Cody Mejeur

Narrative, Games, Queer Studies

Month: March 2017

In Defense of Catch-Alls

I had planned on blogging on a different topic this week, but yesterday’s reading, specifically New Media Old Media: A History and Theory Reader (2006, edited by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Thomas Keenan), presented a really interesting connection to a number of fields and concepts that I work with. In the introduction to the reader, Chun unpacks the etymology of the term “new media,” and reveals how it came to its current usage. New media refers to a wide variety of media objects, ranging from hypertext fiction to software studies to video games, and at times applying the term new media to all of them seems too reductive to describe such variety. Chun comments on this and a number of other limitations with the term, claiming that it is not accommodating:

“it portrayed other media as old or dead; it converged rather than multiplied; it did not efface itself in favor of a happy if redundant plurality” (1).

Add to this the problem of the “new” part of the phrase—how long are we going to call video games “new” media?—and it seems there are more issues with the term than benefits. One of the only unifying descriptions it offers, at least at first glance, is the general effects that new media has: “It was fluid, individualized connectivity, a medium to distribute control and freedom” (1). Consider how easily that description could apply to language itself!

Yet I argue, as Chun does later in her introduction, that the benefit of a term like “new media” is not in establishing a discrete set of objects for study, or a unified methodology, or a single theory that guides the whole enterprise. New media is something of a catch-all for its many objects, methodologies, and theories, and while that frustrates projects of definition, it also presents a rich, living, evolving toolbox for the study of media broadly construed. New media brings together a plethora of differing perspectives based on the relative closeness of their interests—it is not that they share the same objects, etc., but rather that they have some relationship to each other. They exist in the same constellation, or on the same “map” of new media studies, even if there’s a lot of ground between them (4). There’s a lot to be gained if the places on that map are in dialogue with each other, trading concepts and perspectives that build up their projects, often in unexpected ways. And, as our current political moment makes abundantly clear, there’s a lot to be lost by a sort of intellectual isolationism, looking only to a specific object, methodology, or theory while ignoring the wide-ranging relations that they have.

Of course one also needs specificity in order to have clarity and understanding. If our terms are too amorphous and fuzzy, then we can never get a conceptual grip on the things we study. This is where a catch-all like new media needs further contextualization and historicization, but one can readily see that in the field’s subdivisions—in the case of New Media Old Media, new media archaeology and new media cultural critique (4). The term new media has many referents, but it is not so difficult to identify which one is in question at a given moment.

A number of other fields and concepts enjoy the same benefits and limitations of catch-all status, such as Digital Humanities, electronic literature, and game studies. Indeed, it seems that any field title is something of a catch-all. However in each case I think we can see the same process sketched out above. A blanket term brings together a lot of meaning, but also demands further inquiry and context. For example, last week was the Global Digital Humanities Symposium at MSU, and afterward my colleague, Laura McGrath, tweeted the following:

“I find the label “DH” to be empty/meaningless, but also utilitarian.”

There’s an interesting dynamic at play here, where something that encompasses everything means nothing. Where meaning becomes overloaded and loses all meaning. So I share Laura’s frustration—I often joke that studying games makes me a digital humanist simply because games are often digital. But I also see the “utilitarian” aspect of the term. DH, like new media, brings together many scholars from many areas around a set of interests and questions—what does it mean to do humanities in a digital age? How does one make meaning with digital tools and objects? What can the humanities do to critique and foster newer and better uses for the digital? “Digital” is doing a lot of work here, and its apparent emptiness reflects how it creates a space for work–for generating meaning. I think there is a lot of work to be done, and where there’s a lot of work, one needs plenty of hands. So let’s use our catch-alls, all the while maintaining a critical eye to what they mean, what they include, and what they exclude.

The Holodeck 20 Years Later

As I move into the final weeks before taking my comprehensive exams, I’m taking the opportunity to blog about my reading and thinking as a way to reflect in preparation for being tasked to bring it all together. Of course writing is a practice too, and I think it grows through trying out ideas in informal settings such as conversations and blogs like this one. So for anyone reading this, I hope this provides you with a similar opportunity for reflection, and for trying out concepts old and new.

Today I reread Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck, a seminal work for studies of narrative in new media. While I expected Holodeck to show its age after twenty years of media development, I was repeatedly surprised by how relevant Murray’s thoughts still are today. For example, Murray begins her book with a wary and defensive posture. She notes how new media are always frightening and seemingly fraught with danger: “Any industrial technology that dramatically extends our capabilities also makes us uneasy by challenging our concept of humanity itself” (1). She even feels the need to declare that the computer is “not the enemy of the book” (8), as though computers were or are out to get traditional media. It’s hard not to compare this to similar political and disciplinary moves made a few years later by ludologists eager to defend games from the specter of literary imperialism. Such posturing is regrettable if inevitable (I’m doing something similar right now!), but perhaps with the benefit of two decades’ distance we can reveal the blindspots it introduced.

The medium Murray is talking about is the computer, which itself might be a sign of age—these days we talk more about software applications and interfaces as media than we do the computer as a whole. This is necessary in a culture of media convergence where computers do more and more things all the time, and it seems reductive to amalgamate all media involving computers into the monolith of “the computer.” Yet in the 1990s the computer medium was more limited and less ubiquitous, and consequently more stable as a concept. To be clear, it is not that the computer is no longer a usable term, but rather that its possible referents have changed significantly in two decades.

What has happened to the computer has also happened to narrative—Murray’s other theme in the book. Murray was spot on in noting the fragmentation of linearity in computer narratives (be there hypertext, electronic literature, games, etc.), and several of her terms and metaphors, such as “multiform” (30) and “kaleidoscopic” (159) stories, remain helpful today. Likewise, her four essential properties of digital environments are still relevant: digital narratives are procedural, participatory, spatial, and encyclopedic, though that last property might be better expressed in terms of archiving and system memory. All of these properties remain in play, and indeed they have proliferated over the years into an incredible constellation of media and narratives.

Yet they also beg a question that is notably absent in Holodeck: what have these properties done to the concept of narrative itself, and how do we define narrative after such transformation and fragmentation? Some have pounced on this question to claim that narrative is no longer relevant (or at least primary) in digital media, and recently Markku Eskelinen has gone as far to charge Murray and others with being “unacademic” in failing to define narrative. Exactly how we might define narrative will have to wait for another blog (or, more likely, another dissertation—I’m feeling coy), but Murray might inadvertently point the way. Just as the concept of the computer has fragmented and scattered now, narrative has done the same. This does not mean that these concepts are no longer applicable, useful, or significant. Indeed, I think they indicate the need to reexamine them in the field, as it were, and to unearth the similarities between the objects and places they have dispersed to. Computer and narrative apply broadly now, but there are still common elements between their broad applications. Let’s follow the paths they have trodden, and see what trails they have left behind. Only then will we be closer to seeing what they are and what they mean, at least until they change again.

© 2018 Cody Mejeur

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