Wednesday, December 30, 2020

New novel, etc.

Postscript Jan 2: Well, it's out. Fun fact: I was lying awake last night and realized I'd overlooked a minor plot point. So if you already ordered a copy, there are now 45–50 added words that aren't included in your version. Trust me, you probably won't notice—but it literally kept me up at night. It's never over. (If you finish the book and are curious, drop me a line and I'll tell you what the change was.) Incidentally, I noticed a typo while I was interpolating the new content. It will never be over.

Well, I wrote a sequel to The Zeroes.¹ It was published (read: made available for purchase on Amazon) on December 28.

I haven't placed a link on the sidebar yet because I'm not done futzing with it. Over the last 36 hours I've repeatedly pulled up and skimmed the document, invariably finding something to correct—a phrase that suddenly embarrasses me (even though my eye passed over it unoffended four or five or six times already) or a random typo I never noticed. Just now I found a line of text that really ought to have been italicized, so I've fixed it and have to wait for the change to set on whatever monstrous database governs the Phyrexian print-to-order facility Amazon set up in Middletown, Delaware. I think tomorrow night I'll drink a few beers, scroll the thing for four consecutive hours, make whatever piddling changes seem necessary, and then force myself to close out of Word and get on with my life.

If you're motivated to find the book on Amazon yourself, it's probably not hard. Somebody already has, and I've sent an email apologizing for the unitalicized text and an unwieldy description on page 666(!) he'll have to suffer through. If you're interested in reading it, I'd ask that you wait a couple of days. Once I'm "finished" with the document, you'll see a purchase link appear on the right of the page.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Twelve Rounds with Kant (Part 7)

 René Magritte, Natural Encounters (1945)¹

This is going to be the last time I post about Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (1781–87) for the foreseeable future. Thank god. I'm ready to be done with it—even though I doubt it's done with me. This is a book one can exhaust a lifetime studying, and I still haven't plumbed it to the uttermost depth of its mysteries. But there are other books to read and ideas to ponder, and it's about time I moved on.

I feel I should reiterate that I'm not writing this to lecture an imaginary audience about Kant, but to help myself get my own head around the Critique. Don't take anything I say as authoritative, and do please correct me if you have some familiarity with the material and catch me misinterpreting it. 

Our last post about Kant is about the Transcendental Dialectic—which is, in fact, twice as long as the Transcendental Aesthetic and the Transcendental Analytic. Fortunately, it's a lot easier to understand on the whole—though in its particulars, it's as deep a rabbit hole as the other two sections.

While the Transcendental Aesthetic was a statement of the principles underlying Kant's transcendental logic, and the Analytic was a statement of those principles, the Dialectic applies them to some of the pressing metaphysical and philosophical questions of Kant's time—or, rather, to some of the proposed answers to those questions.

This brings us to something really scary about the Critique of Pure Reason: you have to give a close reading to three hundred pages of dense, onerously-phrased epistemology before arriving at the "critique" part. As a matter of fact, nothing that we've glanced at in the last six posts about this damn book have had anything to do with the Transcendental Dialectic.²

Saturday, November 28, 2020

X-Men X-Overs Addendum: X of Swords

X of Swords wrapped up this week, and it was good enough to necessitate a revision of our list of the ten best X-Men crossovers. Fortunately, making space for it is as easy as bumping the Muir Island Saga off the ten-spot.

So now our list looks like:

10. Fatal Attractions
9. The Mutant Massacre
8. X-Tinction Agenda
7. Utopia
6. Messiah War
5. Inferno
4. X of Swords
3. Second Coming
2. The X-Cutioner's Song
1. Messiah Complex

Not that my opinion matters much (and not that X-Men comics are terribly important), but let's call this a tentative ranking. The other stories on this list have all been around for a decade at least and three decades at most, while X of Swords just wrapped up a few days ago. For all I know, it might age as well as John Greycrow's old codename. If anyone is interested in the reason for X of Sword's placement between Inferno and Second Coming, I'll say this: I struggled for a few minutes to decide whether X of Swords or Inferno deserved the four-spot. X of Swords earns most of its points for originality and for its explosive finale, but on the whole it tends to meander, and any story that makes Inferno seem focused by comparison is a story with a pacing problem. In the end, the penalty Inferno incurred by containing the limited series that introduced Wiz Kid allowed X of Swords to pull ahead. However, the points deducted from X of Swords for being a backdoor pilot for a new serial featuring Wiz Kid's comeback prevented it from even contending with Second Coming.

#4: X of Swords (2020)
Titles involved: Cable, Excalibur, Hellions, Marauders, New Mutants, Wolverine, X-Factor, X-Force, X-Men

In brief: Banished to a nether dimension thousands of years ago, Apocalypse's kids are still alive, and they're pissed off. Saturnyne holds a tournament to determine whether she'll allow them to cross the dimensions and bring their hellish, unstoppable army to Earth.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Twelve Rounds with Kant (Part 6)

Ellsworth Kelly, Grid Lines (1951)¹

Today, in my ongoing battle with Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (1781–87), I would like to spend some time examining the I think.

