Saturday, March 26, 2011

Book Review: Technics and Time vol. 2 by Bernard Stiegler (part 2)

Last time, I gave a general outline of the Stiegler argument, as it sits at the beginning of Book 2. Admittedly, I left out some of the finer details: the Epimethean/Promethean allegory Stiegler uses for his basis, his long focus on Rosseau's Origin of Language, and a really long discussion of anthropology ala André Leroi-Gourhan. But the essentials are there.

Volume 2 opens with a brief introduction. It summarizes his primary points: human being is a technics-oriented being. We've entered a new stage of industrial activity that has altered our memory and individuation. Heidegger's Tool-Being opens the way for a discussion of technics, but he goes too far on emphasizing present-being over past and future. Then Steigler briefly outlines the book, and the intro ends. (He does skip the last chapter in this outline--it's interesting, because even while I was reading it, the fourth chapter of the book felt like a different discussion than what came before.)

In the first chapter, The Orthographic Age, Steigler sets up the contrast between numeric and analogic devices and the written word, with more of an emphasis on the latter. It starts, however, with a thorough investigation of the nature of photography, as outlined by Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida. Barthes argued that the camera offers a new accessibility to the present moment, to the real of what's going on right now. And a photo viewed in the present is a direct line to the "now" depicted in the photo. For Stiegler, then, the camera and photograph are an exemplary form of the power of technics: it's a tool that directly connects tertiary memory with perception, in a way that alters human experience. He briefly mentions a few other themes--camera's connection to the immediacy of film ala Walter Benjamin, Lacan's mirror stage and orthopedic (right-thinking) self-obsession, the certainty of the photo, and the deferral between the spectator's grasp of a photo and the moment it's taken and transcribed.

Then we're shifting into writing, and it's a whole new ball game. If photos offer a direct line between past and present, writing offers an access that always has a built-in gap--it pretends to be certain of what it speaks of, but there's always an uncertainty because that gap is always there. Our original concept of citizenship comes from writing--when we write what it means to be a citizen into law, we're not just formalizing citizenship that already exists, we're bringing it into existence. The key here is that writing is about a repetition--it preserves knowledge so that it can be repeated. But this repetition is never exact; there's always some break between the meaning that the writer intended and the meaning that the reader interprets. Stiegler uses three theorists to bolster these ideas. Derrida's différance (something that both constitutes a difference and defers exact formulation) explains the slippage between writing and reading. Husserl enters to offer the connection between scientific thinking and writing--Stiegler agrees, but wants a greater emphasis on the role of tertiary memory. That's where Jean Bottéro comes in; Bottéro argues that writing shifts clearly from something that aids memory (in terms of making lists) to becoming memory, but Steigler argues that no such shifting moment can be found. He closes the chapter with a question that segues to the next topic: if we understand writing as a memory that is always delayed from the original event, and we accept that writing forms the backbone of modern civilization, how do new technologies and their emphasis on speed change humanity's technics?

Thus Chapter 2: The Genesis of Disorientation. All that stuff on writing is, essentially, there to demonstrate how different our current age is from what came before. It returns to Stiegler's anthropological focus, somewhat, and relies heavily on Leroi-Gourhan. Dasein, or Being (Dasein doesn't exactly translate into being, but I don't want to get bogged down in an exact definition for the moment) is not about the individualized being, but about the group. For much of human history, an important level of memory was the ethnic memory, the shared memory of a culture. While the technic always played some role in this type of memory, new use of technics threatens ethnic tradition more than ever before. At the same time, it's also altering the individual, in that thanks to industrialization, personal style is more customizable than ever--you can form a locality, but not a territory. In other words, you can mentally orient yourself in an area (the whole "think globally, act locally" slogan comes out of this), but being able to identify yourself as part of an ethnic territorial group isn't an option like it used to be. Essentially, this chapter is what connects Steigler's previous discussion (on how the evolution of human to something that walks upright is an evolution also of technics) to the current moment of industrialization, which is the subject for Chapter 3.

