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In Which Hobby Lobby Meets a Tortoise in the Desert

Provided you haven’t been living in a cave, you’re probably aware that earlier this week the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a verdict in Hobby Lobby’s attempt to exempt themselves from the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act on the grounds that it would require them to provide insurance coverage for abortifacient drugs, which just isn’t cricket with magical Jesus. Despite the fact that Hobby Lobby is a private, for-profit entity, and that the medical facts do not support any claim that the drugs Hobby Lobby were objecting to have an abortifacient affect, the Supreme Court felt that it only required that the owners of the company have a “sincere belief” that they do, and thus they get exempted from the mandate. This decision isn’t particularly surprising, though it is far more potentially dangerous than some of the pundits would have you believe. People like to point to preexisting arguments about blood transfusions to demonstrate that Scalia’s insistence that this decision is very narrow will not affect other areas of insurance. Unfortunately for those pundits, the only time religious freedom has been intervened with is to rule that parents or guardians, biological or custodial, cannot refuse lifesaving medical treatments on behalf of a minor child based on religious exemptions. Adults, presuming that they are found to be of sound mind, are free to refuse treatments based on the dictates of their imaginary friend of choice.

Yet I’m going off topic. This decision is unsurprising not because Scalia is a far-right nutbag, and not even entirely because of the increasing legislative misogyny that’s been going around. Rather, the decision is unsurprising based on earlier precedent that corporations are persons, and are entitled to all the rights and privileges thereof. So earlier today when Twitter user seelix made a comment asking if we could subject corporations to the Voight-Kampff test of “Do Androids Dream of Eletric Sheep”/Blade Runner. Being that I am in fact a philosopher, and my areas of speciality once upon a time were existential metaphysics and phenomenological intersubjectivity, subjects which very much deal with the idea of personhood, and how we might best maximize personhood, I decided to take the question seriously.

The first step was to determine if the idea of applying the Voight-Kampff test is a sound one. It’s not. Not, because as Ms. Finke fears the test would privilege the neurotypical (though she is correct in that it would do so), but because the Voight-Kampff test is a measure of empathy and physiological response (to make sure you aren’t providing coached answers that you don’t actually feel), but because while empathy might be useful for separating humans from robots it’s only useful as a measure of personhood if we can first establish that it is a trait unique to persons. As I’ve previously discussed, I don’t think claims of mirror neurons adequately explain the observed phenomena we dub “empathy.” Since we can’t even isolate empathy as a distinctly human trait, whether or not it might be lacking in robots, we can’t really apply it to corporations; the only thing we would learn is that they’re not human, but then we already knew that without the need for a test.

If we can’t use the Voight-Kampff test, is there any standard we can use? First we need to determine what a person is. In casual conversation we tend to use person and human to mean the same thing. In some ways this isn’t particularly surprising; human persons are, after all, the only persons we know. Yet the threshold to be defined a human is rather low – one merely needs to have the proper sequence of DNA. That’s it. I’m human when I wake up in the morning, and human when I go to bed at night no matter how much I might want to be a wombat (and I really want to be a wombat).

The threshold for determining personhood is a bit more messy. Is it akin to consciousness? Are we simply disembodied Cartesian persons driving around our meatcars through an interface conveniently located in the pineal gland? The answer to that one is probably not. In truth, personhood (and consciousness itself) appears to be an emergent property (an epiphenomenon, if you want to be snooty). However, not in the way that mind is often touted as being an emergent property of brain. Consciousness and personhood are not distinct from body. We are, as I’ve touched on before, our bodies. They are our sole interface with the world. Is your brain an important part of that? Sure, but your brain couldn’t do its thing without the rest of you. So in the case of human persons we need to toss out any conception of a brain/body difference and treat it as one system.

