Galatea’s Riposte: The Reception and Receptacle of Interactive Fiction


Pygmalion, Franz Struck, 1879

by Lisa Swanstrom

…with wonderful skill, he carved a figure, brilliantly, out of snow-white ivory, no mortal woman, and fell in love with his own creation.
—Ovid, The Metamorphoses, Book X

Criticism can talk, and all the arts are dumb. In painting, sculpture, or music it is easy enough to see that the art shows forth, but cannot say anything.
—Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism

Yes, it hurts being carved. The stone beyond the boundary of oneself is numb, but there always comes a time when the chisel or the point reaches down to where feeling begins, and strikes.
—Emily Short, “Galatea” 


Each time I access “Galatea,” Emily Short’s fabulous piece of interactive fiction, a supple string of text hails me, flirts with me, and stops just short of calling me by name. Strictly speaking, this mode of address should not be possible, at least not according to the familiar conventions of literary tradition. In Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye states the matter unequivocally: “Criticism can talk, and all the arts are dumb…there is a most important sense in which poems are as silent as statues” (4). While works of IF are decidedly not the poetical specimens Frye had in mind, his stance nevertheless serves as a firm response to a larger problem, one that has endured since antiquity. This problem can be crudely summarized in the following terms: there has always been something of a gap between the written word and its reception. Frye identified this gap in 1957, in order, in part, to bolster his argument about how criticism is fundamental to the arts and to counter the residual prejudices of “the golden age of anti-critical criticism [of] the latter part of the nineteenth century” (3), but we can see the same gap in any work of high modernism that requires rigorous cognitive, critical engagement; in any works of the Renaissance or the Baroque periods that do the same; or, indeed, in any work of art, in any period of time, which demands the reader’s participation in order to draw out meaning. In other words, the gap is not just a gap, but a fault line that extends through time, between all art and its reception. Today, over fifty years later, this gap does not seem to be in any danger of receding. Indeed, works like “Galatea” demonstrates just how complicated and important the relation between art and criticism has become. Such works require, as Espen Aarseth says works of hypertext and electronic literature do, non-trivial ergodic effort on the part of the reader to navigate and explicate. The effort required to interact with this piece would suggest that the gap between us remains.

Yet each time Short’s “Galatea” addresses me, I question whether the gap between text and reader has been in some way bridged, or at least contracted. Each time the “animate” speaks to me, I am unable to locate myself in relation to the text no matter which paradigm I might use to explicate our relationship. Within a spectrum bounded at one end by the New Critical emphasis on textual autonomy and at the other by the “virtual” text that emerges necessarily as a correspondence between author and audience in reader-response theory, I do not know where I stand. With Galatea’s invocation, I am aware that I have been identified and can therefore no longer maintain the convenient illusion of being, as a reader, either ideal or implied. I have been specified. The “text,” such as it is, has called me out. The spectrum I have identified here is, of course, absurdly streamlined and unequally weighted. The New Critics exclude the reader’s thoughts as a given principle, while reader-response theory alone has perhaps generated more ways of labeling its reading audience than the sum of other critical interventions combined—in addition to offering a strong and convincing counterpoint to Cleanth Brooks’ ideal reader, Wolfgang Iser’s implied reader is only one star in a constellation of terms that includes the mock reader, the actual reader, the fictionalized reader, the hypothetical reader, the narrative reader, the ideal narrative reader, and the “real” reader, not to mention Fish’s interpretive reading communities. [1] In all of these models of reception, the impulse to name the reader, to re-assert her importance in the construction of textual meaning, still participates in the tacit agreement that this reader, whoever she may be, is never fully concretized by the written text. How could she be? Rather, a “virtual” text emerges as a sort of ghostly correspondence between the two, one that is nigh impossible to trace. In the words of Iser, “It’s difficult to describe this interaction…because…of course, the two partners in the communication process, namely, the text and the reader, are far easier to analyze than is the event that takes place between them” (“Interaction Between Text and Reader,” 107). This is all true, of course, in terms of print-based texts, and reader response theory has proven indispensible for thinking through how it is that readers create meaning. Unfortunately, however, when it comes to works of electronic literature, reader response is too often conflated with interactivity in ways that undermine both the importance of the reader and the power of interaction. In part, this is because interactivity is a word so commonly thrown about in new media studies that it has become, almost, meaningless. In his Language of New Media, Lev Manovich goes as far as to include “interactivity” in his list of “What New Media Is Not” (70), not because it doesn’t exist, but because it “is too broad to be truly useful” and because it marks a “tautology…all HCI is by its very definition interactive…to call computer media interactive is meaningless—it simply means stating the most basic fact about computers” (71). In this same section Manovich discusses how all digital art requires cognitive effort and is therefore interactive; in doing so, he equates interaction with cognitive action and, hence, aligns interaction with reader response.

