Friday, March 14, 2014

A(s)century's Contested Bodies and Narrative Temporality

A(s)century by Austin Walker is a twine game made for the cyberpunk jam, in which the player controls a character (who they name) as they inhabit and alter the course of a corporation-controlled future over the course of a century, beginning as a small time hacker and ascending the ranks of a corporation through a job as a writer until becoming the de facto authority behind a corporation which is "synonymous with the state." Or at least it was when I played it; the game makes use of saved variables to track the ultimate outcome and, because of how certain of these are marked (beginning, smartly, with the requirement that the player choose a handle for their character), creates a strong sense that the story itself is only one of many possible stories, nearly from the beginning. And that's not even to begin getting into how reading itself is an always partial and generative praxis, which (beyond being a hobby horse of mine) is an argument actively thematized through the game's narrative. Another time.

What draws me particularly to A(s)century (aside from the fact that Walker's easily one of the best games critics doing it right now), at least in terms of writing this up, is that, as per the name, its a cyberpunk fiction which occurs over a significant length of time. Which is, I think, extraordinarily rare -- the only analogue I can think of are Sterling's Shaper/Mechanist books. The usual cyberpunk template, codified by Gibson, is the near(ish) future with a narrative temporality cribbed from detective fiction, where time isn't measured by bodies but by things. Maguffins, specifically, although the way that most cyberpunk is written positions them within the context of an active contestation of the dyad of self and stuff. To draw the on the most overused example possible: in Neuromancer, the Maguffin is, basically, Case's blood. The nanobots or whatever specifically, but really the blood itself; the novel can end when it is purged. Sterling has always operated slightly larger than that, often implicitly linking the temporality of the narrative to either states or corporations (think of, say, Islands in the Net or The Caryatids or Distraction, and how rapidly and comprehensively they fall to pieces whenever the novel attempts to reign the narrative temporality to the individuals as such (or think of how Sterling's most recent book is entirely a desperate attempt to achieve that reigning, and how embarrassing of a failure it has been)), but its his Shaper/Mechanist stories that provide, if not direct inspiration for Walker's game, at least a Pure Cyberpunk precursor for the faithful to grasp onto.

Other precursors might include some of Greg Bear's writings, if you're inclined to figure his inclusion in Mirrorshades as definitive (though I think you'd have to make a hell of an argument to convince me that City at the End of Time, for instance, could even be included in The Movement on that kind of technicality). Rucker's Ware Tetralogy is certainly closer to the cyberpunk center, and the first novel and a half or so might reasonably appear as close to Walker's game as Sterling. By the time you've reached the end of that tetralogy, though, the initially jarring juxtaposition (Ruckers is a very new age/yippy cyberpunk) has resolved itself into an essentially conservative (generically, as well as politically) fictional future which (at least in my reading) has almost nothing whatsoever in common. Which isn't to say that cyberpunk was ever anything but conservative (I don't think it was as such, but that's an argument for another time as well); only that the tetralogy, as it progresses through time (linked, again, to (contested) bodies), it progressively narrows its interests from a relatively inclusive sample within the rough constellation of cyberpunk to exclusively that contestation as such, and, ultimately, the rejection of that contestation. Which is to say that, while on one formal level it seems to be doing something similar to A(s)century, it ultimately (and largely) is not.

A(s)century's particular take on the temporality of cyberpunk is, actually, perhaps the most properly cyberpunk approach to temporality I've ever seen; it takes as given that contestation between the body and the technological world -- treating, appropriately, language, the state, and corporations as technologies in the same way as the typically sfnal devices with which those things are interfaced -- and links the total time of the narrative to the body which is all these things. This is the rough explanation of the concordance between Walker and Sterling.

The body here, of course, is one hell of an abstraction, filtered not just through the conceptual disunity of cyberpunk's just-beyond-possible modifications, but also the abstraction inherent to the notion of a Player Character in a video game, and then again through the particular engine of the game, Twine, which produces hypertext. This basically just means that the representation which would be present, as a mixture of graphical and mechanical elements, in most games is here organized exclusively through the discursive (representational and mechanical) element exclusively. That this abstraction mirrors most closely the form of abstraction of reading a novel (or a short story) is only worth noting in the way that it points up the difference in the (technical, but also cultural) process by which that abstraction is achieved. Most relevant here is how the protagonist or player character of a video game is itself a site of conflicted assumptions, as the pure expression of player agency and as agentive participants in a fictional narrative in their own right. Which is, of course, neither to say that this means that player characters are in some essential way compromised by their form, nor that either of these assumptions even remotely reflect anything resembling reality. But these assumptions prime receptivity in certain ways, and A(s)century navigates them expertly -- most visibly in the already mentioned mechanic in which the player sees their chosen handle appear within the text, confirming that there exists an invisible tracking mechanism within the game towards which the player can, if they so choose, orient their decisions.

It's an elegant extension of a formal feature, as defined by cultural assumptions, into that particular realm of cultural assumption that valorizes itself with the term genre. An inherited ambiguity -- what is the role of the player character -- meets an inherited theme -- the contested body -- by way of a formal declaration -- your choices are tracked, and you are meant to know this. Which is, of course, then itself productive of thematic content; cyberpunk has never been one to shy away from surveillance.

That rough concordance between Walker and Sterling, unfortunately, relies on the assumption that two points equidistant from an object are necessarily the same point. One exemplary difference between the Shaper/Mechanist stories and A(s)century can be found in how the latter never explores the problem of generations; where the entirety of Sterling's universe is predicated on inter-generational conflict, as exacerbated by technological development, Walker's is absent any such (explicit) conflict, focused instead on subsumption itself as conflict. In this way it grabs another thread of cyberpunk, though one that is usually ignored; from the Mailman and Wintermute come the colonization of representational space by the stuff that is not quite of that space, implicated as it is in the problematization of the body. Walker, like Sterling, achieves this through the device rather than the distributed intelligence, but the climax is the same: the dialectic is closed with the things finding their own uses for the streets.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

No Accidents of a Down

This is a follow up to this, which was a response to this. That second link is an essay about art tumblr The Jogging's switch from, basically, well-photographed visual puns with titles to conspiracist images relying on certain constants (an MS Paint aesthetic and far right rhetoric being the most relevant).

Here's another thing that The Jogging, and any theory of the conspiracy theory that sees it exclusively as the terrain of systemic thought with capitalism as its ultimate horizon (which I have been as guilty of as anyone), rather than (as I'm now attempting to formulate it) a discourse of totalization that runs parallel to capitalism as its own totality: System of a Down.

I think it's fairly uncontroversial to position SoaD as operating within the broader conspiracist framework, even if looking at the lyrics to any individual song doesn't capture that element of their broader performance or place within the cultural landscape at the turn of the millennium. Which is kind of the point; recent emphasis on conspiracies like Truthers and Birthers positions the conspiracist as a member of the radical right, and The Jogging organizes itself within this moment. But the aesthetics they adopt are inflected by the strategies they employ; so while there are still a large amount of the sort of narrative image macros that they are creating being made in earnest (although this is more a legacy of Birthers, a group who they haven't yet explicitly engaged to my knowledge, than the Truthers at whom much of their content is aimed, at least based on my peripheral engagement with 9/11 Truth sites and discourse around 2004-2006) the epiphanic juxtaposition of the familiar (discussed last time), inherited from photography and providing the explicit link between previous and current practice, necessarily temporalizes the images. The amateur graphic design is a thing of forums and Web 1.0; it's very 90s.

If you've ever gone back and listened to some of the (broadly categorized) nu-metal (and its orbit) from the (very) late 90s through the first half of the 00s, and if you're me, you'll have been struck by the ease with which the vocalists switch between what seem to be legitimate leftist critique with stunningly obtuse conspiracism. SoaD is an obvious example, as is Rage Against the Machine, but even groups like Incubus or Papa Roach were getting in on it. There were a lot of things going into this, from the near-universal adoption of disaffection that apparently undercut their critiques to the conspiracist framing to the fact that at the end of the day it was all an industrial investment in the production of goods which captured a market who repaid the investors handsomely, of course, but there was also the experience of knowing shit was fucked up, figuring it probably had a cause, and then hearing, say "Prison Song." It's a pop song about prisons that suggests an analysis, and the shadowy "they" was there too. It was, for me at least, a supplement to Tupac, whose embodiment of his dramatic persona was at least as important as his actual music, and Outkast, whose Bombs Over Baghdad I didn't then understand but fucked if I wasn't desparate to be able to, and, well, we'll get to the real embarrassing shit in a minute. The point though was that at the same time as the slow death of Web 1.0 began (I'd peg it as ramping up from 2002-2005, beginning to truly transition around 2006), including those latter-day Napsters (the most famous, I believe, being Kazaa), was a moment when the aesthetic of conspiracy theory was firmly embracing a rhetorical mixed-leftism, especially in music. P.L.U.C.K. is still a bit of a weird song to listen to.

There's a longer relationship between conspiracist thought and aesthetics and various (generally relatively weak, admittedly) anticapitalist political positionings. Obviously the history of right wing conspiracy theory is much stronger and more prominent, given, well, Hitler. And most species of the JFK Assassination conspiracy, which is the general template for American conspiracies that don't involve lizards. But there are also things like Robert Anton Wilson & Robert Shea's The Illuminatus! Trilogy which, while on some level satirizing them, produce a convincing argument for the fecundity of the conspiracy as site of mobilization against the mode of production - even if that mobilization takes the shape of Hella Hippy Sex and Dope Submarines (in every sense).

The point, though. Or, actually, first, let's talk about Truthers.

Here's a thing you don't see acknowledged often; at the seed of the 9/11 Truth movement was a pretty simple sentiment: Fuck Bush. Or, more fancifully, Bush is Hitler. The contemporary prevalence of the "false flag" narrative is, as far as I can tell, a direct consequence of the legion of forum posters around 2004 who looked to the Reichstag Fire to explain what to them seemed to be clearly the actions of a government, as synecdochized by its leader, who had manipulated the spectacularization of democracy to become the illegitimate most powerful man in the world, and whose actions were primarily seen as curtailing civil liberties and cozying up to various Big Money interests. Obviously I'm being selectively attentive here, and there were other competing narratives and even these claims were less revolutionary and (way) more racist in their content than I'm framing them, but this narrative also tends to get subsumed into later developments within the group (primarily its post-07 complete subsumption into libertarianism, which had always been large, and even dominant, within the discourse, but never explicitly hegemonic until that point).

