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From the Vaults

I’m feeling a bit vitriolic today, because reasons. So I thought I’d dig out something I wrote a while back for a friend’s project that ultimately didn’t happen. It’s book review. I will provide two caveats about the review. First, it is not a kind review. Second, the text is a rough draft. I wrote it immediately after putting the book down, and sent it to the friend in question so she could decide if she wanted to go anywhere near it. Since it didn’t wind up seeing the light of day I’ve never gone back to read, let alone revise, the result. Many of  the mistakes that are undoubtedly there are most likely the result of a stroke induced by the book under review. Enjoy, or don’t – I’m off to set my head on fire.

 

Mark Nykanen’s The Bone Parade holds an honor that had previously been reserved for Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter; which makes it one of the two most meretricious pieces of pap I have ever had the displeasure of reading through.

At the heart of The Bone Parade we find Ashley Strassler, self-absorbed whiner, darling of the art world, and serial murder. During a visit to Bhaktapur, young Strassler suffered an epiphany in which he realized that his life’s work was to depict the human body in extremis; in particular during the extremity of terror. He has turned this revelation into a successful career built around a series entitled Family Planning, a series which has already received eight entries, and is scheduled to receive its ninth. Each of these eight groups of sculptures depicts a family in terror. A family which Strassler kidnapped, assigned a regiment of diet and exercise, and then subjected to various torture and rape before their final demise encased in alginate; alginate which he uses to make a mold for the later bronze sculpture. After this, and featuring a suitably improvised head, the sculptures are presented to the world; while the skeletons of Strassler’s victims are decorate the improbable basement in the barn of his murder ranch.

Opposing Strassler we find plucky, thirty-year-old Lauren Reed, sculptor (in plaster), and professor of art, and her soon to be love interest Ry, a former television journalist (like Nykanen himself) who has selected both Lauren and Strassler as two of the four subjects in a book about contemporary sculptors. What pulls Lauren into opposition with Strassler is not that her one interesting feature as a character is that she recognizes Strassler’s work for the tedious ode to self-absorption that it is, but rather, it is Lauren’s star pupil Kerry which provides the plot its motive force.

Strassler, you see, has decided that yes, he is willing to have Kerry come out to his murder ranch and work as his intern. He bases this decision on the fact that Kerry included a picture of herself in a halter top with her portfolio, and this clearly means that she wants to suck his cock. Let’s go over that one more time. The meticulous serial killer invites the coed out to his murder ranch, during a period of time when he is actively “sculpting” his ninth entry in the Family Planning series, because he thinks he will get sex.

I could live with Strassler’s self aggrandizement, incoherent pathology, and masturbating while he thinks of buttfucking his the 16 year old Diamond Girl (daughter and oldest child of family number nine, and a raging sociopath). To some degree I could even find this more tolerable than Lindsay’s tediously monologuing, equally-incoherent Dexter (were Dexter actually the sociopath actually the sociopath he goes on at length about being he wouldn’t give two shits about “the Code of Harry,” but I digress…) since while Strassler is one of the viewpoint characters he is clearly not intended to be the protagonist. I could handle the tedious sex scenes (Strassler’s frequent masturbation, Strassler and Diamond Girl, Diamond Girl and Kerry, Lauren and Ry). I could even accept the fact that none of the characters are particularly likable.

Yet I find myself unable to swallow the gaping plot hole of Strassler inviting Kerry to his murder ranch, Strassler forgetting to lock the barn so Kerry finds his secret torture chamber, Lauren’s faithful Rottweiler Bad Bad Leroy Brown deciding to dig at the straw so that Lauren finds the secret torture chamber and frees Kerry, all so that she and Ry can eventually find themselves in an explosive climax worthy of (and as improbable as) any Hollywood offering. Not to mention that the last page of the narrative features Diamond Girl replicating Strassler’s M.O. of visiting a home and gaining entry by explaining he’d like one last chance to visit his childhood home.

