This post is the first of a two-part series in which I analogize the contradictions or elisions in works of literature to the glitches in video games. The series draws heavily from my graduate research, as well as from my personal interest in literature and video games. I’ve played video games since I was in kindergarten, when I slapped my first Game Boy cartridge — Pokémon Yellow: Special Pikachu Edition — into my brand spanking new Game Boy Color. Nowadays, I don’t have as much time to while away the hours in an Xbox-induced coma, so I stream Let’s Plays of other people who can afford do so (literally and figuratively) or I find ways to shoehorn video games into my “work.” The screed that follows is a result of that forced husbandry of work and play. It builds off of the final paper I wrote for one of my Winter Quarter seminars at Northwestern, “English 422 — Studies in Medieval Literature: The Theory and Practice of Allegory.”
The second part of this series is entitled, “Glitched Out Fiction Part II: Hacking the Colonial Script in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India.”
This essay demonstrates how Alan of Lille’s The Plaint of Nature and merritt k.’s Lim — a medieval poem and a contemporary queer video game, respectively — deconstruct the binaries of heteronormativity through the particular ways that each deploys allegory and enacts queer failure. By relying on Jack Halberstam’s theorization of “queer failure,” I read Plaint through Lim in order to argue that whether accidental or not, the contradictions/glitches inherent to Plaint and Lim perform queerness despite both works’ ostensible anti- or non-existent queer elements. Observing the contradictions/glitches in these works reveals fruitful avenues for comparative reading — that is, the contradictions of a medieval poem as “glitches” in the poem’s “code” and the glitches in a digital game as “contradictions” in the game’s binary (i.e. 1/0) “language.”
Queer failure is a useful framework through which to read and reconsider the subversive potential of Plaint’s prevalent contradictions and inconsistencies alongside the glitched game design of Lim. In The Queer Art of Failure, Halberstam writes that failure is “a way of refusing to acquiesce to dominant logics of power and discipline as a form of critique.”1 He posits queer failure as a challenge to the capitalist logics of heteronormativity, which “equates too easily to specific forms of reproductive maturity.”2 Queer failure — “failing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing” — offers new ways of being in the world beyond the normative structures that manage human activities (e.g. by enforcing strictly procreative sex). Queer failure disrupts the boundaries that organize society and culture, and challenges the positivist conviction that the difference between the normative and non-normative, reproductive and nonreproductive are easily marked. “Failure allows us to escape the punishing norms that discipline behavior,” Halberstam writes, “And while failure certainly comes accompanied by a host of negative affects, such as disappointment, disillusionment, and despair, it also provides the opportunity to use these negative affects to poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life.”3 In other words, queer failure rejects the naturalization of heteronormativity or the notion that performing heteronormativity (“passing”) is the prime mover of all human decisions.
I argue that queer failure (e.g. glitches), as Halberstam defines it, exposes the manifold contradictions layered throughout Plaint. While it is difficult to say with certainty to what degree these contradictions gesture to Alan of Lille’s own intentionality or self-reflexivity, I insist that they nonetheless work to undermine the poem’s efforts — through the poet, through Nature and Venus, through language — to represent heteronormativity as totally unified.4 Indeed, Halberstam notes that “As a practice, failure recognizes that alternatives are embedded already in the dominant and that power is never total or consistent.”5 Queer failure in Plaint is highlighted by several moments of grammatical, poetic, and generic inconsistencies that undo the poem’s own impulse to normativity — namely, the poet’s complaint against hermaphroditism, Nature’s role as regulator of sexuality, and the failure of language to convey Nature’s divine originality. The failure of the poem to uphold a sustained critique of queer sexuality destabilizes male/female, active/passive, reproductive/nonreproductive, normative/nonnormative binaries. As a result, the poem (inadvertently) points towards alternative ways of being that are already embedded in the dominant culture — in particular, the inherent queerness of language itself.