One way to think of it would be as nearly identical to Eminem's video for "Mosh," in which the rhetoric (both spoken and visualized) of insurrection, albeit one mediated through celebrity and animation and a whole host of other shit, is ultimately captured by the institutional mechanism of electoral politics. Whether you treat the Truther subsumption into the Tea Party as authored internally (like "Mosh") or externally (Koch Brothers), it remains the same; impassioned conspiracists, whose mode of being is fundamentally against the existing structure of power in a way that draws on opposition to historical right wing states, end up coopted or pushed out.

To which one might reasonably respond: well, then, it seems the idea of conspiracy theory as "an inability to think, in the current instance, outside the horizon of capitalism" is perfectly apt. And depending on your understanding of how capitalism works, maybe my conceptualization of conspiracy theory doesn't change that at all. That's cool, I'm still working on it. Maybe I'll change my mind. But back to The Jogging. But first we'll have to take another brief detour through System of a Down.

The conspiracist rhetoric isn't just in the shadowy other that haunts things like "Prison Song." It's actually largely a consequence of their environmnentalism, more than anything else. I don't think SoaD actually explicitly reference chemtrails at any point, but they were constantly going on about Recognizing Natural Beauty, the destructiveness of industrial production (which was hella weird to me even as like a 14 year old or whatever), and all that. It, like basically every environmentalist movement, ranges from the militant to the thinly-veiled fascist, but the real effects were its tendency to organize. Under the naturalist rubric came the New Ageist peaens to freeing your mind, which roped the calls for revolution to general guru bullshit. They were the key to the conspiracization of the whole because they were what transformed it into a totality. The whole damn world was pretty, and you can still see that if you look; and I know I said earlier that drugs were a systematic function of the prison industrial complex, but they also free your mind so! And addiction's bad?

Am I begging the question by suggesting that The Jogging's artistic endeavours ought to confirm more closely to my personal experience with conspiracy theory? Sure, probably, yeah. But I guess we can finally actually talk about that.

As I said before: this is all relevant context because of the aesthetic production going on on the tumblr. I'm willfully ignoring the bulk of Horning's argument, that this is interesting because it is an attempt to articulate a certain methodology of artistic practice native to the internet (resting on the "accidental audience" of Brad Troemel) and the conceptual juxtaposition of the internet as system with conspiracy theory as systematized thought/production. I'm ignoring it not just because I largely think The Jogging (and Troemel's essay) sucks, or because I want to suggest to them a way to better their practice. I'm ignoring it because I think its a bafflingly dehistoricized claim, operating exclusively at the level of squashing together two metaphors haphazardly and considering that an argument.

Here's the thing: this shit's flaccid. It's operating according to the principles of the laziest photographic fine arts, its aesthetically rooted in a historical moment it refuses to grapple with, and its apparent goal is the extrapolation of art to subjects outside of the (to use the term inappropriately promiscuously) gallery while also de-gallerizing the gallery subject? On top of that, it's premised on an idealization of the internet that's not so much TINA subjecthood as pure corporate fantasy in press release form gone ontology. To quote Horning again: "How does one productively think about the inability to think? How do you imaginatively confront the apparent waning of imagination that the conditions of artistic production online tends to instigate, where the circulation of an image begins to trump its content, and serial production militates against patiently crafted masterworks?"

I'm just not sure that the answer to any of those is to double down on the weakest aspects of an already dull project, I guess.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

On There Are No Accidents

I feel like there are three important aspects missing from Rob Horning's recent assessment of The Jogging's recent appropriation of conspiracy theorist aesthetics, so I'm going to briefly write about them because why not.

The first is the lexical overlap of the Astounding Juxtaposition of (at least one) Familiar Element(s) that occupies a privileged space in the grammars of both visual art and conspiracy theory. In the former this is largely seen in those interminable fucking photography exhibitions in Fine Art museums, where framing stands in for technique as a whole and is brought to bear with the exclusive apparent goal of directing the viewer's attention to a representation of objective conditions in which subjectivity (or interiority) can be identified by way of an ecstatic moment of recognition. The parallels to the rhetorical or aesthetic construction of the conspiracy theorist are, I think, obvious. Some degree of that commonality is a condition of the shared instrument, but, in the case of conspiracy, I think it has more to do with the second point. As a slight aside, the only moments when I personally found any of The Jogging's art particularly compelling were when it referenced Neon Genesis Evangelion (and only then the Kaworu reference was the only one that I continue to find myself thinking about at all); thus the specification of at least one familiar element above. Because of a mixture of my own deep (at least chronologically) relationship with that show, the shows relatively limited cultural footprint, a loose collection of specific readings of the show that I have either developed or encountered, the specificity of Kaworu's character within those readings, my own momentary inability to identify the genesis of the character of Kaworu upon seeing The Jogging's image macro, and probably a couple other things (the point being the density of the specific cultural object in question as related to my viewership, and the methods of interpellation that that density enabled), it succeeded (at least partially) where other, more technically adept or culturally weighted or aesthetically significant variations on the theme failed.

