Friday, December 23, 2022

Twelve Rounds with Kant (part thirteen)

Well, here we are—about to take a look at the second division of Kant's Critique of the Power of Judgement, the Critique of Teleological Judgement. When I say "let's take a look at," I mean "let me reread, take notes, and summarize it for myself because a Kant critique makes Ulysses seem like light reading." After this there will be one more Kantpost where I'll try and figure out whether the third critique really contains kernels of valuable wisdom, of if the heautonomy of the faculty of judgement is really the friends we make along the way. 

Let's begin with a few excerpts of some things Kant says in this section that must strike the twenty-first century reader as embarrassingly outmoded. Might as well it out of the way now.

Nothing in it [an organism] is vain, purposeless, or to be ascribed to a blind mechanism of nature.

My tailbone and appendix say otherwise, chum. I'd include my wisdom teeth, but I had them pulled out of my head because they'd have deformed the rest of my teeth if they'd been left in. Lost track of 'em afterwards. Pretty sure they're blocking me on the Face Book.

It is well known that the anatomists of of plants and animals, in order to investigate their structure and to understand for what reason and to what end they have been given such a disposition and combination of parts and precisely this internal form, assume as indispensably necessary the maxim that nothing in such a creature is in vain, and likewise adopt it as the fundamental principle of the general doctrine of nature that nothing happens by chance.

The processes of natural selection and evolution are catalyzed precisely "by chance." The hatching of a bird with a somewhat unusually shaped beak that turns out to be better suited to the selective pressures of its environment than its nestmates' occurs precisely by chance. Chemistry, whose laws govern the behavior of nucleotides, is a science of probabilities. 

[I]t is quite certain that we can never adequately come to know the organized beings [organisms] and their internal possibility in accordance with merely mechanical principles of nature, let alone explain them; and indeed this is so certain that we can boldly say that it would be hope there may yet arise a Newton who could make comprehensible even the generation of a blade of grass that no intention has ordered...

You mean to tell me the smartest boy in Königsberg didn't foresee genome sequencing? Well then, how smart could he have really been? Dummkopf!

Strictly speaking, the organization of nature is...not analogous with any causality that we know.

ever hear of mitosis lolol chromatids from the window to da wall lol

But if one leaves this aside and looks only to the use that other natural beings make of [grass], then one abandons the contemplation of its internal organization and looks only at its external purposive relations, where the grass is necessary to the livestock, just as the latter is necessary to the human being as the means for his existence; yet one does not see why it is necessary that human beings exist (a question which, if one thinks about the New Hollanders or the Fuegians, might not be so easy to answer)....

Immanuel, you racist prick.

There. Now that we can set all that aside...

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Twelve Rounds with Kant (part twelve)

In some ways the Critique of the Power of Judgement resists synopsis. The Critique of Pure Reason and Critique of Practical Reason each possesses a linear structure wherein an elaborate argument is built up from its foundations and followed to the pinnacle of its conclusion, whether Kant intends to construct and justify a bounded but flexible epistemological system (the first critique) or to provide an annex in which that system can house a moral objectivism, assert the logical and practical necessity of doing so, and explore what that entails (the second critique). The third critique, on the other hand, often seems tangential to itself.

Let's say Kant has a greater and a lesser ambition for the Critique of the Power of Judgment. On a more modest level, Kant wants only to examine the faculty of judgement in and of itself, and see if it contains an a priori guiding principle like the other two "higher" cognitive faculties (the understanding and reason). If that's the case, he pins that principle (the perception of purposiveness) down in the Introduction, and having established it as conclusively settled, proceeds to spend the next three hundred pages ruminating on its ramifications, with detours into matters of fine art and biology. Any outline of the procedure would be as scattershot as the book itself, and academic wonks have noticed that Kant doesn't actually ground many of his remarks on beauty and organic forms upon the intricacies of our judging faculty. (See here, sixth paragraph.)

More daringly, Kant also purposes to span the divide between the remote continents of natural and moral philosophy. That's a hell of a hook (especially if you're already familiar with the organization of the Kantian system), and it had me eagerly turning the pages as soon as Kant alluded to the possibility in the Introduction. Imagine my surprise when our dear philosopher presently embarked on a deep dive into judgements of taste and art.

Not that this stuff is altogether irrelevant to Kant's stated purpose, and not that it wasn't tremendously influential in its time—it cannot be emphasized enough that the Critique of the Power of Judgement inaugurated the definitional shift of the word "aesthetic" toward its modern usage—but it's possible to finish the Introduction, skip the Critique of Aesthetic Judgement altogether, and begin reading the Critique of Teleological Judgement and not find your understanding of it much impaired. We simply can't do this with the Critique of Pure Reason: if the first-time reader leapt ahead to the Transcendental Dialectic after reaching the end of the Transcendental Aesthetic, he'd find himself hopelessly lost.

Giving an overview of the Critique of the Power of Judgement with regard to its more grandiose intention without setting aside whole swaths of the book as extraneous is a daunting prospect. People who've made careers for themselves reading and writing about Kant have evidently taxed themselves trying to discern an internal consistency within the text as a whole. As an amateur, I find myself at something of a loss.

I feel that the most sensible and expedient way of writing about the third critique would be to look separately at its aesthetic and teleological sections, paying attention to the areas where the concerns of the first and second critiques overlap. I should say again, for anyone who's actually reading this, that I'm writing this as a summary for my own benefit (internalizing the text by compelling myself to parse and restate parts of it), during which I'll pretend that I'm explaining to a curious roommate what I've been reading lately. 

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Twelve Rounds with Kant (part eleven)

Let's set the tone here with an excerpt.

