The Organization Geek

I sometimes think that my generation got the wrong end of the stick when it came to the question of conformity. My first encounter with conformity as a theoretical concept came in my early teens when some pre-cursor to GCSE psychology mentioned Solomon Asch’s conformity experiments in which a subject was confronted with a room full of people giving the wrong answer to a simple perception test. Supposedly overwhelmed by peer pressure, over a third of Asch’s subjects chose to follow the group and give the wrong answer.

I say “supposedly” as while a lot has since been written about Asch’s experiments, most of it has been reductive, simplistic and wrong. The problem lies not in the work itself but rather in the tendency to package it up with Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience and Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment as part of a broad cultural narrative about the hazards of conformity.

By the time I was first encountering experimental psychology in the early 1990s, conformity was being presented as a Bad, Bad Thing that caused you to speak untruths, torture people to death and generally behave like a German prison camp guard. Indeed, a lot of the research into obedience and conformity that took place in the middle decades of the 20th Century is best understood as trying to understand the rise of Nazi Germany and thereby prevent it from ever happening again. The work of Asch, Milgram and Zimbardo may have been lousy and misunderstood science but it was great propaganda as it sold us a vision of humanity as a species wired for obedience and moral cowardice.

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BG47 – Hang All The Critics

Futurismic have just published my forty-seventh Blasphemous Geometries column entitled ‘Hang all the Critics: Towards Useful Video Game Writing’.

I originally wrote the column about ten days ago but last weekend I became aware of two significant blogospheric shit-storms that seem to provide an interesting context for the column.  The first shit-storm involves a bunch of people being upset by an article about yoga and the second shit-storm involves a bunch of people being upset by a review of an epic fantasy novel. Though ostensibly very different in their origins and subject matters, both shit-storms involve a community reacting very angrily to negative coverage from a perceived outsider. In the case of the ‘yoga community’, the outsider is the New York Times senior science writer William Broad and, in the case of the ‘epic fantasy community’, the outsider is the Strange Horizons reviewer and post-graduate student Liz Bourke.

The link between these blogstorms and my most recent video games column is that ‘Hang All the Critics’ is an attempt to confront the fact that the age of the critic has now passed. Criticism and its less well-heeled cousin reviewing rely upon the assumption that a person of reasonable insight and creative flair can consume a cultural product and issue an opinion or reaction to that will be of use to other people despite the fact that these other people might have very different tastes and interests.

It is no accident that the role of the critic has its roots in the cafe culture of the 17th Century as the coffee shops frequented by the likes of Samuel Johnson tended to be cramped places where all kinds of bourgeois intellectuals were forced to rub shoulders. One of the unfortunate side-effects of the Internet’s infinite potential for space is that people from a particular class and with a particular set of interests are no longer forced to rub shoulders with people with ever-so-slightly different sets of tastes. These days, if you are interested in steam locomotives but not other forms of train then you are in no way obliged to encounter the opinions of people who consider steam trains to be a quaint but outmoded form of technology. The more the Internet matures, the more interest groups fragment and the more interest groups fragment, the more isolated and tribal these communities become. There is no place for criticism in a world dominated by tribal conflicts and persecution complexes, this is why Liz Bourke and William Broad got it in the neck and this is why Rotten Tomatoes is filled with people reacting angrily to the idea that a film they haven’t seen might not be as good as they expect. The age of the critic is at an end and it is time to change the way we do business.

Needless to say, I am not the first person to notice the collapse of our culture’s public spaces. Indeed, many reviewers and critics have attempted to respond to the increasingly commercial and tribal nature of the public sphere either by retreating into the walled-garden of academia or by creating a tribal space of their own. While I can entirely understand this desire for retrenchment, I think that it is ultimately an act of cowardice:

As someone who has never once tried to review a game for a major site, I am not in the least bit opposed to the fracturing of public space in order to create environments in which inaccessible forms of writing are protected from the vagaries of commerce and popular tastes. A recent comment on one of my pieces described my style as “masturbatory” and I find myself absolutely powerless to disagree. There is something decidedly self-indulgent about sharing one’s opinions online — particularly when one makes little or no effort to reach out to the majority of people interested in a particular topic — and this kind of self-indulgence is not about subjecting games to serious intellectual scrutiny or ‘consolidating a continuous counterbalance’; is a cowardly retreat from the public sphere, driven by the recognition that my opinions are of use to nobody but myself. There is absolutely nothing brave or revolutionary about taking your ball and going home.

