Tagged: ideology

Warren Ellis on violent fiction, death of the Western, Leatherface as model vegan

As we learn early on, the movie’s killers, the murderous Sawyer family (comprised of Leatherface, Grandpa, et al), used to run a slaughterhouse, and the means they use to slaughter their victims are the same as those used to slaughter cattle. They knock them over the head with sledgehammers, hang them on meat hooks, and stuff them into freezers. Often this takes place as the victims are surrounded by animal bones, a detail that could be explained away as the evidence of their former occupation—except that the cries of farm animals (there are none around) are played over the scenes.

Through the past century of Western movies, we can trace America’s self-image as it evolved from a rough-and-tumble but morally confident outsider in world affairs to an all-powerful sheriff with a guilty conscience. After World War I and leading into World War II, Hollywood specialized in tales of heroes taking the good fight to savage enemies and saving defenseless settlements in the process. In the Great Depression especially, as capitalism and American exceptionalism came under question, the cowboy hero was often mistaken for a criminal and forced to prove his own worthiness–which he inevitably did. Over the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s however, as America enforced its dominion over half the planet with a long series of coups, assassinations, and increasingly dubious wars, the figure of the cowboy grew darker and more complicated. If you love Westerns, most of your favorites are probably from this era–Shane, The Searchers, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the spaghetti westerns, etc. By the height of the Vietnam protest era, cowboys were antiheroes as often as they were heroes.

The dawn of the 1980s brought the inauguration of Ronald Reagan and the box-office debacle of the artsy, overblown Heaven’s Gate. There’s a sense of disappointment to the decade that followed, as if the era of revisionist Westerns had failed and a less nuanced patriotism would have to carry the day. Few memorable Westerns were made in the ’80s, and Reagan himself proudly associated himself with an old-fashioned, pre-Vietnam cowboy image. But victory in the Cold War coincided with a revival of the genre, including the revisionist strain, exemplified in Clint Eastwood’s career-topping Unforgiven. A new, gentler star emerged in Kevin Costner, who scored a post-colonial megahit with Dances With Wolves. Later, in the 2000s, George W. Bush reclaimed the image of the cowboy for a foreign policy far less successful than Reagan’s, and the genre retreated to the art house again.

Westerns are fundamentally about political isolation. The government is far away and weak. Institutions are largely irrelevant in a somewhat isolated town of 100 people. The law is what the sheriff says it is, or what the marshall riding through town says, or the posse. At that scale, there may be no meaningful distinction between war and crime. A single individual’s choices can tilt the balance of power. Samurai and Western stories cross-pollinated because when you strip away the surface detail the settings are surprisingly similar. The villagers in Seven Samurai and the women in Unforgiven are both buying justice/revenge because there is no one to appeal to from whom they could expect justice. Westerns are interesting in part because they are stories where individual moral judgment is almost totally unsupported by institutions.

Westerns clearly are not dying. We get a really great film in the genre once every few years. However, they’ve lost a lot of their place at the center of pop culture because the idea of an isolated community has grown increasingly implausible. In what has become a surveillance state, the idea of a place where the state has no authority does not resonate as relevant.

The function of fiction is being lost in the conversation on violence. My book editor, Sean McDonald, thinks of it as “radical empathy.” Fiction, like any other form of art, is there to consider aspects of the real world in the ways that simple objective views can’t — from the inside. We cannot Other characters when we are seeing the world from the inside of their skulls. This is the great success of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter, both in print and as so richly embodied by Mads Mikkelsen in the Hannibal television series: For every three scary, strange things we discover about him, there is one thing that we can relate to. The Other is revealed as a damaged or alienated human, and we learn something about the roots of violence and the traps of horror.

Rushkoff on Manning verdict, Chomsky/Žižek on NSA leaks, looking for McLuhan in Afghanistan

We are just beginning to learn what makes a free people secure in a digital age. It really is different. The Cold War was an era of paper records, locked vaults and state secrets, for which a cloak-and-dagger mindset may have been appropriate. In a digital environment, our security comes not from our ability to keep our secrets but rather our ability to live our truth.

