Forms of focus; tempora cum causis (17)

In The Content of the Form (1987), Hayden White discusses the Annals of Saint Gall’s chronicle of events from the 7th-10th centuries CE. White focuses upon entries for the 8th century CE (pp-6-7):


This year-by-year list of events is interestingly selective. Many years have no entries despite the fact that, presumably, things did happen during that time. But not ones considered necessary to include. The criterion for inclusion also embraces different kinds of event, particularly moments of destruction: bad crops (but also…”great crops”), flood, death of elites, battles. In 732 CE, there was a battle “on Saturday” but no other information is given — not date, not month. The significance of these events is indeed emphasized by such selectivity — the act of omission puts these particular moments in sharper focus. But it’s hard to look at this and not see anything other than a partial record.

In Allusion and Intertext (1998), Stephen Hinds described how focusing upon an aspect of a whole has a “fragmentizing” effect (p103):

“A reading of Virgil which ‘fragments’ the Homeric model into discrete events ‘alluded to’ may reflect nothing more (and nothing less) than a basic interpretative imperative felt by the Virgilian reader to ‘freeze‘ Homer, to hold him still for a moment so that he can be contemplated from a Virgilian point of view.”

Here we have the idea that discussing, or in any way narrativizing, a point of reference is to freeze and hold that referent from a particular point of view, but also to break it off from its original context. An equivalent might be: pressing pause on a video shot from one person’s perspective. So despite the fact that we might be longing for wholeness — indeed, might even be subjected to a kind of wholeness on a daily basis — our perceptive and intellectual faculties create a kind of fragmentation even when we simply try to engage with the reality which surrounds us.

This week, I read (or rather, inhaled) Jenny Offill’s Weather (2020), which has just come out. (A few weeks ago I read about it in the New York Times review by Parul Sehgal.) This novel captures the dread of living in the present moment as an individual facing a future fragmented by climate change. The book itself proceeds in fragmented form, each entry a small paragraph:

These paragraphs might remind you of a number of things. Diary entries. Tweets. Words scribbled on the back on an envelope, or into the notes app. Offill’s novel, proceeding fragmentarily, argues like Hayden White: there is reality, it is happening, but our telling of it is distinct from that reality, and can only ever capture something partial. All narratives, White would argue, have to reckon with this. But Offill’s novel dramatizes this narrative problem, using it as a tool to bring to the foreground the movements of a internal human psychology as it responds to a variety of threats, from the banal of the everyday to the threat of climate destruction.

In my ancient women class this week, we were discussing the fragments of Sappho. Sappho (7th c. BCE) is an interesting figure, of course, because she has loomed so large and for so long in the imaginations of so many, despite the fact that, historically, her readers have only been able to access her work in partial forms. On twitter, there is a bot (@sapphobot) which periodically sends out verses of Sappho as translated by Anne Carson; these tweets are fragments in a number of senses — fragmented by textual transmission (via quotation or shattered papyri), by translation from Greek to English, by twitter’s character limit. In class, the students argued that fragments are more alluring than surviving wholes, and they are right. One student noted that people like “bite-sized” things now, miniatures of culture which can be easily consumed, and easily shared. The combination of ephemerality and immortality is potent. A fragment of Sappho can contain an expression of desire so profoundly human (it can also be a banal list of things). A tweet, an instagram story, captures something real (or something insignificant), and then it’s gone. Text and technology reflect the inherent process of fragmentation via focalization.


A newly made piece of papyrus in the foreground; fragmentary papyrus from the 2nd c. CE (P. Oxy. 2288) containing Sappho poem 1.

Meroë Augustus, “Outer Worlds”, Maurice Blanchot; tempora cum causis (4)

Ancient. The Meroë Head of Augustus (British Museum). 