No, that isn't a typo. What Kant calls "the sentence: I think" (der Satz: ich denke) might be—and I suggest this with no authority whatsoever—treated as the hidden thirteenth item in his catalogue of pure concepts of the understanding. The importance of the I think to the Kantian scheme cannot be understated. All of the other categories are predicated on it; Kant calls it "the formal proposition of apperception."

[T]his concept is the vehicle of all concepts in general, and therefore also of transcendental concepts, is therefore always included among them, and so is itself transcendental; has no claim to a special title, inasmuch as it serves only to introduce all thought as belonging to consciousness.

Kant expands on the importance of the I think in the Transcendental Dialectic (excerpted above), but first introduces the concept in the Transcendental Deduction:

It must be possible for the I think to accompany all my representations: for otherwise something would be represented within me that could not be thought at all, in other words, the representation would either be impossible, or at least would be nothing to me. That representation which can be given prior to all thought is called intuition, and all the manifold of intuition has, therefore, a necessary relation to the I think in the same subject in which this manifold of intuition is found. This representation (the I think), however, is an act of spontaneity, that is, it cannot be considered as belonging to sensibility. I call it pure apperception, in order to distinguish it from empirical apperception, or also original apperception, because it is that self-consciousness which, by producing the representation, I think (which must be capable of accompanying all other representations, and which is one and the same in all consciousness), cannot itself be accompanied by any further representations. I also call the unity of appereception the transcendental unity of self-consciousness, in order to indicate that a priori knowledge can be obtained from it. For the manifold representations given in an intuition would not one and all be my representations, if they did not all belong to one self-consciousness. What I mean is that, as my representations (even though I am not conscious of them as that), they must conform to the condition under which alone they can stand together in one universal self-consciousness, because otherwise they would not one and all belong to me.

Well: what are we supposed to make of this?

Friday, October 23, 2020

Twelve Rounds with Kant (part 5)

Caspar David Friedrich, Tageszeitenzyklus, Der Morgen (1820–1)

On we plow. I'm discovering that our friend John Ruskin wasn't being as facetious as he might have imagined when he insinuated that one should expect to commit a decade to studying Kant and the German idealists before achieving the comprehensive enlightenment they advertise. I've been rereading chunks of the Critique of Pure Reason (1781–87) every day or every other day for the last few weeks, and I feel the progress of my understanding approaching a sheer wall. Before too much longer I'm going to have to put the damn thing away and let what I've gleaned simmer in me for a few months before I revisit it again.

I can't tell you how much I regret the title of this series. "Twelve rounds" was an extempore choice, an obvious and serviceable cliche. But sometimes, somehow, a flippant remark is hoodwinked into affirming itself. Having declared "twelve rounds," it's as though I unwittingly signed a pact wherein I've consented to writing twelve blog posts about Kant or else must live with the ignominy of welshing on an obligation to the universe.¹

My bizarre guilt complexes can be a topic for another post. For now, I think I've only got the wherewithal for another three rounds (including this one). The remaining five posts...well, there's still the Critique of Practical Reason (1788) and the Critique of Judgement (1790), and I don't suppose there's any escaping them now. From what I understand, they're both shorter and more pertinent to mundane workaday experience than the Critique of Pure Reason, and I have reason to hope they'll be be easier to get through. Even so, I'm really not in any hurry to get started right away.

Today I'm going to spend a little more time trying to dislodge the tenets of transcendental idealism from my craw. Our visual garnish for this session comes from Caspar David Friedrich, peerless painter of Romantic landscapes. The reason for his inclusion may shortly become transparent.²

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Twelve Rounds with Kant (part 4)

Charles Demuth, Machine (1920)

The operation was a success: after writing more words about X-Men comics than a grown man should be permitted to exhibit without opprobrium, my brains are more or less de-wormed, and we can resume our extemporaneous study of Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (1781–1787). I won't ask if you're as avid as I am to dip back into transcendental idealism and the possibility of synthetic a priori knowledge—surely everyone's answer is a spirited HELL YES!

Hmm—but I'm finding that putting aside Kant for a few weeks is like reneging on an exercise regimen: you don't return to it with quite the same spryness and stamina you could muster before going idle. Maybe we should keep today's session relatively short, and begin by stretching our ganglia a bit. We'll also stimulate our eyes between blocks of text with some paintings by Charles Demuth, whose precisionist sensibilities are not inappropriate to a discussion of one of philosophy's most renowned (or infamous?) Order Muppets.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

X-Men X-Overs: The ten best of 'em (part 2)

Picking up from where we left off...

#5: MESSIAH WAR (2009)
Titles involved:
Cable, X-Force

In brief: Bishop travels through time and destroys the world to kill Hope, the mutant messiah. Cable and X-Force fight Stryfe like it's 1991. Deadpool boosts sales.

