Mythical Figure


Since the advent and proliferation of microcomputers in the 1980s, the digital universe of the World Wide Web has penetrated our daily  routines and pervaded realms as private as the home. This has led to the observation that online viewers are increasingly “subject to a schizophrenic dislocation between their existential reality and their screenic virtuality.” (1)
For artists, this fragile demarcation offers an opportunity to experiment with new fictional forms. Drawing on immersive and interactive strategies, these forms profoundly blur the line between fiction and reality, creating what is called the effect of presence, or reality. Such is the case of the virtual character Mouchette, who circulates on the Web and infiltrates our imagination while allowing us to infiltrate her, to assume her identity. As Mouchette is embodied by visitors to her site, the illusory boundary between the real and the virtual completely crumbles away. And the ritual, the structure that enables users to become Mouchette, raises the fictional character to the status of mythical figure.

Effect of Corporeal Presence
The first enabling factor towards a ritualized personification of Mouchette is the impression of the character’s existence. This illusion derives in part from her reference to a body, a concrete entity in the tangible world. Here, the body as concept is differentiated from the body as incarnation: “embodiment is contextual, enmeshed within the specifics of place, time, physiology and culture, which together compose enactment.” (2)
Viewing what the text, images and sound present as being Mouchette produces several different effects of corporeal presence. Photographs with hyperlink captions that anchor the character in particular locations serve to create a contextual presence. Mouchette’s sensorial presence is generated by close-ups of parts of her face that evoke physical sensation, through the senses of taste, touch, hearing, smell and sight. The vocal representation of the body – Mouchette’s sensual moans and whimpers – plunges users deep into their imagination, into a physical characterology based on voice tone. An “evenmential” presence is rendered in images and text indicating Mouchette’s participation in social events, such as her birthday or a Triple X festival, or in legal proceedings attested by the SACD’s cease and desist notice (personally addressed to Mouchette for having illegally used images from the Robert Bresson film).
These events shatter the reality/fiction boundaries all the more in that they go beyond the virtual framework to involve the tangible world. This leads to seeking who is behind the work, who sends the messages from the other side of the screen, perhaps forgetting the possibility of a fictitious construction and the fact that the being presented on screen does not exist “behind the screen.” Her existence is confined to the digital world and an artist’s imagination. If that becomes confusing, it is because the user is placed not before a fiction but with it.
Interactivity as Act of Faith
As with all works of fiction, Mouchette’s visitors are asked to suspend disbelief. In hypermedia art, this is made possible not by an introductory text of the “once upon a time” sort but, rather, by an interactive process, an act of faith that translates to “I act, I commit to believing.” This process becomes a ritual for users familiar with the navigation codes. Having integrated the language, they venture into a work that presents itself with a certain semiotic transparency. The rituals of use allow them to enter in representative mode, indeed, to become part of the work through their actions. Following a path forward, going back, and manipulating the order of the contents is what allows them to believe in the Mouchette character, who repeatedly foretells her death along the way.

The interactivity enables the construction and maintenance of the fictional edifice by rendering the users impervious to contradictions, whereas the action that animates the content of the modules lies more in the connections that users make to piece the scattered figure together. This is how they tell themselves Mouchette’s story and inevitably become part of it, as main actants. They can send her e-mail and they receive a reply. Since the action-processing-reaction sequence results in reactive interactivity, the illusion of dialogue comes into play. In exchanging with the character, the users engage with the fiction. And in doing so, they strengthen their “pledge” of willing belief in Mouchette’s existence. If the character’s effect of presence persists beyond the aesthetic experience, it is because the fictional edifice is built not only on real events but also on interactions that serve to concretize her being. For the user, this engenders an empathy that crosses the virtual boundary.

