Friday, December 13, 2013

Technology's Limitations on Narrative Interpretation

    Technology limits narrative interpretation. For each bit of technology included in the creation of a narrative, readers lose a bit of their own creativity, a bit of their own imagination. The less details we’re given throughout a narrative, the more holes we are forced to fill in with our own thoughts and our own interpretations. Technology is designed to enhance the narrative and therefore gives readers more information, more details, less room to imagine, and less space to create their own interpretations. The imagining that readers would have done is instead done on the part of the illustrators, the directors, and the creators of the technological “enhancement” to the narrative.
    Given the most raw form a narrative: typed black words homogeneously formatted on a white page, our minds have the most work to do. We aren’t given any images to base our minds’ creations on, or any sound to derive our characters’ voices from. We aren’t given anything but the printed, bound pages, sitting in our hands and our own thoughts. A world waiting to be explored - a raw narrative. As soon as we corrupt this narrative with any sort of technology, our interaction with the story itself dwindles slightly and we are left with more guidance for our thoughts to follow.
    The perfect example of a slightly technologically corrupted novel is Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Danielewski pushes the boundaries of printing technology but remains within the confines of his novel’s traditional bindings. Speaking on his own creation, Danielewski states in an interview, “books don't have to be so limited. They can intensify informational content and experience.” House of Leaves does exactly this. It pushes the limits of what a book can be and creates an experience for the reader rathe’r than just handing them a story to read. Danielewski has the power to change font, color, and orientation of words on a page to evoke a certain mood or reaction from readers. Don’t get me wrong, House of Leaves is one of those books that relies heavily on the reader to piece together what he is given, but, Danielewski makes use of his technological power to guide the readers through their experience with the book. If House of Leaves was presented as a novel in plain text without any formatting alterations, it would not only be less remarkable, but it would be more confusing. The formatting cues given to us throughout the novel guide us through the content. Without them, we would have to piece together the confusion of Danielewski’s words without visual cues. In this case, the limitations Danielewski’s technology creates help us decipher the abnormally vast interpretations the narrative has to offer.
    Deep both into the book and into the house, we find Navidson and Reston lost in the confusion in one of the many tricks of the house. The words on each adjacent page alternate orientation, forcing the reader to turn the book from upside-down to right-side up and back again until the sequence is over. By doing this, Danielewski creates a sense of confusion and disorientation for his readers that parallels the situation Navidson and Reston are experiencing simultaneously in the story. This creative use of printing technology forces the readers to have a specific physical experience with the book.
Danielewski, Page 289

 On this page, the reader can visualize the stairway stretching and expanding, just based on the way the words are printed on the page. This way readers experience words rather than just read them. Though still only using the original written word, Danielewski creates a visual representation of how the word feels and what it represents. The actual
s   t       r           e             t                 c                      h.   
    To further dilute the narrative, illustrations or images can be added to accompany the words of a narrative. Lynd Ward’s illustrated edition of Frankenstein inserts illustrations throughout the novel to give readers various visual representations of Shelley’s descriptions. Images given to the reader by a third party seriously distort any preexisting imagined creations the reader may have had before beholding the the rendition. Given the same description, two different people will create two different images in their heads, simply because they do not have they will not process the description in the same way. In addition, any artist who depicts a subject has the power to alter an image not only to reveal the artist’s style, but also to convey some sort of message or evoke a certain reaction from its viewers. “Ward was known for his social consciousness throughout his professional life and often incorporated political themes dealing with labor relations and racial equality in his illustrations” (Wepman).
    The description we are given of the horrid monster, written by Shelley, reads:
“[h]is limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features so beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same color as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shriveled complexion and straight black lips” (Shelley, 54-55)
Given this description, each reader can create his own version of Frankenstein’s monster. However, as soon as the reader finishes up this description, Ward’s depiction of the monster is revealed:
Shelley, Page 55