In toto, The Bone Parade is a weakly plotted, inelegantly executed assault on the senses. While it successfully manages to make one hate Strassler this is less for his depredations than for his tedious incoherence, and the other characters are hardly more likable. Were I forced to rate it from one to five stars, I would call The Bone Parade being hit in the groin with a porcupine while a facehugger violates my esophagus.

 
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Posted by on October 17, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Dystopia as Philosophical Tool

Over the past few years, books and film series such as The Hunger Games and Divergent have achieved a marked amount of market penetration. For at least some viewers, these franchises are likely the first exposure they’ve had to the idea of dystopian societies. These series aren’t marketed toward the traditional geek audience, so there are viewers coming to these books and films without the necessary “vocabulary” to understand them. I stuck vocabulary in quotes to indicate I don’t mean they don’t understand the words themselves, but that they don’t always have the necessary exposure and training to understand some of the themes and underlying premises at work in dystopian narratives. After all, works like Hunger Games or Battle Royale aren’t really postulating that we’re going to send children off to murder each other, and Divergent doesn’t really suggest that society is moving toward a caste system in which people are slotted into abstract “Virtues”, are they?

Not really. Dystopian fiction, even moreso than science fiction and fantasy as a whole, is at heart an allegorical form. These are not serious attempts at predicting where current social trends will lead us. Rather, they are works that examine a facet of current society, or which postulate a generally unlikely future trend, and then exaggerate it in order to illustrate a point. There’s nothing particularly new about this, and it has a long tradition as both a literary device and philosophical tool dating all the way back to the crusty and perpetually-wrong Plato.

Wait, you say, am I implying that Plato was the originator of dystopian fiction? No. Plato was, however, a writer of fiction; his philosophical writings took the form of fictional dialogues involving the character Socrates who often bore only a passing resemblance to the Socrates of history. In the pages of his Republic Plato even built a city, albeit one he considered an ideal city, to be ruled by his philosopher-tyrants. In an interesting nod to Divergent, it was also a place in which citizens would be tested for their aptitudes and then assigned to the caste that best fit them (it’s actually a little more complicated than that, and involves lying to people in order to place them where they would be of best service to the “perfect” city, but this post really isn’t about Plato).

While Plato might have been writing about a utopia, the first men to use the phrase dystopia were Bentham and Mill, two men better known for their creation of and contributions to Utilitarianism, a consequentialist-school of ethical thought. And while Wikipedia might credit Jack London with the earliest “modern” distopic fiction, I would contend that we first see it in Swift’s A Modest Proposal, a work which dates to the first half of the 18th century. While Swift’s rather scathing satire doesn’t postulate a fictional future society, it does take as its “plot” a social shift that involves the selling and eating of Irish babies (and anthropophagy is hardly unknown as a feature of dystopian fiction, be it as a fast food chain in Transmetropolitan or as the secret ingredient in soylent green).

The reason I’m not being more specific with some of these examples is because I’m honestly on casually familiar with Hunger Games and Divergent. I’m a dystopian aficionado from way back when some of the early cyberpunk works found me at a young age an did horrible, beautiful things to my fragile little mind. Yet while I may not be able to decompress the nuances of these works specifically, I feel it’s important to touch on them in their broader context, because it would be a shame to find people alienated from any work because they hadn’t been given that necessary vocabulary to understand the themes at play and that they’re generally not supposed to take these works as being literal extrapolations.

