Reading Virtual Geographies

Abstract (in English): 

In John Muir's first published article, "Yosemite's Glacier," the eminent nature writer compares Yosemite Valley to a worn book, suggesting that to understand the physical geography of the valley a visitor must employ a reading practice similar to the study of literature. Over the century since, nature writers and ecocritics have continued to call for a more critical engagement with our natural world through literature and other media. However, as 21st century readers who are perhaps more likely to experience Yosemite Valley via Google Earth than in Muir's prose--much less as a physical space--we must begin to ask how or in what ways can we continue to "read" natural spaces as that are increasingly mediated through digital tools such as Google Earth and Second Life. To address this question I argue that we must learn to apply the same ecocritical reading practices that give subjectivity to the natural world to the digitally mediated geographies that increasingly define the spaces we inhabit.

To demonstrate these reading practices, I take as a model Muir's writings and contend that his meticulous description of distance, height, and geological features forms a prototypical "virtual space" for his reader to inhabit as he walks them through the natural spaces of Yosemite Valley. This process of virtualization has evolved over time and been adopted by other media such as photography and film. Yosemite Valley's most current form of virtualization is that of Google Earth where a viewer can not only view the valley rendered in three dimensions, but also "fly through" it as if in an airplane. Google Earth also hypermediates Yosemite by allowing visitors to view and upload images and videos of the valley. I will argue that the digital mediation of natural spaces such as Yosemite give 21st century readers a case study of sorts in how to continue reading natural spaces in a digital world.

While Muir helps us understand the need to read critically the physical world in all its mediations, the question remains if the same reading practices can be applied to "virtual geographies" that do not attempt to remediate the natural world. In using the term "virtual geographies" I am drawing on and extending McKenzie Wark's 1994 usage and applying the term to the earth, sea, sky, walls and objects that surround us in digital 3D environments. I contend and will demonstrate in my presentation that virtual geographies offer rich sites of reading in their own right through my reading of "Immersiva" and "Two Fish," both of which are sims in Second Life.

Implicit in the question "where is electronic literature?" is the importance of spaces of reading. Through first extending the critical reading practices of ecocritics to digitized natural spaces and then applying those reading practices of the virtual geographies of Second Life, I hope to foreground the ways in which spaces have been, and can continue to be, rich texts in and of themselves.

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

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Eric Dean Rasmussen