Which still doesn’t get us to where we really need to be. Okay, personhood isn’t something that just sits in our brains, and it isn’t something that’s inherent in our DNA. That’s because it isn’t an inherent property of being human, but is an emergent, existential performance. That’s both more and less complicated than it sounds. What makes is a person a person is the act of being a person, which is something that we’re taught. Again, this is something I’ve touched on before when I covered the idea that there’s even a meaningful ontological category of “geekiness.” What actually makes a person a geek is that they identify themselves as such, and perform the role they have selected for themselves and which is arbitrated by the world around them. So, I’m afraid that I have to inform Chris Moriarty’s character of Cohen from the Spin series that he’s quite wrong; while we might not question our conscious personhood, and we do take it for granted, it’s not something that comes default simply by being human.

So what are some of the features of being a person? Again, it’s a messy question, and I’ve already hit 900, so let’s just focus on some of the big ones like language and self-awareness.

Language is some awesome stuff. Without it I wouldn’t be able to natter on like this, and you wouldn’t be able to roll your eyes and shake your head in despair. So the question is, do corporations have language, and do they communicate? At first blush the answer certainly seems to be yes. Lawyers, after all, spoke up on Hobby Lobby’s behalf, and it would require a particularly cloistered individual to have never been exposed to the tortured, content-less brandspeak that corporations like to throw at us (particularly when they feel it prudent to provide a non-answer or issue a non-apology). They also communicate within and among themselves; interestingly mirroring the way human cells communicate. Yet consider our first example of corporate language – Hobby Lobby’s lawyers spoke on its behalf. The corporation as an entity communicates, but it doesn’t communicate in and of itself, but communicates only through the components that make it up.

What about awareness? Is a corporation aware of itself as an entity? There are of course those religious and philosophical positions that contend that the idea of self is an illusion. To them I say thppppppt and present empirical evidence. I am aware of myself as myself, thus my self exists in the only way that is in fact meaningful. Can the corporation say the same? The owners of Hobby Lobby contend that their corporation has values. They claim it has a mission. Both of these things can be passed on to the individual employees; the cells that make up the body of Hobby Lobby. They can even live their lives both within and without the corporate body in such a way as to embrace these concepts. Yet in each case what we have is the awareness of individual units as part of a group. There is never a moment in which Hobby Lobby becomes aware of itself as itself; it is aware of itself only as the performance of individual cells.

Regardless of what additional elements of personhood we wish to introduce, we are going to find in each case that the problem remains the same; a corporation never becomes an emergent system in and of itself. It’s as if each of the individual cells of a body are aware of their existence as a body, and go about doing their best at trying to function in the role of the person that body represents, but are never able to overcome their nature as individual cells; which is not a question of cohesion, but again is a question of a unique, complex system arising from the underlying elements. So while I can see the possibility of computer systems, sufficiently advanced animals (since that is indeed all that human persons are), or any number of other possible iterations of personhood, I find it hard to conceive of any circumstances in which a corporation as an entity in and of itself would be able to achieve thsis emergent phenomenon and become a person in and of itself. Suck it, SCOTUS.

 

 
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Posted by on July 2, 2014 in Geekery, Philosophy, Pop Culture

 

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Game Design as Applied Metaphysics

I apologize for the lack of any sort of updates since August. My computer decided to break down at the end of that month, and I’ve neither had the means to replace it, nor do I know when that will change. As it stands I’m writing this via a notebook I borrowed specifically because inspiration struck me, and I wanted to jot some things down.

Moving on to the meat of this post, or if not the meat at least the appetizer that leads us on to that course, I was, once upon a time, known to freelance for small press roleplaying game companies. I was neither terribly famous nor overly prolific as far as these things go, but I was, if I do say so myself, rather good at what I did. The reason I was good at what I did was because I’d been gaming for close to 20 years at that point (for the record I’m creeping up on 25 years as a gamer these days), and I’d always tinkered with rules. Admittedly, that’s something most gamers are wont to do at some point or another in their lives. I also played, and read, a great many different games in that time. I wanted to know what made games tick. Why did game x play a certain way, and what happens if we change y? I concentrated not only on how those mechanics functioned in the abstract sense of number, but how they functioned in the realm where the most often failed: the theme of a game.

