Sherlock’s Little Mistakes 3 – The Great Game

The excellent Gestalt Mash have my third TV Mystery column Sherlock’s Little Mistakes 3 – The Great Game.

This time, the column considers not only Holmes’ Christ-like desire to impose order upon the world but also what might happen if God’s motives were not Lovecraftian in their impenetrable Otherness.

Sherlock’s Little Mistakes 1 – A Study in Pink

New website Gestalt Mash have just put up the first in a series of pieces I shall be writing for them entitled Sherlock’s Little Mistakes.

The piece is a commentary on the BBC’s recent Sherlock TV series and the idea behind it is to speculate ways in which Holmes might have been mistaken.  In looking at the first episode in the series ‘A Study in Pink’ I considered the possibility that sometimes a suicide is just a suicide.

BG 24 – We Are All Sheep : Avatar, Bayonetta and the Hypnosis of Low-Brow culture

Futurismic have my twenty fourth Blasphemous Geometries column entitled We Are All Sheep : Avatar, Bayonetta and the Hypnosis of Low-Brow Culture.  The column draws partly on some of the thinking I did for my recent Ozu piece and partly on some of the things I said about the Hugo awards last summer.

The piece was motivated by the intense and viscerally negative reaction I had to Bayonetta.  I hated it.  I hated it more than any game I have played in recent memory.  In fact, I hated it more than any cultural artifact I have recently rubbed my brain up against.  I was going to put together a hatchet job but then I took a step back and realised that my reaction to Bayonetta was no different to the one film critics have had against Avatar, and that my tendency to explain away the opinions of people who enjoy games like Bayonetta is disingenuous.  So, instead of saying that Bayonetta is low-brow or stupid, I thought I would put forward a way of looking at the process through which opinions are formed in the first place.

Syndromes and a Century (2006) – Repetition and Change

The role of a critic is a somewhat paradoxical one.  At times of universal agreement over aesthetic principles, the critic serves as a guard dog.  A martinet.  Forever wielding his rhetorical staff to smack down those who refuse or fail to toe the line.  Like Robert McKee we point solemnly to Aristotle’s Poetics and wearily (almost sadly) shake our heads.  In order for criticism to escape the quicksands of qualification and relativism, there has to be a belief in universal principles.  There have to be rules and there has to be an order to things.  But what are these rules?  Where do they come from?  Are they, like the laws of physics, universal and embedded in the substance of the universe?  If our universe contained no sentient life forms, would it still be the case that a character must suffer after a reversal of fortunes in order to realise where he has gone wrong and how to proceed?

I suspect that aesthetic sensibilities are the products of their owner’s culture.  The values themselves are formed over time by generation upon generation of artists telling similar kinds of stories and yet gradually changing both the stories and the forms those stories take.  This is why older texts can seem odd or unbalanced to modern readers.  It is also why critics have to be alive to the possibility that sometimes, a failure to toe the line is not a failure but a great success.  As John Crowley puts it in The Solitudes (1987), the first part of his Aegypt cycle :

“It seems to me that what grants meaning in folk tales and legendary narratives – We’re thinking now of something like the Niebelungdenlied or the Morte D’Arthur – is not logical development so much as thematic repetition.  The same ideas, or events, or even the same objects recurring in different circumstances.  Or different objects contained in similar circumstances. (…) A hero sets out (…) to find a treasure, or to free his beloved, or to capture a castle, or find a garden.  Every incident, every adventure that befalls him as he searches, is the treasure or the beloved, the castle or the garden.  Repeated in different forms like a set of nesting boxes.  Each of them, however, just as large, or no smaller, than all the others.  The interpolated stories he is made to listen to only tell him his own story in another form.  The  pattern continues until a kind of certainty arrises.  A satisfaction that the story has been told often enough to seem, at last, to have been really told.  Not uncommonly, an old romance’s  story just breaks off then, or turns to other matters.  Plot, logical development, conclusions prepared for by introductions or inherent in a story’s premises, logical completion as a vehicle of meaning… all that is later.  Not necessarily later in time but belonging to a later, more sophisticated, kind of literature.  There are some interesting half-way kind of works like The Fairy Queen, which set up for themselves a titanic plot , an almost mathematical symmetry of structure, and never finish it… never need to finish it.  Because they are, at heart, works of the older kind.  And the pattern has already arisen satisfyingly within them.  The flavour is already there.  So, is this any help to our thinking?  Is meaning in history like the solution to an equation or like a repeated flavour?  Is it to be sought for, or tasted?”