By way of introducing my argument that queer failure and glitches can help us better understand the inconsistencies of Plaint and its potential to be read as a queer text, I begin with describing and analyzing the glitched gameplay of Lim. The game’s core mechanic involves “passing” as a normal blue or orange cube. If the player fails to pass as a normal cube, other blue and orange cubes will attack the player on sight. I suggest that Lim can be played as an allegory for various forms of passing in, out of, and through heteronormative society. The game portrays “passing” as always-already a failing activity, but does not deploy this failure as a foreclosure of possibility. Rather, failing to pass as a normal cube often results in a glitch where the player is “knocked out” of the maze’s corridors and into the nothingness beyond the maze.6 This nothingness is simultaneously a form of becoming (the player’s identity is no longer constrained by the potential violence of not passing) and unbecoming (the player is effectively prevented from “winning” the maze). The glitch in Lim recalls Halberstam’s understanding of the meaning of failure as both “a way of being in the world… [and] also unbeing… these modes of unbeing and unbecoming propose a different relation to knowledge,”7 and telegraphs my discussion of Nature’s glitched failure to regulate queer sexuality in Plaint.
Glitched Gameplay in Lim
merritt k. describes Lim as:
a game about the violent experience of inhabiting a liminal social space… The portrayal of violence in games has been moving towards the “hyperrealistic” – however, this violence often fails to inspire any real feelings in players. With Lim I wanted to portray a kind of violence less obvious and familiar than that normally portrayed by games, and to place the player in the position of a person experiencing it without the usual defenses games offer (weapons of their own, agile movement, magical powers, etc.).8
In the game, the player controls a coruscant, multi-colored cube through a pink maze. The instructions at the start of the game are simple: “arrow keys move, z to blend in | note: contains flashing lights and shaking effects.” The maze is composed of long, narrow corridors that open up into chambers filled with aggressive blue and orange cubes that will assault the player on sight if the player does not “blend in,” that is, pass as blue or orange. However, passing is not without its own risks, as the camera slowly zooms uncomfortably close to the protagonist while the screen shakes violently. If the player makes it to the end of the maze, they encounter what appears to be a generic blue cube blocking the player’s path. But the cube reveals itself to be just like the player — flashing and multicolored — before the screen cuts to black and the game ends.
In merritt k.’s Lim, players maneuver a flashing, multi-colored cube through a pink maze while “blending in” to hostile blue and orange cubes. Occasionally, an in-game glitch occurs in which the player’s cube is thrust into the nothingness outside of the maze by the other cubes.
By representing the experience of passing through rudimentary game mechanics and threadbare aesthetics that broaden rather than constrain interpretive possibility, Lim manages to speak to multiple affective registers and subject positions at once. In this respect, Lim exemplifies what Cáel M. Keegan describes as “aesthetic transgendering.” According to Keegan, a “classical aesthetics” like that produced through photography does not fully capture the temporal process of gender transition. Collages of images of transgender identities tend to be of less value to transgender persons than they are to cisgender consumers, who are often the target audience. “Rather than seeking realist representations of transgender bodies that display the ‘truth’ of their difference,” Keegan writes, “aesthetic transgendering looks for moments of phenomenological encounter that sustain transgender poiesis: an extension of transgender becoming.”9 In place of a realist portrait of trans consciousness, Lim presents a defamiliarized gameplay experience that sidesteps the “hyperrealistic” aesthetic of violence in mainstream games. In doing so, Lim’s two-dimensional plane becomes an abstracted, multi-dimensional allegory not only for the experience of transgender passing, but sexual, racial, and class-based passing as well (this multiply-signifying quality is connoted by the protagonist’s “true colors”).
Though Lim features no obviously anthropomorphic characters, the violence of passing as anything other than the norm in a hostile, heteronormative world is rendered physically, mentally, and emotionally as inexorable failure. As the player navigates through Lim’s maze, the “normal cubes” will brashly crash into the player if he or she is not passing or will totally obstruct the player’s progress regardless. When the player is passing, the in-game camera scrutinizes and magnifies the protagonist while background noise crescendos to disorienting levels and the protagonist’s movement speed slows to a crawl. The game makes navigating the maze under these conditions nearly impossible as the player loses all sense of space. At times, the violence of normal cubes towards the protagonist erupts even when the player is passing, echoing Alyosxa Tudor’s observation that “The impossibility of passing, the impossibility of being read as privileged in relation to certain power relations, poses a specific risk… means that passing cannot be used as a strategy of resistance. Thus, a potential instrument to protect oneself from violence, discrimination and harm is not available.”10 Furthermore, the violence of the normal cubes towards the protagonist can become so intensely jarring that it causes a glitch in the collision detection of Lim’s design code and literally forces the protagonist into the nothingness outside of the maze. This space beyond the oppressive structure of the maze is both isolating and liberating: in one sense, it suggests how individuals pass in and out of heteronormative systems for survival, while in another sense, it registers a hopeless feeling that the player has little to no control over their fate.
The phenomenon of the glitch in Lim (as I explore below in relation to Plaint) is a kind of “queer code,” predicated on the failure of a normative code, that entertains and allows new possibilities for being. In discussing glitches in relation to digital games, Halberstam posits that “Queer subjects constantly recode and, within limits, rebuild the worlds they enter. Since the world as we know it was not designed for queer subjects, then queer subjects have to hack straight narratives and insert their own algorithms for time, space, life, and desire.”11 By failing the game’s normative mode of play, the glitch in Lim performs the function of a queer code, “hacking” the “straight narrative” of Lim’s initial goal (getting to the end of the maze) and inserting its own “algorithm” for being and possibilities for play. When the player is thrust outside of the limiting corridors of Lim’s maze into the nothingness beyond, the player acquires an altogether new perspective on how the game might be played — one that exists somewhere in the “liminal” space between winning/losing, normativity/non-normativity, passing/exposure. The possibility of getting to the end of the maze is nullified (although the player can approach the end of the maze from the outside), but the player is free to explore the game’s unpoliced, non-normative space and to imagine a different form of achievement that isn’t anchored to passing or protecting oneself from normative violence. “If hetero-normativity sets up a code for blending into one’s society that will be offset by a number of non-norms who fail to achieve those norms,” writes Halberstam, “then queer codes represent strategies to rewrite the notion of achievement altogether and to explore the normative code in order to produce transformative possibilities, often through the act of failing.”12 The glitch in Lim results from a presumably accidental failure in the game’s code that nevertheless proposes an alternative mode of unbeing and unbecoming (a different way of playing Lim) and a different relation to knowledge (a different win state than that offered at the end of Lim’s maze). Or, to defer again to Halberstam, Lim’s glitched gameplay acknowledges that failure in and of itself might be its own success, its own pleasure: “It quietly loses, and in losing it imagines other goals for life, for love, for art, and for being.”13
Glitched Nature in The Plaint of Nature
Much of the scholarship on The Plaint of Nature has focused on Alan of Lille’s use of grammatical metaphors to characterize the sinfulness of homosexuality and other sexual perversions, as well as the presence or absence of satiric elements in the poem. This scholarship is indebted to Jan Ziolkowski’s Alan of Lille’s Grammar of Sex: The Meaning of Sex to a Twelfth Century Intellectual, in which Ziolkowski explains the central conceit of Plaint — that impropriety in grammar and versification equate to sexual impropriety — and shows how Alan uses grammatical terms to express analyses of ethical and religious issues. Ziolkowski points out that the use of figurative language to describe sexual relationships did not originate with Alan, but can be found in the writings of many cultures and prior periods, mainly due to grammar’s foundational role in education. To be sure, Ziolkowski notes that homosexuality (and it’s implied loss of masculinity) in Plaint is representative of all sin, not just the sin of same-sex relations.14 Nonetheless, Alan’s use of grammatical-sexual metaphors is innovative because, unlike his contemporaries, he uses them for serious meditations on philosophy rather than for satire or erotic poetry. Due to this more pedantic turn in Plaint, Ziolkowski asserts that, “Alan’s writings are often innovative in their methods but always orthodox in their results.”15 Some scholars, such as Peter Dronke, have resisted Ziolkowski’s distinction between Plaint’s use of grammatical-sexual metaphors and other medieval uses of them by countering that the genre of Alan’s allegory itself — deeply associated with Menippean satire — undermines such a distinction.16 Other scholars, like Jeffrey Bardzell, have attempted to reconcile the two sides of the debate by proposing that Plaint’s grammatical-sexual metaphors be read “as part of a free-wheeling speculative enterprise, where the speculation is serious, yet unabashedly experimental.”17
More recent scholarship has pointed out the various ways in which Plaint is fraught with contradictions. Though Nature advocates for natural practice in sex and language, for instance, she also wears elaborate, artificial clothing and employs the same metaphorical devices that she attributes to “unnatural” desire.18 Similarly, Alan’s emphatical description of Nature’s ostensibly fragile femininity clashes with her muscular role, in managing God’s “preeminently powerful pen,” as representative of divine authority and reproductive potency.19
