Friday, December 30, 2011

Pop Pop! As in Pop Culture.

I don't really have the fodder for a full post at the moment, so here's a list of some of the books/games/movies/TV shows I've watched over the last few days. Warning: there is a LOT.
I saw the (Americanized) Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It was better than I was expecting, to be honest. Not that I was expecting something horrible, but when you realize that you're watching an adaptation of an adaptation, then you prepare yourself for the worst. And on the same note, I was surprised that the pacing felt very novel-like, in terms of subplot developments. For the origins to still shine through after these layers is somewhat surprising.

I read Snuff, the latest Terry Pratchett book. Admittedly, it's not a series highlights or anything. There's no particularly memorable new characters. (Although Vimes' son is developing a distinct personality) But at this point, I will, gratefully, read anything Pratchett signs his name to that isn't too obvious a cash grab. (Nanny Ogg's Cookbook, I'm looking at you.)

I watched a few episodes of Samurai Jack, as I was a little too old to see it the first time round. (Not that that stopped me with other "kids" shows at the time--I've seen most episodes of Recess, for example.) Jack is an odd duck--essentially, the high concept is "samurai warrior fights in sci-future." And so far, that's pretty much it. It's a children's cartoon that's essentially an action movie. There's little witty banter, character development, or even plot. But it's an action movie from a period when the phrase wasn't synonymous with "loud and dumb"--it's all done pretty well.

And I watched the first episode of Gargoyles. The Friday Quotation below explains the general gist of the show. What's also notable about it is that it had a rather wide swathe of Star Trek people voice characters. The main one was Jonathan Frake as series villain David Xanatos, but there were also repeat characters played by Marina Sirtis (Troi/Demona), Michael Dorn (Worf/Coldstone & Taurus), Kate Mulgrew (Janeway/Titania), Brent Spiner (Data/Puck), and Nichelle Nichols (Uhara, Diane Maza). And for another sci-fi connection, John Rhys-Davies from Sliders/Lord of the Rings played Macbeth--yes, the Shakespeare Macbeth. And now I've forgotten my point. Save that this show is awesome.

And I've been playing Skyrim, the latest game in the Elder Scrolls series. For the most part, it's more of a refinement than a deviation, and it's not really unique in any obvious way. But I think it does a much better job (better than Oblivion, at least) at depicting a interesting game world, complete with civil war factions, counter factions within the factions, wizard rivalries, city politics, and so forth. The problem, for me, is that it always feels as if you're interacting with this world from the outside, rather than actually being a part of it. But I imagine any game starts to feel like that once you're north of the.... 40 hour mark. (I went with 40 hours, after much inner debate; the truth is somewhere far, far north of that mark. Think Santa Clause territory.)
And there's more. Much more. Video game books, tv shows, books, web comics. But we'll let that hold it for now.

Later Days.

Friday Quotations: Nostalgia

One thousand years ago, superstition and the sword ruled.
It was a time of darkness. It was a world of fear.
It was the age of gargoyles.
Stone by day, warriors by night, we were betrayed by the humans we had sworn to protect, frozen in stone by a magic spell for a thousand years.
Now, here in Manhattan, the spell is broken, and we live again!
We are defenders of the night!

--opening credits, Gargoyles.

In terms of "awesome things I loved in the 90s," this is right up there with "I am the terror that flaps in the night."

Monday, December 26, 2011

Bibliophile: The "C" Word. No, Not Christmas.

Yeah, I forgot the last Friday Quotations. The holidays got in the way. Lootwise, I came away with two Huraki Murakami books. And a videogame where you attack zombies with chainsaws! What a life. Anyway, while the Bibliophile's official day is Sunday, it is on a less strict schedule than its quotation sibling, so it's now time for another edition of book searching.

(For those coming in late: Bibliophile is me going through the list of all the books added to my university's library in the past week, and commenting briefly on anything that looks good.)

Derrida for architects / Richard Coyne. London ; New York, NY : Routledge, 2011.
I've had a fondness for Coyne, ever since I took a class on spatial theory and we read a chapter from his book Technoromanticism. More recently, I read his Tuning of Space, of which I remember very, very little, but took copious notes. The book is part of a series: "______ for Architects," where you insert the name of some big theorist in the blank. Past thinkers include Irigaray, Heidegger, Deleuze and Guattari, Bhabha, Bourdieu, and Benjamin. All very good theorists, but it seems a little too rote a concept for me to get very excited about, to be honest.

Book forged in hell : Spinoza's scandalous treatise and the birth of the secular age / Steven Nadler.
I like that title. I don't really know anything at all about Spinoza, but the title's nice.

Memory chalet / Tony Judt. New York : Penguin Press, 2010.
When the memory palace sounds too gauche, but you still want to aspire to mental high society. Joking aside, the book is a set of essays Judt wrote, organizing his life while he was dying of Lou Gehrig's disease. He used the method of the memory palace (whereby you organize your memory by populating a mental palace with objects that represent the respective memories), and dictated the book as he resided in a Swiss chalet, hence the title. I don't know what the actual essays are, but the composition itself is something I can respect.

Horse that leaps through clouds : a tale of espionage, the Silk Road and the rise of modern China / Eric Enno Tamm. 1st U.S. ed.
Tamm explores modern China by contrasting its current state with the account written by the Scandinavian Mannerheim a hundred years ago. I have an amateur interest in Chinese history; it's this vast swathe of human experience that barely makes a blip on the Western grand narrative of the past. This is a little more recent, and a little geared towards the ethnographic/travelogue genre, but I'd love to read it if I had a good chunk of time.

Room for all of us : surprising stories of loss and transformation / Adrienne Clarkson.
Mentioned because it's authored by a Canadian icon. I can still hear the Air Face satire: "I'm Adrienne Clarkson, and you're not." It's a collection of stories concerning the immigrant experience in Canada, a subject significant to Clarkson, given her own background.

Disconnected / Andrew Leigh.
Well, I guess it gets points for brevity, though it's not very descriptive on what the book's about. It's a "society has lost its way" kind of book, arguing that contemporary life, specifically contemporary Australian life, has lost its sense of community, and it needs to be fixed. I'm always a little skeptical of books with this premise; yes, things could be better, but at a certain point, a base response of "this is all messed up" just makes the mess a little worse. But at least this guy's got a proposed solution.

Cunt : a declaration of independence / Inga Muscio ; [foreword by Betty Dodson]. Expanded and updated 2nd ed. [Seattle] : Seal Press ; [Berkeley, Calif.] : Distributed by Publishers Group West, c2002.
There's the direct approach. Muscio has written, as you might have guessed, a feminist book. Specifically, it investigates the connotations of the word "cunt" and tries to reclaim it as a word of empowerment. I have to confess, one of the reviews said that the book did more than pay "lip service" to the subject, and I giggled, because I'm a 12 year old boy.

Theory of Zipf's law and beyond [electronic resource] / Alexander Saichev, Yannick Malevergne, Didier Sornette. Heidelberg ; New York : Springer, c2010.
Zipf's law: I would stop, but I love the sound of my own voice. Oh sorry, that's Artie Ziff. Zipf's Law says that many types of data studied in the physical and social sciences can be approximated with a Zipfian distribution, one of a family of related discrete power law probability distributions. That's much more exciting.

Steal : a cultural history of shoplifting / Rachel Shteir. New York : Penguin Press, 2011.
Shteir writes a history of... of shoplifting, like the title says. I know people who are convinced that shoplifting is phase that the modern teenager goes through; it's never been something I've particularly seen the appeal of (I'm more of a cookie-jar raider--I keep my petty thefts in the family), but I can relate to the small thrill of the petty larceny.

Radical prototypes : Allan Kaprow and the invention of happenings / Judith F. Rodenbeck. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, c2011.
Kaprow was a performance artist (something of an understatement) in the 1960s, and he pioneered the happenings--public participatory art things, basically. Think of them as the flash mobs of the hippy era, only not really that at all. Rodenbeck wants to look at the happenings not as the happy-go-lucky community meetings, but as dark, sometimes twisted critiques of society.

Batman [videorecording] / Warner Bros. presents a Guber-Peters Company production ; a Tim Burton film ; produced by Jon Peters & Peter Guber ; directed by Tim Burton.
My university library has a copy of first Batman movie. Are you jealous? You're jealous.

Paying for it : a comic-strip memoir about being a john / Chester Brown. 1st hardcover ed. Montréal : Drawn & Quarterly, 2011.
Chester Brown's autobiographical account on his experience with the receiving end of prostitution. It's pretty good, although also rather bleak.

Slaughterhouse-five, or, The children's crusade : a duty-dance with death / Kurt Vonnegut. Dial Press trade pbk. ed. New York : Dial Press, 2009, c1969.
This is just a great book. As far as war satires go, it's right up there with Catch 22 for me.

Moonwalk with your eyes [electronic resource] : a pocket field guide / Tammy Plotner. Follow-up: "Thriller dance with your elbow: a reference book."

Reactions : the private life of atoms / by Peter Atkins. Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2011.
I don't really have a lot of useful commentary to offer regarding the science stuff, beyond "clever" jokes regarding the titles. But honestly, I like this one. It's appealing. Atkins starts with the basic building block-type chemicals and reactions--water, electrolysis, catalysis, and so forth--and explains how they combine for more complicated processes. It's very much "pop science," but that's basically the only kind I can really appreciate anyway.