Since the freedom of the imagination consists precisely in the fact that it schematizes without a concept, the judgement of taste must rest on a mere sensation of the reciprocally animating imagination in its freedom and the understanding with its lawfulness, thus on a feeling that allows the object to be judged in accordance with the purposiveness of the representation (by means of which an object is given) for the promotion of the faculty of cognition in its free play; and taste, as a subjective power of judgement, contains a principle of subsumption, not of intuitions under concepts, but of the faculty of intuitions or presentations (i.e., of the imagination) under the faculty of concepts (i.e., the understanding), insofar as the the former in its freedom is in harmony with the latter in its lawfulness.

One sentence. Who could have written this sentence but Immanuel Kant? And what could occasion wheeling him here but my having finally finished reading The Critique of the Power of Judgement (1790), the final installment of the Kant Trilogy?

(Note: the title most often translated into English as "The Critique of Judgement," but the Cambridge University Press edition I've been reading is titled "The Critique of the Power of Judgement," which is closer to the meaning of the original German (Critik der Urtheilskraft.) Editor and translator Paul Guyer (or perhaps Cambridge University Press) insists on the barbarous spelling "judgment," which I reject and will not reproduce here.)

Since about part six of this exercise I've regretted giving myself an arbitrary framework vis-à-vis the title. Twelve rounds, twelve Kantposts. I spent way too much time at the beginning idly ruminating on the metaphysical implications of the first critique's Transcendental Aesthetic when the Transcendental Dialectic constituted the real meat on the bone. And now here we are on part eleven of twelve, and I've got to somehow synopsize and/or meditate on the Critique of Judgement in just two posts. This bout might have to go on for an extra round. Goodie.

Once again, let me emphasize that I'm doing this strictly for the purpose of engaging with Kant in a way that helps me to better understand the material than I would if I just put the book away and went on with my life. Nothing that follows should be taken as authoritative. I'm writing more or less as a student.

So: the Critique of the Power of Judgement reminds me of Marilyn Manson's album Holy Wood.

I can't believe I just typed that. Let me explain.

Saturday, October 22, 2022

Celebrity, Mythology, & The Machine (part 9)

René Magritte, The Lovers (1928)

Whoops. A couple of days ago I accidently hit "publish" on the draft that I'd been using as a repository for notes and stuff cut out of other pieces. I never said I was any good at this.


The development of media technology in the West was from the beginning a movement toward individuation and estrangement. It's right there in the Latin meaning of the word. Medium. A middle; something that stands between.

Information in a nonliterate society cannot remain inert. It must be enacted, it must circulate. The externalization of speech as written language denuded human interdependence in its original, direct forms. The more one can learn from a book, the less one requires a teacher, guide, or knowledgeable companion. When news of community affairs is delivered through a paper, one no longer needs to hear it from her neighbors. Stories and poetry taken in through the eye instead of the ear become matters of private leisure instead of communal occasions.

In a primary oral culture, the transmission of verbal information necessitates a direct interaction between speakers and listeners. Communication here is immediate and interactive; feedback from the listeners influence what the speaker says and how he says it, and the exchange of information most often occurs under circumstances which are conterminous for both speaker and listener. In other words, the contexts of the acts of speaking and listening overlap. But this is obvious: the speaker wouldn't be speaking if a listener weren't nearby, and vice versa. A social environment such as this can't be expected to breed many introverts or loners. "Primary orality fosters personality structures that in certain ways are more communal and externalized, and less introspective than those common among literates," Walter Ong writes in his 1982 classic Orality and Literacy. "Oral communication unites people in groups."

Conversely, between the novelist and the reader of her book is interposed a labyrinthine social complex that confronts each of them in a different aspect.

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Celebrity, Mythology, & The Machine (part 8)

YouTube screencap ganked from

Just kidding. There's still one more to go after this. I'm just having too much fun.


I would like to submit two provisional definitions.

First: the celebrity. He or she is a media entity whose content—those artifacts bearing some aspect of their likeness and/or their name—passes some arbitrary threshold of circulation such that it alters the behavior of some arbitrary number of viewing and/or listening persons along similar lines. We can set the bar as high or as low as we please, though it is generally understood that a proper celebrity commands the attention of some tens of thousands of people or more.

This is not a rigorous definition—surely some more thoughtful person can do better—but it designates the celebrity status as function of media "presence" (which we put in quotation makes because the template for the artifact is very seldom present where the majority of spectators are concerned), and also of the artifacts' effects on those who engage with them. The second part is more slippery than the first, since it doesn't differentiate between something as simple as hovering over a recognized name on a film's IMDB page and something as drastic as recording a sobbing excoriation of the press' calloused treatment of a troubled pop star and uploading it to YouTube. But in either case, the act is elicited by a history of engagement with content, not with the human beings to which is its attributed.

Second definition—tentatively, and far less rigorously—content is stimuli administered by a device. That device might be a film projector, a television screen, a smartphone, a Kindle, a car's stereo system, or whatever. Note that "content" wasn't the vernacular term which encompassed written material, television programming, film, music, etc. until the internet age.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Celebrity, Mythology, & The Machine (part 7)

Via Insider


With a little shopping, the photo above could easily pass as a scene from an outdoor Harry Styles concert. This is a scene from a parade, not a judicial occasion.

Some people buy a ticket for a stadium seat so they can shout themselves hoarse encouraging and cursing their favorite football team; others visit the courthouse where a celebrity trial is being held so they can cheer on the dreamy litigant they've been stanning since high school. It's all the same: modern variations on the theme of the Great Dionysia.