I would like for us to move away, momentarily, from the important insights that reader response theory has afforded and instead cast our glance backwards, much farther in time. Rather than looking to reader response theory for a way to think about the peculiar mode of interactivity that “Galatea” employs, let us turn instead to a pre-modern philosophical concept that might help us reframe the issue: Plato’s khora. At first glance, Plato seems a perverse choice for thinking through the subtleties of IF. If there is one insight to be gleaned throughout Platonic philosophy, it is the danger and futility of mediation: any mimetic representation offers a diminishing return on the true form upon which it is based and whose understanding is deprecated through art. Going all the way back to the Phaedrus, for example, we see that Socrates’ attitude toward the written word is one of curiosity, skepticism, and frustration. None of this bodes well for the highly mediated literary form that is Interactive Fiction.

In an extremely clarifying reading of Plato, however, Jacques Derrida offers the possibility that while Socrates laments the written word’s ability to respond, he (Socrates) nevertheless expresses the desire to see the mute, still properties of art come to life. Furthermore, Derrida suggests that Plato’s discussion of the khora, which translates as “receiver,” “receptacle,” or “receiving space,” offers a way to bridge the disparate categories of form and copy and, hence, the gaps that exist between writer and text, text and reader. To illustrate this point, Derrida directs our attention to key moments in a different dialog, the Timaeus, where Socrates offers a discussion of the khora. Derrida mines the Timaeus exhaustively, teasing out every potential signification that possibly inheres in the concept of the “receiving space,” suggesting that while the receptacle does not successfully overturn the separation that Plato specifies as existing between artist, artwork, and receiver, it nevertheless reveals a desire on his part to think of the three as mutually constituted.

The hypothesis that I would like to test in this essay is that Short’s “Galatea” functions as Plato’s khora does, as a peculiar intermediary between form and copy. If this turns out to be as convincing a comparison as I hope it will, it will open up a new—or, rather, a very old—way to think about Interactive Fiction in general and readerly interaction, in particular. Instead of insisting upon the gaps between text and reader, art and criticism, production and reception, the khora encourages us to think about how each of these things might function as a template or a press for the formation of the other. For works of electronic literature, which require the input of the reader to emerge, this is an intriguing approach, one that might have the additional benefit of complicating well-rehearsed notions about “interactivity” by removing the term once and for all from the domain of reader response theory, or, at the very least, pushing the issue of responsibility and specificity into uncharted readerly terrain. The reader’s participation in “Galatea” is required for textual constitution in ways that are fundamentally different from even the most successful and extreme examples of non-linear narrative practices found in print. Works of IF both signal the reader and require a response of her. Even more remarkable, this response becomes a part of the initial text, such that the text that emerges is literally constituted through the feedback that exists between the reader’s actions and the author’s words. To see how this might be so, let us turn to “Galatea” in order to examine the peculiar mechanics of the work in action.

Response Ability

Played via the Spatterlight application for IF, Emily Short’s “Galatea” is an example of an entirely text-based form of narration, complete with description, exposition, character development, conflict, and closure. But it is the reader who sets the work in motion, who asks questions of the central character, and who must tease out different story lines of varying complexity. In fact, it is the reader herself who controls the narrative direction at each forking point in the conversation. To someone who grew up reading young adult fiction in the early eighties, this form of narrative may sound familiar, in that it shares many formal features with the Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) books so popular during this time period. “Galatea” employs second person perspective, the gender of which remains unspecified, and each story unfolds according to commands and decisions the reader makes in response to the text. And, like many of the books in the CYOA franchise, the first word of the opening paragraph is “you”:

You come around a corner, away from the noise of the opening. There is only one exhibit. She stands in the spotlight, with her back to you: a sweep of pale hair on paler skin, a column of emerald silk that ends in a pool at her feet. She might be the model in a perfume ad; the trophy wife at a formal gathering; one of the guests at this very opening, standing on an empty pedestal in some ironic act of artistic deconstruction — You hesitate, about to turn away. Her hand balls into a fist. “They told me you were coming.”

If the writing here seems a tad stilted, a tad bromide, serving to create a clichéd version of female sexiness, it nevertheless has the virtue of complimenting the peculiar status of the character being described—an as-yet unknown aesthetic object, one who only emerges as a subject through the reader’s interaction with her.  In this respect “Galatea” differs a bit from the typical CYOA book. In CYOA books, the reader propels narrative through her decisions; she has very little to do with the subtleties of character development, if anything at all. Here, in contrast, the reader’s decisions are crucial both to narrative and to the character’s unfolding. The “She” in this opening passage is the titular “Galatea,” a living statue who stands on display on a pedestal at a place named “Gallery’s End.” She is at once an art object, an object of vision, and, as we shall see, a literal “conversation piece”—I use these descriptive phrases to emphasize Galatea’s complicated status as an object that nevertheless has subjective capacity. As the story progresses and the reader is called upon to speak to the statue, her status becomes more complicated, but at this point, the bare context suggests that she exists for the sole purpose of being on display. Once the reader has this bit of information, she is presented with a blinking cursor, and after pressing any key, the following text displays on the screen:


Copyright (c) 2000-4 by Emily Short. (First-time users should type ‘help’.)

Release 3 / Serial number 040208 / Inform v6.15 Library 6/10

The Gallery’s End

Unlit, except for the single spotlight; unfurnished, except for the defining swath of black velvet. And a placard on a little stand.

On the pedestal is Galatea.


