The Riderly Text: The Joy of Networked Improv Literature
Winona State University
Citation: Heckman, Davin. “The Riderly Text: The Joy of Networked Improv Literature.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures no. 11, 2015. doi:10.20415/hyp/011.e04
Abstract: This essay aims to discuss literary pleasure, new media literacy, and networked improv literature (netprov). In particular, the author will discuss the challenges of "close-reading" the Speidishow, a netprov enacted via Twitter (and a constellation of supplementary web-based media) over a period of several weeks. In the process of trying to understand the dynamics of reading on Twitter, the author of this essay created a Twitter account, @BrutusCorbin, and consulted with the writers about plot structure. Through active engagement with the fictional world, Corbin quickly became embroiled in a sub-plot. Seeking distance from the active plots which Corbin was involved in, his author created two new characters, @FelixMPastor and @FrannyCheshire, to explore different aspects of the fictional world. Pastor and Cheshire were subsequently dragged into the story, as well. This piece will dig into the concept of the "readerly" and "writerly" text as identified by Roland Barthes in S/Z and The Pleasure of the Text and settle on a third term: "the riderly text." Identifiying in social media consumption the culture of casual contribution (via the circulation of links, liking, sharing, retweeting, and commenting), I argue that Barthes' initial designation of popular, default practices as "readerly" can be applied to the "writerly" performances of such reading encapsulated in new media literacies as occasions for superficial forms of closure and public displays of consent or dissent for or against its determined content. In this milieu, the netprov arrives as "riderly" form, requiring "writerly" performance as an occasion for "readerly" engagement, but offering plurality, not in the text that precedes its current state of publication, but in the improvisational character of its progression. Thus, the critical reader must be at once read in the denotated world as it progresses (and its profusion of authority) and write the connotations into its atmosphere. The net result is a compromised criticism, of the sort you are reading, in which conventional critical distance collapses for the sake of interpretation. In its place, however, the riderly text opens a critical distance to process, platform, and the conditions of discursive authority in social media.
Among many contributions to thought, Roland Barthes deserves credit for sketching out two terms: the "readerly" (lisible) and "writerly" (scriptible) text, to which Barthes links the related outcomes of "pleasure" (plaisir) and "jouissance." Jouissance, a word for enjoyment, remains untranslated because its connotations, more specific than general bliss, extend into sexual pleasure. For Barthes, and the generation of scholars influenced by his formidable contribution to theory, the difference between the readerly and the writerly is the difference between mere pleasure and a kind of excessive, quasi-mystical erotic event which causes one to lose their sense of self. The readerly text is the one that is relatively straightforward, whose puzzles, perhaps engaging, can be apprehended in a linear fashion. The writerly text, on the other hand, requires a kind of mental dialogue with the voice of the text, an active co-writing in the course of its interpretation. This is the text which leaves no simple, definitive interpretation, but instead generates new text.
Put aside the historical and cultural baggage that this elaborate metaphor evokes, avoiding the question of whether or not eroticism is magical and skirting a discussion of the place of sexuality in anthropology, and let's look at what this metaphor accomplishes. If we say that reading a book is merely like having an orgasm, we can recognize that this is poetic on Barthes' part. However, if we look at what the critic aims to identify as the key commonality shared in the encounter of two lovers and the book and its reader, there is always the potential for a flat, transactional exchange of predicted values. Then there is the potential for the dynamic and exceedingly pleasurable intercourse that occurs between two subjects when they move into each other and lose themselves in the process. Yes, eroticism is a moment in which many experience such exchanges, but the intersubjective encounter is less specific than this. Playing puppets with children, dancing to music in a crowd of people, holding a crying friend, being aided in crisis by a stranger, having a conversation with your grandmother, marching in solidarity with the victims of crimes, looking at the eyes in a perfect photograph… there are many moments where we can experience this jouissance. It is the true measure of our repression that we only recognize jouissance in eroticism, which was once circumscribed by prohibitions and physical norms and is now circumscribed by scripted psychic norms. (To think of it differently, might we start to consider the difference between readerly and writerly sex?)
The writerly text deserves to be aligned with our highest pleasures because it reveals our highest potential. It is the text that requires us — our thoughts, our experiences, and our inventions — to establish our empathic engagement with the work and negotiate the interpretation of its content, even with a host of ambiguous and even contradictory dynamics in play. It is this fundamental concept which must be brought to bear on the question of literary writing in digital media. If we simply fall back into the wooden scripts of intellectual habit, we can arrive at a flat reading of "interactivity" that is just as instrumental as the diagrammatic "jouissance" offered by Kahnoodle, "the couples app that makes it fun and easy to keep your relationship awesome," and Spreadsheets, the thrust-tracking app that promises "Quantified Self Improvement for your Sex life." Like the person who reads literature because they know it is the mark of the sophisticated person, this rote execution of the erudite manner exists in stark contrast to the one who is seduced into literary engagement by the attraction of the text.
As a scholar of electronic literature and a regular user of social media, this question of the "what happens" when reading a work of literature is one that I want to answer in relation to digital media; in part, because I notice the troubling problem of students who want to know what's on the test as opposed to wanting to play with the words and concepts. This instrumental temptation is not new. However, the habit of "Googling" for answers on a ubiquitous internet has distorted the meaning, even the means, by which one chooses to reckon, even if they wish to. For instance, when reading a difficult passage of text, I suggest that students attempt to "figure it out for themselves," the high achieving student Googles deftly and replies with a kind of precision that would please Strunk and White. But it is rare to find one who, after looking it up, wants to roll it around in its context, pushing it into different parts of their brains, take extravagant risks with their time and their grade. This is not stupidity on their part. It is the fruit of abundance. You don't need to eat a sour apple.
Social media is filled with "viral" content, which increasingly is commercially simulated vernacular that seeks to hijack our social sentiments and monetize the interpersonal. The often specious nature of these texts, which are increasingly central to public consciousness, and the social drivers to their dissemination and reception pose a real risk to an already threatened everyday. If fashion mags exploit our erotic anxieties and frustration by offering us access to "jouissance" through a kind of positivistic sensuality to be acquired through diet, dress, and performance of gender, sites like Gawker and Buzzfeed offer to script our sense of wonder, shock, discovery, mirth, indignation, and politics by similarly hijacking our structures of emotion to drive page clicks, likes, shares, and retweets. A sampling of several "listicles" from Buzzfeed reveal this sort of robust approach to baiting users:
15 Things You Shouldn't Say To Someone Struggling With Depression
24 Questions That No One Ever Needs To Answer
29 Gloriously Hilarious Ways To Use The Poop Emoji
33 "Facts" Everybody Knows That Are Actually Total Lies
25 Things Only People Who Like To Be Alone Will Understand
22 Signs You're An Overprotective Pet Parent
26 Struggles Every Woman Has Experienced
(grabbed on August 13, 2014 at 3:15 EST)
This world is a combination of cultural hacks, typically into the more reptilian parts of the brain, married to a kind of reverse engineering of social media algorithms. The result is a formula for sensation, not just the kind you or I have, but the kind that sweeps across the collective consciousness in the form of spectacle. Though it might be tempting to vilify these parasites that seek to capitalize on social energy, they are only the side effects of social media itself, like the symptom that reveals an occult malignancy.
Finally, there is the "democratic" or "participatory" aspect of digital media itself. First, the web allowed readers new opportunities to direct their consumption of content. Second, social media opened up further opportunities to contribute to the content itself. There is one tendency, though, thankfully, it has fallen out of favor, to see the user-driven and user-generated content through a naïve utopian lens, as if to extend John Fiske's optimistic approach to television, and simply concluding that we have created a public sphere on proprietary platforms. More recently, people come to question the feedback loop of surveillance and content, which seeks to coopt the user's efforts, first to build the size of the platform's database and second to connect those users with commercial content. One might find encouragement in the thought that an epistemological engine like Google or an ontological factory like Facebook can be so "gamed." The problem, however, is that in this game, we are pieces, not players.
However, we can put Barthes' concepts of "readerly" and "writerly" to productive use if we consider the underlying effect of each mediated interaction. If the readerly delivers a direct, literal, instrumental use of language that provides pleasure without challenging subjectivity, then we can say that even the so-called writerly practices of social media use are, in fact, lisible interaction even though they are accompanied by a prompts that require users to write for closure. The formulaic responses are everywhere to be seen, particularly as they are appended to faux viral content. That their truthiness elicits patterns of response that attempt to affirm static social categories is evidence of their "readerly" character. That the subsequent arguments they provoke are so bot-like in their expression is further evidence that participation in these particular social media practices are largely engaged with the preservation of subjective categories, affective templates, and lifestyle narratives.
It is in search of the "writerly" practice that I chose to head into the literary lion's den of the Speidishow. As you might expect, given the stodgy and resoundingly uncool disposition of the arguments I have just enumerated, I had never used Twitter nor knew of Spencer Pratt or Heidi Montag. But, I did have some past experiences reading netprov works and had read much of the critical/theoretical scholarship on the topic. Furthermore, I had been warmly invited to "watch" the Speidishow. I decided to jump in, expecting that it would be more work than pleasure.
The concept behind Speidishow is very simple. Rob Wittig, Mark Marino, Cathy Podeszwa, Jean Sramek, Betsy Boyd, Skye McIlvaine-Jones, Jeff T. Johnson, Claire Donato, Ian Clarkson, Sarah-Anne Joulie, Chloe Smith, and anyone willing to use the hashtag would live tweet over a series of weeks a nonexistent reality show starring Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag, a.k.a. Speidi. Pratt and Montag, a married couple long known for their villainous personae on the TV reality show The Hills and the UK version of Celebrity Big Brother, agreed to play along with the live-tweeted, improvised performance, opening up their substantial Twitter feeds to the whims of the show's fans.
A loose structure of weekly episodes and "official" and "unofficial" websites provided a skeleton for the performance of the piece. But in the main, participants could tweet what they imagined they were seeing on the live broadcast, tweet their responses to various events, and generally discuss the "show" as it unfolded. Of course, the initial response to the piece was such that it received earnest, if poorly researched, press mentions that validated the show's existence. And the attendant traffic was enough to generate the perception by lazy gossip sites that the Netprov game was, first "real," then a "hoax." The more diligent reporters ultimately concluded that it was a participatory adventure.
In the first weeks of the show, I attempted to observe the events from the sidelines. But missing much of the action, my curiosity compelled me to create a character of my own: @BrutusCorbin, an unemployed academic, who lives with his mother, and stumbles upon a temporary position as an assistant on the set of the Speidishow. This pretext increased my access to the Twitter traffic by permitting me to assert my role in the events, and necessitating other participants to communicate with me about what was happening. Secondly, it provided me with a platform to voice Corbin's disdain for reality shows (my own), a trollish scorn for the project (somewhere between mine and Corbin's), and a desire to do something more important than what I was doing (Corbin's). In a nutshell, this character was a caricature of myself who afforded me both the opportunity to read a live-tweeted text while providing a pre-text for questioning my own participation and maintaining a critical, if playful, engagement with the work.
The initial tweet, was a clumsy, tentative effort to engage the stream of actors:
Corbin Brutus @BrutusCorbin 11 Oct
I hate to break it to you... But I am willing to bet the cake disaster was no accident. #speidishow
But eventually, I continued to tweet this character's depressed musings on reality TV and the relative lack of appreciation, even in his own home, for his intellectual accomplishments:
Corbin Brutus @BrutusCorbin 11 Oct
Reality is me in my mom's basement eating Cookie Crisp and stressing about whether or not I still have a job. #speidishow #reality #stress
From these poorly rendered beginnings, Brutus gets dragged into other discussions about plot elements like the #aurababy (a spiritual baby forged forged from the love of Spencer and Heidi) and the #stolenbees (an adventure subplot in which Spencer rescues a kidnapped fan and frees stolen bees). Eventually, seeking success, Brutus becomes part of a scheme to create a tax shelter in Liechtenstein. It was not long before this Twitter alias had to be "freed" to develop without my critical agenda holding him back from the story.
The interesting aspect is that close reading must be primed by contribution to the corpus. To pull more out, to demand more detail, to arrive at clarifications, the active reader prompts this elaboration through conversation. The more rigorously one reads, the narrower the critical distance. As one who has written more conventional literary criticism, I understand that this kind of absorption into the text is often what provokes the more sustained, academic analysis in which this critical distance is asserted. However, when one becomes the writer of the text, the question of this critical distance is pulled into relief. On the one hand, we know that the reader's meaning is the only one that can be said to exist with any degree of certainty. On the other hand, the assertion of critical distance attempts to elide this knowledge through a rhetorical construction of objectivity, attempting to coopt the voice of the primary text to under the auspices of a secondary author, working in an instrumental voice. The authoritative reading benefits from a willing suspension of disbelief. Rather than suggest that the netprov creates the true conditions of literary reading, I suggest that like other forms of literary writing, this process "reveals" the significance of writing in the digital, serving as a heuristic to open up the relationship between the work of art (object) and criticism (metadata) (see Bouchardon and Heckman).
To preserve my failing distance from the text, specifically from my own creation, I created a second character, @FelixMPastor, a wizard and LARPer (Live Action Roleplayer, the folks who dress up in costume to perform historical or fictional tableaux) who could explore the areas in which the concept overlaps with gaming. Felix, too, was pulled into the plot, serving as occasional bully to Brutus and @LoriJanePeters (a Speidi-hater whose real identity remains unknown to me) and a self-proclaimed authority on the plot's more new agey aspects. In addition, I introduced @FrannyCheshire, Brutus' mother, initially as a vehicle for experiencing the text as a pure fan, with no critical distance from the work. Franny came to serve alternately as a foil for her son and counter to his cynicism and folly and an unlikely ally to Felix.
The Hermeneutic Mission Crumbles
What I found most interesting was the degree to which these characters, each of which arrived initially with a hermeneutic mission in mind, eventually were sucked into the plot as actual elements of the story. The degree to which this attraction was actively willed by me or was imposed by the bias of participatory media is irrelevant. What is most interesting is the way in which hermeneutics is served in this context by a kind of reading which necessitates a form of "readerly writing." Social media thrives on this requirement that readerly closure be consummated by participation in the platform.
The question, however, is whether or not "writerly writing" is possible in social media contexts? If so, what does it look like? And what are its qualities? The facile answer is, yes, participatory media is all critical and fans are all active agents and that popular texts are all multiple. Consumer culture has, in a very real sense, anticipated social media by necessitating active engagement and affective involvement in stylistic worlds. And the American variety of cultural studies scholarship has been comfortable with fandom, both of cultural texts and emerging platforms, at times, like missionary vanguards in advance of the colonization of the everyday. But I argue that the participatory norms of subjective construction in the 21st Century push writerly practices, if they are to survive at all, into more demanding acts of cultural activity. Beyond the threshold of linear consumption (which led through naïve consumerism of mass society through psychographic fragmentation into subcultural niches to the variegated presentations of self made knowable through data mining and surveillance), intersubjectivity remains a possibility. If we resist the banal equation of Jouissance with color-by-numbers eroticism, then we can actually find moments where texts are ecstatic, generative of empathetic meanderings of consciousness, the erasure of corporeal boundaries occur.
The Riderly Text
It is into the jumbled act of readerly writing activities and the hope for writerly writing in social media that I introduce the third term: "the riderly text." Identifiying in social media consumption the culture of casual contribution (via the circulation of links, liking, sharing, retweeting, and commenting), Barthes' initial designation of popular, default practices as "readerly" can be applied to the "writerly" performances of such reading encapsulated in new media literacies as occasions for superficial forms of closure and public displays of consent or dissent for or against its determined content. In this milieu, the netprov arrives as "riderly" form, requiring "writerly" performance as an occasion for "readerly" engagement, but offering plurality, not in the text that precedes its current state of publication, but in the improvisational character of its progression. To ride the text, one must attend to changing topography, with the window of response further shortened by the speed of transmission. Like a rider on horseback, one must not only respond to the road ahead, but to the means of transport itself as it thinks in relation to its own movement, following ideal paths and responds to events that register on its scale of perception. Furthermore, one must adjust to its instincts, habits, and rhythms, eventually settling into a comfortable feedback loop whose total ability exceeds that of the rider. Thus, the critical reader must be at once read in the denotated world as it progresses (and its profusion of authority) while writing the connotations into its atmosphere and constantly adjust to its own system of intelligence. The net result is a compromised criticism, of the sort you are reading, in which conventional critical distance collapses for the sake of interpretation, and at times, simply to remain on the text. In its place, however, the riderly text opens a critical distance to process, platform, and the conditions of discursive authority in social media.
Of particular interest, I note the degree to which Brutus Corbin was sucked into a subplot that merged the question of the aura baby and the stolen bees with in the sign of the fleur de lys. To be fair, this was the result of a deliberately paranoid reading of disparate plot elements on my part, a kind of crackpot speculation rather than meaningful literary criticism. This detour generated an exciting sub plot that fed into my knowledge of Southern California esoteric lore — specifically the rumored rituals of secret societies, homunculi, and ritual magic in the Arroyo Seco area called "Devil's Gate". Brutus Corbin's tweets, assisted by the contributions of other participants, quickly congealed into a meditation on delusion, urban legend, and the construction of reality. That I found myself wondering whether or not I (as Brutus's author) was following the breadcrumb trail left for me or creating it myself, testifies to the subjective power of this kind of writing.
Of course, there are some obvious limits to this kind of text. One can look at the artifacts generated, the websites, the fan art, the Twitter stream, etc., and can follow the contours of the plot and ascertain the narrative. But this kind of reading is not terribly amusing. Nor is it particularly powerful. Reading the text from the outside is akin to reading any work of literature cold, without an understanding of the novel, the conventions of writing, the appropriate vocabulary, or even the expectation that one might enjoy the process.
On the other hand, this sort of reading is not to be assumed even in response to canonical literary works. For instance, there are relatively few people who actually read, say, Paradise Lost or Finnegan's Wake, from a sophisticated position with the appropriate level of committed engagement. Those who fulfill the text from the "writerly" perspective are the ones who are most electrified by the power of the work. And while it is wholly different from Milton or Joyce, the netprov work can flash onto a multitude of screens, but it is the relative handful of engaged readers that is going to fulfill the riderly role, guiding the creature, enjoying the ride, and and taking it to its conclusions. You have to learn to engage with the story on its own terms, submit to the tricks of the text, and participate in the guided walk through skillfully negotiated expectations.
Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. (Trans. Richard Miller). New York: Hill and Wang, 1975.
— . S/Z. (Trans. Richard Miller). New York: Hill and Wang, 1975.
Bouchardon, Serge, and Davin Heckman (2012), "Digital Manipulability and Digital Literature." Electronic Book Review. «http://electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/heuristic»
Kahnoodle, 1.062. App. Apr 17, 2013. «https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/id545123132?mt=8».
Marino, Mark, Rob Wittig, et al. #Speidishow. 2013. «http://speidishow.com».
Spreadsheets, 1.7 App. Dec 25, 2013 «https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/id673680985?mt=8».