Word Terrorists and A Brain Blast: Analyzing “A Letter to Linus” and Reconstructing Myakovsky

It's so cold in Russia right now that people's eyelashes are freezing -  Insider
Apocalyptic Freezing Caused by the Thought of Word/Thought Appropriation

Letter to Linus

I expected “Letter to Linus” to be warm, just by reading the title. I have been influenced by the gentle voice of reason that is Linus, Schultz’s cartoon character in Peanuts. He carries around a fuzzy blanket. Even though he gets hectored by his sister Lucy, he is not mean-spirited. He always seems to have good advice for Charlie Brown, who always seems to be plunged into a childlike form of existential questioning.

Experiencing this piece of literature was not warm. It was apocalyptically freezing. We are talking about the appropriation of words here! The piece is an exhortation for another Linus (a poet/writer) to get onto the scene and sort out madness of word gobblers, commercial entities that seek to patent words and hold them hostage. To a lover of words, books and knowledge, this is very frightening.

The genre of the piece is interactive fiction, because it allows one to click on hypertexts (or rather, sides of a hypercube) to advance the story. The author, William Gillespie, defines a hypercube as “a work of electronic fiction based on the structure of a cube. It comprises six pages, each of which links to four others.” The backbone of the story is comprised by the center cubes, which are the action verbs “cut, shut, blow, break, take, and lock.” These appear in pink in the center of the cube’s interface. The other sides surrounding it contain the hyperlinked words in blue boxes. The story has a kind of rhythmic pulse to it so I would categorize it to be poetry.

We never learn the author of these letters to Linus. Is that because he has had to write in a secretive fashion to evade the money train society that has come to appropriate words? From the very beginning of the piece, the heart sinks due to a feeling of desolation. It seems like there is a brief lull in the war to steal words. There are featureless figures who are hiding in the corners in silence. Libraries are “culverts.” I get the sense of a dark alley at night: a place I do my best to avoid if I am alone.

Poetry is so scarce that it needs to be “squeezed from stones.” Several lines stemming from the hyperlinked phrase “out the public” conjured a dystopian view: People “in decrepit basement rooms, gather daily or train, recite the alphabet backwards and forwards in seconds, write in complete darkness, memorize dictionaries/ When necessary, you ration a single poem so that it lasts for weeks, having disciplined yourself to read only a word at a time…”

The Book Thief – WalkerWords
Leisel Memminger, as pictured in the filmic adaptation of The Book Thief

This affected me deeply. One of my favorite books is The Book Thief. I immediately thought of the protagonist, Liesel Memminger, learning and savoring the alphabet like a hard lemon candy and then luxuriating in the few books she received and those that she stole. The context for this work is Nazi Germany, where books were burned at will and catching people with certain types of literature could literally mean death. Liesel is one of my fictional heroes. The thought of someone having to hoard words and books is heart-breaking and it also raises my ire. I also get a sense of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

Yet, there is real gunfire being falling from the sky when “up the revolution” is selected. The interior has been bombed out: it is practically a shell. Words seem to be shotgun shells. They can be used offensively and defensively. The letter writer explains that he wants to be hired as a writer and that his parents “bought him English as a graduation present,” but it is an “outdated” version. This word appropriation has been going on for a long time indeed! What peaks my interest is this–> This invisible writer to Linus is anti-establishment: he plans to keep writing “as long as there is a potential enemy somewhere.” What happens if he flips though? What if his intelligence, his word-mastery gets coopted by Linguatech, “the aggressive young company that patented language?” That is scary. Writing should not be a tool of an “exclusive club.” It should be free like air. But what if Linus’ letter writer gets tired, has no food in his stomach and weakens? He can be flipped. Everyone has to have a weakness.

Although this work was extremely dark, I appreciated it greatly. It taught me to appreciate freedom of thought and expression. I now realize that they must be defended vociferously and not taken for granted.

Reconstructing Myakovsky

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To date, this piece of interactive electronic literature has stir-fried my brain the most. Myakovsky’s futurism and Monad, Inc.’s conception of virtual reality collide. It appears that the artists of Myakovsky’s time eschewed the traditional arts in favor of technological advancements and urbanism, yet at the same time they subscribed to art of human feeling and emotion (quite a contradiction).

