The 7 Best Links to Digital Poetry Projects from MLA

Before I give you the listicle, I’m going to make you skim through some summary. I’m mean like that. (Back off, man. I’m an academic.)

I go to the Modern Language Association annual convention these days for the digital panels — and to hobnob with the smart people on them, of course, many of whom I know already, but many of whom I don’t know, even “just” online. If I had to name just one thing I got from MLA this year, it’s that digital humanities is no longer the next big thing — it’s beginning to be just an ordinary thing. In other words, I felt that there was a lot less defensiveness about digital methods in the study of literature this year.

Granted, most of the papers dealing with digital methods are still located on panels themed around digital methods, as I think you can tell by Mark Sample’s helpful annual listing, but there was some promising intermingling between digital and traditional methods papers on panels such as “Diversifying the Victorian Verse Archives.” (Note: I was on my way to that panel when a minor emergency came up that took an hour or so to resolve; I was very sorry indeed to have to miss it.) All three of those papers basically teach us a bit more about Victorian songs and their relation to Victorian poetry than we used to know, but only two of them explicitly mention the creation or sophisticated use of digital archives as a major component of the research. And Brian Croxall and I both had the same idea in forming our panels: to concentrate on the results rather than the methods. Both his Association for Computers and the Humanities panel “Beyond the Digital: Pattern Recognition and Interpretation” and the panel I put together titled “Things My Computer Taught Me About Poems” tried (with fair success) to do less description of and argument for digital approaches while giving more concrete examples of the new insights into language and literature these approaches have given.

But I have to admit that the single best paper I heard that took what we might call this “more interpretation, less demonstration” approach was Mark Algee-Hewitt’s, of the Stanford Literary Lab. In a panel titled “Making Sense of Big Data,” Algee-Hewitt seemed all insight, though granted what he had insight into was a particular well-known literary theory of Mikhail Bakhtin’s rather than a literary text or corpus. In The Dialogic Imagination Bakhtin famously argues that novels get their energy from “heteroglossia,” or what we might call “polyvocality.” Novels have so many voices, so many registers of diction: all the characters and their dialogue, the narrator in various moods and modes. Lyric poems, by supposed contrast, generally have one voice: that of the poet. Algee-Hewitt recounted an absorbing tale of getting results from his analysis of the comprehensive Eighteenth-Century Collections Online database (ECCO) that first supported and then challenged Bakhtin’s theory: ultimately, at least if you consider these texts at the semantic level of individual words (what individual words mean, that is), Bakhtin seems to be wrong — poems are actually far more polyvocal, less “self-similar” in Algee-Hewitt’s term, than novels and non-fiction. Theorists versus data analysts! I love it. Can’t wait to hear more. I’m sure the debate over that particular issue of the heteroglossia of novels and poetry, if it branches out, will indeed circle back to method — one questioner raised the issue of whether semantic word analysis really matches Bakhtin’s idea of “heteroglossia” — but at least it won’t be an argument about whether such data analysis is legitimate: only how to do it as well as possible. As a side note from that paper, I was impressed by the very fact that the Stanford Literary Lab has developed a simple and effective algorithm to tell novels apart from nonfiction apart from poetry and poetic drama from the full-text data: I think Algee-Hewitt said it had about a 95% accuracy rate. I can see that being very useful for someone else’s project. Clearly I need to keep a closer eye on that Stanford Literary Lab.

Here’s the listicle for you, then — The 7 Best Links to Digital Poetry Projects from MLA:

  1. Princeton Prosody Archive, Meredith Martin et al. (database not live yet)
  2. Steepletop Library – The Books of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Amanda French (me!)
  3. Poem Viewer, Julie Lein and Katharine Coles et al.
  4. Songs of the Victorians, Joanna Swafford
  5. Stanford Literary Lab Projects, Mark Algee-Hewitt et al.
  6. eMOP: The Early Modern OCR Project, Laura Mandell et al.
  7. I ♥ E-Poetry, Short-Form Scholarship on Born-Digital Poetry and Poetics, Léonardo Flores et al.

