If the Author is Dead, so is the Designer

Douglas Wilson and Miguel Sicart emphasize the importance of “gamers [engaging] in a dialogue with the designer” in Now It’s Personal: On Abusive Game Design, especially in the realm of abusive gaming.  Having assumedly killed the Author with Roland Barthes just a few weeks ago, however, I find this assertion particularly bothersome; I think Barthes would happily expand his theory to the gamer/designer paradigm.

In what way do games like PainStation, Kaizo Mario, or Desert Bus call for the aforementioned dialogue to be had any more than Call of Duty, Halo, or Madden NFL?  They don’t.  These abusively designed games do not elicit a dialogue any more so than books like House of Leaves or Infinite Jest.  In either case – the abusively designed games or the unconventional novels – the author/designer is beside the point.  As readers work their way through these puzzles they are interested in responding to the work itself, responding to the platform, responding to manipulations of normative expectations (by playing/reading).  And though these things may be imbedded in the authorial intent, revelations about the author/designer and the ‘intent’ are again beside the point.  I realize that the dialogue is a metaphorical one, and that reversing normative gaming experiences for the gamer is resultant to the kind of ‘discussion’ that must exist between designer and the already established body of gaming expectations (developed and upheld by gamers).  However, the emphasis on the designer in the article is unwarranted.

The “dance” between gamer and designer is no more apparent or profound in abusive game design than it is in “conventional game design”.  In both cases, gaming expectations are taken into account as designers create their games.  When the game is played, figuring out whether the designer sought to adhere to or distance himself from said expectations seems a frivolous task.  The response of the gamer is what counts; the gamer can solve the problem of abusive game design by simply playing.  Accordingly, the line that separates abusive game design from conventional game design becomes more blurred as there are trends in abusive game design that gamers are likely to identify and respond to.  The more these trends reveal themselves, the more they become convention.

Abusive game design is forged with just as much intent and with just as much of a direct response to gaming expectations as conventional game design; falling further away from normative expectations (and likely popularity) doesn’t mean abusive game design offers more rhetorical insight than conventional game design.  It is just different.

“Public Secrets” and My Trip to Jail

I have never been to federal prison; I’m not a felon.  But I have been to jail, three times actually.  I am not divulging this because I am proud of having gone to jail, but I feel that by explaining one of my experiences within the system affords my discussion of Sharon Daniel and Erik Loyer’s Public Secrets some (small) degree of merit.

I was arrested at a Tom Petty concert for being intoxicated in public, which led to my second trip to jail.  I spent a total of six nights in two separate institutions (the first in Prince William County and the second in Albemarle County).  I was arrested at what was Nissan Pavilion, spent four nights in the Prince William County Jail, and was then transported down to the Albemarle County Jail (on account of there being a warrant out for my arrest in Albemarle County for failing to appear in court) where I spent two nights.  The circumstances surrounding my arrest are inconsequential, and I’m sure if took the time to tell you all of the details you would laugh.  Nevertheless, during my extended sleepover at the Prince William County Jail I was put into ‘population’.  Like some of the testimonies in Public Secrets I hadn’t a clue as to what exactly was going on or how long I would be in there, so I attempted to settle in.  I made an order for the commissary (mainly snacks of the Twinkie and Cheetos variety, all of which I never had the opportunity to eat) and met a few of the other guys I would be sharing a kind of barracks with.  As I recall, nearly everyone I met was in jail (at least the minimum security sector of the jail) for failing to pay their child support.  Other than the individuals I met in my holding cell (a drug dealer, a working professional serving a 15 or 30 day sentence for a second dui, an idiotic teenager that seemed to make a hobby of driving on a suspended license, a homeless man with an affinity for defecating in public, and maybe a few others), not paying your child support seemed a likely way to land yourself up to a year in jail.  I never double-checked any of the information conveyed; fortunately I was only in ‘population’ (of the absolute lowest security) for two nights after spending an initial two nights in a holding a cell.  What happened after I left (being transported to Albemarle County Jail and spending a few nights in a kind of mass holding cell) are beside the point of this anecdote.  I have made known the above information so that you have an understanding of my experience and so that I may draw on it in my response to Public Secrets.

