<em>Pax</em> and the Literary in the Digital Age

Pax and the Literary in the Digital Age

2008-03-19

David Parry argues that Pax occupies a position between literature and games - that it “glorifies play while undermining games,” and that it’s “not so much literature as it is literary.”

Pax is, to say the least, a confusing text. But more than being about confusion, Pax is also a confused text, literary for sure, but not quite literature, negotiating some rather hazy boundaries between “literature and ludology” (Moulthrop 149). This is not meant as a criticism but rather an observation meant to focus on a central feature of the work, indeed its principle aesthetic qualities seem to derive from its confusing nature. Thus in order to engage Pax one should first recognize that any attempt to mount a critique of it or Moulthrop’s exegesis will necessarily be informed by this confusion, perhaps always bordering on coherence rather than ever fully achieving it. But, as I have already suggested this confusion is one of the principle qualities of Pax, for, because of its confusing aesthetic and formal structures, it points to questions about its classification as literature and more generally about the literary in the age of the digital.

Indeed, as Moulthrop tells us, the event which served as the impetus for composing Pax was a day largely informed by confusion. Delayed in Dallas-Fort Worth Airport due to unspecified dangers, travelers were forced to wait as various unspecified procedures were conducted in order to protect against some unspecified threat. The security which had “somehow been compromised” needed to be restored, yet it was unclear to the travelers what this meant, or what this entailed (150). Even those supposedly in charge of the event appeared as confused as the travelers: a soldier acting as security personal called his girlfriend to find out if CNN was shedding any light on the incident. And, despite the fact that the security breach was eventually cleared up, the confusion remained; in Moulthrop’s account, we never get the cause of the delay. In fact, the whole incident at DFW seemed to be one of confusion, with conflicting stories and announcements leading to various responses, none of which ever amounted to anything - or at least anything that would offer clarity.

Although most of the text of Pax - here I refer to the written words generated on the right hand side of the screen - seems to generally refer to the incident at the airport, narrating travel through airports in a surveillance society always on the border of pulling the guns out, it is with regard to the reading practice necessitated by Pax that I find the larger connection between this textual instrument and the experience of confusion. Without first reading Moulthrop’s “Suggestions for Play” in the “About” section of his piece, it is difficult to understand what kind of art work one is faced with here. Accustomed to the technological reading practices which accompany a book, encountering Pax for the first time is a bit disorienting. Not only does the text demand something different than the simple turning of pages, but no tutorial explanation is available. In this sense, it differs rather substantially from the video games that Moulthrop says inform the work, for video games rely on either elaborate tutorials which train the players, or familiar interfaces, neither of which are present here. Only upon several “play throughs” does one come to understand the logic of the instrument: there are 14 characters, six stages, and clicking on characters as they float through the space produces text on the right hand side of the screen. Further, and perhaps most importantly, each playing is limited by a chronological progression that the user can do nothing to halt.

My initial readings of Pax were largely governed by this sense of imperfect information, feeling rushed where the flow of time pressured the readings to continue, despite my wanting the ability to arrest time or intervene so that consumption could happen more slowly. I usually felt as if the end came to soon, as if the bodies started falling before I was done with them rising. Not only is there not enough time to get to know all the characters and assemble the pieces which constitute their hazy and disparate experiences, there is not even enough time to consume each individual utterance once it is generated. By forcing the reader to navigate from the left where the text is produced to the right where the text is rendered a certain textual frustration is built into the work. I was faced with never enough time to dedicate to either - a feature consistently foregrounded by the clocks which appear around the suspended characters, and the time stamps of the narrative production. The consumption and production of the stories is always momentary, confusing, and imperfect.

In one regard, our understanding of the text is informed by our (in)ability to classify its nature. Is Pax best understood as a hypertext, a performance piece, a game, narrative, cybertext, a text generator (Moulthrop suggests that all of these relate in some manner)? Indeed it is in part all of these, but not wholly any of them either; its taxonomic ambiguity, its confusion, is one of its central aesthetic principles. Moulthrop suggests that we could understand this as a textual instrument, but that designation does little to clear our confusion, as that seems to be a singular label, a set of one with no other inhabitants when Pax seems to demand, paradoxically, a multiple identity. Thus perhaps we are better off attempting to orient ourselves around the two central classifications that Moulthrop indicates: hypertext and video game (151).