Equipping people with the necessary vocabulary to understand the philosophical themes underlying pop culture artifacts is why I started this blog in 2010, and it’s one of the major reasons I walked away from academic philosophy not long after. Philosophy as an academic discipline is largely concerned with producing future academic philosophers. This isn’t to say that philosophy isn’t concerned with issues of social justice, or the more abstract concept of justice in general, politics, or any number of things which occur in the “real” world. Yet for all its concern with the world, academic philosophy doesn’t really train its practitioners to really engage that world. You might, in any given year, have a handful of students who take the message they’ve learned in a philosophy class out of that class. There’s nothing wrong with this; it is, in fact, an awesome thing. Yet it’s also incredibly limited in scope, which is why many philosophers write books targeted at those at a broader audience. Yet when they do so they are writing like academic philosophers speaking to other academic philosophers. This is true even when our hypothetical philosophers use pop culture as the locus for their discussions. I’ve read several entries in the various <Insert title of pop culture artifact> and Philosophy series. Their content tends to range between decent philosophy but poor grasp of the pop culture artifact to outright terrible (like the article that presented the Joker as Nietzsche’s overman, showing a complete lack of understanding of both works, a trend that continued with discussion of Moore’s Adrian Veidt).

Most people do not have the necessary vocabulary to decode academic philosophers, which has nothing to do with intelligence. I managed to plow my way through a philosophy degree, and quite frankly I’m not particularly bright. Yet academic philosophy seems to have forgotten that Plato used fictional narratives for a reason – he understood their power. The reason that poets are banned from the ideal city of his Republic is not because Plato feared mimesis and the ways in which mimesis would lead us to ignore the higher truth to focus on the shadows on a cave wall, but because he didn’t want to risk competing narratives corrupting his own.

How many people have read Sartre, or Nietzsche, or Kant? How many of those readers have been influenced by those works? Now how many of those people have read Harry PotterHunger Games, or Twilight? Now how many of those readers have been influenced by those works? This is an honest question. How many people have been influenced to think that the incredibly unhealthy relationships of Twilight are something that they should want to have? Even moving beyond Twilight, how many people have had their views of “love,” and what they should view as an ideal relationship influenced by books, movies, or television? I’ve talked quite a bit about why we can’t dismiss fiction as “just fiction,” and one of the reasons is because when you start asking these kinds of questions the answers get a bit disturbing. Not because we can track anything like a direct causal relationship between things like violent media and real-life violence. The implications are far more subtle than that. But any claims that our exposure to media do not both reinforce and shape culture paradigms and mores is nonsensical.

So on a personal level, that’s why I walked away from Omelas. I suspect academic philosophy doesn’t particularly miss the loss, but then again it was never academic philosophy I was interested in speaking to.

 

P.S. No, it’s not an accident that there are various instances for I use the language of academic philosophy without explanation.

 
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Posted by on October 6, 2014 in Geekery, Philosophy, Pop Culture

 

Gaming Ontology (Can Games be Art?)

Yesterday Youtuber JennieBharaj posted a video asking the question, “Are video games art?”. I’ll confess that the only thing I know about Bharaj is that her musings are more popular than mine… which isn’t exactly difficult to achieve (insert self-deprecating smiley here). Fortunately, I don’t need to be familiar with ouvre for her to pop up in my Twitter feed, and the video in question deals with a subject that falls pretty firmly into my magisterium. Asking “Is X a Y,” an awkward way of expressing, “Is this particular thing part of this larger category, such as in this case do video games deserve to be classified into the broader realm of ‘Art’?”, is an example of an ontological problem. Even seemingly simple ontological problems, like what does or does not make a thing geeky or qualifies someone to be a geek… they don’t tend to stay simple for very long. For sake of completeness, I should also confess that our ontological problem is also an axiological problem – that is, it deals specifically with a question relating to things like values and the idea of beauty (aesthetics). Which is a handy thing to know, so while you shouldn’t forget it it needn’t be the foremost thing in mind as we move forward.

I hadn’t intended to write this post, but after a sleepless night watching Wrong Turn 5 and Phantom Racer, I’m ready to get it on.

Before I dive into the thing itself, it might behoove ask to take a moment and ask if video games qua art matters as such? I mean, what fucking difference does it make, yo? First, there’s the “prestige” that comes with being classified as art; after all, if these games are instantiations of art then they’re not some frivolous pastime or childish endeavor but are srs bsns worthy of respect and admiration. Doubly so if they can be considered “high” art, rather than being relegated to the “low” art ghetto of pop culture (another one of those pesky ontological distinctions). Alas, wanting bragging rights, or avoiding a sense of “shame” is hardly worthy grounds for making an ontological decision.