And thus, Chapter 3, The Industrialization of Memory. Weighing in at a whopping 90 pages, it's pretty clearly the main focus of the book. After a brief overview, Steigler starts with Simon Nora and Alain Minc's report on technology, which coined the term "informatics" to describe how modern technology links information with electricity and commerce--Stiegler adds biotech as well, to remind us that these technics are always a part of the human. Controlling force of such technics has slipped from state to industry, and knowledge turns into what can be calculable, into information, and the subsequent rupture with normality makes the future seem monstrous. (His verdict, not necessarily mine.)

Unlike knowledge, information functions on value and speed--once it's not immediate, its value is gone. No one cares about yesterday's news. New media technology has created real-time (see Paul Virilio if you really want a discussion on the subject), by eliminating delay between an event, the input from it, and the reception of that input to the global audience. Historically, writing has always preserved a split between the event and the report between the event; real-time broadcast eliminates that distance, to the point where the event is indistinguishable from the reporting of the event. In fact, the event is defined by its reporting--if no one reports on something, it's like it never happened. Think about how politics has been shaped by an endless focus on how every word a politician says will be received and broadcast. Stiegler doesn't want to focus on the new media/writing split (and in fact probably would never use the phrase "new media" himself), but he does want to focus on the change in humanity that results in the new acceleration.

In terms of the human, new science focuses extend our concept of the human, and Stiegler uses a brief biological shift to bring in cognitive science. Since it's all about explaining human thought via machines, it may seem like a natural fit with phenomenological technics, but Stiegler complains that it's fundamentally flawed. He uses Alan Turing as the example: Turing considered how the process of humans thinking could be explained in terms of the process of computers processing, but such a parallel dismisses how computers have changed the way humans think--because they're thinking about how computers and humans run in parallel, cognitive scientists fail to recognize where humans and computers intersect. Multiple-agent theory works better, as it's based on animal group-minds, but such an analysis fails to account for individual experience. Stiegler closes the chapter with a summary of industrial memory and the program: we've always been programmed by our technics, but now that technics has created a sense of ubiquity and a lack of control. Who and what is being programmed?

The final chapter, Temporal Object and Retentional Finitude, is largely about how we go from perception into the other stages of memory, and vice versa. Stiegler labors greatly to build a segue here from the previous chapter, in comparing Husserl to cognitive science, but really, it's a vastly different subject from what's come previously. The chapter doesn't fit well with the rest of the book, but it does work in terms of the larger discussion of technics. Essentially, what Stiegler wants to do is distinguish Husserl's account of memory--perception, primary memory, and secondary memory, with clearly defined demarcations between them--with his own version, which focuses on their permeability with other, and with technics. His primary theoretical allies for this task is Derrida, who has been known to comment on Husserl in some depth, and Paul Ricœur, another French philosopher who focused on phenomenology and hermeneutics (hermeneutics = interpretation. It doesn't really, but again, it's a useful starting lie).

I've already discussed how these types of memory are distinguished; again, where Stiegler differs from Husserl is that he insists on the permeability between the types, and the involvement of technics. I'll admit, my comprehension here has some large gaps--I simply haven't read the Husserl texts Stiegler is referring to here, and thus lack the understanding to grasp his finer points. In addition to the memory distinction, he also rejects Husserl's description of memory processes in terms of the tone of the melody; his dismissal of the comparison is actually one of the book's more memorable quotations: "To apprehend isolated tones in a melody or phonemes in a language, as an artifact, is just as useless as trying to understand the crackling sound of a fire through the study of wood" (207). He also rejects the spatial metaphor Husserl uses to discuss the limits of temporal retention, for two reasons. First, he prefers to think of the limits of memory (especially secondary memory) in terms not of spatial receding, but of forgetting, so that every repetition of memory is a selection that is not entirely identical to the one before it. And second, the emphasis on spatial limits lends itself to compartmentalization of perception and the individual, both things Stiegler is against. He would rather think of memory--all types, and perception as well--as fluxes that operate within fluxes, with our memory and our perception and our tools constantly changing each other with collections and recollections.

The chapter and book close with a return to industrialization. Steigler repeats that our new speeds encourage simultaneous broadcast and real-time events, resulting in a decontextualization that removes the concept of territory while merging the human further with technics, and memory with perception and image consciousness. End of, as Gene Hunt would say.

