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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Umwelt

Good evening. My name is Yanmato, and you might remember me from one other guest column way back during Keeper’s Halloween kick. I’m here again briefly to talk about the psychological/sociological/crackpot pseudoscientific concept of the umwelt, and how it makes art great. But in the interest of honoring the tone of this blog, I'll try to get to my point through the longest, most unnecessarily circuitous route possible.

First, let's listen to a song. It's an old one, and it's from a band whose musical merit is a matter of opinion- somewhat passionate opinion from either side. But don't worry; we'll be analyzing it more as a poem than a song today, so just give it a nonjudgmental listen so you'll know what we're talking about.



Obviously there's a sad story in there. The lyricist might have been thinking about someone in particular in their life, or about no one real person. But I don't think what the author meant to convey matters here.

Not that I think authorial intent is completely meaningless. What I mean is knowing what was in the author's mind isn't necessary to get a real and valid interpretation of the work. What was in the author's head doesn't dictate what ends up in your head, even of the former was what created that art that in turn created the latter. Not anymore than knowing what the blank canvas looked like affects your appreciation of a painting or knowing how big the kitchen was affects your ability to enjoy a gourmet meal, your understanding of art does not depend on its creator’s frame of reference. You're viewing a piece of creative work, not looking at a CAT scan of the author's brain.

Rather than communicating an idea or a feeling directly from one person to another, art turns that idea into a tangible piece of sensory stuff, and lets that stuff make a whole new idea in another person through their own act of experiencing the art, and that idea may be the same thing, something similar, or something completely new. And that's a trait art boasts that no other form of communication can accomplish. If the author wanted you to feel exactly what they felt when creating the work, they would have just told you about their feelings. They would have cloned their idea in your mind by telling it to you. Instead they let their mind give birth to an idea separate from any one person, manifest in words on a page or notes of a melody, either by themselves or together with others. Then they let that person-free idea give birth to yet a third idea by being experienced by an audience- you. Rather than cloning an idea, the author subjected it to multiple generations of semi-random breeding.

Social scientists use a model for communication from one human being to another in a similar way. There are three parts to a message: the thought in the speaker's mind, the message between speaker and listener, and the thought in the listener's mind. Each creates the next, each is an independent object, and each can be different from the entity that came before it. But rather than in any other form of communication where fidelity to the original message from thought to thought is the one and only goal, art takes advantage of the changes to the idea in transition and lets completely new thoughts and ideas that the author may never have discovered be generated by the audience.


That's the most amazing thing about art- all art. At least in my opinion. And to turn away from that process and say "you must think what the author thought, you must feel what the author felt," does that work and art on the whole a serious injustice.

TV Tropes refers to this sentiment as Death of the Author, and it's a philosophy I personally embrace with both arms.


So while the thoughts in the heads of the band members- the "authorial intent," can be listened to and can provide an insight into what ideas to take out of the work, this insight is no more special than that of any other audience member, in that both can offer only an idea in the folds of the work that you might not have had yourself. Admittedly the author sports a closer, more intimate understanding of the art itself than any audience member, but this is the only advantage their perspective can provide. While it's fine to hear and even want to listen to what the author/authors have to say on a work, the audience needs not an should not be beholden to that message.

And thank goodness for that or we could never talk about how this song is about Tolkien.

I'm going to just assume you've all read the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or at least seen the films. And if you're reading this blog, that's probably a safe bet.

A friend of mine, who I think spends more time in Middle Earth than the real world, shared with me what he heard in the song. The idea that was born in his mind was a dialogue between Gollum and Smeagol, the two split personalities of the creature going by either name who stalked then travelled with Frodo Baggins on his way to Mordor. Sir Keeper discussed in an old article [Not one of my better ones, for the record, although I'm flattered that Yanmato remembered it --Sam] that music doesn't have to be heard as coming from the perspective of the real singer. And in this case, my friend interpreted the first portion of the song as coming from Gollum, talking to Smeagol in the first verse and the chorus. (“I'm your dream, make you real. / I'm your eyes when you must steal.”) In the latter half, the perspective changes and Smeagol talks back to Gollum in the second verse. (You're my mask. / You're my cover, my shelter.) Each is conveying what they gain from their relationship. In the third verse Gollum turns on Smeagol and takes control of the relationship. (“I'm your life. / And I no longer care.”)