With that in mind, let’s start taking a look at the pro and con arguments as presented by Bharaj.

Starting off in the pros category, we’re told that video games are made up of elements which are considered forms of art in and of themselves, thus is games are made up of artistic elements they must be art, yes? This is… it’s not a good pro to start from, because this line of reasoning is what we might kindly (okay, not so kindly) term utter bullshit. This is pretty much a textbook example of a variation on what is commonly called the genetic fallacy; insisting that because a part of the whole is (or contains) X, then the sum total is of course X. While I might be made up of my cells, that does not mean that all the qualities of my cells are qualities possessed by me in toto. Bharaj herself even gives an example of this (perhaps unknowingly) when she mentions plays. Theatre is generally considered to be a performing art (different from performance art). Having been involved in different capacities in various productions, I’m well acquainted with the amount of work involved in putting on a show. Much of that work, such as lighting, sound, and costume design, demands both technical proficiency and aesthetic judgement. These are not easy tasks, and yet it is rare for these things to be considered art qua art in and of themselves; they are simply work products, much like individual brush strokes in an overall painting, that go toward the creation of art qua theatre. While this can, and has been debated, it’s an example of an established artform that is considered only in and of itself.

So if video games are to be considered qua art, we must consider them on the result themselves.

As to her next point, corporations are also legally considered as persons. Relying on the legal definition of what is or is not art isn’t particularly helpful, particularly when we bear in mind the court’s history with obscenity cases. This legal standing is useful to determine if a game designer should be arrested for using the word cocksucker in a game (see the sad, strange life of Lenny Bruce), or if store owners should be arrested for carrying it (look up the saga surrounding Ginsberg’s “Howl”). When it comes to answering ontological and axiological questions, legal definitions of what is or is not are are significantly less useful.

What does it mean when we say that one game is more “artistic” than another? If we’re asking the question of whether or not games are art qua art (versus games qua entertainment or pop culture, for example) to begin with, how is this even a meaningful question? Is “artiness” a spectrum along which something is more or less art? Generally, what we’re doing when we ask these kinds of questions or make these kind of statements is referring to gradients of technical or aesthetic quality. Yet when we do so we are often ignoring both context and content. For example, Michelangelo’s (we’ll touch on him again in a minute) Pieta is often considered the exemplar by which all other pieta pieces are measured. It’s hard to deny that the Big M’s Pieta is a beautifully rendered piece, particularly when compared to something like the Roettgen pieta. Of course the Roettgen piece was done during a time period not long after the reintroduction of fully three-dimensional sculpture to northern Europe (an event generally considered to be marked by the creation of the Golden Virgin of Essen). The unknown artist responsible for the Roettgen piece simply did not have the same amount of technical training that Michelangelo and other Renaissance artists did. Moreover, the unknown artist was producing the piece during a time when artists as such, that is to say a distinct class of person whose profession was to produce objects of art, existed. Does this make the Roettgen piece less a work of art? Does it mean we should interpret it differently because it focuses on suffering as such? While various scholars have done both, in doing so they ignore both the historical identity of the myth of the artist, as well as viewing the Roettgen piece in the larger context of images focused on Mary and the Christ-figure.

In short, that some games might be technically or aesthetically advanced than others, or we might find them impressively done, is again not enough to make a determination of whether they are art in and of themselves.

So, now we get to Chris Crawford insisting that since video games are meant for entertainment, and as a product for sale, rather than as an expression of and exploration of beauty, they can’t be art in and of themselves. As the wonderful ladies of Girls Gone Geek discovered in 2012, this is one of those points on which I will nick Professor Elemental’s fighting trousers and go to town.

