Experiments in reading

I’ve never watched Battlestar Galactica, so I don’t really know what the particular fuzz in the Portlandia sketch below is all about. However, I’ve been in Doug’s (Fred Armisen) and Claire’s (Carrie Brownstein) shoes––I know too well the feeling of wanting to watch just one more episode of__________________. As a matter of fact, in a totally meta experience I watched this episode of Portlandia during a binge watching weekend a few years ago.

The scene above and its follow up highlight (hyperbolically as per the show’s satiric tone) the feeling of loss and dejection that are so hard to keep at bay when suddenly exiting a fictional world we have been inhabiting for a while. The experience is surely not one exclusive to TV series, and many of us will have memories of binge reading long novels as kids as well as in later years. I recall spending three blurry days madly turning each of the 600 pages in the Spanish edition of Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives about a decade ago, and more recently, a couple of days with Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah and two or three frantic hours devouring Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. I also distinctly recall physically missing the presence of the characters and the narrative voices each time, and finding everything but those worlds utterly boring for a short while afterwards. This form and level of immersion has been thematized not just in Portlandia, obviously, but also in countless metafictions and explored in many kinds of studies ranging from cognitive criticism and neuroscience to, again, metafiction and others. I myself wrote a bit about it and Miguel de Unamuno’s Niebla a couple of years ago.

The general consensus of why this happens (cognitively speaking) is that we use the exact same mental mechanisms to deal with both fictional worlds and the real ones (whatever that might mean metaphysically). Getting immersed in a fictional world puts fiction and fact on the same undiscriminated stand. Richard Gerrig sees this kind of mental immersion as moving from the actual immediate surroundings and relocating in the fictional world.

An important consideration is that immersion (or binge watching) lasts only as long as there is more to read, more to watch—a continuous supply of input from the fiction that can be put on top of our immediate surroundings. The dimensions of the fictional world depends, of course, on the limits of the work (they all end at some point), the boundaries of its distribution systems, and the way the reader/viewer actually handles and mediates the work. Thus, it is crucial to think about, at least, two material aspects of the works: 1) The fact that fictional or literary worlds are not made up of air, and thus our engagement with—and mediation of—them is governed by the limitations or affordances of the artifact that embodies them; and 2) The media configuration of each fiction/each work generates its specific (reading or watching) conditions: episodic, continuous, etc.

Coming back to Portlandia, Doug and Claire have the whole season in DVD’s. The kind of immersion they go through is only possible due to the fact that they mediate and handle their engagement with the fictional world stored in them. Although it’s not showed on the screen, we assume they obtain subsequent seasons of Battlestar Galactica to keep them going for days. Other than the fact that there are no more episodes to watch, the only real impediment to their binge watching is a power outage: an invisible infrastructure that sustains their immersion. The work and its distribution systems (including the infrastructure that supports it) imposes the physicality of the medium above the existence of the fictional world. This is true, or at least similar, for most long novels. As long as we hold the entire book in our hands (or have the entire file in an e-reader) we can go on binge reading. In fact, we could binge read any print or e-book. There is very little in the specific material reading conditions imposed by the medium that would prevent us from it (in the case of the e-reader, power would be one).

A very different experience for Doug and Claire (and me when I first watched this episode) would have been to watch the series episode by episode as they were released by the network. A very different experience would also be to read the first part of Savage Detectives episodically following the dates of the diary entries. In the first case, Doug and Claire’s experience would be mediated by the distribution of the work (let’s leave aside the economic model that shapes this for now), whereas in the second case, it is only suggested but not imposed by the composition of the work.

I think this is an extremely intriguing phenomenon in the current media ecology. Each device and each work have a temporality embedded that may or may not be a part of the a work’s meaning making mechanisms, but that are definitely a part of the way each reader handles and mediates their reading (binge, episodic, fragmentary, hypermediated, etc.). Some works and distribution systems impose certain specific reading conditions, but others might just suggest it. In any case, exploring the various possibilities is worth a try.

In order to carry out a little experiment in reading mediation, I waited a few months to start reading Amaranth Borsuk and Andy Fitch’s As We Know, the daybook of a student spanning from April 30th to July 1st. On April 30th I read the very first entry and as of today, I have read four entries. Fighting the urge to binge read just one more day (two more pages), I’m thinking through time-based reading: a notion I more easily recognize and theorize in electronic works where, as Rita Raley has it, reading and the boundaries of a digital text are delineated by “the period in which both the reader-user and the system are performing” (The Digital Loop: Feedback and Recurrence). As We Know is even a more particular case because it is a poetry collection but one that moves temporally, and although I can’t be sure yet, narratively, I think.

As We Know, May 3rd
Borsuk and Fitch’s As We Know, May 3rd.

Even though As We Know does not impose materially this kind of episodic reading condition, it invites and evokes it. The work certainly conjures a very particular reading and it collapses the separate temporalities of both authors (Fitch 2007 and Borsuk 2013) A reading like the one I’m doing is a deliberate way to relocate the days contained in As We Know in my days, to blend the temporal referents of both and run them synchronously. That way, if a change in the original distribution conditions of Battlestar Galactica and Portlandia modify the conditions in which they can be watched and the immersive effect they have, the question I’ll be thinking through until July 1st is how does a speculative handling of the time frames in As We Know can shape the reading conditions embedded in the print book?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: