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Fox Harrell; Submitted to CTheory; 2/08/2009

Toward a Theory of Phantasmal Media:

An Imaginative Cognition- and Computation-Based Approach to Digital Media
D. Fox Harrell, Ph.D.
Computing is no longer about technology. Computational systems for expressing
imaginative concepts here called phantasmal media, can reveal human creativity and
expression. Algorithmic and data structural techniques can delve into the pains, joys, and
subjective experiences of the human condition. This paper introduces three new approaches
to computational technology, subjective computing, cultural computing, and critical
computing, in which formalization of meaning becomes an expressive resource for new
forms of computational narratives, identity, poetry, and new discourse genres. These
approaches allow computer scientists and digital media artists to take up subjective positions
in the world and to use formal technical methods to express them dynamically in digital
media. To elaborate this argument, recent works are discussed that exemplify these
approaches. These works are based on cognitive science theories of meaning and
imagination, specific cultural approaches to meaning making (such as Japanese renku poetry
and African diasporic orature), and artificial intelligence approaches to narrative generation
and semantic representation. In particular, the case for phantasmal media will be progressed
with examples that use computing methods to implement dynamic models of multimedia
discourse and social identity that often address problems of stereotyping, prejudice, and
related disempowering cultural models.
To move beyond this tendentiously posed opposition, a meaningful
distinction between these different ways of knowingthe improvisational
and the compositionalmust inevitably turn upon the axis of interaction.
Improvisation must be openthat is, open to input, open to contingency--a
real-time and (often enough) a real-world mode of production. If we do
not need to define improvised ways of producing knowledge as a subset of
composition, then we can simply speak of an improvising machine as one
that incorporates a dialogic imagination.
George E. Lewis, Too Many Notes: Computers, Complexity and
Culture in Voyager, 2000. [1]
Computational media hold the power to improvisationally and dynamically combine
formal manipulation of meaningful elements in new ways, at the same time as responding to
user interaction. There is always a mixture between human interpretation of meaning, and
the limited symbolic ways that machines encode meaning. This balance between

D. Fox Harrell; Submitted to CTheory; 2/08/2009

computationally manipulable structure and ghostly, subjective human meaning is at the heart
of the expressive potential of computing. The perspective of how computing can express
evocative imaginative content articulated in this article does not attempt to define any
singular vision for how expressive computational narrative, poetry, virtual worlds, social
networking platforms, or any related forms should be realized. Rather it is a perspective on
how this interplay between human meaning and machine structuring of information can be
the basis for poignant, specific, novel, and creative forms of expression. Computation must
exhibit humility about its limitations for capturing the elusive world of human imagination
with its blurry boundaries between the conscious and unconscious aspects of meaning,
between clearly expressible discourse and affect, between sensory perception and mental
Yet, humble computing can still intervene beautifully when its ability to structure,
change, and respond to information and input is orchestrated with sensitive consideration of
the slippery process of human interpretation and experience. So, rather than providing a
perspective on computational expression based on defining eventual future forms, this
article offers a perspective informed by the various ways that humans negotiate interplays of
structure and subjectivity. It is a cross-medial perspective that finds parallels in the balance
between orchestrated form and improvised chaos (and political forthrightness) of Charles
Minguss compositions such as in his Original Fables of Faubus, and the balance between
richly lyrical poetic content and a rigid experimental structure in Vladimir Nabokovs novel
Pale Fire. [2, 3] The aesthetic potential of computing technologies noted here is inspired by
the parallels between a concern for lush prose coexisting with procedurally structured form
as in Italo Calvinos novel If on a winters night a Traveler and the co-habitation of romantic
melodies with highly theorized twelve-tone compositional techniques in the classical works

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of Alban Berg. [4, 5] Jean Toomers book Cane is an inspiration point as its lyrical portrait of
the rural south in the United States jumps from poetry to prose with abandon, and is rooted
in a multiply marginalized perspective. [6] Similarly, Samuel R. Delanys interweaving of
1980s anxieties of HIV/AIDS with a swords and sorcery world in Tale of Plagues and
Carnivals is influential as contemporary social concerns drive the development of an
experimental narrative form. [7] Especially, the forms of computational expression
envisioned here are informed by works in which subjective meaning can emerge from
experimental content structure as in Akira Kurosawa's famous film Rashomon, which is based
on Ryunosuke Akutagawa's 1922 short story In a Grove. [8, 9] The tale of a brutal rape
and murder is told and retold from a variety of perspectives: from the vantage point of the
victims, the perpetrator, and a by-stander. Meaning is constructed through the concrete
knowledge that the event did take place and the shifting, conflicting reports of the event
given by the characters. The conflicts between the different points of view are used to create
an emergent statement about the human condition and the absence of truth as exemplified
in the following dialogue from Rashomon:
Priest: If men don't trust one another, then the earth becomes a hell.
Commoner: Right. The world's a kind of hell.
Priest: No! I don't want to believe that!
Commoner: No one will hear you, no matter how loud you shout. Just think.
Which one of these stories do you believe?
Woodcutter: None makes any sense.
Commoner: Don't worry about it. It isn't as if men were reasonable.

D. Fox Harrell; Submitted to CTheory; 2/08/2009

Figure 1: Kurosawas Rashomon is a film where the meaningful

difference between multiple narratives adds poignancy.
Like the emergent statement regarding truth in the world from Rashomon, in the hands of a
careful author of a computational expression system, the use of meaningful difference
between instances of output to allow a global meaning to emerge from repeated execution of
the system can be a hallmark of the phantasmal media forms.
This perspective of the expressive potential of computational media bears with it a
set of understood risks. It is more intangible, more difficult to define than describing a
singular well-known form such as Hollywood cinema, a set of related endeavors like
generative art, or even a lofty cultural vision like virtual reality (VR)-based interactive
narrative. Rather, it is an approach to thinking about computational media and their future, it
is a world view that centralizes culture and content, and is both a prescription and invitation
for others to engage this world view. However, this world view is not unfounded, it is based
in accounts of cognition, transmedial art traditions, computer science, and cultural theory
that reconciles concerns from each. The world view here is both descriptive and prescriptive,
it catches glimpses of what computation based media can be through existing literature,
video games, computational arts, and research, but it also outlines a vision of the future for a
powerful new form of expression. It must be a vision that is both coherent and open ended.

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Finally, this perspective must be open enough so as not to exclude relevant computational
media practices.
Rendering this vision of computational expression tangible requires new
terminology. The name given to ideal examples of the type of meaning making systems
considered in this article is phantasmal media. The motivations for these new terms
follows. Phantasmata are mental imagery. [10] They comprise a range of meaning
phenomena. They are imaginative meanings, but crucially are not restricted to language.
They can refer to embodied sensations, cultural contexts, and more abstract ideas. Certainly
all of our engagements with media artifacts are accompanied by the mental work of
interpretation. Yet, the focus with phantasmal media is a type of work that often
concentrates (primarily through interactive and generative multimedia) on creating narrative
and poetic mental imagery to express artistic and critical statements about the world. The
term polymorphic poetics, generalizing the term as referred to in [11], describes the ways
that expressive meanings arise and are structured in phantasmal media. [12, 13] It describes
building blocks of meaning such as concepts, the structures of events, the ways that people
and things exhibit agency in the real and story worlds, and the limited ways by which
computation can access, formalize, and manipulate these meaningful building blocks.
Polymorphic poetics describes how this interplay of meaning parallels the expressive
deployments of form and structure found in the examples ranging from Mingus to Nabokov
above. Central processes and structures of polymorphic poetics are transformations from
one phantasm to another, mappings between mental images [14], dynamically blending
concepts [15], and a range of phenomena in which meaning can be said to be constructed
and change dynamically based on computationally controlled control and composition of
media elements [16].