Yet despite the fact that a general consensus has formed around the self-contradictory logic of Plaint, there has been less agreement over the poem and its author’s self-reflexivity. Larry Scanlon emphasizes that Alan’s other writings and their historical context “make it clearly evident that Alan was a supporter and perhaps even an instigator of the twelfth-century Church’s repression of homosexuality.” The medieval culture of homsexual repression notwithstanding, Scanlon suggests that “Alan was quite self-conscious and even deliberative in his homophobia — much more so than many of his… counterparts.”20 Conversely, David Rollo argues that, “In the absence of relevant biographical data, it must remain unclear why Alan should have composed a text that extensively contradicts its own explicit homophobia.”21 In gesturing towards an answer, Rollo advances that Plaint is the work of a closeted gay man and that the poem ultimately “contests its ostensible regulatory intent, questioning what it means to be aligned ‘contra naturam’ and showing the reader that there is indeed a natural precedent for going against the nature whose instructions he or she receives.”22 Rollo concludes that Plaint is a text of demonstrably pedagogical design that takes failed pedagogy as its repeated theme. Plaint is “the story of pupils who disregard their teachers… the reader subjected to [Nature’s] lecture on erotic propriety may feel justified in following the precedent that she herself set when she ignored what she had been told to do in order to seek a more pleasurable… alternative.”23
While I am less interested in “outing” Alan or determining the extent of his sympathies (or lack thereof) to non-heterosexual subjects, in considering the failed pedagogy at the center of Plaint, my reading of the poem in terms of queer failure and glitches is aligned more closely with Rollo’s reading than with Scanlon’s. If Rollo is correct in understanding Plaint as a story of pupils who disregard their teachers, I am inclined to derive a kind of oppositional pedagogy from the poem that leads to different forms of knowledge practices. Halberstam deploys the model of oppositional pedagogy as an “investment in counterintuitive modes of knowing such as failure and stupidity” where failure might be understood as “a refusal of mastery, a critique of the intuitive connections within capitalism between success and profit, and as a counterhegemonic discourse of losing.”24 He elaborates that “When we are taught that we cannot know things unless we are taught by great minds [e.g. personified Nature], we submit to a whole suite of unfree practices that take on the form of a colonial relation,” to which we may have several responses. The responses that Halberstam advocates are the violent response and the negative response, “in which the subject refuses the knowledge offered and refuses to be a knowing subject in the form mandated by Enlightenment philosophies of self and other.”25
Plaint most nearly invites a refusal of mastery when Nature, in conclusion to a metaphorical (i.e. contradictory) analogy on “Love,” “Cupid,” and sexual transgressions, admonishes the poet that he has “the power to resist this madness if you flee from it; there is no surer antidote. If you wish to shun the power of Venus, shun her times and places.”26 As I will argue below, the “madness” that Nature imputes to Venus ironically originates from a glitch in Nature herself.27 Returning to the authority of her original discourse, Nature reminds the poet of his stupidity: “The theatrical declamation just presented, digressing with the wantonness of the jongleur is offered as a first course appropriate to your immaturity. Now, after this little digression into such puerile low comedy as befits your childish state, let my pen return to the orderly presentation of the narrative already begun.”28 Thus, Nature simultaneously offers and withholds knowledge, assumes the position of a divine authority empowered to impart God’s lessons and denigrates the poet’s inability to master or comprehend these lessons at all. When comprehension of Nature’s lessons is summarily and proleptically foreclosed, what options are we left with if not wholesale rejection?
Plaint’s simultaneous assertions and subversions of authority — of the poet, of Nature and God, of grammar — are evident even in the poet’s opening complaint, which establishes the poem’s contradictory attitude towards queer sexuality and instigates the manifold other elisions that appear throughout. The poet both laments and entertains the disruptive possibilities of queer sex. On the one hand, the poet bemoans the absence of Nature and the presence of Venus, whose “magical art” turns men into women. “The active sex is horrified that it thus falls disgracefully into the passive role,” the poet says, “Man become woman demeans the dignity of his sex.”29 It is clear the poet refers to the “vice” of male same-sex attraction and the possibility for movement between the active and the passive genders. The poet goes on to make this cross-gendering potential explicit — “the art of a Venus turned sorcerer renders him hermaphrodite” — and links it to the translational power of grammar: “He is both predicate and subject; a single term assumes a double role, and extends the rules of grammar too far.”30 In other words, the hermaphrodite is not a literal man-turned-woman, but a (grammatical) “figure” that displays mannish and womanish qualities and thus stands in opposition to the boundaries of Nature’s realm. The hermaphrodite’s subversive potential lies in their ability to challenge the biological and grammatical boundaries of male/female, active/passive, subject/predicate.