Pax is more play than game, more instrument than video game. Even if it exists somewhere in the intersection between hypertext and video game, it is clearly lacking in features we associate with video games and is more complicated than the usual structures associated with what is classified as hypertext. While play is clearly one of the key structuring elements of Pax, there is no goal - indeed, no ultimate evaluative criterion - we could use to judge the interaction. Thus it is substantially different from what we would recognize as a game, for there is no eschatological endpoint being pursued which will determine the success or failure of any given playing. There is no score being kept, no body count mounting. In this sense, Pax glorifies play while undermining games.

While each playing is singular, complete unto itself, each playing also only takes on meaning as part of a network of readings, playings and replayings, exploring the fourteen characters and the seemingly infinite variety of outputs which are achievable by varying one’s pattern of interaction. All of the readings are confusing because they are imperfect, lacking an ultimate completion which would provide a sense of final closure, even as each individual reading is framed by the final image of one of the characters. (Notably, the character pictured in the final image is a result of the choices the player made in his or her reading, a reflection of which character one has spent the most time listening to.) Thus each reading is always partial, one node in the confusing array of possible playings, rather than a coherent whole which might arrest the rising and falling bodies. If the experience of living with lesser apocalypses is about the experience of imperfect information, than each playing comes to represent this informational lack, where what is generated in the end clearly bears the mark of its incompleteness and confusion.

Moulthrop reflects a great deal on how Pax is a textual instrument to be played, playing which is distinct from game, but still linked to this sense of the action which composes a game. But there is another sense of play here, play as in give-and-take (the play of a machine, or the play in a steering wheel) that is equally as important to keep in mind. For Pax is not a well ordered textual machine, the output of which is pre-determined from the start, but rather a series of pieces that do not quite fit together, pieces with a bit of play between them, give-and-take to be negotiated, and it is this type of play which allows for there to be the other of which Moulthrop speaks, play made possible by play.

In the end I would argue that Pax is not so much literature as it is literary. That is, while it clearly utilizes tropes and structures we have come to associate with literature, several of its central features seem antithetical to the institution of literature, features I would not solely reduce to the “play” aspects of the text (as if we could fully separate the ludological from the literature in this work). As Moulthrop points out, Pax is characterized by its fluidity, evanescence, and lack of stability (153), features which seem to be antithetical to the stability and humanistic permanence which are the hallmark institutional claims of literature. Clearly, as with other hypertexts and digital works, there is no way to read for mastery of the work: to fix the borders of Pax and locate its narrative within a determined space. The structure of Pax resists this traditional reading of literature, for even if one were to crack open the internal working of Pax and independently read the database of textual pieces Moulthrop has coded, such an action would in no way approach the event of reading his work - not only would it eliminate the chronological borders and flow of the work, but, as per Moulthrop’s description, Pax relies upon a random value generator, and so could not be ultimately ordered (153). Thus he has ensured that Pax only exists as a literary event, a textual instrument being played in a literary way, rather than an individual object we might assign to the category of literature. As Moulthrop points out, it is only through multiple playings, multiple experiences of playing the literary, that one can begin to ascertain the architectural and thematic outlines of the text. So again in this case Pax seems more multiple, more a series of literary events, rather than a singular object of literature, the stability and permanence of which are signs of its aesthetic worth.

In this sense, Pax is very much a literary work which signals the end of the book, not in some simple utopic “now we have digital, we no longer need analog” sense, but the end in terms of the border, where we might say the territory of the book and literature end, but the literary still operates; where text operates as more than just aesthetic description or persuasive argument, but itself becomes malleable and flexible, something to be played with, and played on. To be sure, as Moulthrop points out, this playing is usually the domain of digital games or graphic interfaces, but the principle strength of a work like Pax is that it shows how play is not the sole domain of digital games, and neither is the literary the sole domain of literature.

So in this sense Pax is about the question of literature, and the end of the book. It is about what happens to the literary when it can no longer be contained within the domain of literature, what happens when the borders of the literary become infected, contaminated with and by these other expressive mediums, and what should we do about the confusing texts that such transgressions ignite.

Ben Underwood:

Parry’s formulation - “literary event” - aptly describes Pax, but it’s also an oxymoron, insofar as a literary text isn’t an event that one experiences, but an object that one interprets. This term points to the fate of “the literary in the age of the digital,” as Parry puts it. In digital environments, the emphasis on the event means that the literary becomes an object of experience rather than a interpretable text.

2008-03-19