My problem with the critics of Bourke and Broad is not that they are wrong to feel the way they feel. Life in the 21st Century is frequently lonely and it is easy to begin thinking of one’s sub-culture as a kind of family that provides us with both an identity and a set of values. When you invest yourself that heavily in a particular sub-culture then it makes perfect sense that you should bristle when that elements of that sub-culture come under fire from outsiders. Even if you don’t like a particular novel or have your own concerns about the way that yoga is taught, it is one thing to hear those feelings from someone you trust and quite another to hear them from someone you don’t know. Ever bitched about a sibling to a member of your family? ever defended that same sibling when they came under fire from someone else? Some truths can only be spoken inside the family.

My problem with the critics of Bourke and Broad (or the people who complained about Uncharted 3 only getting 8 out of 10) is not that they are wrong, it is that they are being insular. As I said elsewhere, the most wonderful thing in the world is to have someone care enough to listen to you and tell you that you are completely full of shit. By wanting to protect epic fantasy from outsiders like Bourke, the defenders of epic fantasy (and those of yoga) are closing themselves off to a potential source of cultural renewal.

I would like to believe that there is a place for people like Bourke and Broad because I would like to believe that there is a place for cultural generalists and for people who take the ideas and values of one culture and carry them into those of another.  This blog is very much devoted to the idea that a single person can look at radically different forms and subject matters and say something of value about them. Unfortunately, while I would like to believe that there is a place for that form of cultural generalism, I think that the Internet is growing increasingly hostile to it. After all, why listen to random strangers when you can only listen to fellow academics, fantasy fans, yoga enthusiasts, republicans or furries? Why listen to anyone other than yourself?

The Book of Human Insects (1970) By Osamu Tezuka – The Horror of Limitless Potential and Unfettered Change

It is impossible to dangle one’s toes into the waters of Japanese sequential art without, sooner or later, encountering the name of Osamu Tezuka. Aside from being a hugely prolific and influential artist who inspired generations of authors, Tezuka was also one of the first Japanese comics artists to enjoy commercial success in the West with series including Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion. However, despite the child-friendliness of Tezuka’s greatest successes, many of his finest works are decidedly darker and a good deal more complex. An excellent example of this is Tezuka’s recently translated The Book of Human Insects. Set in 1970s Tokyo, the novel offers a darkly compelling portrait of a woman with a remarkable capacity for re-invention. Ostensibly a psychological thriller about a Mr Ripley-like femme fatale who feeds upon Japan’s predominantly male intelligentsia, The Book of Human Insects resonates most when read as a critique of post-War Japanese society.

 

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A Bride’s Story… Stripp’d

Boomtron have my latest Stripp’d column. This month, I return to anime in order to look at Kaoru Mori’s A Bride’s Story.

The manga is published in hardback by Yen Press and is very much in the style and tradition of such prestige titles as Fumi Yoshinaga’s unrelentingly splendid Ooku: The Inner Chamber. Somewhat less focused and much less high-concept than Yoshinaga’s look at a alternate edo-period Japan, A Bride’s Story is made up of a series of stories drawn from the early married life of a young woman living on the steppes of central Asia in the early part of the 20th Century. However, while the characterisation is frequently intriguing and the central love story between the bride and her (much) younger husband is undeniably affecting, it is clear that both the story and the characters are little more than vehicles for Mori’s exploration of her understanding of that particular culture. Indeed, I conclude my piece by likening A Bride’s Story to a piece of literary travel writing such as that of Geoff Dyer, Paul Theroux or Pico Iyer:

Like any piece of literature written about one culture by a member of a different culture, there are questions of morality and appropriation that need to be asked. Mori mostly answers these questions by celebrating life on the steppes while acknowledging quite how shockingly alien and unfair that life could be. While a lot is made of the ethics of depicting alien cultures, my feeling is that travel writing, like all forms of writing is always produced from a particular perspective. Objective truth is the sole preserve of the hard sciences. As such, we should look upon A Bride’s Story as an impression of a particular culture filtered both through the eyes of a Japanese women and through the demands of the Japanese comics scene. Would real Mongolians enjoy gently burgeoning and chaste love stories? Would real brides be so impossibly lovely and accomplished that their clan would not hesitate for a second before fighting to the death in order to defend them? Possibly not but Mori’s stories are beautifully told and sensitively embedded in a culture that she clearly both loves and respects. At the end of the day, if you want the truth about the Asian steppe, go and visit it yourselves… just don’t expect to encounter any gorgeous 20 year-olds with devoted 12 year-old husbands.

Boasting some of the most jaw-droppingly intricate and beautifully composed artwork I have ever encountered. A Bride’s Story is a wonderful example of what manga can achieve when it moves beyond the straightjackets of the populist and the fannish.

DC: The New Frontier… Stripp’d

Boomtron have my latest comics column on Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier.