Dingo / by Brad Purcell. Collingwood, Vic. : CSIRO Pub., c2010.
I wanted to post a Dingo picture.

Bioethics matters : a guide for concerned Catholics / Moira McQueen. London ; New York : Burns & Oates, 2009.
Containing such hot button bioethics topics such as euthanasia, prenatal genetics, and so forth. I've got some problems with some of the traditional Catholic stances on a few of these issues, but it could be worth it to keep up on some of the current arguments.

Relatively short list this time around. I won't complain about that.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

And Then There's That Time I Gave a Pigeon a Concussion

I was out and about today, walking to a lunch engagement. Approaching on my left, there's a pigeon pecking at some crumbs someone dropped. It's inside one of those enclosed bus-waiting areas, the kind with 3 glass walls and a roof. I get close, and I guess I got too close. It takes off--and slams headfirst into the glass wall. Twice. Finally, it figures out that this line of flight isn't going to work, and exits the booth, taking to the skies.

I feel bad. Then I laugh. Then I feel bad again.

This is an animal studies issue, right?

Later Days.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Bibliophile: Superhero Studies and Church for Profit

My goodness. The holidays start, and suddenly I forget that Biblophile ever existed. Well, sooner mended then ended.

I like to think of Harriet Tubman [electronic resource] : chamber works / Wolff.
Now, this sounds interesting. A series of chamber music dedicated to Harriet Tubman, the 19th century abolitionist. And it's composed/performed by Christian Wolff, a composer who studied under and collaborated with John Cage. (John Cage trivia fact: it was Christian Wolff, whose parents owned a publishing company, who gave Cage an in-house translation of the I-Ching, which would go on to have a large impact on the composer's methods and thoughts.) I don't know how the actual music will sound, mind you, but I'm sure it'd be interesting.

Vaudeville accordion classics [electronic resource] : the complete music of Guido Deiro (1886-1950).
In case you're wondering, that sounds like this:

Why yes; our library did receive access to a new music database this week.

Person vanishes : John Dewey's philosophy of experience and the self / Yoram Lubling. New York : Peter Lang, c2011.
Mentioned mainly because I've got a soft spot for Dewey. Anyone who founds a widely-used library organization system is okay in my books, though personally I prefer the Library of Congress coding. ...I have a favorite library system. I am such a geek. Anyway, the book is attempting to synthesize a theory of personality based on Dewey's body of work, coming up with a version of self that emphasizes individual experience, and the limitations thereof. It's apparently a stand against dualism and attempts to apply the method to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The last bit sounds like a bit of a stretch; this may be one for Dewey completitionists. (He has those, right?)

Priority of events : Deleuze's Logic of Sense / Sean Bowden.
This week's dose of Deleuze. Bowden argues that Deleuze places events over substances, and presumably explains what that means. There is also, I understand, a heavy focus on Leibnez, Simondon, and individuation, which I last came across in my interminable Stiegler readings.

Hitchens vs. Blair : be it resolved religion is a force for good in the world / Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair.
Here's a timely one. It's a transcription of their 2010 Toronto debate on the subject,which apparently happened without even showing up as a blip on my radar, because I pay virtually no attention to my surroundings. Sigh. It has Blair arguing in religion's favor, and Hitchens against it. (Although if you didn't already know which side Hitchens was arguing, you're probably not the audience for this book anyway.) Additionally, it has an interview with Hitchens by Noah Richler, and one with Blair by John Geiger. Oh wait; judging by the page numbers, this may be a version without the additional interviews. If you'd rather watch it to begin with, it's all on youtube, here.

Juvenile sexuality, Kabbalah, and Catholic reformation in Italy [electronic resource] : Tiferet bahurim by Pinhas Barukh ben Pelatiyah Monselice / by Roni Weinstein ; translated by Batya Stein.
Now there's a set of subjects that don't immediately seem to go together. Weinstein is actually analyzing a 17th century book, the Tiferet bahurim, a book telling Jewish young men of the period how to raise a family and conduct themselves sexually. His approach is to situate the advice in the wider context of Jewish tradition and 17th century (extremely Catholic) Italy. Is it odd that this premise interests me much more than a book investigating these subjects on a contemporary basis?

Commercial church : Black churches and the new religious marketplace in America / Mary Hinton.
Essentially, I'm just intrigued by the entanglements between religion and commerce. Ever since I was introduced to the "moneylenders in the temple" part of the Gospel, I've thought of it as an issue without an easy answer. Religion shouldn't be overly concerned with material wealth (easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to go to heaven) but at the same time, it can't, and shouldn't be avoided--commerce is a part of people's lives, a vital part, and the various churches and so forth can't ignore that. Anyway, Hinton's book is looking at a more specific phenomenon, religious groups and churches that cater to a predominantly black congregation. Moreover, it's critical in particular of the Potter's House Megachurch and Creflo Dollar's World Changers Church International, which is an amazingly loaded name in the context of the aforementioned moneylenders. The latter is also a proponent of Prosperity theology, the belief that, grossly simplified, that God wants Christians to be successful and have money. 'Cause you know, Jesus was known for being a big spender. Hinton's argument is that these two represent a break with the traditional black church, and yeah, it seems like she has a pretty obvious case.

In the traces of our name : the influece [sic] of given names in life. London : Karnac Books, 2011. Tesone, Juan Eduardo.
As someone whose first name (and middle name, for that matter) is common as dirt (in English-speaking countries, at least), I am interested in this topic. What is in a name? An awful lot, actually. Tesone looks at the personal name from a psychological perspective, both in terms of what it inscribes on the child from the parents, and how the child writes that name, and what that means. I'm not a big fan of psychological approaches in general, but this sounds promising.

Small powers in the age of total war, 1900-1940 / edited by Herman Amersfoort, Wim Klinkert. Leiden ; Boston : Brill, 2011.
The obvious question of the book is, which countries fall into the "small powers" category? Sorry, Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Norway and Switzerland--you've all been declared small fish in the early 20th century pond. And, I suspect, there but the grace of a Eurocentric focus goes Canada.

Cyprus problem : what everyone needs to know / James Ker-Lindsay.
There's an aggressive title, especially regarding a subject that may be uncharitably called a local issue. Why should everyone know? I'm not sure Ker-Lindsay answers that, besides an indirect answer: Cyprus been a focus point of UN and European concern for decades now, as its continuing civil war has brought it international attention. And whenever a war goes on for that long, the human suffering involved means it deserves some attention, especially in the form of compassion. Ker-Lindsay here outlines the issues--as the current UN expert advisor on the subject, he's in a good position to know what he's talking about.

Tales from the sausage factory : making laws in New York State / Daniel L. Feldman and Gerald Benjamin.
Catchy title. Essentially, it's a book on the history of New York legislature, where it went wrong, and how to make it right again. It's a subject I have very little interest in, but still: catchy title.

Re-made in Japan : everyday life and consumer taste in a changing society / edited and with an introduction by Joseph J. Tobin. New Haven : Yale University Press, c1992.
With my videogame focus, I tend to come into contact with a lot of Japanese products (videogames) that have been localized for Western audiences. This is the inverse trend--taking Western products and making them Japanese. The book's a little old (published in 1994), which makes it a little out-of-date in pop culture discussions, but it should be a fascinating read for anyone doing comparative culture studies with a focus on Japan.

Work of play : meaning-making in video games / Aaron Chia Yuan Hung. New York : Peter Lang, c2011.
Mentioned out of professional obligations. I'll have to put a hold on this one and flip through it once I get back from vacation. It looks like it's focused on game design for the purpose of education, which isn't really one of my interests, to be honest.

Surface tensions : surgery, bodily boundaries, and the social self / Lenore Manderson. Walnut Creek, Calif. : Left Coast Press, c2011.
Manderson interviews people who have suffered the loss of limbs, functions, and organ replacements, in terms of how they re-establish their bodies and identities afterwards. The perfect holiday gift for body/technology scholar on your list.

Revolution will be digitised : dispatches from the information war / Heather Brooke.
Here's one to cater to my digital humanities interest. Brooke questions who holds the power in the global information economy. The book covers her involvement with British access to information laws, Wikileaks, modern hackers, and the information manipulation of the American government. It's a very "us vs. big government" kind of story, whereas I'm all about the "us vs. big corporation" story, but that doesn't make it any less true. And it's endorsed by cybermedia superstar, Cory Doctorow!

Television as digital media / edited by James Bennett and Niki Strange. Durham [N.C.] : Duke University Press, 2011.
Having recently read Sheila C. Murphy's "How Television Invented Digital Media," this anthology appeals to me by acknowledging a simple truth: as much as a cell phone or a computer monitor, the modern television is a digital artifact, washing us in bits and bytes that it assembles into hypermediated wholes. The focus here seems to be television as a technology rather than specific programs, and the only contributor I recognize is Graeme Turner, though I'm at an utter loss to explain why I recognize his name. Still, a good topic, and I'm glad someone's doing it.

