Virtual Realism

Virtual Realism

Luc Herman
Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media
Marie-Laure Ryan
Baltimore, MA: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Luc Herman and Bart Vervaeck review Marie Laure-Ryan’s Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media. They review the essential characteristics of hypertext to suggest more nuanced ways to understand realism in relation to virtual reality.

Hypertext has two main characteristics.A portion of this review already appeared in Handbook of Narrative Analysis (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2005). First, different layers of the text are often visible at the same time, for instance when a mouse click conjures up another text. Such layering can be related to the postmodern notion of the text as a palimpsest - pieces of parchment that bear traces of texts that have been effaced. When a new text is written on the parchment, the earlier texts shimmer through. Even though this concept has been canonized by the structuralist theoretician Gérard Genette, it has especially become a popular notion in postmodern literary theory which assumes that every text rewrites or overwrites other texts.Gérard Genette, Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree, trans. Channa Newman and Claude Doubinsky (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998). For a recent study of postmodern rewriting, see Christian Moraru, Rewriting: Postmodern Narrative and Cultural Critique in the Age of Cloning (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001). Moraru makes the link with cybernarratology in the chapter entitled, “The Pleasure of the Hypertext” (117-123). Small wonder that hypertext was welcomed as the palpable and concrete fulfillment of postmodern ideals, such as networklike intertextuality and the endless production of meaning.

Particularly in the beginning of the nineties, hypertext prophets such as George Landow and Jaron Lanier stirred up a nearly euphoric mood.George Landow’s most influential publication is Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992). It almost seemed as if the new text type constituted the beginning of a total liberation not only from the constraints of paper text but also from social reality. In this last sense, Lanier’s notion of “virtual reality” is very important.Jaron Lanier and Frank Biocca, “An Insider’s View of the Future of Virtual Reality,” Journal of Communications 42, no. 4 (1992): 150-172. Marie-Laure Ryan says: “Though virtual reality is the term that has captured the imagination of the general public, arguably because of the poetic appeal of its built-in oxymoron, the scientific community prefers terms such as artificial reality (the physico-spatial equivalent of artificial intelligence) or virtual environments. The official technical journal of the field, Presence, is subtitled Teleoperators and Virtual Environments.” (Ryan 358) Hypertexts were claimed to present a different kind of reality, in which things are realized that are merely possible in the real world - if they are not improbable or even outright impossible. These prophecies of liberation never came to much, and in some cases cybernarratology has limited itself to the design of new terms and metaphors that give narratological discourse a fancy touch but that do not really contribute to the theory.See Marie-Laure Ryan’s articles, “Cyberage Narratology: Computers, Metaphor, and Narrative,” in David Herman (ed.), Narratologies, 113-141; and “Cyberspace, Virtuality, and the Text,” in Marie-Laure Ryan (ed.), Cyberspace Textuality: Computer Technology and Literary Theory (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 78-107.

According to Espen Aarseth, this type of cybernarratology all too often boils down to a terminological trade-off, in which cyberterminology is imported into literary theory and terms from literary theory are exported to the study of cybertexts.“I wish to challenge the recurrent practice of applying the theories of literary criticism to a new empirical field, seemingly without any reassessment of the terms and concepts involved. This lack of self-reflection places the research in direct danger of turning the vocabulary of literary theory into a set of unfocused metaphors.” (Espen J. Aarseth, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997], 14). The difference between the textual and the hypertextual world is ignored, even though the dimensions of time and space, for instance, are clearly different in the two worlds. Hypertexts showcase a visual and, in certain applications, even a tangible world representing time and space concretely, which is not the case in literary works. In fact, in the literary text, time and space are no more than metaphors, while traditional narratology pretends they are real - as if these texts actually staged a time, a space and a world. Aarseth aims to correct these metaphors in literary theory, criticizing them from the perspective of hypertext studies.“I refer to the idea of a narrative text as a labyrinth, a game, or an imaginary world (…) The problem with these powerful metaphors, when they begin to affect the critic’s perspective and judgment, is that they enable a systematic misrepresentation (…); a spatiodynamic fallacy where the narrative is not perceived as a presentation of a world but rather as that world itself. (…) The study of cybertext reveals the misprision of the spaciodynamic [sic] metaphors of narrative theory. (…) It seems to me that the cybertexts fit the game-world-labyrinth terminology in a way that exposes its deficiencies when used on narrative texts.” (Ibid. 3-5) His work goes well beyond the familiar criticism of the structuralists’ spatial, three-layered model because Aarseth questions the world as it is construed by structuralist narratology at the level of the fabula. In order to resolve the problem of the importation of inadequate terms for the study of hypertexts, Aarseth develops a pragmatic model in which texts are no longer conceived of as worlds but as communication processes.

