Wednesday, October 8, 2014

On Reading Art

There is a vast and inescapable gulf between creators and the folks who enjoy stuff that’s been created. This gulf is inevitable. Art is created to convey messages, from top to bottom. Even art that’s created for the sole purpose of “this thing is aesthetically appealing” is still conveying a message about what “aesthetically appealing” is. Plot that’s merely created as a device to move a storyline is still conveying a message. In our post-post-modern times (this ironicist age) we’re inclined to reject the notion that the author has a message in the first place, that the work’s sole value is in the interpretations derived by the fandom of an object. This attitude is especially appealing in an environment driven by individualistic consumer capitalism, where works of art are ultimately only important inasmuch as they provide some compelling experience for us as individuals and can be later appropriated to build a self-image. If the author is irrelevant and our individual experiences paramount, anything can be perceived as supporting any kind of self-conceptualization we can come up with. The actual narrative or message of a story is ultimately irrelevant compared to our individual experience with a story. This is why we can tell bald morality fables even to folks diametrically opposed to the self-limiting concept of morals. The story doesn’t matter, just that it helped momentarily raise your dopamine levels and distracted you from your own mortality.

This is why Final Fantasy’s clear naturist spiritualism can be utterly 100% ignored in favor of, you know, “Aerith dies! Look how evil/badass Sephiroth is. Yuffie is mai waifu” and so on. The story is a bit standard of a paean to anti-pollution or general gaianism, but it’s literally the last thing you hear about final fantasy seven and the folks way into the game aren’t forming anti-pollution initiatives or standing outside at climate change rallies. The message (respect your planet because it’s the source of all life) doesn’t really matter to the people most invested in the actual work. And it’s endemic to every kind of story. Folks who’re big on neon genesis evangelion don’t come away with an idea that all people are more or less one and the same, that difference is an illusion created by an absolute terror field or psychological damage. The list goes on.

It’s possible to read a narrative and accept and internalize its message over its presentation. It’s not common, but it does happen. My contention is just that perhaps in this modern ironicist age, as we’ve broadly accepted the conclusions of post-modernism (that all meaning is constructed) and taken them to their illogical conclusion (meaning is false and sentimentality is lying), we’re less and less equipped with the ability to read a narrative for what message it’s attempting to convey and consequently modern artists are less and less interested in conveying a message. The very act of working a message into art is inauthentic; the message is assailable, the expression artificial and dishonest and untrue. The art itself of course is unoriginal, everything that can be made has been made already. In a culture where the authentic expression of oneself is a moral imperative, inauthenticity and unoriginality is anathema. This creates a tension within the arts community, whereby artists have to confront the conflict between awareness of a lack of originality/authenticity/honesty in their work and the overarching need to be original/authentic/honest.

Different artists solve this different ways, but I’m more concerned about the legions of folks left in the gutters, creatively paralyzed as a result of failing to meet an unrealistic internalized standard of expression created by the proliferation of mass culture. You may notice parallels between what I just wrote and the creation and sustention of beauty standards that leave millions of folks bodily and personally insecure (not to mention gender standards, wealth standards, ethnicity standards, all kinds of normativity). This is intentional, as all of these processes are the tandem result of mass media. Normativity in artistic presentation/consumption is just as ruinous as any other normativity.

What I’m here to tell you today: don’t be afraid to make any art. It’s easy enough to write out, but much harder to internalize. Don’t be afraid to write whatever ridiculous dreck you want. Don’t let your internal editor endlessly compare your work to anyone else’s. Don’t be afraid to read narratives for what they say. Don’t be afraid to embrace a philosophy or a politic or a position. We’re all going to be dead sooner than later and no one will remember us accurately so there’s really no reason to worry about it. It’s out of your hands.

Monday, September 29, 2014

On humans and hierarchies

There’s been this sort of interesting idea kicking around in my head that essentially the only judgments humans can make without needing a cultural reference to back it up is whether a thing is good or bad. Indeed whether a thing is good or bad is often what many descriptions boil down to. A critical review my expound on the myriad factors involved in a work, but ultimately these factors fall upon a dividing line of good or bad.

Once we get to comparative judgment our tools only become slightly more complex: we place objects as greater or lesser than their peers. We might organize one object as more in one aspect and less in another, but the result is still the same. This cup is larger than that cup. This cup is more orange than that cup.

It is through this means that humans create hierarchies or structures of existence. It’s a habit that is as close to universal as behaviors come, and can be seen across time and place and across subject, whether it’s a manga placing its characters on a number line of relative strength or Catholicism determining the importance of angels by their distance from god or a bored student arranging her writing utensils from order of shortest to longest.

