Wednesday, December 29, 2021

flowers of the machine, part 3: gamelon of the floating world (I)

Every text builds on pretext.
     —Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy (1982)

About a year ago, YouTube's mysterious, incontrovertible algorithms served me a video titled "The Zelda CDi Reanimated Collab!" I don't suppose the recommendation changed my life, but good god—I watched it enough times to inadvertently memorize most of the dialogue, and I'm fairly sure this is something I ought to be ashamed of.

Probably most people who'd peer at this crusty old blog are old enough to remember the 1993 CD-i Legend of Zelda games—even though they've almost certainly never played them. During the early-to-mid 2000s, when the internet acquired its voracious appetite for the grotesque, Link: The Faces of Evil and Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon were a phenomenon on the message boards and pop culture excavation blogs. But for anyone who isn't familiar: in 1990, the Dutch electronics company Phillips released a home console that ran software and games formatted on proprietary compact discs. Due to some legal agreements made during the CD-i's development (it's complicated), Phillips found itself with a license to make games featuring copyrighted Nintendo characters. In its most well-known attempt to capitalize on this arrangement, Phillips outsourced the production of two legitimized bastard Legend of Zelda games to the Russian-American studio Animation Magic, providing scant resources and demanding an exacting turnaround time. And the rest is infamy.

To put it exceedingly gently, Faces of Evil and Wand of Gamelon weren't very good. But what stoked the internet's delirious fascination with them wasn't the third-party jankiness of their action-adventure molds, but their full-motion video cutscenes. The animations, produced by a Russian team flown over to the United States, beggar description. The words "flat," "uncanny," "maladroit," and "charmless" all come to mind, but none really approach how astonishingly ugly these FMVs are. Combined with their hammy voice acting, obtuse dialogue, and very fact of their inclusion in games that brazenly sold themselves as authentic Legend of Zelda sequels, CD-i Zelda's cutscenes transcend mere ineptitude. They are sublimely embarrassing—a thoroughgoing and wholly avoidable blunder on the order of the Borja Ecce Mono. 

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Forgotten Superheroes (vol.6): Ravage 2099 (pt 3)

(March 1995)

Please take a moment to compare the cover of Ravage 2099 #28 (above) with the cover of issue #1 (here).

This is amazing. In the world of mainstream American comic books, we see something like this about as often as a female superhero without an hourglass figure.

The writers, editors, publishers, and corporate overlords of superhero properties understand that carelessly altering a title character's image is bad business. During the mid-twentieth century, Comic books with Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, the Flash, et al. on their covers were greedily plucked from newsstands by kids who recognized the characters, had learned what to expect from books emblazoned with their names and images, and were seldom disappointed by their purchases. Mainline superhero comics are comfort food. They're Coca-Cola. You don't change the formula unless competitors are encroaching on your market share, or buyers begin to lose their appetite for the product altogether. Every time a reformed villain reverts his old ways, every time a mourned ally is found alive and well, every time Superman is system restored to his 1986 update, kid Cable gets shunted aside for the return of old Cable, and Stephanie Brown becomes Robin/Batgirl and then becomes Spoiler again, the United States comic book industry pantomimes the New Coke/Coca-Cola Classic imbroglio-turned-success story—except in these cases, the rebranding and de-rebranding aren't motivated by panic, but have been integrated into the business model of a longstanding (but lately metastable) sector of the culture industry.

However: if a successful firm debuts a completely new product—say, Pepsi Blue—and nobody buys it, the smart businessman may be better off retiring it than sinking more resources into redeveloping and reselling something nobody wanted in the first place.

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Forgotten Superheroes (vol.6): Ravage 2099 (pt 2)

(Sept. 1993)

When we last left the fallen bureaucrat turned-ecological avenger Paul-Philip Ravage, he'd escaped from Hellrock with his humanity intact, recruited Tiana (former secretary and Strong Female Deuteragonist) and Dack (recently orphaned Pint Sized Plucky Black Kid Sidekick), and broke into Eco Central to steal a digital disc containing detailed evidence of Alchemax's wrongdoing. 

What's next for this ragtag band of outlaws, brought together by fate? Will they remain on the run, fending off Alchemax's armored goons and high-tech assassins as they wage a covert war of sabotage and propaganda against the odious megacorporation?

You'd think so. This was the spike for which Ravage 2099 co-creators Stan Lee and Paul Ryan set up the book's successors, Pat Mills and Tony Skinner—who were also writing Punisher 2099 at the time. (There's a slim chance you recognize Mills from his involvement in the long-running British science-fiction anthology comic 2000 AD, probably best known for its recurring character Judge Dredd.) All Mills and Skinner had to do was survey Ravage's trajectory over the course of eight tightly plotted issues and harness the book's momentum to everyone's mutual advantage.

Instead, they elected to start again from scratch.

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Forgotten Superheroes (vol.6): Ravage 2099 (pt 1)

Some years back, I went on an intense but incomplete Marvel 2099 binge, revisiting X-Men 2099 and reading Doom 2099, X-Nation 2099, and 2099: Manifest Destiny for the first time. It was a mixed bag, and filled with more coal than diamonds, sure, but the experience only deepened my affection for Marvel Comics' brief-lived stint at coordinated cyberpunk worldbuilding. Later on, I checked out Peter David's excellent Spider-Man 2099 and Pat Mills and Tony Skinner's satirically over-the-top Punisher 2099.¹ Like every 2099 title, their endings left a lot to be desired—but that's to be expected when an entire line of serials is suddenly and simultaneously cancelled.

