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Digital Deep-Sea Diving: navigating the narrative depths of E-lit and VR

3:45 PM, Tuesday 14 Aug 2018 (1 hour 15 minutes)
Immersion is a metaphorical term derived from the physical experience of being submerged in water. We seek the same feeling from a psychologically immersive experience that we do from a plunge in the ocean or swimming pool: the sensation of being surrounded by a completely other reality, as different as water is from air, that takes over all of our attention, our whole perceptual apparatus. We enjoy the movement out of our familiar world, the feeling of alertness that comes from being in this new place, and the delight that comes from learning to move within it.
–Janet Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck

Storytelling is an attempt to convey the subjective human experience; with emerging media and heightened levels of interactivity, authors/artists are finding new ways to more fully immerse the reader into their world, what Murray calls “digital swimming.” ii — in the white darkness by Reiner Strasser and M.D. Coverley is an example of an immersive work of electronic literature, that attempts to convey the process of memory loss in conditions like Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease. With virtual reality, that Chris Milk calls “the ultimate empathy machine,” we sink into simulated fictional worlds, ideally allowing composers to push subjective experience even further, fully immersing reader/viewer/participants into an experience. John Hull’s Notes on Blindness VR experience, for instance, conveys an experience of blindness that is indescribable in words and has to be told through feeling. Both of these texts utilize the affordances of their media to convey a subjective experience and evoke empathy, Notes on Blindness through a more internal empathetic experience. And isn’t this our desire, to convey subjective human experience to others—to experience, to understand, to grow?

Murray, in her article, “Not a film and not an empathy machine,” says of VR: “To invent a new medium you have to find the fit between the affordances of the co-evolving platform and specific expressive content — the beauty and truth — you want to share that could not be as well expressed in other forms. There is no short-cut to creating it.” Each medium has unique affordances and can be immersive in different ways—by highlighting the materiality of the text or by attempting to remove the materiality altogether, render it transparent, and immerse us in an alternate reality. The medium depends on the message. What story do we want to tell? How does it ask to be told?

In my presentation, I will explore the gaps between the idealistic view of empathetic response in a VR experience and the realities of the technology. Including theory from Janet Murray, Marie-Laure Ryan, and Nathaniel Stern, I plan to investigate the complications of augmented and virtual reality narratives. I will discuss how they alter ideas of embodiment and immersive narrative, how we can define boundaries within them, how they turn the tables on reader/author relationships, how we need to consider their unique affordances in storytelling, their potential for evoking empathy and compassion, and how they are, inevitably, the storytelling of our future.
University of New Hampshire