Friday, April 29, 2011

Friday Quotations: He's Pretty Much the German Equivalent of Shakespeare

"Big books! Lots of knowledge!
Oh, what I will have to learn!
If it doesn't find its way into my head
Let it be in the book instead!"

--Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, written in the copy of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary that he (Goethe) gave to his daughter-in-law.

Later Days.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Book Review: Technics and Time vol. 3 by Bernard Stiegler

"How not to shudder before such a psychotic, at the catastrophe that has unfolded when we see Blanche taken away forever from her 'sanctary' with Stella and Stanley? How not to feel insane ourselves, carried along by this exemplar of the great, mad American destiny--that never fails at the same time to sell us through making us laugh and cry in the face of our own fate, the American Way of Life? America, America!"--Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time vol. 3: Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise.

New civilizations have risen, and old empires have crumbled. Millions have fallen in love, millions more loved and lost. Mountains have crumbled into valleys, and then the valleys were, I don't know, thrown into then ocean or something.

My point is, I've been reading Volume 3 of Technics and Time (subtitled Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise) for a ridiculously long time. Here's a note to aspiring scholars: if it takes you a month to read a 224 paged book, you're doing it wrong. Admittedly, I'm doing better time than I did on volume two, so that's something, at least.
For those whose memories don't span back a month, I did a review of Book 2 here. And because I still had more to say, I continued the epic trek here. I'm hoping this post won't be quite as long, so if you need a refresher on what Stiegler is discussing in this series, refer back to the previous posts.

This book is a notable shift from the first two volumes. This may be a temporal issue--as Stiegler says in the Notice, the original draft of this volume was finished in 1992, along with the other two volumes, but over the following decade, Stiegler kept revising it until it emerged a much different beast. (Side note: between the publication of the French edition in 2001 and now, Stiegler has written 23 books. The man clearly doesn't sleep.) If nothing else, I noticed a sharp reduction in the use of the term "qua." But the difference goes much deeper than that. In volume two, he discussed how new technology has reshaped technics and humanity through simultaneous transmission and changes in that vein, but in volume three, the discussion takes on a more alarmist tone: he truly believes that we are facing a current crisis--a general malaise, to refer back to his subtitle--and that much of this crisis can be traced to the most dominant force in the technoscience stage, the US of A.

But I'm getting ahead of myself a bit. Let's take a more leisurely overview. The book can be broadly divided into two parts. The first three chapters describe the consequences of cinematic time, and the last three discuss the general state of malaise, as it relates to education and technology. The division's not quite as neat as that, but it's a useful enough distinction. Chapter 1, "Cinematic Time," unites the technics of the cinema with the three types of memory (primary retention, secondary retention, tertiary retention) that Stiegler laid out near the end of volume 2. A movie functions in a way similar to memory: the director takes a huge amount of footage (the primary retention, if you will), and edits it, cuts it, compresses it to form an abbreviated, supposedly unified end product. The catch is, in Stiegler's view, what's important is not that we've developed this technology that mimicks the way memory works--it's that our consciousness has always been cinematic. The mind automatically creates a continuity between disparate images (the Kuleshov effect). Cinema is thus a particularly powerful tool because it utilizes the same method we are using all the time. It comes back to Stiegler's previous contention that consciousness is not a unified ego, but a constant flux, and the flux of moving images can align itself to this flux--or coerce the flux of consciousness to align itself with cinema--relatively easily.

This view of consciousness depends on the three types of retention being able to affect each other, and Stiegler quickly recaps how previous philosophers--prime example being Husserl--couldn't accept that, as they weren't willing to give full credit to tertiary memory. For movie buffs, he goes into two films in depth to make his point about mixing fluxes. Fellini's Intervista, particularly the scene where an actress from another Fellini film watches footage of herself acting a scene from that film, demonstrates how cinema and consciousness can coincide in a number of reinforcing manners, and Hitchcock's short film "Four O'Clock" demonstrates how the viewer constructs their own interpretation of time in line with the cinematic version played before them.

Stiegler ends the chapter with a quick discussion of television. If we think of photography as the technology that foregrounds the realness of the past, cinema is its extension with the added element of the flux between image and consciousness. Television is then film's extension, adding the elements of real-time viewing, which changes the nature of the event it beholds (think Heisenberg x 10), and mass broadcast, which allows for widespread synchronicity.

Chapter 2, "Cinematic Consciousness," shifts the focus from cinema to consciousness, with Kant's Critique of Pure Reason serving as the main text. He's dealing with two basic strands of theorists here: Adorno and Horkheimer, symbolizing those that decry television for its negative effects on society at large; and Kant and those who try to form a transcendental consciousness without giving tertiary memory its proper dues. A & H (my clever abbreviation) argue that cinema paralyzes imagination, but Stiegler counters that imagination--and by extension, consciousness--has always been cinematic. A & H use Kant's discussion of memory to bolster their arguments, which gives Stiegler an excellent segue into Kant's Critique.

The complicated part of the Critique is that it had two editions, in 1781 and 1787, and the two versions don't always fit well together. In the first, Kant argues that consciousness is a synthesis of apprehension, reproduction, and recognition--apprehension, in that it perceives what's in front of it; reproduction, in that it can mentally reconstruct that event later; and recognition, in that it can apply general structures and recognize them as similar to other encountered structures. Stiegler maps these loosely onto primary, secondary, and tertiary memory, respectively, though he somewhat confusingly refers to technics as a fourth element of the synthesis in a later chapter. The second edition eschews the synthesis in favor of a description of mental figures. Stiegler objects to both versions--the figure version doesn't take into account the tertiary grounding of consciousness, and the three syntheses version doesn't account for the flux of consciousness.

