Bouchardon and Mayer in this essay question the narrative model of personal identity – the idea of the self as a story – in light of contemporary forms of electronic literature.
As Paul Ricoeur demonstrated, our personal identity is constituted as we read, and narrative fiction can offer an intelligibility rating scale for our own existence (Ricoeur, 1990). More precisely, the novel provides a model which can help us to understand ourselves, and to consider our own evolution over time as a fictional adventure.2 Yet, the forms of writing and reading engendered by digital literature could well shake up this model.
The first reason for this upheaval is that the literary forms made possible by the web provide alternatives to the linearity of the novel. Simultaneously, the very tools which allow us to express our digital identity also seem to favor a gathering of isolated instants and fragments rather than a single trajectory. Are these two phenomena, the transformation of reading and the transformation of self-expression, linked?
One hypothesis (Mayer and Bouchardon, 2017) would be the qualification of this shift in the reader’s self-identification process as a poetic experience, in which a poetic model of oneself coexists with the narrative model hitherto traditionally used to explore one’s own reactions. Would it not be true to say that social media platforms reinforce such a transition towards poetic identity? Do online self-expression processes and digital literature contribute to a poetic self-identification process?
Let us first give an example. When you read a book like Madame Bovary, you follow the evolution of a protagonist you can more or less identify with. Even if you are not like this protagonist in her psychological and biographical features, you can at least picture your own life like hers, that is, as a meaningful story which follows several steps or chapters, which is punctuated by twists and turns that will sometimes change the course of fate, a story in which you are surrounded by nice people – allies – and bad guys - opponents. Or at least, this is how you would like to picture your own life as a novel, fitting into this beautiful classical narrative scheme.
However, if you read a contemporary digital fiction, such as Streetcar (Tramway) by Alexandra Saemmer, you will look in vain for such a well-organized representation of a life path. The chapters, the events of life are not successive but accumulative, and appear like different windows of thought at the same time. You do not follow a temporal flow arranged in advance towards an end, you are just stuck in the unknown, your attention is divided between multiple stimuli of texts, images and sounds. Moreover, you can play with the story. It is not written in advance, your gestures and choices expressed by the clicks open up different adventures, so that the journey can draw many new and puzzling roads.
This is the starting point of our reflection. Does this literary difference imply that we become able to read ourselves differently? If it does, how can we explain it? What is the causal relationship between a technique, an aesthetic, and a feeling of the meaning of life?
We will start with a theoretical framework to introduce the conjunction between a narrative way of thinking the self and the classical shape of the novel which seems to have prevailed until the end of the 20th century. We will then show how the specificities of interactive digital narratives have questioned this model deeply, and paved the way for a poetic way of reading the self through the texts. In the last part of this presentation, we will point out some consequences and perspectives raised by this hypothesis of a poetic reading of the digital environment.
Definitions and remarks
First of all, let us briefly clarify the terms. When we talk about identity, we refer to personal identity – even though it may be important as well to question collective identities –, and we will define this personal identity as a representation of oneself through time. This idea of representation can have two different meanings: the inner conception that someone has of herself or himself, but also the external expression of this conception built for other people. Of course, this conception and this expression can differ, a gap can separate how I feel myself and how I show myself, and this gap can be influenced by the varied techniques, devices and designs of identity. This definition of identity allows us to question the ways we shape our identities through social networks, and the processes through which these ways lead us to build ourselves as characters, avatars and profiles.
Secondly, the idea of digital literature. We would like to focus on what Serge Bouchardon calls “interactive literary narrative”: a story, on which the reader’s activity has an influence. This kind of text includes fictional hypertexts, which were dominant in the 90s, and more recently hypermedia which have been more and more important in the last twenty years, and where the focus is less on the idea of a narrative choice than on the multimedia, gestural and interactive dimensions.
Let us also underline that our aim is not at all to separate print literature and electronic literature according to a simple binary opposition. As shown by Jean Clément, the non-linear publishing of textual pieces existed long before the digital, thanks to numerous 20th century avant-gardes: William Burrough’s cut-ups, Raymond Queneau’s Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, Marc Saporta’s Composition n°1... But the specificity of digital devices is not only that they generalize these practices formerly explored in experimental works, but also that they extend them beyond the literary world, in our ordinary ways of communicating, and especially in web 2.0 and social media.
The reader of oneself
But let us get back to the narrative model of the self and its theoretical framework.
