Tending the Garden Plot: Victory Garden and Operation Enduring...

Tending the Garden Plot: Victory Garden and Operation Enduring...

2004-10-19

Dave Ciccoricco returns to Stuart Moulthrop, considers Operation Enduring Freedom (2003) in light of Operation Desert Storm (1991), and consults the annals of World War II for a likely source of “Victory Garden,” the title of Moulthrop’s 1991 network fiction on the Gulf War.

“Oboyoboy just when we’d wrung the last nostalgia from that Desert Storm, by golly WE GET TO DO IT AGAIN!” From the node, “Balanced Coverage,” in Victory Garden (1991). One of the many narrative voices of Victory Garden comments derisively here on the “media men” who are “just about falling over themselves with crisis-lust,” unsated by the fact that they have just broadcast a war with the highest quality production values in history. The speaker refers to the dual crises of Hurricane Bob and the Moscow coup in August of 1991, but the reference may just as well be to something that was yet to happen. Written and published in the months following the United States’ 1991 war with Iraq (Operation Desert Storm), Stuart Moulthrop’s Victory Garden is again timely in the aftermath of Operation Enduring Freedom, the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Although more often discussed for its contravention of a fixed and singular plot, Victory Garden also demonstrates how a narrative in network form can accommodate a political critique.

Multi-purpose gardens

Some early critics were quick to see Victory Garden as rooted in a leftist political ideology, (See, for example, Klastrup 1997), but Moulthrop’s narrative is not unequivocally leftist. Its political orientation in a sense mirrors its material structure, for neither sits on a stable axis. In fact, Moulthrop is more interested in questioning how a palette of information technologies contributes to - or, for those who adopt the strong reading, determines - the formation of political ideologies. In addition to popular forms of information dissemination, this palette would include hypertext technology, which reflexively questions its own role in disseminating information as the narrative of Victory Garden progresses.

Citing Sven Birkerts’ observation that attitudes toward information technologies do not map neatly onto the familiar liberal/conservative axis, Moulthrop writes:

Newt Gingrich and Timothy Leary have both been advocates of the Internet… I am interested less in old ideological positions than in those now emerging, which may be defined more by attitudes toward information and interpretive authority than by traditional political concerns. (Moulthrop 1997, 674 n4)

The politics of Victory Garden, much like its plot, do not harbor foregone conclusions. In a 1994 interview, Moulthrop says it “is a story about war and the futility of war, and about its nobility at the same time” (Dunn 1994). The formulation is perhaps nowhere more clear than in the work’s title. Previous discussions of the title, such as in Koskimaa (2000), focus on its indebtedness to Borges’ short fiction, “The Garden of the Forking Paths,” which is well known to have planted the seeds of Moulthrop’s Garden. But a victory garden refers specifically to World War II and the widespread practice, initially proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1941, of planting gardens on residential or community property so that precious resources could be diverted to soldiers stationed overseas. While commercial farmers supplied the army, victory gardens supplemented dinner tables on the home front. By 1943, over 20 million residential gardens were producing an estimated 8 million tons of food, which amounted to nearly half of all of the fresh vegetables consumed nationwide. See “Victory Gardening in America,” Victory Seed Company multimedia.  Cultivating vegetables also cultivated morale, and the victory garden stands as a symbol of the tremendous civilian support for the war effort. Thus, not only are the gardens credited with helping to win the war, they also cap one of the most romantic periods in U.S. military history.

A more sardonic reading, however, equates Moulthrop’s title with the many “gardens of remembrance” marking the places of human sacrifice that act as prelude to victory. The Normandy American Cemetery, where over 9,000 soldiers were laid to rest, is one such reminder of great victory and great loss. There, inscribed on memorial walls, a “Garden of the Missing” lists names of over 1,500 soldiers whose remains were not located or identified. In discussing the overview map of Victory Garden, Raine Koskimaa follows Robert Coover in equating the graphic to either a garden or a graveyard - “the garden referring to [the Borges story], the graveyard to Gulf War casualties” (Koskimaa 2000). The graveyard interpretation rightly gestures toward an understanding of “victory” as a darkly ironic one, perhaps necessarily so in an age where irony comes easily for the postmodernist, or indeed the post-nationalist, who is simply unable to romanticize war. It is a gruesome irony that plays itself out yet again during the coalition’s occupation of Iraq after the second war. In May 2004, reports emerged from Fallujah of local volunteers having difficulty burying civilian casualties amid the ongoing fighting. According to one report, the end of a month-long siege means that a woman who was killed while she attempted to flee the city can be moved to the municipal football stadium for burial; her husband has already been buried “in the garden of the house next door.” (see Glantz, Aaron. “Victory Rises Above a Mass Grave,” IPS - Inter Press News Service, May 3, 2004. At once romantic and horrific, Moulthrop’s title makes an ambivalent - and highly emotive - comment on the audience of war.

