Moulthrop responds in turn

Moulthrop responds in turn

2004-05-22
Riposte to: 

U.S. cybernetic pragmatisim and practical Net expertise interest Moulthrop (and his auditors) on “second thought.”

The editors of First Person have cleverly tested a tenet which I and others hold quite closely: namely that the clearest understanding of new media forms must go beyond theory to include significant practical engagement. It is thus gratifying, not to mention chastening, to receive responses from two of the most accomplished practitioner/theorists I know, John Cayley and Diane Gromala. In the essay I point to an American (i.e. U.S.) cybernetic pragmatism. Cayley and Gromala represent a larger, international digital culture whose insights are similarly grounded in the experience of making and doing – and with whom I have, admittedly, fewer ideological bones to pick than I do with the native strain.

This is not to say, however, that my respondents have failed in their critical duties. Both complain with some justification about the characteristic lack of subtlety in my polemic. Cayley worries that my provocative title sets up an absolute division between its two terms: “I think we have to play more on the ambiguities of `play’ here,” he writes, and goes on to argue for “transitional cultural objects” occupying ambiguous positions between market categories and art genres. This is an important and enlightening correction to my dualism, and one which I am inclined to follow both theoretically, in my thinking about forms such as comics, which I regard as crucial interstices in the structure of media, and in my own creative projects. In particular I want to acknowledge the importance of Cayley’s conception of digital artworks as “instruments,” an approach from which I have learned much in trying to evolve more interesting examples of cybertext.

Gromala reminds me that my schismatic refusal of immersion could prove as shortsighted as the narrative teleology for which I task Janet Murray. Citing her own art work (again, practice makes the difference), Gromala points out that immersive techniques can be used to call attention to the conditions of a virtual world, to invite attention to its limits and liminalities. She worries that my arguments for resistant and disruptive practices imply a rejection of virtual reality, not simply in its hypothetical commercial instantiation as the holodeck, but even in more experimental guises. As she says, my position can easily be taken to pernicious extremes that deny the importance of embodiment or fetishistically defend alphabetic abstraction. One has only to consider a text like Neal Stephenson’s In the Beginning Was the Command Line to appreciate this warning.

In my defense I can only suggest that process and implementation will ultimately count more than polemics and theory. We do not yet know in material, social terms how work in configurative media can best contribute to molecular culture and the reformation of the social bond. The present essay represents only a bare start; plentiful questions remain. Should we begin our work and thinking with existing game genres? Should we limit game experience to individual players, or rather concern ourselves mainly with constructive and multiplayer forms? What set of social expectations should succeed the old canons of print literacy, and how should we structure educational practice accordingly? The answers to these questions will require much more subtle exploration than I have offered here, not to mention pragmatic compromises; but perhaps this essay represents one of many possible beginnings.

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