Digital condition : class and culture in the information network / Rob Wilkie. 1st ed. New York : Fordham University Press, 2011.
And for the digital media trifecta, we have Wilkie and Digital Condition. Essentially, Wilkie argues that the "disembodiment" side of cyberspace has lead to an obfuscation of social inequality. And the list of theorists is impressive enough: "Hardt and Negri, Poster, Deleuze and Guattari, Derrida, Haraway, Latour, and Castells." It's a veritable who's who of digital culture and social issues.

I'll have what she's having : mapping social behavior / Alex Bentley, Mark Earls, and Michael J. O'Brien. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, c2011.
Points for the title. The subject, for those interested in such things, is a sociological study on how people use the actions of others to make choices.

Emperor has no clothes : teaching about race and racism to people who don't want to know / Tema Okun. Charlotte, N.C. : Information Age Pub., c2010.
Fatigue is setting in. The amount and quality of research I do into the titles will be considerably reduced from here on out. I'll just say, then, I like the idea of book. Racism is one of those issues where the worst cases are generally those most resistant to new information.

Blood at the root : lynching as American cultural nucleus / Jennie Lightweis-Goff.
Speaking of racism, I think that when there's a case to be made that your culture can be described in terms of the history of lynching, you've got a problem.

Writing your dissertation in fifteen minutes a day : a guide to starting, revising, and finishing your doctoral thesis / Joan Bolker. 1st ed. New York : H. Holt, 1998.
Now here's a real classic. I've heard this book recommended by professors, so it might be worth a look.

Bytes and backbeats : repurposing music in the digital age / Steve Savage. Ann Arbor, Mich. : University of Michigan Press, c2011.
Music is one of my weak points, both in terms of pop culture studies and personally (as I've alluded to before Remember when my blog was a participatory thing that people commented on? Yeah. ). Maybe this book could fill some gaps. Savage uses three digital music projects to explore the participatory and contextual nature of digital music, and how it can repurpose other forms.

Retromania : pop culture's addiction to its own past / Simon Reynolds. London ; [New York] : Faber & Faber, c2011.
This. How soon something can become nostalgic seems to be accelerating; I've heard people look back with fondness on the Rick Rolling internet meme. It might be the side effect of the acceleration of culture: the faster things get, the more we look fondly on anything we can use to differentiate the present from other time periods. I'll point you to recently reviewed Ready Player One for a rather unironic example of pop culture past addiction. Reynolds is looking more specifically music, asking whether such a backwards view means the death knell of creativity. I haven't read his book, but I'm guessing that he's arguing that it doesn't.

Clifton Childree : fuck that chicken from Popeyes.
I have no idea what this about, but I feel compelled to find out.

Game urbanism : manual for cultural spatial planning / Hans Venhuizen ; with contributions by Charles Landry, Francien van Westrenen ; [translation, Billy Nolan, Leo Reijnen].
Venhuizen espouses his theory place and culture into a ludic, gamelike space. I've got some friends interested in Augmented Reality type stuff; I might send this book their way.

New narratives : stories and storytelling in the digital age / edited by Ruth Page and Bronwen Thomas. Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, c2011.
Another book flagged as of interest for digital media scholars. It's an updated look at how narrative functions in technology, hypertext, and videogames, among other digital things. This is one of the rare essay collections I could see myself perusing soon; narrative theory is a persistent subject in my area, and keeing abreast of the most recent arguments is a good idea. And it's got a lot of the big names of the field. There's Marie-Laure Ryan on user participation; Michael Joyce on narrative transparency; Nick Montfort on the authorship system Curveship; Brian Greenspan on story maps; James Newman and Iain Simons on Lego Star Wars. (Narrative in a Star Wars video game? Take that, Jesper Juul.) Mental note: Definitely on my "to read" list.

Surveillance of women on reality television : watching The bachelor and The bachelorette / Rachel E. Dubrofsky. Lanham, Md. : Lexington Books, c2011.
This looks like a fun read.

Bachelors and bunnies : the sexual politics of Playboy / Carrie Pitzulo. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2011.
See above.

And here's a set of comic-based scholarship:
Superheroes of the Round Table : comics connections to Medieval and Renaissance literature / Jason Tondro. Jefferson, N.C. : McFarland, c2011.
Classics and comics / edited by George Kovacs and C. W. Marshall. Oxford [U.K.] ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2011.
Mutants & mystics : science fiction, superhero comics, and the paranormal / Jeffrey J. Kripal. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2011.
Tondro is apparently using classic literature--Shakespeare, Spenser, Authurian literature, and the like--to inform readings of Alan Moore, Jack Kirby, and Grant Morrison, and vice versa. Kovacs and Marshall's collection appears to be more of the same, although I'll note that it features an essay by Eric Shanower, he of the criminally underrated Bronze Age series. I guess which book you prefer depends on whether you're looking for a collection or a prolonged argument. Kripal's focus is a little different, examining how comic book writers use comics to explore the paranormal, from Moore and sex magic (with an emphasis on sex--I've read Promethea)to Jack Kirby's superhero pantheons. It's a banner week for superhero studies.

Supergods : what masked vigilantes, miraculous mutants, and a sun god from Smallville can teach us about being human / Grant Morrison. New York : Spiegel & Grau, 2011.
Speaking of which--Grant Morrison's book on philosophy and comics? Hells yeah. Another mental note, to recall the bejeezus out of this when I get back. Why do all the good books come to the library while I'm on vacay?

James Bond in world and popular culture : the films are not enough / edited by Robert G. Weiner, B. Lynn Whitfield and Jack Becker. 2nd ed. Newcastle upon Tyne : Cambridge Scholars, 2011
Clever title.

Hours / Michael Cunningham. New York : Picador USA ; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, [2000].
Mentioned because it's one of my favorite books. And still the most beautifully written book I've ever read.

And then there's the long slog through the sciences. Don't get me wrong. I love the sciences. Some of my best friends are... science-y. But the titles are... eh.

First steps in random walks : from tools to applications / J. Klafter and I.M. Sokolov. Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2011.
This one mildly amused me. I do hope it was deliberate.

Transylvanian dinosaurs / by David B. Weishampel and Coralia-Maria Jianu. Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.
You thought raptors were tough? Try vampire raptors. Add zombie ninjas, and you've got yourself a meme.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Once More, A Feeling

I recently rewatched the classic (yeah, I'll use the word "classic" here) Buffy episode 6, season 7, better known as the musical episode. Yes, they did it before Scrubs, Grey's Anatomy, and Glee made it cool. Not before Cop Rock, the musical show about police officers, but well, Cop Rock most definitely did not make musicals cool.

The verdict? A little disappointing, to be honest. The songs haven't aged as well in reality as they did in my mind. Even the most charitable interpretation would have to admit Whedon gets a lot better at writing for song and dance by the time Dr. Horrible's Sing-A-Long Blog comes a few years later. What saves it, for the most part, is that there's some really good singers among the core cast. That's not to say the songs are bad; I still got the dose of nostalgia I was looking for.

But the one that really strikes me years later is this one, Amber Benson as Tara singing "I'm Under Your Spell."

I really wanted to get a version with the video, but, alas, Youtube does not have all that is desired. First, it's a very character-oriented song. Willow was definitely the more "outgoing" person in their relationship, compared to Tara's more withdrawn nature, and that definitely comes through here, perhaps even to an unhealthy extent. The positive interpretation is that Tara is saying, er, singing, that Willow brings out the best in her, which is a common enough sentiment for those in happy relationships (or so I'm told). But the other, at least as valid, interpretation is that Tara is really putting a lot of weight on Willow for their relationship ("Nothing I can do, you just took my soul with you." Yikes.)

But what's really amazing, to me, is the innuendo that got by the censors in the final stanza. Take a close look:
The moon through the tide, I can feel you inside.
I'm under your spell.
Surging like the sea, floating here so helplessly.
I break with every swe - ll,
Lost in ecstasy, spread beneath my Willow tree.
You make me comple - te.
You make me com - plete.
You make me com - plete.
You make me com - plete.

"I can feel you inside." "break with every swell." "Lost in ecstasy, spread beneath my Willow tree." There is a subtext here. And just in case that subtext isn't clear, in the original video, at this point, the two women are embracing each other in bed, and the then Willow, with a devilish look on her face, moves from face to face to somewhere decidedly lower on Tara's body. I don't think she's moving down in order to tickle her feet. I really can't believe that this scene made it past the Fox censors in 2001. How does it end? Well, put it this way: "complete" is definitely pronounced as two words.

And yet, there's nothing puerile or salacious about the scene. This isn't a "OMG too chicks duing it xxxx" scene done more for a male audience than anyone else. It's a very sweet, rather romantic scene between two gay characters. It's a portrayal that I can't think of seeing anywhere else on prime time television, and it was ten years ago now. Good for them, frankly. And why aren't we still seeing more of that now?

Later Days.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Nostalgia Facts: Ow.

I never feel quite at home upon reaching my childhood home until I have a shower. First, there's the shower door, missing its handle for the past decade now. It must be navigated along its rungs with a degree of care. It's not some shower curtain that can be thrust to and fro in an absentminded, hurried gesture, mere prelude to the shower itself. Rather, it encourages an attentive approach to the relationship between man and technology.