D. Fox Harrell; Submitted to CTheory; 2/08/2009

Figure 2: Loss, Undersea is the authors phantasmal media work in which a character
dynamically transforms according to undersea metaphors (as in the silhouettes on
the right) and poetry is dynamically generated according to affective constraints.
Phantasmal media enable a range of new forms and genres of imaginative
computational expression. Phantasmal media authors/artists can begin to think about their
software in a new way just as a goal of developing higher level programming languages is
to allow computer scientists to think in terms of problems and solutions as opposed to
algorithmic steps, a goal of the approach in this article is to allow higher level digital media
arts authorship where the author specifies a range of improvisational interactions to be
meaningfully completed by a user rather than designing every interaction explicitly. This
article is centrally a speculative look at the expressive possibilities enabled by approaching
computational media in this way.
Concrete work has already been done toward these ends. Many works begin to
anticipate this vision in gaming, electronic literature, and interactive narrative. The author
has developed theory and technology for interactive and generative computational narratives,
poetry, games, social networking, and new creative forms of digital multimedia discourse.
Potential new forms are on the horizon in which the building blocks for expression are not

D. Fox Harrell; Submitted to CTheory; 2/08/2009

paragraphs, pages, scenes, sprites, or even media files. Rather, meanings, rendered by human
authors into formats that are computationally amenable, become the computational building
blocks for new forms of expression. Authors can create digital stories, poems, and games in
which some aspects of content such as theme, plot, emotional tone, or metaphorical
exposition and imagery can vary improvisationally with user interaction. [17] New meanings
emerge from the contrast between multiple readings or play-throughs, and meanings can be
composed in response to user interaction. This approach empowers the author to determine
a narrative, poetic, or other discourse structure, but also empowers the user to explore and
co-create those structures. Interaction in these domains should entail allowing users to affect
the meanings in the story or poetic world they encounter, as opposed to merely manipulating
virtual objects, navigating virtual spaces, or other purely mechanical modes of interaction.
For example, opening a door, talking to a virtual character, or performing an action could
drive the generation of nostalgic memories [18], change the emotional tone of a tale [17], or
cause a poem to be conveyed using a new set of metaphors and/or images [13, 19]. The
theoretical approach informing the construct of phantasmal media integrates research into
imaginative cognition from cognitive science, formal approaches to semantics and semiotics
in computer science, and cultural theoretic views of expressive discourse and media practice.
Computational expression research based on cognitive science approaches is
promising for several reasons. Cognitive science no longer explores only what is inside the
head or how computers can model the mind. Recent cognitive science theories address our
capacity for creative and imaginative thought as it is dynamically constructed, distributed
among our selves and our artifacts, situated in social contexts, and embodied in our physical
experiences. [15, 20-22] These approaches to cognition often centralize what were formerly
seen as the domain of the arts: metaphor, analogy, narrative imagining, parable, and blending

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ideas are seen as the bases, not only high cultural results, but of human imagination. [15]
These mental phenomena, described as phantasmal here, comprise the basis for the type of
illusion, cognitive imagery, and associated concepts, discussed in this article.
An original key method arising from the phantasmal media framework is that formal
representations can be leveraged with understanding a system designer/authors expressive
intent and the affordances provided by the system for user interpretation. Core to the
speculative vision of this article is the development of theoretical tools that allow authors,
programmers, and artists to (1) enable digital media authors/artists to add meaning to
media, i.e. construct ontologies (formal descriptions of knowledge structures) as metadata
for their media elements (graphics, animation, text, etc.), (2) generate meaningful text and
multimedia discourse compositions dynamically, and (3) blend multimedia structures to
generate new content dynamically for use in interactive narratives and related works. These
tools use the models of imagination from cognitive semantics in order to represent these
meanings as formalized concepts and their composition and generation as blending and
mapping operations. Such models of human imagination aid to enable the creation of digital
media technologies with which meaning can be reconfigured and generated on the fly. This
requires, for example, authors to describe the visual structure of media elements [19, 23], to
formalize the aspects of meaning that are amenable to computation while allowing
contextually specific and subjective content to be determined by a human author, and to
precisely understand better the needs and values of users of interactive narrative, games, and
related technologies. This approach to digital meaning, in which it becomes highly dynamic,
contextual, and manipulable, comprises the approach to semantics in this article.
Traditional good old fashioned AI work in knowledge representation, expert
systems, semantic networks, and other well-known projects focused on complete and correct

