Tactical Media and Social Consciousness: A Help or Hinderance?

Having finished reading the second chapter of Raley’s book, I felt there was a pretty distinct tilt on the debate over illegal immigration. The argument surrounding the pros and cons of “migrants” goes well beyond the scope of what can be considered in a 400-word blog post. But what can be considered, and I think what must be examined, is just in what ways tactical media works to dissolve social binaries—and whether or not they should be.

Echoing popular anticolonial works like The Wretched of the Earth, Raley replicates Fanon’s warnings against errant nationalism. Argued as a re-enforcement of colonial dichotomies, Fanon believed that nationalism bounded citizens in the eternal binary of colonizer versus colonized, internal versus external. For any collective to identify itself as fully decolonized, it must thus reject the internalization of nationalism. For Raley, this argument is appropriated to a more contemporary setting: specifically the “border war” between the United States and Mexico.

Raley scaffolds her argument with Huntington’s assertion that to define the United States and Mexico as oppositional is flawed; the division of “Anglo” versus “Latino” is both “putatively archaic and primal” as it fails to recognize the globalizing trend of migration (37). And so long as these social binaries continue to be exerted, “migrants” will be eliminated from social consciousness. With the additional help of Judith Butler, Raley concludes that, as “de-realized” individuals, any acts of violence against these dehumanized migrants are invisible to the American public—as the famous adage says—out of sight, out of mind (39).

But to argue that tactical media cares about awakening social consciousness is a difficult pill to swallow. DDoS attacks on servers fly in the face of “hacktivism” and its genuine protest on internet censorship. By “violating the principle of free flow,” groups like SWARM prove to be shockingly contradictory to Raley’s argument (41). By shutting down sites, they do not improve American social consciousness so much as obscure it. Many of these activist movements, such as Tuesday Afternoon’s demand to terminate American borders, shows the efforts of tactical media are more symbolic than actual (47). Perhaps it is as Dominguez says:  as “permanent cultural resistance” that constantly changes with the times, tactical media doesn’t yet know entirely what it wants—except only to keep questioning (46).

Countergaming … What?

If we can reduce the definition of a countergame as merely defying expectation, what is ultimately the point of it? Similar to something like a “YouTube Poop,” where a user splices various segments of a television show or movie, often with other shows/movies, and molding them into something else entirely, countergaming sounds like nothing but an exercise of contradiction camouflaged with a “Dude … So meta!” self-reflexive existence.

That sounds harsh, though I don’t mean to be (entirely).

Aesthetically, Galloway’s framing of the countergame is digestible.  Commercial gaming often seeks to sell a believable experience. Often named “AAA” titles, they work best on high-end computers and console platforms, and are often lauded for their closeness to realism. In a way, commercial gaming is all about creating that sense of “transparency” – a suspension of disbelief modeled closely to reality that it then masks the scaffolding layers of code. You do not feel like you’re playing a “game” as explosions sound off and you struggle to the next objective. That is, until your character clips through a gap between the sandy beach textures and a large rock you were trying to hide behind – where your character falls infinitely into white, grey, or black space until you return to the previous checkpoint.

It is this unmasking of code—foregrounding—and the celebration of such glitches—visual artifacts—that frames the existence of a countergame. In a regular, commercially-produced title, things are supposed to move as we expect them to. When I pull left on the stick, my character should look or strafe left. Both the control scheme and the physics of a game should feel “natural,” even if not modeled by reality.

To the countergame, attention to realism is not the goal. Unlike commercial games, where narrative and form are interlocked in a working manner, a countergame has no interest in cohesion. Similar to the YouTube Poop, aesthetic becomes central. Game physics are invented and molded to the artist’s desire,  and interactivity is all but entirely eliminated.

But if interactivity, if the very elements of a “game” are removed from the countergame, how exactly is it still a “game?”  Galloway unfortunately doesn’t answer this, and leaves the door open to interpretation.  I think he’s on the right track by dropping machinima (like the very web-famous Red Versus Blue) and other methods of intersecting gaming as some type of mixed-media pursuit, but perhaps the problem is that countergaming-while-gaming just is not possible.

