Sunday, October 5, 2014

Nature Talk

Every day, around mid-afternoon, the gulls in Waterloo nest on top of the mall northeast of my house.

Every day, around dusk, they leave there, and head due south to a small factory, and swoop around it for a few hours before settling down for the night.

Add to that the crows, who travel to a forested area just south of campus at dawn and dusk and caw so loudly and in such numbers that it sounds like you're standing outside a half dozen racquetball courts. (Seriously, the caws sound like the echoes the balls make when they bounce off the walls.)

Add to that the geese, who have lost their fear of people a long time ago, and belligerently walk all over campus, staring down the cars that get in their way.

Add to that the ducks, who are much more timid than their avian counterparts, and try to fit into the hole the geese have made, only to be run off by the geese at every turn.

Add to that the single swan in Victoria Park, the only bird that the geese give wide berth.

Add to that the sparrows, chickadees, and other small birds that try their best to eke out a living where they can.

And all the other animals: the groundhogs on campus, the ubiquitous squirrels, the cats constantly patrolling their territories against trespassing from--well, other cats, mostly.

And the plants too--the trees, the bushes, the ivy creeping along the walls. Even--ick--nature's mooch, the grass.

It struck me today how all these living creatures are around us all the time, whose lives we can endanger pretty easily but can't do a lot to retaliate in return. And rather than reveling in the power that gives us, I think we need to appreciate the responsibility that puts on us. I'm teaching Tolkien's The Hobbit this term--more on that some other time--and one of the theories around Tolkien's work is that he promoted the idea of stewardship with regards to the environment, that people have the moral responsibility to act like we're looking after the land and need to keep it safe to pass on to the next steward, rather than look at it as if we're the absolute monarchs. The idea is still a little too "dominion over the earth" for my tastes. It suggests that we're at the top of the structure rather than a part of it, as if the environment isn't something we need to worry about. I much rather like the idea some sci-fi pundits have suggested, that we're the planet's janitors. We should do our best to keep things running, and doing that well is worth more respect than we usually afford it.

Anyway, the point at hand is less environmental responsibility and more--be humble. There's worlds going on around us that don't see us as the center of existence. They're not hostile to us--rather, they don't care one way or the other about us at all. We're a tangential part of their system, and they're just cawing to the world, or nestling in on a convenient roof or just trying to get by.

Later Days.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Because if I'm talking about writing on my blog, it's like I'm actually writing

All right--we're going for a two stone initiative here. Blog needs more content. Dissertation needs to get written. So we'll try a positive affirmation method, whereby I state how long I worked on the diss, and how much I wrote. I will say a disclaimer right now that I will not be posting EVERY time I work on the dissertation, and these blog posts are in no way a reflection of the total labor involved.

So--today, I spent 36 minutes on the dissertation. I wrote approximately 200 words. ...Every little bit counts, ok? It's a Saturday, cut me some slack.

I *might* be a little defensive where the dissertation is concerned.

Later Days.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Movie Buff: A Spoilerific Review of What If

More movies. More movie reviews. Filmic experiences the likes of which mediate the world thrice over, recasting all of existence in cinematographically well-framed glory!

This particular review was actually written in stages, as I watched the film.  Thus, it's a little scattered than most, and a little more self-contradictory than most.

Starting below.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Movie Buff: A Spoiler-iffic review of Garden State

It's not quite a dead blog, but the pieces are few and far between, ain't they? Well, so it goes, for now.

Review of the movie Garden State, after the break.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Pet Peeve with Words: Problematic edition

An English major getting pedantic about word use? How remarkable.

But it is in fact the case. The word I would like to complain about is "problematic," a word that tends to get used a lot in academic and socially conscious contexts:

Exhibit A: "How comic frames and panels operate for the reader is problematic because the reader is able to see so much at once, but sequencing -- even with the retraceability and the limited omniscience available from the design of the comic book page -- remains very important." (Compromised Divisions: Thresholds in Comic Books and Video Games)
Exhibit B: "Chris Franklin provides an excellent example in the dangers of playing with history by analyzing Civilization. He argues that the representation of barbarians as less-than-human beasts  is problematic and supports the idea that “some peoples or social constructs [are] below consideration as equals.” (Critical Distance).
Exhibit C: "Say what you will about Joss being a bit problematic with his treatment of women -- I give him credit for trying and for being an ally." (Comment section, "Joss Whedon Tweets About Anita Sarkessian -- The Mary Sue)

Between the three of examples, "problematic" is a placeholder for "arguable sexist in some circumstances" (C) to "demonstrating a racist, colonial perspective" (B) to (A) "potentially a problem for an artist trying to convey a guided narrative."  That's a lot of versatility for a single word--and I think that's a problem.