This passage raises two interesting ideas.  Firstly, it raises the possibility of a time when different aesthetic principles were in force.  The Arthurian myths and romances are not primitively written works with a questionable track record when it comes to coherence, but rather works that appealed to a different idea of what makes a good story.  Not all stories need to take the same form or follow the same rules in order to be great.  Not all conceptions of character have to fit in with our current folk-psychological models.  Secondly, it hints at a model of aesthetic revolution.  An almost Darwinian process through which stories are told, abandoned, revisited, rebooted, reinterpreted and retold.  Crowley is speaking of stories within a certain mythical tradition or saga but might this not also be true of the telling of stories in general?  Might this process not also explain how certain kinds of story-telling can evolve over time?

Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light (2007) has appeared on a number of ‘Best Films of the Decade’ -type lists.  I consider it to be quite a dull film.  My problem with Reygadas’ work is that it is a film that deals in themes and techniques that will be familiar to anyone who has seen a work of post-War cinema.  It clings limpet-like to the existentialist tradition that was pioneered by the likes of Bergman and Antonioni and it explores these well-trodden themes using the same set of cinematic techniques that all art house directors have been using since the 60s.  Silent Light contains long takes.  Silent Light contains awkward silences.  Silent Light contains ambiguous plotting.  Silent Light contains a fantastical dream sequence.  To watch Silent Light is to gag on the stench of intellectual decay.  It is as though the post-War art house consensus has finally played itself out, its stories told and retold using the same old techniques.  Just as the Cahiers du Cinema critics who would become the directors of the Nouvelle Vague once rejected the theatricality of French post-War cinema, do we stand at a point in time when the story-tellers have to move on?  Must new tools and new stories be told for this and the next generation?  One director who seems to instinctively answer this question with a resounding affirmative is Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Thai director whose Tropical Malady I wrote about a short while ago.  His Syndromes and a Century is not merely a good film, it is a film that makes a robustly compelling argument for Weerasethakul to be considered one of the greatest living film-makers.

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The Reckoning (2003) – Who Narrates The Narrators?

In the introduction to his The Function of Criticism (1984), Terry Eagleton writes :

“criticism today lacks all substantive social function.  It is either part of the public relations branch of the literary industry, or a matter wholly internal to the academies.”

The problem, according to Eagleton, is that criticism is only of social use when there is a robust public sphere.  A public sphere, according to Habermas, is an intellectual void in between the sphere of public authority (dominated by the state and the law) and the private sphere (dominated by the exchange of commodities and the market).  In the sphere of public authority, the government and ruling elite speak with authority, determining values and the prominence of some ideas at the expense of others.  By contrast, in the private sphere, this kind of ordering is done according to the demands of commerce.  Criticism, according to Eagleton, currently lacks a social function, as the private sphere has come to dominate those matters that were previously considered to be exempt from the marketplace.  The role of the critic still exists, but he has no constituency and no natural subject matter.  An example of this kind of modern-day criticism can be seen in R. J. Cutler’s documentary about Vogue magazine The September Issue (2009).  Anna Wintour is a private sphere Doctor Johnson : She takes it upon herself to decide what will be ‘fashionable’ in a particular season and the commercial interests that make up the fashion industry abide by her judgement.  The same process exists in the sphere of public authority.  When a problem affects the state, the ruling class make a decision and the apparatus of the state then enacts that judgement.  While the members of the ruling class may be determined by democratic or aristocratic means and members of that elite may be more or less open to public opinion, the process is the same.  The people no more get a say in the day to day realities of how the state is run than they do in determining whether purple or mauve will be the fashionable colour to be seen in this autumn.  The process is just as autocratic as it was during the heyday of the 18th Century critic.  As Eagleton quotes, the criticism of the time was characterised by :

