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  • Phantasmal Fictions
  • D. Fox Harrell (bio)

The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph.

—Italo Calvino

Smoke from the pyramidal sawdust pile   Curls up, blue ghosts of trees, tarrying low   Where only chips and stumps are left to showThe solid proof of former domicile.

Meanwhile, the men, with vestiges of pomp,   Race memories of king and caravan,   High-priests, an ostrich, and a juju-man,Go singing through the footpaths of the swamp.

—Jean Toomer

Smoke drifts over these pages, smoke from outside of sawmills in Jean Toomer's classic Harlem Renaissance era manticore of prose and poetry describing the rural Georgia he explored during a fitful (if temporary) discovery of his multiply ethnicized self. Smoke drifts from the railway station, wafting over to you, the reader, from Italo Calvino's second-person, self-reflexive narration. In both texts, smoke is evoked as a phantasm—in two parallel senses of the term. In literary theory and philosophy, in Gilles Deleuze (The Logic of Sense [1990]) and in the classic work of Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis (1961), phantasms are imaginary constructions that structure human behavior and ideas. At the same time, visual studies scholar W. J. T. Mitchell reminds us that phantasmata are deeply akin to the cognitive psychological notion of mental images.

Indeed, the unstable nature of smoke is an apt metaphor for the mental image, clearly apparent, and yet without the material presence of a solid object or even the stability of a memory (since memories point back to events that have occurred in the real world). The metaphor goes further, however. For Toomer, the phantasm of smoke also stands in for a history of cultural theft, a sense of mournful loss encountered by people of African descent in the US. Smoke initiates a political image recalling ages of slavery and nobility in turn. For Calvino, the smoke phantasm blends two parallel stories, a narrative description of a man reading a book in a railway station, and a real life story involving the simultaneous mapping (onto the pages of the book the man is reading) of you, the actual reader, and your own narratives of personal experience. In the books that contain the quotations by Calvino and Toomer, we can observe a number of ways that phantasms can become transformative and transgressive: (1) rich, imagistic, detailed, and sustained storyworlds are produced in dialogue with the reader's interpretation; (2) sociocultural norms [End Page 4] and values are critically interrogated; (3) common formal literary and linguistic conventions are skillfully deployed (even experimented with), while maintaining the evocative force of (1). The notion of the phantasmal as mental image and ideological construction is at the heart of the majority of highly regarded literary works, crucially distinguishing the imaginary in literary fiction from that in many other modes of art production. This dual notion is also at the heart of phantasmal media. Yet, because media today are mostly computational systems, the mental imagery they evoke needs to be studied in the context of diverse user/reader epistemologies evoked primarily through data-structural and algorithmic constructions.

In light of this goal, a theory of phantasmal media is intended to cover two gaps within practices that use computation to construct imaginative works of fiction. First, scholars can invoke a transdisciplinary perspective, incorporating cognitive science, computer science, and computational media arts. Second, we can illuminate an underdeveloped potential of computational media arts, the ability of computational systems to address the human condition including social ills, cultural imaginaries, shared values, notions of beauty, and the other hallmarks of many venerable forms of art. This expanded notion of phantasmal media can carry scholarship beyond the boundaries of print media to include computational systems such as interactive narratives, games, electronic literature, digital media artworks, and social media technologies that likewise engage users/readers and developers/authors.

We need to fill in these gaps in our conceptual framework because phantasms are themselves constructed as an outcome of imagination at a number of interrelated levels. These are helpfully (if not exhaustively) described by philosopher Colin...


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