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Medium Specificity at WRT: Writer Response Theory



Medium Specificity


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(updated 9/27 with link to webslides)

The wilderness downtownTake a look at The Wilderness Downtown. (Oh, and use Google Chrome.)

What would you call it? “An interactive short film”? Internet art? Interactive drama? (If you said, Electronic Literature, give yourself five extra points. It’s not unlike at least this piece.)

So now, if you were to study it, its medium, what would you study? The videos that flash on the screen? The pop-up windows? The text box where you can fill in your address? All of this?

The Wilderness Downtown running past the Folsom County Prison(The Wilderness Downtown set to Folsom County Correctional.)

According to the note at the bottom of the screen, this piece, created by Chris Milk, was “made with some friends from Google” to showcase Google Chrome (and its support of HTML5).

Wait, I thought this was built to showcase Arcade Fire? Or Chris Milk? Or birds? The music is striking. The videos are moody and absorbing. They compel us. But what’s the punctum, as Barthes would say? What do people comment on when they see the video?

So to study this as one might any cultural object, what should you do? Screen shots? Video screen capture? Maybe. How about “View Source”?

If so, you might drill down to find the handiwork of Mr.Doob (Ricardo Cabello), who has given wings to Matthew Wetmore’s “boid” object class to draw birds on a “canvas” element. The flocking birds that float around the screen and disperse when you mouseover them…that seems a captivating piece of this work.

Canvas it turns out was once a proprietary element from Apple, now a standard part of HTML5. This tag is also used by Google Maps, one of the main features of the interactive movie. The browser keeps no memory of content drawn on canvas elements. Wait, this was a song about nostalgia….But before I get all metaphorical….

Media–Specific Analysis

Media-Specific Analysis is a term from Kate Hayles’ Writing Machines. According to Hayles,

MSA attends to both the specificity of the form…and to citations and imitations of one medium in another. MSA moves from the language of text to a more precise vocabulary of screen and page, digital program and analogue interface, code and ink, mutable image and durable mark, computer and book. (30-31)

I’ve been thinking a lot about MSA lately. In fact, it’s probably fair to characterize much of my recent scholarship as the development of avenues of medium specific analysis. From my work on chatbots, to the Benchmark Fiction article that WRT wrote, to the Critical Code Studies, so much of my work is in pursuit of approaches that identify the parameters of the medium.

But MSA doesn’t merely take you into the medium. It does bring you into a richer understanding of the medium only to send you back out to the cultural context of that medium and back to the object itself only to discover more resonance (and dissonance) between the performed piece and the parts that perform it.

Take: Project for Tachistoscope: Bottomless Pit.

At the last Electronic Literature Organization conference at Brown, Jeremy and I teamed up with Jessica Pressman (Yale) to collaborate on a reading of William Poundstone’s Tachistoscope (see it in the ELC v.1 — BTW, ELC v.2 coming out soon).

Our goal was not merely to present 3 different takes on a work of e-lit but to develop a new form of collaborative scholarship. We realized that Jess’ powerful textual analysis, my Critical Code Studies work, and Jeremy’s visual informatics (or cultural analytics) offered three distinct approaches, but we didn’t want to just be a lunch menu, we wanted to make a soup, a stew. And actually, even that analogy breaks down because our approaches weren’t ingredients, but interdependent processes to producing a reading.


Jess would ask me something about the code. I’d poke around and ask Jeremy to take some time slices to examine something I had decoded. Jeremy would notice something we hadn’t suspected, and Jess would roll this back into her textual analysis.

Which isn’t to say that we didn’t all interpret all the layers. Really, we all acted like each other’s Q (or Abby Sciuto). We were resources, but we were also all Agent Gibbs (only Jeremy was Bond).

Platform Studies says look at the layers (with an emphasis on hardware or, perhaps, environment). Software Studies, well, the name can do the work here. CCS fills an ensuing need since as Software Studies scholars somtimesl point out, you don’t need to look at the code to study the software. That’s good news for when you want to study Photoshop. But sometimes you can get at the code. Critical Code Studies picks up from there.

