A Miniature Portrait of Storytelling Aesthetics and Ethics in Young Media –

Mika ‘Lumi’ Tuomola
from 17:00 – 19:00
At Media Lab facilities in Miestentie 3, Room 429, from 17:00-19:00.

A Miniature Portrait of Storytelling Aesthetics and Ethics in Young Media
Extended abstract for the Doctor of Arts in New Media seminar 9 April 2015, Aalto University ARTS

An edited version to be published in the DESIS (Design for Social Innovation towards Sustainability) Philosophy Talk #2.2 book: Storytelling & Social Innovation, June 2015 (http://cumulusmilan2015.org)

Mika ‘Lumi’ Tuomola
Supervisors: Susanna Helke (Aalto University ARTS, Department of Film, Television and Scenography) & Maureen Thomas (University of Cambridge DIGIS [Digital Studio for Research in Design, Visualisation and Communication], Martin Centre, Department of Architecture, UK)

“…your deeds can outlive you, and sometimes influence people even after you yourself are forgotten – but, in the end, I suppose even deeds must surely die some day.” (Daisy’s Amazing Discoveries, 1996)

“Have you ever thought that you couldn’t relate with something if you were absolutely different from it?” (Shift, 2001)

“It would be cruel to demand a perfect composure of the heart. What are we but bits of meat moving in time and space?” (Accidental Lovers, 2006-7)

The quoted narrative experimental work I’ve produced in 1996-2006 has largely been motivated by existentialist drama (e.g. Camus, 1943, Sartre, 1944, Harold and Maude, 1971) and deals with the significance of choice, chance and destiny in human existence. In interactive media, narrative content database elements and the rules of their structural organization, in relationship to participant interaction, can be considered as destined elements that may be enhanced by chance operations of
storytelling system, including participant within it. All the elements and operations become activated by the choices of interactive participant. As an existentialist act, the choice element in interactive storytelling and drama requires a discussion on the ethics of the interactive aesthetics.

Walter Benjamin (1986) defines storytelling as one of the oldest forms of communication. It does not convey information as such, but provides it with a storyteller’s point-of-view, so that information becomes an experience – and the storyteller’s handprint a part of the story like that of a potter’s on a pot.

In the Aristotelian (1999 & Laurel, 1991) understanding of the poetics of tragedy, the purpose of the structured points-of-view is to produce catharsis, a pleasurable release of emotion, which Aristotle believes to be pity: we are feeling for characters and the dramatic presentation of their points-of-view.
Considering the desired emotional outcome, Brecht (1964) would certainly disagree: the release of emotion should not take place. If people are released of it, the didactic purpose of the story is wasted. They should be estranged during the storytelling experience and have the emotion after in order to be motivated to change the world accordingly, informed of the nature of things, as conveyed by the points-of-view in epic drama. Thus the purposes of storytelling may vary, for instance, from the antiquity’s release of emotion to the story being actually informative and providing us with points-of-view that make us feel those feelings that are needed to make change in society. We can move on to the purpose of storytelling in providing us with the sense of absurdity of all existence.

Mika ‘Lumi’ Tuomola: A Miniature Portrait of Storytelling Aesthetics and Ethics in Young Media – 6 April 2015 2
The sense of absurd allows us the gift of laughter, coming together within our shared circumstance – destined or accidental, as you will: “The bitter laugh laughs at that which is not good, it is the ethical laugh. The hollow laugh laughs at that which is not true, it is the intellectual laugh. Not good! Not true! Well well. But the mirthless laugh is the dianoetic laugh, down the snout — Haw! – so. It is the laugh of laughs, the risus purus, the laugh laughing at the laugh, the beholding, saluting of the highest joke, in a word the laugh that laughs – silence please — at that which is unhappy.” (Beckett, 1953) The laugh of laughs may provide us with the purest pointof- view to storytelling itself. Let me ruminate: The moment we introduce feelings in storytelling – whether pity or laughter or desire to learn about the world – we have to start to deal with the ethics of the aesthetics of storytelling. In the words of his
alter ego Stephen Dedalus, James Joyce (1916) presents my own favourite take on the issue in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. There he suggests that storytelling – which is nowadays typically, but erroneously e.g. in advertising business, thought merely as rhetoric means of pursuing people to think or do something – as a vehicle of producing desire, or loathing, produces mere kinetic emotions: story-listener is manipulated to want, or to stay away from something (up to the level of letting others
obliterate the undesirable and loathsome something or -ones, as history unfortunately shows us).