In light of the recent NSA surveillance scandal, Chomsky and Žižek offer us very different approaches, both of which are helpful for leftist critique. For Chomsky, the path ahead is clear. Faced with new revelations about the surveillance state, Chomsky might engage in data mining, juxtaposing our politicians’ lofty statements about freedom against their secretive actions, thereby revealing their utter hypocrisy. Indeed, Chomsky is a master at this form of argumentation, and he does it beautifully in Hegemony or Survival when he contrasts the democratic statements of Bush regime officials against their anti-democratic actions. He might also demonstrate how NSA surveillance is not a strange historical aberration but a continuation of past policies, including, most infamously, the FBI’s counter intelligence programme in the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s.

Žižek, on the other hand, might proceed in a number of ways. He might look at the ideology of cynicism, as he did so famously in the opening chapter of The Sublime Object of Ideology, in order to demonstrate how expressions of outrage regarding NSA surveillance practices can actually serve as a form of inaction, as a substitute for meaningful political struggle. We know very well what we are doing, but still we are doing it; we know very well that our government is spying on us, but still we continue to support it (through voting, etc). Žižek might also look at how surveillance practices ultimately fail as a method of subjectivisation, how the very existence of whistleblowers like Thomas Drake, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, and the others who are sure to follow in their footsteps demonstrates that technologies of surveillance and their accompanying ideologies of security can never guarantee the full participation of the people they are meant to control. As Žižek emphasises again and again, subjectivisation fails.

In early 2011, award-winning photographer Rita Leistner was embedded with a U.S. marine battalion deployed to Helmand province as a member of Project Basetrack, an experiment in using new technologies in social media to extend traditional war reporting. This new LRC series draws on Leistner’s remarkable iPhone photos and her writings from her time in Afghanistan to use the ideas of Marshall McLuhan to make sense of what she saw there – “to examine the face of war through the extensions of man.”

Epic EVE battle, Critical games criticism, indie developer self-publishing

  • I’ve never played EVE Online, and I don’t even really understand how it works, but I find it fascinating. Last week saw the biggest battle in the game’s history. This breakdown from The Verge is headlined like a real-life dispatch from the frontier of mankind’s space-faring endeavors: Largest space battle in history claims 2,900 ships, untold virtual lives

Update, 9:18PM ET: The battle is over. After more than five hours of combat, the CFC has defeated TEST Alliance. Over 2,900 ships were destroyed today in the largest fleet battle in Eve Online’s history. TEST Alliance intended to make a definitive statement in 6VDT, but their defeat at the hands of the CFC was decisive and will likely result in TEST’s withdrawal from the Fountain region.

In a conversation with Whitten, he told us that the commitment to independent developers is full. There won’t be restrictions on the type of titles that can be created, nor will there be limits in scope. In response to a question on whether retail-scale games could be published independently, Whitten told us, “Our goal is to give them access to the power of Xbox One, the power of Xbox Live, the cloud, Kinect, Smartglass. That’s what we think will actually generate a bunch of creativity on the system.” With regard to revenue splitting with developers, we were told that more information will be coming at Gamescom, but that we could think about it “generally like we think about Marketplace today.” According to developers we’ve spoken with, that split can be approximately 50-50.

Another difference between the Xbox One and Xbox 360 is how the games will be published and bought by other gamers. Indie games will not be relegated to the Xbox Live Indie Marketplace like on the Xbox 360 or required to have a Microsoft-certified publisher to distribute physically or digitally outside the Indie Marketplace. All games will be featured in one big area with access to all kinds of games.

If anything has hurt modern video game design over the past several years, it has been the rise of ‘freemium‘. It seems that it is rare to see a top app or game in the app stores that has a business model that is something other than the ‘free-to-play with in-app purchases’ model. It has been used as an excuse to make lazy, poorly designed games that are predicated on taking advantage of psychological triggers in its players, and will have negative long term consequences for the video game industry if kept unchecked.