That's the book. I do, I admit, have a few problems with it. The frustrating thing is that I think the writing suggests the solutions to said problems, but just doesn't bother to address them. First is the repetition. Not so much in terms of the material (although that gets rather repetitive too), but in terms of word choice. Actually, in terms of the use of just one word. Good God, how many times can one person use "qua" in a book? I'd suggest you do a drinking game wherein you take a shot every time "qua" appears, but most people would be dead by alcohol poisoning before they got half way through. Of course, the repetition solves itself--that is, after all, what technics is all about.

Stiegler's sharp division between humans and animals. It only comes up sporadically in this book, but it was a much bigger element in the first volume. Essentially, Stiegler feels that while animals may use tools, they can't form the memories that allow them to use said tools in such a way that the method is repeatable--not so much on an individual level, but on a species level. They just don't have any way of transmitting the knowledge--no tertiary memory. The annoying thing is that most of the animal/human difference comes out of the Epimetheus myth that Stiegler uses as an allegory in the first book to explain how technics works. So it's a little muddy on how much of this is his own "official" stance and how much is because of the metaphor he wants to use to explain it (a common problem, as we'll see). Part of the animal/human split also comes from how he wants to give some legitimacy to the term epiphylogenesis--how humans evolved via tool use--by contrasting it with regular, run-of-the-mill evolution. But since part of his point in the discussion of human evolution is that you can't point to the moment where human began, the distinction seems to muddle itself.

(I'm also less than fond of his binary between the written and new media, but considering that my own dissertation is kind of big on that split as well, I've decided that the glass-dweller won't be providing projectiles.)

My other big peeve is the way he fully embraces Barthes' original concept of photography--namely, that it offers direct access to the Real. The photographed moment, to me, seems just as perception-based as any other moment. The idea that the real is captured in a photo just seems like a cultural conception of photography that we're just not at any more. (Oh, another problem, one that comes up reasonably often in such broad scope discussions--even acknowledging the argument concerning the effacing of the ethnic, Stiegler fails to properly recognize his tendency towards universalizing in his discussions.) Again, it's hard to tell how much of this is actually Stiegler's stance, though, and how much comes out of the camera's metaphoric use as a contrast with the delayed access to an interpretative past offered by writing.

The other problem here is that, while I have read Barthes' commentary on the image, I haven't read Camera Lucida. So add that along with the works of Heidegger and Husserl that I really need to read if I'm going to follow these arguments to their full length.

These complaints are all very secondary, though. I like Steigler's general theory immensely. And it will be immensely useful in my studies: how video games work as tools, how memories form in video games (which basically function on repetition), how objects in video games work in tools, and how the writing/media distinction applies to video games. It's been enormously helpful in expanding my knowledge into a new area--and, by extension, expanding me into a new area.

Of course, anyone who's been watching my eating habits while reading this book knows how it's been expanding me into new areas.

...Yep, ending on a fat joke. Gotta keep it classy.

Later Days.

Book Review: Technics and Time vol. 2 by Bernard Stiegler (part 1)

"Only God doesn’t forget. But he has nothing to memorize."
--Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, 2: Disorientation

It's been a long time since I've done a book review of an explicitly scholarly work. And with no offense meant to Mr. Zielinski, Bernard Stiegler is writing a whole different kind of book. This isn't going to be the usual type review--this isn't about whether the book is well-written or not; rather, my main consideration here is going to be trying to understand what's going on, and what can be profitably extracted for video game analysis in particular. So: I'm going to describe Stiegler's general theory, give a brief overview of the book itself (chapter by chapter), and then discuss what bugged me about his approach, what use I can make of it, and who I should brush up on as a result.

Before we jump in, I do want to do one element of the traditional PoC book review: a brief explanation of my personal connection to the source material. I've chosen the Technics and Time trilogy to be the last set of books I read before jumping full steam into the dissertation. To be honest, they're proving to be a far more difficult read than I've anticipated. Part of the problem is my general unfamiliarity with French theory and philosophy; a much bigger part of my problem is my unfamiliarity with phenomenology. (If you are similarly unaware of phenomenology, the simplest explanation I've come across is that it's the investigation of the difference between your perception of a thing and that actual thing. In truth, phenomenology isn't really anything like that, but it's a useful lie to get started.)

