Creating meaning

Note this article was written in 1996 - it was lightly and cosmetically updated in mid 2002

This is a speculative article, devoted to trying to ascertain and articulate the fundamentals that writers and other creative artists are endeavouring to achieve in their creative process. I take it as a foundation that the such creators are trying to have an impact on their intended audience and that they are trying to do more than just provide description.

Recent technological developments have thrown open a number of art-forms. I am looking for the profound (or should that just be "practical") reality that is common to such diverse creative art-forms as:

  • a Space Invaders game
  • a radio drama
  • a novel
  • a cinematic film
  • a MUD or a MOO
  • Sim City 2000
  • a poem
  • a song
  • a theatre play
  • a text adventure game
  • a virtual 3D game like Descent
  • an interactive film/video like Mixed Emotions or The Twelve Loveliest Things I Know
  • a comic or cartoon
  • a photograph or photographic collection
  • a drawing or painting
  • a musical band
  • Mortal Kombat, and
  • multimedia art like Music Insects.

There are bound to be more examples that should be included.

So how to start on this quest without jumping too quickly to simplistic conclusions. What I will try to do at the start is to note some axes along which these various art-form types can be contrasted. Hopefully by comparison with each other, the variables and the common fixed elements might emerge.

Factors that seem possibly relevant and useful to me so far include:

  • the audience's degree of immersion vs detachment including the question of what if anything is at stake for the audience
  • the work's sense of time and the audience's sense of control over the time flow of the work
  • the predictability of the events and causality in the work
  • the degree of coherence or incoherence in the work
  • the degree of audience identification with a character or issue in the work
  • the degree of catharsis or reinforcement for the audience's views or opinions
  • the degree of risk the audience faces by involving themselves in the work
  • the degree of realism and detail in the work
  • the degree of correspondence to existing experiences of the audience

These have not been given the test of time and reflection yet. Some may be combined, or scrapped, or significantly changed.

The role of play

Play has often been considered an essential means of exploring facets of one's identity and of various roles that a person might undertake or consider undertaking. How important to this self-exploration are these art-forms? Is playing Sim City 2000 or Descent an important part of a 21st century child discovering their own aptitudes and moral capacities? In the same way that my friends and I may have imagined ourselves facing the moral, intellectual and physical challenges of a favourite character in a novel?

Providing fragments

Artistic creators have always provided fragments from which the reader/audience creates the reality of their experience. But whereas in the past this has often been in one media (such as the printed words of a book, or the visual textures and colours of a painting) now it is more often in multiple media. Moreover providing the audience with some control over choice and timing of fragments (ie interactivity) seems to mean that some immediate coherence of the fragments (if presented in a sequence under author control) may be lost. The audience is invited more and more to take an increasingly active role in constructing a reality from the fragments.

A heightened reality

Readers or viewers or whatever construct a reality from the material in the art-form. The reality might engage some greatly and others not at all. For some the adrenalin might pump, for others connections in the brain might abound. Either way this temporary reality is not normally "real", for reality is often boring. Rather it is heightened, as in the traditional novel or film, or to extreme tensions as in some computer games/simulations. Has the opportunities offered by changes in technology enhanced the heightening of reality?

A new orality?

I was impressed with some of the thoughts of Walter J Ong in his Orality and Literacy: The technologizing of the word (Methuen, 1982). I don't think I have mastered it, but I've noted some of the ideas I gained from reading it as I think it is a useful base from which to explore the impact of electronic writing on our thinking and communication.

Other scattered thoughts
  • A fear of a future consequence…, a relief at a successful close…, involvement and interest increased (?) with random/probabilistic events
  • Language is the world in which we dwell. - Jean-Louis Goddard

That's about as far as I've reached so far.