The second is the very specific relationship that conspiracy theory has with, to put it as broadly as possible, power. I became fond, at one point, of schematizing conspiracy theory as "a capitalist analysis of power," by which I specifically meant that it was an analytical mode which took as its object relations of domination and subjectification using the dominant mode of production as its condition of possibility. More generally, though, it was meant to suggest that, despite both capitalism and conspiracy theory's ideological reliance on the individualization of its object, it was itself not a consequence of or contribution to a totality but one itself.

Horning, quoting Andrejevic, describes as his "epiphany" the following line:

conspiracy theory, despite its infinite productivity, remains a failure of the imagination that corresponds to an inability to think, in the current instance, outside the horizons of capitalism.

If there seems to be a synchronicity to what I'm arguing and what the quote claims, then I'm not being clear. Horning grabs on this, though, in particular the claim about the "inability to think," and contextualizes The Jogging's project, and specifically its deploying of a contextually-rich aesthetic, within those grounds.

I'll admit that it is incredibly tempting to consider conspiracy theory as a form of failure, as a recuperable Will to Knowledge or what the fuck ever. It's maybe the only way we (as in, people who are interested in or familiar with conspiracy theory without being involved in the generation of promulgation of it, which is to say more precisely "people for whom Conspiracy Theory is an object") have of even beginning to really acknowledge the actual labor involved in the production of this phenomenon. Of course it's fucking patronizing, but then what else would you expect. They're such good workers and if only we could convince them to see the light, throw off the shackles of false consciousness, arise and see beyond the shadow world of oppression, Raise Awareness To End Capitalism.

Of course, it isn't the only possible way to acknowledge the labor of conspiratorial narrative praxis. And it sure as fuck isn't the only Marxist reading of conspiracy theory, unless you're very invested in selling papers (on the street or to JSTOR, who cares). What it fundamentally does is to ignore that the production of totality within the field of the conspiracy is not a consequence of the mode of production but parallel to it.

Anyway: the second point is that I think Horning is more or less accurately describing the theoretical foundation of The Jogging's project, and that the theoretical foundation of The Jogging's project is fucking awful.

The third point is that, like the aforementioned interminable photography exhibitions, The Jogging's artistic praxis is symptomatically reducible, as a consequence of the predominance of framing, to its creative use of titles. And its titles fucking blow.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

2013 in Recap: The Best

Top 5 Fiction

The Hanging on Union Square
Violence is the air that Hanging has no choice but to breathe, and reading it makes needing revolution as easy as exhaling.
The Conservation of Shadows
The real critique of the political economy of science fiction, however, is not this deeply embedded symbolic joke at the expense of genre triumphalism, but the use of the substance that titles the story.
A Tale for the Time Being
Which leaves me to say that that is something I can respect but not really love, not in the ways that I love the lengthy passages about the power outage or the contrived silliness of the way it preempts Ruth's googling, or the shot of elation immediately dissolving into disappointment at the academic article and its paywall.
The People in the Trees
There is -- there has to be -- a better term than the sutures-showing "unreliable editor," though it seems to me not entirely inapt.
My Education
To focus, for instance, on the logistics of which fish would be the best decision to be the first to occupy Regina's new tank, and to decide, based on rational dialogue, as Dutra does, on a member of the class of Pioneer Fish, is never really a disengagement, and to see it as such is to deny the ways in which capitalism's movement between the universal and the particular is totalizing.

Top 5 Films

The Last Stand
I legitimately sat very stiffly upright and covered my mouth with a fist and said "OH SHIT" much, much louder than I thought I could talk without actually yelling.
Pain & Gain
Pain & Gain was Spring Breakers without the fucking thinkpiecey bullshit; a gaudy, glossy & cheap fuck you to America whose misanthropy coincidentally happened to reify structural oppressions.
You're Next
If the home invasion genre is better at performing the haunted house than those films whose generic identity is rooted in the trope, like last year's Silent House, then You're Next's invasion at a distance (as metonymized through the crossbow) ramps it up a notch; the house pops inwards with an objective cause that only ever announces itself after the fact, in wound of flesh or property
After Earth
That the film positions family as the site of trauma does not mean that the film positions family as the cause of trauma.
I was incredibly excited about the idea that we might be allowed to spend an hour and a half doing little more than following Vin Diesel, absolutely devoid of companionship, wrestle a planet into submission.

