The Chapter of Death, or, When that thing you’re writing turns to utter crap

I have a book chapter due in about two weeks time, it’s an expanded version of a paper I presented in Oxford in July last year. I’ve reached the point where I have stopped being convinced of my own thesis – which is pretty damning. The thrust of the original paper went something like this:

– The videogame blogging community is pretty rad

– The community seems to know stuff (it makes interesting blog posts and discussions)

– Therefore the community as an aggregate entity knows stuff (and for some epistemological reasons that’s interesting)

Easy, right? Except that I’ve grown disenchanted with the idea that the community knows stuff, as well as the idea of the community as an aggregate entity. It’s all kind of boring and banal, with all the things and potentials that excited or surprised me about it now seeming dull and mundane.

Okay fine, so I can’t just withdraw the piece from the anthology because I think my piece is stupid, gotta keep the publishing record up after all. So what’s my option? Go with the pat ‘there were no conclusions reached/further research needed’ option?

A journal article I discovered the other day might have a useful “out”, and I’ll excerpt the intro:

“The 2011 revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and neighbouring countries have brought blogging and other social and citizens’ media to the forefront of the public imagination. Major news corporations have interviewed bloggers and drawn heavily on Twitter and Facebook. Social media have been celebrated as creating or, at the very least, fuelling the revolutionary movements. On the other hand, ‘pre-revolutionary’ scholarship on blogs and other forms of online journalism, citizens’ media and user-generated content argued that they were unsuccessful because they did not appear on the radar of commercial media and/or have not themselves become big media, accessed by a large number of readers/users. For some observers this means that journalism 2.0 has not lived up to its promise (Rebillard and Touboul, 2010).

These two apparently opposing arguments draw on the same logic: media are considered political if, and only if, they have a major impact on political decision-makers and the public sphere. …The danger for media analysis is that we then forget about the political import of mundane, quotidian everyday practices: they no longer fit within the notion of politics.”

They then go on to position the German news-blogosphere (a considerably larger one than the CVG blogosophere) as political via Oliver Marchart’s who “has elaborated an extended definition of minimal politics, the minimal criteria required for an action to be considered political.” So that could be an out: do something with Marchart’s 6 criteria for minimal politics and say the CVG blogosphere meets the criteria (probably like: sometimes it will, sometimes it won’t).

The bits I have that do feel strong are about community formation, and how the CVGBlogosophere emerged and how to talk about community when it’s a techno-human community… but why would a chapter primarily about that end up in a book about videogames (and more to the point: in a section on identity and gameplay?? Unless I want to get all Clifford Geertz up in this piece and treat blogging as a “game” – also a. la Chris Bateman, but I have some problems with that book…)

So I don’t know.  I think I’ve about reached my limit for the day, and it’s time for some relaxing Starcraft instead.

(Not really) Reading about videogames (but other stuff)

I don’t really read about videogames all that much anymore. I’m just not that interested. But I’m heading up CD’s Blogs of the Round Table… that’s a quandry. Which reminds me, January is over and it’s time to move on to February. I don’t have a topic ready yet.

But what have I been reading? Well, I’ve started reading in pomodoro chunks, and it’s working pretty well. I finally finished the Preface to Jane Bennett’s vibrant matter which looks stunning, and I can’t believe I didn’t finish it earlier. Right up my alley and all that. Second I got out Bernard Stiegler’s “Looking After Youth and The Generations” which blew me away in the first page but which started to get bogged down in Freud and psychoanalysis which is just not really my bag. Perhaps it’s because I don’t understand it/was never taught it, or perhaps my bullshit detector is just right when it tells me much of what passes for psychoanalytic discussion is a bit of a giant wank with little relation to reality. But that’s okay. Wanking never hurt anyone, just don’t expect me to watch and enjoy it.

Apparently Chapter 7 of Steigler’s work is the really good bit, called “What is philosophy?” it (acording to Alex Galloway’s review of the book) plugs into this whole French conversation between Deleuze/Stiegler and someone who Deleuze was kind of riffing off when he wrote his own book “What is philosophy?”.  Anyway I really like Stiegler’s giving-a-fuck-about-youth business, and the first three or four pages of the book which talk about responsibility and how youths are made responsible for their actions (esp. criminal actions) we actually remove responsibility from adults and society responsible for making the youths  into responsible adults. In essence, we say two things: to kids “Be responsible!” and to adults “You don’t have to be responsible!” which is no doubt the source of some serious fucking conflict.