The first important point to notice is that all along modernity, the literary experience of the reader has been recognized as a way of reading and understanding oneself. The influence of the texts we read on the way we picture ourselves has been highlighted by literary writers themselves: for example Don Quixote with the knighthood novels he read, Emma Bovary with the romantic sentimental novels that shaped her young years. One of the first striking theorizations of this idea of the novel as a model was expressed by Marcel Proust, in Time regained:
“Every reader, as he reads, is actually the reader of himself. The writer’s work is only a kind of optical instrument he provides the reader so he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without this book. The reader’s recognition in himself of what the book says is the proof of the book’s truth”.
So, the book, someone else’s book, is paradoxically the shortest way between oneself and oneself. Expressed by writers in their fictions, this idea has also been analyzed by literary theorists. In the 70s, Reader-Response Criticism showed that the text is incomplete in itself, and needs multiple reader activities to work - activities through which readers put a part of themselves in the text, a part that then becomes readable. Wolfgang Iser for example, wrote that the essential meaning of a text lies in what it does not tell. This essential meaning lies in what he calls the “blanks”, the spaces, the enigma, the irresolute, the implied and omitted parts - all hints that have continuously grown in importance, according to Iser, since the 18th century, with Fielding, Thackeray and Joyce.
In Lector in fabula, Umberto Eco generalizes this importance of the role of the reader, by showing that it is not only about interpretation, but also about the basic linguistic and grammatical levels. Language itself is incomplete, and Eco analyzes the numerous places where the reader has to add something to make the text work, from the understanding of the words, the elucidation of grammatical ellipses and contextual hints, to the cultural references and finally the interpretation.
If a literary work is, as Umberto Eco puts it, a “fabric of white spaces and interstices to fill in”, we understand that we can read ourselves through the way we fill in these spaces. But – and this is the second important theoretical point – not all kinds of literary texts are equal in this operation of reading oneself. The modern novel, through both its inner features and its importance in recent history, has a specific role to play: it may give a structure to our life as a whole.
The specificity of the novel and its questioning
Paul Ricoeur agrees with this idea that literature in general is a fictitious mediation to understand oneself. However he radically insists on the form of the narrative, which is the only one, according to him, which allows us to have an intelligible and also an ethical view of our life. Narration is a performative model for understanding an individual human existence, because it helps give some unity to the variety of changes occurring through time. Instead of seeing each event which happens to us as an isolated occurrence, we can depict the set of these events as a plot that gives a consistent and meaningful direction to our experience of time. Instead of having an array of fragmented views of oneself – me as child, me as a teenager, me a week ago and me now who is still another me –, we can gather these views to see ourselves as the unity of a protagonist, endowed with a stable identity despite the diversity of ages and moments.
For Paul Ricoeur, narrativity is both a tool and a necessity for identity: we have to read our life as a novel, to get a unified view of it and to carry out consistent actions.
However, today we are facing two series of changes. Literature is changing, and life also is changing – compared to the classical way of viewing it as a linear progression centered on the individual. The pattern of social ascent, career path or linear continuity in all aspects of life, inherited from the bildungsroman, has lost some of its relevance, while existential trajectories may more and more look like a patchwork or a puzzle of experiences. The perception of a narrative unity of life becomes more and more difficult, which leads us to view personal identity through new tools.
On the other hand, contemporary digital literature brings out new ways of reading and filling in the text, and understanding oneself through it. The new literary forms made possible by the web, and the reading processes which they provoke, provide alternatives to the linearity of the novel. Reading on the web becomes a short, fragmented, nomadic activity, in which the reader browses from one hyperlink to another in the order of his/her choice. Meanwhile digital literary creation experiments with interactive, multimedia texts which go off on tangents, where the unity is never predetermined, but must be constructed and negotiated.
Facing these two moves towards fragmentation and multiplicity, can we imagine another way than narration to view identity? We would like to present a hypothesis: understanding digital reading – of a text and of the self – according to a poetic model.
Multiplicity and instantaneity
What exactly could a poetic model be? We will not try to give any definition of poetry, a term whose meaning varies so much throughout history, depending on authors and texts themselves. But at least let us point out a feature of poetry reading. Its relationship to temporality differs from that of narrative reading, since the focus is on the moment, the instant. When we read a poem, we are here and now, hic et nunc, we are not waiting for what happens next. And also when we read a whole volume of poetry, this volume is a collection of moments, a mosaic of instantaneous experiences, without the guiding thread of a temporal progression.