I wanted to learn more about Myakovsky in order to understand this piece. He was in his formative years when the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 came about. He was excited for advancement and he eulogized Lenin. Then came WWI, which disillusioned the world because of its senseless, brutal violence. I think that this had to have influenced Myakovsky’s personal life and his art. He seemed to cling to love and to life, yet his life was complicated by these very same things. Then another blast came into his consciousness: Joseph Stalin. Stalin’s goal was to stamp out all the literati and to allow nothing but self-serving propaganda about the great Soviet State to be disseminated. This was a blow to Myakovsky and he committed suicide in 1930. I question if he really did this or if Stalin’s henchmen got him. It wouldn’t be the first time. I would have to dig into the forensics of the issue in order to give a more informed opinion about this.

Reconstructing Myakovsky is such a puzzle. There are so many disparate parts to piece together and frankly, it is overwhelming and confusing. The part that I found most stunning and on a sort of parallel with Russian futurism was the video by Monad, Inc. in favor of constructing a Virtual Environment, where the human being (as we know it) is vitiated. This is on par with Russian futurism’s drive to laud technology. But, Monad takes things really far. I watched the video, voiced over by a cold robotic male voice, four times in disbelief. I know this is interactive fiction, but still! Replacing human experiences so that the elements of chance are eliminated, no more misunderstandings in language, etc? Constructing a purely virtual world where the human is completely disposable? Look at what damage the human has done in the past: war, pestilence, terrorism, etc, the video elucidates. I may be wrong, but I see a little neo-Dadaism here. In any event, Monad’s world really revolted me, even though it was meant to underscore human absurdity and how participation culture has thrown a wrench into reality; therefore, away with the humans! The strange thing is that I can see a push to eliminate the human so that technology can do more of the work that society allegedly needs: i.e. algorithimization. Scary.

I look forward to class to discuss these very unique pieces.

#Elit Characterization

There were many insights about digital literacies, and the role of technology in human lives, that surfaced in this week’s readings. We also looked further into character development in an interactive #elit environment. Both of our readings this week showed us how complex characterization builds not only from what is shared about a protagonist but rather, from what is omitted.

Our agenda:

Digital, A Love Story

Thanks to Ryan for his smart walkthrough of Digital, A Love Story. Set in the early days of the internet with a distinct “retro” game feel, it captures the era of dial-up modems and BBS boards. Digital begins with you, the player/protagonist, being asked to pick a username and give your real name, then throws you right into the game. All actions you perform are done through typing keyboard commands and clicking on icons, as you would with your own computer. Talking and browsing eventually gets you useful programs like Notepad, which records important information, and a password decrypter.  But when the BBS boards suddenly start shutting down, cutting you (player/protagonist) off from the people you’ve met, it slowly becomes clear that a sinister force is threatening this brave new digital world. 

Hacking into a site is always a multi-step process, requiring you to discover information on the password system. As Ryan made clear, this can be monotonous if you get stuck on a section. But one thing that is important here is that dialogue is non-existent. You never see how your character responds to another character, but you can pick up on a general idea by the context of the response. In other words, your character is mute, but still given a personality from how others react to you and your own interpretation of the actions you commit.  With casual connecting and playful hacking, and you strike up a relationship with a user named “Emilia”. After responding to her request for criticism on a poem she wrote, you can start replying to messages from her and begin to grow a connection as she starts opening up to you. By navigating a computer interface, you (player/protagonist) end up exploring the enigma of modern relationships through the filters of early social media (with both spurts of joy and grim sincerity). The plot ends up being far bigger than it initially appears, with even the birthplace of the internet itself becoming involved in the climax.

Inanimate Alice

Thanks to Kaitlyn for an excellent walkthrough of the seminal #elit text Inanimate Alice Vol. 4.  A multilayered episodic story about a young girl who grows up in varying spots on the globe, this multimodal combination of text, sound, video, and imagery has been an exemplar of digital storytelling. In the fourth episode of Alice’s overall journey, she is fourteen years old and living in a small town in the middle of England. Her first real friends have dared her to climb to the top of an abandoned building which supposedly has a great view of the whole town from the top. Alice accepts the dare. As she climbs to the top and the stairs give way. She narrowly misses falling and is stuck at the top of the building with no clear way out.  Alice is frightened, and she must navigate her way out of this dark unknown place.  We navigate with/for Alice, and we “play the game” until we can find our way out of the abandoned warehouse.  Brad (Alice’s imaginary digital friend) helps if we decide to “use” him for guidance during our journey to the top of the building.  The soundtrack and imagery set a foreboding and dangerous tone, along the way highlighting glimpses of surprising beauty in an overall industrial wasteland.  Alice has a way of finding the silver lining in her surroundings and her situation.  She is a sojourner who survives despite the constrained context(s) she finds herself in.

