The Dad

When I was a kid my family had a dad.

We moved to a new house where the landlord, who was incidentally my grandfather, didn’t like the idea of dads on the property for fear of them ruining the screens in the windows and doors and so he ordered my cat to get rid of our dad.

One day while the rest of us were out, my cat secretly took our dad into the middle of a field far away and left him, and the cat told us dad had run away and we believed it.

A few years later we found some stray dads.

What happened this time, with the stray dads, is that they were smaller and weaker and more adorable, and there were in fact three dads, one each for me and my two sisters, and we played with them and named them and they were going to be ours forever.

And then one day, because our cat wouldn’t do it again, our grandfather came to the house and went into the shed where our dads were sleeping and he put them all in a sack with some stones and took the sack out into the woods and he dropped the dads in the river and drowned them.

I’ve since learned that back when our cat was young he never had a dad himself.

Even then our grandfather had taken bags of stray dads out into the wilderness and submerged them in creeks, ignoring the howling protests, and this taught my cat that it was okay to hurt living things in this way, though in retrospect, despite never standing up to our grandfather, it was perhaps significant the our cat only left our dad in the wilderness, able (in theory, though he never did) to find his way back to us.

The value of not having accomplished anything

This was a speech I gave on June 2, 2012 as the invited guest speaker at the graduation for my old high school.  I decided to take a different tone than is normal in such speeches, and hopefully suggest a more accurate picture of life after graduation.

Being asked to speak at a graduation, especially your high school’s graduation a half decade after your own, carries with it certain attendant implications and assumptions.  Speeches like this are basically just talking about yourself, and hoping you can find something in your own experience that will speak to other people in very different situations.  So one assumption is that I have something to say, some way to speak to you all in your positions out there, from my position here.  Not only that, but when people ask you to speak, they assume that you should say something valuable, which means that someone has assumed I have some idea of what is going on.  A second assumption, since it wasn’t too long ago that I was sitting out there is that since I’ve been asked to come back to speak to you, in the five years since I was sitting there, I have done something with myself.

So of course, my first thought when I was asked to come back and speak to you today was: “Wow, they’ve really jumped the gun.”

I decided that this is what I’m going to talk to you about today.  It’s a day when, as family, teachers, and friends have told you, you’ve accomplished so much.  But how do you judge what you’ve accomplished, and where do you go from here?  Is there some value in feeling like you’ve accomplished nothing, like me?  Now, to put my thought about jumping the gun in context: I’ll fully admit that I’ve done quite a lot of things up to this point.  Obviously I’ve graduated from high school, and thanks to the Randolph County Community Foundation and the Lily Endowment, I’m also the first person in my immediate family to get a four-year college degree.  No small feat on top of that: I’m also the first person in my family to pursue graduate studies.  I’ve presented at research conferences, I’ve given other speeches in other situations, I’ve even studied abroad in London, which is just something I’d never thought I’d do.  I’ve been afforded wonderful opportunities, and I’ve taken them.  But does that really qualify as having done something?  Does doing things count as accomplishing something?  Sometimes, when I look to the future, it doesn’t really feel like it.

Let’s start with graduate school.  If any of you know me, or knew me when I was here at Southern, then you probably know I was pretty good at school overall.  Not only am I good at school, but I like it.  I like it so much that after twelve collective years spent here, I spent another four years down in Richmond at Earlham, and I liked that so much that I’m spending at least another six years at IU Bloomington to get my next two degrees.  I say six because that’s as much funding as my current fellowship offers – in reality, depending on how you plan things out, a PhD may take as many as ten years.  That’s obviously not my plan.  My plan is to do this thing in six.  I’ll also be honest in admitting that my circumstances are exceptional.  I’ve been extremely privileged in that the amount of debt I’ve accrued for undergraduate and graduate studies is manageable, and if I live very frugally, should remain so.  My second point of exception is that I know that right now I am on my way to doing – I am in fact already doing – the one job that I want to do, the one job I can see myself doing for years to come.

From an early age I was a good reader, and I knew I liked stories.  English was always my best subject.  I remember the fateful day here, atRandolphSouthern, in what I believe was ninth grade homeroom.  We were filling out these these short surveys for opting into college or university mailing lists, which you may or may not still do.  There was a little section on this thing where you had to put in your career plans.  Now I didn’t have a particular design in mind at this time, though obviously with my academic bent it made sense that I would function best in a scholastic environment.  But of course, the scholastic environment I was most familiar with at the time was high school.  So I looked up at my homeroom teacher, who was Mrs. Reed, and I asked something like, “Hey, do you think I should be a teacher?”