I've held my nose and read 2099: World of Tomorrow in its bleak entirety. I've skimmed the pages of Ghost Rider 2099, and briefly glanced at the adventures of John Eisenhart in 2099 Unlimited and Hulk 2099. But until recently, I hadn't the nerve to explore what I understood to be one of the Marvel 2099 world's most fraught territories.

(December 1992)

So I finally checked out Ravage 2099.² I think I'm glad I did, because it's got to be one of the damned strangest capeshit comics to come out of the 1990s. I am writing this overview of the series for two reasons. First: in case somebody ever punches "ravage 2099" into a search engine and isn't satisfied with the glancing treatment in Wikipedia/Fandom articles and potboiler summaries by CBR freelancers, they'll find a somewhat better resource if they scroll the results long enough.

Second: I'm seriously weirded out by this comic book, and maybe writing about it will help me get over it.

Friday, November 5, 2021

preface to a triviality

Paul Klee, The Beginnings of a Smile (1921)

"Authenticity," if the expression is to have any meaning at all, is experienced by love and sexual intoxication, in irony and laughter, creativity and responsibility, meditation and ecstasy.
     —Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason (1983)

I wanted to write something, something that would amuse me to read back to myself later on, something lightweight, something that wouldn't make me grind my teeth with exertion or require much abstract speculation. So I did another writeup about another comic book. I'll post it soon.

In the last post I said a few words about cultural schizophrenia: the discordant relationship between what we claim to value and what our habits show to be truly important to us. And here I am: pondering the perverse Skinner Box society of mass culture on one day, and writing uncritically about my favorite pieces of commercial ephemera the next.

Is this something I ought to be ashamed of? Am I a hypocrite?

Friday, October 29, 2021

art versus Art & the organicism of industry

A month or two back, a very smart friend asked me in an email if I believed comics can be art. 

Naturally, I showed him Punisher 2099.

(June 1994)

Beautiful. It's poetry, is what this is.

At some point I got sick of asking myself whether video games could be or always have been art, what qualifies Super Mario Bros. (1985) as art (if it is art) and what disqualifies Greendog: The Beached Surfer Dude (1992) from being art (if it isn't art), if a basic but economical and ingeniously designed game like Ms. Pac-Man (1982) has more artistic value than a beautiful, evocative, poetic, and utterly muddled game like Chrono Cross (1999), et cetera, et cetera. The partial solution I arrived at was to refrain from asking the "art" question at all.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

expatiation: agency and culpability

Paul Klee, Puppet Theater (1923)

Been in a bit of a funk this month. Consider this a throwaway entry, written just to get myself back in the swing of writing and trying to think about things.

In the most recent and final Kantpost of the year, I came to the tentative conclusion that we can't do without an immanent belief in agency. I'm still wondering about that.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Twelve Rounds with Kant (part ten)

Alexej von Jawlensky, Abstract Head: Inner Vision-Rosy Light (1926)

Well, here we go again.

I'll admit I haven't given too much additional thought to the "theory" outlined in the last Kantpost. Can it even be called a theory? It's more of an inkling, an idea. How could such a thing be substantiated? What sort of data would be required, and how would one go about gathering it? What sort of pattern would we seek to find in it?

I wish I shared Kant's faith in rationalism as a divining rod towards truth—and that I had his meticulous genius for analysis and systematic thought. For that matter, I wish it were possible for me to just take two months off from work and contemplate the problems of free will and morality for six hours a day. Ah, well.

Anyway: in what's going to be my final post on The Critique of Practical Reason (1788), I'd like to touch on Kant's three postulates of practical reason: freedom (free will), immortality of the soul, and the existence of God. According to Kant, these are suppositions which reason must adopt to ensure the moral law's sufficiency, and the rational agent is constrained to accept them. Even though theoretical reason can only problematically entertain such ideas, their indispensability to the purposes of reason in its practical use gives them objective reality, but only so far as their intersection with ethical matters is concerned. (It's complicated.)

Please note: I am, as usual, flying completely by the seat of my pants here. This is less an exercise in scholarly analysis than in expatiation.

Let's start with the big one.

Friday, August 13, 2021

flowers of the machine, part 2: "true believers."

That is the triumph of advertising in the culture industry: the compulsive imitation by consumers of cultural commodities which, at the same time, they recognize as false.
     —Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer

Perhaps you’ve heard in conversation or read something like this on the internet: The ancient Greeks listened to stories about Hercules, Achilles, and Odysseus; we read Batman comics and watch Avengers movies. Superheroes are the modern versions of Olympians and demigods; they’re our mythology.