There’s a lot more that happened at MLA that I didn’t see that I could have posted, I’m sure, and there’s a lot more that I saw and liked that I can’t easily link to, but that’ll do for now. (I’ve always wanted to dip a toe in the listicle biz.) And if you’re interested, here are a couple of Storify stories from the two panels I presented on — they often have helpful summaries and reactions and commentary from the twittering audience:

Amanda out.

Introduction to Omeka – Lesson Plan

I’ve taught “Introduction to Omeka” many times at various THATCamps, but I’ve never done more than work from an outline. Today, however, I wrote it all down, and I am posting it for your edification here. The text is below, and here is a PDF: Introduction_to_Omeka_Lesson_Plan. I’ve marked the PDF with a CC-BY license, and all the content on this site is similarly marked, so feel free to share and adapt. You may also be interested in the lesson plan for the workshop Teaching with Omeka that I co-taught with Jeff McClurken at THATCamp Pedagogy back in 2011.

One reason I’ve never written this up before is that I’ve taught the workshop so many times (perhaps a dozen?) that I felt I knew it backward and forward with just a sketchy outline; I’ve rarely had the chance to teach anything so many times, and I must say that I’ve appreciated the chance to practice and improve. It has also taught me to be grateful for the “how to teach technology” training I had at the University of Virginia back when I was a “Teaching with Technology Support Partner” — the model they gave us, which I still remember and use, was this: Motivate, Define, Demonstrate, Practice. First, you have to convince people that they want to learn this software and explain how it’s different from other software, and show them exciting examples of things accomplished with the software. Then you should define particular terms that might be unfamiliar, then demonstrate key features or tasks, then have people practice using the software while you circulate and help them. It’s never as neat as that, of course — in particular, it’s usually best to help define a term by demonstrating its use in context — but I do try to follow that rough model when I’m teaching technology.

In any case, here you go.

Introduction to Omeka: Lesson Plan

by Amanda French –

  1. Preparation

    1. Go to and click the big “Sign up!” button. Sign up for the free Basic plan. When you submit the form, you will be emailed an activation link and a username and password. If you don’t get the email, check your spam folder. Feel free to explore Omeka on your own while I take you through it.

  2. Introduction – What is Omeka? (10 minutes)

    1. Omeka is a simple, free web publishing system built by and for scholars that is used by hundreds of archives, historical societies, libraries, museums, and individual researchers and teachers to create searchable online databases and scholarly online interpretations of their digital collections. If you have a digital collection of primary sources that you want to publish online in a scholarly way, you’ll want to consider Omeka.

    2. “Omeka” (pronounced oh-MEH-ka) is a Swahili word meaning “to display or lay out wares” –

    3. The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media began building Omeka in 2006; they wanted to abstract the technologies they were using repeatedly to build historical websites, all of which required setting up a searchable database that was integrated with an online exhibit.

    4. One of the first sites to use a proto-version of what would become Omeka was the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, an archive of personal stories and digital records related to the 2005 hurricanes Katrina and Rita: Another was the April 16th Archive at, a commemoration of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting tragedy. Omeka 1.0 was officially released for public use in June 2009.

    5. The free, open source, downloadable version of Omeka is available at This version of Omeka is self-hosted software that can be installed on a web hosting server (not on your personal computer, at least not unless you’re willing to install a virtual server on your PC). Librarians or educational technologists at your institution may be happy to install and maintain Omeka for you on an organizational web hosting server; if you’d like to buy commercial web hosting for about $100 per year and teach yourself to use it, you can check out the Omeka team’s hosting suggestions.

    6. Because some organizations and individuals couldn’t or didn’t want to run their own server or buy commercial server space, RRCHNM began developing a hosted version of Omeka that requires much less technical knowledge, infrastructure, and labor. The hosted version of Omeka, which was beta-launched in October 2010, is available at

    7. When considering whether to use the self-hosted version of Omeka or the hosted version of Omeka, you will want to keep in mind the useful lesson from Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Concomitantly, of course, “with less responsibility comes less power.” In other words, when you download Omeka from, you can customize it as much as you want and install it as many times as you like, but creating and supporting those Omeka sites may take a good bit of knowledge and time. When you use the hosted version of Omeka at, it’s much easier, but you will run up against certain limits of space and functionality. You might also think of self-hosting Omeka as like owning a house, whereas using the hosted version of Omeka is like renting an apartment. Moving from one to the other is perfectly feasible, but it’s about the same level of hassle as moving house (it depends on how much stuff you have, for one thing!). See for more on this issue.