Unknown

One question I hope to ask you all (but we ran out of discussion time) was to think about the resonance of the title for this piece. The title is an illusion to “Alice in Wonderland” of course. But I also think there is an inherent provocation – as we strat to think about what is “inanimate” (i.e. the tension between what is human vs. technology).  Also, we should think about the unique affordances of the “gameplay” version of the story’s conclusion versus the other choice to just “read through” the factory exploration.  The gamed version is more interactive, and as a result, perhaps the navigator/reader is given a more “empathetic lens” into Alice’s trials.  Kaitlyn shared the way in which this work has been a catalyst for many discussions regarding both digital literacy and globalization.  What is striking about this piece is the strong desire to really know Alice.  While we do not know what she looks like, or anything beyond the very basic facts of her transient life, we are still drawn to this character through a skillful and dynamic portrayal of her inner workings.  The textual, visual, and auditory aspects of this digital novel work in powerful tandem – the reader discovers the important role technology has to play not simply in viewing a text, but in forming a more complex and intimate relationship with a character.

Some Equity Unbound (#unboundeq) invitations:

Your to-do List

Read: Letter to Linus (Sunanda’s selection)

Read: Reconstructing Mayakovsky (Maura’s selection) 

Your ninth blog post is due!  Blog about your reading experience and understanding of Letter to Linus  & Reconstructing Mayakovsky.

Happy Halloween, …and a collective deep breath before Election Day!

Please take good care of yourselves.

Dr. Zamora

From Fusion to Confusion

I guess you can tell from my title how I felt towards this week’s readings. When I read the titles, I assumed I was going to experience a clear and straightforward story. But by now, I should know that in this subject I really can’t judge a book by its cover. Starting with Reconstructing Mayakovsky, I didn’t understand what I was getting myself into and nothing changed by the time I felt I was done with the story. I say “felt” because there was no beginning, no end. I ended the story when I just gave up, wondering where it was leading. It was up in the air, like the stars on the black screen. It was set in a Russian futuristic era, but I couldn’t visualize any elements that screamed Russian futurism to me. In order to join the Revolution Nostalgia Disco Theater (after clicking Theater), it told me that the three primary sources of inspiration were love, art and revolution. I couldn’t comprehend what context that was being given in, even though I received a PDF of an invitation to this disco theater. I would say the only thing I liked was the quote presented on top of the screen: “There he is that great browed quiet scientist, before the experiment, furrowing his brow. Name searching – a book- The Whole Earth its title-list. The Twentieth Century. Whom to resurrect now? There’s Mayakovsky here. Let’s find someone brighter- This poet’s not handsome enough. Reject.” Even though I couldn’t find the deeper meaning in this, the syntax of it created a magic in itself. I didn’t need more. I felt satisfied.

I felt more connected to Letters to Linus in the sense that it was an emphasis on prose and poetry using the unique graphic of a hypercube. I was presented with an open cube with various phrases, that seemed interesting to me. I began with “away the sun,” in which the “language is the most powerful tool in the world.” I loved it. It is the most powerful tool. From language stems communication, writing, reading; all the skills needed to advance and grow in life, both mentally and emotionally. Then, “shut up the revolution,” where “your mind is a construct of the world. Your imagination is an illusion.” Do we see what we want to see? Are there facts, or does the world revolve around opinions? The writer talks about buying English. Is language something to buy? Is English the product that defines literacy and intelligence, making its value expensive? As I progressed, I decided to “blow off language,” where helicopters were used “to overfly target sectors, dropping poems warning of the evils of poverty.” There was a civil war between literacy and an illiterate population, fighting to prevent poverty to become a determining factor of a person’s future. I chose to “lock in my feelings,” in which the writer asked “you believed you had a unique and complicated mind, would you feel outside of history, outside of society?” There’s nothing wrong to to be different, to be complicated, to be atypical; that’s what makes us all the same.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I “cut out the public,” where the author demanded to “squeeze poetry from stones, earth, flesh; out of trash cans, cardboard boxes, abandoned basements, sewer grates…” Poetry is everywhere and it can be pulled out from the most beautiful of places and the most unimaginable. I ended to “break down resistance,” saying “I am trying to run to you, the Earth said, but I just go around in circles, year after year.” The relationship between the Sun and the Earth, in which this planet of life is desirous of becoming one with the ball of fire, wanting to illuminate itself with the warmth and light. I ended to “take away the sun,” only to be taken back to the beginning. Just like when the Earth starts a new year around the Sun, going around in circles. After reading these phrases, I really enjoyed but I couldn’t understand the connection between each section. It seemed disconnected, each individual side of the cube being a story in itself. For me, it was an overall experience that concluded with mixed emotions. Each story had its own flavor of fusion, but in the end, the fusion soon turned to confusion.