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Digital Designs on Blake

Living Inside the Poem: MOOs and Blake's Milton

Ron Broglio, Georgia Institute of Technology

Blake designed his work to do more than sit on a page. The performative quality of Milton is examined and then enacted in a digital environment. The digital project serves as a heuristic for reading the transformative quality of Blake's visions. This essay appears in _Digital Designs on Blake_, a volume of _Romantic Circles Praxis Series_, prepared exclusively for Romantic Circles (, University of Maryland.

  1. Every new media work can be located somewhere along a axis whose poles are archival at one end and performative at the other. Academic production online weighs heavily at the archival end of the continuum. Skills in textual editing can be translated to online editions. Furthermore, the robust nature of online texts allows for an editor to do more—serving several versions of a text with the ability to move between them with ease and add footnotes and images with little concern for production costs. So replete are examples that I can omit pointing to them in this essay. As an archival resource, web technologies allow us to improve upon what we already do. There is, however, the other side of the new media axis which is hauntingly underused in scholarship. Arguably, new media's unique contribution to the humanities is its performative nature. The reason why the performative side of the web has seen little academic use is simply because we have yet to think of most literary and cultural texts as performative. The performative nature of the web calls us to re-evaluate familiar texts on new ground. So, how can we use the performativity of new media in humanities scholarship?

  2. Performance studies has made inroads into new media with responsive spaces and distributed computing. Here, however, I will limit my discussion to the ways literary texts—specifically Romantic poems—engage in a performativity that is enhanced in web technology. The goal of this paper is to better define immersive textuality. The term comes from work I've done with Steve Jones and Neil Fraistat on Romantic Circles Villa Diodati MOO. The MOO provides a different means of thinking about texts; it is part of the performative end of new media that works alongside more traditional scholarly elements of Romantic Circles.[1]

  3. Through the early years (the mid-1990s), academic MOOing engaged problems of textual identity. This is evident in the work of Amy Bruckman, Sherry Turkle, and Jay Bolter. However, identity trouble is not the only fascinating aspect of MOOs. The other possibility is that agency does not reside solely in the user's avatar but also in the environment. What traditionally has served as the background upon which human dramas are played out can also have an active role in shaping characters, conversations, and performance. To show how textual spaces realize this possibility I created my first literary MOO space in 1996. The goal of this site was to perform walking tours inside William Wordsworth's poems.[2] Wordsworth as quintessential Romantic poet acts like a performance artist who creates an event, a happening, by his bodily motion through a landscape and by attention to what unfolds during his walks. After performing the event of his stroll with his body, Wordsworth writes about it for the reader to experience in the act of reading. The poet does not simply give the reader a description of what happened to him; rather, through the language of poetry Wordsworth attempts to create a transformation experience for the reader similar to the one experienced by the poet in his rambles. Wordsworth's rambles fold upon themselves as his physical wandering in landscape become the rambling of writing which then create for readers a second landscape and yet another experience. In each ramble, the space of the landscape and the space of the poem transform the human participating within them. Such transformations work well as MOO performances. Think of a poem and a MOO space as architectured space. Some words in a poem seem key. We want to circle them, interpret and investigate them. In the MOO we want to type 'look X' to see the word/object better or perform actions on objects. As the poem develops, new spaces open, and in the MOO, we open new doors. As we read a poem we react to it. In the MOO, as we occupy a space we react to the environment by "speaking" or "emoting." The MOO allows us to interact with the poem-text while all our actions produce new actions and reactions from a robot or from other players in the MOO space. The text we type becomes woven in with the MOO space. It is as if we entered into the poem and added our commentary, or perhaps we are re-writing the poem from within it.[3]

  4. Digital performance for the humanities has most recently gained acceptance through Jerome McGann's work in The Ivanhoe Game in its many instantiations. In Radiant Textuality McGann creates the theoretical ground for performing a literary text using a notion of "quantum poetics." He explains that in the game mode, "action does not take place outside but inside the object of attention" (218). As the reader is situated within the textual object the relationship becomes one of "quantum poetics" by which neither the reading subject nor the textual object provides a stable ground for interpretation. Rather each shifts in relation to the other such that there is no "outside" space, no Archimedian point, from which to leverage an objective reading.

  5. Like McGann's quantum poetics, immersive textuality uses the performativity of gaming rather than the archive as its model. In gaming, scholarship one can find the play/risk/possibility that works outside of traditional essays and books. While most scholarly inquiries have to adopt a singular and unified argument from a point of view outside of the object of study, the gaming genre can work from within the text itself and adopt several perspectives. Through play comes learning and discovery rather than the more conservative description of a singular coherent argument. As McGann explains "its [gaming's] critical method is procedural rather than expository" (219).