    8. Omeka is a nonprofit project; its funding comes from federal funding agencies and from private foundations who support education: IMLS, Mellon, Sloan, and Kress. The fees for the premium plans at are used to buy storage space for your files from Amazon Web Services.

  3. Basic Omeka features and definitions (15 minutes)

    1. Here’s a typical Omeka site: the City of Boston archive – (linked to from the main City of Boston Archives at I’ll define some key terms and features while taking you through this site.

    2. Items – An “item” is the basic unit of an Omeka site. It might be a photograph with a single attached image file, a three-page letter with three attached image files (one for each page), or a record with no attached files (such as a “person” record). Omeka can handle all the major digital file types for documents, images, audio, and video; audio and video files display as an embedded Quicktime player so that the user can listen or watch. Example: See this site’s 77 items at

      1. Metadata – Data about data; information about an item. Bibliographic metadata is the title, author, publisher, date and so on of a publication, for instance. Omeka encourages you to describe every item with lots of metadata, which is part of what makes it a scholarly system. Example:

      2. Dublin Core – Dublin Core is a metadata standard used by libraries and archives for digital items that consists of 15 basic fields that can be used to describe any digital object, no matter what it is. Such basic fields include Creator, Subject, Description, Date, Rights, and so on. “Dublin” is Dublin Ohio, not Dublin Ireland; “core” is the same sense as “core curriculum” — the name comes from the 1995 meeting in Dublin, OH where librarians and computer scientists first formulated this shared standard set of essential information needed to describe digital objects. Omeka does also allow adding additional standard metadata fields and creating custom metadata fields, but this may make it more difficult to transfer your data to and from Omeka and other systems, since these systems need a shared vocabulary to “talk” to one another. But the fact that Omeka is built on Dublin Core means that your data is likelier to last longer, because it can be moved to other systems later. There are prompts built in to Omeka that will help you understand what information to put in every Dublin Core field, but you can also consult the Dublin Core User Guide section on Creating Metadata (version 2).

      3. Advanced Search – Every Omeka site comes by default with a basic keyword search and an Advanced Search screen. Any information entered in an item’s Dublin Core metadata fields will be findable when a user searches for it, and the Advanced Search lets a user narrow by particular metadata fields. Example: Go to and search for Date → contains → 1942 to find items from the year 1942.

      4. Item Type – By default Omeka offers 12 types of items, including “Document,” “Still Image,” “Sound,” “Moving Image,” “Person,” and more. You can also define custom item types, perhaps something like “Coin” or “Poem” or “Quilt,” and you can define custom sets of metadata fields to go with those item types. For instance, if you define the item type “Poem,” you might define a metadata field such as “Rhyme Scheme” where you can enter that information (such as A’bA” abA’ abA” abA’ abA” abA’A” for a villanelle). Be aware, though, that creating custom item types and metadata fields may make it more difficult to exchange data between your Omeka archive and other existing systems. Example: Go to and Search by Type = Document to find 7 documents in the archive (as opposed to photos, for instance).

      5. Tags – Tags allow you to link items together with terms of your choosing. When any two items have the same tag, the tag automatically turns into a link. Omeka sites allow you to browse items by tag. Example: Go to and click “Hyde Park” to see items tagged with that term.

      6. Featured Items – Omeka sites by default have a space on the home page for recently added items and for “featured” items that are particularly interesting. You can mark items as “featured” when you add them (or afterward). Example: Go to to see the featured item. (This site currently has only one featured item, so it never changes; sites with more than one featured item will load a new one randomly when the site is refreshed.)