The names of Moulthrop’s characters are equally suggestive. Discussions of the characters have focused on their intertextual relationship to the characters in Borges’ fiction, a relationship that is already established. Koskimaa (2000) discusses the correspondence of names. But the name of one character, Emily, suggests political and historical significance beyond Borges. In a narrative of prismatic possibility, Emily is (in some readings) subject to an incredibly unlikely fate: An Iraqi Scud missile manages to breach the reputedly unassailable U.S. Patriot missile defense system and strike her barracks in Riyadh. It is a turn of events Emily herself would never have imagined. In a letter to her friend, professor Thea Agnew, she writes,

Do I feel any anxiety about my own ass out here? No more than I do when we forget and let Boris do the driving. On second thought, I’m a lot less worried than when Boris is driving.

You never know. We’ve got a lieutenant here who’s an astrophysicist back in the real world. Lieutenant says if your These are Emily’s errors, indicative of hastily written letters. The font used to present them is also suggestive of typewritten documents, with signatures that appear handwritten. in a rear posting like ours your more likely to get clobbered by a sizeable meteor… (“I’m OK”)

The name “Emily” is a testament to military improbability. During WWII, the Japanese planned covert operations to attack the west coast of the United States by launching a seaplane from a submarine. The plane was to fly inland and drop incendiary bombs on the heavily forested regions of Oregon, which, it was hoped, would cause massive forest fires that would spread to the cities. There were two raids in 1942, but neither succeeded in starting fires or causing collateral damage. The mountain on which the first bomb landed on mainland United States is named Mt. Emily - located 10 miles northeast of Brookings, Oregon. See Chuck Woodbury, “World War II air raid of Oregon was a real bomb” in Out West, #11, July 1990. Thus, if the chance of a Scud missile hitting a mail sorter stationed in Riyadh would seem unlikely, so too would the chance of the Japanese bombing Oregon.

In a scene that follows one year from Emily’s presumed death, Thea’s new partner (who is, in a convolution of plot that can easily go unnoticed, also Moulthrop’s narrator) Robert Selig discusses this development in “The Endless Reading of Fiction” (Contemporary Literature, 41.4, pp. 642-59). helps her pack for a trip to London:

I pick up the big calendar we salvaged from the bottom of the heap and square it up neatly on Thea’s desk, thinking, now you’re ready to face the future. Only then do I realize that it’s last year’s calendar, untouched since February 1991. I start to say something but then my eyes catch another detail. Using a razorblade, someone has sliced the square for February 26 out of the page. The cut was deep, taking several other days with it.

I say nothing. (“And Then Again”)

The passage establishes a historical parallel. According to a U.S. Department of Defense paper, in the early evening of February 25, 1991, Iraq launched one Scud missile toward Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. See “Information Paper: Iraq’s Scud Ballistic Missiles.” Released July 25, 2000 by the United States Department of Defense.  The Scud broke up on reentry and showered a U.S. housing compound with debris. The warhead, however, struck a warehouse serving as an army barracks in the Dhahran suburb of Al Khobar. The explosion and resulting fire killed 28 soldiers and injured 100, half of them seriously. This single incident caused more combat casualties than any other in Operation Desert Storm. February 26, then, marks the day Thea would have received news of Emily’s death.

More than a matter of referential synchronicity in a work of historical fiction, the connection is crucial to Victory Garden as political critique. The same paper, citing an MIT report by the Center of International Studies (Lewis, Fetter, and Gronlund. “Casualties and Damage from Scud Attacks in the 1991 Gulf War,” Appendix, Center for International Studies, MIT, Cambridge, Mass., March 1993), faults the Patriot defense system for failing to intercept the missile: “One Patriot battery on Dhahran airfield was not operational and another nearby did not track the Scud, apparently because of a software problem.” Much controversy has surrounded the efficacy of the Patriot missile systems since their popular introduction in the first Gulf War. Ironically, much of the problem lies not with their own advanced software, but the relative simplicity and crudeness of their target. Scuds are unpredictable; they often tumble or break up mid-flight. In short, they are difficult to track because they are so “low-tech.” An independent report by the House Government Operations subcommittee on National Security (led by Professor Theodore Postol at MIT) determined that their “kill rate” was in fact lower than 10 percent and possibly zero percent, a dramatic decrease from the 80 percent (in Saudi Arabia) and 50 percent (in Israel) initially reported by the U.S. Army. See Jeffrey St. Clair, “Patriot Gore: The Fatal Flaws in the Patriot Missile System” in Dissident Voice, April 19, 2003.  The “software problem” appears to be chronic, and indeed deadly. In the second war in the Gulf, a Patriot missile engaged and brought down a RAF plane returning from an air raid on Basra, killing the two pilots. The media widely reported the event, but the tragedy was by no means an isolated instance of the technology - a defense system no less - unintentionally turned against its users. St. Clair (2003). The implication of Victory Garden is clear: if technology is to determine our greatest military victories it will also determine our greatest failures.

