Subliminality in Interactive Electronic Literature

William Poundstone’s Project for Tachistoscope is also called the Bottomless Pit, as it is an experimental piece of electronic literature that explores the use of sub-conscious flashes of images, words, and sounds and their effect on the reader. A tachistoscope is a device used to display an image for a specific amount of time. It’s other name, the Bottomless Pit, is appropriate as well because the project’s story itself appears to involve happenings dealing with a pit, and because the nature of the material is attempting to play with the subconscious; a bottomless pit in itself. The story is presented as individually flashed words on a blue screen with various, repeating images behind them, and the introduction screen presents various information on the history of subliminal messaging and related explanations about things involving subliminal control and subconscious affectation. The story itself seems to go on endlessly (another application of the name The Bottomless Pit), and is difficult to follow, seeing as how each words only appears briefly and the reader is distracted by the images and the sound. Ultimately, it appears less as a story and more generally as a visual stimulus that presents little conscious coherence.

For its part, some semblance of a story can be pulled out of the piece if one is to focus on it hard enough for a length of time, but the tendency seems to in fact coerce the viewer into a state of mesmerized intake. The nonsensical, vague string of events that the flashing words somehow seem to piece together starts at random points depending when the viewer enters the project. One can’t expect to pull from the piece any amount of information that would allow them to understand the story in its entirety, so the nature of the story lies in its incomprehensibility, in its subliminality. However, so many images are presented that instead of presenting some subconscious message, a disorienting effect results from the fast-paced appearance of words. Separate from the intentions of the supposed creator of subliminal advertising (Vicary) as it was explained in the histories available in the intro screen, the project itself puts the viewer in a subliminally receptive state. By presenting some vast amount of stimuli involving random parts of story through flashing words and images, the project presents the viewer with something to directly affect the subconscious perpetually, with some pseudo story allegorical to the subconscious itself.

The message has little to do with the “story” itself, seeing as how one would need to explore the project extensively with serious focus, but rather the method of presentation. This literature is interactive in a very interesting way because it seems to be attempting to interact with the viewers subconscious directly. It seems to present the viewer with the stimulus in order to continuously affect the subconscious by preventing any conscious understanding. The project certainly floods the visual sense in many ways, and I think it’s done for the purpose of preventing a conscious intake and instead allow the viewer some access to their subconscious, at least in some sense. The project is innovative in the sense that it’s literature that uses new technology in a way that can allow a viewer a new experience not available without a screen, which is the direction that literature seems to be going. Many new applications of technology are integrating with literature in strange, interesting ways, and the component of subliminality present in this project is important to be aware of. If it’s as effective as it seems in the history, one should definitely take into account that it can be a very prevalent in future interactive literature.

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2 Responses to Subliminality in Interactive Electronic Literature

  1. Steph Roman says:

    It’s interesting that “subliminal” (or maybe subtle, as I haven’t looked at this one yet) is the word that seems to best describe some of the texts we’ve looked at so far. You’d think that being able to post just about anything you want on the Internet, in any font color or size, more of the texts would feature brash and bombastic experimentation (like Hegirascope). They are endemically concerned only with form and very little with content (which isn’t a wholly new phenomenon), and this seems a natural/ given when it comes to ergodic literature.


  2. tangledheadphones1057 says:

    The presentation of Poundstone’s Project for Tachistoscope mirrors the disorientation caused by a lot of electronic literature. Even after exiting the screen, there is a lingering sense of discomfort. In the case of this text, it’s visual. For others, it’s the lack of physical text or the lack of finite text. There’s no beginning or end and, like Steph mentioned, there’s more of a focus on form over content.


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