Literature as a viable mode of expression is currently undergoing a major facelift in terms of pushing up against what physical books can actually do. The virtual reality space in which new stories are told is quickly helping us re-think how we get our literature, the form it’s presented in, and the mental processes that take place when digesting such information. For an example of this, consider "Trope," a machinima exploration of "conVerge Island" within Linden Labs' Second Life.
Here one senses that an abandonment of preconceived ideas about the structure of literature is needed to fully comprehend the story (if any) and enjoy the experience if offers. “Trope” helps us explore the way in which new forms of literature are designed to take us on new reading adventures. The reader/listener/viewer is prompted to engage and interact with a surreal avatar who floats through snow domes and flies through icy trees while fake dentures repeat lines from some imagistic poetry. A dreamlike landscape imitates the unconscious in such a way that when viewing the scenery, repressed ideas and emotions start to surface and form in the mind. In other words, it’s a little disturbing. As if it were having a creepy dream, the avatar seems to experience strange emotions that can only be realized by visiting the unknown, or ‘the uncanny’ as Freudian analysis would put it.
In psychoanalysis, a continual emphasis is placed on the unconscious, which is upheld as a sort of key to unlocking the mysteries of the human mind. Erotic behaviors and disturbing emotions are linked back to the unconscious, and in this light, “Trope” sets up a variety of strangely configured images and sounds, whispering words, and avatars who seem to have no real purpose or direction except to suggest unconscious desires. There is no plot structure –the avatars have no formal direction. The narrative is entirely up to the participant, who can choose what happens.
The reader/participator who experiences this version of “Second Life” might leave feeling a bit unsettled, due to the absence of formal structure. Much as in abstract expressionism, logical and formative story-lines are regarded as superfluous. There is no author telling the reader what to think or feel, but rather an interactive virtual island that vaguely guides her impressions of the images being presented. The whispering words of “bleeding gums and the apocalypse” while flying through strange forests thick with sounds of crickets present new ideas in the conscious mind.
These ideas are not entirely new, however, but can be linked back to some previously learned association, which causes the uncomfortable emotion. Darwin had a word for this: pangenesis, which he conceived of as a form of ‘inherited memory.’ There are so many levels and ways in which we receive new impressions and information and as new images and words are read or seen; they are matched up against what we have previously learned, or remembered. When these associations are challenged with virtual visual depictions, then a certain level of desensitization is needed to cope with the strange feelings. Unconscious subjectivity can then become a new sounding board for how feelings are clues to core meanings, which can be applied to all literature and the medium in which we receive it.
Ali Berger was a student of Dr. Lisa Swanstrom for a course in Literary Theory taught at Florida Atlantic University in the Spring term of 2014.