This brings us to the second crucial characteristic of hypertexts: the importance of the reader, who often becomes a player. In most cases, this importance is theorized by means of the concepts of immersion and interactivity. Precisely because of his active involvement, the reader/player loses himself in the computer game he is playing, or in the digital text he is writing with the help of all kinds of computer techniques. According to Marie-Laure Ryan in Narrative as Virtual Reality, this combination of immersion and interaction is not possible with literary texts. Literary texts that force the reader to participate actively - textes scriptibles or ‘writerly’ texts, to use Roland Barthes’ terms - inevitably shatter the effects of realism experienced by the reader; they introduce distance and lead readers to consider literary procedures more closely, which disrupts the immersion.Marie-Laure Ryan, 347-355. “Literary texts can thus be either self-reflexive or immersive, or they can alternate between these two stances through a game of in and out (…) but they cannot offer both experiences at the same time.” (284) Roland Barthes introduces the term “writerly” text in S/Z.

Ryan relates immersion to the phenomenological approach to reading as a complete conflation of subject (reader) and object (text). She connects interaction with the structuralist approach of the text as a game, a system of rules that induces action. As a combination of immersion and interaction, hypertext would be an object of investigation in which the two traditionally opposed approaches could meet. This would imply a reconciliation of the phenomenological conception of the text-as-world with the structuralist view of the text-as-game.A schematic representation of this synthesis is available from Ryan, 192. Ryan starts from this perspective on hypertext to enrich literary narratology. She is looking for narrative strategies that are geared towards immersion, or she tries to find strategies that aim to achieve precisely the opposite effect. Ryan also sheds light on the paradoxical attempts to create the illusion of a hypertext in a text - a short-term illusion of the synthesis of reflection and immersion. In this way, cybernarratology increases our understanding of the literary communication and reading process.“The critical discourse that will secure the place of interactive texts in literary history may still remain to be invented, but it is not too early to derive from the hypertext some cognitive lessons about the nuts and bolts of the reading process.” (Ibid. 226)

Seen from this perspective, hypertexts demonstrate what literary texts do to a reader in an extreme and paradoxical way. In her now-classic study Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray reads the digital narrative text as an extreme version of the stories readers were confronted with before the digital “revolution.” The immersion in a strange world as well as the possibility of interaction are much more manifest in digital text types than in non-digital ones. Murray relates this to a third characteristic of hypertexts: the ease with which the fictional world can be adapted.Janet Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (New York: The Free Press, 1997).

Narrative as Virtual Reality is a true grab-bag of a book. Meeting the challenge of digital narrative to narratology head on, Ryan’s analyses are consistently sophisticated, whether they deal with Pierre Lévy’s philosophy of the virtual, with possible worlds, or with the effect of hypertext fiction on its readers. Ryan is at her best when debunking standard opinions, a very useful stance given the sometimes unthinking enthusiasm informing cybernarratology. Occasionally, though, she is less than precise. In the rest of this review, we would like to engage with a single section in Ryan’s book, “Immersion and Realism,” and more specifically with her totalizing image of 19th-century fiction as it jars with statements elsewhere in the monograph.

