Please note that this post contains spoilers for season one of HBO’s Watchmen. Further, please note that I will comment only minimally on the racial issues presented by the show. That is not because I don’t consider them important, only that I do not feel that I can meaningfully contribute to that conversation. Those issues are clearly present and deeply relevant to this discussion, but I prefer to stay in my own lane, as it were.
I’ve finally seen HBO’s Watchmen, thanks largely to having been made curious by one of Jessie Gender’s videos on the subject. On the whole, I found it a fascinating show that took on the legacy of Alan Moore’s famous comic series of the same name. Largely, I thought the series was brilliant in how it picked up the themes and narrative of the original comic. The first four episodes in particular set up a compelling story, one that sets up an engaging murder mystery while simultaneously suggesting complex questions about the nature of power and oppression in society. However, I was struck by how unsatisfied I felt by the last few episodes of the season. Having reflected on it, I believe I now know why, and I credit Jessie Gender for helping me to see it. She asserts that a, if not the, central theme of the show’s first season is, “Masks make us cruel.” I think this is a very apt observation about the show, but it’s also where I feel the show missed an opportunity. Masks may or may not make us cruel, but the question at the center of the story is one about power, and comics themselves have already been teaching us an important lesson about power for many years: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
In watching the events unfolding since the horrific killing of George Floyd, I find that I have no words of my own that I can contribute to the conversation. Instead, I am looking to amplify the words of people with more to say, more relevant experience, and more knowledge than I have. While this blog is not one with a large audience, I cannot in any good conscience sit in silence on this ongoing crisis.
So, for now, I will say this–this, which needs to be said: Black Lives Matter. If anyone disagrees with that or wants to qualify it that “all lives matter” or similar, then I ask such a person to look for their empathy. We do not say to a cancer sufferer, “All people matter,” nor to a person whose home is on fire that “all houses matter.” Black Lives Matter is a response to a society that has behaved for far too long as though their lives do not matter–and anyone who cannot support the idea that their lives do matter has failed utterly in their humanity.
Oppressed people are crying out in protest, now, and I support their right to protest. I see nothing else to say. It is not for me to tell oppressed people how to express their rage and grief, so I will support them however I can, but as I’ve said above, I do not know what words of mine will be of any use. So, right now, the best I can think of is trying to gather and share resources. That is the purpose of this post, which I shall update as I encounter more.
Edit: With thanks to colleagues and friends who have shared more links with me!
Some time ago I started writing a blog post in response to this interesting video by Patrick Willems. I got distracted by life and never finished it. Then, last night, I got into a social media exchange with two former colleagues over the quality of certain Star Wars films, and today I stumbled upon the saved draft of this post. With the thoughts refreshed in my mind, I decided to finish what I had previously begun in responding to Willems’ video.
The short version is this: Willems defines plot holes as “when a story breaks a previously established rule about its own universe; basically, it’s when a story contradicts itself” (00:01:16-00:01:24). He then goes on to assert, citing an example from The Last Jedi (that I will revisit soon) that if one fixates on the “logic” if a film, then one is “kind of watching movies wrong” (00:07:02-00:07:33). I would contend, in response, that while Willems has a good point to make about undue nitpicking of a film, he ignores or has failed to grasp the way the rhetoric of fiction works: the logic of the story must be sufficiently strong to support the emotional impact it wishes to create.
I was editing a manuscript today, and I had a quote that I’d planned to use in it, but in the final draft I could not fit it in. Even so, I felt the quote far too interesting to disregard, so I decided to post it here as a reminder to myself to return to Gloria Anzaldúa’s work to inform my own future scholarship.
In Borderlands/La Frontera, Anzaldúa writes:
The other mode of consciousness facilitates images from the soul and the unconscious through dreams and the imagination. Its work is labeled “fiction,” make-believe, wish-fulfillment. White anthropologists claim that Indians have “primitive” and therefore deficient minds, that we cannot think in the higher mode of consciousness-rationality. They are fascinated by what they call the “magical” mind, the “savage” mind, the participation mystique of the mind that says the world of the imagination–the world of the soul—and of the spirit is just as real as physical reality. In trying to become “objective,” Western culture made “objects” of things and people when it distanced itself from them, thereby losing “touch” with them. This dichotomy is the root of all violence.