Friday, September 25, 2020

X-Men X-Overs: The ten best of 'em (part 1)

Oy. I have at least three more posts' worth of hoi polloi Kant commentary to compose (after which I'll be able to honestly say to myself that I've "engaged" with the Critique of Pure Reason), but I've got to tell you: after that last one, I find myself suffering from acute proto-German Idealism fatigue. The cure: putting an inordinate amount of effort into writing something about pop-cultural feelgoods so I'll be desperate to think about Kant again. This is one of the benefits of a having a freeform blog—though perhaps in the drunk-man's-walk scatterplot of Beyond Easy's topics, the emergent rhythm is one of bingeing and purging.

So! Let's talk about X-Men comics for a while.

This week saw the release of the X of Swords: Creation one-shot, kicking off the first crossover story of the new and very much improved line of X-Men comics. Given the grand slam Jonathan Hickman hit with House of X/Powers of X and the generally high level of quality across the current line of X-books, I expect good things from this. (Drama! Schlock! Betrayal! Inspired retcons! Eldritch magic and weird science!)

Back in July, we observed the launch of a new volume of X-Factor with an overview of the best moments of the title's earlier volumes. Today, as X of Swords begins to unfold, we'll be looking at the ten best X-Men crossover events up until now.¹ What fun!

(Postscript: you can read about X of Swords here.)


Mentioned on the basis that there's probably an off-the-books but strictly enforced law against talking about the best X-Men events without including everyone's favorite grimdark alternate-timeline epic. However, Age of Apocalypse is disqualified from this list because an event is not the same as a crossover (though most every crossover is an event). You can read each miniseries comprising Age of Apocalypse by itself without ever missing anything because you went from Generation Next #2 to Generation Next #3 without reading Factor X #2 in between. For it to be a crossover, you need to follow the "what to read next" instructions at the end of each book in the story, or else risk getting lost and confused. It's an imprecise rule, and there are exceptions (particularly during those bullish periods where the editors assume readers are already buying every X-book that comes out), but it works well enough.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Twelve rounds with Kant (part 3)

Artist unknown, but found on as excellent a layman's
introduction to Kant as I've ever seen

Today, as a third step in my effort to better understand Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (1781–7), I will attempt to find fault with it.

Using a simile from a sphere I'm more at home in, this is going to be like trying to compete with Daigo or Sonic Fox through haphazard button-mashing. To confront someone like Kant, who's armed with a comprehensive homebrewed epistemology, one must either find fatal inconsistencies within his conceptual apparatus (which I doubt I'm qualified to do) or otherwise counter it with a proximately comprehensive alternative scheme—which I do not possess. I have inklings and opinions, yes, but these are insufficient to put a dent in something so densely armored by internal substantiation.

I won't be snatching at the low-hanging fruit for the Kant critic—his insistence on the ideality of space and time. This position was controversial during Kant's own life, and has become veritably indefensible since the development of non-Euclidean geometries and of Einstein's theory of relativity. To sum up the difficulties these present: contrary to Kant adducing Euclidean geometry as evidence of a priori concepts of space, geometry contains more than just a kernel of empiricism, and as it turns out, non-Euclidean geometries may be more useful to us when we're talking about the trajectory of a photon over trillions of miles (since the curvature of spacetime will bring parallel lines toward convergence or divergence when they're traced across supercluster-scale distances). And if time, as the pure form of inner sense (as Kant claims), has no independent existence, then how do we explain the necessity of correcting for relativistic dilations in GPS satellites' computations?

Responding to non-Euclidian geometry as a "gotcha," Kant might just shrug and say that Euclid's Elements remains a catalog of the a priori concepts which make possible our coherent experience of life on planet Earth. And he might say that whatever's going on with orbiting clocks doesn't displace time from is position in his scheme as the pure form of inner sense. He might also dare to venture that time, as we experience it, might not be identical to the physical process that makes a satellite's clock run a few microseconds slower than a terrestrial timepiece. My guess is that these new facts would compel Kant to make some relatively minor emendations to the Critique, but he wouldn't find in them sufficient cause to demolish his edifice and start over.

So what now?

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Twelve rounds with Kant (part 2)

Vasily Kandinsky, Examination (1930)


What we're going to do today is take an uncritical look at the ideas Kant devises and attempts to substantiate in the first half of his Critique of Pure Reason (in the Transcendental Aesthetic and Transcendental Analytic sections). I am doing this, firstly, because I'll never understand Kant's theories unless I try to articulate them for myself. And secondly, I do it in the hope that maybe somebody else will find it useful.

Even before reading the Critique, I found Kant frustrating because people who write about him on the internet usually provide a either summary that's too vague and too abbreviated to communicate much of anything at all, or commentary that's far too technical to be of use to anyone who isn't already sitting with Kant's book in their lap. I'd like to imagine this could be a serviceable middle ground between "Kant says we make our reality iirc" and any given Kant page on useful to somebody who wants to dip in more than just one toe, but isn't yet ready to get his ankles wet.

Please bear in mind that I am a mere layman trying his best; anything I say here is subject to error.

The bullet points will be interspersed with pretty paintings by Kandinsky in order to break up the visual monotony of the text and refresh your mind. (I know they help me.)

