Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media

By Dannenberg, Hilary P. | Style, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media


Dannenberg, Hilary P., Style


Marie-Laure Ryan. Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. xiii + 399. $23.95 paper.

Narrative as Virtual Reality offers the reader an impressive and multifarious panorama of theory, cultural history, and textual analysis. While the state of the art of electronic narrative is one of the book's concerns, its historical breadth of vision and the multiplicity of narrative (and other) media that it investigates sharply distinguish it from other recent publications focusing more exclusively upon electronic media in the context of contemporary culture and postmodernism.

"Virtual reality" in the context of Ryan's study refers to the domain of art itself-be it Baroque architecture, the classic realist novel, or the interactive movie-all genres which receive discussion. Ryan traces the changing narrative strategies that have characterized the development of art and the key shifts in its forms of engagement with the minds of audiences. Ryan concludes that two major forms of response-immersion and interactivity-have fueled key paradigm changes in the history of narrative and human culture. In immersion, the reader is completely absorbed in the domain evoked by the work of art and becomes oblivious to the here and now; the reader's consciousness is thus recentered in the fictional world. Texts that promote an immersive response in the reader have a transparent textual interface: in order to experience the text as world, the textual level of mediation becomes a window onto another world. By contrast, in interactive texts, the recipient engages playfully with the work of art and becomes conscious of the artistic discourse as textual surface: the work of art loses its transparent world-creating capacity and offers itself as a game. As Ryan shows, in some of their manifestations, immersion and interactivity can be seen as opposing aesthetic forces-for example when we contrast the realist novel with postmodernist experimental fiction. However, it is one of the most insightful and instructive contributions of Ryan's wide-ranging consideration of artistic forms and narrative genres that she shows how in fact these two different urges have powered art in many different ways, both complementary and contradictory.

Narrative as Virtual Reality offers a wide-ranging theoretical discussion in connection with a pluralistic and exciting range of textual examples. Its account of cultural and literary history modulates between densely erudite theoretical discourse and Ryan's own explorations of a number of narrative texts which well illustrate the interplay of interactivity and immersion. These discursive shifts are particularly successful due to the book's overall structure: its ten chapters are interspersed with seven "interludes" that describe individual works of literature. At strategic points the reader is thus given the chance to enjoy readings of immersion and interactivity in practice in texts as diverse as the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, the interactive movie I'm Your Man, and Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler.

The central framework of Ryan's investigation is set out in two key theoretical sections that describe a poetics of immersion and interactivity. As a prelude to this, an initial section discusses a further key concept, which, as Ryan shows, has been subject to a dizzying spectrum of semantic variations: the virtual. Ryan's illumination of the many metamorphoses of the virtual is characteristic of her combined theoretical rigor, historical depth, and cultural breadth. The virtual is traced from its Latin etymology through to more recent significations such as the concept of the "virtual machine" from the formative days of computer technology, and its contemporary semantic overlap with the concept of cyberspace in the popular imagination. (Ryan also clears up this overlap by showing how virtual reality is a world-creating technology which simulates spatial environments, whereas the cyberspace of the internet is a network of links and jumps in "nonspace. …

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