At any rate, it's taken me a month or so to read the first two volumes. And I neared the tail end of the second earlier this week, I was really starting to wonder if there was any point. The style was so dense, the work was so impenetrable that I was really worried I may just be wasting my time. Then two things happened: first, I started reading another phenomenology book (more on that later, perhaps), and realized that I understood and recognized the basic concepts the author was talking about. And second, I had a long talk with some fellow grads on phenomenology, and discovered I could hold my own. In other words, both experiences taught me that I had learned something from these readings, something that I could extrapolate to other work--as long as I could articulate what that something may be.

And thus we have this post.
(I'll mention for the record that this is all my interpretation, and should be taken with a grain of salt. Followed by a salt lick. And probably some more salt.)

While my focus here is book 2, it's book 1 that really sets up Stiegler's argument. In a nutshell, he's taking key elements from phenomenology as outlined by previous phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, as well as hefty amounts of deconstructionism from French philosopher Jacques Derrida. (Here's a picture of him giving his sexy eyes.) This is all in very layman's terms, but Stiegler's basic argument is that humans are defined by our tools, or technics, as he calls it. The irreducible element, the species-distinguishing trait of the human race is the ability to recognize that objects can be used as tools, and that once we use an object in this manner, we can do so again (This repetition factor is hugely important.). And Stiegler's definition of "tool" is pretty broad. A screwdriver is a tool, but so is a television. A book is a tool. Other people are tools. Your body is a tool.

You'd better believe I'm a tool.

But if tool use is the fundamental trait of the human, two facts follow:
1) A human being without tools is not a human being at all.
2) Our lives are shaped by our tools. You change the nature of a tool, then you change the nature of a human.
Once you accept language as a tool, the consequences of 1) don't seem so worrisome. If language is a tool, then words are tools, and if thoughts are composed of words, then thoughts are tools as well--as long as a person can think, they're never without some sort of tools. To Stiegler, any tool that extends a human's reach to affect something more than his immediate being is a prosthesis--in fact, it extends the human's being. Where does the human end and the prosthesis begin? It doesn't, and that's Stiegler's point: we are always our prostheses. (Simple example: say another car hits your vehicle. If you're outside that vehicle, you'll probably say "you hit my car!" But if you're inside it, you'll say "You hit me!" We extend ourselves into our tools.)
The second point, that changing the tool changes the person, gets to Stiegler's main thesis: because of the rapid progression of new media technologies, the nature of the human being has been irreversibly altered to a scale never seen before. A part of this alteration is explained by Stiegler's other main point on technics: we store our memories in our tools. That's where repetition comes in--it's not just that we know how to use tools, but we can remember how to use them, and shape our lives around those memories.

This wasn't an entirely new idea for me. Back way back, Don Norman talked about something very similar in his discussion of design affordance. This is a lot more complicated--in part because it's being applied in a more in-depth manner, in part because it comes out a theoretic tradition that's much more complicated, and in part because Stiegler uses multiple triads of memory. Memory-out-of-tool is always referred to as tertiary memory, but what constitutes the number 1 and number 2 slot slips a little. He takes the original divisions of memory from Husserl, whom we'll see more of later. For current purposes, Husserl distinguished three different types of thought in regards to time: there's immediate perception; there's primary memory, which is short term collections of perceptions; and there is secondary memory, which involves later recollections of the primary stuff. To this list, Stiegler makes a few changes (again, we'll discuss them later), and adds memory stored in tools, or tertiary memory.