Why is this so important to humans? Are we destined to be the universe’s organizers, to find and categorize all living or nonliving things? The irony is palpable, as all things are merely extensions of one continuous object.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Skylanders: Swap Force

Three years after its initial iteration, Skylanders shows no sign of slowing down, cannabilizing entire store aisles with cartoon bits of plastic and innovation. The first real adaptation of NFC technology in video games has been a wild success, nailing a vulnerable target market (children) with consumer capitalist dream toys: little devices that a video game requires in order to function. A game that takes all of the best elements of grindy lootfests aimed at older players and combines them with a compulsive and coherent marketing structure doesn’t merely suggest purchasing as many toys as you can but demands that you acquire them or face a drop in euphoric hormones.  
There are 80 Skylanders characters now, 10 each categorized across eight basic elements. Swap Force, the latest iteration, adds in an additional eight movement types spread across its unique mix/match figures while Giants, the previous iteration, had 8 larger than normal figures required for play. In optimal configuration, players only need about eight figures (one of each element, or in the case of Swap Force, one of each element and one of each movement type. These two requirements do coincide, a small mercy) in order to unlock every area in each game and collect all the secrets. This optimization is obscured, however, by both the game’s target market (5-12 year old boys) and features in the game itself. Throughout the game world you’ll find “soul gems” that unlock new powers and feature a promotional video for skylanders you don’t have. They’re toy commercials dolled up as super-secret rewards. On top of that there’s an extensive collection screen that encourages you to seek out and complete the full collection of little dudes with little fluff details and links to the in-game advertisements.  Even the mechanics of the game encourage you to collect more. Beyond the gates that bar entry to all but specific kinds of skylanders, the number of available lives you have for a certain level is hard limited by the number of skylanders you have. The more skylanders, the more lives you have to play with.
It’s brilliant, from top to bottom, and the game would be so easy to condemn if not for the fact that it’s well made and well designed. Attacks have an appropriate amount of friction, enemies are smartly varied, the level design is engaging. All told this game plays as a thoughtful Diablo variant for children.
But that’s just a physical description of the game. If you’re wondering if it’s worth picking up, wonder no more. A bunch of outlets have given Swap Force (the most recent iteration) perfect scores. The game is indubitably fun. What’s more interesting is the questions that the game itself and its runaway success bring up. Why do we sell these things to children? What is it about kids that make marketing a consumerist wet dream to them so much more lucrative than selling to adults? A cynic might suggest that adults are too jaded for this kind of thing to work on them, that kids with their inherently more trusting nature are more likely to buy bald marketing pushes such as these. I don’t think that’s a sufficient answer, as I’ve watched plenty of adults buy and collect plenty of stupid things in my life. I think it has more to do with what we consider childish in America. Collecting things just for the sake of collecting things has simply never been in the stable of sane activities for mature adults to do. Instead we describe adult collecting as a somewhat strange and shameful hobby, to be kept secret and gently mocked when it sees the light of day. At the extreme we consider it a form of hoarding and we put these folks on trial on television, a warning to the rest of us to become anxious about our personal lives. This attitude is slowly and somewhat changing, though. We’re learning to understand and appreciate the collection impulse through things like mobile games, which feature more and more “get this thing to complete your virtual collection” hooks. Maybe in the future there’ll be a more adult oriented form of skylanders, with sexy women and hooded, goateed bald dudes. Or ideally games will have gotten over that impulse too and truly become something transcendent and imaginative. A game with an NFC pass-along mechanic, say, where you send one object from person to person to accrue social power, each person leaving a small stamp on the figure in game terms. A game that works in conjunction with a 3d printer to, rather than put a physical object in the game, uses the game to produce a physical object. Lots of interesting places for this tech to go.
One thing would be missing in a more adult oriented version of skylanders: sheer whimsy. The game is silly as all get out, from the ultra-serious announcement of silly enemy characters (“Grumblebum Blunderbuss”) to the goofy hat options to the characters quipping lines throughout play. It’s cutesy and mostly charming, at least until the cutscenes. The plot of Swap Force is utterly ridiculous and ridiculous in the worst “talking down to children” sort of way, featuring “evilizer” devices powered by solidified evil and cartoony, unbelievable villains. The only saving grace is Patrick Warburton doing his Kronk voice as a self-important airship pilot. The game is aggressively kid oriented, even to the point of rendering its powerups as a variety of foods that kids would find appealing, hot dogs, hamburgers, even a Kid Cuisine tv dinner. Marketing for the game is tailored to the inevitable adult purchasing the $75(!) starter set, extolling it’s value and virtues as unequivocally providing a fun experience to children that provides some sort of nebulous real-world benefit.
It’s gross, really. Reading marketers selling kid stuff always gives me the heebie jeebies. These children aren’t old enough to work or drive or technically sign the 63 page EULA(!) that innocuously appears under a button push on the title screen (the EULA of course states that by playing the game and not returning it to the store immediately, you agree to these terms. Contract lawyers are the devil) yet here we are, marketers playing on unexamined personal wants to inspire them to pester their parents into buy the stuff. I’m never sympathetic to the argument that parents should just be the dividing line between advertisers and their children because these advertisers are well aware that they’re creating conflict within a family, palpable interpersonal drama that can be resolved (if only for the moment) by purchasing a thing. It’s bald emotional manipulation and It’s gross. It’s such a dishonest way to make money.