Ryan’s book begins with a long and enticing analysis of the experience of the virtual, which leads to the book’s two central parts on the constitutive components of this experience, immersion and interactivity. At the end of her chapters on the poetics of reader immersion in the world evoked by the text, Ryan presents “realism” - which she questionably equates with the 19th-century novel as a whole - as nothing short of a climax. When discussing the reality effect of the 19th-century novel on its contemporary audience, she contends that readers were not aware of the discrepancy between the novel’s mimetic claim and the “[ostentatious fictionality] of [its] narrative techniques” (159). Among the core authors usually associated with “realism,” there are quite a few, George Eliot and Anthony Trollope most notably among them, who were keen on regularly undermining the illusion they were (indeed) after, for instance by letting the narrator insist on his or her sympathy for the characters, by explicitly confronting a variety of world views, or by drawing attention to the act of narration. Ryan is clearly aware of this, but her suggestion that reader immersion was not at all affected by these elements is very problematic. There is no sufficient evidence to prove that “19th-century” readers did not understand that language is not capable of achieving objectivity. It seems that Ryan unwittingly partakes in the reductive portrayal of “realism” by “modernists” such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, who sought to promote their own ways of representation at the expense of past practices.

We do not wish to dispute that many 19th-century authors were trying to immerse their audience into their narratives, but it seems wrong for Ryan to use these authors to suggest that immersion in a verbal narrative can only come about if language “[makes] itself invisible” (159). The real problem here is that Ryan herself undoes this contention in the chapter on interactivity. When comparing the metaphors of “the text as world” and “the text as play” and ending up trying to distinguish between “gamelike” and “worldlike” texts, she states that some “are inherently more gamelike (hypertext, visual poetry, postmodern novels) and others more worldlike (realistic texts)” (199). “Realistic texts” may be leaning towards the creation of a world, but at this point in the argument it does not prevent them from featuring “gamelike” elements that (as Ryan’s explanation of “game” makes clear) are geared to “deimmersion.” Since breaking the sense of belonging to the created world is explictly mentioned as a gamelike element, “realistic texts” do undermine the illusion to which they were reduced earlier. It appears therefore that Ryan misrepresents “realism” early in her argument so as to let it effect a totally immersive literary experience, which can then, in the following parts of the book, be elegantly balanced with the interactivity mainly derived from electronic media. And it is this balance Ryan is after, since she’ll turn it into a prescription for interactive, digital fiction. Indeed, in order to save the latter from neglect by the mass audience, she recommends a much higher degree of immersion than such works have been capable of so far. And in order to reinforce her ideal of balance, Ryan retells the history of fiction as if it had developed from innocence (in “realism” and the various genres holding on to immersion even today) to (over)sophistication (in “postmodernism,” which is geared to constant “deimmersion”). Although this view of “postmodernism” in Ryan’s book is more difficult to pinpoint than that of “realism,” it allows improved digital fiction to hold the middle between the excesses of print literature.

There is even stronger evidence of the fact that Ryan could have come up with a more nuanced understanding of realism than the one she offers at the end of the section on the poetics of immersion. In a paragraph on the distinction between “gamelike” and “worldlike” texts, Ryan insists that “we cannot experience both [these] dimensions at the same time” (199). In a later paragraph on metafiction, in which she uses as her example The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles and opposes self-reflexivity to immersion, she observes that literary texts “cannot offer both experiences at the same time because language behaves likes holographic pictures: you cannot see the sign and the world at the same time” (284). Both observations on the impossibility of a simultaneous experience may be correct, but they do not really amount to a problem for readers of fiction that is mainly immersive. These readers gladly switch back and forth, the way children easily step in and out of the fictional world when they are told a bedtime story. It may be that “[for digital] interactivity to be reconciled with immersion, it must be stripped of any self-reflexive dimension” (284), but as long as self-reflexivity is administered in a purposeful dose, it will certainly not diminish (and may perhaps even enhance) literary immersion, as readers of The French Lieutenant’s Woman will be glad to testify. Again, however, Ryan is aware of this. When she suggests in her conclusion that “[a] subtle form of awareness of the medium, then, does not seem radically incompatible with immersion” (352), she is also talking about the act of reading literature. In other words, contrary to what she has said before, immersion and “deimmersion” can somehow be combined in an experience that is probably not unique to the reading of print fiction, but which might well go a long way in defining the reader’s esthetic pleasure. If, when writing about “realism,” Ryan had applied her insight into this combination instead of saying that immersion in a verbal narrative can only come about if language “[makes] itself invisible” (159), her account of literary history would have been less dictated by the needs of her argument at that stage in the book.