From Dedalus’ point-of-view, the kinetic emotions result from a kind of second order art of storytelling, improper practice, that is uninterested of the ethics of its aesthetics and does not reach towards its own full potential and spectrum. In other words, kinetic emotions conceive from poor storytelling that practically reduces itself to pornography and propaganda. “The esthetic emotion… is therefore static. The mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing.

—You say that art must not excite desire, said Lynch. I told you that one day I wrote my name in pencil on the backside of the Venus of Praxiteles in the Museum. Was that not desire?” No doubt, Lynch, but let Praxiteles and The Modern Prometheus be aware of what they decide to design:

“…with how many things are we upon the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice or carelessness did not restrain
our inquiries.” (Shelley, 2008)

As an ethical storytelling aesthetic, Dedalus proposes that it should reach towards static emotion and Aquinas’ claritas: “radiance” (Joyce, 1916), clear, sharp, fair, and thus true and beautiful observation of subject phenomena, including their intricate, complex and arresting layers in storytelling. In that kind of an emotion aroused we do not learn things from one point-of-view – whether certain things are good or bad, or true or untrue – but we are rather introduced to choral points-of-view. We
understand the introduced phenomena better, through storytelling, and are able to make judgements by ourselves, leading life that has been helped to see itself (in more radiant light, if you will) as a part of the great cycle we all participate.

If we take this interpretation of Dedalus’ point-of-view seriously in the ethics of the aesthetics of storytelling, we can unite stories’ capability to both awake feelings and, at the same time, inform us on the complexity of phenomena, and – based on these two – arrive to our own, personally arresting conclusions in our own thinking and action in the world. To go further, the static emotions awoken by proper storytelling that arrests our imagination with both the senses and the intellect, we arrive to forms that storytelling takes.

Since we investigate storytelling form now in participatory media, it’s good to remind ourselves that while a story is told in a novel or television program, drama is always acted out (e.g. in theatre, like a ritual or mystery in shared space, where both actors and audience unfold and partake the story in the same exciting atmosphere). It naturally follows that interactive storytelling and drama, e.g. storybased computer games, ought to be (inter)acted out by their participants/users/players within the
story system, producing “another life” for them, “a shift from one reality to another.” (Tuomola, Mika ‘Lumi’ Tuomola: A Miniature Portrait of Storytelling Aesthetics and Ethics in Young Media – 6 April 2015 3 1999). ”The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” (Joyce, 1916) The storytelling designer becomes a framework creator for this choral, communal experience of making the story unfold.

As the story in interactive drama is told by the choices of its participant, the ethics of design naturally mostly concern the consequences of participant action that makes the story unfold. The ethics are present, except in story logics, also in the whole system logic and behaviour that defines the rules of participation – to be brutally honest: the participants are our design objects. In such storytelling systems, designer’s roles as the participants’ story-listener and the vision-keeping storyteller are intricately woven together. Ursula Le Guin (1989), like Benjamin, insists on the design of the experience in our endeavour: “The writer cannot do it alone. The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp.

The reader, reading it, makes it alive: a live thing, a story.” Figure: The Flammarion Engraving Model* (image by Katrin Olina) of the key concepts discussed: outer ring deals with user/Participant, inner ring with her presentation in story system.