This dark, zombie-like depiction of the monster may not have been what the reader had in his mind, but now that the image has been revealed, Ward’s rendition of the monster will be taken into account in the reader’s vision of the monster. Thus, the provided image limits the possibilities the reader can create. Without the image, the possibilities for the monster’s countenance are limitless, but, with the image, the reader restricts his imagination to match up with that of the art with which he is provided.
    With the advancement of technology, we can achieve the most extreme perversion of the written narrative - a movie, wherein there lies virtually no imagination left for the viewer to dream up. If we simply compare the term for a person experiencing a written narrative with the term for a person experiencing a film, we see an inherent difference in their meaning. A reader actively participates in the unraveling of a narrative by reading each and every word an author writes. A viewer simply witnesses the action of the narrative occur as the director has designed it to occur. A reader is able to create his own world inside his head whereas the viewer is given a world to work with, within the confines of a movie screen.
    A written narrative allows readers to have personal experiences with the text. For the most part, people read independently and experience the narrative of a book inside their heads. The experience is internal. When viewers watch a movie, they share the experience with the rest of the audience, an external experience. Part of the enticement of reading a novel is the personal experience the reader shares with the book. Readers develop relationships with their novels because they become dependent on the words to keep building the narrative inside their heads, their world of creation continuously expanding as the novel unravels. On the contrary, viewers never get the opportunity to build worlds in their heads or develop relationships with movies because all the information they need is explicitly given to them on screen. Movies can only provide one perspective on any given situation at a time, limited by the single image produced by a single camera. When reading a book, thousands of images from infinite perspectives can flash through the minds of the readers. There are limitations to creating a movie while there are no limitations to writing a narrative. Thus, in the experience of a movie, the possibilities, images, and interpretations are limited as opposed to that of the experience of a book, with which the possibilities, images, and interpretations are infinite.
    The film is diluted so many times from the original narrative as it progresses from the original text to the screenplay manuscript, to the director’s angle on the manuscript, to the actor’s performance and portrayal of the character, through the point of view the director of photography chooses to shoot from, through the actual lens of the camera, and finally onto the screen that a viewer witnesses the action of the film upon. There are so many filters that the story has to travel through to reach the viewer that by time it is presented, it is in its most watered-down version. There is no imagination left to apply to the film because everyone has had a hand in its creation.