In an almost Derridean analysis of the form of Kant's Critique, Stiegler ends the chapter by bringing it back to A & H. Kant's Critique is a linear, booked model of Kant's own consciousness. It shows interaction with technics, in the way it is inscribed on paper. It shows the process of revision in the two editions. And it shows how consciousness fluctuates with the consciousness of others, in that Kant created the revision as a response to how the original was received by his reading peers. In contrast, the massive tertiary industries of programming technologies, such as television, run the risk of synthesizing all consciousness, thus eliminating the perception of difference and time, and deadening desire, as A & H contend. The problem with their analysis, though, is that they fail to acknowledge how we have always been technically determined.

That brings us to chapter 3, "I and We: The American Politics of Adoption." This chapter brings in the issue of adoption that looms large in the rest of the work, and describes how the synthesis of the consciousness flux works with a larger flux designating a group. It starts by introducing another of the book's deconstructing binaries, practice and theory. Bourdieu's book on television, he argues, is typical of the European theory focus--it treats its subject in a vacuum, and thus misses the point of how it affects individuation. A human being, he argues, is always in a state of flux in terms of their own identity (the I) and the groups they affiliate with (the We). The latter especially is determined by a process of adoption, in which a group has a projection of their joint identity into the future that is fused through its (usually mythical/fictional) past. The I and the We work together--the I functions in the We through the idea of difference, or exception. Without this exception, the We is directionless, creating a mass synthesis of a group that functions without direction. As an immigrant nation, America is the exemplar version of the need for adoption, and the first victim of its failure under the risk of global synchronization. He ends with further segues into the general failing of the education system under this mass industrialization.

The next chapter, "The Malaise of Our Education Institutions," continues on this track. It begins with a distinction between technics in general, and mnemotechnics, tools that act primarily as memory supports. He argues that mnenmotechnics remained rather static--through written word, and the book--and separate from the evolution of the other technics. But now, the two have been fused together. This fusion especially damages the education system, which depended on stable mnemotechnics. And this brings us to another pair of terms: cardinality, which indicates ways of measuring space, and calendarity, ways of measuring time. The education system, he claims, was in many ways a system for interiorizing the technics of both. It was a system for contracting existing knowledge and providing an orientation through it. And now, our relation to them is changing so rapidly, instability has become the new common state, resulting in a general malaise. A proper critique of the education system and this malaise, then, requires a critique of these retentional devices, and a more general examination of how Kant and Heidegger regarded orientation.

And that's the subject of chapter 5, "Making the Difference." This chapter goes back to Kant and Heidegger in a big way. What I knew about Kant and Heidegger before this point can be summed up by an issue of Action Philosophers, so take everything I say about this chapter with a grain of salt. Heidegger criticized Kant for failing to recognize how object and subject interact (in Heidegger's case, he felt they interacted through Dasein, I think), but Stiegler says that Heidegger is guilty of the same for his own failure to give proper credit to technics. The philosophers' respective views on orientation relate back to their views on differentiation, on what basis reason can differentiate. Kant felt that there were real objects, and subjectivity was overlayed on it. Heidegger felt that the real was always filtered through Daisen, or some version of subjectivity. For Kant, reason exists because consciousness needs it to exist, because it required the ability to practically differentiate. In other words, reason is second to practicality. But, as the final chapter describes, the theory/practice split has also been erased.

And that brings us, philosophically kicking and screaming, to chapter six, "Technoscience and Reproduction." To refer back to a previous argument, going back to Aristotle, there's been a history of a split between practice and theory. Science is theory, and refers to the way reality works, the elements that couldn't be thought of as anything other than the way they are. Technology is all about the contingent--changing something to make it better suit the present moment. Technics has always disrupted this relation, but the current state of technoscience has merged them very thoroughly. Science has been subordinated as a sort of machine that creates new venues for industry. Americans are the "least metaphysical people," whatever that means, but they are also the best set up industrially for being at the source of the current situation.

Stiegler then launches into his final example of the new state of retention: reproduction. Cinema and technics have always had an element of reproduction to them--any recording is in a way a reproduction. And by the same token, any reproduction is also a transformation. But the hyper-reproduction we have now is both a combination of the reproductive powers of the digital (copy without degeneration) and the effects of mass production. We can now make reproductions without ever actually having an original product. This new definition of reproduction affects the biological and the technological. And it doesn't help that malaise thing, you know? Stiegler ends the book with an indication that the next topic will be an examination of subjectivity and printing, but considering that he went on to write 23 other books instead of volume 4, I don't think we can expect that next topic any time soon.

As to the first part of the book, it's hard to shake the feeling that Stiegler is being a little anachronistic, if nothing else, by saying our mode of consciousness has always been cinematic. He mitigates the problem slightly by framing it in terms of story--it might be a little hard to accept that consciousness has always been governed by cinematic principles, but I think it's easier to accept that it has always been governed by overlying narratives. I can't help but wonder if he's also succumbing a little to what he complained about the computer scientists in volume 2. He said that when they argued that the human mind is like a computer, the establishing of the parallel blinded them to how the human mind is affected by the computer, and vice versa. I wonder if there's something similar happening if we say our consciousness functions like cinema.

In regards to the second half, it does feel a little turn-of-the-century alarmist. More to the point, it feels like an alarm without its own "projection to the future." Again and again, Stiegler says the first step is to perform a critique of the present system, a critique that acknowledges technics' proper role, but he doesn't really go any further as to what that critique would consist of--just that it needs to happen. I suspect it's an issue that arises in other books he's written, but there's no real solution, or even a hint of a solution, provided here. And despite its rather large swerve from the previous volumes, the book often feels rather repetitive. Time and again, it turns out that the major failure of Kant, or Husserl, or Heidegger, or someone else, is there failure to recognize the significance of technics.

That said, there was a lot I liked about the book. I thought the discussion of cinematic time was very interesting, and that his comparison between Kant's consciousness and his writing touched on something very significant in a very subtle manner. I wish that he touched more directly on video games--there is a grand total of one mention in the entirety of the three volumes, and that's to state that the video games are potentially what Horkheimer and Adorno mean when they refer to cinema's ability to disrupt its spectator's sense of reality and fiction. I really feel like there's more to discuss on that subject--I don't suppose anyone knows if Stiegler returns to it later? Maybe in one of the other 23 books?

Sigh. Well, time to teach myself to read French, then.

Later Days.

Saturday, April 23, 2011


"And so they accumulate, random chance upon random chance, piling up and pressing down, until one day you realize that your past has been inscribed into your very being as if it had been carved in stone."

I don't know who said that. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion I made it up entirely. But that's the whole point: random events happen to us all the time, and we forge them into a narrative only after the fact. And a few random events happened today that I'm forging just now.

To whit, I realized a few days ago that I had made an unconscious choice to stop reading fiction, in general, and fantasy, in particular. I could trace this impulse to a few different sources. One was a very unsatisfactory encounter with a fantasy trilogy that I have recently discussed in great, great detail, so I'll say no more about that. Another factor was a conversation with a friend wherein she mentioned (admitted? confessed?) that she rarely reads fiction because her own literary interest is contemporary society, and she finds it addressed more directly in nonfiction work. I realized that I couldn't really argue with that, and that I had more than a passing interest in contemporary society myself. And finally, a third contributing factor was my mounting guilt over the glacial progression of my dissertation (The "I and We" chapter of Technics and Time vol 3 is kicking my ass, as I suspected it would). I decided that if I was going to use other literature as a distraction/carrot, then it would at least be a class of literature more immediately useful to my work (comparatively more useful).

And again, my first choice of a nonfiction work was controlled by a strange conflux of influence. In the late summer of 2009, I made my first and still only protracted trip to Toronto, where I stayed with some friends/friends of the family (who are, by the by, great people, and I really, really should take them up on their offer of a repeat visit some day--assuming it still stands). As any good literary aficionado/nut, I was drawn quickly to their bookcase, and constructed a list of promising authors whom, for one reason or another, I had never heard of. Since I was studying for comprehensive exams at the time, the list quickly went to the back of mind--until I stumbled across it again in February, while looking for something else entirely (I can't remember what the something was. A receipt for the student society? A tax form? It was vitally important at the time, whatever it was). Based on the list, I put two books on hold, one by David Sedaris, and another by Jeffrey Eugenides. Sadly, in both cases, I did zero research, and wound up with two anthologies compiled by each author, but not actually consisting of a single written work of either of them.

I probably would have forgotten them both (in fact, I had to look up Egenides to write this post), if not for a later encounter with another friend in March. We ran into each other at the local public library. It was a bit of a strange conversation--although entirely on my part, rather than hers. You know how you can get used to seeing someone in a certain place, and it throws you when you see them somewhere else? Well, that was in full force there. Just how badly I was thrown created another set of slowly accumulating random factors, but we'll talk about that story another time. For now, what's important is that she mentioned, entirely off-hand that she was just reading a David Sedaris book. That reminded me of my list, and my previous failure, and so, I walked out of the public library with a Sedaris book--next week, when I came to the library again. (I actually didn't take out any book that day--I was really thrown. It was weird.)

And now we get to some actual randomness. Today, I jogged to the local library to take out another Sedaris book. And I did that. I stopped on my way out of the library to put in my earbuds. It wasn't until I was a good 10 minutes into the run back home that I realized I had set the book down when I adjusted the buds, and had thus left it back at the library. But when I got back, the book was gone. A very efficient librarian had already noticed it, picked it up, and returned it, as a quick check of my library account confirmed. Thus, I went in search of a new book. I was actually about to walk out with a collection of essays from Susan Sontagg when I found Jonathan Franzen's collection, How to Be Alone. I recognized the name, but only because my office mate has Franzen's The Corrections sitting on his shelf. And yet, that recollection was enough to get me to choose the Franzen book over the Sontagg one.
On the way home, I started reading the book. I'm not sure how I'm going to feel about it--it starts with a preface where Franzen admits that he was a little pompous when he wrote some of these essays--and when an author admits he was a little pompous, you can expect anything up to and including a declaration of divinity.

But the first essay,"My Father's Brain," at least, I found incredibly interesting and involving. Franzen describes his personal experience with his father's decline and death under Alzheimer's. For me, it was a piece that I responded to on two levels. First, academically, I immediately turned to Stiegler and Foucault--Stiegler, for how humans are shaped by their memories and repetition, and Foucault, and his discourse concerning the modern health industry, in Franzen's desperate desire to see his father, and by extension, himself, as more than a statistic for the disease. But I also felt a big personal connection, as I could relate to Franzen's account, and the self-centeredness of that account, because of my own experiences watching the decline of my grandparents. Until I saw it reflected in Franzen's essay, I had never made the connection between these theories and my own life.

I don't want to go any further into this discussion right now, in part because I'm still working out what it means to me, but, more significantly to present circumstances, it's a digression from the main point: it was a series of coincidences that led me to this essay. Granted, even in this partial description, there were some observable patterns in my behavior at large: I'm attracted to books, I make several visits to libraries, and I'm susceptible to offhanded suggestions made by women (not to digress again, but I sometimes seriously think that 90% of the major decisions/changes I've made to my lifestyle have at their source, as part of their motivators, an offhanded suggestion made by a woman. Again, it's weird). But there's undoubtedly an element of chance at work as well-- a randomness within the pattern, so to speak. I could get all N. Katherine Hayles here (she loves her randomness and pattern), but for me, that's what subjectivity and narrative and story always is--putting pieces of randomness together to make something else.

Later Days.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Friday Quotations: Baring the Truth

"Full nudity exists, perhaps, only in the bodies of the damned in hell, as they unremittingly suffer the eternal torment of divine justice. In this sense it can be said that in Christianity there is no theology of nudity, only a theology of clothing."
--Giorgio Agamben, Nudities.

It was going to be a quotation from a David Sedaris book, but I left it at the office, so... here's some Agamben. Yeah.

Later Days.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

So I Says to Mabel, I Says...

I'm playing this game of online Scrabble. It's going pretty good for me. Eventually, I get this letter combination: m-a-t-u-n-i-e. A mental lightning bolt goes through me, and I realize I have the perfect word: minutae, the plural of minuta, a small, insignificant thing. A seven letter 50 pointer--not too shabby. Scrabble, however, will not accept either variations. A google search shows that the word I'm thinking of is actually minutia and minutiae, the latter of which, with all the best intentions in the world, cannot be spelled with seven scrabble tiles. Further, I realize that the addition of the second i letter means the hard "t" I've been putting in the word is actually an "sh" sound. So not only is my winning word play shattered, I've been mispronouncing this word my entire life. And then I lay an inferior, exceptionally subpar word, and suddenly I'm looking at nothing but vowels in my rack. What the hell can you spell with 3 Us?


Later Days.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Friday Quotations: Sweet Rage

"That we can sometimes call it mild does not contradict its violence: many say that sugar is mild, but to me sugar is violent, and I call it so." --Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes

Later Days

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Book Trilogy Review: The First Law by Joe Abercrombie

And after all the efforts, all the sacrifices, all the scheming, and plotting, and killing... All that pain, for what? --Before They Are Hanged, by Joe Abercrombie

Long-time readers know how this works: long rambling preamble interwoven with personal history, a summary of the book (or trilogy, in this case), my immediate opinion,and a brief (or "brief," in this case) discussion of wider issues. As always, spoilers abound, so reader beware.

I've read fantasy literature for a long time. As a child, I read and re-read my parents' boxed sets of The Chronicles of Narnia and Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles so many times the books literally fell apart. I've read all fourteen of the L. Frank Baum-penned Wizard of Oz, and let me tell you, even finding all fourteen is no mean feat. For better or for worse, these books have had an effect on me, and an effect on the person I've become. To a certain extent, these fantasies defined the terms of my childhood.

But the first "adult" fantasy writer that I cut my teeth on came a little later. Specifically, in 1994, when I started reading David Edding's Castle of Wizardry, the fourth book in the Belgariad series. It's a hell of a book to start a series on. The first third is about an escape from a crumbling tower, the second is about a quick gathering of forces in safe territory and a general reunification of friends, and the last third is a charge into full scale war. I had no idea whose tower was crumbling, whose friends were regathering, or whose war was being fought. I had no context, no frame of reference, and no sense of the larger story. I loved it.

Or at least, I liked it well enough to go on to the next book in the series. And the next series entirely, the Malloreon. And back to the Belgariad for the rest of the stories. And then on to the author's other fictional universe, first with the Elenium trilogy, then with the Tamuli. And back again to the Belgariad for the 2 massive prequels, Belgarath the Sorcerer and Polgara the Sorceress. Throughout my teenage years, I would ceaselessly read through the entire 19 book corpus. As soon as I reached the end, I'd start over again.
...In my defense, we had a rather limited public library.

But somewhere around the end of the Tamuli, the second Sparhawk trilogy, I started to feel disillusioned. This sense continued and intensified with the stand-alone book, The Redemption of Althalus. By the time The Dreamers series came around, I read the first book, was decidedly underwhelmed, and decided that I was done. I wasn't done with the genre, by any means; in fact, I started reading Terry Pratchett shortly after that, and that particular obsession this blog has documented well enough. It was these particular books and the author that I had given up on. My problem with the books was simple: the protagonists were, by and by large, a bunch of smug bastards.

The big difference between Eddings' style of writing and Tolkien's (and I HATED Tolkien's writing as a kid; I still find it overly ponderous) is that Eddings was more willing to indulge in colloquial banter--at least, among the protagonists. But he was also prone to black and white morality stories, and making his good guys ridiculously overpowered. It worked well enough in a series such as the Belgariad, (and that's the series that will most likely stand the test of time as a quality Young Adult book) which was equally a coming-of-age story where the protagonist discovered his own power as a good vs. evil tale, but by the time the end of the Tamuli rolled around, the characters were vastly overpowered without the redeeming aspects of youth to temper them. The constant quipping felt like the mean-spirited taunts of a schoolyard bully. In part, it's a simple issue of balance, but there's also an element of a larger problem with the fantasy genre of the time: the endless focus on the battle between good and evil tended towards a fundamentalist view of the world, and, as it was presented here, I didn't find that view appealing anymore.

Fast forward a decade or so. If I had gotten tired of reading one-sided good vs. evil fights, then I'd like a book that's willing to cast its protagonists in more realistic lights? Something that's willing to explore the shades of grey? Well, if the shades are the ones coming from Abercombie's The First Law series, then the answer is no, no I would not.

The First Law trilogy consists of three books: The Blade Itself, Before They are Hanged, and Last Argument of Kings. To demonstrate how poorly I manage my time and how obsessive I can be, I read all three books, approximately 1600 pages, in under two weeks. As such, my evaluation of them is less on their individual merits, and more on how the series works as a whole. And as a whole, the books could be loosely described as Game of Thrones lite--there's the same use of "gritty" fantasy, multiple characters and plotlines, and an intricate overarching world, but the number of characters and plotlines are much fewer, which is frankly a point in the series' favor.

The plot: The nation of Angland is at the center of a two-front war. The Northmen are amassing at the northern border and the Gorkish gather in the south. At the same time, the Gorkish forces are driven by a man who seeks to use them as pawns to further a grudge match between two wizards spanning millenia (the grudge match spans millenia, not the wizards. Although I guess they do as well). Through these basic plots run our narrating characters. There's Logen The Bloody-Nine, a Northman with a grudge against their current leader, with an unfortunate tendency to succumb to a homicidal split personality. And Jezel dan Luthar, an aspiring young fencer and all-around asshole, though he, more than anyone, develops into a better person by the trilogy's end. There's Sand dan Glokta, a former commander turned torturer after his own body was tortured beyond all recovery by the Gurkish. (He's the clear breakout character--although it's just as clear that a good portion of his appeal comes from his similarity to Tyrion for the Game of Thrones series, who is similarly sardonic, dark, and possesses a physical disability.)

Beyond the main three, there are a few other significant viewpoint characters: Major West, Jezel's friend and a voice of reason in the army; Dogman, part of Logen's former battle comrades (and before that, his battle enemies); and Ferro, a former Gurkish slave who lives solely to see more Gurkish dead. Also worth mentioning is Bayaz, the wizard that the aforementioned Gurkish wizard has such a grudge against. You could fill a small stable with the other tertiary characters, but those are the main, more or less.

The first book, The Blade Itself, is mainly about setting up the characters and the world itself. Logen escapes near death, and casts his lot with Bayaz. Jezel prepares for Angland's annual duel tournament, as the crowd's favorite. Glokta, at the command of his master in the Inquisition, tortures, blackmails, and schemes his way through the destruction of the Angland merchants guild. West prepares for deployment, Dogman and his group try to stay a step in front of the Northland king, and Ferro is recruited by a third wizard to join Bayaz's quest.
The second book follows through with these plotlines. Dogman joins up with West's group, and they stage combined attacks on the Northland king after he invades the south. Glokta defends the southernmost Angland city against Gurkish attack. At the same time, Bayaz leads a small group--including Jezel, Logen, and Ferro--to the ends of the earth in search of a magical mcguffin to eventually fight the opponent wizard. And, in a sort of impressive subversion of the usual fantasy tropes, the quest fails.

The third book takes these plot points to their conclusion. Logen rejoins the northern forces, and helps defeat the Northern king with Dogman and West. Then everyone is back in Angland as the Gurkish invade the capital. The heroes win--but it's the most Pyrrhic victory imaginable. (And here's where the spoilers become heavy.) Logen's former troop of allies are whittled off one by one, some by Logen himself in his homicidal state, until he is left king of the north, but surrounded by former allies that want him dead. His choices are essentially to either give in to his homicidal alter-ego, or rule a constant stream of merciless oppression. Ferro, having found and used Bayaz's mcguffin, is more vengance-crazed than ever, but now literally crazy as well, tormented by demons from another dimension that want her to keep using the device to free them. West is rapidly dying, poisoned by radioactive magical fallout of the device. Glotka, already in a pretty gray moral position, realizes that his life will always be a series of endless tortures, in the service of one master or the other. Jezel is left king of Angland, but with a wife who absolutely despises him, and a puppet for Bayaz. And Bayaz... Well, he was always presented as an ambiguous character. But after all is said and done in over 1600 pages, it's ultimately revealed that it was Bayaz who started the war of the Magi, after he treacherously turned on his master, attempted to murder his lover, and turned on his order. He's a monster who manipulated all the events in the novel, and it's strongly implied that his wizard opposite number is exactly like him. The novel ends with him leaving Angland in Jezel and Glotka's hands, while he goes off to scheme against his enemies again.

I think, at this point, that you can guess my reaction to the trilogy. It's left a ridiculously bitter taste in my mouth. For the last 100 pages of Last Argument of Kings, I kept a running commentary of "really?", "that's a bit much" and "Good God. Lighten up." I've seen the series described as an antidote to the "old-school" style of fantasy, a more realistic portrayal of how events play out than in the Belgariad-type of story. That, I think, is what bothers me the most. I'll give that it's an inversion of the good vs. evil form, but not that it is at all realistic. If anything, it's the equivalent of a fantasy gothic; Mr. "The Ruin of Two Houses" Heathcliff would have felt at home among the cast of The First Law. If a writer like Eddings goes overboard in the relentless depiction of saccharine do-gooders, this story is an example of going overboard in the other direction. Every character becomes utterly convinced that the world is an endless stream of unfair, unjust events and that the only things to live for are ruthless self-preservation and vengeance. That's not realism. That's fatalism, and a particularly nasty brand of it at that.

Flo Keyes, in her book The Literature of Hope in the Middle Ages and Today: Connections in Medieval Romance, Modern Fantasy, and Science Fiction argues that the speculative root of both science fiction and fantasy is hope, hope that a society can be transformed into something better. I disagree with her--in large part because her definition of science-fiction means that she also precludes the dystopia as a form of science-fiction, which seems like a misstep--but also because I don't think fantasy needs to be limited in that particular way. By the same token, though, I don't think it should be limited by despair, either.

It's worth noting that a large part of my reaction comes from the realization that this third book is meant to be the end of a trilogy. In my mind, then, I treat it as the end of a story. I know Abercrombie has set other books in this universe, and that these other books, for all I know, may respond to the negativity here. But by virtue of this being the end of a trilogy, it sits in my mind as the end of a story, and on that basis, it's a series that is severely flawed.