Shortly after, the poet of Plaint fails his own expressed logic by performing hermaphroditism himself and initiating the key “glitch” of the text, one that originates in reality when the poet is awake and resurfaces again and again in the poet’s dream. I suggest that in a mode that parallels the function of the glitch in Lim, the glitched appearance of the hermaphrodite in the normative code of Plaint deconstructs the binaries that make up that normative code — in effect, the hermaphrodite “hacks” Plaint’s “straight narrative” and inserts its own “algorithm” for being. Thus, despite the poet’s condemnation of the figure of the hermaphrodite as “a barbarian in the grammar of Nature,” the poet nonetheless engages in his own hermaphroditic fantasy when he imagines sending out his spirit to live in the body of a woman. Nature figures as the feminized version of the poet, a translation of the poet into female form. “Why do so many kisses lie dormant on virgin lips, and none wish to claim them as reward,” the poet asks,” My spirit… would issue forth in response to such kisses, and delight itself in playing about her lips. Hence… once dead to myself I should enjoy a happy life, a new being, in her” (emphasis added).31 Notably, this is exactly what happens when Nature appears to the poet: “As she held me in her embrace, the sweetness of her chaste kisses on my lips and the healing power of her honeysweet words cured her patient of his afflicting stupor.”32 The poet’s glitched dream functions in part as the fulfillment of a fantasy the poet expresses shortly before drifting into unconsciousness. Whether deliberately or not, the poem fails to maintain the boundary between male and female. This failure/glitch allows for the figure of the hermaphrodite in a text that is arguably about that figure’s erasure.
The originating glitch of the poet’s dream extends additionally to Nature and Venus, who each exhibit their own form of hermaphroditism, elaborated in the metaphors that characterize their role in regulating sexual practices. Nature crosses the boundary between active and passive, male and female. The gendered imagery of a (male) hammer striking a (male/female) anvil features prominently in Plaint to represent the practices of reproduction or nonreproduction, respectively. This imagery first appears in the poet’s condemnation of nonreproductive sex: “He strikes an anvil that mints no seed; the very hammer detests its anvil.”33 But Nature uses this same imagery to describe her role in “stamp[ing] out the images of things, each on its own anvil” and her instructions to Venus “to distribute the various kinds of matter, hammering them out in forming material creatures… I also designated splendid anvil forges for the performance of this work…”34 Though female personifications, Nature and Venus cross the boundary of active/passive in order perform their procreative responsibilities. Thus, Nature, who also assumes the active role of the male gender by writing with God’s pen (“For the pen with which I write would veer into sudden transgressions were it not guided by the finger of the supreme governor”35), and Venus complicate the logic of the poet’s initial use of the hammer and anvil imagery to cast hermaphroditism as nonreproductive. To be sure, hermaphroditism ultimately fails to be generative in Plaint. However, it is nonetheless significant that the main female personification of the poem embodies the very subject of her, and the poem’s, complaint.
Notes Michael A. Johnson: “Lady Nature wields a hammer over a couple having sex (i.e., sex must do the hard work of reproducing Nature’s design) (from University of Chicago Library MS 1380).” Nature’s glitched use of the phallic hammer to facilitate normative reproduction actually invokes the cross-gendering hermaphroditism that Alan of Lille’s The Plaint of Nature ostensibly seeks to erase. Image Credit: Michael A Johnson, “On the Public Highway of Grammar,” The Grammar Rabble, June 26, 2014.
