This commentary was originally posted on September 17, 2017, to the Electronic Literature class blog for Digital Studies 220 at Davidson College.
The Tracery Project as a platform excites me because it gives an avenue for less technically advanced, but highly procedural minds to explore the predictability of texts. When I say “procedural”, I generally refer to “the procedural” nature of digital environments as described by Janet Murray in Hamlet On the Holodeck. She writes “the computer can be a compelling medium for storytelling if we can write rules for it that are recognizable as an interpretation of the world” (Murray 73). In other words, our ability to write rules for computers to generate content similar, or somehow meaningful in interpreting, the world around us is described by the quality of being “procedural”. She furthers that “the challenge for the future” is to make it such that “rule writing” is “as available to writers as musical notation is to composers” (Murray 73-74). The Tracery library created by Kate Compton is doing just that.
For my project, I created an Institutional Response Generator which aims to address the often sterile, shallow, hollow response of institutions (and especially academic institutions) to national tragedies affecting their constituents. Because institutions of higher education pander to a wide variety of bankrolling alumni and parents, they are inherently inclined to remain apolitical for the sake of keeping the peace. However, the onslaught of increasingly horrific incidents as well as an oppressed populace gaining increased critical consciousness thanks to pressure of progressive organizers has forced institutions to respond at least nominally to such incidents. The common response of an institution has several key traits, perhaps most notably, the lack of historical analysis regarding why the event may have occurred and lack of accountability on the part of the institution. The first aspect of this project that aims to address this is the intentional use of the passive voice in several of the possible generations (from “The #topic# is something we as #unifyingNoun# must address” to “sustained damage to several local mosques”, as opposed to having sentences with active agents and descriptions of the agents’ corresponding actions). Regarding accountability of the institution, the generator provides an entire branching mechanism to “dissociateFromGuiltyAgent” as well as to “avoidResponsibility”. The options within these branches represent common phrases institutions may use to redirect attention away from their own role in contributing to (or failing to stop) violence, and towards an individual or group that perpetrated violence. This is meant to be a commentary on the way we interpret our institutions as holders of values with mission statements, yet ask very little of them in terms of accepting a role in the creation of dominant culture and subcultures.
Another key feature of generic responses is the response of “advocateDialogueNotAction”. For any powerful institution, it will always be in the institution’s best interest to prevent real conflict and demands that require shifting who holds the power. Famous early wave feminist Sojourner Truth made the analogy, “I know that it is hard for one who has held the reins for so long to give up; it cuts like a knife” (Truth 65). To incorporate such notions into my project, I created (some Davidson-specific and some general) sentences that advocate for commonly advocated solutions that fail to meaningfully disrupt power relations, yet provide some semblance of lip service to the issue at hand. I attempted to replicate the dynamic in which such statements are framed as calls to action but actually seek to offer an alternative deliberately distinct from activism in a traditional sense.
At this juncture, it is relevant to note that several of the “artistic” points of the piece reflect the code itself rather than only the result that the code generates on a public-facing screen. This study of the signifying features of code has an entire category of scholarship behind it. Regarding the JFK: Reloaded video game, Mark Sample and Cindy Poremba engage in a lively discussion about what it means to be a documentary video game as well as whether the code behind a product is in and of itself a critique-worthy feature of the product. For context, the JFK: Reloaded game is a first-person shooter game in which the player is prompted to reenact the assassination of former President John F Kennedy in the most historically accurate manner possible. Poremba notes, “By shifting the notion of documentary away from the inherent properties of recording technology, objectivity, and authority, and by framing it as a matter of social negotiation” the game complicates our understanding of “documentary” as “objective truth” (Poremba 8). However, Sample notes that perhaps, through “three lines of code commentary” in which the coders reveal misogynistic intentions in the creation of the game, the creators “absolutely undermine the entire stated pedagogical project” by revealing parts of their positional framing (Sample 2). I attempt to similarly (yet, perhaps more intentionally) play with understandings of the critical ways in which our framing plays into coding endeavors. Thus, I encourage those interested in the decisions I made to check out the rest of my Tracery grammar file to explore the other symbolic decisions I made in the creation and naming of the different components of the code.
Overall, my project fits into the larger sociological scholarship of what societal change looks like, the larger digital humanities scholarship of what the non-functional features of code signify, and the larger digital affordance conversation. I hope to expand on the project by providing additional examples, sources, and page formatting, and put it on a public-facing platform (aside from where it lives, here on my personal website) at a later point. Thanks for reading!
Murray, Janet. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press.
Poremba, Cindy. 2009. “JFK Reloaded: Documentary Framing and the Simulated Document.” Loading… 3 (4). http://journals.sfu.ca/loading/index.php/loading/article/viewArticle/61.
Sample, Mark. “A Revisionist History of JFK: Reloaded (Decoded).” Play The Past RSS, 2011, www.playthepast.org/?p=1519.
Truth, Sojourner. “Two Speeches.” The Essential Feminist Reader, Modern Library, 2007, pp. 61–66.