  6. While the Wordsworth MOO site that I created in 1996 provided a proof of concept, it remains a fairly linear narrative with not much game play. Furthermore the site exercised only a limited amount of what is possible in MOO clients. Since the late 1990s, the text-based chat of MOOs has expanded into a text and web interface using EnCore software (for a web interface) on top of the core LambdaMOO program (the traditional textual MOO core). EnCore allows whatever is possible in web pages to be done in a MOO in addition to the fairly robust computing capabilities already inherent in the object-oriented programming environment of MOOs. After the Wordsworth space the challenge was to build a MOO that would allow for more serious experiments in immersive textuality. In order to construct the MOO for such work I needed to select a literary text that could expand the boundaries of what is possible or what has been done in MOOs. Conversely, for the space to be useful as a literary tool, construction and play within the space should allow the reader/player to think differently about the literary text. The literary text should expand what is possible in MOOs while MOOs should push textual interpretation in new directions.

  7. My goal was to select a text that had multiple story levels, disjunctive narratives, and unstable character identities. Such literary problems would test the capabilities of a literary MOO space. William Blake's poetry met the criteria. Additionally, the relationship between image and text in Blake and the multiple versions of his works provided additional fields for exploration. Yet beyond all these rich literary elements, Blake had already thought through the problem of creating immersive environments. His characters are continually creating windows and doors into new worlds or falling through space and time in such a way that the fall creates both space and time. Through their immersive interaction with one another and their surroundings, Blake's characters forge the world upon which the narrative is staged. In like manner, Blake wants the reader to immerse him/herself in the poem such that "doors of perception" open for the reader, creating new worlds and new possibilities. As he explains in a letter to Thomas Butts, while walking across the hills "A frowning Thistle implores my stay/ . . . With my inward Eye 'tis an old Man gray/ With my outward a Thistle across my way" (Erdman 721). Upon striking the Thistle/man, "Then Los appeared in all his power/ In the Sun he appeared descending before/ . . . Twas outward a Sun: inward Los in his might" (Erdman 722). The walls between Blake's fiction and reality remain porous as characters Los and the old man Urizen are another folded reality of sun and thistle. Blake asks that his readers move as facilely between the folds of the illuminated plates and the world in which they read his prophecies.

  8. One set of folds takes place for the characters in Blake's poetry and another folding takes place between reader and text.[4] In the first set of folds, characters gesture between the vegetative world and the heavens of eternity. Examples include the Adam and Eve figures Blake uses to illustrate Night Thoughts and the neo-platonic Sea of Time and Space. The bodies of the characters are the physical fold of their divided state between this world and others. Between-ness presents internal discord and unravels the character's sense of self. Internal difference, self-differentiation, causes the character to transform, to become other as shown by the tree-woman Daphane in Blake's Notebook and in the Preludium of America. Transformations abound and appear throughout Blake's work; striking examples include Nebuchadnezzar, the swan-woman, and the butterfly women found in Jerusalem. While characters' bodies are the site of folds and transformations, so too is the reader's body. The frontispiece for Jerusalem shows Los opening a door and entering the book. Of course, as the reader opens the book, he or she joins Los in entering the narrative. Readers also participate in perceptual transformations. For example, in plate 8 of copy E of America a naked Adam figure sits atop a hill. At his knee is an object that can be perceived as either a leaf or a skull. Whether the object is skull or leaf is up to the reader's interpretation.[5]

  9. To experiment with Blakean folds in MOOs I set up a team of Blake MOOers including undergraduates at Georgia Tech in architecture and computer science, a graduate student in the Information Design Technology program, and several Blake scholars as consultants including Nelson Hilton, David Baulch, and Donald Ault. The Blake MOO sites were constructed in Romantic Circles's Villa Diodati MOO. Not only did the subject matter make the Villa a proper home for the Blake MOO, but also previously programmed supplementary features of this MOO helped the Blake MOOers realize their goals. Collaboratively we began thinking about what an immersive Blakean text would look like. The Milton space serves as one response. Where the space has succeeded, it provides an example of what is possible in immersive texutality. Its limitations show directions yet to be pursued.

  10. In brief, Blake's Milton is about spiritual inspiration through poetry and apocalyptic revelations that result from following such inspiration. As the poem opens, Milton finds himself in a seemingly heavenly world surrounded by the Eternals. A bard sings to the Eternals about the fall of Satan. The Eternals are angered by the song and the bard takes refuge inside Milton. The poet now possessed by the bard awakens to the realization that he is in heaven alone, without his female counterpart, his Emanation. To regain his Emanation, Milton takes off the robe of promise and descends to earth in what he believes will be his Eternal Death. Along the path of descent he must battle Urizen and Satan and their female counterparts. He arrives on earth and lands in William Blake's garden or alternately in Blake's left foot. Blake is then possessed to write the poem Milton. Once in the garden, Milton joins his female counterpart Ololon who, unbeknownst to Milton, has also descended from the heavens to meet him. Together they realize a spiritual apocalypse that transforms heaven and earth and all the worlds folded between them.