The first few lines provide copyright information and the help command. The second heading marks the first chunk of narration—what George Landow, by way of Roland Barthes, calls a lexia, a “text composed of blocks of words (or images) linked electronically by multiple paths, chains, or trails in an open-ended, perpetually unfinished textuality described the by terms link, node, network, web, and path” (Landow, 3). This chunk of text offers further description and ends with a greater than sign (>), which is worth looking at in isolation:


This simple sign acts as a prompt for the reader, an invitation to offer up input. If the reader does nothing, the text will do nothing. If the reader doesn’t converse, neither will Galatea. This little prompt offers no clues, no choices, no hints at navigation, and will remain stubbornly empty and still until the reader acts. The consequence of this lack of instruction at each decision point, however, is significant, because it puts the burden of textual origin upon the reader. And once the reader does respond, a sort of conversation transcript emerges between the reader and Galatea, one which can be saved and read as a complete text later (the transcripts from my sessions with “Galatea” follow this essay). Although the prompt offers little to the reader in the way of instruction, the help menu referenced at the beginning of the work alerts the reader that she can make use of simple verbs and that through them she can have access to her senses and surroundings in this text-based world.

Galatea’s coherence as a character waxes and wanes in causal relation to her reader—in relation to her reader’s interest in her, in relation to the questions the reader asks of her, and the subsequent conversation that occurs. The “text” here is never settled; it is instead shaped and reformed with each reading. This protean narrative is nevertheless driven by a strong objective in every instance: the desire to bring Galatea into being, just as Pygmalion carved her out of stone. In this sense the work makes the reader the “author” of Galatea as much is it makes Galatea a “text.” The contents of the lexias complement this analogy. In any version in which the reader asks Galatea about her history, her story is explicitly aligned with the task of artistic creation and, as such, makes her status as a textual object all the more explicit:

“…I could see it through the windows of the studio when he was carving me… The stone beyond the boundary of oneself is numb, but there always comes a time when the chisel or the point reaches down to where feeling begins, and strikes. Likewise the drill – and being polished left all my skin burning and itching for days…I existed from the time that he began searching for me,” she says. “I only know the punch and the polish, the chisel, the claw…“What it sounds like,” she says. Her fingers curl in a savage, startling shape, then loosen again. “Like a rake, like several chisels tied together. It scrapes away the excess, until the sculptor begins to come down to the level in which the detail begins.”

This information, presented here as if it were one coherent block of exposition, is in fact a hard-earned amalgam of different conversations that occurred over ten different interactions; each ellipse indicates a break in a reading path. The whole, which is to say the portrait that emerges of the animated statue’s coming into being, results from an excavation of textual elements, from blunt questions, from gentle tapping, from the sifting of meaning from nonsense, from the joining of joints, and from the carving of words. Just as the statue describes the process of her formation from a block of marble as a violent act of punching, polishing, chiseling, and, in another section, drilling, the reader’s re-formation of Galatea is dependent upon all sorts of readerly arabesques that seek to call a coherent entity into being from raw textual elements that at times appear to be as unyielding and stubborn as marble.

That the sculptor Pygmalion and the reader share the parallel task of calling Galatea into being in some ways already offers a challenge to traditional notions about a reader’s role in bringing a text to life. In one sense, it’s entirely consistent with Barthes’ insistence upon the importance of “rereading,” by which he means the way we as readers bring ourselves to bear upon any text we read, such that the individual act of our reading saves the text from exhaustive repetition:

Rereading, an operation contrary to the commercial and ideological habits of our society, which would have us ‘throw away’ the story once it has been consumed (‘devoured’), so that we can then move on to another story, buy another book, and which is tolerated only in certain marginal categories of readers (children, old people, and professors)…it alone saves the text from repetition (those who fail to reread are obliged to read the same story everywhere) (S/Z 15).

The reader of “Galatea” is also engaged in this important act. However, the text also offers a performance and demonstration of the shifting role of authorship in the online environment. The text in conventional forms of narration is constructed by an author and received and interpreted—or “reread”—by a reader. In the case of IF, however, the text comes to the reader only partially formed, as a set of potentials determined by an underlying database, and becomes more coherent with each instance of question and answer. In other words, the reader of “Galatea” doesn’t just reread, she re-writes. We might visualize a communication circuit in which authorial construction shifts from Pygmalion (the author) to Galatea (the text) to You (the reader) as follows, in which the arrows indicate the responsibility for the creation of the character:

Pygmalion → Galatea ← Reader

As Galatea becomes more fully sketched, the reader becomes more important for her creation and the artist less so. As Galatea’s skin warms, Pygmalion’s important status as her creator wanes. This diminished importance of the artist is hinted in the work, if and when the reader decides to examine the statue’s placard:

47. Galatea

White Thasos marble. Non-commissioned work by the late Pygmalion of Cyprus. (The artist has since committed suicide.)

In other words, this brief description suggests, the reader ought not come looking to the author for answers or explanations. Only the work remains, waiting to be brought into focus by the reader’s response to the textual cues and verbal clues. The first and most obvious “clue” is the title of the work itself—Galatea. And it is through this historical figure that we can begin to think about Plato’s concept of the khora.