All of these approaches have taken up the challenge of Media Specific Analysis, though depending on whose holding the magnifying glass, the emphasis can skew toward more media history, technoculture, social issues, computational musings, etc. Certainly, the Venn diagram of these fields looks much more like three spotlights on one actor than three separate foci.

The question we ask of the digital object is: What is your medium? What are you made of? How do you work?

Critical Code Studies is one way at getting at that last question — only it continues to abide by the MSA hypothesis that the elements that make up the digital object are significant.

Critical Code Studies is not interpretive forensics in search of the one true answer, a whodunnit. I do not biopsy the digital object in search of an answer. In those forensic crime dramas, investigations often lead to flashes of CGI-enhanced video montages of recreations of what actually happened. In fact from my conversations with computer scientists it has become clear to me that I am creating something with my readings — something lit majors have known for quite some time.

So maybe “analysis” is insufficient. This is more than a breaking up into parts. Or rather, the breaking of the parts creates. It creates resonance, dissonance, opportunities, and questions.

I have to be careful about what I write. Those who distrust interpretation might see me as saying, “Cut the painting into little pieces and sew the canvas together as you like.” That is hardly what I’d want to convey.

It’s more: look at bullet shell, the jaw, the spray of blood. Consult the expert on physics and physiology. But those flashes that appear in your mind — that is your contribution, your collaboration.

So go back to the wilderness. Listen and watch those boids. But analyze it, break it open. And see what films flash before your eyes.

(oh, and WRT’s back)

[Below is a link to some webslides from a presentation I made on this post.]
Feed Play



4 Responses to “Medium Specificity ”

  1. 1 Dustin Stevenson

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    Thanks for posting this Mark!

    I’m curious about the distinction between Wilderness and any other film. As you point out, the boids are particularly compelling. I’d say this is because they are consistently responsive. They react to unpredictable actions of the viewer/participant’s mouse offering myriad junctions in the visual tableau of the opening page, thereby displaying the flexibility of the piece, and [I’m supposing] the code. But, once we leave this page behind by entering our address, by passing into the work, it ends up steaming ahead a lot like a normal film.

    The work really has one major joint at which it shifts based on a participatory action and that is the entering of the address. This act affects the core of the piece by determining setting. A neat trick to be sure, but outside of this, the other interactive elements (the boids and the doodling) function more like window dressing. They are confined to their moment in the narrative, lacking efficacy to modify the work outside of the page on which they appear. The windows popping up occur outside of viewer influence and so are a lot like any other film with multiple windows popping up [ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pM-0Pwgr7-E ]

    I recognize I’m not getting at the deeper issues of methods of analysis, it’s just that reading this post left me wishing for a more deeply mutable digital object. Maybe something I can spray paint or toss out a window to see what happens when it hits the ground.

  2. 2 Mark Marino

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    I agree, though if the measure is the concept, not the interactivity, I find the piece to be a nice mash-up of html5 effects, maps, and music under a creepy combo of nostalgia and surveillance crows. True, other e-lit is more interactive–or… offers more significant interaction. This is more of the you be the star of the story — or Dora episode — genre.

    (My bit of mischief was to type in Folsom County Jail as my addy. Anybody try any other play?)

    But again, what may seem window dressing to the song or film are meant to be dazzling demonstrations of browser superiority, forget that it opens a cascade of little windows just to make it work.

    But I will never hold up a piece as the be-all end-all of interactivity. Rather than rag on this limited version, what could you imagine to be better? Let’s dream better art.

  3. 3 Dustin Stevenson

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    Agreed — I completely enjoyed the Wilderness piece. It was interesting how viewing it through the lens of interactive e-literature started me thinking about what else it could be. Not that this didn’t exist at all prior to reading your post - the first time i saw it a few weeks ago I expected/hoped that the doodle I drew would manifest in the climactic moment of the film… I suppose the e-lit lens shone on this more brightly.

  4. 4 Kathi Inman Berens

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    Hey guys,

    I like this exchange. It figures in a blog post I wrote yesterday about how The Wilderness Downtown functions rhetorically. You may wish to check it out: http://tiny.cc/l9o7blr3vc

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