After exploring Public Secrets – an interactive database of first-hand accounts of the happenings (human rights abuses, drug use, etc.) at numerous women’s California State Prisons – I was left walking the line.  That is, I felt conflicted about how to respond to the various interwoven testimonials of the female inmates.  On one hand I found myself sympathizing with some of them (those that haven’t seen their children in 10 years, those that fell victim to various abuses behind the prison walls, those that fell victim to the injustices often brought on by ignorance of the law, and a few others), and on the other hand I found myself asking questions.  What did these women do to land themselves in state correctional facilities?  How are the inmates’ testimonials decontextualized in Public Secrets?  What is the authorial intent of Public Secrets and how does this intent speak to the content of the work?

I think the first question is intentionally obscured.  People don’t generally go to prison for nothing, which is evident in some of these inmates sentences (many in the range of 15-life).  Though I cannot speak to the notion of prisons as corporations and the corruption that many believe exists at the very foundation of these institutions, I can say that the individuals I met in jail are not people that I would likely invite to my home for tea (jail-mates or otherwise).  Many of my jail-mates were shifty, lying characters and the individuals running the facility seemed hardened by their day-to-day activities and interactions with criminals.  It is not adequate to not expound on this, but I can offer no other explanation than to tell you to get yourself arrested and spend the better part of a week with some of these people that ‘wind up’ in jail and others that seek to ‘control’ them.  I realize there may be discrepancies, that judges may be biased, and that the system may be imperfect, but Public Secrets offers no alternative to the current situation.  I do not intend this to be a rant on the inadequacies of adult correctional facilities or even Public Secrets, but I feel that my above response (and the rest to follow) are resultant to thinking Sharon Daniel and Erik Loyer, to some extent, try to manipulate their readers emotions.  They intend to elicit an emotional and critical response (which they absolutely do) unfavorable to the institution of institutionalizing individuals, but I cannot help how I respond.

This aside, I think Daniel and Loyer’s undertaking is ground-breaking to some extent.  Through a hypertext database website Daniel and Loyer are able to call for social reform of adult correctional facilities; by making aware the sort of negative-feedback cycle perpetuated by adult correctional facilities they are able to spark forward thinking in relation to these institutions – thinking that distances itself from the institution altogether and focuses more on the needs of the individual.  Here Public Secrets bridges the gap between digital media and social revolution.  Moreover, the rhetoric in the piece is uncanny.  If you hold your mouse over a given excerpt the individual quoted begins talking and the quotation is thusly contextualized within a blurb of an interview between Daniel and the inmate speaking.  But if you nudge your mouse and the cursor goes outside of the space of the quotation, the individual is instantly muted and the quotation disappears.  One cannot help but think how this reflects how society deals with and comes to think of criminals and imprisoned persons.  I appreciate this, all of this (and realize that they are still people), but again it is hard for me to accept what is conveyed in this work of digital media whole-heartedly.  I have met some of the people that go to jail and possibly on to state or federal prison, and I believe they are in need of some sort of reformation that goes beyond the kind of group therapy hinted at in some of the inmates’ testimonials.  Our way of doing so is to imprison them, to show them what they forfeit by breaking the law and potentially offer them a way back to normalcy through improvement.  Again, I realize there are discrepancies – that individuals are wrongly accused or that extenuating circumstances may lead to harsh, unjust punishments (the latter I believe my story would fall subject to) – but such instances seem few and far between.  Going back to what I said about most of the jail-mates claiming to be incarcerated as a result of failing to pay their child support… I think most of them were lying.  Those that weren’t, perhaps they don’t deserve to be in jail.  Who knows? But maybe this is the kind of thinking that Daniel looks to completely dissolve, and if so I would encourage her to contextualize the testimonials within the crime committed and the (possible) social inequalities that led to the execution of the crime and by offering realistic alternatives to these ‘unjust’ institutions.  She does a bit of the latter, but in undertaking the former I feel people would have less resolve in siding with her on how to reform criminals.  And what exactly to do with criminals is a struggle fought across the entire world.  People often look to Europe as forward thinkers in social justice, but look at what came of Anders Behring Breivik.  Systems are flawed and justice is often ill-served.

More on Barthes

Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.