Depp v. Heard played out like an ancient Greek drama in which the attentive public comprised the chorus. Two private persons, whom we all seemed to know, or felt we knew on the basis of our having so often seen and heard their likenesses in films, read interviews with them in glossy magazines, parsed and hit the Like button on their social media updates, etc., entered a courtroom in Fairfax, Virginia to settle a civil dispute. 

There was no possibility that the trial would ensue like a mundane legal process for determining whether the defendant's article in the Washington Post actually constituted defamation, as the plantiff alleged. The entire proceeding was livestreamed, and we viewed it as though it were a protracted film in which Depp and Heard were co-stars—that is to say that it was entertainment, witnessed, contemplated, and discussed by members of society in which entertainment is a profoundly serious matter.

Saturday, October 1, 2022

On Return to Monkey Island

In spite of all the admonitions of my reason (and though I've got something else I really ought to be finishing), I'm compelled to offer my paltry observations of Return to Monkey Island and its reception. I know I will be saying nothing that hasn't already been promulgated throughout the message boards and social networks of people who play games, or been the subject of a thousand YouTube monologues. Yet I apparently can't help myself. Like Ron Gilbert's previous game, 2017's Thimbleweed Park, Return to Monkey Island reminded me why I don't play video games much anymore—and maybe that's a good thing [question mark].

There will be spoilers. Also, most of the screenshots were captured by other people.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Celebrity, Mythology, & The Machine (part 6)


It's difficult to grow up in the developed world without building up a set of habits around a television set, some sort of music player, a smartphone, or any other machine that delivers mass media content. Most of us are "followers" of at least a few media personalities. That's just how it is.

Who are my favorites, you ask?

I listen to Clay Pigeon's Wake N Bake show at work, five days a week. Mr. Pigeon picks good tunes. I've enjoyed his radio essays, one-man skits, and street interviews ever since I chanced to catch a few on the Dusty Show while driving around Jersey in the late aughts. He's always struck me as a sweet man. All I know about his history is what he's said on the air: he's originally from Iowa but lives in Manhattan with his wife (whose name escapes me). I believe he used to be a smoker.

The only internet-famous types I keep track of are the boys middle-aged men of RedLetter Media. Best of the Worst scratches more or less the same itch as Mystery Science Theater 3000. I usually skip their takes on recent films (I don't go to the movies much and I don't subscribe to any streaming services), but sometimes I'll click on a new Re:View episode if they're discussing a favorite film of mine or one I've been curious about. I don't follow any of them on social media.

I think that might be about it these days. There are a few blogs I peek at now and then, but I'm not sure that counts. Much as I enjoy reading Nick Carr or Sam Kriss's stuff, I've never felt much personal affection for either of them. Not like Clay Pigeon or the RedLetter Media guys. When you listen to an endearing radio host five days a week, or to a group of conversationalists with entertaining and sometimes fascinating interpersonal dynamics, you're bound to make at least a small emotional investment in them—or, rather, in the simulations of them. I enjoy writers because there's no illusion of propinquity.

I try not to get too invested. Possibly because I've been so deeply disappointed in the past.

Friday, September 16, 2022

Celebrity, Mythology, & The Machine (part 5)

Clara Bow, photographed in 1928


On the face of it, the mythology of any individual celebrity is a modular life-narrative generated in real time via the instruments of mass media, the labor of professionals, and the unpaid contributions of invested observers who gossip, compile and distribute fan-publications, compose fan art, etc. The circulation of media artifacts and their effects on spectators' behavior (disposing them to consume the products with which a celebrity is associated, follow the celebrity on social media, speak about the celebrity to others, or simply to continue watching and/or listening to the celebrity's television appearance, radio interview, YouTube video, etc.) quickens and sustains the living myth's heartbeat. When the magnitude and rate of circulation decreases, or when spectators become less inclined to engage with content and/or consume products featuring the celebrity, their myth comes into a condition of elanguescence. (Clara Bow, the "It Girl" of the 1920s and 1930s, doesn't inspire much devotion or very many retrospective listicles these days.)

As we've seen, the overlapping circles of Western Europe's economic, cultural, and political elite formed the ranks of the proto-celebrity beau monde. The press loved them, and a sizable cross-section of the literate public was captivated by them—but their wealth and power had little to do with the mass media. It is the reverse for their successors, the celebrities proper of the electric age.

The modern celebrity stands aloft on a tautology. Critics of Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, and the like once groused that so-and-so was "famous for being famous"—but that has always been the case for anyone who sought to earn a living by offering their name, likeness, and work to the mass media complex. Circulation catalyzes circulation. The person with a speaking role in a major film, who chats with late-night talk show hosts, has their photographs festooned across the magazines and tabloids displayed at the supermarket checkout, who's discussed on daytime television, etc., gets slotted for time in these media because they are seen to be significant, and they are significant because they are (or have been) seen. (They are selected, initially, on the industry expert's appraisal of the value they'll add to a product. By coming into circulation, their likeness enters the domain wherein mythologization becomes possible.)

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Celebrity, Mythology, & The Machine (part 4)

However much the sensory content of electric media will be emphasized going forward, it's worth addressing how print matter embraced and promoted the imagistic "language" of the mass media.

Let's take for an example the reporting (and advertising) of sartorial fashion, integral to the sphere of celebrity reporting then and now. The following is a passage from the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette of  February 28, 1873:

words words words

There are no pictures. You had to use your imagination. Moreover, you had to be in the know. I have no idea what is meant by "plastron," "fraises," or "gilet fichus;" they might as well be chemistry terms. Certainly the nineteenth-century woman reading the piece was much more likely to be familiar with sartorial jargon, but even so, pure print imposes certain qualifications for comprehension whenever it strays from the commonest vernacular.