The Receptacle and the Reciprocator

That the subject of this piece is the statue Galatea is successful on several levels. In the first place, the multiple versions of the story that are available to the reader in Short’s version run parallel to the fact that this story has, since Ovid, existed in various forms. In the The Metamorphoses, the sculptor Pygmalion falls in love with his sculpture and prays to Venus to make his creation real. And she obliges: “The ivory yielded to his touch, and lost its hardness, altering under his fingers, as the bees’ wax of Hymettus softens in the sun, and is molded, under the thumb, into many forms, made usable by use” (X, 243). When one takes inventory of how many different interpretations this myth has engendered—from Ovid to Rousseau to Shaw to the recent novel by Richard Powers, Galatea 2.0 [2]—we see that the story, like the statue, has proved exceedingly pliable. But while Galatea’s status as a malleable physical body within a plastic narrative form is extremely interesting, what is of particular interest to this essay is that, once molded, once called into existence, she has the ability to act with reciprocity in relation to her creator, even in the original myth. After Venus’ intervention in Ovid’s version, the living statue responds to her creator’s touch:

The girl felt the kisses he gave, blushed, and, raising her bashful eyes to the light, saw both her lover and the sky. The goddess attended the marriage that she had brought about, and when the moon’s horns had nine times met at the full, the woman bore a son, Paphos, from whom the island takes its name. (X, 243)

We have already reviewed Northrop Frye’s view on this matter, which is that these reactions—these reciprocations—should not be possible, a position that is articulated much earlier and more fully in the work of Plato. We see in the Phaedrus, for example, that Socrates’ attitude toward the written word is one of frustration: “Writing has a strange character, which is similar to that of painting, actually. Painting’s creations stand there as though they were alive, but if you ask them anything, they maintain a quite solemn silence” (275e). Socrates contrasts the silent voices of poems and paintings with the “intelligent word graven in the soul of the learner, which can defend itself, and knows when to speak and when to be silent” (276a). Of these two voices, we can clearly see that he favors the latter.[3] A further reading of Plato, however, suggests that this is not a matter that is so easily settled for Socrates. While the Phaedrus offers quite explicit evidence regarding Plato’s views regarding the dangers of the written word, the same section that repudiates it within this dialog allows for the possibility of a “responsible” writer, if not a response-able text:

…if their compositions are based on knowledge of the truth, and they can defend or prove them, when they are put to the test, by spoken arguments, which leave their writings poor in comparison of them, then they are to be called, not only poets, orators, legislators, but are worthy of a higher name. (276a)

In this formation, the responsibility for speaking for writing is located firmly outside the textual domain and lies squarely with the author. In an extremely clarifying reading of Plato, however, Jacques Derrida offers the possibility that while Socrates laments the written word’s ability to respond, he nevertheless expresses the desire to see the mute, still properties of art come to life. To illustrate this point, Derrida directs our attention to a key moment in different dialog, the Timaeus. In this section of the work, Socrates has just finished describing an imagined, ideal community to his friends, who have received his ideas warmly. When he finishes, however, he makes the following confession, “I feel rather like a man who has been looking at some noble creatures in a painting, or perhaps at real animals, alive but motionless, and conceives a desire to watch them in motion and actively exercising the powers promised by their form” (19c). This passage is remarkable. Firstly, it offers a radical departure from Plato’s usual argument about the diminishing nature of mimesis and its relation to forms. In the Symposium, for example, Diotima (via Socrates) encourages one to move away from physical instances of beauty in order to find “the beautiful itself.”[4] Hers is a move away from the physical world towards the transcendent one; she even invokes the figure of a “heavenly ladder” to make the move away from the world quite clear. In contrast, in this moment in the Timaeus, the appearance of form is what vouchsafes the appearance’s potential, and Socrates has no wish to move away from it but instead wishes its powers would manifest from the copy. Living animals are aligned with artistic representations; although both are still, they seem imbued with the power of motion because of the forms they take. The passage speaks both to Socrates’ dissatisfaction with mimetic arts, as well as a wish to see them leap to life. As Derrida writes in his exegesis of the Timaeus, it reflects the philosopher’s “desire…to give life, to see life and movement given to a graphe, to see a zoography become animated” (118). According to Derrida, this passage anticipates another that speaks even more directly to Plato’s desire to see life emerge from mere mimesis; as such, it too suggests a startling rupture within Platonic philosophy. This passage occurs in his discussion of the khora, the “receptacle,” a strange intermediary between Form and Copy:

… then we made two classes, now a third must be revealed. The two sufficed for the former discussion: one, which we assumed, was a pattern intelligible and always the same; and the second was only the imitation of the pattern, generated and visible. There is also a third kind which we did not distinguish … difficult of explanation and dimly seen. What nature are we to attribute to this new kind of being? We reply, that it is the receptacle, and in a manner the nurse, of all generation. (49a)

Just as “anyone who sets about taking impressions of shapes in some soft substance allows no shape to show itself there beforehand, but begins by making the surface as smooth and level as he can” (50e), the receptacle acts as a malleable medium through which form is transmitted and embodied as copy. Let us set aside the ramifications the khora might have upon our understanding of Plato’s forms, his critical stance regarding mimesis, and his otherwise steadfast devotion to the notion of truth as a transcendent entity; instead, let us consider how the khora can illuminate the story of Galatea, both in the original myth and in Emily Short’s far-flung digital descendent.