Monday, August 31, 2020

Twelve rounds with Kant (part 1)

Twenty-six years later, I finally know what book Hobbes is reading from.

Today I'd like to ruminate on the work of Immanuel Kant because, hell, it's not like I ever wanted readers anyway.

I began reading the Critique of Pure Reason (1781–1787) in April. What prompted me to take the plunge was something I puzzled over back in March: if mathematical entities have no real existence, and if numbers and geometrical forms are merely abstractions whose referents are those ineffable elements of reality that are present in all conceivable experience, what precisely are those elements? I understood that Kant was very much concerned with this sort of thing, and decided I ought to consult an expert who'd given the problem much more thought than I, and who was reportedly very systematic in his approach to it.

Well, I finished reading the Critique back in July. Or, I should rather say I arrived at its end—I'm not nearly at the point where I can shelve it just yet. It is without a doubt the most difficult book I've ever read, and as I review what I believe I've gleaned from it, I find myself consulting the index and flipping back through its pages seeking clarity on some obscure point or abstruse principle. I've read both the B and A versions of the Transcendental Deduction more than once, and I'll admit that I haven't yet fully assimilated Kant's reasoning. I wondered if perhaps fluency in German is required to parse his thinking, even in translation, but Ruven (librarian, wearer of florid shirts, native son of Deutschland) suggests that's not the case:
It so happens that a friend of mine here has a degree in German studies and philosophy and received very good grades, and I remember him saying some years ago that he'd very much like to travel back in time to witness Kant writing. Specifically, to stand behind him with a baseball bat as he wrote, make him read each finished sentence to an uneducated worker, and give him a good swing every time that worker didn't immediately understand it.
So it's not just me. But I don't think I'll be consoled until I get my goddamned head around this goddamned book. (I expect a long wait.)

Thursday, August 13, 2020

How the web was lost

oh god.

By whatever authority I have as an erstwhile webcomic author, I would bracket the period from 2000–2007 as the golden age of the online comic strip.¹ Not that we are or have ever been in danger of running out of well-written and visually captivating pictorial narratives to read in our browser windows, nor have webcomics declined in quality. To the contrary, today's strips display more technical proficiency and polish than the ones I followed in the early aughts. But the medium's glory days are nevertheless behind it.

I won't embarrass myself by trying to polish whatever infinitesimal legacy is left to my contribution, but I do take pride in having participated in what could fairly (if immodestly) be called a subcultural movement.² The webcomics scene, with its DIY ethos, camaraderous social networks, and the ingenuous passion of amatuerdom as its élan vital, was for kids like me what the ska punk scene was to my more gregarious and rambunctious friends.³ 

Jackie Lesnick, Girly (2003–2010)

At the beginning, nobody began cobbling together comic strips and slapping them up on the internet as part of a plan to pay off their student loans. Money and fame weren't the goal. Many of the early scene's biggest names—including ones who remain active to this day and have blueticked Twitter accounts—started out making and sharing their comic strips purely for amusement. For the first year or so of its run, Zach Weiner's Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal was a series of scanned pencil drawings he produced in class in lieu of taking notes.⁴ The first pages of Brian Clevinger's 8-Bit Theater certainly don't read like the work of someone who approached his web presence as though it were an audition for a Marvel Comics gig. David Rees assembled the first Get Your War On strips as a means of sorting through and screaming out his thoughts on 9/11 and the Bush Administration's ghastly, shambolic crusade against "terror." Even when the strip was appearing in Rolling Stone, Rees leased no space to advertisers on his website, maintained an irregular update schedule, and permanently retired the comic the day Bush vacated the White House.

David Rees, Get Your War On (2001–2009)

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Peter David's X-Factor: 20 best moments

There are times during the doldrums of summer, when you're having a hard time concentrating on your "serious" writing, that the best way of unclogging the pipes of their lime and gunk is to compose a long, uncritical fanletter to a favorite piece of mass cultural ephemera. It's worked for me before, so let's give it another shot.

I mentioned some time ago how much I've been enjoying Jonathan Hickman's provocative soft reboot of the X-Men books, and I'm happy to see new issues finally trickling out after the COVID-19 outbreak effectively locked down DC and Marvel's release schedules for the better part of three months. This Wednesday will see the release of a new volume of X-Factor, one of my favorite X-titles. I'm very excited for it, and yes, I'm aware I'm behaving like a trained seal clapping and barking at a signal from its trainer. Marvel Comics (parent company Walt Disney Co., NYSE: DIS, market cap $215 billion) is gambling on my having enough strong positive associations with the title X-Factor that I'll buy a new book with that name, sight unseen, regardless of who's on its creative team or what it's about.

This was a bet they've already won.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

John Ruskin, abstraction, anime, & effie (pt 2)

Picking up from where we left off...