  11. In constructing the Milton MOO space the design team wanted to emphasize the problem of possession in Blake's poem. Possession in Blake fits nicely with the aims of immersive textuality. The goal in immersive textuality, similar to that of McGann's quantum poetics, is to create a field of play that omits an outside objective space for contemplation. In the Milton MOO site thought should take place as action within the game space. Normally when reading the reader occupies a double position—one inside the poem through the act of reading and a second outside the poem in the "real world" beyond the book. However, Blake's poem problematizes the second position and collapses it into the first. He does so throughout the poem most commonly by placing "real" British place names such as Lambeth or London next to fictional names such as Beulah and Golgonooza. Real people such as Milton and Blake find themselves alongside Palambron and Rintrah. Real life objects such as hammers and looms take on epic proportions as the creative Hammer of Los and the Wheels of Enitharmon. Such tropes are familiar to readers of Blake. Yet, perhaps the most powerful and salient for an immersive MOO is the title page to Milton. (Please see the Blake Archive "Welcome Page" before continuing on to Milton plate 1)

  12. This famous opening page shows Milton naked, having cast off the robes of promise, and pushing with his right hand through the ether as he begins the descent to the vegetative world. The reader upon opening the book and beginning a descent into its pages places a hand over the upper right hand corner to flip the page. Doing so, the reader's hand is placed over Milton's hand so that the two perform a descent at the same time. Whose hand it is flipping and descending is up for grabs. Remember that Milton's hand is drawn with Blake's hand but Blake has been possessed and commanded to write by Milton who is possessed and inspired by the bard. The reader cannot enter the poem, that is enter Milton, without having Milton enter the reader. The physicality of reading allows Blake to collapse the reader's second position—outside the poem—into part of the first position—being immersed in the poem's field of play.

  13. The Milton MOO site realizes these same goals by problematizing the relationship between the person typing and his or her player character inside the MOO. In following commands to "inspire" Milton, is the player another Bard or possessed by the MOO Bard? Through a series of inspirations and possessions, the player loses his or her identity and the player's name ( changes to that of a character in the poem. At each character change, the point of view, the surrounding, and the spaces open or closed to the player change as well. To prevent total disorientation and facilitate some ease of use in the MOO, all of this information is graphically displayed in the Milton MOO. A map of possible open space is available at the top of the EnCore screen, and the identity currently occupied by the player is displayed in a "You are" screen at the bottom of the page. The map of spaces are threads that connect characters with MOO rooms. The thread image reminds the reader of Enitharmon's weaving and the weaving of the narrative, both of which culminate in Jesus's robes of blood at the apocalyptic ending of poem and MOO.

  14. Several other special features of the Villa Diodati MOO help establish different character points of view and allow the MOO to keep track of where the player is and has been in the various space/time realms of Blake's poem. The Villa Diodati has "event aware" rooms that are sensitive to the entry and exit of players and other objects as well as actions performed in the rooms. So, for example, if a player gets possessed by Milton and so "is" Milton and enters the room called "Field" the room gives him a description of Milton's descent to earth and he (the player as Milton) must do battle with Urizen. The battle is satirically stylized to give the feel of a cartoon or primitive game. A simple pop-up screen allows the player to battle Urizen by answering a series of questions about the poem and thus confirming his state of inspiration. If the player is successful then the MOO space changes into a new area for exploration. If the player loses Milton is thrown back to the beginning of his adventure and must try again. One of the technical innovations for the battle scene is the ability of the Flash pop-up screen to affect the EnCore MOO screen. If the character Los enters the same room, he is served a different room description and sees different objects in the room (by making use of EnCore's _html function). "Field" for him and for Palambron is the agricultural field of the Bard's story told when Milton is in Eternity. In this case, Palambron, Satan, and Los must battle as if before the Great Solemn Assembly. It is also possible for both Los and Milton to be in the same room at the same time and see different worlds—a very Blakean phenomenon.

  15. Successfully negotiating a room opens up new spaces to advance the narrative and game play. At any moment the player is aware that there are many other fields and levels not visible to him/her, and that other spaces, once traveled through, will never be served and described in the same way again. In constructing an immersive textual experience, the goal is to create for the player a feeling of being situated within deep spatial folds and a particular temporal moment. If such immersion is successful, the player feels that each action is a performance—that typing/textually performing creates an event structure that affects the very architecture of the poem: what is encountered and where the narrative might lead. The shifts in architecture mimic the way the decisions of Blake's characters create new spaces. For example, Urizen's fall in The Book of Urizen creates the space into which he falls. In Milton, Satan's reaction to Palambron and the General Assembly causes Enitharmon to create a "New Space to protect Satan from punishment" (13:13, Erdman 107). The creation of space in the poem gets performed not only by the character but also by the reader since as the reader's eye scans the line "Created a New Space to protect Satan from punishment," the space opens up in and through the act of reading. Once again, the reader is a performer within the text and within the MOO.