    3. Collections – Collections are ways of organizing items, rather like file folders on your computer, or like collections in archives such as “Papers of William Faulkner, 1929-1965” in the Special Collections of the University of Virginia. Collections provide a way to organize your items into separate, logically coherent groups. Items do not have to be in collections, but once an item is in a collection, it can’t be in any other collection. You can make as many links as you like between items in different collections, though, with tags and exhibits. Example:

    4. Exhibits – Exhibits are where the scholarly rubber hits the Internet road, as it were. While a March 2010 survey of Omeka users found that most Omeka sites surveyed consisted of just a searchable “collections catalog” of their items, the next highest use of Omeka was for its capacity to build and publish “narrative exhibits.” Once you have built an Omeka archive with enough items, you can then use exhibits to interpret those items for the online public. Think of exhibits in a museum: a large museum may own 100,000 items, but at any one time only perhaps 1,000 of them are on display, and a single exhibit may have only 25 or so items. These items have been carefully chosen and arranged by curators, who also often write interpretive text for panels mounted on the wall and for the exhibit’s official catalog. You can also think of Omeka exhibits as multimedia essays created using the items in your archive. Many websites about scholarly or quasi-scholarly topics often decontextualize the images and documents they display, and the reader who wants to know where a particular image came from may be out of luck. This never happens with Omeka exhibits, because any item displayed in the exhibit can be clicked on, and the reader will be taken to the item record with its full complement of Dublin Core metadata. Example: Go to and click on the exhibit about Jesse Harding Pomeroy, arrested in 1874, Massachusetts’s youngest killer (only 14 years old!). Go to the exhibit page at and click on any image, and you’ll be taken back to the item record for that file.

  4. Selected Omeka sites (15 minutes)

    1. Steepletop Library: The Books of Edna St. Vincent Millay – (my site; I’m using Omeka as a book catalog)

    2. Montgomery County Memory – (a site used to publish items brought in to the Montgomery County, VA public library and digitized as part of an NEH Common Heritage project)

    3. Harlem Congress on Racial Equality – (site built by a student in my Creating Digital History course in the NYU Archives and Public History MA program in 2009)

    4. Carnet géologiques de Phillippe Glangeaud – (uses Geolocation plugin)

    5. Inventing the Map: Frances Henshaw’s Book of Penmanship – (uses Neatline)

    6. Europeana –

      1. Art Nouveau –

    7. DPLA –

      1. Indomitable Spirits: Prohibition in the United States –

    8. Robert & Monnoyer: French Botanical Artists of the 17th Century – (hosted site, no exhibits, but pretty pictures)

    9. The Appalachian Dulcimer Archive – (hosted site, no exhibits, but a Simple Page of “Histories” that substitutes for the Exhibit; has audio files of dulcimer playing; uses Geolocation plugin so must be at least Silver plan)

    10. See for another selection of hosted Omeka sites

    11. See for another selection of self-hosted Omeka sites

  5. Working with Omeka Demos – (10 minutes)

    1. Themes – Themes control the look and feel of your Omeka site: the color, the font, the layout. There are (currently) four themes included with the free basic plan for hosted Omeka sites; these themes can be configured to some extent with custom banner images and different colors and so on. There are more than a dozen themes for self-hosted Omeka sites at You can also design your own theme for Omeka, as many of the larger and more advanced Omeka sites do. The NYU Archives and Public History program got a curricular grant of about $4000 to hire a designer for the Greenwich Village History site, which students in Creating Digital History contribute to, for instance. Demonstration: Change the theme and refresh to see the difference.

    2. Plugins – Like themes, plugins are separate “add-ons” to Omeka, but whereas themes change the look and feel of an Omeka site, plugins change the functionality of an Omeka site — they change what it can do. There are (currently) 10 plugins packaged with the free Basic plan on, but there are more than 50 very cool plugins for the self-hosted version of Omeka listed at that do everything from enabling anyone on the web to contribute items to your archive (with the Contribution plugin) to tweeting out an announcement whenever a new item is added (with the Tweetster for Omeka plugin). Some of these plugins are developed by the Omeka team at RRCHNM, but a lot of them are developed by people who are customizing Omeka for their own purposes and contributing their code to the larger community. Demonstration: Activate / deactivate the Documents Viewer plugin and go to and refresh to see the difference.