She paused for a moment, deliberated, and said, “You would make a good college professor.”

And I, in my 15 years of innocence, thought:  Yes.  Yes I would.

And the rest, as they say, is history.  Or it will be history eventually.  I’m not a professor yet, but barring catastrophe, it’ll probably happen.  The point of this story is to get across how incredibly single-minded I am.  The nicer way to put that is to say I’m driven.  I’ve known exactly what I’ve wanted to do with my life, more or less, for almost ten years.  I’m not deluded; I know that this isn’t how most people operate.  In fact most of my friends my age – some who aren’t in grad school, and even some of the ones who are – have no idea what they want to do.  The position you guys are in, just getting ready to leave high school, isn’t necessarily any better. The question in the same.  What’s going to come next?

You might be so impressed with me right now that you are thinking, yeah, this guy’s pretty on top if it, I could go to college and then go to grad school.  So let me give you some perspective on what exactly I’ve gotten myself into.  I am 23 years old – in a few weeks I’ll be 24.  I’ve so far spent 17 of those years in some sort of school, and if I get my PhD at 29, that’ll be 22 years.  Rounding up, I will have spent 76% of my life in the classroom or doing homework.  And what will I have to show for it?  Well obviously, Michael – you say – you’ll have your MA and your PhD and you’ll get a tenure-track position at a teaching college and pull a livable salary.  To that I say: hmmmm, maybe.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, tellingly titled “The PhD Now Comes with Food Stamps” shows something rather frightening: in 2007, the year I graduated from Southern, there were 9,800 people with doctorates receiving federal living assistance.  In 2010 that number rose to 33,700.  Of course, I’m lucky – PhD candidates like me often receive more financial aid from their institutions.  For folks who just got their master’s, in 2007 there were 102,000 degree holders receiving aid, and a whopping 293,000 in 2010.

I should think it’s obvious that economically the country is not right now in the best possible position.  This is true even in – perhaps especially in – academia.  States are cutting funding, and private donors are finding fewer opportunities or less of an inclination to be generous.  Austerity measures at many educational institutions mean eliminating perceived extraneous teaching positions, minimizing the number of tenured faculty and increasing the number of adjuncts.  In other words, there are fewer solid job opportunities for people like me.  At the same time undergraduate tuition costs are going up and students are taking out more and more loans to pay for it.  The total student loan debt in theUSis over 1 trillion dollars, and it’s rising.  But many students are finding that, upon taking on all this loan debt in hopes that it will pay off once they have their degrees, there aren’t any jobs for them once they graduate.  So they go to work in the service industry, where the degree nets them approximately zero benefits.  And eventually, thinking that a higher degree will net them a better salary, they start looking at grad school.

It’s only natural to think this way.  All of us, at one point or another, have probably been assured that the more education you have, the better your life will be – the better your job, the better your income.  We were not lied to.  That used to be true.  But from where I’m standing right now, it’s not true anymore – and it may not be true again for a while.  Things are changing.  17 years of school under my belt, I don’t even have my final degree, and my generation is already looking at one of the worst job markets in recent history, regardless of level of education.

So the question again arises: what, Michael, have you done?  Or to put the emphasis on that question more correctly: Michael, what have you done?

Now here’s the part where you probably start thinking I’m a little insane.  Because this is the part where I tell you, with utmost sincerity and gravitas, that I’m not unhappy with anything that I’ve done – or what I haven’t done, or what I haven’t yet done.  As I said earlier, I know that I am doing the one thing that makes me happy.  I mean, it is literally my job to read books and write papers, and teach other people to read books and write papers.  I’m playing to my strengths.  And if making bank was my ultimate goal, I would never have wanted to become a college instructor in the first place, economic climate regardless.  So where do I get off being so pleased with myself?  My reasoning is this:

We all have to drink from wells we did not dig.  That’s a proverb I was very recently reminded of when attending a speech by the poetry scholar and Quaker thinker Paul Lacey.  “We all have to drink from wells we did not dig.”  It may seem lately that the wells dug for us offer less than palatable waters, or in some cases, are running dry altogether.  And those bitter waters may make us bitter.  But the danger here is to forget, in our anger and bitterness, our own responsibility to dig new wells for the future. This was Paul Lacey’s point in invoking this proverb: to emphasize not only our dependence on the communities that precede us, rear us, and nurture us, but the importance of remembering that we ourselves are responsible for rearing the generation to come.  And so I find myself here today, back in the community that nurtured me, with that thought in particular pressing on my mind.  Things will not get better unless, together, we make it happen.  If the wells dug for us go bad, then we dig new ones.  And it’s our responsibility to remember that these wells will not belong only to us.