Then there's the showerhead itself. It's an ancient, ragged looking thing, at least 25 years old. It is also one of the best, most powerful examples of its breed that I have ever experienced. For the past decade now, I've been showering in apartments, rented houses, and... sigh... rez washrooms. The water is always under someone else's control, and emits itself in turgid, often frigid flows. I am sick of this whiffling water. The older I get, the more I appreciate a good nozzle. You know the saying on what cleanliness is next to? Well, showerhead is next to godhead.

Finally, there is the faucet itself. In most baths, the faucet is attached to the wall at a right angle. Ours has a 45 degree decline. That's because, about nine years ago, I slipped in the tub, somehow twisting so that I landed facing away from the showerhead, and slammed my back into the faucet, lowering it to its current state. And yes, it was pretty painful, and yes, it left a lasting but if you think I got messed up, then, Gentle Reader, you should see the other guy. Er, appliance.

Later Days.

Friday Quotations: Quoth Ho, Ho, Ho.

It's been a little dead, blog-wise. We're officially in the X-Mas slump. But let's get back into the swing, with a Friday Quotation. And by quotation, I mean a comic book scan:

(If the image isn't appearing, try clicking on it. It's a hassle, I know, but I trust that you're all capable of it.) That is Volstagg the Voluminous, Norse God/gourmand, filling in for Ol' Saint Nick. And the comic is Journey into Mystery #632, wherein Loki, the God of Mischief, destroyer of worlds, perpetrator of Ragnorak, is a 10 year old boy who must find homes for a litter of hellhound puppies. It's honestly one of the best single issue comics I've read this year. And perfect for stocking stuffers, if one is so inclined.

Later Days.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Bibliophile: Of Magical Monks and Sex-Crazed Bugs

Look! In the sky! It's an indices! No, it's a compendium! No, it's... Bibliophile!

Equine massage : a practical guide / Jean-Pierre Hourdebaigt.
How to keep the charley horses away from your horse named Charley.

Deleuze and ethics / edited by Nathan Jun and Daniel W. Smith. Edinburgh : Edinburgh University Press, c2011.
Ah, the weekly Deleuze spot. This one investigates how Deleuze looks at values, normativity, and, surprise, surprise, ethics.

How to think about weird things : critical thinking for a new age / Theodore Schick, Jr., Lewis Vaughn ; foreword by Martin Gardner.
Eye-catching title. The idea is that the authors apply typical philosophical notions of evaluation to "weird" phenomena, including ESP, UFO sightings, miracle cures, and human combustion. It has a bit of an "undergrad" feel to it, though I realize that saying so reflects more on my intellectual snobbery than on the book. And considering that my own area is video game studies, I probably don't have a leg to stand on here.

Faith and money : how religion contributes to wealth and poverty / Lisa A. Keister. New York : Cambridge University Press, 2011.
The idea behind this book is to look into how, in the US, a person's religious beliefs impacts their networth and savings. It's an empirical-based study, so it's less about offering potential explanations for the results and more of establishing how the results were gathered in the first place. It's a pretty thorny issue; does a particular denomination encourage or discourage economic growth? How much does money buy happiness?

Lovelorn ghost and the magical monk : practicing Buddhism in modern Thailand / Justin Thomas McDaniel.
The first half sounds like a good title for a manga series. What the book is actually about is tracing the evolution of these two figures throughout Buddhist culture. I suppose a Christian equivalent would be mapping Messiah figures or the Wandering Jew.

History of the world in 100 objects / Neil MacGregor.
I mention this one because a friend of mine listens to the British podcast of the same name. (Incidentally, he recommends the cast over the book, as the voice and tone of the figures interviewed make a significant contribution to the proceedings.) The idea is that each object (found in the British museum) is used to justify a brief exploration into the history it represents. It's a potentially productive idea.

Players unleashed! : modding the Sims and the culture of gaming / Tanja Sihvonen. Amsterdam : Amsterdam University Press c2011.
I'm contractually obligated to draw attention to any book touching on video games. It's a must-read for anyone interested in the Sims, and pretty significant for those interested in participatory game mod culture in general.

Mediated boyhoods : boys, teens, and young men in popular media and culture / edited by Annette Wannamaker. New York : Peter Lang, c2011.
While the table of contents don't mention very many specific works (excepting an essay on the Spy Kids franchise), it does cover videos, documentary films, pop music, and hip hop, and both homosocial and homosexual relations between young males. There's nothing that jumped out as a must-read essay, but if the subject interests anyone, it might be worth a look.

New media and technology : youth as content creators / Marina Umaschi Bers, issue editor. San Francisco, Calif. : Jossey-Bass/Wiley, c2011.
Here's a similar youth-oriented focus, but closer to my personal subject area. It's an anthology with essays on youth use of Facebook apps, ARGs, Youtube videos, and mobile phones. Again, there's no essays that particularly jump out at me, but it'd be a good resource for those more interested in the subject.

Nudge, nudge, think, think : experimenting with ways to change civic behaviour.
John, Peter, 1960-.
Major points for the title. Sadly, it's not about the intellectual lives of John Cleese and Eric Idle, but a method of social action. John argues, in a position against his last book, that it's not enough to "nudge" people into social change--they must enter into new patterns of thinking as well.

In the peanut gallery with Mystery Science Theater 3000 : essays on film, fandom, technology, and the culture of riffing / edited by Robert G. Weiner and Shelley E. Barba ; forewords by Kevin Murphy and Robert Moses Peaslee ; afterword by Mary Jo Pehl. Jefferson, N.C. : McFarland, c2011.
This would probably be a pretty fun read. And it might inspire me to actually watch one of the Mystery Science episodes.

War, politics and superheroes : ethics and propaganda in comics and film / Marc DiPaolo.
I don't know anything about this, except that it has chapters on the Punisher, Captain America, Wonder Woman, Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, the X-Men, and a final chapter on President Obama and zombies. Really, that's all anyone needs to know.

Newslore : contemporary folklore on the Internet / Russell Frank.
Frank looks at how rumors and stories pass through the Internet, and what they say about public responses. Honestly, it's an issue that may be too big for analysis; there's message forums, motivational memes, email forwarding, videos, images, podcasts, blogs, twitter feeds... I suppose the big issue is how Frank defines newslore in comparison to folklore. To me, folklore is first and foremost information that's passed down, usually in a generational context. But internet memes and so forth aren't passed down--if anything, they're generally incomprehensible a few years down the line. So it's not passed down, but passed around; it's news, in the sense that as soon as it stops being news, it might as well cease to exist.

Sex on six legs : lessons on life, love, and language from the insect world / Marlene Zuk.
I presume that the lessons don't involve post-coitally ripping your mate in half and devouring him in order to feed the brood. But don't tell me; I wouldn't want to spoil the surprise.

Cyber junkie : escape the gaming and Internet trap / Kevin Roberts.
Sigh. Roberts discusses how people obsessed with games show classic signs of addiction and offers a sixteen step process for recovering addicts. I'm of two minds of this sort of book--on the one hand, I don't want to accuse the people who lose jobs and friends and family to video game time of being weak people. Everyone has their own demons, everyone is fighting a great battle. At the same time, I would like to point out that just as not everyone who plays a first person shooter goes on to become dangerously violent, not everyone who plays a video game is dangerously addicted. There are hundreds of mitigating factors involved. I think it's important that we engage in the debate of what makes a game addictive, and how we deal with that potential. What I'm afraid of is that a book like this operates from basic assumptions about the nature of compulsion, and treats those assumptions like facts. And as soon as you've created a general method, you're doing some level of abstraction and assumption. And when a book on game addiction is classified between a book on autism and another on down's syndrome, you're perpetuating another level of assumptions. (And yes, I realize the irony on pontificating like this when I haven't read the book myself.)

And on that proselytizing note, I'll draw this session to an end. Till the next read.

Later Days.

Book Reviews: Let's Pretend We Can Keep This Short, Shall We? Part III

It Was the War of the Jacques Tardi. "I haven't told the 'whole story' because that would be a monstrous enterprise. From when I first herd my grandfather's stories, I've always been haunted by the desire to try to create an account of this early part of the 20th century. I consulted books...; I used them as departure points for episodes which I then fictionalized. It was not my goal to create a catalog of weapons and uniforms--although I did, of course, use documentation--even less so to render an accounting: How many shells per square meter, the number of men involved in such-and-such offensive. ... The only thing that interests me is man and his suffering, and it fills me with rage." --Tardi, in the Foreword.

In "It Was the War of the Trenches," Tardi provides a fictional account of French frontline soldiers during World War I. You can't really say there's a story at work here; it's rather a series of vignettes, almost all of them ending with the death of the figures they depict. The result is that the names and characters become a blur, with the only commonalities being war, death, and the trenches. But that, I think, is Tardi's point: the war dehumanized its victims, and everyone was just a body in the trenches. After the first establishing part, most of the book is told in 3-long panels per page, and the repetition of form contributes to the overall sense of immersion. It's a bleak book, without consolation or mercy. It ends in the armistice, but the final panel of corpses that were just alive tells us that such treaties always come too late.