Many freemium games are designed around the idea of conditioning players to become addicted to playing the game. Many game designers want their games to be heavily played, but in this case the freemium games are designed to trigger a ‘reward’ state in the player’s brain in order to keep the player playing (and ultimately entice the user to make in-app purchases to continue playing). This type of conditioning is often referred to as a ‘Skinner box‘, named after the psychologist that created laboratory boxes used to perform behavioral experiments on animals.

It obviously isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that, not only do financial considerations influence a game’s structure and content, financial outcomes affect a studio’s likelihood of survival in the industry, based upon the machinations of its publishing overlords. Activision killed Bizarre Creations, Eidos ruined Looking Glass Studios, EA crushed Westood, Pandemic, Bullfrog, Origin Systems… well, the list could go on, until I turn a strange, purple color, but you get my point. And, when 3.4 million copies sold for a Tomb Raider reboot isn’t enough by a publisher’s standards, you can’t help but feel concern for a developer’s future.

This relationship between environment-learner-content interaction and transfer puts teachers in the unique position to capitalize on game engagement to promote reflection that positively shapes how students tackle real-world challenges. To some, this may seem like a shocking concept, but it’s definitely not a new one—roleplay as instruction, for example, was very popular among the ancient Greeks and, in many ways, served as the backbone for Plato’s renowned Allegory of the Cave. The same is true of Shakespeare’s works, 18th and 19th century opera, and many of the novels, movies, and other media that define our culture. More recently, NASA has applied game-like simulations to teach astronauts how to maneuver through space, medical schools have used them to teach robotic surgery, and the Federal Aviation Administration has employed them to test pilots.

The relationship between the creator, the product, and the audience, are all important contexts to consider during media analysis, especially with games. This is because the audience is an active participant in the media. So if you are creating a game you always have to keep in mind the audience. Even if you say the audience doesn’t matter to you, it won’t cease to exist, and it does not erase the impact your game will have.

Similarly, if you are critiquing or analyzing any media, you can’t ignore the creator and the creator’s intentions. Despite those who claim the “death of the author,” if the audience is aware of the creator’s intentions, it can affect how they perceive the game. Particularly, if you consider the ease in which creators can release statements talking about their work, you’ll have an audience with varying levels of awareness about the creator’s intentions. These factors all play off of each other–they do not exist in a vacuum.

When we talk about any medium’s legitimacy, be it film or videogames or painting, it’s a very historical phenomenon that is inextricably tied to its artness that allows for them to get in on the ground floor of “legitimate” and “important.” So if we contextualize the qualities that allowed for film or photography to find themselves supported through a panoply of cultural institutions it was a cultural and political economic process that lead them there.

[…]

Videogames, the kind that would be written about in 20 dollar glossy art magazines, would be exactly this. When creators of videogames want to point to their medium’s legitimacy, it would help to have a lot of smart people legitimate your work in a medium (glossy magazines, international newspapers) that you consider to be likewise legitimate. Spector concedes that ‘yes all the critics right now are online’, but the real battle is in getting these critics offline and into more “legitimate” spaces of representation. It’s a kind of unspoken hierarchy of mediums that is dancing before us here: at each step a new gatekeeper steps into play, both legitimating and separating the reader from the critic and the object of criticism.

All three games define fatherhood around the act of protection, primarily physical protection. And in each of these games, the protagonist fails—at least temporarily—to protect their ward. In Ethan’s case, his cheery family reflected in his pristine home collapses when he loses a son in a car accident. Later, when his other son goes missing, the game essentially tests Ethan’s ability to reclaim his protective-father status.

No video game grants absolute freedom; they all have rules or guidelines that govern what you can and can’t do. The sci-fi epic Mass Effect is a series that prides itself on choice, but even that trilogy ends on a variation of choosing between the “good” and “bad” ending. Minecraft, the open-world creation game, is extremely open-ended, but you can’t build a gun or construct a tower into space because it doesn’t let you. BioShock’s ending argues that the choices you think you’re making in these games don’t actually represent freedom. You’re just operating within the parameters set by the people in control, be they the developers or the guy in the game telling you to bash his skull with a golf club.