The other triad of memory that arises is in terms of types of being: on a level of the single person, you have the individual memory. On the level of the group, you have ethnic memory. And on the level of tools, you have technics or tertiary memory. Stiegler's theory on the current level of industrial synthesis, as he calls it, is that our new ubiquitous tools have eroded ethnic memory into nonexistence, and the individual becomes the transindividual (I'd explain that term, but it doesn't come up much in the second book, and we've still got a lot of other ground to cover.). That we store memory in tools is easy enough to grasp, depending on the tool, at least. Obviously, humanity has been storing memory in writing for centuries; that's essentially what a book is. And now, we store parts of ourselves in media devices all the time: our Ipods have our playlists, our Iphones have our conversations, our credit cards have our banking history. What's a little more shocking to grasp is that we don't just store information about ourselves in tools; we store the information, the use, of the tools in ourselves.

I offer myself as an example. I'm a lifelong student; I have taken dozens of lecture-based classes. And in those classes, I've learned to take notes. The process has been ingrained in me; you sit in the classroom, someone talks in front of you, you write it down, and knowledge is transferred. (Actually, Stiegler distinguishes sharply between knowledge and information, but never mind.) What I've discovered, though, is that saying this method is ingrained in me is not just a fancy figure of speech. The process of note-taking has been repeated on me so many times that if you take away my pencil and paper and force me to just listen, I can't do it. I mean, I can, but if you want my full attention, you'll have to give me some looseleaf. It doesn't even matter if I read what I've written down ever again. Put me in a schoolroom setting, and my secondary and primary memories require a pencil and paper to properly function. My tools determine the way I think.

Now, extrapolate that to a generation of children that have laptops instead of paper. Iphone messaging instead of landlines. Video games instead of books.

Then you begin to see why Stiegler might be of interest to a person researching text and image in video games.

Now, this is just a bare bones view of the theory. In actuality, it's much more complicated, much more nuanced, and generally much more French and phenomenological and dense. But with the overview above, we're ready to get into the actual book.

...Or at least, we're ready to do it tomorrow. My tertiary memory in the form of the automatic disk scan my computer performs at 3:00 am is reminding me it's time to go to sleep.

Later Days.

Friday, March 25, 2011

A Statement of Intent: Bleary Edition

An intent simple in statement, if not execution: I will not go to bed until I finish reading Volume 2 of Bernard Stiegler's Technics and Time, and post a full, ludicrously full, review on this blog.

I assume physical exhaustion of staying up will play well off the mental exhaustion of reading.
Stay tuned.

7:48 pm: 30 pages of notes so far. 15 pages of Stiegler's text left to annotate.

8:42 pm: Nearly an hour later. 31 pages of notes, and 5 pages left of text. End in sight, etc. Only two subheadings to go!

9:27 pm: Done the notes. Now, to write up a chapter summary.

10:16 pm. Done the chapter summary. God, how did that take an hour? I mean, it is two single spaced pages long, but... never mind, answered my own question. I'm going to see if there's still a bus home; I'll do the blog post next, but after "supper."

Later Days.

Friday Random Quotations: What, you don't read ancient Greek? Then I'm sorry, sir; this poem is not for you.

"And through the spaces of the dark
Midnight shakes the memory
As a madman shakes a dead geranium."
--"Rhapsody on a Windy Night," T. S. Eliot.

I have a love/hate relationship with Mr. Eliot. I love him for creating some of the most beautiful and most beautifully crafted poems of the 20th century. I hate him for peppering them with so many dense literary references that they sometimes make me feel like a abashed undergraduate who didn't do this week's readings. (STILL! In my fifth year of graduate studies!)

Later Days.

Monday, March 21, 2011

And what's the deal with cheese? (The deal with cheese is that it is currently on sale for 3.99, which is a very good price for cheese.)

Q: If it's better to be frugal than thrifty, why do we call them thrift shops? Shouldn't we call them fruge shops?

A: The reason that it is "better" to be considered frugal than thrifty relates back to their relative etymologies. "Frugal" derives from the Latin word frugalis, which included connotations of fruit and profit. "Thrifty" derives from the Old Norse word "þrif," which includes the means of industry. In other words, frugal points a careful managing of surplus, and can even point towards further, more negative, terms of money-pinching, including that wonderful $5.00 word, parsimonious. Thrifty is not managing a surplus, but managing out of necessity. It conveys the idea (rightly or wrongly, mostly wrongly) that being so cheap with money may also mean that the tight spender is also cheap in terms of emotional depth and personal value. It carries, in other words, a sense of desperation.