The Establishing Ritual: A Symbolic Outlet
The work offers the opportunity to become Mouchette. While the character may already have penetrated the user’s private world through simulated interaction, the actual experience of incarnating Mouchette is utterly immersive. It is produced not by a headset and sensors
that submerge the viewer in a virtual environment, but by the profound interconnection between the real and the virtual that inhabits the user at that point. The immersion effect gives users the feeling that they are “momentarily cut off from the surrounding real world and
plunged into another world.” (4)
By becoming Mouchette, via an initiatory process akin to many found on the Internet (registration, password), users can respond to Mouchette’s e-mails, use an interface to replace her photo with their own and recreate the work as they wish. But instead of altering the creation, this creates a subsection of the site with a URL extension, such as Users can then explore
themselves, if they wish, in their personal page at the heart of a virtual, fictional universe. They can recreate the contents of the existing modules by means of representation and construct the virtual role they will play.
In this way, the work operates as an “establishing ritual,” (5) a symbolic structure affording the experience of unfamiliar feelings. This ritual is a quest for one’s own emotional limits. Representation is used as it is given, in Mouchette’s work, with its attendant emotional charge.
Mouchette deals with profound, existential issues related to the problems of childhood: sexuality and suicide. The feelings that normally “carry the risk of an irreparable loss of self-control” (6) are explored here in a playfully artistic framework. Through its structure and
its vehicle, the work offers the user a mythography, “a visual or literary script of a subject’s fantasized projection serving to multiply his or her extensions of identity,” (7) a scenario for self-representation. By incarnating the figure, users rediscover themselves, otherwise, in
the mirror of virtuality. The self-representation occurs in a space-time that suspends reality and permits symbolic actions, because they are performed in the representative framework. The establishing ritual thus becomes a symbolic outlet, a place of release and exploration. The
intimate experience of the figure is fixed in the image and text added by the user. The imprint of the ritualized moment remains after the ritual and retains its effects. The user can relive the assumption of the figure’s identity, now as an immanent effect, by returning to his or her personal page and pursuing a role as Mouchette.
Intertextuality: From Fictional Character to Mythical Figure
If the ritualizing experience permits multiple corporeal supports for a single fictional character, it is because, on the paradigmatic axis, Mouchette is charged with references and becomes a symbol, thus moving from fictional character to mythical figure. The name “Mouchette” carries with it a literary and cinematic past that is part of the encyclopedic knowledge necessary to understanding the work from a symbolic perspective. Web users may remember the famous protagonist of the Georges Bernanos novel La nouvelle histoire de Mouchette, written in 1942, and of Robert Bresson’s 1964 film adaptation, Mouchette. In Bernanos’s book, the reader discovers a world too adult for a child through the eyes of the young Mouchette. Abused by her father, raped by a villager, scorned by the locals and neglected by her dying mother, Mouchette’s only refuge is suicide.
Bresson’s film tells the same story, but with the narrative restored to a diegetic chronology, instead of the order in which Mouchette lives the events. Owing to the specifics mentioned above, hypermedia works break down the narrative into a complex interactive structure, a ritualized space: “The narrative, previously conceived as a series of actions carried out by the characters, has been transformed into a space, a world of representation given over to the interactor for exploration.” (8)

Each medium possesses its own immersion and believability strategies. Both the movie and the novel, in their respective ways, tell Mouchette’s story in a pathetic register designed to move the viewer or reader. The online work,, retains the essential elements of the narrative, treating them with irony, derision, subtlety and ambiguity. It’s all there: the suggestion of parental mistreatment, references to explicit sexuality and extensive discussion of suicide; however, everything remains to be constructed, there are no givens. The effect of presence and the interactivity that it commands compel the visitor to act and to reflect on present-day phenomena. And it is through this form of embodiment that Mouchette becomes a mythical figure, since “a figure that is not inhabited, that is not integrated into a process of appropriation, loses its characteristic symbolic dimension and re-becomes a simple figure.” (9)

Mouchette has always been the same age; she transcends temporality and, like any mythical form, she is open to updating through ritual.

Paule Makrous
Translation by Marcia Couëlle
(1) Christine Buci-Glucksmann, L’art à l’époque du virtuel (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2003), p . l l l .
(2) N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 156.
(3) Louis-Claude Paquin, Comprendre les nouveaux médias interactifs (Saint-Hyacinthe: Somme, 2006), p. 205.
(4) Ibid., p.l 7.
(5) Denis Jeffrey, Jouissance du sacré, religion et postmodernité (Paris:Armand Colin, 1998).
(6) Ibid., p.l 54.
(7) Joanne Lalonde, “Le sujet tragique : fantasmes du double dans le miroir hypermédiatique,” Wsi’o (Regards sur le corps), August 2005.
(8) Paquin, p. 207
(9) Bertrand Gervais, Figures, lectures, logiques de l’imaginaire, vol. 1 (Montreal: Le Quartanier, 2007), p. 34

In http///, “ETC – 20th Anniversary. Rituals 

PDF archive here: erudit.pdf

Presented here in this symposium:

“Avatars: Personae, Heteronyms, Pseudonyms”
3rd Annual Graduate Student Conference
Department of Comparative Literature, Stanford University
April 10-11, 2009
Location: Levinthal Hall, Stanford Humanities Center

Program:  also archived here: avatars

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