A look at experimentation with crypto-machinic codes in Star Foster’s and David Ravipinto’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
image by flickr artist Art Hakker
I would like to begin with an award-winning Interactive Fiction; with the fictional case file of a catatonic patient, Cleve Anderson, who has been admitted to Bedlam; and with a pivotal dialogue about the inscrutable power of calling a thing by its proper name. It goes something like this:
“You’re not Cleve? Who are you then?”
“Not…who? You’re not…not who are you…? All right. What, then. What are you?”
Patient seemed taken aback by this question, thought a long moment, then wrote:
“And how did this happen? How did you become ‘something new’?”
A look of utter disgust crossed his face.
(Foster and Ravipinto ‘File F6A142’)
Although Cleve Anderson is the protagonist of Star Foster and David Ravipinto’s Slouching Toward Bedlam (2003), the reading player only meets him posthumously and serendipitously, after discovering file F6A142 in the hospital archives. It contains expositions of the encounters that the main playable character, Doctor Xavier has with the engimatic patient over the course of his one-week internment. Cleve’s entire subjectivity has been altered by an infection whose name he dares not utter and in his terror of indiscretion, he becomes a willing mute, declining all but written communication. Cleve’s death by misadventure (for which Doctor Xavier is crucially responsible) triggers the race to discover the name of the infection, and to nominate the entity which slowly but surely creeps into Xavier’s autodiegetic narration.
Slouching Towards Bedlam remythologizes the Babel parable by making the discovery of the name of the infection that lies at the heart of the mystery the reading player’s reward - which they inevitably earn, in blissful ignorance that this will precipitate one of the IF’s many endings. An ending, Xavier narrates, is the result of “one choice out of a million possibilities” (Foster and Ravipinto ‘Office’) and yet, every one is a Hobson’s choice as the playable character either dies a lurid death, or lives to endure trial and internment in Bedlam itself. The endings echo with the chilling tone that permeates the last inquiring couplet of W.B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming” (1919 ): “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” (p.322) The couplet is quoted refrain-like in every last screenful, as if to suggest that since these verses are the game’s namesake, the infection is the same “rough beast” whose cradle has been Bedlam all along.
Perhaps the only note of true range is struck by the five lettered Appendices, each of which is linked to a specific spectrum of commands that produce a particular ending. Four are exercises in postmodern pastiche: A is an encyclopaedia entry expanding on the motif of secret brotherhoods developed as a red herring throughout the course of the mystery; C is the last phonograph recording of Xavier’s audio diary and brings the reading player full-circle because a phonograph entry sets the scene upon first entering the game; D is a report commissioned to account for the miserable conditions in the asylum which have been a danger to the inmates’ health in the past; and E is an excerpt from a mental physician’s case notes about the now-infected Doctor Xavier which serve as a poignant foil for those that have fleshed out Cleve’s backstory. Only B stands apart as an experimental text “in the manner of electronic literature”, by which I mean that it demonstrates the classic compounding of words that John Cayley suggestively terms “a generative cross-infection of text and […] code-as-language” (96). The infected text is further inflected with new possibilities through juxtaposition and play on font colors, weights, serif typefaces, forward backslashes and parentheses. Sentences in bold black that have begun to interpose themselves between the layers of Doctor Xavier’s interior monologue and descriptions of setting ever since Cleve Anderson’s accident are initially contained and held apart by their punctuation but, by the time the reading player reaches Appendix B, they have overspilled their boundaries, and become disemboldened to intertwine seamlessly with Xavier’s narration. So complete is this grafting of the infection onto Xavier’s subjectivity as expressed through language that he names the “something new” that he has become, “wei” (Foster and Ravipinto, ‘Appendix B’).
Insofar as experimentation with crypto-machinic codes is both an established aesthetic choice and a generic gambit within electronic literature, it can hardly be argued that Slouching Towards Bedlam does anything astoundingly inventive on the basis of it. However, it does achieve something quite sophisticated in the simple dichotomy of holding apart then clashing layers of narration through typography, punctuation, and spacing. The word compounds and manipulation of font come together to bring about the consciousness representation of a non-human infection at the level of narrative. Now the infection broadcasts its name: it is the Logos - the Word itself - which has spread from Anderson to Xavier (to the whole of London in one of the endings), and then metaleptically levelled up to contaminate the narration, and thence the player who reads its name. In short, Slouching Towards **Bedlam plays an important game with narratology, with form, and with the literary.