My negative reaction to this ending reminds me--in a much diluted form--of my reaction to Faye Weldon's The Life and Loves of a She-Devil. If you recall--or if you click here--I found the book so repellent that I couldn't even write a review of it. (And as a sidenote, looking at the length of that review--man, my book reviews have really spiraled out of control, haven't they? Might have to do something about that in the future.) As a parody of romance novel tropes like the virtuous woman and the good wife, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil delivers a satire that directly critiques common societal conventions.

If you squint a little, you could just get away with saying that Abercrombie's series is equally a parody of the fantasy genre as it is a member of the fantasy genre. It subverts fantasy genre elements like the beautiful queen, the virtuous prince, and the wise old wizard, and thus delivers a sharp critique of our own complacency with the fantasy story. On that level, I'm much more comfortable with saying that The First Law trilogy is a satirical work rather than a "realistic" or even "gritty" one. Except it doesn't quite work on that level either; first, it plays things a little too straight. More significantly, it doesn't reach the same level of satire as the Weldon book because it's too damn long. At 278 pages, Weldon's book manages to make its point in a few different ways, then concludes. 1600 pages, in comparison, is a few too many. To borrow a metaphor from our torturer friend Glotka: satire works better as a quick stab than in a long flaying.

If Abercrombie simply wanted to do a darker fantasy, that's a different issue. But in that case, it shouldn't be heralded as a breath of fresh air--Stephen Donaldson was doing the same thing (only somewhat better) in his Thomas Covenant series thirty years ago. Donaldson, in my opinion, did a much better job balancing the characters who do despicable acts without giving entirely into fatalistic angst--and considering that the main protagonist spent long stretches believing that the fantasy world he was in was a symptom of his leprosy-induced insanity, that's saying something. I'll give Abercrombie points for doing a better job with handling the witty banter and avoiding the purple prose, but when it comes to depicting real, flawed characters, Donaldson has the edge.

The topic of what makes a fantasy, on whether a fantasy story can be too dark or needs to be more realistic, is of particular salience at the moment, because the HBO series Game of Thrones debuts next Sunday. It's been a big focus in the blogosphere of late, and how well it does will most likely influence the course of the genre for at least the near future. George R. R. Martin's series has garnered a reputation for dark, gritty fantasy stories. But it's significantly different from Abercrombie's stories, both in that it depicts more factions in the good/evil struggle (and thus potentially more differing perspectives), and also that its characters are a little less likely to succumb to a fatalistic pragmatism, and little more optimistic--a little more like people you could, if they were real--put your trust in (well, some of them at least). And I'm willing to be a little more generous to the series because, thanks in large part to a stream of delays, it's not over yet. I'm not expecting a happy ending, but I am expecting an ending that doesn't make me feel bitter for reaching it.

Or to put it another, geekier way: Winter is coming. But that doesn't mean there will never be another spring.

Later Days.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

What I Am Currently Doing

Annotating Barthes' Camera Lucida, in painstaking detail. It's slow going, and not just because Word's Autocorrect keeps turning studium into stadium.

Later Days.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Friday Quotations: Yes, there is a comparison to veal

"One of the snippets broadcast to us via BrainPal was a segment of an intercepted food program, in which one of the Rraey's most famous celebrity chefs discussed the best way to carve up a human for multiple food uses, neck bones being particularly prized for soups and consommes. In addition to sickening us, the video was anecdotal proof that the Coral Massacre was planned in enough advance that they brought along even second-rate Rraey celebrities to take part in the festivitives. Clearly, the Rraey were planning to stay."
John Scalzi, Old Man's War.

I love it when sci-fi/fantasy novels sometimes just seem to say, "You know what? Screw nuance. These guys are just straight up evil, 'k?" Granted, in this case there seems to be some level of satire going on as well, but it's still in the ballpark of a pair of orcs arguing over whether they should get to eat hobbit meat.

Later Days.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Grapes and Raisins: A Resonance of Fate Retrospective, Part 1

The special subgenre of video game known as the JRPG is suffering a decline of late. Not a decline in sales (at least, not if you include Pokemon in the category), but a decline in prestige. It's enjoyed a pretty prolonged heyday, from Dragon Quest (Dragon Warrior in the States) to Final Fantasy to ... well, those are the big two franchises. Throw in the general series of Suikoden, Shin Megami Tensei, Fire Emblem, Earth Bound, etc., as you see fit, and toss in Chrono Trigger for extra value.

These games are marked by certain common traits. Stat-based experience systems that allow character customization. A battle system usually distinct from the rest of the gameplay. An epic storyline, often--in more modern incarnations--elaborate rendered cutscenes. And some not entirely definable element that makes it "Japanese," whether it's an emphasis on kawaisa (cuteness) such as the slimes in Dragon Quest or the kamikazi penguin demons in Disgaea, a focus on Japanese cuisine as in Star Ocean 2 (complete with Iron Chef parody), or a depiction of female characters that you feel embarrassed to play the game in front of other human beings (really, it applies to any game with characters that wear a battle thong, but Final Fantasy X-2 is particularly bad in this regard.)

These traits, in recent years, have become the detracting points. The experience system is time-consuming grind. The battle system is too labyrinthine to understand. The story falls under its own pretentious, ponderous weight and the cutscenes are lengthy and dull. And the cultural difference that gives it a special flavor comes only in the flavor of "creepy" and weird.

Enter Sega/Tri-Ace's Resonance of Fate, a JRPG that wears its J-Flag proud.

But before we discuss the game proper, I'd like to take a quick moment to finish the thought above. My training isn't really in cultural studies per se, but even I realize that defining a video game genre via cultural difference is an affair not to be embarked on lightly. I think it's justifiable in this case, but it also points to a general Westernization, or perhaps Americanization of the video game industry as a whole. I don't think that change means that video games will stop being made in other areas, but it does mean that they will tend to be more and more obscured, especially in Anglo-based video game study. If nothing else, JRPGs serve to remind us that the Western scholarly voice in video game studies isn't the only voice worth hearing. *steps off of soapbox.*

All right then--the game.

