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Mark Bernstein

Mark Bernstein: hypertext research

Last Build Date: Tue, 26 Dec 2017 13:28:14 -0500


The Atlas of Ancient Rome: Biography and Portraits of the City

Tue, 26 Dec 2017 13:25:19 -0500

This vast and lavish two-volume set seeks to locate every building in Ancient Rome for which we have good evidence, from Rome’s origins to the collapse of the ancient world. This is an attempt to rebuild the Marble Plan of Rome, allowing additionally for a temporal dimension. It’s a gorgeous pair of books, and though costly, these volumes are a pinnacle of modern bookmaking.

What’s often missing here is the question of uncertainty, of what we might not know and exactly how we know what we do. Mary Beard writes in TLS:

Here there are thousands of things which are reliable and useful, and many hundreds that are tendentious and contentious – and even experts will sometimes be challenged to tell them apart.

Despite the lavish printing and exquisite production, the translation of the essays from their original Italian strikes me as very indifferent.

Peculiar Ground

Tue, 26 Dec 2017 12:51:20 -0500

A fascinating, strange ghost story, this tale of a stately house and its grounds begins with the 17th-century construction of its storied gardens and then proceeds to sexual entanglements in 1961 and their aftermath in 1989. Eery, intriguing, and lyrical.

The Book Of Dust

Tue, 26 Dec 2017 12:47:37 -0500

This fascinating novel revisits Lyra’s Oxford, in the months before Lyra is born and during the great flood that followed. As was the case in The Golden Compass, it’s not clear just where Pullman is going with this. But in the older books, we didn’t know that Pullman was going anywhere — far less that he was headed for a refutation of Narnia and a refutation of the Bible. I think we can already see shadows of great, dark things in this pleasing and pleasant adventure.

Paris After the Liberation 1944-1949

Tue, 26 Dec 2017 12:43:55 -0500

What’s hard to imagine about the aftermath of the Occupation, and what Beevor captures wonderfully, is the extent to which everything seems to have improvised at the last minute. Everyone was terrified that they’d be accused of collaborating; everyone who stayed, after all, had in some sense collaborated. No one knew whether the Occupation would be replaced by a new Occupation by the Allies, or by something else — and if the latter, whether something else was a new republic or the old one.

Someday, Trump will be gone. It makes sense to think about how we can restore our damaged land.

The other fascinating argument this close look at Paris after the war makes is that these years were necessarily a response to the failure that became Vichy, and that the response itself was a failure. Rather than address the legacy of the war, France (after some years of toying with Communism and related dithering) chose to adopt a comforting myth, and to adhere to that myth until it collapsed in the wake of 1968. Beevor thinks 1968, too, was a failure. Most people do. But 1968 transformed the way way think; the triumph of rock and irony, the rise of postmodernism, liberation theology are all built on the foundation of 1968.

1968 gave us, in the end, the collapse of the Iron Curtain. It also have use truthiness and Trump. We’re still living in the ruins.


Sat, 23 Dec 2017 13:36:43 -0500

This fascinating Netflix miniseries by Scott Frank examines the West as it would be experienced by a 19th century frontier town that is populated with modern women. Almost all the men of La Belle, New Mexico have been killed in a mine accident, and the surviving men are a blind sheriff, a deputy who is far too young and too easy to bruise, a preacher who has mysteriously vanished en route to the territory, and a cadre of retired buffalo soldiers a few miles away. The women run things and they do it well; they understand feminism. They’re racially tolerant and understand the complexity of sexual orientation: they’re not the women of history but they act as we might (hope to) act in the face of adversity.

Conference News

Wed, 20 Dec 2017 10:58:44 -0500

There’s an interesting Web Studies conference slated for next October in Paris.

Hypertext 18 (9-12 July, 2018) has a new track for Blue Sky Ideas.

The Nether: A Play

Tue, 12 Dec 2017 12:52:11 -0500

I’ve been interested of late in some moral questions raised by immersive fictions. For example, in Hamlet on the Star Trek holodeck, can one marry Ophelia? Can Holodeck Ophelia possibly give her consent?

Haley’s 2013 play, The Nether, explores an older vision of immersive fiction. She imagines a world in which Second Life has become a widespread escape from ecological and spiritual disaster, and place to which damaged people retreat for solace or to indulge their darker fantasies. It’s an AOL chat room gone mad. Yet, after all, it’s all just imaginary. No one is harmed, everyone has chosen to be where they are. The blood isn’t real, and the tears — well, what do tears signify in a construct?

It’s an intriguing inquisitorial drama, expertly propelled by the propulsive force of interrogation. It also does a superb job of handling a problem that drove me up the wall in Those Trojan Girls: how do we approach a story in which unspeakable things may happen to children? We could choose not to imagine such things, to be sure, but that’s untrue — and it betrays all those on whom such harms are, in fact, inflicted.

To some extent, Haley’s problem is Plato’s: since fiction is a lie, what is to prevent us from simply telling ourselves stories that make us feel good? Might those stories keep us from actually doing things that are necessary if we are to make a better world? I’m more concerned, I think, with our impact on the imagined world: does acting badly in a story make you a bad person? Sometimes, I think, it might.

Something Wicked

Fri, 8 Dec 2017 11:03:54 -0500

(Adapted from section 8 of “Some Moral Questions Concerning Story In Immersive Hypertext Narrative”)

The Haggadah annually reminds us of the Wicked Child, which is to say the child who holds himself aloof from and superior to the story, the child who asks “what is this computational narrative of yours?”

John Gardner famously chided writers who treat their own characters inhumanely; is it not equally wanton for us to maltreat computational worlds and their denizens? If so, blame is due not only to the thoughtless interactor but also to the writer who led her into error. Michael Joyce’s afternoon, a story famously begins by tempting the reader with Satan’s question: “Do you want to hear about it?” We could not refuse an acquaintance who asked this, but we might be tempted to deny Peter who is, after all, a program in a plastic box. If we do, though, afternoon acknowledges the temptation and gently steers us toward righteousness.

Writers of chatbots and of Interactive Fiction are particularly plagued by wicked children, for the freedom to type anything into the parser inevitably invites people to tell the computer to “fuck off.” It’s tempting in Dwarf Fortress, say, to experiment with odd conditions that interest you, even though your dwarves will not enjoy them. Tabletop role-playing games address the wicked child problem through social sanctions: if you’re tasteless, you’re unlikely to be invited back. New media remediates social storytelling to make the story yours, but requires a new mechanism to discourage a cynical or unthinking stance.