STORYTELLING SYSTEMS DESIGN takes place via Culture dependent MEDIA, techniques and technologies we have available for us in trying to learn about the
Nature of things and to give shape to our experiences between largely unknown factors within and out of us (naturally our MEDIA/tech is also a result of Nature, of what we are biologically able to perceive and convey). Claritas/radiance, on the edge of the inner unknown, can really only be circulated about by giving it a whole form (INTEGRITAS) and rhythm/harmony (Consonantia) e.g. via arts and storytelling (Joyce, 1916). Storytelling systems designer provides Participant with agency/Character, possible actions and chance/predetermined consequences for them; ideally, Participant’s interactions, and what she thinks of wanting to do within the system, provide her with appropriate enactments/DRAMA (Laurel, 1991). Depending on the chosen GENRE of the system, only six major EMOTIONs are available to us, of which terror is not discussed within the abstract: “Pity is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the human sufferer. Terror is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause.” (Joyce, 1916)

In attempt to situate my own artistic work during the decade in the turn of the millennium (1996-2006) in reference to the “Flammarion Engraving Model” presented in this abstract, let me conclude with Le Guin’s Earth-Sea (2012) story-world, where magic can be read as a metaphor for storytelling. There the highest and most powerful form of magic is to learn to know the true name, the utmost descriptive word, of any existing thing. True naming is the greatest storytelling fantasy dream, “which is not to suggest, as is too often done, that [historical] truth is never to be attained, in any of its aspects. With this kind of truth, as with all others, the problem is the same: one errs more, or less.” (Yourcenar, 1963)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flammarion_engraving, retrieved 6 April 2015.
Mika ‘Lumi’ Tuomola: A Miniature Portrait of Storytelling Aesthetics and Ethics in Young Media – 6 April 2015

Accidental Lovers (2006-7). Sydän kierroksella. Interactive black musical comedy for television (M. L. Tuomola, Dir. & Script, L. Saarinen, Script, R. Aaltonen, Trans.). Finland: Yle National Broadcasting Company Channel 1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eTpcS-jHFiA,
retrieved 6 April 2015.

Aristotle (1999). Poetics. Illinois, USA: University of Chicago Press.

Beckett, S. (1953). Watt. Paris, France: Olympia Press.

Benjamin, W. (1986). Silmä väkijoukossa: Huomioita eräistä motiiveista Baudelairen tuotannossa (Über einige Motive bei Baudelaire (1939), A. Alanen, Trans.). Helsinki, Finland: Odessa.

Brecht, B. (1964). Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic (J. Willett, Ed. & Trans.). London, UK: Methuen Publishing.

Camus, A. (1943). Le Malentendu play. Paris, France.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Misunderstanding, retrieved 6 April 2015.

Daisy’s Amazing Discoveries (1996). Online drama series (M. Tuomola, Dir. & Script, A. Hulkkonen & M. Erwe, Trans.). http://daisy.uiah.fi/en5/city/circus/sdiary/sdiary06.html, retrieved 6
April 2015.

Harold and Maude (1971). Movie (H. Ashby, Dir.). USA: Paramount Pictures.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_and_Maude, retrieved 6 April 2015.

Joyce, J.(1916). A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. London, UK: The Egoist.
Laurel, B. (1991). Computers as Theatre. Boston, MA, USA: Addison-Wesley Longman Publishing.

Le Guin, U. (1989) Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places. New York, USA: Grove Press.

Le Guin, U. (2012). The Earthsea Quartet (Earthsea Cycle #1-4). London, UK: Penquin.

Sartre, P. (1944). Huis Clos play. Paris, France. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_Exit, retrieved 6 April 2015.

Shelley, M. (2008). Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Project Gutenberg ebook (http://www.gutenberg.org) publication date 17 June 2008 (J. Boss, C. Phillips, L. Hanninen, D. Meltzer, A. Heines, Prod.), retrieved 21 January 2015

Shift (2001). Moving image installation (M. Tuomola, Dir.). Media Lab Helsinki, Aalto University ARTS, study & research production (available in the Media Lab library), http://mlab.taik.fi/myth/, retrieved 6 April 2015.

Tuomola, M. (1999). Drama in the Digital Domain: Commedia dell’Arte, Characterisation, Collaboration and Computers. Digital Creativity Vol. 10 No 3, Lisse, Netherlands: Swets and Zeitlinger.

Also in

Digital Creativity: A Reader (2002, C. Beardon & L. Malmborg, Eds.). UK: Taylor &

Yourcenar, M. (1963). Memoirs of Hadrian: Reflections on the Composition (G. Frick, Trans.). New York, USA: Farrar, Straus & Co.