Vampire: The Masquerade and to a lesser degree its cousin Werewolf: The Apocalypse are generally my two favorite games to illustrate this point. When these games were released they went to great, even pretentious, lengths to set themselves apart from all those “less mature” games out there. Which left many of those who took White Wolf’s pretentious stance seriously rather baffled when sessions of these “storytelling games” (no mere rpgs, these!) of ‘personal horror” went off the rails and degenerated into chronicles of blood-drinking ninja and furry eco-terrorists.

One could argue that this was simply a player problem, and that the people injecting these shenanigans into the World of Dankness weren’t playing the game right. Except that at least some of the people who were doing it wrong wanted the pretension, and couldn’t figure out where the problem was.

The problem was, that for all their pretensions otherwise, the underlying rules of the Storyteller System, as White Wolf had branded their ruleset, were by and large set up to encourage the type of play that the lace and cloves crowd were complaining about. There were a great many rules, and in game benefits, to running around with a trenchcoat and katana, and not so many rules or in game benefits related to sitting around smoking cloves and wallowing in angst over one’s lot in unlife. (Yes, I know I’ve mentioned smoking cloves twice now. I can’t speak to other areas, but around here it was a common affectation – particularly among the LARPers – thus my memories of White Wolf games and people smoking cloves are inextricably linked).

If you want a game to play a certain way, and you want players to focus on certain themes, you need to make sure that the underlying structure of your game will reflect that style of play. Because we can talk about theme, or gameplay goals, or game balance, or whatever usual claptrap sees the light of day in such discussions, but there’s something that generally gets left out: metaphysics.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of metaphysics, or only familiar with the term as incorrectly thrown around by crystal-gazing hippies, I’m going to borrow the first few lines from the relevant wikipedia entry:

Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world, although the term is not easily defined. Traditionally, metaphysics attempts to answer two basic questions in the broadest possible terms:

  1. What is there?
  2. What is it like

What this means is that each and every time a game designer sits down and writes up a set of rules, or programs in how a videogame will respond, she is engaging in an act of metaphysical creation. She is creating a world, and defining the underlying structure of how that world works. This is true even in those cases where a game claims that its setting mirrors the “real” world, and its rules are meant to accurately reflect conventional physics (i.e. things fall down etc.).

It is impossible for a game to model the external world in either an accurate, or even an abstract, fashion. Certainly in the case of electronic games they can try to visually mimic elements of the world outside the game, but mimicry is all it is. The moment a game, and rules of that game are created, the external world has ceased to exist within that space. A game designer is able, in effect, to move into a space traditionally only occupied by magicians and the divine; he replaces the metaphysical realism (the idea that there is a world external to my mind, and there are rules by which that world works) of what we conventionally think of as reality, with a metaphysical realism of his own devising.

No matter how you slice it that’s a rather weighty task, but one that is often overlooked in favor of such mundane elements as “game balance” (it’s generally impossible to construct a system so elegantly that it can’t be exploited or broken) or world building. Yet the metaphysics of a game, and the way the rules reflect those metaphysics, are far more important than any of those elements when determining how the game plays. Warhammer 40K and its various spin-off games has a metaphysical reinforcement of its rather black and white (though pretending to be gray) ethical system in the form of corruption. If you behave in certain ways you are punished by the universe by the spreading corruption of Chaos. The same is true of Star Wars; regardless of your reasons for doing so, the ethics of the universe are oriented in such a way that certain actions are punished or rewarded by moving one toward either the Light or Dark side of the Force. This metaphysical condition of that universe is also why, as much as I enjoyed both Knights of the Old Republic games, the idea that either Revan or the Exile did the wrong thing for the right reasons doesn’t fly; because the Lucasverse operates under the Utilitarianesque presupposition that it doesn’t really care why you engaged in a certain action, it only matters that you did a thing, and that thing was either good or bad.

We can talk all we want about making sure rules are fair or balance, abstract or crunchy. We can spend time on the sociopolitical elements of the setting, injecting it with all the little details we are told are necessary to make sure that things are consistent and believable. Yet if we fail to take into account the way in which the rules reflect the metaphysical truths of the game we might wind up with a very different game than what was intended, and discover that our exploration into the ethics of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons not only rings rather hollow, but has just become another stop on the hugging puppies for Jesus/killing puppies for Satan express.

