The Daily Dose: Featuring Alistair Brown

DailyDose2Welcome to the Daily Dose, the medical humanities companion to the Fiction Reboot!

Medicine and technology are close companions. From the early prosthetics to those devices which–like the iPhone–are nearly if not actually part of our physical bodies, a necessity for connection to the digital terra firma. Today I am happy to Host Alistair Brown, Associate Lecturer at the Open University, and a Postdoctoral Teaching Assistant at Durham University. His recent work considers cyberfiction, cybergothic, gaming and the limits of literature. Welcome Alistair!

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BIOGRAPHY

Alistair Brown is an Associate Lecturer at the Open University, and a Postdoctoral Teaching Assistant at Durham University, where he also edits Research in English At Durham, the impact blog for the Department of English Studies (http://readdurhamenglish.wordpress.com/). He is currently writing a textbook on Topics in Modernism for the Singapore Institute of Management University, and preparing a monograph on Reading Games: Computer Games and the Limits of Literature.

His PhD on Demonic Fictions: Cybernetics and Postmodernism (http://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?uin=uk.bl.ethos.495964) was completed in 2009 under the supervision of Patricia Waugh at Durham University. His blog, current research, and publications list can be found at http://www.thepequod.org.uk/. He also tweets as @alibrown18.

INTERVIEW on CURRENT PROJECTS:

Your research aims are quite fascinating. As one who has spent a lot of time plotting intersections between Paul Virilio, Katherine Hayles and William Gibson, I am particularly interested in the concept of cyberfiction and cybergothic. Could you tell us more about these genres and what drew you to them?

During my MA, I studied under Patricia Waugh in her class on science and the novel. Much of the focus was on nineteenth-century literature, and we were looking at all these gothic responses to Darwinism, in which monsters, vampires and so on express fin-de-siècle fears about biological and moral degeneration. I was thinking that in times of scientific revolution, monsters seem to be the default cultural response. Then I thought that given we’re living through the cybernetic revolution, we ought to find similar tropes in our own time.

Lo and behold, I looked and here they were – in William Gibson, Philip K. Dick, in The Matrix – and so too was my PhD proposal born! What interested me was that even though we like to think of ourselves as uniquely modern, experiencing a brave new world, in fact we seek to understand it through existing metaphors. The Matrix, for example, seems to frame a new type of narrative possibility, the idea that we’re living in one giant computer simulation. Perhaps such a notion is only possible in the age of the internet…except that you cut beneath the skin of the sci-fi premise just a little, and what you have is the classical, Cartesian anxiety about the “deceiving demon.”

Katherine Hayles’ work makes a similar fundamental point. As she explores innovative cyberfictions, she’s also revisiting our assumptions about print and discovering that, actually, we’ve always had a fluid notion of “text,” even though with the arrival of etexts, the novel is cherished as this allegedly stable entity.

So as with my answer about game studies and literature below, what fascinates me about cybergothic is the intersection between the old and the new, the way in which something which seems radical and striking is also at the same time quite conventional. Even when plugged into the internet like cyborgs, we remain, at heart, only human.

Game studies have even made it into the Medical Anthropology journal I manage–it is a growing field and has, I think, earned new respect from the literary community in recent years. Could you expand on your research for the monograph-in-progress: Reading Games: Computer Games and the Limits of Literature?

You’re absolutely right that video games are becoming increasingly accepted as objects worthy of serious cultural study. In part this is because games have become more artistically and narratively complex; witness the dialogue-driven Mass Effect or Heavy Rain games. In part, we’ve realised that in the age of hypertext, ebooks, and video games, our own conventional definitions of what constitutes a “text” have become problematic, so that to some extent games can be studied as textual artefacts (admittedly some game genres more readily than others), whilst texts themselves might be considered to be interactive to some degree.

So my developing monograph is an attempt to explore these fuzzy boundaries between literature and games. I’m not suggesting for one moment that games are literary in any strong sense; game theorists have convincingly shown that game narratives are largely ludological. More important than any explicitly narrated plot, game narrative is primarily a product of the story the player tells themselves about the process of playing: “I was crouching by the window hiding from gunfire outside when suddenly an enemy jumped me from behind.” This sort of self-created narrative development is very different to being led by the hand by an already composed novel.

Nevertheless, we have a long heritage of literary theory and critical appreciation that can still help to explain the significance of these sorts of experiences. For example, in one chapter I draw on Frank Kermode to explore the ways in which both games and novels draw us insistently forwards because of the sense of the imminent ending with which they are imbued. In another I explore how games and novels both require a certain degree of empathic immersion into their world.

I guess I’m ultimately interested in whether what it feels like to play a game can be compared to what it feels like to read a book. For example, when I am playing amid the bitter African war of Far Cry, I sense a political and racial confusion that reminds me very strongly of the sense Conrad conveys in Heart of Darkness. Why and how do both video games and literature work these immersive effects? Are their methods entirely different? Answering this will remind us of the powerful narrative possibilities of both media – as well as perhaps enabling us to develop more subtle types of gaming experience than the simple “run and gun” one.

Given that the Daily Dose is the companion to my Fiction Reboot pages, I am pleased to discover a creative writing component to your own site: The Pequod. The balance of creative output and research output is a difficult one, I find. What inspires you? More particularly, how do you keep up with your poetry in the midst of this freight train we call academia?

