Metalepsis and the Stack

In the final chapter of her book Avatars of Story, Marie-Laure Ryan convincingly demonstrates that the narratalogical figure of metalepsis is a useful tool for the study of video games, and indeed computers in general. Ryan uses the metaphor of the stack to conceptualize complex narratives where the initial story generates another story (Ryan, 204). ~

The stack is one of the fundamental computer data structures. Its main distinction is the “Last in, first out” functionality for storing and retrieving data. In a LIFO system, the newest item added will be the first removed if the remove function is called. Ryan notes that every story telling act,

involves at least two levels: a real-world level, on which an author communicates with a reader, and a primary fictional level, on which a narrator communicates with a narratee within an imaginary world.

On top of those levels, more stories may be added, told by a narrator that exists in the imaginary world.

Traditionally, framed stories such as The Canterbury Tales resolve themselves the same way a stack works, by completing the most recently told story and so on down the stack until the primary fictional level is finished. However, occasionally these levels may be broken through, as when the host interrupts Chaucer’s telling of “The Tale of Sir Thopas”. The story is, thankfully, cut short before its resolution by the host, a character who does not exists on the same narrative level of the stack as “The Tale of Sir Thopas”. In this example, the stack conceptualization is particularly valid. The poet Chaucer existed on a real-world level, while the traveler Chaucer is a character existing in the primary fictional level. The different layers of the stack can have multiple instances of the variable “Chaucer”, each with differing properties.

This breaking through from one level of the narrative stack to another is metalepsis. Ryan defines two types of metalepsis, rhetorical and ontological (Ryan, 206). The rhetorical type is when something from a lower level of the stack pops up briefly through the current top in order to comment on a situation in the top level, such as breaking the fourth wall in a film. Ryan notes that metaleptic breaks are acceptable if they cross one border between stacks but crossing multiple borders is challenging for the reader. Ontological metalepsis “opens a passage between levels that results in their interpenetration” (Ryan, 207). This type is destructive to the narrative stack, and would occur when a character from one level of the stack actually enters the world of a different level, rather than simply referring to it.

In July of 2010, the virus that came to be known as “stuxnet” was discovered. Stuxnet was remarkable for many reasons, including its impressive technical feats, level of sophistication, and the fact that it appeared to specifically target Iran’s nuclear facilities. Among the many fascinating aspects of stuxnet, its targeting of the industrial control systems of the plant stuck out to me. Stuxnet was designed to break out of the “stack” of computer systems and inflict real-world damage by taking control of the plant. Though it is unclear how effectively stuxnet was able to carry out its goals given the secrecy surrounding Iran’s nuclear program, I would classify it as a metaleptic computer program. Stuxnet may not have been the first to do this, but it is certainly the most well known. It also appears to have inspired other attackers to target similar systems.

In the final section of this paper, I will explore the idea of hacktivist games, which metaleptically break through to exert influence outside of the primary fictional world.

Continue with Part 4