    3. Users – You can add as many users as you like to an Omeka site, even when you only have a free Basic plan on You can add users in four roles:

      1. Super – can do everything

      2. Admin – can do everything with items and exhibits etc., but can’t access Settings

      3. Contributor – can add items and create exhibits, but can’t publish them, and can’t modify items added by other Contributors

      4. Researcher – can only see items, but can see all items, including private items that aren’t published to the web. Note that all items you add to Omeka are private by default; you must deliberately check a checkbox in order to publish an item to the web. This is useful when you want to include an item in your archive but don’t want to publish it to the web, as for instance when the copyright status of an item is unclear. Users who are logged in can see both private and public items in Omeka, so the “Researcher” role allows you to let selected individuals see but not edit your items.

    4. Demonstration: Add an item

  6. Exercises (10-20 minutes)

    1. Sign up for the free Basic plan on if you haven’t already; when you submit the form at you will be emailed an activation link and a username and password. If you don’t get the email, check your spam folder.

    2. Log in to your hosted Omeka site on and create a site.

    3. Add an item.

    4. Create a collection.

    5. Begin creating an exhibit.

    6. Or try out any of the other features you like. Raise your hand if you have a question and I’ll come around to help.

  7. Resources

    1. help documentation –

    2. help documentation –

    3. Forums –
    4. The Dublin Core Usage Guide –


The Binary Hero, World One, and World Zero

Below is an expanded and revised version of the talk I gave at the South by Southwest Interactive panel Swarming Plato’s Cave: Rethinking Digital Fantasies on March 16th, 2010. Talking with some folks at SXSW both before and after the panel definitely helped my thinking; thanks to all of you, not least those of you who twittered so well during the panel. Thanks also to William Burdette for putting together the panel and for putting up related links on the Mediated Humanities website at




Plato’s allegory of the cave is an extended metaphor put in motion for the purpose of convincing us that everything we perceive and believe may be no more real than a shadow. It is an explanation of why regular people think philosophers (e.g., Plato and Socrates) are crazy: the regular people are stuck on the notion that what they think is real is in fact real, they can’t appreciate the reality that the philosopher appreciates, and the philosopher finds it very hard to explain this other reality to them and anyway is not very motivated to do so. The allegory of the cave is a thought experiment, a parable, a myth, and a theory about the nature of reality, and it’s also just an enduringly intriguing scene to try to visualize, as the terrific short film we’ve just watched shows.

But it’s also a story, a narrative, and as such it has a form, a structure: that two-thousand-four-hundred-year-old structure, I’d like to point out, is an extremely common one in the contemporary genre known as fantasy. And, of course, if that structure is common in fantasy, it’s common in science fiction as well.

Fantasy and Science Fiction

When you think about it, it’s a bit odd that bookstores lump together science fiction and fantasy. Science fiction is very much about technology, and generally involves the construction of a future or alternate world whose chief characteristic is advanced technology; the accompanying narrative usually explores the problems and opportunities of that technology. Fantasy, in apparent contrast, involves the construction of an alternate world that more or less resembles the Middle Ages, a world entirely without technology. The universes of the fantasy genre, however, have magic, and, as Arthur C. Clarke famously said in his 1958 work Profiles of the Future, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The common factor in fantasy and science fiction, of course, is that creation of an alternate world, a world that is recognizably not this one.

World One and World Zero

Plato’s allegory of the cave, like science fiction and fantasy, also posits an alternate world, a world that is recognizably not this one. In its narrative structure, there are two worlds, and the hero is the only person (or almost the only person) who can travel between those two worlds. I have named these worlds World One and World Zero, names which correspond to the visible world and the invisible world. We need to avoid the term “the real world,” because it’s often precisely the question of which world is more real (not to mention which world is better) that is at issue. In Plato’s allegory, the dark cave with its flickerings is an image of World One, the visible world, the world of limited ordinary perception; while the dazzling world of sunflare and shadow is World Zero, the nonexistent, absent, invisible world, the exotic extraordinary other world of pure thought, which the philosopher hero tries and inevitably fails to describe to the chained inhabitants of World One.

There are plenty of sci-fi/fantasy narratives that have exactly this structure: ordinary World One, exotic World Zero, and a hero who travels between them. I’ve listed some, but I’m sure you can name others.


In these narratives, the alternate world might be an island, say. Or it might be another planet. Or it might be an alternate dimension accessible through a portal in this world. Or it might be an alternate time, either in the present or the past. Or it might be a spiritual realm. Or it might be a dream, or an illusion — this often turns out to be the case for narratives in which the hero is a woman, as for instance The Wizard of Oz and (the original) Alice in Wonderland, stories in which women can have adventures only if they are not real adventures. World Zero, in short, is a secret or hidden or inaccessible or invisible world constituted by its apparent non-existence. Some sci-fi/fantasy narratives not listed here, of course, simply set up an alternate World Zero and allow whatever world actually surrounds the reader or audience to serve as the visible World One, and we ourselves become the hero who has experience of both. But here I am concerned primarily with narratives that explicitly represent two worlds and are explicitly engaged with the contrast between them.

So if that’s the case, if Plato’s allegory is in many ways a sort of proto-fantasy/sci-fi story, what does it all (as they say) mean?

Well, one question worth pursuing is this one: Which world is the digital world?

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes worry that I spend too much time looking at screens: computer screens, smartphone screens, TV screens, movie theater screens, and (of course) screens on which slides are projected. Am I cutting myself off from the real world? Am I insufficiently mindful and overly mediated? Am I, in short, watching “shadows of artefacts” all day long, just like the prisoners in Plato’s cave? There are plenty of people who would say Yes, yes you are, you and all those other SXSW attendees. Get out of the dark cave of your parents’ basement, nerd, and get some sunshine. Stop with the fantasy already. Writers like Andrew Keen and Nicholas Carr and (most recently) Jaron Lanier bring us a version of this message, a version which is often more complicated and careful and sometimes even caring than I’ve made it sound here, and their books do well here at SXSW. These thinkers seem to fit neatly into the role Plato ascribes to the philosopher: he who stays with the cave-dwellers in order to do the hard work of convincing them to cease investing so much in mere shadows of artefacts, the hard work of “turning the mind as a whole away from the world of becoming, until it becomes capable of bearing the sight of real being and reality at its most bright” (Waterfield 245).

Yet Plato’s allegory of the cave need not be a touchstone only for anti-mediationists. That philosopher figure, trying vainly to explain the workings of the unseen world to those who do not understand, is also a highly resonant figure for the technologist. Anyone who’s done even the mildest form of tech support can relate to the communication barrier that Plato’s philosopher experiences, that sense of trying to explain sunshine to the benighted, whereas even the Luddiest Luddite can’t accuse any of the screen people of never once having experienced the Luddite version of unmediated reality. But if you’ve coded, you’ve experienced a world of pure logic that others haven’t. Similarly, a Twitter fan like me certainly feels that there’s a reality to that world that people who “don’t get” Twitter (and have therefore never used it) have no access to. Plenty of popular World One World Zero narratives simply scorn the Muggle World One and meander through the luxurious specs of its own particular techno-magical World Zero.

World One World Zero narratives, including Plato’s allegory of the cave, often turn out to be perfectly flexible on the “is tech good or is it bad” question. The most popular and enduring narratives are always those, I verily believe, in which we get to have it both ways: we get to enjoy our technology and our fears about technology at the same time, just as, in the Wizard of Oz, we get to enjoy Dorothy’s adventures while ultimately being assured that her true place is at home. Anything else is probably too simplistic to hold our interest for long. Only those who might arguably be spending too much time with screens are interested in horror stories about spending too much time with screens.