what are You looking at?

In his essay From Work to Play (2003), written nearly 12 years after the publication of Victory Garden, Moulthrop considers the political implications of immersion in art, and the correlated condition of media transparency. For him, when it comes to real-world conflict, it may be imperative that a medium insist on calling attention to itself and, conversely, that a reader insist on calling attention to the medium. He writes, “It may happen that in refusing the transparency of media we make ourselves better able to interrogate the nature of the conflict, perhaps even to understand more clearly what we mean when we talk about war and other deadly games” (Moulthrop 2003). From this point of view, a reflexive medium enables us to better interrogate and better understand what it carries; that is, the view of the “screener” (to borrow Mireille Rosello’s term for the hypertext user) becomes more complete and comprehensive than that of the reader who is completely immersed.

The thematic framework of Victory Garden speaks to immersion in this regard. Emily, for example, is the only character situated in the military establishment and, geographically, in the Middle East - the only character literally immersed in a “deadly game.” But the narrative foregrounds her perspective in another way: even though her letters to her friends back home suggest a first-hand account of war, she appears well aware of her own limited view: “…spose you have to say what that reporter said about the Vietnam | the only position you can have ON the thing is your position IN it” (“Opinion”). Emily does not see herself as “in” the war but rather as removed from it. Furthermore, as a mail clerk, she is part of the apparatus of print, processing information that is much slower, much heavier, and arguably much easier to regulate and censor than electronic mail. She is oddly detached and isolated not only from her friends at home but also from the war to which she was sent. Thus, she is neither “IN” war’s reality nor inundated, like her psychologically unstable lover Boris Urquhart, by its mediation.

Emily’s “view” takes an ironic turn when the lights go out in her Riyadh mailroom following the likely missile attack (“Blackout,” “.”). In some readings, a black screen suggests the darkness that befalls Emily and the members of her company in the mailroom; in others, the blackness is followed by a node that displays a shattered screen, suggesting that Emily and her company have been hit and likely killed by the strike (“…and…”). We just don’t know for sure what happens to Emily at this point. Instead, one is left with Moulthrop’s trademark “breakdown” - the crash that reminds us what we’re actually looking at, and reminds us of the fragility of our own point of view, in both the physical and ideological sense. If the screen is what allows the paradoxical immersion of the passive viewer, then Emily’s friends back home, caught in a continual 24-hour news cycle replete with facts, opinions, and images, would seem immersed in much the same way as the reader. But as a hypertext, Victory Garden brings the war to our personal screens in a way that suggests a movement from consumption to participation. It asks that we make use of the network form to interrogate the passivity associated with the behind-the-screen perspective.

Garden Care

If the reader’s position mirrors the position of Emily’s friends, then the narrative is designed to evoke a genuine concern for Emily’s welfare. Thus, the political critique implicit in Victory Garden arises not only from the instrumental engagement with an unfamiliar reading/writing technology, but also from an empathetic identification with the characters - an immersion in the storyworld. At the same time, if immersion implies a lack of critical distance, passive consumption, or even naïveté, then it would appear to be more pernicious than productive. Indeed, the movement away from narrative forms goes hand in hand with a resistance to transparency, especially for those, Moulthrop included, who take issue with the notion that a successful storytelling technology is an invisible storytelling technology.

