[Note: This post doesn't rise to the level of seriousness or systematicity that I'd hoped for, but a couple of claims at the end remain so appealing to me that I don't have the heart to just delete it or stow it away for later. This is - ugh - very much a blog post, its stylistic pretension notwithstanding.]
I sometimes forget that I used to be the kind of person who'd use the word 'hegemonic' in sentences all the time without irony - i.e. a grad student in the humanities. In grad school I studied under one of the more well known pop culture scholars in contemporary academia, Henry Jenkins (among others), and today, apparently feeling nostalgic for the academic life, I wandered over to his blog for a long look. It's superb, by the way; Henry's logorrhea and startling facility with pop cultural allusions are ideally suited to the form, and his devotion to pedagogy is a welcome tonic to the self-important blather of places like, um, here.
Anyhow I'd like to respond quickly to something he said a while ago. Necessary background: there was a tiresome, overwrought debate several years ago in the young field of (digital) game studies as to the centrality of narrative in games and gamers' experiences. For a while it seemed that the field was broken into two camps: so-called 'ludologists' and so-called 'narrativists.' Summing up the debate is basically a waste of time; a lot of young scholars said a lot of deeply stupid things to one another while trying to get tenure in young departments they were hoping to run, and you can do without. Suffice it to say that stories are a central organizing principle of many games, and that the temporal nature of games often lends itself to narrativizing practice/engagement by players, but there are nonnarrative games (e.g. Tetris or the Sim games) that don't fit neatly into such categories.
In any case, Henry recently published a book, Convergence Culture, on which he'd been working for a long time and which was received well by those inclined to read such things (and apparently not really noticed by John Q. Public, more's the pity). Ian Bogost reviewed it over at Water Cooler Games, and Henry responded to his review. (This all happened seven months ago, mind you.)
...I find it interesting that Jenkins continues to insist on the terms "narrative" and "storytelling" as the principle units of cultural expression. Even though Jenkins admits that "storytelling has become the art of world building," where artists create environments and situations for a multitude of consumer intersections, he still does not reimagine such a craft separate from the particularity of narrative. Following Roger Shanck and others, Jenkins argues that "stories are basic to all human cultures, the primary means by which we structure, share, and make sense of our common experiences." Yet, the examples he cites, from the rich worlds of The Matrix, and Star Wars to transmedial experiments like Dawson's Desktop, readily elude the narrative frame, offering representations of behaviors, fragments, and environments. Michael Mateas and Gonzalo Frasca have called the privileging of narrative expression narrativism, and I have argued that narrativist gestures like Jenkins's occlude representational gestures based on logics and behaviors. Convergence Culture continues Jenkins' narrativist practice.
Given the propensity for such non-narrative interpretations of media properties, it is curious that Jenkins did not choose the more general term transmedia authorship over transmedia storytelling...
[Advice to young readers: If you see 'Gonzalo Frasca' and the word 'narrativist' in a passage, move on quickly.]
Henry's response is (in the tone of John Hurt in Spaceballs): 'Oh no, not again.' He goes on to say:
...I do think there's an argument to be made for the centrality of narrative for understanding the specific examples used in the book -- Star Wars, Harry Potter, and The Matrix. Just as one can argue that narrative may take a back seat to play mechanics, say, in our effort to understand how games work, most critics have argued that the American film industry has been driven from day one by the push to tell stories and that narrative imperatives dominate over all other factors in shaping the aesthetics of Hollywood entertainment. I could point you to a large body of literature which has made this point over and over. These particular worlds, then, were created for the purpose of generating stories. They may, as I have suggested, support multiple stories, they may also follow other logics and practices, but they are still part of a storytelling system.
This is a crucial point, and worth taking up specifically in the case of the second and third Matrix movies, to which the reaction was fairly consistent: Entertaining but not on the level of the first film. Bad movies is a phrase that got tossed around a lot.
To my mind Henry's point here is really obvious; the world of the Matrix trilogy was initially presented through a series of stories, and only the parts of the world that bore on the stories were exposed to viewers. The release of Enter the Matrix, a videogame starring actors from the film and expanding on certain plot points, was touted as a major moment for 'convergence culture' and Henry's transmedia model. But let's be blunt: most filmgoers didn't even notice it existed, and most viewers' experience of the world, even now, is limited to what the films show. We can articulate a fairly straightforward point here as well, which has far-reaching consequences for critics of the Matrix stories: part of the appeal of the films is precisely that they engage us in wondering about the limits of the world-system they portray. We experience the Matrix itself only and always at a remove (and in the third film spend little time inside that computer-generated world), always as a setting for the story. It can't simply be abstracted away from the narrative; the fact that we don't know everything about it, about the history of the human/machine war, isn't a temporary state or a limitation of the medium - it's constitutive of our involvement with the story.
(Which is why, say, Dragonlance novels are vastly less compelling than the Tolkien books they're so ham-fistedly knocked off from: there's no compelling 'what happened next?' logic undergirding the novels, because the world exists in final form (in roleplaying game sourcebooks) whether the novels are read or not. The novels are only elaborations of the world's structure, and can not change it, and the reader knows it. Which is why there's no fan fiction about Dragonlance characters: there're no holes to fill in. The novels themselves are fanfic.)
This is all implicitly very writerly, so I'll be more explicit: as my GF (almost to her PhD in Wonderful Science) could tell you, whether you're submitting a paper to Nature or writing a screenplay, storytelling is in large part choosing what to leave out. And vice versa, for God's sake: the choice to limit audience knowledge opens up avenues of inquiry that we're able to grasp through the basic building blocks of storytelling: A then B, A because B. As Henry mostly explains above, the world-system of the Matrix is incomplete; we need to fill it in. The inferences we draw from the representation of the world of the Matrix films and surrounding media constitute stories. Simple, personal, idiosyncratic, provisional...stories.
This, to me, is part of the reason fan fiction so often reads like teenage diary entries: because of the childlike (needy, necessarily in-the-dark) relationship of the fan-author to the text, there's a direct line from that fan's unfulfilled desires to the production of the new work (fanfic). The intervening step should be the imposition of a narrative logic that will satisfy others: a universalizing step. But that's not the purpose of fan fiction. That's why I don't see fan fiction as 'critical' in the way Henry eloquently argues: it serves a critical function, to an extent, but critical arguments have to follow a certain narrative-analytical logic that fanfic gets to dodge out of entirely. The stringent rules of canonicity that fans impose on themselves are of course fantasy justifications; fanfic is no more canonical than a newspaper review.
I'm waving at points I'm not prepared to make or back up, now. Time to retreat. But this is ground I'd like to come back to in a serious way later on. If I, y'know, even can.