Digital Form and the Human

Janine Utell

You enter into a space.  

You’re not sure how you got there, but you find yourself suspended above a glass room filled with cubicles.  Someone in one of the cubicles takes the walls apart and reassembles them somewhere else, making a new cubicle.

This is a tentative attempt to think about form and the human, particularly narrative form, design, human space, digital architecture—how all of these play into our comprehension of, use of, being in, space and story.  (I wrote a book about some of this recently.)  Space can be fluid or regimented, of the human or not.  In Jacques Tati’s Playtime, Monsieur Hulot winds a meandering path through a highly regimented space, its lines formed by walls and doors, rooms and cubicles.  The labyrinthine office through which he wanders at the start of the film, and the Brutalist apartment building comprised entirely of windows in which his friend lives, seem at once modular and rigid.  Glass renders the boundaries between spaces seemingly semi-permeable, yet presents a barrier to unmediated experiences and the experiencing of the other.  Design functions entirely for itself, and the built world is unconcerned with the human.

You enter into a space.  You turn a corner, and then another.  You didn’t notice the walls disappearing, but now you’re outside facing a locked door.  You could try to unlock the door, or you could simply walk around it into thin air.

In a digital interactive story, like Simogo’s Device 6, design can facilitate user exploration and participation while also exploiting the mutually enhancing relationships among word and image to generate good stories. Emergent narrative, as Richard Walsh notes, happens when a system allows for reciprocal interaction; we feel ourselves part of the system, acting within an architecture which permits meaningful choice that serves the creation of a storyworld. We do the work of choosing, and what we choose allows us to do the work—the pleasurable work—of making a storyworld.

You enter into a space.  The room looks familiar, a desk covered with papers and books.  When you try to sit down at the desk, the room suddenly gets smaller.  You curl up under the desk to avoid being crushed by the ceiling.  

We are our space, and yet narrative resists our attempts to conjure space and enter into it.  Apprehending space in narrative calls on us to think of ourselves as embodied, to read through the corporeal.  Moving with a character through space, as we might with Stoner in John Williams’ novel Stoner, shifting from office to office, each tinier and more cramped than the one before, as the horizons of his life shrink further and further, we glimpse that character’s own sense of being in the world.  Architecture, the shape of a space, here speaks to narrative form.

You enter into a space.  There is no furniture, but there is a severe-looking woman.  She stares at you, and starts speaking in code.  You might know her, but you’re not sure.  She’s standing on the other side of the room, yet feels unbearably near.

We talk about the “furniture” of a storyworld to mean characters and their moods, motives, and thoughts; to mean actions that seem familiarly human; the gestures towards “reality” that allow us to recognize a story for what it is while also grasping that something bearing a resemblance to the actual world is before us.  We might mean literal furniture:  tables and chairs.  But what of the roman démeublé?  What of the novel with no furniture?  Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels are destabilizing precisely because we have no way to orient the human figure in space.  Such a novel might move us in the direction of the radically, the terrifyingly human.  Voices filling empty rooms, nothing solid to fill the space.


Janine Utell is interested in narrative: print, visual, digital, multimodal. Teaches at Widener University outside of Philadelphia: 20th century literature, film, and narrative theory.  Visit her website: