Monday, March 2, 2015

Structure Does Matter

This was originally published on a now-defunct tumblr in November of 2013. I'm reposting it here with significant edits because I took the tumblr down but I still think this is worth reading for those interested.


0. Introduction


The Dungeon Master is not a storyteller. Within the context of Dungeons & Dragons, this is the role she is usually attributed. Beyond D&D, the term tends to be generalized as the Game Master or Master of Ceremonies; I will refer to the same role, or at least the duties of filling it, as a facilitator. I refer to the D&D term first because it is central to my argument: that the structure of the game matters at least as much as its systems.

Against the storyteller model, I would like to propose an alternative. From this alternative, I will attempt to draw out certain structural properties of Tabletop Roleplaying Games. That alternative is this: The Dungeon Master is the reader. She reads the actions of the players, when brought to bear against the game rules and the proposed setting. She reads, also, the social dynamics, though in this she is not unique.

That the DM is a reader leads to certain critical positions that remain largely unexplored within the theorization of this genre of games. The first is that structure does matter. From this, a discussion of alternative theorizations, primarily Ron Edwards' Big Model, can be undertaken. Following that discussion, the main points can be developed: what constitutes the mode of production of a game, and what constitutes its play.

The essay ends with an exploration of the implications of this theorization on a broader social. Given that the whole relies heavily on the Marxian articulation of the dialectic -- particularly in the form of the Abstract, the Negation, and the Negation of the Negation -- this exploration takes place within the bounds of that articulation.


I. Structural Difference


Any discussion of the merits of D&D must begin by reckoning with the theoretical work done on a forum called The Forge. I feel it worth mentioning that I did not participate in the activity and have approached the body of work there without any real guidance. What follows is not particularly kind to these theories, so I would like to lead by saying that certain theorists from that school, particularly Vincent Baker, have articulated things that I think are very crucial. I will, in particular, refer to Baker's definition of "system," also called the lumpley principle, which is defined as follows: "System (including but not limited to 'the rules') is defined as the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play."

However, I think I find in their theory a very different teleology than the one that they champion, specifically in their praxis (i.e. storygames), which seem to me to move towards the collapse of structural distinctions between the participants in a way that, while perhaps interesting to play and powerful in terms of reframing the dialogue about what tabletop games are and can do, still fundamentally misses the mark as to how that structural difference functions.

Using a dialectical analysis, I hope to clarify what it is about this structural difference that makes it productive of play in the tabletop setting. When I talk about the dialectic, I mean it as follows: a preexisting abstraction is negated, and that negation is subsequently negated, producing a new thing. This new thing is fundamentally marked by the process and will tend to become an abstraction which itself enters into another dialectical process.

In the case of D&D, the initial abstraction is what we tend to call the DM; that is, not the person who is called that, but the structural role, which is comprised of certain types of authority, a degree of managerial accountability, a familiarity with a system, and an initial level of scenario control. This is perhaps not an exhaustive list.

The model which considers the DM as the storyteller agrees up to this point, but neglects the way in which these structural qualities are themselves functions of the dialectical process of play, instead seeing them positivistically; because of these structural qualities, the DM is an authority, a manager, someone with experience and control. The players, then, are the objects of the game, the audience, being managed and dictated to.

But play happens not through inversion but negation, and this seems obvious in the case of any campaign which proceeds past character creation; the DM immediately has to consider backstories, allegiances, availabilities, interests, and so on, and this becomes the true shape of the game. The players, then, are the initial negation, that which concretely opposes and undoes the abstraction.

The easiest way to see this is in the frequency of the frustration of the DM's position as storyteller: she prepares a scene, the players subvert it (un)intentionally, drawing out an insignificant conversation or proceeding down an unforeseen path, and so the majority of the DM’s prep goes by the wayside. The DM can respond to this in one of two ways: she can insist on the abstraction, railroading the players, or she can work within the negation, improvising or reworking prep elements to fit within her now negated material.

In practice, the DM usually finds some sort of balance between these two reactions. The storygamer praxis seems to consist of an attempt to set up the former possible response as a structural failing and the latter as the true locus of play. Therefore, they extrapolate, and end up in a place where the DM’s structural difference is negated; without a human occupying the structural role of DM, the former reaction cannot take place, and the latter is guaranteed.

Again, this is interesting on its own terms; however, it also precludes the subsequent processes which, in my estimation, are the true strength of something like D&D, or at least are what keep someone like me, who has no particular interest in things like roleplaying or worldbuilding as such, engaged.

The final step, then, is the negation of the negation, or the sublation; the final move, by which the players themselves are negated, and the new thing is instantiated. There are a number of things that could be thought to play this role, and I think it worth a brief detour to list them below:

  1. The improvisation of the DM. As referenced earlier, this is fundamentally a reaction to the initial negation; as such, it contains the seeds of the negation of the negation. It, however, does not negate the players in itself, nor does it “move through” them. It remains within the hierarchical structure which the “storyteller” model privileges.
  2. The various way in which the players assume responsibilities formally accorded to the DM. This appears in multiple ways; players attempting to exploit the rules, players taking over scene building responsibilities, players organizing the sessions, players actively or passively refusing to engage on either a micro or macrocosmic level; all of these and more seem, at least at first glance, to indicate a moving past the first negation. Again, however, this takes the structure as fixed; it democratizes the play to a certain extent (whether productively or poisonously), but ultimately serves to reify the abstraction. This, in fact, is the only way that the DM goes from abstract negatable quantity to tyrant, and it is also, unfortunately, one of the most intuitive and apparently-interesting ways to play the game.
  3. The “contents” of any game/campaign. This is the most obvious answer, and gets closer to the real movement without quite identifying it. This is sometimes called the Shared Imagined Space in storygamer lingo; it is the sort of thing that recaps are made of. What is important is that it is created by all participants in the game, rather than being imposed by DM fiat. While this constitutes a move through negation into the creation of the positive, it only accounts for one aspect of the sublation; it fails to account for the negation of the negation.
Rather than these, the negation of the negation is the negation of the players. The most common examples of how this works would be metagaming or reflection. This is what I am claiming: the play of D&D is, ultimately, the spaces in which roleplaying stops. This is accomplished by way of a dialectical engagement with its ingrained structural difference.


II. The Big Model


For those unfamiliar, the Big Model is a diagram which came out of the Forge/storygame crowd’s theorization of RPGs.

In the diagram, the largest circle is labeled the “Social Contract,” and consists of all the stuff outside a game that creates the conditions for play (travel, social dynamics, availability, etc.). In this section I am going to articulate why what I have detailed above is more than a simple recapitulation of this model.

According to Ron Edwards, the creator of The Forge, the Social Contract is the “big box” that encompasses the play of RPGs. In the model, it is where the arrow labeled “Creative Agenda” begins. The short version of my claim is this: framing the social as a container fundamentally misprises play and results in a necessarily hierarchical, fixed structure, even in cases where the mechanics work explicitly against this. Also I am going to drop the “Contract” from here on because it seems bad.

The key idea in this theory, which posits itself against the Big Model theory, is that DMing is itself the beginning of a dialectical process, the result of which is the negation of roleplaying. Another term for this negation could be the social.

While it would be a peculiar sort of ignorance to argue that social conditions don’t represent the material conditions on which RPG gaming is based, it is equally ignorant to argue that they subsequently function in the sort of cod-Freudian way that The Forge theorists tend to, pointing to issues in play as inevitably symptoms of a dysfunctional group sociality, generally under the rubric of a divergent Creative Agenda.

The Creative Agenda, in the Big Model, is a way of formalizing the knowledge that individuals approach play with different interests. It does so in order to claim that any given group functions similarly. Broadly, the claim inherent to the diagram's guiding arrow is that any given gaming group will tend towards one of three broad camps. Implicitly, it is primarily used to indicate that any sort of social dysfunction in any given group that is not obviously preceding the game arises from conflicting desires within the group.

There is something like a class-based antagonism going on here, of course; The Forge was primarily a space for game designers, whether professional or amateur or aspiring, to work through their theories, and so they have a vested interest in preserving a reliance on the means of production.

The Creative Agenda is nothing much more than a system-specific recapitulation of a tripartite psychoanalytic model, a way of providing a scientistic basis for the reconstruction of motivations or inclinations based on an understanding of a socially-determined individual. If the Big Model lacks an explicit oedipal myth, this is only because Oedipus permeates it so wholly as to be invisible. Everyone has their initial subjectivating trauma; whether that manifests as a recurring dream about wolves or a particular GNS predilection, the talking (playing) cure will reveal all.

Positing that the social is the material conditions of roleplaying games is to say that, yes, they take place in the frame of the social, but that previous theorizations neglect to account for how that social is the material which is acted upon by the transformative labor of play. Reducing the social (by way of the Creative Agenda) to the Lacanian Real or Freudian unconscious works well enough if that’s your goal, but recognizing the way in which this kind of play organizes sociality into a productive labor is central to navigating the particular way in which gaming structures at the same time as it is structured.


III. Modes of Production


Storygaming is an attempt to alter the relations of production without addressing the means of production. As such, its attempts to reorganize games structurally succeeds in the sense of changing how any particular game treats the material of the social; however, this success is based on the false premise that the models it builds are a rejection of the hierarchical model that precedes, and with a deep misunderstanding of the way in which this particular kind of play is a pleasurable extension of, and mimetic reflection on, labor, and its own structuring of the social.

Dialogue surrounding roleplaying games is deeply concerned with a sense of creation. If there is a single value that could be universally attributed to this type of play, it would take a strong argument to claim anything else. The object of creation, of course, generally remains unarticulated. So, what is it?

The obvious answer here is "a fiction." This is where the "DM as storyteller" model comes from; RPG play is a structured social interaction with the aim of producing a (shared) fiction. This idea is also why so many awful fantasy books get likened to D&D campaigns; the author is a (real or presumed) Dungeon Master translating (poorly) her campaign to the written word.

The Big Model theorists have a slightly better term for the product of the campaign: the Shared Imagined System, or SIS. This gets closer to the way that the act of play produces not a fiction in and of itself, but a space in which fictions occur. Rather than a rote fantasy novel, then, sitting together to play a game is (at least on one level) the act of collaboratively producing a universe in which those fantasy novels might be set. While this gets significantly closer to describing what it is like to actually play a tabletop roleplaying game, it keeps the drawbacks of assuming that one necessary byproduct of this type of play is actually fundamental to it.

One way to say this is that, for all that SIS opens up, it remains excessively design-focused, conflating play itself with the goals of the creation of a system. The practical consequence of this theory then works against its stated aims: working with the understanding of the SIS leads to an attempt to democratize role of facilitator. But that democratization fails to abolish it, instead generalizing it. When no one has the structural role of the DM the end result is simply a distributed facilitation, not a generalization of play.

The reality is that RPG play has, as its product, social relations. Again, it isn't that the social dynamic is the thing which conditions play and can be accessed through it, as though play were a simple analogue of the unconscious; play itself is productive of social relations, and they modify themselves in accordance with the means by which they were produced (system in Baker's sense) to better reflect those means, and (in doing so) are rapidly outmoded by the development of those means, often to the point of obsolescence or outright antagonism.

The mode of production of RPG play, then, is taken here to be the coordination of the system (the experiential set of mediative technologies which the players have reached consensus on at any given moment) with the social relations (the ways in which players form ad hoc modes of normative social behaviors conditioned by the experience of play). Because both of these aspects are subject to constant performative restatement, there is no concrete way of elaborating them into a totalized system.

Despite the failure of any game to elaborate a totalizing mode of production, the function is the same, even if it remains intensely local. The confluence of system and social relations through play produce hegemonic structures, social relations in which certain subjectivities are privileged and others are not. Because the products themselves are immaterial, and because the means of production themselves are performative and beholden to an exterior (but interpellated) set of social relations, the question of how to engage meaningfully with the means of production without simply recapitulating or generalizing them needs to be asked. My own tentative answer, very much pending reconsideration, is in moving toward (as I lay out in Part I) an understanding of the dialectical structure of this mode of play, and combining that with an understanding of the way play mimics labor.


IV. Bodies at Play


Understanding the dialectical movement fostered by the structure of Dungeons & Dragons is useless without taking account for the way it is enacted by bodies at play.

In theory, D&D takes on a capitalist structure: as the facilitator, the DM's primary responsibility is in controlling the application of the system. In practice, however, she is the primary object of negation; her control of the means of production is exclusively established such that it can be negated in actual play. This negation, as discussed above, is again negated, by the players accidental or purposeful abstention from roleplaying; this itself is the actual play.

If this is all more or less dictated by the structural organization of the game, then fine; but it is not a fully automated process. One can't simply observe any of this by reading a rulebook; the form demands a specific kind of engagement to produce this objective conclusion.

In every instance of the structural movement detailed that produces play, as well as in the specific formulation of the RPG mode of production, what is central is the way that the engagement of the group of people with the current aspect of the process (players and DM alike) develops the system along the dialectical path. This engagement is also known as "people actually playing the game."

The way in which play is analogous to labor, in the case of D&D, is very straightforward; the people playing use the means of production, rented out to them at a price, as a way of creating a product, for which they are compensated. That the product is identical with the compensation is simply a way of saying that this particular form of labor is not alienated; the utopian implications here are both obvious and probably useless in an actual critique of capital.

That this labor isn't alienated does not mean it is morally good; the production of social relations that games like D&D encode are often destructive and violent. This has reasons that are structural both on the game's terms and in terms of the society in which the game exists; there are also innumerable individual, non-structural reasons. None of this is of particular concern to this analysis.

What is important is to identify, broadly speaking, the actions that take place around the table, or in prep activities, which themselves are acts of labor, in order to better understand experiential play given this analysis. This begins before the rules, even, in genre itself.

This first type of work is a sort of topological knowledge; this is essentially the difference between a skilled and an unskilled laborer/player. What is important is not a knowledge of genre goals or conventions as such, but a familiarity with what is actually essential about genre: that it exists as a way to reproduce its own conditions. This knowledge is rarely articulated, of course, and especially rarely in ways that aren't the repetition of established tropes, but the topological knowledge of the genre – for D&D, this is doubly "fantasy" and "roleplaying game" – is the driving force behind the player's ability to work efficiently with its systems toward productive ends.

Knowledge of particular tropes from a specific genre can actually impede play; in the case of D&D, this most clearly takes the form of a particular character opting for the role of the fantasy hero and attempting to mold the game accordingly. But the same situation isn't always destructive; if the player recognizes that this trope isn't necessarily an end in itself, but simply a way of actualizing the Fantasy genre and perpetuating it, and plays it accordingly, the Hero archetype can be a productive member of the group.

The second type is another form of knowledge, which is particularized in the DM, as familiarity with the system. Part III of this essay deals with the ways in which this apparently structurally resembles not labor, but capital, and why that structural resemblance is not the case in practice.

The third type is establishing the initial abstraction. This overlaps the second type, but is typified in the game's "prep" work. In reality, this is a type of prestidigitation; the DM (generally speaking) performs work outside of the physical context of the game ostensibly in order to, as wisdom has it, facilitate her ability to tell a story. Really what the DM does is to establish the pretense of having labored (which often leads to actually performing the expected labor). This is a way of establishing the abstract authority held by the DM in a concrete way; the player's "know" that the DM has "put in work" ahead of time, and so, striving to honor that, will then put work in themselves. The players, as the negation, will necessarily void this work; the DM then pretends that this negation never happened.

The fourth type is establishing the negation. This is also called character creation. Generally this is the first moment that play takes place. However, it doesn't simply cease after the character sheet has been filled out; any time during play that the player makes a decision as or for their character (whether it is altering the character's motivations based on newly discovered facts within the fiction, or standing up after having been knocked prone during battle), this particular form of labor is being done. So while the archetype of this might be character creation, it could equally be called roleplay itself.

The fifth type of labor is the negation of the negation. This is the product of the game, its social relations, as exemplified by metagaming.

Establishing that these five actions are types of labor, and how they are exemplified, is crucial to understanding the dynamics of the actual dialectical movement of the game. If we persist under the idea that the work of playing a roleplaying game is parasitical upon the play, we fundamentally mischaracterize the game itself.


V. Workers at Play


Labor under capitalism is an abstraction; the quantity which translates time into money. The worker sells her labor time to the capitalist, and the capitalist invests according to perceived productive capacity. The capitalist mode of production structures social relations according to relations of production; to live socially is to bring your productive capacity to bear on time.

But play is not profit, no matter what good intentions child psychologists have when they metaphorize. It is, of course, one of the premiere components of reproductive labor, which itself is at least as crucial to the functioning of capital in both the short and long term as its more identifiable counterpart; and is, itself, irresistibly drawn back into the flow of capital, in the form of either new or (in the case of play) rejuvenated bodies. To argue for play alone, then, is to argue for reproduction of capitalist systems, whether that argument takes the form of play-as-escape or play-as-enriching-experience.

The worker at play is a clause that doubles itself; it can be read either as the Worker, who is at play; or as the one who works at playing. In the former case, the category of worker is figured as a stable identity. This could be diachronically speaking, but is more probably synchronic, using a discrete temporal frame to nominalize an action into an identity, and referring then to an action taken while inhabiting this identity. In the latter, the play is the subject, the fixed thing, and the 'worker at' is a description of the kind of action being taken upon it.

For capitalism to function as a mode of production, the former interpretation is a, if not the, crucial component of short-term, day to day reproductive labor. The worker works, primarily, but not exhaustively; because the worker, no matter that labor is an abstraction, refers always to a body, and the body's productive capacity (at least in terms of generating products as well as surplus value) is limited. The worker must also sleep, and shit; and increasingly, as the mode progresses, play.

It is the latter interpretation which fits the dialectical mode of play exemplified by games like Dungeons & Dragons, however, and this interpretation, while not necessarily disruptive of capital nor unsubsumable by it, nevertheless does not reproduce it, at least not in the same way. It reproduces the mode of production's social relations only, and imperfectly.

While "to work at playing" could very easily be appropriated as a propagandistic term for, say, the environmental blurring of a workplace like Google or a videogame studio, it is always only ever a figure of speech, or an elision. To invest the form of labor into the act of play is to reproduce labor, of course, both in the act of bodily rehabilitation and as an abstraction; but it also refuses commoditization, and the logic of surplus value.

As ideological reproduction, there is a crucial gap in the form and the action. Baker's notion of Reward System is useful in illustrating how it is the work of the designer, above all else, to obscure or bridge this gap, providing (as he says) the basis of an answer to the question of how play functions as its own reward by recourse to the highest possible repeated system that (to return to my own language) justifies the reproduction of the abstraction of labor in the context of a leisure activity.


VI. Conclusion


All of which returns us to the necessary basic assumption: that the DM is not the storyteller, but the reader. Whether from the perspective of the reproduction of labor or from the development of a campaign, this assumption, along with an analysis of the mode of production, leads to a way of approaching and enacting D&D that is broadly overlooked.

When the play-structure of D&D is altered, while preserving the structure of production (facilitators working from purchasable rulebooks), any theorization that does not account for this assumption begins to exhibit deformations between the theory and the praxis. This is why a game like The Quiet Year -- for all its positives (there are a lot of positives and you should absolutely play it) -- has a sense of stasis to it beyond the movement of the mechanics. The stunted dialectic persists as an absence.

If this analysis is "for" anyone then, and this separates me wildly from the Forge theorists/designers discussed, then it is for the player, rather than the designer. Instead of attempting to offer a better model by which to design and sell these games, in other words, I would like for this to, if it is to be applied to any aspect of the process of these games, be available to those who play them intentionally. Against the critic as pet and quality assurance; but simultaneously against the player as needing to be pandered to.

Above all, an assertion that if Edwards' contention that System Does Matter holds any weight, which I believe it does, then the corollary contention, that Structure Does Matter, must no longer be ignored.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014 in Shit: Wrap-Up

Twenty three thousand words over twenty three total posts. Largely unread, but goals were met. Here's the rundown.

Fox Drum Bebop by Gene Oishi
[Fox Drum Bebop] is necessarily a political novel, of course. But there aren't, to my knowledge, many discussions of things like the radicalization of young, interned Japanese Americans.
The Midnight After by Fruit Chan
Fuck this movie.
Boss Fight Books Season One
Baumann's Earthbound was a perfect book; it set my expectations low, and the editors from then on did their best to never jostle them too strongly.
American Hustle
What a bad, bad movie.
Crows : Explode by Toshiyaki Toyoda
The first day is now host to a ritualized "first fight" type thing, a bit of an open call for the student closest to taking over the top to tangle with whoever (although it very much seems like a number one contender sort of deal). As the movie goes on, this is hinted at more broadly; there are official rankings maintained by what must be some sort of third party group, that sort of thing. Basically, in the month since Takiya vacated the throne, a sort of Vegas atmosphere has developed, or a boxing/MMA contendership structure, or something
For No Good Reason
For No Good Reason is a documentary about Ralph Steadman, who you better know as the illustrator affiliated with Hunter S. Thompson, or else this movie doesn't give a shit about you. Which, really, is fine, because it's an awful movie that you shouldn't give a shit about.
Birdman by Alexander González Iñárritu
Reading Birdman as a film that is not just an attempt at a technical feat of filmmaking as such, but one which is meant to evoke the experience of the theater which it portrays, would seem to only underscore its position on the thematic argument. But by embedding that argument in the structure of the film, the question of genre (Hollywood vs Broadway, again, which is a slightly different use of the term than I usually prefer but which I think is nevertheless apt) is less something declaimed upon and more constitutive. And I do like thinking about genre, especially as a constitutive factor.
Joe by David Gordon Green
Cage plays an alcoholic struggling with anger issues who becomes a sort of surrogate dad for Sheridan, whose real father, played (often incredibly) by Gary Poulter, is a drifter and a drunk. There's a scene where Poulter murders another homeless man for a bottle of liquor, but that's one of the only moments where Joe becomes the sort of movie that you might expect it would be.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya by Isao Takahata
[M]ore than anything else Princess Kaguya had to teach me how to watch it move. ... [I]t does this beautifully, letting the early scenes linger, giving the viewer ample time to learn to see the hinges and then to see past them well enough to forget they are there.
Hercules by Brett Ratner
Also I think The Rock back body dropped a horse? It might've been a belly to belly suplex. Good stuff. The whole movie wasn't The Rock fighting animals though. I promise.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki by Haruki Murakami
(I hate writing about Murakami. Everything I've read about him has been garbage. Everything I write feels the same. I wish I could do some justice to his work. I cannot.)
Short Peace
Drone stuff maybe. I dunno. The whole anthology was kind of a let down.
I, Frankenstein
I feel like there's a genealogy to this movie that exists just outside of my knowledge and taste, and that using it would be the only way I could get a foothold into the movie. I suspect it is something like the Blade films and Blade Runner. Except that I've never seen the former and don't give the remotest shit about the latter. But maybe someone could use that.
Under the Skin
It's a particularly dull kind of criticism that sees its tools translated into its object and uses that translation as a means to valorize that object, though. Which is to say: I don't really care much for movies that do what I like claiming movies do.
Why Don't You Play in Hell? by Sion Sono
I kinda just want people to watch it. So maybe do! I think it's neat.
Non-Stop
[T]here's kind of this weird thread of action films in the last few years whose whole premise is that the villains are right wing extremists.
Maleficent
Maleficent's central argument is that everyone in the Disney Animated (Princess) Universe relies on a very rigid set of narrative tropes in order to justify to themselves why they have ended up where they have.
Godzilla
The point is: Godzilla kind of suckered me.
Noah by Darren Aronofsky
I wrote about Noah and authorship and money and pedagogy back in May, and I don't have much of anything to add to that post.
The Babadook
I just like reading a lot I guess. It's neat and I think about it a lot and do it even more and I would like more things to think about it and work on that. Especially things like weird breakout horror films, which is a genre that is basically entirely predicated on cultivating and exploiting intelligent reading practices. It's a good movie though, you'll probably dig it.
Snowpiercer by Bong Joon-Ho
I suppose, had I had a different experience -- like, say, expecting Snowpiercer to be some brilliant Marxist polemic, rather than a film from a director I respected and was excited to see getting to work in a new environment -- I might have also been somewhat disappointed in it.
The Wind Rises by Hayao Miyazaki
I had dreams of writing a big defense of The Wind Rises.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 in Shit: The Wind Rises

I had dreams of writing a big defense of The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki's maybe-it's-real-this-time retirement film about the designer of the Zero fighter aircraft that Imperial Japan employed extensively throughout the Pacific War. I thought I would have the time to dedicate and the energy to follow through in a way that didn't end up coming off as an apology for Japanese imperialism. I don't have either. I'll try, to a certain extent, but the best takeaway I can give is this: The Wind Rises is one of Miyazaki's most gorgeous films, and is significantly more complicated and ambivalent than even its greatest defenders have given it credit for.

Here's the thing: it isn't untrue that The Wind Rises is ultimately difficult to disentangle from mainstream right wing rhetoric and political action in contemporary Japan. There is a reason that Miyazaki had to write an Op Ed decrying the prime minister (and many others) plans to revise Article 9, the piece of the Japanese Constitution that forbids the country from having a standing military. There's nothing directly in the movie that condemns the consequences of the actions of its hero. There is, in fact, a number of arguments made that are clearly attempts to dissociate those consequences from the story being told. Which, at least as long as we're here, I don't think is entirely unfair, given how many of the condemnations of the valorization of Jiro Horikoshi seem like they border on the sort of tactical ahistoricity that they are accusing the film of*. Horikoshi's actions contributed to many horrific things, but saying that the movie is bad because of that is ignoring the conditions that lead to the rise of Japanese Imperialism and allowed for his work in the first place. Which is all to say, I suppose, in a roundabout way: what has been completely absent from the various discourses around The Wind Rises is that Horikoshi couldn't have done what he did without the material conditions permitting it, and those material conditions were ascendant imperialism and military dominance in a then-recently industrialized nation that was undergoing all the social upheaval that goes with those things, and that this all happened at a historical moment coinciding with the rapid development of the technology of airflight. So Miyazaki's "he didn't really mean to/he was a genius used for evil" tack is bullshit because a "genius" for aircraft design is only recognized when the conditions are there for it to be used (and created).

The point, though, is that talking about the designer of these planes should allow us to talk about the conditions under which he designed them, whether or not the dialogue in the movie is amenable to that conversation. Perhaps especially if not. The Western conversation around Japanese Imperialism in the 20th century is still so nasty and useless; so much of it reads like a "but yes look over here," an implicit denial of white supremacy, yet another way to frame the nation as Weird Japan without doing so quite so explicitly. Any discussion of Japanese Imperialism without a discussion of the resistance to it is fetishizing.

And yeah, I think that means The Wind Rises is a fetishizing movie as well. The other evidence for that: the real big narrative about it was that Miyazaki was retiring after this one. It's hard to tell whether that's stuck, but there is a lot about the movie that makes it feel like it is meant to be a retirement film. Not the least of that is how much the narrative of Horikoshi is transformed into a "noble artist working in a compromised medium, but still forging ahead." It's hard not to see the parallel to the man who still insists on the hand drawn animation technique that has been dead or dying for decades in the industry which he leads. So much of the film is an elegy for artistry, and, as gross as that sounds, it can be incredibly touching. There are moments where it feels like Miyazaki knew he had to pull out all the stops, and others where it seems like he just always wanted an excuse to animate a particular thing, so he shoehorned it in to be able to. The meet-cute during an earthquake certainly reads this way to me, and it is easily one of the most effective moments of the film.

But then, that's also how I read the film's end, with the Zero planes ascending into the heavens. Others have taken this as evidence that Miyazaki is intentionally turning a blind eye to the real effects of imperialism, seeing it as a valedictory ascendance, a happy ending for the man who designed the deaths and enslavement of many. Maybe I simply remember it wrong, but I have trouble seeing that argument at all. From my memory, it was bittersweet at best; the final refusal of Horikoshi to come to grips with what he had had a hand in. It was a moment of the artist, final giving up the fight, cedes the meaning of his creation to history, knowing -- no matter how strongly he will deny it -- that the verdict will not be in his favor.

Which is what I mean, also, by saying that The Wind Rises is fetishizing. It is a catalogue of absences, a contorting of what's there into an object that can only ever represent what isn't. And it is beautiful, in a way that means something. Someday I will find the words to say what.




*I'm not including any criticism of the film from South Korea, for obvious reasons.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2014 in Shit: Snowpiercer

I kept thinking I might end up having shit to say about Snowpiercer. It turns out I hella don't, except that it's great, so I'll just spitball for a second and then let you go.

I was really, really hyped about Snowpiercer coming out, because it completed a weird personal trilogy. Last year saw the first English language releases of two of my favorite directors active right now; Park Chan-Wook's Stoker, and Kim Jee-Woon's The Last Stand. Kim's Tale of Two Sisters and The Good, The Bad, The Weird (and, in a more roundabout way, The Quiet Family) were all crucial to me in learning about film; Park's Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is arguably the most important movie in my development. The fact that they both got to work for subtitle-averse audiences excited the shit out of me. With Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-Ho entered the field of incredible South Korean film directors that came out with an English language movie in this tiny time frame.

Bong's most famous for The Host, which is a really fantastic monster movie. Unlike Kim and Park, unfortunately, I don't have nearly as strong an attachment to Bong's work; I didn't see The Host early enough, and as much as I loved getting to see Mother in the theater it didn't happen to line up in such a way as to leave as serious an impression on me. These are all weird little things, accidences of biography, but there they are; I wasn't as excited to see what promised to be a train movie with Marxist overtones as I was to see a Schwarzenegger movie about a bordertown sherif. And, I mean, I turned out to be right, because The Last Stand was the best movie of last year, but that's not the point. Or maybe it sort of is; getting to see Snowpiercer for me was some weird mixture of riding the high off of Park and Kim's showings last year and mediated (but still strong) expectations based on my own personal history with watching Bong's films.

I suppose, had I had a different experience -- like, say, expecting Snowpiercer to be some brilliant Marxist polemic, rather than a film from a director I respected and was excited to see getting to work in a new environment -- I might have also been somewhat disappointed in it. I would also be a very different film viewer, and would not be bringing this wonderful series to you, all my lovely readers. Film as prepackaged polemic is hella boring and -- well, weird, I guess I've talked about this for, now, three days in a row -- tends toward the sort of reading practices that foreground the boring version of worldbuilding that privileges narrative coherence over all. As fun as it might have been to grouse about the incidental aspects of Snowpiercer's train-world, the need to systematize things like precisely how the described conditions of, for instance, the food supply, works is weak as fuck. It makes sense, I guess, if you really want the whole to conform to a Marxism (or whatever), but, as magical as it might sound, characters don't need to eat. And, on top of that, they aren't to be taken at their word. Even -- especially -- when they are infodumping in science fiction. It's a technique; just because it is one with a history of being employed without a hint of ambiguity doesn't mean it's devoid. Science Fiction as a whole would be so goddamn boring if you took statements like "this train has been running for seventeen years because we go through a tunnel once every 365 days" to be anything other than a claim by a character with an agenda.

That said, stakes defined; Snowpiercer was an incredibly pretty movie, in the way that elaborate set construction* and tight cinematography and the presence of Song Kang-Ho tend to lend themselves to. Another silly thing: that it was criticized for being videogamelike, which seems like the sort of criticism levelled by those for whom Film as Art is still somehow a proposition that must be adamantly defended. The whole thing goes like this: for the past two decades, on a large scale, videogame designers have cribbed from the language of cinema in order to drive their narrative elements towards respectability commensurate with their sales. This is mostly noted in terms of things like cutscenes in games, where player control is obviated to advance story, but is probably more important in how games (especially since becoming predominantly 3D) pace themselves in order to satisfy both the mechanical ("fun") demands as well as the more traditionally narrative demands. Ever since games started to actually be able to strike some semblance of balance between the two -- I would that this happened in 1998 when Metal Gear Solid, StarCraft, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time all came out, but I'd be open to dispute -- films have been accused of conforming to that semblance, largely because of having the things that games cribbed. When movies are like videogames its exciting. Snowpiercer was also exciting but for nothing remotely resembling that reason.

Spitballing doesn't often lead to my talking about the movie as such. Oops. So here's the thing: it's as gorgeous a movie, in terms of set design, as anything I've ever seen. It fucking works, to, by artificially isolating its environments in ways that the structure of cinema makes coherent. And it's a pleasure to watch, framed as it is on terms of class and environmental politics, which are developed on the terms of its spaces. And the whole movie seems mostly interested in making you despise the whiteboy lead, because he is a completely insufferable dick.

There, that's it really; if you haven't, do see it, and keep in mind that the movie is in no way in the corner of the whiteboy lead. He sucks and it knows it, and it shows you that. From the classroom scene's opening relentlessness to the questionable finale to the running of the torch during the tunnel fight scene, whiteboy sucks. It's the best.




*Here's yr worldbuilt marxist critique; the narrative level is a hole-y fabricated space, which is itself a function of a fabricated fragmented set-space. The materials create the condition of possibility. The absence of critique that captures the totality is a consequence of the material fragmentation. Movies aren't fucking magic, keep that Spielberg bullshit out of your mouth; they are real moments. Moments are not the whole, they don't matter, yr trend tracking is worthless, the train is powered by child labor and Ed Harris' performance here is literally identical to his performance in Pain & Gain because of that shit that circulates like M-M'.

Monday, December 29, 2014

2014 in Shit (Bonus): The Babadook

I saw The Babadook about a week ago, which is why I didn't include it in the projected reviews, and why I won't be able to claim that I barely remember any of it in this review. Luckily, I was incredibly tired when I did see it, so I was both a little sour on it and not able to focus as well as I ought to have, so I get to claim those which are effectively the same as not remembering. So good call on me for that.

Here's the thing about The Babadook: I can dig a The Aristocrats joke as much as the next white boy, but when it's told exclusively through masterful sound design and the punchline is that the monster chitters like the fucking Dilophosaurus from Jurassic Park it's all a bit much. Honestly rude, y'all.

No, okay, it was a fine movie. It was probably even pretty great. The monster was pretty fantastic, the sound design really was phenomenal and made the movie clip along with springy tension, the acting was suitably uncanny, and the appearances of the monster (excluding the last one where he's visible and has just come back from Jurassic Park for whatever reason) were exceptionally well done. There were also a number of smaller, gradual things, like how the slow shifting of the mother's perspective over the course of the film was reflected in the cinematography and how the non-central characters were realistically and gradually written out of the film through a series of sudden events, that I thought were pretty cool.

Just yesterday I was talking about the weirdness of being called to watch a movie with an eye towards things like its continuity in worldbuilding and how I both respected and resented it. I had a similar experience, bizarrely, with The Babadook, though this was largely because I was really tired, I think. The introduction of the monster is through a pop-up story book that the child asks to be read after he has had some trouble at school; his mom doesn't recognize it, but starts it anyway. Very early on, there's the monsters name as onomatopoeia; the page in question luckily turns out to be in the trailer, so here's a screencap of it.


You'll notice that it goes "ba BA-ba;" for whatever reason this started to bother me a lot. Particularly when, later in the movie, the mother receives a phone call that turns out to be from the Babadook, who does do the three Dooks but only does two Bas. It's like that through the bulk of the movie; ba BA-ba becomes BA-ba, but DOOK! DOOK! DOOK! stays just the same. It's a bizarre, pointless, nitpicky thing to be worried about, but there's something about how central the noises are to this movie, and how tired I was, that made that whole bit stick out to me. Which might also be the case for the dinosaur sounds, although honestly for everything the movie does right I thought that final confrontation was totally shitty.

There's also the fact that the kids in this movie all had weirdly stilted, adult dialog, but then I'm just kind of finding pleasure in articulating these little nitpicky things (which, to be fair, is at least partially honest to my experience of watching the movie, even if I didn't particularly like that I was doing it then and like it even less now). Anyway.

If there's one thing underlying everything, I suspect that it has something to do with how the movie is one of those horror films that seems unduly invested in its own narrative ambiguity; how this plays out is in the very familiar "the monster may exist but it may also just be some sort of projection/whatever by the characters." It's a thing that a lot of people are fond of praising movies for; it's also something that I find tiresome and defanging. It's the sort of ambiguity that is much more productively left in the hands of readers than of writers, if that's a binary that I'm allowed to invoke despite the bulk of my work being quietly dedicated to dismantling it. When, I guess another way to say it, the ambiguous presence of the monster is a directed subtext of the film, it becomes a discussion of inches; does this scene or that scene more accurately represent the film's reality, do we take her eyes having closed to mean that it was all a dream even if they didn't open until much later, that sort of thing. The existential question of the monster is one that is only really interesting as a structural question; how do we make this whole thing hold up -- not just the narrative, but the POV, the themes, the everything -- in the absence of this generic material? And even that, sometimes, is just a tedious act of debate for debates sake, but it can also be productive in ways that I've never seen the intentional ambiguity be. Or, more accurately, the existential question is at least a step in the right direction, while the subtextual inclusion just resolves into the sort of nitpicky bullshit that I ended up spending my time watching this movie doing.

So what I'm saying is that The Babadook, for all its outstanding elements, falls prey to a form of valorization that propagates what I consider to be bad reading practices, and so I disliked that part of it enough to take pleasure in wielding those against it. It is good though, on the whole. Just don't be one of those people who are like "this is so smart because the monster might just be all in her head" because I don't think that's very smart at all. Or do because who the fuck am I, come on, why would I even pretend like I want people to follow my advice there.

I just like reading a lot I guess. It's neat and I think about it a lot and do it even more and I would like more things to think about it and work on that. Especially things like weird breakout horror films, which is a genre that is basically entirely predicated on cultivating and exploiting intelligent reading practices. It's a good movie though, you'll probably dig it.

2014 in Shit: Noah

I wrote about Noah and authorship and money and pedagogy back in May, and I don't have much of anything to add to that post. You're welcome to (re)read it instead of a new one, though.

I actually forgot to include the other two things I reviewed elsewhen when I was putting together the roundup, so I'll dump those links here too.

At the beginning of the year, I read Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, and reviewed it for Strange Horizons. There was some neat stuff in there and I'd recommend it if it seems like it'd be your thing. Some of it I was pretty not fond of though.

I also read Fighting for Recognition and reviewed it (sort of, at least) for The New Inquiry. It's a book I wouldn't recommend, but that I hope leads to better things. Most of my review has to do with a mobile free to play card game called WWE SuperCard, which I found very interesting. I think I said some neat stuff there.

Is this a break? Has this whole thing been? Who knows.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

2014 in Shit: Godzilla

Back in June, I had a conversation with my friend Aishwarya about Godzilla, which I have reproduced below, slightly altered to make me look like I type like a legible human being on the internet. There is more to her side, but I am starting where I jumped in because I can't find all of her tweets. Apologies in advance.
A: (Except when [Ken Watanabe] brandishes a watch that stopped in August 1945 and is like "Hiroshima," in case you-the-audience had missed this.)
B: That was maybe my favorite moment in the movie (for me, it was [Watanabe] saying Fuck You to the whole thing though).
A: Introducing deliberate cringe, you mean?
B: From the audience (both attentive and not so), from the General (or whatever he was), from himself (presumably).
A: Not sure if it's a sign of how low my expectations are that I was just relieved they didn't claim the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were also America trying to kill Godzilla.
B: The bizarre multitude of explanations for Godzilla's existence definitely made me wary of that too (...which might have been another reason I was so into that scene, actually).
A: I can see that. It was the one non-terrible thing about that moment for me.
B: Yeah, can definitely see that. I was probably too generous with the movie because I got surprised Elizabeth Olsen was in it & I <3 her.
To give a little context; Aishwarya wasn't super high on Godzilla, for a lot of very good reasons. I was pretty into it, although probably a good amount of that was me convincing myself that I was. It's kind of what I do I guess.

There's also a good amount to unpack there. Instead of doing that up front, though, I think I'm going to start with just generalities, and let it unfold.

One of the weirdest things about watching Godzilla was that I ended up enjoying teasing at its narrative/worldbuilt limitations. I spent a chunk of the movie entertaining myself by thinking about why it was, exactly, that Godzilla didn't seem to eat the MUTOs when he killed them. There was some specific piece of dialogue speculating on the meaning of Godzilla that inspired these thoughts, although I can no longer remember what precisely it was. This is partially because of how long it has been since I saw the movie, but it is also partially because a lot of Godzilla is dedicated to folks speculating on what the hell Godzilla is or could be, what the presence of this thing means and how it will act. Which is about as good a thing as you can ask from a big budget Godzilla movie at this point, I think; one that is aware it has a lot of explaining to do and that that explaining will never remotely approach satisfactory. Dazzle 'em with (contradictory) exposition, in other words, or run the risk of allowing the overdetermined to wreak havoc.

Which isn't to say that Godzilla did anything remotely like successfully avoiding that ultimate fate. Charitably, it could be said to have embraced it. Really, really charitably, it could be said to be structured around it; everything from how incredibly white the film was to how Ken Watanabe's character or Elizabeth Olsen's character were portrayed in individual moments could be said to fall into a larger rubric of the impotence of a response to such a messy history by way of the response that all attempts are impotent. Something like that. Or Hollywood or whatever, I guess.

Despite the lackluster showing this year, this whole Year in Shit thing isn't about teaching you how to read films in boring ass ways. Or more specifically, the kind of charitable reading I prefer just doesn't happen to coincide with ideology critique, which that previous paragraph was trending dangerously close to. So, backing up.

The point is: Godzilla kind of suckered me. I found myself watching it in a way that I never watch movie, at least in part because I kind of hate it when I read about someone else's having watched a movie that way. I understand that there are pleasures in that kind of watching, and it does occasionally lead to something genuinely interesting, but I've rarely ever seen it do much than serve as a way to lock shit down. Whether that's alternative readings of a text (with the attendant stakes of differing priorities or methods of valorization) or potential audiences for it (Hi, every two star "As a physicist..." Amazon review), I don't tend to dig it. But Godzilla got me to engage with it, and for that I both respect and resent it.

It would have been pretty sweet if, after Godzilla blasted that one MUTO with his mouth laser through the throat, he started eating it, though. I mean, just in my opinion.

Aside from the way that the exposition in the film seemed to me to be in response to the overdetermination of the subject, what most grabbed me about the movie, as referenced above -- or, maybe more correctly, what most inclined me to be charitable towards it -- was that I was unaware that Elizabeth Olsen was going to be present, and her showing up semi-regularly made me pretty stoked. I've mentioned before that she might be my favorite actor working, and that her appearance in Silent House was what turned me on to her. Her part in Godzilla was, largely, bullshit. She was the upset wife of, uh, whoever that dude was. The main character. I literally have no recollection of who he was or what he did. He sucked.

Olsen was good, though, in that way where she has a total bullshit role and just rides it out until she gets that one opportunity to turn up and she fucking hits it, and that's really all I get in terms of acting. Which brings us to Ken Watanabe.

What Aishwarya was talking about, prior to the parenthetical with which the quote at the top started, was how Watanabe's role was largely reduced to him (very expertly) grimacing at things throughout Godzilla, which I don't disagree with as an assessment of how he was used (or how he acquitted himself admirably, despite that use). Where we ended up differently was our interpretations of one of the only scenes in which he was given something else to do, and I suspect the disagreement stems from the sort of charitable and bizarre mood I felt stemming from those weird things detailed above. Which is one way of saying that I don't really attribute my reaction to the movie itself, but rather to my own temperament; I suspect Aishwarya's response is more accurate to the text as it presented itself, even as I will continue to defend my reading.

The particulars of that scene go like this: a US army general is being all hawkish about Godzilla, threatening, if I recall correctly, to nuke the monster before it can ravage New York City. He threatens this despite the fact that he knows such a course of action will leave the city in the range of the fallout, and all that. He's being a big dumb jerk, basically, as the military personnel ought to be in this kind of movie. Watanabe is in the room where this is being discussed, and is kind of sitting it out at the beginning, just being generally unhappy, and waiting for his turn to actually get involved in the proceedings. When he decides to take his turn, what he does is to show the general a watch in his possession. It's stopped at a certain time that, as he informs the general, happened in August 1945. That time, he then continues, is when fucking Hiroshima was bombed by that general's predecessor or whatever. It's a really strong fuck you that, again if I am remembering correctly, is kind of paid lip service with a fade out and then ignored because a new scene is shown. But in that moment, when Watanabe finally stops being sidelined, it's the best.

Or at least, I thought it was. Because it works to address so many different folks simultaneously, and in each of them there is a veiled fuck you; to the general, who he knows isn't just a hawkish shithead, but is so dull as to not piece together that the "August 1945" reference. To the audience, for whom the same might likely be said. To the movie itself, for elaborating so many different meanings of its monster without once taking into account how those meanings are culturally inflected, and for saddling him with a role of representing those inflections solely through his name and skin without letting him engage them. To all of the above for the aggressive ahistoricism, whether of the lack of need to due military power or to genre for its flattening systems or to the way that this Godzilla seems more interested in rebuking the issues with Emmerich's Godzilla than engaging with any of its other versions. And, in the moment, it even seems a bit of a fuck you to himself, to playing in a movie where he is forced to spell out that Hiroshima was a real thing that happened with consequences, that this world needed stakes that only tokenization could provide it, that everything, really.

I'd go so far as to say that Godzilla is worth seeing for that scene alone. I'm probably wrong about that though.

Other things of note about Godzilla include that Godzilla was pretty great, as a monster. The design was hella goofy though, in a mostly not great way. They did pretty good stuff with it, though. Also there was a weird meme going around that the movie was disappointing because of how little screen time Godzilla got, which I thought was weird and kind of indicative of people watching it who don't watch monster movies? Or whose only previous experience with monster movies was Emmerich's Godzilla, which was panned largely because it was just like two fucking hours of Godzilla stomping around and that shit is really boring? I guess what I mean is less that Godzilla was great in itself and more that it was used pretty well, at least visually, all things considered.

Also Elizabeth Olsen and Ken Watanabe were the shit.