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formal descriptions of domains to allow shared knowledge bases for making inferences.
Though domains themselves may have encoded specific bodies of knowledge, within
particular domains comprehensive global understanding was a goal. The results were systems
with narrow expertise and the characteristic that to solve a problem you almost have to
know the answer already [344]. An early example of such a project was the blood infection
diagnosis expert system MYCIN developed at Stanford University in the 1970's by Ed
Feigenbaum, Bruce Buchanan, and Edward Shortliffe [34]. MYCIN produced successful
diagnoses in a specific domain based upon rules (including certainty factors) acquired
through extensive interviewing of experts. Dynamic, subjective meanings (both culturally
entrenched and idiosyncratic) and surprising, novel inferences have not been traditional foci
of inquiry in artificial intelligence research. However, for computational narrative artworks
and investigation of narrative human thought, small scale, lightweight, and local semantics
representations become crucial areas of inquiry. More recent large grained and/or commonsense oriented ontologies and knowledge bases typically are appropriate for constructing
roughly hewn inferences for general applications such as popular or low-stakes
recommendation systems, for example as in deployments of the Cyc, WordNet, or
ConceptNet projects. [24-26] Yet, context shifting and reasoning across domains remain
challenges for such systems. A complimentary approach is to provide techniques to allow
authors to create their own small-grained ontologies (formal representations of conceptual
information) for highly contextual and subjective information. Interaction with these
ontologies, then, needs to be well structured and directed so that user options are situated
within their limited contexts. Design of these customized lightweight ontologies, and their
uses, becomes a research problem informed by aesthetic, cultural, and contextual dictates,
even more than technical issues of efficiency or knowledge acquisition methods. The trade-

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off is that for each system an entirely new set of ontologies needs to be implemented, but
more specific and contextually constrained results that are likely to be meaningful to both
the author and users intentions are enabled.
The enabling force behind phantasmal media is a new conception of viewing
computing more broadly. This broad new conception of computing is also both prescriptive
and descriptive. It calls attention to the roles of interpretation, culture, and society in
computing practices that are often overlooked and undervalued in traditional computer
science and engineering. The new terms used to describe this conception of computing are:
subjective computing, cultural computing, and critical computing.

Subjective Computing
Subjective computing refers to endeavors that use computing technologies to serve
expressive goals of system designers. Expressive goals are of a different nature than
usability- or productivity-oriented goals. In fact, expressive content may be driven by
intuition, ambiguity, improvisation, or other abstract concepts whether or not they are useful
or even scrutable for the audience of the work. The arts and humanities offer traditions of
inquiry arising from such varied goals, and for addressing both traditionally productive arts
(such as works bordering on commercial design or even activist art) and introspective or
philosophical endeavors (such as conceptual art). Addressing computational systems as
potentially subjectivity-oriented artifacts provides a clearer lens for analysis because it does
not require artificial subdivision of the work according to disciplinary boundaries. The
mathematical, computational, cognitive, and expressive elements of systems can be
completely integrated with specific subjective content. For example, using the authors
GRIOT system for constructing phantasmal media, one polymorphic poetic work called


D. Fox Harrell; Submitted to CTheory; 2/08/2009

The Girl with Skin of Haints and Seraphs allows for metaphorical reflection on themes
such as social classification and racism using a recombinant play of angel and demon verbal
imagery implemented using algebraic computational techniques [13, 27], and another
multimedia fantasy artwork called Loss, Undersea blends the undersea world with the
devolution of the contemporary workday also using a cognitive linguistics-based algorithm
to enable dynamically varying emotional tone [17]. In examples like these, computational
systems have been structured with the goal of generating evocative content focused on
imaginative metaphor or emotional impact.

