, the game continues”. The player’s location has been set to Void. Graham’s last thought, for the moment anyway, is that “I don’t feel like myself. In fact, I’m sure my forearms weren’t as… dark as that, last time I looked. Or as skinny.” Suddenly, you are in a bathroom stall, and your name is Ranni. He, and his manager at the grocery story, dies soon after. This is where it gets (even more) interesting. You “wake up”, and oddly enough, you are still Ranni. However, you have Graham and Lisa, your manager, in your head. You have also gone back in time a day. After this point, no new mechanics are introduced, and you can finish the game from here, with the people from the previous timelines in your head.

Perspective hopping (the switching of points of view) is mainly a text concept. Infinite Jest used it, extensively. In all of the text adventure games that I’ve played (take with a grain of salt, as I have a total of four under my belt), the player has stayed in one point of view the entire time, and in most of them, death was something to avoid. I’ve played a few video games with perspective switches, but in most of them, the first character you play as was a sort of tutorial, and the switch in perspective signified the start of the main game. In Everybody Dies, not only do you switch perspective several times but when playing from the point of view of a specific character, you have access to the perspective of other characters at the same time.

The unique variation of perspective in this game brings to mind the concept of embodiment in N. Katherine Hayles’ work. With three distinct voices chiming in from one body as you’re solving puzzles, being able to see through their eyes and the like, it makes the player very aware of the relationship between the consciousness and the body, which Hayles feels is being erased in the information age.

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