This book is the third I've read from Tardi, the other two being the almost absurdist "You Are There" and the noir adaptation "Like a Sniper Lining Up His Shot." This book is by far my favorite. Both of the others had much more in terms of characterization and plot, but they also both left me with a sour taste in my mouth. I don't think I have the French political background to really grasp There's ending, and Sniper's just seemed nihilist. And that's an odd response, given that Trenches is far more nihilist--and more sniper-filled, for that matter. Part of the difference is that I don't like the way Tardi writes women. I realize that there's a tendency to idealize female discourse in English male writers, and I feel that, on some intellectual level, I should appreciate what Tardi's doing in attempting to portray them as different, but it often comes across as less "unidealized" and more of "woman = mother earth savage." (See the female characters in Sniper and There; I also feel the same way about many of the female characters in the Dungeon series by Sfar and Trondheim; perhaps it's a cultural thing.) So perhaps I like Trenches because the female element that Tardi is misconstruing (IMO) is minimalized. Mostly, though, I think what I like is that Tardi doesn't flinch from his depiction. These are men dying in horrible ways. There's no false nobility, no heroism. Just death.

I guess I have to ask, though, what the use of such a book is. We are long past World War 1, after all; these men would almost certainly be dead now one way or the other. Tardi makes it clear that his connection to the war is personal, in dedicating it to his grandfather. It's also a cultural connection--a war fought on French soil. And I think, as evidenced by the quotation above, it's representative of all wars to him, especially the brutality of the modern war. Not brutal in the sense of people savagely attacking the message--a message, one of many messages--here may be that we need to see soldiers as people, see everyone as people. Does it work on that level? I don't know. It made me reflect on the subject, for a little while at least. Maybe that's enough. Maybe that's a start.

Later Days.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Book Reviews: Let's Pretend We Can Keep This Short, Shall We? Part II

The Finder Library Vol. 1 by Carla Speed McNeil. "He is arrogant... He is shameless, immoral, anti-social, irresponsible. He's too slick. He's so charming, but he's callous. Cunning, and too self-assured. He is dangerous." "If a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing badly." I've long passed the point where I can still justifiably be surprised that there's some award-winning graphic novel that I've never heard of. But here we are, with The Finder Library, winner of the 2009 Eisner award in the webcomic category, a series I've never even heard of before now.

I hesitate to describe the premise, since I'm not sure I've got it right. But from what I gather, it all takes place in a future sci-fi setting where the world has been divided into various castes and tribes. Jaeger, the title character, is a half-breed, and in a very strict caste world, he doesn't really fit in. He took on the only role available to him: sin-eater, someone who takes on the punishments and sins of other people who can't bear them all themselves. His dedication to this role in his youth gave him a second title: Finder, one who is given special tasks of exploration and aid to others.

The story is divided up into three main parts: the first and longest describes Jaeger caught up in a domestic situation, and a very complex one. A male from a paternalistic, military tribe broke clan rules and married a female from a tribe where the gender roles are extremely feminized (in a traditional Western, and biological sense)--the males have breasts, and penises that are tucked into them when not in use. The man is Jaeger's military commander, and he undergoes a mental breakdown, and barricades his family from the world until he's hospitalized/arrested. Jaeger looks after the family in his absence--and starts an affair with the wife, who exists primarily in her own fantasy world. And that's without counting the children:the oldest, who's attempting to bed Jaeger, the son, who as you might imagine, is very confused (what with the breasts and all), and the youngest daughter, who is attracted to her mother's fantasy world. Jaeger feels responsibility for everyone involved, and a guilt that he's gotten so involved to begin with.

As you can imagine, it's hardly a typical sci-fi superhero story, though Jaeger certainly has the superhero background. And while I felt for the characters, I really didn't like Jaeger. He's too... well, perfect. He's the rugged individual who plays by his own rules. He's the the tormented artist searching for his muse. He's the sensitive, caring individual who also happens to be a virile and caring lover. He's great with kids, but you can't chain him down, man. He's a female fantasy, and while I don't have any problem with female fantasies (see as credentials Gossip Girl, My Little Pony, Being Erica), this particular one is a little smug for my tastes.

And yet, I still liked the story, and cared for the characters (although my dislike for Jaeger probably gave me a bit too much sympathy for the cuckolded/clinically insane and emotionally dangerous father character). But I preferred the second story, which is Jaeger trying to prevent a tribal war in the middle of the future equivalent of Disney Land (providing a clever satire on war and consumerism), and the last story, which uses the memory of Jaeger--the youngest daughter of the aforementioned family grows up, struggling to find an outlet for her own creativity. (I can certainly relate to that sentiment.) The first and third stories especially are things you'd never find in mainstream, male-oriented comics, and it's interesting that McNeil found a space to tell them using a character who's basically a more sensitive version of Wolverine. McNeil's art progresses nicely through this 22-issue volume, and the final few bits have some really great facial expressions. It's a good read, and it would probably be even better read for an early teenage female comic book reader--if you could find such a creature.

The sad thing is, this still counts as a short book review, by this blog's standards.

Later Days.

Book Reviews: Let's Pretend We Can Keep This Short, Shall We? Part I

Next Tuesday, I make my annual pilgrimage back to the land of snow and horizon. So at the moment, I'm busy with finishing all the little things that need to be done before I leave. Student papers, essays... and of course, the public library books that must be returned before I depart. Thus, I've finished four lingering books in the last 24 hours, and while I could do a long full-length review of any of the four, I thought that something more abridged may be more appropriate. I think I'll divide them into four parts and release them over the next few days.
As a bonus aside, I've been thinking about the value of literature and videogames and media as such, and added a subtitle to the blog as a result. Let me know your thoughts.
Let us begin.

Psychohistorical Crisis by Donald Kingsbury. One of Issac Asimov's more enduring ideas was the Foundation series, a number of books based on a simple premise: while you can't predict what any individual human can do, you can, mathematically, determine what the human race as a whole will do. And if you know that, then you'll be able to alter the course to the outcome you find most beneficial. The Foundation books themselves depict the first few centuries, with humanity slowly falling under the pyschohistorians' control; Kingsbury's book imagines what happens (without ever explicitly referring to the Foundation books) a few millenia later, with the larger galaxy at peace. He also adds a number of other "future" elements, but the most interesting one is probably the fam: every adult human in the future has a fam, an electronic device that hooks directly into their head, connecting them to intergalactic databanks, aiding in their mental processing and memory storage. It's a logical extension of our current devices, and works well in the context.

The details of the plot are actually quite simple: an up-and-coming psychohistorian realizes that the rules of psychohistory are wrong, and that they're heading for an unmitigated disaster. He is regarded as dangerous for these views, and has his fam removed as a result. The story's structure is rather odd--we get the scene I've described rather immediately, but most of the book is spent on the protagonist's childhood and upbringing, so that by the time we actually reach the "now" point, there's so little of the book left that it feels both rushed and dragged out, and neither in a good way. The strength of the book is its ideas. First, there's something amusingly "meta" about the plot, in that it's a new set of eyes finding a flaw in a plot that's been accepted as a matter of fact for years. And psychohistory is a concept that's always struck at the root of what it means to be human. Do we have free will? How much do our actions matter? If the course of history can be mapped out, where do we fit on the map? We may be able to move freely through and in a system, ala de Certeau, but if we're always trapped in the system, is there any freedom at all? The book doesn't answer these issues definitively (and it is far, far too long) but it raises them in provocative ways.

Later Days.

Friday Quotations: Think Hitchhiker's Guide meets Glinda's Great Book of Records

"The nephews, moreover, hold the key for entry into the adult world, and they make good use of it: the Junior Woodchuck (Boy Scout) Handbook. It is a Golden Treasury of conventional wisdom. It has an answer to every situation, every period, every date, every action, every technical problem. Just follow the instructions on the can, to ge4t out of any difficulty. It represents the accumulation of convention s permitting the child to control the future and trap it, so that it will not vary from the pat, so that all will repeat itself. All courses of action have been pretested and approved by authority of the manual, which is the tribunal of history, the eternal law, sponsored and sanctified by those who will inherit the world. It's all written down there, in that ridig catechism, just put it into practice and carry on reading. even the adversary is possessed of objective and just standards. The Handbook is one of those rare one-hundred-percent-perfect gimmicks in the complex world of Disney: out of forty-five instances in which it is used, it never fails once, beating in infallibility even the almost perfect Mickey Mouse." --Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart, How to read Donald Duck; Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic.

Later Days.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Collection, of course, would be called "Good Grief."

Back when I was a starry-eyed MA with hopes and dreams a non-expanding waist line, I dabbled in creative writing. God help me, I dabbled in poetry. Particularly, I had an idea that I'd do a collection of poems that was based on reflections on the characters from Peanuts. I only finished two poems (sadly, the world will never hear the wonder of "I Am the Pig Pen.). One is titled "The Little Red-Haired Woman" and the other I'm going to share today. I'd like to put some heavy caveats in front: first, I really don't get poetry, generally, and I think this reflects that. Second, it really works better as a spoken poem, when I can add some inflection and emphasis. And third, I'm really very bad at poetry. And with that...