While it's not entirely fair to compare the inside content of a small-town newspaper the cover of a magazine with national circulation, it's nevertheless instructive to look ahead to the February 23, 1895 edition of Harper's Bazaar:

"Paris calling costume from Worth"

There it is: an artist's representation of the dress and its idealized wearer—and the intimations of a lifestyle.

Now let's jump forward another four decades to marvel at the cover of Vogue from August 1, 1938:

"Huh? Great Depression? What depression?
I feel fabulous!"

Even though it's divorced from any explicit context, the photo disinvites any questions as to where this is supposed to be and what's supposed to be happening there. Obviously we require no technical description of the model's raiment; the camera reproduces its "objective" likeness. By studying it, we can guess something of its texture, or the way it must go taut about the elbows and knees. The verisimilitude of the model is such that when we imagine her speaking, we might hear something other than our own interior voice. We see, we feel, we know, we believe. When we talk about sensuous as opposed to discursive content, this is what we mean.


The expansion and diversification of mass media in the first half of the twentieth century altogether supplanted the discursive "virtual reality" of the beau monde with the ensorcelling mythology of the celebrity. The process can be encapsulated as the result of three movements: extension of the mass media's range and its homogenization on a national scale, and the denudation of typographic culture by an emergent paradigm of sensuous content, and the crucible of the free market.

In terms of its reach, twentieth-century media imposed the culture of the metropolis upon the province. This process was well underway during the second half of the nineteenth century, as railways swiftly and reliably transported a growing number of national-audience publications from the city to the town and country. In the same way, secondary cities were likewise bent into conformity with the metropoles. If you lived in, say, Philadelphia or Saint Louis, the majority of the books you read were printed in London or New York. The birth and rapid growth of the motion picture industry (which entailed the repurposing of local theaters as cinemas) accelerated cultural homogenization, as did recorded music, radio, and television.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Celebrity, Mythology, & The Machine (part 3)

Charles Dickens carte-de-visite (ca. 1860–69)


The eighteenth-century newspaper scooped up the beau monde as readymade celebrities. Many of high society's denizens would have been happier without the public scrutiny. Probably it was only those people and families who were either trying to climb the social ladder, found themselves in a position of precarity, or feared the airing of a private scandal who truly cared about what the plebians writing for the newspapers had to say about them. 

Despite the newspapers' role in bringing the affairs of the fashionable universe to the public's attention (and stationing themselves as a sort of magic mirror in the fashionable household), the media didn't get into the business of manufacturing its celebrities until the nineteenth century. True, the papers weren't above bringing eccentrics, perverts, and madmen into the textual spotlight to be gawked at by a public that would have otherwise been ignorant of them (then as now, sensationalistic content moved product), and of course coverage was allotted to the scientist, inventor, political activist, philosopher, or businessman who rose to prominence in their respective spheres of activity. But the first modern celebrity was the figure whose sphere of activity was the mass media itself: the literary celebrity, who made his entrance onto the public stage during the same decades that the fashionable intelligence column became a fixture of the English-language newspaper.

These new sorts of eminences were, like their counterparts on the twentieth century's silver screen and the twenty-first century's black mirror, those best endowed to make themselves a creature of the medium in which they worked, through a combination of ingenuity, talent, restless ambition, and a personal charisma they could weave into the very fibers of their productions.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Celebrity, Mythology, & The Machine (part 2)

George Cruikshank, The Prince of Whales or The Fisherman at Anchor (1812)


The germ of celebrity culture as we recognize it today was incubated in the crucible of the mass media revolution. Not the printed and bound book, but the newspaper, which attained a recognizably modern form during the eighteenth century. Government accounting data from Britain suggests that the annual circulation of newspapers rose from about 2.4 million copies in 1713 to 16 million copies by 1801.¹ In addition to publishing current events reports, partisan propaganda, editorial essays, poetry, columns about mathematics, etc., the city periodical was also apt to disseminate a great deal of gossip.

Readers of eighteenth-century London journals such as the TatlerTown and Country, and the World could enjoy regular helpings of juicy content about the impropriety of the upper classes. Though similar in spirit to People and TMZ, they resemble their modern progeny about as much as a tyrannosaur looks like a chicken. Their correspondents typically referred to their subjects by an initial or pseudonymously, expecting the savvy reader to decipher the clues as to whom they referred. Dirt on the rich and powerful was often shoveled up in the form a satirical poem (Alexander Pope's 1712 epic The Rape of the Lock being the most famous example, though it wasn't originally printed in a newspaper), but most often it was served in in the grandiloquent prose of the period.

The ostensible purpose of these primitive scandal sheets was muckraking: the pseudonymous author of the short-lived Female Tatler (one Mrs. Crackenthorpe) claimed her intention was to shame the well-to-do into regulating their own behavior and setting a better example for the "inferior classes."² Doubtless the editors of longer-enduring journals understood that whatever excuse was made for it, lurid content moved product.

From The Freeman's Journal of Dublin (Jan. 16, 1843)

Monday, September 12, 2022

Celebrity, Mythology, & The Machine (part 1)

Heath Ledger shrine by Kaitlin (2012?)

For what follows I am indebted to Shirley in two respects. First: some months ago (this piece was put aside and picked back up three or four times), she and I got in an argument about her sympathetic interest in Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson, which I simply couldn't make sense of. It prompted me to probe the topic of celebrity culture out of (1) a genuine interest in understanding how it works and where it came from, and (2) spite.