If we are to dissolve the identity of the Disentangler or if he is to dissolve his own identity in creating a work, are we then not denying, at least in part, the essence of the work itself?  If reading is a purely responsive undertaking, does it make sense to dissolve the identity (the composite entity) that responds to this ongoing database of language and rhetoric; part of the composition of a work is the individual response to said database.  Ignoring the individual ignores the response, ignores the point of writing.

You (Ishumake and Alex Glass) are right about the notion of the critic and reader being one, and perhaps I wrote my initial blog too hastily.  I mostly wanted to point out the hypocrisy of Barthes’ work.  1) He is an Author glorifying (though this may be too strong a word) his way of approaching a text.  This seems hypocritical as the essay itself is bent over not adhering to any convention in ‘criticizing’ a work.  2)  He is a critic, so he is actively dissolving the work he has written and his livelihood by ascribing the role to anyone that can read a ‘toothpaste ad’, but perhaps this is what he intends.  3) Though not overbearingly so, the work itself is jargony and in writing this way Barthes has assumed the archetypal role of the critic, adhering to more convention and tightening the categorical identity of the work.  This in itself seems hypocritical in the context of the work.  4) The argument seems empty because hierarchal categorization of things (including books) is human nature and is reinforced by the ‘critic’, either literary or common (this may also be too strong a word).  And while demystifying the author may be ideal, his tex is partly contradictory as he fills it with various other Authors to identify theories/processes relatively parallel to his own, or ones that lead him to his thinking.

If he feels the way he does, perhaps he should have published this anonymously, or not at all.  Then we could have just guessed what he is thinking by reflecting on the place/role of the Author as it applies to our own lives and how we as individuals approach a text.  I think that what he says is reasonable to a degree, but it looks like even he cannot wholly adhere to what he is preaching.

Response to Barthes’ “The Death of the Author”

I kept thinking about the conversation we had in class about Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” and why what he purports in his article is hard to digest, for me.  For one, I believe his argument is partly one of semantics, preferring the term “writing” to “literature” or likening the “author” of a text to one that “disentangles” the “tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.”  Either way we are still left with things to read, things that have been assembled by an individual with a certain artistic or aesthetic insight.  And to dismiss the individual that assembles a given work seems unfair to say the least, because if anyone could do it anyone would do it.  So merit is due to the individuals with said artistic skill-set.

However, I agree with the notion that the ‘author’ sits a-top a pedestal in contemporary society, but this is partly due to the workings of literary critics (like Barthes as he barrages his reader with countless authors he feels speaks to his ideals) and the need to distinguish good works from lesser works.  Yet to deny hierarchical categorization would be to deny human nature, so canonization of literary ‘genius’ still remains just as the New York Times will continue to publish a “best-sellers” list on a weekly basis.

Barthes also seems to ascribe the role of the critic to the everyday reader, which I also believe is unfair.  Readers outside the small selective circle of literary criticism read for entertainment, pleasure, or out of curiosity, not necessarily to acquire a secret, worldly and universal understanding or “ultimate meaning” from a text.  But I also agree that no “ultimate meaning” should be divulged or sought after in reading/writing in the first place.  Reading is responsive, and what you get is what you get.

I think I understand what Barthes is getting at, but I also think that what he purports is too idealistic.   A balance between a reader’s interaction with a text and authorial intent can be achieved, but is up to the reader to recognize his/her role in approaching a text that has been amassed and transcribed by another.  Mutual respect on both sides of the author/reader equation is essential.

Hypertext in Jackson’s Wunderkrammer

Shelley Jackson’s my body – a Wunderkrammer is exactly that – an online ‘wonder-room’ of Jackson’s body.  It is a Wunderkrammer in the traditional sense of the word – it is a “collection of curiosities” (http://oxfordictionaries.com) – yet Jackson’s online version offers a synthesis of the elements of the piece that wouldn’t exist if it was not online.

My body – a Wunderkrammer is a semi-autobiographical literary work in which the reader/explorer is encouraged to ‘click’ on any segmented part of a full-body self portrait of Jackson.  Each body part then leads to an exposition of the body part (i.e. Jackson’s initial self-discovery and ongoing exploration of said feature) that often includes some anecdote or other autobiographical story relative to the body part being explored.  It seems that part of what Janet H. Murray envisions in Hamlet on the Holodeck: the Future of Narrative in Cyberspace comes to fruition in Jackson’s work, because all of the expositions incorporate the use of hypertext.  This is what gives Jackson’s Wunderkrammer a ‘one-up’ on the Wunderkrammen of the 17th century, as the different body parts and relative expositions are all interconnected via hypertext.

