Geographies of the Underworld: Chthonic Poetics and Virtual Worlds  
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Abstract

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A concept of “underworld” runs through many cultures. These chthonic constructs generally share several key characteristics, despite their varied and separate traditions: a distinct spatial geography, rooted in narratives of embodied journey and challenge, that is bound by logic and rules peculiar to that place. From these characteristics we can derive a poetics of underworld.

Underworlds exist as “real” but imaginary places, whose landscapes, denizens and conventions are created and sustained through community consensus and history as well as invention by individuals. As spiritual spaces, they stand in contrast to the material world, but connect to it through interfaces, including the biological (such as shamen, or practitioners in ecstatic states) and the topographic (through an explicit relationship with caves, for instance). Underworlds are virtual environments that predate digital technology.

With this in mind, it should not be surprising that the underworld manifests in digital virtual environments as well. It emerges sporadically at a superficial level, influencing art direction, story and setting, but the more prevalent – and interesting – presence lies at a deeper level, where chthonic poetics operate at the core of world-based video games, particularly MMOs (massive multiplayer online games).

I propose to examine these imaginary places to identify the poetics of underworld and understand how they function in digital environments, placing special focus on spatial construction of meaning, narrative, liminality, and embodiment.  I take a multidisciplinary perspective often used in cultural history, drawing from archaeology, anthropology, and art history, as well as the significant body of critical theory that has come out of architecture and digital media studies. My approach is also informed by contemporary work on the neobaroque, particularly in Angela Ndalianis’ treatment as a system of poetics rather than a historical or cultural boundary.

Committee

Michael Nitsche, Chair
LCC, Georgia Institute of Technology
Celia Pearce
LCC, Georgia Institute of Technology
Eugene Thacker
LCC, Georgia Institute of Technology
Hugh Crawford
LCC, Georgia Institute of Technology

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