"Thrift shop," on the other hand, has entered into the common parlance because a thrift shop takes that element of desperation and transfers it from the buyer to the seller. The design of a thrift shop is minimal, is kept deliberately minimal, in order to convince the buyer that the store needs them more desperately than the other way around. A shop based on frugality, on the other hand, maintains the sense of managing a surplus; such a shop can afford to wait for the "proper" customer to come along.

My answer here is one of the reasons why I'd make a poor stand-up comedian. One of the many, many reasons.

Later Days.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Friday Quotations: A SINCERE Apology

Dear Readers,

I think we've all come to realize that I make promises that I don't always keep. Promised post subjects never appear. New features are never unveiled. Deadlines are missed, spelling is sloppy, etc, etc. And, in general, I have made my peace with that. But there is one thing I can't allow myself to get away with any longer. For two weeks now--TWO!--I have missed the most beloved of all my repeat elements, the Friday Quotation. You deserve better. We all do.

I will give no excuses, and ask no forgiveness. I will merely present to you this Friday's Quotation:

"I have told this to few people, gentlemen, and I suspect I never will again, but one day when I was a young boy on holiday in Uberwald I was walking along the bank of a stream when I saw a mother otter with her cubs. A very endearing sight, I'm sure you will agree, and even as I watched, the mother otter dived into the water and came up with a plump salmon, which she subdued and dragged onto a half-submerged log. As she ate it, while of course it was still alive, the body split and I remember to this day the sweet pinkness of its roes as they split spilled out, much to the delight of the baby otters who scrambled to feed on the delicacy. One of nature's wonders, gentlemen: mother and children dining upon mother and children. And that's when I first learned about evil. It is built into the very nature of the universe. Every world spins in pain. If there is any kind of supreme being, I told myself, it is up to all of us to become his moral superior."
--Terry Pratchett, Unseen Academicals

This quotation is said by Pratchett's Lord Vetinari character. I've heard it argue that the character is a mouthpiece for Pratchett's own views, and on this case, I'd have to agree. It's a very Nation way of approaching morality and divinity.

Next week: Something from Dashiell Hammett. Hint: it's not going to be this cheery.

Later Days.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


From Bernard Stiegler's Technics and Time vol. 2: Disorientation:
"Conjoining the effect of the real (of presence) in image capture, in which event and input of the event coincide in time, with the real-time or the live aspect of transmission, in which the captured event and reception of this input coincide equally and simultaneously, analogic and numeric technologies inaugurate a new collective as well as individual experience of time as a departure from historicity, if it is true that historicity relies on an idea of time that is essentially time deferred; that is, on a constitutive opposition posited in principle (illusorily--but this illusion has very real effects) between a story line and what it reports" (115).

Note that this is all one sentence. One sentence. For the most part, I've reconciled myself over the past three years to the writing style of academia, especially that special sort that comes from the French philosophizers. I'm pretty sure I even understand what Stiegler means in that sentence above. But every now and then, it just strikes me that I'm spending hours and hours reading and trying to understand work presented in a writing that, if it was presented in an undergraduate paper, I would attempt to murder via drowning in red ink. And then I get sad, and my hand itches for the red pen that isn't there.

Later Days.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Late Night Edition

