Wax Scrawls: Controversial Games and Why Blatchford Doesn’t Get Postmodernity

Christie Blatchford caused a minor Toronto Twitter-storm recently with her article “I’m Not Blogging This, Mark My Words” in which she decries blogging as the end of journalism. I’ll leave it to Mathew to piece together what’s wrong with her argument, but let me quickly look at the ‘journalism wasn’t supposed to be a conversation’ line: Blatchford’s assumption here is that journalism is the dissemination of information from the mouths of professionals ‘in the know’. It’s a perspective that assumes the possibility of a singular, unitary version of events, much like a view of history that is underpinned by a belief in ‘one, true narrative’ (you know, the one written by the people who weren’t killed or silenced). The conversation of blogging and comments could be seen in much the same way that historiography is seen as an ‘antidote’ to history. The debate the article sets up is useful, however, because it it highlights both the closed-mindedness of the old guard, but also some of the benefits of a ‘more traditional’ approach to journalism.

Photosynth is an experimental project from Microsoft that makes photographs interactive i.e. you can see parts of a building from different angles or zoom in to certain parts. It unfortunately requires you to install a browser plug-in but it’s worth it – it’s way cooler than my description makes it sound.

The CBC have revamped Radio 2 to try and make it “as interesting and adventurous as what you have on your iPod”. Um, great, but if that’s your aim, why wouldn’t I just keep listening to my iPod? How about you play to your strengths i.e. the communal, shared experience of radio or using an established community to push podcasting further into the mainstream?

A good, unabashedly leftist take on the recent spate of articles on ‘the hipster’. “The hipster is, and always has been, a demographic for consumption and symptomatic of modern capitalism: we must not get confused between the images we are sold, and real, active sites of cultural resistance.” The sincerity almost sounds naive, until, for a brief, fleeting moment, you remember that there might actually be something beyond resigned irony.

The videogame/art exhbit, Invaders!, raised some hackles: it’s a riff on Space Invaders that has you defending against a wave of ‘alien’ spaceships that are destroying the World Trade Centre towers. Yes, that World Trade Centre. But the interesting part is that, no matter what you as the player do, you fail. The towers burn and come crashing down. As you play the game, a video screen loops clips of Taxi Driver, Die Hard, Independence Day and other similar films. It’s things like this that make me constantly reassert that the involvement of the viewer/reader/player opens up a myriad of possibilities of artistic expression and experience that goes somehow beyond reader-response theory or post-structuralist approaches to meaning as provisional, temporary, subjective, constrained. This example is stark and controversial but this is precisely thing we need to have people start taking the form seriously. [Update: No, this doesn’t challenge post-structuralist approaches to meaning; I don’t know what I was yapping about. All I meant was that the classic literary-academic response to this is ‘well, the reader is always involved in producing meaning’. Yeah, of course, but that doesn’t entirely capture what’s going on in something like Invaders!“] [Update 2: If you think of a film like No Country for Old Men or a novel like Foucault’s Pendulum, you could argue that they work in a similar way to this game/exhibit. But I think the question to ask is whether there is an experiential – and therefore cognitive and emotional – difference to being a ‘player’ versus a reader or viewer.]

I’ve been digging indie-pop group The Go Find lately, who I heard of through one of Diana Kimball’s tweets. They’re sunny but sorta’ melancholy, which suits me just fine. This song, “New Year”, is one my recent faves.

Totally random Anita Desai quote from “Royalty”: “They sat there a while, breathing deeply. Beside them a small cricket began to chirp and chirp, and after some time it was no longer light that came spilling down the hill, but shadows.”

Mad Men, The Creative Urge and Why We All Abandon Our Tumblrs

The thing is, we all sit in front of our screens and create. This, after all, is the grand mantra of internet proselytisers: no longer is creativity the sole domain of an elite class; the barriers of entry to the new public space have become so low and so open that anyone can blog, post photos and videos, create art and share it with everyone. You’ve heard this all a million times I’m sure – this bubbling, bursting excitement, about our new shared space, the breakdown of the barriers between what we once neatly called the private and the public, the democratisation of the creative act. “Me, I’m a Creator / Thrill is to make it up / The rules I break got me a place / Up on the radar”. This line now applies to everyone – though which rules are broken and which adhered to is perhaps more fuzzy than it was before.