I Love Lucy
Lucy is a bad sister.
She berates her brothers’ blankets and knocks over their blocks.
She gives orders that Must Not Be Denied.
She plays the big sister card so often, it’s the only one in the deck.
Years from now, Lucy is the sister you only see at weddings and funerals.

Lucy is a bad friend.
She misses the catch, and makes excuses.
She takes your money, and gives bad advice.
She always pulls the ball away.
Lucy is the friend you can’t afford to trust.

Lucy is a bad person.
She kicks dogs and picks on children.
She is bossy and crabby and mean.
She is pride without humility.
Lucy is the devil before the fall.

But every day, after Lucy mocks her brothers,
after Lucy ridicules her friends,
after Lucy alienates herself,
She goes to a man with a piano and asks him to love her
more than his music.

And she knows.
She knows what the answer will be,
Better than she knows herself.
Every day, Lucy’s heart is broken.
And every day,
This creature of hate and anger and rage and fear
And jealousy and arrogance and human
goes home
and dreams of someone who will not dream of her.

It's sort of a clumsy ending, but... eh. Not the worst thing I've done.

Later Days.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Bibliophile: Wet Works

Books, books everywhere, and not a word worth reading. Or is there? Lead it to Bibliophile to find out.

There's no place like home : the empowering potential of the midwifery model of childbirth. 1991. Squire, Denise C.
The university appears to be slowly digitizing its decades' worth of theses and dissertations. I'm against it, purely because it means more work for me when reading through the titles. Ah, the passions of the true scholar. I mention this title because most are so mundane that a Wizard of Oz reference really brightens the proceedings.

Is conservatism an artifact caused by dissimilarities between the laboratory and the real world? 1992. Kamenetsky, Stuart B.
Essentially, are people less likely to sacrifice other people if they know they're real people and not just numbers? Answer: results cannot be generalized. That's somewhat ironic--that the study investigating how people come to make generalizations ends in a conclusion that can't be generalized.

Bald truth : determining the need for a Canadian alopecia association / by Bonnie Lipton.
I'm imagining the Canadian equivalent of Stan Sitwell here.

Gender differences in perceptions of sexual and nonsexual cues in dating. Alksnis, Christine.
Through analysis of surveys, Alksnis found that men are more likely to associate sexual encounters with a "good" date than women, and that women are more likely to describe a "bad" date as one that includes sexually-charged situations. So in other words, if there's sex involved, men aren't going to have a bad date. Science, everybody.

Empathy and intergroup relations : do people empathize less with outgroup members? / by Gillian Macdonald.
Interesting question. On the one hand, I'd say that in general, we're more likely to empathize with people we know better and identify with, which includes people we're in groups with. On the other hand, I'd say there's a point where you're so familiar with a person's problems that you're too close to see them for what they are--that you get so used to them, their concerns become a sort of background noise. I think it happens with families, especially. The actual study appears to be based on ethnic groups, though, and it found no difference either way.

Never call them "jerks" : an approach to responsible pastoral leadership in the face of difficult behaviour in the congregation. 1997. Boers, Arthur Paul.
Well, that's just good advice.

Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie? The Supply of New Recorded Music Since Napster by Joel Wadfogel, 2011.
The typical music industry complaint against file-sharing and so forth is that it damages the industry, whereas respecting copyright encourages creative growth. Wadfogel's findings basically show that there's been no decrease in the quantity of new artists or material coming to market since the proliferation of Napster and after its decline. Without any data at all, I'd argue that digital distribution has been a real boon to emerging artists in general, as it's easier to develop an audience.

Deleuze and Guattari's immanent ethics : theory, subjectivity, and duration / Tamsin Lorraine. Albany : State University of New York Press, c2011.
Finally, finally, we are out of the theses/special papers section, and into the new books proper. And what better way to kick that off with this week's Deleuze and Guattari tribute?

Concept of time / Martin Heidegger ; translated by Ingo Farin. London ; New York : Continuum, c2011.
Speaking of major figures in modern philosophy, we have this translated entry from one of phenomenology's heavy hitters. All I know from Heidegger is what I've derived from my Stiegler readings, but it's more than enough to know that this would be an intense reading.

Yuck! : the nature and moral significance of disgust / Daniel Kelly.
Other books that include "Yuck" in their titles: "What the Yuck?: The Freaky and Fabulous Truth About Your Body," a book on the female body; "Yuck!: The Grossest Joke Book Ever!" ("Man: I'd like some toilet paper please. Lady: What colour would you like? Man: Just give me white, I colour it myself!"); and "Oh, yuck!: the encyclopedia of everything nasty." Can Kelly's book live up to this illustrious pedigree?

Religion and democracy : a worldwide comparison / Carsten Anckar.
I like books with a simple, modest scope. It does appear that Anckar is addressing something more specific than the title suggests. He is apparently testing Huntington’s claim that democracy and religion are tightly connected, and that western Christianity is the only religion capable of supporting democratic institutions. Anckar finds quantitatively what I would call the intuitive answer, that local political context matters more than declared religion. It gets more complicated when you factor in that religion is also determined in part by political context, and determines it as well, but in general, it seems like Huntington is confusing causation with correlation.

Terror of history : on the uncertainties of life in Western civilization / Teofilo F. Ruiz. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, c2011.
Man, if there was ever a title that seemed to encapsulate the "First World problems" meme. What the book actually argues is that Westerners generally have three responses to large-scale disaster and trauma: religion, worldly success and pleasure, and art and knowledge. That's a good thumbnail sketch of the classic Faust story, where the good doctor gives up the first in the name of the last and winds up thoughtlessly going after the middle.

Architecture of doom [videorecording] / POJ Filmproduktion AB ; First Run/CARUS Film production ; a film by Peter Cohen. New York : First Run/ICARUS Films, 1991.
I was hoping this would be about sinister buttresses and evil archways. It is instead a book on Hitler's theories of architecture, which isn't far off, come to think of it.

Stone and dung, oil and spit : Jewish daily life in the time of Jesus / Jodi Magness.
I like the contrast Magness was clearly going for--mixing the typical sense of the sacredness of Jesus with the ordinary and profane.

Job search in academe : how to get the position you deserve / Dawn M. Formo and Cheryl Reed ; foreword by Kristina Mesaros, Carla Maroudas, and Kevin Degnan. 2nd ed. Sterling, Va. : Stylus, c2011.
...I'm listening.

Big thirst : the secret life and turbulent future of water / Charles Fishman. 1st Free Press hardcover ed. New York : Free Press, 2011.
Water management's an issue that's not going away--as the book's description tells us, major American cities are only 90 days away from running out of water at a given time. Fishman's book seems more positive than most environmental-oriented examinations, arguing that we do have enough water and we will have enough, provided we can manage it properly. It's sort of a training resource; it's the closest we have to something that's actually renewable, and if we can properly manage it, then maybe there's hope that we can responsibly use a few other things.

Better angels of our nature : why violence has declined / Steven Pinker.
Catchy title. For those wondering his argument, he backs up his point that we're living in the most nonviolent time in history with pages and pages of graphs and statistics. The main three factors he identifies is the influence from the Enlightenment, that promoting education lowers propensity for violence; the prevalence of the state, in that people have less need to personally defend themselves; and the global spread of commerce, which makes it in everyone's best interest to play nice. I think there's a case to be made against all points--the State has led to some massacres on a far wider scale than any other, the education factor may be construed as intellectual elitism, and the commerce issue ignores just who's making money off of all those guns. But it's hard to argue that we're not as bellicose, as a species, as we once were.

Cold breezes and idiot winds : patriotic correctness and the post-9/11 assault on academe / Valerie Scatamburlo-D'Annibale. Rotterdam : Sense Publishers, c2011.
Somebody sounds a little peeved. Although I'll admit that there does seem to be a bizarre anti-intellectual strain in American discourse.

Book of rotters / Alan Bold & Robert Giddings. Edinburgh : Mainstream Pub., 1985.
Putting "rotter" in the title of your book improves it by 8.67%. Fact.
Later Days.

Future species : Hybrids, Exoskell, Cyborg living, Makeover madness. Toronto : Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, c2009.
I wish I was still teaching a course on digital media. Ah, well. I might check out this book anyway.

Agonizing love : the golden era of romance comics / Michael Barson. New York : Harper Design, 2011.
Another entry for the comic book historian.

Blackout / Connie Willis. 1st ed. New York : Spectra Ballantine Books, c2010.
Time travel romps. There's nothing that can go so bad as a time travel story, but it should be fun.

Close to Spider Man : stories / Ivan E. Coyote. Vancouver : Arsenal Pulp Press, c2000.
Sadly, not an anthology of characters ranging from Aunt May to Flash Thompson.

Virtual water : tackling the threat to our planet's most precious resource / Tony Allan. London ; New York : I.B. Tauris, 2011.
And for a different perspective on the water debate, Tony Allan argues that water is finite, and running out fast. We need to be better appreciate the value of this resource, while we have it. Or so his argument goes.

Inventing Iron Man : the possibility of a human machine / E. Paul Zehr. Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.
A book in the "Science of Superheroes" sort of vein.