Second, she has often suggested that I break up my more precipitous effortposts into more approachable segments, which seems worth giving a shot. Let's see how it goes.


Though the term "parasocial relationship" was coined by modern sociologists observing the effects of electric media in the 1950s, parasocial interactions predate recorded history. Their earliest instances occurred between preliterate peoples and their gods and spirits.

It may be objected that supernatural beings don't actually exist in any meaningful material sense, disqualifying any of them from acting as the second party in a parasocial interaction—but to the members of a prescientific "tribal" society, their reality was as much a given as that of the sun in the sky and the earth underfoot.

On the other hand, one may point out that an individual might have good reason to believe that an ancestor spirit was aware of his or her life and deeds, and we propose that if the believed reality of a deceased but conscious family member should be considered effectively real, then we're actually making the case that the interaction is of an interpersonal rather than a parasocial character.

Maybe. But we needn't go deep into the weeds of ontology to observe that if "nonhuman persons" such as gods or spirits could be said to have reciprocated believers' interest (to the understanding of those believers), they did so only mediately. This is to say that there is in fact a difference between the appearance of a mysterious, unmasked man with antlers who emerges bodily from the forest during a druidic ritual, speaks and responds to the celebrants in articulate human speech, clasps them by the shoulders, and then disappears in a cloud of mist before their eyes, and the hunter who returns to the village claiming that a deer with which he made eye contact was a god in animal guise, recognizing and communing with him an uncanny moment of eye contact.

In a paradigm of primary orality, gods and spirits are media entities. Their images gaze at believers through the bulbous eyes of idols fashioned from wood or stone, admonish or menace people in their dreams, cyclically accomplish their famous deeds during storytelling performances and commemorative rituals, and make their desires known through the voices of human liaisons. Their reality has its basis in communal speech and ritual enactment, the devotional behavior they inspire, and the psychological transformations of the physical environment which they effectuate; they "exist" as verbal relations carried out in the field of experience, set up and maintained by the social group.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Peter and the Basilisk

Samuel Colman, The Edge of Doom (1836–38)

  Where is the end of them, the fishermen sailing
Into the wind's tail, where the fog cowers?
We cannot think of a time that is oceanless
Or of an ocean not littered with wastage
Or of a future that is not liable
Like the past, to have no destination.

  —T.S. Eliot, "The Dry Salvages" (1943)

The United States' Evangelical Christians are a cohort in decline, and only the kookiest of them habitually scrutinize Israeli politics for signals of the Rapture. The vulgar fashionability of Nostradamus peaked in the 1990s, and at this point we're all fairly certain the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar did not, in fact, apprise us of the Earth's expiration date and/or the dawn of The New Age. 

And yet, prophecy has not been discredited and is far from dead. Chiliasm and apocalypticism are a pair of bats too stubbornly lodged in the belfry of Western consciousness to be shooed out by a sequence of ideological paradigm shifts. We can't seem to let go of the idea that history must arrive at a culmination and we can know in advance what it is. All that's changed are the methods of augury and our relation to whatever sort of future we suppose is preordained.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

My Little Cockroach: Friendship Is Magic

Concerning the cockroaches, there was an extraordinary phenomenon, for which none of us could ever account.

Every night they had a jubilee. The first symptom was an unusual clustering and humming among the swarms lining the beams overhead, and the inside of the sleeping-places. This was succeeded by a prodigious coming and going on the part of those living out of sight. Presently they all came forth; the larger sort racing over the chests and planks; winged monsters darting to and fro in the air; and the small fry buzzing in heaps almost in a state of fusion.
   —Herman Melville, Omoo: Adventures in the South Seas (1847)

American cockroach (Periplaneta americana)

It’s time we discussed the cockroach.

Is it misunderstood? Certainly. Most of us don’t trouble ourselves to learn about something that makes us shriek and dry heave. But since cockroaches aren't going anywhere, perhaps we should to become more knowledgeable of these contumacious neighbors of ours.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Young Justice: A Postmortem (or: Kneel Before Hugbox)

After spending more time writing about Magic: The Gathering than was sanely warranted (and not saying very much interesting about it for all the words, words, words) I wanted to be done scribbling about pop culture dreck for a while. I've got other stuff on my mind.

Then I went on vacation and got covid with a side of insomnia. I hadn't brought my laptop (all of my vacations are also digital detoxes) and only packed the sort of books that one can't effectively read when they've got a fever, a head full of germs, and are running on three hours of sleep. So, once again, I kept myself distracted late at night by writing something easy. Pop culture is easy.

So, this is a transcription of fevered chicken scratches, tidied up and expanded a bit. I already regret typing it, am intensely annoyed at committing time to editing it, and will surely hate myself for posting it. I'm going to bed.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Magic: The Gathering: The Worldbuilding: The Writeup (8 of 8)

Because for rational beings to see or re-cognize their experience in a new material form is an unbought grace of life. Experience translated into a new medium literally bestows a delightful playback of earlier awareness. The press repeats the excitement we have in using our wits, and by using our wits we can translate the outer world into the fabric of our own beings.
   —Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (1964)
Is anyone surprised that McLuhan articulated the appeal of games writing over a decade before even Pong and Dungeons & Dragons were on the market?

I'm putting this last part out ahead of schedule because I'm ready to be done with it.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Magic: The Gathering: The Worldbuilding: The Writeup (7 of 8)

We're drawing closer to the point where I started playing Magic: The Gathering again after Weatherlight alienated me, and something occurred to me regarding Magic's remarkable persistence as a game, a community, and institution.