In this new era of ‘the universal accessibility to creativity’, bloggers are on the cusp of something, in the thick of the new. I admit, the term ‘blogger’ is starting to lose any coherence it may have once had: given the multiplicity of not only topics but forms, any stability to be found in a definition would have to be remarkably abstract. Yet, what is blogging if not creation?; it may not often be ‘art’ as such, but it certainly falls into the catch-all new media term ‘content’. This is what we are constantly doing, is it not? Sitting around, producing content, stretching our brains to write insightful posts, argue our case, produce new forms or find intriguing, funny, arcane bits of culture? If, as I’ve argued recently, the internet is a blank screen for projecting the self, then it is also a blank canvas for the creation of art and culture. It waits there. We simply have to take advantage of the opportunity.

It was all this that was going through my mind as I raced through season one of Mad Men. Though there is much that fascinates me about the show, one thing that has lingered in my mind is the creative push that  runs like an undercurrent in the office of Sterling-Cooper. Ad execs are creators. Like bloggers, what they do on a day-to-day basis is to produce content. True, it may not always be what they might want to do, what ‘their heart desires’ – but it is creativity nonetheless, and as anyone will tell you, some creativity is always better for the soul than none. Yet, like many tech bloggers, the creative urge extends beyond work. When it comes out that Ken Cosgrove has had a short story published in the Atlantic Monthly, it sends veritable shockwaves through the office. While Pete Campbell‘s seething, petulant jealousy is expected, everyone else’s is less so. It later comes out that bohemian Paul Kinsey is a budding, if struggling, playwright. These ‘Mad Men’ (including Peggy) are desperate to create, to make something that means something to people, that extends beyond their solitude to connect with the wider world. It’s the same urge that we all now tap into through the ‘net, in our democratised and newly public creative process.

So what do we tech and internet-culture bloggers do when the analysis, snark and commenting just doesn’t cut it? Where are our short stories? Where is our sudden creative outlet, our desperate attempt to connect? I suppose I mean this somewhat metaphorically, but we all start Tumblrs. We begin them in a rush of optimism – finally, we think, here is a simple, easy place for the art that I stumble across, the random thoughts I have, the snippets of conversation I was so desperate for someone else to hear. The blog – I can’t gush on my blog! – but Tumblr… I can put my brain on my blog and my heart on Tumblr and, neatly demarcated, things will finally make sense. And in a flurry, we post for the first week, maybe the first month, possibly even the first six months. But like annual flowers, we plant them excitedly only to watch them die. Who has the time? The desire to keep it up? We’re searching for something, for the social core that we keep hearing about, the connection we so crave, but somehow, when we find it, it suddenly seems too futile, like too much work to throw ourselves into wholeheartedly.

We create. This post, this blog, all our posts, all our blogs, are creations, outpourings, are like a moment in history expressing itself through us. But is it enough? While we make our ads, we want our short stories. We want something else, something less snarky, something more sincere, something where we are more concerned with being gut-wrenching than disemvoweling. So we start our Tumblrs.

And then we give up. Can we do both? Can we document the profound epistemological shift we are in the midst of and, at the same time, write a novel about the scene? Can we blog about the infinite fragments of internet culture and then, later that night, put them together into something resembling an aesthetic whole? To be entirely frank, I’m not sure what I’m pushing up against here: is it a Carr/Keen/Birkerts sense that the internet is destroying our capacity to ‘think deeply’, to carry on sustained effort? Is there an aesthetic shift afoot, where what constitutes not only art but its function is changing? Can we still speak of aesthetic wholes? I remember a conversation in which I said someone’s Tumblr was like art. His response was that it was something, certainly, but that it wasn’t the big picture; he wanted the big picture. So do I. But I may have lost faith that such a thing is possible. It’s all too much.

What is the undercurrent that pulses and throbs beneath our Sterling-Cooper? How are we going to find an outlet for our creativity and still keep our heads above water? And, after years of pushing it aside, of decades of not finding a place to speak that feels right, will we recognise it when it rears its head again?

Theory: Why White Middle-aged Bloggers ‘Give Props’.

redneckice.jpgWhen I find myself , as I often do, in the familiar position of explaining what blogs are to ‘non-webbish’ folks, one of the key ideas that comes up is that of persistent updating – that the difference between blogs and other forms is that they are openly processual and explicitly about the contemporary. While this if of course not a hard and fast rule, it is quite prevalent; there would, for example, be little purpose in me setting out to write about the puppy torture video today, but a mere 2 days after it circulated through internet culture. While some would see this as the decline of Western Civilization, all forms have their constraints and this insistence on the current is but one that shapes blogging.