That Nature crosses the boundary between active/passive, reproductive/nonreproductive, and male/female binaries leads to Plaint’s central contradiction: queer sex results from a glitch in Nature. Nature’s failure to sustain her role as regulator of sexuality results in the queer sexual practices that she and the poet condemn. “But because I was not capable of creating so many kinds of creatures without the supportive efforts of an assistant artisan,” says Nature, “and it was my pleasure to sojourn in the delightful palace of the ethereal region… I established Venus… as the assistant overseer of my work…”36 Nature delegates her duties to Venus because the duties themselves are beyond her capability and, it can be inferred, not interesting. The same scenario plays out with Venus, where “the monotony of a task so often repeated infected Cytherea with boredom, and the effect of continual working took away her desire to work.”37 As a result of a glitch in Nature’s normative code, which stems from a glitch in the poet’s dream, queer sex is rendered natural; the distinction between the reproductive and the nonreproductive is irrelevant. Nature’s failure to reproduce ironically produces the queer sexualities that escape normative reproduction, and is reflected in her inability to create lasting images: “On clay tablets, with the aid of a reed pen, the maiden was giving life to the pictured forms of various creatures. But her imagery, rather than adhering closely to this material surface, soon died and disappeared, leaving behind no trace of its forms.”38 Here, Nature uses the “masculine” reed pen to create figures, but figures that don’t endure because hermaphroditism fails to be reproductive.
The reproductively normative code of language is challenged by Nature’s glitched hermaphroditism, which is further expressed in her transit between the ethereal realm and the earthly world of forms, where language fails to reproduce Nature’s divine singularity. Barbara Newman distinguishes between Platonic and Aristotelian personifications, “reading the former as epiphanies or emanations of a superior reality, the latter as ‘accidents existing in a substance,’ personified only for the sake of analytical clarity.”39 For Newman, unlike Aristotelian personifications, Platonic figures are central to the conceptual scheme of the text, inspire awe on the part of the narrator, exhibit a numinous aura, and suggest an intimate relationship between the figure and God. All of these markers apply to Plaint’s personified Nature: she is the central figure of the poem, her beauty leaves the poet “stricken by stupor,” she describes herself as “the vicar of God the creator.”40 Similar to Boethius’s Lady Philosophy, Nature is described in ethereal language that gestures towards her divine originality: “Her hair, shining with no borrowed luster but with its own, and presenting the effect of radiance not by mere resemblance but by a native gleam that surpassed that of nature, gave the maiden’s head the appearance of a celestial body” (emphasis added).41 Nature’s hair produces its own light, suggesting that she is an original form rather than a copy. However, the use of ekphrastic language to convey Nature’s originality — “presenting the effect of radiance,” “the appearance of a celestial body” — simultaneously undermines it. Nature must move back and forth between the superior reality of Platonic personification and the derivative, temporal world. This is significant given that language, as the poet complains, is the contested site of reproductive and nonreproductive grammar. If normative grammar is reproductive (i.e. male/female, subject/predicate) but is incapable of reproducing Nature’s divine originality (Nature would not be original otherwise), then the glitched nature/Nature of Plaint casts language as ironically better suited to articulating queer sexuality than the singularity of Nature herself.
This essay has attempted to demonstrate how the critical framework of queer failure and glitches illuminates textual inconsistencies while deprivileging emphases on author intentionality or self-reflexivity. By reading the glitch as queer code in Lim onto Plaint’s contradictory narrative and grammatical inconsistencies, I have sought to move critical discussions of both works past determinations of authorial intent and towards each work’s respective queer, glitched potential to imagine alternative forms of being and becoming, or unbeing and unbecoming. If glitches are accidental phenomena that transpire somewhere in coded normativity, then the glitches/failures in Lim and Plaint present opportunities to deconstruct the binaries inherent to gameplay and medieval poetics alike.