Prima facie, the parallels are obvious. The heroes of mythology and the mainstays of comic books are typically paragons of excellence: in the prime of life, muscular, athletic, possessed of virtuous dispositions and sound judgment, capable of speaking with eloquence and acting with cunning, seldom if ever physically unattractive, and most often depicted and renowned for feats of strength and ability in battle. Heracles, fathered by a god, strong enough the shoulder the vault of heaven; Superman, the son of aliens, strong enough to push the moon out of its orbit. Perseus and Batman, the resourceful adventurers, identifiable at a glance by their totemic paraphernalia: the Aegis and the winged sandals, the utility belt and Batarangs. In Captain America and Iron Man we see apparitions of Ajax and Odysseus: famed comrades at arms destined for fatal acrimony. Agamemnon inevitably returns home from Troy to be murdered by Clytemnestra, and is always avenged by Orestes; the details and attendant happenings differ with the chronicler, but the essential dynamics and structure of the drama are immutable. In our popular stories, Flash will never be free from a malicious speedster wearing yellow, Luthor's vendetta against Superman won't be extinguished for good until DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. go completely underwater, and if Amanda Waller is ever ousted from her position in the government, it's only a matter of time before she's reinstated and given permission to oversee a new Task Force X program.¹ You can read any Batman storyline centering the Joker published since 1940 and understand it as a variation on a theme, one particular version of a story told over and over and over again by different people in different ways. The conflict between the Caped Crusader/Dark Knight and the Clown Prince of Crime/Harlequin of Hate has become archetypical in pop culture's collective imagination. It's the stuff of myth.

But that doesn't necessary mean superhero stories are myths. Joseph Campbell probably wouldn't consider the DC and Marvel Universes as such. The rippling muscles, the supernatural powers and impossible feats of strength, the amplified personalities, the delineation of the characters' lives into episodes and sagas—on paper, these common attributes of stories involving Heracles or Theseus or Green Lantern or Wolverine may seem sufficient to make a case for the congruence of ancient stories to modern modern media. But this assessment disregards the critical difference in practice.

Something resembling Baudrillard’s precession of simulacra occurs when the modern reader or viewer encounters the figures and narratives of Greek mythology in children’s books, translations from Greek and Latin manuscripts, Wikipedia articles, or in television or film. The stories confront us as mere content, whether as constituents of an inert literature or as tropes and memes in the hypertrophic body of electronic media. Conditioned by print and electronic media, we are disposed to interpret the world-stories of the ancients through habits of understanding totally alien to the cultures that developed and propagated them. When we try to make more than superficial analogies between superhero properties and millennia-old mythologies, it's as if we're measuring the poetry of Li Bai against the poetry of Wordsworth—vis-à-vis an English translation of Li Bai.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Twelve Rounds with Kant (Part 9)

Roberto Montenegro, The Double (1938)

Picking things back up from a month ago...

The Critique of Pure Reason (1781–7) left me in awe, regardless of all the points on which I disagreed with Kant. Its ideas, insofar as I can say I understand them, continue to tantalize me.

What about the Critique of Practical Reason (1788)?

I began reading the first Critique with a sense of curiosity and fascination. My overall mood when delving into the second was one of excitement, even hope.

I'll be honest. I don't want to be an atheist, but I can't slot humanity in a position of teleological significance to the world, nor can I anthropomorphize the cosmos. At the same time, I can't deny the spiritual anemia I feel as a nonbeliever among other nonbelievers in a society that considers humanity the sole end in a universe of means and mere incidentals. I also would prefer that the facts didn't place me in the situation of assuming a hard determinism with regard to human behavior, but that's what seems most plausible. I can't simply will myself to believe something that's incompatible with everything I've come to recognize as fact. Even before reading the first Critique's exposition of the transcendental ideas as products of coherence-seeking behavior forming relations with objects that can never be given to human experience, I had an inkling that if I was ever going to come back again to believing in God and free will, I would have to be convinced of the necessity of those beliefs on the basis of their following from some other body of propositions I'm constrained to hold as true, at least provisionally.

And there are very good reasons to believe both. Studies suggest that religious people are happier, less isolated, and at least more generous than nonbelievers. A person fully convinced of the autonomy of his will is better equipped to take charge of his life than someone who has internalized the belief that he is completely at the mercy of forces beyond his control. Optimism can make a practical difference in one's affairs.

Sure, yes, the old criticisms are still warranted. Religion can be a hothouse for imbecilic textual literalism, sectarian groupthink, and the rejection of data in favor of dogma; the sanctity in which American culture holds the amorphous ideal of "freedom" was instrumental in eroding any sense of social responsibility or serious consideration for the collective good in the United States. But religion can also inspire humility and purpose, while the idea of freedom is a prerequisite for the concept of agency.

I went into the Critique of Practical Reason with the same hope that sold me on Hartshorne's Beyond Humanism (1937), sight unseen. I was looking for an loophole by which I could, at least for myself, reconcile the apparently incontrovertible facts of the situation with certain subjective necessities of belief. Hartshorne, as we've seen, left something to be desired. What about Kant?

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

night notes

The pier at Ocean City, MD. (Not my pic.)

I've been visiting the shore towns of southern Delaware since before I could walk on my own. Even though I've become enough of a cynic in my old age to recognize the gauche avarice on which coastal resort towns are built, I retain a soft spot for them. I still visit Fenwick Island from time to time, and recently took a four-day vacation there with Shirley. I think we had more fun chasing ghost crabs across the beach with a flashlight after dark than playing miniature golf and meandering around the curio shops during the day.

There's a dichotomy in the region that's most apparent at night. It first struck me years ago as a teenager visiting the Ocean City boardwalk—a place which, to my imagination, encapsulates the ugly side of the American character as much as Las Vegas did for Hunter Thompson. Despite all the sand sculptures of Jesus and the youth groups lip-syncing and performing awkwardly synchronized dance routines to Christian rap numbers, this place is Babylon in miniature: a three-mile bazaar teeming with hucksters, hicks, baleful teenagers, middle-aged adults debased by drudgery and cable television, and children who ought to be too young for obesity, all hawking and consuming garish tchotchkes, warm and technically edible congealed grease, margaritas in soda cups (on which the myriad tattoo parlors depend for their business), T-shirts too déclassé for Spencer Gifts, and hermit crabs who've got to believe their Chesapeake cousins being devoured en masse in the seafood restaurants down the street got off easy. It could be anthropomorphized as a circle of faceless men made of neon signs, fried dough, unwinnable SpongeBob plushes, seagull dung, blaring Top-40 tunes, and lobster claw grabber toys ejaculating on the despondent face of human decency.