The classical myth of Galatea already imagines a re-constitution of this order, providing us with an example of an art object that has the very ability to respond that, according to Socrates (and, later, Frye), all art lacks. Her status is like that of the receptacle. Her marble body, carved from a block of inanimate matter, comes into being from the grace of a goddess, who in her pure form remains external to us. The marble is the receiving space for statue’s animation. In the myth, however, Galatea’s response is reciprocal only to her creator’s actions; theirs is a closed, two-way circuit between artist and creation. In other words, Pygmalion and Galatea live happily ever, the story ends, and the reader has no more information about them. Instead, Ovid moves swiftly on to his next salacious tale, the story of Myrrha’s incest and the birth of Adonis.

The “response ability” of Galatea in Emily Short’s piece of interaction fiction, however, pushes this textual circuit beyond the artist, beyond the creation, and on to the reader. Galatea comes into focus as the reader speaks to her; she dispenses information in response to the sequence and types of questions asked of her. She is a quasi-response-able text. In turn, the reader takes the responsibility of creating a coherent text, as well as responsibility for the emergence of an entity that pretends to remember, to feel pain, and to long for her lost creator. As “animate” as the animate seems, however, there is a limit to her abilities. There is, of course, no “real” Galatea behind the text. Despite the vivid descriptions of her shimmering skin and her ability to engage in fairly convincing conversation, the “animate,” as Short identifies her, is a low-level artificial intelligence along the lines of Eliza and Alice, which is to say a data-base driven piece of writing that is programmed to respond according to a varied, but not infinite, set of possibilities. At some points, the “responses” that Galatea gives are frustrating, inconsistent, or seemingly nonsensical. Indeed, at one point in the reading, the text comments self-reflexively upon its inadequate construction:

You feel a twinge of disappointment. Other things about this piece are so promising: the meticulous attention to detail on the body, the delicacy of the facial expressions, the variability of mood. There are those who would call that inconsistency, or lack of a coherent artistic vision … But no piece is going to get a serious critical reception with such a pathetic database. And that’s that.

In other words, Short makes the limitations clear, and I don’t want to overstate Galatea’s ability to respond, nor the reader’s importance to her construction. I do, however, want to suggest that even within the set of finite parameters that constitute the statue’s database, and even within the limited set of commands available to the reader, something very much like the khora is at work: a form, its potential, and its instantiation through art. Indeed, there are moments in the piece where Galatea comments upon her life, in its potential, in the earth, which sound very much like the receiving space: “I existed from the time that he began searching for me,” she says. “Though I don’t remember the beginnings well, since I could neither see nor hear, and none of me touched the open air” (Transcript 3). We might compare this potential she describes, within marble, to the life, in posse, that exists within Short’s database of responses. As in the marble, Galatea’s voice emerges from the database of responses only when the reader begins to search for her; and, for the reader, conversing with the statue is, as I have suggested, akin to working with marble: “enduring, hard. Slow to carve” (Transcript 3). And once this work of “carving” has been done, once Galatea has emerged from the questions and answers of the reader, her material status as a digitally-created text-based entity has much in common with the marble of her birthplace: “slow to carve…[but] slow to wear away” (Transcript 3). As in the vivid illustrations of animals that Socrates wishes would come to life, the potential of Galatea to emerge is dependent upon her material form. In Ovid, this form is marble, carved into the body of a woman, and animated by the grace of Venus. In “Galatea,” the form is a series of textual queries, responses plucked from a database of responses. Instead of by divine grace, the statue is animated by the efforts of the reader. The reader’s efforts in the construction of the statue are important. And even in such instances, when it seems to refer back to its original author through the mention of the database, the work situates the reference as occurring within the “mind” of the reader: “you.” At every turn the work signals the reader and requires her to do something in order for the text to emerge. This process of textual action and reader response complicates the notion of an implied reader and a virtual text. The reader’s actions, in that they have the ability to feed back into the text itself, serve to concretize the text; through each reading the text that manifests emerges and exists solely for that reader’s particular reading experience. Each encounter is thus a process of specification, one achieved primarily through a relentless system of direct address, invocation, and response ability. The use of the second person is bi-directional; it occurs in back-and-forth fashion. Galatea addresses the reader as “You,” and the reader similarly addresses Galatea through interrogatives and imperatives, both of which are second-person modes. Most important, the reader becomes a part of Galatea, in the sense that the statue stores the reader’s questions within her “living” memory. It’s not clear to what extent the animate “remembers” from each encounter, but Short has, at least, made references to memory, in that, when the reader starts a new session, Galatea will sometimes say, “Good of you not to walk away again” (transcript 10), indicating that there’s a “memory” of the past sessions. Such moments suggest that the reader’s verbal input doesn’t just trigger her responses, but that it also combines dynamically with the underlying database to determine the output and reveal a different textual creation with each reading. What emerges from this system of back-and-forth invocation is a unique sort of perspective that we might call reciprocal second person.

Many instances of IF provide the reader with all the elements she needs to construct a story: text chunks, lexias, and solicitations to participate via a cursor prompt. “Galatea,” however, is perhaps a special case in that the story encourages multiple endings that emerge as a result of different conversations, rather than any single desirable outcome or quest object. As Short maintains in her description of this work:

I’ve said it over and over: I don’t want people playing to particular endings. I want them to play the game and get whatever result comes naturally, because that is what the game is built for. It’s a dispenser of stories, customized to the individual who is playing at the moment. That’s my vision as the author.

This statement stands in contrast to many pieces of interactive fiction that offer the reader a puzzle or series of puzzles, the solving of which will result in a single desirable outcome. Jon Ingold’s “Allroads,” for example, begins with the scene of the reader’s execution and addresses the reader as follows: “Venice. The tight winding alleys and long dirty canals…In the central square a scaffold has been erected for your neck, and if only you can escape for long enough you might survive, but in this city all roads lead back to…the Hanging Clock” (Ingold). This tense moment provides clear motivation for the reader to escape the hangman, and “Allroads” ends either with her death or salvation. One recognizes the difference between these two frameworks immediately when one looks at the “cheats” or “walkthroughs” for each of these works. On Short’s cheats page, over twenty endings are offered up, each with its own walkthrough. On Ingold’s walkthrough there is one long page, filled with each specific command needed to escape the hangman unscathed.[5] On Short’s cheats page, over twenty endings are offered up, each with its own walkthrough. I don’t wish to get into get lost in making differentiations between playing online games and reading interactive fictions—such works make it hard to slice and dice these distinctions—but I would say that it is important to note that Short’s work emphasizes play and process over the quest-like telos of an ultimate solution, and it is this play that pushes the limits of interaction as it is conventionally conceived. Interaction in “Galatea” functions more like an invitation, “customized to the individual who is playing at the moment.” This was an invitation I accepted.

“You can’t form your question into words”

While I cannot speak to how others might experience the work, I would like to share, briefly, what my own thoughts were as I made my way through—and helped create, however provisionally—the narrative, as well as to what extent I felt that my input was necessary for Galatea to emerge. This approach is unusual and feels a bit awkward, but since I want to challenge a traditional tenet of reader response, namely, the one that insists upon the “ghostly” correspondence between reader and text, and since I want to insist that interaction isn’t just cognitive, but an externally traceable series of text events, I hope it will be worth the risk. Here it goes.

I made ten passes through “Galatea” in all. In each pass, my emotions shifted slightly. Initially I was intrigued; but with subsequent sessions I quickly became frustrated, intrigued again, irritated, angry, empathetic, and, once I accidentally triggered Aphrodite’s appearance at the end, self-satisfied. Much of my early frustration had to do with getting used to the commands, which reminded me of the commands I used to use in the 1980s, as an active member of various BBSs in New England with my dial-up 1200 baud modem and my Radio Shack Tandy computer. It also reminded me of the countless nights I spent as a pre-teen playing something called “Castle,” a buggy, purely text-based game written Basic that involved “walking” through rooms, “looking” for treasure, “fighting” monsters, and “reading” spells. So we can add “cheesy” to my list of emotional states. Once I got used to asking, looking, telling, touching, and, on occasion, hugging, I lost some of the self-consciousness and began to enjoy figuring out who—and what—Galatea was. And once she began to talk about her past, about being carved, I was hooked. I wanted to know to what extent she felt pain, to what extent she felt pleasure. Did she suffer when she was stuffed in a crate, put in the belly of a plane, and unpacked at Gallery’s End? Did she love her creator? She described Pygmalion as somewhat unhinged: “He hated people…If anyone tried to come up to the studio he’d get out his shotgun and fire into the air until they got the idea…” (Transcript 2). And when she complained of being hot, I found that her immobility moved me—so I tried to move her:

> a light

“So does that get in your eyes?” you ask, gesturing at the spotlight.

“A bit. It’s also too hot.” She shrugs. “But what can you do.”

> move galatea

That’s not a verb I recognize.

In terms of my contribution to the work, I don’t want to over- or understate it. As I hope I’ve made clear, Galatea, in all of her fascinating potentiality, exists within and as a database, able to be queried. The reader has nothing to do with this initial coding nor its structure. The reader’s contribution is a diegetic one. The questions I asked of it determined the sequence of events that occurred in the text—the narrative. Even this contribution, though, is easy to overstate. In the exchange above, for example, all I did was ask about the light: >a light. This simple query triggered the question “So does that get in your eyes?” This was not a question that I asked, but one that appeared as a response to the question I did. In this way, i.e., by using the simple triggers to suggest a greater involvement in the conversation than I was capable of making, the text made it very easy for me to slip into the role of “you,” which Short identifies in “Galatea” as a “famous critic.” My agency was limited, and this frustrated me. For example, in several sections of several transcripts, I would ask about something that didn’t have a tie to the database. In such instances, the following response became frustrating: “You can’t form your questions into words.” I could, in fact, but the program didn’t recognize my words, so it felt like it was toying with me (hence the angry “>Kill Galatea” in Transcript 8). but the text was self-reflexive about its limitations, and this made it easier for me to buy myself as “you.” In one instance, for example, Galatea says, “Well, you’d probably get better results from my program if you played along with me.” In response to this, “you” ask yourself the following question: “…is it better, as a critic, to look for the weaknesses in a piece, or to seek its strengths? Any program can, sooner or later, be broken; and looking too eagerly for the stress points often means missing the virtues” (Transcript 3). The question is important and helped me focus on the strengths of the work, which, as I see it, are multiple. The writing is evocative and intriguing, restrained but lyric. And the programming seems supple enough to create a convincing portrait of Galatea without falling too often into nonsense or redundancy. Reading over the transcripts made it clear to me that while my questions were essential for triggering the responses, Galatea’s “agency” was at least on par with my own. Most important, I did feel like I was interacting with Galatea, even at the most frustrating moments in the narrative. The text is self-reflective about this as well, commenting upon its peculiar interactive mode explicitly, in the guise of “you”:

You studied art history in school, of course, but most of it left you cold: paintings, as much barrier as window, inviting but inaccessible; sculpture, a little closer, but still nothing you could interact with. The play between design and story, shape and movement, the artist’s conception and the viewer’s desire—that’s what fascinates you. That, and the sheer magic of a good animate. (Transcript 3)

In terms of the khora, the strange intermediary between form and copy, which exists as a receiving space or a “nursemaid” or a template, both the animate and I participated in Galatea’s ability to leap to life.

“The Operative Image”

If “Galatea” does function as a digital example of the khora, it is perhaps because of its subject matter as much as its form. The ancient story of the statue that comes to life fits well with Plato’s ancient concept of the khora. Short’s text is saturated with references to myth, to gods and goddesses, lightning bolts and retribution. There is even a specific nod to Plato’s four-fold concept of madness, which Socrates explicates in the Phaedrus (see Transcript 7). But what implications might this have for thinking about other works of digital art, electronic literature, and the entire poetics of interaction in general? While some might resist the idea—and I hope they will, because I would like to see a sustained conversation result from this initial essay—I am wagering that this ancient model will yield some contemporary gains. For example, one of the most persistent approaches to literary studies is to treat the text itself as its own authority, to study patterns within it, and to bracket it off from the subjective and personal associations one might have with it. We are getting more comfortable with challenging the rationale behind this approach, but we haven’t yet reached anything approaching a consensus about how should we proceed, especially in terms of deciding to what extent we ought to insert ourselves into our analyses. Maintaining the distance between one’s self and one’s analysis of a text presents a problem in the study of traditional, print-based texts, to be sure, but it presents an insurmountable obstacle when it comes to texts like “Galatea,” which won’t function without the reader’s express textual input. Invoking the khora gives us a way to think of a more elastic—even porous—notion of interaction. Through this figure, interaction is not really a way to bridge the gap between text and reader or form and copy. Instead, it is an integral pre-condition of the text. Without it, the text fails to exist.

I anticipate two potential objections regarding this approach. The first has to do with the issue of solipsism. There are many ways you and your desires are gathered up and fed back to you for commercial purposes online that have nothing to do with the production of literature. Customization, for example, is a result of a feedback of information between a reader and an automated system that anticipates the reader’s desired settings, based on user input. Your browser is filled with such capabilities. You see them at work almost every time you are online: Would you like Firefox to remember this password? Remember? Never for this site? Not now? You enable little pieces of code to remember your purchasing habits. You have a browser history, through which you can trace your reading path backwards and forwards like a modern-day memex. Your associative readings patterns are automatically archived, indexed, sorted, and stored in a vast and extensible archive. These traces and patterns are what make you you online.  And in our moment, our reading traces and associations are tied strongly to commerce. We are only beginning to grapple with how these acts of constant self-referral and automatic naming might complicate our relationships to ourselves, yet this, too, like the vexed relation among author, text, and reader, is representative of an older problem. In his explication of names and naming, for example, John Stuart Mill writes, “when we impose a proper name, we perform an operation in some degree analogous to what the robber intended in chalking the house. We put a mark, not indeed upon the object itself, but…upon the idea of the object” (97). It is, again, anachronistic to apply this passage to contemporary digital practices, yet Mill’s description of “marking” does offer an interesting way to think about the fact that this act of “chalking”—in order to rob—is a process that has in some ways become mechanized and automated. When you enter your information into a database online, you are leaving behind breadcrumbs of personal data, which act as marks of chalk that allow companies and organizations to identify you later. You provide the mark in at least two senses of the word: you leave an identifying trace and risk becoming “the intended victim of a swindler.” In both cases, you participate in a system of automatic marking and naming. What does this level of customization and self-invocation do to us as readers? Does the high level of direct address encourage a solipsistic process of reading, one in which we function simultaneously as authors, producers, editors, and consumers? Does it produce texts that function as the worst possible types of Hollywood dross, in which every scene affords an opportunity to refer to a product that in turn refers back to itself and thus a parent corporate franchise, such that “the result is a constant reproduction of the same thing” (Adorno)?