Not only was the brain split into two functions but so was reality. Thus people who inhabit both realities are forced to live in the interface between the two, forced to become adept at switching modes. Such is the case with the india and the mestiza.
“The continuing appeal of Tolkien’s fantasy, completely unexpected and completely unpredictable though it was, cannot then be seen as a mere freak of popular taste, to be dismissed or ignored by those sufficiently well-educated to know better. It deserves an explanation and a defence, which this book tries to supply. In the process, I argue that his continuing appeal rests not on mere charm or strangeness (though both are there and can again to some extent be explained), but on a deeply serious response to what will be seen in the end as the major issues of his century: the origin and nature of evil (an eternal issue, but one in Tolkien’s lifetime terribly re-focused); human existence in Middle-earth, without the support of divine Revelation; cultural relativity; and the corruptions and continuities of language.” – Tom A. Shippey
In Tom A. Shippey’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, he examines the appeal and distinction of Tolkien and his work, noting that “Tolkien wanted to be heard, and he was,” while asking, “But what was it that he had to say?” (Shippey loc. 51). Beginning with the well-known anecdote of Tolkien grading essays, coming across a blank page, and writing “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit,” Shippey explores where hobbits may have come from, what Bilbo and the Shire may represent archetypally, and how they echo a historicized view of British culture. Explored also are Tolkien’s contributions to the public understanding of the “fairy-tale” and of his method, called mythopoeia, of combining such stories into a larger shared world. Much attention is given to the origins of names and how they originated in ancient legend and myth.Continue reading →
“Like other forms of media, computer games can work to build up, maintain, or reject what players (among others) believe about a wide range of subjects, from the constitution of truth and goodness to understandings of social mores and global politics. Like poetry, fiction, journalism, and film, computer games can work work to maintain the status quo, celebrate liberation, tolerate enslavement, and conjure feelings of hope and despair, assent and dissident, clarity and confusion. They can play equally well on emotion and rationality, pervade radical discourse and common sense alike, and exist comfortably at all points along a semiotic continuum that spans the idiosyncratic to the universal. In short, a good deal of the work of computer games is that they are always making and managing meanings, sometimes by demonstration and sometimes through interpretation. Such work is always simultaneously, then, the work of power negotiation.” –Ken S. McAllister
InGame Work: Language, Power, and Computer Game Culture, Ken S. McAllister examines video games as a cultural phenomenon. He compares his method to Kenneth Burke’s dramatistic pentad, setting out to examine agents, functions, influences, manifestations, and transformative locales, a sort of “grammar of gameworks” (1). At the start of the book, McAllister examines the “computer game complex,” reviewing such issues as the cultural impact of violence in video games and games themselves as mass culture. In discussing games as mass culture, he indicates the importance of power dynamics and the idea that these mass cultural influences are produced by a small number of people with a disproportionately large impact on the cultural landscape (11). Their pervasive appeal also makes them a form of mass media, able to effect real world action by affecting the perceptions and opinions of players (13).In reviewing games as a “psychophysiological” force, McAllister negotiates conflicting scholarly and scientific conclusions about the “good and bad” impact of games on their players thusly: “the computer game complex is dialectical, a complex and ever-changing system constructed out of innumerable relationships among people, things, and symbols, all of which are in turn connected to other vast dialectical systems: the entertainment industry, the high-tech business, capitalism, articulations of democracy and freedom, and so on” (16).He goes on to review computer games as economic (18) and instructional (24) forces, which includes the idea (reminiscent of Raph Koster) that computer games are always teaching something. Continue reading →
“The second challenge for data interpretation is the lack of real-world analogues for some kinds of virtual events (Salomon 1994). For example, some virtual worlds permit ‘teleporting’ between locations within the environment (Fields and Kafai 2007). When users teleport, they disappear from one virtual location and appear in another without following a contiguous path. While much of the activity in virtual worlds can be described and interpreted through reference to real-world behaviors (e.g., walking, chatting, buying, etc.), there is no offline action with a situated meaning equivalent to teleporting. Other users present in the virtual environment are unable to determine whether the disappearance of someone’s avatar is due to teleportation, intentional termination of an online session, or an undesired loss of Internet connectivity without explicit communication through the avatar in question (Cherny 1999)” (Feldon 576) In “Mixed Methods for Mixed Reality: Understanding Users’ Avatar Activities in Virtual Worlds,” David F. Feldon and Yasmin B. Kafai publish the findings of a study on online user activities using a social media site called Whyville, which is aimed at children. After reviewing their report, much of it is not immediately useful to me, as it pertains to the way they designed their study–certainly a valid thing to consider if I undertake a similar project in the future, but for now a bit outside my purview. Still, they did come up with a few interesting results. Continue reading →