It’s hard for me to say that I have a favourite art object from the ancient world, but one which I come back to somewhat regularly is the head of Augustus (27-25 BCE) from Meroë which is now in the British Museum. This is a striking example of a phenomenon which occurs so much with objects (and texts) from antiquity; an act of ancient destruction ironically preserves the artefact into modernity. Strabo (17.54) tells us that in the Roman period, statues of Augustus were erected in Egyptian towns near the first cataract of the Nile at Aswan and that an invading Kushite army looted many of them when they raided Roman forts and settlements in Upper Egypt in 25 BCE. Most were later returned as a result of negotiations between the Meroitic Candace (Queen) Amanirenas and the Roman general Gaius Petronius. This bronze head from an over-life-sized statue of Augustus was excavated from under the step of a shrine of Victory in the Kushite city of Meroë. It is thought to have been ritualistically placed there after the head was deliberately removed from the rest of the statue, as a symbol of Meroitic victory over Rome. The history of this object documents a history of defiance. And the x-rays are totally creepy. See more images from the British Museum. 

Modern. This week we’ve been playing the newly released Outer Worlds. We’re only a few hours in because, as elder- and middle-aged-millennials, we find ourselves too tired after our day’s work to be able to focus for very long on our beloved video games. As I play, Outer Worlds makes me think about some very dear favourites: the suite of companions and the resulting cross-chatter calls to mind the Bioware games I love (the original Mass Effect trilogy and Dragon Age: Inquisition in particular); the layout of the Unreliable resembles the interior of the Serenity from Firefly (and there are correspondences between the crews: e.g. Parvati/Kaylee; the presence of a priest-figure: Vicar Max/Shepherd Book); and, of course, the visual aesthetic, sound design, game design, and textual components of the Fallout games. (Although, I will say this: while Fallout games felt immeasurably vast, full of adventure, Outer Worlds feels small; deliberately, claustrophobically small.) The moon-headed Spacer’s Choice person reminds me of Futurama’s moon-headed Luna Park person (“Craterface“); which itself recalls the Man in the Moon in Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902).

I’m sure it has been said before that some video games function like literature. In Classics, we regularly talk about literary intertextuality: i.e., when one text draws (usually consciously) on a prior text. Ovid’s Metamorphoses 14.814 is a verbatim verse of Ennius’ Annales 54 (Skutsch; cf. Hinds 1998: 14-15), consciously pointing out the fact of allusion in the act of making it. This is indeed how Stephen Hinds in the famous Allusion and Intertext (1998), introduces textual reflexivity (p1):

“…alluding poets exert themselves to draw attention to the fact that they are alluding and to reflect upon the nature of their allusive activity. Certain allusions are so constructed as to carry a kind of built-in commentary, a kind of reflexive annotation, which underlines or intensifies their demand to be interpreted as allusions.”

It strikes me that this recursively citational mechanism is something that also happens in video games, but we don’t usually name it as a good thing. Too much of a precursor in your game makes you derivative, not a cleverly tongue-in-cheek auteur who knows well what came before and is trying to outdo, or signal respect towards, the past even in the act of alluding to it. What I’m trying to say is that the intertextuality of video games is an inherently interesting thing. Reframing the relationship of games to one another within the context of  literary intertextuality allows us to observe a conscious response to how culture is absorbed and redeployed. Sci-fi has the tropes which belong specifically to itself, and so new artefacts in the science fiction genre will have to deal allusively with that enormous baggage: sifting out which references to forefront, which to reject. The sampling and referential nature of Outer Worlds has invited me to reflect (pleasantly) on how video games build on and subvert one another, as well as the broader traditions which inform them. There’s another dynamic here as well: yes, games take stories from precursors; they also take mechanics. If one game has pleasing and satisfying play, then another might adopt parts of that gameplay not only as an allusion, but an acceptance that the embodied nature of play is moving in one direction over another, based on user experience. Citationality is an operative part of video game design, and when it’s done well it can be very good indeed.


Excerpt. Maurice Blanchot 1995: 2 (Ann Smock trans.): “The circle, uncurled along a straight line rigorously prolonged, reforms a circle eternally bereft of a centre.”

Daily Life. I started my little lending library in my office! I will be adding so many more books soon.