Somebody who collected and played with Magic cards at any point in their lives can return to the game after a decade or longer and still use their old cards at kitchen table games. If their collection consists mostly of cards from Mercadian Masques and Invasion, they probably won't win many games today—but their old decks still qualify them to participate in casual play with friends. The metagame changes, sure, but the only cards that have become completely incompatible with the game are a few very old ones that assumed people played for ante.

Once again, let's use Street Fighter as a counterexample. A person who dropped hundreds of quarters playing Street Fighter II circa 1993, skipped out on Street Fighter Alpha, Street Fighter III, Capcom Vs. SNK, SNK Vs. Capcom, etc., and then had his interest piqued by Street Fighter IV in 2008 would have discovered a game that resembled the one he'd been hooked on a decade and a half earlier, but was nevertheless a different animal. Street Fighter IV's Ryu might handle similarly to his Street Fighter II version, but even apart from the all the new moves, IV's fundamental mechanics are not the same as II's. Even if all the hours he committed to playing Street Fighter II gave our guy a leg up on somebody who was a total novice to 2D fighters, he still had to learn an entirely new game with its own intricacies and fine technical points.

Magic: The Gathering is like what Street Fighter II would be if Capcom had continuously updated it with new characters and the occasional balance tweaks for thirty years. (If "Super Street Fighter II Turbo" is a cumbersome title, imagine what its twentieth or thirtieth version would have been called. By that point, Capcom would have probably taken a cue from SNK and called it Super Street Fighter II Turbo 2021 instead of  something like Double-Plus Ultra Street Fighter II #Reloaded Champion βst ¡Prime! Edition." But we digress.)

I suppose Maple Story is a good instance of a video game actually doing this in practice. Hundreds of thousands of people still play Maple Story, but that's a precipitous decline from the 92 million users crowding its servers back in 2009. It's clearly showing its age, and there's the dilemma: at this point, modernizing it would amount to melting it down and remaking it. Nexon might as well just announce Maple Story 3 at that point—and judging from the brief lifespan of Maple Story 2, its reluctance is understandable. Since its obvious datedness precludes it from attracting many new players, the plan seems to be to let it run on fumes for as long as enough people still play it out of habit, come back for the updates, or revisit it in a sudden fit of nostalgia (as Shirley did last winter), and are enticed to spend real money on fake swag once they're there. 

But playing cards don't obsolesce. They're slips of cardboard. A CCG has no user interface that becomes clunky in comparison to newer products, no core engine that hits its practical limit, and relatively few "patches" (rules changes) that fundamentally change how cards operate in play. Thirty years later, your Beta Edition copy of Lightning Bolt still deals three damage to any target at instant speed, and nobody cares that the art isn't digitally enhanced, the card layout differs from later printings, or that the wording of the rules text isn't as rigorous as it became later on. 

If you knew how to play Magic twenty years ago, you know how to play it now. Adjusting to things like the removal of mana burn from the rules and the loosening of the restrictions on legendary creatures (the same player can't have two copies of Jedit Ojanen in play, but two different players can each have one) might take some getting used to, but you're not going to be like the inveterate Street Fighter III fanatic (me) who tried to like Street Fighter IV, but couldn't get past the idea that it was an inferior reiteration.

There was never a Magic: The Gathering II, Magic: The Gathering Champion Edition, Magic: The Gathering Sword & Shield. After almost thirty years, it's still the same game—which goes a long way towards accounting for how easy it can be to get hooked on it again after a long absence. The original recipe and all its addictive active ingredients remain exactly the same.


Monday, May 2, 2022

Magic: The Gathering: The Worldbuilding: The Writeup (6 of 8)

I mentioned in the first post that two converging factors occasioned me to begin writing this series: the notion that I could neutralize the urge to take up Magic: The Gathering again by writing about Magic, and a bout with depression. There was a third factor I left unmentioned: I'd been unemployed since November. (That contributed to the depression, certainly.)

But I got a new job a couple of weeks ago. My days have structure imposed on them again. I'm biking to work, and the weather has become markedly less dreary. I don't feel like sleeping all the time anymore.

I wrote most of this during the winter, and as I get closer to the end I'm finding I lot of paragraphs that I let taper off, intending to finish them later on—meaning that now I have to do more than just try to tidy these things up before posting them. And now that I'm coming back to life, I'm remembering there's a lot more I want to read, think, and write about other than Magic, and now I have a time constraint.

There's two of these left, so I might as well finish them, but I'd like to have a bit of room while I readjust to the world of living and ponder other projects to occupy my time. Part seven will be up in two weeks.


Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Magic: The Gathering: The Worldbuilding: The Writeup (5 of 8)

The notes about archetypal shadowplay alluded to at the end of the last post ended up becoming a separate thing, which you can read here. I'm still not sure how much sense it makes. At some point I ought to try systematizing this shit.

We've passed the halfway point, and my plan was a total success. I can't tell you how much I want to write about anything other than Magic: The Gathering at this point. Let's hope I think back on this the next time I think that a long-longform thing about some pop-cultural this or that would be an easy and fun thing to do. 

Sunday, April 24, 2022

MtGtWtW: Interlude

Appendix: some quodlibetical notes about the anatomy and physiology of a mythos, apropos the closing remark of the last post.

Monday, April 18, 2022

Magic: The Gathering: The Worldbuilding: The Writeup (4 of 8)

This is going to be a long one, but I want to get the Weatherlight Saga out of the way. It's sort of like 1990s superhero comics: full of iconic characters and landmark events, but much more impressive in retrospect than in its execution.