Figure 3: In this example of polymorphic poetry implemented with the GRIOT

system instances of generated output respond to themes of stereotypical racial
binaries according to input by users. [16]


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Starting from acknowledging the contextually situated, socially and technologically

distributed, and humanly embodied nature of meaning, subjective computing explores which
aspects of meaning can be represented formally by computing systems. Development of the
concept of subjective computing is naturally interdisciplinary since it involves accounting for
how humans make meaning cognitively, how computing can capture, and fail to capture,
human meanings, and how humans express those meanings to others in cultural forms. The
foundations for the approach here are based in particular on cognitive semantics theories of
how concepts are generated and mapped from one to each other from cognitive science [14,
15, 28, 29] (as introduced above), formal approaches to semiotics and cognition from
computer science that acknowledge critical perspectives on artificial intelligence and do not
attempt to reduce human cognition to computation [27], and cross-cultural and media
theoretic approaches to expressive multimedia narrative, poetry, and other imaginative
discourse forms [16, 17, 30-32].

Cultural Computing
Cultural practices and values are implicitly built into all computational systems.
However, it is not common to develop systems with explicit engagement with, and
foundations in, cultural practices and values aside from those traditionally privileged in
discourse surrounding computing practices. [33] Cultural computing entails engaging
commonly excluded cultural values and practices that can potentially spur computational
innovation, and can root and invigorate expressive computational production. In particular,
diverse ways of representing and manipulating semantic content and distinctive relationships
between humans and our (digital) artifacts can form the basis for new technical and
expressive computing practices. Cultural computing also necessitates reflection on the


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challenges involved in making cultural values explicit in computing practices, including

imputing them with essentialist characteristics [34], stereotyping cultural production forms of
particular cultures, and enabling cultural plunder, i.e. using diverse aesthetic traditions only to
empower culturally privileged, hegemonic, often implicitly Western materialistic,
logocentric, and production-oriented modes of thought that inform many engineering
practices. In contrast, cultural computing means empowering technologies serving in a
plurality of world views.
As case studies and examples of cultural computing, I cite two examples of systems
constructed in my research lab. In the first, the notion of orature as it has been theorized and
practiced in the African diaspora [33, 35, 36], quite in contrast to Walter Ongs mediadeterministic great divide perspective in [37], is presented to shed insight and ground new
technical practices for computational discourse generation and interaction. Spatial
situatedness, performativity, audience-performer interaction, improvisation, and an
integrative view of the arts are just a few of the topics in computational expression valuably
addressed from a novel perspective in this analysis.

Figure 4: The Griot Sings Haibun includes generated images and interactive
polymorphic poetry, such as in the screenshots above, to be performed with
musicians in collective improvisation.
An example of this is The Griot Sings Haibun, a collaborative improvised performance of
music, poetry, images, and computation. Live musicians fuel collective improvisation with a
polymorphic poem implemented with GRIOT, in which a human played an ever-changing

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expressive text during the live performance. The polymorphic poem in The Griot Sings
Haibun generates (neo)haibun: combined narrative prose and haiku-like poetry of everyday
experience, influenced by Basho, and the traditions of beat poetry and African call-andresponse; the content addresses qualia, the qualitative feel of this human life world. [38]
A second case study is a generative multimedia poetry project informed by an
account of the interplay between iconicity and conceptual metaphor by Masako Hiraga and
C.S. Peirces semiotics. [23, 39] This work looks at the ways in which visual icons and the
structure of visual signs, along with metaphor, convey meaning in Chinese characters and
Japanese renku poetry. [19, 40-42]

Figure 5: The Generative Visual Renku project presents a new form of concrete
polymorphic poetry inspired by Japanese renku poetry, iconicity of Chinese character
forms, and generative models from contemporary art. [19]
In the Generative Visual Renku project, calligraphic iconic illustrations are dynamically
composed by the system on the basis of formalized visual and conceptual constraints in
response to user actions into a fanciful topography articulating the nuanced interplay
between organic (natural or hand-created) and modular (mass-produced or consumerist)
artifacts that saturate our lives, animated characters traverse the resultant topography and
accumulate possessions (e.g. hats with mouse ears after passing through an amusement park
ride, or a camera after passing through a television) based on the spaces they have journeyed
through. The iconic imagery is composed based upon underlying small-scale ontologies
describing the visual, structural, and conceptual content of the imagery. The uncanny and