Gameplay glitches and textual inconsistencies are the places in straight narratives that can be hacked and exploited in order to discover or create “not some fantasy of an elsewhere, but… existing alternatives to hegemonic systems.”42 Thus, though Plaint ends with Genius, by Nature’s decree, eradicating queer sexuality from Nature’s realm, the poet awakens and “the mirror of this imaginary vision was withdrawn.”43 To be sure, Genius exhibits the same glitched nature as personified Nature. Genius is called on to banish queer sexuality because he allegedly possesses the God-like ability to transform mere images into original, “honest” creations. However, Genius’s ability is limited to his right hand; his left hand
as if coming to the aid of its weary sister, took over the office of picture-making from the right hand, which was fatigued by the labor of continual depiction, while the right hand took possession of the tablet. The left hand, abandoning the path of orthography for a limping pseudography, created the shapes of creatures, or rather the vague outlines of their shapes, in half-finished pictures.44
As Michael A. Johnson explains: “Genius sermonizes and excommunicates sodomites (one of whom is shown ‘turned away’ from the truth) in what could also be a grammar lesson (from Bibliothèque de la Faculté de Médecine, Université Montpelier, MS H245).” In Alan of Lille’s The Plain of Nature, Genius’s authority and his ability to create original, neoplatonic forms succumb to the hermaphroditic “glitch” of the poem. Image Credit: Michael A Johnson, “On the Public Highway of Grammar,” The Grammar Rabble, June 26, 2014.
Genius’s success at creating original, neoplatonic forms is only temporary, as even he succumbs to the glitched failure of the poet’s initial hermaphroditic conceit. The poem ends, then, on a rather unsatisfying resolution of normativity.45 Much like how one could play through Lim as it was intended — navigating the maze, passing literally and figuratively through its corridors — one can read Plaint “straight” through. However, to do so would be to miss out on the pleasures of failing to play or read according to each work’s normative, albeit glitched design.
Bardzell, Jeffrey. Speculative Grammar and Stoic Language Theory in Medieval Allegorical Narrative from Prudentius to Alan of Lille. New York: Routledge, 2009.
Burgwinkle, William. Sodomy, Masculinity, and Law in Medieval Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Clark, Naomi. “What Is Queerness in Games, Anyway?” In Queer Game Studies, edited by Bonnie Ruberg and Adrienne Shaw. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2017. 24-38.
Dronke, Peter. Verse with Prose From Petronius to Dante: The Art and Scope of the Mixed Form. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994.
Guynn, Noah D. Allegory and Sexual Ethics in the High Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Halberstam, Jack. “Queer Gaming: Gaming, Hacking, and Going Turbo.” In Queer Game Studies, edited by Bonnie Ruberg and Adrienne Shaw. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2017. 220-235.
Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011.
Jordan, Mark D. The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
k, merritt. Lim. August 29, 2012.
Keegan, Cáel M. “Revisitation: A Trans Phenomenology of the Media Image.” MedieKultur: Journal of Media and Communication Research 61 (2016): 26-41.
Keiser, Elizabeth B. Courtly Desire & Medieval Homophobia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.
Lille, Alan. Literary Works of Alan of Lille. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013.
“Lim.” The Aesthetics of Gameplay. gameartshow.siggraph.org. March 14, 2019.
Newman, Barbara. God and the Goddesses: Vision, Poetry, and Belief in the Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.
Rollo, David. “Nature’s Pharmaceuticals: Sanctioned Desires in Alain de Lille’s De Planctu Naturae.” Exemplaria 25.2 (Summer 2013): 152–72.
Scanlon, Larry. “Unspeakable pleasures: Alain de Lille, sexual regulation and the priesthood of Genius.” The Romanic Review 86.2 (Mar. 1995): 213-42.
Schibanoff, Susan. “Sodomy’s Mark: Alain de Lille, Jean de Meun and the Medieval Theory of Authorship.” In Queer the Middle Ages, edited by Glenn Burger and Steven F. Kruger. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. 28-56.
Tudor, Alyosxa. “Dimensions of Transnationalism.” Feminist Review 117 (2017): 20-40.
Ziolkowski, Jan. Alan of Lille’s Grammar of Sex. Cambridge: Medieval Academy of America, 1985.
- Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure, (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011), 88.
- Ibid., 2.
- Ibid., 3.
- As David Rollo points out, “While there has been unanimity in recognizing that the De planctu tends to self-contradiction, it has been accompanied by a tendency to valorize the grammatically privileged term in the binary structure and to regard the other as its negative, if necessary foil.” In contradistinction to this critical trend, Rollo argues that Plaint “incline[s] towards the subordinate in its polarities and, from that position, purposefully and successfully subvert[s] its superjacent grammatical import.” In other words, Rollo suggests that Alan willfully explores the pleasures of auto-referentiality and hermaphroditism. Without a critical consensus, however, Alan’s intentions remain ambivalent. See David Rollo, “Nature’s Pharmaceuticals: Sanctioned Desires in Alain de Lille’s De Planctu Naturae,” Exemplaria 25.2 (Summer 2013): 152–72.