Some of the most quintessentially geeky fantasies have an apparently anti-fantasy moral, The Matrix being certainly a much more interesting example than Surrogates. In his talk yesterday, Jaron Lanier recommended a 1909 sci-fi story by E. M. Forster, “The Machine Stops,” as a story with exactly the same message: it is bad to live in the mediated world, however pleasant: it is good to live in the real world, however difficult. (This, by the way, is not precisely Lanier’s argument in his recent manifesto You Are Not a Gadget: he is, after all, the father of virtual reality. Much of his concern about today’s Internet is that it is insufficiently fantastic, that it lacks the fluidity and weirdness it once had, that the mediated world is now a suburb where it was once a phantasmagoria.) It’s always remarkably easy for fantasy to be anti-fantasy without, apparently, causing us much cognitive dissonance. Plato’s allegory of the cave, that remarkably imaginative story, is only one small part of the utopian narrative The Republic, elsewhere in which Plato famously banned the poets, the dramatists, the imagineers from his ideal community.


Similarly, James Cameron uses famously advanced cinematic technology in order to create narratives that apparently warn strongly against technology. Historically, the moral of the unsinkable Titanic has always been that man puts too much faith in technology, but the meta-narrative of Cameron’s movie Titanic is as technologically idolatrous as ever — so long as that technology is used in the service of storytelling. The story of Avatar is the story of a man who abandons a familiar modern mechanistic world in order to wear a loincloth and fly dragons, and yet surely not a single person who saw the film (3-D or otherwise) failed to discuss the film’s inviting technological innovation and exciting technological expense. To traverse the green jungle of Pandora is to become a part of the computational sublime. Stories such as Avatar and Dune and Star Wars (I’m talking about the original, the New Hope, here) that narrate a competition for protagonist mindshare between the futuristic technology of science fiction and the primitive mysticism of fantasy inevitably come down on the side of the spiritual, the ineffable, the magical. Neo discovers that he is the One. Luke turns off his targeting computer and scores a bullseye by trusting the Force. Jake Sully transcends the turbocharged tanning bed that puts him into the body of his avatar with the help of a mystical tree. It doesn’t matter. Through the power of metaphor, when magic wins, technology wins. It’s not so much that the technology is indistinguishable from magic as that the magic is indistinguishable from technology. For this reason, I think, even these apparently anti-fantasy, anti-mediation, anti-technology stories are beloved by we screen people, we people of the screen.

I am going to go out on a limb here (though not literally, like Jake Sully), and say straight out that Avatar is a bad movie. It was fine, it was entertaining, I enjoyed it, I went to see it with my brother and enjoyed spending that time with him, but without getting solemn or hysterical about it, I’ll still propose that it is a bad movie. It is a bad movie because it goes a bit too far over that “having it both ways” line, that line that separates the paradoxical from the hypocritical. Put it this way: if I take Jake Sully as my model, what sort of real-world action or belief does that translate into for me? Pandora’s jungle has a sort of real world visual equivalent in, say, the disappearing Brazilian rainforest, but Avatar is clearly not recommending that we go primitive. On Pandora, all creatures are designed with organic USB cables, and Pandora itself is repeatedly troped as a network. (“It’s a network,” explains Jake Sully.) The harsh truth is that computers are not at all “green” (Google the carbon footprint of Google sometime), and that by participating in the network we know, we are putting our own planet’s lush jungles in danger.

Better versions of the World One World Zero narrative have a legitimate and balanced argument that stands up to scrutiny once we strip out the allegory, the metaphor. Plato, for instance, is arguing both that regular people should trust philosophers when philosophers say that there’s a different way of looking at things and that philosophers should keep on striving to explain their different way of looking at things to people who have good reason for their lack of comprehension. That remains good counsel both for people who call tech support and for people who provide tech support.


But it’s not just a problem with Avatar; it’s a bit of a problem with the binary structure of the World One World Zero narrative itself and the egocentrism involved in relating to the single hero (or elite few) who can travel between those two worlds. The best science fiction and fantasy narratives, whether on screen or in print, often refuse or alter or complicate (or we might say, “deconstruct”) this compelling structure, just as Randall Bennett’s xkcd comic famously shows us the limitations of The Matrix‘s logic.