We can also think of another feature: multiplicity. When reading a poem, we experience a diversity of perceptions, thoughts, images, sounds and impressions, and the common point of this landscape of stimuli is us, us as we experience them. The self of the reader appears as the gathering point or the perspective point on which this scattering of the moment converges. The unity is not linked to a plot, but to a singular view.
It seems that this instantaneity and this multiplicity could well describe our way of reading in the digital environment.
Poetic reading and interactive digital stories
First, we observe that the ars legendi of interactive digital texts, even when it is telling a story, tends to follow these two features.
The example we gave in the introduction, Streetcar, by Alexandra Saemmer, is about the experience of mourning. The author explains in the paratext that she wrote it after her father’s death. Instead of chapters, we see numerous windows of texts dealing with very different topics - reflections on death, birth of a new love story, snatches of conversations heard in the streetcar -, without any link between them, apart from the fact that they all came during streetcar journeys.
We are surrounded by a plurality of micro-stories, streetcar noises, small descriptions and thoughts, that make sense not as a plot but as the experience of this moment, in this streetcar, with this mix of memories and present perceptions (see captures below).
The reading process of the work also brings to light the specific role of the reader. We quickly understand that the text needs our gestures to happen: we have to click on the crosses in the corner of the windows to randomly bring up one or several new windows of text. The unity of these multiple fragments does not lie in the narrative progression they build, but in our singular view on this mosaic, in the ephemeral composition we make out of these puzzle pieces.
Just like Streetcar, many interactive literary narratives leave us with an enigmatic set of textual and multimedia fragments, an ocean of data that only become meaningful during the brief time of our active presence.
But then, if we can carry out a poetic reading of these interactive works, what happens to our way of reading ourselves through literature? Can we think identity apart from narrativity? Can we start to conceive or express our life, not as a novel, but as a collection of poems?
Poetic reading and digital identies
Taking a look at the way we build our identities on social networks may help us answer these questions. Several researchers, among whom Dominique Cardon, Bertrand Gervais and Marcello Vitali-Rosati, have analyzed digital identity as multiple and instantaneous, as a moving collection of single moments. Let us quote for example Marcello Vitali-Rosati (Egarements):
“And so, what is me? It is what I want to be when I ask myself the question. The digital identity is virtual insofar as it is not the set of traces that I left and that I cannot put back together : it is rather what, in this precise moment, in the flow of movement, I produce to be something. The picture I choose now, the sentence I’m thinking about now, what I like now, the name I decide here and now.”
The example of Facebook can illustrate this way of writing and reading the self. The identity we build on our home pages is a multimedia network of instantaneous experiences, expressed by statuses, posts and shares, that then become readable like a collection (through a mosaic of photo albums and past activities).
What can be concluded? In a nutshell, that there seems to be an echo between the way we fashion our identities on social media devices, and the way we experience interactive literary texts. In both cases, the meaning does not rely on the unity of a story through time, but on the unity of a singular instant on which a constellation of perceptions suddenly converges. We fashion our online self the way we fill in the gaps of online literature, weaving some fabric of signifiers the meaning of which is not based on a progression, but on a perception of what is here and now, thus deeply reshaping our way of reading ourselves through literature.
This hypothesis of a poetic evolution of reading and writing opens up some perspectives for debate, and we will conclude this paper by briefly raising two of them.
The first perspective takes us back to an idea that we evoked in the introduction: the idea of a gap between the personal identity we conceive for ourselves and the identity we show other people. If we had chosen to focus specifically on the play, the gap, rather than on the instantaneity and multiplicity of digital environments, we could have had another conclusion: identity, in today’s ways of communicating, could be seen as more and more theatrical. On Facebook and social networks, we behave like actors embodying different avatars, profiles or protagonists, actors who are always able to renew, change and produce themselves. We can also have this idea of a theatrical identity, if we focus on the interactive and performative dimensions of digital literature: as readers, we are not only spectators but also of a text which emerges every time as a unique performance.
An avenue for discussion, then, could be the relationship between these two models: a poetic identity which would be radically new, and a theatrical identity which would take us back to the Shakespearian vision of the world as a stage and of men and women as players.
A second perspective could raise more precisely the question of collective identities. In particular, we could refer to Marcello Vitali-Rosati’s theory of digital space as a genuine space between people, who can identify themselves thanks to a logic of proximity and distance rather than a logic of temporality and successivity. Following this idea, we might explore how the traditional forms of collective identities, such as the National Novel, could now give way to other forms such as maps and atlases.
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