 
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Posted by on October 24, 2012 in Geekery, Philosophy, Pop Culture

 

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We Insist on Ethical Perfection in our Icons

I’m not talking about the kind of icons who run spandex-clad across a comics page, or slaughter legions of brown people on the silver screen. I’m talking about the sort we have in our workaday world; politicians, actors, it doesn’t matter. We raise them up on pedestals, and we insist that they be morally perfect. When they fail to maintain a standard of behavior that we don’t hold ourselves to we pretend to be shocked while our secret hearts consume every detail of their falls with masturbatory glee.

I think Laurie Penny overlooks this in her recent article on Assange in the Independent. She’s not wrong in that we can, and should, insist both on freedom of speech and transparency of governance as well as women’s rights. I’m not trying to “mansplain” her argument away, because I, personally, find no tension that must be resolved within the idea of acknowledging the good that Assange has done via WikiLeaks, and insisting that he be called to account for any rape or sexual assault he might have committed.

Unfortunately, most of us are brought up to believe the ad hominem argument is a valid form of argumentation. For those not familiar with the ad hominem it translates as, “argument to the man.” It’s a tactic in which rather than addressing the substance of the argument you attack the character of the person presenting that argument. In short, “Assange is a rapist, so obviously his work, and thus the work of WikiLeaks, cannot be trusted.”

It doesn’t help that Assange and WikiLeaks have themselves presented the charges pending in Sweden as being exactly that. Which among other things doesn’t help the cause of feminists and social justice workers, because whatever Assange’s intentions, whether or not he’s guilty, dismissing the allegations as simply part of a smear campaign add to the already problematic environment that surrounds rape prosecutions. To put it another way dismissing these charges contributes to the perpetuation of rape culture.

But this post really isn’t supposed to be about Assange per se. It’s supposed to be about his supporters. The ones Ms. Penny talked to, and the ones pontificating in the media. Is there some misogyny in play? I do not doubt it. Are we seeing rape culture at work? I would be the last person to say no. Yet equally at play is our refusal to accept the fact that Julian Assange is only human, and might very well be a shitbag of a human. After all, we ask ourselves, could some rapist shitbag really be a hero?

The answer is that, no, a rapist shitbag can’t be a hero. Rape, alongside slavery, is the most morally abhorrent crime that one can commit. It tops murder by a wide margin. If Assange committed rape we shouldn’t regard him as any kind of hero… but that doesn’t invalidate the message he spread through WikiLeaks.

So long as we insist on moral perfection in our icons, and believe that media delivered ad hominems are a perfectly valid claim none of this is going to change. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about Julian Assange or K-Stew. Nowhere on this planet is there a morally infallible human. Quite frankly the vast majority of us don’t even follow an internally consistent ethical system, so perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me that as a culture we find the equivalent of, “Eww, Billy eats boogers; he can’t be my friend!”, to be a valid justification for claiming we should ignore accusations of rape.

 
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Posted by on August 22, 2012 in Activism, Pop Culture

 

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Actually, I’m the one who gets to Decide if you’re a “Real Geek”

Apparently someone who styles himself Joe Peacock said some things for which John Scalzi took him to task. Mr. Scalzi rather scathingly demonstrates that his “geek cred” far outstrips that of Mr. Peacock, thus is anyone ought to be the arbitrator of what does, or does not, make one a geek it should be him.

Unfortunately for Mr. Scalzi I’ve got something that far outstrips him. No, it isn’t awards or award nominations. It isn’t consulting for a television show or being invited to conventions. As you might have guessed by this point it’s philosophy.

Ontology is generally considered to be a subset of metaphysics that, in brief, is concerned with the categorical nature of things. That’s admittedly simplifying things, but for practical purposes we can consider that defining what it means to be a person, and then as a subset of what it means to be a person, defining what it means to be a geek to be ontological questions.

As such I have taken it upon myself, in my role as philosopher, to once and for all define what it means to be a geek. Should you then fail to meet this criteria… well, you’re fucked, but I’m sure we’ll think of something we can call you.

Let us begin. The most obvious definition of what it is to be a geek is to be someone who likes geeky things, or engages in geeky activities. As a working definition this seems rather problematic, as it simply circles itself. So perhaps we should then examine what makes a thing geeky.

Comic books are generally defined as geeky. As are video games, science fiction and fantasy media, a fondness for toys that stretches beyond childhood… I’m sure we could add any number of other criteria. If these things are all ontologically geeky, one would think that they should have some degree of commonality. Comics, video games, as well as sci-fi and fantasy are all frequently known for over the top action… but then so are any number of films, television shows, novels etc. that aren’t typically regarded as being geeky. What about powers beyond the mundane? Again, most geeky things seem to feature, magic, super science, super powers etc.. Maybe those would provide us with a solid foundation. At least as long as we ignore the Bible, which features numerous uses of magic and super powers, or the type of magic realism that is generally considered to have emerged in South America and usually gets labelled as literary, rather than genre fiction, and thus mainstream rather than geeky.

And what about outliers. The Avengers, though I honestly find myself in agreement with Ebert’s review, made a fuckton of money. The Hunger Games and Twilight, had they not captured a mainstream audience, contain elements that under normal circumstances would place them firmly in geektown (the same also seems true of paranormal romance in general – it seems to be considered romance, and thus largely excluded from the category of that which is geeky). Heroes, The Incredibles, video games making more money than I’ll ever see in a lifetime. Unless we presume that all the money these things make comes entirely from geek pockets then it would seem that there are people consuming, enjoying, and possibly even considering themselves fans of these things, who do not otherwise consider themselves, or are considered by others, to be geeks.

I could provide additional examples, or continue picking at the issue, but for the sake of word count I think that these couple paragraphs provide a decent overview of the problems that can crop up when we start trying to set hard limits on what a thing is, particular on something so broad as geekdom. Sure, it’s easy to say when someone is a Harry Potter fan, but it gets significantly more difficult when we then try to translate that into determining whether that characteristic is enough to qualify him/her/it as a geek.

Part of the problem is of course that implicitly or explicitly we often assume metaphysical referents for these questions, and thus mistake questions of something else as being ontological or metaphysical concerns. One that I’ve frequently come across is confusing a difference of aesthetics or intent as demarcating a difference in category; which simply isn’t true. And of course those who have read this blog previously will be aware that I dismiss metaphysical referents for most things out of hand, and these sort of problems are among the reasons I do so.

Judith Butler examines a similar problem in relation to defining femininity/what it is to be female. I’ll admit to my paraphrasing here being a bit rough, as it’s been a few years since I slogged my way through Butler (in fairness she’s a strong thinker, but rarely exciting to read). No matter where you start out, or where you end up trying to define that which is feminine you always wind up with a definition that is incomplete, and worse, exclusionary. This is because femininity isn’t just some abstract social construct, it’s because femininity is a performed social construct. This is doubly true of geekdom, because we can’t even fall back on the specious arguments that biological sex is the same as gender; being a geek is made up exclusively of performing the role of the geek, whether one elects to take that role on one’s sole, or it’s socially imposed onto one. I’m admittedly making a bit of a jump here, because this statement touches on some things I haven’t really talked about in depth on this blog, but ultimately what makes one a geek is part of performing that role as part of performing one’s personhood.

If you’re read this far, you might have realized that despite the title of this entry, and my previous disagreement with Jessica Mills over some of the finer points of a similar topic, I’m largely agreeing with Mr. Scalzi. Joe Peacock can’t define what makes someone a geek. John Scalzi, as he rightly says, doesn’t get to do it. Even I, with a superpower that as part of its purview is meant to handle this very sort of thing, and thus means I am qualified to make such grand pronouncements, find myself unable to draw a clear line in the sand. What is it that makes a geek? Performing the role of a geek, and/or being regarded as a geek by the world around one. The ways in which one can arrive at one, or both of those criteria are effectively limitless.

