English: Vladimir Propp, Russian philologist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I suppose I’m one of the few people on earth likely to say ‘Vladimir Propp had a profound impact on my development.’ If I let that drop in conversation the most likely response would be ‘who the heck is Vladimir Propp?’ He was a Russian professor and theorist best known (I think) for authoring ‘The Morphology of the Folktale,’ a work which showed how to reduce folktales down to their base components and proposed amongst other things a way to author folktales algorithmically using those components.
His influence on me had less to do with his literary theories and more to do with how I encountered his work during an English Lit course I took back in the late 80’s. I had what seemed to me at the time to be a unique insight in that course. The course was a pastiche of material all connected in one way or another to computer mediated learning, narrative structures, and the study of literature. It was an experimental course two English faculty were collaborating on, and we students were sort of guinea pigs – they had some broad ideas about what they wanted to cover, and were looking to use us to help them shape subsequent offerings of the course. For the final project, we were broken into working groups and tasked with delivering something in hypertext based on the works of one of a set of authors. It occurred to me that we could use Hypercard to build folktales using Propp’s structures while taking input from the person sitting in front of the computer (ie the name of the hero and so on) to add some unique elements to each generated story. Each team had been assigned a student computer programmer, and I managed to convince my team that the idea had merit, then convinced the programmer he could actually pull it off.
To this day that work remains one of the things I’m most proud of from my college years, even though I found out later that the programmer had cheated and the software didn’t actually work – the story was more or less random and did not fully implement Propp’s structures correctly, though it did so well enough to fool both us and our instructors. The student programmer admitted this to me over beers at a graduation party at the end of that year. The instructors who taught it won a teaching award and took the ideas that came out of that course and turned it into a grant which later led to the release of ‘The Linear Modeling Kit‘ [<- pdf link] that they used in subsequent courses.
That experience, which took place my Junior year, was a pivotal moment in my life. I had not yet figured out what I would do with my degree when I graduated, and truth be told by that point had started to second-guess my choice of major. I know this sounds hopelessly naive, but across my Sophomore and Junior years I had slowly come to the conclusion that there was no such thing as objective truth, and my passion for textual analysis was waning in the face of the fact that the study of literature was not the path to conclusive meaning I had been grasping after. Feel free to picture me as a possibly drunken young undergrad shaking his fist at a cold uncaring universe if it helps you set the scene 😉
Anyway, until that course I had started thinking History, not English Lit, should have been where I had focused (yep, there’s that naivete again – at that time I thought something along the lines of ‘unlike literature, history is full of unambiguous cold hard facts and data that I can sift through and make categorical statements about’ ;-), but the experience got me really interested in computer mediated textual analysis and authoring, which a few months of study on my own, coupled with influences from my Dad’s career as a journalist, slowly focused into a fascination with hypertext and its possibilities. Mind you, this was years before web browsers existed – almost all of this was notional, with me reading texts and imagining things.
All of this comes to mind because of this piece on boingboing, which covers a piece of software called ‘The Infinite Adventure Machine,’ which, you guessed it, authors folk tales using the basic structures Propp sketched in the Morphology of the Folk tale, while leaving space for the user to influence and be additive to the basic narrative. I hadn’t heard Propp’s name in probably 20 plus years until I saw that, and it brought all of these old memories bubbling back to the surface. Fun how these things work when they come over you, isn’t it. It’s also lovely to see a cherished idea turned into something more functional and aesthetically pleasing.
My meandering point, I suppose, is that I owe the career I have today to that experience at The College of Wooster one semester 20 something years ago, and tangentially to a somewhat obscure Russian theorist, and I loved having that reinforced so randomly and with such an unlikely reference point.