All of my statistics about the postgraduate lifestyle was probably not incredibly relevant to you.  I can perhaps alleviate some of the fear I may have instilled by saying that if your field of interest is the hard sciences, things look a bit brighter for you: funding is tight, but not as tight as is in the humanities, and the availability of private sector work for scientists means more job opportunities.  At the end of the day, I’m an academic, so apart from that, I can’t speak to each of you out there, not as personally as I’d like to be able to, about your situations and futures.  You have your own plans, proclivities, interests and uncertainties.  Maybe you’re going to go after an undergraduate degree, and maybe you won’t.  Maybe you’ll take a few years off, maybe you’ll join the military, maybe you’ll just get a job and live your life.   What matters is passion and confidence.  I’ve been able to make my choices because I was lucky enough to know early on what I was good at and what I could do with myself.  Feeling confident in what I can do and what I will do has helped me get this far.

Finding a similar confidence is a task you now face.  What can do you with your life to fully occupy the world that is to come, the one outside these doors, the world that we will make together?  Each of you will encounter personal and social circumstances which are, in varying degrees, both similar to and distinct from those I’ve encountered.  It is true, in a broad, cultural sense, that many of the problems you will face will be the problems I face.  We are close enough in age, you and me, to be in this together.  But generations are tricky things.

Five years ago, in 2007, when I was up here giving my salutatorian speech, I quoted Kurt Vonnegut in saying that true terror is waking up one morning and realizing your high school class is running the country.  Now, us ‘07 kids, we’re almost there.  I can feel that encroaching terror.  For all my self-deprecation, I am on my way to becoming a gatekeeper of higher education.  Whether or not the field recovers from its current unfavorable state, whether or not I get a job after I get my degree, for the next few years I’ve at least put myself into a position of digging new wells.  In the fall, I’ll officially be an Associate Instructor at Indiana University Bloomington.  My job will be teaching IU’s intro to composition course to first-year students.  I will have a greater effect on their early undergraduate education than any other teacher, because it will be my responsibility to impart to them the skills necessary to navigate the years to follow.  If any of you are going toBloomingtonin the fall and end up in a class called W131, I may be your instructor.  I’ve already been installed as an authority figure for you, as weird as it is for me to think about that.

At some point, yes, you will realize that your high school class is in charge of running the country.  You may not think you’re ready now, and you may not think you’re ready in five years or even ten.  But that doesn’t matter.  The fact that I’m standing here, right now, speaking to you, only further proves that point.  Whether I feel ready for it or not, whether I’ve done something or not, the world is asking me to step up.  I’m being asked to dig some more wells, and so that’s what I’ll try to do.

Today, class of 2012, I can offer you, I think, one solid piece of advice.  You have just accomplished something remarkable – you’ve made it to your high school graduation.  But I speak from experience when I say that the troublesome thing about accomplishments is that no matter how amazing and world-ending they may seem in the moment, you keep doing stuff afterward, or you at least keep being asked to do stuff.  You will start to feel like you have to live up to the things you’ve already done, and you will start to feel like maybe you can’t.  As this goes on, it may eventually start to feel like you haven’t done anything at all.  But that’s only natural; remember that while today you celebrate, you still have the entirety of your lives ahead.  You still have wells to dig, though you may not know where you and how you’ll do it, in all the large and small ways now available to you.  As it turns out, the value of not having accomplished anything is, in fact, immense: it is a driving force, a point of both profound anxiety and sublime motivation.

Not having accomplished anything means knowing you still have something yet to do.

So let’s get on with it, Class of 2012.  Let’s do this.