Top 5 Posts, Not Otherwise Represented

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters
The Hawksian gesture is always a productive site of inquiry into the film's epistemology precisely because of its aggressive immanence, its entanglement with reductive homosociality, its negative formalism. It is necessarily a gesture at odds, a refusal of depth, an indication of aporia. It is an invitation to act disrespectfully, to criticism, to analysis, to a reaction absent humor or charity or sincerity, because it is a preemptive disarming, a smirk or a shrug or a swagger without content.
The Purge
Because vertically integrating class, which is maybe just my cute way of saying acknowledging class struggle without representing it, in the context of the constitutive hostility of private property by way of the justification of violence within it is necessarily an obscurantism by way of ethics of the abstraction of legality, also known as the threat of force.
But then I really do believe that much of the importance of the ghost as a figure in culture is a way of centering a becoming-conscious of the collective, of land as an abstraction, and particularly of its becoming-linguistic. Ghosts take the form, generally, of the individual, but almost always speak primarily of and as the history of a place. And their actions, while generally claimed to be some sort of revenge or guidance, are almost always more productively viewed as the linguistic relation of the land to itself, the way the theme park, for instances, fixes in time momentarily the meaning of a particular murder which occurred on its grounds, in order to enter into the discursive world, if only to attempt to articulate itself.
The Childhood of Jesus
They flee, finally constituting (with the anomalous and otherwise pointless appearance of a hitchhiker) an ideal nuclear family unit; a(n absent) father, a mother, two sons, and a potentially vicious Alsatian.
Hello Kitty's Fashion Music Wonderland & Hello Kitty: Here We Go!
Speaking of Kitty with the gendered pronoun obscures the point here significantly. That is: she herself is not a character. She precedes narrative. Kitty White is neither character nor stuff; she only exists as stuff, but on its periphery, or as a structuring force. Kitty is, that is to say, the way that stuff enters into the realm of representation, that it becomes-linguistic.

Top 6 Things I Wrote Elsewhen

WASD A Mile In Another Person's Shoes at the Bygone Bureau
When the world caters to the player’s schedule, exploration becomes one of the central categories of play; a world that only comes to life when you consciously choose to bring it there creates a compelling reason, and something like a moral imperative, to explore.
A/Functional Definition: 55 Theses on Final Fantasy VII
5) What might be considered the hallmark of jRPGs is the turn- and menu-based battle system. This can be seen most clearly in the way that any deviation from this mode is automatically and necessarily recognized as such.

6) Given (5), the defining mechanic (as opposed to thematic or aesthetic) of the jRPG as a genre can be said to be abstraction.
Structure Does Matter
The role of the dungeon master, as I see (and attempt to enact) it, is not the “storyteller,” but the “audience,” or the active interpreter of the text as posited by the players.
The Haunting at HKE
The lands of Hello Kitty Kawaii Town are fractured.
Cat Power at The New Inquiry
[K]awaii is an aesthetic that is born of, and develops as, a society-wide expression of desire for utopian socialism.
Menial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction reviewed in Strange Horizons
[Menial] is a rejection … of the narrative economy of science fiction. Once you start telling the story of the way systemic limits on access to capital affect groups for whom that oppression intersects with other, often more visible oppressions, the tall tale about the rugged individual begins to seem a little thin.

Top 5 Non-Writing Things

Curating the Hello Kitty Kawaii Hell Town tumblr as a whole. From mid-June to early October, I ran the blog with the help and contributions of a few friends. It was really exciting to me.

Unemotional Christmas by The pl. n. Single below.

Announcing A Truly Blonde Child's first release, set for January 7, 2014. Xena: Season 1.

The 4th of July single "West" by A Truly Blonde Child.

My birthday present to myself, "Not 23" by Uninterpretative: no!

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 in Shit (BONUS): Hello Kitty's Fashion Music Wonderland & Here We Go!

In 2013, Viz Media started a line of comics licensed by Sanrio. Each of them tells a series of short, wordless stories about Kitty and her friends.

For ComicCon this year, a sort of pre-series comic was released, called Hello Kitty's Fashion Music Wonderland. In October, the first of the actual series came out: Hello Kitty: Here We Go!. I had Fashion Music Wonderland long before I started this series, but had kind of forgotten about it; I only recently got Here We Go!. They're both kind of great, as a person who likes Hello Kitty a lot. So I decided that, even though I read no other comics, they were worth talking about.

It seems like it's been ages since I've discussed any specific piece of Hello Kitty visual art; after I initally wrote about Jason Han's "I Haz Mouth," I had kind of planned to talk at length about some of the other paintings or sculptures from the 35th anniversary, collected in the Three Apples book. I never really got around to it, unfortunately, and I'm certainly not going to be going nearly as in depth here, but it'll be a fun little thing to do.

The first image, above, is from the arc in Fashion Music Wonderland in which Kitty White becomes a famous pop star; it specifically is the panel where she receives the gift of a Rock Band-like system from Dear Daniel, her old friend/boyfriend/husband, or something, depending on the line I guess.

It's a weird image, kind of very reminiscent of "I Haz Mouth" in its replication of Kitty's face. Except this time her "primary" face is actually entirely absent; her back is turned, but the speech bubble has her full face inside of it, and there is a "pixelated" version of it on the screen of the television. Plus there is Dear Daniel, whose face is also Kitty's face.

But then, it's also even more complex in its way; the exclamation point this time is not just in the speech bubble, it is dotted with Kitty's face, and surrounded by the Bang!-like color that also goes around the Kitty-whose-"talking"'s self. And instead of mirror Kitty (or Mimmy, but probably not) there's Dear Daniel looking like a smug-ass dad, which just, I don't even know how to.

In the short narrative, this gift leads to the formation of a band, who go to a talent show and win a record deal, and Kitty goes off to travel the world, even as she pines for Dear Daniel back home. The final panel of the arc mirrors this one, as Dear Daniel is lead to retrieve his gift which turns out to be Kitty herself; given the bizarre way in which Kitty is refracted throughout the objects and expressions here, from linguistically to technologically mediated, her own return as a unified individual gift is, well, really really interesting.