Buffy, Normal Again

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for instance, not only alters the gender of the hero, but also makes sure that the narrative and the meta-narrative are in sync: we’re never allowed to forget that the Buffyverse is above all allegorical. The ordinary world and the extraordinary world are the same, in other words, not opposed at all. The demons, Joss Whedon repeatedly makes clear, are Buffy’s demons. We do enjoy it on the literal level, of course: there are literally kick-ass martial arts fights. But Whedon entrusts us to remember the metaphor, so that watching Buffy is always to be aware that you are watching a story that tells you baldly, if allegorically: women are strong, in all possible ways. The episode of Buffy called “Normal Again” posits with unsettlingly convincing logic that Buffy may simply be psychotic, schizophrenic, that the demons she fights are simply the product of her own disordered brain. But, ultimately, Buffy the heroine and Buffy the series firmly refuse the “it was all a dream” gambit that made the turn-of-the-century Wizard of Oz and Alice and Wonderland safe for popular consumption. And the series ended (at least on television, though it continues as a graphic novel) by happily robbing Buffy of her superhero singularity, distributing the special abilities normally reserved for a protagonist to a whole passel of potential heros.

Star Trek

Any why only two worlds? Why not many? The structure of the classic Star Trek posits dozens or hundreds or thousands or millions of different worlds, not simply two. Moreover, of course, it was a multiethnic team who visited these worlds: the clear allegorical meaning of Star Trek was always that different cultures are to be explored and understood, not demeaned and demonized. My housemate in graduate school was a linguist in the Anthropology department, and he often taught the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “Darmok,” in which Picard attempts to understand the language of a radically different culture, a culture whose elliptical language could only be understood by learning their history.

Cloud Atlas

Or why have a single hero at all? Why not many? If you like science fiction and fantasy, as I do (which I hope is clear), you may well love postmodern novels, some of which use the conventions of science fiction and fantasy but play with narrative structure. I highly recommend David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, for instance, which consists of six separate interwoven stories. As soon as one narrative is half-told, it breaks off and another begins. We begin by hearing the story of a doctor on a nineteenth century sea voyage to Malaysia, go through several almost unrelated stories until we arrive at a typically sci-fi dystopian future in which a slave clone tells the story of her spiritual awakening. Only then do we begin to get the end of every story in reverse chronological order, until finally we’re back in the nineteenth century, understanding at last just how all six of these worlds and their six trapped heroes are connected.

Infinite Jest

Or consider David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, a novel that has a well-deserved reputation as a difficult masterpiece of postmodern literature, but which is also a highly readable tragicomic piece of science fiction set in a dystopian near-future America with herds of feral hamsters and giant fans blowing airborne pollution north to Canada. Infinite Jest‘s structure is famously complex, which is part of the fun of reading it: Michael Silverblatt once hesitantly remarked to the author that the novel seemed to him to be “written in fractals,” to which Wallace replied, “I’ve heard you were an acute reader. That’s one of the things, structurally, that’s going on. It’s actually structured like something called a Sierpinski Gasket, which is a very primitive kind of pyramidal fractal.” James Cameron’s movies pretty much suggest that mechanical technology (ships, tanks) is totally harsh while narrative technology (CGI, 3-D) is totally awesome, but David Foster Wallace’s writings suggest, much more delicately and persuasively and fractally, that narrative technology might be a bit of a problem — all narrative technology, up to and including the most basic gears and pulleys of narrative itself. To put it bluntly, Infinite Jest makes you desperately want to find out what happened and then refuses to tell you what happened. As Kathleen Fitzpatrick has put it, Infinite Jest strongly hints that “whatever answers we’re seeking won’t be found in the text, but in the world beyond.”

The world beyond: whichever world that may be.

We create worlds and universes so easily now: the blogosphere, the Twitterverse, Oz, Narnia, Middle Earth, Pandora. That term “information superhighway” sounds quaint these days at least in part because a highway traverses at the very most a continent, a laughably small territory to ascribe to the Internet. There are never only two worlds and there is never only one hero who has lived in both: that was as true for Plato as it is for us, if we can only remember it.