Later Days.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Book Review: Do The Gods Wear Capes? by Ben Saunders

"This phenomenal development of a national comics addiction puzzles professional educators and leaves the literary critics gasping. Comics scorn finesse, thereby incurring the wrath of linguistic adepts. They defy the limits of accepted fact and convention, thus amortizing to apoplexy the ossified arteries of routine thought. But by these very tokens the picture-story fantasy cuts loose the hampering debris of art and artifice and touches the tender spots of universal human desires and aspirations, hidden customarily beneath long accumulated protective coverings of indirection or disguise. Comics speak, without qualm or sophistication, to the innermost ears of the wishful self." --William Moulton Marston, creator of Wonder Woman, circa 1940s, quoted in Ben Saunder's Do The Gods Wear Capes?.

I know, two book reviews in a 24 hour period. It's been a long day. Hopefully, this one will be a little abridged.

About a year ago now, I was pressing a friend for his opinion on a trio of superhero comics we'd both read. He was somewhat reluctant to voice said opinion, but under further pressure, he finally blurted out that he hated them. Not only did they raise his ire, but they reminded him of everything that he was sick of about the genre: overblown, oversimplistic morality, downright misogynist portrayals of women, and a celebration of violence and carnage. I was, as you might imagine, somewhat surprised. The worst part was that I could tell this wasn't a conclusion he'd come to casually. He was a bigger comic fan than I was (if you can imagine such a thing), and he wouldn't willingly dismiss any part of its history, capes or no capes, unless he felt he had very little choice. And the hell of it was, I couldn't really marshal an argument in favor of the current crop of spandex-sporters. A lot of the time they ARE depicting the adventures of misogynistic, hyperviolent hypocrites. And the hell of it was, I'd probably keep on reading them anyway.

Saunders' book, Do The Gods Wear Capes?: Spirituality, Fantasy, and Superheroes, isn't exactly the answer I was looking for, though that's mostly because of its era of focus--it's stretching the whole of superhero comics history, from pre-WWII onwards, but there's not much about the current era; the closest it gets is some Warren Ellis-penned stuff in the early 2000s. Each chapter looks at a different comic book superhero and the seminal work on him or her to argue for the philosophical representations each one conveys. Chapter 1, for example, is on Superman. Supremely powered, Superman's story isn't about power, but about pursuing moral goodness. The catch is, this goodness is constantly being reinterpreted--Siegel and Shuster saw him as a rebel figure, best typified in an early issue where he tears up a car manufacturer's factory for producing unsafe vehicles, then kidnaps the mayor to get him to promise stricter guidelines. Later, he becomes a bastion of public order, and later still, something more ambiguous. Spiritually, Saunders connects him to the difficulty of pursuing goodness, as its definition proves elusive.

But it's chapter two where things really get interesting. Saunders here looks at the inception of Wonder Woman, by psychiatrist turned comic book writer William Moulton Marston. Marston's predilection for bondage scenes is well-known, but what's less known is that this bondage was based on a very complex system of beliefs. Marston thought that, using some questionable biological arguments, that women were naturally dominant, and men submissive, and that much of the evils of world persisted because both sexes had forgotten the pleasure of being in bondage. As Marston put it, "The only hope for peace is to teach people who are full of pep and unbound force to enjoy being bound." It's a very weird idea, but a pretty interesting one--especially when juxtaposed with Bernard Wolfe's Limbo. Limbo, as I'm sure you'll all remember from the book review I never wrote, had the premise that in the future, men disavowed themselves from aggression by voluntarily removing their limbs. The endeavor failed because they were just as aggressive as ever--they replaced the limbs with constructed limbs that they built in competition, trading a nuclear arms race for a literal arms race (and with Wolfe, the pun is always intended). At the same time, their sexuality all but vanished--the world was fun of women desperate for male attention and men who ignored them. Perhaps Marston's bondage is a way of channeling that aggression into pleasure?
Saunders' own contribution of the argument is that the value Marston favors--submission--is an original Christian value, but one that's fallen out of favor. He suggests that Wonder Woman, as a character, presents a utopian model combining submission to a higher power with the ecstasy of the flesh, seeing that combining sex and spirituality has been a problem at least since the Songs of Solomon.

Chapter 3 is Spider-Man, and in this figure, Saunders sees a merger of Freudian trauma theory--Spider-Man's constant return to the death of his uncle and Gwen Stacey--to the existential philosophy of Kierkegaard. Specifically, Kierkegaard argues that we pass from a state of no moral order, to some system of moral order, to a realization of that no moral order is capable of encompassing all experience, and that rationality is always limited. Those three stages are represented in Spider-Man by his original moral-free acceptance of his powers, his "great power comes great responsibility" shift with the death of Uncle Ben, and the unpreventable death of his girlfriend, Gwen Stacey. (There's also a brief section on Gwen's role, as the innocent woman sacrificed so Peter can reach this enlightenment.) One wonders, given this analysis, what Saunders makes of Peter's recent deal with Satan to his aunt's life, at the cost of his memory of his marriage. Yeah, that happened. Comics!

The final chapter is on Iron Man. Here, Saunders argues that Tony Stark's reliance on technology is similar to his reliance on alcohol, that in both cases, it's about control, and it's through the lenses of alcoholism that the series portrays the follies of overreliance on technology. Saunders weaves this interpretation with a discussion of the posthuman, represented by Stark's merging of man and machine. The spiritual issue touched on here is one of acceptance of the limitations of the individual, as in the form of the AA program. A coda follows, in which Saunders cautions against comic book studies creating a divide between super hero comics and the more auteur-based indie books. Preach it, sir.

Saunders' interest here is not in showing how these superheroes function as springboards for philosophical discussions, but to argue that these philosophical issues have always been built into these characters to begin with. Thus, the value of superhero comics aren't escapism or wish fulfillment, but the way they address, intrinsically, the same values and questions that have driven philosophy for centuries. And while Saunders does get a little preachy at times, for the most part, he does exactly that. It's probably a testament to his writing that I was left wondering what could be done with other superhero characters. If Gwen was a sacrifice, then what do we make of Jean Grey, a woman who died not just once but twice, the second time explicitly so her husband could progress as a person? Batman is notoriously missing in Saunders' analysis, save for a reference that his morality is not so much complex as contradictory, but surely there's something to be made out of a man who dedicated his life to vengeance and wound up with a family? And then there's the Fantastic Four. If Tony Stark represents faith in technology, then Reed Richards is the poster boy for rationalism and modern science. And Ben Grimm is essentially the archetype of "bad things happening to good people." Ah, the endless possibilities. Comics!

Later Days.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Stealth Status Update

Normally, this would be a Facebook post, but it's a little too geeky to broadcast on quite so public a scale. Currently, I'm in the university library. I'm switching back and forth playing Shining Force II while listening to a YouTube channel (Reboundary, BTW) on "Great Video Game Music," and occasionally taking a break to read 2008 Rock Paper Shotgun posts and choice bits from a philosophy book on superheroes and religion that I'm probably going to do (yet another) book review tonight. It's Friday night, and it's a combination of sad and awesome how much I'm enjoying myself.

Later Days.

Book Review: Tomb Raiders and Space Invaders by Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska

“Realism might, in one sense, be intended to create a relatively transparent effect, based on not drawing attention to the deficits in the level of representation achievable in the playable parts of games, or reducing somewhat the gap between visual resolution of the game and audio-visual media such as film and television. But it also offers what can often be termed a 'spectacle' of realism: degrees of graphical realism that are flaunted and designed to be admired as striking or impressive images in their own right. As a form of spectacle of this kind, as in other respects, realism can be a source of appeal in the realms of either real-world reference or more outright fantasy.” --Tomb Raiders and Space Invaders by Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska.

Every time I finish a book on video game theory, I feel obligated to write a review of it, for posterity's sake, if for no other reason. And so, we come to Tomb Raiders and Space Invaders: Videogame Forms and Contexts by Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska. Published in 2005, this book has had a relatively modest (to be generous) effect on videogame scholarship as a whole. And that's a shame, because while many of its claims are a little too widely accepted to be really innovative, and its organization could use some refinement, in general, Tomb & Space (my oh-so-clever shorthand) has some very useful ideas on subjects such as immersion and realism.

The book starts with a very brief introduction that establishes a continuity between the two title games, then segues into the authors' main argument: that games need to be studied in terms of both their gameplay and their wider context. Again, not exactly an approach that is very controversial, but their dedication to the stance throughout the book is admirable. The first and longest chapter is loosely on explicitly that subject: gameplay and its context. More specifically, they cover a very wide variety of subject matter. It starts with some definitions of gameplay and games, taking some well known definitions from Johan Huizinga and Roger Callois. The play vs. game notion is explored in some detail, with the conclusion that play occurs within a system, allowing them segue nicely into the next topic, how games function in larger cultural contexts. This leads them to examine gameplay in terms of hooks that motivate the player, and a very thorough discussion of the concept of flow, as defined by the commonly cited Mihaly Csikczentmilhalyi. That leads to the official discussion of game context, with a discussion on how games draw on common cultural narrative frameworks and genres, such as the quest motif or the fantasy setting. In general, they argue, this setting helps with establishing immersion, though it tends to disappear from attention once that flow is established. (Jesper Juul argues something very similar in his book Half-Real.) To put their work in context with the narratology/ludology debate (is a videogame a system of rules or a story?), they're essentially arguing that while games vary greatly, in general, narrative is used as a secondary element, but a really important secondary element. And its effect depends on the background of the player as much as the game itself. And that's chapter one. Yes, that's all chapter one.