The story this audience member got from the song doesn't really create any new ideas. The story is tragic, but it's already told at least somewhat in the novels the character came from and in the movies from those books. But it is a story that I doubt the creators of the song ever would've thought of. It's a new idea, foreign to the author, born from the rich breeding process that is art.

That interpretation wasn't the same as mine, though. When I first heard the song, it was influenced by another creative work, much like my friend's interpretation. But it was by a work that has probably never been mentioned before in the same breath as "Metallica."

The story I heard in the song was about My Little Ponies.

Wait, no. Come back. I'm not about to assault you with praise of a children's cartoon. I'm only going to talk about the show tangentially; just enough for you to understand the gist of this second interpretation of the same song.

In the very first episodes of the cartoon, the main characters faced a very powerful malevolent creature called Nightmare Moon. She was an old legend feared by cartoon ponies across the cartoon land. But when she was vanquished by the power of friendship (literally attacked by a violent spray of raw weaponized friendship), she evidently changed into the benevolent Princess Luna, who promptly apologized for attempting to kill all life and was immediately forgiven for her grievous crimes and treated to a festival in honor of her return.

For the show's primary demographic of six to twelve year old girls this was probably a satisfactory ending. But the 18 to 34 year old men watching the show noticed the disturbing incongruity between the crimes and subsequent treatment of what seemed to be exactly the same entity. The explicitly conveyed events of the official work (the "canon" of the work) didn't seem to add up. And when geeks aren't satisfied with the canon of the creative works they enjoy, they make fanon.

"Fanon" is what happens when an audience looks at some detail of the story being told to them that the authors have glossed over or ignored entirely and makes something up of their own design. They then accept this new detail as a piece of the art, together with the art the author has provided.


In this case, many fans created the fanon that Nightmare Moon and Princess Luna were actually two separate entities- that in her loneliness, Luna created Nightmare Moon to keep her company and give her emotional strength: an imaginary friend. Partly through some form of dissociative personality disorder and partly through Spooky Pony Magic(TM), Nightmare Moon gained some sense of will and intent apart from Luna and took over her life and eventually her body. When Nightmare Moon was destroyed, Luna was absolved of the crimes her creation had committed.

It wasn't just the canon created by the authors of the work, but also the fanon created by the audience in response to the work that influenced the thought in my head created by this song. The audience interpreted the art, then made ideas of their own to add to the art, which in turn was interpreted by the rest of the audience in an elaborate double mobius reacharound. This is where my metaphor of ideas as parents and offspring turns into a hot mess of intergenerational incest. Which might not sound fun, but it makes for yet another layer of brand new rich, nuanced ideas.

My interpretation was not of a dialogue, but a monologue from Nightmare Moon to Princess Luna. This also changed the benefits of the relationship as described in the song from a give-and-take to a take-and-take-more. Nightmare Moon, created by Princess Luna, shielded her from the outside world but also used her to do terrible things.

Not only has the casting of the story changed in this new interpretation. The lines have all been switched around as well. The song I heard and the song my friend heard weren't just different in certain details but in the basic, literal story of who was saying what and what the heck was going on.