Scare Quotes: Some words on Cabin in the Woods


Cabin in the Woods is a recent-ish film from Lost alum Drew Goddard and perennial geek favorite Joss Whedon.  I say recent-ish because the film was shot in 2009 and then lay on a shelf for three years (as the whisper goes, because the studio wanted to force it into 3D post-processing) until finally seeing release this spring.  The critics and the ever judgmental internet appear to love it, at least as much as they can in our age of useless score aggregation, and the film did reasonably well at the box office.  If you’ve watched the trailer above, you know it’s a little different than your normal Cabin in the Woods-like movie, and if you’ve seen the film then you know how different.  In some ways it is a complicated movie, and it invites a lot of discussion of the horror film genre.  Its major problem is that it is not as prepared as it thinks for the conversation it invites.

If you haven’t yet seen the movie and are averse to spoilers, I would say  stop reading this review now — seriously — because I am going to spoil things pretty hard in the paragraphs to come.  If you want a parting word on the film’s value, I would say it is definitely worth seeing; if you can, make sure it’s in a crowded theater or with another group of first-time viewers.  I went to see CitW on opening weekend, as a reprieve during my finals rush, and it was a wonderful group experience; I overheard more positive chatter on my walk through the parking lot than I have in a long, long time.

I emphasize now: despite the criticism I raise, this films deserves to be seen, especially if you like horror, and especially if you like things that are willing to pursue a crazy line of thought to uncertain ends.

Now hold onto your butts, from here on out I’m going to get insufferable.


Audiences and Ghosts both say “Boo”

Cabin in the Woods is a satirical horror-comedy that aims to criticize the horror-going audiences’ loathing of originality.  The film takes the metatextual “final girl” elements of slasher movies as pioneered by scholar Carol Clover and makes them a part of the plot proper.  It is, of course, not the first horror film to do this — Scream did it in 1996, and The Rise of Leslie Vernon did it in 2006.  CitW’s difference lies in the manner of implementation; whereas in the earlier films the slasher “rules” were laid out simply as unquestionable Law — they were the things you did even if they didn’t make sense — CitW figures them as part of an ancient though questionable ritual to appease some nebulous “Gods” who have retreated from the world and lie dormant, leaving behind only fragmentary nightmares which are then turned jealously on a group of hedonistic teens.

The film makes the point repeatedly that the Gods demand this sacrifice out of some intrinsic loathing of the young protagonists.  They hate their youth.  To deconstruct the usual notion of “cannon fodder” characters in slasher films, CitW makes it a point to show how the teens are forced into their slasher film roles — the intelligent brunette dyes her hair blonde, and the chemicals placed in the dye by the puppet masters reduce her to a stereotype, while her forward-thinking athletic boyfriend is reduced to an alpha-as-fuck jock.  And so on.

The final act of the film comes when the stoner character (designated the “Fool” by the puppetmasters) and the Final Girl descend into the puppetmasters’ extensive underground citadel and release every available monster to wreak havoc.  The director of the puppetmasters attempts to persuade the kids to complete the ritual, for if they don’t the Gods will awake and destroy all existence.  The stoner and the final girl deign not to, instead defeating the director and then smoking a jay while the world ends.  “Let’s give someone else a shot,” they say.  The final shot of the film, then, is an immense human hand tunneling up from Hell, destroying the puppetmasters’ facility, the titular cabin, and the camera.

The significance of an ancient eldritch God’s hand being so human is of course self-evident.  The Gods are the audience who bitches and moans whenever a horror film does not meet their expectations: a group of beautiful young people who indulge in hedonism, show their lithe young bodies, and then are systematically slaughtered by a shadowy displacement of the Id.

This reading of the film is not incorrect, but it ignores certain elements and implications.


“Let’s split up”

As Zizek would tell us, ad nauseum:

It is easy for us to imagine the end of the world — see numerous apocalyptic films — but not end of capitalism.

Should we agree that the satirical reading I offered in the last section is more or less correct, then herein lies Cabin in the Woods‘ greatest problematic.  It engineers a situational conflict (one that may not exist, as I shall argue) and then begs for a solution to this conflict.  But its solution is nothing more than “let the world end.”

Cabin in the Woods is incredibly critical of the machinery of the stereotypical horror film, and at the same time it is far too reliant on this same machinery to actually pose another model of dramatic action.