Don't get me wrong, it's a fun place to visit—provided you hold no strong opinions about the reality of social and/or spiritual progress.

Monday, July 12, 2021

notes on video games and my relationship with them

Sometimes I use Twitter. I'm not sure why.

The other day, I tweeted:

At age seventeen, I was still listening to Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails on a regular basis. I was just getting into Skinny Puppy, and was dabbling in Leæther Strip, the Electric Hellfire Club, Birmingham 6, and Wumpscut. All of it loud, abrasive, clanging, screeching, thumping music with an antiheroic (if not outright villainous) lyrical charisma, embracing the tacit philosophy that music ought to be a contact event. I suppose I understood then that a lot would necessarily change in two decades—but the insinuation that I'd somehow get to a point where most of the music I chose to listen to would be recordings of people from India playing the sitar and occasionally singing in a language I didn't understand might have been a bridge too far.

A longtime internet acquaintance pointed something else out:

Yes, well. Let's see here. When I was in my twenties I made a (relatively) long-running webcomic from ripped NES sprites and wrote (and rewrote) a series of essays about Final Fantasy. I haunted gaming message boards and IRC channels. I racked up hundreds of hours in Disgaea and Makai Kingdom, and probably even more playing online matches of Street Fighter III: Third Strike. I routinely drove forty-five minutes to play King of Fighters XI at an arcade in Wayne, New Jersey. I bought and played through seven—SEVEN!—.hack games, despite knowing in my heart that they were trash. I'm not certain if I ever self-identified as a gamer, but video games were more than just a hobby. They were my touchstone.

But I never stopped playing them! Why, just a few months ago, I wrote about the Valiant megaWAD. Last year I ploughed through Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 (and had nothing but good things to say about it), finally played and finished Cuphead, and fondly revisited Einhänder. Early into the lockdown, I kept the anxiety at bay with Lumines. And right now I'm feeling like it's finally time to try out Black Mesa, which Shirley's PC can apparently run (though my laptop falls far short of even the minimum requirements)—but I'm going to wait until the fall or winter.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Twelve Rounds with Kant (Part 8)

Ohohoho. Hoh ho hah. Hahahaha...hah.

So we're back to Immanuel Kant again. I'm going to commit a blogging faux pas right off the bat and not provide any links to the first seven posts on the Critique of Pure Reason (1781–7), partially because I'm lazy (just use the archive and look around the fourth quarter of 2020), and partially because those posts embarrass me somewhat. I spent so much time trying to come to terms with the Transcendental Aesthetic and Analytic that I had only enough energy and patience to give the Transcendental Dialectic (the longest and really the most important section of that book) a undeservedly sketchy treatment. But there's nothing to be done now.

I won't claim to completely understand the Critique of Pure Reason, nor am I close to substantially internalizing its schematics—but my admiration and fascination with it have not diminished since I set it aside for a while (but never for a very long while). And I suppose in some not insignificant respect I've accepted at least a few of Kant's main points: during a discussion with a coworker who was bouncing some of his metaphysical ideas off me, I heard myself saying that the concept of the human soul, considered as an indestructible and eternal object existing in a continuum where past, present, and future exist as a singular unity, lies so far beyond the bounds of possible experience that there's nothing to be gained by elaborating on the idea or imagining that it has any implications we can reasonably explore.

I waited several months after finishing the first Critique before opening the second, the Critique of Practical Reason (1788). As a mere book, the second Critique is far less intimidating than the first: not taking  into consideration the print size and trim of each edition, the Critique of Pure Reason runs over 600 pages, while the Critique of Practical Reason is a comparatively scanty 130. I smiled when I first held it in my hands. "A featherweight," I told myself. "This will be a breeze."

Hah. Ha ha ha ho heeheehee heheheh heh hah hoohoo hah haaah. 


So here's what we're going to do. In this post, I will summarize the Critique of Practical Reason. I am not doing this with a reading audience in mind; I'm perusing the text, taking notes, and writing them out so as to better understand this dense motherfucker of a book. If you want to follow along, well, the more, the merrier—though I would strongly advise against quoting me on anything here. I am a humble student, and prone to misinterpretation and/or missing the point. There are plenty of experts who can provide synopses and commentary far more informed than mine.

Also: I will abstain from expressing any reservations I might have about Kant's premises, methods, or conclusions, at least for now. Before I argue with him, I feel I ought to make a concentrated effort to comprehend what he's saying.

As before, I will intercalate paintings in order to give us all an opportunity to relax our eyes between slabs of text. There isn't much of a thematic connection between Kantian ethics and late nineteenth-century American still life, but the pairing somehow feels right. Perhaps it's the intimation of mustiness.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

contextual disintegration supplement: MAD and The Simpsons

The last post was originally going to be more generalized, examining the "contextual disintegration" of media artifacts (for lack of a better term) across a few different fields. It ended up being too broad a topic for a short blog post, so I settled for focusing on the particular case of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which had anyway inspired the idea. I did jot down some notes regarding a couple of other specific instances, which I'll expand upon here. Just for fun.