 
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Posted by on July 26, 2012 in Geekery, Philosophy, Pop Culture

 

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Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut not Worth the Price of Admission (and it’s Free).

Last week I got the urge to replay the first two games in the Mass Effect series. While looking something up in relation to those earlier games I noticed that the new downloadable content for Mass Effect 3, in this case a pack that was supposed to modify the endings, was slated to drop 6/26/12, which fell beyond the date I would be finished with the second game, but would be right in the middle of where I would be if I went ahead and started the third game.

I have talked before about my disappointment with the ending of Mass Effect 3Had I not already been playing the earlier games I likely would have avoided the Extended Cut pack entirely, but as it wasn’t I didn’t see any particular reason not to go ahead and give it a try.

Honestly, I should have just given in and watched the changes on YouTube. I’m going to use bold letters for this part, because I am feeling very emphatic; not only does the Extend Cut not address a single of the problems I had with the game’s ending, but it doesn’t even do what it claims it sets out to do.

My primary problem with the ending of Mass Effect 3 was never lack of “closure”; it was lack of a coherent, well-written endgame. Rather than feeling as if any of the choices I’ve made have mattered, as if the hours I put in collecting war resources and getting my readiness up to 100% (and don’t get me started on how it fell to 99% when I had to restart due to a crash), I still get magical AI/god/Reaper-collective-consciousness boy, who feeds me a little song and dance before giving me three choices (after, of course, facing down the Illusive Man and still not having enough Paragon points for the final dialogue option even after doing all kinds of Paragon shit). That, far more than the predictably ambiguous scene which implies that Joker and Edi are about to become the dysfunctional parents of a future race of technorganic beings, is why the ending of the game falls utterly flat.

But let us set that aside for a moment, and talk about closure, and making players feel like the choices they made throughout their Mass Effect experience matter. This, rather than the poor writing of the endgame, were the issues that Bioware claimed they were addressing with this content pack. As I said above, they fail to accomplish either of these goals. Rather than being given information that might have been both interesting and personal to my experience, such as what happens to Tali? How does having left Wrex alive and curing the genophage affect the galaxy? What about Garrus? The Virmire Survivor? What about the Rachni (whom I spared for the second time)? No, the updated endings don’t bother to address any of the specifics of my gameplay experience; instead, I got some narration accompanied by static images telling me that I have brought about technorganic synthesis at the cost of my own life, and in doing so ushered in a new golden age. Sure, some of the static shots show the characters I traveled with or interacted with along the way, but as I said, nothing truly reflective of my experience of the game beyond which of the final three options was chosen. Not to mention that there’s nothing in the “hidden” post-credit scene that at all explains how what is happening there is in any way linked to either the gameplay that has gone before, or the ending that I chose.

The Extended Cut content pack for Mass Effect 3 might be free (at least until next year), but it isn’t worth the cost of admission. It does nothing to address the actual problems with the game’s ending, and goes so far as to not only fail to accomplish its stated goals, but in giving me a canned response unrepresentative of my gameplay experience manages to leave me feeling further alienated and dissatisfied with the way the series ended as a result.

 
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Posted by on June 28, 2012 in Pop Culture

 

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Charlie Manson, Sitcom Star

During some beer-fueled tweeting last night I happened across the info that Charlie Manson is up for his latest, and what will most likely be his last, parole hearing later today. Even today, Chuck tends to exert a certain bizarre fascination over people. I’ll admit that when I went through the typical “rebellious” teenage interest in serial killers that strikes certain people of a morbid disposition I found him to be one of the more interesting cases. He was an umpteenth-times loser who’d spent more time out of prison than in, yet he managed to gather his own personal band of fanatics. These folks then went on to commit what, in some ways, was they ultimate crime against the American psyche; they killed a woman who was white, attractive, famous, and pregnant. What the “Manson Family” did was horrible under any circumstances, but when they chose the particular victims that sent them up the river they made a costly mistake, and became an example of the “dangers” of counterculture. In effect, Chuckie and friends were not rebelling against the system, but became the kind of rebellion that Foucault talks about; one that exists to visibly violate the rules so that their punishment can serve as an example to others.