Using hypertext to connect the different body parts allows Jackson to comment on the holistic nature of the human body.  Moreover, she is physically able to demonstrate the utility that comes with varying forms of digital media through hypertext.  Instead of offering one linear story that describes her various moments of self discovery, she allows the reader to discover and explore her body the same way she did – haphazardly.   The rhetoric among the various body parts speaks to this notion.

Bolstering her semi-autobiographical expositions with fictitious elements also adds to the overall anthropomorphic quality of the work itself.  People tell stories or remembrances from memory, so they are likely to be exaggerated or slight miscommunications are likely to pop up in their rendering.  This is evident in Jackson’s work, and she alludes to this fact when she says, of learning how to draw teeth, “realism lay slightly short of the exact copy.”

As a work of digital media, Jackson’s my body – a Wunderkrammer is interesting because it does what a normal book cannot do – it can tell stories within stories (stories that speak to one another in the text), while offering a coherent overarching anecdotal structure that can be embraced or abandoned by the reader/explorer.

Old Media, New Media, So What?

Boredom is the motivating factor in the realm of ‘new media’.  Janet Murray and Scott McCloud both, in one way or another, reference boredom with static media mediums as an inspiration to move forward – to have the medium itself “[exploit] its own expressive power” (Murray 67).  By highlighting this theme I do not intend to dismiss boredom as an inadequate instrument of change, but in reading these various articles and excerpts I find myself asking, ‘So what?’ 

And in asking myself this question I fear that I have come to my own (though most likely limited) conclusion that technological determinism is the driving force behind societal progression (so to speak).  To qualify, it is imperative that the technology is accepted before it can be deterministic.  And though this may be contradictory (to say that technology must first undergo societal acceptance before it alters societal direction), it is the best single rule for technological determinism I can purport without getting into a ‘what came first, the chicken or the egg?’ frame of discourse.  I come to this rather hasty conclusion for a number of reasons, some of which are implicit in the aforementioned authors’ discussions of developing forms of ‘new media’. 

In chapter 3 of Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace” Janet H. Murray highlights the importance of ‘hypertext’ in discussing the expansion of literary experience on the Internet.  She imagines a ‘Web Soap’ that “would exploit the archiving functions of the computer by salting each day’s episode with allusions (in the form of hot word links) to exciting previous installments.  Our clicking would then be motivated not by curiosity about the media objects (show me a video clip) but by the curiosity about the plot (why does she say that about him?)” (67-68). I find it hard to differentiate between the two, curiosity about the ‘clip’ v. curiosity pertaining to the plot.  Each is a distraction, but neither is more engaging than the other.  Perhaps I am too attached to the linear qualities of ‘traditional’ storytelling/reading, but in either case the distracting qualities of Wikipedia’s hypertext came to mind.  And how does this relate to technological determinism?  I think of the Wikipedia hypertext the same way I think of MP3 players, IPods, smart-phones, or even something like Danielewski’s House of Leaves – they all represent an inability to focus – causing, reinforcing, and capitalizing on today’s ADD-ridden society.  So what if the reader of an interactive text is more curious about the intermittent clip itself rather than its relevance to the story being read/navigated?  Both instances explore the possibilities of the way the platform supporting the text alters our reading/interactive experience, and both distract the reader from his/her ultimate goal – finishing the work.

Scott McCloud discusses his ‘infinite canvas’ as a means to break the conventions of comic/comic-book storytelling via online platforms, but it seems to be only that – a break from convention for the sake of adhering to social progression.  In terms of technological determinism, the ‘infinite canvas’ is a response to already grounded social preferences, failing as a technologically deterministic medium. So again I ask myself, “So what?”  Scott himself seems to doubt whether his ‘infinite canvas’ will ever be widely accepted because of peoples’ attachment to linear storytelling and the fact that it may be past its time to catch on.  I agree, and would also suggest that the death of the comics might also account for the inability of the ‘infinite canvas’ to take hold.  (Disclaimer: I’m sure there is a subculture that glorifies the comic, and if you are a part of this culture good for you.  Other than the cryptic ones I see in the New Yorker or other print publications, I don’t see a predominance of comics in contemporary society.) Also, the term itself (‘infinite canvas) sounds too overwhelming for a culture who’s people have trouble listening to the entirety of three or four minute song.

