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Monthly Archives: October 2014

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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