New Frontier is an ‘elseworld’ that takes the superheroes of the DC Comics Universe and transposes them into the late 1940s in much the same way as Neil Gaiman transposed the Marvel Universe into Elizabethan England in 1602 (2003). However, while 1602 is really nothing more than an extended exercise in fan service that wanders around Elizabethan London going “Oooh… I wonder what Daredevil would look like if he was an Irish bard!”, DC: The New Frontier is an attempt to liberate mainstream superhero comics from the cynicism of the post-Watchmen era by finding a way of reconciling psychological depth with the values of old-fashioned Gold and Silver Age heroism. While I do not think that Cooke is ultimately successful in his endeavour, I do think that the result is one of the most fascination mainstream superhero comics ever produced.  It is fascinating because it is a comic that clearly realises the challenge that faces large generation-spanning mythological systems.  As I pointed out in my review of Dick Maas’ horror film Saint (2010), myths must reinvent themselves in order to stay alive and DC: The New Frontier is clearly designed as a mutation that might help superhero comics adapt to the culture of today:

The last thirty years has seen a drive to re-invent traditional heroes as darker and more realistic figures. Moore’s reinvention of the superhero as a vigilante mired in psychological trauma and political compromise is no different to the re-invention of King Arthur as a Roman Centurion or an Iron-age Chieftain. The world has changed and though we can no longer believe in a campy middle-aged Batman, we can believe in a tortured psychopath who acts upon his own flawed sense of justice. Humans have always and will always yearn for escape from the prison of their lives but the vehicle they choose for that escape is determined by the nature of the lives they are escaping. Because of this, stories must be retold and heroes must be reborn. Even modern day myths are subject to these evolutionary pressures, in order to survive stories must change to suit the demands of their audience.

Despite its failures, DC: The New Frontier is still a fascinating read and a great place to start if you are looking to get a handle on the tendency of superhero comics to keep re-launching and re-inventing themselves.

Ludwig II… Stripp’d

Boomtron have my latest column on You Higuri’s manga series about the life of Ludwig II of Bavaria.

Despite having a real fondness for GLBT film, manga and the occasional GLBT-infused anime series, Ludwig II was my first serious encounter with the genre known as Yaoi. Written mostly by women for other women, the yaoi genre tells melodramatic love stories involving ‘beautiful boys’, by which I mean young men with feminine physical characteristics. Ludwig II tells the story of the so-called ‘Mad King’ of Bavaria and his complex relationships with both an aide and reality as a whole. While Ludwig II is very much a melodramatic love-story in the romantic tradition, Higuri juxtaposes the demands of the yaoi genre with the demands placed on the historical Ludwig II as a means of exploring the concept of escapism. Indeed, Higuri presents Ludwig’s madness as an increasingly self-destructive desire to escape from reality into a world of imagination and beauty:

By highlighting both the heroic nature of a refusal to completely submit to the mundane and the devastating consequences of shifting one’s intellectual focus away from the problems of real life, Higuri speaks to our responsibilities as citizens of the world. Clearly, Ludwig was an intelligent and gifted enough politician that he could have done more to protect his subjects from the harshness of that world.  In one particularly heavy-handed moment, Higuri points out that Ludwig’s failure to defend Bavarian independence helped propel the German people along a path leading to the Death Camps.  Had Ludwig done more to check Prussian ambition then perhaps Germany might never have united and had Germany never united, then Hitler might never have gained a powerbase sufficiently strong to begin the Second World War.

Having recently worked my way through the six translated volumes of Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ooku: The Inner Chambers, I was delighted to discover in Ludwig II a similarly complex and compelling interweaving of traditional genre with historical fiction and romance. Ludwig II is one of the best things I have read this year, it cuts to the bone of why it is that we find ourselves attracted to escapist media.

REVIEW – Black Butler, Collection One (2008)

Videovista have my review of the first ‘collection’ (which may or may not be the same thing as a series) of Toshiya Shinohara’s anime adaptation of Yana Toboso’s Black Butler manga.

Black Butler is a not particularly intelligent, not particularly inventive and not particularly interesting series that sees a young man form a pact with a demon to help him find the person responsible for the death of his parents.  The demon takes the form of an uber-competent Jeeves-style butler who not only helps the young man to manage his business empire but also to battle underworld threats to Victorian Britain. The steampunk fantasia that makes up the series’ foreground is, quite frankly, utterly derivative but the series is made watchable by a yaoi-inspired subtext that introduces a strong erotic charge to the boy’s relationship with his butler:

All of these elements (including the weird top-bottom, master-slave relationship) will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever encountered the Yaoi or Bishonen genres of manga but the fact that these elements are present in an ostensibly mainstream and youth-oriented series lends them a fresh and subversive feel that is undeniably attractive and engaging.

While the series just about held my interest, it did make me wonder why you would watch this rather than an actual work of Yaoi or Bishonen anime. Neither of these sub-genres is particularly marginal or all that subversive… why hide their influence in the closet of a mainstream anime series?