My father bought me my first copy of MAD in 1993. For the next several years, I'd greedily seize new issues and specials off the magazine rack whenever they appeared. I was hooked. Even though I'd seen almost none of the movies or TV shows satirized in each issue, I could spend hours studying Mort Drucker's illustrations; the man was a virtuoso. Just looking at Tom Bunk and Rick Tulka's illustrations was enough to make me burst out laughing. Don "Duck" Edwing wasn't exactly Don Martin (Duck's mentor/collaborator, and my father's favorite MAD artist, whom I wouldn't discover until picking up a few reprints and specials), but his idiosyncratic themes and macabre vaudeville were always good for a chuckle. I wasn't sure whether I should find Bill Wray's "Monroe" relatable or appalling, but when it became a monthly feature in 1997 it was one of the first things I'd look for when opening a new issue. And, yeah, I became a little more informed about the way the world works from articles like "A MAD Look at the Real 'Clinton Coalition,'" "MAD's 1993 Washington Lobbyist All Stars," and "The Republican Party's 'Contract with America' (TRUTHFUL Post-Election Version!)," which were far more educational than the Darkwing Duck and Goof Troop comics I was reading in Disney Adventures.

Cover of MAD #319 (June 1993)

Only much later did I understand that the 1990s were the beginning of MAD's slow decline after four decades of publication. Even though MAD's cultural influence had long since peaked, it remained as spry and incisive as ever through most of the 1990s. But the media ecosystem in which it was able to thrive was on the verge of a cataclysmic transformation.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

contextual disintegration: on Mystery Science Theater 3000

Though I'd occasionally watched and enjoyed Mystery Science Theater 3000 during its original run in the 1990s, I became a fan—an "MSTie"—only in the last decade. For months at a time, I'd draw, work on math problems, sleeve the contents of a coin jar, and put together IKEA furniture with a YouTube upload of a taped television broadcast running nearby. I've tuned into every online Turkey Day marathon since 2012; I've got a definite opinion on the Joel versus Mike question; I'm genuinely fascinated by the filmography of Coleman Francis; Kevin Murphy shouting SLEEEP! and Trace Beaulieu's Rocky the Flying Squirrel impression ("again?") will never not make me laugh. I love MST3K.

I've tried to pass this love onto Shirley, but to no avail. She and I have very different tastes, it's true. She reads manga that she really ought to have aged out of by now; I read superhero comics that I really ought to have aged out of by now. She likes movies I consider stupid; I like movies she finds boring. She listens to K-pop and I, uh, don't. Nevertheless, I've sold her on classic Simpsons, The X-FilesDr. Katz, Professional Therapist, and Best of the Worst. Mystery Science Theater, however, is still something she'll only watch in order to humor me, and I've taken the hint and given up trying to get her to sit through ninety-minute sub-B-movies or awkward 1950s educational films with commentary tracks.

The fact is that Mystery Science Theater has not aged well. Yes, certainly, the effectiveness of any number of quips made in the late 1980s or early 1990s depends on the viewer's familiarity with pop culture references that are now practically ancient, but that isn't the problem. For every one obscure reference in a given episode are a dozen riffs that require no arcane, period-dependent knowledge to appreciate. The style of humor isn't the problem. Nor is MST3K an instance of outsized retrospective valuation of something that wasn't very good to begin with.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a product of a particular moment in the development of media culture—created, produced, aired, and viewed in a sui generis context. And outside of that context, viewed by somebody who has no experience of it, the show just doesn't make much sense.¹

Friday, May 7, 2021

relational frame theory on prejudice; implications for anti-racism

Rene Magritte, The Psychologist (1948)

Responding to Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (1953) from the perspective of Skinnerian behaviorism was an exercise in assessing my comprehension of Skinner's Verbal Behavior (1957), which I read during the early stages of last year's lockdown. Probably the most substantial token of the exercise's success was my discovery that there were situations I couldn't give satisfactory accounts for, even after leafing through my copy of Verbal Behavior for an hour or longer and cross-referencing my notes with Science and Human Behavior (1953) and About Behaviorism (1976). I came to suspect the problem wasn't my understanding of the literature, but conceptual knots in the literature itself. The problem of reference, for instance: Skinner insists that verbal events do not refer to anything; the spoken word "chair" does not communicate a mental image of a chair, but is a conditioned response strengthened by a stimulus class. But in speaking of rule-governed behavior, he states that rules are verbal stimuli which specify contingencies—which seems to violate his own strictures against reference, and makes a functional description of rule-governed behavior a confused, onerous affair.

So I picked up Hayes et al.'s Relational Frame Theory: A Post-Skinnerian Account of Human Language and Cognition (2001) to see what progress the field made five decades after the publication of Verbal Behavior. Relational Frame Theory is not an easy read, but it's very exciting. At least from the perspective of a dilettante, RFT shows promise: it closely adheres to the main tenets of radical behaviorism, it starts from simple first principles which allow for the emergence of complexity, and it appears to be testable. What separates it from Verbal Behavior is its centering of derived stimulus relations, which began to be studied in the 1960s.

The core concepts of RFT are lot more difficult to synopsize than the "stimulus-response-reinforcement" of twentieth-century behaviorism, and take much of Skinner's work as a given. Rather than offer a summary here, I can point you to an excellent rundown of RFT written for the lay reader, and also a more technical overview if you'd like to chew on something with more gristle. 

