> classes > major media texts, fall 2020

CMS.796 Major Media Texts : Fall 2020

Prof. Nick Montfort
Intensive close study and analysis of historically significant media “texts” that have been considered landmarks or have sustained extensive critical and scholarly discussion. Such texts may include oral epic, story cycles, plays, novels, films, opera, television drama and digital works. Emphasizes close reading from a variety of contextual and aesthetic perspectives. Syllabus varies each year, and may be organized around works that have launched new modes and genres, works that reflect upon their own media practices, or on stories that migrate from one medium to another. At least one of the assigned texts is collaboratively taught, and visiting lectures and discussions are a regular feature of the subject.

The course is organized into four units that give a perspective on media history, media change, and material and formal properties of media.

In each case, the emphasis is on primary sources (the major media texts themselves), with shorter critical and theoretical writings to support our study of these primary sources.

All reading, in the broad sense of “reading” that includes viewing motion pictures, playing video games, and other reception and interpretation of media, is reading for some purpose. In Major Media Texts we will read in several ways—mainly to understand media.

Our Method

Each class will focus on the actual close study of primary texts, although secondary sources will inform this study in different ways.

This is not a “methods class,” where the main point is to introduce new analytical techniques. Instead, we will use a technique we already know, close reading. Our purpose in applying this method is to understand the materiality of media, media change, and how important works reflect on their own mediation.

Close reading involves paying primary attention to what the text itself says. As we will discuss, however, this does not mean we must only do intentional readings and extract the message the author tried to embed. In fact we will also be doing symptomatic, in which we consider how a text reflects its cultural, social, and media-technological contexts.

Part of the liberating power of the close reading concept is that one doesn’t have to get bogged down in biographical, historical, and other contextual aspects and risk overlooking the text itself. Anyone who can read can do a basic close reading. However, we are certainly not interested in bracketing all of historical contexts of these works. We will simply keep our emphasis and focus on the texts themselves, while also bringing in some secondary scholarship to help us frame our understanding of these texts. So perhaps it’s better to describe our approach as, in Al Filreis’s terms, “close, but not too close, reading.”

Participation and Evaluation

Our first discussions in each unit will be led by the instructor. Each of the other discussions will be initiated by a designated student, who will highlight some of the most important aspects of the primary text under consideration and explain how secondary sources help to illuminate our readings.

Three papers are assigned. To be excellent, they need to be insightful and concise. “Insightful” means a paper will develop some non-obvious answer to the question I have posed. “Concise” means that a paper strongly focuses on what is insightful, communicating insight efficiently. Papers also need to include a references section, with sources cited using an appropriate format–MLA or one of the two Chicago citation styles. Students can of course consult and cite secondary sources beyond what we have discussed in class—and are also encouraged to bring in insights from primary sources beyond those on our syllabus.

Paper 1. From orality to print: Although within unit 1 we consider an orality to literacy shift, and within unit 2 we consider a manuscript to print shift, how does our reading (focusing on one or more primary texts) help us understand the historically longer shift from primary oral culture to print culture?

Paper 2. From manuscript & print to franchise & fandom: How does our reading (focusing on one or more primary texts) help us understand the role of print (and even manuscript culture?) in today’s media franchises and in recent fan communities?

Paper 3. Worlds & narrative from orality through digital games: Focus on a few particular texts from throughout the course. How do changing ideas of a “world” (from a textual standpoint) and/or narrative as reflected in these texts tell us about media and media change?

Course Outline

Unit 1: Orality and Literacy

Primary texts

Odyssey, Homer, trans. Stanley Lombardo.

The palm-wine drinkard and his dead palm-wine tapster in the dead’s land, Amos Tutuola

Initial secondary sources

Excerpts from Orality and literacy, Walter Ong.

“Amos Tutuola and the colonial carnival,” Stephen M. Tobias.

Unit 2: Manuscript and Print

Primary text

Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne.

Initial secondary sources

Preface and chapters 1 and 2 (pp. ix–xiv, 1–110)from The book, Amaranth Borsuk.

Ian Robertson - printing press demonstration, Margo796, YouTube.

“Print culture in transition: Tristram Shandy, the reviewers, and the consumable text,” Shaun Regan.

Unit 3: Media Franchise and Fandom

Primary texts

“The man trap” and “Journey to Babel” and “Amok time” from Star trek (TOS), 1966–1967.

Spockanalia [1], edited by Devra Langsam and Sherna Comerford, 1967.

Star trek: the motion picture (Robert Wise, 1979).

“Encounter at Farpoint” from Star trek, the next generation, 1987.

“For the cause” and “For the uniform” from Star trek: Deek Space Nine 1996–1997.

Closer (vid), TJonesy and Killa, 2003.

Recommended binge watching: Star trek: Discovery, season 1 (after watching “Mirror, mirror” from TOS), Star trek: Picard season 1 (after watching “The measure of a man” from TNG). Those who have done some of this will contribute insights from these texts as we conclude our discussion of franchise and fandom.

Initial secondary sources

Part I (chapters 1–3, pp. 1–78) from Enterprising women: television fandom and the creation of popular myth, Camille Bacon-Smith.

“Star Trek in the Vietnam era,” H. Bruce Franklin.

Unit 4: Digital Games, Narrative, and Worlds

Primary texts

Adventure, Will Crowther and Don Woods, 1976

BioShock, 2K Games, 2007

The Stanley parable, Davey Wreden, 2011

Howling dogs, Porpentine Charity Heartscape, 2012

Everything, David Oreilly, 2017

Concluding discussion

Initial secondary sources

Introduction (pp. 1–22) from Half-real: video games between real rules and fictional worlds, Jesper Juul.

“Riddle machines: the history and nature of interactive fiction,” Nick Montfort.

“Untangling Twine: a platform study,” Jane Friedhoff.

“The video game that claims everything is connected,” Ian Bogost.

To Purchase (or Borrow from a Library)

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