I thought I'd try to get a proper start to this week by going to bed early on a Sunday. Now it's 2:00 am, and I'm in one of those familiar states where I'm all but exhausted, but can't for the life of me sleep. Thank goodness for the life of a graduate student, where I can get away with working strange hours--well, until my Wednesday and Friday classes, at any rate.
A new plan, then: I'll pursue various courses, capriciously, as the mood takes me, until I taken, or rather, overtaken, further, by slumber. (All right, that was cumbersome. But I'm trying.) What will I do? Well, I shall alternate between:
1) Playing Dragon Age: Origins. I'm doing a quick run-through of the game in preparation for a playthrough of the sequel. I've placed the difficult on the lowest setting; this is a session built on exploring the gameworld, rather than challenging myself with the gameplay.
2) Reading bits and snips from A Song for Arbonne, by Guy Gavriel Kay. And that's why a sort of poetic vein is creeping into my writing here; my writing style has always been subject to osmosis, and once must admit that if I had to choose someone to imitate, I could certainly do a lot worse.
3) Reading old, archived posts of Rock, Paper, Shotgun. It was introduced to me as one of the best journalist discussions of gaming on the Net, and it's certainly kept me informed and entertained in good order. I've been reading it backwards from its start, so I am currently immersed in discussions of PC games from 2007. The cake is a lie!
4) Watching the various spiders crawl around the basement. This is, frankly, a full time occupation; without straining myself, I can immediately identify six different spiders in operation here. I used to wonder what that many spiders could find to eat down here, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the answer is "each other."
5) Transcribing some notes and choice passages from Bernard Stiegler's Technics and Time vol. 2: Disorientation. While this chapter, focusing on anthropology and technics (as many of them do) didn't really pick up for me until the discussion of style near the end, I'm starting to get an inkling as to how this can be profitably applied to my own research. And it's good that it's finally becoming clear; you don't want to read five hundred pages or so of hardcore French theory and come out at the end without any other sentiment than "well, that was fun."

I think I'd best be about my work, then.

Later Days.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Why, I never!'s analysis of my blog: " is probably written by a female somewhere between 18-25 years old. The writing style is personal and happy most of the time."

The nerve! Okay, yes, I've read my share of Babysitter Club books growing up. Yes, I spent a weekend two weeks ago reading Twilight. And sure, I've watched seasons of Gilmore Girls and the entirety of Gossip Girl. And yes, I spent last Saturday Night staying up late watching the My Little Pony reboot.

But "18-25"? C'mon. These interests fall far more into the category of a 14-15 year old female. 16, at the absolute most.

Later Days.

Friday, March 4, 2011

IF another road was taken

Today's reading has been "Gaming, Identity, and Literacy," an essay by Daniel Keller et al., an essay from the anthology Gaming Lives in the Twenty-First Century: Literate Connections. The essay essentially argues that those were heavy child readers in the 80s and had access to computers were drawn towards Interactive Fiction (essentially, text-based games like Zork and Hitchhiker's Guide that functioned through use of a parser) which in turn drew them towards computer programming. Their point is that computer games, and Interactive Fiction in particular, can be and have been historically significant in encouraging children to develop computer skills outside a classroom setting. Their approach is vaguely ethnographic (or to be more accurate, their approach is I, in my vague understanding of ethnography, vaguely understand to be ethnographic): they interview five people who went through the childhood reader --> IF fiction player--> career in computers. After the article, I had two divergent thoughts:
1) On ethnography (or maybe anthropology) in general: I've noticed that, in the field, there's a temptation to let cultural development and individual, childhood development to stand in as substitutes for each other. In other words, there's an implicit argument that the way a past culture is more primitive than a modern equivalent is similar to the way a child is more primitive than an adult. As an enlightened English student (with a whole different set of disciplinary-based prejudices and blind spots), this tendency bothers me. First, on a purely postcolonial level, it's insulting to any culture it's applied to, because it translates into the "Father knows best" Western Imperialist model. And second, it tends to lend itself to the primitive/modern binaries employed by thinkers from J. J. Rousseau to Jean Baudrillard. And if there's one thing English teaches over and over again, it's that binaries are no good. You're either in favor of them or not, there's no middle ground.

2) I can't help but wonder how Keller and Co.'s theory applies to me personally. I certainly qualified as well-read. Granted, most of my childhood education took place in the 90s, not the 80s, but given the technological access available in rural Saskatchewan, a lot of the same restrictions--particularly in terms of access to computer games--applies. I remember growing up not on IF games, particularly, but on graphic adventure games that used a parser and the Apple II to operate: Transylvania, The Wizard of Oz, Oregon Trail (even less of an IF, but you get the idea). And I took the computer programming classes offered, meager though they were (which was a fault of the curriculum, not the teacher; he was incredibly encouraging). The big difference, I think, is that my home computer wasn't a PC but a Mac. The game --> programming connection worked... differently... for Macs. First, there was the problem that Mac games were notably fewer, which, conversely, meant they were better known among players, because everyone played the same thing. It's an interesting fact, for example, that nearly every scholar who works on gaming and had a Mac in the 90s will eventually write something about Beyond Dark Castle.
It looked like this:

(I recommend looking it up on Youtube, if you're interested, because the real selling point of the game is the grunting sound the hero made every time he got hit. And if you were playing like I was, he got hit a lot.)
But there were still enough games to spark an interest; in fact, I remember attempting to cobble together my own IF game based on the Macintosh HyperCard program.

