Galatea’s Riposte: The Reception and Receptacle of Interactive Fiction

Abstract (in English): 

When I open the Spatterlight application to access “Galatea,” one of Emily Short’s many fabulous
pieces of interactive fiction, a supple string of text hails me, flirts with me, and stops just short of
calling me by name. The more I read, the more I learn about the source of the text itself, Galatea.
“She” is a simple yet oddly convincing AI, one who is as reactive as she is acted upon, whose words
emerge in response to my own, and whose short temper has shut down our collective story more
times than I can count. As startling as her salutations initially seemed and as accustomed to her
spurning me as I have become, I remain intrigued by Galatea’s overt and shameless invocation of her reader—in this case, me.

Strictly speaking, this mode of address should not be possible, at least not according to the
familiar conventions of literary tradition. In Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye states the matter
unequivocally: “Criticism can talk, and all the arts are dumb…there is a most important sense in
which poems are as silent as statues.”(4). While works of IF are decidedly not the poetical specimens
Frye has in mind, his stance nevertheless serves as a firm response to a larger problem, one that
has endured since antiquity and persists to this day, a problem that can be crudely summarized
in the following terms: there has always been something of a gap between the written word and
its reception. We see this problem articulated fully and eloquently in the work of Plato. In the
Phaedrus, for example, Socrates’ attitude toward the written word is one of curiosity, skepticism, and frustration.

In an extremely clarifying reading of Plato, however, Jacques Derrida offers the possibility that
while Socrates laments the written word’s ability to respond, he nevertheless expresses the desire to
see the mute, still properties of art come to life. To illustrate this point, Derrida directs our attention
to key moments in a different dialog, the Timaeus, with Socrates’ discussion of the khora, which
translates as “receiver,” “receptacle,” or “receiving space.” Derrida mines the Timaeus exhaustively, teasing out every potential signification that possibly inheres in the concept of the “receiving space,”
suggesting that while the receptacle does not successfully overturn the separation that Plato specifies as existing between artist, artwork, and receiver, it nevertheless reveals a desire on his part to think of the three as mutually constituted.
The hypothesis that I would like to test in this presentation is that in works such as Short’s “Galatea,”
direct address functions to bring the text into being, by signaling the reader and requiring a response of her. This response becomes a part of the initial text, such that the text that emerges is literally constituted through the feedback that exists between the reader’s actions and the author’s words. “Galatea,” I wish to argue, functions as Plato’s khora does, as a peculiar intermediary between form and copy.

(Source: Author's abstract, 2012 ELO Conference site)

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Eric Dean Rasmussen