D. Fox Harrell; Submitted to CTheory; 2/08/2009

coherent poetic landscapes and character transformations generated by the systems project
illustrate how visual meaning can also be subjectively represented using expressive ontologies
and that the cultural systems addressed here provide useful approaches to structuring such
meanings dynamically. This dynamic reconfiguration of image, structure, and concept
comprises further elaboration of the idea of polymorphic poetics.
Both case study projects provide methods for making cultural forms of meaning
explicit in computational systems. The joint assessment of both case studies indicates that
diverse cultural groundings have enabled new expressive forms of phantasmal media that
have been well received in both humanistic and computing venues, and with implications for
many broader forms of generating discourse computationally (such as educational
technology and gaming).

Critical Computing
Critical computing refers to the ability of computing to say something about the real
world and to make an impact, especially to engage disempowering hegemonic norms and
socio-technical conditions. The critical computing concept helps technologists to move
beyond issues of usability oriented human-computer interaction to think about issues like
social identity, power relationships, and political configurations. In areas such as userinterface design, computer-supported cooperative work, and social networking, issues of
users knowledge and experience bases, social groupings, and facility for social interaction,
are all intrinsic to the technology. Yet, though occasionally relying upon sociological or
anthropological methods, rich areas of social critique and insight from marginalized peoples
and humanistic discourses are often overlooked in computer science. For example, exploring


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the area of classification infrastructures, important for numerous computing applications,

science studies researchers Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star provide us with:
Why should the computer scientist read African-American poets? What does
information science have to do with race-critical or feminist methods and
metaphysics? The collective wisdom in those domains is one of the richest
places from which to understand these core problems in information systems
design: how to preserve the integrity of information without a priori
standardization and its often attendant violence. In turn, if those lessons can
be taken seriously within the emerging cyberworld, there may yet be a chance
to strengthen its democratic ethical aspects. [43]
Critical computing means allowing engineers, scientists, and other software designers to
address such issues through technical solutions, rather than to suggest that end use and its
analysis are matters left to be sorted out in the real world after deployment. The view here is
that technologists can be socially, critically engaged and structure software taking full
advantage of long traditions of thought oriented toward human empowerment and complex
and thoughtful engagement with or societies.

Figure 6: Chameleonia: Days of Lost Selves is a critical identity politics game,

developed in the authors research lab, in which avatars dynamically transform
according to various social archetypes in response to player selected gestures.
Critical computing refers to the potential for computing practices to define medium specific
modes of social critique and analysis. By making issues of subjectivity and culture explicit in
formal systems, critique through interaction, generation, and simulation becomes possible.


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Toward developing a systematic approach for such analyses, my research lab has been
engaging the issue of social identity in computational discourse, gaming, and social
networking. In particular, we have investigated social identity based on the reciprocity of
computational implementation methods in both social networking and gaming is presented.
This approach looks at avatars, characters, and user profiles as examples of phantasmal
media elements. The ways in which users of such systems imaginatively map themselves into
digital identity proxies, metaphorically extend their self-conceptions, and categorize
themselves and others are addressed. The work in classification by Geoffrey Bowker and
Susan Leigh Star and in categorization by George Lakoff and Eleanor Rosch, along with
multiple stands of research into narrative and social identity inform this work. [28, 43]
Examples of the author and his research laboratorys works are presented including DefineMe:
Chimera, a social networking (Facebook) application in which users define metaphorical
profiles and avatars for each other, and several games and avatar creation systems where
users representations change dynamically based upon social context, user interaction, and
artifact use. The DefineMe database is designed to be lightweight, dynamic, and extensible,
while implementing categorical relationships between members. When comparing profiles,
DefineMe is designed to match lexical items and logical relations directly, or it can compare
the structures of profiles following insights from the analogical structure-mapping engine
(SME) developed by Ken Forbus et. al. [44, 45] Following the work of Eleanor Rosch cited
in [28], the labeling system can also be used to define aspects of categories themselves. For
instance, a robin tag can be added to the category, birds, to define the prototype of that
category. In this way, members can belong to multiple groups, but individuals can represent
the prototypical members of groups. This relatively lightweight structure avoids some of the
pre-defined categorization built into many social networking infrastructures, and has the


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potential to explore some of the more nuanced identity phenomena mentioned in the
theoretical framework above.

