18 November 2011

Anonymity & Nightmare in "The Crooked Estate"

     Ostensibly, this writing should be about interactive fiction, which forms the core of my body of artistic moltings. My project of obsolescence has no long term goals that can be attainable by the exertion of effort; it operates only in a frustrated present. I am comfortable in admitting my ignorance here just as I am in admitting my insignificance anywhere else.
     What is not necessarily interesting in the IF interface is the keyboard itself, which is just a vehicle of the parser framework. One might as well use a gamepad, a human body, or two rocks. Any controller will do. What interests me in this construction balanced between knowledge and discovery is its allowance for a player to exercise lateral thinking, to synthesize information and solutions under their own power. Enacting these answers through the self holds a different quality than an answer processed through an other-- it is the difference between seeing and doing, amplified by the idea that one has come to such an action independently, that it is one's own (rather than, say, a solution looked up in a walkthrough).
     This is, of course, a false conclusion, and one I am only drawing up against myself to tangle fruitlessly with a goal which is still unclear to me as I write. Let us try an example: When one plays The Ascot, one can play without ever breaking the rules and come to any number of dull or unsatisfactory endings. When one breaks the rules, however, and discovers the best solution-- that is, [removed for spoilers]-- one does not actually believe this to be a choice invented just by oneself. Obviously, it is only another authored path, albeit an obscured one. Perhaps the true joy here has only to do with a feeling of completeness and necessity in the game's formal affordances that allows for such an ending. The game otherwise feels exceedingly crude in its craft and pointless. It was released in 2009 and will be forgotten, as with all of my work that speaks a language that few can or want to bother interpreting.
     Much has been made of the potential archival power of the internet, the ultimate database, yet I cannot help but regard so many parts of it as extensions of anonymity, of nothing- and nowhere-ness, of loss. I use the internet like a child hiding dead spiders in the back of a sock drawer: telling no-one, but failing to shut my failed work from my mind, knowing these things still exist and can be found by anyone with the easy means and mere will to do so.
     Even then, each shedding of myself will fade into the nameless architecture of time, essentially erased of any connections or identity-- even with its names and descriptions attached-- as the representamen of the original objects take on their own lives and mutations, struggling to form a perfect blankness. Several will be found with the wrong name on them, founded on lies, and desiring nothing but to eternally go on telling things that never happened and that never will be to nobody in particular. They will be only so much more digital flotsam in a great sea of information, negligible, empty meanings that perhaps once had meant to say something, but were made dumb by the idiocy and indolence of their creator and their nature, only ever part of a silence that might have desired to speak or had fooled itself into the illusion it had a voice of any kind. Even this document, too, is a falsehood. For when these pages are finally re-encountered, if they are not outright rejected like malignant growths of the information machines they came from and went to, when time strips away their context, should they ever be discovered they will only ever reveal an intent-- never a reason or substance, but only an undefined lack.
     Much has been made, too, of lack. To Lacan, our lack defines us. The boundaries of our selves serve to exclude us from objet petit a and the Other we find all around us, at the same time they trap us inside of a thing which may alternatively also not be us or our consciousness-as-it-identifies-itself, a many-fractured and senseless, kaleidoscopic thing given senses. This series of organic machine-things may operate even without our conscious intent or permission. If we choke, it will spit. If we stop our breathing, it will start it again until some exterior force stops it definitively. We are tied inextricably to the horrors that are our bodies. In this machine, within the inescapable magnitude of the currents of time in our corner of the universal void, it is as though we are stuck in the last lines of T.E. Hulme's “Trenches at St. Eloi”:
“My mind is a corridor. The minds about me are corridors.
Nothing suggests itself. There is nothing to do but keep on.”
It may be interesting to explore the thought that the corridor of one's mind may intersect with others, unlike those strict parallels that marched into No Man's Land and death. Yet these hallways-- infinite in their virtuality, regardless of their location-- exert subtle pulls upon their inhabitants, such that “There is nothing to do but keep on” in any particular one. Where intersections are clear, perhaps, one may in fact change direction, yet anyone at the intersection of infinite corridors cannot move in infinite directions. Where one has too many corridors, the space of the possible must be sacrificed until it can be managed. Where sacrifice cannot be performed, the result is a sort of paralysis within space, a visible, writhing menu of still-live possibilities that will never be chosen, committed, or realized.
     This paralyzing infinitude, one form of chaos, serves to remind us that “consciousness has overreached the point of being a sufferable problem for our species,” to which the response of Norweigan philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe is, to wit: “to minimize this problem[,] we must minimize our consciousness” (Ligotti 30). As summarized by Thomas Ligotti, Zapffe offers the following as possible methods of minimizing consciousness:
“(1) ISOLATION. So that we may live without going into a free-fall of trepidation, we isolate the dire facts of being alive by relegating them to a remote compartment of our minds...
(2) ANCHORING. To stabilize our lives in the tempestuous waters of chaos, we conspire to anchor them in metaphysical and institutional 'verities'... that inebriate us with a sense of being official, authentic, and safe in our beds.
(3) DISTRACTION. To keep our minds unreflective of a world of horrors, we distract them with a world of trifling or momentous trash... [this method] is in continuous employ and demands only that people keep their eyes on the ball...