(III) Admonishing his audience about "truth" and "shadows," Ruskin advises the artist not to let his passion for his creative endeavors and their results displace his interest and love for the subjects his art depicts—which Ruskin hopes to assume will be mountain scenes, meadows, marine vistas, and so on, or at the very least, real things in the world. If he ever countenanced the idea that the beloved objects an artist mirrors in her work might be images produced by other artists, he would have dismissed it toute de suite. Though he disliked Whistler's work enough to pen a scathing review, Ruskin probably wouldn't even condescend to comment on the CalArts style. (The joke's on him, of course: how many millions more people living right now care more about Adventure Time and Steven Universe than the Pre-Raphaelites or J.M.W. Turner?)

I don't suppose there's any feasible way of sifting through all the content uploaded to DeviantArt (it still exists!), Tumblr (ditto), Twitter, Instagram, etc. to determine how much more activity and enthusiasm surrounds "illustration" than, say, charcoal renders of models, studies of landscapes or urban structures, and other such efforts to represent real entities and places—but it's safe to say that an artist is far more likely to earn recognition and praise for producing and sharing She-Ra and the Princesses of Power fan content than pencil sketches of the objects sitting on her desk.

The artist sharing pictures of his in-universe Avatar: The Last Airbender or Sonic the Hedgehog OC is striving to imitate a style: I don't think we malign him in observing that he draws from art, not from life.¹ With a little introspection, we can easily infer the factors implicated in the young artist's being more inspired to draw what he fondly recognizes from a crisp, glowing screen than what he encounters in his day-to-day existence milling back and forth from rented home to alien workplace (or simply remaining at home) in the impersonal tristesse of our rudely mechanical century.

Much of the digital art I see adheres to one of a small number of predominant styles. From my vantage point, the CalArts look and its offshoots remain ubiquitous throughout webcomics, zines, and indie animation. Lately I've been seeing a lot material in a style that I can't put a name to (though its detractors identify it with "SJWs" and Tumblr); some of the concept art for the New Warriors reboot is a pretty good example. The influence of Invader Zim endures here and there, and the fursona avatars I occasionally encounter still have the "Disney's Robin Hood through beer goggles" vibe I remember from two decades ago.

But no contemporary illustration (or animation) style can compete with the distinctive look of anime and manga in terms of the sheer depth and breadth of its influence.

I hardly watch anime anymore; I don't follow any artists, and I'm not subscribed to any hashtags. But I see a lot of anime art by dint of friends' likes and retweets. Here are a few such images I scrolled past while drafting these posts:

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

John Ruskin, abstraction, anime, & effie (pt 1)

Decades ago, during the early weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown in Philadelphia (such simpler times those were, way back then), I went out for a bike ride after staying indoors for several days, and sat around Fairmount Park with a small stack of books. One was the Oxford World Classics volume of John Ruskin's selected writings, which I periodically enjoy leafing through, and is a fine read for a sunny spring day when the magnolias are in bloom. I dogeared a page excerpted from The Eagle's Nest, the text of a series of lectures Ruskin gave at Oxford in 1872, and reread it once or twice since then. Today I'd like to trace some of the contrails from the flight of imagination the passage inspired.

It reads:

That is Shakespeare’s judgment of his own art. And by strange coincidence, he has put the words into the mouth of the hero whose shadow, or semblance in marble, is admittedly the most ideal and heroic we possess, of man; yet, I need not ask you, whether of the two, if it were granted you to see the statue by Phidias, or the hero Theseus himself, you would choose rather to see the carved stone, or the living King. Do you recollect how Shakespeare’s Theseus concludes his sentence, spoken of the poor tradesmen’s kindly offered art, in the “Midsummer Night’s Dream”?

“The best in this kind are but shadows: and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them.”

It will not burden your memories painfully, I hope, though it may not advance you materially in the class list, if you will learn this entire sentence by heart, being, as it is, a faultless and complete epitome of the laws of mimetic art.

“But Shadows!” Make them as beautiful as you can; use them only to enable you to remember and love what they are cast by. If ever you prefer the skill of them to the simplicity of the truth, or the pleasure of them to the power of the truth, you have fallen into that vice of folly, (whether you call her κακία or μωρία,) which concludes the subtle description of her given by Prodicus, that she might be seen continually εἰς τὴν ἑαυτης σκιὰν ἀποβλέπειν
—to look with love, and exclusive wonder, at her own shadow.
There is nothing that I tell you with more eager desire that you should believe—nothing with wider ground in my experience for requiring you to believe, than this, that you never will love art well, till you love what she mirrors better.
It is the widest, as the clearest experience I have to give you; for the beginning of all my own right art work in life, (and it may not be unprofitable that I should tell you this,) depended not on my love of art, but of mountains and sea. All boys with any good in them are fond of boats, and of course I liked the mountains best when they had lakes at the bottom; and I used to walk always in the middle of the loosest gravel I could find in the roads of the midland counties, that I might hear, as I trod on it, something like the sound of the pebbles on sea-beach. No chance occurred for some time to develop what gift of drawing I had; but I would pass entire days in rambling on the Cumberland hill-sides, or staring at the lines of surf on a low sand; and when I was taken annually to the Water-colour Exhibition, I used to get hold of a catalogue before-hand, mark all the Robsons, which I knew would be of purple mountains, and all the Copley Fieldings, which I knew would be of lakes or sea; and then go deliberately round the room to these, for the sake, observe, not of the pictures, in any wise, but only of the things painted.