Figure 7: DefineMe: Chimera is a phantasmal media work in which users of a social

networking site metaphorically define each others profiles and the system generates
chimerical avatars.
The unifying theme illustrated by these examples is that many current identity
representation systems replicate false, disempowering, and limited notions of identity from
the point of view of cognitive, constructive, and performative analyses, and that imaginative
forms of identity enabled by phantasmal media can powerfully provide critique of, and
improvement over, current models.

Exemplary and Future Forms

Since this is an article about how computing technologies can allow for the
development of phantasmal media, the structure of the article revolved around three new
ways to view computing. Phantasmal media are used as exemplary forms to illuminate the
necessity and potential of each the triadic conception of subjective, cultural, and critical


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computing argued for here. The article is meant to provide an overview of the approaches to
both analyzing and building phantasmal media that I have developed through both my
research and pedagogical approaches to topics such as interactive narrative or technologies
of representation. The phantasmal media construct is at once iconoclastic and broadly
embracing of existing systems and theories. Heretofore articulated over a series of
publications, this article has summarized the hallmarks of the construct in a way that I hope
will be a useful lens for creative computational culture producers and theorists.
Further elaborating the phantasmal media construct, I propose a set of characteristics
that may result in exemplary works of phantasmal media. Exemplary forms often strongly
incorporate a number of the following:

Constructively imaginative: users can co-construct viewpoints and experiences along

with authorially constructed imaginative meaning;
Constructively authored: authors construct high level themes while accounting for
users own generative themes, i.e. authors guide contexts for interpretation;
Transformative: users can engage in perspectives other than their own, they can
blend their identities with media elements that can dynamically change during
interaction (offering potential for a sense of real world personal transformation);
Dynamically improvisational: works are implemented to create new experiences (in
form and content, not only interpretation) on each instantiation or run-through
depending on context, viewer, authorial intent;
Computational: the computer is used as a medium and its unique affordances are
invoked [30, 32, 46];
Intertextual: works are constructed in dialogue with works in other media forms, the
novelty of the technical form is not held as a goal in itself and does not entail
avoiding conventions from other media forms; [47]
Content-driven: works do not require novelty for its own sake or use solely
computational techniques for their own sakes, they are driven by the meanings to be
Socially engaged: these works cannot be understood or created by focusing on the
experience of an individual user at a single machine, they take into account that all
computing work is a result of a social process (whether the end result is networked, a
team of cultural producers created a work, or the content relies upon specific social
contexts). [48, 49]

In defining a set of characteristics that denotes speculative exemplars, a subjective set of

aesthetic criteria is being posited. These criteria are a stake in the ground, a perspective on


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forms of computational discourse that, as stated in the introduction, hold power to agitate,
disrupt, challenge, change, inspire, and reflect on trials and triumphs of the human
Built upon these foundations, this chapter recapitulates several unique hallmarks of
phantasmal media described that are worth emphasizing. These are their:

Cross-media applicability: a focus on cognitive underpinnings allows phantasmal

media models to be applicable to multiple computational forms (multimedia arts,
poetry, interactive narrative, gaming, educational technology, social networking,
and more).
Subjective expressive formalization: this articles explication of the phantasmal
media construct provides methods for digital media authors to create small
ontologies encoding their subjective viewpoints to act as metadata for their
multimedia elements. This offers a high level of control, while avoiding some of
the pitfalls of large-scale semantic network endeavors.
Cultural grounding: the phantasmal media approach does not privilege one
cultural model of expression, e.g. the dream of immersive virtual reality space. A
focus on basic building blocks of meaning allows for a range of narrative and
other discourse models to be implemented.
Computational Criticality: the phantasmal media approach encourages
deployment of expressive computing forms for social empowerment and critique
of social phenomena. Computational semantics can be about the real world
just as works in literature or film can address the real world.