We'll start with story, because that's the easiest part: Essentially, I don't remember it. I can tell you the story in very broad strokes: the game takes place in a dystopic future where all of humanity resides in a tower called Basel (not to be confused with the game's Bezel point system for combat). And there's some class-based stuff going on, with the eccentric elite residing at the top of the tower, and the lower classes dwelling at its base areas. The game begins with the main character, Leanne, attempting to commit suicide, but she is saved by Zephyr and Vasheryon, and the three then embark on a career as mercenaries, because, well, why not? And after many adventures revealing that Leanne was a lab experiment, Zephyr is a mass murderer, and Vasheryon was a... knight? Or something... they travel to the upper echelons and save the world. Or extract vengeance. Maybe.

Honestly, this is the first video game I can remember where I payed zero attention to the story. It may reflect a general ennui with the Japanese RPG story telling--but then, I've been playing Radiant Historia at the same time, and found its story pretty gripping. I think it's rather that the game's plot is a fairly broad collection of cliches: corrupt clergymen, bad boys with attitude, little lost girls, tyrannical leaders, idylls that turn out to be bad... and so on. It's all very familiar, and when asked to take it seriously, I just couldn't be bothered.

Rather, the story is at its best when focusing on the random merc missions for the eclectic bunch of weirdos that make up the Basel high society. There's Cardinal Garigliano, who likes to view the world through a picture frame that he carries around with him everywhere. Cardinal Pater, a rotund, rather dim fellow who thinks that he's a superhero. And Cardinal Barbarella, who... well, I'll let the video speak for itself.

It's cutting the full picture for some reason, but I think it still conveys the main idea.
This is why JRPGs have a bad name.

At any rate, it demonstrates my point: the story is at its best when it admits it's only there to prop up the fighing system. So let's get to that--obliquely, by way of the world map.

The entirety of Besel is divided into layers of hexagons. You can't walk through a hexagon until you've unlocked it with an energy hex. Each energy hex consists of four conjoined hexagons, and it unlocks the adjoining hexagons you've placed it on. (Think of them as six-sided tetris pieces.) Energy hexes are given with quests, and dropped by humanoid enemies; different enemies drop different shapes. This is essentially a means of control--there are areas of Besel you can't get to because you can't unlock the hexagons to get there without a hex of the appropriate shape.

Where it gets more complicated is that in addition to clear hexes that unlock general walking space, there are also colored hexes, with each color also having a distinct shape. once you've laid a colored hex, the hexagons it overlays turns that color. Five colored hexes can be traded for a colored save point, which allows the game to be saved outside of the main hub. Also, you can't actually lay a colored hex down unless you're using it to unlock a locked colored dungeon or town (and just about every dungeon and town is a locked colored one), or because it adjoins a hex that is already colored, such as the colored save point. So if you want to introduce a new color to a level, then you need the appropriate save point color to do so.

The reason you want to bother with colored hexes (besides creating distant save points) is the terminals. Scattered throughout the levels are terminals (which must be unlocked with clear hexes) that impose status effects on battles--fire does double damage, enemies drop more items, and so on. Once a certain quota of colored hexes (which varies depending on terminal) is adjoined to the terminal, it activates, and its effects are mapped onto every hexagon it is attached to--most significantly, to the dungeons whose base hexagons have been rendered the same color. The effects are also accumulative across multiple terminals--but as soon as you connect the area for two terminals with the same color, then the quota for activating is accumulative as well. That is, if Terminal A requires 30 colored hexes to activate a 2x drop rate and B requires 120 hexes to activate a 2x damage, then if you join A and B, you will need 150 adjoining colored hexes to activate the effects of both terminals--and until the accumulative quota is met, neither activates. So there's an element of strategy in choosing which effects you think are worth having for a particular dungeon or level.

That amount of knowledge will get you the basic use of the hexes, colored or otherwise, and is really all you need to finish the game. But if you are intent on doing the harder difficulties (the highest of which requires completion of the 60+ hour game on both normal and hard first to unlock), then you need to go a step further. And, of course, because things are not yet complex enough, there are more complications.

First, the player travels from level to level through two primary means: core lifts and elevators. The core lifts are significant because they have same damn screen for entering the upper and lower levels of them, and about 1 out of every three times I used them, I wound up on the wrong floor--but in terms of this terrain strategy, they're irrelevant. What's more important is the elevators, because you can transfer the effect of terminals onto multiple levels if the top and bottom of the elevator have the same color, and that color connects to an activated terminal. This terminal level chaining is essential for manipulating the system in the player's favor.

The next level of complexity comes with the realization of two facts: 1) every level has its own layout, its own edges and ridges and distribution of terminals. 2) every colored hex type comes in only one shape.What that means is that some colors cannot be used to activate certain terminals because the hex shape for that color can't reach the actual terminal. Similarly, some colors can't connect to certain dungeons, elevators, and so forth. More than once, my plans for multilevel effect chains were thwarted because I forgot to check if the area on the other end of the elevator allows for a straight line hex shape.

The final level of complication is that these hexes are damn annoying to get a hold of. Each one comes from a specific enemy type. And given the way the game progresses, that means that certain color combinations will be unavailable simply because the enemy that drops them won't be showing up for another few chapters or so (which is actually a reasonable way of controlling progress), or, more annoyingly, if you want to apply that color, you'll have to backtrack to a dungeon you went through a dozen hours ago, and mindlessly battle. Accumulating enough to create a dream level of colored synchronicity requires hours of battle, a level of commitment reached solely by those suffering from OCD and MMO players. At the same time, at the higher levels of difficulty, such a level of coordination is absolutely necessary to get a slight edge in battle.