I hazard this word in full awareness of its slipperiness, but drawing encouragement from the fact that it features in most if not all of the authoritative definitions, re-definitions, and anti-definitions of electronic literature that I know of to date, and certainly not without an agenda (but more on that shortly). Although the ELO’s working definition dates from 1999, it is still widely referenced; it is the foundation for subsequent expansions on it, such as Scott Rettberg’s 2014 entry in _The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media (in Ryan, Emerson, and Robertson 169-174) and the first chapter of his monograph, _Electronic Literature,_ published earlier this year (1-20); and it has been updated by the Editorial Collectives who have worked on each of the three volumes of the Electronic Literature Collection. It was while editing ELC 1 in fact that Katherine Hayles famously clarified the phrase “important literary aspects” in the 1999 definition, noting that it deftly draws expectations away from the solely “verbal art forms” connoted by “literature”, and invites them to settle more broadly upon “creative artworks that interrogate the histories, contexts, and productions of literature” connoted by ‘literary” (in Ryan, Emerson, and Robertson 171). Consequently, works with few or no investments in letteral language could be considered eligible for archiving if they were about writing or meaning-making in electronic and digital media.
Slouching Towards Bedlam fits both these interpretations of “literature” and “literary”, for while it relies on writing to stage-manage and produce the plot and the setting, it draws upon moments in the history of 20th-century literature to produce an ironic commentary on them. To start with, writing constructs the game environment in the complete absence of graphics or animation. In order to proceed with the plot, the reading player relies on descriptions of rooms and objects rendered in various degrees of detail, depending on the type and timing of the commands that they enter. In the classic mode of an IF, the text must be prompted to reveal more; to explore the setting; to turn over and root for objects; and, in a memorable scene in Bedlam, to stumble upon the twist of the rotating Panopticon room that either opens or blocks off the passage to Cleve's cell. Entering the cell in turn expedites the discovery of file F6A142 and catalyses the forking denouement. The case notes themselves contribute to the thematization of writing throughout the game because they are written transcripts of Doctor Xavier’s oral addresses to Cleve and Cleve’s hand-written replies in his state of self-inflicted dumbness that are retrieved from the archive room and consumed by the reading player. In another example, Cleve’s manic episodes see him scrawling kabbalist symbols on the walls of his cell; the selfsame symbols that he had preserved in a notebook as a record of the experiments which infected him in the first place. Meanwhile, the twin impressions of the sound of Doctor Xavier’s voice in the audio diary that is “playing” upon first entering his office, and the sound of the hybrid “wei” voice in Appendix C, are only created through writing. The personification of the Logos infection and its endowment with a voice is not the game’s only investment in the Word, either. Rather, the intertextual ties forged with Yeats’ Modernist poetry in the endings, the Postmodernist pastiche of generic styles in the Appendices, and the quasi-codework of the cross-infected language all reveal a prodigious experimental investment in both the letter and the word.
Now for my agenda. Despite giving every appearance of a literary Interactive Fiction and consequently, of a work worthy of the name “electronic literature”, Slouching Towards Bedlam has not been archived in any of the Electronic Literature Collections. Certainly, it has received other accolades, winning the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition (nicknamed “the Superbowl of IF”), and taking home four awards for Best Game, Best Story, Best Setting, and Best Individual Non-Playable Character at the 2003 XYZZY Awards (affectionately, “the Grammies of IF”). Developed in Inform 6, it has also benefitted from preservation in the Interactive Fiction Database (a self-described “Wiki-style community project”), where it has garnered a fanbase committed to ensuring that the IF continues to have working emulators (such as Gargoyle or Windows Frotz) on which to run. In view of this, it is possible to discuss the omission of Slouching from the three ELC volumes without chagrin or fear for the longevity of the work. As Joseph Tabbi level-headedly pointed out while setting a direction for the Electronic Literature Directory in 2007,
[p]romoters of e-literature should avoid sounding too disappointed about the ‘loss’ of established works of e-lit whose platforms are now outdated […] the vast majority of past works are fated to be lost not through acts of critical judgement but through neglect.
