ENGL 436: Fiction, Game, World
A world is an odd thing. But like so many fundamental components of how we think about and experience our lives, its oddness as a concept is not immediately apparent. The world is just . . everything, right? All The Stuff? It’s the way we refer to our surroundings (personal, political, economic, cultural, material; local, national, global) as a totality, as a singular object of thought rather than a whole lot of disparate, individual aspects. It’s our name for the baseline of existence, the much larger background to the foreground of our individual and interconnected lives, the stage on which we act life’s play. It’s terrain, both literally and figuratively—terrain none of us will ever explore completely but which we theoretically could, if we had but time and an infinite supply of frequent flier miles. There’s us and there’s the world we live in; we inhabit it and it contains us; we are small and it is large (it probably wouldn’t work very well if we were bigger than our world, now, would it?). Seems simple enough.
Conceptually, though, “world” is a dizzying knot of contradictions. It seems universal and comprehensive (“the whole wide world”) but may in fact be partial and exclusive (“wish I could be part of that world,” sings the Little Mermaid memorably). It suggests commonality and oneness (“we are the world,” or we were when an army of pop stars said we were) but also depends on idiosyncrasy and particularity (the world of the ancient Greeks, the Third World, the world of competitive mustache-growing). It encompasses everything, or maybe only actually a few things—which, from a certain standpoint, may feel like everything. There’s my world and your world and that other guy’s world; there’s the ancient world, the medieval world, and the modern world (each different from the others but, confusingly, enveloping the same planet); there are worlds smaller than the eye can see (the amoeba doesn’t worry about globalization) and worlds so distant the physical laws of the universe likely prevent any of us from ever setting foot on them; there’s the wide world of sports, the small world in which we inevitably run into people from our kindergarten class in random places decades later, the limited and sometimes limiting world of a small town, the unthinkably tiny and provincial world of academia.
What I want to impress on you at the outset of this class, in other words, is that “world” as a concept is much more complicated, flexible, plural, and remarkable than it first seems. Like Whitman, it contains multitudes.
Enter fiction, stage right. As anyone who got a little weepy upon finishing the third Hunger Games book or watching the last Harry Potter movie can attest, fictions produce worlds—worlds we feel like we’re inhabiting for a time, worlds we grow to feel at home in, worlds we miss when we put down the book or eject the DVD or beat the final boss. Our task for the next six weeks is to unpack the relationship between the kinds of narrative and/or interactive fiction we tend to consume, on the one hand, and our concept of worldness on the other hand. What do we mean when we talk about “the world of that novel” or “the world of this film”? How do novels and short stories create, simulate, imagine, imply, or refer to a world? Does television, each series spread across months and years, generate a fictional world in the same way as the two hours of a film? How do we participate differently in the world of a graphic novel and the world of a video game? How do these various cultural objects construct or suggest their worlds, and what does that reveal to us about how we think about non-fictional worlds? How can we think of worldness as a matter of form and structure rather than of content, and how do fictional and virtual/game worlds facilitate this? How does each narrative—by definition smaller and narrower than the fictional world presumed to contain it—imply the parts of its world it doesn’t expressly depict? How do traditional narrative gizmos like plot, character, and perspective shape the way we imagine fictional worlds? How does our experience of fictional worlds affect our experience of “real” worlds? The question here is not what each text means, but rather what it does—how it molds our way of thinking, perceiving, imagining, and thus living.
As this is ostensibly a class on contemporary fiction, we will limit ourselves to texts from the last few decades. I would suggest, moreover, that this question of worlds and worldness is particularly pressing in these same decades. The world used to be something one only had to think about in its totality if one was trying to conquer it—Alexander the Great had to be a theorist of worldness in a way that Joe Schmo the 19th Century Chimneysweep did not. In the era of globalization and virtual worlds, however, all such bets are off. Narrative fiction has always had interesting relationships to worldness (Dante’s Hell was a virtual world of sorts long before World of Warcraft), but these relationships are particularly compelling now that world-thinking is so urgent. As such, the question of worldness and its relation to fiction may be one of the most pressing questions to ask about contemporary literature and culture. Through the wide array of texts we’ll encounter this summer, we will hope to shed some useful and interesting light on these and other questions.