BioShock’s disappointing conclusion ends up illustrating Ryan’s point. A man chooses, a player obeys. It’s a grim and cynical message that emphasizes the constraints of its own art form. And given that the idea of choice is so important to BioShock’s story, I don’t think it could’ve ended any other way.

The Ideology of Scarface, Community as PoMo masterpiece, Present Shock reviewed, etc.

In The Godfather, the blurring of the line between crime and the “legitimate” economy can still seem shocking. In Scarface, the distinction seems quaintly naïve. In The Godfather, Don Vito almost loses everything over his refusal to deal in heroin. In Scarface, Tony Montana knows that coke is just another commodity in a boom economy. Michael Corleone marries the wispy, drooping Kate Adams to give his enterprise some old-fashioned, WASP class. When Tony Montana takes possession of the coked-up bombshell called Elvira Hancock, he is filling his waterbed with cash, not class. Even more excruciatingly, Scarface tells us these truths without any self-righteousness, without the consoling promise that manly discipline can save America from its fate. In the moral economy of this movie, the terms of critique have become indistinguishable from the terms of affirmation. “You know what capitalism is?” Tony answers his own question: “Getting fucked.”

Donovan put Neumann in charge of the Research and Analysis Branch of the OSS, studying Nazi-ruled central Europe. Neumann was soon joined by the philosopher Herbert Marcuse and the legal scholar Otto Kirchheimer, his colleagues at the left-wing Institute for Social Research, which had been founded in Frankfurt in 1923 but had moved to Columbia University after the Nazis came to power.

An update of the promise, that the media could create a different, even a better world, seems laughable from our perspective of experience with the technologically based democracies of markets. As a utopia-ersatz, this promise appears to be obsolete in the former hegemonial regions of North America and western and northern Europe. Now that it is possible to create a state with media, they are no longer any good for a revolution. The media are an indispensable component of functioning social hierarchies, both from the top down and the bottom up, of power and countervailing power. They have taken on systemic character. Without them, nothing works anymore in what the still surviving color supplements in a careless generalization continue to call a society. Media are an integral part of the the everyday coercive context, which is termed “practical constraints.” As cultural techniques, which need to be learned for social fitness, they are at the greatest possible remove from what whips us into a state of excitement, induces aesthetic exultation, or triggers irritated thoughts.

[…]

At the same time, many universities have established courses in media design, media studies, and media management. Something that operates as a complex, dynamic, and edgy complex between the discourses, that is, something which can only operate interdiscursively, has acquired a firm and fixed place in the academic landscape. This is reassuring and creates professorial chairs, upon which a once anarchic element can be sat out and developed into knowledge for domination and control. Colleges and academies founded specifically for the media proactively seek close relationships with the industries, manufacturers, and the professional trades associations of design, orientation, and communication.

There are five ways Rushkoff thinks present shock is being experienced and responded to. To begin, we are in an era in which he thinks narrative has collapsed. For as long as we have had the power of speech we have corralled time into linear stories with a beginning, middle and ending. More often than not these stories contained some lesson. They were not merely forms of entertainment or launching points for reflection but contained some guidance as to how we should act in a given circumstance, which, of course, differed by culture, but almost all stories were in effect small oversimplified models of real life.

[…]

The medium Rushkoff thinks is best adapted to the decline of narrative are video games. Yes, they are more often than not violent, but they also seem tailor made for the kinds of autonomy and collaborative play that are the positive manifestations of our new presentism.