Of course, the whole point of Hello Kitty is that she is meant to be a gift, whether for another or to oneself, so this moment is shot through with that knowledge as well. I've not got a ton to say there, although it should remain an open topic, I think.

More immediately relevant is that, if, like I've been endlessly repeating, ghosts are about a becoming-linguistic of space, then this panel suggests a certain ghostliness to Kitty herself, if in no other way than in her persistent refusal to become-linguistic. I've covered this better in the essays linked above, but her tendency to occupy non-linguistic representative spaces through signifiers of language is pretty well established at this point. Here though, there is the addition, in the form of the "pixelated" face, of the sort of necessary abstraction of language as well as its refusal. It's a real neat panel.

It's not until the main story arc of Fashion Music Wonderland, where Kitty stars in a sorta Alice in Wonderland, that we see ghosts again. There's the Cheshire Cat, of course, but there's also this weird moment, where Kitty is chasing after that cat, and runs through this intersection populated by quasi-human forms that, again, seem to be somewhat digitized. In a weird way, it could almost be a scene out of Serial Experiments Lain, Internet ghosts and all.

Kitty is chasing the Cheshire Cat because Dear Daniel, here in the role of the very late rabbit, has asked her about his gloves and top hat, which the Cat is wearing. She entered Wonderland by way of thoughtlessly wandering into an open manhole, where she transformed into Fashion Music Kitty; it's all pretty adorable. This in Wonderland ends at the tea party, where the Red Queen shows up and looks very intimidating but ultimately invites Kitty in, and they all enjoy themselves. Which is all just to say that this scene is not really even remotely important to the story; it's a pure action sequence, devoid of narrative weight or responsibility, an unnecessary conveyance of how she gets from point A to point B. It is, in other words, a sort of visualization of what's usually left in the gutter.

Of course, these are more obviously ghostly than the reaction shot to Kitty's gift, even if it also obvious that they are not meant to be read as ghosts insofar as ghosts are associated with horror. They are, rather, instantiations or embodiments of space; a crosswalk doesn't make sense without both vehicular and pedestrian traffic, but it can only really project the former sufficiently. So it speaks its form through these quasidigital objects.

The "Deep Clean" short of Hello Kitty: Here We Go! has, incidentally, a panel that almost directly quotes the latter one from Fashion Music Wonderland. In this, Kitty is engaged in spring cleaning when she gets sucked into a deep underground civilization made up of people made of stone who eat gems and drink and smoke lava. As she enters the town, following her new friend, the panel above shows her wonderment and the friendliness of her newfound city's inhabitants.

In this case, the way that the inhabitants function as expressions of the landscape itself; that deep, the folks are made of rocks, of course. There's no crosswalk, because there's probably not a whole lot of need for vehicular travel; the roads are still very much designed for them, though. Here We Go! is very much, as the name suggests, a comic about Kitty's travels; she is depicted variously as a secret agent, an explorer, and a safari-goer throughout the collection. There are a number of vehicles that she drives or rides in, which makes the absence of them here, if not especially pronounced, at least interesting.

This too is why the stone folks inhabitants of this space is interesting on the level of space itself's becoming-linguistic. In conjunction with the quotation of the digitalish ghosts from the earlier collection of stories, here we are dealing with embodiment through possibility; rather, though, than the expression of space through slightly-estranged normative bodies, its through bodies themselves that are expressions of (in that they consist of the same stuff as, abstracted anthropomorphically,) the space. Which again recalls the first pictured panel; when Kitty becomes linguistic, or at least decidedly fails to, its generally through a form of expression which only ever appears as a simple representation of the stuff of which she is made. Her face.

Speaking of Kitty with the gendered pronoun obscures the point here significantly. That is: she herself is not a character. She precedes narrative. Kitty White is neither character nor stuff; she only exists as stuff, but on its periphery, or as a structuring force. Kitty is, that is to say, the way that stuff enters into the realm of representation, that it becomes-linguistic. She is, I suppose, a brand, although I hold some reservations about using that sort of language. Not that it's necessarily wrong, just that I'm not sure it's totally right.

These three panels, across two comics, tell their own story; it's about how Kitty's presence structures the possibility of the stuff which surrounds her. Call it Kitty Correlationism; her worlds are always only epistemological, organizations of being in accordance with the self-image of branded junk without interiority. Without an anchoring subjectivity, space becomes necessarily as expressive as the pseudosubjects which inhabit it. It's the objective correlative writ large; space, in fiction, sure, but mostly in manufactured objects that exist in the world as potentials for exchange-value, is a response to the subjects affective state.

The final image, also from Here We Go!, complicates my tidy little narrative. From one of the one-page shorts with which this title is filled, it is a brief story about Kitty driving around, getting a flat, and using My Melody's unicycle to replace the tire.

The most obvious difference is the style, which is most obviously explicable by way of the little lines that emanate from the characters' eyes. They aren't really expression lines or action lines or anything; they're just kind of there, looking real weird. Especially on My Melo.