Chapter 2 examines the notion of gamespace, and how a game offers the player opportunities for exploration and presence. The amount of freedom offered in a game vvaries greatly; on a most basic level, there's the range from the single screen representation (Pac-Man) to fully 3D worlds (Mario 64). There are hard boundaries, which are impassable, often invisible, boundaries in the game world, as well as soft boundaries, which are temporary, and used to direct player's progress (ie. you need a key to open a door in Tomb Raider.) There's also a variety of navigational aids, ranging from game maps to NPC advice to the presence of enemies. Familiarity with game space is a form of knowledge that can be leveraged for power in game communites, especially for players in MMO games (online games such as World of Warcraft). That brings us to presence. They distinguish between perceptual and psychological immersion--particularly, the closer the presence in the game world, the greater the perceptual immersion, the feeling that the player is actually there. Thus, a game in first person view is more perceptually immersive than an overhead view. But because you can't see behind you in a such a game, it would be harder to play, which creates frustration, which disrupts the psychological immersion, or flow, as it was defined last chapter. It's one of the many useful distinctions that King and Krzywinska make, one that I can't recall being made elsewhere. The chapter covers other issues of presence as well: sound, camera control, player death, and HUD (head's up display--the information the game presents on screen), concluding the chapter with a brief section on how, following Kendall Walton, we turn games into objects that enable imaginary play, and thus psychological immersion may be more significant than sensory immersion.

Chapter 3 is the one most useful to my own work, a chapter on realism, spectacle, and sensation. Here's another handy distinction: the authors distinguish between visual realism, which is how closely the graphics resemble the real world, and functional realism, which is how closely the gameplay resembles the real world (ie. an enemy combatant dies with a single head shot, or the player character has to eat regularly). Much of game design and commercial promotion revolves around claims of superior graphics, but the authors note that it's not so much real-world versimilitude that's being pursued, but accepted mediated versions of the real world. For example, a sports game doesn't present the game as experienced in real life so much as how it's experienced through TV cameras. And the functional realism has to maintain a balance--familiar enough that we can relate it to the real life equivalent, but not so identical that it's as difficult as its real-life equivalent. Think Guitar Hero--it presents playing a guitar, but a simplified, less difficult version. Finally, there's a brief section on spectacle, and how games use various forms of spectacle--expansive vistas, big explosions, dizzying sequences--to direct player experience.

The fourth and final chapter examines games within cultural and political contexts. After briefly mentioning overt political games such as Frasca's September 12th, they take a broader approach, noting that games follow conventional Western notions of the power of the individual, the evils of science amok and shadowy corporations, and a hodgepodge of myths cribbed from various cultures, especially fantasy. Character representation tends towards reinforcing white masculine fears. The female heroine straddles a line (a very familiar line, in video game arguments) between empowerment and sex object. And race is almost erased entirely, with few games allowing any focus on racial difference in their protagonist.

The above covers the "visual" part of the ideological context; the rest of the chapter looks at ideology in terms of gameplay. Again, going as broad as possible, the competition aspect of games fits nicely with late capitalism, especially the imperialist model found in your basic strategy game such as Civilization. In the discussion of game violence, they raise the notion of Althusser's interpolation, that video games are ideological apparatuses trying to assign players subject positions. The complication here is that they distinguish between the player's subject position and the player character. Generally, the player-character is put into a position of the hero fighting evil; the player is put in the position of someone playing a game in a particular manner. Thus, a shooting game doesn't turn the player into someone who's likely to shoot things in real life, but into someone who's likely to shoot things in the context of a videogame. I should be opposed to this idea, because it really wrecks a paper I wrote on Mass Effect, but it's actually rather appealing. they continue in this vein for a bit, and then end with a section on game industry, largely derived very explicitly from De Pueter, Kline, and Dyer-Witheford's excellent book, Digital Play. The brief afterword reminds us that game studies is very big, and there was no way for them to cover everything.

I have a few niggling points with some of their choices. For example, they argue that hardcore players prefer to focus on mechanics and it's casual players who want better graphics, which doesn't really work as an argument in face of the massive casual player embrace of less graphically superior things as phone games, browser games, and the Wii (in comparison to other current consoles, at least). And ending your book on a section that relies very, very heavily on someone else's book is an odd decision, to say the least. But overall, I agree with their arguments. I don't think you'll find many who dispute that games need to be considered within wider contexts, and the study of narrative and genre is broad enough not to ruffle any but the most steadfast ludologists, while still being applicable enough to be useful. And many of their distinctions I know I'm going to find very useful--player vs. player character interpellation, pscyhological vs. preceptual immersion, and most importantly, visual vs. functional realism. So that's all good.

What's less good is the way the information is portrayed. Let's start with the use of games. It's rare that King and Krzywinska focus explicitly on an individual game for an extended period of time. Rather, they bring the game up, move on, and bring it up again, in the next section or chapter where it happens to be mildly relevant. It creates an unfocused feeling. Moreover, there's no real sense or argument that the specific games they chose were particularly significant for what they wanted to discuss. For example, while I personally have very fond memories of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Chaos Bleeds, with the best intentions in the world, I wouldn't hold it up as exemplar for promoting cooperative gaming, just based on the fact that its characters talk during cutscenes and you play as different characters.

But for my largest complaint, let's go back to the issue of focus. My main problem with the book is that focus exists only on the macro level, and even then, in very broad strokes. Within a single section, the authors will switch from setting to character to gender to race to violence, all with nothing but a brief segue that sometimes ranges on a non-sequitor. It left me with a constant uncertainty over where the argument was going, and how everything fit together. It's a shame, because it's really a problem in terms of editing and presentation rather than the argument per se. A longer introduction or a few chapter subheadings could have made a world of difference.

So yes: it's a good book, with useful ideas, but its content is hurt somewhat by its disorganized form.

Later Days.

Friday Quotations: Like Rickey Rouse or Monald Muck

"Juvenile literature is a father surrogate. The model of paternal authority is at every point immanent, the implicit basis of its structure and very existence. The natural creativity of the child, which no one in his right mind can deny, is channellled through the apparent absence of the father into an adult-authoritarian vision of the real world. Paternalism in absentia is the indispensable vehicle for the defense and invisible control of the ostensibly autonomous childhood model. The comics, like television, in all vertically structured societies, rely upon distance as a means of authoritarian reinforcement." --Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart, How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic.

Later Days.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Apple and Snow

I ate an apple outside yesterday, and it brought back one of my earliest memories.

I don't know if it's this way for everyone, but once you start delving back into the early years of my childhood, "earliest memory" becomes a distinction that's hard to grant with any degree of accuracy. Once you go back a certain point, memories get confused with photographs, dreams, and the stories other people tell you. But this memory is clear enough.

It's winter, I'm in Saskatchewan, and I'm sitting in a snow bank. Across from me, in the neighbor's driveway, there's a furious game of street hockey going on, and it's been going on for a while. I have been watching--I've been allowed to watch---nearby, and I contemplate the events solemnly, periodically taking a small bite out of my apple. I couldn't tell you how old I was. I was old enough that my teeth were in, thus making apple consumption a possibility. But I was young enough that I wasn't allowed to play with the older boys, not in a game of street hockey, anyway. I think that puts me somewhere between 4 and 8, which gives me an admittedly large margin of error.

It's almost as if we were deliberately trying for a cliched Canadian tableau: rural Saskatchewan,piles of snow everywhere, a half dozen or so boys zooming around nets, and another younger one, bundled up in a comical manner, watching them. Clearly, we were trying to reconstruct a scene from the Hockey Sweater. I can't even remember who any of the other boys were; it can be safely assumed that at least one was a grandson of our neighbors, but beyond that, it could have been any of a number of suitably aged town kids.

What I do remember, though, is the apple. I was wearing mitts and I ate it slowly and fumblingly, in part because it's really hard to eat an apple while wearing mitts, and in part because I knew if the apple was gone, I'd have to make a move--I'd have to go inside to throw it out, or get a new one, or something, and I'd miss some of the game. I remember feeling very strongly that if I didn't have an apple with me, my presence would, for some reason, become suspect. Such are the logical certainties of a child in the 4 to 8 age bracket. You'd think the apple would be incredibly cold in such conditions, and in fact I do remember actually dropping it in the snow more than once. But while I was reluctant to go inside, I'm certain that I did, maybe more than once, just to put the apple quickly into the microwave to heat it up a bit. And so the time passed, me gnawing on my warmed up apple core, watching some kids play hockey.

And that's it. That's the memory, in its entirety. I'm not going to say it's a life-changing moment, or that it had a profound effect on my feelings towards hockey, fruit, or winter general. But whenever I eat an apple outside in the winter months--granted, not something that happens often--this is what I remember. And in some small way, I feel a little better, just for the connection to my younger self.

Memory's funny, isn't it?

Later Days.