“I believe that the fantastic is an area of literature that is heavily dependent on the dialectic between author and reader for the construction of a sense of wonder, that it is a fiction of consensual construction of belief. This expectation is historical, subject to historical change, and is not unique to fantasy. Wayne C. Booth has written that ‘for experienced readers a sonnet begun calls for a sonnet concluded; an elegy begun in blank verse calls for an elegy completed in blank verse’ (Fiction 12). This dialectic is conditioned by the very real genre expectations circling around certain identifiable rhetorical techniques that I will be describing. Intrinsic to my argument is that a fantasy succeeds when the literary techniques employed are most appropriate to the reader expectations of that category of fantasy.” –Farah Mendlesohn
In Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn sets up the project of “understanding of the construction of the genre; specifically, I wish to consider its language and rhetoric, in order to provide critical tools for further analysis” (loc. 100-102). She further sets forth a focus on “the way in which a text becomes fantasy or, alternatively, the way the fantastic enters the text and the reader’s relationship to this” (loc. 116-117) and identifies “four categories within the fantastic: the portal-quest, the immersive, the intrusive, and the liminal” (loc. 132-133). She puts this forth as a taxonomic understanding of the genre, though she does not attempt to claim universal applicability or to preclude other such taxonomies, preferring to “open up new questions” rather than to “offer a classification” (loc. 143-145). She emphasizes, “Generally speaking this is a book about structure, not about meaning” (loc 169). Continue reading →
“I hope that teenagers find the real heroic fantasies, like Tolkien’s. I know such fantasies continue to be written. And I hope the publishers and packagers and promoters and sellers of fantasy honor them as such. While fantasy can indeed be mere escapism, wish-fulfillment, indulgence in empty heroics and brainless violence, it isn’t so by definition–and shouldn’t be treated as if it were.” –Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula Le Guin opens Cheek by Jowl with a refutation of what she identifies as three myths–in her phrasing, “assumptions”–about the fantasy genre: that the characters are always white, that the setting is always medieval (or medieval-inspired), and that the central conflict is always a simplistic battle between good and evil (4). She closes this introductory section with the quote displayed above, going on to reflect that: “imaginative literature continues to question what heroism is, to examine the roots of power, and to offer moral alternatives,” and she concludes, finally, that “Imagination is the instrument of ethics. There are many metaphors beside battle, many choices besides war, and most ways of doing right do not, in fact, involve killing anybody. Fantasy is good at thinking about these other ways. Could we assume, for a change, that it does so?” (7). Continue reading →
“In college I was in love with literature. I mean wild about it. I typed poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins over and over again so I could memorize them. I read John Milton, Shelley, Keats aloud and then swooned on my narrow bed in the dormitory. In college in the late sixties, I read almost exclusively male writers, usually dead, from England and the rest of Europe. They were very far removed from my daily life, and though I loved them, none of them reflected my experience. I must have subconsciously surmised that writing was not within my ken. It never occurred to me to write, though I secretly wanted to marry a poet.” –Natalie Goldberg
Informed by long experience as a writing teacher and a mindful Zen philosophy, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within is one of those classic treatises on writing: It’s essentially a collection of insights and advice on how to discover one’s own writing practice. I was particularly struck by the passage above, from her introduction, that resonates with my own thoughts on writing and literature: the concept of not seeing oneself as part of a community because one does not fit its apparent demographics. (In this case, writers are old, dead, white men.) As for myself, I owe my ability to articulate said thoughts to Chimamanda Adichie’s 2009 TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” My own experience is more concerned with interest and subject matter than identity–at the least, perhaps that is so, though I could certainly explore the latter as well–yet the same general theme emerges. Thus, I find myself drawn to the work. Continue reading →