Game/Play

I’ve been working on documenting the game that I co-designed with Barnaby King and L.M. Bogad last summer for the Performance Studies Focus Group (PSFG) Pre-conference at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) annual meeting in Orlando. It was a gargantuan effort–far more than I could have realized when we set ourselves the task. We essentially used Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken as a foundation, and then Barnaby and I gave ourselves a crash course in game design; I dug out all the textbooks I could find in GMU’s library as though I were a first-year student. I really had no idea what I was doing. Good thing Barnaby and Larry were more experienced.

Despite what I think was a really fascinating, stimulating “game” experience (and you can see more about it here, although please bear in mind that the site is still under construction), I’m now becoming less and less certain that it was properly a “game.”

This is at least in part because of the work I’m doing as part of a “Gaming research in the Humanities” group at Mason. The group includes Seth Hudson (a member of the Game Design faculty here on campus), Doug Eyman, and Steve Holmes (both in the Rhetoric wing of the English Department). As part of that effort, I’ve been seeking console/computer games that approximate the open-ended, atmospheric experience of the ARG (alternative-reality game) that we played in Orlando last summer. The best I’ve been able to come up with, so far, are games like Gone Home, The Room and The Room 2, and Year Walk. But even these incredible, beautifully designed games that are steeped in story seem incredibly restrictive to me in terms of player agency. It makes me wonder about the nature of the desire that gaming taps into–and part of that may be the desire for narrative closure. The desire for an all-seeing puppet master; the desire for a world in which no part is extraneous (except, as in the case of the realist novel, where extraneous detail is precisely the thing that establishes the reality-effect. Is that Barthes’s argument?). The desire for a world in which, in the absence of an intrinsic meaningfulness to action, it must be rigidly imposed by a frame narrative. The arguments in favor of the enabling effects of the so-called gamification of everyday life seem to play directly into this particular desire.

In any case, that’s what I’m thinking about right now in terms of “bloggable topics.” That, and writing a conclusion to my series of posts responding to Zizek’s response to The Dark Knight Rises, which will now be enriched by the additional context of the reading of the film he provides in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. We’ll see what comes next.

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Blogging is hard! (h/t Will Ferrell)

Clearly, I have not yet found a way to make it dovetail with my everyday academic practices.

It can’t be a “make-work” addition to the endless string of tasks that I (or any of my colleagues in higher education) already face. Further, for me, it can’t merely be about maintaining a “web presence,” one new dimension of the ever-expanding set of demands made upon the time of academic laborers.

My thought right now is that the best answer to this question about how to make blogging “work,” in multiple (and critical) senses, might be that it’s a way of practicing the act of letting words go–and the vulnerability that inevitably attaches itself to that act. It’s no new insight that the written word is not a sovereign construct. And yet.

And yet, one speaks even in one’s silence. The particular configuration of forces constituting that silent/speech is ever in flux, and is rarely held accountable to itself.

So, I can speak or not speak, write or not write, blog or not blog–but that “choice” between paths of action isn’t actually the salient problem. Rather, it is one of understanding where my agency to be heard, to “participate” (if I can use that loaded term) in the give-and-take of public discourse, comes from. This blog has always been part of a struggle to understand and test that agency. I will continue to struggle, even if the results are pretty embarrassingly sporadic.

At least I’m not presidenting, which I’ve heard is a quite complicated scene of sovereignty/management of agency as well.

ETA: the previous link gives the actual origin of “presidenting,” but it’s not that funny to read a transcript. This is much more satisfying.

 

Some side obsessions: Part II

Getting back to the plot summary of The Dark Knight Rises provided by Zizek

In the last post, I was thinking about how the story structure as detailed by Zizek exposes important details that, despite being placed elaborately on the table, are not actually addressed once Zizek moves into the more directly interpretive section of the essay. I find this a bit puzzling, and I can’t help but think that it makes his analysis less unpersuasive than incomplete. 

But there are also some important elements that are either left out or oversimplified.