But wait- it gets even better. When I interpreted the song as being about this piece of fanon, I accepted it in its entirety in my mind, from the first word to the last. And certain parts of the song didn't fall into the fanon I already had before I started listening. The song interacting with my own thoughts produced a new interpretation not just of the song, but of the cartoon fanon. While she may have originally been made as an imaginary friend, Nightmare Moon gained power and eventually her very substance from the feelings of her creator. The malevolent being had, in my mind, had become the physical manifestation of Luna's negative emotions. ("I'm your pain when you can't feel," "I'm your hate when you want love." These lines needed to be reconciled in my interpretation of the song, so they created a new story to fit.) What did that mean when Nightmare Moon was killed by Weaponized Friendship (TM)? Warmth and kindness had slain pain, coldness, and hatred not through the traditional therapeutic methods but by real, physical brute force powered by magic. The players of psychiatry both became real and confronted one another in open battle, outside the minds of their respective hosts in the real world.

And this was interesting to me. So I adopted it as further fanon, another supplement to the already-supplemented cartoon. This means the show created thoughts in the audience which created fanon for the show which affected the thoughts created by another piece of art in another audience member which turned around and created further fanon to the show.


Still following me?

The most important element of this process is something called umwelt. It's the idea that because our reactions to and reflections on the world are dependent not on what it is but on what we interpret from it, each person lives in a completely different world. This is what drives the fact that a message lives not in the thoughts of the speaker or the conveyed information, but in the thoughts of the listener. Similarly, it’s what makes art exist not in the intentions of the author or in the objective piece of art itself, but in our own individual thoughts, which are independent from the message conveyed as well as from one another. The song doesn't exist in objective reality- at least not as anything other than a sequence of sounds. It exists in people's hearing and interpreting it. So there is not one "Sad but True" but thousands, even millions of different songs. One for each person who hears it. Umwelt is what lets two people see different works or art while looking at the same painting, cartoon, or song. It's what lets us throw out ideas out into the world and get new ideas back, over and over. And it's the engine that drives this entire process of art interpretation and reinterpretation.

But the really interesting part is the fact that your umwelt is constantly in flux. As you gather new pieces of information, you use that information to color and interpret everything you see, as has been demonstrated by myself and my friend both using one creative work to interpret another. But that means that when the same person comes to the same work with a different set of thoughts in their head, they get a different interpretation of that work. The first time I heard this song, I got one story out of it. After hearing my friend tell me the story he heard, my umwelt changed. I had new information and when I heard the same sounds and words again, I could hear a new song that hadn’t been there before.

Listen to the song yourself again now. The first time you heard it your umwelt was in one place. Now you have new thoughts in your head about Tolkien, about cartoon ponies, and about your own umwelt. You might hear a different song than the one you heard before.

Some new pieces of information have been given to you and now the idea created in your mind by the same idea presented by the same authors may be a new one.


Neither of the individuals in this example who heard the same song conjured any brilliant new world-sundering epiphanies. In fact neither of them gained any insights they didn’t have before outside the boundaries of the creative works that helped create their ideas. And the deeper aesops behind the stories each person heard- that building up internal defenses to avoid pain can potentially be counterproductive and even highly destructive- is probably exactly the same idea that was in the author’s mind when they wrote the song. But the fact that new thoughts and feelings were synthesized in them by this process is marvelous. No new thoughts were invented this time. But they could have been.

The point is that ideas, thoughts, and feelings can be created, changed, synthesized, and multiplied with even the tiniest seeds through the incredible engine of art. But without the freedom for the audience to interpret that art as they understand it, the ideas can't be bred; only cloned. And without the freedom of the audience to reimagine that art and add to it through practices like fanon, the process is severely stifled. And that's why the Death of the Author and the nature of the umwelt are both so vital to allow art to provide such a remarkable service to humanity: to allow the thoughts, feelings, and ideas of people to be mixed, reconstituted, recombined, and reinvented in a noxious alchemical brew of miscommunication.

Art is where baby ideas come from. It’s sex for your brain.


And now I feel totally inadequate as a writer. Let's hear it for Yanmato, folks. Incidentally, this article is a great introduction for the article I'll be posting on Saturday, which is about... well, you'll just have to wait and see. If you liked Yanmato's piece (and why wouldn't you?) please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave him some kind words in the comments below.

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