Assemblage Theory humanities gaming object-oriented rhetoric

open skyrim: reading text objects

image from media1.gameinformer.comMy kids and I have been playing Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim this break. If you aren't familiar, it's a fantasy role-playing style game. In this post, it's an object and opportunity for discussing the operation of reading from an object-oriented perspective.

To provide some brief context, I approach speculative realism and object-oriented ontology by departing from Deleuze and moving through DeLanda and Latour. I would describe reading as a particular kind of encounter between objects that involves code. Deleuze and Guattari describe code as a feature of assemblages that appear in certain strata. DeLanda takes it up slight differently and adds code as a third axis to social assemblages. Though I won't go into great detail with the technical aspects of this theory here, one can build out the operation of code from collective assemblages of enunciation to map the emergence of code from other object relations. DeLanda follows a similar path in Philosophy and Simulation.

Code is a characteristic that certain objects may have. It results from a particular kind of assemblage production. Other objects (e.g. humans) have the capacity to encode in their relations. This might mean literally marking a code or more abstractly naming objects. Clearly our encoding/naming of objects never fully captures them, but it can have an impact upon them, as when you name an animal your "food." In English Studies we use terms like "text" and "reading" quite liberally. This makes sense inasmuch as we encode the world we see and interact with that code. However, here I want to be more literal and think specifically about interactions between objects that are marked with codes and objects with the capacity to decipher those codes. So this could be a human reading a book, a Google search spider crawling this page, or a supermarket checkout counter scanning a bar code. Or in this particular case, me interacting with the text in this video game. The discussion over on Levi's blog (and elsewhere) as been about an SR literary criticism, but I don't want to use literary examples, partly because literary studies is not my field, but also because I would contend that one should begin with a general theory of reading as a kind of relation among objects from which methods for the interpretation of literary texts would develop. And I do think one would require or at least be able to develop specialized methods, just as one develops specialized engineering applications from more general scientific principles. 

So, to reiterate, code is a characteristic an object might have that has tha capacity, when encountering an object with an interlocking characteristic, of being read by that second object. The code, in this case words in English, are objects unto themselves. (it's objects all the way down, out, up, wherever.) As objects they too withdraw, but we can (and obviously do) encounter them, and they impart their forces upon us, in this case, primarily through our eyes. In the mundane event I am describing, as I shift my view around a room in Skyrim and focus upon a door, the words "(A) Open Skyrim" appear. I know this means that if I press the "A" button on my Xbox controller, the door will open and I will leave this inn/castle/crypt/wherever I happen to be and reappear (after loading) in the "open" world of Skyrim. We don't need to refer to some new theory to recognize that if you haven't played the game then the reference to "Open Skyrim" is basically nonsensical. Furthermore, to look at a screen capture or a YouTube video where we see the words appear from the game might tell us something but it's not the same as seeing the words while playing the game itself. In the game these are what Deleuze and Guattari might term order words. They make something happen. This is also a capacity of code. It doesn't always work. The capacity depends upon other relations. If I say "you're gulity," it's not the same as when the jury says it to you in a courtroom at the conclusion of a trial. In a related fashion, we are not free to interpret words to mean whatever we want. Yes they withdraw from us, so we cannot know them in some totality, but that does not mean that they do not delimit in some fashion what they communicate. If we don't have the capacity to decode the words (i.e. if they are in a language we do not know), then they are meaningless, but if we can read "Open Skyrim" then we cannot interpret this as synonymous with "ham sandwich." 

So far I don't believe I've said anything radical. Reading/interpretation is about the capacities of interacting objects/assemblages. A given text is a necessary but not sufficient element to produce a given interpretation of that text. Meaning isn't intrinsic. Again, this is just another way of framing the basic post-New Critical interpretive move. What happens next, however, in most contemporary methods, is that one turns one's focus on the cultural contexts that intersect the text in the production of this or that reading. Do these relational readings impact the text-object? Of course. Depending, the text-object enters the literary canon, it gets burnt, it goes out of print, it becomes a bestseller, etc. These are all phenomena worthy of investigation.

In Harman's terms though, I think one might suggest that focusing on the coded capacities of a text-object, particular in relation to various cultural contexts, is a form of overmining. I think it's reasonable to view any disciplinary reading practice as a form of overmining. Any discourse community employs territorializing, cybernetic mechanisms to secure the meaning of its texts. Both rhetoric and literary studies do this for cultural texts. Even while individual articles might celebrate the indeterminacy of texts, the overall operation of English Studies is to create a system. That's what it means to be an academic discipline, but perhaps something else can happen.

Deleuze and Guattari suggest that reading relies upon long-term memory (as opposed to writing which is short-term… more on that some other day); for D/G long-term memory connects the text with the social order we typically investigate. However, reading also imparts direct affects that are only ever partially captured within autopoietic and ideological mechanisms. These affects are singular and though we might describe the mechanisms that produce them, the resulting affects are indeterminable. So one might take a Latourian approach and follow the trails of actors from the site of any singular textual encounter. Though not framed in this way, one might think of many scholarly articles in this fashion, as tracing the scholar-reader's particular interpretive actor-network. One always has to make choices about the paths one follows and when to stop. Such decisions, in my view, are always framed by the knowledge one hopes to construct through this practice.

Unlike the experience of the conventional text, but like many video games, Skyrim is extensively non-linear. There is a linear main quest narrative to follow, but there are many other quests that might be taken in any order, or one could simply wander about. The world map is filled with nodes–various opportunities for adventure–which certain operate as singularities, drawing one in. The game is "open" in this respect as well. Filled with text objects, ripe with the capacity for being read, and replete with potential, context-sensitive meaning. But let's be clear here. The game player is not the only reader in this system. There is a network of readers handling code back and forth between the disc, the console, the controller, and the screen. That's an area for exploration that I just want to acknowledge but not address here. However, the game's AI is intended to be responsive to the player's actions. To what extent do we want to extend thought or agency to the traditional, printed text-object? And while we may conventionally experience the linear text as narrative, disciplinary interpretation doesn't function that way. Instead it links nodes together. Furthermore, as the digital humanities indicate, there are other (machine) readers of literary texts that can perform a wide variety of manipulations resulting in graphics and other interactions. It's Hamlet on the holodeck all over again. 

Everyone gets the same Skyrim in as much as each game sold in the store is as identical to the next in the same way as each copy of a novel is the same. And there is a high degree of similarity among gaming experiences, but also significant variety, depending on the player and the various mediators between the player and the disc. Can we not say the same thing of the novel? Singular reading experiences with the "same" text?

I wouldn't want to delimit in any way how one might proceed to study interpretive practices, either in the abstract or in relation to a specific text. There are many ways to move forward from this point. My particular scholarly interest, not with "literary" texts or games (despite the example here), is to follow the somewhat Latourian suggestion I made above, to investigate the various mediating nodes as a way of uncovering and testing various hypotheses regarding the quasi-causal, minimally-rhetorical, multiplicities that operate between reader-object and text-object, multiplicities that are analogous to those that operate with, but do not determine, the crystalline shapes salt forms or the spheres of soap bubbles. 




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