Phone Story: Why I Hate Politically-Motivated Gaming

I was (and still am) that gamer that spent most of his life constantly seeking examples of hip, contemplative games to show to his high school and college girlfriends, family members, and other general skeptics that video games are art, that they are documentary, that they are more than just mindless polygon killing sprees. It’s why titles like Deus Ex and System Shock, with their blend of politics, philosophy, and “fun” will forever sit at the top of my list of favorite games the same way someone would look at Blade Runner, Pulp Fiction, or Battlestar Galactica.

But then there is Phone Story. And despite my admiration of thought-provoking video games, there seems to be this uncanny coincidence regarding “political” games: while effective in conveying their stance/argument, politically-motivated games, like Phone Story, are simultaneously unable to deliver a strong, thoughtful game play experience.

Designed as a series of mini-games with an accompanying narrative, Phone Story is an “educational game” that seeks to instruct willing consumers on the dangers of smart phone technology and its relationship to exploitation through global capitalism and neo-colonialism without, in any way, attempting to condescend or insult their audience as responsible or complicit. But that, in and of itself, is OK. If the developers of Phone Story want to bludgeon over my head the dangers of global free market economy through a series of “mini-games,” I am fine with that. I take more issue with the way in which the game itself is designed, alluding back to the “uncanny coincidence.”

Beginning my first playthrough, on the first mini-game, I was so focused on hearing what the voice had to say that I was not aware of what I was supposed to do. I immediately failed, and was promptly told to start over. I did, and focused on the objective. I completed it, but I did not entirely remember what the voice was trying to say. And over this series of mini-games, I constantly found myself frustrated, struggling to hear the political narrative while at the same time completing the objective. I found it was easier to listen the first time, and fail, than try and listen while completing the objective.

I think this frustration came into climax about four or five “games” in, where I was to click and drag objects off a conveyor belt and give them to one of the four appropriate, color-coded sprites. I was so focused on this menial task, I was no longer listening to the activity. I was no longer listening to the narrative; I was mindlessly attempting to fill up the yellow bar and reach my “goal.” And, in a sense, that entire process of completing the game, of being “educated,” is cheapened.

But perhaps that is also the point? Perhaps I’m just that uneducated consumer walking into glass doors to get my next iPhone. It is impossible to get that daily dose of “mindless” entertainment while still remaining conscious of the economic impact these smart phones have on the population(s) of both developing and developed nations. We like to think of video games as thought-provoking exercises, equal to their print-friendly narrative counterparts, but even elements of Phone Story can be trivialized by objective-based gaming through progress meters and upper-right corner high scores.

So while I think Bogost is on the mark establishing “documentary games collide with a problem of participation,” I think Phone Story is an example where some documentary games are not too linear … but not linear enough. (69)

Narrative Mapping: The Easy Way Out?

Having read arguably non-traversable texts (at least upon first reading) such as David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, I can relate pretty heavily to Stephen Mamber’s promotion of narrative mapping. Conceptually, this can be (and likely has been already) done in ways like mapping out Leopold Bloom’s walk through Dublin in Joyce’s seminal text Ulysses. Like Mamber says, some texts, like Wallace’s and Joyce’s, are just “ambiguous in some fundamental fashion,” (146). They might have “multiple explanations” with “elaborate temporal constructions,” (147). And what is more appealing than being able to draw back that curtain and visually map what has been intentionally left hidden from us, by the author?

But I think for a moment, and I really have to admit that when such things are done for me, it just does not have the same permanence. Perhaps it is because the Death of the Author is fresh in my mind from last week’s discussion and recent blog posts, but the importance of authorial intent drones on in my mind. I think of Mamber’s assertion of “going global,” using narrative mapping in an analytic fashion that re-creates the way we examine a work as readers, but it truly begs the question: am I, as the reader, OK with that?

I think it was Meredith who mentioned last week that a “betrayal” to the reader within a written narrative is more striking than when done in visually representative media, like video games. In print, we allow our imagination to run rampant, to think what we want to think, visualize it on our own, in the most horrifying ways, rather than watching it unfurl for us as they do in television, film, and games. And I similarly think back to Mamber’s suggestion of re-creating what the author has used to scaffold their narrative, yet have chosen to leave out.