The film asks for a third way but it cannot seriously propose it. Consider, as I have said, how it makes the college students more than walking tropes so you actually feel bad when they’re manipulated and murdered.  Near the end of the film, when the puppermaster techs feel they have successfully completed the ritual, they  bust out the champagne and hold a party while on the monitors behind them Dana, the chosen Final Girl, is being tortured by the monster du jour.

By figuring the slasher film tropes as a form of punishing ritual (we are told the college kids need to “suffer” to please the Gods), CitW follows in the footsteps of Rene Girard in making human culture copacetic scapegoat ritual and sacrifice.  This sort of sacred violence is something the film appears to reject; if a society needs orchestrations of innocent suffering, then it is not worth perpetuating.  In the scene I just described the sadism inherent in horror films is put on display for critique — but is then immediately thwarted by what is easily the most compelling sequence in the movie, the “purging” nonsense when every available slasher or horror film monster is released on the puppetmasters.  Since the opening of the film, the techs themselves are gestured at as having remarkably mundane lives outside the office, which might at first seem to be attempt to humanize them.

The problem is that the sheer fun of the purge control sequence, the cornucopia of ridiculous slaughter, effaces much if not most or all of the qualms we might have.  Just like the Gods who need to see the teens suffer, we now desire to see the callous old corporate white people suffer — they are the ones scapegoated, they are the new sacrifice.  But the  social order their sacrifice create is, by the film’s own logic, entirely untenable.  The stoner and the final girl have no choice at the end of the film but to let the entire world be destroyed, because as critical as the film is of systems of oppression, as critical as it is of horror convention, it cannot imagine a world without oppression, and indeed, cannot imagine a horror film without convention.

It is a problem the film makes for itself.  The type of slasher flick it critiques hasn’t been popular since at least the late 80s or early 90s, and the film’s main point of reference is The Evil Dead, which in its own way is already as self-aware as this movie.  Furthermore, the past few years have seen plenty of unusual, original films that more ably criticize slasher-centered or sadistic horror films — Inside, Martyrs, Antichrist, though notably CitW is not as hostile toward its viewers as these films — or offer something more off the beaten path — Paranormal Activity, Let the Right One In, The Innkeepers.

CitW, in contrast to these films, does not (consistently or clearly) invite any genuine affective response.  It does not know who it wants us to sympathize with and how, and (here we get a bit subjective) it’s not particularly scary.  It is a very cynical comedy film, really, which uses a horror film backdrop.


“What’s your favorite scary movie?”

Near the end of the film, one of the tech guys encounters a merman.  It has been set up that he wants to see a merman for some reason, so this is obviously Chekhov’s merfolk.  It’s one of the monsters that can attack the kids in the cabin.  After the stoner and the final girl have released said monster, the man is knocked to the floor during the fracas.  He whips around as something scuttles through the gloom toward him; the music rises as it comes into view; it is horrible, unlike any eroticized or romanticized notion of merfolk, a terrible pinch-faced monstrosity with slimy skin and sharp teeth.  This is it, the man has finally seen the merman, and he says…

Something like “Come on” in a disappointed tone.  The music cuts out and the thing unceremoniously chews through his neck.

This whole sequence bothers me for a few reasons.  The first is: why in the hell is this guy disappointed?  What the fuck did the think he was going to see when he saw a merman?  It makes no sense for him to expect a Little Mermaid-style shell-brassiered sea vixen, because everything the puppetmasters keep under locks is a horrifying monstrosity.  What did he expect?  He’s been waiting for this moment, so it should be something sublime, a quasi-religious experience like the one the film’s ritual is meant to instantiate.  Why won’t the film let him be happy at his moment of death — why can’t he be afraid?

In Cabin in the Woods we don’t know where our sympathies lie, with the techs or with the teens, because it makes us laugh at them and cheer at their misfortunes despite ourselves.  We also don’t know if we should genuinely be frightened for the characters because the monsters and terrors, too, are always presented  as in some way laughable, not really scary at all.  It denies both the notion of religious awe and sublime terror.  “Feeling things sincerely is for people who aren’t as detached and hip as us,” the film suggests.  “All this crap from scary movies?  It’s been run into the ground.  It’s not scary at all.”