And that's the real kicker. This--all of this--is just an auxiliary to the actual battle system. Note that the description of all the intricacies of this add-on feature is actually far, far long than the description of the game's entire story. That gives you an idea of where its balance lies. Now, I'm at 1700 words, and I haven't even got to the actual combat. So I'll stop the post here, and return to the rest at a later date--although frankly, I think this is enough to convey the general sense of the game.

Later Days.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Running Man

Will this post be about a convicted man who must fight for his life on live television? Ha, you wish. No, this is, as always, about me.

Last February, I placed myself on the disabled list after I took a bad tumble during a run and could barely walk for a few days. Two weeks later, I attempted to return to form, onto to suffer a disastrous, even more limping relapse. So I took it easy for a few weeks. And then a few more weeks. At the same time, I compensated by accelerating the anaerobic side of the workout. For the first time in my life, my workout routine could be said to approach the coveted "meathead" designation.

But no more! Trepidation shaking every limb, I bounded out into April's bizarre snowfalls (seriously, what's up with the weather these days?) and performed the 3 k run from my house to the university. It was... humbling. The foot fared fine; the only ill effect was that my sides were aching by the time I reached the university, as my lung muscles weren't used to that strenuous a workout. I then proceeded to walk another 6 k, and then I was home.

And since those who have read this far about a fairly boring topic deserve some sort of reward, I also picked up "The Hoax of Romance" by Jo Loudin. It's a 1980s early third wave feminist self-help book designed to help its readers "shake off the shackles of romance." (I'm quoting verbatim here. Okay, I'm not, but that's the type of rhetoric we're dealing with.) I can barely turn a page without snickering, and I'm not sure exactly why--yes, it's ridiculously over the top about its subject matter, but essentially, I actually agree with her main thesis. I'll have to read it, and report back.

And if *you*, the reader at home want to follow along, all you have to do is go to and get your very own copy of the Hoax of Romance... for $157, new. Eep. It seems the Hoax of Pseudo-Intellectualism is alive and well. (See? Where is all this hostility coming from? Find out... eventually.)

Later Days.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Friday Quotations: Call a Spade a Spade

(This one's been heavily paraphrased, for reasons of space. The gist still comes through, I think.)

"Here's what happened to him. Going to lunch he passed an office-building that was being put up--kust the skeleton. A beam or something fell eight or ten stories down and smacked the sidewalk alongside him. ... He was scared stiff of course, he said, but he was more shocked than really frightened. He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him really look at the works.

"The life he knew was a clearn orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things. He, the good citizen-husband-father, could be wiped out between office and restaurant by the accident of a falling beam.

"It was not, primarily, the injustice of it that disturbed him: he accepted that after the first shock. What disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, and not into step, with life. ... Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away. He loved his family, he said, as much as he supposed was usual, but he knew he was leaving them adequately provided for, and his love for them was not of the sort that would make absence painful.

"[He] settled in Spoke and got married. His second wife didn't look like the first, but they were more alike than they were different. You know, the kind of women that play fair games of golf and bridge and like new salad recipes. He wasn't sorry for what he had done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. I don't think he even knew he had settled back naturally into the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that's the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling."

--The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett

Goodplays? Goodgames? GoodTimeSink?

I'm nearing the "end" of the videogame Resonance of Fate (quotation marks in place to note that between Achievements, New Game +, downloadable content and bonus dungeons, the "end" of a videogame has become a more tenuous concept in modern time). Since I have always been one to not just count my chickens before they hatch but also buy my BBQ sauce for chicken wings before I bother to buy my eggs (Yes, I'm a vegetarian. It's a metaphor. A bad metaphor.), I've already started mentally composing my retrospective.

One of the game's detracting points is that it lacks a gripping story, which is usually one of the attractions of its subgenre, the distinctly Japanese roleplaying game (JRPG). Musing on that line of thought brought me to think about JRPGs that DID have good stories. And as I tried to dig through the ethers of gaming's yesteryear, I came to a surprising realization (and the actual main point of today's post):

There's no videogame equivalent of Goodreads.

Goodreads, for those uninitiated, is one of many such internet services dedicated towards archiving book lists. You enter the the name of the book, give it a rating and optional review, and add it to "your ever expanding list." You can browse the reviews of others, compare books with your friends, and keep track of your own literary endeavors. Considering I'm a person who kept a database of the books he read long before he even had internet access, I have found the feature extremely useful for cataloguing, preserving, and generating general bragging rights.

(Incidentally, in case this application sounds useful to anyone, send me a message and I'll hook you up. While I have a built-in disdain for Facebook's "pleeeeease add me" mentality, I'm way too much of a book geek to allow that to get in the way of a good ol' book list sharing.)

Now, what I would like to see (and I'm a little surprised that preliminary Google searches didn't turn up anything) is the exact same thing, but for videogames. Make it happen, somebody.

To tie this to a more scholarly discussion, in Lev Manovich's The Language of New Media, (one of the seminal works in the discipline) he makes a lot out of his binary opposition of narrative and database. Essentially, he says, we're shifting from a narrative-focus to a database-focus, and our use of new media reflects this shift. Goodreads makes an interesting case, as a site devoted to creating archival lists out of narratives. But in general, I have to disagree. The main difference between a database and a narrative, in my mind, is that the latter has a subjective scope. But any access of a database, and any creation of an database, is ultimately a selection, and any time a person makes a selection, any time they choose something and disregard something else, some sort of narrative activity has taken place.

I've got more thoughts on this subject, but I think that's enough for now. Again: Goodreads for videogames. Make it so.

Later Days.