But then I must ask: did they leave that narrative mapping out on purpose? And even if I watched Leopold Bloom’s day unfold similarly in format to this week’s reading of 21 Steps, would it have the same level of permanence with me, watching the story progress on my laptop, than if I tried to traverse the text, visualize it in my mind, and understand it, page by page? If mapped narratives become a new, superlative interface to the work itself – at least for my own understanding – is the actual experience of interacting with the text just as emotive?

To be honest, I am not sure it is. A narrative mapping assists my reading of a text and helps me remember who is related to who in The Count of Monte Cristo, but part of the fun of celebrating such literature is partially because it is difficult to read. I like the challenge of a tough book. And to have it decoded for me, to watch it instead unfold visually, is perhaps similar to buying a jigsaw puzzle already pieced together. In new, digital media, such elements of narrative mapping may be unique, helpful, if not completely novel. But I think something great, the experience of traversing a deep text, is destroyed in the creation of some kind of a graphic overlay.

When I read, while it may be convenient to use a narrative mapping to, as Mamber says, “[deal] with complexity, ambiguity, density, and information overload” (157), I feel something is similarly lost in the removal of that experience. And while it is true my hair may go gray quicker, and I may lose my patience with the method Joyce crafts his novels, I prefer to read certain novels as they are intended to be read: difficult, and sometimes with alcohol. I do not want to “deal with” complex books. I want to read my complicated books. I want to conquer them.

Infographics: The Narrative of Data?

Throughout my own reading of Lev Manovich’s “The Database,” my mind was continuously drawn to the argument surrounding “traditional” narrative elements and humanity’s own fascination of data compilation, storage, and retrieval. While it is true, in a way, that a database does not in fact tell any “story,” with no “beginning” or “end,” databases and data manipulation itself, does, in my opinion, exact a form similar to narration.

Visual.ly is a fast-growing database of visually-represented data through a format known as infographics. Designed and founded by less than a half-dozen individuals not even twelve months ago, Visual.ly has quickly become the largest data visualization compilation on the internet.

It is true that in a regular database format, such as a chart or graph, I may arbitrarily choose elements of a database or data collection that creates a “sequence” where they are not interconnected in any way by cause or effect. But when examining an infographic, I am led to follow the data visualization in one particular method. Some are not as strong an example of this as others, but the idea is that databases and data collection can, similarly to a story, be oriented in methods that attract the reader to traverse the data map in one particular way over another.

But is it a “story?” Is it a “narrative?” Are these ordered visualizations of data the same as examining data on a flat graph? It is hard to say, and I would hesitate to answer “yes” directly to any of these questions. But it is nevertheless important to examine the links between data and text, and how new media reshapes and revises modes of narrative expression.

Codework, Text, and Literature as Processes

I have caught myself several times already, over the course of this semester, both in blog posts and in our in-class discussions, using the word “text” in reference to digital media. This is partially due to my own ignorance, not with the digital medium(s) in particular, but with the scholarly, investigatory “lens” being applied to them. I absentmindedly use the word “text” because it is a word I am comfortable with. It is a part of a discourse of literature I have claimed to be in conversation with for several years, to shift and mold to my liking; it is a term I believe I have mastered. “Text,” in a way, is my own literal understanding of how “literature” is defined, but in many ways is a tiny word that so emphatically portrays my own limitations of perspective.

And through this week’s readings, I have come to understand that referring to digital media as “text” is not a fair assessment. As Cayles asserts, there are exclusions to this rule. But generally speaking, electronic media, and its investigation as a work, like Wardrip-Fruin’s exercise in understanding Strachey’s “Love Letter Generator,” must include the system as a means of interpretation.

The strategies of combinatorial literature, the domination of fixed terms in finite spaces, of cut-up literature: to look at them simply as an end result is prosaic, and I mean that in both the ways the term is used. Prosaic: because looking at a Love Letter Generator as a computer gargling out words in and of itself is nothing to look at. The beauty of it all is in its process. That Strachey and Turing compiled a computer program that took words from a Roget’s Thesaurus shows how vapid the cultural mindset of mid-20th Century England was. They laughed at the computer’s failures of evoking a “human-like” letter, but this failure, argued similarly by Wardrip-Fruin, is what distinctly marks the Love Letter Generator as an evocative process and not simply something to be examined as its end result.