“Gangnam Style” Platform Style

   Though it may be a cop-out to write a ‘creative response’ to a music video, the cultural relevance and omnipresence of Psy’s (short for psycho) “Gangnam Style” pushes the video into the limelight, calling for any and all criticisms to be had.  Accordingly, herein lies the response of both a pop-culture blah-ist and a student of new media seeking to explore music videos in the context of ‘platform studies’.  Bypassing the physical platform by which the music video is presented (i.e. television, the Internet and everything in-between), the notion of ‘technological determinism’ as it pertains to the cultural relevancy of what is physically depicted in the video is of particular interest and great concern to me. 

   To start, one might ask oneself, “What sorts of images would be in a contemporary, culturally relevant music video?”  Before answering, consider the phrase ‘contemporary, culturally relevant music video’.  Though most of us might not consider music videos to be ‘culturally relevant’ whatsoever, the fact remains that to some, they are.  People often define part of their identity by what music they listen to, or there are those who partly identify themselves by electing not to listen to music.  Either way, by identifying with or not identifying with music (particularly music videos) people are quietly commenting on what they find to be socially or culturally relevant, or both.  This brings us back to, “What sorts of images would be in a contemporary, culturally relevant music video?”  Here is a small sample-list that I have come up with;

  • Little kids busting dance moves
  • Girls getting garbage facials
  • Quasi-homoerotic sauna scene
  • A guy taking a shit
  • Explosions
  • Stable (as in horses) party
  • Disco party
  • Boat party
  • Bus party
  • Parking deck party
  • Subway (as in trains, not Jared) party
  • Mall party
  • Slow motion nothingness
  • Girls doing yoga
  • Inventive, but easily replicated dance moves
  • A break-dancing agender in a banana-yellow suit
  • Hip thrusting
  • Hot tubs.

   It may not be a list that speaks to elitist intellect, but it is one quite deserving of academic reproach.  Why this list?  Well, one might argue that if a video had two or three of these component images it would be enough to make the video culturally relevant, so to speak.  Psy’s four minute, thirteen second video “Gangnam Style”, however, has every last one of these images and more.  But why these images?  Is it because we as a culture (and South Korea) value ‘garbage facials’ and intermittent ‘shit shots’?  To a degree I would say, ‘yes’.  People are obsessed with voyeurism and smut, perhaps more so today than ever.  But why are we addicted to these things?  Why do people flip to the ‘comics’ or the ‘obituaries’ or the ‘style’ section before they read the ‘world news’ or ‘national news’ sections?  Is it because platforms like music videos barrage the public with three to five minutes of senseless imagery and completely distort what we prioritize as socially and culturally relevant?  Or is it because, over time, we as a people have silently advocated for more and more of this senseless voyeuristic smut through our media/median choices?  I don’t have a definitive answer to these questions, partly because I buy into some of what is presented in platforms like ‘music videos’ (namely explosions, girls doing yoga, and the occasional agender in a banana-yellow suit) and partly because I’m not quite sure what the alternative would be.  I’ve watched this video at least 10 times since I first saw it two nights ago, and frankly I love it.  I’m just not sure why. 

   In an interview discussed on www.theatlantic.com Psy claims that the video montage was meant to parody the social and cultural values of today’s youth (particularly in the Gangnam-gu District of Seoul, South Korea).  I commend him in attempting to do so, but believe he has actually reinforced these obsessions (for they aren’t really values; I’ve never heard someone say “I value slow-motion nothingness”).  The video has receive over 140,000,000 views on YouTube since its July 15, 2012 debut, which in itself suggests that peoples’ preoccupation with everything the video encapsulates is not going anywhere soon.  Music videos have certainly changed since The Buggles “Video Killed the Radio Star”, but whether this change is for better or worst (most would say the latter) remains to be seen.  After all, who doesn’t love to party?