But then, here is the vehicle, no longer absent. A car, too, that object which has, perhaps more than any other, totally restructured the way space works in the world for individuals, especially in America. From trucking to suburbs to sprawl, the automobile is sort of the antithesis of the expression of space; it's its silencing, at least in the form of distance. And yet here too is Kitty.

2013 in Shit: A Tale for the Time Being

I really, really wish that I was going to be able to do justice to Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being. It's a phenomenal fucking book and it's kind of disappointing to end on this sort of low note. Luckily I'm not actually going to; there'll be a bonus post up later today.

Part of the reason that I am not going to be doing as good of a reading as I want to for this book is that I got a little ambitious with it; as I was reading, I decided that I wanted to review it using Anthony Paul Smith's new book, A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature: Ecologies of Thought. So I got an ebook copy and got a premium ebook reader to be able to notate it; but then it turned out that the premium ebook reader started crashing aggressively as soon as notes were taken. I never managed to finish APS' book because of that, and the residual disappointment lead me to put off writing about Ozeki until the last minute.

The reason I thought the two might go good together is that I began to think of Ozeki's books in terms of ecologies before APS' came out. Large sections of the book are dedicated to discussions of things like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or the introduction of invasive species of flora or fauna into habitats; Ruth, the novelist/protagonist of the novel, is married to a man named Oliver, one of whose art projects is the development of fauna in specific places that will be neither invasive nor wiped out by global warming. These mostly appear in the form of asides, seeming to exist around the main narrative of Nao's diary and Ruth's mounting obsession with discovering the girl who wrote it, and there's never really an overt synthesis, but they seemed to me to slowly become the heart of the story.

I first came across Ruth Ozeki because I read her book My Year of Meats for a class; I remember then thinking that, based on the back materials and the description we received of it before we read it that I was not going to be super interested. She surprised me then, in something of a similar way to how A Tale for the Time Being surprised me; Ozeki is a writer who writes apparently exclusively about primary subjects that I have little interest in, but fills them out in such gorgeous ways that I end up totally in love with the novels themselves.

Part of this is her really interesting use of metafiction, or, to perhaps be more accurate, frames; with My Year of Meats it was the documentary frame, with A Tale for the Time Being the use of the diary and her own self-insertion. These frames, described, always feel like they ought to come off as fairly precious; and yet they always end up being phenomenal.

One of the main reasons I jumped on the book was the presence of Hello Kitty, another thing that I'm not going to really talk about all that much. Which seems, actually, in this case, kind of accurate; Ruth finds Nao's diary, written in a copy of Proust's In Search of Lost Time that's been de-paged and filled with writing paper, inside of a Hello Kitty lunchbox. If those two things don't make it pretty clear why I was so excited to read this book, I don't know what will. I kind of really enjoyed, too, how Ozeki just kind of let those things be; there are some reflections from Nao on the fact that she is writing in Proust, but they're largely in passing, and the Kitty lunchbox is allowed to simply be in its specificity without justification.

This is tied to both Ozeki's use of frames, which generally seem from a description like dull metafictional tricks but end up invigorating the core narrative, and her move towards an ecological aesthetics; these sorts of pregnant images are not so much additions of texture (as, say, the descriptions of objects in rooms in Dostoevsky could be argued to be) as they are elements in the representation of a dynamic system. A Hello Kitty lunchbox, in an Ozeki, is both life, needing no justification beyond its own existence, and energy, an abstraction organized by its status first as consumption and last by its expenditure. And as the lunchbox goes, so goes the documentary, or the record of reading that diary.

This goes partway in explaining, I think, why A Tale for the Time Being ends with such an awkward extended rumination on Schrödinger's Cat. It's still awkward, in the way that a just-wrong metaphor always is; as a development of the idea of quantum indeterminacy on the macro level it suggests that the production of abstractions called literature functions at the level of the general to reproduce the workings of the particular. More than that, though, its own particularities are caught up in the ideas of consumption and expenditure and existence as observation and self-organization. It's just-wrong because, while it holds all the keys to the tale, it focuses them in the wrong direction, suggesting that it is the point, rather than the color, of the thought experiment which makes it useful.

I got the impression, both from the book itself and from seeing a few scattered reactions to it, that people much preferred Nao's story to Ruth's; and yet I find myself remembering the beats of hers, from the grandmother to the crow to the conference, much better. Which isn't to say, of course, that Nao's story isn't phenomenal; just, I suppose, that it feels to me in retrospect much more like a story. Which leaves me to say that that is something I can respect but not really love, not in the ways that I love the lengthy passages about the power outage or the contrived silliness of the way it preempts Ruth's googling, or the shot of elation immediately dissolving into disappointment at the academic article and its paywall.

I guess that's it? I could probably ramble on more, and there's a part of me that wants to, but I'm calling it; this Year in Shit is done. Thanks for playing along.

Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 in Shit: Ghosts in the Machine

Ghosts in the Machine is a collection of short stories about video games, edited by Lana Polansky and Brendan Keogh. I dug it. And, surprisingly (to me), it has stuck with me a lot more than I assumed it would initially after reading it; there is, I'll say up front, something slight-feeling about many of the stories, but that is, or at least for me was, a mistaken assumption. The stories work in ways that aren't immediately evident, and in ways that I'm not really sure I'll be able to articulate. I do think that you should check it out, especially if you have some interest in games. It's not really what you're bound to expect, no matter who you are, even if it remains uncomfortably close to being so.