For now, we'll just provide five basic points to bear in mind:

1.) RFT posits that human beings are unique among the animal kingdom in that we're capable of learning to derive relations between stimuli (without direct training) as an overarching operant. "While 16-month-old babies readily show robust forms of mutual entailment," the authors write, "even 'language-trained' chimpanzees show no such thing."¹ Deriving stimulus relations, they often point out, is a learned behavior that affects the learning process itself.

2.) RFT uses a specialized redefinition of verbal behavior as "framing events relationally." In these terms, language (which consists of "arbitrarily applicable relational responding") is an outcome of verbal behavior, not the other way around.²

3.) A relational frame isn't a thing: it is the behavior of framing events relationally (responding to events in terms of other events) under the control of particular contexts. A relational network doesn't exist outside of the organism, nor really inside of it either: it is a pattern of responding.

4.) Our environment acquires verbal functions as its constituents participate in verbal networks—or, rather, as we respond to objects and events relationally, and these "networked" responses become ingrained in our behavioral repertoires.

5.) A major component of RFT is the transformation of stimulus functions across relational frames. For instance, a hiker might read a sign at a trailhead: CAUTION: ALL THE SNAKES IN THESE WOODS ARE POISONOUS. The likely effect will be that her responses to snakes on the trail will be augmented prior to her seeing one. This is unremarkable at first glance, but no other animal on Earth (so far as we know) is capable of modifying its behavior to a stimulus class prior to direct contact with its members as a consequence of another stimulus with no nonarbitrary physical relation to it.

Now: a while back, I wrote about the problems of curbing racist sentiment through shaming tactics. Anyone who's taken behaviorism 101 understands that punishment merely displaces objectionable behavior (and only temporarily), and can result in insidious, undesired side effects. Today we'll be looking at a passage from Relational Frame Theory which explicitly examines prejudicial behavior, with worrying ramifications for the "anti-racism" discourse that has become prominent in educational and business settings over the last year. Emphases are mine.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

flowers of the machine, part 1: "a methodical encyclopedia of the imaginary planet"

The book was written in English and contained 1001 pages. On the yellow leather back I read these curious words which were repeated on the title page: A First Encyclopedia of Tlön. Vol XI. Hlaer to Jangr. There was no indication of date or place. On the first page and on a leaf of silk paper that covered one of the color plates there was stamped a blue oval with this inscription: Orbis Tertius. Two years before I had discovered, in a volume of a certain pirated encyclopedia, a superficial description of a nonexistent country; now chance afforded me something more precious and arduous. Now I held in my hands a vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet's entire history, with its architecture and its playing cards, with the dread of its mythologies and the murmur of its languages, with its emperors and its seas, with its minerals and its birds and its fish, with its algebra and its fire, with its theological and metaphysical controversy. All of it articulated, coherent, with no visible doctrinal intent or tone of parody.
        —Jorge Luis Borges, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" (1940)

Maybe it's because the job has been running me ragged these last few weeks. It could be that I've rolled into one of the troughs in my cycle of peaks and slumps. Possibly I'm experiencing some residual burnout from the protracted effort of composing—and thrice revising—a 700-page novel (which I would very much like you to read). But whatever the cause, focusing on writing lately has been like trying to flex a sprained muscle. I can only seem to exert myself in hour-long bursts, after which I come into a refractory period where all I can do is (re-)read X-Men comics.

Recently it occurred to me that maybe the comics are part of the problem. The instantaneous, tickling gratification of supernormal spectacle and soap operatics strikes a more aggressive claim for my time than the unaided inclination to stare at a blank page or empty text field and await the appearance of coherent sentences. So I downloaded a site-blocking app to bar myself from poring over the digitized pages of Whedon's Astonishing X-Men for the third or fourth time. Problem solved.

Then somehow or other I ended up at the Marvel Database (a facet of Fandom, née Wikia) and spent forty-five minutes reading about X-Men comics until I realized what was happening and added to the list of blocked sites.

Not long after that, I was skimming the details on the new Magic: The Gathering expansion—and before I knew it, I was browsing the MTG Wiki. There went another half hour. Unfortunately, the way Fandom's wikis are indexed prevents a blanket block under A total self-ban would necessitate blocking every domain individually.

In and of itself, the lure of these wikis as a way of passively occupying the hours between sleep, work, and personal/familial/social obligations probably doesn't require any more explanation than the appeal of the media products their pages summarize. Behavior analysis could describe the attraction in terms of stimulus classes or relational frames; cognitive psychology might talk about mental connections, and so on. We gaze at the fan-sourced wiki about the thing because we like gazing at the thing. And of course, the attention-retaining interactivity of hypertext can't be discounted—nor can the well-established connection between screen-delivered "content" and dopamine pathway activity.

At any rate, the Fandom network attracted about 750 million visitors last month. Clearly I'm not the only one who gets a buzz from reading about the esoterica of proprietary fictional entities.

This isn't the first time we've idly pondered Fandom here, but I'm not finished chewing on it quite yet.¹ Its existence is unprecedented and utterly fascinating. The incomparable Borges dreamed up something resembling it in his "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," in which the discovery of an encyclopedia containing the history, philosophy, and science of a fictitious planet precipitates the encroachment of that world's reality upon our own. Even if truth isn't really stranger than fiction in this case, it certainly isn't any less interesting.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Six Rounds with Wittgenstein (Part 6)

Max Ernst, Compendium of the History
of the Universe

Whoops. I was having so much fun earning a wage and having a panic attack over a glitch in the cover text of The Reunion that went completely undetected for months that I forgot to post the final entry to this series. So: final comments on Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (1953):

579. This feeling of confidence. How is this manifested in behavior?

How is it manifested otherwise? It's a safe bet that someone who spends most of his day lying in bed and staring at the wall wouldn't report feeling very confident.