As much as I think the film wants to celebrate the horror genre, it can’t bring itself to present anything but an ambivalent parody of everything that’s come before it. The entire film is almost literally in scare quotes. It ends up being just a sort of carnivalization of the genre, which is loads of fun certainly, but is not necessarily constructive in the way the film seems to want to be, or to want people to think it is.  I’ve read plenty of reviews saying CitW is a “new story” or a “new genre” — and it isn’t.  A collection of cliches played for laughs has been around a while, and it’s called a parody.

I suppose another way of reading the film, then, would be as a parodic take on the whole post-Scream metahorror phenomenon.  Scream, as I mentioned, popularized the invocation of Clover’s slasher tropes as plot dressing, in that particular franchise’s case as an added layer of complexity to a gruesome murder mystery (which was itself a gesture to the origin point of the slasher film, Hitchcock’s Psycho).  Yet now that we think we know the rules we can invoke them constantly to justify this or that — the dumb woman needs to show her boobs before she gets her throat slit because that’s the rule! — and hey it’s no big deal because we know the rules so we do it ironically.

The problem, of course, is that even if you’re winking and laughing the entire time you’re still following the rules.  You don’t make them go away, you don’t make them any less tired or gratuitous. As the rules and tropes multiply, filling more tightly packed genre compartments, as meta-awareness grows larger and wider, the whole thing literally become more than the filmmaker or viewer can possibly keep under control.  This ironic meta-awareness seeps outward into the genre, until it becomes less a single aspect than it is the genre entirely — and thus horror destroys itself, kicking back to smoke a jay and have a good time, collapsing into the void of its own complacent self-knowledge.

Game Review: Lone Survivor

Lone Survivor is the latest offering from Jasper Byrne of superflat games.  It is a 2D sidescrolling survival horror-cum-adventure game wherein you take control of a character known only as, um, you.  So you have been holed up in an apartment while the city outside was evidently overtaken by a plague that transforms human beings into gibbering, featureless flesh monsters.  You spend the game wandering around the desolate world, looking for other survivors, scavenging for supplies, eating crackers to manage your hunger, and having nightmares.

To be quick and to the point, I’d definitely recommend Lone Survivor if you want to play something different and unsettling.  The game is available via its own website or on Steam for a mere ten bucks.  If you want to know more about the game or have already played it, then go ahead and read on, as I have more to say.  If you haven’t played the game, be warned that there will be a small amount of spoilers.

As I said, I very much enjoyed this game.  However, there are some questionable design decisions (like how to get the motherfucking can opener) that can leave you scratching your head at certain junctures.  Also, while the relative simplicity of the graphics is unsettling in its own right — I think there’s some sort of uncanny primal horror for people of my generation about terrible things happening to approximations of SNES sprites — the overall corroded and dim look of environments can make certain sequences rather frustrating to play.  I’m thinking in particular of the basement chase sequence, where the various corridors are so samey that it’s difficult to remember where to turn and which direction to run.

But on the more positive side, Lone Survivor recovers what I feel is an essential problem of contemporary survival horror: player choice.  I mean like old school survival-horror/adventure player choice, things like “I want to investigate this room because it may contain ammo, but that ammo may be guarded by a monster, but if I skip this room maybe there’s also an important puzzle item hidden in a corner and and and and— ”  What I’m getting at is the feeling that the game itself is something you should be scared of, something working against you in unseen and unguessable ways.

One of my biggest issues with, just for sake of example, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, was how it made a big deal of tallying your choices in very visibly flagged arenas, which invites you to game the system.  Lone Survivor owes a lot to the old Silent Hill style of evaluation, where your play style is silently judged according to unknown criteria and you are given access to certain types of content based on your actions.  It’s not an incredibly dynamic and emergent thrill ride (there are only three endings, currently, and two of them are pretty much the same), but it also never claims to be.  If jackasses like me didn’t say stuff about it in reviews and forum posts, you wouldn’t know until the ending screen that the game has been tracking you all along.

Now onto the biggest point I want to make.  People have been talking up the game’s story, which I think is interesting, as the game is essentially sort of plotless.  It’s very similar to Braid in that there’s a collection of disparate narrative cues that refuse to cohere into a single reading, but at the same time these elements are all a lot more thematically unified and cogent than Braid’s self-aware pretensions toward profundity.  At best Lone Survivor is a seedbed for rabid theorymongering in the darkest forums of the internet, which is not necessarily a bad thing; at worst it relies a bit too heavily on David Lynch pastiche, though the Lynchian elements, when they are effective, are effective indeed.  But to assume that any game that is good — as Lone Survivor certainly is — is about the plot dodges one of the medium’s greatest strengths.  All in all, this isn’t a game about the story, it’s a game about an atmosphere, or a feeling — and it conveys that feeling well.