Considering that Foster and Ravipinto’s work is hardly neglected, I think it will be more worthwhile to the discussion to ponder the effect that its non-inclusion - in favor of other literary pieces or pieces of literature, but not both - might have on what we name the field.
While dipping into John Cayley’s collection of essays on digital language art (2018), specifically the one called “Weapons of the Deconstructive Masses: What Electronic Literature May or May Not Mean”, I chanced upon an elegant formulation for my puzzlement. Why is it that works “with a hankering for literary recognition”, which are “touted and troubled as ‘electronic literature’” (159), are archived and therefore canonized before something that effortlessly wears the name? By all accounts, including by Cayley’s own reckoning of how to “find and recognize ‘the literary’” in new media, literary recognition can be freely accorded to Slouching Towards Bedlam because it enfolds within it those “persistent forms, literary forms, forms of writing” that critics have always identified “as literary - without further qualifier” (154) - be it “electronic”, “e-”, “digital”, “cyber”, “net”, “interactive”, you name it. What’s more, it can be grasped by the hermeneutic handles for those forms: narratology, genre theory, postmodernist poetics.
But perhaps the problem isn’t posed by the qualifier at all; perhaps the qualified, the literary “designation of these practices becomes a matter of negotiation” (151) as archivization draws broader or narrower peripheries for the field. The name of the field is returned to the negotiation table every time a new collection of works is submitted to an editorial board for review. “This is the task of editorial boards […] in online environments”, Joseph Tabbi shares from the experience of reading 300 works of electronic literature, to look at “what the work might become, as it circulates among other works”. If the criterion for archivization is the potential for the work to become something else, to evolve as part of the processual aspect of any digital object, then **Slouching Towards Bedlam may need to become something less literary to be collected within the peripheries of electronic literature, or whatever it will be called by then, as they are re-negotiated outwards. Sitting across from electronic literature in a darkened cell, we may then need to make new case notes:
[NOT ELECTRONIC LITERATURE]
“You’re not electronic literature? What, then, are you?”
Subject seemed taken aback by this question, reconfigured itself a long moment, then
“And how did this happen? How did you become ‘something new’?”
A shadow of restlessness crossed the genre.
Cayley, John. “Time Code Language: New Media Poetics and Programmed Signification.” Grammalepsy: Essays on Digital Language Art, Bloomsbury Academic, 2018, p.96.
Cayley, John. “Weapons of the Deconstructive Masses: What Electronic Literature May or May Not Mean.” Grammalepsy: Essays on Digital Language Art, Bloomsbury Academic, 2018, p.159.
Foster, Star, and Ravipinto, David. Slouching Towards Bedlam, Z-Machine, 2003, https://ifdb.tads.org/viewgame?id=032krqe6bjn5au78.
Interactive Fiction Database. https://ifdb.tads.org/. Accessed 30 September 2019.
Rettberg, Scott. “Developing an Identity for the Field of Electronic Literature: Reflections on the Electronic Literature Organization Archives.” Dichtung Digital, vol. 41, 2012. http://www.dichtung-digital.org/2012/41/rettberg/rettberg.htm. Accessed 6 July 2019.
Rettberg, Scott. “Electronic Literature.” The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media, edited by Marie-Laure Ryan, Lori Emerson, and Benjamin J. Robertson, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014, pp.169-174.
Rettberg, Scott. Electronic Literature. 1st ed., Polity Press, 2019, pp.1-240.
Tabbi, Joseph. “Towards a Semantic Literary Web: Setting a Direction for the Electronic Literature Organization’s Directory.” Electronic Literature Organisation, 2007. http://eliterature.org/pad/slw.html. Accessed 6 July 2019.
Yeats, William Butler. “The Second Coming.” Yeats’ Poetry, Drama, Prose, edited by James Pethica, Norton Critical Editions, 2000, p.127.