That Michelangelo guy I mentioned above? He didn’t paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for free. Big M was all about making that paper. So much so that he was one of the most prolific hype-men of his day. The story about how he was so dedicated to painting aforementioned chapel that paint dripped into his eyes and partially blinded him? A lot of people think that story originated with Big M himself to make him seem more badass, and thus ultimately demand higher prices from his patrons and a larger place in the myth of the artist. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that in and of itself (as while it might mean the Big M was a bit of a dick as a dude, it doesn’t make him less an artist). More than once, Alan Moore has stated that what really started him writing for a living was the fact that his wife was knocked up and he needed to get off the dole. Molly Crabapple, whose work often explicitly critiques capitalist systems and structures makes money from that same work.

We really, really, really, really, really need to get rid of this masturbatory, dilettante fantasy that art for art’s sake, and wanting to make money from one’s work sit across an ontological divide and never the twain shall meet. Many of the greatest works of art were created solely based on a profit motive, and that does not a damn thing to decrease their status as art. So sure, we can side with Crawford et. al. provided we’re willing to ignore the entire history of art from at least the Renaissance forward.

Aw, shit, Ebert and authorial intent. This one is so flawed that I’m not even sure where to begin. Yes, authors and creators often have a vision in mind. Yet like combat, these plans rarely survive first contact with the enemy. The themes and meanings behind any number of famous works of film and literature have been endlessly debated. Often the resulting interpretations are widely at odds with what the original author intended. When we have evidence to suggest otherwise we can state that these interpretations are wrong, and yet that these wrong interpretations have been drawn does nothing to diminish the status of the original work as art.

When it comes to the idea of interactivity, things get even trickier. I’ve talked more than once about how the idea that we passively consume media is simply wrong. We do not consume so much as we engage with art. Even if we conceive of ourselves as passive viewers, are neurons are going pew pew and whooga whooga. These are the actual noises that neurons make – I have proven this with science. Even if it were true that we are merely passive consumers of art, there are multiple examples of art that is specifically meant to be interacted with.

Yet this idea of interactivity is an important, even crucial one. I’ve talked before about how the act of game design is essentially an act of artificial metaphysics. While my primary focus in that post was tabletop roleplaying games, the same is as, if not more true for video games. Even the simplest platformer has metaphysical conditions – miss a jump, fall down a pit and die. Some games try to get fancy and introduce messy morality systems. Just as I said there, much of the problem is that when we engage with a video game what we are truly engaging with is the operant conditions of the game; our behavior and engagement with the game are ultimately controlled by the nature of the game’s coded metaphysics in the form of rules. While the art and music of the game are all part of that experience, in most cases they are there not as the main event in and of themselves, but as supporting mechanism by which to present the game qua game.

Thus when we are considering the question of video games qua art, I find that it is with this experience of game qua game that should be the focus of any such discussion. Even the most immersive visuals and captivating storytelling are only there to make us want to engage with this central element. Can that engagement be experienced as an engagement with art, or are we always so focused on the bounding rules and conditions that make the game a game for it to bridge the ontological gap in which game makes sweet, sweet consensual love to art?

So before asking if video games are art, we need to struggle with asking the question if there’s even the possibility that they can be, or if the essential nature of being a game inhibits the possibility of art.

 
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Posted by on October 4, 2014 in Geekery, Philosophy, Pop Culture

 

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If it Weren’t for you Pesky Cosplayers

and your dogs, too, I’d have a million hits a day on this blog, and would be surrounded by legions of devoted fangirls.

All right, that’s probably (definitely) a lie. I get that Denise Dorman is upset. The costs to attended even local and semi-local conventions are going up – particularly when you’re not an invited guest who gets their hotel comped etc.. I’m just not sure why, other than the fact that they’ve been the convenient whipping girls (and boys) of the past couple years, she chooses to focus on cosplayers as a, let alone the, source of the problem.