I graduated a year ago

when i went to my alma mater’s graduation yesterday i was overcome with an intense feeling of mixed nostalgia and incredible sadness, because as i watched all of my friends who were only a year younger than i grab their little pieces of paper and pose smilingly  it occurred to me that so long as i didn’t visit the campus, so long as i didn’t see this happening, i could have maintained a little fantasy in my head that though i had left, all of these friends of mine would still be there, still doing what they had always done, having the same sorts of parties and petty squabbles we had always had, and in that sense the thing i lost was more the thing i left.  but that really isn’t how this works. if i go back in four years i will know nobody except faculty, not that they don’t count for anything, but the ecosystem which i had personally inhabited will be entirely grown over, replaced, the landscape uncanny and new and not for me.

a friend who graduated yesterday observes this morning in her facebook status, as she prepares to move out:

i don’t know how to do this.

and my response, my thought based on my year turned out:

you know how sometimes you have a dream, really good or really bad or just plain vivid, and after you wake up it kind of stays with you? and you think about it a lot while drinking your coffee and eating breakfast but eventually the day goes on and other things happen, the thousand little mundane expectations and frustrations, and you forget about it for a day or two or a week or however long but then, suddenly, for no real reason, you remember it and it seems just as real to you at that moment as it did when you woke up from it and you experience a sensation of heartclenching injustice at the fact that something so real could so easily and quickly become unreal, and yet at the same time leaving you incapable of not feeling what you still know to be its reality? and you do this again and again as time goes on, forgetting and remembering the dream sometimes at random, or sometimes because you want to tell someone the story, or sometimes because simply and frankly it feels good to feel that way, to remember that even if things aren’t real now at one point they were, at one point every dream you ever had was the realest thing that ever happened to you?

it’s sort of like that. you do it like that.

Pride & Prejudice & People


When the zombie apocalypse finally happened
we were so primed for it, culturally speaking
that it almost didn’t happen at all.

At last all the truths universally acknowledged
all the rules of what to shoot and sever
all the jokes and Jane Austen mash-ups meant something.

We’d memorized our escape routes
and plans for barricades
long in advance.

We knew the best way to break a broom handle
and how to stab upward, through the jaw and cranium.
We knew to never turn our backs on the corpse’s corpse.

Years of daily dead-eyed aggression
were unleashed explosively
as we took down our families

our friends and our lovers
and though they were no longer those things
we pretended they were.

Still, in time, there was no denying it
was all over. Then we shuffled back to what we knew
home or office or school, and we

did what we had always done. Old habits
and manners fell back into place
like missing organs.

Now a new viral media craze
has come on so gradually
that we hardly know when it began.

In a recent hit film
a group of surviving scientists
concocts a cure and comes

to overturn our way of life
or rather the thing we have
which approximates it.

One half the world cannot understand
the guilty pleasures of the other
and we admit the premise is ludicrous, yet

now we’re going through all the old Jane Austen
and adding more chapters about the human characters.

I didn’t have a good place to mention it in the post but “anthropocentric bag of dicks” is the best line in Mass Effect 3

So I am on Spring Break, and to celebrate I played Mass Effect 3.  I’ve written about Mass Effect before, and as I’ve said, I’m partial to the series.  I was excited for ME3, though I’d heard some things about it after its script leak that made me wary.  The good news, I suppose, is that the game itself is very good. I am going to talk it about it now, a lot, and there are going to be some pretty MASSIVE spoilers, for all three games, so you are warned.

There are still some questionable things that initially worried me: the series has always been kind of screwy with regards to sexuality and gender, and while the representation of some sexual relationships (especially male homosexual relationships) has some bright spots, there’s also the problem of EDI’s sexy robot body, and the general egregiousness of the sex scenes I’ve come to expect.  But I’m not going to focus on gender for this post.  Rather I’m going to focus on THE ENDING.