“its partisan bias, the vituperation, the dogmatism, the juridical tone, the air of omniscience and finality”

Of course, the importance of the three spheres varies significantly over time.  As I suggested in my review of Sidney Lumet’s The Offence (1972), the moral corruption of the state, the ruling classes and the church, mean that a form of moral public sphere has opened up.  One in which rabble-rousing journalists compete with traditional intellectuals and people equipped with social networking tools to impart some kind of moral sentiment upon a supposedly individualistic and relativistic general public.  Paul McGuigan’s The Reckoning, a cruelly over-looked adaptation of Barry Unsworth’s 1995 Booker-nominated novel Morality Play portrays a similar shift in spheres of debate : A moment in history in which the church and the state began to surrender their moral authority to a burgeoning public sphere.

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The Language of Dissent

One thing that old Ludwig Wittgenstein got profoundly right was the suggestion that the meaning of language is fixed by use.  What this means is that words have no intrinsic meaning.  They are not defined by the characteristics of the objects to which they refer, they do not even need to correspond to actual objects in the world in order to have meaning, nor do they need to have clearly fixed boundaries in order for them to be useful.  Instead, words acquire their meaning through the social context in which they are used.  As Wittgenstein put it “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him”.  We could not understand him because we have only the faintest idea of what the inner and social life of a lion is like.

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BG 17 – Red Faction : Guerilla

Futurismic have my Blasphemous Geometries column about Red Faction : Guerilla.

This piece was slightly wild.  I initially took as my inspiration Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces : A Secret History of the 20th Century (1989), one of my favourite pieces of writing about music.  the first chapter of the book begins with a song-by-song and almost line-by-line examination of the music of the Sex Pistols and I was struck, as Marcus was, by the enduring power of the opening line of Anarchy in The UK : I am an Antichrist, I am an Anarchist.  That desire to destroy and reject everything struck me as central to a proper understanding of Red Faction : Guerilla.  But then I came up with the idea of the idea of a suicide bombing simulator and was amused by the similarities and I let that Idea simply carry me home.

BG 16 – Mirror’s Edge : The Emptiness of the Short-distance Runner

Futurismic have my 16th Blasphemous Geometries column.

As a piece, it is a lot closer in style to the kind of criticism I have been producing for this blog.  Hence the use of YouTube videos and a viewpoint that is a lot closer to the text of the game, rather than standing outside that text and using it to illustrate more abstract ideas.  I’m not sure if I’ll be sticking to this style for Blasphemous Geometries in future.  I’ve decided to focus on a game per column but quite how each game will take me is difficult to predict.

My Work Is Not Yet Done (2002) – The Revenger’s Futility

My Work is Not Yet Done is a novella published alongside two other stories.  It is, to this date, the longest work of fiction produced by Thomas Ligotti.  It is also a deeply vexing work.  While the book is occasionally brilliant and incredibly twisted, it is also a deeply taciturn book that is forever seeking to wrong-foot its readers with a series of shifts in tone, style and even genre.  The book’s ultimate target is work (that most inhuman and universal form of slavery) but I would argue that the book’s shifts in tone and sympathies also suggest a desire to deny its audience the vicarious catharsis that generally comes with a good story of revenge.  It is this aspect of the story I want to discuss here.

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Empty Criticism

This week has seen some quite bitter disagreement over the role of the critic in writing about genre.  As pieced together by Abigail Nussbaum and Niall Harrison, the debate started when a new group blog launched claiming not only the name ‘ethics’ but also the primacy of enthusiastically positive genre writing.  Before long, a test case presented itself in the shape of Martin Lewis’ review of a fantasy novel.

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