A bigger reason, I suspect, that I stayed a lit nerd instead of graduating to computer geek is the one Sherry Turkle mentions in her book, Life on the Screen.. She argues that the PC of the era carried with it a sense of modernism, in that it championed itself as the machine you could take apart and build, with programs that allowed and enabled homebrew experimental programming. The Mac, on the other hand, with its newly-coined desktop and hidden files, was postmodern, and geared towards keeping the operating aspects invisible. I could play with a program like HyperCard, which allowed basic linking and parsing, but any deeper level of programming was kept hidden away. Would things have turned out differently if my parents had brought home a PC? Would my life be markedly different if I was busy modding Wolfenstein instead of reading Douglas Adams? Would I have traded in my library card for a floppy disk?

Well, no, probably not. Again, rural Saskatchewan did not lend itself to computer prodigies. And frankly, I really liked the reading part. I think I'm pretty happy with the way things turned out on that front--and it's not like I haven't come back to the games in the end.

Still, one wonders what might have happened. There but the grace of an algorithm go I...

Later Days.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Update: What I Did On My Winter Vacation

It's been a while since a regular post, so I thought I'd post a quick update on all things PoC.
Most recently, I returned to school this week after the February break. The week has been a hectic mess of classes and sessions and so forth. Rather uninteresting stuff. So... let's talk about what I did on my week off.

1) I played video games. In a scholarly fashion, of course. It is my area after all. Current digital play efforts have been directed towards Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey for the DS, and Resonance of Fate for the X-Box 360. Both are Japanese imports, and both favor a complex and highly customizable combat system over story. In the case of Resonance of Fate particularly, I can't think of another single game where I have paid less attention to the unfolding story. It's gotten to the point where I read books during the cutscenes, because otherwise, I'll just spend 5 straight minutes wondering what's going on.

2) I read scholarly-type books. I didn't have a lot of choice, since three interlibrary loans were due on the same day. I think this is a pretty common pattern around scholars--we find an interesting essay that leads us to a handful of books useful to our subject area, we act on them immediately, and then they all must be read at once. Specifically, I performed a speed read of Evolution of Fantasy Role-playing Games by Michael Tresca, Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus by Bernard Stiegler, Worlds in Play: International Perspectives on Digital Games Research (New Literacies and Digital Epistemologies), Worlds in Play: International Perspectives on Digital Games Research and edited by Jennifer Jenson. And I read Bioart and the Vitality of Media by Robert Mitchell for the class I'm auditing. The Jenson and Tresca books weren't particularly theory-heavy, and the Mitchell book wasn't much worse, so they went easily enough. But for anyone contemplating a speed-read of Stiegler... don't. For the love of French Philosophy and Derrida, don't.

3) I read regular books. And lots of 'em. I read volume 2 of Mome (a quarterly published graphic novel anthology edited by Eric Reynolds). I read Twilight, as regular readers already know. I read Silverborne by Patricia Briggs, which is essentially True Blood meets Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, taking the best elements of both (the action and sharp dialogue of the latter, and the female orientation and world-building of the former). I read Brent Weeks' The Black Prism, which is a 640 paged first book in a new fantasy series--and actually worth reading, which is surprising for a 600+ paged book in general. And I read Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon in one day last Monday because I just realized we were discussing it in my reading group on Wednesday. Whew.

4) I marked 30 student midterm exams. The less said, the better forgotten.

So I actually accomplished quite a bit in a 12 day period. And yet, I now feel more behind than ever. Such is life, I suppose.

Later Days.