Thursday, May 1, 2014


What am I afraid of? Why is it so hard for me to sit down and write?
I’m afraid that I don’t really have any worthwhile or new ideas and I’m afraid that what ideas I do have will inevitable come out wrong and be interpreted in weird, distorted ways. Not that any of this is new. I think the biggest and clearest part of this slump I can point to was stepping outside my comfort zone yet sticking to my actual principles (which are apparently way more radical than anyone who occasionally follows me seems to think they are) and calling people out on their shit attitudes. I mean, I expected backlash, for sure. What I didn’t expect was the unilateral bullshit party it turned into, a bullshit party with lasting and far-reaching bullshit effects. Unequivocally, Fuck you all. There’s no goddamn excuse for not knowing better than this. There’s no goddamn excuse that a collection of grown-ass adults are incapable of reacting better than a group of children.
But the biggest and the worst thing is that it’s the starkest fucking reminder that I’m living in the south, that I’m living in the city that still has secret white clubs and still celebrates a heritage of explicit and overt racism. The tourist brochures gloss over the history and the politicians are good old civil rights champion blue, but the town runs on racism and if you poke that hornet’s nest you’re gonna find yourself mighty fucking unwelcome.
I’m so fucking tired of this shit, man. I’m tired of reading the same bunk arguments over and over, tired of hearing people’s experience ignored or doubted. I’m tired of the same fucking controversies hitting the news with the same fucking talking heads and the same fucking non-action afterward. It’s stupid, it’s stagnant, it’s stifling.
Still, the grindhouse presses on. There are still terfs to kill and tumblrs to reblog.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

I only have one feeling: infinite and soul-crushing anxiety.
I was thinking earlier about this: I am honest because I cannot believe anyone around me
When I do believe; when I am so fooled; when I am vain
I cling to it like a drowning man to styrofoam, lost in the sea of maybe abandoned by the good ship s.s. jake

Even my dreams lie to me.
Especially my dreams.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


Since the dominoes are falling or the jenga brick has been removed or satan has arrived on earth to damn us all or whatever and gay marriage (that is marriage between two people of the same sex, whose sexual activities are bizarre foreign and probably disgusting to all right-thinking heterosexuals) is becoming legalized and all kinds of movements are insisting on the right of homosexuals to live as though they’re actual citizens and junk, let’s talk about the post-gay world we’re approaching. Once we’ve achieved every major ticket item on the HRC’s list what’s going to happen?
Let’s start with what “post-gay” is. In other intersections of oppression there’s a general understanding that after some gains have been achieved and the movements subside, we as people tend to re-assert a worldview that assumes that we’re beyond those movements. An example: post-feminism. Children of the late seventies and beyond were generationally removed from the struggles of feminism, and as such all of the challenges and victories were firmly placed in the past. Certainly previous feminist rhetorics didn’t have much relevance to their lives, as the decimation of the economy all but guaranteed that every household that wanted to succeed had to succeed as a two-wage household. So feminism was a thing that already happened and was over and women were cool now. Any problems that women still faced were probably due to individual choices in their lives.
Another post: post-racism. There’s a strong understanding that racism is not only placed firmly in the To Kill a Mockingbird past, but that racism that happens today is due to isolated incidents created by individuals rather than a system that actively devalues nonwhites. Thus people who argue against racism or those nonwhites who point out deep systemic problems in our society are seen at best as whiners, subversive “reverse racist” demagogues at worst.
Post-gay is going to play out similarly. The broad assumption across society is that well by gum gays can marry now and there’s some laws against discrimination in place so by George the queers have made it. Queer radicals will be further marginalized and gay rights organizations will become persnickety and superfluous. Individuals who comment that there are basically little more than token gays in media will be dismissed as unrealistic political correctness police. Not just by heterosexuals. By other gays. Eventually we’re going to run into phrases like “I’m gay, but I’m not one of those gays.” Assaults on gays will be chalked up to “well maybe they shouldn’t have been so flamboyant in front of those dudes.” Bisexuality will be totally erased.  
Sounds familiar, right? Elements of all of these things exist even today, but the problem in a post-gay world will only be more and more severe, where all of these things will come together and become the overarching norm of gay life rather than disparate issues varyingly expressed. We will come to a clear and well-defined hierarchal organization of homosexual behavior where now we only have bits and pieces of attitudes by a handful of sex columnists. The classes of queer, bi-curious, heteroflexible, metrosexual, questioning, mostly straight/mostly gay, or any other way people define the middle spaces between pure homosexuality and pure heterosexuality will coalesce into a single “mulatto” definition that is interpreted in the direction most convenient for the interpreter’s biases. “Straight-acting” will become not just a weird internal insult but an actual threat.
Shit man, maybe we are actually here already.