2nd Update: Žižek responds to Chomsky’s “Fantasies”

  • Žižek v. Chomsky continues: Žižek has responded to Chomsky’s last comment in an article in the International Journal of Žižek Studies. You can read the entire article here, select excerpts follow. I am particularly interested in how Žižek focuses on conflicting definitions of ideology as a key factor in Chomsky’s misunderstanding of Žižek’s work:
For me, on the contrary, the problem is here a very rational one: everything hinges on how we define “ideology.”
[…]
This bias is ideology – a set of explicit and implicit, even unspoken, ethico-political and other positions, decision, choices, etc., which predetermine our perception of facts, what we tend to emphasize or to ignore, how we organize facts into a consistent whole of a narrative or a theory.
  • After a rational and diplomatic refutation of Chomsky’s comments, Žižek ends the essay with a parting blow:

Chomsky obviously doesn’t agree with me here. So what if – just another fancy idea of mine – what if Chomsky can not find anything in my work that goes “beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old because” because, when he deals with continental thought, it is his mind which functions as the mind of a twelve-years-old, the mind which is unable to distinguish serious philosophical reflection from empty posturing and playing with empty words?

Hollywood implosion: end of an era?

  • Last month Steven Spielberg and George Lucas caused a bit of a stir when they predicted an impending “implosion” of Hollywood that would forever alter the filmmaking industry. Speaking at a USC event, Spielberg posited a scenario in which a series of big budget flops would necessitate a change in the Hollywood business model:

“That’s the big danger, and there’s eventually going to be an implosion — or a big meltdown. There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.”

People complain that The Lone Ranger is boring, that it’s almost totally devoid of fun except for the final 10 minutes, that it’s ridiculously violent and yet inert. And all of these things are true — but you have to understand, it’s all part of a calculated strategy, to sink far enough to burrow all the way to the infarcted heart of the terrible superhero origin story.

The goal is to show you who is to blame for the crappiness of so many superhero origin movies — you — and to punish you for allowing movies like The Lone Ranger to exist.

[…]

We tend to think of superhero movies as power fantasies, in which the use of America’s status as a superpower is reflected by the hero struggling to use his or her power responsibly. But Lone Ranger seems to be making the case that the real seductive fantasy of these stories is absolution from blame — the Lone Ranger gets the Native American seal of approval from Tonto, as long as he’s wearing the mask. He gets surcease from America’s original sin.

Zizek’s guide to ideology, Netflix tackles TV, Digital Dualist Conservatism

Other ideological “masterpieces” that Žižek points to are much subtler, precisely because they occupy more prominent positions in the western cultural imaginary. He reads Jaws as a condensation of all the “foreign invaders” that privileged societies like upper-middle-class America worry will disrupt their peaceful communities. Part of what makes Fiennes’ film such a great showcase for Žižek’s approach to cultural studies is the persuasive effect of supplementing his explications with film clips. After listening to Žižek’s account of the ideological coordinates of the film, it’s difficult not to notice that all of the beach-goers scrambling to make it to the shore in one piece are affluent white Americans.

  • Writing for Memeburn, Michelle Atagana considers the strategies employed by Netflix in trying to “win television”. The strategies include producing original content, feeding binge habits, and using product placement.

If Netflix refines its model and signs on more shows, chances are it will make a formidable foe of big cable players such as HBO. The model that the company is currently working could also be exported to film, essentially making the next cinematic experience wherever, whenever and on whatever device the audience wants.

  • The Society Pages’ Cyborgology blog is one of my favorite resources for probing and provocative analysis of new media issues from a sociological perspective. One of the most interesting concepts considered by the blogs contributors is the notion of Digital Dualism. A recent post by Jesse Elias Spafford refines the digital dualism concept:

I posit that digital dualism, in fact, draws from both the ontological and the normative analyses. Specifically the digital dualist:

  1. Establishes an ontological distinction that carves up the world into two mutually exclusive (and collectively exhaustive) categories—at least one of which is somehow bound up with digital technology (e.g., that which is “virtual” vs. that which is “real”.)

  2. Posits some normative criteria that privileges one category over the other. (In most cases, it is the non-technological category that is deemed morally superior. However, charges of digital dualism would equally apply to views that favored the technological.)