(4) SUBLIMNATION. ...this is what thinkers and artistic types do when they recycle the most demoralizing and unnerving aspects of life as works in which the worst fortunes of humanity are presented in a stylized and removed manner as entertainment... these thinkers and artistic types confect products that provide an escape from our suffering by a bogus simulation of it... [artistic] composition cannot perturb its creator or anyone else with the severity of true-to-life horrors... just as King Lear's weeping for his dead daughter Cordelia cannot rend its audience with the throes of the real thing.” (Ligotti 31-32).
Confronted with the paralysis of chaotic infinitude, art seeks by a series of choices to frame chaos, to isolate and anchor it, to distract our consciousness from its incomprehensible magnitude and sublimate our irrational emotions in its wake. “The frame is what establishes territory out of the chaos that is the earth... the frame cuts into a mileu or a space” (Grosz 11-13). Here “the space that engrosses the deject, the excluded, is never one, nor homogenous, nor totalizable, but essentially divisible, foldable, and catastrophic” (Kristeva 235). Chaos is imminently frame-able.
     Each of my projects, then, has utilized text and interactivity in the form of interactive fiction to frame chaos in one way or another, be it ridiculous or horrific. I have made some works as comedies and some as horror, at times using the mantra of seeing the horror in humor and the humor in horror. Often, I would like to leave the determination of such value with the viewer themselves rather than assigning it outright. As Kristeva mentions, horror is “Situationist in a sense, and not without laughter-- since laughing is a way of placing or displacing abjection” (235). In this fashion, the project of any horrific work is itself laughable, whether this is the laughter of a jester in a hall of merry circus mirrors or the laughter of a hanged man echoing from the silhouette of a gallows at night.
     The Crooked Estate is one such a work, an interactive fiction with no clearly-defined narrative except for a set of pre-constructed possibilities that allow its players to explore the simulated space of an ancient, deliriously arranged and impossible series of galleries filled with abandoned puppets. It is not necessary that the reader come to an understanding of the estate as a metaphor for a world built on a foundation that is deranged at its heart, but that they might absorb through the descriptions of objects within the space and the repetition of particular events a sense of unusualness from the place whose staircase and doorway leading back unto themselves and into a space repeating ad infinitum indicate “a suspension of that natural laws against whose universal dominance our fancies rebel” (Lovecraft 434).
     At the level of the navigated storyworld, the player encounters a number of creations-- cobwebs that continually break and cover every crevice, rotting wallpaper whose peeling layers continue forever without revealing anything beneath but more of itself, the unnameable designs on the wallpaper, or the crevices of shadow underneath twisted, empty frames-- that intend to invoke, like Kristeva's abject, “violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable” (Kristeva 229). These all I could describe further, but they are not as interesting as the puppets.
     The figure of the puppet I borrow from Thomas Ligotti. In this case, the image applies not only to the heaps of clothy things lying like corpses in the centre of the estate's gallery, but also to the player themselves. For, according to Ligotti, the puppet is not just a puppet, but a thing which might
“negate all conceptions of a physical naturalism and affirm a metaphysics of chaos and nightmare. It [the player] would still be a puppet, but... a puppet with a mind and a will, a human puppet... [they] could not conceive of themselves as being puppets at all, not when they are fixed with a consciousness that excites in them the unshakeable [sic] sense of being singled out from all other objects in creation. Once you begin to feel you are making a go of it on your own-- that you are making moves and thinking thoughts that seem to have originated within you-- it is not possible to believe that you are anything but your own master” (Ligotti 17).
These intentions, as I have mentioned earlier, may be the only hint available to a player as to the real content of the piece. Even it may disappear over time, detached from its coupling with an author. Certain players will no doubt find the space subvertable, perhaps imposing their own delirium of whatever upon it, or merely shuffling about unaffected in a dull boredom.
     The code for the piece shall also be available for perusal of the player [ in its presentation at @party 2011] at the same time as the level of their enacted world-- this code, too, hints at intentions by the inclusion of another layer of virtuality over the database itself. Within the code, players may find things which they are either unlikely to find within the experience of the story itself or which do not explicitly exist within that level of the experience altogether.
     For example, one may find another room to the work, entitled Outside, whose description contains only the text of William Blake's “A Poison Tree,” isolated and with no statement of intent. Though it has one officially intended meaning-- it is just another hint that the estate represents my growing dissatisfaction with one particular community of writers-- this is never made explicit, as these meanings like the rest of my work intend to be erased by dust, leaving only themselves and their imbecilic mystery. The estate itself might also represent that writing platform, with its unsound foundation for attracting the attention of readers that cloisters its community to another forgotten corner of the internet and encourages their creations to only release within that shadow at the back of a sock drawer filled with dead spiders-- findable, but purposefully ejected into forgetfulness-- where no-one hopefully will paw.
     * * * *
Works Cited
Grosz, Elizabeth. Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth. Columbia University Press: New York 2008.

Hulme, T.E. “Trenches at St. Eloi.” The War Poets Association. Accessed 9 June 2011.

Kristeva, Julia. “Powers of Horror.” DANM 202 Syllabus. Accessed 9 June 2011.

Ligotti, Thomas. The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. Hippocampus Press: New York, NY, 2010.

Lovecraft, Howard Phillips. Selected Letters, Volume III. Arkham House: Sauk City, Wisconsin, 1971.

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