Oh, yes, the ENDING.  The ending three games in the making!  In case you haven’t heard, it’s quite controversial.  If you’re reading this, I’m assuming you’ve played the games and will know what I’m referencing, so I’m not going to bother explaining a lot.  Instead I’m going to make a fairly concentrated post on how I think this ending fails, not just narratologically (which it does, as other people have explained, though demanding a new ending is not my plan of action).  The thing about this ending, for me, is that it fails aesthetically and philosophically — to put it another way, by being so bad narratologically it fails to bring the franchise and videogames as a medium closer to art.

This mostly has to do with the principal villains, the Reapers, which when they were introduced I might have described as “giant spaceship Cthulhus.”   They stopped being this somewhat in the second game, and very definitely stopped being this in the last five minutes of Mass Effect 3, when their purpose was very much explained and, upon scrutiny, didn’t make any sense. I personally think the Reapers should rather have been presented as more recondite in origin/function, something we had to grasp at on our own. I really dig the current body-horror angle they have (and loved the Prothean massacre flashback in ME1), and the idea that they are a technological singularity dedicated to ensuring another singularity never gains traction is a compelling germ of an idea, but it was all handled very clumsily and incoherently.  While it might have done well otherwise, the end of Mass Effect 3 — wherein you are forced by some consciousness in control of the Reapers into a false dilemma among three separate choices that all have practically the same effect on the end of the game — really screws this up.

Before I continue with all these words I will add, yes, I know, this is a lot to expect from a videogame, and probably more than a bit goony. But dammit, if we don’t expect some sort of deep thinking from the medium, even if it’s pulpy space opera, how can we ever hope for it to finally meaningfully comment on human experience.


Essentially, I think there was a really cool subtext and a recurring theme of the games in general that could have been played with a bit more. The Reapers embody the philosophical knot at the heart of the series, because (as we know from the first game on) they completely override the subject’s ability to choose. At the same time they claim all power for themselves — Sovereign claims each Reaper is its own nation, and hell, that specific one is even named Sovereign.

As it currently stands the Reapers reserve the “right” to condense entire species into a homogeneous entity that is, paradoxically, sovereign unto itself but also subject to the greater Reaper collective (or that dumb little kid AI or whatever). The Reapers we encounter are so convinced of their self-sovereignty that they basically tell us “We do what we want, and your understanding or consent are not required” multiple times.

The catch is that full sovereignty — a complete state of exception — is impossible, as the above paradox of the Reapers’ thinking shows. Every individual is subject to something — if not a sovereign, that is if you are the sovereign, then you are subject to the social conditions which uphold your own sovereignty.

This is what makes Shepard important, because as a player you are ostensibly in control of the game and what happens; you are sovereign as player, but still subject to the game abstractions to get what you want, though they’re divvied up via a ridiculous morality system. The current ending even underscores how ridiculous this is by collapsing the moral distinctions that the player has come to depend upon. You are forced to recognize the conditions of your own sovereignty.

This is pretty goddamn cool. In theory. It’s actually just infuriating, poorly written, and an anticlimax. I think the better way to have handled it — the way I was hoping it would pan out — was that the ending would simply have no choices to be made. You simply defeat the enemy (or not) and see what happens (or not). You would, finally, see only the consequences what you’ve, the things that have resulted from or contributed to your sovereignty.

When defenders  make the claim about how the ending is “deep” I almost want to think this is what they’re seeing. But maybe not, because I’ve been looking for it since the first game and all I see is a weak, shallow gesture at what could have been.

Tiny Little Love Stories

My pal Joel Golby has a tumblr called Tiny Little Love Stories where he posts microfiction, which is to say, love stories, which are tiny.  To celebrate Valentine’s Day me and several others have guest written some of the many stories posted there today!  You should definitely go read them all, but in case you’re impatient and only want more ME, here are the specific ones concerning Yours Truly:

Joel’s Intro

The Poems

The Dictionary

Write-up of a dream from 2-3 years ago, which I found today

I had a dream I was watching a TV show about famous scandals. Evidently during the early 90s, Prince Charles had died under mysterious circumstances. Everyone had blamed the Queen, naturally, and taken to calling her “The Assassin of Wales.”

The show then ran a segment on the Assassin of Wales, a legendary creature with the body of a raccoon and head of a human baby that was used by people throughout history specifically to kill the Prince of Wales.

No one had ever seen the creature, so it was usually described as mythological.

I looked up from my seat on the couch and saw an Assassin of Wales in the tree outside my window, but I knew I didn’t have to worry because I wasn’t royalty.

The end!