Monday, April 11, 2022

Magic: The Gathering: The Worldbuilding: The Writeup (3 of 8)

I do read people's comments on this stuff; I'm just terrible at replying. It's a case of perfectionism causing procrastination: somebody takes the time to leave a note, and I feel like they deserve a substantive reply—which, somehow, I never feel I'm capable of doing in the moment. So I put it off, and then it just never happens. My apologies.

Anyway, one "PC" left a note on the last post:
I just finished Elden Ring and you made me realize it's basically the same thing as Magic, except item descriptions are the equivalent of cards. It's just a bunch of free-floating "lore" without any plot or meeting any of the mentioned characters, give or take a few boss fights. Is raw lore that interesting? I suppose it's a nerd thing?

That's...that's exactly right. I've never played Elden Ring or any of Hidetaka Miyazaki's other games (and yes, I know, I'm all the poorer for it), I did play Blasphemous earlier this year, which I understand is a Souls/Metroidvania hybrid.

Blasphemous' story, as communicated during the occasional moments of dialogue, explains what's happening as though the player were already acculturated to Cvstodia and didn't need to be brought up to speed on the Miracle, the Church, or the Brotherhood of the Silent Sorrow, and the effect is that you're operating in the dark for most of the game. The descriptions of the items you collect supply fragmentary information about the land's history, its people, the origins of its monsters, its morbid religion, and the depravity of its leaders. Some of it is important; a lot of it is trivial. But it helps a game that would otherwise be an above-average Metroidvania romp with a unique and brilliantly realized aesthetic tunnels deep into your brain. You're presented with a scenario and you want to make sense of it, to create meaning from the patterns with which you're presented, and you can only make progress by being proactive. Blasphemous doesn't tell you its story; it leaves pieces of it lying around for the player to put together so they can make their own conjectures and draw their own conclusions.

This is precisely how Magic: The Gathering did things in its fledgling years. You collected and played with the cards, and for the most part, when you opened a booster pack of sifted through your collection, you were more interested in how a card functioned than what it revealed about any imaginary world. But you were still looking at the art and reading the flavor text; the ambiance of the setting and the story (even when the story was rudimentary) was inescapable. The same compulsion to make sense of a pattern was apt to assert itself—and, yes, I suppose nerds are particularly susceptible to this sort of thing.


Monday, April 4, 2022

Magic: The Gathering: The Worldbuilding: The Writeup (2 of 8)

If I had to rank my favorite Magic: The Gathering artists, Amy Weber and her buoyant, diagrammatic compositions would be somewhere in the top three. What exactly are we seeing in Curse of Marit Lage? How does it relate to the card's in-game effect? Who knows! But it sure is fun to look at.

I really miss old Magic art. In the mid-1990s, Wizards of the Coasts' artist coterie was full of people whose work was impossible to mistake fom anyone else's. Amy Weber, of course. Richard Kane Ferguson. Kaja and Phil Foglio. Drew Tucker. Rebecca Guay. Andi Rusu. Even that deranged nazi fuck Harold McNeill. In its early years, Magic's signature "look" was a composite of diverse art styles, imbuing the fantasy world depicted in the cards and the aesthetic experiences of the game they're used in with a touch of surreality, of the protean, of...well, magic.

Scrolling through these writeups and just looking at the card images is sort like watching a time-lapse video of a flower blooming or a carcass decomposing. By the time we get to the end of the decade, the art doesn't look very much at all like it did at the beginning. After another eight years, the difference between Mark Poole's Counterspell and Jason Chan's Counterspell is as stark as the contrast between how Jack Kirby and Jim Lee drew the X-Men. Nowadays, Magic art is sleek, consistent, and exquisitely polished—but not as much fun as it was when it was still a hodgepodge, and before Wizards ran its art department like a factory. 

...Anyway. Let's get on with it.


Monday, March 28, 2022

Magic: The Gathering: The Worldbuilding: The Writeup (1 of 8)

Postscript: This was written in fits and starts, spaced out across about five months—usually coinciding with Wizards of the Coast previewing a new Magic: The Gathering expansion and releasing the associated web fiction. As usual, one of the motivators of this "exercise" is the idea that I can apply to myself the parental logic of forcing a child to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes after catching him lighting up in the garage.*  It's worked before, and the results were usually something I could live with. This time...I'm not so sure.

For the Magic: The Gathering fan/addict (what's the difference?) who happens upon this writeup, I suspect it'll be so much catnip. For the person who's never thought about or spent any money on the damn cards, it could be an entertaining dive into an entertainment product that rakes in upwards of $580 million a year, forms the basis of an esoteric subset of geek/gamer culture that's probably larger than most people think, and achieved with nothing but colorful pieces of carboard the same degree of slavish patronage which World of Warcraft needed the Unreal Engine and cable internet to inspire in its players.

For people in my age group (read: old) who played for a couple of years in middle school and then wandered off, never to return, it might be a fun way to see how much the game changed over the years.

I should say in advance that I'm not going to be looking at every single Magic set. There's a point where R&D refines its approach to worldbuilding into almost a matter of rote method, and where most of what can be said about a given set is "so-and-so happens in the story," "it's a lot like such-and-such previous set," and "it's inspired by this-and-that real-world culture and folklore." We won't be venturing very far into the post-Mending era.

Since most of these have already been written and need only some touch-ups and pictures, I think I can stand to post them weekly—which might mean I have two months' worth of updates on deck. If I weren't so ashamed of myself for having written so much about Magic: The Gathering, I'd be very pleased.