Confidence is not a cause of behavior, but a product of it.

Monday, March 15, 2021

witch hazel & kigo

Outside the main entrance of the art museum I used to work at stands billowing shrub of vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis).¹ In the last days of February it wakes up with the snow drops and crocuses, putting out tasseled yellow flowers, coolly aromatic—"spicy" is the word typically used to describe its scent, but like most olfactory adjectives, it fails to communicate the particularity and subtleties of the witch hazel's suffusive fragrance. If you're positioned upwind from the the plant, the scent can find your nostrils from a fair distance.

Last year, when I still had the luxury of talking half-hour lunch breaks, and when it was still Shirley's job to stand outside the museum entrance, herding visiting school children and getting into fights with presumptuous motorists who dared to park in the bus lane, I often stepped outside to chat with her for a while. During the last week of February and the first week of March, I'd loiter outside a few minutes every afternoon, chatting with Shirley and whoever else might be around (usually a security guard, a member of the custodial staff, or someone from the education department) about this "coronavirus" thing and speculating as to what might come of it. My memories of my final days at the art museum are redolent with the aroma of witch hazel that attended these conversations.

Last week, when Shirley and I had coinciding days off from our new jobs, we took a walk past the museum and I made us take a detour to visit the witch hazel. After only one year, it became for me as much a signal pleasure of spring's approach as red buds at the tips of maple branches, robins marching in the grass, and the creaking voices of migrating grackles.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Six Rounds with Wittgenstein (Part 5) ... and also a review of the Valiant megaWAD

watch it—my gf is a drooling supermutant

Today we're going to continue leapfrogging across Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (1953). We're also going to go off on a big tangent about video games that will eventually turn into a review of a Doom mod. Because we can, and that is the spirit and joy of blogging.

547. Negation: 'a mental activity'. Negate something and observe what you are doing.——Do you perhaps inwardly shake your head? And if you do——is this process more deserving of our interest than, say, that of writing a sign of negation in a sentence? Do you now know the essence of negation?

549. "How can the word 'not' negate?"——"That sign 'not' indicates that you are to take what follows negatively." We should like to say: The sign of negation is our occasion for doing something——possibly very complicated. It is as if the negation-sign occasioned our doing something. But what? That is not said. It is as if it only needed to be hinted at; as if we already knew. As if no explanation were needed, for we are in any case already acquainted with the matter.

551."Does the same negation occur in: 'Iron does not melt at a hundred degrees Centigrade' and 'Twice two is not five'?" Is this to be decided by introspection; by trying to see what we are thinking as we utter the two sentences? 

First: negation is a feat of the verbal animal.

Consider the pigeon trained to peck at a button when it's colored red and not to peck at it when it's colored blue—even this description is a reification. Properly speaking, what "not pecking" means is "doing something other than pecking, but we don't specify what it is." The omission is expedient insofar as this is one of many occasions where we are solely concerned with whether X is or isn't Y.

"No I didn't read the email you sent me last night" is a more useful answer than "last night I watched YouTube, ate dinner, clipped my toenails, took five pisses, got drunk, jacked off, licked every doorknob in the house..." and so on until every act is accounted for, leading the patient inquirer to finally concludes that "read your email" didn't occur.

In verbal constructions of logic, which are often concerned with the relational frames in which any given entities or events might be situated, X is not Y is what we're left when we're restricted from specifying any characteristics of X and beyond their identities with regard to each other.

To dredge up the old aphorism "nature abhors a vacuum," nonbeing means nothing outside the context of the verbal animal's repertoire. Skinner writes:

Friday, February 26, 2021

Six Rounds with Wittgenstein (Part 4)

Mardsen Hartley, E (1915)

Wittgenstein. Philosophical Investigations (1953). Jibberjab. Back to it.

329. When I think in language, there aren't 'meanings' going through my mind in addition to the verbal expressions: the language is itself the vehicle of thought.

I don't have much to say about this, except that a recurring problem with traditional mentalistic treatments of behavior (verbal or otherwise) assume "thought" needs no definition nor explanation. Nor does "mind" or "meaning." The promiscuity and lability with which these terms are used accounts for much of the inconsistencies, quandaries, and errors Wittgenstein observes throughout the Philosophical Investigations—some of which he might have examined more effectively if he'd made more of an effort to interrogate some of the fundamental terms in his universe of discourse (and refine their definitions where necessary). A categorical prohibition on hypotheses in philosophy nips a lot of potential gibberish in the bud, true—but Wittgenstein's policy of not straying beyond "what we have always known" leaves him stuck with the reductionist descriptions of language and cognition that perpetuate a large portion of the mischief he describes. 

Not that traditional terms of language, intention, meaning, etc. aren't perfectly adequate for casual speech—we have to work with the language we're given, and take the assumptions and conventions baked into it.¹  But Wittgenstein is clearly interested in what's happening in the unexamined margins and interstices of common experience, and those assumptions and conventions hinder his examination.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Six Rounds with Wittgenstein (Part 3)

Arthur Dove, The Critic (1925)

Before we pull more commentary on Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (1953) from the oven, I've got some notes and mea culpas.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Six rounds with Wittgenstein (part 2)

Arthur Dove, Nature Symbolized (1911)

Picking up from where we left off...

