Monday, March 8, 2010

Ushering in The Labyrinth of The House of Usher

Beeble Baxter here, in human form, standing between portraits of Immanuel Swedenborg and Carl Maria Von Weber, two of the names mentioned in Poe's short story "The Fall of the House of Usher." 
Hanging in the virtual House of Usher, a collaborative virtual reality project at the University of Richmond, these portraits serve as clues from Poe's story that invite students to further research.

When I first started brainstorming about pedagogical applications of virtual reality with our local VR Wizard, I thought it would be interesting to adapt a piece of literature to this new digital realm and Poe's tale of psychological horror seemed to offer abundant possibility. The unnamed narrator received a desperate plea from his boyhood friend Roderick Usher, begging him to come visit. Upon his arrival, the narrator is astonished at the sickly and cadaverous image of his formerly robust friend. During his visit, he attempts to distract and comfort Roderick with music and reading. 

As they pored over the books in Usher's library, Poe gives us several specific but obscure titles that are often overlooked. One of the texts is by SwedenborgHeaven and Hell, the full title of which is Heaven and its Wonders and Hell From Things Heard and Seen. This lengthy meditation on mortality and spirituality offers some potential clues to the precise nature of Roderick Usher's fear-ridden psyche. In our virtual House of Usher, student avatars visit Roderick and try to discover the cause of his suffering. As they explore the labyrinth of the house, our portrait of Swedenborg can be built to be "clickable" or responsive to avatar proximity to provide text revealing the identity of the image and offering questions or research leads.  

According to the New Earth Swedenborg BBS, ""Swedenborg had two central philosophic interests: cosmology and the nature of the human soul. From approximately 1720 until 1745 he studied, wrote, and published on these two subjects. His first significant philosophic work, entitled Chemistry and published in 1720, emphasized his developing view that everything in nature could be explained mathematically. He rejected the Newtonian concept of permanent, irreducible particles of matter and suggested that everything material was essentially motion arranged in geometric forms."
For the eager student the research trail can lead from Poe to Swedenborg to the great creative genius of William Blake whose disagreement with Swedenborg's teaching motivated his composition The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. This book alone offers a significant opportunity for further research and it is but one of several arcane titles specifically listed by the narrator by authors like Machiavelli, Fludd and Campanella that clearly have significance in Poe's story. 

The other portrait of Carl Maria Von Weber suggests a sonic connection and a bit of mystery of its own.
During his attempts to assuage Roderick Usher's suffering, the narrator also tries to distract his friend with music but Usher's manic enthusiasm takes over and the narrator can only remember "a certain singular perversion and amplification of the wild air of the last waltz of Von Weber." In the virtual House of Usher, student avatars can hear a brief audio clip of this music, see the sheet music and dig further with research to discover why Poe includes this specific reference and why von Weber's authorship of this piece is contested.

In James Paul Gee's What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2003) he argues that using such virtual realms successfully in education requires four basic steps:

1.     The player must probe the virtual world (which involves looking around the current environment, clicking on something, or engaging in a certain action).
2.     Based on reflection while probing and afterward, the player must form a hypothesis about what something (a text, object, artifact, event, or action) might mean in a usefully situated way.
3.     The player reprobes the world with that hypothesis in mind, seeing what effect he or she gets.
4.     The player treats this effect as feedback from the world an accepts or rethinks his or her original hypothesis.

This recursive cycle of exploration, reflection, writing and re-examination is not unlike 
the drafting process in alphabetic composition but it includes the vital ingredient of
"playfulness" too often left out of traditional education by misguided philosophies of
teaching. Contrary to this, Gee explains the intellectual significance of video games: 
"Some consider this four-step process to be the basis of expert reflective practice in any 
complex semiotic domain. But it is also how children learn, even very young children, 
when they are not learning in school. It is how children initially build their minds and 
learn their cultures as they develop early in life. In other words, this four-step process is
central to how humans as biological creatures of a certain sort, learn things when 
learning is essential for survival and thriving in the world” (90-91). 

 Janet Murray's Hamlet on the Holodeck (1997) further validates the efficacy of digital 
realms for education as she explains the attraction we have to games and the sense of 
empowerment they give:

"When the things we do bring tangible results, we experience a delight of electronic 
environments-the sense of agency. Agency is the satisfying power to make meaningful 
action and see the results of our decisions and choices.…. As a format for electronic 
narrative, the maze is a more active version of the immersive visit. Maze-based 
stories…turn the passively observant visitor into a protagonist who must find his or her 
own way through the fun house" (381, 384).

The Usher simulation is in its infancy, but between the abundant unexplained details in 
Poe's story and the increasing capabilities of digital realms, the possibilities of this dark
digital labyrinth are great for those bold enough to explore them.