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

The conspiracy of NFTs

Everybody hates NFTs and is sick of hearing about them, barring the people who have gotten, or are hoping to get rich (or richer) from making and selling NFT art—and we might getting of sick of them, too. We're tired of the phantom whiffs of vape oil and cannabis we get whenever we glimpse a fugitive Bored Ape Yacht Club avatar, and we're tried of gnashing our teeth when we hear that some insipid, procedurally generated .png with a blockchain receipt sold for tens of thousands of dollars. We're even getting weary of reading articles about our collective hatred of NFTs. And yet, the media persists in telling us that the damn things are here to stay, and that we'll all soon embrace them as willingly as we did credit cards, Farmville, Instagram, or any other parasitic technology. Surely the incessant anti-NFT chatter helps to fulfill the prophecy, crystallizing the inevitability of Web3 the same way Freddy Krueger grows strong by feeding on the fears of his future victims.

Nevertheless, we are now, reluctantly looking into the mirror and chanting "non-fungible asset tokens" three times. What compelled me to this was Wikipedia's decision to classify Cryptopunks and their ilk as NFTs—not as "art."

Though it pains me to say it, I don't think this was the right call. "Art" is a word whose meaning lost all coherence around the same time the cabal of critics and curators retroactively canonized Marcel Duchamp's Fountain. If what we talk about when we talk about art is the stuff we see in museums or read about in Artforum, it's hard to deny that NFTs fit the profile. If Banksy's stencil graffiti or Warhol's screen prints of camouflage patterns get to be Art, then who are Wikipedia's editors to say that a .jpg with a blockchain ledger "pointing" to it belongs to a separate, lesser category of cultural artifact?

Not only would I argue that NFTs deserve to be categorized as art, but that they represent the next logical step in the evolution of contemporary art, and of the art market (and truly, it is impossible to separate the two). But what's more important is how they arrived at this position: by a feat of reductio ad absurdum.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

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

 As I said before, this project seemed like a much better idea before it began.

Several months after I first watched it (and re- and rewatched it), YouTube rerecommended me the Zelda CDi Reanimated Collab—again. And like a cat who can't help itself from batting at a foxtail dangling in front of its face, I clicked the link and watched it—again.

This time, for whatever reason, I imagined a scenario where an alien anthropologist, visiting Earth thousands of years in the future, somehow found itself viewing the ZCRC in the vine-shrouded shambles of an old server bank. (No, I don't know how it would accomplish this. Alien science.) What if, somehow, this very video was one of the only digital artifacts from the twenty-first century that the visitor could reconstruct in toto? Given this clue, what would the curious alien surmise of humanity's way of life in the twilight years of its global civilization?

That was the handle of it: pretending that the ZCRC wasn't just a silly piece of internet ephemera, but something that deserved a thoroughgoing accounting for, as though the description "YouTube video about the cutscenes from a so-bad-it's-funny 1990s video game" would be received with an uncomprehending stare.

Since I'm too afraid to reread the first three parts of this exercise and discover that I'm actually a babbling idiot, let's please assume that I've given an adequately explication of the ZCRC in terms of the medium in which it occurs, the persons who made it, and its cultural functions, all as outcomes of historical processes. All that remains is to guess at what it means.


As the seasons passed and his missions continued, Marco mastered the Tartar language and the national idioms and tribal dialects. Now his accounts were the most precise and detailed that the Great Khan could wish and there was no question or curiosity which they did not satisfy. And yet each piece of information about a place recalled to the emperor's mind that first gesture or object with which Marco had designated the place. The new fact received a meaning from that emblem and also added to the emblem a new meaning. Perhaps, Kublai thought, the empire is nothing but a zodiac of the mind's phantasms.

"On the day when I know all the emblems," he asked Marco, "shall I be able to possess my empire, at last?"

And the Venetian answered: "Sire, do not believe it. On that day you will be an emblem among emblems." 
   —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (1972)

What does the Zelda CDi Reanimated Collab mean? What do The Faces of Evil and The Wand of Gamelon mean, for that matter?

Saturday, February 12, 2022

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

Games, like institutions, are extensions of social man and of the body politic, as technologies are extensions of the animal organism. Both games and technologies are counter-irritants or ways of adjusting to the stress of the specialized actions that occur in any social group. As extensions of the popular response to the workaday stress, games become faithful models of a culture. They incorporate both the action and the reaction of whole populations in a single dynamic image.
   —Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (1964)

Of course, "games" meant something totally different in 1964 than today. But the good professor is still worth listening to on the topic, I think.

So, once again, we're examining the technical and cultural backdrop of a silly YouTube video where a couple hundred different animators set new moving pictures to the old noises from two of the most embarrassing video games ever made.

This seemed like a such a good idea a month or two back. I was drinking more back then. Early winter and all.


Who are the mythmakers?

First, it depends on what we mean by "myths." We'll come back to that.

Second: it depends on how a culture is organized, and the technology it uses.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

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

In case you missed our last episode (and I don't see how a 6000-word blog post about the evolving phenomenology of the art-object shouldn't be at the top of everyone's reading list), we're scrutinizing the techno-sociological paradigm which the Zelda CDi Reanimated Collab instantiates. Excogitations upon the trivial can sometimes illuminate more of our world than an enquiry into a grand figure or theme, and while I can't promise that will be the outcome here, maybe we'll get lucky.

For the ReAnimated Collab version, see here.


A decade ago we all assumed, or at least hoped, that the net would bring so many benefits to so many people that those unfortunates who weren't being paid for what they used to do would end up doing even better by finding new ways to get paid. You still hear that argument being made, as if people lived forever and can afford to wait an eternity to have the new source of wealth revealed to them.
—Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget (2010)

Who makes art?

An unusual feature of the modern epoch is the new inequivalence between this question and the more generic "who makes things?".