A recent headline from the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Wired Campus Edition both describes and is symptomatic of the problem: “Harvard Study Suggests Twitter Users Are Self-Obsessed, Says Harvard’s Own Tweet.”[6] While “Galatea” is not explicitly tied to commercial practices, it nevertheless employs the same technology to achieve its modes of address and interactivity as do companies such as, Twitter, Facebook, and the like, all companies with commercial motivations. Such modes of address echo a certain moment that occurs in the film Minority Report, when Tom Cruise enters a futuristic Gap store and is addressed by a hologram that scans the eyes that he has bought on the black market so he will not be identified: A smiling Gap employee appears on a giant flat-screen monitor…”Good afternoon, Mr. Yakamoto,” she says, loudly and cheerily. “How did you like that three-pack of tank tops you bought last time you were in?” This is a sinister moment, and I find myself wondering whether the hologram’s attempt to put a human face to machinic memory offers a hyperbolic example of the sort of invocation that occurs when we read online.[7] While the machine in Minority Report scans organic information, the eyes, the computer, your pc or mine, scans your verbal traces and follows a golden thread that you generate from them, a thread that un-spools circuitously and leads right back to you and your consumption habits.[8] Is this a pattern of reading that we want to encourage?

The second problem, of which the first is perhaps a subsidiary, has to do with the aesthetic quality of IF. Why we should care about these works in the first place? Why we should claim them as literature, why we should seek to position them within literary history, no matter how intriguing their formal, technological features may be, since upon first glance they might not appear to function as literature functions at all, in that they do not offer the same aesthetic experience as one might hope to receive from reading a novel or a poem?

To my mind, these objections elicit the same response. To the hypothetical reader who might make them, I offer the following: We have an opportunity both to shape and steer the direction that these nascent forms will take. In keeping with the theme of responsibility, I would go so far as to say that we have an obligation to do so. As people who think there is inherent value in paying close careful attention to words, who are practiced in analyzing the cultural, social, and political matrices that are both shaped and informed by them, we are in a privileged position to help usher these works into being. By treating them seriously, reading them carefully, and responding to them accordingly, even if at times our response is an equal mixture of excitement, frustration, and perplexity, we may well pay ourselves back tenfold.

Locating such works within a tradition whose perceived merit shows new signs of erosion each day—in the form of newspapers folding, print-based publishing structures becoming increasingly monolithic, and purveyors of liberal arts education exhibiting ever-increasing signs of crisis—provides a chance to demonstrate the continued relevance of literary studies at the same time as we “invigorate” the field with new material and fresh forms. In other words, by relating literary practices to works of electronic literature and other texts that are digitally born, we have an opportunity to move forward as a discipline, even as we situate such works within a rich literary past.

Clearly, there are many implications to be teased out here, but I’ll close with the following question: What might we call such a model of narration, one that requires not only the input of the author and reader, but is capacious enough to allow for the invisible yet potent intervention of machinic processes? The receptacle is a good start, but in that it hearkens back to pre-digital, pre-modern history, it’s admittedly anachronistic. Another backwards glance at a forward-thinking visionary might provide us with one possibility. In God and Golem, Inc., the cybernetics researcher Norbert Wiener coined the term “operative image” to describe the transition between mimesis and functionality in artistic simulation.  In a move that recalls our discussion of response-ability in Emily Short’s work of interactive fiction, Wiener writes, “Pygmalion made the statue of Galatea in the image of his ideal beloved, but after the gods brought it to life, it became an image of his beloved in a much more real sense.  It was no longer merely a pictorial image but an operative image” (31). Whether or not the idea of the khora will catch on as a way to think about interactive fiction in general remains to be seen, but works such as Galatea function both as operative images in Wiener’s terms and as receptacles, peculiar intermediaries between form and copy. More than mimetic, more than metaphorical, such works don’t merely simulate responses; through a perspectival process of reciprocal second person, they enact them.

Piece originally published at Electronic Book Review |


[1] Brooks, 24; Iser, The Implied Reader, xii ; Rabinowitz, 125-128; Fish, 14.

[2] See N. Katherine Hayles’ Electronic Literature for a reading of Short’s piece of IF in relation to Powers’ novel.

[3] The status of painting is different from that of poetry in Plato’s formation—in the Ion, for example, he positions them contrapuntally to demonstrate the difference between art (techne) and poetry. In the Phaedrus, however, Plato aligns writing with painting because both lack responsibility, i.e., because both fail to respond when queried.

[4] “Starting from individual beauties, the quest for the universal beauty must find him ever mounting the heavenly ladder, stepping from rung to rung—that is, from one to two, and from two to every lovely body, from bodily beauty to the beauty of institutions, from institutions to learning, and from learning in general to the special lore that pertains to nothing but the beautiful itself—until at last he comes to know what beauty is” (210a-212b).

[5] To be sure, Ingold’s piece offers several different pathways to achieve this goal, but each of these paths leads to the same salvation.


[7] That this moment comes without any semblance of critical self-reflection from a director who excels in the strategic marketing of his own films only serves to increase the unease.

[8] A student of mine has made the following succinct objection to my analysis of this moment in the film: “So what?” It’s a fair question, and he elaborated when pressed: “If I am looking for a pair of pants, and the computer has stored all my habits about the pants I’ve bought in the past, and it can make a good recommendation about a new pair of pants for me now, what’s wrong with that? Everybody wins.” He’s right of course. Except that there is no “everybody” here. It’s just you, you, and you again, with an extra pair of pants and less money in your pocket.