Is she ignorant of history? I ask that in all seriousness, because according to his Wikipedia entry (not the most reliable of sources, I know) Dave Dorman has been illustrating professionally since 1979, got his “break” in 1983, and has attended 27 consecutive Comic-Cons. Ontologically speaking, comic conventions are simply a subset of the broader concept of science fiction and fantasy fandom conventions, as are such things as Transformers-focused conventions etc. Sci-Fi/Fantasy conventions have a long tradition, and some still continue this tradition, of featuring such things as cringe-worthy filking, fan guests of honor, fan panels, and any number of other ways in which fans were transformed into an active feature of convention programming.

And that’s presuming that we accept the erroneous assumption that fans, in any role, are simply passive consumers of the convention. During her essay on Bleeding Cool Mrs. Dorman asserts:

The hard-working artists and creators who are the very foundation of this industry…the reason there even is an industry…. those creatives who have busted their asses and spent money they perhaps didn’t have to spare in order to be there exhibiting for–and accessible to–the fans…have been reduced to being the background wallpaper against which the cosplayers pose in their selfies.

Those fans, including the selfie-taking cosplayers, are what allowed Dave Dorman and just about every other creator to be there. There is no level at which media consumption is truly passive, and the case of creator <–> fans among areas of geeky fandom the lines are particularly blurred, because what is often being produced are incredibly niche products that simply wouldn’t survive outside of that niche. While Dave Dorman likely could have taken his not inconsiderable skills and gone to work any number of places, he elected to enter a series of industries that are enabled solely by the fans. And as someone who has in the past done work in one of those industries (rpgs), he’s profited significantly more from it than any number of other people.

I don’t begrudge the man that career, though I do take umbrage at Denise Dorman’s casting of fans as passive consumers merely there to absorb a product. Not the least reason being because it’s a rather insulting and objectifying point of view, and because it doesn’t accurately reflect the ways in which consumers do engage with media both in what we (incorrectly) consider the “passive” mode of consuming it, as well as in the “active” mode of engaging with conventions and fan cultures.

In fairness, she does touch on the rising costs of conventions, but if these are a problem for guests/vendors/exhibitors, many (though certainly not all) of whom have their various costs either comped by the convention or offset by sales etc. how much more of a problem is it for fans? Fans, including cosplayers, don’t get to attend these events for free. In addition to the costs of admittance their are all the costs for travel, accommodation, and food, and that’s before you even get into the issue of having additional disposable income to make purchases at the event itself. For many fans these conventions, particularly larger conventions like Comic-Con, Dragon*Con, GenCon etc. are where they go rather than a trip to Vegas or Aruba. If I am already out hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to simply be there, how much more do you expect me to drop at your table particularly when everyone else is expecting the exact same thing? This isn’t even to mention the work that some people put in, whether it’s to help with organizing, run games, or yes, make and present costumes – work that isn’t always offset in any way (yes, some conventions provide free admission, or accommodations etc. in these circumstances, but it’s far from universally true).

So yes, I can understand why Dave and Denise Dorman, alongside other creators, are upset at the current state of affairs, and there should be conversations happening about what we can do to change things. But to blame these problems on cosplayers not only ignores the history of conventions and fan culture, but it both avoids engaging with the actual problems while implying that at least some of the creators involved have an incredibly unhealthy attitude toward their fans.

 
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Posted by on September 26, 2014 in Comics, Geekery, Pop Culture

 

On Fandom and Ethical Responsibility

I made a mistake today, internet – I read a thread on a forum, all 300+ posts of it. In this particular thread, some entitled manchildren were chittering their outrage over the fact that responses to “GamerGate” have painted gamers with an overly broad brush; moreover, they were offended that so many individuals seemed to be endorsing a “You’re with us or against us mentality,” and the shouting was just alienating them.