So while I latch onto the term “text” as a mental guidepost through these readings, I, like the toddler on training wheels, must come to accept that such conveniences are temporary – that it is impossible to truly grapple with and understand the digital media as digital so long as I continue to define it by print terms. And though I have previously argued that these two mediums both openly imitate and influence one another, it is paramount to remember that the stages of representation at work are never going to be the same.

The Hypertext and Print: House of Leaves as Ergodic Literature

Much of our reading this week has focused intensely (whether out of admiration or in defense) on the rise of the internet and its supposed superseding of print media as a social platform and how the very format of literature will compensate. As “English Literature” students, this can be fairly troubling. And despite our natural instincts to enforce “ivory tower” idealisms in combating this, I think, similar to Hayles’ own assertions, there is a “happy medium” (for the lack of a better word) to be found between electronic and print formats: that one neither replaces nor displaces the other, but that they readily imitate one another. Ergodic literature is one such overlap, and I can’t think a much better example of this than Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves.

Printed in early 2000, House of Leaves is a novel that chronicles the story of a man named Johnny Truant, who stumbles upon an unfinished manuscript in the apartment of a recently-deceased neighbor named Zampano. Truant’s reading of this manuscript, a literary critique of a documentary film, The Navidson Record, becomes interlaced with the general flow of the story along with selected transcripts of interviews and notes on and from The Navidson Record itself.

These narratives become interwoven with one another, differentiated by font size, color, or type. Along with copious footnotes that sometimes lead to other footnotes or terminate at random with no actual reference, House of Leaves is certainly a novel that requires nontrivial effort to traverse, similar to many electronic hypertexts.

In fact, its playfulness of form allows House of Leaves to exist as an “ergodic” novel, if not literally a print “hypertext.” Because, as Hayles asserts in her own article, the hypertext is not an electronic-only format, but is merely any expressed medium “inviting playful forays that test the limits of the form by modifying, enlarging, or transforming them” (73). And by performing exercises similar to this, applying such theories beyond the realm of the electronic and applying them to print, we can more easily discern the qualities that differentiate print and electronic media, and in what ways they openly influence and imitate one another.


The Technology, the Society, and the Platform

I am not sure whether or not I am allowed to foreword my blog post in any way, but I like to subvert my assignments whenever possible.

In many ways, I struggled with this text. I grappled with it. I read it, re-read it, and found it so utterly fascinating, but I felt Raymond Williams’ writing could be distancing at times. As a simple yet distinct overview of his perspective, by unpacking it, I am hoping to better understand his own writing; and I hope by my doing so, you will glean something of use as well.

According to Williams, there are two mindsets within the field of cultural studies that investigate the relationship of technology and society. On one hand, there is the “determinist” outlook, which argues that the discovery of tech literally affects human development (i.e., because of the internet’s instant gratification, our attention spans are now shorter). On the other hand, there is another perspective, the “symptomatic,” which establishes that technological advancement is merely a “symptom” of social change. If the television was not directly invented, something else would have merely taken its place. (293)

Williams battles with these two views, however, because they readily imply that technological advancement develops organically, and is “assumed as self-generating.” It places such developments at the margins of social change, where Williams would instead prefer to place tech advancement as an active, central guide, representative to cultural needs and social cause.  (293)

In a way, Williams challenges both outlooks by developing this middle-ground approach. With the way technology advanced from the 19th Century onward, it was inevitable that the television would be invented; as society grew more and more centralized, it only made sense that science and research groups would invest in methods of communication that would prove more conducive to reaching the largest of audiences. These social conditions and needs develop the desire for technological advancement, but Williams shirks the belief that this automatically happens. (295)

And I feel like, in many ways, this approach allows ourselves the inclination to see the television as, for the lack of a better word, a platform or medium. It is necessary to see that the development of the television did not come solely out of thin air, nor that it was some arbitrary military research effort discovered on accident. And by examining this development of social media and platforms, as investigators ourselves, we allow ourselves the room to accept social media as being situated within history, interpreting new media as cultural artifacts of our own contemporary time period.