When I was at school, my inspirational English teacher used to encourage us to read – anything. It didn’t matter whether it was a Jane Austen novel or a car instruction manual, Doctor Faustus or Dr Seuss. His philosophy was that the practice of reading in general benefits the mind. I feel much the same about writing. Writing in any medium and in any voice is a healthy and constructive thing.

So I use The Pequod, and the fact that it offers a medium of (vanity) publication, to encourage me to keep up different types of writing. And I don’t see this activity as a distraction from my mainstream academic work. For example, I started writing poetry at university as a way of trying to understand the form from the inside out, and I like to think that although I write much less poetry now, I still understand something about the formal engine of a poem from having built some from scratch myself. Similarly, I’ve lost count of the number of times when I’ve blogged about something that is seemingly incidental, only to discover six months later that it has burrowed its way to the surface of a journal article or a teaching seminar. So if during the working day I suddenly decide to bash out a blog post – on whatever subject, not explicitly research-related – I see this as an extension of the core academic activity for which I’m ostensibly paid.

Having said that, I’m probably not very good as a blogger, because I struggle to write succinctly and in an entertaining way, instead slipping into an academic tone. And I wouldn’t for one minute entertain the belief that I’m any good as a creative writer or poet – I guess in part because, in answer to your question, I don’t find enough time to keep it up. But to me, as for my English teacher, the effort is all.

On a related note, I am a great lover of Moby Dick–it would be the text I’d most wish to have on a deserted island–most appropriate to its isolato imagery, its cast-aways, it’s lonely war-faring ship. Could you tell us how you came to choose The Pequod as your blog title?

The title of The Pequod stems from the same impulse as motivates me to write in different forms. In Moby Dick, The Pequod is described as a “cannibal of a craft,” constructed from various parts of other ships and bearing the artefacts of its many voyages. I launched The Pequod once I had finished my undergraduate degree, and while I was taking a year out before deciding whether to pursue further study. The Pequod played host to many of the essays and scribblings I’d made as an undergraduate, the artefacts of my first voyage through an English degree, and as I continued to add essays and book reviews and creative writing to it over that year it ultimately bore me in the direction of continuing my studies further.

As I eventually decided to return to postgraduate studies, Moby Dick also seemed an apt conceit, because one of the features of that book is of course Ishmael’s irresistible thirst for knowledge. Rather than satisfying him, every new scrap of information about the whale spawns the quest for another one. This seems to me to be a fair corollary to what drives us on as academics, especially when we’re hunting the white whale of literature – a slippery, indeterminate and irrational form of knowledge, which can never be speared once and for all.

Having said all this, as I continued in academia The Pequod also posed some problems. We’ve all got files and folders of school work festering in the attic somewhere, because whilst we honestly know little of it is of any use, at the same time we can’t bring ourselves to throw it out. The internet now allows us to make this sort of work more publically and permanently available, which is what I did initially in the eclectic collection of The Pequod. Was this a good thing? Probably not, given that potential employers and colleagues might be able to see my early essays and believe these to represent my current work and style. Hence for most of the time I published The Pequod under the pseudonym, Ishmael. It is only recently, now that the vast majority of the content there represents my mature work and current research projects, that I’ve opted to come clean and put my name to it. And I’m glad I did, given that you wouldn’t be featuring these questions on the Daily Dose were it not for my newfound openness!

Lastly, do you have any upcoming projects? Any vistas you are planning yet to explore?

I’ve got a number of different projects on at the moment. I’m currently finishing off a distance learning textbook on Topics in Modernism for a university in Singapore.

I’m also editing the blog, Research in English At Durham (http://readdurhamenglish.wordpress.com/), which publicises our research. In the UK under the Research Excellence Framework we’re suddenly under pressure to demonstrate the social and economic “impact” of research. When a scientist discovers some new life-saving drug, this is pretty straightforward. But how to demonstrate the impact of an esoteric study of some unknown nineteenth-century poet? This is far harder. But one thing we can at least do is to announce that, “hey, I’ve found this and it interests me, and it might also interest you.” The internet, and blogging and podcasting, allows us to do this. So one of my projects is to figure out ways to show off research to a wider audience, something we academics have perhaps been a little reluctant to do in the past, because we like to assume our niche fields are valuable in and of themselves – which they are, but in today’s world that is an insufficient explanation. I guess this is also something you feel, in having set up projects like the Daily Dose.

As for research, I’m currently struggling to write an article on empathy in Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Empathy has become the default explanation for why it is valuable to read literature. Literature, we’re told, makes us better people in the real world by allowing us to practice imagining the inner lives of fictional characters. But McEwan’s novel seems to make this idea problematic, given that Briony’s “crime” is to possess too much imagination. She entertains the novelist’s prerogative to imagine what other people are doing, rather than just using blunt commonsense which often, helpfully, instructs us just to mind our own business rather than trying to empathise all the time. Perhaps, McEwan seems to be saying, novels and novelists are not so good after all as empathy generators.

As with my book on computer games, or as with the research blog mentioned above, all my research and activities seem to circle around the question of why literature matters. I think it does matter, of course; but I think we shouldn’t rest on our laurels about its importance.

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