Moulthrop cites Janet Murray, who claims that “[e]ventually all successful storytelling technologies become ‘transparent’: we lose consciousness of the medium and see neither print nor film but only the power of the story itself” (Murray 1997, cited in Moulthrop 2003). For him, the same potential loss of consciousness of the medium is all the more reason to consider “turn[ing] away from storytelling as the prime agenda of art” (Moulthrop 2003). True, it is by no means apparent that medial transparency is or should be the measure of a successful narrative. But the case against immersion in narrative might well be overstated. The practice is in large part a reactionary one, attributable to the emergence of technologies that promise (or threaten, depending on your stance) to realize transparency not in an eventual process of cultural acclimation, but rather in one immediate stroke of technological innovation, be it via glove and goggles or an as yet uncreated “holodeck.” But immersion theories tend toward extremes; they are often either (1) too negative or (2) too broad. Of the negative conception, Marie-Laure Ryan writes,

Immersion in a virtual world is viewed by most theorists of postmodernism as a passive subjection to the authority of the world-designer - a subjection exemplified by the entrapment of tourists in the self-enclosed virtual realities of theme parks or vacation resorts (where the visitor’s only freedom is the freedom to use his credit card). (Ryan 1994)

It is clear that not many scholars, theorists, and critics actually “lose consciousness” of their medium - at least not those doing their job - and many reader/viewers would be quick to point out that the opposite of self-consciousness is not necessarily naiveté; rather, one indulges in something more akin to a “self-conscious immersion” - or a willing suspension of disbelief. But it would seem too that any reading or viewing that occurs in a remotely critical mode (beyond but not exclusive to that of popular entertainment) would yield a consideration of not only a story but also its story-producing mechanisms. After all, as countless theorists of the postmodern have pointed out, we live in a society in which artifacts both cultural and commercial insist on calling attention to themselves, to their artifice, whether it be a work of kinetic poetry online or the billboard down the road. The billboard down the road from me: an ad for a new lighting company where one of the three functional lights illuminating it dangles limp and broken. It reads, “Need a Lighting Fix?” Furthermore, where concerns arise over those who do not read or view media in a critical way, those concerns should be met by the scholars, theorists, and critics who do: at a time when we are increasingly convinced by the power of digitally mediated interactions and simulations to condition or train certain “unthinking” reflex behaviors (see Simon Penny on the Representation, Enaction, and the Ethics of Simulation in ebr), there is all the more reason for pedagogy to play its role in training thought. In any case, one has to be realistic about what it means to be “immersed” in synthetic realities - perhaps we should give more credit (not the financial kind) to the visitor of virtual worlds.

Any theory of immersion, abstracted from a given context, moreover suffers in its breadth. Common to the discourse of immersion theory is the notion that the realist novelist and the virtual reality environment designer pursue the same goal - the disappearance of the medium. But a historicizing continuum of transparent media is suspect when it conflates immersion in representation (as in a Victorian novel), which is largely a cognitive phenomenon, with immersion in simulation (as in a VR environment), which employs variables - visual, auditory, haptic - that encourage a corporeal immersion. Lev Manovich (2001, 113) makes the same distinction based on one’s bodily position in relation to the medium: where a representational form, such as a painting, exists in a physical location separate from the embodied viewer, “in the simulation tradition, the spectator exists in a single coherent space - the physical space and the virtual space that continues it.”

Hypertext narratives, such as Victory Garden, would sit somewhere in the middle of this continuum. On the one hand, they betray their historical contingency in their heavy reliance on (an arguably conservative) narrative poetics. On the other hand, they signal a moment in literary history when an age-old cultural form opens itself to the influence of digital aesthetics. Such narratives constitute a telling moment in literary history, regardless of how momentary they may prove to be. Indeed, those who tell stories with computers do not need to call attention to the techniques and conventions of their medium, as did Brecht for theater. Digital fictions impede transparency by virtue of their unfamiliarity - their literary machinery is already strange enough.

But encased in the unique literary machinery of digital fictions are the unique voices of its characters, who often speak at and of the “fork in the road” where “traditional narrative interests” diverge from those invested in the play of interaction and simulation (Moulthrop 2003). There is still plenty of reason to listen to and interpret these voices - at least until a crack in our screen suggests otherwise.

______

Works Cited

Dunn, John. 1994. “Hyperfiction Moulthrop’s computer novel weaves a web of alternative endings.” Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine Online. summer 1994. http://gtalumni.org/news/magazine/sum94/fiction.html

Koskimaa, Raine. 2000. Digital Literature: From Text to Hypertext and Beyond. Chapter 6. http://www.cc.jyu.fi/~koskimaa/thesis/chapter6.htm

Manovich, Lev. 2001. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Moulthrop, Stuart. 2003. ” From Work to Play,” electronic book review, December 2003.

______. 1997. “Pushing Back: Living and Writing in Broken Space” in Modern Fiction Studies 43.3 (651-674).

______. 1991. Victory Garden. Watertown, Mass.: Eastgate Systems.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. 1994. “Immersion versus Interactivity: Virtual Reality and Literary Theory.” Postmodern Culture, September 1994. (available: http://www.humanities.uci.edu/mposter/syllabi/readings/ryan.html)