And through the whole of following life, whatever power of judgment I have obtained, in art, which I am now confident and happy in using, or communicating, has depended on my steady habit of always looking for the subject principally, and for the art, only as the means of expressing it.
Well: what do we think of this?

(I) Though Ruskin's prose evinces his erudition and passion, his ideas about art are so old-fashioned as to seem rather quaint to the modern aesthete. He was a traditionalist, of course: given his reaction to Whistler's Nocturne paintings ("[I] never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face"), we don't even have to guess how he'd have reacted to cubism or geometric abstraction had he lived another fifteen years to see it.

John Ruskin, Stone Pines at Sestri (1845)

Let's assume Ruskin intuits an actual fact in his remark that one "can never love art well" until she better loves the objects represented in/by it. To be a first-rate artist then (according to Ruskin), one must be more invested in and enamored of the subject she views than in the object she produces as the result of her study and scrutiny.

Where would that leave somebody like Kandinsky? Could anyone today seriously accuse him of not loving art well, or of being a second-rate painter? Doubtful.

Monday, May 25, 2020

mass culture appendix

I almost want to apologize in advance for this one.

This is what happens when I don't have the nine-to-five limiting the amount of time I can reasonably engage in dirtbag-intellectual snipe hunts, and when I've got a little too accustomed to talking to myself all day.

The context: a friend of mine read the previous post and emailed me some thoughts about it. My efforts to organize my ideas and answer her went completely off the rails. I've arranged some of my more coherent notes below, lubricated for your comfort with some pretty (but not remotely relevant) images from my camera. The sick thing is, this accounts for only sixty to seventy percent of the notes I took. I need a change of scenery.

Anyway, Claire writes:
I think the thought that I jump to after this is the question of whether "globalization" inherently means a cultural watering down. I know this isn't exactly the same thing that you're writing about, but there's that idea with "diversity" too that it essentially just means assimilation and whitewashing—that we think "inclusion" will lead to a more vibrant integrating of cultures when what it often means is that one culture drowns out the others and any "variety" is minimal or superficial. So, in order for us to live a connected existence (in the way the internet allows us to), will there also be a pull towards a single, dominant, location-less but probably "western"-influenced/dominated "universal culture" that people will come to see as their own more so than any location-based identity? (I guess we already have some language built for this with concepts like "digital native"...)

Thursday, April 30, 2020

The American background: from active strain to estrangement

Edward Hopper, Intermission (1963)

Two months in, it might be measurable in petabytes: the internet traffic to newspaper articles, thinkpieces, and short YouTube about the ways in which COVID-19 has unraveled the fabric of day-to-day life in the United States. To be sure, sickness and death, a six-month freeze in public education, and the frightful economic costs (which undoubtedly are being and will be borne most by wage-earners) are nothing to be dismissed. But the parts of our day-to-day repertoires that stay-at-home orders and social distancing have left unaffected also deserve some attention.

A joke circulated on Twitter in mid- or late March; I won't pretend to remember where it originated or in what form (it might have been a comic strip), but the gist of it was:

"What did you do yesterday?"

"Oh, you know, I stayed at home, bingewatched Tiger King all afternoon and then stayed up until two in the morning playing Doom Eternal."

"Well, it's good to give yourself a break from worrying about the pandemic."


"Americans are," runs the headline of a Forbes piece from early April, "Excessively eating, drinking, smoking pot, playing video games and watching porn while quarantined." So—what we've already been up to, but a bit more of it. Businesses have closed their doors and self-isolation guidelines preclude public gatherings or events, but American cultural life doesn't look that much different from before—especially if you're in a sub-middling income bracket and are not yourself a Highly Effective Person or keep such people in your company.

The museums, concert halls, and community theaters have closed—but let's be honest, most of us weren't visiting them more than once a year, if that. Ditto libraries and bookstores. Those of us upset about the closure of our favorite little coffee shops are probably less disappointed about missing out conversations with other regulars or open mic night than having nowhere else but our own homes to hunch over and punch at our laptops. The average sports enthusiast is more likely mourning the national leagues' hiatus than disheartened at having to miss out on attending or playing games on an amateur team. If we go out to see local bands play in small venues more often than never, odds are we're in our twenties and personally know at least one person taking the stage that night.

Subcultures and small arts scenes do exist, but to most of the population of a given city, these strains are irrelevant.1 Those who are not directly involved in them pay them no mind (possibly while deriding its participants as "hipsters") while they watch Netflix, follow strangers on Instagram, read middlebrow thinkpieces by people living in Brooklyn or San Diego, pantomime congregation on Reddit, play video games, or watch remote strangers playing video games—like everyone else does everywhere else.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Mardi: Devil Fish, Bone Sharks, Killers & Thrashers

some inexplicable impulse recently led me to pull my copy of Herman Melville's Mardi, and a Voyage Thither (1849) off the shelf and leaf through it a while. As you may remember, Mardi was the young Melville's first "true" novel (as opposed to a roman à clef), and it's a goopy hot mess.