I’m not sure these people are worth caring about, and I say that specifically as someone who has previously discussed the existential absolutism of Alan Moore’s V. I’m also the same person who specifically examined the moral dilemmas raised by popular, reactionary activism as well as the underpinnings of existential responsibility on a social scale. I’ve also made it clear that on a personal level I have zero problems with drawing a line in the sand. I’d link to my track record of criticizing fanboys, but then I’d be here all day adding links.

As much as moral absolutism might raise troubling questions, I have problems giving a single fuck about people who feel that the criticisms of a fandom have unfairly victimized them. Because geekery has always been a rather cesspooly place to be; the internet has only made that more immediately visible, and attempts to change that have all-to-often resulted in pushback not only from the frantically masturbating fanboys, but from the creators behind them (the issue of Spider-Woman’s posterior on a cover being a recent one that springs immediately to mind).

I’m sure some of these people taking offense are perfectly good people in some respects – perhaps they do indeed find racism and sexism objectionable. Yet by taking umbrage because they’re accused of “not doing enough,” or because they think they can remain uninvolved, they are engaging in various degrees of moral cowardice, an accusation I have exactly zero problems making.

When it comes to culture, there is no neutral position. None. Zip. Zero. A bagel. Culture is not something we are simply passive consumers of, but something that we all have a hand in creating. So when your policy is to choose to not be involved, you are actively making the choice to allow the existing culture to continue. You can whine all you want, but that makes it no less true. Of course, there’s always that old chestnut, “Should I not engage in things I like just because they’re problematic?”. We can of course choose to ignore the fact that these things are problematic, or we can be somewhat less shitbaggy and admit that even though we enjoy them these things are indeed problematic.

We can also make the choice to not engage with these things whether or not we enjoy them because of their problematic nature. There are games, books, comics, etc. that I pass on either because I find their nature problematic in and of itself; or perhaps like the work of Card, Miller, or Goodkind the work is simply a mouthpiece for the creator’s infantile views; or because I simply find the creator, be it an individual, company, or even someone involved, to be so reprehensible that I won’t support the project, and thus given the impression that I would support future projects (Tom Cruise movies being a case in point – I find Scientology even more reprehensible than the Randian wankfest that is libertarianism, and his status as an actor has enabled him to serve as its face). I find the idea that we should avoid moral decisions that might in some way be detrimental to us to be a baffling one. If your values hinge on the condition that you never be negatively impacted as a result of holding them… saying that I am unimpressed is an understatement of near-infinite proportions.

There are people I like, and who I not only don’t think are bad people, but are people who actively speak up against injustice that I don’t associate with as often as I once did, or at times would like to, because my association with them is largely prefigured around mutual “geeky” interests; thus my interactions with them involve stepping into cultural milieus that I am increasingly uncomfortable with being an active part in. I don’t limit that to simply denying myself the products of fandom. I’ve lost friends because I’ve pointed out that I find someone’s  course of action morally objectionable. I wound up homeless for a while because I wasn’t willing to subject myself to a situation and persons I found morally objectionable.  Thus I’m willing to walk the walk, even when doing so has cost me in not-insignificant ways.

So when there are people out there taking the brunt and being shit on because they’re not male, not white, not straight, or whatever other factor and they dared to have an opinion about fandom or the products of its adulation, I’m going to give zero fucks about your bruised feels and desire to curl up in your fortress of solitude and not hear about it. Does this mean that each and every person must of necessity be out there on the “front lines.” No, there are perfectly good reasons for not doing so, though as I’ve pointed out “neutrality” isn’t one of them.

There are no isolated ethical actors, and there are no isolated ethical actions. Choosing not to be involved is an action, and it is the action of a coward. So if you want to get offended because you didn’t like someone’s tone, or thought they were shouting too loud, or are made uncomfortable because they’ve forced you to confront your morally bankrupt cowardice you are worth giving exactly zero fucks about, because you are not simply tacitly endorsing, but are actively creating the culture that you (might) claim to find objectionable.

 
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Posted by on September 7, 2014 in Activism, Geekery, Philosophy, Pop Culture

 

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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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