An Imaginary Syllabus: Mediums

(Article thumbnail from Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud)

This past week I went to go see Mission Impossible: Fallout with my family (a third time for me… I think they liked it decently well). Before the screening my Mom was asking me what specifically I liked so much about the film, and I listed off the many virtues I’ve already discussed: practical stunts viscerally land differently than CGI (I love CGI, but for the actual oohs and ahhs, which I heard all three times I went to go see the film, practical effects win out), it’s well shot, it must have been insane to make, it’s just a whole lot of fun, etc. But really what I love so much about the film is it’s just a great film. It’d be a terrible, terrible book. A pretty vapid TV series. It might do okay as a comic book, or a video game, but at the end of the day it can only really, truly exist as a film – film is it’s optimal medium.

I’ve also spent a lot of time this week reading comics (thanks to Sam for loaning me Ed Piskor’s X-Men Grand Design), playing video games (Stardew: Valley multiplayer, Cities: Skylines), watching TV (Disenchantment, which I won’t talk about too much so as not to keep heaping insults onto Netflix output), and reading (The Burglar’s Guide to the City and Experience on Demand). It’s that last book that prompted this article by reawakening something I do every once in a blue moon: putting together a fictional syllabus for a class I’ll probably never teach. This time I focused on mediums – what does each specific medium offer that no other mediums can easily replicate? So, here is my totally fictional syllabus, in case you’re curious

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius by Borges

Full disclosure, if I ever had the opportunity to teach a class I’d probably find a way to sneak this in. So, to start the course of mediums I’d go with this first. Just have people read it, and then we’d discuss it on it’s own, but mostly just let it sit as we complete the rest of the course. We’ll get back to its themes and importance later.

Poetics by Aristotle

Yeah, yeah. I know. But still, love it, hate it, whatever, it’s (as far as I know, and correct me if I’m wrong) the oldest piece concerned with “what makes stories effective.” There’s a reason it’s still a model for today’s narrative works of fiction. It’s good. Yeah, you can break a lot of rules in it, but it’s best to know the rules before you break them. While my imagined course would be more focused on “experience” versus “narrative” it seems nearly impossible to not include Poetics.

The Art of Immersion by Frank Rose

I think this was the first book I read for college, and I reread it for classes throughout, but in truth it’s good and presents a nice survey of a lot of different mediums, from film to TV to video games to augmented reality. Story can take so many different forms, and can worm its way off the page/screen and into our real life. This is a great book to begin to expand an understanding of the forms stories can take beyond strict narrative absorbed by a “passive consumer.”

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

This would be our first deep dive into a specific medium. Understanding Comics is an impressive book, and touches on a lot of the ways that comics engage a reader that other mediums simply can’t. Comics are largely narrative based (or at least the ones I read are, I am more than certain that someone out there is making some bold and inventive comics outside of that realm) but they have a few tricks up their sleeves that McCloud expertly differentiates from film and books. Symbols, universality, and reader agency are the things that particularly stick in my mind, but I haven’t read the book in a while and each passage is written with a keen eye and clear love of the topic. This is the first book that clearly articulates that each medium brings certain tools to the table that other medium simply cannot.

Extra Lives by Tom Bissell

Extra Lives by Bissell is a good turn away from narrative and further into experience. While video games are certainly still anchored, for the most part, by narrative they don’t have to be, and even those that are framed primarily by narrative give the “consumer” a lot more agency than film, tv, books, or even comics. Dives into ludonarrative (which I discussed last week) and the ways that taking action affects our consumption of media are worthwhile, and as with all the books outlined in this imaginary syllabus it is a good “starter book” – easy to read and digest, while clearly suggesting topics one could pursue further through other literature.

Experience on Demand by Jeremy Bailenson

Second to last, the book that prompted the thought experiment. Bailenson has been working in VR for two decades, and he is primarily focused on how much more immersive and how much deeper of an experience it can create as opposed to other mediums. He consistently throughout the book insists that it is not just a “new form of media” but something more profound. He’s also, equally importantly, interested in what we can do with it, and what responsibilities come with that – an important question will all media. VR is pretty exclusively experience, and it offers a lot of freedom to the “reader/player/consumer” (whatever your prefered phrase is). Like video games, like comics, like narrative fiction, it is a collaboration between both the designer and the “player” – how do you create a framework to allow someone to explore, and while exploring get the experience you’d like them to have while still feeling (rightly) that they have agency?

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius by Borges

Finally, we’d end again with Tlön, discussing in more depth what it’s all about – how narrative and fiction does seep into and shape our world, going from the ethereal to the physical because it affects the way we see and frame concepts, and our concepts are our understanding of the world. Each medium offers us different tools to shape an experience, and those experiences are real.

I imagine it’s not vigorous enough a course to pass through any dean’s office (is that how courses get approved? I assume there must be some oversight, right?). But it’s a series of books that have profoundly changed the way I view different mediums and experiences,  a series of books that have profoundly shaped the way I view the tools we have at our disposal as artists and curators, a series of books that have profoundly affected the way I view art. Give them a read if you’re bored of staring at a screen (or download them to an e-reader if you’re not bored of staring at a screen).

Final note – you’ll maybe notice a lack of books discussing TV, film, and books themselves. It’s not due to lack of interest, or because I don’t think they have a place in this “course,” but because I have trouble thinking of a specific book for each that encapsulates well what they can do. Like I said of Extra Lives – it’s comprehensive, but not too deep. While I’ve read interesting theory books on all three subjects, I wouldn’t say I’ve read anything that’s comprehensive about any of them. Maybe because we’re exposed to them more frequently and a “surface level survey” would be redundant? Whatever the reason, I more than welcome suggestions!

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