Control and Character: Defining a New Subject in Galatea (Part 2 of 2)

Electronic Literature has existed for well over thirty years. Is it slowly changing our ideas of self? (Photo via Jill on Flickr)
Electronic Literature has existed for well over thirty years. Is it slowly changing our ideas of self? (Photo via Jill on Flickr)

It seems that the emergently popular world of electronic literature has provided readers with a possible solution to this issue of control. Interactive fiction provides the reader with something they never really had with print: agency. Take, for example, a work like Emily Short’s Galatea. This work is written entirely in second person, a form not usually taken by print texts. Galatea opens with a brief paragraph of text, situating the reader within an unclear space: “You come around a corner, away from the noise of the opening. There is only one exhibit” (Galatea). The reader is then given a slight description of the main character herself: “She stands in the spotlight, with her back to you: a sweep of pale hair on paler skin, a column of emerald silk that ends in a pool at her feet” (Galatea). Neither description provide the reader with enough information to discern much of where the story is set and who this mysterious woman might be – but that is part of the story telling strategy. The illusion interactive fiction attempts to create is an authorless one; the reader, the “you” addressed by the work itself, must explore and interact with the space. Interactive fiction tries to convince its audience that besides a few brief opening lines, nothing else would exist without the reader acting upon the work. Agency, control, has shifted fundamentally.

Moreover, the reader is pushed out of their usual role of observer by the text itself. If, after the opening text is displayed, the reader chooses to enter commands that allow them to simply look at Galatea, the female character on the pedestal, and read the plaque on the column, Galatea prompts you, “‘You might try speaking to me,’…’It’s not polite simply to stare. And I’ve gotten very bored, standing here’” (Galatea). The text demands the reader’s participation in order to function at all, rather than just allowing them to move about within the fictional world. While the illusion of an authorless text does not go so far as allowing a reader to rewrite who the “you” is as a character, where the reader is in space or time, or erase the personage of Galatea from the flow of the story, readers are allowed to shape the character of Galatea herself, the actions of the art critic (“you”), and, consequently, the way the story unfolds. By entering various sets of commands, a reader can get Galatea to pray piously to Dionysus, to kill the reader character, or even to kiss them and walk off into the proverbial sunset. The story of Galatea is, in essence, whatever the reader wants it to be. Galatea asks more of readers; they cannot be passive members of an audience; they must inhabit the world they seek to learn about. They are given control. In a sense, the readers become the authors of the text.

It is true that attempts to engage readers more directly are not limited to the realm of electronic literature. Several print works have implemented various methods in attempts to create the illusion of control. The works that have the most in common with interactive fiction like Galatea are the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books and the novel, Bright Lights, Big City. The Choose Your Own Adventure books allow readers to alter the plot of the story itself. They contain this rarely seen second person address, the “you” character, and create a situation in which “you” and a myriad of other characters embark on an adventure of some kind. The reader is allowed agency in these books by a choice at the bottom of almost every page, usually one akin to, ‘If you follow Sally down the mine, turn to page 47. If you go back to camp with the others, turn to page 5.’ This is an agency very similar to the one found within Galatea, where readers are allowed to ‘choose’ the next step in the story. The main difference here, though, is that in a Choose Your Own Adventure text, the reader is only allowed two or three choices at any one time. Furthermore, the illusion of agency is thin at best when the reader can’t interact with any other characters or explore the setting for themselves. The figure of the author is still inescapably present. The case is the same for Bright Lights, Big City. While it is written in the second person, the reader is at the complete mercy of the author, without any agency to affect the flow of the story. In interactive fiction, rather than being led by the author, readers lead the story and the characters. Readers are not told what to do, how to do it, or in what order. Authors of print texts attempt to manipulate the reader’s feelings and opinions through tone, characterization, the presentation and withholding of facts, etc. This is flipped in Galatea where the reader is allowed to attempt to manipulate the text directly. Furthermore, they are allowed not only to control their own agency in the space, but they are encouraged to attempt to manipulate the other characters and their character’s perceptions of the setting. The reader is allowed to see things the way they want to; including themselves.

Does "Bright Lights, Big City" really relinquish control to readers? (Photo via Kimmo de Gooijer on Flickr)
Does “Bright Lights, Big City” really relinquish control to readers? (Photo via Kimmo de Gooijer on Flickr)

The literary critic Mark Poster takes up this issue in his essay entitled, The Digital Subject and Cultural Theory. Using Judith Butler’s theory of the performative, Poster examines the effects the blurring of authorial authority might have on the readers of electronic literature. “The issue at stake,” Poster succinctly puts it, “in [the] digitization of authorship may now be sharply posed: how is the subject reconfigured in this process?” (Poster 490). While Poster uses Butler as a backdrop for solidifying the basis of his argument, he contends that she does not take her theories far enough into the realm of new media. Poster refers to Sandy Stone, who postulated, “As soon as we consider the relationship between bodies and selves…we must take into account communications technologies as these mediate social groups and speech acts” (Poster 491). Poster then turns to the medium of the internet, where interactive fiction lies. Poster finds that because users create themselves with every character placed on the screen and because these acts are so similar to the simultaneous speech acts to which Butler gives primacy, “…the construction of the subject occurs entirely on the screen, determined entirely by the words entered onto the keyboard” (Poster 491). Participants within a text, the readers, can create their own identity, their own ideas of who they are within the text and who they are outside of it, once the “analogue author”, as Poster puts it, is out of the picture. In interactive fictions such as Galatea, readers truly are “…authors of themselves as characters, not simply by acts of consciousness, but by the interactions that take place on the screen” (Poster 491).

Will electronic and interactive literature fundamentally change our conception of self? (Photo by goXunuReviews via Flickr)
Will electronic and interactive literature fundamentally change our conception of self? (Photo by goXunuReviews via Flickr)

Graham Nelson is a central figure in the interactive fiction community. He is the creator of many works himself, as well as many of the programs needed to read them. He said “The ‘interactive fiction’ format hasn’t changed in any fundamental way since the early 1970s, in the same way that the format of the novel hasn’t since 1700” (“Famous Quotes”). While this may be true, something has been changing since interactive fiction first came on the literary scene: the readers themselves. Being forced to read with a new sense of agency and control has changed them. Without the figure of the author looming over a work, readers are allowed to see themselves as more than mere observers – they become creators within and of themselves.

Works Cited

“Graham Nelson Quotes.” Famous Quotes and Quotations at BrainyQuote. 2010. Web. 01 June 2010. .

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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Published by rsjeffrey

Robin Jeffrey was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming to a psychologist and a librarian, giving her a love of literature and a consuming interest in the inner workings of people’s minds.

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