BG 37 – The American Dream is SPENT

Futurismic have my thirty seventh Blasphemous Geometries column.

Entitled “The American Dream is SPENT: Two Visions of Contemporary Capitalism”, the column looks at two different browser-based business simulation games and shows how, despite both operating on the assumption that capitalism is a functional rules-based system, the games use their different depictions of that system to produce withering critiques of contemporary capitalism.

BG 36 – Why Strategy Games Make Us Think and Behave Like Brutal Psychopaths

Futurismic have my thirty sixth Blasphemous Geometries column.

The column argues that the reason why we tend to swing to the right when we play games is because the video game interface changes the way we perceive the world.  Strategy games effectively make us see like a state and when we see like a state certain human values (like the cost of grand strategies in individual human lives) and concerns disappear but other values and concerns (such as stability of the international system and efficiency of government) appear to take their place.

The column draws quite heavily on the work of James C. Scott’s book Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998) but I am much more willing to lend the state an agency of its own than Scott was in the context of that book.  One reason why I did this is because I read and wrote about Scott’s more recent book The Art of Not Being Governed (2010), which really does present the state as a class of  entity in its own right.

What Makes An Idea Popular?

In my recent piece on James C. Scott’s toweringly excellent The Art of Not Being Governed (2010), I suggested that there are unwritten laws governing the up-take of particular theories.  Laws that have less to do with logic, reason and scientific rigour than they do with our deep psychological needs.

For example, Gibbons’ The History of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire (1789) argues that the Roman Empire fell into decline because the Romans lost their sense of civic responsibility and their hunger for military conquest.  This idea that power leads to moral corruption and that moral corruption leads to social decay seems to coincide with a similar pattern of rise and fall that features in the theories of both Giambattista Vico and Ibn Khaldun.

These different works attempt to account for radically different societies and yet they all share a similar underlying narrative.  A narrative of rise and fall that even pops up in places such as The Bible and Plato’s allegory of The Cave.  In my piece, I suggest that the over-arching narrative described by Scott in The Art of Not Being Governed is so powerful that it may come to rival that of Vico and Ibn Khaldun as a source of inspiration for writers and artists (let alone academic historians and political scientists).  My aim with this piece is to delve further into this intuition and try to unpack some of the ideas contained within it.  Does it make sense to talk about selecting theories on the basis of criteria other than truth? Do these other criteria in any way relate to truth?  What are the aesthetics of ideas?  These are some of the questions I will try to address with this piece.

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REVIEW – Lebanon (2009)

Videovista have my review of Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon.

While I thought the film very fine to look at, I was intensely annoyed not only by the under-written and overly pretentious script.  To frame contemporary warfare as a theatre for psychological self-destruction is not only a terrible cliche (one thoughtlessly repeated by the thoughtless Hurt Locker) it is also politically suspect.  My reason for this sentiment is beautifully expounded in a paper that appears in the Summer 2010 issue of Foundation.

In “Hollywood and the Imperial Gothic”, Johan Hoglund draws upon the concept of ‘Imperial Gothic’ first laid out by Paul Brantlinger in his book The Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914 (1988).  The idea behind the Imperial Gothic is that narratives that deal with the end of an imperial civilisation do not actively weaken or subvert that civilisation.  Instead, they serve to bolster it by creating in the public’s mind further reasons for ‘cracking down’ or ‘surging’ against enemies either real or imagined.  Works like Maoz’s Lebanon and Folman’s Waltz with Bashir are essentially works of Israeli Imperial Gothic.

Indeed, by suggesting that Israel’s wars with Lebanon are places where young IDF soldiers go to lose their minds, films such as Folman and Maoz’s are lending credence to the idea that Israel must be tough in its dealings with Lebanon.  For if war with Lebanon is such a terrifying prospect then it follows that any anti-Israeli activity originating in Lebanon must be met with massive retaliatory force, preferably in the shape of air strikes.

Winter’s Bone (2010) – It’s a Man’s World… Thanks to Women

“The astonishing thing is not that some people steal or that others occasionally go out on strike, but rather that all those who are starving do not steal as a regular practice, and all those who are exploited are not continually out on strike: after centuries of exploitation, why do people still tolerate being humiliated and enslaved, to such a point, indeed, that they actually want humiliation and slavery not only for others but for themselves?”

So wrote the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich in his book on the psycho-sexual attractions of authoritarianism The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933).  Nowhere is this question more salient than in considering man’s oppression of women.  Indeed, the question is not why would a woman cut off her partner’s penis and throw it out the window of a speeding car but rather why it is not a daily occurrence.  A partial answer can be found in the concept of Kyriarchy.  ‘Kyriarchy’ is a neologism coined by the Harvard theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.  This concept, designed to clear some of the clutter from the road to clarity, reflects the fact that society is far more complex than a simple dichotomy of power between men and women.  In truth, society is structured by an ever-changing swarm of inequalities that reflects the dynamic nature of our civilisation.  Yes, a man may well have an easier time rising to the top than a woman but at the same time a lesbian woman may well have an easier time of it than a trans man and a black man may lead a harder life than an asian woman while a one-legged Baha’i woman may find doors opening to her that have previously been shut in the face of a HIV+ Catholic.  Humanity’s inhumanity to Humanity takes myriad forms.  We are ruled not by a Patriarchal father but by a Kyriarchal lord and the shape of that lord is forever changing.

The dynamic nature of human oppression goes some way to explaining the extent to which women can be complicit in the oppression of other women.  This is a theme that cuts right to the heart of Debra Granik’s cinematic adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel Winter’s Bone (2006).  Set in the Ozark mountains, the film tells the story of a seventeen year-old girl as she navigates the terrifying network of hatreds, fears and obligations that holds together her impoverished rural community.

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Storytelling (2010) by Christian Salmon – Botching the Modern Argument

I am going to begin this piece by presenting you with some insights.  Hot off the digits and delivered fresh to your pre-frontal squire :

  1. Human neurology is such that we prefer engaging with narratives to wrestling with raw data points.
  2. This fondness for stories means that we are inclined to draw a line of best fit through the facts, eagerly accepting those claims that fit our narratives whilst turning a blind eye to those facts that contradict or complicate the story.
  3. This tendency to seek out narratives means that it is considerably easier for people to sell us a story than it is for them to convince us of isolated facts, even if the facts are more obviously true than the competing stories.
  4. Advertisers, politicians and all forms of demagogue are aware of these tendencies and factor them in to their dealings with the public.

These four insights can all more or less be inferred from the title of Christian Salmon’s book-length essay Storytelling – Bewitching the Modern Mind.  They are also the only insights that the book contains.  Sadly, instead of fleshing out these concepts and painting a picture of the dangers inherent in such lazy thought patterns, Salmon prefers to indulge in a number of weak forms of argument that are, somewhat disappointingly, rife in the non-academic non-fiction sub-genre.

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BG 27 – Fantasies of Mere Competence : Football Manager 2010

Futurismic have my latest Blasphemous Geometries column.

It is a development of some of the idea expressed in this column from a few months ago but rather than looking at Fantasy as an avenue for escapism, I decided to look at the more modest and mundane ways in which people aspire and escape.  A trend embodied in TV programmes like Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and games like Football Manager 2010.

I’ve also decided to take a slightly different approach with next month’s column.  Recently, I have been using games as springboards to look at wider issues.  This is partly a result of my own game-laying experience of late which has seen me bouncing out of new games and returning again and again to games I have already written about like GTA IV, Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age.  However, I think that it would be good for me to keep my feet on the ground with regards to writing about games so I have decided that next month at least will herald a return to a closer examination of one particular game.