Unlike Tate’s husband Polanski who fled his own crimes, Chuckles fulfilled his Foucaultian role to a T, drawing down far worse punishment than he would have if he had transgressed against someone less “important.”

This is where I come in. Years after any morbid interest in the psyche of killers I happen to overhear the opening of The Brady Bunch, and realized that one could insert the line, “Here’s the story of a guy named Charlie,” without breaking the underlying structure of the tune. Normally these sorts of thoughts simply pass through my head, and leave a chuckle when they go. Alas, this one decided to stick around, and kept clamoring to get my attention.

The idea kept popping up, insisting I do something with it, so finally I jotted down a few notes and took to the internet. My first task was to refresh my memory as to some of the pertinent details of Chuck’s life. While I was doing that I consistently ran in to people talking about how evil he was – perhaps the most evil man to ever live, even. Again, Chuck was a loser who spouted catchphrases with meaningless content, and often unintelligible form while rambling on about his plans to build a bunker to survive the coming race war (which wasn’t coming fast enough for him, so he was going to help it along). I can think of any number of men and women who have done far worse than he did, yet his transgressions against fame and beauty earned him a higher place in the dark parts of our psyche.

Armed with these thoughts I realized my course was clear; I must deconstruct the myth of Manson. Not through evidence or argument, but by inverting his position in the collective unconsciousness. I would turn Chuckles into a pathetically comic figure, fit only to be laughed at. Yes, my intent was to make him the star of a terrible sitcom.

My original impulse was to make a webseries around the concept. Webisodes were starting to get more attention at the time, and it seemed a natural fit given that the central premise was a sitcom, and that I have a background in theatre (also I wanted to jump on the bandwagon). Unfortunately it also required equipment, people, and resources that I simply didn’t have access to. So I scrapped that plan and reworked it as a webcomic.

Not that doing it as a webcomic came off without a hitch. The first artists to express interest flaked on me. Finally I dragooned an old friend, who’d originally volunteered to do inking and/or coloring on the project, into doing the whole thing. The early strips varied quite a lot as we tried to settle on the size and style for the strip, and we changed the format after the first 15-episode “season.” The sitcom premise remained intact, with each strip representing an episode in a season-long storyline, with short “commercials” filling in between seasons. It even managed to pick up its share of regular readers, though never so many as to make me internet famous. However, life, as is its wont, intervened and season two went on a hiatus from which it never recovered. Maybe one of these days the comic will return, but I wouldn’t lay money on it. Though if you like it by all means let me know; a show of support might convince me to get the wheels turning on the return.

Presuming you’ve made it this far, I know present to you the comic in its entirety:

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2012 in Comics, Pop Culture

 

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No, I don’t think Someone need like a Genre to Review that Genre

So the new season of Game of Thrones got a less than kind review that also happened to take pot-shots at fans of the show. There’s also apparently been a kerfuffle over a review of The Hunger Games, which I don’t have a handy link to. I’ll be honest with you, dear readers; I don’t give a fuck about Game of Thrones. I don’t have HBO, and I haven’t read the books. From what I know of the premise, it just seems too politically focused, and too much politicking and intrigue quickly bores me. It could be I am wrong about this, and one day will discover that I think it is the most awesome series ever. That day is not today. I’ll also freely admit that I give even less of a fuck about The Hunger Games. I have also neither read nor watched it, and have no plans to. That is why I won’t be reviewing those things.

Let’s get that out of the way up front. If you’re going to offer a “review” of something, you should be familiar with that particular book/movie/album/sex toy/whatever. If you’re not actually familiar with the thing you’re supposed to be reviewing you’re not engaging in a review, you’re presenting a comment, and an incredibly uninformed one at that.

What I’m here to talk about is the idea that we should expect reviewers of geeky things to be a fan of said thing/a geek in general/familiar with the genre/at least not hate the genre. These are all pretty much bullshit.