However awkwardly Mardi's individual pieces fit together, there's a lot to like about it. Revisiting the early "open boat" chapters was an especial delight, and today I'd like to share one of them with you. The book's thirteenth chapter is a brief introduction to marine life for the nineteenth-century landlubber, and I've supplemented it with visual aids. Enjoy!

A contextual note: at this point in the novel, our as-yet-unnamed narrator and his Scandinavian companion Jarl have absconded from the whaling vessel on which they were employed, and are floating on the South Pacific current on a small boat. In an earlier chapter, our narrator likened the craft rising on and descending the swells to a mountain goat—hence the "Chamois" appellation.

A paratextual note: I consulted Richard J. King's Ahab's Rolling Sea: A Natural History of Moby-Dick (2019) for help matching the nineteenth-century critter names to their modern-day equivalents. All the photographs but one are from Wikipedia, and the exception is noted in the caption.

CHAPTER XIII — Of The Chondropterygii, And Other Uncouth Hordes Infesting The South Seas

At intervals in our lonely voyage, there were sights which diversified the scene; especially when the constellation Pisces was in the ascendant.

It's famous botanizing, they say, in Arkansas' boundless prairies; I commend the student of Ichthyology to an open boat, and the ocean moors of the Pacific. As your craft glides along, what strange monsters float by. Elsewhere, was never seen their like. And nowhere are they found in the books of the naturalists.

Though America be discovered, the Cathays of the deep are unknown. And whoso crosses the Pacific might have read lessons to Buffon. The sea-serpent is not a fable; and in the sea, that snake is but a garden worm. There are more wonders than the wonders rejected, and more sights unrevealed than you or I ever ever dreamt of. Moles and bats alone should be skeptics; and the only true infidelity is for a live man to vote himself dead. Be Sir Thomas Brown our ensample; who, while exploding "Vulgar Errors," heartily hugged all the mysteries in the Pentateuch.

But look! fathoms down in the sea; where ever saw you a phantom like that? An enormous crescent with antlers like a reindeer, and a Delta of mouths. Slowly it sinks, and is seen no more.

Doctor Faust saw the devil; but you have seen the "Devil Fish."

Manta ray ("Devil Fish")

Look again! Here comes another. Jarl calls it a Bone Shark. Full as large as a whale, it is spotted like a leopard; and tusk-like teeth overlap its jaws like those of the walrus. To seamen, nothing strikes more terror than the near vicinity of a creature like this. Great ships steer out of its path. And well they may; since the good craft Essex, and others, have been sunk by sea-monsters, as the alligator thrusts his horny snout through a Caribbean canoe.

Monday, March 30, 2020

more math, more games: lumines, abstraction, operators

Lumines Remastered (via The Verge

I've had a lot of time on my hands lately.

During the first week of social distancing, I was hitting the calculus textbook pretty hard; a thirty-six-hour moratorium has been placed on the calculation of antiderivatives in my household. It wouldn't surprise me to learn the standard calculus course's "strategies for integration" unit is the pons asinorum of the college-level math student. It's been kicking my ass. So I'm gonna collect my wits, maybe develop a flowchart (for the sake of testing the elasticity of last session's "game is math" metaphor, we could liken this to drafting a map for an NES- or DOS-era RPG), and come back to it in a few days.

So when I haven't been editing the n-v-l, making myself go on bike rides, or informing myself into a low-key panic attack, I've been playing Lumines Remastered on Steam. I love the game as much as I did its PlayStation 2 iteration, Lumines Plus (in 2008–9, it was my go-to after coming back from smoking spliffs in the woods on hot summer nights), though even now I couldn't clear the board to save my life.

As perhaps you know, Lumines is a brainchild of Tetsuya Mizuguchi, and like his cult-hit rail shooter Rez, Lumines evinces  Mizuguchi's fascination with synaesthesic experience. Its exogenous marriage of block-puzzling and input-synched audiovisual sparklepop make Lumines a rare bird in an expansive aviary of Tetris clones.

Comparing Lumines to Tetris—as I heard myself doing when trying to convince my roommates to stop playing Animal Crossing and get the Switch version—is almost unavoidable. Tetris is the fountainhead of geometry-puzzle video games; without it, Lumines wouldn't exist. Dr. Mario, Puyo PuyoPuzzle Bobble, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, and the rest can each be conveniently summed up as "Tetris, but with [blank]." In light of this ubiquity, it's tempting to attribute a universality to the Tetris experience. There's something almost primordial about its format and function: simple forms composed of four unit-squares in seven different spatial configurations, an evolving problem of optimization, and a time limit imposed by simulated gravity.

In truly excellent instances of minimalist design, the object imparts a sense of inevitability, as though it could not have taken any other form without violating an irrefragable principle of its conception. Tetris is so elegant, so elemental, that it might not be entirely crazy to conjecture a timeline without Alexey Pajitnov eventually producing something a lot like it.