I’m looking forward to reading more of Bennett and Stiegler soon, but this fucking book chapter needs writing (that’s what I was reading these two for. I think it’s probably a bit late to include any more than a cursory mention of either of them though. Stupid chapter is due in two and a half weeks, and I haven’t quite finished my first expanded draft).


So I’ve totally messed up my early #pomodorojerk momentum by catching tonsilitis two weeks in a row. I think I’ve done my daily writing allotment maybe one or twice in the whole of the past two weeks. But now that I’m on the mend, I should really start it up again – but the piece I’m writing (a chapter, expanded from a paper I wrote for the Oxford conference last July)  is at the stage where it doesn’t really need any more writing. At least, not any more of the kind of writing that the pomodoro brings out – new, alternative perspectives and angles and connections. Rather, it needs edits and connections and prunings – like what happens to the brain as it goes from being highly connected as a child, to greatly refined with fewer, more deliberate connections as the brain matures.

Supposedly one can do a pomodoro edit too – just stick to the clock and see how much you can get done, but that hasn’t really worked super well for me so far. I’ll give it another go, however.

But for the moment – I need something new to be writing to get back into my usual pomodorojerk routine. On my pomodoro list are two things – my review of Chris Bateman’s ‘Imaginary Games’ about which I have quite a bit to say (but my reading isn’t quite finished), and an essay for Robert Yang’s Territory initiative. The latter I’ve done a number of drafts of, none of which I’ve been particularly pleased with. They all ended up in rambly, confused territory as it’s hard to explain Latour’s ‘Never Modern’ in a short space, and without trying to explain all of it at once…

In the interests of pushing this micro-blogging cart up the hill…

Jesus Christ I wish I could stop itching – I’ve had tonsillitis on-and-off for the better part of two weeks now, and I’m on my second course of penicillin and I think it’s giving me hives, or whatever these itchy little red bumps on my skin are. They’re driving me insane – and I’ve supposedly got another week-or-so’s worth of them to keep taking!

If you believe in a divine entity, please pray for me to find some relief. At least I can’t scratch them when I’m playing Starcraft.

Determinism (mostly for Jenn Frank (but you might be interested also?))

So Jenn Frank wrote an astonishingly great piece ‘On games of chance, cheating, and religion’ and JP Grant added some thoughts of his own about the notion of ‘fairness’ in games, in an equally excellent response, ‘Fair Play’. Go read both of them now if you haven’t yet.

But I wanted to add a little something about the notion of determinism, the spectre of which Jenn mentioned in relation to things like the location of gold veins, being able to win at jeopardy or the scratch lottery, the notion of a ‘solved game‘, and the Christian theological tradition following Calvin.

In essence, if anything is ‘solved’ or ‘fated’ or ‘pre-destined’ what we’re saying is that it is determined in advance, usually by some set of rules which may or may not be discoverable. That’s kind of fine – there are some things which can always be determined in advance, like 8 plus 9 or that a (non-contradictory) square will always have four sides, but all these things only happen in the realm of ideas, as abstractions, or in artificially (arbitrarily?) closed systems. Determinism as a philosophy, ideology or religious doctrine concerns the nature of everything. Whether it’s Calvinism, Newtonian physics, belief in the Roman god Fortuna, or a new age sense of fate, they’re really all saying much the same thing – that everything is predestined, predetermined. Why? Because if any part of the universe is ‘out of control’ for whichever force does the determining (even the laws of physics) then the whole thing becomes irredeemable corrupted. One atom left beyond the powerful reach of our Calvinist God’s control could – no, would – undermine the whole basis of determinism. Even if this Calvinist deity is omnipotent and knows what this ‘out of control’ (hello free will) atom will do, the deity reduces the real agency of the free atom utterly and we’re now splitting semantic hairs over our definition of determinism (“If I have ‘free will’ but nothing I do could possibly ever change anything from it’s set course… how is that free again?”). And if it’s left up to “chance”… well, who’s omnipotent now? The point about a philosophy of a determinist universe is that it is so utterly totalising – it’s all or nothing, otherwise it’s not determinism.