For example, nowhere in the plot summary does Zizek mention that both Bane and Tate are perfectly aware that the fusion bomb, nominally kept as a backup in case outside forces try to remove Bane and his army of mercenaries and released prisoners from power, is actually set to explode no matter what happens politically. This seems so crucial, and so obviously relevant, that, again, I am more puzzled by its absence than anything else. The “truth” of the bomb’s inevitability renders the “dictatorship of the proletariat” established by Bane rather politically odd: what, after all, is the point of Bane’s “revolution”? My initial thought is that Bane’s staged event reflexively comments on the experience of watching the film, especially in IMAX: we feel the spectacle’s powerful pull on the senses and emotions as a “real” world onscreen even as we know it’s being staged for psychological impact on spectators, if you will. Wayne, I’m assuming, is the target spectator of Bane’s insurrection, given the psychological torture Bane intends for him as he is forced to watch Gotham consume itself from the depths of the prison. Likewise, what the film audience “worries about,” to use Zizek’s parlance, might then actually be the cynical incitement of violence in the face of real social unrest, rather than social unrest and protest movements as such. As a target of Nolan’s violent spectacle, I certainly don’t come away feeling threatened by the violent potential of OWS–rather, I am worried about the intervention of moneyed interests whipping up violence in order to hijack democratic social processes and impose dictatorial power in the name of seeking justice. I readily grant that the flawed state of democratic process in Gotham is certainly an important factor in all of this, especially given the “extraordinary powers” granted to law enforcement by the Dent act that suggest a less-visible mode of state violence that we in the Patriot Act era of the US are all too familiar with. But we also know that Commissioner Gordon was in the process of trying to address the contradictions of the Dent Act solution when the conversation was rendered moot by Bane’s activities. And that is so key to me: the film (like Zizek, like many of us, perhaps) doesn’t know how to have the public conversation Gordon wished to pursue, and the issue is never addressed or resolved because Batman et al are preoccupied with fending off total annihilation and the consequent death of millions of people (a much more straightforward issue that we as audience members can almost certainly unite behind).  

I also take issue with Zizek’s passing reference to the function of Selina Kyle, whom he describes as “steal[ing] from the rich in order to redistribute wealth, but finally rejoin[ing] Wayne and the forces of law and order.” Zizek implies an easy capitulation on Kyle’s behalf, but her actions strike me as being far more complex. Kyle betrays Batman personally by handing him off to Bane, and she does this not in the name of redistributing wealth, but because there are threats against herself that she must negotiate, and she wishes to act in her own best interest. You could say that, by sticking around in the end to help Batman after multiple letdowns, she “capitulates” somehow to the ideologies of Batman’s project. But in the betrayal scene, Kyle sticks around to watch Batman be brutally beaten by Bane, and you can see the conflict grow in her as she does so. In the end, I think, Kyle doesn’t want to see him die, and the implication, of course, is that this is at least in part because she loves him. But that doesn’t mean that Kyle has suddenly become a card-carrying member of the capitalist oligarchy. More on Kyle later. 

[…another break is required; another post will follow soon.]

Some side obsessions that may or may not be relevant: Part I

Anyone familiar with my commenting habits on Facebook will already know that a) I love Christopher Nolan’s films, especially the Batman trilogy and Inception; and b) for some reason, Slavoj Zizek* really gets on my intellectual nerves.

Right now, of course, these two affective spheres overlap with one another through the figure of The Dark Knight Rises. And it’s not an entirely happy meeting of worlds, as my attachment to the first exacerbates my impatience with the second. On the other hand, thinking the two through together has helped me clarify some points that I believe are also at the heart of my current research project on the relationship between narrative structure and the pursuit of democratic or liberatory performance practices. So instead of setting this train of though aside in the name of focus, I’m going to indulge the obsession for a bit, and see what happens.

Specifically, I want to go through a recent essay by Zizek posted on SimonGros.com titled: “Dictatorship of the Proletariat in Gotham City.” As I mentioned on Facebook, this essay has prompted a powerful urge to try to expose the limits of Zizek’s political imagination on the topic of The Dark Knight Rises. I freely admit this is partly because I feel that, if I actually had a conversation with Zizek, my point of view would be dismissed as that of a “bleeding heart liberals” rife with intellectual cowardice in the face of violence necessary to the establishment of social justice. As a result, I think my goal is largely to call Zizek on his habit of assuming that truly radical thought and the refusal to legitimize revolutionary violence are mutually exclusive possibilities.

Ok, so let’s take a look:

In the opening line, Zizek declares that “Hollywood blockbusters are precise indicators of the ideological predicament of our societies.” I’m already on my guard. Fiction isn’t necessarily a precise indicator of anything–especially if we think about fiction as a complex scene of interpretation that is, by definition, processual and contextual. This is a minor point–but it subtly indicates that Zizek simultaneously is (talking about the film as a Hollywood blockbuster) and isn’t (by reading it as a sociological indicator) interested in genre and the rhetorical-slash-aesthetic framework through which the film operates. So, that caveat is already on the table.