Figure 8 illustrates an overview of the phantasmal media approach to computational

expression, sketching just a few of the new eventual forms to which it is applicable.


D. Fox Harrell; Submitted to CTheory; 2/08/2009

Figure 8: There are a number of promising eventual forms of phantasmal media.

The phantasmal media vision is speculative in the following sense. There is, as of yet,
no singular defining expressive computational work that has captured the popular
imagination or achieved the salience or cultural relevance of works of poetry or narrative in
other media. Computational media practitioners are all too often shackled by reflection upon
the medium itself rather than the broader human condition, and are also similarly bound by
culturally privileged visions for what expressive computing technologies should be. They
seek holy grails that practitioners make incremental steps toward achieving. Such visions
include the idea of the immersive panorama, traced through theatre with no fourth wall, the
zoetrope, cinema, VR, and onward to the full sensory immersion. [50] Another is the idea of
the automaton or mechanized mind, traced through the golem, through the mind body, split,


D. Fox Harrell; Submitted to CTheory; 2/08/2009

through the Turing test, problem solving AI, and the dream of strong AI, criticized by [5154] and others. Yet the ideas here, though not opposed to virtual embodiment or machines
doing things that are usually seen as within the domain of human intelligence, are not solely
aligned with one of these holy grails. A wide range of expressive possibilities should arise
from this approach, just as computer gaming does not determine a set of interaction models
a new game holds the potential to introduce an entirely new metaphor for interaction and
set of mechanics for meaning conveyance. Some new forms will remain experimental, and
thus are more difficult to define in terms of a singular long-term vision, and perhaps others
will be conventionalized as happened in cinema. Both types of eventualities are at the root of
the vision of this article.
Phantasmal media can ultimately realize fantastic blends of ideas, rich metaphors,
social hierarchies, and cultural identities and many other exemplars of the diverse power of
imaginative cognition. In particular, ideal forms may explore how social illusions are often
constructed in discourse both cognitively and culturally. Phantasmal media can engage social
empowerment by inventing new forms of digital discourse deeply informed by accounts of
meaning and narrative from cognitive science and techniques for representing meaning and
narrative from computer science. Narrative and poetry are often a unifying theme in
describing idealized forms of the work. Narrative and poetry are central to human
communication, and structure much of our creative imaginations, shared bodies of
knowledge, and even our senses of self. The stories we tell using computational media,
however, often fail to capture our needs, dreams, and aspirations. This article finally is, then,
about how to use computing to assist people in achieving our imaginative potentials. Ideal
forms of phantasmal media can support social empowerment using gaming and related
technologies such as interactive narratives, collaborative digital worlds, interactive and


D. Fox Harrell; Submitted to CTheory; 2/08/2009

generative video, and, most importantly, new forms unanticipated by any of the above.
Empowering the disempowered is not merely a matter of technological support. The end
hope here is that these ideas can contribute to imaginative visions, meaningful experiences, and
expressive statements that lead to real world insight and action.

Authors Biography
Fox Harrell is a researcher, author, and artist exploring the relationship between imaginative
cognition and computation. He is Assistant Professor of Digital Media in the department of
Literature, Communication, and Culture at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He directs
the Imagination, Computation, and Expression [ICE] Lab/Studio in developing new forms
of computational narrative and poetry, gaming, social networking, and related digital
infrastructures and technical-cultural media with bases in computer science, cognitive
science, and digital media arts. He has presented his work internationally; sites of his
publications and presentations include the MIT Press, the University of Toronto Press,
conferences and symposia of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence
(AAAI), the Digital Arts and Culture Conference, CTheory, and other book chapters,
journals, and conferences. He holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science and Cognitive Science
from the University of California, San Diego. He earned an M.P.S. in Interactive
Telecommunications at New York Universitys Tisch School of the Arts. He also earned a
B.F.A. in Art, a B.S. in Logic and Computation, and minor in Computer Science at Carnegie
Mellon University, each with highest honors. He has worked as an interactive television
producer and as a game designer in New York City.


D. Fox Harrell; Submitted to CTheory; 2/08/2009




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