It is this sense of contemporaneity – that everyone rushes to write on a topic at the same time and then stops just as suddenly – that has been on my mind lately. And, oddly enough, it began with the rather banal and common observation that, well, a lot of middle-aged white bloggers are often to be found ‘giving props’, complimenting programmers on their ‘mad skillz’ and punctuating their sentences with ‘fo’ shizzle’. So fine – while it’s a bit chuckleworthy at times, I’m all for the expansion and evolution of language and the mixing of smart, analytical writing with informal humour. Umm, yo. So it’s not a criticism at all, especially since some bloggers who I really like are ardent practitioners of the art.

What is interesting to me, however, is (as usual) the reason: why do white middle-aged bloggers start to use the language of youth, slang that itself has already filtered from one demographic group (non-white inner-city youth) to another (white suburban youth). I would suggest that it has to do with blogging’s insistence – some would say obsession – with remaining current. The past fifty years or so has seen North American culture increasingly locate and reference the ‘new’ in youth experience, in the ebb and flow of ‘what the kids are listening to’, doing and saying. If a key to being an effective blogger is remaining up-to-date – where a story 2 days old is, quite literally, ‘old’ – then part of the blogger’s arsenal of displaying her/his modernness will be in language, in the use of terms that are themselves cutting edge. Yes, of course, we all ironically use terms like ‘dope’ and ‘wicked’, deliberately using slang from our own youth for a laugh – but by and large, we are also often in a fight to be first, to post first, to get there before anyone else – and we often use language to mark out our connection to ‘the current of the current’. (Note: the ‘we’ here is bloggers in general as, so far, I haven’t actually become a middle-aged white man).

I do think, however, that the predictable fears of infantilising blogging are unfounded. These terms are used with a wink and a nod and, if one is to take a blog like Mathew Ingram’s as an example, the occasional giving of props does nothing to degrade the quality of writing or thought. What is interesting though is to again think about blogging as both a response to and producer of social and ideological conditions – in this case, that a culture has increasingly focused on newness which is in turn accelerated and concentrated by the technical and cultural nature of blogging and the internet. But now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to neogaf to determine what is now considered the latest example of an epic fail.

Doris Lessing: Let’s Not Dismiss Her Just Yet

408873.jpgThere was a bit of buzz today around recent Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing’s comments that “blogging and blugging” (how awesome is that?) is yet another thing that’s ‘destroying our culture’. Lessing argued, quite eloquently, that we are one the cusp of a radical social and philosophical change and that, given the pace and significance of the shift, we might want to think about where we are headed.

Predictably, the ‘internet defense force’ leapt into action, with Duncan Riley decrying Lessing as an “ignorant old woman” and Mathew Ingram (who I usually dig) arguing that Lessing’s comments were a sort of intellectual fetishism. But why the response? What was it that Lessing said that was so reprehensible? She suggested that the internet is full of ‘inanities’ – and it is. She argued that the lack of a common cultural heritage due to the fracturing of popular and mainstream culture is making social cohesion more difficult – it is. That doesn’t make it wrong necessarily, but it is. Lessing is arguing that the increasing fragmentation of culture is resulting in a less comprehensive view of broad, global ideological happenings. While it’s inarguable that we have access to far more information about the world, it is equally true that our response to that information is not always to learn more but, rather, it is to focus more specifically on our own locale or speciality. So why did the blogosphere erupt?

This, I think, is a significant problem with us bloggers: criticism is not welcome, especially from the outside and particularly from those who are somehow considered to be part of the old guard of media or art. But if we are to really acknowledge the power of what we do on a day-to-day basis, then we need to acknowledge that we are part of a social revolution and that there are downsides to all social revolutions, this one included. A drop in the sort of literacy entailed by reading literature and ‘books’ is one we need to deal with – not by printing manuscripts and building libraries but by engaging the hard stuff in the shift from the textual: depth, challenge, personal space, subjectivity and how all those things related to reading. There is nothing inherent about ‘the screen’ that will prevent us from thinking through things in a serious way and it’s vital that we do. So, let’s not throw Lessing out of the window for now – the ‘ignorant old woman’ might have something to tell us yet.