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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REVIEW – The Keeper of Lost Causes (2013)

FilmJuice have my review of Mikkel Nørgaard‘s Scandinavian police procedural The Keeper of Lost Causes. Based on the novel Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olssen, The Keeper of Lost Causes is an entirely predictable and by-the-numbers Scandinavian police procedural. Its plot is entirely linear and generic, its characters are generic, one-dimensional stereotypes and nothing introduced by either the director or the writer complicates matters in any way. This is a solidly entertaining slice of Scandinavian noir that offers no surprised whatsoever:

The Keeper of Lost Causes is the Tesco Everyday Mild Cheddar of Scandinavian noir: Competently made and entirely free of anything in the least bit new or different, it gets the job done but leaves you yearning for something with a little more flavour.

I quite enjoyed The Keeper of Lost Causes but, as I point out in my review, I can’t help but wonder how much more Scandinavian noir the British market can endure before people start getting sick of it. How many more series of The Bridge can sit through before we start shouting ‘Oh for fuck’s sake get some colour on those walls and go and have a shave!’? The Keeper of Lost Causes is based on the first novel in a series meaning that the film feels a lot like a pilot. In fact, there is already an adaptation of the second book in the series by the same director and with the same actors. Will it be released in the UK? Almost certainly but Scandinavian noir is definitely starting to feel a little bit long in the tooth… time for someone to adapt Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy and move us away from grizzled beardy Scandinavian men and towards grizzled beardy Mediterranean men instead! The Keeper of Lost Causes actually raises an interesting critical question as while the film does absolutely nothing even remotely new or different, it does it in a very competent and enjoyable manner. For as long as I have been paying attention to it, the conversation surrounding science fiction has portrayed genre boundaries and conventional narrative forms as something to be overcome but I think there is probably a case to be made for innovation being a somewhat over-rated quality. A lot has been made of the way that the gender of critics and gatekeepers tends to skew the conversation around a cultural scene but I think the same is probably true of scenes where the conversation is lead by creators and experienced critics. I suspect that a reader-focused conversation about books or an audience-focused conversation about film would see formal and narrative innovation as much less important than the competent deployment of established forms and story-types. The Keeper of Lost Causes is a solid piece of genre cinema, it does precisely what it says on the tin and absolutely nothing more.

The Trip to Italy (2014) – Poo and Broken Glass

The longer a drama is allowed to run, the closer it comes to resembling a soap opera. The difference between these two forms is that while both are made from the relationships between fictional characters, dramas use those relationships as a means of articulating some deeper truth about the human condition. Soap operas are dramas that have been robbed of significance; they treat the relationships between fictional characters as ends in themselves.

As someone who has never entirely understood why I am supposed to become emotionally invested in the lives of people who do not exist, I am very sensitive to the difference between drama and soap opera and I am always wary of films and series that move from one form to another. An excellent example of the slide from drama to soap is the French procedural Spiral. When Spiral first aired in 2005, it was a tightly-written drama exploring how various aspects of the French legal system interact as part of an investigation and how incompetence, mendacity and institutional dysfunction can get in the way of justice. At the time, many people compared Spiral and to The Wire but where the two programmes part company is that while The Wire used its additional seasons to expand its critique of American society, Spiral lost interest in the real world: By the third season, the writers of Spiral had shifted their interest away from the French legal system towards the emotional lives of their characters. By the fourth season, the procedural elements were serving as little more than an excuse for characters to bicker, plot and occasionally jump into bed with each other. A fifth season of the programme has been produced and has begun to air and I see no reason why it shouldn’t continue indefinitely. Spiral’s viewers may have been drawn in by the critique of French society but it is their emotional investment in the characters that keeps them coming back. In the nine years since it first aired, Spiral has transitioned from a drama about the French legal system to a soap opera set in courthouses and police stations.

This process is also beginning to affect the on-going collaboration between director Michael Winterbottom and the comic actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon; a creative partnership that began by producing thought-provoking drama now traffics in smug, middle-class soap opera.