But maybe you’re not convinced – after all, how do we know that it’s not deterministic? Well here’s where it get a bit tricky, because we really come to this question with a lot of baggage. Like Jenn says, we worry about the answers to these kinds of questions, and that makes us want to stay away from them, or at least makes us anxious about asking them. It’s also difficult because we’re already treading on the toes of philosophers, who all come with their own historically specific baggage, which in turn is already affecting how we’re even talking about this issue right now…

So if we’ve got all this baggage, where do we start? One way is to start by pinching the best idea that Science ever had, which is to say that we begin from a position of utter, naïve openness to revision – no problem is ever permanently closed to inquiry; no question is beyond asking; no contrary evidence is ever ignored for the sake of preserving our current (even working!) answers. This kind of attitude has actually gotten a bit of a bad rap lately because it’s been perverted and selectively deployed to spectacular effect by people with an agenda other than inquiry-for-inquiry’s-sake. As an aside, in Australia in 2007 over half the population polled in the affirmative when asked whether or not they believed in human influenced climate change. Since then that number has plummeted as tabloid media and right-wingers colluded together to cast unreasonable doubt on issue. We used to believe, but now it’s “not a settled science” once more. That’s not what I’m talking about – these people are no more presenting real challenges to climate science than Ron Paul is really going to take a libertarian position on women’s reproductive rights.

But back to the issue of determinism. What are the odds that the universe is deterministic? Okay, odds is a not a good way to phrase it. How about, ‘What are the possibilities with respect to whether or not the universe is deterministic?’ That’s a much better frame for the question, because now we can see that, actually there’s only two options – either it is, or it isn’t.

Well, actually we’ve already seen a bit of a third option, and that is that derminism is ‘unevenly distributed’ around the cosmos, or occasionally pops up in localised regions of time or space. But as we said at the outset, that’s not determinism – it’s all or nothing baby! Either there’s an actual, real chance that an atomic spec influences the fate of the rest of the cosmos, or there’s not. Implicit within our culturally-overburdened notion of ‘determinism’ is the assumption that all of the universe is consistently deterministic, otherwise… it’s not really determinism! Ta da! So we’re back to two options. The universe and everything in it is either deterministic or it isn’t.

From here we can go in a number of directions – perhaps we can draw on some fancy modern science and apply what we know about popular theories in advanced theoretical physics like string theory, ‘M-theory’ and other quantum mechanical frameworks. Or alternatively we could take the Pratchette-esque route and say that it’s ‘turtles all the way down’, and that rather than having a ‘bottom’, the universe just… keeps on going, all the way down, down, down into the depths of Hades and beyond. It’s hard to imagine such a thing, but it’s really quite difficult to say that it’s beyond the realm of plausibility. Still, it’s just as hard to imagine that this never-ending, fractal-esque universe behaved in anything resembling a determinist manner. Part of the appeal of determinism stems from it’s finitude, in the sense that something starts a chain that is predictable and utterly determined from the very outset.

So whether the universe contains an infinite regress of ‘things’ of increasingly ultra-tiny bits of stuff also impacts our assessment of the question of a determinist universe. If the very bottom level (let’s just say it’s quantum strings) is all irreducibly small and made of the same ‘stuff’ then how that ‘stuff’ behaves makes a difference to the nature of the universe. In fact, all the universe is is that stuff, and if that ‘stuff’ really is strings current thinking (as I understand) is that rather than being deterministic, stings are so weird that they behave based on probability. So whether or not you get out of bed and brush your teeth in the morning is underpinned by strange stringy bits with 26 dimensions all behaving in a probabilistic manner… and by that stage we’re not living in a determinist universe.

But before we go home with our new found suspicion that we’re probably (ah! ahahahahaha!) not living in a determinist universe, we should make one small detour back up to the realm of medium sized-object and remind ourselves where a limited kind of determinism does exist – and that is in abstractions, ideas and in arbitrariness.

And this is where we come back to games, because most games are exactly that – abstractions, rules, ideas, and arbitrariness incarnate. In their ‘pure’ (think platonic) form, every game probably could be deterministic, but games don’t exist as pure thought or rules because games are done, or they are played. Where are they played? In the universe. What is the universe? Probably not deterministic. And despite our best efforts, our lucky or careful organisation, there really is no predicting when the indeterminacy of the universe will intrude. Even these machines – these localised realms of determinacy we call ‘computers’ – depend on other things like the continued operation of the laws of electro-conductance, as well as on the manufacturing standards at Xbox HQ. And while it might even look as though certain ‘universal laws’ like electron conductivity are themselves ‘deterministic’ from the point of view of an engineer or software developer, we would do well to remember that these laws themselves are contingent. That is, at a certain point in the far, far, far, far distant future, at the end of the universe even, according to physicists these laws are going to themselves break down. If they’re  right then the universe will eventually have expanded enough to rip apart even atoms themselves. Try running your Xbox in that kind of an environment.

But hey, these predictions could be wrong – remember we’re not allowing ourselves the option of shutting down necessary revisions early. But at the same time, that’s also kind of appropriate. If we do live in a probabilistic universe, we may never really, truly and necessarily be able to prove it. That’s makes sense, I think, and it seems like a beautiful kind of symmetry, wouldn’t you say?

Philosophy as object

“…actor-networks, unit operations, alien phenomenology, agentic drift, onticology, guerrilla metaphysics, carnal phenomenology, ontography, agential realism, cosmopolitics, panpsychism, insect media, posthumanism, flat ontology, dark vitalism, prosthetics, territorial assemblage, vibrant materialism, dorsality, distributed intelligence, dark ecology, hyperobjects, realist magic, post-continuity, and other paradigms…”

From O-Zone a new journal about Object-Oriented Studies.

The expressive, persuasive power of lists is well known to the practitioners of OOO/SR so it should come as no surprise to see the list of approaches and paradigms applicable to O-Zone presented in such a list. But Philosophy as an object itself? If we buy into OOO/SR then yes, nothing can avoid the steamroller crush of Being An Object, I suppose.

But there’s something weird here…  how does a philosophy/ideology/methodology/etc  maintain object status and still operate like we expect philosophy to? It can’t make any claims to being “meta” and above the realm of cheese and mice and vineyards, and so the OOO “object” should (ideally) behave according to it’s own rules for objects. I guess the practitioners are aware of this, given that they’ve mentioned on a number of occasions that SR/OOO owes a lot to other “things” like the internet. So not so much of a problem after all, I guess, just something to always remember…

Presented without comment #4

A special Leigh Alexander themed selection of pieces presented without comment, for your casual perusal.

“You” Suck’ by Leigh Alexander at Sexy Videogameland, posted Dec 14th, 2007:

Which raises a crucial points about this whole Web 2.0, user-generated content, world-building age that some rather smart people are certain is the future of games. We don’t all want to make our own stories, characters and worlds. To some, if “you” really is the “character of the year,” it’s not good news. And I’ve said I wish I’d added a “for better or for worse,” clause in there, because haven’t I just written a lot recentlyabout how, as The Plush Apocalypse tidily put it, “‘You’ is an anonymous, homophobic, misogynistic dickhead?”

Opinion: Hot Headlines and Hype Cycles — Who’s responsible?‘ by Leigh Alexander at Game Set Watch, posted Oct 26th, 2008:

Here’s another thing journalists and game developers have in common: They feel, quite a lot of the time, that they will never be able to please their audience no matter what they do. We won’t be able to make audiences happy, so we’ll stand for just being able to hang on to their attention.

SVGL’s Official Metal Gear Solid Drinking Game‘ by Leigh Alexander at Sexy VideogameLand, posted Jan 24th, 2008:

  • Whenever your commander reminds you via codec that you’re on a stealth/sneaking mission: Swill red-blooded American beer.
  • Whenever a female, on codec or otherwise, alludes to your legendary status, your mysteriousness, your quietness, your handsomeness or how otherwise impressive you are: Drink beer.
  • Whenever one of your advisory team breaks the fourth wall by instructing you to push controller buttons: Drink beer.
  • When you’re told to rescue a scientist: Drink beer.
  • When you’re told you have to pick up all your own equipment: Drink beer.
  • When the scientist you rescue pees himself: Take a cold, Russian shot.
  • When anyone else pees themselves: Take two shots.
  • When your rescue mission fails: Lick the salt and wash it down with a squirt of lemon juice. Chase it with vodka until the horrible bitter taste goes away.
  • Here it comes‘ by Leigh Alexander at SexyVideogameLand, posted on May 9th, 2008:

    Weighing methodology for game criticism against that of music and film has become the norm, regardless of whether or not the comparisons are relevant. We’re wondering how we can embrace and leverage this evolution…

    N’Gai said…

    If Pauline Kael or her editors had decided that her mandate was “more about sharing movie culture with the curious or the casual,” movie criticism would be all the poorer for it. The same would have been true of music criticism if Lester Bangs or his editors had decided that his mandate was “more about sharing music culture with the curious or the casual.” I believe that if my peers in the mainstream media and I do our jobs correctly; if we write clearly and lucidly, general interest readers are capable of absorbing far more genuine and truthful portrayals of what it’s like to experience an individual game than we are currently giving them.

    SVGL said…

    To my eyes, you have quite a fortunate situation and a really enviable opportunity at Newsweek (though I want to be clear I’m not disparaging you and calling it “luck”) and I’m glad you’re leveraging that role to try and bridge the gap a little bit at a time.

    People ask me a lot where I want to “end up” in my work — with a gig like that at a similarly sophisticated mainstream publication, probably.