 101. We want to say that there can't be any vagueness in logic. The idea now absorbs us, that the ideal 'must' be found in reality. Meanwhile we do not as yet see how it occurs there, nor do we understand the nature of this "must". We think it must be in reality; for we think we already see it there.

102. The strict and clear rules of the logical structure of propositions appear to us as something in the background——hidden in the medium of the understanding. I already see them (even though through a medium): for I understand the propositional sign, I use it to say something. 

105. When we believe that that we must find that order, must find the ideal, in our actual language, we become dissatisfied with what are ordinarily called "propositions", "words", "signs".

The proposition and the word that logic deals with are supposed to be something pure and clear-cut. And we rack our brains over the nature of the real sign.——Is it perhaps the idea of the sign? or the idea of the present moment?

All right. I'm going to level with you here.

I wrote four or five paragraphs about the reification of concepts, and then stopped because I wasn't sure how any of it answered what Wittgenstein seemed to be saying.

Then I started over. I composed seven paragraphs (and transcribed a two-paragraph block quote from Hayes, Barnes-Holmes, and Roche's Relational Frame Theory: A Post-Skinnerian Account of Human Language and Cognition (2001) and then scratched it again. Not only was I unsure how any of it addressed Wittgenstein's points, I realized I have no idea what Wittgenstein is trying to get across—and I'm increasingly confident that he wasn't really sure, either. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Six rounds with Wittgenstein (part 1)

Charles Sheeler, Flower Forms (1917)*

Not long ago, the incomparable Taras T. showed me a couple of critical essays he wrote about Scott McCloud, which drew from the Philosophical Investigations (1953) of Ludwig Wittgenstein.¹ The very day after he recommended I read the book for myself, a coworker happened to mention Wittgenstein in conversation, and I asked him if he had a copy of Philosophical Investigations he'd be willing to lend me for a while.

And so now here we are.

Until now I've known next to nothing about Wittgenstein or his work. I seem to recall Apostolos Doxiadis portraying him as a temperamental clown in his graphic novel Logicomix (2008), and the impression I got from any number of times Wittgenstein's name fizzed up out of the ether is of a polarizing figure. Depending on who you ask, he's either the most important philosopher of the twentieth century or a pompous hack.

Come to think of it, these propositions are not mutually exclusive.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Notes: the Jersey Pine Barrens

I don't manage to get out of Philadelphia often, but when I do I like to visit the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Here are some (elaborated) notes taken during and after my most recent visit.

Unique, but seldom photogenic.

🞄 The Pine Barrens have fascinated me ever since my first visit some fifteen years ago. Having spent most of my hiking-and-rambling time in deciduous temperate forests of some variety or other, I found in the Pine Barrens a veritably alien landscape. But until fairly recently, I wasn't aware of how unusual an ecosystem it is. As a matter of fact, the Pine Barrens are unique.

The native range of its defining flora (Pinus rigida, the pitch pine) extends longitudinally from central Kentucky to the Atlantic, and latitudinally from northern Georgia to southeastern Ontario. Pitch pine forests don't occur anywhere else. Their reliance on poor and/or depleted soil makes their distribution spotty, and human activity has winnowed them down and boxed them in even further. Encompassing 1.1 million acres, the New Jersey Pine Barrens are by far the world's largest extant pitch pine forest.

Understanding the Pine Barrens as an ecosystem requires getting acquainted with the pitch pine and some of its special properties.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Spiritual cramps

Orion; photo (cropped) by Adam Block, via Apod

In late December, I sent individual season's greetings-type texts to some friends during a lull at work. James replied with a message alluding to the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. He knows me well, and assumed I'd been watching for it.

I'm sorry to say that I missed it.

The benefits of my situation in Philadelphia are manifold (though most of them boil down to being able to bike and walk almost everywhere I need to be), but the costs sometimes prompt me to browse housing and job listings from towns out in the sticks, or in smaller cities famously protective of their green belts. Not being able to see many stars was one of the many privations and inconveniences I complained about when I lived on the fringes of Washington, DC (2014). Having relocated to Silver Spring after living my entire life in some suburb or other, a practically empty night sky affected me acutely. If we wanted to dredge up posts from Beyond Easy's first few years (big if, there), we'd find no small abundance of entries about stargazing and astronomy. The places I lived then weren't altogether devoid of light pollution, true, but you could still make out the Milky Way on clear, moonless summer nights. It was easy to notice the stars, especially if, say, you'd fallen into the habit of taking midnight walks with friends to get high in the woods. Once I started noticing the stars, paying attention to them and taking a deepening interest in them followed naturally.

After a couple of years, objects in the night sky took on a significance beyond their interest as mere aesthetic and intellectual wonders as I came to associate them with terrestrial events. When I think of craning my neck to look directly up Vega, I seem to feel the air of a warm summer evening on my skin. Conversely, thinking about Orion gives me a mnemonic chill.¹ Cassiopeia, Perseus, and Pegasus torquing up over the eastern horizon means summer is on its way out; glimpsing Arcturus in the early evening indicates it's finally on its way. And of course there are all the other stellar objects that keep a more precise time or are simply a pleasure to gaze at: Corona Berenices, Draco, Gemini, Lacerta, the Pleiades, Delphinus, Hercules, Scorpius, and so on.