Next, Zizek offers a plot summary of the film, which I find really effective–so effective, in fact, that I wish some of the points raised in it were dealt with later in the essay. For example, Zizek chronicles the love affair between Miranda Tate and Bruce Wayne, as well as the transfer of corporate control of Wayne Enterprises to Tate after Bane’s manipulations of the stock market essentially bankrupt the company. Unfortunately for me, Zizek never gets around to interpreting the political significance of this relationship, or the broader parallels between their characters. From my point of view, the juxtaposition of Tate and Wayne is crucial to understanding the politics of the film. A key question might be: how does Tate become Tate (a figure bent on using power to wipe the social slate clean, as it were, and start from scratch) and Wayne become Wayne (a figure who wishes to invest in the “good” that he believes exists)? Both have the personal resources to “escape” from the prison (an escape which is clearly symbolic, begging the question of what liberty has been achieved by means of the transcendence); both either have or have acquired access to financial power as a lever of philanthropy and/or social engineering; both have suffered profound trauma through the violence of existing social structures–specifically, the loss of parents. So what is it, then, that can account for the most striking difference between them: seeing destruction as salvation versus seeing renewal as salvation?

Interestingly enough, Zizek does discuss the significance of Bane’s “unconditional love” for Tate when interpreting what he characterizes as the specter of OWS raised by the film, reading it through the reference made to Sydney Carton’s demise in A Tale of Two Cities at Bruce Wayne’s funeral. Zizek makes the case for the necessary unity of “love and sword” (via the Gospels, a reference that I will comment on again later), implying that the film is modeling a knowable trajectory of love’s social imperatives. But when read through the Tate/Wayne relationship, it seems that the problem is precisely that love is a double-edged sword, operating in unknowable-in-advance ways that are difficult even retroactively to expose and to explain.

[…I’ll take a break here, and return with continuing thoughts later.]

*My apologies for the lack of diacritical marks! I can’t figure out how to make WordPress cooperate on that score…

A renewal at the beginning

Earlier this summer, as I sat at a cafe in Neenah, Wisconsin reading the Verso compilation Aesthetics and Politics, it hit me. 

I could see what I had been doing for the past four years. Pragmatism, narrative theory, and relational aesthetics: finally, it all came together.

I think.

For a brief moment, I saw–I knew that there was a “there” there, rather than just an accumulation of stuff that I liked to think about. Now it remains to be seen whether I can adequately articulate the set of connections that crystallized in my imagination. I have already begun that process, and I hope to have the courage to try and share some of that here. 

What was most strange about the experience that day at the cafe was that I actually felt afraid. Exhilarated, but afraid. I’m having a hard time explaining that feeling to myself. I suppose I’m frightened because I can no longer avoid taking this particular step forward–a step that’s been brewing for such a long time now. It’s time to put up or shut up. 

Here goes nothing. 

 

C.S. Peirce, pirate lingo, and love

I recently read an excerpt from a C.S. Peirce essay titled “Evolutionary Love” –and I think he was on to something…

This blog begins, somewhat strangely, in the 19th century, inspired by the work of a scholar with too many ideas, an eccentric personal history, and an utterly failed career in the academy.

His writing lives at the historical intersection of Enlightenment philosophy, colonial practice, evolutionary theory, the wild burgeoning of American capitalism, and the American civil war. Pragmatism was a philosophical means of addressing what we mean by the true and the good within this particular confluence of forces–a set of intersections uncannily familiar to us now, dwelling in our own crises of capitalism, globalization, human difference, the use of military force, the very operability of US democracy, and what it means to tell the truth. I think these disparate dilemmas can all be related to one another through a particular thread–namely, the ambivalence of human interdependence. It seems to me that Peirce was thinking about it in a similar way.

I want to explore that possibility.

Other reasons to read Peirce: he called the English language “pirate-lingo,” and you have to respect that.

Finally, according to Louis Menand, Peirce’s ideas–especially those on pragmatist philosophy–were made widely available only through the intervention of a sympathetic friend, William James.   Menand implies that James was being too kind in giving Peirce so much credit for the development of pragmatism–and that claim caught my attention regarding another way in which Peirce’s work demonstrates the ambivalence of human interdependence.  Both Peirce and James struggled mightily at various points in their careers, and I think that their struggle to pursue ideas in the face of an institutional and social “ill-fit” informs pragmatism more generally.

So: I’m starting with Peirce, and reading around in the field of American pragmatist thought at the turn of the twentieth century as defined by Louis Menand: John Dewey, Jane Addams, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and William James. If my ambition in any way matches up with my work ethic, I will also move on to other accounts of relationality and writers interested in the possibility of a politics that can foreground something like love and simultaneously avow antagonism amongst members of a community, however the proximities of that community might be configured.

PS: A (poorly edited) version of C.S. Peirce’s essay “Evolutionary Love” can be found here.