- Halberstam, Queer Art of Failure, 88.
- Similar to the challenge of assigning an exact degree of intentionality or self-reflexivity behind the contradictions in Alan de Lille’s The Plaint of Nature, merritt k has refused to clarify whether the glitch in Lim was part of her intention as the creator, or an accident that arose from the code of the game — “an unintentional ‘flaw’ that happens to harmonize with the rest of the game to create a possibility of utter refusal emerging from trauma and movement beyond the confines of a harsh system,” as Naomi Clark observes. “By keeping this possibility ambiguous, kopas leaves open the possibility that this is a discovery of players, not a top-down artifact of authorial intent.” See Naomi Clark, “What Is Queerness in Games, Anyway?” in Queer Game Studies, edited by Bonnie Ruberg and Adrienne Shaw (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 30.
- Halberstam, Queer Art of Failure, 23.
- “Lim,” The Aesthetics of Gameplay, gameartshow.siggraph.org, 14 March 2019.
- Cáel M. Keegan, “Revisitation: A Trans Phenomenology of the Media Image,” MedieKultur: Journal of Media and Communication Research 61 (2016): 30.
- Alyosxa Tudor, “Dimensions of Transnationalism,” Feminist Review 117 (2017): 29.
- Jack Halberstam, “Queer Gaming: Gaming, Hacking, and Going Turbo,” in Queer Game Studies, 220.
- Ibid., 229.
- Halberstam, Queer Art of Failure, 88.
- Jan Ziolkowski, Alan of Lille’s Grammar of Sex (Cambridge: Medieval Academy of America, 1985), 75.
- Ibid., 8.
- Peter Dronke, Verse with Prose From Petronius to Dante: The Art and Scope of the Mixed Form (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), 2.
- Jeffrey Bardzell, Speculative Grammar and Stoic Language Theory in Medieval Allegorical Narrative from Prudentius to Alan of Lille (New York: Routledge, 2009), 83.
- See Larry Scanlon, “Unspeakable Pleasures: Alain de Lille, Sexual Regulation and the Priesthood of Genius,” Romantic Review 86 (1995): 221; William Burgwinkle, Sodomy, Masculinity, and Law in Medieval Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 180-81; Noah D. Guynn, Allegory and Sexual Ethics in the High Middle Ages (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 108.
- See Mark D. Jordan, The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 85-86; Elizabeth B. Keiser, Courtly Desire & Medieval Homophobia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 76.
- Scanlon, “Unspeakable Pleasures,” 222.
- Rollo, “Nature’s Pharmaceuticals,” 168-169.
- Ibid., 169.
- Halberstam, Queer Art of Failure, 11-12.
- Ibid., 14.
- Alan of Lille, Literary Works of Alan of Lille (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 119.
- My reading of this scene builds on Susan Schibanoff’s observation that while Nature castigates humanity’s iniquities, she complacently acknowledges that she was responsible for the primordial act of delinquency in the first place. See Susan Schibanoff, “Sodomy’s Mark: Alain de Lille, Jean de Meun and the Medieval Theory of Authorship,” in Queer the Middle Ages, edited by Glenn Burger and Steven F. Kruger (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 34.
- Alan, Literary Works, 121.
- Ibid., 23.
- Ibid., 25.
- Ibid., 67.
- Ibid., 24.
- Ibid., 109.
- Ibid., 110.
- Ibid., 111.
- Ibid., 131.
- Ibid., 57.
- Barbara Newman, God and the Goddesses: Vision, Poetry, and Belief in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 34.
- Alan, Literary Works, 67, 69.
- Ibid., 27, 123.
- Halberstam, Queer Art of Failure, 89.
- Alan, Literary Works, 217.
- Ibid., 209.
- As Rollo reflects: “I judge [Plaint’s] ‘magical,’ poetic deployments of ‘unnatural’ irregularity to be far more eloquent than the sacerdotal assertion of ‘natural’ rectitude that brings it to an end. And I consider those disobedient pupils, who go on to become nature and love in the Fallen world, ultimately to escape the authority of the priestly presence who intercedes in an effort to define and control them.” Rollo, “Nature’s Pharmaceuticals,” 170.