Each story tends to focus on a broadly defined "bug;" from hacking players to avatars played against their characterization to unbalanced mechanics, the broadest shared theme among them is the becoming- (or being-)conscious of the avatar as the motivating event, followed by an exploration of the consequences. These range from the mildly interesting "The Hierarchy of Needs" by Ian Miles Cheong, in which a character in what appears to be The Sims Social narrates his existence within the game, to the very neat "Ten Steps" by co-editor Lana Polansky, where a third person perspective follows a character exploiting a bug to escape the game he's trapped in, before smash-cutting suddenly to the kid who was testing the bug and the manager who has to deal with the team. Perhaps the best of the explicitly becoming-conscious of game characters is Maddy Myers' "Unto Dust," which features a CounterStrike-like game in which the characters have to deal with a hacker.

I'll admit that, on my first reading, the dominance of these sorts of stories -- uncharitably, the "lol what if those characters were actually alive, like, what would that even be like," which, as extrapolated in my young teen brain, ends up somewhere like "what if we're all actually just characters in like, some alien version of EverQuest" -- kind of disappointed me. Familiarity breeds contempt, or whatever they say; not that it was contempt, really, so much as just discomfort, and a desire to see these writers -- some of whose work, especially critical work, I am practically in awe of -- work with something that I could deem "more interesting," to myself at least.

Obviously, that's a super shitty way to approach anything. So I paid some more attention, and noticed the way that none of these stories make that fallacious jump into allegory that I thought was So Fucking Cool when I was 13. So strike one down for projection.

This avoidance is done in one of two ways, generally; either, as in Polansky's story, the smash-cut to the player happens, and the world itself is contextualized. Or, as in Myers', the constructedness of the world is foregrounded. The reason her final sentences work so well is not just that they are pleasingly cadenced, or that they signal an end to the narrative conflict. It's that they signal that end as a return to the constitutive materials, even in an ecstatic register. "I close my eyes and let my body go still. I can almost feel the code. It feels safe. It feels balanced."

There are also stories like Dylan Sabin's "If The Sun Rises Again," where the action isn't so much a bug as the disillusioned player; it largely concerns a character from a game which bored the player enough to not go back, and the imagined consequences for that character. It too, on its surface, seems a little too close, to me, to the sort of shooting the shit that gamers do, and that makes it more difficult for me to reckon with the way its presentation as fiction effects that sort of discourse.

There are small gestures that suggest how this could work; Rollin Bishop's "Slow Leak,"about a small town which slowly dissolves into nothingness, opens with an epigraph from The Odyssey. Alois Wittwer's "A Perfect Apple," set in what is almost certainly a game of Animal Crossing, paints a similar slow desolation of a space with the sort of attention that makes the game itself more of an anchor than the focus.

This isn't the collections only through-line, though. One of the most interesting decisions is putting Ashton Raze's "GDD" at the front of the collection; it's a story about an aspiring game developer who is kind of an enormous shit. The character reads as something of a stereotype of the gamer, especially in relation to the recent developments within game culture which have pushed against the idea of the hegemonic demographic (young white male) to make spaces within games for new narratives and modes of representation. As he wanders around feeling entitled and objectifying women and raging against nothing in particular, he ends up devoting his life to a game, ultimately subsuming himself within the system.

The story doesn't really come into itself until the "review" and "news" clips at the end, which reveal that the game this guy has become is some weird indie platformer that is incomprehensible and awful, and then, in a cyberpunk twist, responsible for the dissemination of a virus.

Rather than foregrounding the diegetic universe of the game, and introducing an epistemological problem to it, as the previously discussed stories do, this story is more interested in the culture that conditions those games and the people who interact with them.

"All Time Heroes" by Matt Riche is another of these, telling the story of some sort of undefined arcade space shooter and one player's quest to reach the top of the all time leaderboard. It's interesting how it takes real developments in arcade machine technology (like networked cabinets) for granted in a way that, even though most readers might not be particularly knowledgeable of them (I'm certainly not), feels less like extrapolation and more like simple familiarity. The story's sorta twist at the end, where the scoreboard has a hard cap at the top that is unacknowledged by the community, works fairly well, and is used mostly to reflect, again, on the player himself.

It's only in Aevee Bee's "Good Losers Are Pretty" that these threads end up tying together in a way that really exhibits their full potential. It's about a character from a fictional fighting game who exits the game and posts on forums and makes the convention circuit. The story itself is sensitive to both the mechanical and communal aspects of this subculture of games in a way that I can intuit, even if I'm basically totally unaware of them, and it treats its less realist aspects with a pleasing lack of awe. That it's a world where a video game character can be featured on a panel at a convention is just kind of there, and its a little weird but not really all that. Which is kind of fantastic.

I do wish I was more able to do justice to just how weird and neat this collection is, but there it is. If you're even remotely interested by the premise, I'd say go for it; and even if it doesn't blow you away, as it didn't me, right off the bat, I'm willing to bet that the ways that it linger are worth exploring.