Heretical Reading: Freedom as Question and Process in Postmodern American Novel and Technological Pedagogy

My dissertation, Heretical Reading: Freedom as Question and Process in Postmodern American Novel and Technological Pedagogy, describes a method of reading with literary, disciplinary, and pedagogical implications. In literary terms, heretical reading refers to the way that the postmodern novelists Thomas Pynchon, Vladimir Nabokov, and Philip K. Dick read and appropriate Gnosticism in order to construct narratives about the struggle to regain freedom in novels such as Gravity’s Rainbow, Invitation to a Beheading, and VALIS. On a disciplinary level, heretical reading is an interpretative method I exert to foreground possibilities of freedom within postmodern fiction that intrude into the background of the poststructuralist definition of the world but ultimately transcend it. These four forms of freedom are freedom as presence and transcendence, as liberating knowledge, as a spirituality constituting self-awareness, and as choice conceived navigationally rather than hierarchically. Postmodern authors imply these possibilities consciously and metafictionally, but heretical reading is also my way of foregrounding and intensifying them. I amplify these possibilities through a process that includes the skeptical questioning encouraged by both postmodern novels and poststructuralism, but this process is not limited to the poststructuralist ambitions of critique, disclosure, and debunking. Instead, I critique inauthentic and unquestioned claims to freedom so that intimations of their genuine possibility can be experienced in greater intensity.

This way of reading is a choice that is invited and encouraged by the authors of postmodern novels but not demanded by them. In order to function as a method, heretical reading requires my intervention as a reader to bring these possibilities to the foreground and to navigationally choose them. Heretical reading refers to my way of navigating through these texts, taking a path that diverges from poststructuralism by connecting intimations of freedom which poststructuralist theorists leave unnoticed and unconnected. By linking these fragmentary and multi-linear intimations, a sequential process of seeking freedom can be revealed, in which each possibility of freedom constitutes a step whose attainment allows both characters and readers to move to the next step. I implement the full potential of heretical reading in technological pedagogy, by allowing the possibilities of freedom suggested by authors to generate a program of invention and interaction that authorizes multiple interpretative operations on the part of students.

A third chapter argues that heretical reading can be extended into the pedagogical use of hypertext, the electronic textual format of the World Wide Web, in order to advance the same goals of freedom as question and process sought by my readings of postmodern novels. Students compose hypertext essays that make a new interpretative choice by choosing a path through the text that has been closed off by a previous group of critics. This path consists of the linkages between ?sparks??passages that stand out with particular imaginative and intuitive significance against a background of indeterminacy. Students learn to justify their responses to these passages through textual evidence of their richness and significance, similar to the Russian formalist idea that ?defamiliarization? foregrounds certain elements of the text by making them strange. A fourth dissertation chapter describes a final pedagogical extension of heretical reading as a strategy for using theories of computer and video game design within the literature classroom, with emphasis on a type of text-based computer game called interactive fiction. This method transforms printed novels into interactive fictions in order to encourage freedom in the form of interaction with the text. The various interpretative operations performed on a text during classroom discussion change the ways the text is imagined and experienced, just as players of an interactive fiction direct the outcome of a story by typing input in response to prompts. The convictions underlying heretical reading function within the classroom as a set of rules, but these rules are designed to open up, not to constrain; to energetically orient, not to govern; to yield satisfactions at the expressive level, not to conclude. —Jeffrey Lamar HowardHeretical Reading: Freedom as Question and Process in Postmodern American Novel and Technological Pedagogy (University of Texas at Austin)

(Ephasis added.)

I haven’t had the chance to read through it yet, but I plan to print up a copy and read it during the exams I’ll be proctoring over the next few days. (The link goes to a big PDF, by the way.)

Looks very good. And it comes just in time for me to include it in my annual report. (Howard cites and engages nicely with my online definition of interactive fiction, and places it within a larger context in a manner that I found illuminating and instructive.)

Apart from the occasional reference as a postmodern, reader-response, or purely formal example, interactive fiction has existed in something of a theoretical vacuum, dismissed by the cybergurus as a nostalgic narrative throwback, and ignored by the literati as too geeky. Nick Montfort’s Twisty Little Passages is a notable exception, though his focus on MIT and the cultural origins of Zork means much room is left for additional studies (like Howard’s). Here, we see interactive fiction invoked, not as an extreme example, or as an object of nostalgic inquiry, or a “look-how-far-we-have-come” reference point, but rather as an integral part of a larger argument about new media development.

At least the cybergurus have memories of how cool IF seemed when they first encountered it; yet sadly, in the literary world IF is mostly encountered through transcripts published in literary works.

I’d love it if Howard published an electronic dissertation, with embedded links to live versions of all the IF works he mentioned (copyright laws permitting), but lacking that ideal text I’m still delighted at what seems (to my first glance) an excellent integration of contemporary IF community standards and culture, and mainstream literary theory. Yet it’s the technological pedagogy that really interests me the most.

On another note, it was interesting to see, within the context of Howard’s academic prose, passages I had written for my website — reproduced along with the boldface keywords that I added for the convenience of online readers. Those bold words leap oddly off of Howard’s academic pages, as if they were spoken shouted by a slightly drunk or at least rather obnoxious bar patron who’s getting insecure because he’s just starting to suspect you’re baiting him. Not that I really think Howard was baiting me — I’m just commenting on how it might look to someone who wonders why the heck this Jerz guy feels it is necessary to use bold keywords all the time.