Since its 1984 debut, Tetris has been playable on more platforms than I care to look up and list, many of which were quite basic by modern standards. If the endurance of the tune to "Korobeiniki" in the ears of American millennials is any indication, the lime-and-grey, blooping and crunching Game Boy version was for many years the title's most popular iteration. I first played Tetris on the NES, and an MS-DOS version snuck onto the family PC at one point. Every now and then, I used to see a coin-op version in a diner vestibule or a lonely corner in an arcade. My roommate is currently playing Tetris 99 on the Switch. But no matter what format, Tetris always recognizably performs as Tetris, and can be enjoyed as Tetris.

But it's difficult to imagine Mizuguchi signing off on a version of Lumines with four colors, four sound channels, no stage skins, and two songs on the soundtrack. The project was predicated on the availability of a platform that could interweave spatial reasoning imperatives with vivid, high-definition splashes of color and sound—the intent being, as Mizuguchi puts it, to braid left-brain logic with the emotional content that buzzes the right hemisphere. Tetris, on the other hand, was initially developed and ran on a Soviet-era IBM desktop computer, and most of the changes that came afterward were more aesthetic than functional.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

math & games: presentation & functionality

László Moholy-Nagy, Q 1 Suprematistic (1923)

In case anyone's keeping track: I acknowledge the very late update (and thank you for noticing). Revisions for the new n-v-l are on page 460 out of 700-ish, and proceeding agonizingly slowly. I'm beginning to doubt it'll all be worth it in the end, and it's getting to where I'd almost rather be writing a series of essays on Dissidia Final Fantasy.


This awful project's been cutting into my other hobbies and projects, too. It's been a while since I last read any meaty 700-page nineteenth century novels. My backlog of short story ideas is becoming less of a queue than a clogged sewer pipe. And it's been at least a few months since I last picked up the ol' calculus textbook.

Yes, yes—I'm still working through James Stewart's Single Variable Calculus: Concepts and Contexts after like eight years. In my defense, I have zero congenital talent for mathematics: I consistently scored D's in Algebra II, and I'd still blanch to show an actual math student my scratch paper. What's more, I've been proceeding in fits and starts, and whenever I take a break for a while and pick it back up again, it takes at least a week to reinstall the mindset, to go back and make sure I actually learned the contents of a previous chapter, and reacquaint myself with all those damn formulas. (Come on, like you never forgot that cos x cos y = 1/2 [cos (x − y) + cos (x + y)] and couldn't be satisfied until you'd worked it out for yourself.)

I'd be more ashamed of advancing so slowly if I weren't pursuing this study (if you can call it that) on a purely recreational level. I'm not good at this stuff, but I have fun doing it. Somehow or other, it became a de facto substitute for video games. Instead of playing Metal Slug III, Einhänder, or Half-Life after dinner, I'll attempt to work through a few implicit differentiation problems or work out the volume of a three-dimensional form created by rotating a curve around a given axis. It can get pretty intense, let me tell you.

People in my life tend to find it odd that I do math for fun—possibly because most of the people in my life are arts and/or humanities people. Tonight I'd like to try explaining how and why I've been getting my kicks from calculus, as opposed to video games, in my latter years.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Swamp Formalism

The Black Run Preserve in Evesham, NJ

No post this month, but I've a couple of updates:

1.) A short story of mine appears in the latest issue of The Southwest Review. It's print-only, but please don't let that stop you.

2.) Third novel is almost 50% through the revisions process—page 338 out of 698. Slow and thirsty work. Seems like every two pages I've had to interpolate new passages and completely rewrite old ones. (This would be why I haven't a burnt-on-the-outside-frozen-on-the-inside essay about defunct philosophies or a radical-behaviorist cultural analysis to offer you this month.) My hope is that this new book will be among the longest, most meticulous self-published novels read by the fewest number of people in (un?)recorded history. I might not even make an announcement when it's done: I'll just drop it on Amazon (not thrilled about using it, but that's a conversation for another time) and quietly get on with my life.

Awful lot of grief for such a small prospective yield. But if nothing else, it's keeping me off the drugs.

Since I've promised myself that I'd put something up on this thing at least once per month, I'd like to share a short essay by the late Jack Collom, transcribed from his collection Second Nature (2012). As I've said before, my acquaintance with Collom was brief, but in the years since I've come to think of him as an indirect guide and mentor. If I myself had conceived of and written "Swamp Formalism," I'd be proud to call it a manifesto.

Swamp Formalism 
"Eco-ethos-eros." What we're in the middle of, what we think about it, what we feel about it. Lots to talk about. 
I'm going to try to recite a personal thought-process.
In the early 1940s, when I was 13, I read about a situation on the Kaibab Plateau, north rim of the Grand Canyon. The wolves and cougars had been shot off; hence the deer multiplied; thus the browse and vegetative cover was largely destroyed; therefore the starving deer sickened and died; ergo not much nature left, on the surface anyway. 
I've been a Balance-of-Nature fan ever since.