    To illustrate specifically the limitations that technology creates in the film, we can utilize the example of Frankenstein. The 1931 theatrical adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein diverges greatly from the original narrative, but that is besides the point. In the scene shown, we witness the “birth” of Frankenstein’s monster. Each detail of the mise-en-scene takes away a detail that we could have created on our own. The set, the actors, the costumes, the makeup, the lighting, and the props make up the mise-en-scene. Every detail of this sequence was already specifically planned out by set-designers, make-up artists, lighting technicians, actors, and directors. Our brain and imagination contribute nothing to create the image of the mad scientist’s laboratory. Not only do the visual components of the film leave nothing to the eye’s imagination, but the auditory components also of the film evoke a very specific mood from the viewer. Victor Frankenstein’s voice is full of emotion when he speaks of his own insanity at the start of the sequence and again later when he realizes his creation is alive. Colin Clive, the actor who portrays Victor Frankenstein, fills all the holes and answers all the questions of how Frankenstein feels at the first signs of his monster’s life, simply by dramatizing his emotions on the screen. In addition, director James Whale takes advantage of the opportunity to overwhelm the audience with an abundance of sound effects to create the perfect, ominous, horrific lightning storm. Between the carefully though out visual and audio components, the viewers is a step away from being in the world of the action. All the viewer has to do is keep his eyes and ears open.
    Herbert Marcuse discusses the dominance of advancing technology in relation to art in his work One-Dimensional Man. Marcuse states, “[t]he developing technological reality undermines not only the traditional forms but the very basis of the artistic alienation-that is, it tends to invalidate not only certain "styles" but also the very substance of art” (Marcuse, Ch. 3). Marcuse’s statement testifies to the fact that the art of the original written narrative has been lost in the advancements of technology. Our culture has become so obsessed with developing new technology to enhance the experience of a narrative, primarily in the film industry. A standard movie is no longer good enough, it has to be a 3D movie to keep audiences interested. DVDs just won’t do it anymore because the picture isn’t as crisp as a the picture from a BluRay disc. With each advancement in technology, we lose some of the narrative, but we also lose some of our own personal identity. We give in to our “false needs” and succumb to the pressure of the commercial world.
    The argument in opposition to the idea that technology limits narrative interpretation would of course be that technology enhances narrative interpretation. It is true that technology can enhance the experience of a narrative with visual and auditory components, but this does not further any interpretation on the narrative itself. The audio and visual effects of an interactive narrative or a film do not stimulate individual interpretations of the narrative. They simply provide a different interpretation on the subject through the eyes of the director of the film or the designer of the game.
    In playing Dear Esther, it is true that the virtual world at the tip of my fingers was captivating, enticing, and at times even mesmerizing. The beautiful landscapes and eerie music created an environment in which I was given a narrative, but these attributes of the game did not stimulate my thinking in terms of interpreting the narrative. In exploring the world of Dear Esther, I felt as though I was exploring someone else’s world. I felt as though I was experiencing the narrative through the eyes (and ears) of the creator. The story does not change each time a player experiences Dear Esther, which further proves the idea that the player is not given any creative decision making abilities. The conclusion of the game is always the same no matter which route the player takes. Dear Esther is a limited world drawn down to the very details of the leaves on the bushes. There are no corners of Dear Esther’s world the player cannot explore, thus nothing is left to the imagination.
    Dear Esther creates the illusion of narrative interpretation because it gives the player full control to wander around in hopes of creating a new narrative or discovering some uncharted territory. This is not the case, however. The world has its limits and the players are subtly cued to take specific paths throughout the game. Even if the player diverges from the path, the road less taken will not lead to a mysterious end or an unknown corner of the world. The player will be disappointed by a dead end or he will end up on the same path that the other choice would have taken him on.
    In the final analysis, technology limits interpretation of a narrative because with every advancement in technology, we discover new ways to deliver information to an audience. The more information that is divulged to the audience, the less magic our minds have the chance of creating. Every technological aspect added on to a narrative results in more knowledge about the narrative. The holes that an original written narrative leaves are filled and the experience is no longer as full. Readers become viewers and instead of taking an active part in the narrative, they become bystanders witnessing the story as it unravels. We are informed of more details of the narrative through sound, voice, imagery, illustrations, or motion pictures, each of which is thanks to an advancement in technology.

Works Cited

Danielewski, Mark. Interview by Sophie Cottrell. Random House. Random House, 2000. Web. 12 Dec. 2013

Danielewski, Mark Z. House of Leaves. 2nd ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 2000. Print.

Frankenstein. Dir. James Whale. Perf. Colin Clive, Mae Clark, and John Boles. Universal Pictures, 1931. Film.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon, 1964. Web.

Pinsoff, Allistiar. “Review: Dear Esther.” Destructoid, 13 Feb. 2013. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: The Lynd Ward Illustrated Edition. Mineola: Dover Publications, 2009. Print.

Wepman, Dennis. “Lynd Ward.” American National Biography Online (2008): n. p. American National Biography Online. 12 Dec. 2013.


Nikki Moriello said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nikki Moriello said...

Up until yesterday, I intended to make a video version of this essay, but the more I wrote the narration for the essay, the more I thought the project would stand better as an essay. I didn't want any of the information to get lost in the narration. And to be completely honest, I don't think I would have finished on time either. I'm sorry to disappoint you if you were looking forward to seeing a video :/

Thank you for an awesome semester!

PS - I found this interview with Danielewski and used it in part of my essay, but I think it's sort of just a cool interview. Thought you might like it: