Reflexivity as Entertainment: Early Novels and Recent Video Games

Article excerpt

This essay compares self-reflexive devices in eighteenth-century novels and contemporary video games. The comparison suggests a long history of popular entertainment that draws attention to its own mediation while challenging the more radical forms of self-consciousness that theorists have associated with anti-mimetic forms of narrative.

The history of narratives that draw attention to their own artifice as fiction, discourse, or genre is complex and prolific, extending from Cervantes to the present, in which Paul Auster's novels attract a large audience. The literary and social theory that has been brought to bear on this strand of fiction is similarly rich. Bertolt Brecht, Frankfurt School literary critics, and more recent theorists of the novel including Robert Alter and Brian Stonehill have encouraged us to think about fiction that breaks the spell of mimetic representation by dialectically challenging the status quo and empowering the reader or audience to appreciate the social construction of reality. In a related spirit, reader-response theorists have celebrated self-conscious fiction for inviting the reader to collaborate with the author in the production of a text (see Iser and Preston). And poststructuralists have claimed all writing as self-referential social performance: the more self-reflexive works are about this fact, the greater their radical and literary potential appears. For all their differences, these accounts of self-reflexivity have converged on the idea that self-conscious works of narration encourage social criticism and action more easily than realist narratives. Our aim in this article is to challenge this assumption by offering a different history of self-conscious fiction that goes not from Cervantes to Sterne to Barth, but from the commercially produced novels of the mid-eighteenth century to recent, surprisingly reflexive, video games.

The first key to this history will be that the kind of reflexivity we describe has a long history of being compatible with the design of entertainment for the market. We begin with the 1750s and '60s because these were decades in which the production of literature was first characterized by a feedback loop in which the demand for entertainment was felt through the market, and in which writers, producers, and booksellers saw themselves as immediately responsive to this demand. While Renaissance poetry had been reflexive about its technology of inscription, and Restoration theatre had reflected on the role of the audience and the conventions of theatricality, it was only in the mid-eighteenth century that literary works were produced in direct conversation with an entertainment market. Characterized by a dearth of canonical works, sharp criticism of novel reading, and a steep increase in the sheer volume of printed matter available, the 1750s and '60s serve as a useful counterpoint to the 1990s and 2000s, decades in which video games have become hugely successful by being highly responsive to a vast entertainment market while also attracting widespread disapproval.

The second key to the history we offer is that we are tracking forms that are specifically reflexive about their own mediation. The term mediation covers a number of areas that terms like form and discourse have tended to leave out of literary analysis. Lisa Gitelman defines media as "socially realized structures of communication," arguing in the case of cinema that the protocols associated with the medium include "everything from the sprocket holes that run along the sides of the film to the widely shared sense of being able to wait and see 'films' at home on video" (8). In these terms, mediation includes the physicality of narratives on printed paper or high resolution screen as well as their presentation as commodities and their reception as belittled forms of entertainment. Books that announce the origins of their paper and the social rank of their writers, and games that remind players of the digital technology that supports them, the physical limits of the screen, and the stereotypes to which players are subject can be described in these terms as not just self-referential but referential specifically about their mediation. …