Immersive Textuality: The Editing of Virtual Spaces

  1. 1. Neil Fraistat

    Maryland Institute for Technology and Humanities (MITH) - University of Maryland, College Park

  2. 2. Steven Edward Jones

    Loyola College in Maryland, Loyola University, Chicago

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For some time now modern and postmodern installation artists have experimented with situating text in physical gallery or museum spaces, and with using text to create a sense of space within which the text is (reflexively) interpreted, producing a prototypical form of what we are calling "immersive textuality." But this kind of experimental textualization of space and spatialization of text is greatly facilitated by digital media. As Janet Murray has noted in Hamlet on the Holodeck, digital environments are inherently procedural, participatory, spatial, and encyclopedic. For us, therefore, they provide the most vivid and powerful forms of immersive textuality: from virtual reality, to videogames, to hypertextual fiction and poetry, to MUDs and MOOs, to such imagined forms as the bio-cybernetic interface in the film eXistenZ and the Star Trek holodeck Murray invoked in the title of her book. In our multimedia presentation we'll take up the theoretical questions and practical issues raised by textual experiments in virtual spaces, particularly MOOs, in which the text is embodied and experienced spatially and architecturally, at the cognitive intersection of its linguistic and graphic codes.

Michael Heim and others have anatomized and explored immersive spaces, from the experimental installation art of the 1960s to Brenda Laurel's Placeholder project, to the surrounding projective environment of the CAVE, created at the Electronic Visualization Laboratory of the University of Illinois, Chicago. But these examples are part of an even longer history of immersive textuality. We will present a genealogy of such spaces running through specific historicized examples, from a freestanding fireplace screen attributed to Lord Byron, covered in a dense collage of cut-out texts and images, to a recent installation by the Russian artist Ilya Kabakov at the Tate Modern, London--a drywall labyrinth recreating a Moscow apartment in which are hung a series of hypertextual lexias and images--to various experiments in MUDs and MOOs, including one of our own pedagogical editions of a Romantic poem, MOOzymandias.

Our more immediate point of departure is another experiment now underway at the University of Virginia by Jerome J. McGann and Johanna Drucker, who claim that the "general field of humanities education and scholarship will not take up the use of digital technology in any significant way until one can clearly demonstrate that these tools have important contributions to make to the exploration and explanation of aesthetic works" ( Their "Ivanhoe Game" exploits the theatrical possibilities of digital environments to create a space in which students are able, in effect, to perform Scott's novel-making individual critical decisions that change a collective database that is the story-world of the whole, effectively producing a joint and constantly evolving narrative that, in turn, conditions all subsequent critical decisions made by each student-player. For McGann and Drucker, the "Ivanhoe Game," ultimately, is not only a game involving critical reflection and aesthetic interpretation, but also "a game for studying and reflecting on those acts of critical reflection themselves." And its very status as a game is crucial: "Humanities scholarship without gameplay, even when the scholarship explicitly devotes itself to self-reflection, inevitably fails to engage with essential features of the
works it means to study, including the workings of the mind engaged with such works."

We are particularly interested in how such immersive digital environments, with their performative and critically reflective possibilities, might themselves be created and understood as textual editions. Traditionally, editions take different forms for different audiences of readers and editing protocols are determined in part by those forms. Mostly
this has meant conceiving of a text as for a scholarly, classroom, or popular audience. But the possibility of structuring virtual, immersive spaces around or in service of a text suggests ways to go beyond such distinctions--and even well beyond hypertext as it has heretofore been executed--to produce a complex spatial experience: a new kind of
"pedagogical edition" that students build, mutate, and inhabit rather than merely read. With the advent of electronic virtual learning spaces, the encoded protocols of texts, especially imaginative texts, can be constructed and reconstructed architecturally as part of the dynamic experience of reading and learning the text.

We will show and discuss our own experiments in immersive pedagogical editions currently being conducted in the Villa Diodati MOO of Romantic Circles, our peer-reviewed and peer-built Website focused on the literature and culture of the British Romantic Period <>. (At present, Romantic Circles contains over 3,500 HTML pages and has received 4 1/2 million hits since last January by users in over 120 countries around the world.) These experimental editions are being built in a new "wing" of the Villa Diodati MOO dedicated to Romantic Circles High School, a site built by and for high school students and teachers around the country in collaboration with us, through the support of a major grant from the NEH ( Our focus will be on three projects: (1) the set of seven MOO rooms and attendant virtual objects created by high school seniors in San Diego in order to interpret Coleridge's seven-part Rime of the Ancient Marinere; (2) a MOO-based, student produced edition that renders and interprets the text of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in terms of the geography of its various settings; and (3) our own effort to produce Moozymandias, a model immersive pedagogical edition of Percy Shelley's famous sonnet, "Ozymandias" that translates the four nested narrative frames of the sonnet into a fourfold MOO space replete with related virtual objects, images, and sounds, through which students must travel to "read" the poem.

Ultimately, then, our multimedia demonstration and meditation on immersive textual spaces will pursue such theoretical questions as what it might mean to edit such spaces, what are the "forms of editions" they make possible (and might make possible in the future), and what is the role of visual literacy and the image in such "editions?" Through demonstrating a number of practical examples of graphical MOO spaces, in particular, which immerse the student in a virtual space of their own design, furnished with programmed objects of their own creation, structured around literary texts that first appeared historically in letterpress form, we hope to raise far-reaching theoretical questions about editing, textuality, and cognition in the digital age.

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Conference Info

In review


Hosted at New York University

New York, NY, United States

July 13, 2001 - July 16, 2001

94 works by 167 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ICCH (21), ALLC/EADH (28), ACH/ALLC (13)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC