The Postmodern Journey is Cut-and-Paste

As I gear up for graduate level work — which might be farther away now than I hoped it would be — I’ve been thinking about what I need to be reading and writing in order to prepare for it. That has, in turn, lead me to looking at other people’s work and consider how I might start applying it in different places (i.e. the call of thinking about getting work published). Part of that progress first started back in March when I read Rachel Helps thesis work on the postmodern journey and it has continued quite recently with looking a professor of mine’s dissertation — and writing about it — in reference to bringing both older ideas (monomyth) and new theories (database, hypertext) together to study video games.

Something I really liked about Rachel’s work, and a reason it stayed with me as something to consider, was that it tried to make the comparsion between Portal and House of Leaves. Both works, she said, could be traced to the monomyth structure with the twist that they were postmodern in nature. In other words, you could plot out a linear progression that fit the model, but also break up the pieces somewhat. Their interpretations could, with the emphasis on passages, borders and traversal, be a postmodern take on the Hero’s Journey. It’s an interesting idea to say the least. And something that stayed with me as a fan of both of those works and, in thinking about them together, lead me to the theme of investigating spaces through user created passages.

It’s something much more obvious in thinking about the video game Portal  with its emphasis on, well, portals, but the movement through the virtual space is tied to the player’s understanding of how things interact with each other. Progression and exploration are two major themes in that game as it expects you to both try new combinations of doorways and objects, and follow a general linear path through the narrative. Understanding how momentum works as both the player, lasers and blocks move from one portal to another becomes vital to solving most later puzzles. The player must, in order to get farther in the complex and arrive at GLaDOS, continue to literally create the physical connection between two places and bridge learning moments of the past with the puzzles at present. Drawing parallels between what has happened, what is currently going on and how to proceed are all tied into thinking about how to get farther in that game.

House of Leaves shares that idea too. The Navidson Record, one of several interwoven narratives in the book, is related through both events from that story, as well as footnotes and other characters talking about the story. On various levels within the text, different characters have different interactions with the creation and commenting on the events of The Navidson Record (as object in the text) and, towards the very end of the book, a collection called House of Leaves, as a container of all the connections between the characters, editors and contributors up to that point, is found as part of one of the story’s plot points. In looking at House of Leaves as a text by itself, the reader is left with the task of assembling all these various pieces and making the connections between parts, places and even people.

It’s this idea of the player (or reader) making the connections, of drawing their own path through the works, that loops back to the anatomy genre and of thinking of games in this way. Many video games are highly linear, requiring that players master each area (level) in order to progress. Most books too are created in such a way that a page-by-page traversal, from beginning to end, is the only way to understand the events within the text. The narratives that arise, in both forms of media, do so from the reader or user seeing the events in a certain chronological order. The cause and effect chain between different parts of a game or novel is encoded into the traversal process: in order to see how something leads to something else, the reader need only move along the path, flip the page, and it will unfold. This is normal.

What if the units of a text, the levels in a game or chapters in a novel, could be rearranged by the reader though? That is one of the questions that looking at the anatomy genre as a way to classify new media objects brings up. If the author has collected all these different elements into a database, and put together some suggested hyperlinks between them, what is preventing the user from ignoring the suggested path and making a new one? What is stopping the player from putting together a new selection of levels? The answer to both of those questions is simply that nothing is preventing them from doing it but the text itself. The limits on the user exist only on the level of the rules of the system, the mechanics of the text, or interface. What is allowed to be put together and in which order is dictated by its presentation to the user: without a table of contents, chapters must be accessed through a linear progression in a book and, without a menu allowing it, levels in a game must be accessed as they are finished. While a user might be able to bridge different parts in their own mind, it requires that they be experienced first as presented.

The postmodern journey, if it is said to exist, might be thought of then as a series of cut-and-paste actions on the part of the user. As they manifest a narrative from their reactions to a text, they pick and choose the ordering of events, a separate chronology from it as experienced, and arrange it out. The user makes the traversal across what they see, revising how they understand the textual worlds in their minds as they go. They create their own database of relationships that might mirror or even be radically different from that which was seen, heard or experienced in reference to their changing responses to the text. Their interpretation of events, itself a reflection of the ordering, places emphasis on different relationships and patterns that arise from parsing the interface to the text itself.