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Why You Want to Fuck Christopher Hitchens – Celebrity, Consumerism and the Search for Online Identity

 

I’d like to open with a kind of history. This history takes many forms and surfaces in many different places with the names of the actors sometimes replaced. Occasionally, the role of the nation-state is assumed by religion and at other times it is the gods of classical antiquity who take the lead. Regardless of which iteration of this history you have heard, its narrative will be familiar to you for it is a narrative of loss.

Once upon a time, people lived in tribes. These tribes were small social entities made up of a number of different family groups that pooled their resources. Members of tribes lived together, worked together and died together and this permanent state of communion with others made their lives meaningful. Of course, human nature being what it is, tribes could not peacefully co-exist and the tribes soon began conquering each other until their dominion extended over millions of people and thousands of miles of territory. Because these abstract tribal groupings were a lot harder to manage than a couple of families that had been living and working together for generations, tribal elders began reinventing themselves as governments who began to rule over abstract political entities known as kingdoms and principalities then as nations and states. Of course, nation states were never anything more than a way of referring to the territory under the control of one particular government but they stuck around for long enough that people began to forget their tribal loyalties and began to see their nationality as a fundamental fact about themselves, a fact no different to their sex, their gender, their sexuality or their race, a fact that took the form of a noun.

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Calvinball Mythology: The Inevitable Follow-up Post

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece about Ridley Scott’s Prometheus that allowed me to voice some ideas about the role of escapist media in contemporary spiritual life.  Evidently this post struck a chord with a good deal of people as I have been receiving a lot of traffic from people kind enough to link to me. While I cannot address all of the points raised by people, I can address a few of the comments that caught my eye.  Thank you all for your attention and I am delighted that you enjoyed the read!

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Prometheus (2012) – Calvinball Mythology and the Void of Meaning

0. We Crave Mythologies, Not Stories

Humanity has always told and listened to stories. Given that these stories sometimes provide the backbone for an entire culture or mode of being, it is only natural that stories should evolve to suit the needs of the cultures that tell them. Western culture has changed a lot over the last fifty years and one of the ways in which our culture has changed is that we have acquired a taste for longer and longer stories. Once upon a time, we watched films, read novels and enjoyed TV shows that could be watched in almost any order. Now, we read series of novels, watch trilogies of films and feel cheated if our TV series do not end by paying off storylines that span multiple seasons and dozens of episodes. As a culture, Westerners no longer crave stories… they crave mythologies.

While explanations for this trend towards narrative expansiveness may lie beyond the scope of a single blog post, I would suggest that we crave fictional mythologies because the religious mythologies we inherited have lost all credibility and the market has stepped in to fill the gap. Though we may not believe in the mythologies of Marvel comics in the same way that our parents believed in God, the experience of engaging with escapist literature is very similar to that of engaging with religious text.  As J.R.R. Tolkien once put it:

It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having peculiar quality.

This ‘turn’ comes in the form of the moment when we suddenly lose ourselves in a fictional world and cheer inwardly when the narrative logic of that world asserts itself upon the events of the plot. When a hero finally wins the day or the tragic queen finally dies, we feel a sense of consolation that is entirely lacking from the ‘real world’ we inhabit for much of our waking lives. This desire to feel that the world abides by the rules of a story and that everything in the world happens for a reason is central to the religious impulse. Even a staunch Catholic like Tolkien recognised that the sense of fulfilment we gain from a good piece of escapist literature offers a faint echo of the sense of fulfilment that can be gained from having Faith in the Christian story.

As Westerners have come to demand more and more from their escapist media, creators have responded by not only satisfying those desires but by encouraging them whenever possible. These days, one cannot have a successful film without a franchise and one cannot have a franchise without a suite of media tie-ins including novels, games, TV series and comics. Each of these spin-offs adds complexity to the franchise and allows for the creation of yet more products whose worlds intersect that of the core franchise. The talent, manpower and money poured into the construction of these trans-media megatexts would be horrifying were it not so historically familiar… The truth is that our culture builds media franchises for the same reason that the Ancient Egyptians built pyramids and Medieval Christians built cathedrals: We are taking the fantastical and making it concrete so as to make the fantasy feel more like reality.

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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?