Let’s start with the idea that you shouldn’t assign a reviewer who hates either the genre under review, or even the specific material in question. I hate Plato. I think his work is lacking in pretty much every way it is possible to lack, and is the source of some of the most destructive ideas in human history. I also think Descartes is shit. I have reviewed the work of both men despite that fact. I’ve have torn into their ideas. At the same time, I have countered weak ideas presented by their critics, because if you’re going to criticize their thought you should make damn sure you know what it was they were actually saying. Philosophical writings aside, if someone can articulate why they hate Game of Thrones, or why they think fantasy in general is a subpar genre unworthy of consideration beyond a simple, “it is fantasy, and fantasy is shit,” I am perfectly content to let them review it all they want.

Let us move on to those levels of familiarity whose criteria is slightly more involved than “not having active antipathy for the material in question.” This is often a significantly worse idea than a reviewer who is apathetic or antagonistic to the material at hand. First and foremost, if we are familiar with a genre we often accept that genre’s conventions, even if those conventions are shitty/sloppy/stupid. It drives me nuts when we handwave away something that is weak, and that deserves to have criticism heaped on it in big steaming piles, just because that’s the way things are done in genre X, and everyone else does it that way, so we just accept it and move on. The only things I can say to that are: What the fuck? And cut it the fuck out.

Even if we are going to uncritically accept the conventions of a genre, why should a new reader coming to the genre be left unaware of them? They don’t have the same assumptions about what to expect as we do.

There’s also another problem, and that is the problem of language. There was a cat named Wittgenstein who said some things about language. No, not an actual cat – I’m sure there have been cats named Wittgenstein, but they are neither capable of human speech nor writing philosophy. Anyway, ignore Wittgenstein’s earlier work; he doesn’t get interesting until he shakes off Russell’s tedious influence. One of the things Wittgenstein talks about is the way in which different groups have their own dialects. Certainly most of us are familiar with the concept of regional dialects; they way a common language shifts and differs from place to place. Saying soda vs. pop, or the pronunciation of certain words, for example.

Wittgenstein goes beyond that, however. Even within the same region, a builder and a banker have different languages. I’ve talked before about how our environments are part of shaping us, are in effect part of who we are, and our language is part of this. Even though the banker and the builder might both be from Boston, and are both speaking English (for sake of argument we will presume they are both native speakers of English), both their past and present experiences shape their ways of understanding and conceptualizing the world, and thus shape the languages they speak.

Geeks are no different. We speak a language that is often incomprehensible to those outside the tribe. For that matter, we further subdivide ourselves into clans that often have difficulty speaking to each other (despite claims of inclusiveness for all, geekdom is still as fractious and tribal as ever – this is but another manifestation of that). If we can’t even speak clan-to-clan, how the hell can we meaningfully review something for anyone other than other members of our clan, who are presumably already fluent in our clannish tongue, let alone to those who aren’t even in the Geek tribe?

We already see some of this in this most recent NYT piece. Their audience is not geeks.I suspect that they conceptual audience they keep in mind when establishing the paper’s “voice” don’t even give a fuck about the existence of geeks. This shows in the language they use to speak to that audience. Snide jokes about Dungeons & Dragons, and using D&D as a referent for the concept of fantasy in general, is perfectly in line with the conceptual schema from which their language arises.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a sneering piece of snobbery that isn’t particularly effective as a review, but that’s what the NYT is about, really. I don’t go to them for actual reviews, I go to them for the snobby opinion; doesn’t matter if the material in question is genre or not.

Even if the NYT woke up tomorrow and started publishing actual, critical reviews my immediate thought still wouldn’t be to appoint a geek to review geeky things. We’re often not the best choice of critics – our general affection for the thing being reviewed blinds us to its faults. There’s also the simple fact that we’re often not the best ambassadors of our own interests. They often horrid public behavior of geeks aside, we’re too wrapped up in our conceptual dialect to be able to effectively communicate to those who don’t speak the lingo. This is problematic enough when we’re dealing with our own; if we’re trying to speak to others it often renders the message unintelligible; which is, I suspect, a less-than-ideal choice from the point of view of most publishers.

 
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Posted by on April 3, 2012 in Geekery, Pop Culture

 

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