An expedition into worlds

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Author(s): 
Boni, Marta

The idea of putting together the panels of this conference started from the need to study the deep interest of film, television and communication studies for emergent new media and the related practices circulating in the media sphere today. More specifically, we're interested in the situations in which a narrative goes beyond its traditional textual boundaries, under the impulsion of industrial and grassroots activities and creates an imaginary setting with coherent qualities. But also, we're interested in these literary and cultural phenomena that are no longer recognizable as works, novels or essays and that, thanks to years of reading and rewriting processes, have become “monuments”, or “sacred texts” or what Franco Moretti calls “world texts”. Understanding the practices of world building can help us better understand the contemporary mediascape, and question the notions of unity and multiplicity, thresholds of textuality, authorship, and interactivity, among others.

Audiovisual fragments are traveling objects which enter our everyday life: YouTube videos watched on a smartphone, on screens in public transportation, on city walls. There is also the rich variety of media artifacts, such as merchandising, toys, Facebook pages... At first glance, these seem like incomplete objects. Most of the time, instead, each of these fragments is the doorway to a world. Ephemeral media that surround a main text traditionally reinforce a brand's image; think of marketing strategies for television shows like Game of Thrones, which provide the user with fun artifacts and spreadable content while creating a precise identity for the television channel. In the situation that Henry Jenkins calls transmedia storytelling, well exemplified by The Matrix, each fragment has its own narrative function that increases a work's complexity, within a networked strategy. A world supports multiple characters and multiple stories, methodically dispersed across various delivery channels. Such a large assortment of alternative viewpoints and paths makes if so that we can no longer talk of a text and the ancillary function of paratextuality, but of a labyrinth in which hierarchical distinctions are destined to blur. As we know, this principle is not new: the Bible offers narratives that can be consumed in differentiated contexts and through multiple visual organizations of characters and situations: stained glass, paintings, frescos, miniatures...

It should be noted that the cinematic apparatus itself has always been characterized by seriality. As André Gaudreault showed, the multiplicity of frames that makes up a shot is not just a superposition of undifferentiated elements. On the contrary, a qualitatively different phenomenon emerges: from single, fixed elements, we get motion (Gaudreault 2002: 39).
A world, then, is more meaningful than the juxtaposition of its fragments. Some of its qualities may appear once its organization as a living system or an ecosystem is set: qualities that do not exist when they are separate form each other.
A world is similar to what Genette calls “pluralité opérale”: a work that survives its dissolution, that transcends its immanent structure. For this reason, a world has to be considered also as an elastic and ceaselessly expanding narrative space.
In order to understand worlds, we have to understand complexity: we have to associate the principles of order and disorder. In fact, the most interesting part of transmedia phenomena happens outside the frames of official products: we have to study all the background noise, craft, and all the practices that have often been compared to an oral culture, and understand the popular and participatory cultures converging into a world. Viewers can choose to lean back or to lean forward, to drill into the information regarding the diegesis or to share it. Some actions are carried out through a long-term involvement, while other practices consist in sharing content with a simple click. Users, viewers and gamers are at the core of imaginary worlds: they quote the world as if it was their own, like in the cult phenomena studied by Eco in "Travels in Hyperreality". They are explorers, they build maps (think of the fan made encyclopedia that lists all the features of Lost), but they also bring their own contribution to the dilation of a world, operating alone or within fan communities. Fan fictions are an example of a play with the diegesis and with the notions of canon: they show that a coherent world of fiction can contain many different grafts, created by different authors, but the world still maintains its own character. Fans create videos or fan art, some of which are even “more tasteful than a deliberately made product” (Genette). Use, distortion, performance, individual will, values and culture shape a media product, bring it into real life and bring real life into it.

Viewer's appropriations also contribute to defining a world's boundaries. For example, the same galaxy can not contain at the same time Star Wars and Star Trek (Gray 2003) – even if the study of cosplay (people dressing up like characters and gathering together in conventions) proves the opposite (see also Jenkins 1992; Hills 2002).
And what happens when a world deliberately crosses the boundaries with fiction and enters real life, breaking the fictional pact, like in Alternate reality games where elements of a city, such as statues or shops become the knots of a gaming mechanism?

Worlds are also a potential source of knowledge or a set of life lessons (Jullier and Leveratto) « le récit de fiction constituerait un instrument dont nous disposons pour comprendre notre propre univers » (Esquenazi, 2009: 17). American television series are fully furnished worlds (Eco) that we get acquainted with, thanks to the various characters, things and appliances that we can find in it, that make it plausible and convincing. Thanks to recurrence and repetition, the reader gets familiarized with the serial text, selects fragments from it, attributes properties and creates personal meanings, but also embodyies the fictional world. Viewers have always adopted what Marcel Mauss called the “techniques of the body” of the characters: women from the 30's learned a specific gait from classic cinema's stars, for example, or men learned from James Dean or Marlon Brando what being a man looks like. A fictional world enters a personal encyclopedia that can be used in real life. Since, «if we reconstrue fictional universes as the closest possible to the real world, why not reconstrue the domains of the real world for which we lack information as the closest possible to the world of a certain fiction?» (Ryan 1991 : 54).

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