In its literal interpretation, "problematic" is simply "something that contains a problem." So it's a perfectly accurate term to use in all these cases, for any general case where a problem or even a potential problem may exist--that covers a lot of ground. On the other hand, as examples B and C suggest, it's also a term that's taken on a more specific meaning within writing concerned with issues of justice and equality. There, it functions as a sort of shorthand for some sort of perceived prejudice that the writer sees in whatever they're discussing. And in that sense, it's a handy (can that be considered a pun on shorthand?) way of summarizing that issue without having to explain it at length. And sometimes, that's a necessary step, to keep the focus on whatever the actual main topic of discussion may be.

And there are other arguments justifying the term's use as well. There's a common saying I've seen online that it's not women's job to inform you about feminism; it's not a minority's job to explain racism to you; more generally, the onus should not on the oppressed to justify their oppression. And that's one hundred percent right. If someone tweets that Whedon's treatment of, say, racial issues is problematic, your first response should not necessarily be to ask them to clarify, because, among other reasons, unless you are very, very careful in  crafting your request, it will sound more like a demand to defend themselves. Instead--you have access to google. You know how to use the internet. Do your own homework. (I'd acknowledge that it's a slightly different case if the use popped up in an online article published on a pop culture news site--in that case, the author's presenting themselves more as an expert, and questioning is more appropriate. But still, remember context, and remember that it's generally best to see what you can find yourself to answer a question, if the resources are available to you.)

And finally, I think one of the reasons that problematic enjoys such frequent use is that it plays a useful role in keeping discourse civil. If you replaced B or C with their equivalent substitutes, then you're implicitly if not explicitly accusing the original creators of racism and sexism, which starts a pretty emotionally charged discussion. Given how belligerently many have responded to the term "misogyny" in the recent Gamersgate grossness (and with responses that often demonstrate how "misogyny" was exactly the right word) there's an argument to be made that to keep a discussion even, a less charged word like problematic may be the way to go.

 But here's the turn in the argument.  I'd counter the idea that problematic keeps a discussion civil with the argument that what we need is less even, "both sides present good points" style of argument, and more direct accusations. If we reserve racism or misogynist terms only for the worst cases, then it's easy for many to pretend, as the Gamersgate case again demonstrates, that systematic sexism or more subtle forms of sexism exist. Let's not allow racist, sexist, or any other oppressive behavior to hide itself behind the more genteel term "problematic."

My other problem with problematic is that it's quickly joining the ranks of those words I try to steer my undergraduates away from, like "good" or "important"--because it can be used so generally it becomes overused, so it becomes not so much a tool for the writer to keep the focus where they want and more a sign to the reader that they can turn off their active reading and just coast until something... important... is said. Problematic is often used as the opening for the argument, a way of easing the reader into the topic until the writer has time to fully explain what they mean by the term. Slowly introducing an emotionally charged subject is not by any means a bad idea, but since "problematic" gets trotted out for that so frequently, it's becoming the online article equivalent of the phrase "since the beginning of time" in first year college papers.

Finally, my last beef against the term problematic is that its widespread use cheapens the topic at hand. To return to my original examples, underlying sexism in popular science fiction/fantasy television is not the same as colonialist racism reflected in videogames that center on strategic conquering. And they are certainly not the same as the problems of authorial intent. Using the same word to apply to all three situations suggests an equivalency between them, one that undermines the actual social context in favor of some universal wrong. While problematic can then be used as a rallying term to unify people from disparate tracks of life, it could just as easily be used as another oppressive tool, whitewashing difference and lived experience.

I'm not saying don't use the word "problematic." It's got a lot of arguments in favor of it, as I've noted. I'm probably going to keep using it too. But I'm going to try to be more aware of how I'm using it, and to what end.

Later Days.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Game Retrospective: Hex Cell Plus

Okay, so the long form build up to my currently played game wasn't working. Some would see that as a sign that I should stop trying to talk about videogames on the blog. Well, I see it as a sign that we should talk about slightly different videogames. Recently, I asked my FB friends to pick random numbers that corresponded to positions on Steam account. And then I would play them, and talk about them here. The results: Shelter (badger mommy sim), 10 000 000 (bit runner meets match 3), Zuma's Revenge (marble blasting), and HexCells Plus (minesweeper puzzle game). The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, and Hammerwatch (pixel-based fantasy tactics thing). 

I didn't have the heart to tell the poor dears I already did 10 000 000. Mostly because I'd like to play it again. 

Anyway, a review of the first one I finished, HexCell Plus, after the break.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

HULK Smash-hit: Incredible Hulk 201-300, pt 1

In one of the more questionable uses of my time, I've recently read a hundred issues of the Hulk #201 to  #300--that's the period from 1976 to 1984. Most of the period is Bill Mantlo's time as writer on the title, and it's... an odd bag. Join me, then, after the break, for a general discussion of issues 201 to 220, as we talk about such things as deadbeat magicians, over-eager landladies, and the special love between villain and henchman.