  16. In the final scene of the MOO site, the player loses all control of the performance as a staged apocalypse unfolds. The EnCore screen folds upon itself and is replace by a blood-red background recalling Jesus's robes. Before this backdrop Milton and his Shadow are wed to Ololon and a boat-like ark of the covenant sails them into the horizon. The player feels powerless over his/her EnCore screen during this scene. The actual EnCore screen is hidden behind an animated double that tells the final events of the poem. Such loss of control over one's computer screen creates a horrid moment of anxiety. In this case, the Milton MOO uses a problem familiar to the player to leap outside of the MOO "into" the player's computer, monopolizing the screen. Again the player's position as typist outside the poem is interrupted by the playing experience, eclipsing the EnCore typing space and seemingly hijacking the player's computer.

  17. The Milton MOO is a first glance at what is possible in immersive textuality. Its strength lies in having no space exterior to the poem. Just as Blake in his letter to Thomas Butts sees the thistle as an old man and the sun as Los, for the MOO player the familiar computer screen and keyboard become gateways for opening the doors of perception rather than simply mundane tools. One of Blake's goals in his poetry is to help the reader see the four-fold vision. The game play actualizes these folds both for the player inside the game space and for his vegetative (typing) self. Still many of these apocalyptic possibilities for immersive textuality are yet to be realized. Milton MOO has the infrastructure for creating many player options, housing multiple players, and pursuing multiple narratives. Yet, at this stage, Milton's path—as in the poem—remains fairly linear. Reflection takes place at the level of understanding the architecture and programming one is immersed within. If Milton MOO is built out to more levels of choice and complexity, the very narrative itself can increasingly function as a reflective tool. Additionally, at this stage of production only the Milton perspective is fully playable. Other perspectives would be fairly simple to add on and should be realized if Milton MOO will have a life beyond its current instantiation. Such limitations only point to the horizon of what is possible in the MOO space. Using immersion and possession as forms of thought creates new possibilities for creative critique both for Blake and for building MOO environments.


Works Cited

Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Ed. David Erdman. New York: Doubleday, 1988.

---. The Notebook of William Blake. Ed. David Erdman and Donald Moore. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1970.

Bolter, Jay. Turing's Man: Western Culture in the Computer Age. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Berman, Joshua and Amy Bruckman. "The Turing Game: Exploring Identity in an Online Environment." Convergence 7(3): 83-102, 2001.

Deleuze, Gilles. The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.

Heppner, Christopher. Reading Blake’s Designs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

McGann, Jerome. Radiant Textuality. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Blake, William. America. Plate 8, Copy E. Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress. Copyright © 2003 the William Blake Archive. Used with permission.

---. The Arlington Court Picture. (also known as The Sea of Time and Space). Copyright ©. By permission of The National Trust.

---. Milton a Poem. Plate 1, Copy C. New York Public Library. The William Blake Archive. Eds. Morris Eaves, Robert Essick, and Joseph Viscomi.

---. Illustrations to Edward Young’s Night Thoughts. 119. By permission of The British Library. C.70.i.3.


1 Today's widely used synchronous communication derives from Internet software called MUDs and MOOs, first programmed in the 1980s and still in use. MUD stands for multi-user dungeon. The object-oriented programming in MUDs created the name MOOs or multi-user dungeons object-oriented. As the word "dungeon" indicates, these programs had their birth in role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons. Early MOOs were text-based chat spaces with room descriptions and interactive digital objects for characters to play with. Today, MOOs include a graphic web interface in addition to the text chat space.


2 These were not mimetic tours of the Lake District but rather a walk within poems. Miming the real world was and remains a common and problematic aspect of MOO environments. The degree of information in the world is hard to replicate in a MOO and calls attention to the digital environment's shortcomings. Conversely, MOOs as textual spaces are well equipped to emulate the textual space of poems.


3 Such early performativity in MOOs is described in a web site "Romantic Text/ Electronic Text: Designing a New Pedagogical Practice for Romantic Studies" co-authored with William Ruegg. This material was presented at the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism Conference in Boston in November of 1996.


4 Some of these examples draw from the work of Christopher Heppner's chapter "'Humpty Dumpty Blake': Reading Blake's Design," where he details gesturing in Blake's characters. In this section I combine Heppner's work with Deleuze's idea of folding from The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque.


5 The idea of folds between reader and text found affinity with MOO scholarship in the 1990s which spent a considerable amount of time discussing the play of textual identity and the interplay between screen identity and the typist's "real life" identity. The fold between the physical self and textual self at work in Blake's book medium can be highlighted in MOOs by capitalizing upon the difference between typing person and player character.


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Published @ RC

January 2005